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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Governors say the darndest things

Posted By on Thu, Oct 28, 2010 at 5:37 PM

I can't explain why the blogging has fallen off as late, especially with an election so close at hand. I guess it's for the same reason that, when you see a collision with a freight train coming, you sort of lose interest in fiddling with the radio.

But I'm struck by this news, from the Allentown Morning Call: Ex-governor Tom Ridge -- who these days is pimping the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry -- is apparently less hostile to a tax on natural gas than Tom Corbett, the GOP front-runner for Ridge's old job.

Corbett, dutifully reading from the Repubican catechism, opposes new taxes of any kind. But ... 

Ridge ... said he believes Pennsylvanians would accept Corbett breaking his pledge on a shale tax because they'd feel no personal impact and would be getting something in return for it.

"I've got to say that, if the dollars were going to a specific cause -- enforcement, regulation, support [for] local communities, counties -- I personally don't think the public would view that as going back on his pledge," Ridge said. "It wouldn't affect them, it would socialize the benefit of these companies' presence. But I have to let Tom make that decision -- if he wins, and I think he will."

Democrats have of course seized on this as proof that Corbett is too extreme. ("It's become more and more clear that Tom Corbett is ... out of the mainstream," a state Democratic official claimed in a release issued today.)

Which is no doubt true. I mean, natural gas is taxed by even Republican states with significant natural gas industries. TEXAS has a tax on natural gas, for God's sake. We're going to be more beholden to the fossil-fuels business than fucking TEXAS?

But of course, you want to beware of gas drillers bearing gifts. For one thing, the gas industry has been pretty clear that they'd willingly accept a tax if they got something in return -- preferably a "forced pooling" provision allowing them to take gas even from  land whose owners don't want to sign away their rights. And there's kind of a funny admission in Ridge's claim that Pennsylvanians won't oppose taxes that a) they won't be the ones paying; and b) might produce some sort of tangible benefit for communities. These days, talk like that gets you a roomful of irate Tea Party activists.

I mean, federal estate taxes -- "death taxes," as Republicans are fond of calling them -- are only paid by a tiny fraction of people. (Less than 2 percent of estates are subject to the tax, according to a 2005 report from the Congressional Budget Office.) Yet to hear GOP rhetoric, an estate tax is little more than tyranny. And somehow, I doubt they'd feel differently if the proceeds of that tax were earmarked "to a specific cause."

Not that Democrats appear any more cognizant of how the political landscape is changing. Take Gov. Ed Rendell, who during a recent CNN appearance said of Democrats, "We're a bunch of wusses."

OK, who exactly is this "we"? Because surely the wussiest move in Pennsylvania politics this year was the effort to push Arlen Specter -- a former Republican -- as the Democratic nominee in this year's Senate race. The fear was that only Specter could beat the GOP's nominee, Pat Toomey, because progressive insurgent candidate Joe Sestak was too liberal to have a prayer. You may recall Democratic party leaders warning that a Sestak candidacy would be "cataclysmic." And Rendell was a leading Specter backer as well.

Now it's quite possible that Sestak will indeed lose next week. The race is tight. But does anyone -- anyone at all -- think there'd even be a race at this point if Specter had won the Democratic primary? When was the last time you heard a Democrat say, "God, if only Arlen were still in this thing, we'd really have a shot at winning it"? 

In fact when you look back now, Rendell's prognostications are nothing short of hilarious. Take, for example, his 2009 prediction that in primary contest against Specter, Sestak would get less than 20 percent of the vote. Way to have your finger on the pulse there, governor.

But the problem isn't that Rendell was wrong about Specter's electability. The problem was that Specter's alleged electability was the main reason we were supposed to vote for him. We were supposed to toss aside questions about Specter's trustworthiness, or his wayward track record on most of the issues that matter to us. We were supposed to go with Specter simply because he could beat Toomey.

Now, having counseled voters to abandon their beliefs, Rendell faults party figures for lacking courage in their own convictions. After backing a guy who has confounded Democratic initiatives as often as not, Rendell suddenly thinks the part should be boasting about those initiative more openly. As he told CNN:

"If we're going to go down, we should go down over things we believe in."

That's a noble sentiment, and familiar to those of us who backed Sestak six months ago. Too bad that -- much like Rendell's moratorium on gas-drilling in state forests -- Rendell has discovered his convictions just when he's totally unable to do anything about them. It almost makes you wonder how serious he really is.

In fact, when you look at these two ex-governors, you see exactly how our politics has gotten to this point. Ridge, a moderate Republican, seems blissfully unaware of how far the party has moved from his values. Rendell, meanwhile, only seems to have remembered his values now that he can't do anything to advance them. The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity. And that's why the center ain't holding. 

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