Submitted for your consideration

The Congressional election just two weeks away will lead us down one of only a few possible paths.  If the Republicans who control the House and the Senate maintain their majorities in both chambers, there’s no reason to think that they will then choose to start exerting more constitutional authority as a counterweight to President Trump’s apparent on-going violations of constitutionally-mandated behavior of a government official, or have any new political reason to begin to seriously challenge or even oppose their party’s leader.  If they lose control of both houses, the Democrats would take command of the constitutional machinery that could restrict the president’s future activities and investigate or prosecute some of his apparent past crimes.  If the GOP loses control of just one chamber, life will get more confusing…more confusing than it already is, and that’s saying something.  Despite polling which shows less than half of the country approves of the president’s performance in office, the outcome for November 6 is unclear.

It’s no great pronouncement to say that American politics is polarized today, which by the way is not the same as having two major political parties with different opinions about the means to achieve goals…or which have completely different goals.  As they say on the Internet, I’m old enough to remember when having opposing beliefs or values from other people did not mean that I was good and pure and true and a Real Loyal Patriotic American and that they were stupid and evil and dishonest and corrupt and traitorous.  How’d we get from there to here?

Submitted for your consideration: the October 25th edition of The Daily, the podcast of the New York Times, which explores the premise that the 1994 midterm elections—in which the Republicans gained 54 seats in the House of Representatives to take control for the first time in 40 years—holds the seeds to the political divisiveness that rules the day today.  Give it a listen: host Michael Barbaro talks with opinion writer Jennifer Senior about the 1994 midterm elections, which she covered as a reporter, and she interviews former congressman Vin Weber, a Republican from Minnesota who left Congress in 1993 but whose friendship and political alliance with Newt Gingrich made him a behind-the-scenes force in the 1994 elections which resulted in Gingrich becoming speaker of the House.

Without question, Gingrich and the GOP played a clever political game to maximize the party’s gain of seats beyond what is usual for the party out of the White House.  They focused on wedge issues—they created the term “wedge issues,” I think—which were successful that day, and which have been driving wedges in our lives ever since.  Whether or not the politicians were sincere in their stated belief in the positions they advocated can be argued, but as a tactic it worked beyond their expectations.

Was it a good thing to have done?  Did Republicans of 1994 do the country a disservice in opening a rift in civil society that’s only gotten worse in the years since?  Good questions to consider, I think…

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It’s a shame to think that I think like this

But, I do: I was surprised—pleasantly surprised—to see the headline “Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich Defend Mandela Against GOP Critics.”

My new senator hasn’t impressed me much, not during the campaign last year or since he’s been in office.  He’s been unapologetic up to now at toeing the ultraconserative Tea Party line, pandering to some of the least “American” elements in American society…the very people who are criticizing him now for his glowing praise for Nelson Mandela: “He endured decades of imprisonment and steadfastly continued his fight for equality.  And, when justice prevailed in his battle against apartheid, and Mandela was elected president of his nation, he nobly chose reconciliation instead of retribution — a legacy for which he will be remembered forever.”  Cruz is even making the trip to South Africa for the Mandela memorial as part of a congressional delegation.

When I saw the headline I thought, “Cruz disagreed with the right-wing fringe?  Did I read that right?”  Sure enough…and now it turns out that, not only do I share an opinion on an issue with Ted Cruz, but I have to add a new exercise to my workout: fighting the urge to jump to conclusions.

In the spring a young man’s fancy also turns to baseball and cars; politics is getting in the way

Yep, another great day: sunny skies and highs in the low 80s in southeast Texas, got a ticket for my first game of the new baseball season tonight, made some good progress with a new swing thought out on the driving range yesterday, and I’m about a week away from trading in a serviceable but boxy and uninspiring VW for a very low mileage Honda two-seater—just the kind I’ve always loved and used to drive—while lowering my costs in the process!  With Rick Santorum’s exit from the GOP presidential primary, I’m hoping we can all enjoy a period of relative campaign quiet, too, but here’s something to roll around in your head before Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, and the permanent political class, use up all the oxygen.

It has looked like, from the vantage point of today, that come November we voters would face a choice between the radicalism that defines today’s Republican Party or another four years of divided government and damn little constructive effort on crucial economic issues.  Even the most moderate-seeming Republican candidate, Romney, was disavowing anything in own past that smelled of reasonableness and compromise, to appeal to the extremists who make up most of the GOP primary voters.  But the need for that should be over now, absent a mind-boggling resurgence from Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul or a last gasp charge to the convention from Sarah Palin or someone of that ilk to rally the “true conservatives.”

But even as Romney starts to redefine himself to appeal to the less ideological among us, Republicans will have a quite a slog in front of them if they wish to broaden their appeal beyond those who’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid.  Former White House speechwriter and senior policy adviser Michael Gerson says it’s not just a matter of trying to counter the Democrats’ “war on women” meme: “The GOP’s main problem is not the contraceptive issue; it is the perception that it has become too ideological on many issues.”

Women and independent voters have seen a party enthusiastically confirming its most damaging stereotypes. The composite Republican candidate—reflecting the party’s ideological mean—has been harsh on immigration, confrontational on social issues, simplistic in condemning government and silent on the struggles of the poor. How many women would find this profile appealing on eHarmony?

This is the hidden curse of the Republican congressional triumph of 2010. Republican activists came to believe that purity is all that is necessary for victory. But a presidential candidate, it turns out, requires a broader ideological attraction than your average tea party House freshman.

From an academic standpoint it will be interesting to see if and how Romney and the more traditional Republican elements work to sand the scary edges off of their primary campaign messages, to widen their appeal and entice the plurality of American voters who don’t ritualistically identify with the Republican or Democratic parties; those are the people who will decide this election.  (The Obama campaign isn’t going to make it easy, already working to reinforce Romney’s “severe” conservatism and other primary campaign highlights.)  Gerson argues that “Mainly, women and independents want some reassurance that Republicans give a damn about someone other than Republican primary voters. It is not a high bar. But Romney needs to start somewhere…”.  I’ll check back in after Memorial Day to see how he’s doing.

This one guy says the evil super PACs are SAVING democracy, others are less charitable

I’m not sure if he’s right or not, but he makes an interesting argument.  Dave Weigel is an excellent political reporter who’s spent a lot of time chronicling the conservative movement.  Today at Slate he makes the provocative argument—it was to me, anyway—that the political action committees fostered by the U. S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decisionare a good thing, that they have been a force to strengthen democracy and have made this year’s Republican presidential contest fairer.

Huh?  No, no, no, wait a minute: Citizens United is an evil thing, a twisted interpretation of dictionary English by the conservative members of the court so that now the godless, faceless corporations are considered “persons” for the purposes of political participation, and they can secretly donate as much of their giant piles of money as they like to PACs and buy elections and marginalize the little guy like me (I was going to say you and me, but I really shouldn’t presume to speak for you, should I?)…it’s already happened starting in Iowa this year, right?  I mean, that’s what we’ve all been told, right?

But Weigel argues that the super PACs have had a leveling effect: the big money from super PACs is all that’s kept Mitt Romney from outspending his opponents into submission, and essentially buying the GOP nomination.  And despite the concerns about the secretive nature of the super PACs, he notes that we seem to know more about the biggest of the big donors to super PACs than we do about the people making direct donations to the individual candidates’ campaigns. He writes, “The big fear about campaign money is that it corrupts the candidates who have to beg for it.”

But that worry applies better to the shadowy bundler than it does to the megabucks super PAC donor. Corruption can’t grow in the sunlight. The people giving big to super PACs are famous. I didn’t fully understand how famous until I tagged along with [Newt] Gingrich at a speech to Aloma Baptist Church in Florida, when a parishioner asked him to explain why he was taking dirty money from the gambling industry. Gingrich explained that he and [Sheldon] Adelson had a simpatico, guns-a-blazin’ view on Israel. Is it corruption if the candidate tells you what he’ll do for the donor?

(snip)

We know more about those guys than we know about the bundlers, who’ve been passing money under the table for years. So which of those systems is worse for our democracy?

I know what’s good for our democracy: satire and ridicule, and in the case of Citizens United it’s been coming most effectively from Stephen Colbert.  The Comedy Central comedian started his own super PAC and has been using it to expose the ridiculous reality resulting from the court’s ruling.

The line between entertainment and the court blurred even further late last month when Colbert had former Justice John Paul Stevens on his show to discuss his dissent in Citizens United. When a 91-year-old former justice is patiently explaining to a comedian that corporations are not people, it’s clear that everything about the majority opinion has been reduced to a punch line.

The court fights aren’t over, and perhaps the coolest one is in Montana where the state supreme court has told the one in Washington to pound sand.  The court voted 5-2 to uphold the constitutionality of Montana’s ban on corporate campaign contributions, finding justification for the ban that Citizens United does not consider.  Beyond that, Justice James Nelson unloaded: “Corporations are not persons.  Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people—human beings—to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.”   And that from one of the two dissenters in the ruling!

More fundamentally, the majority and one dissenter seem to understand perfectly how much the American people resent being lied to about the burning need for courts to step in to protect the oppressed voices of powerless corporate interests. As Judge Nelson wrote in dissent, “the notion that corporations are disadvantaged in the political realm is unbelievable. Indeed, it has astounded most Americans. The truth is that corporations wield enormous power in Congress and in state legislatures. It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins: the transition is seamless and overlapping.”

ESPN: The Worldwide Sellout

A blind man can see that the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports is no giant of journalism, but the hype-pool of Super Bowl week is no excuse for the eyewash ESPN put out yesterday masquerading as an Earth-moving event of epic proportion.  It was pathetic; it was sad; and it goes to the heart of my belief that many in the news media compromise their integrity every day in covering sports stories, giving control over what they ask and what they publish to the players and the teams.

Loads of reporters have wanted to interview Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, whose great career came to an unexpected (and perhaps only temporary) stop when he missed this entire season recovering from neck surgeries.  They’ve especially wanted to talk to him since (1) his contract is expiring and everyone wonders if he’ll come back to play with the Colts, or if the team will drop him to save money and use the first pick in the upcoming draft to secure his successor, (2) the Super Bowl is being played in Indianapolis on Sunday, (3) Manning’s brother Eli, the quarterback of the New York Football Giants, is playing in this year’s big game, and (4) anything new to report on would be a blessing.

They’ve all wanted the Big Get, but Peyton Manning has declined the offers, which is his right, until yesterday, when he agreed to an interview with ESPN’s Trey Wingo.  But you and me, the great unwashed American tee wee viewer, we had to be sharp to notice that the interview was arranged through the good offices of Gatorade, which granted ESPN access to its spokesman Manning so he could talk about a Gatorade promotional event.  As such, Gatorade leveraged its position to turn a “news” interview with a hard-to-get person at a time when he’s even more in the news than normal into a commercial for Gatorade (Manning was interviewed with Gatorade bottles lined up behind him, for crying out loud!); as a business with a product to promote, that’s Gatorade’s right.

But it only works when ESPN agrees to the charade.  Check out the interview, parts 1 and 2.  I give Wingo credit for repeatedly trying to get Manning to talk about his injury, his unfortunate public disagreement with his team’s owner, and his contract situation, all things that Manning didn’timage want to discuss—all the reasons why he hadn’t been talking to anyone lately.  As for Manning—and this is particularly true in part 2—I give him credit for not straying from his intended topics.  But for a guy who is so good on camera in so many commercials and interviews, and when he hosted “Saturday Night Live,” I thought he looked uneasy throughout, as if he were seated on something not flat or soft.  When you think about it, that isn’t surprising for a guy who agreed to be interviewed but knew he wasn’t going to be responsive to most of the questions.  I’m not the only one he thought that the very camera-friendly Manning looked uncomfortable in this “interview.”

I’m not saying you can’t do an interview arranged by a press agent or a corporate sponsor, but if you put yourself out to the public as an independent journalistic voice then you don’t roll over (insert inappropriate sexual metaphor here, if desired) and let the flaks have their way with you.  This interview wasn’t live to air—ESPN had the time, and every right, to edit it as they saw fit before airing it, or not to air the damn thing at all if they determined that it wasn’t newsworthy.  What they aired was an embarrassment…or should be.

And then I think about Newt Gingrich, and the traction he’s getting complaining about presumptuous reporters asking uncomfortable questions during campaign debates.  (Jack Shafer takes him to task for pouting and blaming journalists.)  Gingrich is smart enough to know that asking hard questions is what reporters are supposed to do, and also smart enough to know that a lot of people will find him brave for “standing up to” the hated left wing liberal news media.

Remember, most people don’t see any substantive difference between the reporters covering the candidates for president and the reporters covering high school football.  When those people see that “the media” is willing to surrender control of the content of an interview and allow a pro football quarterback to hawk a promotion put on by his sports drink company but conspicuously refuse to answer any question of substance, we shouldn’t be surprised when they think it’s inappropriate “gotcha” journalism for reporters to ask a pointed question of a candidate for president.  And we sure as hell shouldn’t be surprised when the candidate exploits those feelings for his own benefit.

Thank you, Worldwide Leader, for your contribution to journalism education—the bad example.