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 Until the laws of unintended consequences is repealed, having a check on absolute power is a good thing.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

A McCain Razor Thin Win or an Obama Landslide?

A lot has been going Senator Barack Obama’s way of late. The economic turmoil is sweeping independents his way. Second thoughts about the selection of Governor Sarah Palin is pushing Republicans his way. His campaign coffers are full. The Republicans look desperate. And he’s received the endorsement of perhaps the most admired individual in American politics, former Secretary of State Colin Powell. While I’ve made clear my belief that the polls this year are less reliable than usual, based on state-by-state polls, Obama is leading in states totaling more than the 270 electoral votes he needs to win on election day. All of which explains why Senator John McCain could win this election by an extremely narrow margin.

To see why, take a look at the CNN Electoral Map Calculator.  The Calculator applies various polling data to award states’ electoral votes to a candidate ifthe election were held today. (Last I checked, however, the election is not being held today). This is important. Being ahead in politics is like paper profits — or losses — in the stock market. Until you sell the stock, the gain or loss is meaningless. And unless you maintain your lead through election, the early polls don’t matter.

Based on their interpretation of various polls, CNN’s calculator shows Senator Obama leading in states with enough electoral votes to exceed the 270 he needs to win. Specifically, they indicate the Democratic candidate is leading in states with 277 electoral votes, his Republican opponent Senator McCain is ahead in states with 174 and there are six states, totalling 87 electoral votes, which are too close to call.

Let’s look at those six states, moving west to east (all poll referenced below were taken on October 19th or earlier):

  1. Nevada, where Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls shows Senator Obama ahead by just 2.3 percent;
  2. Colorado, where the Real Clear Politics poll average has Senator Obama ahead by 5.4 percent;
  3. Missouri, where RCP poll average shows Senator Obama ahead by 2.7 percent;
  4. Ohio, where Senator Obama’s lead in the RCP poll of polls is 2.8 percent;
  5. North Carolina,where Senator Obama is ahead by only 1.5 percent in the RCP poll average; and
  6. Florida, where Senator Obama leads by 2.0 percent in the RCP poll of polls.

All six of these states went for President George W. Bush in 2004. If these polls are close to being right (a very big if) a shift of just one and one-half percent of voters from Senator Obama to Senator McCain would bring five of the states into the Republican column. A move by just three percent of those supporting the Democrat to Senator McCain would bring along the sixth state. This would be great news for the McCain-Palin ticket, but not great enough. Even with all 87 electoral votes from these toss-up states Senator Obama would still win on November 4th, 277 electoral votes to 261.

Running the board to take all six toss-up states won’t be easy, but it is certainly possible. These are traditionally red states and Senator McCain and the Republican Party have the resources to contest all of them. A gaffe or stumble by Senator Obama or his running mate, Senator Joe Biden, could result in the minor swings required. So could independent campaign committees hammering away on Reverend Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers or other hot button, Swift Boat worthy attacks.

If Senator McCain were to sweep the toss up states, the next president could be decided by Virginia. Currently, Real Clear Politics show Senator Obama ahead there by 8.0 percent (and the most recent poll used in the average shows the Democrat ahead by only six percent. If only four percent of those favoring Senator Obama switch to Senator McCain, the Republican nominee would win the White House with 274 electoral votes.

The last time Virginia went for the Democratic ticket was in 1964. While an influx of more liberal and independent voters in the suburbs of Washington, DC has helped elect Democrats to the Senate and the Governor’s office, down state is still conservative. There’s a large military presence in the state which should also help Senator McCain. Again, it won’t be easy. A gaffe by the Democrats combined with a strong get-out-the-vote effort by the GOP, however, could deliver the state’s electoral vote to Senator McCain.

There’s a lot of ifs in this scenario. But it does show that even two weeks before the election, there’s a chance we’ll be swearing in President McCain and Vice President Palin come January. Significantly, they could achieve their electoral college win while losing the popular vote, but it’s still a win — just ask President Bush.

Of course, it could go the other way. Senator Obama could win all the toss-up states and defeat Senator McCain 364-to-174 in the electoral college. That’s called a landslide. Even the more likely scenario of Senator McCain holding on to Missouri and North Carolina for the Republicans would result in a 338-to-200 win for the Democrats — arguably still a mandate. 

Anything can happen in the next two weeks: an international incident; a botched interview; more bank failures; more brazen political attack (whether true or not); the list goes on and on. Being ahead on October 21st does win elections. It’s what happens on election day that matters. And this election day, November 4th, Senator McCain could win small or Senator Obama might win big.

Any way you look at it, it’s not over yet.