Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Democrats lock the doors to the New York State Senate. Life lessons from this for us all.

If it doesn't rain, today New York's state senators will be meeting in the park across the street from State Senate Chamber in Albany. The Democrats who ran the senate until yesterday and still possess the keys to the iron gates at the Chamber door have locked them, to keep the newly ascendant Republicans outside.

Thus the Empire State is governed.

Megan McArdle, commenting on the "coup" pulled by the Republicans yesterday in getting two senate Democrats to switch to their side and turn the balance of power, wrote that where she is the story "... is being reported nearly exclusively as a gay marriage thing. Yes, I understand that this is a blow to gay marriage..." So I'll take it that outside of New York that political spin being applied.

But no, it is not a "gay marriage thing", not at all. Governor Patterson wishes it were a gay marriage thing! More of that in a moment...

The gist of what happened is: The Albany Democrats in the state senate have been out of power for 43 years and, shall we say, lack management experience when it comes to actually doing things, as opposed to posturing for various audiences. In last year's election they won control of the state senate by just one vote -- importantly, less than one solid vote, because immediately after the election no fewer than four dissident Democrats threatened to switch to the Republicans, which caused them all to be bought off, for the moment, with many promises.

Now you might think that a new Democratic leadership handicapped by such a precarious hold on power might act cautiously to shore it up, adopting judicious policies, perhaps even trying to lure over some Republicans from the other side to join them and secure their majority. But you would be wrong.

Instead, with absolutely no experience at managing power, the Democratic leaders went on a rampage as if they had the FDR majority of 1933. They broke their promises to their main backers in general and potential defectors in particular. On the strength of their shaky one-vote majority they fired hundreds of Republican staffers and employees ... slashed millions of dollars out of the Republican senate operating budget ... moved Republicans to former-closet offices in the basement and under the stairwells ... distributed the senate's pork, er, "member items" at a ratio of $78 million for Democrats to $8 million for Republicans ... etc. & so on.

One might say they demonstrated the keen perception, nuanced judgment and subtle tact of Eliot Spitzer.

By doing so they unified the Republicans as their bitter enemies (when in their moment of weakness wavering Republicans might have been co-opted) and antagonized the entire Albany "professional political establishment" which has considerable influence of its own (think "Yes, Minister", on this side of the water).

A critical individual player in all this was Tom Golisano, an upstate entrepreneurial billionaire and "good government" activist. Despite being very much the businessman and a low-tax, low-regulation guy, he gave millions of dollars to the Democrats in the last election to help them win the senate. He'd given up in disgust on the Republicans and their 43-year record, concluding the Democrats couldn't possibly be worse. He soon found out how wrong he was about that.

After taking his money the Democrats not only broke all the promises they made to him about enacting "good government" reforms, they also decided to close an $18 billion budget deficit by increasing spending by 8%, financed by 52 new taxes, including a new higher top tax bracket rate on him. (This would cause him to announce that he his moving his residence out of the state to save $13,000 per day in taxes ... but that would be later.)

Moreover, they slighted him personally. When Golisano met with the new Democratic Senate leader Malcolm Smith to discuss these events -- particularly to propose ways to close the state budget gap without raising taxes -- Smith snubbed him by playing with this Blackberry throughout...
"Of course I was upset ... When I travel 250 miles to make a case how to save the state a lot of money, and the guy comes in and starts playing with his Blackberry, I was miffed."
So Golisano flipped sides and told the Democrats' "fickle four" that if they went over to the Republicans he'd back their re-election campaigns with his money no matter what the Democrats did to them. And then they all spent about the last two months planning yesterday's switch.

During which time the Democratic senate leaders were so politically astute that they didn't have a clue that any of this was going on. Not until a vote on the distribution of pork, er, "member items", started shockingly to go against them yesterday. At which point they turned out the lights in the chamber and stopped the TV broadcast of events, much like a third-world junta tries to stop news of an uprising against it from reaching the public. With the same result.

Of course the immediate aftermath has been a deluge of personal slurs and charges of political treason, extortion, bribery, corruption, and other assorted wrongdoing -- and they are all true! Everybody is accusing everybody else of being "the bad guy" -- and they are all right! But as Golisano put it...
"Don't talk to me about ethical backgrounds in Albany. We have a governor who stood on a podium on national television and said he had extramarital affairs and used cocaine."
No, this is not a story about gay marriage. It is a story about hardball politics ... and of stunning political incompetence by the Democratic leadership in the state senate which for 43 years had been selected and bred to do nothing but posture -- and which when given a modicum of actual political power went bat s**t crazy with it and self-destructed.

Governor Patterson wishes this was a story about gay marriage, since it appears to be the one and only issue working for him with the voters here. And since, as a result of the senate power switch, he looks about to get hoisted good-and-high on his own political petard.

Patterson, the "accidental governor" who took over when Spitzer self-destructed, reportedly has the lowest poll numbers of any governor in the nation. To try to boost them he has been posing as a fiscal moderate against the tax-and-spend Democrats in the legislature, by proposing "fiscal reforms" such as a state spending cap limit, property tax limitations, and so forth.

In doing so he has been engaging in one of the oldest of political shams -- supporting what he knew there was no chance the legislature would ever pass. He would enjoy getting all the high taxes to spend while posing as being against them.

But now -- horror of horrors! -- he actually faces getting what he's asked for! The Republican senate says it will pass his proposals. And that will put him in the position of either having to join the Republicans in backing his proposals against his own Democratic party, and probably losing right there whatever minimal chance he may still have of getting its nomination for another term ... or of joining the Democrats in fighting his own proposals, showing all the voters he never meant them and displaying what a lyin' politician he's been all along.

The governor is the big loser in all this (apart from the senate Democrats themselves -- maybe even bigger than them, since they'll almost all at least keep their jobs thanks to gerrymandering, while the governor figures to end up unemployed).

The big winner (apart from the senate Republicans) is Mayor Bloomberg. It's not at all clear at this point whether he played a role in these events or not. But Bloomberg has a lot more influence with senate Republicans than Democrats, and the Republicans are a lot more sympathetic to some of his top priorities, such as keeping mayoral control of the school system. Bloomberg has kept a very low profile in discussing these events, and is not crying over them. We shall see.

Are there some larger lessons for all of us, even non-New Yorkers, that may be drawn from these events? I suggest there are...

[] Republicans, even when facing the most trying of times, always have one thing going for them: Democrats.

[] In two-party politics, big power shifts almost always come not from the challenger party successfully challenging but from the incumbents screwing up. (Give Obama and the national Democrats some more time.)

[] Anybody who wants this class of human being ... politicians... to design and manage national health care or any other similarly grand public ambition is ... well ... not familiar with our real world.

Do not think of nationalized health care and such great public schemes as being designed and run by "the government", wisely and on our behalf. Think of them as being designed and run by politicians, by these guys.

These very guys have already brought us government-run health care, Medicaid, that is 40% fraud and "legal graft", and public transit that pays repair yard workers $280,000 a year at the taxpayers' cost. How much more do we want them to do for us?

Watching the politicians of the New York State government in Albany in action will make a libertarian out of anybody!

If Gus Hall were still alive today, it would make a libertarian out of him.

Do you really think politicians in Washington DC are so different?