A Frightening Talent for Politics

Feb 10, 1999 at 4:00 am
To no one's surprise, Rep. Jim Talent made it official this week that he's running for governor in 2000, motivated solely by his selfless passion for helping the rest of us live better lives.

"We made this a family decision of where I could serve best," Talent proclaimed at Vatterott College on Monday, safely out of the Candor Zone enveloping the nation's capital. No mention was made of the small detail that the Republican congressman from Chesterfield is seizing the political opportunity of a lifetime devoted to politics.

Make no mistake about it. Talent will be formidable competition for Missouri Treasurer Bob Holden (his expected Democratic foe), and not solely because Talent and Sen. John Ashcroft have decided to become spiritual tag-team partners on the stump against Holden and Gov. Mel Carnahan, who is challenging Ashcroft.

Jim Talent is a politician's politician, the sort of fellow who can make a career at the public trough as an anti-government guy. Now in his fourth term in Congress, after three in the Missouri House, Talent has always worked hard and gotten along well enough with others to scoot up the party ranks quickly.

He's smart, well spoken and affable, so much so that he can come across as the nicest guy in the world while killing a bill aimed at helping children stay in school purely because it failed to contain satisfactory anti-abortion language. Talent led that unholy crusade in 1990 as Missouri House minority leader, a cautionary tale if ever there was one.

The same can be said for Talent's early efforts with thankfully-ex-Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), with whom he co-sponsored a 1994 bill that would have immediately denied all welfare for children of unmarried women under 26. That didn't fly, but Talent was able to stake an early claim to fame in Washington as Mr. Anti-Welfare Guy, endearing himself to many mainstream Republicans who might have been turned off by his more Religious Right side.

Oh yeah, that. Even veteran observers at home are so accustomed to seeing Talent's temperate exterior that they overlook his true-believer credentials, which include -- but are hardly limited to -- a 100 percent voting record on the Christian Coalition scorecard throughout his tenure in Congress.

Talent's not-so-mainstream side was illuminated last May in a U.S. News and World Report story on how James Dobson, the new multimedia emperor of the Religious Right, was terrorizing the Republican Party with threats to abandon it if the party didn't go crazy on social issues.

Dobson is the psychologist who founded Focus on the Family and who claims to be seen or heard by 28 million people weekly through his radio and TV broadcasts, more than either Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson in their prime. He's also seen as leaning to their right, such as when he castigated the Christian Coalition for failing to condemn Colin Powell for his pro-choice position.

Dobson is unflaggingly opposed to abortion, gay rights, gambling and any federal funding for the arts. He is passionately for school prayer and vouchers for private schools. He is the ultimate Religious Right crusader.

And, according to U.S. News and World Report, he's Jim Talent's hero.
Consider this passage from the magazine piece on Dobson:
"Rep. James Talent of Missouri, years before, had pulled off the highway and prayed along with Dobson on the radio to become a Christian. 'He is the instrument through which I committed my life to Christ. It is the single most important thing that has ever or will ever happen to me.'"

That's pretty strong stuff, not the sort of thing one finds on Talent's congressional Web site, which by the way neglects to mention any of those feisty social issues. Visit the site (www.house.gov/talent), and the Jim Talent you'll find seems like just another George Bush-style mainstream Republican, having "worked hard to fight bureaucracy and waste in the federal government."

There's no mention of abortion, family values, homosexuality, school prayer or any such thing. It's all about the balanced budget and tax relief and term limits and welfare reform (taking credit for an outcome that is far more restrained than what he proposed) and, of course, the old Republican faithful: resisting military cuts.

Talent, whose district includes Boeing (his top campaign contributor), has called in a Republican journal for a "sustained and inflation-adjusted increase of no less than $15 billion per year" in military spending to correct "today's readiness shortfalls," among other projects. Such absurdity shows that Talent has been able to ignore the little detail about the Cold War ending without losing sight of the bigger picture: his political one.

Military spending doesn't matter in a Missouri governor's race, but mustering the traditional Republican support -- and major campaign contributions -- most certainly does. Talent, the consummate politician, has been able to drift effortlessly across the GOP chasm, telling moderate and religious conservatives what both want to hear, but seldom at the same time.

Jim Talent is not one to be trifled with.
The Democrats best not underestimate Talent's skill -- or his fundraising ability, with or without assistance from the likes of Dobson -- and they should take every opportunity to make this chameleon be as specific as possible about the social agenda he would bring to the governor's mansion.

Perhaps Talent's abilities are best demonstrated by the most embarrassing moment of his career, the one that landed him in Newsweek and other publications nationally in 1993. It seems the late Spy magazine, up to one of its infamous pranks, asked the then-freshman congressman, "Are you a dog or a cat person?"

Here's what Talent had to say:
"Basically a dog person. I certainly, though, wouldn't want to offend my constituents who are cat people, and I should say that being, I hope, a sensitive person, that I have nothing against cats, and had cats when I was a boy, and if we didn't have the two dogs might very well be interested in having a cat now."

Now that's a politician for you.
Or is it