The Disconnect.

September 3, 2006

The Disconnect.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, September 3, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: The Pentagon came out with a study at the end of the week analyzing the situation in Iraq which described the intensification of sectarian strife. Their statistics say that casualties are up 50% in recent months. The report also says that attacks on civilians, which were roughly 30 a day two years ago, are now up to 120 a day. There was less discussion about the Pentagon study today than I expected. But Tim Russert brought it up in the debate between Rick Santorum and Bob Casey, the Republican and Democrat, respectively, in the Pennsylvania Senate race. Senator Santorum argued on behalf of the Bush war policy on the grounds that what we’re fighting is a war on terrorism, that Iraq is a front in that war, and that’s why we have to persist. Russert interjected, citing the Pentagon study: ‘Well, even the Pentagon says that the serious issue on the ground in Iraq is not foreign fighters or terrorists per se. It’s the sectarian violence between the Sunnis and the Shiites.’ But the discussion didn’t really go anywhere. My experience of the shows today is that things are increasingly turning in the direction of the coming elections in November and analyzing everything in terms of its impact there – which, I guess, is fair.

The polls show a huge majority of the American people opposed to the war. So, on the one hand, the traditional question about all of this is: Do you think that the Republicans will be able to hold control of Congress, given all of these factors? But, obviously, you don’t know. Moreover, we’ll all know soon enough. But, the results of the election aside, it seems clear that overall confidence in governmental ability to handle the international situation is eroding, unraveling and weak.

Newman: Those abstract estimations don’t mean anything. The closest approximation we have to measuring that are the upcoming elections. The issue is not what the American people think. You can speculate in different ways about that. It’s how they vote. Now, are the Republicans concerned that they’re not going to get the same degree of support that they got two years ago? Obviously, yes. Are the Democrats optimistic that they’ll do better? Yes. That’s what we have to go on. If the Democrats win the majority in the House, will that make a huge difference, in terms of U.S. foreign policy or U.S. domestic policy? I don’t know. Because the logic of political elections and the logic of what the American people would like to have done is not congruent. They’re two different things. Is there a way to change that? Yes, but you can’t get there in the immediate future because the disconnect is structural. We could have national initiative and referendum. There are reforms of that kind. There are more direct election processes which would require constitutional amendments. Is that about to happen? Not in the short run. Will it happen in the long run? I hope so. But I don’t know. I don’t even know what the long run means. But you have this incongruity that exists for the moment and you just have to accept that that’s what you’ve got.

Salit: This makes me think about the discussion at the end of “The McLaughlin Group,” about the minimum wage. McLaughlin and others were pointing to the polls that show 70+% of the American people favor an increase in the minimum wage over the current level of $5.15. That’s a pretty strong finding. At the same time, they also describe this convoluted story of all the political machinations that went down on Capitol Hill about the minimum wage bill, which resulted in no increase in the minimum wage being passed. On Election Day, people are going to go to the polls and vote, by and large, for the people who were a part of that deal, or, if not for the persons who were a part of that, at least for the parties that were a part of that…because that’s roughly what there is on the ballot.

Newman: The examples abound. Perhaps another example is the piece you read to me earlier, the New York Times piece endorsing Hillary Clinton over Jonathan Tasini for U.S. Senate. This editorial was an incredible piece of political rhetoric designed to explain how the Times could support Ned Lamont in Connecticut on the grounds of his principled opposition to the war in Iraq, but give Clinton the endorsement here over Tasini. Essentially, their point came down to that it’s politically astute to support Clinton here in New York State, even if Mrs. Clinton has the reputation of sacrificing principle to political expedience. And, of course, as any good psychotherapist would explain to the Times, ‘What you’re doing is a classic example of that.’ There is no single example that proves the disconnect because the issue is bigger than that. There is the world of electoral politics and there’s the world of what people actually believe and support. And the reason that they’re incongruous is that the structure doesn’t come close to allowing people to give expression to what they believe, or think, or care about.

And, I don’t think it’s reducible to a debate between representative democracy vs. popular democracy. It’s about the culture of our political system and that various factors – economic, political, international, cultural – combine to create that gap.

Salit: Well, back to the Casey/Santorum debate on “Meet the Press.” This is considered one of the closer races for a Senate seat in the country. Casey’s pretty far to the right, as Democrats go.

Newman: And Santorum’s pretty far to the right, as Republicans go.

Salit: And there you have it. This is a state, of course, where Casey and the Democratic Party have challenged the petitions of the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, Carl Romanelli, to try and knock him off the ballot. The Democrats fear that the race is going to be so close that even if the Greens were to draw a single percentage point, it could be the difference in the race. The latest I’m hearing on that front is that the Pennsylvania courts are doing a line-by-line on Romanelli’s petitions and the petitions may be deficient in meeting the requisite signature requirement.

Here’s my thought about it. On the one hand, one could criticize and raise objections to the Democrats making a challenge to those petitions, and we have. Pennsylvania has historically been very hostile to independents, as we know. State authorities, including the courts, crushed Ralph Nader’s ballot access bid in 2004, and the court just levied a big fine on him for his effort! On the other hand, Pennsylvania is a challenge state and those are the rules there. If the Greens, or anybody else on the independent side, wants to mount a serious campaign of this kind, you’ve got to make a serious commitment to withstanding a court challenge by the Democrats because it’s sure to come. And if that means, and it would mean, making a call to independents everywhere, in the state and outside of the state, to aid in that kind of effort because you want to take a stand against the Democrats, then that’s what should be done. It seems to me that if you’re not prepared to do that, for whatever reason, then you can’t really complain when the Democrats go after you. The Democrats are playing a hardball game. But the independents often don’t.

Newman: Yes. We’ve been pointing out for a long time that the issue is not that the Democrats are playing hardball with independents in order to get rid of them. The issue is that independents are ambivalent as to whether they want to play hardball to get rid of the Democrats.

Salit: After weeks of coverage of the Connecticut race and then the Lamont win and a lot of proclamations about the surge of anti-war activism inside the Democratic Party I was struck that today it’s almost as if that never happened. It sort of evaporated as a news story.

Newman: Tell me more about how you see that.

Salit: For example, I don’t think that Tim Russert asked Bob Casey a question about Connecticut and the anti-war surge in his party.

Newman: What would be the question?

Salit: I guess the question would be: Where do you think your party is heading? Do you think the party is taking a turn in more of a direction against the war? We just saw this big upset in the Democratic primary in Connecticut. Russert did make his usual sarcastic remark to Casey, saying ‘Mr. Casey, there’s been an evolution in your thinking,’ as a prelude to pointing out some “inconsistencies” in positions that Casey has taken on the war. He quoted him as making a ‘stay the course’ remark a number of months back and now calling for an untimed withdrawal and reduction of U.S. forces, etc. Anyway, I think Russert could have asked him a question about Connecticut and what it means for the Democratic Party overall.

Newman: And if Casey was being honest, he’d say Well, that was in Connecticut. I’m running in Pennsylvania.

Salit: For sure. And, the fact of the matter is that from the Democrats’ point of view, it doesn’t matter whether Lamont or Lieberman wins because either one of them is going to vote with the Democratic caucus and select the majority leader, if they’ve won the majority.