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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Another word for politics is democracy

John McCain's decision to suspend (whatever that means, precisely) his presidential campaign and to call for cancellation of Friday's debate (or perhaps to not show up even if the debate is not canceled) in order to devote his attention to helping pass bailout legislation is unprecedented. Incumbent presidents managed to conduct electoral campaigns in the middle of the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II. And each of those incumbents had a greater responsibility for managing events than does a senator who (like Obama) largely has been mainly a professional candidate for the last two years, who does not serve on the relevant committee, and who, by his own admission, does not really understand many of these economic issues. Jonah hits on this point. Not even The West Wing writers could have dreamed up the Republican candidate suspending operations as a campaign plot line--it simply would not have been believable.

The mantra, of course, is "now is not a time for partisan politics" and "we must put partisan politics aside in times such as these." But, of course, partisan politics describes the process by which we select our representatives, those who will govern on our behalf. To declare that the five-week period prior to a national election is not a time for politics is to declare that a popular election, including discussion and debate on the issues before the voting public, is inappropriate at this time. It is to declare that democracy is inappropriate at this time. I reject the notion that a current crisis justifies suspension of our democratic decisionmaking and selection processes, at least absent a situation in which a campaign and election are logistically impossible (think New York after 9/11 or New Orleans after Katrina) or the crisis involves some human tragedy or mourning (ditto--and I would add that it was proper not to hold partisan events on the anniversary of 9/11).

Quite the opposite. Crisis increases the need for public debate and discussion. We must hear more (and more substance, about this and other issues) from the candidates, one of whom will be President come noon on January 20 (when George Bush constitutionally ceases to be President) and will have to deal with this crisis and its ongoing and expanding effects. This is true not only for Friday's debate, but for all other campaign activities--rallies, interviews, press conferences, press releases, fundraising

Moreover, suspend the campaign until when? Passage of legislation this week or next (which is going to happen with or without McCain) seems like a meaningless target. But legislation does not end the fiscal crisis, especially to the extent part of the crisis is tied to the stock market and investor confidence. It may be awhile before any new policy has any tangible effect or before we know whether any legislative solution works. In other words, if the point is that partisan politics (i.e., democracy) are inappropriate in this time of crisis, it is not clear at what point they again become appropriate.

Only the extremest of extreme situations ever justifies suspension of the procedural element that most fundamentally identifies our system as democratic. And the suggestion that we should suspend that element outside of the extremest of situations suggests a basic misunderstanding of democratic processes.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 25, 2008 at 07:07 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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Moreover, suspend the campaign until when? Passage of legislation this week or next (which is going to happen with or without McCain) seems like a meaningless target.

Why would that be a meaningless target? Passage of legislation allows wheels to begin moving (or...start to begin moving.)

In addition, Prof. Wasserman, neither you nor Prof. Gelbach mentioned the question of whether constituents in Arizona and Illinois deserve to have a voice in the crafting of this plan. Oh, surely, they have other representatives there, but they elected Sens. McCain and Obama to represent them in Congress.

How is it not an equal suspension of the democratic process for senators to be absent from Congress, particularly when a piece of legislation with such a massive economic and political impact is being considered?

Posted by: Jonathan | Sep 25, 2008 8:43:28 AM

Suspending a campaign for the presidency to concentrate on legislative work in a financial crisis is not to suspend the political process or democracy or the election. It's simply to say that there is work to do, and the people can judge based on the work.

The Democrats made it clear that they wouldn't pass a bill without McCain's support. Obama too said the same. So it isn't the case that the bill will pass without McCain; he is the indispensable man, because the Democrats have declared him so. In a time of crisis, the Democrats all looked to McCain for leadership, and now he's providing it.

Posted by: Thomas | Sep 25, 2008 9:03:54 AM

First, let me say that I think Howard has this all exactly right.

Second, commenter Jonathan writes:

neither you nor Prof. Gelbach mentioned the question of whether constituents in Arizona and Illinois deserve to have a voice in the crafting of this plan.

It's an unfortunate fact of modern politics that no one currently holding office, with the possible exception of an incumbent president, can run for president and also do the day job. Neither candidate has even shown up for a roll call in months (I believe I read yesterday that for McCain, the last vote was April, for Obama it was June or July). When an incumbent member of congress runs for president, his/her constituents lose day-to-day representation by that member. That's not to say that there aren't potential countervailing advantages, but it is a fact.

Moreover, on the merits of Jonathan's claim, my post does make clear, as does Howard's, that neither Obama nor McCain would likely be an important player on this issue but for their roles as presidential nominees. If anything, McCain's wild swings back and forth over the last 10 days, and his history of serial deregulate-everythingism suggests he might be the LAST guy you want involved in the intricacies of legislative craft here. Personally I think Obama has shown a remarkably subtle and impressive grasp of economic policy issues, but I recognize that others question his experience. So I don't think there's really any case at all that continuing the campaign would cause either's state constituents to lack a voice they would otherwise have on this issue if not for the campaign.

Regarding Thomas's comment:

1. I agree that "there is work to do", but there is no important reason these two guys should be the ones to do it, and there are good reasons why they should NOT, for reasons I explained in my original post and Howard explains above.

2. I think your turn of phrase "the Democrats all looked to McCain for leadership" misses something important. They didn't look to him for leadership, they looked to him to give a commitment not to avoid taking a stand and then denounce the plan once the grown-ups agreed to it. They weren't born last night, after all. And, again, the key point here is that McCain does not need to breeze into DC for a photo-op in order to support a bill. It would be enough for him to simply announce his support for a consensus plan without even showing up for the vote (something that, I repeat, he has not done in several months). The idea that McCain's support being indispensable makes his presence necessary or even helpful is a logical leap that is contradicted by the arguments both I and Howard have made.

Posted by: jonah gelbach | Sep 25, 2008 9:43:38 AM

It's an unfortunate fact of modern politics that no one currently holding office, with the possible exception of an incumbent president, can run for president and also do the day job....That's not to say that there aren't potential countervailing advantages, but it is a fact.

I would argue that this is a unique situation, and that if McCain and Obama's voices are not consistently heard in this discussion, then they would have done a disservice to their constituents. If a governor were running, and his / her state faced an environmental crisis, would not the governor be justified in returning to the state to lead?

Personally I think Obama has shown a remarkably subtle and impressive grasp of economic policy issues, but I recognize that others question his experience.

Then it is to Obama's advantage to return to Washington, D.C. to lend his voice to the debate there. In addition, since he has such a subtle and impressive grasp of the issues, he will have failed the people of Illinois by neglecting to engage in Congressional debate (which may or may not outweigh the importance of the presidential debate) and adding his intelligent to the balance.

Posted by: Jonathan | Sep 25, 2008 10:01:46 AM

Jonathan:

If a governor were running, and his / her state faced an environmental crisis, would not the governor be justified in returning to the state to lead?

Each state has one governor. There are 535 members of Congress, and its two houses are organized in such a way as to allow specialization on different issues. That's why there are separate committees for addressing different issues. And, I repeat, neither McCain nor Obama is a key player on the legislative details banking issues. You're welcome to make abstract claims about the importance of their voices, but on the specifics, I think your argument here is meritless; this isn't a point I'll repeat again.

Then it is to Obama's advantage to return to Washington, D.C. to lend his voice to the debate there.

Unlike you, I'm not presuming to tell either candidate what is in his best interests as a candidate. I'll leave it to each to figure that out for himself. I'm much more interested in what's good for the country, and pretend-suspend isn't.

Posted by: jonah gelbach | Sep 25, 2008 10:24:19 AM

First, I am not sure I entirely agree with Jonathan that Obama's and McCain's obligations to their constituents require their involvement at the present point of the drafting of legislation. That responsibility generally falls to the relevant committees and the members with expertise in the area. Not every member of Congress is involved in the process at this stage and not every member of Congress owes it to her constituents to be involved. Neither Obama nor McCain serves on the relevant committee nor has expertise as senator. So if either has a unique obligation to be involved now, it comes by virtue of being a presidential candidate, not a senator. Now, should they be there for the floor debate and for the vote? Sure. And, to reach Thomas's point, that is what the Democratic leadership was talking about--they did not want or need McCain's leadership--they wanted him to do his role as a member of the body and not allow him to demagogue the bill after the fact.

But even accepting Jonathan's point--Obama and McCain owe it to their constituents to go to Washington and be part of this debate--does not lead to the conclusion that the campaign, and particularly the debates, should be suspended. Multi-tasking is sort of essential to the job of President. And the miracle of modern transportation makes it pretty easy to get from Washington, D.C. to Mississippi in a few short hours.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 25, 2008 10:26:33 AM

"Then it is to Obama's advantage to return to Washington, D.C. to lend his voice to the debate there."

Why does he have to be there to lend his voice to the debate? There are phones and internet connections in Oxford, Mississippi, not to mention hordes of media people ready to transmit what the candidates say about this or anything else.

Posted by: dwk | Sep 25, 2008 10:27:34 AM

"John McCain's decision to suspend (whatever that means, precisely) his presidential campaign and to call for cancellation of Friday's debate (or perhaps to not show up even if the debate is not canceled) in order to devote his attention to helping pass bailout legislation is unprecedented. Incumbent presidents managed to conduct electoral campaigns in the middle of the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II."

Prof. Wasserman:

Historically, I think you're getting ahead of yourself. Lincoln never debated McClellan in 1864, and the commitments of campaigning then were a lot less time-consuming than today.

Furthermore, Roosevelt *did* refuse to debate Dewey in 1944. And that was a flat-out refusal, not a 'I might do three and I might do two' type of situation McCain has on the table. Somehow, people forgot to accuse him of "declar[ing] democracy inappropriate."

So what, exactly, is "unprecedented"? The suspension of his campaign? Surely candidates have done that before. ("Can I finish? Can I finish?")

"To declare that the five-week period prior to a national election is not a time for politics is to declare that a popular election, including discussion and debate on the issues before the voting public, is inappropriate at this time. It is to declare that democracy is inappropriate at this time."

I agree. But, by the way, that's not McCain's position. McCain didn't declare the *whole* five-week period "not a time for politics." Rather, he said that *the process of the bailout* was "not a time for partisan politics." That's different. Thus, your conclusion, that McCain has "declare[d] democracy inappropriate at this time" stems from a faulty premise.

And he's not suspending any "process". I don't think he could do that, even if he wanted to. That's hyperbole. He's just suspending *his campaign*. It happens.

Posted by: Aaron Williams | Sep 25, 2008 11:29:06 AM

Partisanship 1
Intellectual Honesty 0

Posted by: Paul Washington | Sep 25, 2008 11:39:35 AM

The Democrats don't need McCain's vote to pass a plan--that's what it means to have a majority--and yet they insist they won't approve a plan unless he votes for it. Now either McCain's approval means something about the merits, or you are saying the Democrats are too cowardly to lead. If the Democrats are too cowardly to lead, why would we think of electing one to the presidency? And if they aren't too cowardly to lead but instead think that McCain's approval is a meaningful statement about the merits of the legislation, then that too tells us something.

I'm not sure an Obama supporter should want to use the multi-tasking line. Recall that Obama decided to take a couple days off of campaigning so he could prepare for the debate--like a law student cramming for finals. If he can't both campaign and prepare for the debate, why think he could campaign and attend to the financial crisis?

Posted by: Thomas | Sep 25, 2008 12:18:03 PM

Oh please. We don't have to dig back to 1864. Bush debated Kerry while there he was President with a freaking war going on. McCain is just pulling a cheap stunt with the idea that he can reduce his financial disadvantage. As I write in the article linked below, its the economic crisis within the McCain campaign, not the nation, that dictates his actions.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-motes/mccain-suspends-campaign_b_129063.html

Posted by: Bart | Sep 25, 2008 1:45:05 PM

Bart,

I didn't open the civil war door -- rules of engagement, my friend.

And not even Bill Clinton thinks that "McCain is just pulling a cheap stunt." But then again, who is he to judge...

http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalradar/2008/09/bill-clinton-do.html

Posted by: Aaron Williams | Sep 25, 2008 2:58:04 PM

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