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Communication Breakdown

Listen to the voters? Why bother?

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A confession: I was one of those kids who wanted to be president. For about 15 minutes.

"It's simple," I told my father one night, flush with a grade-school lesson in political science. "This is a democracy. So my campaign will be, ‘I'll do whatever most people want.'" 

"Ah, the people's candidate!"  my father said. And then he laughed. At the time, I thought the joke was that being president couldn't be that easy. (Accordingly I went into journalism, where I could disappoint large majorities with less hassle.) But lately, I've been thinking the real joke is the idea that politicians need to hear voters at all. 

Consider a poll of Pennsylvania voters conducted by Franklin & Marshall College in February. Pennsylvanians were asked how they would balance Pennsylvania's budget if they had to choose from among 14 options, ranging from firing state workers to tolling state highways. The most popular option — with 74 percent of residents saying they were either "strongly" or "somewhat" in support, and just 19 percent opposed — was taxing companies who drill for natural gas. The second most popular answer was taxing smokeless tobacco and cigars, which currently aren't taxed as cigarettes are. Treating all tobacco products equally was favored by a 73-to-24 margin, while selling off state liquor stores was preferred 61 to 28. 

None of these things has happened, or seems likely to happen any time soon. The state has passed a nominal tax on drilling, but it is ludicrously low and benefits local governments. Liquor-store privatization appears to be going nowhere. No one even mentions closing the tobacco loophole.

In fact, the state's Republican leadership seems most excited by ideas that voters hate. 

By a 79-to-19 margin, those polled despised the idea of cutting spending on public schools — and Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget in fact increases that spending slightly. But voters also hated the idea of cutting assistance to the poor by 71-to-26 ... and Corbett envisions cutting a slew of such programs by roughly 20 percent. The third most-hated option — cutting state funding for public universities — was opposed by 70 percent of voters. That, too, is part of the current budget proposal. 

Of course, maybe listening to Pennsylvanians is a bad idea. After all, we're the lunkheads who put Republicans in charge of every branch of state government. The problem with giving voters what they want, apparently, is that they often don't know what that is ... until it's too late.

By contrast, rich people know what they want, probably because they are used to actually getting it. The rest of us aren't so lucky. So maybe it's no surprise that in last week's weird primary — where fewer than one out of five voters turned out — big-money candidates were among the big winners. 

Statewide, Dems rejected an attorney-general candidate with all the endorsements, Patrick Murphy, for Kathleen Kane, a candidate with access to $2 million of family money. On the GOP side, voters chose Tom Smith from a five-man field as their nominee to challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey this November. Smith's win, too, was the triumph of money over party orthodoxy: He spent $4 million to beat a field that included Steve Welch, the candidate backed by Corbett and the GOP. 

On the surface, it might be tempting to celebrate these outcomes as a defeat for "politics as usual." But this looks less like a grassroots uprising than a rich guy benefiting from market uncertainty, like a hedge-fund manager profiting from a Wall Street panic. When Franklin and Marshall pollsters asked which senatorial candidate Republicans preferred in March — just one month before the election — 81 percent weren't sure. 

Anyway, while the primary held a few surprises, like the ouster of longtime Pittsburgh incumbent Joe Preston, most party regulars aren't going anywhere. Out of 25 state Senate seats up for grabs this year, there were fewer than a dozen contested primaries, and half of these seats won't have any competition this November. In 203 House seats, a little less than half of the candidates face opposition at all.

Doing what voters want sounds easy. But in Pennsylvania, it's even easier to put yourself in a position not to care.

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