The October Surprise We Need

This is Civic Way’s second commentary on the upcoming election. Read the first part here.

The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the U.S.


  • The 2020 election will be over soon, but regrettably not the pandemic; no matter who wins, the problems threatening our nation’s future will remain to be confronted and solved
  • Instead of subjecting us to more conventional ads telling us how to vote, the candidates should start telling us how they will defeat the pandemic and how soon they will act
  • If we don’t enact another robust stimulus package now, our concerns about debt will be moot
  •  By making short-term fiscal aid dependent on a long-term governmental reform initiative, we can solve two pressing problems at the same time and better prepare for the next existential crisis


Election Day—November 3rd—is nearly upon us. Millions of Americans have already voted. The rest of us probably know all we need to know to make a decision on who we think should be the next President.

The most critical issue for most of us is the pandemic. Over six months in and we still have more questions than answers. When will the virus magically disappear? When will we have it under control? When will a vaccine be approved and who will receive it? How will we protect our health? How will we resurrect the economy? When can we return to normal? When will this misery end?

We don’t need to be told how important this election is. We also don’t really need to be told what’s wrong with the other candidate. How the Republicans don’t care about our health. How the Democrats are communists hell bent on ruining the suburbs. And we certainly don’t need another ad telling us how to vote.

What we really need is for each campaign to snap out of it.

To put us first. To tell us how we’re going to beat this pandemic. To explain their plan for putting our nation back on its feet, and when they will act. What precisely will they do and when are they prepared to do it?

The Undecided

At least 43 states and the District of Columbia allow early voting, including 38 states with no-excuse early voting and five states with all-mail voting systems. Most swing states allow early in-person and mail-in voting, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin. New Hampshire and Pennsylvania allow absentee voting, but not early in-person voting.

Americans are voting early in record numbers. Voting-by-mail and early in-person voting are underway in several states. According to the US Elections Project, we are voting early at ten times the 2016 rate. Over 9 million ballots have already been cast in 30 states. Polls suggest early voting rates as high as 58 percent for Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans. Some experts have projected a 65 percent turnout rate in 2020, which would be the highest voter turnout rate in over a century.

Most of us have made up our minds. We may be indifferent about down ballot races, but we know who will receive our vote for President. After 215,000 deaths, bizarre super-spreader rallies, a shameful debate and the shredding of jobs, hopes and norms, fence-sitters are approaching extinction. Recent polls confirm that few eligible US voters remain undecided about the presidential election (e.g., six percent per the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll and three percent per the latest CNN poll).

Like so often before (but with more money), this presidential campaign is increasingly focused on the undecided, especially in swing states. In the final weeks, the partisan operatives that dominate our political campaigns will become more obsessed with the remaining fence-sitters. As election day approaches, the media will do everything they can to keep us watching. The pundits will highlight tightening swing state polls, bestow unwarranted attention on undecided voters and breathlessly report the latest musings of the “red sweater guy.”

Tens (if not hundreds) of millions will be spent by both campaigns making their final pitch to undecided voters. And, with every passing day, the pitches will get shriller and nastier. Ads presenting the opponent in dark hues and creepy expressions. Ads warning that one candidate is a monster and the other is a threat to life as we know it. And no ads will tell us what the candidates will do to save us from the pandemic, let alone rebuild America.

These ads may influence some undecided voters. However, they also will widen the chasm between the two partisan camps. Each side thinks the other side is unwilling or unable to listen to the other. Worse, each camp increasingly views the other camp as an existential threat. Some seem reluctant to accept the election results if they lose. Amidst the accusations, conspiracies and cynical, perpetual quest for power, our hopes of working together, finding common ground and solving problems after Election Day appear to be fading.

The Case for Relief

The Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Millions have applied for unemployment benefits. Unemployment could surpass Great Depression levels. Businesses are shutting their doors at record rates. Many economists anticipate a slow, long recovery. And state and local governments are facing a fiscal apocalypse that could make federalism a fiction (see the Civic Way commentary).

The short-term impact on state and local governments is bad enough. While the timing enabled most state and local governments to navigate FY20, the next two fiscal years will be grim. Revenue losses, service cuts, credit downgrades, higher borrowing costs, pension fund stress and insolvency. States and localities have furloughed or laid off more workers than during the Great Recession and more job losses—teachers, police officers, firefighters and nurses—are likely, especially without federal relief.

The long-term impact could be much worse. The pandemic will destabilize hundreds of pension funds and eviscerate the operating capacity of thousands of state and local agencies. States will slash local aid and, in turn, local governments will be forced to curtail services that we take for granted, such as public safety, sanitation, education and transportation. Many local governments will become insolvent. Small jurisdictions with fragile economies and tax bases will never recover quickly.

The collapse of state and local governments will damage other sectors. With 17.3 million employees (11 percent of the total workforce), state and local governments are a vital part of the national economy. Gregory Mankiw, who once chaired President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers said, “There are times to worry about the growing government debt. This is not one of them.”

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act (the first federal stimulus program) was a commendable demonstration of bi-partisan action. It showed us what our political leaders can do when they think more about the nation than their personal ideologies. The CARES Act was desperately needed, but it was not enough. It capped state and local aid at $150 billion. It set expiration dates for other programs (e.g., enhanced unemployment benefits). It simply did not anticipate the crisis lasting this long.

The Democratic House has passed a $3 trillion aid package for state and local governments, but Republican Senate leaders have expressed reservations. The White House has never settled on a single strategy. One moment, the President abruptly suspends stimulus negotiations. Within hours, he demands a package more generous than Democratic legislation. As Congressional leaders from both parties will attest, it is virtually impossible to navigate a storm with ever-changing winds. Even though help is needed now, the political impasse means that no help is on the way.

The Case for Reform

The Senate has been unable to build a consensus around a second Covid-19 stimulus package. Some GOP Senators are reluctant to do help small businesses, unemployed individuals or desperate renters any more than they already have. Other GOP Senators have reservations about granting more federal relief to state and local governments, arguing that too many are saddled with waste, inefficiencies, ineptitude or distressed pension funds. Setting aside their hypocrisy, those Senators may have a point (see the Civic Way commentary).

Federalism—our system of federal, state and local governments—cannot meet the global challenges of the 21stCentury. Our federal government is sluggish. Our state and local patchwork—with 50 states and over 90,000 local governments—is plagued by volatile revenues, outmoded operating practices, unquenchable service demands and inconsistent leadership. It is burdened by over 5,000 fragmented public pension plans and other oppressive legacy costs. From 1977 to 2017, per capita direct general state and local expenditures increased from $5,022 to $9,449 (88 percent). State government costs vary widely (Alaska’s per capita costs are four times higher than Florida’s) and local government capabilities vary even more.

Even during good economic times, when funding should be ample, our governments have failed to solve our toughest problems. Economic inequities leave too many without hope. Public health programs are under-funded. Health care is inaccessible and unaffordable for too many. Public education gives us too little bang for the buck. Public faith in law enforcement and judicial systems has eroded. Housing is inadequate. Climate change continues unabated. Infrastructure decays. Our social safety net frays. Voting processes are besieged. And turning to the private sector for help, where many large corporations put short-term profits above all else, is a recipe for frustration.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted these defects and exposed the weaknesses of federalism and government. Some flaws have accelerated the pandemic’s spread while others have impeded its management. Unable to print money or incur deficits, state and local governments have become even more dependent on the federal government. And state and local governments lack sufficient reserves and budgetary flexibility to weather this crisis. In lieu of national leadership, state and local leaders have been forced to overcome the inherent weaknesses of federalism. But state and local governments are too fragmented, poorly coordinated and under-funded to defeat a crisis of this magnitude.

The pandemic and its aftermath will likely leave our federal, state and local governments reeling, on the precipice of insolvency and incapacitated for the challenges ahead. When we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, our governments will be severely, if not irrevocably, weakened. The federal government will have even less credibility than today. Our state and local governments will require sweeping structural change.

Our nation will not likely endure the next crisis without better government. While there is much that we can do to reform our federal, state and local governments—to attain good governance—such reforms are not easily attainable. However, if the coming financial storm is catastrophic, they will be indispensable.

The October Surprise We Need

“Only a crisis … [when] the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable … produces real change.” – Milton Friedman

The pandemic has brought previously unimaginable suffering to people throughout the world. And it has battered America with a disproportionate number of deaths, a still-rising number of infections and economic devastation. Still, the pandemic’s devastating impact on society, government, business and people could afford us a historic opportunity to reconstruct our nation. As soon as we get past the 2020 election.

Every Presidential campaign seems to turn on an actual or rumored October Surprise and this one is no different. What might happen in the closing weeks that will change the expected outcome? A “hot mic” remark? An on-camera meltdown? A personal scandal? An unexpected illness? A financial revelation? With our society—our future as the world’s leading democracy—handing in the balance, who cares?

How about an October Surprise that really matters? What if both candidates gave us a plan for unifying and reconstructing America? What if the campaigns redirected their ad budgets from conventional campaign ads to something constructive? What if, during the final weeks, the campaigns ran ads outlining their plans for defeating the virus and reforming government? What if the candidates made their stump speeches about what they will do for us?

Even better, what if both candidates pledged to implement their plans quickly, with the urgency the nation needs? This week for the incumbent and immediately after the election for the challenger. After all, help is needed now, not after January 20, 2021. Incorporate the planning in the presidential transition process. Meet with the lame duck Congress and its leadership and give them one last opportunity to help people. Craft a compromise stimulus bill to be enacted before year end.

The recommended stimulus package should address the needs of people, families, health care workers, businesses and government. The package should include the following three components:

  • Short-term aid package – a well-funded program to mitigate human hardship, surmount obsolete stabilizers (e.g., state unemployment insurance systems), preserve vital state and local government services and jobs, and monitor fiscal health and community outcomes
  • Long-term stimulus program – a structured, flexible federal stimulus system to replace episodic relief packages with robust automatic stabilizers that link direct aid, housing subsidies, small business grants, loan guarantees and prosperity-based repayment plans to economic indicators
  • Long-term government reform initiative – a bipartisan process for revamping federalism, reorganizing state and local government and restructuring public debt

The government reform initiative should be a prerequisite to short-term aid. Congress should empower a federal commission to reimagine government, assess potential reforms and develop a restructuring plan. The commission should design a new federal, state and local government model to improve intergovernmental coordination, enhance government services, reduce costs, restructure public debt, strengthen global competitiveness and prepare for the next big crisis. It also should craft model constitutional amendments, charters and laws for guiding implementation.

Silver Linings

The national political paralysis regarding another stimulus package is unforgivable. The people need help now. State and local government need short-term relief and long-term reform. Failing to save them will impede the recovery. Failing to reform them will emasculate our ability to confront the next crisis.

Party leaders should come together like they did earlier this year. Republicans should support immediate fiscal relief. Democrats should support enduring government reform. Together, they should do both. It may be unlikely in the heat of an election, but a thoughtful, bipartisan initiative would give us the hope we need. And it would enable us to survive today’s crisis and prepare for the next one.

In the heat of an election, our problems and divisions appear insurmountable. But, sometimes, hope arises when the future seems most uncertain. Perhaps the despair and shock of a crisis or confrontation will shake us from our political stupor, force us to look beyond our biases and even restore our faith in government.

Linking the stimulus package to lasting reform will enable state and local governments to support—not impede—the recovery. And, in the long run, it will produce a new public sector model that revitalizes federalism, improves public services, reduces costs and strengthens our ability to meet future challenges. America has been here before and overcome adversity as one nation. Why not in 2020?