Method in the McKenna madness?

Did the attorney general know what he was doing when he stirred up the hornets of Democratic rage? A short lesson in the art of "performance politics."
Did the attorney general know what he was doing when he stirred up the hornets of Democratic rage? A short lesson in the art of "performance politics."

On the face of it, Attorney General Rob McKenna's decision to join other conservative A-G's in suing over the constitutionality of Obama's health-care reforms would appear to be a political whopper. He didn't need to do it, since other states were clearly going to challenge the new law as an overstepping of federal powers in the states. He had a ready excuse for ducking: He serves a Democratic governor and Democratic legislature who in no sense would authorize this kind of action. There's no clear case that Obamacare violates any state laws (as in Virginia), presumably the state attorney general's sole charge.

The result is McKenna's foray looks blatantly political — a way of currying favor with his conservative base and charging them up for the 2012 race for the governorship. Blatantly political, particularly in a Democratic-leaning state where McKenna would have to appeal to lots of independents, is the last thing he needs. And this move is so high-profile that it will not soon be forgotten.

But McKenna is one smart political operator, who would know all this. Does he know something else? Judging by the over-the-top reaction by local Democrats — talking about defunding his suit, slicing away A-G authority, even a recall — maybe McKenna was engaging in some "performance art." That form of political craftiness consists of doing something so that your opponents fall right into the trap of extreme behavior, making you look sensible. (Years ago, Slade Gorton perfected this act, egging Seattle liberals into highly publicized attacks on him, endearing him to the rest of the state.)

So here is this cherubic, mild-mannered lawyer, standing up for the constitution, and the Democrats howl about not being consulted and not going to stand for such a thing. Constitution doesn't matter? Doesn't this put McKenna in the position of looking like an ACLU attorney defending constitutional rights against a crowd baying for a defendant's scalp? Independently elected attorney general shouldn't be allowed to act independently? What next? Outlawing the GOP?

The other rule of modern politics is that you are only as good as your enemies are bad. Goad them into extreme statements and red-faced pounding and you can suddenly look pretty good by comparison. And if McKenna wants to make a statement that, despite his years serving a Democratic administration in Olympia, he doesn't much like big government, thinks the constitution is about limiting government (as it is), and has his firm principles — he may never be given a more indelible way to make this clear. I still think he made a miscalculation. But I wouldn't wager a lot of money on that proposition.

One other line of speculation, mentioned in Josh Feit's comments in Publicola, is that McKenna is fast-tracking his emergence as a candidate, amid the current Republican frenzy, in order to challenge Sen. Patty Murray this fall. Even if he were to lose that race, he raises his profile, builds up his base, and goes into the 2012 governor's race all the stronger.  

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