Lockdown at the Orthodoxy Asylum

Pop Rocket, June 2012

Ken Bennett is not a stupid man. I've spoken professionally with our secretary of state many times over the past decade, and always found him to be a cut above most politicians, forthright, thoughtful, reasonable, practical and positive. For several years it's been pretty well accepted across the political spectrum that he will be Arizona's next governor, promising a step up from the hamhanded Brewer administration.
     With his history of savvy and adroit politics, I expected that Ken would be able to avoid the sort of train wreck that happened in May, when, just as he was coming out as an active candidate for 2014, he found himself in the national spotlight for the first time for hinting that he might leave the President's name off the Arizona ballot this fall. He's since backed away from that, but in retrospect the whole sorry episode can tell us a lot about why and how far the Party of Lincoln has gone off the rails.
     I believe Ken when he says he felt bound by his office to act when constituents demanded that he personally verify the President's birth certificate. It's my impression that he has a Boy Scout's sense of honor and duty about such things. Expecting this of others, he was unprepared when the State of Hawaii responded to his request with several months of a stiff middle finger.
     For its part, Hawaii had long since reached the end of its patience with this farcical issue and washed its hands of it, having verified and released documents ad nauseam to people who simply refuse to accept the facts. Its legislature even passed a bill specifically exempting the bureaucracy from having to waste more resources this way. Our own Governor Brewer had publicly stated that she'd looked into it when she was SoS, was satisfied with the word of Hawaii's governor in '08, and vetoed legislation last year, calling the birther issue a "path to destruction." Any informed observer could reasonably reject the idea that Secretary Bennett didn't know all this, and conclude that he must have been grandstanding for the extreme right.
     A bigger problem for Ken may be his decision to go back on a previous promise and get involved in the Romney campaign. As Secretary of State and our chief elections officer this is clearly a conflict of interest, evoking Ken Blackwell's shenanigans for the '04 Bush II campaign in Ohio. From my own experience with him I expect that our Ken would execute his responsibilities with integrity, but the simple optics of the matter make this a really bad idea.
     We can hope that he will respond to constituents again and correct this error, perhaps before this column hits the street. In getting to the why, the factor that most observers seem to be missing is the overheated echo chamber that the Arizona Republican Party has become.
     Republican majorities have been easy to make in the state lately, so for many years the main events in most of our political races have been the Republican primaries, where candidates have to differentiate themselves on how conservative they can claim to be. Smoking an hallucinogenic blend of helmetless iconoclasm, cowboy machismo, sophomoric libertarianism, intolerant religion and offhand racism, Arizona's Republican voters have moved increasingly toward demagogues, simpletons and religionists to make and administer our laws. The few remaining Democrats have become negligible in legislative debate, leaving the Republicans to identify the real opposition as the somewhat more centrist members of their own party, touching off an inevitable purge that has nearly wiped out those who won't toe the new politically correct line. Rinse and repeat for pure white sheets.
     The result is that within the capitol, the range of what's considered reasonable has shifted far to the right. Ideas that out here in the real world are obviously batty -- an official state firearm, demanding the surrender of federal lands, shackling women during birth, guns everywhere, drowning government in the bathtub -- seem perfectly reasonable down there. When the lunatics are running the asylum, you have to have doubts about your own flashes of sanity. So let's give Mr. Bennett a little benefit of the doubt. I expect he can learn, at least.
     A lot of reasonable Republicans have been purged from power and from the party itself, swelling the ranks of independent voters. This exacerbates the problem, of course, leaving an ever more extreme party core deserving of the satirical comparisons with the Taliban. Don't expect those new independents to vote Democrat, though.
     No, I can only see one way back toward sanity anytime soon, and that's much wider participation in the Republican primaries this August, and not just by independents. I want to encourage, even entreat, rural Democrats to reregister as independents, ask for the Republican primary ballot, do your homework and help try to move the party back toward the sensible center-right. Doing so doesn't make you a Republican or stain your integrity, rather it's a reasonable response to a dire situation for our state. Our economy simply cannot recover health with our legislative priorities so skewed toward nonsense.
     Some will call this monkeywrenching, and yeah, I'll take that. Given the mess he's in, I'll bet Ken Bennett will too.

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