Lowell P. Weicker Jr. tartly praised one gubernatorial successor, Dannel P. Malloy, and panned another, M. Jodi Rell, on Friday as an unlikely mix of prominent names from Connecticut’s political past, present and future talked about partisanship, political courage and fiscal responsibility.
Weicker called Rell a “wonderful lady” who was “more interested in polls than governing,” while he grudgingly gave Malloy credit for proposing a politically dangerous tax increase to erase an inherited deficit as Weicker did 20 years ago.
“That’s what leadership is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make decisions that work…not decisions that are necessarily popular,” Weicker said. “In that sense, I back the governor. He didn’t create the mess any more than I created the mess. Both of us have tried to do a job to clean it up.”
On a summer day when budget crises were center stage in Washington and Hartford, Weicker joined Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, former U.S. Reps. Barbara B. Kennelly and Nancy Johnson, and others in Hartford for a non-partisan, half-day forum on how to restore fiscal sanity to state and federal government.
Their host was former U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker of Bridgeport, the founder of the Comeback America Initiative and a leader of No Labels, a grass-roots group of Democrats, Republicans and independents trying to force a centrist, non-partisan debate on the budget.
Republican Linda McMahon, an unsuccessful Senate candidate expected to run again in 2012, withdrew from a program that would have given her a place in a free-wheeling policy discussion with Kennelly and Johnson about Medicare and Social Security, topics she placed off limits in last year’s campaign.
Medicare has increased from 4 percent of the federal budget in 1970 to 23 percent of the budget last year. It now costs $2.9 trillion annually.
“If it’s one thing that can bankrupt America, it’s health care,” Walker said.
Kennelly agreed that Medicare costs must be controlled, but she is opposed to a privatized system of vouchers. She said Medicare was created in 1965 as a reaction to the unavailability of affordable health coverage for retirees.
The discussion was led by Walker, a possible candidate for the GOP Senate nomination himself.
“I’ve had people encourage me for years to run for office, and I’ve always resisted. The encouragement has never been higher. It’s coming not just from people in Connecticut. It’s from people all over the country,” said Walker, who is weighing a run as a Republican or an independent.
Next week, Comeback America is going to issue a “Restoring Fiscal Sanity Report,” which Walker says will outline potential federal fiscal reforms in Social Security, health care, defense and taxes.
Opportunities for other interesting political conversations or confrontations were missed Friday.
Lieberman addressed the audience in the morning, before the panel with Johnson and Kennelly. He praised Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican of Wisconsin, who floated a controversial plan to privatize Medicare, an issue that Democrats used to win a special congressional election in New York.
He disgreed with Ryan, but he said the congressman at least had the courage to tackle the issue.
“It’s hard to touch Medicare, but if we don’t do anything with it, it’s not like it’s going to go chugging along happily,” Lieberman said.
Lieberman was gone before a lunch of salad and sandwiches and the opportunity to mingle with Weicker, whom he defeated in the 1988 Senate race, when Lieberman was a Democrat and Weicker was a Republican.
Ned Lamont, whose victory in the 2006 Democratic primary forced Lieberman into running as an independent, also arrived by lunch. Lamont, who ran for governor in 2010, was seated at a table with Malloy’s budget chief, Ben Barnes, and Michael Fedele, another gubernatorial candidate in 2010. Fedele also is consider a run for Senate next year.
Rell declined an invitation to attend.
“We tried very hard to get Rell to attend, but we could not get her to accept,” said Debra Hauser, a clinical psychologist from Yale who is the co-chair of No Labels Connecticut.
Weicker harbors no affection for Malloy. Aside from being friends with Lamont, who lost a Democratic primary to Malloy, Weicker felt snubbed over Malloy’s failure to formally invite him to his inauguration. (The administration says it sent an invitation to the wrong address.)
But Weicker left no doubt he identifies more with Malloy than with Rell, who has stayed out of public life since leaving office, or with John G. Rowland, who now makes his living second-guessing Malloy as a radio talk-show host.
“What I’m not going to do is sit here and pick apart the present budget scenario, except to thank Gov. Malloy for taking the monkey off my back,” said Weicker, whose time as governor is best remembered for the passage of the income tax.
His audience laughed.
Weicker said he bore the wrath of taxpayers, as Malloy is now.
“That’s OK, that’s what leadership is supposed to do,” he said.
Weicker said he gave Connecticut new revenue sources in the income tax and gambling revenue from the tribal casinos, but it was squandered by those who followed him.
“In 20 years, all that money and more went down the drain. This state had no hold of its spending whatsoever. And the ones that led the big spending were those that were opposed to the income tax, except when it came time to spend it,” Weicker said.
That was a shot at Rowland, who pledged to repeal the income tax.
Weicker said he admired Malloy for “standing up” and trying to resolve a problem created by others.
“Neither one of us are complaining. We asked for the job,” Weicker said. “But if the job is going to be done, it has to be done, not just with brains, but with courage. And that will always be the case in so far as leadership in government is concerned.”