In the Absence of Dialogue…

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Paul Krugman has an interesting op-ed charting the Bush administration’s ever loosening grip on reality. Krugman writes:

Since November’s election, the victors have managed to be on the wrong side of public opinion on one issue after another: the economy, Social Security privatization, Terri Schiavo, Tom DeLay…What’s going on? Actually, it’s quite simple: Mr. Bush and his party talk only to their base—corporate interests and the religious right—and are oblivious to everyone else’s concerns.

Krugman makes a good point, though perhaps more interesting is that the Republicans’ special-interest agenda seems to have prompted a dialogue with Democrats that excludes the more centrist views of the majority of Americans. A recent Economist article points out that the majority of Americans describe themselves as “independent” (39%) rather than as “Democrat” (31%) or “Republican” (30%). Noting the distinct lack of political success of centrist politicians such as Joe Lieberman, the Economist notes that any political dialogue has been effectively shifted to Republican turf. “Taxes? The debate is not over how much to raise them to close the looming deficit but how to cut them. Life? The issue isn’t over how to prevent school shootings such as the one that took none lives in Minnesota, but about Terri Schiavo.”

It’s not just that we are discussing issues largely on Republican turf. Rather, it appears as though Democrats are using all their energies to fight these ideological battles such as the “right to life,” gay marriage, and social security at the expense of dialogue regarding more exigent issues that more directly affect a larger percentage of Americans. To name a few: negotiating security and civil rights post-9/11, finding the necessary resources to supply enough troops and equipment to Iraq before it turns into an even bigger fiasco, ever-increasing deficit, a shortage of teachers and funding for schools.

In the vacuum of constructive debate on these issues, some states seem to have taken matters into their own hands. No Child Left Behind, in particular, has taken a lot of heat recently. Conservative states Utah and Texas recently joined Michigan and Vermont in a National Education Association (NEA) lawsuit against the Bush administration. The states are arguing that unless all portions of the NCLB law are federally funded, their school systems should not be required to, or punished for, not implementing the prescribed changes. Utah even passed legislation which orders stated officials to ignore any provisions of NCLB that required state funding, or, more broadly, conflict with the state’s educational goals. According to the NEA site, 21 states are leaning in the same direction and have stated that they want changes to the NCLB law.

In a similar state and federal disconnect, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, “citing irreconcilable differences with how the Federal Bureau of Investigation has operated in a post-Sept. 11 world” announced his plans to take Portland police officers out of the FBI antiterrorism task force. Apparently Mayor Tom Potter was frustrated by the fact that the FBI had refused to give him and the chief of police the top secret clearance afforded to the officers on the antiterrorism force. Potter stated, “It’s important that I know what they know because that is part of the oversight process. If there are things that I don’t know that they know, there’s always an opportunity for something to go wrong.”

The lack of necessary debate regarding some of the major issues facing Americans may result in more states taking action against federal programs or opting out of important coordination with federal bodies. It would be unfortunate if, in a backlash to the uniform NCLB guidelines, states adhere only to their own educational goals. Likewise, it would be dangerous if, instead of finding some compromise in the exchange of information between state and national security, states elect to not to coordinate with the FBI. Let’s hope some of these issues make their way back to the table. This kind of state fragmentation could add a whole other dimension to the issues this country is facing.


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