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 Until the laws of unintended consequences is repealed, having a check on absolute power is a good thing.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.

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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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McCain Channeling Truman: An American Tradition

As whacky as this presidential campaign has been, it still complies with a few constants in political campaigning. Good thing. There have been so many surprises, twists, turns and reversals in this campaign voters are suffering electoral whiplash. Twin Peaks  was less confusing than this campaign.

So thank the political heavens for the constants. The Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, can be counted on to attack his rival as a “tax-and-spend” liberal (that the McCain campaign has gone further to call him a socialist is mere icing on the traditional tax-and-spend cake.)  Senator Barack Obama, meanwhile, can be counted on to accuse his rival of championing “trickle down” economics that favor the rich.

The vice presidential nominees, Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden, are doing their best to keep to maintain historical continuity. They both are expert attack dogs. And both tend to make statements that need clarification. For example, Governor Palin didn’t mean there were parts of the country that are unAmerican, even though that’s what she said. And Senator Biden’s comment that Senator Obama will be tested with a foreign policy crisis didn’t mean Senator McCain wouldn’t be, too. 

Another hallowed tradition is also being played out. As election day draws closer, the candidate most likely to lose begins invoking the spirit of President Harry Truman. Specifically, they claim the mantel of President Truman’s come from behind win over Governor Thomas Dewey.  (This is where I’d insert the famous photo of President Truman holding the Chicago Daily Tribune edition with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman,” if I knew how to do that).

First, a word of caution. As I’ve written before, I don’t believe the polls are accurate this year. Further, I think there’s a legitimate scenario that leads to a McCain victory. Still, Senator McCain’s road to the White House looks awfully potholed, so it’s fallen upon him to maintain the tradition of the Truman analogy.  And maintain the Truman tradition he has. “My friends,” he said, as he often does, “when I pull this thing off, I have a request for my opponent. I want him to save that manuscript of his inaugural address and donate it to the Smithsonian so they can put it right next to the Chicago paper that said ‘Dewey Defeats Truman.'” (Senator McCain was referring to a New York Times storythat noted how John Podesta, now heading up Senator Obama’s transition team, drafted an inauguration speech earlier this year — when he was a supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton. OK, now back to our original posting.)

There are variances on the Truman tradition, but they all involve the candidate most likely to fail claiming that the only poll that counts is the one on election day and that the media/pundits/opponents/nay sayers/ etc. are going to be surprised. It’s a long tradition. Time magazine in 1996 collected several examples. Among them:

“I don’t care what the polls say. I’m going to take this case to the American people like Truman did.” So said President Geroge H. W Bush before losing to soon-to-be-President Bill Clinton 370 electoral votes to 168.

“Harry Truman was a fighter, and so am I. My friends, this election is up for grabs.” That was then Governor Michael Dukakis before losing, 426-to-111 electoral votes, to President Bush.

No doomed underdog appears to have gone further than Senator Bob Dole, who ended his 1996 presidential campaign in the shadow of the Truman legacy, saying, “We’re approaching the end of a very historic campaign, that for many months I’ve traveled all over this country to spread my message about the future of America, and like all worthy causes, this one was done without its challenges. At times, many wondered whether my voice would be heard….  So it is fitting in the final hours of this campaign that I have come here to Independence, Missouri, the hometown of Harry Truman, a plain-spoken man, who defied the odds and challenged the prevailing wisdom and dared to trust the people.”  Senator Dole lost to President Clinton in the electoral college 479-to-159.

As CNN and other news organizations turn their electoral maps blue, be prepared for Senator McCain to ramp up his argument that he’ll surprise them all and win. He may actually pull it off even if it’s usually a sign of impending disaster. Whatever the outcome, we owe him our thanks for continuing an American tradition, one that has served the country, if not our losing candidates, well.

Senator Palin. President McCain. An October Surprise.

OK. This will never happen, but it’s fun to think about. And considering all the twists and turns in the presidential campaign so far, this one isn’t so far fetched. After all, it only results in Governor Sarah Palin becoming a United States Senator and Senator John McCain winning the presidency. What could be so hard?

Here’s the key elements of this October Surprise:

  1. With the conviction of Senator Ted Stevens today on all seven of the corruption counts he faced, Alaskan Republicans are faced with the prospects of backing a felon on election day. Polls already show the Democrat, Anchorage Mayor Mark Gegich, to be ahead. In political circles, being convicted of seven felonies is “unhelpful.”
  2. Governor Palin is dragging down the Republican presidential ticket. Although she’s rallied the base she’s failed to help Senator McCain with the independent and swing voters he needs. By selecting Governor Palin, however, Senator McCain has demonstrated his willingness to compromise his principles in order to assuage the conservative wing of his party. In other words, he’s paid his dues.

Holding on to the Alaskan Senate seat is critical to Republicans. If Democrats attain a 60 seat majority they can stop filibusters and make the Republican minority in the upper house nearly irrelevant. At the same time, the McCain-Palin ticket is cruising for a bruising.

Drastic times require drastic measures.

Here’s what should happen: the Alaska Republican Party should demand Senator Stevens resign from his nomination for the Senate. It should ten request, in the strongest terms, that Governor Sarah Palin return to Alaska to run in his place. Senator McCain should then replace Governor Palin with former Pennsylvania Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. While pro-life conservatives will go ballistic with the usually pro-choice Governor Ridge on the ticket, the move should put Pennsylvania in play and provide a boost in toss-up states like Indiana, Virginia, Missouri and Ohio. As Senator McCain reminds voters of his no-tax, straight talking, national security credentials, his surrogates would remind conservative Republicans that President McCain will appoint Supreme Court Justices to their liking. 

The result: well, who knows? But do Republicans have anything to lose? The chances of holding onto the Alaskan Senate seat has fallen to zero. The odds of keeping the White House are long. But this last minute shuffle would create a brand new dynamic. The confusion and chaos would leave no room for Senator Barack Obama to make his closing argument for the presidency. Meanwhile, the sheer audacity of the move would demonstrate Senator McCain’s willingness to take new approaches to big problems.

And it sure would be fun.

What if McCain Had Kept Talking — and Acting — Straight?

Always a bad sign: Senator John McCain has come to comparing his campaign to the come-from-behind win by President Harry Truman in 1948. While Senator McCain has solidified the Republican base behind his candidacy, his standing with independents is surprisingly poor. Surprising, because Senator McCain had spent decades in Congress fostering a maverick, straight talking image that should have had a natural appeal to non-partisans in the electorate. His failure to connect with these voters now is a blunder straight out of Marketing 101.

Senator McCain had a strong brand leading into the general election. He was perceived as an independent maverick, willing to take on his own party and talk straight to the American people. If he had stuck to this image, in both word and deed, he might not be playing catch-up with eight days to go before election day. Just as consumers feel uncertain about a product that changes its attributes suddenly, voters don’t take well to a candidate who changes dramatically as November approaches. Yet the vehemence with which Senator McCain has distanced himself from his (former) brand is remarkable.

It began in the primary. Having attacked leaders in the Religious Right in 2000 he now embraced them. Having proven his “straight talk” bona fides by attacking President George Bush’s tax cuts, especially on high income Americans, as foolish and misguided, he now supported them. Having promised a positive campaign on the issues he attacked his opponent, Senator Barack Obama, as an empty suit celebrity.

There were still glimpses of the old Senator McCain on display. His call for 10 town hall debates with no moderator was brilliant. If accepted by Senator Obama it would have changed the tenor of the entire campaign. His attacks on Senator Obamafor failing to keep his promise to accept federal funding was on point and, even better, reminded voters of Senator McCain’s commitment to campaign reform. His response to supporters in a town hall meeting that they need not fear an Obama presidency was noble.

Senator McCain’s campaign, however, is consistent only in its inconsistency. It seems unable to focus on any one theme for more than a few days. So instead of emphasizing the maverick Senator McCain, he put on display the erratic Candidate McCain, talking about everything and everyone from Brittany Spears to William Ayers and socialism to buying up mortgages.

What undermined Senator McCain’s brand with finality, however, was the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. On the surface this seemed like a bold and unorthodox move. Nominating a popular governor with a demonstrable record of reform and of fighting corruption made sense. That she was a woman made the move even more exciting. From a short term political perspective, that Governor Palin secured the core of the GOP for Senator McCain’s candidacy was a huge win.

Yet it also did more to push independent voters away than any other act Senator McCain took in this campaign. After blistering attacks on Senator Obama for lacking the experience to be commander-in-chief, Senator McCain selected a running mate even less qualified. Her conservative political views put her outside the mainstream where independent voters reside. Misstating her record concerning earmarks made Governor Palin out to be a hypocrite and Senator McCain to be either ill informed or a liar.

Selecting a running mate is the only “presidential” decision a presidential candidate makes before the election. It’s the best window voters have into what their administration might look like. Selecting someone has unqualified to be president as Governor Palin undercut Senator McCain’s image. Defending her required the campaign to contort reality (you can see Russia from Alaska — well, yes, from an island Governor Palin has never visited). Contrast this with Senator Obama’s choice of Senator Joe Biden. No one questions his qualifications to be president. It was a solid, unflashy selection. It showed Senator Obama wanted a vice president who would be a part of his inner circle, who would be willing to challenge him, someone who would make him a better president.

Does anyone think Governor Palin will be a part of President McCain’s inner circle? Does anyone really think she could challenge him on a broad range of issues? And if she did, would a President McCain care? Does anyone think that in selecting Governor Palin as his running mate, Senator McCain put country first?

Senator McCain had to pretend the answers to all these questions were yes. As the answers are, for most independents, a resounding “no,” doing so contradicted Senator McCain’s hard won brand. Couple this with his erratic response to the economic meltdown (claiming the fundamentals of the economy are sound followed by a recognition the economy was in crisis just hours later) and an over-the-top, nasty and negative campaign, and the straight talking, honest politician disappears behind a haze of smoke and mirrors.

For the fun of it, imagine Senator McCain had selected someone less exciting, but more qualified, than Governor Palin. Governor Charlie Crist of Florida or former Pennsylvania Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge come to mind. The GOP base would have been furious (especially over Secretary Ridge, who is generally pro-choice), but it would have bolstered the McCain Brand. Either selection would be consistent with Senator McCain’s image. Either would be appealing to independent voters. The Republican base might have torpedoed a McCain-Crist or a McCain-Ridge ticket. But would they really sit idly by and let Senator Obama waltz into the White House? It’s unlikely.

Senator McCain might still win this election. If he loses a large part of the reason will be the superior campaign and message of Senator Obama and the economic crisis, two factors he couldn’t control. But a contributing factor will be his own doing. Senator McCain is responsible for turning his back on who he was and what he once stood for.