I want to grow up to be a politician
And take over this beautiful land
I want to grow up to be a politician
And be the old U.S. of A.'s number one man
I'll always be tough but I'll never be scary
I want to shoot guns or butter my bread
I'll work in the towns or conservate the prairies
And you can believe the future's ahead
— The Byrds, "I Want to Grow Up to Be a Politician," by Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy
When former Kentucky Governor Happy Chandler changed his registration to independent in 1971, he said, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me." Ronald Reagan, another ex-Dem, repeated that phrase so many times, everyone thinks he coined it.
Well, to paraphrase Mr. Chandler via Mr. Reagan, "I didn't leave politics; politics left me." I say that because it took two weeks after the jury's verdict for me to realize that, if the verdict stands, I will never be able to run for political office.
Once upon a time, losing that right would have meant a lot to me. I was one of those kids who memorized all the U.S. presidents and could recite their names in order. At some ridiculously young age, I read Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President 1960." I kept track of elections avidly, and volunteered for campaigns all through high school. The political system, especially elections, was where the great issues of the age were addressed, by some of the largest personalities of the times. I saw myself as part of that debate, and thus part of that process — someday. Like Norman Mailer, I was always "running for President…in the privacy of my mind."
As my career unfolded, the idea of running for office kind of fell by the wayside, but it was something I thought I might do after I retired — run for a local school board, say. But I stopped even dreaming about that many years ago without even noticing the dream was gone. I still like arguing issues, but the political process seems like the very last place where an honest discussion of anything truly serious will take place.
The just-concluded primary election, and the 2006 political season generally, make it abundantly clear what's wrong with the process, and why everyone who ever dreamed of transforming the world via the political system should try to replace their cynicism with the kind of rage that will lead to "creative destruction." Just to pick a few items:
Proposition 82. It was an open secret for years that the California Children and Families Commission would spend millions in public dollars on selling the "preschool for all" idea in order to prepare the groundwork for an this initiative. This was a much-desired PR and advertising contract, so anyone who had a serious notion of competing for it was told what the client was looking for. Despite all the spending, the Preschool for All measure got killed in yesterday's election — losing by more than 20 points in an election where Democrats were disproportionately represented among the paucity of voters.
The public, apparently, could tell they were being played for fools; that Rob Reiner and his allies believed voters would respond to the three-word concept, "preschool for all," and not notice in fine print that the measure represented a state government takeover of preschool education — and not preschool for all!
I hate initiative campaigns like this — measures that try to cram a lot of special-interest agendas into an attractive package, and sweep the unappetizing trade-offs under the rug. Back in 1990, I argued with friends about "Big Green," which bundled many different, arguably good environmental programs into one initiative, and one up or down vote. The public voted "down" because they had an intuitive sense that this is not how we make decisions in America. The legislative process might be broken, but in its slowness, it is flexible enough to react to unintended consequences and new information. Initiatives like Proposition 82 are take-it-or-leave-it measures; you have to buy all of it or none of it, and once it's approved, you're stuck with every word of it. Mostly, Californians say no to such propositions, but activists like Reiner keep trying. Why?
One reason why might be that California's legislative and congressional districts are completely gerrymandered, with the result that meaningful political discussion has all but died here. If Rob Reiner perceived that Sacramento could never deliver something as sweeping as preschool for all, he was right.
You could count on one hand the number of competitive legislative races in California. When the maps were drawn in 2000, Democratic and Republican leaders both claimed it was fair because the result would be a legislature that reflected the state's political profile.
But what that means is, California's legislative races are virtually all devoid of issues. The only competitive races are in the primaries, between two or three candidates of the district's dominant party, all of them striving to appeal to the party's bedrock base of voters and special interests, and to outdo each other in showing fealty to their special pleadings.
Everyone comments on the fact that the one-party districts empower the activists of both parties, and leave moderates on the outside looking in. I would argue the damage is worse than that. Election campaigns between two ideologically similar, ambitious, well-funded opponents end up being terrible advertisements for democracy. All you get are throroughgoing attacks on character, a fervent search for scandals — and no discussion of anything controversial. Does anyone seriously think Cindy Montanez would vote much differently from Alex Padilla? Or Jenny Oropeza would vote much differently from George Nakano? Well, that was your whole choice in those districts. The winners (Padilla and Oropeza) will face token opposition from the other party. And all you got to really know about them was through anodyne biographical brochures mixed with nasty attacks.
You saw this tendency writ large in the Westly v. Angelides race. One set of so-called "positive" ads had both candidates claiming that they love the environment (Westly even claimed California "might be God's greatest creation," unfairly slighting the contribution of plate tectonics), that they will defend a woman's "right to choose." (In Democratic political speech, "to choose" has morphed into an intransitive verb), and that education will be their "highest priority" (under the state constitution, that's a given.) The other set of "negative" ads try to tie the candidate to horrible misdeeds. Usually, these horrible misdeeds, even if they're true, are not revealing of character, and have little to do with the real issues that voters want politicians to address.
The environment, abortion and education are important matters, but they aren't presented by the candidates as issues. Don't you want to know how they intend to protect the environment? How much they're willing to spend on it? How will they address an issue like wind energy where environmentalists are fighting each other? In my opinion, the biggest environmental question currently is whether California should allow liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants to be built offshore. Political ads were silent on that timely issue. Likewise with education. Does "highest priority" means you would be willing to break all the teachers' union contracts if they stand in the way of better schools? Do you think Mayor Villaraigosa should take over LA Unified? Now, there's an issue. But how many candidates took a stand on it?
It is almost surreal: There is a total disconnect between what's in the news and what's being discussed on the campaign trail. During this primary season, millions of people marched in the streets of Los Angeles and other California cities regarding illegal immigration. Meanwhile, the Minuteman movement and other manifestations of hostility toward illegal immigrants, gained strength. Illegal immigration presents great complexity, issues of law, economics, national security and compassion. It is roiling Congress, and threatening the Bush presidency.
But somehow, illegal immigration is a non-issue in California. Based on his advertising, I have no idea what Phil Angelides thinks about this issue. No surprise why. The dumbest political consultant in the world would have told Angelides not to discuss a "hot button wedge issue" like illegal immigration. It's about conventional as conventional wisdom gets. But if that's the kind of politics candidates are willing to accept, they shouldn't be surprised if most people stay home on election day.
The candidates are choosing to deal with the issues on top of voters' minds by ignoring them. So voters, quite reasonably, ignore the candidates.
Looking at that landscape objectively, I wonder why any smart person would want to be a politician. I have friends who are elected officials, and they are all smart. In fact, most politicians I know do carry at least a touch of idealism, although they can only expose it to the light of day on rare occasions. I think the smarter politicians know as well as any voter how unsatisfying and unproductive our political system has become. They just can't figure out how to change it.
Like many other elements of our communications environment, politics is ripe and ready to be overcome by something new. As with the newspaper business and the PR and advertising industries, the legacy form of politics cannot survive; because it is no longer serving its intended purpose of resolving important issues. But it's not so clear what will replace this broken-down political system we've got, and whether what's next will be an improvement.