Charlie Arlinghaus

December 11, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

We all need to start ignoring political soap operas and focus on the real work of government. Sadly, the media is likely to report frequently and breathlessly about who likes who and who’s mad at who while ignoring most of the substantive policy discussions that help determine the strength of our economy and whether you have any hope of finding a job. Like celebrity gossip, the backroom personal dramas are fun to cover and more interesting to far too many people in our increasingly substance free polity.

No true political coverage can completely ignore process nor should we expect it to. The process of selecting policymakers (i.e. elections) is very important as it determines which policy prescriptions are likely and even possible. But between elections something happens other than just posturing for the next election. Governing in a free society is not an extended preseason for the next election, rather the opposite is true. In theory, an election is simply a prelude to the real decision making.

I worry that the next two years, however, will be dominated not by descriptions of the choices before government but by a constant speculation about backroom politics and who is or isn’t positioned well. Two dynamics, one legislative and the other gubernatorial, have already established this threat.

Governor Maggie Hassan is about to start her second term. I wonder what she will advocate in her budget, how she will propose dealing with reasonably large budget imbalances the state faces, and whether she proposes expanded gambling again and how it will differ from her proposal of two years ago. In addition, I presume she will have other initiatives to change the direction of the state.

People regularly ask me about the governor. Rarely do they ask about spending levels, tax policy, or economic incentives. Always they ask “do you think she’s running against Kelly?” Sen. Kelly Ayotte will run for re-election in 2016 (not quite two years from now) and Gov. Hassan is widely expected to challenge her or at least face national pressure to do so.

Every action and proposal is going to be judged not on its merits but on “whether or not this sets her up well for 2016.” Every statement will be parsed for its 2016 meaning. Every reaction to the governor will be colored in the 2016 light. It makes for an easy discussion that avoids anyone having to figure out anything substantive.

Instead of endless political speculation, can we take a moment and attack or praise proposals the governor makes simply on their merits? It is possible she will have some good ideas you’ll actually support but vote against her two years from now. Similarly, you are free to think she’s the bee’s knees but still part company on a proposal or two.

If gubernatorial-senatorial politics weren’t bad enough, the latest State House drama has far too many lawmakers ignoring substance themselves and degenerating into name calling and petulance. There are many issues of process and tradition built into the surprising drama last week when the expected Republican speaker lost narrowly to another Republican elected by an apparent coalition of Democrats and Republicans.

There are very strong feelings on both sides and I don’t want to minimize them. I’m sure there will be attempted coups and backroom shenanigans of all sorts. But I would prefer not to care. I would prefer that each and every legislator with sore or triumphal feelings keep his internal angst to himself. There’s a lot of work to do. Retributive justice can be served quietly while the rest of us think you’re doing your job.

The budget has more holes in it than Swiss cheese. Our pension is still among the worst funded in the country. Our job growth is mediocre at best. Energy prices are depressingly (in an economic sense) high, and the old competitive New Hampshire is a distant memory.

There is enough to work on to keep 424 people quite busy. I may have preferred this person or that person win the procedural vote to preside just as I may have preferred a person or two in the November elections. But what really matters is not which personality occupies which chair but what they each do and what policies end up imposed upon us.

Charlie Arlinghaus

November 5, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

This too shall pass. If your people lost this election or won this election, my words of consolation and words of warning are identical. The election didn’t mean what you thought it did. This was not a sweeping denunciation of your way of life, your philosophical outlook, or your taste in personalities. This was an aberration.

One set of people has been given a chance to do a few things or not do a few things. We are not a lost people turning searching eyes to our last hope of leadership, begging him and her to show us the way, teach us to see the light, and find a new way of living.

Rather we are a weary and apathetic bunch who have to elect someone and chose this lot this year. We know we will be disappointed – at least to the extent that we even care. In truth most of us are so disengaged that we don’t have the energy to be apathetic.

Consider that in an election that set numerous spending records, that bombarded us with television advertising, that burdened our mailboxes with remarkably similar pieces of direct mail for and against someone or the other – in a year like that most of us didn’t bother to exercise our voting privilege. Roughly 60% of those eligible to vote didn’t bother to do so. They could have but chose not to.

Let me take the opportunity to quote to you my favorite author: me. In 2010, I warned the incoming horde of Republicans not to presume a revolution. The landslide was temporary; “Sweeping landslides of the sort we experienced this month are not unusual but rather a now commonplace feature of the voters’ general annoyance with their elected leadership.”

I think this fickleness is as it ought to be. The elected official is not our new best friend. We have not placed our trust and hopes permanently in that person. Rather, we have temporarily hired someone to do a temporary job. We fully expect them to disappoint us. And rarely have they failed to do so.

Too many politicians think about doing as little as possible after the election. They decide the importance of their service outweighs any need to actually act. The melodrama of the election gives them some inflated sense of how much the tired, worn down voter actually cares.

Statewide candidates will run around proclaiming “Nebraska is Jones country,” proving only that narcissism and complete cluelessness can coexist. Nebraska is Nebraska. The voters don’t cede control to some two bit politician. The majority of them care so little they skip the election. The rest are merely annoyed about the pollution of political paraphernalia.

A typical voter, overheard at the polls yesterday, said “thank God it’s over. I hope they stop calling now.” This is how disgusted and annoyed someone who actually voted is. He’s thinking about politicians not with passion but with the same resignation one shows the dog who has torn up the couch.

I don’t mean to imply there is no hope or that it is a waste of all our time. There are things that need doing. The state budget needs to be fixed (again). The federal government could stand to actually have a budget once in a while. Those things can and might actually happen.

Four years ago, a state representative asked me “what happens if we make all the difficult decisions to fix this thing but then get voted out because it was difficult.” He was speaking of an $800 million budget problem. I said, “You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you, unlike most politicians, actually did something.” That was good enough for him.

The state and the country face a lot of problems. None of them will be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone. There is another election coming up in just two years. But that’s not an excuse to stall for two years. Elections are aberrations and useless if politicians simply hold office and play a waiting game.

You got elected this time but you can and will be thrown out. Why not use the time you have to actually do something? Remember, nobody likes you. They are merely renting you and fully prepared to be disappointed. Surprise them.


Charlie Arlinghaus

October 29, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Our political culture is being destroyed by a cult of celebrity. Slowly but surely any meaningful discussion of ideas is being crowded out by personalities and the occasional meaningless poll number. Campaigns will never really become a battle of philosophies and spreadsheet but our state’s obsession with famous figures ensures that politics and policy resembles Entertainment Tonight more than the Nightly Business Report.

New Hampshire has the misfortune to be home to the first Presidential Primary. It has unfortunately turned us into political creatures who worship political celebrity, preferring the allure and supposed glamour of nationally famous politicians (at least famous to cable news groupies) to any real attempt to get to know local politicians and understand what new ideas they would each inflict on us.

The activist base of both parties is fascinated by political celebrity. Hold a candidate forum and a handful of people or perhaps a dozen will show up to hear those who would represent us tell us what they stand for. On the other hand, Bill Clinton shows up and hordes turn out to hear him. Technically, he’s there to push the politicians seeking office but crowds in this presidential primary state are reliving the supposed good old days.

That same fascination and political star gazing extends to much of the political media. Clinton explaining a federal candidate’s positions would be meaningful but it’s disappointing to hear reporters gushing “The Comeback Kid is Back in New Hampshire!” Clinton’s fame in the primary chronicles was that he turned a second place finish here into a quasi-victory by saying “New Hampshire, tonight, has made Bill Clinton the Comeback Kid.”

Arguably, those reporters who pride themselves on writing the first, rough draft of history should be interested – to at least some degree – in explaining the substance of that history. Perhaps we can forgive the star struck giddiness when faced with a famously charismatic former president of these United States. But surely that giddiness ought not to extend to every politician from away who happens to visit like Elizabeth Warren, Chris Christie, or George Pataki.

Charlie Perkins, long time New Hampshire journalist and former editor of this paper, commented recently “Every time a key NH political reporter covers a surrogate’s rally, one issue-focused story doesn’t get written or broadcast. Just say no.”

Perkins is quite correct and has put his finger on a problem with both modern campaigning and reporting. Celebrity has a tendency to crowd out substance. We cover extra personalities at the expense of message. For candidates, the coverage of the supposedly larger personality may offer reflected stature but it tends to overshadow any ability to deliver a campaign theme or message.

But, in an era of fewer and fewer outlets for coverage, the celebrity is an easier way to make it into the newspapers or onto the airwaves. Nonetheless, it comes with a price.

Watch the coverage lately. To be sure, the major candidates in each party are touring this restaurant or that pharmacy with a known national figure. Occasionally, they even hold an old fashioned rally with the celebrity. The coverage focuses on the fact of the appearance – “McCain and Havenstein greet voters in local restaurant.”  Or “Warren holds rally with Shaheen.”

Is this persuasive? It certainly shouldn’t be: one famous officeholder endorses the candidate of his or her own party. Who’s surprised here? On another level, it is particularly unhelpful to the would-be future officeholder.  The appearance overshadows your ability to tell me what you believe and how it differs from my other choice in the election. If all you want me to know is that you are a party member in good standing then I suppose this works. But I learn nothing much about what you want to do.

The celebrity is useful for the reporter too. Rather than sift through a hodge-podge of inarticulate prose to find the newsworthy proposal, the famous person provides drama and a story. Readers and listeners are, after all, not particularly interested in substance so why not give them the political version of Entertainment Tonight?

Perhaps no one is to blame.  The political celebrity has an ego boost from campaigning in the first presidential primary state. The candidate is happy to be covered and doesn’t have to get into too much detail.  Readers and watchers get an easy story with pretty pictures.  In the end, perhaps, we get what we deserve.

Charlie Arlinghaus

August 6, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Every elected official fancies him or herself a statesman, a leader whose portrait will soon grace currency after he or she carefully deliberates a new constitution or the next Treaty of Versailles. In reality, they are mere functionaries we hire to perform tasks we are too busy to do ourselves. They are replaceable with a long line of equally or perhaps more satisfactory contractors willing to take each of their places at a moment’s notice.

I don’t mean to denigrate the politicians we hire to represent us in our constitutional republic. Nor do I suggest they are without talent or industry. In fact, I would prefer we hire the most talented and industrious contractors available for the job. If I need electrical work or plumbing done, I want to hire someone with talent and knowledge that I don’t myself possess.

But all too often, the romance and comfort of high office seduces the person we elect into believing that he or she is our leader, our better, someone with specialized knowledge and wisdom who can’t be replaced. This is more likely at the federal level with large salaries, dozens of staff to follow you around, carry your bags, and generally tug their forelock as they bow before you. It tends to be less seductive to make $100 annually and receive, for your trouble, a locker in the basement and free tolls.

During election season, the visions of statesmanship and servitude compete for attention in the sight of those seeking elective office. A candidate wants to simultaneously portray him or herself as something special and remarkable as well as an everyman, a regular palooka like you or me.

On the one hand they want to impress us with their knowledge of the problems of the day and their ability to analyze the issues and propose solutions. On the other hand they want us to know that they will strictly represent us, they believe what we believe, they will do precisely what we want and nothing more or less.

In 1774, Edmund Burke spoke to the voters of Bristol of a representative’s competing obligations to those he represents: “It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

The sometimes contradictory and often competing impulses are not inconsistent with the view of the elected as contractors. We pay a plumber for his knowledge and his judgment but not to put the sink where he wants but where we want.

In this respect it is critical for those seeking election to tell us as much as they can about their judgment, their analysis of the current problems of the day, and their preferred solutions. We expect not that we will agree in each particular but rather that we can form a complete picture of the man or woman who seeks to serve us, how they might react, and the philosophy they bring to the table.

Every year, campaign professionals (particularly those with the misfortune of living in greater Washington) will advise candidates to run away from specifics. Other actually well-meaning people are annoyed with specifics like pledging to oppose an income tax.

The thought is that being less specific presents fewer targets for attack and doesn’t limit your action post election. On the other hand, a candidate that won’t offer opinion or defers specifics to blue ribbon commissions merely sends us the message that he or she is vague, shifty, and more interested in being elected than in doing anything.

It is at election time that we have the best chance of finding the true character and opinions which will guide those we temporarily contract to serve us. They owe us their honest answers and opinions but only if we insist they give them to us.

Charlie Arlinghaus

July 16, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

It is easy to become cynical about politics and partisanship and any other p word we aren’t supposed to like. The list of difficulties with modern politics is long and not that different from the supposedly but not actually noble past. The problem is that politics is practiced by people who are all too human, self-important, unaware of their own deviation from the typical, interested in ease not work, and a bit too excitable. In short, Pogo was right. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Pogo was a nice philosophical possum who ran for president. Not in reality of course but in a comic strip. The current constitution does not allow for a possum to serve in the Oval Office. Pogo was a popular comic strip in the 1950s and 1960s. Comics were then as they are now the most important part of the newspaper. That gave our friendly possum the ability to speak the truth to us.

Human beings are, as they always been, imperfect and flawed. Yet none seem so flawed as the denizens of the political world. The nobility of public service is tempered, as so many virtues are tempered, by the all too human impulses of those in it.

One difficulty is that political activity is conducted in full public view with armchair quarterbacks amused by every mistake, second guessing every statement, and parsing every utterance to twist into embarrassment.

The problem is partially theirs and mostly ours. We reward bad behavior and are apathetic about good behavior. Americans seem to enjoy nothing quite so much as a train wreck. Good news bores us, bad news excites us. Complicated explanations are soporific, simple horror stories are amusing. “He seems sound and rational” is not quite as fun to say as “holy cow, he fell flat on his face.”

In Utopia, politics ought to be about competing visions to solve the problems of the day. Two respectful opponents ought to engage in a rational discussion about the best path forward. Debate should take the form of discussion of unintended consequences, long term outcomes, and comparative advantages. But, let’s be honest, to most of us that’s about as boring as reading one of my columns (no offense to those of you reading and thank you for doing so).

I remember a day in 1996 when Phil Gramm, a policy-oriented senator running for president, unveiled a thoughtful and detailed small business plan. It took some time and it was quite serious. Unfortunately he unveiled it in a pizza shop and took the opportunity to toss dough. The stories and pictures were about a senator tossing dough in the air. The substance of his plan was much easier to ignore. No one wants to read that stuff. Not that each reporter covering the campaign didn’t complain about the lack of substance in modern politics compared the noble days of the past.

The noble days of the past of course included one senator beating another on the floor of the Senate with a cane, one gubernatorial candidate in Manchester slandering another by falsely claiming he slurred an ethnic group by talking about frogs hopping across the river, and the supporters of one founding father running stories about another founding father having affairs with his slaves. Such was the noble past.

Today, a professional class of itinerant political journeyman travel from one campaign to another, often in states they have little contact with and few roots in, working month in and month out in a subculture (campaigns) that has learned the lessons demonstrated by Phil Gramm. Substance doesn’t sell. Scandal does.

So we are treated to campaigns where everything is a scandal. Your opponent doesn’t have a bad idea. Instead he’s trying to fool you, or he’s hiding something, or some misspeak clearly disqualifies him. You and I might have a bad day and snap at someone or say something stupid when asked a question we don’t have time to think about clearly. That’s okay. A team of wolves isn’t watching. The politician who misspeaks saves his opponent the trouble of making a case for himself. Humans might stumble. Politicians may not. Statesmen can be boring. Politicians must be entertaining and relatively substance free.

Campaigns are not permitted to “get into the weeds” (what you might call substance). Instead, the other side must be portrayed as less human, less typical, or less “one of us” than my guy. Personality and pop culture are used to show not that I have a good idea but that “I’m like you.” He’s not like you so you needn’t even listen to him. The difficulty is that they are all like us and that’s not a pretty sight.