Sticky labels 

Welcome to the whine-ority

Everyone has come home from the store with some purchase or another only to discover the label won’t come off. First it tears away in strips, then you’re reduced to scraping at it with a razor blade until finally only a sticky residue remains, tenaciously defying all attempts to remove it. The same thing happens in politics—and sometimes those sticky political labels spell long-term trouble.

Take the case of the Democrats, who were swept out of power back in the 1992 elections because the sticky “tax and spend” label could not be removed from the party’s public image. Not only did the Dems lose control of the House of Representatives, but Marc Racicot used the “tax and spend” label to great effect in his narrow defeat of gubernatorial challenger Dorothy Bradley. The nexus of Racicot’s campaign strategy lay in his contention that he would spend less of the nonexistent sales tax on government than would Democrat Bradley.

As it turned out, Montana’s citizens once again told the Legislature where it could stick its sales tax, but by then it was too late for Bradley and Racicot became a two-term governor. That he basically ignored his campaign promise of fiscal conservatism and spent profligately managed to escape serious public attention. His broken promises were simply overridden by his personal popularity and his propensity to appear “gubernatorial.”

His successor Judy Martz had no such luck. Ironically, she applied her own sticky label, dubbing herself a “lapdog for industry” during her campaign against Mark O’Keefe, her Demo challenger. O’Keefe reinforced the Democrats’ unfortunate “tax and spend” label with a million-dollar, late-campaign infusion of personal funds, which many say cost him the election. But it was Martz who went on to a disastrous one-term governorship in which her “lapdog” label became a statewide embarrassment to Montanans of all political persuasions. Ultimately, it was Martz’s own unpopularity that tipped the scales in the last election and wound up shifting Montana’s political balance of power from Republicans to Democrats.

Comes now the 2005 Legislature, with its own sticky labels. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has done a commendable piece of work in scraping off some of the Demo’s “tax and spend” label with his opposition to new taxes and commitment to holding the line on spending. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his hapless opponents who, through a failed strategy of their own devising, have now stuck themselves with a sticky label that reads “Whining Republicans.”

Take, for example, Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan, who has been a constant Schweitzer critic. Perhaps rightfully shocked at his first legislative experience in the minority party, Keenan has gone over the edge of credibility in his role as Chief Whiner. Unfortunately, he pulled his party over that edge with him. Now, people on the streets regularly talk about “whining Republicans”—to say nothing of the flood of letters to the editor in papers across the state echoing and condemning exactly that image.

Just as it was factually incorrect to stick all Democrats with the “tax and spend” label, it is also patently unfair to blame all Republicans for Keenan’s hissy fits. In fact, a number of Republican legislators have accepted the fact that Montana’s fickle electoral coin sometimes lands on the flip side, resulting in Demo majorities. These responsible members of the Legislature have gone about their business, largely rejecting strict partisan voting in favor of constituent-based concerns. And while they have not sought out the media spotlight as has Keenan, they have also not smeared their party with the tenaciously sticky “whiner” label.

The real problem for the Republicans comes in trying to scrape that label off. As we approach the end of the session, there will be significant opportunities for the two parties to square off. To be sure, the Democrats are highly sensitized to the “tax and spend” label, and are seriously working to prove to Montanans that fiscal conservatism is not the exclusive province of the Republican Party. Thanks to Keenan’s efforts, however, the Republicans are truly caught in a quandary—the more they complain, the more they reinforce their image as whining Republicans.

For instance, criticizing Schweitzer’s effort to close tax loopholes for huge corporations and the very wealthy just doesn’t fly well with the majority of Montanans, who are pulling down the lowest per capita wages in the nation. Republicans, who would have routinely lambasted such a move for creating a “bad business climate,” now find themselves painted as unjust critics of what appears to be a very good tax fairness effort. When multinational corporations gripe about how many more millions closing the loopholes will cost them, not only are they verifying the legitimacy of Schweitzer’s claim that they have been evading their taxes, but they are adding to the “whining Republican” image.

This creates a serious end-of-session problem for the Repubs. Demos reinforced their “tax and spend” image when they fought for higher budgets for education and human services during the era of Republican majorities—whether or not those increases were justified. Now, whether or not their criticism of Schweitzer or the Demos is justified, Republicans will have a tough time appearing to be “working together” for the good of the state. Instead, it is much more likely that they will be perceived as simply whining some more because they are no longer in power.

The real trouble, however, may come in the future. Sticky labels, by definition, are tough to remove. Keenan and some of his Repub pals, whether by design or accident, have concocted a very negative label for their party that doesn’t appear to be fading with time. Should that label stick until the next election—and it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t—the results may last far beyond the end of the 2005 legislative session.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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