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Political Processes Matter: Although They Are Often Ignored By American News Media, A New British Import Has Addressed The Issue Directly


Friday, Nov. 02, 2007

To understand the way our country operates, one must understand the functioning of its government. To understand the functioning of government, in turn, one truly must understand its processes. I am talking about something far beyond Civics 101, for reality has little relationship to the way our government, in theory, is supposed to function.

In almost seven years of writing this column, I have largely focused on one facet or another of process at the national level. Most all my books, including the autobiographical and biographical works, similarly have addressed such matters. There is a good reason for this, since I believe process is the essence of the government, directly affecting the way we live and work in our modern civilization.

Regardless of which political party controls our national government, it is the processes that produce the policy outcomes. Good policies come from good processes; bad policies inevitably flow from dysfunctional processes.

The Bush/Cheney Administration has burdened the nation with policy decisions that range from a disastrous war in the Iraq to the failure to address domestic and international issues greatly in need of serious attention. Much of what has gone wrong has happened because Republicans are manipulating, misusing, and abusing the processes of our national government. (This is something of a surprise to me, since I thought my former tribe had learned something from the public's rejection of this activity when it was done by the Nixon Administration.)

Startlingly, the Democrats - so far - are ignoring the way the GOP has been gaming the system to its advantage, and to the detriment of the broader public interest, and it has been going on for too many years. This is a troubling situation.

How Democrats Ignored Process In 2004 and 2006

Nothing was more surprising about the presidential campaign of John Kerry than its decision to ignore process questions. For example, shortly before the 2004 election, the New York Times editorially asked why the Democrat's standard bearer was not raising the excessive secrecy of the Bush/Cheney White House with voters.

Following Kerry's defeat, I contacted his campaign and asked this question myself. The response, right from the top of the campaign, surprised me. Secrecy was a process matter, I was told, and the campaign did not believe most Americans cared about process.

Also, I made inquiry in both 2004 and 2006 of Democratic congressional candidates about why they had not addressed the way the Republican control of the Congress had literally removed them from the deliberative process, not to mention the way in which Republicans had abused those the process. Particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives, such abuses had become the norm under GOP control . We saw two-day work weeks, no committee hearings, legislation written by K Street lobbyists that was slipped into bills during late night sessions, cutting Democrats out of conference committees to resolve House and Senate differences -- to name a merely few abusive techniques.

Democratic congressional candidates, not unlike the Kerry campaign, said that they had been advised by consultants that voters did not want to hear about such "process matters," and to talk about them made them appear to be wimpy and complaining. So they too avoided process issues.

Republicans, in turn, have merely increased their abusive behavior, since it has no political cost whatsoever. And they are now making Democrats look like fools, rather than an opposition party.

Conventional Beltway Wisdom on Voters' Views on Process Is Wrong

There is a belief within the mainstream media in Washington that process is unimportant to voters. While they enjoy covering the "horse race" aspects of political campaigns - which is pure process - they only occasionally talk about why Congress is not working (when Republicans refuse to conduct oversight of a Republican president or are obstructing everything the Democrats are doing), the way Republican presidents (as opposed to Democratic presidents) have worked to politicize the non-political federal judiciary, or how the judiciary only rarely provides a check on the other branches.

Many Washington pundits - Joe Klein of Time magazine, and Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, to name only two prominent and vocal deniers of the importance of process- happen to be wrong. The source of the Beltway wisdom about voters' disinterest in process is never documented nor is it explained.

Pollsters do ask voters process questions regularly, like whether they approve or disapprove of the conduct of Congress or the President; whether the country is headed in the right direction; or which political party is better at managing matters such as war or the economy. No polls, however, tend to be performed on questions such as whether voters would like more or less information about who is doing what, and how, to the processes.

This is not to say that such information has never been flushed out, for it was, by a team of political scientists at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln): John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. Their groundbreaking studies, highlighted in Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes Toward American Political Institutions (1995) and Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs About How Government Should Work (2002), establish beyond question the importance of process.

In short, conventional wisdom within the Beltway is not supported by independent studies of actual voters. (Indeed, even non-voters are interested in process.) When one sifts through this material, it is evident that Democrats and Independents, particularly, are predominantly interested in these matters.

The Guardian America Is Interested In Process

The UK's Guardian has recently started an online edition of its publication specifically directed at American readers. Michael Tomasky, the editor, acknowledged that he is interested in promoting the liberal and progressive agenda. More importantly, and as he explained when introducing this new publication, he plans to start "looking at the events of the day from a slightly different angle than US papers, and focusing in on some matters that they might ignore."

Tomasky did just that, for example, with his recent interview of Hillary Clinton. He asked her process questions that, inexplicably, no American newsperson has raised: "If you become president you'll enter the White House with far more power than, say, your husband had. What is your view of this?"

Senator Clinton responded, without script or hesitation, "I think it is clear that the power grab undertaken by the Bush-Cheney Administration has gone much further than any other president and has been sustained for longer. … I think that I'm gonna have to review everything they've done because I've been on the receiving end of that. There were a lot of actions which they took that were clearly beyond any power the Congress would have granted or that in my view that was inherent in the constitution. There were other actions they've taken which could have obtained congressional authorization but they deliberately chose not to pursue it as a matter of principle."

Surprised, Tomasky pressed, "I'm asking, can a president, once in the White House, actually give up some of this power in the name of constitutional principle?"

"Oh, absolutely, Michael," the Senator responded without a pause.

Process Must Be An Issue In 2008

To someone who follows process matters, this was an extraordinary exchange. As will be noted, the Guardian America has been addressing many process issues. But let us all hope that this is not the end of the discussion, but rather the beginning.

If Democrats do not focus on process in 2008, then not only will they be giving up a winning issue, but should the Republicans get a pass on such subjects without being held accountable, they will so change our government that it will no longer be recognizable.

Note: Mr. Dean discusses process issues at great length in his new book Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches. - Ed.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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