The old order changeth, and he who does not get out of the way risks getting runneth over. This applies to senators, baseball players, preachers, poachers, Volkswagen mechanics and anyone else who isn’t paying attention.
The rule threatens Thad Cochran, the senior senator from Mississippi, where the old order is much appreciated, though no longer revered as it once was. Mr. Cochran is polished and courtly, and when Hollywood casts a gentleman of the Old South it could model the character on him.
But he’s in a race for survival, a classic struggle between the established Republican order and grassroots Tea Party Republicans, who have no particular affection for the old ways in a place where the old ways were once the common law.
Mr. Cochran is a senator most people have never heard of, but his colleagues in the U.S. Senate know him very well. He’s the No. 1 pig farmer in Congress, dispensing pork from the Republican side of the aisle with firmness and gusto. With Ted Stevens of Alaska having departed this vale of tears, he has no rival in manipulating the national treasury. He’s an advocate only for more spending to get the tax revenues a congressional pig farmer needs to spread the pork to his friends and interests. Ten federal buildings in Mississippi are named for him, and none of them are monuments to smaller, less-intrusive government.
The senator’s nemesis is Christopher McDaniel, 43, a lawyer, radio talker and Tea Party favorite. He has pulled dead even in some polls with the June 1 Republican primary only two months away. He is best known as a talker on several Mississippi radio stations, but has the requisite legal background to command professional respect. He clerked for a federal district judge fresh out of the University of Mississippi Law School, and the Mississippi Business Journal ranks him among the state’s top 50 lawyers. He has pushed the right buttons, a member of, among others, the Gideons (distributor of Bibles), the National Rifle Association, the American Family Association, giving him the trifecta of God, guns and family values.
In the old days a Southern senator — Russell Long in Louisiana, John L. McClellan in Arkansas, John Stennis in Mississippi for examples — could expect to be dispatched at last with flowery eulogies, loud laud and noisy honor. But these are not the old days and this year Mr. Cochran, now 76 and seeking his sixth term, has a strong, attractive young opponent and some disinterested students of the game reckon the senator the likeliest incumbent to come a cropper in a party primary this year.
Mr. Cochran basked in an effusive introduction the other day, the speaker recalling everything from his high-school valedictory to his days as an Eagle Scout, and the presenter added: “The greatest compliment about Tad is, he’s conservative, but he’s not mad about it.” Mr. Cochran smiled broadly.
Therein lies his problem. He’s not mad, but should be, like everybody else in Mississippi. Mr. McDaniel told a gathering of Christian pastors the other day in Jackson that “the country is in an age of great uncertainty right now. There are many who feel like strangers in their land. They don’t recognize it. A new culture is rising, another culture is passing away, and we stand in defense of that traditional culture, of those traditional values.”
The senator affects an ignorance that is surely an act. He pretends to be ignorant of the Tea Party, which has rocked the nation’s politics for going on a decade. “I said I didn’t know much about the Tea Party,” he told a Mississippi television interviewer the other day, “and I didn’t. I read newspaper articles about them, and that’s about all I know. It’s kind of like Will Rogers, you know. He said he knew what was in the papers. That is something I don’t know a lot about.”
Now he’s learning. Haley Barbour, a popular kingmaker, put aside his lobbying business a decade ago to go home to the governorship, and he’s working feverishly now to save the seat for the Republican establishment. He has enlisted two nephews, with lobbying business of their own, to work for the senator. The McDaniel campaign is trying to use that against the senator, “super-lobbyists vs. Chris McDaniel and the people of Mississippi.”
The race has brought in outsiders for Mr. McDaniel, too. Sarah Palin has endorsed him; so has the Club for Growth. The race is a test not only for Chris McDaniel, but for the power of professional lobbyists, too. Do lobbyists smell as bad in Mississippi as they do everywhere else? We’ll see soon.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.