Sunday, March 20, 2016

Endless campaign's unspoken damage.

Admission 1: I’m a long-term political junkie, have been since elementary school.  Regardless of who is in office, I never miss a State-of-the-Union.  I’ve watched political conventions since they’ve been broadcast on TV, some years nearly gavel to gavel.  I watch presidential press conferences, major speeches/events on C-Span or YouTube including the funerals of, among others, Mario Cuomo and Antonin Scalia.  Needless to say, passing up a vote is never an option.

Admission 2: I haven’t seen a single presidential debate — Democratic or Republican — in this primary election cycle.  Why?  I could say watching them in this bizarre year is just too painful, and that would be true.  A lot of “ink” has been devoted to the vitriol in both the campaign and our current politics.  Some suggest how unprecedented the tone and outlandishness.  Perhaps we haven’t recently witnessed its like, but it has all happened before.  I’m reading historian William Leuchtenburg’s new book, The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.  At 93 he’s hard at work on the companion Washington to McKinley volume.  What strikes me in the reading is how rough and messy our politics has been throughout.  That impression was reinforced by a Charlie Rose interview with Ron Chernow, whose biography of our first Treasury Secretary inspired the hit show Hamilton.  The competitive mean-spiritedness of our idealized Founders would have made perfect fodder for today’s cable and Twitter. That doesn’t make what’s afoot today less disconcerting, less off putting.  But what’s keeping me less engaged isn’t nasty discourse, it's fatigue.

Back in April 2014 I posted a blog that began with these words, “The envelope was in my mailbox, the return address: “Ready for Hillary 2016”.  My immediate response: not so much — certainly not yet.  Beyond all else,” the post continued, “I am so not ready for two and a half protracted years of presidential politics.”  Indeed, the 2014 Congressional elections were still months away, ones that seemed of more immediate importance.  I saw the solicitation “as a distraction at the very moment when we can ill afford to avert our attention from the immediate task at hand.  Do her supporters", I asked, "not realize how important it is to hold the Senate; are they intentionally trying to undermine our sitting Democratic president?”  For Clinton, the campaign, albeit unannounced, was underway despite President Obama’s being barely in year two of his second term.  I’ll get back to that.   We all know the result of that lack of attention — that implied dismissal of a sitting majority elected president.

Help me here — two and a half years?  No other democracy in the world spends even a fraction of that time in campaign mode.  Indeed, some restrict national elections to a matter of weeks.   Campaigns are shorter and, yes, more citizens vote.  In an all time record year like 2008 only 57% of eligible voters cast ballots for president and that number declined to 54% in 2012; less than half of them vote in primaries.  For sure, money is a huge problem in our politics.  We spend far more on elections than anyone else on the globe.  Citizens United was a horrible decision, but I don’t think campaign spending is the primary problem.   The real killer is time; endless distracting and numbing months of speeches evoking largely manufactured “news”.  To be sure, time and money are related  — it takes bundles to sustain extended campaigning, but solve the time problem and fixing the money problem will follow.  The same is true, though clearly on a smaller scale, for congressional elections.  It’s no wonder that so little gets done in Washington when many Senators and Congresspersons are on the road not in their seats on the floor.  It’s sometimes hard to tell which is their primary job, carrying out legislative duties or campaigning.  All too often the two are indistinguishable.

It’s claimed that the current presidential campaign is evoking considerable interest.  Perhaps that’s the case, but I wonder how many Americans really know much about where candidates stand on substantive issues, or even if they have any coherent policy positions.  It should be instructive that Donald Trump with the fewest, a person given to what I’d call hour-long “tweet speeches” gets the most press.  Even if Americans had more than an infant’s attention span, and we don’t, there is just so long that anyone can honestly spend following these endless campaigns.  In fact, rather than enhancing they compromise democracy, which alone argues for a more humanly reasonable campaign season.

But what is the real and immediate damage of endless campaigning?  It undermines orderly governance and by extension all our interests.  A prime example can be found in the political charade surrounding the filling of a vital Supreme Court seat.  Returning to my April ’14 post and that independent (if you can believe that) solicitation by Hillary supporters.  I posed the question then about the appropriateness of the timing, only a year and a half into Obama’s four-year term.  In that context, isn’t it hard to question the Republican’s current position that effectively his presidency is over with less than a year to go?  I’m by no means suggesting that Hillary is to blame for the current situation, certainly not purposefully so.  But drawing the connection, inadvertent as it might be, is not too much of a stretch.  It is certainly a question that I would hope she and those who put that letter in my mailbox are asking of themselves.

Of course, what Clinton and others in both parties before her (including Obama) have done in reflects a systematic problem.  If they are guilty of anything it is following the “regular order of business” or of submitting to an unending campaign habit that has measurable and predictable consequences.   The nomination of Judge Merrick Garland is clearly falling victim to that order.  In most places — United Kingdom, France, Germany, Israel and Canada, for example — campaigning would still be months away.  Contending that a president or prime minister who had been elected for, in our case, four years was no longer accorded his Constitutional power nine months early would be both untenable, even laughable.  It is also totally inconsistent.   Barack Obama can send American troops across the globe, he can fire (one of Trumps favorite prerogatives of office) cabinet and many other government employees, and he can hire without consent anyone who doesn’t require congressional approval.  He can declare emergencies and send aid to victims of all manor of disaster.  Of course he can order up and fly Air Force One to Cuba and beyond.  I could go on, but you get the point.  Rest assured, if the Kentucky River overflows its banks or some coalmine disaster occurs in the state, Senator McConnell will want, indeed demand, the sitting president to exercise those powers.

Endless presidential campaigns don’t only induce my and your fatigue, they work against exercising our civic responsibilities; they endanger a full functioning government.  While on the campaign trial, senators absent themselves from their sworn duties and governors from theirs for months on end.  They don’t do so without often high cost.  Once in campaign mode, which sadly these days means most of the time, every discussion and every decision is undertaken in a political context.  Will this advance my personal or my party’s interests?  Will it lead me/us to, or keep me/us in, power?  Will it damage the “other side”?  Lot’s of questions.  Note that “will it advance the public good” is not among them.

We’re going to slug through this endless election cycle and most probably others to follow.  What I wonder is when will we admit that it’s all too much, that the cost, not only financial, is far too high, the risk far too great.  My fatigue this year — and surely I’m not alone — should be a wake up call.  The endless campaign's impact on filling Scalia's seat should make us all awake in a cold sweat.  Time we start thinking about breaking this most stupid “norm”.  And please don’t tell be it’s the “new normal”, the ultimate copout cliché of our time.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Okay, I was hooked throughout six seasons on Downton Abbey.  Yes it was, till the end, a bit of a soap opera.  Normally, I hate or can’t remain with soaps, The Good Wife an example.  There were moments in past seasons when I got close to abandoning ship, questioned whether I could make it into or through the next episode.  Something kept me.   No it wasn’t perfect and some have suggested suffered from having a single writer — Julian Fellowes — throughout.  Excuse me, Lord Julian Fellowes.  How fitting. 

Well it’s all over now, perhaps.  He’s musing about a film.  All of us loyal viewers, here and in the UK from whence it came undoubtedly have our favorite characters even some that we’ve learned to love or empathize with — Thomas.  Many found Lady Mary cold and imperious.  I always saw her as caught up in the must be or should be, the one on who bore the burden of carrying on, which is what Brits across classes are expected to do, like it or not.  Just, the way we do things around here.

Downton took the Crawley’s through the halcyon early 20th century days, though the “Great War” and into that transitional period before the twin shocks of a Depression and World War II.  Fellowes opted not to take us beyond 1925.  One can’t help but wonder how they would have weathered what was to come.  It probably wasn’t necessary because the series basic story, or perhaps message, had already been told.  For me, it was summed up in the last spoken lines of the two most senior and emblematic family members: Isobel and the Dowager Violet Crawley.  These two women played by great actors (and friends) Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith express Downton’s core tension better than all others.  “We’re going to the future not back to the past,” Isobel says.  To which a resigned but deeply disappointed Violet replies, “If only we had the choice”.

Their summary exchange is set against New Years Eve, our annual celebration of the future that Isobel embraces, and that Violet would be happy to forgo.   In the end Downton is all about that tension — holding on to the known way and being pulled toward and adapting to change.  It plays in the first decades of the nineteen-hundreds but still resonates powerfully almost a century on.  It’s the same tension we are witnessing close up in the harshness and crosscurrents of our current politics.  The days of places and practices like Downton may be behind us in the literal sense.  Moreover, we don’t see them as part of the American experience.  But is that true?  Downton is all about two worlds that rarely intersect, certainly not on equal terms.  Even their basic calendars are out of sync as tokened when Violet, in an earlier season, bewilderingly asked cousin Mathew, “What is a weekend?”  The 1%, to put in modern terms, has always lived in a totally different place and still does.

We are not of them, but they do fascinate us.  It wasn’t only the British who were besotted by Princes Diana and now yearn for glimpses into the lives of Kate and William.  It may mystify us that those most neglected by people like him have made Donald Trump their hero, insisting that he understands and cares for them.  It shouldn’t.  We have long misread such connections with the ultra successful or wealthy born, perhaps hoping that something of them — their good fortune — might rub off on us.  At the very least, we can, if only for the moment, live vicariously in their lives.  I’d guess (with no research to back it up) that viewers of Downton more likely identified with Robert and his Crawley’s than with Carson’s cohort below ground.  Their story was primary, while the characters in service, albeit likeable and sympathetic, played the perennial supporting role.  We may have wanted more for them, but honestly were more engaged with Edith’s struggles, in rooting for her “success” as if anyone could need more than even the most “deprived” Crawley.  When Anna gives birth in Mary’s bed at the series end, our minds were yelling “yes”, but somehow we knew that it was out of sync with the Downton way.  A gift of the moment that shouldn’t be read as a precedent, as settled law.

We pride ourselves on living in an egalitarian democracy where at least some of us can reach beyond the bounds of our origins.  Examples of rags to riches, figuratively or literally, abound.  We also know that for most people, opportunity is more a hollow dream or myth than a reality.  That has long been the case.  Perhaps we don’t have Lords and Ladies, but we certainly have a stratified society.  The Billionaire Class against whom Bernie Sanders rails is not new, nor is their role.  The late Ann Richards famously spoke of George Bush’s silver foot in his mouth, and Mitt Romney seemed tone deaf as to how most of us live.  But both Roosevelts were born to and lived in wealth, something that enabled Jack Kennedy to move further and faster than he might have as, say, the son of a Boston cab driver.   I’ve know people who were brought up by nannies — the way of the Crawley family — and who somehow always remained detached from or bemused by mothers, not to mention fathers, changing diapers.  President Obama has said that he will particularly miss Air Force One when he leaves office.  That special privileged existence is alluring and even modern day Horatio Alger types quickly get accustomed to a rarified and separated Downton life, even if updated slightly for a different time.  John McCain couldn’t remember how many houses he and his wife owned and I'm sure Michael Bloomberg has lost count.  

Why was Downton Abbey such a success?  It spoke to the continuing struggle between past, present, and future.  It was dated only in setting.  Somehow, and that’s true for so much of fiction written or performed, we knew those people.  Perhaps it would be a stretch to say we identified with them, but if not collectively we found parts of them individually within ourselves.  Was there anything to be admired in the ways of either upstairs or downstairs?  Absolutely not, much of it was deplorable.  But calm down.  It was only a television program, a bit of engaging playacting.  And you know what, writing about it is a very refreshing departure from commenting on that latest news from our deplorable election campaign.  I don’t know about you, but this blogger badly needed a break.