Panelists: Politics will change only with ‘voter revolt’

John ColsonAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN It was a telling sidebar to a panel discussion titled “Is This Any Way to Elect a President?”One of the more titillating moments of the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday afternoon had nothing to do with the discussion at the Hotel Jerome’s Grand Ballroom, where panelists were urging voters to “flex their muscles” to force changes in the U.S. political system.Around the same time, a surge of excitement ran through the businesses along the 300 block of Main Street, including The Aspen Times, where employees ran out on the street to catch a glimpse of former President Bill Clinton and his Secret Service guards strolling up to and into the J Bar. The ex-president’s appearance in other spots around Aspen, such as the Curious George store on the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall, caused similar gawking among the passers-by, some of whom may not have attended a single Aspen Ideas Festival event.Meanwhile, inside a jam-packed Grand Ballroom on Friday afternoon, panelist John Dickerson told the dissatisfied that if the current U.S. political system is ever going to change, “We need a voter revolt.”Dickerson, chief political correspondent for Slate magazine, was responding to a question from the audience during a taping of “Washington Week with Gwin Ifill.”The weekly news magazine airs on the Public Broadcasting System, and the taping of the afternoon’s discussion was scheduled to air at 7 p.m. Friday, as was a webcast.The questioner, implying he was fed up with the U.S. method of electing presidents, asked panelists why this country couldn’t adopt a European-style system in which election campaigns are limited in scope and duration. It has been a frequent question in the wake of the recent French presidential election, which took six months for the main campaign and two weeks for a runoff.Panelist Martha Raddatz, ABC News’ White House correspondent, answered another part of the question, having to do with a lack of substance in political discourse, noting that no matter how hard reporters try to press candidates for statements with substance, “We don’t get depth on very much at all. I don’t learn a whole lot in these press conferences … [but] that’s really all we have. We want it as much as you do, but it’s up to you.”But longtime Washington Post national correspondent Dan Balz told the audience that parliamentary systems such as the one in Britain involves a “totally different process” and opined that “ours is a much more democratic system,” even with its faults.And Alexis Simendinger, a reporter for the National Journal, implored voters to “flex their muscles” if they want change, noting, “I think voters are very lazy” and must be coaxed into activism.The webcast question-and-answer session came on the heels of a taping of the half-hour “Washington Week” show. The host, Ifill, led the panelists through a meandering conversation about the state of the national presidential race.The discussion began with Balz’s observation that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois “blew away all the others” in the Democratic field by raising $32.5 million from April through June, a record for his party and about $5 million more than what Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Obama’s main Democratic rival, has said she would raise for the most recent reporting period.Later, in response to a question, the panelists agreed that a 2008 presidential ticket of Obama and Clinton, regardless of who ran for president and who for vice president, might have a good chance of victory if the election were today.Balz said Obama’s campaign is substantially different from that of Howard Dean, the dark horse in the 2004 race, because Obama’s message is “the politics of hope, versus the politics of anger.”Concerning the most pressing issue in U.S. foreign policy, the panelists predicted, as did former Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier this week, that events are likely to force President Bush to accept that “things have to change” in the war in Iraq.Even Republicans, Dickerson said, are “hoping that the president comes to his senses” and begins to formulate an exit strategy for the war.The discussion, including the webcast Q&A, covered a range of topics, from the effect of communications technology on the political landscape to a yearning for an old-fashioned, convention-based nominating system rather than total reliance on early primaries and expensive media campaigns, and much more.There was no announcement whether the show or the webcast will repeat after the initial airings.John Colson’s e-mail address is