Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Importance Of Being Chairman

State Senator Joe Markley of Southington lately has expressed an interest in heading the state Republican Party as its Chairman, which is on the order of Custer expressing an interest in leading the 7th Calvary against a Cheyenne and Sioux encampment near the Little Big Horn River. Why would anyone want to do that?

In Connecticut, Democrats have been for decades the leading political party in the state. True, the Republicans did manage to insert in the political chamber two gubernatorial bullets, Governors John Rowland and Jodi Rell. But when all was said and done and the trigger had been pulled, both Republican governors were unable to slow the advance of the Democratic hegemon. Under the regime of Dannel Malloy, Democrats now control both houses of the General Assembly – though this year Republicans were able to make gains in the House – the governor’s slot, all the state’s constitutional offices and the entire U.S. Congressional delegation. The progress of the Democratic Party in the state has been slow and inexorable. The retreat of the Republican Party has been shameless and predictable. It will always be important to bear in mind that the power and authority taken by Democrats from Republicans have been taken by progressive Democrats from moderate Republicans.

The failure of Republicans in Connecticut to make sufficient gains at a time when national Republicans have swept both houses of the U.S. Congress and are besieging wounded lame duck Democratic President Barack Obama – who appears to be bleeding from multiple, self-inflicted shots in both feet -- have prompted Republicans in the state to ask themselves the question “What Is To Be Done?”

The usual, provisional answer has been to fire those who were manning the barricades before they fell, which would include present Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola. Replace the head and the body will heal: This view of the relationship of the Republican Party Chairman to rank and file members of the party is vastly overstated. Continuing campaign finance reforms and reforms that have affected the structure of both parties have undermined the traditional power and authority of party chairmen. In Connecticut, it has been the practice of party chairmen to “head” their parties by deferring to nominal party heads, usually governors and senatorial leaders. Party chairmen have been cat herders, bringing disparate elements of their parties together under the same political flag. This view underutilizes the role that should be played by a party chairman in the modern period.

Money, Message and Media are the three indispensable “M”s of modern politics. A party chairman must be able to generate money for his party; he must have a practical acquaintance with the ideas his party hopes to promote; and he must be able to move comfortably within the broad confines of the new media, which is to say he must be able to use media, in the widest possible sense of the word, to advance the interests of his party. The days of the “Lone Ranger” party chairman – powerful party bosses such as Democratic Party Chairman John Bailey and Republican Party Chairman Meade Alcorn, both of whom were able by sheer force of will to determine the arc of party politics and move pieces effectively on the political chessboard – ended more than half a century ago.

There are, thanks to the political gods who have been in charge of Connecticut’s long running stage show, second acts in politics.

Mr. Markley's first notable appearance on the political stage occurred in 1984, when he was elected to represent in the General Assembly Connecticut’s 16th Senatorial District, which includes parts of Cheshire and Waterbury as well as  Prospect, Southington and Wolcott . He cut his legislative teeth chairing the Human Services Committee and the Welfare Subcommittee of Appropriations. Once in office, he bared his conservative incisors by cutting more than $100 million from the state budget, urging the consolidation of agencies and co-sponsoring the largest tax cut in Connecticut’s history.

Unfortunately, these efforts were fatally undermined in 1991 following the imposition of then Governor Lowell Weicker's income tax. Mr. Markley, who had left the Senate by then, played more than a bit part in turning out on the Capitol lawn the largest “Axe The Tax” protest rally in state history. Mr. Weicker and the state General Assembly, then as now dominated by Democrats, assumed a Jonathan Gruber pose with respect to the tax: Those opposing the new income tax were suffering from political infantilism; they should yield and permit the new age to dawn lustrously on the progressive horizon. The majority of people in the state opposed the income tax for reasons that now have been born out in the bottom line of Connecticut’s most recent budget, which is three times the amount of former Governor Bill O’Neill’s last non-income tax offering. The income tax facilitated a massive transfer of funds from Connecticut’s hobbled private market place to public gaming tables. Mr. Markley and others saw the spending freight train advancing at full speed and stood manfully on the tracks crying “Halt!” But such pleas were not heeded by Governor “We Know Best” Weicker or tax thirsty Democrats in the General Assembly.

It was the undertow of events that drew Mr. Markley back into politics. In 2010, Mr. Markley was re-elected to his old seat in the state Senate. But well before 2010, he was an organizing maestro in Connecticut’s reignited conservative movement.

When Mr. Markley rejoined the Senate, all the political heights in the state – the governor’s office, leadership positions within the General Assembly, all the state’s constitutional offices and the U.S, Congressional Delegation – were occupied by progressives animated by the same overbearing pretensions as have recently been displayed by professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Jonathan Gruber, one of the architects of Obamacare, who feels that the juvenile general public, not to mention the grown-ups in Congress, must be prodded forward with lies so that the greater good may be advanced. Moderate Republicanism in the state was deader than a doornail, and the progressive afflatus was in the ascendancy, cheered on by a media in thrall to salvational politics. Not long after Mr. Markley reentered the General Assembly, Dannel Malloy, the first Democratic Governor of Connecticut in more than twenty years, borrowing heroic rhetoric from the Weicker Administration, instituted the largest tax increase in state history. Mr. Weicker had famously said during his own campaign for governor that instituting an income tax during a recession would be like “pouring gas on a fire.” Not only conservatives in the state, but many moderates and even some Reagan Democrats displaced by progressives with knives in their brains, now wonder if the state can survive two such accomplished arsonists.

Mr. Markley, one of the few legislators who can comfortably discuss King Lear with his constituents, earned a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude from Amherst College and a master’s degree in English from Columbia University. His literary bent, as well as his abiding interest in American history, shows in some of his General Assembly addresses. By way of example, consider the following floor speech on the impropriety of allowing illegal aliens – the preferred term among progressives is “undocumented workers” – to be awarded drivers' licenses by a solicitous General Assembly:

It should be noted, first of all, that there are no rhetorical pyrotechnics in the speech. Mr. Markley's address is an important, honest and forthright attempt to convince his undecided colleagues in the Senate that citizenship matters. Rules and laws matter. And while Cardinal John Henry Newman may have hit upon an important truth when he said there is no rule on earth to which there is not at least one exception, it is a dangerous practice to convert exceptions into rules.

Mr. Markley first briefly summarized the objections of his colleagues to the proposed bill, a consideration of HB 6495 to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses. His colleagues, he said, were understandably and rightly concerned with safety measures. And as representatives, they were obliged to concerned themselves with the opposition of many people to the proposed measure as reflected in recent polling. He was not lightly brushing aside such considerations, but he would oppose the bill for other reasons.  

And then Mr. Markley announced a bedrock consideration -- the primacy of citizenship:

“I oppose this legislation because I believe firmly in the essential importance of citizenship. And I believe there is no other ground upon which we can meet but as citizens of the United States. As citizens, we are equal; we stand devoted to the same flag; we are subject to the same laws; we are entitled to the same rights and the same protections.”

Mr. Markley mentioned Roger Sherman, who assisted Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Livingston in writing the Declaration of Independence and was, though the co-equal of his associates, a poor shoemaker’s son who gloried, as did most of the founding fathers, in the lusterless title of Mister, which included all heirs to the rights and immunities of the Declaration of Independence. Mr. Markley feared the bill under consideration would inevitably create “a social substratum, a second class citizenship of sorts,” a pool of people who were “not entitled to the same rights and privileges and obligations” conferred upon full citizens.

What could be more isolating than the creation of a duel society “separated and not equal – divided by language, by culture, by legal status and worst of all, I believe, by opportunity -- by opportunity. That," Mr. Markley stressed, "is what we can’t deny people, full and equal opportunity. That is not the future I want to see for this country. But it is where I feel we are headed, if we continue to treat the symptoms instead of addressing and applying the cure. And I believe that citizenship is the only cure, the only path that can make us whole as a society.”

Mr. Markley closed by speaking movingly of the immigrants who attended classes on American history he taught “every Saturday for five and a half hours at a stretch” as a part of their acculturation process.

To become American is not to lose one’s identity some mythical melting pot in which everyone emerges stripped of their character. Here in the land of liberty, immigrants hold as self-evident, perhaps more passionately than others, the self-evident truths brashly flourished in the Declaration: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” America is the place where the dreams of the immigrant, watered by liberty, may flourish. In one of the most powerful of immigrant stories – “America, America,” by Elia Kazan – the promise of the Declaration is put this way: America, one of the tempest tossed characters says, is not even a country; it is an emotive idea. Mr. Markley's idea is that America is too spacious for half-citizens.

At a minimum, there are three things a chairman of the Republican Party must do; and to do these things he must possess the talents to do them. He must be able to raise money for the party. Money in politics – still the mother’s milk of all things political – is essential. As an active politician, Mr. Markley may be able to perform this task better than most. U.S. House Representatives Rosa DeLauro has been delivering cartloads of cash to the National Democratic Party for decades. The party chairman must be adept at herding cats (see above); that is to say, he or his staff must be able to quell destructive eruptions, groom candidates for office and make room in a many chambered party for activists clawing at the doors to get in. Mr. Markley has already done this, with some notable successes. Lastly, the chairman must be able, in Lyndon Johnson’s memorable phrase, to walk and chew gum at the same time: He must be intelligent, passionately attached to the guiding principles of the Republican Party, insistent, obliging and persuasive.

In a recent interview, Mr. Markley was asked whether he would accept a draft as Chairman of the Republican Party.

“If Jerry [Labriola] is leaving,” he said, “yes I think I would be open to being considered for the post. I think it’s important we get the party strengthened and I believe I've got skills that would be useful in accomplishing that.”

Mr. Markley said he believed he could point to mistakes on the other side made by Democrats “in a way that doesn't come across as mean spirited.” One porcupine shooting his quills at the opposition per decade is one too many. Mr. Markley is a scholar AND a gentleman.

Lastly – and most importantly – he said that he did not think the Republican Party Chairman should be a showboater, one who seeks out a notoriety that makes him glow in the spotlight. The Chairman rather should be someone who is “a thoughtful critic of the opposing party” and who should be able to help “highlight the talent and diversity of the party.” What competent director, unless his name is Richard Blumenthal, would profitably spend his time reciting all the lines and playing all the parts of an ongoing political production?

Caveat: Everyone should note that compliments are not formal endorsements. Connecticut Commentary does not endorse candidates for office.

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