CN Column 04/30/10: In politics, it’s all about context

Over the course of the last year, I’ve learned that the context of a political action is often more important than the action itself. I’ve observed this at the local level, covering municipal politics, and have repeatedly seen how reading between the lines pays dividends when weighing matters of political significance at the state or federal levels.

Well, it’s not so much about reading between the lines as it is consciously choosing to read the writing on the wall. It’s not really my job to evaluate subtext.

It’s all about context.

Take, for instance, the Naugatuck school board and the ongoing drama about its budget. I have been on top of that story for months and have worked many late nights in the last few weeks, as officials have hacked and chopped the budget, which has dropped from a possible $7 million increase to one just less than $1 million.

Board of Ed. members have appeared to me in my dreams, and that’s not a joke. A week ago, I spent at least two hours lying awake in bed, mulling numbers and trying to reconcile savings estimates. A year ago at that time, my eyes would have been glazing over amid an all-night video game binge. My, oh my, how life does change.

But that’s not the point. The school board presented its budget to the joint boards last week, and two Finance Board members alleged it had used “scare tactics” and dumped an unpopular decision at the Finance Board’s feet.

They were interpreting the subtext: The Board of Ed. got parents “all riled up,” Diane Scinto said, by voting to close Salem School; it then reversed the decision in the midst of much public outcry and implied it would revisit the issue, if the joint boards didn’t award an adequate budget increase. The school board essentially said, “We’re putting the ball in your court. Salem School is on you.”

To be clear, this is not my opinion, rather the one I heard and partially inferred from Scinto’s and Matt Katra’s public statements. This is the subtext of a month’s events, as interpreted by a minority of the Finance Board. And school board Chairwoman Kathleen Donovan denied that the board had in any way employed “scare tactics,” saying, “We’re doing what’s educationally right within what the budget allocation is.”

But here’s the context, from which you can draw your own opinion: The school board voted March 30 to close Salem in an attempt to save some $400,000. At its regular meeting about a week later, it was publicly chastised by dozens of residents. A week after that, at a public hearing, it was put on the stand again and urged to reconsider the decision. The next week, only three days before its presentation to the joint boards, it reversed the vote by a narrow margin but acknowledged the decision may merit revisiting, pending the joint board’s allocation. You can decide whether the school board intended to scapegoat the joint boards, or simply responded to residents’ concerns and acted in the interests of an educationally sound school system.

It’s all about context.

On the national stage, take the GOP’s latest obstructionist ploy against President Obama’s agenda. All 41 Senate Republicans (and one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska) voted against bringing a financial reform bill to the floor for debate.

As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post points out, this latest filibuster isn’t preventing a vote on anything, but, “Rather, it’s standing in the way of debate and amendment … That is to say that Republicans who want to see the bill debated and changed are filibustering the process in which the bill can be debated and changed. They’re not filibustering legislation so much as the legislative process itself. … But Republicans have gotten so used to filibustering everything that they filibuster whether it makes sense or not.”

More interesting to me than this nonsensical approach—and an example of why context matters most—is a comparison of Republicans’ opposition to health care reform and their opposition to financial regulation.

At the crossroads of health care legislation, conservatives decried the Democrats for “shoving [the bill] down Americans’ throats” and “ramming it through,” and they called for the administration to heed popular opinion and the will of the people. Fair enough. The bill wasn’t polling well.

But compare that to public opinion of financial reform legislation: According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, about two-thirds of Americans support “stricter regulations on the way financial institutions conduct their business.”

Yet it’s an attempt to impose those very restrictions that has again drawn Republicans into staunch, rank-and-file opposition. Read the writing on the wall: Republicans apparently demand unequivocal acquiescence to public opinion—that is, when it’s convenient for them.

Are both parties hypocritical in their own manner? Yes. Do I think the public opinion point is moot, anyway? Yes; I believe we elect leaders to make executive decisions, even when they wind up being unpopular. There’s a reason why we don’t send every issue to public referendum.

But here we see that considering issues in context can illuminate hypocrisy, indecisiveness and political inaction disguised as principled opposition (the Republican Party’s MO of late, were you to ask me).

We can infer from subtextual clues what bearing these developments will have in November, or we can opine about either party’s disregard for the other or for the American people. But let’s stick to the facts.

At every level, it’s all about context.

Note: In last week’s column, I implied a reader who had phoned in to complain I am a “bleeding-heart” was referring broadly to my personal politics. The caller wrote me to say he was not casting broad assumptions about my belief system but simply responding to a specific opinion (a Feb. 19 column opposing a prison’s decision to take away privileges that had previously been granted to inmates). The caller wrote: “This accusation was not about political views, but you didn’t say that” and felt I had spun his statement. I’d like to publicly apologize for unintentionally misrepresenting his call.


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