Over the past couple of weeks, I think there's been a couple of turning points in the upcoming midterm elections. One of them, which I'm still working on, has to do with the dismal cloud surrounding the Obama Administration and the clear weaknesses they're bringing into the home stretch for Democrats and the left more generally. But the other, for the right, can be summed up in the primary win and subsequent flameout of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.
O'Donnell was considered one of the fringier Tea Party hopefuls, until a combination of forces - her string of especially negative ads against Mike Castle, the presumed nominee, as well as Castle's and the State GOP's ugly responses, along with the fact that Castle had never actually faced a GOP primary in his 40 year career - swept O'Donnell to a surprising, easy victory in Delaware's Republican Senatorial primary. Castle, the state's longtime Congressman, was expected to easily win statewide election, since he has done just that over and over. O'Donell, on the other hand is something of a religious activist who already lost once to Joe Biden (in 2008, after failing to win the GOP primary for Tom Carper's seat in 2006).
Much of the political calculus is irrelevant, though, now that Bill Maher has released a string of footage (which he vows to continue) culled from O'Donnell's appearances on Politically Incorrect in the nineties. The most striking, so far, is O'Donnell's apparently unforced admission that she was familiar with "witchcraft" and had a first date "midnight picnic" on a Satanic altar.
Asked about it after the clip broke wide, O'Donnell fell back on the "didn't we all do something crazy in high school" defense, which is a good demonstration of at least her press savvy, neither running away from her past, nor especially interested in rehashing or defending it.
But the damage was done, and it was damage with some wider implications, since it pretty much forced the national Republican Party into drawing some lines - admittedly late and well past where they need to be - around just how much Tea Party madness the GOP Establishment should have to embrace. And in that moment cam e a reality that's been quite clear as "Tea Party Insurgency" became the storyline of the right: that in many ways, this was about extreme, fringe efforts on the right finally getting the reins and taking control. And the longterm results may not be especially good.O'Donnell - endorsed by Sarah Palin - has been simply the best worst example of squandered opportunities in the Senate races for the GOP this year. The other extreme examples, like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul, share her penchant for gaffes and extreme rhetoric. But even Linda McMahon in Connecticut and Carly Fiorina in California share some of this sense that they are second best choices in races where stronger candidates could easily prevail (you could throw in two time loser Dino Rossi, now chasing Patty Murray's seat in Washington state). The angry national mood, we thought, would be a boon to Republicans. But as so many have said, me included, anger alone won't solve the Republicans lack of a good message and great candidates to deliver it.
The GOP can't run away from O'Donnell, because admitting that she's too weird and fringe-y to be viable would throw the whole Tea Party movement into relief: given her background at the edges of GOP social causes and cultural conservatism, as well as actually having run for office already, O'Donnell is in many ways a more conventional candidate than many others the Tea Parties have produced (and, like some conservatives, she seems mostly to be riding the Tea Party as her latest train to success). That's why the revelations of nuttiness can be so damaging: the "anyone can play" nature of Tea Party openness, the lack of rigor to set up some base criteria for viability, is killing them. And in this free for all, it's no surprise that telegenic opportunists like O'Donnell, or her mentor Palin, can rise to prominence on good looks and a talent in front of the camera.
Of course, putting this all in big picture context tends to ignore the aspects of the story that really drive it: the reason O'Donnell's tossed off asides about witchcraft took off is because what they reveal is not minor, or casual. A lot has been made of the quick response of Wiccans, denying connections to Satanism and blood altars (and what a world we live in, when even the Wicca have spokespeople at the ready the moment bad PR crops up), but no one, really, would mistake O'Donnell's witchy past for the more recent surge of interest in Wicca's vaguely upbeat, pro-nature paganism.
Having been a teenager at the same time as O'Donnell, this story caught my eye because I remember that era all too well: and there was, among a subset of the "fast kids" in junior and senior high, a fascination with various aspects of dark, Satanist leanings. It was the period when Heavy Metal bands dabbled in Satanic visual and lyrical images, and a slew of books capitalized on salacious details of blood rituals and Satanic rites. Knowing about it was hard to avoid... but actually getting out there and joining in was not, really, just some foray into youthful hijinks. Indeed, the whole episode of O'Donnell's foray into "witchcraft" probably explains the extreme swing she's taken to fervent religiosity and moralism. It's the zeal of the convert, the desperation of a sinner made good.Most voters, really, won't be using "witchcraft" as their deciding factor in the Delaware election, or most anywhere else. O'Donell's failures as a candidate don't begin or end with the witch story, but the story does encapsulate her problems and those of the Tea Party right more generally: the "loose cannon" comments and the out of the mainstream actions and views that make them less than successful i appealing to wide swaths of the public. Wicked witchcraft, it seems, turns out to be the bridge too far. But those outer limits were reached months ago. And from here, I tend to doubt that Republicans can find their way back to turning this "angry election" into the blanket rejection of the left they craved. Of course, there might be a spell for that, too.