One of the greatest deficiencies of American democracy - such as it is nowadays - is the near complete lack of accountability to which elected and selected officials are subjected.
There are other problems, to be sure, but the degree to which these folks can insulate themselves from the concerns and demands of their constituents is among the truly worst aspects of the way we now practice governance in this country.
The Bush administration has - surprise! - refined this insularity to - shock! - a fine art, with its secrecy, arrogance and defiance of Congressional oversight. There are endless examples of their use of raw power and pure cheekiness to avoid the people whom they're supposed to be serving. Of all their tricks, though, my very favorite was how they campaigned in 2004. You remember, don't you, back before the empire, when campaigns were about winning over undecided voters? Not with these guys. Rove made damn sure that Bush never encountered such a creature throughout the entire campaign. You literally had to be a Bush/Cheney campaign volunteer to get into events. And if you somehow got a ticket but showed up wearing the wrong t-shirt or having the wrong bumper-sticker on your car, the Secret Service literally arrested you. Some democracy, eh? Heck, even the last remaining samples of smallpox virus aren't that insulated from contact with the world.
But please don't get me started on diseases and Republicans and other kinds of regressive beasts...
I have several times now had the pleasure of observing retail politics in action in New Hampshire, as presidential candidates have to go before real voters and sway them sufficiently to win their votes. The process is imperfect, to be sure, although mainly because there isn't enough of it. I was also rather disappointed with the lack of toughness in the questions asked at the many events I observed (and Barack Obama didn't take questions at all in the session I attended). That said, I suspect the quality of the process is better there and in Iowa than anywhere in the United States, and I do think that many of the citizens of those states take their role quite seriously, and that they actually make better choices more often than does the rest of the country.
I hope we're not past the point in the process now where these candidates are being subjected to some real questioning by real people with real (non-corporate) concerns. And I hope those real people will take advantage of the minuscule opportunities remaining to pose some tough questions to these candidates.
Below is my own list of favorites. Anyone reading this in Nevada or South Carolina or anywhere beyond may feel free to use any of these questions as appropriate. Go get 'em!
HILLARY CLINTON: Your vote on both the Iraq and Iran resolutions are inexcusable. You claim to be tested, experienced and ready to go, but your rationalization for the Iraq vote is that you were essentially duped by the president, and that you were not voting to authorize war, just the threat of war. If you have such wisdom and experience, why were you fooled when so many other people throughout the world - including half the Democrats in Congress - were not? Why were you voting to give license to attack a country which had neither threatened nor attacked the United States? Why was Iraq an urgent threat that required military action when the Soviet Union was not throughout the entire Cold War?
JOHN McCAIN: Of all the candidates running, you are the greatest enthusiast for the Iraq war. You also claim to be riding the Straight-Talk Express. So, how about a little straight talk on Iraq? If Saddam Hussein was such a menace to his neighborhood, why did the United States, under Ronald Reagan, encourage him to attack Iran, and supply him with weapons and intelligence and satellite reconnaissance when he was doing so? If he was such a monster when he was using chemical weapons against both Iranians and Iraqis, why did Republican administrations in the US turn a blind eye to that and even protect the Iraqis from condemnation at the UN?
BARACK OBAMA: If you become the Democratic nominee, the GOP smear machine is going to attack you mercilessly. If you win the presidency, they are going to do everything imaginable to cripple your presidency, from the use of bogus allegations and investigations to relentless filibustering. How are you going to avoid being John Kerry? And if you manage that trick, how are you going to avoid being Bill Clinton or Harry Reid? (Hint: Saying nice things about 'hope' will be, ahem, somewhat less than sufficient to achieve that goal.)
MITT ROMNEY: Is it possible you could be any more oleaginous than you are? Oops, er, how'd that get in there? Never mind. Here's the real question: Like every other Republican running for president, you bow to the true god of your party, and the true reason for its existence: tax cuts for the wealthy. All of these cuts, going back to Reagan, have been financed by borrowing, meaning that we are flat-out simply stealing from our children. Will you apologize for sticking them with the bill for the Republican Party's party? For your reckless fiscal irresponsibility, your bacchanalia of greed and selfishness? And if you refuse to do that (and - call me a wild man out on a limb if you must - but something tells me you won't be making this apology), will you at least tell us exactly which federal government programs you will cut in order to balance the budget against your tax cuts, so that we don't increase the already monstrous $9 trillion that we now owe, the current (and rising) equivalent of $60,000 for every taxpayer in America?
JOHN EDWARDS: I know you say that you voted for the Iraq war because you were duped by the president. I don't believe you (or Hillary or Kerry) - I think you were actually running for president when you cast that most cynical and therefore most reprehensible of votes ever in American history. I could never forgive the war vote if it was for the wrong reasons, but I can't say definitively what your motivation was, and god knows that the administration did lie endlessly about the need for war. Maybe I'm wrong, and you're not just a sleazy personal injury trial attorney trying to win the Democratic nomination by playing the economic populist role. But here's the one that really troubles me, especially with my suspicions about the war vote as background. You say that you are the son of a mill-worker and all that rap you always do, and that this battle for the people's economic welfare is something that's "personal" to you, that you feel in your bones. So then my question is why did you vote with Republicans in favor of draconian bankruptcy legislation in 2000 and 2001 that would have hammered working people while enriching special interests like the financial industry? And why did you vote against Paul Wellstone's amendment that would have at least exempted people who were forced into bankruptcy due to medical bills? You say that your whole life history has led you to this moment as an anti-poverty advocate for the little people, like your dad the mill-worker. But where was your life history just seven years ago?
RUDY GIULIANI: You seek the nomination of a party which believes government should control women's reproductive choices, gays' marriage rights, individuals' choices to save their own lives by using medicinal marijuana while undergoing chemotherapy, people's right to take their own lives rather than undergoing a painful and protracted death, not to mention Terri Schiavo's family medical crisis, and was so obsessed with Bill Clinton's personal sex life that they impeached him. And yet when there are questions raised about your very public extramarital affairs, your divorces, your marriage to your cousin and your children who aren't speaking to you and are supporting other candidates, you responded by saying "Leave my family alone". Yeah, you actually said that. My question is whether you'd care to apologize to the rest of the country for your party's relentless interventions into the private lives of our families? Or are you satisfied instead to be the hypocrite of the millennium?
MIKE HUCKABEE: According to your Wikipedia entry, Mike, "On December 26, 2007 the conservative organization Judicial Watch announced that Mike Huckabee was named to its list of Washington's 'Ten Most Wanted Corrupt Politicians' for 2007. They state that Huckabee, as governor, was the subject of '14 ethics complaints and a volley of questions about his integrity, ranging from his management of campaign cash to his use of a nonprofit organization to subsidize his income to his destruction of state computer files on his way out of the governor's office'. Judicial Watch further accused Huckabee of attempting to block the state ethics commission's investigations of the allegations." My question is what would Jesus do about this? Is that in the bible? I seem to have missed the part where JC extolled politicians to engage in personal enrichment at the public's expense and destroy evidence of the crime.
FRED THOMPSON: You've been a Washington lobbyist and your kids are now Washington lobbyists. During Watergate, while you were supposedly serving as counsel to the congressional committee investigating the crime, Nixon's White House lawyer reported that you were "willing to go, you know, pretty much the distance now" in protecting the president from the Congress you were hired to serve. We all know that Republicans are supposed to lie in order to cover up for their cheating and stealing, but isn't this a bit much? Is this your idea of good governance?
DUNCAN HUNTER: Your party keeps telling us that y'all are the small government people who want to get Washington off our backs. If that's so, how come you favor every imaginable restriction on abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research, 'obscenity' and gambling? And how come such a big law-and-order guy like you has a problem with the concept of hate crimes?
MIKE GRAVEL: I salute your very real courage and prior contributions to American democracy. I love a lot of what you have to say these days, as well, but for your sake and the sake of our common values, could you leave off the tin-foil hat parts?
ALAN KEYES: Have you had your meds today?
DENNIS KUCINICH: Thank you for saying so many of the things that sorely need to be said in American politics today, especially with regard to economic justice. But here's a problem: When Francois Mitterrand tried to implement a left-leaning economic agenda in France a quarter-century ago, it crashed because of the threat of capital flight. Today, dollars are far more mobile than francs were even then. When Wall Street greets your economic program with threats of abandoning the country for cheaper places to do business (even more than they have been already), and destroying the American economy, what will you do? What do you know that Mitterrand did not?
RON PAUL: What the hell are you doing in the Republican Party?
AL GORE: History is screaming your name (see above list of lame candidates). What the hell are you doing on the sidelines?
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net