The Outstater: Don’t Put Your Hopes in this Session

December 28, 2016

“They say you can’t study Kabbalah until you are at least 40 years old. You have to have experienced at least one generation making the same mistakes as the previous one.” — The playwright David Mamet

by Craig Ladwig

Tim George, program director at WBAT radio in Marion, asked a most serious question on the air this morning: Is this the session in which we begin a return to coffee-shop democracy, that is, sending legislators to Indianapolis as friends and neighbors rather than as mere lawyers, detached legal agents?

Probably not, thinks our Tom Huston. “Look for the Republican supermajority at the next session of the General Assembly to continue to dance to the tune called by the State Chamber of Commerce, the mortgage bankers and other corporate special interests.”

For in this last decade the Statehouse has filled with men and women who view being a legislator an end in itself, the best job they’ve ever had and the best job they ever hope to get. On the Republican side, the most critical calculation is to decide whether the Chamber, whatever that represents, will score a particular measure, and if so whether you can afford to vote against it without drawing a primary opponent.

That calculation has become more complicated. There are grassroots efforts throughout the state contesting the Chamber’s definition of Republicanism. For example, John Kessler, a college economics teacher and a late-filing primary challenge to the president pro tem, won 6,000 votes in the 16th District without a strategic advertising budget, just going door to door. In a normal year, that could have been enough for victory.

In other words, one of the GOP establishment’s most ensconced arguably owes his office to a surge of 4,000 Trump voters who pulled for the down ticket blindly. “Trump’s 19.2-point margin of victory buoyed a lot of GOP boats that might otherwise have sunk,” Huston observed more generally.

There are donors to primary elections who will find that interesting. Donald Trump won a whopping 57.2 percent of the vote in Indiana despite the indifference, let us say, of the Indiana State Republican Committee and the seated members of the leadership. The establishment’s amply funded gubernatorial candidate won by less that a third of Trump’s victory margin, its U.S. senatorial candidate by only a bit more than half.

But back to George’s question: What does all this mean for the upcoming session? He is referred to an essay by our Dr. Cecil Bohanon: “What Can We Expect from the General Assembly — A Most Unromantic Look at How Our Government Works.” Bohanon’s argument buttresses Huston’s observation that it will mean less than Mr. George and his radio audience might suppose, even given the dramatic political changes of the past year. From the Bohanon paper:

“In the battle for ideas there are two competing forces. One side calls for citizens to insist their governments do more in dealing with social issues and problems. This side seems to think that there is an endless untapped supply of citizen sacrifice to monitor an ever-expanding state. The other side, of which The Indiana Policy Review is part, recognizes the importance of citizen oversight in a free society but recog- nizes its supply is limited. Rather than pile more and more obligations on both citizens and the state, it is better to have a constrained and focused set of expectations about what government and democracy can accomplish. So what does this tell us about the upcoming legislative session? Don’t expect much. Indeed, if you insist on a lot, then you will surely get only a little.”

If we are right, then, that the calculations of these two sides will be more complicated next session, that their individual positions more scattered by special-interest pressures even as they are torn from their political base, it means an especially discouraging prospect for George’s coffee-shop politics — this session, anyway.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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