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My Letter To A Senator Friend

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is a personal friend whom I have known for 35 years. My college roommate was his high school classmate in Big Sandy, the farm town on the high plains where Jon maintains his family homestead.

I was an enthusiastic supporter when Jon was first elected to the Senate in 2006. His narrow victory over three-term Republican Conrad Burns was crucial in the Democrats’ sweep to a narrow Senate majority that year, which they then expanded with a string of victories in 2008.

Jon has been exactly the kind of senator I knew he would be: thoughtful, decent, constructive, pragmatic — and loyal to his party. Which is why, though I will continue to support him as he seeks re-election next year, my support will be of the token variety. I want him to be re-elected, but I want him to become part of the minority party, not the party in power.

His aides have been calling me regularly to set up meetings and phone calls, no doubt to reprise my 2006 roles as a minor fund-raiser and vocal supporter. When you know someone as long as I have known the senator, you owe him an explanation when you cut back on your support. Here is the letter I sent to Sen. Tester, explaining my reasoning.

I am making it public because the only thing personal in it is my respect and affection for Jon. The rest is all about policy, and this sort of debate belongs in the public eye. I think Jon would agree with this even if he disagrees with my opinions, as he certainly disagrees with my conclusion that Democrats deserve to lose their Senate majority.

Dear Sen. Tester,

I am sorry I missed you when your aide tried to set up a phone call and, later, a meeting in New York recently. I have spent a lot of time away this winter, mostly at our Florida office, but also on other business. Still, I know the political and legislative calendar, and I read all of your emails (and some from the many other Democrats who email me because of my past support for you), so I presume you are reaching out at least in part to solicit my support in your re-election.

I have already made one small donation, and I expect to make others to your campaign. These donations are a token of my respect for you. I will always support you because you are a friend, and because I believe you bring a measure of decency and thoughtfulness to public life that is far too often absent. I agree with some of your positions and disagree with others. Any disagreements are easily outweighed by the benefit of having you in our country’s highest legislative body.

As I mentioned, my support this time will be just a token. In 2006 you were making your first run for statewide office. You had to win a Democratic primary and then defeat an incumbent U.S. senator. You needed the support of people like me, who knew you well, to introduce yourself to the people of your sprawling state.

That is no longer true. Now you are the incumbent, with the solid backing of the White House and of your party, and with plenty of people eager to contribute either because they want to curry favor or because they genuinely support your positions. By this time, almost every likely voter in your state is acquainted with you. If Montanans are happy with your work, they’ll keep you in the Senate. If they aren’t, you will soon be back on the farm, which probably will not make you too unhappy anyway. I have not lived in Montana in 30 years. Apart from my personal regard for you, I do not have a dog in this fight.

I wanted to see Democrats win a Senate majority in 2006. I do not want that result in 2012. My preference is to see you return to Washington as a member of the minority. The four years that your party held power in both houses of Congress were a period of epic policy errors, corrosive procrastination, wanton spending, and, too often, outright demonization of people like me. Your party cannot reasonably expect my support after four years of vilifying “millionaires and billionaires” (meaning anyone with even moderate financial success) for not wanting to carry a grossly disproportionate share of the country’s expenses and debts, even as you urged vast numbers of middle-income voters to expect ever-increasing government benefits, as long as they vote Democratic.

I am not a Democrat nowadays. I call myself a Republican, though many Republicans would disavow me because of my social views. Social views were a primary motivation for my past Democratic support. That wedge issue no longer works with me. Your party has been a fair-weather friend on the social issues I care about, like abortion rights and same-sex marriage. This is no better — arguably worse — than being an honest and principled opponent, as are many Republicans. At least I can work from inside, as a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, to change people’s minds. Your party’s positions just follow the political math of getting votes for the things Democrats really care about, which are economic and entitlement issues.

I do not want this to be a rant or a diatribe. I know you’re busy. You can stop reading now if you wish. But I think you are entitled to a bill of particulars. If you can’t get one for someone who has known you for 35 years, who will give it to you? Besides, I plan to share this publicly. I would like to at least provide food for thought to people who are not already swept up in the Washington shouting match where everyone’s views are carved in granite.

Here, then, is why I want Republicans to win the Senate and the White House next year:

  • Democrats show no inclination to fix Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Left unattended, these programs will cause catastrophic damage to the country’s financial soundness throughout the working lives of our children and grandchildren.
  • Fixing the government’s long-term finances is a prerequisite to decide how much we can afford to spend on health care and other priorities. Moreover, cost, not access, is the biggest health care problem the country faces. Rather than take the mature approach of first determining available resources and then allocating them, you — personally, with your own vote and that of each of your Senate colleagues — saddled us with a horribly designed health care law that undermined the private insurance market and every state’s Medicaid budget for years to come, while doing nothing to control cost. More than 1,000 waivers from this awful law have already been granted, and most of the law has not even taken effect.
  • You consider your party’s Senate leader, Harry Reid, a friend. I consider him a menace to my family. At Reid’s behest, President Obama killed the planned radioactive waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Meanwhile, such waste has been piling up for nearly 50 years at Indian Point, N.Y., about 20 miles from my home. My wife and daughters are among the 20 million people who sleep within 35 miles of Indian Point. The president continues to push nuclear power development as part of his global warming orthodoxy, but he has nothing to say about disposing of the byproducts. If I can’t get Sen. Reid out of the Senate, I can at least hope to get him out a leadership position by electing a Republican majority.
  • I appreciated the courtesy you showed Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein last year at a hearing on the fallout from the financial crisis. You were the lone Democrat on your committee who did not behave like a hungry cannibal at a barbecue. The hearing was part of a disgraceful witch hunt that your party led against anyone connected with the financial industry who could be blamed for the 2008 credit crisis. Earlier, your party beat up Detroit executives for having the nerve to fly to Washington on corporate jets, as though global companies can be effectively run from an airport waiting area. Honestly, I’m sick of political theater that casts anyone with financial success or corporate responsibility as a cartoon villain, complete with a sneer and a handlebar mustache.
  • The financial services reform bill your party enacted last year did not address any of the significant causes of the crisis, most importantly the distortion of the mortgage market by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The federal bailout of these entities is well over $100 billion and rising, yet Democrats still cannot bring themselves to cut off the flow of easy credit that encourages people to buy more home than they can afford. More than nine in 10 mortgages issued recently have government backing, yet nobody discusses the merits or drawbacks of the situation.
  • With Democrats firmly in control of Congress and the White House by 2009, I could at least look forward to movement on social issues. What happened? Not much. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is still around, though we can finally hear its death rattle. The disgraceful Defense of Marriage Act was never repealed; Democrats are letting the courts do all the dirty work. Nobody even talks about touching the Hyde Amendment, which ensures that a poor unwed pregnant teenager in Memphis, Tenn., or on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation cannot have access to a safe abortion using federal funds. Abortion is the hottest button in American social politics, and a lot of people on both sides have intense and sincere beliefs about it. The bottom line, though, is that your relatives, and mine, and those of every affluent American, will always have access to safe and legal abortions. If abortions are not available in the U.S. our families can be treated safely in Canada, or in the Bahamas, or in England. The abortion battle is really about those poor women in the South, or on the reservation, or in an inner city, for whom Canada might as well be Mars. My delusions that Democrats cared about such women ended when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had to give its approval before your party could enact its top-priority health care overhaul.
  • Fiscal policy being what it is, I have bought several properties to protect my wife and myself against inflation in our retirement years, and to provide our daughters with a legacy and a potential income stream. I will be in my mid-60s when the last mortgage is paid off. If your party has its way, my daughters will have to pay for this property again, with a hefty estate tax rate, when my wife and I are gone. Democrats screamed when the estate tax rate dropped to 35 percent this year, with an exemption of $5 million. Members of your party think my daughters should pay 45 percent, or 55 percent, of the value of the property I am already paying for, just to hold on to it. Why should they pay anything when I could have simply spent all this money on myself without paying any tax at all? One of my daughters plans to be a psychologist, the other a journalist. The only place they can raise the funds to pay taxes on what I leave them is to sell what I leave them. I deeply resent the government penalizing my thrift and forcing them into such a sale. I have no objection at all to having them pay capital gains taxes, on the other hand, whenever they sell the property. That’s the Republican approach to taxing inherited wealth.

So please accept my small donation this year, Jon, with my best wishes for the forthcoming campaign. I will be allocating most of my modest resources elsewhere, including the Log Cabin Republicans, as well as augmenting my daughters’ education funds before the tax increases your party seeks to impose on me can take effect in the next several years.

Give my best to Sharla. I look forward to seeing you at some point when our paths cross in New York, Washington or out in Big Sandy. Best wishes,


Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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