There was a map of the United States produced after the 2000 and 2004 elections, showing the presidential campaign victories on a county-by-county basis in blue and red. America was a sea of red, with clusters of blue for the most part relegated to major urban areas in the East, West, and scattered in between. The Democratic Party is an urban one, focused largely on urban problems and constituencies.
But in order to win in 2008, Democratic leaders knew that they needed to woo small-town America. The time was ripe, the theory went, with an unpopular president, an unpopular Congress, and a Republican Party that had somehow lost its way. So the Democratic machine went to work, bringing Barack Obama to places like Montana, hoping that he could build on that dissatisfaction and show that the Democratic Party cares about Main Streets across the U.S.A., no matter how rural or sparsely populated.
Which is why the attack on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and her prior experience of being the mayor of a town of 9,000, is both strange and troubling. The 2000 and 2004 electoral maps show, and political experience confirms, that America is a place of small towns. So casting aspersions on those who live and govern in Small-Town America seems to be, well, a stupid way of courting those voters.
But it also evinces a complete misunderstanding of the complexities involved with governing a small state or town, a hubris that underscores the dishonest slogans of "change" that have come from the Democratic camp. If you don't understand how public policy actually gets implemented in the real world, how can you possibly work to improve the system? If the belief is that only policy made at the federal level is complex and grants experience to the policymaker, then how can one be trusted to ensure that policies that have to be implemented at the state and local level (i.e., unfunded mandates and the like) are reasonable and limited?
The answer is, they can't. Local government comes with its own set of experience-accruing difficulties. It can be just as complex, the stakes just as high, but without the glamour that comes from being a member of the House, or a senator for two or 36 years. In fact, it has the potential to be much harder, for two reasons.
First, you're governing not just in the public spotlight but in and around and with your constituents. There is no buffer between you and the public if you're a small-town or small-county executive. When you make a decision that people don't like, you hear about it. You get phone calls, you get approached in the supermarket, people walk up to your front porch or back fence. This is just one of the reasons many local political parties have trouble at times finding people to run for office—it is tremendously stressful to be so easily accessible.
Joe Biden sees real people on the train to and from Delaware, and he sees people in carefully scheduled events in the state itself. But when was the last time that Biden made a tough vote to curtail the funding for some project affecting his constituents and then had to go do his family shopping at the local grocery store? When was the last time Obama made a decision to enact some new regulatory scheme affecting small business and got approached while he was weeding in his front yard to hear complaints about it?
These things happen in small towns. And frankly, it makes a politician a lot more sensitive to the impact of what they are doing. It lends an additional air of accountability that people like Barack Obama and Joe Biden simply don't have.
And from a practical standpoint, Obama and Biden have never had to contend with making the hard fiscal choices that small-town mayors and small-state governors have to. They've never had to balance a budget. Local officials do. Every year. They cannot go into debt. And frankly, America would be better off in the long term with more public officials in higher office who have had to grapple with keeping public books balanced.
This talking point about the population of Wasilla, Alaska, is insulting—to the millions of Americans who live in small towns, to those who have done the hard work of serving the public in governance of those small towns, and to the intelligence of all of us by trying to confuse the real issues of experience and judgment with phantom ones.
Those 2000 and 2004 maps told a story, a story with an important lesson. It had appeared as though the Democrats had learned it, but this new bit of arrogance shows that they have not.
Andrew M. Langer is the president of the Institute for Liberty.