Thursday, April 9, 2009

Andre Carson and the Art of Staying Uncommitted

Cynics on politicians: “See how crafty they are! They always take special interest money, give the interests a blank check, and lie to the public about it!”

While this probably won’t make you feel any better, more misdirection and outright deception in politics is directed toward “special interests” than anybody. They are repeatedly fooled into thinking they will get something the politician never intends to deliver.

That is real political skill – to speak in code or through emissaries so well as to suggest favor that never existed, to perform an interpretive dance of “no” without ever mouthing the word, let alone saying it.

And let’s be honest about two points. First, almost every political decision has a loser, so there’s a lot of misleading. And, second, the most “special” of “special interests” are other politicians seeking favors for themselves, their causes, or their families and friends.

So what does a smart politician do with competing suitors? Play on the fear each has of being outside the tent.

Say what you want about Representative Charlie Rangel, the Harlem Democrat, but the man is a fundraising genius. If Fed-Ex gives him money, UPS gets scared and matches. Then Rangel hoses them both and stands with the postal workers union. So the postal workers double-down on their donation, then Rangel hoses them on the next issue. Rangel’s campaign finance reports are littered with donations from diametrically opposed interests, prompting any objective observer to ask, “How can the bankers keep giving this man money when he keeps screwing them? Easy. Bankers fear the mortgage brokers will get LESS of a screwing at their expense if they don’t. Plus, since all these interests know they’ll need Charlie again, they cannot complain too loudly. Ahhhhhh, it’s good to be king….

….which brings me to Andre Carson. My man! You are sitting in the fundraising "catbird seat," to quote James Thurber. You have a cadre of Democrats jockeying early to challenge Greg Ballard, and they ALL want your magic finger to point at them prior to any slating convention. In fact, they all hope that finger will make slating unnecessary. The list of prospects I have heard (which is not exhaustive because it only includes those I’ve heard have personally confirmed interest) is, in alphabetical order: Joe Hogsett, Melina Kennedy, Woody Myers, Kip Tew, and Brian Williams.

Oh! And what do you know?!?! The first four of those folks are co-hosting a fundraiser at 300 East on April 17 for Rep. Carson and his alter-ego, Lacy Johnson, at $250 per head on the low end. (I promise you you’ll see a lot of $2,400 max out contributions). And I would bet that every one of these fiery competitors will host more Carson fundraising events on their own. Melina already has one on the books.

Were I the Congressman, I would feel like Yo Yo Ma right now because there’s no way to play this badly…as long as he stays publicly uncommitted. Every candidate can take his every cryptic pronouncement as indicia of tacit approval or support, but since they never know for sure, they have to keep sprinting to the finish line for fear that pulling up leaves them out of the race at the end. In addition to insane money, you are going to see the strongest GOTV effort for somebody without a real opponent in history.

If Rep. Carson says, “I value loyalty,” maybe it’s spun as support for Melina or Joe Hogsett's public speaking efforts on behalf of the Congressman. If Rep. Carson says, “We need bold new leadership,” maybe it’s a signal that Melina is too “Peterson-bound,” and Rep. Carson fears a replay of the past election. Or maybe it’s a putdown of Joe Hogsett and Kip Tew for being too old school political guard. These are, of course, made up examples, but I assure you the shamans of political spinnery in each campaign will be dissecting Rep. Carson’s every word, which probably explains why no fewer than 20 Marion County Democrats have told me which way Rep. Carson is leaning, though I’m pretty confident he hasn’t even twitched in anybody’s direction.

But most of us don’t know. And that’s the beauty of his position. Rep. Carson reminded us all of the critical difference between knowing early and saying early. I short-sightedly called out Rep. Carson for political cowardice because I felt he should have endorsed Senator Obama early to give Obama an Indiana boost. I'm told the Congressman always knew he would endorse Obama, but by playing coy and delaying, he negotiated an endorsement from the President. That’s political genius, folks.

Rep. Carson may know right now the horse he's backing, and maybe he knows he’s going to avoid alienating the others by sending his support through “back channels.” Or maybe that’s just what everybody vying for the mayor’s chair wants to believe in their heart of hearts. Or maybe that what the Congressman wants them to believe…that he will come out to play.

Stay inside, Congressman. There will be dollars raining all around you for a while.


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