Saturday, July 19, 2008

Primary Observations

Our long presidential primary season has mercifully come to an end. Perhaps not quite up to par with “our long national nightmare has ended,” but close. As required, almost 20 aspirers have been winnowed down to two left standing, with a couple of 3rd-party crusaders nibbling at the fringe. Excluding the issue of its elongated timeline, it was certainly one of the most interesting primary campaigns in years, and most engaging in the level of citizen participation. And very revealing in many forms. I offer the following observations:

1. Cut future primaries to be shorter and less costly. Enough said.

2. The campaign introduced us to a diverse variety of characters. Some of these should never have kidded themselves (Brownback, Dodd). Some enlivened the discussion (Paul, Huckabee, Kucinich). Biden distinguished himself with his intelligence and experience and finally found his persona. Romney is still looking for true character. Guiliani never found a strategy that made any sense. Edwards connected but was always second choice.

3. In the end, McCain snuck in between the Republican confusion about what they wanted or didn’t want. Hillary and Barack captured the “new day” imagination of voters who need to see a major turn in direction and the players.

4. At certain milestones, there is always a general turnover in politics. John Kennedy ended the reign of the WWI generation who led us through WWII, and (except for Carter’s election) moved leadership to the young “greatest generation” vets of WWII. Bill Clinton said goodbye to the WWII generation and passed the mantle on to the Viet Nam/60s generation. Whether McCain will be the last of that generation, or Obama will represent the handing over to the kids of the 60s, we will have to see. The generational contrast will be a significant factor this fall.

5. For perhaps the first time, every state (and even Puerto Rico!) primary mattered to the final outcome on the Democratic Party side. This was a wonderful yet unexpected side outcome of this election.

6. For that reason and others, people were very wrong to call for Hillary’s early concession and withdrawal from the campaign. As were the news media for building steam under that call. Similarly, Huckabee was right to go on until McCain had the definitive numbers in hand. You fight until the closing bell or you have no fight left; you do not sit down in the 3rd quarter and bail out.

7. If Obama wins in November, he will owe a big “thank you” to the Clintons. Truth is and thoughtful intelligence notwithstanding, he is inexperienced on the national stage and with the national media. Bill/Hillary are among the toughest competitors to go up against. Obama is a better and more viable candidate this fall for having been so tested through this primary. And he was thereby forced to build a national organization that can now be drawn upon in the fall. In contrast, McCain’s early victory did not translate into early funding or organization building.

8. Hillary, even though she lost, is a far different and better person and politician than when the primaries started. A better campaigner and more understanding of herself. The last two months of her candidacy leading to her campaign-ending speech and Obama endorsement, were masterful.

9. The news media were typically abysmal. It was all about the election game of polls, the numbers, who’s ahead, and what trivia can be converted into inane headlines. With few exceptions, they were minimally about issues, factual research, calling out candidates on their claims, or providing clarity to the smokescreens and pandering of candidate’s speeches. Thankfully, there is still “The Daily Show” and its reruns of leaders’ and candidates’ past statements to serve that function (comedically or not).

10. The big question is: will John McCain be able to prevent his election apparatus from succumbing into the Lee Atwater / Karl Rove campaign negativity and have the “new campaign” he has promised on meaningful issues instead of personality and phony hysterical sound bites that we have endured these past 8 years? Or will it be another year of arguing about lapel pins, cooking recipes, who’s a true patriot, class/racial/ethnic divisions, and fear? Propaganda, image and distorted words? We shall see which John McCain shows up for this election. Both McCain and Obama have thus far exercised good judgment in disavowing, or calling to task, inappropriate statements and actions by their supporters.

11. We will miss Tim Russert’s insight, humor, and integrity.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Buying the Presidency - Part 2

Awhile back, a long-time friend wrote to me in regard to my blog of February 5, 2008, that questioned Mitt Romney’s fundraising and spending approaches in support of his candidacy for president. My good friend raised two critical-thinking questions for me: 1) did my concerns about Mitt’s wealth reflect envy on my part, and 2) isn’t Mitt (or anyone else) free to spend his/her money as one chooses?

I am in the process of responding to my friend directly about question #1; that seemed to be too parochial a question to answer within this blog medium. My response to his question #2 is below. The discussion still seems to be pertinent, since Mitt Romney is currently making such an open play for the Republican vice presidential nod.

Do I object to people spending their money as they wish? No, certainly not unless I would invite the same objections to my own spending decisions. I can hope that a person understands that their wealth came from many others, no matter how smart or hardworking or entrepreneurial s/he might be, and therefore there is some level of responsibility due to those “others.” I can hope that people retain their humility in the presence of wealth, realizing that neither wealth nor education necessarily equates with good character, responsibility and fairness. But at the end of the day, it is each person’s decision as to how they use the resources that come their way.

The decisions that they make, and the motivation that drives those decisions, will visibly demonstrate their character, values and judgment. Those decisions thereby serve as the basis of my choices of who I respect not just for their accumulation of wealth, but also for their use of that wealth. If you then choose to go into the public place of government service on my behalf, then my respect of you (or not) now becomes particularly important.

For me, the issues in this instance are neither the accumulation of wealth nor the spending of it. As with most things, it is the thinking and the motivation behind people’s actions that I react to. With Warren Buffet, I admire his success at accumulating wealth (versus his total dollars), AND his humility and grounded-ness at living with his wealth, AND his use of his wealth. With Bill Gates, I can question how he accumulated his wealth, I can accept how he is living with his wealth, and I can respect how he is now using it (though his motivation may still require some examination). With Donald Trump, there is no facet of him and his wealth that begs admiration, unless you consider wealth important for its own sake. But each of these people is certainly free to engage wealth as each chooses.

For Mitt Romney, it was not his wealth I objected to, which he seems to have come to quite legitimately. It is his attitude that came through so pervasively, i.e. that his electability should be predicated on his wealth, that being successful in business inherently qualifies one to be successful in governmental leadership. The reality is that American government is not a business, was never designed from the get-go to be “run like a business” (although that does not preclude utilizing business-like operating efficiencies). Political leadership and achievement is about vision, compromise, building consensus among divergent but equal stakeholders, attending to and balancing conflicting needs rather than playing to “niche market segments” (a la Karl Rove and George Bush). It is not about electability, it is about governing.

The US Congress is not a stockholder’s meeting, the Supreme Court is not a corporate board, and state governments are not subsidiary corporations. It was Romney’s lack of understanding and connection with many facets of the American citizenry, and the failure to truly understand “government” for what it is, that I think ultimately undermined him. It is why his (or any other) campaign must show a broad body of public support – via volunteerism, fundraising, and ultimately votes – in order to qualify one for public office (versus being designated as corporate CEO).

Mitt Romney could have spent as much of his own money as he wanted to get elected. But as Iowa and New Hampshire showed so clearly, if you do not work from a body of principles that comes ahead of electioneering, if you do not ultimately make a human connection with enough people such that they feel you understand them and deserve their trust to act in their collective best interest, no amount of TV ads can buy you the presidential seal.