Obama’s transparency haze

When I came to town in the early ’70s, “transparency” was a photographic rather than a political term. Legislation was written in backrooms by congressional grandees, votes were traded for bridges and highways and no one outside Washington was much the wiser.

In those days, more than a few congressional and Senate offices had three basic “robotyped” letters to send to constituents concerning pending legislation. The first went to those who supported it and assured readers that the congressman or senator shared their views and supported them. The second said virtually the same thing to those who opposed the bill, except that it assured them that the signer shared their objections and opposed the measure as well. The third sympathized with those who had questions and were undecided on the wisdom of the pending legislation and assured them that their elected representative was likewise agonizing over how best to represent them when the legislation came up for a vote.

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Since there were multiple votes before final passage, these letters often cited votes reflecting the member’s basic agreement with the constituent and allowed him to vote pretty much as he wanted without fear that anyone would skewer him for the hypocrisy that allowed him to be for or against pending legislation before he finally voted the other way on final passage.

Those letters don’t work anymore. Voters today are more sophisticated and far better informed than they were in the ’70s and before. They get information in real time, the actively involved watch what their elected representatives are up to on C-SPAN and advocacy groups of every stripe let them know just what is going on.

As a result, voters get to see just how the legislative sausage is made before it is served — and many don’t like what they see. In fact, the public outrage over the manner in which President Barack Obama and his party’s congressional leadership went about rounding up the votes to pass their healthcare legislation Sunday evening generated as much opposition as the substance of the scheme itself.

Those who doubt this need look only as far as the public outrage in Nebraska at the sweet deal Sen. Ben Nelson (D) cut, the posturing preceding Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D) delivery of the “right to life” Democrats to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or the revelation that all House “Blue Dogs” are really just “Yellow Dogs” in a colorful costume.

The president and his supporters are operating on the theory that things haven’t changed much in the last 30 years — that voters don’t really care how the sausage is made so long as they ultimately come to like its taste. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel put it as directly as anyone recently when he cavalierly dismissed complaints about the way his party was going about the whole thing by declaring that “product trumps process.” Pelosi has argued the same thing for weeks.

If they’re wrong, they could be in real trouble in November. 

Without getting into the question of whether voters are going to like the taste of the healthcare sausage they are shortly going to be forced to eat, we may be at a stage in our political history when the product is no more important than the way in which it is made. Just as consumers today tend to shun footwear manufactured in foreign sweatshops, voters are more likely than in the past to object to elected representatives who eschew rational debate in favor of bribery, threats and manipulation of the rules so important to the functioning of a credible representative democracy just to get their way.

The hundreds of thousands of calls that flooded Congress over the last week came from people who couldn’t understand how political leaders in a nation they view as the greatest in history could so blatantly ignore the rules, threaten elected officials who refused to put substance and the desires of their constituents over the demands of their party and simply dismiss those who dared to disagree with them as crazies or tools of shadowy special interests. 

Voters today demand transparency and applauded candidate Obama when he promised it during his 2008 campaign. He promised a new and open style of leadership not because he and his fellow Democrats wouldn’t prefer the old ways that worked so well for them here and in places like New York and Chicago, but because they knew voters were fed up with the old ways. He was right to recognize the importance of the craving for open, honest government then and wrong to ignore it now.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.