Sunday, March 17, 2013

IF ONLY ....


Cleaning out some old e-mails, I ran across this one which was sent to the Washington Post OP-Ed (they didn't run it) about a week before President Obama's inauguration -the first one, in January of 2009. Re-reading it, one can only wonder "what if" this had actually happened. I don't get points for predicting the future, because I was really only recounting what had happened in the past (a newly elected president gets about 90 days max to govern- the rest of his tenure will be spent cleaning up messes- some of his own making, and holding the fort on accomplishments from prior presidents). Anyway, in all its glory, here it was- never having run in the Washington Post, and even if it had, no one in the Obama White House would have realized that they only had a few months to accomplish anything useful. I don't count Obama Care as an accomplishment, because with one simple phrase: "Medicare for all" he could have fixed the health care insurance mess, avoided months and years of acrimony, obfuscation by the opponents (remember "death panels?"), a battle all the way to the Supreme Court, and a State by State fight on whether to expand Medicaid coverage. As an aside, my proposals for cutting medical costs and fixing the budget can be found at and

Anyway, imagine for a moment that the President had had the hindsight (not foresight- remember, the pattern keeps repeating) to figure out that there was one essential piece of legislation he should put in place before trying anything else.


President-elect Barack Obama is coming into office facing the greatest crises since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, who dealt with both the Great Depression and World War II during his tenure. By the same token, Mr. Obama has the same rare opportunity that President Roosevelt did to effect real, positive, lasting changes in the American government, economy, and foreign policy- but his window of opportunity will be a short one, only a matter of months after he is sworn in. If Mr. Obama acts quickly and decisively, he can take steps which will end the costly and counterproductive "war on drugs," insure every American against the expenses of a catastrophic illness while providing preventive care that will greatly reduce the trillion dollar outlay for medical expenses, cut our defense budget by hundreds of billions of dollars without sacrificing one iota of national security, restore the freedoms provided by the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, provide the nation with an uncluttered, more efficient, and vastly less costly tax system, and put the nation on the road to energy independence.

None of that will happen-- unless Mr. Obama does one essential thing first: take advantage of his unique opportunity provided by the rout of the Republicans in the last election coupled with his incredible fund raising ability that allowed him to forego public funds and outspend John McCain by hundreds of millions of dollars. If Mr. Obama proposes a total ban on private campaign contributions, replacing them with full public financing of all federal elections, then all other things become possible. Meaningful, comprehensive campaign finance reform will free candidates for federal office from the continuous campaign cycle of raising money for the next election before the winners of the last election have even taken their oaths of office. Changing the ground rules for television and radio advertising will mean that legislators will be able to vote on controversial proposals to decriminalize drugs or cut defense spending without having to worry about the 30 second attack ad in the next election that will distort reality and hammer them with accusations of supporting drug dealers or leaving the nation open to a new terrorist attack.

During the last election voters in Georgia were treated to a Senate campaign in which one of the candidates- Democrat Jim Martin, a soft spoken, decent and honorable man, a Vietnam veteran with a long history of selfless government service- was falsely accused by Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of being fired from his job as head of the Georgia Department of Human Resources because two foster children died. During the presidential election, John McCain ran an ad which falsely claimed that Barack Obama's "one accomplishment" as a state senator was "legislation to teach ‘comprehensive sex education' to kindergarteners." A Chambliss ad accused Mr. Martin of opposing legislation cracking down on child molesters. A mildly amusing but nonsensical McCain ad conjoined photos of Mr. Obama with two attractive white blondes, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, in a thinly veiled attempt to provoke a racist reaction plagiarized from the movie /*Blazing Saddles*/-- -- the black man is coming and he wants your white women! During Mr. Chambliss' 2002 bid to unseat Georgia Senator Max Cleland, he ran an infamous television ad which linked Senator Cleland to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and accused Mr. Cleland of selling out the nation's security. Last Fall Elizabeth Dole, the Republican Senator from North Carolina, ran a desperate 30 second ad in her unsuccessful bid to retain her Senate seat which falsely implied that her opponent, Democrat Kay Hagan, was an atheist, repeatedly linking her to "godless Americans."

Candidates for federal office have had to raise vast sums of money to propound these absurd attack ads- or respond to them when aired by their opponents. Senate races now cost tens of millions of dollars, and even races for the House of Representatives routinely cost millions. Mr. Obama can and should end this vicious cycle of office holders selling their souls (and sometimes their seats) by using most of their productive hours raising money or responding to the needs of their contributors. The fatal defects in our current election finance system explain why health care reform failed in the Clinton administration. They explain why every rational office holder who knows that the war on drugs is a failure and a sham will never vote to follow Switzerland's model to decriminalize and regulate drugs, even though the "drug war" has increased drug use and violent crime in America while providing billions of dollars to Afghan warlords, the Taliban, and South American drug cartels which have devastated and terrorized Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Effective campaign reform can be accomplished without doing any damage to the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech while being politically palatable to both major political parties. Simply put: declare every private contribution to any candidate for federal office as a bribe and every request for funds, goods, or services from a candidate as a solicitation of a bribe. After all, a massive bribe is exactly what occurs when a trade group hosts a thousand dollar a plate fund raising event for a Senator or a Congressman. When a president can rent out the Lincoln bedroom for hundreds of thousand in campaign contributions, that's not democracy at work- it's bribe-ocracy. Public financing can and must replace every private contribution, freeing up those elected to do the public's business to actually do the public's business without fear of losing millions with a vote that might offend special interests like big oil, hospital corporations, banks, or insurance companies.

As for toxic television attack ads- the First Amendment won't let us curtail them, but we can make them virtually useless to those who have paid for them by delaying their airing until public interest groups and the opposing candidate have had a chance to preview them, and allowing the attackee to tape a response that will be twice as long, free of charge, which will run immediately following the first ad. Doing this does no damage to the First Amendment; it simply means that a vicious lie like the attack ad on Mr. Cleland could be immediately followed by an outraged response by a Vietnam Veterans group and Mr. Cleland which would reveal that Mr. Chambliss ducked military service in Vietnam, claiming a knee injury, while showing Mr. Chambliss during his morning jog along the Potomac. Devastating responses like that would quickly end the baseless attacks and allow elections to be decided on real issues like how best to insure 40 million uninsured Americans or what programs to cut to reduce trillion dollar deficits.