By Michael Lumley
The Daily Beacon (University of Tennessee)
Monday, October 22, 2007
A few months ago at a National Press Club Lunch in Washington, Newt Gingrich actually said something worth repeating. That happens so rarely now-a-days with prominent political leaders I was actually a little astonished. Essentially, Newt argued that the current electoral process is too long, too expensive and fundamentally insane.
“As the campaigns get longer,” Gingrich said, “you’re asking a person who’s going to be sworn in in January of 2009 to tell you what they’ll do in January of 2007, when they haven’t got a clue — because they don’t know what the world will be like, and you’re suggesting that they won’t learn anything through the two years of campaigning.”
Newt’s completely right of course. In 2000, Americans voted for a “compassionate conservative” who believed in limited government, cutting growth in federal spending and a restrained foreign policy. Instead they got George W. Bush.
How could America have been so deceived?
Our electoral process sucks.
Presidents are elected from a pool of candidates who are selected based on one determining factor — their ability to gather small contributions from large groups of people. How best to do this? Some have found that being mayor of a large city devastated by a major terror attack helps. Others have tried being married to very popular former presidents. Less common is an approach involving vision, principle or leadership.
But it’s not enough to start out with a really terrible pool of candidates. After the system eliminates anyone who is unable to instantly reach two to three million campaign donors, it plunges the candidates into a series of encounters that the political machine calls “debates.”
To call these spectacles debates is a bit like calling “Big Brother 4” prime-time television or calling Britney Spears an artist. I mean, sure, technically they’re debates, but in reality, its only 90 minutes of eight to 10 suits doing their damnedest not to stick their feet in their mouths.
Take this real debate question, posed to Rudy Giuliani: What are the biggest mistakes that you have ever made, and how have they changed you for a better person? You have thirty seconds.
Thirty seconds? To answer the question properly would take 30 seconds of just thinking before speaking. Of course, as all good candidates do, Giuliani simply deflected the question — playing it safe and keeping his foot well away from his mouth.
Every once and a while, however, a candidate actually tries to engage in a meaningful policy discussion instead of parroting off meaningless drivel like “I believe in the American Dream.” When this happens, they are first misunderstood and then demonized.
Take Ron Paul, who tried to explain in one Republican debate that American foreign policy might be contributing to a “blowback” effect — that is, when we kill women and children overseas, it makes their relatives angry at us and more likely to blow up buildings. The solution: Critically examine our policies to ensure that they maximize the benefit to the American people and discontinue policies that do more harm then good to our relations overseas.
But for Rudy Giuliani, Paul’s digression into substantive policy analysis was a golden opportunity. In thirty seconds, Giuliani turned the reasonable position articulated above into a message that Ron Paul blamed America for 9/11, and as mayor of New York during 9/11 (something he just won’t shut up about) he demanded an official apology from the Paul campaign.
What’s even worse is that a lot of people out there — people I thought were smart enough not to fall for this crap — loved Giuliani’s aggressive approach.
And then there’s a whole other host of issues that I don’t even have the words to discuss here. Campaign finance reform is silencing people with little or no name recognition. In the wake of the 2004 election, candidates are no longer allowed to change their minds about anything — lest the opposing factions wave flip-flops in the air at rallies or speeches. (Yes, the flip-flop has now become an appropriate substitute for intelligent and rational debate.) And when the driving issue in a campaign becomes something like “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” or a made-up story about National Guard papers, well, something is definitely wrong.
The bottom line is this: It’s time for Americans to demand real, intelligent and appropriate presidential campaigns. How do we do that? Quit voting for politicians who shovel out meaningless drivel. And for once, just once, let’s start using our brains.
— Michael Lumley is a senior in economics. He can be reached at email@example.com.