Grant Bosse: Three ways to fix New Hampshire politics

Last modified: Sunday, September 01, 2013
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.)