Here’s what’s really wrong with American politics these days: those pledges.
Both major parties are guilty of having a significant portion of elected officials who have committed to do nothing about a big issue facing our society.
So many of us, including President Obama, were appalled that a proposal supported by 90 percent of Americans – extending background checks to all commercial gun sales, to keep deadly firearms away from felons and people with serious mental illnesses – could fail to pass the U.S. Senate, even after the slaughter of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.
The cause is obvious. Too many Republicans, and a handful of rural-state Democrats, have pledged their fidelity to the gun lobby and its insistence on 100 percent loyalty. As the saying in Chicago goes: “What do you call someone who is 99 percent loyal? Disloyal.”
Certain Democrats tend to turn smug when they talk about their GOP counterparts who kowtow to the National Rifle Association or take the no-tax pledge ordered by their ideological guru Grover Norquist – “how dare they abdicate their responsibility to their constituents and their state,” is a refrain I hear again and again – but Democrats have masters of their own.
Let’s start with teachers unions.
At the state Democratic convention last weekend, delegates unanimously passed a resolution condemning efforts to bring about reforms such as expanding parental choice, linking student performance to teacher evaluations or changing the way teachers are hired or fired.
“I’ll tell you right now, they want to do that, they have to come through us,” said California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel.
They don’t dare. No meaningful reform bill appears to have even the slightest chance in the Democratic-controlled Legislature this year. Even the mildest attempts to strengthen the teacher-evaluation process have been put on hold.
Tom Torlakson, the union water boy who was elected to the supposedly nonpartisan office of superintendent of public instruction with heavy union support, even suggested last weekend that “you’re sure not much of a Democrat” if you support the reformers’ agenda.
The message is clear, as surely from the teachers unions as the NRA: Stray from the party line and you’re a target.
“Forget the 120 legislators and the governor,” said Gloria Romero, a former Democratic state senator who regards breaking up the union-dominated status quo as a civil rights issue for the African American and Latino students who are being served poorly by public schools. “Nothing gets done unless you bow down and get (the teacher unions’) permission – unless you can find an escape route, nothing gets done in Sacramento.”
Dan Schnur, erstwhile top-drawer Republican consultant who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, recently changed his registration to the fastest-growing group in California: decline to state. Some of his Democratic friends have asked why the centrist Schnur simply didn’t go from red to blue.
“I have as much difficulty with the NEA as the NRA,” replies Schnur, in reference to the National Education Association with its union dogma and insistence that Democrats follow it to the letter – or else.
“You could replace one letter and have the exact same conversation in reverse,” Schnur said.
The twist in all this is that the education reform groups condemned by California Democrats last week espouse ideas embraced by, among others, Obama, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker – Democrats all.
“It’s not exactly a fringe group,” Schnur observed.
Nor is there anything fringe or evil about another idea condemned in a resolution by the Democratic party: the need to curtail abuses of the more than 40-year-old California Environmental Quality Act. Advocates of changes – including Gov. Jerry Brown, who has called its revision “the Lord’s word” – have presented persuasive evidence that it’s being exploited for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental preservations. Businesses are using its loosely cast rules to disadvantage competitors. Labor unions are using it to coerce agreements out of developers. It is being used against urban infill developments, renewable energy projects and other decidedly green endeavors.
Still, some labor and environmental groups have drawn lines in the sand against any meaningful revisions – and the timidity of the Democratic supermajority to defy them is plain.
Obama recently proposed the most modest possible adjustment to Social Security – using a more precise cost-of-living formula that would reduce increases by about 0.3 percent a year – and some Democrats howled as if he were unraveling the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Santa Rosa, suggested there was “no way to sugarcoat” the damage to the program or the effect on his 81-year-old mother’s tight budget.
Please spare us the hyperventilation. This absolutism is out of control, on both sides of the aisle. It’s preventing our selected officials from getting serious about the big issues they should be confronting.
Too many of them seem more worried about getting a perfect score from an interest group than summoning the courage to do something about gun violence, failing schools, litigation abuse or the fiscal trajectory that will deprive future generations of a secure retirement.
Lines in the sand, left and right
Why is so little getting done in Sacramento and Washington? All those do-nothing pledges are a major factor:
The need: Increase parental choice, link test scores to teacher evaluations, make it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers.
Who’s behind it: Various reform groups and certain politicians of both parties – notably President Obama and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Who’s blocking it: Teachers unions, which hold great sway over Democratic lawmakers, especially in Sacramento.
The need: To acknowledge the demographic trend – more retirees, fewer workers – and develop ways to make the systems sustainable.
Who’s behind it: Myriad groups and analysts who recognize that Social Security and Medicare spending are consumer-increasing portions of the budget.
Who’s blocking it: Democrats who resist the slightest adjustments to benefits.
The need: At a minimum, require background checks on sales at gun shows and on the Internet.
Who’s behind it: Many law enforcement leaders, mayors and others who deal with the effects of gun violence.
Who’s blocking it: NRA and gun lobby, with the assistance of many Republicans and some rural-state Democrats.
The need: To revisit the 1978 initiative to address its loopholes for commercial property and to reconsider its fairness to homeowners.
Who’s behind it: Some Democrats and tax-fairness advocates.
Who’s blocking it: Antitax groups and others who consider the voter-approved measure to be sacrosanct, regardless of inequities.
John Diaz is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @johndiazchron