On the Record: Political Reporter David S. Broder
By Stateline Staff
Regarded as the dean of U.S. political journalists, Washington Post correspondent and columnist David S. Broder has kept the nation apprised of political developments for more than 40 years, and earned an unparalleled reputation for fairness and accuracy in the process.
In 1997, Broder set his sights on the ballot initiative movement, which proponents tend to characterize as `direct democracy.' In typically thorough fashion, Broder started looking at the links between ballot initiatives and special interest political spending in the 24 states that allow initiatives.
The result was Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, a book that examines the initiative campaigns of 1998 and the impact they had on government and politics.
Stateline.org staff writer John Nagy recently had a phone conversation with Broder, who was in Cleveland promoting his new book.
Stateline.org : You spoke recently to students at the University of Colorado at Denver, and again to Colorado lawmakers, on some of the themes you discuss in Democracy Derailed. What was your message?
Broder : Well, I tried to talk to both groups about the concerns that I have about the loss of public confidence and representative government . . . [take] the persistently low ratings of Congress and the kind of comments that I've heard on this book tour. Literally in every single state that I've been in, when people have listened as long as they can stand it to my questioning of the way in which the initiative process is being used now, somebody always stands up in the audience and says, `You don't know our legislature!' And it's made me think that the same kind of reputation problems that plague the Congress plague the legislatures. And at some point, I think you have to take this seriously and begin to wonder whether this generation of Americans still retains enough trust in elected officials to sustain this system of representative government that we've had for 220-some years now.
Stateline.org : So you've found that people's frustration and cynicism are equally directed at the federal and state governments?
Broder : I think that's very much the case. Congress gets more abuse probably because it's a little bit more in the picture. But when you ask people about how their state is being governed, they tend to give very low marks to their legislatures as well.
Stateline.org : With regard to the initiative process, do you see yourself as a reformer or an abolitionist?
Broder : Well, there's no point in being an abolitionist, because in every state that I visited in the reporting, the initiative process is very popular with the public and I don't think there's any disposition in any of those states to take it away. My guess is that, on the contrary, we will very likely be in a debate at the national level sometime quite soon about whether to extend it to the federal government.
Stateline.org : Are more states likely to join the list of states with the ballot initiative?
Broder : Mississippi, as you know, is the most recent to add to the list. A bill to create an initiative system passed the House of Representatives in Minnesota, but it has been blocked in the state Senate. So I don't know that any is imminent in this legislative session. But again, I think given the two factors one, disillusionment with the reputation of legislative bodies and, second, the increasing popularity among interest groups and wealthy individuals in using the initiative process to short-cut all of the checks and balances of the legislative process I would not be at all surprised to see efforts made to extend it to other states, as well as to the national level.
Stateline.org : What are the prospects for initiative reform?
Broder : Not particularly good. I think Oregon is going to vote next Tuesday (May 16) on a proposal that was placed on the ballot by the legislature to increase by 50 percent the number of signatures that are required to qualify a constitutional amendment for the ballot. When I was there, most people were guessing that it would probably not be approved. And the history of efforts to sort of channel or regulate the initiative process at the state level indicates that it's very hard to do. Many of the legislators that I've talked with tell me that the voters are very resentful of any proposals that they think would limit their unconditional right to use the initiative process in any way that they choose to do.
Stateline.org : Let's discuss a specific case I-695 in Washington state. It passed overwhelmingly last November without the benefit of a big budget and its sponsor is at it again, with another assault on the state's power to tax which he has called the "Son of 695." Did that story teach any new lessons and has it led you to rethink your argument?
Broder : Well, I had the chance to meet [I-695 sponsor] Tim Eyman when I was in Seattle a few weeks ago and he's a very engaging young man. I must say that I was delighted and sort of fascinated that he has gone into the initiative business with a company that he calls "Permanent Offense." He's putting two initiatives on the ballot this November: one to roll back all of the local tax increases that were passed after 695 was approved by the voters and the second one, which really fascinates me, to open all HOV lanes in Washington state to all the cars 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because Tim Eyman is convinced that it's the HOV lanes which are causing the traffic congestion in Washington state.
But it's a wonderful example, I think, of how the entrepreneurial spirit is taking over the initiative process and, in a certain respect, taking over state government. I mean, here's somebody who is, I think, 34 years old, has not spent one day on the public payroll, and yet is driving decisions about the future of Washington state probably more powerfully now than any elected official or group of elected officials in the state.
That's what I meant when I said in Democracy Derailed that I think the initiative process now has developed critical mass and momentum, so that it becomes almost an alternative form of government.
Stateline.org : Is 695 the next Proposition 13, then?
Broder : I think it certainly has had that effect in Washington state. Washington does not get the same kind of national publicity that initiatives that come out of California do. But I think I would not be surprised to see clones of 695 popping up across the country.
Stateline.org : As you note, initiative campaigns rarely get much coverage outside the states that have them. With candidate-related campaign finance reform receiving so much attention recently, would you suggest that reporters begin to think of these things in tandem?
Broder : I think reporters need to begin to think about this whole initiative process, the way in which they are financed and the lack of any effective limits on either contributions or spending on these initiatives. And also, I think, the way in which they are being used now by groups and individuals who are not even residents of the states whose laws or constitutions they are rewriting through the initiative process. My sense is that voters for the most part assume that when they find an initiative on the ballot, it's there because some other citizen thought this was a good idea. And the popularity of the process rests very much on the assumption that this is still, as it was conceived originally, a tool that's available to average citizens when they are frustrated with the politicians and the lawmakers in their state.
I think the press including myself because I only got into this three years ago have been quite derelict in not examining who the people are who make up the initiative industry, how they are financed and how they operate. These campaigns make candidate elections look almost like I don't know polite sparring by comparison. And the distortion and misrepresentation that takes place sometimes in initiative campaigns goes well beyond what most consultants think they could get away with safely under the press scrutiny that goes to candidate races.
Stateline.org : But shouldn't we expect more from voters who neglect to take the time to inform themselves properly on the issues?
Broder : I have enormous respect after 40 years of covering politics for the common sense and good judgment of American voters. I think they figure out pretty clearly most of the time what it is they want to do and they get a good sense of who these people are that are seeking to lead them.
But it's one challenge to figure out who you want to support in a presidential or a gubernatorial or a senatorial race. It's something quite different, I think, when you're confronted as the California voters were on the March primary ballot with 21 statewide propositions and in some cities a dozen or more additional local initiatives. I think that's asking quite a lot of most people: to ask them to figure out what their interest is in that many issues at a time. And we're beginning to do it wholesale. When I was in Oregon a few weeks ago, there were 65 individual initiatives that had been cleared by the state Supreme Court for circulation. Now, not all of them of course will make the November ballot. But when you're talking in that range of numbers, I don't think it's much of a deliberative process for the voters.
Stateline.org : Toward the end of Democracy Derailed , you mention concerns about Internet voting and electronic town meetings. What long-term impact do you see the Internet having upon our democracy?
Broder : You'll remember that Ross Perot in 1992 talked about having electronic town meetings and, like many of his other ideas, I think they were dismissed as being pretty far-fetched. But it's now become -- with the Internet -- a very realistic possibility. The number of home computers and the availability of the Internet leave us in a situation where there is no serious practical barrier to that kind of voting. After all, we've had the first Internet election now, as you know, in Arizona where the Democrats chose their convention delegates in an Internet election. So I don't think there's much of a practical barrier to it. I think it's now simply a question of whether we want to have as? a substitute for representative government the kind of direct democracy, plebiscitary, majority rule that the founders, in their wisdom, thought represented a danger; one, of political instability and, two, of regular threats to individual freedom and minority rights.
Stateline.org : Is there room for hope that Americans' faith in representative government will be restored?
Broder : Oh, sure. I'm not a pessimist. And I think that we in the press can begin to change that attitude simply by reporting more fully and accurately about the work of legislatures at all levels, including Congress. It's partly a problem that we have created because we tend when we're covering these bodies to focus on the most flamboyant and, in some ways oddball, characters in the legislatures. Second, reporters love conflict and if there's not a good fight going, we will try to stir one up. When legislatures work at their best, they tend to work by consensus and we find that pretty boring.
But I don't want to let the legislators themselves off the hook because one of the major factors in my view that has led to the disrepute of legislative bodies is the fact that so many people running for legislatures find it easy and convenient to run against the body that they are seeking membership in. And even once they become members, many of them continue to run against the institution, going home and telling their constituents, `You wouldn't believe how bad that place is. It's even worse than I thought it was before I was elected to it.' If you're constantly seeing the institution trashed by the people who are in it, then perhaps it's not a surprise that it has such a low reputation.