April 29, 2008

Boycott Shameless Florida

After the American Century

Florida is without shame. After the debacle of the hanging chads in the 2000 presidential election, one might expect that Florida would do all in its power to make its voter registration and election above reproach. Not so. The Republican dominated state legislature is actively inhibiting voter registration. It has done so by passing laws that fine volunteers who help others to register to vote. These are not trivial fines. The first version of the law set the fine at $5000 for every form with a mistake on it. The League of Women Voters, hardly a radical organization, took this law to court and it was struck down. But the Florida Republicans know that their state is crucial in the coming election, and they immediately got up another law which reduces the fine to "only" $1000. So, the League of Women Voters has stopped registering people to vote in Florida. 

Now imagine that you are a volunteer, seeking to register voters for either party, and the form you help someone submit has a mistake on it somewhere. Perhaps the middle initial in the applicant's name has been left out. Perhaps you have forgotten to tick the small box, which says that you have never been judged insane or mentally handicapped. (I am not making this up.)Three forms out of 100 lack that little tick in the box, and are rejected.  Register voters at your peril, for not only is there a fine of $1000 for each erroneous form, but the volunteer's name ends up in a database. Instead of being praised for trying to do the right thing - getting people to vote - volunteers feel threatened by the Republican State of Florida.  In other words, every mistake is treated as though one were engaged in the fraudulent activity of intentionally filing a false claim. That, of course, should be punished.

But the Shameless State of Florida has created more obstacles. Suppose that you discover an error in your own voter registration, quite possibly an error made by some state employee in recording the information. Possibly a computer error, especially when dealing with a Spanish or Russian or Scandinavian name. Suppose your name has the letters ñ or ø or å in it, and suppose that  the State of Florida - glorious state of the hanging chads - has computers that simply do not process those strange letters. Un-American letters. What then? Even if the mistake is not one you made, on election day, you will not be allowed to vote. 

Now, who benefits from such a system? Who are those new voters that the Florida Republicans are so keen to punish should an error crop up anywhere? Well, the punishment is completely non-partisan, of course, and the fines can be taken from anyone, rich or poor, white or blank, Anglo of Hispanic.  These laws are surely not directed at poorer people, who tend to vote Democratic, and who might decide not to register since it could cost so much money. Of course not. It would be unworthy of me to suggest that. Surely, Florida's Republicans are (not) just proudly carrying on the traditions of voter intimidation pioneered in the American South and used so successfully against African-Americans and poor people for more than a century, part of the wonderful heritage of that region. It is outrageous, of course, for a Yankee outsider like myself to question such traditions.

What can we do? I am going to boycott all products from Florida, and I will not visit Florida so long as these un-democratic laws are on the books. [It is now 2012 and I still have not visited Florida.] I am going to tell all organizations of which I am a member, that I will not attend any convention or meeting held in Florida so long as these disgraceful and intimidating laws are on the books. I will urge these organizations to take a public stand on this issue. For the shame of Florida can well make a mockery of the 2008 presidential election.

Finally, I hope the news media will ask John McCain, repeatedly, whether he supports those Florida laws or not. This is about whether the United States is a democracy or not, about whether voters can be fined and intimidated and excluded. McCain should denounce these laws and show himself to be a man of democratic principle. Or is he too shameless?

April 23, 2008

Taking Stock After the PA Primary

After the American Century

It is time to take stock and get the bigger picture in focus after yesterday's primary. The results are in, and Hillary Clinton has won Pennsylvania by roughly 9.5% over Barack Obama. This was a bit more convincing victory than some polls had predicted, but by no means a surprise. It tells us that voters over who are over 45, women, or working class, cannot easily be won over to Obama's side. Clinton successfully portrayed herself as a local girl, whose father came from Scanton. Its citizens responded by voting for her by a margin of 3 to 1.

This means Hillary will continue to run, and that, in her words, she "won't quit" because "the American people don't quit." For the Democratic Party, however, this is the nightmare scenario, in which the primary campaign does not choose a candidate and the convention risks becoming a free-for-all. Since February 5, the campaign has lost its lofty tone and become increasingly negative. All close observers can see that Clinton is primarily responsible for the change. Today the New York Times, which endorsed her, nevertheless editorialized against her tactics, citing in particular an "advertisement" (if one can call it that) that depicted all the worst crises in twentieth century US history, including the Stock Market Crash of 1929, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, 9/11, and even a cameo role for Osama bin Laden. The powerful imagery has nothing to do with the differences between the candidates, but was marshalled so Hillary could once again suggest that she had more experience. (However, McCain will beat "McClinton" on experience, particularly military experience.)

Meanwhile, what is happening outside the bubble of Democratic Party politics? President Bush has fallen even further in the polls. Now just 28% approve of the job he is doing. But Congress is even less popular, with some polls giving it just 20%, although the average of all polls is 22%. The electorate is not happy because the economy is in recession and hundreds of thousands of home buyers teeter on the edge of foreclosure. Because food prices are rising while incomes are stagnant. Because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. Moreover, many are now making the link between the billions of dollars spent on the war and the weakening economy. Normally, with such dissatisfied voters and such an economy, the Republicans would have no chance in November. But the unresolved race between Obama and Clinton has given them a chance, and McCain is the ideal candidate to make the most of it.

Now step back further, away from the clamor of the election. The dollar has just sunk to a historic low against the Euro. It now costs $1.60 to buy the same Euro that was worth 99 cents on January 1, 2000. This difference will almost certainly get worse, because the US continues to buy more than it sells and because European interest rates are considerably higher than those in the US. America may be in recession, but in much of Europe the problem remains inflation. (Indeed, in Denmark the unemployment rate is less than 2%, foreign workers are streaming in to meet demand, and home loan interest rates are over 5%.) While the downturn in the States will slow growth elsewhere somewhat, the realization is growing that China and India have become large enough to keep the world economy steaming ahead. If the US is only stagnating and not collapsing, the Europeans may have little to worry about. In economics, it's called "decoupling."

The candidates have not talked about this, or what to do about it. While the election preoccupies the US, the nation's economic centrality is fading. The dollar can fall drastically, and the nation can go into recession while the rest of the world as a whole grows at an average annual rate of 3-4% or more. In Pennsylvania, the voters look at their shuttered factories and can sense the problem, but the candidates blame NAFTA. Unfortunately, the reasons for the economic weakening of the US are far more complex and risk becoming more permanent than the next administration. That is why this blog is called After the American Century. The US needs to wake up to the severity of its economic problems.

April 18, 2008

The Strange ABC Debate

After the American Century

Remarkably, the recent debate between Senators Clinton and Obama focused a good deal on trivial matters. The US economy is slipping into recession, the imbalance of trade with China is now more than $250 billion, the war in Iraq costs millions of dollars every hour, prisoners held without basic human rights continue to rot on Guantanamo, and the dollar has fallen to its weakest level in 25 years - the phrase "in the toilet" comes to mind - and in the midst of such real problems, the questions ABC  presented to the candidates were pathetic. 

Back in the sixties, at media events students used to chant, "The whole world is watching." This is even more true now than it was then, but American journalists seem to be unaware of it. How idiotic ABC looks from outside the US! 

April 16, 2008

The Dangers of Clinton's Strategy

After the American Century

Many have noted that Hillary Clinton is pursuing a strategy which is potentially destructive not just to Obama but also to the Democratic Party. But polling figures show that the strategy of all out attack on Obama, often using precisely the same arguments as Republicans, is having a destructive effect on Clinton herself. The Rasmussen daily tracking poll shows that Mrs. Clinton has been behind McCain now for more than one month. According to the same polling organization, Obama has been closer to McCain, and on a few occasions ahead of him, during the same period.

In short, Clinton risks being seen as a surrogate McCain, or a second-rate version of the "real McCain." She can talk about learning to shoot a gun as a young girl, and she can sidle up to the bar and have a beer and a shot of whiskey, but she just is not as believable in that role as McCain himself. She was not a fighter pilot, she only mistakenly claimed to come under fire. An undecided voter in the crucial swing states of Ohio or Pennsylvania or Florida just might prefer the new (if old) face, and go for the Republican anti-Bush.

It gets worse. Suppose Hillary's endless attacks on Obama do eventually win her the nomination. The millions who voted for him are not going to be enthusiastic about her. Not now. She will have quite a struggle to unite the Democrats, and will have to start months after McCain has been at the same game in his party. Polls show that back in Februry most Democrats were excited about both their front-running candidates, but today the divisions are far deeper, with the split getting worse every day.

Now imagine that you are one of the remaining super-delegates, who has to decide. Clinton has managed to take some of the gloss off Obama, who nevertheless still leads McCain in national polls, while she is clearly weaker against him. The process of selecting a candidate is weakening the party, which now risks losing the White House, despite President Bush's extremely low popularity ratings that hover around 30%. If this goes on much longer, is it not possible that a new, no doubt impossible, scenario has a certain appeal, the scenario of an entirely new candidate coming to the rescue? Someone with experience. Someone who once received more than 50% of the national vote. Someone the party might unify around - like Al Gore.

Impossible now. But what if the race remains undecided until the end of summer?

April 15, 2008

OBAMA: Guns and religion in Pennsylvania

After the American Century

Obama has closed the gap between himself and Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, and depending on which poll you believe, he is now behind by 4-5%. This will allow him to suffer an "acceptable loss" on April 22 - by which I mean a small loss compared to his initial weakness in the state, where he trailed by more than 10%. Note, too, that he narrowly leads John McCain in Pennsylvania polling, though Hillary leads by considerably more. 

However, Obama has not been having an easy time of it of late, due to some ill chosen words in San Francisco, when trying to explain why he is not winning in the polls in Pennsylvania. To summarize, he said voters were bitter, and that they were clinging to guns and religion. This was a rare mistake in what has generally been an extremely good campaign, and Clinton is riding it for all it is worth, in every campaign appearance.

Pennsylvania is a state I once knew very well. I grew up in the center of the state, in Boalsburg, which is far enough west to make me a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. The town claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, and it was the sort of small town where lots of farm boys were in the schools, and these boys went hunting with their fathers when they were about 11 or 12 years old. Some would come into school on Monday with tales of killing their first deer. Even if all you know about Pennsylvania is the early scenes from The Deer Hunter, then you know that hunting and gun ownership are not about fear. Whatever else might be wrong with the world, the rural Pennsylvanian can still go hunting. The woods will welcome the hunter each fall, and the man will recall when he was there for the first time with his father. Obama simply got that part wrong. Rural white Pennsylvanians love to hunt, and they connect gun ownership to going into the woods after game. No doubt in Chicago, where Obama lives, gun ownership has another meaning, and gun control has considerable appeal. But hunting and gun ownership are simply not debatable for the sort of people I grew up with. He has lost some votes for that mistake.

Unfortunately, Obama managed to drag religion into his remarks as well, as another thing Pennsylvanians cling to. Remember that the state was founded by Quakers, who were extremely tolerant about religion, allowing any sect to immigrate into the state. As a result, the variety of religions in Pennsylvania is greater than just about anywhere in the country. You can find sizable groups of Mennonites, Amish, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Catholics, to make a short list. These groups do not merely persist, they flourish, and it is not because people cling to them due to bad times. The churches as I knew them, through endless suppers, bingo games, small carnivals, bake sales, coffee hours, markets, and strawberry shortcake specials, were the sinews that held communities together. In the small town you might well go to some of the events at another church, which helped them to raise money. We all knew one another, and the church was not so much a matter of doctrine as a matter of cultural identity. I do not think religious doctrine then was or now is quite as central to church-going in Pennsylvania as it might be in Alabama or Chicago. Rather, people were comfortable with their particular church, without being particularly zealous. Obama should get to the chicken dinners, and then have some apple cobbler and coffee.

When I lived in rural Pennsylvania, there were almost no Black people. There were none in my elementary school and only one fellow in seventh grade, as far as I can recall. Hillary will seem a more familiar figure to them than he will. Obama is definitely my candidate, but I wish he had found better local advisers and had practiced his bowling before heading out into the hinterland.  My guess is that for a decent showing in the primary there, he will have to rely on getting out the vote in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the other cities. More generally, he will have to use his ability to learn quickly to understand this part of the electorate a bit better, or McCain will win Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the White House.

April 08, 2008

McCain's Torture

After the American Century

In a world of political spin, perhaps I should not be surprised that John McCain continues to enjoy the reputation of a moderate maverick. Sadly, this is not the case.

McCain has courted extremists, notably Rod Parsley who is a well-known Moslem basher and John Hagee, a preacher from San Antonio Texas, who believes Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for granting gay rights. He has also called the Catholic Church a "false cult." Hagee wrote a book, Jerusalem Countdown, which reads current events in the Middle East as the fulfillment of Biblical prophesy. Iran and Armegeddon, as 'twas foretold. This is ideal reading material for a future commander-in- chief. We will all sleep more comfortably, if we are certain that President McCain sees diplomacy as a part of escatology. President Bush made a start in this direction, but an even more militant attack on "evil" is surely just what the nation needs. Otherwise, we might get distracted by the economy, as it slides into recession.

At the end of February, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called on McCain to disavow Hagee's endorsement. At the very same time that Obama was being roasted by the press for statements that his pastor had made, but McCain got off lightly, with relatively little attention to his relationship with Hagee.

There is no space here to discuss McCain's conservatism in its entirely. But consider that this is the man who voted against establishing a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Think about that for a moment, and keep in mind that he has a poor record on civil rights laws.

Consider next that he voted against a legal ban on waterboarding. Yes, the man known for his suffering as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and for his opposition to torture did not want to stop waterboarding. He cast this vote in this election year, showing where he stands on the torture question. But if waterboarding is OK, McCain is adament that abortion should be outlawed. He is also a fiscal conservative when it comes to liberal frills, like children's health care, which he voted against last year. To make certain no one would mistake his view, he defended George W. Bush's veto of the bill.

Many people think McCain is pro-environment, but in 2007 the League of Conservation Voters studied his voting record and found he deserved a zero. That is a truly remarkable result for a Senator from Arizona, a state with some of the nation's most attractive scenery and with real environmental problems. Arizona's conservatives often have been environmentally aware, notably Barry Goldwater. He was among the first 100 people ever to go down the Grand Canyon in a boat, and he had a reverential attitude toward wilderness. McCain has a more utilitarian view of nature. How is it that in 1964 Barry Goldwater had no chance of winning the presidency, where today McCain, with similar positions on many issues, has a very real chance of winning?

The Republican Party as a whole has moved so far to the right since 1964 as to be almost unrecognizable. Had McCain stood for election 44 years ago, he would have seemed to the right of Barry Goldwater. But today, McCain is widely perceived as being to the left of President Bush.

April 02, 2008

Where Are the Battleground States? Does This Information Point to Clinton or Obama?

After the American Century

Rasmussen Reports has made a study of the alignment of the states, looking at them in terms of the electoral college. It turns out that according to their polling, the Democrats have 190 electoral votes they can count on, including New York and California. The Republicans have 189 in their column, including Texas. So, where are the battleground states? Here is the list of 13 where the fall election will be lost or won. They have a total of 159 electoral votes: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, and New Hampshire.

Note that both Michigan and Florida are on the list, providing another reason to consider finding a way to hold proper primaries in each state. But what is most striking, otherwise, is that the Deep South is not going to be in play. Rather, the election will be won or lost in the middle of the country, with 85 votes in the contiguous states that stretch from Pennsylvania to Iowa and Minnesota, plus 19 electoral votes in the mountain, desert west (Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico), and 55 in four quite different outlier states, Virgina, Missouri, Florida, and New Hampshire.

Looking at that list, it seems clear that Hillary's endlessly repeated claim that only she can win the big states only has some force, because some of these big states are safely in one column or other other. But nevertheless, it is true that some big states are up for grabs, notably the 58 electors from Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Another way to look at the list is to ask how Obama and Clinton did in these states, and this reveals a close contest, with Obama a bit ahead.

Clinton (54): Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Mexico
Obama (60): Virginia, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado
No Valid Primary (44): Michigan, Florida

One could say that Clinton's whole argument comes down to Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Looking toward November, this list of swing states strongly suggests that the ideal Democratic vice-presidential candidate is not someone from the South, where the Republicans are strong, but a popular governor in one of the Midwestern swing states - someone from Ohio, perhaps. Ted Strickland seems ideal for the job, from a polling point of view. He would also appeal to centrist voters, with his storng Methodist background, teaching experience, and work as a psychologist. Personally, I would be more excited to see Bill Richardson on the ticket, but there are not enough votes at stake in New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado, and the Hispanic voters in Texas and California seem safely in the Democratic column in any case.

Overall, the Rasmussen polls show another important trend. In the last month the movement has been away from the Democrats, who are far less likely to win the election now than they were in early March. McCain is the only winner in the Clinton-Obama contest so far.