How NOT to Defeat the Conservatives

You Can’t Out-Republican The Republicans — #1

One lesson is clear from the November elections.

Democrats shouldn’t try to out-Republican the Republicans.

It’s a lesson that Wisconsin Democrats hopefully will take to heart this spring when the state legislature debates how to provide an extra $1 billion in state funding for schools.

At first glance, legislation passed last spring looks progressive, since it reduces schools’ reliance on local property taxes by requiring the state to pick up two-thirds of elementary and secondary school costs by 1996-97. But the legislation has nothing to do with increasing the money available to schools, and was guided by politicians’ desire to win popularity points by reducing property taxes.

Further, there is little progressive in how Thompson plans to come up with the extra state funding.

Although specifics will not be clear until the governor’s budget proposal is released in January or early February, Thompson already has outlined his approach. Taking a “no tax increase” line, he hopes to raise the $1 billion by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from other areas of the state budget, with additional money coming from increased state revenue due to an improved economy and from “continuing cost controls.”

“There isn’t any [agency] out there that isn’t going to be touched. … The whole state government is going to be reorganized,” Thompson warned in early December.

What’s more, Thompson has no intention of increasing the amount of money available to school districts, which are already reeling from the effects of a state-mandated cap on spending.

The Democrats had argued that $1 billion in increased state aid cannot be raised without increasing the sales tax or raising income tax rates. Yet they have been tight-lipped since November, when Republicans captured control of the Assembly and added to their pre-existing control of the Senate.

In the past, a disturbing number of Democrats have shown minimal fortitude, whether on issues ranging from education to taxes to the death penalty, and have tried to capture the initiative by putting a different spin on essentially Republican proposals. We fear they may continue this lose-lose scenario, and capitulate to Thompson’s plan under the guise of “bipartisan cooperation.”

We don’t mean to minimize the complexities of school financing, nor the realities of political life in a Republican controlled legislature beholden to a personally popular governor. What is disheartening, however, is that many Democrats apparently feel comfortable with tinkering around the edges of the Thompson scenario. Where is a bold, comprehensive alternative? Why can’t someone proclaim and fight for the obvious: that the only sane solution is a call for progressive taxation on the state level that not only raises much-needed cash for the schools but also unequivocally shifts the burden to those with the ability to pay and reduces the burden on those with limited incomes? What is wrong with the long-standing (but quickly eroding) American tradition of taxing the rich at higher rates than the poor?

One might argue that tactically, such a perspective stands little chance. But strategically, we will never emerge from the quagmire of school financing unless such long-term goals become part of the discussion.

There are times when we tire of “reasonable” political debate and yearn for the days when it was honorable “to speak truth to power.”

It’s time to tax the rich and give the schools the money they need.

You Can’t Out-Republican The Republicans — #2

President Clinton has apparently decided on his re-election strategy: capitulate to the Republicans and scurry to the right as fast as possible.

The most recent example came in early December, when President Clinton announced he would seek a $25 billion increase in military spending over the next six years.

Further, he wants an immediate, emergency authorization of $2 billion extra for the military next year.

We should have been suspicious when, a few weeks before Clinton’s announcement, the Pentagon reported that three of its divisions were not at top-notch readiness levels. Such whining invariably increases whenever budgets are being prepared.

President Clinton, still smarting from the Republican victory in November, was acutely sensitive to the whinings. Backed by members of the House Armed Services Committee who have formed “Democrats for a Strong Defense,” Clinton succumbed to Republican criticism that military cuts have undermined our country’s security.

To make their case, Republicans focus on military cuts in recent years, noting that the Pentagon budget has dropped 10% since Clinton took office. But they fail to mention two other crucial facts: That military spending under President Reagan was unnecessarily bloated, reaching unprecedented peacetime levels; and that the rationale for the outrageously high Pentagon budget rested on the alleged threat posed by the Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, Republicans were not mollified by Clinton’s capitulation. Rep. Floyd Spence (R-S.C.), barely waited until Clinton’s announcement was over before declaring that it was too little too late. Further steps will be necessary, he said, “to put the military back on the right track.”

The same could be said about the liberal agenda.

When Clinton first took power, he talked of $30 billion in economic stimulus to create jobs, investments in job training and education, radical health care reform, increased funding for programs such as Head Start, and higher taxes on the wealthy. What have been his major accomplishments? The pro-business NAFTA and GATT treaties, and a $30 billion crime bill — even though the U.S. arrests, detains and jails more young people than virtually any democratic nation in the world.

President Nixon was a crook, and Reagan a Teflon man. Clinton has carved out an entirely new identity: an elephant wearing a donkey suit.