Mississippi Runoff a Generational and Philosophical Battle

On the surface, the runoff for the Mississippi GOP Senate nomination on Tuesday between state Senator Chris McDaniel and six-term incumbent Thad Cochran appears to be a clash between populism and traditionalism -- the Tea Party vs. the "Establishment." But the fight being joined in the Magnolia State resists such easy labeling simply because the battle lines are so starkly drawn.

There is a generational aspect to the race that goes beyond the fact that Cochran is 76 and McDaniel is 41. Cochran represents the old guard of the Republican Party whose notions of conservative governance are being relentlessly challenged by McDaniel and those who back him. The challenge is nationwide and it hardly matters that Tea Party candidates haven't won every race. Those thousands of volunteers who flocked to campaigns in Kentucky, Virginia, Iowa, and many other states are exerting influence and are slowly changing the core philosophy of the Republican Party.

Cochran is an old-fashioned politician who believes it's his job to bring federal dollars back to his state. In this, he's been hugely successful over the 36 years he has been in office. There's hardly a county in Mississippi that hasn't benefited from Cochran's single-minded reliance on pork-barrel politics. Schools, hospitals, health  clinics, roads, bridges, post offices, old folks' homes -- tens of billions of dollars to give the residents of his state what he saw as a decent quality of life.

But what have all those billions actually done for the citizens of Mississippi? When Cochran became the first Republican senator elected from Mississippi since Reconstruction in 1978, it was the poorest state in the union and ranked dead last in almost every category relating to economics, education, and income.

Today, Mississippi still ranks dead last in income, poverty rate, life expectancy, and four other metrics. It is second to last in percentage of high school graduates, infant mortality rates, and obesity, and is ranked 48 in "well being." All those schools, all those hospitals and clinics, all that money -- and the people of his state are hardly better off than they were when he took office.

Mississippi is ranked fifth in federal tax dollars spent per capita. The state budget is more dependent on federal money than any other state is. Washington -- with Cochran's help and support -- has lavished tax money on Mississippi only to see their efforts end in total failure.

It appears that something more than cash from Washington will be needed if Mississippi is ever going to become something more than a basket case. Cochran obviously doesn't see that, while Mr. McDaniel does.

Or does he? Earlier this month, in response to heavy criticism from the old guard and education advocates in Mississippi, McDaniel trimmed his sails a bit and now says Mississippi should accept federal funding for primary and secondary education.

From the Clarion-Ledger:

U.S. Senate candidate Chris McDaniel has changed his statements about federal school funding in the past two weeks, after coming under sharp criticism from former Gov. Haley Barbour and state education leaders.

Barbour and other critics say McDaniel has dangerous ideas that could rob billions of dollars from one of the poorest states in the nation.

McDaniel, a tea party-backed state senator from Ellisville, is trying to unseat six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in a Republican primary runoff Tuesday.

McDaniel told The Associated Press in April that Mississippi could afford to forego federal funding for elementary and secondary schools. He now says Mississippi should take federal money.

"We don't want to hurt public education, but we don't believe it's best dictated to us by Washington, D.C.," McDaniel said Thursday night at a campaign rally in Madison.

Cochran has said repeatedly that the federal government should help finance education but should not dictate policy.

Politics as usual? McDaniel has run into the political reality that one man's wasteful spending is another's bread and butter. Where philosophy meets the practical mechanics of politics, something usually has to give. In this case, McDaniel made the logical choice to give ground to keep his opponent from initiating a potent line of attack.

In that sense, McDaniel's philosophy -- and that of other Tea Party candidates -- appears to be evolving. What is possible? What is practical? What can truly be accomplished? Coming off his successful campaign over Eric Cantor, Daniel Brat announced six unifying principles with which all Americans can agree.

"These principles, are in brief," Brat said, "first, a commitment to the free market system. Second, equal rights and equal justice for every single person in this nation under law. Third, fiscal responsibility for all levels of government. Fourth, adherence to Constitution of the United States of America to protect our liberties. Fifth, we believe peace is best preserved through a strong national defense. Sixth, and finally, we believe that faith in God as recognized by our founders is absolutely essential to the moral fiber of this greatest nation on the earth."

McDaniel would almost certainly agree with every one of those principles. But so would Thad Cochran (as long as Mississippi wasn't shorted on federal spending). What McDaniel and Brat are saying is, basically, we're through giving lip service to these principles. We're dead serious about adhering to them and we're putting Washington on notice that we will implement our philosophy to the fullest extent we can.

Of course, the Democrats will have something to say about that. But beyond the expected opposition from Democrats, how do you turn those principles into an agenda? How do they play as a legislative program? Repealing Obamacare and most of the other nightmares the president has saddled the country with is a start -- if it can be done. After that, how do you translate principles to action?

The Tea Party has been so busy going to war against the establishment, President Obama, and the Democrats that they have yet to flesh out what their closely held beliefs mean in practical political and legislative terms. If it is not to be politics as usual in Washington, it's got to be something else. What?

The philosophy that Cochran and the traditional Republicans stand for is based on the post-World War II consensus that emerged regarding the role of government in American society -- an activist government that refereed the free market, worked to end discrimination, created conditions for a healthy economy, and spent lavishly on the inner cities. That consensus has frayed as government has gotten bigger and bigger, imposing itself on Americans' daily lives in ways unimaginable even 60 years ago. The role of Republicans in recent decades has been to lop off a few zeroes from budget bills, contribute to the growth of government by getting funding for pet projects at home that please the voters, and ignore the consequences of voting for thousands of federal programs that make a mockery of the Constitution and its overriding principle of limited government.

It hasn't worked. After throwing trillions of dollars at problems like poverty, inequality, the rural poor, and other social concerns, we're just about where we were 36 years ago when Thad Cochran took office. And what we've lost because of the growth of government far outstrips the niggardly gains that have been made in reducing the percentage of Americans dependent on government for their survival. There has to be another way, and even though the Tea Party is, at times, incoherent about it, they think their way is better.

Tea Party populism is part of a new, emerging Republican consensus that rejects all that Mr. Cochran represents. If Mr. McDaniel wins on Tuesday -- and it appears that he will -- he will have an opportunity to turn those principles enunciated by David Brat into actionable legislation. It won't happen overnight. It may even take decades. After all, we didn't get in this mess after one or two elections. But if Republicans can avoid self-immolation, it's possible that the tide of history over the last 100 years that has seen the rise of progressivism and the relentless subjugation of the individual to the collective can be halted and maybe even reversed.

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)