Commentary: Eric Holcomb, the GOP and big government

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – History has a sense of irony.

Given enough time, members of both major political parties will embrace positions and roles that would have been anathema to their predecessors. Republicans and Democrats find it easy – so easy – to switch places without ever switching jerseys.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

These days, most Americans and most Hoosiers identify the Democrats as the party devoted to centralized power, housed particularly in the executive branch. Democrats, most people think, like strong presidents and strong governors, leaders free to act in the public interest who are unfettered by such restraints as legislative oversight or other checks and balances.

It hasn’t always been that way.

And it may not be that way again.

It’s easy to find evidence that President Donald Trump has, as a critic once said of Theodore Roosevelt, “no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.”

But Trump is in many ways an aberration, an opportunistic figure whose devotion to the GOP is based on personal expedience rather than any sense of deep philosophic commitment.

Closer to home here in Indiana, though, we see stalwart Republicans such as Gov. Eric Holcomb and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, embracing a plan to make the state superintendent of public instruction an appointed, rather than an elected, position.

The plan would call for the governor to appoint the state’s schools chief and determine the person’s compensation. It also would allow the governor to be the sole determinant of whether the person was qualified and would strip away any requirement that the superintendent be a resident of Indiana.

There’s some history here, both recent and more ancient.

The recent history involved the election of former Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, in 2012. Ritz’s elevation into the state’s top schools slot provoked four years of open and petty warfare in Indiana government about education. Having the voters choose her was inconvenient for members of the GOP, because it made their argument that they were interested in giving parents “choices” and empowering them by ignoring their votes difficult if not impossible to deliver with a straight face.

Ritz, though, was swept out in the Trump wave that pounded Indiana. Republicans, who now think of state government as their monopoly, would prefer not to take the chance that the voters might get uppity again.

The ancient history is that Hoosiers long have distrusted the idea of concentrating too much power in one person’s hands. That’s why, in 1851, they made so many offices in the executive branch, including the superintendent’s, elected. They limited governors to a single term and stopped just short of making the janitor’s position an elected office because they wanted to limit a governor’s influence, believing that any increases in a chief executive’s power would come at the expense of the people.

Those fears were reinforced a decade later during the Civil War when both President Abraham Lincoln and Indiana Gov. Oliver Morton were labeled tyrants – Lincoln because he assumed war powers no previous president had claimed and Morton because he sent the legislature home and ran Indiana state government largely by himself for several years. (The governor was afraid the Democrats in the Indiana General Assembly would vote to sit the war out.)

Both Lincoln and Morton were among the first generation of Republican politicians. The voices most critical of the way they exercised and concentrated political power in the executive branch were Democrats.

That changed 70 years later when President Franklin Roosevelt and Indiana Gov. Paul McNutt used their powers as the nation’s and the state’s chief executives, respectively, to create dramatic changes during the Depression. Republicans became the champions of diffused government power.

It’s about time for things to shift again.

That’s why we have a Republican president arguing that he’s obligated to recognize no authority – not Congress, not the courts – other than his own whims.

And we have a Republican governor arguing that the best way to empower Indiana’s parents and students is to take power out of their hands.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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