A perfect storm for politicians is shaping up. Higher temperatures are heralding an early beginning to the wildfire season; peak tornado season is beginning in the north; and hurricane season will last at least through the November elections. Coincidence?
Well, yes, but that’s no reason a politician can’t make some hay from it.
You’ve seen the coverage. A shocked Californian is picking through the charred remains of her home and wondering why there was so little notice; a bewildered Georgian is looking at the overturned car in his living room and wondering where his family will sleep. To the newsroom, these are common citizens recovering from horrible yet predictable disasters. Yes, they’ll zoom in on the debris for their nightly newscast, but that’s just entertainment. The real news is in the sky.
There, above it all, is President X or Governor Y, come to “survey the aftermath”/”inspect the damage”/”tour the neighborhoods hardest hit.”
Oh, I know, no job is harder for a President/Governor, and he/she wishes he/she wasn’t visiting under these circumstances. And even though he/she is a busy and important person, he’s/she’s never too busy to personally inspect the pile of brick and sheetrock that used to be your bedroom.
Maybe I’m too presumptive. Maybe before Governor Schwarzenegger was pumping iron and President Bush was dodging military service, they took community college courses on aerial cartography and civil damage assessment. So when their emergency management experts step into the White House / governor’s mansion to inform them of the latest flood in the kingdom, they can stand up and say, “No, you stay here. I have . . . experience . . . with these things. [Looking out the window] My people are hungry and homeless — they need their chief executive.”
“Oh, and bring me my binoculars.”
Granted, someone from the government has to go to coordinate relief efforts, and determine whether special help is needed. (If so, the president/governor gets to declare an official disaster, and have it known that he is the one who opened the money spigot).
But since politicians aren’t normally trained in emergency management, it helps if your man in charge of emergency management is.
President Bush paid a high political price for filling that position with someone who knew more about racehorses than about humans and their basic survival needs. (Oh, and a lot of people paid with their lives, too.)
Still, if you want some political benefit from a disaster, you arrange to tour/survey/inspect it yourself – regardless of all the resources and hoopla an official visit entails, regardless of whether it hampers the work of the people that actually treat the victims.
I’m sure that politicians who embark on these disaster tours know they’re not truly helping. But unless they’re steely enough to admit that their visit is nothing more than a photo-op, I suspect they convince themselves of some sort of altruism. Perhaps they believe the relief workers need a political celebrity to motivate their work; or that their official presence brings a ray of sunshine to townsfolk shivering under dark clouds of despair.
“… If you want to benefit politically from a disaster, you arrange to tour/survey/inspect it yourself–regardless of all the resources and hoopla an official visit entails…”
In the midst of the recent 500-year flood in Iowa, President Bush had search and rescue workers assembled in a room and told them, ”You’re exhausted and I understand that.”
It would be naive to think the local workers or victims are his primary audience. At a photo-op with Iowa’s Gov. Chet Culver, there was this exchange:
Culver: “Thank you, Mr. President. (Applause.) If I could, just very quickly, I want to thank the President on behalf of the people of Iowa– ”
Bush: “Get those cameras back in here. (Laughter.)”
Laughter, of course, over the idea that they could be so opportunistic.
Refreshingly (to me, someone who enjoys seeing media stunts backfire), the President’s belated attention to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans backfired when he surveyed the damage from Air Force One high above. It was designed to show that he cared about the people, wading through an American city below in search of drinking water; instead, it became symbolic of his detachment.
But rather than signal the end of an era in which people are impressed by royal attention, it seems merely to have pushed politicians to choreograph their photo-ops better.
The President now seems to be making more use of Marine One, his helicopter, which can fly lower than his jet, allowing him to “inspect the damage” more closely and occasionally put “boots on the ground” to show everyone that he’s humble enough to walk among them.
You might say that as a lame duck, the President has no need for political calculations. But while he’ll never run for office again, he surely cares about his legacy and doesn’t want to leave with less than half the approval ratings Bill Clinton had when he finished up.
The bigger tragedy is that the “acts of God” that presidents and governors chase with their jets and SUVs are made increasingly worse by acts of man. The response of government, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina, can be equally disastrous, particularly if those in charge feel that governments shouldn’t do much of anything beyond projecting force overseas.
And global warming is likely to make floods, droughts, and other formerly-natural disasters more frequent and intense. (No wonder most politicians aren’t excited about stopping it – think of the dramatic backdrops all these disasters will offer in the future!)
And if it takes a 3,000-mile round-trip flight on Air Force One (with all its greenhouse gas emissions) just to get the President over the latest post-tornado wasteland, who cares? Carbon offsets are for wacky environmentalists and people who’ll still be around in 30 years.
Anyway, regardless of whether all those Air Force One trips help intensify the next major disaster, rest assured – a President will be there, too.
Godless. That’s the title. No subtitle. A major newspaper allowed the printing of such free speech (in an op-ed), calling for God to be removed from Presidential politics. This is a rare event, even in the supposedly Godless offices of the New York Times. We may just be standing on the cusp of a new era in American media.
Granted, Timothy Egan didn’t go so far as to suggest that all spheres of society might benefit from less religion – imagine less discrimination, better medicine, fewer religious solicitors at your door. But he did call for its removal from politics, and government, too.
Expect to start seeing more progressive opinions like this from the media in the coming months. Not because they’re liberal – if they were, they’d support secularism more than once in a blue moon. And I don’t expect a new onslaught of liberalism – most newspapers are part of (spoiler alert) large profit-seeking organizations which don’t make much money on peace and equality.
What I am expecting is a significant shift, but not from right to left – more like from right back to center-right.
“The media are like a prisoner slowly awakening from a long slumber and realizing the guards abandoned the prison days ago.”
What’s causing this once-a-decade realignment? A few things:
- Former Bush loyalists, racked by guilt for not speaking out sooner, are releasing book after book critical of the administration and how it has led America so far off track. These reformed Republicans are essentially doing the job that reporters and editors should have done earlier, and the media are getting burned. Their complicity in the failures of the last eight years becomes more conspicuous with each passing year in Iraq and each additional 1,000 soldiers that return without their lives.
- Conservatism today is a tainted brand. You see it in the scandals in the religious Right (e.g. Ted Haggart). You see it in the failures of the Republican administration (Iraq, Social Security reform, its response to that hurricane). You see it in its inability to run government (selling access to lobbyists like Jack Abramoff, appointing cronies like FEMA’s Michael Brown).
- Yesterday’s election promise is today’s embarrassment: “small government” became record spending, “humble foreign policy” became pre-emptive invasion, “compassionate conservatism” became fighting children’s health programs. The media amplified these incredible campaign-trail slogans and gave short shrift to their critics. Every week’s news brings new reminders of which side the media helped when the voters were considering Governor Bush’s bill of goods.
- Americans are turning away from the Republican Party. Witness polls showing the average Joe’s preference for generic Democrat X over generic Republican Y. Witness party insiders and regular voters disavowing their pro-Bush identities. Witness the lack of enthusiasm of Republicans for their own presidential candidate.
- Republican “stocks” look set to drop even further. The death rate may be down in Iraq, but it’s still high, and any loss of people is hard to justify when the overall mission is stalled. With no plausible “victory” on the horizon, not to mention widespread warnings of further rising oil prices, declining house values, and financial instability, it’s clear that we haven’t yet hit bottom. Nor does anyone know where the bottom is.
- The President’s power is all but spent. He’s got rock-bottom approval ratings. He’s lost his rubber-stamping Republican Congress. New initiatives are on hold while the country waits for Mr. Bush to go to pasture in Texas and the new political landscape to materialize. And the tools with which the President keeps the media at heel – revokable press passes, selective access to officials and information, accusations of anti-patriotism – are all less sharp in the hands of a lame duck.
In short, the media now have little to fear from the administration and much to fear from a battered reputation.
Truth be told, I expected this transition to begin earlier – like when the “mission accomplished” aircraft carrier landing became a running joke, and top officials could neither explain a plausible route to victory nor admit the mistake and suggest plan B.
The media are like a prisoner slowly awakening from a long slumber and realizing the guards abandoned the prison days ago. The fact that they cowered so long in the shadow of this Presidency is troubling and needs a thorough look, but the bottom line is that the tide seems to be turning.
The media are remembering their true master is not Pennsylvania Avenue but Main Street- ha, well we all wish it was Main Street, but in fact it’s Madison Avenue – that is, advertisers. While that means that ABC is more likely to chase a sex scandal than investigate government wrongdoing, at least they’re more likely to act as equal-opportunity ratings-chasers, pursuing salaciousness and taking names in either party until one or the other emerges again and runs the White House communications office with an iron fist.
America took two steps to the right. It’s now taking one step back. NBC won’t start throwing bombs at General Electric. But across the monoculture of weeds that is the mainstream media landscape, we may just start to see more flowers of truth and dissent popping up, here and there.
Unless voters are completely happy with America’s two-party system (and think it’s always possible to tell the difference between the two official ones), we owe it to ourselves to see what the third parties are offering. I recently browsed the current platform of the Libertarian Party and its new Presidential nominee. It revolves around two things, regulation and freedom, and their fear of the first is so strong that they would tie their own hands from doing much about the second.
Except for those whose let the church dictate their political beliefs, most people will find something attractive about the Libertarian platform. The conservative mind loves the anti-tax, anti-spend philosophy that the Republican party professes but doesn’t practice, and the Libertarian dislike of government regulation.
The liberal mind appreciates their love of individual rights, which leads them to support habeus corpus and (most of) the rest of the Constitution, and to support gay rights and oppose the drug war.
And those against the Iraq war in either of the two main parties will appreciate the Libertarian Party’s commitment to non-intervention.
But politically the party tends to draw more potential Republicans than Democrats, and could well pull votes from John McCain in November if it weren’t so rife with contradictions.
Note the irony of the party’s Presidential nominee: Bob Barr, the former Republican Congressman from Georgia. The man they want to carry the flag for Libertarianism is the same man who led the campaign to turn rumors of President-Intern hanky-panky into official (and expensive) impeachment proceedings.
“Libertarians might gain more traction if they focused more on their supposed goal – increasing freedom – and less on whether or not it’s achieved through new legislation.”
Barr probably hopes the electorate forgets about that failed and destructive effort, as well as some of his political stances which should be embarrassing to any Libertarian. As a Republican, he opposed gay marriage and the medical use of marijuana, and supported the Patriot Act, a Constitution-watering bill that any true patriot would have opposed.
Since then Barr has done a number of political 180s. Those, and his name recognition, led to his nomination, in one opinion. But the contradictions extend deep into the Libertarian platform, too.
Of only four (count ‘em, four issues) important enough for their website, one is “secure our borders.” Libertarians’ love of liberties seems to stop at the U.S.-Mexico border. If bad fortune has put you on the other side of it, in a country that lacks the jobs for you to support your family, then your freedom to move and find work is less important than arbitrary quotas decided by the U.S. government.
Those regulations are fine, and presumably whatever else “secures our borders.” Surely Libertarians celebrated the fall of the Berlin wall. Seems they would also celebrate the construction of an American one.
So it’s all the other regulations that are cramping freedom – the “Nanny state.” Libertarians blame government for limiting our choices – “determining the food we eat” and “the type of light bulbs that illuminate our living rooms.”
Obviously Uncle Sam limits your choices if he bans you from reading Fahrenheit 451 or says your mother can’t smoke pot to ease the pain from chemotherapy. Or subsidizes oil so much that better fuels are muscled out of the market.
But laws can increase choices, too. Without some basic planning and the force of law – from city zoning to federal designations – long term planning and projects can’t happen. Without those there’s no rail systems to move goods cheaply or give commuters an alternative to the automobile, and no wetlands to protect drinking water. The right subsidies (say, for green technologies) can give consumers options and alternatives years before the market might get around to it, and lower pollution and create jobs to boot.
The Libertarian anti-regulation “philosophy” is so deep that it seems to transcend everything, including health, an issue I saw no mention of anywhere on their official website. Some regulations are basic and obvious, protecting our health so that we have the luxury of debating everything else. Hard-fought battles for basic health protections make it much less likely that you’ll die an early death because a meat packing plant wanted to cut corners. And environmental laws – when they’re not gutted by “laissez faire,” come-what-may Libertarianism – help prevent us from getting cancer at age 40 because we played in the wrong field as a child.
Freedom should be high on the agenda, but what good is freedom if you’re too sick or dead to enjoy it? The only “freedom” that many regulations are cramping is the freedom to profit from harming others.
Libertarians’ belief in ultra-low taxes and the “natural perfection” of markets would lead to insanity if applied in the real world. They would jump at a two-cent cut in taxes even if it means we’d pay a dollar more tomorrow on inefficient infrastructure, environmental cleanup, and overpriced prescription drugs to treat illnesses that could have been prevented.
As anyone who has an opinion on politics should know, it’s not the fact that government can pass regulations that’s the problem but which ones they do. And the debate over those is the essence of democracy.
Libertarians might gain more traction if they focused more on their supposed goal – increasing freedom – and less on whether or not it’s achieved through new legislation.