John James is running for Senate in Michigan. A Black Republican — one of the few — he is trying to unseat Gary Peters, a moderate Democrat with a reliable but low-profile record.
The campaign James is running — or is being run for him —seems to say more about the current state of the Republican party than about the candidate himself.
James is fighting ferocious headwinds, not least the determination of Michigan voters — embarrassed by their debacle of 2016 — to continue the all-out assault on Republicans they began in the 2018 midterms. In that election, James ran for our other Senate seat, against Debbie Stabenow, and was soundly thumped. If the polls are to be believed, he has little chance of winning this one either.
He is also fighting the total intellectual and moral collapse of his party. The poverty of ideas, the disinterest in governing, the systemic corruption, the arrogant incompetence, the wanton abuse of power — all have been laid bare by the pandemic. There is now no such thing as a national-level Republican politician with either conscience or principles, and everyone knows it. Even they know it. The only way they can win a major election is to steal it.
So if there’s even a shred of substance, either to James’s character or to his intellect, it may never count for more than the scarlet ‘R’ next to his name.
Not that any such substance is in evidence. His appearance aside, he is in every other way a garden-variety Republican hack. But at least on the surface, James has assets that might have helped in another election, or another party, or another era. He’s tall, handsome, and athletic, all of which — along with his military record — he makes a big deal of.
His logo features a silhouette of an attack helicopter. One of his TV ads has him training in gym clothes with two equally well-muscled white guys. The optics are appealing, sort of, but the messaging is, as you’d expect, vapid.
With so little to recommend him, James is trying to go negative against Peters, but Peters hasn’t given him much to work with. The kind of slime that used to work so well has been rendered meaningless in the Trump era.
Peters, on the other hand, can draw on the entire Trump presidency to smack James around. And James didn’t make it easier on himself when he said on camera that he was backing Trump “2,000 percent,” a mistake that appears prominently in virtually every Peters mailing.
But most of the mailing is being done by James. Or is it? Not a day goes by that I don’t get some slickly-produced, oversized postcard in the mail, telling me horrible things about Peters — the same horrible things each time. Why they waste these expensive mailings on me, a registered Democrat, speaks to either wishful thinking or a bad database.
But what’s interesting is that John James isn’t mentioned in them. Nor is the word “Republican.” These postcards are, as we say, unbranded. They’re all about attacking Peters, not promoting James.
They focus on only two points, neither of which is even eyebrow-raising, much less scandalous. They want us to believe both that Peters’ supposedly spotty attendance record in the Senate, and his having said something nice about the Green New Deal, somehow makes him unworthy of office.
One series of postcards depicts Peters as “The Invisible Man,” using dubious statistics to imply that he’s excessively absent from his job — which has, inevitably, been publicly and thoroughly refuted.
But from this tidbit of misinformation, the postcard then extrapolates, less than logically, that Peters has done “Nothing to prepare us for Covid. Nothing to help our economy. Nothing to protect workers.” Pot, meet kettle.
This is what passes for a smear these days.
But wait, there’s more. Another series of postcards ominously informs us that the Green New Deal — a dog whistle for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib — “costs Michiganders $40,000 per household annually” and over 150,000 jobs. Plus it raises our gas and electric prices.
Note the present tense. It’s as if the Green New Deal were a real thing, destroying our way of life in real time. But then the postcard delivers the coup de grace, pointing out that in 2019 Gary Peters was quoted as saying that the Green New Deal was — wait for it — “…very exciting.”
Even if you weren’t curious about what came before the ellipsis in that quote — and what minor-league skullduggery it obscures — you would have to wonder at how lame the messaging really is.
This is, after all, the party that made negative campaigning into an art form. This is the party of Lee Atwater and Carl Rove (disciples of whom now inhabit the Lincoln Project, and would rather you didn’t remember that). This is the party that brought you Willie Horton, John McCain’s Black baby, and the swift-boating of John Kerry. And this is the best they can do?
James could, of course, still win. So could Trump. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that there isn’t much left in the tank. The Republican playbook, so cynical yet so devastating for so many decades, doesn’t seem to have the bite it used to.
I would like to think this is, at least partly, because Americans have finally wised up to the dissonance between what Republicans promise and what they deliver. Global pandemics can do that.
But it’s more likely that Trump is just so transparently disgusting that it’s hard for anyone with either a heart or a brain not to be disgusted.
Too bad disgust is not an option for an ambitious pol like John James. Because like most Republicans these days, he has the stink of Trump all over him, and it may never come off.