“Yeah, we’re trying to come up with rules for a drinking game we can play during the Vice Presidential debates,” I said.
This statement was greeted with a look of near-incredulity bordering on disdain. Then maybe the word “vice” reached my friend’s ears, and he said,
“Oh, yeah, it’s okay to drink during that one.”
And we moved on to some other topic, because god knows election season is that time when everyone becomes a policy wonk, despite the fact that they spent the past 3 and a half years playing Madden or re-watching the entire series of Friends, and talking about politics just gets exhausting.
But the more I thought about it, the more it needled me. Thanks to my extremely subtle italicizing, you’ve noticed that my friend gave me permission to drink during the vice presidential debate, while implying that I couldn’t if it were two different politicians from opposing parties shouting at each other.
But wait a second. Is our political discourse so sacred, so elevated, so complex and meaningful, that being a little buzzed during a debate constitutes a lack of responsibility as a citizen? I’m not the only one asking this question. Presumably, you’ve seen these ads with James Carville and Mary Matalin for Maker’s Mark. They say, “It isn’t about the ______ Party, and it isn’t about the ________ Party,” until Carville turns to the camera, glass in hand, and says, “It’s about the cocktail party.” In another, Carville and Matalin claim that no candidate has the power to bring us together…but Maker’s Mark does. Because when we really look at national politics, really look, Democrat, Republican, Progressive, or Libertarian, goddamn, do we need a drink.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
While I proposed this as an actual rule for our VP Drinking Game (final rules can be seen here), it was shot down as just too unlikely. In defense, I will say that I had just seen Paul Ryan’s beefcake photoshoot, and it didn’t seem that unlikely to me. Anyway, the point here is that actually, every debate should be a push up contest, in the sense that the candidates should be touting their accomplishments and what they can do.
Just bear with the metaphor for a little bit. In a push up contest, you don’t lounge next to your opponent and criticize his form. You don’t say you’ll do your pushups only if you’re declared the winner. It’s about getting points, not taking points away. (Confidential to the candidates: Tell me why your policies are best, not why the other guy’s policies are terrible.)
CANDIDATE A: This is my plan for the economy.
CANDIDATE B: Well, candidate A, here are some problems with that. My plan addresses these problems in this way.
CANDIDATE A: Well, that’s not a very good way to address Problem 1. I would try this solution instead.
I know what you’re thinking: Where do you think we live, Canada? No one is going to be that polite in a debate, especially not after Tuesday’s tussle. Now, I know that there’s no way talking shit about the other guy is just going to leave politics. I’m not even saying I want shit talking to leave politics. I firmly advocate telling people that they’re wrong when they are wrong, but I think it’s a waste of an opportunity to critique a policy without offering an alternative. That’s how you make things better, after all. I’m a writer. When someone tells me that something I’ve written is not very good, they offer feedback for how to fix it. However, my point remains the same. Stop complaining and do more pushups, guys. Seriously, it will be better for your heart health, too.
Here’s a moment from the second debate:
Q: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy.
So here’s what I’ve done since I’ve been president. We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years. Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment.
But what I’ve also said is we can’t just produce traditional sources of energy; we’ve also got to look to the future. That’s why we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars. That means that in the middle of the next decade, any car you buy, you’re going to end up going twice as far on a gallon of gas. That’s why we’ve doubled clean energy production like wind and solar and biofuels. And all these things have contributed to us lowering our oil imports to the lowest levels in 16 years.
Now, I want to build on that. And that means, yes, we still continue to open up new areas for drilling. We continue to make a — it a priority for us to go after natural gas. We’ve got potentially 600,000 jobs and a hundred years’ worth of energy right beneath our feet with natural gas. And we can do it in an environmentally sound way. But we’ve also got to continue to figure out how we have efficient energy, because ultimately that’s how we’re going to reduce demand, and that’s what’s going to keep gas prices lower.
Now, Governor Romney will say he’s got an all-of-the-above plan, but basically his plan is to let the oil companies write the energy policies. So he’s got the oil and gas part, but he doesn’t have the clean energy part. And if we are only thinking about tomorrow or the next day and not thinking about 10 years from now, we’re not going to control our own economic future, because China, Germany — they’re making these investments. And I’m not going to cede those jobs of the future to those countries. I expect those new energy sources to be built right here in the United States.
So that’s going to help Jeremy get a job, it’s also going to make sure that you’re not paying as much for gas.
MS. CROWLEY: Governor, on the subject of gas prices.
MR. ROMNEY: Well, let’s look at the president’s policies, all right, as opposed to the rhetoric, because we’ve had four years of policies being played out. And the president’s right in terms of the additional oil production, but none of it came on federal land. As a matter of fact, oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production is down 9 percent. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federal waters. So where’d the increase come from? Well, a lot of it came from the Bakken Range in North Dakota. What was his participation there? The administration brought a criminal action against the people drilling up there for oil, this massive new resource we have. And what was the cost? Twenty or 25 birds were killed, and they brought out a migratory bird act to go after them on a criminal basis.
Look, I want to make sure we use our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables. I believe very much in our renewable capabilities — ethanol, wind, solar will be an important part of our energy mix. But what we don’t need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas. This has not been Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal. Talk to the people that are working in those industries. I was in coal country. People grabbed my arms and say, please, save my job. The head of the EPA said, you can’t build a coal plant. You’ll virtually — it’s virtually impossible, given our regulations. When the president ran for office, he said, if you build a coal plant, you can go ahead, but you’ll go bankrupt. That’s not the right course for America. Let’s take advantage of the energy resources we have, as well as the energy sources for the future. And if we do that, if we do what I am planning on doing, which is getting us energy-independent, North American energy independence within eight years, you’re going to see manufacturing come back jobs because our energy is low-cost.
They’re already beginning to come back because of our abundant energy.
I’ll get America and North America energy-independent. I’ll do it by more drilling, more permits and licenses. We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline, I will never know. This is about bringing good jobs back for the middle class of America, and that’s what I’m going to do.
Even if you just skimmed that section, you know that neither candidate answered the actual question. We did not find out if either presumptive president thinks that it is the Department of Energy’s job to stabilize gas prices. Even after that exchange, when Candy Crowley asked the question again, it remained unanswered. But they both understand what a direct question is:
MR. ROMNEY: So how much did you cut them by?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It’s not true.
MR. ROMNEY: By how much did you cut them by, then?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Governor, we have actually produced more oil on —
MR. ROMNEY: No, no, how much did you cut licenses and permits on federal land and federal waters?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Governor Romney, here’s what we did. There were a whole bunch of oil companies —
MR. ROMNEY: No, I had a — I had a — I had a question —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, you — no, you — you — you want —
MR. ROMNEY: — and the question was how much did you cut them by?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: — you want me to answer a question, I’m —
MR. ROMNEY: How much did you cut them by?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: — I’m happy to answer the question.
MR. ROMNEY: All right, and it is?
It’s just not the question they were asked. Both of them used the buzzword “gas prices” to talk about other energy policies. And don’t think they won’t continue to do this tonight. They are preparing for debates, which do not mean having a real conversation with interest in the other person’s point of view, but producing sound bites around the sexiest political issues of the day. They need to get out what they practiced.
“But Gemma, broad answers are good. They help us get a reading on what each candidate believes about certain areas”, you might say. And yes, they do. But, like I said in the first rule, this campaign, and politics in general, is lacking a lot of concrete planning. I want to know what Romney would do, as in actually execute, to fix pay inequities between men and women. I don’t want to hear some bullshit general answer about the time you hired a woman. I don’t want to hear a bullshit statement like “We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women.”
Let’s put it this way. You’re applying for a job as a baker. This bakery has a serious problem with pies – they taste terrible and look like rocks. But you, though you’re great at cookies and cakes too, think you can fix this pie problem. Your interviewer asks you what your recipe is, and you reply with an emotional history of your feelings about pie. That’s great, but it’s not a recipe. It’s not an idea, or something that can be successful, and it’s not something that can fail. It’s just proof that you’re not some kind of dickish pie hater.
So, I wanted to open this section with a dictionary definition of the word “pander”. I’ve only heard it used in a political context (meaning to cater to special interests and to be generally ingratiating with voter blocs that you think might hate you), but my intrepid Googling led me to its original definition: “a person who furnishes clients for a prostitute or supplies persons for illicit sexual intercourse; procurer; pimp.” Yeah, you read that last word correctly. Pimp. That means, at some point, someone in politics got angry enough to call another politician literally a pimp for special interests, and it stuck.
Our democracy is kind of a mess. We’ve got this dinky little two party system that more or less functions right along party lines, even though they have some swanky new models in Europe with coalition governments. Coalition governments (and yes, I know I’m being a little idealistic here, because we all got problems) glory in ideological differences, because they know that that smaller parties will still have a voice in government. A small party that receives a certain number of votes will still have a seat in a legislative body. Since small parties can still be heard in government, politicians are less afraid to take positions that aren’t widely popular, or are slightly radical.
But over here, we have two giant lumbering parties that are supposed to divide us neatly in half. Obvious logic flaws aside (if we’re really half and half, doesn’t that mean no party will ever win, and we’ll never compromise or get anything done? Yes, it does, based on Congress’ amazing record this year.), that means that candidates are afraid to deviate from middle of the road positions. Sure, they can lean a little to left or a little to the right, but they’re still just covering the same song.
Take the gun control question in the last debate. Romney supported a 5-day waiting period on gun sales, and refused to dismantle Massachusetts’ very strict gun laws. Barack Obama cosponsored a bill to limit gun purchases. But both men claim to be pro-2nd Amendment. Why? Because seeming to take a strong position on gun control could alienate possible voters. Is that pandering? I think so, especially if it means concealing your true intentions and values.
I want to vote for a candidate who has concrete ideas that actually mean something. I don’t want a candidate bland enough to appeal to everybody. This is the truth in theatre and writing, too – if you try too hard to make something universal, it will be boring as hell. If you are specific, if you take risks, you will be so much more likely to create something worthwhile.
So, take a drink when you hear either candidate express a preference because he’s too scared some random voter bloc will be sad, instead of realizing that he could drum up a lot more enthusiasm by just taking a strong position.
Just a sip, not a shot, okay, because you’re not trying to get wasted here. Because why even bother saying this? Of course it’s not true, of course someone is lying, or manipulating the facts to make them palatable or damning.
I recently read a news analysis in the NYT (probably after the first presidential debate), positing that lying is less damning that not, these days. If a candidate says something that’s patently untrue, and is debunked four hours later, that’s still four hours that people believed the lie. In fact, most people will continue to believe that lie for much longer (see the somehow continuing birther movement, or those emails your grandmother keeps sending you with the subject line “SECRET MUSLIM”).
You know what? If you don’t investigate the truth for yourself, if you really believe everything that either candidate says, don’t take the drink. You don’t deserve it. But everyone else, look at the discourse around you and maybe upgrade from sip to full on gulp.
Yes, even says the word. Because you know whatever’s coming next, you’ll need one. If it’s not someone who sits on the house committee for science and technology denying evolution, it’s someone telling you this has happened. Just for kicks, here are a couple of links to some things that will make you start drinking before the debate even starts:
Paul Broun, sits on House Committee for Science and Technology.
Ralph Hall, head of House Committee for Science and Technology.
Also, check out Sci Am’s study, “Does Congress Get Passing Grade on Science?”
The Netherlands recently had a very calm election, in which one of the candidates was former nuclear physicist Diederik Samsom. Samsom graduated from Delft University of Technology and spent some time in the real world applying science. He’s a smart guy who isn’t going to discount studies out of hand, because he has experience thinking about the world from a scientist’s perspective.
In short, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and people who only have the most basic understanding of science should not make our scientific policies. Candidates should not be shamed for referring to scientifically accepted theories. Candidates should not use “science” as a term for “faith-based explanations of biology”.
For some reason, our national discourse has a decidedly anti-intellectual bent. We’ve built a narrative that says common sense is better than education. If you can’t feel global warming, it’s not real. If you’ve never studied biology but your gut tells you that evolution is wrong, well, it must be wrong. There’s a fear of appearing smart, of appearing to know anything as opposed to simply feeling it.
This is exceedingly backward to me. When you get surgery, you want a surgeon who is highly educated and knowledgeable, not some asshat who is pretty confident he knows what to do. When you have your taxes done, you want them filed by someone who knows tax law, not someone who just does what they think is right. That’s a way to become an organ donor, a way to spend a couple of years in federal prison.
So, if we want expertise in our day to day life, why don’t we want expertise in our politicians? These people are tasked with a difficult job – overseeing the many intersecting sections of life and trying to create policies that regulate them. That should require a huge amount of knowledge. How are you supposed to regulate the internet if you think that it’s physical place? How are you supposed to regulate stem cell research if you don’t believe in embryology? The world is a complex place, and we should want our brightest to be in charge of it.
“Ivory tower intellectual” is a term that has become popular among pundits in recent years, as though having an education is somehow damning. But it is through education that people become empowered, and every dig against science is only reinforcing the old, bad, world order.
So drink away.
Here are the possible questions you have asked me so far:
1. Why don’t you move to Europe already, or
1a. shut up about how great it is over there?
2. Aren’t you going to be pretty drunk tonight?
3. Aren’t you offering impossible alternatives?
I’m going to answer your questions in whatever order I feel like, and you can decide which answer matches up with which question, just like a real debate. So:
I know it might not seem like it, but I love this country. I love it even though it is full or horrible ignorant people who cannot look further than their own backyards. I love it because it is full of brilliant strivers with hundreds of thousands of ideas that will change everything. I love it because it began with a fairly radical idea that people should own a government, not a monarch. But, Europe looked our way and said, yeah. That’s pretty fucking cool, let’s have some democracy over here. They do shitty things too, of course, but at least they take notes!
But I’m not headed across the ocean, because I am an armchair historian, and I have looked back through the annals and believe that we can get better and do more. We defend our citizens’ rights to be idiots, even though I think everyone should just a read a book published sometime in the last two centuries. Our citizens are innocent until proven guilty, our citizens are so blasé about the right to vote that 38.4% of people just don’t do it. This is a country that rewards good ideas over the long run, even though there are some periods that are just stacked with horrible ones.
When I say, have concrete plans, be truthful, be smart, I have low expectations. I expect our elected officials to treat us like or act like children. But I don’t have to settle. Because I love this country, I will point out when my representatives fail to meet my expectations. I will not claim that things are just fine when they are anything but. It’s important to say things like this, if only to keep asserting the fact that we should not accept the state of our political discourse. We should try to change it by demanding more from the people that are supposed to serve us.
It’s going to be hard, hard work. And hard workers like us deserve a drink.