Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Asking, Telling, and Taking

Asking, Telling, and Taking

Several years ago (we need not define the term “several”) I received a 40th birthday card signed “your friend, State Senator Roy Goodman.”

All in all I found this pretty impressive, since I don’t think I had even met the estimable Roy Goodman, except perhaps at some forgotten handshake thing outside a subway stop prior to some landslide victory.  He seemed quite old, tall, rather lean, and quite the patrician Republican (he chaired the state Party for a while.)  The Senator spent a great deal of time in Albany, a location that many of us who lived in New York City understood to be a vaguely hostile place in the great North, not quite Canada, but probably very cold.  Albany was also a place of obscure rules, spittoons, and an almost infinite number of areas that existed behind the closed doors where deals were made.  Yet, my friend, State Senator Roy Goodman, had taken the time to wish me a happy birthday.  Did it make a difference to me the next election?  I can’t honestly say, but I remembered it when I went into the polling booth, as I remember it today.

Senator Goodman wasn’t alone in this personal appeal.  Tip O’Neill often told the story of his first (losing) campaign.  After the results had been tallied, he ran into one of his “almost” constituents, a woman who had known him since he was a boy. She voted for his opponent.  He was shocked.  Why?  Because, she said, he hadn’t asked for her vote.  “People like to be asked.”  After that, O’Neill said, he always asked. Asking is personal.

Yet, asking seems more and more a lost art these days, especially among politicians.  It’s a subtle skill, sometimes even more difficult than compromising.  To ask someone for their support is to make a pact with them that, even, if they might disagree with you on certain issues, you will act with their best interests in mind.  It is a core value of democracy to ask your constituency, all of it, for their support, and to mean it.  An Ask is a promise not to betray. 

That is very hard for contemporary politicians, particularly Republican ones.  They fear asking, and the nuanced commitment it makes, because the base demands more than an Ask.  They want a “Tell” and a “Take.”

The Tell used to be a simple pointing out to the voters what was wrong with the other guy. It could be policy (“vote for me, not the Socialist”) or it could be personal (“vote for me, not the Socialist bum”) but the Tell was specific to the candidate, not extended to his potential supporters.  Reagan was a genius at this—he could be partisan and yet inclusive at the same time. 

Unfortunately, that type of Tell is no longer in vogue. The base demands more—they expect their candidate to Tell everyone who isn’t 100 percent pure that they, too, are Socialist bums. Mitt Romney, perhaps unintentionally,  managed to condemn half the country with his 47% remark.  It isn't because he might not have been factual that 47% of the country receives some sort check from the government.  Rather, it was his implication that every one of those people would vote Democratic.  And conservatives everywhere agreed.  That man in a hard hat and sweat-stained clothes on the subway at 6:00 AM this morning?  He must be on his way to pick up his free Obamaphone.

The problem with this, of course, is that it separates the winners from any connection to the losers.  When you have discarded the Ask, and campaigned with the loudest Tell, should you win, it is a very short distance to govern with just the Take.  After all, you have made no promises except to like-minded people, so marginalizing the disfavored and treating them as if they have no rights that need respecting becomes a logical extension.

So, if you are a Republican officer holder tempered by the steel of the Tea Party, whom do you take a smack at? What rights can you take away from people you don’t care for?

Labor, of course, is a ready target.  Two big wins came in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker crushed the public service unions, and Tennessee, where the State Legislature successfully intimidated workers at a VW plant in Chattanooga into rejecting an organizing move, even though VW was open to it. Given the weakened state of labor in general, new victims are always available if needed.   

Then there is the evergreen issue of reproductive rights.  As Virginia State Senator Steve Martin said last week, a pregnant woman is a “host” for the fetus.  The man certainly has an ear for the finely turned phrase.   And just earlier today, Alabama took up a package of four bills that would ban abortion for pretty much all reasons after six weeks, as well as various punitive measures to shame the woman, irrespective of their Constitutionality.  

These sustained acts of political vandalism at least make some sense in the rubric of general conservative thinking.  The GOP and the business interests that support them have always sought to enfeeble labor in order to make for a cheap and docile workforce.  And, the pro-life wing has long been in control of the Party, just not as aggressive in ignoring Supreme Court precedents and employing ultrasounds.

What is new is the sustained, multistate GOP obsession with gays.  Gays drive them crazy.  Top of the list, of course, is gay marriage.  But at the end of the day, it’s just gays, period, and they feel compelled to eradicate the world (or at least their piece of it) of any overt gayness.

Why they feel this way is unknown.  Gays, as everyone knows, only populate the arts, the two coasts and sundry effete and elite college campuses.  No manly Red State could possibly have any.

Yet, in state after state, the GOP keeps rolling out one piece of discriminatory legislation after another, cloaking it in “religious exemption” language. Tennessee, Arkansas, Idaho, South Dakota, Utah, Kansas, Mississippi and others all have considered variants that would allow business and professions the right to refuse service on religious grounds.  The proponents of this type of legislation claim they want to protect to protect the devout florist or photographer or bridal shop that didn’t want to cater to gay customers. Apparently there was a flood of dissolute pastel hoping to blend with sturdy crimson.  But, once the drafters got started, they couldn’t control themselves, creating language so broad that that pretty much any type of discrimination by anyone was acceptable.  South Dakota’s bill virtually enshrined it.  It gave anti-gay speech and acts (other than violent acts) protected status, barred lawsuits based on it, and required the gay person to pay penalties and attorney’s fees to the person acting in a discriminatory way because of perceived sexual orientation (presumably proof of actual straightness was irrelevant.)

Then there’s Arizona (why is it always Arizona?)  Arizona’s SB-1062 mirrors the creation of state sanctioned prejudice that you see in sister Republican-led states, but ran into unexpected headwinds.  Arizona is the site of the 2015 Super Bowl, and the Arizona business community is looking forward to all those beefy stacks of money charging towards them.  This has created a remarkable struggle over the fate of this bill, lining up the social conservatives and traumatized florists on one side, and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and both Senators (McCain and Flake) on the other.  Governor Jan Brewer has until the weekend to decide whether she wants to veto. 

It’s times like this when I wonder what my friend, State Senator Roy Goodman, would do.  He was a classic old-fashioned Northeastern Republican who was moderate on social issues, and conservative on fiscal ones. And he was old-fashioned in temperament, like many politicians of his generation. He was an Asker.  It just wasn’t in him to Tell and Take.

It turns out that he will be 94 next Wednesday.  I feel the urge to send him a card.

Note from the Moderator:  On February 26, Jan Brewer vetoed the SB-1062.  She was denounced by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Questions or comments, contact the Moderator

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