Management & Labor

Republicans Behaving Badly

I remember being taught in the fourth grade that one of the few really noble elements of human nature was the willingness to put aside differences in time of crisis. It's no fairy tale, either; we've all seen it dozens of times. A river floods, or a city is devastated by an earthquake or terrorists strike without warning--and all of a sudden there's a feeling of common purpose and a suspension of petty bickering.
by | July 2003

I remember being taught in the fourth grade that one of the few really noble elements of human nature was the willingness to put aside differences in time of crisis. It's no fairy tale, either; we've all seen it dozens of times. A river floods, or a city is devastated by an earthquake or terrorists strike without warning--and all of a sudden there's a feeling of common purpose and a suspension of petty bickering.

Too bad it doesn't happen when the disaster is only fiscal.

Based on the doctrine of my fourth-grade teacher, governors and legislators all over the country would be closing ranks this summer, putting aside partisanship and searching in good faith for the best way to deal with budget crises that have reached alarming proportions. What most of them are doing, however, is almost precisely the opposite.

As I write this, the state of California is preparing for a recall election to remove Governor Gray Davis, who, while unimpressive in many respects, has done nothing remotely warranting expulsion in the middle of his term. Colorado and Texas are redrawing their congressional districts for no reason other than partisan mischief. The governor of Massachusetts is entering the seventh month of a pointless vendetta against a university president whose competence is not in doubt.

Since this is a column assailing partisanship, I would very much like to strike a bipartisan note right at the beginning and tell an equal number of horror stories at Democratic and Republican expense. Unfortunately, I'm not able to do that. The reality is that most of the serious outrages lately have come from the GOP side of the aisle.

Unpleasant as it may be to make the point, in much of the country, at a moment of serious fiscal trouble, this is a year of Republicans behaving badly.

Granted, not all the meanness has been a matter of party label. Republicans in Florida have feuded with each other and exchanged blame for budgetary failures with an irritability that belies their status as the state's overwhelming majority party. California's Jim Brulte, the GOP leader in the state Senate, informed his fellow party members a few weeks ago that if they voted to increase taxes, he would fight against their renomination.

But mostly it has not been a matter of internal party warfare. Rather, it seems to stem from visceral resentment at the opposition party having any power. As an all-too-typical example, I would suggest Shirley Johnson, the chair of the Appropriations Committee in the Michigan Senate. Johnson, a 20-year Republican legislator from the Detroit suburbs, has reacted with almost pathological distaste to the state's first female governor, Jennifer Granholm, who is brazen enough to be a Democrat and to be a protege of the longtime Detroit-area Democratic boss, Ed McNamara.

Johnson not only declared war on the governor's transportation and public works policies--her undisputed right--and maneuvered to reduce the salaries of some cabinet members--somewhat more questionable--but denounced Granholm for refusing to sell the state-supported gubernatorial vacation home, a subject Johnson never mentioned during the 12-year administration of the previous Republican governor. "I'm still the cranky old Shirley I've always been," Johnson told a reporter a few weeks ago. Democrats don't find it so amusing.

The more closely you look at some of this year's partisan wars, the further back in time their origins seem to lie. Republicans are taking revenge on Democrats for slights (many of them genuine) that occurred decades ago, long before any of the current principals were even serving in office.

In many ways, it is an echo of the partisan atmosphere in Washington these days surrounding the selection of federal judges. Long ago, one party insulted the other by rounding up the votes to deny confirmation to apparently qualified judges whose views it happened to disparage. The other party felt it had no choice but to retaliate the first time it had a chance. And on it has escalated for decades, to the point where neither Democrats nor Republicans blink twice at routinely using any rule in the Senate manual to block nominees of even the highest distinction, scarcely bothering to raise any issue that rises above partisanship or ideology.

At this point, some of the current senators probably couldn't name the judges whose selection launched the sequence of partisan wrangling more than three decades ago. But it continues anyway--a little bit like Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the Dickensian legal case that dragged on so long none of the litigants could remember exactly what the original issue was. And yet these things can be impossible to resolve.

Something of this perversity is on display in California, where relations between the two parties have been bitter since the early 1980s, when the late U.S. Representative Phillip Burton drew up congressional and legislative districts that locked in Democratic majorities out of proportion to the state's overall political balance. Republicans can't redraw the map until they take back the legislature- -and they can't take back the legislature without redrawing the map.

It's a classic Catch-22, and one that has convinced a whole generation of GOP legislators that they are playing under rigged rules and have no particular obligation to observe them. The vast majority of these legislators never met Phil Burton; no doubt some have never heard of him. But 20 years after his death, Republicans are using the system he generated to justify (at least to themselves) a recall campaign that threatens to set the dangerous precedent of removing a governor in the middle of his term for reasons of partisan ambition, rather than for any official misconduct.

But if some of the partisan nastiness of 2003 reflects the continuation or revival of ancient feuds, some of it also reflects a fear among Republicans that if they break down and start talking realistically about the need to raise revenue, their glittering prizes will slip away from them.

Twenty-five years ago, when tax cuts first became the centerpiece of Republican campaign strategy, the GOP was mired in minority status in Washington and in most of the states in the country. Democrats had controlled Congress since the 1950s and consistently won nearly 60 percent of the seats in the 50 legislatures.

Today, after an ideological repositioning launched by Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan and expanded by Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush, Republicans are in charge of Congress, the White House, a majority of the governorships and a majority of the legislative districts. There are many reasons for this change of fortune, but it is hard to deny that the one-note anti-tax jingle has been responsible for much of it. The one truly embarrassing GOP failure at the national level--the defeat of George H.W. Bush for reelection in 1992--is attributed by most Republicans (correctly or not) to his making an anti-tax promise and then breaking it.

At this point, tax cuts are to the Republican Party what the "bloody shirt" of anti-Confederate propaganda was to the GOP in the late 19th century. They didn't know how to solve the most serious problems facing the country, but they knew how to win elections by smearing Democrats as the party of Confederate sympathizers. It didn't always fit the situation, but it was a lot easier than thinking up something original to say.

That is a reasonable analogy to the position Republicans in most states find themselves occupying right now. Anti-tax promises may not be the answer to every important question, but there's no evidence they have stopped working. Why take chances?

From the standpoint of politics and partisanship, this may still make sense. Unfortunately, it doesn't make sense from the standpoint of government. A state that faces a 20 percent budget shortfall can close the gap in a limited number of ways: It can raise taxes, it can look for other forms of new revenue or it can make major reductions in spending.

Keeping taxes low and balancing the budget through spending reductions and program elimination is a defensible program; unfortunately, it is not the program Republicans in most states have tried to promote this year. The more common strategy has been to vow eternal opposition to higher taxes while saying relatively little about spending cuts.

Where Republicans have put forward plans to raise revenue, it has largely been through exotic and risky borrowing schemes, as in California, where GOP legislators proposed taking on new long-term indebtedness through the state pension system; or through quick-fix gambling schemes, as in Maryland, where Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. unsuccessfully promoted slot machines at race tracks as the solution to the state's revenue problems.

There have been honorable exceptions, of course: Republican governors such as Bob Riley in Alabama, Kenny Guinn in Nevada and Dirk Kempthorne in Idaho, who decided that the time had come to place policy over propaganda and backed revenue reforms that will benefit most of their constituents in the long run.

They are, however, exceptions. More common are GOP legislative leaders such as California's Brulte, who summed up his tax policy in two words: "Heck No!" Or governors such as Jeb Bush in Florida and Craig Benson in New Hampshire, who largely washed their hands of the most difficult issues and left legislators to solve the problem on their own.

That may be good politics, but it is suspect fiscal policy, to say the least. Nor can it fairly be described as conservative. A conservative fiscal policy is one that says, "If you want to preserve a program or agency or function of government, you need to sit down and find a reasonable way of paying for it." No matter how closely you listen to the people who hold the gavel in states around the country this year, you don't hear much of that.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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