Posts Tagged ‘Election 2012’

The Thinker

If you care about the environment, choose your realtor with care

The Koch Brothers have been much in the news lately, at least if you follow political news. The two brothers own Koch Industries, which itself is a holding company for a lot of other companies it owns. The brothers are Charles and David Koch, but Koch Industries was actually built up by their father Fred, who long ago went to his reward.

Aside from their obscene wealth, the Koch Brothers have been known for their extremely conservative views. Moreover, they have not been afraid to put their money where their mouths are. Their money helped elect Scott Walker as Wisconsin’s governor. Together their political action committee, KochPAC, spent huge amounts of money on the 2012 elections, to little effect. As an investment, it was an unwise one, but its magnitude was stunning: over $400M. Their PACs alone spent nearly three times more in the 2012 election than the top ten labor unions combined.

Koch Industries is into lots of industries, principally industrial in nature. Their profits depend on getting natural resources cheaply to market. It’s not surprising then that Charles and David are premier anti-environmentalists, who vehemently deny that global warming is a problem and are trying to keep their industries from being impacted by pesky and costly pollution laws. Koch Carbon has created a lot of petroleum coke as a byproduct from refining oil shipped from Canadian tar sands. The product, called petcoke, has been piled up many stories high along parts of the Great Lakes. A huge noxious cloud of dust from a petcoke pile was captured on video last year. Its presence doesn’t bother the Koch Brothers, who don’t have to breathe the stuff, but it was of great concern to residents of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, who were on the receiving end of these polluted dust clouds.

While primarily into industrial activities, the Koch Brothers have influence in some surprising areas. One thing the Koch Brothers do well is create PACs and network related companies to contribute toward these PACs to achieve common goals. For the Koch Brothers, this is principally electing conservatives with an anti-environmental bent.

Many parts of the country are controlled by a handful of national realtor firms. Ever hear of Realogy? I hadn’t. There is a good chance you have heard some of these real estate firm names: Coldwell Banker, Century 21, Southbys, ERA and Better Homes and Gardens RE. It just so happens that Realogy gives heavily to Koch Brothers-related PACs. And Koch Brothers PACs give money principally to candidates that are anti-environmental, not to mention anti-union.

Real estate commissions are quite profitable, typically six percent of a house’s purchase price. A house selling for $250,000 actually costs $265,000, when you add in the typical real estate commissions. (It’s more than that, of course, when you add in all those other fees that come with buying a house.) Often the fee is split between two realtors: the seller’s agent and the buyer’s agent. If you consider how many houses are sold across the country annually, you can see that real estate commissions amount to a huge amount of money. Of course the individual agents keep a lot of it: it amounts to their salary. However, they also kick back a lot of it to their companies. Companies like Coldwell Banker ship their profits back to Realogy. Realogy’s in turn uses some of those profits to fund Koch-related PACs. It helps explain why the Koch Brothers-related PACs can find more than $400M to spend influencing elections in 2012 alone. For a company this big, $400M amounts to the change found under the family’s sofa cushions.

Curiously, most of the agents who work for these companies have no idea where these profits go. It’s likely that many of them are like me: environmentalists. They would probably be aghast to learn a substantial amount of this money is spent to help elect politicians who will be anti-environmentalist. I’m not a realtor, but I am a likely home seller and buyer in the next year or so. I would have known none of this had I not spoken to a realtor, who shall remain anonymous, with progressive leanings, who gave me the inside dope on all this.

What this means for us home sellers and purchasers is that unless we are very careful we are indirectly contributing to the destruction of our planet. If next year when I expect to put our house on the market I choose a realtor who works for a company controlled by Realogy, I could be indirectly contributing to PACs controlled by the Koch brothers, which will go principally to electing people who will further harm the planet.

I am so glad to get this insider information. If you are an environmentalist and in the housing market, then you should be glad to be reading this post too. In fact, I hope you will take a moment to “like” it or hit one of the share buttons for this post, and broadcast it to your friends. Perhaps, before listing your house, you should choose a realtor firm not associated with Realogy. Among the national firms not part of Realogy are ReMax and Keller Williams. Perhaps, before hiring a buyer agent, you should do the same. That does not necessarily mean that ReMax and Keller Williams may not be channeling some of their profits into these anti-environmentalist causes. But it seems less likely that they are.

Deciding who to hire as your realtor or buyer agent of course is a complex decision. Typically you are more interested in the agent than the company they are affiliated with, and his or her track record. If you are an environmentalist, you can look for good agents that simply aren’t associated with these firms. You can also choose small, local and independent realtor firms. These firms don’t have to send their profits to a national office. They can keep the money in their community instead. And that sounds environmentally friendly.

You can bet that before I sign a contract with a realtor, I’ll be assured that my money will not indirectly support any Koch Brothers PAC, or any anti-environmental cause. I hope you will do the same.

Updated 3/9/14 – I initially published this with some incorrect information. I had suggested that Realogy was owned by the Koch Empire. This is not true, however Realogy does give heavily to the Koch Brothers’ related and approved PACs. The full extent is hard to determine, since individuals working for Realogy can make contributions to any organization they choose under their own name. As for the official Realogy PAC, you can see how it spent its money here. As you can see, a lot of it went to the Madison PAC, whose Facebook page indicates its purpose is to get conservatives elected to Congress.

 
The Thinker

Republicans keep proving they are shameless

It’s clear that Republicans have learned a few things from the 2012 election after all. First, they cannot win at the ballot box, at least not unless they change their policies a whole lot so they can attract moderates, which they seem unable to do for ideological reasons. Second, they have finally looked at demographic trends and have realized that their party is likely in permanent decline. Having pondered these problems the Republican Party has decided to do more of what they excel at: stacking the cards so even if they lose the popular vote, they still win. It’s the Animal Farm strategy: that votes are equal, but some are more equal than others. Only this time, it will be the law.

Republicans want their votes to count more than Democratic votes.  In the 2012 election, their attempt to move the odds in their favor consisted mostly of intimidating voter ID laws. There were also the usual illegal robocalls designed to confuse minorities about voting and insufficient voting machines at minority precincts, leading to long lines. Those efforts proved largely counterproductive. Perhaps out of spite, minorities waited in lines to vote, sometimes for hours to cast their votes.

The latest effort is to create laws in swing states controlled by Republicans to apportion their electoral votes based on who wins the majority of votes in a congressional district. With the exception of two states (Nebraska and Maine), electoral votes are awarded on a winner take all system. However, if Republicans control a state legislature, they already have congressional districts that are gerrymandered so that Republicans are likely to win most of the House seats. It’s logical to assume that if a Republican represents a congressional district, a majority of its voters will also vote for a Republican for president.

President Obama won 51% of the votes in the swing state of Virginia (where I live) and received all of the state’s 13 electoral votes, 11 for its congressional districts and two for its senators. However based on this analysis, if the candidate who won the majority of the electoral votes for the congressional district got one electoral vote, 7 out of the 11 electoral votes in Virginia would have gone to Mitt Romney. It’s unclear how the two votes for its senators would go under this proposal endorsed by the Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus, but with the Virginia legislature firmly in Republican control, it’s likely they would have gone for Romney, meaning that 9 out of 13 electoral votes (69%) would have gone for Romney even though he received just 47% of the vote statewide.

As you can guess, various groups have crunched the numbers. Had swing states had their electoral votes proportioned this way, Mitt Romney would now be president, even though he received just 47% of the popular vote, 4% less than Barack Obama. In short, some votes (Republican votes) would be “more equal” than Democratic votes.

Currently, each state decides how they will award electoral votes. Almost all states use the “winner take all” system. The advantage of this system is that it makes the Electoral College results decisive. With a few exceptions in very tight elections (such as the 2000 election) the winner of the popular vote wins the electoral vote. Of course, the electoral vote is the one that matters. In those exceptions the popular vote mismatch has been very close. In 2000, for example, Gore won the popular vote by .5% but lost the Electoral College vote by just five electoral votes. As we know, the Supreme Court decided this election in Bush v. Gore. The court chose to honor the state of Florida’s dubious certification of its election results.

Most normal people would look at this as a blatant attempt to stack the presidential race in favor of the Republican candidate. Doubtless this is also the intent of the Republican Party, since the proposal is to do this only in swing states where Republicans control the state legislature. The obvious conclusion is that the Republican Party is antidemocratic. In the past, their actions (insufficient voting machines in minority precincts and onerous voter ID laws) were masqueraded. This proposal simply cannot be mistaken for anything other than a blatant attempt when choosing the President of the United States to have Republican votes count more than Democratic votes.

It is a shameless new low for the Republican Party, which cannot win elections using a set of fair rules. It is a tacit admission that they know their party is in permanent decline and that they see the only way to prevent it is to give them disproportionate political power.

One would hope that a case before the Supreme Court would result in a decision to order a level national playing field for allocating electoral votes based on one man, one vote. But most likely the Supreme Court would defer to law and the constitution, which gives states discretion in rules for awarding electoral votes and drawing congressional districts.

Since there are no swing states controlled by Democratic legislatures, Democrats cannot try the same approach, as it will diminish the electoral votes for Democratic candidates. (I seriously doubt it would occur to Democrats, as the principle of one man, one vote is part of our DNA.) So unless the Republican Party can be shamed into abandoning this approach, it is in their short-term interest. If a president actually won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote by four percent my guess is the political cost would be very high indeed. Democracy works on the consent of the governed, and it’s hard to imagine that a majority would agree that the will of the majority should be permanently disenfranchised.

The solution to this mess is simply to elect a president based on the national popular vote. This would require a constitutional amendment that even if it got through Congress would be unlikely to be passed by the states.

This whole proposal is so unbelievably antidemocratic, fractious and audacious that you would think no party in their right mind would propose it. But then, I am not a Republican. I still feel shame.

 
The Thinker

Advice to Democrats

I love to give advice, even though if I am inconsistent in following my own advice. Recently after their losses in the latest election I gave some advice to Republicans. Today, I figure turnabout is fair play. Here is some advice for Democrats.

Democrats, it’s easy to assume that due to changing demographics that Republicans are in permanent decline and that in a few election cycles Congress will resemble itself during the 1960s and 1970s, when it was overwhelmingly Democratic. That may happen but if you think this will happen solely because of demographic changes, you are wrong. It may not happen at all.

Republicans still control the House, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. In short, the party remains a huge and powerful political force. Even at the national level, Democratic control is fragile. Democratic control of the House remains elusive and made less likely by redistricting and the resulting highly gerrymandered districts. In the Senate, Democrats survived a very tough election and actually added a couple of seats to their majority. Our 55 seats include two independent senators caucusing with the Democrats. In 2014, Democrats will again be fighting headwinds as more Democrats run for reelection than Republicans.

Of course to really get things done in the Senate a party needs a supermajority, which is 60 seats. However, even when we have 60 seats, it is very easy for Democrats to split into factions. Democrats rarely show the sort of unanimity that Republicans do. The Affordable Care Act was a prime example, passing late and watered down, with certain senators in conservative leaning states (like Max Baucus) leveraging oversized influence and some senators (Joe Lieberman comes to mind) acting obnoxious and petulant. In retrospect, it’s amazing it was passed into law in even its watered down state.

The news is better on the presidential front. It used to be that by default Republicans were more likely to win presidential contests, due to various demographic and electoral vote advantages. Those days appear over. It is unlikely that any true conservative Republican (at least “conservative” in its modern and antediluvian form) can win for the foreseeable future. Of course, it all depends on who gets nominated, and arguably Democrats have nominated some stinkers with little national appeal including John Kerry, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. In short, when choosing nominees Democrats can tend to be as highly-partisan as Republicans, choosing from their hearts instead of their heads. Choose someone without broad appeal and the party is likely to lose despite favorable demographics.

Looking at the 2012 election, two factors worked in the Democrats favor. First were the obvious demographic changes that are turning traditionally red states blue. I live in such a state (Virginia), but it is blue principally only in national elections. We have a Republican house and senate, and a Republican governor, and an attorney general on the right side of the Tea Party. Other states like Ohio, traditionally a swing state, have a similarly Republican disposition but are turning reliably blue in national elections. The most important reason that Democrats won this time is that they turned out the base. Democrats outnumber Republicans nationally, so they win when they turn out the base. They tend to lose, and lose badly, when they stay home. Independents tend to swing more toward voting Republican, so turning out the base is critical for maintaining and extending Democratic control. This means that selecting candidates on all levels that both excite the base but have mainstream appeal is critical for increasing Democratic power.

We may have a few cycles where Republicans will give Democrats a break. This is because Republicans have not really come to terms with their loss, which means finding a strategy appeals to moderates. At least at the moment, the critical mass of Republicans figure doing more of what lost them the last election, just with more sincerity, is how to get back into power. Perhaps after a couple more election drubbings they will figure it out.

Democrats have a tendency to settle into comfortable factions within the party. This is less of a concern than it used to be, as conservative Democrats are in decline and liberal Democrats are ascending. When this happens, Democrats can become as ideologically stubborn as Republicans. However, it tends to hurt them more than it does Republicans. One of these fault lines has traditionally been in the area of gun control. Thoughtful Democrats need to discern between issues that they can win on and those they cannot. The gun control debate cannot be won at the ballot box, at least not for a couple of generations. Consequently there is no point wasting energy advocating for such issues. It will only boomerang against Democrats, despite the fact that sensible gun control regulation probably makes complete logical sense.

Instead, Democrats need to concentrate on issues that appeal to both Democrats and Independents generally. Gay marriage is one of these issues where the national consensus has changed. Americans fundamentally agree with the notion of equality and fairness, at least under the law. Being the party of the workingman is never bad either. Democrats need to continue to advocate for people at the low and middle income levels, and target policies that help these groups. There is no downside to this. Democrats also need to avoid bad habits, like sucking up to Wall Street, which is almost always going to vote Republican, or at least for the party which panders to their selfish interests the most. That Wall Street almost invariably does better under Democratic administrations seems lost on them.

Democrats also need to advocate for policies that are in the best interest of people generally, not necessarily those that are in the best interest of their most vocal groups. A good example of this is public schools and support of teachers’ unions. Democrats should insist that every child deserves a high quality education, even if they cannot afford it. They should not assume that a dysfunctional public school system that puts the needs of teachers ahead of students is acceptable. The public school model is clearly under stress, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. Democrats should be open to charter schools particularly in districts where public schools are clearly below par. They should also advocate for policies that nurture healthy students so they have the capacity to learn. This may mean, for example, that three healthy meals a day are served at schools. The school may need to morph to be more than a center of education, but be thought of as a second home for students, whose parents likely aren’t working 9 to 5. They should advocate for safe public housing for poorer students, with residency contingent upon good behavior and for the upkeep of rental property. It should be obvious to Democrats that the real problem with education in poor areas is not substandard teachers (although certainly there are many of them) but are mostly due to environmental factors. These include the lack of affordable healthy food, and stressful families and neighborhoods. Republicans, of course, will choose to remain clueless of this reality, since their brains cannot seem to absorb that a multiplicity of factors affect ability to learn, not evil union-loving teachers.

In short Democrats, having power is not about living drunk on the privilege of power when you get it. It’s about refusing to be headstrong when you are granted power and keeping a relentless focus on improving the common good. Democrats have to earn their keep. When they get sloppy for too long, they will lose power. More importantly, much of the good they have done can be lost too, and that would be the true tragedy.

 
The Thinker

More advice for Republicans

It’s been a while since I have given advice to Republicans. There is lots of handwringing among Republicans after their trouncing in last week’s elections. There is a general consensus that losing the presidency, two senate seats and at least a half dozen house seats was really awful and that some rethinking is in order in order to change things. Republicans would be wise not to rush back to their political consultants who performed so miserably for them in this election season. But with few other places to go, they probably will, and this class of prognosticators will probably keep their cash registers busy in the years ahead.

They could at least hire Donald Trump, not that he did any better at this business, but simply to tell these consultants what they should hear: “Your fired!” In fact, Trump turned out to be a supreme embarrassment for the party. I often wonder if he is pulling a long-term joke on pretty much everyone. He is way too smart (I hope) to seriously think Barack Obama was born in Kenya, is a secret Muslim and faked his grades. I figure in maybe a year he will say, “Fooled ya!” and reveal he is a secret Democrat. Not that, speaking as a Democrat, I want him or his money in our party.

The losing party is required to go through angst and hand wringing after a drubbing. Democrats have certainly done this periodically. When Republicans took over Congress in 1994, my party went through a lot of the same soul searching. Back then the sacking by Republicans may have been useful, because Democrats were largely captive of special interest money. The thinking then was that Democrats had to tack back to the center. It resulted in Blue Dog Democrats and the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of right leaning Democrats that made it hard to tell if they even were Democrats. They sure did not vote like Democrats.

Republicans may invent something similar, but I doubt it. The initial reaction seems to be to double down. The thinking seems to be that their message was not quite heard correctly, and if it had been heard correctly America would have voted the “correct” way. A significant number of Republicans feel despair. They know their message won’t resonate with voters generally, so they want to cash in their chips. After Bush won reelection in 2004 many Democrats (including my wife) wanted to emigrate to Canada. I can’t see Republicans doing this, as it is rife with socialized medicine and value added taxes. Others are talking about moving to Australia. Surely those leatherneck Aussies are stout Republicans at heart, overlooking the fact that they too have socialized medicine, and their female prime minister is an atheist. I am afraid there is no place to run to, unless a nice comfortable dictatorship appeals to Republicans. There are plenty of them. Serbia might work, if they don’t mind learning Serbian.

Secession was decided by the Civil War, but at least Texans still see it as a solution. They could secede and all the good Republicans could simply move there. That might work for a while, but if one man, one vote holds in Texas, at some point Democratic-leaning Hispanics will overwhelm white Republicans. Rush Limbaugh was threatening to move to Costa Rica if Obama won. That works for me. Se habla español?

In reality, the reason Republicans lost was not because of their ineffective advertising, but because long predicted demographic changes are starting to be felt in a blue direction. Whites as a percent of the voting population are down to 72% from 78% ten years ago. This trend is going to only increase. It’s unlikely Republicans will persuade whites to have more babies per capita than other minorities. Voter suppression was tried ruthlessly this election, but it seemed to only get the minorities only more riled up, often waiting in hours long lines to vote.

It turns out the most reliable predictor of whether you are likely to vote Republican or Democrat is the density of people in your community. The Washington Post published a map of how people voted in the Washington region today. It’s startling: the more people per square mile, the more they voted for Obama. Democrats are leaching into nearby Loudoun County, Virginia, which voted blue for the second presidential election in a row. It’s because their housing is denser, and it is being filled by better educated people with significant amounts of minorities. Since land is finite, Republicans can’t really count on more of their type moving to less dense neighborhoods.

What can the Republican Party do then? It won’t be easy, but they need to jettison some of their baggage and concentrate on what is achievable. It’s obvious what is not achievable. They should stop wasting time trying to defeat gay marriage and overturning Roe v. Wade. When voters in four states in one election give the okay to gay marriage, you know it’s a lost cause. More importantly, young voters simply don’t get all the hostility. Social tolerance is something they have grown up with. Even worse, this one-size-fits-all approach to social issues undermines their core principle of federalism. New philosophy: marriage and abortion laws should be something states decide. End of discussion.

Clearly a dying party must attract non-whites to survive. Good news: Hispanics tend to be very religious and have entrepreneurial hopes. They still believe in large families too. It’s time to embrace immigration reform instead of opposing it. Give these non-citizens a path to citizenship, rather than revile them. You need them anyhow, to do the work you won’t want to do. See them bussing tables, mowing your lawn and cleaning out toilets. Push for micro loans and fund small business education. Hispanics are not the only minorities anxious to get ahead. What about African Americans? They vote overwhelmingly for Democrats mainly because you hate them so much, but they too tend to be deeply religious. Instead of Crossroads GPS wasting money on political ads, why not invest the money in entrepreneurial initiatives for blacks and Hispanics, in particular? Admittedly, this will be a challenge for Republicans. Many of them still rush to the restrooms to wash their hands after shaking hands with minorities.

Also, wake up and smell the coffee on undeniable issues, like climate change. Opposing the obvious makes you look retarded. Push for market based solutions to these problems, like carbon exchanges, one of the better ideas of the Bush Administration. Welcome the eco-friendly into the party. You don’t need to be the party of mass-marketed and mass-produced food. You can be the party of Whole Foods instead.

It’s time to jettison Grover Norquist. He is causing you all sorts of problems and is boxing your party in. Instead of “no new taxes” what about “revenue should be limited to a percentage of gross national product”. Most Americans agree with the notion of limited government, just not austere government, which is what you want. Go halfway and you look sensible.

Okay, that’s all the free advice I have for you this cycle. I have pages more advice I could give, but I suspect you won’t take any of this to heart anyhow. I don’t want your party to win, but I do want genuine competition between political parties. I don’t want political dysfunction, but I do want clear, well thought ideas between political parties so voters have intelligent choices. Right now the trends are that Democrats will be the dominant party of the 21st century. Without good competition, Democrats will become moribund like they were in the past when they had overwhelming political power. We need to be kept honest. If you are true patriots, you will do your part by giving us genuine competition, not slogans and hate. Right now you resemble the latter.

 
The Thinker

Election 2012 postmortem

Ouch! It must hurt to be a Republican after the walloping they got from voters last night.

What hurt them the most of course was President Obama’s reelection, called by CNN (which I was watching) at 11:18 PM Eastern Time. I was not really worried that Obama would lose, despite the tightness in the popular vote, because of polling in swing states. Still, Republicans must have really felt the sting from losing the White House. As a result, the Supreme Court is saved from new conservative justices, at least for the next four years. The Affordable Care Act will not be overturned. We won’t get entangled in any wars of hubris. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will not be gutted, and it’s hard to see how tax increases can be avoided on the wealthiest Americans.

Obama’s reelection was especially improbable given the poor state of the economy. He joins a small list of presidents to win reelection under these circumstances, the last one being Franklin D. Roosevelt. What is even more remarkable is that Obama did this while being additionally handicapped by being black. Not a handicap you think? Disturbing new research shows just how prejudiced Americans remain. Had Obama been born white he likely could have added five points to his electoral win. Yet he still won with a clear majority of the votes cast.

Overall, voters assessed the Republicans’ candidates and rejected them. Most Republicans simply can’t figure out how their message failed to resonate. Even Mitt Romney revealed that didn’t get it with his much reviled remark that 47% of the public would not vote for him because they were dependent on the federal government. Republicans lost badly because they are seen as elitist, out of touch with the real world, obstructive, obnoxious racists and misogynists. This was obvious, if not from their rhetoric and their “Put the White back in the White House” signs, then from the candidates they nominated. The crazier they were, the greater they lost.

The Senate was supposed to turn Republican this year. Retiring Democratic senators outnumbered retiring Republicans two to one. Two ultra pro-life candidates went down in flames. Todd Akin lost by 15-points to incumbent Clair McCaskill in Missouri, a state that Romney ended up winning. A couple of hundred miles to the east in Indiana, Richard Mourdock lost an easy seat in a bright red state to moderate Democrat Joe Donnelly. The only bright spot for Republicans was narrowly winning a seat in Nevada, won only by a point, and only because of ethical problems with the Democratic nominee.

Otherwise, the horror! An open lesbian, Tammy Baldwin won against former governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin. Democrat Heidi Heitcamp narrowly won against Rick Berg in dark red state of North Dakota. John Tester hung on to his Montana seat. In my state of Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine won by nearly five points against former senator and governor George Allen. Scott Brown was tossed out of Massachusetts by progressive Elizabeth Warren. Many of these seats were salvageable had Republicans nominated someone relatively mainstream. But in most cases they went for candidates with “principle” (i.e. extreme positions) instead. They picked candidates they wanted to see in office, not candidates that could win in a pluralistic election. These losses were stupid and preventable, and fed the narrative that Republicans are deeply out of touch with the rest of America. Overall Democrats picked up two senate seats, an amazing accomplishment. In addition, there will be twenty female senators in the next congress, a new high.

Not that the elections went entirely bad for Republicans. They did manage to retain control of the House of Representatives. Not all house elections are called yet but it appears they lost only a handful of seats. Gerrymandering resulting from the 2010 census certainly helped there. Still, a few of the more egregious Republican representatives went down in flames, including Alan West in Florida. Progressive Alan Grayson won back a seat he lost two years ago in Central Florida, with 62% of the vote. Michele Bachmann came within a percentage point of losing her conservative seat in Minnesota.

There were many contributing factors to yesterday’s election results. Ironically, most of the television advertising unleashed by special interest groups and candidates may have proven unproductive. First, they stimulated interest in the election, since it was impossible to get on TV or radio and not hear political ads. Second, for the most part the ads canceled each other out, so they had no impact. They proved great for media companies bottom lines, but bought candidates of either party or special interests very little. What worked were messages directly from the candidates themselves, and early messages that set narratives.

The ground game was also phenomenal, at least for Democrats. I was receiving two or more phone calls (mostly robocalls) from candidates a day. There were dozens of emails as well, mostly soliciting donations. In my neighborhood the Obama campaign was relentless. They knocked on my door countless times (I don’t open my door for any campaign), left voice mails, left at least one brochure a week on my stoop and sent information through the mail. It was quite overwhelming and frankly more than a bit annoying. I simply could not turn it off, as much as I agreed with the candidates. Perhaps I would have received less attention had I not lived in a swing state.

I saw the effects at my local precinct Tuesday morning: long lines at the elementary school that nearly stretched outside. There were only three electronic machines at our precinct, which contributed to the slowness, so most elected for paper ballots, which were faster. Even subtracting out the crowds the energy level was high; the precinct buzzed. I cannot recall an election where I saw more voters at the polls. Even my daughter came up from her campus in Richmond to cast a vote. The result was clear during the evening, when Fairfax County was slow to report. A lot of precincts had large queues of people waiting in line to vote. For much of the evening, CNN was showing Virginia voting red, but it was clear to me that when Fairfax County’s vote finally came in, it would flip. And we did. Obama won Virginia sometime after midnight.

This was an election to remember, nearly as memorable as the 2008 election. If it demonstrates anything, it demonstrates an electorate whose demographics are changing. White America voted 58% for Mitt Romney, but it comprises a smaller proportion of the electorate. This problem will only grow worse for Republicans. They will have to moderate positions or risk obsolescence as a political party. The Tea Party and extreme social conservatives are doing them in.

 
The Thinker

The last debate

It’s probably a good thing that most Americans are geography impaired. Many Americans cannot tell you what their neighboring states are, let alone pick out Iran or Syria on a globe. Mitt Romney seems to fall into this category as well, since during yesterday’s presidential debate he came up with the preposterous claim that Iran needed to help Syria so it could have access to the world’s oceans. Maybe he confused the landlocked Afghanistan with Iran. In any event, Iran has plenty of access to the world’s oceans as the southern part of Iran presses up against the Persian Gulf, and it depends on access to it to export most of its oil.

Overall, yesterday’s debate with President Obama did not reflect well on Romney’s grasp of foreign policy. Worse, he could not draw clear distinctions between how his policies would vary from Obama’s. He either tacitly or explicitly agreed with most of Obama’s policies, the inescapable implication being that Obama was doing a good job as commander in chief. Moreover, he drew a lot of false conclusions. For example, he criticized the president for turmoil in the Middle East, as if it was his fault. Even the casual observer of the Middle East understands that revolution, particularly in that part of the world, requires turmoil. It’s an area where democracy is virtually unknown and despots are aplenty. His reasoning is also suspect because it suggests that we can actually control the political process underway across the Middle East. All we can really do is attempt to influence policy by reaching out to leaders, the opposition, and by working with other countries to affect jointly desirable outcomes, such as ending Iran’s nuclear program.

We have tried using force to get our way and it didn’t work in Iraq, although we did squander hundreds of billions of dollars before a wiser president than Bush got us out of Iraq. Sadly, I predict the same will be true in Afghanistan as proved true in Iraq. Yes, we will be out by the end of 2014. Even Romney wants that to occur. But Afghan troops will be no more ready to take control of their country than Iraqi troops were. Afghanistan is likely to look a lot like Iraq in 2015, likely with no clear winner but with a heavy and destabilizing Talibani influence but the government retaining control in most major cities. But we’ll be out of there and most importantly al Qaeda will not be coming back. They will wisely stay out of Afghanistan. The Taliban will not let them back in, as they lost power the last time they let them in. The Taliban knows that as long as they make mischief only within their borders that we will leave them alone. That’s the bottom line in Afghanistan that both sides know we will accept, just not state publicly.

President Obama demonstrated a firm grasp of these nuances, and rightly called Romney out on some of his more absurd statements, like his fretting that our navy had fewer ships than at any time since World War One. Aircraft carriers did not even exist then. One aircraft carrier today is the equivalent of dozens if not hundreds of navy ships in the World War One era. It’s actually much more than that since it allows us to project a large concentration of air power at trouble spots across the world.

Both Obama and Romney found plenty of reasons to talk about domestic policy, since most Americans yawn at foreign policy. As usual, the moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS Newswas caught in the middle and had trouble bringing their focus back to foreign policy. By this point in the campaign there was really nothing that either candidate could state that Americans had not heard before. Instead, the casual listener could only go with gut assessments of the candidate. Obama looked the image of the sober commander in chief he has been. Romney looked again like he was trying to imitate Ronald Reagan, not succeeding very well and seemed a bit trigger happy as well.

The sad fact for Republicans was that the debate was a sure loser for them. Americans overwhelmingly approve of Obama’s foreign policy. We are out of Iraq, and are getting out of Afghanistan. We are war weary, so Romney’s saber rattling fell flat. It was not surprising then that Romney was happy to turn the conversation to domestic policy, where he holds better cards. Overall, Americans see no compelling reason to spend lavishly on defense at this time, particularly when we are entering an era of austerity and the obvious foreign threats against us are diminishing. Moreover, it is astonishing to most of us who pay attention to foreign policy that Russia is our biggest national security threat, as Romney recently asserted. The Cold War is long over. Russia retains an impressive nuclear arsenal but does not appear to have any imperialistic desires at the moment. It has its hands full controlling its own population.

In short, Romney got pwned last night. By the end of the debate it seemed that Romney knew it as well.

 
The Thinker

The second debate

As a political junkie, I confess that I watch presidential debates not so much to learn what candidates believe on a variety of issues (which, of course, I already know) but for their pure entertainment value. Arguably, presidential debates are primarily theater. Unlike theater these debates can have real world consequences: the acquisition of power. So they tend to excite me much more than a good movie, in part because they are so rare.

In the first debate I felt cheated and a bit angry because to the extent that President Obama was acting, he was playing the role of Mr. Spock, where he is most comfortable. That left Mitt Romney to own the debate because he seemed to be the only one participating. The vice presidential debate was more theatrical than the first presidential debate, but with Biden’s many childish actions it was overall disappointing.

As theater, last night’s debate did not disappoint and proved to be hugely entertaining, as President Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in an elaborate fistfight, albeit without using real fists. If they were horses, they would have been both chomping at the bits. Unlike the first debate, President Obama largely owned this debate. However, Mitt Romney made a respectable showing. If it were a horserace, he would not have been more than two lengths behind the President at the finish line.

Since innumerable pundits have picked so much about the debate apart I won’t go into many of these already stated points. Romney’s remarks about women and binders went right over me, not because I am a man, but because I knew what he meant to say. On this issue (which was really a question about equal pay for women) what struck me is that Romney really never answered the question, leaving the implication that unequal pay based on sex doesn’t bother him.

I expected Obama to mention Romney’s often stated 47% statement (that 47% of Americans will vote for Obama because they are dependents of the government) at the start of the debate. Yet it would not have come up at all had not Romney raised it himself indirectly in the final question. He said one of the misunderstood things about him is that he is for 100% of Americans. What a stupid thing to say because it let Obama remind Americans of Romney’s 47% remark right at the close of a debate. Romney had a number of missteps like this but Obama’s more agile (and younger) mind kept him virtually gaffe free as well as at the peak of eloquence.

Both candidates were inventing new ways to command an open stage and appear domineering without actually touching each other or moving into each other’s personal space (a mistake Al Gore made in the 2000 debates). Of the two, Obama proved more agile with the assertive body language. He found ways to hunch forward while sitting on his stool as if anxious to lunge forward with a response at the soonest millisecond possible. He even had a way of holding his microphone that looked assertive. Both candidates had all sorts of assertive arm gestures, and fast walking motions that almost looked like prances. Obama is the master of the elevated, superior looking head, but his smile often bordered on smirky. Romney must have studied the last debate videos and had his smirks pointed out to him. In that sense he learned something: smirking is counterproductive and sends the wrong message. Thankfully, I did not have that distraction last night.

It got more entertaining of course when they interrupted one another, or when one candidate pleaded with moderator Candy Crowley for more time, or would not take “shut up” instructions from Ms. Crowley. Mostly though Obama proved a master of framing, often taking “sure to lose” questions like the terrorist assault on our consulate in Libya and turning them into wins instead. When he said he called the incident a terrorist incident the day after it occurred, and he was challenged by Romney, Crowley corrected Romney (she had clearly done her homework), even Romney must have felt the bat to the side of his head.

But what about the debate’s substance? For a debate, it was not bereft of substance but the constant posturing without really addressing the root problems was often maddening on both sides. From Romney, there was more obfuscation on how he could possibly cut taxes and still close the deficit. From Obama, there was no mention at all that increasing taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year (fine by me) won’t begin to seriously cut the deficit. At least Obama was correct to point out that real wealth does not trickle down, but is primarily a consequence of income growth in the middle class. It should not be rocket science that when the majority of people have more money to spend, and actually spend it, that it will cause broad economic growth. Nor should it be rocket science that the rich by themselves cannot save the economy. There is only so much money that rich people can spend to improve their lifestyles, and there simply aren’t enough of them no matter how lavishly they spend their money for it to have real impact on the economic growth of the country.

The debate succeeded in being a contrast in values between Republicans and Democrats. Those still on the political fence at least have these differences to chaw over, assuming they have been politically asleep the last few years. Still, so many real issues were not discussed. There were no questions about the catastrophic consequences of ignoring global warming. There were no questions on the wisdom of the Citizens United ruling, or whether gays should marry, or if we really need to spend $700 billion a year on defense while laying off teachers. Instead it was more about gas prices, “clean” coal, how wonderful the middle class is and the benefits of capitalism, families and apple pie.

The debate made for good theater, but felt much like a glazed donut. It felt great going down. It was not until it was all over that you realized it was only 30 percent substance and 70 percent prancing, and its thrill was quite ephemeral. I enjoyed all the theatrical prancing, but arguably the American people could have used a full diet of substance instead.

 
The Thinker

The vice presidential debate

I don’t know whether to applaud or feel appalled. Maybe it’s okay to do both.

I spent much of this debate with my jaw agape as Vice President Joe Biden did everything to get attention but take off his shoe and bang it on his desk, a la Nikita Khrushchev. Whereas Barack Obama was unfailingly civil and understated in his first presidential debate, Biden went out of his way to be just the opposite with Mitt Romney’s vice presidential choice, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan. Because of Joe, the debate was more carnival than debate. Biden managed to speak more than Ryan and felt few constraints to let Ryan finish sentences. If Obama could have an evil alter ego, Biden emulated it. The result was that he dominated the debate and dominated the clock as well. He was often rude, frequently dismissive, interruptive and sneering, as well as often wide-eyed when Ryan spoke and chortling, always flashing his impressive set of pearly white teeth.

The contrast made Paul Ryan appear entirely reasonable, unless you tried to parse what he was saying, which rarely made a lot of sense. While Biden dominated the debate, I found Ryan far more telegenic. In particular a feature of his I had never noticed before struck me: his hair, particularly a part of his hairline that uncharacteristically falls down the center of his forehead in a point. It was mesmerizing, even more so that Biden’s antics. His pointy forehead hairstyle is bizarrely uncommon and curiously makes him look like Satan himself.

The Devil in Paul Ryan's hair

The Devil in Paul Ryan’s hair

Biden is known to be flamboyant, but clearly he pulled out all the stops during this debate. It’s unclear who “won” the debate although most polls give Biden a narrow win. No one will deny that Biden was not forceful. His tactics, strangely enough, came right out of the Republican playbook. Those of us following the many Republican debates saw it time and again as candidates tried to break out of the pack. Bizarre, rude and loud behavior usually worked, at least for a while, in getting attention. It did not succeed in producing a nominee with these qualities. In the end Republicans chose Mitt Romney, overall a milquetoast candidate. But that’s the point. Biden is the sideshow and he knows it. He is not being elected president; the choice is between Obama and Romney. His job was to shake up the dynamic moving against the president. His tactics may have made you want to put the kids to bed early, but they probably were rather effective.

Biden actually did something very unusual for a Democrat: he talked backed emotionally more than logically. This approach makes most Democrats uncomfortable. It certainly made me uncomfortable. But generally it works as a strategy. Biden was championing the strategies that made Democrats such as Molly Ivins and Ann Richards so effective, and which I argued in May that Democrats needed to adopt if they want to win elections. Most partisan Democrats were ecstatic with Biden’s performance. Finally here was a man unafraid to say to Republicans exactly why Republicans were so full of shit, and to do so in unambiguously emotional ways.

That’s how you break through the noise and change expectations, and breaking through the noise right now is essential. So in this sense Biden’s performance reflected genius. Take, for example, the so-called Romney-Ryan plan to balance the budget. There is no plan. They won’t articulate one that we can actually study. It’s just more of the same: cutting tax rates, assuming it will lead to huge economic growth, closing unspecified “loopholes”, pumping up the Defense Department’s already bloated budget, cutting the size and scope of the rest of government somehow without impacting Social Security and Medicare for anyone currently over 55, and somehow it will all magically work. It didn’t work in the 1980s under Reagan or in the 2000s under George W. Bush, but this is what they are promoting with almost no details about how it will work. It’s an entirely faith-based economic plan, based on a faith that has repeatedly proven misplaced.

Such an approach to governing should be dismissed; consequently Biden’s behavior certainly was merited based on Romney and Ryan’s faith-based economic plan. Romney recently castigated Obama for substituting hope for a strategy. Yet he is hoping that the magic of supply side economics will substitute for a real strategy and plan to reduce unemployment and grow the economy. No one running for president should be peddling this kind of crap and expect to be taken seriously.

Let’s see a Romney-Ryan detailed economic plan instead of a hope-filled campaign web page. Let economists weigh in on it. They won’t give us one. Until they do, they deserve all the contempt and scorn that Democrats can deliver. Joe Biden did voters a favor by making it clear that they are full of crap. The message was heard loud and clear because his body language told people unambiguously Republicans were full of crap. Message received. Perhaps it will motivate some voters still on the fence to take a look. If so they will realize that if any party is substituting hope for a strategy, it is the Republican Party. And any party that does this deserves the contempt that Biden unleashed on Thursday night.

 
The Thinker

The first debate

It’s not October in a presidential election year without a number of presidential debates. Therein we largely–already-decided-voters get to watch the candidates jostle and parry with each other on national TV. The talking heads go into overdrive. Who won? Who lost? Why? What does it mean? What it mostly means is not a whole lot. Presidential debates rarely change the outcome of the election and these series of debates probably will not either.

On points most analysts give Romney a solid win, and I have to say the analysts are probably right for whatever it is worth. President Obama was in full Mr. Spock mode acting eminently logical and civil and when necessary flashing his proprietary toothy grin. The surprise was that, at least for ninety minutes, Mitt Romney emerged from his green eyeshades mode and resembled something animated and human. Moreover, his arguments sort of made sense, as long as you were ignorant of how he constantly contradicted his positions during the rest of the campaign. This matters little to most of the debate viewers, who could care less about previous statements and campaign minutia, and most of who were tuning into Mitt Romney for the first time.

I watched the debate on cnn.com where the screen was split between Obama and Romney, allowing us to watch the reaction of one candidate while the other blathered. Obama took a lot of hits for seeming disinterested. He was not quite the eloquent debater we saw four years ago when he was debating Hillary Clinton. Obama looked mostly tired and like he wished to be elsewhere. No doubt spending the evening romancing his wife of exactly twenty years was far more appealing than trying to focus on Mitt and his frequently meandering arguments. Obama would have been wise to simply say that Mitt was having many “Etch-a-sketch” moments. Unexplainably, Obama mostly let these many moments pass.

Like his infamous dog Seamus forced to endure much of a family vacation in a pet carrier strapped to the roof of the family sedan, Mitt really looked like he was a dog straining at the leash. He wore a half smirk, half phony smile and the longer it went on the more I was looking for things to throw at my monitor. Toward the end it became nearly unendurable. I shudder to think of him as president. How can we be expected to endure that “I am more superior than you” smirk for at least four years? And yet the press gave him a pass, and concentrated on Obama’s dispassionate and civil performance, which at least is standard behavior from him. Mitt looked the epitome of someone of high school age desperately wanting to be class president, not president of the United States. Gosh, he wanted to be popular! He wanted to sell himself, like a box of detergent.

Moreover, he looked and sounded like a bad imitation of Ronald Reagan. From the slicked back hair to the thick eyebrows, you could almost mistake him for Reagan, except he had none of his gravitas or his sincerity. He also looked Reagan-old. He looked more like the Ta-la-la-la guy than a human being, with a smile that seemed due to a surgical wire under his cheeks and wrinkles around the eyes that looked Botoxed. I found him to be more Martian than human, but at least he was animated. Obama looked like he was on sedatives.

For all the hoopla, there was little of substance exchanged, which was probably by design. Maybe it’s good that Romney’s spouse Ann is into horse dressage. Romney looked like he was competing in a human dressage contest. The debate for Romney was more about pomp and circumstance, gestures and body posture, tone of voice and arm pumping and reused zingers (“you are not entitled to your own facts”) than it was about substance. In that sense, regardless of who won the debate on technical points, the American people lost, since so little policy was actually discussed.

So Obama loses points for being cerebral and disengaged. He is smart enough though not to make the same mistake twice, and will learn how to exploit Romney’s weaknesses in subsequent debates. While Romney “won” the debate, what people are remembering is not so much his quirky animation, but some of his surreal comments. Two nights later what is really making the rounds is not Romney’s animation, but his remarks about firing Big Bird. Fire Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Count von Count, Elmo and all the other Sesame Street characters, not to mention PBS and NPR? This has garnered a huge amount of attention on line, and it’s not good attention. It says more about the real Mitt Romney than any eloquence he managed during the debate. I expect that by the next debate he will be walking those statements back. Actually, I expect before the weekend is over he will have walked the statements back.

I hope the next debate will at least have some substance in it.

 
The Thinker

Why Obama is winning

Pollsters keep telling us that President Obama is statistically tied in the presidential race with his challenger Mitt Romney. “It’s within the margin of error,” they say, and if elections were won based on the popular vote, it would be. It is much harder to make the claim that the candidates are tied if you look at state polls, particularly at swing state polls. It’s beginning to look like check and mate for Mitt Romney.

Can things change? Of course they can. There is plenty of history sixty days out from Election Day showing that polls in early September don’t accurately predict the eventual winner. In this election though, the number of undecided voters is tiny. Moreover, the only undecided voters that matter are those in swing states. In most states, all the undecided voters could vote for one candidate over the other and it won’t change how the state’s electoral votes will go. With a few exceptions, states award all of their electoral votes to the candidate with the majority of votes in the state. Both campaigns know this, of course. There is no point wasting money trying to persuade voters in Texas to vote for Obama, or in Massachusetts trying to convince voters to vote for Romney. It’s only in swing states like, ironically, my state of Virginia where overbearing political ads seem to run nonstop.

State by state polls show that Obama has many realistic paths to the 270 electoral votes he needs for reelection, while few of Romney’s paths are viable. Most importantly, Romney looks like he is not going to win in Ohio, at least not without a lot of ballot stuffing or voter suppression. Polls show Obama with a consistent lead of about six points. Ohio’s Republican legislature has been working hard on the latter, but is getting some resistance from the courts. In recent times no candidate has won the presidency without winning Ohio. It is possible that Romney could win in a bunch of other states to make up the difference, but that path looks impossible.

Romney’s hope lies not in third parties that will spend enormous amounts of money to try to change the difference. His affiliated PACs have been doing that for months and it has been mostly wasted money. The recent Republican National Convention gave Romney no bounce at all in the polls. The more recent Democratic National Convention appears to have given Obama a bounce of at least a few points. History suggests any bounces will be short lived. So the race is likely to settle back to where it was before the conventions, showing the candidates close to tied with Obama generally shown marginally ahead.

Romney has only two real paths to victory. First, he can hope for some sort of cataclysmic financial event such as happened before the last election, or a sharply negative jobs report. This certainly is possible, but is unlikely. Second, he can hope that he so shines in the presidential debates that significant number of voters change their mind because they see a different and better candidate that they did not expect. Republican state legislators are hoping that Democrats can be restrained from voting through toughened voter identification laws, thus flipping the state into the red column. At best this strategy will work in only a couple of states.

Voter enthusiasm also makes a big difference in who wins, as Republicans demonstrated in 2010 when Democrats stayed home. There will be no problem turning out Republicans, unless polls make them feel disheartened. Democrats are also expected to turn out in large numbers, but perhaps not in as large numbers as in 2008.

So if Romney is checkmated, as it looks like he will be, how will it have happened? There are of course many factors, but I think the most important factor is that voters sense that Obama really cares about the middle class, and are not convinced that Romney does. Ohio actually makes a great case in point. It was ravaged by the recession, as it is nearly as dominated by the auto industry as Michigan. Obama and his brief Democratic congress rescued the auto industry when no one else would. The American auto industry came back as a direct result of our investment in it. This is the value of actions over beliefs. In this case, it is obvious that these were correct decisions, and probably explains why Obama leads in Ohio by a consistent six percent.

Moreover, voters remain distrustful of Republicans. While they may be unhappy that the recovery has not be broader, faster and more sustained, they do know who got us into this economic mess and they know it was not Obama. Having had their hand recently burned on the stove, they are reticent to put their hand back on the stove. Republicans need to demonstrate political competence. Instead, they are demonstrating obstruction, extremism and intransigence, which may thrill their political base but does not endear them to independents, no matter how desperate they may feel about their job prospects.

It’s not sexy but Democrats and President Obama have spent most of the last four years trying to keep the bottom from falling out of the economy. This Houdini trick became exponentially more difficult after the 2010 election when Tea Party Republicans took control of the House.

In addition, Obama framed Romney very effectively in June and July when voters were just beginning to pay attention to him. The frame, which was not hard to apply, was that Romney was someone with no empathy for the middle class and who understood only profits and losses, not the real issues that Americans face. Obama understands the needs of the middle class from experience, an experience that Romney never tasted. Romney’s own bungling and inconsistency since then helped cement the frame. He seems incapable of any empathy for other than the rich, and cannot even seem to speak in a language that middle America understands.

Smart Republicans have already largely written off a Romney win, and are concentrating money where it matters: on obtaining a Senate majority (which is looking increasingly problematic) and maintaining their House majority (which looks likely). Losses in this election might foment some earnest soul searching from Republicans. The sooner they realize that they need to moderate positions the more likely they are to achieve lasting political power. Republicans are going to eventually realize that they must govern from the center to maintain political power, and this means their extreme positions will need to be moderated or they risk obsolescence as a party.

 

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