West Wing The Three Myths of the US Election Campaign

"Change" is the buzzword in the US election campaign. Hoping to emulate Barack Obama's popular success, candidates from both parties are suddenly jumping on the change bandwagon. But some of the things they want to change are in fact sacrosanct -- like the Constitution.

By Gabor Steingart in Washington

In the US presidential race, it seems the only constant is change.

In the US presidential race, it seems the only constant is change.

At first sight, the candidates in this year's presidential primaries couldn't be more different: a Vietnam veteran, a former first lady, a Baptist preacher, a business executive, a wealthy trial lawyer championing the poor and an African-American senator from Illinois.

"What a selection!" some might exclaim enthusiastically. Truly, democracy at its best! What else could you want?

But the differences aren't as great as they seem, and because of this lack of diversity in their views, the candidates are trying to outdo one another in a contest to determine who is the most willing to bring about real change. "Change" is the buzzword of the season. Suddenly everyone wants to change everything, especially the way politics is conducted today.

But this is a debate that thrives on three myths, which, despite their extraordinary popularity, will remain myths. The first is a bogeyman which everyone shares and which appears to be more hated than Islamist terrorists, greedy corporations and the pig-headed current president, George W. Bush. The new cross-party enemy is called Washington.

In this election campaign, Washington, D.C. has become the new public enemy number one. In the public eye, the letters D.C. might as well stand for Devil City rather than District of Columbia. To get the attention of voters, all a candidate has to say is: "Washington is fundamentally broken and incapable of dealing with the challenges we have." Those happen to have been Republican Mitt Romney's words, but when it comes to demonizing Washington and its inside-the-Beltway machinations, it could just as well have been Barack Obama or his fellow Democrats speaking. Indeed, the ideal anti-Washington candidate would be someone named John Barack McRomney.

Status Quo and Rebellion

Paradoxically, Washington is the most vital capital city in the West today, notwithstanding its incompetent leadership in recent years. There is not a single capital in the entire world that operates so precisely, almost like clockwork -- and where the polar opposite of everything the current administration does is reflected in the ideas and words being expressed across the street -- literally -- from the seat of power.

The think tanks on H Street, K Street and Massachusetts Avenue are a collection of miniature governments-in-waiting. They are the incubators for breathtaking concepts of America's future -- an energy policy without oil, a social policy with universal health insurance and a foreign policy that puts its faith in diplomacy.

Washington always embodies both the status quo and rebellion. It is a city in which reality and the dream of overcoming reality share a king-sized bed. If there is any place in the world where the word "change" has a home, then it has to be Washington, D.C.

The second myth that the candidates like to toss around on an almost daily basis is that America has fallen into the hands of lobbyists. Democratic contender John Edwards was the first to talk about what he called the "special interest pack." Now, because Edwards' stance seemed to go across well, everyone has taken up his rallying cry. The lobbyist is the scapegoat of this election campaign.

An odd uniformity of tone has developed. "While you're working in the fields, lobbyists are working in Congress to block the rural reforms America needs," Democrat Barack Obama told an audience in Iowa. Earlier, Republican candidate John McCain had complained in his 2002 memoir that "money does buy access in Washington."

But lobbyists and special interest groups don't deserve so much attention, not by any stretch of the imagination. About 140 years ago, in the days of President Ulysses S. Grant, unpopular petitioners could apparently be found congregating in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, just a few blocks from the White House. They would stand there for hours on end, hoping that the president would stop by the hotel for a nightcap, as he often did. Grant was said to have disparagingly referred to the people who routinely accosted him in the lobby as "lobbyists."

Their reputation hasn't changed much to this day, except that women have joined their ranks and they often have large offices and staffs. They attempt to advise and influence -- and sometimes even trick -- the administration.

The government, for its part, is also interested in what lobbyists have to say. It's impossible for the president of a country of more than 300 million people to sit down with each individual farmer to discuss his concerns; instead, he can ask the chairman of the farmers' association for his views. Individual companies, for their part, cannot send their representatives to the West Wing of the White House; instead, they send the head of their chamber of commerce and industry to meet with the president.

But governing is the administration's job. The differences between the 42nd and 43rd presidents of the United States, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, are a case in point. The middle class benefited under Clinton, but under Bush it has suffered financially. Clinton dispatched former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright out into the world. Bush sends General David Petraeus.

'One Nation '

The third myth is the most dangerous of them all, because it shakes the very foundations of the United States Constitution. Critics across party lines claim that America is a divided nation, whipped up into a frenzy by both parties, which they insist are only capable of thinking in terms of friends and foes. All of the current candidates promise to put an end to the current atmosphere of polarization and forge a great consensus. "We are one nation," says Obama. So does Mitt Romney. And so does everyone else.

But this system of dialogue, of checks and balances, is precisely what the framers of the Constitution intended. It is arduous and often nerve-wracking, but it works.

One party keeps the other party in check. Sometimes the House of Representatives opposes the Senate, or both pounce -- when needed -- on the man in the White House. This is the way it works -- and it's the way it is supposed to work.

Democracy thrives on differences of opinion, which translate into differences between parties. Promising to put an end to this ongoing dispute makes about as much sense as a supermarket manager announcing plans to combine the meat and produce departments -- and justifying his decision by saying that the management wants to overcome the decades-long polarization between steak-lovers and vegetarians.

Citizens would be well-advised to demand disagreement and harsh words. The parties must remain partisan if voters are to have a real choice. In the country ruled by consensus that the candidates are now touting, voters would end up feeling like the shoppers in the imaginary supermarket with its combined meat-and-produce department: Vegetarians and meat-eaters would be equally unhappy.

Putting up with contradictions is probably a necessary part of the Washington system. After all, the American capital has never been entirely free of hypocrisy.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, was an early example of that hypocrisy. He opposed slavery politically, and yet he owned slaves himself. And, as DNA tests have now demonstrated, he fathered at least one child with his housekeeper, Sally Hemmings.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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