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Complaining Your Chances Away

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On a national level, Democrats are regularly accused of being primarily reactionary and not doing enough to distinguish themselves for their own political ideas. Democrats get smeared, for example, for criticizing the Bush Administration’s handling of Iraq while not offering up their own solutions. It’s a valid criticism to some degree and has dogged the Democratic Party for years.

But here in Colorado, you could make an argument that it is the Republicans who are doing little besides levying complaints and ethics charges. One of the main reasons that Republicans lost control of the legislature in 2004 was because they spent so much time in previous years debating contentious social issues — like gay rights and abortion measures — while not spending enough effort working on meat and potato issues like the economy and education. Admittedly, it’s hard to promote your agenda when you are in the minority in the legislature, but Republicans are really risking looking like a weakened bunch with their continual complaints — the latest of which is a criticism of Democratic Rep. Alice Madden. As the Rocky Mountain News reports:

The head of the state Republican Party called Wednesday for an investigation into Colorado House Majority Leader Alice Madden’s sponsorship of a bill that would give $316,000 to an organization with which she has ties.

“This information is extremely troubling and reeks of favoritism,” GOP chairman Bob Martinez said in a prepared statement. Martinez also accused Madden of failing to disclose that she sits on the board of directors of the energy think tank, which Martinez claims she must.

Madden denies any wrongdoing. However, she resigned her director’s seat on the Energy & Environmental Security Initiative at the University of Colorado Law School on Monday, the day the criticism surfaced. House Speaker Andrew Romanoff said he has not received a formal complaint requesting an ethics investigation.

Madden insists that her primary sponsorship of the measure was totally proper and, in fact, a common practice at the Capitol. The $316,000 would go to create a profile of what kind of energy Colorado will depend upon in the future — oil, gas, hybrids, alternatives or other fuels. Madden remained unapologetic Wednesday in the face of a political firestorm.

“Should I not fight for dollars for CU?” said Madden, whose Boulder district includes CU. “If I didn’t I shouldn’t be representing my district.”

Do Republicans have a legitimate complaint here? Maybe, but the problem they’ve run into is that they’ve already levied so many ethics charges against Democrats that they’ve started to look as though they are grasping at straws. I wrote about this topic in early March, after Republicans filed an ethics complaint against Democratic Rep. Angie Paccione:

The Paccione complaint stems from an offer from her congressional campaign last month that offered to introduce top fundraisers on the state House floor — an offer that was immediately rescinded by Paccione once she learned of it. Paccione blamed the offer on an overzealous young staffer, and given the timeline of how it happened, that was probably the case. You could still make a good case for an ethics complaint, however, which is why Republicans are pursuing it, but I think it’s a mistake on the part of Republicans to go after Paccione.

Since then, another Republican filed a different complaint against Paccione — for something similar — that was largely ignored in the media. I’m always in favor of an aggressive approach in politics where strategy is concerned, but there is a fine line between being aggressive and being whiny; where Democrats nationally have crossed that line on many occasions, Republicans seem to be doing the same thing in Colorado.

Perception is everything in politics, and when you are always complaining about something, the perception you create is that you have nothing better to contribute than partisan attacks. Don’t get me wrong — there’s a time and a place for such attacks in politics, and from a strategic perspective you shouldn’t shy from taking shots at your opponents. But you have to pick your spots; not only do you look weak by continually complaining, the weight of your strongest complaints also gets diminished.

I’m sure what Republicans are trying to do is establish “a pattern of abuse,” but I don’t know if it works that way in the minds of the average voter — a voter who is just as likely, if not more so, to see whiny partisan politics that doesn’t interest them.

For a Republican Party hoping to take back control of the legislature in November, they’re going to need more than just present a stack of complaints — they’re going to need to make the case for what they have done right, and what they will do if given the chance to run the legislature again. It’s a lesson Colorado Republicans should have already learned after their stunning losses in 2004.

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