Dear Big Daddy,
Does the path to reform really go through the political center? Is moderation the answer?
–Sunny in Encinitas
Thank you for a serious question, something I rarely get from Encinitas.
Superficially, moderation as a label plays well. A moderate, so the myth goes, is someone who balances opposing needs and strikes a compromise that serves all without pleasing any. The result is policy in which all have a stake, however small.
But that’s only partly true.
The reality is that all enduring policy springs from smart partisans, the antagonists with deeply held beliefs who battle over ideas and work out agreements. The result is policy that is crafted in spite of moderates, not because of them. The clash of ideas is the hatchery of great policy. The center is where the policy ends up, not where it starts.
My consumer credit protection act, for example, sprang from the left’s anger at lenders and ultimately became a national benchmark for protecting the public. Proposition 13 sprang from the right and no-tax advocates, then sold to the public as a panacea. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the nation’s first law to recognize collective bargaining for farm workers, sprang from impoverished migrants and their leader. Proposition 98 sprang from the teachers’ union and parents fed up with George Deukmejian. Fran Pavley’s greenhouse gas laws – for cars as well as factories – sprang from environmentalists and coastal liberals. Our entire freeway system, once the envy of the world, sprang from the Silver-Haired Fox of the Siskiyous. I could go on.
None of these ideas came from the center. They came from the edges.
The best thing that can be said about moderation is that it leads to stability. It also leads to mediocrity. Moderation in all things is a wise dictum for our personal habits – too much drink, sex, money or anger, for example, is bad – but politics is a different beast.
All the things you heard about politics that are bad actually are good.
Bar none, the best public policy is created in closed, smoke-filled rooms in which savvy, deal-cutting, experienced politicos reach agreements based on their need for political survival and the needs of an angry public. All great policy is developed on the quiet, away from the tumult of uninformed voters or scatter-brained pundits. It’s like the Great Santini: You come in the dark from behind the moon and around the clouds. That’s how it’s done. Ask John Burton how Pavely’s first bill to cut carbon emissions from cars actually became a reality, and you’ll see what I mean.
There are exceptions, of course: The Big 5 is a disaster.
And remember, there’s nothing better than a good lobbyist. A lobbyist’s livelihood depends on solid information and knowledge of the Capitol. More good legislation has come from good lobbyists than anywhere else. You don’t believe it? Ask any of the electeds, current and former, or their staffs. If they know you and trust you, they’ll tell you.
That’s where the public is really served – in the dark, in the back room, where people drink and opine, and good lobbyists are present. Give me a napkin deal at Fat’s or a scrum at the Firehouse any day. Those public debates, those town halls, the talk shows – they all amount to zip.
Just ask the Great Santini.