Tuesday, July 26, 2005

An Interview with Don Pesci: How to Succeed in Politics Without Really Trying; a Primer for Connecticut Republicans

Most editors and commentators, provided you could get them to swear on a Bible, will tell you that there are only two political parties here in Connecticut: their bums and our bums. Because the state is overwhelmingly Democratic, the vast majority of the bums are either liberal or moderate to liberal.

National conservatives for some time have been making a fuss over the liberal media, and they have opened their own outlets. Fox News -- despite its claim that it is fair, balanced and objective – leans to the right. Rush Limbaugh is a man of the right. Bill O’Reilly claims to be a moderate every five minutes but, on many important issues, he carries water for Republicans, not all of whom are conservatives. Successful radio talk shows are mostly conservative; media outlets are mostly liberal. The blogs, mostly conservative, have exerted a moderating residual influence on the mainstream media.

The pool of conservative writers have expanded exponentially over the last few years. Are there so few conservatives in Connecticut’s media because publishers and editors, themselves liberal, have posted signs on their offices reading “No conservatives need apply here?” Possibly. The news media is a closed cirlce. Since the demise of the Hartford Times, The Hartford Courant is the only state-wide newspaper in Connecticut. Oddly enough, when both newspapers were competing with each other for dollars, the Courant was the conservative paper, the Times being more liberal.

John Zakarian, lately retired as Editorial Page Editor of the Courant, used to boast that conservatives would never be admitted on the staff of his editorial pages. True to his word, the editorial pages at the Courant were unsullied by conservative thought during his long tenure, a tradition that continues to this day. All the political commentators on the staff of he Courant are unapologetic liberals, and Zakarian's replacement on the Courant appears to be cut from the same cloth.

Contrarians begging admittance to the Courant therefore have a gatekeeper problem. Making matters worse, there is the ticklish problem of entropy. In the absence of a transforming force, all matter and energy in the universe tends to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity. This alone is sufficient explanation for the distressing unanimity in editorial opinion throughout Connecticut’s media. Because things are liberal, they remain so; that’s entropy. Entropy inevitably leads to the deterioration of systems and social organizations. That is what is happening nationally with the liberal media. Newspapers have lost their influence to a variety of new outlets; they are the malls, somewhat passe, of the information market.

Political parties – in the past, engines of change – also have been compromised. It would be truer to say they have been abandoned, at least as financial instruments and ideological mentors. And the campaign finance reforms written and supported here in Connecticut by Christopher Shays, a “moderate” Republican, don’t help one bit.

The reforms Rep. Chris Shays and Sen. John McCain put together criminalize contributions made to political parties, which is exactly what incumbent politicians here in the Northeast want. Cashes of money distributed by political parties may possibly affect the futures of incumbents. Usually, the playing ground between incumbents and challengers is leveled when the challenger spends more than the incumbent – which is why Jon Corzine, former head of Goldman Sachs, is now a senator in New York.

In Connecticut, every incumbent politician has become his own political party. Certainly Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Nancy Johnson, a liberal Democrat and a moderate Republican, need not rely upon their parties to support their campaigns financially. Entropy is king in Connecticut, and elsewhere in the nation, for all these reasons.

And, as always, the cowardice of the state’s “upper crust” plays an important roll.

Former US Rep. Barbara Kennelly, whose 1st District seat in Congress was safe as Fort Knox, once ran against a Republican who worked for large company in Connecticut. Writing columns featuring Republicans running in the overwhelmingly Democratic First District was for me a labor of love. Few columnists would write favorably about them. What was the point? Why risk the disfavor of the incumbent hegemonic Democrat from whom they would be able to milk information that would, in the future, flesh out their stories and columns? What is the point of gilding political losers?

But the Republican this time, so it seemed to me, was a capable, personable and intelligent loser. On the day I interviewed him, he seemed unusually distressed.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

The words came flaming out of him: “I just learned that my company – my company! – gave a larger campaign contribution to Kennelly than it gave to me.”

It is not unusual in Connecticut for people to give to politicians the rope they will use to hang them. Why do they do it? Why should any millionaire in Connecticut, to fetch for the most recent example, contribute any money to the campaign of any Democrat, now that Democrats have announced plans to plunder them?

At a minimum, politics is a battle of interests. Why do millionaires – and not, say, union stewards -- so brashly act against their own interests? Is it possible they think they can buy off determined liberals with campaign cash and tolerant attitudes? Republican Governor Jodi Rell's veto – a very slender reed indeed – is the only thing that stands between Fairfield "Gold Coast" contributors and a millionaire’s tax.

While it is true that Democrats haven’t got the tax yet, just wait; they’ll get it. In Rell Connecticut has a governor given to premature “compromises." Former Governor John Rowland at least was not afraid to get bloodied. Rell, a typical “moderate” Republican, doesn’t stand a chance against principled liberals.

This does not mean she will fail to be re-elected. But the terms of her re-election will involve the compromise of Republican principles. Since former Governor William O'Neill was driven from office by a hail of editorial bullets directed at him by Connecticut's liberal press, Conecticut has had three Republican governors -- Former Governor and Senator Lowell Weicker may be counted as a Republican, though he ran for governor as an Independent -- and no identifiably Republican programs. Republicans seem unwilling to fight for their principles; and he who does not fight in the political amphitheatre loses -- everything.

If the rich in Connecticut, however “rich,” is defined, pay most of the taxes, apparently uncomplainingly, why object? Is it not possible that liberals are right when they say the rich should pay “their fair share?” Surely, a vigorous protest would be an indicator that the patience of rich people in the state has been exhausted. Protests of this kind – non-existent – would mark the borders of “fairness.” If the rich are coughing up money without complaint, if they can “afford” the tax increases, why should the rest of us care?

That is a good question. Some Republicans -- not nearly enough -- are focused on spending, which has doubled in the state, and more than doubled, since Weicker’s administration. But the focus is filtered through a media that only cares how spending is to be financed -- not whether it is excessive. It was Weicker who bequeathed to Connecticut its first income tax. The last pre-income-tax budget, under O’Neill, was $7.5 billion; the present budget is inching up towards $15 billion, a figure that does not include a proportional increase in bonding.

That’s a lot of spending. When Weicker was last heard from a few months ago, he was loudly complaining – in the pages of the Courant, of all places – that spendthrift legislators had gone through the whole wad. "Where did it all go?" he lamented. The question arises: Is a spending increase of such magnitude "fair?"

Now, it happens that when this question is put to liberals in Connecticut, they will not answer it: The doubling of the budget within the space of two governors is not fair, by any measure. But the question is never asked. I mean, it is never asked – not by Republicans, certainly not by Democrats, not by the media.

An honest answer to the question would compromise moderate Republicans. The state could not have doubled tax receipts in so short a time if Republicans had mounted a principled and effective campaign against profligate spending. They did not because, among other reasons, support mechanisms were lacking. All the noise, all the political chatter, reinforces the view, held by virtually all Democrats as well as an increasingly politicaly disconnected citizenry, that the state does not have a spending problem.

The Courant’s political columnist put it exactly in those words: "The state has no spending problem; it has a revenue problem." Spending is not a problem; getting revenue is the problem. So long as you do not alienate the affections of a majority of Connecticut voters by forcing them to pay for the services they consume -- a risk avoided by taxing millionaires, the kulaks of Democratic polity in Connecticut -- you will be on safe ground.

The Democrat's answer to the revenue problem was proposed as Rowland was being ushered out of office by a grand jury, an impeachment hearing and barrel loads of bad press: Get it from the millionaires. Conservative Republicans had no support in the media, and they were abandoned by a governor who won his first term in office by campaigning on conservative principles but quickly capitulated to the prevailing forces.

It approaches fantasy to think that a Republican governor who won office by hinting he would repeal the income tax if elected presided over a budget that doubled under his auspices. Republicans in Connecticut stil have no party, no friends and are incapable of influencing people. They have a governor, Rell, for whom compromise is a reflex action, exactly the kind of "moderate" Republican respected by liberal political writers who think the state does not have a spending problem.

We are approaching the point where Republicans may only be able to win by losing. If Republicans lost the governor’s office, they just might recover their principles; if they lost the future gubernatoral battle, they just might win the war. During his historic long run as governor, Rowland consistently undercut members of his own party afflicted with conservative tendencies. In caucus, he would shout and yell at them in tones that might have brought a blush to the cheeks of Lowell Weicker, who once famously described himself as "the turd in the Republican Party punch bowl." When the Republicans offered Rowland substantial principled resistance in caucuses, the governor would cut a deal with the majority Democrats, arguing that, as governor, he was responsible for attending to the interests of all Connecticut's citizens, not just contentious and principled Republicans.

Rell method of governance is much the same. You cannot build a party on compromise; this always has been a political cul-de-sac for minority Republicans. No forward motion is possible under these terms. Compromise on important principles assures that there will be no exit from the status quo.

At some point, Republicans might consider forming a state conservative party, always a risky proposition. But the fear of failure is the hobgoblin of little minds.
When the modern conservative party first spilled out of Bill Buckley's fertile brain, it was a wee faltering creature with a great deal of ideological meat on its bones, but not much muscle.

A conservative party in Connecticut most likely would resemble the national conservative party, though not to a tee. Parties coalesce around ideas or persons, usually both. The way things are arranged now, every incumbent is his own party.

“Leadership political action committees” are all the rage among upward bound incumbents vying for prestige and power in Washington DC. They answer the question: How do you win friends and influence people in the congress? The answer is: You buy their influence and affection. Providing funds and succor to wounded incumbents and novice party politicians used to be a function of political parties. This function now has been appropriated by incumbents.

Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Nancy Johnson, thanks to Leadership PACs, now are able to finance the elections of other friendly and influential politicains, once the exclusive prerogative of political parties. As of July, 2005, Dodd’s PAC, absurdly titled Citizens for Hope Responsibility Independence and Service – CHRISPAC, get it? -- has pulled in $406,405. The top Democrat on the banking committee, Dodd has distributed $115,000 to other politicians, leaving him with $256.168 to purchase the affections of others who may, once they received the money, be obliged to gratify Dodd's most ardent wish.

Dodd’s lengthy stay in office has been financed by insurance, financial and legal mega-organizations. Might not these contributors be more generous if Dodd should become chairman of the banking committee, a prospect that cannot be brought to fruition unless Democrats retake control of the senate?

Johnson’s long run in the House could not have been possible without the support of Big Medicine: hospital associations, pharmaceutical and doctor’s groups. Johnson’s husband is a doctor. According to one news report, the congresswoman was given an opportunity to deny assertions that her husband had performed abortions and made no denial. This year, Johnson has given about $33,500 to vulnerable Republicans and $5,000 to the WISH list, a group that supports the election of women candidates who support – Guess what? -- abortion rights.

Billed in Conecticut's media as a "moderate," Johnson is chairwoman of the House health subcommittee and, after greasing a few palms, hopes to become chairman of the Ways and Means committee if, as expected, the current chairman steps down.

Now, there’s nothing unusual in all this; every incumbent congressman in Connecticut has formed a leadership PAC. But it should be noted that the PACs provide incumbents with advantages that cannot be equalized through any campaign finance reform thus far proposed. The PACs also leave incumbents open to attacks that they have been bought by their contributors, part of the bitter fruit that has issued from the disintegration of political parties.

To sustain itself, a conservative party in Connecticut would need, at a minimum, money, a means of communication, a message bearer and an organization. And, of course, the ruling party, incumbent politicians, would put up a stiff resistance.

But Republicans in the state have no where to go but up. They are losing ground in the legislature and have only one piece, the governorship, on the chess board. The governor's moves on the board are considerably restricted by the prevailing political philosophy embraced by the usual state "moderate" Republican: Can't we just get along? All recent Republican governors, including Weicker, have campaigned as Republicans and governed, once in office, as Democrats.

It was Weicker who broadly hinted, while running as an independent for governor, that he would not institute an income tax. Almost everyone in Connecticut can recall his words: Introducing an income tax, he said during his campaign, would be “like pouring gas on a fire.” Having been elected governor, Weicker proceeded to pile on the gas, while the usual political commentators bit their tongues.

The losing Republican in that race was John Rowland, who ran for office next time around on a pledge to repeal the tax. Apres Weicker came the deluge. Following the administrations of three governors – Weicker, a long time “maverick” Republican, Rowland and Rell, both Republicans – the state has doubled its spending, and Connecticut still is afflicted with those nagging problems that made an income tax necessary way back when the state budget was half of what it now is.

Will Rowland, now in jail, hurt Republican prospects?

He hasn’t so far. Most people in Connecticut are political grown-ups; they expect their politicians to give off a slight odor. North of our border in Massachusetts, we have a politician who, to say the least, assisted in the drowning of a young woman.

While Mary Jo Kopechne was imprisoned in a car driven off a bridge by Edward Kennedy, the senator, who that day had consumed a good amount of liquor, walked past two houses within sight of the bridge, and then spent a full day attempting to salvage his sinking political career. Having given a fellow reveler, a lawyer friend, to understand that he intended to report the accident to police, Kennedy swam to a motel, made more than a hundred phone calls to his friends and political operatives, and went to sleep. Criminal irresponsibility can be very fatiguing.

Why the layover before Kennedy called authorities to report the accident? No grand jury was convened to explore this and other nagging questions. Not only has Kennedy been re-elected numerous times, he is considered by moral epigones in the media to be above the salt. Go figure. Next to Huey Long and Edward Kennedy, Rowland was a piker.

No one drowned at Rowland’s lakeside cottage. He accepted gifts from contractors doing business with the state, not an unheard of practice in Connecticut politics. If we think of political contributions as gifts – some of them extorted by politicians and lobbyists from people who depend on the good will of incumbents -- every politician in the nation may be said to be tainted with corruption. Chris Dodd regularly receives from people he is in a position to benefit political contributions, free plane trips, meals and other amenities. So do other incumbents.

Though she was Lieutenant Governor in the Rowland administration, Rell has managed to position herself as a reformist governor – a marvel to opposition Democrats. The Democrats look upon her as a Puritan in pettycoats. Rell has trumped the Democrats on ethics, and her critics have not marveled too loudly. There is some reason to believe that an almost frantic concern for ethical behavior among politicians in the state has waned in Democratic circles since Rowland has been removed from office.

The tepid reaction of leading Democrats to the FBI investigation of state Sen. Ernest E. Newton is instructive. For months, Republicans have been beseeching Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams to remove Newton as deputy president pro tem, pleas that have fallen on deaf ears.

The Newton case eerily parallels the Rowland case. Newton is accused of accepting a $5,000 bribe from Warren K. Godbolt, the executive director of Progressive Training Associates in Bridgeport. The bribe was intended to purchase Newton’s aid in procuring a $100,000 grant from the State Bond Commission to renovate his headquarters.

Godbolt only recently pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy to embezzlement charges, about six months after the scandal surfaced in the press. For six months, Newton’s friends in high places have bitten their tongues. Even after Godbolt’s guilty plea, Lt. Gov. Kevin Sullivan, one of Newton’s mentors and friends – and an early and persistent critic of Rowland – declined to comment.

The governor’s popularity is driving the opposition batty. With a juicy scandal in hand, Democrats had a veritable bazooka to blow up Republican politicians connected with the Rowland regime. Yet, Rell has been able to dodge the missiles. Her favorability ratings are stratospheric, and none of the mud Rowland critics have slung at the former governor has yet stuck to her.

The media seems favorably disposed towards Rell, perhaps because she has taken care to wave liberal flags in the air: Rell supports campaign finance reform and civil unions: at one point she seemed willing to consider a millionaire’s tax.

The watchword of “moderate” Republican governors in Connecticut has been that chief executives, outnumbered in the legislature by opposition Democrats, must compromise, half a loaf being more nourishing than no loaf at all. The problem with premature compromise as a strategy is that the political current pushes everyone to the left. Opposition Democrats open any negotiating session with a demand for the whole loaf. If you surrender half a loaf before the negotiations have begun, you end up with crumbs. Then too, every compromise weakens and deflates the resolve of your political base.

In the absence of a strong party, other political players are left to shape the political agenda. In Connecticut, the political agenda is shaped by the media, largely liberal, interest groups, largely liberal, and the majority party, largely liberal.

So, here we are. Darkness has not swallowed up everything. Candles flicker in the wind. This morning, the Hartford Courant published on its op-ed page an editorial that previously appeared in the largely conservative Wall Street Journal warning Rell that her declared support of an increase in the gift tax would drive out of the state much reviled millionaires who are financing Connecticut’s spending binge. It's a candle Republicans ought not to leave burning under their bushels.

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