Better Than Our Leaders
The first debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in some aspects followed the formula routine of such events, while adding a few never seen before wrinkles. There was excessive talking, without a whole lot of meaningful insight offered, along with the customary put-downs of your opponent. The new features came from the political insider, with more scandalous baggage than the normal nominee, Clinton, facing the loose-cannon, billionaire businessman, Trump. Hillary might be said to have won on the form of the debate, sticking to her carefully prepared talking points, while the Donald ranged all over the place, including admitting to the 83 million Americans watching that he cheated on his taxes, and was smart to do so. In the end, it is hard to say anyone, including the candidates and audience, benefited from the night, but only highlighted the extreme dysfunction of our political system.
The election of 2016 has provided the unusual specter of people casting their vote against a candidate, instead of for the other candidate. How often have we heard someone say, they will vote for Hillary Clinton as the lesser of two evils, or those voting for Donald Trump because they hate Hillary? We don’t hear many ringing endorsements of either nominee. If you watched the national conventions, it seems the country could not ask for two better qualified persons to serve as Chief Executive. Their spouses and children, along with various acquaintances and party members, painted glowing pictures of total commitment to family, untiring work ethic, and strict adherence to high principles. Why then is the nation so unenthused and apathetic about the whole process, with tales of impending doom filling the airwaves, if either Clinton or Trump gets elected? Why indeed.
Is there any substance behind the carefully staged rallies or sound bites spun out by each campaign? It might be harder to tell with Donald Trump as he has no record in public service to examine. Being a wealthy businessman and CEO is obviously very different from heading one of the world’s leading countries. The Donald likes to say he will do this, fix that, make America great again, without really imparting a sense of actually knowing how to reach these goals. He can certainly fire people (you’re fired!), except the ones who probably deserve it most- members of Congress. Even with all his bluster, it is hard to imagine Trump breaking the legislative body out of its perpetual stagnation. The best guess as to how a Donald Trump presidency might fare, must be gleamed from his pronouncements and demeanor, which are not anything to inspire confidence or unite the country.
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton served in the U.S. Senate from 2000 to 2006, and then as Secretary of State for President Obama in his first term, 2009-2013. Hillary’s accomplishments as a Senator were scant. She did not sponsor any major legislation, and on the most important vote taken during her term, voted yes to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Like the rest who came to regret that decision, Clinton hid behind the convenient excuse, “If I knew then, what I know now.” It is also difficult to cite significant successes in her time as Secretary of State. She points to her role in the killing of Osama bin Laden, yet international terrorism has in no manner decreased since his death in 2011, while the unpleasant fact that he was hiding right among Pakistan’s top military establishment, a nation the U.S. paid $25 billion to assist in his capture, perhaps deflates that balloon a bit. In addition, Hillary contends she was the driving force behind deposing Muamar Gaddafi in Libya. We did topple the dictator, but similar to Iraq, possessed no “exit strategy” or plan for what might happen next. George W. Bush had been hammered endlessly for that mistake. The result in Libya was Benghazi, the death of our ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans, along with a nation splintered by civil war. The unmitigated disaster in Syria began under Hillary’s watch as well. The e-mail scandal and Clinton Foundation controversy, at the very least, justifiably call into question her highly touted judgment.
So, is Armageddon right around the corner, the collapse of the Republic? I don’t think so. Clinton or Trump will be our 45th president. Out of that number, maybe only 9 or 10 could be called good at the job. This is not a dispersion on the other 35 who served. Most were decent and honorable men; being president is no easy task. As the famous author, John Steinbeck, once noted, “We give the president more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We wear him out, and use him up. He is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.” Our best presidents- Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts- overcame the tremendous obstacles they faced, provided the firm and steady leadership required, and brought the nation together for some noble endeavor. The mediocre and poor ones tend to be indecisive, while blaming others or circumstances for their shortcomings. Playing on the fear and prejudices of the people is also a favored tactic of the weak leader. Both the Donald and Hillary have adopted this strategy, perhaps to mask that neither has much worthwhile to offer in terms of actual policy. Thus, another lackluster presidency appears in the offing, something the country is all too familiar with. Yet, despite mostly ineffective direction from the top post in the national government, the United States has a lot to be proud of. The American people deserve the credit.
What has caused Washington to sink into such a pit of despair and ineptitude? Straying from what the founding fathers intended, politicians have become a professional class, whose main objective is to keep themselves in office, not getting beneficial things done for the country. Money is the engine that drives politics today, lots of it, which is why Congress people spend the vast majority of their time fund-raising, instead of performing legislative duties, and allows someone like Donald Trump to run for president, simply because he is rich. This is not a new phenomenon, but something that stretches back to the end of the Civil War in 1865. Sadly, a large amount of the collective moral righteousness, which propelled the nation to end slavery, died along with its primary proponent, Abraham Lincoln. With the economic explosion that accompanied the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800’s, fairness and decency were often trampled underfoot in the mad rush for wealth. Business corruption and malfeasance became so wide-spread, eventually a cry went up for government intervention. This call for regulating out-of-control corporations was met by the counter-attack of Big Money buying off politicians. The battle between these two opposing forces raged back and forth; corporate greed usually having the upper hand, unless a dynamic reformist personality, such as Teddy Roosevelt, emerged to momentarily stem the tide, and reverse the flow. It took the catastrophe of the Great Depression to shock the country into accepting that the national government had a permanent role to play in the economy. Even with that, Wall Street still connives to get around any regulations imposed by Congress, and bolster their efforts by ever bigger contributions to political campaigns. With costs of running for president and Congress at an all-time high, the influence of the corporate giants has never been greater. Can anything be done?
It will be up to the American people to re-gain control of their own government, as the president and Congress, joined at the hip with their corporate donors, are incapable of action, and might be hesitant to upset the status quo, or do anything that could jeopardize their positions. The avenues open for change travel through the amendment process enshrined in the Constitution. Amendments can be passed by two methods; proposed and voted on by Congress then sent to the states for ratification, or a convention of the states that can adopt amendments without approval of the Congress. Either road requires intense pressure by the people on Congress and their state legislatures to enact reforms, a slow and tedious process, but something that needs to be done. The first proposed amendment, which might cure many of the other present evils, should be the elimination of all private funding of political campaigns, removing the influence of special interests and Big Money from the system. Candidates for national office would be entitled to draw a small amount of money from a public fund to conduct their campaigns; their opponent provided the same amount. The operative word in the last sentence is small, as there is no reason for the exorbitant sums currently spent on political campaigns, especially in this age of instant media. How much does it cost to set up a web site?
Denied their huge campaign war chests, members of Congress would have to be re-elected on their merits and accomplishments. Of course, the Supreme Court has not made things easier by recently ruling that money is free speech. Money is not speech, but something used to buy things; in politics, it purchases influence. The greater your wealth, the more power you wield. This circumstance distorts the central tenet of democracy- one person, one vote. There are measures which might be instituted for each of the three branches in the federal government, after money is removed from the equation, to bring us closer to that ideal. For the presidency, it means doing away with the Electoral College, whose usefulness has long since past. Conceived as a stop-gap by the fathers, a compromise to those still leery of direct democracy, it only tends to make candidates focus their attention on the key “swing” states (in 2016- Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania), to the exclusion of the others. Are not the ballots of the people living in the remaining 47 states as important as those in these “battleground” states?
Positive reforms in the Congress do not require amendments, but only the removal of the excess appendages that have grown up over the years, primarily in the form of countless committees. Seniority in committee assignments permits the longest serving members to acquire the plum spots, from which they can block legislation the majority of the Congress and the nation want. The most famous example, of course, is Southern Senators and Congressmen impeding civil rights bills for decades. Congress is not a business, where length of service might entitle you to perks that other employees do not receive, and more say in decision making. No matter how many years someone has been in Congress, they still only get one vote, just like the junior members. If the most senior Congress people are allowed to cut the line of the Congressional cafeteria, or have the privilege of speaking first in debate, no worries there. They should not have the power to decide what the Congress will be voting on; all the representatives and Senators should do that. Before the beginning of each session, the members could vote on what bills are most important (that is what they are in Washington for), and worthy of further debate and a final vote. Committees might still refine the language of a potential law, without fundamentally changing it, along with smoothing out the differences between House and Senate versions. Percentages might be assigned to each party for the number of bills they may suggest, so the majority party cannot freeze out the minority.
The Supreme Court has probably wandered the greatest from what the Constitution intended, and an amendment would be necessary to get it back on the right track. Appointments to the Court today are motivated purely by politics, not legal skill. The framers envisioned the role of the justices as determining whether laws adhered to the strictures of our founding document, not to decide if they were good or bad, according to the beliefs of the Democrat or Republican parties. It is Congress’ role to pass and make changes to legislation, if the American people so wish. The fathers also did not anticipate the tremendous leap in life expectancy that has taken place over the past 200 years, when granting life-time appointments to justices. An amendment should limit the term of Supreme Court members to 8-10 years, about the possible length of service of the president who appointed them. The Court would get fresh infusions of talent and opinions on a consistent basis, and be made more responsive to public sentiment.
It is difficult to believe that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump could lift the federal government out of the quagmire it now resides in. Beyond the entertainment value, if one happens to enjoy mud-slinging and scandal, this presidential election offers very little in the way of constructive ideas, or hope for the future. The American people need not despair, as except for those 9 or 10 instances, we have been better than our leaders, and will survive. It might be nice if another Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt came along to assist us. We can help ourselves by instituting reforms the politicians won’t make, wresting control of Washington from the clutches of Big Money, returning it to a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Corny and cliche, but what the United States is supposed to be.