Yesterday’s Democratic debate was a surprisingly engaging affair … even without Donald Trump. If the highlight came with Bernie Sanders’ quip that folks were sick of hearing about Clinton’s “damn emails” (a line that gave Clinton a smile bigger than the Cheshire cat), the lowlight came when Anderson Cooper asked Lincoln Chafee about his vote for the notorious 1999 bill repealing much of Glass-Steagall.
In his response, Chafee defended himself by stating he was unaware of the content of the bill he voted for, and this was excusable because (a) he had just started the job, (b) he was under emotional duress, and (c) he went along with majority opinion:
There is no doubt that the ineptitude of Chafee’s response is jaw-dropping. Admitting that you were merely a lemming ignorantly following the herd over the precipice (But everybody else was jumping!) is no excuse. And if you are ignorant of the content of the bill and unable to fulfill your job emotionally, then take a leave of absence. Chafee’s bumbling response was the closest thing to political hari-kari that you are likely to see.
That said, I can’t help but suspect that Chafee’s response provides an invaluable glimpse behind the veil. Ask yourself: how many politicians do you think carefully read and studied the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act prior to voting on it? And how many, like Chafee, were merely lemmings?
Before you answer, take a look at the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act on which Chafee and his compatriots voted. You can read it here.
As you will see, it is long. Incredibly dense. And seemingly impenetrable.
Kind of like a credit card contract.
It turns out (no surprise) that credit card contracts are indecipherable to the vast majority of Americans.
And even where the content is decipherable, the sheer volume of material in a credit card contract makes it impractical to study prior to signing. So we sign our name and hope for the best.
One wonders how many politicians truly find the bills they sign into law to be decipherable. Because I don’t merely want a politician who has a rough grasp of the content of an expansive bill. I want a politician who has mastered the content and thought through all the possible ramifications. I want a politician who would be prepared to give a one hour lecture on the respective benefits and liabilities of a bill prior to voting on it.
I don’t want a politician who has skimmed a quick summary and goes along with the herd.
Yet, the scary thing is that I suspect Chafee’s candor was, as I said, a glimpse behind the veil. I suspect that many politicians find themselves out of their depth when grappling with the subtleties of complex proposed legislation. And I suspect even more that the demands of the job make it altogether unrealistic to invest the time in mastering the content prior to voting.
And this leaves me with the deeply unsettling prospect that if Chafee’s rationale for his vote may be more common than we’d like to think.