A new narrative for the Old Dominion

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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Storytelling comes somewhat naturally in the news business, not as a way of embellishing facts, but as a way of engaging readers — getting them to learn more about a topic.

Similarly, the purpose or strategy of a business is often best presented in a narrative format engaging employees more fully with a compelling mission or vision statement.

What about Virginia?  What is the story of our commonwealth?  When I think back to the history I learned in my early days, it involved the Virginia Company, a business and trading enterprise that sent the first permanent British colonists to the New World.

Stories about Princess Pocahontas saving Captain John Smith, early tobacco plantations, Colonial Williamsburg, the founding of the College of William and Mary, the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence all painted Virginians as leaders, first among the colonies and later among states.

Virginia is known as the mother of presidents.  Four of the first five presidents came from the commonwealth.  In total, eight presidents have been Virginia-born, the latest being Woodrow Wilson.

Flashing forward to the present day, maybe Virginia is continuing its tradition of leadership.  Phillip Puckett’s resignation from the Virginia Senate led to a Republican majority in both houses of the General Assembly, working with a Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe.

Although Puckett’s resignation was awkward, its result was perhaps a predictor of the outcome of last month’s national mid-term elections.  We now have a Republican-controlled U.S. House and Senate with an executive branch led by Democratic president, Barack Obama.
On one hand, this seems like an invitation to more of what’s become the status quo in politics, obstruction and gridlock, but perhaps not.

During the past several years opponents have largely depicted Republicans as fractured along lines of fiscal, social and faith-based conservatism, anti-immigration, anti-tax and anti-regulation, as well as libertarian or even anti-government factions. Extremists and moderates were seen as fighting for control of a single party.

Electoral politics often boil down to fear mongering, playing on the worst images of both Republican and Democratic candidates.  But what if these stereotypes aren’t as true as they often seem?

Events of late, especially an early November session of the General Assembly to vote on transportation funding, showed very little division among Virginia’s Republicans. 

If the party can authentically build a more moderate consensus-based approach to governance in contrast to the combative stereotypes of extremism and obstructionism, much may be possible.  Virginia has the opportunity to be a leader in the transformation of legislative gridlock to effective governance.

Turning to the modern-day Democrats, they’ve got their own set of negative stereotypes — attracting labels such as tax and spend, tree huggers, union-controlled, and hard on guns but easy on crime. It’s hard to talk about factionalism in a party that generally does so poorly in local elections.  In Virginia, Democrats do best in statewide races, especially during presidential election years when voter turnout is highest.

Nationally, so-called Blue Dog fiscally conservative Democrats have all but disappeared, at best holding only a handful of congressional seats.  It’s fair to say that extremism now plagues both parties.

What should Virginia’s narrative look like going forward?  Let’s face it; despite its vaunted history, the commonwealth’s reputation for leadership has room for a few new chapters.

Let’s write them by pulling back from the extremes and into a more broad-based center.  This starts with voters.  Sparsely attended party conventions, low-turnout primaries and gerrymandered districts are largely to blame for the polarization of our political landscape.  These problems are not unique to Virginia, but we can show leadership by engaging in the process of their elimination rather than treating them as irreversible.

Our elected officials have much work to do.  The old practice of finger pointing and obstructionism has failed.  It’s not enough to chase votes by fighting from a national party playbook; let’s take care of business at home.  Budget cuts haven’t brought Virginia’s fiscal house into order; it’s time to look at revenue solutions, too.  Redistricting shouldn’t be an exercise in raw party power; it ought to be fair to both sides.  Ethics reform ought not be a knee-jerk reaction, but neither should it be a deception.

Now that one party has control of the General Assembly, what should it do?  How about re-creating that seemingly imaginary place where both parties and all branches of government work together, finding solutions through compromise.  That sounds like the place I learned about when I was growing up — a story that sets an example for our nation.

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