Think narrow

It is no surprise to see the Brookings Institution trying to limit the campaign dialogue in the run-up to Nevada’s presidential nominating caucuses next year. It is a disappointment to see the University of Nevada, Reno helping them do it.

Brookings plans forums for the Republican and Democratic candidates it considers the most viable to be held at UNR on Aug. 20 and 22. It has determined viability by showings in opinion surveys. In the case of Democrats, this means the top four candidates—Bill Richardson, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—will be permitted to participate. The GOP’s current top four—Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul—are slated for invitations, but Paul may be dumped if Fred Thompson announces his candidacy.

Our political system already has too few voices in it. The two large political parties have become obstacles to change more than instruments for it, oriented to money and power instead of to people and issues. To narrow the dialogue even within those corporate vehicles is ridiculous. The pre-nomination process should be the time when a range of ideas and candidates are given exposure. The opinion survey fig leaf is already used in general election campaigns to keep third party candidates out of debates; its disagreeable influence should not be extended to primaries and caucuses.

The Brookings Institution has an investment in keeping ideas out of political campaigns. While social conservatives who consider most anybody liberal have tried to characterize Brookings as a liberal think tank, almost everyone else considers it centrist with a vengeance. In fact, a description of Brookings from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting could well desribe the two political parties it now seeks to narrow: “[T]he corporate money behind Brookings reads like a who’s who of blue-chip companies. … Brookings’ ultimate philosophy is pragmatic to the point of being amoral, putting out tracts on military spending called How to Be a Cheap Hawk and opposing international sanctions because they might hurt U.S. companies—not because people might starve.”

Small wonder Brookings wants to keep the dialogue within acceptable circles of discourse.

Consider this: Brookings is planning to exclude Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, two of the most experienced candidates in either party, while including the famous and monied but undistinguished Hillary Clinton.

When Clinton was getting her law degree, Biden was in Congress. Two years later, Dodd joined him. Dodd and Biden both chair major committees—Banking in Dodd’s case, Foreign Relations in Biden’s case (and he previously chaired Judiciary). Clinton has never chaired a committee. The statute books are filled with laws Biden and Dodd have authored. In eight years of Senate service, Clinton has never gotten a major bill enacted.

And that’s to say nothing of the two most innovative thinkers in the Democratic race, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, who in previous forums have done a lot to force the other candidates to speak to the issues.

We don’t know whether the university knew in advance that its facilities were going to be used to exclude legitimate candidates from the campaign exchange of ideas. We do know that it’s a tawdry use of tax-funded higher education facilities.