How to explain the disconnect between all the populist anger out there and what Publicola cleverly calls a "send the bums back" election? Pause before the storm? Caution and hunkering down? So little trust in government that few believe electing folks with new ideas would change much?
In politics you can't beat somebody with nobody, just as you can't elect reformers if you don't have good candidates or some kind of compelling message, as for example New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels do. Absent a broad, convincing case for reform, voters will just reelect incumbents. And so it was that all Seattle City Council incumbents, all King County Council incumbents, all Bellevue City Council incumbents, all Port of Seattle incumbents were reelected, mostly quite easily over feeble opponents.
I'd describe our current politics as divided among three parties. One is the Party of No, exemplified by Tim Eyman, rolling back taxes and spending, and Kemper Freeman, rolling back activist government and big-dollar transit schemes. The state Republican Party, which foolishly endorsed Eyman's I-1125 (anti tolling and anti Sound Transit), is torn between its Eyman wing, dug in against modernity, and its suburban wing, trying to figure out lean governance. The legislative caucuses of the GOP, at least, are firmly in the Party of No.
It's not just Eyman and the GOP. The main challengers of the Seattle School Board, for instance, were fighting against modern math instruction or "heresies" such as Teach for America or the Gates Foundation. The Party of No also rallied against the liquor initiative, somewhat reviving anti-saloon arguments and, joining here with the Party of Government, trying to preserve government jobs.
The second party is the Party of Government, hoping to "keep the governmental family together" until it can enjoy full funding again after the recession. And so, in the past election we had the unified Seattle mayor and city council pushing for ways to find new funding for two kitchen-sink measures to help schools and transportation. Sound Transit, which showed itself in the likely defeat of Eyman's initiative as one of the strongest players in the Party of Government, is a good example of how politicians, consultants, large-business interests, developers, and inside-game environmentalists can rally when threatened. Next rounds for this coalition will be getting Boeing to build its new 737 in the area and passing a statewide roads-and-transit measure. The theme of the Party of Government is clear: give us more money in exchange for a veneer or reform. And why do they need to do more, when the reformers make such a weak case against the status quo. and the Party of No is so naive and extreme?
Seattle, which talks a populist and even leftist game, is now pretty much a one-party town, that being the Party of Government. As such, it strongly protects members of the club, such as the Seattle City Council, the Port, the (relatively harmless) County Council, centrists on the Bellevue City Council, and the slow-and-steady education-reform bloc on the School Board. The current chair of the Party of Government is King County Executive Dow Constantine, the go-to person in big matters now that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has been effectively sent to the rubber room.
The third party, weakest of the three, is the Party of Reform — unhappy with the pointless reactionary stances of the Party of No and impatient with the governmental protectionism of the Party of Government. This party has only a few visible proponents. Some are non-union Democrats in the Legislature like Ross Hunter from Medina or Reuven Carlyle of Queen Anne. It is likely that others will appear, mostly from the urban perimeters of greater Seattle.
The Reform Party has trouble being taken seriously in a city dominated by a kind of reactionary and defensive liberalism. Reform ideas quickly get debunked as heresies or slippery slopes. (An example: Gov. Gregoire's idea of pushing some ferry funding down to the Puget Sound counties, trading autonomy and getting out from under the veto of Eastern Washington legislators. The idea was quickly torpedoed by special interests and outraged taxpayers. Same with her idea for a unified Department of Education, which poked some sleeping dogs in the bureaucracies.)
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!