Michael Leppert: Awful primary campaign season is giving Indiana what it deserves


French philosopher and statesman Joseph de Maistre is credited with saying it first: “Every country has the government it deserves.” In America, we more often credit the sentiment to Thomas Jefferson, who specifically said, “The government you elect is the government you deserve.”

Ouch. Regardless of the version or the originator, it hurts more than usual on this Primary Election Day in Indiana. It’s designated as a state holiday, for all of the civic reasons that theoretically make sense. This year however, Hoosiers need to celebrate the end of the preseason, the undercard, the opening act that no one wants to watch at the overpriced concert.

Do we really “deserve” this? Sadly, I must concede that we do. As much as I have made fun of the Republican primary campaigns this year being about nothing, there actually is some value hidden in the noise. It’s telling us some hard truths about ourselves.

One truth is that the campaigns I have viewed in central Indiana do not differentiate themselves in any meaningful way on the issue of governing. Writing down that “governing” is an “issue” being inadequately addressed in any campaign for public office is, well, a problem.

Amazingly, the marketplace of ideas, has produced almost no actual ideas. It’s easy to point at campaigns and complain that they aren’t delivering what we, the voters, want. But in markets, supply and demand respond to one another. To summarize, we aren’t demanding enough.

Governor’s race

The GOP candidates for governor will spend approximately $40 million in pursuit of their party’s nomination. Now, that’s a market. But if one was to divvy up that total based on policy issues for a governor to legitimately pursue, I estimate less than 5% of it was spent to communicate any governing commitment.

Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch’s “axe the tax” plan as a governing issue is worthy of mention in this context, but only barely. She wants to eliminate the state’s income tax. OK. The idea lacks details, primarily in the math department, but at least it’s an idea.

Collectively, the bulk of the $40 million has been spent on four campaigns, Mike Braun, Brad Chambers, Eric Doden and Crouch. The ads introducing themselves to voters weren’t necessarily offensive, just undifferentiating. However, as the season matured and the insults began to fly, they collectively established one thing for me: I like all of them a little less than I did before.

One ad that I saw more than just about any of them attacked Braun as a “RINO squish.” RINO, an acronym for “Republican in name only” used to mean something. It no longer does in the era of MAGA, an acronym that also doesn’t mean anything, unless loyalty to the right’s pseudo-deity has governing value.

The term “squish” dates back to the Reagan era to describe a Republican who lacks backbone. Using that term today is awkward at best. To be a member of today’s GOP, one must check that backbone at the door in exchange for the loyalty oath to a man on criminal trial right now. It’s the opposite of courageous.

Dim view

Politics has become so disconnected from governing that the language of campaigns is losing relevance. Nothing is more nonsensical than those who say things like, “I like Trump’s policies but…” Trump doesn’t have “policies” or any coherent ideology, only grievances. And voters inspired by that ecosystem have been the only targets of this entire primary. That’s why it never amounted to much from the start.

The TV and digital ads were trying to establish a few identifiable things. Of the top four candidates, common messaging would have the public believe they are all hard workers and committed to their faith. There’s no reason to question any of that. But the apparent desire to be considered an outsider remains silly to me. Again, Crouch didn’t beat that drum either, regularly expressing pride in her public service.

I’m looking forward to reelection campaigns in our future, running on the platform of being an outsider. It’s almost as absurd as Donald Trump and Robert Kennedy, Jr. trying it. Spoiler: neither are.

In the 2016 primary, with both presidential nominations still in doubt, approximately 1.6 million Hoosiers voted. Even if we had that kind of enormous turnout this year, the $40 million spent would equate to about $25 per vote. I’m betting that number is between $50 and $75 this year.

It’s been a colossal waste of money, at least in terms of value to the people of Indiana. Bluntly, we didn’t learn what any of these candidates would be like if they win in the fall.

Jefferson and de Maistre wouldn’t pity us though. They’d likely tell us we earned it.

Michael Leppert is an author, educator and a communication consultant in Indianapolis. He writes about government, politics and culture at MichaelLeppert.com. This commentary first appeared on indianacapitalchronicle.com.