Friday, June 29, 2007

The Republican Opposition

Freshman state Sen. Sam Caligiuri voted against a compromise budget and by doing so became, in Henry David Thoreau’s phrase, “a party of one.”

Caligiuri has said the spending increase in the biennial budget’s first year is too high. And he did not understand why the legislature was unable to cut taxes in the face of a $915 million surplus.

"I think this is the best budget that we were able to put together given the political reality that we are facing,” Caligiuri said, “and let me also say that if it wasn't for Republican pressure, we would have tax increases today."

The budget deal was an exercise in defusing extravagant hopes; some would say nightmarish dreams.

The Democrats, as part of the deal struck with obdurate Republicans, gave up a potentially destructive refashioning of income tax – for the time being.

Instead of producing a timely budget, Democrats this year spent their time and energy in seeking to make Connecticut’s not quite flat income tax more progressive. Effective opposition to this ploy came not from Governor Jodi Rell, who had been blithely pursuing her own private détente with the Democrats, but from Republicans who recoiled from the governor’s early budget proposal, which featured a budget cap busting increase in the income tax to pay for an improvident boost in education spending.

Launching a torpedo in the direction of the Democrat Party, some Republicans with street creds pointed out that all the tax raising was not necessary at a time when the state treasury, as usual, was flush with an embarrassing surplus. In her negotiations with Democrats, Rell found her party’s observation useful.

A strong case can be made to show that Caligiuri’s fellow Republicans voted for the budget for prudential reasons. Having reached an uneasy détente with Democrats, Republicans easily could have torpedoed the deal by over reaching and voting against the budget for reasons of principle. A hearty opposition to the compromise budget, some Republicans argue, might have given Democrats an opportunity to rally their forces and acquire enough votes to overcome a threatened gubernatorial veto, in which case Republicans would have been left with an arrangement whose effects might have been far more destructive.

Once again, according to the Republican narrative, a handful of stout defenders have fended off an attack on the Alamo.

And that is the problem with Republican non-visionaries: They are content with defensive measures. Some would argue that, moderate to the core, Republicans are in danger of disappearing as an effective opposition because they are, literally, inoffensive; which is to say, they have no offensive plan.

There are plenty of distinctively Republican ideas out there, many of them presented here in Connecticut by the Yankee Institute and other libertarian to conservative idea factories. The advantage of a party of ideas over a party of personalities is that ideas are more durable and long-lived than persons. Ex-Governor Rowland advertised himself as a breakwater to Democrat extravagance, and the claim – which ran aground on the perception that Connecticut was spending itself into oblivion – took him through three terms, no small accomplishment. Then, in a breath, Rowland was gone and followed by Rell, who this year busted the spending cap and proposed extravagant new spending on education.

Republicans were left flat-footed this year when Democrats proposed to make the state’s income tax more progressive, a notion long pursued by the party that was featured, unchallenged by Rell, in the gubernatorial contest. Even now, the governor’s office has offered no principled opposition to the idea. The state’s surplus, the Republican Party has argued, has rendered increases in the income tax unnecessary. An unprincipled opposition tied to surpluses will disappear when surpluses vanish though improvident spending.

Ideas would go a long way in enlarging the footprint of the Republican Party in the state. Republicans had Governor Rowland and now they have Rell, but she is not nearly offensive enough, and parties centered on people rather than viable political ideas disappear through attrition.

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