Squashing the wrong problems

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

You know when you’re on your porch, and you notice a spider crawling by, but then you look closer and realize it’s not a black widow or a brown recluse, so it’s not poisonous, but then you wonder if maybe you could be wrong, so therefore it could be a threat, and plus it’s a nuisance? Those things multiply, and maybe they’ll get into the house, so you squash it just to be sure.

That’s kind of what the state’s establishment has done to independent candidates in Arkansas.

This past week, District Judge James Moody ruled in a case, Moore v. Martin, in favor of a 2013 law that requires independents to submit their required signatures – 3 percent of the voters in the last election, or 10,000 in statewide races – to the secretary of state by the end of the filing period. In a typical year, that’s the beginning of March.

Before the law was passed, independents could file at the same time as Democrats and Republicans and then collect their signatures while party candidates were campaigning for their May primaries.

The practical effect of the new law is that independents can’t survey the landscape like party candidates can do and then jump in the race. They must have already gathered their signatures to qualify for office by the same deadline that major party candidates sign up to run. They have to be walking the streets months in advance asking people to sign a petition. And instead of walking those streets in March and April as before, they now have to do it in January and February.

Except not this coming election. Because the Legislature moved next year’s primary elections to March 1, the filing deadline this year is Nov. 9. Independents have only 90 days to collect signatures, which means they would have to be beating the streets now for an election that won’t occur until November 2016.

The lead plaintiff in the case, Mark Moore of Pea Ridge, who ran for the state Legislature in 2012 as an independent, filed suit. Judge Moody agreed that the law creates a burden for independent candidates, but he accepted the state’s argument that it’s too difficult to verify those signatures in time, considering all the other things the state must do in an election cycle.

Which is a stretch. In 2014, there was one independent candidate for the Legislature, requiring the secretary of state’s office to verify only hundreds of signatures. In 2012, before the law was passed, there were seven. There’ve been a few other independent candidates run for other offices, but not many. Meanwhile, the secretary of state’s office will verify 67,887 signatures for each voter initiative and 85,859 signatures for any constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot in 2016.

What independents usually are is a nuisance for the establishment. In a given election, combined they represent a few thousand signatures that the secretary of state’s office has to verify. Meanwhile, for the major party candidates, they’re a variable they’d rather avoid dealing with. They’d rather just have one opponent, if it can’t be none.

I wish the halls of the Legislature and the Congress would become infested with independents scurrying around doing the people’s business without regard to party politics. But that’s not going to happen. Despite George Washington begging us to do otherwise, we’ve created a political system that almost guarantees that candidates will be a member of one of two parties. That’s the way it’s been for more than 200 years.

So why even bother with independents at all? Because there needs to be an option for candidates and voters who don’t agree with the two big parties or any of the smaller ones. The other reason is because the system needs an occasional nuisance – in fact, sometimes even a threat.

In the 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot won 19 percent of the vote campaigning as an outsider on one issue: the need to reduce the national debt, which at that point was $4 trillion. In the years following that election, President Clinton and Congress actually sort of balanced the budget. Was Perot the only reason? No, but he certainly helped. He changed the conversation, and 19 percent was a number even the major parties couldn’t ignore.

No candidate since then – Republican, Democrat or other – has been so effective at calling attention to the national debt. Few have even really tried. It’s now more than $18 trillion.

I think we’re trying to squash the wrong problems.

Welcome to your country

New Americans take the Oath of Allegiance in Little Rock Friday. Aristides Urdaneta is in the blue jacket with blue tie behind the woman in the red dress. Wife Jeannette is to his left.
New Americans take the Oath of Allegiance in Little Rock Friday. Aristides Urdaneta is in the blue jacket with blue tie behind the woman in the red dress. Wife Jeannette is to his left.

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Fifty people from 22 countries raised their right hands Friday in U.S. District Judge Beth Deere’s courtroom. Journeys that had taken decades were ending in an 11 a.m. ceremony. The participants had been examined by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, met English language requirements, and passed a citizenship test that many native-born Americans would fail. After taking the Oath of Allegiance, they were no longer from 22 countries. They were from one.

Afterwards, each came forward to receive a certificate and a small American flag, and to introduce themselves and their countries of origin. Their foreign accents ranged from thick to nonexistent. Eleven were from Mexico, including one who finished his introduction with “Woo, pig sooie.” Another said, “I’m from Egypt. No, I’m from USA. USA! USA!” Afterwards, U.S. Rep. French Hill said in a brief speech, “My fellow Americans … welcome to your country.”

Among the 50 were Aristides and Jeannette Urdaneta, immigrants from Venezuela. They came to the United States in 2003 on a work visa with their son, Kevin, now a teenager who also became an American citizen that day by virtue of his parents’ new citizenship. He’s an Eagle Scout and the state president of Health Occupation Students of America, and he wants to be a doctor someday. While in the United States, the Urdanetas had a daughter, Albanie, who will be 10 next month and is an American by birth. She’s about to join a dance company, she said.

The Urdanetas are the second and third generations in their family to escape oppression. Jeannette’s father had immigrated to Venezuela from Albania years earlier to escape its communist dictatorship. (That’s where the name “Albanie” comes from.) As socialist dictator Hugo Chavez grabbed more and more power in Venezuela, her father would predict with eerie accuracy the government’s next move based on his own experiences. “Things were getting worse by the month, by the day,” Aristides said.

In search of a better life, Aristides began looking for jobs where he could put his computer skills to work in America, Canada, Australia or Spain. The best opportunity came with CAT Squared, a Conway-based software company serving the food industry and founded by immigrants from South Africa. They spent six years under a work visa and then applied for permanent residency. Eventually, Jeannette became a Spanish teacher at Maumelle Charter High School.

By taking the Oath of Allegiance, the new American citizens declared that they “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity” to their home countries.

That’s a powerful statement – to say that you’re no longer associated with the country of your birth. I asked them how difficult it was to take that step. Their Venezuelan heritage will always be a part of who they are, they said, but they’re not looking back. “We made a decision that this is our country, and we have to stand for the United States now,” Aristides said.

Yes, I asked them about illegal immigration – specifically, about their level of sympathy for those who didn’t do it the right way, like they did. They did not have an easy answer. They said it is unacceptable for people to do things illegally, but the situation is complex, and individual situations need to be considered.

From the front of the room, the 50 people taking the oath of office seemed to be a stoic group. Not many showed much emotion, although one new Ukranian-American shed quite a few tears, perhaps related to the turmoil her homeland is experiencing. I picked out Aristides because his face seemed the most joyful of anyone I saw. Both he and Jeannette said they got a little emotional. Kevin said he did, too. “I had a moment when the judge first said, ‘My fellow Americans,’ I was holding back the tears. … At that moment, I felt just all the history in my family, from oppression to freedom back to oppression back to freedom,” he said.

Albanie feels the same weight, and she has plans to do something about it. “When I grow up, what I would like to do is, I would like to get a job where I could get a lot of money and I could buy tickets for the rest of my family to move here and experience what freedom is like,” she said.

I hope she can, and I hope Kevin becomes a doctor. Welcome to your country, Urdanetas family. It’s your home now.

Chelsea Clinton for president?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Veteran newsmen Steve Barnes and Ernie Dumas have forgotten more about politics than I know. Sitting across the table from them after taping the AETN public affairs show “Arkansas Week” last Friday, I asked them this question, or a variation of it: Who are the young Democrats moving into national leadership who soon could run for president?

What followed was several seconds of silence, and then none of us could produce any names.

The topic came up because of the problems facing Hillary Clinton, who I argued recently in this space would probably be the next president of the United States. With her email problems not going away, that’s looking less certain.

The problem for Democrats is, who would be the alternative – not just among younger Democrats, but even young-ish ones? The closest current rival for Clinton, 67, is Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 73-year-old Vermont socialist. Even though it’s very late in the process, some Democrats have been flirting with Vice President Joe Biden, who is 72. There’s even talk of former Vice President Al Gore, 67, entering the race.

So far, the Democrats have four announced candidates, but three of them have no shot at the presidency. Meanwhile, the Republicans have a wide open race with 17 candidates – governors and ex-governors, senators, business leaders, a neurosurgeon – most of whom are plausibly presidential.

It’s not that the president should be a young person. It’s that political parties should develop their talent. Democrats don’t necessarily need a candidate like the Republicans’ Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s 44, or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who’s 47. They need viable candidates in their 50s and early 60s who could have run this year. And they don’t have them.

Why not? The most important reason probably is the hold the Clintons have had on the party since 1992. She has been the heir apparent since Gore lost in 2000, with her seemingly inevitable nomination in 2008 derailed only by then-Sen. Barack Obama’s emergence. The party hasn’t merely been ready for Hillary. It’s been holding the door open for her – and slamming it shut on others.

Other factors? in Congress the party has been led by Sen. Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both 75, neither of whom ever seemed interested in running for president. Their iron rule has kept other Democrats in Congress from making names for themselves. Also, Democrats don’t have as strong a media apparatus keeping the party’s talent in front of their own voters. MSNBC is no Fox News, and Democrats don’t have a Rush Limbaugh at all.

Democrats also have fewer officeholders in the places where many presidential candidates are produced: governor’s mansions. There are only 18 Democratic governors, compared to 31 Republican ones.

There are many reasons for this disadvantage, including President Obama’s unpopularity. But another reason may be simple population distribution. Remember those electoral maps that show the country painted county by county with a wide swath of Republican red bordered by Democratic blue on the coasts? Democrats are concentrated in urban areas, while Republicans are spread through the middle of the country. If a Democratic governor is going to run for president, he or she probably will come from a blue state like California, which is currently led by Gov. Jerry Brown, 77.

This also gives the Republicans an advantage in controlling the U.S. Senate, by the way.

Americans tend to hand the White House keys from one party to the other every eight years or so, which favors Republicans in 2016. But otherwise, Democrats enter this cycle with many advantages. They have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and the election itself four of those times. Most of the country’s demographic trends favor them. They lead among women, who vote more frequently than men; among minorities, who become a greater percentage of the population every day; and among young people moving into the voting population.

But to take advantage of this situation, Democrats need young and young-ish candidates who can run for president. In fact, both parties should have numerous candidates ready to run in every election cycle, despite whose “turn” it is. Sure, there are advantages to anointing a candidate two years before the election. But what if that candidate runs into big problems?

So quick – name a young Democrat with a name, money, connections, and national stature.

Chelsea Clinton?

Hutchinson will wrestle less with execution role than previous governors

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Sometime in the very near future, a night will come when Arkansas will execute its first inmate since 2005.

Eight inmates have exhausted their appeals, and a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling seems to remove the biggest obstacle that has kept them alive – concerns over the effectiveness of the sedative that puts the condemned to sleep before the lethal drugs are administered. Still, there will be legal challenges, including one already filed over a state law passed this year that shields the identities of the drugs’ vendors.

The night of the first execution, assuming it occurs, Gov. Asa Hutchinson will be the one person in the world who could throw a life preserver to a drowning man – who, of course, will have been convicted beyond a reasonable doubt of drowning someone else. Hutchinson alone could stop the execution with a phone call.

Asked in his office if he’d considered what that night will be like, the former director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. attorney, said, “I’ve been in law enforcement a long time, but I haven’t thought about that. … It’s a serious thing. My objectives in life in terms of these type of cases is that you’re sure that the system works; that innocence is protected; guilt is established; and the system works; and it is reviewed; and they have competent counsel; then it’s my responsibility to carry out the law. We’re not there yet, so … you just simply do your duty until you get to that moment and you address it then.”

Some previous governors have felt more personally responsible. Hutchinson’s predecessor, Gov. Mike Beebe, never had to preside over an execution and said he was glad he didn’t. Gov. Mike Huckabee did preside over executions, and it troubled him to his core.

In January 1997, Arkansas efficiently executed three men in one night. Three weeks before it happened, I asked the then-new governor in a press conference how he felt about his role in the process. It was not his first execution. He said it was much easier to talk about the death penalty before he was responsible for carrying one out. Tears appeared in his eyes as he described the burden he felt.

“”There’s never a night in a person’s life that’s more god-awful, gut-wrenching than the night you personally have the responsibility to stop a man’s death, or not,” he said. “Anybody who feels good about it is a very sick person.”

Despite his misgivings, Huckabee allowed those executions, and others, to proceed. One of his predecessors, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, did not. Deeply opposed to the death penalty, he ordered a stay of all executions. After his defeat in 1970, he announced that he was commuting the sentences of all 15 men on Death Row.

“What earthly mortal has the omnipotence to say who among us shall live and who shall die? I do not,” he said in an emotional news conference. “Moreover, in that the law grants me authority to set aside the death penalty, I cannot and will not turn my back on lifelong Christian teachings and beliefs merely to let history run out its course on a fallible and failing theory of punitive justice.”

On Dec. 31, 1970, two days after that announcement, Rockefeller visited what had been Death Row and personally spoke to each inmate there. His 22-year-old son, Win, was at his side as an observer. The man who defeated Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, later said he appreciated his predecessor commuting those sentences because it meant he would not have to preside over any executions.

Will Hutchinson be as conflicted as Huckabee, Bumpers or Beebe? It seems unlikely.

For a man who has spent much of his life in law enforcement, the execution will be the last act in a process that has involved many steps and many people. It will be the judicial process that will be responsible – and of course, the condemned. A horrific crime was committed, a fair trial occurred, and guilt was determined beyond reasonable doubt. And so while theoretically on that night he could toss that life preserver, I don’t think he’ll see that as part of his role.

He’ll see his role as carrying out the law regarding executions, while some previous governors couldn’t help but feel like they were sort of the executioner itself.

For GOP, is it Reagan or Goldwater?

Ted Cruz, in blue shirt, in Little Rock Aug. 12.
Ted Cruz, in blue shirt, in Little Rock Aug. 12.

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Campaigning for president in Little Rock Wednesday before several hundred onlookers braving the midday heat, Sen. Ted Cruz said Republicans must nominate a “real and genuine conservative. That’s the only way we win. If we nominate Democrat-lite, we will lose once again.”

Many conservatives believe that’s true. Is it?

President Reagan won by campaigning as a conservative, which he undoubtedly was, and then President George H.W. Bush, who really wasn’t a true believer, only served one term. Sen. Bob Dole, more of a pragmatist, lost, and then President George W. Bush won running as a conservative and then expanded government in almost every direction. Republicans then lost with Sen. John McCain, whom conservatives distrust, and lost with Mitt Romney, who had to pretend to be more conservative than he was.

On the other hand, there’s Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Twice in the television age, Republicans have nominated candidates seeking to move the country rightward. One was Reagan, who won 44 states in 1980 and 49 states in 1984. The other was Goldwater, who won only 38.5 percent of the vote in 1964.

The problem with trying to determine anything about presidential elections is that there are so few of them. Scientific experiments require many subjects. In the last 80 years, we’ve had only 20 elections, and there have been only eight elections since World War II when an incumbent wasn’t running. The taller candidate usually wins, too, but no one is suggesting that Republicans stand back to back at the next debate.

That said, here is another generalization: The optimistic candidate who inspires and unifies the most people usually wins. Reagan wasn’t elected simply because he offered a conservative message. He also offered a hopeful, empowering one. Goldwater, on the other hand, came across as divisive and scary. Scoff if you will at President Obama’s hope and change, but it got him elected. George W. Bush offered a positive message, and he won, too, assuming the numbers were right in Florida in 2000. President Clinton talked about hope, too, while President Carter offered a fresh face in 1976 and President Kennedy spoke of a “New Frontier” in 1960.

Of course, candidates try to slice and dice the electorate in order to cobble together 270 Electoral College votes, but pitting us against each other isn’t a good message. We’ll never know if Romney would have won if he hadn’t been caught saying that 47 percent of Americans are freeloaders, but it certainly didn’t help that he said it, and it was worse that he believed it.

I’ve never seen the country so divided, but then again, I’m “only” 46. So maybe what I’ve just written no longer applies. It’s possible that the next president will have no choice but to be divisive if he or she wants to be elected and wants to get anything done in office. Obama campaigned as a unifier and initially tried to work with Republicans. That didn’t work, and now he’s not even trying to connect with Americans not inclined to agree with him.

Cruz is not concerned with appealing to the other side and doesn’t mind making enemies. Speaking in Little Rock, he said the Obama administration is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism because of the Iran deal. On the Senate floor, he said his own majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, had lied. He really hasn’t passed anything of significance in the Senate. Then again, almost no senator has lately.

So maybe it’s the perfect time for an openly divisive candidate like him. Unlike McCain and Romney, he won’t be forced to move to the right during the primaries, say things he doesn’t believe, and then move back to the center for the general election. Cruz can stay where he is for the next year and then move slightly toward the middle to try to pick off states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The best possible scenario is for the country to elect a problem-solving leader with a unifying message, regardless of party label. That would be somebody like Reagan, actually, who held sincere beliefs but didn’t hate anybody and often compromised with Democrats while in office. The worst possible scenario – for Republicans and probably for the country – is for the party to nominate a candidate that conservatives don’t like who then loses. If that keeps happening, the GOP eventually will nominate another Goldwater, if it doesn’t happen this year.

Health care reforms: These would be easy

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Health care reform is difficult, in large part because it’s so hard to achieve consensus on many issues related to it. Repeal Obamacare, or amend it? Keep the private option, or replace it?

So maybe more attention should be paid to reforms where agreement is possible. For starters, here are two.

One would be for hospitals to make fewer people sick. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 648,000 Americans contracted infections while in an acute care hospital in 2011, and 75,000 of them died while a patient, though not necessarily from the infection. One in 25 hospital patients is infected during their stay.

Not all of those infections were the hospitals’ fault, of course. Many patients have weakened immune systems. But many infections are preventable if hospitals follow simple procedures. Sometimes it’s as simple as making sure physicians and nurses wash their hands.

That’s one of the practices at Unity Health in Searcy, one of nine hospitals in the country and the only one in Arkansas given a top rating for infection control by Consumer Reports.

The magazine recently rated 3,000 hospitals based on five infections: clostridium difficile, or C. diff, which develops in 290,000 patients each year and contributes to the death of at least 27,000; methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which contributes to more than 8,000 deaths annually; catheter-associated urinary tract infections; central-line associated bloodstream infections; and surgical-site infections.

Unity Health staff members told me there’s no magic bullet. Instead, they just follow nationally recognized guidelines, such as using a bleach-based cleaning procedure to combat C. diff infections. They avoid unnecessary catheterization. The housecleaning staff keeps the rooms clean.

How can more hospitals be encouraged to follow Unity Health’s lead? One way is to continue changing the perverse incentives surrounding health care. Medical providers traditionally have been paid by insurance companies and government payers under a “fee for service” model. They bill for each service they provide, so if a patient is infected while in the hospital, the hospital gets paid for treating that infection. That doesn’t mean hospitals are purposely careless, but it does give them less reason to be extremely careful.

Arkansas is a national leader in creating an “episodes of care” payment model based on appropriate costs for select procedures, such as knee and hip replacements, from the beginning to the end of treatment. If average costs for all such patients fall below a certain threshold, medical providers are paid a bonus, and they face a penalty if costs are too high. So if enough patients contract an infection, the hospital’s bottom line will suffer.

The model was created with input from government agencies, insurance companies and medical providers. In other words, consensus was created. The state started with five episodes and has been increasing the number. The federal Medicare program is experimenting with the model as well.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If health care is to remain a free market entity, then providers should face the same expectations as other businesses: If I hire you to fix something, you don’t get paid more if you break something else.

Another health care reform where consensus should be possible is increasing the number of medical professionals.

Recently, 214 physicians completed their residency training at UAMS and are ready to practice medicine. Unfortunately, that’s only a drop in a bucket with a hole in it. According to a 2015 study sponsored by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the United States faces a shortage of between 46,000 and 90,000 physicians by 2025.

A medical education is costly. According to the AAMC, 84 percent of 2014 medical school graduates had education debt, with a median debt of $180,000 – and that comes after many years of school, long after law school graduates are making money suing doctors.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has made increasing the number of high school students with computer coding skills a top priority. How about an effort to produce future doctors? Could we agree on that? If Arkansas can award more than 168,000 lottery scholarships, many to students who aren’t particularly focused or directed, can it reallocate resources to qualified medical school students?

More doctors are needed, and hospitals shouldn’t make people sick. Solving those problems won’t be easy, but coming to a consensus will be easier than it’s been with Obamacare and the private option. So can we talk about the easy stuff more often, and fight about the hard stuff a little less?

Private option: It’s all about the paperwork now

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

As of the beginning of this month, 31,501 Arkansans no longer have insurance through the private option, mostly because there’s a problem with their paperwork.

The state is redetermining eligibility for 600,000 Arkansans who receive health insurance through the private option or traditional Medicaid. Medicaid serves the poor, the disabled and others. The private option uses federal dollars to buy private insurance for lower-income Arkansans who previously wouldn’t have qualified for Medicaid.

The redetermination process, required by the federal government, has been a mess, beset by costly computer glitches. Now the state is trying to make up for lost time. Recipients whose incomes appear to have changed 10 percent are sent a Department of Human Services letter warning that they must verify their income within 10 days or they’ll lose their benefits.

If you count both the Medicaid and private option recipients, and both July and the upcoming August terminations, about 48,000 Arkansans will be off the rolls – 97 percent of them because they didn’t meet the deadline.

Some of that is because the state is overwhelmed. Some recipients have claimed to have submitted their incomes and then been told they’ve lost their benefits anyway. On Tuesday, Hutchinson announced a two-week pause in sending out the warning letters while DHS scrambles to find staff to process all the paperwork.

Why aren’t the others responding? Maybe they never realized they were on the private option, or they moved and never received the letter, or they read the letter and tossed it because they’re not sick right now. Some mistakenly sent verification to their local DHS office instead of the address required by the letter.

And some may have misunderstood the letter’s meaning or importance. Using bureaucratic language, it tells the recipient to verify their income or “your case will be closed and you will have to reapply” – not “or you will lose your insurance.” The envelope isn’t marked with anything that would communicate that it’s more important than all the other mass-produced envelopes in the recipient’s mailbox. Here’s the verification letter.

Asked if he might throw away an impersonal mass mailing, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who personally selected that 10-day timeline, said, “If I were a recipient of Medicaid from DHS, and I get a letter from DHS, I would presume it’d be a responsibility to open that letter.”

He’s right that recipients of a very generous government health benefit have at least that responsibility. But the private option serves many lower-income people who, for whatever reason, haven’t previously qualified for Medicaid and often haven’t had health insurance, government or private. Many have jobs but just don’t have experience working the system.

Hutchinson also pointed out that recipients actually have much more than 10 days. Counting a grace period and then a 90-day appeal process where medical bills will be paid retroactively, recipients actually have three or four months before they are completely off the rolls. Before losing their benefits, they are told through another bureaucratic-sounding termination letter that their ”case will be closed.” Also, the insurance companies who provide private option recipients their coverage were alerted that they were about to lose their government-funded ratepayers, so they had a big incentive to try to contact them as well.

Seems like there should be a better way to verify who should receive a government benefit, and who shouldn’t. The state will pay to kick people off the private option, and then pay to put them right back on it when their pharmacist can’t fill their prescription.

The backstory behind this process is the controversy over the private option itself. Created as an outgrowth of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) it barely passed in 2013 and barely was reauthorized in 2014. The Legislature cut the private option’s marketing budget in 2014, which might could have paid for the ink to print on those envelopes, “Urgent: Respond within 10 days or you’ll lose your insurance.” The private option survived 2015 only because Hutchinson convinced legislators to give him a couple of years while he and a legislative task force create something better by the end of 2016. One by one, private option supporters are losing elections or drawing primary opponents.

So part of what’s happening is that we’re all trying to prove that we can get tough on the private option, right before we close the case on it and reapply with something else.

The real Common Core conflict

Common Core cover cutoutBy Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The Governor’s Council on Common Core Review didn’t drop any bombshells when it announced its recommendations July 30. It had already made its mark when it pre-recommended in June that Arkansas join the many states exiting the year-end PARCC exam, which Arkansas has since done.

But while the Council may have calmed the waters, which was part of its purpose, the conflict will continue. That’s because the Common Core debate isn’t just about what schools teach, which would be important enough. It also reflects the country’s fundamental divisions.

The Common Core is a set of math and language standards adopted by most states – standards meaning “what students should know” but supposedly not “how teachers should teach.” It was originally proposed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers as a way to create consistency and comparability among the nation’s schools. The State Board of Education adopted the standards in Arkansas in 2010 without much public discussion, which is part of the problem.

The Common Core partly was a reaction to No Child Left Behind, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. That law gave the federal government the ability to punish schools if their students weren’t proficient but then let states create their own definitions of proficiency – and their own tests. Because states had a financial interest in their students being “proficient,” the result was a wide variety of standards that often weren’t very rigorous.

The 17-member Council, chaired by Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, commendably held more than 40 hours of hearings and also hosted public meetings in nine cities. It eventually produced six pages of findings and recommendations. Among the council’s assertions is that “a significant majority of educators generally approve” of the Common Core and that educators “are almost unanimous” in the belief that the Common Core is better than Arkansas’ previous standards.

So what are the problems? Among them are a lack of communication between policymakers and the public, and uneven implementation among the state’s school districts. The Council reported that common criticisms of the standards ranged from “well-founded to completely baseless” and often pertained to issues not actually mandated by the Common Core. For example, those weird math problems that have frustrated so many parents are part of a teaching method that complies with Common Core but isn’t required by it.

Among the Council’s recommendations is that the Department of Education continue studying the issue, which it was already doing, that the standards remain under Arkansas’ control, and that they be fluid and changeable.

Will 40 hours of hearings, nine public meetings, and the slaying of PARCC turn down the heat on this issue? Probably some. A public discussion finally has been had. The longer these are the standards, the more entrenched they will become.

On the other hand, the Common Core controversy isn’t just about the Common Core. Instead, the controversy is really about the country’s division, dysfunction and distrust. These days, any national policy effort, even one originating outside the federal government, will be treated skeptically by many. That’s understandable because power tends to centralize. What begins as a voluntary effort by states could become a federal government mandate.

So the divide over Common Core is about educational standards, but it’s also about Obamacare and President Obama, who had little to do with the Common Core until he expressed support for it and his Department of Education unfortunately started handing out grants to encourage it. It’s about the Confederate flag and Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner and all the other things we’re fighting about. Really, if there’s been a federal school takeover, it happened when Bush signed No Child Left Behind. But that occurred early in his administration, a few months after the September 11 attacks, when the country was relatively unified and its attention focused on external enemies.

The Council has finished its work. We still have the Common Core standards, which are probably better than what we had. We have a less intrusive year-end test. We still have a lot of distrust.

And we still have educators trying to do their jobs in the midst of an ongoing education controversy that’s about a lot more than education. School starts this month.

The attention-based democracy

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

You’re probably familiar with the concept that ours is now an information economy. That concept isn’t entirely correct.

In a 1997 article in Wired magazine, former theoretical physicist Michael Goldhaber argued persuasively that economies traditionally have assigned value to tangible goods based on scarcity, but there’s no scarcity of information in the information age. In fact, consumers are overwhelmed by it. Instead, what’s really valuable these days is attention. There’s always another link on which to click, but people only have one brain.

If we’re living in an attention-based economy, then we’re definitely living in an attention-based presidential campaign, as these past few weeks have demonstrated. With 22 announced major party candidates (at last count), what really matters is who can stand out from the crowd. And who’s standing out right now is Donald Trump, leader (by far) in the Republican Party polls.

In the spirit of Trump, a master of hyperbole, I’ll make a somewhat hyperbolic statement: Donald Trump has the most liberal track record of any candidate to run for the Republican presidential nomination in a long time. He has donated a lot of money to Democrats (including Hillary Clinton, who he’s praised). And while he argues that was just the cost of doing business, he also was a registered Democrat and did not register as a Republican until 2009. Also in the past he has said that the economy does better under Democrats, that he supported nationalized health care, and that he was pro-choice on abortion.

Some of this occurred long ago, and he has changed his positions. That’s fine by me, because I also change my positions sometimes. But usually political candidates pay a price if people think they’re flip-flopping.

Trump is not paying that price, in large part because he’s the master of getting attention, and he’s used that ability to tap into some prevailing political undercurrents like no information-based candidate can hope to do. His statement that Mexico is sending rapists and other criminals across the border cost him a lot of business but gained him a lot of attention. Attention is more valuable, especially since a lot of Republican primary voters agree with what he said and will ignore his past political dealings and statements. Those things are mere information.

Eventually, the 17 Republican candidates will be winnowed to five or six, Trump included. The others are fighting for survival using whatever tools they can to stand out from the crowd. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on the Senate floor that his own majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, had lied. The speech did not help Cruz’s standing in the Senate power structure, but it got him some attention. Arkansas’ former governor, Mike Huckabee, said that President Obama’s Iran deal was akin to marching Israel to “the door of the oven.” The Holocaust reference was condemned by many pundits, which was good for Huckabee – who, it should be pointed out, has always been a strong supporter of Israel. But he really struck gold when President Obama criticized him by name, saying his remarks were “part of just a general pattern that we’ve seen that … would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad.” You can bet the staff members in Huckabee’s Little Rock headquarters were exchanging high fives after that.

The glass-half-full perspective is that, in the end, hyperbole only gets a candidate so far. Once the field has shrunk, then this will become more of an information-based campaign, and if Trump, Huckabee or Cruz wins the nomination, it will be because Republican primary voters have focused on their beliefs, their histories, and which one of them can best beat Clinton.

The glass-half-empty perspective – and I’m trying not to engage in my own hyperbole, because the media works the same way as politics these days – is how vulnerable modern campaigns are to demagoguery. It’s not healthy when political viability comes from mere attention-getting, especially when that’s accomplished by riling people up. That’s probably always been the case to a degree, but the dangers are magnified when the country is so culturally divided and when candidates can use unlimited campaign funds to divide us even further.

In other words, these conditions may make it more possible for a candidate to be elected who’s really bad at governing but really good at standing out from the crowd. How can voters combat that? By gathering information, and paying attention.

Is having more choices at the ballot box worth all the trouble?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The unspoken question in Judge James Moody’s Eastern District courtroom Monday was, how much trouble should the election process undergo to accommodate candidates who aren’t going to win anyway, and also to accommodate Arkansans who want to vote for them?

The case, Moore v. Martin, involves two Marks. One is Mark Moore of Pea Ridge, an independent candidate – not a member of any party – who collected 39 percent of the vote in a two-person state legislative race in 2012 and wanted to run for lieutenant governor in 2014. The other is Mark Martin, who as secretary of state is the official in charge of elections, thereby making him the defendant.

The case concerns Act 1356 of 2013, which requires independent candidates to submit their required number of signatures when they file for election. In 2014, that meant they had to qualify by March 3, two months before the Republicans and Democrats held their primaries to choose their candidates. Under previous law, independents could file and then had until May 1 to collect their signatures – 3 percent of qualified voters with a maximum of 10,000 in state races and 2,000 in others. Because the Legislature moved the 2016 primary elections to March, independents this time must collect signatures by November. That’s November 2015, for an election that will occur in November 2016.

Moore says Act 1356 is unfair and unconstitutional. In non-2016 years, independent candidates must collect signatures door to door long before the election in the dead of winter. As a result, argued his attorney, James Linger of Tulsa, the number of independent legislative candidates dropped from seven in 2012 to one in 2014. Court precedent is largely on Moore’s side. In 1976, a three-judge district panel ruled in another Arkansas case, Lendall v. Jernigan, that an April signature deadline for independents was unconstitutional. That decision was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Martin’s attorney, A.J. Kelly, argued that Moore doesn’t have standing – he can’t sue – because he didn’t try to collect signatures in 2014. He pointed out that one legislative candidate did qualify, so the law doesn’t restrict access for those who really want it. Finally, he said an early deadline is justified because it takes time to review signatures to make sure overseas Arkansans can be mailed a ballot before the election.

Watching the proceedings were the chairmen of the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party. Act 1356 also gives third parties early deadlines. The Libertarians already have submitted their signatures and plan to hold their convention in November to nominate candidates – again, for an election that won’t occur until the next November.

Judge Moody said he’ll render a decision within a couple of weeks. If he bases it on the merits, it’s hard to see how Moore loses. There’s too much court precedent on his side, and there’s no reason to have such an early deadline for submitting signatures. According to Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News, between 1891 and 1955, Arkansas independent candidates needed only 50 signatures for any office, and the petition deadline was 20 days before the general election. I don’t know why legislators voted for Act 1356, but the practical effect is to reduce the chances of anyone challenging their two big parties. But Moody could decide for Martin based on a procedural or technical matter.

A Gallup poll released in July found that 46 percent of Americans consider themselves to be independents. However, the reality is that many who say they are independent reliably vote for one party or the other. Even though the Constitution doesn’t mention political parties, for many structural and psychological reasons, our system gravitates toward having two of them. And so this case is about opening up the process for candidates who probably aren’t going to win.

On the other hand, at one time, the United States had two major political parties, and the Republican Party wasn’t one of them. Our society values giving people choices, in letting ideas flourish, in freedom of speech, and in giving the little guy a chance. Some candidates want to run as neither Republicans nor Democrats. Some voters would like the chance to vote for them. In a nation where consumers have dozens of choices in the cereal aisle, why pass laws that reduce the choices at the ballot box?

So is having more candidates and a more robust debate worth the trouble? We ought to lean toward saying yes, regardless of what a judge decides in this particular case.

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.