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.

Hope reborn and sanity restored

I was not worried about yesterday’s election outcome. When the economy tanked in mid September, it became abundantly clear to me than no Republican presidential candidate could beat this political headwind. The only question was the magnitude of Barack Obama’s win and how many other Democrats would be pulled in his wake. Given the circumstances, the Republicans in general did pretty well.

President Bush, a deeply unpopular president whose approval ratings were in the twenties, clearly dragged down the Republican brand. Republicans also carried an enormous set of baggage into this election. They were instrumental and wholly complicit in creating the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression. It was somewhat karmic that it untimely reached the severely acute phase just six weeks before the election. Republicans had also embroiled the country in two foreign wars and dug us more than ten trillion dollars into debt. Because of their policies, most Americans have seen their real wages decrease. Virtually everyone who put money aside has watched the value of their portfolios drop precipitously. All of these stupid actions were entirely preventable had we elected pragmatic men and women instead of ideologues.

Yet, in spite of all these things, McCain lost by only six percentage points, which suggests his campaign was reasonably effective. Moreover, while Democrats made broad gains in the House and Senate, their gains were not as sweeping as pundits like me anticipated. There are five Democratic Senate pickups for sure, with four races still in dispute. At best only one of the four in dispute will tip toward the Democrats. Democrats will not have a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. Democratic House gains were relatively modest under the circumstances too. Democrats picked up 19 seats so far while eight other races remain in dispute.

Viewed over the last two years, the magnitude of our political change has been remarkable. Before the 2006 election, we had one party Republican government. In January 2009, we will have one party Democratic government. Republicans will still be able to block legislation in the Senate via filibuster but they do not control the agenda.

Still, thinking Republicans should feel shell-shocked. This election showed that the solid red South is crumbling. In an election or two, it might disappear altogether. Florida has always been somewhat iffy, but was decidedly peeled away. My state of Virginia, which has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, voted for Obama over McCain by five percent. North Carolina still has not been called, but if the current results stands, Obama should carry that state too. McCain is likely to hold on to Missouri, but just barely. While the current electoral count is now 349-163 for Obama, the final count is likely to be 364-174, a trouncing of nearly 200 electoral votes. Moreover, Republicans have no clear path back into power. New younger voters preferred Democrats by nearly a factor of two to one. Their best hope for returning to power is simply to hope that Democrats governed like buffoons too. When the Republican Party eventually is voted back into power, it should look substantially different from the current party.

While for me the outcome was never in doubt, I felt euphoric nonetheless when it arrived. I felt happiest for my African American brethren, most of whom assumed they would never live to see an African American elected President of the United States. The scenes on TV of so many African Americans crying in joy after the networks called the election for Obama were poignant, heartfelt, wondrously joyful and oh so heartfelt, as was Obama’s masterful victory speech. As a metaphor, the election of Barack Obama works well on so many levels. For the last eight years, America has projected itself as an insular, unreasonable, mean and dogmatic nation. Last night I saw reemerge the America I knew growing up. With Obama’s election, racism in our country was dealt a fatal blow and African Americans realized they too were fully enfranchised citizen not just in law, but in fact. A new and better America has emerged that is more tolerant, generous and inclusive than the America of the 20th century. In the 21st century, real America is not rural American, but is colorfully multi-hued, as reflect by its new president elect.

It remains to be seen whether through sheer force of personality President Obama can truly unite us. Unquestionably, he inherits problems of a magnitude not seen in more than a generation. Yet, since we must move through these times anyhow, we are blessed with one of the few leaders up to the job of leading us safely through this treacherous minefield.

For many of us older Americans, the end of the Bush Administration feels like the moments after Watergate’s sad denouement. We remember a sense of relief and a feeling of national shame as we watched the presidential helicopter carry away a disgraced President Nixon. When President Ford told us that our long national nightmare was over, we cried in relief (but not in joy) and wondered if our nation would really remain true to its ideals.

The sad truth for those of us who lived through the Nixon years is that these last eight years have been far worse. Back then we were not numb to the implications of Nixon’s unconstitutional and unlawful actions. Yet President Nixon was at least held accountable by Congress. This congress has given this administration a pass for its crimes. Just to make sure no one is held accountable, President Bush is likely to offer pardons to all the usual suspects. Over these last eight years, we have repeatedly witnessed egregious and previously unthinkable crimes by our government, executed in a premeditated and matter of fact manner by our insular and headstrong leaders. We have seen our nation engage in torture. We have watched our president blithely ignore laws he found it inconvenient by issuing signing statements that he embodied with the force of law. Our armies have inflicted mass suffering on Iraqis by the millions. In doing so, we inherited a staggering karmic debt that will take generations of good deeds to repay. We have spent like a drunken sailor, mortgaged our future and nearly kicked off another Great Depression, bringing the whole world with us. We have witnessed ideology wholly divorced from reality and suffered its disastrous consequences.

My euphoria last night, like that of many Americans, came from the realization that our constitution still works in a creaky sort of way. Sadly, due to our spineless Congress, it did not work through our system of checks and balances, but in a delayed manner through our electoral system. Yet we finally did emerge from our fear-induced stupor and by electing Barack Obama took the critical step necessary to put the nation aright again. In seventy-six days, for the first time in eight years we will have a president that actually puts the rule of law and our constitution first. Imagine that! In seventy-six days, the lunatics will be formally kicked out of the asylum and the grownups will be back in charge.


I was one of those people watching the Obama infomercial last night. I didn’t actually watch it live. I was buying a rug at the time. After it was hauled home and laid out over our new wood floor, I took the time to watch it online. Man, that was one slick infomercial!

Frankly though, I have come to expect slick from the Obama campaign. If Obama wins the presidency next Tuesday as all but a handful of polls suggest, the credit will have to be shared equally between Obama, who is a uniquely compelling candidate, and his campaign staff which is running probably the best run political campaign I have ever seen.

It helps to have tons of cash, of course. Many of us older Americans are still in shock from learning of his $150 million haul in campaign contributions in September. In fact, I still cannot get it through my brain that Democrats, mostly through grass roots efforts, are raising more money than Republicans. Until recently, one thing you could always count on during a presidential campaign was that the Democratic nominee would be at a significant financial disadvantage. Typically, Republicans with their fat checkbooks raised and outspent Democrats two to one. It is my belief that this money advantage more than anything else explains why Republicans have disproportionately held the presidency for the last fifty years or so. Money buys access in the form of commercials, flyers, pollsters, number crunchers and data miners. Moneyed people, who are disproportionately Republican, also tend to either be or have more influence with powerbrokers.

The Obama team though changed the game. It starts with a compelling candidate. Clearly, Obama was not the ideal candidate, particularly when it came to experience. It would be easy to say Obama simply has charisma, but he is blessed with so many talents as a politician and speaker that it is hard to number them all. Among them is his natural eloquence, both spoken and written, as well as marked intelligence, sincerity, people skills and general niceness. I am sure there are Obama haters out there. You may loathe his policies, but you have to be part Grinch to dislike him as a person. Most politicians like, say, John McCain, paste a phony smile in front of a crowd. It is obvious that John McCain is not a happy man. That is not Obama’s problem. He smile is downright beatific. It projects the soul of a man who is at peace.

Obama’s problem though is not his liberal position on many issues. His real problem throughout the campaign has always been his race. While most Americans are not overtly racist, a sizeable minority remains reflexively racist, and an even smaller amount is overtly racist. Many of us are not even aware of our inner racism. I too sometimes have to fight feelings of wanting to walk on the other side of the street when a group of African American males is about to pass me on the sidewalk. I have to assume that a certain amount of racist feelings are hardwired into the primitive parts of our brains.

Thus, it is no small matter for us white Americans to turn off that part of our brains. Yet, for the most part, Obama has succeeded. Obama though had another unique advantage: having a black father and a white mother. He is not so much black as he is multiracial. Having grown up in predominantly white neighborhoods, he understands white America. He has spent his life traversing through it. In many ways, black America is more unfamiliar to him than white America. After graduation, he moved to Chicago specifically to get the African American experience that largely passed him by growing up.

Obama’s campaign is amazingly well managed. John McCain is getting (he hopes) some mileage by saying Obama is already measuring the drapes for the Oval Office. Here’s the thing: that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing. It’s not that Obama is taking his election for granted, although the polls suggest he is a shoe in, it’s just that in a well managed campaign these are exactly the sort of activities you should be doing during this part of the campaign. If John McCain is not doing the same thing, he is inept at managing his campaign.

While it remains to be seen if a President Obama will be as successful a manager of the federal bureaucracy as he is with his campaign, his slick campaign can be taken as a very hopeful sign by us disgruntled citizens. It’s been a while since we’ve seen government work in any meaningful fashion. Obama seems to intuitively understand how to walk the fine line between leadership and management. The trick is to know who to pick to be your managers and exercising the right strategies to empower and police them.

With a few notable exceptions, the Obama campaign has been classy and always three steps ahead of the competition. Reporters following him on the campaign trail are a bit disgruntled because they too are being well managed. A well-managed campaign knows how to use the press to its advantage. This means many reporters have limited access to the candidate.

Running a presidential campaign is a huge project. It spans all fifty states and even goes abroad at times. Just the logistics of managing rallies would be intimidating enough, but there is also a huge, interconnected ground game underway. Since I have given the Obama campaign money, I too have been contacted, once a week lately, to see if I will attend rallies, or canvas my neighborhood, or call undecided voters. Obama is smart enough to know that at the grass roots level, people have to feel vested in the outcome. So to the extent possible the campaign staff is letting committed activists in neighborhoods take the lead on local canvassing.

One of the major reasons that Hillary Clinton lost was because she was out managed. The Obama campaign was always several steps ahead of her, and that was because they ran a better organized and more sophisticated campaign. While Clinton was worrying about winning primaries, the Obama campaign was caucus savvy and working both the grassroots and the Netroots ruthlessly. Obama runs a proactive campaign. Only a few times in this long campaign has his campaign suffered serious distractions. The only problem that turned out to be a major problem was his relationship with his incendiary pastor Jeremiah Wright. Even so, in time Obama was able to assuage most of these fears.

Yesterday’s final Obama infomercial was a brilliant conclusion to a meticulously well-managed campaign: well produced, heartfelt, pragmatic and timed to seal the deal. It moved us past the election to let us envision very clearly what an Obama Administration would look like. The vision was both pragmatic about the challenges and hopeful. It was a message I have not heard in a long time: a call to mutual service. In exchange for us stepping up to our civic and family duties, he would bend our recalcitrant government to make it work to meet the needs of ordinary citizens.

Sounds like a fair exchange to me. Well done!

Hate is so yesterday

The Karl Rove playbook is no longer working that well. You know the playbook. It’s the one emphasizes us vs. them. In the Karl Rove America, you win elections by slicing and dicing Americans into micro-groups, then ruthlessly targeting these micro-groups until you have enough votes to win elections for your side. It’s about some other group of Americans oppressing you and your clan, or who are out to Destroy the American Way ™, and who are secretly communists, Islamic terrorists or socialists.

This is the rulebook that Republicans have played by (more of less) since at least 1994. Overall, it has worked pretty well for them. In 1994, it worked to elect a huge number of new Republican congressmen and women to Congress (54 House seats and 8 Senate seats). It elected George W. Bush in 2000. In 2002, in part because the Republicans rebranded themselves at the national security party, it let Republicans add 8 more House seats and 2 Senate seats. It brought George W. Bush reelection in 2004. The playbook said it could be accomplished by painting Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry as too liberal, too Birkenstock and as someone who secretly hated his country. After all, didn’t everyone who protested the Vietnam War hate his or her country at least on some level? The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spent millions dollars on advertisements asserting that Kerry was a coward and un-American when the record clearly showed otherwise. Overall, America bought it.

Still, it was not a perfect playbook. In 1996 and 1998, Democrats made modest pickups in Congress. Of course, in 2006, Republicans got a figurative kick in the stomach, losing both houses of Congress. Democrats added 31 seats in the House and 5 seats in the Senate. It’s always dangerous to read the tealeaves two weeks before an election, but few would dispute that Democrats are likely to make impressive gains in both the House and the Senate this cycle. All but a few fringe polls suggest that Barack Obama will win handily on November 4th, barring some catastrophically stupid mistake on his part or some unexpected national event that completely changes the dynamics of the race.

Given that in 2009 Democrats are likely to control both houses of Congress as well as the White House, you would think that Republicans might be fielding some new campaign strategies. They would no doubt be greatly helped if they did not have a colossal failure of a president in their party, and had not so gleefully aided and abetted his mistakes. John McCain’s campaign now appears in disarray and is making one stupid mistake after another. For example, apparently there was no one politically savvy enough in the campaign to realize that having alleged hockey mom and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin spend $150,000 on clothes and hairdos might be a stupid way to sell her as someone in touch with the “Real America”. If you were inclined to think of Republicans as rich and out of touch, this strategy would just confirm your biases.

There must be some logic though to the Karl Rove playbook. After all, his playbook, and ones before it pioneered principally by Newt Gingrich, worked pretty well. It kept the party largely in control of Congress for the last fourteen years or so. So why not give it a try one more time? Why not distinguish between the real (red) America from those parts of America that apparently want to belong to the United Socialist States of America? Why not segment and focus group, segment and focus group your party into power, or at least use it as a strategy to limit your losses? Why not do your best to challenge a surge of new and apparently largely Democratic voters by putting up obstacles to their voting? Why not inflate what was best a tangential relationship between Barack Obama and a former Weather Underground leader? Why not have people like Rudy Giuliani record false statements about Barack Obama for robocalls? After all, what do you have to lose besides political power and obsolescence?

I remember way back when in 1978 the song You Light Up My Life, was number one on all the pop radio stations. You could not turn the dial without hearing it. Then suddenly it was played one too many times and we were all simultaneously plugging our ears with wax to try to turn it off. Republicans are still sashaying to the beat of We’re the Only Real Americans apparently unaware that this song too has been played one too many times and no one but they believe it. Not only do non-red Americans not want to hear it, they cannot stand the tune anymore. Give us new tune, please!

Barack Obama supplied it. His message of hope may sound naïve and sophomoric, but at least it was a positive message. It was the 2008 version of the Great Depression’s notable song, Happy Days are Here Again. Instead of emphasizing what divides us, why not emphasize our unity as a nation? Why not offer hope instead of cynicism? Why not offer sound solutions instead of more ideology?

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank produced this snarky column and video yesterday. He was shocked, yes shocked, by an Obama campaign rally yesterday in Richmond, Virginia. He went to Richmond, Virginia, the heart of the Confederacy, to find out just who these un-real and unpatriotic Americans that Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann figure are out there in large numbers because they don’t vote Republican. To Milbank’s surprise, apparently these people were chanting “USA! USA!” by the tens of thousands respectfully listening to The Star Spangled Banner … at an Obama rally! It was hard to escape the feeling that maybe there are millions of patriotic Democrats out there too and maybe some were not even socialists!

November 4th will officially end the Republican era that was dominated by us vs. them, hate over love, fear over tolerance. As Republicans survey their wreckage they may, to their utter shock, discover that for the first time in a very long time (no thanks to them) they really are living in the United States of America.

Perhaps after they lick their wounds they’ll decide, what the heck, why not just Democrats and Independents and rebuild a better country that actually works for everyone of us, instead of just them? I like to be hopeful, just like Barack Obama. However, given their track record, I am not too optimistic.

The final debate

John McCain cannot win for losing. On September 26th, the date of the first presidential debate, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) closed at what now seems like a nostalgic 11,143 points. On October 7th, the date of the second presidential debate, the DJIA dropped 508 points and closed at 9447. Today, October 15th, the DJIA dropped by its second largest amount ever, a gut wrenching 733 points, closing at 8578. Since the presidential debates started, the DJIA has lost 23 percent of its value. This more than anything else tells you why Senator McCain lost tonight’s debate and will lose the election. It’s the economy, stupid.

In short, there was no way he could have won the debate no matter what words he uttered or what debating points he won. The debate in our living rooms was about one single thing: our pocketbooks and our feeling of panic which, if not explicit, are lurking at the edge of our subconscious. It is all that the American people care about. We wanted to hear about how Senator McCain would fix the economy. Yet McCain offered no new plan or vision. As much as he admonished Senator Obama for tying him to President Bush, for all his maverick-ness he sure sounded and looked a lot like our current president. Most of us love lower taxes, but it is a harder sell to make when your stock portfolio (if you have one) is dropping like a stone, your employment looks chancy and if you have health insurance you feel like you are close to being priced out of the market. Low taxes mean little if you are facing a far scarier scenario: a reduced standard of living. McCain needed a game changer but he was bereft of meaningful new ideas. The ideas that he offered sounded very similar to those of the current administration.

He was dealt an atrocious hand. Under the circumstances, McCain played the debate rather well. Of the three presidential debates, in this one he looked the most animated and came across as close to eloquent. He even had a few good debating points. For the first time in his debates with Obama, he actually looked him in the eye. He tried to paint a frozen smile on his face while Obama talked, but he still frequently came across as condescending. Only his Republican base cared about Obama’s tangential association with Bill Ayers. For the rest of us, it was “Why can’t you talk about something that actually matters?”

Instead of looking firm McCain looked aggressive. He even quickly roamed onto Obama’s side of the stage after the debate, as if he was trying to mark his territory. Obama on the other hand came across as completely measured and cool. Even though McCain was reasonably coherent in this debate, Obama’s natural eloquence still out shown his. Obama once again correctly judged there was no way that Senator McCain could win the debate unless he let him throw him off his gate. Obama has only rarely looked ruffled in any of his debates over the last twenty months. He merely had to continue to follow the strategy he had so well mastered to put this debate successfully behind him.

With twenty days until Election Day, it is abundantly clear who the ultimate winner will be, and it will not be Senator McCain. McCain has been a gambler all of his life. He has been known to shoot craps at high stakes gambling tables in Las Vegas. For McCain, with no message that resonates, these debates have each been high stake political crapshoots. In each McCain lost. He lost because his message simply failed to connect with the majority of voters. Despite his protestations, his voting record clearly tied him too closely to President Bush. The ultimate reason for Obama’s win though will simply be the dismal state of our economy. Millionaires like John McCain might feel free to play craps. Those of us of more modest means do not have these options. In scary times, you vote for a steady candidate who seems to be grounded in our reality. A maverick is the last sort of candidate you want, particularly since you sense, but cannot say for sure, that you are precariously perched close to the edge of the cliff.

I expect that after Obama election on November 4th the stock markets will begin to settle down. Until then, hold on to your wallets and I hope you like roller coasters.

The second debate

Watching a presidential debate in high definition is definitely a different experience, and not necessarily for the better. You obviously get a much better picture quality that translates into more of a feeling that you area in the room instead of watching the debates from hundreds of miles away. The bad part: our candidates look a lot older than I thought. Even Barack Obama, who is four years younger than I am, is graying. Moderator Tom Brokaw hardly looked youthful either; he is pushing seventy. All the pancake makeup in the world could not hide his age.

During the summer, John McCain invited Barack Obama to debate him at all sorts of town hall debates. Obama turned him down and now I understand why. At least this “town hall” debate had zero energy because both candidates found it too scary to allow an honest exchange with participants to occur. There was virtually no back and forth with the questioners and the few questioners called on had to read their question verbatim from an index card.

According to Nielsen, this second debate drew 42.1% of viewers whereas the first debate drew in only 34.7% of viewers. Good news of you who missed the first debate: this debate was largely a retread of the first debate! It turns out that three debates may be about two more than are necessary since we get the same talking points repeatedly and learn little new. The economy may be collapsing but neither McCain nor Obama offered any immediate practical suggestions on how the Joe Six-packs of the world should deal with the problem. (Ms. Palin might suggest shooting wolves from helicopters.) Both candidates seemed more concerned with scoring hits on the other’s talking points than coherently addressing the questions.

Moreover, neither felt particularly constrained by the debate rules they mutually agreed to adhere to. This annoyed me and it also irked moderator Tom Brokaw. Green light, yellow light, red light, it didn’t matter to the candidates. Instead, they just kept yammering. The “two-minute” response was more like three minutes. The “one-minute discussion” was more like two or three minutes. Yes, yes, I know. We are selecting the new leader of the free world and it’s so important to hear what they have to say. Still, aside from letting each speak in turn, neither could be bothered with rules. Each figured that whoever could get the most words out would win.

I hope that in twenty years when I reach John McCain’s age I look better than he does. He looks bad. From his sagging skin and yellow teeth I would have guessed he was in his mid eighties. I especially hope I do not walk around a stage like a marionette when I am his age. His choppy hand motions looked ridiculous. His spine must be out of alignment because he couldn’t seem to stand without hunching forward. Town hall formats are supposed to be his expertise, but apparently, he hasn’t actually debated much in a town hall format. His voice quickly became grating and he felt compelled to insincerely call everyone “my friend”. (All except, naturally, Senator Obama, who at one point he contemptuously called “that one”.) Rather than look at his opponent, he retreated to his chair to scribble into his pad. Moreover, McCain demonstrated the same magnetic charm as an eel. He proved once again to be a poor debater and neither a terribly artful nor an especially articulate fellow. I mean no disrespect for senior citizens as I expect to be there soon enough, but he looked more like a walking corpse than a human being. If he knocked on my door on Halloween, offered me his hand and called me “my friend” he would have given me the fright of my life.

I am not sure what his motivations are for running for president, but for all his claim to put “country first” it looks like he is far more interested in putting his domineering ego first. He seems incapable of communicating empathy, which might be because he never learned how to give any. And oh, you could see again that his anger was lurking just below the surface. I also do not think he knows how to relax. He comes across as constantly keyed up and exceptionally awkward looking. I wish he would use all of Cindy’s millions to do something useful, like get some anger management therapy. He again avoided looking at Senator Obama and even went out of his way to avoid shaking his hand after the debate. You would hardly expect this behavior from someone who claims to be bipartisan.

Nor was Obama at the top of his form. Fortunately, he can be operating at eighty percent and still come across convincingly. Obama remained generally unruffled by McCain’s verbal barrages and was always measured and civil. The closest thing to incivility was his often bemused looks at McCain while he was speaking. He did have a high point or two, such as when he addressed his own impoverished childhood. That likely connected with many voters. Nonetheless, Obama would have done much better in this format by forthrightly addressing the questions that were addressed to him, rather than weaseling around the subjects.

Who won? Once again, snap polls suggest it was Obama, but really, it was the viewers that lost. We were cheated out of a real debate. We learned little new from either candidate on the issues, watched lots of high stakes sniping, heard numerous claims and counter claims (most of them bogus or inflated) and little in the way of candor. McCain proved he was far more interested in trees than the forest. He got in a lather because on an Obama earmark for a three million dollar “projector”, which was in reality a new projector globe for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. This is not exactly the sort of equipment that you can purchase at Office Depot. One can certainly argue about whether it was a purchase worthy of federal funding, but one cannot argue that a planetarium educates thousands of people a year on the universe, so a better projector would be of value.

I know it is impossible, but I would have liked to heard them say the truth: no one can right this economy overnight, and only long term structural changes in our financial markets will lead to recovery. I guess that kind of candor is not presidential.

So Obama wins again by not losing. The election dynamics remain in his favor and his scientific and measured approach proves his strategy is working. Whether it helps us make more informed choices is debatable.

Perhaps McCain’s sourness was due to a subconscious realization that he lost the election on Black Monday. Perhaps he knows but cannot admit to himself that he contributed substantially to the mess, and the polls reflect that he is paying his dues. His presidency was never meant to be but was instead a manifestation of his inflated ego. He got lucky this time solely because of the toxic political climate for run of the mill Republicans. It is hard to imagine any scenario at any time where he would have captured the enthusiasm of a majority of Americans. Seeing him in this debate was like watching someone nailing themselves into their own coffin. It was sad.

I hope to watch the last debate next Wednesday from my hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona. I keep hoping that we will get a real debate, but it is clear that on the economy at least both are too scared to tell us the truth. And that’s not presidential.

Screwed and angry

If you want to know why Barack Obama is surging in the polls, it would be tempting to say that it is due to our current economic problems. That is it, of course, but it imparts little in the way of understanding. Obama is gaining in the polls, not so much because Americans are lining up behind his vision of hope, but because we are angry at being mislead and very scared about our future. I believe that on November 4th we are going to witness political vengeance on a scale we have not seen in at least a generation.

Why? Is it the falling worth of our stock portfolios? That is part of the calculus but just a minor factor. If you are like me though you realize that even great financial calamities eventually straighten themselves out. The Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked at 380,330 in 1929. Three years later during the worst of the Great Depression it hit its nadir at 42,040, losing close to ninety percent of its value. Of course in 1929 when it was at 380,330 its value was grossly inflated. The same was true with our portfolios for the last few years. We are only now discovering their true value, and it is humbling. Investors in 1929 needed a lot of patience. An event of the magnitude of The Great Depression required decades for a full recovery. Yet recover we did and by 1955 the DJIA was back where it was in 1929. As shaky as these times are, I am convinced this economic crisis will not reach its scale. My point is that if you are a long-term investor you are going to do fine. It may take ten years to recover but it will not take twenty five. Arguably, if you intend to hold on to stocks for the long term this is a good time to buy.

It is the less financially fortunate people who are principally pushing up Obama’s poll numbers, as well as changing dynamics in Senate and House races nationwide. All sorts of incumbent Republicans are in danger. Take for example this poll by Survey USA showing the U.S. Senate race in the bright red state of Georgia essentially tied. Two weeks ago, the Democratic challenger Jim Martin was 17 points behind Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss. Now Martin is just two points behind. In the last two weeks, did Jim Martin show himself to be a better campaigner? While he got a bit more financial support, it is not hard to understand the real reason for the dramatic change in the polls: Black Monday. Only now is the pain of ordinary Americans becoming acute. When any pain becomes acute, the reflex is to move toward doing something differently. That explains Jim Martin’s rise in the polls.

It is becoming acute because ordinary Americans are probably not like me. For one thing, I am 51 and they are likely younger than me. This means that they are also likely overleveraged. They paid more for the same size house than I did, which means their house payments are probably a quarter to a half more than mine for the same house, but being younger they also likely earn less than I do. Now the value of their house has plummeted, perhaps down twenty five percent. In many if not most cases, these disgruntled voters now have negative net worth on their house but are still making payments for houses that cost a lot more. Their employment is more chancy, if they are not already among the recently laid off. To make matters worse, their 401(k)’s, their supposed nest egg for retirement, is down by at least the same amount, with no bottom in sight for the market. They are wondering if they will ever be able to afford to retire.

There are tens of millions of people like this. They are the ones who are going to take out their anger at the ballot box. They do not necessarily buy into the Democratic Party platform. They may be pro-life instead of pro-choice. They may be Christian conservatives and phobic about losing their gun rights. Yet for many of these people, their predispositions no longer matter. They are seeing their hopes for a better life disappear in front of their eyes. Not only are they paying for more for their house than they are worth, they no longer have any equity in their house. Consequently, cannot take out home equity loans to fix it up or to pay for their children’s college education. Their financial lives are now very chancy. Self reliance instead of being an elixir tastes like a bitter pill.

It is not just the middle class feeling like they are rapidly descending into the lower middle class. It is also the lower middle class and the poor who are also being squeezed so tight that if they were an orange, there would not be a drop of juice left. They have already been living paycheck to paycheck. Now they are finding times when they do not have enough food to eat. However, there is not necessarily enough food at the local food bank. Unsurprisingly, when times get tough they turn to government aid. One measure is the increase in the number of households using food stamps.

Their hope in Obama is a wan hope. It is a hope borne in part in desperation because there is no one else to turn to. All they know is that many of them voted in lockstep with our president and the Republicans in Congress only to find out that they were being led right off a cliff. They are rightfully angry because they feel they have been, and in fact are being used. It doesn’t take much looking around to figure out what happened. Wealth moved from them to those higher up the food chain. Meanwhile, risk was pushed down. Risk in owning stocks went down because the tax on capital gains and dividends went down. Yet taxes stayed about the same. What modest tax decreases that occurred at the federal level were replaced at the state and local level. From their perspective, the ownership society became the gamble it all economy. They had little other choice. They were just trying to survive.

While others with deeper pockets like me will get by with some grumbling, they are taking it on the chin now. There is nothing that looks like hope on the horizon. There is a slim hope that by shuffling the deck, they might get a better hand. Hence, they are placing their hope in a man named Barack Obama. They placed their trust in a philosophy that told them all they had to do was follow the path of free markets and self-reliance and all would turn golden. Instead, their trust was violated and their pockets were picked. No wonder Congressional phones were ringing off the hook from disgruntled voters unwilling to give Wall Street financiers a bailout. Clearly, no one in Congress was riding to their rescue.

Will the Democrats do a better job than the Republicans once in office? It would be hard to do a worse job but overall Democrats have not been stellar guardians of the public trust either, they just have tended historically to do a somewhat better overall job. Voters will have to be patient during 2009. Before real growth can recur, a lot of garbage needs to be hauled away.

Voters do seem to painfully understand one thing: regulation is good. Regulation does increase the size and cost of government, but when it works, it evens the playing field and ensures a level of transparency, which promotes fairness. It turns out that regulation is a lot like insurance, a painful necessity in life. (Wall Street’s financial wizards also saw the value of insurance, and tried to insure all their potential losses in the unregulated credit swap market. It looks like this lack of regulation and oversight was the root cause of the current financial calamity.)

We need more regulation and oversight of the financial industry. It is really that simple. If you learn nothing more from our disastrous experiment in laissez faire economics these last eight years, retain this: the government will be the nation’s de-facto insurer of last resort. We have to pay its premium, expensive as it may be, or we risk more of the economic calamity we are currently undergoing.

The vice presidential debate

It seems like no matter how much we voters want lively debates from our presidential and vice presidential candidates, they won’t give them to us. Thursday’s vice presidential debate could have been interesting and informative. Instead, many of us watching it felt inclined to nod off instead.

If you watch clips of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden on the campaign trail, a lackluster debate would have been the last thing you would have expected. Like vice presidential candidates from time immemorial, both excel and attacking the other party’s presidential candidate using phrasing generally not permitted at the top of the ticket. And yet properly coached both Governor Palin and Senator Biden proved they could be mediocre speakers and debaters too.

Sarah Palin proved that given a sufficient number of cue cards she could speak on an issue without making any major gaffes provided she never strayed from approved talking points. Just to make sure she did not, at the start of the debate she imperiously announced that she was going to talk about what she wanted to talk about, whether or not it had anything to do with moderator Gwen Ifill’s questions. If this were a high school speech and debate competition, she would have been unceremoniously pulled off the team and sent home to mother. That this happened in a national debate should have been excruciatingly embarrassing. Clearly, the McCain campaign saw this approach as the lesser of two evils. Better for her to say convincingly what she had been coached to say, even if it held no relevance to the question at hand, than to stray into areas for which she had been insufficiently coached.

I guess no courses in Greek Literature were required for Mrs. Palin to graduate either college or high school. If she did have such a course, I have to assume she flunked it. This was clear when she was asked about her Achilles Heel and it was obvious that she had no idea what Gwen Ifill was talking about. So instead, she started talking about what she perceived as her good points!

As for Joe Biden, he was a small shadow of the man he is on the campaign trail. While he avoided his tendency to make gaffes, a gaffe or two might have enlivened the debate a bit. Biden is at his best when his dander is up and he is speaking from the heart, as this video documents. In this debate, he hardly raised his voice at all and stayed strictly on message. As a result, it was hard not to perceive him as just another boring white male vice presidential pick. His face looked washed out and his eyes drooped, perhaps a result of all the bright lights focused in his face. Of the two, he came across as more sober and presidential. Given that he was debating Sarah Palin it would have been impossible not to come across as more presidential.

Palin at least seemed alive. She was all perkiness and spunk. It was good to see her in some other color than red. All her coaching though could not mask a head that at best was only half full. This, of course, was exactly why the McCain campaign insisted on altering the debate rules so that notes were allowed and response times were minimized. It is no wonder that after seeing the debate that a majority of those polled said she was not ready to be president. She made Dan Quayle look brilliant. Still, there are plenty of voters who prefer attitude to substance. It is nice that she can identify so well with Wal-Mart shoppers and hockey moms. If I were a hockey mom, I might be offended to be linked with her because those I know are a whole lot more interesting and intellectually curious.

Again, not that it matters, but polls suggested that Biden “won” the debate, although in a debate this lackluster simply showing up and sounding reasonably coherent is all it takes. No vice presidential debate has yet proven to be a game changer. This one will not be either. To the extent that it helps anyone, it will help Barack Obama. Any up tick in Obama’s poll numbers this week will likely have much more to do with our disastrous economic situation than Palin’s deficiencies or Biden’s superior but lackluster debate performance.

I feel bad for moderator Gwen Ifill. It seems to me that Sarah Palin disrespected her and the Commission on Presidential Debates by her refusal to answer certain questions addressed to her. As a result, we learned little about Palin’s positions but plenty about her character. We learned enough to know that underneath her cheerleader façade is an obstinate and intellectually incurious woman. That was about the extent to which this debate was useful.

The first debate

My thanks to my friend Renee, who invited a whole bunch of us over to her house last night to watch the first presidential debate between Senators McCain and Obama. It is more fun to watch debates in the presence of other likeminded people. If you are a political junkie like me, the first presidential debate is the highlight of your political year. This year it is hard to imagine a debate where the issues mattered more. There as always was the stoic Jim Lehreh at his desk facing the candidates, two podiums and an audience full of eerily silent people lurking in the dark.

As theater, the debate did not quite meet my expectations. I only grudgingly give it a C. I came prepared for a good verbal swordfight but with a few exceptions, nothing like blood was shed. It soon became clear that Barack Obama was going to be gentlemanly throughout, no matter what mud was slung his way. If you are trying to appear presidential and bipartisan, this is likely a good strategy but makes for ho-hum television. Still there were so many missed opportunities to hit McCain. Obama reiterated the obvious ones, like McCain’s support for the Iraq War and his tendency to vote the party line. I guess it would have looked mean spirited to inflict too many wounds. McCain after all is an ex-POW and was tortured by the North Vietnamese. Perhaps Obama figured he should not suffer too much.

Frankly, I had far more fun watching and listening to Senator McCain than Senator Obama. The frequent split screen shots were quite revealing. I figure McCain must have cracked a molar from pressing his jaws so tight. While obviously trying to hide his true feelings, McCain’s face was actually a window into his soul. Basically, he was seriously pissed. For the most part, he could not actually come out and act pissed so instead we got many half smiles that looked totally fake while inside you could see that major earthquakes were going on. There were times when I felt certain that McCain was fantasizing about walking across the stage and giving Obama a shiner. It was perhaps borne out by his inability to look at Obama during the debate, and his halfhearted handshake before and after the debate itself.

Not that I was planning to vote for McCain anyhow but his body language and screwed up face just confirmed for me that I want neither he nor his vice presidential pick to have their hands anywhere near our nuclear launch codes. When he did criticize Obama, it was in a mean and condescending way: poor little Barack, he is so dangerously naïve and inexperienced.

Obama was, in a word, unflappable. For McCain, debating Obama turned out to be like being at a carnival game booth where you keep trying to hit the moving ducks and you find out that you never came close. Obama was consistently measured, respectful and when he criticized McCain, it was always based on the facts.

It was also hard not to contrast their styles. Obama has a broad and natural grin that just radiates sincerity. McCain looked like he had an inflamed hemorrhoid. You could see that at times not all his neurons were firing in the proper order. His sentences often rambled and his thoughts were not always coherent. He frequently repeated himself. He went on and on about earmarks, as if cutting them would seriously address federal spending. Puh-lease. If you really want to cut federal spending you have to cut Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, and neither of them are suicidal. Obama slipped up a few times too. He called McCain “Jim” at one point but quickly corrected himself. As a master speaker, McCain was wholly outclassed.

The pundits are suggesting that neither McCain nor Obama won the debate, but of those who had an opinion, Obama generally got higher marks. Who won really matters little. What matters is: did the debate change the dynamics of the race? Various focus groups of independent voters watching the debate showed that overall Obama did a better job of wooing independents than McCain. I doubt the polls will change much as a result of the debate but if they move at all, they will move toward Obama.

Overall, McCain performed better than I expected. While rambling and incoherent at times, I heard less of it than I anticipated. Moreover, there were times when he looked genuinely sincere and thoughtful. Those times though were few and fleeting. Behind in the polls, he felt the need to sling as much mud as he could at Obama to see if any of it stuck. In my opinion, none of it landed. In this jousting match, neither rider was thrown off their horse. Obama had McCain reeling a few times but McCain managed to stay on. McCain hit Obama’s armor a few times but neither he nor his horse had to check their stride.

Most of us were hoping that both candidates could be pinned down on the current economic crisis. Neither McCain nor Obama rose to Jim Lehreh’s bait, and gave circumspect replies that basically did not tell us how they felt about the package beyond some principles they wanted to see in the final legislation. Both seemed anxious to weasel around the question. That was disappointing but perhaps not wholly unexpected given that the issue is in such flux now. What legislation that finally emerges at this point is anyone’s guess.

The vice presidential debate next Thursday is likely to be far more entertaining.

The ownership society has arrived!

On February 21, 2003, President Bush gave a speech in Kennesaw, Georgia. There he first talked about America becoming an “ownership society”. In those heady days of neo-conservatism, an ownership society meant power was going to trickle down to the masses. We would be in charge (own) our health care and drive down medical costs through the magic elixir of medical savings accounts. We would have more ownership over our children’s education by using government furnished vouchers to send them to the local charter or private schools, rather than the nearby public school. Moreover, we would “fix” the social security problem by empowering each citizen to own his or her retirement. We would do this by allowing them to invest at least a portion of their social security withholdings into the stock market. Over forty or so years in the workplace, the value of those assets would compound and compound. Thanks to the magic of our free market we would all retire, if not exactly millionaires, then comfortably indeed. You can easily see how much better life would be if we could just become owners of these things instead of, well, renters!

Good news Americans! We have indeed become the ownership society! Today, more and more of us cannot afford health insurance, so we now get to pay for all of our medical expenses out of pocket! This gives us a feeling of ownership over our health care we never had before in those horrid insured days. Now we have plenty of incentive to shop around although, admittedly it may be hard to drive a bargain with an emergency room physician at 2 AM, particularly when you are profusely bleeding or are unconscious. Many of us are choosing to own the problem of our health care by not seeking medical help at all. We hope that we can find relief in over the counter medicines or $4 generic prescriptions at Wal-Mart. For those of us who used to have health insurance, how can we claim that we are not owners? In the past, you were at the whim of your health insurance companies, who stipulated what they would cover in their expensive, take it or leave it contracts. Now you are unencumbered, free of the HMO and PPO bureaucracy to make your own informed health care choices and to shop around. Perhaps my family doctor will reduce my rate if I threaten to buy an over the counter medication instead.

Those school vouchers sound pretty good too. They do have a few minor drawbacks. First, your voucher probably will not be made up with additional revenue to finance our local public schools, but that’s their tough luck. That’s what they get for providing mediocre education. Second, it is likely that whatever voucher you receive will not cover the full cost of your children’s tuition. Maybe some cheap local charter school will not ask you for additional tuition yet will magically provide high academic standards. Anyhow, it looks like vouchers may involve significant extra out of pocket tuition expenses. When you write those tuition checks instead of putting the money away for junior’s college education, you should feel a sense of ownership. Perhaps you can get stock in the local charter school, and use your shares to vote for principals that you like.

And as for financing our retirements with gains from the stock market, good news there too! You may be asking, “Mark, haven’t you read the papers? The stock market is in the toilet because of the sub-prime housing mess! How could there possibly be any good news?” Well, you see it is good news because, citizens, now we are all going to be owners, whether we like it or not! As usual, our fine financial leadership leapt into action. After finally determining that our financial system had a severe case of constipation (due to consuming too much sub-prime mortgage backed securities of uncertain worth), the Secretary of the Treasury, working with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, decided that a pricey dose of Ex-Lax was in order for Wall Street. Apparently, the U.S. Treasury underwriting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was not enough. The government, already the insurer of last resort for floods, will now own eighty percent of the mega-insurance underwriting company AIG in exchange for providing it with a huge line of credit in order to ensure it stays solvent. In addition, our administration is readying to ask Congress to spend up to seven hundred billion dollars to buy these sub-prime and other securities that Wall Street cannot unload. We are told that this will solve Wall Street’s constipation problem for good since those Fannie and Freddie bail out suppositories did not do the trick. The good news, citizen, is that the federal government will now own all these properties, which means you are entitled to your share! No wonder the stock market finally roared back at the end of the week. Those traders were positively euphoric. You would be too if you went to Las Vegas and lost everything you own in the casinos, including your house and cars, only to find that your older brother, in his largess, was going to cover your reckless losses. In fact, you would probably head right back into the casinos to see if you could work some more of this magic.

So we the taxpayers are the winners here, see? Wall Street gets to go back to its business and we the taxpayers get to own all these properties, many of which are spanking new! I know I want my property. I know that soon the government will own all sorts of properties across the country. I want my sub-prime house! I was thinking about requesting my free house in Flagstaff, Arizona as a possible retirement house. That way I could sell my current house and keep the proceeds. Sweet!

There is the little problem that the government is not planning to raise my taxes to purchase all these sub-prime mortgage backed securities. Raising taxes of course is evil, even when completely necessary, which means that we will petition our creditors, most of who are foreign, to lend us seven hundred billion dollars so we can in turn buy these mortgage backed securities whose value no one can actually assess. I suspect our creditors will be accommodating because they have no idea what their investments in these sub-prime securities are actually worth either. Yet, they have an idea that the U.S. Treasury will still be in business in ten or fifty years when their U.S. Treasury bonds come due, with interest, of course.

So maybe I will not get my free house as I hoped. Maybe instead it will be our foreign creditors since technically it appears that they own the country, not me. My job as taxpayer is apparently mainly to cough up the interest on our federal debt.

Hmm. So perhaps I was premature to suggest that the Bush Administration succeeded in making us all homeowners, even those of us who rent. On the surface though it looks like, sure enough, neo-conservative principles have worked! We now have that ownership society they promised us! Who says we have a miserable failure as a president? He delivered on his ownership society in just five years!

And yet, this new ownership society just doesn’t quite look and behave the way we expected. It is like buying a Rolex watch only to find out it is a cheap rip off.

Well I am sure that by doing more of the same and electing John McCain and Sarah “I can dress a moose” Palin as our next president and vice president, during the next four years we can become even more of an ownership society. It’s funny though. This ownership society sure looks like an ower-ship society to me. From the greatly deflated value of my stock portfolio, it looks like I am already paying the price for other’s incompetence and malfeasance.