Repost from 2012: The following post is an idea for a short story I had about Governor Romney and President Obama being locked in a room together. It’s a very long post. You have been warned!
The governor waved once more to the crowd in the Lynn University auditorium, and walked off the stage, Ann’s hand held firmly in his. In the wings, his campaign manager beamed his reaction to the governor’s performance in the final presidential debate with an enthusiastic two thumbs up.
“Governor, that was marvellous!” he said, with a wide grin. The governor raised an eyebrow. It had been the theme inside the campaign, his alleged 1950s style stiffness becoming a source of light ribbing from his campaign team. He actually found it quite funny, especially as his sons were very much the ringleaders.
The debate had been the hardest of the three, with the president holding his own and the governor having to tread very carefully, especially on Iran. His pollsters had been very clear: Defend Israel Yes, lead America into another Republican war, a big fat No. He felt he had kept the balance.
His sons were giving him firm handshakes and slapping his back when he noticed the head of his Secret Service detail speaking to another man he didn’t recognise. The agent walked over.
“Governor, the president has asked that you join him. A traditional matter, I’m told.”
The governor stiffened. It was not commonly known, and he had certainly not known until he had been informed on winning his party’s nomination, that a communications line between the sitting president and his likely opponent was agreed early in the campaign. If the candidate was informed of the phrase “a traditional matter” it meant that there was a national security issue he needed to be briefed on, off the record and not for campaign exploitation. It was a matter of pride to all in the know that the system had never been abused since it was set up by President Ford in the 1970s.
The governor nodded, whispered to his wife, and was led away by his protection detail. Two minutes later he was led into a large suite which he reckoned was the university president’s office. The president of the United States was standing at a table, with his jacket off and tie loosened, hands on hips and looking at a laptop with an unusually large screen. A high ranking US Air Force officer operated it. Half a dozen senior officials were also in the room. The governor noted that none were campaign staff.
The president nodded without smiling.
“Thanks for coming governor. You’d better see this. Take it from the top again, director.”
The governor stepped beside the president, seeing that he was watching a teleconference with the director of the FBI. The director greeted the governor, and checked his notes again.
“Just over an hour ago a man named Cal Butler, whom we have verified as a former Iraq veteran, tazered a number of security guards at the Warren G Harding Elementary School in Burton, Ohio. He gained entry to the school, took control of the library, and is currently holding 32 children and two teachers hostage. He has already spoken to our agent in charge who has verified that Butler is wearing enough explosives attached to a flak jacket to demolish half the school, and that it is wired to a pressure switch inside a baking glove he has on his, eh, left hand.”
The director paused to confirm that detail, as if it were important.
“Good God!” the governor exclaimed. It was a genuine release of shock.
“Butler has issued certain unusual demands, which if are met within four hours he will release the hostages unharmed and surrender.”
“Wait ’til you hear this,” the president said in a low voice. The director continued.
“Butler wants both you and the president to release a jointly endorsed statement proposing specific solutions to address each of the following four issues. Debt reduction, campaign finance reform, abortion, and same-sex marriage. He has released a statement to the media, which I have forwarded to you. He also stresses that he will not accept Apple Pie and Motherhood statements, and that the statements must move to resolve the issues. That’s his word, resolve. He wants to see a first draft within two hours.”
“Do we have rescue options?” the governor asked.
“The pressure trigger in the glove, or rather, the alleged one, makes that all very difficult. If we shoot him dead, he could release the switch. We have experimented with super-tazers that would run thousands of volts through a suspect and seize every muscle in his body, but my ordnance people tell me that could actually detonate the bomb. And let’s not forget, we can’t see it. It may require him to keep a button down. It may require him to to keep a switch unpressed. We just don’t know.”
“What about the man himself? Psychologically, is he the sort of man who would kill 30 kids?” said the president.
The director looked down, shuffling a file out of camera shot.
“He’s ex-special forces. Did some pretty nasty stuff in Iraq, all under orders. The psych evaluation puts him as a pretty level guy. However, his unit was wiped out in an IED ambush, and he was the sole survivor. My people say he could be going through a phase of desiring to make it all worthwhile, survivor’s guilt mixed with exacting a price for his buddies deaths from the nation’s leaders. In short, we don’t know where this guy is at.”
The president thanked the director, and rubbed his face. He wa still wearing makeup from the debate, as was the governor.
“Still want the job?” he asked, opening a small glass fronted fridge, and pulling out a Diet Coke. He tilted at the cans. The governor shook his head.
“As you know, we don’t negotiate with terrorists. Except we do, we always have, from the Iranian embassy through Iran-Contra to now. I think we at least need to begin work on some sort of document whilst the Hostage Rescue Team look at their options.”
“We’re going to need our political people in here to do that,” the governor said.
One of the president’s younger advisors stood up. “With all due respect, governor, on this side of the aisle we try to keep politics out of…”
The president cut him off with a wave of the hand.
“The governor is right. This is primarily a political issue, that will only be resolved by politics. What this guy has done is forced us to the table, in front of the world. He knows it, we know it. This is political. Get the two campaign managers in here.”
The White House press secretary stepped into the circle.
“Sir, I am being swamped with demands for more information. I’m sure the governor’s people are too. I feel we need to issue a joint statement on whether we are actually working on a document. That’s the big question.”
“That’s admitting we’re negotiating with terrorists,” the young advisor said.
“We will look at at any option, no matter how distasteful, to get these children and teachers home to their families safely,” the governor said.
The president nodded.
“The statement should come from the president,” the young advisor said, the frustration rising in his voice.
“Absolutely not!” the governor’s campaign manager said, as he came through the door. “The governor is not here to provide bi-partisan set dressing for you!”
The advisor’s eyes almost lit up in delight. Finally, someone to actually have a knock-down-drag-out political fight with. The president wasn’t having any of it.
“The statement will come from us both.”
The governor nodded, well aware that any attempt to play politics with this would boomerang back horrifically.
The president looked at his own campaign manager who had just joined them, and pointed at the governor’s.
“Governor, with your agreement, let’s send these two into a back room for half an hour to get a first text we can look at.”
The governor agreed.
Forty minutes later, both candidates were reading a single sheet of paper.
“This says nothing,” the governor said. The president nodded.
“There are wide fields of disagreement,” the president’s campaign manager said.
“We’re going to have to write this,” the president said.
“Alright then. Can we clear the room?” the governor was speaking to everyone else save the president.
A wall of protests opened up. The president raised a hand.
“This job requires the ability to sit along and work this stuff out. I know, I’ve done this job for four years. The governor knows too, I suspect. Everybody out”
As the room cleared, the president added: “By the way, any spinning on this to hurt the other side gets you fired. Right?” He looked to the governor.
“You heard the president.”
The president sat down at the large conference table as the door clicked closed.
“I think I’ll have that Diet Coke now,” the governor said, opening the fridge.
“You know this could change everything,” the president said, tapping the draft piece of paper.
The governor opened the can and sat across from the president.
“Then Mr. President, let’s see if we can do it for real. Let’s put all the campaign aside and sit as two men who want to return thirty children to their families. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, deal?”
The president nodded: “Nothing put on the table gets mentioned if it doesn’t make the final draft.”
The governor pulled over a blank legal pad and a pen.
“Alright then: Debt reduction. We both know the country can’t afford this level of spending at this level of taxation revenue. Defence, healthcare, and social security is where it is at. I’m blocking taxes, you’re blocking spending cuts.”
“We both know it’s going to take both,” said the president, who then laughed.
“Look at us. Even having this conversation would cause our most hardline supporters to lynch us. When exactly did the middle ground, did compromise, become treason? Tipp O’Neill and Ronald Reagan weren’t regarded as traitors for cutting deals on a weekly basis.”
The governor took a sip from his Diet Coke.
“It’s the price of political success now: better to have gridlock, make no decision, then be accused of giving something to the other guy. We actually regard gutlessness as a sign of courage.”
“Let me ask you, what did you really of the Debt Reduction commission? Just between you and me,” the president asked.
“Simpson-Bowles? Didn’t agree with it all, but it was a place to start.”
The president nodded, narrowing his eyes for a minute.
“That’s it right there. A place to start: you’ve got it right there. The one thing you see differently when you’re sitting behind my desk, governor, is the need to actually decide. For Congress, the hard decision can always be postponed to the next term. But when you or I sit behind the desk, the clock is ticking: you know when you’re leaving, to the minute, give or take four years. You realise that decisions have to be made. Supposing we drafted three options: A Democratic option, a Republican option, and the Simpson-Bowles option.”
“And endorse Simpson-Bowles? Even if we did that, Congress will say they agree. Then your guys will refuse to move on entitlements, and my guys won’t move on taxes. I’ve got the Chambers of Commerce in your ear, you’ve got the teachers.”
“What if we went direct?”
The governor’s brow furrowed.
“Direct? To whom?…to the people? What, a national referendum?”
The president grinned.
“Supposing we told the Congress that if they failed in, say, sixty days to agree a new plan, by a super-majority, we would put all three plans to the people. Bottom plan gets knocked out in a first ballot, and they choose between the remaining two. I’ll bet most people would choose Simpson-Bowles as the lesser of two evils. We get a decision.”
The governor scratched his perfect hair.
“Let’s put it down as a placeholder plan.”
The president scrawled it down on the legal pad.
“Right. Same sex marriage,” the president said.
“If you leave it alone, it’s going to happen, you know. You’ve seen the polling,” the governor said.
The president nodded.
“See, there’s a parallel with abortion here. This is becoming a culturally and regionally divided country. What washes in San Francisco won’t wash in San Antonio, yet we try to impose a national policy on it all.”
“Mr. President, you’re not arguing for states rights, surely?” the governor asked with a mischievous smile.
The president laughed.
“I know! But that’s it, isn’t it? Every thing we do has an historical parallel, and now we have created a surreal situation where the entire social policy of the country, on abortion and same-sex marriage, boils down to a fight over who gets to pack the Supreme Court. Maybe it’s time to recognise the reality?”
“That one side is furious when the Supreme Court sides with the other side?”
The president scribbled on his legal pad.
“A constitutional amendment: The federal government shall not restrict any state from defining the state of marriage. No state shall be required to recognise a marriage enacted in another state.”
“You’ve just overturned full faith and credit!” the governor said.
“Isn’t that the reality, though? Utah does not want to recognise gay marriages from Vermont, and Vermont does not want to be told by Washington to enforce the Defence of Marriage Act.”
“Your strongest supporters will say that this is a civil right, and states don’t have the right to give and take away.”
“Listen governor, I will get hammered for this. But when I tell them that Mitt Romney wants to appoint a busload dripping red bible-thumping conservatives to the Supreme Court who do want to define exactly what marriage is, even in Vermont, I can sell it.”
“Can we apply the same to abortion?”
The president raised an eyebrow.
“May I?” the governor took the pen and pad.
“The federal government shall not restrict nor interfere with reproductive services laws in any state.”
“You have just overturned Roe V Wade in fifteen words.”
“Fifteen honest words. Again, it reflects the reality. Conservative states are restricting availability, even with Roe V Wade in place. This recognises that, whilst protecting those states that wish to provide abortion. A federal ban on abortion is no longer impossible.”
The president slid the pad back.
“No state shall restrict the right of a person to travel to another state to avail of such services as are legal in the other state.”
“Ah, the Irish solution. Of course, you do realise that the word “person” will be debated for years.” the governor remarked. The president raised his can in a mock toast.
“Campaign finance reform,” the president said, with a grimace.
The governor slipped off his jacket, neatly folding it.
“Money is poisoning the political system. We both know it, whether it’s the Koch brothers or the lawyers or the public sector unions. Money buys influence, but it is now a machine that is self-perpetuating. It can’t be turned off, there are too many lobbyists and professional campaign managers getting a cut of the ad spend, the whole thing is obscene.”
“But free speech, according to the Supreme Court, and let’s be honest: every time we bring in another rule, they find their way around it, with Super PACS and all the rest,” the president said.
“I happen to agree with Supreme Court. I can’t agree to any attempt to frustrate the first amendment.”
“What about taxing donations?” the president suggested.
“A tax on free speech?”
“Let me just play with this for a minute: supposing we did tax donations, dollar for dollar. Every dollar given to a political entity, a candidate, a PAC, is taxed at 100%.”
“Why? I’m not sure, Mr President, that I want to discourage people from giving money to causes they believe in. Is it such a bad thing? For all its flaws, both you and I are getting online donations from people as low as $3. Is it bad that an ordinary guy gives a few bucks to a candidate who speaks his values? Liberals say the Supreme Court, by equating free speech to donations, has put a value on free speech. But what about a Hollywood celebrity who speaks publicly in support of you? Is he not making a greater campaign contribution to you than some working guy who sends me fifty dollars?”
“I’ll bet the working guy doesn’t lecture you on carbon footprints before going to catch his private jet.”
The president slumped back in his seat.
The governor doodled on the pad for a moment.
“Where would the money go? This donation tax?” he asked, almost absentmindedly.
“To that every dwindling number of candidates who accept spending limits in return for public funding.”
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we just gave it to the other guy!” the governor laughed, before finishing his Diet Coke. He then realised the president was staring at him.
“That’s exactly what we do! How about this: we scrap all spending limits, and instead introduce a 100% tax which will match, dollar for dollar, the money you give to your candidate. Overnight, it means that you can support anybody you want, but you can’t give him or her an unfair advantage. Every dollar the teachers’s union gives to one guy, they effectively have to give his opponent the same through tax. In other words governor, you don’t restrict anybody’s freedom of speech. You just boost the other guy’s!”
“You’re going to force people to fund people they disagree with? That’s outrageous!”
“We’re not forcing anybody to do anything other than pay their taxes, and a voluntary one at that. If the government uses that tax to ensure that both your candidate and her opponent can be heard, that’s enhancing freedom of speech for all. Unless the purpose of giving in the first place is to drown out the other guy, which neither you and I actually want, right?”
The governor pondered it for a moment.
“You are asking me to support a tax, Mr. President”.
“A tax that hardly anybody will pay. The vast majority of people don’t give any money to election campaigns. But just imagine the effect on politics. Over night, it will kill the need to raise millions because it will no longer be worth your while. Your opponent will have the same resources, and what’s wrong with that? I outspent McCain last time. You’ll outspend me this time. We spend more time worrying about being outspent than how we are actually going to run the country.”
“I will support this provided the Supreme Court rules that it’s constitutional.”
“Then let’s say so,” the president said, writing on the legal pad. He then put the pen down.
“You do realise we have done more to close the divide in US politics in one hour than anything done since 1992? I don’t suppose you fancy having a go at gun control?” the president asked with a grin.
The governor stood, putting his jacket on.
“I’m going to have enough people on my own side trying to kill me without agitating the people who actually have guns.”
“True. Worst I’ll get with be rotten organic fruit,” the president remarked, straightening his tie.
There was a sudden rap on the door, and the president’s Secret Service detail chief entered, followed by the two campaign managers.
“Good news sir. One of the kids had a seizure, and his sister begged Butler to let them go. He cracked, and released all the kids and the teachers. They’re all safe, and he’s in custody.”
All eyes turned to the two yellow sheets of paper on the desk.