Sunday, October 16, 2011

The bipartisan softsoap we deserve

I was invited by Warren Strain of local NBC affiliate WLBT

to attend the gubernatorial debate and comment on it afterwards. I somehow envisioned myself sitting there like a baseball commentator, giving an extended running critique. As it turns out they were filming for a report at 10:00; I will be lucky to get 8 seconds air time. As it turned out Warren did a nice little segment structured around my comments and I was quite flattered.

The debate is in a small way historic. Dupree, the Mayor of Hattiesburg, is the first African American candidate for statewide office since Reconstruction. That is not simple suppression of the black vote; race relations are more amicable here than in Chicago by a long shot. There is no shortage of blacks in the state house. One of them, Senator Eric Powell, represents a majority white district. Still, the last time the Democrats nominated a black candidate for statewide office the lightbulb had not been invented and the automobile had not left Europe.

The debate between Lt. Governor Bryant and Mayor Dupree was one of the most friendly and amicable debates in political history. It was also one of the least informative.

The candidates were so concerned to not be seen arguing that they avoided coming out and openly disagreeing with one another. Unfortunately, as unpleasant as disagreement is it is the only way that the issues come out.

We first saw them chatting amiably in the hallway outside the debate hall at MC Law. They looked like they knew each other well and liked each other. That is interesting because even the Republicans don't really like Bryant, they just have him. On the other hand, Dupree is someone that his worst enemies seem to like. The focus on comity surely benefits Bryant.

Bryant faces a big problem in having a black opponent. He can't appear to be negative or mean. Bryant is in danger of appearing that way at any time so the emphasis on comity relives him of a dangerous duty.

It was a debate about the things they agree about rather than the things they disagree about. In other words, it was not really a debate.

Warren Strain, the NBC reporter who was kind enough to invite me to do the piece, was very good about taking my comments and editing them in a way that did not distort their meaning and summarized them in his own reporting very fairly. I would quibble with one thing that he said. At the very end he said that I agreed with the main reporter that the debate stayed on the issues. I agree that it was on the issues in the sense that it was not about the candidates. Neither challenged the other's character or ability. And it was on the issues in that they talked about their goals for Mississippi and the things they wanted to have happen. But it was on the issues in the wrong sense. In the language of political scientists it was all about valance issues, issue that everyone agrees on. It was not about making the real choices, the trade-offs, necessary to get there.

I think that the public is just wrong. The public thinks that the problem is those people in Washington are bickering about a bunch of things that just don't really matter and that there is a simple common sense solution to our budget problems that most people would agree on if those bitter bickerers in Washington would just stop all the nonsense and enact those policies. People think that we can close a 40% hole in our budget by cutting foreign aid (at most 1% of our budget) or taxing the rich (possibly as much as 4 or 5% of the hole closed but at a progressively greater cost in economic growth the more those such taxes are relied upon). The reason that we don't get serious proposals to close the deficit is that no one wants to be the one to tell the American people that if they can't have all the things they want at the price they are apparently willing to pay. Blaming it all on partisan bickering and the tone in Washington is a way of allowing the American people to ignore the unpleasant facts by pretending that it is all the fault of partisan politicians who won't listen to the people. The problem is just the opposite. The American people have spoken loudly and clearly that they don't want to face the facts and the politicians, by going along with the "its all the fault of those bickering Washington insiders" story are giving the people what they want.

A people get the politicians they deserve. What did Mencken say? That democracy is the theory that "The people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard." I think we have gotten it good and soft, but we have certainly deserved it.

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