“Budget fights puts Gov. Ridge on the hotseat”

Columnist : Albert Paschall

 Once upon a time a guy was offered a choice between eternity in Heaven or Hell.  Doubting the wisdom of choosing the pearly gates he accepted the Devil’s offer of a tour.  He was shown luxurious accommodations with every imaginable human comfort available for eternity.  An hour after accepting temptation he was in a tar pit full of hellfire and brimstone breaking rocks.  “What’s this?” he screamed at Satan, “this isn’t what you promised me!”  “That’s true,” Satan replied, “but that was when you were a prospect, now you are a customer.”

     Might be the way Tom Ridge is feeling these days.

     Just four weeks ago Ridge was on the fast track to a place in American history.  With McCain’s Michigan massacre, Governor John “The Fixer” Engler’s chances of being W’s number two slipped to slim and none.  On the strength of Pennsylvania’s prosperity Ridge got a round of national Sunday morning talk show spots that had the conservative choir crowing that he should be on top of Bush’s vice presidential list.

     But pride do cometh before the fall and Ridge’s concessions to compassionate conservatism, in the form of $3 billion in new state spending in his proposed budget has drawn the Governor into the hellfire of partisan politics in the state capital and that famous blue suit of his better be made of asbestos.

     Ridge’s 2000 budget was tempting to almost every special interest.  $700 million in anti-sprawl experiments in wealthy southeastern counties, $300 million more for education and a $100 rebate for every homeowner in the state to be paid in late October.  If there ever was a bipartisan move it is handing out checks to every constituent two weeks before the election.  Every thing was fine until nine Republicans and a lone Democrat calling themselves the Commonwealth Caucus announced that they wouldn’t vote for the budget.  Decrying the temptation of good times, they forced the Governor either to defend his new spending or make a deal with the Democrats to get a budget passed quietly and quickly before CNN turned up asking questions about it.

     Politically Ridge has probably never been in a hotter place.  With a two vote Republican majority in the House and two Republican seats at risk of vacancy under questionable circumstances and nine Republicans with a Democrat in tow bolting the budget, even the Bush national media machine – Limbaugh, Will and Rusher – singing Ridge’s praises across the land won’t take the Harrisburg heat off the Governor.

     A deal with the Democrats, Republican-wise, is a deal with the devil.  On the national horizon a ticket that’s headed by a guy whose conservative credentials seem to change wherever he gets off the plane backed by a guy who had to deal with Democrats to pass his own budget in a state where his own party is in the majority in both houses may have bigger problems than a Catholic trying to join a fraternity at Bob Jones University.

     But temptation builds temerity and while he had a hard fought battle for the Governor’s office five years ago Ridge hasn’t really been tested since.  He’s made the right moves, brought Pennsylvania back from the economic abyss it was in but he had the solid backing of majorities in the general assembly.  The Gore-Bradley primary fight clearly shows that the presidential politics of the first election of the new millennium will be the same old Gore: slime, slash and burn.  Whoever the vice president chooses as his number two undoubtedly will be expected to come after Bush’s running mate with the same tenacity that Gore used to send Bradley into political oblivion.

                Ridge fell to the temptation of conservative compassion in his budget and found, just as Governor Bush will, that the heirs of the Reagan Revolution are compassionate about one issue: money and how much of it the government takes and spends.

                Today Tom Ridge is a prospect for the vice presidency of the United States.  To get the job he is going to have to become one tough customer.  Between now and August he’ll have to make many deals with many devils to get the job done.  It looks like the first one will be right here at home and he’d better get it right.  While Ridge may be on his way to political paradise if he makes the wrong move someday there could be national hell to pay.