Thursday, May 27, 2010

Enter the Dilettantes?

I don't know if George Will believes what he wrote about Wisconsin Senate candidate Ron Johnson, but his credulous take on Johnson's assertions deserves some review. I don't believe that Ron Johnson is either a dilettante or the folksy tea partier that Will depicts, so I'm left with the question of whether Will actually believes what he wrote, truly imagining Johnson to be some form of working class outsider who stumbled into politics, or is indifferent but is nonetheless offering Johnson a free campaign ad.

Let's start by addressing who Johnson is - the co-founder, back in 1977, and President of a substantial plastics manufacturing company, and one of several Wisconsin millionaires who sees the present moment as a good time to enter politics - with similar messages, even if Johnson found their campaign signs to be, perhaps, objectionable.

Three days ago Marc Ambinder told us, "He just got into the race; he doesn't even have a campaign website yet.", but he registered the domain name for his Senate site on February 24, and here he is, apparently in Wausau on that same day or perhaps earlier, posed in front of a campaign backdrop that prominently features his URL. He had a professional campaign staff in place weeks before announcing his candidacy:
"This is Ron being the person that he is. He's doing his due diligence," [Johnson's campaign adviser, Darrin] Schmitz said. "It's coming together quickly. It's coming together very well and he will make his announcement in the near future and when the time is right."
I'll take Johnson at his word that he is new to the idea of entering politics, but he doesn't strike me as the sort who would be casual about such a decision or about investing his own money in his campaign. So you'll excuse me for believing that he has carefully considered the image he wants to present in association with his campaign. His message so far will create some interesting moments in his campaign:
An accountant by training, Johnson said he believes the government has a role in regulating big banks. But he said the regulations in place failed by allowing banks to get too big to fail, saying they should have been broken up "in an orderly fashion."
As he will have to face questioning about whether he actually means that, as it's a position that's not shared by either the Republican Party or, save perhaps for a few on the fringe, the Democratic Party. Let's not forget, the "too big to fail" banks are still there, waiting I'm sure quite eagerly for Johnson's explanation as to how they should be regulated and broken up.

George Will introduces Johnson as a devotee of Ayn Rand and uncomfortable in a suit:
He is trim, gray-haired and suddenly gray-suited. For years he has worn jeans and running shoes to his office, but now, under spousal duress, he is trying to look senatorial - "My wife upgraded me to brown shoes."
Looking at his firm's website, I don't doubt that jeans are very popular, although it looks like Mr. Johnson already owned a sport coat and a pair of shiny black shoes. His comments to Will appear to me to be about cultivating a public image - exactly what you would expect from a politician, if Johnson's willing to admit that he now is one.

Will tells us that Johnson described Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" as his "foundational book", and thinks it is "too short" - a complaint I've never before heard, even from the most ardent, self-described Objectivist. Rand surely would have appreciated Johnson's declaration that "most basic right... is the right to keep your property" and his endorsement of low taxes for the wealthy. But his comments and Will's commentary leave me wondering if either have actually cracked the cover of that book. I mean, it would be easy to caricature Johnson as imagining himself as Galt, surrounded by peons at his factor that do nothing but leech off of his genius and accomplishment, and some of his comments do seem like a caricature of her philosophy (e.g., "[Massachusetts] is requiring [health] insurance companies to write polices at a loss" - sure, but that was in exchange for an individual mandate, and even in other states insurers are compelled to renew policies even when they know that the insured is going to cost them more money than they pay in premiums). But his departures from Rand's philosophy are more striking.

First, Johnson paints himself as a devout Christian - Lutheran according to Will, but I would otherwise guess Catholic - something I'm happy to assume is true. But nobody would mistake either Rand's philosophy or Atlas Shrugged as anything but contemptuous of religion - sacrificing reason to faith. As Galt puts it,
For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors–between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.
Similarly, Johnson describes himself as pro-life. Ayn Rand... not so much. Rand viewed abortion as an absolute right of a pregnant woman. Can you imagine her reaction to Johnson's attempt to insert both abortion rights and to trigger squeamishness through his reference to "partial birth abortion" into a political campaign?
"I would like to ask Russ, 'Have you ever witnessed a partial-birth abortion?' "
We were told earlier in the article that Johnson's newborn daughter had to undergo heart surgery. I expect that Rand would respond to Johnson that banning so-called "partial birth abortions" does not prevent an abortion, but changes the technique to one that's more dangerous for the mother, and that his sentimentality over how "icky" it might be to watch could also be applied as a rationale for banning "icky" open heart surgery until something more aesthetically pleasing could be devised.

It is really difficult for me to imagine a pro-life Lutheran (let alone Catholic) who could read Atlas Shrugged and deem it to be his "foundational book", let alone "too short". If he took the time to digest Rand's arguments and her contemptuousness toward religion, I would expect him to find the book discomfiting and completely incompatible with his religious beliefs. But I'm sure his claim makes for a good sound bite at tea party rallies. Of course he's also an outsider and a businessman, who will bring that experience to public office... never heard that one before. From what I have seen so far, it seems like he's a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and a quick study in the art of politics, who believes he can ride a wave of tea party anger and a populist message into the Senate.

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