WHEN BOB SMITH renounced his membership in the Republican Party in a famous speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on July 13, 1999, he uttered the word “principle” 15 times, “platform” 25 times and “party” 78 times. In an interview with this newspaper exactly 15 years and two days after that speech, Smith obsessively reworked the same theme: The Republican Party is full of sellouts and moderates who don’t uphold the platform and don’t care about principles; and Bob Smith is the one to set things right.
“I have come to the cold realization that the Republican Party is more interested in winning elections than supporting the principles of the platform,” Smith said in 1999.
On Wednesday, Smith said “the national Republicans, and by that I mean the RNC and the Senate committee, have made it very clear who they want” to win the primary. But their favored candidate, Scott Brown, does not support the party platform, Smith said. With Brown, “the only thing we get is a vote against Harry Reid ... If you want to win, then win on principle.”
Smith repeats often that Brown voted with the Democrats more than half the time. But as I wrote last week, The Washington Post’s vote analysis shows that Brown voted with Republicans 81 percent of the time in the 111th Congress and 61 percent of the time in the 112th. Smith needs Republicans to believe that Brown is not really one of them. It is the only hope for a candidate who denounced the party 15 years ago, moved out of state 11 years ago, and endorsed John Kerry 10 years ago.
About the Kerry endorsement, which Smith made in a personal letter to Kerry, who then made the letter public, Smith says it was “a terrible, stupid mistake.” His motivation? “I got angry.”
In 2002, Karl Rove promised him a presidential endorsement in the primary if John E. Sununu entered the race, Smith said. Sununu got in, the endorsement never came, and Smith lost. His letter to Kerry was “a get even thing,” he said. He nursed a personal grudge for two years, just waiting for the chance to get his revenge. This is one elephant that never forgets.
Still, “I did not vote for him” (Kerry), Smith said. Reminded that he wrote in his letter that every member of his family planned to vote for Kerry, Smith said “there may have been some in my family who did, but it wasn’t me.”
Smith’s lofty talk of principle has always burned with resentment. The commitment to ideals is real, not contrived. But it always has contained the wounded tone of the smart kid shouting from the back of the high school chess club meeting that the vote for club president was just a popularity contest.
Successful politicians tend to accumulate friends and allies over the decades. Smith sheds them. In his 1999 speech, he denounced then-state Republican Party Chairman Steve Duprey by name. In 2004 he earned the permanent enmity of Bushworld by endorsing Kerry. In his current campaign, he speaks dismissively of his primary rivals Brown and Jim Rubens (naturally), and also the Sununus, current state party chairman Jennifer Horn, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, even Sen. Kelly Ayotte, with whom he hopes to work.
Speaking of Republicans who cannot be trusted to uphold the platform, he said “I don’t think that Ayotte’s quite in that category. But she’s getting there.”
For Bob Smith, there can be no deviation from the platform, which he equates with principle. He said he is the “only platform Republican,” the “only constitutional conservative,” the “best pro-gun candidate” and “the only pro-life candidate” in the race. Check the boxes, and Bob Smith will have the most checks. That’s what should matter. Principle. Platform. Party.
Bob Smith’s checklist leaves out one “p,” and it is one voters value very highly. Personality. It is sometimes used interchangeably with another p-word: popularity.
Politics might be about principles, but elections are about popularity. Smith says that if he is elected, he will join Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, two men he considers principled conservatives, to champion true Republicanism in the U.S. Senate. Reminded that the two could hold their meetings in a closet, he said he has already spoken with them and told them that if he gets there “I can help you build a bigger closet.”
Smith says that when he was young, he aspired to one of only three careers: a Major League Baseball player, a U.S. senator or a country music singer. He couldn’t sing, and he was not good enough at baseball to play past high school. That left politics. Smith was good at that, and he has the resume to prove it.
“I won 11 elections,” he said. But his last win was 18 years ago. New Hampshire has changed a lot since then. Bob Smith has not.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His column runs on Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewhampshire.