Saturday, May 07, 2005

To Compromise or Not to Compromise: That Is the Question

Republicans were said to be surprised by Governor Jodi Rell’s unilateral decision not to contest a Democrat proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.10 to $7.40 next year and to $7.65 in 2007. Yet some Republican Party stalwarts, presumed to be more conservative than the run of the mill majority Democrats, conceded that Rell’s decision may have been strategically proper.

Governors, so the reasoning goes, are not legislators. Though Rell is the titular head of her party, as governor she must negotiate with a legislature dominated by Democrats and therefore must carefully pick and choose her battles. In the matter of the minimum wage, she chose to throw in the white flag before rhetorical hostilities commenced in order to save her powder for other more important occasions.

Asked whether her party was disturbed by her early retreat from a position once routinely defended on principle, Rell responded, “I don’t know of any tension, trust me.”

The uncomplaining acceptance of Rell’s decision on the part of Republicans can only mean that the state GOP thinks a battle over the issue is not worth the bother. It is important, Rell’s supporters suppose, to reserve the party’s strength and scarce resources for other more worthy confrontations. Unexercised Republicans are easily exhausted in battles with majority Democrats.

The new Republican strategy appears to be: Don’t fight city hall; instead, negotiate and compromise. The rational for this strategy rests on the uncertain presumption that Democrats, grateful when Republicans choose to surrender on issues important to them, will either reciprocate or refrain from using their legislative majority to crush Republicans on precisely those issues they are willing to battle for.

But majority Democrats this year seem to be more eager than usual to exercise their prerogatives: “What is the point in having absolute power,” a famous caricaturist once said, “if you are not willing to abuse it?”

And what is the difference, some Republicans will want to know, between compromise and surrender? The difference is that compromise follows constructive engagement; where there is no engagement, particularly on matters of principle, compromise cannot be regarded as other than abject surrender.

When Rell gave way to a Democrat demand for a boost in the minimum wage, she was running up a flag of surrender. There are in Connecticut hundreds of small shop owners whose views on the minimum wage do not parallel those of Union leaders or Sen. Edith Prague, co-chairmen of the labor committee, who commented, “I think it’s probably the most astounding thing I’ve ever seen in the chamber. I think it’s wonderful, and certainly the governor helped us.”

It’s always nice to be nice and helpful to be helpful. But how does helping Democrats help Republicans? It is a question Republicans may want to ask Rell when election rolls around and members of her party begin to look for a way to distinguish themselves from – just to pick a name out of a hat – Edith Prague.

It is said that former Governor John Rowland was infamous, among some principled Republicans, for pulling the rug from under the feet of his own party, so eager was he to make deals with the opposition and cover himself in plaudits. The premature compromises Rowland routinely made with opposition party leaders certainly helped Democrats, whose numbers in the legislature began to swell with every subsequent election, even as Republican numbers diminished.

Voters, now looking at the two parties, see few differences between them. Because the state is flush with Democrats, demoralized Republicans, moderate Democrats dissatisfied with the leftward drift of their party, and taxpayers increasingly feeling the pinch following years of spending inflation have all become apathetic, and the majority of voters, on auto-pilot, have given the Democrats a veto-proof majority in the legislature.

The Republican Party is flirting with irrelevancy -- by failing to distinguish itself from the opposition on points of principle and honor and running up a white flag when they ought to be waving a revolutionary red flag.

Politics is public theater at its best: an engagement on a public stage of antagonists and protagonists for purposes of instruction and edification. If there is no real engagement – other than mock battles between ham actors wearily reprising their stock roles -- the actors will lose their audience. The political struggle to be effective must be real and waged on points of principle.

Where are the lines of confrontation to be drawn by Republicans, if not on excessive spending and taxation?

What Connecticut’s Republican Party desperately needs is a Republican Party, strikingly different than the opposition, to replace the current small, ineffective, complaisant, go-along-to-get-along structure that appears to have been co-opted by Speaker of the House James Amann, Lt. Governor Kevin Sullivan and Edith Prague.
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