Commentary: Political campaigns are bad for good government

The (Tacoma) News TribuneNovember 11, 2012 

Call this one: Why modern political campaigns are bad for good government.

To win an election for president or governor or U.S. Senate, candidates have to spend a year or 18 months or two years putting themselves in boxes. They make promises to do or not do certain things in order to win a party primary or keep potential rivals out of the primary to begin with.

Then, if that works, they enter a general election during which they make more promises, mostly as a means of solidifying their base support and denying their opponent campaign issues.

For example, in Washington (and most states probably), the finalists for governor get together before the campaign starts for the ceremonial coin toss and no-new-taxes pledge.

There is far less risk in saying nothing than in saying something. If one candidate offers specifics, they are punished for it. Since they can’t appear to be void of thought, they offer up multi-point plans and platitudes that sound deep but aren’t.

If it works and a candidate wins, what exactly do they win? They get the title and the power, and I understand those are both pretty cool. But they also get to spend the next four years finding ways out of all those boxes.

Like if Jay Inslee continues to lead and is sworn in as governor, he’ll likely have to reconsider his positions on school funding. He’ll have to either find more revenue or shift money from other government functions when he realizes – or admits – that he can’t do it all with lean management and natural growth in revenue from existing taxes.

And he’ll have to find a way to shift how local school levies are managed by either capturing some of the money for the state or reducing local levies in a way that might benefit local property owners but make the education funding problems even worse.

Of course he’ll have to call it something other than “the levy swap” that he politicized and demonized during the campaign. But he’ll do it because the next governor and the next Legislature put off responding to the unanimous state Supreme Court decision known as McCleary at their peril. They have but a few months to act or find out how little patience the court actually has with the actionless reaction to the court ruling.

Should McKenna win, he’ll face similar problems – at least on increasing school funding if not the levy swap he supports. And if he loses, someone will attribute it to the fact that he was too specific on too many issues. And they may be right. Or it might be that he was a Republican in a blue state that has just gotten bluer.

Whichever candidate wins, and if they want to solve the problem, they’ll open themselves up to cries of flip-flopper and hypocrite for saying one thing during the campaign and doing something else once elected. But what candidate who hopes to win can do anything else? I mean other than candidates in districts so safe they have no real opposition?

Sometimes it doesn’t work, as a Republican presidential nominee surely discovered Tuesday night. Sometimes meeting the demands of the base in the spring make it impossible to win the middle in the fall.

But too often it does work, making the job of governing even tougher than it already is.

Wouldn’t it be better for government if the candidates didn’t climb into boxes of their own making in the first place? Maybe they could say what they think and offer complex solutions to complex problems. Maybe they could replace the vague with the specific, listen to their opponents’ ideas and offer intelligent responses rather than pre-crafted zingers.

Maybe they could … Nahhhh, that’ll never work. They know either from experience or from high-priced advice that anything they say that isn’t poll-tested and focus-group-approved or is specific enough to reveal which interest groups might suffer would certainly show up in the next attack ad or simple-minded mailing. And they know enough voters would respond to the attacks.

See? Campaigns are bad for government.

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