There’s nothing quite as liberating as being behind by 15 points.
With a double-digit deficit, it’s not as though any one thing a candidate says or any one thing he does might be the difference between winning and losing.
So it was a relaxed Michael Baumgartner who sat in our cafeteria last week talking about his uphill climb against two-term U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.
“When people don’t think you can win, you can just say what you think,” Baumgartner said.
What Michael Baumgartner thinks is that a major issue in the Senate race should be foreign policy, especially U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Baumgartner, 36, spent time in both theaters, serving as a civilian contractor and as a U.S. State Department adviser on economic counterinsurgency.
“You go out and live among the population and make them choose between the government and the insurgents,” he said. Among his missions was trying to persuade Afghans in remote and dangerous provinces to grow wheat instead of opium poppies.
But Baumgartner said economic counterinsurgency doesn’t work in places like Afghanistan, that the money being spent is wasted and that the U.S. needs to leave there, at least militarily.
Which creates a basic disconnect in the Senate race. The liberal Democrat has voted to support both wars under two presidents; the conservative Republican wants to end the Afghan war immediately and criticizes the U.S. approach.
Yet the longest war in U.S. history and the more than 2,000 U.S. deaths isn’t an issue. Even his party’s presidential nominee didn’t mention it in his acceptance speech.
“People said foreign policy isn’t a good issue this year,” Baumgartner said. “It’s jobs, economy and the debt issue.” But mistakes made by President Bush and President Obama play a role in the budget and debt issues, he said. The U.S. spends $10 billion a month in Afghanistan, a nation that has an economy valued at $20 billion a year.
The Pullman native and son of a Washington State University forestry professor resents that the entire burden of both wars was placed on military personnel and their families – many on third or fourth deployments – and that regular U.S. citizens were not asked to sacrifice. Even a penny increase in the federal gas tax would at least “let people feel” the effect of the wars, he said.
“We think we have a good issue in a Democrat-leaning state,” he said.
Baumgartner is no peacenik, though his message might be well-received among those who are. He doesn’t believe in isolationism, just a different means of engagement.
“Our strategic interest in Afghanistan isn’t to build a democracy, it’s to deny training capabilities to terrorists,” he said. That can be done without having a military presence.
In the midst of his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, Baumgartner caught the attention of Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who wrote two columns, in 2008 and 2009, featuring the Harvard graduate. In one, he described Baumgartner’s views on Iraq as “jarringly clear-minded and forward-thinking, removed from the never-ending discussion of how we got into this mess.”
I asked Cullen what he found interesting about Baumgartner.
“Whenever I talked to Michael about Iraq or Afghanistan, I found him refreshingly candid and sincere,” Cullen wrote.
“I have a lot of friends – and a couple of nephews – who have served in that theater in the military, some of them with him, and he is widely respected in that world for the same reason: honest, no bullshit. That’s what military people want.”
Baumgartner moved to Spokane with his fiancee, Eleanor, a British citizen he met when she worked on similar issues in Afghanistan as he did. Now married, they have two young boys, and Baumgartner is less than halfway through his rookie term in the state Senate. So why take on Cantwell? Partly because no one else would and partly because he thinks that “on the core challenges facing the country, we have better solutions than Sen. Cantwell.”
He has now embraced the underdog role and is pleased that Cantwell has agreed to at least one formal debate Oct. 12.
“We’re the little engine that could,” he firstname.lastname@example.org