Alaska editorial: Dems' 'talking points' on retirement system

Posted: Wednesday, April 06, 2005

This editorial appeared in Thursday's Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Crisis? What crisis? If you ask the Democrats in the Alaska Legislature about the problem confronting the two state-run employee retirement systems, don't be surprised if you hear them uniformly reciting the notion that maybe there really isn't one.

They'll be taking their cue from issue No. 7 of Press Notes, the little instruction manual for how to score political points and avoid behaving like a responsible legislator. No. 7 is dated March 18, carries the name of Mike Doogan of the Democrats' press office, and tells Democratic legislators how to play in the retirement debate.

"The crisis is in the future," Mike advises. "Lots of things can change in the next 25 years."

It's nothing new for political staffers to suggest ways that the politicians themselves can make their case in the media. It happens all the time, and the media-relations tips are usually referred to as "talking points." They keep politicians on track, and that's useful for a party or caucus that is trying to convey a consistent message to the public. In large legislative bodies, with members who can tend to go off on their own, talking points help corral the herd - whether it's of donkeys or elephants.

But there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it.

Done correctly, talking points convey facts or at least a fair assessment of a particular issue or of the positions of the opposition on that issue.

Done poorly, talking points lead elected leaders to spout fallacy, obscure the issue, omit key aspects and look foolish and petty.

The latter is the case with issue No. 7 of Press Notes.

For example, the three-page Democratic memo lacks any reference to how the rising mandatory retirement payments are affecting local governments and school districts. Unless the governor and Legislature agree to pay those rising costs, locals in some cases will face severe budget strain.

The memo goes on to make claims that Republican reform ideas "arise not from actual concern about, in this case, the retirement systems, but as a pretext to impose a radical change that reduces the size and influence of government while providing greater profits for corporations."

The memo follows that up by saying the GOP strategy is simple: "Create a crisis so you can impose your radical solution." It adds that "This is the first tactic of all demagogues: Create fear" and urges Democrats to "point out that this is part of a nationwide radical Republican effort to get government out of the retirement business ..."

The word "radical" appears four times. Yet there's little radical in trying to clean up a system that has become so out of balance, in trying to have employees take responsibility for their own retirement planning, and in trying to control the costs of a program that most Alaskans are not a part of but that can nonetheless affect those people by harming local governments.

Does the Democratic memo offer any solution to the retirement troubles? No. If you don't think there's a problem, then there's no need to make difficult political choices to find a solution.

There are several reasons not only for Republicans but also for Democrats to denounce this memo. But the really disturbing thing is the thought in the memo's concluding words, which suggest that Democrats themselves are interested more in attaining power than they are in solving the problem confronting the retirement systems. Democrats must, the words demand, change the debate. "You can use the same techniques in the debate over any issue. Reframe, then recast. You won't be sorry."

But Alaska will.

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