I was reading the February issue of Esquire, which is certainly the best magazine in existence today, and I came across a question posed to “The Answer Fella” (a monthly feature where questions are answered, duh) that read simply: “Why does America no longer produce political leaders?”
This question is certainly valid and one of the answers given was quite obvious to me and it triggered a memory of a couple of things I’ve been thinking about which I will go into here for you all. Yes, I know this is another political posting and yes I know that they seem to really change nothing in the world, but yet I still feel better once I write them, so deal.
The answer in the piece that I identified with was simply this (given by Doris Kearns Goodwin) “The whole process of running for a political office today is making some of our best people not want to enter the fray, party because of the exposure of private lives, party because of the necessity of raising so much money to do it.”
Let me go back about 10 years. I was talking with a really smart person who knew a lot of people in local Philadelphia politics and I posed the question to him: “Why don’t you run for mayor? And if not you, why won’t X run for mayor, he’s incredibly qualified”. (I don’t remember the name of the person, but they really would have made a great mayor). In either case, this person told me the following things:
1) Nothing could get done by an outsider since to get anything done required political capital and you needed to be in the system from the beginning to have a shot. (In other words, the system was totally gummed up by political connections than the city charter had laid out).
2) Nobody sane wants to be scrutinized 24 hours a day for everything they do, political and personal
3) It is impossible for a non-politically connected person to win an election They would need the blessing of one of the 2 party leaders to even have a shot. (People on the average don’t vote and most of those who do, vote for who the party chooses for them and…)
4) The biggest factor is money. You need exposure to get the voters to even think about you and it is incredibly expensive to get that exposure. Television, radio, mailings, phone banks, staff all cost a ton and its hard to raise it outside of the political circles.
That conversation stuck with me and has always bothered me a lot, but I knew then and I know now that it is still true. And that is on the local level. Imagine how things ramp up as you move to the state and then the federal level.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about campaign reform on the federal level. With all of this lobbyist crap going down, it’s really in the public eye. First off, let me defend the job of a lobbyist. Imagine yourself as a US Senator. There are two major difficulties that you face in that job. First is that certain issues you may have to vote on are really complex and hard to understand. Second is that with all you have to do, you may not be aware of issues that are not as well publicized (hard to be aware of duck migration patterns or the issues of a group of ski area owners when you are spending most of your time dealing with budgets and the military and foreign policy). Lobbyists help in both of these cases. For the complex issues, they educate the legislators and for the small issues, they are able to get the legislators ear. The problem is that to get a lobbyist to care about your cause, you have to pay them. I really don’t know if this is a problem or not. I mean, we do live in the land of capitalism.
My problem with the federal government is two fold and both issues are related to campaign finances. First is that a regular joe has a really hard time getting elected, second is that special interests (read : corporations) can influence politicians with contributions (ostensibly for their campaign chests).
Now, what reason other than a campaign would a company or entity need to give a politician money? There isn’t one that I can think of at all. My solution is simple, make elections free. This would eliminate the contributions and would allow anyone to run for office. Let me expand on this for you.
Campaigns cost money. They cost because candidates need to gain exposure, they cost because candidates need to dig up dirt on their opponents, they cost because they need to finance focus groups and polls. What if we cleaned up the process and made it so those things weren’t needed anymore? As I like to say, problems can be solved, what we need is to define the problem and sometimes that requires us to think different. (And no, I don’t use a Mac).
I say that we try to make elections free. That is the problem we need to address. Lets think of some ways. First off, television ads. The airwaves are essentially free. The federal government rules the airways with the FCC. Lets say that the FCC mandates that for a given election, all the broadcasters in a given region (the region affected by the particular race) give a certain amount of free airtime to the candidates. The airtime is equally distributed and all ads are shown at the same time (relatively). We also mandate that the production of the commercials is done by the stations for free as well. Perhaps set a budget for each spot and keep it even for all candidates. Further political advertising is banned. Hmn.. that was hard.. TV advertising for a campaign is now free. Next?
Staffing. The government could create a new department, say its totally staffed by political campaign people and for a given election they are randomly assigned to work on a given campaign. Staffing.. free.. next?
You can see where I am going here. We need to find a way to make campaigns and elections more about the issues and more about the people and less about advertising and corporate interests and party affiliation. We need to make elections more democratic and free. Maybe once we do that, more people will be interested in the process and the really smart people will actually participate instead of going into corporate management and profiting from the process.