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November 13. 2012 8:23PM

Charles Arlinghaus: Politicans ignore own mortality at great risk


 

In Ancient Rome, a commander celebrating a formal triumph was always reminded of his own mortality by a servant in his chariot whispering "memento mori" - remember that you must die. Politicians past and present would do well to remember their own political mortality. What the voters have given, the voters will soon take away, or so our recent political history suggests.

New Hampshire has become a swing state. There are wild fluctuations back and forth, a landslide every two years in a different direction. At this time two years ago, I reminded the beneficiaries of the election that the people had not converted to their cause as much as they had merely hired them on a temporary basis and given them a chance to clean up the mess.

Clean up they did, but there is a temptation after a landslide election to believe that power has shifted and that people who made a decision on the margins have not chosen you as the better of two competing options but have bought into you and everything you stand for.

The recent election results would suggest that voters are not sure they like anyone. In 2006, Democrats won a historic landslide, taking control of both Houses of the Legislature for the first time in almost 100 years. Then just four years later that same majority was ousted by a swing of more than 100 House seats.

Two years ago, I suggested that voters had not converted but merely given someone else a try. Voters "were unhappy with the way the previous management was performing in the same way you might be unhappy with your plumber. So they fired the old plumber and hired a new one."

I cautioned the new majority that the voters weren't in love with them, but were merely giving them a test drive with the understanding that "we can always switch again."

And switch we did, with a vengeance. Republicans after two short years lost more than 100 seats and their majority. The House and Senate each saw Republicans lose 25 percent of all seats.

Some Republicans had made the mistake of assuming a small 25 percent Democratic minority was the new normal, as if we were Rhode Island in reverse (the Ocean State has not a viable legislative minority for many decades). Without the servant whispering "memento mori" in their ears, they forgot the metronome of New Hampshire politics pinging back and forth.

The new majority also needs a voice in its ears. Presidentially based landslides tell us little about what the people expect of us at the state and local levels. In almost every district in the state, people voted for a presidential candidate and merely followed suit down the column on the ballot.

Candidates downstream from President Obama received roughly the same percentage he did. Gov.-elect Hassan did two points better than the President, the two congresswomen did just two points worse combined. If you were a Democratic House candidate and President Obama carried your district by 1,000 votes, you probably won by 1,000 votes. Republicans managed to hang on to a small majority of the 80 county offices, but only because half of those they won were uncontested this year.

The two parties will fight with each other over policy. We expect that. We want them to be civil, but confrontation over policy is the point of representative government. My sense is that voters understood the need for significant budget cuts last year even if they found some of the individual cuts to be disappointing.

The difficulty right now is that many politicians have promised to spend more money and to not raise taxes. Current taxes will support current spending. If you want to spend more money in some area, you have to cut some other existing program, raise taxes or resort to the sort of borrowing gimmicks that caused the crisis in the first place.

Each politician will think his or her particular program is the one that voters really support. But we're all subject to confirmation bias: "I believe the anecdotes and data points that support what I already thought. Contrary opinions are suspect, overstated or of minimal importance."

It's very easy for me to think that compromise is important, but you want me to give up my favorite idea, one that everyone loves, in favor of your idea which must be stupid because I don't support it? That's not the compromise I was looking for.

The new leaders should appoint someone to whisper words of mortality in their ears. Governors and speakers need a contrary voice or a devil's advocate. Politics in New Hampshire has become quite volatile, and that's good for those of us more than willing to throw out one lot after another.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free-market think tank in Concord. His email address is arlinghaus@jbartlett.org.


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