Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dishonesty in Campaigning

One of the themes in Barack Obama's campaign last year that connected with conservative voters was his criticism of the Bush deficits. Many Americans had come to believe with some justification that spending in the Bush Administration was out of control. The fact that President Bush had inherited a balanced budget and by the end of his term had accumulated hundreds of billions of dollars in deficits was of great concern to citizens who believe that fiscal responsibility is an important national goal.

So, when candidate Barack Obama appealed to the American sense of responsible budgeting, that appeal had impact. In fact, millions of voters abandoned the Republican presidential ticket in the midst of last year's financial collapse on that issue alone.

Nine months later, many of those same voters have come to the conclusion that President Obama has not fulfilled the promise of his campaign rhetoric. More deficit has been accumulated in just one year than the deficits created in all the years of the Bush presidency. And interestingly, much of the Bush deficit record was accumulated in the last two years of his Administration after the Democrats took control of Capitol Hill. In fact, when the Republicans were defeated in 2006, in large part because of their record of irresponsible spending, the deficit at that time was actually slightly less than the one they inherited twelve years earlier.

This is to say there is a running theme in modern American politics of people being worried about debt and deficit, voting for candidates who seem to share their concerns and then being disappointed when those candidates, once elected, fail to follow through on restoring fiscal sanity.

President Obama's present difficulties can be traced to his fiscal broken promises. The health care debate contains many hot-button issues, but at its foundation is a general belief that it represents one more big government spending program that we cannot afford. No matter how much the Administration tries to spin health care reform as a cost savings measure, their assurances are not credible. Americans are smarter than that. They know the potential for massive new spending when they see it.

The same scenario fits the difficulties the President faces in passing his energy/environment program. The Administration wants the country to buy the idea that we face a major climate crisis that must be solved without regard to price. But, they say, we will establish a market-based system that will assure that the costs are evenly spread. Again, the believability factor is missing. What the public sees is the $8 billions per year in new government bureaucracy that will be required to administer this program. And they suspect that the costs they will pay will not be equally distributed when they see deals being cut in Washington to help some at the expense of others. It is just another costly government boondoggle.

All of the fiscal concerns came to a head this week when the Administration announced that the deficits going forward will be massive and growing. Now the hundreds and hundreds of billions spent on stimulus packages, supplemental budgets, pork barrel projects and so much more was brought into perspective. We are in deep financial trouble. Debt and deficits are growing. Our creditors worldwide are becoming nervous and may demand interest rate hikes to protect their investments. Hyperinflation is a potential problem.

These are not George Bush's problems. They are President Obama's problems. He can no longer point fingers at someone else as his way of connecting with the public on their fiscal concerns. He is in charge. The real substance behind his slide downward in the polls is that government is too big and spends too much and he wants to grow government bigger and spend even more. That's not what the public thought they heard him say last year and now they have come to believe the campaign rhetoric was purposely dishonest.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Town Meetings

During the twenty years I spent in Congress, I always found town meetings to be a very useful way to communicate with constituents and to hear their concerns. Some of those meetings were difficult. People showed up who did not agree with me and we had an exchange over our differences. Sometimes the press reports focused on some small controversy in the meeting rather than the big issues that were discussed. Sometimes I ended up refereeing some local battle that had no Federal involvement, but was important enough for citizens to use my town meeting as a forum.

The way I conducted those sessions was as an open discussion. I went with no agenda. I did not use the meeting to talk about the issues important to me. My intent was to listen to what was on the minds of my constituents. So I began each meeting by saying I would make no speech but rather was throwing the ball to them. Any question or comment they wanted to make was a legitimate topic. And that open discussion would go on for an hour and a half.

Clearly there are Members of Congress who do not wish to engage in that kind of dialogue. The complaints of Democrats who have found less than friendly audiences back home on August recess are fascinating. They want to use the town meetings to regurgitate the canned information on health care reform and cap and trade programs provided them by their leadership. What they are finding is informed citizens who are not interested in canned propaganda, but rather are more interested in getting answers to serious questions. And when the response they get from their Congressman or Congresswoman is unresponsive, they become upset.

So how has the Democratic Party establishment reacted to the challenge to Obama policies that Democratic Representatives are finding back home? They are claiming that the questions and the anger are not real. It's all a setup, they say. The Republicans and right wing extremists are behind it. Senator Barbara Boxer of California was even quoted as saying that these concerned constituents are a part of a plot to destroy the President. In fact, the White House, itself, has gone so far as to try to stifle free speech by asking their supporters to report citizens who are spreading "disinformation."

The Democratic charges come at a time where the President is holding town meetings, himself, trying to win support for his health care proposal. The difference is that the President's town hall sessions consist of carefully screened participants and the questions asked are akin to the canned propaganda that the Congressmen want to use in their districts. No wonder the Democrats believe that everyone agrees with them because most of the people they let into the halls to speak with the President do agree with them. They wouldn't be there if they didn't.

But polling data says something quite different. The country is very much divided on the questions of health care and energy policies. And, if anything, the polls indicate that a majority of Americans, in some cases a significant majority of Americans, disagree with the President and the Democrats on Capitol Hill. It is those majorities that are showing up at congressional town meetings and making their voices heard.

Instead of comparing concerned Americans to "mob rule" or trying to stifle free speech, the Democrats should listen. Listening instead of talking is hard for Members of Congress, but it is essential if you want to hear the real America speaking.