JACK SPENCER: Some things change, other things don’t

Methods of political posturing change, but their effects are still useless to voters

We're entering a new legislative term with a mix of lawmakers; some new and some returning from last year. Due to term limits, very few state legislators are left that were in the legislature a decade ago. Any number of stories about bygone days could be told by reporters who have covered the legislature over the years. Some of the stories would serve as examples of how things have changed. Some would show how they haven't. Many would bring to mind certain political eras. One such story took place in 1999. It involved a tendency of that time period, which was to politically triangulate issues. Triangulation is a term that described a political maneuver used more than once by former President Bill Clinton. Politically, the purpose of triangulation is to take a potentially popular issue away from one's opponents, alter it, and then exploit it. This is accomplished by adopting a new (often watered down) version of a policy position your opponents have been promoting. To varying degrees the new version is a different “angle” on the issue. That's why the word triangulate was chosen to describe the technique. Triangulation has obvious flaws. Stealing an opponent's issue is fine if you believe the issue has substance. However, a decade or so ago, Republicans started triangulating shallow Democratic ideas, simply because they didn't have the courage to publicly oppose them. The result may have given the GOP short-term wins; at least that was the belief at the time. But it often led to meaningless legislation that set the stage for bad policy to come along later. This was particularly the case with certain environmental issues. The key problem triangulation caused Republicans was that, once they had triangulated an issue they really didn't believe in, they were stuck with it. Later, when Democrats pushed for the shallow but popular policy to be taken even further, the Republicans found themselves on shaky ground. How could they turn around and oppose extending something after previously pretending they agreed with the premise behind it?  In essence they'd robbed themselves of the ability to attack the issue at its core. At best all they could now do was make feeble attempts to nibble around the edges of the issue. Readers should note that Democrats by no means have a monopoly on bad, and or shallow, policy ideas. There are plenty of instances where Republicans push bad policy that is really no more than opportunistic posturing. When this has happened in the past, the Democrats would usually do as the Republicans did. They'd plug their noses and vote “yes.” It's the path of least resistance. In general, however, over the past 10 to 15 years, the Democrats rarely seemed very interested in actually triangulating Republican issues. But a decade or so ago, the Republicans were triangulating like crazy. One such issue concerned “vulnerable victims.” In 1999, legislation was proposed under which convicted criminals would serve longer prison terms if their victims were deemed to have been “vulnerable.” Basically the idea was that if someone assaulted and robbed a ”vulnerable victim,” such as a 70 year-old grandmother, they'd get more prison time than if the victim had been a businessman in the prime of life. This type of policy idea stems from the liberal view, which tends to see government playing a parental role. It was a subjective attempt to list, or rank, criminal acts as being real bad or not so bad, based on who the victim happened to be. Predictably, the concept behind this “ranking” idea ran into problems almost immediately. Initially, the legislation listed people over the age of 65 and under age 18 as being “vulnerable.” But in the very first hearing on the bill, a conservative Democratic lawmaker asked why his two teen aged sons were considered more vulnerable than he was. He then explained that his sons were body builders and he was in his mid-fifties and had a bad heart. From that point on the legislation underwent numerous changes. It was amended, amended again, and then amended some more. Ultimately, it became obvious that there was no way to rank the vulnerability of victims. In other words, the whole premise behind the legislation was faulty beyond redemption. There is no way to weigh the seriousness of a crime based on prescribed categorizing of the types of people impacted. One would have thought that would be the end of it. Alas, it wasn't. Apparently, the Republicans still believed that, if they failed to pass “vulnerable victim” legislation, the Democrats would use it against them. When the legislation finally reached the House floor, it had been effectively neutered. The new version would just allow a judge to the option of adding a few years to a sentence if the judge thought the victim had been particularly “vulnerable.” Never mind that, in practical terms, a judge already had such an option anyway. Simply put – the bill accomplished nothing. When the vote went up, all the Republicans voted for the bill, with one exception. Valde Garcia had voted “no.” Garcia eventually served a couple terms in the House and two in the Senate. He is no longer in the legislature. But at the time of the “vulnerable victim” bill, in 1999, he had only been a lawmaker a few weeks. Apparently, Gracia hadn't yet learned how to play the political game. When Garcia's “no” vote appeared on the voting board, everything in the House came to a stop. Republican House leaders and several staffers formed a huddle around Garcia. Obviously, they were trying to talk him into changing his vote. This went on for several minutes. In the end, Garcia came to the microphone. He clearly looked unconvinced and more than a little bit angry. He asked that his vote be changed, with this explanation - “I've talked to the bill sponsor about the legislation and . . . it will do no harm” Later that day the Republicans issued press releases touting the “vulnerable victim” legislation. It is likely that most of the lawmakers also issued individual press releases highlighting their support for the bill. Republican triangulation of Democratic issues appears to no longer be in vogue; at least not to the extent it was 10 or 15 years ago. One reason for this could be that they figured out their opponents don't need facts (such as actual votes taken or not taken) to make attack ads. However, other things haven't changed. Legislation having passed with little or no opposition is no guarantee of its quality. It might be good. It might be bad. Quite often, it is just something that sounds good but does next to nothing.  
Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.