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They've Got Issues

But For Some Reason The Presidential Candidates Aren't That Eager To Talk About What They've Actually Gotten Done

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 1/30/2008

If you search for the words "legislation," "policy," and "substance" in the past year's campaign coverage, what turns up is a pile of articles mostly lamenting their absence. ("Why, many Americans are asking, are the presidential candidates yammering about so many nonissues?" asks The Columbus Dispatch in a Jan. 16 editorial.) While the media has certainly been derelict in its analysis of what the candidates have actually done, beneath this negligence lies a dirty little secret: Candidates don't necessarily relish coverage of their deeds, especially during election campaigns.

We know this because we spent two weeks trying to get the campaigns of the leading candidates of both parties to detail their most significant legislation or policy initiatives. None even called us back.

This was not what we expected.

Our project began, naively enough, after reading a challenge from a respected elder statesman of political coverage. On Jan. 4, Charles Peters published a column in The Washington Post titled "Judge Him by His Laws." The piece made the case that Barack Obama is no lightweight when it comes to policy matters, and that he has the chops to get things done.

"People who complain that Barack Obama lacks experience must be unaware of his legislative achievements," Peters wrote. "One reason these accomplishments are unfamiliar is that the media have not devoted enough attention to Obama's bills and the effort required to pass them, ignoring impressive, hard evidence of his character and ability."

Peters advances the novel idea that candidates' actual behavior in office-the laws they write and/or sign, the techniques by which they get them passed-says more about their character than, say, the campaign commercials they approve or the amount they pay their barber. The thing that distills a candidate's essence is the "heart and soul" bill-"the one for which a legislator gives everything he or she has to get passed," Peters wrote, "has long told me more than anything else about a person's character and ability."

Near the end of the piece, Peters, who once served as a West Virginia state legislator and went on to found Washington Monthly magazine, challenged the press to subject the other candidates to the same scrutiny, to report on their "heart and soul" legislation.

City Paper took up the challenge. In fact, we thought it'd be a cinch. Much of what politicians do is tallied in official records and archived on the web, and various reporters highlight and analyze these happenings as a matter of course. Two of the leading candidates-Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani-have plied their trade for years in New York, the most media-dense place on the planet. We figured it would be a simple matter to stir through the coverage, pluck out the meaty bits, extract a pinch of spice from some bushy-tailed campaign aides, and serve up a pot of the candidates' most substantive accomplishments.

What we found instead was a thin gruel of interest-group pandering, gelatinous pronouncements, and chunks of pork.

Peters, 50 years more experienced than we, reveals a hidden agenda behind his challenge.

"I have to admit," he says over the phone from his D.C. digs after we inform him of our failure, "that when I wrote the line about inviting you all to compare them with [Obama], in the back of my mind was the idea that you weren't gonna find much, and that would be a story."

Barack Obama

A search through internet archives confirms Peters' column. As a state senator in Illinois, Obama did labor mightily and shrewdly to pass a first-in-the-nation bill requiring that police videotape interrogations of suspects in murder, rape, and other major criminal cases. Beginning shortly after his 1996 election, Obama teamed with fellow Chicago legislator Monique Davis to introduce the bill. For the next six years they fought to pass it, convincing fellow Democrats, tough-on-crime Republicans, and even most of the state's police departments.

The 2003 Illinois law became a model for other states, and the Maryland legislature is currently considering a bill to do the same here ("Fess Up," Mobtown Beat, Jan. 23). (Obama's tenure in the U.S. Senate is relatively undistinguished in terms of legislation, but a two-year freshman wouldn't have a lot under his belt, presidential ambitions or no.)

Similar narratives about Obama's rivals, both Democrat and Republican, proved more elusive.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton's Senate web site lists every bill she sponsored in her first five years in office, but a scroll though the bill titles, and even their texts, reveals little sense of what any bill really meant to the senator or anyone else. It's tempting to take one, S.2273, "A bill to reliquidate certain entries of tomato sauce preparation," and dissect it as a paragon of the Clinton style. It is obscure, pinpointed, and wonky (it attacks some undefined tariff provision), and in 2002 she introduced it no fewer than 16 times (it did not pass). But despite her persistence, S.2273 is clearly not Clinton's "heart and soul" legislation. To find that one must go back seven years before she became a senator, to 1993, when her husband named her to head a task force on reforming health insurance.

The so-called Hillarycare plan of 1994, now, as then, denigrated by self-described conservatives as "socialized medicine," was no such thing. Though little understood by those who reported on it at the time, central to the 230-page plan was an implied $20 billion contract for the top five private health insurers (which called themselves "the Alliance for Managed Care") to cover the 37 million uninsured.

Designed to hold down costs without challenging the forces that waste health-care money in the United States, Hillarycare was to be a public/private partnership between the federal government and the industry's biggest players. Her plan was torpedoed by the dozens of smaller insurers who were not guaranteed a piece of the pie. Their industry group, the Health Insurance Association of America, created and funded the infamous "Harry and Louise" TV ads, which (aided by more than $100 million spent by other opponents) erroneously convinced millions of Americans that the plan amounted to a government takeover of health care.

In important ways, the Hillarycare episode epitomizes the Clinton style. The plan was dense, extraordinarily complex, and tuned to a collaborative, evolutionary arrangement between the largest established forces. Its failure taught the Clintons to respect power and money even more than they already did, and Hillary Clinton went on to become the second-largest recipient of health-care industry dollars in the Senate. "I learned some valuable lessons about the legislative process, the importance of bipartisan cooperation, and the wisdom of taking small steps to get a big job done," she said during a speech in 2005. But in the end she has become even more conciliatory toward those with power, even less interested in the bold stroke, so it is perhaps unsurprising that neither her campaign nor her Senate staff offered any comment to this newspaper when we inquired after her "heart and soul" bills.

John Edwards

John Edwards, six years a U.S. senator and four months a vice presidential candidate, has even less significant legislation under his belt than Clinton. It's tempting to say that his greatest gift to American polity was knocking off Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina in 1998. Faircloth made arch conservative Sen. Jesse Helms look like a hippie, and Edwards' defeat of him was a stunning upset and a development that gave hope to progressives.

Arguably, Edwards' "heart and soul" was not in legislation but in winning verdicts as a trial lawyer for people injured by malpractice or corporate negligence. The case he is best known for is Valerie Lakey vs. Sta-Rite. At $25 million, it was the biggest product-liability verdict in North Carolina state history. Edwards tried the case in 1997 while grieving the death of his son, Wade, who died when his Jeep overturned on the way to the family's summer home.

Lakey was 5 years old when she sat on a drain in a municipal wading pool. A powerful pump under the unprotected drain pulled her intestines out through her anus. She survived, but required a colostomy bag and a full-time nurse, and after settling with the municipality and the pump manufacturer for $5.9 million, Edwards sued Sta-Rite, which manufactured the pump cover that vandals had removed from the pool before the accident. Sta-Rite maintained it had done nothing wrong, but Edwards discovered several similar cases that the company had quietly settled out of court to avoid publicity. "It was very therapeutic for John to fight for Valerie," Elizabeth Edwards, the candidate's wife, told The Washington Post in 2004. "People say it was his biggest case in terms of the judgment-but I think it was his biggest case in terms of what it meant to him."

Edwards' skill, then, seems to be in boiling down complex matters and then pressing his case convincingly. He does not compromise or seek allies the way Clinton and Obama do, or the way some of the Republicans have done. But his trial opponents have said he won his big verdicts fair and square, without resorting to sleazy tactics or misleading arguments.

John McCain

John McCain earned his "maverick" reputation in 1994 when he tapped Sen. Russ Feingold, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin, to work with him on campaign finance reform. Although he's also been an impressive collector of special-interest money (most notably from the telecom companies), McCain has passed real reform legislation, most especially the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act of 2002.

McCain, a hawkish Republican who once relished comparisons to the legendary conservative (and failed 1964 presidential candidate) Sen. Barry Goldwater, began his transformation by reaching across the aisle to Feingold. Although the two did not see eye-to-eye on government spending, they agreed that unlimited spending by political action committees had corrupted Congress. They took aim at this so-called soft money because it was then the least-regulated and widest spigot through which corporations, industry groups, and unions could funnel cash to legislators.

The bill attracted fierce opposition, mostly from McCain's own party, but the pair soldiered on through more than six years of defeat. The first version died in 1996 when they couldn't overcome a Senate filibuster; the last nearly got waylaid by a weaker bill floated by a corrupt Ohio congressman, Bob Ney, cosponsored by Maryland's Albert Wynn (D-4th). McCain and Feingold used their bully pulpits to finally get it passed in 2002, but even Feingold agreed that McCain deserved most of the credit and took most of the political risk.

McCain's hard work earned him a reputation as a different kind of Republican and taught him that working with opponents to pass popular legislation can vault one to national prominence.

Mitt Romney

Employing the same broad systems analysis and detailed economic modeling that helped him earn millions as a venture capitalist, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney shepherded a first-in-the-nation requirement that every citizen obtain private health insurance or face fines. Although Romney's plan begins with the common-sense idea of redistributing toward universal health insurance the money we already spend on emergency room visits by the indigent. It also created a state bureaucracy to oversee the complicated plan and, like Hillarycare of 1994, works with the for-profit insurance industry instead of fighting it. The complex plan was implemented in late 2006, so it's still too early to judge its effectiveness.

Still, by U.S. political standards, Romneycare is a bold stroke-because he got it passed. That points to the one-term governor as flexible, pragmatic, and smart. Last summer, he introduced a national plan based on the Massachusetts model. It dispenses with the government oversight board and the sanctions on businesses and individuals, favoring instead a tax write-off equal to the cost of the insurance plan.

Mike Huckabee

Although he is sometimes pegged as a one-dimensional "evangelical Christian," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has lived his faith in ways that confound stereotype. To do this he has fought-and beaten-some in his own party.

Huckabee's "heart and soul" legislation centered on children's' health care and education. In 1997, Huckabee introduced ARKids First, a health-insurance program for poor children. This was surprising enough in a state dominated by paleoconservatives, but he raised the stakes a year later, deciding that all the state's proceeds from its tobacco-industry lawsuit settlement should go to health education, anti-smoking campaigns, and Medicaid expansion, a Republican bugbear. When his own party blocked the tobacco plan in the state legislature, Huckabee put it before voters, and the referendum passed-two-to-one-in 2000.

Huckabee sees no conflict between his faith (or party) and measures like ARKids First, or leveling a 1999 tax increase to fix the state's Third World highway system, or opposing a state legislator's bill to deny state services to illegal immigrants. "I drink a different kind of Jesus juice," he said in 2005, in criticizing that bill.

Rudolph Giuliani

At first glance, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani boasts perhaps the most impressive rysumy of any candidate. A driven, respected, and feared federal prosecutor who broke the Mafia while sending white-collar mountebanks to prison, Giuliani then presided over New York's stunning turnaround, overseeing a historic crime reduction and a murder count that went from 2,000 per year in the early 1990s to less than 500 today. Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, Mayor Giuliani rallied not just New York but all of America, directing rescue and reconstruction efforts after a tragedy of biblical proportions.

But what's most stunning about Giuliani's record is how little he has really achieved. Analysis of everything from his early mob prosecutions to his management of New York's emergency preparedness reveal something of a lucky bungler-a tough, pragmatic, driven, and smart man who nonetheless has profited from good work by his predecessors and historical forces far beyond any one man's control.

New York's crime rate was dropping before Giuliani took office in 1994, for example, and while experts credit his innovative law-enforcement policies for some of the later declines, there is a spirited debate about degree. Most think he's taken more than his fair share of the credit.

In contrast to his campaign theme, Giuliani downplayed the threat of Islamic terrorism throughout the 1990s, declining to label some attacks as such and urging people not to overreact to threats, according to a tough profile in the Sept. 24, 2007, Washington Post. He infamously located the city's emergency command center inside the World Trade Center, despite the advice of his top aides, after the 1993 truck bombing of the towers, and for the past year has baldly overstated his role in early terror investigations.

If stopping terrorism was never really Giuliani's heart and soul project, what was? Good question.

Giuliani wouldn't talk to The Washington Post about his terrorism record, so it is unsurprising that his staffers did not satisfy City Paper's calls or e-mails requesting comment for this story. None of the candidates profiled here did; Romney's people made a point of asking "which state" we were calling from, so focused were they on the mechanics of this tough primary campaign.

Still, these candidates are all human and, as such, subject to the passions and ambitions that drive strong leaders. The paucity of stories about these dramas-particularly those that most reveal their behavior while actually on the job as public officials-reveals the failings of the media more than any flaws in the candidates' characters.

Peters, the experienced publisher, politics watcher, and former legislator, is unsurprised.

"There are two reasons," he says. "One is that many reporters just automatically assume that substance will be boring to their readers, or to them . . . and [two] I think there's an intellectual insecurity in dealing with substance. It's easier to be glib about the horse race. It was ever thus."

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