Party Over Principle

By Beacon Staff

Since adoption of Montana’s 1972 constitution our governors have vetoed 293 bills in 21 legislative sessions. More than half the vetoes, however, 149, have been cast in just the last two sessions.

What’s going on? Well, Democrats say the Tea Party takeover of the Republicans has resulted in passage of a tidal wave of extremist legislation that mainstream Govs. Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock have had to veto to protect the public interest. Republicans will tell you the vetoes have more to do with grandstanding and crass political positioning than policy differences.

Both sets of finger-pointers probably have a point. But there’s more to the story.

Back in 1980 the huge Reagan landslide brought Republican majorities to both houses of the Montana Legislature for the first time in over a quarter of a century. These Republicans clearly saw themselves as conservatives, proud to be a part of the “Reagan Revolution.”

Typical of their contrarian nature, though, Montana voters, in step with Reagan, also elected tough, Trumanesque, prairie-populist Democrat Ted Schwinden to be their governor. The stage was set for a head-on collision between Montana’s most conservative Legislature in a generation, and its partisan Democratic governor.

No collision happened. I mentioned this to a Democratic colleague with whom I served at that time in the state senate. “Well, you know why that was, don’t you?,” the Democrat replied. “It happened because Ted Schwinden paid as much attention to Jean Turnage as he did to us.”

I have enormous respect for Turnage. After serving as a Republican state senate leader for many years, he was chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court for many more. Now well in his 80s, he is back in the practice of law in his old firm in Polson. I told him about our Democratic friend’s comment.

Typical of Turnage, he chuckled and said he was sure the comment was an “exaggeration.” He freely acknowledged, though, that Schwinden, was “very open and easy to work with,” and “reasonable, knowledgeable and honorable.”

Turnage said while Democrats and Republicans “had our differences,” they “weren’t constantly trying to upstage and embarrass each other.”

Sadly, by overwhelmingly voting to sustain Bullock’s vetoes of bills they had overwhelmingly voted to pass just weeks ago, Montana Democrats have shown a priority for party over principle.

They have made a sharp pragmatic transition from the disastrous year of 1972 when rigid ideologues dominating their party even refused to send their own U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention because he wasn’t pure enough.

Political puritans now unquestionably dominate Montana’s Republican legislators. President Reagan’s observation that “there is room in our tent for many views; indeed the divergence of views is one of our strengths” would not go over well with the party hardliners today.

Maybe today’s Democrats need to be a little more principled, and our Republicans a little less puritanical. If so, both would find it easier to get the job done for the people they both represent. Vetoes would be rare – as in the time of Schwinden and Turnage.

Bob Brown is a former Montana secretary of state.

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