Freedom Writing

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Bring Us Together

"There's a difference for voters between what offends you and what affects you."

Kellyanne Conway

In November 1968, when Richard Nixon had finally won the presidency, and he addressed the nation as president–elect for the first time, he referred to a sign he had seen a young girl holding in the closing days of the campaign. "Bring us together again" is what it said.

That, Nixon said, would be the great mission of his administration — to bring together a nation that was deeply divided. It seems to be the thing that every incoming administration promises to do. At least, it has always been that way in my memory. But it is much easier said than done.

As challenging as it was for Nixon — and, of course, he did not succeed in bringing America together — it may be even more difficult, if not impossible, for the Donald Trump administration. If you follow the news, you know that there were protests in large cities from coast to coast after Trump's election.

It really is nothing new that some of the voters are unhappy with the outcome of the election — although throwing such a tantrum over not getting your way in an election is rather new. No president is ever going to please everyone. As for bringing us together again, I would argue that Americans have seldom been 100% united about anything. Even when Congress declared war on Japan, propelling America into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a dissenting vote.

But there is something significantly different about it this time.

In what is best described as scattershooting, the Democrats have been casting wide nets to find something, however unlikely, to reverse the outcome of the election. Failing that, they pigeonhole people as good or evil, depending upon how they voted.

That is a dangerous mindset. It assumes things about other people that cannot be proven by their electoral choices. In fact, it is a claim that usually can be refuted — easily. For example, I've heard Trump voters described as racist — even though many of them voted for Barack Obama twice.

Each election is different, and each vote is based in part on how one has voted in the past, in part on whether one is satisfied with how things have gone since the last election and in part on the issues of the day. Enough voters in enough key states were dissatisfied with the status quo to flip the outcome from blue to red.

The left is engaged in stereotyping. Isn't that precisely what the left has found so objectionable about the right? And yet the left sees everything in stereotypes. All women think the same. All minorities think the same. All gays and lesbians think the same.

(Democrats don't seem to value individuality anymore, and that bothers a lot of people. The Democrats of 2016 reminded one voter of Frank Burns on the M*A*S*H TV show when he said, "Individuality is fine as long as we all do it together.")

That completely ignores the fact that millions of Americans had no interest in identity politics. They were interested in jobs, keeping one or getting one, and security.

It is a lesson Democrats refuse to learn. If they ever do, they may be able to bridge the gap that exists in America. Democrats will say that "gap" actually favors them. After all, their nominee won the popular vote — and if she had been able to sway fewer than 40,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin combined, she would have won the electoral vote, too.

Instead she piled up a huge margin in California, thus winning the national popular vote. If you take California out of the mix, Trump wins the popular vote, too.

But in neither case is it a landslide.

This country is divided — deeply — and one of the many challenges America faces in 2017 and beyond is the need for a greater sense of national unity.

As polarized as this nation is, I don't know if that can be achieved — or who can achieve it. I have my doubts that Trump can do it — but I had plenty of doubts about Trump in 2016, and he always surprised me.

The situation calls for someone who can appeal to both sides. Can he do it? History says no — but as any stock investor can tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Touching the Wet Paint

"Tell people there's an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

George Carlin

Yesterday was my birthday.

I spent the afternoon and evening at my father's house, doing what I prefer to do on my birthday — watch football on TV.

But I started the day with an early trip to the nearby clinic. The folks there needed to take a blood sample to make sure that the right dosage is prescribed for a medicine I have been taking for several years. It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this that one's body changes with the passage of time. People who wear glasses need to have their prescriptions adjusted for changes in their vision. And, if you take a medicine on a daily basis, as many people do, sometimes the dosage needs to be adjusted.

Anyway, with my work schedule and the necessary commute time, it simply isn't possible for me to plan to go in during the week. Fortunately, the clinic is open for abbreviated hours on Saturdays, and no appointment is necessary for blood work. You just need to get there before everyone else does if you want to avoid the wait.

The clinic opens at 8 a.m. so I got up early on a Saturday morning and got there right at 8 a.m. (OK, it was really 8:07, but that's close enough.) I walked in, told the receptionist I was there to do blood work and was whisked right in to the room where they do that stuff.

I had to wait there for a little while, then a young man walked in to take my blood. I told him that, in the past, people who have taken blood samples have found it easier to get it from the veins in my hands than the veins in my arms. I'm like my father in that regard. For some reason (genetic, I suppose) the veins in our arms are not conducive to the procedure for taking blood samples.

Now, I have been me all my life so I know things about me that people who have never met me before — like this young man — do not know. In the case of having blood drawn, I always try to save us all a little time, and I tell whoever is taking my blood that it tends to work best when it is taken from my hands.

But they always remind me of that George Carlin quote at the top of this post. They may take many things on faith, but they always have to touch the paint to make sure it is wet.

So I have learned to let 'em touch the paint. I tend to feel like a pin cushion by the time they are finished because, once they have failed to find a vein they can use in one arm, they always want to try the other, but — with rare exceptions, and there have been one or two — they are forced to conclude that I was right, and they proceed to my hands.

That is how it was yesterday. When the young man finally had to concede — after about half an hour of probing my arms for veins — that he would be successful using my hands instead, I watched as vial after vial filled up. It was like he had hit a gusher. And I pointed out that I had tried to save us some time.

But he had to touch the wet paint. They always do.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

How Could Hillary Lose?

I don't know how many times I have heard that question in recent days, but I know it has been a lot. I can understand some people's bewilderment. The polls showed Hillary Clinton leading from wire to wire. How could she possibly have lost?

If anyone is interested, I have a few thoughts on that.

The best place to start is with the declaration of a simple fact: History has always fascinated me. Whenever I have written about this election this year, my writing has almost always been grounded in the lessons that history can teach us.

In the last couple of years, many people have told me I was wrong, that just because Americans did something in the past did not mean they would do the same thing again (which was contradictory to the belief that states that had voted for Democrats for several elections would continue to do so).

For example ...

I frequently pointed out that Americans have only voted for the same party in three consecutive national elections once since the end of World War II. That was in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was elected twice and George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Reagan when he was term–limited out of office in 1988.

Post–WWII Americans have changed the party in the White House every eight years since 1945 like clockwork. Well, one time they changed parties after four years. That was in 1980, when Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter.

But aside from those two exceptions — both of which came during the post–Vietnam/post–Watergate period — post–World War II Americans have given a party two four–year terms in the White House, then they have been in the mood for change.

Historically, 2016 was destined to be a "change" election from the night in 2012 when Barack Obama was re–elected.

Is it really that simple? No, there is more to it than that, but it is an appropriate starting point.

Americans were predisposed this year to turn to the party that was out of power. Sometimes they have been reluctant to do so, and it has resulted in close elections, but that inclination for change runs strong in the American electorate. True, many (perhaps most) Americans found Donald Trump objectionable, but they still voted for him. Narrowly, yes, but still they voted for him, and it didn't surprise or shock me.

For a long time, I have known of an incredible sense of anxiety among Americans. I have seen election years when Americans were anxious but never to this extent before. They were frightened by terrorism and an immigration policy that seemed to encourage terrorists to come here. They were stressed economically by continually rising health care premiums that they were required by law to carry and incomes that didn't cover the necessities, let alone a luxury or two.

My main thought on election night was that a less flawed Republican would have crushed Clinton.

After all, Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate, too. The polls in which her supporters placed so much faith consistently showed that both she and Trump were unpopular. I started calling it an unpopularity contest when it became clear who the nominees would be, and I regarded their unpopularity as offsetting penalties (to use a football metaphor), canceling each other out.

Again, I believe a less flawed Republican candidate would have cruised to victory — even Ted Cruz.

I have also written in the last year of the Bradley effect, named for Tom Bradley, a black man who ran for California governor in 1982. Polls consistently showed him leading his Republican opponent — but on Election Day Bradley lost. Political scientists determined that, in pre–election polls, many respondents said they would vote for Bradley because they feared being labeled racist — even though it was extremely unlikely that the pollsters and the people being polled knew each other or that a pollster would give a second thought to anyone's responses five minutes after the conversation ended.

On Election Day, though, the voters were alone in the privacy of the voting booth, and Bradley's opponent won the election.

I wrote nearly a year ago that I thought we could be seeing the same thing in this campaign, and I never changed my mind about that. I don't have any evidence to back up my conclusion that the Bradley effect played a role in this year's election, and I suppose it will require some research before a verdict can be rendered, but I sincerely believe there may have been Trump supporters who told pollsters they would vote for Clinton because they didn't want to be labeled racist or sexist or homophobic.

I could be wrong about that, but I have read articles that point to that as a possibility, and I have heard people speak of something like that taking place. It wouldn't surprise me to learn there was an element of that in Trump's silent victory.

But I continue to believe that historical voting patterns offered significantly more clues to people that something like this was going to happen.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post on this blog about states that I saw as up for grabs based on whether they gave Barack Obama or Mitt Romney 53% or less of the popular vote. Those states, I wrote, were candidates for flipping party allegiance in the general election — even if they had voted for one party for several election cycles.

For example, I wrote that Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes were at risk for Democrats, who hadn't lost the state since 1988. I didn't have to hear stories about how blue–collar workers there were suffering under adverse trade agreements. I looked at recent election returns. In 2008, Obama carried the state with more than 54% of the vote, a popular vote margin of more than 600,000. Four years later, he carried Pennsylvania again in his successful re–election campaign, but the margin was cut in half and his share of the vote was just over 51%.

Even with an incumbent on the ballot Democrats were losing altitude in 2012, and the results of the midterm elections of 2014 indicated that they were still losing altitude in spite of Obama's personal popularity. On election night, Trump beat Clinton in Pennsylvania by more than 65,000 votes.

The Democrats' strategy in 2016 was predicated on the belief that all the states that had voted for Obama in either or both of the last two elections — and many that had been voting for Democrats for decades — would continue to do so. It was called the "Blue Wall," and it was largely taken for granted.

That wall crumbled on election night.

Many people probably thought I was crazy when I wrote in September that Illinois appeared to be about the only sure thing for the Democrats in the Industrial Midwest.

It was well known that Ohio would be a swing state so when it swung to Trump, that may not have surprised too many people. Nor, I suppose, did Indiana's support for Trump surprise many people. Indiana did support Obama when he ran in 2008, but it voted against him in 2012, returning to its Republican roots, and this time Indiana's governor was on the Republican ticket.

But the defection of Michigan, which also had not voted for a Republican since 1988, did surprise a lot of people. At the time I acknowledged that Michigan's vote for Obama in 2012 (54%) exceeded the limit I imposed, but that was a drop of more than three percentage points compared to 2008. Surveys that indicated how much people there were suffering economically convinced me this fall that Michigan might very well flip.

I pointed out that Obama's support declined in Wisconsin between 2008 and 2012, making it a prime candidate to flip as well. Wisconsin had not supported a Republican since voting for the re–election of Ronald Reagan in 1984. It voted for Trump by about 25,000 votes.

I also observed that Iowa was a prime candidate for flipping. The only Republicans Iowa had supported since 1968 were Republicans who were already president and were seeking re–election (Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, George W. Bush in 2004), but the returns from 2008 and 2012 clearly showed that Democrats were losing altitude in Iowa, too. It only offered half a dozen electoral votes, but it was one of the bricks in that Blue Wall.

Was the collapse of the Clinton campaign inevitable? I suppose opinions on that will vary. There are indications that the Clinton campaign, by virtue of its own hubris, contributed to its demise in the Industrial Midwest. It assumed that, because those states had been voting for Democrats for so long, they would continue to do so.

I went online early on election night and looked in at Facebook. A friend of mine from my graduate school days, a dyed–in–the–wool Democrat, was encouraging his friends to forecast Clinton's total in the Electoral College. He predicted she would receive 332 votes, overshooting the actual total by, oh, about 100 votes. All through the campaign, he kept saying he wasn't worried about Trump. The polls showed him safely behind.

He's been keeping a low profile since the election. Hubris.

But Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell, who succeeded her retiring husband in the House in January 2015, wrote in the Washington Post recently that she warned that the Clinton campaign was in trouble in Michigan back in the spring before the Democrats' presidential primary, which was won by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Clinton's campaign was too slow to recognize its problem with Sanders in Michigan, Dingell wrote. "They never stopped on a campus; never went to a union hall; never talked to the Arab American community. Sanders was in my district 10 times during the primary. How would any sane person not predict how this one would go? It was fixable for the general election."

But, clearly, it wasn't fixed. Repeatedly I read and heard that the Clinton campaign would reassemble Obama's winning coalition of blacks, Hispanics and young voters, and that would propel her to victory. But Clinton couldn't duplicate the enthusiasm that surrounded the Obama campaigns. Her share of the black vote was lower, as was her share of the young vote, a group that has never been known for showing up at the polls in great numbers. Hispanics voted for Trump at about the same rate they voted for Romney four years ago.

In the closing days of the campaign, Clinton repeatedly urged her supporters to vote early. But neither Michigan nor Pennsylvania allow early voting. There are procedures in place for old–fashioned absentee voting, but most voters in those states cast their ballots on Election Day.

Those voters went to the polls knowing about Trump's secretly recorded locker–room conversation, the reopening of the email investigation, the looming hike in health insurance premiums and the warning about possible terrorism activity the day before the election. People who cast their votes early knew little if anything about those events. Might they have changed those votes? We will never know.

The outcomes in those states that do not allow early voting can be said to be reflections of voter sentiment about events that hadn't happened when many voters went to the polls.

Ultimately, it may turn out that the voters made the wrong choice. Wouldn't be the first time.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

If I Should Die Tomorrow ...

Late last week reports suggested possible terrorist attacks in New York, Virginia and here in Texas tomorrow, the day before the 2016 election.

No specific locations were mentioned, and Texas is a really big place. The prospects for terrorist attacks here — and in those other states, too, for that matter — are practically endless.

ISIS isn't the culprit in these reports. Al Qaeda (a familiar name from the past) is. But if a terrorist attack occurs, will it really matter which one is behind it? Isn't terrorism terrorism, no matter who carries it out?

In the now–infamous words of Hillary Clinton, what difference would it make? Except, I suppose, to be sure which one is held responsible.

But we're already pursuing both, aren't we? I mean, that is what I thought. Maybe I was wrong.

Still when the state in which one lives is mentioned in such a context, it is only natural to wonder if something could happen where you live. I spend close to two hours commuting back and forth to work each weekday. It isn't hard for me to imagine something happening along my commute route.

That has forced me to contemplate something I don't like to contemplate — my own death — mainly because when I do, I generally tend to focus on my regrets, all the things I wanted to do but won't get to do.

Oddly, though, as Monday approaches, I find myself at peace. I haven't been thinking about the things that I didn't do. I've been thinking of the things for which I am grateful.

If I should die tomorrow, I am thankful for so many things.

I had loving parents who gave me a wonderful childhood. We weren't rich. I didn't have everything I wanted, but I had everything I needed to be happy and healthy.

My father was a religion professor at a private college. Sometimes he took continuing education courses in the summers, but some years he had summers entirely off. When he did, my parents took my brother and me on road trips. We saw so many historic sites and monuments when I was growing up. I wish everyone could have that experience. It gave me an in–depth education of my country's history — and a perspective on the subject most of my friends did not have.

I had great mentors in my life — teachers, co–workers, ministers. I'm grateful for all the things they taught me, and I try to put those lessons into action whenever I can. And I am thankful for the encouragement they gave me. I have tried to return the favor to those who have come after me.

I've had good friends in my life. Some are deceased now, and if there is an afterlife I look forward to seeing them soon. I have good friends who still exist in this life. Some have left my life, for one reason or another, and some are still in my life. We disagree about things from time to time, but the true friends don't let that stand in the way. For long, anyway. And I have many true friends.

I could have chosen a more lucrative profession, I suppose, but it sure has been fun. In fact, in hindsight, the only truly bad thing about working for newspapers was the pay. I got to meet some interesting folks, both in and out of the newsroom but always because of my newspaper jobs. Oh, sure, there were things about my newspaper jobs that I didn't like — but isn't it that way with every job?

My field has also given me an opportunity, as a journalism professor, to work with young aspiring journalists, and that has been a rewarding experience. In recent years I have served as an adjunct advising a community college newspaper that was recently named the best college newspaper by the Associated College Press. The other nine finalists were four–year schools.

My job has given me the opportunity to do the things I always wanted to do when I was growing up. I wanted to write, and I have done that. As this blog clearly shows, I am writing today. I hope that, whenever I do die, I will have written something that day.

I can't be sure of that, of course. Sometimes people are unconscious for days, weeks, months, even years before they die. So I can't be absolutely certain that I will write something in the hours just before I die.

But if a terrorist attack occurs here tomorrow — and I become a victim of that attack — then this post will be testimony to the fact that I did write something in the hours before I died. I died with my boots on, you might say.

Now, just because I am at peace with the idea of dying does not mean it is what I want to happen. I want to live to see tomorrow's sunset and Tuesday's sunrise.

I'd like to see who wins the presidency after the nastiest campaign in my memory — and probably in the history of the United States. I've been studying American presidential history nearly all my life, and I know there have been some nasty campaigns in the past so I won't go so far as to claim this has been the worst ever, but it has certainly been the worst in my lifetime.

Just to satisfy my own curiosity, I would like to know who the American voters choose to lead them for the next four years. To not be able to see that would be like watching all but the last 10 minutes of a movie.

It would have to go on my list of unfinished business. Some people might call that a "bucket list." I don't really have a bucket list. (Sometimes I feel like comedian John Pinette, who said he had a list, but it wasn't a bucket list — although, he added, it did rhyme with bucket.) It's just a list of things I would like to finish before I die.

But I guess we all die leaving something incomplete. So if I die tomorrow, there will be things that are unfinished. That's the way it is.

And now, let tomorrow come — and bring whatever it brings.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Quiet Realignment

As these things go, the presidential election of 1896, which was held 120 years ago today, was a quiet realigning election.

Political scientists will tell you that a realigning election is a dramatic shift within a political system.

In a democracy such as the one in the United States, that tends to mean the ascendance of a new coalition that eclipses one that has been dominant.

My original major in college was political science. Later I shifted to journalism but not before I had been introduced to many of the concepts in our political system that continue to be seen in politics in America — one of which is the concept of realigning elections.

One of the things I learned in my brief career as a political science scholar, though, was there is no absolute agreement among political scientists about realigning elections — which elections are realigning elections, the definition of a realigning election, even whether realigning elections really do occur.

However, it is safe to say that a majority of political scientists would conclude that realigning elections do happen, roughly every three to four decades, and they are evident more in terms of voting patterns than in sudden power shifts from one party to another — although they are frequently characterized by landslides.

More specifically, political scientists say, realigning elections represent a transition from one "political system" to another.

That three– to four–decade window held true in the 19th century, but shifts seemed to come more frequently in the 20th century — although perhaps history needs a little more perspective before rendering such judgments.

A realigning election is usually — but not always — characterized by a shift from dominance by one party to dominance by another. The election of 1800, for example, is seen as the beginning of the "First Party System" in the United States, a period when George Washington's Federalists and Thomas Jefferson's Democrat–Republicans competed for control of the presidency, the chambers of Congress and the state governments, until the next phase in America's political evolution.

That was in 1828. Andrew Jackson and the emerging Democrat Party seized power and remained mostly in control of the federal and state governments for the next 30 years, establishing the "Second Party System," which eventually yielded to the "Third Party System" in 1860. That was on the brink of the outbreak of the Civil War and the inauguration of Republican Abraham Lincoln.

With only a few exceptions, Republicans held the White House for the next 70 years. That did not prevent another realigning election, though. In fact, the realigning election that heralded the start of the "Fourth Party System" was held on this day in 1896. As I say, it was relatively quiet in the outcome and didn't usher in a period when a different party prevailed. The same party kept winning; what changed was the set of issues. Republicans proved more in sync with the voters on those issues than the Democrats. It was just as simple as that. The Republicans also assembled a new electoral coalition consisting of businessmen, professional men, labor and farmers. Perhaps overshadowing everything else was the "Panic of 1893," an economic depression that was still being felt nearly four years later.

Grover Cleveland, one of only two Democrats to win a national election between 1860 and 1932, presided over that, and it contributed to a general impression of Democrat incompetence. In 1896, unemployment was high, and money became a key factor in presidential politics for the first time. William McKinley and the Republicans outspent the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan by 10 to 1. It has been estimated that the Republicans' 1896 war chest would be worth $3 billion in today's dollars.

The 1896 election was the first national realigning election in which there wasn't a dramatic shift in the balance of power from one party to another. It wasn't even close to a landslide. McKinley received 51.02% of the popular vote and 60.6% of the electoral vote. His numbers were only marginally higher when he sought re–election four years later — in spite of triumph in the Spanish–American War abroad and a booming economy at home.

But the 1896 election gave ammunition to political scientists who contended that realigning elections are not always seen in single elections but sometimes over a period of time. The conditions that ultimately led to the emergence of the "Fourth Party System" actually began with the economic "Panic of 1893." Republicans seized control of both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections of 1894; in fact, the G.O.P. won so many House seats in the midterm (120) that there were relatively few seats left that were plausible takeover targets in 1896 — and many of the seats Republicans had captured represented districts that were more evenly balanced than the election returns of 1894 indicated. Thus, even as McKinley was winning the White House in 1896, his party lost 30 House seats.

Republicans continued winning in the Senate, though. By 1906, Republicans held 61 Senate seats. Even though the number of senators has increased by 12 since then, Republicans have not held more than 55 Senate seats since the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Still, with the exception of the Wilson years, Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress until the Crash.

On the presidential level, voting patterns in several states show how the electorate realigned in Republicans' favor in 1896.

New York was the largest state in the nation at the time. Its support was critical for anyone who wished to be president but especially so for Democrats. Between the end of the Civil War and 1896, Republicans Ulysses S. Grant (1868) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) won the presidency without winning New York, but the only Democrat to be elected president during that time, Grover Cleveland, desperately needed New York's electoral votes the first time he won the office.

New York is regarded as reliably Democrat today, but in the late 19th century it was a swing state. In fact, only once had any presidential candidate ever received more than 53% of the state's popular vote. The Republican share of the vote tended to be much healthier in the elections that followed 1896.

You can find similar stories throughout the United States from that time. Things almost certainly became a lot more relaxed for Republican candidates — and a lot more stressful for Democrats.

In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that the only Democrat to be elected president between the "Panic of 1893" and the Stock Market Crash, a period of more than 35 years, did so only because there were two Republicans running — the incumbent president and his predecessor, who ran as a third–party alternative — and they split the Republican vote.

The United States became a much more Republican country on this day 120 years ago.

Does the election of 1896 have anything in common with the election of 2016?

You be the judge.

Historians have long regarded it as one of the most dramatic and complex campaigns in American history.

McKinley did not pursue the nomination in the usual way, which was to appease eastern party bosses. Instead, he relied on the efficiency of his political organization, run by his friend and campaign manager Mark Hanna, an Ohio businessman. He then did most of the campaigning from the front porch of his home in Canton. His remarks reached the voters through newspapers.

Bryan ran as the champion of the working man against the rich, and he blamed the prosperous for the economic conditions the country faced. The root of the problem, Bryan said, was a gold–based money supply, and he promised to switch to silver, which was plentiful, would restore prosperity and would break the grip the wealthy had on the money supply. He conducted his campaign primarily by rail.

Turnout was almost certainly higher than it will be next Tuesday. It has been estimated that more than 90% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 1896 election.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Alternate Reality of Election 2016

We're about a week from Election Day, and I find myself wavering between thinking we are living in an alternate reality or the End Times.

It could be both, I suppose, although I prefer to think of it as the former. As bad as that might be, it need not be final. The latter certainly would be final; you can come up with plenty of alternate–reality scenarios in which we can pull back from the precipice.

It definitely is not business as usual. That may be the real story of this election when all the votes have been counted.

Conventional wisdom used to hold that people really didn't start following presidential campaigns until after the World Series. But conventional wisdom has meant little in this election — and here we are in the middle of the World Series. People aren't starting to tune in to the campaign. If anything, they're tuning out.

Maybe they've seen enough already. If so, then they may be looking forward to the end of the campaign. But I've got news for you. It never ends. Only the current campaign ends, and one of the candidates recedes from the national stage. Unfortunately, though, we'll be stuck with one of them for the next four years.

Alternate reality could be defined as denying reality, I guess, and I certainly have known my share of folks who denied reality, even (or perhaps especially) when it was a reality that had been made possible by their own behavior. The first step in dealing with any problem, they say, is acknowledging that there is one.

But if this is an alternate reality, few are acknowledging there is a problem — at least in the sense of discussing what should be done and how it can be achieved. The situations we face call for a statesman who can bring disparate sides together, understanding that neither side can have everything it wants on issues like immigration, national security, jobs, economic growth, education, energy, etc. Despite a lot of bluster, most political observers see the Senate being closely divided and the House still in Republican hands when the dust settles on Nov. 9.

That clearly leads to the conclusion that compromises will be necessary if anything is to be done under the next president.

The thing that has increasingly alarmed me about this election is the constant decrease in the emphasis on the issues that we absolutely needed to discuss before deciding who should be our president for the next four years. Before you can choose who to follow, you have to be sure that person is going in the direction you want.

I'm not just talking about the fall campaign between the two nominees. I include in that the spring party primaries when the nominees were chosen. If issues have been mentioned at all, it has been incidental.

Instead the election is conducted in slice–and–dice terms. Demographics alone matter. Candidate X will win in State Y because there are too many/few minorities or more/fewer men than women or whatever — as if all members of any group think the same.

Of course, such a notion is idiotic — and anathema to the concepts of individualism and free thought. Nevertheless it is how many people see things these days. Sadly.

I sometimes think of the reaction many of my acquaintances with University of Texas degrees had when they learned that their alma mater had hired Charlie Strong, a black man, to be the new head football coach a few years ago. Strong had some good credentials — in the previous four years as a head coach at Louisville, he led the Cardinals to victories more than 70% of the time, and they reached bowl games every year — but I heard no talk of that or what he could bring to a program with Texas' national stature — or how the quality of the opposition at Louisville might (or might not) be comparable to the quality of the opposition at Texas, thus preparing him for the Austin Hot Seat.

What I heard Texas Exes say when Strong was hired was what a great thing it was that Texas had hired a black coach, that this would negate Texas A&M's recruiting advantage with black prospects (the Aggies hired a black coach in 2012). That was an angle that was worth exploring, but it ignored more long–term concerns — like whether the coach had demonstrated that he could build a legacy of success that would outlive his tenure.

Now, one can argue whether Kevin Sumlin (the Aggies' coach) has done that, but a few things cannot be disputed. (1) While Sumlin has only marginally more experience as a head coach than Strong, he has a winning record; (2) Sumlin is 3–1 in bowl games at Texas A&M, and midway through this season the Aggies have already won enough games to qualify for their fifth straight bowl appearance under Sumlin. Strong, on the other hand, appears unlikely to qualify for a bowl this season even if he somehow keeps his job.

That demographic mindset is essentially the same one used by Hillary Clinton's sympathizers when they speak of what they hope will happen in the Electoral College this year. James Pindell of the Boston Globe wrote recently about what might be different about the Electoral College map this year, starting with the possibility that states like Arizona, Missouri and South Carolina could be in the Democrats' column while states like Florida, Ohio, Iowa and Nevada could vote Republican.

Anyway, I was musing about states that could flip in this year's election in a post I wrote about two months ago, and I labeled states that gave 53% of their vote or less to the candidates who won them last time as potential flips.

Some of them seemed outrageous, I'm sure, and some of them seemed plausible, but from where I sit it looks like most of them are potentially up for grabs.

One of the states I mentioned probably seems about as farfetched as it can get — Minnesota, home of Democrat icons Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, as reliable a state as you could find in American politics, I suppose. Minnesota hasn't voted for a Republican since voting for Richard Nixon in 1972. It was the only state to resist Ronald Reagan in 1984.

But the margins in Minnesota frequently have been narrow. Barack Obama received less than 53% of Minnesota's vote when he sought re–election in 2012. That was still a difference of more than 200,000 votes (in a state in which more than 2.9 million votes were cast). Four years earlier, when Obama first sought the presidency, Minnesota gave him just over 54% of its vote. He won that time by about 300,000 votes (more than 2.9 million Minnesotans voted in that election, too).

John Kerry defeated George W. Bush in Minnesota when Bush was re–elected in 2004. Kerry got just over 51% of Minnesota's vote — a margin of about 100,000 votes in an election that drew more than 2.8 million Minnesotans to the polls. In the infamous 2000 campaign, Al Gore carried Minnesota with a plurality of just under 48% of the vote. He beat Bush there by about 60,000 votes in a campaign that drew more than 2.4 million Minnesotans to the polls. If one assumes, though, that Gore would have received most if not all of the votes Ralph Nader won in Minnesota, his share of Minnesota's vote would have been about 52% or 53%.

Bill Clinton got about 51% of Minnesota's vote when he was re–elected in 1996. With Ross Perot on the 1992 ballot, Clinton carried Minnesota with less than 44% of the vote. Michael Dukakis received just under 53% of Minnesota's vote against George H.W. Bush in 1988. Native son Mondale managed to beat Reagan in Minnesota by less than 4,000 votes in 1984. Jimmy Carter, under whom Mondale served as vice president, won Minnesota with less than 47% of the vote in 1980.

Carter began Minnesota's 40–year run of voting for Democrats when he received nearly 55% of the vote there in 1976. In the nine elections since, no Democrat has received that great a share of Minnesota's vote. I suppose it helped to have the winds of Watergate at your back.

So as you can see, Minnesota's support for Democrats has been steady but not spectacular.

What is the demographic story in Minnesota? Well, the population is nearly 83% white. Slightly more than 5% of the population is black so the kind of racial politics that is being used in other states won't work in Minnesota.

More than one–third of Minnesota's population has a high school education or less. Just under one–third of the population has had some college, but only about 22% completed college degree work, and a little over one–tenth of the population has done postgraduate work.

"Based on my 53% threshold for considering a state at risk for flipping," I wrote, "Minnesota should be on that list. But Minnesota has been consistent in its support for Democrats if not overwhelmingly so. Put an asterisk next to it. It might flip — but it probably won't."

Ah, but what if it did? What if Donald Trump, as an outsider, appeals to the same maverick undercurrent of Minnesota electoral politics that propelled a professional wrestler into the state's governor's mansion and a comedy writer into a Senate seat?

That is the kind of question that will make Minnesota worth watching on election night.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Assassination of Anwar Sadat

For most Americans, the war on terror began in 2001, when the World Trade Center was brought down by two hijacked airplanes. For a few, it may have begun eight years earlier when the first attack on the World Trade Center took place.

And, to be fair, that probably is when the war first came to America.

But it's been going on longer than that — in the sense that Islamic martyrs have been dying for the cause. Thirty–five years ago today, Lt. Khalid Islambouli, an Egyptian military officer and Islamic extremist, assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during the annual Victory Parade in Cairo commemorating the Egyptian army's crossing of the Suez Canal to reclaim part of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel in 1973.

It probably evaded most Americans' radars, but Sadat's final months had been rocky. There had been a military coup in June that failed, and there had been riots. There were those who said the riots were the outcome of domestic issues that plagued the country, but Sadat believed the Soviet Union was orchestrating an attempt to drive him from power.

That was also a particularly violent time in the history of the world — at least in terms of high–profile violence. President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II had survived assassination attempts earlier in the year. Ex–Beatle John Lennon had been gunned down in front of his New York apartment building nearly a year before.

Egyptian Islamists had been angered when Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with President Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978 — for which Sadat and Begin shared the Nobel Prize.

There were several missed opportunities for authorities to take Islambouli into custody before the assassination, most notably in September 1981 when Sadat ordered a roundup of more than 1,500 people, among them many Jihad members, but somehow Islambouli's cell was missed.

Then, in spite of ammunition seizure rules that should have prevented the assassination, the cell managed to get into the parade and jump from the truck in which they were riding when it approached the reviewing stand, where Sadat was supposedly protected by four layers of security and eight bodyguards. Sadat stood, thinking it was part of the show. He was mortally wounded by a grenade and gunfire, along with 10 others in the reviewing stand. Vice President Hosni Mubarak, who had been sitting next to Sadat, was one of 28 who were wounded but survived.

Islambouli was identified as the man responsible for Sadat's wounds and executed the next year.

Nearly 30 years later, Islambouli's mother said she was proud that her son had killed Sadat.

What does this say about the mentality of the Islamic extremists that they are still waging this war nearly four decades later? It says the same thing that a second attack on the World Trade Center eight years after the first told us.

This is a foe that is patient. It picks its battles, and it learns from its mistakes.

Now, I know that a mother's love is a powerful thing. I covered murder trials as a young newspaper reporter, and I would not be surprised to hear the mother of a murderer say that she loved her son/daughter in spite of the crime(s) he/she committed. In fact, I have heard mothers say that. It is certainly not uncommon for Christians to say that they hate the sin but love the sinner.

But this mother says she is proud that her son committed the sin. That is a different matter, and it gives you great insight into a mindset.

This foe truly believes it is waging a holy war, and it is willing to give it as much time as it takes — generations, if necessary. The jihadists take inspiration wherever they can.

Since Sadat's assassination, Islambouli has been inspiring Islamist movements the world over. In Tehran a street was named for him after the assassination. A postage stamp was issued showing him shouting defiantly in his prison cell, and Ayatollah Khomeini declared him a martyr after he had been executed.

This is not a traditional foe, and it cannot be beaten in the traditional ways.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to Sen. Dan Quayle, Oct. 5, 1988

Tonight the nominees for vice president, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence, will meet in their only debate.

Frankly, I have long thought that the vice presidential debate was the most pointless of the bunch.

Presidential debates have the potential to be significant in the story of a presidential election campaign. As we are often reminded, they are rare opportunities to see the candidates side by side answering the same questions at the same time. Fortunately, many (but certainly not all) of the questions that are asked in presidential debates are relevant to the office the candidates seek. The candidates' thoughts on domestic and foreign issues are important because the one who is chosen to be president is likely to have to make some pretty important decisions in four years.

What are vice presidents typically called upon to do? Well, of course, the vice president is first in line for the presidency if the incumbent should die (which hasn't happened in more than half a century) or resign (which has only happened once in American history). Otherwise, the vice president's responsibilities are to preside over the Senate (and cast a tie–breaking vote when necessary) and attend state weddings and funerals.

Consequently, the questions that are truly relevant to the office those candidates seek would involve things like how well — and for how long — they can establish order in public meetings. Or how many weddings or funerals they have attended in their public careers. Whether presiding over the Senate or attending a wedding or funeral, perhaps the most important skill a vice presidential candidate can possess is the ability to sit still for long periods of time without squirming or falling asleep.

But nobody would watch that so the questions in vice presidential debates tend to be questions one would ask of a would–be president. After all, you never know. The vice president might wind up becoming president (although the last seven have not). And sometimes those questions are remembered.

But what tends to be memorable about vice presidential debates are the lines that are delivered. Sometimes you know they were prepared well ahead of time and practiced repeatedly in the hope that the foe would give even the slightest opening for it. That was clearly the case 28 years ago tomorrow when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen delivered his devastating "You're no Jack Kennedy" rebuttal to Sen. Dan Quayle.

Bentsen was judged the winner of that debate — but Quayle won the election as George H.W. Bush's running mate.

Vice President Joe Biden may have channeled that moment in his debate with Paul Ryan four years ago.

The first vice presidential debate took place nearly 40 years ago on Oct. 15, 1976 when Sen. Walter Mondale squared off with Sen. Bob Dole. Dole, in one of his lighter moments, may have made the best observation about the vice presidency since John Garner asserted that it wasn't worth "a pitcher of warm ****." Dole's assessment of the vice presidency was that it was "indoor work with no heavy lifting."

That was a pretty good line, and it might have been the one for which the debate was remembered — if Dole hadn't chosen to blame the Democrats for the wars that had been fought in the 20th century.

"I figured up the other day if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century," Dole said, "it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit."

"Does he really mean," Mondale asked sarcastically, "that there was a partisan difference over our involvement in the fight against Nazi Germany?"

The 1984 vice presidential debate was the first to include a woman. Geraldine Ferraro, Mondale's running mate, took on Vice President George H.W. Bush and chastised him for his "patronizing attitude."

Twenty–four years later, when Sarah Palin became the first woman on a Republican ticket, her debate with Biden was remembered for her personal request: "Can I call you Joe?"

In 1992, America had its first — and so far only — three–participant vice presidential debate. It is largely remembered for Ross Perot's running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, and his meandering "Who am I? Why am I here?" self–introduction to viewers — which, of course, was lampooned by Saturday Night Live.

Well, you get the idea.

Caitlin Huey–Burns, in a column for RealClearPolitics, contends that Donald Trump has had a bad week since his first debate with Hillary Clinton — and that raises the stakes for Pence in tonight's debate.

Until something happens to prove me wrong, I continue to believe that the vice presidential debate is a colossal waste of time.

On the other hand, we are only five weeks away from all of this being over.

Of course, that will leave us with either Hillary or Trump as president–elect.

Can't win for losing.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Please, Be Presidential

We are now less than 36 hours from the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I have heard and read many opinions about what each should do to win, but I think I have narrowed it down.

First and foremost, I think, the voters want to hear what the candidates want to do about the issues confronting this nation. We know there are some pretty serious problems — and pointing fingers at the other guy won't solve them. There will be time to assign blame later.

I've used this analogy before, but it is still appropriate. If a house is burning, your first priority is not to determine why the fire began or how it was started. Your first priority is to put out the fire. The frustration that so many voters feel is rooted in this.

The voters don't agree on what should be done. We usually turn to our leaders to guide us through uncharted waters, but we need to know where would–be leaders stand on the issues before we can decide which one we wish to follow.

We've lived through plenty of mud–slinging campaigns in recent decades, and this one is already shaping up to be the dirtiest of all. I have made my peace with that, but I think I speak for nearly all voters when I say, please, leave it at the doorstep when the debates are in progress. She can go back to calling him a racist and a sexist in her TV commercials and campaign speeches, and he can go back to calling her a shrew when the debates are over.

But, please, be presidential in the presidential debates.

Everything else I am going to say is merely a subhead to that. That is your lead paragraph (when I worked on newspapers it was sometimes spelled lede).

Clinton's huge lead in advertising spending in recent weeks has yielded no gain in the polls. In fact, she has been losing altitude. Why? Because every advertisement I have seen — and we usually don't see too many presidential advertisements in Texas because the outcomes of presidential elections here have been foregone conclusions for 40 years — has been negative.

We have seen some ads here this time, and they have all been negative, telling the voters why they should not vote for the opposition, not why they should vote for the candidate sponsoring the ad.

Why, you may ask, are independents now the largest voting bloc in the United States? As a group, we share little. We don't agree on everything, but I think most of us would agree on this: We're tired of choosing which candidate to vote against. We want a candidate we can vote for. (That's not as grammatically correct as I would like, but it gets the message across, doesn't it? Are the candidates listening?)

Yes, being presidential would help.

Besides that, there are some things both candidates can do to make listeners more receptive to their messages.

Hillary has been in the national spotlight for nearly a quarter of a century (longer than that for me, but I lived in Arkansas when her husband was governor). That is far more than long enough for attitudes about her to harden except among the youngest of voters. To win the debate she needs to demonstrate to people that the experience of which she boasts has taught her things that make her more trustworthy and that she is more honest than she has been. Voters need to believe she will tell them the truth in a crisis. Speaking in lawyerspeak (i.e., "It depends on what your definition of 'is' is.") or effecting a faux Southern drawl (having grown up in the South, I can spot one of those at least a mile away) won't do it.

Trump has been in a spotlight, too, but not a political one until recently. Attitudes about him in that regard are still fairly fluid, at least in comparison to Clinton.

But in Trump's relatively brief time on the national stage, he has made some truly awful remarks. He has made some intriguing policy suggestions, but he is viewed by many as something of a loose cannon, a nationalistic bully. In all honesty, it reminds me more and more of 1980, when Democrats constantly warned voters that Ronald Reagan would start a nuclear war if he won the presidency. Then, in a single debate, Reagan reassured viewers that he wasn't such a bad guy, that he would be responsible if elected, and he beat President Carter by 10 percentage points.

It is unlikely to the point of being impossible that either Trump or Hillary can win by the kind of landslide margins that Reagan received in either of his two elections.

But Trump's challenge is similar. He must reassure voters that his image is inaccurate, that he isn't crazy or trigger happy.

It won't be easy for either one. Both must give us things we haven't seen from them before.

Whichever one can do it will get the upper hand in the campaign.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Day William McKinley Was Shot

"Father Abe freed me, and now I saved his successor from death, provided that bullet he got into the president don't kill him."

James Benjamin Parker

Forty–three men have been president of the United States. Most Americans probably can name a handful — maybe — and most of the ones they can name were president during their lifetimes — as if history didn't exist prior to their births.

(That assumes that the people with whom you are speaking can tell you who is currently president — and, frankly, you would be surprised how many people cannot. I haven't decided whether that is a blessing or a curse.)

Many Americans, of course, can name a few presidents who served before they were born — a list that usually includes George Washington and Abraham Lincoln at the very least although people can surprise you with what they know and what they don't know. If they can name Washington and Lincoln, they may also name Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.

As some of you probably know (I wish I could say all, but I have to be realistic), those are the four faces chiseled into Mount Rushmore.

Roosevelt became president when the incumbent president, William McKinley, was shot and killed 115 years ago. In fact, McKinley was shot inside the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., on this day in 1901. His assassin shot twice. The doctors who treated McKinley were only able to retrieve one of the bullets; the other lingered in his abdomen and killed him eight days later.

Roosevelt had only been vice president for about six months when McKinley was shot. McKinley's first vice president died on the eve of McKinley's campaign for re–election, and Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, was nominated by the convention to be McKinley's running mate in 1900 — the president felt it was the delegates' decision to make, not his. Roosevelt was known to have his eye on the White House, and the vice presidency seemed like a good stepping stone for Roosevelt's own run in 1904.

Roosevelt might have been elected in '04 — unless McKinley decided to seek a third term, which, at the time, was permissible. It was only after the presidency of Roosevelt's cousin, Franklin, about 50 years later that the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two four–year terms was ratified.

Had fate not intervened, McKinley might well have been a candidate for a third term. He was only 58 when he died — younger than many of his predecessors had been when they entered the presidency — and McKinley was already into his second term.

Polls that measure public approval of a president didn't exist at the turn of the century. They wouldn't exist, in fact, until Roosevelt's cousin was in the second term of his presidency. But if they had existed in 1900, they might well have reported solid public approval of McKinley's performance in office.

That might be a difficult conclusion to reach when one looks at the election returns from 1896, when McKinley was first elected to the presidency, and 1900, when he was re–elected. In 1896, McKinley received 51.02% of the popular vote. His share of the vote went up to 51.66% four years later. He received 60.6% of the electoral vote in 1896. That percentage went up to 65.3% in 1900.

Clearly, McKinley was popular enough to be re–elected — and by a wider margin than the one he received when he was elected. That is something Barack Obama cannot say. But on the surface it isn't as impressive as students of presidential politics might expect. See, even though America's last three presidents were re–elected by less than overwhelming popular margins — and the one before that wasn't re–elected at all — it has been commonplace historically for presidents to be re–elected by landslides.

Seen in that context, McKinley's electoral performance may not be especially eye–popping unless you keep a few things in mind. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that realigning elections as the 1896 election is frequently labeled (and which I plan to discuss in greater detail in November) are not always dramatic landslides. Sometimes they are virtually imperceptible unless you consider preceding voting patterns — and what happened in the elections that followed.

The opponent's relative strengths and weaknesses are important factors to consider, too. McKinley had to win both elections with William Jennings Bryan, one of the great orators in American history, as his foe. My guess is that McKinley was lucky to live in the pre–TV and pre–internet age. Far fewer people got to hear Bryan speak in 1896, and that almost certainly worked to his benefit.

He could have been appealing in our time. I have heard him described as open, cheery, optimistic, friendly. That generally plays well with the voters. He was not necessarily a gifted speaker, though, so it may have been a good thing for him that TV and radio played no roles in elections at the time.

When McKinley won re–election in 1900, he carried Bryan's home state of Nebraska, a traditionally Republican state that made an exception for an exceptional favorite son. Bryan was nominated by the Democrats for the presidency three times. The 1900 election was the only time he lost his home state (with the exception of an 1894 Senate race).

It is fair to assume, even though we have no polls to support this conclusion, that McKinley was a popular president on this day in 1901 when his assassin, a 28–year–old anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, fired two shots into the president's abdomen. Czolgosz was about to fire a third time when James Parker, who had been a slave as a child, reached for the gun and prevented the shot from being fired.

As it turned out the first shot struck a button and was deflected. Only the second shot struck McKinley, but it ultimately proved fatal, probably due to inadequate medical care. There was a surgeon in Buffalo who might well have saved the president, but he was performing delicate surgery in Niagara Falls. During the operation he was interrupted and told he was needed in Buffalo; he insisted he could not leave even if it was the president of the United States who needed him. It was at that point that he was told the identity of the patient.

A couple of weeks later, after McKinley had died, that surgeon saved the life of a woman who had suffered almost exactly the same wound as McKinley.

McKinley's death was quite a shock to the American public — who had been misled by unjustifiably optimistic prognoses into believing McKinley was recovering.

He was the third American president to be assassinated within 40 years — and the last to be assassinated before John F. Kennedy more than 60 years later.

Oh, and Roosevelt did win a full four–year term on his own in 1904 — but he did so as the incumbent.