Two years ago in the wake of the Obama victory and Democratic surge, I wrote a column for Washington Law & Politics about how "we're all socialists now." That is, that with the recession and bipartisan support for the stimulus and Wall Street bailout, belief in government action was back in vogue. It seemed to fit, since so much of government is already structured to do business's bidding.
I also wrote that people in Seattle were experiencing the opposite of the dissonance of the George W. Bush years. Whereas 2004 had left Seattle lefties feeling they were perched on a remote, eroding blue archipelago, 2008 brought our ideas (and our people, like Ron Sims, Gary Locke, and Gil Kerlikowske) into the political mainstream. The nation and Seattle were in sync, and cognitive harmony reigned amid hope.
For a few days, anyway.
But times have changed and dreams of a new New Deal have evaporated. Today, Seattle is back to isolation, protected slightly from the national Tea Party tsunami by the Cascade Curtain, but by and large, out of step with current political and economic reality, which is driven by fiscal challenges.
Virtually every progressive lawmaker and office holder in Washington state is now fated to deal (again and with more difficulty) with crashing budgets, shrinking revenues, red ink, and black holes, and without the cavalry of new taxes coming to the rescue. Even generally liberal Wetside voters turned down the chance to implement a progressive income tax and pay more sales tax for cops and courts.
Voters don't want to shell out any more cash, and government has to cut. From Mike McGinn and the liberal Seattle City Council to King County Executive Dow Constantine, to Gov. Chris Gregoire, the job is to prune government back as much as possible without killing it. In effect, we're all Republicans now. And all operating (again) under the Tim Eyman plan of needing two-thirds of the legislature to agree on any new taxes. We're bound tighter than an ancient Chinese foot.
The most dramatic example of embracing the new is Gregoire's executive order this week declaring a moratorium on new rules and regulations in order to "conserve" resources and help business. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, perhaps too many for it to be very meaningful in practical terms (Sightline has a great post on how confusing the order is). Its effects are unclear. But it is a huge symbolic victory for the Eyman-Tea Party-GOP world view.
In fact, Republicans are quickly taking credit for the governor's action, which basically states that new regulations are bad for business, so no new pesky rules or regulations in 2011. Here's part of a press release from the Washington House Republicans giving credit to one of their own for the concept:
In August, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, sent a letter to Governor Chris Gregoire requesting a temporary moratorium on all non-essential rulemaking activities by state agencies. Orcutt believes doing so will "save the state millions of dollars, allow employers some regulatory certainty, and show our citizens that their leaders are genuinely concerned about their personal and financial dilemmas."
Orcutt's idea had been gaining steam behind closed doors, and now, is being formally embraced by the governor as she released executive order 10-06 today, which effectively eliminates all non-essential rulemaking by state agencies until the end of 2011.
"I'm extremely pleased the governor has responded to my request," said Orcutt, who serves as a member of the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council and is the ranking Republican on the House Finance Committee.
Dealing with the budget crisis requires courage and creativity. For progressives, it requires skills at refocusing and reorganizing government to deliver more with less. This is no less than the private sector has had to do. But the simple facts are that government is going to have to be reformed and made leaner and meaner. This should have been the mantra of progressives even before the current crisis, but it has to be embraced.
But the problem with Gregoire's approach is that is undercuts the notion that government is part of the solution, not part of the problem. Gregoire's executive order is pure Reaganism: Government is part of the problem.
The premise is that business will flourish without public interference. That's Club for Growth philosophy, the folks who want to drown government in the bath tub. It sides with business over the environment, over the consumer, over the citizen. It sides with the loophole over fairness. It argues not that government should be smarter, nimbler, more just, and more transparent, but that it is a hindrance that needs to be stopped. It's a "time out" based on an idea that is the antithesis of the governing premise of Gregoire's party.
This is not the ideology that is going to advance the progressive cause, that's going to buck-up the beleaguered public servants in Olympia, that's going to find a way to protect the people no matter what the fiscal challenges are. It's not the kind of creative solution-finding that's going to lead us to a better place.
It is also a gesture that flies in the face of reality in this sense: that government regulation is seen as hampering business, yet "socialism" is rarely decried when that same government weighs in on the side of business to create laws, loopholes, and programs that benefit and subsidize business. Gregorie is buying into a trap where business gets all the incentives and subsidies we can afford (like building more highways, tax breaks, and foisting the costs of pollution and climate change onto the public) yet is held less and less accountable.
That is a paradigm that is not sustainable.
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