Monday, November 07, 2005

Rell's Petticoat Tails

Though the gubernatorial campaign is still in its infancy, Governor Jodi Rell’s prospects look promising. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the Democrat Party’s great white hope, is out of the race, and the governor’s poll numbers are stratospheric.

But in the recent past, improved prospects for Republican governors have meant little or nothing for the party with which they have loosely associated themselves. As one end of the see-saw goes up, the other end goes down. Former Governor John Rowland was popular enough to win a record three terms in office, but Republicans are still the minority party in the legislature. Rowland’s star power was not enough to pull other Republicans into office partially because all politics is local, but also because of the atomization of political parties.

The war on the parties, waged mostly by reformers who view them as vessels of corruption and division, has been hugely successful. There are no longer any party bosses, the role of the boss having been supplanted by the chief politician in the state, usually the governor. Formerly, bosses picked governors; now governors pick bosses, if one may regard much diminished party chairmen as bosses. The elimination of party levers, which invites voters to split their tickets, is directly related to the rise in importance of the independent voter. Party conventions are gaudy shows only. In the age of primaries, the time has long passed when the choice of office holders made by conventions was definitive. Reforms also have had consequences, and they often have not been the consequences intended by reformers.

There are only two ways to organize a political party: Parties form around ideas or persons. A party that forms around persons rather than ideas is not long for this world. Rowland entered office as a presumptive conservative and campaigned vigorously against a newly established income tax.

But a governor, once in office, must govern on behalf of all the people, if he wishes to be re-elected. So, once in office, committed politicians quickly moderate their views and govern on what strategists call “bridge issues.” A bridge issue is one that does not divide people along philosophical lines. The reality of governing, which involves assembling coalitions to move programs forward, itself tends to soften sharp political views.

That may be a benefit for governors, but an unprincipled convergence makes it difficult for voters to choose between politicians, not to mention parties. Rowland’s coattails were short – practically non-existent – because a coherent political philosophy is a politician’s coattails. Politicians who do not serve ideas serve themselves. In the end, Rowland’s political program was patched together from notions borrowed from both ends of the political spectrum. What better way to guarantee one’s longevity in office? But, as a whole, Rowland’s program was unprincipled. It was a bridge attaching nothing to nothing. Detached from the orbit of his own party’s leading ideas, he became the plaything of the forces that make or break most incumbents. Those who do not swim against the tide are carried along with it. You can either be a man or woman of substance -- or a cork on the tide.

Will Rell be any different, if less corrupt, than Rowland? Is she, as one commentator suggested, a woman of substance?

There’s little question that there’s a “there” there. It would be fatal for any serious challenger to attempt to slime Rell with mud drawn from the Rowland scandal. That lurid scandal has been effectively contained by aborted impeachment proceedings and plea deals arranged between federal prosecutors and indicted members of the Rowland team. But there is nothing inherently “Republican” about using political office for private gain, and Rell’s response to the scandals has been vigorous, far more potent, some would argue, than the tepid response of Democrat leaders.

But is there anything distinctively Republican about Rell? Does she have coat tails?

That’s the question. Corruption is a bridge issue, like high taxes and improvident spending, that cuts across ideological lines and appeals to voters without strong philosophical attachments to the major parties. Rell chose to bend rather than break on the question of public funding of campaigns, a measure supported by liberals in the Democrat Party. But then, Rell attached conditions to the measure unpalatable to certain Democrats who want to inherit, rather than reform, the gubernatorial office. It is a dangerous game of “chicken” that turns on the question: Who is the true agent of reform?

Casting a massive shadow behind the scenes, the larger and more important question – whether the proposed reforms will or will not result in better government -- remains very much in doubt.

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