Talking Points

Devil for the Democrats? It's all in the details

Nick Kristof and and the recently ousted members of the San Francisco school board have something in common — and it's not just that none of them will be serving in elected office anytime soon. 

The commonality? They forgot about the basics.

Kristof, the former New York Times columnist, stepped down from that esteemed post last summer to run for governor in Oregon. (My colleague Bonnie Kristian was skeptical at the time.) But he soon ran into a problem: He hadn't actually lived in the state long enough to be eligible for office. On Thursday, the state's supreme court affirmed an earlier ruling by the Oregon's secretary of state that Kristof was ineligible for a spot on the ballot. The campaign is over — and if Kristof isn't embarrassed, he should be. It's probably a good idea to check the rulebook before quitting your day job to take a job you can't have.

What does this have to do with the San Francisco school board? Much of the commentary about this week's recall election has focused on "wokeness." That's understandable — the three members who lost their jobs had focused heavily on racial justice issues, most famously voting to rename some city schools that had previously honored historic figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. (Their history wasn't always solid.) But as Mother Jones' Clara Jeffrey points out, one of the real problems was that the school board was focusing on school names instead of working to get kids back in the classroom during the pandemic. "If I had to boil it down," Jeffrey wrote of the recall, "it was a … vote to put performance over performativeness."

Well yes, exactly. Pundits and activists often have gauzy, romantic visions of what they might do if they were in charge. But what the voting public wants first and foremost is for things to work — for potholes to be filled and schools to be open. That means doing the unglamorous drudgery of government, crossing the "T"s and dot "I"s. The basics. Once that's accomplished, and only then, is it possible to move on to higher-order concerns. 

Democrats are probably going to lose the House of Representatives in midterm elections later this year, and more than a few of them blame that fate on the party's inability to pass the big things on its agenda, like the Build Better Act and voter reform. There might be something to that. But it's also true that Gallup's latest "right track/wrong track" poll indicates just 17 percent of Americans are satisfied with how things are going. Voters are paying more for gas and COVID is still crimping their lives, and those things matter. Dems are running out of time to get the big things done. Maybe the best thing they can do is get back to basics.