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Next to Republicans, Democrats resemble whiners


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001

Introducing a week of missives from the scene of the crime, Tallahassee.

Introducing a week of missives from the scene of the crime, Tallahassee.

* * *

The Florida Democratic Party does not much exist these days. It is mostly an inertial collection of remnants: labor unions, schoolteachers, African-American groups, gays and lesbians.

That is not meant to be disrespectful to any of these groups. But all of their efforts combined still do not make up a viable, mainstream political party. Their main function these days is to hold rallies to assure each other that the Republicans are very, very wicked.

Meanwhile, the Republicans win elections and run Florida's government unchecked. Our state still has more registered Democrats than Republicans, but they have elected a Republican governor, and a Legislature with crushing Republican majorities.

The Republicans credit their victories to ideology: the triumph of "conservative" over "liberal." This is simplistic and untrue, as the Republicans will learn eventually after they take enough rope.

The truth is more boring: The Republican Party of Florida simply has been a better political organization for more than a decade. The Republicans recruit better. They campaign better. They have a better farm team.

Most importantly, they frame the issues better.

They framed the issue of "tort reform" to cut off little people's access to the courthouse. They framed the issue of "educational excellence" to take money out of the public schools and put it in private hands. They used the slogan of "One Florida" to end traditional affirmative action. And they keep winning.

The response of the Democratic Party to each of these Republican initiatives has been unimaginative and whiny. The aggrieved party holds a rally for Democrats to rail at each other and issue vain threats of revenge against the Republicans. This year, Democrats have added the requisite reminder that Bush stole the last election.

None of this convinces mainstream Floridians that the Democrats are right and the Republicans are wrong.

This tired script now plays out again over Jeb Bush's initiative named "Service First." (The governor likes labels like "Service First" and "One Florida.")

Service First is a rewrite of the civil-service system for state employees. It expands the governor's power to hire and fire, among other things.

Cue the labor union! Hold a rally at the Capitol! Wave signs that say: "Bush Brothers At work, Stolen Election, Stealing Jobs."

Here is the truth, though: This will not help. It will not help because in a Republican-framed debate, the people of Florida are not going to leap to the defense of state employees.

Just the opposite. Ask people on the street for their casual opinion, and they will say: "You know, it OUGHT to be easier to fire state employees." Then they'll tell you a story about having to wait in line a long time or seeing a bunch of road workers standing around.

Yet the civil-service debate is frameable and even winnable.

After all, the president of the United States himself only has hire-and-fire authority over a puny 6,000 jobs. Here is our governor in Florida, seeking the same raw power over 16,000!

To win this fight, you have to make people understand that civil service is one of the most important accomplishments in the history of American politics. You have to use lessons of history and precedent. You have to use good humor, which is in zero supply.

You have to angle the Legislature against the governor. You have to maneuver the House against the Senate. You have to overcome prejudice and stereotype. You have to be able to admit the validity of all of the other side's arguments, then prove yours are better.

A party that will do these things will win. A party that won't, won't.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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