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Lessons of 2016 lost on both parties

May 17, 2017
by David Crisp
Last Best News

In 2002, Mike Taylor was an up-and-coming Republican politician challenging Max Baucus for a Senate seat in Congress. Taylor’s wire-rimmed glasses and mustache called attention to his resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt, the Bullmoose war hero, explorer, rancher, president and all-around he-man.

Then Democrats unearthed old footage of Taylor in an earlier role as a hairdresser with an open shirt and sharp-pointed collar, rubbing lotion around another man’s eyes. The substance of the ad was that the hair salon was running some sort of scam.
Nobody remembers that part, but everybody remembers that wildly incongruous image of the rugged Montana rancher playing disco Stu. Even today, the first thing we learn about Taylor from his Wikipedia stub is that he was a hairdresser.
The ad went as viral as anything could in 2002, and Taylor dropped out of the race, then re-entered 12 days later, promising to run a campaign focusing on restoring honor and integrity to American politics. That worked out no better than his campaign to unseat Baucus.
Which brings us to 2017 and the race to replace Ryan Zinke in Montana’s U.S. House seat. No single ad has been so awful, or memorable, as that 2002 hair salon ad, but the campaign as a whole has been as dispiriting as any in memory. If the candidates have persuaded us of anything, it’s that we’re sick of the lot of them—not an encouraging sign for a healthy democracy.
Both political parties seem to have misread the 2016 election. Democrats thought it meant that inexperience is the highest qualification for high office. Republicans thought it meant that business acumen is a greater virtue than political savvy.
The worst of it is that the relentlessly obtrusive ad campaigns have so little to do with issues that actually matter. Instead we are reminded endlessly that Greg Gianforte came from New Jersey, that he once favored a sales tax and that he was involved in a dispute over public lands access.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent to remind us that Rob Quist is a member of the same party as Nancy Pelosi, that he has no hunting license, that the National Rifle Association has given Quist a grade of F and that Quist has a history of bad debt. One bizarre ad from Photoshop hell shows Quist holding hands with Pelosi as they stand behind a clump of weeds in front of a barn door.
On their rare ventures into positive campaigning, Quist is depicted with guitar and cowboy hat, Gianforte in hunting gear and work shirts. Shouldn’t someone tell them that they are running for a desk job? The only time I’ve seen either one in a coat and tie was in an attack ad against Gianforte. Apparently, wearing attire suitable for the job is now a disqualification in congressional races.
Does any of that matter? Gun rights might, if there was a chance in a thousand that Congress actually would do something about it. And Quist’s debt does, at least to anybody who has ever run a small business that depends for its survival on people who are willing to pay their bills. But Gianforte has yet to attack Donald Trump for his long history of scamming investors, contractors, foundation donors and Trump University students. Anybody who voted for Trump despite his debt problems has no grounds to vote against Quist because of them.

A parting shot at the 2016 elections


by David Crisp
Last Best News

An old newspaper joke says that the job of editorial writers is to go onto the field after the battle is over and shoot the survivors. The election is over; let the shooting begin.

♦ Cheapest shot: Democrats ran ad after ad pointing out that Greg Gianforte comes from New Jersey, as if failure to be born in Montana disqualifies candidates for public office.

I wasn’t born in Montana. Nobody in my family was born in Montana except my grandson, who is too young to vote. Most of my friends weren’t born in Montana. Perhaps a third of my college students weren’t born in Montana. How many of us do Democrats wish to alienate?

♦ Most pointless ad: Ryan Zinke ran ads criticizing Denise Juneau because some school bus drivers have criminal records. Point No. 1: Juneau is the state superintendent of public instruction, but state superintendents don’t hire school bus drivers; school districts do.

Point No. 2: The ad was based on 2013 performance audit by the Legislative Audit Division. In response to the audit’s findings, Juneau responded, “The OPI [Office of Public Instruction] will recommend to the Board of Public Instruction that it amend its administrative rules to require districts to perform criminal history background checks for school bus drivers.”

Oh. So an independent agency checked the performance of an aspect of government, found problems, suggested changes, and the elected official said, “We’ll get right on it.” Sounds like how government is supposed to work.

♦ Most pointless ad, runner-up: Both Gianforte and Gov. Steve Bullock have been featured in ads about a Montana sales tax. Good arguments can be made for and against a sales tax, but nobody was making them. Voters have resoundingly rejected a statewide sales tax, and no sane politician will try to get one passed. It’s a total waste of time.

♦ Most pointless ad, second runner-up: A pro-Juneau ad depicted Ryan Zinke as too big for his britches, with more interest in becoming House speaker or vice president than in representing Montanans. The ad looked good, and it made a more or less legitimate point. But did anybody out there think the election would turn on who is more ambitious?

After 2 worthless votes, what next for Zinke?

By David Crisp
The Billings Outpost
Jan. 22, 2015

During his run for Montana’s U.S. House seat, Ryan Zinke often seemed uncertain about exactly what positions he held. That’s a bad trait in a candidate but not necessarily in a congressman. Issues before Congress can be complicated, and remaining open to evidence is more helpful than going to Washington with a closed mind.

So it was reasonable to hope that now-Rep. Zinke would prove a more flexible and pragmatic House member than his predecessor. But early returns are not encouraging.

Rep. Zinke issued two news releases last week touting votes on Obamacare. One was a feel-good vote that meant nothing. The other was cynical and potentially harmful.

Rep. Zinke’s first vote would prevent volunteer firefighters from being required to have insurance under Obamacare. Because the Internal Revenue Service counts volunteers as employees for some purposes, there were concerns that departments with 50 or more volunteers might be required to provide insurance.

Rep. Zinke’s vote, he said in a news release, would roll back “potentially life-threatening ObamaCare regulations.” Who could oppose such a sensible proposal? Literally, no one. The House voted 401-0 for the bill, just as it did on a similar bill last year. The only reason last year’s bill didn’t become law was because of congressional incompetence.

After the House unanimously passed the bill, Senate Democrats amended it to include extension of unemployment benefits. House members hate unemployment benefits nearly as much as they hate Obamacare, so the bill never became law.

But the Affordable Care Act never intended to require insurance for volunteers, and the Department of the Treasury has said it did not interpret the law that way. Chances that you will be struck by lightning as you read this column are greater than the chance that Obamacare ever would have required a single fire department to buy insurance for volunteers.

So when Rep. Zinke says he is “rolling back dangerous regulations in ObamaCare that could cause rural Montana fire departments to close down,” he is just blowing smoke. Stand down, firefighters. It’s not a real fire.

Rep. Zinke’s second vote may do real harm. The Save American Workers Act would change the employer mandate in Obamacare to apply only to employees who work at least 40 hours a week, not the 30 hours now required.

“Montana’s hard-working families cannot afford the part-time economy that ObamaCare is causing,” Rep. Zinke said in a statement. “Parents should not be forced to take a second job because the federal government cut their hours and wages, yet that is exactly what is happening.”

Actually, that isn’t happening, at least not in any significant way. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Americans working part-time for economic reasons has dropped dramatically since the passage of Obamacare. Total part-time hours have remained flat. If full-time hours do fall when the employer mandate kicks in, it is far more likely to happen because of Rep. Zinke’s vote than because of Obama’s bill.

Why? Because very few employees actually work a 30-hour work, but tons work 40-hour weeks. As one House member put it, changing the mandate would allow employers to avoid the mandate by cutting each employee’s hours by just 12 minutes a day. Employees would lose one hour a week of work, and 100 percent of their health insurance.

Republicans realize this. Their goal is not to save American workers. It is to make the mandate meaningless.

Well, so what? Rep. Zinke never would have survived the Republican primary, and possibly not the general election, if he had supported Obamacare. He’s just doing now what he promised he would do if elected.

Here’s why it matters: Someday soon, the Supreme Court will consider whether federal subsidies for health insurance under Obamacare apply only in states that created their own insurance exchanges. If the court strikes down subsidies in states, such as Montana, that refused to set up exchanges, then millions of people will see their insurance premiums skyrocket.

Many would lose insurance altogether. Some would go without healthcare or be forced into bankruptcy when they can’t pay for the care they need.

Congress could solve the problem in about five minutes by passing a bill clarifying that subsidies apply to all exchanges, not just those set up by states. But that would require making a decision based on facts, not just on ideology.

And the facts, by and large, favor Obamacare. Up to 12 million people now have health insurance who didn’t before. Medical costs are rising at the lowest rates in years. Jobs are being created at the fastest rate since the Clinton administration.

Moreover, many horror stories about Obamacare have not materialized. There are no death panels. Government has not taken over healthcare. In fact, more people have broader free-market insurance choices than ever. Three times as many Americans signed up under Obamacare by Dec. 15, 2014, than in a comparable period the year before.

A new survey from the Commonwealth Fund found that for the first time since the survey began in 2001, the number of Americans who said they had trouble paying their medical bills declined in 2014. About 10 million fewer Americans said they had trouble paying medical bills than said so just two years ago, at the beginning of Obamacare.

Rep. Zinke and his colleagues have a chance to make a real difference, not just sign off on meaningless and misleadingly named legislation. Let’s hope he is up to the task. 

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