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The Democratic candidates for governor need to come up with examples of how changing government for the better will change people's lives for the better. Here's a few thoughts about what a winning line of attack could be.

Dalton, Etheridge, Faison: long-winded but short on ideas 

From left: Walter Dalton, Bob Etheridge, Bill Faison

From left: Walter Dalton, Bob Etheridge, Bill Faison

Did you miss some or even all of the televised debates last week among the leading candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination? If so, let me summarize them for you: Not good.

Three debates, three candidates, not a new idea out of any one of them. Not surprising, then, that most of what's been written and said since then focused on the candidates' presentation skills, or the lack thereof. Gary Pearce, ex-Gov. Jim Hunt's press guy, compared the first debate to a day in a dog park. State Rep. Bill Faison was the feisty pit bull, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton the over-eager terrier, and former Congressman Bob Etheridge the ol' slow hound dog. Where was the sturdy beagle (think: Jim Hunt) to lead the pack?

Now I admit, I too succumbed to the game of What do these guys remind me of? Faison, waving his arms or leaning on an elbow, was the carnival barker at the sketchy tent that everybody's avoiding. Dalton sounded like he was hollering to somebody over in the next yard—sure they'd be interested in how he made his compost. And Etheridge? He was the guy in the next yard, rockin' on his porch and telling folks who stopped to say howdy that this used to be a farm.

But enough of that.

I don't disagree with Pearce that "style wins debates." I do disagree, though, that it only matters how you look. (He watched one debate with the sound turned off; Etheridge won it because he appeared the most comfortable, Pearce wrote.) And yes, I'm aware of the MIT study that found "attractive" candidates do better with some voters. Still, what's attractive—and how you look—is connected to what it is you're saying and whether it's interesting.

On that basis, I'd rate Etheridge and Faison about even. They were both bad. Each had one point to make, and each made it over and over again for three nights. And it wasn't an interesting point, either.

Etheridge said we have to spend money on education. Lots of it, just like we did when he was ... and here you can fill in the blank with any of the offices Etheridge used to hold over the past 30-plus years.

Faison said we need jobs. Lots of them. Oh, and he has a jobs plan, the details of which will be revealed to anyone who enters his tent, er, reads his website.

Dalton, meanwhile, was every bit of over-eager. Whatever the question, he responded with a list, not an answer, raising his voice to get it all in for the neighbors. That compost was never just leaves and some nitrogen. Still, Dalton at least made the effort to offer some ideas, even if they were all—because they were from his "record"—blasts from the past.

Here's the point. Either Dalton or Etheridge will be the Democratic nominee after May 8, running against Republican Pat McCrory. And things being how they are—the economy is terrible and Faison's not wrong about that—the voters will be looking for change.

The Republicans, McCrory included, will offer change that consists of spending less on the disadvantaged (including on public schools) so tax rates can be cut without hurting the well-off. It's an approach with obvious appeal to the well-off.

Can the Democrats' response really be, as Etheridge said at one point, to dust off the "old models" that gave us the N.C. Biotechnology Center when he was a state legislator in the '80s and the Research Triangle Park before that? "Not all of them will work today, but some of them will," Etheridge said.

No. If the Democrats come off as the party of the same-old programs, with the old funding "back in place" (to quote Etheridge again) the way it was before the Republicans started cutting, they will lose.

Here's a few thoughts about what a winning line of attack would be, with the caveat that I'm not saying Dalton and Etheridge should follow them verbatim. Rather, they'll need to come up with their own examples of how changing government for the better will change people's lives for the better.

First, jobs: As Etheridge and Dalton both say, the good jobs of the future come from good schools now. What about the need for good jobs now? Incredibly to me, none of the Democrats talked about creating jobs by building things that people need. The classic example is better roads. But how about building transit systems in the Triangle, the Triad and Charlotte? Come to think of it, McCrory was pro-transit when he was mayor of Charlotte. It would be interesting to challenge him, in a debate, to explain why his party is so anti-transit now.

Building transit systems creates jobs. It also helps people get around if they can't afford a car. The benefits don't stop there. The family that gets by with two cars instead of three because good transit is available can save $7,000 a year or more—tell that to the voters.

What about energy efficiency? How many old houses need more insulation, better windows or a new roof—one with solar panels? Why not grab the idea called NC Save$ (it's not new to progressive groups, but it would be new to the Democratic Party) and create a public authority to offer these products, with low-cost financing, to consumers who want them but can't afford the up-front expense? And weatherization is labor-intensive.

And let's do require Duke Energy and Progress Energy, our so-called public utilities, to help pay for the authority. It would be a win-win-win, with consumers saving on their electric and heating costs, the utilities saving by not needing to build giant nuclear plants, and the state getting a jobs bonanza, not to mention having a housing stock in our state worth hundreds of millions of dollars more.

Second, education: True, as Etheridge and Dalton say, you don't get good schools on the cheap. But please stop talking about how we used to do it and start talking about how technology can save money and improve outcomes. To cite just one example, the online khanacademy.org offers students great science and math lessons. Teachers and teaching assistants could be freed to focus on the kids who aren't ready for that coursework—but need to be.

In short, paint a picture of what a great public school will look like in 2020, not what it looked like when you walked over from the tobacco field. Show every child succeeding instead of 30 percent failing. Dalton, as the legislator most responsible for creating early-college programs, is an authentic innovator. But in the debates, though he kept saying he was "creative," he didn't sound creative.

With early college, the old K–12 model is giving way to public schools that start before kindergarten (preschool needs a new name) and can end for many at grade 10 or 11, with students going to "college" after that, even if the college is in their high school, in a community college, in a museum or in a career internship.

Third, cuts: Asked what they would cut from state spending, the candidates were stumped. Two thoughts: Cut prison costs by investing more money in proven diversion and drug-treatment programs for nonviolent offenders. Cut Medicaid costs by getting every client into a disease-prevention program. Open the school gyms so folks can exercise. Get the kids working on community gardens, and sell the produce to school cafeterias and anyone else who needs to eat better. Reduce the obesity rate and save on treatment for diabetes.

Again, one example: Wake County's innovative prenatal program for low-income moms is reducing their rate of premature births. For every 1 percent the preemie rate goes down in North Carolina, according to Al Delia, the acting state health and human services secretary, the state's Medicaid tab is reduced by $50 million.

In other words, good government may cost more, but it can also cost less while it saves money for consumers, creates jobs and keeps North Carolina a great place to be. Or as I like to say, progress is still possible, regardless what the Republicans tell you.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Anorexia of imagination."

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