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Level with voters on pain to come

A new biography, The Life of Jimmy Carter, by Randall Balmer, describes Carter’s political career in Georgia before he became President. After Carter lost the 1966 race for governor of Georgia, he decided “he would court the white supremacist vote the next time around. Dirty means served noble ends. ‘You won’t like my campaign, but you will like my administration,’” the author quotes Carter.

I remember that next campaign well. In 1970 Carter ran as a right-winger, defeating former governor Carl Sanders, a “New South” moderate who had worked to improve education and to transition away from racial segregation. Carter won by nearly 20 percentage points. Six years later he won the presidency.

Carter’s campaign strategy underscores a basic political reality: you first have to win in order to have the opportunity to do good work. And yet, how far should a candidate go to tailor — or conceal — his or her views in order to win?

Surely tailoring campaign positions — or planks in a platform — to fit the perceived currents of public opinion is within the boundaries. Candidates have been doing that throughout the life of the Republic.

What about refusing to take a clear position on issues some people think are important? GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner wants to talk about the economy, fiscal issues and education. Some Democrats — and some reporters — toss “cultural” issues at him, thinking Answer X might irritate independents, or Answer Y might irritate his conservative base. Reporters want to nudge him off-message, break his stride or make him squirm. It helps sell newspapers and attract TV audiences. Why should he play those games?

But the fiscal mess is one of Rauner’s issues. Illinois is broke. Chicago is nearly broke. Bond ratings are in the tank, threatening the ability of government to keep borrowing. Shouldn’t Rauner, who I believe would be a very good governor, tell the voters how he thinks we should clean up the mess?

“Here’s how we can cut $1 billion,” Rauner said last week, and that’s a good start, though the plan he offered lacks details. But once the “temporary” income tax increase expires, the state’s annual deficit, including needed pension funding, will be more like $8 billion to $10 billion per year. I don’t think it’s possible to close that hole simply by cost cutting, though I’d be delighted to be proven wrong.

What bothers me is that nobody is saying to voters what I’m afraid is true: “We’re going to have to make painful budget cuts and we’re going to have to raise revenues — and that’s so even if pension reforms are upheld by the courts. Here’s where I’d cut, and here’s where I’d find more money to get the state on track. We’ll need to do much the same for Chicago and CPS.”

Not talking about this in detail may be an effective campaign tactic, but it doesn’t build public tolerance for doing what’s necessary. Elections generate support for those who win and provide stability to the government. In countries where elections are rigged or meaningless, support for governments tends to evaporate. Where campaigns don’t address the main issues, the winners emerge without the trust and mandates they need. The fragility of government is magnified.

It’s not the way representative government is supposed to work.


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