In 2005, I wrote a national op-ed for Knight Ridder newspapers that showed how when right-wing congressional politicians return home as governors from the fantasy land known as Washington, D.C., they often drop their conservative economic elitism in the face of reality. Last week, I wrote that the conservative movement in the Rocky Mountain West is seeing this same economic elitism decline as an effective political cudgel, and not surprisingly, many Rocky Mountain states are watching their Republican parties descend into disrepair (here in Colorado, for instance, the GOP has resorted to hiring as party chairman the same supposed "guru" who most recently helped commandeer his boss George Allen from leading presidential candidate to historical cautionary tale). Now, up in Idaho, we see the convergence of both of these phenomena, as Gov. Butch Otter (R) has become yet another conservative Washington-insider-turned-home-state-economic-realist and yet another Rocky Mountain Republican fleeing his own party's elite consensus.
The Idaho Statesman reports that during Otter's 35 years as a career politician and icon of Wingnuttia with little to no executive responsibilities, "he has created an almost unblemished record of small-government libertarianism." But now in a role that requires real-world decisions - not right-wing sloganeering - Otter is "tell[ing] Idahoans that he need[s] to raise taxes by some $200 million" because he knows that many Idaho roads are deadly dangerous [while] others are so congested they threaten local economies."
What's amazing about this is not just the conversion of a man who has relied almost exclusively on anti-tax faux populism to propel his political career - but the rhetoric he is now using. Butch Otter, Mr. Anti-Tax Populist, suddenly would like us to believe he's a now Mr. Shared Sacrifice for the Common Good in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
"I feel obligated right now to step up forward and say, 'Folks, I'm sorry, but we've got to have it,' " Otter said. "I think we've got to prepare the environment, and when folks say 'I'm sick and tired of paying taxes,' well, folks, I'm sick and tired of paying taxes. But we've got to look to the need. We've got to look to the economy. We've got to look to the amount of time people are spending on a 13-mile-long parking lot."
The language - which progressives have been employing for years, and which Republicans have derided as "class warfare" - is more than a little hilarious. Otter is the same guy who as congressman led the charge to pass President Bush's deficit exploding tax cuts and budget cuts that deliberately sapped money out of federal funding to states for basic infrastructure priorities like those his state now is struggling to finance. And there should be little doubt that Otter remains a committed Republican hack on most issues, and that if and when he pushes forward a final tax proposal, he will work to make sure it is as regressive as possible and targets as many working-class, non-GOP big shot donors as possible. Already, the Statesman notes that he "He wants to bring lawmakers and transportation experts together to look at gasoline taxes [and] vehicle registration fees" - two kinds of levies that folks hit harder and harder as you go down the income ladder.
Nonetheless, Otter's conversion on the road to reality is extraordinary, and yet another sign that the conservative movement has gone politically and substantively bankrupt here in the Rocky Mountain West - even in its most reliable strongholds like Idaho, even among its most reliable ideologues like Otter. That's thanks in no small part to both the generally vacuous nature of conservatives policy prescriptions, and to local progressive coalitions like United Vision for Idaho refusing to focus only on the glitzy Washington headlines, and instead doing the hard, unglamorous work of educating the public on the most important issues.
What remains to be seen is whether Rocky Mountain Democrats have both the foresight and the guts to take advantage of these opportunities. There are some terrific populist, power-challenging Democrats out here these days. But there are is a small but vocal sect of Democrats from this region that still seem to adhere to the Republican-lite model that claims the key to winning is to split the difference by worshipping at Grover Norquist's corporate-funded altar. Whether that silly calculation comes from idiocy in the face of compelling facts, or from campaign donor-induced blindness is hard to say. But clearly as we approach 2008, the best way to defeat a faltering conservative movement is not to emulate it, but to boldly cut against it.
Originally posted at Working Assets