“I know you are but what am I”: Going after the person, not the policy, in politics

Can’t say I’m surprised by this mornings reporting from David Corn over at Mother Jones regarding leaked audio from an opposition research meeting held by Senator Mitch McConnell:

On February 2, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the US Senate, opened up his 2014 reelection campaign headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, and in front of several dozen supporters vowed to “point out” the weaknesses of any opponent fielded by the Democrats. “They want to fight? We’re ready,” he declared. McConnell was serious: Later that day, he was huddling with aides in a private meeting to discuss how to attack his possible Democratic foes, including actor/activist Ashley Judd, who was then contemplating challenging the minority leader. During this strategy session—a recording of which was obtained by Mother Jones—McConnell and his aides considered assaulting Judd for her past struggles with depression and for her religious views.

I was very fortunate in my years of working in campaigns that I never had a meeting that someone’s battles with depression or religion were discussed as possible political weapons. The people I worked with weren’t afraid of attacking opponents, but it was always on substantial policy issues or votes, something I support and did on many occasions.

Would Senator McConnell be dumb enough to use most of this material himself? I doubt it, most good political operations would unload this personal stuff to an outside group or individual to use in an attack campaign.

A distinction is important here between so-called “negative” and personal attacks. “Negative attack” is a catch-all term the media likes to use to describe any ad, email or mail piece which calls out a politician for a particular idea, policy or vote. That type of attack isn’t negative, it’s absolutely necessary. If you can’t call out someone for their policy proposals or votes, you don’t really have an election, simply a beauty contest, the best hair and makeup wins.

My problem with many negative ads is how they’re created to mislead voters about someone’s actual position, taking words out of context for example. This doesn’t shine a light on how people think differently or would serve people better, it only creates an illusion to distract voters from real issues. I can’t say this is a tactic only one party uses but I would argue that Republicans are far more comfortable and effective doing it.

At the same time I don’t believe negative ads are the downfall of our republic, since they have been a part of American politics since before the revolution. Sharon Begley offered this history lesson in Newsweek in 2008:

Please. For true connoisseurs, such attacks are to negative campaigning what boxed wine is to a 1961 Château Lafite: a weak imitation of the real thing, a tease that makes one yearn for the vintages of yore. We’re thinking here of vintages such as 1800 when, during the Thomas Jefferson-John Adams presidential race, the Connecticut Courant wrote that if Jefferson won, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” New Englanders, Advertising Age noted in an editorial last April praising negative campaign ads, “reportedly hid their Bibles for fear that the infidel president would declare them illegal.” Or vintages such as 1828, when supporters of presidential candidate and incumbent John Quincy Adams called opponent Andrew Jackson a cannibal and a murderer. The previously married Mrs. Jackson got off easy; Adams’s supporters merely accused her of being a whore.

The fine tradition of negativity and attacks goes back to the nation’s founding document. By the count of political scientist John G. Geer of Vanderbilt University, 70 percent of the statements in the Declaration of Independence are not uplifting promises of more-just and democratic governance, but attacks on England and George III (“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice,” “He has dissolved Representative Houses” and, of course, “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people”). These criticisms “provided the basis for thinking about abuses of power and the centrality of certain basic human rights,” Geer writes in his 2006 book “In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns.” “Without such negativity, the argument for establishing a new nation that ‘derived its just powers from the consent of the govern[ed]’ would not have been possible.”

If we really want to bolster our democracy for the future we should concentrate on freeing elected officials from having to raise money and give their staffs the ability to craft legislation without having to rely on and be bombarded by lobbyists.

Opening a window on what the connected and rich can get away with

A collaboration of reporters from around the world has produced a new report entitled “Secrecy for Sale”. The report describes the way in which the connected and rich use offshore companies and tax havens created by the world’s biggest banks to hide their money and avoid contributing to the communities that have helped them become successful.

From the report summary:

The leaked files provide facts and figures — cash transfers, incorporation dates, links between companies and individuals — that illustrate how offshore financial secrecy has spread aggressively around the globe, allowing the wealthy and the well-connected to dodge taxes and fueling corruption and economic woes in rich and poor nations alike.

The records detail the offshore holdings of people and companies in more than 170 countries and territories.

. . .

The vast flow of offshore money — legal and illegal, personal and corporate — can roil economies and pit nations against each other. Europe’s continuing financial crisis has been fueled by a Greek fiscal disaster exacerbated by offshore tax cheating and by a banking meltdown in the tiny tax haven of Cyprus, where local banks’ assets have been inflated by waves of cash from Russia.

Anti-corruption campaigners argue that offshore secrecy undermines law and order and forces average citizens to pay higher taxes to make up for revenues that vanish offshore. Studies have estimated that cross-border flows of global proceeds of financial crimes total between $1 trillion and $1.6 trillion a year.

There has been an ample amount of evidence reported on in the United States to warrant vast prosecutions of those on Wall Street. But that hasn’t happened as the Bush and Obama Administrations let the revolving door between Wall Street and government agencies spin round and round. And besides the Occupy Wall Street, the American people have largely let them off the hook.

I would love to see big banks torn apart brick by brick, a return of the firewall between commercial and investment banking, and government agencies with real teeth and power to go after financial fraud. I’m optimistic but no fool to believe this will actually happen. I suspect even the next financial crisis, which is bound to happen because of the currently overinflated stock market, won’t bring about real change. With unemployment expected to remain high, corporations hiding $1.7 trillion in liquid assets in their mattresses, wages dropping, and the price of energy continuing to climb (no, drilling won’t help) working people don’t have anymore to give.

They don’t have more to give in large part because they aren’t making any money, if they can even find a job.

This is how Bloomberg reported it back in September:

The U.S. Census Bureau figures released yesterday underscored the struggles of American families in a sputtering economic recovery. The report also showed the income gapbetween rich and poor people grew to the widest in more than 40 years in 2011 as the poverty rate remained at almost a two-decade high.

. . .

The census data show the wealthiest Americans secured most of the benefits from the economic recovery that began in June 2009.

“The gains from economic growth in 2011 were quite unevenly shared as household income fell in the middle and rose at the top,” Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, said on a conference call with reporters.

MotherJones puts the income gap problem in graph form:

So what you have is a toxic mix of income equality, hidden money and assets, falling wages for working people, and a political system unwilling to do anything about it. Henry Ford famously set out to make a car that people could afford. For the last 20 years people have been buying cars, boats, computers, and other goodies they really couldn’t afford, able to do so only because of multiple home mortgages and vast amounts of credit card debt. This is not the recipe for a successful society. What companies, their CEO’s and the rich must understand is that their success is tied directly to the fortunes of those don’t have what they do. Wages can only go so low, environmental conditions can only become so bad, and corruption and greed can only become so rampant before the society they depend upon for their riches collapses.

We can’t feed poor kids but we should try real hard to make everyone pray to the same god

Allow me to offer a piece of advice to Republicans trying valiantly to change their image and increase the size of their political tent; start supporting food programs for poor families and health care coverage for the sick instead of trying to pass laws to force everyone to pray to the same invisible man you pray to.

In North Carolina, lawmakers have introduced a resolution that ignores the First Amendment of the Constitution and several Supreme Court rulings and establish a religion for the state.  WRAL has the details:

A resolution filed by Republican lawmakers would allow North Carolina to declare an official religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Bill of Rights, and seeks to nullify any federal ruling against Christian prayer by public bodies statewide.

The resolution grew out of a dispute between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. In a federal lawsuit filed last month, the ACLU says the board has opened 97 percent of its meetings since 2007 with explicitly Christian prayers.

It’s not as if North Carolina doesn’t have real problems to solve, like the 9.4% unemployment rate, 2% higher than the nation as a whole. Maybe they could spend some time figuring out what to do about the 1.6 million folks in the Tar Heel state that don’t have health insurance, half the population. How about dealing with the 25% of children who live in poverty and the 600,000 children living with the risk of hunger, according to NoKidHungry NC.

For many of us, establishing a state religions sounds wacky, but to the lawmakers of North Carolina it isn’t. Article VI, Section 8 of the North Carolina declares that “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God” shall be disqualified from running for office. While blatantly unconstitutional, the language still exists and is right up there in craziness with Kentucky’s oath of office which includes:

“I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.”

A commentary in Forbes nails it:

I would call these ‘cheap’ political points but there is nothing cheap about the bills the state will rack up as they work to move their faulty legislation up to the United States Supreme Court in order to make their point.

For me, the overriding question presented by this latest effort to subvert the Constitution is just how long it will take for those who self-identify as strict constitutionalist—typically people who also identify as Republicans—to understand that their taxpayer dollars are being squandered by the millions by their elected officials.

When public servants have come to the point where they are desirous of turning their backs on citizens of their state whom may not subscribe to the same religious beliefs of those elected officials, we are on the road to an America that the Founders would neither recognize nor approve.

Stupid is as stupid says, the life story of Louie Gohmert

It was always the highlight of my day when I worked in Congress to see Congressman Louie Gohmert walk to the microphone on the House floor. No matter how bad my day was, I could count on Rep. Gohmert to spew some of the craziest and most ignorant words ever and make me laugh out loud. People have been deeply dismayed and offended by things he has said, I’m too busy laughing because you just can’t take him seriously.

Well this week he’s stepped in it again. According to Right Wing Watch, Congressman Gohmert tried to talk about gun control and ended up linking it to marriage equality and bestiality  It was really a feat of linguistics and stupidity. You can listen to the audio here, but this is the relevant portion:

In fact, I had this discussion with some wonderful, caring Democrats earlier this week on the issue of, well, they said “surely you could agree to limit the number of rounds in a magazine, couldn’t you? How would that be problematic?”

And I pointed out, well, once you make it ten, then why would you draw the line at ten? What’s wrong with nine? Or eleven? And the problem is once you draw that limit ; it’s kind of like marriage when you say it’s not a man and a woman any more, then why not have three men and one woman, or four women and one man, or why not somebody has a love for an animal? 

There is no clear place to draw the line once you eliminate the traditional marriage and it’s the same once you start putting limits on what guns can be used, then it’s just really easy to have laws that make them all illegal.

This isn’t the first time that Rep. Gohmert has put these things together. Check out this floor rant from October of 2009:

This dumbass comment must now compete with Rep. Don Young’s meditation on outreach to the Latino community when he referred to field workers as “wetbacks”. Great job boys!

Give Congress a raise and reform campaigns, in one swoop

People don’t like Congress, I get it. While you may disagree with the laws they pass or don’t pass, declining pay for the people responsible for writing laws is making for bad public policy. Daniel Schuman has an excellent piece in Slate this morning on the issue:

Adjusting for inflation, pay for congressional staff has been flat for the last 25 years. Only the chief of staff and the legislative director—the top two policy slots in a congressional office—earn more than their 1980s counterparts. As surveys by the Congressional Management Foundation have revealed, many congressional staff are inexperienced newcomers. All too frequently, they don’t have the expertise or experience to understand the nuances of the agencies they’re overseeing, especially when compared with better-paid executive branch bureaucrats who’ve been around for decades.

These young staffers are also up against the older, wiser versions of themselves who now work for special interests. There are just about as many registered lobbyists as congressional political staff on the Hill—about 13,000. With the huge reduction in congressional staff, lobbyists and think tanks often set the congressional agenda and are a major source of expertise about how government works.

Congressional staff depart through the revolving door with alarming speed, as a recentWashington Times story shows. Like senators and representatives, staffers are paid well to leave, and as a London School of Economics study found, they receive an additional pay bump so long as their former boss remains in office.

This is dangerous for our democracy. And not surprisingly, many very competent people no longer want the job. The last two elections brought the largest class of freshman representatives in 60 years. During the same time, the House’s budget has been cut by more than 10 percent, and funding for committees in 2013 will be slashed by an additional 11 percent.

If we want our representatives to work for us, we must pay them well enough to stay focused on the people’s business. We should make sure they have enough competent, experienced assistants to do their own research and draw their own conclusions. Right now we aren’t paying for quality work, and it shows.

As strange as it might sound, raising Congressional pay to attract the best and brightest while addressing campaign finance reform can be done together.

Without much fanfare, Paul Begala and James Carville published a piece in the Washington Monthly back in March of 2006 entitled “Not One Dime.”  They address the most serious problem facing public policy; fundraising. Their plan would raise congressional pay, forbid gifts of any kind, and free them from ever having to raise money again. Members of Congress would be free to legislate because they would be given campaign funds, by taxpayers, equal to 80% of what their campaign opponent raises. They would also be banned from raising campaign funds of any kind, for themselves, PAC’s, whatever. If you want to run for office any citizen, corporation or interest group can write you a check for as much as they like, but that money would have to be disclosed online within 24 hours. Exxon wants to write you a check for $1,000,000? That’s fine, but the incumbent will then get $800,000.

This plan would create publicly financed campaigns that also abide the Supreme Court’s rulings that money is free speech. I couldn’t agree more with Begala and Carville’s summary:

We know our plan is not perfect. Some will argue over whether the plan favors incumbents or challengers. Some will argue whether it favors Democrats or Republicans. Some will argue whether salary increases for politicians are justified.

We have our doubts as well, but if more money from the taxpayers makes it easier for politicians to agree to no money from special interests, it’s a good deal.

At its core, this plan does something no one will argue with: It forever divorces the corrosive–and sometimes corrupting–effect of campaign cash from members of Congress and presidents. When American citizens look at their Congress and White House, they will say what Alexander Hamilton said to a visitor to the newly-constructed U.S. Capitol: “Here, Sir, the people govern.”

The only thing Begala and Carville neglect is staff pay. There I would suggest raising Congressional staff budgets and mandating that a percentage be used to pay staff. With this new plan in place we may also have to address Congressional franking privileges, but that isn’t a huge hurdle.

Corrupt or incompetent

I worked for elected representatives or political campaigns full-time between 2001 and 2012 and the question I got asked most often was if I thought politicians were corrupt or just incompetent. My answer has always been neither.

Politicians are many things, but corrupt and/or incompetent would not be the words I’d use to describe them. They are narcissistic, brilliant, mean, detached from reality, driven, caring, easily scared, and talented. The fact is they are just like the people who elected them. I know that might be hard to comprehend, but as George Carlin pointed out, politicians aren’t grown in a field somewhere and imported into our lives. They are raised by American parents, taught in American schools, go to American churches, watch American TV, etc. As Carlin eloquently pointed out, maybe it isn’t our politicians who suck, maybe it is the American public.

As far as corruption goes, I’ve never witness a candidate or politician ever take money and vote yes or no on an issue because of it. As has been pointed out many times before, people and organizations give money to politicians who already share their world view. Have votes been bought, I’m sure they have, I’ve just never seen it. But this discussion obscures the larger and more insidious problem. Most of the information that politicians and their staffs have come to rely on are provided by those monied interests. Even more dangerous, the only people who get the politicians ear are the ones who write the big checks.

*By the way, I’m not as pessimistic as George Carlin, but his points are powerful and compelling.