Fifteen short months ago, Alaska Republicans were celebrating decisive victories up and down the ballot: Mike Dunleavy soundly defeated former U.S. Senator Mark Begich in the race for governor; Paul Seaton and Jason Grenn – key members of the previous Democratic-led House Majority – were upset by newcomers Sarah Vance and Sara Rasmussen, respectively.
Though the final result was not evident on election night, the lone bright spot for Democrats was Scott Kawasaki’s narrow victory over then-Senate President Pete Kelly for a Fairbanks Senate seat. The victory proved bittersweet when Kawasaki’s vacated House seat was snatched by Republican Bart LeBon by a single vote over his Democratic rival. Blunting Kawasaki’s win was the fact that Republicans went into the 2018 election holding an outsized 70 percent of the State Senate seats. Losing one meant Republicans still held a strong majority.
On paper, Republicans should have controlled the Governor’s Mansion and both legislative chambers. Why then weren’t they able to convert electoral success to a governing agenda?
Once the electoral dust settled and the inevitable deal-making began, the Democrats’ advantage in realpolitik became obvious. House Republicans announced a majority organization when it wasn’t clear they had the numbers, losing any ability to bolster their ranks with moderate House members by offering them chairmanships and powerful committee assignments. By the time Republicans realized they lacked the support to form a majority, it was too late.
Republican incompetence in the art of deal-making and governing is nothing new: “Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it,” as P. J. O’Rourke aptly put it. And yet incompetence can only explain the current dysfunction to a point. There’s something far more pernicious at work.
For conservatives in Alaska, there’s not much to dislike about Representative Dave Talerico. The amiable sexagenarian from Healy has arguably been on the right side of every major issue during his five years in the House. He’s consistently voted to reduce the size and scope of government, he’s pro-resource development, and pro-life; he’s a Republican’s Republican. Despite all this, there was a conspicuous absence when House Republicans announced their ill-fated new majority. At that critical moment, Representative David Eastman – the ostensible conservative firebrand – was nowhere to be found, still apparently trying to “figure out” who the new Speaker ought to be. His glaring absence created the wedge between Republicans that would eventually lead to the formation of a bipartisan coalition headed by Speaker Bryce Edgmon.
At the time, most political observers explained Eastman’s actions by citing his radicalism: he votes ‘No’ on virtually every piece of legislation, shows no interest in compromise, and sponsors bills he knows have about as much chance of passing as Jeff Landfield does of becoming a Chippendales dancer. Lawmaking may be his job description, but it’s clearly of no interest to him.
Governing is hard. A few short years ago, Alaska had billions in the bank – a sad fact we often remind ourselves of. Today’s policymakers are left with two kinds of choices: the irresponsible and the unpopular. We could continue to blow through our savings, including the Permanent Fund, cut the dividend, or adopt new taxes. Further cuts to the budget are going to be incremental, not monumental, as Governor Dunleavy realized last year.
None of these options appeal to political opportunists, who are more interested in using the legislature as a platform for self-promotion than serving the public interest. The Eastmans of the world aren’t all that interested in legislative majorities because they’re not all that interested in passing legislation. Or holding positions of power, where they may be held accountable. The legislature, to this type, is a place to build a public profile, to become a minor celebrity, to establish a brand.
A handful of the new crop – Representatives Ben Carpenter and Sarah Vance, for instance – have no doubt learned the lessons of Senator Peter Micciche’s near political demise in 2018 to an unknown neophyte with no cash: If you’re a Republican, don’t be reasonable and don’t compromise; In other words, don’t govern. Instead, promise voters a full PFD, talk generally about cuts – never specifics – and make sure someone else gets pinned with the blame when the checks begin to bounce.
The trouble with politicians is they’re human; they respond to incentives. Increasingly, voters are rewarding performance art, not good governance. To his credit, Governor Dunleavy had the guts last year to propose a balanced budget with a full PFD. Following a swift bludgeoning to his approval rating and a serious recall campaign, he has since responded to these political incentives and is now asking legislators to fill the leadership vacuum.
Too many Alaskans, particularly on the right, misidentify legislative ineptitude with virtue, as if compromise – even generally toward their policy goals – somehow taints our legislators. We should remember that compromise is built into the system the founders put in place. Like Congress, we have a messy, bicameral legislature with high vote thresholds. It’s hard to get things done. That means lasting solutions to our current predicament will require real leadership, and we’re much more likely to get real leadership if we reward it.
The author of this piece is a legislative staffer who has worked in the Capitol for many years, only for Republicans.