One of the tightest gubernatorial races in the country is unfolding in Wisconsin where I’ve spent the last several days. The yard signs are as thick as the autumn leaves and, while the outcome of the National League Championship Series was most appealing – my favorites won – the inane television commercials from incumbent Gov. Scott Walker and his challenger Mary Burke made me long to get back to Joe Buck’s inane play-by-play.
The race here has come down to whether Walker’s policies favor the “wealthy” or whether Burke is just another liberal Democrat. I’d say “yes” and “probably,” although neither label says much about what the candidates would do about Wisconsin’s crumbling highway infrastructure or rapidly rising college tuition. The race has also featured ethics complaints, an old email about Burke, and charges of plagiarism, which has become the new communism in American politics. But, hey, it’s a dead heat!
Meanwhile, in wacky Florida, a little fan – not that kind of fan – starred in the most recent gubernatorial debate. I’m old enough to remember Ronald Reagan grabbing a microphone in New Hampshire and saying something about how he bought the darn thing. I wanted Charlie Crist to tell Gov. Rick Scott the same. “Gov. Scott, I bought this fan…” At least we know how Crist stays so crisp in hot, muggy Florida. I’m left to wonder if carrying a little portable fan with you everywhere you go is a sign of intelligence or, well, something else. Right now put me down as leaning toward the fan.
Back in the great Northwest, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has a gender gap problem. In the reverse of most candidates, Kitzhaber needs a gap. He needs to put some space between himself and his fiance who has been serving as Oregon’s First Lady, while also being the Wife-in-Waiting and a private consultant on the side with, ahem, particular access to the top levels of state government. Here come the conflict of interest allegations that, even if Kitzhaber wins a fourth term, will play out for many months. It’s complicated, but so is Oregon. Kitzhaber’s opponent is a hard right state legislator who normally wouldn’t be caught dead in Portland’s chic and lefty Pearl District – and won’t get many votes there – and is therefore unlikely to beat the beat up governor, but stranger things have happened. For the most part other issues important to Oregon are now floating down the Columbia. Roll on…
In Idaho, a hard right governor is in trouble with his own party for a variety of reasons, including new revelations that his staff negotiated the fine points of a controversial settlement with the state’s former private prison operator who has been a major contributor to the governor’s campaigns. On at least two recent occasions the governor has said he knew nothing, nothing about the deal his top staffers helped create.
Governors, of course, are expected to know everything until they don’t know anything. Paging John Kitzhaber! Is Chris Christie in the house? Andrew Cuomo…paging Andrew Cuomo! Governor, any insight into neutering your own state ethics commission?
Let’s call it the silence of the lames.
A remarkable feature of the Idaho election this year is that several dominate party Republicans candidates – I’m not even counting Gov. Butch Otter – are remarkable for the simple fact that they are so clearly inappropriate for the jobs they seek. The GOP candidate for state school superintendent hasn’t voted in 15 of the last 17 elections and before she (surprisingly) won her party’s nomination no one outside of her school district had ever heard of her. She now says she wants to give back for missing all those chances to participate in the democratic process. You can’t make this stuff up.
The Republican candidate for Secretary of State was so disliked by many in his own party that he was voted out of office as Speaker of the state House of Representatives, in part for his inept handling of various ethics issues involving his friends. He’ll be a credible referee of fair elections, right? The incumbent GOP candidate for state treasurer is so unknown to voters that jokes have been made about putting his photo on milk cartons. The real question in his race, however, centers on handling of various state investment accounts. The answer apparently is that he hasn’t exactly been Warren Buffett when it comes to managing state money. You’d likely fire your broker for less, but hey its only a few million in public money. He’s only the state treasurer, after all. Whomever he is.
And where are the “responsible” voices in the state’s ruling political class about such obviously flawed candidates? Is that the wind I hear?
In early November, if history is a guide, somewhere south of 40 percent of American voters will troop to the polls and elect a new, probably more Republican House of Representatives and turn the U.S. Senate over to the Republicans, as well. The lame duck in the White House will be even lamer and the divided government that does nothing – and that American voters say they hate – will have a a two-year mandate to do more of the same.
As Tim Egan noted recently, we hate the Congress – or you might substitute the state legislature or your county commissioner – so let’s have a heaping helping of more of the same. “How else to explain,” Egan writes, “the confit of conventional wisdom showing that voters are poised to give Republicans control of the Senate, and increase their hold on the House, even though a majority of Americans oppose nearly everything the G.O.P. stands for?
“The message is: We hate you for your inaction, your partisanship, your nut-job conspiracy theories; now do more of the same. Democracy — nobody ever said it made sense. Of course, November’s election will be a protest vote against the man who isn’t on the ballot, a way to make a lame duck president even lamer in his final two years.”
Mid-term elections, even more than those elections when we select a president, have become about nothing. If anything, in the age of Super PAC’s, when a handful of the nation’s oligarchs essentially create their own version of political parties, the campaigns have become more vacuous, more irrelevant to the nation’s real problems, and more likely to turn off a sizable majority of American voters.
As the New York Times reports: “In 2010, the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court effectively blew apart the McCain-Feingold restrictions on outside groups and their use of corporate and labor money in elections. That same year, a related ruling from a lower court made it easier for wealthy individuals to finance those groups to the bottom of their bank accounts if they so chose. What followed has been the most unbridled spending in elections since before Watergate. In 2000, outside groups spent $52 million on campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By 2012, that number had increased to $1 billion.”
Elections are more and more about less and less, unless you talk money and then it’s the sky is the limit. A few enormously wealthy – not just rich, but oh-my-gosh really, really loaded – people are defining the nation’s political agenda, mostly for their own purpose and benefit, and issues like a better educated work force, a shrinking middle class, and the age old bugaboo of race and class are left to, well, they are just left.
I’m not one who finds a way to blame Barack Obama for everything from Ebola to the missing whack job in North Korea, but on one important count the President is responsible for at least some of the political malaise that Americans in the 21st Century have started to accept as our fate. The recent Ken Burns’ documentary on PBS on the remarkable Roosevelts reminds us that the presidency, in good times and bad, is a bully pulpit where a leader – paging Teddy Roosevelt! – can help establish a national tone, a sense of urgency and, yes, a collective sense of responsibility for our shared fate.
Our national tone is now largely defined by Koch brother’s money or the latest flavor of the day from the political left. The nation turns it’s lonely eyes to Fox News or Jon Stewart. Charlie Crist’s fan aimed at his, er, pant legs becomes a defining moment. We want a leader to speak honestly and candidly about real things. We get the will-she or won’t-she from Hillary.
What might politics in 2014 be like if Butch Otter in Idaho or John Kitzhaber in Oregon or a Boehner or a Barack just said: “You know, I screwed up here. I didn’t handle it well. We really need to get on with the people’s pressing concerns.” I suspect we’ll never know.
If politics just becomes about winning an election by pandering to the lowest common fear and loathing in the electorate we get elections like the mid-terms of 2014. It’s the Seinfeld Show reduced to politics – a show about nothing.