Political realism, change, and reform

“Change” is the catch word in today’s politics, and now “reform” has been added as its companion. To bring about both, real power is required. Why state the obvious? Because good people entering the arena too often seem to overlook some of the simple basics and practicalities about what needs to happen before a reform and change agenda can advance.

Anyone who has observed today’s Illinois politics knows that there is power in our state’s constitutional offices – especially, of course, the governor’s office. Real power also clearly resides within all four General Assembly caucuses and both state parties. There are only a few scattered offices and organizations outside those named above that can be said to hold real power.

The power of the teachers unions is formidable, of course, as they have made a slave out of most Illinois politicians. The limits of their power, however, has been clearly demonstrated during the past few years in that they have been unable to force an income tax increase despite their majority ownership stake in the Illinois Democratic Party.

Other interest groups hold potential – such as conservative business leaders – but they’ve never been able to get their act together. The Illinois Chamber, manufacturers, and small business lobby should also have been able to, by now, wield substantial leverage. Uninspired leadership has prevented it.

The Chicago business community is probably the most dramatic example of a concentration of money and talent gone to waste. The quality of the City of Chicago and county of Cook governments tolerated by those yet uncorrupted private sector individuals is a sight to behold. Graft, scandal, and extraordinarily high taxes are a throwback to earlier eras of governmental greed and incompetence.

It’s a shame that smart business leaders have yet to participate in any kind of serious reform effort. Until they do, they’ll continue to get the kind of government their lack of attention brings.

Another untapped source of power is the state’s two U.S. Senators and the U.S. House delegations. Obviously it’s fortunate for us that those Democrats who have been elected to federal office have yet to turn their energies towards any kind of Illinois venture. Dick Durbin is one of the big men on the D.C. campus and Barack Obama has much preferred national celebrity status to getting anything constructive done here in his home state. Should he win the White House that might change.

I’ve noted often that the eight year tenure of U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert was a disaster for Illinois Republicans, but even in his wake, the remaining members of the GOP Congressional delegation are AWOL when it comes to showing leadership back here in Illinois. Sadly, our Republican members of Congress (and their staffs) lack vision, initiative, ability, or they just don’t care.

Why does the power mostly reside in the elected and party offices? Because that is where the public looks when it comes to matters of policy and politics. The news media primarily talks with and quotes these leaders when it comes to the issues and legislation of the day.

Donors contribute big dollars to the state parties and volunteers are willing to give substantial time to campaigns and well-run local party organizations. If the political parties didn’t exist, they’d have to be invented.

Any of these institutions, properly utilized, can command the resources of money and manpower to bring about needed reforms. Unfortunately on the Republican side the bully pulpit power of political office stands unused and the party’s political army that could be mustered isn’t. This isn’t for a lack of good ideas or ready volunteers, but instead because of a lack of leadership.

Up next: Want change and reform? Personnel is policy.

The above article was updated from an earlier post.

©2008 John Francis Biver

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