POSTED ON DECEMBER 16, 2009:
The Tables Are Turning
Where are you, Will Rogers, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you
Back in the day when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, a GOP insider confided that life in the majority was tougher than he ever imagined -- especially given the in-fighting over how the levers of power should be pulled.
"It was a whole lot easier lobbing Molotov cocktails from the sidelines," he lamented, "than being in charge."
The story came to mind last week when a bluntly worded, supposedly confidential -- in politics? -- memo from a Republican rep to his state House colleagues was leaked to Capitol reporters, revealing a pre-session, intra-party dust-up over taxes.
State Rep. David Dank of Oklahoma City ripped into Speaker Chris Benge of Tulsa in the two-page memo, claiming the speaker "misrepresented" his proposal to freeze property taxes for seniors and limit annual increases for everyone else.
Moreover, Dank effectively urged his GOP comrades to go rogue -- somewhere Sarah Palin must be winking, you betcha -- against the House leadership, noting "there are 62 Republican members -- not one."
"We should be making independent decisions," he wrote, "rather than being dictated to by a chosen few."
Dank's tart memo surfaced less than six weeks after a ferocious behind-the-scenes battle over which Republican will succeed Sen. Glenn Coffee as president pro tempore in 2011 spilled into public view.
The thing is, Republicans don't act like this. At least, they don't, historically.
It's the Democrats who are famous for eating their young. Remember Will Rogers' line? "I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat."
Republicans were the party of lock-step, disagreements quashed in private before they could seep into public. Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment reigned: Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.
That was much easier when the GOP was in the legislative minority -- a small, tightly knit insurgency lobbing Molotov cocktails against what they viewed as the godless, humanist, wild-eyed liberal Democrats.
It's much more difficult now when Republicans, their numbers swelling in Oklahoma, are battling over the spoils of victory -- especially the power to control the state's political agenda.
Actually, the internecine warfare here is not significantly different from that plaguing the GOP nationally.
Moderate Republicans -- "Rockefeller" or "Country Club" Republicans known for being fiscally conservative and socially liberal -- are all but extinct. [Think the late Henry Bellmon, former Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator, and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snow of Maine.]
Corporate conservatives currently dominate the GOP leadership in Oklahoma [Benge, Coffee, Rep. Dan Sullivan, et al] and nationally, but they cling to power by their fingertips -- whipsawed by a volatile coalition of religious fundamentalists, nativists, isolationists, teabaggers and other non-elites who rally 'round the rantings of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Co.
The Tea Party movement is the GOP's most dynamic faction, incorporating some, if not all, of the interest groups mentioned above. In a recent Rasmussen survey, a hypothetical Tea Party outpolled Republicans by five percentage points [23 percent to 18 percent] nationally. Democrats, by comparison, polled 36 percent.
Of course, there is no formal Tea Party. And even if one organized, its prospects are bleak -- third party candidates in America rarely succeed. In fact, it's safe to say that teabaggers -- like their counterparts on the far left -- don't really have any place to go: Teabaggers will vote Republican and ultra-liberals will vote Democratic or they won't vote at all.
Which makes this suddenly very public struggle for the soul of the GOP -- nationally and here in Oklahoma -- so fascinating and important.
Dank, by reflex, is a pro-business conservative, but he occasionally stands to fight for the little guy -- a rightwing populist, of sorts. He's knocked heads with GOP leaders over ethics rules and pushed for more transparency so Oklahomans can see for themselves how money affects state politics. And there's no doubt his property tax proposal would benefit cash-strapped seniors, as well as middle and lower-middle class Sooners [though it could cripple public schools and other essential services financed by property taxes].
These days, Dank is more likely to band together with a growing, ultra-conservative Republican faction in the House that includes the likes of Tulsa-area Reps. Sue Tibbs, Mike Ritze, and John Wright and Oklahoma City-area Reps. Mike Reynolds, Sally Kern and Jason Murphey.
These lawmakers, and a dozen or more like them, are increasingly creating headaches for the corporate conservatives whose primary role is to do the State Chamber's bidding. With increasing frequency, they demonstrate an unwillingness to remain mum and play nice, as Republicans past were expected to do.
And they demand their pet issues be heard -- which is why the House, wrestling last spring with the fallout from a collapsing economy, spent so much time on non-essentials: whether to erect a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds, whether to condemn the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or whether to demand the federal government not transfer any Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Oklahoma.
The balancing act is even trickier in the state Senate, where the Republican majority is a slim 26-22. Three GOP senators -- it would have to be the right three, of course -- could band together with Senate Democrats and seize control.
The fact is, the GOP's current leaders better figure out a way, and soon, to harness the energy of the teabaggers and their myriad factions -- or their grip on legislative power in Oklahoma could be short-lived.
What if the Tea Party crowd sat out next year's elections? Or what if they turned out en masse for underdog, insurgency candidates? Can you say Randy Brogdon for governor?
There may not be enough teabaggers to elect their own slate of candidates, but there are more than enough -- see Rasmussen -- to cost the GOP dearly in close races.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer www.okobserver.net
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