Saturday, June 23, 2007

Doing the right thing won't win the White House

The unions don't get it.

And if the Democratic Party finally realizes this, it might actually forgo blowing the 2008 presidential race the way it managed to dazzlingly lose the last two elections.

Democrat Barack Obama has about the same shot as Republican Mitt Romney to snatch the AFL-CIO endorsement. Mark Gaffney, the blunt and witty Michigan head of the nation's largest labor organization, more than hinted at that this month in Detroit.

So what crime did Obama commit? Did he call for a Right to Work law? Sanction sweatshops in Shanghai? Was he caught indiscriminately scratching himself on YouTube?

No, the junior senator from Illinois committed heresy by calling out automakers for stymieing a modest hike in fuel efficiency standards.

"Don't count (Obama) out," Gaffney told me at a June 9 Hillary Clinton town hall. "But he probably doesn't have as good a chance as other candidates who understand manufacturing better."

Translation: Look for the union to go for the safe picks of Sens. Clinton or John Edwards. We get them. They get us.Courage and independent thought will get you nowhere. Certainly not the $100 million the union shelled out in the 2006 election.

Armed with scientific evidence, Obama argues it's crucial to cut emissions to halt global warming. He says reducing oil consumption is a vital part of homeland security.

He knows this idea is as popular with labor as his support of merit-based pay for teachers.

"I hope I can always go to my union friends and explain why my position makes sense, how it's consistent with both my values and their long-term interests," Obama writes in his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope."

Yes, it's a bitter pill for struggling automakers. Workers worry they'll pay the price, having hemorrhaged 80,000-plus in buyouts and knowing a $25-per-hour pay cut coming down the pike. After all, Ford execs aren't in the mood for sacrifice, as they still enjoy millions in bonuses after losing a record $12.7 billion last year.

But it's reality-check time. The domestic auto industry, whose strong suit has never been long-term thinking (Remember how gas-guzzling SUVs would save the Big Three, 'cause 99-cent gas would last forever?) has to realize upping fuel efficiency is the only way to compete in a global market. American models just won't be able to sell in Europe or Asia, where their emissions standards put ours to shame.

The right answers aren't always the easy ones. To train the workforce of tomorrow in Michigan, we need to pour millions more into public universities. Yes, it's easier to slash higher ed rather than fix the structural deficit.

But it's just stupid. And we will pay dearly for that mistake.Politicians who buck party and power, like Robert F. Kennedy and John McCain version 1.0, often pay their own price.As a senator, RFK was never a labor darling and had his anti-poverty bills blocked time and time again, often by fellow Democrats.

He wasn't politically correct. In 1968, an Indiana University medical student demanded where Kennedy would get the money for his universal health care plan.Kennedy's blithe reply? "From you."

Back in 2000, McCain declared some religious right leaders "are corrupting influences on religion and politics" and "shame our faith, our party and our country." After a stinging defeat to now-President Bush, McCain 2.0 now is fervidly courting those he castigated with little success.

What choice does he have? He wants to win. And to win a GOP primary, you kow-tow to Right to Life and the Christian Coalition. Just like Democrats have to kiss the rings of labor leaders, though with only 12 percent of the country unionized, it's not as strong a litmus test.

Interestingly, McCain once compared Pat Robertson to "union bosses who have subordinated the interests of working families to their own ambitions."

It's all part of the dance of a broken primary system that caters to extremes, greased by special interests. The center where most of us wade in ye old political spectrum never holds.

This breeds a sorry cynicism in America that will never dissipate without public financing of elections.

Because unions, ideological groups and business lobbies would rather fund a candidate who spews the party line than does the right thing. Often ideology will even trump electability.

So there's a strong possibility iconoclast Obama will be sacrificed by the elders of his party, just as maverick McCain was by his seven years ago. That would be a damn shame.But that's something for which Obama himself likely is prepared.

As he prophetically wrote last year: "What's troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics."

No comments: