It's Time for States, Localities to Think Boldly

Elections and governance have become so intertwined that it’s hard to know when campaigns begin or end. We do know we need big ideas.
November 2012
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

I’m writing this well before the national election, even before the final presidential debate, the last hope for salvaging an intelligent conversation between the candidates about the central issue in this campaign -- what role government should play in our modern society.

Sadly, we have missed the opportunity to address pressing, complicated and intertwined problems and their possible solutions. A national election is supposed to do that. Not surprisingly, the modern craftsmanship of electoral politics doesn’t allow for much substance -- just platitudes, misleading accusations, silly allusions to pop culture, clever TV ads, and strategic choices of venue and audience to attract ever thinner slices of the electorate based on gender, nationality, race, sexual preference, age, education level, economic position and so on, all driven by mountains of money underwritten by people with very special interests.

The challenger in this contest should be winning, given the state of the economy. But ever the pragmatist, he positioned himself far to the right during the primaries. And despite efforts to recast himself as a moderate, his robotic, awkward demeanor is not that of someone who can “elegantly” (to use his word) slide back to the middle. The incumbent, playing his “likability” advantage for all it’s worth, works the pep rally campaign stops, as well as the ultra-lite entertainment shows like “The View.” That way he doesn’t have to say too much, just be charming.

Elections and governance have become so intertwined that it’s hard to know when campaigns begin or end. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced just after the last midterm elections that his top priority was to defeat the incumbent president, it set the tone for the next two years.

The question is, no matter who wins this desultory election, what can be done to address the nation’s most urgent problems? The idea that the federal government can be significantly downsized falls, in my mind, into the “ain’t gonna happen” category. Any savings realized from an economic rebound will be offset by the silver tsunami of boomer retirements. It’s possible that a solution to the fiscal cliff of mass tax hikes and budget cuts we face at the end of the year might be patterned after a Simpson-Bowles-type plan for reforming both entitlements and the tax code. But I doubt it.

More likely, we will continue to muddle along, at least for a while, not only on taxes and spending, but also on what to do about K-12 and higher education, immigration, infrastructure financing, health care, regulation, even the melting arctic ice cap, and on and on. Revenues in most states -- except California, which is still in the muck -- are slowly improving. But cities and counties, dependent on property taxes and mired in pension problems, have a long way to go to achieve whatever passes now as normalcy.

What is lacking are bold ideas about how we might change what we’ve been doing, both in terms of policy and management -- ideas that transcend rigid ideologies. And that’s where state and local governments can make a real contribution if Washington will allow it, because they are far likelier to try new, unproven approaches -- whether it be charter schools, lowering health-care costs, privatization, public-private partnerships or collaboration across jurisdictional lines.

It isn’t sexy and it has almost no political resonance, yet how government at all three levels works with one another is important if we’re to make a real effort at solving our problems. You would think that people in the executive and legislative branches in Washington would care about how the feds interrelated with states and locals. My own impression is that it hardly crosses their collective minds, aside from a few wonks.

Paul Posner is one of those wonks, and he is worried. He led the budget and public finance work of the U.S. Government Accountability Office for 14 years before becoming director of the public administration school at George Mason University. Intergovernmental cooperation and consultation has been on the decline for some years, he says, even as “the actual interdependence of government has increased.” The ideological chasm so apparent in the nation’s capital “has worked to undermine the capacity” of the National Governors Association, the National League of Cities, and other state and local groups in Washington. “The inability of the state and local community to strike deals with the Obama administration on health reform -- deals that were successfully struck by the drug manufacturers and hospitals -- reflects the dilution of internal collaboration among governments,” Posner says.

That changed somewhat during the stimulus effort in 2009-2011. It was imperative for the feds to make sure state and local leaders fully cooperated with and bought into what Washington was trying to do -- kick-start the economy. I believe the overall effort was an inexact success both in its goal to avoid catastrophe and to forge a healthier relationship between Washington and sub-governments.

From past national campaigns we recall images that are notably absent in this current contest. Imagine Bill Clinton’s man “from a place called Hope” or Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” in the current context.

It almost seems quaint.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus |