Thursday, November 12, 2009

First Person Singular: An Interview With Chris Powell On Connecticut's Senatorial Race



Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, is a knowledgeable observer of Connecticut politics whose column appears in that paper and a dozen others in Connecticut and the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. When Powell became managing editor of the JI in 1974, he was the youngest editor of any daily in the state. I must here acknowledge that I wrote a regular column for the JI for about 15 years when Powell was also editorial page editor, drawing from time to time on his unfailing political memory. Powell, who off-line is screamingly amusing, agreed to submit to an interview broadly focused on the U.S. Senate race featuring the Democratic incumbent, Chris Dodd, and a crew of ebullient Republicans.


It is difficult to place Powell on the political spectrum except to say that he loves a good story and has a gift for poetic concision: "The General Assembly is little more than a nest of locusts. ..."


I recall once describing Powell as a "radical (small 'd') democrat," a title he did not resist. He is inclined to throw the truth around in his columns as if it were a bomb -- which it often is -- at which point many politicians, screwing wax into their ears, occasionally walk off in a huff.

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DP: The senatorial horserace involving Chris Dodd won't be up for a year, but speculators are taking bets. There are five Republicans in the race: Rob Simmons, Linda McMahon, Sam Caliguiri, Tom Foley, and Peter Schiff. Dodd appears to have recovered somewhat from an earlier bashing by embracing more fervently those on the left in his party. The P.T. Barnum among Republicans, McMahon, has lots of money, and money certainly does not hurt. The bloom on President Barack Obama's rose appears to be fading. Dodd has tied his prospects to Obama's plans for medical insurance, an industry still strong in Connecticut. And the role Dodd played as Senate Banking Committee chairman during the collapse of the housing market is sure to come up in the campaign. What are the Republican prospects for an upset in November? I realize that any predictions are subject to change. But can you give us a snapshot of the terrain so far?

CP: I suspect that Connecticut's Senate election will be determined more by doubts about Dodd's personal integrity than by doubts about his record, particularly his long subservience to Wall Street. That will be too bad, since, in providing what turned out to be the crucial support for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and thereby letting commercial banks and investment houses merge, Dodd bears as much responsibility as anyone for the collapse of the world financial system. His Irish "cottage" and the terms of his mortgages are trivial by comparison, not that those things don't imply his having lost touch with Connecticut, a sense of entitlement as part of the ruling class. The polls say Rob Simmons is the strongest Republican challenger, and certainly he is the most credible, given his long record in public life. The other Republicans have a lot of heavy baggage: Linda McMahon's clownish business background and her unfamiliarity with issues; Peter Schiff's anarchistic ideology, his tax-resister father in prison, and his never having voted before; Tom Foley's only qualification being his fund raising for a former president loathed in the state; and Sam Caligiuri's inability to raise much money. It's Simmons' race to lose.

DP: Some people may be unfamiliar with the Glass-Steagall Act. It dates from the Roosevelt administration, I think, and suffered the death of a thousand cuts over the last half century. Who is responsible for its demise, and doesn't the destruction of commercial banks in the recession/depression give us reason to hope that it might be restored? The recession certainly cleared some dead brush away.

CP: The Glass-Steagall Act -- the one enacted in 1933 -- separated commercial and investment banking. The reasons for and against its repeal in 1999 are cited in the link above.

Basically, the repeal let the New York financial houses get as big as they wanted and do whatever they wanted, including putting at greater risk bank deposits insured by the federal government. The act's repeal was achieved largely as a matter of the political influence gained by the financial houses in both parties, but Dodd's support of repeal was deemed crucial in achieving a majority. I don't think that the New York investment houses have been destroyed. To the contrary, now they have taken over the government entirely. It's the government that has been destroyed.

DP: The state Republican Party has not had conscientious stewards. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who served the state for many years as senator, was indifferent if not hostile to it. Former Gov. John G. Rowland was much in the habit of making compromises with the Democratic opposition in the General Assembly, though he did spend a little less than the Democrats wanted. Gov. Jodi Rell recently seemed to be talking the talk on spending reductions before she succumbed, for whatever reason, to the Democrats in the legislature. Connecticut's Republican Party has not been able to distinguish itself sharply enough from the Democratic Party to persuade voters to replace Democrats with Republicans in the legislature. There are no longer any Republicans, moderate or otherwise, in Connecticut's congressional delegation. The last two moderate Republican U.S. representatives, Chris Shays and Rob Simmons, were defeated in 2008 and 2006, respectively. Is party differentiation important or not? And if it is important, what should the Republican Party be doing, within the state and nationally, to make itself more enticing to the public?

CP: Yes, party identification is important because political competition is important. How could the Republican Party differentiate itself from the Democratic Party in a good way -- that is, of course, in a way I like? Maybe first Republicans should see how parasitic the financial system has become, thanks to lack of government regulation. There IS something worse than socialism, or at least as bad -- corporatism. The financial houses have bought the Democratic Party, so why should the Republican Party stay bought? There is an old tradition of prairie Republican populism to be restored. Chesterton's peasant proprietorship, with nearly everybody owning some property and thus having a capitalist stake in society, ought to be the objective, not coddling big money. After many years as a Democrat, I became a Republican in 1991 because it was, in Connecticut, the party that was not quite controlled by the public employee unions, and because Connecticut Republicans seemed to have less stultifying dogma than the Democrats did. In Connecticut's Republican Party one can express an unorthodox thought and the worst that will happen is that you'll be considered eccentric. Try it in Connecticut's Democratic Party and you'll be burned as a heretic.

Which is not to say that Connecticut's Republican Party still isn't too terrified of the public employee unions to try to restore public sovereignty over them. But at least there is always a chance that a Republican primary will nominate a candidate who is not exactly proud of being a stooge and a tool. Connecticut Republicans should stress that differentiation, since many people are coming to see that the biggest problems on the state and local level are the cost and inertia of the government class. Fiscal conservativism, restraint on government, and libertarian mores might have a chance as an opposition party platform in Connecticut, if not nationally.

DP: We both admire Chesterton who, along with his friend Hilaire Belloc, was an apostle of what he called "distributism." You've described it very well. I recall quoting Belloc's advice to the rich in a piece I did in the Journal Inquirer: "Get to know something about the internal combustion engine; and remember, soon you will die." It's doubtful either of the two would be permitted to write for most modern newspapers. In the Chestertonian scheme, everyone is invested in the social order. Here in Connecticut, the working poor, whose virtues Chesterton never tired of celebrating in hundreds of pieces he wrote for various publications, are "invested" only on the receiving end. The tax structure is such that people who we might consider upper middle class to rich finance the spending end. One of the reasons the stewards of public employee unions, mostly liberal Democrats, do not fear spending excesses is that their constituency is not heavily invested on the tax side. To put it bluntly: Spending continues to rise because the bulk of tax consumers do not suffer the pain of paying for improvident spending. How can this defect be ameliorated under the present political circumstances?

CP: Yes, taxes are as necessary to having a stake in society as property ownership is, and a tax system that exempts all but the very rich from bearing any of the burden of government is too progressive and fosters irresponsibility and selfishness over citizenship. I'm not sure what to do about this in the short term, other than to resist demagogic appeals for taxes on the rich that are meant only to get the hands of the government class on more money, not to increase fairness. In the long term, government could just stop impoverishing society in dozens of ways -- from the dumbing down of schools to the waging of stupid imperial wars to the subsidizing of childbearing outside marriage. But any decent society has to do something on its own to preserve a little virtue, to have some expectation of achieving prosperity through its own work rather than through parasitism. It would be good to teach self-reliance, but then you have to have an economy where people can succeed by relying on themselves, an economy full of opportunity, an economy where failure is not rewarded by the government. That's not Bailout Nation.

DP: We both know that moderates do have an advantage over philosophically committed candidates. Untied to political philosophies of any kind, they may more easily maneuver between the left and right poles. Of course there are disadvantages, particularly in a selection system that relies on primaries rather than party nominating conventions. Nominating conventions have tended to drive candidates to the political center, because the decision makers in nominating conventions are primarily interested in winning general elections and assembling winning tickets. The determining factors in selecting candidates in a primary -- or, in the present case on the Republican side, where there are multiple candidates vying against each other -- are different than would be the case in general elections. Would you agree that, among the Republicans vying for Dodd's seat, someone like Sam Caliguiri is more conservative than, say, Rob Simmons who, now playing to a conservative base for a Republican primary, has moved right of center on some issues? Dodd clearly has moved left of center, perhaps hoping to avoid charges launched from the left that he is in the pocket of moneyed interests. Ralph Nader's old chestnut that Dodd is "the senator from Aetna" has been tossed around among leftist bloggers with knives in their brains. Do you think that in placating the far left, Dodd will leave himself vulnerable to charges that he has abandoned the center?

CP: Simmons has a long record and will have to be careful with any new conservative posturing lest people be reminded of how that posturing conflicts with his record. I don't know that Caligiuri has a long enough record to be stereotyped as a reflexive conservative. He has voted alone against the pervasive budget nonsense in Hartford, but that could mean only that he's sane, not particularly conservative. Everybody who has voted against that nonsense has been proven right. Yes, Dodd is trying to secure his left after decades of being less the senator from Aetna than the senator from Wall Street. He'll probably be beaten only if his Republican challenger attacks him from the left AND the right, just as Joe Lieberman defeated Lowell Weicker for the Senate in 1988 by enveloping him, exploiting both liberal and conservative grievances against Weicker. (Who can forget BuckPAC?) Six years earlier Toby Moffett ran against Weicker only from the left and lost, if narrowly. Liberals might be tempted to vote against Dodd and for a moderate Republican who stressed Dodd's long subservience to the plutocracy. And true conservatives might not mind that at all, having no more sympathy than liberals for the bailout of Dodd's friends on Wall Street.

DP: That seems to be a useful strategy for Republicans. When Bill Buckley, whom you mentioned, was asked in Danbury what Richard Nixon was really like -- the president had just then returned from China, where he had clinked glasses with Chairman Mao, earning Buckley's enmity -- Bill asked his questioner, "Which Nixon? There are four of them." There are, we have agreed, at least two Dodds. There are five Republicans running against him. Let's explore the Peter Schiff salient. I have reviewed some clips of his appearance on Dennis House's program on WFSB-TV3, "Face the State." Schiff was being interviewed by House and two liberal reporters. You called Schiff an anarchist. Having viewed these clips, I'm not sure that he wouldn't take your observation as a high compliment. The reporters wanted quickly to decapitate him but they were having a hard time of it. The point of their questions, as I understood them, was something on this order: Schiff was going to Washington to be a U.S. senator, and Congress is a school for compromisers engaged in expanding the public good. Schiff was rigid in his views, a sort of anti-Ralph Nader. Apart from watching the heads of market regulators falling into the baskets underneath the guillotine, what on earth did he plan to DO when he got to Washington? Schiff said, in so many words, that he would busy himself disassembling the regulatory apparatus that had put a ball and chain on the nation's economy. What will Dodd -- the Ralph Nader Dodd -- do with this guy in a debate?

CP: I'd disassemble the nanny state as much as Schiff likely would, but I would also argue that it is the government's failure to regulate the big banks and investment houses, the government's having been taken over by big-money interests, that has plundered and laid low the country. I'm afraid that Schiff would hobble the government while leaving big money alone to keep running things. Yes, government is too big, but its job should be to see that nothing gets bigger than the government, the representative of the sovereign people. In any case, even if Schiff is right on certain things -- and I think he is -- I don't think he can be politically successful in Connecticut . What is likely to be his agenda is too extreme. Maybe just as important, I don't think Schiff is cut out for politics in the good sense. He acknowledges never having voted before, which does not indicate the love of country he says motivates him now. He co-authored with his father a book advocating refusal to pay federal income taxes. They are principled people, to be sure -- and Schiff's dad is in federal prison for his principles. But wouldn't Dodd LOVE a campaign where the Republican nominee had to explain THAT over and over! I've attended many financial conferences where Schiff has spoken and I don't think he's capable of listening to anyone but himself. I don't think he has the slightest political sense or talent. But we'll see soon enough.

DP: I’ve seen Sam Caliguiri perform in person only twice. Both times he was speaking to the choir, groups of Republicans in Coventry and Bloomfield. He will have a money problem, of course; Simmons less so because of his national contacts and his standing so far as the leader in the Republican race. McMahon and Foley will self-finance their campaigns. Caligiuri's narrative is fetching: The son of an Italian immigrant who made good, in part because of sacrifices endured by his parents, he learned the importance of honor and straight dealing at his father's knees. When Waterbury was sinking in a swamp of corruption, Caligiuri was then going under anesthesia for an operation and awoke to find himself the serendipitous acting mayor of Waterbury. He let it be known early in his administration that he would not seek a term of his own, a move that defanged his opposition. He initiated important reforms in his hometown and would pursue the same path in Washington as Dodd's replacement. Caligiuri presents himself as what one might call a pragmatic conservative, someone able to cut through the Berlin Wall of egotism and partisanship in Washington to achieve goals that would advance the common good. Dodd, he says, has been corrupted by Beltway politics, an eventuality he hopes to avoid through a self-imposed term limit that will allow him to focus on needed reforms. Not an unappealing narrative. There is an unspoken, honorable tradition among political commentators in Connecticut, who view themselves as no respecters of money in politics, to make an honest effort to level the playing field by giving quality coverage to neglected opponents. In Caligiuri's case, since most media commentators are liberals, this would require them to lay aside their political preferences and embrace what they may take to be a conservative scarred with leprous sores. Are they up to it? Or is Caligiuri in the wrong race? In that column in which you described the General Assembly as a "nest of locusts" -- wish I had said that -- you suggested that Caligiuri should run for governor instead.

CP: As a political and ideological matter, I can't see why any Republican would deny Simmons the Senate nomination. He has vast experience, a record of much political success in competitive districts, good ability to raise money, and in the polls does the best by far of the Republican Senate candidates. Caligiuri is already crowded out of the Senate race behind Simmons and the three self-funding multimillionaires. But as a candidate for governor Caligiuri likely would stand out as the only candidate saying something, the most specific on fiscal policy matters. He has voted against consensus budgets because he knew what they were going to lead to -- the disaster Connecticut is in now. He's smart, decent, attractive, and has relevant experience in government that goes beyond his brief time in the legislature. None of the likely Republican candidates for governor is well known or rich enough to finance his own campaign, and Connecticut remains a Democratic state. So the only way the Republican nominee for governor will have any chance will be if his message is pointed and fearfully relevant. If people are still angry next year, such a candidate might be heard, and the right message might be worth more than money.

DP: Barack Obama, a persuasive rhetorician and devoted man of the left, was a year ago swept into office on what some regard as rather amorphous promises of hope and change. Democrats in Connecticut may be surprised to learn that Republican conservatives were very much put off by ex-President George Bush's irresponsible spending. And some conservatives were deeply divided on the utility of the war in Iraq. Buckley, for instance, citing John Adams, thought it was imprudent to fight a war in Iraq in a vain attempt to shower the country with the blessings of democracy. Some things have changed nationally. President Obama, making a distinction between a war of necessity (Afghanistan) and a war of choice (Iraq), is expected to commit more troops to Afghanistan. Dodd's positions with respect to recent wars have "evolved." He was opposed to the first Persian Gulf War, fearing that it might become a Vietnam-like quagmire. Dodd supported Bush's war of choice in Iraq at first and later opposed it, along with other leading Democrats, when Bush's prosecution of the war seemed to be failing. Republican neocons now appear willing to support Obama's prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, though they suspect that he will try to win that war on the cheap, refusing to commit enough troops. As far as I know, none of the Republicans in the Senate race, apart from Schiff, will be willing to exploit Dodd's vacillations on recent wars -- because, unlike George Will, they believe that the war in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, is winnable. Are they missing an opportunity?

CP: I sure think so. The public opposes both wars now because it perceives them as not WORTH winning. The country is not and never will be prepared to commit the resources necessary to win these wars, if winning can even be defined. The United States was not attacked from Iraq or Afghanistan in any sense that the resources of those countries were used to attack us. We were attacked because of our own failures of airport security, immigration enforcement, and border control -- failures that, remarkably, continue. To send soldiers to risk their lives when their country is not prepared to commit every resource to their success is a criminal betrayal, treason. But somehow this proposition can't be expressed by anyone running for office, even as most people probably would agree with it.

DP: You have been involved in the news business most of your life. Traditionally, the news media has played an important role in candidate selection, sometimes through endorsements, explicit and implicit, always through its role as a trusted information provider. With the rise of Internet blogs and other unfiltered, raw information streams, including talk radio and extra-party advertising, the role and direction of the mainstream media have shifted: Reporters have blogs, and news reports now draw on unedited raw information in an attempt to outpace instant news providers. Some dare call it gossip. One is reminded of Soren Kierkegaard's sassy observation that once the modern world perfects the means of communication, it will find that it has nothing worthwhile to say. Like the whisper in the whirlwind, Kierkegaard thought that in the future the truth would be hidden in a welter of babbling. Are the news media progressing or regressing? Are they capable of advancing the public virtues you and I find so necessary in our modern atomistic epoch? And what effect will these changes in the means of communication have on our politics -- for good or ill?

CP: On the whole, I'd say the news media are regressing, even as I'm glad of the democratizing influence of the Internet. But of course Internet sources are often unreliable, superficial, unaccountable, and even ill-intentioned. I'll kick the mainstream news media as much as anyone else but I don't think the good journalism that has blossomed on the Internet has yet compensated for the good journalism that has been lost in the decline of printed and commercial TV and radio news. But we may be looking in the wrong place for the source of the problem. Where the people maintain their civic virtue and patriotism, they will find a way to get reliable information. Maybe the best measure of civic virtue is voter participation, and it has been steadily declining for decades. My newspaper is largely a local newspaper and puts the better part of its resources into reporting about municipal government. On municipal government's biggest day in Connecticut, the biennial municipal election, in a typical town maybe 40 percent of the voters vote. And those who are registered to vote are perhaps only 80 percent of those who are eligible to register. Do the math -- 40 percent of 80 percent -- and it seems that on municipal government's biggest day in Connecticut only about a third of the adult population is even remotely interested. On a typical day my newspaper devotes 10 pages to things more or less related to public policy and one page to celebrity gossip and fruitcake stuff. The election participation figures suggest that, as a business proposition, we may have this exactly backwards. If you want a better public life, get a better public.
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