It's a glorious time of year as Montanans across our beautiful state gather in the bountiful harvest from their fields and gardens. Food banks suddenly have an influx of much-needed fresh vegetables. Freezers get filled, pantry shelves are re-stocked with an abundance of homemade food and hunters take to the field as the first snows dust our high mountains. It's a time for those who have sown and tended carefully to celebrate the results and enjoy the security of knowing they're prepared for the long winter months ahead. But in the political world, it's also harvest time. And "reaping what you sow" in that arena has a whole different meaning.
While many Montanans are finding comfort and joy in the common experience of filling our larders and sharing with neighbors or those less fortunate, the coming elections highlight our political differences rather than our commonality. If you believe virtually every political pundit, reporter and commentary, it will be a joyless harvest for Democrats this year and a mixed harvest for Republicans as they fight among themselves and ponder the strange fruits of the Tea Party growing in what they thought of as their garden.
Nationally, the mood is anything but joyful or certain. Unemployment remains at crushing levels, with many areas of the country firmly in double digits. California, for instance, is the eighth largest economy in the world, yet struggles in the throes of fiscal crisis with almost 13 percent unemployment. The picture is considerably worse in many parts of the country, including our formerly powerful industrial areas. Where factories hummed away for a century, now empty buildings cry a mournful dirge of wind blowing through broken windows. Where once a proud middle class worked hard to buy homes, educate families and looked forward to secure retirement, many now face the unbearable burden of foreclosure, the inability to take care of their families, and the crippling blows of reduced or eliminated pensions. Adding to the angst are the insulated politicians who seem to think reducing Social Security and cutting other long-paid-for federal programs are our only choices.
Here in Montana, things are not much better. Despite the bravado emanating from the governor's office, the legislative fiscal analysts, most of whom have been doing their jobs for decades regardless of which party was in power, say we're facing a $400 million funding deficit for the coming session. Gov. Schweitzer, sticking with his derogatory attitude toward all things legislative, says he read three sentences and "threw the report in the garbage."
But apparently the governor forgot to give a pair of his rose-colored glasses to Evan Barrett, his economic development director. In a Bozeman meeting last month, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle quoted Barrett as saying the deficit will force the state to cut funding "to all kinds of wonderful things. This is the worst time to be looking for new money from the state of Montana." Now, these two guys work in close proximity every day and if they can't get on the same page, what does that say about who is or who isn't telling the truth?
In a similar situation, we are now being treated to the arguments between the White House and Congress on extending the infamous Bush tax cuts. Montanans with good memories will recall that it was our own Democratic Sen. Max Baucus who, as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, proudly helped President Bush pass the tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans—and then used the picture of himself with Bush signing the bill in his campaign ads. But over the years, those cuts to the least needy among us added trillions of dollars to the national deficit and plunged the nation deeper and deeper into debt.
In a classic case of reaping what you sow, Congress is now locked in what we're supposed to believe is a serious consideration of the minimal benefits and considerable costs of either extending these patently unfair tax policies, reducing them so they only apply to those who make less than a quarter million dollars a year or, heaven forbid, making them permanent. And some Democrats, looking to their wealthy funders for ever-increasing campaign funds, are jumping ship on President Obama's decision to limit any extension of the cuts to the middle class.
As the old saying goes, "A house divided will not stand" and Democrats may well fulfill that adage this year. What we really need right now is for Democrats to act like Democrats, not "moderate" Republicans. It is no great secret that the richest of our population have vastly increased their wealth over the last decade while the rest of us have seen earnings fall, buying power crumble, and savings vanish in the ever-shady stock market.
Oddly enough, when members of Congress such as Vermont's Bernie Sanders actually stand up for the middle class and denounce the Bush tax cuts, they are castigated instead of applauded. Just this week, Sanders told reporters in no uncertain terms: "At a time when this nation has a $13 trillion national debt and a widening gap between the very rich and everyone else, the dumbest thing we could possibly do is to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to some of the wealthiest people in America." Once upon a time, Sanders would have been a hero to Democratic ideals. Now, however, he finds himself an independent, too liberal and too much a champion of the little guys to fit in with the modern, Baucus-style Democrats.
Truly, our state and national political gardens seem infested with weeds and incapable of wholesome production. It's a sad state of affairs with an even sadder outcome. Harvest time has surely come and for that we can be thankful. But on the political scene, it's a grim harvest indeed.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.