Campaign in poetry, govern in prose—An introduction to “The Update” by Mario Cuomo
This is the first installment in a week-long series by former Governor Mario Cuomo.
However good his intentions may have been, President Bush and his Administration have demonstrated an appalling incompetence in handling the machinery of government. They started a war that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives on false pretenses, produced a fragmented economy and a devastated budget, showed callousness toward people in need especially after Hurricane Katrina and have been guilty of a shocking disrespect for the Bill of Rights and balance of powers which are the heart and soul of our Constitution. The Administration’s awkwardly elite foreign policy and its Iraq catastrophe have lost us the hard won respect and cooperation of much of the world and increased the hostility of many who were already our enemies. Their reckless tax cuts and spending have created deficits and debt that make it more difficult to deal with the undernourished vital federal programs, including Social Security, Medicare and education.
Those failures were so many and so blatant that all the Democrats needed to do to win back power in the Congress in the 2006 elections was to recount them loudly without having to propose significant and persuasive major policy alternatives.
The elections in 2008 will be a different matter: the burden of proof will be on the Democrats. If they want to hold on to control of Congress and win back the presidency, their candidates must spell out in some detail what they propose to do and how they propose to get it done, including how they intend to pay for whatever costs are involved. Many significant questions must be answered: how do we deal with our loss of jobs to other countries, our increasing inequality of wealth, failing public schools, the threatened insolvency of Social Security, the escalating costs of Medicare, the 47 million uninsured Americans, the terribly ineffective health care system, withering pensions, huge trade and budget deficits, the inconvenient truth of global warming, middle class malaise, 12 or more million undocumented immigrants?
For how long will we continue to be distracted from the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and other parts of the world by the debacle we have created in Iraq? When and how will we be able to remove our troops from the front lines in Iraq? How will we know when it is safe to bring back most of our troops? Should we bomb Iran?
And many more questions that are implicit in the posts that follow.
It’s hard to recall a time in the modern history of presidential elections when we had before us as many vital issues. That makes it more regrettable that some of the leading candidates for President are avoiding being specific about how they intend to deal with those issues.
The proliferation of candidates, the reluctance of leaders in the polls to engage in meaningful probing debate and the extraordinarily early primary season, threaten to give us another primary campaign of sound bites, elusive responses and negativism with dominant roles being played by polls, the power of money and the unpredictability of situation-altering incidents and co-incidents.
Apparently most of the candidates avoid some of the most vital issues because they are afraid of making a mistake, or advocating a position they believe is correct and important but that might prove problematic politically, like coming out against illegal guns the way Mayor Bloomberg of New York has, or describing precisely how they would cut spending and raise badly needed resources. Instead they take comfort in dealing with the safest political positions and uttering broad and benign generalities about the more controversial questions, leaving them to be dealt with after they win. But if the electorate is not informed as to the proposed solutions before they vote, a victory at the polls will not assure that the winners will be able to do what needs to be done, because the victory will not constitute a mandate to the Congress that could provide the leverage to persuade them to adopt solutions that had been presumably approved by the voters.
There is still plenty of time to have a more substantively effective campaign. We can have real debates with ample time for consideration of the questions and presentation of answers; more in depth interviews conducted by thorough and objective interviewers; more published specific statements by the candidates answering the hard questions like “How will you pay for that program?”
All of these intelligent attempts at illuminating the issues and proposed solutions should replace the make believe debates that give a candidate a minute or so to deal with complex issues, distortive 28-second commercials, fierce personal diatribes and the coyness and the simplistic statements we have seen so often in the past.
Having a campaign that reveals all that voters should know – or at least most of it – would be novel, but we have never needed that kind of campaign more and voters should demand it loudly and insistently.
Some years ago I said in a speech that politicians “Campaign in poetry but have to govern in prose.” In fact, if our candidates campaign in poetry instead of good hard specifics, and win, they may wind up governing… in vain.
Over the course of the next week, I will expand on some of the major issues.