Freedom Writing

Thursday, May 5, 2016

My Mother's Day

Today is an important anniversary for me.

Yes, I know it is Cinco de Mayo, the commemoration of Mexico's victory over French forces in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It is also the anniversary of the flash flood here in Dallas that took my mother's life — an event that has had infinitely more significance in mine than the battle that was fought more than 150 years ago.

Now, I always think of Mom at this time of year — actually, she crosses my mind at least once every day — but, for some reason, memories of Mom have been especially plentiful for me this year. There is no particular reason for that, I suppose. This isn't what might be called a milestone anniversary. Last year was, but this year is not.

It took me a long time to come to terms with what happened — and, in some ways, I guess I still have work to do, but I have largely come to terms with it.

The time around my mother's death and funeral has been a blur for me for many years. The strongest memory I have of that time is how unusually green everything was. That was an indicator of the conditions that led to Mom's death. There had been so much rain that spring that the ground was saturated. When the rain began to fall on the night my mother died, there was no place for the water to go. Thus, the flooding. Nearly two dozen people died that night.

Now, it always gets green here in the spring as it does just about everywhere else. It is the intensity level that changes, depending upon how much rain we get. If we don't get much rain, the green can be kind of dull, bordering on brown — an almost sure sign of a scorched–earth summer to come.

But the green of the grass and the trees that spring was deep, rich, vibrant. I have lived here more than 20 years — and visited here frequently as a child — and I have only seen green like that around here one other time — last year, which, as I say, was a milestone anniversary. We had a lot of rain — and some flooding, too. Talk about deja vu.

The green this spring seems to be more ordinary, kind of an average green. There is nothing about it, really, that should make me think of Mom or the time when she died.

And it doesn't. In fact, it isn't a visual thing at all. It's the sounds.

We lived in the country when I was growing up, and the sounds of wildlife were all around us. Birds, mostly, I suppose, but there were also crickets — and sounds that I still can't identify. Those sounds were the sounds of home — like the sounds of my parents' voices coming from downstairs or the wind rustling the leaves in the trees outside my bedroom window.

When I was growing up, I guess I was what was called a morning person. I got that from Dad, I guess. He's always been a morning person.

Anyway, I remember many mornings when I awoke before the sun came up, and I sat next to my window and listened to the sounds around me. I remember hearing the birds. I never saw them, and I have never been very good at identifying birds by the sounds they made so I don't know what kind of birds they were. But the same kind of bird must have taken up residence near my apartment because the song I have heard in recent days is one I have heard before, and it brings back strong memories of being a teenager.

That brings me to another point. As I say, I was a morning person when I was a boy, and I guess I remained one through my college years, but I got a newspaper job when I was 24 that required me to work nights. It wasn't easy, but I finally made the transition that had to be made if a morning person by nature was going to work a job that kept him at the office until after midnight.

Then I made the decision to go back to graduate school, and I worked at the local paper, which was an afternoon paper. That meant I had to be at work at 5 a.m. I would put in eight hours in the newsroom, then I would work for three hours in the afternoon as a teaching assistant in the editing lab. Graduate classes always met at night so if I had a class on a particular night, that would take about three more hours.

I kind of lost track of whether I was a morning person or a night person under those 20–hour–a–day conditions.

I've been working jobs that had more standard daytime hours for quite awhile now so I kind of drift from morning person to night person back to morning person. Lately I've been more of a morning person — at least as far as when I wake up is concerned. As it was when I was in my teens, I am often up before daybreak, and I listen to the sounds around me. I live in a city now so the sounds are the sounds one hears in a city — car engines running, buses stopping at the bus stop in front of my apartment building, the occasional wailing siren from a police car as it goes speeding by.

But even those sounds, mingled with the sounds of birds, remind me of Mom. She was a first–grade teacher, and there were times when I visited my parents and I would drive her to school in the mornings while I was visiting. The sounds of the city and the sounds of the birds remind me of mornings when I helped her carry her stuff to the car, then drove her to school and helped her unload.

I had kind of forgotten those mornings, but I'm glad to be reminded of them. I guess there wasn't anything remarkable about those times, just that I shared them with Mom.

And that was enough to make them special.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Hoosier Buddy? Hoosier Pal? Hoosier Politics

In a matter of hours, voters will be going to the polls in Indiana to vote in the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries.

Even for the state's old–timers, this is bound to be a first — primaries in either party that have real bearing on the outcomes of the nomination battles. Actually, in the annals of presidential politics (primary or general elections), this is indeed a rare occasion for the folks in Indiana. It has been an opportunity for them to see and hear four people who want to be the next president — and, in all likelihood, one will be. Ordinarily, nominations are all but wrapped up by the time Indiana's primaries are held so they attract little attention — from either the candidates or the media.

Indiana almost always votes Republican in the general election and usually by a wide margin so there is little reason for either nominee to campaign there this fall. Yes, I know Barack Obama carried the state by almost 30,000 votes (out of more than 2.7 million cast) in 2008, but the state reverted to form in 2012 and went for Mitt Romney by more than a quarter of a million votes.

That 2008 election was only the second time since the end of World War II that Indiana voted for a Democrat. The other time was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson carried the state against Barry Goldwater. It didn't vote for any of the other Democrats who have been elected president since the end of the war — not Harry Truman or Jack Kennedy or Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.

Clearly, the assumption has to be that the Republican nominee — whoever that turns out to be — will win Indiana. And the winner of the Democratic nomination, if he or she is smart, will not devote much in the way of time or resources to campaigning in Indiana this fall — unless polls consistently show that the state is up for grabs.

Which is always possible. This year has already been one unlike any other in American political history. And it would not shock me if there are many surprises in store for us on Election Night this November.

That is six months from now. Many things can happen in six months. It is truly an eternity in politics.

That is exactly why it is wise not to place too much faith in polls, either. I know I cite them in this blog, but that is as a general barometer, and I make no pretense that they are endowed with some strange, mystical power to see the future. They tend to be useful for showing how close or lopsided a race looks at a moment in time, but the numbers are imprecise. It is a cliche, but it is still true: The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day.

Decisions are made by those who show up. And who knows what will be on the minds of the voters when they go to the polls in November?

Will there be a terrorist attack somewhere in October — another Brussels or Paris, perhaps? Maybe there will be one at the Summer Olympics in South America. Or maybe somewhere that is not obvious today.

What will happen with the economy this summer? Will joblessness go up? Will GDP go down? What will the stock market do?

Will the FBI finally render its decision on Hillary Clinton's private email server?

Or will voters be thinking about public restrooms?

Whatever the answers are to those questions — and to those questions no one has thought to ask but almost certainly will between now and November — the one thing that seems certain, on the eve of what I honestly believe will be the turning point in both nomination battles, is that we are witnessing a turning point in American politics.

Because of what we are seeing in this election, in the years to come, nothing will be quite the same.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Classroom

"I'm a white lady. I'm an easy target."

Melissa Click

Foolishly, I suppose, I thought that, when I wrote in February about Melissa Click's dismissal from her job as a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, I would never type her name again.

Sadly, that is not the case. I guess I should have known better, given my years of newspaper work. There are certain people who never go away, no matter how much you may wish they would.

And Ms. Click is one of them. She has surfaced again — to blame her dismissal on "racial politics" in a profile published in the Chronicle of Higher Education last weekend.

To read the article online, you have to be a subscriber, and I am not a subscriber, but I have heard enough about the article's contents from those who are subscribers to know that what I have heard about it is true.

Click contends that she was a victim of racial politics. She says she was fired because she is "an easy target."

"I'm a white lady," she said.

Clearly, she is white. Whether she is a lady is a matter of personal opinion. (Before you reach any conclusions on that, be sure you watch her video from last fall. I posted it with my article in February.)

I know it is fashionable these days to blame one's failures on alleged prejudice. Sometimes it's bewildering — like when one claims to be a member of another race or to be of another gender than one really is and blames a personal failure on prejudice against that race or gender.

But Click is not disputing her race or her gender, just using them as the scapegoats for her dismissal. In my mind, that is worse.

I am a journalist who has taught journalism on the college level, and, as I wrote in February, I was glad the University of Missouri dismissed her. I did not think she was an advocate of freedom of the press or freedom of speech, and I believe that people who teach journalism classes should be effective role models in their defense of both.

In calling for "some muscle" in a blatant effort to prevent a student journalist from covering a news event on a public campus, Click clearly demonstrated that she only believes in freedom of the press and freedom of speech when they are to her benefit.

But freedom of speech and freedom of the press exist to benefit everyone.

And any journalism professor who doesn't understand that has no business being a journalism professor.

Race and gender have absolutely nothing to do with it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Silly Season

Peggy Noonan, a writer whose skill I truly admire, observed recently that 2016, for better or worse, will not be a politics–as–usual kind of year.

"This is big, what we're living through," she concluded.

I agree with her — to a point.

As is always the case in a presidential election year, our nation faces very serious issues, issues that we as Americans must confront frankly and candidly and decide what we want to do about them — the economy and joblessness (that alleged 5% unemployment figure simply is not good enough, nor is a GDP that struggles to stay in positive territory); terrorism (something has to be done about those who want to kill Americans indiscriminately, especially in America but everywhere else, too), and immigration and national security (America has always been a nation that welcomed people from every corner of the world, but a nation that is not secure is a nation that is not free).

These are complex issues. They always are. We owe it to ourselves to come to a national conclusion about what must be done. We cannot, as Barack Obama has famously said, continue to kick cans down the road.

But, as always (and this is where I disagree with Noonan — this is the way in which American politics circa 2016 is the same as ever), we allow ourselves to become mired in irrelevance.

This is so typical of this country. Go back over the history of presidential elections, and you will see this just about every time.

This year is no different. Are we discussing the issues I just outlined? Sure, we talk about them — but in vague terms and only long enough and in adequate terms to energize the base. We don't discuss them in detail.

What are we talking about in detail?

Public restrooms.

The whole thing keeps bringing to mind — well, my mind, anyway — the phrase "the silly season."

That is a phrase that has been used in many contexts. I was familiar with it in my days on newspapers. When I worked in news, it was typically a reference to the general lull in news events in late summer (aka the "dog days of summer"). That always seems to be a slow news season, presumably because just about everyone goes on vacation and nothing of substance is done, certainly nothing of a controversial nature, until after Labor Day. Thus it becomes necessary for reporters to come up with stories to justify their presence on the staff — until real news starts happening again.

In my days on the sports desk, it typically referred to all kinds of off–season stuff that happens in every sport.

In modern presidential election years — at least since the last time a major party's convention needed more than one ballot to agree on a nominee — the phrase "silly season" has typically referred to the period between early summer (after the primaries have ended) and mid– to late October (which, polls show, is when most Americans start paying attention to the campaign).

With a few exceptions, political conventions have been scripted and predictable. Fewer and fewer Americans have watched them in recent presidential cycles. And, although debates are taken for granted today, they have only been part of presidential elections for the last 40 years — less than one–fifth of all presidential elections in America's history.

In the last 40 years, debates between the major parties' nominees have frequently begun in late September, which has shifted the calendar of interest somewhat in those election years.

But the silly season really seems to be getting a head start this time. It's only April, we still have more than a dozen primaries on the political calendar for both parties, neither nomination has been clinched for the first ballot — and we're already descending into silly season hell.

Don't worry about all those other issues, though. There is only one burning — as it were — issue.

Where do you stand — er, sit — on it?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Musing About the Big Apple

"In the first half of the 20th century, New York was the dominant state in presidential politics. It had the most electoral votes, and of all the large states, it was usually the most evenly divided between the two parties. In the 21st century, New York — with 33 electoral votes in 2000, 31 in 2004 and 2008 and 29 in 2012 — has come to be the most heavily Democratic large state. It's easy today to forget that in 1976 Jimmy Carter only carried the state with 52% of the vote, winning just seven counties and only three outside New York City."

Richard E. Cohen with James A. Barnes
The Almanac of American Politics 2016

I've been reading a lot and listening to many reports about Tuesday's New York primaries, and I really have to wonder about its significance, especially on the Republican side. It probably means about as much in the long run as Hillary Clinton's victory in the Democratic primary here in Texas. Whichever Republican wins the New York primary — even if, as now seems probable, it is native New Yorker Donald Trump — is not likely to win the general election there.

But the Republican race is about delegates now, and there are 95 available in New York. All indications are that the delegate race will be very tight at least until the California primary in June so that, more than anything else, will attract media attention on Tuesday.

That along with the fact that Trump is likely, as he has elsewhere, to draw many new participants into the electoral process. In 2012, fewer than 200,000 New Yorkers participated in the Republican primary — and the GOP nomination had, in all fairness, already been decided

As Cohen and Barnes correctly pointed out, there was a time — not so long ago, really — when the outcome of a presidential campaign in New York was not a foregone conclusion. In six of the first 10 presidential elections following World War II, Republicans carried New York. But New York has voted with Democrats in the last seven elections. New York hasn't voted for a Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

"The Almanac of American Politics" observes that this transition was caused by Jewish voters becoming more strongly identified with Democrats, rising black and Hispanic populations, and white Catholics, who once voted largely on the basis of cultural issues like crime are more likely now to vote on the basis of issues like abortion, gun control and gay rights.

Of course, New York's electoral performance often seems to be influenced by the presence of a New Yorker — or someone with regional ties — on a national ticket. But not always. In that 1984 campaign, the Democrats had New Yorker Geraldine Ferraro on their ticket, but Reagan took nearly 54% of the state's popular vote.

New York offers a big chunk of delegates in its Republican primary. It isn't winner–take–all. The winner of the state overall will secure a huge block of votes, but some will be allocated based on the results in congressional districts — and if the CBS News/YouGuv poll that was released today is accurate, that could mean a very big night for Donald Trump.

And I suppose it is possible that Trump's presence on the ballot could put New York in play in November — but I doubt it. In the last five presidential elections, New York has never given a Democratic nominee less than 58% of its vote.

That being the case, it might be more instructive to observe the results in the Democrats' primary.

That CBS News/YouGuv poll found Clinton with a 10–point lead over Bernie Sanders. Considering the facts that Clinton was elected to the Senate twice by New York voters and beat Barack Obama by 17 points in the 2008 New York primary, a 10–point win over Sanders would suggest declining support in her "home" state — which could, in turn, suggest declining support nationwide.

A Sanders upset would change the game for certain.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Is a Contested Convention Inevitable?

Before the 2016 presidential primaries and caucuses began, I figured — like probably everyone else did — that, even though there were 17 candidates for the Republican nomination, the voters would settle on one fairly early in the process.

If anyone had asked me if we would know the identity of the nominee by mid–April, I would have responded in the affirmative. After all, that is the way it almost always works out.

All the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees in my lifetime have been nominated on the first ballot. Whatever their faults may have been, candidates have won or lost the general election entirely on their own. The number of ballots it took to nominate them has never been a factor in the general election.

But the topic of a contested convention — sometimes called a "brokered" convention although that really is a label that belongs to another time in American political history — began to circulate rather early in that process this year — and even though we are in mid–April and the Republican field is down to three active candidates, we still do not know who the nominee will be.

The front–runner, businessman Donald Trump, has been busily shooting himself in the foot. He lost the Wisconsin primary to his top rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, last week, and now he is limping into his home state primary, New York, where polls show him comfortably ahead.

Once Trump wins New York next week, as appears inevitable — although I guess I should be more careful about proclaiming something inevitable, given what we have already seen in this year's presidential campaign on both sides — I believe Cruz will be mathematically eliminated from securing enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the third wheel in the campaign, is already mathematically eliminated.

But that won't mean that Trump is on Easy Street. Cruz and Kasich aren't the only ones who have delegates committed to them. So does Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who withdrew from the race when he lost his home state's primary a month ago. Rubio has 171 delegates who will be committed to him through the first ballot.

Trump needs to secure more than 51% of the delegates that are available in the primaries that will be held in the next two months to barely win a majority. That is certainly achievable. It is fortunate for Trump that most states do not award delegates on a purely proportional basis.

Trump having enough delegates to win on the first ballot is certainly more likely than Cruz capturing 90% of the remaining delegates (and that assumes that Trump won't win most of the delegates in New York). Talk about an impossible dream. And, as I said, Kasich isn't in the running for a first–ballot nomination.

But Cruz and Kasich could prevent Trump from having enough delegates to claim the nomination on the first ballot when everyone goes to Cleveland this summer. That could so easily happen.

American voters are a funny bunch sometimes. It often happens that, when one candidate appears to be on the verge of clinching a presidential nomination, the voters in the party start voting for someone else. Most of the time, that has happened in the Democratic Party. The front–runner eventually prevails, but not before the voters flex their contrarian muscles and throw a good scare into the presumptive nominee — as if to remind him (or her — Bernie Sanders seems to be throwing a good scare into Hillary Clinton's campaign) who's really in charge.

Or, at least, who is supposed to be in charge.

In the case of a contested convention, it appears that no one will be in charge. That is the part that seems to worry people the most. There will be chaos, we are told. Delegates will be fighting in the aisles.

Actually, the biggest concern seems to be that a multi–ballot convention will doom the nominee in the general election.

But I conducted a very random and extremely unscientific survey, and nearly everyone with whom I spoke said multiple ballots at the convention would not disqualify the nominee from becoming president.

Of course, I suppose that depends on what the voters see playing out on their TV screens during the convention. If they see riots in the streets, that could certainly influence their votes.

A contested convention would be a new thing for just about everyone. The last time the Republicans needed more than one ballot to choose their nominee was in 1948, nearly 70 years ago. That convention produced the second nomination of New York Gov. Tom Dewey, who went on to lose to President Truman in the upset of which people still speak.

The Democrats' most recent contested convention was in 1952. That one produced Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson as the nominee. He went on to lose the election to popular war hero General Dwight Eisenhower.

Now, at this point, you may be wondering if a contested convention has ever produced a nominee who went on to win the presidency. The answer to that is yes.

Woodrow Wilson (1912) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932) were both the products of contested conventions. FDR only needed four ballots. Wilson needed nearly four dozen.

Four Democratic presidents in the 19th century — James K. Polk in 1844, Franklin Pierce in 1852, James Buchanan in 1856 and Grover Cleveland in 1884 — needed more than one ballot to win their nominations.

In fact, until Harry Truman won the 1948 nomination on the first ballot and went on to win the November election, every eventual Democratic president for more than a century needed multiple ballots the first time he was nominated.

But eventual failure has been a more frequent outcome. Including the 1952 convention, 10 Democratic nominees who needed more than one ballot have gone on to lose the presidency. Thus, by nearly a 2–to–1 margin, nominees from brokered Democratic conventions have lost in the general election.

Multiple–ballot conventions have been less frequent for Republicans. They have had only 10, but their success ratio has been better. Half of those contested conventions produced the eventual winner, starting with Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

My guess is that, barring violence in the streets of Cleveland, a contested convention would be a ratings magnet. A contested convention would give viewers a rare civics lesson, an opportunity to see real wheeling and dealing on the convention floor, which would be sure to produce some surprises the next time the roll of the states was called. As I mentioned, Cruz and Kasich might well join forces to stop Trump. Cruz might well tell Kasich that, in exchange for his delegates' support, he would offer Kasich the vice presidency.

In that case, Trump might try to join forces with Rubio — and make a similar offer to him for his delegates.

And, although the two leaders deny that anything like it will happen, a compromise candidate might emerge if the balloting goes beyond a second or third ballot.

Theoretically, anything could happen in a contested convention.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

On Being President

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written that what Teddy Roosevelt called the "bully pulpit" of the presidency is "somewhat diminished in our age of fragmented attention and fragmented media." I am an admirer of Goodwin's work, but I think she is wrong in that assessment.

The bully pulpit is as influential as ever — if not potentially moreso with so many means of communication available. Its relevance depends upon who has access to it and how it is applied.

I have been wondering — since before Barack Obama took office more than seven years ago — what it was about him that I found unpresidential. You see, for a long time, I wasn't able to put my finger on it.

If I had the opportunity to give him some advice today, I think I have a pretty good idea now what it is that has bothered me and what I would advise him to do. With about nine months left in his presidency, my guess is it wouldn't help much now. But it couldn't hurt.

There can be little doubt that, for some (but certainly not all) of his critics, Obama's skin color is, as many in the Democratic Party have frequently suggested, the issue. That is impossible to deny. Racism is an unfortunate element in the human equation. It always has been, and I suspect it always will be — like greed and lust and other unattractive qualities that take control of some people. Some folks do a better job of overcoming those negative qualities than others.

For a long time, I wondered if I was being racist because I found myself objecting so frequently to Obama's policies. The idea troubled me greatly because I was raised by liberal parents, and I always believed their values were my values. My mother was involved in promoting positive race relations in the Arkansas town in which I grew up, and I have always believed that, as a result of my upbringing, I am a tolerant person.

I soon concluded that I wasn't a racist, even if there were some in the Democratic Party who insisted on labeling everyone who objected to Obama policies a hater. More than once, I have voted for black candidates — and other candidates who differed from me in other ways — for office. When I think back on my voting history, I know that my votes have been decided by issues and political philsophies — and my political philosophy has evolved over time, as I suppose everyone's does. "The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20," Muhammad Ali once said, "has wasted 30 years of his life."

To issue a blanket assertion that anyone who objects to Obama's policies and his approach to his job is racist is to ignore some important facts, and much of it, I believe, has to do with fear, plain and simple.

People are genuinely frightened these days — they were frightened before Obama took office — and there is certainly a lot for them to fear. It doesn't matter whether the president thinks the fears are justified. It isn't enough to remind people of the phrases that past presidents used (i.e., FDR's "We have nothing to fear but fear itself") to calm jittery generation of long ago.

People want the president of their own time to recognize the legitimacy of their fears, to speak to them in a reasonable, not belittling, fashion and to keep them informed. Time after time Obama has come up short in this respect.

We live in an unprecedented age of instant information, but it hasn't always been that way. Presidents of the past were limited by the technology that existed in their times. Presidents have only been using television for about half a century, radio for about a century. In the first 150 years of America's existence, news traveled much more slowly; it took weeks, sometimes months for a president's remarks on a topic to reach citizens on the country's outskirts.

But people of the 21st century are plugged in to things in a way that their forebears never were. They can get up–to–the–minute information on just about any topic on their smart phones or laptops. But information is really all they get. They do get what passes for context — what journalism students are told is the elusive "why" of a news story — but it is usually political agenda disguised as context.

A president has to function above that.

Naturally, a president who is seeking re–election can be forgiven for allowing politics to permeate his remarks — but outside of the electoral battlefield, a president is expected to be respectful of people's fears, even if he doesn't share them.

A president is expected to act like the president of all the people, and far too many people have felt that this president only sees himself as president of a certain segment of the population — that, as far as this president is concerned, those who disagree with him can, in the memorable words of John Ehrlichman, "twist slowly in the wind."

Take the subject of terrorism, for example. Its purpose is to frighten people, and the videotaped beheadings and equally horrific executions have done the trick. So have the attacks that have been carried out in places like Brussels and Paris and San Bernardino.

When the president pays little attention and chooses to go golfing or dancing or to a baseball game instead of trying to engage the people, instead of explaining why he believes terrorism is not as great a threat as people perceive it to be, he may honestly believe that he is doing the right thing by not contributing to a chorus of hysterical voices.

But he is really fanning the flames. Fears go unchecked, and that leads to things like surges in gun purchases — which is the opposite of the outcome Obama has sought as president. So Obama's behavior in the face of terrorist attacks has been counterproductive.

Same with the economy and unemployment.

Few modern Americans, as a portion of the population, had experienced anything comparable to the Great Recession, and they were understandably alarmed to see their jobs disappearing, their life savings slipping away, their very homes being taken from them. Even those who lived through the economy of the late '70s and early '80s had not seen anything like it.

In such times, the American people expect reassurance from their leader, and today America's leader likes to brag of the unemployment rate being at 5%, but words from him were few and far between when unemployment was over 10%. Even if he had no news to report, he needed to do a 21st–century version of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats, telling people what he was doing to turn things around and what he planned to do in the future.

Instead they have been left in the dark by this president.

The president, whoever he or she may be, has enormous influence on people — even those who did not vote for him or her.

But the bully pulpit must be used in a way that unites a diverse population instead of dividing it. The presidents who have understood this are the ones who have earned a revered role in American history.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Wisconsin: A Maverick Wild Card

"It was Wisconsin, as a matter of fact, that in 1903 first invented the presidential primary, which so many other states have since copied. And the political philosophy that inspired that revolutionary invention has made and left Wisconsin in political terms an unorganized state, a totally unpredictable state, a state whose primaries have over many quadrennials proved the graveyard of great men's presidential ambitions."

Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1960

When Theodore White wrote the above, it was a very different political landscape across the United States than the one we have today. When all is said and done, more than three dozen states will have held presidential primaries in 2016. In 1960, only 14 states and the District of Columbia held primaries.

Most state delegations were chosen at state party conventions in those days. A primary's value was more symbolic than actual. In 1960, Wisconsin's primary was the second in the nation, coming four weeks after the New Hampshire primary. John F. Kennedy, from neighboring Massachusetts, easily won the New Hampshire primary as expected. Wisconsin's importance was that it would demonstrate whether Kennedy appealed to voters outside his native region.

Kennedy did win Wisconsin, receiving 56% of the vote, but it was determined that much of his margin in that primary came from heavily Catholic precincts. It would be a month later, when Kennedy trounced Hubert Humphrey in heavily Protestant West Virginia, that he demonstrated conclusively that he could win the popular support of Protestant voters outside of New England.

Still there is little doubt that Kennedy's wave of momentum began in Wisconsin on April 5, 1960.

As we round the stretch and head toward the finish line in Wisconsin two days from now, it is worth reviewing the recent history of the Wisconsin primary because it has been such a maverick state — and if the front–runners in both parties lose there, as polls currently suggest they will, it could change the dynamics of both races.

Wisconsin may still prove to be "the graveyard of great men's presidential ambitions."

When White wrote that 55 years ago, he had no way of knowing that eight years later a president would drop out of the race because of an insurgent challenger (and his own problems with a civil war in Southeast Asia). A few days later — and only two days before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — the insurgent, Minnesota Sen. Gene McCarthy (the Bernie Sanders of his day), won Wisconsin's primary with 56% of the vote.

"[I]n Wisconsin," White wrote in his book on the 1968 presidential election, "one could see naked the end of the historic Johnson mandate of 1964."

In 1972 Sen. George McGovern used his victory in Wisconsin as his springboard to the nomination, eclipsing pre–Democrat primary campaign front–runner Ed Muskie and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey with 30% of the vote in a 10–candidate field.

In 1976 President Gerald Ford got off to a fast start, winning the first five primaries and the Iowa caucus, prompting many party leaders to openly encourage former California Gov. Ronald Reagan to withdraw prior to the North Carolina primary. If Reagan had withdrawn, it might well have ended his hopes of winning the presidency. But he won North Carolina, and the candidates moved on to Wisconsin two weeks later — even though Reagan had more or less written off Wisconsin because of a money crunch brought on largely by his losing streak in the primaries.

Although momentum was with Reagan after the North Carolina primary, Wisconsin sided with the president. It might well have backed the challenger, who took 44% of the vote, if he had been able to run the kind of advertising campaign that would have been necessary to defeat a sitting president. Reagan went on to win the Texas primary and made a close race of it right up to the party's convention in Kansas City that summer, but many people — myself included — believe the decision to more or less bypass Wisconsin was the greatest mistake Reagan made in the 1976 campaign.

On the Democratic side, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter scored an upset over liberal Mo Udall, who had been counting on Wisconsin's liberal tradition to juice up his campaign.

Instead, Carter won, 36.6% to 35.6%, and the momentum carried Carter to the nomination in July and the presidency in November.

In 1980, Reagan had been alternating electoral momentum with George H.W. Bush in the primaries until he won Wisconsin. After that, he seldom lost another primary, won the nomination and went on to win the presidency.

If you're curious as to the kind of effect that Trump's recent gaffe on abortion can have, it might be useful to remember the 1992 Democratic primary in Wisconsin.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown announced in New York that, if he was the nominee, he would give Rev. Jesse Jackson serious consideration for the running mate slot. Jackson, the first true black contender for the presidency, was a controversial figure; when the votes were counted in Wisconsin, Bill Clinton defeated Brown by 37.2% to 34.5%. Clinton won all but two of the remaining electoral contests and claimed the party's nomination that summer.

Wisconsin is a legitimate wild card, capable of producing perhaps the only true political drama until this summer's conventions.

Republican front–runner Donald Trump and Democratic front–runner Hillary Clinton are currently running second in Wisconsin polls. If those polls prove to be correct, it could change the complexion of the races.

As Leo once said on The West Wing, "I'd watch."

Friday, April 1, 2016

Abortion and Punishment

DONALD TRUMP: Are you Catholic?

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Yes, I think ...

TRUMP: And how do you feel about the Catholic Church's position?

MATTHEWS: Well, I accept the teaching authority of my church on moral issues.

TRUMP: I know, but do you know their position on abortion?

MATTHEWS: Yes, I do.

TRUMP: And do you concur with the position?

MATTHEWS: I concur with their moral position but legally, I get to the question — here's my problem with it ...

TRUMP: No, no, but let me ask you: But what do you say about your church?

MATTHEWS: It's not funny.

TRUMP: Yes, it's really not funny. What do you say about your church? They're very, very strong.

MATTHEWS: They're allowed to — but the churches make their moral judgments, but you running for president of the United States will be chief executive of the United States. Do you believe ...

TRUMP: No, but ...

MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?

TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.

MATTHEWS: For the woman?

TRUMP: Yes, there has to be some form.

I am always uncomfortable when the subject of abortion is brought into the political arena.

That is mostly because I have always considered myself totally neutral on the issue. It's like Mark Twain said about heaven and hell. He said he had friends in both places, and I have friends on both sides. What's more, whenever my friends explain their positions, I find it hard to dispute what any of them say.

I agree that it is terrible that people end the lives of unborn children before they have begun. Children are the most innocent of creatures, and it is hard to justify denying them the opportunity to live and to love, to experience all the things, good and bad, that there are to experience in this world.

But I have known a few women who had abortions — I may know others as well, but those are the three who I know for sure have had abortions — and it was a painful experience for them. I'm not talking about physical pain — although I'm sure there was some of that as well. I'm talking about emotional pain, inner turmoil.

Without exception they experienced fear — of what, I couldn't tell you. Society? The legal system? God? All three? All three and more? I don't think even they knew for sure. But they were afraid, and they lived with that fear long after the abortion.

They were sad, too — again, not well defined, but it would be safe to say that they felt sadness over having to do what they did — and that, too, can be for many reasons. Obviously, I could never know what maternal instincts feel like, but my best guess would be that a significant part of that sadness was because the act of abortion is totally contradictory to one's protective maternal instincts. It's a law of nature, really, and I am certain that there is an emotional price to be paid by those who believe they have violated natural law.

They were confused, swept along by a series of events over which they had no control.

If the subject is going to be punishment, I think those women — and most of the others who have had abortions since the Supreme Court's decision 43 years ago — endured plenty of punishment, mostly self–inflicted. It was a mandatory byproduct of the procedure.

I'm sure that isn't the kind of punishment Trump meant when he spoke with Chris Matthews at a town hall meeting that was televised on MSNBC earlier this week ahead of next week's primary in Wisconsin. And there may well be some people in this country who agreed with Trump when he said there had to be a form of punishment for women who had abortions if abortion was made illegal. There probably are some people who agreed with him, but it would have to be a tiny sliver of a minority.

In fact, of all the pro–life people I know and have known — and bear in mind that I live in what is arguably the most conservative part of the country — I can't think of one who would support the idea of punishing the woman. The doctor who performed the abortion and profited by it is another matter entirely, but I cannot imagine any of my pro–life friends saying that the woman should be punished.

They would probably advocate counseling of some kind, but I'm quite sure they would be sympathetic with the woman and see her as more of a victim than a perp.

Trump backtracked shortly after making the statement — presumably when his aides pointed out to him that he had enough problems with women without saying they should be punished for having an abortion — but the damage had been done. Trump's negatives took a hit, not just with women but with young voters, independents, the list of groups keeps on growing. I'm sure his answer didn't help him with Hispanics, most of whom were already angry at him over his immigration remarks.

(Perhaps my favorite line about Trump's standing with women came in a column written by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan for the Wall Street Journal. "Already his numbers in next week's Wisconsin primary have fallen," Noonan wrote, "and as for women — well, with women nationally Mr. Trump is currently more popular than cholera — but not by much.")

I haven't really been surprised by the backlash. I've always thought Trump was something of a loose cannon; I'm just surprised it took so long to become clear to everyone else. Like most people, I guess I figured he would fizzle out long before his campaign reached the point where trying to stop him from winning the nomination appeared as hopeless as trying to stop a runaway train.

But now he may have handed his opponents the ammunition they need to bring him down. My take on this, though, is that it's not just the interview that is responsible. I truly believe it is the cumulative effect of several months of Trumpisms that leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those who hear them. Some — not all but some — of the Trump supporters I know are mortified by the things he has been saying. Texas' Republican primary was held on March 1 so the Trump supporters around here who are suffering from buyer's remorse have few options, but it isn't too late for people who vote in primaries this month and in May and early June.

I've heard the Wisconsin primary described as the Republicans' Alamo — their very last opportunity to stop Trump. Based on the polls I have been reading, Trump may well lose in Wisconsin, a state in which he was leading not long ago — and victories have a way of ending one candidate's momentum and giving it to someone else. We will see if that is what happens this time.

Nor am I really surprised that Matthews pressed Trump into delivering one of his shoot–from–the–hip responses. Matthews long ago made clear which side he favored in political contests, and he was doing his usual job as the lackey journalist. Mission accomplished. He drew Trump out into a minefield of his own making.

It's part of the give–and–take of politics. There hasn't been a president in my lifetime who hasn't felt mistreated by the press. If you aspire to be president, you have to be prepared for that. You have to be nimble, light on your feet in your answers, not lead–footed.

Trump gives the impression that he speaks without having given much, if any, thought to the subject. I have been critical for months of his failure to provide any solutions for the problems facing this country except to repeatedly tell us that the United States is "going to win again" when he becomes president. That sounds like Charlie Sheen (who also has problems with women).

It is simply inexcusable for a Republican not to anticipate questions about abortion. The public is going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that a Republican is going to be pro–life, and that is probably what Matthews assumed. Now, it's OK to be pro–life if you're going to give thoughtful reasons for your position — but it isn't OK, even with most other pro–lifers, to be Draconian about it.

Trump wasn't the only one who needed instruction in how to conduct himself, though. Matthews, too, could have used some pointers.

I have taught many journalism students, and I would chastise any of them for allowing an interviewee to become the interviewer, as Matthews allowed Trump to do. In this case, it ended up working out for Matthews, but that can so easily backfire on a journalist.

A journalist has no control over how the subject of an interview responds to questions. I understand that. Each situation is different and must be handled differently, but, in this case, I would have advised Matthews to say this when Trump started to interview him: "This is not about what I think. I am not a candidate for president. You are a candidate for president, and it is in that capacity that I am asking you what you think."

(By the way, that is essentially the same question I would ask of Hillary Clinton on the subject of her emails — in the context of her Nixonian assertion that her predecessors at State did the same things she did: "This is not about what they did. This is about what you did.")

When I was studying journalism in college, one of my professors delivered the lecture that every journalism student has heard at one time or another. "You should be like a fly on the wall" when you report on an event, the professor said. "The reader shouldn't even know you're there." If there was one thing that was driven home repeatedly in my journalism classes, it was the idea that a journalist should never be part of the story.

The readers — or, in this case, the viewers — knew Matthews was there, that he was part of the story. He managed to turn the tables on Trump and goad him into giving what could be, in hindsight, the remarks that proved to be the tipping point for his campaign. Perhaps, in Matthews' mind, all's well that ends well.

But he ran a huge risk of being the elephant in the room rather than a fly on the wall.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Decisions Are Made By Those Who Show Up

I had heard the quote "Decisions are made by those who show up" long before I heard Allison Janney (as C.J. Cregg) say it on The West Wing. I don't know who said it first. Some say it was Woody Allen. Some say it was Harry Truman. I've even heard it suggested that Margaret Mead said it first.

That isn't really important. What is important is that it expresses a truism that is hard, if not impossible, to refute, especially in the world of politics. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that, when all is said and done, no other sentence will better describe the eventual outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign.

I say that because I have been reading a number of columns lately from political observers, most of whom have already demonstrated that their sympathies are with Hillary Clinton — and Bernie Sanders, too (they presume, and probably justifiably, that Hillary will be the nominee so they can afford to be inclusive) — and they insist that the battle between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz will divide the Republican Party, no matter who gets the nomination, and that will guarantee Clinton's election.

It's inevitable, they say.

Let me tell you something. Nothing is inevitable — except, as they say, death and taxes.

We're more than seven months from the election. That is an eternity in politics.

And polls are merely snapshots of opinion at a particular point in time.

I've been a student of history for many years (amateur student of history, mostly, although I was an actual history student when I was in graduate school; it was my minor), and I can appreciate the pundits' use of history in their logic even though I think they tend to misapply its lessons. Still, at a time when most young people can name every member of the Kardashian family but few can tell you who the vice president is, I find any knowledge and application of current events and history refreshing, even encouraging.

The most prevalent theory seems to be that, in the last six elections, Democrats have won nearly enough states regularly to win the whole shootin' match. They lost the electoral vote in two of those elections and the popular vote in one. Therefore, this theory goes, the Democrats already have nearly enough states in the bag to win. They only need to win a couple more to clinch victory.

The Republicans, on the other hand, would have to win all the states they have been winning — mostly Southern and Western states — just about run the table on all the battleground states and perhaps try to peel off one or two of the states that are assumed to be in the Democrats' corner to win the national election — and that, the pundits agree, is a mountain too high.

This ignores the fact that American politics is cyclical.

Yes, it is true that, for example, California, the biggest prize of them all, the state that, all by itself, can deliver precisely one–fifth of the electoral votes a candidate needs to win, has voted for Democrats six straight times. But it voted for Republicans in the six elections prior to that.

And you can find all sorts of other examples like that, states that have been voting for Democrats in every election since 1992, and some for an election before that, but many of those states voted Republican fairly regularly for decades prior. The political landscape is always shifting. The issues are always changing. And the events that affect elections are always different. They may look similar, but they are never identical. It's like Mark Twain said. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

One clear trend has emerged since the end of World War II. A party typically wins two straight national elections, then the other party wins the next two elections. Only once in the last 70 years has a party won three consecutive presidential elections. That was in the 1980, 1984 and 1988 presidential elections. Ronald Reagan won the first two, and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, won the third.

And only once since World War II has a party taken the White House from the other party in a national election and failed to win the next one. That was when Jimmy Carter won in 1976 and lost in 1980.

(By the way, Reagan trailed President Carter by 25 points in the polls that were taken at this stage of the 1980 presidential campaign. He won by 10 percentage points when the votes were counted in November.)

I've been following elections for a long time, and the one great truth is that turnout is what matters. Who shows up? And why?

To a great extent Barack Obama owed his election eight years ago to an unlikely coalition of groups that have seldom been active in politics. In 2008 I think many were motivated by the historic opportunity to participate in the election of the nation's first black president. I also think that the 2016 Clinton campaign was built around the idea that these groups would be similarly motivated by the opportunity to participate in the election of the nation's first female president, but those groups seem to have lost their taste for politics. Maybe they grew complacent with their successes in 2008 and 2012. Whatever the reason (if there is a single reason) turnout in Democratic primaries is way down this year. Across the board.

Turnout in the Republican primaries, on the other hand, is way up. Again, across the board. I think it is safe to assume that most of those voters will be motivated to turn out in November even if their candidate is not the nominee.

The enthusiasm factor is on the Republicans' side this cycle. That can be explained away in the "open" primaries, in which Democrats and independents may vote, but not in the "closed" primaries, in which only registered Republicans are allowed to participate. Enthusiasm is up consistently in all Republican contests, closed or open.

As a party, the Republicans have been crafting an economic message that appears to resonate with blue–collar white voters, especially those in the Rust Belt (who blame trade agreements for the loss of their jobs) but really across the country. That has the potential to put several states in play that have been voting for Democrats for the last couple of decades. The selection of a Midwestern running mate could have some influence on this, too.

(It is a theory of mine that, while the presence of a Midwestern running mate didn't put Mitt Romney over the top in 2012, it may have influenced the outcome in unacknowledged ways. Obama's share of the popular vote dropped nearly 2 percentage points and his electoral vote tally dropped by 33 between his election in 2008 and his re–election in 2012. Mind you, this was with an incumbent president seeking re–election, which is usually an insurmountable headwind for the challenger. Obama was the first incumbent in nearly a century to be re–elected with fewer electoral votes than he received in his initial election.)

The counterargument to this is that Democrats will benefit from the minority vote. It's hard to imagine any Republican ever achieving Dwight Eisenhower's level of support from minority voters, but that was a couple of generations ago. In the last 50 years or so, Republican nominees have seldom managed to win one–tenth of black votes, and that is the largest minority voting bloc in America. In spite of their growing numbers, Hispanics don't exert much electoral influence because so few vote.

Just as it is hard to imagine a Republican duplicating Ike's appeal to the minority community, it is equally difficult to imagine a Republican doing as poorly among black voters as John McCain or Romney did against the first black presidential nominee. It almost seems as if this year's Republican nominee can't help but do better, even marginally, among blacks than they did.

As for the Hispanic vote, even if there is a sudden surge in participation, it is likely to occur mostly in states where Democrats have an advantage (if you subscribe to the theory that those states are already in the bag) — primarily California and New Mexico. Many people will mention Nevada and Colorado as well, and those states do have sizable Hispanic populations, but it's a mistake to label them as dependably Democratic.

Nevada has been more of a bellwether, voting with the winner in every election since 1980 (and every election but two since 1904).

Colorado has been more inclined to support Republicans even when they lose nationally. True, Colorado supported Barack Obama twice, but before that Colorado voted for Democrats twice in the 14 previous elections — for Bill Clinton in 1992 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Colorado voted for Bob Dole over Clinton in 1996, for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in 1976 and for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Republicans with an eye to the long term are sure to recognize the fact that their party must be perceived as much more receptive to minority participation in the years ahead, but right now there probably aren't that many minority votes for Republicans to win or lose in states where those voters can make a difference. To win this election, pandering to minority groups won't be necessary.

Some folks point out the sizable Hispanic population in the state where I live — Texas. It's true that Hispanics make up a considerable segment of the Texas population, but Texas hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since narrowly voting for Carter 40 years ago. Obama lost Texas twice, both times by more than 1 million votes.

If Hispanics become more reliable at the polls, they could exert quite a bit of influence on Texas politics, but that is likely to happen incrementally. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders is going to win Texas this year.

And then there is the emerging issue of terrorism. Even before the attacks in Brussels earlier this week, polls were showing that a majority of Americans supported Trump's proposal of a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants. My guess is that support for that proposal has gone up this week.

Since World War II, when people have been afraid, they have turned to Republicans. Postwar Democrats have (pardon the pun) progressively been perceived as unable to protect Americans when they are faced with a deadly threat. Take the 9/11 attacks, for example. The party that doesn't hold the White House almost always loses ground in Congress in the midterm election, but Republicans bucked the historical trend and gained ground in the 2002 midterms in large part because of the voters' fears of terrorism a year after the Twin Towers came down.

How many more terrorist attacks will there be between now and November? Will any of them be on U.S. soil?

What form will those attacks take? Will they be like the anthrax attacks of 2001 — which, of course, were not related to Islamic terrorism, but the next ones certainly could be — or will they be more digital in nature, attacking our technological vulnerabilities?

What will the situation be in the days and weeks leading up to the election? Will the economy be better or worse?

The answers to those questions and others will give you a good idea who will show up at the polls in November — and who won't.