From the DNC in Charlotte, the Huffington Post founder reflects on the RNC, the tone of the presidential campaign and how social media can help extend the scope of conversations on current issues.
Commentator Arianna Huffington
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Arianna Huffington back to this program. She is, of course, the founder and president of The Huffington Post media group, which now includes the recently launched digital platform, HuffPost Live.
She’s also a driving force behind the Shadow Conventions, a nonpartisan alternative to the two major party conventions, focusing, as they did 12 years ago, on three key issues: poverty, the influence of money in politics, and the so-called war on drugs.
She joins us tonight from where else, Charlotte. Arianna, good to have you on the program.
Arianna Huffington: Great to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: Before I start talking about the Democrats, let me start by asking your views in retrospect now of what the Republicans did in Tampa last week.
Huffington: Well, they must be wondering themselves what they did (laughter), because this was really a great opportunity to challenge the record of the last four years in terms of the economy, in terms of the middle class, in terms of poverty, but instead they had Clint Eastwood and the empty chair and a lot of empty speechifying, which was more based on people identifying who they are and their histories.
Then Paul Ryan saying a lot of things with which I agreed. The fact that we have 23 million people unemployed and underemployed is not acceptable, the fact that the housing crisis has not been solved is not acceptable, the facts that kids graduate from college and can’t get jobs is not acceptable, but offering absolutely no policies to solve all these problems.
Tavis: So given that they missed a major opportunity, to paraphrase you, what might they have done? What might they have said? What could they have done to take better advantage of all the opportunities they had last week?
Huffington: Well, they would have had to basically say that the current administration did not bring a sense of urgency to the biggest problem facing America, which is the jobs crisis. This was really, for me, the one big error of this administration, and in a sense it was kind of inevitable because remember, four years ago in Denver the president said the greatest danger is to bring in the same players and play the same games expecting different results
Yet that’s really what happened with Larry Summers coming in, minimizing the job crisis and again and again expecting the economy to recover without the kind of infrastructure programs, the kind of payroll tax cuts that could have really brought about the jobs that are missing and that are really affecting a whole new generation of young people ready to go to work.
Tavis: You’ve had some tough words for this administration over the last four years, and so have I, for that matter, so we’re in the same boat in that regard. But you the other day, I read, suggested that you will likely vote for Obama this time around, but you expressed some reservations. Did I read that correctly?
Huffington: Well, yes, I will vote for Barack Obama, because we only have two choices. The truth is that obviously, he is infinitely preferable to the alternative. But my biggest concerns are, as I mentioned, the fact that we have not brought the necessary fierce urgency that Dr. King talked about and that Obama talked about in the campaign to the problems we are facing domestically.
And that we are continuing to be in Afghanistan, even though there’s no clear objective there. We are allowing young men and women to die or to be maimed there and spending $2 billion a week without any clear objective. That is deeply troubling. It’s of course very troubling that Mitt Romney did not even mention Afghanistan in his speech.
I’m kind of saddened that the one great thing about Clint Eastwood’s speech was that he did address Afghanistan, he did urge all of us to do what we could to get out, and he got tremendous applause. So this is something which no longer has any popular support, either.
Tavis: I want to talk about these three issues that are being covered at your shadow conventions. I’m glad you’re doing this as you did 12 years ago, because so many of these issues just never make it to the stage, as it were, at either one of these major party conventions.
I should also say to those who are watching tonight that next week, Dr. Cornel West and I are going back out on our poverty tour. We’re calling this the Poverty Tour 2.0. We’re going into battleground states this time. Next week we’ll be in Ohio and Virginia and Pennsylvania and Florida with our Poverty Tour 2.0 and you can follow us on this tour of poor people and their issues and how to raise this issue higher on the American agenda.
All next week you can follow our tour either in person, if you’re in those states, or on The Huffington Post that’s covering our poverty tour next week, starting Wednesday, all week long on HuffPost.
Since Arianna’s here tonight, Arianna, I get a chance to thank you for that, number one, but more importantly, of the three issues that you’re talking about at these shadow conventions, tell me why we can’t get more traction, with all that you’re doing and that others are doing about the issue, why it is that Mr. Obama, that Mr. Romney have not said more about it.
With regard to Mr. Obama specifically, as you well know, four years ago he ran on a platform of eradicating – these are his words – not reducing. He ran on a platform of eradicating poverty in America, but nothing really has been forthcoming in this first term. With all the numbers that underscore that poverty is the new American norm, why not more from either of them?
Huffington: Well unfortunately, in our kind of special interest politics, there isn’t a powerful special interest representing the poor. That’s why I’m so grateful that you and Cornel are doing your tour, because the responsibility that those of us in the media have is to continue to put a spotlight on the fact that not only since we first did the shadow convention in 2000, we now have 15 million more people living in poverty, but a lot of them are formerly middle class who can no longer make ends meet, and that this is the first generation in America where we don’t expect our children to do better than we are doing.
Yet as you said, poverty is hardly on the speaking agenda, let alone the action agenda, of either political party. But at the same time, I think it’s important for us to put a spotlight on what is working because there are good things happening. Tomorrow, for example, here in Charlotte, as we did in Tampa, we are bringing over a hundred entrepreneurs, people who’ve started a business even in these difficult times.
We need to put more spotlight on them to help them scale what they are doing, because the American spirit is alive and well. It’s just not getting enough attention to be able to scale what’s already happening.
Tavis: So that’s the issue of poverty. Let’s talk about the war on drugs. There was a time in this country where that subject seemed to be front and center. It’s almost like homelessness – at one point there were people writing about it and talking about it. It was a front-burner issue. But what happened to the debate, to the real media conversation about the so-called war on drugs?
Huffington: Well, partly, actually, what happened, if you look at the timing of that, the war in Iraq happened, and then we started spending more time talking about the war in Iraq and then the war in Afghanistan, and the war on drugs was no longer front and center.
Again, no powerful interest group wanting to end the insanity of the war on drugs that’s particularly affecting minorities, that’s leading to half a million people being in jail for nonviolent drug offenses, and then the result of these incarceration rates are that we have millions of people who are felons and therefore in some states are disenfranchised for life.
So the unintended consequences are enormous and long-lasting. What is interesting here, Tavis, is once again the people, as in the case of the war in Afghanistan, are ahead of the politicians. We have over 90 percent of people who believe that treatment is more effective than incarceration, and yet our politicians, being worried that they are going to be perceived as weak on crime, are continuing to fight a war we’re never going to win.
Tavis: So the third issue covered at these shadow conventions beyond poverty and the war on drugs is the corruption of our politics by money. Jesse Unruh said many years ago here in California that money is the mother’s milk of politics. I can’t imagine – I wish I were there in Charlotte with you to hear the conversations that are going on at the shadow conventions about money in our politics this time around, given that Supreme Court decision, Citizens vs. United.
What’s being said at these conventions about all the money that’s now corrupting our political process?
Huffington: Well, first of all everything is much, much worse than in 2000 when we took on this issue of money and politics, and one of the things that’s particularly worse is the lack of transparency with these super-PACs. We don’t even know who is pouring money into the super-PACs.
So what we are seeing with the corrupting influence of money in politics is that policy is really bought by powerful interests who not only spend millions upon millions of dollars on these elections, but also then spend more millions on lobbyists in Washington. This is a very broken system.
Everybody knows it. Young people, unfortunately, you are more idealistic than ever and want to change the world more than ever don’t believe in large numbers that that’s going to be done through politics. So we’re going to see what the turnout rates are at this election, but young people are much more disengaged than they were in 2008.
Tavis: There are those who believe that the only way to fix this problem now is a constitutional amendment. I read Huffington Post I guess just about every day, and I see that Senator Al Franken and Senator Sherrod Brown have for weeks now had a petition they’re asking HuffPost readers to sign every day about this very issue.
But short of a constitutional amendment, what can be done to solve this particular problem?
Huffington: Well, a constitutional amendment is something I’m entirely supportive of, but also, I think we need the public outcry. You know, Tavis, that in many moments of American history it took a huge public outcry before things changed, and that’s really the countervailing force that’s needed.
Now we have the power of social media that can help us organize much faster and have our voices heard much more effectively.
Tavis: This is one of those issues, and I suspect there are many others that you and I could talk about, but let’s focus on this one, this is one of those issues on which Obama supporters have said consistently now let him get a second term. In a second term, he will do this. In a second term, he will do that.
In my own community, the African American community, Black folk who love Obama have moved the goal post at least three times. First they were saying “Tavis, don’t say anything. Let the guy get elected first.” Then once he got elected they moved the goal post again and they said, “Give him time.”
Then when things haven’t worked out the way we thought they would in the first term, then they moved the goal post again say, “But you wait, brother, until he gets his second term.”
So we keep moving the goal post, so Obama supporters, Black, white, and other, are saying when he gets a second term, he’s going to change. I want to ask a broad question and a specific question. That said, the broad question is whether or not you think in a second term we’re going to see a dramatically different Barack Obama if he wins, or is he going to be the same kind of timid leader that he’s been in the first term?
With specific regard to this issue, campaign finance reform, he and his people have said, “I’ve got to play by the rules. I know I told you one thing, I know I did a 180. I’ve got to play by the rules because I can’t lose, but when I get in, I’m going to fix this campaign finance issue.” So, on the broader question and the more specific question, your thoughts?
Huffington: I think my answer is the same to both questions, and that is I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody knows. I think that this race is actually two races. It’s the obvious race between Obama and Romney, but it’s also the race between campaigning Obama and governing Obama. We don’t know who is going to end up in the White House if he wins reelection.
There is such a huge difference between those two. Obama campaigns as a transformational leader, but he governs as a very timid leader. He governs as though he doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers, and of course you cannot be a transformational leader and not ruffle many feathers.
He understands that, and we have wasted a lot of precious time. If we go back to the original stimulus bill, if that stimulus bill had been better crafted, if it had been better targeted, if it had been larger, we would have actually perhaps not had the ongoing erosion in terms of jobs that we’ve seen.
So time matters, and we need to recapture that sense of urgency. Honestly, I don’t know whether the president, if he’s back in the White House, will experience it then, when there is nothing to lose after that.
Tavis: What do you make of the tone and the tenor of this campaign? We know what was said last week at the RNC and all the fact-checking that’s gone into what Mr. Ryan specifically had to say in his speech, but what’s your sense of the tone, the tenor, the spirit, the demeanor, as it were, of this particular election?
Huffington: I think this is the worst campaign of my lifetime, and I’m pretty old, (laughter) so that’s saying something.
Tavis: But you look great, Arianna.
Huffington: There is no question this is the worst campaign ever, and what makes it harder is that this is a time when what happens in politics really matters. These are not plateau times when we’re just electing a president to preside over the good times and preside over our prosperity. This is a time when the very American dream is at stake, when we are number 10 in upward mobility; we are behind France in upward mobility.
That gives you an idea of how bad things have gotten. I wrote a book called “Third World America” because truly, if we don’t turn things around we will become a Third World country.
So during those times, to see the way this campaign again and again degenerates into a discussion of gaffes and mini-charges and counter-charges – and of course we in the media have a responsibility here too, because so much of the media coverage is about process and so much of it is going to be increasingly now about the latest polling results and not about the big issues.
When Romney picked Paul Ryan as a VP, I actually thought for five seconds that this was going to elevate the campaign at least into a real discussion about the role of government and the nature of capitalism. But it hasn’t happened, right?
Tavis: Yeah. What’s your sense of how social media has or can change the game, as it were, from being one about issues, about the stuff that does matter, and not just the typical historical covering of the horse race, as it were? Can social media do anything, or are we doing anything to change that conversation?
Huffington: Yes. I think the potential is still there, and the most important thing that has already happened is to give a voice to millions of people who would not have had a voice before. We have again what we are calling off the bus campaign coverage with citizen journalists who are here in Charlotte.
We brought them here to cover the campaign and bring in some different perspectives. There is no question though, Tavis, that in the end social media and new media generally can be a huge countervailing force to the power of money in our political system.
Tavis: What say you about the increasing cynicism on the part of the American people? I’m not one who believes that that cynicism is not without some legitimate reason or back story, but what’s your sense about the cynicism that seems to be run amok where our body politic is concerned?
Huffington: The cynicism is legitimate, because our system is very broken. It can only produce sub-optimal solutions to our big problems at the moment. At the same time, the public is deeply idealistic. I think the American public is waiting to be called to something larger than ourselves.
We had a panel in Tampa and we’re having another one tomorrow around the question of job creation and what can we do. Those of us who are not in government, foundations, not-for-profits, individuals, what can we do to actually accelerate job creation on the grounds that we can’t wait as bystanders at hoping against hope that somebody in Washington is going to come up with the solutions.
It’s amazing; we’ve got foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation committing a million dollars to the most innovative job creation idea, the Ford Foundation committing $150 million to help close the job skill community colleges and institutions, not-for-profit groups, et cetera, all coming together.
It reminds me a little bit of what happened during the Second World War. If we can really reach a critical mass of involvement, remember during the Second World War people were buying Liberty Bonds, they were planting Victory gardens. They were all engaged in this effort together because they knew everything was at stake.
If we can recapture that spirit, that’s really for me going to be the defining difference. Maybe when you go on your poverty tour you can help bring that about.
Tavis: Let me close on that note about poverty. Let me close where we began this conversation. So the minute that these conventions are over, the Democrat wraps up Thursday night with Mr. Obama’s speech. So on Friday, the jobs numbers come out, as you well know, and we’re told that next week the Census Bureau will release the poverty numbers.
We all know, as we’ve discussed tonight, the link between poverty and joblessness in this country. What’s your sense of what’s going to happen in this debate when we get these jobs numbers and these poverty numbers on top of each other?
Huffington: So the numbers are obviously not going to be good. Whether they are a little better or a little worse, they’re not going to be good. This has become the new normal, so every time we get these numbers out we’re just kind of debating whether they’re a tiny bit better or a tiny bit worse.
But what are we going to do about it? That’s the debate we should be having, and we’re not having it. We were not having it before the conventions; we’re not having it during the conventions. That’s why you’re doing your part, we’re doing our part by focusing on job creation.
We’ve launched a dedicated section, I’d love your viewers to come to it, called, “Opportunity, What is Working,” to send us ideas, to send us stories about what is working, because I feel we cannot move into a fatalistic state of mind where we feel nothing can be done. We need to do our part to make a difference and turn things around.
Tavis: The founder of The Huffington Post and now the leader of The Huffington Post Media Group, Arianna Huffington joined us tonight from Charlotte. Arianna, good to have you on. Have a great week at the convention, and we’ll talk soon.
Huffington: Thank you, Tavis.
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