Tidbits I learned from reading Patricia O’Toole’s new biography of Woodrow Wilson

1. First impression was that he reminded me of Barack Obama. Wilson thought oratory was a leader’s greatest gift. He thought he could talk others into following him. O’Toole describes his first inaugural speech as “half civics lesson, half sermon.” The title of this biography, by the way, is “The Moralist.”
2. Wilson, facing off against the industrialists, wanted to serve the “public good.”
3. Just before WWI, the U.S. army comprised 108,000 men. More than that were eventually killed. My father’s mother’s brother was one of them. My mother’s father, an Italian immigrant, also served—and survived. U.S. forces grew to nearly 5 million. Quite a mobilization. Unlike W, Wilson proposed to pay for the war with new taxes.
4. Wilson demonized German-Americans, which included my ancestors. He passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which basically curtailed free speech in the U.S. Oppose the war, and civil servants could be fired and imprisoned. Some Democrat, that Wilson. Eugene Debs, the socialist, got 10 years for criticizing the Act. Still, while imprisoned he got nearly a million votes for president in 1920.
5. Some of the stiffest opposition to the war came from Southerners. They weren’t pacifists, but they didn’t like the idea of maybe having to fight alongside blacks. More important, according to the army’s chief of staff, “they do not like the idea of looking forward five or six years by which time their entire male Negro population will have been trained to arms.” Oh yeah, and Wilson re-instituted segregation in the civil service and refused to back Afro-Americans’ fight for civil rights. Some Democrat, for sure.
6. Finally, H.L. Mencken, writing about the 1920 election, lamented the quality of candidates, in this case Warren G. Harding, whose inspired vision was “normalcy,” and James Cox, founder of today’s Cox Enterprises, who H.L. saw as willing to please any audience with anything they wanted at that particular time. Mencken was so pessimistic of the future leadership of this country that “[o]n some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” H.L. is snickering somewhere.

The false dichotomy between progressive & moderate Democrats

Much of the argument following Jon Ossoff’s loss in the Georgia 6th district Congressional race suggests that Democrats need to be more progressive to win. Being a Bernie wannabe seems to be the prescription for firing up the bases to win such elections in an era when the GOP’s leader is an orange-hair baboon.

Others think it’s enough to be simply anti-baboon but that we need to ramp up get out the vote efforts, especially in off year elections when Dems don’t show up.

Others think we need to remove Nancy Pelosi who regularly appears in GOP ads against whatever Democrat is running.

Certainly, we need candidates with passion, but not the foaming at the mouth type we got from Bernie. We need to get progressives and the disenfranchised out to vote, but that’s not a matter of more phone calls. And getting rid of Pelosi, alas, is an idea whose time has come. She simply is too great a symbol for Democrats to overcome. But more important, her strategies are not working. She’s a lightning rod, but also an ineffective strategist.

But missing most is a reason to vote for Democrats.

Here’s where I think we are as a country, politically:

  • Everyone hates the others side, i.e., hyper-partisanship
  • The GOP holds one clear advantage: They appeal to people’s greed. “Cut taxes” has been a winning argument for 35 years.
  • Yet, progressive ideas are actually shared by a majority of Americans. People want government to spend more money on a host of broad budget areas.
  • The GOP holds significant structure advantages in gerrymandering districts to ensure that though they get fewer votes than Democrats for Congress, they elect more members.
  • Everyone seems to agree that government doesn’t work anymore. That meme seems to be a given, and there is no solution. Government is riddled with waste, fraud and abuse and nothing can change it.

Matthew Yglesias comes closest to a sound prescription for Democrats: Stand for something. This makes sense for one compelling reason: Americans want vision. They want to know you stand for something, even if it is anti-immigrants, poor-people bashing racism. Tell us what you think. Be bold. This is where the GOP has always held an advantage. You know what guides their thinking. They’re not afraid of their beliefs. They make no excuses for them.

Who knows what Democrats envision for Americans, other than whatever you’re identity, we’re with you? Bernie tried to lay down some markers with free college, healthcare for all and bashing “millionaires and billionaires.” But it wasn’t grounded in any philosophy, no foundation of what he wanted for America, other than free stuff. People think Democrats want to please everyone and thus have no core principles other than to spend more money.

So what to do? Not that anyone has asked me or that I have a pedigree in political campaigns. I’ve been in a few, though, and spent a career trying to impact narratives. So why not take a crack at it.

Leading Democrats in the House and Senate need to sit down and hammer out a vision of only a page or two and then figure how to reduce it to a 30-second elevator speech. I’d suggest they bring in not only politicians and political activists but also experts in communications and cognitive behavior—people who understand how people think. If I were among them, here’s what I’d suggest.

First, adhere to the Constitution’s mandate to “promote the General Welfare.” Talk about how we see Americans as “being in this together.” Americans love our Founding Fathers. Ground our principles in theirs—why they got us rolling as a nation.

Second, admit that government isn’t perfect, but talk about making government more efficient to better “protect” (not regulate) Americans. (Already we’re seeing that framing among progressives.) Be an agent of change. Part of the problem is that law making is now done hand in hand with lobbyists with so much detail in our laws that the bureaucrats tasked with implementing them have so many rules they must adhere to the process becomes tedious and inefficient.

Cite how politicians have made government less effective in order to prove their view that it doesn’t work. For example, if you cut the IRS staff to the bare bones, you can’t then complain that it doesn’t do its job of catching tax scofflaws.

Talk about making the economy work for people without a college education and making a college education affordable for more people. Talk about vocational education, teaching the trades where there are a lack of skilled workers. Embrace “free enterprise,” but point out that we don’t have free enterprise anymore. We have corporations that have successfully written the laws that give them all the advantages that protect their profits and hurt consumers and workers. It’s no longer a level playing field. Today, corporations cop out by saying they must provide “shareholder value.” That’s not the only goal they should have, just as a father’s role is not simply to bring home the bacon. They have a responsibility to their workers, the communities they operate in, and the taxpayers who provide the infrastructure they use to move their goods and services. As a simple example, if a businessman takes a prospect to lunch, he gets to claim part of the expense as a tax deduction. Why should taxpayers subsidize his marketing efforts? If it’s a good idea to have lunch, let the shareholders pay for it.

Fourth, be honest in saying that many jobs are not coming back unless Americans are willing to pay far higher prices for popular necessary goods such as clothing, autos, technology. We need to work together on making the future better for everyone. There will be upheavals as there were during industrialization at the end of the 19th century. People moved from the farm to the cities. They learned new skills. It was hard. It was a change of life style, but in the end it brought financial rewards. People who’ve lost their jobs to globalization need to make a sacrifice to adapt.

And yes, talk about taxes. Say exactly who will pay more in taxes, about how much and what benefits they will get for their higher taxes. As an example, if I said you could reduce your health care costs by $2000 if we raised your taxes by $1,000 is that a deal you’d consider? The conversation doesn’t start with taxes; it’s starts with envisioning what we want as a society and then figuring out a way to pay for it. That’s the way families work. Parents want a better future for their children and try to figure out how to get it by not only watching their spending but  looking for ways to increase their incomes and invest smartly in their children’s future.

When we talk about taxes we need to put it in terms of what will people pay, not the aggregate costs. Years ago, I tried to convince Virginia Democrats who wanted to raise the gas tax that instead of talking about the dollars they needed to raise, talk about how much the tax would increase the average car owner. It was about $126 a year. That’s a number people can understand. $1.5 billion is not.

George Lakoff has long had the right approach. Progressives spend too much time appealing to people’s reason. People don’t vote for reasoned arguments. They vote their values, which is why, for example, a Congressional district in Kentucky where a majority of the people receive food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits of the social safety net continually vote for a Congressman who wants to cut those programs.

Lakoff believes the fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the latter are paternalistic and the former maternalistic. Republicans believe in a strong father who lays down the law, expects obedience and believes in pulling yourself up the bootstraps. Democrats are more nurturing, want to see all boats lifted and empathize with those struggling.

The message of inclusion, both socially and economically, needs to reach not only rural whites, but the top 20 percent of income earners (those making more than $120,000 annually), according to the author of “Dream Hoarders.” The 20 percenters think they’ve got where they are solely through hard work without a bit of privilege, mostly the white kind. Moreover, they don’t think of themselves as rich because they compare themselves to others living in their sequestered neighborhoods. Many really have no idea how the other 80 percent live, where something as simple as a set of new tires can mean they can’t pay their rent.

What are Democratic values? Can we articulate them without worrying about offending someone? Can we say that, yes, many people have succeeded due to hard work (but with good luck, too), but not everyone can find that good luck that allows them to work hard to succeed? Can we return to those days when we saw all ourselves as being Americans who were “in this together?”

Why Pelosi Should Relinquish Leadership

I admire Nancy Pelosi.  When we needed someone to find the votes and stiffen the resolve, she managed to “get ‘ur done.”  That’s no mean feat.

Yes, she helped the Dems accomplish a lot. But at what price?  I just wished the pressure on her would come from the left. 

While she won a lot of battles, she lost ground in the larger war.  (The irony here is, of course, that the GOP won the election because of its accusation that the Dems weren’t focused enough on creating jobs; and now we’re focused on the deficit?!)

Yesterday’s come-to-Jesus (in Dem parlance, that’s “approach the altar of vague spirituality, careful not to offend”) caucus meeting was, as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., dutifully called it—I think they nominate someone each time they have a meeting like this to say this: “cathartic.”

"It’s what the Democratic Party’s about," he said. "There are ideological differences, there are regional differences, and it was a good thing for people to be able to talk through that."

But the Dems, as usual, can’t even articulate what it is they don’t like about her.

[A] number of rank-and-file Democrats, including some left of center, are dismayed. They note that dozens of Republican House candidates ran campaigns linking their Democratic opponents to Pelosi, who was portrayed as a hardcore liberal hopelessly out of touch with middle American values.

"She definitely hurts," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who lost his re-election bid this month. Citing former Republican House leader Tom DeLay, Taylor said in an interview: "When he realized he was a drag on leadership, he went away. Somehow the Democratic leadership didn’t learn that lesson."

She “hurts” because the GOP said so.  Of course, who among them defended her during their campaigns?  At least, some Dems recognize the problem.

"One thing the Republicans are very good at: They set goals, they set objectives and they set a way to get there," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., told reporters.

And that’s why Pelosi must go.  What she did was get through a series of bills, but with apparently little thought to an overall strategy to leverage that success at the polls. Now you might argue that that’s not her chief responsibility.  Yes, much of this should come from Obama himself.  But she, being much more experienced at the job of legislating and politicking than the president, should have recognized the vacuum at the top and filled it.  And she may not be capable of that.

Let’s face it (and I’ll be accused of sexism here) even if she could develop a strategy, she would not be the one to give voice to it.  Being the leader of her party in the House, she is the one called upon by reporters.  She is not a good speaker,  She halting. She’s harsh.

(Yes, she looks harsh, too. But Boehner suffers from his orange look, and I think Eric Cantor does, too.  He looks like a cross between Buddy Holly and that dorky geography whiz in middle school whose voice always sounds like he’s saying, “I’m smarter than everyone else.”)

But most importantly she can’t be the spokesperson for progressive causes.  She lacks humor. She doesn’t handle herself well in interviews. In a word, she’s just like the president.  They both sound hesitant, as if they’re trying very hard to make you believe what they’re saying…because they’re not sure they do.

The problem is, who on the Democratic side is?  I open the floor for nominations because I can’t think of an articulate progressive voice in Congress who could lead the party.

Well, at least all was not lost for the Dems in their hour of angst.

Pelosi pronounced Tuesday’s long session "wonderful," then hurried past reporters.

GOP: We Want Government!

E.J. Dionne has a nice piece today about the GOP’s inconsistency, perhaps hypocrisy.

Many tragic ironies are bubbling to the surface along with the oil. Consider the situation of Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a Republican conservative who devoutly opposes the exertions of big government.

"The strength of America is not found in our government," Jindal declared in his response to President Obama’s February 2009 address to Congress. "It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens."

But with his state facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions, Jindal is looking for a little strength from Washington. His beef is that the federal government isn’t doing enough to help. "It is clear we don’t have the resources we need to protect our coast," he said this week, expressing his frustrations with "the disjointed effort to date that has too often meant too little, too late."

You can’t blame Jindal for being mad. But will he ever acknowledge that "compassionate hearts" were not sufficient for coping with this catastrophe? Did he ever ask BP how prepared it was for something like this? Or was he just counting on the company’s "enterprising spirit"?

A few weeks ago, I responded to a commenter on my News Commonsense blog who argued that the oil spill is Obama’s Katrina.  I asked, “Is your complaint that Obama didn’t wait long enough to let market forces work?”  There are plenty of other examples of the GOP’s forked tongue.

One is happening in my neighborhood where I have commented on our listserve about how the same neighbors who complain about local government’s lack of services or laud its quick response to a crisis are sometimes the very same people who make general and often vague criticisms about big government.

Meanwhile, I’m reading The Political Brain by Drew Westen, a 2007 book that argues for a more passionate and articulate defense of progressive principals.  Early in the book he cites the Democrats’ tendency to shy away from emotional arguments in favor of rational ones, which frequently results in their trying to decipher voters’ policy choices and then couching their arguments in those terms.  Which voters then see as pandering and a lack of core principles.  He also argues that if an articulation of core principles doesn’t alienate 30 percent of the population, the message is weak.  A third of the voters will never be with you and trying to appeal to them with a universal message is doomed to failure.

The “government is the problem” started by Ronald Reagan can and should be forcefully countered.  I hope Westen’s book lays out a clear roadmap.  I’ll let you know, but in the meantime, let’s hope more progressives start fighting back as Dionne is doing today.

Why Obama Can’t Sell Democrats in 2010

Karen Tumulty and Shailagh Murray today claim Obama must be the messenger-in-chief for Congressional Democrats in the mid-term elections.

Strategists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue say it is now clear that, although Obama’s name will not be on the ballot, it will fall to him to build the case for the activist approach that he has pressed his party to take over the past 16 months. And just as important, they say, he must take the lead in making the argument against the Republicans.

His ambitious agenda is "why the president was elected," said David Axelrod, Obama’s top political strategist. "We need to make the case as to what we are doing, and why that’s consistent, and why we don’t want to go backward."

It makes sense to many, who view Obama as a gifted speaker who can arouse the electorate as he did in the 2008 presidential campaign.  Moreover, while it’s true that off-year elections have been determined largely by local issues, campaign strategies and the advantages of incumbency, history is not helpful now for two reasons.  Obama himself, while holding moderately favorable ratings, is reviled by his opponents, making this year’s elections more dependent on his own popularity or lack thereof, and alas, a measure of bigotry among a small portion of the electorate.  Secondly, as online communication by the grassroots has become more sophisticated, supporters of both parties have the advantage of determining what’s important in the election.  Candidates find it increasingly hard to maintain control of their campaign’s strategy and positioning.  So Democrats want the president to deliver their message and make this a national campaign.

But no one else has the president’s power to make the case for his party’s agenda and, conversely, against the opposition. Democrats on Capitol Hill have made no secret of their desire to see Obama get more seriously into the fray. While it’s an easy applause line to decry that Washington is broken, they complain that the president has not been forceful enough in laying the blame on the Republicans. In part, they suggest, that is because Obama and his advisers are too protective of the post-partisan brand of politics that got him elected — but that has lost some of its sheen as his major initiatives have passed on largely party-line votes.

"I’m all for drawing contrasts," said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, using a phrase that politicians often employ as a euphemism for going negative. The president’s challenge, he said, is the same as that faced by Democrats who are on the ballot this year: "You must define yourself, you must define your opponent before they do, and you must frame the choice."

The problem is Obama was very effective communicating an emotion in the 2008 campaign, but now he has specific policies to promote and has clearly failed to explain the principles and moral foundations of them.  While I agree that he needs to paint the GOP as the party of no, he doesn’t seem capable of rallying support for his agenda.  Why?  He is too intellectual.  As do many Democrats, he wants to explain why his policies are good but does so in the language of a policy wonk, not as an inspirational leader.  He makes no appeal to the “common good.”  He does not frame his choices as between right and wrong.  And if he should, he comes off unconvincingly, as if he has condescended to connect with the hoi pilloi. Rather, he sticks to the issues in the conventional framing and language, which doesn’t serve Democrats well.

Democrats should not talk about "the environment," "the unemployed" or "the uninsured." Instead, they should replace those phrases with ones that have more appeal to voters, such as "the air we breathe and the water we drink," "people who’ve lost their jobs" and "people who used to have insurance."

That’s the advice of one of the party’s newest and more unusual gurus, Drew Westen. Westen is a psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta who, unlike most political advisers, has never worked full time on Capitol Hill or for a political campaign.

To some, Westen is another George Lakoff who has argued for different framing for progressives but has not been able to gain traction with Congressional Democrats.  In fact, it seems clear that the Dems have no Frank Luntz, whose language advice seems to resonate with Congressional Republicans.  But Westen has a point.

"There are a few things if you know about the brain, they change the way you think about politics," he said in an e-mail. "If you understand we evolved the capacity to feel long before we evolved the capacity to think, instead of barraging people with facts (the standard Democratic way of talking to voters) you speak to people’s core values and concerns."

While calling the GOP “the party of no” is a good tactic, Dems also need to make the case for an activist government in terms people understand.  The Gulf oil spill is a good place to start.  In fact, Tom Friedman has argued that Obama and Democratic congressmen have missed an opportunity.  But seizing an opportunity with ineffective language can do more harm than good.  The oil spill is not about globs of oil appearing on Gulf beaches or dead birds.  It’s about “people who are losing their jobs while their property is destroyed because of businesses driven solely by profits and their exorbitant executive salaries.” 

The language used in the financial reform effort has been better but still has room for improvement.  “Moving money between Wall St. firms doesn’t create jobs for anyone, only million-dollar pay days for traders and their bosses.” It’s a battle not just between “Wall St. and Main St.”  but “between American who create and do the jobs that make us great as a country and those who care only about themselves.”  We need to use capital “to build a future, not a mansion.”

Dems need to push back against the Republicans demonization of government workers, or in GOP parlance, “bureaucrats.”  “The government is us.  Good, democratic government is the principle the nation was founded upon.  Government is your neighbor.  The police officer, the teacher, the fireman, the people who deliver the services we all cherish.  If it weren’t for government we wouldn’t have interstate highways, social security, Medicare and civil rights.  Government is what provides a check when you lose your job.  Government is the worker who ensures food for children of parents who’ve lost their livelihood.  Government is what keeps our skies safe, are bridges sound and our energy abundant.  What Americans care about is not the size of government but the effectiveness of government. 

We need talk about how “we’re all in this together.”  Even the “common good” can be better positioned as “looking out for each other, caring about our neighbors.  What makes American great is our capacity to work for the greater good, a good that makes our communities safe and friendly.  Our liberty is not a selfish one, but one we want for every American.  We’ve learned over the past 235 years that when we have opportunities we accept responsibilities.

“What has happened to us in the firs
t decade of this century is that incomes have declined for the first time since the Great Depression.  We have seen the middle class decimated by greedy bankers, regulators who care about business profits instead of us, and politicians who care more about their own election than the future of America.  A campaign worth having is a campaign that’s worth winning—or losing—on principle. Our principles are equal opportunity and a level playing field for all, especially the people who work to make America great.”

I question whether Obama, who is disciplined on messages but sometimes lacks passion that seems real, can pull off this message.  Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, maybe.  But not Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi.  So who can speak for Democrats?

Maybe Obama has it in him.  The Republicans clearly fear it.

Republicans said they, too, have taken notice of Obama’s tougher language, and they warn of potential long-term consequences. "I think at some point he risks undermining his own credibility," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "People expect the president of the United States to rise above the back-and-forth of election-year politics, but I guess that’s the risk he’s taking."

As if to say, leave the dirty work to us.

Meek Democrats

Doesn’t this say it all about the Democrats, who can’t hit a slow pitch softball?  They give Congressman “Abstinence” Souder a free pass.

House Democratic leaders, after taking a beating from the GOP for their handling of a sexual harassment scandal involving then-Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), stayed relatively quiet about the Souder controversy.

Do the Dems return the beating?  Not a chance.

As I, uh, was, uh, saying

Sunday’s Washington Post front page had an article about Charlie Crist’s troubles in his GOP primary for the Senate race there.  In it was a lesson for all candidates—or for that matter anyone in any arena who wants to be taken seriously.

But there were plenty of onlookers like Bob Gammon, who, as he sipped his beer, tried to put his frustration with Crist into words. "He’s like a lot of weak Republicans now," said Gammon. "He’s like the great compromiser: He doesn’t stand strong; he doesn’t talk with authority. . . . And then I hear good ol’ what’s-his-name, Rubio, and he has no uh-uh-uhs when he talks. He talks with authority. Rubio is going to win easy. Crist’s kind of Republican is over. Crist can’t even take a stand."

Not taking a stand in politics, though important, is not what I’m talking about.  It’s the “he doesn’t talk with authority. . . . And then I hear good ol’ what’s-his-name, Rubio, and he has no uh-uh-uhs when he talks. He talks with authority.

People who talk with authority, who avoid “uh,” “you know” and the now ubiquitous “it’s like,” I think are more credible, especially in politics.  Obama has a lot of ‘uhs” in his extemporaneous speaking.  I think it’s one of the reasons some people don’t trust him.  He sounds as if he’s trying to parse his words so carefully one wonders if he’s trying to pull something over on the listener.

Republicans are much better at such speaking.  For the life of me I don’t know why, although I’m sure many GOP supporters would say it’s because they have confidence in what they’re saying.  Why don’t Democrats?  Maybe it’s because being liberals, they’re always afraid of offending someone.  I’ve noticed this phenomenon on the cable talk shows.  The next time I see such a segment I’ll post it. Take a listen yourself and tell me if you don’t hear what I’m talking about.

Meanwhile, I think Bob Gammon, a voter in Florida, hit on a universal truth.  If you sound hesitant, you sound unsure of yourself.  If you are using a lot of “uhs” people are less likely to believe you or be inspired by you.

Talking About Taxes

Last night, I attended a wrap-up forum from our local state legislators. All six were Democrats. Generally, they were fairly informative. With the Q&A period afterwards, I would say that they all handled themselves well but with a big asterisk.

Sen. Chap Petersen’s overview of the budget process was frank: He, along with all the others I believe, held their noses when voting for the budget. He noted that withholding payments for the Virginia Retirement System to balance the budget could come back to haunt us when we must replenish the VRS with interest. Future employees will also find a less generous retirement system. One legislator was a little too self-congratulatory when claiming legislators saved education funding. They used this VRS budget gimmick.

In defending the budget, Petersen said the only alternative was massive cuts. That of course is not true. Another alternative is to raise taxes. There is where I place an asterisk.

We finally got around to taxes when I asked the legislators if they would support a gas tax to increase to transportation funds. While no one’s hand shot up, several said they had supported past attempts to raise transportation funding that included tax increases. Talking with one legislator after the meeting, he said that he and others had taken political risks in voting for those tax increases.

He has a fair point, one that I don’t readily concede when talking about my frustration with Democrats over the tax issue. The problem as I see is that they don’t know how to talk about taxes.

The first problem is a lack of trust that voters can digest a sensible discussion about taxes. They fear any dialogue can be parsed into a 30-second commercial against them. If that’s all they hear about taxes, they probably have a justified concern.

The solution is not to back away from the discussion but to expand it, much as Gov. Mark Warner did and Gov. Tim Kaine tried with much less determination.

One excuse I heard last night is that that discussion really is the governor’s domain. I disagree. If the Democratic Party in Virginia had a disciplined plan to engage voters, it could claim and dominate the discussion.

It’s also a problem of numbers. The numbers thrown around last night were big ones. Our transportation needs require $1.6 billion more dollars per year. The budget shortfall was $2 billion. Even after cuts to education, social services and public safety, several hundred million more in cuts were needed—and found through the VRS gimmick. All very big numbers.

A couple of weeks ago I attended two forums held by my local supervisor, a Republican with the usual antipathy toward taxes. But both groups of citizens, when asked, were willing to hike real estate taxes at least 8 cents to minimize proposed cuts to education, libraries, the police, etc.

The reason, I believe, is because they dealt with a much smaller number—the amount they would pay in increased taxes.

When framed that way, the dynamics change. We do need $1.6 billion in more transportation dollars. What that comes out to for the average driver is $192 dollars a year.  (see footnote) I believe an argument framed that way would find a more receptive audience. When the discussions were waning in our local supervisor’s budget meetings, people knew that an 8-cent increase would raise an additional $144 million in revenues and, along with other tax increases, would cost them an average of $244. They readily agreed to pay—not $144 million in the aggregate, but $244 each.

Politicians need to break down big numbers, which are incomprehensible to us, to ones we can embrace. How much will it cost me? I urge them in the next citizen forum they attend to ask people what they think it would cost them each to pay for a first-class transportation system. I’ll bet it’s more than $192 more a year. (And that figure will drop as we catch up on the backlog of projects.)

They also need to tell us what more taxes buy us. Not once last night did legislators outline what $1.6 billion a year buys. Granted, this wasn’t a forum on transportation, but any discussion about transportation revenues should always make reference to the exact benefits. In our district, more funds might mean traffic amelioration around George Mason University, which with its growth is creating gridlock in the area. It might mean mass transit alternatives that will unclog Braddock Road during rush hours. When talking about gas taxes in southern Virginia, the Coalfields Expressway might be invoked. In Hampton Roads, there are bridge and tunnel projects that are sorely needed. How would an additional $192 dollars in taxes impact the timetable for these projects?

Without this detailed discussion of benefits, voters will worry about a black hole for their tax dollars.

Lastly, the campaign for adequate state funds must be ongoing, coordinated and sustainable. But before that it must be carefully developed for prime time. We see what happens when it isn’t in Sen. Creigh Deeds’ buffoonish approach to taxes during the gubernatorial campaign. A successful campaign won’t be accomplished in a few weeks or during a typical Labor Day to Election Day General Assembly campaign. It needs to grow from small “coffees” to test messages, then on to larger forums to secure the sale.

Democrats have nothing to fear but fear itself. Then Gov. Mark Warner proved it could be done, although even that campaign was short on the small numbers people need. I concede I’ve been harsh with some Democrats, but it’s not their heart I question.  It’s their ability to communicate the need for more revenue and higher taxes to ensure our standards of living remain high. They must trust and try.

A Note: Del. Vivian Watts, a former Virginia Secretary of Transportation, made a floor speech knocking down objections to more funding. Page one is here; page 2 is here.

Footnote:  When writing this originally, I left out a needed explanation here:  The $192 figure is derived from the 32-cent increase in the gas tax required to raise $1.6 billion, based on a calculation of 15,000 miles per year driven by the average driver of a car averaging 25 miles per gallon.  I should have included this information in the original post.

Democratic Party Positioning Fails

Yesterday I wrote that the Virginia Democratic Party’s statement on Gov. McDonnell’s requirement that felons submit an essay to have their rights restored was poor positioning.  Fortunately, other Democrats had better ideas—along the lines I suggested.

The Legislative Black Caucus in Richmond has the right focus.

In a statement, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said: “Governor McDonnell’s decision to use the executive power granted to him to transform the restoration of voting rights from an objective process to a subjective one that is contingent on an original essay for nonviolent offenders is taking a horrific step back towards the era of Jim Crow.“

Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said in a statement that the governor “appears to have reinstated the literacy test in Virginia” and that for people with limited education, the new requirement “is a nearly insurmountable obstacle.“

In the Virginian-Pilot that same positioning, while not a quote, held sway with the reporter.

Critics of the letter-writing concept have said it is reminiscent of literacy tests once conducted at polls to bar minorities from voting.

The only place the Democratic Party’s positioning on the issue appeared in yesterday’s rundown of stories in the commonwealth was on The Washington Post’s Virginia Politics Blog.

In the AP story, there was no mention of the Democrats position at all.  Again, it was up to the ACLU to get it right.

The American Civil Liberties Union accused the Republican governor Monday of imposing upon convicts the same Jim Crow tactic used to prevent black people from voting.
"The Governor appears to have reinstated the literacy test in Virginia," Virginia ACLU executive director Kent Willis said in a statement.

Another endemic problem with Virginia Democrats is the lack of message cohesion.  In addition to the Black Caucus and Democratic Party HQ issuing statements, we have another angle from two legislators, including the House Caucus Chairman and Minority Leader.

"By requiring nonviolent offenders to submit an essay, Governor McDonnell is returning to a ‘blank sheet’ voter registration system that in the past disenfranchised many African American voters," Plum said. "By creating an additional, unnecessary and egregious hurdle, McDonnell has violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Federal Voting Rights Act."

Folks, you may want to talk to one another.