Saturday, December 29, 2007

Vote McCain, save the GOP

I’m an old-fashioned girl. I like my presidents to be heroes.

I yearn for an astute student of history, policy and diplomacy who walks among us today and not simply in dusty David McCullough biographies.

Because we are in the throes of a national identity crisis in education, globalization, foreign affairs, health care and retirement costs.

This is a time for heroes.

Of the 698 candidates for president, there's only one whose hair was shocked white at age 29 after broken bones, rope bindings and dysentery courtesy of the North Vietnamese. He refused to be released unless every prisoner of war got the same deal - so there he stayed for more than five years.

That's far more courage than most of us will ever be called upon to exhibit in a lifetime.

Maybe that's why it's been a simple matter of conscience for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to cross party lines hunting for reasonable solutions on campaign finance, immigration and judicial nominees. And why so many people respect him who don’t share his politics.

Maybe that’s why McCain has always cherished freedom – particularly freedom of the press – even in a time when George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton have perfected stonewalling, intimidation and mistrust of the media to an art form.

Maybe that's why McCain’s humble enough to admit that some of the Machiavellian stunts he's pulled in his quest to become the next Leader of the Free World - like softening his criticism of the Confederate flag - were just plain wrong.

Those are some of my personal reasons for voting McCain in the Jan. 15 presidential primary, just as thousands of independents did in 2000.

But even if you don’t agree, here's another overarching reason why you should pull the lever for him.

We need to save the Republican Party. And it's in the interest of all of us — Democrat, Republican or independent — to do so.

First, the obvious question: Why in the world would Democrats want to do that? Because the status quo of polarization and gridlock benefits no one but lobbyists and interest groups.

There’s no movement on the most important issues of the day – Iraq, immigration and taxes – because compromise is akin to treason. More importantly, it could cost you re-election.

You know we’ve struck nadir when political odd couples like Newt Gingrich and Bob Kerrey hit the talk show circuit bemoaning the bloody death of bipartisanship.

Decades ago, D’s and R’s would dish it out but come together on vital issues, particularly on Cuba, the Soviet Union and the Middle East. Many Republicans like Gerald Ford were considered more liberal on foreign affairs than Democrats. How refreshing.

But since the ‘80s, an increasingly hysterical minority has conquered the GOP, obsessed with politically irrelevant social issues. (How ‘bout this: Let the folks who went to med school sort out stem cells and abortion, let Chuck and Larry decide if they want to get hitched and spend some quality time perfecting your own damn marriage).

The result: New frontrunner Mike Huckabee, who honestly says he’s topping the polls because of “the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people.”

No matter how much Dems might salivate over this Christian caricature as the GOP contender, you don’t want him.

We deserve choices. We deserve at least two viable, thoughtful and sane parties. Look at the dearth of options on the D side of the Michigan primary. There are some Democrats I’d consider voting for, but they’re not on the ballot.

The law of averages and political cycles dictate Republicans will win some elections. We shouldn’t have to fear the draconian damage wreaked by extremists like Dick DeVos.

That also means there’s no competition in the marketplace of ideas. All Gov. Jennifer Granholm had to prove last year was that she was more likeable than a guy parodied as a beady-eyed, blueblood inbred. There was no real vision – and look at the mess we’re in now.

John McCain has ideas. You might not agree with them. Although a principled conservative and hawk, he refuses to be held captive by ideology or theology.

Unfortunately, I think he’s swallowed some bad advice, especially from his Mitten State campaign. He joined the fray, kissing the rings of religious right royalty.

Stop. No matter how many Bush henchmen or Swift Boat ad goons McCain hires, the true believers will never forgive him for calling them out in 2000.

It’s not too late to turn things around in Michigan and win the nomination. But if McCain doesn’t, many Republicans I’ve interviewed say they’ll part ways with the narrowing Party of Lincoln.

They’ll join the biggest political party today – no party.

Huckabee’s reaction may be the same as that to godless heathens who don’t get his success: “That’s probably just as well.”

Mine is: What a pity.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Campaign finance for charlatans

It’s the clash of Congressman Club for Growth vs. Senator Slush Fund.

Forgive me for not being all aquiver.

Evidently, the 7th Congressional District has very bad karma, because so far, U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, and state Sen. Mark Schauer, D-Bedford Township, seem sure to face off next year.

And neither has the vision, experience or ethics to do the job at a time when the depressed district needs genuine leadership.

Walberg, as you’ll recall, sweet-talked the cabalistic Club for Growth lobby into shoveling more than $1 million into his 2006 campaign. How else could a Know Nothing state rep whose only accomplishment was voting no on everything topple a tough incumbent in the primary?

Timmy even needed bags of cash from the Club when squaring off in the general election against Sharon Renier, a chicken farmer with $1.03 in the bank.

Well, lots of politicians get creative to raise dough, but the preacher and his anti-tax CFG partners in crime might well have run afoul of the law.

Three complaints (now rolled into two) filed in 2006 with the Federal Election Commission claim Walberg illegally took $500,000 of Club-raised cash, the group failed to properly register its activities as a political action committee and both were in cahoots (no!), illegally sharing pollsters and consultants.

The lovefest’s lasted after the election, with Walberg and the missus in April enjoying a $3,332 Club for Growth junket to the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach and a cruise on a 170-foot yacht, CQ MoneyLine reports.

Because when you’re chit-chatting about cutting government to the bone, you gotta do it in the lap of luxury.

The FEC dismissed the grievances, but they're being appealed. Walbots deny the allegations, sniffing it’s a sour-grapes plot by his foe, former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz.

What’s clear is CFG ain’t exactly the Boy Scouts. In September, the lobby agreed to pay $350,000 in civil penalties to settle a lawsuit the FEC itself filed in 2005, arguing the group should have registered as a PAC in 2000, 2002 and 2004.

As for Walberg’s character, there’s something vile about an alleged man of God rapturously crucifying his enemies, from the “embarrassingly liberal” Schwarz to the “radical” Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, Schauer, beatified by the left, often gets a pass.

But in his quest to take back the Senate last year – which failed wretchedly – Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s lapdog dove headfirst into campaign finance quicksand.

Schauer served as chair of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, while his bombastic chief of staff, Ken Brock, took over as treasurer of the Senate Democratic Fund.

The fund raked in $440,000 above the legal limit of $20,000 per person – which the Dems don’t deny. Twelve senatorial candidate committees violated that, with Schauer as the worst offender at $187,000.

The moolah was instantly pumped into the campaigns of four key candidates, three of whom were trounced anyway.

For state races, this is a staggering chunk of change. The grievance is pretty cut and dried. When seven candidates got wind of the GOP’s Secretary of State complaint, they ostensibly demanded a refund. Marky-Mark did not.

A Schauer spokesman protests Republicans have done this before, so somehow it’s a-OK. Tom Lenard cites a 1995 SOS ruling that candidates can give till it hurts if they're trying to advance their career. Problem is, the department, which is still investigating, notes that came before the $20,000 cap was set in 1996.

Democrats also argue a federal judge didn’t grant an injunction against the fund last year - but he didn’t buy the old SOS ruling, either.

Schauer’s not exactly a model of moral turpitude, having brazenly lied to his caucus to win the top post - and candidates he recruited for the 7th District - that he wouldn’t run himself. His slick Calhoun County machine reminds me of journalist Pete Hamill’s acerbic assessment of the New York Democratic Party as “young hustlers with blue hair, trying to get their hands on highway contracts.”

Both candidates play the part of the principled politician to the hilt – Walberg as the ├╝ber-conservative, anti-abortion warrior and Schauer as the bright-eyed, progressive reformer. In reality, modest Mark takes his marching orders from the governor and reverend’s soul is the property of Club for Growth.

But wait, some of my liberal friends will yelp. You can’t be saying Schauer would be as bad as the anti-Christ.

Well, no, I reckon my 3-year-old godson could do the job just as well (he’s superb at following orders). Policy-wise, Schauer would be a step up if he could manage to pen press releases without lying about snaring money for the Battle Creek Airport that he voted against.

What I find revolting is that both swim the sewage of politics and don’t retch – they actually seem to feed off the stench.

It’s still early enough for other candidates to jump in. Lord knows, we deserve better.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Could hope spring eternal from tax compromise?

Hail to the victors.

And in this case, that’d be Mike Bishop and his Senate Republicans.

Say what you will about the ever-tan, GQ-attired Senate majority leader (this columnist has, for the record, skewered him as the Tin Woodsman and high school Homecoming king) - but the man got it done last week.

The scorned service tax is no more, replaced by a GOP-crafted surcharge on the Michigan Business Tax. The deal went down 48 hours after all hope seemed siphoned from the Capitol.

The turning point was when Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon on Nov. 28 caved to his caucus, which voted for a plan the Senate would never sign off on and planned to split for six days.

While the Dems’ plan wasn’t unreasonable – it was actually more fiscally responsible – their bravado unwittingly gave the GOP the upper hand.

Incensed and indignant, Bishop and Sens. Jud Gilbert, R-Algonac, and Mark Jansen, R-Grand Rapids, marched into the leadership void.

"In my eight years in the Legislature, I've never seen anything that was such a violation of trust," Gilbert seethed.

Now after 11 straight months of backstabbing, bluster and brainlessness, that’s hard to swallow. Nonetheless, negotiations nosedived to another low, paving the way for an even more agonizing budget showdown next year against the backdrop of the 2008 election.

In the end, the GOP nabbed a sunset for the new MBT tax and a lower rate while raiding a rainy day fund, their favorite pastime.

Yes, Gov. Jennifer Granholm won out on revenue-neutrality – supposedly – and furiously negotiated behind the scenes. But her motivation seemed muddled – was it to demolish a bad tax she’d once succored or to slap down Dillon, her perennial rival?

So Republicans emerged the heroes for slaying the service tax just when it seemed certain it would stay on the books.

Bishop’s power was buttressed by the bill passing almost unanimously in the Senate – despite Democrats’ yowling that they’d been shut out of the process – and by a wide margin in the House.

Though Granholm clearly won the main budget battle back on Oct. 1, those are numbers she could only dream of. Which is why the GOP keeps chanting the service tax and income tax hike are “the Democrats’ plan.”

But rather than be statesmanlike about his triumph, the bitter Bishop afterward again slammed the House, declaring there was “no excuse for any legislators to have turned their back on” the process. The governor at least gets better grades for graciousness in the last round.

Yet Bishop’s phrasing is curious. Note that he doesn’t single out House Dems, because Minority Leader Craig DeRoche, R-Novi, was (surprise) MIA in the mediation, as he has been all year.

DeRoche’s sole goal seems to be carrying water for a few whack-jobs in the state GOP and the intelligent, but indelibly ideological folks at the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Bizarrely, this is how he justified his loathing of the deal that was practically penned by the business community: “To say (it) supports this plan is like saying that a death row inmate chooses the firing squad over the electric chair.”

Contrast DeRoche’s denial and disconnect with Bishop, who’s been a player from the beginning.

Now for the downtrodden Dems, here’s the silver lining.

The business tax hike is now a bonified bipartisan baby – 65 percent of legislators flicked the switch for it. Rather than slash spending, Senate Republicans championed a plan that hiked taxes on a core constituency.

Yeah, they spin it as cut over the sales tax – something we’ll never know for sure since the whipping boy is dead. But as diehard conservatives intone, a tax is a tax is a tax.

What this means is that right-wing interests aren’t as apt to ardently rally ‘round the Republicans next year. That could serve as a cushion for Democrats, who sprint out the gate late thanks to a botched, meaningless Jan. 15 presidential primary.

The across-the-aisle deal also could sap the wind from the sails of the recall movement, whose money and momentum was spurred by the reviled service tax.

The anti-tax zealots - who appear to worship at the altar of his immense foaminess, Mr. Perks, instead of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ – have always hunted Dems and a few token Republicans who really irked them. Watch their fervor and funds dry up at the prospect of taking out so many of their own.

In the end, what truly matters is leaders of both parties came together and did something constructive. It wasn’t great policy and it wasn’t without ego, rancorous rhetoric or excruciating delay.

(“We’re trying to forge world peace,” Sen. Jason Allen, R-Traverse City, cracked Friday afternoon.)

Could be a start. The odds are long, but this is the season of hope, after all.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Everyone loses on service tax

“Senate Republicans are not obstructionists. We are standing up against a mammoth tax increase. This caucus stands for something.” - Senate Majority Mike Bishop, R-Rochester

So far, that something is failure.

After two months of endless bellyaching, Republicans have proven they can’t butcher a wildly unpopular tax.

The oft-slandered service tax – the part of the last-minute state budget deal instantly deemed dead on arrival - now seems poised to take effect Saturday.

Bishop hoisted the white flag Wednesday night after the Democratic-led House passed an alternate business tax and skedaddled home for the weekend.

Republicans seemed stunned they hadn’t gotten their way. After all, they’d slapped their final offer on the table – probably generously written for them by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce – but the Dems’ plan for a permanent, higher Michigan Business Tax surcharge came out of nowhere.

Faced with hardball tactics, Bishop reamed the “uncompromising, partisan” opposition.

“It is clear that the service tax introduced by the governor and carried to fruition by the House Democrats, has been their goal all along,” he sniffed.

What an incredible statement. Despite having public opinion and the entire business community behind him to ax the tax, the baby-faced Bishop admits he was outsmarted by the dynamic duo of Gov. Jennifer Granholm (as Batwoman?) and her Boy Wonder, House Speaker Andy Dillon.

Does anyone really think Bishop has the gravitas to be governor?

The epilogue to the state budget fiasco seems to be following the same script. Much of the GOP and its interest groups can’t quite grasp that they’re not running the show anymore and they need to give a little more – if they want to get anything at all.

Republicans kept congratulating themselves for considering any tax hike. But no one could really think they’d win a small boost to the MBT that died in three years and relied on raiding yet another rainy day fund.

Life’s unfair, kiddies. Minority Democrats learned that the hard way during the era of perpetual tax cuts and cuts to schools and local governments.

Now if hard-line Republicans could have stomached a slightly higher income tax back on Sept. 30, they could have gotten the last two months of their lives back. But more on that in a moment.

As for Granholm and her Democrats, they may have won a pyrrhic victory in shutting down debate. The GOP certainly seems to have acted more gentlemanly in this round and legislators are rightfully milking it for the media and business.

Dillon’s refusal to appoint a conference committee last week – the traditional path - was both bad policy and PR. Ditto the House’s shotgun vote Wednesday night.

Democrats, per usual, seem splintered. For Granholm, keeping the service tax on the books may well be the goal. She christened the idea with her ill-fated two-penny plan, after all, and economists believe the current tax will rake in far more than the $650 million estimated this year.

But Dillon’s contending with a tide of recalls - including his own – and an election for control of the House in 11 months. He’s been much more responsive to business and has pushed tweaks to the MBT in an effort to quell the clamor.

If the service tax starts up anyway, the backlash may have only just begun. That’s exactly what the GOP and Leon Drolet – its anti-tax, recall-happy pal with a big foam pig – fall asleep fantasizing about.

The truth is, everyone’s got it wrong.

The service tax stinks – it’s a capricious, cherry-picked list. And tinkering with the MBT – before it even goes into effect – could well drive business out of our state.

Leaders need to stop focus-grouping the budget. Business lobbyists testifying before Tax Policy committees act like they’re ordering off a menu (“We’ll take a 12 percent surcharge on the MBT with a side exemption for compensation”) - and some feel they’re entitled to skip out on the bill entirely.

Politicians would be better off sitting down with Tom Clay of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council and letting him scare the crap out of them about the state’s finances, services and schools and where we’re headed.

What they need to do in the short-term is repeal the service tax and hike the income tax from 4.35 to 4.8 percent.

Then for next year, it’s time to think long-term. Bishop could show his leadership chops by championing real reforms to legislator and employee benefits and Corrections, coupled with a graduated income tax that takes a constitutional amendment, but provides a steadier revenue stream. Exploring a fairer service tax would also be prudent policy, since that’s the growing sector of the economy.

Of course, that will never happen. Constructive solutions are the enemy of the poisonous partisanship Lansing is drunk on.

And political courage always shrivels up in an election year.