See, That’s the Difference Between a Popular Movement and an Establishment Structure
National Education Association of Rhode Island Executive Director Bob Walsh expresses puzzlement over Colleen Conley’s being allowed to be the spokesperson for the RI Tea Party:
on Buddy’s show on Ch. 6 on Sunday – he went fairly easy on her after she could not answer basic questions about the size of RI’s budget or where she was proposing to cut it. She was also on the second segment of Newsmakers. …
Do you think if my side was having an event of this scale that we’d let one of out own appear on Buddy’s show, or any show, that unprepared?
I’ll confess that, on any given day in the recent past, I’d have been stumped by the question, “How large is Rhode Island’s budget?” What I would cut is a different matter, but the notion that somebody could be prepared to that degree on such short notice likely strikes the reformist ear funny in a way that brings out two significant points. (Note that I’m putting aside the consideration that the Tea Party’s focus was national.)
The first point is that the exact total budget number, of itself, isn’t but so important from either an intellectual or rhetorical standpoint. Removed from context, it’s meaningless. What’s $7 billion (ish)? In order to assess whether that’s too much, it is more significant to know that Rhode Island consistently ranks highly on matters of taxation, that its social programs are generous, that its public-sector unions are disproportionately well compensated compared with the private sector, and above all, that the budget deficit has been stepping up every year on a march toward a billion dollars of shortfall and that legislators won’t take the steps necessary to turn it around.
The second, more critical, point is that the right-of-center reform movement in Rhode Island and across the country does not consist of folks who earn their living by reciting political arguments by which they stand to gain in their careers. Ask Ms. Conley a question about stationery, and she’ll likely produce a more satisfactory answer. Ask me the standard rough opening for a three-foot door, and I’ll ask you whether it’s a six-six or six-eight and whether we’re framing off finish or rough.
It would be more comparable, however, to ask me how many months worth of work I know my current employer to have or Colleen the size of the local market for custom illustrated cards, because the state budget is part of the public-sector total from which it is Mr. Walsh’s job to extract amounts for his union’s members. Personally, I’ve got too many numbers running through my head on a given day to have the capacity to recite the subsegment totals of RI government spending. We newly active citizens must rely on such strategies as generalizing the specifics that we read, hear, or see in the news into “too much,” “too restrictive,” “too generous.”
This new dynamic — this increasingly engaged population — may be something for which Bob Walsh and his “side” aren’t prepared. They won’t be able to pull us into mutually canceling disputes over numbers, because we’ll have to look them up, at which point we’ll be able to explain how they’re spinning them. And if they argue that we don’t know what we’re talking about — which they’re already doing — well, that’s more of a felt thing, from the audience’s point of view, and not having memorized talking points is not a disadvantage if the speaker seems to have grasped the underlying issue and compensates for missing esoteria with good faith and honesty.
Buddy would likely stump Bob if he asked about the header size of his front entryway, but that wouldn’t disqualify Mr. Walsh from suggesting that he’d like to be able to lock the door.