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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September 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama: Electoral College winner, popular vote loser?, Why Palin’s policy cram course isn’t working, Ageless athletes, and other observations

With a tip of the hat to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WILL SEN. BARACK OBAMA WIN THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE VOTE, AND THUS THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY, but lose the popular vote on Election Day 2008? It’s not an entirely implausible scenario. The Democratic presidential nominee leads Republican candidate John McCain in the national polls (as can be seen in RealClearPolitics’ poll compilation), and has moved ahead, narrowly, in a series of polls in several key battleground states won by George W. Bush in 2004: Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia, and North Carolina. Based on the polls, Obama’s Electoral College lead has begun to expand.

But it’s more than likely the national polls will tighten again, and the race will remain very close on a state-by-state basis. McCain’s relative vote-garnering strength in blue states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New Jersey suggests that he will keep the contests there closer than George Bush did (and Bush won the 2004 election by some 3 million votes over Democrat John Kerry). Further, if McCain can improve on Bush’s 2004 showing in populous California (where Kerry won by 9.9%) and New York (Kerry by 18.3%), and stay close to the Bush 2004 vote totals in the rest of the country, McCain could very well top Obama nationally when all ballots are tallied, while still losing in the Electoral College because of a few key battleground states switching to the Democrat.

Take New York state, for example: if McCain can increase his vote share to 45% (not an impossible level, considering that Bush reached 40% in 2004), it would represent an additional 300,000-400,000 votes for the Arizona Republican versus Bush’s totals. Prior to the Wall Street bailout crisis, McCain had pulled within 5-8 percentage points of Obama in New York, and it’s likely he can stay within 10 points of the Democrat.

Yes, Obama may win a number of formerly red states, with victories in New Mexico, Colorado, and Iowa, appearing likely, but they will be narrow wins, and his net vote gain won’t offset McCain’s likely improvement over 2004 in the Northeast and industrial Midwest.

If this scenario plays out—where Obama triumphs in the Electoral College, and McCain wins the popular vote—will the Illinois Senator’s legitimacy be challenged (as Bush’s was in 2000)? Will Republicans suddenly decide that it’s time to abandon the Electoral College? If this happens, it wouldn’t be the first role reversal in Campaign 2008.

THERE’S A REASON WHY SARAH PALIN’S FRANTIC CRAM COURSE IN FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC POLICY IS FAILING, as could be seen in her one-on-one interviews with Katie Couric—you can’t cram for context. Gov. Palin’s inability to discuss any Supreme Court rulings she disagreed with other than Roe v. Wade, or to cite any of John McCain’s regulatory achievements, or to provide a coherent defense of her foreign policy bona fides, proves that you can’t manufacture a personal body of knowledge in politics and American government overnight.

It is, of course, possible for a candidate to memorize a list of policy positions, but the problems surface on follow-up questions that go beyond the campaign briefing book. If you haven’t followed the American civic debate closely over the years (and the Alaska governor was vague about what she reads and where she gets her information when questioned about it by Couric), you’re not going to be able to answer in depth.

Palin’s struggles bring to mind the educator E. D. Hirsch’s views on cultural literacy, that students need a common core of knowledge to make sense of what they encounter in the classroom. It is not enough for students to decode the literal words in a text, Hirsch argues, if they don’t understand their meaning and context. It appears that Palin does not have a baseline understanding of constitutional government, or of many of the key issues in American foreign policy, and making up that knowledge deficit during a contested political campaign is problematic, to say the least.

CAMPAIGN 2008 HAS PROVOKED A NUMBER OF “OVER THE TOP” PRONOUNCEMENTS. Two quick examples from the Right: Tony Blankley’s bizarre column “Media Campaigns Hard for Obama,” in which he tries to link mainstream journalists who he claims favor Obama to Nazi propagandists; and Archbishop Raymond Burke’s argument that the Democratic Party risks becoming “the party of death” because of its support of abortion.

TWO SEEMINGLY AGELESS ATHLETES set personal records on the last Sunday of September, proving that peak performances can come late in a career! New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, 39 years old, won his 20th game of the season (a 6-2 win over the Red Sox) for the first time in his long major league career. And New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre, who is about to turn 39, threw six touchdown passes, a personal best, in the Jets’ 56-35 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Fittingly, Favre was wearing a New York Titans throwback jersey.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM PHILOSOPHER JOHN STUART MILL (1806-1873): “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind..”

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

Palin and the Iron Lady gambit, American voters and racism, Country crossover, and other Campaign 2008 observations

With a wave of the political banner to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…(campaign version!)

PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL JOHN MCCAIN’S CHOICE OF ALASKA GOVERNOR SARAH PALIN AS his running mate is, conventional wisdom holds, a risky move for the Republican standard-bearer because of Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience. But Palin exudes a certain toughness—from her willingness to take on the Alaskan political establishment to her lifelong NRA membership—and McCain may be counting on the “Iron Lady” factor: voters are more likely to vote for a hard-edged, conservative (e.g., Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir) than for a softer, more conciliatory female candidate. The new-found respect for Sen. Hillary Clinton expressed by many on the Right was generated, it can be argued, from Clinton’s perceived “toughness,” especially on foreign policy (she did, after all, threaten Iran with “obliteration” if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons).

IF BARACK OBAMA LOSES HIS HISTORIC RACE FOR THE PRESIDENCY, WILL WHITE RACISM be the cause? That’s been the theory advanced by some pundits, including Jacob Weisberg of Slate (“Racism is the only reason Obama might lose“) and New York Magazine’s John Heilemann (“The Color-Coded Campaign: Why Barack Obama Isn’t Doing Better in the Polls“).

But as Matt Bai noted in his op-ed, “The Race Isn’t About Race,” in the New York Times:

While it’s entirely possible that Mr. Obama’s race is costing him some support, it’s also true that the electorate that voted in the last two presidential elections was almost symmetrically divided between the two parties. It would defy the laws of politics if, at this early stage of the campaign, moderate Republicans and conservative independents were to reject Mr. McCain (a candidate many of them preferred back in 2000) simply because they don’t like George W. Bush.

Bai has it right, it seems to me. The question boils down to this: would white working-class swing voters cast a ballot for a very liberal Senator named Barry O’Brien with, in Bai’s words, “remarkably little governing experience and almost none in foreign policy…”? Enough of these culturally conservative voters didn’t support the liberal John Kerry nor the (then) centrist Al Gore. Why would yet another Ivy League-educated candidate, whose dispararging comments about working class voters (“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”) have been widely publicized expect to automatically pick up the support of Reagan Democrats?

WITH REAGAN DEMOCRATS IN PLAY, SUDDENLY COUNTRY MUSIC IS POLITICALLY CORRECT, as Sen. Obama chose to play Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” after his acceptance speech at the close of the Democratic National Convention. Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were George W. Bush supporters (and the song was featured in the 2004 Republican campaign), but Brooks said that they were “flattered” by Obama using the song: “Seems ironic that the same song Bush used at the Republican Convention last election would be used by Obama and the Democrats now. ­Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans.” (Another Brooks and Dunn song, “That’s What It’s All About,” has been playing at McCain rallies.) In another crossover, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” was the country-tinged song played after Sen. McCain announced Sarah Palin as his VP pick, a song Entertainment Weekly noted was “by Bon Jovi (a prominent Democratic supporter) and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles (who played a Democratic convention event earlier this week).”

KID ROCK, THE DETROIT SINGER/SONGWRITER, DOESN’T THINK MUCH OF CELEBRITIES ENDORSING POLITICAL CANDIDATES. Kid Rock (AKA Robert James Ritchie) commented: “I truly believe that people like myself, who are in a position of entertainers in the limelight, should keep their mouth shut on politics because at the end of the day, I’m good at writing songs and singing.” He added: “What I’m not educated in is the field of political science. And so for me to be sharing my views and influencing people of who I think they should be voting for … I think would be very irresponsible on my part.”

Meanwhile, former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken has picked up momentum in his race against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman for the U.S. Senate seat. The two are now tied in the latest public opinion polls. Should Franken win, will more liberal Democrat celebrities decide to run? Among those mentioned as possible candidates: Alec Baldwin, Jon Bon Jovi, and George Clooney.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM ARGENTINE FABULIST JORGE LUIS BORGES (1899-1986): “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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