Saturday, October 25, 2008

630 days down; nine to go

(Originally published 10/25/08)

Plenty of things have likely changed in your life over the past 21 months, but there has been one constant: We’re still talking presidential politics.

It’s hard to believe that some people -– a group large enough to constitute double digit percentages in some polls, if you believe the numbers -– say they still don’t know for whom they will vote.

Who are these people, and where have they been?

I read one comment this week from someone who said he believes that no one is truly undecided. If they say they’re still on the fence, it’s just because they crave attention.

But who wants more attention? I know you’re probably sick of all the polls and speculation and allegations and disgustingly awful television commercials. I’m a political junkie, and even I’ve had enough.

It’s been a difficult campaign, rife with disturbing undertones and flush with the promulgation of unsubstantiated, irrelevant and indefensible innuendo. But we can no longer blame the candidates alone for the nosedive in the level of American political discourse.

Voters themselves are culpable. Many of the same conservatives who prize Sarah Palin and renounce the media’s relentless attacks on her have spread false information about Barack Obama through e-mail and on blogs for months. And many liberals who cheered Hillary Clinton in the primary season and decried the sexist treatment they said she endured have been guilty of sexism themselves as they have mercilessly mocked Palin over the past two months.

Through all this, the mainstream media has breathlessly reported on major national issues like the amount of money that might have been spent on Palin’s wardrobe. Considering the sheer number and profound gravity of the issues facing this country, I am at a loss to explain the news “judgment” that went into chasing that story. Unfortunately, it’s indicative of the poor choices and sloppy reporting that have characterized the mainstream media’s overall coverage of this race: It has been constantly plagued by the blurring line between reporting and punditry. Both the coverage of this election and the mainstream media’s credibility have suffered as a result.

If you’re sick of John McCain and Barack Obama, remember that there are lots of downticket races, state proposals and local referenda that will need your attention. These are at least as important -– and perhaps more important, at least as they relate to your daily life –- than the race that tops the ticket.

Over the next few days, the Opelika-Auburn News will present its editorial endorsements. (For more on the congressional race between U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers and Josh Segall, check out my blog on Sunday.) I encourage you to read the recommendations and consider the arguments presented therein. You probably won’t agree with all the endorsements. But don’t miss the opportunity to strengthen your argument that exists in carefully considering the one made for the other side.

Finally, I’m just hoping we’re ready for what these closing days will bring. If the last 630 days are any indication, the final nine will be downright harsh.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

'Joe the Plumber’ offers false connection between candidates and voters

(Originally published 10/18/08)

On Sunday morning, Joe Wurzelbacher was a regular guy, a plumber in Toledo, Ohio.

Then he met Barack Obama on the campaign trail.

Wurzelbacher questioned Obama about his tax plan and extracted from Obama a sentence Republicans received with glee: “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

Someone nearby was running a video camera, so it wasn’t long before the clip went viral on the Internet.

Suddenly, John McCain’s campaign staff was inviting Wurzelbacher to appear with the GOP nominee at campaign events. Barely 72 hours after his colloquial conversation with Obama, Wurzelbacher had become a buzzword: Between the two of them, McCain and Obama mentioned “Joe the Plumber” more than two dozen times in their 90-minute debate Wednesday night.

The candidates had found a symbol. The national media sensed a phenomenon. And Halloween costume retailers had been handed a male counterpart to the jackpot they already have in Sarah Palin.

As for Joe the person, he’s enjoying the benefits –- and dealing with the consequences –- of his 15 minutes of fame. He’s making the rounds on national talk shows, but he’s been exposed as a tax debtor. He’s finding that when it comes to public perception, becoming a symbol means losing some humanity.

But when the media coterie covering the presidential campaign has left the Buckeye State and Wurzelbacher returns to his plumbing truck, the caricature he became will remain with us, seared into our political psyche by relentless repetition. Whereas previous election cycles gave us soccer moms and NASCAR dads, 2008 bequeath to us “Joe the Plumber.”

So while the media asked, “Who is ‘Joe the Plumber?’” broader questions went unaddressed: What does it say about the policies of our presidential nominees when the candidates are left to explain them through an unassuming plumber from Toledo? What does it say about their leadership and their connectivity to the people they hope to govern?

What does it say about the rest of us that the candidates seize upon a symbol as if it is indicative of every American waiting to cast a ballot?

The irony of “Joe the Plumber” is that in relying on a symbol to connect with us on an individual level, the candidates abandon any opportunity of connecting with us as individuals.

By marrying their campaigns to the symbol of “Joe the Plumber,” McCain and Obama accept Wurzelbacher as an acceptable stand-in for the rest of us –- to them, he is America, writ large. In doing this, they assume one of two things: Either voters lack the ability and understanding necessary to find our own way through the implications of their proposals, or there really isn’t an appreciable difference among us to necessitate differentiation.

It isn’t a flattering picture –- for them or for us –- either way.

  • Thanks to those of you who participated in Wednesday’s live blog chat. We’ve planned another one for election night, so I hope you’ll plan to join us. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions about how we can expand or improve that feature, please e-mail me. We’d love to hear from you!

  • Saturday, October 11, 2008

    Is Washington calling the code on capitalism?

    (Originally published 10/11/08)

    No end in sight.

    That’s how reporters described the markets’ freefall this week.

    But it seems there’s also no end in sight to Washington’s frantic scramble to stanch the financial bleeding.

    When Congress passed the $700 billion so-called bailout plan last week, lawmakers said it was only the first step toward restoring stability to an economy that suddenly resembled a sieve.

    Well, at least they were right about that.

    The initial Wall Street bailout was followed by a similar bailout of British banks by their government; an almost-unprecedented interest rate cut coordinated by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the central banks of five other countries – and another $37 billion crutch from Uncle Sam to AIG.

    ... After AIG executives returned from that cushy, $500,000 resort retreat to recuperate from the exhaustive exploits of their corporate marauding, of course.

    But then came the devastating body blow to American capitalism: Reports that the U.S. government may now adopt the British philosophy and nationalize at least part of many banks as part of the $700 billion not-a-bailout plan.

    But the markets continue to tumble. Why?

    Could it be that the very actions meant to stabilize the markets is what is causing their continued instability? Could it be that investors are reacting to the idea that the government is taking over Wall Street?

    Between the billions being given away hand over fist to corporations that have spent years defying the simplest good-business principles and the incomprehensible trillions of dollars that have simply evaporated on Wall Street over the past three weeks, Americans could be forgiven for missing the forest for all the felled trees.

    I recently read an article in Time Magazine entitled, “How we became the United States of France.” In it, Bill Saporito catalogs the many ways the federal government has now intervened in various aspects of the free market while haughtily maintaining a disingenuous fa├žade of laissez-faire superiority. “We don't want to interfere with market forces like the French do — until we do,” Sapirito writes. “We’re more French than France.”

    Thank goodness Saporito treated his subject with humor. Without it, the underlying reality would be too depressing to describe.

    I don’t advocate an unconstrained market. We live in the real world, not insulated by the illusory shelter of one that exists only in theory between the covers of economics textbooks. If the mortgage industry’s meltdown gifted anything to American economics and politics, it is the lasting lesson of the dangers of laissez-faire run amok.

    But somewhere between willful government detachment and irresponsible government giveways, there must lie a sensible middle ground – a place where investors are free to dare and dream and build their fortunes, but where accountability awaits if they trample their fellow citizens along the way.

    Over the next six to nine months, the United States of America will either affirm its lifelong commitment to capitalism – to entrepreneurship, to the underlying idea that it is the individual, not the government, that is the catalyst for wealth production – or abandon it to become the world’s newest welfare state.

    There is no end in sight to signs of the latter.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008

    Could financial crisis signal end of two-party system?

    Originally published 10/4/08)

    PBS personality Gwen Ifill asked vice presidential nominees Joe Biden and Sarah Palin during their debate Thursday whether this week’s chaos on Capitol Hill over the financial industry bailout plan revealed the best or worst of Washington.

    It was both.

    This week in Washington was simply remarkable: Fascinating, thrilling and wonderfully messy.

    It was a beautiful chaos that pervaded the House vote on Monday: Lawmakers scurrying around, furiously negotiating with the fate of the bill in the balance.

    So much of what happens in Washington is scripted and calculated. As independence and true debate among lawmakers has become all but extinct, the legislative process has become a bad reality show. It was so refreshing to see lawmakers operating in an uncontrolled, unpredictable environment.

    We saw the worst Washington has to offer in the lead-up to the crisis -– when neither Democrats nor Republicans were successful in enacting the necessary regulation to require common sense in lending when mortgage giants ignored it –- and in the finger-pointing that went on in the hours following the bill’s stunning rejection in the House on Monday.

    Republican leaders blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a partisan speech she gave in the moments leading up to the vote. But barely two days later, they were working with her to try to find 12 votes to ensure the bill’s passage.

    Meanwhile, the Senate cobbled together a compromise that united Democrats and Republicans – not by party, but on principle.

    And the two-party system splintered. Blue Dog Democrats in the House joined forces with Senate Republicans like Richard Shelby; the former out of concern for the deficit, the latter out of concern for the free market. Pelosi and her Republican nemesis, Minority Leader John Boehner, pleaded together with their members for support. Liberal senators acceded to conservative-style tax cuts to placate shaky House Republicans.

    Fellow Americans, we have seen this week a glimpse of the impact a multi-party political system would have on Capitol Hill.

    I loved it.

    Lay aside the contentious nature of the bill itself. Think about the bartering, the hard compromise, the genuine coalition-building that has had to take place to move it.

    Over the last week, the best of Washington was revealed as our elected officials had to talk with each other, consider all sides, make the best of all the ideas and work together to find a solution to a problem facing our nation.

    This week required our elected officials to actually do their jobs.

    Republicans and Democrats spent the first part of the week pointing fingers at each other. They spent the second half of the week learning – some for the first time – how to work together.

    Come to find out, there’s a lot more to them than the D or R behind their names.

    If any good can come of this “toxic mess” in which we now find our economy, perhaps it will be the end of the two-party political system and the stranglehold it has on our policymaking process.

    Maybe then, we’ll know the best of Washington when we see it.