Frank DeFilippo: Gagging on Middlemania

The 2019 State of the State address. Photo from Governor's Flickr account

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is itching to be the man in the middle – the middle of the road, the middle of the pack, the middle of the debate, the middle ground, the stripe down the middle – where he finds his comfort zone while, he believes, everyone around him is losing their heads and their cool.

America is gagging on an outbreak of middlemania. Hogan is the latest Republican exponent of newest trend in political posturing – ism – centrism, there’s-enough-blame-to-go-around-ism, divided-government-ism, anti-Trumpism, mainstream-ism – all a cacophonic counterpoint to the joyous jumble that is democracy in action. The mushy politics of centrism apparently polls well and sells even better.

Hogan delivered his State of the State address on the same day his by-line appeared on an op-ed piece in The Washington Post. The two were nearly interchangeable thoughts and words except that the published column translated into a form of journalese, a stylistic turn that distinguishes words for the eye and the ear.

Both renditions obsessed more about divided government than about the State of the State, a signal to some that Hogan is heading for the show, a shout-down with President Trump, if not an actual run for the roses. Listen to excerpts from the speech:

“. . .from both sides of the aisle who joined together.” “. . .avoid the extremes of either political party and to instead seek the middle ground where we could all stand together.” “. . .we have shown the rest of America that a divided government does not have to be a divisive government.”

Here he selectively quoted John F. Kennedy: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer.”

And Ronald Reagan: “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

“. . .commonsense pragmatism that has guided our path forward.”

“We didn’t demand Republican solutions or Democratic solutions.” “We sought out bipartisan, commonsense solutions that worked for the people of Maryland.” “We found a way to disagree without being disagreeable.” “We stood side-by-side, our different views clearly acknowledged but not obstructing our path forward.” “We did our very best to put the people’s priorities ahead of the current national obsessions with partisanship. . . ”

“. . .We have worked together to pass balanced budgets every single year.” (They have no choice. Balanced budgets are required by law.) Etc.

Frank A. DeFilippo

The Washington Post op-ed piece had an echo as loud as a yodeler on a Swiss mountaintop. “There is plenty of blame to go around. Politicians on both sides of the aisle refuse to give up even a little to get a lot done.”

“While partisanship, dysfunction and gridlock have become commonplace in Washington, just 30 miles up the road, in Annapolis, we have chosen a different path. We recognized that people want elected officials in both parties to put an end to the culture of intolerance, intimidation and inaction, and just get to work.”

“. . paralyzed by partisan gridlock.” “. . .divided government does not have to be a divisive government.” “. . .an ‘exhausted majority’ of everyday Americans who see themselves as somewhere closer to the center.”

And, finally: “I come from the get-things-done school of politics, and I’ll work with anyone who wants to do the people’s business. Our leaders in Washington need to do the same.”

Oy vey! Enough, already, with the cozy business about bipartisanship and the warm blanket of centrism.

Both formats, of course, reprise leitmotifs from Hogan’s inaugural address, delivered a couple of weeks earlier with the same avuncular lecture about the parodistic governance in Washington. It’s almost as if Hogan is trying to broaden the middle curb-to-curb, which is very smart politics if he can do it. But the danger of squatting in the middle is the risk of getting hit by all those people running up and down both sides.

Hogan surely must realize that the center – or the middle, if you will – is beginning to resemble a rush-hour traffic jam. Both Republicans and Democrats are making a mad dash for that floating opera called the center, employing the same meme as Hogan that people are fed up with the antics in Washington. If that’s so, why did they vote for a divided government in the midterms? The default position: Turn off the electronic devices and it all disappears.

The idea, expressed by Hogan, of blaming both parties is unbecoming because it’s untrue. The present stalemate is pure Trump, as if he were dickering over a parking lot in Queens. The demand for a wall – it’s a wall, no matter what it’s called because it walls off the country – never became an absolute big-ticket item (an illusory $5.7 billion) while Republicans had total control of government for two years.

Only after Democrats reclaimed the House did Trump reinvent a campaign pledge into public policy and manufacture the idea of hapless immigrant caravans being a threat to national security. (Every American should sleep better at night knowing that their commander in-chief is guarding the nation by watching Fox News.)

And there were many times during his first four-year term when the State House wasn’t running as smoothly as Hogan’s speeches pretend. Recall when the Senate refused to confirm two of Hogan’s cabinet appointees. And remember the ruckus when Hogan co-opted the Democrats’ proposal for an education “lock box” constitutional amendment on casino proceeds. And, most telling of all, the Democratic Assembly overrode 15 Hogan vetoes to assure that their intentions became law.

Now we have another oddity and potential collision: The House Republican caucus presenting a legislative agenda separate from the GOP governor’s, and the Assembly’s Democrats unveiling a program that is far more progressive than both. Short odds on which prevails.

Republicans have never met a tax cut they didn’t embrace. The GOP House members are advocating a quarter percent cut in the income tax, and Hogan is asking for a half billion dollars in “targeted” tax cuts that benefit specific constituencies – vets, cops, the elderly, mom-and-pop businesses, Hogan’s natural supporters.

It’s true that the state is awash in cash. And it’s also a fact that it’s facing structural deficits over the next few years.  A teachable moment from recent Maryland history:

A number of years back, in 1996, Gov. Parris Glendening (D) decided to give himself an election year boost. He awarded himself a cut in the income tax of 10 percent, which no one anticipated and no one was clamoring for, but hey, it was an election year and he was up for a second term.

In doing so, Glendening nearly broke the bank. He created a financial mess for his successor, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The cut cost the treasury $485 million, and at the same time Glendening failed to fund the Thornton Education Act, which he authorized, in fact, created, leaving the tab for Ehrlich to fund or catch the flak for not providing the cash. Ehrlich funded a good chunk of the program. And in doing so, Glendening helped to create what have come to be known as the reoccurring massive “structural deficits.”

(For good measure, Glendening, two weeks before he was to leave office, ordered $60 million worth of new voting machines, another bill he left for Ehrlich to pay.) There are no Dutch treats in government.

Dante’s hell has a special place reserved for those who fail to take a stand in times of moral crisis. Now that the speeches are over, the fun and the sausage-making are underway. It’ll be interesting to see how long the center holds.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.

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