November 23, 2008

Giving Pragmatism and Brains a Chance

After the American Century

The rapprochement between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama apparently has been taking place since June. Clearly neither has such a sensitive ego that it prevents them from seeing the advantages of working together. I admit that I am surprised both that he would ask her to become his Secretary of State and that she would accept. I always thought that being a Senator, especially a high-profile Senator from a large state, was a better position than serving in the cabinet. Being Secretary of State is the most important job there, to be sure, but it is potentially only a four year run, and at best eight years. In contrast, Clinton has such a strong hold on her Senate seat that she could keep it for life.

So far, it seems that Obama's criteria for getting a post in his administration are that one has to be very smart, preferably with an Ivy League education, and not too much of an ideologue. He seems to prefer pragmatists who have Washington experience. He has drawn on many from the Clinton White House, which is not surprising, since to find other Democrats with such experience he would have to go back to 1980, the last year of Carter's administration. Most of his staff are now retired. As with all cabinets, this one almost assuredly looks better before it takes power that it likely will in four years time. But after eight years of ideologues and a less than brilliant president, surely it is time to give pragmatism and brains a chance. This will be novel for Washington lobbyists and for Fox News, not to mention any Republicans who still believe that Obama is a socialist.

As the appointment process proceeds, the contrast increases between the staggering economy and hope that the Obama will be able to turn it around. His announcement yesterday of a major economic stimulus package, ideally to be passed as soon as possible after January 20, clearly is calculated to hearten the market, and to help bridge the 8 week gap between now and the moment he assumes control. Call it "change they need to believe in." If the meltdown continues, Obama may inherit a nationwide crisis so palpable that his plans will be passed quickly. If the economy miraculously improves, he will presumably face a bit more opposition. But either way, I think we can expect passage of a stimulus package that features green energy technologies, tax cuts for the middle class, and incentives for industries to create jobs.

November 17, 2008

Obama's Restricted Freedom

After the American Century

There is a curious irony in President Barack Obama's e-mail situation. While a Senator he was glued to his Blackberry and emailed constantly. As President, it appears he will have to give up his freedom in cyberspace. Not only will official regulations require that all his official business be preserved for posterity, but also national security mandates that his emailing be restricted to harmless topics, if not cut off altogether.

The erosion of the line between public and private is a problem for all Internet users. Google can mine information on those who use its search engine, strangers can see photographs we post on Facebook, and huge amounts of personal information ends up on the WWW, often without the persons described, discussed or documented being aware of it. Therefore, the President has to become an intensely private person, with little or no personal presence on the Internet, however many official web pages and news stories there are about him or her.

In Obama's case this seems particularly ironic. More than any other candidate, he mastered the new media, and used it to raise money and coordinate his campaign. He apparently also used it to stay in touch with ordinary people - old friends whom he could trust to tell him what the buzz was on the street. E-mail gave him access to life beyond the bubble of celebrity and security. But now, for the next four, quite possibly eight years, Obama will enter a cocoon of cyber-isolation - or he may become a reader but not a sender of emails. One assumes he will still have a computer and that he will be able to surf the web, perhaps under a new assumed name each day.

The President is seen as the most powerful person in the United States, yet his movements are restricted, his contacts are monitored, his every decision recorded, and his email cut off. While there are compensations, to be sure, holding that office to a considerable degree restricts freedom and discourages spontaneity. For decades the President has not been able, on the spur of the moment, to jump in the car and go for an aimless, relaxing jaunt into the countryside. It seems the freedom to roam in cyberspace will be restricted as well.

But on the bright side, for at least four years Obama will not get any spam!

November 14, 2008

Ranking the States on Energy Efficiency

After the American Century

Energy is a central part of the announced Obama program, so it is useful to know which states (and their representatives in Congress) are most disposed to support him. A new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy rates all 50 states, not in terms of their energy use per capita, but in terms of their utility regulations, transportation legislation, building codes and other laws that require or at least encourage better energy practices. The most conscientious states turn out to be those that Obama won, led by California and Oregon, and including New York, New Jersey, the New England States, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. These are quintessential "blue states" in other words, and they all receive scores of at least 25 out of a possible 50, California being the highest with 40.5.

And those at the bottom? All are "red states" with the worst score going to Dick Cheney's Wyoming, a perfectly dreaful 0. But there are remarkably low scores also for Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and so on. To make the symmetry rather complete, swing states are in the middle, with higher scores if they are in the North and lower if they are further south. Thus Missouri had an anemic score of only 4, and was 45th in the nation. The most northern swing state, New Hampshire, had the highest score among them, with 16.5, and came in 18th. Another northern swing state, Ohio, scored scored 16 and came in 19th.

These are not merely statistics. The states spent just under $3 billion on energy efficiency in 2007, almost four times what George Bush budgeted for it. In short, the states that supported Obama most strongly are also those most prepared to take advantage of any new energy programs.

There is one interesting exception to these generalizations, the State of Michigan. It ranks just 38th overall, in contrast to its more environmentally conscientious neighbors in the northern tier of the US. Center of the American car industry, Michigan seems wedded to energy profligracy.

November 12, 2008

How Accurate Were the Polls?

After the American Century

In the aftermath of the election, one can judge how accurate public opinion polls were. Real Clear Politics developed a useful poll of the polls, giving an average figure that combined all the various efforts to quantify the public mood. This proved quite accurate. On the eve of the election, this average was 52.1% for Obama, who actually received slightly more, 52.6% of all votes cast. McCain was predicted to receive 44.5% but actually got 46.1%. 

To put this another way, the poll of polls predicted a difference between the candidates of 7.6%. The actual difference was 6.5%. This could be considered an error of 1.1%, but some voters did change the minds during the last week of the contest, and this was a running average.

Which polling service did the best? None predicted a McCain victory. I hate to admit it, but FOX News predicted Obama by 7%. CNN also had Obama by 7%, while the PEW Trust concluded that the difference would be 6%. This suggests that however rabid the FOX news department may be, their polling experts do a good job. Less successful were Reuters and Gallup, as both predicted a massive Obama victory, with a margin of 11%. CBS News and ABC News gave Obama a 9% margin of victory - too much, but only 2.5% away from the correct result.

In terms of electoral votes, the polls also were pretty accurate. While John McCain tried hard to win in Pennsylvania, the polls kept saying that this was not going to happen. In fact, the race there was not particularly close. All the hype about the "Bradley Effect" proved mistaken. Likewise, the polls said Obama would likely win in Virginia, which he did, and that it was too close to call in North Carolina. In fact, Obama did win there, but by a margin of less than 1%. The polls were also right to say that Obama was leading in Florida, that he would take Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, and that the only swing state where McCain had a good chance was Missouri. In fact, we are still not absolutely certain he won there, but it appears that did did, by less than 8,000 votes. The poll of polls put McCain ahead by 0.1% - amazingly accurate.

On the whole, I suppose this is a good result, but one always hopes for a little bit of unpredictability to keep things interesting.

November 11, 2008

Bush's Email-gate

After the American Century

As President Bush prepares to leave Washington, we begin to think about his legacy. Unfortunately, full evaluation of his eight years in office may be difficult because he has not kept good records. In 2003 the White House was busy with many things, including the build-up to the Iraq War. The records from that year might be particularly interesting to historians, and they are crucial to understanding how the Bush government decided, mistakenly, that weapons of mass destruction were being hidden by Saddam Hussein. However, much of the email from that year, perhaps 225 days, may be lost. Electronic accident? or expunged?

The losses begin, conveniently enough, during the build-up to the Iraq War . The missing mail also includes records related to the CIA-leak case, in which White House personnel "outed" one of their own agents, apparently as political revenge. This led to the prosecution and conviction of "Scooter" Libby, one of Dick Cheney's closest aids.

Some email has also apparently disappeared for 2004 and 2005, perhaps as many as 5 million pages in all, according to CREW, a non-profit watchdog organization concerned with ethics in government. However, it is possible that all this material still exists in White House servers - but no one writing about this on the Internet seems to know. In fact, if all the emails are entirely lost from every server, that result almost required systematic record destruction

The Federal Records Act requires the preservation of all presidential papers, including emails. Yet it appears that George Bush and his team have been both careless in preservation and lax in recovery efforts. In contrast, the Clinton White House had an automatic archiving system that made copies of all emails. When the Bush team chose a new email system in 2002, however, they did not include automatic archiving. Instead, each email had to be manually renamed and saved. This sounds like a ludicrous, make-work program most of the time, but also it also potentially provides a chance to omit the damaging email now and again. But 225 days in one year? Perhaps 473 days in all? 5 million messages?

Such incompetence (or is it the intentional loss of damaging information?) may be hard to believe. But then these are Republicans. A Republican President, Richard Nixon, erased vital parts of the Watergate tapes. In the Irangate scandal, the Reagan White House, tried (unsuccessfully) to erase incriminating information as well. There is a pattern here, and it should more than embarrass the Republicans. There appear to be grounds for a criminal investigation, because the Bush Administration was aware of the problem already in 2002, but failed to fix it for six years. During most of the two Bush terms, many people may have been able to delete emails from their accounts or even from the servers. Historians will not be able to trust this partial record.

At the same time, Dick Cheney at times has been doing official business using a private email account. This is illegal because it skirts the legal requirements of the Federal Records Act, and makes it even easier to eliminate anything illegal, incriminating or embarrassing.

The Bush White House has systematically undermined the record keeping process. The legacy of these eight years is apparently rife with evasion and destruction of evidence. Will anyone be prosecuted?

For a chronology of this unfolding scandal and more information, go to The National Security Archive.

November 08, 2008

Obama Prepares

After the American Century

The world continues to marvel that Obama is indeed president, as do I. But at the same time the candidate is rapidly metamorphosing into the leader of the US, as he chooses a staff and decides whom to entrust with cabinet positions. These appointments are not easy to make, not just because each position has its own special requirements, but because the whole pattern of appointments needs to include women, minorities, experienced people, exciting newcomers, major supporters, and even some Republicans. Filling each post without looking at the larger pattern can easily result in too few women, for example, or no Republicans.

Juggling all the names and positions and having them fall into a coherent pattern takes time, in contrast to the European system, where a shadow government is ready to step in and rule on a few days notice. The more than two month transition period has the advantage that Obama can think carefully about what he wants to accomplish, but the disadvantage that a lame Duck George Bush remains in charge as the economy crumbles.

The worst of the bad news is that General Motors, long the world's largest auto maker, is in danger of collapse, while Ford and Chrysler are not doing much better. But there is plenty of other bad news, ranging from the highest unemployment rates in 16 years to announcements at most colleges and universities that faculty hiring will cease and that student aid will diminish. This is because universities live in part off their endowments, invested largely in the stock market. So, as the car industry goes bankrupt, universities fall on hard times.

The auto and oil industries are old industry, while the newer high-tech companies are doing somewhat better. The task Obama faces is to haul these older companies into the new millennium, building new kinds of energy-efficient automobiles, and giving workers health insurance, which the corporations can no longer afford to provide. In other words, as Obama knows himself, the proposals he has made on renewable energy, health care, and stimuli for the economy are all interconnected. Something like a European medical system is necessary for corporate recovery. A new energy program is necessary to make the nation more efficient, less polluting, and more competitive.

Therefore, the first hundred days of the new administration are crucial. Will he be able to coordinate and implement the fine ideas he developed in his campaign? Can the Democrats remain together and vote in their program? Or will Congress, as usual, bury the new programs in a myriad special provisions and pork-barrel items for their constituencies? There are many ways to derail or fatally delay or prevent implementation of the Obama program, which is why it is so important that he selects the right team for the job.

Every new president has a "honeymoon" period at the start of his administration, a time when it is easier to get new bills passed. Bill Clinton frittered his "honeymoon" away, and had little to show for his first six months in office. We will know by June whether Obama will do better.

November 05, 2008

A New Era in American Politics

After the American Century

Jessie Jackson envisioned the kind of victory that Barack Obama won yesterday, as a rainbow coalition of Americans turned out to give the Democrats a historic victory. The ecstatic celebration in Chicago included people from all walks of life and every race, all cheering together for the first African American president.

The eight year nightmare of the George Bush presidency is almost over, though the Democrats will inherit the economic and international problems he created. This is not the time to dwell on the difficulties that lie ahead, but rather a moment for celebration and renewal. It is the best day for the United States since the disputed election in 2000.

The moment tempts one to become Shakespearean. The bard once wrote that there comes a time in the affairs of mankind which, taken at flood tide, leads on to victory. Obama was fortunate to catch a powerful historical wave that carried him toward his success. His campaign was also superbly organized, which is why he rode that wave more successfully than any other Democratic candidate during the past year.

The whole sequence of events, from the Iowa Caucuses and the long primary season until the election has been stunning and emotionally exhausting. There has been more drama and interest throughout than in any campaign I can remember since 1968, and the result is far more decisive and positive than it was then. Such a victory was unimaginable a year ago. For once it really seems that anything is possible, that nations can change, that injustices can be overcome.

Perhaps all this is a fleeting impression before going to sleep. But the mark of a great leader is the ability to nurture hope.

The Coming Crisis in the Republican Party

Obama has won a convincing victory, large enough to give him a mandate for change. With majorities in both houses of Congress, the Democrats can enact their ambitious program, if they can stay united. They have not always been good at this in the past, so it cannot be taken for granted. But the severity of the economic crisis may strengthen a common resolve.

At the same time, the stunning defeat of the Republicans in the 2008 election has exposed a three way division in their party. First, there are cultural conservatives, represented by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. They passionately reject abortion, the Darwinian theory of evolution, gay marriage, and stem cell research. They passionately support the right to own guns, and they would like to see daily prayer reintroduced into the schools. Second, there are the more secular Republicans, like Mitt Romney, who was a successful businessman before he went into politics, or John McCain. For most of his career he was not allied with the cultural conservatives, but was more moderate. When he selected Sarah Palin, he did so because he needed to motivate the conservative wing of the party. However, as a result, moderate Republicans, such as General Colin Powell, refuse to ally themselves with him, and endorsed Obama. Third, the neo-conservatives are not fundamentalist Christians, but fundamentalist capitalists who believe in deregulation, the projection of American power, and preemptive military strikes against enemies abroad. The Neo-Cons were the architects of the Iraq War. These three groups are ideologically quite different, and as an alliance they make little sense and have lost most of their appeal. Ronald Reagan could hold this unwieldy alliance together. Bush had more difficulty doing so, and now it has come unraveled.

At the same time, the Republicans are becoming a minority party. With their base of voters on the extreme right they have a hard time even winning a majority of White voters. Notably, because of the abortion issue and years of attacking welfare programs, the Republican Party is rejected by a majority of all women. More surprisingly, the Republicans now get support from less than half of all those with incomes over $100,000. The Party also have weak appeal to the (mostly younger) people who have a mobile phone but no land line phone: 55% of them voted for Obama, only 35% for McCain. These numbers would be much worse for Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee. Neither could win a presidential contest. They look ignorant and provincial to the millions of Americans who are immigrants, have a good education, or who have lived abroad.

Not all elections are created equal. Some mark decisive changes in the coalitions and alignments of national politics, notably that of 1932, which brought Franklin D. Roosevelt to power and put the Democrats in control of Congress as well for most of the next 36 years. These were years of reform, when the United States moved toward a welfare state. But then in 1968 the Republican Party recaptured the lead role in US politics, and held it for most of the next 40 years. This domination began with the election of Richard Nixon in a narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Nixon triumphed because he convinced several Southern states to vote Republican. After the Civil War, the Democrats long could count on unwavering support from the South. Indeed, the Southern hatred of "the party of Lincoln" was so strong that there were few Republicans in Dixie.

Nixon's "southern strategy" was a revolution in US politics, because it broke apart the New Deal coalition that Roosevelt had constructed in 1932. Roosevelt had joined together the industrial laborers and immigrants of the North with the rural South. Nixon was able to pry the South loose from the Democrats because culturally conservative Dixie was upset by the Civil Rights movement and the New Left. The new coalition reached the height of its power under Reagan. It was only briefly broken in 1992 and 1996 by Clinton because he and Gore both came from the South. But the Republicans still controlled the Congress.

However, in both 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush's support was weak. Indeed, in 2000 Gore received half a million more votes. The nation was changing demographically, and it has continued to do so. Back in Reagan's time, the Republicans had a good chance at winning in California and New Work. No more. These states are now solidly Democratic. Why? Because the population has changed. The largest minority in the US today are the Hispanics, 40 million strong, and they vote Democratic. Obama won that constituency over McCain by a ratio of more than 2-1. Likewise, the rising tide of Asian-Americans seldom agree with Republican cultural conservatives, though they are more likely to be comfortable with the business wing of the party. Even more decisively, 90% of African-Americans also vote Democratic. As a result, Republicans need to win 60% or more of the white vote to have a chance, but they cannot do that because they have alienated too many white women and educated voters. In this election, they barely managed to win a majority of white voters, and so lost decisively.

These trends can be seen in the South and West, where the Republicans have been dominant since 1968. Large numbers of Hispanics and liberal voters have moved to Colorado and New Mexico, western states that used to be solidly Republican but now lead toward Obama. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of outsiders have moved into the southern states of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, in all of which Obama also has overwhelming support from Black voters. As a result, Obama won both Florida and Virginia, and as of this writing leads by 0.3% in North Carolina, breaking the 40-year Republican hold on the South. As regional differences decline and as the nation becomes more multicultural, the Republicans risk becoming the party of the old, the white, the poorly educated, and the fundamentalists. This may seem exaggerated, but look at the candidates who ran in the Republican primaries.

McCain has lost the White House and the Republicans have lost 6 or more seats in the Senate and at least 23 seats in the House of Representatives. They are much worse off than when they were a minority party from the 1930s until 1968. Then they were at least a national party. Now they risk becoming a declining regional white party, in a nation that is increasingly multicultural.

The Republicans must reinvent themselves, but this may take a generation. Meanwhile, the rejuvenated Democratic Party can be expected to control the Federal government for at least eight years under Obama, and quite possibly for much longer than that. 2008 looks like a turning point in US politics as important as 1932 or 1968. If the Democrats pass their platform into law, then in a few years the United States will have a national health system, a radically new energy policy, a green environmental policy, and a less confrontational foreign policy. The collapse of the Republican coalition has given Barack Obama a historic opportunity for change.

November 04, 2008

Why McCain Will Lose Today

After the American Century

On election day, Barack Obama appears to have an insurmountable lead, and appears headed for victory regardless of what happens in the few remaining swing states. A dramatic upset is possible, but in that case a large number of polls will prove inaccurate. An electoral map based on New York Times data shows only a handful of undecided states: Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri. Even if McCain manages to win all of these, itself improbable, he would still lose the election. That is why his campaign has made a hard push in Pennsylvania, because only if it wins its 21 electoral votes can he come within striking distance. Supposing he does win all the swing states and Pennsylvania, however, the result would be Obama 270, McCain 268.

Why has McCain lost? In good part, he lost because Obama waged such a strong, well-financed, and disciplined campaign. Even so, McCain made four fundamental mistakes.

1. McCain failed to distance himself decisively from President Bush. He should have done this early in the process. Instead, he sought Bush's approval, and he even used Bush's speech writer to craft Sarah Palin's convention speech. This fundamental mistake undermined his claims to represent change.

2. By August, McCain had abandoned his open campaign style, which for years made him the darling of the press. Instead, he adopted Karl Rove-style secrecy and negative attacks on his opponent. McCain himself was a victim of such nasty campaign tactics in 2000, when Bush falsely spread the rumor that he had fathered an illegitimate black child - when he and his wife in fact had adopted one from India. The public expected him to rise above negativism, which boomeranged to hurt him more than his opponent.

3. McCain chose the inexperienced Sarah Palin instead of a more credible and more centrist candidate, such as Senator Joe Lieberman, who previously was the Democratic Party VP candidate. Not only is Palin too inexperienced, but with her on the ticket it became ludicrous to attack Obama for being inexperienced. Worse, her appeal to the fundamentalist right-wing of the GOP drove moderates into the arms of the Democrats. Roughly 60% of the electorate has declared that she is not satisfactory. a result that also threw into question McCain's judgement.

4. McCain failed to see the usefulness of Internet campaigning and fund-raising, both of which Obama mastered from the start. Indeed, McCain has no computer skills himself, and does not use email. By 2012 the Republicans will have to learn how to do this. The WEB factor alone accounts for several percentage points of the difference between the two candidates on this election day.

When McCain has time to reflect on the loss, he may well think that he was unlucky. The timing of the economic meltdown could not have been worse for him or better for Obama. Nor was it easy to escape the shadows of Bush's enormous unpopularity. Yet the more successful campaign by Gerald Ford in 1976, in the aftermath of Nixon's Watergate disgrace, suggests that McCain could have done better. If he did not beat himself, these four mistakes made Obama's job far easier.

November 02, 2008

Obama seems certain winner.

After the American Century

After spending a week in the United States, I am convinced that Obama will win the election unless there is fraud on an unheard of scale. Unhappily, this is a possibility, as the many new voting machines may not prove reliable, though I am reasonably hopeful on that score.

The sense I got while visiting for a week was that the American media are doing all they can to make the result look close, but in fact few now really think McCain has a chance. The Republicans are making a big effort to win Pennsylvania, although Obama is ahead there by c. 7%. Supposing McCain is able to win there, however, he has been losing ground in many other places, so that even Georgia is now considered a swing state. Obama has been focusing efforts on securing the West, notably Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, with so much success that even McCain's home state of Arizona has slipped into the category of a swing state.

Overall, the displeasure with Palin has intensified, while the sense of comfort with Obama has increased. While the final result may hold some surprises, it seems likely that Obama will win a comfortable victory, large enough to be called a mandate for change.

To my Danish readers, I would warn that the quality of the coverage in the Danish media is mediocre or worse, and it is best to watch the BBC or CNN on election night. All sorts of people now claim to be experts on the US who have never lived there or published a single scholarly article. They are dragged out by the networks as experts, and they repeat what they have read somewhere.

It is a circus of incompetence that is painful to watch. In just one day since returning I have seen botched attempts to explain the electoral college, claims that Obama and McCain have the same foreign policy, and errors of fact or emphasis in every program I have seen.