Spotted lily

Spotted lily

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Checking in on the Democrats

I’ve written a lot over the last few months about the Republican presidential primary race, so I thought that it might be time to give just a bit of attention to the Democrat contest.

In the last week or so, we've seen lots of stories about things starting to go Hillary Clinton’s way.  She was seen as having a pretty good performance in the Democrat’s recent debate and as making it through her testimony to the Congressional committee investigating the Benghazi incident pretty much unscathed.  Of course, I do wonder what the media and other Democrats would have needed to see in the hearing to consider it a “big deal” that might damage Mrs. Clinton -- video footage of her actually planning the attack on the US embassy in Libya herself or some other outlandish thing of which no one has accused her?  It’s obviously not a problem for them that Secretary Clinton’s State Department did not provide extra security even though the ambassador had repeatedly requested it; that she lied to the public and to the victims’ families about the causes and circumstances of the attack; that she and others in the Obama administration scapegoated a man who made an Internet video for actions committed by Islamic terrorists; or that she lied to investigators about and tried to conceal her infamous e-mails related to this matter.  Sadly, it seems that the American people, as a whole, aren’t really bothered by these things either.  The handling of the Benghazi situation and the misinformation spread by the administration about it were discussed during the 2012 presidential campaign, and the people still chose to re-elect Barack Obama.  Now, even with the added private e-mail server issue, although polls do show that many people do not believe Hillary Clinton is honest or trustworthy, she is still the overwhelming favorite to be the Democratic presidential nominee and would have a good chance of winning the general election.  Mrs. Clinton’s success in the primary contest became even more likely due to still more pieces of recent good news for her, as two of the other candidates (who really had almost no support anyway) dropped out of the race and Vice President Biden, who might have provided her most serious competition, decided not to run.  With only Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley left, the Democrats might be able to hold their next debate in someone’s cozy living room, and, if the trend continues, Hillary Clinton could wind up giving monologues on stage alone by the end of the year.

That is certainly not the case on the Republican side, as there are still fifteen people running,  some of whom keep being denied space in the prime-time debates.  So, in the spirit of bipartisanship and sharing, perhaps we could lend the Democrats a few of our candidates to fill out their debate rosters.  That way, those tuning in to these Democrat events would have a chance to hear something other than non-stop far-left ideas and proposals, and the candidates would get a chance to speak to another sizable audience (even though the live crowd, at least, might be a little scary!)  A couple of hours spent listening to Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal, for example, giving their take on topics like Planned Parenthood or immigration should give the average Democrat viewer (or listener) some food for thought.  Perhaps this temporary “guest candidate” program isn’t generous enough, though, so I would even be willing to give one of the leading candidates from the GOP race to the Democrats outright.  The person I have in mind was the Republican frontrunner for months but has views that would seem to fit at least as well in the Democratic party.  The evidence that he seems to still be suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome should be enough on its own to earn him honorary membership.  It doesn’t seem fair to deprive Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders of the opportunity to share their debate stage and their media coverage with him and his amazing talents for the next several months, so I’m sure they would appreciate my suggested “gift.”  Of course, the fact that this arrangement would give us a chance to hear the rest of the Republican field discuss their views and policies in a (physically, at least) Trump-free zone for the rest of the debates would be an added bonus from my perspective.

Yes, I know that these things will never happen.  Oh, well, I guess I’ll just have to take a few deep breaths and try to relax before (and after) subjecting myself to tonight’s Republican debate and more campaign coverage.  Sigh...

Friday, October 16, 2015

Paul Ryan Under the Microscope

After Kevin McCarthy announced late last week that he was no longer a candidate to become the next Speaker of the House, Representative Paul Ryan was often mentioned as a possible popular choice for the job.  There were plenty of stories last Friday about many people (both fellow political figures and reporters) repeatedly calling Ryan and following him around Washington, DC before he “escaped” back to Wisconsin, so that one could half expect to stumble across him trying to hide in some inconspicuous location here -- perhaps disguised as a tree in a park, for example.

While politicians generally love being in the limelight as much as possible, I think that Mr. Ryan would have preferred to avoid a lot of the attention this time.  I would imagine that it must be gratifying to know that many of your colleagues and others believe that you would be a good choice for an important and prestigious position such as Speaker of the House, and it would also be flattering to have them go out of their way to try to convince you that you should seek the job.  However, if these attempts at persuasion remain frequent and persistent even after you have repeatedly declined, at some point they would likely become burdensome pressures rather than welcome compliments.  I actually feel quite sorry for my Congressman these days, as I think he finds himself in a rather unenviable situation.

Congressman Ryan is reportedly still thinking about the possibility of changing his mind and becoming a candidate for Speaker.  I obviously don't know all of the factors he is weighing as he makes his final decision, but as an outside observer, it looks to me like the scale is overwhelmingly tipped against running.

To start with, there are a couple of basic but very important arguments against Ryan taking on the Speaker’s role:  it is not what he wants to do, and he already has what he has considered his “dream” job for a long time.  If he would be most satisfied being Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and spending his time working on policies about taxes and Social Security, etc., why should he give that up?   I think that it would be better, for Ryan and for all of us, if he continues doing the job that best fits his interests and strengths rather than taking on something that does not suit him as well, especially since his heart certainly does not seem to be in it.  Ryan has also indicated that the additional time commitments required of the Speaker would be problematic for him, because they would keep him away from his family more than is already the case. 

These factors would apply to Paul Ryan even if the vacancy for Speaker of the House had occurred under “normal” circumstances, but right now, most sensible people would likely have serious reservations about the position.  As long as Barack Obama is President, there are severe limits on what Republicans in Congress can actually accomplish, but the voters who elected them expect some results.  The very serious disagreements among House Republicans about goals to pursue and tactics to use make it difficult to reach consensus and secure the votes necessary to pass things.  Under these conditions, the next Speaker is going to have a very difficult job indeed.  Since the dissatisfaction of some House members with the current leadership actually resulted in the impending departure of Speaker John Boehner and the abandoned candidacy of his expected successor, Majority Leader McCarthy, anyone thinking of running for Speaker should anticipate that some close scrutiny and possibly unpleasant evaluation may stand between him or her and the position.

With that in mind, when I first started reading that Congressman Ryan was being discussed as the most likely (or even only) consensus choice to be the next Speaker of the House, I did wonder if those, including the members of the Freedom Caucus, who had led the charge against Boehner and McCarthy were really OK with Ryan.  While the present situation was precipitated by their great dissatisfaction with the current leadership, Paul Ryan has generally been supportive of the leaders and their decisions, and there has been some unhappiness on the Right with the Congressman in recent years.  In the week since the flurry of discussion about a possible Ryan candidacy for Speaker began, I don’t know if concerns about him have been raised by his colleagues in the House, but some members of the conservative media have been detailing their criticisms of him and his perceived shortcomings as a potential Speaker.  Since this is happening even though Congressman Ryan has not yet even agreed to be a candidate for the job, I can only imagine that it would greatly intensify if he were to actually do so.  While I also disagree with or question Paul Ryan’s positions on some issues, such as immigration and trade promotion authority for the President, and would have preferred that he advocate some different approaches to the conducting of business in the House, I still consider him a valuable member of the conservative team and support him overall.  I would hate to see him be talked into running for House Speaker against his better judgment only to be rejected as McCarthy was and have his reputation and career tarnished in the process.

Were Paul Ryan to actually become Speaker of the House, it is possible that he would do a great job, and I wish him well whether he decides to seek the position or not.  But, do I think he should run?  Yes -- as quickly as he can away from the Speaker’s race and those trying to convince him to join it.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Presidential Idol?

I recently read that, in reference to the presidential race, Jeb Bush said, “We’re not auditioning for some kind of show here.  We’re running for President of the United States.”  Plenty of others have said similar things before, but I’m not so sure that everyone clearly understands that this is the case.  Especially this year, with an actual reality show celebrity in the field, it sometimes seems that the media and some voters are viewing the primary races as a giant reality competition.

Lots of attention is given to questions such as:  Who polled the best this week?  How will the latest controversy help or hurt the different candidates?  Who fared the best in a guest spot on late night TV?  and so on.  It seems that those most able to attract attention (by whatever means,) to be “entertaining,” and to sell themselves well in brief TV segments are the most likely to be rewarded with success in the polls.  This is then reinforced when the focus of coverage often seems to be almost exclusively on which people are up and which are down in popularity without that much discussion about which candidates actually have sound policy proposals, a solid record of accomplishments, or personal characteristics likely to enable them to be a good and effective president.

The major debates should present opportunities for the consideration of more serious and substantive matters.  However, in addition to the unfortunate use of time even there to ask silly questions and to stir up confrontations for better TV or whatever reason, a large amount of the discussion after these events centers mainly on who is perceived as the “winner.”  I’m not sure that we need to try to find one at all already among so many participants, but I also think we need to give some thought to a couple of questions.  What do those using the term mean by it?  And, what criteria should be applied to select the winners of Republican presidential debates?  Should this designation go to those who have the smoothest presentation, take up the most airtime, or come up with the most clever put-downs of their opponents?  Or, should we instead be looking first for candidates who demonstrate in their answers that they understand the issues and have ideas for addressing them, hopefully informed by a solid conservative point of view?  I’d say the latter, but I very well may be in the minority.

The system used to select presidential nominees has never struck me as ideal.  It usually seems as if candidates are written off very early in the process if they have low poll numbers or don’t win in one of the first contests, and too often, the ultimate decision has already been made before the people in many states even have a chance to vote.  It would be great if we could come up with a better process, but what might that be?  Since many seem to be approaching the race for the nomination as entertainment already, maybe we should just go ahead and embrace the concept of politics as a high-stakes reality competition and design a series around it.  I speak mainly in jest, of course, but there could actually be some good points to such a notion.

(Those of you who are fans of popular talent programs might like to join me in the little imaginative exercise that follows.  Others might find their eyes quickly glazing over.)

There are many different types of reality programs out there, and more than one kind might provide some useful ideas, but I’ll state up front that I would not ask candidates to fend for themselves on an island somewhere, eat bizarre and horrifying things, or even face judgment in a business board room (at least not this year -- we can’t have any unfair advantages!)  What I have in mind would be based on popular talent competitions and would be intended to give the candidates opportunities to fairly present themselves to the public.  This proposed Presidential Idol or So You Think You Could Be President program should ideally air on one of the major broadcast networks or PBS (or alternate episodes amongst them) and be simulcast on news radio stations so that pretty much everyone who wishes to do so would have a chance to follow along.  Since we currently start the campaigns a very long time before the eventual general election, the series could have a nice, long run with no rush to choose a victor too soon.

To give even those candidates who aren’t well known a chance to be heard, I’d suggest the first few programs consist of 5 or 6 candidates each night having the chance to give an extended (15 or 20 minutes) presentation, in which they could explain their previous experience, their reasons for seeking the presidency, some things they would hope to accomplish if elected, or whatever else they’d like to share with the American people.  These speeches might be rather similar to those given at events like the Red State Gathering or the Values Voter Summit, and they should give potential voters a more thorough idea of who the candidates are and what they believe than a couple of brief answers to debate questions posed by others.  Subsequent episodes could involve “theme nights,” where each candidate would be asked to answer questions about and/or discuss particular topics such as taxes & budgets, health care & entitlement programs, foreign policy, etc.  Again, each person should have his or her own dedicated segment or everyone should get equal chances and speak in turn.  There should be no situations where some participants are asked ten questions and others only two, and there should be no “cutting in” to talk during another speaker’s allotted time.  Once several of these rounds have taken place, there could be a few more conventional debates, still designed to be as fair and substantive as possible. 

So far, these suggestions would basically just change the nature and frequency of widely broadcast forums made available for presidential candidate participation.  If desired, other features could be added with the goal of increasing the entertainment level of this venture and making it truly more like a reality television program.  Choosing an appropriate host would be important.  A conventional news personality would be one option, but perhaps someone more associated with show business, like a Pat Sajak, for example, could add an interesting touch to the proceedings -- if Ryan Seacrest is too busy with his multitude of other jobs to be available, of course!  Having a panel of “experts” could be beneficial, as well, but the best way to utilize it would have to be determined.  I don’t think they should actually “judge” the candidates by assigning scores or anything like that, but they might offer commentary at the end or beginning of each show and/or serve as moderators or facilitators of question and answer sessions, discussions, or debates.  The role that the expert panel would play, as well as its makeup, could possibly vary from week to week.  I’m sure that it would be challenging to decide who would be allowed to select the members of such a group and what criteria would be sought in the panelists.  It might be nice to have a representative from more traditional news media (like a Brit Hume, for example), one from newer media or talk radio (do you think Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin would come on board?), and a respected former officeholder or other government official (if there are any who aren’t already running for president themselves...)

On many competition programs, it is common to show short video features about the participants.  For our purposes, this type of thing could be used to show the candidates out on the campaign trail or preparing for their TV appearances or to provide some background about their earlier lives and careers, their families or outside interests, etc.  If done correctly, videos of this type could give the public some additional insight into the people running for president, but the pros and cons of their use should be carefully weighed before adding them to our format.  If we let each candidate’s team create its own videos, they might be seen as just another batch of campaign commercials, but if a TV network or other entity produces the features, we might well wind up with unequal treatment of candidates that could unfairly affect public opinion.  If selective editing or slanted video production for dramatic effect can essentially wind up sabotaging the chances of dancing celebrities (and I believe this has been the case), imagine what could happen to politicians dealing with controversial issues and playing for the highest of stakes.

Finally, there is the matter of audience participation, which is very important in reality competitions.  People voting for their “favorites” online or by phone, text, etc. could serve as an extra opinion poll and provide valuable feedback to help the candidates gauge how well they are connecting with the public.  I would suggest waiting until the audience has had a chance to hear from everyone at least twice before having any votes, and I think that the full results of each vote should be revealed.  I would personally be reluctant to suggest using the audience vote to actually eliminate anyone from the presidential race, as this is too important a choice to treat lightly.  However, if the candidates were to agree beforehand, this might possibly be an acceptable way to narrow the field just a little at the end of the “series.”   In any case, if the presidential nomination show were to air every couple of weeks beginning in August, it could wrap up by the end of January, by which time the audience should have had the opportunity to see and hear enough upon which to base well-informed opinions about the candidates before the actual primaries and caucuses begin.

Well, after speculating about this fictional scenario, it’s time to get back to the real world.  And in that realm, I think it’s fair to say that reality television shows can be very enjoyable, but anyone who wants to watch one already has many options from which to choose.  Since people can seek “entertainment” from programs featuring chefs or inventors, bachelors & bachelorettes, celebrities doing any number of silly things, and a plethora of other themes, perhaps we can try our best to look at presidential politics in a serious and thoughtful way instead.