Monday, October 15, 2012
We've reached a strange point, not just in this election, but in American politics. I am not usually prone to hyperbole, especially when it comes to politics. For the most part, my thoughts on politics are that it is as it ever was. There was mud slinging in the 1970's, the 1870's and the 1770's. There have been intractable disagreements on all sorts of topics during the history of our Republic. There are always claims that the most recent election, issue, candidate, Supreme Court decision, etc. will fundamentally alter the universe as we know it. They're usually a crock of shit. Yet, there are times when fundamentals do truly change. When tectonic shifts occur. When a paradigm fades away.
I'm not 100% convinced we're there yet, but I think there's such a moment on the horizon. I can't say that I know how it will play out or what will be the catalytic moment. Maybe it will be this election. Maybe not. But fundamentally, there are things going on in our country that are unsustainable.
A boom generation is fading away into retirement and some painful and necessary changes will result. What happens to cities and school districts and states when early retirement collides with longer lifespans and underfunded pensions? What happens when urban revitalization collides with reduced home ownership and creates suburban (and especially ex-urban) decay?
We are just emerging from an era where "putting a boot in your ass" was the American Way. Now we are in a place where we are still fighting a war and a half, bombing in several other places and rattling sabres at even more. I don't think there is a collective will to continue this type of intervention everywhere simultaneously. Though our leaders have asked us not to be affected by war and its costs - don't consider it in budgets, don't sacrifice your lifestyle to support it, don't think about the thousands of dead, young, mostly lower-middle class Americans halfway around the world - at some point, the American people are going to tire of hearing about soldiers we are training and funding turning their firepower on us. Americans are going to tire of spending billions on rebuilding Kabul and Mosul while San Bernadino, California can't cover payroll. At some point it will become politically unsustainable to spend a trillion and a half dollars on airplanes while cutting hundreds of millions from education.
To bring it back to our current political climate, I think the answer is that many Americans have simply lost faith in government's ability to solve problems. Heck, legislators are, yet again, hanging a guillotine over their own heads to force themselves to do their job. Yet if you asked, I doubt that even members of Congress believe that they will pass a budget or the 13 appropriations bills it takes to fund government activities - and certainly nowhere near on time (which was two weeks ago, FYI.)
So what? Nobody's right if everybody's wrong. I think this is why candidates can get away with lying outrageously. People assume that ALL politicians are lying. The vast array of fact-check organizations out there don't serve to de-clutter the arena, they serve to validate the notion that everybody lies. There's a reason why Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are who a younger generation turn to for information. They don't believe any politician, so why not just treat it like the big joke it is?
And that allows Romney's debate "win" on style and the Biden-Ryan "draw" because, especially in the second instance, facts weigh equally with demeanor. So, in most cases, Joe may have had the better facts and the stronger arguments, but Ryan stayed calm and didn't act like a jerk. In today's political climate, that's a wash.
Where does that leave us? On what, exactly, are people basing their vote? To be sure, there are plenty of true believers who live the Echo Chamber and only choose to see the lies that the other guys tell. Their worldview determines which facts make it through the clutter and which opinions, speeches, moments and issues lead them to the ballot box. But that isn't everyone. There are plenty who admit that even their guys can spin things with the best of them and aren't batting 1.000 when it comes to the positions that matter to them, but choose to support them with eyes open. It is my belief that those groups are much smaller than most believe and the group who can't decide, isn't happy with either choice or just doesn't give a crap is much larger than we are led to believe.
And as my writing may have made increasingly clear over the past few months, I am squarely in the last group. There isn't a candidate out there who represents my view on things. When I asked whether it should be a plague on both houses, I wasn't asking rhetorically. I think there are quite a few people asking the same thing.
You asked me if I plan on voting for Romney. I am aware that this is pretty much an excommunicating offense in many places (potentially including my own mother's house) but I am considering it. I feel a responsibility to vote, to participate in the American experiment, to express my desire for our government through the power of my the ballot. I do not take that freedom and privilege lightly. But a vote for Romney is a vote for a bunch of things I detest. A vote for Obama is the same. So do I pick which bitter pill I'd rather swallow?
So I will follow this week's debate, and the next one. I will read the endorsements and check out some political ads. I will review candidate guides and be very familiar with my choices on November 6. I won't like either choice. I am a swing voter in a swing county of a swing state from a swing block of votes. And I'm stuck in the middle where neither side looks very good. And I don't believe I am alone.
As my elder and someone with much more deeply convicted political leanings, I ask for your help. Talk me off the ledge. Don't tell me who I should vote for because that isn't my question. Tell me why I should vote at all. Tell me that imperfect representation is better than no representation and that I can choose between two imperfect representatives without feeling like I need to hold my nose with the other hand. Please.
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Monday, October 15, 2012
This is excellent, Matt, and I deeply appreciate your sentiment. I'd also like to spend some quality time telling you why you -- why everyone -- should vote, and not just that you should vote for Obama.
For now, though, just a couple of quick anecdotes.
When I was younger -- a lot younger -- I had a mentor at the Drug Czar's Office named George Kosnik. He had been a former undercover New York Police Officer in the 70s and 80s, which meant he saw a lot of really crazy shit. Most of his stories are not safe for work. They're not actually safe anywhere, but boy, where they great when your'e a 22 year-old single guy getting started in Washington, D.C.
He was a good man with some demons. He was smart. He was vulgar. He was a good friend.
And he understood systems. He understood large governmental systems very, very well, which is why he ran the Law Enforcement Branch for the Bureau of State and Local Affairs at ONDCP. It was a pretty big deal.
If you know anything about the Drug Czar's Office, you know that they're the ones responsible for the "This is your brain on drugs" frying egg ads (and other useless ads, too). The other little-known fact is that they -- that is, the Director -- has basically a 2% budget authority over federal agencies which have anything to do with drug education (Department of Education), treatment (the VA, HHS, others), enforcement (Treasury, Justice), and interdiction (DoD, and now Homeland Security). The Director can basically allocate two percent of certain parts of each of those agency budgets (those and more, actually) towards overall anti-drug efforts.
This means the annual ONDCP Budget is, from the perspective of people in the anti-drug world, a pretty big deal.
So when the first ONDCP Budget in the Clinton Administration was unveiled, it was, in my world, a huge deal. Lots of prep. Lots of work. Lots of late nights. Lots of printing fancy books. I felt like I was really contributing to something important, in my own small way.
When it was finally unveiled, I thought the world, in stunned awe, might come to a screeching halt, stand slowly, and begin a thunderous, lasting applause. We would change the world. It was just that huge.
You'll be shocked to learn, I am sure, that the unveiling didn't make the front page of the Washington Post. It may have made the "B" section, I don't remember. No matter. I was crushed.
Over the comfort food of a deli hot pastrami sandwich, George explained it to me.
He said in that brilliant New York accent I'll never forget, For two lousy fuckin' percent? What do you want, a goddam standing ovation? Government keeps going. If it stops, you know it's broken.
And that's when it became clear to me, like a bolt from the blue. Government is slow. It is often too slow. It is not, in fact, meant to innovate. It is meant to serve as a support structure for things that do innovate. And it must always maintain forward momentum.
And what George meant was that we should always keep perspective on this. It's great to do good things in government. But government itself rarely determines what is good and what is great and what is not. And so the complex wheels of government march forward.
It all became more clear to me when the staff began working on the next Fiscal Year budget just a few weeks later. Never stop, don't stop...
That was 1993. Long time ago.
It's nearly twenty years later, and the world has gotten a lot faster.
So this is my first question back to you to try and re-frame your thinking: from specific issues to the nature of government, governing, and how elected officials (aside from Presidents) govern.
Your frustrations aren't so much with the issues, Matt. I have found you to be a man of deep faith and abiding principles. Those are admirable, too-rare traits in this cynical world.
So don't run the issues that matter most to you through the meat grinder of the Cynicism Machine. Figure out the bigger frame. Don't look at the big picture. Figure out which museum you're in.
Frustrated that you're in the modern art wing when you want to be in where the Realists are? Find the curator.
Every museum needs a curator. Ask yourself: who's the best curator?
That's enough for now.
Let's keep this going...
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Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Gun control. Parenting. Energy. The economy. Taxes.
The 47%. Libya.
I don't know, man -- was this "our" debate?
I ask that of you as a more serious question: was this more of the kind of thing you were looking for in a debate? What were your take-aways?
I know I have (probably wrongly) shied away from the abortion issue, but I am genuinely curious to hear your thoughts on what Governor Romney said tonight. I wonder if that wasn't a critical moment for voters like you. I'll look forward to your response.
I'll have more detailed thoughts later, but I thought this was Obama's comeback moment, obviously. Interestingly, the slam-dunk moment was the Libya question, and Candy Crowley fact-checking Mitt Romney on the fly, to the point she literally shut him down. "Am I incorrect in saying that?" is not the phrase you want to be uttering in a debate to the moderator. The audience applause after was devastating.
Where in the hell was this Obama a couple of weeks ago?
Breaking the thread, I know -- sorry.
Best to Erin and the kids.
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012
"If it stops, you know it's broken." True. But as a father with a million and one toys that move, crank, play music and do all sorts of other things, you know as well as I do that there is another sign that something is broken. It does the same thing over and over and can't be stopped or knocked back on track. That may be a different kind of broken, but it is broken none the less. Sounds like today's government to me.
Solve the fiscal crisis? Nah, we'll just pass some continuing resolutions and kick the can down the road.
Figure out how to get the economy rolling again? Nah, we'll just print more money.
Take an honest look at our over-leveraged entitlement system headed for serious problems? Nah, we'll just demagogue each other and call names and hope nobody asks us to really fix it.
Solve our national dependence upon oil? Nah, we'll just set unrealistic long-term targets we can't possibly be held accountable for because we will long be out of office
I don't care who you are or what you are running, when you consistently spend more than you are bringing in, you are asking for trouble. When you promise more than you can deliver and spread yourself too thin, you find yourself scrambling to solve problems of your own creation.
In a way, I do think government is designed to be slow. Mostly because it is designed to handle big problems. Safety, security, freedom, equality, justice. Government can handle those things methodically and in the non-political sense, conservatively. Create organizational solutions like the military, the court system, the diplomatic corps, food inspections, equal voting rights, etc. It is good to go slow on things like that. Lay a solid foundation. Get it right.
But we live in an era where the big institutions are being called into question. Sure, some of that happened with Vietnam, but in a different, simpler way. Now, you're talking Wall Street, organized religion, the American auto industry, public schools, the social safety net... you get the idea. Slow is a defense against innovative overreach and overreaction. But slow needs a counterweight. Government still needs to be pushed to be better, more efficient, more effective. In some cases, the tortoise wins the race because he doesn't get distracted. In some cases, he's blown out - you know, because he's slow.
Slow is also another way to know when a toy is broken. That really, really annoying song you hear over and over? When it slows down and becomes distorted, you know the toy is broken. So is government the steady tortoise or is it a broken toy?
Maybe my question can be modified. Instead of asking if government is broken, I'll ask you for evidence that slow and steady progress is being made. Are we safer? Are we spending money smarter? Are we creating opportunities for people? Are we learning? Are those in power making decisions for themselves or for the future?
Is there an undeclared generation war between those nearing or in retirement and their children and grandchildren? In 2025, when MJ graduates high school, will 2 workers be able to fund 1 retiree? (It was 5:1 in 1960)
And that really brings it to the one question that matters to me:
Are we still ensuring a brighter, more prosperous future for Emmy, Finn, MJ, Luke and Nolan? Or are we going to be the generation that hands things off to our kids in worse shape?
I care about that a hell of a lot more than I care about who won the talking points of a debate.
I am sure I'll have some things to say about the Town Hall debate when I get around to watching it. I'll be looking for an answer to that question.
Best to the kids,
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Thursday, October 18, 2012
Interesting the differences when citizens are choosing the questions and not media, isn't it? And unfortunately, it forces both candidates to suspend reality to an extreme and ridiculous level. Some of the claims made by Romney were laughable. Unfortunately, the same is true for Obama.
There is no doubt that Obama was light-years better in this debate. Romney tried to work from the same playbook as Denver, but had a completely different opponent. He didn't handle it well. It was like someone finally stood up to the boss and he didn't know how to react. He got flustered, and he missed or flubbed some of his basic talking points. Obama pounced.
But man, did POTUS have a terrible moment. A simple question - should have been a homerun - really tripped him up. A 2008 supporter asked him simply, "What have you done to keep my support." Teed up, Mr. President. Say, "thank you" and take a swing. But he didn't. Instead it was a jumbled answer that fell short of what he could have/should have said: "The commitments I made, I've kept. And the ones I didn't..." What? Did you keep them or not? And Romney nailed the follow up "I think you know better..." and then walked through a series of unfulfilled promises. He then returned to his safe place - hammering the jobs/poverty/welfare numbers.
But that was one of very few highlights for the Mittster. Instead, we get more of the Romney etch-a-sketch. Holy cow, it is tough to figure out what he might actually do as President. Will he force employers to provide contraception coverage against their will? He's been clear in the past that he would not. But he just said that all women should have access to contraception coverage. I guess there is a sliver of disingenuous space between those two comments - women could technically have "availability" without getting it through their employer... I guess. And that isn't the only one. There are plenty - how he would handle children of illegal immigrants, paying for tax cuts, and on and on.
In a way, we're back to where we began - a referendum on Obama - because we have no idea what a President Romney would do. I think you've got a point that one of the reasons Obama did so poorly in Denver was because he was preparing to debate Primary Mitt and instead got New Mitt (same as the old Mitt?)
The crafty thing about New Mitt is that he is still paying attention to his base on easy issues. His guns answer that moved to a discussion of two-parent families being the perfect example. The base will eat that up. And they'll love that he doesn't want to solve the gun issue in any way. But then he stepped on his message by attacking POTUS. He should have just left it alone. He couldn't, and the personal distaste they have for each other, exemplified by that moment and many others, is the thing I will remember most from this debate.
The sniping between the two is getting a little ridiculous - and it will make debate #3 on foreign policy especially spicy. But it took away from the town hall format. Romney stepped on his own points with falsehoods and misstatements, Obama made jokes to avoid serious questions (that Romney wasn't supposed to be asking him directly to begin with.) Hence the title of this week's discussion: Nobody's right if everybody's wrong. I realize that I am more cynical about the last four years than you are, but despite the awkwardness, the bullying and the ignoring of time, process and questioners, Romney did ask some valid questions about what has happened - and even more relevant, what hasn't - over the last four years. I know that's not how you saw it, but ... we shall see.
If it comes down to trust, I think Obama still carries the day. If it comes down to satisfaction, he's got a problem. Maybe he shouldn't, but he does. In a way, his answer about Libya was a perfect metaphor for this point. He asked the questioner to trust him - he stated that in foreign policy, he means what he says and he follows through. Romney tried to knock that down - and failed - but then called his honesty into question. I think Romney and his people get it that they lose on trust. They are working to make sure Obama loses too. And that is why the next three weeks will be unbearable with attack ads and aggressive talk.
As I said earlier, even with all that has happened, we're back to the beginning. Romney's $185 million attack ad budget attempting to make Obama II less palatable than Romney I (whatever the heck that might look like.)
Boy, I'll be excited for November 7th. How about you?
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Welcome to Into the Echo Chamber, the weekly electronic conversation of the 2012 presidential campaign as viewed from two Twitter feeds. Matt Spence is monitoring the Twitterverse of the Romney Campaign, Republicans, and the "red" side of the aisle at @SpencerianRed. I am monitoring the tweets of the Obama Team, Democrats using @SpencerianBlue. Our email-based back-and-forths are posted here on Thursdays.