Sunday, May 21, 2006

To The Republicans in Windsor

From an address to Windsor Republicans at their annual Republican of the year awards dinner.The award this year was given to Steve Ellingwood.

Reading his own obituary in a local paper, Mark Twain once said that the news of his demise had been “greatly exaggerated.”

There has been much written lately concerning the death of political parties. But the reputed demise is, I think, premature – which may prove, as it did in Twain’s day, that newspaper writers, columnists and other professional worry-warts have, once again, gotten it wrong. The presence in this room of so many hard working, energetic and committed Republicans certainly gives the lie to that notion.

The news that journalism is dead has also been tossed about lately. An exhaustive survey released by the much respected Project for Excellence in Journalism indicates that national newspaper chains may be on their deathbeds. According to the report, the public “increasingly sees the press as slanted… Nearly three quarters of Americans, 72% in the summer of 2005, saw the press as favoring one side, up from 66% two years earlier.”

I’ll share a secret with you: I live in the hope that these figures someday will be replicated by political parties. While it may surprise some people, most grown-ups expect parties to be partisan.

The exhaustive survey shows that most readers trust local newspapers -- but not the big guys. The national chains have responded to these death-knell tidings by re-inventing themselves: more color, more graphics, shorter stories geared to readers even younger than sixth grade. Reinvention worked wonders for Bill Clinton.

So, things have changed. Most of us here I think would agree that the environment in which political parties operate has been severely constricted.

My own political baptism began one July day in the mid 1950’s when my father, an ardent Republican, persuaded me to get my friends together so that we could plaster Windsor Locks and its environs with “I Like Ike” posters. I was about 10 years old at the time. Since Windsor Locks was then and remains today a Democrat town, his invitation was subversive enough to interest both me and my friends.

A few political campaigns later, after I had graduated from college, I returned home to find that Dad had transformed my bedroom into his music room. It was his way of saying, “You’ve crossed the Rubicon – now get out!”

‘I think you’ll like it,” he said.

He swung open the music room door, and there on the wall, once graced by a picture of the Holy Family, I saw a framed picture of Barry Goldwater. It was a reproduction of the Norman Rockwell portrait, showing a chipmunked cheek Goldwater smiling brightly but enigmatically, as if to say: “I know something you guys don’t know.”

And Goldwater did: He knew if he waged an honest campaign – one in which voters would be able to choose clearly between opposing political programs – some Republican, not necessarily Goldwater, would eventually win the presidency. Goldwater was Ronald Reagan’s precursor, his John the Baptist.

Now, if someone had asked me at the time, “What makes people Republicans?” I would have answered – Frank Pesci. But my father cut through the political brush and made a road that led through the wilderness to the Republican oasis all by himself. And all of us must go that way: Party affiliation is not a birthright.

So, here we all are, circa 2006, and the first shots of the campaign already have been fired. What has changed since my father plastered Goldwater’s picture on the wall in his music room?

Lot’s. I’ll mention just two points.

First, political parties, considerably reduced by years of reform – some of it constructive, much of it destructive – have lost what we might call their centrifugal force, that mysterious something that binds together disparate interests into a fighting machine that can win elections. I have a feeling that this something involves a willingness to sublimate personal interests for the sake of corporate or party interests. Parties that are not altruistic are not long for this world. Parties not oriented to political programs and ideas – to the supporting joists that hold together the political house -- tend to become personality cults. Does anyone remember the name Lowell Weicker?

Second, Political parties perform necessary functions: They used to be, and to a certain extent still are, money gatherers and distributors; though, as a result campaign finance reforms, these functions have been parceled out to extra-party actors who are rarely altruistic. Ned Lamont’s campaign against Joe Lieberman has been paid for in large part by two blog site, DailyKos and, which have been financed by billionaire George Soros. It occurs to me -- we should make an exception to the general rule for Democrat congressional leaders Jim Ammon and Don Williams, both of whom appear to be fond of slush funds.

The people in this room are a select group – a vanguard of the future. You are the custodians of the Republican Party -- not governors and senators, not the media – you. If the party has a message and a meaning, it will be advanced by Steve Ellingwood and other like him. Will Rogers was joking when he identified himself as a member of a disorganized political party. The Democrats are organized. And you must be organized – because there are competing groups that do not speak to your interests, also organized, that will determine the shape of your future should you shrink from the task at hand.

At the head of your ticket this year is Governor Jodi Rell, certainly a plus. The line in Rell’s nomination acceptance speech that got the biggest Bronx cheer last night was this one: “To those on the other side who seek to tear down our state in order to build themselves up, I say this: Open your eyes and close your mouths.” Her energetic response to political corruption has done much to close the gaping wound opened by former Governor John Rowland. Does anyone here doubt that prominent Democrats intended all along – and still do -- to use the issue of corruption as a bludgeon to beat down Republicans? To judge from Rell’s continued stratospheric popularity, that ploy has not worked.

Why not?

Well, Rell moved very quickly to staunch the wound. Her reforms, more than cosmetic, were resisted by Democrat leaders who appeared to prefer solutions that would preserve Democrat hegemony; as you know, Democrats control almost all important state offices, save the governorship. Of course, the attorney general’s office hovers above the partisan political universe like some gigantic ethical blimp, but Dick Blumenthal knows how to walk and talk like a Democratic duck. Blumenthal’s ratings in the media – where he makes hourly appearances – may be a match for Rell’s ratings among the people, but Bob Farr is likely to give him a good run for his money this year.

Republicans are entering the election with a strong governor in the lead, worthy candidates and – one hopes -- a clear and clean Republican message that reaches beyond issues of corruption.

Much of the Democrat campaign plan already has been unveiled in the press. Their plan, which includes “property tax relief,” has been in circulation long enough for Republican’s to have had the opportunity to debunk it. The promised “relief” is an elaborate shell game in which state taxpayers assume more of the tax payments made by municipal taxpayers. Since current property tax relief plans have no component addressing inordinate spending, they cannot not relieve taxpayers -- only politicians practiced in pea and shell games. Municipal governments, through referendums, have managed to scale back the grandiose budget plans favored by people who never saw a tax increase they didn’t like. Current property tax reform schemes will remove budgets, state and local, from the disciplinary effects of municipal referendums that do provide checks on spending. And if Democrats are ever successful in instituting their reforms, one can only hope Republicans will insist that state referendums be a part of any property tax reform proposal.

Here are some possible to-do’s that may be worthy of consideration.

Pin the donkey’s ears back on spending. The words “spending”, “excessive” cannot be used often enough on the political stump. You cannot convincingly assert this position by co-operating with the present regime. The Republican Party desperately needs a voice crying in the wilderness – a Barry Goldwater like figure. And it is clear, for reasons of strategy, real politic and personality, that this voice cannot be the governor’s. Weicker, a Republican who drifted over the course of his career into the bog of independence, co-operated and was co-opted; Rowland co-operated and was co-opted. That is why state spending has more than doubled within the space of two governors. Rell must not co-operate – or she will be co-opted.

Assemble a program that connects with voters. Parties are organized around either ideas or persons. Lincoln is regarded as the father of the modern Republican Party. His genius lay in definition. He summoned up from the depths specters haunting the political landscape of his day, put bones into them and clothed them in flesh; then he made then dance across the political stage. At first, Lincoln appeared to compromise: Slavery where it exists, but no slavery in the new territories. But later he trotted out the ideals, ever-present in his thinking, emancipated the slaves and preserved the union. Put out more flags! Unfurl the ideals; stick to them; defend them the way you would defend your hearth and home from assault.

Connect all the dots. There is a direct connection between spending and the flight of jobs from Connecticut. You must make that connection plain and vivid. There is a connection between corruption and stagnant, co-opted governments. No one wants to stand idly by while this government “of the people, by the people and for the people” is kidnapped by narrow sectarian political interest groups. Certainly we do not want to deliver it, bound and gagged, to such as George Soros.

If Republicans can focus with laser like precision on these or some other few points that arouse interest, they may revitalize a party that too often has given up before the struggle has begun. You can do this – you watchmen in the towers, you custodians of the ideals. It will not be enough to plaster your walls with pictures of Jodi Rell. Something else will be required of you -- something more risky and strenuous. If you persevere energetically, the thing can be done. I should like to offer one last suggestion in closing: Involve your children in your politics. Windsor, Windsor Locks -- and the state too -- remain partly conquered but not unconquerable territory.
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