Sunday, January 26, 2014

The 2014 State of the Union

Check out the preview of the speech:

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lessons from the 2012 election, I.

In the rear-view mirror, the 2012 election can be viewed as an unmitigated triumph for Barack Obama.  In what was widely predicted to be a nail-biter in an economic environment unfavorable to an incumbent, Obama was elected by an impressive 4% margin in the popular vote and the customary exaggerated margin in the electoral vote.  But while Obama's re-election marks only the second time since FDR that a non-Southern Democratic candidate has won with more than 50% of the popular vote, the message in such numbers becomes distinctly muddled when we take into account voting returns in Congressional districts across the country.  Of the 435 total districts, 219 (two more than half) had majorities favoring GOP candidate Mitt Romney.  There were only 15 districts in which voters split their ballots, preferring Obama for president and a Republican for the House.  And if we take the finding from the Cook Political Report that the median congressional district -- the 218th in a list of all of them -- was 52% Republican in its House voting in 2012, we are cautioned to conclude that Obama's re-election marks a meaningful nationwide movement in the political meter from the centrist-right status of the G. W. Bush years to a more pro-government or progressive mood in the Obama Era.

Many critics of the Electoral College's unit rule -- the practice whereby the winner of a state's popular vote earns all of its electoral votes -- have proposed a widespread adoption of what Maine and Nebraska do in translating popular votes into electoral votes in a manner that breaches the winner-take-all nature of the unit rule, and is therefore arguably more democratic and more fair since it minimizes the the prospects of a conflict between the popular and electoral votes as experienced most recently in the Bush-Gore contest in 2000.  In this election, however, the result would've been precisely what proposals of the Maine and Nebraska practice seek to avoid: a winner of the electoral vote of the candidate losing the popular vote.  Romney would have won with more than the 270 votes needed to be elected.  This will likely take the shine off the Maine and Nebraska examples as alternatives that states can adopt without a constitutional amendment that is likely to rid us of the most worrisome feature of the Electoral College--i.e., that its unit rule makes possible the prospect of a loser of the popular vote winning in the electoral vote.  But the more immediate effect of this outcome is the luster it removes from the size and significance of the Obama victory.

The vast majority of Republicans elected in the districts that voted for Romney won re-election by margins of more than 20%.  This provides these members with scarcely any political incentive to support the President's legislative program.  Indeed, it virtually guarantees that the House of Representatives will remain obstructionist in regards to Obama's initiatives for the foreseeable future.  The recent passage of legislation to avert the fiscal crisis provides an instructive example of what to expect in 2013: The package negotiated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden was passed in the Senate with only eight votes against the measure.  In the House, the measure was opposed by Republicans by a 2 to 1 margin; its passage therefore was due to the fact that all but 13 Democratic members voted to adopt the Senate package.  Because the measure postponed the so-called "Sequester" for two months, decisions on spending cuts are deferred for two months, approximately the same time that Congressional approval will be required to raise the debt ceiling.

So if one seeks lessons outlining key tea leaves from the 2012 election, an effort to interpret the aggregate results as an unambiguous affirmation of the Obama policy agenda would be well-advised to temper its enthusiasm with a frank recognition of the parallel political messages sent by the American electorate in 2012.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Second Presidential Debate

Obama is seen as the clear winner in the snap polls, and I'd agree: if Obama have given this performance two weeks ago, the election would have been over.  The question now is: is Obama's return to form sufficient to arrest, if not reverse, the momentum in Romney's poll numbers nationally and in the swing states.  The change in the nature of the race is a result of the gender gap's shrinkage to about dead even.  In the swing states, a poll from today had Obama leading Romney among women 49% to 48%. Of great significance was Romney's demeanor toward moderator Candy Crowley combined with his reference to women "in the binder" that he drew upon to fill his Chief of Staff position as Governor of Massachussets.  Romney also committed an unforced error in the Libyan matter by not knowing that Obama had in fact the day after 9/11 referred to the assault on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya as as resembling "acts of terror."  When corrected by Crowley, Romney was never the same: he sank into an incompetent slump.  It's poetic justice that Romney tripped himself on this matter since he had seized upon it as an opening to condemn Obama's foreign policy leadership before the attack on the consulate took place.  It was arguably an unseemly effort to gain politically from a national tragedy where all Americans should have been pulling in the same direction, at least until the facts were in.  But Romney saw evidence of Obama's "apology tour," his "leading from the rear," and he couldn't pass up the opportunity to score political points when events were still unfolding.

Now we watch the polls and the forecasters like Nate Silver and Larry Sabato.  One would think that the keys to an Obama win -- namely, women in Ohio and Iowa and women and Latinos in Colorado and Nevada -- will take what they need from tonight's debate.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Veepstakes Debate: Hyperreality vs. Reality

The results of the flash polls following last night's vice-presidential debate are instructive precisely because they present such disparate representations of what took place when Biden and Ryan squared off in Danville, Kentucky.  The CBS poll of undecided voters had Biden winning handily: 50% thought he won, while only 31% thought Ryan was the victor.  CNN's poll, however, had 48% of a sample who'd been interviewed the week before and declaring that they intended to watch the debate giving the nod to Ryan as the winner with 44% favoring Biden.  This difference is well within the + 5% margin of error for a sample with 382 respondents.  Inspecting the composition of this sample, one finds that a plurality of the respondents favored Romney, leading one to discount the results relative to the CBS poll.  Persons interviewed by CNN had told Opinion Research Corp personnel the week before that they would be watching and willing to respond to a second interview on the Veep debate.

These differences have been dissected and spun a thousand ways in the post-debate analyses, but the most common characterization features the perrenial rivalry between the eye and the ear.  Those favoring Ryan were put off by Biden's facial gestures -- baring of teeth aka smiles -- in the split-screen visuals when Mr. Ryan was speaking.  Mr. Biden was seen as being disrespectful by viewers giving the debate to Ryan.  As David Brooks saw it, the old guy was treating the youthful challenger with visibly rude disdain.  Biden, by this account, was by body language repeating the same mistakes made twelve years earlier by then Vice President Gore in the first presidential debate of 2000 with Republican nominee George W. Bush.  Gore, it is worth recalling, was seen as winning on substance in the immediate post-debate polling; however, after four days of media-frenzied discussions of the Veep's invasion of W's space and childish antics during Bush's remarks, majorities came ultimately to conclude that, on second thought, maybe Gore wasn't the winner after all.

The debate about the debate will go on this time with no likely reconciliation between the two accounts, which brings us to the subtitle of this post: "hyperreality" vs. reality.  As the following link demonstrates, in full youtube visual splendor, hyperreality trumps reality in this postmodern moment.
See for yourself:

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Biden vs. Ryan: Pre-Debate Strategy

Joe Biden is tasked with a tougher challenge than is customary for incumbent vice presidents facing a challenge from the opposition's bottom of the ticket.  Normally, VP debates are relatively inconsequential.  Even when a line is esconced in electoral history -- e.g., "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." -- it is void of ties to contextual matters or overall electoral significance.  But President Obama's much-discussed underperformance in the first debate with Mitt Romney, coupled with its visible effects in the tracking polls, make tonight's event more crucial than is usually the case, if for no other reason than it offers a break in the pro-Romney, anti-Obama narrative that has dominated for the last week.  That this narrative has prevailed despite widespread acknowledgment that Romney's victory in the first debate was predicated in large part on notable discontinuities in the Governor's positions over time on fundamental fiscal issues like GOP brand-name fondness for across the board tax cuts.

Biden's tactical task is to strengthen the association between Romney and Ryan.  In this instance, that means forcing Ryan to defend his own budget, particularly the near-term cuts it dictates in Mediare as we know it as well as underscoring the undefined alterations in the tax code (with credits, exemptions and deductions) that would make an overall reduction in the individual and corporate rates "revenue neutral."  Romney's recent pivot to foreign-policy points of difference with Obama does not play to Ryan's strength; thus, Biden will likely use his time to call attention to Romney's intentions and to the continuities they display with foreign policy under Bush and Cheney.  Ryan has arguably been a drag on the GOP ticket, since he does little to enhance Romney's appeal among Independents and among those skeptical about a former governor's expertise in national security issues.  And because his budget puts policy on paper, the commitments to cutting popular entitlements while doubling down on supply-side adjustments of the marginal tax rates, Ryan offers a bigger, more stable target than the shape-shifting persona at the top of the ticket.

Prediction: Biden will meet expectations, and arrest the damage done by Obama's off-night in Debate 1.  It won't serve as a "game changer," but it will bolster confidence among the Democratic base and change the narrative going into Tuesday's second presidential face-off.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Obama vs. Romney Debate 1

Who won?  Romney, at least in the short term.  The long term may prove otherwise because Romney repeatedly cited statistics and facts that, upon close and repeated scrutiny, may well prove false.  Obama clearly had an off night.  He spoke, by the clock, for four minutes more than Romney, yet he failed to directly challenge Romney on several points.  For example, Romney claimed that his tax plan would not reduce taxes further on the wealthy, yet one of its key provisions is to abolish capital gains taxes entirely.  He would have paid zero taxes by his plan last year.  Jim Lehrer would not as the moderator call him on that; but Obama shouldn't have expected someone else to do it for him.

This was a debate on domestic policy yet not a word on Ryan's and other Republicans in the House's record on domestic policy, including women's reproductive rights, the 47%, Bain Capital and the export of jobs, the alleged greater efficiency of private insurance relative to Medicare.  Obama was off his game, and Romney used an aggressive prosecutorial style fortified by dubious facts, e.g., 90 billion in subsidies to green energy, lowest drilling on government land ever. 

Many are blaming Lehrer for not controlling the debate better.  That was the intent: to let this be more like a real debate; and Obama was, quite simply, not as well-prepared as he should have been.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Is Bloom's Portrait of Iowa and Iowans out of Bounds?

The infamous article in Atlantic Monthly's online edition from the journalism professor at Iowa, Stephen Bloom, continues to elicit critical reactions from those who know the state best.  How fair was the Professor's Portrayal?