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Wednesday, September 26,2012

Notes from the political sidelines

by Walt Sorg

(Walt Sorg was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for the 67th District State House seat.)

Jennifer Granholm and I have at least one thing in common: neither of us plans to run for public office again. I can hear the masses cheering already! We are finally free to say exactly what we are thinking without worrying about the political fallout. For Granholm, that meant joining the chattering class on cable TV. For me, it means outing myself as a political curmudgeon. So here we go ... .

Fact-Free Campaigns

With term limits, knowing how a candidate stands on key issues becomes more important. Most of the time there’s no voting record to examine and, with the shrinking mainstream media, the reporting on races below the national level is superficial at best. How will these newbies represent us?

Will the candidates tell us? Not really. They are reluctant to fill the void because actually taking a stand on real issues (as opposed to talking in platitudes) might cost votes. (Do you think my support of legalizing marijuana would have won me some votes in August?)

I managed to lose anyway. In the last few days, mailers have gone out from the finalists in the 67th district, retired firefighter Tom Cochran (D) and agri-businessman Jeff Oesterle (R).

I learn from their mailers they both want to improve public education, they both will fight for more efficient government, they both support small business and they both have families.

Huh? Neither their campaign fliers nor their campaign websites tell us how they plan to turn their vision into law, and you won’t find out much from the mostly MIA mainstream media.

The closest we get to specificity from either candidate? Oesterle’s website makes it clear he’ll join the anti-abortion caucus in the Legislature and will vote exactly as demanded by the National Rifle Association; Cochran clearly will toe the line for organized labor. And we can find out which special-interest groups are supporting the candidates, although nowhere on Cochran’s website or mailers do we see that he’s endorsed by Planned Parenthood. Too specific?

This keep-it-vague tactic is nothing new to local and state politics. How many voters back in 2010 knew Rick Snyder would:

raise taxes on just about every not-rich family in Michigan so he could eliminate state taxes for most businesses?

abolish democratically elected government in struggling cities and school districts?

impose cuts on local governments which made them struggle more even as they laid off police officers, firefighters and public service workers?

cut state support for colleges and universities to the point where tuitions are among the highest in the nation?

All we really knew in 2010 about the guy who led Gateway Computer Co. into oblivion was that he was a really wealthy nerd who seemed a lot less crazy than his Tea-Party-loving primary opponents, and his last name wasn’t Granholm. So we elected him.

This reluctance to actually tell us something about a candidate’s plans for government reminds me of Walter Mondale’s infamous 1984 convention speech. Mondale got specific on an important issue: tax policy. He said “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” 

Mondale was right about Reagan, who raised taxes 11 times in his second term. But he learned that being honest with the voters isn’t good politics.

Mondale lost. By a lot. 

Mitt Romney is trying to do the same thing this year. He wants to get elected on a platform of “I’m not Obama, and I know how to get rich.” Given his well-documented record of flip-flopping on issues like women’s health, health insurance mandates, gay rights and just about all of U.S. foreign policy, I’m not sure it really matters, anyway.

So what’s a voter to do? Unfortunately, we have to get off our collective butts, go to those meet-the-candidate meetings, and force candidates at all levels to go beyond the standard campaign bullshit:

How will they strengthen education, repeal the pension tax and still balance the budget? What taxes will they raise to offset the $2.5 billion or so those two changes would take out of the state’s $8 billion general fund budget, or will they just cut everything else 30 percent? 

How will they improve public education? Do they think paying teachers less improves education? How about privatizing schools? Vouchers?

What are they going to do to strengthen the middle class? Is imposing pay and benefit cuts on hundreds of thousands of middle class families the way to do it?

How will they make our communities safer?

What are they going to do about our incredibly crappy roads?

How will they get the bipartisan support needed to get their ideas adopted?

They won’t want to answer in specifics, but we must force them. Mr./Ms. Voter: don’t settle for platitudes. Platitudes are for speeches. Laws require specifics.

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