Dear Obama: Don’t Go Right; Get It Right by Gus Cochran of Atlanta Journal-Constitution

November 10, 2008

Many are urging President-elect Barack Obama to govern from the center,
claiming that “middle-of-the-road” policies better suit a nation that
remains “center-right.” This advice carries particular weight coming
from moderate Southern Democrats, whose states remained mostly red on

But this is exactly the wrong advice because it mistakenly
presumes that American politics is driven by labels. Americans are fed
up with government by slogans. They hunger for workable solutions to
their pressing problems.

Democrats have listened to this kind of conventional wisdom in the
past, and failed. The centrist Georgia Democratic Party had exhausted
its middle ground approach by 2000 and lacked new ideas tailored to the
rapidly changing times. Moderate Democrats tried to stave off surging
Republican realignment by running on Reaganesque rhetoric and governing
with “Republican-lite” policies, but the voters preferred Republican
government administered by genuine Republicans.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes joked that his educational reform was 90
percent Republican, but the joke was on him when Georgia’s teachers,
the core of any viable Democratic coalition in the state, led the tidal
wave of rejection that sank state Democrats in 2002. And Bill Clinton,
no matter how refreshing a breather during the Reagan-Bush era, was
merely an interlude before the rightward lurch of the second President

We don’t need a one-and-a-half party system, with the Democrats
playing second fiddle to a hegemonic Republican Party. Instead,
Democrats should look to North Carolina, where Obama and Senate
victories showed what Democrats can accomplish when they strongly
contest elections. In light of the surprising muscle flexed by Georgia
Democrats on Tuesday, imagine the result if significant resources had
been invested early and consistently in a forthright campaign to turn
the state blue.

Americans are ideological “conservatives” — in the abstract, they
believe in less government. But in practice, they are “liberals” —
they want active government programs to help solve their problems, and
they respond enthusiastically to proposals such as Obama’s plans to
restore middle-class tax cuts, extend health care, explore alternative
energy sources, and reconfigure the war on terror. In other words,
Americans don’t want big government, but they do want effective

Ronald Reagan was actually only moderately successful in repealing
government programs. George W. Bush took office determined to push the
Reagan revolution to its logical extreme and finally translate taglines
such as laissez faire, market solutions and individual responsibility
into policies of deregulation and inaction (expansive foreign policy
and military overcommitment aside). The result, we now see, was an
economic, fiscal, environmental, energy, social and international train

Americans have real problems that aren’t caused by their personal
irresponsibility. It’s not individual failure when your company ships
your job to Taiwan, your employer doesn’t provide health insurance or
your policy doesn’t cover what’s actually making you sick, or your kids
receive a third-rate education because your taxes are being squandered
on neoconservative pipe dreams of dominating oil-rich regions abroad.
Millions of hardworking Americans have played by the rules but, despite
their diligence and responsibility, find themselves holding jobs that
don’t pay a living wage, discover that their pensions are worthless and
awaken to the tanking values of their homes and savings, manipulated by
unscrupulous and unregulated big investors. Laissez-faire government
can’t solve these problems; it simply enables the large transnational
corporations and the small class of super-rich who, coddled and cajoled
by the Republicans, have been breaking, or rewriting, the rules.

The way to effective 21st-century governance and a political
realignment lies not through empty sloganeering about being centrist
and in the middle of the road, but through developing an innovative
public philosophy and matching policies that will build a stronger
America. Obama, like Franklin Roosevelt, has impressive rhetorical
skills, and clearly people need inspiration in times like the
Depression (or now). But FDR didn’t just give cozy fireside chats and
soaring inaugural speeches; he brought the New Deal to a country
desperate for a new departure.

Americans are tired of politicians of both parties trying to talk
their way into power using hollow slogans and labeling their opponents
with worn-out catch phrases. They are ready for leaders who will
propose workable solutions to the problems they actually face. The
party that successfully gets beyond public relations and provides
effective governance will be rewarded with a bright electoral future.

Gus Cochran teaches political science at Agnes Scott College.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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