Thursday, March 8, 2007

Steady, steady...

Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

-- John Kenneth Galbraith

Yesterday, Montana Headlines said that the ability to form labor unions is necessary for the functioning of a free -- as opposed to government-controlled -- economy.

We have in the past variously expressed doubts about coal-bed methane production in irrigation country, reminded Republicans that we were once not the war party, explained why we oppose the death penalty, sided with the ACLU and probable drug dealers on civil-forfeiture laws, agreed with Left in the West about Mike Lange's parental wishes bill.... You get the idea.

But quoting John Galbraith might, in minds of many of our fellow conservative readers, be going just a bit too far. Conservative distaste for Galbraith's misguided economic ideas was perhaps most dryly expressed decades ago by Henry Luce, who said that he taught Galbraith how to write (at Fortune magazine), and had regretted it ever since.

On the other hand, conservative icon William F. Buckley expressed it best when he said that while Galbraith was always "instructing everybody", this was "made tolerable by the humor, the style, and the penetrating intelligence."

Indeed -- and conservatives at their best have always been able to face their opponents on the left with a similar equanimity, respect, and humor. In fact, we are often the only ones to bring a sense of humor to the table in debates with our friends on the left -- since for many of them government is of such pietistical importance that it can never be a laughing matter.

Actually we had been intending to use one of Russell Kirk's
favorite maxims (lifted from Bismarck): "politics is the art of the possible."

Having used this line before on Montana Headlines, however, we were browsing around when the above from Galbraith came across our screen, and it seemed to fit the current wars in Helena even better (with apologies to Kirk). For indeed, Republicans are facing (and have from the beginning faced) a choice between the disastrous and the unpalatable in our venerable capital city.

Chances for success in the Republican plan to split the budget bill were always slim -- and always needed to be measured in terms of how much compromise was to be squeezed from the Democrats. Maximizing the chances for success depends, furthermore, on sticking together. Even if it were all to fall apart tomorrow, the singular degree of Republican unity in Helena can only be counted as a resounding success that all should be proud of.

Success also depends on something that some Montana Republicans haven't been very good at in recent years -- making every spoken and written word count. Long Republican dominance in Washington showed its rot through an abandonment of fiscal discipline -- long Republican dominance in Helena has often showed its rot through a tolerance for a lack of rhetorical discipline. (Or even worse, an inability to recognize it.)

It's always oh, so helpful when some genius decides that it would be cute to throw a stink bomb into the middle of a crowded room. Usually the adults around can open the windows, say that kids will be kids, and go on. Unfortunately, the rhetorical stink-bomb that was thrown yesterday came in the form of fliers that apparently came courtesy of our own party headquarters, where there should be adults in charge -- in theory.

Montana Headlines begins to understand the rumblings that we have heard fourth-hand from the Republican street -- namely that some of the deeper pockets in the state are going to sit on their wallets until there is someone in charge up there who understands how a responsible party develops a long-term strategy for winning elections and governing effectively.

In discussing "Flier-gate," Ed Kemmick had the poor taste today to put the matter into context, describing the impression given by the Montana GOP e-briefs of recent years as "chronically shrill, smug, overwrought, unfair, crude, rude and—the fault that explains their other sins—infinitely impressed with what they imagine is their own cleverness".

This is a harsh indictment by someone who knows how to use words skillfully enough to make them hurt -- and every one of them is, to the Montana GOP HQ's shame, amply deserved.

In fairness, we Republicans tend to prefer to leave the nuts and bolts of politics to someone else, and it is generally unjust for Republicans who aren't working the state party office to take pot-shots at those who are. On the other hand, those of us who write the checks and cast the votes are hardly without standing to say what we think about self-destructive stunts like Flier-gate. The state party may have just handed those three Dems their re-elections on a platter. Brilliant tactics, brilliant content, brilliant timing.

Yes, the Democrats are forming their own circular firing squad, an inevitable consequence of current "progressive" overconfidence in Montana.

But getting back to the Republican political choice between the unpalatable (if we are lucky and a perfect end-game is played) and the disastrous: now is the time when the Republican leadership needs to make sure that what is kept in line is not the voting caucus -- that has been taking care of itself thanks to Democrat Doberman tactics.

Leadership needs most of all to keep everyone steady and hold the rhetoric in check. They've nothing to lose but their tempers, and as long as they continue their remarkable job of keeping them, they continue to set the tone.

It is clear at this point that the Democrats are not going to compromise with this Republican leadership on anything. They are too politically frightened of what this little disciplined crew could deal to them in 2008 if they can't manage to discredit them. The desperate high-dollar attempt by state Democrats to defeat Roy Brown in his recent state Senate race was the first inkling of this trepidation.

They are gambling on an implosion (i.e. a failure to pass the 6 spending bills in any form -- even a Rick Jore form.) They then will return to their original strategy of trying to pick off a moderate Republican or two (or 20, if they try to follow Jeff Mangan's advice) to revive HB 2, which has now reached the status of a Holy Grail in Democrat eyes.

Democrats have wanted from the beginning of the session to throw a few bones to a couple of moderate Republicans and call it good -- so far, moderate Republicans have realized that this means that the Democratic leadership thinks of them as dogs, and they have rightly sat tight.


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