Pop Politico: Spare Change

Presidential campaigns, like marketing campaigns, have to have a sellable theme. Something that sounds snappy and connects with voters/consumers so they will act (i.e., vote for a candidate or buy a certain product). Whether it was Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” or Bill Clinton’s “Hope” campaign, or even George W. Bush’s “Trust” campaign (in which he proclaims his trust for people over the government), they are all selling something.

This year the theme is “Change.” Hillary wants change, Obama wants change, Huckabee wants change, McCain wants change. They all say they want to govern differently than the current administration – something that the Bush administration seems okay with, as long as Republican candidates don’t criticize him too pointedly.

Campaign themes appeal to our emotional desires. They sell the sizzle, and it’s our job to fill in the blanks for which kind of steak we want. But what if the “change” we crave has consequences that are more nightmarish than the status quo? Case in point: the California budget shortfall and the campaign theme of Arnold Schwarzenegger during the recall election of 2003.

Faced with a record budget deficit, and low approval numbers from members of his own party, Gray Davis was fired by the people of California in 2003, and clearing Schwarzenegger’s path to the governor’s mansion. Arnold’s campaign was propelled with talk of change, tax cuts, and “blowing up boxes” (i.e., fundamentally changing the way governmental agencies provide services to citizens and residents of the state). A large number of Californians liked that kind of talk, and while the governor had some success when it came to his ability to “blow up boxes,” he started going after groups who provide essential services (i.e., fire fighters, teachers, and nurses) and, well, that backfired in his face.

This week, Schwarzenegger announced budgetary cuts for 2008 that will affect kids, the poor, prisoners, and those who generally love the outdoors. Cuts in education, health care for the poor, prisons, and even the closing of state parks is being proposed to deal with a $14.5 billion budget shortfall – spurred in large part by the real estate downturn.

California has one of the largest economies in the world, yet the cuts in the education system will decrease the skillset of California residents when it comes to the needs of crucial industries. If you’re an anti-immigrant type, you’re really going to, um, love the consequences of slashing education funding. If California industries need people to perform certain jobs that require special skills, then they are going to lobby the Federal government to change immigration policies to allow for more immigrants to perform the tasks that many Californians are ill-equipped for.

If you slash health care funding, you will probably put more elderly residents in the ground earlier than they may want, but you also run the risk of increasing disease among the general population. Why? Because someone who can’t afford health care won’t see a doctor and get meds to help stave off whatever is ailing him, and, well, you see where this is heading.

I’m not opposed to decreasing the prison population and shrinking that “growth industry,” but there’s a problem with Arnold’s proposal to release both non-violent prisoners and firing prison guards at the level he wants: If there aren’t any jobs for these people, or money in the budget to help them with new skills (i.e., education), then the consequences of a large group of economically anxious people without jobs is not good. Can anyone say “increase in crime?”

The nature of our governmental entities (i.e., local, state and federal) is not really proactive. Rather, it’s reactive – and that “reactive” nature is reinforced by the election cycle where candidates ask us to react to this or that crisis by agreeing to quick fixes that, on the surface, seem appealing. No one that I know of likes paying taxes, and rarely are people satisfied with the services government provides, but like it or not, government really is the most uniformly consistent entity to deliver certain services to people. But in order to maintain that consistency, you have to spare those sectors (i.e., education, health care, police, fire, and the like) from the ups and downs of budgetary shortfalls. How do you do this? One way: in the economically flush years, take budget surpluses and save them for an inevitable economic downturn – instead of “refunding” it in the form of tax breaks. That way, if you need to reduce taxes, you can do it without cutting too much into services that are most needed.

I bring all this up because the economic plight of California will probably be the plight of many other states very soon (if not already). As a voter, look beyond the market-tested campaign themes of a particular candidate and ask yourself what kind of country you want to live in — and see how your answer squares with your political ideology when the services you take for granted go away.

Sufjan Stevens, “Adlai Stevenson”