War With Iran? Oh, my.

One of my fears of a John McCain presidency was a war with Iran.

I was fairly convinced that a President McCain would lead us into that war, given his tack to the right and his volatility.  But it’s not only the crazy right-wing these days who hint around that a war with Iran would be good for the United States.  In a strange column last week, David Broder, veteran syndicated “centrist” columnist and Pulitzer winner—he’s appeared on Meet the Press more than 400 times!—wrote this:

Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.

I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.

Huh?  Orchestrate a “showdown with the mullahs“?  What if the mullahs don’t understand Mr. Broder’s nuance here and decide President Obama is inciting a war to get elected and they oblige him? 

But such crazy ideas aren’t limited to 81-year-old political pundits.  Reuters reported this yesterday:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday that only a credible military threat can deter Iran from building a nuclear weapon, Israeli political sources said. [...]

“The only way to ensure that Iran will not go nuclear is to create a credible threat of military action against it if it doesn’t cease its race for a nuclear weapon,” one of the sources said Netanyahu told Biden.

“The economic sanctions are making it difficult for Iran, but there is no sign that the Ayatollah regime plans to stop its nuclear program because of them.”

Oh, my.

Well, at least Republicans are reigning in the rhetoric these days, right?  Wrong:

The United States faces a possible war with Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions and a “period of confrontation” with China over its currency, a top US lawmaker warned Saturday.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said his fellow conservative, fresh from their historic elections romp this week, support “bold” action to deal with Iran.

Okay, okay. Maybe by “bold” action he meant something other than war.  Nope:

If President Barack Obama “decides to be tough with Iran beyond sanctions, I think he is going to feel a lot of Republican support for the idea that we cannot let Iran develop a nuclear weapon,” he told the Halifax International Security Forum.

“The last thing America wants is another military conflict, but the last thing the world needs is a nuclear-armed Iran… Containment is off the table.”

Well, now I’m worried.  But perhaps Mr. Graham didn’t mean full-scale war, just some sort of strategic strike to destroy the nuclear reactors and facilities, right?  Wrong:

The South Carolina Republican saw the United States going to war with the Islamic republic “not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime.”

Little did I imagine that in the period of a week, a prominent columnist, a world leader, and what passes for a “sensible” Republican Senator would all suggest that war with Iran was the answer to a difficult question of what to do about that country’s nuclear ambitions.

As Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer, said this morning on Morning Joe,  Iran is “deeply nationalistic,” and, despite the widespread internal hatred of the government there, the Iranian people are,

…with the possible exception of Americans, the most patriotic, most nationalistic people on earth. This isn’t Iraq, this isn’t Afghanistan…sort of “fake” countries put together. And if you attack Iran, it’s the best way to ensure that [their] government goes absolutely nowhere.

It’s just a good damn thing that John McCain lost in 2008, or we might by now have three bleeping wars to weep over.

Here are Graham’s remarks and the discussion with Reza Aslan on Iran and the calls for war:


The 40-40-20 Rule

Many people, who are not political junkies, don’t understand how the American electorate could so suddenly abandon Democrats, after less than two years running the government. The truth is, as the talking heads on the political shows never tire of telling us, that the “independents” are generally the key to any election.

Independents generally are those folks who are too busy or too uninterested to be political junkies. Their opinions about politics are not well-grounded and thus they are rather fluid. They are susceptible to messaging from either side, but they are particularly sensitive to the general mood of the country.

Since the general mood of the country about the most important issue this election cycle—the economy—is that things haven’t improved enough, fast enough, the party in power will suffer.

It’s pretty much that simple.  And here’s a simple chart illustrating the source of the volatility, via the 40-40-20 rule*:

 A quick look at presidential elections since 1928 reveals that both Democrats and Republicans received at least 40% of the vote, except in 1936 (Landon=36.54%) and 1964 (Goldwater=38.47%) and 1972 (McGovern 37.52%).  Also, in 1992, H.W. Bush received only 37.45%, but Perot, a strong third-party candidate, was in that race. 

So, out of 21 presidential elections, only four times did losing candidates fall significantly below 40%, and there were reasons specific to those four elections to explain why they were exceptions.

Also, through my chart I contend the so-called “center” has moved over time from right to left.  I so contend because of the fact that despite conservative opposition at the time of passage of programs like Social Security and Medicare, very few Republicans-conservatives oppose those programs today. So, even if the widespread but dubious notion that America is a center-right country were true, it would be true only in the sense that the center of political gravity has shifted to the left of the spectrum.

Additionally, although Republicans trounced Democrats in gubernatorial races this year (winning 23 out of 33), the total number of votes cast (unofficial at this point) for each party is as follows:

Republican Governors: 32,252,871 (48.32%)

Democratic Governors: 31,078,100 (46.56%)

I will note here that one of the most lopsided gubernatorial races in the country was in New York, where the Republican loser, Carl Paladino—one of the worst major-party candidates in American political history—still received 34% of the vote.

Likewise, in Senate races, Republicans won 23 out of 36 (still unofficial), but received only 50.48% of the total vote compared to 43.54% for Democrats.  And looking  back to the 2006 Senatorial elections, a very bad year for Republicans in which they won only 9 seats out of 31, Republicans managed to rack up 42.37% of the total vote.

No matter how frustrating it might be for those of us on one side or the other of the political fight, pendulum politics results from the volatile psychology of those 20% or so of the population who have no ideological committment to either major political party.  And appealing to that 20% on the basis of ideology—”I’m a liberal” or “I’m a conservative“—will have little effect on their votes.  These voters tend to look at results—how things are going and who is in charge.

This year they looked at how things are going and decided they weren’t going well enough to re-up their transitory commitment to Democrats. 

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* There are, of course, local, state, and regional effects on this rule.  But as a snapshot of the “national” landscape, it suffices to expain the “American” electorate.

A Word About Polling

Nate Silver, now with the New York Times, published an article yesterday on FiveThirtyEight analyzing the accuracy of pollsters over the final three weeks of the election. Not surprisingly, Rasmussen performed the worst.  Rasmussen, through its subsidiary, Pulse Opinion Research, does some polling for the Republican “News” Channel, formerly Fox “News.” 

Not only was Rasmussen the worst in terms of accuracy—the average error in their polling was almost 6 points—its polls were biased toward Republican candidates by almost 4 points. And as the following chart demonstrates, the number of polls Rasmussen did far outweighed the number done by other polling organizations, and, thus, the obvious inaccuracy and bias more statistically significant.

Silver explains some possible reasons for the inaccuracies, which essentially amount to polling on the cheap. But Silver only mentions in passing the affection for conservative ideas held by Rasmussen Reports founder, Scott Rasmussen, which he has somewhat denied by saying,

I would not consider myself a political conservative — that implies an alignment with Washington politics that I don’t think I have.

The problem with that statement is his record.  The most obvious evidence that Rasmussen is not only a man of the right but a man of the far right is the fact that he once wrote columns for one of the most extremist conservative websites in existence, WorldNetDaily.

Rasmussen wrote at least one column for WND that advocated for what he called “Social Security choice,” which, of course, is nothing more than the privatization of at least part of the program.  In fact, Rasmussen wrote a whole book on the subject, endorsed by conservative folks like Steve Moore, Lawrence Kudlow, Michael Barone—and apparently George Bush.

You may remember that Mr. Bush intimated to the Chicago Tribune that his greatest failure was not passing Social Security reform, the kind Rasmussen was selling in 2000 and 2001, just before Bush took office.

Dave Weigel explored last year the real danger of polling firms like Rasmussen, before we knew just how inaccurate and biased its election polling was this year. Weigel said that,

Rasmussen is influential because its carefully crafted questions that produce answers that conservatives like…are bolstered by highly accurate campaign polling. The result is that polls with extremely favorable numbers for Republican stances leap into the public arena every week, quickly becoming accepted wisdom.

Conservative pundits and Republican politicians (it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes) in the various media use those results to push public opinion in their direction:

…where Rasmussen Reports really distinguishes itself, and the reason it’s so often cited by conservatives, is in its issue polling. Before the stimulus debate began, Rasmussen asked voters whether they’d favor stimulus plans that consisted entirely of tax cuts or entirely of spending. Tax cuts won every time, and Republicans began citing this when they argued for a tax-cut-only stimulus package.

Weigel points out that Rasmussen polled weekly during the debate over the stimulus bill and his results were not in line with other pollsters:

While other pollsters, such as Gallup and CBS News, found stimulus support rising as high as 60 percent, Rasmussen never saw it rise above 45 percent. It was the only pollster to find support for the plan falling below opposition, in a poll conducted on February 2 and 3. Not only did Bill Kristol [of The Weekly Standard and Fox "News"] get an early look at the data and use it to make the case against the plan, Republicans such as Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) cited Rasmussen to argue that support for the Democratic version of the stimulus was tumbling.

Here’s how Phil Kerpen, policy director at Americans for Prosperity and frequent guest of Glenn Beck, saw Rasmussen’s role in the stimulus debate:

I think it was helpful to us when it looked like there was a big shift in public opinion against the stimulus. We definitely used it to give our activists some more encouragement.

Although the conservative push to kill the stimulus was ultimately unsuccessful, Scott Rasmussen himself pointed to some success on another issue:

…there have been times that our polling had an impact. During the immigration debate, I think our polling — which showed the public heavily against the Senate compromise — was part of the reason that the compromise fell apart. The Senate acceded to public opinion. We’re simply reporting on what the public wants.

Apparently it doesn’t matter to Rasmussen that his selective polling is not necessarily in the public interest. The immigration issue has torn the country apart, and Rasmussen’s efforts—during a time when a bipartisan solution had a very good chance of becoming law—has left us without much hope that we can solve the problem anytime soon.

So, the next time you hear a conservative politician or pundit cite a Rasmussen poll, keep in mind the source.

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*I noticed just a short time ago that Media Matters picked up the Rasmussen issue and reported, among other things, this:

On November 3, [Scott Rasmussen] was quoted in a report on Fox News’ Special Report stating, “Quite frankly, if the Republican House doesn’t repeal the [health care] law early in the tenure, they will disappoint an awful lot of voters.” Rasmussen also appeared in a report aired during the September 7 edition of Fox News’ Special Report, stating of the health care law, “Every week since it became law, every single week a majority of voters have said yes, we want it repealed.”

Mitch McConnell’s Message: Throw Obama From The Train

“To hell with job creation, we want us some Obama!”

Although he didn’t exactly say it that way, the Republican leader in the Senate—still the minority leader—said as much today, reiterating his top priority for the next two years: Put a Republican in the White House and make me Majority Leader!

Mitch McConnell said this to the Church of Conservatism, the Heritage Foundation:

Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office. But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things it is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.

Now, President Obama can either allow Republican blowhards like McConnell to control the message— McConnell is talking tough because his party does not control the Senate and thus is not responsible for governing—or the President can defend himself and the principles of his party—not to mention their joint accomplishments. 

Right now, it appears President Obama is allowing giddy Republicans to control the message, and his signal yesterday that he will compromise on tax cuts for the rich—despite the fact that it won’t help the economy much and polls show it is a winning issue for Democrats—is not a good sign.  

If one thinks it prudent to compromise for the good of the country, one offers the compromise at the end of the negotiations, not at the beginning.  Apparently, the White House didn’t learn much from the protracted and nasty health insurance reform debate, in which Obama sacrificed the public option at the beginning in order to entice un-enticeable Republicans.

The reality is that outside Republican groups, many of them formed after the Citizens United decision, spent $245 million this campaign season.  Many of the donors to those groups were wildly wealthy and staunchly stealthy.  Does any Democrat think these groups are going to go easy on them in 2012, after a few bipartisan weenie roasts? 

No.  In fact, some of these groups aren’t going to wait until 2012. They’re sticking around to make life miserable for Democrats:

Officials with the two conservative groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS — which are on track to spend well over $50 million combined this year, a sizable part of it from undisclosed donors — said they would continue advertising against Democrats as Congress returns, when decisions loom on the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts and immigration.

Republicans think the election was about the size of government. They are trying to convince Democrats that people are willing to tolerate a severe restructuring—possibly leading to a dismantling—of social programs, the legacy of the Democratic Party.

But Democrats have to understand that the election was largely about the economy.  Yes, there is some agitation out there for a smaller government footprint, but Democrats must keep making the case for government’s limited but crucial role in the economy and be willing to defend their party principles in the face of the loud-mouthed, corporately-funded Republican advocacy groups who want to see government decrease so their donors’ profits can increase.

While compromise is part of the political process, it takes two sides to give the exercise its name. Republicans, before the election and after, have indicated that compromise is not in their vocabulary.  And Democrats can’t walk all the way across the aisle and pretend they are meeting Republicans halfway.

If Democrats won’t fight to defend themselves and their ideas, it’s hard to see how they motivate anyone to vote for them in 2012. Obama must be the country’s leader, not follow behind the Republican parade with a poop scoop.

And I have confidence he will be a leader.

Is The Tea Party Overrated?

We are not a wing of the party.  We are the party.

—Richard Viguerie, Chairman, ConservativeHQ

On The Last Word last night, we had a chance to see a preview of things to come within the Republican Party, in terms of what the leadership is facing with Tea Party candidates, who, by the way, not only think they represent every single American in the country, but think they now control the entire government.

Richard Viguerie, a veteran right-winger and Tea Party ally, who famously said last month, “We’re all on the same page until the polls close Nov. 2,” was a guest on the show,  along with Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation.

Viguerie has put the Republican Party on probation and said he had no worries about the Rand Pauls and the Michele Bachmanns and the Jim DeMints in the party.  He was sure they were onboard the Tea Party Demolition Train. He had others in mind:

What we’re concerned about is these establishment Republicans. People say, “Richard, how you gonna pressure them? How you gonna keep ‘em true to their promises?” And my response is to add on to what you were saying earlier—about taking over the Republican Party—I think that’s what conservatives need to do, and the Tea Party people, is just replace these people.  We are not a wing of the party.  We are the party.

Phillips, for his part, was just as emphatic:

We’re going to all the Republicans—the Senators and the Congressman—and we’re gonna be saying, “Hey, you all ran on conservative principles this time; this time you all are gonna have to live up to your conservative principles. You’re gonna have to get the out-of-control spending under control.  You’re gonna have to reduce spending. You’re gonna have to do something to get this economy going—perhaps a pretty-good tax cut.”

Now, although the conventional wisdom has it that the Tea Party was an overwhelming positive for Republicans, it’s important to remember that these Tea Party folks may or may not have helped Republicans win only 1/2 of 1/3 of the government. 

And it’s also important to remember that they may have cost the Republicans control of the Senate by nominating and supporting Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell and Ken Buck.  It’s quite possible all three of those seats would have gone Republican, if conventional Republican candidates had won the primaries.

Justin Wolfers, at Freakonomics, wonders out loud just what would have happened, if there were no Tea Party to supposedly energize Republicans.  What about the Senate?  He says:

It’s likely that just about any Republican could have won in those races where the Tea Party lights shone brightest — Rand Paul’s election to the Kentucky Senate seat, Marco Rubio defeat of Florida Governor Charlie Christ in their Senate race, or Mike Lee’s win in Utah.

And in Alaska, voters appear likely to have done an end-run around the fervent Tea Partiers, electing the newly-independent Lisa Murkowski.

As for the House, he says:

…perhaps there were some congressional races where Tea Party enthusiasm carried the day.  But you’ve got to balance this against the possibility that unpopular candidates in the headline Senate and gubernatorial races actually hurt other Republicans down the ticket.

Such counterfactuals are impossible to validate, of course.  But my view is that given the state of the economy, Republicans would certainly have taken control of the House even if there were no Tea Party.  And it’s quite possible that we would be looking at Mitch McConnell as the Majority Leader of the Senate, if Tea Party extremists had not intervened in Republican primaries.

But what I am certain of is this: If Tea Party enthusiasts keep trash-talking like Richard Viguerie and Judson Phillips for the next two years—with a haughty certainty that they speak for all Americans—then they will definitely wake up a sleepy Democratic electorate in 2012.

And that’s not even counting what their arrogance will do to the guts of the Republican Party between now and then.

Here’s some of the segment on The Last Word:

Remarks And Asides

As John Ward of The Daily Caller reports, the Blue Dog Democrats had a bad night, like all Democrats. They lost 24 of their 50 members who ran for reelection (some races are still pending).  Interestingly, 11 of those 24 losers had voted against health insurance reform.

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Ike Skelton, longtime 4th District congressman and moderate Democrat, finally succumbed to the unrelenting conservatism of his rural district. His replacement, Republican Vicky Hartzler, had earned the approval of Tea Party Possum Queen, Sarah Palin.  Hartzler, who lives somewhere near Harrisonville, wrote a book called, Running God’s Way: Step by Step to a Successful Political Campaign.  Here’s a short description of the book from a website designed to promote it:

This one-stop, easy to use resource outlines the winning strategies needed to succeed on Election Day. It combines the time-tested campaign strategies and wisdom outlined in the Bible with real-life insights and practical advice acquired from Vicky Hartzler’s twelve years of on-the-ground campaigning as a three-term state representative and former campaign spokesperson for the Coalition to Protect Marriage in Missouri.

The Coalition to Protect Marriage in Missouri was, of course, a successful effort by Christian conservatives to amend Missouri’s constitution to reflect their view that, when it comes to defining how people have sex, the Bible is the Word of God.  It’s amazing just how much small-government folks love to use government to force others to live according to Iron Age family values.

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Speaking of Palin the Possum Queen, she is not running. Period. Talking heads can’t help themselves but speculate about her, but nope.  She’s not gonna do it.  Not enough money in it and it’s too much work.  And besides that, Karl Rove has someone else in mind because he knows she would be an electoral disaster who would not only lose, but her candidacy would have disastrous down-ballot consequences.  Nope. Not happening.

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And finally, congratulations, and a big thanks, to Southwest Missouri voters for electing Billy Long.  And to celebrate, let’s watch the following insightful interview featuring Long and Sarah Steelman, former Missouri State Treasurer, which gives new meaning to the old phrase, “the blind leading the blind.”  (Thanks to Sean at FiredUp!Missouri and Bungalow Bill and Busplunge.)

One Reason Democrats Fail

Statewide Election Results:

U.S. Senator:

Roy Blunt (R)  54.3%       Robin Carnahan (D) 40.6%

State Auditor:

Tom Schweich (R) 50.9%     Susan Montee (D) 45.4%   

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Constitutional Amendment 1: Passed with 74.1%

Constitutional Amendment 2: Passed with 65.8%

Constitutional Amendment 3: Passed with 83.7%

Proposition A: Passed with 68.4%

Proposition B: Passed with 51.6%

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Voter turnout is always crucial to either party’s victory, but Democrats are usually more vulnerable to voter apathy.

This time, older voters turned out in droves for Republicans. Voters 65 and over made up 23% of the electorate, compared with 16% in 2008.  A larger share of those older voters (59%) supported Republicans this time compared to 2008 (53%).

On the other end of the age spectrum, 66% of younger voters voted for Obama in 2008 and made up 18% of the electorate.  This time, in line with normal midterm patterns, they represented only 11% and supported Democrats 56-40.

As for African-Americans and Latinos, they were self-underrepresented.  This year only 10% of the electorate were African-Americans (who voted 90% for Democrats) and only 8% were Hispanics (who voted 64% for Democrats).  In 2008, blacks made up 13% of the electorate, and Hispanics–still self-underrepresented–made up 9%.

Now What?

Some Americans, trembling over the trembling economy, called the Republican bluff last night.

Republicans, prodded by extremists on the right, have pledged to cut spending and the size of government, repeal health insurance reform legislation, and reduce taxes.  Just how they are going to make these Tea Party dreams come true was never explained during the campaign.

When pressed on what significant cuts Republicans would make to reduce government, they refused to answer.

When pressed on just how they would repeal health insurance reform, they gave us no strategy.

When pressed on how they were going to “pay for” more tax cuts, especially on the wealthy, they passed off the question as meaningless.

Starting next January, House Republicans will have to put their cards on the table and reveal just how they intend to do all the things they promised fidgety Americans they would do, including creating jobs.

Oddly, if you listened to understandably giddy Republican leaders last night, you heard them call on President Obama to “listen” to the American people and be willing to change his ways and they would “work” with him.  Here is Speaker-elect John Boehner’s advice to the President:

The American people have sent an unmistakable message to him tonight, and that message is, change course…We hope President Obama will now respect the will of the people, change course, and commit to making the changes they are demanding. To the extent he is willing to do this, we are ready to work with him.

Now, that’s odd because if you remember all the way back to what is ancient history now—2008—voters clearly expressed their will by firing Republicans in favor of a boatload of Democrats, including a Democratic president.  And if you remember, the Republicans were not willing then to commit to the changes the American people were demanding and certainly weren’t willing to work with Obama.  In fact, they worked against him.  It was their strategy, designed to get them to today.

And even if Obama and the Democrats were now in the mood to do what Republicans never did—be responsible—there is little evidence that there is someone on the other side with whom they could work. 

Because you see, the Republicans were bluffing.  They don’t have any chance of implementing their so-called Pledge to America. They don’t have any chance of repealing health insurance reform. They don’t have any chance of balancing the budget, while giving wealthy constituents tax cuts. 

Republicans knew they couldn’t just go to Washington and have their way.  There are still a lot of Democrats there.  And a lot of Americans voted for those winning Democrats—and even in the losses last night, there were a lot of close races and a lot of Democratic votes—and Democrats aren’t simply going to sit back and watch all the work they did the last two years go to waste.

That’s why Republican leaders have conspired to put the burden on President Obama.  That’s why they are loudly suggesting to the American people that all of the responsibility is on him to listen to the people’s “message,” a message they never heard when it was directed toward them two years ago.

And when President Obama does not yield to their demands—when he refuses to become a victim of their insurgency—he will once again become the target of their transparent plan to retake the White House in 2012.  They will construct Tea Party-satisfying legislation that has no chance of becoming law. And then they will blame the President for their failure to keep the promises they made to tea partiers.

That’s what all the talk today is about. That’s why Republicans are already avoiding the responsibility of governing by placing it squarely on Obama and demanding he surrender.

Republicans don’t mean to work with the President or Democrats on anything that matters.  What they mean to do is to destroy Obama and take over the entire government, and compromising on meaningful legislation would just get in the way of doing that.  To hell with the country in the mean time. 

We’ve come to take our government back!” screamed Rand Paul last night.  That doesn’t exactly sound like a man who is going to Washington to work with the other side, now does it?

As for John Boehner, he pledged last night to the Tea Party: “I’ll never let you down.”   

Never is a long time, Mr. Boehner.

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Other than the fact that Harry Reid kept his job last night, I found several bright spots, which I will write about later.  For now, I want to mention Congressman John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Louisville, Kentucky, who won his race last night with 55% of the vote. Here is what he said as he celebrated his victory, and let’s hope this spirit stays strong among Democrats, as they are about to defend the work they have done:

I almost wish there were another podium here tonight, because I feel like Nancy Pelosi has been in this campaign the whole time. And Nancy ought to take a victory lap with me. And maybe President Obama as well. The disservice and disrespect that has been leveled on them has been so outrageous and so unjustified that it makes me really fear for this country. When you have two people who work every day to make life better for every American and they put up with the nonsense. … [I]t’s not only unjustified, it’s un-American. I voted with Nancy Pelosi a lot of the time.

Yarmuth also pledged to “remain a tireless, passionate voice for making this country a country that works for everybody, not just the privileged few.”

Now, that’s the message Democrats need to keep telling themselves and the American people, even when it seems some of the people aren’t listening.

The Science Of Voting

In a great post on CRACKED.com, 6 Things You Won’t Believe Can Brainwash You On Election Day, we find science interacting with politics. It turns out that researchers have been studying the voting process for many years.

Here is a summary of the article, but for more details go to the site:

……Voters tend to see chubbier candidates as “more inspiring that their thinner competition,” and prefer the “distinguished” look over a baby-face.

……Where you happen to cast your vote matters: 

[S]tudies have shown that if your local polling place is a school, you will vote yes for more school initiatives on the ballot, especially if there are teachers or students nearby. 

             And, studies have also found,

that churches — which are the most common polling locations in America — can make you turn in a ballot that is more conservative than your actual beliefs. The study found that people casting their ballots in churches were more likely to vote against propositions supporting gay marriage and abortion rights, even if those votes conflicted with their beliefs.”

……Because dopamine makes us feel good about the world, and because dopamine levels in the brain increase when our favorite sports team wins a big game, it follows that folks are less likely to throw a politician from the electoral train win our team wins unexpectedly. Thus, incumbents have an advantage where a local team wins in a big upset. 

……When in doubt, humans tend to choose whatever or whoever comes up first:

Stanford researchers looked at election results over 10 years and found that coming first on the ballot increased a candidate’s vote total by an average of 2 percent. And it’s not just the unimportant elections. Their research suggested that as many as nine congressional races would have gone the other way if the second-place candidate had been listed above the guy who is currently a member of Congress. 

Interestingly, in the 2000 presidential election, the outcome of which depended on Florida voters, George Bush’s name was listed first on the ballot in all voting districts: 

If Florida had mixed the districts like California does, it’s almost certain that Gore would have won.
 
……The weather: Rainy days hurt Democrats due to the fact that more of them lack adequate transportation to the polls.  But there’s more:
[I]t turns out that voters tend to blame the incumbent candidate for any recent earthquakes, floods or hurricanes and are more likely to elect the opponent.

……Because voting is inherently irrational (in terms of having a chance to influence the eventual outcome of an election), scientists have wondered why people keep doing it. It may be in our genes:

Various large-scale studies of twins in America and Australia found that identical twins were more likely to share voting behavior than fraternal twins. The correlation was so overwhelming that the researchers concluded that genes are the most important factor in determining whether you vote.

Make of all this stuff what you will, but apparently it takes a deliberate effort to vote rationally, even if the act of voting may be in our DNA.

Clarity From God

Confused about the retention of judges and the ballot initiatives?  Here’s how God told me to vote:

The Retention of Missouri Judges:

NO on Zel Fischer, Missouri Supreme Court—too conservative.

NO on Don Burrell, Southern District Appellate Court—too conservative.

YES on Robert Barney, Southern District Appellate Court—just right.

Ballot Initiatives:

Constitutional Amendment 1:  Vote NO

A “yes” vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to require that assessors in charter counties be elected officers. This proposal will affect St. Louis County and any county that adopts a charter form of government. The exception is for a county that has between 600,001-699,999 residents, which currently is only Jackson County.

A “no” vote will not change the current requirement for charter counties.

Constitutional Amendment 2: Vote YES

A “yes” vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to exempt from property taxes all real property used as a homestead by any Missouri citizen who is a former prisoner of war with a total service-connected disability.

A “no” vote will not add this exemption to the Missouri Constitution.

Constitutional Amendment 3: Vote NO

A “yes” vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to prevent the state, counties, and other political subdivisions from imposing any new tax, including a sales tax, on the sale or transfer of homes or any other real estate.

A “no” vote will not change the Missouri Constitution to prevent the state, counties, and other political subdivisions from imposing a new tax on the sale or transfer of homes or any other real estate.

If passed, this measure will have no impact on taxes.

Proposition A: Vote NO

A “yes” vote will amend Missouri law to repeal the authority of certain cities to use earnings taxes to fund their budgets. The amendment further requires voters in cities that currently have an earnings tax, St. Louis and Kansas City, to approve continuation of such tax at the next general municipal election and at an election held every five years or to phase out the tax over a period of ten years. 

A “no” vote will not change the current Missouri law regarding earnings taxes.

If passed, this measure will impact taxes by removing the ability of cities to fund their budgets through earnings taxes. The only exception is that voters in cities that currently have an earnings tax may vote to continue such taxes.

Proposition B: YES

A “yes” vote will amend Missouri law to require large-scale dog breeding operations to provide each dog under their care with sufficient food, clean water, housing and space; necessary veterinary care; regular exercise and adequate rest between breeding cycles. The amendment further prohibits any breeder from having more than 50 breeding dogs for the purpose of selling their puppies as pets. The amendment also creates a misdemeanor crime of “puppy mill cruelty” for any violations.

A “no” vote will not change the current Missouri law regarding dog breeders.

If passed, this measure will have no impact on taxes.

I’ve Got Good News And Bad News

The Bad News:

  • Public polling suggests Republicans will gain a net of 5 to 9 governorships today, which matters because of 2010 Census redistricting.  Nate Silver’s forecast: 30 Republican governors on Wednesday.
  • More important in terms of redistricting, there are 99 state legislative chambers in the United States (Nebraska has only one chamber).  Currently, Democrats control 60 of those chambers, Republicans 36, and two are tied. Democrats control both legislative chambers in 27 states, Republicans control both in 14 states (Missouri is, unfortunately, one of those), and 8 states are split between the two.  Some pollsters suggest that Republicans could pick up control of 15 legislative chambers, for a total of 51 out of 99.
  • Phony 7th District Democratic primary candidate, Tim Davis, has endorsed Billy Long for Congress.
  • According to HuffPo, there is a 77% chance Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives.  Nate Silver has this forecast for next year’s House makeup: 233 Republicans, 202 Democrats.  Senate: 52 Democrats, 48 Republicans.

 The Good News:

  • According to HuffPo there is only a 17% chance Republicans will take control of the United States Senate.  Nate Silver puts the chances of Democrats retaining control of Senate at 93%.
  • Barack Obama is more popular in Alaska than Sarah Palin.
  • Sarah Palin—who I still contend will never—ever—run for president—has taken to using the word “bastard” lately, a sign that some of her candidates (Joe Miller and Christine O’Donnell, particularly) are in trouble, and a sign that she has a more attractive, seedier side.
  • Some Democrats who have blatantly run against Obama and Pelosi—can you believe it?—will lose their asses.
  • If Republicans take control of both houses of congress, they will have to become responsible for governing, and it will at least be fun to watch teapartiers kick against the pricks* in the coming months, as they try to turn their 20-month ranting into real legislation.

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*To borrow a biblical phrase.

Corporations Will Be The Big Winners Tomorrow

On the eve of an election in which it appears that Americans are ready to turn part of our Republic over to corporate interests, the Joplin Globe reported today on the efforts of a local family member to extract some semblance of justice from one of those corporations, as well as from government officials in the state of Arizona:

A Joplin woman is among the relatives of an Oklahoma couple, allegedly slain by two escaped prisoners from Arizona and an accomplice, who are seeking $40 million in damages, according to notice of claim letters the family’s attorneys have mailed to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and other officials in that state.

The Oklahoma couple, Gary and Linda Haas, lived in Tecumseh, Ok., but grew up in McDonald County, Missouri, to where they were planning on returning, after losing their jobs due to the closing of a GM plant.

The Haas’ were on a camping trip, when the two escapees from the Arizona State Prison in Kingman—which is operated by a private corporation—along with their accomplice targeted the couple on Interstate 40 in New Mexico, “because they had grown weary of traveling and sleeping in their car and wanted the couple’s camping trailer.”

Then:

Authorities said the Haases were taken to a remote ranch near Colonias, N.M., where they were shot and the trailer was set on fire.

The Haas family is seeking damages not only from the state, but from Management and Training Corp, based in Utah.  MTC is a private prison company that operated the Kingman facility from which the prisoners escaped. 

Jacob Diesselhorst, attorney for Haas family members, said,

The state of Arizona failed to protect the safety of the public. The state of Arizona cannot avoid its overriding duty to protect public safety by outsourcing prisons to a private, for-profit company.

He alleges that prison officials failed to adequately supervise the prison, failed to adequately train prison workers and security staff and, according to the story,  that they “ignored ongoing problems with its perimeter security alarm system and that the system had not been checked or calibrated for more than two years before the escapes.”

Now, when I read this story today in the Globe, I remembered that the private prison company, Management and Training Corp, was also mentioned in a two-part story I heard last week on NPR. That story, Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law, reported the unseemly connection between the private prison industry and Arizona’s draconian immigration law, which has caused so much controversy nation-wide:

NPR spent the past several months analyzing hundreds of pages of campaign finance reports, lobbying documents and corporate records. What they show is a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort to help draft and pass Arizona Senate Bill 1070 by an industry that stands to benefit from it: the private prison industry.

The law could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them.

The “behind-the-scenes effort” involved a right-wing group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.  ALEC describes its original vision as,

A nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who shared a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.

ALEC organizes meetings in which corporate lobbyists and sympathetic state legislators can find ways to work together to push a decidedly right-wing agenda. It appears that the private prison industry used an ALEC meeting to persuade state lawmakers to introduce and pass Arizona Senate Bill 1070. Then, of course, came the follow-up cash:

Thirty of the 36 co-sponsors received donations over the next six months, from prison lobbyists or prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation and The Geo Group.

There it was: Management and Training Corporation was part of the push to pass legislation in order to facilitate for-profit incarceration of illegal immigrants.

NPR also reported that Governor Jan Brewer, darling of tea partiers everywhere, is deeply connected to the private prison industry:

State lobbying records show two of her top advisers — her spokesman Paul Senseman and her campaign manager Chuck Coughlin — are former lobbyists for private prison companies.

So, there you have it. This is what a Tea Party America would look like.  Corporations using groups like ALEC* to push (and sometimes write, according to NPR) legislation that is designed to make money for the corporations, not to make a better America.

And although we don’t know for sure, it’s possible that Gary and Linda Haas were not just the victims of three thugs, two of them escapees from a privately operated prison, but were also the victims of a philosophy that places too much faith and power in the hands of corporations.

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*ALEC has also been instrumental in the nation-wide attempt to roll-back or abolish the health care reform law passed by Democrats this year.  In fact, here in Missouri, a statewide ballot measure—Proposition C—designed to prohibit the enforcement of the federal health insurance mandate, passed with around 70% of the vote. Proposition C was spearheaded by Jane Cunningham, a state legislator and ALEC board member, and had help from a well-known Joplin family. 

According to The Nation:

Cunningham says a grassroots movement pushed the measure over the top, with more than 70 percent of voters approving it. But it also attracted some large donations. Ethelmae Humphreys, who sits on Cato’s board, gave $25,000, more than 20 percent of all the money raised. Humphreys and her husband [sic] have also given at least $100,000 over the past few years to the libertarian Mercatus Center, based at George Mason University in Virginia. On the board of that group is another prominent donor to the Missouri initiative, Menlo Smith. “This is what the right does,” Sinema tells me. “They take an issue or two, test it in a state to see how it does, and then take it around the country.”

A key player in this campaign is the “Kochtopus,” the political machine created by Charles and David Koch and detailed in a recent investigation by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker. The Kochs, who run the oil and chemical giant Koch Industries and who together are worth $35 billion, have spent the past few decades building a conveyor belt for right-wing and libertarian policies. Mostly through various charities, they have showered more than
$100 million on dozens of think tanks and advocacy groups—including the Goldwater Institute, the Pacific Research Institute, Cato, Mercatus and ALEC—which push antiregulatory policies that coincide with Koch Industries’ and other large corporations’ financial interests…

As I said, corporate America, under the guise of grass-roots activism, is poised to have its way with all of us, if Republican dreams come true tomorrow and in 2012.

How To Think About Our Economic Troubles

Bear with me, but the following is sort of dense and difficult to absorb, but I believe it is essential in understanding what to do about the state of our (and the world) economy, beyond the “cut spending at all costs” meme dominant today:

David Stockman, Republican Ronald Reagan’s budget director, said this on 60 Minutes last night, when asked by Leslie Stahl what he meant by “Tax cutting is a religion“:

Well it’s become in a sense an absolute. Something that can’t be questioned, something that’s gospel, something that’s sort of embedded into the catechism. And so scratch the average Republican today and he’ll say “Tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.” It’s rank demagoguery. We should call it for what it is. If these people were all put into a room on penalty of death to come up with how much they could cut, they couldn’t come up with $50 billion, when the problem is $1.3 trillion. So, to stand before the public and rub raw this anti-tax sentiment, the Republican Party, as much as it pains me to say this, should be ashamed of themselves.

However, Stockman doesn’t just criticize Republicans for their demagoguery:

We have now got both parties essentially telling a Big Lie. With a capital ‘B’ and a capital ‘L’ to the public: and that is that we can have all this government—24 percent of GDP, this huge entitlement program, all of the bailouts—and yet we don’t have to tax ourselves and pay our bills. That’s delusional.

It is delusional, if Democrats are determined, like Republicans, to make the tax cuts permanent, forever and ever.  Americans of all income groups are taxed less today than in 1982, the beginning of the age of hyper-deficit spending.  And despite David Stockman’s role in that unfortunate age, he is willing to admit that the tax cut hysteria is wrong.  It is wrong arithmetically and it is wrong morally, given all that needs to be done in our country.

But because of the slow economic recovery, the answer is not to raise taxes on all Americans right now, when there is still some risk of a return to the 2008-2009 decline or worse.  Extending the Bush tax cuts on all incomes up to $250,000 is the prudent thing to do for the next couple of years, until we are safely removed from the threat of economic regression.  It is a good bet that a large amount of that tax-cut money will get spent—it will circulate—and act as a stimulus for the economy as a whole.

But, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, the current opinion regarding the world’s economic situation is on the side of those who,

demand fiscal austerity from everyone; to reject unconventional monetary policy as unsound; and of course to denounce any help for debtors as morally reprehensible. So we’re in a world in which Very Serious People demand that debtors spend less than their income, but that nobody else spend more than their income.

Following that advice, Krugman argues, will result in a continuation of the economic slump, “a prolonged period of economic weakness that actually makes the debt problem harder to resolve.”

And here’s why:

The background to the world economic crisis is that we went through an extended period of rising debt. Now, one person’s liability is another person’s asset, so rising debt made the world as a whole neither richer nor poorer. It did, however, leave the borrowers increasingly leveraged. And then came the Minsky moment; suddenly, investors were no longer willing to roll over, let alone increase, the debts of highly leveraged players. So these players are being forced to pay down debt.

The process of paying down debt, however, must obey two rules:

1. Those who pay down debt must do so by spending less than their income.

2. For the world as a whole, spending equals income.

It follows that

3. Those who are not being forced to pay down debt must spend more than their income.

But here’s the problem: there’s no good mechanism in place to induce those who can spend more to do so. Low interest rates do encourage spending; but given the size of the debt shock, even zero rates are nowhere near low enough.

So since the world economy can’t raise the bridge, it is lowering the water: without sufficient spending from those who can, the only way to make the accounting identities hold is for incomes to decline — specifically, the incomes of those not constrained by debt must decline so as to create a sufficiently large gap between their (unchanged) spending and their incomes to offset the forced saving of debtors. Of course, the mechanism here is an overall global slump, so the debtors are squeezed as well, forced into even more painful cuts.

If you have followed this argument thus far (I have left out Krugman’s discussion of inflation as a mechanism for eroding debt obligations), you can guess the remedy:

To avoid all this, we’d need policies to encourage more spending. Fiscal stimulus on the part of financially strong governments would do it; quantitative easing can help, but only to the extent that it encourages spending by the financially sound, and it’s a little unclear what the process there is supposed to be.

Oh, and widespread debt forgiveness (or inflating away some of the debt) would solve the problem.

As I said, this stuff is a little hard to understand, and in some cases, digest. But the bottom line is this:

1. We need more spending to ensure we don’t go into another severe recession, or God forbid, a depression.

2. In the absence of, or in addition to, effective policies to increase private-sector spending, government spending by those governments strong enough to do it is vital for a stronger economic rebound.

3. The long-term debt needs to be addressed by adjusting government revenue to spending in a rational and sustainable way. (However, if Republicans have their way, spending will be adjusted to insufficient revenue.)

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