When we hear complaints of “socialism” and “the never-ending war,” and so on, many of those complaints are aimed at the sitting president at the time.
Can we justifiably aim those at the sitting president? Or is he (possibly “she” in a few years?) simply caught in a situation that has rolled out of control, snowballing its way out of DC and all over the citizenry, like some sort of politician-fed Blob? And, if that is the case, who is in the role of Steve McQueen?
I chewed on this in 2008 as I decided who to vote for. I voted for Obama (and probably would do so again) but I think his promises of change were a little lofty. He came across as promising drastic change to both his supporters and detractors. The reality is, neither group properly thought out the role and ability of the executive branch of the government. And I’m not sure Obama’s campaign really foresaw the extreme partisanship (but, even then, dialing-down some of the more lofty expectations might have made more sense).
I voted for Obama not just for his promise to get us out of the wars, but also because I believe health care is a basic human right. I wanted to see him follow-through on those items.
But would have it been different under McCain or any of the other candidates who ran in either party (Tancredo and Kucinich included)? Does the president have enough power to actually affect the country to the point of drastic change?
Or is the president simply a steward at this point?
I think Penn Jillette brought up an excellent point in one of his early “Penn Point” videos. Start about 2:21 (I suggest watching it — my post won’t make sense otherwise):
So according to Jillette’s friend, Obama promised to end the war, got into office, and then learned high-level, top secret information that convinced him to stick with the previous administration’s strategy. Thus, in Jillette’s mind, that possiblity would essentially negate our voices within the democratic process and place true power within the embedded bureaucracy of the federal government (by which I mean the higher-level civil servants and appointed officials who make entire, decades-long careers working for the government).
Do the bureaucrats hold the true power?
If you think about it, Eisenhower’s view of the “military-industrial complex” clearly shows that he was warning us of that in 1961. He originally saw it as the “military-industrial-congressional complex” (and dropping “congressional” so as to not upset the members in Congress who were clearly the target of the statement and needed to be looked at more closely) focusing on how Congress is in the back pocket of special interests (not just the military, at least now), specifically the ones who can make lots and lots of money for a representative’s district or a senator’s state.
That means Congress is part of the bureaucracy and needs to be shaken-up, right? Just as the Tea Party suggests — throw Pelosi and Reid out!
But… who comes in at that point?
Nancy Pelosi has been a member of Congress since 1987. Harry Reid has been in the Senate since the same year and was in Congress from 1983–1987.
Their counterparts are John Boehner (started in Congress in 1991) and Mitch McConnell (started in the Senate in 1985).
It is currently looking like Reid might win his race (narrowly) and that Democrats will lose the House. That means Boehner is expected to become Speaker of the House if this holds.
See a pattern?
Will the Tea Party actually make their newly-elected representatives stage a fight within the chambers of the House in order to place someone more sympathetic to their views in the Speaker’s chair? Possibly. Unlikely, though, as the Tea Party is going to affect very few of the seats as a whole. They simply could not do anything meaningful to substantially change the leadership of the House, even if their favorite candidates sweep every single congressional election. The fight on the floor would be put down before it even started.
Look — I disagree with almost everything related to the Tea Party, but I admire the fact the grassroots members are attempting to affect change. It’s what the left did in this country in 2008. But the reality is we cannot shake up Congress by simply placing the same faces in charge. Even David Frum (a conservative from the second Bush administration who actually has the ability to reason and has gotten into hot water with his fellow conservatives) explores what effect the Tea Party might have… and it isn’t lasting.
On the other hand, however, as we’ve seen in Michigan, instituting terms limits on legislators eventually leads to an extreme lack of institutional knowledge and the inability to get any work done in a hyper-partisan environment. 2010 Michigan is a victim of 1992 Michigan’s inane term limit politics. Any voter with ties to this state and who supported the term limits in 1992 need should be ashamed of themselves, because they are partially responsible for the crap this state is going through right now (congrats, asshats, for the inexperience and rampant idiocy in our lovely state government).
But I digress…
So, we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. Either way, the embedded bureaucracy of the special interests-congressional complex continues because term-limiting them seriously affects the ability of the body to do its work, but allowing ancient old-boy-network types like Strom Thurmond and John Dingell to keep clinging-on to their seats for decades is not what the founders envisioned.
There is a way out.
I have yet to read it, so I am unfamiliar with her entire argument, but Arianna Huffington, in Third World America, calls for full public financing of elections. Her argument? “If someone’s going to own the politicians, it might as well be the American people” (172).
Imagine: Each candidate is provided with a pool of money to run their campaign with. There’s no need to go through the asinine steps of raising money, no need to kowtow to special interests, no need not to speak one’s mind and be truly representative of the peoples’ interests. Imagine what a presidential candidate with public funding could actually honestly say about things like Israel’s settlement policies in the occupied territories. Imagine what it would be like to have a truly honest race, where we didn’t have to listen to sound bites or watch some MILF wannabe from some BFE state wrap herself in the flag and try to be a populist. What an amazing time for American politics that would be.
But public financing of elections is only one step, however.
If the embedded bureaucracy of career government employees (and, again, I’m not talking about a secretary, or an FBI agent, etc., but of policy makers) doesn’t change, then there will continue to be not a special interests-congressional complex but a special interests-government complex. The people who run things behind the scenes and actually hold the power, have the contacts, and know how to pull strings.
Case in point: Pete Rouse.
Ignore the fact that the Tea Party is going to elect people who will either be ineffectual or will bow down to the great orange Boehner as soon as he steps on their toes. Look behind the scenes at people like Rouse.
Pete Rouse has been in Washington since 1971 (yup — that’s 39 years; Nixon was still in his first term, the Vietnam War was still on, and the Beatles had only broken up the year before) and has worked as chief of staff for Tom Daschle and then Barack Obama in the Senate. In fact, he held such strong influence in the Senate that he came to be known as “the 101st Senator.”
He was never elected. The people never chose him. Yet he has been referred to as a senator.
I’m not picking on Pete Rouse. I agree with most of his politics and think he will serve the White House well as the Interim Chief of Staff. I bet I would enjoy talking with him in person.
Let’s look at Dick Armey (always, in my humble opinion, a good one to poke fun at). He was in office until 2003 and then, that same year, became a lobbyist for DLA Piper. Now he claims to be, through FreedomWorks, a leader of the Tea Party… and, the shocking thing is, he seems to be accepted in this role. The man was on Capitol Hill for eighteen years, became a lobbyist, and then became a supposed proponent of “lower taxes, less government, and more freedom” (while still being a lobbyist at DLA Piper; he was not asked to step down from his lobbying role until the health care debate last year). This is someone a supposed grassroots organization is supposed to take their lead, or, rather, “manifesto,” from?
How many Pete Rouses are in the staff of congressional representatives? How many Dick Armeys are now employed as lobbyists and influencing the votes of their former colleagues?
True change isn’t just about the elected officials. We, as voters affect change via our representatives, and that’s where the change starts. The key is not just public financing of elections, though, but of electing people who are truly committed to helping dig out the embedded bureaucrats and act as representatives within the democracy. In order to do that, we need an educated and interested electorate…
Which is the third issue at play here.
People simply don’t care. Charles Rangel gets re-elected time after time after time not for any legislative actions he’s taken in the last 20 or 30 years, but simply simply because of the name recognition and power he’s cultivated in his home district. And then we turn to see Russ Feingold, arguably one of the most productive and bi-partisian senators I’ve ever watched, is fighting for re-election against an opponent who’s funding himself (remember what I wrote above about public financing?) and running against Feingold as a Washington insider.
Elections should not be about removing people simply because they’ve been in Washington for a long time. If that were the case, then Rangel would have been gone a long time ago. This is about the electorate not being educated about how its government functions, or what its (the electorate’s) responsibility is.
For the record, the Tea Party adherents get it wrong: “We the people” elect our representatives to go to Washington to make decisions as our proxies. They can solicit feedback from their constituents, but they are under no obligation to do so. We elect them, within our representative democracy, in order to make the judgements for us. We entrust that power to them and, if they break that trust, then we are to make sure we know if that and that we do what we can to make sure the person is no longer elected. But they are not beholden to our every whim — they are supposed to make these decisions on their own. I think the case for this was made better by a much better writer than I will ever be:
…Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?
To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience, — these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution…
-from Edmund Burke’s Speech to the Electors of Bristol, November 3, 1774
Of course Burke was referring to the British Parliament, but the structure of our government is fashioned heavily off of our former mother country’s. So… our representatives are elected, by “We the people,” to use their best judgement as our representatives. It is not their job to blow the way the wind does in the district, it is their job to weigh the issues in front of them and use their best judgement to come to a conclusion.
I can hear some of you still asking: “Who do we blame? The president, or Congress, or long-time government workers, or the lobbyists? Who is to blame for all of this?”
I refer to the never quoted line of Eisenhower’s address that comes after the line mentioning the “military-industrial complex” (the emphasis is mine):
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
So, to answer your question as to who is to blame…
We are the ones responsible for where we find ourselves. We have not been “an alert and knowledgeable” electorate. We have simply allowed ourselves to be deluded by the political rainmakers, the Jim Carvilles and Mary Matlins of this world (who enjoy politics solely for the figurative game of chess they get to play, not because they truly believe in the people they are working for), into thinking we have binary choices and that our candidates must fit a specific mold. We’ve allowed this hyperpartisan chess game to shape how we govern ourselves and expect government to act.
It’s more than digging-out the embedded bureaucracy. We must take responsibility for our (lack of) actions. At that point, the embedded bureaucracy can be reformed.
Take a deep, long look at the ballot you are about to cast (or should be casting) next month. It’s your responsibility, within the structure of our democracy, to be educated on those races and those proposals. Liberal, conservative, libertarian… whatever, you call yourself, please attempt to educate yourself. In Michigan, a good place to start is publius.org. Check “teh internets” for similar sites in other states, or start with Project Vote Smart.
Think about this like squeezing a pimple… a deep, painful one. It’s going to take some work, and it’ll be messy, but with some effort and a little Clearasil afterwards, that spot should clear up nicely.