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Columns Tom Baxter

In flush times, politicians reared on negativity struggle to find their footing

By Tom Baxter

Are we happy yet?

When Atlanta kicker Younghoe Koo’s toe hit leather in the closing seconds of Sunday afternoon’s Falcons-Saints game, it capped off a week of sports nirvana for Atlanta fans already delirious over the Braves’ World Series victory.

It isn’t just the sports section that gives us cause to celebrate, either. State revenues are through the roof, with overall tax collections rising 30 percent in September and 23 percent in October. Revenue collections have increased by $1.36 billion over last year. That’s on top of the $4.8 billion in COVID relief funds the state has left to dole out, and a projected $11 billion from the federal infrastructure bill.

The Atlanta municipal elections were conducted with no major problems, which should be good news to anyone who supports open and fair elections generally. Combined with the announcement by Fulton County elections chief Richard Barron that he’s leaving at the end of the year, this makes the county less vulnerable to a takeover attempt.
The battle against COVID has taught us to be careful when we think we’ve turned a corner, but last week’s clearance of the COVID vaccine for children five and older and Pfizer’s announcement that its pill for people who have the disease cuts the risk of hospitalization and death by nearly 90 percent were giant steps toward a post-pandemic normal. That’s good news for everybody.

For most of us, this patch of clear skies is welcome. For politicians, it poses something of a problem. Especially nowadays, political leaders tend to do better with bad news. It’s easier to point a finger than to gain the advantage in a group shot, to declare a problem unfixable than to fix it when you have the means to do so.

This has been an era when bad news has sparked partisan division and driven elections, and a spate of hopeful developments might require a new skill set. It’s interesting to see Republicans in Georgia advancing legislative maps which, while they are drawn to their partisan advantage and could still be challenged in court, avoid some of the smash-and-grab tactics of redistricting sessions in recent decades. The state Senate map, for instance, splits 10 fewer counties than the one drawn a decade ago. At least there’s an appearance of good order.

Politicians, generally speaking, aren’t above going to ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects they voted against, but Republicans will have a lot of ribbon cuttings to grin through in the wake of the passage of the infrastructure bill. Metro Atlanta is by far the biggest beneficiary of the bill, with a huge investment in making the city once again a major hub for passenger rail. But the entire state will see major road and bridge projects, and more money for transit than most cities across the state have ever had.
With these blessings there will come the inevitable debate between Republicans who want to cut taxes and Democrats who want to fund programs. In this case, the smartest politics might be to figure out how to use this rare confluence of windfalls to the best effect.

For better or worse, all these public works projects are likely to bring us close to full employment, whatever that looks like in a time when a lot of jobs are already going unfilled. The more we look at the current jobs picture, the less it looks like a transitory effect of the pandemic and the more it looks like an early wave of the worldwide demographic collapse being reported across much of the developed world.

One of the unforeseen consequences of the infrastructure bill may be to bring this problem into a sharper light. At $1 trillion, the current bill is much more modest than President Joe Biden’s original proposal. But the limits of what the country can do to lift itself up to 21st century standards may be defined as much by jobs filled as by dollars.

The good news about COVID hasn’t changed pandemic politics. At least not yet. Brian Kemp and other Republican governors are challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors, and social media is buzzing about Aaron Rodgers. But it’s hard to see all these COVID-related stories having as sharp an edge by next year’s elections.

 

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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