We have an uphill battle to get voters to blame Kasich for local government cuts. It’s a risky strategy because it cuts against a number of longstanding cultural biases that Republicans have exploited for a generation. The FitzGerald campaign (and progressives in general) will need radical tactics to create a facsimile of responsible party government in Ohio over the next 18 months.
Responsible party government is a government wherein voters know what elected officials are doing, and the results of those policies. For example, let’s say Party A wants to reform the state tax code without losing revenue. They pass a measure that cuts taxes for rich people and large corporations, while raising taxes on everybody. They say this will increase employment in the state and make a stable revenue base.
7 years later, they’re proven completely wrong. Employment is no better than it was before, and revenue is lower than projections and fluctuates more wildly than at any point in history. Voters will be able to hold Party A accountable because Ohioans will remember the tax reform and the media will explain that Party A was wrong and it cost you money. Right?
If we want voters to understand that their tax levy is a direct result of Kasich’s policies, the media will not be our ally. Unless they can overcome these 4 tropes, they’ll be our opponent.
1. Local political reporters don’t know what’s in the state budget
Newspapers have a local government reporter, a state government reporter, and maybe a federal government reporter. They live in different cities. They don’t talk, they don’t read each other’s stuff. They’re all more interested in scandals and gossip than they are in policy, because they want enough clicks that they can leave and go to a larger paper.
That’s when we’re lucky. Micropolitan papers are likely to cover only local politics, and run Dispatch or AP stories about state government. The only stories those papers run about Kasich will be about Kasich visiting their town.
Sequester coverage (and sequester results) belies this reality. A story about the local impact of the sequester is going to be written by the federal reporter in Washington, using quotes from Congresspersons, who are Republicans. Those will just bestories about Government Not Doing Anything Right. When stories are written about tangible cuts, they’ll be written by human interest writers who don’t necessarily follow national politics.
2. Government can’t do anything right
Last October, NPR ran a story about Grand Lake St Mary’s based on Dispatch reporting. The lede:
A two-year, $8.5 million state project to stop toxic blue-green algae in Grand Lake St. Marys isn’t working.
Government can’t do anything right! I’m voting for the guy who has the sense to realize that.
Look. Grand Lake St Mary’s is a manmade reservoir that the state turned into a tourism spot, but the water is now full of toxic algae. The algae feeds on phosphorus that comes from fertilizer runoff at local farms. The Lake Restoration Commission is pouring alum into the lake, which will make the phosphorus inedible to the algae. High winds stirred up more phosphorus, so they’ll need to add more alum.
This isn’t controversy, it’s chemistry.
We either need 1) tighter regulation on fertilizer, 2) better inspections of farms, 3) more funding for cleanup, or 4) to not have a Grand Lake St Mary’s. This is a story of “not enough government” that NPR covered as a story of too much government.
Everybody involved in the project is Republican, from the governor to legislators to county commissions to municipal governments. Not that the Dispatch or NPR tells us that.
Sure enough, Mercer and Auglaize counties went 76% for Romney a month later. They reelected their incumbent State Senator–the person directly responsible for fixing this problem–with 85% of the vote. Their senator is Keith Faber.
We need to beat the inertia that allows Republicans to fail at governing but be rewarded electorally for being “realistic about the capabilities of government”.
3. Only federal macroeconomic policy matters
State and local spending dwarfs federal spending. Matt Yglesias had a post the other day about state and local consumption and investment (in blue) versus federal nondefense consumption and investment (in red).
According to the Census Bureau, the federal government spends $108 billion annually in Ohio, of which of which a third is transferred to state and local governments. The state’s spending also includes the Local Government fund, block grants, and school district spending. Per capita spending on a Cincinnati resident looks like this:
|government||per capita spending|
A local political reporter is covering more actual governing than a state or federal reporter. It’s their job to expose corruption in the spending of that $7187 (city, county, and school combined), compared to the vast coverage given to the $6439 spent federally. They’re the Fourth Estate, and they should have an inherently adversarial relationship to the elected officials they cover.
Kasich (and Boehner) have figured out that they can exploit that relationship by forcing local governments to make the bad economic decisions, then explain to their adversaries why it isn’t their fault. When the reporter has a career worth of stories about pet projects gone awry, that assumption comes through in the story.
Especially if there’s a local Republican or Tea Partier around to say it.
4. Views Differ on Shape of Earth
Journalism school tells political reporters that if you’re quoting Team D, you also need to quote Team R. At some point in the 80s, conservatives realized that you could just lie to journalists when they call you for the quote. It would be liberal bias if they didn’t reprint your lie without comment!
When I was at Planned Parenthood, I was involved in creating a statement about the Times article saying (for the umpteenth time) that the morning after pill has no effect on a fertilized egg. The Enquirer was writing an article about whether or not it’s an abortifacient, and they couldn’t find a doctor or scientist who would say that it’s an abortifacient. “Because it isn’t,” I said, “if it were an abortifacient it would be the ‘two months after pill’. It’s the hormones that are released when you’re pregnant; if you’re pregnant, you already have those hormones.”
But he still needed an opposing view, so he ran a quote from the Archdiocese saying that birth control causes abortions.
When we blame local government cuts on cuts to the Local Government Fund, newspapers will always run a quote from a local Republican, who will say “we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem”.
Even when it’s nonsensical–when discussing a city budget that’s 3% smaller than the year before–local reporters will run that statement. It’s just catchy!
If we want the impact of these cuts to sink in, we’re going to have to work the refs in an unprecedented manner.
If there’s a story about a tax levy, somebody needs to send a press release with the amount of money Kasich has taken from that government. The genius of the Tea Party is that it took the crazy letter-writers out of the Letters to the Editor and into the actual articles.
I’m serious. We need Google alerts for “tax levy” and “spending cut” for every small newspaper and an automated press release that sends that reporter the amount Kasich has cut from the local budget.
We need the actual figures, too–the reporters aren’t going to look them up. If we don’t pound those figures into the reporter’s subconscious–the way that Republicans have spent 30 years making journalists salivate at the phrase “out of control spending”–then they won’t get printed. And if they don’t get printed, then it’s just competing talking points.
While it’s factual that Kasich cut the LGF, reporters will treat it as ideological whether or not those cuts had any impact on local budgets. This is insane, of course, but it’s the same insanity that conservatives have successfully exploited since Reagan. We shouldn’t expect it to change without massive efforts to change it.