Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Kulongoski's Common Treasury: The New, Old Left?

[Here's something amusing: because Blogger was being a PITA yesterday, I was unable to post this piece until after noon yesterday. In the process of finally putting it up, I posted the original draft instead of an edited, cleaned up version. If you read it yesterday, maybe you won't even know the difference, but I'll feel better about this version being up than the draft. There, isn't that a funny story? {cough}]

I find local TV news the very least interesting thing on at 11pm most nights, so I have no idea what kind of play the inaugural and legislative activities got today. I assume they were high up in the rotation, but Governor Kulongoski's speech to the joint session may have only been briefly encapsulated. Which is a shame, because it's a clarion call from an unknown and mostly feebly regarded Western Democratic governor who's feeling pretty good about where he sits--re-elected strongly despite hard times in a first term, with the Legislature on his side and a jingle in his pocket.

There's a bit of laundry listing in the speech, as in every inaugural. That's necessary politically, as a politician's shout-out to all the financial and organizational homies (seriously, go through the bullet points and pick out the target constituency). But shortly after propping a host of program restorations and extensions upon the grand theme of opportunity, Kulongoski took a turn asserting beliefs and principles not often emanating from Democrats' mouths since 1976:
The next four years is more than an opportunity to build on the gathering strength of Oregon’s economy. It is an opportunity to remember why we love this place called Oregon – and wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Opportunity transforms equity and fairness from moral words into social and economic action – and closes the gap, as we must, between those who have found the American Dream and those whose faces are pressed up against the window of that Dream.

Opportunity lifts Oregonians – of every race and ethnic background – onto the economic ladder, allowing them to learn a skill, find a family wage job, purchase a home, pay for health insurance, and save for college. And opportunity is a message to every Oregonian worried about what tomorrow will bring.

These fellow citizens did everything that was expected of them: They worked hard. Paid their taxes. Supported their schools. Raised their children. And kept our economy on track. So to every Oregon family and Oregon worker who feels insecure about the future, I make this promise: We will not abandon you. We have not stopped needing you. We will help retrain you – and see that you have the skills you need to compete in a global marketplace.

Why should we pay so much attention to giving the gift of opportunity? Because opportunity is the Oregon way. We are not a place that tells our fellow citizens: You’re on your own. We care about each other – and watch out for each other. Our neighborhoods and cultural traditions are sewn together into one quilt – not separated by walls and fences, or mountains and valleys. We do not move ahead by leaving others behind. We move ahead by tapping the skills, creativity and potential of each and every one of us. That makes opportunity a two-way street. We invest in the individual – and that investment pays for itself many times over for all of Oregon.
"We do not move ahead by leaving others behind" is poverty populism that stretches back years, through generations of traditional Democrats. It was seemingly buried forever by the Reagan administration and Dynasty.

As the more conservative, "he who helps himself is helped best" model took hold in the American psyche, once-traditional populists tried to emulate what was working for the Republicans, and essentially went corporate. Oh, the Dems still represented midwestern and rural districts, but they began to represent them more directly on behalf of ADM or Caterpillar or Southern States. Old-school protectionism, which in rural areas translated into looking out for the small-town worker, vanished in the brave new world of free trade. "New Democrats" bought into the top-down model of growth, which primes the pump from the top and figures the money will flow through the system.

As the party of the New Deal and Great Society, Democrats used to line up solidly behind the idea that if you supported and invested in the most vulnerable people, you ended up with fewer vulnerable people, spurring growth at the micro level that feeds business from the bottom up. As a result of the change in perspectice, now the mostly dominant Democrat is the Rahm Emmanuel DLC Prototype Version 2.1, peevishly pensive on foreign affairs and adopting a "what's good for business is good for America" line on economics.

Contrast Democrats, Inc. with the outlook of guys like Howard Dean and new Congresspeople like Jon Tester. They're bottom-uppers--they thrived by fostering empowerment at the roots level, and they believe strength comes from that pedestal of support you stand on, not hopeful largesse or profit-based interest from above. It's an anti-corporate way of campaigning to be sure, and it's a sign--via the internet but also shrewd strategy--that traditional Democratic populism has begun to creep back into focus.

Of course there are cyclical reasons for the ebb and fade of favor; as George Clooney said in the film O Brother Where Art Thou, "hard times flushes the chumps." Folks at the bottom get mad when things get bad, or when the haves get too much more than them that don't have, and that political climate is conducive to political waves like the one Democrats are currently riding.

It would be a mistake to judge the 2006 elections as a narrow political uprising by the poor. For one thing, Iraq trumped nearly everything except corruption as an issue, so voting decisions made purely by the pursestrings may have been few. It is true that wage disparity and tax burden imbalances have made people begin to feel that they are working harder and not getting any richer.But the Republican model of "I've got mine, you've got...whatever it is you've got; I don't care" ran afoul of many Americans' sensibilities after Katrina's waves pounded the Gulf Coast. We may have been pretending to be champions of economic bootstrapping the last 25 years, but Katrina exposed a heart whose beatings for others had become muffled. When tough times come, Americans reach out to each other, as millions did privately to aid hurricane victims. But we also look to government for support in those times--support that only comes when the government is itself supported by the people. What we saw in the wake of Katrina was that we were no longer supporting government to support ourselves. And blessedly, that's starting to bother people.

Kulongoski's speech correctly grasps the zeitgeist of this post-Katrina age, in my opinion--and to the extent that we see our failures in Iraq as failures of good government, the war has also been pivotal in slowly shifting attitudes about what government is responsible for, what it should do. There aren't many more words more cliche' to use in an inaugural speech than "opportunity," but the Governor is right: this indeed is a chance to reclaim a more democratic (small d) ideal from the ashes of barely-clothed crony capitalism and war profiteering, suspicion of one's neighbors, and community isolationism. The war and Katrina have not just soured Americans on Republicans; there is at hand a rekindling of the expectations for government to serve us, especially when we are unable to serve ourselves.

For Oregon, where political cooperation has of late died a notably sad death, Kulongoski was also speaking to the common treasury of Oregonians, who once saw eye to eye on the legislative principles of shared effort and fair dealing. He embraced citizens from Ontario to Lincoln City in his speech, calling for governance under the principle that success builds from the ground up, saving and investing in people and resources so that they may in turn invest in others--enriching everyone in the process.

This hoary brand of moral populism started to show itself again after Katrina, as I said. The most notable politician sounding these themes until now is John Edwards. In a message that resounds amazingly well among both left and right, sacred and secular audiences, Edwards has spent the last two years since losing his race for President preaching that we've lost our way and left some of us behind, and it's our duty to bring them along and restore greatness for everyone.

As Edwards' somewhat more concrete version of new old Democratic populism takes hold in the runup to 2008, the lifting of his banner by other early wave-riders like Kulongoski could bring a rebirth of moral economics that truly shifts the paradigm in which Americans view each other. Along with Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, Kulongoski now forms the anchor of the New Blue West, a base national Democrats hope to cultivate in creating a new locus of power for the party. That's where thinking big, as Ted wants, may pay dividends on the big political stage--but for Oregonians, it's more about simply finding ourselves again.