In the fall of 2013, Rep. Jack Kingston committed political heresy. Speaking to a local conservative radio station, the then-Republican House member from Georgia said that it would be irresponsible for his party to just let Obamacare fail. Rather, he encouraged his colleagues to coalesce around a replacement and, if needed, incorporate parts of the president's healthcare law if they worked.
This, of course, is an eminently rational position to hold. Why would Congress scrap a policy -- even small bits of it -- if it was working? But Kingston wasn't operating in a rational world. He was in the midst of a crowded primary fight to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga). Kingston didn't have to wait long to find out the damage that he had done to his campaign.
"I had an ad immediately up against me within 48 hours saying that I was pro-Obamacare," he said in this week’s episode of the Candidate Confessional podcast. "I mean, I voted against Obamacare 41 times but then suddenly, I was on trial."
That brief moment of reasonableness towards Obamacare didn't instantly derail Kingston. He would make it to the Republican primary runoff where he ultimately lost to current Sen. David Perdue. But it did open his eyes to the increasing shallowness of political culture.
"You could not use the word ‘bipartisan’ during the primary race," Kingston recounted, adding that there was simply no limit to how anti-Obama you could be. Take, for example, the day that Chambliss played golf with the president and two others: then-Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden.
"[Chambliss] got a hole in one," Kingston remembered. "Everybody said, 'Well, it's a good thing he's retiring. What the heck is he doing wasting our time playing golf? And why is he playing golf with that horrible Barack Obama?' Now, to our view, I said, ‘It kind of is a good thing for my senator to be hanging out with the president because you know what life is? Networking. And if you can get something done on the 18th green and maybe Saxby was working on one of our military installations.’... but, you know, people don't want to hear that kind of rational discussion."
The tribalism Kingston confronted during his primary isn't unique to Republicans. Democrats, likewise, demand party fealty and shun association and collaboration with the other side. But what the 2014 Georgia election showed -- at least to Kingston -- was that that attitude got firmly in the way of good policy. And it forced candidates like himself to be incredibly -- almost unnaturally -- cautious.
"One of the shows I've always liked to do over the years is the Bill Maher show, 'Real Time.' I like Bill and I like the show. And I think it is important for Republicans to go out there and participate, because it is not a Republican stronghold. Well, you don't want to dare touch it," Kingston said. "One of the consultants said, 'The only thing you could do on that show is get in a real knock-down, drag-out [fight] with Bill Maher. That would help you. Otherwise, don't touch it.'
And I do lament the fact that in America today having an intelligent conversation with the opposition is so difficult, because of your own base or the other party's base."
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