Monday, June 30, 2008

Blaming Big Oil

In an editorial headlined "Obama's Dry Hole," the Wall Street Journal dismisses Barack Obama's argument that the oil companies have been stockpiling leases on federal lands to manipulate gas prices.

Obama alleges that "68 million acres that have the potential to nearly double America's total oil production" have gone untouched.

"[T[he notion is obviously false — at least to anyone who knows how oil and gas exploration actually works," the Wall Street Journal says.

Then it applauds "liberals" for "finally acknowledging the significance of supply and demand."

I don't know if the Wall Street Journal is just noticing this (as many on the right seem likely to act these days), but the law of supply and demand isn't being "finally" acknowledged.

It is one of many factors that thoughtful progressives see as important (along with the need for conservation, the sense of urgency for finding reliable and renewable sources of energy and other factors) in the energy debate.

But "supply and demand" seems to enter the conversation these days (on both sides) with the accompanying question about "Big Oil" and its alleged role in all this.

Well, if you're going to insist on pointing your finger at someone ...

Newsweek's Robert Samuelson suggests a new culprit — the speculators.

"A chorus of politicians, including John McCain, Barack Obama and Sen. Joe Lieberman, blames these financial slimeballs for piling into commodities markets and pushing prices to artificial and unconscionable levels," Samuelson writes.

"Gosh, if only it were that simple," he continues. "Speculator-bashing is another exercise in scapegoating and grandstanding. Leading politicians either don't understand what's happening or don't want to acknowledge their complicity."

All the proposals I've heard for dealing with today's energy crisis seem to be based on the belief that there is a quick-fix solution out there to the reality of a finite supply of fossil fuels.

Whether the proposal is for a windfall profits tax (the logic behind the tax suggests that big oil is manipulating supply to inflate price, but such a tax is likely to restrict production and produce much less revenue than predicted) or a summer "tax holiday" (which would provide minimal — and temporary — financial aid to the consumer — while forcing state governments to cut their workforce — along with some important road maintenance projects), none of the "solutions" I've heard address the real issue of long-term energy needs — including independence from foreign energy suppliers.

So I guess, as Samuelson writes, the speculators are next on the blame list.

Isn't it time for our politicians to speak in depth about a long-term answer? I don't expect anyone to have the answer. How do we find it? That's the kind of vision we seek from our leaders.

We need a strategy.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Outlook from Tobacco Road

North Carolina seems to be an example of the presidential voting trend in most of the South — although the vote hasn't been lopsided, as it has been in some states.

With the solitary exception of its support for Jimmy Carter in 1976, North Carolina has voted for the Republican presidential nominee in every election since 1968. But it's frequently been close in North Carolina — closer than it tends to be in the rest of the South.

There will be a lot of electoral activity in the state this year, with incumbents from both parties seeking re-election. The nature and the competitive level of each race will decide whether Barack Obama or John McCain will be the beneficiary of the activity.

  • North Carolina has a couple of statewide races in 2008 — for governor and senator.

    The governor, Democrat Mike Easley, is forced by state law to step down after serving two terms. His approval ratings have remained high, and he might be able to win a third term if the law allowed him to seek one.

    Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says the governor’s office is likely to remain in Democratic hands. The state’s Democratic lieutenant governor, Beverly Perdue, will be facing Pat McCrory, the Republican mayor of Charlotte, in the governor’s race in November.

    Easley was considered a possible candidate for Elizabeth Dole’s Senate seat this year, but he declined to make the race.

    As an experienced governor who will be leaving his office this year, he might be a good choice for running mate for Barack Obama. Easley is more conservative than many Democrats, which could serve to attract independents and Republicans.

  • In the South, nearly every state (with the exception of Florida) will have a U.S. Senate seat on the ballot in November.

    In most states, the incumbent senators are running for re-election. As usual, some have no opponent — or merely token opposition.

    But some are facing competitive challenges for the seats they currently occupy — and some incumbents have chosen to retire, some for health reasons but some simply to avoid the very real possibility of being rejected by the voters.

    In North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole has been mentioned as a vulnerable incumbent, even though North Carolina has been a safe haven for most Republican candidates in recent years.

    State senator Kay Hagan won the Democratic nomination in May, and polls at the time showed her in a tight battle for Dole’s seat. One poll even showed her with a narrow lead right after the primaries.

    But by mid-June, Sabato was saying that ”[n]ow that the dust has settled and the initial over-excitement has ended, the actual landscape is a little more clear. What once seemed to be a dead heat is probably more like a 8-10% lead for Dole, perilous, but certainly no reason to begin writing her obituary just yet.”

    Nevertheless, Sabato says the race merely ”leans Republican” at this point — which appears (on the surface) to be less than a rousing endorsement for Dole’s chances of being re-elected to the seat that Jesse Helms held for three decades.

    The fact is, if Dole’s lead is 8-10%, as Sabato says, that puts her at the upper end in the typical range, historically, for Republican Senate candidates in North Carolina. Dole took a 9% triumph, 54% to 45%, when she was first elected to the Senate in 2002. Helms, in his final Senate race in 1996, received 53% of the vote.

    And Dole’s colleague in the Senate from North Carolina, Republican Richard Burr, received 52% of the vote when he won the seat that was vacated by Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards in 2004.

    Democrats tend to be competitive in North Carolina’s statewide races, but the voters usually support the Republicans — by relatively slim margins. And, even when Democrats win, as Edwards did in the 1998 Senate race and as Easley did in the governor’s races of 2000 and 2004, the margins have tended to be narrow.

  • The state’s representation in the House reflects the division between the parties. Before the 2006 elections, Republicans held a 7-6 lead in the House delegation. After the 2006 elections, the Democrats held a 7-6 lead — thanks to Democrat Heath Shuler, the former football player who won the seat in the 11th district against incumbent Republican Charles Taylor.

    North Carolina’s 11th district is mountain country. It is nearly 90% white and 56% rural. It has tended to vote Republican in national campaigns — George W. Bush topped 55% of the vote in the district in both 2000 and 2004 — but Michael Barone, co-author of the Almanac of American Politics, has referred to an ”ornery” streak in the 11th district’s voters.

    When voters have a reputation for being "ornery," they're apt to do anything.

    Even so, Sabato is keeping his eye on only one congressional race in North Carolina this year — and it isn’t Shuler’s seat. So I have to assume that that means Shuler has been meeting the needs of his district.

    Sabato is watching the 8th district race, which was decided by less than 400 votes two years ago. The district is in the southwestern portion of the state, along the North Carolina-South Carolina boundary.

    It is currently represented by Republican Robin Hayes, who won the seat in 1998. Hayes is in a rematch with the Democrat he defeated last time, high school teacher Larry Kissell, and, as Sabato observes, voters in the 8th will have the opportunity to ”re-write the ending if they choose.”

    At this point, it’s anyone’s guess whether the 8th district will keep Hayes in office or switch to the Democrat. Nearly 27% of the district’s residents are black, and nearly 70% of the population is urban.

    Sabato calls it a toss-up right now.

    In national politics, the 8th district voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, both times with 54% of the vote.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

My Trickle Up Theory of Virginia Politics

When you look at the presidential voting history in the state of Virginia, it’s almost impossible to imagine that state being in the Democrats’ column in November.

I’ve heard the talk about how Barack Obama’s race will be a factor in black turnout. It may well boost turnout in some states — that remains to be seen. But the black population in Virginia is about 20% while whites account for more than 70% of the state’s population. The black influence on voting patterns isn't as pronounced in Virginia as it is in some Southern states.

So I have to wonder if race will be a factor — and, if it is, which side will it favor?

Granted, Virginia isn’t as Republican as it once was. It elected Democrats governor in 2005 (Tim Kaine, who is barred by state law from running for re-election in 2009) and 2001, and it elected a Democrat senator in 2006 (Jim Webb’s narrow victory over incumbent George Allen). Both Kaine and Webb have been mentioned as vice presidential prospects.

In presidential politics, George W. Bush’s share of the vote in Virginia remained consistent — he won by 8% in 2000 and by 9% in 2004.

Bill Clinton made things difficult for Virginia Republicans. He lost both times — but only by 4 percentage points in 1992, and he narrowed the gap to only 2 percentage points when he lost to Bob Dole in Virginia in 1996.

Before that, well, George H.W. Bush ran well ahead of his national average with 60% of the Virginia vote in 1988. Ronald Reagan had no trouble carrying the state in 1984 (62%) or 1980 (53% to Jimmy Carter’s 40%).

Nevertheless, in both Republican and Democratic years, Virginia has voted for the Republican presidential nominee consistently for more than 40 years. It was the only Southern state, for example, to vote against fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976.

And, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson's victory in Virginia in 1964, Virginia has voted for the Republican candidate for president in every election since 1952.

So it seems to me that, if there’s going to be a ”coattail” effect that allows Obama to win in Virginia, it’s going to have to be of the trickle up variety — from farther down the ballot. Obama may have to depend on the success of the Virginia Democrats on the ballot with him.

And that may very well be what happens.

But it seems to me that there could be some ticket splitting going on in Virginia in November. And it's hard to tell which candidate that would favor — or even if it does favor one or the other.

On one hand, you’ve got an interesting Senate race for John Warner’s seat.

Senate races, of course, involve the voters of an entire state, and this one matches two of the state’s recent governors — Democrat Mark Warner (no relation to the retiring Republican senator) and Republican Jim Gilmore.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says the seat is likely to switch to the Democrats.

So, if there’s any validity to a ”reverse coattails” theory, Mark Warner may help attract votes to Obama’s campaign because of what Sabato calls his ”wide appeal among independents.”

And an indication of the strength of Warner’s position may be found in Sabato’s report that Gilmore is ”having trouble funding his candidacy” after an unexpectedly hard-fought race for the Republican nomination.

I’m not ready to proclaim the GOP dead in the Old Dominion. I’m not even ready to predict that Obama can break the GOP’s uninterrupted four-decade grip on Virginia in presidential contests.

But I will concede that Sabato is probably correct when he asserts that ”Virginia’s years as a Republican stronghold are well over.” They certainly seem to be over when it comes to representation in the Senate — assuming that Mark Warner maintains his electoral advantage over Gilmore.

On the other hand, there are the state’s House races. It is the House races that prove Tip O’Neill’s famous political adage — ”All politics is local.”

For, indeed, House races tend to be about local issues, local concerns, and what the candidates can do about them in Washington. That, of course, is the purpose of a member of the House.

Sabato is keeping his eye on four House races in Virginia. Most of the state’s seats in the House went to Republicans in 2006 — the party retained its 8-3 advantage over the Democrats in a year that generally favored Democrats outside the South.

But the four districts Sabato is watching all voted for the Republicans in 2006.

By implication, the three Democratic seats should be safe for the party, as should the other four GOP seats (which includes the district that was represented by Jo Ann Davis, who died of breast cancer last October and was replaced, in a special election, by a Republican who seeks a full term this November).

Sabato says the conditions are favorable for the GOP in three of the districts — the incumbents are seeking re-election in all three.

The fourth race to watch is for the open 11th district seat, being vacated by Tom Davis, who was once considered a leading contender for John Warner’s Senate seat. Sabato says Davis’ House seat is like to go to Democrat Gerry Connolly, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Again, the ”trickle up” theory may be at work, depending upon how well each party's candidates can encourage voters in their districts to come to the polls and support their bids. How competitive a race is perceived to be can be a driving force for voter turnout.

  • In the 2nd District, which as Sabato points out "lies predominantly in the conservative, military-friendly Virginia Beach metropolitan area," Sabato rates the district as only "leans Republican" (for incumbent Thelma Drake) instead of "likely Republican," as he says about the other two districts he's monitoring in which Republican incumbents are seeking re-election.

    It's not a stretch to suggest that Drake may have a competitive race on her hands. Drake was elected to the House in 2004 with 55% of the vote, but she could only draw 51% in her re-election bid in 2006. So far, her only challenger is a diplomat with extremely low name recognition, which, as Sabato observes, should change as he "introduces himself to voters."

    Still, in the all-important area of campaign financing, Drake apparently has raised four times as much money as her challenger. It may be hard for him to get his message out.

    Meanwhile, Drake has compiled a House voting record that is more conservative on foreign policy than on social or economic issues — although her general record suggests a conservative tendency.

  • The 5th District occupies central and south-central Virginia. It's an historic district, where Lee surrendered to Grant to end the Civil War — although, in some ways, the war never really ended in southern Virginia, where Harry Byrd Sr. led a resistance effort that shut down some public schools in defiance of desegregation orders nearly a century after the end of the Civil War.

    The incumbent, Virgil Goode (rhymes with "mood"), has something of a history himself. He was originally elected as a Democrat in 1996, but he switched to independent status in 2000 and became a Republican in 2002. His share of the vote has fluctuated with the fortunes of the Republican Party, but Sabato rates the district as "likely Republican."

    While Goode's opponent has been successful raising money for his campaign, Sabato has a word of caution: "How optimistic should Democrats be? That remains to be seen. But if history is any predictor: not very."

    Goode has a voting record that has been increasingly conservative on social issues but more moderate on economic issues and foreign policy. And, as Sabato writes, "The district is GOP country, with only the liberal city of Charlottesville to keep things potentially competitive."

  • The 10th district runs along the northern side of Virginia, and it includes part of Fairfax County, which has exploded in population and, by some estimates, is the home of the highest median annual income in the country — more than $71,000. Nevertheless, population seems to have leveled off in the county in recent years.

    It is also an increasingly Democratic area, and the competitiveness of the House race may be a factor in whether the party can generate the kind of turnout it needs to flip the state to Obama in November.

    The race will be a rematch of the 2006 campaign, in which Republican Frank Wolf, who has been in the House since 1980, defeated Democrat Judy Feder, 57% to 41%. (In 2004, Wolf outperformed George W. Bush in the district, receiving 64% of the vote while the president received only 55% — which was down from his showing in 2000, when Bush got 56% in the 10th.)

    Feder, the dean of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, has raised more than $1 million for the race, and Tom Davis, from the neighboring 11th district, "has warned that Feder's funds have put the seat in play," Sabato writes.

    Wolf has compiled a moderate-to-conservative voting record in the House. But Feder apprently will have the active support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which she didn't have last time.

    Sabato says the district is "likely Republican," even though he admits that it is "very much up in the air ... at both the presidential and congressional levels."

  • In the aforementioned 11th district, Tom Davis' departure has created a race that "leans Democratic," Sabato writes.

    Davis' voting record on social and economic issues tended to be moderate, but he was increasingly conservative on foreign policy. And he polled pretty well in a district in which Bush struggled (Bush barely cleared 50% there in 2004, and he took 52% of the district's vote in 2000).

    How heavy the turnout is for the open seat may be a factor in what happens in Virginia in national politics.

On the Importance of Vice Presidents

Can you stand some more commentary on how important the choice of a vice presidential running mate is?

The latest comes from the dean of American political science, Michael Barone, co-author of the biennially published Almanac of American Politics and a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, who writes about why vice presidents are important.

Barone, ever the political historian, cites a book about the vice presidency, Not Exactly a Crime, which was published 36 years ago — ironically, the year before Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency because of crimes he committed while governor of Maryland.

"[A]s we await Barack Obama's and John McCain's choices for vice president, we do so with the knowledge that vice presidents in the last five administrations have been important officers of government," Barone writes.

There have been times — important times — in our nation's history when vice presidents were chosen for just about every other reason except their competence to be the national leader.

And, in some of those cases, the fates conspired to elevate those vice presidents to the Oval Office. The nation managed to survive the far-too-frequent Andrew Johnsons and Chester Arthurs who rose to the presidency that way — and it benefited from the occasional Theodore Roosevelt.

But as Barone points out, as recently as the mid-20th century, Harry Truman had been vice president for not quite three months, and he was so out of the loop that he didn't know that Franklin Roosevelt wasn't even in Washington when Truman was summoned to the White House to be informed of FDR's death in Georgia.

And Truman was left to make perhaps the most critical decision a president has had to make — whether to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.

It wasn't until 1977 that Jimmy Carter truly modernized the role of the vice president, giving Walter Mondale a wider range of responsibilities than merely presiding over the Senate. And every vice president in the last three decades (including, as Barone points out, Dan Quayle) has become better equipped to become president if that need should arise.

This has happened because all of Carter's successors have followed his example.

It's been a good thing for the country that the vice president has played a more active role, although the last vice president to ascend to the presidency through death or resignation did so prior to Carter's presidency — when the vice presidency still amounted to little more than presiding over the Senate (as Barone rightfully points out, a "clerk's job"), going on an occasional foreign junket and representing the country at foreign funerals.

Between 1841 and 1974, the vice president became president through the death or resignation of the duly elected president nine times. That's an average of one every 14.7 years.

It hasn't happened in 34 years.

That doesn't mean it will never happen again.

In fact, I believe the odds are good that the next vice president, whether he/she is a Republican or a Democrat, will become president.

People don't usually tend to vote for a president on the basis of whether they believe the running mate will actually turn out to be president in the next four years. But I believe it's a factor that voters should seriously consider in 2008.

At the age of 72, John McCain would be the oldest man to enter the presidency. It's far from certain that he would live to be 76.

And, as the first black president, Barack Obama — whether people want to talk about it or not — would be a tempting target for a racist would-be assassin. Even a heavy security detail cannot guarantee his absolute safety.

The point to remember is simply this. The selection of a running mate is an important decision for a presidential nominee. It's really the only presidential decision he will be asked to make during the campaign.

If the selection seems to be motivated by concerns over the impact it may have on voters in a certain state or region in the general election, that's a sign that the candidate is not making the choice with the nation's best interests at heart.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Supreme Court and Guns

I have a confession to make.

I'm not a gun owner.

I didn't grow up in a household where guns had a place. My father wasn't a hunter — well, that's not exactly true. He was a butterfly hunter, and he did his hunting with a net.

He knew how to shoot a rifle, though, and he taught me how to do it once, when I was a kid. My father is left-handed and I'm right-handed, but, to this day, whenever I pick up a rifle — and it's something I rarely do — I aim and fire from the left side. I can't do it from the right.

That's also how I shoot pool — probably because my father was the one who showed me how to do both things.

Anyway, guns have never been a part of my life. Unless, of course, someone else was on the news for using a gun — at Columbine High School or Virginia Tech or after going postal in the workplace.

Or after shooting at someone famous, like John Lennon or Ronald Reagan or Pope John Paul II.

When that happens, I'm like everyone else. I have to think about guns and talk about their role in American life because that's what everyone is talking about and thinking about.

Today, the Supreme Court focused that spotlight directly on guns. The justices ruled, 5-4, that the Constitution guarantees the right to keep a loaded handgun in your home for self-defense purposes.

The ruling overturned the D.C. handgun ban, which is "the strictest gun-control law in the country," writes the New York Times. The Times speculates that the ruling "appeared certain to usher in a fresh round of litigation over gun rights throughout the country."

My feeling is, when it comes to guns, that genie is already out of the bottle. There's no way to outlaw guns at this point. Not with nearly 300 million of them out there in private hands.

Personally, I think the Founding Fathers made a mistake when they wrote the Second Amendment — even though they did include that part about the right to keep and bear arms being connected to being part of a "well-regulated militia."

But it's kind of tricky to see into the future — and we are living in an America that has evolved for more than 200 years since the Constitution was written. And, as brilliant as they were, I don't think Thomas Jefferson or James Madison foresaw the coming of the cotton gin, much less a world of jets, cell phones and computers.

Still, for the most part, I think the Founding Fathers did a pretty good job of crafting a Constitution in the 18th century environment they were living in. And they showed some humility — and wisdom — by including a mechanism for amending it when necessary.

But that gun thing has been giving us problems for a long time now.

Now, D.C. may well have the strictest gun laws in the country, as the New York Times and countless others have said. I don't know. I haven't researched all the gun laws in the country.

I live in Texas, where the gun laws are — if you'll pardon the expression — liberal.

But I feel that this is a matter that falls under the heading of "states' rights." I don't believe the people in Washington are qualified to make decisions about the licensing — or the prohibition — of guns in any state or community.

Of course, I'm not saying that I think the lawmakers here in Texas are any better than the ones we've got in Washington. But at least they're familiar with the communities here and they know what the crime rates are. (And I would expect them to get input from local law enforcement and local residents.)

Well, they should know those things. To be candid, I'm not sure most of them do! So many of them seem to have knee-jerk reactions when this kind of issue comes up.

You want to know what really concerns me about today's ruling?

I'm not concerned about the Supreme Court deciding to hear the case. This is the kind of thing the Supreme Court is supposed to be doing. (That's something everyone should think about when deciding who to support for president — what kind of Supreme Court do you want for the next, oh, 20 or 30 years? Because the next president will probably get the chance to make a few appointments.)

I'm concerned about the timing. I'm worried that this has the earmarks of an issue that is going to distract the voters from the things they should be talking about in this campaign — the war in Iraq, the economy, energy, food, housing, health care. And there are some issues on education that need to be resolved. And we need to talk about environmental policy.

It's not just about homeland security and terrorism. Those are important and they need to be discussed, but they're not the only things we need to be talking about.

Actually, being distracted from the important issues is nothing new in America. I guess it's one of the hazards of free speech, but we allow made-up issues, like gay marriage and flag burning, to dictate the terms of our political debates all the time.

I don't believe we can afford to wait until 2012 to talk about the issues. Do you?

It's appropriate, in a way, that this ruling should occur today. Yesterday was the anniversary of Custer's Last Stand, in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

After the battle, one of Custer's surviving officers (and there weren't many of those) was asked by an investigator from Washington what had happened. The officer replied, "Mistakes were made."

Is that what we'll be saying after an election dominated by non-issues? It's the kind of non-denial denial we've heard from Washington so many times before. "Mistakes were made."

Maybe we get the government — and with it, the Supreme Court — we deserve.

That's what the late, great George Carlin said about our elected officials. He said we got from government what we put into it, that our officials were the embodiment of "garbage in, garbage out."

Well, anyway, here's the Supreme Court's ruling in the D.C. gun case. Read it and tell me what you think.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Charlie Black, a longtime Republican activist who served as an adviser to Ronald Reagan and is currently an adviser to presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, stepped into the proverbial briar patch this week.

Black said it would be a "big advantage" for McCain if the United States was the target of another terrorist attack. McCain said he "strenuously" disagreed with Black.

This strikes me as being similar to Hillary Clinton's remark about the Bobby Kennedy assassination to the editorial board of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader about a month ago.

Both remarks were accurate. But they dealt with facts that most people prefer not to think about.

All available evidence indicates that Barack Obama is perceived by the public to be better able to handle the Iraq War and a whole list of domestic matters. But voters believe McCain is better when it comes to terrorism in general.

So it doesn't take a genius to figure out that if the voters are concerned about putting gas in their tanks, that works in Obama's favor.

But if the voters just saw the Sears Tower collapse like the World Trade Center before going to the polls, that works in McCain's favor.

For that matter, I suppose, it wouldn't have to be anything as visually dramatic as seeing a huge tower collapse. Something just as deliberate but more long-term — like another anthrax scare — might do the trick.

For political purposes, that might even be preferable.

Everyone has his/her private fears, I suppose. Everyone's afraid of something.

And I guess one of the things that most Americans fear — once they get past their individual fears of being stricken by cancer or a heart attack or whichever potentially fatal condition they fear the most — is living through another 9-11.

Now, that doesn't mean that many of us haven't thought about the possibility of something terrible happening. In fact, for some of us, I'm sure a year hasn't gone by since 2001 without thoughts — however fleeting they may be — of another equally horrific attack.

But decorum demands that we don't talk about it.

This episode with Black reminds me of the Republican candidate for governor here in Texas in 1990. His name was Clayton Williams, and he was the front-runner to be elected through much of that election cycle.

But Williams had a tendency to shoot himself in the foot — frequently. In fact, Williams shot himself in the foot so often that my father liked to say that his weapon of choice was a machine gun.

And by the day of the election, the Democratic candidate — you may have heard of her, her name was Ann Richards — pulled off a narrow victory. The day after the election, the now-defunct Dallas Times-Herald summed it up with this headline: "She Whups Him!"

There are some differences here, of course. For one thing, Black isn't the candidate, McCain is. Such an indiscretion is not a good thing, but it's not as serious if it comes from an adviser and not the candidate himself.

And McCain is not the acknowledged front-runner, as Williams was.

But the path to becoming the front-runner gets steeper and rockier if your advisers insist on making remarks like the one Black made.

McCain cannot afford to retain advisers who put their feet in their mouths.

Seinfeld's Tribute to Carlin

Last night, I was watching the tribute to George Carlin on Larry King's show on CNN.

One of his guests was Jerry Seinfeld, and it was during King's Q&A with Seinfeld that he revealed that he had written an article about Carlin that would appear in today's New York Times.

Now, I was never much of a Seinfeld fan. I guess I liked him better than some of King's guests last night — like Roseanne. But I like Lewis Black and Bill Maher, and they both shared some memories of Carlin and insights into his personality.

So, too, did Seinfeld. And I think his article has resonance for me, especially because of an observation he makes:

"I became obsessed with him in the '60s," Seinfeld writes. "As a kid it seemed like the whole world was funny because of George Carlin. His performing voice, even laced with profanity, always sounded as if he were trying to amuse a child. It was like the naughtiest, most fun grown-up you ever met was reading you a bedtime story."

Seinfeld also talks — as everyone else does — about Carlin's "cutting edge" comedy. That really goes without saying, considering the Lenny Bruce-like legal problems he had over his "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television" routine.

(That routine, by the way, seems almost pedestrian by today's standards. And it's been more than 30 years since he recorded it. But you still can't say those words on TV!)

But, in both the article and the King show, Seinfeld was in awe of Carlin's "precision." He was always very precise, and he seemed to get better at that as he got older.

"To me, everything he did just had this gleaming wonderful precision and originality," Seinfeld says.

Read Seinfeld's article.

Read it if you admired Carlin.

Read it if you never watched one of Carlin's performances or listened to one of his records.

And if you missed him while he was alive, more's the pity.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin Dies

It's the kind of news I feel a need to confirm.

And, once I've confirmed it, I still find it hard to believe.

Comedian George Carlin died yesterday in Santa Monica, Calif., of heart failure.

He was 71.

No one lives forever, but it's hard for me to imagine a world without George Carlin in it.

He always gave me a laugh when I needed it, and my memories of listening to his recordings are intertwined with my memories of other people who were significant in my life.

Many of those people are, like Carlin, gone now.

It's hard for me to pinpoint the very first time I heard Carlin's routines or saw him on TV. He went from being one of the generation of young comedians influenced by the groundbreaking comedy of Lenny Bruce to being an inspiration for the next generation of comedians. I can't remember a time when his comedy wasn't part of my life.

So I guess things came full circle for Carlin.

And, as I reflect on the mark Carlin's comedy has left on my life, I'm reminded of one of his routines from one of his early records, "FM & AM," in which he reflected on the greatness of Ed Sullivan.

"No one got a chance to thank Ed," he said, pointing out that Sullivan's long-running variety show was canceled after it went into reruns so no one associated with the program knew that the last show that season truly was the last show.

In much the same way, no one got a chance to thank Carlin for all his years of making us laugh — and making us think.

Thanks, George. For everything.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The House Races in Pennsylvania

Democrats enjoyed a lot of success in the midterm elections of 2006, and Pennsylvania may have been the location of their greatest triumphs. They picked up four House seats and a Senate seat in the Keystone State.

The Senate seat, formerly held by Rick Santorum, won't be up for re-election until 2012, but the House seats, of course, are up this year.

With their gains, the Democrats hold the lead in the Pennsylvania House delegation, 11-8, but James O'Toole reports in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that, even with seats in swing districts that Democrats must defend in this election cycle, the state's Democrats "still hope to pick off one or two more GOP veterans" in 2008.

Political analyst Larry Sabato is keeping an eye on six House races in Pennsylvania. Only two are currently held by the GOP (including one that's on the Democrats' wish list, according to the Post-Gazette), and Sabato is inclined to predict that both will remain in the Republican column.

But that's what he's saying right now — in June. We're still a little more than four months away from the election.

It's possible that, in the next couple of months, the state's governor, Ed Rendell, could be chosen to run with Barack Obama, which would shift the emphasis of the media attention.

Right now, a lot of the attention in Pennsylvania seems to be focused on the rematch in the 4th District in the western steel country of the state, where Democrat Jason Altmire defeated incumbent Republican Melissa Hart in 2006.

Hart, who held the seat for three terms, is running against Altmire again in 2008. Although the district is traditionally Democratic, Altmire's victory over Hart two years ago was considered something of an upset.

Lately, Altmire has been devoting his time and energy to the health care issue. He's been looking for a solution for high health care costs for nonprofit organizations. Sounds like a challenge in this economy.

We'll see how Altmire fares as the incumbent.

The Making of a House Race 2008

The Lafayette (La.) Advertiser reports that a race for the House seat in Louisiana's 7th District is starting to take shape.

The district is in the southwestern corner of the state, including within its boundaries the cities of Lafayette and Lake Charles. If you've never been there, it's Cajun country — food, language, clothing, music, everything.

Its political history has been varied. Nationally, the district has supported the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1972. It is currently represented in the House by a Republican, Charles Boustany, who was elected four years ago.

In fact, Boustany was in his first year in the House when Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast region — although it was actually Hurricane Rita a few weeks later that had the more devastating, long-term impact on the area.

Katrina was more correctly New Orleans' disaster, and many people in the 7th District bitterly complained that "Rita amnesia" deprived the area of help it needed while New Orleans was the focus of national attention, if not the actual recipient of necessary assistance, for its hurricane experience.

Prior to Boustany's election in 2004, the district was represented by Democrats, Chris John (1997-2005) and Jimmy Hayes (1987-1997). And before that, future Senator John Breaux represented the district.

Boustany, who was a practicing surgeon for more than 20 years, won the seat when it was open in 2004, becoming the first Republican to represent that part of the state since the 19th century. John, the incumbent, was one of several politicians who decided to seek Breaux's open Senate seat in the state's unique open primary.

(John finished second, but he received only 29% of the vote. Republican David Vitter received 51% of the vote against a divided Democratic field and avoided a campaign-extending runoff.

(Last summer, it was revealed that Vitter's phone number appeared on the "D.C. Madam's" call list. The "D.C. Madam" committed suicide in May, and it remains to be seen whether that relationship will affect Vitter's chances of re-election in 2010.)

Meanwhile, back in the 7th District ...

The Advertiser reports that political observers expect state Sen. Don Cravins Jr. to challenge Boustany. Cravins' father sought the seat in 2004 and was narrowly edged out for a runoff spot against Boustany. At the time, Cravins' father felt he had been snubbed by the national Democratic Party.

Cravins is black and might benefit from a large turnout of blacks motivated to vote for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, the Advertiser says, but "he's not material. His family made its name in business."

Moreover, "Boustany will not go gently," the Advertiser says. "The 7th is, fundamentally, a conservative district, in both senses of the word. The district has changed from Democratic to Republican over the years, but voters haven't turned out an incumbent in more than a generation."

And the Advertiser cautions about something else. "While Boustany's early association with the Bush administration might hurt him elsewhere, Bush-bashing never really caught on around here."

Again, the national tickets could have an as-yet unseen influence on the congressional race farther down the ballot — particularly if Louisiana's Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is John McCain's running mate.

This election year is shaping up to be a volatile one in Louisiana. So far, Larry Sabato is focusing his attention on two other House races in Louisiana, but it's possible that the 7th District will be added to the list as time goes by.

It's a district worth keeping an eye on.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

An Anniversary to Celebrate

In this year that marks the 40th anniversaries of all the big — usually tragic — events of 1968, it's nice to be able to encourage the celebration of a good, even uplifting anniversary.

Even if it is in the world of entertainment.

The anniversary to which I refer is not a 40th anniversary — not yet. It's actually a 35th anniversary.

In 1973, "The Sting," starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, was made. I'm not sure of the exact date it was released theatrically, but it won several Oscars when the awards were given out in early 1974 — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Writing — and Best Score, for Marvin Hamlisch's delightful adaptation of Scott Joplin's ragtime music.

Sadly, the news this month is that Newman, now 83 years old, is battling cancer. Reports have been mixed and, at times, contradictory, but the Associated Press reported on June 11 that Newman's partner in his salad dressing business, writer A.E. Hotchner, had confirmed what The Daily Telegraph reported on June 9 — that Newman is seriously ill.

All the more reason to watch "The Sting."

Newman was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in "The Sting." He didn't win, although he went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor for "The Color of Money" in 1986.

But that takes nothing away from Newman's work in "The Sting." Many people, myself included, rate his work in "The Sting" among the finest of his distinguished career.

Fifty years ago, Newman was the recipient of the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actor award for "The Long, Hot Summer." He's been entertaining audiences since 1954, but he announced his retirement from acting in 2007.

Whether his retirement coincided with his learning of his condition is, for the moment, a matter for speculation.

Obviously, when a person has reached the age Newman has, anything can happen — whether or not the reports of cancer are true.

So I urge you to take a couple of hours of your time, watch "The Sting" and reflect on Newman's magnificent career while he's still alive.

If you've never seen "The Sting" before, you're entitled to a few words of warning:

If you watch the film and, when it's over, you think that someone slipped something past you, don't worry. It happens to everyone!

Just watch the movie a second time to pick up on whatever you missed. And don't be surprised if you find yourself humming the Scott Joplin tunes.

I envy the pleasure of the discovery that awaits you!

Friday, June 20, 2008

To Accept or Not to Accept Public Financing

I have distressing news for you tonight.

Well, maybe it won't be news for most of you. I guess it really shouldn't be. But sometimes things just don't seem real until someone puts them into words.

The news is simply this: Remember the good old days? Well, they're gone. For good.

That's a general fact. In particular, I refer to the rules of engagement in presidential campaigns.

There was a time, believe it or not, when presidential candidates would take a few months off from campaigning in the summer, and the only times you'd hear from them would be a couple of weeks when the Democrats and Republicans held their conventions.

And, of course, there were the obligatory photo ops on the Fourth of July.

Well, this year's campaign for the Democratic nomination was longer than any such nominating campaign in our history, with caucuses and primaries going on from January 3 to June 3. Everyone had a chance to participate in the decision.

But now, instead of taking a breather, a summer vacation, Barack Obama and John McCain are swinging away at each other.

Far ahead of the traditional campaign kickoff on Labor Day weekend.

Well, we've got some serious problems so it would be a good idea for the candidates to discuss the issues as much as possible.

Ah, there's the rub.

If only the candidates would talk about the real issues.

McCain thinks he's talking about an issue when he accuses Obama of breaking a promise by deciding not to accept public financing.

"This election is about a lot of things, but it's also about trust," McCain said. "It's also about whether you can take people's word. ... He said he would stick to his agreement. He didn't."

Personally, I like the idea of public financing. It was a necessary reform after the excesses of Watergate. The intention is noble — to keep candidates honest. (That can be a dirty — downright filthy, in fact — job, at times, but, darn it, somebody's gotta do it.)

And it appears to me that Obama's campaign has been honest about financing. Some of the facts may not be quite the way they've been represented to the public, but the contributions that have been reported appear to be within the legal limits.

(It reminds me of a passage early in Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," in which Huck, referring to Twain's earlier novel about Tom Sawyer, observes that "there was things he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.")

But Brooks Jackson of writes in Newsweek that Obama is guilty of "a large exaggeration and a lame excuse" when he says McCain and the Republicans "are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs."

Jackson writes that "donations from PACs and lobbyists make up less than 1.7% of McCain's total receipts, and they account for only about 1.1% of the RNC's receipts."

Jackson also observes that "the Democratic National Committee has historically been far more reliant on PAC and lobbyist money than the RNC. In 2004, PACs provided about 10% of the DNC's total fundraising and only about 1% of the RNC's total."

What McCain really doesn't like is how much money his opponent has raised. Who can blame him? At this point in the campaign, the Democrat has a rare, almost unheard of, advantage in funds over the Republican.

In fact, Reuters is reporting that Obama raised nearly $22 million in May. (By the way, Reuters says McCain's campaign reported raising nearly as much as Obama — about $400,000 less than Obama — in May.)

McCain will need some creative advice to get the most bang for his bucks, and Republican advisers don't have much experience in that regard.

Well, deception seems to work.

And both sides appear to be more interested in scoring political points than doing or saying the right things.

McCain tries to make Obama's decision sound sinister, and Obama overstates the influence of PAC and lobbyist money on the Republicans.

Welcome to the brave new world of presidential politics.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Assessing the Senate Races

If you're looking for insightful analyses on the races for the presidency, the Senate and the House, you can't go wrong if you consult Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Today, he's provided us with an update on the races for the Senate.

Party control of the Senate, he observes, has changed hands six times since 1980. "This is no longer a rare event."

Sabato has come to the conclusion that "2008 is virtually certain not to generate a seventh such shift."

As I've mentioned before, a big part of the reason is that these senators were elected in 2002. It was the midterm of George W. Bush's first term as president. Normally, midterms go against the party that occupies the White House, but the country was only a year removed from the 9-11 attacks and Bush was pressing for the authority to go to war in Iraq.

So the Republicans won a lot of seats in the Senate. And, as a result, they have twice as many seats to defend as the Democrats do in this election cycle -- when gas prices have risen about 36% in a year, the war is unpopular, and Bush is a lame duck.

All the Democrats are seeking re-election and only one, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, appears to be in a close race. Most observers, Sabato included, believe Democrats will retain at least 11 of their 12 seats.

The Republicans have to defend more than 20 seats, and a handful of their senators are retiring (including Larry Craig of Idaho, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska).

Due to the death of one senator and the retirement of another who was not scheduled to be up for re-election this year, Republicans have to defend two more seats -- in Wyoming and Mississippi, where the voters will be electing two senators at the same time.

Sabato says Wyoming Republicans should be able to hold both their seats, but the seat formerly held by Trent Lott in Mississippi is currently a tossup.

In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Rep. Roger Wicker to succeed Lott. Sabato says Wicker has a "50-50 chance" of holding the seat for the Republicans in November.

In assessing the 11 most competitive Senate races this year, Sabato concludes that Democrats will pick up four seats and two seats currently held by Republicans are tossups (Alaska and Lott's old seat in Mississippi). Thus, a six-seat gain is possible for the Democrats.

In Alaska, longtime Sen. Ted Stevens "is mired in a major corporate scandal involving pay-offs and bribery," writes Sabato. But "[h]e has not been indicted and may be able to clear himself."

And, as Sabato observes, "it is too early to call any November election for an Alaska Democrat."

None of the Democratic seats are currently likely to shift to the Republicans, according to Sabato, not even Landrieu's seat.

Louisiana lost a lot of Democratic votes when a large number of blacks had to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Sabato points out, but he concludes that the state is leaning to Landrieu. "This might be a tight race in the end, but it isn't starting that way."

It's not all bad news for Republicans, according to Sabato. They might not be picking up any seats, but there are a few they may be likely to hold, even if it turns out to be a Democratic year.

In Minnesota, the home of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman "is beatable," Sabato writes, "but it is uncertain whether the new convention-crowned Democratic nominee, comedian Al Franken, can do it.

"Franken has been found to have had a substantial number of overdue tax bills in various states, and some of his off-color satires from past years have not sold well in this more politically correct era."

Franken might still have a struggle on his hands if former Gov. Jesse Ventura opts to run as an independent -- a move he's been mulling lately.

Ventura won't win the Senate seat, Sabato says, "but he's the ultimate wild card."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What's the Answer for Gas Prices?

At a time when the price of a gallon of gas seems to go up every day and Americans have been paying more at the pump than ever for what seems to be a long, long time, it was inevitable that someone like National Journal's Amy Walter would describe the two major party presumptive presidential nominees' disagreement on energy policy as a "gasoline fight" -- evoking images of a raging fire that engulfs both men.

And that's what the gas crisis threatens to do to whoever wins in November.

The American public wants easy answers, like the ones they used to get from politicians. But the same old song and dance doesn't work anymore.

The tough choices didn't go away -- they just got tougher.

Today, President George W. Bush said he wants America to expand domestic oil production.

Bush correctly pointed out that high oil prices lead to high gasoline prices.

And prices have risen, in part, because demand has risen in India and China.

Well, we've outsourced a lot of jobs to those countries, and those incomes are pumping money into the Indian and Chinese economies now, not the U.S. economy. All those workers in India and China need transportation to work. And they want to enjoy some of the other benefits of more prosperity.

Which is why demand has increased.

And some people over here want to blame Indian and Chinese workers for needing more gas to do precisely what American workers have done for decades -- commute to work.

But the U.S. is still the leading gasoline consumer in the world.

Even though the American population is (seemingly) dwarfed by India and China.

The population in the U.S. is a little over 300 million. India has nearly four times as many people (1.1 billion), and China has a little more than four times as many (1.3 billion).

Just based on population figures, India and China each should be consuming four times as much oil as the U.S. Right? Well, the cultures are different, there are different levels of personal freedom in each country, but the fact is that India and China have done more to promote the idea of mass transit.

Bush wants to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil exploration. And he wants Congress to halt a ban on offshore drilling.

Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain -- to re-phrase a famous John Kerry quote -- was against offshore drilling before he was for it -- as he appears to be now.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called it "a cynical campaign ploy that will do nothing to lower energy prices, and represents another big giveaway to oil companies."

Sounds like coded words of support for the other really bad idea on energy in this campaign, Barack Obama's recent call for a windfall profits tax on oil companies with the proceeds being used to help the poor pay high energy bills.

But, as I said a few days ago, drilling in ANWR or offshore is a short-term solution at best. And a windfall profits tax may make people feel better, but it won't improve supply and, ultimately, it won't raise the kind of money some people say it will.

What we need is a long-term solution. We have to stop pretending that there is a way to return to the way things used to be.

When McCain and Obama have finished preaching to their respective choirs and decide that they're ready to reach beyond their bases, maybe we can have a realistic discussion about energy policy.

So who's got an answer?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

TV Journalism Will Miss Russert

Charlie Cook, a political analyst for whom I have a great deal of respect, had this to say about Tim Russert in the National Journal:

"Tim Russert took television's coverage of politics and government to a level comparable to the very best in print journalism," Cook writes. "Unfortunately, that is a rare achievement."

Maybe it is a rare achievement -- these days.

But when I was growing up, it was different.

Maybe we didn't have all the options that people have today, but we had newsmen on television who were serious about bringing the news into people's living rooms -- no agenda, just the facts.

People like Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Frank McGee, Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith and countless others carried on a proud tradition that had its roots in the days of Edward R. Murrow (pictured above).

Journalists like that didn't believe that ratings defined their value to their fellow citizens. Neither did Russert.

Russert knew he was responsible for a sacred trust -- the public's faith that he would deliver the information that was needed to make important decisions.

"Too often, television's imprint on journalism, particularly on cable, is to political journalism what comic books are to literature," writes Cook. "Superficial and overly simplistic, hyperbolic and occasionally demagogic, too often even the most basic standards of reporting and commentary are abandoned without a second thought.

"But any show that Tim Russert was on was guaranteed to be of a standard that could be held up unapologetically to the best in print journalism."

As Bernard Goldberg writes in the Wall Street Journal, Russert had a "willingness to listen to -- and take seriously -- criticism about his own profession."

Cook admits, "I cannot claim that we were close friends, but we were friends and, more importantly, he was one of the ablest professionals I have ever worked with and a terrific person."

What higher praise can a journalist receive than that?

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Battle for the Senate

It isn't the subject that gets the most attention from political experts, but control of the Congress hangs in the balance in this year's election, along with the next four-year lease on the White House.

Statistically speaking, of course, most people consider it a foregone conclusion that the House will remain in Democratic hands. The Democrats held a 31-seat advantage over the Republicans following the 2006 election.

They gained almost precisely that many seats to capture their current majority, going from a 232-202 deficit (with one seat held by a third party) to a 233-202 lead over the Republicans.

But how often does one party gain that many seats (or more) from the other? Not very often, actually.

  • Although House members have to run for office every two years, the last time a shift of that many seats (or more) occurred in the House was in 1994, when the Republicans took 54 seats from the Democrats. The GOP won a majority that held up (by varying margins) for a dozen years.

  • Before that, you'd have to go back to 1980, when the Reagan landslide produced a net gain of 34 seats (but not a House majority) for the Republicans.

  • The backlash of Watergate and Richard Nixon's resignation allowed the Democrats to increase their majority with a 49-seat gain in 1974.

  • And frustration over Vietnam helped Republicans gain 47 seats (but still not a majority) in 1966.

In 50 years (including the 1958 midterm elections and a 49-seat gain for the Democrats), one party has gained 30 seats or more from the other in the House six times.

Approximately one-fifth of the time.

In modern times, such elections never occur consecutively.

Of course, Republicans don't need to win 30 seats to have a majority. Realistically, they can have a bare-bones majority in the House if they can gain about 16 seats.

But even that more modest goal seems extremely unlikely. In fact, any sort of Republican gain in the House seems unlikely.

With President Bush's disapproval rating at an all-time high, gas prices rocketing past $4/gallon, unemployment rising by 0.5% in a month's time and an unpopular war that shows no apparent sign of ending any time soon, conditions are favorable for Democrats.

In many districts this year, winning the Democratic nomination is about the same as being elected.

Besides, in that list of seismic shifts in the House, how many of them occurred in a presidential election year? Only one (1980). The rest of the time, voters seem to have treated the presidential and congressional races as entirely separate events.

Even when nominees were losing the presidency by wide margins, voters seemed content to retain their own representatives at a pretty consistent rate -- regardless of party affiliation.

The Barry Goldwaters, George McGoverns and Walter Mondales didn't seem to affect their parties' performances in House races, and relatively few shifts occurred.

It seems to me that a year in which the same party loses both the presidency and more than two dozen seats in the House is the political equivalent of the perfect storm. It's virtually unheard of -- almost entirely theoretical.

Things are a little different on the Senate side.

Since the aforementioned 1994 election, in which the Democrats' 57-43 advantage dissolved into a 52-48 seat deficit, the Democrats' only Senate majorities have occurred under somewhat odd circumstances.

In 2001, Vermont Sen. James Jeffords left the Republican Party in response to the arrogance of the Bush administration. Jeffords decided to become an independent (which was fine with Vermont voters, who had been electing a Socialist to the House for a decade).

His decision broke a 50-50 tie and gave control of the chamber to the Democrats for a year and a half. Then, in 2002, the Republicans' steady drumbeat in favor of invading Iraq gave them a rare midterm triumph for the party occupying the White House -- and control of the Senate for, ultimately, the next four years.

By 2006, the public had turned sour on the war, but although Democrats made gains in the Senate, they still needed the support of Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman and Jeffords' just-elected replacement, independent/Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, to forge a working majority.

(By the way, if you think you know all there is to know about Lieberman, read Jonathan Chait's article, "Irregular Joe," in The New Republic.)

Democrats haven't enjoyed a clear duly elected majority in the Senate since Bill Clinton was in his first two years in the White House, and they hunger for it, just as they hunger to retake the presidency.

But Republicans are paying the price this year for the success they enjoyed in 2002. Only about one-third of the Senate is up for election in a given year, and this is the year that the voters render their judgment on the performance of the class of '02 -- two-thirds of whom are Republicans.

Democrats have to defend only a dozen Senate seats. Most seem to be cruising to re-election; only one appears to be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, Republicans have several members retiring, leaving vacated seats in which the party's nominees can't take advantage of incumbency. Some of those seats seem to be ripe for Democrats to pick off in the fall.

Based on what John Gizzi has to say in Human Events, it's inevitable that Democrats are going to make gains in the chamber this year.

According to Gizzi, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. John Ensign of Nevada spoke at sessions hosted by the Christian Science Monitor recently and "differed only in the number of seats they anticipated Democrats will have after the ’08 elections."

Dean projects his party will pick up 5-7 seats, Gizzi says. "Sen. Ensign told reporters that for his party to lose no more than three seats this fall 'would be a terrific night for us. I don’t want to slip below the four-seat loss.'”

So, by even the most conservative of estimates (in this case, Ensign's), Democrats will gain at least four seats and move past a true majority. It wouldn't be a "veto-proof" majority -- but, if Barack Obama turns out to be as successful as many Democrats say he will be, being veto-proof won't be a problem.

On the other hand, if John McCain wins, Democrats will have more freedom to apply pressure to end the war than they've had under George W. Bush.

They won't need the help of Iraq War (and McCain) supporter Lieberman to have the majority they need to set the Senate's agenda.

In fact, some Senate Democrats might even feel inclined to punish Lieberman, to ostracize him for supporting the war -- even though his voting record on other issues is more Democratic than Republican.

But they'll run into problems if McCain vetoes any Senate legislation -- whether they cultivate Lieberman's support or not.

The Electoral College

We'll be hearing a lot about the Electoral College in the months before the presidential election.

Peter A. Brown, who is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, is a specialist in battleground states and he offers a little insight in the Wall Street Journal.

Perhaps his most important observation is this:

"There is one unusual aspect of this business that no company, whether it sells computer chips or potato chips, has to deal with: Every aspect of the presidential campaign is zero-sum, and winner takes-all."

As they say in "Absence of Malice" (an early 1980s movie starring Paul Newman and Sally Field), that's not true but it's accurate.

What actually happens in a presidential election is this:

The voters in each state elect a slate of electors who have been chosen by their respective parties.

You won't see their names on your ballot -- you'll cast your vote for Barack Obama or John McCain -- but what you're actually doing is selecting a slate of electors who will choose the next president when they cast their votes.

It is generally assumed that a candidate takes a state's electors on a winner-takes-all basis because, most of the time, that's what happens.

But electors are not required to vote in the same way their states did.

Legally (but still theoretically), Nebraska and Maine could have to split their electoral votes, depending on the outcomes in each congressional district. But, otherwise, I know of no laws that bind electors to the results in their states.

But, based on the assumption that each state's electors will honor the preference as expressed by that state's voters, here are the keys to victory, in Brown's eyes:

  1. Easy victory for Obama: "If Sen. Obama is ahead solidly in Ohio, Colorado and Virginia and competitive in Florida," Brown writes, "he will be headed for the Oval Office with a mandate."

    But, Brown goes on to point out, "It is worth noting that the Democrats have not won a landslide presidential election since 1964."

  2. Easy victory for McCain: "If Sen. McCain not only has Ohio safely tucked away but also is holding off Sen. Obama in Virginia and Colorado," says Brown, "then he can breathe a sigh of relief."

    Well, it worked for George W. Bush.

  3. Close election: This has been our national experience in the last two presidential campaigns so, of course, this is what most people are anticipating, Brown says.

    "For Sen. McCain it would involve holding virtually all of the 286 electoral votes President Bush carried four years ago but losing Iowa (seven electoral votes) and New Mexico (five), the two most likely states to switch from red to blue," Brown writes.

    "For Sen. Obama to win by a hair rather than losing narrowly, the difference might be adding Colorado (nine electoral votes) or Nevada (five) to that list."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Power of That 'Charisma Machine'

Noemie Emery writes in Weekly Standard that there are some problems with the media-fueled frenzy that claims that Barack Obama and the "Charisma Machine" are going to roll to victory over John McCain in November.

"Anything can happen, in the Belmont Stakes and in politics," Emery writes, so it may be correct that "McCain underestimates Obama's pizzazz, and the desire of the press to promote it."

But Emery goes on to assert that there are some "warning signs" the media seem to have missed.

  1. "The enthusiasm Obama arouses is surely amazing, but it is also contained and confined," Emery says.

    Emery cites political expert Michael Barone, a co-author of the biennially published "Almanac of American Politics" since 1972.

    Barone may be the nation's foremost authority on voting trends in every state and every district. He studied the numbers from this year's primaries and concluded that Obama carried the white vote in only two places -- "state capitals and university towns."

    Obama's support in university towns, Emery notes, included "huge followings among students, teachers, and employees of the government, most of whom (a) tend to lean left; (b) live in a world of words and abstractions; and (c) due to tenure, unions, and parental support, find themselves outside of the world of the marketplace."

    These voters, Emery writes, "are pushovers for ego-massaging and vacuous maunderings. They tend not to notice that his frame of reference is always himself and his feelings, and that his appeals to racial healing, bipartisanship, government reform and sweet reason do not connect to his acts in real life."

  2. There's that age thing. "McCain does look old, and this is a problem," admits Emery.

    "On the other hand, he looks like a rock, or an oak tree, while Obama looks more like a reed or a sapling, if not like a twig. He looks attractive, but not too substantial, not someone to look to in trouble."

    I guess that's in the way you look at it.

  3. "Perhaps Obama will 'forcefully move to the center,'" Emery says, "but it's not very clear what he (or the media) believe the word 'center' implies."

    And, in an interesting point about the impression Obama makes in seemingly innocuous situations, Emery says, "[h]e also seems prone to let his wits lapse when unscripted, such as claiming that Illinois is farther away from Kentucky than Arkansas, and that the union mysteriously has annexed seven new states.

    "In a similar lapse, Gerald Ford prematurely freed Poland, and the results were not pretty."

    Well, that may be true, but I think it's a bit of a stretch to blame Ford's loss in the 1976 election on his debate faux pas on eastern Europe.

  4. Finally, Emery writes, "there's the matter of media power, or lack thereof."

    Emery points out that, the more frequently the media insisted that Hillary Clinton should end her campaign, the more the voters insisted on supporting her.

    Obama eventually claimed the majority in delegates, says Emery, securing the nomination, but the Obama campaign was "saved by the delegates he piled up in caucuses and in small states when no one was looking, before the press had the chance to weigh in with its magic."

    I'm not sure if that is more a criticism of the media in this country or the people who are easily persuaded by its party line.

    But, Emery says, "The press may love itself -- and Obama -- just a little too much."

Perhaps we have our answer.

Seems to me that both candidates have their work cut out for them between now and November.

Father's Day

Today is Father's Day. In a couple of hours, I will be joining my brother and my father for lunch.

I am fortunate, in that respect. I realize how lucky I am to still have my father on this day. He is 78 years old, and I don't know how many more Father's Days I'll be able to share with him.

I say that only because of my awareness of family heredity and typical longevity. He appears to be in good health, my father, but I'm sure that, with a touch of bewilderment in their eyes and voices, the widow and son of Tim Russert said the same thing on Friday after they were informed that the 58-year-old host of "Meet the Press" had collapsed and died.

The appearance of good health is no guarantee.

I have many friends who no longer have their fathers. Some lost their fathers early in life, others lost them long after they had left the proverbial "nest" to marry and have families of their own.

I can sympathize in my own way. I lost my mother in a flash flood in 1995 so Mother's Day is for me what Father's Day has become for some of my friends.

For them, it is an early summer Sunday, nothing more. Unless they have children of their own, there probably will be no observances of the day, no Father's Day gift, no greeting card. If they are married, their spouses may take them out for a meal, but that's probably the most that will happen today.

There isn't much that can be done to lessen whatever pain you feel over not having your father here on this day. That is especially true for those like Russert's son, who will forever live with the knowledge that his father's death came only days before his special day.

(On that point, I can also sympathize. My mother died about a week before Mother's Day.)

The only real wisdom I can offer is this:

If you still have your father, be grateful and spend time with him whenever you can. Today, for sure, but whenever you can in the other 364 days of the year.

And if your father is no longer living, treasure his memory and honor him by remembering and living by the insights he shared with you as you were growing up.

As Colin McNickle does in today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

McNickle lost his father in 2002, yet he observes, "I again think what a shame it is that his brain -- ever working to maximum capacity -- could not have been transplanted into a far younger body.

"For so much was left untaught and there's still so much I have to learn."

Saturday, June 14, 2008

ANWR Isn't the Answer

"Imagine for a minute, just a minute, that someone running for president was able to actually tell the truth, the real truth, to the American people about what would be the best -- I mean really the best -- energy policy for the long-term economic health and security of our country," writes Thomas Friedman in a May 28 column in the New York Times.

Actually, I believe that did happen, in the summer of 1979, when President Carter delivered what was ridiculed by Republicans as his "malaise speech."

After saying that America was suffering from a "crisis of confidence" (which had been brought on by the severe inflation that was a result of OPEC's direct influence), Carter said, "I'm asking you, for your good and for your nation's security, to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel."

He was asking Americans to do what it has taken $4/gallon gas to get them to do -- voluntarily reduce consumption. (And, by the way, Carter never used the word "malaise.")

That was 29 years ago.

And, in the roughly year and a half that Carter had left in the White House, he mostly tried to move the country in the direction of developing alternative energy sources.

Except when he yielded to political pressure and tried to offer a quick-fix solution in the form of a windfall profits tax to an electorate that didn't like what it was being told.

The American people, you see, didn't like to be told the truth then, and they don't seem to like it now, either. Yet that's what they continue to insist that they want.

But they don't want the truth. They want an easy, pain-free, quick-fix, tomorrow-be-damned answer.

Speaking of the quick fix ...

In the Washington Post more than a week ago, George Will wrote that we get the oil prices we deserve because of our refusal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

That opens the door for Will to complain about how "72 of today's senators ... have voted to keep ANWR's estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil off the market." Both Barack Obama and John McCain were prominently mentioned as cuprits.

And the people who voted for the individuals who supported that policy in Congress are disqualified from complaining about today's high prices, Will said. "[T]hey should pipe down about gasoline prices, which are a predictable consequence of their political choice."

Will goes on to say, "One million barrels is what might today be flowing from ANWR if in 1995 President Bill Clinton had not vetoed legislation to permit drilling there. One million barrels produce 27 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel."

Supporters of drilling in ANWR, like Will, often say that the opposition to it is based on emotional appeals from wildlife groups (the "tree huggers," as they like to call the environmentalists).

(In fact, Daniel Henninger makes that point in the Wall Street Journal: "We won't drill for the estimated 5.6 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil in the moonscape known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) because of -- the caribou.")

But the truth is it isn't just the harm to the environment that makes drilling in ANWR a bad idea. That's a convenient argument, and it's one that's probably easier for most people to understand than complex economic concepts.

(That, of course, doesn't change the fact that drilling for oil poses a genuine risk to the wildlife in that region.)

While I'll admit that I am no economist, I don't think you have to be an economist to understand that drilling for oil in ANWR is really nothing but a short-term solution. The long-term answer lies in developing renewable energy sources.

Because the ultimate goal is energy independence. It affects everything else. Our addiction to foreign oil has led to simply disastrous decisions in, among other places, the volatile Middle East.

And, whether they want to admit it or not, Americans are helping to support our enemies in that part of the world with much of the money they spend on oil, even while Americans are dying in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. That won't change until we face reality and develop different energy sources.

But that's going to take decades to achieve, whines Fred Barnes in Weekly Standard. We're going to need energy in the meantime -- to heat and cool our homes, to operate our vehicles, to maintain our lifestyle. So he encourages McCain to promote more domestic drilling.

"On this issue," says Barnes, "Republicans need McCain, and he needs them."

Americans are like the cocaine addict who can't accept the fact that his addiction to the drug supports dictators and rogue elements in South America.

It was time to start looking for alternatives 29 years ago, but America didn't want to listen to Jimmy Carter.

Now, Americans are desperately seeking a solution.

Well, ANWR isn't the answer.

Another Voice Says 'No Change' in Electoral Map

Joe Klein has penned a nicely written tribute to his friend and professional colleague, NBC's Tim Russert, in Newsweek.

Russert died yesterday at the age of 58, and there were eulogies to him on every news channel out there last night. It's hard to imagine a broadcast journalist, active or retired, who wasn't asked to weigh in somewhere last night.

I think one of the nicest, most complete memorials to Russert's career appeared in his hometown newspaper, the Buffalo News.

There are other tributes to Russert this morning, of course.

The New York Daily News devoted an editorial to his memory today.

And Tom Shales writes, in the Washington Post, "[H]e couldn't have died. It seems impossible. Tim Russert can't be gone because he was having too good a time."

Russert, a consummate political junkie, was "loving this election" between Barack Obama and John McCain, Klein writes, "as much as any we'd covered" in several decades in the business. "I just can't believe he won't be around to find out how it ends."

Most observers, of course, simply assume they will be around to see how the final chapter is written.

Some people (myself included) are making some guesses as to what the final outcome will be, based on voting patterns from past elections. Stuart Rothenberg confirmed my opinion in his Rothenberg Political Report earlier this week.

Neither of us can see a profound shift coming in the United States' electoral breakdown -- on the presidential level.

Today, another voice is telling us that the electoral map is not going to be radically different this fall.

In National Journal, John Mercurio writes, "[A]fter months of predictions that a John McCain vs. Barack Obama race could produce a dramatically reconfigured electoral map, will we once again watch a classic red-blue divide take shape, essentially the same map we've seen in the past two presidential elections?

"If this week's debate over the economy and taxes offers any clues, the answer is yes."

Mercurio doesn't expect to see a "'red' California or 'blue' Virginia -- not even a 'purple' Mississippi" when the votes are being counted in November.

Mercurio anticipates "[j]ust another America with blue coastlines, a big swath of red in the Mountain West and Deep South and a fierce battle in key Northeastern and Midwestern states."

Pundits have been pushing the point for quite awhile that Obama and McCain are different from their parties' nominees in recent elections -- which means new choices and new directions for many states.

But the choices aren't looking so revolutionary now. It's taken on a "same song, second (or third or fourth or fifth) verse" kind of quality.

"While he initially opposed them as a giveaway to the rich, McCain now embraces his pivot (on tax cuts) and paints Obama as the tax-and-spend liberal that voters have rejected in seven of the past 10 presidential elections," says Mercurio.

For good measure, Mercurio observes, McCain accused Obama of "'running for Jimmy Carter's second' term" with his economic proposals.

Poor Jimmy Carter seems to be everybody's whipping boy, even though I don't believe he deserves it.

(Harry Truman once said that the Great Depression was not created by Herbert Hoover, it was created for him. I feel much the same way about the economic problems that afflicted the Carter administration.)

As for Obama, Mercurio writes, "There are ... plenty of unpopular presidents to go around these days. Speaking in St. Louis ... Obama threw his albatross of choice around his opponent's neck. 'I've said John McCain is running to serve out a third Bush term, but when it comes to taxes, that's not being fair to George Bush,' he said. 'Senator McCain wants to add $300 billion more in tax breaks and loopholes for big corporations and the wealthiest Americans.'"

If the candidates are reverting to form, why should we think the voters won't do likewise?

Mercurio seems to agree.

"[C]onsidering the stark choices offered by the two candidates on high-priority issues such as the economy, Iraq, health care and abortion rights," says Mercurio, "it's hard to see how we're bracing for a whole new world, or even a new map."

Charlie Cook wrote earlier this week in National Journal that, although both sides talk about campaigning in all 50 states, as if they actually had a chance of winning each state, "[d]on't bet on it."

And Cook (eerily) referred to Russert in his column (at the time the column was written, Russert's death was still a few days away). "Instead of 'Florida, Florida, Florida' or 'Ohio, Ohio, Ohio,' as NBC's Tim Russert said in 2000 and 2004, respectively, he could be saying 'Colorado, Colorado, Colorado.'"

Cook's most recent Electoral College assessment suggested that McCain could depend on 27 states worth 260 electoral votes, Obama could count on 18 states and D.C. worth 242 electoral votes, and the race would be decided by the outcomes in five states (Minnesota, Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada) worth 36 electoral votes.

That analysis was published in April. Things may have changed since then.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday the 13th, Part 2

Well, I guess I put my foot in my mouth (figuratively speaking) with my post about Friday the 13th this morning.

NBC's Tim Russert, host of "Meet the Press," died today.

The New York Times is reporting that Russert "had coronary artery disease, but no symptoms. He had done everything he was supposed to do to manage the disease, although his weight was a problem. [Russert's doctor] said that such attacks can’t be anticipated, but a defibrillator can make a difference."

Do I think Friday the 13th had anything to do with Russert's death? No. And, apparently, neither does his doctor.

"These incidents occur without warning, the doctor said, and there’s no way to anticipate them," the New York Times reports. "He could have had a stress test today and it might have been normal. But there was a rupture of cholesterol plaque in the wall of the coronary artery, which results in a heart attack, or what he called a fatal ventricular arrhythmia."

If you watch "Meet the Press," as I have done from time to time, it's going to be hard to watch it with Russert no longer there. He had his faults, but he was clearly dedicated to his work.

As he was to his family. In fact, he had just returned from a family trip to Italy -- which will now be a bittersweet memory for his widow and son.

Russert asked well-informed and insightful questions on political subjects. We shall miss his involvement in the fall.

This is Friday the 13th

Today is Friday the 13th.

If you're superstitious, that's a bad sign right there.

I suppose, if you want to compound the bad luck, you could walk under a ladder today or find a black cat to bring into your home or break a mirror. There are all sorts of things one can do to bring bad luck upon oneself.

But all you have to do to experience a Friday the 13th is simply to be breathing when that day arrives.

In 2008, this is the only Friday the 13th we'll have. But brace yourself. We have three of them scheduled in 2009 -- in February, March and November.

There are a few stories about why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky.

  1. The number 13 is considered unlucky for several reasons, but I guess the most prominent one is the fact that, when you count Jesus and his 12 apostles, there were 13 people at the Last Supper. Superstition holds that, if 13 people sit down to a meal together, one of them will die.

    And, in modern times, the number 13 was considered extremely unlucky for the Apollo 13 space mission, which had an explosion that prevented it from completing its scheduled moon landing (see picture above). NASA was able to bring the crew safely back to earth.

    The number 12, on the other hand, is considered complete. There are 12 months in a year, 12 members on a jury. Jesus had 12 disciples.

  2. Friday isn't viewed as completely bad luck the way the number 13 is. Friday was the day of the crucifixion, so I suppose that's what makes that a bad omen.

    But Friday is also the end of the workweek, the gateway to the weekend.

    I guess, if people wanted to designate a really unlucky day, we would have chosen Monday the 13th. Unless a holiday, like Labor Day or Memorial Day, happens to fall on a Monday, there isn't much to recommend that day of the week anyway.

I've heard it said that productivity drops dramatically on a Friday the 13th. Some people are so terrified of what might happen that they refuse to travel, refuse to go to the office, even refuse to get out of bed on Friday the 13th.

To me, it's just another day.

And my opinion is -- if you're going to die on Friday the 13th, it's going to happen whether you're at home or in the office. Why alter your routine and needlessly waste a sick day?

Have a good day, everyone!