afternoons with clyde

A running commentary from an independent perspective on political culture and the culture of politics – on the shared political views of a community as well as the shared views of political practitioners – in the United States generally, and New York in particular (with a few eccentric observations on other subjects thrown in for good measure).

Convenient Illnesses

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In 1954, the US Senate was scheduled to vote to censure one of their members, Joseph McCarthy. Conveniently absent for the vote was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He claimed a medical emergency, and an ambulance carried him off the Senate floor. Kennedy knew that the censure would be approved, but didn’t want to vote on it. The reasons: his brother, Robert, worked for McCarthy’s Senate Committee; his father, Joseph, was a supporter of McCarthy; and Kennedy didn’t want to offend the Irish Catholics from his home state of Massachusetts. It was not one of Kennedy’s finest moments.

I was reminded of this moment in history when I heard the news that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was declining to speak at a Senate hearing on the assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi. The official reason: she was ill at home, had a dizzy spell, fell and sustained a concussion. The real reason: she knew that she and her department would be severely criticized for screwing up the security at the Consulate and did not want to harm her legacy as Secretary and her future run the Presidency in 2016. Indeed, a special inquiry looking into the assault yesterday issued a damning report on the episode, although they did not fault her specifically. She quickly accepted the 29 recommendations the inquiry offered for improving security at all diplomatic outposts. How very convenient.

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Why Do New Yorkers Vote Against Their Own Best Interests?

Are we all rich enough to continue our noblesse oblige attitude towards the rest of the country?  After all, for decades we’ve sent billions upon billions of our tax dollars to Washington and received only relative fractions in return.  And yet, we remain solidly Democrat even when the policies of that party tend to undermine our economic growth.

The consequences of the Obama administrations current tax reform proposal will be particularly detrimental to New York.  We already pay about the highest state and local taxes in the nation, and our cost of living is also comparatively off the charts, especially when it comes to housing; with proposed limits on deductibility of state and local taxes as well as mortgages, middle class New Yorkers are bound to suffer.  While we boast some of the highest earners in the nation, we also take pride in their commitment to charitable endeavors; moreover, our local nonprofit sector is comparatively large and employs and supports millions of people.  If deductions for charitable contributions are likewise limited, the ripple effect could have adverse consequences not only at the national level, but for poor and working-class New Yorkers who rely on social services.

It seems to me that there ought to be some middle ground.  Perhaps creating a progressive system of deductibility based not only on individual income, but also on calculations that take into consideration local cost of living and median (not per capita) income.

New York needs to take a stand for once and demand that Washington stop biting the hand that feeds it.

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Better the Devil You Know

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t…

It seems that the voters largely followed that old idiom in electing Obama…and it appears they were right.  Romney’s secretly recorded appearance at the fundraiser where he now famously referred to the 47 percent of America as dependent on government handouts probably, more than anything else, cost him any gains he made in the debates.  Yet there were still those who believed that this ham-handed version of campaign strategy doled out to a roomful of fat cat supporters could not be a real reflection of Romney’s character.  But no longer.  As the New York Times has reported, in a post-election conference call with reporters (again, a so-called “private” event – this guy obviously can’t learn), Romney referenced Obama’s “old playbook,” which involved “gifts” to African-American, Hispanic and young voters.  In other words, Romney charges that Obama used the policies of his administration to provide “generous” assistance to those communities to essentially buy their votes.  Led by up-and-comer Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana, Republican leaders were quick to condemn Romney’s tasteless and cowardly charges.  Having had no enthusiasm for either candidate, I for one am now certain that Romney would’ve been a very poor choice for president.

In a related note, I was recently reading an excerpt from the script of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the argument between Potter and George Baily.  It is uncanny how their positions reflect those of the erstwhile candidates – in particular, Potter’s characterization of Ernie the cabdriver…

 

Pity the Campaign Staffers

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While Sandy may not have a significant effect on the strategies of the presidential campaigns (the portions of the Northeast hardest hit are firmly in Obama’s corner), there are a serious number of hotly contested races at the federal and state levels in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.  Since the storm hit with only a week out to Election Day, considerable (and perhaps unprecedented) campaign chaos is certain in those down-ballot races.

First, there’s the mail.  Even with the rise of the internet, direct mail remains the most effective way to reach voters — especially seniors, the largest class of high propensity voters.  With mail delivery stalled for days, it is likely that critical last minute GOTV (Get Out The Vote) mailings may not reach voters before Tuesday; even if they do, mailings that were scheduled incrementally throughout last week will end up landing all at once, probably on Monday and/or Tuesday, a situation dreaded by campaigns because messages become confused or objects of annoyance if not completely lost to the trash.

But even more significant is the disruption of the ground game.  Tight races can be won or lost through the volume and tactical deployment of volunteers.  This is particularly important in the last week and on Election Day itself – knocking on doors as well as offering transportation to the polls.  In suburban, exurban and rural communities, both efforts require cars:  but with gas shortages and  rationing, how can a campaign ask a volunteer to use his or her own gasoline for GOTV when people are more concerned with having enough gas to go to work, to the market, or to take the kids to school next week?

To make matters worse, in some locations (eg. parts of Long Island, Staten Island, the Rockaways, and coastal New Jersey), hurricane destruction has meant that polling sites have been consolidated, making travel longer and more inconvenient for some.  Less enthusiastic voters who might have been persuadable may now find going to the polls too inconvenient and too wasteful of precious gasoline — they will just stay home.  Moreover, in hard hit areas, a lot of people may be just too fatigued or depressed to even care about the election at all, particularly if they understand that in their state, the presidential race is all but a fait accompli for Obama (thanks to the outdated Electoral College).

And, finally, there’s the general psychological exhaustion, exacerbated by the storm.  Ads running early last week were often pre-empted because of the constant updates and press conferences.  In some areas, they didn’t air all week because of loss of power (which continues in spots).  However, where and when ads did air, was anyone really paying attention?  Or worse:  for those awaiting further news of the devastation or for emergency instructions, a political ad might appear even more irritating than usual; after all, the public already has a pretty low opinion of politicians and electeds.

So, I don’t envy those campaign staffers working for congressional or state legislative campaigns.  Essentially, except for automated phone calls (robo calls), that some voters find annoying, the competitive campaigns have lost all control; it’s practically now a roll of the dice.  At this point, campaign exhaustion is high under normal conditions (and for most staff, productivity relative to compensation is similar to that experienced by workers in the Industrial Revolution) – but this year, the 20-hour days, pulling out of hair, short tempers and nail biting are sure to reach record levels.

So if you see a poor staffer out there, even if you don’t support his or her candidate, give ‘em a hug or a cup of coffee…they are, in the end, working for our democracy.  To paraphrase Bette Davis, fasten your seatbelts folks, it’s going to be a rocky election night.

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Is Early Voting Unconstitutional?

Early voting encompasses on-site extended voting periods as well as “no excuse” absentee ballots. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx), 32 states and the District of Columbia allow on-site early voting; in 27 states and the District of Columbia, a voter can request an absentee ballot unconditionally; in two states, Washington and Oregon all voting is conducted by mail. About two-thirds of the states offer some form of early voting. This year, early voting states include the presidential battleground states, Ohio, North Carolina, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin and Florida. Early voting can begin from the four days preceding election day to as many as 45; the average, though, is 22 days before election day.

Twenty-four hours can be an eternity for a campaign – anything can change on a dime, particularly in today’s 2.0 world. While early voting was once seen as a strategy to increase turnout, over time any short-term bumps in voter participation wane. Early voters are generally high-propensity, party-line voters. And, sure, there aren’t many (if any) examples in recent history of drastic events close to national general election days that might change the votes of stalwart party regulars or enthusiasts.

But we have to ask, what if? If in the presidential campaign or congressional races, a candidate should stumble so badly in the few days or hours leading up to the official date of the election, early voters might demand the ability to re-cast their ballots, possibly even leading to the Supreme Court taking up such a case.

The selection of the Tuesday after the first Monday in November is codified by law; it is not, as some believe, specified in the Constitution. However, can a presidential or congressional candidate, a minority party, or even a voter make the case that their First Amendment right to freedom of speech (of expression) is curtailed by early voting? As a voter, if last minute events are so grave as to firmly change my mind, isn’t my freedom of expression being sacrificed to my early vote? But outside the possibility of some last-minute game-changing disaster, the law does specifically set aside one day for voting in federal general elections. A federal candidate could argue that, as such, he or she has a consistent, federally delineated time period to get the message out which should not be usurped by the states. A presidential candidate could argue that the lack of uniformity of early voting periods across states exacerbates the situation in terms of targeting resources. Early voting, it could also be argued, results in a diffusion of momentum that a uniform election day provides.

Early voting would seem to favor incumbents and/or those with the deepest pockets who either have name recognition or the resources to spend on paid media (broadcast and mail) and grass-roots organizing over a longer period (Michelle Obama, for instance, said in Ohio that early voting was the Obama campaign’s “secret weapon”). Because of Citizens’ United and the consequent multiplication of PACs and Super PACs, this situation is greatly magnified. And minority parties might find it especially difficult to find a foothold, even in congressional contests. For anyone who would like to see a strong, third-party alternative develop on the presidential horizon, the expense of contending with early voting states, along with our outmoded Electoral College system, is a major deterrent. It’s bad enough that the Electoral College basically gives presidential campaigns a “take ‘em for granted” attitude especially towards uncontested winner-take-all states like New York (we still get candidate visits, however, for a campaign’s piggy-bank).

And then there’s the issue of voter fraud. Set aside the argument for photo ID requirements. In states that offer both on-site as well as no-excuse absentee ballots, are there really safeguards in place to prevent a voter from mailing in a ballot and then voting a second time at the polls? Many Boards of Elections are bastions of patronage, with incompetent workers; and even if the Boards did have competent personnel, do they have the technology and resources to prevent double voting? To check each mail-in paper ballot against the voting booth?

With early voting (and its wide variants across states), the proliferation of deep-pocketed PACs, the outdated Electoral College, the incompetence and lack of resources among Boards of Elections, have we created a Rube Goldberg electoral model?

One final thought: in presidential years especially, the November election day represents a coming together of the American people to make a historic choice. It is a visual as well as an emotional moment of civic pride.  It ought not to be diluted.

Rube Goldberg, “Pencil Sharpener”

WSJ Cartoon

WSJ Cartoon

Why is the presidential campaign so negative?

Most pundits are focusing on the small percentage of undecided, “persuadable” voters in what is turning out to be a very tight race (in most of the battleground states, Romney appears to be trailing within the margin of error).  But since it’s a rule of thumb that negative advertising is frowned upon generally, the negative nature of both campaigns seems to suggest something else.  As pollster Scott Rasmussen has noted, most voters see this race as a referendum on Obama.  What the Obama campaign is likely worried about is the hidden vote – Democrats who tell a pollster that they are likely to vote and that they are supporting Obama.  My guess is, given the kind of general disenchantment, a small percentage of that group may end up not voting for the top of the ticket, not voting at all, or even voting for Romney.  What the Romney camp is worried about is much more clear cut – that in the end, Obama’s personal favorability will carry the day.  Thus, for both sides, the strategy seems to be more along the lines of suppressing the other guy’s ability to draw undecideds; in other words, the negativity may stem from a strategy aimed at frustrating a swing percentage of voters.

Example of a hidden voter:

Accentuate the Positive

With all the negatives out there, I thought it might lighten things up to try a word cloud interpretation of the scripts of both Romney’s and Obama’s most recent, thirty-second positive spots.  In “The Romney Plan,” the candidate himself narrates.  For Obama, however, I could not find any :30 positive with him as narrator; nor could I find any spot that didn’t contain a contrast to Romney, which is interesting in itself.  But it makes a good deal of sense:  While I’m sure the Obama campaign would have loved to make a version of “Morning in America” this year, they just can’t make that kind of argument with any credibility.  But, the closest the Obama campaign has come is the ad featuring Bill Clinton, titled “Clear Choice.”  Below are two configurations made with the Wordle program (www.wordle.net) from a selection of the ten most used words in both ads (the larger they are, the more frequently used).

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My interpretation:  Romney’s language is narrow and uptight, while Obama’s (Clinton’s) is broad and inviting, though vague; Romney stresses the more wonky term “policies,” which, along with “small business” and “help” are the most repeated; Clinton stresses the more populist “plan,” the only word that dominates that spot. While the Obama campaign spot speaks of full employment being tied to the middle class, Romney’s mention of the middle class is tied to a specific focus on help for small business and dressed up by related fiscal, economic, and regulatory verbiage.  Both of course mention jobs, but, characteristically, Romney’s language seems mechanical and rather cold, Obama/Clinton’s aspirational and rather warm.  My guess is if Obama delivered his own positive message, he would appear somewhere in between on the temperature scale. Finally, I find Clinton’s repeated use of the word “plan” as it relates to President Obama’s position a little jarring – usually it’s the challenger who has the “plan,” with the incumbent having a “record” (or even a “program”).

Here are the actual scripts of the ads (I would love anyone reading this blog to post their own word cloud interpretations):

“The Romney Plan”

My plan is to help the middleclass.  Trade has to work for America.  That means crack down on cheaters like China.  It means open up new markets.  Next we got to balance the budget, you got to cut the deficit, you got to stop spending more money than we take in.  And finally, champion small~business.  Have tax policies, regulations and health care policies that help small~business. We put those in place we’ll add twelve million new jobs in four years.

“Clear Choice”

This election to me is about which candidate is likely to return us to full~employment.  This is a clear choice.  The Republican plan is to cut more taxes on upper~income people and go back to deregulation.  That’s what got us in trouble in the first place.  President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up, investing in innovation, education and job training.  It only works if there is a strong middle~class.  That’s what happened when I was president.  We need to keep going with his plan.