Friday, January 07, 2005

The Politics of Congeniality

U.S. Rep Chris Shays, R-4th District, had his hair tousled in his recently concluded election with Westport First Selectwoman Dianne Farrell – which Shays won by a whisker.

U.S. Rep Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, was less than flattering to Shays during the campaign, and when Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader and DeLauro’s gal pal, said of Shays that he was “a rubber stamp for the radical right wing check-your-brain-at-the-door congressperson,” DeLauro did not demur.

“This was the first year you really saw Democratic members go after other members,” said Shays.

Apparently, the verbal bludgeons hit Shays upside his head: Even now, a month after the election, the genial congressman feels the shock and awe of it.

Said Shays, “It was awkward.”

Connecticut’s reporters and commentators, visibly shaken at the incivility of recent campaigns, are wondering whether the usual collegial comity that holds sway in Connecticut’s congressional delegation will survive such partisan slights.

Awkward moments in Connecticut, which can occur only when politicians feel strongly enough about an issue to fight for it and risk the contumely of their putative opponents, are a rarity. It’s a good guess that moderation will prevail.

That is because there are few genuine “opponents” among Connecticut’s congressional delegation, a club of saints where everyone is elbowing everyone else in what one commentator called the moderate “vital center.”

Me? A partisan? You gotta be kidding!

Mere proximity in the crowded middle sometimes causes one or another of the state’s usually placid politicians to box another on the ear, most frequently during elections. DeLauro, apprised that her fellow congressional comrade was suffering from her hurtful comment, hastened to assure Shays it was that Ol’Devil, campaign exuberance, that was responsible for her lapse in manners.

Within state government, the same mutually beneficial comity is at work, though every so often honesty – the two parties are supposed to be political antagonists, after all – rears its ugly head, and the truth is outed.

One may expect brutal honesty from politicians only when circumstances allow it; when the politician is out of office and the rules that govern collegiality no longer apply; when a door is closed, no reporters are in the caucus room and all the microphones have been turned off; or when the politician secures from a trustworthy reporter the promise that what he divulges is “off the record” and not for attribution.

Occasionally, professional political hit men, otherwise known as party chairmen, squeeze off half or a quarter of a truth. Former Democrat Party chairman John Droney, dilating on St. Jodi Rell, used the occasion to remind a reporter that no politician should escape critical scrutiny.

Rell has had an adulatory press following Rowland’s political demise, a worrisome prospect for Democrats who would be thought churlish if they acknowledged they’d like to see her floating belly-up in a hot tub.

Someone will have to come along, said Droney, and “scrape some of the sugar coating” off the lady. If voters once begin to like and trust you, Droney explained, “Ooh, that’s a huge witch’s brew. Voters want to cut them some slack. This Jodi Rell situation is very dangerous.”

“Danger,” in this context, may be defined as the thwarting of Democratic political prospects.

Rell is about to confront a veto proof, Democrat controlled legislature bent on cracking the spending cap while increasing taxing and spending, and only the governor’s popularity figure, an 85% favorability rating, stands in the way of their ambitions. This year, voters moved the state closer than ever to a one party system -- truly a political witch’s brew -- and the dominant party is beginning to feel its oats.

During her State of the State address, Rell positioned herself as a reformist who finds “political posturing and political sniping” distasteful. Calling upon legislators to screw their courage to the hitching post, she said “difficult choices” would have to be made in the lean and efficient budget she intended to present to them.

Rell was heartily applauded during her presentation, but it was Rep. Robert Farr, R-West Hartford, who sounded the more realistic note when he said that opening day is “like having a new born child. When he’s born, you think he’ll be president of the United States. Eighteen years later, you’re trying to keep him out of jail. Five months from now, we’ll be struggling to get a budget out and hope that we can leave with our dignity.”

In a vigorous two party system, neither party should mistake congeniality for political enfeeblement.

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