The schism

By RiShawn Biddle

Expresso • February 19, 2006

Certainly House Democrats will use opposition to the proposed Toll Road deal as part of their campaign strategy. They will even compare it to the state's poor experience with building canals in the 1830s which led to the state nearly going out of business, sort of speak.

The fact that they have refused to engage in a legitimate debate over whether eliminating a risky asset with at least some $226 million in risks to the taxpayers of the entire state in the form of delayed capital costs, should actually negate any arguments they use in the campaign. That the canal-building experience involved the state taking on unnecessary risks to the taxpayers, not the other way around simply means that the Democrats have not one leg to stand on.

Essentially it's a losing strategy for the state and its citizens in the long run. But Democrats aren't thinking about the best interests of its citizens or the economy in which they have to work. They're capitalizing on two facts of life that have made reform, be it that of Paul McNutt in the early 1930s or the current form being advocated by Gov. Mitch Daniels statewide -- and here in the Circle City by Mayor Bart Peterson -- particularly difficult to accomplish here.

Some of the opposition is definitely about self-interest. For Democrats, the proposed Toll Road deal will likely secure Republican dominance in state politics for another half-century because long-promised construction projects will actually get done under it. Some of it is even a philosophical opposition to allowing private administration of state assets. Both of which are actually respectable because it shows that people actually thought through an issue and came to their own conclusions. Even one can rightly question some of the details in the Toll Road lease itself; the fact that despite being a hefty document that it's also quite readable would answer many, if not all the questions. It even makes sense to ask Gov. Daniels to release the losing bids; while not doing so is typical in the corporate world, even supporters tend towards skepticism when that detail is not released.

But in Indiana, self-interest, philosophy and bedeviling details aren't as much drivers in the opposition. As seen in another reform debate, the efficiency efforts at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the justifications come down to two facts of life in Indiana: The state's stubborn tribalist culture and an unwillingness to rethink traditional and not always well-informed notions.

The former often lies in the particularly Hoosier unthinking political partisanship: I'm a [insert party affiliation] because my daddy and granddaddy were that affiliation too; those who aren't of that affiliation are my enemy and thus, I must destroy them. The Toll Road deal would be more palatable to Democrats and their ilk if Mitch Daniels was a Democrat; the same goes in the case of Marion County Republicans when it comes to the Indy Works plan of Bart Peterson, a Democrat.

The tribalism also comes into play when it comes to the players on both sides of the debate. The reformers are often the newcomers to Indiana, natives who have spent years elsewhere and came back with new ideas and ways of thinking through issues and natives who may have never left the state, but are curious and willing to challenge their own notions. The latter are often neither one of those groups; they never left both physically or intellectually.

This plays a role in the ability to rethink an established notion. After all, these are the people who never left Indiana save for a trip to Chicago, have never read the Economist or Forbes or even the Web edition of the Times of London. Chances are they didn't even think of attending a college other than Indiana, Ball State or Purdue. So they tend to be endowed with the kind of thinking indicative of never having been anywhere else or of open minds: All ideas from other parts of the world are horrible, not be trusted, and thus, should be ignored. Even those ideas arising from within the state, as far as they are concerned, deserves absolute scorn because they tinker or revamp the status quo.

In the case of the Toll Road, Daniels could have made the best presentation ever, answered every question in complete detail and revealed every losing bid -- and it would not matter to the opposition. No salesman cannot convince someone to buy a product they not only don't want to buy, but actually hate without any rationale. Neither can Daniels statewide or Peterson here in Indianapolis.

What we have here in part, as we've always had since McNutt, is a rather bipartisan war between two camps for the soul of the state, represented in Daniels and Peterson (for reform) -- along with media outlets such as this editorial page -- and by Pat Bauer and Scott Schneider (against), along with editorialists in South Bend and online personalities. It's also representative at times in the battles over gay marriage, a situation where it isn't simply Republican versus Democrat.

Reform will win not because of logic, but because of the willingness of Hoosiers, both statewide and Indianapolis, to realize the status quo isn't working. Whether most realize this is an open question.