Opinion and Forefront

CAMPBELL: Democrats risk forfeiting signature issue

February 12, 2011

Steve CampbellEducation reform is an idea whose time has come. Along with government reform and the usual host of state budget woes, it’s clear education will be one of the hottest topics at the Statehouse this year.

It’s also clear that Republicans, who hold the Governor’s Office and large majorities in both houses of the Legislature, can push through just about anything they want.

Nonetheless, my hope for this session is simple, albeit Pollyannaish: that both parties come together to support a series of reforms that address struggling schools and students in Indiana.

I hope Republicans resist the urge to use their majority to pass unilateral legislation without the input of Democrats, teachers and other stakeholders.

More important, I hope Democrats resist the urge to be an obstacle to sorely needed reforms. The risks for our children are great, but the political risks for Democrats are just as great.

You see, political ideologies can be generational. My great-grandmother, who lived from 1893 to 1997, was a registered Republican because Abraham Lincoln was still the pre-eminent political figure of her early life. My grandparents were Democrats because FDR was a champion of the working class and civil rights.

My parents came of age during the Camelot years of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and the hope and excitement of Evan Bayh and Frank O’Bannon ushered in a new generation of young Democrats, myself included, throughout Indiana.

Likewise, Ronald Reagan ushered in a new generation of young Republicans in the 1980s, which Newt Gingrich cultivated in the 1990s.

The point is, once people get an idea or an ideology in their heads, it is incredibly hard to shake.

Because of these allegiances, people have developed preconceived notions of which political party best addresses an issue. If you believe the various generic polls over the past 50 years, Americans tend to trust Republicans more on issues like national security and taxes. Likewise, they trust Democrats on issues of working families, human services and equal opportunity.

Most polls show that people tend to trust Democrats on education. This long-standing belief will be in jeopardy if Democrats don’t step up to the plate on education reform quickly.

There are a million sound, policy-based reasons—and just as many moral reasons—why we should pass significant reforms this year.

But for Statehouse Democrats, there is another pragmatic reason: If they don’t get involved, they risk alienating a whole generation of potential supporters, and they risk becoming irrelevant during one of the most significant policy discussions in years.

The temptation is always there for the out-of-power party to try to deny the party in power a big win. When Bart Peterson proposed eliminating townships in 2005, we saw many Republicans—certainly not all, but a surprising number—attempt to thwart the plan because they didn’t want to give him a signature policy success. On the other hand, many Democrats voted against daylight-saving time because they didn’t want to see new Gov. Mitch Daniels get a big win in his first legislative session.

I understand this temptation, and it’s not always a bad thing. In our democracy, the minority party has the right—even the duty—to question the policies and motives of the party in power.

But at some point, the madness has to stop.

It doesn’t mean Democrats have to rubber-stamp the governor’s education plan or accept any proposal put before them. Democrats care about our schools as much as anyone, and they should vigorously debate the issues and bring competing ideas to the table.

Likewise, if a Democrat has a reasonable counterargument, Republicans shouldn’t paint that person as an obstructionist who doesn’t care about kids.

But it has become clear that everyday Democrats, from President Obama on down, are pining for serious changes in the way we educate our kids. If Democrats are perceived to be an obstacle to reform, they likely will be locked out of the room.

And on such a monumentally important issue, we can’t afford to be on the outside, looking in.•

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Campbell was a deputy mayor under former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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