"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

Stickin’ or splittin’

For quite a few Republicans, the situation has turned agonizing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the situation will turn them.

The locus of agony is Bill Sali, who with 25.8% of the vote yesterday won the Republican nomination for the Idaho 1st district U.S. House seat. (Incumbent C.L. “Butch” Otter is running instead for governor, or so the paperwork says; Otter himself was on the far side of the country on election day and unavailable for conversation with Idahoans.)

Sali is typically described as a very conservative Republican, but that has nothing to do with the concern afoot. Nor does it have to do with his stands on issues or with his voting record, neither of which is very different from scores of other very conservative Republicans who have served with him in the Idaho House over the last 16 years.

It has more to do with something apparent to people who have worked around the Statehouse, apparent to Republicans and Democrats and liberal and conservatives alike. We have no interest in piling on or slinging mud, but there’s a broadly-held reality here that experienced Idaho political people know and that most Idahoans do not, and now it has become of importance. (We should add here: We have no personal animus against Sali; our dealings with him, mainly from some years back, have been cordial enough.) There is no gentle way to put this:

Sali was not remotely competent as a state legislator. To watch him stand to debate was to see the House chamber almost physically turn off: Members would pick up reading material, stroll away, get on the phone. To see him carry a piece of legislation was to see that bill’s chances of passage instantly halved. Skillful legislators build bridges; over 16 years, Sali steadily burned them. To hear Statehouse staff gossip about him (which they’re technically not supposed to do about any legislator, but of course like people everywhere will from time to time) is to join in either nervous laugher or an uneasy sense in the pit of the stomach. When the Republican leader of the Idaho House, Bruce Newcomb, last month raged against Sali by spluttering, “That idiot is just an absolute idiot,” his choice of perjorative was revealing: It was simply the first that came to mind. Were you somehow to poll a broad crossection of the legislators, staffers, lobbyists, reporters and other Statehouse types who have watched doings in the chambers over the last decade and a half, and asked them who was the least effective legislator in all that time of all the hundreds who have passed through, Sali would be much the best bet to top the list – and that is not at all an exaggeration. This does not have to do with extremism or choice of issues. This has to do with raw ability to do the job.

That is a considerable part of the reason people like Newcomb, who patiently developed admired leadership skills over many years, and doubtless his predecessor as speaker Mike Simpson, now congressman in the other House district, have such bad cases of heartburn today. To Simpson, a highly skilled legislator. who according to lore once threatened to pitch Sali out of a Statehouse window, is probably spending the day in a dizzy nausea as he mulls the idea of co-legislating with him.

Most of the work that most people do is largely invisible to most of the outside world – even the work of public officials. When we elect people to do a job, we usually make that choice based on limited criteria. We see where they say they stand on a hot button issue or two. We observe if they’ve gaffed themselves during campaign season. We know what party they claim, and maybe a philosophical tag. Maybe we have a handle on their religious beliefs. But the jobs we ask these people to do – be it county commissioner, mayor, state senator, U.S. representative – encompasses much more than most of us typically observe. Unless you’re one of the several hundred people who hang around the Idaho Statehouse, for instance, you have little real idea what your legislator is like as a legislator. The public gets a few raw details – some of the pro or con votes, maybe an occasional juicy quote – but little view of the accumulated work that legislators do over the course of a session, and beyond. Among themselves, and within that world, there’s a common knowledge of who is contributing in a useful way (whatever their philosophical viewpoint) and who isn’t. The voting public only seldom gets access to that base of knowledge, which is one reason (we don’t mean to imply the only one) why strikingly useful legislators sometimes get dumped and useless legislative couch potatoes get returned year after year.

How, in our system, do you counter that? We have no idea. People like Newcomb and Simpson may be contemplating that question today too, but we doubt they have any magical answers either.

So let’s bring this back down to the question making its way around news reports and Boise’s downtown on this day-after: Will Sali’s nomination in the 1st district cause the Republican Party to split apart, with the prospect that many split off to vote for Democrat Larry Grant, or will its constituency largely line up behind him?

Our speculation, for now: More the latter than the former. The problem a lot of organization Republicans have had (for years – this is not new) with Sali has nothing to do with his opposition to abortion or his stand on other issues. It’s more specifically personal, and how can they – or Democrats, for that matter – get into that subject without sounding as if they are engaging in a personal attack? (Which, in a sense at least, they would be.) If Sali positions the general election campaign as consisting simply of another “conservative” Republican running against another “liberal” Democrat – which is the tack he took on election night – what exactly is the comeback that doesn’t sound petty, bitter or spiteful?

The root of this is that few voters really know much about their candidates, their elected officials or the jobs that they do. And until they take the trouble to learn before they vote, the Sali problem – in the broad sense – will go on.

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One Comment

  1. TMW said:

    That was harsh, and true. Well-written.

    May 24, 2006

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