Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Gov. Richardson & "The Question"

June 27, 2007, 6:00, 8:30 a.m. [times reflect additions to the entry -- for the benefit of those few individuals who check back occasionally during the day -- as well as reflecting the fact that what is called "life" occasionally interrupts blogging]

Richardson and "The Question"

As predicted yesterday, John Deeth the blogger was at the Governor Bill Richardson event (Iowa City Public Library, June 26), and thus there's very little to add to his report.

Because he never travels without his laptop he figures it's entitled to its own bumper sticker, which says: "REBOOT AMERICA." It's one Richardson could have used as his theme yesterday.

Local papers covered the event, but -- even covering politics as horse race -- didn't think Richardson's rapid rise in the polls (from 1% to 13-18%) worth page one display. Leah Dorzweller, "Dem Presidential Hopeful Shares Executive Vision; Richardson Speaks to Packed Crowd at Public Library," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 27, 2007, p. 3A; James Q. Lynch, "Richardson Draws I.C. Crowd," The Gazette, June 27, 2007, p. 3B; Erika Binegar, "Richardson Would Hit Ground Running," The Daily Iowan, June 27, 2007.

These days, with online newspapers, it's not enough that the paper's photographer provides one or two shots for the next day's edition. They're expected to prepare a "gallery" of pictures -- and virtually immediately. Here's the Press-Citizen's this morning. I can't compete with a professional camera and photographer with the eye of the P-C's Matthew Holst, but here is one from a selection of 13 pictures I took at that event and posted on my Picassa site.

So what is "The Question"? It's one I've put to most of the candidates for president since the early 1970s. It goes to the heart of what politics in a democratic society ought to be about. It's something we know how to do, and insist on in other countries. And yet few candidates have ever even thought about it -- let alone come up with a plan for implementation. What is the question, and how and why did I come up with it? And how did Richardson do with it?

The answers will come later this morning, after I've interrupted my blogging with a little bit of "life."

I'm back. But before addressing "The Question" I should note that, while I'm not endorsing anyone -- a lot can happen in the six months between now and the January caucus -- I thought Richardson did a great job yesterday. He was relaxed, engaging, funny, warm, and willing to stay a half hour or more beyond the 11:30 "deadline." I found his "the first six days in office" an effective way to package quite an array of what he proposes to do for us. And most of what he was proposing was very well received by the overflow and often enthusiastic crowd (as you'll see from one of my pictures -- which doesn't even show those in the hall outside Meeting Room A) -- and by me. (Much of the content of his remarks is provided in the stories and Deeth Blog linked above.)

The Question

So why was I questioning presidential candidates over 30 years ago? I had been asked to host a TV show on which they appeared, one each show. Frankly, I don't remember the details, except for what led to "The Question."

I quickly discovered that it was difficult to get anything very new or different from a candidate who had already been asked the standard questions dozens if not hundreds of times. It was as if they had little audio cassette tapes that they plugged into their brains and played back, one for each question.

What to do? I considered having someone throw them a baseball, or tip over their chair -- anything to throw them off guard a little, something that would provoke something more spontaneous than their polished performances. The producer said I couldn't do it.

So I finally came up with a question they hadn't confronted before, and I have been using variations of it ever since.

"The Question" on those early shows, and later in some Iowa living rooms, took the following form: "Senator," because it usually was a senator, "let's make two assumptions: one, you are 'right on the issues,' whatever that means to the audience; they like your platform and proposals. Two, you are elected president. Please tell us, why are the coal mine operators going to have less control over coal mine safety than they do now?" (Of course this can be, and often was, expanded with examples from many industries and agencies.)

Most candidates over the years have fallen mute. The best one could hope for was some feeble, "Well, I'm going to appoint good people to office." That was one answer clearly revealed they didn't understand the problem.

The "good people" they appoint to office (if such can be found, given industry pressure to appoint their people to the regulatory agencies they will have to deal with) will find themselves pretty isolated. It may be one of those agencies where employees come from, and return to, the industry. It may be one where they are wined and dined by industry representatives. These "good people" will be reporting to congressional committees made up of elected officials whose primary source of campaign funds is the very industry being "regulated." And the media? The mainstream media will largely ignore the agency. Media coverage will be primarily from the trade press covering -- and being funded with advertising dollars from -- the industry in question.

(Let me also note, for balance, that I have known a number of civil servants who are among the brightest and most public spirited, independent and courageous people anywhere.)

So much for "good people" heading agencies -- however much they may be an improvement over "bad people."

What is needed (as I privately explained to Governor Richardson yesterday) is the kind of citizen participation in agency process that -- when the decision goes for the industry, as it almost always will -- provides a "party," someone with "standing," to appeal the decision to the relevant U.S. Court of Appeals.

Such groups (primarily, if not exclusively, representing the interests of citizens and consumers rather than those with direct and substantial economic interests in the outcome) -- and, yes, I know they will represent far right conservative individuals as well as the lefties and libertarians -- can also use their access to the mainstream media, and the political process, to get the story out of the trade press and into the public consciousness. But their most effective leverage is through the judicial process when agencies are engaged in clear violations of law, as they sometimes are. Note that, without their participation there is simply no one who can appeal. The agency's pro-industry decision stands.

I didn't have notes yesterday, and I don't know if anyone has a recording of his presentation, so I don't know exactly how I phrased "The Question" to him. But it was somewhat along these lines:
"As you can tell from the response you've received there are a lot of folks here who seem to appreciate and support what you say you will do for us. What I'd like to know is what you propose to do to enable us to help you get those things accomplished in the face of special interest opposition? How can we better accomplish what we, as individuals and members of numerous citizens' groups, would like to accomplish in addition? Even with total public financing of campaigns we would still be up against overwhelming odds from the special interests with their well-paid thousands of lawyers, lobbyists and publicists, their advertising and public relations budgets -- and today their campaign contributions in the millions of dollars. What things do you have in mind along the line of the Legal Services Corporation, agency reimbursement of intervenors' expenses, treble-damage antitrust remedies, class action suits, private attorneys general actions, and so forth?"
Much as I like Richardson, I have to say he cast his lot with the majority of candidates who have either never thought about such things or don't think them very important. His was kind of an AmeriCorps-type response -- things the government could sponsor that would invoke the "ask what you can do for your country" response. Great ideas, but not likely to curb special interest control of the Congress and the agencies.

I've never known the details of the following story. It may be apocryphal. A citizens' group gained an appointment with President Roosevelt. After their presentation he said to them, "I agree with you absolutely. We must introduce that legislation. Now you go out there and make me do it." That is another thing we can do as citizens -- indeed, we are the only ones who can -- in addition to the litigation to keep the agencies honest. We can provide the political, grass roots support that enables elected officials who would like to do the right thing an argument to use with the special interests that oppose what they, and we, want to accomplish.

Over the years there have only been three who grasped the question, and two who understood the answers. Hubert Humphrey acknowledged it was a great question and that the next time I came to his office we should talk about it. Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader knew how to proceed.

This year Barack Obama came closest, reminding me that he had worked as a community organizer. But he didn't carry his response beyond that.

It's not like this stuff is unknown in Washington. Even President George Bush has a rhetoric about "democracy" in other countries, though he doesn't always reflect the prerequisites to creating it. Those prerequisites involve something we call "civil (or civic) society" or "social capital." I've participated in some of these efforts abroad. This can involve everything from trade unions to Rotary Clubs to community media outlets; building citizen experience in coming together for public policy or programmatic purposes and then working to accomplish the stated goals.

We know how to do it -- and Obama's "community organizing" is a major component of the training. We just don't.

We know how to train our K-12 students to get out of the school house and into the court house, city council chambers and legislative halls to practice citizen power in a democracy. But we don't do much of that, either. (See, e.g., Center for Civic Education and National Council for the Social Studies and its "Creating Effective Citizens.")

We're not talking more "book learning" and classroom lectures here -- however important both may be -- we're talking "experiential learning" and performance -- political, policy, legal and media accomplishments.

A president could do a lot to build a "civic society" here in America -- but only after he or she begins to grasp why it is a need, and mounts the courage to take on the thousands of those in Washington who rather enjoy and find quite acceptable the rule by self-proclaimed elite that has served them so well.

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[Note: If you're new to this blog, and interested in the whole UI President Search story . . .

This blog began in June 2006 and has addressed, and continues to addresses, a number of public policy, political, media, education, economic development, and other issues -- not just the UI presidential search. But that is the subject to which most attention has been focused in blog entries between November 2006 and June 2007.

The presidential search blog entries begin with Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006. They end with Nicholas Johnson, "UI Held Hostage Day 505 - Next (Now This) Week," June 10, 2007 (100-plus pages printed; a single blog entry for the events of June 10-21 ("Day 516"), plus over 150 attached comments from readers), and Nicholas Johnson, "UI Hostages Free At Last -- Habemas Mamam!," June 22, 2007.

Wondering where the "UI Held Hostage" came from? Click here. (As of January 25 the count has run from January 21, 2006, rather than last November.)

For any given entry, links to the prior 10 will be found in the left-most column. Going directly to will take you to the latest. Each entry related to the UI presidential search contains links to the full text of virtually all known, non-repetitive media stories and commentary, including mine, since the last blog entry. Together they represent what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." The last time there was an entry containing the summary of prior entries' commentary (with the heading "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search") is Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XIII -- Last Week," December 11, 2006.

My early proposed solution to the conflict is provided in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VII: The Answer," November 26, 2006.

Searching: the fullest collection of basic documents related to the search is contained in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006 (and updated thereafter), at the bottom of that blog entry under "References." A Blog Index of entries on all subjects since June 2006 is also available. And note that if you know (or can guess at) a word to search on, the "Blogger" bar near the top of your browser has a blank, followed by "SEARCH THIS BLOG," that enables you to search all entries in this Blog since June 2006.]

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