Fightin’ Ted Strickland
Outgoing Ohio Governor Ted Strickland was one of my favorite elected officials to lose office last month. And I loved 95% of his comments in an interview he gave to Sam Stein today.
From Huffington Post:
“I think there is a hesitancy [among Democrats] to talk using populist language,” the Ohio Democrat said in a sit-down interview with The Huffington Post. “I think it has to do with a sort of intellectual elitism that considers that kind of talk is somehow lacking in sophistication.”
…Talking, unprompted, about the debate over the expiring Bush tax cuts, Strickland said he was dumbfounded at the party’s inability to sell the idea that the rates for the wealthy should be allowed to expire.
“I mean, if we can’t win that argument we might as well just fold up,” he said. “These people are saying we are going to insist on tax cuts for the richest people in the country and we don’t care if they are paid for, and we don’t think it is a problem if it contributes to the deficit, but we are not going to vote to extend unemployment benefits to working people if they aren’t paid for because they contribute to the deficit. I mean, what is wrong with that? How can it be more clear?”
On the failure to connect with a public on what should be popular issues, I am in complete agreement. I’ve often been baffled by the Left’s complete inability to win support for what should be the most no-brainer majoritarian policies (I always go back to the great Death Tax vs. Estate Tax debate when I think of this. How we ever let the image of “Ma and Pa unable to keep the farm in the family” stick is beyond me). And obviously, as I’ve written many many times, I also agree with Strickland’s assessment that today’s Democrats have sacrificed populism for sophistication and have ended up the worse for it.
But then there’s the other 5%. It’s not that I disagree with the following comments; it’s just that it doesn’t strike me as this simple:
“And I think when the base understands [what’s] at stake, the base is going to be much more willing to engage and to join the fight. The base is going to be less willing to join the fight if they don’t see the clear differences. The differences are there, for God’s sake.”
“…It cuts your heart out,” he said, of the party’s inability to make a unified, principled case for their priorities. “People are willing to stand with you if they see you fighting for them. In Ohio, I didn’t lose because so many Republicans came out to vote for [incoming Ohio Governor] John Kasich. He ended up with 49 percent of the vote. I lost because there was an enthusiasm gap and too many people who would have most likely voted for me did not vote.”
Again, I don’t disagree with any of this. It’s just that, much as I love political scrappers, at some point advising a politician to Fight or to Stand Up for Principles sounds like a baseball manager telling his team during a locker-room pep talk to Score More Runs or Win. It’s something they already know.
I’m walking a fine line here, and I know it. I mythologize the “Give ‘em Hell, Harrys,” the Andrew Jacksons, the Ann Richards, even the Huey Longs. Part of me believes that politics were never meant to be transformational and that they were intended to be grievance-based. Not mean-spirited or spiteful, just specifically (as opposed to abstractly) agitated.
But the other part of me thinks it’s just plain stupid to imagine the solution to every political problem is just to Stand Tough, Draw a Line, Energize the Base… For one thing, trying to define “the base” for either political party is a recipe for endless squabbling. But beyond that, there are actual reasons that our politics have been crippled for decades – reasons that a feistier tone won’t solve.
To summarize Levine’s list:
- Washington is too distant.
- We don’t get good results.
- Poisonous political culture.
- We’ve replaced democratic governance with technocratic governance.
- “Big Sort” relocation patterns.
- Decline in non-governmental affiliations.
- Broken political process.
Nothing on this list precludes good old fashioned line-in-the-sand politics, but it does add a bit of dimension to the back and forth between energizing the base vs. moving to the middle. Strickland is – I think – right about intellectual elitism, right about the absence of populist rhetoric (or, more importantly, actions) and right about the need to put up a principled fight on the issues. But to believe that “fighting” is alone the key to what ails the party, and more broadly the entire political moment, is a pretty narrow read of the past few decades of governance.