Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Meanwhile…A Cure for What Ails Us

I’ve taken a break to deal with some serious personal stuff the last few weeks. If you knew, you’d understand (which you will any way – I hereby command you as the World Most Reasonable Man to do so).

Any hoo…

I’ve spent a non-trivial amount of time thinking about politics and government. I even joined my local Democratic “club.” (A dangerous step on the road to Actual Action, I know, I know.)

As anyone who has read my stuff knows, I am passionately convinced that the key to our electoral failures lies in our failure to provide meaningful leadership. Of course, we’ve been correct in all our arguments (well, most of them, any way). We’ve presented bright, experienced and appealing candidates (OK, just go with me here). But we have wholly failed to demonstrate enough voters that we have real leadership ability.

Right now, we are as reactive as Republicans ever were. We have an agenda free of meaningful ideas and littered with half-measures on the margins, the political equivalent of pushing peas around on your plate. We are tied down with preserving our past victories against the onslaught of the Evil Repubs. All of which is, of course, fine by them.

To break the current cycle (which I’ve thought of as our “wondering in the woods” period, which seemed to do Jesus a world of good), we need, of course, a charismatic leader or two. Our Ronald Reagan as it were (but hopefully not evil).

The other thing we need to move forward is to get off of defense and go on offense by staking out issues that lead us forward. Rather than chasing voters with issues we think they’ll they like, we need to unveil new ideas that we think voters will gravitate toward, both from the left and the right. We have to make them want to like us. We can’t talk them into it.

For us to be the rulers, we must convince people that we are real leaders. Think about where we are today. Bush’s ideas are unquestionably out of step with a majority of voters. (So says the NY Times in a recent poll). Logically, for Bush to have won re-election, he had to have millions of voters vote against any rational definition of their own self-interest.

And yet they did. Think about that. Why would people do that? One part of the explanation, no doubt, is the extent to which people are horribly misinformed about what Bush actually has done and has said he’ll do. But what I heard over and over in the run-up to the election is that Bush is resolute, says what he means and means what he says, and won’t waver in his commitment.

And in fact, that is the Bush campaign’s own meme. Not that if Bush is elected he’ll find Osama. Or he’ll whack your social security benefits. Or raise your taxes (he will, just wait). Or embarrass our Canadian friends. Or bully our European allies. No, those things weren’t front and center.

Character. Strength. Resolute. Won’t waiver. Straight-shooter. All these things are what they wanted to telegraph into voters’ skulls, and they were (by my lights) plenty successful.

In fact, though a reasonably hard-core progressive liberal, I have found myself attracted to Bush’s aura of strength. And why not? It’s appealing. Too bad it’s in the cause of evil and not good.

John Kerry was certainly by any measure a strong man. Downright muscular for a 60 something year old guy. And I think in many ways he did project leadership.

But I think he was ill-served by his party’s agenda (and here we can put aside the notion that he likely had it in his power to redefine that agenda). His agenda was primarily that Bush is a failure (which of course he is), and if elected, I (Kerry) will be successful.

But he did not stake out any bold new ideas that voters connected with. What would we as voters get if we voted for Kerry? A more accommodating posture viz. our allies? Many more incremental government programs to help address our loss of economic competitiveness? Lower deficits? Higher taxes on the rich?

None of these are things voters can relate to on a gut level. (And watch out, because here’s the other Big Insight.) To succeed, we need to take positions that voters connect with on a basic emotional level. I can just about hear John Kerry saying, “How about sending your kid to college? Can you connect with that? Because I’m going to help you do that.” Or, “How about affordable health care? Is that something basic enough? Because I’ve got a plan to make sure we cover most of the Americans not currently covered by health insurance.”

Blah. And I’m one of his most ardent supporters!

Bill Clinton used to talk about the need to understand “gateway” issues. In his book he writes eloquently (the whole thing is quite eloquent in my view) about how the voters would never take him seriously about the 1001 government programs he wanted to implement until they were convinced he wasn’t going to spend them out of house and home. And that meant convincing them that his #1 priority was getting the federal budget deficit under control. And in office, he made sure to produce a plan that would deliver on that promise from the get-go. And deliver he did (over the screaming protests of the (almost-always-wrong) Repubs).

Now the federal deficit is back. And the winner of our next presidential election will surely promote his or her plan to reduce that deficit. I’m not sure if this is the issue we should put at the center of our agenda, but it’s certainly up there.

But the larger point is that we will surely be losers if we don’t build the emotional subtext to support that (or any other) policy position. The Repubs subtext is so clear that it ain’t so “sub” any more: bad people who are different than you think you’re a boob and want to take your freedom away because they think they know what’s good for you better than you do.

What’s ours? It seems to me that it ought to be something like, “Hey, we’re all in this together, and we need to make some decisions and share some resources so we can be there for each other when we need it. And someone has to watch the bosses.” Of course, I’m sure there are professionals who could do much better. Actually, at age 44 and a varied career across several industries, I’m pretty sure a professional would do no better. Either way…

Repubs have developed a talking point around taxes that is in many ways the defining issue for their subtext. All taxes are bad, because they allow evil government bureaucrats in far away places to decide what’s best for you. Besides, they just piss the money away on fraud and waste, and payments to people too stupid not to need help.

So I think I’ve come up with an issue that will allow us to start telegraphing our position. (Can anyone say, “drop the dead donkey?”)

Civil service reform.

This issue has been a fruitful area for well over a hundred years. If we don’t grab it, they will. Here’s how it would work. We would be appalled, shocked and appalled I tell you, at the amazing inefficiency of the government at all levels under the Repub’s watch. (We should probably just own up to, or ignore, our own role in devising the system.) Can anyone else hear Professor Harold Hill’s song about “Pool with a capital P” in their head?

We would then get every single Democrat in the country to start espousing the need for the following simple program: introduction into the civil service of the basic evaluation tools of private enterprise at all levels. We would call for bonuses for the top, say, 5% of performers, and remedial action leading to termination for the bottom 10%, with raises and promotions for everyone else depending on their reviews.

I can’t see how anyone could really be against this. Of course, I can imagine constituents on our side, notably those who in fact labor for the taxpayers, being anywhere from deeply concerned to outraged by this. OK, so right there, that’s benefit one. Having corps of civil servants righteously mad at us will get us at least a million new net voters. Don’t forget, as much as this proposal may irk these government worker-voters, we are likely to keep a lot of them any way. And those we lose we may well have lost in any case.

But to me this position has many additional benefits. First of course is the introduction (OK, a lot of this may already be place), of the same system of sticks and carrots that so many voters face in their work lives -- the direct policy benefit. Second, it equates government workers with all other workers, a door which swings both ways. In other words, if the government workers should be managed the same as me, maybe they are not in fact evil aliens from planet Tax’n’Spend who want to take my gun or my bible. Maybe they're just a bit like me after all.

Third, it massively shifts the discussion onto territory that is good for us – the government. It puts the working of the government at the center of our thinking. And that is a good thing for our society, and not half-bad for the Dems. We should be all about making the government deliver real value for the voters. That is, after all, what it is for. Plus its terrific politics.

Finally, it would put us on the offensive while putting the Repubs in the not-very-enviable position of having to argue against it. And, heaven forfend if they join us, we will have improved government while showing leadership. Nothin’ wrong with that. Declare victory and move on to the next one.

I would introduce another similar issue. Call it “Salary and Wage Fairness.” (Add/delete some synonyms, play with the initials and maybe we can get a catchy acronym out of it.) The idea is to call for legislation requiring that in all companies, the total pay of the CEO may be no more than 20 times the total pay of the least compensated employee.

There are probably about a thousand sharp edges to this one, maybe some fatal. We'll see. First, as one who at least completed law school, there are likely jurisdictional limits on what the government can do here. But surely we could get at federal and state contractors and others who receive direct government benefits. In fact, why couldn’t we reach the same companies who are reached by the minimum wage law? Just askin’.

Second, there will undoubtedly be problems with figuring out what any given individual’s pay actually is. Options, health club fees, employee cafeteria’s, etc. So many challenges, so little time!

A third concern is the very real prospect that potential CEO talent will refuse to serve in companies affected by this law. Actually, I’m not troubled by this one at all. I don’t think our current CEO class has performed all that admirably, do you? And in my experience, most CEO’s come to the job rich as Croceus in the first place. Maybe some CEO’s who actually need the money is exactly what our businesses need.

There are universities and governments all over the place that labor under this kind of wage ratio restriction. For all I know there are companies too who already live by this.

I’d think we’d be able to get a bunch of shareholder rights types like TIAA-CREF on board. Most importantly, it’s hard to see the downside here. I love the prospect of putting Repubs in the totally-not-enviable position of defending astronomical CEO pay. Or, conversely, horribly underpaying our lowest paid people. Either way, we win.

These are the sort of “wedge issues” we should be exploring.

Two more quick thoughts:
We on the left
1. need to start a dialog with the business community about globalization, focusing on two main points. One is health care. We should make the lack of access to affordable health care a key point in our thinking about globalization. Our competitors in Europe and Asia are beating us on this, one of the largest costs most businesses face.

The other point we need to start to talking to businesses about is energy independence. American businesses are too dependent on cheap foreign oil, and that has got to stop.

2. Which leads me into #2. We need to develop our next technology-leading businesses, and the area most ripe is alternative energy, which is already attracting billions of investment capital. We can be the world leaders on this, giving us not only lots of jobs as this industry grows and prospers, but giving all American businesses a leading-edge advantage in the use of cheaper and better energy supplies.

All of these issues, however, have to be positioned into a narrative that the government is not some far-away foreign influence, but is our chance to do the right thing for ourselves and for us to be the boss for once.

Another post coming soon on Things We Agree On. (Hint: there are more than you think!)

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