September 1, 2014

Mouths That Roar

John F. Berry | 12/1/1995
Can anyone question that these are mean-spirited times?

Tempers are hair-triggered, rhetoric cutting and often crass, actions spiteful, revenge sweet. One-upmanship dominates, whether on a highway or in a supermarket check-out line. Watch sports on TV, where hot-shot role models finger-point and mock competitors; then go to the local sandlot and see the instant replay.

I think a lot about these daily examples of people being nasty to people, and I wonder why it's happening. My private theory about why athletes - male and female - have turned so macho is that sports psychologists have taken over games. Pump yourself up, they advise, release those inhibitions, dominate, get those clinched fists up there. In short, be obnoxious.

Something akin to that has swept the political scene, too. There may not be political psychologists at work on Capitol Hill, but Newt Gingrich and Richard Gephardt do a pretty estimable job of pumping up their respective teams with half-truths and obfuscating rhetoric before unleashing them on the public.

It's not particularly reassuring to learn that others share this view. Washington Post columnist David Broder, for example, writes, "Today, unfortunately, scorn and ridicule are the common coin of political argument and commentary." And St. Petersburg Times Editor of Editorials Philip Gailey observes, "As a nation we are sounding more and more like talk radio - shrill, nasty and vituperative."

From my experience as a reporter in Washington in the 1970s and early 1980s, there's no question that it's a nastier place these days. I hate to say it, but maybe it has something to do with the age of many of those in power there. The baby boomers are now in charge, and they grew up in the 1960s, when stridency and militancy came to be seen as political virtues. The post-boomer video generation has picked up the volume and the action. What people say is less important than how righteous they feel as they say it.

Like a virus, this Capitol Hill churlishness has spread to Florida and infected the atmosphere in the state capital. They're different virus strains, of course. The Washington variety is intent on passing legislation to reverse the Democratic past, while the in-your-face politics Tallahassee-style produces nastiness and accusations but very little else. That seems to be a product of a system that gives us an enfeebled executive branch and a Legislature on steroids.

How else do you explain a thirty-something freshman Senator, who has been placed as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee by his party leader, issuing a simple dictum calling for ways to cut 25% from the budgets of the state's agencies? No thought about which agencies are overstaffed and which are critical to the state's continued operation. The story of Mario Diaz-Balart's meteoric rise to power is told in this issue, but the question remains: Can good government come from politicians whose '90s philosophy seems to say, "Just Do It!"?

The results of the politics of confrontation, whether in the nation's or state's capital, are the same: Bad laws enacted for blatantly political reasons.

In Florida, the victims are many. In the last session of the Legislature, confrontational politics were particularly harmful to business and thus to the economy of Florida. To name just two examples: Tying up legislation to convert the Commerce Department into a private-public partnership, Enterprise Florida, and the sidetracking of appropriations needed to help make the state's ports competitive.

Another result of the sort of nasty power politics being played in Tallahassee these days is that the weakest among us are victimized. The strong get the laws they pay for. Consider another story in this month's Florida Trend concerning the so-called "Save Our Homes" constitutional amendment voted into law in 1992. Like other special pleadings, it was sold to the public as a way to keep property taxes down for the common man. In fact, it was clear from the beginning that it really benefited water-front and other high-priced real estate where taxes rise fastest. Not surprisingly, it now turns out that those tax savings to the rich are having to be shifted in some very unexpected ways.

What's especially troubling about all this political one-upmanship is that it has produced a dangerously cynical public. The public feels abused - brazenly so. We learned recently, for example, that the Chiles campaign used scare tactics in the final days of the 1994 campaign by calling upwards of 50,000 elderly voters warning that Jeb Bush's running mate, Tom Feeney, opposed Social Security and Medicare. Chiles himself only reluctantly apologized for his staff's actions, adding: "I just wish the Republicans would look at their own," reflecting today's politics of confrontation.

Of course the Republicans aren't going to let this incident go away. Indeed, Florida's likely to get its own version of New York Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who keeps pounding at the so-called Whitewater scandal. He's state Senator Charlie Crist, 39, the St. Petersburg Republican, who brought back the chain gangs to Florida so as not to let Alabama be the pace setter in the race back to the worst of the past. With ambitions beyond Tallahassee, Crist clearly sees in the Chiles administration's dirty trick an issue he can use to show he's nasty and confrontational enough to be sent to Washington.

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Business Florida

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