American Democracy and Some of Its Unique Discontents

TIME’s finest political minds joined mayors from around the country at this year's Chicago Ideas Week to talk about the state of the Union and the presidential race.

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Nathan Weber for TIME

David Gregory (left) and Rick Stengel during Chicago Ideas Week megatalk on democracy and the state of our union at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago on Monday, Oct. 8, 2012.

TIME closed out day one of Chicago Ideas Week by hosting “Democracy–State Of Our Union,” a 90-minute panel discussion about presidential bromances, the challenges of municipal government, and how much Mitt Romney will really benefit from that Denver presidential debate. Among the panelists: Richard Stengel, TIME’s managing editor and an array of TIME’s best political analysts including Michael Duffy, Mark Halperin and Nancy Gibbs, plus NBC’s David Gregory, New York magazine’s John Heilemann, and mayors from around the country including Chicago’s Rahm Emmanuel.

TIME’s Dan Macsai looks at 10 of the night’s best moments, in chronological order:

1. Richard Stengel kicks off the night by commending Chicago Ideas Week, and one of the original forums for great ideas: TIME magazine. “There is so much in media now where people don’t assume that you can think,” he says. But TIME founder Henry Luce “believed devoutly that when readers saw ideas in print, they could think and come to their own conclusions. That is a radical idea.”

2. David Gregory takes the stage to moderate a municipal government discussion with Houston mayor Annise Parker, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, Fontana, Calif., mayor Acquanetta Warren, and Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel. Seconds later, he’s deadpanning about U.S. democracy. “At least we have the presidential campaign, which will fix everything.”

3. How does national government differ from city government? One word: accountability. If people’s snow isn’t shoveled, Nutter explains, they’ll tell him about it personally. Or worse: “People complain when it’s raining too hard!”

4. David Gregory queries Mayor Emmanuel — fresh off the now-infamous Chicago teachers strike — about whether unions can be good partners in improving local schools. “I’m the wrong person to ask!” he retorts.

5. Mayor Warren gets heated discussing California’s recent wave of budget cuts: “[The state government] has made it its mission to take every dime from cities.”

6. One of the biggest challenges of being a mayor: getting residents to like you. “People aren’t happy with the status quo,” says Emmanuel, “and they aren’t too excited about change either.”

7. “Game Change” authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann take stage to discuss the 2012 election—and assert we’re in the middle of another, well, game change. In last Thursday’s debate, says Heilemann, Romney successfully “recast himself as the moderate, pragmatic Massachusetts governor we all thought he’d run as.”

8. But is it too late? Halperin seems to think so. Romney gaining enough ground in a month to win back 6 or 7 2008 blue states is “a really tall order,” he admits.

9. Still, the closeness of the race has renewed Heilemann’s enthusiasm for Thursday’s vice presidential debate, which he predicts will break records with 70-plus million viewers. “God knows I’m buying my popcorn for that thing!”

10. TIME editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, co-authors of The Presidents Club, cap the panel with a series of vignettes about presidential friendships: Truman and Eisenhower, Clinton and Bush 43, Johnson and Nixon, etc. Quoth Herbet Hoover (per Gibbs), “There’s no conversation so sweet as that of former political enemies.”