Ten Word Answers in Coos Bay

Jillian Ward, a reporter for the The World, the local newspaper in Coos Bay, Oregon, wrote a story about GOP opposition on the southern Oregon coast to a school bond measure that's on the ballot next week. The article is titled "Local Republicans stand against school bond." The headline caught my eye -- there isn't usually much explicitly partisan politics involved in school bond campaigns like this. To the extent that political parties get involved, usually they will vote at their central committee meeting to endorse a measure and that will be the end of it. Most of the time they don't take a stance one way or the other.

In Coos Bay, though, the local Republican Party is coming out hard against the measure. They have signs. They're writing letters to the editor. They're calling the measure "greedy" and "the worst."

Yes, really. 

Here's a key excerpt from the article that highlights a significant challenge in our political culture:

"The World asked [the local GOP Chairman and Vice Chairman], what other options the Coos Bay School District has if the bond doesn’t pass, but [the Chairman] said he didn’t have that answer.

'We’re not in a position to fix the school district’s problems,' he said. 'All we can offer are opinions.'"

"We're not in a position to fix the school district's problems," he said. That to me sounds like what Jed Bartlet, fictional president from Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, would call a "ten word answer." Let me explain.

President Bartlet is in a debate during his re-election with Governor Robert Ritchie, a conservative Republican, from Florida. 

“We need to cut taxes for one reason: the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does," Ritchie says. The audience applauds and whistles in support. It's a great line.

Jed Bartlet pauses.

“There it is,” he says.

“That’s the ten word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten word answers can kill you in political campaigns, they’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: what are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we gonna do it?”

"What are the next ten words?" is an important, often unasked question in American politics. We fall victim to empty promises too easily. Too much of our politics is about personal arguments and attacks, trashing other people's ideas without a better idea, regurgitating talking points, and complaining. Too little of our politics is about solutions to problems. 

The ballot measure in Coos Bay has a broad coalition of support, from the Chamber of Commerce to the local teachers and firefighters to the local hospital. They have schools with failing foundations in a tsunami zone, schools with security and ADA compliance issues, and schools with capacity issues. The need is clear. The ballot measure is a solution to a problem.

The local GOP says all they can offer is opinions. I say they can offer solutions and alternatives and ideas. They can offer a better way. You don't like the proposal supported by a wide swath of the community? Come up with a better plan to address the problem and build public support. That's how politics should operate at every level. That should be a baseline expectation for every civic leader; if you want to be a local party leader, legislator, or President of The United States, you ought to be constructive and productive -- not just negative. It's a concept that seems borderline revolutionary in today's climate, but it's been a basic civic expectation for most of our history, and it's time to bring it back.