Health Care and Government

NOTIONS Playing both sides against the political middle:

February 6, 2006

Last weekend, I took my sons to see Woody Allen's "Match Point." It's about a former tennis pro named Chris who gets himself into a jam.

Chris is working at an upscale London tennis club when he meets a wealthy fellow named Tom. Tom introduces Chris to his sister, Chloe, with whom he falls in love (or, at least, "in like"). To help enhance Chris' social stature and bank account, Chloe gets Chris a cushy job with her daddy's firm. Then, Chris and Chloe get engaged, married and start struggling to have babies.

Through it all, Chris is having an affair with Tom's girlfriend, Nola. Time and again, Chris professes his undying love to both his wife and his mistress. And we know, we just know, that someone's going to find him out, and when they do, no one will live happily ever after.

"Match Point" is about rocks, hard places and the anxiety inherent in playing both sides against the middle. It's also about luck-the kind it takes to play both sides and get away with it.

I had this notion on the brain while watching the news last week.

At the Statehouse, I heard folks hailing the possibility that Japanese automaker Toyota might build hybrid Camrys in Lafayette, creating up to 1,000 new jobs.

But from the same corridors, I heard dire warnings that we dare not take the $3.85 billion dangled by "foreign investors" to lease, operate and maintain the Indiana Toll Road, even though the deal would fund lots of other road projects and all the jobs that go with them.

Apparently, you can play both sides against the middle in the Legislature: It's OK for "foreigners" to invest in car-making here, but not in the roads that carry them.

The Legislature played both sides in other ways, too. In rejecting Gov. Mitch Daniels' proposed cigarette tax hike, legislators said they hadn't been told where the money would go. Then they turned around and passed a property-tax cut without telling us where the money would come from.

There was also news from the Middle East. For years, President Bush has said that the United States wants to restore democracy to that troubled region. He's explained over and over that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were waged, in part, so citizens there could elect leaders of their choosing.

But from the same White House last week, I heard grave concern that the Palestinian people had freely and overwhelmingly elected Hamas leaders that we don't like. We don't like them because they're hell-bent on destroying Israel.

So now there's talk of cutting off the Palestinian people financially if their democratically elected leaders won't buck the people who freely elected them and do what the U.S. of A. wants instead. Apparently, you can play both sides against the middle in foreign policy: It's OK to advocate and even kill for democracy, so long as the winners are people you like who will do what you want.

Tuesday night, I watched the State of the Union address. I always watch the State of the Union address. I like the pomp and circumstance. I like to hear what the speechwriters have crafted. I like to see who gets singled out for reaction shots, what their facial expressions say, which party sits or stands, and who's sitting in the balcony next to the first spouse.

But because I watch so many State of the Union and other political speeches, the political junkie in me was hearing echoes of addresses past and imagining back-room partisans backed into a corner and praying no one notices.

I watched Sen. John McCain, the longtime champion of political ethics and campaign reform, chuckle when President Bush, who had out-muscled him in the 2000 primaries and whose White House fought his reform efforts just a few years ago, called for lobbying reform.

I watched Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose husband championed health care for all and who headed the failed effort to accomplish that goal, cringe when the president, whose administration has witnessed tremendous increases in uninsured Americans, called for health care for all.

And while I couldn't see former Vice President Al Gore (he's presumably hosting a TV show or narrating a movie somewhere), I can only imagine his grin when the man who mocked him for promoting alternatives to the internal-combustion engine called for new technologies and innovation to free us all from our addiction to foreign oil.

But hey, when it comes to playing both sides against the middle and escaping notice, politicians have it much easier than Woody Allen's adulterous protagonist. After all, in a nation that pays more attention to "American Idol" than American government, well, you could walk a mile in John Kerry's flip-flops and no one would ever notice



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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