Jun 21 2014

Putting the convention in its place

Published by at 7:29 am under Idaho,Idaho column

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

The Idaho Republican convention’s closing hours in Moscow last weekend were so unusual and so conflicted that they’ve taken on a character of their own – a poison pill of sorts for Idaho’s dominant political party, an event so embarrassing that, in some views, it might cost the party control of state offices.

Let’s step back just a bit.

Will the chaos convention in and of itself change much in Idaho politics? Probably not. Even amid all the headlines, most Idaho voters likely are only vaguely aware that a convention was held, and far fewer could explain to you just what happened there. So what if they failed to elect (in the normal way at least) a chair or adopt a platform? Outside of people really active in Idaho politics, who would notice? When’s the last time either of those things elicited a lot of discussion two weeks after the event?

Short term, the party has a mess in front of it – disagreement even about whether it has a chair and officers in place. Meetings last week didn’t seem to go much better than the convention did. Some of that may be resolved in the next few weeks in meetings various party people are trying to set up; or those efforts could collapse as well.

Still, as a one-shot event, this and the botched convention was not a big deal in the broad reach of Idaho politics. It will pass.

That doesn’t mean it’s insignificant.

It (and the ongoing conflict) could turn off some party workers and volunteers who, out of anger or disgust, won’t be going out there and working the way they usually do. That could hurt the party in the case of races which are otherwise close.

But there’s also something bigger.

Much of modern politics is driven by a narrative – a story of people, parties and issues, what they mean and how they fit into the story of individual lives. In the news, aberrations from those established narratives tend to fade. When news erupts that reinforces a narrative, it tends to strengthen the power of the story. It makes it more believable and harder to dismiss.

Earlier this year, we saw an unusual and maybe unprecedented split of Idaho Republicans into two distinct sides – slates of candidates competing ferociously in the primary election. The rhetoric was often strong, sometimes hyperbolic, well beyond what you usually hear from intra-party fights.

Toward the end of that campaign, Idaho got national attention for its Republican gubernatorial debate which featured two fringe candidates who got much more attention than the two mainstream candidates; and who spoke (in effect) of being on a mission from God and the like.

Now, the same party’s state convention falls apart because anger and disputes flourish, compromise vanishes, and party leaders cannot cooperate well enough to conduct basic organizational business.

These are only three recent examples – if you’ve been watching, you can come up with many more – of a long-building narrative about who and what Idaho Republicans are all about, and what is the meaning of Republican governance in Idaho. Each day with another tale of anger and non-cooperation will add to the list.

Take these pieces together, and what sort of a narrative about Idaho Republicans are voters constructing as they consider politics in their state? What does this narrative tell us about who and what they are?

This is how political narratives are made. And elections really do rise and fall on the basis of them.

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