Sunday, December 19, 2004

Politics- Goals v. Means

The question du jour appears to be whether it's the product or the packaging that is responsible for our election defeats. I think it's a bit of both. Our last two presidential candidates lacked a broad sense of humor (publicly, anyway) and common sense. They ran on nothing other than winning- no purpose for being president.

To give the devil his due, you can't say that about Bush's handlers. They have very specific agendas- to reward the business class (big business, anyway) every way possible- reducing expensive environmental protections, oversight (FCC, FDA, OSHA), and giving them tax breaks on dividends, capital gains, along with direct contracts (in Iraq and elsewhere) and subsidies. That's their real agenda- the religious right was a means of getting into and staying in office. The proof of which is when you look around, in spite of all of the talk about "values" and anti-gay bashing and "faith based" initiatives- the fundamentalists have gotten virtually nothing out of the Bush Administration except a few FCC rulings on obscenity and some executive orders about abortion and family planning in international programs otherwise supported by the U.S. Bush has had no impact on the Supreme Court- he lost two big decisions, one on the sodomy statute in Texas (Lawrence v. Texas in 2003), the other on holding American citizens without charges, lawyers, or trials (Rumsfeld v. Padilla). He even lost lower court decisions on the so called "partial birth abortion" ban (e.g. Southern Abortion Federation v. Ashcroft, S.D.N.Y. 2004).

In contrast- name one specific thing that Gore or Kerry promoted while running- one program or agency that would be dismantled or one policy that would be pursued that would achieve a positive result. You can't- because they were so scared of losing by being specific. We all assumed what they would do if elected, like stopping the war in Kerry's case, even when the assumption was directly contradicted by their words on the stump (i.e. Kerry and the war). Remember when conventional wisdom had it that Clinton would show his true self in a second term- the "liberal" Clinton? It never happened, and it wasn't the fault of impeachment- that imbroglio didn't occur until 1998, well after any initiatives could have been proposed if Clinton had intended to launch them. Weirdly, it was in the last days of Clinton's administration, just before leaving office, that a lot of salutory regulations (on clean water and other environmental issues) were enacted- then promptly put on hold when Bush took office. Why wait until 2001 to do what he could have done the day after the election in 1996? Only Clinton knows the answer to that one.

My approach is to realize that the stated goals of Americans on the left and the right are similar or identical- whether it be security from terrorism, success for our businesses at home and abroad, good jobs for more Americans, a safe environment for our citizens, fewer abortions and fewer unwanted pregnancies, and quality health care for our citizens. You will find no difference in the rhetoric as to goals, even if you believe that one or the other group secretly is at odds with a stated goal (i.e. Republicans don't want a quick or a complete victory in the war on terrorism, as it provides a viable excuse for everything else they want to do).

Since the stated goals are the same- a point we never make while campaigning- the debate should focus on the means to achieve them. And there we can point out that some Republican proposals have already been tried and failed to work- like capping damage awards in malpractice suits, which has been enacted in some states. Or we can suggest a pilot program rather than going whole hog based on untested theories like school vouchers, medical savings accounts or Social Security privatization.

And we need to have fun with some of their absurd posturing. If posting the Ten Commandments reduced crime and increased morality, then posting them in the halls of Congress should decrease lying and unethical behavior among Congressmen and Senators. So let's post them for a year, then polygraph every Congressman and Senator a year later and ask them if they've told any whoppers to their constituents, slept with any of their staffers, or accepted money from campaign contributors in exchange for official favors. If Republicans are more moral because they propose protecting marriages by banning gay marriage, then let's investigate the proponents to see how many of them have committed adultery- again, with a polygraph. Imagine how many shades of red a Tom Delay or a Saxby Chambliss would turn if confronted with those proposals in a debate.

As for a Georgia Democratic identity challenge, think for a minute who and what the party was just 25 years ago- before Mack Mattingly got elected to the Senate in 1980. We were the party of unchecked power, privilege, and patronage (the alliteration works!), epitomized by Herman Talmadge in the U.S. Senate and Tom Murphy in the State House. At the moment, we are leaner but not necessarily meaner. We aren't the party of power or patronage anymore- at least not on the state or national level, because we don't have control over the purse strings and government jobs. We certainly aren't the party of privilege- the rich Republicans in the northern Atlanta suburbs have that title locked down.

So we need to be the party of ideas- thinking outside the box as often as possible to avoid the tired old cliches that we are for racial quotas, gays, and gun control, for high taxes and higher spending, while being wimps on the military and national security. We need to be the party of real people- without falling into the trap of forgetting that rich people, NASCAR fans, Southern heritage flaggers, and so on are real people, too.

We should recognize that every human being is flawed, and every human being has something good in them, and resist the "us against them" "good guys vs. bad guys" that the news media enjoys so much. We don't have to embrace the inherent elitism of wealthy Republicans who want to pay less taxes to recognize that they (person by person, not necessarily as a group) already pay far more taxes than do the poor or middle class- it's a statistical fact, not an argument. So we can argue against a proposal to decrease "revenues" (not taxes- it's all about nomenclature) while running huge deficits, but promise to cut tax rates as soon as the deficit gets under control.

We can recognize that gun ownership is not directly correlative to gun owners committing violent crimes while proposing legislation to make guns theft proof and child proof.

We can admit that no one- not even wealthy businessmen- wants to live in a corrosive environment while recognizing the legitimate concerns of business that government regulation be as minimal as possible and be responsive to facts rather than rigid and bureaucratic.

So part of the problem is that we are scared of losing our "core" constituencies by being pragmatic or honest. And part of the problem is that we don't communicate very well, or at all, the good ideas that would benefit people of all kinds. To overcome those problems, we need to recruit good candidates while recognizing reality. And we absolutely need to avoid allowing the other side to label us. The best way of doing that is by labeling ourselves with ideas which will translate into specific deeds.


Blogger rusty said...

Wonderful post, Jim. It's a good primer for how to speak to normal people without selling your soul.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto for me, it is a good post, and adds more muscle to my current belief that the party should move to the center even as I have personally moved to the left.

Good stuff, Jim.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Well said. I, too, have struggled with the "product vs. packaging" question and I think you've put the issue nicely.

I look forward to hearing more from you on this topic.

12:47 PM  
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