Know the Game You're Trying to Play: Kitzhaber 1, Challengers 0

Paul Evans

For Democrats frustrated with the glaring inequalities of America’s “separate but unequal” economic recoveries (robust for the top 10%, anemic for the bottom 50%), the notion of readjusting the readjustments to public pensions for the men and women that sweep our streets, teach our children, and run into danger when everyone else is running away – is hateful, unacceptable, and a crime against conscience.

There will either be a Special Session later this month or not.

If there is a Special Session there will be a “Grand Bargain,” or not.

Whatever happens we know one thing to be absolutely certain: Governor Kitzhaber wins the public relations war about both the need for more funding for P-20 education as well as the need for additional policy actions minimizing the potential long-term impacts of public employee retirements upon state budgets.

In simplest terms, Governor Kitzhaber has already won the war regardless of the specifics shaped in the battles to come.

The public now accepts the Governor’s seriousness about this effort. We are aware of the week’s long outreach to members of the Legislature. Oregon understands he has expended political capital in pursuit of a hard compromise – between his base as well as his adversaries – and he has demonstrated a willingness to invest his personal talent, time, and treasure in the endgame.

Whatever may come of a policy shift the landscape has been sufficiently recast. Unfortunately for Senate President Courtney and Speaker Kotek (and the Democratic members they lead), the price of this victory will most likely be paid by the majority caucuses: already vulnerable members seeking to hold onto battleground “swing” districts surrounding the Metro area appear to be even more vulnerable.

Fortunately for all those engaged in seeking compromise the potential benefits from an actual “Grand Bargain” (defined as something that will actually result in both savings and security) would potentially reward the risks. If there is a solution that demonstrates responsible governance in an era of partisan strife – a public frustrated with ideological warfare may realize leadership when seen.

Oregonians generally favor good governance and abhor political impotence.

Few of us expect a deal to possible; all of us hope we can develop a win/win solution that stabilizes our schools without breaking faith with our public workforce.

Democrats in swing districts cannot afford to wage potentially costly primary contests and then a contested general campaign; Republicans have absolutely no stake in either saving the PERS system or in added security (and stability) for public schools.

There is an election coming and Republicans want to showcase failure in government. Vouchers appear as a better, stronger alternative to failing public schools; partisans have no motive to adequately fund public schools. And “solving” the PERS issue with another round of benefits adjustments might well steal a viable crusade from would-be Republican candidates in 2014.

For good or ill, Governor Kitzhaber wants a deal. He came out of retirement to fight for meaningful progress on issues he cares about: education, healthcare, and responsible management of underfunded public liabilities. His is a legacy of focusing his resources on specific objectives and using all necessary means to achieve them. This time around few can doubt his commitment to restructuring our public education system and securing the resources for his education vision.

The most interesting part of the puzzle is this: though Kitzhaber wants a deal, he does not need it. He has already won the expectations war and could benefit in 2014 from using his steadfast call for compromise as a club against any and all would-be challengers. It is a cautionary tale that worked well for Truman in 1948; it could work equally well in 2014.

Oregonians expect our Governors to inspire, to lead, and to set the agenda. Kitzhaber’s job is to make a case for a Special Session, outline his plan, and call the Legislators back to Salem. After that, it is up to the 90 members of the House and Senate. In Oregon we expect our Legislators to figure out the details – we will hold them responsible for fulfilling their responsibilities in the policy-making process.

At this point only John Kitzhaber knows if he has the votes required for making reasoned, responsible improvements to our budget. History tells us he will not back down when he believes he is advancing a just cause. Ready or not, it appears as if the Legislature will be asked to do something – sooner than later.

If it happens we should pay attention to Salem during the Special Session. It will be worth the ticket price. Few Legislators want it. All Legislators recognize the inherent risks of a “failed” session to party and person. Sadly, the only guaranteed “win” for a member of either party is to find a way not to play…

However much the Democrats may not want a Special Session in late September the reality is that the choice is John Kitzhaber’s – alone.

It is clear from conversations with people inside and outside the building that a deal will cost all involved heavily. Many of the Democrats are still nursing wounds associated with passage of Senate Bill 822. At least a few swing district members (perhaps as many as a half-dozen) may abstain or vote against another whack at the public employee unions.

For Democrats frustrated with the glaring inequalities of America’s “separate but unequal” economic recoveries (robust for the top 10%, anemic for the bottom 50%), the notion of readjusting the readjustments to public pensions for the men and women that sweep our streets, teach our children, and run into danger when everyone else is running away – is hateful, unacceptable, and a crime against conscience.

Even though it will be hard in the Democratic Caucuses – these may be the most fertile grounds for any potential deal (if there is to be a deal). An agreement would be hard for Democrats to support; it is nearly impossible for Republicans to support. Loyalty is the currency of the realm within the GOP (with loyalty strictly defined as either eternal opposition to increasing taxes for any reason under all circumstances or lock-step support of leadership). In this case, it may be both.

Whatever the relative nobility of the cause, the act of raising taxes is heresy among the faithful. GOP dogma is founded upon a vision of government as evil with government resources being the devil’s playground. Personal responsibility should empower people sufficiently without the aid of welfare programming (or so the theory goes). And among the faithful raising taxes will bring about a modern-day mark of Cain: a forever stain of disloyalty that cannot be tolerated.

Complicity between GOP leadership and the Democrats in the Legislature will dash any hopes for reclaiming the Governor’s Residence in 2014. The GOP leadership in Salem could fold under the pressure of another compromise. The Tea Party would bolt (again). There is no appetite for raising revenues – whatever the potential savings in constraining PERS – and the “costs of government.”

Yet the Traditionalists among the GOP (Democrats refer to these people as “moderates”) recognize the very real consequences to the state, counties, and communities associated with ignoring reasonable, responsible compromise as well as the underlying financial calamities stemming from benign neglect of our unfunded liabilities.

The "Twister-like” arguments offered as justification for rejecting the Governor's plan will be fun to watch. The hard-worn tropes of bipartisanship and shared responsibility so often used for public consumption during campaigns emphasize rationality, reasonableness, and stewardship: values usually associated with compromise.

These must be rejected early and often by Republican Legislators because blatant failure to answer the call for putting the State of Oregon ahead of political fortune cannot be allowed to become the message of day (or week). To accept the reasonableness of a compromise forged through collaboration, the Republicans would be asked to support it - which they cannot do.

So reject it they must – even if they themselves recognize the rhetoric used to package rejection as hollow and hypocritical.

If called a Special Session will thrust the internal and external divisions among (and between) the various Legislative clans under the hot glare of public scrutiny. It is unlikely that such uncomfortable circumstances can yield any meaningful progress towards a deal – unless a deal has been cut prior – which appears beyond the grasp of the current summit participants. In the end the votes may not matter.

The political weather system has shifted. Whereas the story may have been "why a session is needed?" More stories are now focusing upon the relative intransigence of the respective parties - the reasons certain members may or may not be supporting various elements of a bargain. Unless something dramatic occurs in the next few days the math will be relatively easy to do (even for us non-science types):

In a narrative where 90 members appear to be either unable or unwilling to find common ground during a Special Session, the Governor wins because at least he brought the Legislature to the table.

In a narrative where 90 members actually find common ground (when few thought doing so was a possibility), the Governor wins because he led the charge for reforms.

And in a narrative where 90 members reject the Special Session outright (meaning a rejection of even sitting at the table to negotiate across the partisan schism), the Governor wins because he stood alone in trying to bring order from chaos.

Uber-partisans too often forget a fundamental reality of Oregon Politics: Oregonians find blatant partisanship associated with political posturing both distasteful and galvanizing. We may not remember the specifics but we will not forget who stood up and who stood aside – and for what ends.

Say what you will about Governor Kitzhaber’s politics, policies, and style of governance: John Kitzhaber is playing three-dimensional chess while at least some members of the loyal opposition are struggling just to play checkers.

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