First, I'm voting for Bruce Braley for the Senate. Easy.
I first came to know of Braley through the Iowa Association for Justice, and I received the impression of someone who was impressively knowledgeable and diligent. I was delighted when he chose to run for Congress, and he was the person I thought of when Senator Harkin announced his retirement. He’s hard working, bright, and has the right instincts on the issues.
Of his opponent, I think little useful can be said. She gained notoriety sufficient to win the primary by riding a motorcycle, shooting a gun, and castrating pigs. Otherwise, she seems to follow the Tea Party line, which is long on complaint and short on ideas. Repeal Obamacare, guns for all, tax cuts: line up the usual suspects. I do, however, want to make one thing clear. The fact that she’s from Red Oak does not prejudice me against her. I have some great friends from Red Oak. And after all, it’s not as if she’s from Clarinda.
I’ve read the “issues” sections of each candidate’s website and find the usual nostrums and platitudes. I prefer Braley’s, but it’s like choosing one’s favorite pabulum when what you really want is steak. I’ve followed politics since the second grade (when I “endorsed” Richard Nixon for president over JFK). I’ve watched The West Wing reruns, I’ve practiced law, and I’ve read Max Weber and Reinhold Niebuhr. I understand that in politics one has to make choices and compromises that you’d rather not have to make. Reality—other powers—impose hard choices on us. Good politics mixes realism with idealism. Good politicians must know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. When I looked at Braley’s website, I didn’t see anything about reasonable limits on guns, global climate change, foreign policy realism, or political corruption (although his emails about Citizens United to do show concern about this later topic). I knew that I shouldn't expect to see such things.
But setting aside the concerns of reality for a moment, here’s a speech that I dream that Bruce Braley—or any candidate—might give. A speech that takes the gloves off and addresses what ought to be our most pressing concerns:
The Dream Speech
Imagine Bruce Braley, in the midst of his campaign, chooses to give a speech to a large audience, a full bank of microphones as a shield before him, TV lights illuminating him, and a large, live audience eager to hear him speak. The audience is mixed; Iowans from all walks of life. What they have in common is a belief that the choice of a U.S. Senator is a crucial choice, and they want to hear what he has to say. The campaign is in full swing, and sound bites of stump speeches have littered the airwaves, along with the canned commercials showing each candidate with family and farm fences in the background. And the next minute we see advertisements that show how vile and alien are the beliefs of the opponent. The ads exhibit the usual mind-numbing drivel that consultants tell campaigns they must peddle in mass quantities to trigger the appropriate Pavlovian reactions among the docile voting public.
This audience on this occasions expects a typical stump speech, but they secretly hope for something more. It’s a major event. Maybe today will be different. Braley steps to the microphone. He speaks:
Fellow Iowans,Thank you for sharing this time with me. I've been campaigning for this U.S. Senate seat since Senator Tom Harkin announced that he would not run for re-election. During this time and in my time as a Congressman, I've staked out positions on all sorts of issues. I've voted for and against all kinds of legislation. I've made statements and issued position papers, written letters to constituents, and answered questions on about every conceivable issue a member of Congress can expect to receive—and some you'd never think that we'd get.
If you voters have paid any attention to this race, you have some sense of what I'm about. You know that I'm a Democrat. That means that I believe that government can be an effective tool to improve our lives. Government programs can be—but aren't always—effective in improving our lives. Being a Democrat means that we believe that we all should benefit from government and that we all should contribute to a degree that is as fair as we can hope it to be in this imperfect world. Being a Democrat means that government should act pragmatically, creating a government that's sometimes smaller and sometimes bigger. We reject the blanket proposition that smaller government is always better government and that less taxes are always better for everyone. Our gauge isn’t the size of government. We judge government by its effectiveness in delivering the services that benefit our citizens and that work to keep us safe. We Democrats are guided by a sense of fairness and the public good. Debates about where to draw the lines of government began with the Founding of the Republic and will continue. The devil is in the details.
But today I want to address the larger picture, beyond the usual laundry list of how particular programs that I support will benefit children, or teachers or veterans, or the elderly, or women, or farmers, or a seemingly endless list of other groups to which most of you probably belong. Today, I want to address those issues that go beyond our common, more limited characterizations of our concerns and ourselves. I want to talk about those issues that should concern us all. The wider focus gets shunted aside in our incessant marketing of positions to groups defined by how government affects their bottom line. But because you care about whom you will support for the U.S. Senate will make a difference for our future, I want to address some of the fundamentals that we usually try to hide from. Let me therefore share these ideas with you:
Buying and Selling Influence. Our political system is badly corrupted. The corrupting agent is money, lots and lots of money. Our current political system has legalized bribery. Anyone running for office today at the federal level most worship at the feet of the big campaign contributors. I appreciate the $5, the $25 or $100 that you send, but's its small change for what it costs to run a campaign today. The real money comes from interest groups, shady super-pacs, and extremely wealthy individuals. The bigger the contribution, the more the moneyed interests will influence legislation. This isn't an insider's secret knowledge, it's human nature, it's Econ 101. He that pays the piper calls the tune. You students of history recognize that this problem isn't new, but it's gotten worse. It's out of control. We have to do something about it because Big Money is warping the outcome of our political process.
To take concrete steps to counter this pernicious infection, I'm endorsing the programs of two groups aimed at restoring our political process to end the most egregious effects of Big Money in politics. I am endorsing the programs of Root Strikers and Represent Us. I pledge to change our system of political financing so that the corruption of Big Money will no longer call the tune and fundamentally distort the democratic process.
The Senate Filibuster. Another alarming warp in our political institutions involves the U.S. Senate, the body to which I seek election. Minority rule now controls that chamber. I’m speaking about the filibuster. For those you my age or older, you probably first learned about the filibuster by reading about it in the daily paper or in history class, about how Senators from the Old South used it as a weapon to fight civil rights legislation. Those tactics failed and the American Dream moved forward despite that its use. But in the last twenty years or more, and especially during the term of President Obama, the filibuster has changed from a rarely used device to stall legislation into a common tool to impose minority rule on the Senate and the nation. It requires the Senate to pass legislation or confirm judges by a super-majority. To block Senate action requires only 41 members oppose a vote—just a vote! This isn't about debate. It's about obstruction of the will of the majority. The issue of the filibuster goes far beyond free debate and Senate tradition. It creates a regime of minority rule. I support and relish free and vigorous debate in the Senate, but I don't believe that a minority—even if I'm a member of that minority—should hold the power to veto the will of the majority and counter the intention of the Constitution. I will strive to end this practice.
Guns. Let's be honest: when it came to the Second Amendment to the Constitution that includes the provision about the "right to bear arms", the Founders blew it. I’m not sure what they intended. Scholars aren't sure. Those who claim certainty have the least basis for their beliefs. We would be better off throwing it out and starting over, drafting something new that we can understand and that addresses the realities of the 21st century.
Does this mean banning all guns? Don't be ridiculous. Limiting all gun ownership and possession is neither proper nor practical. However, we do need to make sure that we create reasonable restrictions on weapons that serve the needs of the community for safe schools, homes, and workplaces. We have to make sure that gun ownership and possession balances responsibilities with rights. We must stop sanctifying guns and recognize them as having legitimate uses, such as for hunting, sports, and law enforcement and having criminal uses. Whether we’re talking about handguns, semi-automatic assault rifles, mortars, grenades, or weapons of mass destruction, we have to take reasonable, practical steps to regulate weapons to protect ourselves. We need to stop worshiping guns and treat them as the weapons that they are and the useful tools that they can be. We should no longer worship the Moloch created and promoted by the NRA. Our idolatry requires us to sacrifice too many children, teachers, colleagues, friends, and family. We must act sensibly now.
Climate Change. Not so long ago, I thought that global climate changed caused by our current energy system would be the most significant issue we would leave to our children. I was wrong. The problem isn’t waiting for the future. Try as we have to ignore or dismiss the threat, it won’t go away. We cannot act as if it’s a child’s nighttime monster that will retreat if only we hide under the covers. This monster that we—the modern industrial world—has created, like Frankenstein's monster, must now be brought to heel by us, its creators, before it wrecks too much havoc on this earth we inhabit. We cannot easily change the economic and energy systems that have made us the most privileged and prosperous human generation to have ever inhabited this earth. But we cannot continue to foist the dregs of our economic miracle onto the future that our children and grandchildren will inherit. In fact, the future has arrived, and we must reduce the amount of carbon and other greenhouse gasses that we are dumping into the atmosphere. This is a scientific, engineering, economic, and—most of all—political problem that we must address before it's too late. We must adopt a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade regime (or combination of the two). We must develop conservation measures and alternative energy sources. We have to do these things before we are compelled to spend vast sums on projects that will prove difficult and perhaps unsuccessful. This goal transcends the particular interests of farmers, drivers, oil and power companies, and ordinary citizens. We must develop an effective response before the problem rends our social fabric. Change will hurt some more than others and so we must seek to spread the burdens equitably and to promote new opportunities for those subject to change.
In sum, we either cure ourselves now with some hard choices or suffer the remedies that Mother Nature will impose upon us in her fury at our desecration of her gift to us.
We must stop fighting foolish wars. In my lifetime, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have all taken away from America more than we could have ever gained. In the way of young lives, lost limbs, shattered minds, and billions of dollars that could have been spent more wisely, we as a nation have paid a heavy toll. We have the most powerful, most awesome, and most well-armed, trained, and disciplined armed forces in world history. But our leaders’ failures of wisdom in choosing when to deploy those armed forces in the national interest of the United States have harmed our nation. We must understand the limits of military power even as we have cultivated this most mighty military. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have offered these lessons, but we haven't been smart students. The cost of our pride and foolishness will only increase. We must actively resist the lure of the Situation Room where the adrenaline rush of life and death decisions, enhanced by the reach and potency of technology, creates a temptation for any president to deploy force when so much power lies in his or her hands. We need to think strategically and realistically about how can protect our national interests, with the use of force as only a last, most carefully weighed, option. We must be wary of delegating to a president from any party the authority to wage war without the approval of Congress and the approval of a fully and truthfully informed American public.
In conjunction with limiting the war-making power and predilection of our government, we must also curtail the mentality that justifies infringing upon and degrading our civil liberties. Make no mistake here: belief in a strong, effective government does not entail the endorsement of an omniscient government that spies without constraint on its citizens and subverts due process of law. These problems arise from the militarization of our government in the face of fear of foreign enemies, both nations and trans-national terrorists. We have to act decisively in a changing environment, but we have to recognize that crossing some lines take us down a path that we should never want to travel.I will stop here. This is not a list of all of the pressing issues that we face, issues about jobs, sustainable economic growth, the size and role of government, public finance, and issues of legal rights. Nor have I addressed the growing economic inequality that divides our nation and that fundamentally distorts the social and economic mix that marked the height of our national success in the post-World War II era. But you’ve been a patient audience, and I will not tax your patience more fully. We cannot—and should not attempt—to create a Perfect Union. We can only strive to create a More Perfect Union. Our task is never complete. Human fallibility, our limited understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and the distorted lens of self-knowledge that we all have, make perfection impossible. But we must act. Political decisions are about choosing our future. It's messy and irrational; often comic, sometimes tragic, but it molds our future as a nation, as a community, as a planet. We can choose to strive to think and act rationally with a sense of love for this precious fleeting life that we are given, or we can descend back into the myriad hells of war, pestilence, and famine that have marked most of human history. I offer these proposals to you as my ideas for a better future for all of us.
Postscript: I read a couple of brief press accounts of the race. What a bunch of garbage. Wake up, Iowans!