The Lonely Centrist

A place for reasoned debate about the issues of the day.

See my complete profile

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Carter-Baker Report: As Successful as the Carter Presidency

The Centerman rises from his long hibernation to address the Carter-Baker report. Today let's just start with the problem of mission; later we'll get to substance.

The Carter-Baker Commission

What the heck is the Carter-Baker Commission? Well, in the most basic sense, it is nothing. It is not a government commission, it has no power, no formal or even informal status within American politics. So who cares what it has to say? Yawn.

The Commission is a group of private individuals, some of considerable prestige (at least around Washington, D.C.), organized by American University and funded by grants from the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation (e.g. the usual suspects) and something called the Omidyar Network. The last was founder by the Omidyars, founders of Ebay. The gobbledygook (is that a word?) that is their mission can be found here.

The group - there is really no reason we should dignify it with the official sounding name "Commission" - is co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter, one of America's worst presidents and perhaps the worst ex-president ever, and James Baker, former Bush family strong-man. The Executive Director was Robert Pastor of American University, a Carter protege with some distinguished academic credentials.

The Commission developed the way these things usually do. Ostensibly intended to be bi-partisan, the staff was primarily liberal in orientation. A group of "academic advisors" were recruited, again tilting left, and including a mix of truly distinguished academics, such as James Thurber (the American University Political Science professor, not the dead author/humorist) and Paul Gronke, and political hacks, such as Leonard Shambon and Mark Glaze. These advisors appear to have been little consulted.

The group then went around the country and held a few hearings - well, two, to be precise - at which 21 handpicked witnesses testified. Some, such as Common Cause President and former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Chellie Pingree, have no serious qualifications to be discussing the issue. Others, such as Norm Ornstein, are the kind of unelected Washington insiders who always seem to worm their way into such events. They also met with some congressmen (5 to be exact, 4 Democrats and one Republican), leaders of Common Cause (now I'm feeling confident), and the National Association of State Election Directors, a worthy group of professional election administrators.

Then the staff drafted up a report, and that's what all the hullabaloo is about. See here for a roundup and links to media coverage:

As I said, we'll get to substance in another post, but the report, just on the surface, looks like thin gruel. It comes to us in a 104 page document, but that is misleading. There are actually 70 pages to the report, once you cut out the appendices of advisors, commissioner bios, and the like, of which about 16 pages worth is taken up with pictures. They make for a colorful report, but I doubt that pictures of the various "commissioners" listening seriously and gesturing passionately really add much to our understanding of the issues involved (there is at least one photo on each of the first 15 pages), nor do pictures of a finger about to cast a fake vote (we know it's fake because the ballot features Gore/Lieberman, Bush/Cheney, and George Washington/John Adams. At least the fake voter has the good sense to be selecting the Washington/Adams ticket. On the other hand, since Washington and Adams never actually appeared on a ballot - in those days, you really voted for "electors" to the electoral college, and certainly not for a ticket - the photo may actually increase lack of understanding about our voting history.)

Under a heading, "Learning from the World," we get a half page photo of the Mexican Federal Electoral Institute in action, and it's good to know we can learn from our southern neighbors how to hold a fair election.

Overall, the report puts a lot of effort into featuring pictures of the "commission" members, witnesses testifying before the group, and bios of "commissioners." (By the way, the scare quotes around "commission" and "commissioner" seem justified, since the dictionary defines a "commissioner" as one who has a commission from the government, which these folks do not.)

In short, it has the look and feel of a puff piece, one that doubts that the recipients will really read it, or at least not read any of the back-up data, but only skim the recommendations; and one aimed at the aggrandizement of the "Commission" members as much as a serious discussion of election administration. In other words, the message is something like this:

"Here is a big fat report from serious people, so it must be serious. But don't worry, you don't need to read it. Look at the high quality print and all the pretty color photos. See who all we 'Commissioners' are - we are very serious, important Washington insiders - so these recommendations must really carry weight."

But is there really any reason to take these recommendations seriously? We'll discuss the substance of the report soon enough. Tonight, time forces me onward.

  • The Skeptic
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Michael Barone
  • The New Republic
  • National Review
  • Democracy Project
  • Bob Bauer
  • Center for Competitive Politics
  • Ryan Sager
  • Going to the Matt
  • Professor Bainbridge
  • Volokh Conspiracy
  • Mystery Pollster
  • Amitai Etzioni
  • Alexander Chrenkoff
  • Middle East Media Research Institute
  • Right Democrat
  • Democrats for Life