The reform agenda – red pills, blue agendas, and the neo-Johnsons

150 150 Edward Headington

This blog is cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

As predicted, the party out of power picked up seats in a midterm election—as it has with past presidents like Reagan in ‘82 and Clinton in ‘94. The “wave election” – as some pundits like to call it – seemed to stop at the Rockies and blue states like California and New York more than held off the red tide. Roughly 60 House seats changed hands, as well as 600 state legislative seats—all in favor of Republicans. Taken from a historical perspective, the midterm elections were more normal than abnormal—especially given our penchant for divided government. With America coming out of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, and Democrats unwilling to run on a “reform” message (i.e. healthcare, Wall Street, energy, etc.), it is surprising Republicans did not do even better.

You do not have to have read George Orwell to know that one of the most abused words in the English language is “reform.” It is almost as bad as our penchant for reviving old labels with the word “neo.” To hear language mavens Frank Luntz or George Lakoff say it, semantics play a big role in how we discuss our politics and ultimately which debate frame or narrative resonates best. Reform to the Tea Partier is different from that of establishment Republicans, and their understanding of “reform” stands in contrast to progressives, who lost few races (compared to Blue Dog Democrats). Then again, California is the home of renowned political reformer Hiram Johnson, and this January is the centennial anniversary of his first inaugural speech. Gridlock may be expected at the national level, but below are some reforms on the table during the lame-duck session that could make a difference, including at least one reform at the state level.

The Golden State

The need to overhaul our broken system of state government through a constitutional convention notwithstanding, the three-legged stool of political reform in California includes: Open Primaries, Redistricting Reform, and Term Limits Modification. We passed the first this past June and the second both in 2008 and earlier this month. Governor Schwarzenegger may be seen as an inaction hero for the ongoing budget crisis in Sacramento, but he at least deserves praise for his role in getting measures passed to moderate our politics and change the political status quo.

The youngest and oldest elected governor of California, Jerry Brown, finished his first round gubernatorial work before the passage of Prop. 140, Term Limits, in 1990. But, perhaps he can get behind the California Term Limits Initiative—set for two years from now. Experience matters in a state as large and complex as ours, and all Californians lose when legislators are forced to move on or play musical chairs because of term limits. Why not allow them to spend up to 12 years in either house—thus allowing us to benefit from their expertise on issues like water, public schools, prisons, etc?

The Feds

It will be interesting to see how reform plays out in the divided government of a Republican House, a barely Democratic Senate, and the Obama administration—often described as “socialist,” “centrist,” and “leftist,” depending on which cable news channel you prefer. You might recall—for better or worse—that it was a Republican lame-duck session in 1998 that impeached President Clinton—so there is precedent for historic action during these sessions. Here are a few reforms being discussed:

Passing the DISCLOSE Act

  • Big Daddy was right in saying that “Money is the Mother’s Milk of Politics.” But, Americans ought to know where it is coming from.
  • Passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform –Merits notwithstanding, Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, owe their victory in large part to turnout in the Latino community. Promises need to be kept. If nothing else, pass the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for those who serve in the military or attend college.
  • Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Military Policy –A court decision already rendered it invalid, and the military is said to be ready to confirm that ending it will not harm our armed forces.
  • Give Serious Consideration to the Budget Blueprint of the Bipartisan Deficit Commission –Democrats and Republicans would be wise not to dismiss it outright.
  • Ending or Revising the Bush Tax Cuts –This will be a battle royal, but it remains to be seen how the tax cuts can be paid for over the long run, while also reducing the deficit.


The “Yes We Can” administration has cut taxes for the middle class; will turn a profit on billions spent rescuing Wall Street; and has seen economic growth for the last 5 quarters. However, none of this seemed to penetrate the American consciousness on Election Day—to say nothing of our military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Bill Maher said on Real Time as far back as June 2009, Obama needs a little Bushian attitude and certitude. Perhaps reform starts at home, and that begins by standing on your record, creating a new narrative, and showing a willingness to trade punches. The newly elected Philippines Congressman and pugilist by trade, Manny Pacquiao, showed in Texas this past weekend what is possible, even against a bigger and stronger opponent. The question remains, however, as UFC’s Dana White puts it: “Do you want to be a [expletive] fighter?”

There are no special interests for reform. The status quo, like victory, has many fathers and an equal number of friends. Some want to reform the system by taking it back to the way it was; others want to reform it to right a wrong; still others work to create a better tomorrow. To paraphrase Napoleon from Animal Farm, “All reforms are equal, but some reforms are more equal than others.” Equality depends on who is in charge, who is willing to fight for it, and who can move the electorate. Can we be neo-Hiram Johnsons?

Edward Headington is a Partner of Headington Media Group (HMG) and an experienced public affairs professional. Mr. Headington’s combined political, communications and leadership background serves as the foundation for helping clients in both the private and public sectors. He has a B.A. in Political Science from USC and a M.A. in Political Management from the George Washington University. He can be reached at


Edward Headington

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