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Questions and answers / May 14, 2009
I ran into three people this week who sought out my opinion on three separate items in the news. That, of course, was all the fodder I needed for today’s column:

Question #1: Who do you like in the governor’s race?

This question came from a fellow political junkie who picked up the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday and read the interviews with the three Democrats running for governor. The Democratic primary is Tuesday, June 9, at which time the party will choose its nominee to run against Republican Bob McDonnell in the November general election. Primaries, of course, generally inspire levels of interest that lie somewhere between jack-squat and not-so-much. That said, while it may be too early for most folks to take notice of the race, it’s not too early for party regulars to determine the choices in the fall.

In the Democratic primary my order of preference is as follows: (1) State Senator Creigh Deeds of Bath County, (2) former Delegate Brian Moran of Alexandria, and (3) and (a distant third) former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe of McLean.

To take last things first: McAuliffe is smart, energetic and quick on his feet, but he’s also an establishment pol with national connections, a big bank account and little prior involvement in Virginia politics. Back in the fall, McAuliffe swooped into town to stump for Barack Obama at an appearance at The Prizery. McAuliffe is closely connected with the Clintons and was campaign manager for Hilary’s presidential run; but by this time the party had chosen Obama as the nominee and McAuliffe had fallen dutifully in line, as party regulars are wont to do. No problem with that. What is troublesome, though — and this came out in McAuliffe’s South Boston appearance, which focused on health care — is his tendency to take a minimalist stance on issues where there’s a fair risk of offending some well-heeled donor. This is the big problem with the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party, and one reason the Obama Administration’s response to the financial crisis has been so blah. Given a choice, I see no reason to encourage the ascendancy of moneybag politics in Virginia beyond what we already have to deal with at the present time.

McAuliffe presents himself as a can-do, business-friendly Democrat. At a recent debate he bragged about creating five companies in Virginia, bolstering his claim to being only candidate in the race who knows how to create jobs. Unfortunately for McAuliffe, The Washington Post published an article a few days later that found that McAuliffe’s “companies” consisted of investment partnerships with no employees and no ties to Virginia outside of being registered to his home address in McLean. To be fair, McAuliffe has run successful businesses that have employed hundreds of people, but at the core he’s what you’d call an access capitalist, trading on his political connections to land in the midst of some sweet deals. The crowning example is McAuliffe’s $100,000 investment in Global Crossing, which netted him $8 million before the telecom giant imploded in scandal. “The company’s chief, Gary Winnick, later became a contributor for whom McAuliffe secured a golf date with President Bill Clinton,” the Post reported, somewhat drily.

Why Deeds? I plan to write more on this in the weeks to come, but here’s a point in his favor: As a state senator, Deeds has exhibited a rare willingness to sacrifice partisan advantage for the sake of doing the right thing for the citizens of Virginia. One issue with which Deeds is closely associated is non-partisan redistricting: He has repeatedly introduced legislation that would end the practice of lawmakers drawing their own election districts and entrust the task to an independent commission. The redistricting process is rife with abuse by both parties; it serves the interests of the permanent elected class, with the losers being those voters who are packed into non-competitive districts and thus deprived of any real choice in their representatives. Democrats hold a majority in the State Senate; essentially what Deeds has accomplished is convincing his own party to give up the power to redistrict Republicans out of existence. (Frank Ruff should make sure to send Deeds a Christmas card every year.)

Deeds’ leadership on redistricting reform is no small matter — even if his bill keeps getting shot down in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, where political maturity is a stranger concept than sexual abstinence is to Paris Hilton. Redistricting may not be a sexy issue, but by taking it on Deeds has shown a talent for reaching across party lines to build a consensus for change. That, to me, is a good reason to support him for governor, although there are many others.

Question #2: What do you think of Obama now?

A couple of weeks ago President Obama held a press conference and I managed to catch all of two minutes of it on the radio. So that’s what a President sounds like! It really was a pleasure, hearing someone of such intelligence and mental dexterity expound on the issues of the day. Strange concept for the leader of the free world, I know.

The Obama Administration has so many plates spinning in the air right now that there’s no earthly way all of them will come to rest without at least a few shattering into pieces. The auto industry bailout, in particular, strikes me as one of those situations where the likelihood of an across-the-board positive outcome is pretty much nil. So naturally Obama’s opponents (i.e., the Republicans) will cry foul — damned unions! — and try to milk whatever political advantage they possibly can out of the inevitable slipups. Two observations: (1) you may have noticed where Toyota, the anti-GM, lost $7.7 billion this quarter, more than GM itself, and (2) the automakers’ so-called “union problem” pales in comparison to their “legacy problem” — the obligations by GM, Ford and Chrysler to pay pension and insurance benefits to their retired workers. In 1962, GM had 464,000 workers in the U.S.; today the number is around 100,000. Auto industry pensioners, contrary to popular belief, don’t receive incredibly generous benefits, but there are a lot of pensioners for these companies to take care of. Frankly, I think the auto industry (and their unions) get a bum rap; all GM has done over its lifetime is provide a fundamental level of economic security to hundreds of thousands of middle class-households across the country. No doubt the auto industry has its problems, but we really shouldn’t lose sight of the good it has achieved or the importance to the national economy it represents.

Obama inherited a huge mess, and has responded by taking capitalism in new directions: one is having the federal government take over some of the social obligations that companies have traditionally shouldered, with the big enchilada being health care. Here’s hoping he succeeds with his reform plans. The employer-based health care system has been breaking down for some time now, and this extremely nasty recession is forcing more and more companies to pull back on coverage for their employees even as others are put out on the street without a job. In normal times, rising health care costs have destroyed income growth for the broad mass of U.S. citizens over the past two decades. Free-market absolutists may complain about creeping expansionism of the federal government, but they seem ill-disposed to bring up, much less explain, the failure of private insurers to cut costs and impose discipline over the health care system. If Obama can enact a system of universal health care that lowers per-patient spending and delivers a decent standard of care, he will lay the groundwork for a better economic future and automatically rise to the top rank of American presidents.

My biggest complaint with Obama so far is his unwillingness to confront the abuses of the financial industry — no doubt the calculation is to throw a lot of money at the problem to make it go away, thus clearing a path for action on other fronts. This strategy of co-optation rather than confrontation strikes me as a mistake, but then he’s the president whereas I write columns for a small-town newspaper. On most everything else, Obama has been his usual dauntless self, driving the Republicans crazy with his smarts and daring while they thrash about in response looking like a bunch of idiots. In the important sense, none of this matters — the president’s ability to run circles around the Party of Limbaugh won’t bring stability to Pakistan, for instance — but after living for eight years under the odious Cheney administration I must confess it’s been awfully fun to watch.

Question #3: Have we hit bottom?

As much as I’d like to say “yes,” I fear the correct answer is “no.” Notwithstanding the recent rise of the stock market and the return of happy talk (well, whispers at least), there are still a lot of shoes to drop with this economy. With unemployment getting worse, the banks still on shaky ground and the consumer more or less in retreat, it’s going to take awhile for the good times to return.

The key to recovery is income growth — easier said than done, but the only sure substitute for the debt-based economy that is vanishing before our very eyes. I’m always leery of the job-creating claims of politicians, having seen precious little steak to match the sizzle, but there’s no question that government has a role to play. In the short term, stimulus spending can put people back to work behind the shovel or jackhammer or bulldozer. Longer-term, reforms such as a rational health care system and improved infrastructure should create conditions for growth. But the current malaise will be around for a while, and longer than that should we lose our nerve and avoid tackling obvious deficiencies that Obama has identified. This is another reason I like our president: He’s a cool cat in the hottest of hot-house environments. As much as I like yelling about the problems at hand, somehow I suspect he’s got the better idea.

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