Crackpot Theory.

September 13, 2009

Crackpot Theory.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, September 13, 2009 after watching selections from “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” and “The Charlie Rose Show.”

Salit: I want to ask you about what Mike Barnacle called his “crackpot theory” while interviewing Pat Buchanan and David Corn. His crackpot theory is that whenever you’re talking about significant structural change – like on the scale of what is being considered for health care – there’s an automatic resistance. There are particulars about the health care controversy, there are particulars about the role of government and the controversies over that. But, in some sense, Barnacle says a lot of what the angst is about here is just simply the reaction to structural change. Is that a crackpot theory?

Newman: I’d say “yes” because what we’re talking about are cracked pots.

Salit: As in, the health care system.

Newman: And, in general.

Salit: Obama gave his talk on health care. What did you think of the talk?

Newman: I thought it was an effective talk, a good talk.

Salit: What about it did you think was effective?

Newman: I think he argued that this health care bill is ultimately an extension of Medicare and Medicaid, and a way for the government to provide – through a mixed model – decent health care to all Americans. He argued that it doesn’t represent a structural change. That we’re not talking socialism. We’re talking social responsiveness on the part of the government. I think he made that case. We’ll see what happens.

Salit: We watched a discussion that Charlie Rose put together after Obama gave his talk. It included Joe Califano, President Lyndon Johnson’s senior domestic policy aide in the fight for Medicare, probably the biggest overhaul of the health care system in the history of the country. In this conversation, Califano, Al Hunt and others said now it’s time, excuse my French, to bust some balls. The proposals are out there. There’s been a debate. There’s been fur flying from the left and from the right. But now it’s time for Obama to play hardball with members of Congress. The American people have reacted how they’ve reacted. There’s some sense of what is going to be acceptable and what isn’t going to be acceptable. Now it’s time to bear down on Congress and line up the votes. Is there anything in the picture that says don’t do that, you can’t do that, or that Obama’s going to pay a terrible price for doing it?

Newman: No. If it’s passed, it’ll be forgotten in an hour and a half.

Salit: It’ll be forgotten in an hour and a half?

Newman: In other words, people will learn to live with it. All that’s going on now is an effort by the right wing to pick up substantial political gains.

Salit: And how are they doing, do you think?

Newman: We’ll find out when they take the vote in Congress.

Salit: But it’s not just about the vote in Congress. The country comes out of this with an expanded health care program. Obama comes out of this with a “victory” on delivering health care. But the Republicans also come out of this in a better political position than they’ve been in basically since Obama won the presidency.

Newman: Well, that’s not a very long time ago.

Salit: True enough.

Newman: Is there a question here?

Salit: Look, there are different ways to characterize the status of this fight. On the one hand, this is a typical example of the ongoing competition between the Democrats and the Republicans, between the liberals and the conservatives. There’s a deal being cut. Meanwhile, this one’s grandstanding, this one is apologizing, that one is not apologizing, and all of that. Still, there’s a demand for change on the part of the American people, a demand for remodeling our country, remodeling our politics, remodeling our political culture. Where is that in this situation?

Newman: Where is that? It’s part of what’s going on. People want change in the political process. But even after they’ve expressed that – for example, by voting for Obama – when the legislative process cranks up, it still looks the same. We haven’t found a way to change that yet, other than to build an independent movement that can exercise power.

Salit: We watched a discussion of the Supreme Court arguments this week about campaign finance regulation. The matter before the court, which the justices called a special session to review, has to do with whether to lift the ban on corporate contributions to political campaigns. The traditional liberal/progressive/reform view on campaign finance has been that you’ve got to control the flow of money, you’ve got to control the source of money flowing into the election system in order to guard against either corruption or the appearance of corruption. Interestingly, the courts don’t make that much of a distinction between corruption and the appearance of corruption.

Newman: There isn’t much of a distinction.

Salit: Why do you say that?

Newman: Because I think the country is so corrupt that any distinction between those two is almost indiscernible.

Salit: OK. So, the traditional liberal/reform view is that this is the bottom line for maintaining or refueling a healthy democracy, this is ground zero for the good government movement. There are different ways the Court could go. The Court could construct, as was discussed, a narrow ruling that makes a decision relative to this particular situation regarding a film about Hillary Clinton that was produced and distributed during the presidential election. Or the Court could make a broader decision and strike down the ban on corporate funding. How big a deal is this case, do you think?

Newman: That’s a little hard to answer. The cynical, though probably accurate, answer to that question is that no matter what the Supreme Court decides, all the players involved will find a way to game the system. So, I want to say that it’s not going to make that big a difference. On the other hand, as we know from participating in this process, it can make something of a difference. Our general posture has been to reject the left/liberal position on campaign finance and take a more libertarian position.

Salit: And that comes from being outsiders to the political process. Campaign finance reform and public financing have, in most cases, ended up privileging the insiders. As independents, we want as much money as possible available to the outsiders.

Newman: That’s a pragmatic position that we’ve taken, rather than holding to the traditional liberal view of “let’s just stop the corporations from having too much control.” And I think our position is correct, relative to our circumstances. I don’t know what the Court will do, though I think, as usual, the Court will do as little as possible. That’s what they do, in most cases. Periodically, they make a stand. I don’t know if they’re prepared to make a gigantic stand on this one.

Salit: It’s the doctrine of “constitutional avoidance.” It even has a name. Some of us call it “ducking.”

Newman: Some of us call it “conservatism,” meaning that if you don’t do anything, the rich will continue to hold sway.

Salit: I thought the exchange between Justice Breyer, a liberal, and Ted Olson, an attorney for the plaintiffs (who are political conservatives) was interesting. Breyer asked Olson whether it would be the case that if the Court were to strike down the existing precedent and rule in the plaintiff’s favor, that corporations and unions could give unlimited amounts of money to the political process, but that political parties could not. This would be true because political parties are specifically limited in their fundraising and campaign spending. Breyer was, in effect, defending what we consider to be the privileged position of parties because he warned that actors other than political parties would have more capacity to impact on the political process than political parties themselves.

Newman: Well, I agree with your point. However, I’d add that Breyer’s argument depends on there being a meaningful distinction between political parties and the supporters or endorsers of political parties.

Salit: As in the corporations and the unions.

Newman: Yes. But there is no such distinction. When ordinary Americans see that some major corporation – like General Electric – is giving ten million dollars to a candidate, most people will say, Oh, he’s a Republican. And they’d be right.

Salit: And if you’re Local 1199 and you’re giving a half a million dollars to Bill Thompson…

Newman: Most people say Oh, he’s a Democrat. There’s no distinction. What Robert Reich once said of corporations is likewise true of political parties. Most of the people on corporate boards are lawyers figuring out how to get around whatever regulations they come up with in Washington. And the same is true for the parties. No matter how the Supreme Court rules.

Salit: Thanks, Fred