Former President George W. Bush indicated last week that his chief regret from his tenure in office was not privatizing Social Security.
Let’s allow that to sink in for a moment… (Sits back in chair and taps finger pensively on chin and whistles a wee tune from the old country.)
Soooooooo, two protracted wars, economic Armageddon, Osama Bin Laden still among the living, a historic bailout (yes, the first big one was his), the greatest disparity in wealth since the run-up to the Great Depression, a blown surplus he inherited and a record deficit he left us with don’t necessarily rank among W’s regrets. This is why the good Lord invented mid-term elections, a time to evaluate the consequences of our most recent electoral decisions and issue a popular referendum to our leaders. And there’s nothing like a stinging recession to draw the ire of the masses—something that was absent during the foggy days of the Bush administration. Barack Obama will have no such luck next week.
The favored prognostications on the mid-terms have a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater feel to them. The recalcitrant Tea Party wing nuts have Democrats flip-flopping and Republicans retrenching, and the polling appears to be more out of touch with political reality than the Dow Jones Industrial Average is out of touch with the economic reality of the times we live in. So, while there is little doubt our elected officials will be wildly tossed about on election night, I don’t think anyone can accurately predict where the pieces will land. This applies equally to the national, state and local landscapes.
For my part, I will assume my normal election night posture. This is my Superbowl. No, this is my Uberbowl. After lovingly putting my children to sleep and sweetly kissing my bride, I take up residence on my couch with a laptop, a television, a home phone and a BlackBerry. Beside me rests a bowl of popcorn and a six-pack of Blue Point Toasted Lager to be consumed throughout the evening. At the other end of the myriad communication devices at my disposal are my dedicated editors and reporters who live for this night as I do, strategically positioned at disparate campaign headquarters so they can send me timely updates and anecdotes; the vast majority of the latter are typically inappropriate and not for publication but amusing nonetheless.
But election night is just the capstone to this wild and bitter campaign season that has been gaining steam since the crowning of President Obama. The weeks and months leading up to this election have seen hope replaced by fanaticism, while an estimated $3 billion has been spent assailing the public with dirty-bomb messaging. The media have spent an unprecedented amount of energy dissecting the sources of campaign financing, which has undergone a sea change due to opaque contributions from major donors. The funding is sheltered primarily by committees organized under the 501(c)(4) designation for non-profits that’s now expanded to include advocacy groups. In recent election cycles major donors and corporations have skirted the funding limitations of political action committees (PACs), which require transparency and place limits on contributions, by donating to 501(c)(4) groups who run political ads. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this year to allow the continuation of this practice, which led Obama to courageously criticize the justices during his State of the Union speech just days after this decision was handed down. This action was indeed courageous because rebuking the Supreme Court in such a public fashion is almost taboo. More importantly, his comments were prescient, and we are all living with the results.
But the media’s obsession with campaign financing and public figures such as Karl Rove, who helped organize perhaps the biggest group—Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies—is noise. The Democrats and major backers like George Soros used this loophole to great advantage in the last cycle; but this go-around the Republicans perfected it. Since time immemorial money has been finding its way to politicians. Whether it’s a bag of cash exchanged in a hotel room or a shady “policy group” taking cheap shots in a TV ad over a politician’s war record, campaign cash moves quickly through the Beltway. So while the sheer volume of donations is unprecedented, I find the whole thing quite unremarkable. The only people who give massive sums of money are the people who have it and want more of it.
The argument over secret funding and the anger manufactured from special interest groups preying on people’s fears are what we call gorilla dust. Hopefully Jon Stewart’s rally in D.C. this weekend will indeed restore sanity, and voters will make calculated decisions, not emotional ones. In the waning days of the campaign, when every other television ad is political, newspaper editors make their grand declarations and campaign managers are plagued by carpal tunnel syndrome from tweeting, texting and emailing, do your best to keep your head about you.
Remember that while big things are happening at the top, much of the work is getting done in the trenches. If you’re unhappy with Obama and want to send a message by turning Congress upside down, knock yourself out. Likewise, if you’re tired of the Republicans being the “party of no,” then let Obama keep his House in order. But that lever in the voting booth or oval on the ballot has little to do with the state senator who funded improvements to your library or the town council member who heard your protests at a board meeting and put in a stop sign on your block.
While public tumult is a good thing that keeps our elected officials on their toes and prevents George W. Bush-like amnesia down the road, it can also lead to bad decisions. Or as my father says: everything in moderation… except, of course, on election night in my den.
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