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March 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 6

Letter from Washington / Backwards Reels the Mind

Letter from Washington / Backwards Reels the Mind - thumbnail
A favorite phrase of the late, and deeply missed, Sen. Patrick Moynihan was “Backwards reels the mind” and I can think of no more appropriate application than this election year. As a political scientist, I try to be a thoughtful analyst, but I must admit that I'm a campaign junkie as well. I love the helter-skelter, roller-coaster, come-from-behind quality of U.S. politics, and during the process of finding someone to vote for, part of me tries to retain some intellectual distance and stay in, yet above, the fray.
That is due, no doubt, to my earliest political memories. As a native of Washington, D.C., I saw Harry Truman take his morning constitutional around Lafayette Square, accompanied by a single secret service agent, and in 1953, dressed proudly in my Boy Scout uniform, I watched Eisenhower's inaugural address from a perch on a tree limb.
For more years than I care to count, I've been giving the two U.S. presidential candidates' education pronouncements a very close reading. Too often, I have felt like a gold prospector whose sluice pan came up empty. Much of what the candidates have said over the years has been longer on platitudes than substance. Indeed, the predictability of their material led to my first rule about the politics of education. The difference between the two parties was simple and straightforward: The Democrats wanted more of the same; the Republicans wanted less of the same.
That was an oversimplification, and although it described the broad contours of the debate, it obscured nuances. For example, Ike brought us NDEA, but his initial proposal called for grants; the Democrats demurred, arguing that loans were the American way. LBJ gave education spending and the federal role in education a huge boost in the early 1960s, and Nixon (at Sen. Moynihan's urging) brought education research to the forefront when he created the National Institute of Education. More recently, joining forces with George W. Bush, Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller led the charge on behalf of standards in the NCLB debates. Even so, to catch the subtle differences, you used to need a guidebook; the big picture remained fairly constant over the last half of the 20th century.
But a remarkable thing happened on the way to Campaign 2000: Both candidates ran on the education issue and ran hard. That was newsworthy.
Indeed, the Republicans trumped what until then had been a Democratic issue. And they trumped it with a vengeance. It's not too much to assert that the education issue gave President Bush his margin of victory. (I know, the Supreme Court got involved, but without education Bush might have lost fair and square.) As it happened, Bush and Gore wrote parallel essays, “Plans for Education in America” (Phi Delta Kappan, October 2000). Both opened with similar lines: Bush's stated, “Prosperity must have a purpose”; Gore's said, “We are beginning the 21st century from a position of unprecedented prosperity.”
Interestingly, Bush not only telegraphed his punches but also repeatedly used the term “no child left behind,” thus laying out the blueprint for the legislative act to come.
Gore was equally bold, calling for the creation of an Education Reform Trust Fund designed to bring “revolutionary improvements to our public schools.” He also proposed $50 billion for preschools. Given the mood of the new Congress and the support of the people, no doubt—had Gore won—much of his vision would now be law.
In this spirit, I must own up to my own myopia. Used to grand rhetoric, I assumed that we were getting grand rhetoric from the two candidates in 2000. But with the virtue of 20/20 hindsight, it is clear that they were each staking out their own high ground, with the utmost seriousness.
As past is prologue, this is why Campaign 2004 is so important. This time, both candidates will need to talk the talk and walk the walk. The public will expect their education views to be more than rhetorical flourishes. In the best (or worst) tradition of political pundits, then, a prediction is in order: For the first time in history, the American voter will be treated to an education bidding war between Republicans and Democrats. No longer will the candidates call for a little more here, a little less there. Both will call for a major increase in spending and redefined programs. For education at least, who wins will make a difference.

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