Chris Graham | How? vs. How Much?

We’re running a few minutes behind to get to the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner to hear former President Bill Clinton, and my wife, Crystal, is at wit’s end.
We’d spent the sunny, springlike afternoon with my college roommate and his wife in Richmond and taken our swanky dinner clothes with us to change there instead of being dressed up all day. It seemed like the thing to do when we had it all planned out. The problem came when Crystal noticed something the hole in the jacket in her business suit.

At 6 p.m.

Dinner is at 7 p.m.

Clinton takes the stage at 7:30.

She’d meant to take the business suit to the dry cleaner, but in a rush, and admittedly trying to save a few bucks, she washed it in the washing machine.

Are you thinking with me enough to get where I’m going in terms of setting up an analogy to how we’ve been doing the public’s business in this country for the past, oh, 40 years? Because the part about us going to hear Bill Clinton talk has more to do with it than giving us a backdrop to our story.

“The last time we had a majority, in the ’60s, most Democrats just asked, What are we going to do, and how much money are we going to spend on it?” Clinton said in his keynote address at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner Saturday night, taking us back to the end of the Great Society, which was noble in intent, certainly, but short on execution to the point that Republicans used its lingering memory as political fodder into the 2008 presidential-election cycle and the current debate on President Barack Obama’s proposed economic-stimulus package.

“I’ve been interested in this debate in the Senate on the stimulus because there has been a lot of focus on what I think is the only question that should matter for the Democrats today, which is, How are we going to do it? We should be the How Party of America. How are we going to take our good intentions and turn them into positive changes in people’s lives?How are we going to stop the central problem of this economic crisis, which is massive deflation of assets, and get a floor under not only housing prices but the rest of our economy so that we can begin to grow again? We have to focus on the how. And I hope that every debate we have, every election we have, every serious discussion we have, will be focused on that,” Clinton said.

I’ll take you now from Clinton at the podium in the Greater Richmond Convention Center Saturday night to my office in Downtown Waynesboro Monday morning to talk about how. The subject is my white paper on economic development in Waynesboro that spells out a plan for how Waynesboro can transform its dying manufacturing base into a 21st century technology base that is apparently making the rounds in City Hall and other nerve centers in town. Sitting with me is a member of Waynesboro City Council who has studied the paper and is interested in the how, as in, “How do we get this thing moving forward?”

Step one is getting past the How Much? mindset that is the prevailing view of the current majority on City Council. To the troika of Mayor Tim Williams, Vice Mayor Frank Lucente and City Councilman Bruce Allen, government is nothing more than sets of numbers in a spreadsheet otherwise divorced from any real-world application. Things are to a point where Lucente and Allen have made it clear in recent public meetings that they have no interest at all in taking part in presentations led by city-government staff on the nuts and bolts of what the various city departments do to deliver public services to city residents. Their concern is the bottom line, the How Much? from Clinton, the devil in the details be damned.

But the bottom line doesn’t tell the whole story. My wife, for example, saved on the bottom line by machine-washing her business-suit jacket, but what’s saving a few dollars on a dry-cleaning bill when you have to bear the cost of replacing the jacket, not to mention the psychic cost that we had to take on Saturday night in the walkup to trying to get to the dinner on time? Waynesboro is suffering the same in the recent controversy over increases in water and sewer bills that are hitting at a horrible time in terms of the macroeconomy, sure, but the fees are in place to pay for improvements to our water-sewer system that have been delayed 15 years by How Much? city councils. And Virginia is in a similar boat with continued inaction on transportation-system improvements that are now being exploited by our neighbors up and down the East Coast to put up a challenge to the primacy of Norfolk as a key port of entry for goods coming from overseas to the Eastern Seaboard.

The New Deal-Great Society solution was, as Clinton explained, basically to figure out how much money could be thrown at a problem that could make it go away, and particularly in the post-World War II era that approach was bound to work to at least some degree given our economic superiority in the world market. Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan exploited the political backlash to that kitchen-sink way of thinking – and certainly the additional backlash related to the civil-rights and women’s-rights movements that marked the turbulent ’60s and ’70s as well. Democrats, I think beginning with Clinton’s election in 1992 and here in Virginia beginning with the election of centrist Democrat Mark Warner in the 2001 governor’s race, have fine-tuned what the Clintonistas called a “third way” strategy that encompasses bits and pieces from the social-engineering aims of the Old Left and the bits and pieces from the bottom-line focus of the Right.

“Nobody should waste much time from this podium tonight with tried-and-true applause lines bashing the Republicans. They have just about done themslves in,” Clinton said, to ironic applause, as he probably expected, based on what he had to say next. “Even our political monopoly is not good for America. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth,” Clinton said. “We should wish them well and hope that they can come to grips with the fact that the social policy and the politics of division that carried them from Richard Nixon to the second President Bush’s two terms no longer work in America. We got it, and we are never going to go for that again. They have to go back to the drawing board, just as we did. And it may take them years to figure it out.”

In the meantime, “We have been given something that we have not had in 40 years – a genuine majority support. But we got it in an exceedingly difficult time,” Clinton said. “And the only thing that matters now is, What are we going to do? The country’s culture supports us. They want us to go forward together. They’re tired of the politics of division. People are excited about our new diversity. They don’t have time for phony distinctions and cheap attacks. But there are many and complex challenges out there.”

It’s not the dry cleaning, but it is, in a way. It’s the mindset that you can save a couple of bucks now and put off solutions to social and economic problems ad infinitum that is the biggest challenge.

“We Democrats have been given an incredible opportunity. For people like me that grew up in the segregated South and longed for the civil-rights movement, raised by a working mother who supported the women’s rights movement, then saw the country drift apart in the 1960s and stay split, who realized that the hard way in 1994 when we lost the Congress, partly because the NRA convinced people I was going to take their guns away with the assault-weapons ban, to see this day, when we have got much more of a live-and-let-live attitude, much more of an understanding that we are tied together, to see Barack Obama elected president, to me, not just the first African-American president, but the first president who represents our future because he lived in Indonesia, his father was African, his mother was Kansan, that’s really where America is going. It’s never going to be biracial or two religions again. This is the kaleidoscope. And so we know that no matter how you serve or how good you are, we know that we have to respect each other’s traditions, we have to respect each other’s faiths, we have to find a way to build the future that we share,” Clinton said.

“Don’t you think Virginia is a lot more interesting place than it was 40 years ago?” Clinton said, then elicited more applause with what he had to say next. “Come on, look at this crowd. If we had this dinner 40 years ago, most people would look like me – old, gray-haired white guys with suits.

“We have all worked so hard for so many years to elect good people, and we just assumed that they’d do a good job, because we knew what they had to do,” Clinton said, again serious. “But now we are in an era of unprecedented economic complexity and difficulty. And the old problems have not gone away. There’s still too much income inequality. Middle-class wages are still stagnant. After we reduced poverty by 100 times as much as the two Republicans who were president before me, it’s running rampant again now, even among working peiople. The health-care crisis has not gone away, and in fact it’s more urgent to solve it, not less. All those things are there in the midst of this incredible financial maelstrom.
“The only thing that will make it work is that we think our differences are interesting, but our common humanity matters more,” Clinton said. “We have won the great culture war that has divided America for 40 years. But before we celebrate too much, we have to realize what people hired us to do. We are in an era where the how is more important than how much.”

 

– Column by Chris Graham



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