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What the Devil won't tell you

Tucson could teach D.C. about how to break free of gridlock

It's a little thing called democracy and it's been known to work

There are no similes. There are no metaphors. No literary device could accurately relate the week in Washington that was July 23 to July 28, 2017.

It would have to go like this: “This week was as if a president were rebuked by the U.S. Senate, the military and the Boy Scouts of America, while his new communications director pumped out obscene attacks on the administration's sworn enemies – its own chief of staff and chief strategist.” No. The comparison must include all that while the president himself found a new American enemy: His own attorney general. Wait. No. That doesn't do it either. This week was like a president being rebuked by the Senate, the military, the Boy Scouts and the chief of staff (who got literally kicked to the curb) and strategist were under public attack by the new comms guy (whose wife dumped him) while the attorney general was being challenged to a cage fight by the president at the same time karma blew up POTUS' key legislative initiative.

This isn't Hollywood. This isn't Shakespeare. This is as if Caligula dosed up on methamphetamines and said “Oh, it's on Emmer Effers.” There's the simile.

All of which is to say, I told you John McCain would find a way to shank the president.

McCain stood in the well of the U.S. Senate chamber and held out a hand for what must have seemed like a luscious extra beat before dropping his thumb down. He was the third Republican vote against the Senate bill to repeal Obamacare and all but kill Trump's biggest campaign promise.

POWs aren't heroes because they got captured, Mr. President? Pretend this thumb down is actually another finger up, Mr. President.

Drama aside, McCain did the Republicans and the country a favor. There simply aren't enough Republicans in the Senate to cobble together 50 votes among moderates and the rigid ideologues. So they wanted to send something, anything, to the House for a conference committee. The Senate head count wasn't going to change and the senators were never going to take marching orders from the House's Freedom Caucus.

So the "skinny repeal" – the dumbest bit of legislation the Senate has ever considered – was going to sit there in the House like a grenade with the pin out. At any moment, the House could just toss it at the American health care system and blow it up because … well, they promised to do something, anything.

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McCain all but sealed his vote two days earlier when he delivered probably the finest speech of his political career. He said the Senate needed to start again acting like the world's greatest deliberative body and return to incrementalism. To then vote for a bill so bad senators worried it would ever become law would be warp-speed hypocrisy.

It's time for bipartisanship, McCain said, and Democrats should take him up on it. Tucson could provide a bit of a history lesson for Washington because we've been at loggerheads with intractable opponents swinging meat axes at one another. We got past it. So can Washington.

5 reasons to deal

Voters have shown a maddening trend of rewarding obstruction during mid-term elections by punishing the majority party for being obstructed. So I get how Democrats might taste victory right now. Why pull the GOP back from the cliff they've already sprinted off?

I've got five reasons and counting.

1. Any action to shore up Obamacare will forever enshrine it as law. The Democrats victory of 2009 and 2010 wasn't so much securing a bill's passage as it was embedding a new normal. The government has a role to play in making health care as universally available as possible. No, that's not universal coverage but it's close.

2. Obamacare ain't perfect. Government tends to roll out the prototype as the final product. Tinkering is always required. Obamacare also requires a president who is neither arbitrary nor capricious to keep it from getting worse and worse and worse. President Trump has said he'll just let Obamacare fail. He can do it a lot of damage. I don't buy the idea that voters will blame Democrats if Trump takes active measures to set the American health care system on fire. That doesn't mean people can't be hurt.

3. Anything that can be done through the 51-vote reconciliation process can be undone by the 51-vote reconciliation process. So massive overhauls of one-sixth of the U.S. economy would be subjected to a cosmic ping-pong match between the two parties whenever power changes hands. All other legislation would require 60 votes to change. Getting both parties skin in that game would stabilize American health care for a good long time.

4. Republicans, you should like the fact that it's hard for government to do big things on bare majorities. Y'all have 52 of 100 seats in the Senate. Republicans can control the agenda but they lack sufficient margin of error to get done what they want to do on partisanship alone. That doesn't mean you get Democrats to shut up and surrender. To get what you want, you gotta give them what they want. Otherwise, Obamacare is yours because you have the power to fix it but won't.

5. Finally, in a country this divided between political shirts and skins neither side should dare to impose drastic and radical changes upon the whole of us. Trump and the Republicans squeaked out a win in 2016. Oh, I know. Take out voter fraaud and Trump actually won the popular vote as well as the electoral votes of California, Vermont, Cornwall and Bavaria. Except that didn't happen. In 2020, Democrats may reverse their fortunes but 60 seats in the Senate and a 10-point popular vote margin aren't likely in the cards.

America's constitutional form of democracy is predicated more on consensus than majority rule. The Constitution is checked with so many balances for a reason. In fact, democracy itself is the art of building agreement. Despots just impose their will.

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Grades of separation

So let's look at Tucson if we don't think it's possible. Consider and the question of grade-separated intersections. A grade-separated intersection is just a bureaucrat's way of saying “overpass” or “underpass” where traffic once intersected at a light.

Such an anathema to Tucson's sense of self, were GSAs that the City Charter requires voters agree to each one at the ballot box. Carving up Tucson's rustic character with pavement shooting traffic under and over itself seems to many to be the Californication of the pueblo we call home. At the same time, a community of one million without any sort of freeway system spends a lot of time, too much time, waiting for lights to cycle. That's lost productivity and years off our lives cussing loudly at yellow lights. Tucsonans tend to run those lights at alarmingly high numbers and die in the process.

In 2002, the city of Tucson put together a transportation plan that included just two GSAs and a good chunk of Tucson's electorate went thermonuclear. We at the Tucson Citizen went out and did exit polling (or our own version of it) and I can still remember voters swearing lifting traffic on Campbell Avenue over 22nd Street and Grant Road would be the same as dropping Los Angeles' 401 and 101 on our heads. It would destroy the character of the community.

The 2002 bond package crashed 60-40.

So greater Tucson was stuck with $10 billion in transportation needs, no plan for the future and a city that basically said “we're done with this.”

But we weren't quite done. The opposition group that favored light rail and a whole bunch more mass transit sensed destiny and forced a ballot question the next year to achieve their goals. It went down just as hard as the city plan.

So, either 120 percent of Tucson voters stood against any traffic fixes at all, or city leaders on both sides of the debate had failed to present voters with a plan they liked.

Like, not love

City leaders were at a loss. What to do? Well, Tucson did what it always does when government doesn't seem to work. It beamed out the Chuck Signal into the sky. Yes, then Mayor Bob Walkup started going down the regional transportation route upon the failure of the 2002 vote, but history remembers what happens next as Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's baby.

Turning to Huckelberry meant Huckelberry would turn to his favorite play. Throw all sides of the debate and let them figure it out. He invited the “For” and “Against” sides from the Tucson campaign and broadened the ranks of players to make the transportation plan truly regional.

In May 2006, voters overwhelmingly passed the Regional Tranportation Plan. Gone were the GSAs. Gone was the light rail system. Tucson got more pavement, a modern street car and expanded bus service (among other things). The RTA was largely practical with some flights of fancy thrown in to satisfy some of the voices. Forget about $10 billion in needs, the RTA plan called for $2 billion in spending.

Do we love the RTA? No. Do we think the RTA was a pretty good idea? Seems like it.

Half a loaf still makes sandwiches and in Tucson, the front half gets stale anyway.

All hate is local

That is how democracy works. It's the only way democracy works. Local politics can get just as nasty and more personal than national politics. Exhibit A: Tucson's water wars of the 1990s; Exhibit B: Rio Freaking Nuevo. Exhibit C: Anyone been to a Tucson Unified School District Governing Board meeting lately?

We don't tend to hate each other over stuff like national health care policy. Try to pave my neighbor's street and not mine and I'll get that sonofabitch if it's the last thing I do.

What keeps democracy from working is each party choosing beating the other party over furthering their own agenda. When the agenda becomes partisan destruction, well, enjoy rising premiums and narrowing choices because that's what you get when cattiness is the game.

I'll let others go into rural health care challenges, capitation, adverse selection, re-insurance, medical innovation, regulatory obstacles, etc.

To those who think we need to get either the profit motive or the government out of health care, I'll simply hit you with this two by four. You haven't made your case well enough to carry the day.

If you think it's just a matter of winning enough power on election day to force your view down the country's vote, I refer you to the look on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's face early Friday morning. He looked like a tortoise who just learned his actual age.

3rd and long

I leave you with a sports analogy because sports analogies are awesome. A nation of people thinks cloture and reconciliation are complicated also can recite pass interference rules verbatim.

The Arizona Wildcats have the ball 3rd and 8 on their own five-yard line. They complete a 12-yard pass and move the chains. Do we say attaboy? Or do we leave the stadium and set fire to our season tickets because if Rich Rod isn't going to call for the bomb on every play he's selling out and the fix is in?

We celebrate life-sized victories every day. We didn't marry the supermodel but we love our wives. We don't drive the Lotus but we dig our truck. We didn't get the mansion but our house is home. It's only in politics that we demand the supermodel, the Lotus, the mansion and that someone else pay for it.

John McCain shanked "skinny repeal" because it was a horrible bill. He delivered the kill shot to a secret process that would've changed how Americans face health, life and death because it needed to die. Now he wants Democrats to woman up and deal. They should. Repeal? Fix? Who cares what you call it so long as it gets the job done? It's just a literary device so screw it and write the column anyway.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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