Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Vermont’s Two-Year Term Is Not the Problem

Vermont’s political establishment has often advocated extending the terms of office for some or all statewide offices from two to four years. Today, that group includes Tim Ashe, Senator from Chittenden County and Senate president pro tempore.

1983 Graphic, Vermont Council for Democracy
Ashe, a close political ally of Bernie Sanders who is proposing four constititutional amendments, argues that Vermont's governor should have a four-year term. More would be accomplished, he suggests, if governors did not have to seek re-election so often. This is not a new idea. The surprise is that it is coming this time from a Progressive, albeit one of several who also runs as a Democrat.

In the late 1950s a Commission to Study State Government — known as the “Little Hoover Commission” for its similarity to a federal effort in the 1940s led by the former Republican president — concluded that forcing candidates to campaign for re-election so often was a waste of money and detrimental to the state’s welfare. 

The necessary constitutional amendment failed in the legislature. But the idea was brought back repeatedly over the next decades. In 1974, at the height of the Watergate scandal, it was voted down on Town Meeting Day.

In his 1983 inaugural address, Governor Richard Snelling nevertheless recommended four-year terms for the governor and lieutenant governor “as a team.” His rationale was that the “structure and complexity of our society and the value of experienced administrative leadership” had increased. Leaders of both the Republican and Democratic Party supported the proposal, citing the increased expense of campaigns and the need for more continuity in program implementation.

At first passage seemed assured. But criticism surfaced at a public hearing. Political Scientist Frank Bryan argued that voting for governor every two years tends to “keep the chief executive’s attention on campaign promises made” and serves as a way of make “mid-course corrections.” A four year term, he said, would strengthen the executive branch without helping the legislature to balance that power.

James Guest, Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s Secretary of Development at the time and soon to be elected Secretary of State, was vocally opposed to the change. In response to the argument that running every two years is inconvenient, he replied at the hearing, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. No one ever said political life was convenient or easy.”

Guest also noted that “it’s a safe bet that many governors in the middle of a four-year term may well run for Congress or the U.S. Senate. The incentive may even be greater because they’ve got a safe job to go back to if they lose...”

He concluded: “No one has shown me that Massachusetts or New York or California or Alaska or any other state has a more efficient, more representative government because they’ve got four-term terms. I’ll take Vermont over any of them.”

When it was finally brought to a vote, the four-term term failed again. But several months later the Democrats took control of the Vermont Senate and Madeleine Kunin became governor.  And she made a Constitutional Amendment to establish four-year terms for statewide officials a priority. 

Supporters of the idea, which was eventually abandoned, included former office-holders and people expressing concern about the increasing expense of campaigns. On the other hand, The Burlington Free Press had joined the opposition. “Should voters be dissatisfied with the performance of a governor,” the paper argued in an editorial, “they would have the opportunity to reject the chief executive after he (sic) has been in office for two years. Election to a four-year term would mean that the public would be forced to tolerate inadequate performance for a longer period.”

The editorial finished with an adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But that didn’t stop politicians from continuing to bring up the idea.

Increasing terms of statewide office would undoubtedly be one of the most significant changes in the structure of Vermont government in more than a century. When proposed in 1960, the amendment was eventually withdrawn by its own sponsor, Edward Janeway. When brought back in the 1970s, it was voted down, largely because people were suspicious of increased executive power at the time. 

A look at Vermont’s constitutional history suggests that a change of similar magnitude has been made only twice. In 1836, after several years with an Anti-Mason governor, the state’s Council of Censors successfully called for a move from a unicameral to a bicameral legislature. There was a good deal of dissatisfaction with the House of Representatives. 

According to historians Andrew and Edith Nuquist, “the bankers of the state seem to have swung behind the movement (to create the Senate) in the expectation that two chambers would be easier to control than a single one.” At this point, all officials were elected annually.

The next major shift came in 1870, when terms of office were extended to two years and the constitutional amendment process itself was changed. The idea was that the legislature, rather than a Constitutional Convention, would henceforth initiate change — but only once every ten years. That “time lock” provision was later shortened to five-year intervals, but it remained a deterrent to rapid changes in the structure and process of governance.

Almost every time that the opportunity to make amendments is open, someone suggests extending terms of office, for governor or all statewide officials. Usually, at least one of the arguments is that it takes more than two years to put programs in place. Meanwhile, opponents have suggested that two-year terms make it easier to dispatch those officials whose policies or performance do not please the electorate. 

As for “putting programs in place,” Secretary of State Guest responded in the 1980s, “The fact that that governor has to run every two years doesn’t mean he (sic) has to solve everything in two years. And the voters aren’t expecting it. Rather, when they assess performance in the biennial elections voters are looking to see if they agree with the direction the governor is taking us.”

Vermont has been governed on the basis of two-year terms for almost 150 years. For many decades most governors, and many legislators, served only a single term. Restricting governors was the “mountain rule,” the informal power-sharing between eastern and western Vermont wings of the Republican Party. In addition, legislators were usually not career politicians or professionals who sought to hold public office indefinitely.

Times have clearly changed. Once in office, few elected officials are eager to surrender their status. Politics has become a career, and the professional pol seeks to “build a base” while establishing influence over specific parts of the local or state bureaucracy. Frequent elections impose an informal constraint, even though the public is usually predisposed to re-elect incumbents unless their records are seriously marred.

In other words, longer terms are more “efficient” for politicians. They bring more stability to their exercise of power. In addition, they serve some needs of the state’s bureaucracy, which generally prefers to develop long-term relations with politicians and the administrators they appoint.

On the other hand, four-year terms also promote generally longer tenure in office. Even with two-year terms, Vermont governors and others now serve at least four years, and since the 1960s many statewide officials have remained in office far longer — often without much campaign expense or serious competition.

In most states with longer terms being a lawmaker has become a full-time job. As political professionals, they also need higher salaries and more operational support. As states extend terms of office, a subsequent step is often longer legislative sessions.

In the past, supporters of longer terms have cited the expense and time consumed by frequent electoral campaigns as a central argument. But the impact could be the reverse of their stated intention. Longer terms increase the stakes of running, thus extending the time politicians spend campaigning and raising money. Campaign war chests are likely to get even bigger.

So, is something wrong with the electoral process? Clearly. But are campaigns in Vermont too long or costly? That’s subjective. But even if they are, the solution is not necessarily to eliminate half of the elections. Instead, the process can be reformed in many other ways, while the decision on whether to retain a governor after considering her or his performance for two years can remain with the voters — with no ill effects.

As the latest debate proceeds, we will likely hear appeals to “keep up” with surrounding states, to modernize and “streamline” the process. And along the way Vermont’s short term, high participation approach to politics may be called a bit “antiquated,” even by some on the left.

But let’s keep things in perspective. Short terms of office, one aspect of Vermont’s open and resilient democratic approach, are also an important check on the growth of centralized, unresponsive power. And that’s a problem which which we should all be concerned.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Fall Reading: Power, Magic and History in Dark Times

It’s been a decade since John McCain faced Barack Obama, Sarah Palin got her close up, the economy collapsed, and reality began to blur. Soon conspiracy theorists were going mainstream. Then one made it to the White House.

Things have been strange and often ugly ever since. 

It can’t all just be an accident of history. But how exactly did the Trumps, the Russians and their international co-conspirators mess with American minds to seize power? In several recent books, deeper answers gradually emerge. But some of the revelations are so unsettling it helps at times to escape into fiction.

Here are some recommended readings to help cut through the fog of info-war.

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

Simultaneously engaging and deeply disturbing, Timothy Snyder’s new contemporary history should feature a warning: Abandon all illusions, since they aren’t likely to survive. 

Building on ideas introduced in his pocket guide, On Tyranny, Snyder describes the last six years as a period of shattering change that has led Russia, America and parts of Europe into what he calls schizofascism, or, in Trump’s case, possibly “sado-populism.” 

One core concept is the shift — with strategic nudges by the Putin gang — from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity. Inevitability politicians argue that specifics of the past are ultimately irrelevant, merely grist for progress; Eternity politicians see endless cycles of threat, victimhood, and restoration, and have a penchant for supressing facts, dismissing reality, and creating political fiction.

“Americans were vulnerable to the politics of eternity,” Snyder explains, “because their own experiences had already weakened inevitability. Trump’s proposal to ‘make America great again’ resonated with people who believed, along with him, that the American dream was dead. 

“Russia had reached the politics of eternity first, and so Russians knew the techniques that would push Americans in the same direction.” 

Fear: Trump in the White House

Even if you have been paying close attention, Bob Woodward’s latest book adds new insights. The title refers to Trump’s core belief that fear is the source of “real power.” Focusing largely on how key policies have been handled, specifically trade, North Korea and the Middle East, he serves up key incidents and stunning dialogues that showcase the President’s resistance to any facts or information that conflict with his instincts and often bizarre assumptions. 

Some of those instincts may be worth considering, for example that the US military should withdraw from Afghanistan and South Korea. But his motives and behavior are so shocking that they undermine more reasonable goals. 

Woodward finishes with a riveting meeting between Robert Mueller and Trump’s legal team that shows why even getting him to testify under oath is pointless.

The Perfect Weapon: 
How the Cyber Arms Race Set the World Afire

The original subtitle of this disturbing book, by New York Times national security correspondent David E. Sanger, was apparently replaced with the more neutral “War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age.” But the new line leaves out a key point: that it is truly an “arms race,” which began — before most people noticed — with a US preemptive cyber strike on Iran’s nuclear program. 

Since the covert operation known as Olympic Games, however, Russia, North Korea and China have led the pack, and the US has become the disoriented target of sophisticated “hybrid warfare.” And this deadly “perfect weapon” could literally set cities afire and put millions of civilians at risk.

Dark Star Rising: Magic and Power in the Age of Trump

By now we know that it certainly wasn’t raw intelligence that catapulted an infamous celebrity / mob boss into the White House. But Gary Lachman makes a case for something deeper and darker than a corrupt campaign, succeeding with the aid of Russian info-war and “active measures.” 

If half what he reports is true, we’re in bigger trouble than we think. 

Call it chaos magic, positive thinking or New Thought, Lachman claims that hidden forces may well have helped reshape the global “narrative” and primed mass conscousness for a postmodern authoritarian wave. At the center of this hostile takeover, he persuasively explains, is Alexander Dugin, Putin’s Rasputin, a professional conspiracy theorist who brought his fascinations together in a “mosaic of ideologies” that centers on the rise of Eurasia.

Dugin’s aim, which fit with the tactics and goals of the US alt-right, was apparently to “break the reality barrier” and “make things happen.” This short, unsettling book suggests that he and others did just that.

Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality

More than a century after departing the material plane, the life and thought of Helene Blavatsky remain compelling, controversial, and greatly under-appreciated. But Lachman also tries to correct this with his sympathetic biography of a very different Russian, revisiting many of the key mysteries surrounding HPB with an open mind and heart. The topics range from her early adventures and “manifestations” to the possible identity of the secret masters who guided her spiritual mission. 

Assessing previous biographies and the arguments of critics, this is a smart, accessible update, and a welcome reminder of how Blavatsky challenged both materialism and repressive religion at a key moment, launching the Theosophical movement and inspiring artists, thinkers and leaders from Kandinsky and Yeats to Annie Besant and Mahatma Gandhi.

The Bernie Gunther novels

Sometimes I simply need to seek respite and insight in a different time. Lately, it has been the early 20th Century, and in this regard, Philip Kerr never disappoints in his extraordinary Bernie Gunther series. Kerr spans decades with a memorable anti-hero, a former Berlin police detective full of rage and moral complexity. Combining great writing with deep irony and a noir sensibility, the author chronicles events from the “Great War” to the Cold War in 14 vivid historical / suspense novels. 

Kerr died last March, and his final Gunther book, Metropolis, will be published around that time in 2019. Meanwhile, just for example, Field Gray (#8) focuses on Gunther’s World War II experiences and subsequent struggles as a political prisoner. Contrary to most news reports, when I finish one of Kerr’s tales, despite the dark narrative I can hardly wait for more.