I love the TV show “The West Wing”. I suppose it is because I love politics so much. It is also is full of compelling characters portrayed by incredible actors. I was watching it on Netflix recently and the “Game On” episode came on. This is the episode where President Bartlet debates Governor Ritchie. Much of the show centers around the professional politicians trying to craft “ten word answers” to debate questions. It is observed on the episode that the public craves ten word answers to questions because they serve to boil an issue down to it’s essence. In the midst of the debate Governor Ritchie says, “We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.” This is when President Bartlet gives an answer that I think is relevant to our current situation in Iowa. He says, “There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. I’m the President of the United States, not the President of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.”
That’s how a leader should talk. Iowa Republicans will tell you that the following are two of their key principles: “Spend less than the state collects,” and “Return unused tax dollars to Iowa’s taxpayers.” Ten word (or less) answers. Sounds good right? Except that it isn’t very nuanced. It doesn’t tell the whole story. Our legislators determine how much the state collects and they get to determine which taxpayers get that unused money back. I am with President Bartlet when he asks, “what are the next ten words?” I really want to know what the next ten words are from our Republican legislators. Not a single Republican legislator in Iowa will break ranks from these “ten word” talking points.
Getting public education right is a nuanced issue. Is more money the only answer? Of course it isn’t. But forcing austerity onto Iowa’s schools without giving us the next ten words isn’t productive. Cut taxes, take in less money, give more money back to business interests. OK. Now we need the next ten words about how we do it and still have “world class” schools. The next ten words have to be how we keep our rivers clean. The list goes on. Our current Republican Governor and his colleagues in the statehouse have won the day with “ten word answers.” It is time for a great dialogue to be held in Iowa where the questions are framed by those of us who want more than ten words.