It’s commonplace in Washington to complain about political apathy. Experts like to note that fewer than half of eligible voters go to the polls in an average year. But it’s little wonder that average Americans don’t care much for politics. After all, it’s the so-called experts themselves who are killing politics.
For proof, look no further than the Pennsylvania Senate race.
In the Keystone state, polls show incumbent Republican Rick Santorum is trailing Democrat Bob Casey, Jr. Casey’s the state treasurer, but he’s probably better known for sharing a name with his father, the former governor and a man who was denied an opportunity to speak to the 1992 Democratic convention because he was pro-life.
In the last six weeks, Casey and Santorum have squared off in four debates, starting on NBC’s Meet the Press (Sept. 3) and finishing on a Philadelphia TV station (Oct. 16). Casey’s certainly been well prepared by his political handlers. In each exchange he’s pulled out a series of field-tested attack lines, probably written for him by political professionals.
For example, Casey has claimed repeatedly that 98 percent of the time, Santorum has voted with George W. Bush. He only shelved that line of attack when Santorum mocked him. “I think in 98 percent of his answers, he says I voted with Bush 98 percent of the time,” the Senator joked during one debate. But even with that soundbite taken out of his quiver, Casey had plenty of other lines to fall back on.
Santorum, Casey says, is a “rubber stamp” for the administration. We need to “replace Rumsfeld.” Oh, and when dealing with Iran and North Korea, we need to “exercise every option on the table.” And, invoking a popular liberal bogyman, Casey insists Santorum should “plug the Halliburton loophole to prevent companies from doing business with Iran.” That loophole, Casey announced on Oct. 16, is a “big problem.”
That’s great poll-tested rhetoric, no doubt. But Casey’s simply wrong.
Halliburton isn’t a big problem in our dealings with Iran. The big problem is whether Iran can be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon. Santorum’s refreshingly direct on that. “If we are to believe that they are close to developing a nuclear weapon,” he announced, “I would strike, without question ... Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon.” The best Casey could come up with is that, “I think this administration should make sure it listens to the military experts.”
It’s time for Americans to push back against the political consultants. As Bono said about the song Helter Skelter, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” We should do the same and steal back our political process. We can start by reclaiming a critical word: “privatization.”
Casey repeatedly uses this word as a point of attack. “The crisis [in Social Security] is Sen. Santorum’s privatization scheme. He and the president cooked up a scheme which will drain the Social Security trust fund by a trillion dollars,” Casey announced on Oct. 16. He’s repeatedly demonized “privatization,” which means it must poll-test poorly.
But what’s wrong with privatizing something? As a general rule, private industry works and the government doesn’t. People know this in their bones. An ABC News/Washington Post poll last year showed that 80 percent of Americans under age 30 don’t think Social Security will have enough money to pay them what it promises.
That’s why most people these days invest in 401(k) plans and IRAs. We trust Vanguard and Fidelity -- private, for-profit companies -- but we doubt the government. Seems what people really want is more privatization, not less.
The facts about Social Security haven’t changed. It was a growing problem last year when the president was proposing a reform package, and it’s a growing problem this year. It’ll be a growing problem until we allow workers to invest some of the money that’s taken out of their paycheck for Social Security taxes into private retirement accounts, which will allow them to earn a better return on their money than Social Security can provide.
Al Gore famously called that a “risky scheme” and Casey would no doubt agree. But just this month the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached record highs. People are voting with their wallets. Millions of people are pouring billions of dollars in after-tax earnings into stocks. Plus, as Santorum noted during one debate, Casey himself (as state treasurer) has allowed Pennsylvania to invest in Halliburton stock. So how dangerous can the stock market really be?
In their final debate, Santorum reminded Casey that “issues are important.” Well, they should be. But they clearly aren’t to Casey’s political handlers. For them, what’s important is winning, and Casey may well do so. That would be a political victory for one man, but a defeat for politics everywhere. If it happens, Americans will once again have missed a chance to reclaim the political process, or at least the critical concept of “privatization.”