Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Weicker The Gasbag

Former US Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker, the bad conscience of Connecticut’s Republican Party, has surfaced once again in one of his usual haunts, the Hartford Courant, a paper that has in the past managed to oblige Weicker’s whimsy, whether he was muscling the General Assembly into passing an income tax or torpedoing Republican campaigns against then US Senator Chris Dodd, now a Hollywood mogul, or supplying the Republican Party in Connecticut with the rope Weicker suspected it would use to hang itself.

Having appointed his majordomo, Tom D’Amore, as state GOP Chairmen, D’Amore proposed that the Republican Party should allow independents to vote in party primaries, thus assuring the election for life of then US Senator Weicker. At the time, D’Amore assured the party’s central committee that he had not assumed his responsibilities as Chairman to preside over the demise of the Republican Party. Republicans declined the offer of the rope; D’Amore later was replaced by a chairman who really did decline to preside over his party’s death; and still later, Weicker himself was replaced by Joe Lieberman.   

Asked to dilate on the woes of Connecticut’s Republican Party, Weicker handed to his old misused party the same hank of rope. The Republican Party, Weicker said, would benefit greatly by allowing independents to vote in its primaries. Republicans in his state, Weicker groused, had been doing the same insane old thing over and over again:

“The ‘same thing’ in your case is losing elections by trying to duplicate the GOP of the Reagan years. Moderate Republicanism was successful until William F. Buckley and the tea party conservatives staged their Trojan horse coup. It's time to broaden the tent by changing party rules permitting unaffiliated voters to vote in Republican primaries. Republicans had that rule once, sanctioned by the Supreme Court, only to have conservatives toss it and attain greater exclusivity resulting in greater vulnerability.”

In order to parse this thoughtless and self-serving  bunkum – always necessary in the case of politicians who trim the truth, usually a messy affair – it will be necessary to take a step back to the not so distant past. Filling in the gap between what Weicker says at any one time and what he studiously avoids saying takes loads of historical patching and not a little serious thought.

There are very few state Republicans who would disagree that Weicker has been the Winter of the Discontent of the state Republican Party. Until he ran for governor as an independent – not a Republican -- Weicker had been what he himself once called “a Jacob Javits Republican.” He served two years in the US House of Representatives and eighteen years in the US Senate, a long run, during which time he was the face of the state Republican Party.

Weicker was far less moderate than any of the long serving Republican members in Connecticut’s US Congressional delegation. Past members of Connecticut’s Congressional Delegation – Nancy Johnson, Chris Shays, Rob Simmons – were all moderate Republicans, fiscally conservative and social liberal, and therefore barely tolerable to both Weicker and his more ardent supporters in the media. As US Senator and the nominal head of his party in Connecticut, Weicker avoided campaigning conspicuously for GOP members of the state’s US Congressional delegation, every one of whom later would lose office to progressive Democrats. Weicker himself was an uber-liberal Republican. Really -- he was; any of the political columnists writing at the time easily could have looked it up, if they so wished.

Indeed, according to Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal rating service, Weicker was, in ADA’s 1986 rankings, 20 percentage points MORE liberal than fellow Democratic Senator Chris Dodd. Weicker called himself, approvingly, “the turd in the Republican Party punchbowl” and reverenced his own bristly, maverick nature.

Weicker’s bete noir in Connecticut was Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review magazine and the architect of the modern conservative movement. An arch liberal Republican, Weicker was at last defeated by then Attorney General Joe Lieberman, a liberal Democrat; the writing had been on the wall a good long time. It took but a gentle nudge from Buckley and Lieberman to topple Wicker.

Weicker, philosophically and politically, was unalterably opposed to Reagan, but unaccountably friendly to Barry Goldwater, Reagan’s red carpet. Reagan, beset by larger problems – how, for example, to make the Soviet Union go poof -- hardly noticed Weicker. There is but one brief reference to Weicker in Reagan’s diary; the president called him a “no good fathead.” And we know that Goldwater did not react positively to uber-liberals in California and the Northeast, about whom he said, “If you lop off California and New England, you’ve got a pretty good country.”

The Connecticut Republican Party, then and now, is no hotbed of conservativism. If asked to name four conspicuous conservatives in office from the Grasso to the Malloy administrations, Weicker would be hard pressed to supply the names. There was no opposition to Weicker in Connecticut among active conservative Connecticut politicians -- largely because there were no active conservative politicians in Connecticut during Weicker’s twenty year reign -- when he was bawling loudly about Reagan, conservativism and Buckley.

The coup against US Senator Weicker, was brought on largely by himself. In the end, Weicker was tossed aside by a) Democrats who decided to vote for a real liberal Democrat rather than a liberal Jacob Javits Republican, and b) Connecticut Republicans whose ribs had been battered for years by a maverick who had been using his own party as a foil to secure election in a state in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a margin of two to one.

Weicker was and is a faux Republican; even his maverickism is tinged with political bling and tinsel. And so he got the bum’s rush. Weicker had a second act as governor, allowing him to wreak vengeance on a state that had cavalierly given him the boot. After forswearing the income tax in his campaign, his first business as governor was to “pour gas on the fire” by forcing through the General Assembly an income tax that long had been cherished dream of progressives – and Weicker. D’Amore served as an aide to former Governor Tom Meskill; it was during the Meskill administration than an income tax, quickly repealed, was first passed by Connecticut’s General Assembly.

The income tax, which had diverted seed capital from the citizenry and Connecticut’s businesses, had made it possible for governors and legislators to postpone hard spending cuts and increase state spending.  It is no wonder that within the space of three governors – Weicker and two moderate, accommodating Republican governors – the bottom line of Connecticut’s budget had tripled. If you make it easier for state or national government to tax, you make it easier for such governments to spend. A few years after the wintry blast of spending that followed the imposition of the Weicker income tax had given way to large and imposing deficits, Weicker was heard howling: Where did all tax money hauled in by the income tax reaper go? The harvest was shoveled into the spending furnace.

Rivers and politicians both have this in common: They flow along the path of least resistance. Weicker was a more liberal US Senator than Chris Dodd, no piker himself, because a liberal path offered him assurance of re-election. Malloy, following in Weicker’s footsteps, imposed upon Connecticut the largest tax increase in state history because he wanted to cobble together a coalition that would assure his re-election. Resistance to higher taxation in Connecticut among government critics barely exists even now, except as a benighted position regularly condemned in editorials and commentary pieces.

All the power brokers in the state simply assume that, upon recovery from a national recession, things in Connecticut will go along swimmingly as in times past: Taxes will increase, spending will increase, and all the politicians responsible for what certainly is a sea-change in the state’s economy will be handily reelected.

None of this is true. When Connecticut does recover from its long recession – made much longer by political impudence; but then the length of recessions parallels the foolhardiness of politicians – its governors and legislators will discover, much to their dismay, that the state is ill-positioned to compete on a level playing field with other states that have taken economic and social hints from Reagan rather than Weicker. But all this lies in the not too distant future. If, twenty or thirty years hence, the children and grandchildren of Weicker and Malloy wish to consult a record of what went wrong in the state between the administrations of Governor Ella Grasso – no friend of the income tax – and Malloy,  they will not find a useful or even truthful record of events in “Maverick,” Weicker’s auto biography. They will find it here in Connecticut Commentary

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