GOOD-BYE PORK BARREL HAT: The biggest problem with Tom Watson is that he’s not crazy enough. A third-generation graduate of the Naval Academy who attended the prestigious TopGun program, Watson is now a high-tech exec running for Congress against Democratic incumbent and shoo-in Lois Capps. With strong backing from local activists with the Tea Party non-party (“We are not a political party,” they insist), Watson snatched the Republican nomination from four would-be contenders this past June. Naturally, Watson has praised the Tea Party as “the most significant political movement in this country in 100 years.” He’s accused President Barack Obama and Lois Capps of attacking the Constitution “from within.” But compared to Tea Party candidates around the country, Watson is downright tepid.
To date, Watson has yet to share email videos of a woman having sex with a horse or to send friends bone-in-the-nose images of the president as Jungle Bunny in Chief — as has Tea Party candidate Carl Paladino, now running for New York Governor. Nor has Watson felt compelled to proclaim, “I am not a witch,” as did Delaware Tea Partyer Christine O’Donnell, who most recently expressed shock and surprise upon hearing that the First Amendment to the Constitution calls for a clear separation between church and state. We also have yet to hear Watson denounce unemployment compensation as “unconstitutional” as did Alaska’s Senatorial candidate Joe Miller, until it was revealed that his own wife had collected unemployment after she stopped working for him. When a local reporter pressed Miller to comment on how he squared his political statements with personal practices, Miller had his security guards detain and handcuff the reporter.
All this makes great fodder for people convinced of their own rationality because they listen to NPR. What they don’t appreciate — with all due apologies to Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious — is how the Tea Party has become for the Republican Party what punk rock was to mainstream rock ’n’ roll. It’s a scathing grassroots denunciation of a party machine by people whose leaders — George Bush and Karl Rove — sold out every principle Republicans thought they held dear. To appear temperate in this context is to have sold out. Watson is very conservative, but he’s no screamer. Only on the subject of government spending do his eyes burn with the uncommon brightness of the true believer. Watson contends Obama and Capps are crippling the economy with health-care reform, stimulus packages, bank reform, and global-warming measures, all of which suck trillions out of the private sector so that Big Brother can keep us fat, happy, and constipated on a steady diet of government cheese and government jobs. Pretty soon, he predicted, we’ll be told what kind of light bulbs we must use. When he gets on a roll, it’s easy to see how Watson got to be vice president of sales for Agile RF, a Goleta high-tech firm. He’s good. He may, in fact, be way too good.
It turns out that for each of the past four years, Watson — outspoken critic of government spending — has been asking Lois Capps to secure special funding earmarks on behalf of his company from the Department of Defense to the tune of $4 million a pop. Capps — whom Watson has repeatedly eviscerated for not responding to his concerns about health-care reform — went seriously to bat for Watson. She met personally with him in her Capitol office; she visited his company in Goleta; her chief of legislative affairs was in constant contact with him. For two years running, Capps managed to secure earmarks worth $1.6 million so that Agile RF could develop a new device to allow military radios to pick up the broadest range of frequencies possible without becoming dangerously oversized and placing the poor schmoes who have to carry them at even greater risk.
Bringing all this to light was third-party non-party candidate John Hager — a successful trial attorney who claims he’s won $50 million from insurance companies over the years — who is trying to out-Watson Watson on the campaign trail. Watson’s campaign sought to minimize Hager’s charges of hypocrisy, initially insisting that the earmarks had been sought and secured through a competitive bidding process. The facts are decidedly otherwise. In fact, Watson has since acknowledged he believed Agile enjoyed such a technological lead on everyone else in the field that there would be no competition for the funds. When the Pentagon ultimately decided to split his $1.6-million earmarks with another company, Watson asked Capps’s staff to intervene on his behalf. They did. When that didn’t work, he asked Capps herself to call the Pentagon official responsible for bifurcating the award. She declined. Watson himself then protested the Pentagon’s decision; he got nowhere. None of this, he explained, was done to thwart competition. For the radio project to succeed, he said, it needed $4 million, not $1.6 million. To split the smaller award in half would seriously hamper the development of new technology.
No doubt that’s all true. And it’s not like Watson got money to build a “bridge to nowhere.” He’s building a gadget that could save lives and have all kinds of useful applications. It will no doubt wind up making a ton of dough for his company, itself a happy byproduct of massive government spending. (Agile is a spin-off company hatched and incubated at UCSB in conjunction with DARPA, the vast military superagency that, among other things, helped spawn the Internet.) But even so, it seems more than a little weird that a person milking the cow so expertly should be lecturing the rest of us on the dangers of ingesting high-lactose fluids. To mix my barnyard metaphors, I understand that one man’s bacon is another man’s pork. But I might take Watson’s critique of government spending more seriously if he expressed any alarm that two-thirds of every discretionary federal dollar now goes to the military. Or that the United States now accounts for one-half of all military spending that takes place on planet earth. Somehow, this never came up.
I know we all have to pick our poisons. But if this is what the Tea Party’s all about, I’m sticking with coffee.