Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Last Chance to Reform Debate Format

Two years ago, we put forward a reform proposal for the presidential debates in the 2008 campaign.

Rather than just offer an abstract plan, we decided to present a real format by scheduling a dialogue that included Speaker Gingrich and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo at the Cooper Union in New York City with the late Tim Russert as the moderator. We chose Cooper Union because it had been the site of Abraham Lincoln's great speech that probably made him president, as well as the site of many important speeches and debates since it was built in 1858, and continues to be so to the present day.

There is no doubt that the American public and voters are very interested in this year's presidential and national elections.

A number of haphazard debates were held during the extended primary season which concluded in early June. These debates, without a cogent and effective format, were mostly unsatisfactory, even as they were tuned in by large number of voters eager to learn about the candidates and their positions on the critical issues of our day. But the result, surveying the published and other public assessment of these debates, was that the public who tuned in were mostly turned off.

As we approach the final phase of the presidential election, with the nominee of each party known, and the traditional nationally-televised series of debates of the presidential and vice presidential candidates now being organized by the formal debate commission, we renew our call for a new debate format. There is not a lot of time to do this.

The bad news is that the commission, meaning well, is beset by inertia and lack of of willingness to try something genuinely new.. To change the format would require not only new ideas, but the consent and enthusiasm of the candidates themselves. And it is not only the commission which is overly cautious, but the campaign organizations themselves which are inherently unwilling to take any risks with the entire electorate watching.

The good news is that both the putative nominees, Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama, are political figures who have embraced the unconventional in their successful campaigns so far, and have personally practiced and advocated the general format we are supporting.

Senator McCain has made the "town hall" format his trademark, and Senator Obama has repeatedly said he favors a "Lincoln-Douglas debate" format. Although these formats have some differences, they more importantly share the characteristic of an open dialogue or discussion of the issues, open in that the format is not overwhelmed by rules, conditions, limits and caveats, all of which have increasingly diminished the presidential debates of the past, and made them less and less useful to voters (and to the candidates themselves).

The key to any change in the debate format is the willingness of the candidates to recognize that an open format is in their interest, and serves their communication purposes. Senators McCain and Obama each have their own strengths, and we think an open format, negotiated by the two campaigns, offers each a great opportunity in the political competition which will conclude in November.

The number of debates, their location, the kind of live audience, all are open to that negotiation. Tim Russert became a champion of an open format demonstrated by the 2007 Cuomo-Gingrich dialogue at Cooper Union when he served as moderator of it. He played his role perfectly, keeping the conversation moving and orderly, but remaining in the background and allowing the dialogue to bloom on its merits.

Senator Obama has now accepted three conventional debates as proposed by the commission, but left open the possibility of additional debates in a "Lincoln-Douglas" format. Senator McCain has not yet agreed to any debate format, not to a specific number of debates. There is still time, then, to negotiate at least one or more debates in a new format.

What greater tribute to Tim Russert's memory could there be than to reform the present debate system for the 2008 campaign ahead (as he advocated), and give American voters an opportunity to watch and hear the candidates in a genuinely competitive format as the critical decison is made to choose out next president?

-Speaker Newt Gingrich & Barry Casselman


-This Op-Ed was first published in Real Clear Politics on August 10, 2008.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Minneapolis' Bridge to Somewhere

Almost everyone remembers the bridge that collapsed a year ago in Minneapolis. It was the number one story in much of the world for a few days, and a major political story for weeks and months afterwards in the U.S.

Like most events of this kind, public interest in this story faded, to be replaced by other national and international disasters, events and controversies.

I have not been able to forget it, however, because I live only three blocks from where the I-35 bridge once stood, a bridge I had used several times a day for years, and a bridge I would want to be replaced as soon as possible to avoid a severe long-term dislocation of my ability, and the ability of hundreds of thousands of other Minnesotans, to move about this large metropolitan area.

Today, and for the past several months, workers have been toiling around the clock to build the new bridge. Much of this new bridge is now visible, with only the section in the middle, the part over the Mississippi River, not yet constructed and in place. But even that final part should begin to be seen soon.

When the bridge collapsed, many opinions were expressed about how it happened, and how its replacement should be built. The conservative Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty and his administration were attacked for neglecting the problem by local Democrats, especially those in the legislature and who control both houses of that legislature. The public, however, was cheered by the generally quick and professional response by the governor, other state and local officials of both parties, and the federal government which pledged to pay for a new bridge.

Some disagreement about the design of the new bridge arose, particularly about whether to spend an additional $50 million to make the new bridge capable of having a future light rail train cross it in addition to automobile traffic. At the same time, Democrats also advocated raising state gasoline taxes to pay for other infrastructure repair. At first, Governor Pawlenty agreed to these tax increases, but others joined the debate, suggesting that the traditional notion of raising taxes, put forward in the emotions of the disaster, were not necessarily wise. Even Newt Gingrich wrote an op ed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press calling for the governor to eschew new taxes, and to employ the private sector to build the replacement bridge promptly, using cash incentives for getting the job done ahead of deadlines. I also wrote an op ed on
these pages suggesting that higher taxes was not the priority, but that getting the bridge replaced was. I even suggested in that op ed that if the bridge design and contract process were done quickly and well, it might be possible to have the new bridge open in time for the Republican National Convention which will take place in St. Paul the first week of September, 2008. This latter point was received with some skepticism if not derision because it was felt by many that such a large project could not be finished in such short a time.

From my close vantage point I can report, however, the such a target date is now not out of the question. The company overseeing the bridge construction was given significant incentives to finish the job ahead of schedule,and the current target date is the middle of September, only about two weeks after the convention begins. It is at least reasonably possible that construction work could pick up those two weeks.

A lot of persons were responsible for this. Not only Governor Pawlenty but local and state officials streamlined the process after it threatened to bog down in recriminations and elaborate new bridge proposals. Both Democratic U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, and their staffs, worked closely with each other to speed up federal funding. President Bush and the Democratic Congress responded quickly and generously.

This is the way public projects can work well. Yes, it takes money, sometimes lots of it, to respond promptly and and effectively, but unless the contractural arrangements allow for incentives for better-than-expected results, and penalties for results that fail to meet quality and deadlines, the market place cannot do the job the public expects and deserves.

Public officials of both parties, from the president of the United States to the mayor of Minneapolis, whose job it was to get the bridge replaced quickly did effectively use the business market place and the cooperation of organized labor, and the result is one more, but lately too rare, example of how things can work best, and with accountability.

We can argue about how much is necessary to spend on public works, and how we pay for them, but there always will be those projects almost everyone will agree need to be done. Unlike that now-cancelled "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, we are going to have a bridge to somewhere in Minneapolis soon.


-This article first appeared in The Washington Times on May 23, 2008.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A New National Political Realignment?

The prolonged spectacle of the Obama-Clinton contest in 2008 may seem finally to be a caricature of the former first family's incorrigible attempt to regain executive power.

I suggest that it may also signal an imminent political realignment of U.S. presidential politics.

At the outset of this campaign, virtually all political commentators, myself included, were thinking in terms of the now established paradigm of the so-called "red" and "blue" states. This color code seemed operative for 2008, and the election seemed certain, as it had been in 2000 and 2004, to be determined by s handful of Midwestern and Border states.

Recently, my friend Michael Barone has offered a canny analysis suggesting that Democratic voters may be partially divided into "academics" (educated white collar liberals) and "Jacksonians," (blue collar workers and moderates), with the former inclined to vote for Senator Obama and the latter to support Senator Clinton. He also points out that demographically the academics live mostly in a few areas of each state, those areas most intensely urban and suburban. There is much meat in Mr. Barone's analysis that I will not discuss here, but if accurate, it has significant consequences for how the various states will vote in 2008. Since the election is determined by the electoral college vote, which is by state, it is much more useful to focus on this than the popular vote (and thus national polls).

In the recent past, the Democratic Party has been composed of a coalition of the academics and Jacksonians, as well as black voters. That was the New Deal coalition. Republicans came to win the presidency much more often, beginning in 1952, when their presidential candidates began to attract independent and centrist voters with the candidacies of Eisenhower and Nixon. In 1980, Ronald Reagan began also to draw conservative blue collar workers from the Democratic Party. President Bill Clinton won two terms by coaxing back many straying Democrats.

In 2000, GOP strategist Karl Rove fashioned a presidential campaign that won electoral votes throughout the South, West and Midwest in what became popularly known as "red" states, conceding the West Coast and the Northeastern states, popularly known as "blue" states to Al Gore. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, but won a majority of votes in 2004 against John Kerry. The electoral college map was very similar in both 2000 and 2004.

John McCain is a maverck Republican, and associated with several reform issues that have upset the more conservative base of his party. This has caused a conservative revolt that has been critical of McCain, and explicitly has threatened to sit out the election, as many did in 2006.

McCain's appeal to independents and conservative Democrats, however, became apparent in the primaries this year.

The right wing revolt, and McCain's reform/maverick appeal to the political center, enables the Arizona senator to run, if necessary, an unorthodox campaign in 2008, one that can win even if the far right of his party stays home. For example, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and some other past blues states are now in play, while Ohio, Texas and Florida seem more secure.

The prolonged and bitter campaign between Obama and Clinton could enhance such a McCain strategy if a relatively small number of disappointed Clinton voters, including women over 50, decide to vote for McCain, as more than 20% (in polls) now threaten to do. I don't think that many will defect, but even 5-10% would probably balance off the conservative defection from McCain, and make him a winner in November (with the help of independent and centrist voters).

The irony of this is that voters have, in the primaries, given strong evidence of their desire to elect a Democratic president in 2008.

Republican voters, however, selected the one person in their party who could win this year, and the Democrats are divided roughly in two. "Jacksonian" Democrats, especially because of foreign affairs and national security issues, might desert the Democratic nominee.

The Republican Party, at least for the time being, could become a national center-right party.

All of this, of course, is speculative.

But the ingredients are already there. The nation is tired of war, but wary of letting down its guard in the face of continued threats from Islamofascist terrorism.. The nation is worried about the economy, but wary of raising taxes and spending as a solution to its economic problems. The nation wants health care, energy and education reform, but knows it must somehow pay for them.

A national centrist party almost came about once before. Weary of war, still wary of the Depression, America faced a presidential election in 1944. Very ill, President Roosevelt wanted to retire. He met with Wendell Willkie, who had been his surprise opponent in 1940. Willkie lost that election, but was planning to run again in 1944. At their meeting, they outlined forming a new centrist party. But early in 1944, Willkie died. Roosevelt then dumped his leftist vice president, Henry Wallace, and picked Harry Truman to take his place. Only months after the 1944 election, and merely days after his fourth
inauguration, Roosevelt also died.

We know the rest of that story.


-This article first appeared in The Washington Times on April 11, 2008.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Second Thoughts or Buyer's Remorse?

Senator Barack Obama came very close to closing the deal on the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday, as his momentum, after the Wisconsin primary and following primaries/caucuses, seemed to be peaking at just the right moment.

But with results in from Texas and Ohio, it appears that at least some Democratic voters are having second-thoughts. Senator Hillary Clinton, as many have pointed out, has a difficult math problem to solve in the delegate count, even with these recent victories. Nontheless, the contest is not over, and six weeks of hard, if not brutal, campaigning are ahead before the critical Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Senator Obama¹s sudden rise to overtake Senator Clinton as the Democratic frontrunner was perhaps unprecedented, but it was not an accident. He figured out early that he could not match his more well-known and experienced rivals with his resume, nor with his relatively tiny record in public office. His strategy, in contrast to their chest-pounding and inevitable stridency against the Republican administration, was to sound a theme of hope and change, with as little detail as possible, and to employ his communication skills to break out from the pack. Knowing that the Democratic base urgently wanted to pull the U.S. out of the Iraq war, he took the most stark position for immediate withdrawal. When he and Mrs. Clinton became the finalists for the nomination after the early primaries, each of them offered a potential historic first, he the first black nominee, she the first woman nominee. But Mr. Obama emphasized an appeal to the broader voter interest in optimism and reform without rancorous partisanship.

At the same time, he proved to be a prodigious fundraiser and a shrewd campaign organizer. While the media increasingly reported his "cult" following, behind the scenes he raised enough money to match and exceed Mrs. Clinton¹s resources, and he organized grass roots efforts in virtually every state, large and small. His mostly young volunteers turned out to be resourceful and disciplined. Fair or not, Mrs. Clinton¹s organization was often reported to be overstaffed, underperforming, and not living by modest means. Her frontrunner status became so ingrained in the media that it seemed that Mrs. Clinton was taking her press notices seriously, even as the Obama campaign was quietly organizing a campaign that would upset her plans.

Her political reverie came to an abrupt halt with Mr. Obama¹s upset victory in Iowa. She came back with a win in New Hampshire, but in subsequent primaries and caucuses she always seemed on the defensive. In this process, her campaign was revealed to be unprepared for Mr. Obama¹s challenge, and her reputation (and her husband¹s) for political acuity was shattered.

Nontheless, Mrs. Clinton was able to stay reasonably close in committed delegate strength to Mr. Obama¹s totals until the Wisconsin primary seemed to propel him into an unassailable lead.

But Mr. Obama, in spite of all the media attention to his candidacy, had not really been truly vetted as the putative Democratic nominee for president. Mrs. Clinton and her husband complained about this, but it did not seem to matter until they went very negative in recent weeks, and Mr. Obama's image suffered some blows as revelations of his real estate dealings in Chicago, the views of some advisors, and his own apparent dissembling on trade with Canada became well-known. His honeymoon with an "adoring" press has also seen bracing change, with more and more reporters asking him tough questions.

There is a big difference between second thoughts and buyer¹s remorse. The former occurs before a purchase or deal is made. The latter occurs afterwards, when it is too late to return the merchandise.

In spite of all the numbers crunchers who continue to say Mrs. Clinton cannot now beat Mr. Obama, it is quite possible for that to happen if he does not regain his composure in the remaining primaries. Mrs. Clinton now seems willing to go all the way to the convention if he does not. The existence of superdelegates provides the means for her to win in Denver.

The Republicans, in spite of that party's most conservative wing, have nominated their strongest candidate for 2008. Senator McCain has his own problems and shortcomings, but he will have the next eight months both to persuade recalictrant conservatives to vote for him, and to steer his national campaign to the political center where victory awaits.

The Democrats, by all signs the clear favorites to win in 2008 until now, have created a dilemma for themselves. If Mr. Obama wins in Denver, some Clinton partisans, particularly older women, may stay home (and a few might even vote for Mr. McCain). If Mrs. Clinton wins, some Obama partisans, particularly young voters and some of the most liberal Democrats, may also stay home. The ill-feeling that may result from a bitter Democratic contest, compounded by a protracted appeal by both candidates to the party's more liberal base, could result in leaving the critical political center all to Mr. McCain.

Then we would witness ia buyer¹s remorse in the Democratic Party as we have not seen before.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A New Life

They say again it is a new world
bringing with it new orders, new procedures, new personalities,
and, inevitably, new truth.

But each day everything is renewed, always,
whether it is what we think we wanted or not;
the alleged new world is justly only a new explanation
for something that will be replaced tomorrow,
and in turn replaced, again and again,
as long as we breathe in this curious world
taking our part of it,
our little part of it.

But each day is a different world,
no matter how precedent and history, like parents,
try to insist on modeling it, and us,
in genetic repetitions on the earth and sea,
wherever we go.

A truth is something which changes in time,
a falsehood is fixed in its moment, deceiving us
because it does not change.

As I write this, the world opens up yet another occasions,
as it will do beyond anything we can imagine,
so much greater than our tiny interval in it,
and we must decide how we will live in it as one more life
always contained in our lamented limitations.

Our disappointments are like splinters in our fingers,
painful until we remove them, and heal them,
find a way past them, riding over and through the world
as if it were a railroad with passengers
which requires us to go and stop and go again,
boarding and deboarding, visiting and adventuring,
punctuated by sleep and the dark dreams we use
to prepare ourselves, again and again, for a constant new life.