Opinion: Who Can Do Better? - Underestimated Week


Through the junkyard of political cliches in incumbent-challenging campaigns is the classic, yet difficult, “We Can Do Better.”

It’s irresistible, if not downright essential for a challenger candidate to communicate that America must “do better” than the sitting president without sounding condescending to voters. In tough times, as John Kerry’s campaign found in 2004, it is a sentiment that Americans can relate to, but also one ripe for sabotage both foreign and domestic, so to speak.

Such inherent dangers of the trope could not have been made more evident than a hilarious and stirring image from the most recent Republican National Convention, when a Ron Paul supporter made ample use of the Romney campaign’s undecorated version of the catchphrase.

Much like the more sensible strains of the libertarian revival in the last few political cycles and Congressman Paul’s ever developing relationship with the Republican Party proper, it was a welcome deviation from the well-rehearsed script of convention politics and a straight shot of grassroots electoral reality. A reality, of course, that the establishment could not accommodate with the expectation of cordial proceedings for the rest of the nomination process.

Per the candidate’s primary election strategy, convention delegates backing Paul, already hell bent on starting a ruckus, did their best to commandeer the nomination process in favor of their candidate through somewhat devious (yet entirely legal and transparent) means. Never a bunch to take a coup lying down, the GOP decided then and there to change their rules regarding delegates and primary elections, making it impossible for a delegate to cast a vote for any other candidate than the one who won their state.

The episode, and a few others across the wide arena of current events, says a lot about the capacity for our two mainstream political parties to make room for numerous disparate movements they don’t entirely see eye-to-eye with. In the case of the RNC, such movements can consist of presidential campaigns, like Ron Paul’s, that symbolize a deeply American desire to move away from the statism perpetuated by the governing (not campaigning, mind you) of both parties. On the other hand, the “all-inclusive” left can just as easily sweep public sector labor disputes, like that of the teacher’s strike in Chicago, under the rug and expect any costs not to damper their larger electoral goals.

Chicago Teachers’ Strike
Photo courtesy of BL Perk

I realize ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room is what political parties do best, and that harping on our tried-and-true two party system is nothing new. Neither do I contend that both these examples are signaling any reason to doubt the predominance of the present system over any foreseeable horizons. However, both are indicative of how far each will go to cater to their respective bases in ways that leave substantive issues all but ignored and are disenfranchising a record portion of the demographic pie for this election season.

Tonight’s debates provide a great example of what this sort of exclusion from both sides looks like. On the same day Chicago teachers voted to suspend their walkout and return to classrooms, our two presidential candidates will take to the podiums and debate all of the important problems of the day… except education.

And why not? The strike is over, what need is there to debate it?

That would make sense if the battle that was just fought in Chicago ended the war over teacher’s compensation. What began in Central Falls, RI, two years ago, when the school board decided to fire all the teachers in a low income district, soon became a political lightening rod in Wisconsin the following winter. Over time, the mainstream media coverage focused on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to bust all public sector unions for good, and sure, that became the story. Yet what was soon forgotten was that at the center of Walker’s push to end collective bargaining rights for public employees were negotiations with the teachers’ union.

With municipal, city, and state budgets still plagued in deficits and school systems still struggling to compensate for growing classroom sizes and the fallout of No Child Left Behind, Chicago’s teachers’ strike will be far from the last.

In a reply to a healthy reader response to his op-ed in The Atlantic Monthly titled, “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama,” Conor Friedersdorf put the current conundrum faced by teachers best: “…Democrats reliably pay attention to every issue that might impact Obama’s chances at the ballot box — and frequently ignore many important issues that won’t.”

Thus leaders from both parties are finding themselves in the unenviable position of having to sit at the management side of the negotiating table in these disputes, forcing a body that would normally play to the hands of the left to form a new bi-partisan consensus.

“Their fight is really our fight,” John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., told The Wisconsin State Journal of the Chicago teachers’ strike. “Whether we’re talking about Scott Walker or Rahm Emmanuel, it’s the same thing.”

Photo courtesy of firedoglakedotcom

Similarly, Ron Paul supporters dug in their heels at the convention because they too don’t see a big difference being offered by either side for the future – and just as easily, their grievances were ignored.

The number of issues and intransigences neither of the parties are willing to account for are mounting, from gross expanses of executive power we’ve witnessed in the past two administrations, as Friedersdorf’s original article argues meticulously, to a near complete abdication of education reform, (immigration reform, monetary reform, and many more reforms). Yes, the economy is on everyone’s mind and little else is, but the question remains: How many more bullets can be added to this list of ignorable issues that can’t be solved before it is too long?

Who can, indeed, do better?