There’s nothing like a monumental gaffe to relieve the occasional tedium of writing about politics. That’s one of the reasons pundits were delighted when Barack Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate. But just when the vice president learned to behave himself, along comes Nancy DiNardo.
DiNardo, the state Democratic chairwoman, committed the most revealing sort of gaffe, defined by journalist Michael Kinsley as “when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” And a Kinsleyan gaffe is infinitely more interesting when it reveals less about the politician than it does about something of larger significance.
In case you missed it, DiNardo was ticked off that former Democratic Bridgeport Mayor John Fabrizi crossed party lines to endorse Republican Tim Herbst, who was running — successfully, it turns out — for a third term as first selectman in DiNardo’s hometown of Trumbull.
Asked about the endorsement, DiNardo, who also chairs the Trumbull Democratic Town Committee, told the CT Post, “In politics, nobody does something for nothing. In politics, everything is done for a reason and Fabrizi has a good reason to express his gratitude toward Herbst.”
Asked to elaborate, the esteemed chairwoman dug in deeper. She suggested the endorsement was tied to a real estate development in Trumbull that Fabrizi, via his brother-in-law, has an interest in. DiNardo later apologized, repeatedly using the word “dumb” to describe the faux pas, but the damage could not be undone.
I don’t know whether Fabrizi had base motives in endorsing a cross-party candidate for local office. Far from “revealing her ugly philosophy of politics,” in the words of Courant columnist Kevin Rennie, DiNardo spoke a simple truth that is widely recognized in political circles: politicians consider a wide range of factors when deciding whom to help. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of policy and loyalties, as in the reflexive instinct to endorse candidates of one’s own party. On other occasions, however, elected officials have to consider who has best helped them achieve their goals. For all we know, that could well be the case in the matter of Fabrizi and Herbst.
And that brings us to the corrosive effect of party politics in general. DiNardo’s contention that in politics “nobody does something for nothing” has a hollow ring. Even if Fabrizi’s support of Herbst was tied to something other than policy, so what? Does she expect us to believe she’s never seen a Democrat endorse another Democrat in a primary race because the candidate once did something for the endorser? No, DiNardo was upset not because she thought Fabrizi’s endorsement had been bought, but because a Democrat endorsed a Republican in her beloved hometown. And to party hacks, there is no greater sin.
What people like DiNardo don’t understand is most voters simply don’t think like she does. And she, of all people, should know that. Despite the best efforts of the major-party apparatchiks, unaffiliated voters make up the largest chunk of the Connecticut electorate at just over 42 percent. While most of those independents lean left or right, they refuse to take their marching orders from either party. And even many of those registered to the major parties themselves can’t be counted on to vote the party line.
For example, while Democrats have outnumbered Republicans in Connecticut for at least a generation, Dannel Malloy’s election in 2010 marked the first time a Democrat had won the governor’s mansion since Bill O’Neil in 1986.
No, when people decide whom to support, they look for strong leaders who can get things done, especially on the executive level. Look no farther than this week’s landslide re-election victory in New Jersey for Gov. Chris Christie. Democrats outnumber Republicans in New Jersey by a ratio of almost 2-1 — and the margin is growing — but Christie garnered the support of 32 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of those who identify as liberals, according to exit polls. And Christie carried an astonishing two-thirds of those who aren’t enrolled in either major party.
As Christie said, beyond a relative handful of activists, few voters go to the polls with a check-list of how well the candidates stack up against what the parties want. They typically look for a real leader — someone with whom they can connect on some level and someone they can trust to represent them.
Don’t get me wrong. Policy is important. Extremists are rarely elected. To wit, Virginia’s Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who lost a winnable race for governor this week against a flawed Democrat largely because of his antediluvian views on social issues like sodomy and abortion.
I’m not naive enough to believe we live in a post-partisan world. I do, however, think most people want leaders who agitate for what works. If only partisans like DiNardo and the Tea Party understood that purity is rarely what general election-voters are looking for. But hey, I can dream.