What is ‘the right direction’?
Column by Chris Graham
My first reaction to the news that Republican Scott Brown had upset Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat – Damn, there goes the country.
The pundits were laying out the course for the next few months in the political give-and-take on Capitol Hill, and it sounded to me like a whole lotta nothing. No movement on health-care reform, meaning we get to continue to pay more for less in the way of services, with insurance companies that don’t do a thing to provide health care getting richer while doctors and hospitals struggling to make ends meet at their end. Yeah, perfect.
Certainly we’ll see nothing substantive on environmental issues or immigration reform. Health care was supposed to be relatively easy compared to those briar patches.
The message to Democrats, according to the pundits, sent by voters in Massachusetts, following up on the GOP wins in governor’s races in New Jersey and here in my backyard in Virginia, is, loud and clear, Focus on the economy.
Except that Democrats have been focusing on the economy. The stimulus was what got the tea-party set all up in arms, remember? The federal government was out of control with its spending, except, of course, when it was dollars that ended up in my hometown adding jobs to the local economy, or a loan program that I could apply for to get my business moving forward.
Ahem, I digress. The point that I want to make isn’t that the voters who have been sending these messages about the direction of the country the past couple of months are wrong; I’m from the business world, where the mantra is, The customer is always right.
Where I’m going with this – is asking the question, What do we need to do to get the country back in the right direction?
First, it would help to get a sense of what “the right direction” might be. I feel like I’ve got an honorary PhD in this “right direction” thing from years of being involved in local politics in Waynesboro as a journalist and later a participant. My local readers will get this a bit better, but the short version of the story is that the voters have been swinging back and forth to the extremes very much like a pendulum for the past four years, with the election of a strong progressive majority in 2006 followed by a blowback in 2008 that swept a group of libertarian conservatives into power.
Sound familiar to my non-local readers? The 2004 re-election of George W. Bush had Karl Rove dreaming aloud of a “permanent Republican majority,” which ultimately lasted all of two years, with Democrats winning control of Congress in 2006, and then building on the majorities while electing Barack Obama president in 2008. Now it’s 2010, and we’re swinging back to the right, and big time.
The Brown win in Massachusetts was startling not as much because Republicans never win in Massachusetts – it hasn’t been that long since Mitt Romney was governor there, and ol’ Mitt is definitely a Republican – but because Obama had carried the state by 25 points just 14 months ago, and Coakley had begun the special-election season with a 30-point lead.
What we’re seeing here isn’t voters stepping back and forth across a white line down the middle; voters are jet-packing themselves across a wide gulf.
The only thing that’s clear at this point, and this is as true in my native Waynesboro as it is nationwide – we don’t know what the hell we want.
Second, assuming, as I do, that we don’t know what the hell we want, that’s going to make it hard for us to really do anything of substance. The analysis here bothers the analyst, because I think strongly that we need to make movement on substantive health-care and environmental reforms. The activist in me, though, is quite cognizant of the need for buy-in from the populace, and we’re far from having adequate buy-in to be able to move forward with anything in those two key areas or practically anywhere else in the here and now.
Let me be clear on this point. I’m not saying that we need to wait until we can find a common ground between the 30 percent of the country that is diehard tea party and the 30 percent of the country that is diehard progressive. Might as well try to get the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus to sign onto the project, too – it just ain’t going to happen.
What I’m saying is that those of us in the middle need to come to a position of mutual understanding. It’s us who decided back in ’06 and ’08 that we didn’t like the direction that Bush and more to the issue Vice President Dick Cheney were taking us, with Corporate America ruling with an iron fist. It’s the same us blowing back from what a lot of independents and moderates see as overreaching in the direction of Big Government on the part of the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress with the stimulus and the machinations behind health-care reform as the case in point.
Third, my attempt at compromise. My local readers will recognize my thinking from a similar approach to a controversial proposed school redistricting that many of us here in Waynesboro think is being done way, way too fast. Slow down, has been my clarion call on the redistricting, and I’d say the same thing to our leaders in Washington.
My interest is in an overhaul of the health-care system, but even I am worried that we’re probably biting off a good bit more than we can chew by attempting to do it all up front. Why not just slow down, take a piece here, for example, medical-malpractice reforms, and line it up with a piece from over there, with regulations on insurance companies aimed at making health insurance more portable, and protecting consumers from abuses that we know are inherent in the way insurance companies currently do business? Give those pieces some time to work, then we can check back in a year or two or five and see if we need to create a public option. Maybe we won’t need to; maybe we’ll clearly need to. Right now, we have no idea if we’ll need to or not.
A similar approach can work on the environment. My instinct is to say that business and industry is going to want to do things in the most cost-efficient manner possible. The heavy hand of God approach is one way to get us there; another would be incentives to businesses in different sectors to modernize and economize that can make the transition much more organic.
Partisan Republicans are crowing this morning about the Brown win in Massachusetts as much as partisan Democrats did back in ’08 with Obama. My thinking is that they’re not going to catch onto the real lesson of the Brown win any more than Democrats will.
If history serves as a guide, Democrats will either continue to overreach, and get their hands smacked in November, or they’ll withdraw and do nothing for the next 10 months, and get their hands smacked in November. Then Republicans will spend the next two years alternating between overreaching and doing nothing, and have their hands smacked in 2012, and …
Funny, now I’m back to where I was when I started writing this column. Damn, there goes the country.