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History does repeat itself

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 20, 2005

The year was 1978. I held a press conference the day before the elections and was asked who I thought would be elected to the United States Senate. I was sure Colorado Rep. William L. Armstrong (R) would defeat Senator Floyd K. Haskell (D). I thought Rudy E. Boschwitz would be elected to the Senate in Minnesota. I suggested that former Lt. Governor Roger W. Jepsen (R) would defeat Senator Richard C. ("Dick") Clark (D) in Iowa and airline pilot Gordon J. Humphrey (R) had a good chance to defeat Senator Thomas J. McIntyre (D) in New Hampshire.

The speculation was enough for one network reporter to rise, and with a few expletives, to shout that he wouldn't listen to such idiocy. He threw his notebook on the floor and left the room. Most of his media colleagues followed him. Of course, both Jepsen and Humphrey were elected to the Senate that year. To his credit the reporter attended my press conference the next day and publicly apologized for his earlier remarks.

The election of Senators Armstrong and Boschwitz was expected. The election of Senators Jepsen and Humphrey was major news. The Left was sorry that Senators Haskell and McIntyre lost but was enraged because Jepsen defeated Senator Clark. Clark was a committed leftist who crafted legislation that banned U.S. aid to Angola – a denial of aid which almost caused the Communists to triumph there. Senator Clark was to the Left what Senator Jesse Helms was to the Right. He was their guy more than almost anyone else.

The Left embarked upon a strategy to attack Jepsen. From day one, long before he was sworn into office, the Left attacked Jepsen. He could do no right. The attacks continued daily for six years, intensifying in 1984 when Jepsen ran for re-election. Granted, Jepsen did some foolish things which contributed to his defeat. He invoked constitutional immunity when caught driving in Washington's carpool lanes, which required a minimum of three passengers per vehicle.

While it is true that the Constitution says a United States Senator cannot be arrested while en route to or from a session of the Congress, Jepsen's conduct looked foolish and made Jepsen appear to be among Senators who think they are better than the rest of us. Unlike his colleague, Senator Charles E. (Chuck) Grassley, Jr. (R-IA), who tries to visit every Iowa County once a year (he regularly is re-elected by at least 70% of the vote), Jepsen often didn't go home to campaign. If the Left had not attacked Jepsen viciously every day for six years he certainly would have been re-elected, although not with a Grassley-style margin.

John Thune

I mention this because history has been repeated. A print media reporter asked me on the day before Election Day, 2004, to predict who would win Senate seats. I thought the GOP would keep its majority and might even enlarge it by one seat. That would occur, I suggested, with Republicans losing Illinois and maybe Colorado but winning at least three open seats in the South (North and South Carolina and Georgia). I confidently said that John Thune would win in South Dakota because a trustworthy South Dakota source updated me daily.

The reporter who questioned me about the Senate races became hostile. He argued that Thune could not win in South Dakota, that South Dakotans recognized Daschle as a good Senator and that they knew that Daschle could protect their interests. Small states, this reporter arrogantly explained, seldom have Senators in top leadership posts. They weren't about to lose that influence for a freshman Senator who had little influence.

The reporter's intensity reminded me of that television reporter in 1978. Each reporter obviously had a stake in the outcome of the elections.

What happened to Senator Jepsen is happening to Senator Thune. He is being attacked daily by the organized Left. Thune is stunned by these attacks. Politics in South Dakota is seldom vicious, regardless of which side is power. When Rep. James Abdnor (R-SD) defeated Senator George S. McGovern (D-SD) in 1980 he was not subjected to the daily attacks that Thune is experiencing. Senator Abdnor lost his re-election bid because he was challenged in the GOP primary by Governor William J. ("Bill") Janklow. (Janklow narrowly lost the election and took his marbles and his people and went home. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 2002 but resigned and was jailed for causing a death in a traffic accident.)

The Left is as outraged at Daschle's defeat as it was with Clark's defeat. Daschle was the Left's guy. He could be relied upon to deliver the Left's viewpoint in very soft and believable terms. When the Left wanted one of President Bush's nominees blocked, it could count on Daschle. Like Clark, Daschle believed in what he did. In contrast to Senator Harry M. Reid (D-NV), who really doesn't understand hard Left politics and makes many errors, Daschle knew exactly what to do and when to do it. The Left lost a great deal when Daschle was defeated. They are avenging this loss by viciously attacking Thune.

Senator Thune is the poster boy for how to defeat incumbents. Republicans looking to the future planned to use the Thune victory to encourage other potential candidates to challenge incumbents who would be difficult to defeat. Thune's victory was the only 2004 GOP victory over an incumbent. The other three GOP Senators won open seats.

Thune appears to be backing off because of the proposed closing of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, which is the State's second largest employer and because he did not expect eight months of steady attacks. The Left will continue to attack Thune, thinking Thune can be defeated in 2010. That hope will not come to pass if Thune adopts an offensive strategy and if conservative groups in South Dakota understand what is happening and fervently defend Thune. Thune did what no other Republican or Democrat candidate has done in half a century. He defeated a Member of the Senate Leadership. Conservatives had better wake up and start giving Thune a hand.

The Left operates on Lenin's principle. Lenin told his disciples that you take your bayonet and probe. If you encounter mush you advance. If you encounter steel you retreat. If conservatives help Senator Thune construct a band of steel in South Dakota the Left will take its operations elsewhere. That would help Thune and conservatives everywhere.

Paul M. Weyrich is the Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.


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