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October 20, 2005

Report from the biannual Democratic Party of Oregon’s summit

Overall Impressions from the biannual Democratic Party of Oregon’s summit, in Sunriver.

My impression is that the Democrats in Oregon are

  • doing more of the right things
  • doing more of them better

It will take time for it to come to fruition, but people are working hard to be more competitive, reach more broadly and to fashion a vision of the future.

I saw a fairly low level of identity and issue politics -- most everyone is focused on common needs and building a more effective organization on many fronts.

The criticisms of the Republican power structure is more crisp, but, I think, still occupying too much air time relative to a positive, unifying vision of the future.

Among the forward-looking, positive vision/themes, the best were (no particular order):

  • J. Kitzhaber - articulating the case for, and changing the healthcare system to provide Universal Health more effectively and at lower cost
  • E. Blumenauer - developing part of what I call a “new urban-rural bargain” in Oregon thru new food grower-consumer strategies (I think this could be part of a three-legged stool of food, energy, water)
  • T. Kulongowski - think of K-college as complete public ed system since high school diploma isn’t enough in today’s economy
  • D. Carol - renewable energy investment for jobs in Oregon
  • J. Smith - not left, right or center, but FORWARD!

High level

The highly public policy failures (Katrina, Iraq, ...) and ethical failures (cronyism, corruption) have given Democrats an opening or (“reachable moment”  as one speaker put it) to touch independents and moderate Rs.  This means more than criticizing though, it means using their increasing openness to listen to alternatives in order to put forth a positive vision that they could evaluate ... where earlier their minds may have been closed.  (Note that Bush retains 79% approval among Rs though, so the opening is primarily with independents, who have left in double-digits per week, and only a few Rs -- there is no fundamental break within the R ranks yet.)

Looking at it from a Lakoffian view, a recent survey showed that the independents are “strongly dual” with both “strict” and “nuturant” metaphors operating, and faith voters lean nurturant.

Jefferson Smith captured well for me the need to move beyond the pundits false choices of left/center/right: “not left, not right, but forward!”

Gov. Kitzhaber made a good point about the importance of focusing on “ends” not the means“, so that

  • we don’t get caught defending policies that were designed for the right reasons but aren’t working as intended (more below), and
  • not being caught up in the political gamesmanship that focuses on gaining power and losing focus on *why* to gain that power: we have to have the positive vision of what we want to do when we have the power to move it forward
  • instead play citizenship over partisanship

There was very little ”identity politcs“ and issue politics in evidence to me.  For example in one workshop, the couple-of-dozen participants were basically united in being at the Summit because of concern about the kind of country their kids/grandkids would be stuck with if they didn’t get involved and change it.  That’s pretty fundamental and allows crossing traditional internal divides.

What I didn't expect: at least four times when the audience was moved to tears by the personal sacrifices some people have had to make these last few years.

Following are impressions from some of the key speeches

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Earl Blumenaur

Earl was good, comfortable.  Three things struck me about it:

  • Dealing with the “Rot at the Top” -- Breach of Contract
  • Working with the “big tent” and Democratic Party “personality”
  • Vision for the future developing, but not quite there yet

Dealing with the “Rot at the Top” -- Breach of Contract

Earl framed the opposition to Bush/Republican scandals (of all sorts - Katrina, Iraq, Delay, Plamegate, ...) as “breach of contract”.  I think it works very well, on multiple levels.

  • “contract” harkens back to the 1994 Republican “Contract on America” and how they’ve created something vastly more corrupt and unfair than anything imagined in 1994
  • “breach” is more significant than “broken” and implies more and specifically, intentional, fault
  • but works for more general contracts/bargains, in particular this is good for connecting with independents and traditional Rs who, while they may not be ready to say they were wrong in voting for Bush, can be helped down the path by seeing that this (deficits, Katrina response, ...) aren’t what they thought they would be getting -- breach of contract/trust with them
  • can be applied to efforts to undermine Social Security, etc. - breach of the government & multi-generational compact to support each other

In other words, it is a good frame for the many related issues.  This is important because what Ds need to be doing is making out these failures are part of a thematic problem.  Currently there are percieved and dealt with separately, so they are mentally viewed a series of one-time failures rather than a systematic/thematic failure (though this is changing with most adopting the “culture of corruption” theme, which works well because it ties it into a failing of the entire neo-con/R approach, not just a few bad apples).

Working with the “big tent” and Democratic Party “personality”

Earl did a great job of blending the need for a few simple “themes” with the fact that there are a lot of issues out there, both on the failures of the Rs and of the positive things Ds want to do.  Specifically, when someone challenged him on taking on some topic that wasn’t on Earl’s priority list, he said: you should push as hard as you feel about it.

What I thought he did well here was to deal with the “big tent” issue for Democrats and accept the progressive personality, not work against it.  To me the issue here is the desire on the one hand to have a few clear, well-articulated messages, yet on the other hand recognize that the Democrats are not a hierarchical, top-down driven organization ala Rs.  Since that isn’t our personality, we need to develop message strategies that reflect the D personality, not try and emulate the R personality -- that would lead to failure as they’ll always do that better.

How do we do that?  I believe that it comes from having clear message frameworks and themes with talking points, but letting people express the theme/frame in their own words.

Personally, I suspect that the era of rigid message where every R says the same talking points is going to wear out soon -- everyone knows what they are doing, the points are often known and debunkable within minutes (sometimes even before they get out!) ... and eventually the media will tire of the retread predictability and lack of “news”.

Vision for the future developing, but no clear frames/themes yet

In contrast to many Ds, who can barely stop criticizing, Earl was clearly working on developing the vision there.  It didn’t sound fully developed, but the elements are being worked on, which is appropriate for where we are in the elecion cycle.  What is important to me here, is that Earl was reflecting some new thinking and moving the agenda to positive proposals.

I think Oregon has a good brand in the nation, as a leader in forward-thinking public policy (emphasis on environment [bottle bill, land use, beaches] and healthcare [Oregon Health Plan, Death with Dignity], but also things like good governance [Vote-by-Mail]).  This is a good basis on which to build, and we continue to have opportunity here.

Part of what Earl was developing was a sort of “New Rural-Urgan Bargain”.  There is a crucial strategic point in here, of bridging the divide to bring more rural voters to open up to the Ds.  But it is founded on interesting economic and environmental ideas of good stewardship.  Ideas around how to build more of a regional (Oregon) bargain between urban food buyers/consumers and rural food producers, sustainability, organics, etc.

I believe that this could be expanded, looking in particular at two other areas:

  • energy (wind, biofuel, etc. produced in rural, financed & consumed urban)
  • water (where will we get the clean drinking water for the 1.5M new child and adult Oregonians to come in the next 20 years - by assuring clean drinking water supply while enhancing watershed quality for salmon, etc. as well)

The opportunity here, is to put forward a positive, hopeful vision for jobs & economy for rural and urban Oregon businesses, breaking the logjam of perception of Democrats.


Kitzhaber identified both energy and healthcare as key elements, as both are unifying because:

  • they affect everyone
  • and are among the largest uncontrollable personal expenses

Exhoration to think big and based on values/principles, not refreshing the vision of the ends we desire not protecting the means used in the past.

... and reinforced by a comment by Jefferson Smith on the environment: an issue is that in the 60s and 70s environmentalists were dealing with severe point-source issues that were fouling our air, streams, killing bald eagles with DDT, etc... but now it is mostly diffuse sources caused by each of our daily lives and need to rethink how to tackle things in this situation

Kitzhaber's framing of the need for healthcare reform

Kitzhaber framed the health problem as a financial problem for the country as it drains money from the rest of the economy: it takes too great a share of GDP and delivers a less healthy population compared to other countries.  This drains resources from other areas of investment, whether economic, educational, etc. and reduces business competitivity.

The reasons include what has become a crazy financing system, for example, Medicare:

  • it covers all retired people, regardless of financial need
  • it is paid for by current workers, even if they don’t have healthcare coverage themselves

So you end up with workers who don’t have health coverage paying for the health  coverage of retirees who could afford their own insurance!

This helped bring focus on the constitutional measure 40, Hope for Oregon Families, which leads with:

Health care is an essential safeguard of human life and dignity and there is an obligation for the state to ensure that every Oregon resident has access to effective and affordable health care as a fundamental right.

... and about which: 72% of Oregonians surveyed strongly agree.

The speech was terrific and every Oregonian should listen.  Kitzhaber gave a longer version of the healthcare speech last week to the Portland City Club, with good Q&A, which you can hear here or you can subscribe to their podcast or you can read a version of it here.

Jefferson Smith

Inspiring speech to get people to open their thinking to new approaches that meet the 21st Century situation and needs.  You really have to listen to it directly to get the full impact.


After listing some 9 examples of Oregon’s history of being an incubator of “cutting edge public policy” (bottle bill, OHP, ...), challenged people on some of the issues of the day:

  • teacher pay (starting pay used to equal a lawyers in the 1970s, now 20%)
  • election financing
  • responding to globalization by depending on the “free market fairy” or on international standards
  • excellence & appreciation for government and how government communicates to the people it serves

He wrapped up with a stirring challenge to think about what we want to answer when our grand kids ask us “Where were you when ...

  • we still had plenty of fossil fuels
  • had ice caps
  • elections were relatively corruption free
  • US was envy of world markets
  • OR had the nation’s shortest school year”

And answering by saying we need to answer, “I was here when ...”

  • we created a “high road” economic policy
  • we reclaimed people-based democracy
  • we revolutionized health, education and energy systems


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