Politics

02.25.14

Where Does the Tea Party Find These People?

I was on Hardball last night talking about the escapades of this Milton Wolf character, the tea party guy who’s challenging GOP incumbent Senator Pat Roberts this year. Wolf became freshly newsworthy this past weekend when the Topeka Capital-Journal revealed that in 2010, Wolf, a radiologist, posted photos of disfigured corpses on Facebook (of people who’d been shot, etc.) and joined other commenters in poking fun at the them.

One image he posted showed a human skull all but blasted apart, about which Wolf wrote: “One of my all-time favorites,” Wolf posted to the Facebook picture. “From my residency days there was a pretty active 'knife and gun club' at Truman Medical Center. What kind of gun blows somebody's head completely off? I've got to get one of those.”

The Kansas City Star headlines an AP story by asserting that Wolf has “apologized,” but I read the piece and I’ll be jiggered if I see any apology in there. What Wolf does is try to explain his actions, although not really, and then accuse Roberts of leaking the material (which, if he did, so what; any opposing campaign would). A release by Wolf’s campaign even called the alleged leak (and it’s only alleged) “the most desperate move of any campaign in recent history,” another clueless and self-pitying statement.

So, this is clearly freakazoid behavior, and is obviously a grotesquely inappropriate thing for a medical professional to do. And it raises the broader question: Where does the tea party find these people?

I think this is an interesting question, because the answer describes one of the movement’s major impacts on our politics, which is the elevation of ideology above every other human consideration—of things like experience and temperament and character—in selecting people for high office; indeed, the creation of a posture in which those other considerations are scorned.

Here’s what I mean. Pre-tea party, if you wanted to be involved in Republican politics, you started the way nearly everybody starts in politics, in both parties. You run for city council, or county commissioner; then state legislature; then maybe, if you’ve demonstrated some skill or charisma or something, you’ll get to Congress or maybe become governor.

Each of these campaigns vets you, so that the crazy things you did and said when you were young are placed before the voters, who decide whether those things matter or not. And each of these experiences, as a county commissioner or state legislature, leavens you a bit, teaches you what the process of government is like, gives you a little sobriety. You might still be very conservative (or very liberal on the other side), but experience has, at least in theory and I think in most cases, made you a little more mature and better equipped to hold higher office.

But then comes the tea party in 2010, and boom, none of this matters anymore. So people who would normally have had to run for lower office first are suddenly running for United States Senate! Christine O’Donnell, no apparent relevant experience in anything except being on TV. Sharron Angle, who did admittedly serve in the Nevada state assembly for eight years but who was there to throw bombs; she voted no in the 42-member body so often that statehouse reporters joked about votes being “41 to Angle.” And lots of people with histories of out-there statements.

None of that earns any demerits in tea party “vetting.” For the tea party, all you need to do is pass ideological muster: hate Obama; hate government; embrace their idea of “freedom.” You sure don’t need to have shown a sober temperament. In fact, quite the opposite. Being known as 41 to Angle is a great calling card for tea party voters, because it shows them that you’re not a sell-out and the system hasn’t ruined you.

So it’ll be especially interesting to see if this harms Wolf. The reaction will tell us whether tea party people and Republicans generally in Kansas regard what he did as just another sort of manly joke that offends prissy liberal sensibilities (and thus requires that they rise to his defense)—that is, whether they have a knee-jerk ideological reaction—or as something that’s really just kind of beyond the pale for a human being, let alone a doctor, to do—that is, whether they have a more human reaction. Because I think 99 percent of normal human beings would react to what Wolf did with varying degrees of disgust. But once it becomes a political act, and he gets taken apart on MSNBC, a certain percentage will defend him. How high that percentage ends up being will be a fascinating thing to see.

As I was leaving the set, a producer said into Chris Matthews’s earpiece, and he announced, that a recent poll had it Roberts 49, Wolf 23. So Wolf is behind, but he’s not out of it. The primary isn’t until August. He has plenty of time to make a run. There’s also plenty of time to learn more weird stuff about him. That comes with the tea-party territory, and it’s creating a class of pols who should be back-bench state legislators but have the chance of becoming U.S. senators. It’s just a good thing most of them don’t win.