Doing the New Math

Politically, it's my least favorite time of year. I'm not talking about all the hype over who has won the Democratic primaries before a single vote has been cast -- that game comes every four years and sorry, no predictions here. We'll find out soon enough with Iowa now over and the New Hampshire primary coming up. No, I'm talking about the annual Kabuki Theater around the State of the Union.

You know the visual. President Bush speaks to the Congress in full assembly, "Hail to the Chief" plays, Vice President Dick Cheney sits in a chair behind Bush (Dan Quayle, we miss ya buddy!) and all through the show Democrats squirm and worry if they are clapping too little -- or too much.

Ugly stuff. But that's just the parts we see.

Behind the scenes, we have a month of political jostling before and after the "SOTU" itself. The Democrats are working on their "pre-buttal" plan to try and anticipate and pre-spin what Bush says, both sides are lining up their ammunition for the budget fight that starts right after the speech, Bush is thinking about impressing us by going to Mars, and White House handlers are scouring the grassroots for the right citizen hero to sit next to Laura Bush.

Like I said, ugly stuff.

Last year, the main issue was the war. As in, whether we should have one in Iraq.

This year, I think the battle is less obvious but arguably as important. It's about the future and what investments we need to make. And we'd better get the math right. Otherwise, a 30-year Republican strategy for destroying government's role in meaningful public investment (outside of space satellites and homeland security) will continue unabated.

We need to deal with the aftermath of the Bush budget binge. After squandering a trillion dollars on tax cuts, buying off seniors with a dubious drug benefit that doesn't kick in until 2006, and putting America in red ink as far as green eyeshades can see, Bush is now saying we need to trim our belt and cut domestic programs.

Trim our belt? After stuffing their pockets with tax cuts, these shameless freaks now want our pants -- and the shirts off our backs (or better yet, they want state government to deal with it all).

Can we call Bush a big spender without turning ourselves into budget hawks? That's a tight fit. Let's remember how much credit Clinton and the Democrats got for "being responsible" and balancing the budget mess left over by Reagan and his "I Love The 1980s" gang. The answer is zero. Nada. Zilch. So whether it's Howard Dean (he of 11 balanced budgets in Vermont) or someone else, the Democratic nominee needs to be careful before we raise our hands and do it all over again.

Well here's an idea. How about we don't play the Republicans' game until we stop stacking the deck against smart policy choices? It doesn't have to be that way -- not if we demand a serious look at the costs and benefits of public investment and make the case for payback economics.

Here's an example. This week, The Apollo Alliance is releasing an outside economic study showing how major league investments in good green jobs and energy independence would, in fact, pay for themselves, create over three million new jobs and over a trillion dollars in new economic activity. What's not to like?

Can we out-trump the Republicans on economics and demand a "policy payback analysis" to all federal or state investments? How would Bush's buddies do if their corporate welfare programs had to be benchmarked against, say, proven pre-kindergarten education investments for kids? Jesse Jackson had it about right years ago in talking about the importance of investing in the front side of life. Before we spend $30,000 a year on a jail cell. Let's get the substantive cost-benefit analysis done to make that case on everything we are in favor of achieving in the next 30 years.

Republicans will say each idea costs too much. But once we count the benefits, they won't have a lot less to say while we will have much more to offer.

Whether it's the interstate highway system, the electronics industry or the Internet, there are endless examples of how public investment has catalyzed economic success.

This is no-brainer stuff. Voters can get this. So let's do the math.

Dan Carol is a Democratic political strategist and a founding partner of CTSG, a progressive consulting firm based in Eugene and Washington, D.C.

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