Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why the Candidates Should (But Won’t) Stipulate

Stipulate-electionIt's been said that a politician gets to be perfectly honest just once in a long career -- at its end. Refreshing candor sometimes pours after an old pol has faced the last campaign. No more fund raisers or flattering voters. One chance to tell the truth.

All right, it’s rare. Many politicians hurry through a revolving door, into fat directorships and lobbying firms. Still, it can be colorful when a few spill their hearts.

Take the day in 1992 when both Republican Senator Warren Rudman and Democrat Paul Tsongas made headlines declaring that everybody was at fault for the country's fiscal condition at the time, from then-President Bush to the democrat-controlled Congress, to the American people. Responsible economists later credited Rudman and Tsongas for spurring reforms that helped lead to the Clinton era surpluses.

Around the same time, retired senator and conservative eminence gris Barry Goldwater denounced the followers of émigré philosopher Leo Strauss – so-called “neocons” – for hijacking Goldwater’s beloved movement over cliffs of romantic delusion. A more recent example of post retirement candor came When G.W. Bush’s ex-Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, revealed a swamp of backroom dealings and ineptitude, explaining that he was "old and rich" and unafraid to speak his mind. On the other side, some claim that Senator Joe Lieberman really came into his own when he ran as an independent, shrugging off party discipline (if such a thing exists, among democrats.)

Alas, under our electoral system candor is punished. Folks on both sides of the lamentably oversimplifying “left-right axis” yearn for the best and most sincere people on the other side to wise up!  To eject radicals from control over the other party’s agenda. Too bad we rarely ponder the way crimes like gerrymandering have been used by our own side, with terrible effects upon the radicalization of politics.    (Elsewhere I describe one time that party self-reform actually happened.)

== A Modest Proposal ==

Let me offer here a proposal that I've made every presidential election for decades. Throughout the campaign we’ll learn how the candidates disagree on a myriad issues. And platitudes, what they think voters want to hear.

Logically, there must be a third category -- areas where these well-informed professionals agree with each other, but fear to speak  first.  But consider: there’s no political cost to telling voters what you really believe... if your opponent has agreed, in advance, to say the same thing.

What's wrong with two leaders finding patches of consensus amid a sea of discord? It has a name - stipulation... as when attorneys in a case agree to agree about a set of points, so the trial can focus on areas where they disagree.

What does stipulation have to do with politics? Given the intensity of partisanship in recent American political life, can we dream? Bear with me for a “what-if” thought experiment.

Suppose, amidst the 2012 campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama were to suspend their mutual attacks just long enough to meet for an afternoon. Staffs would cover debate rules, and maybe how to prevent spirals of mudslinging and people would applaud just seeing them talk to each other like adults.

Only then -- they go for a walk, alone. During this quiet moment before the rough and tumble resumes, they seek just a few points of consensus.

Don’t dismiss it too readily. For all his faults, the last GOP nominee – John McCain did this sort of thing before. So did Senators Clinton and Obama, amid their primary fights in 2008.  In fact, the only ones to object would be extremes in both parties.

Oh, neither candidate will change the other's mind concerning major divisions. But here we have two knowledgeable public persons, presumably concerned about America's future. Surely there’d be some overlap? Things that both of them feel that we, as a nation, should do.

Imagine a joint statement. Though reiterating a myriad points of disagreement, they make public simultaneously their shared belief that America should, for its own good, pass law "X", or repeal restriction "Y". Further, they agree - neither will attack the other for taking this stand.

No longer pandered to, folks might say -- "Gosh, if both say the country needs this strong medicine, let's give it thought."

This would not free candidates completely from the stifling effects of mass-politics. But it could let them display something rarely seen... leadership. Even statesmanship. Setting aside self-interest in favor of hard truth, telling the people what they need to hear, whether they like it or not.

=== Is This Impossible? ===

Well, it happened before, during the Presidential campaign of 1940. When Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term, he approached Republican candidate Wendell Wilkie, to negotiate just such a stipulated agreement in the area of foreign policy. Britain badly needed escort vessels for the North Atlantic and the U.S. had over-age destroyers to spare. But Roosevelt feared political repercussions during a campaign in which he was already under attack for breaking neutrality. Wilkie agreed to FDR's request, and declared that lend-lease would be his policy too, if he were elected.

Everyone benefited -- Wilkie rose in stature. FDR got his policy implemented, and the world was better off because political advantage was briefly put aside for the common good. On other issues, Roosevelt and Wilkie battled as fiercely as ever. Yet, that historical act of stipulation shines in memory.

How might today's politics differ if two adults -- each the standard bearer of a major party -- agreed to let it be known how they agree? Might they take on some of our most politically impossible subjects? Perhaps a cow as sacred as the Social Security retirement age, a compromise on gun control, some campaign finance reform…

… or the biggest candidate for such a declaration?  The obvious of course. The topic that neither side dares to raise first.  The failed Drug War.

== How it could happen ==

Is this quixotic proposal too much to ask of today's opportunistic brand of politician? Perhaps. Indeed, I have little hope that it has a chance of happening during the 2012 election cycle, while partisanship towers foremost in the minds of the partisan attack dogs who have turned America into a silly place for two decades, overshadowing any national good.

Still, our politics can evolve. Only during the most recent generation has the tradition of Presidential debates become so entrenched that no front-runner can now duck them. Ancient hurdles of age, race, and gender are falling. And note, there are millions of Americans who deeply yearn for a more mature approach to politics. If a candidate offered this kind of stipulation process, and the other refused... well, there might be benefits there, as well.

Indeed, imagine if a third party candidate – say the Libertarian Party’s unusually reasonable/interesting Gary Johnson – were to join one of this year’s presidential debates. (Okay, so I think that would devastate one of the major candidates, offering sane, libertarian-minded conservatives a place to escape their party’s current madness.)  Johnson’s natural move would be to pounce on obvious things like the drug war. Ironically, this could offer one of the other guys cover to step forward, partially agreeing with Johnson while remaining moderate/skeptical. Good positioning, politically speaking.  And as a result, we all benefit when the topic itself (changing the drug war) moves up in peoples’ minds.

All right.  It won’t happen. Not this time around. But it could.  And maybe someday it will.

Shatter the barriers against candor!

Once upon a time, it was just a glimmer in a few eyes to imagine that debates would be standard in elections.  Now it’s normal.

Might the Candidates' Post-Convention Summit and Letter of Stipulation also become traditional, like doldrums in July and mudslinging in October?

Someday, the whole nation may look forward to the occasion, once every four years, with a sort of delicious, nervous anticipation -- awaiting the one day when two eminent politicians will say not what is politically savvy, but what is simply wise.


Chet Twarog said...

Two responses: why don't we let credible political parties "elect" their own party leader to debates as we've had before? On first Tuesday of Nov major elections, the popular/electoral college vote getter, say Obama, is President and the runner up (any party) is VP? Wasn't that the case ages ago?

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Stefan Jones said...

I have enough respect for Mitt Romney's intelligence, practicality, and core beliefs to believe he'd readily agree to such a meeting and stipulations . . . IF the Republican Party resembled the GOP of, say, 1980 - 1988.*

But the current GOP machine would never allow it. Agreeing to such a meeting of minds would lose them far more than they gained. The very nature of such an agreement would require them to admit that Barack Obama is someone that they could agree with at some level. A large part of their base are angry, cranky people who think the president is a Kenyan Socialist Atheist Muslim Reptoid who can't be trusted.

It couldn't hurt for Obama to ASK for such a meeting.

* Maybe. But even by then, it had taken the fateful path of demonization and media marketing by implementing the "Southern Strategy.

David Brin said...

I do believe the last Republican nominee who did not give me the Willies was Robert Dole. I considered him to be a genuine, non weasel adult and only about 30% crazy. Newt is the other one I consider to be 70% sane. Can't say the same about the adult part, alas.

Of course there are guys like Huntsman and (slightly crazier) Gary Johnson. But today's GOP would never touch them.

What will it take to convince today's best conservatives. The grownups. That the ones they need to get furious at are the ones Goldwater denounced? The hijackers of their movement.

David Brin said...

Here is an article about republicans who are willing to admit climate change is real and offer market-based solutions. The species of sane conservatives is NOT extinct! And if Romney were what he claimed to be, years ago, he would be leading them now. Alas.

Ian Gould said...

There's nothing especially "conservative" about inglis' policy propositions.

Most of them could have come straight from here:

This is why I get so frustrated by the extreme political polarization of the climate change issue in the US.

Carl said...

Is the GOP still a national party?

Ian Gould said...

I sometimes think of it as the Mississippi Basin Party.

Tacitus said...

An obvious place for an FDR/Wilkie concord.


The response of both candidates to any question regards the Iranian nuke program should be:

"If you had been to the briefings I have had you would agree that we can't play politics with this issue. There are too many lives at stake to play for political points. Suffice it to say that my opponent and I are in agreement that a sustained, resolute policy to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of irresponsible regimes is and will be in the next administration, an unwavering goal."

No doubt this would be attacked as a weasel answer but too bad.


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LarryHart said...


Is the GOP still a national party?

Ian Gould said:

I sometimes think of it as the Mississippi Basin Party.

And yet, they continue to hold the House and the Supreme Court, might as well hold the Senate, and aren't out of the running for the White House yet. As recently as six years ago, they controlled all branches of government.

I'll give them credit for sheer tenacity. As their policies alienate more and more Americans, they double down on the strategy of using state government to restrict the voting rights of all but the like-minded.

They're like those bad movie monster/villains who just keep coming no matter what ordinance is thrown at them. And nothing this evil ever dies.

rewinn said...

The concept of stipulation seems rational and helpful, but to be really persuasive, the idea needs to fit on a bumpersticker or an image. There just aren't that many people who change their minds based on text alone, in my experience.

What might be such an image?

David Brin said...


Scudder in 2012.

People say huh? Then 5% go home and look it up and go... "oh!"

Alfred Differ said...

The reaction I'm getting from friends regarding stipulations is that it sounds like that tax pledge litmus test for GOP candidates. I know it isn't so I guess I didn't explain it well enough to them, but that was their initial interpretation and it got followed with a quick 'No... we don't want that.'

David Brin said...

Can the open source science movement be extended to programming?

Software engineer Linus Torvalds saw a solution to this problem—“git,” a system that allows for collaborative development. He created, a hosting site that allows multiple programmers to work on the same source code at the same time, with changes getting unique signatures.

Alfred Differ said...

Both groups operate largely as gift economies.

Dmitry Groshev said...

Linus has nothing to do with GitHub. He created git. Moreover, he dislikes GitHub.

Rob said...

I dislike github. I also dislike git and LInus' Frankensteins-monster, Linux. Although, the things it spawned for my own work in the Microsoft ecosystem (public share licensing, NuGet, etc) have been very positive.

Dmitry Groshev said...

It's quite ironic, Rob, to embrace *closed* (in all senses from license to extendability) MS's ecosystem and follow (to some degree, of course) David with his opinion on openness.

reformed tourist said...

In line with such a notion (or, at least, vaguely in support of it), in my secondary position as a union functionary dealing with Government Affairs, I recently had a conversation with a congressman who stated off-handedly that since his district was "safe," he could focus more on policy since he really wasn't ideological... This contrasted disturbingly with another interview I'd done with a congressional candidate from the same party who could mouth the Heritage Foundation's talking points, but couldn't (literally "couldn't" not "wouldn't") answer a follow-up question.

Such is the reality of the current political climate - a situation that has evolved far past the rise of the "Know-nothings" of a hundred years ago. And when modern journalism spends 4 times as much time reporting on a VP's exercise program as on the accelerated receding of Arctic ice, we have both the cause and the problem laid out before us.

Rob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob said...

I sigh. Microsoft's ecosystem is no longer all that closed. That its target is Windows is by definition, but the MS-PL license is not in any sense a closed license, refuting your notion.

I am, for example, relying on a freely developed and distributed 3d support library for WPF which makes it laughably easy to drop a geometry in a scene graph. It comes with all the things you need for a scene graph which MS never included in WPF. The entire set of sourcecode was free-as-in-beer without the constraints of GNU's inbred activism.

As I said, the things it spawned. MS has been agile in that respect; the devtools extension and addin catalogs are full of free stuff, source code included.

Alfred Differ said...

Is the git stuff in reference to Clay Shirky's recently posted TED talk?

Acacia H. said...

Still not going to vote for him because of a number of reasons including the diseased nature of the Republican Party but... I must wonder if we're being too hard on Mitt Romney.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

That article struggles hard to humanize Mitt... and I started reading it willing to learn good things. After all, he might become president and I WANT to think we nominate reasonable people.

And I read on and on and saw nothing but really bad turning worse.

"These flaws have left him struggling to defend himself against and rebut the relentless Obama campaign attack — an attack designed to overcome the weaknesses in the incumbent’s own record by rendering his opponent an unacceptable alternative."

Say what? Who is running away from the record? Cite for me one time that Romney has ever, even obliquely, referred to the Republican Party's record at governing the United States of America. One time. ever.

Sure, the GOP wants us looking at Romney and not at the party or at the 10,000 GOP guns from the Bush administration he'd bring with him, slipping most of them right back into positions they held four years ago. (He's never denied this.) They talk as if he's the issue. But it is the whole apparatus. The record he never mentions.

And now, Mitt himself is disappointing as a campaigner? And we're told to overlook that and perceive... what instead?

David Brin said...


Acacia H. said...

As I said, I'm not going to vote for him because of the baggage he brings. If he had the guts to stand up for his beliefs, that would be one thing. But he's no Huntsman. But then, Huntsman was unelectable because he could stand up for what he believed in... and the Republican base no longer believes in that. Instead, they are poisoned. :/

Rob H.

Unknown said...

David, what I would like to see most in the upcoming debates is one simple question with moderator firm on getting a clear answer.

How if you are our President in the coming months, will you more than just maintain freedom for United States citizens, but actually increase our overall freedoms across the country?

The framework for that question is that increased freedom equates to a better economy with more money in our pockets. Less freedom is the most horrible tax of all.

All of the major party players ought to be called out on this and a clear answer should be demanded.

rewinn said...

I enjoyed the Romney article, but it underlined for me a fundamental: Mitt is well suited to a role as an unelected executive, perhaps Secretary of Commerce.

But if the article is correct, he's not willing to tell people what he wants to do, and in a democracy, that is a complete disqualification for elected office.

Unfortunate perhaps, but there it is. It's bad enough that once a guy gets into office, we can't be sure what he'll do; but if he won't even talk about which tax deductions he'll eliminate to make his planned 20% tax cut work, then We The People have no rational basis on which to vote for him. The article's reference to executive orders being prepared in secret should be disturbing; if they are good ideas, let Mitt trumpet them proudly!

All irrelevant now, I suppose, but I would hope this experience would enlighten future candidates as to where their interests lie.