June 30, 2010 in City, Idaho

New planks leave hole in platform’s center

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Idaho just turned purple.

Maybe you missed it, but the reddest state in the country marched into singularity over the weekend, when the state GOP adopted a platform that would make the John Birch Society proud. This platform has a bunch of new, woefully silly planks – ideas that are equal parts impractical and backward – and it seems destined to lock the state into a political time warp.

One plank demands that candidates promise to follow the platform, or face a public outing for daring to have an opinion. Another suggests that Idaho collect federal taxes, withhold those it deems unconstitutional, and return the leftover money to citizens. (This is the Phil Hart plank; it covers its deadbeat heart with a veil of “principle.”) To battle the scourge of transgendered people getting married, the platform supports limiting marriage to “naturally born” men and women. A proposal to create a state militia, free of any oversight from the Death Star of the federal government, was narrowly defeated.

This isn’t how you take back your country, tea gangsters. This is how you watch your country leave you behind.

Back in the day, when I was growing up under the full flower of Idaho’s single wing, the state tended to elect the occasional Democrat – some of them so conservative that you might call them DINOs. Whether it was gun rights or social issues or simply fiscal conservatism, these Dems wouldn’t pass in Boston. But it seemed that Idaho voters could tell when they had a good one on the line, and they voted for them, from Frank Church to Cecil Andrus to Richard Stallings.

But as the state has lurched ever more rightward, something bizarre is happening. The state’s political echo chamber is becoming so monochromatic that moderates – and I mean moderate Republicans, of course – are being pegged as liberals.

“I think there’s been a concerted effort to rid the party of moderates,” said Donna Pence, a member of the House.

Pence is that rare Idaho bird: the elected Democrat. She’s one of 25 in the 105-member Legislature. I called her because she’s a farmer and retired teacher from my hometown of Gooding. She is no San Francisco socialist and she has no illusions about the basic political temperature of the state. But she wonders if the new GOP platform will resonate broadly with Idaho voters.

“Idaho is very famous, I think, for independent voters,” she said. “I’m not sure they’re ready for some of these platform ideas. I’m not sure some of this is really representative of Idaho.”

This passionate drift toward the extreme does not bode well for Idaho. It’s political sport, but what is Idaho going to do, practically, to live down to these ideals? Invest all its money in gold? Take on the massively discredited “tax protester” arguments as a state?

Jonathan Parker, the executive director of the Idaho Republican Party – and a Spokane native – said that to focus on the handful of controversial changes paints a misleading picture.

“The common theme is lower taxes, limited government, personal responsibility, more freedom and family values,” he said. “I think to take and highlight one or two or three amendments that were made to the Idaho Republican Party platform and to make the argument that these changes make the Idaho Republican Party out of touch with the rest of the state is narrow-minded.”

Fair enough. When it comes to some of these ideas, my mind is somewhat narrowed. I often think of the anti-government fervor when I visit my family in southern Idaho. Gigantic dairy farms fill the desert there, having fled California’s strict regulatory environment. All that freedom – you can smell it everywhere you go. It’s actually kind of stifling.

The combination of anti-government philosophy and the recession is already taking a toll in Idaho. Last session, the Legislature cut school funding significantly rather than entertain a possible tax hike. Pence said there aren’t enough regulators to perform even routine checks of water quality. That might be the kind of thing that the limited-government GOP actually approves of, but it’s bad news for a state that grows a lot of food and invites a lot of people to swim, boat and fish on the rivers and lakes.

“I’m concerned about the state police,” Pence said. “I’m concerned about the prison. We’re cutting to the point where we’re going to have problems.”

There’s a good chance this platform will simply sit there on paper, looking silly. It wouldn’t be the first time the most extreme members of a party hijacked its platform. Maybe it will even be good in the long run. It might send a few middle-of-the-road voters scrambling for the opposite shore. One or two more liberals might sneak into office, just to shake up the debate.

Not liberal-liberals, of course. Don’t be crazy. Just a moderate Republican or two.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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