I’m Back! | Are Campaigns Just Games? January 20, 2010Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
Tags: Campaigns, Congress, Democracy, Democrats, Elections, Flip Flop, Martha Coakley, Massachusetts, Pandering, Politics, Republicans, Scott Brown, Senate, Special Election, Voter Turnout, Voting
I’m back. I haven’t posted for a few months because I was working in a political internship where I was not allowed to blog. That has ended, so I will be writing again. Please read on:
Campaigning and governing are two very different things. The obviousness of that statement is a serious problem. Yesterday’s “surprising” special election in Massachusetts is a case study in why the separation between these two processes is detrimental to our country.
State Attorney General Martha Coakley was a terrible campaigner. Gaffes drive election coverage, and her short campaign had media outlets drooling. But is she any less fit to govern now than she was when she clinched the Democratic nomination? No.
Massachusetts is fairly considered a Democratic state. Currently, voters have elected Democrats into every state executive office, 89.5% of its state legislature and, until Senator-elect Scott Brown is sworn in, 100% of its congressional representatives. It is safe to say that a majority of Bay Staters embraces the Democratic policy agenda.
The first poll after the primaries showed Coakley 15 points ahead of Brown. Eleven days later, the final poll showed Coakley 9 points behind Brown. Yesterday, she lost by 5 points. Polls are inaccurate, but during those two weeks a significant portion of voters changed their minds, either about the candidates or about their decision to vote.
In a democratic republic, citizens elect representatives to legislate on their behalf. It is clearly within a person’s interest to vote for someone who shares his or her policy perspective. So congressional elections should be about policy, the laws each candidate will support. Unfortunately, campaigns have lost sight of this because we, the voters, have let them. The media enable and cultivate this electoral perversion.
The Coakley-Brown campaign was largely devoid of policy. Yes, Brown was going to (and now will) vote to block healthcare reform. What will he do after that? He ran a campaign ad featuring his truck. Not one of Coakley’s “gaffes” was policy-related. Some might point to her Afghanistan comment, but that was a defensible opinion. All we heard about in the news was an admittedly egregious typo of her state’s name. Not a word about what she would do as a senator.
We as a country neglect policy in campaigns. Since 2004, it is political suicide to reverse a policy position, even in the face of new, better information; “flip-flopper” is a politician’s death knell. Brown actually did successfully flip his stance on climate to pander to Tea Partiers, but that was before the primaries, and this election was not about climate change. None of the drastic poll movement over the last two weeks can be attributed to policy positions because they didn’t change. So what did? And can it possibly be more important than policy?
“Reducing carbon dioxide emission in Massachusetts has long been a priority of mine” -Scott Brown in 2008, after voting for RGGI, the regional cap and trade system among Northeastern power plants.
“It’s interesting. I think the globe is always heating and cooling. It’s a natural way of ebb and flow.” – Scott Brown in 2010, pandering to the ignorance of the extreme right.
Campaigns have become a sport of their own. Candidates are being evaluated on a scale separate from how well they would govern. It’s like drafting a basketball player based not on his skill but rather on how many people would want to come to see him. Sarah Palin comes to mind. President Obama does too, but he can dribble and shoot. Still, campaign prowess and governing ability are not inherently correlated, and we cannot continue conflating the two.
Scott Brown definitively won his campaign. Or rather, Martha Coakley definitively lost hers. But I challenge the notion that Senator Brown will represent the majority opinion of the state of Massachusetts. And if that’s true, the system is flawed.
So what to do? If most of the state’s registered voters had turned out last night, the state would be more accurately represented. Perhaps voting should be mandatory, an official civic duty instead of a “freedom” to be celebrated and then apathetically shirked on election day. A Massachusetts election official projected last night’s “explosive” turnout to be in the 40% range.
It is hypocritical for us to hold up our democracy as the model government while recording unremarkable if not weak voter turnout on an international scale (check out this website for some interesting international election statistics). Yet unless people take much more time to educate themselves about the issues, mandatory voting would be no solution. At least today’s voters care, even if some opinions are based on the distortions of demagogues.
If elections are truly about selecting the best people to govern, I propose we completely remove the pageantry from the campaign process. Congressional representatives, unlike presidents, have essentially one task: creating legislation. So we should vote for person who will enact the policies we support most.
Therefore, let every candidate write down his or her ideal prescriptions for each major policy area. Compare and contrast the answers. Publish and widely circulate that document. Then let us choose the best person for the job. Who cares what kind of car they drive? What does it matter which sports teams they support? These are unnecessary distractions. Let the media provide the electorate with enough information to pick an effective legislator and then go report real current events. Surely there’s a little boy in a balloon somewhere.
We should vote for the right reasons. And we should all vote.