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Tamela Baker: It really is the economy, stupid

September 28, 2011|By TAMELA BAKER

During a discussion of that little debt ceiling feud Congress conducted this summer, one of my former colleagues probably expressed what most of us felt when he said, “I wish both parties were talking about jobs, jobs, jobs, but neither side is.”

You’d think that for once in their political lives our “leaders” could subject their posturing for the next election to the need to find workable solutions for the country’s most pressing need. But you’d apparently be asking too much.

As they squabbled, the stock market fell deeper into the cellar every day. And while the alleged victors finally got a finite number of budget cuts, the losses you and I and everybody else sustained in investments and economic growth was incalculable. Do you have a 401k? How did it fare over the summer? Think they saved you enough in taxes to make it up?

And as for the other side, every time the president so much as slid a toenail across the aisle, extremists in his own party flew into orbit and started issuing threats. And then they blamed Republicans for being stubborn.

Last week they were at it again. There seems to be little point in even following the finger pointing anymore; we could all pretty much write the script. As the parties become more and more polarized, efforts to dig out of this morass are paralyzed. Negotiation has been redefined as betrayal. “Middle ground” is not a concept they comprehend. They’d rather stagnate than budge by a millimeter.

But “negotiating” is exactly what every legislative body, from Congress to city council, was designed to do. Negotiation is at the core of any successful business transaction — or successful marriage, for that matter. It’s an accepted part of life for most of us. So why has it become a sin in politics?

Blind partisanship is strangling us, and for no obvious good reason. It’s not as if the far side of either party is especially appealing. And neither party has a corner on corruption or incompetence. The lurching between extremes that we’ve been doing on the national level was clearly unhealthy long before this summer. If there were any lingering doubt, Congress has dissolved it.

Partisanship is strangling Maryland, too — but in a different way. For eons now, Maryland Republicans, though largely ignored, have been howling that the state taxes and spends too much. And they’re right. Of course, spending needs to be reined in, and there’s no question this is not the time to raise taxes.

The message is not the problem. It never was. The problem is the madness of the method.

When political power is as lopsided as it is in Maryland, members of the minority party need to be shrewd, skilled negotiators if they hope to accomplish anything. But do they do that? No. They march into the State House with an all or nothing attitude that never gets them all and usually gets them nothing. Negotiation is treason. Middle ground is nonexistent. And for us, that attitude is lethal.

Here’s what usually happens: The majority Democrats let the handful of Republicans rant for a while. And some of them are really, really good at ranting, presumably convinced that all that bluster will somehow lead Democrats to see the light and rally to their side. Democrats, however, eventually find it tiresome, and like a gardener squashing an annoying gnat, shut the Republicans down and do whatever it was they intended to do in the first place. It happens over and over and over and over and over again. And then it happens some more.

Yet, Republicans simply can’t — or won’t — see that their very intransigence plays right into the Democrats’ hands. If Republicans aren’t willing to negotiate, and you don’t need them anyway, why even listen to them?

In a couple of weeks, the General Assembly will gather for a special session on redistricting. Gov. Martin O’Malley is apparently planning to use that time to propose a jobs initiative, the details of which were still being drafted at this writing. Will these proposals specifically help Washington County? That remains to be seen — and that’s why it’s so important that our mostly Republican delegation carefully considers its conduct during this session.

Some of our delegates won their seats because they talked incessantly about jobs. But our unemployment rate is still among the highest in the state; our property values are among the lowest. When the state goes after new business, at least some of it ought to land here, where it’s needed most. But lately most of those new opportunities have gone to Montgomery County, already the richest county in the state and one of the richest in the nation.

It’s in our best interest for our delegation to set party differences aside, build some consensus and convince the other legislators that what’s good for Western Maryland is good for Maryland in general. As long as a tenth of you are unemployed, you don’t need to hear that a politician “stands” for more jobs. You need to go to work — tomorrow morning. And that’s more important than either party’s ideology.

Tamela Baker is a former reporter and editor for The Herald-Mail.

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