Narrow session's focus


”Lincoln” is such a fine movie for many reasons, but the most significant is the portrayal of a great man with a singular tenacity in the cause of an overriding issue.

Played by the Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln uses every tool at his command to gain passage in the House of Representatives of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

The amendment, which ended slavery, passed the Senate, but not the House, in 1864.

In 1865, near the end of the Civil War, Lincoln feared courts would reject his Emancipation Proclamation when the South surrendered.

That propelled the president to cajole politicians, browbeat his own Cabinet and turn to patronage — some would say payoffs — to secure votes in the House.

He wasn't about to lose the moment that would give lasting meaning to the carnage of our most brutal war.

Very little can compare to the Civil War or issues like slavery, but even today political challenges arrive in surprising packages, begging the question whether our leaders can or will bring a Lincoln-like focus to what bedevils us today.

Yes, we are riven by partisanship, but you can't get more divided than opposing armies.

Looking past Washington, Oregon has its own challenges, but do any one or two demand the singular focus of a top leader?

John Kitzhaber, the governor of Oregon, has great attributes.

Talking to The Bulletin editorial board this week he displayed confidence, skill, intelligence, persuasiveness and optimism.

Agree with him or not, it's undeniable that he cares a lot about the state and its challenges.

He said there has to be PERS reform and is confident there will be.

There also, he said, has to be correction reform.

He believes, despite some evidence to the contrary, that the unsupportable trend in corrections is longer sentences for more nonviolent offenders.

Taken together, the reforms of PERS and corrections could free a lot of money for other priorities.

But they are also dicey bets.

To get some of the money for his dreams he needs new revenue and the Republicans, though a minority in both the House and Senate, have enough seats to block such measures.

Reducing the retirement benefits is politically difficult for Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature.

And incarcerating offenders – even nonviolent ones – for less time, or none at all, is a delicate issue.

As reported, the governor is also recasting education from preschool through college, aiming at increasing the number of Oregonians securing degrees and closing student achievement gaps.

And just in case there is a dull day or two in Salem, Kitzhaber, a recognized leader in health care reform, is betting millions of dollars on novel programs to lower health care costs while extending nonemergency room primary care to more citizens.

No one can accuse the governor of a lack of ambition.

But is this wide a net the right approach for the moment?

Asked at the editorial board if there is one overriding issue, he answered “the budget.”

That is, of course, true. A budget is required, and it has to be balanced.

But if new money is so crucial to his ambition, a more definitive answer might be better.

How about: How can we get control of the costs of all government functions and services and, in a state dependent on the income tax, raise median private incomes?

Without those, it's hard to see how any of Kitzhaber's worthy dreams come true.