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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Time to Lead The Leaders

News stories earlier in July were hinting that John Kerry intends to run for President in 2008. The idea of John Kerry joining Hillary Clinton and even Tom Daschle as Presidential candidates for 2008 points out a major failure of the Democratic Party that mirrors the Republican failure in 2000 and signals bigger trouble for the country.

In a nutshell, we voters are cementing a pattern of making two catastrophic mistakes in the political arena:

1) choosing candidates and policy proposals based on name recognition and branding like they were choosing between a Tahoe, Yukon and Escalade when in fact those are superficial differences masking something underneath that is completely unsuited for our current problems

2) assuming the parties have actually FOUND candidates with the best new ideas for solving problems when in fact the parties have focused on selecting candidates most effective at re-using old strategies that have won elections but have failed to solve problems


ENOUGH WITH THE DYNASTIES

After the debacle of a Bush / Clinton / Bush change of power, the last thing America needs is a Clinton / Bush / Clinton succession. Surely, in a country of 290 million people with problems as vexing as ours, there are factors more important than name recognition when choosing candidates for President.

I've mentioned before that George W. Bush did not wrap up the Republican nomination in 2000 because Republicans agreed he was the sharpest knife in the drawer. Bush wrapped up the nomination early because of early successes in 1999 collecting contributions from conservative evangelicals and obvious name recognition within the party. A big win on Super Tuesday for Bush dried up virtually all contributions to other Republican candidates, allowing Bush to seal up the nomination in less than two months after the Iowa caucuses, leaving Republicans primary voters in the rest of the states with literally no alternatives -- all of the other candidates ceded the race.

Okay, true conservative Republicans, how did THAT strategy work out for you?

The Democrats could very well do the same thing in 2008 with Hillary Clinton. I might agree with 60-70 percent of her policies. She's also an excellent communicator probably 80 to 90 percent of the time. However, she has demonstrated at least a couple of times that she can have an INCREDIBLE political tin ear either in terms of policy or matching language to her audience. You only have to think back to Kerry's 2004 sound byte of "I voted for the war before I voted against it" to see how the current political climate can convert one verbal misstep into quicksand. Any candidate might make such a gaff but choosing a candidate with a history of just such a problem will spell disaster.


IT'S THE PLATFORM, STUPID

If both parties want to really improve the country, they need to focus FIRST on formulating a platform, not picking a person. In other words, DO YOUR JOB AS A PARTY. Clearly and succinctly identify opportunities and threats facing the country, cull together the best ideas from your party that you feel address those issues, then find a candidate who not only embodies them but can communicate them to the American people.

Of course, I have zero confidence either party will do this for the same reason I have zero confidence we can rely on large corporations to always do what's best for the national interest. Political parties and corporations are one and the same. They provide an identity and a legal mechanism for a group of individuals to act as one but the collection itself has no "soul" or "conscience." Even if formed of well-meaning individuals, the entity as a whole will evolve to a mode where the only behaviors it is GUARANTEED to exhibit involve its own self-preservation or what it THINKS (incorrectly, many times) is for its own self-preservation.

We are at that point in America with the Democratic and Republican parties.

The two most viable solutions to the problem involve inducing several rounds of "electoral shock therapy" to both parties and abandoning the idea of waiting for the parties to identify potential solutions and selling them to us.

Electoral Shock Therapy

What's "electoral shock therapy". Exactly what you think. Voting out EVERY SINGLE incumbent, regardless of party. This serves three functions:

1) getting rid of all of the Republicans who supported this President's idiotic military, social, economic and scientific policies
2) getting rid of the ineffectual Democrats who in six years have not been able to communicate any concise, cogent argument to the American people for stopping the more extreme excesses of the Bush administration
3) tilting the balance of power away from the extremes of both current parties

Surely, there are good incumbents who are doing their best to help the country and deserve a chance to return to office, right? Probably. That's why I'm not in favor of mandatory term limits. However, all of our representatives need to get the unmistakable message that a) we are watching EVERYTHING they do, b) we are not happy with the current state of the country and c) business as usual is NOT going to cut it -- we cannot keep kicking these problems to future generations of citizens and taxpayers. The parties are so frozen in time it will probably take three successive election cycles (preferably 2008, 2010 and 2012) to get the message across.

(Gloria Borger had an op-ed piece in a recent US News and World Report saying much the same thing but I've had this idea drafted and rolling around in my head for a while… Really. SMILE)

Leading Our Leaders

We cannot allow the rats in the maze of government to set their own agenda and sell it to us every two years and expect the country to improve. We've tried that and it only produces bigger, fatter rats who know the maze inside and out and enjoy a 98% re-election rate. Americans are going to have to set the agenda directly and use the voting booth to lead our leaders to OUR agenda. The most important part of creating an agenda is for Americans to clearly define the principles we want to see used throughout government. At a minimum, that set of principles should include:

We expect sound accounting for proposed government legislation. -- Lawmakers and the public are entitled to accurate representations of the cost of any proposed legislation. Instead, we have legislation drafted by lobbyists set to gain from the legislation and budget estimates where crucial information was withheld from both parties by the Administration prior to voting (the S&L bail-out costs were distorted in 1987 and 1988 until after the 1988 elections, the 2003 Medicare plan costs were withheld from Congress until weeks after a early morning arm-twisting vote).

We expect sound accounting for actual government dollars spent. -- Spending on disaster relief, wartime operations, or day to day government operations must be transparent and well audited. "Secret" intelligence and military programs MUST be under the financial supervision of Congress -- period. We lost track of EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS IN CASH in Iraq. Poof! Gone. I'm sure it's helping establish free-enterprise zones for small business outside the Green Zone. Sure.

We expect all baseline spending to be paid for in current tax year dollars. -- In short, BALANCE THE BUDGET. In a country as large and wealthy as the United States, any government program or expense worthy of spending the people's money on should be worthy of having current citizens pay for it. Running chronic structural budget deficits has artificially reduced the perceived cost of government, causing "consumers" (us) to want more.

We expect all emergency spending to be paid within 5 years. -- In a country as large as the United States, the aggregate cost of most local disasters can be predicted to some extent (e.g. roughly 10 high-damage tornados, 3 forest fires, 2 bad hurricanes) for dollars to be part of baseline (balanced) budgeting. For events outside that, spending to react to those events should be paid for via dedicated tax legislation that only expires when the response ends. When your refrigerator fails in your home, it's not a good idea to refinance your house and take out a 30-year mortgage to pay for a $1200 refrigerator. The financing should never last longer than the value of the asset being financed. Yet that's exactly what the United States does every year with deficit spending.

Of course, there's no way to create a "rule" that automatically makes elected officials in our government obey these principles. That's why we have the voting booth. That's also why Americans need to pay more attention to what the government does (even the boring minutia). If you need some insight into what the current complacency could produce, John Steinbeck wrote a pretty famous book on the topic.