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Political Animal

The Politics of Wah

By Brian Morton | Posted 2/17/2010

One thing you learn about politics is that the closer you get to the local level, the harder it is to just talk and not get the job done. Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill codified this in his timeless aphorism, "all politics is local," and nothing makes it more obvious than when 40 inches of snow gets dumped on your doorstep.

People who talk about how "the government that governs best governs least" suddenly start singing a different tune (usually complaining) when the snow starts coming down hard and fast. "Why weren't the plows out earlier?" "Why didn't they start salting the roads last night?" "Why isn't my street plowed?" These also tend to be the same people who complain about taxes as well--but when snow comes down in record amounts, the amount of taxes they pay aren't the issue any more, it's, "Why aren't you plowing MY street?"

Ronald Reagan got many Americans into this mindset 30 years ago, and they've been playing the same tune ever since: You can have it all, and someone else can pay for it. And woe be to any mayor or governor who doesn't pay attention to the problems of the locals, no matter what the trouble. Poor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn't have time to take a deep breath before the city got slammed with the largest amount of snow on record. Despite the city getting leveled with more snow than Syracuse, N.Y., all you hear is "the city's doing a crappy job of plowing the streets." Let's note that Baltimore budgets for Baltimore winters, not upstate New York ones.

If Smooth Bobby Ehrlich comes out of hiding this summer and decides to run against Martin O'Malley, he will likely make some sort of noise about how the state is in a massive budget shortfall and is likely to remain so until the nation's economy turns around. As usual, per the Reagan Republican playbook, he will accuse O'Malley of being a spendthrift who never saw a program that didn't need money thrown at it, despite O'Malley needing to find more and more painful cuts each year as the state struggles to survive the post-Bush downturn.

But Ehrlich would be counting on people not recalling the budget he submitted in his last year as governor, in which he proposed the biggest spending increase in 25 years, including a 14.5 percent increase to higher education after two straight years of cuts. Facts like these tend to get kicked aside when it comes election time, and if you're not in power, this means that you've got the freedom to complain, complain, complain.

Call it the politics of "wah."

It's somewhat fortunate that politicians at the state and local level can't posture like the complainers at the national level, else we'd all really be in a bind. MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow pointed out how under President Bush, despite originating or voting for a deficit commission, pay-go rules, the bank bailout, trying terrorism suspects in the United States, and cap-and-trade, Republicans in lockstep voted against them all once President Obama signed on. Not one Republican--not one!--voted for the stimulus package, yet all around the country, smiling GOP congressmen and senators sent out press releases and stood posing for pictures with giant lottery-style checks touting how helpful that money was to their districts. You know, the money they voted against. Obama actually had to call out GOP members to their faces here in Baltimore during that televised meeting they held last month. But it doesn't matter, because the GOP is resolute in that 1) they're not going to help do anything that might give Obama a victory, and 2) they'll complain about anything, whether or not they supported it in the past.

"It's the Democrats' fault," they complain, "since they're the party with a majority in both the House and the Senate." This cynical ploy comes while they exploit every rule and technicality to bring any piece of legislation to a halt, starting with the need for a supermajority to do any business in the Senate. Short of calling the roll, if one senator decides to go against "unanimous consent" for even the simplest of procedures, the Senate comes to a halt. Last fortnight, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) put a hold on every single nominee Obama had put before the Senate for confirmation. Not only do the Republicans not care if a single bill passes, they don't care if the government has the personnel required to operate. And then, they'll complain that it's not their fault, because they're not in charge.

All of this is cynical and calculated, of course. It's a bet, hinging on whether or not you pay attention to how the machine works, rather than just noticing the fact that it's not working. And they've upped the stakes: Whereas 15 years ago under Newt Gingrich, Republicans shut the government down wholesale and delayed Bill Clinton's judicial nominees for up to two years, now they refuse to participate in the process at all while trying to bring it to a halt.

All the while saying, "wah."

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

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Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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