But there is always a chance, right after any big vote, to make sweeping changes. The window of opportunity is small, however, so it has to happen right out of the gate. The Democrats have come up with a list they want to act on quickly, and I can't argue with any of it -- raising the minimum wage, working on prescription drug prices, etc. That's all good stuff, but we need -- and, I think, Americans demand -- reform of our system at its most basic levels. Without it, how long will it be before the Dems become entrenched and corrupted by all the money? It only took 12 years to seduce the Republican class of 1994.
So here's my short list of items that could make a difference (most of which, admittedly, would take some serious legal wrangling to enact).
I have never supported term limits; my biggest objection was always that the cure was more dangerous than the disease. But I'm reconsidering. I used to worry that permanent bureaucrats would run the government if we continually turned out our elected officials.
But our elected officials -- of both parties -- have been disappointing, working to preserve their power however they can. Still, I think we can reach the goal of having greater turnover in elected officials through other reforms, including fair and honest districting and campaign finance reform.
But I am certain we need to limit the term of our presidents. We should elect our presidents to a single, six-year term. This would free up every administration to govern instead of continually running for office.
If administrations weren't always campaigning, they could do a better job running the country. But let's face it: This is a tough country to run, with deep divides, socially, economically and politically. George W. Bush promised to be a uniter, then played to his right-wing base for six years; it's been a disaster for the country (and for his legacy).
Imagine how different things would have been if Bush's vice president was, say, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. And instead of putting the veep in charge of secret war plans and corporate giveaways, you could make the office exist to challenge the president. Bush wouldn't have lived in his little fantasyland bubble, and 49 percent of the country would have felt represented at the top. And we would all benefit from the underlying message that arrangement would convey: We may not agree, but we do need to figure out how to live together.
So here's a simple rule the parties could adopt: Every candidate for president must choose a running mate from the opposing party. Sure, this is hard to swallow, with lots of details to consider, but it's not really that far out; many parliamentary systems around the world make room for opposing views in the ruling administration. And the one big Republican success of 2006 is Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose own chief of staff is a Democrat.
This is a tough one, with the First Amendment and all, but our media is failing. Many news organizations are trying, but too many have abdicated their duty to inform the country, choosing instead mindless pack journalism (as in the run-up to the Iraq war, and in the endless coverage of the John Kerry joke) and partisan talking points masquerading as news (Fox News). Yes, the First Amendment gives the press nearly unlimited freedom, but that is supposed to be backed up by responsibility.
There's nothing stranger than to watch a news segment on how misleading a particular TV atack ad is only to have it followed up during the commercial break by the very same misleading ad. While the poor little reporter is trying to inform the public, his corporate masters continue to cash the checks.
Along with simply not watching the drivel, the best way to change the dynamic is to get the networks' hands out of the cookie jar, too. After all, those hundreds of millions of dollars raised every couple of years for our campaigns wind up in the pockets of big media in the form of attack ad buys. In other words, the referee is on the take.
Many of our problems in this country can be described with one word: Greed. So to fix those problems, we need to get money out of the equation and put the public interest first.
Yes, energy companies and drug companies have legitimate business before the Congress. It's the American way that they should be able to argue their cases. What's un-American is to allow a system to flourish in which their cash buys them special access -- even to the point of writing legislation. If Congress is our sacred institution, this is the moneylenders in the temple all over again, and they need to have their tables turned.
Of course many courts have ruled that money in campaigns is protected as free speech, but what if we just completely change the way we run campaigns? There are three big changes that would make an enormous difference.
Create a finite campaign season. In many democracies, campaign seasons are preset and short, so candidates can actually spend time running a country instead of filling out deposit slips and figuring out how to assassinate the character of their opponents.
Use the public airwaves to inform the public. Let's not forget, we, the people, own the airwaves the big media uses to broadcast over. Every campaign season, as a requirement of keeping those licenses, the media should be compelled to turn over a set amount of time to every candidate who qualifies. And that time should be used within an agreed upon set of criteria, with truth as a core principle. Currently, the TV ads that define our political lives create confusion, fear, divisions and, too often, knowingly plant misinformation. The political parties have abused the current system so badly, it has to change. Sorry big media; the political windfall must end.
Fund campaigns with public money. Politics should not be an industry, but that's exactly what has happened. So if we get the private money out of politics, we could, as they say, drain the swamp. After the free broadcast time allotments, the remainder of a campaign should be funded publicly. Yes, it would cost our country real money, but imagine how much we could save if the result is public policy that is not all about paying back corporate patrons? For example, no $6 billion giveaways to oil companies, or public endorsement of continued high drug prices through the new Medicare benefit.
With a new Congress coming in January, we may feel hopeful, but they're all settling into that same old rotten system. Democrats may be getting ready to slap a shiny new paint job on the car, but it's the engine that's failing us.
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