“Don’t you have anything of significance you want to ask?” he sneered.
Well, excuse all of us who’ve been hearing our voices echo off the walls of Big Government for decades on issues like these and more. Maybe Romney is uncomfortable because, unlike in past elections, politicians aren’t the only ones setting the agenda for our national dialogue.
Call it a residual effect of the Occupy movement or encouragement brought by the successes of the Tea Party or the amplification afforded by social media, but it seems like standing up to be heard on issues that have historically been radioactive to politicians is starting to have an effect. In the past, town hall meetings were easy for candidates to keep on message—their message. Angry civilians shaking their fists over taxes or drug policy or spending or gay marriage were marginalized with the sort of razor-edged sneer that Romney deployed in Fort Lupton, the one that says, “No one cares about your pet issue when there are jobs to discuss, JOBS!”
But that’s proving to be wrong. Consider civil unions, which have long been fought solely as local skirmishes doomed to ping-pong through the lower courts.
No serious candidate would touch the issue for fear of alienating the moneyed marriage interests. But now a sitting president seeking reelection has staked out a position—whether sincerely or cunningly, the jury is still out—that has legitimized the issue as one that’s at least worthy of debate. For something that mainstream politicians and most of the press have long relegated to the fringe of political debate, that’s a success.
So what does all this mean for your summertime? For one thing, it doesn’t have to be ruined by an upcoming national election dominated exclusively by issues chosen by the politicians themselves, those deemed to be “significant” only because they’re safe waters to tread. Attack ads, “talking points” and campaign speeches meant to appeal to those with plankton-level IQs will certainly still be a prominent feature, but thanks to unrelenting pressure to keep hot-button issues front and center, the discussion has been broadened to include topics that many politicians aren’t comfortable with. So there’s wind at your back, Average Citizen!
Don’t waste your time discussing Howard Stern’s relative merits compared to Simon Cowell—get motivated to talk about those “pet issues” of yours because, to the chagrin of Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and a whole host of congressional wannabes, they seem to be building a head of steam and are not going anywhere soon.
Here’s a short list of hot topics guaranteed to hound politicians throughout the dog days of summer, until they realize we’ve been talking about things of significance all along.
›› Medical Marijuana/Marijuana Legalization
This topic is a virtual tsunami, triggered by none other than President Obama himself when the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memo in late 2009 suggesting that federal prosecutors and the DEA would leave patients and businesses in compliance with state medical marijuana laws alone. This was in line with a campaign promise (actually, several of them) that Obama made along his path to the White House. Although the memo has been effectively retracted and Obama’s administration has cracked down harder on medical marijuana businesses than that of George W. Bush, the genie is out of the bottle. As we’ve seen in Colorado, the 2009 memo unleashed a torrent of mainstream pot activity and sparked a robust debate about the topic. Currently, 17 states and Washington, D.C., have defied the 41-year-old $1-trillion-and-counting War on Drugs—which has as a core principle that marijuana has no medical benefit—by allowing people to smoke some grass if their doctors think they will benefit from it. Twelve more have similar legislation pending. Three states, including Colorado, will vote on whether to legalize it outright.
As if this weren’t evidence enough that politicians should start paying attention, consider the latest Rasmussen poll on the issue—56 percent of likely voters favor all-out legalization, a 9 percent jump since March. Only 36 percent are opposed to the idea. Will this finally be the year that some politician (other than Ron Paul and Gary Johnson) finally gets hit on the head with these statistics and has a long overdue road-to-Damascus conversion?
›› Taxes and Spending
You can thank the Tea Party for bringing back to light an issue that has irked Americans since…well, since the original Tea Party. More than any other contemporary movement, Tea Partiers have proven that even if you marginalize yourself with goofy three-pointed hats, UN school lunch conspiracies, and candidates like not-a-witch Christine O’Donnell (who was famously worried that scientists were breeding mice with “fully functioning human brains”), even Average Joes can upend politics as usual, forcing their issues into the hallowed halls of Congress, although whether the results have been good or bad so far is fodder for a bar fight, or a civil war.
But that’s the beauty of the First Amendment and our rights to free speech and assembly; they spawn ideas, debate and counter-ideas. Would we have had Occupy Wall Street without having first had the Tea Party? Regardless, until recently, “taxes” and “spending” have been no more than cardboard platitudes that perfectly mirrored the cardboard politicians who talked about them. Now, they have concrete meanings for many who’ve never paid attention—debt ceilings, corporate welfare, Wall Street criminals and overseas debt default are now being publicly (if often too vociferously) debated. And as the Tea Party has shown, candidates who are ever mindful of the one thing that matters most to them—their electability—are paying attention. No matter which side of the divide you’re on, capitalize on that.
›› Civil Unions/Gay Marriage
Who would have thought we’d be talking about gay marriage during this election? The official word is that you can thank blabbermouth Joe Biden for forcing the president’s hand on an issue he swears (no, really!) that he was going to bring up in his own good time, maybe or maybe not just before the election. If that’s true, it’s an open debate as to whether Biden helped or hurt Obama. In late May a CBS/New York Times poll showed that more than two thirds of respondents, 67 percent, thought the president’s support of gay marriage was a political stunt. It could have been much worse if it had happened any closer to the election.
But whether it was premature or not, this debate will do nothing but grow in intensity as the election nears, particularly because North Carolina, the state hosting the Democratic National Convention, voted just the week before Obama’s announcement to ban civil unions. The issue is sure to be brought up during debates, in TV ads and around water coolers from coast to coast.
More than anything, this new reality should signal to politicians and voters alike that setting our national agenda can—and should—be a shared duty. Politicians from both parties would to well to keep that in mind before they swing through our state, or any state, and pretend that voters don’t have a say in what’s significant or not. As we’re seeing with this election, our voices might be louder than we give ourselves credit for.