Monday, December 14, 2009

Not seeing the forest for the trees

The Arizona Daily Star has an interesting article (byline: Rhonda Bodfield) up today about Clean Elections and its perceived failures.

From the article -
It's been more than a decade since voters made Arizona one of only two states at the time to offer public financing of campaigns for statewide races.

It was supposed to mitigate the effects of special interests, give voters more choices and help new faces compete against the power of incumbency.

But even the guy who helped bankroll the campaign to get it approved, former Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson, now says it it was a mistake — not only failing to achieve those goals, but actually contributing to more partisanship and the exclusion of political minority perspectives.

There are other quotes, from both sides of the partisan aisle, but almost all boil down to "it's made the lege less partisan and less civil."

Have no doubt - the legislature *is* less civil than it used to be (not that it was ever an afternoon tea party with the Queen of England). Just ask anybody who has been down there for more than five years.

Yet for all of the statistics and anecdotal quotes, the article (and the "quotees" in that article) make one fundamental error - Clean Elections was not and is not about changing partisanship or the behavior of legislators at the Capitol.

It was about giving an opportunity to citizens who don't have the corporate fundraising connections needed to fund "traditional" campaigns to run for lege or statewide office.

It has done so. I personally know a number of people who have run, and a few who have won, races who could never afford to do so under traditional financing.

It was about reducing the influence of lobbyists over the lege, or at least reducing the amount of influence that they have over who is *in* the lege.

This one may be a something of a failure. OK, more than "something" of a failure. Too many legislators (mostly, but not totally, from the R caucus) are openly in the pockets of corporate lobbyists. Of course, that may be due more to the ideology and lack of ethics of the legislators involved than any failures on the part of the Clean Elections law.

And there were elected officials around who were more interested in serving their personal ideologies and/or personal wealth than their constituents long before Clean Elections was ever proposed, much less enacted.

What the Clean Elections law is being blamed for are the effects of two phenomena that are utterly out of its control -

1. The far-rightward shift of the GOP and the harshening tone of its rhetoric, even toward its own members. As this piece from the Washington Post demonstrates, this tendency is a nationwide thing and not limited to Arizona.

Has the right wing of the AZGOP used Clean Elections candidates to take out moderate Rs with primary challenges (here "moderate" = "not conservative enough to bring smiles to the faces of Grover Norquist and David Duke")? Yes.

However, CE was just a tool for the extremists. Blaming CE for that is like blaming a hammer because the carpenter put up an ugly house.

In a state like Arizona, one that is thus far a Republican-majority state, the harshening of the GOP's rhetoric and the polarizing of its internal politics has the effect of similarly "harshening and polarizing" the overall political atmosphere, beyond just the GOP itself.

That's been seen in states that don't have publicly-financed elections, such as Texas and New York ("Scozzafava-ed" is a verb now). Blaming CE for the loss of civility in public discussions is misleading and inaccurate.

2. The apathy toward politics and governance on the part of most Americans. It seems that the vast majority of voters don't pay attention to what is going on in their government until campaign season heats up. And some, not even then.

The cynic in me believes that certain demagogues have deliberately made politics more distasteful so that more people turn away in disgust, leaving the demagogues and their vassals in office to wreak their havoc with minimal oversight.

However, the apathy toward politics has existed for, like, *ever*, so it isn't fair to blame the demagogues for the existence of that tool.

Of course, it *is* fair to blame them for their use of that tool, a use that is detrimental to the state and to the country, but that is a topic for another day.

This post is already long enough. :)

Anyway, I don't have a solution for this problem, other than to tell folks, D, R, or I, to watch the votes and actions of their elected officials, ask hard questions of their electeds, and listen to and consider the answers.

And to do it all the time, not just during campaign season or when things have already gotten ugly.

During one of the pro-education rallies at the lege last session, I was talking to one of the teachers present. He stated that he was a Republican and he was surprised at how bad things were at the lege (i.e. - the level of contempt for education, students, and educators on display from most of the Republican caucus).

He was a Republican, but he had never attended a meeting of his LD party or even a candidate forum other than for school board. He was shocked at the low priority his legislators give to the needs and views of the majority of their constituents.

I suggested that he switch parties or just show up.

I advised him that while as a Democrat, I would welcome him to the party if he chose to change his registration, I would understand if he chose to remain an R. What he could, and should, do, is get involved, at least a little. He doesn't have to be a PC to talk to and evaluate candidates, nor to talk about candidates. Just be there and let the candidates know that average people are watching them, not just the blind ideologues.

And by paying attention, and showing candidates and potential candidates, folks such as him can have a greater voice in which candidates are nominated by their party.

Because ultimately, voters decide who is in office; Clean Elections has only expanded the number of options that they can choose from.

Edit on later on 12/14 to add:

Donna at Democratic Diva has a post on this same subject here where she provides the perspective of someone who has run a campaign as a Clean Elections candidate.

End edit...

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