Politically Thankful

An economy in meltdown mode, the lamest of duck-like Administrations, two hot wars, a worldwide war on terror, carnage in India, the Middle East a powder keg with Iran going nuclear and so on and so forth. Without sounding like a Billy Joel song, there’s a lot to be concerned about this Thanksgiving. Yet, there’s always something in the cup, even if that proverbial cub is half broken. So here’s a short, incomplete and random list of things to be thankful for, politically, this day of being thankful. Feel free to leave a comment with your own list.

1. Be Thankful Change is Coming.  The election of Senator Barack Obamais thanks-worthy on so many levels. Even leaving aside the culture change that is sure to come with an African-American family int he White House, there’s the hope of a competent government addressing tough problems in a realistic, pragmatic fashion. While President-elect Obama symbolizes the change he promises, his campaign and transition indicate a level of competence not seen in Washington in years.

2. Be Thankful the Bush Administration is Leaving. Even supporters and admirers of President George W. Bush have to thankful that his tenure in the oval office is coming to an end. He’s done some things right, but overall, his record as president is abysmal. While coming to office as the champion of “compassionate conservatism” his administration proved to be neither compassionate nor conservative (fiscally, at least). After eight years America’s standard of living has declined, our standing in the world has declined, and we lack the ability to unify even in the face of tremendous challenges. January 20th can’t come too soon.

3. Be Thankful for Checks and Balances in Washington. It might look like the Democrats are in complete control of the federal government. They won the White House, increased their majority in the House and are just two votes shy of being able to overcome Republican filibusters with two Senate seats remaining. As any reader of this blog has determined, I’m a Democrat. Yet the idea of one-party rule — regardless of the party — concerns me deeply. Time and again, when one party gains too much control over the government it overreaches. Until the laws of unintended consequences is repealed, having a check on absolute power is a good thing. It forces the majority to pause, listen to the opposition and make adjustments. The result is (usually) better legislation than would have occurred if the party in power were unchecked.

4. Be Thankful the Democratic Party is More Diverse Than It Was Before. While lacking super-majorities, the Democrats in Congress have substantial majorities to work with. While some fear this will result in liberals running amok, the reality is, the Democratic majorities are far from homogeneous. As Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post pointed out, there’s a large number of moderates and conservatives in the most recent classes of lawmakers. Approximately one-third of the Democratic House majority come from districts with”Republican underpinnings (at least at the presidential level.” The Democratic Leadership in both houses will need to accommodate these members if they hope to keep their majorities. The result should be more thoughtful legislation which, while progressive, could avoid swinging the pendulum too far to the left.

5. Be Thankful for Checks and Balances in Sacramento. Democrats increased their majorities in the California legislature, but failed to achieve the two-thirds super majorities they need to safely ignore Republicans. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that the Republicans in Sacramento are so fixated on avoiding new taxes (while preserving tax breaks, no matter how unfair, already in place) that Sacramento has become a childish, dysfunctional example of government gone silly. Ideology is great. Making a political point is to be expected. Destroying the state’s economy in the name of ideological political points is governmental malpractice. Legislators of both parties need to grow up, quit hiding behind worn out slogans, and start solving problems. Then we’d really have something to be thankful for.

6. Be Thankful Americans Rejected the Politics of Division. Many had come to believe that the way to electoral success in America was to demonize your opponent. That was the Karl Rove approach to winning — and it worked. This year we had Senator John Edwards calling health insurance executives “evil”Governor Sarah Palin rallying the “real America” against the socialists who fail to “see America like you and I see America.” Senator Edwards lost and so did Governor Palin and her running mate, Senator John McCain. Americans are tired of “us versus them” politics. That doesn’t mean it’s gone away entirely; just ask a Wall Street CEO. But the strategy of demonization and division backfired. Senator John McCain’s aura of being a straight shooter shattered when he descended into the Rovian mud. So did his dream of becoming president.

7. Be Thankful There’s Always Another Election.  Change was a campaign slogan this year, but it’s been an American reality since our founding. Every two years we hold those in power accountable. Certainly, there are obstacles. Incumbency is still the most powerful factor in any particular election, followed closely by money. Yet each election night tells a story and brings change. It keeps those in power accountable and, as importantly, nervous. And that’s a good thing.

So that’s my short list for Thanksgiving. I hope you’ll add to it. And I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.

Will Republicans be the Party of Slash-and-Burn or of Ideas?

A few days ago I wrote about the need for the Republican party to choose between the political approaches of Governor Sarah Palin or Congressman Rahm Emanuel How the GOP is grappling with that choice was on display at the Republican Governor’s meeting last week. As reported by Jonathan Martin in Politico, there’s a stark contrast in how Republican governors interpret their thrashing at the polls this year. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour claimed Senator John McCain could have defeated Senator Barack Obama “by rendering him unacceptable to American voters. ‘And the McCain campaign did not choose to try to make that argument.'”

This is the Rovian view: by destroying the opposition it doesn’t matter what one’s own beliefs are, voters will have no one else to turn to.

Tim Pawlenty, the Governor of Minnesota, expressed the opposite perspective. Until the GOP can again compete in the northeast, Pacific Coast and much of the Great Lakes states, Governor Pawlenty argued it “cannot be a majoirty governing party.” As described by Mr. Martin, Governor Pawlenty “doesn’t advocate for a major ideological shift—few prominent voices in the party are—but rather for aggressively offering solutions on issues such as health care, energy and education that have been viewed as Democratic turf.”

So here’s crux of the Republican dilemma. It can become the party of slash and burn as embodied by Governor Palin and encouraged by Governor Barbour. Or it can become a party of ideas as advocated by Governor Pawlenty.

The choice is simple. Making it may not be.

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The Republican Dilemma: Follow Palin or Emanuel

The finger pointing within the Republican party has begun. Which is good news. The first stage is denial, but there’s no denying the repudiation the GOP has received in the past two years. They not only lost their majority in Congress, the Democrats gained impressive majorities. They not only lost the White House, they lost it big, losing states that hadn’t gone blue in decades. So that they’ve already reached the blame stage is probably a healthy step. The fun will begin when the Republicans start taking action to recover from their drubbing.

There are a host of directions the GOP can move in, but they generally fall into two categories: they can focus on their base, keeping them in line by focusing on wedge issues (e.g,. gay marriage or prayer in school). Or they can seek to expand their party to include those who may feel unwelcome in the Republican’s ever shrinking tent.

The former approach was honed by Karl Rove, but  exemplified by Governor Sarah Palin. Mr. Rove twice helped elect George W. Bush president by scaring the beejeebies out of voters. This approach is exemplified by demonizing your opponent, scaring your supporters, and diminishing civil discourse. Governor Palin took this approach when she divided the country into  “real America” versus, presumably, “unreal America.” She claimed Senator Barack Obama didn’t see America the way “you and I” do. She accused him of palling around with terrorists and claimed he was a socialist (which can be defined as someone who espouses socialistic ideas). She claimed to be doing God’s will, which, by implication means Democrats and independents who supported Senator Obama weren’t.

A leading advocate of the politics of inclusion, on the other hand, is incoming White House Chief of Staff and current Congressman Rahm Emanuel. In 2006, as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee he was relentless in recruiting candidates who could win in Republican held seats. He used no ideological litmus test, which angered many in his own party. But Congressman Emanuel recruited to win power, not debating points. Win power he did, wresting away from Republicans control of the House for the first time in 12 years even as President Bush was winning reelection.

This is not to say that ideology doesn’t matter. It matters very much. But ideology without pragmatism is a dorm argument. Once the grieving stops, Republicans will need to think seriously about the direction they intend to take. They can follow Governor Palin down the path leading to a party of ever fewer true believers. Or they can take Rep. Emanuel’s path and recruit leaders who share in the core principles of the GOP but would never be considered “pure” by the fierce core.

The Palin approach chooses to see the world as they wish it to be. The Emanuel perspective sees the world as it is. These are the views Republicans need to choose between and, for their sake, before the 2010 elections.

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Was Obama Victory a Landslide?

Just as a rose is a rose is a rose, in presidential politics a win is a win is a win. Senator Barack Obama won. Senator John McCain lost. Ultimately, that’s all that matters. But in America, politics is as much sport as civic duty so there’s been a lot of talk about whether Senator Obama’s win was a landslide or not.

Previously I’ve written about electoral wins of the modern era by non-incumbents. Based on the nine elections since 1932, I expressed my belief that “a non-incumbent candidate receiving 54% or more of the popular vote and/or winning at least 350 electoral votes arrives in landslide country.” So, using that definition, how did Senator Obama do on November 4th?

The results haven’t been certified in all states yet. But as it stands today (updated on November 19, 2008) Senator Obama won the presidency with 365 electoral votes versus Senator McCain’s 173. Having crossed the 350 electoral vote threshold, the Obama camp can claim a landslide.

The accomplishment gets a little murky when the popular vote for president is taken into account:

  • Obama: 66,700,243 votes – 52.7%
  • McCain: 58,227,836 – 46.0%
  • Others: 1, 450,000 (give or take) – about 1.3%

Under the popular vote criteria, Senator Obama missed a landslide by just 1.3%. However, I had an “and/or” in my definition, so I’m giving the landslide medal to President-elect Obama based on his electoral vote total. If you want to add an asterisk to it, that’s fine. Your definitions, and results, may vary, but that’s my take on it.

Even if you don’t consider Senator Obama’s win a landslide, it was certainly impressive. With there now being 10 elections since 1932 without an incumbent on the presidential ballot, here’s how senator Obama’s victory stacks up:

Popular vote: 4th out of 10 regardless of winning party; 2nd out of 5 among Democratic wins (Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover 57.6% to 39.6%)

Electoral vote: 6th out of 10 (if Senator Obama eventually wins Missouri (note: which he did not)  he’d move up to 5th place); 3rd out of 5 among Democratic non-incumbents (again, a Missouri win would move him past Bill Clinton’s 370 electoral college votes).

During the campaign Senator Obama was subjected to viscous attacks on his character, integrity and patriotism. Senator McCain offered starkly different approaches to addressing the nation’s myriad challenges. Yet Senator Obama prevailed by consistently hammering away at the need for change, fleshing out this battle cry with a call for middle cut tax cuts, a quicker end to the war in Iraq, moving quickly on a new energy policy and substantially reforming the nation’s health care system. Whether the pundits consider a victory a landslide or not, they certainly cannot deny it is a mandate for change.

Note: This post was modified slightly on November 19, 2008 to reflect updates to the popular vote, Senator McCain’s victory in Missouri and Senator Obama’s victory in a Nebraska Congressional District (and, consequently, winning of  that state’s electoral votes.

McCain vs Obama: Perspectives on a Historical Election Part II

Whether election night 2008 is a cliff hanger or a blow out is unknown as I write this. Given the amount of spin the candidates are capable of generating and the hyperbolic nature of much of the media, it will be hard to tell — at least without some historical perspective. So as a public service, I offer you perspective, with a focus on (relatively) modern elections.

The percentage of the popular vote non-incumbent candidates received in presidential elections since 1932 were:

  • 1932: Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover 57.6% to 39.6%.
  • 1952: Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson 54.9% to 44.4%.
  • 1960: John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon 49.7% to 49.5%
  • 1968: Richard Nixon won over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace 43.4% to 42.7% and 13.5%.
  • 1976: Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford 50% to 48%.
  • 1980: Ronald Reagan won over Jimmy Carter (and Independent candidate John Anderson) 50.4% to 41.0% to 6.6%.
  • 1988: George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis 53.4% to 45.7%.
  • 1992: Bill Clinton beat George Bush and Ross Perot 43.0% to 37.4% to 18.9%.
  • 2000: George W. Bush lost to Al Gore in the popular vote 47.9% to 48.4%, but won in the electoral college and the Supreme Court.

Third party candidates receiving less than 5% of the vote weren’t included here. Nor were Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman, both of whom were unelected incumbents when they ran for president. For those interested in meaningless statistics concerning these nine elections:

  • The average winner’s percentage was 50.0%
  • The average second place finisher’s was 48.1%
  • The average margin of victory was 6.0%
  • The average margin of victory for the four Democrats is the same as that achieved by the five Republicans on the list
  • The margin of victory was less than one percent three times (33%)
  • The margin of victory was more than 10% twice (22%)

The Electoral College votes received by non-incumbent presidential candidates in modern times:

  • 1932: FDR defeated Hoover 472 to 59.
  • 1952: Eisenhower beat Stevenson 442 to 89.
  • 1960: JFK received 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219 and Harry Byrd’s 15.
  • 1968: Nixon beat Humphrey and Wallace with 301 electoral votes to 191 and 46.
  • 1976: Carter won over Ford 297 to 240 (Ronald Reagan received 1 electoral vote that year).
  • 1980: Reagan received 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49.
  • 1988: Bush (the first) won 426 electoral votes to Dukakis’ 111 (with Lloyd Bentsen receiving 1 vote)
  • 1992: Clinton defeated Bush in the electoral college 370 to 168.
  • 2000: Bush (the second) won over Gore 271 to 266 (with one Gore elector abstaining).

Again, for those interested in the wonderful world of statistics without meaning:

  • The average winner won 375 electoral votes
  • The average second place finisher won 155 electoral votes
  • The average margin in the electoral college was 220 votes
  • The average number of electoral votes earned by the four victorious Democrats was 370
  • The average number of electoral votes earned by the five victorious Republicans was 386
  • The margin of victory was less than 100 electoral votes three times (33%)
  • The margin of victory was more than 300 four times

So when the results come in we’re now prepared. Do the pundits call it a squaker? If so, how does it compare to John Kennedy defeating Richard Nixon by two-tenths a percent of the popular vote in 1960 or Al Gore winning the popular vote by 1.5% in 2000, but losing to George W. Bush by just five electoral votes.

Do they call it a landslide? Then how does it compare to FDR’s popular vote win over Herbert Hoover by 18% or Ronald Reagan’s electoral college blowout over Jimmy Carter in 1980, a difference of 440 electoral college votes?

Based on all this, it seems to me a non-incumbent candidate receiving 54% or more of the popular vote and/or winning at least 350 electoral votes arrives in landslide country. Your definition may vary, but I’m going with these.

Using this perspective, there have been only two popular vote landslides by non-incumbents in modern elections. The first in 1932 and the second 1950 — which aren’t very modern times. George H. W. Bush did have a solid win in 1988, but with 53.4% of the vote fell just short of landslide.  Of the rest, only Jimmy Carter in 1976 reached the 50% mark. 

The electoral college tends to magnify election results, producing a clear winner even when the populace is fairly evenly divided. So it’s not surprising there have been more landslides for non-incumbents when results are viewed through this 350 vote prism. These occurred in 1932, 1952, 1980, 1988, and 1992. Only the Bush/Gore election in 2000 was extremely close. While the elections in 1960, 1968, and 1976 weren’t very close, they were were not electoral college landslides, either.

While all of this might be slightly interesting, when it comes to presidential politics, it’s not whether you win big or small that matters, it’s whether you win at all. Just ask Al Gore about that. Or for that matter, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama.

Note: All data on election results came from the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica.

McCain vs Obama: Perspectives on a Historical Election Part I

Every presidential campaign is unique: the candidates, the political environment, and historical shifts are always different. Some seem to just follow the flow of their times. Other elections change history. Richard Reeves, who is one of the most insightful political writers around, suggests this year’s election might well be one the fifth pivot election in the nation’s history. This would place the importance of this Tuesday’s election alongside Thomas Jefferson’s victory over John Adams, Abraham Lincoln’s win over Stephen Douglas, Breckinridge, Franklin Roosevelt’s defeat of Herbert Hoover, and Ronald Reagan’s triumph over Jimmy Carter. All changed the direction of the country, establishing a new center of gravity for the nation’s politics.  

Whether the presidential contest between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama belongs in this company or not will be determined by history. It’s hard to remember after the two year forced march the nation has taken to choose a new president, but winning on election night is only the beginning. The triumphant candidate has to actually govern. Whether their legacy places the nation on a new path or is merely a bump in the road we’re already on won’t be known for years.

As Mr. Reeves notes, Senator Obama and his campaign have fashioned a unique coalition of voters this year. Whether they will influence future elections remains to be seen. If he can solidify his followers into a long-term political majority, Senator Obama may well have pivoted the nation in a new direction.

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Proposition 11: The Change We Need

Some people see politics, policy and the world in blacks and whites. “I’m right, they’re wrong.” “Common ground is for the weak.” They believe what they believe so absolutely it makes attempts to see the other side’s point-of-view immaterial. They form the core of the political parties. They occupy the far right and the extreme left fringes. The purity of their ideology outweighs the momentary need for pragmatism.

Partisan politics is too often the ultimate expression of this colorless world view. Ideas don’t matter, the political impact of those ideas is what counts. If it’s a question of getting more of “their side” elected or helping to solve problems, it’s no contest: my side wins; we’ll solve problems later. We see this all the time in political attacks that seek to dehumanize the other side. They don’t just disagree with “us,” they are not “us.” We’re patriotic; they’re not. We’re real; they’re false.

Presidential politics highlights this dynamic every four years. The California Legislature demonstrates this phenomena every day it’s in session. The state faces enormous problems. Our financial situation is a mess. Our water supply is endangered. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Too many of our schools are failing. The list goes on and on. Too much partisanship means these problems fester.

What California needs are lawmakers who focus on solving problems, not scoring political points. We need lawmakers who are beholden to all of us, not just to the extremes of their party. And that’s why California needs to change the way we draw our legislative districts.

Under current law, state legislators draw the districts. Not surprisingly, they are only human after all, the primary concern of district drafting is to protect incumbents. If this means ignoring communities of interest or common sense, too bad. The ideal is a “safe seat,” not a reasonable one.

By definition, a safe seat protects an incumbent from the opposition. This means lawmakers are really selected in the primary, not the general, election. The current redistricting process has seen to that. And primaries are dominated by folks who see the world in black-and-white. The winning candidates, then, are those who can best appeal to the party’s base.

This is great for the lawmakers, but lousy for the state. Certainly there’s a need in the Legislature for purists of both parties, partisans who will sound the clarion call of ideology. But if that’s the only type of legislator we have in Sacramento, the Capital becomes more like talk radio than a forum for solving problems. Because the fact is that solutions come from the middle, not the extremes.

Proposition 11 takes redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers, investing this power in a commission that, while having a balance of members from both parties, is independent of them. The result will be less safe to incumbents, but more responsive to a broader slice of the political spectrum. Extremists will not do well in these districts. Ideologues will be at a disadvantage. Instead, moderates and pragmatists will hold the advantage.

Even more threatening, to some, is how Proposition 11 threatens the status quo. Under the current redistricting scheme, those in power draw the new lines. Those in power can, consequently, assure they and their allies will remain in power. By taking redistricting powers away from incumbents, those in power might lose it were Proposition 11 to pass. Democrats are currently in power in the Legislature (it wasn’t always so, but it is now). Not surprisingly the Democratic Party is the chief opponent of Proposition 11.

The irony here is that Proposition 11 is very much in keeping with the political philosophy and rhetoric of the Democratic nominee for president, Senator Barack Obama. Senator Obama speaks frequently on the need to move beyond partisanship and ideology in order to solve America’s problems. He calls himself a pragmatist who is more interested in solving problems than scoring political points. Proposition 11 would help make Senator Obama’s new politics a reality in California. The California Democratic Party embraces Senator Obama, apparently, but not necessarily his ideals.

Proposition 11 is not perfect and its opponents are spending millions of dollars attacking it. Perfection, however, is not and should not be the criteria used in evaluating an initiative or legislation. The real question is whether the proposal improves on the current situation.

California’s politics is broken. We all saw how this is playing out in the ongoing budget fiasco and Sacramento’s inability to reach consensus on most any issue of importance.

Proposition 11 isn’t a magic wand that will suddenly make Sacramento a haven of functionality. Proposition 11 won’t even remove all partisans from the Legislature. There are numerous communities — and, therefore, legislative districts — in the state that will be controlled by one party.

What Proposition 11 will do is increase the number of problem solvers elected to office. It will shift the center of political gravity in Sacramento from the dysfunctional nexus in which it resides today and move it toward a more pragmatic location. Who knows, it might even help create a more civil political environment and a more productive legislature.

California faces many problems. Proposition 11 is part of the solution.