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Grant Bosse

Grant Bosse: Three ways to fix New Hampshire politics

When I was thinking of running for Congress five years ago, I sought out the advice of Ray Burton, New Hampshire’s hardest-working grassroots campaigner. His sprawling Executive Council district has grown to rival a congressional district over Burton’s time in office, yet he manages to put in an appearance at nearly every Old Home Day, church supper and political rally.

Burton lost a re-election campaign early in his political career, and he hasn’t taken a vote for granted since. “Always run like you’re three votes behind,” he reminded me.

Asked why he kept up his grueling schedule despite not having a serious challenge in years, Burton told me, “Half of what you do on the campaign trail doesn’t matter. The trouble is knowing which half.”

Since then, I’ve reached some tentative conclusions on which parts of New Hampshire politics we could do without. I’m not suggesting we ban any of these practices, mind you. I’m just saying we’d all be better off if we agreed to ignore them.

Town hall meetings

I’m not exactly sure when the town hall meeting became a time-honored tradition for New Hampshire politicians and a basic responsibility for members of Congress, but let’s blame John McCain. In 2000 and 2008, McCain centered his campaign for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary on hundreds of town hall events. McCain’s eagerness to answer tough questions burnished his reputation for straight talk and helped him win the primary twice.

At some point over the past few years, we’ve come to think of town halls as a traditional and essential part of our democracy. And they just aren’t.

First, the format has nothing to do with the traditional New England town meeting that it pretends to mirror. And second, they’ve become as contrived as the rest of modern politics. Either incumbents hide behind media moderators, or protesters stage-manage chaos in order to catch a few seconds of embarrassing footage.

If a politician wants to rent a venue and let anyone ask anything, go for it. But don’t whine because the other party’s candidates don’t give you a forum to yell at them.

Former governor John Lynch didn’t have much use for the town hall meeting. He gave opening remarks at a UNH town hall meeting on internet safety in 2006 and may have held a few more I don’t remember. But that didn’t stunt his popularity, and complaints about U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte or Rep. Carol Shea-Porter’s August schedules won’t hurt them either.

Blind sources

The bad habits of the Washington press corps are creeping into state papers. If no one is willing to put their name behind a quote, don’t print it. Anonymous sources are rarely necessary. But they are a great way to justify speculation, trial balloons and political attacks. Readers have to be able to judge the credibility of a source in order to trust the story.

“Sources,” “people close to the candidate” or the notoriously chatty “senior administration official” can’t be held accountable for what they say. Other reporters can’t confirm they even said it. And the public can’t know if they have an ax to grind. Whistle-blowers willing to expose corruption in government need to be protected. Campaign consultants hoping to curry favor or escape blame do not.

If you’re breaking the Pentagon Papers, go ahead and use blind quotes. If you’re repeating the latest State House scuttlebutt, find someone willing to go on the record.

Straw polls

I shared my disdain for the Ames (Iowa) Straw Poll two years ago, even as Michele Bachmann was riding her impressive win to the White House. Not only are straw polls an inaccurate gauge of political popularity, but they divert candidates from more productive things, such as yodeling or cleaning out their inbox.

Unfortunately, local political committees and media organizations can reliably goose their ticket sales and web hits by hosting straw polls, often at the expense of campaigns with more money than good sense. Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul swept the straw poll circuit in 2011 because his supporters were willing to attend every event. But most of the time, a campaign pushing a big straw poll win has a candidate desperate for the appearance of momentum.

On second thought, let’s have more straw polls. They’re a good way to identify candidates with lousy priorities. Just don’t expect me to care about who wins.

Burton recently underwent treatment for cancer and announced his intention to seek a 19th term on the Executive Council. It’ll be good to see him back out on the campaign trail, even if half of it won’t matter.

(Grant Bosse is editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy, and a senior fellow at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.)

Legacy Comments13

Two ways to fix American politics: 1) Outlaw political parties. or 2) Adopt a parliamentary system like Canada and the UK.

Dan, your post offers the hope that we could have "a parliamentary system like Canada and the UK." There is every bit as good a chance that we would end up with a system like Israel's where splinter religious parties can extort their demands in exchange for helping form a majority or Greece's where... we know all too well. Be honest. Do you believe a country where almost half the population doesn't accept evolution has the political maturity to act "like Canada and the UK"?

Well, if either of you want to change the structure of our government, please have supporters draft a bill and get the appropriate percentage of the legislatures in the states to approve the Constitutional change. As far a "evolution" is concerned, Charles Darwin Gracchus, it is a theory. You should watch the dvd Unlocking the Mystery of Life. It raises questions that evolution do not have answers for. Nice that you extoll the "maturity" of the UK where 75%+ of the population believe that global warming is a hoax.......in that regard, they are very mature.

Itsa, you seriously need to know what "theory" means in scientific terms. Evolution, like ALL science, admits that it doesn't have all the answers and that more often than not finding one answer poses several more questions. As to the source you cite, be afraid. Be very afraid. It is an exposition of "intelligent design." You may remember the trial in Pennsylvania a few years ago where intelligent design was found to be creationism - in other words religion - trying to disguise itself behind scientific terminology. Let's compare, shall we? A scientific theory accepted virtually unanimously in the biological community vs. religious mythology rejected by all but a pitifully few outliers. Before you make the usual accusation, evolution does not require one to be an atheist; I would guess that most biologists are believers. One only needs an open mind an an understanding of basic scientific principles. Finally, you really ought to find better sources. Britons accept the reality - and the threat - of climate change to the tune of well over 80% D'ya think it may be related to living on an island and being concerned about sea level rise?

Jesus never rode no dinosaur.

I'd like to shoot for much more meaningful ways to reform politics here in NH and nationwide. So here's my top three reforms: 1) Campaign finance reform. There's way too much money in politics. Some contributions are in the open, some are secret. Contributions should be limited to a per person maximum--say $5000 should be plenty. And it all has to be made public. 2) Campaigns are simply too long. I'd like to limit them to say 3 months, max. That should be plenty of time for primaries and a general election. As is, the campaigning (and fundraising and advertising) never stops. 3) For the love of all that's holy, stop the gerrymandering! It is really laughable the districts that the political parties have cobbled together. As Grant points out, Ray Burton's district covers about 2/3 of the land area of NH while the other 4 councilors have the remaining 1/3. Gerrymandering congressional districts has contributed greatly to the polarization of Congress. Every Congressman wants "safe" towns in his/her district to make their re-election easier. This reduces the voting power of moderates and independents who swing left to right between elections. This is why Congress' approval rating is 10% but the same people get reelected over and over.

Town hall meetings are critical for elected officials to get feedback from their constituents. Grant it looks like you are taking your employer’s position on this one because their beloved democrats are too afraid to hold a town meeting. Jeanne Shaheen, Anne Kuster, and Carol Shea-Porter all hold staged events to communicate with their constituents and their line of communication is only one way. A total waste of time to attend Kelly Ayottee is the only brave enough statewide elected official who will ask for her constituent’s feedback. I agree with you concerning blind sources. It is how the liberal media spew their lies without having to identify the liberal source who wants these lies disseminated. You have a bout straw polls but it is a good way to raise money for small, struggling, local committees.

Well said Van!

Mutual admiration society. Just think if you were on a desert island together your brains would go dead. No new ideas would enter into them. None of you would be able to figure a way to get off

Lets see Republicans who depend on themselves to survive and democrats who depend on others. Tillie it is you and gracchus who would struggle on a desert island.

Van, great point. But, they would be excellent at redistributing the coconuts and pineapples. Fishermen would be working hard and they would be waiting at the shore to make sure that those who sat on the beach would share equally in the fishermen's hard work. After all, we could not have greedy fishermen on that desert island.

Van, your rant seems somehow incomplete without: "Four legs good, two legs bad."

I am pleased that you didn't like what i wrote. As for rant, you take the cake.

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