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From construction to deconstruction


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 3, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Having been invited along with some other journalists to describe the recent legislative session to the Capitol City Tiger Bay Club, I had some trouble finding the right words.

TALLAHASSEE -- Having been invited along with some other journalists to describe the recent legislative session to the Capitol City Tiger Bay Club, I had some trouble finding the right words.

You'd think they would come easily considering that there is probably no other country with a political vocabulary as rich as ours in slogans, metaphors, and nicknames.

America has enriched the world with bunk, boodle, bully pulpit, gerrymander, yellow dogs, blue dogs, smoke-filled rooms, carpetbagger (more on that later) and many more artful phrases. My personal favorite is Pork Chop Gang, the label that the late Jim Clendenin of the Tampa Tribune applied immortally to the rural senators who refused to fairly apportion the Florida Legislature.

But I know of nothing in the existing lexicon that does full justice to the present Florida situation. If it proves anything, it is the fallacy of conventional political labeling. The words "liberal" and "conservative" have become as ill-fitting as "reform."

The word "conservative" used to connote process, not result. If conservatives were loath to spend money or raise taxes, it was not because they thought it sinful, but because they instinctively questioned any change in the status quo. That kind of true conservative would be horrified by the smoke-and-mirrors tax cut freshly perpetrated by President Bush and the Congress, and would not have cut the intangibles tax, as Florida did, without waiting to see how W's pending tax cut would trim Florida's revenue.

Nor would any true conservatives dare to say or even to imply to voters, as Florida's have, "Trust us, we're the government." This spring, Florida's supposedly conservative Republican establishment presumed upon the voters' trust in ways that the supposedly liberal Democrats never dared.

They rewrote the purchasing law to an extent that leaves competitive bidding as just one option. The governor protests that this merely brings the law into line with practice and policy, but whatever became of the conservative doctrine that policy and practice (and above all, rules and regulations) are supposed to follow the law rather than precede it?

This was one of the big "trust-us" bills.

And, of course, "Service First," as they called it, was another. The Democratic liberals, for all of their supposed blind faith in government, never proposed to trust it with the power to hire and fire workers at will. They understood the critical difference between government and private enterprise: that the bottom line for a business is profit but for a government it is votes. Thus the instinct of a politician is to sell jobs for votes, and nothing but civil service has ever been able to prevent it.

The real conservatives in that regard were to be found only in the Florida Senate, which saved all but 16,000 of 100,000 jobs from going into the patronage mill.

Another abandoned conservative policy was the practice of having speed bumps in place so that no new regime could make radical changes overnight. That was one of the reasons for the Board of Regents, with staggered terms extending beyond those of the governors who appointed them, and for choosing judges through nominating commissions whose members not only had staggered terms but answered to three different appointing authorities.

True conservatives also respect process, and would be nauseated by how often the House rewrote rules on whim and stifled debate.

But to find real conservatives now, you would look not to Tallahassee but to New England, where Sen. James Jeffords' decision to quit the party that had effectively already quit him underscores what true conservatism is really about.

U.S. News essayist Jon Margolis cited Jeffords as "evidence of the persistence of an old tradition . . . namely, an attitude that cherishes restraint, civility, tolerance and compromise.

"Throughout New England," he wrote, "moderate Republicans also are pragmatists who resist ideology, are suspicious of anyone's claim of possessing absolute truth, and maintain an automatic -- almost instinctive -- hostility to enthusiasm. Underlying pragmatism is the implicit acknowledgement that one might be wrong."

But in Tallahassee, our self-styled conservatives are as cocksure of themselves as were the last revolutionary government here, the one known to history as Reconstruction. And as others have remarked, the Bush administration is similarly long on carpetbaggers and short on people who might have lived long enough in Florida to understand why Florida is not just another business or even just another state.

Gov. LeRoy Collins, who hated to be called a liberal, said he preferred the label "constructive." Few of Florida's present rulers would qualify.

My search for the right word ended with a new one: "Deconstruction," as I think history will eventually regard these times. That may not sing like "Pork Chop Gang," but it was the best I could do.

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