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It's Local in Washington, Too

By Frank Gruber

August 8, 2011 – In my version of America’s civic religion there are a few articles of faith. Most of them are sacred texts, such as the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, or the Establishment Clause of the First. But for me these four words are also self-evident truths: the late Tip O’Neill’s credo that “all politics is local.”

Like any holy writ, Tip’s rule is somewhat mysterious and certainly subject to interpretation. The more you think about what he said, his meaning either seems deeper and deeper or more and more obscure. “All” politics? Really? All? “Local?” What are the boundaries of local?

The words are usually interpreted to mean that for a Washington politician to get elected and stay elected he needs to address the concerns of his constituents at home, rather than focus on the big or abstract problems of the country or the world. Fair enough; but that’s a narrow, instrumentalist purpose. Is that all there is?

I prefer to interpret the phrase a little differently -- and more broadly. In my view, it’s local politics that creates the political climate that informs the views of voters. The Tip rule is not only about fixing potholes, but also about the construction of attitudes toward government from one’s perceived relationship with government.

In this regard my belief the teachings of Tip has been renewed by watching what’s been going on in Washington lately.

If you look at the districts where the Tea Partiers come from, and the people who elected them, they are mostly rural and exurban, the kinds of places where local governments typically have low profiles. People there get the idea that they don’t use government much, or need it, because they don’t come into contact with it on a daily basis, as do people who live in cities.

Now, objectively, we know that rural and exurban and suburban people rely on government as much as (or more than) urbanites do. Farming, or even living “near” the land, takes a lot of subsidy. We learned last week that the subsidy for each passenger at the Ely, Nevada airport is $3,500.

But because local government in places like Ely is not so visible -- not like it is when a city bus passes by, or a garbage truck, or police cars, or when there’s a school down the street not miles away -- people get the idea that they’re self-sufficient.

Naturally this misconception coincides with and mutually reinforces an abiding cultural norm in America: the ideology of independence.

A parallel track of misperception exists on the urbanized Left, reinforcing the equally American ideology of community. For the Left, local circumstances reinforce the “logic of collective action,” and for their collective lives’ sake they can’t understand how those crazies on the Right can’t see how we all need each other.

The whole thing gets turned around when it comes to personal liberties. The ethos of a small town is that everyone knows everyone else and their business. The ethos of the city is anonymity and minding-your-own-business.

So it doesn’t seem weird for Tea Partiers to say that they want government out of their lives, but oppose, for instance, abortion rights or gay marriage, thus wanting government in their doctors’ offices or bedrooms, and it goes the other way for the Left, which wants strong government when it comes to economics but weak government otherwise.

It’s all local.

* * *

It seems like a long time ago now -- it's been a week, after all, and now the subject-that-everyone-is-going-crazy-about-instead-of-jobs is the stock market -- but what surprised me after the debt-ceiling deal was how little credit President Obama received from the Left for including large cuts in military spending in it.

Okay, that’s a lie, I’m not surprised given how much the left-wing of the Democratic Party castigated Obama for even negotiating with the Republicans over the debt ceiling, but when you think of it, getting the Republicans to agree to $350 billion in cuts to military spending would have been considered a great achievement in a different context.

Meanwhile, Obama and the Democratic leadership held firm against cuts to crucial social programs and against agreeing to an extension of the Bush tax cuts.

Meaning that you can’t judge a deal before it’s done. The Left denounced Obama for putting social programs on the table when he was trying to make a bigger deal that would have included tax increased on the wealthy, but that deal didn’t happen and no one will ever know if it would have been a good one. Meanwhile the deal he did make was not bad for the Left, and could get better soon when we find out how much of the other $750 billion of cuts in the first $1.1 trillion round come out of programs like agriculture and ethanol subsidies.

President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership (Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, who in 2005 stopped in his tracks George W. Bush and his “mandate” to privatize Social Security) have shown repeatedly that they are tough negotiators -- much tougher than their party’s activists give them credit for. They’re now perceived to have won the December 2010 negotiations during the lame duck congress, and in 2012 they will be perceived to have won the negotiations over the debt ceiling.

One way they won was to make it look like they lost. According to the polling last week, the public blames the Republicans more for the debt ceiling mess because they believe the Republicans got more out of the deal than the Democrats did.

But then the whole deal was political theater -- no substantial cuts occur until 2013, and so the deal can be changed based on the 2012 election. The deal was in fact about 2012, and President Obama has now set up the terms of the 2012 election to favor the Democrats, because Independents like his balanced approach, while the Republicans pushed a deal that only helps them in their primaries.
You never can be sure when you’re dealing with people who like to hold others to high standards, but I suspect that by November 2012 left-wing Democrats will be happier with the administration than they are now.
Elections matter -- and 2012 will matter a lot.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.


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