October 2009: Fuzzy stimulus math, mixed signals on free speech, Hannity’s sad double standard, and other observations

A tip of a Yankees cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

THE WHITE HOUSE ANNOUNCED THAT FEDERAL STIMULUS SPENDING HAS “SAVED OR CREATED” 640,329 JOBS SO FAR. Not 640,328 or 640,330, but 640,329. Of course this is nonsense—there’s no precise way to accurately calculate any job creation or job savings impact and the Obama Administration opens itself up to mockery for its fuzzy math.

The problem for President Obama is managing perceptions: after passage of a $787 billion spending bill the Administration claimed would keep national unemployment at 8 percent, the reality has been jobless figures in the 10 percent range and fears of a jobless recovery or a “W” shaped recession, despite GDP growth of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2009.

Has economic stimulus spending worked? The impact of cash-for-clunkers, first-time home buyer tax credits, and other cash injections into the economy clearly impacted the third quarter growth numbers. As to the other stimulus spending: a focus on propping up education and public sector employment, rather than heavy investments in infrastructure projects, may prove misguided in the long-term. If unemployment remains in the 10 percent range, voters will punish Congressional Democrats in the 2010 elections.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION IS SENDING MIXED SIGNALS ON FREE SPEECH ISSUES. In early October, the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Council decided to “support Egypt in recognizing limits on free speech for those who insult or denigrate religion,” a move law professor Jonathan Turley and other free speech advocates denounced as ill-advised pandering to Muslim nations. Near the end of the month, however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled that the U.S. will resist a push for an international convention barring “religious antidefamation.

Are members of the Obama team too comfortable with international legal standards that suppress free expression? Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal Magazine warns that the U.N. resolution concession is representative of an administration “seeded with left-liberal thinkers who have smiled on efforts to punish speech that is offensive to favored racial and religious groups.”

IF SEAN HANNITY OF FOX WANTS TO PROVIDE FAR RIGHT AUTHOR JEROME CORSI with a platform on his cable show, he owes it to his audience to disclose Corsi’s extremist views. Corsi, who turned up on Hannity’s Oct. 13 show to promote his latest book, is a Birther and a Truther—that is, Corsi questions whether President Obama was actually born in Hawaii and consequently his eligibility to hold high office, and he has supported the “9/11 Truth Movement” in claiming that jetliners did not bring down the World Trade Center towers.

Hannity’s double standard is troubling: he challenges those on the left who voice 9/11 conspiracy theories (Sean Penn, Rosie O’Donnell, Mark Cuban) but remains silent when right-wingers like Corsi express similarly noxious views.

IS RUSSIAN PRESIDENT DMITRY MEDVEDEV’S REJECTION OF THE CULT OF STALIN A SINCERE DISTANCING FROM “PUTINISM”? On October 30, the day of remembrance of victims of political repression in Russia, Medvedev “called on Russians to remember the political terror under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, distancing himself from the historical ambivalence of his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin,” according to Lucian Kim of Bloomberg News.

Will Medvedev’s comments make a difference? The recent arrest of Mikhail Suprun, a Russian historian researching the fate of Germans sent into Stalin’s Gulag during World War II, and the seizure of his personal archives, raises questions about the openness of Russian authorities to confronting the past.

FROM JAY LENO’S ROUTINE (Oct. 26): “Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the White House of “dithering” over the strategy in Afghanistan. Today the White House said they’re thinking it over, and they should have a response within six to eight weeks.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM THE BIBLICAL KING SOLOMON (Proverbs 29:23): “A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honor shall uphold the humble in spirit.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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July 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Universal health care and American history, Cronkite’s many sides, Anthony Blunt the hollow man, and other observations

With an acknowledgment to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

OUR FRONTIER HERITAGE EXPLAINS, IN PART, WHY AMERICANS HAVE BALKED AT UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE SCHEMES, whether proposed by President Harry S Truman in 1945, Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1993, or Barack Obama in 2009. (One irony of history is that Richard Nixon’s vision of private-public universal health coverage, proposed in 1974, garnered bipartisan support but was derailed by Watergate.)

A national identity founded on rugged individualism has translated into a reluctance to embrace programs aimed at collective welfare, even during periods of crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal positioning of Social Security as, in effect, a government-backed individual retirement account (rather than a transfer payment program for the elderly) was a recognition of that reality.

It is this uniquely American emphasis on individual liberty, coupled with uneasiness about centralizing power in the federal government, that makes passing health care reform so difficult. While it’s true that the Feds currently control between 35% and 45% of what’s spent on health care in the United States through Medicare, Medicaid, etc., the idea of further expanding that power (what the Obama plan’s town hall critics have been labeling “socialism”) runs counter to a national identity founded on self-reliance and personal freedom. For now, many Americans (if you believe the public opinion polls) prefer to see power dispersed among many interests (insurance companies, doctors, trial lawyers, Big Pharma) rather than concentrated in the hands of an all-powerful government.

There are less centralized ways to move closer to universal coverage. (Whether 97% or 98% coverage is close enough is another question). The idea of decoupling health insurance from employment and establishing individual portable health insurance accounts (with contributions from the employer, the individual, and the government) seems much more in keeping with American traditions. John Mackey of Whole Foods recently made the case in the Wall Street Journal for altering the tax code so that that employer-provided health insurance and individually-owned health insurance enjoy the same tax benefits. Properly constructed, such an approach could also introduce true competition into the health insurance marketplace and lower costs (see Geico’s impact on car insurance rates as an example of how competition can work to drop prices).

THE “BEER SUMMIT” AND “BIRTHERISM” PROVIDED A MEDIA-CIRCUS DIVERSION from the political struggles over ObamaCare in July. The confrontation between Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. and Cambridge police officer James Crowley that led to the White House sit-down had great cable news appeal: black versus white, town versus gown, working class versus upper class, Boston Irish versus Black Irish (Gates has traced his white heritage back to Ireland, and is distantly related to Crowley!).

President Obama’s involvement insured that the dispute took on much greater significance than it deserved by linking it to racial profiling. Since Crowley and Gates dispute what they said to each other, it’s impossible to say whether race played a part. Certainly Crowley’s decision to arrest Gates was an overreaction to what was, most likely, Gate’s overreaction to being asked for identification while standing in his own front parlor. The most fascinating question: did Gates actually say “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside“?

Meanwhile a ragtag group of right-wingers, the Birthers, had their moment in the sun, courtesy of CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who helped them tout their bizarre theory—that Barack Obama was born in Kenya not Hawaii and therefore constitutionally ineligible to be president. Throughly debunked in 2008, this conspiracy theory proved irresistible for cable news executives hungry for controversy-driven ratings and liberal Democrats looking to connect the Republicans to the crackpot strain of the radical right. The Birthers share a culture of conspiracy with the 9/11 Truthers and JFK assassination Buffs, a topic I’ve addressed at greater length at the Washington Decoded website (“Birthers, Truthers, and Buffs: The Paranoid Style.”)

BROADCASTER WALTER CRONKITE, A JOURNALISTIC LEGEND OF THE OLD SCHOOL, died on July 17 and his obituaries revealed a much more complex and interesting figure than you’d imagine for America’s Anchorman. Cronkite might actually have deserved the title of “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

For example, Cronkite’s impoverished Depression childhood included eating hamburgers his mother made from dog food. In the 1950s, he hosted CBS’s The Morning Show with a puppet (Charlemagne the Lion). He was a college drop-out. He swapped off-color jokes with Ronald Reagan and considered Dwight Eisenhower a hero. He liked scotch and cigars, dancing, and playing practical jokes. He flew on B-17 combat missions. According to Edward Alwood in the Washington Post, Cronkite “became a behind-the-scenes ally” of the gay liberation movement. An avid sailor later in life, he had been an aspiring race car driver in the 1950s, participating in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1959. He helped nudge along peace between Israel and Egypt.

In short, “Uncle Walter” crammed an amazing amount of living in his 92 years on this planet.

IN ANTHONY BLUNT’S POSTHUMOUSLY RELEASED MEMOIR, ENGLAND’s “FOURTH MAN” expressed scant remorse for spying for the Soviets for some three decades and betraying Queen and Country. As Ben Macintyre noted in The Times of London, Blunt’s manuscript is “remarkable for what it does not reveal. Blunt does not go into detail about his own spying activities, or the consequences for others of his actions.”

Blunt should have been called “The Hollow Man,” not the “Fourth Man,” for his careerism and narcissism. When his espionage on behalf of the Soviet was discovered by British counterintelligence, Blunt struck a deal with the authorities so he could stay in England and continue his career as an art historian. (“I realised quite clearly that I would take any risk in this country, rather than go to Russia.”) Not until 1979, when Margaret Thatcher exposed Blunt’s treason and the Queen stripped him of his knighthood, did Britons learn of his double-dealing.

PLENTY OF REMORSE IN RED SOX NATION AS BOSTON HERO DAVID “BIG PAPI” ORTIZ was implicated in baseball’s steroid scandal when it became known that his name had appeared on a list of players who tested positive for doping in 2003. Ortiz denied using steroids, but apologized for the distraction and acknowledged being “careless” in using supplements and vitamins which may have caused positive test results. Baseball fans continue to wonder, however, whether any of the records set or championships won during the Asterisk Era should be considered authentic. A sad day in Mudville…

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AMERICAN RABBI AND THEOLOGIAN ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL (1907-1972): “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

President Obama’s magical first pitch

President Barack Obama’s awkward ceremonial first pitch at the 2009 All Star baseball game last night was saved from bouncing in the dirt by Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols.

It was a shaky toss (Obama, known for his talent on the basketball court, admitted to the Fox Sports: “I did not play organized baseball when I was a kid and so, you know, I think some of these natural moves aren’t so natural to me”) but you wouldn’t have known that from many of the media accounts.

Barack Obama’s first pitch is a success” was the headline for Carol E. Lee’s piece in Politico, although her lead did admit: “It was low, and didn’t quite reach home plate.” Jack Curry’s New York Times blog post (“Obama to Pujols, Without a Bounce“) and ESPN.com’s coverage (“Obama gets first pitch to home plate“) reflected the generally positive spin in the mainstream media. You would have to turn to Fox News or, surprisingly, to the left-of-center British newspaper, the Guardian ( “Obama’s first pitch as president falls flat“) for a more clear-eyed account.

White House aides were apparently worried about the symbolic nature of Obama’s performance. They had to be happy with the  sympathetic media’s pro-Obama spin. Of course it didn’t really matter—so what if Obama looked uncomfortable throwing? President George H.W. Bush bounced a first pitch at an All-Star game, as did former Vice President Dick Cheney at the opening of the Washington National’s home season in 2006.  And George W. Bush demonstrated he could reach the plate, as he did at the 2001 World Series. In short, whether a politician’s throw reaches home plate or not shouldn’t be a symbol of anything (certainly not “manliness” or leadership). The losers in this silly episode: any journalist who bought into applauding Obama’s magical first pitch.

(Ted Guthrie, general manager of the minor league Charlotte Rangers, gave me this priceless tip for ceremonial first pitch throwing back in the mid-1990s: throw the ball high, aiming for a spot several feet over the catcher’s head. This compensates for the tendency to short-arm the ball, and the difficulty in gauging the distance from the pitching mound. The advice worked!)

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

June 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama’s Afghan war-by-drone, Sanford as tabloid delight, and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

IT’S BECOMING CLEAR THAT PRESIDENT OBAMA INTENDS TO FIGHT THE CONFLICT IN AFGHANISTAN ON THE CHEAP, with bare-minimum American troops levels and drone strikes on suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders substituting for the more substantial commitment many counterinsurgency experts believe is needed. But will this limited-resource strategy (war-by-drone), coupled with political reforms and a build-up of Afghan troops, work in establishing a stable Afghanistan?

The odds of war-by-drone succeeding are long. Despite the introduction of additional ground troops in June, the level of NATO forces in Afghanistan aren’t adequate for the mission of nation-building. The subtext of U.S. Afghan commander David McKiernan’s replacement by Stan McChrystal is that McKiernan wanted more troops than the Obama Administration was prepared to furnish. Already there are signs that force levels aren’t sufficient for a “clear and hold strategy”: the complaints by Allied field commanders in the Helmand River valley that Afghan military support is lacking illustrates one disconnect between strategy and resources. The substitution of air power for ground troops has also led to counterproductive bombing raids on Afghan villages.

Obama has dramatically expanded the drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is some irony that this tactic—of questionable legality under international law—has been embraced by an Administration concerned that harsh interrogation tactics are war crimes. Would an international court consider drone attacks an acceptable military tactic, or would they be regarded as illegal assassinations? What about the loss of civilian life when drones launch missiles at residential compounds thought to house Taliban and al Qaeda leaders? What about Pakistani sovereignty?

Obama campaigned on the idea that Afghanistan should be the chosen battlefield in confronting America’s Islamist adversaries. Convinced that the situation on the ground in early 2009 was rapidly deteriorating, Obama chose incremental escalation, a more politically palatable course, but one that ignores the lessons of Vietnam (encapsulated in the Weinberger Doctrine) by failing to bring overwhelming force to bear and by finessing the exit option. Will it buy enough time for the recruitment, training, and deployment of an indigenous Afghan military? What will Obama do when “clear and hold” requires much higher troop levels and the Afghan government and military can’t deliver? Will he endorse further escalation and pay the political price at home with the left wing of the Democratic Party? Or will Afghanistan in 2010 look like pre-surge Iraq in 2006-2007?

The strategy Obama is adopting may allow for a temporary, and fragile, stability in Afghanistan, but it will mean American ground troops must remain in the country for a much longer period of time. A true surge could accomplish more, produce fewer civilian casualties by lessening the need for airpower, and allow for a faster NATO exit.

THE PHILANDERING OF SOUTH CAROLINA’S GOVERNOR MARK SANFORD HAS BEEN A DELIGHT FOR TABLOID NEWSPAPERS. Sanford’s affair with an Argentine woman and his public disclosure of his messy emotional state inspired editors at the New York Daily News to produce this memorable front-page headline (wood): “BUENOS AIRHEAD.”

ANOTHER HOLE IN THE “BUSH LIED, PEOPLE DIED” MEME, COURTESY OF SADDAM HUSSEIN, FROM THE GRAVE. Before his execution, Iraq’s former ruler told his American interrogator that he refused U.N inspection and let the world believe that he had weapons of mass destruction because he didn’t want Iraq to appear weak in the eyes of his Iranian adversaries. This approach, of course, convinced Western intelligence agencies that Saddam was continuing to pursue WMDs.

Further debunking of the “Bush Lied” allegation: Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post (“‘Bush Lied?’ If Only It Was That Simple.”) notes that in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released by Sen. Jay Rockefeller in June that Bush’s pre-war claims about the threat from Hussein were generally substantiated by intelligence information. The report found that the consensus in the intelligence community supported Bush’s claims about Iraq’s biological weapons, chemical weapons, its nuclear weapons program and it links to terrorist groups. Yes, the intelligence was later proved to be flawed in the extreme—but until Bush’s critics can show that the president knew that what he was hearing from the CIA, and other Western intelligence agencies, was faulty, he can’t be accused of lying.

WHILE IT’S A FUNCTIONAL AND PRETTY PLACE, THE RECENTLY OPENED CITI FIELD, HOME OF THE NEW YORK METS, has a decidedly artificial feel to it. By choosing to build an “instant classic” ballpark with red-brick facades and wrought-iron gates, the Mets are fabricating a tradition that doesn’t exist. That’s evident with the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which celebrates the legendary African-American pioneer who broke the color bar in major league baseball, but who played for the Dodgers and has the flimsiest of historical connections with the Mets, as noted by the Los Angeles Times.

RECOMMENDED READING: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’ ABILITY TO ENTERTAIN AND ENLIGHTEN is evident in his Atlantic Monthly reminiscence of an obscure British author, Edward Upward, “The Captive Mind.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM BRITISH SCIENTIST AND PHYSICIAN SIR THOMAS BROWNE (1605-1682): “Men live by intervals of reason under the sovereignty of humor and passion.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

February 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

That “stimulating” New York Post cartoon, recession denial on the American campus, and other strange happenings

With a doffed snow-covered cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon (for borrowing his signature phrase): nobody asked me, but…

WHAT WERE THE EDITORS OF THE NEW YORK POST THINKING WHEN THEY PUBLISHED that now infamous cartoon by Sean Delonas, a cartoon that could be construed (in the words of Foon Rhee of the Boston Globe) to “tie President Obama to a rampaging chimpanzee killed by police,” and therefore might be regarded as racist?

The cartoon linked the recent passage of the economic stimulus package and the shooting of a violent pet chimp in Connecticut. Delonas depicted two police officers looking at the dead chimp, with one remarking: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” (View the cartoon here.)

Al Sharpton quickly attacked the Post: “Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama and has become synonymous with him, it is not a reach to wonder, are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?”

Sam Stein of the Huffington Post echoed Sharpton:

“At its most benign, the cartoon suggests that the stimulus bill was so bad, monkeys may as well have written it. Most provocatively, it compares the president to a rabid chimp. Either way, the incorporation of violence and (on a darker level) race into politics is bound to be controversial.”

For his part, an unrepentant Delonas characterized the uproar as “absolutely friggin’ ridiculous” and told CNN: “Do you really think I’m saying Obama should be shot? I didn’t see that in the cartoon. It’s about the economic stimulus bill. If you’re going to make that about anybody, it would be Pelosi, which it’s not.”

Delonas received support from left-wing editorial cartoonist Ted Rall who said he didn’t think the cartoon was aimed at Obama or that it was racist: “It’s about his economic advisers who wrote the stimulus bill, and they’re a bunch of white guys.”

The editors of the New York Post eventually offered a qualified apology for the cartoon: It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period….But it has been taken as something else – as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologise.”

That didn’t quiet the critics, and after threats of a boycott by civil rights groups, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the News Corporation (the owner of the newspaper) had to offer his own apology (“Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted…I can assure you — without a doubt — that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation.”)

Was the cartoon racist? Certainly any use of chimps or monkeys as symbols for black people trades on centuries-old racial caricatures, as Brent Staples of the New York Times pointed out in his piece “The Ape in American Bigotry, From Thomas Jefferson to 2009.” (Yes, Mr. Jefferson made a bizarre connection between male orangutans and black women, according to Staples).

But it’s a stretch to see the Delonas cartoon as deliberately racist: that grants the cartoon more coherence than it deserves. Delonas is guilty of dead-line laziness, trying to graft a high-profile news story (the chimp attack) onto the stimulus package, not racism. And the cartoon consequently makes little sense: the authors of the stimulus (whether Congress or Obama) weren’t stopped (“shot”), so what exactly is Delonas trying to say? Beats me.

Should Americans newspaper editors be sensitive to racial or religious slurs in cartoons and comics, intended or unintended? Yes. The editors at the New York Post should have caught the potential for insult in the Delonas cartoon before publication. (The dangers of cartoonists employing monkey imagery in connection with African-American candidates was a topic of discussion in a media course I taught at NYU last semester, months before the controversy.)

Should they overreact, as did the Washington Post in apologizing preemptively for a humor column (“Monkey Business“) that had absolutely nothing to do with African-Americans? No. I read the column and looked at the allegedly insulting illustration and I couldn’t find any troubling racial overtones, (unless they reside in the psyches of Washington Post editors). Perhaps the apology really should go to Gary Hart, whose presidential bid in 1988 collapsed when it turned out he vacationed with a young woman (not his wife) on a yacht aptly named Monkey Business.

WHAT ARE EDUCATORS THINKING WHEN THEY DON’T, OR WON’T, HELP OUT on behalf of their university during hard economic times? How deeply entrenched is the Culture of Entitlement on America’s college campuses? Endowed professor Florence Babb has challenged the University of Florida’s request that she increase her teaching load to three courses a year. This comes as her university “is slashing its budget and laying off faculty and staff,” according to Inside Higher Education.

Babb argues her appointment letter in 2004 stated she would only have to teach one course a semester, but the University counters that “changing teaching loads is permissible under Florida’s collective bargaining agreement with the union” representing Babb. How does being asked to teach one additional course represent a hardship for Babb (who is highly compensated and has a very light course load)? Beats me.

Another educator (or should that be “educator”?), Jim Calhoun, the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball coach, also is in recession denial. He has openly balked at any discussion of adjusting his out-sized compensation ($1.6 million a year) while his school (and the state of Connecticut) struggles with budget shortfalls. Calhoun’s tirade after being questioned about his salary by a freelance journalist prompted the Governor of Conneticut, M. Jodi Rell, to call it “an embarassing display.”

Yet another sad case of American elites (and college professors and Division I basketball coaches fall in that category) putting personal gain ahead of institutional loyalty. That educators are embracing a “me-first” attitude is particularly unappetizing.

WHAT WAS LIAM NEESON THINKING WHEN HE AGREED TO STAR IN “TAKEN“? Has the talented Irish actor been harboring a secret desire to appear in action-adventure films (a la “The Bourne Identity”)? Neeson’s considerable talents are wasted in a derivative and cliched effort. It’s disappointing because the script for “Taken” is from the usually inventive Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (collaborators on “The Fifth Element”). The plot holes in “Taken” are so gaping that viewers are left wondering whether numerous explanatory scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

WHAT WERE THE BOSTON CELTICS THINKING WHEN THEY SIGNED STEPHON MARBURY, a “me-first” player with a well-deserved reputation for wearing out his welcome? It’s true the defending champs have struggled against Kobe Bryant’s Lakers this season, and Marbury can provide needed backcourt scoring, and Marbury is saying all the right things about his willingness to be a “team player,” but he has caused chemistry problems at all of his prior NBA stops (Minnesota, New Jersey, Phoenix, and the New York Knicks). Odds are Marbury’s stint in green will end badly.

JOHN RICH’S POPULIST “SHUTTING DETROIT DOWN” has been quite popular on country music stations around the country. Rich, a John McCain supporter (who wrote a campaign song for the Arizona Senator “Raising McCain“), is closer to the Main Street wing of the Republican Party, which remains suspicious of Northeastern elites, including the Wall Streeters who generously supported George W. Bush. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

SIGN OF THE TIMES: “Honk if you are paying my mortgage,” hand-lettered sign on the back of a pick-up truck, spied on the Henry Hudson Parkway near the George Washington Bridge on the last day of February, 2009.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AUTHOR AND PHILOSOPHER HANNAH ARENDT (1906-1975): “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

November 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Campaign 2008: five observations, “small wind” power, Cold War espionage redux, and other commentary

With a tip of the cap (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HERE ARE FIVE “MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK” OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE 2008 CAMPAIGN:

1. In the end, consider the key to the 2008 presidential election not President-elect Barack Obama’s lofty inspirational rhetoric, nor the inadequacies of the message-challenged McCain campaign, nor the drag of the GOP’s unprepared vice presidential nominee, but something much more elemental: money. The old journalistic imperative of “follow the money” helps explain why Obama will sit behind the Oval Office desk in January. USA Today reports that Obama raised $750 million for his presidential run, shattering records, and his huge advantage in campaign fund-raising translated into a huge advantage in television advertising. In the general election Obama spent $240 million on TV ads versus McCain’s $126 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Obama dominated local television advertising (as the Nielsen Media Research numbers show) and his massive war-chest allowed him to underwrite Get Out the Vote efforts in the key swing states of Florida and Ohio and compete (and win) in the historically red states of North Carolina and Virginia.

2. The failure of the American mainstream media in covering campaign 2008 was not, as some on the Right would argue, the open cheerleading for Obama, nor negative reporting about McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, but rather what was ignored or received relatively light coverage—in the general election it was Obama’s decision to forgo public campaign financing, breaking the joint pledge he and McCain had made during the primary season. There was very little sustained criticism of Obama’s flip-flop on campaign finance reform, formerly a favorite cause for liberal newspaper editorialists.

The coverage of Obama’s final week 30-minute infomercial—which, it can be argued, happened only because of his unfettered Internet fund-raising—was largely positive. If a conservative candidate had purchased a late-campaign infomercial at great cost after renouncing a pledge to observe federal funding limits, would the media have focused on the message or on the perceived betrayal of good government? To ask the question is to answer it.

In the Democratic primaries it was the free pass the mainstream media gave to Obama in the crucial months of December 2007 and January 2008. Most mainstream newspaper and network reporters repeated the David Axelrod-fashioned narrative that Obama was a bipartisan agent of change and hope without validating any of those claims, or examining Obama’s Chicago past in any detail. That helped Obama to victory in the Iowa caucus and the early primaries.

3. The 2008 election should have, once and for all, demonstrated the unreliability of exit polls. Before being adjusted to match the actual vote totals, these polls  produced flawed results in the Democratic primaries, overstating support for Obama (by some seven percentage points).  Prior to the general election, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg (in an interview with Huffington Post) acknowledged the shakiness of the measuring stick: “The biggest problem with exit polls is… we do know that young voters are much more likely to do an exit survey and seniors are much less likely to do an exit poll. So exit polls are heavily waited to young people, which normal bias favors Democrats especially this year.”

And a  Rasmussen Reports survey found evidence of the Shy Tory Factor (or Shy Conservative Factor), where Republicans are more reluctant and Democrats more willing and eager to participate in exit polls.

Not surprisingly, then, in the general election exit poll numbers overstated Obama’s support, a fact noted by former Bush strategist Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal column:

… for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six.

The early exit polls in California also wrongly suggested that Proposition 8, which sought to bar gay marriage, would lose. Again, it’s clear that pro-Prop 8 voters didn’t cooperate with exit pollsters in proportion to their numbers.

The clear flaws in exit polls—in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008—should silence the conspiracy theorists of the Angry Left who have argued that any discrepancies between the polls and actual votes in the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry elections represented vote fraud by the Republicans.

But don’t hold your breath for Seven Stories Press to recall “Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count” by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, which stridently made the vote fraud case, or for the authors to acknowledge that they were wrong.

4. The prolonged recount of the Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota has highlighted another truth: voting is an imperfect process. Americans should recognize that human error and mechanical failures mean that all election results have a margin of error. By all accounts Minnesota has a solid election system, with an auditable paper trail, and yet anyone looking at the contested ballots (including a vote for the Lizard People) and the dispute over absentee ballots can see that any recount will involve some subjective judgment.

5. Will the last Republican in New England please turn out the lights? When Connecticut’s Chris Shays lost his Congressional seat, it meant that the GOP cannot point to a single member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine or Connecticut. And how long will Republicans hold onto the U.S. Senate seats in Maine if the national party doesn’t welcome libertarian views on social issues?

WILL THE FUTURE OF WIND POWER BE SMALL, NOT LARGE? There’s a growing trend towards “small wind” —wind turbines for residences, small cities, organizations and businesses, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The Globe reports:  “The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.” This grass-roots wind power may indeed prove more effective than the “large wind” vision of massive wind farms on- or off-shore.

COLD WAR ESPIONAGE IS BACK IN THE NEWS. From Europe comes word that an Estonian defense ministry official, recruited by the Russians at the close of the Cold War, may have passed NATO and European Union secrets to his Kremlin handlers. Der Speigel reports that “the case is a disaster for Brussels.”

And from England, the Daily Mail alleges that a leading “peace” advocate and Labor Party member of Parliament, Cynthia Roberts, was a spy for Czech intelligence.

The Sunday Mail ran a surprisingly harsh editorial about the Roberts affair, drawing a broader lesson from her alleged treachery:

In some cases, the connections went far deeper. We may never know how many union officials, front-bench spokesmen, ordinary MPs and others were secret sympathisers of Soviet power, frightened victims of KGB bedroom blackmail, or actually in the pay of Warsaw Pact intelligence services.

The wretched saga of Cynthia Roberts reminds us of just how close the links were between Western socialists and the Communist world. Mrs Roberts sordidly provided her services to the doomed Czech Communist regime, one of the nastiest in all Eastern Europe.

IN REALITY, LINCOLN’S “TEAM OF RIVALS” WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL and President-elect Obama shouldn’t be looking to such an arrangement for success, or so Dickinson College history professor Matthew Pinsker would have us believe, according to his Los Angeles Times essay on the topic. Obama has praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which claims Lincoln’s inclusion in his cabinet of three contemporary rivals for the presidency (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates) proved to be a masterful stroke. Pinsker begs to differ (“Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.”) and his account should give Obama some pause as he brings his primary rivals (Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden) into his administration.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM HERMAN MELVILLE’S NARRATOR IN “BILLY BUDD”: “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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October 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Five campaign questions, VW’s tasteless ads, a few Nov. 4th predictions, and other observations

With a tip of the fedora to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HERE ARE FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE 2008 CAMPAIGN worth further consideration:

1. What does this past year tell us about American racial attitudes? Whether or not Sen. Barack Obama wins the presidency on Tuesday (and it looks like he will), his meteoric rise proves that Americans want to live in a meritocracy–where candidates are judged on their potential to lead and personal qualities and not on their skin color. Obama’s presence at the top of the Democratic ticket has to be seen as a sign of racial progress. It doesn’t mean America has solved the problem of racism, personal or structural, but it does represent a huge and welcome step forward, no matter the outcome Nov. 4th.

2. Will Obama’s brilliant and well-managed campaign translate not only into victory on Tuesday, but also into effective governance if he reaches the Oval Office? Admirers of the Illinois Senator argue that his management of a multi-million dollar campaign effort demonstrates previously untapped executive ability. This, they argue, will serve Obama well in any putative presidency. Yet it’s not clear that the skills called upon to win an election are the ones needed to make policy decisions, foreign and domestic (see: Karl Rove and George W. Bush).

3. Whatever happened to campaign finance reform? That is a question with an answer: it died a quick and relatively quiet death when Obama decided to forgo federal funding. It has proved to be a masterful strategic decision ($150 million in September fundraising alone!), but problematic for those who fear the corrupting influence of big money. The San Francisco Chronicle quotes Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies: “I think Democrats are going to rue the day (Obama) did this. Republicans are not going to let this happen again.”

4. Will McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate cost him the election? Conventional wisdom has been that American voters make their decision based solely on the top of the ticket, with the elections of 1968 (Nixon and Agnew), 1976 (Carter and Mondale), and 1988 (Bush and Quayle) proving that a presidential candidate can win with a less-than-stellar vice presidential selection. This campaign may be different. The continuing debate about whether Palin would be ready to assume the presidency hasn’t helped McCain with independents, according to several polls. And McCain’s choice of Palin was cited by a number of prominent moderate Republicans as one of their reason for endorsing Obama. On balance, Palin has to be considered a significant net minus for McCain.

5. Will Saturday Night Live prove to be more important in shaping public opinion about the candidates than any traditional news program? Yes. SNL’s impact on both the Democratic primaries (first raising the issue of the media swoon for Obama) and the general election (with Tina Fey’s defining caricature of Sarah Palin) has been much greater than that of any of the network nightly news. That’s fitting for what the Boston Phoenix’s Steven Stark has dubbed the American Idol Election.

WHAT ON EARTH COULD VOLKSWAGEN BE THINKING WITH ITS BIZARRE “ROUTAN BOOM” commercials, fronted by Brooke Shields? The ads suggest American women are getting pregnant to justify buying VW’s minivan (the Routan) and the tagline of this lame campaign is “Have a Baby for Love, Not German Engineering.” Advertising agencies can make memorable commercials (see Nike Football’s “Fate” for an example), but that requires creativity, not lowest-common-denominator vulgarity.

THE UNBEARABLE DARKNESS OF BETRAYAL? Did the Czech-born novelist Milan Kundera inform on a fellow countryman to the Communist secret police in 1950? He has denied the allegation, and is threatening to sue the Czech weekly that reported the story. Miroslav Dvoracek, the man who Kundera allegedly turned in as a Western spy, served 14 years in prison. His wife commented: “He [Kundera] is a good writer but I am under no illusions about him as a human being.”

JEFFREY GOLDBERG OF THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY HAS A DEVASTATING CRITIQUE OF AMERICAN “AIRPORT SECURITY” entitled “The Things He Carried,” which exposes the sham of “security theater.” Current security practices are designed to reassure travelers and catch “stupid terrorists,” Goldberg concludes, something evident to any frequent flier.

A FEW PREDICTIONS FOR ELECTION DAY: expect lots of delays at the polls, problems with confusing ballots, misleading exit polls, and the broadcast and cable news networks holding off on declaring the winner. For the record, my prediction for the Electoral College outcome: Obama/Biden, 297 electoral votes; McCain/Palin, 247. Obama will win by moving the 2004 red states of Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico into the Democratic fold in 2008.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AMERICAN HEARTLAND POET CARL SANDBERG (1878-1967): “A politician should have three hats: one for throwing into the ring, one for talking through, and one for pulling rabbits out of if elected.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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