Political campaigns are exercises in obfuscation: avoiding topics that annoy the base or don’t poll well, signaling (with escape clauses) to donor groups, avoiding specifics that would bestir sleeping pit bulls or produce massive retaliation. Herewith, one attempt at penetrating the fog in this fascinating, very-close governor’s race.
Democrat Jay Inslee is running as the incumbent. He never mentions Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is unpopular. But he is essentially running a Rose Garden campaign, hoping to preserve the strengths of the Democratic coalition that backed Gregoire and cleared the way for Inslee to have no primary opponent and to get lots of national cash for his race. Components: public employee and teacher unions, greens, social services, tribes, trial lawyers, the rail transit coalition, minorities, military contractors, the research-based part of the economy, and some Seattle-oriented progressive and lifestyle issues (gay marriage, density). Aside from some mild heresies on teacher accountability, Inslee does little to ruffle the feathers of these groups. This is smart politics, I guess, but it obscures the rather disruptive, mildly leftish Inslee.
Inslee’s stance intensifies the plight of long-in-command liberalism — it’s essentially preservationist, wary of reform, thin gruel for independents and impatient young people. It reminds me of Lord Salisbury’s famous quip a century ago, as Britain faced the facts of its decline from global dominance: “Whatever happens will be for the worse. Therefore it is our interest that as little should happen as possible.”
Accordingly, Inslee is running as the status quo candidate. He says he wouldn’t raise taxes, for instance, though even the tax-averse Gregoire has edged toward the need for more taxes. He wouldn’t favor charter schools, though he’d encourage experimentation at some public schools. He needs more “studies” before deciding on the coal port issue. All very soothing to those vested in the long consensus in Olympia and the state (big labor, big government, big business).
As to what the actual Gov. Inslee would do, that would be quite different: the greenest governor in the nation, a strong advocate for more light rail, an active recruiter of green-tech and other new-economy businesses, maybe the first governor in a long time who actually understands Seattle issues. Temperamentally, Inslee is far from the status-quo figure depicted on the campaign trail. But he is a new-initiatives guy, not a reform guy, so he'll have a hard time finding the money for the things he wants to do.
Governors need to be excellent COOs (chief operating officers), but voters want a charismatic CEO. The election of Obama and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn illustrate where the voters gravitate (and then un-gravitate). Yet the job at hand is largely one of rolling up sleeves to make the money-starved and bloated systems of government work better.
Republican candidate Rob McKenna both gets the new realities of austerity and has the wonkish love of details to suggest he’d be a good COO. Inslee is a classic short-attention-span improviser and placater, not a hard-choices manager.
McKenna’s chief problem, like Romney’s, is trust: Who is this guy? While Romney morphed from being a moderate pragmatist like his father to movement conservative (until last week), McKenna began as a conservative libertarian dissenter in King County politics and has morphed into a “Northwest Republican.” But which one would we get if we elected him?
The attorney general doesn’t help his case by his lawyerly evasions on some hot issues, such as expanding light rail, gay marriage, and abortion. McKenna doesn’t hide his dissenting views from conventional progressive stances, but he says he “respects the will of the voters.” (Also, apparently, the will of the Supreme Court on Obamacare.) Like a good lawyer, as he is, he implements and defends the judgments of his clients, even if his personal views differ. Not very leader-like, and it begs the question of what he’d do as these issues come up in the future (expanding light rail, making abortions more difficult to get). If for Inslee the key question is “Is he up to the job?” for McKenna, it’s “Can you trust him?”
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