‘People have gotten dumber’ and other observations from departing members of Congress

This is one of the best pieces I’ve read recently. Bloomberg News assembled four retiring members of Congress and asked them to let down their hair and talk about what has changed during their tenure. The senators were notorious moderates Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Kent Conrad, D-N.D. The congressemen were a liberal Dem from New York — Gary Ackerman — and a conservative Repub from Kentucky — Geoff Davis.

The results are hilarious, candid and maddening. If this foursome was put in charge of the country (and perhaps it would also be necessary to stipulate that they couldn’t run for reelection so they could continue to be as candid and politically brave as they are in this interview), we would be a lot better off.

I urge you to click through and read the whole thing, but here are a few sample comments:

Bloomberg: Senator Conrad, when you were negotiating with the Group of Six over the deficit, you said, “If we can’t get a deal done, then my last five years have been wasted.”

CONRAD: Did I say that?

Bloomberg: You did actually, yes.

CONRAD: Well, first of all, I deny it. Second of all, it’s been an honor to serve! [Laughter] Look, last year I had a senior colleague say, “Your problem, Conrad, is you are too solutions-oriented. You have never understood that this is political theater.” I thought, Wow, it is time for me to leave. It really got started in ’94, and it’s gotten more corrosive. Speaker [Newt] Gingrich had a role here because he saw the only way to be successful in taking over the House was to really bring it down.

Bloomberg: Congressman Ackerman, you’ve been here 30 years. Can you define comity as it existed when you arrived versus how it exists now?

ACKERMAN: Your premise is that comity exists now. It may not be entirely accurate. It used to be you had real friends on the other side of the aisle. It’s not like that anymore. Society has changed. The public is to blame as well. I think the people have gotten dumber. I don’t know that I would’ve said that out loud pre-my announcement that I was going to be leaving. [Laughter] But I think that’s true. I mean everything has changed. The media has changed. We now give broadcast licenses to philosophies instead of people. People get confused and think there is no difference between news and entertainment. People who project themselves as journalists on television don’t know the first thing about journalism. They are just there stirring up a hockey game.


Bloomberg: We’ve talked about obstacles to bipartisanship… [To Davis and Ackerman] The two of you have served in the House for the last eight years. How many times have you met or talked before tonight?

ACKERMAN: We have seen each other.

DAVIS: We’ve seen each other.

Bloomberg: Senator Snowe, you’ve deviated from your party more than just about anyone. What is it really like when you go against the leadership?

SNOWE: People within your party used to understand that it is essential. People have to represent either their district or their state on the issues that matter and take those positions accordingly. But today there is no reward for that. In fact, there is this party adherence, and as a result if we don’t get past the party platforms that are offered by either side of the political aisle, then we can’t solve the problem. And we are not transcending those differences. That is a huge departure from the past.

ACKERMAN: You can compromise between good, better, and best, and you can compromise between bad and worse and terrible. But you can’t compromise between good and evil. And now people look at the other side as a completely different kind of animal and say, “They are taking the country down the road to purgatory.” It’s complete intolerance.


Bloomberg: What harms the process more, the media or money?

CONRAD: Money is a huge problem. There are really two reasons I decided not to run again. One is I really wanted to come here to do big things, and we haven’t been doing big things. The second was I saw super PACs coming and I knew as a centrist who was not particularly supported very strongly by any group, I could have [a super PAC] roll in and just dump a load of money on me and I’m not going to be able to answer.

DAVIS: I don’t believe we should check speech by any measure or merit, but left unchecked, you could end up with the 21st century version of Tammany Hall, where you have a small number of political bosses who control the flow of money around the country, limiting the discourse and debate for personal advantage, whether left, right, or center.

SNOWE: I regret that the Supreme Court rolled back 100 years of case law and precedence. It was my initial provision in the McCain-Feingold bill that was struck down a second time in the court. But then obviously they went quantum leaps further, unfortunately, and unraveled all the case law, allowing corporations and unions to dump unlimited money into these campaigns.

What Kent says is true. Because we are trying to build what I describe as a sensible center, you don’t have a base in terms of raising money. You are almost always confined to the MSNBC or the Fox News prism. That’s the way I describe it because it’s true. People see you in one channel or another and nothing in between.

ACKERMAN: We are probably the only ones who watch both Fox and MSNBC. The public watches either one or the other, and they watch one or the other hoping that the guys on my side will kill the guys on the other side. You can accuse any and every one of us, at least at times, of going for the ratings and doing and saying things that are popular or to try to raise more money so that we can get reelected. The media does that in spades. They really do.


Bloomberg: There’s been a slightly negative tone so far. Tell us what actually works about Washington?

CONRAD: At its best moments, the Senate is a place where people can come together. I have been part of Bowles-Simpson, been part of the Group of Six, spent in the last two years hundreds of hours in small rooms with Republicans and Democrats, and in both of those cases we were able to come together.

I will never forget the morning of [the Bowles-Simpson] vote. I called my staff in and went around the room and asked them what would their recommendation be to me in my vote. Every single one recommended I vote no. On almost every page of that document, there were things I hated. I told my staff that the only thing worse than being for this is being against it. That would be worse.

ACKERMAN: Washington has the ability to attract some of the brightest, hardest-working people in the country. That works. The problem is when you have some of the brightest, most hardworking people in the country who become a–holes. [Laughter]

p.s. Sadly, the first comment in the thread under this story on Bloomberg reads: “None will be missed. The worst attributes could be tied to any of these types and their departure could never be soon enough.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 06/21/2012 - 11:20 am.

    Idiocracy, the Movie

    Unfortunately, the premise isn’t nearly as funny as the moviemakers probably thought it was . . . . .

  2. Submitted by Barbara Gilbertson on 06/21/2012 - 11:47 am.

    “I think the people have gotten dumber.”

    I don’t totally agree. I think people have gotten lazier, less interested (i.e., glazed over), and willfully ignorant. “Dumber” will likely follow closely on the relentless smackdown on education and educators.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/21/2012 - 02:59 pm.

    In a way, this is logical way-stop in the the trip to “meee, it’s all about meeee!!”

    The only important people are those who agree with you. Compromise is an attack on you. If you are in the 51%, rule like a despot. If you are in the 49% throw a stick of dynamite into the gears. Their failure is your success. Always assume the worst of your opponent. Your opponent does not have a valid view, they are traitors who are working to destroy your country. It’s always about taking back your country. Who cares if your conflicts are like fighting in a canoe–it’s always better if your opponent drowns first, seconds ahead of you. The only important components of society and government are those that benefit you. There is virtue in selfishness. After all everyone wants what you have and will take it away from you.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/22/2012 - 07:45 am.

      And it is not sufficient to live in the lap of historic luxury, brought by the efforts of predecessors around the world, it must be that your country has a special blessing by God. And those that oppose you are among the most evil ever, and the president from that party must be darn close to the anti-Christ, if not actually him.

      And because it is not sufficiently grand to live in the best of times, it also must be the worst of times. Of course the end times are imminent–all important events WILL happen in your life time because you are the focus of the universe. And besides, how could it dare to go on after you are dead? It’s all about you, therefore it must be the end-times.

      And, it is no coincidence that at this time, one presidential candidate is a member of the fastest-growing religion where a fundamental tenet is that, after death, the man will become a god to rule over their own planet. What could be more satisfying than a universe filled with little gods–people like you?

  4. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 06/21/2012 - 03:34 pm.

    Black and hope

    I agree with Barbara’s comments above. It’s also sad that civics isn’t taught anymore in our public schools. My only hope is that good journalists like Black keep writing, that MoveOn.org gets another 7 million members and that the public wises-up after Labor Day and gets angry at the do-nothing party.

    In a democracy citizens have responsibilities as well as rights. The public needs to start taking those responsibilities seriously and do more than demonstrate. As the Arab spring is teaching us, demonstration leaders have to think beyond calling people to the streets to depose current leaders. They have to organize, develop future leaders and constructive public policies, and not expect immediate gratification or the news to be entertainment.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/21/2012 - 04:57 pm.

    Not dumber (yet), but ill-served

    No society will long survive if it has a government that only serves its true believers. We have 2,500 years of recorded history and the repeated rise and fall of civilizations to back that up. In the United States, we’re living in a political experiment, with no guarantee whatsoever that it will succeed over the long term, or even survive, and historically, a kingdom or empire that lasts 250 years or so is only a middling success. The Romans roughly doubled that time span, and the Egyptians dominated “civilized” societies for a couple millennia, by comparison. I’m inclined to agree with Eric that we’d likely be better off as a society if the four people interviewed (and others in their circumstance) continued to be as candid, and also didn’t try to make a life-long career of Congress or national political office. I suspect the two are mutually exclusive.

    I don’t really believe that people have gotten “dumber,” but as part of the functioning of a capitalist society, the dominant media have pretty much stopped informing the public, where the profit margin is pretty thin, and sponsors don’t like it when you point out that they’re responsible for something bad happening. Instead, the dominant media (formerly print, now TV and other electronic types, but especially commercial TV) decided to entertain the public, where there’s quite a bit more money to be made. So the public is, overall, misinformed by the media, or given only snippets of information when what’s necessary is an essay, or article, or book.

    Arvonne Fraser has pointed out one of the several things that, it seems to me, have largely been suppressed or forgotten over the past generation or so – rights come with strings called “responsibilities” attached. As taught to me by my Republican mentors many years ago, there ain’t no free lunch, either economically or politically.

    I’m intrigued by something I came across online (Slate, I think) about voting in Australia. It’s compulsory, and failure to vote brings a fine, with repeated failure bringing a larger fine, etc. That could potentially help both Democrats who traditionally rely on larger turnout to win, and Republicans who insist that voter fraud needs a constitutional amendment. If voting is compulsory, registration and voting would surely be done with even more care than is currently the case in Minnesota, which already has a squeaky-clean record. That would solve the fraud issue for those convinced that voter fraud is a genuine problem. Hmmm. Win-win for those on both left and right…

    • Submitted by Dave Eischens on 06/22/2012 - 09:45 am.

      Ray, good points all

      I’ll propose correction of one word in the second paragraph – we actually live in more of a corporatist society. We have a facade of a capitalist economy but since some players are taking steroids, have bought off the refs (our elected officials) and own the public airwaves, I don’t know if we can still call the economic side of our society capitalist.

      But your point about the dominant media having stopped informing the public is both accurate and important. Our current state of politics and national dialogue illustrates that Jefferson was most prescient.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/21/2012 - 07:02 pm.

    “People get confused and think there is no difference

    between news and entertainment. People who project themselves as journalists on television don’t know the first thing about journalism.”

    Most young liberals will tell you they get their news from Jon Stewart’s show on the Comedy Channel. Seriously.

  7. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/21/2012 - 08:16 pm.


    Mr. Davis summed it up: He’s against “checking speech” i.e. political expenditures, but he admits we “could end with the 21st century version of Tammany Hall.” Could end up? Maybe we should ask Grover Norquist, Roger Ailes, David and Charles Koch, Sheldon what’s his name, am I missing anyone?, about the political bosses controlling speech and debate for personal advantage. Better I suppose to have free speech and debate controlled by a few moneyed individuals. Wouldn’t want Congress to violate the Constitution or anything like that.

    Kent Conrad says he came to Washington to do “big things.” Apparently one of those “big things” was to compromise health care reform so that we got a bill everyone was sure to hate. It must have been on some principle that Kent opposed “public option” or any form of single payer health insurance so it never even got on the table for discussion. If the Supreme invalidates the Affordable Health Care Act, the USA’s chance for health care reform will have been lost for the another twenty-five years.

    Conrad and Snowe are examples of the center-right politicians who really never had or have (because there are still plenty left) any ideas or principles of their own but feel it their public duty to make sure we “all just get along” by compromise. That accounts for support of things like “Bowles-Simpson” which has been created to convince everyone we need financial reform and austerity cutting back on Social Security and Medicare when you have a Depression, millions out of work, or being laid off, without enough money for health care, food or shelter and millions more facing loss of their homes, not to mention a climate change threat that looms catastrophically in the future, a completely corrupt banking and financial sector and on and on. People like Conrad a “solution -oriented person”? For “big things”? Conrad reminds me of the Pharisees who Jesus accused: “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

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