Can Conservatives Ride No Train To Victory

Bill Scher

This week, Wisconsin Republican primary gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker caught the attention of Washington pundits with his latest ad, because it features the candidate attacking President Obama with smug condescension and sarcasm.

But I was struck because Walker his betting his campaign on stopping Wisconsin’s planned high-speed rail link. Even though it would create jobs. Even though it has already received federal funds. Even though the project has already begun. In fact, as the Wisconsin State Journal reported, Walker believes “the state giving back millions of dollars, even money that’s already been spent, would be better than finishing the rail project.”

Walker has even created an separate online campaign called NoTrain.com, in keeping with the Republican “No We Can’t” theme.

While Walker has taken the most audacious stance against federally-supported high-speed rail among gubernatorial candidates, California’s Meg Whitman and Ohio’s John Kasich have also announced opposition to projects in their states.

Is this a trend? Is there real conservative populist backlash? Could high-speed rail opposition determine the outcome of governor’s races and stall the Obama administration’s efforts to modernize our nation’s infrastructure?

First, it’s too early to say there’s an anti-HSR trend in governor’s races.

Conservative candidates in other states receiving federal high-speed rail funds such as Florida, Iowa, Oregon, Missouri, Illinois and Michigan have not prioritized the issue, at least not yet.

But are Walker, Whitman and Kasich on to something? Is their collective finger on the pulse of a brewing backlash?

The evidence is scant and mixed, but offers a cautionary note for progressives pushing for robust public investment.

In Wisconsin, Walker is hanging his hat on a single poll of the Milwaukee area showing only 41% support the rail plan, down from 57% last year. It appears support for the plan has been bruised because state officials initially oversold the job creation estimates and later scaled them back.

But in California, two years ago voters approved a major bond measure to fund high-speed rail. A poll last month found a whopping 76% of voters still support the project, but some of the support is soft. A plurality of 42% want the system built but have “concerns” about cost.

That tension within the political middle of the electorate — between wanting bold public investment and worrying about wasteful government spending — is a perennial obstacle to progressive reform.

Fortunately, the desire to create jobs and revitalize American manufacturing is broadly shared by the electorate.

The widely reported poll by The Mellman Group on behalf the Alliance for American Manufacturing showed huge support, 86% for “invest[ing] in our infrastructure—using American made materials—to integrate new smart electrical grid technology, generate power by building wind turbines, and create a modern network of high-speed passenger railways.”

But the Mellman Group cautioned that “strong” support for “new” infrastructure — including high-speed rail — only reaches 47%, whereas strong support for “old” infrastructure such as roads and bridges hits 58%.

Conservatives are comfortable making this a false choice between “old” and “new” infrastructure. Walker’s ad argues for taking the federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail and diverting to roads and bridges.

But he doesn’t mention that in addition to the high-speed rail funds, the federal stimulus already gave Wisconsin over $100 million for roads and bridges which helped “build an extra 959,000 square feet of bridge decks” and “lay 2 million more tons of asphalt.”

We not only can do both, we just did.

But because there is an opportunity for conservatives to put supporters of old and new infrastructure against each other, It is essential that progressives reject any false choice between repairing existing infrastructure and modernizing our infrastructure.

Furthermore, progressives cannot shrug off concerns about cost, but we can’t succumb to them either.

As pollster Stan Greenberg discerned from the poll he executed on behalf of Campaign for America’s Future and other progressive groups, voters are concerned about both job creation and deficit reduction, and see a connection between them.

Therefore, it is possible to make the case that public investment to create jobs and grow the economy will also help reduce the deficit. But it is also possible to spew out misleading numbers to convince a skeptical electorate that a certain public investment project will waste taxpayer money.

Walker and Kasich have both done the latter.

Walker tries to argue high-speed rail is a vastly inefficient way to create jobs: “…according to the federal government’s own estimate, the total number of permanent jobs created will be 55. That’s $14.5 million per job, not including any hidden costs!” But that ignores the nearly 5,000 jobs that would be created during the construction phase, during this period of economic struggle, not to mention the environmental, safety and broader economic benefits that make the investment worth the money.

Kasich is trying to deride the planned Cleveland to Cincinnati link by arguing it will run an average of 39 mph, slower than driving. But the Associated Press said Kasich was being “misleading” by using the time it would take for a route with many stops, not an express train with limited stops.

Pushing back on these arguments is potentially difficult while the federal stimulus is being unfairly scapegoated as the cause of the stagnant economy. Many are quick to accept attacks on government ineffectiveness.

But the ultimate answer to our economic struggles is to do more, not less. To say “Yes,” and not “No.”

It is by no means a certainty that this trio of conservative candidates is able to spark an anti-train backlash. Their position cuts against America’s optimistic impulses and desperation for job creation.

But if we cannot credibly portray an thriving America powered by a revitalized infrastructure, and beat back bogus arguments, to give people a reason to say “Yes,” then we risk a “No Train” conservative populist backlash that could stifle our ability to recover from the recession and compete in the 21st global economy.

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