Sometimes, brand names matter. Either out of habit or persuasion, people seem to get attached to a particular toothpaste or deodorant.
Other times, brand names don't matter much. How much difference is there, really, between Comet and Ajax, or among various dishwashing liquids?
This brings us to Republicans and Democrats. They talk wildly different talk. They tell us that if we buy their brand, we will be a lot better off.
What's a consumer to do? Lucky for us, we have a laboratory to test the difference between the two parties. It's called the Florida Legislature.
We have just finished our second annual session of a state Legislature that is completely under control of Republicans. Before that, Republicans hadn't been in charge for more than a century.
So, how much better did they do than the Democrats? Did they get the dishes cleaner? Make our teeth whiter? Ease the heartbreak of psoriasis?
Not really. They were a little neater than the messy Democrats when it came to running the trains on time.
They did pass a few things the Democrats wouldn't have, including requiring parental notification for minors who want abortions. And they tried for things the Democrats wouldn't have, such as school vouchers.
But when it came to the big-ticket items . . .
When it came to the philosophy and size of government . . .
When it came to spending Other People's Money . .
There was little difference.
Remember that the first big test of this Legislature actually came last November, when it met in special session to build more schools.
In that session, the Republicans decided to borrow a bunch of money from the lottery, create a bunch of new rules and bureaucracy and force some local school districts to go deeper into debt.
Not very impressive. If the fault of Democrats is that they raise taxes too easily, the fault of Republicans is that they think going into debt is more "conservative" than raising taxes.
Let's move forward now to this spring, when the Republicans found out they had an "extra" $550-million to spend because the state would rake in more taxes than expected.
Because the Republicans already had said they could get by without raising taxes, you would think they would immediately give this extra windfall back to the taxpayers. But they did not. In my book, that means they passed a $550-million tax increase _ not exactly "conservative."
(True, the Republicans proposed later to give a $50 tax "rebate" to homeowners, and to suspend the sales tax on clothing for a few days later this year. This is better than nothing, but it still amounts to giving the taxpayers back less than half of the extra money and expecting them to be grateful.)
Just like the Democrats, the Republicans stuffed their state budget full of "turkeys," or pet projects, to buy favor with the folks back home.
Just like the Democrats, the Republicans stuck lots of sneaky stuff into the budget that the full House and Senate had not previously voted on.
Just like the Democrats, the Republicans stuck unrelated things together, holding things hostage for political purposes _ for example, trying to tie school vouchers to other programs to help little kids.
Just like the Democrats, the Republicans heeded the voice of lobbyists. It was a Republican who suggested doubling everybody's telephone bill. Republicans killed a crackdown on sweepstakes companies. The lobbying over lawsuit reform, that battle between lawyers and business, looked the same under a Republican Legislature as it would have under a Democratic Legislature.
It doesn't matter in Tallahassee if you are a Republican or Democrat. What matters is if you are the In-Power Party. The rest is rhetoric.