Archive for July, 2012
For a stretch of several years in the middle of the last decade, liberals spent a fair amount of energy on strengthening their appeal to self-identified Christians. In the face of polling data showing a sizable and widening deficit for Democrats among white evangelicals, liberals sought to gain ground by casting many of their domestic priorities in faith-friendly language: universal health care, environmental protection, opposition to income inequality, for example, were repurposed in terms of biblical admonitions about the moral obligation to the “least of these.” Aspiring Democratic politicians like Barack Obama started slipping into their speeches references to their religiosity, including Obama’s clever and evocative reference in his 2004 keynote to voters in the blue states “who still worship an awesome God.”
It was an effort that fell flat. John Kerry’s share of white evangelicals eventually shrunk to historic low levels. Obama, as presidential candidate, rarely expounded on his religion, beyond fending off falsehoods that he was a closet Muslim and minimizing his attendance at Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church ( the first political defense, it is believed, based on sporadic church attendance). During the Obama presidency, invocations of his faith have been infrequent and spare, even in sectarian flavored settings like the memorial service for the Arizona “Congress on Your Corner” shooting victims in 2011. Health care reform was about “bending the cost curve”, not doing God’s work here on Earth, and the economic fairness message that is the cornerstone of Obama’s campaign is standard fare liberal populism that aims at middle-class self-interest more than the soul.
I thought of that discarded faith playbook this week as the values controversy de jour, over the Chick-fil-A president’s anti gay marriage comments, played out to predictable effect. Liberal commentators have denounced the fast food chain (great shakes, good chicken, awful fries) as a dark-star of religious intolerance; a growing number of Democratic politicians with strong gay donor or voter bases professed shock that a business with a practice of Sunday closings and strong evangelical ties might have a CEO with right-leaning social views. Resistance to same sex marriage—a point of view that according to Gallup, half the country holds and that reflects the laws of 36 states—has been aggressively twisted into a symptom of bigotry.
There is sincere displeasure on the left at the articulation of a belief that has become so swiftly so politically incorrect; but frankly, the atmosphere seems less one of angst, more one of satisfaction at a battle well joined: as Dick Morris once advised Bill Clinton, nothing builds a base like a fight against a good enemy. (But it takes a career at death’s doorstep to inspire a politician like DC’s Vince Gray to feel moved to coin the phrase “hate chicken”.)
What a difference a few cycles make. A liberal political class that just recently linked all manner of secular policy goals to a religious core has all but banished faith from its working vocabulary unless it is as a source of condemnation or backlash. Evangelicals are one more convenient right-wing pillar to bash, along with Tea Partiers, the One Percent, and shadowy donors. Bible-thumping eating establishments join birth-control denying Catholic institutions as rhetorical red meat for crusaders on guard against “rolling back the clock” on fundamental rights.
To be sure, the middle course of courting evangelicals on economic issues while soft-pedaling controversial social debates like same sex marriage and abortion did not really aid Democrats with right-leaning, faith oriented voters. (There was this weird thing about voters objecting to being told by politicians which parts of their faith they should prioritize.) But it at least epitomized the liberal tendency toward pluralism and reflected a strategy of accommodation rather than conflict with the social right. The result was not so much big tent politics—that was more aspiration than reality—but a perspective that countered and neutralized conservatives’ occasional ventures into demonizing conventional liberalism as a secular, anti-religious philosophy.
It’s harder for the left to claim the higher, less divisive ground these days. Their elected practitioners may be fighting on the side of their angels, for more equality and “fundamental dignity”, but the fight looks to numerous audiences like another distracting culture war. And at least some of those observers are socially conservative independents in Ohio and Florida and lapsed rural and ethnic Democrats in the upper South and Mid Atlantic who have traditionally bought much of the Democratic message on economic justice without even needing to locate it in a biblical text.
It is possible, of course, to regard the Democrats’ de-emphasis on religiosity and their uncompromised defense of gay equality and contraception rights as the dawn of a progressive party finding its own voice and its own spine. But such a view is most likely to flourish in exactly the urban condos and upscale college brownstones Democrats secured a generation ago. The risk for Team Obama is that the causes of the newly liberated Democratic Party just don’t sound to those swing voters in Columbus and Tampa like their fight.
Showtime’s new mini-series “Political Animals” insists that it is not really a knock-off on the saga that is Bill and Hillary Clinton: the resemblance between Sigourney Weaver’s Elaine Barrish and Hillary is merely the surface match between two former First Ladies who endured a presidential sex scandal involving a junior staffer, subsequently launched their own political careers, and lost the Democratic presidential nomination to a smooth, if distant, senator who brings Elaine/Hillary into the Secretary of State’s position. Elaine’s ex, former president Donald “Bud” Hammond, (Ciaran Hinds) just happens to sound, charm, and manipulate like William Jefferson Clinton.
The parallels do break: Elaine Barrish, we learn by episode two, executed the forgiving spouse role only up to a point, divorcing her husband in the aftermath of her defeat in the primaries. And unlike Hillary, Elaine’s loyalties to her new boss are skin deep at best: she is already plotting to take him on in the next campaign. But the severance in the time line does not begin, or even attempt, to mask the obvious: the show is a guilty pleasure window into what the Clintons’ personal and public chaos might look like from the inside, and if the characterizations so far can seem more like an impersonation of the Clintons than an real exploration, it is richly entertaining in the same way the originals are. “Political Animals”, like the real thing it is based on, is a brew of tawdriness, deceit, inspiration, and fortitude, that works in spite of all the reasons it shouldn’t.
Among the reasons it shouldn’t work: the storylines to date–a mini hostage crisis in the Middle East, the Hammonds’ juggling of one son’s engagement party with the other son’s emotional spiral–are pedestrian stuff. The personal sketches reach for their share of clichéd foibles: the young reporter who exposed Bud Hammond’s escapades and has trained her sights on Elaine Barrish has her own penchant for personal turbulence and seems to have boundary issues of her own; the two Hammond children are sons (thankfully, Chelsea remains outside creative license, at least for now) and in predictable modern cinematic fashion, one is tormented, artistically gifted, and gay; the other ferociously protective and resentful of his father’s capriciousness, but if the teasers at the end of the last episode are right, possibly possessed of some of his father’s weaknesses. If cultural stereotypes are your peeve, some of the clichés touch on troubling ground: the Asian woman who is the fiancee of Douglas Hammond is a bulimic perfectionist whose first generation parents are inordinately status conscious; the foreign diplomats are all lecherous or spineless, and there is a weird dearth of African American or Latino characters. This is not the “Good Wife”, whose regular and recurring cast seamlessly integrates every strand of the social rainbow without really trying, and gives each the gift of individuality.
But if the periphery around the Hammonds is ordinary, recyclable stuff, at the center is a compelling enough rendition of bent characters refusing to break, and in Elaine’s case, making a devil’s bargain in waging the good fight with the same sharp knives that were used to wound her. A fan of the iconic “West Wing” will note that there is not much of that show’s pretense of politics as a noble instrument, not so far: Elaine Barrish is stripped of any explicit political agenda—there are nods to feminism in her concession speech, but it is more an attitude than a platform—and her purpose is rather straightforwardly claiming power from forces that have diminished her.
There is a psychic and public cost to that model, of course, and one suspects that if this show keeps up its promise, we will see it unveiled. Is there a cause that justifies Barrish in risking the wreckage of her party, not to mention’s her adult children’s potential serenity, other than pay-back? Is her estrangement from her husband the break of a woman who has indulged too many lies, or the strategy of a professional who knows that her stock needs re-branding, or the instinct of a survivor proving her own capacities? At the moment, the rooting interest is with Elaine Barrish, but one wonders if the architects of the plot are crafty enough to build doubt and buyer’s remorse into her persona and our view of it as well.
It’s worth asking if this smart, but not deeply creative, show, means for us to notice one other way it channels our reality. The image obsessed, reinvention obsessed Elaine Barrish and Bud Hammond are watchable because they are drawn from the one template that reliably makes for good political drama, real or fictitious: the reimagining of the rush of events and policy clashes into an account of how ambitious human beings master and sometimes deploy their flaws. (their strengths can seem inaccessible to us, the good stuff is how they manage their demons).
That is how Robert Caro has sustained a best-selling franchise on an unpopular leader named Lyndon Johnson for almost 30 years and why David Marannis’ character digs of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama made, and make, money without uncovering any new ground around their presidencies; it is why presidential and political biographies, and autobiographies, still thrive as commercial successes, regardless of their quality, or honesty. How did he/she do it, how did they make it against the odds, what was their trick? Irrespective of our voting preferences, political biography endures partly because it is repurposed as a “how-to” on struggle, or the updated version of making friends and influencing people. These books sell and actually get read when the old political genre of campaign exposes are all but buried (Mark Halperin’s “GameChange” cheated the trend by dishing so much dirt on the Edwards family.)
So, is it just for lack of imagination that public ideals are mostly missing from Showtime’s newest drama? And that the Hammonds are exquisite talents, “political animals” after all, but without any transparent cause? My guess is that Greg Berlanti, the principal behind “Animals”, is being quite deliberate in tapping into the one thread that makes political lives broadly entertaining, and realizing it has not much to do with the ends to which victory is used.
The “West Wing” comparison is instructive again. Some critics maintain that Aaron Sorkin’s brainchild survived and prospered for entirely conventional reasons, mainly the writing genius and its assemblage of on-screen talent. I would add one other variable: in the aftermath of the scandal plagued late nineties and the terror stricken, gray, early part of this century, the notion of an idealistic, imaginative, progressive administration stirred at least the liberal soul. Whatever your politics, Jed Bartlett’s fantasy world had more scarlet than our real one. It is a touch depressing that television’s next venture into presidential drama knows better than to go there again—to the contrary, it gives us devils we know, in a messy unadorned package. Hope and change really has lost its luster.
It took literally minutes for politics to get twisted into the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. ABC News’ Brian Ross (the same journalist who slandered former House Speaker Dennis Hastert with an unattributed and false report that he was a target of a criminal probe) took to the air to link the shooter to the Tea Party. The claim was quickly unmasked as a breathtaking stupidity, based on connecting a shared, reasonably common name that is worn by a couple dozen people in the Denver phonebook.
Then, when the link between James Holmes and the ideological right was severed, it took minutes more to unearth the politics of gun control. The Internet and cable news are already awash with the notion that Holmes’ atrocity is an indictment of any number of related sins, from permissive gun laws in general, to the ease of obtaining tear gas and ammunition on the web, to the fecklessness of candidates and congressmen in the face of the NRA’s might, to the inevitable wages of a society that endorses gun possession as a constitutional liberty at all.
Americans typically dig for social and institutional causes for the most unfathomable examples of evil. It’s not only liberal talk show hosts who were quick to tie the coarsening of the political culture to the slaughter at a congressional event in Arizona in 2011. Our instinct of forces larger than us driving our destiny, a religious and psychological strand in our thinking, ill prepares us for the power a loner caught in his own warped view can wield.
But incredulity is rarely the best place to gain perspective on a policy debate. In the light of day, Holmes is not Jared Lee Loughner, Gabby Giffords’ shooter who had left a trail of mental illness and potential threat that arguably could have been sifted out before he purchased firearms. To the contrary, Holmes was functional enough to be a standout student in a rigorous discipline as recently as a couple of years ago. He had no record, mental or criminal, and it is worth noting that the federal assault weapon ban that expired a few years ago would not have restricted most, and perhaps not a single one, of the specific weapons he used in Aurora.
Of course, lamenting the fact that being a law-abiding citizen entitles any American, even an addled or homicidal one, to obtain a weapon capable of unleashing mass destruction is an entirely understandable impulse. But does the most ardent advocate of gun control seriously doubt that if assault weapons were banned tomorrow, they would only be pushed underground? Does anyone question that if drugs and prostitution flourish outside the law, a black market on guns would thrive just as easily? Is there any denying a murderous sociopath would find a way to crash that black market, and do some version of what James Holmes did? It’s momentarily satisfying, and perhaps shrewd advocacy on the part of the left, to assume the legal gun culture is the actual culprit for Aurora, but it’s also a stunningly off-base illusion.
There are conservatives who regret that the enthusiasm for Second Amendment rights can spill over into an enchantment with guns in our video game imagery and a dead-eyed numbness around artificially simulated gun violence. Similarly, there are thoughtful liberals who recognize that decades of crusading against firearms, and seeking to demonize them as an element of our social fabric, have boomeranged badly and made even relatively mild restrictions on ammunition or waiting periods to purchase handguns seem like a stalking horse for more draconian regulations. Neither point of view is likely to get the time of day in the hyper-partisan zone of contemporary debate, where concession is a tactical weakness. The main takers to Michael Bloomberg’s invitation for a national forum on gun laws will be the voices whose perspectives are one and the same with the ideological company they keep.
And Aurora will linger, but primarily as one more unspeakable thing beyond the reach of public policy. It’s hardly the wrong intuition. Sometimes, evil really is as isolated as the loners who dispense it, and as bereft of solution as the complex of pathologies that make a James Holmes burst out of his private shadows.
Count me in the camp that is not yet wringing hands about Mitt Romney’s prospects in the fall, largely because this script is so familiar. The narrative of impending doom (or blown opportunity) plays out every four years when Washington’s pundit class is forced indoors because of the heat. In the summer of 2008, the conventional wisdom among Democratic seers was that Barack Obama had hit a glass ceiling due to his disconnect with the white working class and that the campaign had drifted into a vague, impressionistic state. In 2000, the same chattering class pronounced Al Gore a weak, wooden nominee who had wasted the spring and early summer and was in danger of being run off the court by the Bush machine.
It’s not that the summer never matters: John Kerry’s offhanded remark that he had supported the Iraq invasion before he was against it was a precious kind of self-inflicted injury that happened during the summer lull. But for the most part, the fluctuations in campaign performance and the free media squalls of the convention run-up are over-borne by larger electoral forces. The fatigue with the Bush years and John McCain’s inability to separate himself from that record trumped Obama’s lull; the fundamentally even dynamic of the 2000 contest, a race between two broadly popular, non-polarizing figures in a largely contented electorate, was too fixed to be shaken by momentary plot twists. And the list could go on: for every defining moment in June or July, like Kerry’s gaffe, the list of half-time perceptions that proved flat wrong is far larger and more telling.
The fact is that this race is frozen, and polling as recent as today suggests that Romney’s tax returns and the new surface wounds around his private equity days (must the producers of the Batman installment opening this week have chosen as its evildoer a menace named “Bane”, rhymes with “Bain”?) have not changed the race much, if at all. (William Galston, the most perceptive Obamian at the New Republic, agrees).
But Republicans would still be wise to understand the exchange of blows in July as revealing of a pathway that could pry open the deadlock if Camp Romney is not careful.
Specifically, the Obama team, which seems at any given moment overwhelmed or bored with the domestic side of governance, has a way of wearing down its opponents with a disciplined, untroubled capacity at gut-fighting. The already forgotten takeaway of 2007-08 was the extent to which the Obama/Hillary Clinton match turned on two reinforcing strategic narratives. The first was the Obama campaign’s ability to disrupt the flow of the Clinton effort by literally driving them to distraction: the early burst of slime about Bill Clinton’s social life: the jabs at Hillary’s ties to lobbyists; the shots at the 42nd president’s historical legacy; the put-down that Hillary was riding her husband’s coattails; the heavy-handed insinuations that the Clintons had a racial complex that was seeping out into view all looked unbecoming the days they were launched, but they did the damage they were meant to do, by knocking the Clintons off their game and into a defensive crouch.
Second, the Clinton campaign matched Obama’s ruthlessness with its own hesitance about returning fire with the same kind of aggression. It is entirely understandable that the Clintonites pulled their punches on Jeremiah Wright in a party where racial ethnic politics is so primal, far less defensible that they shrunk from leveling sustained fire at Obama’s gamey pattern of avoiding controversial votes in the Illinois legislature, or his links to a notorious influence peddler in Chicago, or even more inexplicable, that it never exposed blue collars and rural Democrats in Indiana and North Carolina to Obama’s far-left leaning record in the trenches of Illinois politics (including a lone wolf vote to reduce imprisonment for sex offenders).
Clinton’s strategists were neither inexperienced nor immobilized: their error was in their conviction that Obama’s manifest greeness and the haziness of his public profile were destined to defeat him. It’s hard not to hear some echoes of that mis-placed confidence in Republican circles now, when the case is made that Obama’s economic record is so weak that voters are bound to reject it. It’s equally hard to miss that Republican frustration this cycle at Obama’s resilience sounds, verse for verse, like the post-mortems in Clintonland around a candidate who seemed so overmatched the first nine months of the race.
Obama’s many acolytes in the press attribute his survival skills to preternatural talents of performance—an account that seems right as long as the slate is wiped clean of an inept campaign to sell healthcare reform, rampant disarray in his economic policy-making, and the unerring link between his poll numbers and the arc of job creation. The more substantial truth is that Obama and his team have mastered the cut and thrust of negative campaigning, and the seamier truth is that the mastery is less genius than a robust tolerance for half-truth and innuendo.
None of that means winning ugly wouldn’t still count. The good news is that Obama’s dark arts haven’t worked yet; the bad news is that they have to work only in their totality, and only on one Tuesday in November.
Last week, during the alternately sad, alternately voyeuristic coverage of Jesse Jackson Jr.’s troubles, I recalled a night that the Congressman himself has probably forgotten. Sometime in 1996 or 1997, Jackson made a speech at Alabama State University in my hometown, Montgomery. At least one local media outlet confused the young, newly elected representative with his father; a then defensible mistake reflecting the fact that much of America, much less Alabama, did not yet know there was a second generation Jackson rising in his own right.
But Montgomery’s African American professional crowd in their twenties or early thirties knew better, and they turned out to see one of their own generation’s most promising members do a star turn. The speech was good but not memorable—more polished than powerful, no preacher’s hook—but the electricity lingered. It was a lot of glamour, a lot of promise, just enough inspiration, in a community where “up and coming politician” meant at most future city councilman, at most state senator. This Jackson seemed to have the stuff to take the train much further. It would not have stunned a man or woman in that aging gymnasium to think that a future president had left a little touch of star dust behind.
I would see Jackson in action a hundred times more. He is one of a handful of House members who can give an authentic floor speech, versus droning through a turgid, staff drafted floor statement. He evolved into the orator whose possibilities were only just in view that night in Montgomery: by the time I watched him speak in Alabama in 2007 as an Obama surrogate, he had the gift nailed, and wasn’t much off Barack Obama’s rhetorical pace: it was a common refrain that day in the audience that Jesse had made the Obama case better than Obama himself had made it in Selma a few months earlier.
The legislator who developed over the last 16 or so years has his defects. Jesse Jr. never turned into a grind-it-out policy technician: his fixation on tacking onto the US Constitution every modern progressive policy plank was quixotic more than serious-minded. He frustrated the Hill crowd by neither reaching for leadership status himself nor aligning with the various power grids that attached around Nancy Pelosi or Steny Hoyer. In a world were institutional status is sought and lobbied over, Jackson’s coolness to that sort of thing could look like disengagement.
His admirers kept chafing at his reluctance to reach for higher office. The presumed target, a Senate seat in Illinois, was there for the taking in 2004 but Jackson deferred to a black state senator he barely knew who had been mashed pretty badly in a House race four years earlier. In 2007, Jackson took all the steps to challenge another legacy product, Richard Daley, for Mayor, and stepped back again.
The game of politics requires mobility, either toward internal party power or to the next office on the ladder, and a politician who aims for neither is prone to stagnate. I suspect Jesse Jr. felt that tug and it explains the frenzy around his effort to get appointed to the Senate in late 2008 (an effort that did not cross the line into illegality, based on what I have seen, and probably wouldn’t look suspect if the target of persuasion had been anybody but Rod Blagojevich.) While I certainly never heard him express the thought, it would have been inhuman if Jackson didn’t notice that the chits from giving Obama and Daley their space weren’t exactly pouring in. The Obama team, for example, appeared to view Jackson as a ship they had passed on the way, and didn’t even include him on a list of favored suitors for the seat. The Democratic seers in Illinois lapsed very quickly into chatter that Jackson was too “Chicago” to build a statewide brand, more or less their initial take on Obama in 2003.
Politics is anything but fair and I never heard Jesse complain. The maddening irony, though, was that most of the ingratitude could be seen a mile away, involved people whose mindsets he knew all too well, and still Jackson seemed unprepared. He actually seemed to prefer to bid in an insider competition, where he had never excelled, instead of trusting his skills in a fight for voters, where his gifts might have enabled him to fare so much better.
It struck me as perplexing when I heard him say he could never raise the money to run a Senate race without the virtue of an appointment, because that deference to conventional wisdom and doubt clashed so thoroughly with the many times he took on the established point of view: becoming a reform ally in Chicago, endorsing Obama for the Senate in 04 when it seemed pointless. A man with unmistakable boldness never seemed to give a second’s worth of thought to a brass-knuckled tactic like announcing he would run in the Senate primary in 2010 no matter what, to test the Democratic machine’s path of least resistance politics.
Today, that lack of audacity is chalked off to internal demons that have burst into view. Not enough of the armchair psychologists have asked why a Democratic Party he backed to the hilt seemed so dismissive of Jackson’s appeal, why the media perennially measured him solely against black men of his generation—Obama, Ford, Booker—and rarely against the array of other, blander politicians he would have easily outstripped in Washington or Chicago. The lull in Jackson’s career seems, in fairness, partly Jesse Jackson Jr., partly an example of the insidious ways a campaigner of his massive skills can still be bottled up by racial limitations.
To be sure, Jackson is a sitting official who is on the public dime, and his constituents are entitled to know if he can still serve. But the tough truth is that Jackson’s run in public life is something better, and more complicated, than the silences and barbs from old rivals suggest.
Ed Kilgore’s latest posting in The New Republic is a pretty fair representation of how allegedly centrist Democrats have maneuvered their way into becoming skeptics of education reform, or at least reform more comprehensive than charter schools. Kilgore’s target is Governor Bobby Jindal’s statewide voucher initiative in Louisiana, and its embrace of a parental right to transfer children out of sub-standard districts. Kilgore focuses on what he describes as insufficiently strong standards to measure performance levels in private schools, or to weed out “bad apple” private academies that have no legitimate claim on public dollars.
On one hand, Kilgore’s line of attack already seems slightly outdated: as he concedes, the state is actually in the process of developing metrics for evaluating which private schools are eligible for participation in the program, and the more pressing debate in Baton Rouge has not been over performance standards, but over which faith-based institutions are suitable for inclusion. Kilgore still persists in assuming that Louisiana’s voucher program will let in too many bottom-dwellers. But while lamenting the fact that an unidentified number (he unhelpfully describes it as a “lot”) of the schools applying for the voucher program suffer from curriculum flaws or other professional deficiencies, Kilgore offers no evidence beyond a reflexive suspicion of Louisiana’s competence that the weakest applicants will survive vetting. Of course, the larger inference, that too few of the state’s private schools provide a high quality alternative worthy of public support, requires a much rigorous assessment of comparative data like graduation rates, college enrollment, achievement based testing, etc.
Certainly, it’s a case that would also demand comparisons between private institutions and the existing state of Louisiana public schools. Kilgore spends literally no time analyzing the conditions in the state’s government run schools, and if he had, he would have uncovered appalling levels of mediocrity: according to the state’s education department, 44% of the state’s public schools received a D or F ranking under the state’s system for grading its K-12 institutions. Roughly one-third of graduating seniors are deemed to be inadequate in basic skills.
Nor does Kilgore grapple with a fact that even a private school skeptic must concede. At least some Louisiana private schools are high performers, but remain well out of financial reach for children whose median family income is one of the lowest in the country. Is it troubling to Kilgore that without vouchers, there is no consistently effective path for low-income Louisiana children to gain access to schools like New Orleans’ well regarded but 8% African American Isidore Newman, or the nationally recognized girls school at Mount Carmel Academy, with its 2% black population?
The usual lament of reform opponents is that innovations are not “scalable”, a buzzword meaning that successful initiatives in a few cherry picked environments won’t reach most children and as a result are an uneven or unfair use of public resources. The refrain from reform advocates, including Kilgore’s old colleagues in the Democratic Leadership Council and elsewhere, has generally been that even scatter-shot victories promote competition and offer at least some tangible successes in hard-luck neighborhoods.
At least that used to be the rejoinder. Kilgore’s critique that a rising tide won’t lift enough boats and that some indescribable number of children may be no better or worse off sounds exactly like the left’s familiar, cliched objections. And Kilgore’s failure to spell out even a barebones case that Louisiana is incapable of identifying acceptable voucher eligible schools underscores his own concession that the real grievance is “not one of competence, but philosophy.”
That’s a staggering admission from a card-carrying member of DC’s centrist establishment, which has historically prided itself on chastising the teacher unions for putting ideological purity above specific outcomes. Some of the about-face has to with the resemblance between Jindal’s reform agenda and Mitt Romney’s proposal to permit children in low achieving districts to transfer to public or private alternatives. But the tactical imperatives of the campaign year notwithstanding, it’s a fair conclusion that any reform that combines two conservative pillars, “parental choice” and “private education” is increasingly intolerable ground in the Democratic universe.
To Kilgore, conservative reformers like Jindal are simply betraying their right-wing enthusiasm for market based choice at the expense of the Bush era’s endorsement of accountability driven regimes like No Child Left Behind. It’s a sound enough political point—Republicans bargained away vouchers in 2001 as a tradeoff for Democratic buy-in on achievement metrics that looked tougher and less malleable on paper than they have proved to be in practice. Conservatives are increasingly scornful of that trade, as Rick Santorum discovered when his vote for NCLB came under fire.
But as a policy critique, it is Democrats, even centrist ones, who seem to be in the throes of a theory. The mantra, for example, that public dollars should never be channeled to private schools sounds weirdly anachronistic in the aftermath of a healthcare reform that deploys government money to subsidize participation in private insurance markets. Is education a wholly different animal?
It is not hard to imagine a liberal, much less middle-of the road case, that low income children deserve an opportunity to enter elite private education regardless of the economic obstacles, particularly when the left is as willing as the right to acknowledge the link between educational achievement and career earnings and job security. The fact that vouchers are so anathema to all stripes of Democrats (Michelle Rhee and Harold Ford are conspicuous exceptions, but neither is terribly influential in current Democratic politics) is a curious departure from the normal progressive enthusiasm for government interventions that “level the playing field”.
Kilgore’s case, such as it is, is also a reminder that parental choice is suspect in its own right in Democratic circles. (Indeed, he says as much, by raising the specter of parents who “have motives beyond a desire for the best possible education for their kids”). But a platform that insists that parents don’t always know best is hardly a political winner. It’s easier to make straw-men of the weakest, and probably atypical, private schools, and to dust off old stereotypes about sub-par Bible based academies. The tragedy is that the Democratic center has turned to playing that game as shamelessly as the teacher unions once did.
Please click below to watch part one of Rep. Artur Davis participating at the Heritage Foundation Political Forum, as documented by C-SPAN Television: