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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

The Blame Game

With just a few days to go before the midterm elections you can be sure of two things: an even greater barrage of financial solicitations by candidates, PACs, and committees—if that is even possible; and an escalation of campaign rhetoric shifting from Apple Pie and Motherhood claims to direct attacks on opponents and the inevitable blame game.

If you travel around the country, you’ll find that the refrains are less and less about local issues or even offices, and increasingly referendums about whoever is in the White House at the time, who we are told, along with members of his party, is responsible for everything that is wrong in our country, and by extension in the world. This farce which is perpetuated by both parties is an insult to everyone, even those who unthinkingly buy into these absurd representations. Now do not get me wrong, there are indeed real issues at stake and real differences in the positions taken by candidates but note that I do not say views because candidates do not have views, they have positions decided for them by their respective parties and the legion of campaign consultants coaching them on the tactics of scorched earth politics.

I want to be clear that what I have said is not idle conjecture but informed by over a decade spent in Washington, DC creating political ads, working with the campaign committees of both parties and many high-profile campaign consultants. I did not seek this out, but if you are in the production industry in Washington you are by default in the swirl of the only thing that matters to the majority of people spending money on advertising—getting into and keeping a position of power, and ultimately that all translates into one thing, money.

Imagine you are an idealistic individual, someone who genuinely wants to do right by his or her constituents and community. There aren’t too many Mr. Smiths going to Washington anymore, but we’ll give it the benefit of doubt that not everyone is an idealogue, opportunist, cult worshipper or crackpot. You’ll have put in your time establishing your bona fides, paying dues in modest capacities in the local or perhaps state-wide political arena and most of all have a wide circle of folks who like you and are willing to help—with their time and their checkbook. It also helps if there are a lot of them or they can write big checks, because from the moment your chosen party accepts you as a candidate your life will be governed by one thing, deadlines for raising political contributions. And make no mistake about it these are not goals you can fudge—the support of your party and the money it is prepared to put behind your campaign are absolutely tied to what you are told you must raise. Fail at this task and watch how quickly party loyalty will fade, unless of course you happen to be the best shot the party has in unseating an opponent.

You’ll learn about this depressing reality, if you didn’t already know it, at a so-called boot camp your chosen party will put you through in the early days of your candidacy where you’ll also learn about the approved list of consultants, and the positions you’ll espouse based on the wisdom of the party, the polls and the gurus who have been anointed by past success. This fundraising machine never sleeps, it grinds on up to and often long after the election is over. If you are the winner, it does not get any easier—the goals get larger and from almost the day you take office you’ll be on the treadmill to raise yet more for the party, your colleagues and your own re-election. In fact, as a freshman representative you’ll spend more time raising money than legislating. The truth is a first or even second term Congressperson typically has little real power. They rarely sit on important committees (the ones that dispense and have oversight of lots of money); they are instructed by their whip what to vote for and what to oppose, and by the time they actually have any real grasp of the issues facing them they’ll be back on the campaign trail.

So it is no wonder that the gauzy days of declaring what you stand for, what you aspire to accomplish as the people’s representative lasts a few short weeks in the heady early days of the campaign and quickly degenerates into name calling, blame assigning squabbles poisoning the political well and leaving the populace with a bad taste and a cynical belief that the system is broken and the other guys did it. And they aren’t wrong in the belief the system is broken, but not for the reasons many think. It’s broken because it isn’t supposed to be about the money, it isn’t a referendum on whoever is in the White House—or at least it shouldn’t be unless he or she is on the ballot because none of the things we are wrestling with in foreign relations, economics, and domestic policy are simple, easy or black and white. And while somewhere at their core both parties have ideas of merit, and individuals of integrity—it is nearly impossible for those to emerge in an arena that appeals mainly to emotion over intellect, to simplistic name calling, tribal behavior and blame shaming.

The shame in fact is on all of us. Candidates capitulate to the party's wishes because without their support and their money it is exceedingly difficult, almost impossible to run for office. The parties of course are cynical orchestrators of the system but also its victims, consumed by the need to win majorities that can overcome the partisan gridlock they created and daily stoke with inflammatory imagery and rhetoric, demonizing those of the opposing position with nary a pretense of respect for honest disagreement. In this win at all costs environment we, the people, are the losers. Our representative democracy is no longer representative, there is no real governance, and we find ourselves choosing between bad and worse in most campaigns, but rarely are we electing anyone who can or will make the slightest difference in the larger picture. The only thing that will be decided is whose Ox is gored and that is terribly personal and capricious. All too often we are the Ox gored by the very people we sent to Washington to look after our interests, while the only interests they are looking after are their own.

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