Tuesday, March 6, 2007

No substitute for victory

"There is no substitute for victory..."
-- Ronald Reagan, 1976 Republican Convention

Montana Headlines has made no secret of our admiration for the creativity of the so-called "6-pack" that the Montana House Republican leadership came up with as their solution for the challenging hand dealt to them. (As a side-note, we'd like to know which out-of-state Einstein thought that calling this a "6-pack" plan would make it less popular with Montanans.)

We have already expressed our dim view of the idea that this plan was done for the sole (or even primary) purpose of causing partisan bickering and general confusion. It makes far more sense as a practical political solution aimed at passing a comprehensive and reasonable budget plan that would garner nearly all Republican votes.

Democrats, had they wanted to keep HB 2 together and reach consensus (and they claim to have wanted both), could have taken the offensive by coming to Republicans and negotiating compromises throughout that bill.

They could have used the usual game-playing tactics of telling the public "well, we're offering them to cut spending back from 23% to 18%, and they're too stubborn to take it -- we're offering to cut property taxes across-the-board for all, but the cuts are only half of what they were wanting."

Republicans then would have the chance to take those things and claim victory because of forcing cowering Democrats into spending and tax cuts.

Democrats would likewise be able to campaign next season about the way the vicious and evil Republicans forced them to take candy out of the mouths of small children – and furthermore boast about the fact that they had prevented Republicans from actually eating those same small children.

HB-2 would be intact, and in theory everyone would be equally happy or unhappy, depending on how one chose to look at it.

Self-evidently, nothing like this happened. We’ve heard nary a whisper of anything remotely like it. The obvious explanation is that Democrats decided to go for the whole tamale, gambling that Republicans wouldn’t have any viable political options. Jeff Mangan has written an insightful piece in which he notes that “keen political observers” knew immediately after the election that the House would have problems passing HB 2 in almost any form.

Mangan also notes “one amazing (still unbelievable) fact.” Namely that “this Republican house (+ Jore) can and will band together for the 50 votes when needed.”

Amazing and unbelievable indeed, and completely unanticipated by nearly everyone – especially by Democrats. But at this point, it has been so consistent that there is no reason to expect anything but more of the same – this outcome has been largely assured, ironically, by the Democrats in Helena themselves through their harsh attacks and overheated rhetoric.

Who ever would have expected that Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, would be the one that objective observers would see as the calm one in the Appropriations Committee meetings?

Mangan notes that “the ball is clearly in the Democrats’ court,” and gives the choices that they have: vote for the bills to prevent Republicans from being able to run against them as having chosen partisanship over voting for reasonable budget increases (and every department is getting an increase under the Republican plans, as continually has to be repeated); or hang together and force Republicans to put together their 50 votes to prevent giving “red-button” Republicans the luxury of voting against spending increases of any kind.

We think that Mangan has it exactly right.

Ed Kemmick’s recent dead-tree column in the Gazette and related blog-post takes the refreshing view that politics has always been at least partly about gamesmanship – both sides have always played it, and both sides are playing it now. The Republicans are arguably playing it better than the Democrats, since in spite of having virtually nothing to work with, they at each step have been creative enough to keep Democrats from cornering them into unacceptable choices, and disciplined enough to keep Democrats from drawing them out into looking uncontrolled or unprofessional.

The smarts of the Republican plan are obvious – its success has always depended, however, on execution of the play, not the X’s and O’s in the playbooks. As the opening quotation from the Gipper indicates, “there is no substitute for victory.”

Republicans should take sober note of the fact that their party’s nominee – Gerald Ford – lost that fall after Reagan’s speech. But on the other hand, the years of retrospect have shown that Reagan was probably never talking about that victory, but rather the one that would begin in 1980 and continue on for nearly 3 decades.

As we have noted before, Democrats in the end hold all the power in this legislative session if they choose to strong-arm their budget through one way or another. Republicans certainly hoped to force Democrats into coming to terms with the new political reality and into coming to the bargaining table. The odds are, given what we have seen, that strong-arming is exactly what they will get instead -- and Republicans will lose that particular arm-wrestling match.

How they comport themselves during that struggle and loss will determine the longer-term victory – which is always the one that matters.

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