Might another “Kennedy seat” become “the people’s seat”? Republicans across Rhode Island, as well as plenty outside the state, are praying that will be the case. Their aspirations ride on John Loughlin, whose campaign for the first congressional district many see as a reprise of Scott Brown’s smash insurgency.
The three term representative from Tiverton faces a fearsomely entrenched Democratic establishment. And though wayward son Patrick Kennedy is no longer in the running, the office bears the lingering stamp of his pedigree.
The GOP has endured minority status in Rhode Island for many decades now. Recent years have seen miserable showings at the ballot box, with the party’s D.C. hopefuls regularly failing to grasp a third of the vote. The dubious Chafee’s excepted, our nation’s capital has not hosted an Ocean State Republican since 1995.
Loughlin seeks to end this dry spell. And while a small army of Democratic bigwigs are desperate to prevent this, Kennedy’s dismal polling numbers seem to reflect deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. Sure, Kennedy is out, but now come the Kennedy clones, a gaggle of boilerplate-spouting liberal suits. Not that a suit is an easy beat, not at all. Providence mayor David Cicilline, for instance, would be a tough match for Loughlin.
But so what if it is no cakewalk? A challenge was expected. What was not necessarily expected was an honest-to-god contest, which this most definitely is. Loughlin is a strong candidate, a native son with pluck and vision. He is a man of modest background and exceptional ambition.
In dark blue Rhode Island, where the legislature is 85-90% Democratic, he has A-grade bragging rights: Two consecutive runs without opposition. That speaks to the skill of his practical politicking. After the lackluster, caddish, and distracted Kennedy, little Rhode Island needs a serious player like Loughlin, an operator adept at making friends and neutralizing enemies.
Probably his charm has something to do with this success. Handsomely crew-cut with a long, prominent nose, his dark eyebrows move emphatically, up down up, as he speaks in a deep, reflective baritone. He is poised and self-assured, possessed by military cool, learned no doubt during his two decades in the Army National Guard. Loughlin’s humor is irrepressible and often self-deprecating.
In an interview with Moe Lane at this year’s CPAC, he joked that whipping for the Rhode Island Republican house caucus, six members strong, is like “being vice admiral of a canoe.” Others report spot-on impressions of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, as well as a sterling swamp Yankee drawl.
Yet there’s much more to Loughlin than panache. The man has substance. He exhibits a statesman’s clarity of conviction:
“This is about so much more than just the horse race. This is about the survival of not only the state of Rhode Island … but the survival of our country. If we do not do a u-turn … in terms of our fiscal policy … this is going to look like the golden boom days. It’s going to get far, far worse. We’re highly leveraged to foreign governments, we’re printing currency as fast as we can, we have to turn this around.”
Asked for his Big Message, Loughlin has said, “Stop the spending.” The bumper sticker on his Crown Victoria also puts it nicely: “Don’t Tread on Me.”
I conversed via e-mail with the representative. He tried to strike a balance between fiscal and social conservatism, stating his disapproval for abortion while emphasizing his commitment first and foremost to “jobs and the economy.”
“Small businesses are the engines of our economy,” wrote Loughlin. “During this recession—while our small business owners have struggled—our representatives in Congress have focused on bailing out badly managed banks and corporations while devising more mandates with which to cripple our small businesses.”
As for same-sex marriage, Loughlin tacked libertarian, driving home that “government needs to get out of the marriage business because marriage is—and should remain—in the domain of religious institutions. Government needs to be a guardian of legal rights and contractual relationships between individuals, and therefore I am in favor of civil unions.”
When we came to the wars, he avoided jingoistic sloganeering and sweeping statements. We owe our fighting men and women the utmost gratitude, said Loughlin, but “military strategy is often politicized unnecessarily and battlefield decisions second-guessed in a D.C. conference room can have a chilling effect on morale and readiness.” Such modesty and sound deference is heartening—and all too uncommon among the know-it-alls in Washington.
About his chances for capturing the seat, Loughlin was pleasingly optimistic. “The pendulum,” he noted, is swinging against “tax-and-spend liberalism.”
Despite impeccable conservative credentials on matters ranging from immigration to gun rights, Loughlin has dallied occasionally with Democratic notions. Quipped sister Suzanna to the Phoenix, “He’s a Rhode Island Republican, he’s not Jeff Sessions.”
Indeed, Loughlin has crossed the aisle more than a couple times and, dismayingly, sided with Democrats on the contentious issue of federal bail-outs for state pension funds.
He is also distinguished from the Republican herd by his conservationist concerns:
“Much needs to be done to ensure that the rural character of our communities is safeguarded and protected from reckless development, urban sprawl and environmental damage. I will fight every day to ensure that our treasured way of life becomes a legacy we can share with our children and grandchildren.”
Noble sentiments, echoes of Wendell Berry, though tarnished by a skittishness regarding the larger environmental picture. According to the Providence Phoenix, Loughlin attributes the rise of global temperatures to “solar cycles,” a proposition either profoundly ignorant or deeply calculating.
One other element of Loughlin’s campaign begs the question: ignorant or calculating? Appearing on Sean Hannity’s television program, the representative pledged bluntly “not to accept earmarks.” That is a big, stupid promise. Earmarks are in dire need of reform, but to dismiss the process outright is overreacting. Or, really, misreacting. One can oppose appropriations while accepting the earmark as a realistic two-fold tool: First for the purpose of detailing and tracking public funds; second as a sort of backdoor means of returning money to taxpayers through projects, programs, and improvements.
Rep. Ron Paul has had to explain this to many a confounded critic:
“This whole thing about earmarks is totally misunderstood. Earmarks is the responsibility of the Congress. We should earmark even more. We should earmark every penny. So, that’s the principle that we have to follow and the — and the responsibility of the Congress. The whole idea that you vote against an earmark, you don’t save a penny . . .
The principle of the earmark is our responsibility. It’s like a tax credit. And I vote for all tax credits, no matter how silly they might seem. If I can give you any of you of your money back, I vote for it. So, if I can give my district any money back, I encourage that.”
Loughlin must hone his philosophy, refine his rhetoric, and remain clearheaded. He must not allow himself to become a Fox-friendly vessel for grassroots talking points. The fact that he smilingly proclaims his affiliation with tax-loon Grover Norquist is disappointing, and runs counter to the thoughtful, nuanced conservatism he seems to espouse in other areas.
Of course, these questions and debates are ultimately of secondary importance. The thrust of Loughlin’s candidacy is sound: “We need a smaller government.”
One fears counting one’s chickens before they hatch, but the conservative capture of the Kennedy seats might signal the shifting of the region’s politics.
New England has tilted liberal since at least the Great Depression, producing the movement’s lions (John Kennedy) and lambs (John Kerry), enrages (Bernie Sanders) and eggheads (Chris Dodd). Could conservatives stage a comeback in what was once the mighty realm of Camelot?
Generations of liberalism have left New Englanders saddled with heavy taxes, burdened by onerous regulations, and harassed by social mechanics, some elected and some appointed, who fiddle shamelessly with the cornerstones of our culture. Have folks had enough? Are ordinary joes and janes, infected by tea party fever, preparing to stand up and overthrow the political class?
Possibly. But any conservative reawakening in New England is likely to disappoint the right-wing mandarins of Fox and National Review. New England is not Dixie. It is not even Big Sky Country.
Conservatism in New England is more disposition, less ideology. It is accented by the tory praejudice for order, cohesion, and state paternalism, and run through with egalitarian sympathies. That said, after the wave of defeats for flinty anti-tax types during the last decade, perhaps New Englanders are ready to send a couple fiscal hawks back to Washington.
New England sadly is through creating Calvin Coolidges, but it might just have in store a couple more Judd Greggs or Scott Browns: Liberty-minded, pro-business deal-makers interested in trimming and pruning, in cultural consensus building, in governing efficiently rather than “rolling back the state.” Loughlin fits this tradition snugly. He is on the right wing of the center-right.
Given this state’s long succession of same-thinking, same-sounding liberals, conservatives need anyone they can get, purity be damned. Anyway, Loughlin is hardly some “best of the worst,” a la Lincoln Chafee. No, Loughlin has made his positions clear, and they ring true: Reduce spending, cut taxes, pay down the deficit, maintain those institutions—from the military to the family—that have made America free and great.
Patrick Kennedy has admittedly been successful at bringing home the bacon. A consummate insider, he knows his way around Capitol Hill. His replacement will have big, sodden boots to fill. The Democrats are trying to make it seem as though their boys and their boys alone have the right stuff. In reality, their boys have nothing to offer but higher taxes, more spending, worn platitudes, and weary appeals to the decaying spirit of liberalism.
We have an opportunity here, an opportunity to reinject principle and love of liberty into our federal delegation, and thus our country’s politics, too. Loughlin, a son of Rhode Island, a friend of the land, a veteran and family man and self-made entrepreneur, is just the guy for that job.
If Rhode Islanders fall back on their old ways and elect a liberal suit, we will be cheating ourselves, our state, and our nation. We cannot afford any of that.