The American political landscape after the November election, the media and the challenges facing the nation were debated Sunday evening by a panel led by "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams and featuring Joe Scarborough, TV show host and former congressman; David Gergen, CNN senior political analyst and former presidential adviser; and Peter Goldmark Jr., most recently the director of the Environmental Defense Fund.
The foursome gathered in the New Canaan High School auditorium for the annual Richard Salant Lecture sponsored by the New Canaan Library. All but Gergen have been included in the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world at some point in their careers.
In a postmortem of the election, Gergen, who was an adviser to presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and who was once called in a 1993 New York Times profile "the apotheosis of the insider," said President Barack Obama's re-election campaign had been a superior operation to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's. He said Romney lost every single day of the campaign except for Oct. 3 -- the day of the first presidential debate.
"That almost changed the dynamic, but it didn't," Gergen said.
"What a great day that was," Scarborough said.
Scarborough, a Republican who represented Florida's panhandle in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001, is the host of MSNBC's talk show, "Morning Joe." He said he was struck by how history had repeated itself electorally in the past two decades.
When Clinton was elected in 1992 as a "New Democrat," Scarborough said, he darted too far to the left, which provoked a strong reaction that manifested itself in the 1994 landslide midterm elections when the Republicans gained 54 seats in the House, taking control of it for the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered presidential office.
Those Republicans, of which Scarborough was a member, were united under Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's leadership and his Contract with America. Scarborough said his class "felt that history was on our side" and that it moved to the right, which resulted in Clinton being re-elected in 1996. Scarborough said essentially the same situation happened with Obama being elected in 2008, the tea party candidates' success in 2010 and Obama's re-election in 2012.
"It is arrogance that is the downfall of every party," Scarborough said.
Aside from serious political talk, Williams, a New Canaan resident, spent some time praising his town, as well as making jokes at its expense. He recalled that years ago he had tried to get Scarborough to move to New Canaan, saying that it has "the best of everything," except for electrical service.
"The clock on my microwave has been blinking for 10 years because the power goes out twice a week (here)," he said. "I call it `The Next Station to Haiti,' " which drew the biggest laugh of the night from the audience.
The discussion then moved to the role advertising money and the media had in the election, on which more than $6 billion was spent.
Goldmark, a former chairman and CEO of the International Herald Tribune, said he thought the press had done a good job reporting the election.
"I really thought this was a well-covered election," he said, to no reaction from the crowd.
"Goldmark not really drowned out by applause there," Williams quipped, to laughter from the audience.
Williams took a strong position against the role of money in the campaign and the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in a 5-4 vote that donating money to campaigns and political action committees should be considered free speech and therefore can't be abridged, striking down the McCain-Feingold Act that limited campaign contributions.
"Citizens United has changed our country forever. The only thing that could change it would be a constitutional amendment," Williams said.
His colleagues were not so sure that the change amounted to as much as Williams thought.
Gergen pointed out that for a lot of people, the return on investment of their donations was zero, noting that $6 billion had been spent to essentially maintain the status quo. He anticipated that in future elections, donors would be more hesitant to shell out similar enormous sums, which helped to fund the deluge of political ads, the frequency of which became a joke on television shows like "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. Gergen said the ads, in all their persistence from both sides, did not show results.
"But isn't that a pathetic reaction to Citizens United? That the ads didn't work?" Williams retorted.
Scarborough jumped in, agreeing with Gergen that there would be donation fatigue in future elections.
According to OpenSecrets.org, which is operated by the Center for Responsive Politics, Adelson is a casino owner based in Las Vegas who reportedly donated at least $53 million to pro-Romney SuperPACs, and Rove's American Crossroads SuperPAC spent $103 million on attack ads.
Throughout the lecture, the scope of the questions was often placed in the context of large theoretical ideas. The discussion of campaign spending and media coverage were judged as to whether they helped or hurt democracy. Other issues -- like whether there still exists great statesmen and women, whether or not gerrymandering has caused an irreconcilably radicalized Congress, and whether compromise could flourish in an age where people can consume media that exclusively caters to their own political opinions -- could result in an America that continues to lead the world, or result in a country where nothing could be accomplished and which would become uncompetitive globally.
Williams ended the night on a personal and hopeful note. He said recently he'd been in the Rockaways in New York, touring the damage from Hurricane Sandy. He came across about two dozen yellow-shirted members of the New Canaan Mormon church, who had traveled there to volunteer their time to help residents in need.
Williams, mustering all the gravitas of a national news anchor, said it was that type of caring for their fellow man that will make the future a good place to live.
"We need that spirit," he said.
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