Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Taste of Money

Nationally, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is $3.30. That's 7 cents more than it was last week, and it's 73 cents more per gallon than it was this time last year, when gas was selling for $2.57.

I'll admit that it may not help much to be told that gas prices in the United States still aren't as high as they are in most other countries.
That's because Americans simply aren't used to the prices they're having to pay.

It reminds me of when I was a child. We lived in rural Arkansas when I was growing up, a couple of miles from the town limits. And my parents were regular customers at a bait shop/gas station on the route to town. Gas had been selling there for about 29 cents/gallon for years and years. Then, it went up a couple of pennies per gallon.

The Arab Oil Embargo of the early 1970s led to fuel shortages in the U.S., the likes of which had not been seen since World War II more than a quarter of a century earlier. Although my parents complained bitterly about having to pay a few pennies more for a gallon of gas, we never saw gas prices that low again.

But, even though the oil price increases of the early 1970s seem mild by today's standards, the impact was severe enough at the time that forms of gas rationing were implemented in various states ... believe it or not.

It also may not help much to be reminded that, over the last three decades or so -- essentially beginning with President Carter in the late 1970s -- Americans have been warned that high prices for gasoline ultimately would be the result of not dealing with our dependence on foreign oil.

It's been nearly 35 years since the Arab Oil Embargo. And if one country seemed to prosper from the very start of its deprivation, it was Japan. Once chastised the world over for its reputation for manufacturing "junk," Japan recognized early that fuel efficiency and general construction quality would be important elements in automobile production in the future.

"Quality" was never just a buzzword for Japanese automakers, the way it has been for most U.S. automakers, who mostly cared about the quality of their profits. That led to Japanese automobiles that routinely outperformed their American counterparts year after year, whatever the prevailing price of gasoline happened to be.

Over the years, many Americans seem to have come to the conclusion that high prices for gas would decline as a part of the natural cycle of supply and demand.

But the recent increases in gas prices, which have sent rates well over $3.00/gallon, don't look like they're going to drop.

There are numerous steps that may be taken in the future to help Americans cope better with the higher prices. But long-term adjustments won't show up for awhile in the form of more fuel-efficient vehicles, or vehicles and homes that operate on fuel that we can produce in this country.

So, whether you refuse to rid yourself of a gas-guzzling vehicle or you're driving a fuel-efficient vehicle but still find it hard to pay the prices at the pump, I'd like to offer a few websites that are dedicated to directing your attention to the lowest prices in your area.

(By the way, if you're in the market for a new vehicle, do yourself a favor and read this from Forbes. It's about the top 20 most dangerous vehicles. Try to strike a balance between good gas mileage and road safety. Don't sacrifice safety for fuel efficiency.)

I'm sure there are other sites out there -- and I'm equally sure there will be more in the future. We haven't entered the peak driving season yet, and that seems almost certain to bring the price you're paying to $4.00/gallon or more.

But here are a few websites that may help you save a little while you plot your economic strategy to cope with the new reality.

And, as a bonus, here's a link that will answer your questions about how gas prices go up or come down. Don't blame the neighborhood retailer. The retailer is caught in a squeeze, too. The huge profits are being made elsewhere.

Popular Vote vs. Electors/Delegates -- Remember Florida 2000?

Michael Barone, a senior writer for U.S. News and World Report, discusses the ever escalating war of words between the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama camps.

The particular battlefield of which he speaks concerns the Clinton claim of having won primaries/caucuses in states that have more electoral votes in the general election.

"True," writes Barone. "By my count, Clinton has won 14 states with 219 electoral votes (16 states with 263 electoral votes if you include Florida and Michigan) while Obama has won 27 states (I'm counting the District of Columbia as a state, but not the territories) with 202 electoral votes. Eight states with 73 electoral votes have still to vote.

"In percentage terms,"
Barone continues, "Clinton has won states with 41% of the electoral votes (49% if you include Florida and Michigan), while Obama has won states with 38% of electoral votes. States with 14% of the electoral votes have yet to vote."

That information has some value for judging the relative strength of the candidates within the party, but Democrats won't be the only ones voting in November. Republicans and independents also will be voting. And John McCain also will be trying to attract the votes of centrists who feel the philosophies of both Clinton and Obama are too far to the left for them.

For example, Clinton's numbers include Texas. I live in Texas, but I don't think that Clinton will defeat McCain here in November -- if Clinton is the nominee. And Obama has been winning primaries in Southern states that haven't voted for a Democrat in more than three decades. Does anyone think Texas or states in the deep South, like Mississippi or South Carolina, will vote for a Democrat for the first time in 32 years?

So, yes, it's true that Clinton has won almost all of the large state primaries. Yes, it's also true that Obama has received more popular votes in the Democratic primaries than Clinton. But that isn't the whole story.

Remember 2000? Al Gore may very well have received more popular votes in Florida than George W. Bush did. But the Supreme Court halted the recount and allowed Bush to win Florida based on the votes that had been counted up to that point.

And that permitted Bush to win the vote in the Electoral College -- even though Gore won the popular vote.

Do you want a more recent example? How about Connecticut in 2006?

Democrats who were opposed to the Iraq War and wanted to end American involvement there as soon as possible voted to nominate Joe Lieberman's opponent in Lieberman's bid to be renominated for his Senate seat. After losing the primary, Lieberman decided to continue running for re-election as an independent.

Democrats thought the nomination of Ned Lamont, Lieberman's challenger in the primary, was all that was needed to remove Lieberman from office. But Lieberman, who lost the party primary by about 10,000 votes, won the general election by more than 100,000 votes.

In Connecticut, nearly 45% of the state's voters are affiliated with neither the Democrats nor the Republicans. That's largely because nearly half of Connecticut's voters consider themselves centrists and do not identify with the left-leaning policies of the Democrats or the right-leaning policies of the Republicans.

When the Democratic primary was held, most of the participants were left-leaning individuals, and 52% of them voted for the candidate who was perceived to be against the Iraq War. That was Lamont.

The centrists' voices were not heard in the primary, but they were certainly heard in the general election.

Nationally, of course, the independent voters do not represent a share of the vote that is as large as that. Nevertheless, independent voters and disgruntled voters in both parties will decide who wins in November.

It will not serve the Democratic nominee, whether it is Clinton or Obama, to assume that victory in a state's primary will mean victory there in the general election and that no additional effort is needed.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Back to the Future

If you look back in time through the misty haze of the last century, to the presidential election of 1908, you can see some interesting parallels to the campaign of 2008.

For example, both 1908 and 2008 will be remembered in the history books as the conclusions of multiple-term Republican presidencies. Actually, in 1908, the Republicans had held the White House for three consecutive terms, but William McKinley, who was elected in 1896 and 1900, was assassinated in 1901. His successor, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, served almost all of McKinley's second term, then was elected to a full term on his own.

It appears that the only similarity between the progressive Roosevelt and "compassionate conservative" George W. Bush is the fact that both served more than a full term as president.

In 1908, after all, America was not involved in a war, as it is in 2008. And, for the most part, Americans were prospering in 1908. The 2008 economy is in a recession -- and, while some Americans don't appear to be struggling, millions of Americans are hurting financially.

But, if you look a little bit closer, you will see that several political observers have compared the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, to Roosevelt. Is that good news for the Republicans? Well, the right-wing nature of today's Republican Party would be at odds with the progressive nature of the Republicans of 1908. Perhaps McCain would have been more comfortable in Roosevelt's era.

It's important to remember, though, that, in 1908, Roosevelt wasn't running. His hand-picked successor was running, however. And that certainly is a difference between 1908 and 2008. Bush may have endorsed McCain, but he did so once McCain had already wrapped up the nomination. Bush never expressed his choice during the competitive Republican primaries and caucuses.

We may never know which candidate was Bush's preference, unless he chooses to disclose that information in his memoirs.

When the Democrats meet in Denver for their national convention in late August, it will be the first time they've nominated their presidential candidate in that city in 100 years. The 1908 convention was held in Denver, and the party's nominee (for the third time) was William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska.

Obviously, the Democrats will not be nominating a candidate for the third time when they gather this summer -- although one can draw a modest comparison to Bryan if Hillary Clinton is the nominee. If that comes to pass, it will be the third time in the last five elections that the Democrats have had someone named Clinton at the top of their ticket -- and, of course, the Clinton who was nominated the first two times was Hillary's husband.

I've heard and read suggestions that, if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination and goes on to win the election, Bill Clinton would be the real king -- behind the scenes. I have no proof to support or discredit that theory, but if one subscribes to it, I guess that person also would be inclined to look at Hillary's nomination as a third Clinton nomination by proxy.

In theory, the Democrats could have nominated a black candidate 100 years ago -- although whether such a candidate could have succeeded nationally is unlikely, given the nature of the attitudes of the times. Even so, the Constitution said blacks could vote -- but a variety of roadblocks prevented many from voting in the South and in other places. So, while it was technically possible, it was highly unlikely that someone like Barack Obama would have been considered for the nomination.

But a woman almost certainly couldn't have been a factor in the proceedings. A few states allowed women to vote in 1908, but women didn't get that right constitutionally until 1920.

And, because women weren't allowed to vote in most states, it stood to reason that you wouldn't have been likely to see many female faces at a political convention in 1908. They weren't delegates, and their names certainly weren't being placed in nomination for president or vice president.

Nor would you have seen any black faces at a political convention in 1908. Unless you happened to be attending a minstrel show when the convention wasn't in session.

Of course, the whole nominating procedure was different 100 years ago. Delegates to the conventions -- and the candidates for whom those delegations voted -- were decided by each party's elders in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. Party primaries are a relatively recent political phenomenon in this country.

For the record, the Republicans have never held their national nominating convention in Denver. In 1908, the Republicans gathered in Chicago (where they met in five consecutive presidential election years, from 1904 to 1920) and nominated their candidate, William Howard Taft, in the Chicago Coliseum (which was torn down in 1982).

The Republicans aren't holding their convention in Chicago in 2008 (the last time Chicago played host to the Republican convention was in 1960, when Richard Nixon was nominated to run against John Kennedy).

The GOP will gather in Minneapolis-St. Paul this year. It's been more than a century since the Republicans came to Minneapolis to nominate their presidential candidate. The last time was in 1892.

What were the big electoral prizes in the 1908 general election, and how do they compare to the prizes 100 years later?

Well, in 2008, clearly the biggest prize is California. It offers one-fifth of the electoral votes a candidate needs to be elected. No other state comes close.

But, in 1908, California was not even a blip on the national radar. The top two prizes in the 1908 election were New York and Pennsylvania. Both are still large states, but the roles have been reversed, in a few ways.

For one, New York and Pennsylvania each offered more than three times as many electoral votes as did California in 1908, but today California dwarfs both states. California has more electoral votes in 2008 than New York and Pennsylvania combined.

Also, in 1908, Taft carried New York, Pennsylvania and California en route to receiving two-thirds of the electoral votes. If a candidate carries all three states in 2008, he/she will have nearly 40% of what is needed to be elected. (In 1908, those three states gave Taft about 34% of the electoral votes he needed.)

Today, voting trends suggest that the Democrats are the favorites in New York and California, and they've won Pennsylvania (albeit narrowly at times) in the last four elections.

Whether those trends hold up in 2008 may depend upon how much the losers in the Obama-Clinton battle resent the winners and whether they choose to support the eventual nominee in the fall. Today, surveys indicate that there may be a schism in the party that could threaten its chances of success in November.

The rest of the top 10 electoral prizes in 1908, in order, were Illinois, Ohio, a tie between Texas and Missouri, Massachusetts, Indiana, Michigan and a tie between Kentucky, Iowa, Wisconsin and Georgia.

One hundred years later, the top 10 electoral prizes are California, Texas, New York, Florida, a tie between Illinois and Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and a three-way tie between Georgia, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Some of the prominent players in 2008 were hardly even factors a century ago. Florida's population in 1908 was so small that it was the least significant state in the South -- and it offered only one electoral vote more than states like Vermont and New Hampshire. In fact, Maine was bigger (in terms of electoral votes) than Florida.

For that matter, Kansas and Mississippi each offered the same number of electoral votes as California.

But in 2008, California is the biggest electoral catch, and Florida is the fourth-largest prize.

A lot of things changed between 1908 and 2008.

During the Great Migration, for example, millions of blacks moved from the South to places like Detroit and Chicago, as well as California, adjusting the electoral importance of states where those blacks could participate. By the time Theodore Roosevelt's cousin, Franklin, was elected president in 1932, population shifts were already apparent in many places, changing the emphasis of presidential campaigns. California's population had more than doubled, with the influx of blacks and Depression-era Dust Bowl migrants, while Southern and Midwestern states were showing declines in their populations.

And, as advances in technology allowed hot and humid places like Texas and Florida to acquire air conditioning and other creature comforts, the populations in those states grew.

They became particularly attractive for Northern retirees looking for places to live that had warmer climates, once the federal government began to link cities and states with the highway system that sprang up in the middle of the century.

I guess, if there is a lesson to be taken from the 1908 campaign, it would be that success can be fleeting.

Taft was elected by a 2-to-1 margin in the Electoral College in 1908. But Taft never wanted to be president, and it showed. His ambition had always been to be chief justice of the Supreme Court. And, when he ran for re-election in 1912, he carried only two states and finished third behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt, who ran as the Progressive candidate.

Maybe Taft wished upon a star because some wishes apparently do come true. The former president was chosen to be chief justice by President Warren Harding in 1921 and served in that position until about a month before his death in 1930.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

How Conservative Is McCain?

Those who only casually observe presidential politics assume that the Democrats will nominate a liberal this year and the Republicans will nominate a conservative.

Well, I guess they're right about the Democrat.

Barack Obama has some pretty high numbers from some left-leaning organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union (83), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (100), Americans for Democratic Action (95) and the League of Conservation Voters (100).

And he's got some pretty low numbers from some right-leaning organizations, like Family Research Council (0), American Conservative Union (8) and the National Taxpayers Union (16).

Hillary Clinton has been in the Senate twice as long as Obama, and she's apparently been trying to cultivate a more moderate image.

On the liberal side of the ledger, her ratings are the same as Obama's with the ACLU, ADA and AFSCME, but her rating with the LCV is a more moderate (although still left-leaning) 71. On the right side, the FRC and the ACU give both candidates the same scores, and Clinton is only 1 point closer to the center with the NTU (at 17) than Obama.

By most accounts, there really isn't much difference between the candidates when it comes to political philosophy.

What about the Republicans? Is John McCain a true conservative?

Most of the conservatives I've heard on the radio and I've seen on TV don't seem to think so. Many of them say they will support McCain in the fall because he's more conservative than either Obama or Clinton, but most of them stop short of saying that McCain is a true conservative.

Whatever the definition of a true conservative is.

David Lightman and Matt Stearns report, for McClatchy Newspapers, that "If there's one constant to his 25 years in Congress, the last 21 in the Senate, it's that McCain has voted with conservatives often enough to have a legitimate claim to have been, as he frequently puts it, 'a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.' But he's also bolted from the right often enough to invite suspicion from true believers."

I guess conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin could be classified as a "true believer." And today, I heard him say that, while McCain barely qualified to be a member of Congress during what is called the "Reagan revolution" (he was elected to the House in Reagan's first midterm election, and he was elected to the Senate in Reagan's second midterm election), he wasn't a "foot soldier" in it.

The Lightman and Stearns article asserts that right-wing misgivings about McCain go back 20 years, back to 1988, when Republicans were choosing the successor to the lame-duck Reagan. McCain wasn't running for president, but he apparently made some appearances for his choice for president, Bob Dole.

Donald Devine, Dole's campaign strategist in '88, says he and his colleagues on the campaign staff "shuddered" when McCain accompanied Dole on the campaign trail.

"McCain was too unpredictable, too respected by Dole and too likely to offer him advice that was at odds with conservative dogma," Devine told Lightman and Stearns. "McCain's never changed, said Devine, now the editor of an American Conservative Union (ACU) Foundation publication. Other Republican activists, as well as people who've worked closely with McCain, offer the same assessment: As president, they say, you never know what McCain might do."

It seems to me that, if he is a moderate, that might make McCain more like the usual Republican nominees in the last half of the 20th century. Most of the time, the party didn't nominate George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater. Most of the time, the nominee has been Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford or George H.W. Bush -- with Nelson Rockefeller, Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey as top contenders if not the actual nominees.

In fact, last year, the History Channel ran a program evaluating Nixon's presidency. Dole was one of the people who appeared on the program and he said he didn't believe Nixon would be considered conservative enough to be nominated by the Republicans today -- particularly with his domestic record.

Nixon, after all, was the president who created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He imposed wage and price controls, he indexed Social Security for inflation, he created Supplmental Security Income (SSI). He also created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and he implemented the first significant federal affirmative action program.

Yet, people forget that the Republican Party only became the extreme right-wing party when Reagan and his supporters took over the GOP in 1980. Before that time, the Goldwater types weren't regarded as mainstream Republicans.

But things are different today.

Anatol Lieven says, in the Financial Times that, if McCain is elected, "a few years from now Europe and the world could be looking back at the Bush administration with nostalgia."

Today, the talk I've heard is that McCain must choose a "true conservative" to be his running mate if he wants to hold the Republican base in the fall.

And much of the talk I've heard lately is about Condoleezza Rice.

But Joan Vennochi of the Boston Globe has her own choice -- Mitt Romney.

Wait a minute. McCain doesn't like Romney. Does that matter?

We'll see.

Who should McCain pick? Who is the best bet to hold conservative votes in November?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

New Polls

Four weeks from today, we'll know how the voters in Pennsylvania feel about their choice for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Today, we have some intriguing information from the latest polls.

Rasmussen Reports' latest survey indicates a 10-point lead for Hillary Clinton, 49% to 39%.

The fact that Clinton is leading in Pennsylvania isn't surprising; other polls have been indicating the same thing. What's different is the apparent narrowing of the lead -- to just barely double digits.

The survey also suggests some lingering resentment from both Clinton and Obama supporters that could undermine the chances for the eventual Democratic nominee, whoever that turns out to be.

"If Obama wins the Democratic nomination, just 55% of Clinton voters say they are even somewhat likely to vote for him against John McCain. That’s down two points from 57%," Rasmussen writes. "If Clinton is the nominee, just 55% of Obama voters say they are at least somewhat likely to vote for her against McCain. That’s down nine points from 64%."

And Rasmussen also finds that the Democratic nominee is going to need his/her rival's supporters to beat John McCain in November.

Rasmussen finds that McCain has higher approval numbers than either Obama or Clinton, and he leads both in hypothetical matchups -- in spite of an unpopular war and an economy that is widely believed to be in recession. The latest poll shows McCain leading Clinton, 48% to 43%, and leading Obama, 50% to 41%.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

If Not For You

As I've mentioned before, this year marks 40 years since 1968, which was an extraordinarily eventful year in this country's history. Next week, as a matter of fact, will be the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is the anniversary of an important event. But, while the media is obsessing over Barack Obama's words about race relations in America and Hillary Clinton is busy trying to explain the gap between her memories of her White House experiences and the reality as reflected in the hard-copy records, no one has paid any attention to it.

But I will.

It was 43 years ago today that members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered a Southern-raised mother of five from Detroit named Viola Liuzzo. She was 39 years old and she was gunned down in Alabama while transporting civil rights marchers who participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches, which was the culmination of the voting rights movement in the United States.

The Klan's vehicle chased Liuzzo's car for 20 miles before finally pulling up next to it. One of the occupants fired twice at Liuzzo, striking her in the head and killing her instantly.

Although an FBI informant was riding in the Klan vehicle, Liuzzo was vilifed in death by the FBI, the object of a smear campaign.

Nevertheless, the informant provided vital information that quickly led to the arrests of the Klan vehicle's occupants. President Lyndon Johnson went on national television to personally announce the news.

There are many people -- civil rights activists as well as Liuzzo's own children -- who believe that Liuzzo's sacrifice was what really made it possible for the 1965 Voting Rights Act to become law. The Voting Rights Act removed barriers to voting, including literacy tests and poll taxes. Without it, neither Obama nor Clinton might be in position to be nominated for president today.

I don't know if Johnson also believed that Liuzzo's death made the passage of the Voting Rights Act a reality. But I know that he believed passage of the act was crucial.

Less than two weeks before Liuzzo's murder, when Johnson himself introduced the Voting Rights Act to Congress, the president said, "There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong -- deadly wrong -- to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of states' rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights."

The "struggle for human rights" goes on.

Forty-three years ago, Viola Liuzzo made her contribution to the cause. In blood.

Those who do not exercise the hard-earned right to vote make a mockery of her sacrifice and the sacrifices of others.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Media Weighs In On Obama's Speech

National Review contributor Victor Davis Hanson says the more praise Barack Obama received from pundits and op-ed writers in the aftermath of last week's speech, "the more the polls showed that there was a growing distrust that the eloquent and inspirational candidate has used his great gifts, in the end, to excuse the inexcusable.

"The speech and Obama’s subsequent interviews neither explained his disastrous association with (his pastor), nor dared open up a true discussion of race -- which by needs would have to include, in addition to white racism, taboo subjects ranging from disproportionate illegitimacy and drug usage to higher-than-average criminality to disturbing values espoused in rap music and unaddressed anti-Semitism."

John Heilemann writes, in New York magazine, that the speech "was pretty much everything one could ever hope for from a presidential candidate on the vexed topic of black and white: nuanced, candid, gutsy, and replete with context." He also writes that it was a "political maneuver" that "did nothing to defuse an issue that Republicans clearly intend to beat him senseless with this fall."

John McCain, of course, would have nothing to lose by using the race issue in a general election campaign against Obama. The black vote is a key component in the battle for the Democratic nomination -- but Republicans never win the black vote in the general election. Historically speaking, black voters will do one of two things this fall, and neither will affect McCain's situation adversely -- black voters will either vote for the Democratic nominee (even if that nominee is Hillary Clinton) or they will not vote at all.

In fact, writes John Harwood in the New York Times, "Feuding Democrats have handed Senator John McCain the gift of time."

(And, obviously, some folks in the media believe McCain should be using that time -- as he may well be -- to give a lot of thought to his running mate selection. Kirk Victor writes, in the National Journal, that the choice for a running mate provides voters "with what is often their first impression of what the presidential nominee really values.")

The thing that's getting all the attention on the Democratic side -- with the next primary still four weeks away -- is Obama's speech. Even -- or, perhaps, especially -- among Republican pundits.

"I shuddered only once while watching Barack Obama’s speech last Tuesday," writes Republican pundit/analyst/strategist William Kristol in the New York Times. "The only part of the speech that made me shudder was this sentence: 'But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.'

"As soon as I heard that, I knew what we’d have to endure. I knew that there would be a stampede of editorial boards, columnists and academics rushing not to ignore race."

Well, it's not a "stampede" -- yet. But it's only been a week -- one that included a holiday, which means there has been less time to opine about the speech.

But a week is plenty of time for some people.

"In some ways, Barack Obama's speech on race last week was as brilliant as it was nuanced," writes Gregory Rodriguez in the Los Angeles Times. "But for all its rhetorical beauty, it was also an enormous step backward and, in the end, a rather self-serving call for more discussion about racial grievance in a country that has already done way too much talking. ... The one new thing Obama's speech added to the dialogue was the inclusion of whites to the list of aggrieved (and angry) parties."

Is the race issue going to decide the winner of the election? That remains to be seen.

But, Alison Fitzgerald counsels Democrats, in, "rising home foreclosures, shrinking financial assets and gasoline approaching a record $4 a gallon are daily reminders that the U.S. economy may be the worst in almost 30 years."

In effect, Fitzgerald tells Democrats, don't sweat the small stuff when the other party can be blamed for a recession.

"Recessions shaped four presidential elections in the past half-century -- in 1960, 1976, 1980 and 1992. Each time, the candidate from the party trying to retake the White House won. A model that uses economic data to predict presidential race outcomes has the Democrats getting 52% of the votes cast for the two major party candidates."

Pocketbook issues -- that's something everyone can relate to, right?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

By The Numbers

In the aftermath of Barack Obama's speech on race -- and the followup interview in which he referred to his white grandmother as a "typical white person" -- it may be helpful to review some of the numbers.

First of all, the thing that is of the most immediate interest to political observers is how things are shaping up in Pennsylvania, site of the next presidential primary on April 22.

According to a Public Policy Polling survey, which was completed a couple of days before Obama's speech, Hillary Clinton was leading Obama in Pennsylvania, 56% to 30%.

The margin was closer in a poll conducted jointly by Franklin & Marshall College/Philadelphia Daily News/WGAL TV/Pittsburgh Tribune Review/WTAE TV/Times Shamrock Newspapers, which was also completed a couple of days before the speech, but Clinton was the leader in that one as well, 51% to 35%.

Quinnipiac University reported an even closer margin, 53% to 41% -- still in Clinton's favor. Once again, that survey was completed before Obama's speech.

I have found no survey results from polls that were conducted after the speech or the interview -- yet. We'll probably start seeing those numbers this week.

To put things into a more appropriate context, Pennsylvania's racial makeup is about 84% white, just under 10% black.

That racial deficit didn't necessarily work against Obama in previous primaries -- but all of the previous primaries were held before the airing of clips of his pastor's hate-filled remarks, Obama's speech or his followup interview. One can only speculate about what sort of impact they might have had on earlier contests.

On average, Clinton has been receiving 53% of white votes, Obama has been receiving 39%.

In case you're interested, Obama also has been losing the Hispanic vote to Clinton in most states, 58% to 39%. Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in America, but Hispanics historically do not vote in large numbers, even in places where they represent a fairly large portion of the population. Many have been participating in the primaries this year, but it remains to be seen if that activism continues into the general election.

In some of the states with larger ethnic populations (i.e., California), Obama has more than made up for lost white votes by receiving huge majorities among black voters. His advantage among black voters has been consistently high, 80% to 17% on average.

But if he starts losing white votes by the same margin -- or close to it -- with which he has been winning black votes, the simple math suggests that his campaign could be in trouble.

We've been hearing for weeks that the only way Clinton can capture the nomination is to start winning primaries with the support of more than two-thirds of the voters.

We're about a month away from the Pennsylvania primary. In that time, Obama has to assess the damage that's been done to his image in the white community and find a way to correct it.

If he succeeds, the nomination will be his for the taking. But that doesn't necessarily mean he will win the general election.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Please Define 'Typical White Person'

I admit it. I was at work Tuesday. I didn't see Barack Obama's speech on race.

And I was at work Thursday, which apparently is when an interview with Obama was aired.

But I heard clips from both on the radio as I was driving home. And then I saw clips on TV at night.

I don't have the advantage of having seen or heard the speech or the interview in their entirety. And that may or may not affect my opinion of what was said or the context in which it was said.

But Obama, who apparently referred to his white grandmother in his speech and spoke about her suspicions of blacks, seems to have dismissed her reaction as that of a "typical white person."

A couple of questions here ...

First, what is a typical white person, anyway?

I grew up in the South. In my early years, segregation was stil the law of the land in the South. In my native Arkansas, I have vivid memories of going to the only movie theater in my hometown and seeing blacks being herded into one specific section of the balcony.

(I have a specific memory of going with my parents to see the classic film "How the West Was Won," which was completed in 1962 but didn't make it to my hometown theater for a couple of years -- things were different in those days and theaters in small towns weren't high on the list for distributors. And I recall seeing black patrons being crammed into a rather small section of the balcony. Although there were plenty of unoccupied seats elsewhere in the theater, the management brought in some folding chairs for blacks to sit in once that section of the balcony was filled. Either the law or social convention -- or both -- prevented the management from allowing any blacks to sit in the "white" section of the theater.)

And when I enrolled in school in the mid-1960s, public schools were integrated in my hometown for the very first time. So when my class graduated from high school in 1978, ours was the first class in my hometown's history to be integrated from first grade through high school.

The Democratic Party, which Obama now wants to represent as the presidential nominee, in Arkansas in 1966 was still filled with segregationists -- although not exclusively -- and Arkansas' Democrats had nominated a staunch segregationist for governor that year who just happened to live a few miles down the road from my home. I well remember the first day of school, when the media representatives of the day were on hand to photograph the gubernatorial candidate's twin sons being enrolled in an integrated elementary school.

My parents were Democrats, but they chose not to support their neighbor and fellow Democrat, mostly on the issue of segregation. And they joined with other like-minded Democrats in Arkansas who helped elect the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Winthrop Rockefeller.

When Arkansas' Democrats got around to nominating a more moderate candidate for governor -- Dale Bumpers -- in 1970, my parents supported him.

Who were the typical white people in Arkansas in those days, Sen. Obama? Were they the segregationists, like our neighbor who unsuccessfully sought to be governor? Or were they my parents and those who thought as they did?

I'm sorry, but that phrase "typical white person" rubs me the wrong way. And I find it difficult to imagine a white politician using the phrase "typical black person" and not being chastised severely for it.

Or, considering who Obama's competition is for the Democratic nomination, can you imagine the reaction if Obama had used the phrase "typical white woman" in referring to his grandmother?

Daniel Nasaw and Ewen MacAskill write, in the Guardian, that other white voters are equally offended by what they've heard.

"The danger for Obama is not just that he could lose badly in Pennsylvania but that senior Democrats will wonder whether the loss of white votes could cost him the November general election," write Nasaw and MacAskill. "A theme that emerges from the bars and diners of white Philadelphia is suspicion that Obama's failure to disown (his pastor) and his presence in his church for almost two decades suggests that he himself is secretly resentful towards white people."

A black cook reportedly told the Guardian that Obama's pastor's comments reflect "the way we think, as a people. It may be a big thing to the white race, but you know, these things happened to us. All these things that he's talking about happened to us."

That brings me to my next point. Obama's skin color may be the same as many of the people who are voting for him, but his ancestors' experiences are not. Obama's black father was from Kenya, which is in eastern Africa. Most of the blacks in America were descended from west Africans.

It's simply a fact that, when slave traders came to Africa looking for slaves to take back to the new world in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, they didn't go on time-consuming -- and profit-consuming -- trips across the entire African continent looking for them. They took what was convenient to take, and that was Africans on the western side of the continent.

I'll admit, it's possible that there were isolated incidents of east Africans who were enslaved on the eastern side of the continent and wound up being sold on the western side later on. But that group would be a relatively small part of the overall slave population.

But even if the traders had habitually gone all the way across Africa to Kenya looking for slaves, Obama's ancestors were not among them. His father was born and raised in Kenya. To my knowledge, none of Obama's ancestors ever spent a day in captivity. Certainly his father didn't. He was educated at Harvard and returned to his native country, where he was a successful politician until his death in 1982.

So when a black cook in Philadelphia tells the Guardian that Obama's pastor was speaking of things that "happened to us," he's not speaking of things that happened to Obama's ancestors. Or, necessarily, to Obama himself.

One of my favorite films of all time is "Being There" starring Peter Sellers. Sellers plays a well-meaning but naive, childlike person who has lived his entire life in a private home and finds himself cast into an unfamiliar world when the "old man" who owns the home dies.

Sellers' character is so naive that he has no comprehension of what has happened when Louise, the black housekeeper, tells him the news. Yet he manages to stumble his way into the seat of power and becomes the focus of cultlike attention when those around him believe he tells them what they want to believe that he tells them. In the end, he is being considered for the presidential nomination -- even though, as a gardener, everything he says is about plants and seasonal growth cycles.

I've mentioned this film before because it represented to me the kind of cult that I believe has been forming around Obama for quite some time. But I've been thinking about something else in the film that seems particularly appropriate now.

At one point in the film, Louise is shown watching Sellers' character on TV. He's being interviewed on a Tonight Show type of program that has everyone, including the president, riveted to their TV sets, and Louise observes, to her companions, "It's for sure a white man's world in America. ... All you gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want."

Is that an example of "the way we think," as the cook from Philadelphia puts it? If it is, it doesn't show much understanding of the history of this country.

By that logic, every white person in America has his/her dreams fulfilled simply by virtue of race. But the reality is that nearly every white person I know has unfulfilled dreams -- whether those dreams are to be rich and successful or to have the ideal love relationship.

And what I've heard from Obama is unconvincing even in defense of his freedom of religion.

I can't claim to be a frequent churchgoer. I believe it is my right as an American to attend or not attend church, as I see fit, and I believe it is the right of every American to attend the church or synagogue or mosque or whatever of his or her choice.

In America, no one is or should be compelled to attend any house of worship he or she does not choose to attend.

Barack Obama has attended the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church for 20 years. And, from what I've read and heard in the last several days, there are numerous recordings of Rev. Wright's hateful, racist comments from many different days and months and years, enough to know that Obama's pastor's remarks were not isolated incidents. They happened all the time.

If one does not agree with the remarks one's pastor frequently makes, one has a few options if the person is a man of consicence. Initially, he may express his concerns directly to the pastor. Since Obama portrays himself as the agent of change, bringing about a change in racial attitudes in his pastor and his church would demonstrate profoundly what he is capable of. Did Obama make such efforts in his church? If he did, what was the result of his efforts?

I think it's reasonable for voters to ask that question. Everyone, including Obama, has acknowledged that he doesn't have much experience, and that's how voters tend to assess a candidate for president. In the absence of experience, Obama has sought to assure voters of his commitment to bringing about change.

Was there a change in his pastor or church? Well, I see no evidence of a change. True, the pastor is retired now. But the church publishes a magazine that honors recipients who are deemed worthy with awards. Such an award -- which bears the pastor's name -- was given to Louis Farrakhan. Obama has never disavowed the magazine or the award -- or Farrakhan.

If a congregant is unsuccessful at bringing a change in the church, he may choose not to attend that pastor's services anymore. If he is truly a man of faith, he will seek out a house of worship in which he is more comfortable.

If he agrees with what his pastor says or if he has no conscience, he will stay where he is. Obama stayed where he was.

The recordings of Rev. Wright's rantings against America play against the American need for a president who at least seems patriotic.

"It is already easy to imagine the Republican attack ads against Barack Obama," writes Sheldon Alberts for National Post.

The scenario isn't too hard to picture in one's mind. It's as if the ad has already been put together and is just waiting for the right time to be aired:

"They open with video of his wife, Michelle, saying she was proud of America 'for the first time in my adult lifetime' because of her husband's presidential candidacy. Cut to the Illinois senator explaining that he doesn't wear an American flag lapel pin because it is a 'substitute for true patriotism.' Then flash a clip of Obama explaining that his Caucasian grandmother was a 'typical white person' because she uttered racial epithets and was afraid of black people.

"Finally, the coup de grace, pictures of Obama's angry, arm-waving preacher blaming the United States for 9/11 and shouting 'God Damn America' to the rafters of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. Game, set, election, John McCain."

I've heard a lot of people in the media in recent days applauding Obama for speaking courageously about the race issue. I don't think he spoke so much from courage as from political necessity. As the first black who has a realistic chance of winning a major party's nomination for president in a nation that once legally condoned slavery, it was inevitable that race would need to be addressed.

But confronting racism requires more from Obama -- who is, after all, as much white as he is black -- than stereotyping his grandmother as a "typical white person" while applying no such racial label to anyone -- his pastor, for example -- who is black.

If Obama is going to be a true spark for change, and if he wants some of that change to come in the area of race relations, he cannot frame discussions in an "us vs. them" way -- even if that is more implied than overtly expressed. His words this week did not suggest unity to many white listeners.

Because (as he surely must be aware by now), if Obama becomes the first president with dark skin, as much attention will be paid to what his words may or may not be suggesting as will be paid to the words themselves.

Whatever their traditional definitions may be.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Words of Wisdom?

Grant Wahl, in Sports Illustrated, shares a thought on how long the war in Iraq has dragged on while writing about his first impressions from Day One of this year's NCAA basketball tournament.

"I've always connected the start of the Iraq War with the 2003 NCAA tournament, and it gives you some perspective on how long the war has lasted that I can't imagine a single player from that 2003 tournament is still in college basketball."

Well, Grant, it has been five years since the invasion of Iraq began.

These days, most athletes don't seem to stay in college more than three years, even if they get hurt and have to miss most or all of a season.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Trying Times

Today is the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War.

Usually, anniversaries are occasions for celebration. And the fifth is a milestone.

For those who are responsible for getting America ensnared in the mess in Iraq, it's more of a millstone than a milestone.

Some of the people who are responsible are no longer in power (i.e., Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell). Others -- George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice -- are still in office.

Bush gets regular reminders of what the public thinks of the Iraq War. They're called approval ratings. And Bush's approval ratings have tumbled about 40 points since the war began. That's roughly equivalent to the drop that Lyndon Johnson faced at a comparable point in the Vietnam conflict.

Oddly, it appears Bush was the only one who seems to have been saying much about the war today. Attention seemed to be focusing on Barack Obama's speech about race and Hillary Clinton's insistence that Michigan and Florida should be represented at the Democratic convention.

And people who weren't paying attention to Obama and Clinton were obsessing over Eliot Spitzer's call girl and the recently discovered video tape of her "Girls Gone Wild" auditions from 2003, when she was 18.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who, as the Republican nominee, will have to run with Bush's record and persuade Americans to support four more years of a Republican-controlled White House, had this to say: "America and our allies stand on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism. ... Important political gains have also been made, but far more must be done in coming months to cement the gains made in huge cost in American blood and treasure."

Approval ratings for Bush and Congress are quite low. Gallup says Bush is at 32% , while Congress' approval rating is 21%.

But neither figure should be surprising, and the Iraq War isn't solely to blame for it.

Also according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who now believe the U.S. economy is in a recession is 76%. That's more than twice the number who felt that way in October.

It's hard to argue the point. In October, the consumer wasn't being told that each day brought a new record high in the price of gasoline. And record gas prices mean higher costs for transporting everything. That means everything you buy costs more.

You don't have to be an economics major to figure that out.

This belief about the economy was already prevalent when Bush paid a visit to the Economic Club of New York last week. If you watched his speech -- or clips of it on the evening news -- and kept one eye on the front page of the daily newspaper, you had to wonder something.

Why was that man smiling?

"That idiotic 'what me worry?' look just never leaves the man's visage," writes Robert Scheer for Creators Syndicate. "Once again, there was our president, presiding over disasters, in part of his making and totally on his watch, grinning with an aplomb that suggested a serious disconnect between his worldview and reality."

Gail Collins wrote, in the New York Times, that listening to Bush's speech to the Economic Club "brought back many memories. Unfortunately, they were about his speech right after Hurricane Katrina, the one when he said: 'America will be a stronger place for it.'"

It's not encouraging when a presidential speech to the Economic Club of New York brings back memories of the greatest natural disaster in American history and the nation's mostly anemic emergency response to it.

So why was Bush smiling? Maybe because he realizes these won't be his problems anymore in about 10 months.

Or maybe there's a little more to it than that.

"Failure suits him," says Scheer. "It is a stance he learned to wear well while presiding over one failed Texas business deal after another, and it served him splendidly as he claimed the title of president of the United States after losing the popular, and maybe even the electoral, vote. It carried him through the most ignominious chapter of U.S. foreign policy, from the lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to his unprecedented defense of torture by a U.S. president."

Collins puts it this way.

"The country that elected George Bush -- sort of -- because he seemed like he’d be more fun to have a beer with than Al Gore or John Kerry is really getting its comeuppance. Our credit markets are foundering, and all we’ve got is a guy who looks like he’s ready to kick back and start the weekend."

Actually, he's probably ready to kick back and start his retirement.

"Everyone here is flummoxed about why the president is in such a fine mood," says Maureen Dowd, also in the New York Times.

"The dollar’s crumpling, the recession’s thundering, the Dow’s bungee-jumping and the world’s disapproving, yet George Bush has turned into Gene Kelly, tap dancing and singing in a one-man review called 'The Most Happy Fella.'"

The ghosts of Herbert Hoover and the Depression are hovering over the campaign of 2008, writes Amity Shlaes in Bloomberg.

"[T]he 1930s have plenty to tell us, yes," says Shlaes. "But the real challenge isn't deciding who resembles Hoover. The challenge is for both parties to figure out how to avoid a whole era of mistakes."

And the challenge for voters is to find who has the answers we need before today's problems become a decade's worth of financial handicaps.

Or maybe we'd be better off with Alfred E. Neuman at the controls.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Polarizing Politics

To misquote the words of John Dean (describing the increasingly disastrous effects of the Watergate scandal on the Nixon White House), there may be a cancer growing on the Democratic Party.

Newsweek calls it "The Deep Blue Divide," this increasingly hostile war between the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

"It's become like the [C]old [W]ar," a Clinton supporter told Newsweek. "[I]n order to maintain the relationship, you don't talk to each other."

I've been on the receiving end of the bitterness between the two camps. They may not speak to each other much, but they'll unload with both barrels on groups they perceive to be third parties.

It intrigues me that most of the venom I've encountered from the Clinton side comes from her female supporters (rarely from the males who support Clinton's candidacy), and most of the venom I've encountered from the Obama side comes from his black supporters (rarely from Obama's white supporters). And Newsweek reports that hard feelings could persist to Election Day.

"According to exit polling in the Texas primary, 91% of Clinton supporters said they would be dissatisfied with Obama as the nominee; 87% of Obama fans said they would be dissatisfied with Clinton," reports Newsweek. "Nationally, a quarter of those who back Clinton say they'd vote for John McCain if Obama won the nomination (while just 10% of Obama supporters would do the same if he lost)."

That's enough to scare many Democrats into believing that a spirited contest for the nomination will mean a reduced likelihood that Democrats will reclaim the White House this year.

If anything, I've found that the intensity of this hostility is greater on Clinton's side. My theory is that, although women had a breakthrough candidacy with Geraldine Ferraro's nomination for vice president in 1984, they haven't had a candidate before who was in the position to breathe the rarified air of the presidential nomination. And, for some reason, they seem to believe that one chance is all they'll have.

But blacks have been here before.

Jesse Jackson may not have been as serious a prospect for the nomination as Obama, but he won presidential primaries and caucuses in 1984 and 1988. He went to the conventions those years with delegates backing his candidacy, and he delivered speeches to the conventions in prime time.

It took a black candidate another 20 years to reach this point. But somehow, blacks and other racial minorities never seemed to believe their chance had come and gone with Jackson's candidacies in the 1980s. He may have been perceived as symbolic in his day, but his candidacies were viewed more as the trailblazers, not the end of the road.

For some reason, though, the women who support Hillary Clinton seem to feel their gender may never get another chance at the Oval Office-- even though nearly two dozen women currently hold seats in the U.S. Senate or governor's offices in this country. Only two blacks hold governorships, and only one (Obama) is in the Senate.

Does a spirited contest for the nomination necessarily mean the eventual winner won't be able to win the general election?


Admittedly, the most recent examples in both parties -- Gerald Ford in 1976 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968 -- aren't encouraging -- but neither candidate lost the general election in a landslide.

Ford nudged past Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination and, in spite of his many failings as a campaigner, managed to close the gap against Jimmy Carter to the point where he could have won the election if a handful of votes in a couple of states had gone his way.

Humphrey was nominated in an era when most convention delegates were still chosen by a state's party elders, not by primary voters. His nomination might not have happened at all if Robert Kennedy had not been assassinated on the night of the California primary -- but that will forever be a subject for speculation.

Humphrey struggled to gain his footing after the Democratic convention in Chicago that was marked by riots in the streets, but, as Michael Cohen notes in the Wall Street Journal, "After turning his fire on (George) Wallace and (Richard) Nixon, Humphrey's poll numbers dramatically improved and nearly won him the election."

Nevertheless, Cohen writes, "[A] drawn-out nomination fight could leave the party critically short of the time it will need to build a winning campaign. Recent exit polls show that 20%-30% of Democratic voters will be dissatisfied if their candidate loses the nomination. Those numbers will likely increase if the battle between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama intensifies, and especially if it ends in a bitter squabble over delegates at the convention."

Cohen goes on to say, "Although Democrats are more ideologically unified than any time in recent memory, the party's nominee will still have serious fences to mend. Mrs. Clinton would need to reach out to blacks and first-time voters. Mr. Obama would have to win over blue-collar voters. Unfortunately, with the convention in late August, whoever the nominee is will have little time."

And make no mistake about it. The Democratic nominee will need plenty of time to mend the fences. There are important demographic groups to be won, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will have some work to do to win the support of white males.

As I've mentioned before in this blog, white male voters represent a significant demographic group that presidential nominees will have to take seriously if they want to win the election.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz says "white men have emerged as perhaps the single critical swing constituency."

Balz continues, "The competition for the support of white men, particularly those defined as working class, will shape the showdown between Clinton and Obama in Pennsylvania's Democratic presidential primary ...

"Obama (Ill.) won majorities among those voters in what appeared to be breakthrough victories in Wisconsin and Virginia last month. But he badly lost working-class white men to Clinton (N.Y.) in Ohio and Texas two weeks ago, keeping the outcome of the Democratic race in doubt indefinitely."

Obama in particular seems to be running into problems. As Balz points out, "Obama had to distance himself from his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., former pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, over statements widely viewed as being anti-American."

Obama felt compelled to speak on ths issue today. I wasn't able to watch the speech today and so I have to rely on CNN's coverage. Based on what I've read, Obama timidly rejected the statements from the pastor who "has been like family to me."

From all that I've read, Obama still hasn't repudiated Louis Farrakhan, who last year received an award from a magazine that is published by Obama's church. The award bears Wright's name and is given to someone who "truly epitomized greatness."

That's not going to reassure white males in the general election.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Who Will Be No. 2 on GOP Ticket?

This week, Todd Domke wrote, in the Boston Globe, about the top criteria for John McCain's running mate.

Domke said the article was a "do-it-yourself scorecard" for choosing McCain's running mate, then he provided his list of top prospects.

Everyone's got a short list.

Domke's list wasn't so short. He listed his top 20, but it seemed to me that many of them had already disqualified themselves or seemed unlikely to accept the offer if it came their way.

For example, Domke named Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as his top pick, but I think Pawlenty has already indicated that he isn't interested. Although he endorsed McCain's candidacy quite awhile ago, he pledged in January 2007 that "I am committed to serving out my term as governor. That’s what I am going to do."

Of course, it needs to be pointed out that, 18 years ago, Bill Clinton made a similar promise to the voters in Arkansas when he sought re-election as governor. Clinton, obviously, did not keep that promise.

Pawlenty will be the governor of the state that hosts this summer's Republican convention, and I suppose he would re-consider his position if McCain makes an offer.

The second-best choice, Domke writes, is Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. But rumors persist that Crist is gay, which wouldn't endear the GOP ticket to social conservatives.

Domke's third choice is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I haven't heard Rice say whether she was interested in the No. 2 spot on the ticket, but my personal opinion is that McCain would risk further inflaming Bush fatigue by picking her.

Hendrik Hertzberg writes, in the New Yorker, that Rice is "a highly interesting option," and Hertzberg has some intriguing reasoning behind choosing Rice.

"[W]ith Rice on the ticket the Republicans could attack Clinton or Obama with far less restraint," Hertzberg points out.

He acknowledges an apparent drawback. "By choosing Rice, McCain would shackle himself anew to Bush’s Iraq war. But it’s hard to see how those chains could get much tighter than he has already made them."

Fred Barnes writes, in the Weekly Standard, that, in McCain's search for a "plausible president," yet someone "who won't subtract from his campaign in any serious way," to be his running mate, the Arizona senator will quickly encounter a "sad fact" that will have to be acknowledged.

"The unfortunate truth is that few Republicans meet these simple criteria," Barnes writes. "McCain doesn't have much of a pool to choose from."

Even so, Barnes has his list of both plausible and popular prospects. And he's found one candidate who is the "obvious winner" -- Mitt Romney. "But there's just one problem: McCain doesn't like him," Barnes writes.

How much does compatibility matter?

Well, the presidential and vice presidential nominees don't have to be best friends. This is politics and, while it probably wouldn't hurt if McCain liked his running mate, is it necessary? Hardly. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson didn't particularly like each other, but the Boston-Austin connection enabled the Democrats to defeat Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960.

Then again, it's hard to argue against personal chemistry. In 1992, Bill Clinton and Al Gore seemed to be perfectly compatible on their triumphant post-convention bus tour through the Midwest.

Who's the best choice for McCain?

Crossing the Lines on Race and Gender

In the Orange County Register, John Ziegler makes an interesting comparison between the behavior of the first black star athlete in golf, Tiger Woods, and the first serious black presidential candidate, Barack Obama.

After acknowledging that "Woods technically is more Asian than black and Obama is as white as he is black," Ziegler points out that "there are stark differences in the way that Tiger Woods and Barack Obama have approached the issue of race in their careers."

One should read the column in its entirety, but essentially it points out that Woods' reaction to racial references by others is more mature now than it was 10 years ago -- when he was younger and inexperienced and still under the guidance of his father.

Today, Woods' father (who, in Ziegler's words, "was known to be far more militant on racial issues" than his son) has been deceased for nearly two years, and Woods essentially brushes off perceived racial slights that might have provoked more of a response when Earl Woods was alive.

(In Earl's defense, he was born in the Great Depression, orphaned in his teen years, and received a baseball scholarship to Kansas State University, where he was a racial pioneer, breaking the conference's "color barrier" in 1951. Pioneers have to have thick skins -- and they tend to be less tolerant than those who come later. That comes, I suppose, from not having the luxury of standing on someone else's shoulders but instead having to stand on your own two feet, however shaky they -- or the ground beneath them -- may be.)

Not so with Obama.

A good case in point is the recent handling of Geraldine Ferraro, herself a groundbreaking vice presidential nominee for the Democrats 24 years ago. Ferraro asserted that Obama, who has served slightly more than half of his six-year term as U.S. senator, would not be in the position he is in if not for the fact that he is black.

On the subject of experience, it can be argued that Ferraro herself probably wouldn't have qualified for a spot on a national ticket in 1984 if not for a characteristic over which she had no control -- her gender.

At the time, she had never been a candidate for statewide office in New York (she did seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate twice in the 1990s -- both times unsuccessfully. And it can be further argued that she might never have been in the position to run for the Senate if she had not been on the national ticket in 1984).

Before 1978, Ferraro's career consisted of service as a teacher, lawyer and member of the Queens County District Attorney's Office (a non-elective post).

She was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978 and re-elected in 1980 and 1982 before Walter Mondale chose her to be his running mate in 1984. (In a truly revealing political cartoon of the day, Mondale was shown standing next to a Ferrari with F-E-R-R-A-R-O written on it and saying "Just think of the chicks I'll get with this!")

The idea was that Ferraro's presence on the ticket would help Mondale bridge the perceived "gender gap" in American politics, but the eventual results failed to demonstrate either the existence of such a gap or Ferraro's ability to swing votes to the Democrats because of it. Incumbent President Ronald Reagan was re-elected easily, carrying 49 states and receiving nearly 59% of the popular vote.

Anyway, this week Ferraro resigned her post with Hillary Clinton's finance committee after being criticized by Obama's campaign for her remarks. Ferraro's resignation apparently was voluntary. "I feel terrible for the fact that Hillary is stuck in this thing," Ferraro told the New York Times. "Why put her in that position?"

The day after Ferraro's resignation, the New York Times ran an article in which Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny reported, "[Obama] said he was puzzled at how, after more than a year of campaigning, race and sex are at the forefront as never before."


Obama may have been puzzled, but the Times reporters weren't. They went on to observe that "race, as well as sex, have been unavoidable subtexts of the Democratic campaign since the two candidates began seeking to be the first African-American or the first woman to lead a party’s presidential ticket. In the primaries and caucuses this winter, too, Mrs. Clinton has enjoyed substantial support from women, while Mr. Obama has increasingly drawn overwhelming votes from blacks."

And the racial divide has never been as pronounced, perhaps, as it was in Tuesday's primary. Mississippi, "a state where the electorate has historically been racially polarized, generated one of the most divided votes," the Times observed. "Mrs. Clinton received 8% of the black vote, and Mr. Obama received 26% of the white vote, according to exit polls by Edison/Mitofsky for The Associated Press and television networks."

This nation has been electing presidents since 1788. Constitutional amendments gave blacks the right to vote nearly 80 years later and gave women the right to vote in 1920. Only one Democratic or Republican candidate for vice president (Ferraro) was not male, and none of the candidates for president were black or female.

In this country women have won Senate seats and governor's offices, and they continue to hold them in many states. Blacks have won considerably fewer Senate seats, less than a handful (including the one Obama holds). And, if New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigns as he has said he will next week, his successor will be only the fourth black governor in American history.

But this year, the Democratic candidate for president will be black or female.

And, as the campaign drags on longer than most people ever anticipated, the rhetoric becomes more heated on both sides.

That's appropriate, I guess. Harry Truman, who liked to say "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," called the presidency "the hottest kitchen on earth." So it's only fitting that those who want to occupy it for the next four years should be subjected to some of the heat now.

But, after all, it's only March 15. The Democratic convention in Denver won't be held until August. There's a lot of time left to resolve this.

For that matter, Mondale's nomination still wasn't mathematically clinched after the 1984 primaries had concluded in June. But, by the time the convention was held the next month, he had secured the support of enough delegates to wrap it up. He even announced Ferraro's selection about a week before the convention -- much earlier than nominees tended to do prior to that time.

Maybe Naftali Bendavid of the Chicago Tribune has the answer. The party, Bendavid suggests, needs a Yoda -- an elder statesman to resolve the issue.

You can't turn to the most recent Democratic president for that, though. He's married to one of the candidates, and I guess you could say that represents a conflict of interest.

But a political scientist from Iowa State University threw some cold water on the "elder statesman" notion, anyway.

"Even if there were a group of party heavyweights," the political scientist told Bendavid, "their choice would most likely be John Edwards, and not the two exciting but risky front-runners."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ginger or Mary Jane, er, Mary Ann?

Dawn Wells, the actress who played Mary Ann on the TV show Gilligan's Island (back when she was in her late 20s), got busted last October -- on her 69th birthday, as a matter of fact.

Wells, who now lives in Idaho, was pulled over by a Teton County sheriff's deputy, who reported finding unfinished joints in her vehicle and said in his report that he could "smell a strong odor of burning marijuana."

The case came to court recently, and Wells was sentenced to five days in jail, fined $410.50 and placed on probation -- after pleading guilty to one count of reckless driving.

Some members of the press (some of them are old enough that the old "Ginger or Mary Ann?" question is considered revealing of the preferences of men in their age range) are finding it difficult to believe that Wells could be guilty. She claims she isn't. She says the marijuana was left there by some hitchhikers she picked up.

Well, whatever the truth is, this isn't the first time Wells has been connected to something like this. Gilligan (Bob Denver) was arrested 10 years ago for having a parcel of marijuana delivered to his home. He originally said it came from Wells, but later refused to name her in court, blaming instead "some crazy fan." He pleaded no contest and received six months probation.

It would be nice if we could ask Denver a few questions, but we can't. He died in September 2005. Mary Ann, Ginger (Tina Louise) and the Professor (Russell Johnson) are the only surviving cast members.

Actually, it would be nice to know what the TV viewers who made Gilligan's Island a hit were smoking. It might exonerate Wells.

In the mid-1960s, America was beginning to get bogged down in Vietnam, yet, with all the men, materiel and money the government was committing to southeast Asia, there were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of viewers who wasted money and time calling "the authorities" to demand that the military be dispatched to the uncharted desert island to rescue those seven American castaways.

And this was with the knowledge (apparently) that one of the seven was a professor who could make a radio out of a coconut but couldn't patch a hole on a boat.

McCain's Speculation on No. 2

Arizona Sen. John McCain is speculating about the No. 2 spot on the Republican ticket.

He's not speculating about his choice -- yet. But he is speculating about who might want it.

Mitt Romney.

CNN's Political Ticker reports that McCain thinks Romney is interested in being chosen to be McCain's vice president.

I suggested the same thing earlier in this blog after Romney withdrew from the presidential race.

So, if Romney ends up being nominated, remember where you heard it first!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Some of the comments I've read that were posted today with articles about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's association with a prostitution ring indicate that there are many readers who don't understand the issues that are involved.

I read comments from several readers today who felt that extramarital sex was really a victimless crime. Some readers compared Spitzer's activities to Larry Craig's activity in the Minneapolis airport men's room last summer.

Well, no matter what one thinks of Larry Craig, he didn't transport anyone across state lines for sexual purposes. Spitzer apparently did. And doing so was a violation of federal law. The Mann Act, to be precise.

It would be a violation of the law even if the woman involved turned out to be Spitzer's mistress and not a prostitute. Money doesn't have to change hands for a violation of the Mann Act to occur.

But money did change hands. The indictment mentions an international prostitution ring, doing business in New York, Washington, London, Paris. That goes beyond state lines.

For that matter, anyone who thinks Spitzer's acts had no victims, I suggest, should watch a tape of Spitzer's press conference on Monday. Does his wife look like she wasn't a victim?

I've seen a lot of examples of sympathy for Mrs. Spitzer. But I haven't seen a single good word in the press for the governor.

Well, maybe that's not entirely true. ABC News says a 22-year-old escort, who admits Spitzer was one of her clients when he was attorney general two years ago, reports that Spitzer "didn't do anything that wasn't clean" and he tipped well.

In the New York Post, Frederic Dicker says Spitzer is getting his "comeuppance." He couldn't be trusted by friend or foe.

"If you were his enemy, you were in danger," Dicker writes. "If you were his friend, you were in danger, too."

The word "comeuppance" is enjoying a surge in popularity these days. Terence Corcoran uses it in National Post. He has some other words for what Spitzer's been up to.

"As a high-level subject for economic study, it would be interesting to know how $5,500 an hour compares with, say, the going rate for a top takeover specialist at a Wall Street law firm," Corcoran writes. "Or, on a comparative value basis, why is such a service worth less than the $6,000 one of Mr. Spitzer's corporate trophies, Tyco CEO Dennis Koslowski, paid for a shower curtain? Maybe it depended on who he was showering with."

But back to Dicker's assessment -- that neither friends nor foes could trust Spitzer.

Hillary Clinton thought Spitzer was her friend. But, as John Nichols points out in The Nation, "Despite the fact that Clinton is the senator from New York state, Spitzer did not endorse her until after Clinton was forced to make a high profile visit to ask the Governor for his support. Even when it came, Spitzer -- whose own ambitions to be attorney general, vice president or even president were no secret -- did not campaign all that hard for Clinton."

In fact, Nichols notes, Clinton's best, most visible ally in New York was Lt. Gov. David Paterson, a black man who stands to become New York's first black governor if Spitzer resigns, as expected.

"After the endorsement was secured, Spitzer first became a problem for Clinton when she struggled to defend and then distance herself from his proposal to make it easier for immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses," writes Nichols. "He is a much bigger problem now."

The Clinton campaign knows how incendiary the Spitzer situation is. "The Clinton campaign immediately began sponging Spitzer's name from the Senator's campaign website," Nichols says, "just as Idaho Senator Larry Craig's name disappeared from the website of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after Craig's bathroom troubles in Minneapolis."

It is to Clinton's advantage to get Spitzer out of office quickly -- and as quietly as possible. With Barack Obama winning more than four-fifths of the black vote in the primaries, a high-profile black officeholder in her corner (like New York's lieutenant governor) can benefit Clinton. But to get there from here, Clinton may have to endure some difficult times.

"The Spitzer trip up is a made-for-TV -- and really made-for-The New York Post -- scandal," Nichols says. "The media won't let go of this one, and sooner or later Tim Russert and Chris Matthews are going to be obsessed with everything Hillary Clinton has to say about it.

"Clinton will be answering breathless questions about all her governor's troubles, about whether he should resign and, of course, about her impressions of what it means when prominent political players -- like governors or, say, presidents in the 1990s -- get wrapped up in sex scandals."

As New York's attorney general, Spitzer made life difficult for traders on Wall Street; Spitzer "long has been viewed with fear and contempt" there, write Aaron Lucchetti and Monica Langley in the Wall Street Journal.

Now, with Spitzer's downfall nearly complete, "It's Schadenfreude time on Wall Street." (By the way, if you never took German in school, Schadenfreude means to take pleasure from someone else's misfortune.)

Michael Goodwin makes the case, in the New York Daily News, that Spitzer, like Jim McGreevey, former governor of New Jersey who resigned in the third year of his administration after acknowledging that he had a homosexual affair, "wasted the governorship because of an enormous character flaw: not recognizing how he was trapped by his own dishonesty."

Character flaw is a rather nice way of putting it, don't you think?

New York's Governor

Monday's press conference, in which New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer acknowledged involvement with a prostitution ring, has brought swift response from the newspapers in his state.

From Spitzer's perspective, the response hasn't been good.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle pulled no punches.

"As a former two-term state attorney general who used his aggressive crusade for high ethical standards on Wall Street to help catapult him to the governor's mansion, Spitzer owes it to New Yorkers to be honest and straightforward with them," says the Democrat and Chronicle. "While he closed the news conference with a promise to 'report back in short order,' this alarming situation demands a clearer, unequivocal response, something he should have provided Monday."

Long Island Newsday was even more blunt, if that's possible.

"Of course, the governor has to resign," states Newsday. "Fifteen months ago, he was the chief legal officer of the state. Hiring a call girl was not only against the law, but procuring her to cross state lines turned the $4,300 evening into a federal crime. ... From the moment of yesterday's shocking, sordid revelation -- and his pitiful apology -- no more state business can be done with Spitzer at the helm."

Readers of the New York Times found this editorial comment waiting for them in today's editions. "[Spitzer] did not just betray his family in a private matter. He betrayed the public, and it is hard to see how he will recover from this mess and go on to lead the reformist agenda on which he was elected to office."

The New York Daily News says it's time for Spitzer to go. "Eliot Spitzer brought his once-promising governorship to a crashing end with a display of recklessness and hypocrisy of such magnitude that you had to question his sanity. Three words to the man: Just get out."

" Eliot Spitzer must resign," writes the New York Post.

"As recently as last month," the Post continued, "Spitzer was heard confirming plans to have a call girl employed by a ring known as Emperors Club VIP travel from New York to the Washington hotel where he was staying. If true, this leaves him open to prosecution under the Mann Act, which makes transportation of someone across a state line for prostitution a federal crime. So much for cleaning up Albany."

One had to sympathize with Spitzer's wife, no matter which side of the political fence one occupies. Spitzer's wife, standing next to the governor during yesterday's press conference, appeared devastated by the news. This is a personal (and clearly painful) matter for her, not a political one.

But it is a political situation for everyone else.

If Spitzer resigns -- and, at this point, that is purely a hypothetical outcome -- his successor would be Lt. Gov. David Paterson, who is legally blind. He is also black, and he would be New York's first black governor if he is elevated to that position.

Should Spitzer resign? What do you think?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Being There

The horse race for the Democratic nomination is shaping up to be a photo finish.

But neither horse may have what it takes to make it to the finish line.

Even after you factor in all the super-delegates and the delegates that were committed to each candidate based on the popular vote in each state -- and you allow for the delegates that are left in the primaries that haven't been held yet -- the numbers don't add up to a majority for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

And that means revisiting Michigan and Florida, which held Democratic primaries on dates that violated party rules. Consequently, their delegations were barred from the convention in Denver this summer.

But now it appears that no one can be nominated for president, under the party's existing rules, without those delegations. Unless the party wants to break -- or rewrite -- a bunch of rules.

Party chairman Howard Dean told CBS' Face the Nation he thought it was "very unlikely" that the Michigan and Florida delegations would be seated at the convention without some concessions on both sides.

Dean also said that the party would not pay to hold "do-over" primaries in both states.

"[O]ur job is to tell the American people about Senator McCain's record on Iraq and the deficits and so forth, and convince the American people that our nominee is better than Senator McCain," Dean said. "And that's what we're going to be using our resources for."

Well, that's fine, Mr. Chairman, but you haven't got a nominee yet. And, like it or not, there are some differences between Clinton and Obama. Right now, the choice is between McCain and a shadow candidate, Sen. Generic Democrat. McCain will have the opportunity to sharpen his attacks once he can stop referring to the nominee as "my opponent" all the time.

It may not be what the Democrats wanted, but something will have to be done about Michigan and Florida.

Part of this mathematical quandary could be resolved fairly simply, it seems to me. If the delegations from Michigan and Florida aren't being included in the decision, why are their numbers still included in the total? Doesn't that artificially inflate the majority number a candidate needs to win the nomination?

Florida originally was allocated 210 delegates. Michigan originally received 156 delegates. Based on the original delegate totals, a candidate needs 2,024 delegates to be nominated (currently, Obama has 1,527 and Clinton has 1,428).

If you take away the delegations from Michigan and Florida, a candidate needs less than 1,850 to win the nomination.

If you adjust the math, it's still a tight race, but, with the bar lowered appropriately, it doesn't mean that Obama or Clinton must win four-fifths of the vote in every primary that's left in order to be nominated.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Yes, Mississippi, You Get to Participate

Mississippi seems to be having the same response a lot of voters in a lot of states have expressed in recent weeks.

They can't believe they have the opportunity to cast a vote in the presidential campaign that actually matters.

I had that feeling in the Texas primary. And, now, apparently, that feeling is being experienced in Mississippi.

"It’s official," says the McComb Enterprise-Journal. "Mississippi is actually going to really matter in a presidential race for the first time in decades -- at least for one of the parties." The paper concedes, in most elections, the state has been "largely an afterthought."

Well, the Democrats aren't treating it as an afterthought in 2008. The Clintons have been campaigning there, and Barack Obama is supposed to campaign there ahead of the primary on Tuesday.

After Tuesday, the public's attention likely won't return to Mississippi until this fall, when one of the presidential debates is scheduled to be held on the Ole Miss campus. The first presidential debate is set for Sept. 26 in Oxford, Miss.

Polls show Obama leading Clinton in Mississippi. More than one-third of the population of Mississippi is black, and, in state after state, Obama has been receiving more than 80% of the black vote. Slightly more than 1% of Mississippians are Hispanic, a group that has supported Clinton.

So, based on the ethnic demographics in Mississippi, it's not surprising that Insider Advantage's most recent survey of Mississippi Democrats found Obama leading Clinton, 46% to 40%. American Research Group reported an even larger margin for Obama in Mississippi, 58% to 34%. Both polls concluded their surveys on Thursday.

Rasmussen Reports wrapped up a poll on Wednesday. Obama led that one as well, 53% to 39%.

It's awkward, to say the least, that Obama now faces the kind of scrutiny from the media to which his opponent already has been subjected for many years. A candidate for president should be examined much earlier in the process.

For example, the New York Times reports that, in three years in the Senate, Obama has shown "star power," but his contribution in the Senate has been seen as a bit of a dim bulb.

"[W[hile he rightly takes credit for steering through an ethics overhaul that reformers called a 'gold standard,' like most freshmen he did not play a significant role in passing much other legislation," write Kate Zernike and Jeff Zeleny in the New York Times, "and disappointed some Democrats for not becoming a more prominent voice in other important debates."

Dick Morris believes the race is over and Obama has won. "The real message of Tuesday’s primaries is not that Hillary won," Morris writes in The Hill. "It’s that she didn’t win by enough. The race is over."

But even though Obama remains the leader in delegates, it's too early, writes David Greenberg on the History News Network, to talk of Clinton's withdrawal from the race.

"Like the calls for Al Gore to concede the presidency ... in November 2000, this anxiety about the imagined consequences of a protracted fight misreads both history and the calendar," writes Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers. "In 2000, pundits seemed not to know that contested elections in previous years -- notably the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon -- remained officially unresolved until barely a month before Inauguration Day, and so they talked as if each hour of uncertainty brought the republic nearer to doom."

That didn't happen, of course, and so Mississippi is drawn into the fray long after most states have voted in 2008. On the eve of the Democratic primary, some of Mississippi's newspapers are taking sides. The Greenwood Commonwealth favors Obama.

The Commonwealth says Obama is a "a breath of fresh air, running a campaign that has the potential to unite the country and help it move further beyond the racial scars of our past."

Conventional wisdom has been taking a beating this year, observes Mark Leibovich in the New York Times.

"Who was more dead, Hillary Rodham Clinton a week ago or John McCain six months ago?" Leibovich asks. "Whose nomination was more inevitable, Mrs. Clinton’s six months ago or Barack Obama’s two weeks ago? Both questions are of course moot -- if not ridiculous in retrospect (as fleeting as Rudy’s front-runner status or the media swoon over Fred Thompson)."

I think Obama will win in Mississippi. But I think he's got his work cut out for him in Pennsylvania.