Thursday, February 01, 2007

Why U.S. Politics Suck

When people talk about “programmed” candidacies and carefully parsed statements designed to offend no one, they forget the reasons for such things. It isn’t cowardice so much as fear of a media machine so desperate for controversy that they will leap at any opening they get. There are two examples from the last week that illustrate this, and illustrate why we get the campaigns and candidates we do.
Let’s start with the Joe Biden - Barack Obama nonsense. In an interview with the New York Observer, Joe Biden made the following (clearly off-the-cuff) remark:
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Here’s the problem: the quote is not accurate. I heard the actual statement, which a)includes the word “sorta” before mainstream, which reinforces the off-hand nature of the remark and b) there is a pause after “African-American”. Now you say, what’s the big deal about the omission of a pause? By not accounting for it in the written version, it indeed does look like he is saying that previous black candidates were not articulate – as ridiculous a statement as is humanly possible. That is why Obama was able to react the way he did. If you account for the pause, either by (pause) or by inserting a simple comma, it is much clearer that the rest of the description applies to Obama and is not meant to be derogatory to others. By not doing it, you make a compliment to Obama seem like a slam at every other black candidate. Anyone who honestly thinks that Joe Biden thinks that Jesse Jackson, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton were not articulate is a fool. What interests me is why Obama would choose that specific word to respond to and why Biden would immediately get down on his knees rather than respond by attacking the writer of the piece and the judgment of anyone who would think he actually said that. Biden may be more careful in the future about talking to reporters, which would be a shame. This is why candidates are very careful in every word they say and it weakens our real view of these people.
Which brings us to Hillary’s joke. I am not the world’s biggest Hillary Clinton fan, but the reaction to her “I know about dealing with bad men” joke is frighteningly unfair. She made a joke, a good, smart joke, delivered with perfect timing. As a former comedy writer, I appreciate that skill, as did the audience, since she got a big laugh with it. Did the press react by praising her sense-of-humor? Did they appreciate her understanding the irony of her own life and career? No – they got their panties in a bunch and leaped into an inquisition about “Hillary is attacking Bill”. I rarely feel sorry for her, but when the most meticulous and programmed candidate ever says something witty, we should be thankful; yet here she was, defending herself for making a joke. Of course, in typical Hillary fashion, she backed off the joke, saying she wasn’t really talking about Bill. I want a President with a sense of humor, who can make a joke which might be reflective of the irony of life. You can do self-deprecating humor, and in front of your own people, you can do some generalized joke about the other party, but real wit is dangerous. We get the campaigns we deserve and the type of unimaginative candidates who can restrict themselves to rehearsed moments.

4 Comments:

Blogger samG said...

I've just read the last 3 postings and, while I had thoughts/commments for all of them, I chose to confine my comments to a theme of the last two (although I do want to especially support the increading of CAFE standards particularly as it relates to SUV's not currently classified as cars. I would also support a 50 cents per gallon federal tax on gas so that our money goes in to the coffers of the U.S. govt to provide for health care for the uninsured, etc rather than than the coffers of Exxon Mobil and Aramco).

On to sucky politics: During the debate on McCain/Feingold, I wrote a letter to the NY Times, which they printed (one of 5 they have printed from me) which argued that the debate over the legislation, actually the legislation itslef, was a waste of time as well as of questionable constitutionality. Apropos the Ben Franklin quotation that you excerpted, we get the governmnet/politics we deserve (the 'we' here applies to the U.S. electorate - those who vote and those who don't). The vast money now raised and spent on electioneering goes mostly to buy commercial time on TV. As I said in my letter to the Times, if voters are prepared to cast their votes based upon 30 and 60 second ads placed between Entertainment Tonight and Deal or No Deal, then we get what we deserve which, too ofetn are lying, inexperienced, naive fools to lead the country. I suggested that cable channels such as C-Span could provide unlimited time to candidates within a 3-6 period prior to elections to present their views. The problem is that very few people would watch and we couldn't require people to watch before they could vote.

As a result, candidates get swift-boated. A large majority of voters cast their votes based upon name recognition, appearance, likeability, and, mostly, TV commercials. And then, of course, there are those who don't think their vote matters. Does anyone truly doubt how different our world would be today if Gore had been elected in 2000? Does anyone believe that Gore, having served briefly in Vietnam, would have concocted and massaged intelligence to send troops to Iraq?

Unfortunately, our campaigns, and most western campaigns for that matter, don't sort these things out. We are left with swift boat ads, sanctity of marriage amendments, and beer buddies as the dtermining factors in electoral outcomes. There are major issues facing our country -insecurity in the middle east, global warming, health insurance, medicare and social security, the comptitiveness of U.S. industry in the global marketplace, and we are spending time on Hillary's jokes. It makes you want to scream

12:38 PM  
Blogger Barry Rubinowitz said...

Just because campaign finance laws haven't always had the desired result doesn't mean we shouldn't try. I doubt there is a real solution out there, but we can still look for one.
I think CAFE standards should apply to cars, SUV's, light trucks, everything except 16-wheelers. And they should be raised dramatically and fast,
As for increasing the gas tax to pay for health care -- I am opposed to that philosophically and politically. Gasoline taxes have long long been considered users fees, designed to pay for road upkeep, expansion, and other transportation-related expenses. We have stretched this to include alternative transit needs, such as mass transit, which is in the same realm and can be said to not just provide alternatives for drivers but , by taking some cars off the road, makes their drives easier. To increase the taxes on drivers to pay for a different use is utterly unfair, totally regressive, and political suicide for the party that backs it. Why should a working class guy living in the western half of the country, who has to drive 20 miles to work, have to pay a tax to subsidize the health care of a subway rider in NY? This is the kind of East Coast Liberal thinking that has caused the Democrats so much trouble out west. If the party were to adopt that as policy, the Democratic candidate for President would lose every western state except CA -- and we would be in play. It would not lessen the profit of the oil companies at all, it would just wreak havoc in the economy of at least half the country and maybe all of it, due to increased prices in shipping.

2:17 PM  
Blogger samG said...

Taxes have always been used to affect social behavior otherwise we would simply adopt Steve Forbes flat tax (which I actually prefer). There is no reason to connect how we raise taxes and how the money is used. Applying local property taxes to pay for local schools and thereby exacerbating the inequities in public schools is both morally wrong and of questionable constitutionality. Collecting an estate tax after someone dies or while they are still alive is of little significance to me other than the way it affects behavior. Germans pay twice as much for gas as we do and, while their country is not as large as ours, they are maybe more dependent than we on a thriving auto industry. Consumers have, and will, adjust to higher costs (a basic law of economics) and industry will adjust along with them.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Barry Rubinowitz said...

What you are proposing is a "sin tax" on gasoline, as we have them on cigarettes and alcohol. The problem is that people can choose to not smoke or drink (and I have some philosophical problem with sin taxes as well, but that's not the point here), but people in much of this wide-open country have to drive. It's very easy for those of you living on the east coast to advocate this, sort of like a non-smoker being for higher cigarette taxes, but for the rest of us, this is onerous and unfair. It's true that property and sin taxes are used for many things, but they are used locally. If CA, AZ, or WY want to pass a gasoline tax and keep the money for local projects, that's fine. But for the Federal government to take our money and spend it on a program totally unrelated to automobile usage is just wrong.
Of course, this argument is all theoretical, as anyone advocating such a tax will never be elected President, since he or she will not win any state west of Ohio. If this is a stealth concept, never mentioned in a campaign, the Democrats will lose the Senate immediately and probably the House soon after.
For the record, California has the strictest emissions standards in the country, requiring a specially formulated gasoline which is more expensive. We also have the highest percentage of high-mileage vehicles in the country. To increase our taxes would be an unconscionable burden and I would favor secession were it to happen.

3:17 PM  

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