October 11, 2008

A GOP Ticket In Need Of Good News

If you're rooting for the McCain-Palin ticket, you don't need me to tell you that you want a game-changer to enter the game. You need some good news, and you need it not much later than two weeks before the election. Well, it's now 24 days before the election, and you've probably been not thinking too hard about "Troopergate," the brewing controversy in which it is suggested that Gov. Sarah Palin abused her power as Governor of Alaska to pressure a state appointee to fire a state trooper who was involved in a split-up with the Governor's sister.

You haven't been worried about it that much because you're counting on Republicans on the committee investigating the affair to hold up any adverse findings until after the election. And you're also hopeful and confident in your Vice-Presidential candidate's integrity. So what you really didn't need was this headline splashed all over CNN.

Now, a careful reading of the article indicates that the actual act that Gov. Palin is accused of doing -- improperly firing the public health and safety commissioner who oversees the state troopers -- she was exonerated of. The panel decided that this firing was within her discretion and could have been motivated by a number of factors. But the panel substantially discredited the notion that the trooper in question, Palin's brother-in-law, was engaged in a pattern of domestic abuse against Palin's sister, and it was simply a power play in a divorce turned nasty, which constituted a violation of an ethics reform law of which Palin herself had been a strong advocate.

Palin's initial response, given through a spokesperson, was to complain that the legislative investigators exceeded their authority in finding a violation of the ethics law; they were empowered only to determine if the firing of the safety commissioner was proper or not -- and lo and behold, they found that this was within the scope of the Governor's discretion and not improperly motivated. So she called it an exoneration.

As a matter of law, I think that is correct. The finding of an ethics violation is the equivalent of dicta in a judicial opinion. But this investigation's legal effect and legal propriety is negligible compared to its political impact.

And this demonstration of weak party loyalty also is far from a ringing exoneration of Palin's conduct:

Rep. John Coghill, a Republican who criticized the handling of the investigation, said it was "well-done professionally." He said Palin "bumped right against the edges" of the state's ethics laws but that he would give "the benefit of the doubt to the governor, though, at this point."
In my business law classes, I teach my students that the law is there to define not model or ideal behavior, but rather to define what is minimally acceptable to society. Morality may require that you keep all of your promises to their full spirit and intent. The law only requires that if you do breach a promise, you make the other party whole. Thus, I distinguish a moral duty from a legal one, and elevate what good morality requires above that which the law requires.

So it's good to know that a "reformer" who was touted by the candidate as a good example of a "fellow maverick" with an honest and heartfelt concern about ethics reform demonstrated her commitment to good ethics in government by bumping right up against the edge of the law, but not technically breaking it. There's a standard of excellence we all can model ourselves after.

At this point, though, it scarcely matters. Senate candidates are declining the opportunity to campaign with McCain. Polls are showing West Virginia is too close to call and support for the GOP ticket is softening in places like North Dakota and Nebraska. This is starting to smell like 1992 when, as a nominal Republican who was nominally supposed to support the ticket, I came to realize that we Republicans were about to get hit with a freight train, and had only ourselves to blame for it. Then it was an incumbent administration getting tossed out for breaking a "no new taxes" campaign promise. Now it may not be anything the candidate personally has done or failed to do, but he still has to carry water for a (nominally) conservative administration that is widely perceived to have very seriously and repeatedly screwed the pooch. I say Bush is only nominally conservative because despite being very pleasing to the religious and social right wings, his policies have been in practice far from what traditional conservative thinking would have them be. This is nothing new -- I've been saying this for two and a half years now.

Now, there was also the issue in 1992 of an astonishingly charismatic and skilled Democratic politician who came from seemingly nowhere to grab the brass ring. That sounds like history rhyming in the present. But the big issue is the economy, and that is something which the Republicans, as the incumbent executive party and the party that held control of Congress, has precious little room to hide when things come crashing down like a house of cards.

So what's to do? Well, we're going to be out of power for a while. We need to use that time to recommit ourselves to a set of core beliefs -- a set of core beliefs that moves away from the failed and unpopular agendas that fueled the Second Bush Administration, forsaking social conservatism in favor of an emphasis on economic reform, fiscal responsibility, and (eventually) responsible tax cuts. We need to take back the mantle of earning the public's trust with their money. What we don't need to do is double-down on a failed strategy of social polarization -- this produced marginal victories in 2000 and 2004, but always carried the danger of backfiring if the rest of the pieces of the puzzle did not line up just so, as we are seeing now. In short, like a football team that looks to recover from a losing season, we need to build up our farm team and a new generation of players to step in, and in the meantime we need to focus on our fundamentals.

I don't greet the idea of an Obama Administration with nearly as much love or enthusiasm as my Democratic friends or progressive writers on the Intertubes. But I'm beginning to think that it can have a tonic effect on the GOP and maybe provide some political incentive for the kind of party that I would like to see the GOP become again to emerge out of the wreckage that the 2008 election promises for us.

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