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Thursday, October 27, 2016
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  • BLOOMINGTON – We should change the nature of presidential debates to put control of the process on the voters’ side, and not let the candidates get away with fluff. We’re in the middle of the presidential debates, and not surprisingly, they’re drawing viewers in great numbers. The contest is close, and the chance to watch the two candidates spar with one another face to face makes for entertaining television. This is hardly a bad thing. Overall, presidential debates are a plus for the public dialogue. They get tremendous coverage throughout the media universe, both while they’re taking place and in the days that follow. They let the voters see the candidates under pressure and gauge their performance. As scripted as they can sometimes seem, they still let us watch the candidates think on their feet. They’re serious events, and are certainly more substantive than campaign speeches and television commercials. It’s true that they don’t usually change the trajectory of a race, although we won’t know until election night whether this year’s debates played a role in the outcome. They can reinforce enthusiasm, but it’s rare that they create it from scratch. Yet I think our focus on debates, at least in the form they currently take, is misplaced. It’s not so much that they reward one-upmanship, a quick wit, and clever zingers, although they do. Rather, I think they don’t actually help us make a good choice.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We have to be able to disagree in this country without tearing into and trying to destroy the opposition. The politics of demonization that characterizes this election will make it very hard for whoever wins office to govern well. This campaign year has been full of twists and turns. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone on Nov. 8. So talking about what comes afterward seems premature. But it’s been on my mind a lot, because I’m worried. This is not about who wins the presidency. I’m concerned about the aftermath of this campaign season and how hard it’s going to be for our next set of elected officials, from the President on down, to govern. Let’s start with the belief expressed by a lot of people, including some candidates, that the system is “rigged.” This is a perilous way to treat the country’s political system; it sows distrust in future election results, de-legitimizes winners, and undermines the government’s credibility. If the charge takes hold, it will put political stability at risk.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Does the ubiquity of information available through social media really help citizens understand complex issues, weigh competing arguments, and reach discriminating judgments about politics? I’ve been involved in politics for the better part of a lifetime, and have spoken at a lot of public meetings over the years. One question I’ve heard more than any other: “If I want to be an informed citizen, which sources of information should I consult?” For many years, I had a set answer: Read one or more of the respected national news sources, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Financial Times, The Economist, etc. I’m not sure how good that answer was at the time, but I know for certain it would be woefully inadequate now. Younger people, in particular, get far more of their information from social media than from traditional news sources. The internet and social media have upended our expectations of what it means to be well-informed. Platforms and websites that take advantage of online and mobile connectivity are like a firehose, providing enormous quantities of information, opinion, news, statements, videos, images, analysis, charts, graphs, all of it instantly available.
  • BLOOMINGTON – So far, this election has put a premium on sound and fury at the cost of true engagement with the issues confronting the country. The next few weeks in politics are a little like the All-Star break in baseball. With the Republican and Democratic national conventions upon us, it’s a good time to step back and assess this year’s election. Which carries bad news for both parties. The Republicans face a steep electoral challenge. If Hillary Clinton carries Florida (where polling shows a very close race) plus the District of Columbia and the 19 states that have voted Democratic in each of the last six presidential elections, she wins. Yet victory for Donald Trump is hardly out of the question. He’ll have to retain the support he already has from white voters, especially working-class whites in swing states,  and try to make some inroads among non-white voters. He’ll also need to hope that third-party candidates take more votes away from Clinton than from him.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We former members of Congress might hold rooting interests on opposite sides of particular policy debates, but on one point we all agree, we want Congress as an institution to succeed and thrive. These days, it’s doing neither. I had the good fortune last week to spend some time in Washington, D.C., with about a dozen former members of Congress. As you’d expect, we got to talking about the current Congress. Very quickly it turned out that the same question was troubling all of us: Why is it held in such low public esteem? We represented both parties and a variety of eras, and had a range of experience under our belts. But we all found ourselves chagrined by what we’ve been witnessing. You have to understand that most former members of Congress believe deeply in the value of the institution for American representative government. We might take opposite sides of particular policy debates, but on one point we all agree, we want the institution itself to succeed and thrive. These days, it’s doing neither.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We don’t have many consensus-building mechanisms in our political culture. A lot of groups that used to help do this are weaker now. We may not know who our next President is going to be, but here’s one thing that’s almost certain: He or she will take office with roughly half of the electorate unhappy and mistrustful. The notion that the President speaks for a broad coalition of Americans who are willing to set aside their differences on behalf of a compelling new vision for the country? It’s vanished. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering where it went, and though I still haven’t found an answer, I do know this: it’s not only Washington’s — or even the political class’s — fault. Let’s start with a lament I hear frequently about this year’s crop of presidential candidates: “Is this the best we can do?”
  • BLOOMINGTON – How hard are members of Congress willing to work to fix the institution and address the key issues facing our country? There have been encouraging signs that the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill wants to make Congress function again. They’ve talked about using conference committees more, allowing a more open process for rank-and-file members, enacting separate appropriation bills rather than using omnibus bills, and letting committees lead on legislation rather than hoarding all power in the leadership offices. Perhaps most important, they’ve acknowledged that Congress has many bad habits, and insist that they want to restore a healthy legislative process. This has to be heartening to any American concerned about the level of dysfunction to which Congress has sunk. The question is, how can we tell if Congress is actually fixing itself? For as promising as the rhetoric might be, there’s a long way to go before words and reality meet on Capitol Hill.
  • BLOOMINGTON – You know who I feel sorry for? Today’s politicians. You’ll laugh at this, but hear me out. This is a very tough time to be a politician, whether running for office or trying to lead while holding office. The women and men who’ve undertaken to represent us face circumstances that make campaigning and governing unusually challenging right now. Not that they’ve ever been easy, at least in my lifetime. Our size, diversity, and multi-layered government structure; the number and complexity of the problems our political leaders face daily; and the divided politics of our time, which make settling on coherent policies especially challenging – all these combine to make being a politician in a representative democracy one of the most demanding jobs around. Several features of the current political landscape, however, give politics a sharper edge and make it far more difficult to navigate. For starters, our political discourse, from city councils to state legislatures to Congress, is less forgiving than it was a generation ago.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Congress should kick two bad habits: Stop debating about raising the debt ceiling; that’s become a persistent game of “chicken” which consumes time better spent on other matters. And stop relying on continuing resolutions to fund the government. You can understand why President Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle sought to cast their end-of-October budget deal in the best possible light. They avoided a potentially catastrophic national default. They reduced the possibility of a government shutdown. And they raised the debt ceiling until March, 2017, taking that bargaining chip off the table until the next president is in the White House. For a last-minute, secret backroom deal, that’s not too shabby. It was bipartisan and took modest steps in the direction of political stability and fiscal responsibility. And it was vastly preferable to the alternative, which would likely have produced a government shutdown, the possibility of a default on the national debt, and certain fiscal chaos.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The American people don’t expect a solution to everything. But they do expect a Congress that’s capable of developing creative approaches to the major problems of the day. A lot of ink is being spilled about the speakership drama in the U.S. House, the demands by members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, and the turmoil besetting the Republicans who run Capitol Hill. There is a pervasive sense in Washington that Congress has gone, at least temporarily, off the rails. Even members of Congress are saying it. “I think the House is bordering on ungovernable right now,” one prominent Republican told NBC earlier this month. I’ve been around congressional politics for over 50 years, and I can’t ever remember hearing a member of Congress say such a thing. All this attention on the crises of the moment suggests that resolving them will fix Congress. It won’t. There are three deep-seated issues that have to be addressed before Congress can play a constructive role in sustaining our place in the world and tackling the tough economic and social issues we face at home.
  • BLOOMINGTON – We face a fiscal crisis of historic proportions. Unless we can stabilize the debt and put the country on a path of sustainable economic growth with prosperity evenly shared, lofty talk of American prosperity and world leadership is just hot air. A couple of months ago, the Congressional Budget Office issued a sobering report on the U.S. economy’s long-term prospects. Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re headed for the fiscal rocks. Federal spending accounts for about 20 percent of the nation’s GDP, the budget analysts note; if current trends continue, that will rise to fully 25 percent by 2040. Revenues will not keep up; they’ll amount to only 19 percent of GDP. Here’s what the non-partisan CBO has to say: “Mainly because of the aging of the population and rising health care costs, the extended baseline projections show revenues that fall well short of spending over the long term, producing a substantial imbalance in the federal budget. As a result, budget deficits are projected to rise steadily and, by 2040, to raise federal debt held by the public to a percentage of GDP seen at only one previous time in U.S. history, the final year of World War II and the following year.” We face a fiscal crisis of historic proportions.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The vigor of our system depends on the vote of each citizen. We have to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat. The campaigning for next year’s elections is starting to draw more attention, and with it comes a focus on voters and their mood. Which is all well and good, but it leaves out of the equation one large bloc of citizens, people who are eligible to vote, but don’t. Over the years, a fair number of people I’ve encountered have confessed that they do not vote, and I often surprise them by pressing them on why they don’t. We need to modernize the system. Democracies like Australia and Canada invest serious money in their election infrastructure and conduct widely acclaimed elections. Ours, by contrast, is fragile and uneven. We’ve already had one presidential election decided by courts on a question of failed infrastructure. More embarrassing cases will certainly occur.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The stark differences in priorities between the Republicans and Democrats running for president suggests there will be a huge gulf between the parties, with no agreement on how to bridge it. The presidential election is 16 months away, but already we’re smack in the middle of the usual media scrum of campaign coverage, prognostication, and strategizing by many of us who have nothing much to do with the real campaigns. I’ve been following the rhetoric of both parties, and there are a few points that stand out enough to tell us something about what we have to look forward to. To begin, the country is not in a sunny mood. There is a sense that America is adrift, that we don’t quite know how to deal with the forces of globalization, technological change, economic uncertainty, or terrorism. Americans are looking for a leader who can restore confidence.
  • BLOOMINGTON – If we are going to send U.S. forces into dangerous places, they need to go in with the public backing that comes from a formal authorization hammered out in Congress. A few weeks ago, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia made a small splash in the press when he took Congress to task for failing to authorize our nation’s ongoing war against Islamic militants. “The silence of Congress in the midst of this war is cowardly and shameful,” he said. “This Congress, the very body that is so quick to argue against President Obama’s use of executive power... allows an executive war to go on undeclared, unapproved, undefined and unchecked.” Those were strong words, meant to spur Congress to action. Yet after a day or two, they sank without a trace. No one in the media picked up the call. No one in a position to influence the Senate or the House made a move to advance a congressional war authorization.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The surge of spending on campaigns promotes ideological purity, unremitting partisanship, and a political culture that exalts confrontation over consensus-building. I’ve seen a lot over my decades in politics, and not much alarms me. But I have to be blunt: Money is poisoning our political system. The people who matter most to a representative democracy, the ordinary voters in whose interests elected politicians are supposed to act, feel as though they’ve become an afterthought in the political process. The tidal wave of money washing over our elections, with no end in sight, is causing Americans to lose faith in the system. In that way, the course we’re on threatens the core values and principles that define us as a nation. Oddly, many politicians see no problem,except perhaps the inconvenient need to spend a significant portion of every day dialing for dollars. They don’t, however, believe this is corrupting.
  • BLOOMINGTON — Great democracies do not veer from one doomsday moment to the next, nor do they fund government on a week-to-week basis. Yet that is precisely the habit Congress has developed. It’s embarrassing. After Congress came a hair’s breadth from shutting down the Department of Homeland Security a few weeks ago, members of the leadership tried to reassure the American people. “We’re certainly not going to shut down the government or default on the national debt,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Congress, he said, would not lurch from crisis to crisis. I wish I could be so confident. Because if you look at the year ahead, the congressional calendar is littered with opportunities to do just that.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Solving problems in our democracy requires bringing different points of view together, talking face to face with others who may differ with you, and learning that these differences can exist without personal animosity. The question usually comes toward the end of a public meeting. Some knotty problem is being discussed, and someone in the audience will raise his or her hand and ask, “Okay, so what can I do about it?” I love that question. Not because I’ve ever answered it to my satisfaction, but because it bespeaks such a constructive outlook. Democracy is no spectator sport and citizens are not passive consumers. I’m always invigorated by running into people who understand this. But that doesn’t make answering the question any easier.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The leadership of the new Congress is under pressure to show Americans that they can be successful. Let’s hope they consider “success” to include avoiding the bad habits of the past. With the 114th Congress just underway, the political world is focused intently on the road ahead. Taxes, trade, immigration, climate change, job creation, the Affordable Care Act: There’s a long list of issues and one burning question, whether a Republican Congress and a Democratic President can find common ground. Yet before we get worked up about what’s to come, we need to take a hard look at the Congress that just ended and ask a different question: Why was it such an abject failure? Let’s start with a basic number. According to the Library of Congress, 296 bills were passed by the 113th Congress and signed by the President. Just for comparison’s sake, the “do-nothing Congress” of 1947-48 got 906 bills through. The Financial Times called this most recent version “the least productive Congress in modern U.S. history.” The only silver lining was that the cost of running Congress was down 11 percent.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Divided government does not have to be dysfunctional. Given all the words and images devoted to the midterm elections over the past few weeks, you’d think the results had told us something vital about the future of the country. In reality, they were just a curtain-raiser. It’s the next few weeks and months that really matter. The big question, as the old Congress reconvenes and prepares to make way for next year’s version, is whether the two parties will work more closely together to move the country forward or instead lapse back into confrontation and deadlock. I suspect the answer will be a mix: Modest progress on a few issues, but no major reforms.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Unless the recent election talk of bipartisanship and finding common ground becomes a reality, dysfunction and lack of productivity in Congress is likely to continue. Members of Congress are home now, campaigning for the upcoming elections. Their messages are all over the map, and for a good reason: They have very little to brag about. The Congress that just recessed until after the elections makes the 80th – the one that Harry Truman blasted as “do-nothing” – look like a paragon of productivity. This year’s members did manage to avoid a shutdown, but that’s about all. Congressional leaders spent the better part of the year avoiding tough votes.They didn’t pass an annual budget. They made no pretense of weighing U.S. policy against ISIS or, really, any other foreign or defense policy issue. They didn’t tackle immigration reform, climate change, tax reform, the minimum wage, or domestic surveillance. They passed fewer bills than any other Congress in 60 years. In the 3½ months between the beginning of August and mid-November, they’ll have been in session all of 10 days.
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  • Holcomb has 'absolute confidence' in fair, accurate Indiana election
    “I have absolute confidence, even when forgery attempts do occur. We know this type of activity occurs, always has and probably always will. But I have absolute confidence at the local level and at the state level that we’ll conduct free and fair elections here in the state of Indiana.” - Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, asked by Howey Politics Indiana if he is confident the Indiana election will be “fair and accurate.” It comes after two Indiana State Police investigations are exploring voter fraud and after Gov. Mike Pence and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump have said the Nov. 8 election will be “rigged,” citing widespread voter fraud. Meanwhile, Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said in a statement “We expect the process to continue to accommodate voters without incident.” Curry asked the ISP to “release no further information” regarding the probe.
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