Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 June 2008

A Clean, Fair and Honest Campaign

Why We Need One
How to Get One
Candidates’ Code of Conduct

[For separate post on “Krugman the Authoritarian,” click here.]


Our two major parties have just nominated two good men. It’s worth taking a moment to review just how good.

Since Harry Truman became president, no president but Gerald Ford has had John McCain’s experience and seasoning in national politics. None but Ford, Nixon and Kennedy has had more experience in elective office (at both the statewide and national levels) than Barack Obama. Every president from Carter on has had less.

Experience is just the beginning. McCain is a war hero, not just because he flew combat missions, was shot down and wounded, and languished in a POW camp for half a decade. He is a hero because he refused to be sent home before his fellows—an extraordinary act of courage and selflessness. Last year, he repeated his demonstration of selflessness by saying he would rather lose the presidency than a war.

Barack Obama has a more distinguished academic record than any president since Woodrow Wilson. He was president of the Harvard Law Review, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious legal journal. He was a professor of law at the University of Chicago, one of the nation’s top law schools. Only Carter (a nuclear engineer) and Bill Clinton (a Rhodes Scholar) have academic records that are even in the same league. Both of Obama’s parents earned Ph.D.s, suggesting a family value of serious and sustained thoughtfulness.

Finally, there is character. Both candidates have well-deserved reputations for straight talk. Both have strong records in fighting corruption. Despite occasional lapses, both have avoided pandering far more than the average politician. Both have been the targets of demagoguery—McCain by Dubya in 2000 and Obama by Hillary in the primary campaign just ended. Therefore, one hopes, both have an aversion to smearing and a dislike of spin born of personal suffering.

Under these circumstances, we have a right to expect a clean, fair and honest campaign. This essay analyzes why we desperately need one and how we might achieve it.

Why We Need One

Process matters. Our nation has become a global pariah for keeping hundreds of people incarcerated in Guantánamo for nearly seven years without due process. We revile Dubya for having spied on us without the usual courtesy of a neutral judge deciding whether spying is justified. These acts contravene every democratic innovation in Anglo-American history, from the Magna Carta on.

As our primary process just revealed, our electoral campaigns have become a travesty of democracy. We obsessed about irrelevancies like gender, race, flag pins and candidates’ preachers’ verbal transgressions. We left vital issues of national policy unexamined. As a result, we know precious little about how our candidates would approach such things as Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Pakistan’s failure to deal with Al Qaeda Central, the challenges that Hamas and Hezbollah pose, our abject and growing energy dependence, global warming, the mortgage crisis, our economy generally, poverty in America, or the decline of our middle class.

If we are to have any hope of arresting our national decline, electoral campaigns that resemble mud wrestling have got to stop. We need to force our candidates to give honest answers to tough questions of real importance.

A clean, fair and honest campaign is not just a matter of electoral process. It can become a matter of substance—an important step in healing, reconciling, and unifying our divided and battered people. It can be an act of political reformation all by itself. A good campaign would serve these purposes in four ways.

First and foremost, it would help restore the atmosphere of dignity and mutual respect without which democracy cannot function. When members of Congress can no longer maintain their friendships merely because they differ on policy, we know we are in trouble. We need to re-establish a culture that allows people of good will to disagree without being disrespectful or disagreeable. McCain and Obama are both worthy of respect, so achieving this goal should be possible, as long as consultants don’t interfere.

Second, a clean, fair and honest presidential campaign will set an example. It will inspire politicians and government officials at all levels to go and do likewise. Maybe mutual respect will become as infectious as the brutal, mindless partisanship that has prevailed for the last decade.

Third, the example of respectful disagreement might infect even our dysfunctional media. People might begin to understand that bullying nitwits like Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Matthews are destroying our society from the inside out, replacing the light of understanding with the heat of self-righteousness. Maybe their audiences would dwindle. Maybe they would get fired—a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Finally—and most important—a clean, fair and honest campaign would make it easier for the winner to govern. We have had the good sense (and the good fortune) to nominate two extraordinary candidates, the best of the lot. Both are capable of governing us well.

Whatever the outcome, our nation cannot afford another campaign that makes a large fraction of us hate the winner. We’ve been in that circumstance since Bill Clinton’s second term. We need to move to another, better place. Both candidates have the honesty and integrity to help us do so.

How to Get One

There are five ways in which we could achieve a clean, fair and honest campaign. All are important.

First and foremost, the candidates themselves must take and maintain control of their campaigns, with an iron fist if necessary. Most sleaze originates with consultants, spinmeisters and other underlings, not with the candidates themselves. That’s entirely understandable. Underlings cannot and do not determine their candidates’ positions on major issues. So they try to slake their partisan zeal with minutiae and sleaze. The candidates should be alert to this phenomenon and nip it in the bud.

So far, both candidates have made a good start. McCain has disowned race baiting and two religious nutcakes whose support he once sought. Obama has fired a campaigner who called Hillary a “monster,” has disowned his own maverick reverend, and has ordered his campaign not to accept money from lobbyists and PACs. So far, so good.

Second, the candidates must treat voters like adults. Obama did so when he gave his famous (and famously risky) speech on race in Philadelphia. He did so against some consultants’ advice, but he was right. McCain did so when he told Michigan workers—quite correctly— that their cushy jobs in the steel and auto plants are not coming back.

We need to see more of this honesty and forthrightness from both candidates. We need to see them resist the temptation to lie. We need to see their resistance in play even when the race is tight and a lie might help them win.

Part of treating voters like adults is forsaking “image” advertising. That sort of advertising arose in the eighties, imported from Japan. In its commercial guise, it features cars standing on pinnacles, overtaking others, or (in the sexist, bad old days) surrounded by scantily clad women holding cancer sticks. The idea was to sell a mere machine as fantasy, power or sex.

In politics, the recent apex of image advertising was Hillary’s “3 a.m.” ad. It told us nothing about her experience, qualifications or intentions, let alone her policy. Instead, it tried to install in us a vague impression that Hillary is security and safety, especially for the sleeping child shown in the ad.

That ad reminded me of a sign that I saw as a child in pre-Castro Cuba, high on a slum wall in Havana, during the reign of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The sign said “Batista es la paz,” or “Batista is peace.” Whether explicit or subliminal, Orwellian propaganda like that belongs in dictatorships, not the United States.

I hope and trust that new research will reveal these image ads to be a waste of money. Even if they have a marginal subliminal effect, they are a disgrace to democracy and an insult to the electorate. With so much at stake, today’s voters don’t want to buy a candidate or a car on image. They want to know the numbers. They want to hear about operating cost, fuel economy, fuel flexibility, capacity, acceleration, and driving range. Political ads, too, should satisfy their need for accurate specifics.

The third way we can insure a clean, fair and honest campaign is for the candidates to treat each other—and the issues—with respect. Mitt Romney’s multiple failures to do so are among many reasons why he lost, and why McCain would be a fool to pick him as a running mate.

Part of respect is avoiding caricature and demonization. McCain is not Dubya and never will be. Like Dubya, he may be a wooden and awkward public speaker. But in order to resemble Dubya he would have to have a lobotomy and expunge his record of heroic military service and his twenty-five years bucking Republican orthodoxy in Congress. He may be following some of Dubya’s policies in Iraq, but his presidency (if it comes) will be far from a third term of Dubya’s. Obama and his minions should stop saying and implying the contrary.

Similarly, McCain and his minions should stop saying and implying that Obama is inexperienced and green. Obama has more experience as an elected official (statewide and federal) than any of our last five presidents had upon assuming the presidency. He has a far more distinguished academic record. McCain should acknowledge these points, just as Obama has acknowledged his wartime heroism.

Fourth, the candidates should seek to minimize the role of money in the campaign, just as both have pledged to minimize its effect in politics and governance if elected. I favor Obama, and I know he has a decisive advantage in fundraising. I’m ready to max out my general-election contribution to him in a heartbeat, as I did in the primary. Yet I’m waiting to see whether he will accept McCain’s challenge and rely on federal funding. I hope he will, not just to save my money, but because I think his doing so will make the campaign and our country better.

As both candidates have repeatedly recognized, we need to get money out of politics. Obama’s Internet money may be “clean” because it comes from a large number of small contributions. But the cleanest money of all is federal. It doesn’t require any raising, so it doesn’t create distractions from the issues. It doesn’t tempt a candidate to demagogue for the purpose of fundraising, or to favor big contributors over little ones.

Federal funding has other advantages. By equalizing the amounts available to the two contenders, it enhances the appearance of fairness, both during the campaign and in the winner’s presidency. The loser can’t claim he lost because the “fat cats” or the “little people” favored his opponent. The winner must win on the merits.

Working against a known and limited budget also enforces discipline and requires administrative skill. The candidate and his staff must learn to direct limited funds to the most important constituencies and media markets and the most important issues. Funding limits would restrain the temptation to spend on frivolous “image” ads and sleaze.

How a candidate handles a limited war chest demonstrates fiscal skills needed to govern well in a time of scarcity. McCain learned these points the hard way last year when his campaign nearly went bankrupt. That learning made him a better candidate and likely a better president if he wins. Maybe a candidate who can’t manage his campaign doesn’t deserve to manage the nation.

With regard to funding, Obama has one legitimate fear. The primary already involved race baiting. Vicious falsehoods are circulating, on the Internet and elsewhere, about Obama’s religion, upbringing, ancestry, and intentions. He needs money to refute these smears as soon as they arise.

But doing so needn’t involve a traditional campaign war chest. Campaign-finance laws permitting, supporters of Obama could set up an independent group to combat smears, whether or not from the McCain campaign. I and others would be only too happy to contribute to such a fund. McCain could reduce the incentive and need to do so by vigorously repudiating any smears, whether attributable to his campaign, arising from Republican or independent organizations, or coming from the Internet sleazosphere. The deterrent effect of Obama’s legendary fund-raising ability would help keep him honest.

Finally, a clean, fair and honest campaign requires robust, fair and smear-free debates.

I like McCain’s proposal for unmoderated town-hall meetings. I hope Obama accepts it, with two modifications. First, if we are to get serious about details of policy, every town-hall meeting should address a single subject, which both the candidates and voters should stick to religiously. Second, an umpire of some sort should enforce the subject-matter limitation and gently chide a candidate or voter who runs on too long. The umpire also should cut off any attempt by a voter to introduce trivia (like flag pins), sleaze or smears. These functions should be publicly announced in advance.

With these modifications, unmoderated town-hall meetings would have four wonderful features. First and foremost, they would remove our dysfunctional media from the debate process. Our media performed abysmally during the primary campaign, especially the infamous Philadelphia debate. Their journalistic malpractice forfeited their right to participate actively in the general-election campaign.

The candidates need the media to transmit their messages, and the First Amendment gives the media every right to comment, however inanely. But the candidates can and should exclude the media from any active participation in debates. We need our future leaders to speak for themselves.

The second wonderful feature of unmoderated town-hall meetings is accountability. CNN introduced flag pins, Reverend Wright and Rezko into the Philadelphia debate, giving Hillary the opportunity to demagogue them all, which she did. But Hillary escaped accountability for these sleazy distractions because the moderators introduced them. With no moderator, the candidates themselves would be accountable for introducing distractions, sleaze and smears. An alert and properly instructed umpire would prevent voters from doing so.

The third wonderful feature of unmoderated town-hall meetings would be the presence of real voters, which would change the human dynamic. It would avoid the sterile exchange of abstract charges, like those hurled by McCain in his pathetic attempt to upstage Obama’s triumph last Monday, which even Fox News ridiculed. It would reduce the candidates’ temptation to act like legal advocates, posture, and exaggerate. And it would give Obama a chance to show off his transcendent empathy.

I can’t imagine anything more immediately effective in getting the candidates to talk about things that voters care about. Voters and the audience would be able to see who has their interests most at heart, who has thought through their concerns, and whose solutions make the most sense. Allowing voters to follow up their questions might also curb the candidates’ evasion and obfuscation.

The final wonderful feature of unmoderated town-hall meetings is that it would reveal the candidates’ personal strengths and weaknesses. Obama would have to give up pontificating from the podium, which he does so well. McCain would have to give up the fearsome Republican smear machine. If he knows what’s good for his candidacy, he would also have to give up the superciliousness and sneering that sometimes mar his delivery. It’s hard to sneer when your opponent and voters are present in person and watching. All in all, the proposal for town-hall meetings without the media (but with an umpire) is a great idea.


Both of our candidates are honest, honorable men of independence and integrity. Both are smart enough to know that the next presidency begins now. How they run and manage their campaigns, how they conduct themselves until November, and whether they treat each other with dignity and respect will help determine whether the winner can govern.

We should therefore expect, and both candidates should provide, a clean, fair and honest campaign. To that end, I propose that each take the following pledge:

Candidates’ Code of Conduct

1. I will treat my opponent, voters and the issues with dignity and respect.

2. I will not comment on or disparage my opponent’s race, age, religion, ethnic origin, gender, family, or ancestry. I will comment on my opponent’s health only to the extent it threatens to incapacitate him during the next four years.

3. I will not comment on or disparage my opponent’s spouse, relatives, friends, business associates, or supporters, except in cases of suspected criminal corruption or to comment on and correct factual inaccuracies in their public statements.

4. I will avoid personal attacks on my opponent. I will confine myself to comments on his public record, public statements, and their background, meaning and consequences.

5. I will have my staff check carefully all facts that I assert about myself and my opponent. I will honestly acknowledge and promptly correct any inaccuracies that arise. I will not knowingly rely on inaccurate information coming from another source.

6. I will hold my campaign and its staff strictly to these standards. I will publicly and firmly repudiate any act or statement that violates them and will discipline responsible staff.

7. I will do my best to hold all independent organizations that support my positions to these same standards. I will publicly, firmly and (if necessary) repeatedly repudiate violations of them. I will disown and repudiate any group or organization that violates them repeatedly.


For comments on the foregoing post, click here.

Krugman the Authoritarian

Columnists seldom rankle me. They have good days and bad days, as do I. Even Bill Kristol’s consistently transcendent stupidity merely amuses me.

But Paul Krugman gets under my skin. His latest column, begrudgingly acknowledging Obama’s primary victory, made me understand why. Krugman is an authoritarian masquerading as a progressive.

I should have got the hint when he vigorously endorsed Hillary’s health-care mandates. Mandates themselves are authoritarian: they force people to do things they would not otherwise do. Not only did Krugman fail to recognize their huge political downside. He also failed to acknowledge the uncertainty and precariousness of the economic data supporting them. Instead, he relied on his authority as “Princeton economist” to imply that those who didn’t agree with his economic position are simply wrong. No real scientist would base such a strong claim on such flimsy data.

His latest column made his approach even clearer. Its point is that Barack Obama is not an instrument of an ongoing national transformation but the beneficiary of a nearly completed one.

I don’t propose to address the substance of that view. Barack Obama has repeatedly recognized the debt he owes to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and the people of all races who led and supported it. If you want to see a properly nuanced view—and a far more accurate one than Krugman’s—read Cynthia Tucker’s column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week.

What I want to address is what bothers me about Krugman: his attitude.

No doubt he agrees with Hillary’s assertion that it was Lyndon Johnson, not Martin Luther King, Jr., who made the civil rights revolution real. Of course it took Johnson’s legislative skill and legendary arm-twisting ability to pass the laws. But it took King’s vision, genius, courage and sacrifice to generate political support for them everywhere outside the South. Without King, no amount of arm-twisting would have sufficed.

Blindness to the importance of King’s contribution reflects a trait Krugman and Hillary share: authoritarianism. In their minds King doesn’t get credit because he wasn’t the man in power; he was working from the bottom. For people like Krugman and Hillary, those at the bottom don’t count.

There are several views of history. Some see it as a product of the will of individual leaders. Some see it as an unruly unfolding drama of the masses. Others, like Tolstoy, see it as a gigantic clock, a machine ruled by hidden, deterministic forces.

I see it as a leader riding a tiger. At any moment, either leader or tiger may be in control, making their direction unpredictable.

Authoritarians like Krugman and Hillary will never understand the tiger of a grass-roots movement that Barack Obama has fostered. Nor can they understand the power of the tiger King nurtured—righteous determination among blacks and justified shame among whites. It will be amusing to see how their attitudes change when Obama becomes president.

More fundamentally, Krugman seems to have missed the whole point of the civil rights movement. We whites who supported it at the time did so only partly out of sympathy with African-Americans and their interminable plight. We did it largely for ourselves and our country.

We wanted to erase our shame. We wanted to make the nation whole and sound. We wanted to curb the hideous waste of human talent. We knew that some day a leader with African genes, as great as Dr. King, would be there for all of us, if only we were ready.

Now he is, but Krugman can’t see him.

I don’t know Krugman apart from his columns, but I don’t think he is a racist. He views Obama as the insufficiently grateful and overly ambitious child of a revolution wrought by Obama’s elders. Krugman is the father who wants the child’s thanks for an expensive education but can’t rejoice in the child’s independence and autonomy. He is the teacher who can’t see when protégé has surpassed mentor. Like many authoritarian Boomers, he can’t let go.

That attitude is dangerous and wasteful. Because of it, we weren’t ready for Colin Powell—at least he and his wife didn’t think so. If we had been, a Powell presidency could have spared us the last seven years’ pain and indignity.

Now we seem ready for Barack Obama. He’s a man with the potential to be a great leader, perhaps the best in a century. He has the clearest chance of any candidate to make the dramatic changes we need to arrest our national decline. He has the courage, every day, to tiptoe past the cobra of racism, which could strike at any time. He comes to us in the nick of time. It is we, not he, who should be grateful for the national transformation, incomplete as it may be.

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  • At Thu Jun 12, 12:58:00 AM EDT, Blogger Charles said…


    I have learned so much reading you. I appreciate everything you have to say. One thing I don't agree with is your call for Obama to take federal funding for the general. I don't see the honorable John McCain of pre-election season. I don't trust him to be steadfast in curbing personal attacks. He has shown that he is willing to do the same thing HRC did, and that is make "as far as I know"-esque insinuations, to say "He would not have been my pastor," etc. Given the grassroots nature of Obama's fundraising, I believe he would be a fool to put himself on equal financial footing with McCain. I say that because McCain has an obvious image advantage. The media is busy trying to assassinate Obama's character, and it has had significant, and I believe permanent impact. 13% of Americans believe he is a Muslim. The GOP just released an ad today questioning his Muslim roots in Indonesia. These people are despicable, and it only is going to get worse. He should reserve the right to use the money that millions of people who believe in him have donated to ensure that he is elected.

  • At Thu Jun 12, 03:14:00 AM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Charles,

    I’m glad you wrote your comment—and with your usual incisiveness and clear writing. It’s a pleasure to post your work.

    Part of me agrees with you. There’s too much at stake in this election to give McCain or the Republicans any quarter, especially after they have used abominably sleazy tactics for as long as I can remember.

    And you seem right about McCain. Little in his general-election campaign so far reminds me of the man whom I admired and who was the favorable subject of one of the first posts on this blog. He appears to have lost control of his campaign or sold his soul. I’m surprised and disappointed.

    So if I disagree with you, it’s not by much. Your point of view may be the practical one, and mine may be idealistic and naïve. (After all, I am an educator.)

    Yet three points make me think Obama’s accepting a federal limit might be worth considering. First, I’m beginning to believe that he is unlikely to lose under any circumstances. Having cast his fate with Dubya on the Iraq war, McCain has now doubled down and parroted Dubya on economics, too. An economic plan based on cutting taxes and little else cannot win this election. If McCain continues to argue that more of the same policies that got of in this mess will get us out, I doubt any amount of racism will save him.

    Second, perhaps because I’m over 60, I worry about the long term. We really do need to get money out of politics. Not every Democrat will have the enormous advantages in brains, charisma, political skill, speaking and writing ability, self-restraint and youth that Obama has over McCain. If Obama can’t bite the bullet and live on federal funds, I doubt anyone with his fund-raising ability will in the future. Obama could set an admirable precedent.

    Finally, as practical matter, Obama’s near-magical fund-raising ability will not go away. If he got slimed, he could probably raise $50 million in days to respond. I know I would do my part. Obama’s extraordinary fund-raising ability—well known by McCain and his campaign staff—might serve as a sort of “nuclear deterrent” to smears, inhibiting the Republican slime machine from operating as usual. (How practical this point is depends on details of the campaign finance laws, which I don’t pretend to understand. But I suspect there would be a way for independent groups to raise the necessary money quickly without violating the law.)

    I also think that the public, having been burned twice by Dubya, is a bit more sensitive to slime than it has been since the Willie Horton ad. If the public is going to fall for that sort of nonsense yet again, with so much at stake, then we might as well emigrate and find a country where people read real news.

    But in all of this I may indeed be too optimistic. I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision, and I’ll respect whatever decision Obama and his excellent staff make.

    I would rather Obama win a slime fest than lose a fair campaign. But I’d much rather he win a fair campaign, so that he can govern more easily. Whatever happens, I hope he won’t tarnish his honest image or become corrupted in the process.



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