Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What President Obama Should Say When He’s in Connecticut

At last word, President Obama was scheduled to visit Connecticut to help raise money for the Senate campaign of Richard Blumenthal, the state attorney general and Democratic candidate who is being wildly outspent by “self-funded” Republican Linda McMahon, the co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment.

The word is also that Obama will not stump for Blumenthal at public rallies in the Nutmeg State. This is because polls show that public dissatisfaction with the Obama administration in Washington, during a persistent economic recession, is a drag on Blumenthal.

But whether his presence in the Nutmeg State winds up aggressively public or discreetly private, whether it’s ultimately about soaring words or grubby money, the president of the United States will be compelled to say a thing or two or three while he’s there. I therefore am providing, free of charge to the White House communications staff and to the Democratic National and State Committees, the following draft remarks.

My observations about the Connecticut Senate election take many forms. Obviously I would like to see my party hold its majorities in both houses of Congress and assist my agenda in the third and fourth years of my presidential term.

Let’s talk for a minute about that agenda. During the 2008 election, I said some things that the American people wanted to hear – and I didn’t say some other things that I calculated they didn’t want to hear. Like all ambitious politicians, I went along with some stupid gimmicks. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t appeared on WWE’s Monday Night Raw that year. Hillary Clinton, my main opponent for the Democratic nomination, and John McCain, my eventual opponent in the general election, also appeared, but that’s no excuse. I was running for president, not kitsch king.

I also shouldn’t have gone on Monday Night Football the night before the election, and on 60 Minutes between the election and the inauguration, to say that my No. 1 sports priority would be the elimination of college football’s Bowl Championship Series and the institution of a true national championship game. I’m often accused of being aloof from the passions, interests, and needs of average Americans, but oddly, this was a situation where I, a sports fan, got all too caught up in the roar of the rabblement.

And finally, I never, ever should have gone on WWE’s Tribute to the Troops on NBC just as Linda McMahon was gaining steam with her Senate campaign, which is funded by an industry that everyone should now understand is a systematic death mill.

I arrive in Connecticut just as the state government is undertaking a long-overdue investigation of WWE’s independent contractor practices. Even though I came out of Harvard Law School, I agree with the Yale Law School professor who has termed “immoral” and probably illegal WWE’s use of independent contractors – including a “death clause” in its employment agreements with performers who are dropping dead at actuarially impossible rates, all in the name of multimedia marketing and uninterrupted junk entertainment. That this takes place in an environment of greater awareness of both the individual human and the larger public-health costs of undiagnosed and untreated concussions in wrestling, as in all contact sports, just makes that much worse Linda McMahon’s attempted march from Main Street in Stamford to Constitution Avenue in Washington, by means of $50 million of WWE profits.

Like so many things about why Ms. McMahon’s WWE experience – touted as her qualification for the Senate – actually should disqualify her, the independent contractor issue is not some extraneous detail pulled out of nowhere. Indeed, I have made independent contractor reform a centerpiece of my efforts to reduce the federal budget deficit; misclassification of workers costs governments at all levels untold revenues from payroll taxes that should have been, but weren’t, withheld.

But even more importantly, the independent contractor issue fits together with America’s health care crisis and the shape of its work force in the 21st century. Do people in Connecticut and throughout the United States really want to see corporations relying more and more on lawyer-rigged arrangements that employ casually, as temps and “independent contractors,” the people who do the lion’s share of their sweat-of-the-brow work? Ms. McMahon can twist the nature of her business all she wants and tell jokes about her “soap opera,” but that is what is at stake in her bid for high elective office. The people who work for her may be producing a TV soap opera, but they are not themselves soap opera characters. They are human beings, and they do not have basic occupational health and safety protections, and they are dying in unacceptable numbers. We can disagree over our involvement in or the schedule of disengagement from wars in Asia. But we shouldn’t be disagreeing over whether a TV show is a war and whether people should be dying from their participation in it.

Regulating the pro wrestling industry is not just the responsibility of the state of Connecticut. In 2007 the House Committee on Oversight and Public Reform investigated WWE following the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit, but nothing came of it; committee chairman Henry Waxman simply sent a little-noticed letter, with supporting documentation, to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, just as President Bush was leaving office and I was about to take it.

Again, to state the obvious, I hope Richard Blumenthal wins and Linda McMahon loses. But regardless of the outcome here, one thing I will be doing in January 2011 is asking the appropriate committees of the next Congress to conduct public hearings to finish the work begun in 2007 by the Waxman Committee, and to set in motion the re-regulation of the out-of-control professional wrestling industry.

Irv Muchnick

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