Every Friday, I'm going to identify a startling moment from the week in Olympia—something that clarifies the legislative session story line, changes the debate, or captures a larger political trend in motion. (Last week's installment was on the new "Unified Theory" Democrats—a dramatic change from the ten-million-interest-group Democrats of the past.)
And this week's grand conclusion, that the GOP is on the defensive as the Democrats control the debate, definitely dovetails with last week's take.
It's based on both headline news, like the fact that the Republican-dominated senate passed the Democratic priority DREAM Act today, and on some behind-the-scenes action, like the fact that the Republican senate environment committee chair referred his own version of a Democratic priority bill to committee today.
First, though, it's hard not to look at this week's action in Olympia without being nudged by the larger events from D.C.—President Obama's State of the Union speech (and our own Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers' response). And, more importantly, the national GOP's decision to change gears on undocumented immigrants, supporting the DREAM Act (which Obama had to inch along on unilaterally, during his first term) and rejecting the stubborn "get out" orthodoxy for a "get right with the law" leniency, as the New York Times editorial board summarized it this week.
The Obama/McMorris Rodgers moment is a little unfair because the GOP response is literally, well, a response. So, by definition, the Republicans are on the defensive. But for a president whose numbers are low, Obama was able to bust in and belittle the Republicans' trump card (Obamacare) with a funny, authoritative, and well-reasoned smack down. (The "40-something votes" line was hilarious.)
In terms of goal posts or frames or whatever metaphor you choose, the fact is: we're talking about the Democratic agenda.
And then he seized the moment from the GOP and defined the political issue of the day: Income inequality. And with a snappy demand, too: "Give America a raise." (McMorris Rodgers offered Americans a prayer.)
McMorris Rodgers' brief reference to taxes and big government didn't resonate against Obama's speech or even reference it (it was as if she was a student who hadn't done the reading assignment). She then tried to re-frame the debate as an "opportunity" gap rather than an income gap. Clever-ish, though hard to reconcile with her votes against unemployment benefits and equal pay for women—and with a reportedly inaccurate anecdote about a constituent whose health care costs went up).
And despite all the rhetorical acrobatics, she was still on Democratic turf.
When you talk about gaps, i.e., the diminished economic standing of average Americans, you're still talking about a critique that comes from the left. Both the "opportunity gap" and the income gap are simply new versions of Occupy's 99 Percent mantra.
In Olympia this week, the Republicans—to varying degrees—were, similarly, reacting to, mimicking, and playing catch-up with the Democrats.
Exhibit A, as it was in D.C., was the big news yesterday afternoon, and formalized today, when the Republican-dominated state senate passed the DREAM Act, something the Democrats in Olympia have been proposing for years. The Democratic house passed it last year. The senate refused to take it up.
Bam. The Democratic house passed it on the first day of session this year, three weeks ago. Today, the GOP-controlled senate conceded, passing the act with 10 Republicans supporting it. Trying to differentiate it, the GOP sponsor of the senate version, Sen. Barbara Bailey (R-10, Oak Harbor), hyped the $5 million she attached to it today—as if the house Democrats hadn't funded it when they passed their budget last year. (They did, adding $37 million to the state need grant, financial aid for college students).
Bottom line: The GOP was enacting Democratic legislation. Bailey even tried to quibble with the name of the act, changing it from the DREAM Act to the Real Hope Act. Democratic minority leader Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-34, W. Seattle), who spoke after Bailey's attempt to rename the longstanding legislation, ignored Bailey and stuck with the longstanding Democratic message, calling it the DREAM Act.
Income inequity is also a big issue in Olympia right now. After Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, like Obama, proposed raising the minimum wage in his state of the state (think the Democratic Party shares a playbook?) the Democratic house promptly rolled out a bill to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour.
The GOP response has ranged from trying to prevent cities from raising minimum wages to trying to lower the minimum wage for teenagers to talking about creating jobs instead. The GOP has been all about jobs for a while, but their rap is now consumed and preoccupied with the larger issue of income inequality that the Democrats have laid out.
I had a conversation with a GOP staffer in Olympia this week who talked earnestly with stats showing that only a small percentage of people—between two and three percent—worked minimum wage jobs and that the goal should actually be—rather than "divvying up a small pie" as they put it—"creating a bigger pie."
I could quibble with them: Raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour would help a lot of people who make more than the current $9.32 minimum.
But, the fact that I was talking about Woody Guthrie issues with a Republican staffer who was in earnest about wealth redistribution was a bomb shell. In terms of goal posts or frames or whatever metaphor you choose, the fact is: we're talking about the Democratic agenda.
This is even happening on an issue as hippy dippy left as the environment. As I mentioned, the chair of the senate's environment committee, Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42, Fernadale), suddenly introduced a version of a bill to regulate oil transport that the Democrats were moving through the house (and a liberal Democratic senator has ready to go in the senate). Ericksen told me this week that his bill "goes further" to regulate oil transport than the Democratic versions.
I've yet to dig in and do a side-by-side, and I imagine—given Ericksen's coziness with the oil industry—that his bill might actually be more friendly to oil. But again: Here are the Republicans, not complaining about regulation, but copping a Democratic tenet—and trying to co-opt it.