Sunday, January 10, 2010

Are All Politicians the Same?

I hope I am not alone in finding this strange.

A bill goes up for a vote in Congress. All the Democrats vote one way; all the Republicans vote the other way. Within minutes a commentator appears on television and announces, in a tone of outrage, that they are all the same, that there is not a dime's worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats.

Most of the time we ignore these remarks. Their authors are far from the most astute political commentators. Mostly their rants about the Democratic-Republican administration are designed to show them to be serious thinkers who are above the dirty dealings of real politics.

Or so they like to pretend.

Now, however, someone I and everyone else respects enormously, Bill Gross, the bond market maven from PIMCO, has picked up on this theme. If you read Gross's commentaries, they are always thoughtful, worthy of respect, and at times, of deference. If the bond market is as important as Robert Rubin thought it was, we do well to pay attention to Bill Gross.

To my surprise, and, I confess, dismay, I read the following in Bill Gross's latest commentary: "So you watch Fox or MSNBC? O'Reilly or Olbermann? It doesn't matter. You're just being conned into rooting for a team that basically runs the same plays called by lookalike coaches on different sidelines.... There has been no change, there will be no change, until we the American people decide to publicly finance all national and local elections, and ban the writing of even a $1 check to our favorite candidates." Link here.

According to Gross, money corrupts; political contributions corrupt absolutely.

Is this simply a new manifestation of buyer's remorse? I do not know who Gross voted for, but if he voted for the change candidate, he might be disappointed by now... not so much because Obama has not brought drastic change to the federal government, but because the change candidate has not really been up to the job.

If you voted for Obama, hoping for something brilliant and transcendent, then you can admit that you made a mistake, can continue hoping against hope, or can blame the inherent inertia of a system run by and for lobbyists.

Of course, it may well be that Bill Gross is really trying to tell us that he is worried about the bond market. It may be that the bond market does not like Obama as much as Gross did. And if Bill Gross is worried about the bond market, then we should all be worried.

As for the substance of his argument, if the political parties are all the same, why should anyone bother to vote at all. There are few enough citizens who vote in elections today; is it really helpful to set up an argument that can discourage civic responsibility?

After all, we are duty-bound to vote. We are duty-bound to select those we wish to represent us in government. We are duty bound to choose among or between the candidates who have presented themselves.

Nothing is gained by defining free choice in such idealistic terms that no system of government could ever be pure enough. The same applies to people, incidentally.

Besides, political parties evolve. They change their policies and change their leaders. Given the fact that the people vote, the parties must respond to the will of the people, or they will pay a price.

It would not be a good thing for people to avoid voting because they think it doesn't matter. And it would be even worse to do so because candidates do not live up to their unrealistic expectations.

If you vote for a candidate who disappoints you, you will always have another chance to cast another ballot to correct the error. But if you make a mistake it is better to take responsibility for your own judgment than to blame special interest money.

As for removing personal and corporate and union contributions from politics, many people believe that that would be an unconstitutional constraint on free speech. We recently had campaign finance reform, and where did that get us?

Shouldn't the first amendment guarantee the most vigorous and open debate. Surely, candidates who have the most money have something of an advantage, but it is also the responsibility of the citizenry to make a decision based on something other than a flashy commercial or a witty slogan.

Bill Gross seems to have a rather idealistic notion of what an election should be about. Democratic elections are not like debates at the Yale Political Union. They involve different individuals and groups expressing differing policy proposals to solve problems or to continue orderly government. And doing it as often and as persuasively as they can. It is less a debating society than an exercise in the balance of powers.

It is also idealistic to believe that people are so completely manipulated by advertising that they cannot make an independent and free judgment.

Proponents of campaign finance reform seem to be terrified that the electorate will be seduced into voting for the wrong person. Admittedly, the candidate with the most money and the most clever media consultants has an advantage, but all adults are subjected to siren songs all the time. And we all need to learn how to deal with them.

Take the same issue on a much smaller level. Advertising exists. So does marketing. Both work overtime to influence your purchasing decisions. Are you so easily duped that you are simply going to buy detergent or a brand of coffee because its ads were more enticing and alluring? Perhaps so. Does that mean that we should ban advertising because Tide and All have special interests in getting you to try their product? Not at all.

Competing ads provide competing claims. We are free to evaluate them, to try the products, and to draw our own conclusions. Hopefully, and with time, we will make decisions that are less about the packaging and more about the product.

And even if that does not happen, freedom must also involve the freedom to be duped.

In the same way we evaluate candidates; we examine their programs and platforms; and we cast our votes. Each candidate marshals his or her forces to provide the most compelling argument to influence our votes. So be it. It is our civic responsibility to study those arguments, to evaluate the claims that their ads are making, and to cast an informed vote.

Sometimes we get fooled. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we get it right.But we always learn; that is what it means to be a citizen.

You cannot protect people absolutely from error by banning special interests and lobbyists. I suspect that special interests are the most convenient whipping boys for those who are disappointed that their candidate did not live up to the hype.

Many have learned a lesson; let's hope that the rest of us do not have to learn it through the bond market.

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