Monday, July 28, 2008

The Problem with Partisanship

The story below from today's Financial Times makes some very good points about the dysfunction of "politics-as usual" that has unfortunately settled into both presidential campaigns in America.

The force of political machines in both the democratic and republican parties is intense -- but equal contribution comes from the press and the myriad of "special interest groups" whose market economy DEPENDS on propelling the problem they are organized around (i.e. environment, guns, health care) rather than around solving it. After all, what reward to any of the various associations or non-profits get for "fixing" their problem: less fundraising, and eventually, being put out of jobs.

The same elements that are eating away at the republican "maverick" and the democratic "outsider" are those that stand in the way of making real progress on any major issue. We, the people, need to become aware of the true price of indulging in partisan "feel good" blame games -- or we are doomed to keep playing them while our economy and our security crumble.


Financial Times

Issues are ignored in this American image war

By Clive Crook

Published: July 27 2008 18:14 | Last updated: July 27 2008 18:14

Barack Obama’s trip to Europe and the Middle East did what it was supposed to. It untapped a stream of presidential images: the candidate addressing 200,000 delighted Berliners; the candidate mingling comfortably with American soldiers, riding in military helicopters like a commander-in-chief; the candidate dealing with foreign leaders as an equal. For most voters, it is the images that will stick – what else was there? – and they are priceless. John McCain’s chief line of attack against Mr Obama, that he lacks experience especially in foreign affairs, has been blunted if not neutralised.

Poor Mr McCain had the worst week of his campaign. Unable to lie low and let Mr Obama have his European moment, the only wise course, he made matters worse. He ran a television spot that said “blame Obama for the high price of gas”, a patently ludicrous assertion. (Republicans were laughing at their own candidate.) Campaign officials said he might announce his vice-presidential choice – a sad and unsuccessful attempt to steal some of Mr Obama’s limelight. And having spent months goading Mr Obama for his lack of foreign affairs experience, Mr McCain portrayed his own schedule of dreary and sparsely attended small-town events as proof of his superior authenticity.

In this election, the image war is turning into a rout. As Mr Obama grows in self-assurance (not that he was lacking any to begin with), Mr McCain looks older and less sure-footed. The greater surprise, though, and the real let-down in this campaign, is that the image war is all there is. In a way, last week’s contrasts sum things up. And what a pity this is. This was supposed to be an election about substance, with candidates – each of them an outsider in his own way – capable of mutual respect, capable of challenging party loyalists and keen to engage with each other in a new kind of politics. Instead we have the old kind of politics, only more so.

This is partly – but only partly – the fault of the candidates and their staffs.

Both campaigns are organised around the brain-dead, instant-rebuttal paradigm of modern democratic politics. The quickest and easiest way to deal with a proposal or statement from the other side is to question the candidate’s good faith or (even better) catch him in an error, however meaningless, or seeming to contradict something he has said before. The gaffe and the flip-flop are the most valuable currency of the campaigns. There is rarely any need, and never any time, to think about the merits of what the other side is advocating. If you do that, you might have to yield ground, which is weak. Disdain your rival’s incompetence, inconsistency, and poor character, and move on.

Consider Iraq. To be sure, Mr Obama and Mr McCain differ on whether the war should have been fought in the first place – but that is no longer the question. Going forward, either would be far more constrained by factors beyond US control, and by the advice of people on the ground, than they care to admit. Both would want to disengage not totally but as far as possible and without leaving chaos behind. The question is how you do that and the options are somewhat limited. But neither cares to have that discussion.

Instead, Mr Obama says that Mr McCain wants to keep US forces there for 100 years (a calculated distortion of Mr McCain’s position), while Mr McCain last week accused Mr Obama of being willing to lose a war to win an election (a slur on Mr Obama’s character). Knowing what we know now, the war was a mistake. Mr McCain knows it too, but will not say so. Knowing what we know now, the surge was a success. Mr Obama knows it too, but will not say so.

Mind you, this intellectual paralysis over Iraq is a model of lively engagement compared with their discussion of other policy questions supposedly at stake in November – because most other issues are being ignored altogether. The most striking instance is healthcare reform. By any standards this is a question of momentous importance for the US, and not just in its own right. As I have argued before, the broken US healthcare system is deeply implicated in many of the country’s other pressing concerns. Anxiety over stagnant wages? Blame the rising cost of employer-provided health insurance. Fears about the deteriorating fiscal outlook? Healthcare costs again, because of Medicare and Medicaid.

Both candidates recognise this and have offered markedly different proposals – which is good. But are they discussing those proposals at all, preparing the public, acknowledging the trade-offs, seeing some merit as well as the drawbacks in each other’s plans? Are they doing what they promised to? They are not. An eerie silence has descended on the whole subject – except for the perfunctory exchange of accusations (Mr Obama is for socialised medicine; Mr McCain is for corporate profits).

As I say, the candidates are only partly to blame. My own profession is just as guilty. No less than the back-room campaign strategists, we are obsessed with polls, racing form, gaffes and flip-flops. The recent off-the-cuff comments by Phil Gramm, a McCain adviser – he said the US was becoming “a nation of whiners” and the economy was in a “mental recession” – and his subsequent departure from the campaign received, I would guess, more (and more careful) press and television coverage this month than the nuts and bolts of healthcare reform have received since the campaigns began last year.

Then again, whose fault is that? In a free country, you get the media and the politicians you deserve.

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