Damn the discretion. Full rhetoric ahead

A news release that reached us Friday triggered a memory and a reflection on one of the worst things about Missouri, and American, politics today. The release was from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. The headline read, “Missouri Chamber to highlight governor’s hypocrisy on likely tax cut veto during press conference.”
How sad that so much of our political dialogue has become political diatribe. How sad that partisan politics has degenerated into personal polarization. How sad that people on both sides of the tax cut issue (the insiders refer to it as “Senate Bill 509.”) are unable to discuss the issue in a way that, seemingly, doesn’t leave saliva on the table.
How sad that our political discourse has, if anything, degenerated from the day that Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt passionately implored his colleagues in Congress to end “the politics of slash-and-burn.” A few words later he said, “We must turn away from the politics of personal destruction and return to the politics of values.” He spoke of “the negative forces that are consuming our political system and our country.”
And he continued, “We are now rapidly descending into a politics where life imitates farce. Fratricide dominates our public debate and America is held hostage to tactics of smear and fear…We need to end this downward spiral which will culminate in the death of representative democracy…The only way we stop this insanity is through the force of our own will…The only way we stop this spiral is for all of us to finally say — enough. Let us step back from the abyss and let’s begin a new politics of respect and fairness and decency…”
Gephardt spoke on December 19, 1998. You can listen to it at:
For all his eloquence, Gephardt was whistling in the wind. The descent he spoke of has not slowed, helped by radio talk show hosts and television talking heads who find success by appealing to the public gut rather than the public intellect–and a public willing to be led in that descent.
We do not intend this entry to suggest the Chamber’s headline is the most egregious example of today’s slash-and-burn politics. The Chamber is doing what it is supposed to do–advocating for and defending the interests of its members. And it is not alone in framing discussions of public policy in terms of demonizing one person or one side of an issue to make a point. The headline only symbolizes a trend in today’s politics that many feel does little or nothing to lift public confidence in those in the political arena who do the public’s business as best they can.
The issue is not, as those in the press conference will point out, that Governor Nixon favored giving one company, Boeing, huge tax breaks just six months ago while now is, as the release says, “ranting against a job-creating tax cut proposal.” The immediate issue is whether the legislature—in its haste to pass a bill so it would have time to override an expected veto before lawmakers end this session for a summer of campaigning and bragging about a wonderful job-creating tax cut package they approved—passed a bill that endangers the financial underpinning of state services, programs, agencies, and institutions.
One side, citing a respected expert on tax law, calls the bill a “dangerous scheme” (Governor Nixon’s description) and hints that it is the result of either carelessness by legislators or a deliberate action at the behest of those who follow St. Louis billionaire and GOP supporter Rex Sinquefield, who wants to eliminate the state income tax.
The other side, citing the thoughts of a former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice, says there’s nothing wrong, offers assurances that the court system will uphold its position, and calls the governor a hypocrite.
Each year, as time runs short in a legislative session and pressure builds, antagonistic rhetoric has a tendency to increase in the crucial hours when political expediency too easily outweighs the need for caution in writing public policy. And while that antagonistic rhetoric is making headlines and soundbites the nagging issue remains: what if Nixon is right and is it worth the gamble that he is wrong, given sincere but conflicted learned evaluations that are completely different?
At a time when some detached observers suggest discretion might merit greater consideration, we are left with those who shout “dangerous scheme” and “hypocrisy” while a cynical public with decreasing confidence in the political system looks on and listens in.

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