The change we really need

The Right should give substance to the slogan.

By Andy Matthews
  • Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Insofar as "change" – whatever exactly that was supposed to mean – seems to have triumphed at the ballot box in November, complete with some serious coattails that have altered the balance of power in our own state legislature, the new "out" party and its philosophical allies now need to recognize the opportunity they've just been handed.

"Opportunity?" many will gasp.  "Wasn't it our heads that just got handed to us?"

True enough.  But the Right would be remiss if it did not identify, amid all the rubble, a path forward that may hold some real promise for the years ahead.

The brilliance behind the decision to base Barack Obama's campaign on uplifting but empty rhetoric – "change," "hope," "yes we can," etc. – cannot be overstated.  Given Obama's thin resume and lack of executive bona fides, plus the widespread public anger over just about everything going on these days (and a lack of the necessary patience to identify the actual root causes of our problems), a vague but inspiring message of "change" was just what the campaign doctor ordered.

It was even more effective because of the way it inevitably confounded the opposition.  After all, how does one run, in today's political climate, against "change"?  No more easily than one runs against sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.  Dare to point out the obvious – that "change" is, by itself, a meaningless word devoid of any practical applicability to our very real public policy challenges – and you're simply engaging in the same, tired, negative tactics of the past.  And that's so not change.

But therein lies the Right's opportunity.  Because Obama never defined "change" – and never really intended to – but sold the majority of the electorate on the theme, "change" now sits there, just begging to be defined by anyone able to do so.

Going forward, the Right ought not curse the word "change," as many likely have done for the past several months.  The people have spoken, and they like change.  Instead, the Right needs to embrace change – then co-opt it, define it, and use it to pummel the new powers that be into proving that "change" really was more than a slogan.

It just may be a winning approach here in Nevada – particularly when it comes to shaping education policy.  No area of Silver State public policy is in more dire need of genuine "change" than our current, outdated, broken approach to educating our children. 

But don't expect the Left to deliver the "change" we need.  The truth is that for decades, we've done it the Left's way.  In setting public K-12 education policy, we have always started with the premise that whatever our problems – low test scores, high dropout rates, what have you – they can all be fixed simply by not changing anything substantial but instead showering Nevada's educrats with yet more public money.  Since 1960, real per-pupil public education spending in Nevada has more than tripled – more than tripled! – yet our overall educational performance has not improved.

Moreover, the Left lacks the ability, politically at least, to reform its education platform, no matter how discredited it is. The teacher union on which it relies so heavily for campaign muscle sees to that.  So it's not "change" at all that the party now controlling the Nevada Legislature will offer.  Instead, we'll hear their usual arguments that our education system is failing because it is – still – under-funded, and that the only way out of the mess is to (yep, you guessed it) raise your taxes.  In other words:  more of the same.

The Right ought to call them on it.  You said you were running to bring about change?  Prove it.

Let's change the system that says that teachers automatically get uniform pay raises, regardless of the performance of their students.  Let's change the system whereby zip code, rather than parental choice, determines where a kid goes to school.  Let's change the system of social promotion that allows teachers to hand their struggling students up to the next grade, still illiterate, to become someone else's problem.  Let's change, change, and then change some more.

And as long as we're borrowing the Left's rhetoric, let's make sure everyone knows we're doing all of this for the children.

The Left just may be shamed into backing up its own words with action.  And if not?

Well, public appetite for change may have been a boon to the Left's electoral fortunes this time.  But in the future, that, of course, can change.

Andy Matthews is vice president for communications at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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