Montana Voices: Ghost of 2002 haunts special election

By David Crisp

In 2002, Mike Taylor was an up-and-coming Republican politician challenging Max Baucus for a Senate seat in Congress. Taylor’s wire-rimmed glasses and mustache called attention to his resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt, the Bullmoose war hero, explorer, rancher, president and all-around he-man.

Then Democrats unearthed old footage of Taylor in an earlier role as a hairdresser with an open shirt and sharp-pointed collar, rubbing lotion around another man’s eyes. The substance of the ad was that the hair salon was running some sort of scam.

Nobody remembers that part, but everybody remembers that wildly incongruous image of the rugged Montana rancher playing disco Stu. Even today, the first thing we learn about Taylor from his Wikipedia stub is that he was a hairdresser.

The ad went as viral as anything could in 2002, and Taylor dropped out of the race, then re-entered 12 days later, promising to run a campaign focusing on restoring honor and integrity to American politics. That worked out no better than his campaign to unseat Baucus.

Which brings us to 2017 and the race to replace Ryan Zinke in Montana’s U.S. House seat. No single ad has been so awful, or memorable, as that 2002 hair salon ad, but the campaign as a whole has been as dispiriting as any in memory. If the candidates have persuaded us of anything, it’s that we’re sick of the lot of them—not an encouraging sign for a healthy democracy.

Both political parties seem to have misread the 2016 election. Democrats thought it meant that inexperience is the highest qualification for high office. Republicans thought it meant that business acumen is a greater virtue than political savvy.

The worst of it is that the relentlessly obtrusive ad campaigns have so little to do with issues that actually matter. Instead we are reminded endlessly that Greg Gianforte came from New Jersey, that he once favored a sales tax and that he was involved in a dispute over public lands access.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent to remind us that Rob Quist is a member of the same party as Nancy Pelosi, that he has no hunting license, that the National Rifle Association has given Quist a grade of F and that Quist has a history of bad debt. One bizarre ad from Photoshop hell shows Quist holding hands with Pelosi as they stand behind a clump of weeds in front of a barn door.

On their rare ventures into positive campaigning, Quist is depicted with guitar and cowboy hat, Gianforte in hunting gear and work shirts. Shouldn’t someone tell them that they are running for a desk job? The only time I’ve seen either one in a coat and tie was in an attack ad against Gianforte.

Apparently, wearing attire suitable for the job is now a disqualification in congressional races.

Does any of that matter? Gun rights might, if there was a chance in a thousand that Congress actually would do something about it. And Quist’s debt does, at least to anybody who has ever run a small business that depends for its survival on people who are willing to pay their bills. But Gianforte has yet to attack Donald Trump for his long history of scamming investors, contractors, foundation donors and Trump University students. Anybody who voted for Trump despite his debt problems has no grounds to vote against Quist because of them.

At least Quist seems to have made good on his debts, which says something. When I was running the Outpost, we had a customer who ran up hundreds of dollars in debt for unpaid ads. He could easily have cheated us out of every cent—lots of people did. Instead, he set up a payment plan and sent us a few dollars every month. It took years, but he paid every cent.

Would I vote for him if he were running for Congress? Absolutely not, but only because he has since died. Even at that, he probably would be more responsive than Steve Daines.

There are issues that truly do matter in this election, although that might not be obvious from watching the ads. Some of them are traditional Democrat-Republican splits on such issues as healthcare, abortion and defense spending. Given the absence of coherent public debate on these topics, maybe we don’t even need political campaigns to settle them anymore.

But they still matter. Now that we all seem to agree that people should not be punished for being born sick, we need a healthcare plan more sensible than either party has come up with. And the theory that we can balance the budget if we just cut taxes enough needs a more thorough airing than it has gotten. In a recent survey of prominent economists, 37 out of 37 said Trump’s tax plan would add to the deficit.

More important may be determining which candidate would be most likely to buck party lines to stand against whatever future violations of common decency and democratic principles the president may have in mind, assuming he has anything in there.

Another issue is that one of Gianforte’s few solid campaign proposals is a terrible idea. He says that if Congress fails to balance the budget, then members of Congress should not be paid. This idea is so bad that to list all the things wrong with it would take an entire column, and I have written it.

Suffice it to say here that the Gianforte-Quist race is a perfect example of what’s wrong with this plan. Quist hasn’t been as transparent about his personal finances as he ought to have been, but it’s a safe bet that he really needs that congressional paycheck. It’s an even safer bet that Gianforte does not, even though he pays state income taxes on his millions at the same rate as I do on my scrabbled-together income.

That means that on any given funding measure, the half of the members of Congress who are millionaires have a built-in cudgel to use against the half who are not. The sound you hear is the founding fathers rolling over in unison in their graves.

Ah, Mike Taylor, how we miss you.