All Politics is NOT Local

According to the Financial Times,

Next month’s midterm elections will be the most costly congressional races in U.S. history…[an] estimated $2.6 billion [will be spent]…Republican candidates, parties and advocacy groups would spend $1.4 billion while Democratic interests would spend $1.2 billion.

Unfortunately all that money only advances the political ambitions of winning candidates — none of it helps move public opinion in support of desperately needed policy reforms. The proof of that is every two years we set new spending records, and every two years we’re nowhere closer to better government.

What policy reforms? At the state level, to name a few:

  • Reforms addressing the public education-spending crisis.
  • Medicaid reform.
  • Reform of the bloated and overly-generous taxpayer funded pension system.
  • The over-due need for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights to limit the bad-behavior spending habits of politicians.

At the national level, to name just a few:

  • An outline of what real threats face the country based on what we’ve learned about human nature (sometimes we need to take our enemies at their word).
  • Entitlement reforms: Social Security & Medicare/Medicaid.
  • Federal Tax Code overhaul and drastic simplification.
  • A serious effort to limit the size and scope of the federal government – a federal Taxpayers Bill of Rights is in order.

Part of the reason why issues like these get short shrift is due to the perverse approach to campaigns that believes “all politics is local.”

“All politics is local” ranks as one of the all-time wrong-headed things ever said. From the moment the late U.S. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill said it, small minds grabbed it and made it their own. The phrase has achieved a religious-like following for many reasons and serves consultants and candidates like a charm.

If it’s all local then they can ignore those big uncomfortable issues like those listed above. It’s so much more fun to talk about the need for an area bridge or road construction project than it is to argue that taxpayers are terribly ill served by countless government bureaucracies.

Forget Medicare or Medicaid; all that’s necessary is to kiss babies, show cute kids in print and TV ads, join the Rotary, and make as many local friends as possible.

Campaign operatives like the idea of treating each legislative race as if it were a little backyard fight. Too bad most Americans live within legislative districts that are ridiculously gerrymandered. The local interests of those who live in one corner of a district typically have little in common with those at another corner.

This “all politics is local” approach also ignores the fact that in metropolitan areas voters get their information about the issues en masse from many sources, not as individual residents of legislative districts.

The larger reforms will require team efforts to communicate effectively with a busy population. Without this team effort, state legislative candidates — even high profile Congressional candidates — shy away from the attempt to convey big ideas. “Local” issues are so much easier to grapple with so they become the default topics. Important reforms become secondary, an opportunity is lost and money is wasted.

The solution is obvious. It consists of two parts.

One: Republican candidates for the state house should join together to campaign on two or three proposed larger policy reforms. State senate candidates can surely find a few big issues to unite on, as can U.S. House candidates. U.S. Senate candidates can do the same across state lines as federal reforms need all the attention they can get.

Instead of meaningless personality fights or empty partisan contests, voters will then have a better idea about what they’re voting for.

Much national commentary has been written in recent years regarding the damage that has been done to the Republican”brand” name. Few voters — especially in Illinois, have any clue what distinguishes Republican solutions from Democrat solutions.

And that won’t be solved by individual candidates focusing primarily on relatively unimportant local issues.

Two: This work should not be relegated to the campaign trail. The work to move public opinion in support of key reforms is a year-’round labor. One of the main reasons so much money has to be wasted during campaign seasons is that few voters know the goals of those seeking high office — even the incumbents.

Two metro-Chicago races are good manifestation of this problem. In the 8th and 6th Congressional districts the Republicans have fielded high quality candidates. One looks as if he’ll win, the other looks like he’ll lose. Both races are close, but neither should be.

If Republicans — including state party organizations — made it an ongoing project to keep voters informed about the big issues (their problems and their solutions), guys like David McSweeney and Peter Roskam wouldn’t have to struggle. And if there existed a wider effort to sell the Republican brand, their message wouldn’t fall on deaf ears or fall short.

Small issues don’t motivate most voters — the proof is that turnout for local elections are typically the lowest. When Republican candidates run as independent operators concentrating on small issues rather than as part of a team committed to big reforms, they become ineffective in the fight to truly limit government, defend traditional values, or properly articulate what’s at stake in a dangerous world.

The Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America” should’ve cleared up the “all politics local” confusion, but unfortunately it has not.