Freedom Writing

Thursday, December 14, 2017

What Does It Mean?



Barring a reversal by recount, it appears that Democrat Doug Jones has defeated Republican Roy Moore in Alabama's special election to fill the Senate vacancy left by Jeff Sessions' appointment as attorney general.

Jones did not win a full six–year term. He was only elected to finish the unexpired portion of Sessions' term. If he chooses to seek a full term, he will have to do so in 2020.

In that regard, he is much like Republican Scott Brown, who won a special election in Massachusetts in 2010 to complete the term of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy died in office in August 2009, and Brown was elected to serve the last two years of his term.

The dynamics of the elections differ, but the overriding similarity is the fact that both states elected nominees from the parties that had not been successful in those states for a long time. It was especially shocking in Massachusetts, I suppose, since that Senate seat had been held by Kennedys for more than half a century — and Massachusetts had given nearly 62% of its vote to Barack Obama in 2008 — but it is no less shocking in Alabama, where Donald Trump received 62% of the vote in 2016.

Pundits are looking for clues to the political future, just as they did in 2010. I am inclined to reach the same conclusions now as I did then.

In 2010 I wrote the following: "I see no way that yesterday's election will not be a factor in all the other races that will be held this year." I feel that way today — but I have no more of an idea of the extent than I did then.

The circumstances could hardly be more different. A cloud of controversy hung over Moore in the last month of the campaign; the extent to which that contributed to his defeat remains to be determined, but its influence cannot be denied. There was no such cloud hanging over Martha Coakley when she lost to Brown in 2010; apparently she simply took victory for granted. She tried unsuccessfully to correct her shortcomings a few years later when she sought the governor's office and lost to the Republican nominee. Was Coakley the problem? Or was the party the problem?

The same question could be asked about Moore and the special election in Alabama.

As a harbinger of things to come, the Massachusetts election may have given Democrats — who had been anticipating seizing full control of the government after Obama became the first black man to be elected president and they achieved filibuster–proof status in the Senate with the election of Al Franken in Minnesota and Arlen Specter's party switch in Pennsylvania — a glimpse into a grim future.

The Democrats didn't lose control of the Senate in 2010, but they came close. Going into the election, the party held 58 seats (which, when combined with two independents who caucused with them, provided them with their filibuster–proof status) and emerged from it with 51 seats — still a majority but greatly diminished — and fully vulnerable to a Republican filibuster.

The 2010 midterms are not remembered in history for the outcome in the Senate races, though. What is remembered is the fact that Republicans turned a 79–seat deficit in the House into a 49–seat advantage. They have held the majority in the House ever since.

As a harbinger of things that may be yet to come, the Alabama election may have done the same thing for Republicans. The question is whether the GOP will be wise enough to heed its warning.

I don't know if Democrats can be competitive in enough House districts to pull off the kind of wave the Republicans achieved in 2010. Based on what I have seen, they may be fortunate to grab a narrow majority if they claim one at all.

Republicans don't need to lose as many Senate seats in 2018 as Democrats lost in 2010 to lose control of the chamber — and, as I have mentioned before, the historical tide of midterms runs against the party in the White House.

But until Tuesday, the Democrats faced an uphill struggle in trying to capture the Senate. Only one–third of the senators are on the ballot in a given election year — unless a special election has been called because a senator died or resigned before his/her term was completed. In this cycle, the vast majority of senators whose seats are on the ballot in 2018 are Democrats. Of those senators whose seats must be defended in 2018, only one incumbent Republican senator comes from a state that voted for Hillary Clinton whereas 10 incumbent Democrats must face the voters in states that supported Donald Trump.

With their upset victory in Alabama Democrats need only two more seats to claim a majority in the Senate for the last two years of Trump's term. That is more plausible now — but not necessarily more probable.

Regardless of whether Democrats can seize a Senate majority next year, even a short–term one, the Republicans' agenda is in jeopardy. If American politics has made anything clear in the last decade or so, it is that the voters want a change; as Republicans seemed to offer what they wanted, the voters gradually turned over the levers of government to them.

But the political pendulum is always moving in America. The Republicans' already slim majority in the Senate will shrink in January when Jones is seated, which gives them a few weeks to accomplish whatever they can. Given their track record this year, though, getting anything done seems unlikely.

Voters seem to have developed a rather limited tolerance for political performance in recent years. Nonperformance may fare worse.

Until Tuesday, I had not seen anything in any of the special elections that surprised me. All the House seats that were vacant because their representatives had been appointed to positions in the administration were in red states. Democrats made a lot of noise about being competitive in those districts, but ultimately they lost every special election.

Then in November the first statewide races in the Trump era were held — in New Jersey and Virginia, states that elect their governors in the years immediately following presidential elections. After decades of voting for Republicans, Virginia (where governors are prohibited by law from seeking re–election) has been trending blue. Three of its last four governors have been Democrats, and it has voted Democratic in three consecutive presidential elections. Even though Republicans put up a good front about being competitive in the governor's race, I wasn't surprised when the Democrat won.

Nor was I surprised when the Democrat won in New Jersey. Term–limited Republican incumbent Chris Christie is about as popular as Richard Nixon was just before he resigned the presidency, and the Republican nominee had to carry that toxic baggage. No, I wasn't surprised by the outcome there, either.

But Tuesday's special election in Alabama did surprise me.

I realize that the circumstances had a lot to do with it. The decades–old charges of sexual harassment against Moore appear to have done enough damage to permit Jones to win by about 20,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast — even though no charges were substantiated and most were suspect.

Perhaps, as conservative commentator Ann Coulter observes, this outcome opens the door for Rep. Mo Brooks to reclaim the seat for the Republicans in 2020.

That wouldn't be unprecedented. Two years after Brown won Kennedy's seat, he was defeated in a bid for a full six–year term — by Elizabeth Warren, who is now considered a leading contender for the Democrats' next presidential nomination.

I'm not saying Brooks is a future presidential prospect. But in 2020 he would have Trump's coattails to ride in the general election — and that will almost certainly help in Alabama.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

O, Captain, My Captain

When I was in college, it was my honor to study reporting under a professor who truly lived the adage that journalism is the first draft of history.

His name was Roy Reed, and he once worked for the New York Times. He also worked for the Arkansas Gazette before becoming a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas.

He was on the front lines of history in the 20th century.

He covered Orval Faubus at the Gazette. In the Times job he covered the civil rights movement in the South of the 1960s.

I will always remember the stories he told in class about covering marches that were led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and how he feared for his life when he and the rest of the reporters came under the hate–filled glares of the Southern whites who watched the marches from the sidewalks of sleepy Southern towns.

The folks at the Times didn't think that was hazardous enough, I suppose, so they sent Roy to Northern Ireland to cover the Protestants and the Catholics.

After doing that for awhile, life in Fayetteville must have seemed positively placid by comparison. I never saw anyone as completely happy as Roy was when I was enrolled in his class. He had lived a life to which many — myself included — aspired, and he told us all about it — the good, the bad and the ugly. He was paying it forward, as they say today, sharing the things he had learned in a lifetime in the profession with the next generation.

He didn't give away A's in his class. You had to earn them. And it has always been a source of pride for me that I earned an A in Roy's reporting class. It isn't exactly the kind of thing you can put on a resume. But I'm proud of it, and I carry it with me.

Roy had an aneurysm yesterday and died at the age of 87.

As I understand the sequence of events, he lapsed into a coma on Saturday and was kept alive for a time, but life support was removed today and he passed away.

Roy was all about communication and information — so it was fitting that it was through social media, which didn't exist when I was in Roy's class but is the method for spreading information in the 21st century, that I learned of his death. There is a Facebook page where my friends and former colleagues post news of interest, and the tributes to Roy have been pouring in over there.

We all have our own memories of Roy. For me, there are too many to count, but one stands out. I was in his class in an election year, and he recruited several of us to do volunteer work at the county courthouse on Election Night. I suppose many, if not all, of us were motivated by the lure of extra credit, but I was genuinely interested in participating in the process on an Election Night — which, in those days, required us to spend most of the evening on the phone taking down vote totals from precincts by hand and passing along the totals to others, who would compile them. When all the precincts had been heard from, the numbers were passed on to the secretary of state's office in Little Rock.

After I graduated from college, I participated in similar work for newspapers on Election Nights to come. Whenever I did I always thought back to that night during my college days. Among other things I owe that to Roy.

He influenced so many of us — and he will never be forgotten.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

This Isn't a Party Problem; It Is a People Problem



It is a lesson we insist on learning over and over again.

These sexual harassment cases that have been flooding the airwaves in recent months are merely manifestations of the latest symptom of something that was stated clearly and eloquently many years ago:

Power corrupts — and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And that is what these cases are really about, isn't it? Power. Who has it and uses it.

That is the thing all these cases have in common. People with power feel entitled to things, even if (or, perhaps, especially if) that sense of entitlement tramples on someone else's rights.

Today the subject is sexual harassment. That — or a variant on that subject — has been a recurring theme over the years, but in the past the subject has also been racism, religious intolerance and anything else that offends people.

Sometimes the offense du jour is silly, but other times it is not and should not be treated as if it is. This is one of those times — although I will admit that sometimes it threatens to veer off in that other direction. That is something that every American should hope we can avoid. If we do not, it will trivialize and demean a serious matter that has long deserved a serious public examination and discussion.

It is certainly not funny when reprehensible behavior forces someone to pay a heavy price — as it has with Sen. Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live funnyman who resigned from the U.S. Senate today amid allegations of sexual harassment. It is a tragedy for Franken and his family.

But neither is it funny when a false accusation destroys someone's life. Thus we must exercise due diligence in such cases.

One thing we need to stop doing is treating matters like these as if they are party problems. They are not. Neither party has a monopoly on offensive behavior. And neither party is morally superior to the other.

If these recent revelations have proven nothing else, they have proven that there are offenders in both parties. Yet I have seen many examples of people who were clearly willing to overlook such offenses in those with whom they agreed on issues but all too ready to condemn those with whom they disagreed.

Even Franken indulged in some of that in his farewell speech to the Senate today.

"I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony," Franken said, "that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has preyed on underage girls is running for the Senate with the full support of his party."

Sexual harassment is wrong; those who are willing to overlook it in their friends but condemn it in their foes take their position entirely because of politics. It has zero to do with defending victimized women and men.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Crystal Ball Is Foggy



I have observed this year's special elections to fill vacancies created by Trump administration appointments with a kind of amused bewilderment.

The special elections were all billed as referendums on the president — but all the vacancies were in clearly red states with red voting histories in good years and bad. I suppose if any of those races had gone for a Democrat, that would have been big news. But the fact that no Democrat won a special election is non–news. Kind of a "dog bites man" story. When the man bites the dog, that's news.

The same is true in reverse of the gubernatorial elections that are traditionally held in Virginia and New Jersey in the odd–numbered years following presidential elections.

At one time Virginia had the longest streak of support for Republican presidential nominees in the entire South. It was the only Southern state that voted against Jimmy Carter in 1976, but shifting demographics led it to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then Hillary Clinton in 2016. Today it is regarded as dependably Democratic.

Thus, while polls in this year's gubernatorial race suggested the Republican nominee might have a chance at an upset, it was no surprise when the Democrat won.

Nor was it a surprise that a Democrat won in New Jersey. The outgoing Republican incumbent was extremely unpopular, and New Jersey has a history of shifting political allegiances. No, that wasn't a surprise.

Now the scene shifts to Alabama, where a special election will be held next Tuesday to choose a successor for Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate. Republican Roy Moore has been beset by sexual harassment charges that narrowed the gap between him and Democrat Doug Jones — for a time. Recent polls suggest things are returning to form in Alabama, and Moore's lead, while closer than one usually sees in Alabama elections, is expanding.

I know there are still some Democrats, perhaps many, who believe Jones can pull off an upset, but what they fail to comprehend is that Alabama is a really red state — not pink or purple like some states but deeply red — and polls suggest that the voters in Alabama are gravitating toward issues now. My guess is it would take a sexual bombshell eclipsing everything that has come before in order for Jones to win this race.

One issue in particular seems to be driving Republicans and independents who had been wavering — abortion. Jones holds a liberal position on abortion; Moore's position has been more in line with average Alabama voters

Many folks up North like to belittle Southerners as backward, ignorant, uneducated. But that is an unfair stereotype, and the voters in Alabama are smart enough to know what the margin in the Senate looks like. They know which party and its candidates hold positions closer to their own and which do not, and this, one of the reddest of the red states, is not likely to send a Democrat to the Senate for the first time in a quarter of a century.

I know Democrats are eager to seize control of one or both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections, but they would be better advised to pin their hopes on races in more centrist states.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What's Past Is Prologue



Charles Manson died the other day, and I have struggled with my thoughts about that.

He was, after all, 83. He was in his mid–30s when his "Family" committed the 1969 Tate–LaBianca murders on his behalf, not quite 40 when he was convicted and sentenced to death, only to have his sentence commuted to life in prison when the death penalty was abolished in California.

Clearly he lived a lot longer than he probably expected when his conviction was handed down.

And he was the notorious mastermind of murders that shook the nation then but would hardly merit a passing glance from today's media.

There is no reason to mourn his passing. And yet I am conflicted.

In the past I haven't regretted feeling no sorrow over the deaths of those who were responsible for much suffering and showed no remorse for it. Haven't regretted it at all.

I even sympathized with those who celebrated when Ted Bundy was executed or Jeffrey Dahmer was killed by a fellow inmate or the Night Stalker died of apparently natural causes.

But it's a problem for me. It goes against my upbringing to rejoice when a fellow human being dies. I guess I was able to rationalize it better when I was younger. Not so much now.

I'm sure that when he died, Manson was no better than he was when he terrorized Southern California. Every time that I heard a comment he had made from prison, he seemed just as twisted as ever — and I suppose he will always be a textbook case for the argument that some criminals are completely irredeemable — and thus, there is no real point behind incarcerating them for a lifetime.

Except to preserve a life.

I understand the need some people have for revenge, and I don't want to minimize that. There is something to be said for an eye for an eye. I could even support it if I felt it guaranteed closure for the survivors. But it doesn't — not always, maybe not even a majority of the time.

And as Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Power of Anti-Incumbency

I have written here before of the advantages of being an incumbent officeholder in an election year. There is clearly a strong motivation for people to support the re–election of an incumbent. An incumbent has experience doing the job. His or her every move gets attention from the media back home, and free press coverage has a lot of value.

I have also written here about the hazards of midterm elections for the president's party (whoever the president may be).

The power of incumbency isn't always so powerful.

But often the ramifications of neither are apparent until after the elections have been held. Democrats realized too late what they were up against in 2010 and 2014; likewise Republicans didn't see the wave that was upon them in 2006.

Sometimes — but not always — you can get clues ahead of time through party primaries.

Because of their strengths, incumbents usually prevail in their parties. In a typical election, whether it is a presidential year or a midterm, most incumbent senators win renomination; at worst, one may be defeated by a challenger from within the party. Between 1946 and 2012, nearly 1,000 incumbent senators ran for re–election instead of choosing to leave office for one reason or another, and only 46 (or 5%) were denied renomination by their party's voters.

When more than one incumbent senator loses in the primaries, the problem is not confined to a single state or perhaps even region. If the number of incumbents who seek re–election and lose renomination gets higher than that, it is usually — but not always — a harbinger of things to come.

The worst year for Senate incumbents during the primaries was in the first election after the end of World War II. Thirty senators sought re–election that year, and six were denied renomination by their party's voters. That's 20%.

Harry Truman had become president following Franklin D. Roosevelt's death the year before. Even though the Allies had won the war, Truman was wildly unpopular — perhaps in part because Democrats had been in charge of everything for well over a decade but also because of his controversial handling of some high–profile postwar labor strikes — and the midterm election was, as it often is, a referendum on the president.

Truman was seen as such a liability, in fact, that he campaigned for few Democratic candidates — if any. The same phenomenon has been seen in recent years. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were kept at arm's length by their parties' nominees.

Republicans also benefited from what is considered a "good map" — in which the other party has to defend the majority of the seats on the ballot. Incumbents tend to benefit from such maps; open seats typically are much harder to defend.

As it was, the Republicans won seven Senate seats from incumbents who were on the ballot that fall — and captured six others, seizing the majority for the first time since 1930.

The next–worst year for postwar incumbents seeking another term came in 1950.

In the intervening four years, Truman scored his upset victory over Tom Dewey, and Democrats retook control of both chambers of Congress.

But by 1950 Truman was unpopular again, and once again the election was a referendum on him. Thirty–two senators ran for re–election and five of them (16%) were denied renomination. When the votes were counted in November, the Democrats lost ground in both chambers but still retained majorities.

In the Senate, four Republicans defeated incumbent Democrats, and one Democrat defeated an incumbent Republican. (As an historical side note, future President Richard Nixon, a Republican, flipped a Senate seat that year, too, but he didn't defeat an incumbent. The incumbent, a Democrat, retired.)

In the 33 elections that have been held since, the portion of incumbents who were rejected by their party's voters has been 10% or higher only four times. Most could be said to foretell trouble for one party or the other, depending upon who was in the Oval Office, or both — but not all. For example, 14% of incumbent senators were defeated in party primaries in 1968; while Democrats lost part of their majorities in Congress that year, they lost nearly as many Senate seats two years later — but only 3% of incumbent senators lost their primaries in 1970.

In 1978, the midterm of Democrat Jimmy Carter's presidency, 12% of incumbent senators lost their primaries, and 14% of incumbents lost their primaries in 1980, the year of the Reagan Revolution. In all, Democrats lost 15 Senate seats from the time Carter took office to the day he left Washington four years later. In hindsight, the primaries of 1978 and 1980 hinted at the voter frustration that had been building in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam and the trouble that lay ahead for Democrats in the general election of 1980.

For the next 30 years, most Senate incumbents who chose to run for another term won their primaries. Then, in 2010, 12% of Senate incumbents lost their primaries, perhaps heralding an era of discontent. The Senate remained in Democratic hands (but just barely), and the Republicans gained 64 seats to claim a House majority they retain today.

And sometimes so–called wave elections happen even when incumbents don't run into problems in the primaries, and the 2014 midterm is a great example. Republicans won nine Senate seats from the Democrats that year, and the primaries were not factors.

In short, incumbency is usually an advantage, but sometimes it is a hindrance. I recommend keeping an eye on the primaries next year to see if you can get any early clues as to the voters' mood.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sorrow for the Victims



I recall an observation from Thoreau that the more that people accept a concept or principle as valid, the less interested they become in its many applications.

That isn't exactly how he phrased it, but it is a truth that remains so today — and, I suspect, will always be true.

There is always a time when something that was previously considered unthinkable happens, and it is shocking — but the more it happens the less shocked we are.

It has become that way with terrorist attacks and mass shootings. And now, I fear, it is becoming that way with sexual abuse cases.

Sex scandals involving prominent people are not new, of course. Even in sleepy Central Arkansas, the buckle of the Bible Belt where I grew up, such a scandal reared its head when my district's longtime congressman was caught in a relationship with a stripper.

That kind of thing was shocking at the time even though it wasn't new.

And sexual abuse and harassment cases involving vulnerable young women and minors isn't new, either — but with such rapid–fire revelations focusing on more and more prominent people, one begins to develop a sort of numb acceptance. The response is that the point has been made.

For some reason that makes me think of a time when I worked on the copy desk at the old Arkansas Gazette. In a short period of time, there were two high–profile and extremely grim cases of fathers murdering their families — one of which occurred one dark, rainy night (really) in Little Rock. It was so dark and rainy that neighbors who happened to be up that late probably mistook the sound of gunshots for thunder.

Even if they had known what they were hearing, no one could have done anything to save the victims. The patriarch of the family shot his wife and daughters in their heads before turning the gun on himself.

The other murder case occurred around Christmas in a rural setting. The murders were carried out over several days as family members arrived to exchange gifts.

Those murder cases sent shock waves through all of Arkansas, but in hindsight the reaction would have become more muted if more fathers had flipped out and started killing themselves and their families.

I guess my overwhelming emotion is as it was then — one of great sadness for the victims — of whom there are many.

First and foremost, there are the children who have been scarred by people they probably trusted. We all have to grow up and face a sometimes ugly world, and we each do it in a different way. It is a bargain that is made, and it usually comes at a cost. The children in these cases were compelled to pay too high a price.

Yes, I feel very sad for them. But I don't know what can be done — except to try to be more courageous about speaking up when I think something is wrong. Still you can't legislate courage, can you?

And that leads me to a second group of victims — the rest of us.

As polarized as this country has become in recent years, there is little tolerance for those who deviate from what is expected at either extreme.

Or even those who insist on that old–fashioned concept of innocent until proven guilty.

I know that means evidence, and the problem with sexual abuse cases is that there are seldom witnesses. But witnesses aren't the only kind of evidence. In fact, accusations are not proof, no matter how many accusers there are.

Physical evidence is preferred. There may be some kind of trail or some sort of forensic evidence. Finding it probably requires a lot more work than most criminal cases but to obtain true justice, isn't it worth it?

As Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo said, "Justice, though due to the accused, is due to the accuser, too."

That still holds, doesn't it?

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Politics of the Unusual



Tomorrow Americans in some places are going to the polls, but this being an odd–numbered year means that most elections will be held next year.

Which brings me to another point: There is conventional wisdom about everything, I suppose, but it only goes so far, and then you're in uncharted territory.

The upcoming midterm elections of 2018 are a perfect example.

On the one hand, there is the conventional wisdom that the president's party always struggles in midterm elections. This is not a recent phenomenon. This is something that has been happening throughout our history. It doesn't disproportionately affect either party. George W. Bush's Republicans suffered just as much in 2006 as Bill Clinton's Democrats in 1994 or Barack Obama's Democrats in 2010.

Sometimes it is a very modest thing, with the president's party losing little ground, if any, on Capitol Hill; other times it is quite spectacular.

There are exceptions, of course, but those elections are usually preceded by a one–of–a–kind event — such as when George W. Bush's Republicans gained ground in Congress in the election a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

There was no precedent for that in American history.

I guess the closest thing would be the election that was held the year after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but that would not have been a good predictor for 2002. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats struggled in the 1942 midterms. Quite a different voter response. But it was a different world. Americans hadn't been able to watch the attack live in their living rooms in 1941.

There were other differences, too. Most, if not all, of the casualties at Pearl Harbor were in military service. They had agreed to put their lives on the line when they signed up. Their losses were tragic, but, to be honest, they came with the territory. Most, if not all, of the casualties on Sept. 11 were civilians. The folks who were working in the Twin Towers that morning took certain risks when they took their positions, too — there are risks with every job, aren't there? — but those risks had never before included the realistic possibility of an airplane deliberately crashing into your workplace.

Back to 2018.

On the other hand, while conventional wisdom can provide some helpful clues to voter behavior, recent elections have revealed an independent streak that was never seen before in the electorate — well, it had been seen before but never in the numbers we saw last year. Maybe the voters don't like being taken for granted and decided en masse — a la Peter Finch in "Network" — not to take it anymore. Folks in both parties have been guilty of taking voting blocs for granted. So if the voters feel taken for granted, it seems to me that candidates in both parties should be particularly sensitive to their constituents' concerns right now.

There are other things that usually contribute to the incumbent party's prospects — the pocketbook issues that directly affect people's lives. Is the economy thriving or sputtering? Is unemployment high or low?

The approaching midterms should provide fascinating research and lecture fodder for political scientists. They know the conventional wisdom, and they have been watching the news. They know that the polls indicate how unpopular the president is. That makes it sound like 2018 should be a big year for the out–of–power party. All the precedents of the last two centuries point to it.

Except that there is no precedent for 2018, either. Not really.

And that, I guess, is one of the consequences of the 2016 election, an election that was widely believed to be Hillary Clinton's to lose. And then she did precisely that.

We have rarely, if ever, had presidential elections like that one — in which one candidate seemed all but certain to win and then did not — and in my studies of history, I have found only a couple of elections that came close. One was the 2000 election in which Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the vote that has always elected America's presidents — the electoral vote. The other was the 1948 election, in which Gov. Tom Dewey was widely expected to defeat President Harry Truman — and then failed to do so.

But there were precedents for those elections, even if one had to go back a ways to find them. The 2016 election was decidedly not politics as usual — which, by definition, has no precedent.

Consider this: Hillary Clinton spent most of the 2016 campaign arguing that Donald Trump was unfit for office — but he won, anyway. Clinton in particular and Democrats in general have been quick to blame this on misogyny and, implausibly, racism, but that misses the greater point. I know many people who voted for Trump (before that some of them even voted for Obama twice), and I have yet to hear any of them say anything that could be interpreted as misogynistic motives behind their votes.

Those voters consistently expressed their concerns about specific issues — the economy and jobs — and they responded to the candidate who addressed those issues. Nothing new about that. Pocketbook issues are at the very core of politics as usual.

The voters knew Trump hadn't been a saint. They knew he had said and done things they didn't like, but they chose him anyway — which is a clear indicator that modern voters are more than willing to consider unconventional candidates to solve heretofore conventional problems. We are in a period of the politics of the unusual, and the 2018 midterms will tell us just how far the pendulum has swung, just how much the voters are willing to overlook in pursuit of a larger goal.

Further complicating the situation is that the economy is humming along. Like him or not, Trump's administration has presided over some of the results the voters wanted. Democrats can argue that the pieces of the recovery puzzle were put in place by the previous administration's policies, but the voters don't tend to think of things in those terms. They remember who was president when unemployment dropped below 4% or GDP exceeded 3%.

In other words, all bets are off for next year — and for 2020 — and for elections as far as the eye can see.

My major in college was journalism. My minor was history. I studied a little political science in college, and I have studied it informally for years, but I have never heard a lecture or read an entry in a textbook that discussed how an unsuccessful candidate for public office who had been expected to win should behave.

Instinct tells me that such a person would foster considerable good will by being gracious and sincere — and mostly silent.

But rather than acknowledge her own failings as a candidate, Clinton and her subordinates have spent the last year casting blame on others, the lion's share of which has been directed at Donald Trump and his alleged collusion with Russians — which, it turns out, was based on manufactured material from a dossier that had been paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

That revelation led to the uncovering of what could well turn out to be a veritable rat's nest of, to say the least, unsavory activity. While the full extent of it may not be known by Election Day next year, the fact that this has been causing some Democratic angst is clear in the fact that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, regarded as one of the leading candidates for the 2020 nomination, criticized the Clinton campaign and the DNC literally within hours of online publication of Donna Brazile's explosive allegations in Politico.

It is important for political observers not to get carried away with the idea that open seats — in which the incumbents, for whatever reason, are not running — represent opportunities for the parties that do not hold them. It is true in some instances, not true in others.

Take, for example, the congressional district in which I live — Texas' Fifth District, which has been represented by Republican Jeb Hensarling since January 2003. Hensarling announced recently that he won't be running for another term next year.

I have already heard some Democrats speak of how this is an opportunity for them to grab a House seat from Texas, especially since Dallas County (where the Fifth District is located) was one of the few counties to support Hillary Clinton a year ago.

I read an article in the New York Times over the weekend that didn't go so far as to say that vacancies meant easy opposition pickups but it strongly implied that the midterms will "reshape" the House.

That may be true in districts where the incumbent barely won the last time, but Hensarling has a long record of winning by wide margins. So, too, do Republican presidential candidates in the Fifth District. I feel safe in predicting that Hensarling's successor will be a Republican. The question is whether the district will choose a constitutional conservative like Hensarling or more of an establishment candidate.

Still, as I say, we're living in the age of politics of the unusual.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Tribute to My Mother



It will be my great honor and privilege later today to be a guest at a special ceremony honoring my mother.

Mom was a first–grade teacher in many places but exclusively in Dallas, Texas for the last dozen years of her life. It is also where my parents were brought up so when she and my father moved back to Dallas, they already had a built–in network of friends since most of their friends had remained in Dallas all their lives or, like my parents, had returned after living somewhere else.

I think that appealed to Mom's sense of order. She was back where her life began, helping a new generation gets its start. She might not have articulated it quite that way, but I think that is as good an explanation as any.

Mom also had a flair for the dramatic.

After she died, we received a letter from an old friend, who observed that Mom probably belonged on a stage — and I couldn't argue with that — but in the absence of a career on the stage, the next–best profession would be teacher. And I know how good Mom must have been at that. After all, she raised me. I know how she was with kids. When I was a child and my family took road trips in the summers, Mom always picked out a book to read to my brother and me to help kill the long hours in the car. She was very engaging, and although we always saw incredible things on our family trips, I always thought the best part of the trips was the trips themselves and Mom's spirited narrations of the works of C.S. Lewis and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Some of her friends undoubtedly will be in attendance later today. Unfortunately some of her friends have passed away in the 22 years since Mom died in a flash flood.

I don't know how well those still–living friends remember the weekend of that flash flood. I will never forget it. I was living in Norman, Okla., about a three–hour drive from Dallas, and I was about to wrap up my third year of teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma. Looking back, I can see that I wasn't as good at teaching as I fancied myself to be, but at the time I liked to think of myself as carrying on a family tradition (my father's parents were also teachers).

It was a rainy Friday night in this part of the country. The spring had been unusually wet, and the ground was saturated. When the storm went through that day, there was no place for the water to go.

My parents were caught in a flash flood at a spot that had a history of vulnerability to rising water. My father was pinned between the car and the guardrail, which probably saved his life but left him with a pinched nerve in his left arm (and he is left–handed). My mother was swept away. Her body was found a few hours later.

Today's ceremony includes the presentation of a redesigned bridge at the spot where she was swept away. These changes are expected to prevent tragedies like the one involving my parents.

That flood changed everything for me. My mother was killed, and my father was disabled. I spent that summer helping my father and making plans to return to Dallas when my commitment to OU ended after the next academic year.

It also changed the way I think of death. I used to think a lingering death was the worst way to go, at least as far as the survivors were concerned. But after Mom died, I realized that an out–of–the–blue death is just as difficult but in different ways.

After a long period of painful reflection I concluded that loss is loss. Whether you see it coming or not. I also concluded that what matters is not how a person died but how a person lived.

I'm glad that time is behind me, and I am glad to be able to honor my mother today.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia



Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you must know that there was a special election in Georgia's Sixth Congressional District this week.

The district has been in Republican hands for nearly 40 years.

Democrats have been eager to anoint the new House majority that they expect after the midterm elections in 2018, and every special election to fill a vacancy that was created when President Trump tapped someone to join his administration has been billed as a preview of coming attractions. After Democrat Jon Ossoff grabbed 48% of the vote in April's so–called "jungle primary" in the Georgia Sixth, millions of Democrat dollars flowed into the district from out of state, much of it from as far away as San Francisco, for the June 20 runoff.

There were high expectations. As it was in most of last year's Republican presidential primaries, Trump has emerged the winner in every special election so far. The margins have been narrow, but close doesn't count. Democrats were hungry for a victory.

And Democrats, who have gone into each contest convinced that public resistance to Trump and the Republicans was just waiting to rise up and be counted, are sounding like the fabled boy who cried "Wolf!"

They have awfully short memories.

I don't know if Tip O'Neill was the first to say "All politics is local," but I know he used the phrase as the foundation of his campaign strategy — and he knew what he was talking about.

O'Neill, a Democrat and five–term speaker of the House, represented a House district in Massachusetts for more than 30 years and rarely faced a serious challenge when he ran for re–election. In that sense, there was nothing particularly remarkable about his re–election in 1982.

But it was only two years, after all, since Ronald Reagan's landslide victory over Jimmy Carter, and the presidency wasn't the only thing the Democrats lost. After more than a quarter of a century of being in the majority in the Senate, Democrats had lost that majority, and their majority in the House was drastically reduced — by nearly three dozen seats. To say there was a certain amount of anxiety among Democrats at that time would be an understatement.

There needn't have been.

The elections in 1982 were the midterms of Reagan's first term as president — and a clear pattern of American political history is that midterms in general almost always favor the out–of–power party. We've grown accustomed in recent times to the possibility that a president's party might not lose ground in one or both of the chambers of Congress in a midterm election, but that is a rare phenomenon that usually requires unique circumstances.

George W. Bush's Republicans, for example, benefited in 2002 from the national mood following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, winning two Senate seats and eight House seats. It was the first time in nearly 70 years that a president's party gained ground in both chambers of Congress in a midterm election.

You have to go back to the 1930s — when America was in the grip of the Great Depression — to find the previous example of a time when the president's party prospered in both chambers in a midterm election. In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats picked up 10 Senate seats (at a time when there were only 96 members of the Senate) and nine House seats. (FDR's midterms of 1938 and 1942 went against the president's party, and what would have been his fourth midterm, which he did not live to see, was a total disaster for his successor, Harry Truman, in 1946.)

While 9/11 is often compared to Pearl Harbor, FDR did not benefit the way Bush did 60 years later. In the 1942 midterms FDR's Democrats lost nine Senate seats and 45 House seats. In spite of what had happened in Hawaii less than a year earlier, voters were anxious about American involvement in World War II.

In the last century, a few presidents have seen their party make midterm gains in one chamber but not both.

Bill Clinton's Democrats benefited in 1998 from a national backlash against the Republicans' partisan impeachment proceedings. They neither won nor lost seats in the Senate, but they won four seats in the House.

Richard Nixon's Republicans lost 12 House seats but won two Senate seats in the midterms of 1970. There was still a certain amount of backlash against the Vietnam War and the Democrats' participation in its escalation.

In 1962 John F. Kennedy's Democrats gained ground in the Senate but lost ground in the House. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred a few weeks before the election, may well have played a role.

In 1914, Woodrow Wilson's Democrats gained five seats in the Senate but lost a staggering 59 seats in the House. The Republicans were more united than they had been in 1912 — when the party's two factions, led by former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in the 1912 presidential election, reunited with a common purpose. They also gave themselves pats on the back for the booming economy — the result, they told the voters, of policies passed by Republicans in the previous quarter of a century.

Eight years before that, Teddy Roosevelt's Republicans gained seats in the Senate but lost seats in the House (although they retained a significant majority).

I could go on, but you get the idea, don't you? (Those were the best midterm years for incumbents in the last 110 years, and, in 2017, Democrats have seen the special elections to replace members of the House who were picked to join the Trump administration as targets of opportunity. Sort of a kickoff to the resounding rejection they are certain Republicans will receive next year. Only one real problem with that line of thinking — Republicans have won every special election this year. If you want to have a revolution, you have to have some victories.)

But back to O'Neill.

Even with that history, Democrats were edgy heading into the 1982 midterms. And O'Neill, facing a challenge from a Massachusetts lawyer whose campaign was being financed by out–of–state contributors (primarily oil interests in Oklahoma and Texas), emphasized that point in his campaign.

In November O'Neill won with 75% of the vote, and Democrats recaptured more than two dozen seats in the House, padding the majority they had held since 1955.

But going into that election year, Democrats were anxious. They had taken a beating two years earlier, and, even though O'Neill had won 15 straight congressional races, he was a consummate politician who knew all too well that Massachusetts — the only state to reject Nixon's bid for a second term in 1972 — had voted (narrowly) for Reagan in 1980 (Massachusetts voted for Reagan again in 1984). Was it a symptom of an emerging shift to the right in a state long known for its liberal politics?

Reagan's approval rating in late 1982 was hovering around 40%. It went up when the economy started roaring back to life, but that was after the midterms.

In hindsight it is easy to see the uphill climb that was facing the Republicans in 1982, but it wasn't so easy to see from ground level at the time.

O'Neill took the campaign to the voters. The people who are backing the Republican in this race, he told the voters, don't live here, but they think they can tell you what to do. And he addressed the district's kitchen–table concerns while his opponent — and his opponent's backers — spoke about more national themes.

Does that sound familiar? Democrats wanted to make the Georgia election about cultural issues. The Republicans and their candidate, Karen Handel, wanted to make it about the issues that affected the daily lives of Georgians — taxes and jobs.

On top of that, Ossoff didn't even live in the district.

It wasn't surprising that he received about the same share of the vote that he received in the first vote.

Many Democrats were fooled into believing Ossoff had a good chance to win by his showing in that first vote. The previous congressman, now–Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, was re–elected there last year with more than 61% of the vote. Ossoff already had done better than any of Price's challengers.

Except in his first election.

Price needed a runoff to win the GOP nomination when his predecessor, now–Sen. Johnny Isakson, decided to run for the Senate. After winning the runoff, Price was unopposed in the general election. He won all his re–election bids without breaking a sweat.

And that is really what is so deceptive about special elections. They are held to fill vacancies — which means there is no incumbent.

Incumbents are notoriously difficult to defeat. They have all the advantages of incumbency at their disposal. Their primary obligation is to be aware of and responsive to the needs of a typically concentrated geographical area. As long as they do that, they tend to win re–election with little trouble.

The best chance to "flip" a House district usually comes when the seat is open.

I have heard all the talk of how Handel will face another tough challenge when she seeks a full term next year, but as long as she keeps her focus on her district, I predict that she will win re–election easily.

It's the way it is.