Paul Hackett's narrow defeat in a special election on Tuesday night represented a victory for the politics of conviction and a rebuke to the tactics of trimming. A tough, articulate, outspoken Democrat who refused to apologize for his harsh criticism of President Bush, Hackett came so close to winning Ohio's safest Republican congressional district that Newt Gingrich called the outcome "a wake-up call" for the ruling party.
Was Hackett's powerful showing the harbinger of Democratic renewal in the midterm elections next year? Or was he merely a singular beneficiary of low turnout and Republican disarray? And what should the Democrats learn from his near victory?
Certainly there were extraordinary circumstances in the contest to succeed Rep. Rob Portman, who left his seat in the state's 2nd District after the president appointed him to serve as the U.S. trade representative. Those circumstances begin with Hackett himself, a lawyer and Marine Reserve major whose service in Iraq lent credibility to his criticism of the war and the White House. Candidates of his caliber and attractiveness rarely show up as challengers in districts where the other party has dominated so completely for so long. (Last year, Portman won reelection by 40 points, and Bush won the district by 28 points.)
No doubt Hackett also benefited from the burgeoning and increasingly baroque financial scandals that have engulfed the leadership of the Ohio Republican Party, under the rubric "Coingate." Over the past several months, astonished Ohioans have discovered that state officials entrusted vast sums in the workers' compensation fund to politically connected investment advisors -- notably a former county GOP chairman who sells rare coins -- and that millions of dollars have disappeared. That summary scarcely does justice to the Coingate saga, which includes the illicit laundering of funds into the Bush-Cheney campaign, election shenanigans, and conflicts of interest in the governor's office. To the Republicans' horror, their malfeasance has been magnified by superb investigative coverage of the scandal in the Toledo Blade.
Amplifying the theme of conservative corruption in the Buckeye State is the continuing saga of Rep. Bob Ney, a powerful Republican who was caught colluding in lobbyist Jack Abramoff's infamous Indian casino scam. For helping the lobbyist convince leaders of the Tigua tribe that Abramoff was protecting their legislative interests, Ney reaped more than $30,000 in campaign donations. Abramoff and fellow lobbyist Ralph Reed later brought Ney along on a lavish trip to Scotland, with transportation via private jet and a visit to St. Andrew's golf course. Although Ney reported that the sponsor was a right-wing think tank, the Tigua tribe paid for the trip, too.
Aside from the disgrace and disorganization besetting Ohio Republicans generally, Jean Schmidt, the candidate who just barely beat Hackett, hardly seems an impressive figure. She said little to dispel the mocking characterization of her by Hackett supporters as a "rubber stamp" for the White House.
Yet Hackett also had to overcome some real disadvantages to come close to winning. Schmidt and the Republicans outspent him heavily, with the National Republican Congressional Committee vowing to "bury" him for attacking Bush. Indeed, the NRCC reportedly dropped $500,000 into the district over the past few weeks -- while its counterparts at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee waited too long to get behind Hackett, assuming that the district was too red to win. Massive fundraising by liberal bloggers made Hackett competitive.
But the most important lesson of the 2nd District race is the candidate's own unapologetic attitude, both as a Democrat and as a critic of the president and the war. "I've said that I don't like the son of a bitch that lives in the White House, but I'd put my life on the line for him," Hackett said of Bush -- an offhand and incautious comment that would make most political consultants suicidal. Worse yet, from the conventional point of view, he refused to back off. "I said it. I meant it. I stand by it," he replied when outraged Republicans demanded an apology.
Somehow it didn't seem to hurt him much.
Most candidates couldn't get away with speaking so disrespectfully of the president. Hackett's military record surely served to protect him. But more important, his unrelenting criticism of Bush and the war forthrightly expressed the growing anger and frustration among Americans of all political persuasions. More and more people realize that they were deceived about the reasons for the war, that the White House and the Pentagon have mismanaged the occupation from the beginning, that the Bush administration has no viable exit strategy -- and that American troops are dying as a result.
When Schmidt was asked last week whether Bush has "made any errors in the prosecution of this war," she replied stolidly: "Absolutely not." Even in the reddest Republican districts, that kind of party-line nonsense may no longer be acceptable. The question for Democrats, most of whom have been far too timid to speak out about the war, is whether they have anything smarter to say.