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Jayne: Talking points, sound bites don’t provide answers

By , Columbian Opinion Editor
Published: August 30, 2014, 5:00pm

Admittedly, it can’t be easy being a politician. All of that legislating and lawmaking and representing can wear on a person. And when you aren’t making laws, you’re campaigning so you can stay in office and make more laws.

So, I can empathize. Especially because when you aren’t busy balancing the concerns of a diverse constituency, you’re often responding to questions from pesky journalists who want answers and want them now.

Which brings us to a recent meeting The Columbian’s Editorial Board had with the candidates for state representative from the 18th District, Position 2: incumbent Liz Pike, R-Camas, and Democratic challenger Maureen Winningham. At the start of the confab, I asked Pike about the state Supreme Court decision in McCleary v. Washington — the one that has tasked the Legislature with unearthing $3 billion or $4 billion or $11 billion for K-12 education, depending upon who you ask.

I won’t burden you with the details, but Pike was asked five times whether the Legislature will need to raise taxes and/or cut services in order to meet the McCleary mandate (watch the video below).

Anyway, in five different answers that encompassed some 600 words, Pike danced around the issue without answering the question. Well, at one point she said, “Absolutely, we can” avoid raising taxes, which I suppose qualifies as an answer. But the other 597 or so words had little to do with the actual question.

To be fair, it should be noted that Winningham also failed to directly address the question. At one point, she said, “I don’t see how you’re going to be able to fund education …” as if she was going to provide an answer. But then she got sidetracked and wandered off in another direction.

Now, this isn’t meant to pick at nits regarding Pike or Winningham. As I mentioned, this politicking stuff is hard. But in pondering the Editorial Board’s meetings with political candidates, I am struck by how our election system often runs counter to the goals it is designed to achieve.

You see, politicians like to stick to sound bites and talking points. They like pithy quotes that can burrow into the minds of voters without actually committing the candidate to anything substantive. Is anybody in the mood for some “Hope and Change”? Sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s catchy and inspirational and easy to remember, yet it completely ignores the substance that is required to solve problems.

Therein lies the difference between running for office and actually governing. Being in charge requires nuance and subtlety and complexity, but nuance doesn’t win elections.

A direct approach

For me, personally, I like the approach of state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver. When we met with Moeller prior to the primary election, he suggested that the argument in the Legislature next year will not be over whether to raise taxes, but whether the sales tax will increase by 1 percent or 2 percent. That might not be what the voters want to hear; it might not be what eventually happens; it might cause fiscal conservatives to have an aneurysm. But at least it’s an answer, rather than a cliché designed to pander to voters.

And it’s the clichés that drive me nuts. Republicans in the Legislature have taken to touting that the state should “fund education first” to deal with the McCleary decision. That might be a reasonable solution, but when asked which services would then get cut, they hem and haw. At least those I have encountered tend to hem and haw.

Earlier this year, in a previous meeting with the Editorial Board, Pike pulled out the “fund education first” line and said that other services will have to be cut. When asked which services, she said, “Things that maybe we shouldn’t be in the business of doing.” Such as? “That’s a really good question.”

Yes, it is. And it’s one that legislative candidates should figure out before they start throwing around their talking points. But nobody said this was easy.