Commentary: Santa Claus gets lost on the road

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com 

INDIANAPOLIS – Only Nixon could go to China.

Or so the saying goes.

Because Richard Nixon had spent so many years burnishing his anti-communist credentials, he was positioned to open the United States to the world’s largest communist nation. After he’d spent a quarter-century red-baiting anyone who disagreed with him, it was hard to label Tricky Dick a pinko for cozying up to Mao.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

In the 45 years since Nixon visited the Great Wall, it’s become a cliché in politics that running hard in one direction creates legitimacy for an otherwise head-spinning Column by John Krullabout-face that takes elected officials in the opposite direction.

The corollary here in Indiana apparently is that only Republicans can ask for tax increases.

The members of the state GOP are in the middle of a complicated U-turn to find a way out of the dead end regarding roads and bridges funding they’d driven themselves into.

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has proposed raising the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to raise around $1.2 billion that will be devoted to repairing and maintaining Indiana’s roads and bridges, which now are as crumbly as coffee cake. New Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, also a Republican, has hinted in his inaugural address and his first State of the State speech that he would be willing to take Bosma’s plan – or some version of it – out for a test spin, but has stopped short of saying he’ll go along for the full ride.

Before I go any further, I should say that it is time to invest in our state’s infrastructure. The longer we delay the bigger the problem will get and the costlier  – and more painful – it will be to fix. And a gas tax seems to make as much sense as any other solution to the funding challenge.

At least it does to my eyes.

But I, unlike Bosma and Holcomb, am not a leader of a political party that has spent the better part of the past half-century equating taxation to theft. For decades, Hoosier Republican candidates for political office have castigated anyone who wants to raise taxes for any purpose – feeding hungry children, putting cops on the street, improving schools – as either a spendthrift or a con artist.

That’s what makes the GOP’s challenge so significant. Having conditioned their base for at least two generations to believe that they could get something for nothing – great government services without paying for them – Republican leaders now find themselves in the position of having to explain that there is no such thing as Santa Claus.

And they must do it before we have any more road or bridge collapses.

Already, there are angry mutterings from the tea party wing of the GOP that they miss the idea of the jolly old elf leaving presents under the tree. They’re not ready to give up on good old St. Nick. They don’t want to pay higher taxes.

Therein lies the dilemma.

Bosma – and presumably Holcomb – now must convince the most active members of their party to yield on what for them is a core conviction.

That won’t be easy, but, if they’re able to do it, it will be a welcome step toward maturity in our political discussions.

If there is one thing that frustrates thinking people more than anything else, it is the air of unreality that dominates our public policy discussions. Almost every elected official likes to perpetuate an illusion that decisions don’t have consequences.

Democrats too often try to sell the idea that taxes and regulations won’t have any impact on growth. Republicans push the notion that we can have great schools and safe streets without paying for them.

To his credit, Holcomb quietly seems to be trying to change that dynamic. In his State of the State address, the new governor advanced a grown-up line of thinking – that the way to judge taxes is the way we judge other investments, by the benefits that they return.

It’s an argument Democrats have tried to make, without much success.

Having the leader of the state Republican Party make that case is another story.

Only Nixon could go to China.

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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