AUGUST 13, 2008
Coconut Creek, Florida
Most political junkies never get the chance to protect the candidates they admire from rapacious Muslim terrorists with a yen for televised beheadings. But, just last week, Yomin Postelnik--a Pompano Beach, Florida, GOP activist--answered his own personal three a.m. call when, he wrote, a "low-level operative" with a Middle Eastern group attempted to ferry the Republican nominee for Congress in Florida's 22nd district, Allen West, to "an undisclosed location" and "pull off what most certainly seems to be a heinous stunt." Outraged, Postelnik posted a promise of retaliation against "the fiends" who targeted West at the news site CanadaFreePress.com, where he is a columnist. "I'd caution you against so much as threatening this man again, as the result would be a torrent of articles and books highlighting his exemplary nature and service," he wrote. "More writers than you care to know of have made this pact out of admiration for Allen and for what he stands for[.]"
Fortunately, Allen West managed to save himself. To be fair, it wasn't that hard. The fiendish Middle Eastern group was Al Jazeera, the intended "stunt" was an interview for a segment on black Republicans, and West just politely declined. The next day, when he regaled a group (including Postelnik) at a Coconut Creek retirement community with the tale of Al Jazeera's interview request, he meant the "undisclosed location" part to be a joke. "I doubt anyone was thinking about kidnapping me," he admitted later.
You can see why people might have missed the humor. The most famous thing about West--a former high-ranking African American Army officer--is that he was accused by the military in 2003 of abusing an Iraqi detainee. The fact that he is now the Republican nominee for Congress in an ostensibly competitive district speaks volumes about the current state of the GOP. "This is not the year in which an intelligent Republican would want to run against an incumbent, " says GOP strategist Whit Ayres glumly. Recruitment troubles have plagued the party in what should be competitive districts from Arizona to Indiana to New York; in one blood-red district in North Carolina, the Republican choice, a right-winger named Carl Mumpower, recently shut down his own campaign to protest his party's lax stance on immigration.
The GOP's greatest embarrassment of all might seem to be Florida's 22nd, where the party that Iraq destroyed is running a candidate charged with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And, yet, the South Florida GOP doesn't see it that way. This year's surprise in Palm Beach County is that local Republican officials, some of whom are also presiding over more competitive races, believe their candidate is not a laughingstock but the marquee Republican of the year--that he is not a symptom of what ails the national GOP but a possible cure.
Palm Beach County Republican Chairman Sid Dinerstein, a gregarious operative whose official bio recounts his receipt of Lefferts Junior High School's "Most Popular Boy" award, insists that as voters learn more about West's "Taji incident"--as West's spokesman delicately calls it--they'll begin to see it not as an echo of Abu Ghraib but as a neat parable about the dangers of creeping liberalism. An egghead who reads medieval Muslim history and the anti-socialist French thinker Frederic Bastiat in his spare time, West was on track for a generalship when his unit was assigned in August 2003 to interrogate an Iraqi policeman who had supposedly turned Benedict Arnold. The policeman refused to cooperate, so West dragged him outside, pushed his head into the sand, and fired a gun next to his face to get him to sing. "I'd do it again if I had to," West tells me over tea and a doughnut in Plantation, Florida. "It wasn't torture. Seeing Rosie O'Donnell naked would be torture."
But that summer was an uneasy political moment--Joe Wilson had just published his yellowcake op-ed--and the Army, as West tells it, fell victim to politicalcorrectness jitters, dragging him before an Article 32 hearing. When the legal and media circus was over, though, West found that he had gained conservative street cred. National Review championed him and the right-wing FrontPage Magazine named him 2004's "Man of the Year," declaring that he "earned the disdain of leftist intellectuals ... for protecting the lives of his troops." Retiring from the army soon after, West began to float the idea of running for Congress.
Sadly for West, though, while conservative activists heralded him as an action hero, the national party showed little interest in rallying behind someone so controversial. Looking at the giant ziggurats of cash the Democrats were building to protect their newly won seats, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) frantically searched for candidates who were safe and, most crucially, had access to a lot of money. In the 22nd--a district the Democrats took in 2006 but which still boasts more registered Republicans than Democrats--a scion of a famous Florida political family, a well-connected state representative, and the popular mayor of cash-soaked Boca Raton were all begged to run. All declined.
Disheartened, national Republicans stopped touting the race and adopted a "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away" fatalism. "It's a miracle [former Republican representative Clay Shaw] held the seat as long as he did, but God stopped working the miracle," sighs a GOP strategist.
Indeed, there was barely even time to worry about Florida's 22nd as other recruitment problems popped up all over the country. In eastern Arizona, Republicans had to settle for their tenth choice; in Staten Island, the GOP's bottom-tier selection garnered an electoral challenge from his own disgruntled son--and then died. In Indiana's competitive 2nd district, the under-funded Republican challenger frittered away his precious money flying to Alaska to film pro-ANWR-drilling YouTube videos, one of which had to be aborted because he was overwhelmed by swarms of mosquitoes. In North Carolina's Bush-loving 11th, which failed Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler claimed for the Democrats with a 2006 upset win, the party finally settled on Asheville councilman Carl Mumpower--but, almost immediately after being nominated, Mumpower, like an immune defender cell gone wrong, began attacking the host body, calling for President Bush's impeachment and then, last week, briefly refusing to do any more campaigning. It turns out this is what you get for nominating a lawmaker who was, up to that point, primarily known for conducting his own extra- judicial crack busts.
As the NRCC abandons seat after seat that it lost in 2006, there's neither money nor love to spare for somebody like Allen West. "I'm still waiting for J. C. Watts to call," West told me.
The national party's disinterest is vexing for the South Florida Republican leaders supporting West. They see him not as a lost cause, but as the national party's Hail Mary pass. He's a prototype of conservative manliness and an obvious alternative to Barack Obama. An eloquent speaker, he gets standing ovations wherever he goes. "You would think in the culture we're in now, the national party would stand up and take notice," complains Broward County GOP chair Chip LaMarca. "Heck, he's probably the most qualified message-deliverer we have--and he's black!" Indeed, as a black man who eschews African American culture in favor of self-consciously race-blind interests (he admires Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson), West seems perfectly suited to soothe a certain type of older voter who intellectually dislikes racism but also fears the black-church-attending Obama. "I never grew an Afro," he tells a cluster of fans at the Coconut Creek retirement village. "I always had a nice little crew cut."
Most appealing of all, though, is the symbolism of his detainee scandal itself, and his unwillingness to repent for it. Dinerstein, the Palm Beach Republican chair, explains: "There's always been a belief by those of us on our side that the rules of engagement were inhibiting our military ... I mean, the whole Abu Ghraib thing is quite extraordinary--not one person even got tortured! One of my sound-bites is that more people died in Teddy Kennedy's car. " For humiliated Republicans constantly hearing that voters want "change"--in other words, anything but their shameful selves--West is a relief, a walking argument that they have been right all along. The desire among grassroots Republicans to resist adaptation and retrench behind the very traits that have caused them to come under fire helps explain some of the stranger nominees in other districts, too. I was amazed to find that a number of Republican politicians in North Carolina actually like Carl Mumpower.
Back in Coconut Creek, Pete DiRosa, the burly president of the retirement community's Italian-American Club, hops to his feet and, riled up by West, launches into a Braveheart-style oration: "We've gotten so complacent with the miracles we've got every day! This is the greatest country in the world! We're getting so soft!" Shhh, don't tell Al Jazeera.