1 August 2012
Part 1: Elections and Polarisation
Slade Gorton has worn many hats throughout his political career. The Republican was a three term US senator from Washington State, a state attorney general who argued numerous cases before the US Supreme Court, and a member of the ten-person 9/11 Commission tasked with investigating the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Gorton and discuss the upcoming elections, foreign policy, and what it was like to sit in a desk filled with candy. Stay tuned for parts two and three of the interview.
Gorton served in the US Senate from 1981 to 1987 and then again from 1989 to 2011. I was curious in what ways he thought politics had changed since he left office. Gordon explained that “the reputation is that partisanship is more harsh and the party lines more rigid” and while people complain about the party divide now it wasn't long ago that the opposite criticism was levelled.
“It’s interesting that through most of my career most of the academics complained that the party weren't distinct enough and it’s a great example of be careful what you pray for. The two parties now meet those academic requirements and are much more like parties in a parliamentary system. Last year I think was the first year in which there was no philosophical overlap in the Senate. That is to say that the most liberal Republican was more conservative Democrat. That wasn't quite true in the House but the overlap there was relatively small, in that sense it’s more like a parliamentary system than it was even in the late 1990’s.”
One of the more striking differences between the Australian and US systems is the way in which elections are conducted. US campaigns are obviously much longer and more expensive but Gorton didn’t think it interfered with his ability to fulfil the duties of his office.
“The way in which I used my time didn't change immensely during election year, or the years before elections, given the quality of transportation and the political nature of the state, I rarely spent weekends in Washington D.C. It’s easy as many analysts do, to say okay you had to raise $8 million that’s so many dollars a day, but it doesn't work out that way at all. A significant amount of your money is raised by mail or the senate campaign committees. I always thought it was sort of a good thing to have to go around hat in hand asking people for checks. Simply because when you’re an incumbent everyone defers for you. It’s Senator this Senator that and oh yes sir I certainly agree. And having to campaign significantly every time an election came up was good for the psychological balance of the members. “
Given his experience as attorney general and candidate for elected office Gorton was especially well placed to weigh in on the Supreme Court’s 2010 case Citizens United v FEC. The controversial ruling prohibited restrictions on political expenditures by campaigns and unions.
“I think it’s directly in accordance with the Constitution. Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech. In my view all of the laws Congress has passed regarding campaign finance are laws respecting freedom of speech. If I had my way there would be absolute and instantaneous disclosure of where money comes from but no limitations on where it should come from at all. The problem with the present system with all of the reforms in place is it just removes the campaign from the candidate. The outside groups spend their own money the c candidate have no control over it they are therefore not responsible for it. in my mind we would be a lot better if all of the money went to the candidates and they just had to say okay I took a $1 million from so and so and if you don’t like so and so you can vote for the other candidate. This way the candidate’s responsibly for his own campaign has declined each time we've passed a new campaign expenditure law. Citizens United simply said what was the case; the Congress of the United States has life and death authority over corporations and the larger they are the more the authority. And to say in effect they can’t in effect defend themselves is in my view not only a violation of the First Amendment but it’s wrong.”
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