Friday, June 20, 2008

Some Possible Solutions to the Messy Primary System

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, June 20, 2008

This election year has already prompted some criticism of the primary system. Both major parties have seen complaints about the results of the presidential primaries and the nominees who have emerged.

Some Republicans have lamented the process that gave them McCain as the nominee and eliminated others they saw as truer to conservative ideals. Later primaries were purely formality, constantly reminding McCain’s critics of the bleak choice they had left.

The Democratic race was more controversial and fraught with problems. Early on, the issue of Michigan and Florida primary dates became a source of concern. The Democratic National Committee spoke out against the legitimacy of these races, which had violated party rules and denied these states’ delegates seats at the convention. Later, as the potential nominee began to materialize, voters watched as a fight for those seats began to taint democracy. The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee eventually deliberated and decided on a formula to split the delegates to be seated among the candidates. That the seating of these delegations was determined by a committee and not by the voters cast a shadow of doubt on the outcome and undermined the democratic process. Damage to the party’s reputation and unity were inescapable.

Then came the issue of “superdelegates.” This informal term refers to delegates, primarily in the Democratic party who are seated at the convention without regard to primary or caucus results. These delegates are free to choose to support whichever candidate they wish, and could conceivably award the nomination to the candidate of their choosing. While often the gap between the Democratic frontrunners was too wide to be bridged by the introduction of superdelegates, at times when the race narrowed, the question of who would win their allegiance was of great concern. This factor further degrades the election process and by extension democracy.

There are other ills infecting the primary and election system. Campaign funding, “527” (described below) groups, the length of primary and general election seasons, and other issues create problems for presidential campaigns as well as other political races.

The financial requirements of running for office are a tangled web of corruption that ties the hands of candidates. It is nearly impossible for politicians to operate legitimately and ethically, and hope to win elections. During every election cycle there is talk of campaign financing reform and using public funding to break the stranglehold of this broken system. Unfortunately, campaign coffers grow substantially with each cycle and competition among candidates to outraise their opponents is spirals the situation out of control. There is little hope of true finance reform without dismantling the existing structure and safeguarding those who would ethically campaign from being buried by those tied to a corrupt financing structure.
During the 2004 presidential campaign the term “swiftboating” was coined to describe the way in which Senator John Kerry was slandered by a group called “Swift Veterans for Truth.” That election brought 527 organizations (tax-exempt groups designated by section 527 of the tax code) onto many people’s radar screens for the first time. 527 groups are not bound by the same regulations that the Federal Election Commission imposes on political campaigns. Therefore, they can raise much larger amounts of money and are freer to operate outside ethical bounds. The existence of 527s and the influence they have over the public arena, threaten democracy by acting as extensions to political campaigns while avoiding oversight.

The length of the current primary and general election seasons is a problem as well. Early primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states carry great weight and can affect the way voters cast their ballots in the later primary season. Public attention quickly shifts from hard issues and platforms to the electibility of a candidate. The horserace coverage in the mainstream media overshadows and minimizes domestic concerns and foreign policy perils. Candidates with dedication to solving national problems are often marginalized and largely overlooked. Voters are left uninformed about anything save the ranking of the proclaimed frontrunners and the speculation about their hopes in upcoming races. Predictions about primary results become self-fulfilling prophecies as voters react to questionable polls and fail to turn out for their candidates who “don’t stand a chance” of success.

These problems with the election system are further complicated by each state’s primary rules. The rules are complicated and varied. Some states allow voters to participate in primaries regardless of the party in which they are registered. Other states, such as New York, restrict a voter to his party affiliation when it comes to primary participation. Caucuses and primaries differ in process and the way delegates are seated for candidates. Often, voters who have registered and voted for years find themselves confused about the primary structure and the rules that apply.

It is obvious to those on either side of the political spectrum that change is needed in our electoral process. In order to achieve true democracy, I think a combination of reforms needs to be implemented. Federal standards should be applied to all state primaries to simplify the process and demystify the electorate. The length of the primary season and the general election need to be assessed. A single national primary election date would also end the debate over states moving up their primaries in order to appear relevant. Debates during the primary season should focus on issues of importance to the American citizenry and the media would be able to cover those issues instead of simply reporting win and loss results like sports scores. Controlling the influence of third party groups and political action committees as well as regulating campaign financing will go a long way toward cleaning up the dirty politicking so many of us are tired of.

These changes are possible but will be hard fought. The current perpetual campaign culture in government has turned the electoral process into a commercial venture. Corporate lobbyists, organizations, politicians, and states have been reaping huge financial benefits from the current system. There is little motivation from the top to bring about meaningful resolution of these issues. Well-intentioned candidates who seek to wage clean and ethical campaigns soon run up against the brick wall of status quo. If we seek democracy we must cry out from the grass roots that we will tolerate this broken process no more.

Some Possible Solutions to the Messy Primary System

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, June 20, 2008

The selection of the President of the United States of America is a very important event for our nation and for the world. While I may be bordering on ethnocentrism here, I believe that our country is the sole super-power on this planet, thereby making the leader of our nation the de facto leader of the free world.

Therefore, I believe we must make some changes in the current selection process to ensure that we truly select the best woman or man for the job. The current nominating process is fraught with potholes and obstacles that inhibit the speedy and smooth travel from candidate to nominee. The front-loading that occurs because of the heavy emphasis upon New Hampshire and Iowa – two states with their own peculiar demographics that are not at all reflective of the nation as a whole – can promote or demote potential candidates without the consent of the majority.

While many who have seen this messy process played out every four years have suggested and proposed reforms over the years, perhaps this year, the power brokers will be forced to at least consider making some long-overdue changes.
The primary challenge faced by those who would reform this process is the same challenge faced by those of us who scream for a playoff to determine the true National Champion in the NCAA Division I Football teams; that challenge is of course the dominance of political power and M-O-N-E-Y. It may sound as if I have been drinking from the well of the conspiracy theorists, but we would be blind and foolish to not see that the present situation does serve to enrich and empower certain people. That being said, I do believe that we can make enough noise to shake the branches of our political parties and, perhaps, see some true reform.

Some possible solutions to this system have been proposed throughout the years. Almost 100 years ago, Woodrow Wilson introduced the idea of a National Primary Day (NPD) in 1913. While it seems to make the most sense, it does have its opponents. It would make sense because it would give each voter’s vote more relevance and hence it would possibly stir more voters to rise from their sofas and recliners and venture out to the polls. It would serve to make the candidates deliver a more cosmopolitan message, rather than making the token appearances at the Iowa State Fair’s pig-calling contest and the New Hampshire Small Town Diner.

With this past season’s Super Tuesday contest, we came relatively close to the scenario of what a NPD would look like. The candidates had to spread themselves out and send out surrogate campaigners in key states and regions, thereby broadening their exposure and enhancing their message.

The opponents of this NPD proposal cite the dilution of power from the party elite and the increasing irrelevance of the national conventions. Another problem with this proposal would be the fact that campaigns would have to be fought and financed on a national level, thus demanding larger amount of…-you guessed it – M-O-N-E-Y.

As a Constitutionalist, I am somewhat reluctant to join in on any proposal that would further empower the Federal government at the expense of the state’s individual rights. However, I am willing to admit that the day has arrived in which most of our state’s rights have already been eroded by Federal mandates.

Another proposed solution is called The Delaware Plan. According to an article on this plan is the brainchild of Delaware GOP state chairman, Basil Battaglia. In this picture, the states would be grouped into four ‘pods’, according to their populations, with the smallest thirteen states voting first, followed by the thirteen next larger states, then the twelve medium-sized states and the twelve largest states voting last.

Under this proposal states would retain the right to determine whether they wanted a caucus or a primary and the candidates would all be forced to fight on to the last primary because the heavier load of votes would not be cast until then. It would also empower the smaller states by giving them primacy. This would also allow for grassroots campaigns to ‘catch fire’ while at the same time, lengthening the process long enough for the ‘survival of the fittest’ to work itself out.

Opponents to this plan argue that the plan will not remove that ‘root of all evil’ (whispered …m-o-n-e-y) from exerting its heavy weight upon the process, as candidates would have to be very well financed to run a long, national campaign.
My fellow columnist and I do not differ on the contention that the process is in dire need of repair, nor do we differ on the fact that money and power limit the selection process to a chosen few rather than the best possible person for the job.

One difference between us is that I do not believe we can ‘regulate’ our way out of the corruptible influence of money by ‘controlling the influence of third party groups and political action committees’. I believe that such ‘regulation’ is opening the door to censoring free speech. I believe that open and unrestrained discussion of the candidates and their positions is vitally necessary for an informed choice.

I also believe in the ingenuity and creativity of the American people. Therefore I am optimistic that we can work our way out of this mess with a limited amount of regulation from the federal government, i.e. through the agency of the political parties themselves - and someday soon produce a system that is fair and effective.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

What Happened to the Truth

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, June 6, 2008

There is a very astute criterion for determining truth given to us in the Levitical Law of the Old Testament: “…On the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” (Deuteronomy 19:18 NASB) This standard has been accepted and incorporated into our legal system. It is a very good standard, as we have many clear examples of “He said, She said” scenarios in which we are left with no valid establishment of where truth actually resides. The current belief that ‘truth is relative’ has led us to some very dangerous waters, with no secure harbor for our trust. It seems that each time an enterprising individual decides to “tell it all” (for a sum and a brief jaunt before the limelight of every talk show in Hollywood) we end up with various shades of “the truth”.

In the current scene being played out on the morning “news” shows and on the pages of the daily papers, we have a former White House press secretary telling us “the truth” that he was supposedly unable to tell us before this particular day and time. A day and time, by the way, which would just happen to be the most headline grabbing and consequently, more profitable for book selling.

So then, what exactly must we do to ascertain whether this Scott McClellan is telling us the truth, or whether the former Scott McClellan was telling us the truth? Let us go back to the above-mentioned criterion that has served us well for centuries. Let us look for “two or three witnesses” and let us also look at the current McClellan’s own words in his preface.

“Writing it wasn’t easy. Some of the best advice I received as I began came from a senior editor at a publishing house that expressed interest in my book. He said the hardest challenge would be to keep questioning my own beliefs and perceptions throughout the writing process…I’ve found myself questioning my own thinking, my assumptions, my interpretations of events. Many of the conclusions I’ve reached are quite different from those I would have embraced at the start of the process. THE QUEST FOR TRUTH HAS BEEN A STRUGGLE FOR ME…I DON’T CLAIM A MONOPOLY ON TRUTH…AFTER WRESTLING WITH MY EXPERIENCES OVER SEVERAL MONTHS, I’VE COME CLOSER TO MY TRUTH THAN EVER BEFORE.” (Emphasis mine.)

The choice of words is very significant here and bears some analysis. While I do not claim to be a psychologist, I can easily see how a person can change his/her “perceptions” and “interpretations of events” to the point where they can easily accept a truth as theirs, without ever establishing or proving it to be absolute truth.

So, now let us go back to the days before the Iraq War began and listen to “two or three witnesses” who saw a different truth.

We have quotes from several news sources – apart from those bought and paid for by the U.S. Government – that Saddam Hussein had acquired and sought to acquire more weapons of mass destruction. We had proof that he used them on his own people. We had verification that he was promoting terrorism as well as rewarding the families of Palestinian homicide bombers with $25,000 “bonus checks”. We had several UN Resolutions that were indisputably violated by Saddam. We had several instances where he violated the no-fly zone and fired on our patrol planes.

We had, at those times when McClellan took the party line and delivered the words of the President with his fingers tightly crossed behind his back, as if he was somehow absolved from fibbing, a climate much different from the climate we have today. Just as the sunny weather we are now enjoying in early June tends to shield our memory of those icy days of January, the current environment of security and relative absence of terroristic threats tends to shield us from the days 2002 and 2003. In those days, the terrorists were spreading their evil and threatening the citizens of Spain, France, Germany and many other nations. They seemed to have the upper hand as they fought against our conventional means of warfare and negotiation with unconventional weapons of suicide bombings and broken negotiations. Today, we, and Scott McClellan, enjoy a relatively secure world with the terrorists losing battles daily on the streets of Iraq and – more importantly - in the hearts of the Iraqi people.

The decision to use force in Iraq was approved by a vote of 296 – 133 in the House of Representatives and a vote of 77 – 23 in the U.S. Senate (On October 16, 2002, several months before Coalition Forces “rushed to war” in Spring ’03), based upon their belief in the truth of two or more witnesses that a very real threat existed in Saddam’s regime. A coalition of like-minded sovereign nations agreed with that assessment and joined us in the liberation effort.

The lesson to be learned from this is not that we acted in some kind of blind nationalism – but that we acted upon the best basis of truth at the time, i.e. the testimony of several witnesses. Another lesson to be learned is to “follow the money” whenever we are seeking the motive of an individual who tells a different story at different times. A hefty book contract and a speaking tour under the spotlight comes much more easily when you can say something sensational and if you can drop it into the middle of a media-rich presidential campaign.

What Happened to the Truth

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, June 6, 2008

During his service as White House press secretary, Scott McClellan embodied the unwavering loyalty that the Bush administration expects from its high-level staff. In daily briefings, McClellan would consistently present the official line to the media and the American public, and reporters could count on the secretary’s full support of every policy and decision of the administration.

I am no fan of the man, but as I frequently watched these exchanges, often horrified by implications of the policy being formulated, I remember remarking on more than one occasion that Mr. McClellan must have the worst job in the country. It must be exhausting, I thought, to be continually forced to publicly defend a president whose policies so clearly alienate the majority of Americans, while serving the political machine and feeding corporate greed. Still, McClellan stayed on task, even through his betrayal by Karl Rove and I. “Scooter” Libby, when he made assurances to America that neither the political strategist nor the vice president’s chief of staff had any involvement in the public outing of federal agent Valerie Plame. He was considered a stand-up guy at the time and Bush himself couldn’t heap enough praise on him as he presaged at McClellan’s resignation, that the two would find themselves on a front porch in Texas one day. Bush was sure he would still hold the same “well done” sentiment for Scott on that far off day.

Well, times and sentiments may have changed. The White House and other former staffers have changed their tunes. The words “disgruntled” and “turncoat” seem to be on the lips of most administration proponents, in the few days since it was learned that McClellan’s new book was highly critical of the administration’s direction and policy in the post-911 world.

In addition to describing the disillusionment McClellan felt over the Plame incident (the CIA agent was outted to silence the dissent of Plame’s husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, and his questioning of WMD evidence used to make the case for war with Iraq), What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception reinforces the belief that the intent to bring down Sadaam Hussein was set early on and that intelligence was being manipulated to implement the policy. McClellan talks about the decision to run with the weapons of mass destruction angle as an easier sell than the less convincing motivation of transforming the region with democracy.

Amid the criticism and harsh attacks stirred a variety of questions. From the White House and the Bushies the prominent questions were of motivation. Why write a book so critical of the administration? Was it a matter of revenge for being pushed out of his position? Was McClellan seizing the opportunity to capitalize on his former position? And why now? Was the book a part of a vendetta and a last shot at a sitting president? Was the timing designed to maximize the book’s profitability?

I haven’t had time to read the entire book, and cannot vouch for Mr. McClellan’s thoughts or feelings, but he seems sincere when he explains his motivation as a way to offer his experience as a lesson. He says that in the current election season it is important to examine the “permanent campaign” culture of Washington, which seeks to manipulate the narrative to maintain power and influence, in order to reform politics and transform our government into the republic it should be.

Regardless of the motivation, the book has had the positive result of bringing more important questions to the forefront. It offers no groundbreaking revelations, but the fact that the book was written by an administration insider who had access to the most vital information about the most important policies confirms claims critics have been making for years. The admitted secrecy and deception employed by this administration should be cause for concern.

If, as McClellan seems to believe, the real motivation behind our invasion of Iraq was the noble cause of bringing stability to the region through democracy, the administration should have never manipulated the public with fear and rage over 9/11 to sell the war. This bait and switch tactic has defiled the trust a leader must earn to lead effectively. Whenever we commit young men and women to die, we must do so with the greatest care. We should never lead a nation into war using deception and obfuscation.

What Happened speaks much about the Washington political machine and how the game is played, but the effects of the current culture extend beyond the beltway. Too many of the nation’s citizens fall prey to the mentality that effects our politicians. We too often follow blind nationalism into bad policy. When “our guy” says something we too often accept it as right and true. We wave banners of liberalism or conservatism, of Republican or Democrat, and fall for the party line, then fall into line and allow the self-deception of which McClellan writes.

We can fall into the easy debate about this book that the media has facilitated. We can praise McClellan’s courage at making the enemies he has invited or vilify him for his lack of loyalty. We can question his motivations, or how his views suddenly changed, or his choice of timing. We can play into the “one side vs. the other” political game. We can choose to completely ignore it or call it commercial opportunism.

Or we can take heed of the warning. When Bush, Condoleezza Rice and other officials travel the world beating the drums of war against Iran we can start paying attention to the echoes of the Iraq lead-up. We can choose to be stirred by reason and not fear. We can focus on issues and not bumper sticker slogans. We can send a message to our leaders that we will not tolerate being manipulated no matter the agenda. We can send a message that lives should not be committed lightly and only as a last resort. We can stop blindly supporting “our guy” when his policies violate our interests. We can reject politics-as-usual and force the reform Washington needs. We can choose democracy over sensationalism and blind nationalism.