POSTED ON JULY 4, 2012:
Time to Look in the Mirror
The GOP survived the attempted Tea Party takeover, but what's next?
The Oklahoma Republican establishment collectively breathed a huge sigh of relief with last week's primary results.
It survived the Great Tea Party Rebellion of 2012, a rambunctious, noisy minority targeting more than a dozen GOP lawmakers it regarded as cancers on the body politic -- specifically, a carcinoma known as RINO (Republicans In Name Only).
The fact only one statehouse incumbent was knocked out suggests the Tea Partiers were all bark and no bite -- at least when it came to persuading voters the legislative Powers-That-Be should be fired.
But if Republican leaders have a thimble full of self-awareness, and it's not clear they do, they should wrap up the gloating post haste and stare deeply into the mirror.
What they will see, if they are honest with themselves, is this: Their unwarranted fear of the GOP fringe nearly cost them some of their most able, highest profile elected members. Worse, it produced some foolhardy public policy that undermines Republican claims of strong, visionary leadership.
Let's deal with the Fear Factor first.
You can accuse me of Monday morning quarterbacking if you wish, but the reality is, I've pointed out for two years that political paranoia fueled by the GOP's right flank was leading some otherwise very smart folks to do some very dumb things.
Just look at the case of Tulsa Sen. Brian Crain, the Senate Republican who came closest to losing to a Tea Party-backed challenger.
Crain, chair of the Senate's Health and Human Services Committee, knew of the uber-right carping in his district. He knew the noisy fringe was portraying him as, at best, a RINO and, at worst, a liberal betraying real conservatism. And he knew he likely would face a primary challenge as a result.
So Crain attempted to inoculate himself -- to somehow, some way prove his conservative bonafides -- by signing on as principal Senate author of the so-called Personhood law that would have declared life begins at fertilization.
Big mistake. His authorship didn't placate the wingnuts -- it only fueled their contempt, certain that he was embracing the cause primarily because he feared for his political life. And at the same time, it irritated thinking people who otherwise had high regard for Crain. Ask your OB/GYN about Personhood.
Here's a difficult truth that Republican leaders need to accept: The Tea Partiers around-the-clock frothing about lawmakers like Crain is insatiable. It doesn't matter how many bones you toss their way, it won't be enough. And the kicker: It doesn't matter -- they don't represent enough of the electorate to make much difference, barring real scandal dogging an incumbent.
Someone who can speak slowly enough needs to explain to the uber-right that Crain is a c-o-n-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-v-e. If he's a liberal, then labels no longer have meaning in the American political realm.
In the end, Crain needed every arrow in his political quiver -- including thousands of dollars in independent expenditures from groups representing corporate interests -- to pull out a narrow (for an incumbent) victory, garnering only 53 percent of the vote.
Crain isn't home-free -- he now faces Democrat Julie Hall in November's general election. But Hall is a decided underdog in a bedrock Republican district.
The elected state GOP leadership's right-flank paranoia also prompted it to make myriad boneheaded decisions during the 53rd Legislature that included 2011 and 2012.
The worst example was the embarrassing political two-step by Gov. Mary Fallin, House Speaker Kris Steele and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman over establishment of a health insurance exchange.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers can rest easy. State government's twinkle-toed trio wouldn't seriously contend on Dancing With The Stars, much less threaten the supremacy of Hollywood's graceful legends.
In the midst of the 2011 budget crisis, Fallin and Co. welcomed a $54 million federal grant under President Obama's Affordable Care Act to set up the exchange -- until the Tea Partiers went ballistic.
Without warning, Bingman did a pirouette, spinning away from the governor and speaker when he realized a majority of Republican senators -- scared witless of the Tea Party -- could not be seen as playing along with ObamaCare.
Profiles in Courage, where art thou?
It was pure silliness. First, the $54 million wasn't some federal government-generated handout -- it was money that Oklahomans already had sent to D.C. via their taxes. Instead of returning it to Oklahoma, it went somewhere else. Stupid.
Second, the health insurance exchange is actually a very good thing for rank-and-file Oklahomans -- including both the 625,000 who still do not have health insurance (many because they cannot afford it) and the 1.7 million who do (and who are paying millions and millions more each year to cover uncompensated care).
As the Oklahoma Policy Institute's David Blatt put it last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the health care law: "As major provisions of the law take effect in the next two years, many of the state's 600,000 uninsured residents will gain access to health care coverage.
"Oklahoma will soon be required to operate an online competitive market for health insurance known as an 'exchange' -- a one-stop-shop for residents to explore their coverage options. We now need to move quickly towards participating in the creation of a robust, consumer-friendly exchange for users to browse, compare, and purchase private plans and/or determine their eligibility for public programs and premium assistance tax credits."
Of course, when Fallin and Co. reversed course on the $54 million, they also opted to gamble that one of the most conservative U.S. Supreme Court majorities in history would overturn ObamaCare -- making moot the requirement that states have a health insurance exchange in place by year's end or face the prospect of the federal government imposing one.
They lost big-time. With only six months left in the year, they now must decide how to proceed. That's not much time to create such a system.
And besides, Oklahoma now must pay for it with state tax dollars -- money that is available in the Rainy Day Fund, but would be better spent on crumbling highways, bridges, schools, prisons ... you know, vital core services.
Even as Fallin and Co. were left to publicly wipe the egg off their faces, the GOP's elected leadership team chose to continue playing politics instead.
Their official press statements after the court ruling made clear they weren't much interested in acknowledging what is nothing short of a colossal failure in leadership -- or that it was the result of paranoia about a noisy fringe with little political clout.
Fallin: "Today's decision highlights the importance of electing leaders who will work to repeal the federal health care law and replace it with meaningful reform focused on commonsense, market based changes."
Steele: "Our best hope now is to elect those willing to repeal this law and work together to find better solutions to the significant health care challenges faced by our state and nation."
Bingman: "We must turn our focus toward November and elect leaders who will repeal and replace ObamaCare."
It's easy to see what's most important to the GOP leadership. Politics trumps policy. Somewhere, behind the curtain, the omnipotent Republican Oz crafts the mindless talking points. The similarities in the statements is striking.
Even more hilarious, your tax dollars were spent on statehouse staffs preparing a series of anti-Supreme Court, anti-ObamaCare statements from other senators and representatives outside the leadership teams.
Yes, it's a legitimate expense for the Legislature to have in place a staff that helps legislators communicate with their constituents. But no, it's not a legitimate expense when the taxpayers are footing the bill for what amounts to partisan grandstanding.
Think about it: Is it vital to the operation of state government that state representatives from Ardmore, Kingfisher and Tecumseh spend taxpayer dollars on the preparation and dissemination of news releases attacking the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling and the national health care initiative?
It is no small irony that the Great Tea Party Rebellion of 2012 ended and the Supreme Court ruled on ObamaCare in the same week. The serendipitous dovetailing should remind the GOP's state government majority of an important truth:
Mob rule produces bad politics and even worse public policy.
Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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