By Edward Mosca
Was the 2006 election a realignment of the New Hampshire political landscape or just an aberration? The answer is: it depends.
If the Democrats overreach and pass an income or sales tax, then the Democrat majorities in the Statehouse certainly will disappear in 2008. The voters overwhelmingly rejected an income tax in 2002, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that, since then, they’ve changed their minds about new taxes.
What has changed, however, is that the Democrats finally understand that taxes are the proverbial third rail of New Hampshire politics. The Arnie Arnesens and Mark Fernalds have been benched in favor of John Lynch, whose theme-song since the 2004 election has been "we will not have a sales or income tax." In 2006, many of the Governor’s fellow Democrats joined the chorus. Given the success of this strategy, it’s reasonable to assume that the Democrats will not propose new taxes in the near future.
The Republicans, therefore, hold their fate in their own hands. Early indications are not promising. Senate President Ted Gatsas has been selected by Republican state senators to continue as their leader for the next two years.
Gatsas is the quintessential “same-but-less” Republican. Consider his education plan, which was rejected by the State Supreme Court this past September. There are no substantive differences between it and the Lynch plan. Both are merely “targeted aid” plans like the Augenblick plan similarly rejected by the State Supreme Court in the 1997 Claremont II decision. Neither contains any new approaches to reforming public education.
There also are no substantive differences between the Gatsas approach to health care and the Lynch approach. Both are based on the antediluvian assumption that increased government regulation of the current system will make health insurance more accessible and affordable.
So, on the three major issues upon which state elections turn –taxes, education and healthcare– Republican state senators will offer an echo, not a choice, over the next two years. Republican state representatives have yet to elect their leaders. But they suffer from the same paucity of ideas as their senate colleagues. At this point, then, it appears that the 2008 election will be a rerun of the 2006 election.
Republican legislators will spend the next two years governing like Democrats and then make the 2008 election just about the income tax, which once again will keep the base home, the independents turned off and the Democrats in control.
While Iraq, phone-jamming, and the incompetence and selfishness of the party’s leaders contributed to the “thumpin” the State GOP received in 2006, voters will still need a reason to vote Republican in 2008. “No income tax” is not enough when the Democrats are singing the same tune, but in addition and unlike the Republicans, claim they will reform education and healthcare and better protect the environment. So how did the State GOP become so intellectually enervated?
The income tax has been a double-edged sword for Republicans. As long as the Democrat message to voters was that they were a bunch of knaves too ignorant to understand that they would benefit from new taxes, especially an income tax, Republicans cruised to victory. But these easy victories allowed Republicans to ignore other issues important to the voters. As a result, today there is no Republican plan for education, the environment or health care.
Some GOP conservatives see no need for such plans. For example, some prominent conservatives have formed a PAC called the New Hampshire Coalition, in order to promote traditional Republican themes such as local control, limited spending and low taxes. I think this misreads the State’s political climate. While the electorate continues to oppose new taxes, it does not oppose activist government. It wants government to address matters such as education, health care and the environment.
Many commentators have opined that the federal elections were a repudiation of Republicanism, not of conservativism. I think this assessment applies equally to the state elections in New Hampshire since the State GOP certainly did not run on a conservative platform. The challenge for GOP conservatives is twofold: they must develop conservative policies that address the issues that concern the people of New Hampshire and they must get the party on board.
The second part will be the hard part. Many of the leaders of the State GOP oppose an income tax not as part of a philosophy of governance, but for exactly the same reason the Democrats now oppose it –merely to win elections.