Dare we call it a flip-flop? That might be a cheap shot - and beside the point. The question at the heart of it is this: What is the reason Representative C.L. "Butch" Otter abruptly has this to say today about his till-now firm support for the bill calling for mass sellout of federal lands to pay Hurricane Katrina costs:
“I was wrong. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.” And his sponsorship is withdrawn ... "for now."
Part of what Otter is best known for in Idaho is his philosophical stance - clarity, rigidity, thinness, relative purity, define it as you will. He long has been a small-l libertarian, a "limited government" guy, which makes sense of his stand on the Patriot Act and also his stand on the lands legislation; ask him - go ahead - if he thinks there should be more or fewer public lands in Idaho. He has had personal clashes with the feds over land use and environmental laws.
So his backing of the Katrina legislation should come as no shock; it's of a piece.
The criticism of it is no shock, either. Most Idahoans like to grumble about the Forest Service or the BLM, but many of them also enjoy being able to use the public lands - in alternative to being fenced out. That point may be getting ever more pertinent as parts of Idaho are getting ever more crowded.
There are no newly-apparent facts on the table about all this. So when Otter says "I was wrong," what exactly does that mean? What was it precisely that he was wrong about? The legislation specifically? (If so, what did he suddenly come to realize about its flaws?) The way he has thought about public lands, and how they should be treated? Has he had a philosophical reawakening? Did he get scared about a loss of votes and decide to pander? What changed?
That's an important question, because without knowing the answer, we have no way of knowing whether his pullback of sponsorship - "for now" - means, "until the uproar in Idaho dies down," or or whether it is predicated on something else. And without knowing the answer, we have a chasm in our evolving understanding of who Butch Otter is.
Politically, Otter's mea culpa clearly was meant to put the cork in the conversation. What it should do now is uncork that conversation.