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Rights and Wrongs of American Elections

Think Tank Transcripts:Rights and Wrongs of American Elections

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, arecipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,bringing better, healthier lives to people worldwide throughbiotechnology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. Welcome to ElectionYear 1996, which we will celebrate with a contest that will beannounced at the end of this program.

Election year -- once again, American democracy is under harshscrutiny. Many voters are fed up with the tone, the cost, the length,and the unfairness of our elections. But is all the criticismwarranted?

Joining us for our discussion are: Michael Barone, senior writerat 'U.S. News and World Report' and coauthor of 'The Almanac ofAmerican Politics 1996' and 'Our Country: The Shaping of America fromRoosevelt to Reagan'; Ronald Walters, chairman of the politicalscience department at Howard University and author of 'BlackPresidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach'; and StephenHess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of theforthcoming book, 'Presidents and the Presidency.'

The topic before this house: Rights and wrongs of Americanelections. This week on 'Think Tank.'

In this presidential election year, the quadrennial hand-wringinghas already begun. For example, critics complain about the lack ofcivility in American elections, but that's really nothing new. In1800, Thomas Jefferson's candidacy caused 'The Connecticut Current'to warn that, quotes, 'Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incestwill be openly taught and practiced if Jefferson were to be elected.'

Pundits also warn that voter turnout is low. In 1992, only 55percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the presidential election.But that is actually about the average turnout for the last 70 years,and it was the highest turnout since 1972.

And our election system sometimes yields presidents who areelected by a minority of the voters. For example, Bill Clintonreceived just 43 percent of the popular vote. But so what? OneAmerican president won his first term with just 39 percent of thepopular vote. That was Abraham Lincoln.

How do American elections today compare with what we have hadpreviously in this country? Gee, it was only 70 years ago that womendidn't vote, and it was only 130 years ago that blacks were unable tovote. MR. BARONE: Well, and even more recently, 30 years ago, thatthe Voting Rights Act went into effect and effectively enfranchisedsome 4 or 5 percent of Americans who were Southern blacks, whoweren't allowed to vote under either the legal system or sanctions ofviolence in the South. So that's -- we've had these, and ourConstitution has been sort of happily elastic in including peoplethat the original framers didn't expect to.

MR. WATTENBERG: More recently than that, we now have an18-year-old vote, which we didn't have.

MR. HESS: Yeah, so you watch the franchise expand from theoriginal concept of white male property owners.

MR. BARONE: At a time when most people were property owners --most white males were.

MR. HESS: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. BARONE: But nonetheless, yes.

MR. HESS: So we've expanded it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Would we all agree that it is a more inclusivesystem?

MR. WALTERS: Absolutely.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is there anybody who would doubt it?

MR. BARONE: It's more inclusive. Many people do not choose to beincluded. I mean, one of the ironies is that our voter -- our turnoutis somewhat lower -- not hugely lower, as Ben points out -- than itwas in the 1960s, even though it's easier to vote. The Southernblacks, who were excluded from voting by violence, now can vote sincethe Voting Rights Act. We make it easier for people to register andvote, and yet 45 percent of our fellow citizens choose not to dosomething which is no harder than getting a driver's license, whichmost people manage to do.

MR. WALTERS: But, you know, Mike, the two distinguished politicalscientists had a rationale for that horizontal line you saw -- youcould draw a horizontal line in the turnout.

MR. BARONE: Right, yeah.

MR. WALTERS: It was that a lot of Americans, even going back tothe last century, simply have not been interested in politics. Wehave a very individualistic ethos in this country. Not everybody isinterested in politics. And I would extend it one other thingfurther, and that is that to the extent that we are a country ofimmigrants and people from other places, we are not a homogeneousgroup, that political participation in this country is not as organica proposition as it is, for example, in the countries of Europe. MR.WATTENBERG: Is that -- Ron, is that good or bad?

MR. WALTERS: I think to some extent it's bad, and one of thereasons for that, of course, is that you have had then thesetremendous movements in the black community among women to actuallyexpand political participation, so that elections, of course, are anarrow issue here. The wider question is democracy itself in the 20thcentury and the extent to which elections help to further that.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just butt in with one more thing. Ourturnout rates are low, but we do hold more sorts of elections, as Iunderstand it, than any other country. We elect the sewer board andthe school board and the dog-catching --

MR. BARONE: We have something like -- what is it, 55,000 electedofficials in this country or something. You could fill a stadium withthem.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, I have had numbers larger -- heard numberslarger than that.

MR. WALTERS: It's 325,000 or so.

MR. BARONE: 325,000.

MR. WATTENBERG: 325,000 elected -- that's more than --

MR. BARONE: There's no stadium big enough for all those --

MR. WALTERS: None big enough for that.

MR. WATTENBERG: That's three Rose Bowls, that's right.

MR. WALTERS: That's right.

MR. WATTENBERG: So that is pretty participatory.

MR. WALTERS: That's true.

MR. HESS: But you don't want a politically overheated systemnecessarily. And it is certainly true, as Ron says, that we're asapolitical a country as you can get. I mean, you ask people what's ontheir mind and they'll tell you their families and their religion andtheir job and their leisure, and it'll take more than 10 fingers toget to a really political question. On the other hand, the mostsimple act of citizenship, the simplest thing that you ask peoplefor, the modest glue that holds it together is simply going andvoting. And I still find it very difficult to explain and veryunsatisfactory to know that 45 percent of our eligible voters don'tvote.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, let me ask -- let me go on to anotheridea. It is said that money is poisoning the system and elections arecorrupt. Are elections more or less corrupt than they used to be?

MR. BARONE: They're very much less corrupt. I mean, you used tohave, you know, the guy going in there and giving five bucks topeople to vote and things like that. I mean, we're very much lesscorrupt. I would almost --

MR. WATTENBERG: What is the --

MR. BARONE: I would almost assert the opposite premise, then, thatone of the things our elections are suffering from, to some extent,is not enough money, at least not enough -- because you can'tcommunicate in a country of 260 million people without spending somemoney. You can't just -- you know, no presidential candidate can godoor to door, and no U.S. Senate candidate in a state with 2 millionor 20 million people can contact everybody. Some money is needed tobe expended in some ways. Our system doesn't expend a vast amount ofmoney on political campaigns when you compare it to what we spend,quite legitimately, on advertising soap and other household products.

MR. HESS: Yeah, but the money doesn't have to come from the placesit comes now. I mean, there --

MR. BARONE: There are surely better ways to do campaign financethan we have.

MR. HESS: Exactly. It costs something to run elections, but itdoesn't have to be the way we finance it.

MR. WATTENBERG: My question was, specifically, compared to when? Imean, tell us what the word 'bag man' means.

MR. BARONE: Well, cash was a major element as recently as 1972.April 7th, '72, the last day of the old campaign finance thing, $3million cash came into the Committee to Reelect the President,President Nixon, over the transom. They couldn't count it all.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bag man was a word when a guy came in with a sackfull of money.

MR. WALTERS: That's right, but you know, you can get it down tothe lower level here. We used to have something called walking aroundmoney in campaigns.


MR. WALTERS: What we've done --

MR. BARONE: It exists now.

MR. WALTERS: It exists. And the point I'm making is that you havesimply institutionalized the corruption. It's still there, but nowyou have to tell the Federal Election Commission what you did withthe walking around money. So it's still there, but a lot of it, ofcourse, through the mechanisms that we have, have beeninstitutionalized.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, you know, Suzanne Garment, who is acolleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote thisbook called 'Scandal.' And she says that the reason we have so muchmore scandal in our media now is because we have institutionalized itby having these public reports through the Federal ElectionCommission, you know, 'Where did you get your money?' and you have toaccount. And you say, 'Oh, you got it from the Dirty Air PAC,' or,you know, 'You got it from the Be Kind to Criminals PAC.' And thenyou don't have to do much reporting. You can just go out and say,'Look at what this' --

MR. HESS: Surely you're not saying, Ben, that you'd rather notknow? MR. WATTENBERG: No, no, I would rather know. I'm saying thatthe system is much cleaner now.

MR. BARONE: In effect, we have a big -- we've developed since the1970s a big loophole in our presidential financing thing called thesoft money loophole.



MR. BARONE: It's technically for local party activities, whichsounds very good and sometimes is, but what it's amounted to is thatwe can now have -- the $300,000, $500,000 contribution by oneindividual can actually be brought to play for the political partiesnow in a way that it couldn't when they first wrote the law. Theloophole is eating up the law. And what do you call a man whocontributes $300,000 to, at this point, the Democratic Party? And theanswer -- it used to be Republican -- is Mr. Ambassador.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me move on to one other item. Our electionsystem and our politics has turned malign and nasty. And you hear itfrom all the folks on the Hill, you know, it's not fun anymore. Idon't know where it says in the Constitution that it's supposed to befun, but anyway, that everybody's so nasty. But isn't it true that inour history, elections have been much, much nastier than they arenow? I've got a quote here about Lincoln. He's called --

MR. BARONE: Ben, we had a civil war after Lincoln.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- 'a rail-splitting buffoon from the backwoodsgrowing up in uncouth ignorance.' And you've all heard those kind of-- is it better or worse today than it used to be?

MR. HESS: Well, we can choose an example of a past election toprove anything we want. I came into this as a young voter when thecandidates were Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, and I long forthat degree of civility again.

MR. WALTERS: It's worse, and one of the reasons it's worse, notbecause I think it's nastier now than it was before, but the press isa giant megaphone, and what it does is to amplify the nastiness.Today you can sit and look at C-Span and you can see a member ofCongress stand on the floor of the House of Representatives or theSenate and use a nasty word, and you get immediate reaction to that,whereas this wasn't the case, you know, 15, 20, 30 years ago. So Ithink we're in a new context where what people say and what they dois really magnified.

MR. BARONE: I've been --

MR. WATTENBERG: Hold on, hold on one second. Let us grant thatthat's what the media megaphone does. But weren't all the goodgovernment types, including probably everybody around here, 20 and 30years ago saying, Gee, people ought to know more about our electionsand more about our politics. Then you had C-Span 1, C-Span 2, CNN,Headline News, PBS, and so on and so on -- CNBC, and so on and soforth, let alone a plethora of magazines. We know more about it, andsome of what we know more about it is evil.

MR. BARONE: Well, and it wasn't always --

MR. WALTERS: That's true.

MR. BARONE: It wasn't always so great, either. I mean, Stevementioned earlier Adlai Stevenson, Dwight D. Eisenhower as thecandidates for president in 1952. One of the major actors on theAmerican scene in 1952 was a guy named Joe McCarthy, who was outthere making false and slimy charges against people like GeneralMarshall as having been influenced by the communist conspiracy and soforth. It was not a total time of political uplift. And McCarthyused, as Ron said, the media of those days in his way to amplifythese often baseless charges for a while until he finally did himselfin by going too far.

MR. HESS: Yeah, but I come down on Ron's side. When you're talkingabout the national political press corps today, you find it's farmore cynical, far more sharp-edged than anytime in our lifetime. Now,obviously, if you want to go back, you can go back to the beginningof our country when our press was a partisan press; they were paidfor by the politicians. And of course, they were --

MR. BARONE: Now they're partisan and unpaid for. (Laughter.)

MR. WATTENBERG: They're paid for by ratings points --

MR. WALTERS: That's right.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- on television.

MR. HESS: And a lot of other things. They become speech makers. Ifthey're shrill enough --

MR. WATTENBERG: I'm shocked.

MR. BARONE: We do have some of these things --

MR. HESS: If they're shrill enough on the Saturday and Sundayshows, they can do very well.

MR. BARONE: Well, we also -- we in the press also talk aboutthere's -- say there's dirt and argument here, there's dirt and clashand isn't it terrible? It's perfectly natural for Republicans andDemocrats, or for people with different points of view to disagree,and I think we tend to over-report the -- we say any disagreement isdirty. It's not dirty to disagree with somebody else. It's perfectlylegitimate.

MR. WATTENBERG: Stephen Hess -- Stephen Hess -- hold on.

MR. HESS: Most reporters today -- let me just -- most reporterstoday start with the premise that the politician does not wish todeliver his promise, and that's a very serious charge.

MR. WALTERS: There has been a transition in the career ofjournalism from people who were expected to only report and then afew stars who had opinions, to now a whole lot of people who are infact opinion leaders as journalists. And we don't have a spotlight onthat phenomenon, but I think that we ought to hold journalists alsoaccountable to that standard.

MR. WATTENBERG: William Safire, this last week in a column, calledMrs. Clinton 'a congenital liar,' and that became page 1 news, onecolumnist's opinion. That's kind of -- it is a lot of power.

MR. WALTERS: It is a lot of power.

MR. BARONE: Well, he backed it up with some facts. I mean, ifsomebody had just come out and made a charge based on no evidence, itwouldn't, of course, be news.

MR. WALTERS: But can you think of a journalist who used this kindof language regularly in the American media over the last 30 or 40years? I can't think of --

MR. BARONE: Well, I think there's a place for invective. I thinkif you go back to read what a lot of Republican journalists saidabout Franklin D. Roosevelt, a lot of vitriol. 'The Chicago Tribune'talking about the president having -- suggesting that the presidentconspired and knew about the Pearl Harbor invasion and allowed it goforward and things.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, let's just --

MR. BARONE: That was tough stuff.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, you touched on the greater world. Whenfledgling democracies like Russia or Nicaragua or the Philippineshave elections, the people they want as election observers are fromthe United States, and they -- the world seems to think that we arethe fathers of democracy. Are we doing it better here than it isbeing done elsewhere, elections?

MR. HESS: I think part of that is we were not a colonial power.The African nations with a free election aren't going to want toinvite the British in, let's say. So I think there's a littledifference in who you invite in from where you're coming.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, you know, it's interesting, the Filipinos,where we were a colonial power, wanted us in.

MR. BARONE: Well, and Latin Americans, where many people thoughtthat we were a neocolonial power, often do. I think a lot of creditgoes in this country, the National Democratic Institute, theRepublican Institute, many people on both the political left and thepolitical right in this country have played a very constructive rolein places as far afield as Chile, Russia, East -- South Korea andthings, and they have done a heck of a good job and deserve morecredit than they're given.

MR. WATTENBERG: In your former incarnation as a pollster, many ofthose companies have gone around the world preaching our peculiarkind of democracy, selling it.

MR. BARONE: Well, in some cases, they've been selling theirservices and been consultants. In some cases, they have just goneover as unpaid advisers to one side or another and --

MR. WATTENBERG: But I want to go to --

MR. WALTERS: They may actually also have started the pollingindustry. But let me say something about South Africa because I had avery rare experience, having been part of Clinton's delegation tomonitor the elections. And there I think it was the magic of thestability of the American political process. And I think in manyplaces, that is really what attracts people to have us in there.

But the interesting thing to me is that the South Africans craftedwhat they call a government of national unity, where everybody was atthe table once they got through. And Reverend Jackson and I weretalking about that on the way back to this country, and we said, waita minute, our system is one where you've got 49 percent of the peoplecan theoretically be out. It's a winner-take-all system, where if youget 51 percent of the vote, that's it. So now, which one is better?

MR. WATTENBERG: I think that's the point I wanted to come to,that's right.


MR. WATTENBERG: Is our system of popular democracy the best onearound?

MR. WALTERS: I think it's too representative. And I think if yougo back and look at the language that people were using to describethis system when it was put together, democracy -- you won't see thatvery many times. As a matter of fact, there is a school of historianswho think that the people who framed our Constitution were afraid ofdemocracy and therefore they put together a republican form ofgovernment really to give the management of the political system toan elite. I think that it could stand far more inclusion and opennessand participation.

MR. WATTENBERG: And so that pushes you toward the idea ofnon-winner-take-all, toward a more proportional system, the way youhave in the European democracies.

MR. WALTERS: I think so, yes.

MR. BARONE: I think that our -- I guess I would take the oppositeview. It seems to me that our system is pretty -- the constitutionalframework in the first place and the two parties that have developedand are now two of the three oldest political parties in the world --

MR. WATTENBERG: What's the third one? MR. BARONE: The third one isthe Conservative Party in Britain if you date its beginning from therepeal of the corn laws in 1846. Anyway --

MR. WATTENBERG: That's when I normally date it from. Yeah, goahead. (Laughter.)

MR. BARONE: But, you know, the fact is, we are a large and complexcountry, and we've got a system where nobody -- it's very hard forany one faction, as Madison called them in 'The Federalist Papers,'to get total control. You have to accommodate people. Yes, one partycan control the presidency and both branches of Congress, like theDemocratic Party did in 1992, but as we saw in '93 and '94, that'snot automatically going to get all the Democratic programs enacted.And the voters were capable of throwing them out and putting in theRepublicans, as they may be capable of throwing out the Republicansand putting in the Democrats in '96.

MR. HESS: I'm on Michael's side. I want as much glue holding thistogether as possible. I would be fearful of a system that became amulti-party system, a lot of separate caucuses in the Congress tryingbut probably not succeeding to make coalitions. I think the foundingfathers have made an incredibly difficult and complex system to getanything done, as we're now obviously realizing, as it is. I thinkthe proportional representation system makes it even morecomplicated, and I would rather have the great tent theory and have-- find room for everybody under one of these other tents.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's just go to one more cosmic topic and givekind of a quick answer. Let us stipulate, for the sake of discussion,that the United States is today the greatest, most influentialcountry in the world. Question: Is that because of or in spite of ourelection system?


MR. WATTENBERG: No? (Laughter.)

MR. BARONE: I would vote because of, but I would add a littlesomething to that, and I think that is, it is because of ourelectoral system and our Constitution and our Declaration ofIndependence, as supplemented by the ways in which our definition ofrights and who belongs in the system and who can run the system hasbecome elastic and included the people who were not originallyincluded.

MR. WATTENBERG: So with all its flaws, it is contributing to ourgreatness.

MR. BARONE: Winston Churchill once said, 'Democracy is the mosthorrible system that anybody has ever invented -- except for all therest.'

MR. HESS: Yeah, I think we would have come out about the same ifwe had worked out a -- if our founding fathers had other ideas abouthow to organize us. It's the nature of the richness of the country,it's the nature of the diversity of the people. We would havesurvived, I think probably quite well, maybe as well, under othersystems as well. But now we have this one. We're used to it. You haveto watch how you want to change it. First of all, you don't have theoption of changing it in many ways, so you work around the margins.

MR. WATTENBERG: On the scale of 1 to 10, terrible, terrific? Wherewould you be, Ron Walters?

MR. WALTERS: Well, of course, I think now having seen what theSouth Africans have tried to do and what exists in some Europeancountries, I'd give it about a 4.

MR. HESS: Oh, I'd have it right there down the middle. I can -- Ican't imagine other people -- another system that I would prefer tobe in right now.

MR. WATTENBERG: You cannot imagine?

MR. HESS: No, I absolutely cannot.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you would give it --

MR. HESS: So on that scale, I'd have to give it a 10. If you talkabout a scale of how much I would like it to be better than it is,then it comes down the middle.

MR. BARONE: If I had to come at it in the long run of humanhistory, I'd give us a 9 out of 10. I can think of a whole bunch ofthings that we ought to do to get to 10 and I'd like to see us do,but that's where I'd go.

MR. WATTENBERG: The answer is 7.83. (Laughter.) Let's just do onequestion to end this. If you could do one thing to reform ourelection system, what would it be? Michael Barone.

MR. BARONE: Keep Ross Perot out. (Laughter.) No, I -- not person.

MR. BARONE: I'd try and get our campaign finance system workingsomewhat better. Maybe I'd tell each party that they'd have to comeup with a plan that they would come up with if they knew they wereabout to be swept from office and -- which the Democrats should havedone last time and didn't.

MR. WATTENBERG: Stephen Hess.

MR. HESS: I think probably the easiest thing we could do -- adoable thing -- would be to put the elections back under theframework and the roof of the political parties. Our law now givesthat pot of money for public financing to the candidates. I wouldlike to try to rebuild the parties that have a continuing role, thataren't finished when the election is over.

MR. WATTENBERG: I cannot disagree with you more. ProfessorWalters, Ron Walters.

MR. WALTERS: Yes. I was going to say that I think sometimes wefind the efficacy of the electoral process really in society, and Ithink that's where we ought to look for some of our reforms. Forexample, I think that the -- right now, the press has too much of amonopoly over the process of political legitimacy. And I would, forexample, give candidates far more access to the forum, the publicforum of debate and educating the American people without thenecessity of having to pay for everything. I think we can do that inthis country.

MR. WATTENBERG: Free television time?

MR. WALTERS: Exactly. They do it in many other countries. Brazil,for example, candidates have an allotted block of time which they canaddress the public. We can do that here.

MR. BARONE: And in fact, the networks have done less of that inthis cycle than they've done in '92 and '88.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Ronald Walters, Michael Baroneand Stephen Hess.

And thank you. Now get your pencils and paper handy. Announcingthe 'Think Tank' contest for the best political bumper sticker. PartI, submit your entry for or against the likely Democratic nominee,President William J. Clinton. Entries must be received by February 1.The winning bumper stickers will be announced on 'Think Tank' andawarded a prize. Later, in Part 2, we will run a similar contest forthe likely Republican presidential nominee.

So please send your bumper stickers and any other comments andquestions to: New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC,20036. We can also be reached and entries may be submitted by e-mailto thinktv@aol.com or through the World Wide Web atwww.thinktank.com.

For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content.

'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, a recipient of thepresidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, unlocking thesecrets of life through cellular and molecular biology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. END

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