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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Charles M. Arlinghaus: Can crisis end the cult of personality?


Difficult times demand that leaders make difficult decisions. Ongoing and sustained financial problems carry with them the potential to transform politics away from personalities and toward a discussion of ideas and solutions.

When times are good, politicians are often told to avoid bold ideas and controversial decisions. When people are happy and content with the status quo, bold ideas, or any ideas for that matter, can be scary. If nothing is broken, nothing needs to be fixed.

In good times, politicians emerge and talk about post-partisan politics and working to achieve consensus. Margaret Thatcher famously described consensus as "something in which no one believes and to which no one objects."

But to most politicians and the value-free operatives who surround them, the phrase "to which no one objects" is music to their ears. If you don't stand for anything, no one can be unhappy with you.

I used to work in politics, and the most maddening people were not the politicians but the professional organizers who surrounded them. Sadly, would-be leaders are surrounded by people who say, "I don't care what they do once they get elected," or "ideas are a dangerous thing in politics, try to avoid them."

For this group of operatives, the would-be leader needs to embrace things "to which no one objects" while working on demonizing any ideas that accidentally slipped through from the other side.

This leads to the sort of politician who believes in little and can accomplish nothing. This politician thinks, "I can't do anything in office; it might hurt my chances in the next election." It is a problem bred into both political parties, but perhaps best typified by two governors, Republicans Charlie Crist of Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

The powers that be have pushed Crist as the ultimate U.S. Senate candidate because he's done nothing as governor. No one hates him. No one loves him either, but no one objects very much. On the other hand, he really does need to run for the Senate because after four years avoiding cracking any eggs as governor, he needs to step aside and let someone finally make the omelet.

Arnold is a good example of problem politics as well. He ousted the technocrat Gray Davis after a recall on the basis of celebrity and hope. He's spent his time as governor not being Gray Davis. It's a nice legacy: Arnold: made movies; he's not Gray Davis.

Arnold and California have problems like New Hampshire's problems except they're on steroids, figuratively speaking, of course. We've got a budget crisis that's going to be even worse with the next budget. They're on the verge of bankruptcy now. We've had some revenue estimating problems. Their errors are bigger than our total budget.

But problems can't be solved with personal wonderfulness. Crisis needs more than a nice smile. No one's going to win by saying "everything's OK, we just need to ride out this storm and sunny days are ahead." The current darling of the free-market right in California is a boring economist called Tom Campbell. He doesn't have millions of his own dollars or the personality of a movie star, but he's running on the basis of detailed policy proposals, which must drive political operatives crazy.

Instead of "we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work" or "we can fix this if we all work together," he's talking about financial restructuring, budget reform and tax competitiveness. It's boring; some of it is controversial. But the crisis has led people to want someone with an actual plan. Perhaps boring is the new exciting (he said hopefully).

But could it work in New Hampshire?

In fact, idea-free zones don't work any better here. When Republicans ceased to have any ideas in particular, voters didn't see the point in keeping them around for old times' sake. Current Gov. John Lynch embraced the "to which no one objects" model of governance, but found out its limitations. He avoided the controversial education funding issue in the 2006 campaign and then found little momentum for his sensible funding amendment during the following legislative session.

The federal bailout of states delayed our pain for a couple years, but the ongoing fiscal troubles have people looking for answers. Serious changes will be required. Those changes will be possible only because they will have been part of a serious discussion over the next year and during the next campaign.

Nothing focuses the mind like a crisis. The people are ready for an honest discussion. They know they won't agree with anyone on every issue, but they are adults and are ready to focus on ideas not personalities.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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