Now that former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber has ended his self-imposed exile from public life, I wonder what he thinks about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It’s a serious question.
Kitzhaber told Oregon Public Broadcasting last week, “I am looking for a way to contribute. I’m also trying to figure out what my career path from a financial standpoint is going to be. And as I said, I do think that will involve some consulting.”
As political consultants go, few have done as much or pondered as deeply how politics is currently practiced. Kitzhaber found plenty not to like about modern American politics. He might appreciate certain ways that the Republican frontrunner has defied conventional wisdom.
As a lifelong Democratic policy wonk, Kitzhaber probably abhors Trump’s position on almost every issue. But Trump’s refusal to churn out position papers might be useful to Kitzhaber’s nascent consultancy business.
When Kitzhaber left politics the first time in 2003, he despaired publicly that Oregon had become ungovernable. But he went on to explain why and how governance had become difficult, if not impossible. Those observations during his hiatus from elected office deserve attention today.
Here’s how he put it in a mid-2008 blog posting: “We cannot solve complex problems like the crisis in the U.S. health care system through the kind of polarized ‘transactional’ politics which dominate our current political system. These problems are about us and they cannot be solved unless we do it together; unless we can create new tools and a new space in which we can engage one another as citizens, in which we can agree on how to move forward as a community.”
His musings often came back to that word, “transactional.” As a doctor-turned-politician, he may have been the first to accurately diagnose the fever that has been rampaging through our body politic. Maybe that fever is about to break.
American poet Robert Frost despaired for culture at the dawn of the television age when he wrote, “Anymore, people don’t think; they vote.” If poet-philosopher Kitzhaber wanted a brochure headline for his consultancy business, he could update Frost’s thinking for the post-television age: “Anymore, people don’t vote; they shop.”
Voters go to the polls to get what they believe is — or should be — theirs. They don’t concern themselves with what might help others, or how to move forward as a community. They want to claim their piece — not of the puzzle, but of the pie.
Politicians used to travel with a copy of the Constitution in their pockets, a reminder of their pledge to guard the greater good. Today they may as well carry around a shopping list of government goodies that voters can enjoy but somehow not pay for.
Election campaigns focus more and more heavily on the specific benefits to be delivered to a carefully defined audience. Free college is highlighted for one group, protected Medicare to another, better jobs or more affordable housing to others. What other exercise of salesmanship can tailor its pitch and tabulate its results with such precision?
Kitzhaber believed not very long ago — and maybe he still does — that political leadership cannot be reduced to consumer concierge. An effective campaign that doesn’t offer endless promises sets the stage for a governing politic that can be less transactional.
Content and character notwithstanding, Trump’s campaign seems to be accomplishing some of that. He runs his campaign rallies with the tone and tempo of a faith healer, except the benefits he offers in return for devotion are purposely vague. Yes, there’s a wall, but it’s not like he’s promising his supporters’ names engraved on each brick.
Whatever Trump is offering his followers, it’s more abstract than the transactional politics that otherwise dominates the scene. Trump proves you can win votes with few tangible promises.
If bigotry and xenophobia can be inflamed among the electorate, why not bravery and comity? Those traits may not be gurgling just below the surface of our citizenry, but they’re in there somewhere.
Freed from transactional politics, a good leader could tap that well of our better selves, coached by a good consultant.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.