Episode 61: Exit Interview with Rep. Bill Owens

Some politicians slide into Congress after a boring, predictable, easy win as the predestined candidate. Others practically stumble — like Congressman Bill Owens, who was the last man standing in the dust of a political nuclear war back in 2009.

In this week’s podcast, host Andrea Seabrook sits down with the Democratic congressman from upstate New York as part of DecodeDC’s Exit Interview series. Owens announced his retirement in January of this year.

Congressman Owens is one of the most endangered species in Washington—the rational pragmatist.

“My view of the world is that there is a band of rational thought that we should all act in. I’m not saying that there is nothing you should be passionate about. But I think ultimately you have to go back to a thought-process that is fact-based and analytic,” Owens said.

But to understand how a lawmaker can be so rational, let’s take a look at how he got to Congress.

It was a special election in upstate New York that came at the end of President Obama’s first year in office. Republicans were in an uproar, and the tea party was on the rise.

Two candidates jumped into the race from the right. One was a moderate, and the other was a tea party-endorsed conservative.

But through all of this, no one seemed to notice the guy in the corner—the Democrat, Bill Owens, in the race for a seat that hadn’t been held by a Democrat since the Civil War.

When the dust finally settled, Owens had won. But the day after the election, the news coverage practically ignored him and instead focused on the two opponents he beat – and Owens says he was actually pretty glad not to be on the television.

“Because the narrative that they (his opponents) were putting out was in large measure inaccurate. And so it was my introduction, if you will, to the idea that people talked from a script rather from, in my perspective, what they believed,” Owens says.

Owens isn’t one for the Red Team/Blue Team fight. In fact, he was a registered Independent for much of his career.

“You can’t take a position, in my view, that says, ‘Well, I’m going to have you sacrifice but not me. ‘… We need to finds ways to, if you will, conjoin the interests of groups as opposed to splitting them apart. And we don’t focus on that in my view very often,” Owens says.

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Episode 60: Polarized America: How'd we get here?

There was a time when Americans weren’t so intensely divided as we are today. In fact, says journalist and writer Bill Bishop, from World War II to the mid 1970s, Americans’ attitudes about culture, family and politics grew more alike.

Then things started to change, says Bishop. Politics split us up, became harsher and more polarized. At the same time, economic forces and rising standards of living sparked a huge increase in people’s mobility; it’s no longer common to spend your life in one town, one church or one company.

That new mobility added to Americans’ separating political views, as people moved to regions, cities and neighborhoods in which they felt comfortable -- surrounded by people of a similar world view.

Bill Bishop outlines this process in his book, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” This week on the DecodeDC podcast, Bishop brings a fresh perspective on the polarization of politics, suggesting that, rather than point fingers at Washington, we ought to take a look in the mirror.

The act of voting has new meaning for Americans argues Bishop, now that we’ve clustered together among people with similar world-views.

“Politics becomes more about expressing the self rather than policy or decisions that Congress makes,” he tells host Andrea Seabrook. “People vote to reinforce their identities rather than to change policy.”

The surprising conclusion to Bishop’s thesis is this: today’s intensely partisan Washington may look grid-locked and broken, but it’s actually doing exactly what Americans’ have asked of it. In Bishop's words, “it’s representative government at its best.”

Episode 59: GOP wins BIG...but there's more to the story

There’s really only one story to tell about the 2014 midterm elections, right? Only one story, that is, if you rely on the constant stream of chatter from 24-7 cable TV, election-obsessed political rags, and the twitterverse for your news.

The story? Republicans won – BIG TIME.

And it’s true. Not only did the GOP swoop in and seize more than enough seats to take control of the Senate, in the House they likely* increased their majority to a margin Republicans haven’t enjoyed since Harry Truman was in the White House (*likely because vote-counts aren’t complete in a handful of congressional districts).

But that’s not the only story the midterms have to tell.

“On one level, they (the Republicans) were the big winners of the night,” says DecodeDC’s Senior Washington Correspondent Dick Meyer.

“But you scratch deeper and you see this anger towards Washington, and I think even more importantly, you see a profound pessimism about the future, about the future of the economy, about the direction the country is going in. Sixty-five percent of the people in the exit poll said they think the country is seriously on the wrong track; not a little bit on the wrong track, seriously on the wrong track.”

On the latest DecodeDC podcast, Meyer and host Andrea Seabrook talk about this, and other hidden stories from the midterm elections. Plus they ponder the consequences of an angry, disappointed, and pessimistic electorate for a Congress that, so far anyway, hasn’t learned its lesson.

“It will take something for politicians at some moment in time, at some moment in our history to say ‘hey, let’s change the formula, and let’s try to act more statesmen-like for awhile and see how that changes the deck’,” Meyer tells Seabrook.

“I think the opportunity for this election to do that is there, because I think the message is very clear to Washington. It was a profound message that we don’t like either party, we don’t like any group of leaders. Whether it plays out that way, I’m skeptical.”

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Episode 58: Future of Voting

Next Tuesday Americans across the country will participate in one of the most basic civic duties: voting. For many, that means taking time off work, driving to a designated polling place and casting their ballot through standalone voting machines. But what if the process of voting could be vastly different?

Today we can do almost anything on the Internet from banking to ordering take-out, so it only feels natural that we should be able to vote that way too.

In this week’s podcast, host Andrea Seabrook and Decode DC reporter Miranda Green delve into the benefits and road blocks to online voting and try to see into the future of elections.

Not all elections experts think going online is a great idea. But Thad Hall, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, is ready.

“You know it’s kind of the ultimate easy, convenient way to vote. And I don’t have to have a piece of paper, I don’t have to mail it back, I can send my ballot instantaneously. If Hurricane Sandy comes, I don’t have to worry about voting because I can just vote from my phone or I can vote from a computer somewhere.”

But then there are the naysayers, many of them statisticians and engineers who think the Internet is too insecure for such a sacred thing as voting.

Alex Halderman, a professor at the University of Michigan puts it this way, “I think most people like 100 percent accuracy in voting. The problem with voting with computer technology is [hackers] can change the election result to be whatever they wanted.”

There are even those who believe electronic voting booths should be done away with, that what America needs is good old paper voting.

Ronald Rivest, a professor at MIT says,“The high level goal is to not to just get the right vote count but one that’s provably right. Now here I am at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a fan of paper, but when you deal with security for a long time, you find that simpler is often better.”

So when it comes to the future of voting, the crystal ball is cloudy. Some say it’s only a matter of time before Americans demand online voting, especially as younger digital-natives start voting in larger numbers. And to be sure, voting is already changing in the U.S.  

Not only are more states allowing mail-in ballots and early voting but one of the biggest election-tech companies is piloting ways to thread the needle between the security of paper ballots and the convenience of voting online.

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.

Episode 57: The Dark Money Blitzkrieg


Tis the season for elaborate costumes, anonymous boogiemen and masked pranksters. That's right, it’s election season.

Across the country, races for the House, Senate, governors and state legislators are being haunted by nasty attack ads. In this week’s podcast, host Andrea Seabrook takes a deep dive into dark money groups, responsible for some of the nastiest ads .

As the co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, Michael Franz tracks political ads on TV stations across the country and collects data on interest groups and their spending. What makes dark money groups so ominous, Franz explains, is they are not required to disclose any information about who their donors are. So it is unclear who exactly is funding them.

“You could Google American’s for America and maybe find their P.O. Box or something, but you wouldn’t necessarily find anything else really about them. And I think that from a simple standpoint of what we know when making decisions [that] this is a troubling development,”  he says.

And when dark money groups blast into a campaign, pouring in millions of dollars to bombard it with attack ads, it can totally confuse the entire election.

“You’re going to see a candidate win on Election Day talk about voters having spoken on affirmation of my message and it might not be that at all. It could be an affirmation of the negative messages from unaffiliated organizations,” says Franz.

Because the funders of those ads could be anyone, or any special interest, or any business, voters have no way of judging the real motives of the ads or who is responsible for them. Is that the way we want our democracy to work?