The Office of the President Emeritus: University of Oregon

Speeches and Writings

"Why Electing and Governing Seem Harder"

Eugene Rotary
Tuesday, November 2, 2004
12:00 Noon
Hult Center - Studio 1

Dave Frohnmayer, President
University of Oregon


The fact is at this time tomorrow - if the pollsters are to be believed - and if this Rotary Club is anywhere representative of the U.S. population - about half of the people in this room are going to be very, very happy and the other half will think the world is about to end.

This fairly even split of joy and dread, we are told by Time, Newsweek and thoughtful pundits of a variety of beliefs, will be shared by much of the rest of the nation.

We are told that we are a nation divided.

We are told that one candidate is too far to the left and the other too far to the right or that one is too rigid and the other too flip-floppy.

We are told that everything from a nuclear terror to the crumbling of our economy will take place if "that other fellow" is elected.

We also are told that this year's election is one of the most scurrilous ever. So it may come as a surprise that this last assertion is hardly the case.

In past elections, one candidate was called by his opponents a "drunkard, bigamist, adulterer, gambler and murderer." That was President Andrew Jackson.

Another candidate was called a "lecherous beast" and an "obese nincompoop." Grover Cleveland.

And a New York newspaper said of one candidate, "God save the republic -.from the buffoon and gawk ... we have for president."

It was referring to - Abraham Lincoln.

Somehow, though, we have managed to hold together as a republic - but not, I would say, without the constant danger of the extremes pulling us apart.

We are not doing as well as we think we are. Some have limited their worries to the excesses of smash-mouth elections. But the problems go beyond electing our leaders. They infect how we govern after elections just as deeply.


In his fine poem,"The Second Coming," the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote:

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold ..."

I want to say clearly - if our republic is to stand, is to succeed as a government "of, by and for the people," - the center must hold. I say that as more than a political moderate. I am a political moderate (mostly) because I believe it to be imperative - and that the destructive history of extremist movements proves it.

There are signs that this center is eroding ... let's speak first of the economic center - the gateway and bulwark of our state and national self image - the American middle class.

  • In Oregon since 1975, only 20 percent of the population has seen real improvement in its purchasing power. That means 4/5ths, 80 percent, have stayed the same or gone down.
  • In the past 25 years five million factory jobs have been lost in America - eliminated or transferred overseas.
  • There are now about as many temporary, on-call or contract workers in the United States as there are members of labor unions.
  • Of the 2.7 million jobs lost during and after the recession in 2001, the vast majority have been restructured out of existence, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  • In 2001, the top 20 percent of households for the first time raked in more than half of all income, while the share earned by those in the middle was the lowest in nearly 50 years.

As I said, in Oregon we are not doing as well as we think we are. According to statistics gathered by the Oregon Progress Board we are far from meeting a substantial number of our positive economic benchmarks:

  1. EMPLOYMENT DISPERSION No. The ten-year trend for employment outside the Willamette Valley is worsening.
  2. NEW COMPANIES No.. Oregon has lost some ground in recent years.
  3. NET JOB GROWTH - OVERALL No. After creating hundreds of thousand of jobs in the 1990s, Oregon lost over 23,000 jobs from 2000-2001.
    1. Urban No. Oregon lost over 6,600 urban jobs in 2001. The ten-year trend is worsening.
    2. Rural No. Oregon lost over 4,300 rural jobs in 2001. The ten-year trend is worsening.
  4. PROFESSIONAL SERVICES No. Oregon remains a net importer of financial, insurance, engineering, business and legal services.
  5. ECONOMIC DIVERSIFICATION No. Oregon's national rank in economic diversification was 35th in 2000. In 1990 it was 28th.

Unlike Europe or Asia, we have historically seen ourselves as a classless society - as a place where upward mobility - a share in our nation, so to speak - is a possibility. That may be the reason why there is perceived political impact in the accusation that an opponent or party is engaging in "class warfare."

Today, such books as "Nickled and Dimed" depict the harrowing situation more and more middle class people find themselves in - working two jobs at minimum wage, no benefits, no health insurance - and getting further behind all the time.

An earlier book, "The Emerging Republican Majority," written by Kevin Phillips in 1969, became a sort of Bible for the Republican Party beginning with Richard Nixon.

In 1982, the Wall Street Journal described Phillips as "the leading conservative electoral analyst" - the man who invented the term "Sun Belt," named the "New Right," and prophesied "The Emerging Republican Majority" in 1969."

He saw more recently much of this new income gap problem coming, with a clarity that Time magazine compared to that of Nostradamus. So from this conservative's perspective, our economic directions and their social impacts are seen as divisive and alarming as well.

America has never had "class warfare" in the sense that Karl Marx prophesied. But the American middle class is shrinking; the trends breed a pervasive sense of "insecurity." And insecurity is a fertile psychological seed-bed for extremist appeals of all categories.


I entered elective politics in the 1970s. Now both electing and governing seem more difficult. Why? I trace the causes to a number of political tectonic events. They particularly widen the fault lines between rural and urban Oregonians.

With apologies to David Letterman, let me give the top 10 reasons why, in Oregon at least over the course of the last decade, these vital elements of civilized discourse in our democracy are being challenged.

  1. Reapportionment - the subsequent movement of representation from rural to urban areas, leaving communities, especially those east of the Cascades and remote from the freeways with a sense of alienation and powerlessness.
  2. The heightened impact of partisan cleavages and the emergence of caucus politics - and the collapse of the Republican center. It is much more difficult - and politically costly - in today's legislature to cross a party line for a good idea.
  3. The impact of session length and term limits on the longevity of representation -
    1. The loss of elder statesmen who came from rural and urban areas, but tried to speak for all of Oregon. They possessed the institutional memory that keeps a legislature from repeating mistakes. They've also weathered enough elections not to be all-consumed about winning the next ones.

      I would like to note here the loss over the weekend of Clay Myers, one of those elder statesmen - a UO graduate, and essentially the founder of the Young Republicans on our campus.

      He served as Oregon Secretary of State from 1967 (appointed when McCall became governor) until 1976, and then served two four-year terms as State Treasurer.

      Clay represented that last generation's near-lost ability to put state ahead of ideology, people above party ... that ability to govern for all.

  4. Emergence of PAC financing and the proliferation and growing influence of environmental and agricultural PACs as antagonists with each other. But PACs of whatever stripe (and I have contributed to some) are what James Madison long ago described - and feared - as "factions." They are powered by money, the famous "mother's milk of politics." Each campaign reform law seems to breed more. This year's latest political shorthand is to refer to the political advertising excesses of the "527's" - named for the code section that allows their creation.
  5. The striking impact of initiative and the threat of initiative on the electoral process
    1. 1. Paid signature gatherers for petitions were determined lawful after a key 1982 free speech challenge to earlier prohibitions. The floodgates were opened.
    2. Successful passage of the revolutionary property tax initiative, Measure 5 (1990) radically changed the face of school funding and state agency budgeting-but against the votes of rural Oregon passed only because of Multnomah County.
    3. The cattle - streambed fencing initiatives heightened rural distrust of urban environmentalists.
    4. Little noted, but crucially important: the sheer number, complexity and political advertising costs of initiatives literally drowns out the competing voices of candidates in legislative races. Representative government has lost the center stage to high volume decisions by direct plebiscite.
  6. Spotted Owl and related timber supply decisions have caused an overall decline in timber harvest, coupled with the salmon and water crises. This has pitted workers and champions of the extraction economy against urban populations, recreational users and environmentalists.
  7. Population shifts to I-5 and I-84 corridors have led not only to the net loss of rural population, but to increased impoverishment of those who remain.

    (Using data from the 2000 U.S. census, the U.S. Bureau of Economic analysis says that while 11.3 percent of Americans and 10.8 percent of urban Americans live in poverty, 13.4 percent of rural Americans live in poverty.)

    1. In-migration to Portland of young, urban and hi-tech voters and the cultural clashes of the new immigrants to the tri-county area of Central Oregon
  8. Decline in small town independent media - home-owned newspapers and radio, along with the growing dominance of The Oregonian, Portland TV - cable and broadcast chains - with the explosive increase in talk radio ideologues (the echo chamber).
  9. Religious fundamentalism has increased the internal polarization of the Republican Party making it seem less hospitable to its former centrist members, and raising the stakes of deeply personal social concerns as they are brought into political battlegrounds.
  10. Media and partisan tribes with a memory. Can we ignore the role of talk show demagogy and polarizing partisan television celebrities of both stripes? I think not. I can't say it better than Fareed Zakaria's column on "Crossfire Politics" in the November 1 Newsweek:

    "The trouble is that progress on any major problem - the deficit, Social Security, health care - will require compromise from both sides. The country is evenly divided. In foreign policy, crafting a solution in Iraq, or a policy for Iran and North Korea, or a long-term strategy toward Asia will all need significant support from both sides. But that's highly unlikely. Other than the occasional maverick statesmen like John McCain, those who advocate such compromises will find themselves marginalized by the party's leadership, losing funds from special-interest groups and constantly attacked by their "side" on "Crossfire." Better to stand firm, don't give in and go back and tell your team that you refused to bow to the enemy. It's terrible for governing, but it's great for fund-raising."


Thirty years ago today I was elected, to the surprise of many, including perhaps myself, to serve in the Oregon House of Representatives.

As a junior member I was excited by what I might do ...

The job is harder now ...

In the shadow of Tom McCall, who set a standard ...

But also in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate ...

And in the shadow of those themes, those tectonic shifts, I just identified ...

You've seen the Red and Blue maps of our nation - just how far our nation is divided. In many ways, Oregon too seems divided in a similar manner with a bi-coastal split.

(Though I would argue that being bi-coastal is nothing we should legislate against.) Now that I think of it, Oregon doesn't have an East Coast, but it does have Red-Blue divisions.


This year - and in growing numbers in years past - we have been distracted from candidates to issues.

This year we are fighting over a number of ballot measures, some of which do not even belong on the ballot ... they present issues that should be addressed by the legislature, our churches, local governments or private enterprise ...

As I noted before, the time, energy and resources put into these measures that do not even belong on the ballot take our attention away from the candidates to whom we should be looking for answers and leadership in the real challenges of governing.

I would argue that it is substantially easier to gather signatures - and even pass a ballot measure - than it is to govern wisely and in the best interests of all the people.


Earlier I said that there are signs that the center is eroding ...

But a recent column in The Oregonian and a book entitled "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America" (Morris Fiorina) seek to counter that argument.

Fiorina suggests that we are not a nation of angry citizens, red and blue, glaring at each other across an angry chasm.

He suggests that close elections are not proof of deep divisions, rather of a gathering at the center.

He suggests that the "culture war" labeling serves the media and political elites in their efforts to simplify reality and win elections.

We have, he suggests, more common ground than differences. Maybe - but he offers no real evidence. I wish he did. What we see happening in Oregon belies his theory, at least to the degree that we are able to govern effectively.

I believe what is happening in Oregon and the nation shows that the divisions are serious - and that the move away from the center must be addressed.


"The centre will not hold ..."

But maybe - maybe it can ...

  • None of us wants to see terrorism go unchecked.
  • All of us want American soldiers out of harm's way.
  • None of us wants health costs to continue their drive upward.
  • All of us want those in greatest need to be cared for.
  • None of us wants Social Security to go broke.
  • All of us believe in a large degree of personal responsibility.
  • None of us wants jobs to disappear.
  • All of us want a thriving economy that benefits workers and owners.

The list could go on to a number of hot button issues - state and local - issues on which we can find common ground.

There is a center.

Yet, it is hard to be a centrist today.

Centrists are portrayed as wishy-washy by a media that is looking for five-second sound bites.

I used to be able to say "thirty second sound bites," but today the 30-second ones are too long for most - and those who do listen to them, most likely on NPR, are looked at as if they must hold a Ph.D. in obscure studies or have nothing better to do with their time.

Talk radio celebrates the extremes. It lives off passion. It pays its bills and makes its profit off passion.

We are reminded frequently that "passion" is the most important element of an argument. With all due respect, that reminder is bullroar. Passion may be the fuel of a rocket, but it is not the payload.

Calm discussion leading to compromise and workable answers is not usually good for ratings.

If you or I - or anyone - say the answers are complex, we are labeled as indecisive or cerebral - heaven help us.

But I say the middle holds truth - or, if not the "absolute truth," that is the false god of extremists - at least a working model of it that most can live with and from which we can govern.

The middle is where we can - and must - come together... it is the only place we can come together and govern effectively - as well as wisely.


A high standard has been set for us by the framers of our Constitution-Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams were all men of passion - passion that moved them to defeat the most powerful nation on the face of the earth.

But this passion, that they recognized in the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers and elsewhere, had to be harnessed, focused, and even overtly distrusted if one were to govern.

The center is where we came together as a nation in the first place.

It is where people with passions, people with extreme views, people who said "Give me liberty or give me death," came together in a Constitution that that found a center .

I will remind you of the first words of the U.S. Constitution: "We the people of the United States ..."

"We the people ..." Not, as in earlier drafts, "We the states."

Not "We one fringe element of the people," or "We, the people who know best."

"We the people" were admittedly - at the time, only white male property owners - but "we the people," would begin to resolve that later.

Of the effort to establish our Constitution, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"The example of changing a constitution by assembling the wise men of the State, instead of assembling the armies, will be worth as much to the world as former examples we have given them."

"The example ... "

It is time for us to set an example - here and now.

In his poem, "The Second Coming," Yeats spoke about the failure of the center. He also said something else:

"The best lack all conviction," he wrote, "while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

If we care ... now is the time for the best of us to confirm our conviction that electing and governing must serve the purpose of the people - all the people - and a time for our passionate intensity to be replaced substantially with wise and compassionate decision making.

Electing and governing are more difficult today than I have ever seen in my lifetime.

This difficulty translates into more substantial problems than those screamed about on radio and TV talk shows.

It translates into social and economic harshness for thousands of men, women and children in Oregon.

It translates into a lack of commitment to the policies that made us at one time the state people wanted to live and work in - the envy of the nation.

It translates into a despair for many that will be lived out for years to come.

We're not doing as well as we think we are.

We came to this point together, through decisions, large and small, that moved us away from balance - away from this vital center.

Those decisions were made by "we the people." They can only be changed in the same manner.

I spoke earlier of Clay Myers. I teach a class on leadership at the UO. Clay Myers came to meet with students of my class recently and gave an extended discussion of his philosophy of leadership.

I can tell you that philosophy focused on how to make Oregon work, how to make decisions that truly benefit the future.

Out of this philosophy, which he shared with so many other Oregon leaders, they created the Oregon that worked, the Oregon that cared, the Oregon that led the nation by example.

We can go there again - but only through the center.

Regardless of who wins tomorrow - or next month - we can all be winners if we work our way back, step by unselfish step, to that vital center.

The center must hold.