Despite his poor choice of words, Bush made an important point about the problem that has plagued all of the Sunday talk shows for at least the last decade: Their penchant to frame almost every public policy issue in the context of the next election.
For those who didn’t see it, Gregory invited Bush onto the venerated NBC news show to ostensibly discuss a new book Bush had written about immigration reform.
However, of the 12 questions Gregory asked Bush during the interview , all but two focused on presidential politics. None attempted to tease out any specifics of the governor’s remedy for so-called illegal aliens.
In fact, the very first question Gregory asked was, What do Republicans need to understand if they are going to win the 2016 presidential election.
Gregory’s last question — the one that got an exasperated Bush to use the misguided ”crack addict” phrase — centered on who Bush thought was the hottest Florida politician: himself or Sen. Marco Rubio, another prospective GOP presidential contender.
Other ridiculous questions included:
- Would Ronald Reagan be considered a liberal in today’s Republican Party?
- Would Bush disappoint his mother if he didn’t run for president?
- Would the country be willing to accept a third Bush presidency?
- And the kicker: How will history treat Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush? (Jeb said history would treat W kindly. What else would you expect him to say?)
When it came to immigration, Gregory again framed most of these questions in presidential politics. He asked:
- Where does Bush see himself on the spectrum between the ideals represented by the Statue of Liberty and those who would impose quotas on certain immigrants?
- Why did Bush flip-flop in his position on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants?
- Would the Republicans be handing the Democrats millions of voters if they allowed illegal aliens to become citizens?
- Should a candidate for public office be disqualified if he or she ever hired an illegal alien?
That’s right. Less than two months after Barack Obama was inaugurated for a second four-year term, Gregory already had his sights on the 2016 president election. The NBC host had 12 minutes to talk to Jeb Bush and maybe shed some light on immigration reform, but instead he squandered that time asking questions that most Americans could care less about.
There are at least three reasons to explain such terrible journalism.
First, Gregory and the other Sunday talk show hosts know very little about actual public policy. This is not to say that they are completely ignorant, but the truth is that they do not have the time or wherewithal to study the specifics of issues like U.S. immigration law, Social Security, Food Stamps, foreign affairs or any other government policy.
Their main interest and expertise is in the sport of politics. They operate under the notion that political discourse is nothing more than fodder in the contest between the two major political parties.
Second, many Washington TV reporters have massive egos that are fed more by promoting themselves than informing the public. What better way to attract attention at a Georgetown cocktail party than being the reporter who tripped up a politician on national television or ”uncovered” some small kernel of news that might get a headline in the Monday newspapers? Today, it is the host’s job to be provocative and look tough so as to maintain those million-dollar contracts.
And third, reporters like Gregory have lost sight of their audience. While they all compete hard to maintain large viewership, the interviews conducted on the Sunday talk shows are geared more toward political leaders, other journalists and network executives. The American public is left out.
The problem does not rest completely with the journalists, of course. The politicians who come on these shows are playing the same game, trying to get as much attention for themselves while making sure not to say anything that gets them into hot water. It’s safe to say that Jeb Bush made the Sunday talk show circuit last weekend to promote his book, not to engage the public in a detailed debate about immigration reform.
But Gregory and the other members of the Washington press elite have a bigger responsibility here. Public policy is not a game. It has real effects on real people. If reporters fail to take these issues more seriously, the Sunday talk shows will continue their slide toward irrelevancy for the average American.
Last October, the Towson University Student Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sponsored a panel discussion on third-party candidates and the press.
The panel included Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics.com; Charlie Mahtesian, the national politics editor of Politico.com; Joe Seehusen, president and CEO of the Liberty Guard and the deputy campaign manager of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign; Kevin Zeese, an attorney and political activist; and John McTague, professor of American politics at Towson.
The panel was introduced by Devin Hamberger, a senior at Towson and the president of the school’s SPJ chapter. The discussion was moderated by me. Professor JoAnne Broadwater of Towson also played an instrumental role in organizing the event.
This video is Part 1 of that discussion. Part 2 is forthcoming.
Last night, I published a blog post that criticized Dr. Ben Carson, who recently appeared on the NPR radio show On Point with Tom Ashbrook. I then linked my article to a comment I made on the On Point website. My comment and my article were critiqued at the NPR site and my blog by a reader who went by the name of Carl Will. You can read Carl Will’s full comment here or here. Carl’s basic response was this: (1) Ben Carson’s opinion was common sense because conservatism by its very nature is common sense; (2) Carson and other medical professionals do not need the government to interfere with medical decisions because we can’t trust government to do anything right; (3) Carson’s criticisms of Obamacare are universal among doctors, who know more than most people about the healthcare system; and (4) Carson’s avoidance of a question about the “N” word was OK because (a) the question was stupid and (b) adults should not “fly off the handle” because of “some derogatory name calling.”
The following is my updated response.
Is Dr. Ben Carson’s conservatism just plain common sense?
After all, the only thing that conservatives like Carson are asking for is that Americans take personal responsibility for their own lives and that government be limited so that its only main role is to provide citizens with the freedom necessary to purse their own goals.
Other conservative ideals — free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense — also sound like just plain common sense.
But life is more complicated than this. For one thing, when conservatives say they are for free markets, individual liberty and the right for all citizens to pursue their dreams, they are implying that liberals are somehow against these things. They are not.
When conservatives say they believe in “traditional American values,” it is not clear exactly what those values are and how liberals are opposed to them.
But let’s go back to the original question that Carson has raised over the past two weeks. Is conservatism not really an ideology, but rather “common sense?”
The answer, I suppose, depends on your perspective. I could make the same argument about liberal views. For example, it is common sense to help those who are hungry or who live in poverty when the private sector cannot do the job by itself; it is common sense to educate people; it is common sense to build roads so workers can get to their jobs; it is common sense to build police and fire stations to protect citizens and private investment against crime; it is common sense to defend the nation against foreign sabotage against our vital infrastructure; it is common sense to provide healthcare to all citizens; it is common sense to ask government (i.e. you and me) to do things that private enterprise either will not do, or do at such a price that many would be left out.
Anyone can claim the mantle of common sense. But let’s acknowledge that we are all being ideological. If you have an idea and a world view (for example, your world view that government should stay out of the way of its people), then you are ideological. I freely admit that I am ideological. My objection to Dr. Ben Carson is that he skirts this issue and tries to act like he is some how above the fray. He tries to act like he is so completely objective that we should trust all of his judgments because, after all, they are not ideological, they are only common sense.
I’m sorry. To me, that is being disingenuous. He denies that he is a conservative in an attempt to shield himself from criticism. It’s a cop out. What he seems to be saying is: no one has the right to criticize me because I just want what everyone else wants: common sense.
Your statement that “a doctor or educated individual that can think…doesn’t need Government to get involved in personal choices” does not address my point at all. I don’t know what personal choices you think I want the government to take away from Ben Carson. He is free to say whatever he wants. But he must know that if he refuses to support those statements with facts, his statements will have less credibility.
Your next question, (Can you honestly tell me Government is doing a great job and has the American people’s best interest in-mind?) is too simple and does not allow for any nuance. Sometimes, government does an excellent job. It provides food to those who would not otherwise have it; it provides retirees with Social Security checks that many need to stay out of poverty; it tries to regulate workplace safety so that you don’t have to work in a sweat shop; it tries to regulate businesses so that — unlike in a place like China, where I have visited — you can live in a country where the air is somewhat safe to breathe. I can go on and on. I live in the DC area and see many federal employees work extremely hard every day for the public good.
Does government do everything right? No. It is sometimes inefficient. It is sometimes burdensome. And it sometimes makes bad decisions, such as bombing innocent people in other countries who pose no threat to us.
But I do not blindly condemn government just for being the government.
Am I a doctor? No, I am not a doctor. Are you suggesting that because I am not a doctor I can have no intelligent opinion about the healthcare system? Are you saying that all doctors, because they are doctors, know more about the entire national healthcare system than the rest of the country’s citizens? Are you suggesting that all doctor’s make all medical decisions correctly all the time? Are you suggesting that patients should do anything and everything their doctors tell them because, well, the doctor knows better? Have you never heard of doctors — good doctors — who sometimes make mistakes? Has anyone ever told you to question everything your doctor tells you to make sure that, as the patient, you are getting the best possible care? And what about your position on personal responsibility? Do you throw that ideology out the window when it comes to what your doctor tells you? Don’t you have personal responsibility for at least some of your own medical decisions?
I have been a patient. I have had three major illness in my life. Does that give me a perspective about the health care system that is worth listening to? Should I have listened to everything my doctors told me? What should I have done when the first doctor I saw was completely baffled by my condition? Should I have said, “Well, he’s the doctor. If he doesn’t know how to fix me than I better just go off and die?”
Of course not.
Finally, the “N” word is not just some playground utterance that adults should laugh away and ignore. It is a word that was used historically by one group to dominate over another. It is a word that was used to exert power and exploitation. It was a word that was used by white people to make black people feel inferior. To ignore that is to ignore the power of words. You can try to dismiss it. You can try to say, “Oh, you are just being politically correct.” But if you do that, know that you are copping out. You are not recognizing the power of certain words. And if you do not recognize the power of certain words — if you do not respect that — then you can’t move the conversation forward. You can’t resolve the emotions someone feels over a word because you refuse to acknowledge the emotions themselves. Sorry. When you are callous to the pain and suffering caused by a word, then you are the problem, not the person who feels the pain.
Tom Ashbrook’s question about the “N” word was very relevant in that situation. Ben Carson was making a point that people stifle debate through political correctness. As his example, he used this case where some people (he didn’t say who) ostracized a man for calling another man “an oriental.” Carson suggested that the term “oriental” should not be considered offensive. He waved off any discomfort the Asian man might have felt by being called “an oriental.” Instead, Carson said the Asian man should just “get over it” and turn the other cheek. He said that the other people in the room should not have come to the Asian man’s defense. That they should have “gotten over it” too so as not to stifle discussion.
So the reporter, Tom Ashbrook, did what any good reporter would do. He tried to test Carson. He tried to see if Carson himself could do the same thing he was asking the Asian man to do. Ashbrook wanted to see if Carson would “just get over it” if someone used a certain word about him. Ashbrook essentially asked Carson whether he could turn the other cheek after someone else ignored all the work Carson had achieved in his lifetime and reduced it all to one nasty, horrible word (the N word.)
And what did Carson do when faced with that test? He avoided it.
Carson had two choices to make at that moment:
(1) He could have said, “You know what, I don’t care if someone calls me the N word. I would turn the other way.” In other words, Carson could have defended his earlier position and shown the world that Dr. Ben Carson puts his money where his mouth is. That even if he was called the N word, he would look the other way and continue a discussion with his adversary; or (2) Carson could have said, “You know what, I would be offended by that word. That word is a horrible word. And America cannot advance the racial discussion forward until that word is damned to history — where it belongs. I was wrong in my other position. I should have placed myself in that Asian man’s shoes and better understood how he felt.”
But Ben Carson did not take either of those choices. He took a third position: avoid the issue all together. Yes, he was too afraid to say either of those things because either of those positions might open him to criticism. So he found a way not to answer at all. He was a coward.
No one forced Ben Carson to be on Ashbook’s show. Ben Carson chose to be on that show. It was his personal responsibility to explain himself.
I have always had a positive impression of Dr. Ben Carson, the motivational speaker and professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University whose rags-to-riches story personifies the American Dream.
It didn’t matter to me that Carson articulated traditional conservative talking points like limited government, personal responsibility and a flat income tax.
The problem with Carson is that (1) he would not acknowledge that he is a conservative, characterizing his beliefs as simply “common sense,” (2) he refused to answer questions directly and (3) he would not defend his positions with facts and evidence.
Throughout the interview, Carson skirted major questions about taxes, healthcare, race and history.
He complained about politicians who demonize their opponents, but then he called people who disagreed with him “absurd;” he said those who support “Obamacare” are ideological but that his proposal for health savings account was just common sense; and he arrogantly dismissed callers who challenged his interpretations of American history.
Carson was so slippery that when one caller criticized him for extolling the robber barons while ignoring the fact that they exploited thousands of laborers to build the nation’s infrastructure, Carson simply said: “I think there is absolutely nothing that is ever done that is perfect. It doesn’t matter what you bring up, I can find something wrong with it.”
The most egregious example of Carson’s arrogance, though, came when he was asked to defend his position that political correctness stifles honest debate in America .
The good doctor had just finished ridiculing a group of people who, he said, had “ostracized” a man for using the word “oriental” to describe an Asian. When host Tom Ashbrook followed up by asking if Carson, as an African-American, could think of any terms that might be offensive to him and other black men (i.e., the “N” word), Carson slithered around the issue.
“Let me tell you a secret,” Carson said. “I was doing an NPR interview a few years ago, and the correspondent said, ‘Dr. Carson, I notice y0u don’t seem to mention race very often. Why is that?’ And I said, ‘It’s because I’m a neurosurgeon…’ And I said, ‘You see, when I take someone to the operating room and I cut the scalp and peel it back and take off the bone flap … I’m actually operating on the thing that makes that person who they are. The cover doesn’t make them who they are. And those of us who are extraordinarily superficial in our thinking, we spend way too much time thinking about the cover and way too little time thinking about the content.”
His “answer” not only ignored the important point of the question – namely, that words are powerful instruments that can be destructive and hurtful – it showed that Carson was trying to avoid an issue that undermined his own logic about political correctness.
The interview exposed Carson as a fraud — a man with paper-thin opinions based on either ignorance, self interest or his own sense of right and wrong. They were certainly not based on any facts.
Carson has every right to speak his mind. But for his own credibility, he might want to stay in the operating room rather than venture into the public square.
For more information on Carson, see Towson University journalist Bailey O’Malia’s story.
President Obama’s plan to help Democrats retake the House of Representatives in 2014 is likely to be stymied not by the will of the American public, but by gerrymandered congressional districts that give the Republicans a political firewall against any popular surge in Democratic support.
Since 2010, the Republicans have played a major role in almost every state of setting up congressional boundaries that will give their side an electoral advantage in House elections over the next decade.
This practice meant two things for the 2012 election: Only 35 House seats were truly competitive, and the Republicans won a 234-201 House “majority” even though GOP candidates received 1.1 million fewer votes than Democratic congressional contenders.
Today, as Obama strategists begin raising money and laying the ground work to pickup the 17 House seats they will need in 2014 to pass the president’s agenda before he leaves office, they face an uphill battle that will most likely end in defeat.
Not only will the White House have to overcome the historic precedent in which the president’s party normally loses House seats during midterm elections, it will have to deal with a congressional map that has squeezed Democratic voters into a decreasing number of districts.
Named after Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, gerrymandering is also a contributing factor to the gridlock that now plagues Capitol Hill.
Because most incumbents believe that they are immune to any real challenge from the opposition party — and, in fact, know that the only serious competition can come from within their own party during a primary — they are encouraged to dig in their heals to oppose (or support) anything the president does, regardless of how politically popular the measure may be with the nation as a whole.
For example, while the president’s agenda of gun control, immigration reform, an increase in the minimum wage and a renewed effort to tackle climate change all poll strongly with the country, these measures are unlikely to pass the House because they have little support in congressional districts controlled by Republicans.
Put another way, most GOP members of the House are insulated from national public opinion.
The practice of gerrymandering dates back to at least the early 1800s, and it has been used by both major political parties throughout American history. (In my home state of Maryland, for example, the Democratic-controlled legislature redrew congressional districts last year to, among other things, knock out one Republican congressman.)
But the latest and most egregious round of congressional gerrymandering has been conducted by the GOP and started in 2009-2010, when the Republican State Leadership Committee raised nearly $30 million to “keep or win Republican control of state legislatures,” which are responsible for drawing House districts once every 10 years.
According to a report the group released last year, the RSLC targeted state legislatures in New York, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington to ensure that those states redrew their congressional districts in a way that virtually guaranteed a GOP majority in the House.
The result, the group said, is that while “Democratic candidates for the U.S. House won 1.1 million more votes than their Republican opponents … the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is a Republican and presides over a 33-seat House Republican majority during the 113th Congress.”
The report continued:
Pennsylvanians cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic U.S. House candidates than their Republican opponents, but elected a 13-5 Republican majority to represent them in Washington,” the report said. “Michiganders cast over 240,000 more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, but still elected a 9-5 Republican delegation to Congress. Nationwide, Republicans won 54 percent of the U.S. House seats, along with 58 of 99 state legislative chambers, while winning only 8 of 33 U.S. Senate races and carrying only 47.8 percent of the national presidential vote.
In essence, the RLSC was bragging that it was able to help Republicans maintain control of the House despite the public’s will for a Democratic majority.
What is the solution?
First, the mainstream media needs to focus more attention on the problem of gerrymandering when it writes stories about congressional elections.
As it is now, most political reporters frame House campaign stories in terms of fundraising efforts, polling data, political strategy and the power of persuasion to alter election results. The impact of gerrymandering receives some attention, but not nearly enough to put it on the public agenda.
Second, the public needs to push its state legislators to adopt nonpartisan ways of drawing congressional boundaries. Instead of relying on voter registration roles to determine the makeup of a congressional district, these nonpartisan commissions would focus on natural geographical boundaries, such as city and county lines.
The goal of these commissions would be to increase competition in each district so that a state’s congressional delegation more accurately reflects the makeup of its population. Nine states currently use nonpartisan commissions.
A third option would be for states to move away from the single-district congressional system used today to proportional representation. Under this scenario, a state’s congressional delegation would be based on the proportion of the vote each party received on Election Day. For example, if the Republicans received 55 percent of the congressional vote in the state, then 55 percent of its delegation would be from the GOP.
Finally, states could adopt a system under which citizens could vote for several at large congressional candidates, with the top x candidates being elected. For example, if 24 candidates were running for 12 congressional seats in a state, voters would have the opportunity to vote for, say, six. The top 12 candidates would then be elected.
Each of these options have their own problems that would have to be addressed. But each one would add more competition to congressional races and avoid the problem we face today in which politicians choose their voters — rather than have voters choose their politicians.
But the 62-year-old Massachusetts pediatrician and her supporters hope that her run for the White House this fall is one more step in building a third-party movement that will someday pose a true challenge to the Democrats and Republicans.
“We would consider 5 percent [of the presidential vote] an enormous victory,” said Scott McLarty, a media coordinator for the Greens. “She’ll be pounding the pavement. We’re running to win, although we’re a long shot, no doubt.”
Stein, who received the Green presidential nomination during the party’s national convention in Baltimore on Saturday, said she is taking a break from pediatric medicine to practice “political medicine” because America’s Democratic system has been broken and corrupted by two parties beholden to corporate interests.
Unless the Greens are successful at changing the country’s political dialogue, she asserts, the nation will continue to move steadily toward decline, with more Middle Class home foreclosures, crushing student debt and “endless illegal wars.”
“We are a movement that is alive and well across America and we are here to stay,” Stein told the 279 delegates who gathered at the Holiday Inn on West Lombard Street. “If we want to protect children’s health or anything for that matter … we first have to fix the broken political system. We need a new, unbought political party that can put people of integrity into office.”
In that vein, Stein chose longtime activist Cheri Honkala as her running mate. Honkala, a single mother who was homeless herself at one time, beat out actress Roseanne Barr for the Green’s vice presidential nomination.
The Stein campaign is built around a Green New Deal, a four-part “emergency” plan that calls for an Economic Bill of Rights, a transition to a green economy, reform of the financial sector, and a more open electoral system that reduces the influence of corporations in American politics and opens elections to more political choices.
The plan, Stein said, would help create a more environmentally sustainable society and guarantee all Americans a living wage, a free college education and access to affordable healthcare through “Medicare for all.”
She said the reforms outlined in the plan would put 25 million people to work in a green economy that includes clean manufacturing, more public transportation and renewable energy.
The Green New Deal also calls for a moratorium on home foreclosures, the development of a public banking system, a 90 percent tax on bonuses for bailed out bankers, publicly financed elections, repeal of the un-American parts of the Patriot Act, and support for immigration reform, including passage of the Dream Act. (For more information about the Green New Deal, click here.)
In her acceptance speech, Stein urged voters to take the Greens seriously, arguing that Americans should not be afraid to break from the traditional two-party system.
She said polls indicate that most Americans agree with the Green agenda but are often scared away from voting for third parties by the politics of fear perpetrated by the Democrats and Republicans.
“Silence is not an effective political strategy,” she said. “The politics of fear has brought us everything we are afraid of.”
Embracing the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in New York last year, Stein said, “We signal to the world that we — the 99 percent — have taken the stage,” adding that they would not stop until they change “the White House into a Green House.”
Stein is no stranger to electoral politics. She ran for governor of Massachusetts as a Green in 2002, losing to Republican Mitt Romney. She ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2004 and secretary of state in 2006. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School.
Stein is currently on the ballot in 21 states and hopes to be on 45 state ballots by the fall. She has already qualified for federal matching funds for this election cycle, and party officials say the campaign’s goal is to get at least 5 percent of the national presidential vote to lock in federal funding for 2016.
Although they have never won a national election, the Green delegates who gathered for the three-day convention last weekend remained optimistic about the future. They believe they are right on the issues, that they have a quality candidate, and that the country is reaching a crossroads that will soon provide a window of opportunity for a third-party challenge.
“Jill Stein is probably the smartest person in the room,” said Eric Siegel, a delegate from Rhode Island. “[She's] exactly the kind of thing the country needs.”
When David Slesinger appeared in a North Carolina courtroom three years ago on trespassing charges, he asked the judge to show him “no mercy.”
He was sentenced to 16 hours in jail.
Slesinger was one of 44 protesters who were arrested on April 20, 2009, during a demonstration against the Cliffside coal-fired power plant that had recently been approved for construction by the North Carolina utilities authority.
While charges were dropped against most of the other defendants, Slesinger said he was hoping for a tough jail sentence as a way to draw more attention to the anti-Cliffside movement and, more importantly, illustrate the effectiveness of what he called the Gandhian approach to nonviolent resistance.
That method, which was named after Mahatma Gandhi, calls on activists to build support for their cause by serving time in prison. It is only through such stark personal sacrifice, Slesinger says, that reformers can truly challenge those in power.
On Thursday, Slesinger brought the Gandhian message to the Green Party, which is holding its national convention at the University of Baltimore over the next three days to nominate a candidate for president.
As Green delegates filed into the lobby of the university’s law school to register for the convention, Slesinger held a one-man demonstration by sitting in a chair holding a sign that read in part: “Stop Suppressing Discussion of Gandhian Resistance.”
The Baltimore businessman said he decided to attend the Green convention in hopes of starting a public dialogue on whether the notion of civil disobedience itself should be reformed.
“We should be able to discuss why serving time [in prison] is worth considering,” Slesinger said.
Slesinger says most American activists who practice nonviolent resistance are more than happy to get arrested during public demonstrations, but he said they diminish the effectiveness of their movement when they plead not guilty or try other legal maneuvers to avoid jail time.
Instead, he said, activists should be willing to “suffer in jail to touch the heart of the adversary.” This act of personal sacrifice builds support for a movement, Slesinger said, because it reaches out to an adversary’s power base and inspires sympathizers to get more involved.
Slesinger said most American activists are unwilling to even discuss the use of the Gandhian approach as a method of civil disobedience. He said the Green Party could get more attention for itself if it nominated candidates who had served time in prison for public activism.