Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Republican: What's In A Name?

Today's apparent Republican victory in a Senate race for a Massachusetts seat so long held by Democrats that until recently nobody thought the Democrats could lose their filibuster-proof Senate majority until next year raises an interesting question about what it means to be a Republican.

In Massachusetts, the major issue was the economy, and the Republican underdog launched a media war in December that led with a speech by John F. Kennedy pledging to cut taxes -- a speech finished, in the ad, by Massachusetts' State Sen. Brown himself as he sought to fill the seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy. The Party of Lincoln assumed the Kennedy mantle, apparently, to give the people what they wanted ... which was apparently not the health plan advanced by Democrats.

But just recently, in Houston, the mayoral office changed hands and while the Republicans didn't take the seat – Houston is rather less Republican than Harris County, in which most of Houston lies – Republicans certainly had something to say on the election. And the election was a squeaker. In the runoff for the mayor's office, the African-American male Gene Locke ran against the Caucasian female Annise Parker. Let me set the stage:

A former oil-and-gas-industry software analyst, Annise Parker ran on the strength of a political record with the City of Houston on the City Council, and argued that she proved her fiscally conservative record as City Controller. During the election, she advocated programs to enhance home values. In the League of Women Voters survey (which I like to read because it's a nonpartisan body that publishes every candidate's exact words answering a hatful of election-relevant questions), Annise Parker said of her identification of Houston's priorities and her plan to address them:
Public safety and jobs. I’m the only candidate who’s used tough audits to free up millions for police and safety. I won’t cut the police budget to pay for things we can’t afford, like expensive new museums. I’m the only candidate with energy industry experience and a plan to create jobs by making Houston the headquarters for new energy development.
League of Women Voters – Houston, November 2009 Runoff Voter's Guide
Gene Locke is a lawyer. Not to knock lawyers, but they have a certain reputation, and in Texas that reputation isn't stellar. We would rather elect as the top executive in the state a ne'er-do-well who lost money constantly in the oil business, and was solvent only because his family connections got him a place at the table investing in a baseball franchise, than we would elect a lawyer. True, without lawyers nobody's rights would be worth a nickel, but we have gone so far to prevent lawyers from protecting people's rights that we've let ourselves be talked into amending the Constitution to give the legislature the power to control damages in civil suits (the ad campaing pretended it was about medical liability, but it covers "liability for all damages and losses", making it in effect an invitation for insurers to buy damages caps from the legislature). This may not seem strange to readers in England, where Parliament can do whatever it pleases, but in Texas we are so suspicious of the leguslature that we don't let it convene every year, and in the years we allow it to convene, we only allow it to convene for less than half a year. The answer is pretty simple: they can't be trusted when your back is turned (look at D.C.), so you have to make sure you know when they will be working so you can watch them like a hawk. They are, after all, mostly lawyers. When asked about Houston's priorities, Gene Locke didn't explain how he'd save money or how he'd allocate resources more efficiently, he just said in effect that he'd improve security by putting more cops on the street (which netted Locke a union endorsement), and to pay for this he said he'd magic up more tax revenue by creating more jobs (though, like some other politicians we might name, he never said how he was going to make these jobs fast enough to pay for the expense he planned). In short, Locke seemed a classic spendthrift politician willing to say anything, however implausible, to get elected. So, why was Gene Locke endorsed by Conservative Republicans of Texas? (The Party itself doesn't officially endorse non-Republicans, but particular Republicans may.)

Why would Texas Republicans endorse an apparent spendthrift lawyer in favor of an ex-oil-and-gas employee with a track record for trim budgets? The answer is simple. It's a matter of priorities. With the election of Annise Parker, Houston became the largest city in the United States with an openly gay mayor. Local Republicans are much more interested in social conservatism than in fiscal conservatism.

The irony of promoting social conservatism ahead of the small-government, lean-government philosophy that guides some of the nation's self-proclaimed conservatives is that promoting a government policy that seeks to direct people's love lives seems to steer directly into the teeth of a clear Supreme Court pronouncement that government has no legitimate interest in regulating such conduct. Moreover, it provides a dangerous precedent that government can and should be active in instructing individuals not only how to be effective citizens (the purpose of educating children into employability and to understand duties as citizens), but instructing them how to conduct their personal affairs, including in personal affairs that are guided by religious principles, as the debate over sexuality is principally guided. If we want more government involvement in our religion, in our decision whom we should date, in our decision what careers are appropriate (can you imagine Texans deciding that to end law suits, the education of competent attorneys should be halted?), and in our decision whether to vacation or to take another week of high-stress overtime, we can presumably count on our so-called Conservative Republicans of Texas to help us get there.

Republicans have long spoken about the danger of a huge Democratic government insinuating its tentacles into every facet of the lives of regular working taxpayers. Maybe it's a close cousin to this spectre, the Big Brother Republican, that is responsible for the increases in the size of the government budget under a supposedly-Republican Congress under Clinton and, later, Bush. Republicans promised fiscal conservatism. Apparently, social activism is at least as important for some of the folks who wear the Republican label.

In the face of organizations like Gay Republicans – presumably fiscal conservatives uninterested in government involvement in private affairs and more concerned that government not spend the public fortune pretending to "fix" problems like those hypothesized by proponents of political hysteria like the so-called manmade global warming – it's clear that "Republican" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. Since people vote on the basis of labels like "Democrat" and "Republican" (voters don't know all the folks on those long November ballots, just the top few) it's likely quite a few aren't getting what they bargain for (a disappointment that cost the Republicans dearly in the 2008 election, and cost Democrats the Senate seat today in Massachusetts).

Will the real Republican please stand up?

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