Congressman Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., now a wannabe U.S. senator, has never won a tough election. He's been in only two that were real tests, both against Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., (1996 and 1998), and Cramer handily lost both. One of those losses was distinguished by Cramer's odious concession speech in which he spat into the camera, "I will be watching you, Earl Pomeroy." He shredded decency and good manners, opting instead for an angry poor-loser performance that exposed a streak of smarmy nastiness.
Cramer's easy wins for state Public Service commissioner and U.S. congressman were over hapless Democrats who had no shot at winning. On the ballot and in jobs in politics and government, he raised his name-ID to household status. But there has always been a whiff of irony in his career. The fierce scold of "big" government has been a political functionary or on a government payroll, either in appointed or elected office, for nearly all of his public life. Recently, the alleged fiscal conservative voted with majority Republicans in Congress for bigger government and to blow up the deficit. Irony? Or hypocrisy?
Cramer's on-again-off-again slow-step to the dance with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., was irksome, particularly for candidates who had fast-stepped into the fray. Consider obscure state Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton, who committed early to a Senate bid, spent a reported $750,000 to buy name recognition, and got what? The fast shuffle to the U.S. House race, and little enthusiasm for his candidacy among party regulars. Humiliating. As for buying name recognition? Try this: Stop a North Dakotan and say, "Campbell." Unless you're in Walsh County, the response likely will be: "Best tomato soup ever. Love it with grilled cheese!"
Cramer kicked off his campaign by inserting foot in mouth, thus giving Heitkamp's savvy gang an opening. First, he said his reluctant decision to take on the senator was sealed when President Trump said to him, "Think of your country, not yourself." That's a laugh line, coming from a president whose behavior, policy agenda and tweets are all about him. Cramer's fealty to the occasional occupant of the Oval Office has sunk to figurative butt-kissing. Now he's conceded that his flippity-flop into the Senate tilt turned on: The president made me do it. Not good enough. It's another laugh line.
Second, Cramer whined like a bullied school boy that his opponents will say "a lot of things about me that aren't true." Oh, boohoo. The political class trashed "North Dakota nice" years ago. This go-round will be worse, unless ...
If Cramer takes the campaign high road (this would be new for an acolyte of the late Lee Atwater, the Reagan/Bush adviser who masterminded the descent of elections into the slime), he should pledge to not lie, and call out Heitkamp to pledge the same. He should disassociate himself from the down-and-dirty tactics of big-money special interest groups that are sure to stink up the race; and challenge the senator to do likewise.
Safe bet: Ain't gonna happen on either side.
Zaleski retired in 2017 after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (701) 241-5521.