Column by David Cox
Some say Democrats have no identity. As Brits say, rubbish.
Perhaps the party reputation suffered during the Republican ascendency. And, true, what Democrats believe and practice now differs dramatically from the days of the Byrd machine. But in the Warner-Kaine years of this decade, in Virginia, a sense of what Democrats are and stand for and hope for has taken new form and shape, drawn an increasing following -i.e. won elections – and looks confidently for the future.
Over these next weeks, I’ll try to define the re-emerging Democratic identity, as I see it as a Virginian American.
First off, Democrats are the party of ideals, not ideology. That’s what makes them better at governing than a party overly concerned with ideological purity. What’s the difference? Ideals encompass the deepest aspirations of a people and seek to find embodiment in practical ways. Ideology takes ideals and systematizes them – sometimes in theory, sometimes in practice.
So far, so good. But ideology can get dangerous by taking the further step of imposing that system of thought onto practice, whether or not the thought fits the practical reality. No less dangerously, it can demand that adherents commit, not only to the ideals, but also to the system it develops.
That’s when ideological rigidity sets in. Take FEMA. In the Clinton years, it was a well-run federal agency that sought to practice the ideal of helping out those who suffer from emergencies. It was idealistic rather than ideological. When Katrina hit, though, FEMA was led by a businessman whose chief attribute seemed to be ideological passion as a loyal Bushite. We all know what a heckofa job Brownie did.
Or take No Car Tax. What a terrific political slogan: Short, sweet, it fit bumper stickers and the ideal that lower taxes is a way to fuel the economy. With that slogan, Jim Gilmore swept into Virginia’s governorship. Only then did we realize (a) the car tax was a local tax that lessened the ability of cities and counties to pay their way; (b) the state would have to pay the difference, though it never really did, because (c) the whole shebang cost a lot more than Candidate Gilmore ever figured; then (d) a recession deprived the state of revenues the Gov presumed it would have; thus (e) cities and counties found themselves in impossible messes that in turn contributed to higher property taxes. Ideology trumped pragmatism, defeating the very ideals it sought to embody.
So what resulted? Road construction and maintenance got largely deferred. State cops and other employees went without pay increases. Localities were strapped. Property taxes went up. Mental-health spending stagnated. The state risked losing its AAA bond rating, which would have hiked interest rates, and thus costs, for no good reason.
Mark Warner needed four painful years to sort out the mess. Finally, he (and a contentious General Assembly) did. He reformed some taxes while, yes, increasing revenues. He saved the bond rating. He got an overdue raise for state workers. He infused funds into education. He trimmed down VDOT. And he won for Virginia the award of best-managed state.
Tim Kaine has continued the progress – no thanks to too many legislators. We got a transportation bill at long last, though it provides maybe $3 billion when we need, eventually, at least $20 billion.
Without question, the man has ideals, but those guide him rather than the strictures of ideology. Which is why government in Richmond right now is working better. Perfectly? Of course not. There’s much to be done. The Tech shootings demonstrated not only Tim Kaine’s humanity, but also the lapses in the mental-health system – one that has been chronically underfunded, as even GOP delegates now admit.
Things are not as efficient as they can be. Not everything in government lives up to the ideals we hold. It never will. But we can strive. And, right now, Democratic leaders are accomplishing just that, precisely because they’re practical rather than ideological. Compare Kaine with Gilmore, and you can see the difference. Democrats govern better. Ideals endure.
David Cox is the Democratic Party nominee in the 24th Senate District. This column appeared in the Rockbridge Weekly on June 20.
The views expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of management of The New Dominion.