First, let me be clear: I don’t have any personal vendetta against Republicans.
Heck, I grew up in a Republican household in a Republican neighborhood with lots of Republican friends. These days, I spend much of my personal and professional time with Republicans, many of whom I am genuinely close to. But many of them aren’t real happy with what local Republican politicians are doing either.
And I have enough humility over my own failings to help me garner a little compassion for the some, not all, Republican politicians in this state who are so needy for hero approval that they can’t resist falling for the same impulse week in and week out. After all, I opted for the self-aggrandizing mission of trying to unseat one of America’s most right-wing U.S. Senators in one of America’s most right-wing states. I like to think I regularly choose to invest my time and energy into efforts that offer a reasonable ROI, so draw your own conclusions.
But I also think it is important to call out and critique the choices of a de facto, one-party supermajority when they deserve it, especially when an entire state is dramatically impacted as a result. After all, they have complete control, not me nor my party. We rise and fall on their decisions alone, choices they are free to make without any checks and balances, courtesy of the voters (but minus the occasional federal judge’s ruling).
I don’t think there is any easy or concise explanation for the current extreme state of Oklahoma government, but this is the closest I can come to it: The GOP establishment keeps running into a fork in the road like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. The metaphorical fork represents a choice between savior politics and grown-up, boring pragmatism.
Savior politics repeatedly disappoints
Savior politics is one of the more disappointing phenomena in American governance at large right now. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the favored flavors of the moment: Tidy and simple idealism swooping in to reform the unquestionably broken system, all packaged up in the persona of an individual savior and his devout followers determined to remain uncompromised as they demonize their opponents but also somehow try to get them to comply as an agreeable opposition.
“I don’t think any of you on the other side have any integrity,” the would-be saviors say, “but nonetheless we expect you to rubber stamp our oversimplified solution to a really complex and messed up conundrum.”
This sounds totally workable, sure! Sounds a lot like the emotionalism of my 9-year-old when I interrupt his mostly oblivious life of comfort to remind him he will occasionally have to perform tasks that are boring and painful if he wants to become a functioning adult one day.
Oklahoma Republicans’ breathtaking success over the past 25 years at thoroughly discrediting the Democratic brand, its institutions and its leaders has ensured them sustained political popularity.
I mean, super-popular. Seriously. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the overcharged antagonism his image provoked in the typical Oklahoma voter, we entered a surreal era of Oklahoma government where any mistakes or ill-advised policy decisions at 23rd and Lincoln were continuously camouflaged and distracted by the ever-present scapegoat to blame 1,500 miles away on Pennsylvania Avenue. For example: Cuts to education? Until recently, Obama’s popularity somehow overrode the increasing anxiety across the state throughout our education system among people who voted for the local politicians making the cuts.
From 2008 to present, the GOP has had some legislative candidates win public office who, frankly, have no business serving in that capacity. I mean that respectfully, just as I have no rational business operating a crane or flying a Cessna. But that has been the ridiculously fortuitous political bonanza that Oklahoma Republicans have found in their laps the past eight years, over and over. And it ends up that human nature makes it awful hard to reject that “too good to be true” fortune voluntarily. Finally kicking the habit usually happens by your office being taken away, when you are finally resorted to your hands and knees, or when our quality of life deteriorates enough.
Part of this rise to dominance was predicated on a steady and successful promise of core conservative ideologies, with some purist steroids sprinkled on top. For example: the inevitable utopia of making government small; the inherent economic toxicity of government-funded health care; the ever-present danger of liberal social policies; and so on.
With the shrinking political opposition having no legitimate levers to counter policy proposals, Oklahoma became like Kansas: an unfettered lab in which conservative ideas play out to their full and most pure incarnations, sort of like the rich King Adolphus of Sweden 400 years ago: He tried to build a huge and expensive ship, the Vasa, just because he could. But when it was finished, the ship happened to sink before it made it out of the harbor, killing hundreds.
The adoring eyes of the base
Oklahoma’s current budget disaster is the full-circle embodiment of Grover Norquist’s “drown it in a bathtub” small-government reduction. It’s hard now to tell voters it actually has not worked out as planned after it has been so easy to get them nodding yes with adoring eyes all these years. How can a Republican politician take back repeated claims that Obamacare will destroy our economy to now accept Medicaid expansion dollars, and at the same time still occupy the favored savior status that retains all those adoring eyes?
Be careful what you promise and what you convince people of, especially those looking for a savior. And that brings me to the voters. I blame them as much, if not more, for all of this.
I keep referring to the voters’ adoring eyes. Any successful politician would be lying if he or she were to deny their appeal. There is something exciting about standing before a crowd of true believers, their adoring eyes re-enforcing that you are the hope that can rectify their worries and give reason for their grievances to subside. It is an intoxicating validation and, therefore, hard to resist, especially when the other side often views you in the opposite light.
The bases of the parties see no grey area. It’s either Jesus or the devil.
Most of the Oklahoma GOP keeps opting to please the base they enabled and promised unreachable peaks. The base that makes them, in turn, feel so empowered and important.
I know, I’ve been there with my own push and pulls.
Putting politics over good government is not necessarily always about being re-elected. It is sometimes about the more powerful need to know those adoring eyes won’t fade away, that you can make a difference and you’re worth something in life.
Choices were made
Because I am not regularly able to summon the discipline to write an occasional commentary for this news site I publish, I often take the easier, more knee-jerk option of tweeting my political observations. As the Oklahoma Legislature neared its May sine die date, my increasingly biting arrows of disdain drew the occasional retort. Things like, “man you’ve become bitter,” or some critique on my perceived “personal vendetta” toward Republicans.
While I stand by my opening claim that I don’t have any personal vendetta against Republicans, I am somewhat bitter and jaded these days about politics. It’s frustrating that these messy psychological needs keep us apart from each other, keep us from making some tough mutual decisions. That does makes me bitter, at the missed opportunities.
Although I can’t promise I would have been more upstanding and “better than that” if it had been me in the supermajority, I would hope that, by this point, I would have some humility and admit I was wrong about some things had my party been in charge. Currently, I’m not really seeing any of that from the guys and gals in charge. Maybe some of them are saying it privately, but they aren’t telling the voters publicly.
It didn’t have to be this way, but choices were made, and now it looks like there are increasingly only bad and worse choices to make.
If only we had some saviors…. But not the type many voters think we need.