There is a lot to complain about in a two party system – only two choices in major elections when we know there are so many better human beings in the district/city/county/state/nation. But the advantage is that, unlike in European-style parliamentary systems, governing coalitions must be built in advance, which means you know what coalition you’re voting for. Politicians who know they must please many masters to both obtain and keep power are generally less able to be too dogmatic, or too extreme. Thus fringe extremists like Bernie Sanders or Ron Paul may win a few legislative seats, but rarely obtain any real power, especially not executive power.
These cobbled together coalitions, though, cannot – and do not – last in the end. Sometimes it takes a while, during which time parties ossify and become mindlessly tribal, which is where we are today. But like all things that lose their flexibility, such parties become brittle, and when the various constituent parts of that party start demanding their due, they can shatter. This is distressing to the tribalists, but good for society as a whole.
Gov. Steve Sisolak is a man of the left, but not of the far left, or even the ideological left. If he had landed in a more conservative part of the country instead of Southern Nevada with his political ambition intact, I don’t really doubt that he’d be a Republican, known as a dealmaker and castigated by extremists and purists on both sides of the political divide. I have been sharply critical of his handling of the COVID-19 shutdown crisis, but my complaints aren’t about his intentions or ideology. His errors have been in execution and inability to plan ahead or balance his responses to more than one threat at the same time.
Even when I don’t agree with them, I tend to like politicians who defy tidy political labels, or who are willing to break with party orthodoxy. It means they actually use their brains in the search for solutions to problems. So I was glad to see the governor announce on Friday that he was ruling out any tax increases in order to deal with the massive budget hole caused by our economic shutdown these past few months, and gladder still to hear him acknowledge that mandating things like masks would invite more pushback than compliance.
I have heard various credible rumors that legislative Democrats – fully expecting to have supermajorities in both the Senate and Assembly next session – are already drafting huge tax packages. This is simply insane – who would you tax? How much blood does anyone think they can squeeze from the unemployed, or from businesses who had to lay off hundreds of employees just to stay open? Or from businesses who didn’t stay open? The cost of our too-lengthy shutdown is not just the immediate loss of individual incomes, but also the loss or diminishment of government services for years to come.
It seems that Gov. Sisolak, at least, is finally doing that math. I have no doubt that this is a major part of his decision to have casinos operating again by June 4, which would be insane if COVID-19 was as virulent and deadly as scientists initially believed a few months ago (the states further along the road to recovery are showing us in real time that it is not, thank God). And it’s hard to imagine any business or social endeavor that logically cannot open or proceed if casinos are operating. I suspect that the governor will moot the pending church lawsuit against him on Tuesday during his announced press conference as well.
Republicans were pushing earlier to get the economy moving again, and with earlier, clearer, and more consistent guidance, and they were right. Imagine how much better off we’d be if the governor had listened to them, and co-opted that stance. Instead of having the worst unemployment in the nation, perhaps we’d be that much closer to economic recovery. Maybe the unemployment insurance program wouldn’t have been so disastrously overwhelmed. Maybe churches and gyms wouldn’t be suing the state, and maybe the pandemic would have helped heal our politics a little instead of making things worse. Maybe the Legislature would have already been called into a special session, to help in the recovery planning and emergency budgeting. Maybe rural Nevada – which was ready to open far sooner than more densely populated Clark County – would already be safely leading our economic recovery.
But while Nevadans would have been better off had he listened to his political adversaries, what reasons have Republicans given him for listening to them? They win too few elections, and have too little power. Too much political time, money, and energy is expended in hopeless wastes of time like gathering recall signatures instead of recruiting candidates who can both win and then govern well after they win. The Republican president threatening to withhold federal aid due to his disagreements with our voting methods certainly didn’t help (although the governor’s comments about using federal funds to help fill gaps without futilely raising local taxes showed me that he’s taking that “threat” for the un-serious trolling performance art that it was). And too many party activists would feel viscerally betrayed if they saw “their” elected official working constructively with “Sissylack” the alleged mustache-twirling Commie-Nazi.
The irony is that both the governor and Republicans around the state have a lot in common, and would both benefit from working together politically and in terms of delivering for Nevada. Good policy is good politics after all. At its best, there are plenty of win-win opportunities in politics.
Further marginalizing Republicans may make short term political sense. But if the governor values his independence from the party machine – and he should – he will actively seek to engage lawmakers who will challenge him, make him think, and be his devil’s advocates. He’s not going to suddenly swallow a red pill, but it will diversify his options, push him out of his party’s ideological bubble, and let him consider solutions from multiple points of view. That’s what the best leaders do, and it’s how Nevada will get the best outcomes from this or any other crisis.
Nevada Republicans can be assertive in defense of their philosophies and constituents and still work with a Democratic governor for the good of the state. Gov. Sisolak can do the same with Republicans. Not everyone who tells you what you want to hear is your friend, and not everyone who tells you you’re wrong is your enemy. It’s time for real, constructive engagement from both sides – we will all benefit in the end, both in getting through the plague, and for many years to come.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]