If you've ever spent a lot of time sorting baseball cards, then you know the problem of the utility player traded midseason. Where to slot him? With his old team or new one? By position? Or do you through out the old way of organizing your cards to come up with a new system that accounts for the one wild card, expecting more to come?
When a new politician refuses to conform to established classifications, when he rejects the established caste system, sometimes political insiders have trouble hearing what he is saying.
Chris Bell, the DeLay foil-turned-gubernatorial candidate, is getting some of that reaction in Texas political circles, and as a card-carrying member of the political culture, I can understand what the problem is. Chris isn't predictable; he doesn't yield easily to categorization. This is a guy who helped lead the charge against corruption and for a tax rate rollback in Houston, and who also fought discrimination against gays and lesbians. Does that make him liberal? Conservative?
Unlike something as vital as sorting baseball cards, I'm not sure ideological labels still have much importance in the way people look at the world. We--Democrats, Independents, disaffected Republicans--have to eschew pedantic political rhetoric that lapses into jingoistic clichés. As George Orwell has written, political rhetoric can be a form of deceit, and when everyone else is telling lies, the truth is going to sound out of place. And that is exactly why we've been calling what Chris is saying "radical common sense," because there is nothing more radical than common sense amid the hoo-hah in Texas politics these days.
What Chris is trying to do in running for governor is to talk about the way the world really is, by calling for a reform not just of state government, but running a campaign that attempts to begin a renewal of state politics at the same time.
He's doing this in the way he's addressing issues such as teen pregnancy, curriculum reform, stem cell research, credit card debt, insurance reform, and ethics reform. His Pact with Parents plows new ground in politics by articulating what could be called Suburban Populism. If traditional populism harkens back to an agrarian society--if political constructs that help us understand the world are at least a century out of date--then shouldn't we update it for an age when the economic growth in Texas occurs largely in the suburbs?
Chris' message avoids the traditional left/right construct by ignoring it as the irrelevant paradigm that it has become. Chris is, I promise you, saying exactly what he wants to say. He's saying what people all around the state are saying about the life, and Democrats are cheering because he's talking about Democratic values, and Independents are cheering because he's telling the truth. And the best thing is that he's achieving a wide appeal across the political spectrum by articulating Democratic values and not by running as a Republican-lite.
He's making a real attempt to reform the way campaigns are run in Texas by sincerely engaging the netroots in something approaching an open-source campaign, not just with the New Mainstream Blog where we respond to your comments, but house party fundraisers, blogger conference calls, and guest posts on national blogs. In 10 years, when digital video recorders such as TIVO make traditional political communications obsolete, the revolution will literally not be televised. Chris is helping hasten that revolution by running perhaps the most sophisticated online campaign in state history. The most compelling example of the success of this effort was last month when he announced that he was running for governor via email and on this blog. Not only did the MSM across Texas and even around the world cover it without the campaign issuing one press release, but thousands of people read his announcement online without the media filter.
Paradoxically, the way he's spreading this message right now--other than online--is by way of the most traditional of all political media, the speech. It doesn't just break through the media filter. The Pact with Parents speech is long enough to break through the preconceived filters we all have when we try to listen to politicians speak. We all hear what we want to hear, but some of the reactions we're getting to the speech tell me that people are coming to know what Chris is really saying.
In the end, perhaps the best way to describe what we're up to is to call Chris a "Reform Democrat." Of course, he's the case study in reform as the only Democrat who had the guts in Congress to break the ethics truce and take on Tom DeLay. But what you might not know about Chris is that as chair of the Houston City Council Ethics Committee, he wrote a groundbreaking ethics law that stopped the revolving door, forced lobbyists to register and limited soft money. To paraphrase Phil Gramm paraphrasing Barbara Mandrel, Chris was for reform when reform wasn't cool.
There was an editorial in this week's New Republic that blasted national Democrats for backing away from the reform mantle. I loved the piece, not only because they singled out Chris as the exception to the rule (always love it when the boss gets national ink!!!), but more importantly because it pointed out the obvious truth: If we Democrats don't make 2006 a referendum on reform, if we run a business-as-usual campaign that fails to offer anything new and different, then we're all but embracing the inevitability of another defeat.
But think about the word "reform," literally to change the shape of something, and you start to get the deeper meaning of what we're about here. If we run the same kind of campaign that Texas Democrats are used to, employing the same methods, consultants, and messages, then we're probably going to get pretty much the same result. Factor in the rapid onset of the information age and the woeful alienation that most Texans--even more registered voters--feel toward a democracy, and we have a mandate to reform the way campaigns are run and, by extension, what Texas Democrats stand for. Chris is running a reform campaign to renew irrelevant political structures, but let me break it down for you like this. The Chris Bell campaign is what happens when politics stops being politically correct--and starts being real. And yes, that was the first reference to the "Real World" in Texas statewide politics.
Chris is committed to running a real campaign. Don't get me wrong. He's biggest job between now then end of the campaign is to raise enough money to win this thing, but if you've ever whined into your beer that the Texas Democratic Party just doesn't get it, or that we keep doing things the same way over and over again without changing, or that Republican-lite offers an easy choice to our detriment, or that we can't wave the liberal flag in a red state and expect anyone to salute, then this campaign is for you. Even if you're not exactly sure what we're up to.
http://www.chrisbell.com/blog/082805_reformThis is a strange thought, but stay with me. If you're watching C-SPAN, and they show a Democrat standing up to announce his candidacy for Congress, you can predict with a high degree of certainty what he will say--health care, education, yada yada. Same goes with a Republican candidate. Our political divisions have become so ossified that listening to what someone has to say is no longer required in order to know their positions. The entire political culture has become a cliché, predictable and devoid of real meaning and therefore increasingly irrelevant to radical changes in life all around us. The whole world has become the baseball card that the political culture can't sort.