Westen NY Times and Washington Post: Money and Personalities in an Election Year

Aug. 1, 2012

drew westenIn a pair of recent op-ed pieces published in national dailies, Drew Westen, a professor of psychology, offers two perspectives on today’s political climate.

In a July 14 New York Times article, Westen laments the excessive influence of the huge sums of money that corporations and wealthy individuals pour into politicians’ campaign coffers and proposes a possible path toward breaking the corrupt practice.

“Democrats blame Washington's inability to get anything done on Republican obstructionism, and in large part they are right,” Westen wrote. “But there's another part. In March, Senate Democrats couldn't get the votes they needed in their own caucus to pass a bill that would end billions in subsidies to oil companies. They were lucky the Republicans are so corrupt that all but two of them voted to preserve the subsidies.

It doesn’t have to be this way, he continues: “In early 2010 I was approached by a coalition of public interest groups determined to wage a successful campaign to finance clean, fair elections. The policy they advocated was pretty simple. Right now, the first question party officials responsible for recruiting candidates for Congress ask is, ‘How much money can you raise?’ How deeply you share the values of the party is a secondary consideration.”

To escape money-driven candidates, Westen proposes letting voters decide who gets funding for their campaigns under the Fair Elections bill. The bill, if enacted, would allow candidates to solicit small donations from people in their state or district and receive public matching funds after passing a certain threshold. One source of funding could come from ending the oil company subsidies. That alone, Westen contends, would provide as much as $4 billion every two years, an amount more than double what all Congressional candidates combined spent in the 2010 elections.

“In effect, the savings in corruption would finance campaigns,” Westen wrote, pointing out that voters who read a paragraph of the Fair Elections bill found the message compelling. But passing the bill would be a daunting task, regardless of which party controls Congress. The best chance of passage would have to come from popular demands on both parties to sign a pledge to pas the bill in January 2013, and a grass roots insistence on a similar pledge from national and state legislative candidates that they will vote for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and to declare that only voters with beating hearts constitute people for the purposes of elections. “Legally laundered cash in Washington soils everything it touches and prevents us from solving nearly every problem that we confront today.”

In the second opinion piece, in the Washington Post, Westen puzzles over how President Obama could possibly lose the election – and yet how he could possibly win. “No incumbent has ever won reelection with unemployment numbers remotely resembling today’s… But it sure helps to face a candidate as uncomfortable in his own skin, as likely to say by accident what he really means and as wrong for the times as Mitt Romney.”

He lists three crucial errors by the Obama administration that has allowed Romney to stay in a dead heat with the president, and possibly lead to a result that was unimaginable just a few years ago: “that a private-equity baron lacking a sense of noblesse oblige, and preaching the gospel of deregulation and lower taxes for the rich, might actually win the presidency four years after those policies led to the collapse of the U.S. economy.”

  • The first mistake was inviting Republicans to the table, Westen says. “The GOP had just decimated the economy and had been repudiated by voters to such an extent that few Americans wanted to admit that they were registered Republicans. Yet Obama, with his penchant for unilateral bipartisanship, refused to speak ill of what they had done,” and no one responsible for the economic calamity was ever held accountable.
  • Second: “squandering the goodwill that Americans felt toward the new president and their anxiety about an economy hemorrhaging three-quarters of a million jobs a month. That combination gave Obama, at the beginning of his term, a power to shape public policy that no one since Franklin Roosevelt had held.” Yet he cut the stimulus by a third and turned another third into tax cuts to appease Republicans.
  • Third, the Obama administration “created opportunities for Republican obstructionism that “will someday become a business-school case study: It let a popular idea — a family doctor for every family — be recast as a losing ideological battle between intrusive government and freedom. In the 2008 election, the American people were convinced that families should never have to choose between putting food on the table and taking the kids to the doctor. They were adamant that neither they nor their aging parents should have to choose between their medicine and their mortgage.” In effect, the administration turned one of the most popular campaign issues of 2008 into one of the major reasons that Democrats were beaten so badly at the polls in 2010.

He concluded: “Obama may be reelected by a public that has nowhere else to turn. Perhaps freed of the constraints imposed by having to raise a billion dollars to finance his campaign, he will reveal a true self of which we’ve seen glimmers. One who will speak forthrightly to the American public and be unafraid to take on the perpetrators of economic crimes that have devastated American families; the perpetrators of myths about ‘clean coal,’ which the president instead repeats even as the industry rains fire on America’s breadbasket; or the perpetrators of the record foreclosures on longtime homeowners who have become collateral damage in the war on the middle class.

We can only hope that in his heart, Obama can truly feel the pain, sadness and fear of ordinary Americans, because it’s not hard to imagine that inside the chest of his opponent is a cavity waiting to be filled.”

To read the New York Times article, click here.

To read the Washington Post article, click here.

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