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Posted by on Nov 9, 2009 in Economy, Politics, Society | 9 comments

When Voters Disrupt the Tea Party (Guest Voice)

WASHINGTON — Here’s a story you may have missed because it flies in the face of the dreary conventional wisdom: When advocates of public programs take on the right-wing anti-government crowd directly, the government-haters lose.

This is what happened in two statewide referendums last week that got buried under all of the attention paid to the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey. In Maine, voters rejected a tax-limitation measure by a walloping 60 percent to 40 percent. In Washington state, a similar measure went down, 57-43.

They lost in part because opponents of the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights measures (known as TABOR) did something that happens too rarely in the national debate: They made a case for what government does, why it’s important, and why cutbacks in public services can be harmful to both individual citizens and the common good.

The idea that most voters hate government has an outsized influence on the thinking of both parties. Republicans try to exploit this feeling; Democrats try to get around it.

Only rarely do those who believe in active government take the argument head-on and insist that many of the things government does are necessary and, yes, good. The media almost never discuss what the sweeping dismantling of public services inherent in the rhetoric of the anti-government movement would mean in practice. It’s far easier to replay footage from a few tea party rallies over and over, and discuss some vague “mood” in the electorate.

But in Maine and Washington, the voters knew they didn’t have the luxury of expressing a mood. They faced up to how limiting future tax revenues would affect the things they expect government to do. And opponents of the TABOR measures brought that idea home in straightforward terms.

In Maine, one ad featured several taxpayers warning about what less government would mean in practice: “Our school budgets have already been cut. This would mean even less money for our classrooms. … Community health centers could be cut. People rely on them, especially now.” A sympathetic-looking man then appeared on the screen to add: “My wife relies on our home nurse visits. What will we do?”

Nor was the anti-TABOR campaign confined to what individuals get out of government. Another ad highlighted the larger social and economic impact of public education. “Without strong public schools, our kids won’t be prepared for good jobs,” the announcer said. “Maine’s future could be in doubt.”

In Washington state — where tax limitation was opposed by leading moderate Republicans, including former Gov. Dan Evans and former Sen. Slade Gorton — the No campaign offered a cross-generational message, focusing on cuts in both school budgets and home care for seniors.

Opposition to these measures went well beyond the ranks of ideological liberals. Recall that on the same day that Maine rejected TABOR, it also rejected gay marriage. In Lewiston, a socially conservative working class city, 59 percent voted against gay marriage — but 58 percent also opposed TABOR.

It’s true that Washington and Maine have been reliably Democratic in recent presidential elections. But this is precisely why the defeat of these anti-tax measures was so important. Anti-government crusaders were getting ready to argue that if TABOR measures could pass in blue states, theirs was the wave of the future.

“I think the Maine TABOR will sort of be a spark to other states,” Grover Norquist, the country’s premier anti-tax agitator, told voters during a visit to South Portland in October. “I’m talking to taxpayer activists and citizens’ groups, all of whom are looking to see that if Maine, a moderate Northeastern state says, ‘Yes, let’s take a look at this,’ it then becomes a stronger sell in Arizona and Washington and Oregon and Florida.”

By that logic, it’s now a weaker sell. That’s why conservatives hope no one pays attention to the news from Maine and Washington, where voters decided not to be part of a laboratory experiment being pushed by the Beltway Right.

But will President Obama and his party take the lesson and go on offense against the simple-minded anti-government screeds now getting so much play?

Obama took a brief whack at doing so in his September health care speech. He noted that his predecessors “understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited.” Why aren’t we hearing more of this?

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(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • Leonidas

    Of course the fact that Washington State and Maine are both Blue States had absolutely nothing to do with it. I mean Washington state even voted for Dukakis LOL, and Maine hasn’t voted for a republican President since Dukakis ran. I’d like to see how bused in liberal groups fared if they tried it in a purple or red state. All this tells me is that Liberal groups can win on issues in liberal states. Gee what an earth shattering surprise. I think the big surprise is that 40% and 43% went against them in their strongholds..Tell you what, get back to me when they do something like this in a purple State like Virginia, Ohio, or Florida, or a red one like Texas, Wyoming, or Georgia. That would actually be noteworthy. I think the Washington post endorsing a non Democrat for President would be more likely.

    Side note, its interesting to note that Maine is already the second most highly taxed stated as measured in percentage of personal income (via CNN money 2007) and Washington ranks 16th

    “Thank you sir may I have another” comes to mind.

    • Well I can tell you this much in red state Georgia, the dominant Republican state government is under serious fire for taking hundreds of fees and not knowing where the money is going thus strangling local city/county governments. Has many Republicans covering their own behinds here. So “government issues” is a bipartisan thing.

      And regarding less government, red state Georgia wants more government concerning transportation since it’s bad in Metro Atlanta and rural Georgia hasn’t had any transportation “love” in years (unpaved roads, etc). So I think that more/less government is all about what a need is in a particular area.

      • ProfElwood

        That’s close to what Indiana is experiencing. It’s a “purple” state (actually something of a donut) that has a constitutional block on borrowing. In order to keep its rainy-day fund from getting depleted, while not directly raising taxes, they simply put the burden on the counties and made them do the tax increases. Politics is fun.

      • Rambie

        Same in red state Utah T-Steel. Over 50% of our property taxes goes to education but don’t ask for an accounting of how that money is spent.

        I believe most states, and even at the federal level, need much better auditing system of where our tax dollars are going.

    • merkin

      TABOR has also been defeated in Oklahoma and Nebraska, primarily because it is a bad idea.TABOR limits the increase in revenue to the increase in population plus inflation measured over the last year. There are two problems with this. There is no allowance for increases as a result of changes in population demographics. The health insurance industry has been very successful at driving up the cost of health care on one hand and of pushing off the sick onto the government. This has resulted in a large increase in Medicaid costs, far larger than the increase in the overall population. Another example is the increase in school age children called the mini-baby boom which called for increases in education budgets greater than the overall population increase. Or the large, out of proportion increase in prison population is another example. The other major problem is the ratcheting down effect. Since the look back for allowable increases is only one year if that year was a recession year you build in a permanent deficit in revenue. The first year after a recession you are forced to rebate the increased revenue which actually was just the legal amount collected before the recession. Revenue goes down as a percentage of the economy and cannot be recovered even in an economic boom.The only state that enacted TABOR was Colorado in 1992 (about). They have reformed it over the years to the point that it is now largely ineffective because it created so many problems and truly hurt the state.

  • DLS

    [yawn] Dogged liberals biting adult humans — not big news there.

  • DLS

    I should add that far-left fringists (strongest proponents of the “public option” federal takeover approach to health care currently; ambitious “global warming” legislation and regulation and social engineering, etc.) have not only been outside the mainstream, but have been notably absent this year as far as activism and public spectacle, as well as apathetic (as the recent elections demonstrated), and perhaps as dysfunctional and stumbling as the liberal Democrats have been lately. Why not only try to recover, but also to get out and be seen and heard more? As with fringe far-left talk radio and now television (given a beginning forum on MSNBC, farther left than the normal well-left lib-and-Dem major media orthodoxy and conformity that otherwise Fox is the party notorious for defying them), why not, if there is sufficient support and peer group formation, take advantage and be seen and heard — not only in resolving this health care “reform” effort or with the “global warming” politically-directed legislative goals, but with other issues related to the complexion and nature of Washington in general (its nature as well as scope), as well as with individual issues?

  • DLS

    Michigan is in notorious shape (someone else and I were discussing the state’s fate earlier today, when I was taking her to downtown Detroit for an appointment) and probably will be worse next year, as rather than reform itself, which is long overdue, the state simply has misspent stimulus money from the federal government on current deficits — even when the need to restrain this practice (which is what passes for “reform” in Blue Nation Michigan) in order to face worse expected deficits next year was already known. (In later years, the question my passenger and I were wondering about was how much the state’s metro areas and smaller cities would be like ghost towns, or like what I saw when I lived and worked for two years in Upstate New York — decayed and decrepit, depressing places, or as my lib friend from DC said, predictably, when she came to visit me once: “Dreary.”)

    Naturally, the dinosaur Democrats (liberals) here whine and wail and moan about government “losses” and what it means for “the people,” even though Michigan creates a hostile environment toward businesses, jobs, and people (who aren’t in government or in favored unions).

    It’s pretty bad when fast food restaurants and Hooters on the largest metro area arterials (designated as state highways) close.

    And that’s before the bigger problems next year, and what may happen in the years after that.

  • DLS

    “I believe most states, and even at the federal level, need much better auditing system of where our tax dollars are going.”

    That’s in addition to the bigger-picture reform I have stated numerous times is overdue, the application of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) to the federal, state, and local governments. Also, we all deserve annual or other periodic balance sheets, income statements, accounting and explanations to be supplied for currently unfunded future liabilities by all these governments, and so on.

    An “annual report” with real figures in addition to any glitz, like those of businesses, rather than dumbed-down political press-and-public fluff, is needed.

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