Monday, March 24, 2014

Republican Politics: The Art and Jesse Show

If you are at all inclined to wade into the morass that passes for Republican party politics these days, here’s a bit of advice: don’t call Art Wittich an extremist. It makes him really testy and the results are not pleasant. Just ask Jesse O’Hara.

O’Hara is a recently retired Great Falls school teacher and moderate Republican member of the Montana House who is now termed out. He had the temerity recently to publish an opinion piece in which he took on the Republican leadership of the Senate, including Majority Leader Wittich, for derailing the GOP. O’Hara has a lot to say about “dark money,” Republican “purity tests,” obstructionism, Libertarians running as phony Republicans, failure to govern and so forth. None of that seems to have upset Wittich, but what did get his goat was being called an extremist, and his response, published last week, shows just how badly his goat was gotten. It is also a marvel of personal offensiveness and political inventiveness unjustified by the facts.

On the personal side, Wittich says he was surprised by O’Hara’s piece, because O’Hara, after retiring, moved to Florida, where, Wittich claims, “the only time he leaves his beach chair is to walk to the mail box to  collect his teacher pension and state health care benefits.” One has to assume that Wittich doesn’t actually have spies on the beach in Florida, and denigrates O’Hara here with a snarky tongue-in-cheek, but the implication lingers: O’Hara, and by extension, I suppose, all retired teachers receiving their TRS checks (full disclosure: I’m one of them) are wallowing at the public trough. Chiselers. Welfare queens.

Wittich carries this particular canard with him when he tries to shed the extremist label by claiming that all he did was “lead 75 percent of the Senate Republican Caucus in opposing the backroom political wheeling by O’Hara and his crossover Republicans dealing with the Democrats.”  One of these nefarious deals was “passing a $125 million …bailout of the state employee pension system, making taxpayers… again guarantee O’Hara and his friends’ retirement, instead of their own.”

How Wittich can apparently forget that these public employees spent their lives teaching our kids, or patrolling and plowing the highways, or assisting the disabled, or firefighting, or otherwise serving the public is beyond me. When they were hired to do all those things, they were told they would get paid, have health insurance and eventually receive a retirement check. The compensation package wasn’t lavish, but it was the deal the state offered and the deal the employees took. And it was the deal that Democrats and moderate Republicans were honoring when they “bailed out” the retirement systems, which had been hammered in the financial meltdown, to the tune of about $1.25 per member of the public. But when the going got tough, Wittich would apparently have preferred that the public renege on its deal with its employees. You can decide for yourself whether a deadbeat and an extremist are the same thing.

Another bipartisan effort Wittich is proud to have opposed was the attempt to expand Medicaid coverage to over 70,000 more people even when “they are able but unwilling to work.”  The 70,000 people Wittich is talking about here are low income Montanans – men, women, and children – living at or below 138 percent of the poverty level, and it’s hard to imagine that anybody – let alone a state Senator - can be so deluded about the workings of poverty to suggest that unwillingness to work is its principal cause. Has Wittich really never heard of the working poor?*

But it’s worse. Even when Wittich had the opportunity to vote on a bill to expand Medicaid coverage just to poor people who had jobs or were looking for them, he voted against it.**

If you are sensing a theme here, it is probably that Wittich and his political allies believe they are surrounded by people – public employees and low income families to name a few – who are trying to exploit them, to get something for nothing, to feather their own nests. It’s the politics of resentment and class warfare, and as far as I can see, O’Hara’s got it right: It’s extremism.

*If he hasn’t, he should take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics publication A Profile of the Working Poor, 2010.

**HB 623. You can look at voting records, follow debates, and read the text of the bill, as amended in the Senate, by clicking here.