POSTED ON MARCH 2, 2011:
GOP pandering of the extremes will challenge new Speaker Kris Steele
Shhhhhh! Can you hear it? That huge sigh of relief?
It's wafting from the state Capitol offices of the House Republican leadership, marking -- perhaps even celebrating? -- the end of the legislative session's first month. Only three left -- hooray!
To suggest the opening weeks were bumpy for new Speaker Kris Steele and Co. would be like saying the Titanic experienced a water issue -- an understatement of epic proportions.
The newly expanded Liberty Caucus or Tea Party Caucus or Crackpot Caucus or whatever they're calling themselves these days -- 30-plus votes, depending on the issue -- didn't afford the speaker or his team a honeymoon. It's been a nasty, head-knocker from the get-go. How nasty?
You'll remember that an unhinged pack yapped and foamed and fumed over the prayer delivered on swearing-in day by Steele's minister, who urged lawmakers to treat illegal immigrants fairly and justly and expressed remorse over past mistreatment of American Indians, including their forced relocation to Oklahoma.
When the session began in earnest early last month, even simple housekeeping chores -- like adopting joint legislative rules -- became flashpoints. House leaders had to twist arms to come up with enough votes to adopt the rules, then ordered all GOP members behind closed doors for a contentious caucus.
The Oklahoma House is in tumult because of a serious case of opposites attract. Mainstream conservative, corporatist Republicans were all too happy to wed the radical ultra-right zealots because it helped the GOP cement its majorities in both houses.
Is this marriage of political expediency doomed?
So far, Steele deserves high marks for -- mostly -- holding his fractured coalition together. It's a testament to his personality and leadership style: he's a kindly, soft-spoken Methodist minister-turned-politico who seems to be a good listener and exudes a calm that helps settle the worst Molotov-lobbers.
He survived the far right attempts to derail the negotiated House-Senate rules. And it didn't seem to create much of a ripple when Rep. Sally Kern's latest attempt to inject religious dogma into science classrooms failed last week in House committee.
Kern must have been optimistic that HB 1551 -- an effort to open classrooms to the teaching of intelligent design (Biblical creationism) alongside evolution -- would finally become law since Republicans dominate both houses and the governor's office. But it was defeated in the House Common Education Committee on a 9-7 vote. Do the math: 11 of the panel's 16 members are Republican.
You might be thinking: the Bible tells me God created the heavens and the earth. I believe the Bible. I don't have a problem with students being exposed to that concept. The issue isn't whether students should have the opportunity to learn about the Bible -- it's where, when and how they do. An elective Bible history class is one thing. A mandated science course is quite another.
Of course, the ultra-righters are all about creating a theocracy in which their brand of Christianity is mandated. Their perspectives often are more akin to the flying saucer crowd.
Example: an ultra-conservative recently ragged on me, saying, "You just like (Rep.) Doug Cox because he's a liberal." Cox, a liberal? Hello? Cox, a Grove physician, is a traditional, mainstream conservative. As a true liberal, I admire some of his efforts, though disagree with him politically on many others.
Decrying Cox as a liberal suggests some of these ultra-righters have lost touch with reality -- or they're living in an alternate universe. Or they simply don't know what the terms liberal and conservative really mean. Yes, there are variations of both -- but you can't plausibly tar somebody as a liberal if they happen to be left of Atilla the Hun.
One more example of how far out of the mainstream some of our House members are: Did you see Kern has authored a book, due out in July? It's called The Stoning of Sally Kern: The liberal attack on Christian conservatism -- and why we must take a stand. I am not making this up -- check it out at amazon.com.
Kern says she's been threatened because of her willingness to address stand up for her Christian principles -- she's particularly well known nationally and internationally for her contention that "the gay agenda" is a more serious threat to America than terrorism. Threats are unacceptable in our civic culture and should be taken seriously. But there's more than a little hint of paranoia in Kern's public utterings -- and in the title of her upcoming book.
Surely she isn't confusing robust, sometimes heated public debate with stoning?
Think about this: Kern and U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, both published authors (Inhofe recently disclosed he's just finished penning an anti-climate change screed). Who says this isn't the golden age of literature?
It's hardly a golden age for the Oklahoma Legislature and for serious political dialogue, however. Though I often disagree with Steele on political issues, I can only imagine what it is like to deal with some members of his caucus. You're both speaking English, but talking different languages.
Things look bleak now. Imagine what it will be like when the session's real heavy lifting begins: how to absorb a $500 million budget hole? What will be the spending priorities? How to keep the zealots from demanding votes on issues that embarrass Oklahoma and cripple economic development and job creation?
I can feel Steele's pain, but I refuse to feel sorry for the state's GOP leadership. They helped create this circus by pandering to the fringe. Deal with it.
(--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net)
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