Focus

by John Lawrence

Nearly 40 years ago, a septuagenarian California crackpot named Howard Jarvis dreamt up Proposition 13 to lower property taxes and, not incidentally, starve state government of needed revenues.  California paid dearly in chaotic budgets and underfinanced services until the electorate finally decided in 2012 that enough was enough and raised taxes.

The economics of Prop 13 never really worked, but it didn’t have to.  The goal, Jarvis  admitted (decades before Grover Norquist fanaticized about drowning an under-financed federal government in the bathtub) was “to demolish local government and eliminate all the bureaucracy.”  Jarvis wasn’t much concerned with the zany impacts of his initiative, and dismissed criticism as a “crock of manure” while denouncing critics as “liars,” “dummies, goons, cannibals or big mouths.”

As goofy and destructive as Prop 13 was, it concisely laid out the immutable mantra of the American right from Jarvis through Reagan to the Tea Party: “lower taxes, less government.”  End of story.  Bumper strip nirvana.  The specifics were irrelevant; the needs of the nation – for example, providing jobs and unemployment assistance during the worst recession since the 1930s – were immaterial. If there was a question, the answer was, and remains, “lower taxes, less government.” 

It didn’t matter that Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times, or presided over the tripling of the federal deficit, or that under his leadership, the United States became the world’s largest creditor nation, or that interest payments on the debt more than doubled. Newt Gingrich’s nascent Conservative Opportunity Society stuck with the unalterable watchwords, “lower taxes, less government.”   It didn’t matter that under George W. Bush, deficits swelled three times higher than under Bill Clinton, or that we actually balanced the budget under Clinton while exploding the deficit by trillions under Bush.   It didn’t matter that in 2001, only 5% of Americans identified excessive taxes as their leading complaint; Bush twice-lowered taxes, especially for the superrich, and hyper-inflated the national debt.   “Lower taxes, less government.”   

Regardless of your respect for the perfidy of their motives, you have to hand it to conservatives: when they’re bought, they stay bought.  Their slogan was catchy and credible, and they were sticking with it, facts be damned.  Even when a report showed that Tea Party freshmen were seeking largesse for their districts just like earmark zealots of the past; even when it was shown that people like Majority Leader Eric Cantor were lobbying for stimulus money they had opposed providing; Republicans in Congress never waivered.  “Lower taxes, less government.”  

Democrats have been a little behind the messaging curve, despite the best efforts of some congressional leaders.  Shortly after losing the House in 1994, Democratic leaders gathered at a downtown hotel to listen to messaging experts from Anheuser-Busch – the constituents of the new Democratic Leader, Dick Gephardt – tell them that ceaseless repetition was essential in driving home a message.  “When you have repeated the message so many times you think you’ll vomit if you say it again, the public is just starting to hear you,” they advised.  Democrats would spend a dozen years in the minority until a succession of events and the stirrings of message discipline helped to restore their majority in 2006.

Which brings me, pretty circuitously, to Elizabeth Warren — or more accurately, to the proposal by some alleged Democratic “activists” to entice the novice  Massachusetts senator into the Democratic presidential primaries against Hillary Clinton in 2016.  Now, I don’t think there is a snowball’s chance in hell that Sen. Warren would actually challenge Sec. Clinton, although politicians do sometimes embrace strategies that are unfathomable to anyone with a scintilla of detachment.  (Barack Obama did so in 2008, to Sen. Clinton’s detriment, but that was, in so many ways, another time.) 

My anguish is not over potential damage to the Clinton candidacy, but rather over what this undisciplined, fantastical, self-destructive idea says about those who are promoting a Warren challenge.

The headline in Tuesday’s Hill newspaper (11/12/13) was startling, to say the least: “Left wants challenger for Hillary.” The article discloses that “influential progressives” and “liberal leaders want Hillary Clinton to face a primary” in the 2016 primaries – “leaders” in this case identified solely as those at Democracy for America and the Campaign for America’s Future, neither with claims to influence in fashioning Democratic strategy or legislation.  Granted, the Hill is trying to breathlessly drum up little controversy and excitement where precious little exists, but the real concern is why any “liberal leaders” would conclude that what Democrats really need now is another knock down, dragged out primary battle that will consume hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used electing Democratic congressional candidates.

Such liberals must surely have a death wish if they think the best formula for Democrats is to promote an intra-party bloodletting.  Not that Hillary Clinton is a perfect candidate. (For the record, I wasn’t a supporter of her in 2008.)  But it is absurd to attack her for accepting speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.  She has “some heavy lifting to do to show she’s not in the pocket of banks and a candidate of the 1 percent,” muses Charles Chamberlain of Democracy for America. “That’s a more open question.”

No it isn’t.  Clinton was dead wrong on Iraq, and it cost her dearly in the 2008 primaries against Obama.  But to suggest that she is insufficiently dedicated to the Democratic constituency and is rather a tool of capitalist Wall Street – come on!  Show us the voting record that supports such a ludicrous claim. 

But there is something even more disturbing about this self-luxuriating, holier-than-thou purism that pervades certain liberal activists.  It should be abundantly apparent that there is a strong correlation between experience and success in the careers of our Presidents, both Democrats and Republicans.  Those who have held governorships where they have worked with legislatures, or senior legislative seats where they learned the art of negotiating and strategizing are the candidates who have the skills and savvy to succeed in the Oval Office.  Elizabeth Warren is an admirable and talented Harvard professor who rode a wave of popular support on one central issue to a Senate seat she has occupied for less than a year.  Her principled fight for consumer protection against Wall Street earned her the financial support of Democrats across the nation (including from many affluent contributors — does that make her also a tool of the 1%?).  She may well grow into a candidate of national proportions, with the skills and experience to be a credible presidential contender.

So why do some liberal activists seem to fall prey to grabbing for the nearest blinking light instead of thinking and behaving with the strategic aplomb required for national politics?  Why are they always so intent upon faulting the dedicated but pragmatic politician who knows the difference between professing an ideal and enacting a statute?  Why is there always one more issue, one additional cause, that rises above all other considerations to disqualify a talented, experienced, practical politician in favor of the glitzy rock star of the moment? And that’s where we get back to “lower taxes, less government.” 

Liberals believe that government has an essential role to play in addressing social and economic issues, so are relentlessly looking for the next cause, the next battle, the next priority.  They reflexively jump from issue to issue, adding up the causes and the expenses, compounding the new responsibilities for government.  One day it’s the environment, or income equality, then labor rights, then energy policy, or health care, then education, then regulating Wall Street, then nutrition programs —  all admittedly meritorious areas for attention.  But this smorgasbord approach to policy priorities makes messaging a challenge because the simple message that can be easily repeated and understood by the electorate invariably leaves out some cause that diverse Democrats are loath to slight.  So we typically include them all and forfeit the message.  (A notable exception: “Change.” But that had a unique messenger, as well a vague policy mandate.)

Conservatives have no such compunctions or inclinations.  It’s been the same, reliable, simplistic (and duplicitous) message for 40 years: lower taxes, less government.  Those few in the Republican Party who would expand the conservative portfolio to include other concerns (excepting extremist social issues) are not welcome and play no role in fashioning the message.  They don’t chair committees, they don’t get nominations, they do invite (and lose to) hard right primary challengers.  So there aren’t many of them left.

So as repellent and hypocritical as the conservatives’ playbook has been, can Democrats learn at least one lesson from them? Focus.  Stop piling issue after issue, purity test after purity test, on top of candidates. Stop threatening to withhold support and money and grassroots efforts for any Democrat who doesn’t measure up on every single one of our encyclopedic litany of priorities.  And stop promoting candidates who are tantalizingly wholesome or alluring on one issue but lack the basic experience and know-how that is essential in a national leader.  Hard as it may be, just once, take “yes” for an answer.