Montana Viewpoint
Montana’s political parties reverse roles

March 20, 2006

Since the Democrats wrested control of Montana government from the Republicans in 2004, there has been one very interesting development. That’s the almost complete role reversal of the Democrat and Republican positions on education funding.

Democrats seem to have taken on the former role of Republicans as guardians of the purse-strings, and the Republicans have assumed the Democrat’s former cry for more money for education.

If this tells us anything, it is that the party in the minority can call for more funding for something a lot easier than the majority party, which actually has to pass a balanced budget.

Nothing illustrates this better than the recent public conversion of former Board of Regents Chairman John Mercer from skinflint to supporter when it comes to University System funding. It may rival the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus.

How or when the scales fell from his eyes is not exactly clear; and it may be that what was revealed was not the error of his attitude toward University funding, but the error of his assessment of its importance to voters.

So while it’s hard to know if this is a conversion of conscience or convenience, my money’s on the convenience argument. I base my decision on his recent statements chiding Governor Schweitzer for the current low level of University funding. He compares his own stewardship to Schweitzer’s by saying, “When I left office [as Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives in 2002] the university system was funded at 50% and now it’s 39%.”

Well, that’s certainly true, but a lot was left unsaid. Under the previous 12 years of Republican control of Montana politics, from 1993 to 2004, state support of university funding fell from 67% to 39%. That’s where the Schweitzer administration found it. Mercer, alone, was responsible for its fall from 67% in 1993 to 51% in 2001 during his eight year tenure as Speaker.

The importance of the state share of support is that when state funding goes down, tuition goes up. Mercer acknowledges that he should have budgeted more for the University system to keep tuition low. Fair enough, but to minimize his own mistake by going after Schweitzer is unnecessary.

While we would all like to ascribe the noblest of motives to our political leaders, many of us realize that political policy positions are at best wishful thinking. The more cynical among us might conclude that getting votes is a more important motive behind political rhetoric than setting policy.

The most annoying thing about political rhetoric is the gross overstatement of the arguments; either the world is coming to an end or there’s an incredibly rosy future. The Democrats/Republicans are; 1)the saviors of our country, or 2)unmitigated evil. (This is mix and match; pair either political party with your favorite description.)

The public’s not dumb. With the exception of True Believers, the only thing this kind of political posturing does is turn normal people off to politics. They know that the truth lies somewhere in between. The problem is they don’t know exactly where, and pretty soon, don’t care.

For the past generation overstatement and ridicule have been the staples of political discourse. It doesn’t have to be that way. If Democrats believe that increased funding of infrastructure leads to a better economy, there are plenty of ways to say that without disparaging Republicans. Likewise, if Republicans honestly believe that less spending yields better results for the state, they don’t have to call Democrats names to make their argument.

This seems to be an incredibly difficult concept for political parties to understand, even though the public doesn’t have a hard time with it.

It is true that negative campaigning will influence elections by appealing to some undecided voters, but the main effect is to keep people from voting at all because they are so turned off.

That may be good for a political party because it influences their chance of success, but it is bad for the state and the nation because it taints people’s opinion of politicians, who, when it comes right down to it, are people who care a great deal about Montana.

In the long run it is counterproductive to make yourself look good by tearing someone down. It’s wrong, too.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620