Perhaps you can find in yourself just a little sympathy for the public relations team at the Florida Education Association.
For much of the last two decades, as one governor after another rolled out their budget proposals, the PR flaks at the Florida Education Association never hesitated to call them “draconian” or “irresponsible” or “reckless.” Without fail, their response sounded somewhat like this: that the proposed budgets, if passed, would turn the lights out on children’s classrooms, forcing them to read by candlelight the out-of-date textbooks used by teachers so underpaid they could not afford the needle to sew up the holes in their threadbare sweaters.
But then last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott released the details of his proposed budget and the Florida Education Association was forced to rewrite the press release it had been involuntarily blasting out since former Gov. Jeb Bush was in office. How could it complain about another $1.2 billion in new education funding? How could it object to an across-the-board $2,500 pay increase for its teacher-members?
The truth is it couldn’t. The relative silence coming from the teachers union made one think the keys had fallen off the boards of the Florida Education Association’s computers.
But these are strange times in Tallahassee. The tea party governor is doling out budget line-item increases as if they were dollops of sour cream at a baked potato bar. The Republican House speaker and Senate president sang “Kumbaya” during a recent meeting of news editors. Everywhere you turn, there’s a legislator filing an ethics reform bill.
How is it that these grinches’ hearts have suddenly grown three sizes too big?
The cynic might suggest that Florida Republicans learned a lesson from the 2012 elections and are taking the party’s national losses to heart. Balderdash! The Florida GOP, with its fundraising dominance and super majorities — and its inclusion of an African-American lieutenant governor and Cuban legislators — is, if there is one, the model for national Republicans to emulate.
Some also suggest that Scott and Co. see the shadow of former Gov. Charlie Crist looming over the state capital and now recognize that if they do not get their act together, the barbarians (read: Democrats) will crash through the gate. Indeed, the prospect of Crist returning to the governor’s mansion looms large in Tallahassee, but Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford don’t strike me as the type who intimidate easily.
Scott, Gaetz and Weatherford’s change of heart is about something more. They’re running one of the ol’ standbys from the Republican playbook: It’s the “Nixon goes to China” play that former Republican President Richard Nixon drew up long ago.
As a political metaphor, this refers to the ability of a politician with an unassailable reputation among his supporters for representing and defending their values to take actions that would draw their criticism and even opposition if taken by someone without those credentials.
Like a tea partier suggesting that the education funding spigot be turned on. Like the senior state senator who suggests the revolving door between lawmakers and lobbyists be closed. Like the legislator elected by developers finding it in vogue to tend to the environment. Like the tough-on-crime crowd finally getting “smart” about sentencing guidelines.
Take that last issue as an example. Do you know what would happen to the Democrat who would propose “smart justice” reforms? They would be disregarded, isolated and marginalized. But because Republicans are beginning to understand that you can’t lock up every misdemeanor offender, the state of Florida might finally get smart about the criminal justice system.
Democrats have proposed this and other ideas for more than a decade, but have made little headway. It will take Republicans to fix the problems created by other Republicans because only they can endure the criticism from their supporters.
Of course, by taking the Democrats’ issues off the table, the Republicans have a better chance of preserving their absolute dominance of state politics.
That’s a strategy even Dick Nixon could admire.