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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Term Limits

I was on my way to play bridge and listening to WMNF’s drive-time call-in show. Rob Lorei, the longtime chief honcho at MNF, was taking the calls. Besides being very well informed, Rob is a true gentleman who listens tirelessly to people who can be quite tiresome. After several times saying that other callers were waiting, he finally cut the guy off and then apologized to the wider audience: “Gee, I hope I wasn’t rude.” So sweet, and so unlike most windbags on radio.

Although the caller repeated it too many times, he actually had a point that I’ve not recently reviewed in my mental list of political positions. He was proposing open (or crossover) primaries as a way to moderate the extremists that now are so powerful, especially “conservative” extremists in the Republican Party. As you know, tea partiers have successfully pushed moderate Republicans to the right by threatening to run a more conservative candidate against them in their Republican primary.

The caller was suggesting that if any registered voter could vote in any primary, we would get more moderate nominees. Some states allow this, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen a study of its effect. I’ve never lived in such a state, but I’ve believed that it’s a bad idea in terms of undermining party platforms. Registering with a party should mean a commitment to that group’s goals, and if anyone can vote in a party’s internal elections, it becomes harder to choose candidates who actually are dedicated to its mission.

Moreover, crossover primaries make it very easy to play games in what should be an honest process of identifying the best possible candidate for the cause. I’ve little doubt that some Florida Republicans, riding their recent wave of power, would cast ballots in Democratic primaries with the intent of nominating the person they could most easily defeat in the general election.

It’s possible, though, that we should reassess the result of closed primaries in Florida, especially because more and more of our voters are identifying themselves as independent. I strongly suspect that when they fill out their voter registration form, most of these independents do not understand how they are limiting their right to vote. The notion of being independent appeals to modern folks, especially young ones, and they simply check off that box without realizing that they thereby are eliminating their right to vote in primaries. Some go to the polls and are shocked when officials can’t give them a ballot.

It should be a wake-up call for these excessively independent-minded individuals that they didn’t pay enough attention in civics classes – but often several years pass between learning the system in school and actually participating in it. We could rave on here about whether Algebra II is more important than American government. We even could suggest that legislators who want to focus on STEM classes might subliminally do so because they don’t really want their constituents to be more knowledgeable about history and government. But we won’t do that.

Confusion also is caused by would-be primary voters from states where they could request a ballot (just one, of course) for any party. Although crossover-voting can encourage gamesmanship by zealots who want to promote the most vulnerable candidate of the opposing party, the number of people with the time and inclination to plot and implement such underhanded strategy is fairly limited. That’s especially true in a purple, populous state like ours, where it’s hard to keep secrets.

So, although I’d never encourage giving Democrats the right to vote in Republican primaries and vice versa, it may be time that we allow independents to cast ballots in one or the other, without declaring a permanent party registration. Records, of course, would show which was chosen, and that could be helpful in determining trends. And, as Rob’s caller suggested, it may very well result in more moderate candidates for both major parties.

Then the question becomes: do we really want to go back to the days when the parties were so alike that the choice was between tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum? Or do we want, as conservative guru Barry Goldwater and his handmaiden Phyllis Schafly said, “a choice, not an echo”? He lost the 1964 presidential election by a huge margin, and she – the creator of that slogan – ran for Congress three times and never came close to winning. Her Illinois district was/is Republican, but her “Eagle Forum,” which promoted military spending and opposed equal rights for women, was too far right even for Midwestern farmers.

Extremists, though, see it is an article of faith to never admit defeat. After that disastrous election, Republicans adopted the slogan “26 million Americans can’t be wrong,” ignoring the fact that 43 million voted for Democrat Lyndon Johnson – whose administration established Medicare. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by spelling out the analogy for Obamacare today, but please think about it.

* * *

I listened to Rob’s caller through the traffic mess from downtown to Westshore, but changed stations just a couple of blocks later because I had no patience with the next fact-challenged man. He started his diatribe by saying that we need to “go back” to term limits. He seemed to think that term limits once had been a constitutional mandate – something that indicates he’s never actually read the Constitution or American history. Term limits are a new idea, a fad of the 1980s: they never have existed at the congressional level, and it’s arguable whether they are working out so well at the state level.

When I saw this caller’s argument repeated virtually verbatim in a letter-to-the-editor, I realized that is the latest talking point that “conservatives” are spinning for their innocent-of-history devotees. I’ll quote a bit from the man’s letter to give you the essence of this mythmaking before we look at the facts. He said:

“This country’s initial Congress was composed of representatives of all walks of life and livelihoods, who, after serving the people on a part-time basis, returned to their primary occupations – farmers, doctors, tradesmen, soldiers, etc… Today we have a Congress that has, at its core and majority, lawyers who have turned elected office into an occupation.”

Stuff and nonsense. Today’s Congress – especially with its women and racial minorities – is much more representative of the people than could be even imagined in the eighteenth century. Moreover, it is pure ignorance to say that the Founders were part-timers in government. Most devoted most of their lives to it, while their wives ran their businesses and farms. We’ll begin at the beginning, with the first president, George Washington. Martha ran Mount Vernon for decades, while he was off soldiering and/or politicking:

1748: surveyor for Virginia, a government job

1753: appointed by governor as adjutant

1755: militia, again a government job

1758: Virginia House of Burgesses

1760: Justice of the Peace (for several terms)

1774: Continental Congress

1775: Army Commander in Chief (until 1783)

1787: president of the Constitutional Convention

1789: inaugurated as president of the new US

The second president was John Adams, and he was a lawyer – which, in fact, was the most common occupation of the Constitution’s writers. Abigail Adams’ voluminous correspondence shows how often John was gone on government work, while she ran their Massachusetts farm. His timeline:

1755: graduated from Harvard

1758: after teaching, studied law and passed the bar

1770: a successful lawyer, he defended unpopular soldiers in the “Boston Massacre”

1771: Massachusetts legislature

1774: Continental Congress

1778: diplomat to France

1779: Massachusetts constitutional convention

1780: back to France and Holland

1785: diplomat to Great Britain

1789: inaugurated as vice president

1796: elected president

I won’t bore you with more timelines, but if you look up the biographies of the next presidents -- Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams – you’ll see that they also were lifelong lawyers, politicians, and foreign diplomats, putting in even more years than Washington and Adams. John Quincy Adams even went back to the US House after being president. No president, though, went back to soldiering, as the letter writer implied was common: it was not, either for presidents or congressmen.

Something of a revolution came in 1828, when Andrew Jackson was the first uneducated president, but he drew a lifelong government paycheck as a soldier, congressman, and the first territorial governor of Florida. Rachel Jackson accompanied him here, but that was her only time outside of her Tennessee home, which she called The Hermitage. She estimated that they were together only a quarter of the time after their 1791 marriage. No way were the Founders part-timers who served eight years (who decided that was the magic number?) and went home! Government was their business, and they worked at it all of their lives.

The letter writer also was wrong in his enumeration of occupations. A “tradesman” would have had no chance at all of being in the august company of those who wrote the Constitution: these were men of wealth, not workers. Even the men whose occupation can be called “merchant” owned shipping companies or banks. A butcher, baker, or candlestick-maker would have no chance of writing our fundamental law.

But I was so intrigued by the question of occupations that I spent some time researching it. Just two of the 39 signers of the Constitution were doctors, while at least 17 were lawyers and judges. Those who called themselves “planters” were from the South, where their slaves did the work, while “merchants” were from the North. One was a clergyman, and several taught at some point in their lives. The oldest was well-known Benjamin Franklin, at 80; the youngest, at 26, was Jonathan Dayton – who studied law at the College of New Jersey. All were politicians, in the sense that they had held offices, most of them many offices.

If we want to truly emulate the Founding Fathers, then we would expect the people who write the law to have studied it. Why would we want anything else? Government it is infinitely more complex than any business because policymakers have to know a little about every business to make sensible decisions for the general good. No one would hire a CEO because of his inexperience: why in the world would we want to do that in government? To advocate for it, as the right wing does, is to advocate for ignorance and anarchy. And for the enabling of lobbyists hired to fill that vacuum.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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