Winners & Losers Offer Political Lessons

November 8, 2006

THE CHRIS POWELL COLUMN

For release Wednesday, November 8, 2006

IN CONNECTICUT LOSING COULD
BE AS REMARKABLE AS WINNING

By CHRIS POWELL

Comments on some of the winners in Tuesday’s remarkable elections in Connecticut. …

Governor Rell: She proved why some Democrats were reluctant to impeach her corrupt predecessor and why impeachment didn’t bother Republicans much. She was practically perfect for restoring confidence in government.

She has had no hidden agenda — nor, her critics complain, much of an agenda at all. But for the interim it was enough for her to know that good government is always good politics.

Rell is not partisan, even if, given Connecticut’s Democratic leanings, few Republicans here can afford to be partisan. She cemented her claim to being the “good government” candidate with decisive support for legislation for public financing of political campaigns and her refusal to accept campaign contributions from lobbyists, political action committees, and people who negotiate contracts with the state. This wasn’t quite what it was made out to be, a refusal to accept contributions from “special interests,” but it was far superior to the fundraising practices of her opponents, unprecedented restraint by an incumbent, great progress.

Maybe that commitment to reducing the influence of special interests insulated Rell against Democratic complaints about the attempt of her chief of staff, Lisa Moody, to induce state commissioners to recruit friends to attend a fundraiser for the governor’s campaign, solicitations that were against the law. The commissioners were fined and the governor suspended Moody for two weeks but refused to yield to months of Democratic clamor to fire her. That clamor was awfully hypocritical; the Democrats would never demand the firing of a unionized state employee for anything short of murder on the job. Maybe Rell meant only to stand by a loyal friend, but in any case she showed some backbone in the face of the mob, as well as good judgment, for there had been no actual extortion, and not everything is a hanging offense.

More than any governor in decades, Rell now is in a position to do the right thing, as best as she can determine it. That is probably the biggest part of why the voters gave her such a triumph. The other part of it may be what served her predecessor so well — the tax-and-spend hunger of the opposition. The Democrats are so stuck on their “big ideas” kick — the kick that has worsened living conditions, particularly in the cities, while exploding the cost of government — that a Republican governor needs to do no more than take a half step to their right to be considered the only adult at the Capitol.

Now Rell has to decide whether she wants to set an agenda for the state or just continue to preside benignly. “Big ideas” don’t have to be expensive; they also could be intensive audits of state policy, simple questions.

Why, for instance, have 40 years of costly subsidies, social programs, and government expansion only devastated Connecticut’s cities?

What success does Connecticut have to show for the huge expense and employment of its “war on drugs”?

Just how much racial integration has come from the expensive planting of “magnet schools” in the cities?

Why does Connecticut appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars annually to increase compensation for public employees when its insurance programs for the poor are so ill-funded that doctors are withdrawing and there are long waits for medical care, and when the state still has a long waiting list of mentally handicapped adults awaiting placement in group homes? Why is there so much talk about “universal medical insurance” when the state can’t handle even the basics of humane institutions?

Such questions pressed urgently from the top of state government might not only lead to better policy but also set the General Assembly’s enlarged and even hungrier Democratic majority back on its heels.

Sen. Joe Lieberman: He now will be a hero nationally among people who did not see his campaign’s obfuscations and attack ads crowned by his victory speech’s reverence for “God’s holy name.” He will be a candidate for the “Profiles in Courage” Award if it ever goes to someone who is not a darling of the liberal intelligentsia. And he will be welcomed back into the Senate Democratic caucus as if nothing has happened. (From the standpoint of that caucus, nothing has happened in Connecticut.) The question is how Lieberman will be regarded within the Democratic Party not in Washington but back home, having defeated the state party’s nominee.

Will Lieberman be invited to sit at the head table at Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey dinners and other party functions? Or will he have to buy his own ticket and sit in the corner, shunned and even hissed? Will Democratic town chairmen call him and expect deference, or will they divert their appeals to the other Democrats in Connecticut’s congressional delegation? Surely the Democrats in the delegation will not hold any grudges, and a third of the state’s Democrats stayed loyal to Lieberman anyway.

So time, the departure of President Bush in two years, any diminishing of the war in Iraq, and the desire to be close to power will work in favor of taking Lieberman back. If, as seems likely, this is Lieberman’s final term, the Democrats will need him more than he needs them.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal: Blumenthal, a Democrat, cruised to another big victory, his fifth, despite the most vigorous challenge yet by a Republican, state Rep. Robert Farr of West Hartford. Republicans love to hate Blumenthal for getting so much publicity by suing everything that moves, but the attorney general is actually the Republican Party’s best friend, a far better friend than Lieberman. For prior to Blumenthal’s election in 1990, the attorney generalship was Connecticut’s premiere springboard to higher office. When his new term is completed, Blumenthal’s reluctance to put his political career at the slightest risk will have taken the attorney generalship out of the Democratic arsenal for 20 years. He thereby will have helped secure the governorship for the Republicans almost more than they did themselves.

* * *

Comments on some of the losers. …

Ned Lamont: He gave voice to opposition to the war when few politicians would, and he spent $16 million of his own money to give people a choice.

While his campaign was inept after defeating Lieberman in the Democratic primary, Lamont proved the senator’s own political ineptness and loss of principle and even pushed Lieberman into sounding like much less of an advocate of the war.

The public came not to like Lamont much; his poll negatives were higher than his positives, remarkable for someone who has been in the public eye so briefly. Maybe it was because anti-war candidates have to learn not to shout, shriek, talk too fast, hang out with crazies, and run entirely from the left, and Lamont didn’t learn.

Lamont’s upstart victory in the primary was a triumph for democracy. But then so was Lieberman’s victory in the election as a petitioning candidate listed at the bottom of the ballot. Both candidates showed that the political system is not quite as closed as it seems.

Nancy Johnson: Was it just a happy coincidence that the Connecticut congressional candidate who resorted to the most distorting and misleading attack ads was the candidate who got the worst clobbering in the election? Or did the voters of the 5th Congressional District sense that anyone who tries to scare them so much and so impugn her opponent is as desperate to avoid the serious issues as she is to stay in power? Johnson’s hateful campaign may have been the worst political miscalculation in the state in 40 years, a disgraceful end to a long career.

John DeStefano: No candidate for governor of Connecticut has been more confident of his mastery of public policy and his knowing better than everyone else, nor as confident that much more of the same will fix what was caused by more of the same. Like Lamont, DeStefano insisted on running entirely from the left, and met a similar result.

If Connecticut’s Democratic Party ever raises up a candidate whose foremost belief is not government for its own sake, a candidate who can identify policies that serve only those at the public trough and not the public itself, the Republicans will lose their hold on the governor’s office. It happens in other states.

For the time being Connecticut is stuck with a Democratic elite that thinks the state could be transformed by more of the never-ending tinkering with tax rates and reimbursement formulas, devotion to high-sounding futility, like the alchemist of the A.A. Milne children’s poem:

There lives an old man at the top of the street
And the end of his beard reaches down to his feet,
And he’s just the one person I’m longing to meet,
I think that he sounds so exciting.

For he talks all the day to his tortoiseshell cat,
And he asks about this and explains about that,
And at night he puts on a big wide-awake hat
And sits in the writing-room, writing.

He has worked all his life (and he’s terribly old)
At a wonderful spell that says, “Lo, and behold!
Your nursery fender is gold!” — and it’s gold!
(Or the tongs, or the rod for the curtain.)

But somehow he hasn’t got hold of it quite,
Or the liquid you pour on it first isn’t right.
So that’s why he works at it night after night
Till he knows he can do it for certain.

DeStefano’s defeat for governor won’t push him out of public life. He returns to the mayoralty in New Haven, from which he can continue to offer those big ideas, like vast expansions of mass transit to areas where there is no mass, even as in the prosaic here and now it will remain impossible to get a parking space anywhere near Union Station in New Haven Monday through Friday.

———–

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.

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