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|Putting the Election in Perspective|
|Commentary/Politics - National Politics|
|Written by No Author|
|Tuesday, 26 October 2004 18:00|
Last week, the River Cities’ Reader assembled a small group of citizens and community leaders from a variety of backgrounds to discuss the November 2 election. The goal wasn’t to talk about specific candidates or races but to put the election in a local context: What do federal, state, and local races mean to the Quad Cities?
The discussion lasted more than an hour, and what follows is a transcript.
Participants: Jeff Ignatius (JI), managing editor of the River Cities’ Reader; Todd McGreevy (TM), publisher of the River Cities’ Reader, Kathleen McCarthy (KM), editor of the River Cities’ Reader; Len Adams (LA), activist and retired economic-development specialist with the City of Davenport; John DeDoncker (JD), president of THE National Bank; Thom Hart (TH), president of the Quad City Development Group; Nate Lawrence (NL), public-relations consultant; and Molly Tiernan (MT), director of marketing and public relations for the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce.
JI: With as many presidential visits as we get here, we sort of get swamped with national issues, but there are a lot of local issues that are important, and they’re affected by elections on the federal, state, and local level. But which has a larger impact on the Quad Cities, your organizations, and you personally: federal, state, or local elections? John, from a finance and banking perspective, which of the elections is most important?
JD: From my organization’s standpoint, the federal elections are the most important. We’re a national bank regulated by the comptroller’s office, with the preemption of state laws by the national laws. We’re more concerned with the federal side of the equation as a bank. Obviously, as elections affect the economy and the local economy, they have a practical effect on our industry.
JI: What are the most important issues in a federal election for you?
JD: From a banking standpoint, an issue that gets very little recognition that is of key interest to the banking industry is the taxation of credit unions and the parity that we would like to see in that industry. Credit unions, by legislation, were allowed to form in the 1930s to provide factory workers a place to deposit their check and keep their check safe, and based on that, they were exempted from paying federal income taxes.
The biggest competitors for local banks have become credit unions, and they’ve been allowed to build palaces for offices because they’re not paying any federal income tax, and they’ve expanded their membership to such a point that they look like a bank, they smell like a bank, and they do what a bank does, but they don’t pay federal income tax. I’ve always been one to think if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and has an orange bill, it is a duck, and very little focus gets placed on this.
As you’ve got mounting deficits, it’s a place where if you equaled the playing field, you would pick up substantial income tax, and you’d also place on those credit unions the same community-reinvestment requirements that banks have. We’re required to show that we are serving underprivileged areas. We’re required to show that we’re treating all people equally. We’re required to show that we invest in our community, and credit unions aren’t required to do that. So that’s an issue in the banking industry on a federal level that’s of key, key importance.
JI: Molly, you represent small businesses. Which elections are they watching most closely and why?
MT: From our membership’s standpoint, state elections seem to affect us, the small business sector, greatly in terms of business taxation, speaking of the state of Illinois specifically. It’s a difficult state to do business in right now. But we do have to stay in tune with what’s happening on the federal level, and that’s why we are equally involved with the help of the Quad City Development Group on the federal level in lobbying and visiting Washington, D.C. But at election time, we are focused on state.
JI: You say it’s hard to do business in Illinois, why?
MT: Business taxation and fees. The cost of doing business has increased greatly over the past four years. It’s affecting small business tremendously in our state.
JI: Thom, from a business-development prospective, is federal, state, or local more important?
TH: I would say that in terms of business development, specifically, it’s probably state. The kind of programs that the states of Iowa and Illinois have, and the relative emphasis they put on the business climate and the business recruitment and retention.
But the federal government has huge impact on issues here. Health care and allocation of resources within the system of health care, which has been a big problem in Iowa. Transportation: We’ve got the I-74 bridge in need of replacement – a two-thirds of a billion dollar project. What the federal government does on that is very important. The whole Rock Island Arsenal, defense strategy, weapons systems – with that being the second largest employer, that’s a big impact in the Quad Cities. Ag policy, in what that means to the farm-implement industry and just ag in general, is controlled by federal policy.
JI: Len and others not representing an organization might have different perspective. What election is important to you this fall?
LA: I see the federal and the state levels as being very much aligned, and a major issue as I see it is fiscal policy and what happens when the federal level ripples through the state level. We also have a situation in which we have, I think, an imbalance in terms of legislative control at both the federal and state levels. And an imbalance, regardless of which the side occurs on, if it occurs for very long, is an unhealthy situation. So what our education situation is in the Quad Cities, in terms of funding, is a result of policies and practices at the state level and in turn, of course, the basic funding sources at the federal level. So I’m focused particularly on the federal election, but also on statewide elections.
NL: Actually, it should be both. However, we’ve been inundated with the weekly visits by our presidential candidates, so I guess that’s where we’re kind of stuck. Racism and inequity are the big issues, and nobody is talking about them. We seem to think that because people aren’t hanging in trees anymore that the problem has gone away, and politicians seem to think that since those drastic things aren’t happening, the problem is cured. I certainly think that at both levels, we should certainly pay attention. We should hold our local politicians’ feet to the fire, and we should certainly be screaming at national politicians to have a commitment to diversity.
JI: We quickly went from talking about local, federal, and state elections to federal and state elections. There are county board elections and countywide elections in both Rock Island and Scott County. There’s a jail referendum in Scott County. Are these things just not on the radar or are they not that important in terms of our lives and what happens?
NL: They should be on the radar. So many of our decisions are made at the county level; it’s like a shadow government. You don’t even know about it. Here are these people who handle the bulk of the money that comes back into our area, and it’s like we don’t even know about them.
JI: Do you have any examples of things at a local level, especially on a county level, that are important, that don’t even get paid attention to but are critical?
NL: If you don’t know about how your government works, and I’m speaking specifically about county government, you don’t pay attention and you don’t look to that space for solutions. You end up looking somewhere else that’s oftentimes not very effective.
KM: I was wondering how many citizens actually know the county is in charge of, such as the care of our mentally ill. They’re in charge of our jail situation and prisoners on the county level. It’s gray, I think, for many citizens, and that’s just a couple of things. But maybe that’s where the disconnect occurs; we don’t really know what they’re doing or what they’re in charge of, and yet their budgets are huge.
TH: The reason historically for that is they’ve been sub-units of state government. So, it’s really the last couple of decades they’ve kind of started to step out into their own. I served seven years on the Board of Supervisors, and the way I always describe it is that the county is the human infrastructure. The city governments are more bricks and mortar.
Criminal justice is huge, and they play a role in the courts. There are different roles in different states. Iowa has more of a mental-health role than Illinois historically does. But something that’s been put on counties a lot more in the last decade is economic development, the area I work in, and their role in that – or not. Thankfully, the counties in this area do. But counties also play a role in how your poor and indigent are treated, and the first level of health care and social services is at the county level, so it’s very important. It has never gotten the focus that city government does, and again that’s historically because they were units of that state, and they were just delivering services that were conceived out of the state capitols and not given broad powers. But that’s changed. You really saw that a lot in the 2000 election, because most counties have responsibility for voting, and that really came into focus in Florida.
KM: That’s huge and it’s up to the media to shine a light a little brighter on what the county is doing and what their role is and where our tax dollars are being spent, in terms of who we’re electing in those positions.
TH: It’s not just the sheriffs and criminal-justice portions of the courts. It’s the county attorney’s office, it’s the public defender’s office. Think of the scope and dynamics of that as public policy. It’s huge.
JI: Important areas of policy include bank regulations, credit-union regulation, the Arsenal, the I-74 bridge, and the business climate. What’s the relationship between the people you’re electing in November, the people who are in office, and those things you’re talking about? Is there a relationship? Does it really matter whether Republicans or Democrats are in power? Or is the bureaucracy so strong that it’s really irrelevant?
LA: I think it matters in a couple of ways. And it matters very much. One way, which I don’t think should be underestimated, is it’s very important for state and federal officials to set a tone, and depending on the tone that’s set, consequences follow. People can feel disenfranchised, completely left out of the system – or included.
KM: But for instance in the supervisor’s race, did it really impact how the county allocates its money and the policies by which it operates? Did it change based on a Democrat being elected versus a Republican?
TH: I don’t know that party plays as big of a role in that, but philosophy sure does. I was elected to the county board in 1978, and it was the unit of government that was on the front pages every week as the dunce unit of government, if I can say that. And that goes around, sometimes it’s the school board, and sometimes it’s the county government. In Scott County, in those years, we had two sheriffs indicted and sent to jail.
KM: When was that?
TH: 1978. People kind of forget this. This was 25 years ago. The county at that point had a 37-percent property-tax increase the year before. The county attorney had changed over because of a grand-jury investigation. So it was really incredibly controversial unit of government. We did some things to change that, structurally, including putting in professional management. We’re one of the first counties in the country to have a county administrator. It was a novel thought at the time. We were used to city administrators, but the county was plowing new ground. So, I would say it’s not partisan, but it’s very much philosophical.
KM: How does that philosophy trickle down into the reality of how we function and what our votes actually mean?
TH: There are very different perspectives philosophically – are you going to be involved in economic development or not? One of the things I think counties can play a huge role in is land-use policy. What are we going to focus on as a community? Is it a kind of Dallas, no-zoning, go-wherever-you-want approach – or is it more heavily regulated, where you say where development can occur or not?
KM: Do you think that parties represent or reflect one way or the other?
TH: I don’t think it’s partisan at all. I think it’s philosophical. I think those things cut across party lines.
KM: So it’s based on people who are running?
TH: And discussion and even raising those as issues. Again, in Scott County, we dealt with that 25 years ago and said, no, development is going to be within the cities of the county. It’s not going to be within the counties. People ought to live within communities, and you can’t develop on land if it has a corn-suitability rating of X or above. But, again, that was novel thinking. Those are the kinds of issues that are decided at a local level that I think are very important to a community.
NL: It’s important that people know about government. We keep pretending to care about such things, but the media doesn’t. We know more about Osama bin Laden and these other people than we ever wanted to know. Why don’t we know about how our government works? Why don’t we know about where we can go for resources? I think the media fails us by not teaching us. This whole notion that we don’t want it because we didn’t ask for it – that’s crazy. It’s the media’s responsibility to make sure that we are an informed public.
TM: Can we tell our readers that if they’re interested in banking and finance regulation as it relates to community reinvestment, they should evaluate candidates for this race? If it’s about the Arsenal, which race should they be looking at? The local election? The state election? If it’s about diversity, which race? We’re not asking for an endorsement, but where should we point people?
MT: People do need to be directed to the organizations that are helping influence and build those relationships with those elected officials. So maybe it’s not being pointed to an elected official, but pointed to an organization to get more educated. A local organization. A local advocate group.
JD: One example in the bank situation is the American Bankers Association and the Independent Community Bankers of America, which have campaigns to deal with the taxation issues.
MT: And they typically will come out and endorse a candidate.
KM: Here are the groups, and here’s what they influence, and here’s who they think speaks to their issues. And I think you would get a much better idea across the board of whom you’re dealing with as candidates if you were looking at those types of things in an election environment.
TM: For instance the bridge issue, we’re trying to get federal money. Who’s got their finger on that?
TH: I was thinking that was so multi-level. It’s a joint Iowa-Illinois DOT project. The lead is Iowa DOT but the cost of that project is more than the Iowa DOT spends in a year throughout the state. So, at $600 million to $650 million, it’s about $300 million to $325 million apiece, and that project isn’t going to get done without huge federal – .
TM: Senate and House races are going to affect that?
TH: Right, but I think it’s the local community that drives that because I think in reality if Iowa DOT and Illinois DOT had their way, they’d rather ignore it. It takes too many dollars.
LA: And it’s peripheral to both of them geographically.
TH: Right. So, who drives it? It’s very much the local community. And it’s the locals that make that a state and federal issue.
The Arsenal is interesting in that it’s so complicated. I think it has become an Army priority, but the Army is currently the disfavored branch within the Department of Defense. You’ve got a Secretary of Defense who is really enthralled with the Air Force and Navy and much more high-tech and refers to “old” weapons systems, which are really critical in Iraq. So there’s this thought we could go into Iraq in this high-tech way and be very sanitary about it, and yet the thing that’s making the difference between whether soldiers die or not is whether they have steel doors on Humvees.
JI: Whether you vote for John Kerry or George W. Bush or somebody else will have an impact on the Secretary of Defense, which affects the philosophy, which affects the Arsenal in a trickle-down way.
TH: Well, the types of weapons or defense systems that you subscribe to. Is it going to be Star Wars?
JD: I might argue that the point of Kerry versus Bush on defense is more than a trickle-down. I think it’s a waterfall. I think the candidates’ positions on defense and defense expenditures are most likely going to be very different and probably have a large impact on how the Arsenal goes forward. I don’t think there’s much of a doubt about that. I think that Bush is very strongly defense-minded, and while John Kerry made overtures during the elections that he’s very pro-defense, some would say that his record in Congress suggests that he’s not a heavy-defense, military spender.
LA: He’s voted against the junk. Star Wars, the stuff that provides sops to particular folks who want to spend some billions of dollars to develop something that’s not suited strategically to where we are, necessarily.
NL: Just to go back to the DOT stuff. We spend millions of dollars, and I drive on these bridges, and I never see any people of color. Again, that’s local. The hiring and firing of those contracts. The opportunities to work – that kind of stuff. It’s a very local issue, and it’s just not happening. Last summer, all the bridges were under construction. And I never saw people of color working.
TM: That goes back to the bonding capacity. The minority-owned contractors don’t have the capacity to put up bonds to bid on those things. It’s a lack of access to resources.
JI: The two of you brought up something that was pretty interesting. You have a situation where a person could theoretically be against the war in Iraq and against U.S. military involvement abroad generally and yet for the good of the local community want to support the Arsenal. That person could be in a quandary between whether the Arsenal is going to do better under a Bush presidency than a Kerry presidency.
TH: I think that’s really hard to decipher because it’s not only level of defense spending. It’s what weapons you are going to buy. Which is more to the point of where the Arsenal is. Are you going to buy tanks? Are you going to buy armored-door kits? Are you going to buy gun mounts? Are you going to rebuild Howitzers – all of which have taken the workload there from about 20 percent to about 80 percent in the last three years? But you put it into cruise missiles, Star Wars – no impact here.
KM: So how would a citizen, a voter determine that?
LA: At some point I think there’s really a larger issue, and that is that we’re fighting to keep the Arsenal open any way we can. We really welcome things like kits for Humvees, but we’re not looking further out and asking ourselves what role all these places should play given the terrorist threat. What kind of response should we have strategically? And I think Kerry has a military response, but it’s a very different kind of military response. And it involves, among other things, doubling Special Forces. If you follow that down to the local level, some arsenal somewhere may be building vehicles even smaller and lighter than Humvees to ferry people around. Lighter armament, that sort of thing.
KM: But are voters doing that? Are we encapsulating the way we view our choices in elections by what we see on the media, the sound bites, the very broad issues, versus looking at a broad issue and narrowing it down to a local level where it has impact, where it has meaning to us here?
TH: It’s very difficult to do that, not only in defense. Look at the last four years of ag policy. Certainly the last bill, which was two years ago, has been a huge benefit to Deere & Company, and manufacturers of farm equipment.
KM: How so?
TH: Well, the tax policy. They’re selling well.
KM: Ultimately who benefits? Is it the manufacturers of equipment? Or how does that ultimately benefit –
TH: Well, yeah, the manufacturers. There’s been a huge increase in sales and production. So manufacturers, but also producers. There’s favorable tax law that encourages them to buy.
JD: When you’re allowed to depreciate a large portion of the combine in the year that you buy it, you have a huge cash advantage as a farmer, and that spurs the farmer to say this is the year to buy the combine, and Deere ultimately benefits. It’s not through a direct tax subsidy to Deere.
KM: It’s because they are able to sell more. So really the tax policy was for the producers to purchase.
TH: Right. But I would throw the question back: So how do you decipher who is responsible for that?
JD: That was the problem I had with all of the debates in the federal campaign. They tend to give far more credit and blame to the presidential candidates than they realistically have had anything to do with.
To suggest education is either a Bush or Kerry issue is ridiculous. As we talked about earlier, most of the expenditures for education come from your local county tax that’s distributed back to the school districts. While the federal government may have policy legislation on what the standards are through No Child Left Behind, the funding has nothing to do with the federal government, and the blame on whether our children are properly educated or not, when you get down to it, it’s not a federal issue.
And even with the military, you can say what you want, but if John Kerry were elected and had a Republican Congress, he’s not going to have a real high chance of making the military-type changes he might want and vice-versa, if Bush is elected and there are changes toward the Democratic side. So to give credit for the economy, the military, education, and say that either John Kerry has done this or George Bush has done that, it’s oversimplifying. And I think that large media attempts to oversimplify it to a far too great degree.
TH: Okay, let’s look at ag policy. So that bill was done two years ago. Harkin was chair of the Ag Committee, there’s a Democratic Senate, a Republican House, Republican president, and there’s a lot written at the time about how the president had to sign it because there were critical races in ag states, and whether he liked it or not he couldn’t jeopardize those, so he signed it.
So where’s the impetus for the favorable ag policy that has stimulated the economy here so well? Is it in Congress? Partly. Is it in an administration that did not propose it but signed it? Certainly. It’s very complicated, and it’s a big family where everyone has a role and a share of responsibility.
MT: In terms of the average voter that looks to the media to get informed, when it comes time for a president to run again, presidential elections are likeability contests in many ways. Who do you like more? Who personally do you connect with in terms of seeing them on TV? But I think that the media could really educate the average voter – whether you have a Republican or a Democrat in office, or just an issue – how voting either way could affect the locally economy.
When it comes to a presidential election, a lot of local stuff gets overlooked because it’s time for the presidential thing. The media often oversimplifies things for the average voter, and maybe that’s where it could really change, and you guys could do some good in terms of informing how that trickles down and how everything can affect us locally.
JI: John, does who gets elected to the presidency or Congress affect banking regulation?
JD: Very little. The president appoints the comptroller of the currency and the Federal Reserve, obviously, but those are terms that go eight years, and Greenspan survived Republican, Democrat, Democrat, Republican. Those are the type of appointments that in terms of bank regulation make far more difference. The taxation of banks, the business economy – obviously that’s where the election plays a role, but in terms of regulations themselves, whether Kerry or Bush is elected probably isn’t going to change the way we do business.
LA: What about the proposal to change provisions of how big a bank or how small a bank you have to be in order to be exempt from certain provisions of the Community Reinvestment Act, reporting provisions?
JD: Those are actually set by the various regulating bodies and have nothing to do with Congress. The Office of Thrift Supervision [OTS] came out and raised the threshold from $250 million to $1 billion for the full-scope review of Community Reinvestment. Chairman Powell, FDIC, has his own opinion as to what FDIC-regulated banks should be. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Chairman Hawke has just resigned, but he had his own opinion in terms of $250 million, maybe going to $1 billion. And each regulator, from the top down, chooses what those should be, but Congress really has nothing to do with it.
TM: And in those instances, those are appointed positions by the president, so the presidency does impact that.
JD: Yes. Absolutely.
LA: In the middle of August, the New York Times published a whole list of things including, for example, whether Olestra in a product warrants a cautionary label, and what kind of warning you should have of the danger of under-inflated tires on cars, a whole bunch of these things. And this administration has taken a strong lead in frankly watering down a lot of this stuff.
KM: The thing that maybe presidencies can be held accountable to that the media might take a role in is looking hard at those appointments. There are many, many, many across the board that impact us on a local level in our daily lives. What is the caliber or the qualifications of those appointments? For instance, some of those appointments are questionable in my opinion. The OTS, a very small bank in Texas is what he runs, and yet he’s impacting decisions about raising it to $1 billion that is just enormous.
JD: I might disagree with that. Most of these people have been in banking for many, many decades. They’re very familiar, and they’ve been involved with the trade groups. And you can talk about these types of regulations, and if you want to talk about the Community Reinvestment Act [CRA], you can talk about it positively or negatively.
I can tell you as a bank that we are the most overly regulated industry in the world, between the PATRIOT Act, which requires us to dig and know our customer – which we should – but the regulations and the paperwork are enormous. We’re required to run every deposit through the foreign list of names to make sure we don’t have a deposit from a terrorist today. That costs us tens of thousands of dollars to administer.
And when you talk about CRA, we have 10 offices, and they’re all located in the Quad Cities and rural surrounding areas. The loans we make are in these areas. People don’t recognize that the regulatory burden for us to go through the full-scale CRA exam is enormous and highly costly. Do you want to regulate businesses and give them extra expenses to validate the things they’re doing, when all you have to do is take a look at the community and you know they are doing it? Drive around and look at the signs of the projects we finance, by my bank alone, on new residential developments. We financed the Redstone building downtown because we’re a community bank, and we could get it done quickly.
This is a philosophical difference between the parties to begin with – more regulation, less regulation. More regulation can be good if it satisfies a societal need that’s not being met, but if you over-regulate to the point where you kill the businesses that are intended to be helping, are you really helping by doing it?
KM: I don’t disagree with the regulations being cumbersome, and there are many ways that that could change and should. But my point was: What are the qualifications of some of those appointees?
JD: Keep in mind that the president might make the appointment, but those appointments still need to be confirmed. And Congress has demonstrated by Supreme Court nominations, it’s no longer a slam dunk that the president says, “I appoint this individual,” and that individual rolls into the job.
KM: Well, that’s obvious. And look at the holdup we have right now in appointing judges. Nothing is coming out. They are totally stonewalling that. And that is something the media should absolutely be looking at.
JD: We’re more concerned with whether Mrs. Kerry should have apologized to Mrs. Bush for her work history. We’re not talking about whether this tie between the factions in Iraq really goes back to Afghanistan to say whether there is a tie between al-Qaeda and the insurgent groups in Iraq, which has been a focal point of the allegations between these candidates. Instead, we’re looking at whether Mrs. Heinz should apologize to Mrs. Bush.
JI: What issues do voters and the media need to be paying more attention to in the final days of this campaign?
TH: Molly made a point about it being a likeability contest. I’m not sure that’s all bad. Who would have anticipated September 11? At some level, there’s got to be just a gut check. How do you feel about these people?
Having said that, one of the things that I’ve found distressing the last decade in politics is how mean it has become, and how negative it has become. I’d like to know if there’s a solution to it. I’m coming to the conclusion that there isn’t, because it’s effective with voters. It works.
JD: Twenty-five percent of the time the president is in office, he’s running for the office again. It’s ridiculous that the states allow this primary process to start in January. Over 11 months, every nasty thing that could be thought of is thought of and said. If our election process was three months, I don’t know that it would be less nasty, but it sure would be a lot more pleasant. By the time the election comes, people are so fed up with it.
TH: Especially in this area, where it’s a swing area. Jack Lavin, who’s the head of the Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity in Illinois and lives in Chicago, was here about a week or 10 days ago. He was here overnight, and I was with him the next day, and he said, “I cannot believe the amount of political commercials on TV.” He lives in Chicago, and he said they just don’t see them. Illinois is not a swing state; it’s a blue state already. That was really fascinating, not to see that level of commercial activity. I think maybe we get hit harder with it or see more of it. I find it annoying and wearing.
KM: What I hear more often than not in this election is that nobody’s real thrilled with either candidate. They have major issues with both. I think we should have an option as a country to say, “No, thanks. These are not acceptable,” for whatever reason. When you have a choice and you’re not comfortable with either candidate, the lesser-of-two-evils philosophy is kind of insulting to the American people. Why are these candidates imposed upon us if we aren’t particularly inclined to either candidate?
LA: We can make comparisons and we can arrive at reasonable judgments, but we have to do it with the TV shut off, and with the radio shut off most of the time. It’s absurd the way people feel they have to portray themselves in order to be elected. What is this macho media contest about terrorists, for example?
KM: Even if you were to turn the TV off and go to the records – of both candidates, because in this particular case we have records for both – a lot of people are uncomfortable with either candidate. I think there should be some sort of remedy. It’s too often that we feel that the election process is imposed on us, and maybe the candidates aren’t what we deserve.
NL: It’s just obscene. The fact that they can spend this much money, in this amount of time. We the voters didn’t decide that we wanted to do elections this way.
TH: I think we did decide we want to do it this way, because it works. They would not be doing this if it didn’t work.
NL: As voters, we look for leadership. We look for people that lead us in good and honorable ways. We didn’t decide that we want to have these elections where we spend obscene amounts of dollars on advertising. As viewers, we didn’t decide that if you showed us those flashing lights that it would get our attention. The fact that they took advantage of our weakness or our inclinations, that’s a whole other matter.
JD: What do you mean by “it” works?
JI: If you spend all your money driving up a candidate’s negatives, you can depress turnout for that candidate. That means all those marginal people, all those undecideds, are just going to say, “Screw it. I’m not going to bother.” Then it’s a get-out-the-vote contest – who can get out more of their core voters.
TH: They’re polling on this stuff every day. Does this commercial work? Does this message work? It’s very sophisticated.
KM: They’re appealing to things on a consciousness that isn’t front-and-center.
JD: The problem is we’re a 10-second attention span. We’re all ADD when it comes to elections. If a person wishes to take the time, there’s ample information for them to educate themselves. I watched a wonderful two-hour PBS documentary that tracked the lives of both Bush and Kerry, and it was very instructional. I didn’t realize Kerry’s involvement when they talk about him throwing the medals over. When you watch the PBS documentary, there’s much more to it. When you talk about George Bush’s history, here’s much more to it. You can educate yourself. You can go online. You can see where the candidates stand on the issues.
The problem is that in 15- or 30-second gaps, you don’t have time to educate. You have time to throw missiles at one another, and that’s what campaigns do, and they do work. Negativism works.
TH: The bottom line in this election is there is in George Bush something beyond the babbling idiot, and in John Kerry something beyond the elitist who can’t stick within a decision. That’s how it’s been characterized. It’s totally inappropriate.
JD: Flip-flopper and war hawk.
KM: We intellectually understand that, but the scientific methodology by which these campaigns are run is based on a manipulation of some of the baser aspects of the human situation. Who is responsible for that, ultimately?
LA: If we were all to have a magic wand that we could wave, and forthwith, no more of this stuff, then we’d probably all be taken out by representatives of the folks who are profiting enormously.
KM: When are we going to put our foot down?
TM: A little sidebar. They’re polling constantly to measure the effectiveness of these efforts. I heard a caller on C-SPAN claim that the polls in their opinion are not as true because there’s a younger voter turnout than ever before in this person’s opinion. The polls are calling people at their homes, and X percent of Americans don’t even have home phones any more; they have cell phones. And they’re not calling these people that have cell phones to get their input. Therefore, the younger generations can’t have more input.
JI: John, you had mentioned that there are ample places to go. I can go to a search engine and put in “Bush Kerry comparison,” and I’ll probably come up with about 10 billion Web pages. I’m not going to have a sense of what’s reliable, what’s unreliable, what’s a fair characterization. Where do you go for information, assuming you’re an undecided voter?
JD: I did what you just said over the past months. I’ve gone to the Web, and there are nonpartisan Web sites that simply say, “Here is the record of the candidate.” And you can click on Kerry, and it will say “economic issues,” and it will show what the vote is. It will say “military issues,” and it will show the vote. It is, I believe, a fairly nonpartisan way to do it.
The one place I don’t think you should go is the mainstream media. You look at the CBS scandal with Dan Rather, and had that been Bush that allegedly came up with a falsified report on Kerry, I think the mainstream press would have had a heyday and we’d be hearing about it every night on the news. But when it’s Dan Rather who has a false report on the Bush campaign, it becomes blatantly apparent that CBS is a liberal station, and it’s a one-way report. Some would say you can go to the AM dial, and you’re going to get the same thing from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, they’re going to be so blatantly right-wing. The problem in the mainstream media is that trying to find the nonpartisan providers is difficult. Some say Fox does a better job than others. I think you have to go out and find it through these nonbiased sources.
KM: Project Vote Smart.
JD: You’re not going to get it through the mainstream media. I listen to Sean Hannity on the way home, and one would wonder how Kerry could be in the campaign. Well then you turn on the CBS news and wonder how George Bush could ever be president in the first place.
TH: Being aware as you go along is one of the best –
TM: Aware as you go along. Meaning?
TH: Try to be informed on a daily basis. This isn’t about the 30 days, or the six weeks before the election. It’s a process every day.
NL: Day one, after the election, you just start paying attention. And over time, you form an opinion how they’re doing. But you also create a group of people whose opinions you trust.
JD: You made the point, Kathleen, that there may be a feeling that America doesn’t like either one of the candidates. I don’t know whether I agree with that. I think we do have a dichotomy in the country, but I think people do feel very strongly for Kerry, or they feel very strongly for Bush.
TH: They like them as well as they’ve ever liked anybody.
KM: I’m having dyed-in-the-wool Republicans like myself have very strong reservations about Bush, but no affinity at all toward Kerry. And I’m finding that that’s happening in circles that just amaze me.
TH: But that, I think, is in every election.
KM: Possibly, but never this strongly.
JD: Unless you couldn’t guess that the conservative banker is Republican, I have no reservations about George Bush. I think there are many Republicans who watch these debates and wish that he could be as articulate and slick and polished as Kerry, as Clinton was. He said it himself: Laura speaks English better than he does. He’s not the most articulate candidate. You like to have a leader who can stand up and sound authoritative.
KM: Those are not the reasons I have reservations about Bush.
NL: You’d also like a leader that leads and doesn’t mislead. Obviously, I’m not a Bush supporter. I don’t want somebody that’s not going to listen to anybody, or that’s only going to listen to these people. I want somebody who’s going to listen. I find it a dangerous proposition to continue to go along a road with a guy who’s been disingenuous.
JI: Thom, you say it’s not a 30-day or six-week process and yet I don’t think this election’s going to come down to anybody in this room. People in this room are opinionated and informed, and they know what they’re going to do. They’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on people who are sitting at home today thinking, “I might vote for Bush,” and tomorrow, they think, “That Kerry guy’s not too bad.” Ninety to 95 percent of this is already cast in stone. It’s that little increment –
NL: The electoral process has been corrupted to come to this. We’ve come a long way from the Founding Fathers to what we do now in terms of elections.
JI: What recourse do people have, to alter the level of discourse, the length of discourse?
TH: Part of the personal responsibility is to just look at the whole thing a little more closely and a little more seriously. I can’t imagine why anybody would be undecided at this point. There are such clear contrasts and differences, this time especially.
KM: I am a Republican for a reason, and I have an identify about it, and I understand what I want from the Republican philosophy, and that’s not happening, and I have a problem with that. Do I favor the opponent? Not even a little bit. What is my recourse?
TM: Alter the politics of your party.
KM: Which I tried to do. I’ve been a delegate in the last two general elections – I’m not in this one – and that process is an eye-opener. It’s equally controlled by what committees you sit on, and who’s on those committees.
TH: It’s not pretty, in either party.
KM: It isn’t, and it’s really disturbing. And how much of that actually trickles off into the bigger scheme of things I’m not really sure. But my identity is pretty solid as a Republican, and I’m not seeing those principles applied in this particular administration, and that disturbs me. So there’s my crisis, and the crisis I’m finding from a lot of Republicans who feel really strongly about their philosophical identities.
JD: Personally, I’m with Thom. I can’t see how you can be undecided at this point. But I think there are a lot of people out there for whom it comes down to the issues we’ve talked about here. Do you want to be a single-issue voter? Do you want to be a global, multiple-issue voter? If you’re really concerned about national security, you might have a feeling that Bush is going to be better providing national security than Kerry. You might be disappointed if you’re in manufacturing, or you’ve had your job affected, or you think that Kerry’s going to be better for the average working man. And so these undecideds are balancing what’s more important: my security, Iraq, the economy. I don’t think it’s necessarily the candidate; it’s which issues that the candidates represent are going to be the most important as they get into the polling place. You’ve got these people with children who are really worried about when the next attack is going to come, and who’s going to be better in the White House when it happens. And the president doesn’t make or break the economy, but the president sets a tone. Which president’s going to set the tone they want to hear for the next four years?
JI: Two people say they can’t imagine anybody being undecided. Let’s say there’s a baseline of 40-percent support for each of these people. Twenty percent of the people seem to be swaying like the wind. It’s not a politically correct thing to say, but do you even want these people voting?
KM: Ultimately, the more people that vote, the greater the chances of the whole system being better down the road. The issues won’t be so narrow.
JI: I don’t want uninformed people voting.
JD: I’ve watched the sessions of “Jay-walking” at night, where they ask these questions of people. You know, “Who was the first president of the United States?” And they don’t have a clue. There is a level that bothers me that certain people are going to affect the political process and they can’t tell you who the first, second, or third president of the United States was. They should educate themselves, and everybody should vote.
NL: We are a media culture. What we know is what we’ve been told.
KM: We’ve got to change. The media has got to get with the program. We are just grossly inadequate.
NL: We used to do a media roundtable where all the media would be there, and I was just amazed at how ignorant the media was. Just that they had no clue who they were talking to other than the people that they saw at the club or in their media circles.
JD: The media does nothing to educate the public. You listen to these debates, and John Kerry will talk about, well, George Bush is the first president to lose jobs. But the media doesn’t have a discussion about the way economic cycles work, about the fact that recessions are cyclical, about the fact that the lost jobs that started during George Bush’s campaign were part of a recessionary cycle that had started during the last six months of the Clinton presidency, the effect of 9/11. They don’t talk about economic cycles. They talk about, well, George Bush wants to give his rich friends the tax cuts, and they don’t talk about the way the tax system even works.
They don’t talk about the fact that when we talk about local versus federal issue, if you’re making $70,000 a year and you live in a $150,000 home, you’re paying far more property taxes to Scott County than you’re paying federal income tax. They never say, well, these tax cuts went to the “rich,” but by the way, that top 20 percent is paying 80 percent of the taxes in the federal system today, and their last dollar is being taxed at 40 cents on the dollar, versus zero cents on the dollar for someone making under $40,000, or 15 cents on the dollar making up to $70,000, and that these are the people who have educated themselves, risked their capital, and they employ people, and they make jobs.
And even when they talk about, well, Bush is only taxing these millionaires 15 percent on the dividends, there’s no education to say, well, wait a minute, that company is paying 35 to 40 percent in federal income tax before the dividend is issued and taxed again at 15 percent. All the person on the street who doesn’t educate himself hears is, these rich people are getting tax breaks, and they don’t understand how the tax system even works. There should be a desire in America to promote an entrepreneurial spirit, and you have to take that desire to improve and create jobs, and you have to have a federal tax code. I’d rather see the discussion take that framework in terms of are the tax codes promoting economic development or are they truly giving people who shouldn’t have a break a break, versus simply saying, well, the top 1 percent are getting a tax break of X billion/trillion dollars.
KM: Why do you suppose we aren’t doing that clarification?
NL: Nobody wants an informed electorate.
LA: There are places with a glimmering of light. PBS has a couple of programs such as the News Hour with Jim Lehrer with people getting into that kind of detail, the McLaughlin Group.
Just a further side comment on the tax issue. The claim was that it was a stimulus to the economy. Independent economics organizations have gone in and estimated that only about nine cents of every dollar granted in tax breaks to those top brackets have entered the economy.
JD: I don’t look at it that way. I look at it as the fundamental fairness of the tax system, and where is the fundamental fairness of taking an entrepreneur who may make a quarter-million dollars a year but who has risked their capital, their livelihood in order to employ people and create jobs? Where is the fairness of saying, “Mister, lady, you get to pay 40 percent of every dollar you make now in federal income tax, but the guy that’s taken no risk, gone along in his job, happy to make $50,000, $60,000, $70,000, you get to pay 15 percent if anything”? I’ve never heard a debate on what the objective of the tax system should be. If you’re talking about fairness in taxes, before you say it’s unfair to give the wealthy tax relief, where was the fairness to tax them at a significantly higher rate to begin with? What never comes through is that these tax breaks that went to the middle class were far greater in amount than what that top 1 percent got. And I tend to believe that $1,600 or so per year that the average family got last year with the marriage-penalty relief, with the child-care credit, I think a lot of those people did go out and buy new cars, and new homes, and new furniture for their homes.
I tell you right now as a banker, all of the people I’m talking to today, they are as busy as they’ve ever been. The economy locally is going as strong as it has been in probably five years. We have more demands for money for expansion today than we have had ever. The economy here is kicking rear.
You’re always going to have the Maytags. When you can pay somebody in Mexico $5 a day, or $10 a day, whatever, you’re always going to have those issues. I’d like to see a broader debate on these issues.
NL: I’m concerned about fairness also. That kind of fairness should be made available. I’m also concerned about the world. We help some countries; we don’t help others. It’s more than this issue or this issue. The whole philosophical outlook has to be agreeable to me.
LA: Egypt used to be a pro-American country. They’re almost now 100-percent opposed to us.
TM: Nate, you said that nobody wants an informed electorate, and most of us nodded in agreement. Is there any reasoning why an informed electorate is not desired?
JI: You’re dealing with what’s effective. Just as politicians have done studies about what ads work, the media has done studies about what the public wants, will read, things like that. They’ve determined they want shorter stories, punchier stories, human-interest stories. They’ve cut down on news hole. It’s what’s good for you. Do I want chocolate or a bran muffin? Well, this is good for me, but this is what I want.
But right now we live in a great age where with the Internet, all this information is available, assuming you have an Internet connection. The information is out there now in a way that it wasn’t 20 years ago.
NL: I don’t think politicians look forward to the notion of creating a new system, or working in a new system. Everyone likes the status quo.
JD: Keep in mind that incumbents are elected 80, 85 percent of the time. If you’re an incumbent senator, your chances of re-election are beautiful, so why would you have a desire to change the election system?
LA: It was explained to me that’s why Congress will never, ever change two-year terms for the House, because people could run in the middle of their terms against their senators. They won’t permit that.
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