A reliable benchmark for judging politicians

Does a proposal really help the people, or just score political points? When this trusty standard is applied to Obama's jobs bill and Seattle's car-tabs measure, both flunk the test.

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President Obama has appointed new military, CIA leadership.

Does a proposal really help the people, or just score political points? When this trusty standard is applied to Obama's jobs bill and Seattle's car-tabs measure, both flunk the test.

But What About the People? was the title of book by Terry Sanford, former North Carolina U.S. Senator, governor, and Duke University president.  When political cynicism becomes overwhelming, I often think of Terry Sanford and his book title.

Sanford's name is unfamiliar to many.  But from the 1950s into the 1990s he was a standup hero unafraid to espouse causes far more progressive than his North Carolina home constituency.  A former World War II paratrooper, he became the first southern governor to identify himself actively with civil rights.  A young Jesse Jackson was a student intern in his gubernatorial office.

He also convinced North Carolineans to invest massively in public education and to make the state's public schools a cut above those in other states south of the Mason-Dixon.  He had the idea for the Research Triangle, the new-economy center which brought prosperity and economic stability to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. He lifted Duke University, too often known as a southern party school for the privileged, into first-tier academic rank nationally.

In 1960 he was a prominent early supporter of John Kennedy's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.  Rumor had it, just prior to Kennedy's 1963 assassination, that JFK was considering replacing Lyndon Johnson with Sanford as his vice-presidential running mate in 1964.

Sanford did all of this in a reasonable, gentlemanly manner which got results he could never have achieved through confrontation or low politics.  He never talked down to any constituency.  He was a populist of the highest order — embracing all as his equals and leaving no doubt that his only interest was the larger public interest. 

There were many in Sanford's political generation who were guided by a "What about the people?" philosophy, not least our own Washington state Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry (Scoop) Jackson. They pushed hard for their progressive objectives but did not vilify their opponents or insult voters' intelligence.  First and foremost, in the phrase of the time, they were "for the people."

As I think now of those leaders I am particularly dismayed by actions large and small in our current politics.

Current economic-stimulus and deficit-reduction debate:  Facing falling public-approval ratings, President Obama has issued stimulus and debt-reduction proposals aimed at recapturing a shaky Democratic political base but which do not seriously address the need to give the economy a needed jolt while also, down the road, reducing our crippling long-term debt burden.  With the exception of short-term extensions of payroll-tax relief and unemployment benefits, no parts of those proposals seem headed to congressional enactment.

Obama clearly does not recognize that his present soak-the-rich strategy will do little to address our economic ills.  It will also cede the moderate vote to Republicans who have done little to earn it.  (One thing Obama and his advisers apparently do not recognize: A majority of voters, of all income levels, do not like punish-the-rich policies.  Most still hold to the American dream that their children should have the chance to become rich in the future.)

I've been through similar policy-review exercises many times.  I have no objection to raising taxes of those in the highest income brackets.  They can afford to pay more.  But raising their taxes will do little to generate growth, reduce deficits, or cut long-term debt. The numbers have changed over the years but the present ones are quite similar to those of the past 50 years.  Right now, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the 10 percent of the households with the highest income pay 50 percent of all federal taxes and more than 70 percent of federal income taxes.  Households making more than $1 million pay an average of 29.1 percent of their income in federal taxes; those making between $50-75,000 pay an average 15 percent; those between $40-50,000 pay 12.5 percent; those between $20-30,000 only 5.7 percent.

Obama's proposals to tax more heavily individuals earning above $200,000, and couples above $250,000, throw meat to people animated by class anger or envy.  But they also would hit owners of small businesses — the principal job generators in the economy — especially hard.  And the revenues they would raise would be minimal. 

Billionaire Warren Buffett likes his publicity and has gotten mileage from his assertion that his tax rate is lower than his secretary's. But, if it is, it mainly is because he benefits as an investor from many provisions in the tax code not available to those whose salaries provide their principal income.  Such "tax expenditures" — that is, loopholes, preferences, subsidies, and deductions extended to various economic sectors and activities — are where the real money is to be found.  But you will not find important proposals to reduce them in the Obama program.  Instead, the president talks about "corporate jets" and "millionaires and billionaires" as convenient political foils.  He is more interested in making partisan political points than in solving the problem.

The same could be said of Republicans whose posture of  "no new taxes, of any kind, at any time" similarly plays to their partisan base. 

Serious leaders, truly concerned about the people, would be starting their dialogue at a place where they theoretically agree — that is, with the necessity of truly trimming economically-distorting and expensive tax expenditures.  But that is not where debate is taking place.

Anti-people actions here at home:  The recent illegal strike of Tacoma teachers, unconscionable at this time of economic stress for taxpayers, and the outrageous Proposition 1 (the regressive $60 car tab increase) are salient examples of abuse of ordinary citizens.

The Tacoma teachers, as those in other communities, seem not to recognize that Washington, its cities, counties, and school districts, are running in the red and also coping with unfunded teacher and public-employee pension and other obligations which elected officials granted to them in fatter economic times.   They deserve little sympathy from the unemployed and underemployed whose kids are in their schools.

Seattle Proposition 1 is one more local levy in a long string of them which trusting and often gullible voters have approved over the years. (Disclosure:  My name is formally listed as an opponent of Prop. 1 by the Citizens Against Raising Car Tabs organization).  King County recently passed a $20 car-tab tax for transit.  Seattle recently increased the car-tab fee by $20. Seattle's educational levy is doubling.  Prop. 1 would impose an additional $60 car-tab fee for any vehicle, whether it be a truck, van, luxury car, motorcyle, or worn-out junker: Regressivity carried to an extreme.

Leaflets are being passed to riders at Metro bus stops soliciting their support of Prop. 1  But there is nothing in the measure which would allocate needed monies to improved bus service.  Instead, the $204 million to be raised through the 10-year fees could be used for streetcars, light rail, tracks, bike paths, or anything else in the general transportation realm.  Some 67 of the city's 115 bridges are rated poor, structurally deficient, or obsolete by city planners.  There is an estimated $1.5 billion backlog of needed street, road, bridge, and sidewalk repair.  But there is no certainty that any of the Prop. 1 money would go to those purposes. The measure states that general percentages would be allocated to general broad transportation purposes but leaves out specifics and leaves room for revision. The mayor and City Council essentially have said:  Pay the new taxes and we'll spend the money as we see fit.  Well, no.

Politics should be about serving the people — and nothing else.  There is an old formula which Terry Sanford, Magnuson, Jackson, and their colleagues used to apply.  It always began:  Tell the truth fo the people about the problems we face together.  Then: Develop serious proposals that will effectively address those problems.   Then: Tell the truth about our proposals so they can be understood.  Finally: Generate sufficient broad, bipartisan support to get our proposals enacted.

The current dialogue, surrounding the issues above, seems to center around such questions as:  How do we make short-term partisan points?  How do we get more pay and benefits for ourselves?   How do we fool voters into paying new, regressive taxes which we can spend as we please?   As Terry Sanford put it: "But what about the people?"


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.