Scoppe: The good incumbents

Associate EditorOctober 28, 2012 

THE LEGISLATURE is an increasingly frustrating disappointment.

It keeps making the antiquated tax system even more convoluted, and flirting with disastrous proposals. It devotes serious political energy to schemes to pay parents to abandon the schools rather than working to improve them. It won’t give the governor the tools to run the state — or itself the tools to provide effective legislative oversight. It squanders its time on local matters that other people are elected to handle while ignoring crucial state matters that only it can address. And let’s not even talk about what passes for ethics rules and the much-touted but little-practiced “transparency” craze.

It’s enough to make the most cockeyed optimist fall in behind the throw-the-bums-out parade.

Yet our editorial board just refused to endorse a single candidate challenging legislative incumbents. Does this make any sense at all?

Actually, yes. The idea of replacing incumbents at every opportunity is pure nihilism. It’s based on a feeling of helplessness, which grows out of a misunderstanding of what it is that prevents our Legislature from producing the kind of laws that are favored by the overwhelming majority of South Carolinians, regardless of political party.

As much of a failure as The Legislature is, there are many good and conscientious legislators — legislators who, if it were up to them, would overhaul our tax system and give us a rational governmental structure and smart education policy and serious ethics and transparency laws. Legislators who manage to get some good things done — and prevent things from being even worse than they are.

The problem with the kick-the-bums-out mentality is that, by and large, it’s not the bums who are kick-outable. Or, to wander further still into clicheland, that doesn’t just risk throwing the baby out with the bath water; it risks throwing out the baby while the filthy water continues to slosh around in the tub.

The people who keep our Legislature from making progress tend to represent districts that are either extremely Republican or extremely Democratic. They’re unlikely to lose in a general election, and since the people who vote in primaries tend to be far more liberal or far more conservative than the overall electorate, they know they can stay safe by staying far to the left or right. To avoid being outflanked on their extreme, they refuse to seek common ground with other legislators. And we get gridlock.

This death-of-pragmatism spiral would be ironic if it weren’t so tragic.

What we need are more legislators who understand that the whole point of a legislative body is to bring together people with all sorts of political viewpoints who take the best of everyone’s ideas and forge a consensus. These tend to be people who are closer to the center — which in South Carolina is a good bit to the right of where it is nationally, and which even nationally is substantially farther right than it was 20 or 10 or even five years ago — but they don’t have to be. Mainly, they need to be people whose goal is to accomplish something positive for our state right now — not simply get themselves re-elected, or lay traps that can be used to get more people like them elected in the future

The problem with the Legislature isn’t that it’s controlled by Republicans, although it does have to do with the new breed of no-compromise Republicans. Some of our best legislators are Republicans, some of our worst are Democrats — and vice versa. The problem is those worst legislators in both parties — and rules that allow a minority in either party and of any ideology to hold the Legislature hostage, time and time again.

Regardless of party, the best choice if you want to see progress in our state is the candidate who displays the fewest my-way-or-the-highway tendencies. So we endorsed Democrat Joe McCulloch in the open House race in Richland County not because we want to change the majority but because we want to change the tone, and he’s the candidate who at least talks a good game on changing the tone. We endorsed Democratic Sen. Nikki Setzler both because he’s a proven consensus builder and because his challenger has some pretty radical ideas.

At the same time, as long as Republicans control the Legislature, it’s better to have a Republican consensus-builder than a Democrat, because the Republican is more likely to win support from Republicans farther out toward the extreme. That is, among other things, why we prefer Richland Republican Sen. John Courson and Rep. Joan Brady to their likewise reasonable opponents.

Now, lest we get all starry-eyed about the good-old days — whether you consider those to be the Republican-domination days before Mark Sanford ushered in the barbarians or the days of Democratic Party control, before Carroll Campbell ushered in the Republicans — we should recall that the hallmark of South Carolina long has been that we’re last on all those lists where we want to be first and first on all those lists where we want to be last.

So the rush to the extremes, the aversion to consensus is not our only problem.

But right now, and for the foreseeable future, it’s our worst problem. Keeping the good legislators in office won’t make that problem go away. But kicking them out will make it worse.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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