Sunday, April 29, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
Is Gov. Brian Sandoval a conservative?
After an interview with Gov. Sunny last week on “Face to Face,” after listening to the bleating from both sides about whether he meets conservative litmus tests, I realize he is the perfect example of someone who demonstrates just how hollow, even misleading, political labels can be. It’s so facile and mindless to label someone — or yourself — as a conservative or liberal, as a pro-tax or no-tax actor. But as I pressed the governor on his right-wing critics pillorying him for extending expiring taxes and for striking a tax-collection deal with Amazon, he came forth with how he really thinks, which has nothing to do with the conservative/liberal or even Republican/Democrat divide:
“I’m the CEO of this state,” the governor said, thus providing a window into the real Brian Sandoval, not the one who foolishly adopted a “no new taxes” mantra to get to the right of a leviathan named Jim Gibbons in the 2010 gubernatorial primary and who has been parsing the meaning of what a “tax” is ever since.
If Sandoval were more earnest he would be Eddie Haskell — but in his case almost no one except nasty lefties doubt his sincerity, commitment and work ethic. But his insistence on his consistency, when such blind no-tax pledges invite inconsistency, and his adherence to the conservative label, when it has lost much meaning here and in D.C., is constricting to his long-term goal of making the state more vibrant and mature than it has ever been.
Like any politician, Sandoval wants to be seen as having hewed to the same positions throughout a career. But because of his genuflection to the no-taxes-no-how contingent in 2010, he has been unable to escape from a prison of his own making — and indeed he has rhetorically waterboarded himself with every decision. To wit:
• Sunsets in 2011: Sandoval made his box even smaller by saying he believed any move by lawmakers to extend expiring taxes was tantamount to a tax increase and thus would violate his pledge. But after a state Supreme Court decision jeopardized half a billion dollars in his budget, Sandoval agreed to what he had defined as a tax increase and extended those so-called sunsets.
• Sunsets in 2012: The governor announced last month that rather than face the prospect of education cuts, he would announce early that he planned to extend the sunsets again come 2013. Once again, by his previous definition, this is a tax increase, but Sandoval shifted his spin to say, as he did on “Face to Face” last week: “Nevadans are not going to pay one cent in tax more than the day I took office.”
• Amazon in 2012: Last week, Sandoval announced an agreement with the web retailer to collect sales taxes from Nevada buyers. The governor risibly argued on the program that is “not a new tax,” under the theory that people could have been paying it already by requesting a sales tax form from the state. Come on. And, it should be noted, this also renders obsolete the statement about no Nevadans paying more in taxes since he took office — perhaps he should start saying (once it takes effect), “No Nevadan who doesn’t use Amazon is paying the same in taxes as when I took office.”
I think Sandoval made the reasoned, correct call on all three of those decisions. But he was forced to explain them in the context of that pledge he took two years ago and against the backdrop of conservative wailers who demand Norquistian fealty, with deviations punished by banishment from the conservative club.
Sandoval’s explanations are so easily deconstructed. And on “Face to Face,” he even tried to suggest the court decision that started all of this unraveling would change “the way Legislatures have budgeted before,” knowing full well that the executive branch presents spending plans, often larded with gimmickry the high court has now outlawed.
This debate over pragmatism versus ideology reminds me of 1988, when Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis ran on the former and lost to George Bush, who ran on the latter. Once elected, Bush showed his supporters that their lip-reading skills were flawed as he raised taxes because, as so many before and since (including Sandoval) have discovered, circumstances change and often render silly campaign pledges inoperative.
On the program, Sandoval repeated one of his favorite aphorisms: “If I’m pleasing everybody, I’m lying to somebody.” True enough. But he’s not following his own advice.
If he would start listening to himself and stop trying to please everybody by squeezing everything he has done into a framework that simply doesn’t hold up, he can start telling the truth about what he has done and what he knows he must do.
That would be quite conservative.