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POLITICS AS USUAL: Being liberal is cool again

January 30, 2014

Editor's note: This column was published in The Times on Jan. 27, 2014:

It looks like Democrats in the 2014 gubernatorial primary are about to be vexed by the same Catch-22 that confounds Republican candidates for president: What they have to do and say to win their party’s nomination in the primary could spell doom in the general election.
If the nascent Democratic primary race for governor next year has showed us anything so far, it is that being liberal is becoming cool again.
Both Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and state General Treasurer Gina Raimondo are tripping over themselves pushing to increase the minimum wage, implement pre-kindergarten programs, back gun control measures, and bend over backward to attract the Latino vote. The until-now reclusive Clay Pell, who makes his candidacy official Tuesday, seems pretty much in line on those issues as well.
This is pretty much the playbook for politicians everywhere: run toward the base for the primary, then try to steer to the middle for the general election. Ask Republican Mitt “severely conservative” Romney how that worked out for him last time. It turned out he couldn’t just shake the Etch-a-Sketch and “start all over again,” as his adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, famously predicted he would be able to do during the GOP primary campaign.
This is important to Taveras, Raimondo and Pell for two reasons:
• Rhode Islanders like to elect Republican governors – Lincoln Almond, Don Carcieri and Republican-who-became-independent-before-turning-Democrat Lincoln Chafee have held that seat for two decades — as a check and balance to the hopelessly lopsided Democratic General Assembly.
• While Rhode Islanders tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, they don’t veer particularly liberal. Voters here tend to fit into the working class, ethnic, Catholic group that political types like to call “Reagan Democrats,” after the president who is the patron saint of Republican conservatives and who was able to capture those voters in 1980 and 1984.
The state legislature is chock full of conservative Democrats who anywhere else would be moderate to center-right Republicans.
If the eventual winner of the Democratic nomination has veered so far to the left to win the primary, that would be good news for Republicans Allan Fung and Ken Block, either of whom could win the GOP primary without becoming too rabidly right-wing.
This is a particular problem for Raimondo, whose bread-and-butter is the independents and Republicans who cheer what she did with pension reform. These are the people who would put her into the governor’s office if she is on the ballot. But if she is not liberal enough to win enough votes in the Democratic primary against the strong effort of the public employee unions who will do everything they can to defeat her, then they won’t have that chance.
If Raimondo espouses enough liberalism to win the primary despite the unions, will that make her damaged goods to the aforementioned independents and Republicans who are her natural base, in this race at least?
Angel Taveras has no such in with independents and Republicans, so he has to ride the Democratic horse as fast and as far as it will take him.
As for Clay Pell, he has to come out strong starting tomorrow and impress — no, dazzle — people with his vision, his leadership skills and his plans for fixing a broken state right away. This isn’t his grandfather’s Rhode Island, and he has to make his own way, quickly and convincingly, if he wants to catch up with his primary opponents. Yes, he could catch a wave and come out to the front of the pack, but he could also be left behind pretty quickly if he lets himself get perceived – or painted by opponents – as a young whippersnapper with nothing to offer but a fancy name.
•••
Faithful readers know this column is a reliable friend of the working class and middle class.
While I don’t question for a moment that free-market capitalism is the best and, quite probably, the only way for a people and a nation to succeed economically, I often draw irate e-mail from readers when I point out some of the unfairness this causes and the need for regulation to halt the worst abuses and exploitation.
As President Barack Obama is going to tell you in his State of the Union Address Tuesday, income inequality is a problem that threatens to throw our economy and perhaps even our democracy (note the lower-case d) out of whack.
Now we have a statistic that vindicates all of the hand-wringing about the out-of-balance economy.
According to Oxfam International, the world’s 85 richest people – that’s not a percentage, 85 individual persons – control as much wealth as 3.5 billion of the poorest people, about half of the entire population of the world.
The group also found that, since the Great Recession of 2008, 95 percent of the wealth generated in these United States of America went to the richest 1 percent of the population.
The Oxfam Report quotes the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.” Indeed.
Can’t we agree that we have tried long enough and hard enough to improve the economy by funneling money to the rich, to businesses and to “job creators,” and it just plain hasn’t worked?
Having a roaring middle class is what made this nation the envy of the world from the end of World War II until President Ronald Reagan made trickle-down the economic fad it has remained for the last generation.
•••
I am thoroughly amused by the boo-hooing of the National Football League, which is now in a flop-sweating, drooling panic because it may have to play a football game in the snow.
It’s not just any game, to be sure, it is the big kahuna, the Super Bowl, Super Bowl XLVIII, to be exact (aren’t those Roman numerals starting to get a bit silly?).
The Super Bowl, of course, isn’t a game the average fan is able to attend. It is a soiree for the swells, a two-week bacchanal for the benefit of the moneyed set of which the actual game is often almost an afterthought.
The notion that the usual luxury box crowd is going to have to sit out in the freezing cold amid snow and ice has the league’s honchos in an absolute tizzy. There is even talk about moving the game date from Feb. 2 to another date if the weather forecast in Northern New Jersey is too foreboding.
Super Bowl Sunday on a Monday? Or a Friday? Heavens to Murgatroyd!
The NFL should, well, chill out. One of the most memorable games in football history is the Ice Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys on frozen Lambeau Field in 1967.
Play the game no matter what the weather brings. The NFL doesn’t care about the fans in the stands at any other time in the football season. It’s be-all and end-all is television money. Why is this game any different just because it is going to be the 1 percent in the stands, paying $1,500 to $2,000 for a scalped ticket regular fans can’t dream of affording?
-Jim Baron is a reporter and columnist for The Times.

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