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October 13, 2008

A Treatise on Partisanship

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The defense of partisanship, by either one of the two major political parties, amounts to nothing more than the defense of an outmoded system of governance that has consistently failed to meet the expectations of voters.


How many times have you been nauseated by the lack of progress in solving vexing public sector problems because our elected representatives are too busy affixing blame? The case in point is the failure of the first congressional bailout legislation.


While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., CA) and Rep. John Boehner (R., OH), the leaders of their respective parties, were fighting to place blame on each other's political affiliation, Americans watched their investments tank and their faith in the nation's financial markets shaken.


We didn't care which party was at fault, or even most at fault. We just wanted a thoughtful solution designed to stop the flow of red ink out of our retirement accounts. Apparently, we were just asking for too much! This is not to be misconstrued as advocacy for the failed bailout, just a plea for action to a group seemingly incapable of it.


That same scenario plays out daily in 50 state capitols. The business of our legislative bodies has become focused on what's Republican or Democratic right versus what's just plain old right. The focus of their efforts are to elect more of their own kind to political office as opposed to solving problems with an eye toward citizens' best interests.


When playing to the "base" is more important than developing good policy solutions, one can safely assume that the base is the only constituency that will feel well-served.


How did this happen? More succinctly, how did we allow this to happen? We're supposedly the ones in charge. Remember that whole "by the People, for the People" thing? Republicans and Democrats don't own this thing, we do!


On closer examination, as one who has been an insider for decades, it isn't even clear to me that many of these hyper-partisans are aware that our government came with an owner's manual. Nowhere in the body of that precious document did our Founders grant the hyper-partisan, all-or-nothing crowd exclusive franchise to control the legislative process.


My favorite partisan political posturing occurs following any election where low voter turnout becomes an issue. Every politician and supposedly non-partisan pundit fusses over the lack of citizen participation in the political process, all the while ignoring the fact that the behavior, priorities and performance of our gallant partisans is exactly why voters see little value in participating.


Into this pool of mixed emotions and competing values wades City of Frederick Alderman C. Paul Smith, a constitutional scholar and lawyer. Mr. Smith considers himself a rock-solid Republican and a traditional conservative.


His choice for president was former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. According to Alderman Smith, Governor Romney reflected a commitment to core GOP values more closely than current GOP nominee Sen. John McCain. Senator McCain's reputation as a "maverick" probably means that the traditionalists find too much about him not to like.


Interesting, in that funny way, that irony rears its head in politics. Alderman Smith accepts Governor Romney as conservative enough. This is the same Mitt Romney, when running for governor in a very liberal state, flip-flopped on abortion, stem cell research, supported tighter hand-gun laws, and pushed a government intrusion into the health insurance marketplace routinely dismissed by traditional conservatives like Alderman Smith.


Every other Republican in the presidential primary attacked Governor Romney as a moderate to liberal governor, although he now disavows many of his past policy positions. Good thing Mr. Smith isn't as concerned about consistency as he is about "traditional" values.


None of this matters, really, because Mr. Smith has reluctantly accepted Senator McCain as his party's standard-bearer in the upcoming election. Sounds like the alderman didn't really get energized until Senator McCain announced the addition of Gov. Sarah Palin, of Alaska, to the GOP presidential ticket.


On Blaine Young's call-in talk show on WFMD, Alderman Smith extolled the virtues of Governor Palin. He specifically mentioned her conservative values, her involvement in energy, and her fiscal conservatism.


I wasn't listening to hear the alderman's views on the GOP ticket, though. I was listening to hear him call for my removal as the chairman of the county's legislative delegation. It seems that my personal decision to "disaffiliate" from the Republican Party after 30 years has sent him into a fit of partisan pride and has driven him to purge me of the ministerial duties of delegation chairman.


His own words were posted on last Monday, and I thought he did a very good job of explaining himself. His letter might have been a little wordy, but it was a very clear defense of partisanship.


Isn't that the crux of the problem? Isn't the bottom line that a focus on what is in the best interest of a political party almost always seems to squeeze out what's in the best interests of citizens?


If the delegation chairman's duties were focused on partisan issues and matters related to party, then I might even agree with Alderman Smith. Were that true, it would be completely appropriate to ask an unaffiliated official to step down.


Those duties, keeping minutes, scheduling weekly meetings, conducting the meetings, developing consensus, and keeping seven legislators and five county commissioners informed, and speaking on the delegation's behalf when majority positions are taken, have almost nothing to do with partisan politics.


This is not intended to criticize the Frederick County Republican Central Committee. Central committees are purely partisan bodies, who derive all of their power and their very existence from partisan advocacy.


All of those involved in this disaffiliation, especially yours truly, have allowed this to become a referendum on the central committees. These committees clearly have a role in our political sphere, and considering the winner take all mentality, why would we be surprised that central committee members are angered by a defection.


Let them rightly criticize, using whatever argument seems most appropriate. The "he took advantage of our help when he needed it" argument is a good one, albeit not applicable in my own case. In my last election, I asked for no help, and I got exactly what I asked for!


I did, however, give $4,000 to the House Republican Caucus to help elect other Republicans. The GOP used that money to grow the House GOP Caucus from 43 to 37. Oops, bad math!


I don't hate Republicans. How's that old joke go? Some of my best friends are Republicans. I see Republicans the same way I see Democrats. Both groups are focused on growing their numbers, and the path they take to do that is nowhere near as important as accomplishing the goal.


My decision to disaffiliate from partisanship is not a repudiation of the Republican Party. It is not an indictment of Republicans, central committees, or other elected officials at any level. Alderman Smith is a good man, a staunch conservative, and a fierce partisan. Likewise, it isn't intended as a criticism of Democrats or Democratic Party officials, either.


It is intended as an indictment of the whole mess. It is intended as criticism of a culture that places party interests ahead of the people's interests. It is meant to highlight how dangerous this process can become, how this uncontrolled partisanship has replaced the old-fashioned hearty debate over ideas. And it is one man's attempt to use a bully pulpit, no matter how small, to bring a voice to the fears so expressly voiced by our nation's founders about what might happen if our constitutional republic came to be dominated by two powerful political parties.


They were right to be fearful, and so are you!


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