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Are the Democrats turning left, or to what's right? 

A week later, and Democrats are still arguing over whether Jerry Meek's election as chair of the state party is a step toward: a) revival, or b) perdition. In the General Assembly, elected Democrats are "running scared"--as one of them put it privately--over the idea that Meek might actually call them out for failing to back the party's platform. Party activists, on the other hand, are excited by the prospect of actually having a platform that somebody gives a damn about.

At the root of the problem is this question: Will the party regulars who picked Meek (and rejected Gov. Mike Easley's candidate) be too liberal, too progressive, too--well, just too-too--for the North Carolina electorate to swallow? Rob Christensen, The News & Observer's political guy, thinks so. Meek's "insurgents" are "skating on some extremely thin ice" trying to move the party to the left, Christensen wrote on Sunday. I couldn't agree, and disagree, more.

I agree that if Democrats let themselves be tabbed the leftist party, they're toast. In that regard, they are absolutely on thin ice--so what else is new? What I disagree with is the assumption that regular Democrats are to the left, or out of step with ordinary voters. On the contrary, I think it's the country-club Democrats, the ones who've dominated the state party of late, who are out of touch. By failing to address the issues people care about, they may be able to cling to power a bit longer in Raleigh, but meanwhile they're giving the country away. And sooner or later (sooner, if the Republicans should awaken), they'll lose Raleigh, too.

That's what I was trying to say after Meek's election when I wrote that it "might strengthen the view" of the Southern Democrats who argue, on the national level, for moving the party to the right and nominating Southern centrists like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. If Meek succeeds in rebuilding local party organizations from the precinct level up, in other words, the result should be more Democratic activists of all stripes coming to the meetings--and there is no doubt in my mind that the rank-and-file of Southern Dems are more conservative than rank-and-file Northern Dems.

For example, Southern Dems would nominate Johnny over Hillary, wouldn't they? Anyway, they go to church more.

My thinking on this point was admittedly pretty fuzzy, though, as a couple of readers were nice enough to point out. Meek's activists would move the party to the right? C'mon, they said. "People who vote in primaries and grass roots activists," one of them reminded me, "tend to be more engaged, concerned folks, not necessarily representing the majority point of view from either party."

Point taken.

As I was wrestling with this conundrum, to my rescue came none other than Gov. Mike Easley himself and one of his close political advisers, Pope "Mac" McCorkle. At a wonkish UNC-Chapel Hill conference entitled New Strategies for Southern Progress," they argued the political case for centrism first, last and always. Even if it's wrong. Get elected uber alles.

I wasn't there, but thanks to the excellent student bloggers who were (read them at www.southnow.org ), I get the gist. To win, Easley told his listeners, you've got to "mind your manners" and not try to change people's ideas about any "hot-button" issues. McCorkle, too, according to blogger Martin Johnson, urged progressives to "engage conservatives, not to change their minds, but because 'they're wrong, but they will help us be more right.'" To that end, McCorkle--channeling Easley, apparently--advocated a state lottery, sales taxes and other consumption-based, regressive policies for revenue generation because they are more popular than income taxes. (My emphasis, Johnson's summary.)

But why are they more popular? Could it be because no one in authority has pointed out to the average voter that, as things stand now in North Carolina, the higher your income is, the less you pay in local and state taxes? It's true. A handy booklet called Following the Money published last year by the nonpartisan N.C. Budget & Tax Center shows it clearly in graph-and-chart form: People with the lowest incomes ($40,000 or less) pay 10-11 percent of it in taxes; those with higher incomes pay less, and the percentage declines in a straight line as your income rises, from 8-9 percent in the middle-income range to 6-7 percent or lower if you make more than $125,000.

Does Easley think it's really too complicated for people to grasp that if we taxed the wealthy people more, we could cut your sales taxes and save y'all money? Or is it just too hard for the rich to take after steering their golf carts over a tough 18 holes?

If all people hear is "taxes," they're going to assume--and properly so--that their taxes are going up. How about a Democratic candidate who says s/he'll reduce your taxes by reforming the system? How about Democrats who don't assume people are too stupid to change their minds if given good reasons to do so?

I could be wrong, but I've always thought that regular Dems--the conservative and the progressive ones, both--would be more frugal with the public's money than the country-clubbers are when sitting in the General Assembly. More frugal about subsidizing corporations, for instance, and about handing out big salaries to their cronies, while maybe being more generous to the needy and more scrupulous about protecting the land, the water and the air.

But bottom line, they'd be careful about the money because it's theirs. When the country-club Dems and Republicans spend it, by contrast, they know it's yours.

Would regular Dems support a lottery, if asked? Absolutely. But hopefully, not for the purpose of raising revenue. Lotteries are fun when they pay out 80 percent of the take in prizes, and after all, nobody's got a gun to your head to buy a ticket. But they're less fun when the state takes the first 50 cents out of your dollar and then pays somebody's favorite advertising firm another 15 cents to get you to play, anyway.

Having a lottery would save people from having to drive to Virginia or South Carolina for a ticket. But the best way to raise money is still to tax the people who have it. And that's just gotta be more popular than taxing yourself, if anyone were putting it that way.

And if North Carolina voters are poorly informed when it comes to state issues, the same goes double or quadruple for national issues. What can possibly explain the public's taste for Bush-ian tax cuts--which favor a tiny handful of the wealthiest people and hurt everyone else--except perhaps the dead silence of CC Democrats like Easley? The sliding value of the dollar is the best indicator of Bush's economic policies: For most people, wages are stagnant and prices are going up; but the rich always have options, and if they're smart, their investments are in euros and yen, building the economies of every country but ours.

Democrats, getting together at platform meetings, might figure that out and insist on fair-trade policies, a jobs program, restoring taxes on multimillionaires' estates and generally balancing the country's outlays (and wars) with its revenues.

The Easley wing of the Democratic Party doesn't want to talk about any of that. Too "hot-button." Which is why the Democratic wing of the party--Meek's wing--has to. It's not about left or right. It's about wrong or right.

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