Monday, October 19, 2009

Burr, Bowles: Once adversaries, now friends

Dome today has a piece about the ongoing friendship and collaboration of UNC System President Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican, and their economic summit at N.C. Central University in Durham.

The two have become friends since their bruising 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, when Burr beat Bowles and captured the seat being vacated by former Sen. John Edwards, the Democrat whose popularity numbers have slid over the abyss.
If you watch Carolina basketball you'll sometimes see Burr sitting with Bowles in the Smith Center. The two men obviously like one another. It's good to see them working together, but it ought not surprise anyone. Bowles has a history of working across the aisle and within the complicated factions of both political parties. That's how he helped arrange a balanced budget when he was White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration. And Burr will talk your ear off when he's interested in a topic and has some thoughts about how things might work.

But I can't help wishing they had talked directly with one another back during the 2004 campaign, when they might have hit on ways to give voters a better campaign that was less about money and more about issues.

In fact, they tried, but the couldn't seem to talk directly to one another. Here's a segment from a column I wrote about that topic in June, 2004, after talking to both men:

They came close to doing the right thing the other day, but something got in the way.
After a Virginia-based independent group called Americans for Job Security began running pro-Burr ads in North Carolina, Bowles had a suggestion: Let's agree to discourage third-party independent spending campaigns in North Carolina.
Bowles knows how ugly they could be; environmental and workers' groups criticized his 2002 Senate opponent, Elizabeth Dole, in negative ads that year. Bowles himself was the target of negative ads financed by national Republican interests. He wrote Burr the other week to tell him he thought outside special interests have no place in N.C. politics. How about a pledge to keep special interests out?
Trouble was, Bowles didn't just send that message to Burr. His campaign sent it to the press, which is how the Burr campaign found out about it. I don't know about you, but if someone wanted me to do something, I'd want to know what it was and think about it a bit before I heard about it from a reporter.
The Burr folks thought it over and made a counter-proposal: Why don't we also agree to keep the influence of big money out of our campaigns by agreeing not to make big personal contributions? Bowles is wealthy and put considerable sums in his 2002 campaign; Burr is pretty well off, though not in the same bracket as Bowles.
Bowles regarded that as a rejection, but wrote back that he would accept Burr's proposal - though he had contributed an equivalent amount that had been spent in Burr's behalf by Americans for Job Security, around $600,000 or more.
You guessed it: the wheels came off. Burr's campaign rejected the Bowles' campaign offer, concluding that Bowles had already violated the Burr proposal by putting money in his campaign. The matter is closed, a Burr spokesman said. We're done talking about it.
Too bad. They came so close. Or did they?
Both campaigns were engaging in a kind of one-upsmanship that sent the idea down the tubes. The Bowles campaign's appeal through the media appeared designed more to get publicity than results. The Burr counterproposal seemed designed to mitigate Bowles' personal financial advantage, ignoring the fact a big personal contribution would at least be disclosed and could hardly qualify as special-interest money. Bowles' response that he would agree to the deal but had made a personal contribution equal to the independent ad campaign sent the Burr folks down the slippery slope of suspicion, souring any chance of further negotiation. The Bowles campaign thought that was a sign that Burr was never serious about it in the first place. Burr's camp thought the same thing about Bowles.
We'll never know. What we may end up with is another of those campaigns that make North Carolina infamous, with specials interests from somewhere else trying to tell us who we ought to put in the Senate and spending gobs trying to buy our votes.
Bowles is now suggesting the candidates discourage their own political parties' senatorial campaign committees from running independent ads. Burr's campaign dismissed the suggestion as one more hollow attempt to make a deal through the news media, and anyway it was no longer listening.
It's too bad these two candidates aren't talking directly, and seriously, about doing something to give North Carolina voters a better campaign.
But that would take some leadership on someone's part. Either Burr or Bowles has to pick up the phone and start the conversation - person to person.
It's an opportunity to lead. Will either candidate take it?


Anonymous said...

Friendship, meh. All this proves is that Democrats and Republicans are in bed together. Of course, North Carolina is hardly unique in this regard.

Frankly, they both suck. It's the high school student council writ large, except this time huge sums of money and the nation's future as a strong, credible democracy are at stake.

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