The Public Policy Cauldron: What's Intractable and What's not

Governor John Kitzhab: In search of the "smart middle.""Intractable."

No less an important public figure than former State Senator Ryan Deckert, now president of the Oregon Business Association (OBA), used that term last week as he introduced Governor John Kitzhaber at the annual OBA Statesman dinner.

He said Kitzhaber, now in his third term as governor, has defied conventional political wisdom by taking on seemingly "intractable" problems such as education and health care reform.

Deckert's words contained a bit of irony because, at approximately the same time, police forces in Portland and Salem were removing so-called "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrators from overstaying their welcome in public parks and roads in the two cities. That group, like the right wing Tea Party, does not appear to be interested in solving intractable problems; they appear to want "their way or the highway."

Speaking of the Tea Party movement, in a column last week in the Oregonian, columnist George Will contended that, "in scale, Occupy Wall Street demonstrations-cum-encapments are to Tea Party event as Pittsburg, KA is to Pittsburgh, PA. So far, probably fewer people have participated in all of them combined than attended just one Tea Party rally, than of September 12, 2009, on the Washington Mall. In comportment, OWS is to the Tea Party as Lady Gaga is to Lord Chesterfield: Blocking the Brooklyn Bridge (or streets in Portland) was not persuasion modeled on Tea Party tactics."

Will appears to be advocating that we choose up sides and count noses as a way to solve problems, though he does, in the end, backpedal and suggest that elections are the way to make tough decisions in a democracy.

Back to Kitzhaber. As Deckert suggests, does he deserve credit for solving intractable problems? Perhaps not in the sense of solutions, but he does deserve credit for taking on the problems. Consider his education reform proposals. He contends it's time for a major overhaul and, to be sure, he has proposed huge re-organizations of the education bureaucracy from kindergarten to graduate school, re-organizations that have sparked opposition from the Oregon Education Association, which posted demonstrators at the OBA dinner last week.

Or consider early childhood programs. Again, the governor has proposed huge organizational challenges on the theory that solid work with children ages 0 to 5 will avoid problems for those children as they grow up. Or, on his favorite subject — health care reform — again he wants huge organizational changes, though no one, not even Kitzhaber, knows for sure how those changes will play out and who will pay for them in the next two years.

The proof in all of these issues will be in the delivery, not in the proposal.

What's needed to bring about change across the board — to make the intractable tractable — is political leadership. We need leaders who will not pander to the Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party forces, but will move toward the "smart middle." They need to appeal to people of goodwill on both sides and solve problems where they need to be solved, which is in the middle, not at the extremes of either side.

Whether that smart middle is possible any longer in this country — or in Oregon — is not clear. The true test of political leadership will be finding and delivering on that smart middle.

Take some solace that two individuals — co-speakers of the Oregon House, Rep. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay and Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg — illustrated that middle ground was possible in the 2011 legislative session. They deserve credit for their work to bring the evenly-split Oregon House together and that's why the OBA recognized them as "Statesmen of the Year."

We need more leaders with that characteristic.