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The Zephyr Before the Storm

How one underdog candidate heralds a coming political hurricane
The Zephyr Before the Storm

Ralph Nader’s question, “Where are the Democratic Dave Brats?” is a stumper on the order of “Where are the neoconservative Marines?” They will all show up ten minutes after Godot arrives.

In late summer Nader received an answer in New York, where a genuine insurgent Democrat took on a repugnant centrist (which has become a political synonym for centralist), Governor Andrew Cuomo. Zephyr Teachout lost her primary, but she held Cuomo to 62 percent of the vote and won half of New York’s 62 counties despite being outspent by a margin that may have been as high as 30-1.

The mainstream press, which insists that all candidates walk in left-right lockstep, portrayed this as a rebuke to Prince Andrew from discontented leftists. There is an element of truth to that, but Zephyr—such a canorous hippie-child name—sang a populist tune not found in any Beltway progressive songbook.

Like Brat, unseater of that warmongering bellhop of the bailout class Eric Cantor, Zephyr ran against crony capitalism. She was anti-Common Core and spoke of decentralizing governance. She even lauded the Tea Party, at least in its grassroots genesis, before the vultures of K Street feasted on its carrion.

Unlike the identity-politics left, the Fordham law professor did not demonize rural Yorkers as minatory hayseeds; she even criticized Cuomo’s hated SAFE Act, which is less a serious attempt at crime control than a symbol of rural subjugation. Zephyr, raised in Vermont, presumably has known deer hunters and gun collectors as actual persons rather than the demoniacs of TV crime dramas.

I wish Teachout had been closer to the marvelous “left-conservative” New York City tradition of Norman Mailer, Dorothy Day, Paul Goodman, and Jane Jacobs. Her Manhattan supporters pilloried former congresswoman Kathy Hochul, Cuomo’s candidate for lieutenant governor, for the sin of being an Upstater: that is, for receiving an A grade from the NRA and disputing the granting of drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. (Who knew the DMV was a nativist redoubt?) Kathy and her husband Bill are fans of the Batavia Muckdogs, so I cut her all the slack in the world.

Issues aside, Zephyr was a breath of fresh air, good-natured and spirited, in contrast to the incumbent, a self-aggrandizing bully. A laugh and a light heart are underrated as a strategy for life as well as politics.

Not since Al Smith left the sidewalks of New York to climb the Empire State Building—the only known instance of a man making a descent up 103 stories—has the New York Democracy had a populist air. Our nadir came in 1958, when Nelson Rockefeller and Averell Harriman faced off in a battle of adulterous plutocrats. If New York’s canaille ever thought we pulled the strings, the Rocky-Harriman gubernatorial tilt set us straight.

The rest of the country eventually caught up. The populist strain has been all but extirpated from the Democratic Party: not just the 180-proof anti-imperialist anti-monopolism of William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long but even the wry and wistful populism that flavored the Plains and Upper Midwest within living memory. When I was a lad, giants—or men who loom as giants when placed next to the likes of Al Franken and Dick Durbin—strode the Senate: Harold Hughes of Iowa, William Proxmire of Wisconsin, George McGovern and James Abourezk of South Dakota.

Today, when a plausible populist heaves into sight, the callow eunuchs of the Sensitivity Brigades brandish their peashooters.  Consider ex-Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who appears eager to take on Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. I am too far from the Big Sky to form an opinion of Schweitzer, but I do know that the governor has been a stalwart foe of the Patriot Act, REAL ID, gun control, and the Iraq War—the right profile for a populist.

Yet he seems to have been derailed by his offhand remark to a reporter that Eric Cantor set off his “gaydar.”

I dunno: Cantor just seems like a big sissy to me. But the prissy scolds of Internet liberalism found Schweitzer’s throwaway line to be a disqualifier. Hillary Clinton can advocate policies in the Middle East that would—that have—resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, and she is treated respectfully, even reverently, as are bloodlusting Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but don’t you dare crack wise about sex.

There were no Democratic Brats in 2014. But perhaps the zephyr wafting over the Hudson foretold a mighty wind. May it sweep through both parties in 2016 and carry off Hillary and the whole covey of squawking Republican chickenhawks—like a hurricane, as a great adenoidal Canadian once sang.

Bill Kauffman is the author of ten books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.



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