Friday, April 23, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
It started in Mesquite on the evening of April 6, a place and date Sue Lowden may never forget.
Only a handful of people were listening in the city’s Community Theatre as Lowden spoke, captured by a videographer working for the state Democratic Party.
“Bartering is really good,” Lowden said. “Those doctors who take cash, you can barter … and that would get prices down in a hurry. I would say go ahead and pay cash for whatever your medical needs are, and go ahead and barter with your doctor.”
I can only imagine the astonishment mixed with glee that the video clip evoked when it was viewed at de facto Democratic Party headquarters, aka Harry Reid’s campaign office. My guess is the Reidites hoped for a few days of media fun at Lowden’s expense (delivering a goat and chickens to Lowden headquarters) and then back to caricaturing her as a rich businesswoman who mistreats workers and likes bank bailouts.
Instead, two and a half weeks later, Bartergate has become a national sensation, first a Jay Leno punchline and now an MSNBC and blogospheric delight. Everyone is having a real pun time (I shall try to restrain myself here) with the idea of chickens for health care and the blogs are alive with the sound of ridicule. And the Lowden campaign’s response has been a remarkable, even unprecedented display of tone-deafness, marked by a stubborn digging in of heels (she repeated her barterlove on “Nevada Newsmakers”) and hemorrhaging of credibility here and nationally.
Beyond the damaging image of a 17th century aristocrat telling the ailing peasants to bring farm animals to the doctor — let them pay with chickens! — Lowden doesn’t seem to realize that much worse than seeming out of time and out of touch is this simple, ineluctable and, for her, unfortunate fact: Chickens are funny.
Thus is the derision enhanced by videos, including a techno approach by ProgressNow Nevada, and the seemingly endless plays on words and jokes making the rounds on blogs and Twitter. The Democrats have been relentless and occasionally brilliant in pushing the story — LowdenCare may go national, a Facebook page (“1 Million Chickens for Sue Lowden”) and surely facilitating the use of clips on network and cable programs.
But they have not just been enabled by the Lowden campaign, they have been aided and abetted by her refusal to either say she originally meant to say “bargain” (she talked of doctors taking cash) or an irrational adherence to the concept of bartering (even people who hate Reid’s version of health care reform don’t think that is the answer).
Lowden’s latest tactic is to emphasize that bartering does occur in rural communities and to contrast her simple solution to Reid’s voluminous health care legislation. That chicken don’t cluck, though.
Don’t misunderstand: Reid and health care reform still are despised by a majority of Nevadans. Bartergate does not change that.
But Lowden’s performance on this issue and her obstinate insistence on not backing down is playing into Reid’s hands. She is doing the equivalent of reanimating a political corpse with this jolt of insanity.
Reid’s entire campaign thus far has been predicated on portraying Lowden as a wealthy woman who has no regard for the common folk struggling through difficult economic times. The senator has telegraphed the fall campaign: Lowden is an elitist, a dilettante not to be taken seriously. And while he is not likable, he should be taken seriously as Senate majority leader.
Yes, it takes chutzpah for a multimillionaire who lives at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington to run such a campaign. But if you have an approval rating in the high 30s, you don’t have much left to use except chutzpah.
I have thought since the campaign began that Lowden was the candidate Reid most feared. But that is either starting to change or the Reidites have been playing the briar patch game in a way that would have made Uncle Remus proud. “Oh, no, not Sue Lowden. Please don’t throw her at us, Republicans.”
I have been bemused by the sounds of silence emanating from Lowden’s Republican opponents. Perhaps they are following the old dictum: If your opponent is committing hara-kiri, get out of the way. But by their silence, do they show their assent to what she said? Or are they storing up their own ridicule for debates and media campaigns?
The provenance of Bartergate is easy to trace — that little theater in Mesquite. But the final chapter of this chicken-bites-woman story is more difficult to foretell: Will it end June 8, Nov. 2 or with a seat in the Club of 100?