Let’s Try to Ignore the Political Soap Opera

Charlie Arlinghaus

December 11, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

We all need to start ignoring political soap operas and focus on the real work of government. Sadly, the media is likely to report frequently and breathlessly about who likes who and who’s mad at who while ignoring most of the substantive policy discussions that help determine the strength of our economy and whether you have any hope of finding a job. Like celebrity gossip, the backroom personal dramas are fun to cover and more interesting to far too many people in our increasingly substance free polity.

No true political coverage can completely ignore process nor should we expect it to. The process of selecting policymakers (i.e. elections) is very important as it determines which policy prescriptions are likely and even possible. But between elections something happens other than just posturing for the next election. Governing in a free society is not an extended preseason for the next election, rather the opposite is true. In theory, an election is simply a prelude to the real decision making.

I worry that the next two years, however, will be dominated not by descriptions of the choices before government but by a constant speculation about backroom politics and who is or isn’t positioned well. Two dynamics, one legislative and the other gubernatorial, have already established this threat.

Governor Maggie Hassan is about to start her second term. I wonder what she will advocate in her budget, how she will propose dealing with reasonably large budget imbalances the state faces, and whether she proposes expanded gambling again and how it will differ from her proposal of two years ago. In addition, I presume she will have other initiatives to change the direction of the state.

People regularly ask me about the governor. Rarely do they ask about spending levels, tax policy, or economic incentives. Always they ask “do you think she’s running against Kelly?” Sen. Kelly Ayotte will run for re-election in 2016 (not quite two years from now) and Gov. Hassan is widely expected to challenge her or at least face national pressure to do so.

Every action and proposal is going to be judged not on its merits but on “whether or not this sets her up well for 2016.” Every statement will be parsed for its 2016 meaning. Every reaction to the governor will be colored in the 2016 light. It makes for an easy discussion that avoids anyone having to figure out anything substantive.

Instead of endless political speculation, can we take a moment and attack or praise proposals the governor makes simply on their merits? It is possible she will have some good ideas you’ll actually support but vote against her two years from now. Similarly, you are free to think she’s the bee’s knees but still part company on a proposal or two.

If gubernatorial-senatorial politics weren’t bad enough, the latest State House drama has far too many lawmakers ignoring substance themselves and degenerating into name calling and petulance. There are many issues of process and tradition built into the surprising drama last week when the expected Republican speaker lost narrowly to another Republican elected by an apparent coalition of Democrats and Republicans.

There are very strong feelings on both sides and I don’t want to minimize them. I’m sure there will be attempted coups and backroom shenanigans of all sorts. But I would prefer not to care. I would prefer that each and every legislator with sore or triumphal feelings keep his internal angst to himself. There’s a lot of work to do. Retributive justice can be served quietly while the rest of us think you’re doing your job.

The budget has more holes in it than Swiss cheese. Our pension is still among the worst funded in the country. Our job growth is mediocre at best. Energy prices are depressingly (in an economic sense) high, and the old competitive New Hampshire is a distant memory.

There is enough to work on to keep 424 people quite busy. I may have preferred this person or that person win the procedural vote to preside just as I may have preferred a person or two in the November elections. But what really matters is not which personality occupies which chair but what they each do and what policies end up imposed upon us.