Thursday, July 31, 2008

More Running Mate Talk

Please, Senators Obama and McCain.

Make your running mate selections soon. I can't take much more of this guessing game.
  • Dan Schnur of the New York Times ponders this question: "Who would be the worse selection? Mitt Romney or Tim Kaine?"

    That's a tough one.

    Romney and Kaine "seem to have emerged as among the most likely vice presidential choices for their party’s nominees," Schnur writes. "But both men exacerbate the greatest weaknesses of Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama ... rather than addressing them."

    Of course, none of the people who have been mentioned as possible running mates would be in that position if not for the support of others.
  • Whatever one may think of Romney, there are many people who are urging John McCain to pick him.

    Like Jay Cost of RealClearPolitics' HorseRaceBlog, who says McCain should waste no time in offering the spot to Romney.

    Cost has four reasons for McCain to pick Romney:

    1. Romney will energize conservatives. (Seems to me I've heard that one about a lot of prospects.)
    2. Romney will bring Michigan. (Well, that would be a big prize — if Romney can really deliver it.)
    3. Romney will bring economic credibility. (That, too, is important. Can Romney really deliver that one as well? And, if he can, if that's what Republicans want, why isn't he the presumptive presidential nominee, since ...)
    4. Romney can raise extra cash. (And against an opponent with the warchest Obama has at his fingertips, raising extra cash is an attractive asset, not merely a "delightful dividend.")

  • And, on the Democratic side, there are many people who think Barack Obama should make a similar gesture to a former rival and put Hillary Clinton on his ticket.

    Like Lanny Davis, who writes, in the Wall Street Journal, that picking Clinton would be in Obama's best interest "[n]ot just to enhance his chances of winning — but, more important, to help him be a more effective president."

    It's questionable, of course, just how objective Davis is. He was President Clinton's legal counsel, and he was an active supporter of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. And he acknowledges a 39-year friendship with the former First Couple.

    Hardly an impartial observer.

    I'll give him credit for taking on the primary objections that have been raised to the notion of putting Hillary on the ticket:

    1. Sen. Clinton is polarizing and will rev up the Republican base.

      "In fact, the data proves the reverse is true," writes Davis. "Sen. Clinton has little or no effect on Republican preferences in a race against Sen. McCain — and she helps Sen. Obama significantly among Democrats."
    2. Choosing Sen. Clinton would be counter to the Obama message of "new politics" and change.

      "Barack Obama selecting her as the first female vice president would reinforce his change message," Davis says, "not detract from it."
    3. She would not be a team player, and her husband would be a distraction or worse in an Obama White House.

      "Hillary Clinton is the ultimate team player," Davis writes.

      Well, I'm not so sure about all that. But, as positive press goes, it doesn't get much more positive than Davis' article.

  • The articles about Hillary's chances haven't been all favorable. Jennifer Parker and Sunlen Miller report, for ABC News, that Hillary's supporters are miffed because Obama, apparently, "may choose another woman" to be his running mate.

    Sounds like the kind of argument Obama would be wise to avoid.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What Happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

Thirty-three years ago, former Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa disappeared — and he hasn't been heard from since.

A little background may help here.

In 1964, Hoffa was convicted on charges of attempting to bribe a grand juror and he was jailed on a 15-year sentence. In 1971, however, President Nixon commuted his sentence to time served — on one condition, that he refrain from labor union activities for 10 years.

Hoffa was planning legal action in a bid to regain his power when he disappeared before he was supposed to meet with a couple of organized crime figures in a restaurant parking lot in Michigan on the afternoon of July 30, 1975.

If anyone ever heard from him again, that tidbit of news has been kept under wraps.

But there were plenty of rumors over the years about where his remains could be found.

For many years, the story I heard was that whoever it was who was responsible for his disappearance had buried his body in the end zone of Giants Stadium — which was under construction in East Rutherford, N.J., at the time.

This urban legend led to some interesting comments, such as the one from a Sports Illustrated writer that the possibility of Hoffa's remains being buried in one of the stadium's end zones "lends new meaning to the term 'coffin corner.'"

More (apparently) valid rumors prompted investigators to search other places in recent years, but Hoffa's remains have never been found and no one has ever been charged with his murder.

It's probably safe to assume that Hoffa is dead. He would be 95 years old if still alive.

In the years since his disappearance, his son, James P. Hoffa, has followed in his footsteps and is the current president of the Teamsters.

Hoffa's daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, is an assistant circuit court judge in St. Louis.

Talk about poetic justice.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Alaska's Senior Senator is Indicted

Ted Stevens has been in the Senate longer than any Republican who is currently serving in that exclusive body.

He took office on Christmas Eve 1968 — the Alaska governor appointed him to fill the unexpired term of the deceased Democratic incumbent. He ran for a full term on his own in 1972 and was elected.

Stevens has been there ever since.

In his last two elections, Stevens received 78% of the vote (in 2002) and 77% of the vote (in 1996). In fact, in Stevens' career as a senator, he has never received less than 66% of his state's votes.

When this election year began, it would have been hard to imagine any seat that was more secure for either party than Stevens' Senate seat appeared to be for the Republicans.

Granted, the Alaska voter pool isn't that big. In each of Stevens' last two elections, there were fewer than 250,000 Alaskans who participated.

In terms of geographical area, Alaska is the largest state, but its population ranks 47th.

In fact, if Alaska were a city, it would rank in the top 20 in total population — but just barely (slightly larger than Baltimore, slightly smaller than Charlotte, N.C.) — and you could almost squeeze two Alaskas into my home city of Dallas, Texas.

So it's fair to say that the Alaska voter pool is limited. It's Republican. It's conservative. It ought to be solidly in Stevens' corner — as it has been for four decades.

But, tonight, Stevens appears to be in trouble.
  1. He's been indicted on seven counts of making false financial disclosure statements, reports the New York Times.

    It is alleged that Stevens concealed $250,000 in gifts (that's approximately $1.09 for every Alaskan who voted in the 2002 Senate race).

  2. Like just about any other politician who finds himself in this kind of trouble, Stevens insists that he's innocent, says

    "Stevens, who was already facing a tough re-election campaign this fall, now finds his five-decade political career in serious jeopardy," writes Politico.

    I don't know how "tough" the campaign looked before. The Anchorage Daily News says the indictment has blown the Republican primary race "wide open" — and we're talking about a race Stevens was leading with 70% in the polls last week.

  3. National Review was quick to join the chorus of those clamoring for Stevens' resignation.

    "Stevens is of course innocent until proven guilty of the crimes with which he is charged," wrote the Review. "But even if he committed no crime, the facts that have emerged over the course of the federal investigation into his personal finances are damning enough on their own. The indictment was just the last straw."

It's still hard to imagine Alaska electing a Democrat to fill Stevens' shoes in Washington. Alaska has earned its reputation for supporting Republicans — for president, for governor, for the Senate, for everything.

But 2008 may turn out to be the exception that proves the rule.

Carlin's Last Laugh

The very last comedy album from George Carlin is due to be released today, CNN reports.

And the album apparently pokes fun at death. Carlin died of a heart attack on June 22.

The album is titled "It's Bad For Ya," and CNN reports that Carlin was "particularly pleased with the material."

Reportedly, his daughter Kelly calls it a return to Carlin's "playful goofiness."

If so, it's an appropriate farewell from one of the great comedians of all time to the adoring audience he left behind.

But we also get hints that this album — and Carlin's final HBO special that aired in March — only scratched the surface of Carlin's wit and wisdom that was never shared with the world — and, now, never will be.

"Definitely some people who are close to me who have seen this show, and have seen a lot of the others, feel this is my best stuff yet," Carlin told the Associated Press a few months before he died.

We are fortunate to have so much of Carlin's brilliance preserved in audio and video recordings.

But if you want to take flowers to his grave, you're out of luck. According to CNN, Carlin was cremated, and his daughter and brother scattered portions of his ashes in different places that were special to him.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Going Home Again

"In my little town, I never meant nothin'
I was just my father's son,
Saving my money, dreaming of glory,
Twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun."

Simon and Garfunkel, "My Little Town" (1975)

Thomas Wolfe wrote a famous novel titled "You Can't Go Home Again."

Whether that assertion is true, the line has been used by many people to describe their attempts to revisit their youth.

I guess the title of Mr. Wolfe's novel (which was published after his untimely death at the age of 37) was valid.

All the same, my high school class held its 30th anniversary reunion in my hometown in central Arkansas this weekend.

And high school reunions are proof that one can go home again — if only for a few hours.

I would have liked to attend, but circumstances prevented me from doing so.

I hope attendance was good and that everyone who was there had a great time.

I attended our fifth anniversary reunion in 1983. At that point, many members of my class were becoming parents for the first time. Twenty-five years later, I'm sure there are members of my class who have advanced to the next phase of their lives — in which their children have married and are having children of their own.

As I recall, attendance at the reunion in 1983 was pretty good, although it probably could have been better.

For some members of my class, this weekend may have been the first time they've been back in town in a long time. If it was, they had a few surprises waiting for them.

The population of my hometown has exploded. When I was a little boy, there were fewer than 10,000 people living there.

The population had grown to around 20,000 by the time my high school class graduated — but, today, the population is more than 50,000, and my hometown is now the seventh-largest city in the state.

My hometown is now larger than some cities that seemed huge by comparison when I was a teenager.

When my high school class was still in high school, there was only one high school campus. But today, the town's population has grown so much that they've had to divide the high school into two campuses (the "East Campus" serves the ninth and 10th grades, the "West Campus" serves the 11th and 12th grades).

And there are some members of my class who are no longer with us — I know of two of my classmates who have died in the last six weeks, and I've heard of others over the years, although I'm sure there are a few I haven't heard about.

The reunion would have been a good chance to get caught up on what's happened to the members of my class.

That's really the point.

You can't "go home again" if what you seek to accomplish is to return to the way things used to be. But you can go home again if all you're trying to do is get reacquainted with some old friends, find out what's happened with everyone and share a few memories.

I don't think I would want to be 18 again! But I'm sorry I couldn't go home for the weekend.

The 'Left at the Altar' Syndrome

One of the most popular TV characters of the last quarter of a century was Dr. Frasier Crane, portrayed first as a supporting character on "Cheers!" and then as the lead character in his own series by Kelsey Grammer.

An element of Frasier's character was his ongoing difficulty with women — epitomized in part by his experience of having been "left at the altar" by the supposed woman of his dreams.

I've never been the groom in a wedding ceremony. I can only imagine how it must feel to be left at the altar. In an episode of his TV series, Frasier once described the experience as having left a "sucking chest wound."

But "left at the altar" is the phrase I've heard political analysts use to describe the final step in the transition that voters go through when they're making the decision whether to support the nominee of the party that is out of power.

Normally it happens in the closing days of a campaign. Call it a leap of faith, if you will.

If the voters decide not to take the alternative that is being offered to them, they will leave that nominee at the altar — even if that candidate was perceived to be ahead of the opposition earlier in the campaign.

And, then, presumably, that candidate experiences what Frasier experienced.

In a lifetime of watching presidential politics, I have never seen circumstances that seemed so favorable for the party that has been out of power to capture the White House. The president is very unpopular, the war he started is very unpopular, and the economy seems to be lurching toward a recession (if it isn't there already).

Some might say that the 1980 campaign was an example of a year in which the incumbent party faced impossible odds like the ones I've described. I would point out, however, that the United States was not involved in a war that year.

And another way in which 1980 differed from 2008 is that the incumbent president ran for re-election in 1980. In 2008, the incumbent president is barred by law from seeking a third term, and the vice president declined to run for the presidency.

So the Republican nominee is the proxy who must take the abuse that is really directed at the administration.

Nevertheless, I first heard the "left at the altar" analogy used in media discussions during the 1980 campaign, when Ronald Reagan was challenging incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

The consensus since that time is that Reagan reassured skeptical voters with his performance in his debate with Carter in the last week before the election — and went on to be elected in a landslide.

I heard the phrase used again 12 years later, when Bill Clinton was running against incumbent President George H.W. Bush.

In spite of Republican efforts to make Clinton's lack of military service during Vietnam, his experimentation with marijuana and rumors of his womanizing the issues, Clinton prevailed.

(I even heard a few pundits mention the "left at the altar" syndrome as an explanation for why Michael Dukakis wasn't able to follow through on his apparent leads over then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in the polls in the summer of 1988.

(But I never thought the voters left Dukakis at the altar as much as they were driven away by the image of him riding around in a tank and the viciousness of the Bush campaign's "Willie Horton," "Boston Harbor" and the prison "revolving door" TV commercials.)

I've been thinking about the "left at the altar" syndrome while reading an article that was co-written by Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, Alan Abramowitz of Emory University and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, headlined "The Myth of a Toss-Up Election."

"While no election outcome is guaranteed ... virtually all of the evidence that we have reviewed — historical patterns, structural features of this election cycle, and national and state polls conducted over the last several months — point to a comfortable Obama/Democratic party victory in November," they write.

"[M]aybe conditions will change ... and if they do, they should also be accurately described by the media. But current data do not justify calling this election a toss-up."

The authors also reflect on the 1980 campaign in making their argument.

"[T]hese June and July polls may well understate Obama's eventual margin," they write. "Ronald Reagan did not capitalize on the huge structural advantage Republicans enjoyed in 1980 until after the party conventions and presidential debate. It took a while and a sufficient level of comfort with the challenger for anti-Carter votes to translate into support for Reagan."

That's really the point of the "left at the altar" syndrome. The voters need to reach that final "level of comfort" to justify leaving the party in power.

If they reach that comfort level, they proceed with the change. If they don't, they fall back on the familiar.

That's the challenge facing Obama — helping the voters reach that comfort level.

Earlier, I mentioned the combination of factors that makes it look like this should be the Democrats' year. Sabato, Abramowitz and Mann make a similar observation.

"You have to go all the way back to 1952 to find an election involving the combination of an unpopular president, an unpopular war, and an economy teetering on the brink of recession," they observe.

"1952 was also the last time the party in power wasn't represented by either the incumbent president or the incumbent vice president. But the fact that Democrat Harry Truman wasn't on the ballot didn't stop Republican Dwight Eisenhower from inflicting a crushing defeat on Truman's would-be successor, Adlai Stevenson.

"Barack Obama is not a national hero like Dwight Eisenhower, and George Bush is no Harry Truman. But if history is any guide, and absent a dramatic change in election fundamentals or an utter collapse of the Obama candidacy, John McCain is likely to suffer the same fate as Adlai Stevenson."

Perhaps. But I still feel race is the obstacle that the electorate must leap over before it reaches the point where it will proceed with voting for a black man for president.

Whether voters admit it or not, whether it's politically correct to acknowledge it or not, I believe race remains a barrier, albeit a psychological one, for many voters. They may want change, but they may not be ready for this particular change.

I mentioned yesterday that the Democrats already enjoy nearly unanimous support in the black community. What Obama needs to do is reassure members of groups that haven't been as supportive of Democrats in the past.

And he needs to close the deal with these groups.

In 2004, for example:
  • John Kerry won the voters who were under 30 — but those voters represented only 17% of the participants in the election. George W. Bush, meanwhile, won a majority of the voters who were 30 or older. Obama needs to reassure older voters, who have proven to be more reliable election participants, while encouraging his energetic young supporters to show up at the polls.
  • It has been suggested that Obama's presence on the ticket will energize blacks in the South and lead to a massive increase in black participation in that region. In 2004, whites were the only racial group that voted for the Republicans, but they represented 77% of the vote, and they gave 58% of their vote to Bush (a margin of about 16 million).

    There aren't many black votes left for Democrats to win, but there apparently are many white votes to be won.
  • Meanwhile, the South produced 32% of the 2004 vote — and the Republicans cruised to victory in the South, 58% to 42%. That's a margin of more than 7 million.

    (I've heard it said that Bob Barr may be in a position to influence the outcome of the race — particularly in some Southern states, especially his home state of Georgia — by siphoning off votes from McCain. But Steve Kornacki says, in the New York Observer, that "it is highly, highly unlikely that Barr will be a consequential player" in the election.)
  • Because of the animosity of the primary campaign, rumors persist that many of Hillary Clinton's female supporters (and possibly some of her male supporters) will either support McCain or choose not to vote at all.

    That would be bad news for Obama. Democrats won the female vote against Bush in 2004, 51% to 48%, but they haven't won the male vote since 1992.

    They need to follow a strategy that will retain their female supporters while gaining ground among male supporters.
  • Remember Obama's remark about people who cling to guns and religion? It might be wise to avoid that kind of remark in the future.

    In 2004, 54% of voters who participated in the election were Protestants — nearly 60% of those voters supported Bush. And 27% of the voters were Catholic — but Kerry, who is also Catholic, lost that demographic to Bush, 52% to 47%.

    Gun owners were a minority in the 2004 electorate — 41% of participating voters said there was at least one gun owner in the house, and 63% of those voters supported Bush.
There are many demographic groups that are capable of swinging a close election to one side or the other.

It is not wise for a campaign to take victory — or defeat — in any group for granted.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Hunting for Clues to Voter Behavior

It's an occupational hazard for political operatives — trying to anticipate voter behavior.

And that task is being put to the test in 2008, with the first black presidential nominee.

So political operatives would be well advised to read what Paul West has written in the Chicago Tribune, comparing two statewide political campaigns from 2006 that featured black candidates.

Actually, there were more than two such races in the last election — and, of course, each was subject to its own set of issues, the dynamics of the voter pool and the quirks of each candidates’ styles and personalities — but the races to which West refers were noteworthy and could prove instructive for political analysts.

Those campaigns were the gubernatorial race in Massachusetts and the Senate race in Tennessee.

In Massachusetts, the black candidate, Deval Patrick, was elected. In Tennessee, the black candidate, Harold Ford, lost.

Both candidates are Democrats. In the interest of fairness, it’s worth pointing out that there have been black Republicans (not many, but a few) who ran for statewide office in recent elections — for example, former Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver Lynn Swann lost the race for Pennsylvania governor (receiving only 40% of the vote) two years ago.

West suggests that ”racial attitudes are going to influence” the race between Barack Obama and John McCain. ”But there is growing evidence,” he writes, ”that race is losing its potency as a determining factor in U.S. politics.”

He acknowledges ”some uncomfortable moments” during the primaries that were brought on by observations of ”similarities between language that [Patrick and Obama] had used,” leading to charges of plagiarism.

Nevertheless, ”Patrick won in a landslide, after a general election campaign that resembled the one Obama is running against John McCain. He exploited the public's desire for change and tied his Republican opponent to an unpopular Republican administration in the state.”

But, as West points out, ”[b]ecoming governor is not the same thing as gaining the presidency … and culturally liberal Massachusetts is not America.”

From Obama’s perspective, there isn’t that much to be learned from the Massachusetts experience — except, perhaps, that it takes a special set of circumstances that are favorable to Republicans and either a unique nominee or a weak opponent for the GOP to win a statewide race there. And none of those conditions appear to apply in 2008.

The state has had a reputation for liberalism that goes back at least to the 1972 campaign, when it was the only state to support George McGovern against Richard Nixon.

It’s true that three Democratic nominees in the last five decades (John F. Kennedy in 1960, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004) were favorite sons from Masssachusetts — and two others from the Bay State, Ted Kennedy and Paul Tsongas, sought the nomination.

It’s also true that Massachusetts voted for Ronald Reagan twice (both times by narrow margins), and it supported popular war hero Dwight Eisenhower twice in the 1950s.

But, realistically, other than the Reagan and Eisenhower elections, Massachusetts has been voting for Democrats for president since the stock market crashed in 1929, and most observers expect it to support Obama this fall.

I think there’s more to be learned from Tennessee, a Southern state that isn’t part of the ”Deep South” and was more receptive to the civil rights movement in the 1960s than some of its neighbors, like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

I believe it is in the states located along the geographical edges of the Old South where the Democrats may have the best chance to pull off an upset. At the moment, I'm still inclined to believe the Republicans will sweep all of the Southern states, that attitudes haven't changed as much in the South as some people think.

And I also question the logic of an influential increase in the black voter turnout capable of reversing the outcomes in some Southern states.

Obama’s campaign has been talking about increasing black turnout in the South and, consequently, flipping normally ”red states” to ”blue.”

That may well happen, but I haven’t seen much evidence to support that scenario.

West sees in Tennessee an opportunity for Democrats to (pardon the use of the word) ”overcome” the South’s history of racism, even though Tennessee did not elect Ford to the Senate.

”Ford lost, but by less than three percentage points,” he writes. ”The close finish sent a clear message: race was becoming less of an impediment for black candidates, even in the South.”

Well, I’m not so sure about that. If the 2000 election taught you anything, isn't it that you only need to get a majority of the electoral votes to win the election? And George W. Bush only received one vote more than he needed.

And, in a Senate race, electoral votes are not a factor so all you need is one popular vote more than the other candidate. In Tennessee, Ford lost the popular vote by 50,000 votes.

Let's take a look at some of the numbers from the 2004 presidential election.
  • In 2004, Bush won with 51.2% of the vote. Kerry received 48.3% of the vote. Bush's margin in the popular vote was 3 million.

  • More than 120 million people voted in that election. The percentage of the voting age population that participated was higher than it's been for any presidential election since 1968 (which was before the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18).

  • In 2004, the black vote accounted for 11% of the national vote. Kerry received 88% of the black vote nationally. The black population in America (which includes those who are old enough to vote and those who are not) accounts for about 12.8% of the total.

  • As a minority group, black Americans have been the most active demographic group in the United States — perhaps owing to the high-profile sacrifices so many Americans, white and black, made to ensure that basic right.
As I say, it has been suggested that black Americans, energized by having one of their own nominated for president, will come to the polls in record numbers.

What I want to know is, if the demographic group itself is already more engaged in the political process than any other minority group and the Democratic ticket received nearly nine out of every 10 black votes in 2004, how many more votes can that demographic provide? Isn't that like drilling in an oil field that is known to have run dry?

And, for an increase in black voter participation to influence the outcome, doesn't that depend — at least in part — on the participation level of the other demographic groups (especially white voters) dropping or remaining unchanged?

Along with the black vote, Kerry won the Hispanic vote (which provided 8% of the total) and the Asian vote (which provided 2% of the total).

But the Republicans won the white vote (which provided more than three-fourths of the ballots). Bush received 58% of the white vote.

If Obama can't raise his comfort level among white voters, he needs to work on bringing more Hispanic voters into the Democratic tent. Unlike the black community, there is plenty of ground for Democrats to gain in the Hispanic community — Kerry took 53% of Hispanic votes while Bush received 44%.

Hispanics could well hold the key to close races in a number of the so-called "swing states" — like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

It's possible that black participation will increase, but my point is that it's going to require some additional factors — like, for example, a pronounced increase in the non-participation of members of some reliably Republican demographic groups — to be at work at the same time before it's likely to have an effect.

That also is possible. And that's an area that McCain can do something about — by picking a running mate who energizes the traditional Republican supporters while demonstrating his commitment to selecting someone who would be qualified to take over if necessary. Whether McCain is able to do so will be a crucial test of his leadership qualities.

And, if you read further into West’s analysis, you will find indications that race — while not an overt issue — served as subtext to Ford’s defeat.

One of Ford’s pollsters (who is performing the same service for Obama’s campaign this year) told West, ”[Race] was not an issue [Ford] ran on. … He was very clear that the election was not about race.”

But Republicans used tactics that, while not mentioning race directly, injected it into the campaign.

”Late in October, the national Republican Party ran an ad that attacked Ford for attending a Super Bowl party sponsored by Playboy magazine. In the ad, an attractive blonde cooed, ‘Harold, call me,’” writes West.

”The ad was criticized as racially tinged and quickly became ‘a big distraction’ that interfered with the Democrat's effort to communicate his message through the news media, his pollster said.

“Paul Begala, a key strategist in Bill Clinton's rise to the presidency, said the attack on Ford contained ‘one of the most powerful messages that Republicans always try to pin on Democrats: (that) he's not one of us.’”

Political observers have asserted that the Tennessee race is an example of what has come to be known as the ”Bradley effect” — which was first observed in 1982, when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a black man, ran for governor of California.

In the days prior to the election, Bradley was ahead in the polls but he lost the election. The ”Bradley effect” refers to the phenomenon that was observed in that election — in which white voters tell pollsters before an election that they can support a black candidate but behave differently when they vote.

The campaign manager for Bradley’s opponent actually predicted this behavior a month before the election. He had to resign from his position because of the negative response to his remarks — but subsequent events proved he was right.

Over the years, political observers have noted additional examples of the ”Bradley effect.” It’s been given other names, too — for example, it’s been called ”the Wilder effect,” after Doug Wilder’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia was almost derailed in 1989.

It’s also been dubbed ”the Dinkins effect,” after David Dinkins barely defeated Rudy Giuliani for mayor of New York in 1989 (Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993 and re-elected in 1997).

In recent years, the existence of this phenomenon was said to be responsible — in part — for Colin Powell’s decision not to run against President Clinton in 1996.

Powell’s decision was widely reported to be a concession to his wife, who was said to harbor serious misgivings about such a campaign. But a comment he made suggests that concern about racism — even as polls were showing a wide respect among both Republicans and Democrats for Powell’s abilities and even indicating a lead for Powell in a hypothetical match with the president — was a factor.

”Every time I see (black publisher) Earl Graves,” Powell said, ”he says, 'Look, man, don't let them hand you no crap. When [white voters] go in that booth, they ain't going to vote for you.’”

Did Ford lose the race in Tennessee because of such an effect? Was it neatly obscured by, as Begala put it, Republican attempts to portray the Democratic candidate as ”not one of us?”

As West points out, racism has come to be regarded as more ”socially unacceptable” than it was when I was a child in Arkansas in the 1960s. But it's not completely gone. It remains a factor.

As a Democratic pollster, who conducted surveys in Tennessee during and after Ford’s campaign, told West, ”Saying race is not a factor at all is naïve. It’s that race is one of many factors that have to be dealt with.”

We have witnessed — and we continue to witness — race’s changing role, as West puts it, as ”part of a gradual evolution, rather than a sea change, in voter attitudes.”

Such change doesn't happen all at once. West correctly points out that part of the complex dynamics of racial politics is generational.

The Tennessee pollster told him, ”Twenty years ago, most voters had grown up in a society that was still legally segregated. But now, to have a recollection of that you have to be over 55.”

That’s not completely true. I grew up in Arkansas, and, although I’m not yet in my 50s, I can remember elements of segregation in my hometown.

The public schools were integrated when I entered first grade in 1966 so my high school class — which, coincidentally, is holding its 30th reunion this weekend — was the first class in my hometown to be integrated from first grade through high school.

But I have vivid memories of blacks and whites sitting in segregated sections of the movie theater in my hometown.

Otherwise, I have no real memories of living in a segregated society. So I would concede that the Tennessee pollster was right — at least when you're talking about the South's border states — like Tennessee and Arkansas.

Integration was already occurring in those states while racially motivated murders were still being committed in the Deep South.

If you grew up in Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia, the segregationist policies remained in effect well into the 1960s — and, in some cases, persisted into the early 1970s.

Old habits die hard.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Fanning the Flames

It's been something of a volatile week, with all kinds of rumors flying around about whether John McCain would take the opportunity to announce his running mate while Barack Obama was on his overseas trip.

Robert Novak is complaining that he was used by Republican operatives to spread the news that McCain was about to make his announcement. But that's a game they've been playing for a long time — all they have to do is goose a big name in journalism (preferably one they know is on their side) into reporting a rumor as if it were a fact. Others in the media will follow, particularly if it is a dry time for real news.

Novak acts incensed, but it wouldn't surprise me if he turned out to have been a party to this plan from the beginning.

And now, the Washington Post is getting into the act of fanning the flames.

McCain, the Post says, is "weighing whether to announce his running mate in the coming weeks" — which gives the impression an announcement could be coming in days, if not hours.

Near the end of the story (which may well have been buried deep within the print version of the paper on the "jump" page), the Post finally gets around to acknowledging the possibility of a "ploy."

Then the Post reports that many of McCain's advisers are against announcing the choice during the Olympics — the politically awkward scheduling of which (for U.S. politicians) raises some of the logistical problems I mentioned in an earlier post.

The bottom line of the story, which apparently began on Page A1 of the Post, is that there is still no news.

If there's no news, is there a need for the story?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hello, Dolly

David Wighton writes, in the Times of London, that, with oil prices dropping 14% in two weeks, we may be witnessing the "tipping point" for the "unsustainable" prices we've seen lately.

Hello, Dolly.

That's what's responsible (in part), according to Wighton. Prices continued to fall "after it became clear there would be little disruption to production in the Gulf of Mexico from Hurricane Dolly."

Wighton points out that there are other factors at work here. Demand has slowed because "Americans are driving less and buying more fuel-efficient cars."

Here in Dallas, the number of people who take public transportation to work and leave their personal vehicles at home has risen noticeably.

Beyond that, "Demand growth is slowing in Europe and should even start to moderate in China and India, where government-controlled petrol prices have been raised," writes Wighton.

It's a good thing that Dolly spared the oil production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, but there are lots of other problems that come with a storm like this.

The Brownsville (Texas) Herald reports serious, extensive flooding in the area, which is prompting numerous water rescues.

If this makes you think of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, the Herald says the levees look likely to hold.

Still, the knowledge of what a storm, even a relatively mild one like Dolly, could do to oil production facilities at a time when oil prices are already at unbelievable levels makes you realize how much worse things could have been.

"Oil markets" (like hurricanes, I might add) "are notoriously hard to forecast," Wighton says, "but, if prices have indeed now peaked, there is a good chance that the worst of the present inflation shock may have passed by the end of the summer. ...

"Let's just hope Dolly and her sisters behave for the rest of the hurricane season."


Perhaps now the discussion can start to focus on a long-term solution to our addiction to foreign oil.

Senator Obama? Senator McCain?

A Longshot for the Republicans?

As we draw closer to the national nominating conventions, much of the attention for running mate selection is centered on the favorites.

But, neatly tucked away in Fox News' post yesterday about John McCain's timetable for announcing his choice is a brief — very brief — reference to a real longshot prospect for running mate.

And it's worth remembering that longshots have often found their way on to national tickets.

The name of this particular longshot is Eric Cantor, who was elected to represent Virginia's 7th District in 2000.

Here are a few of his appealing qualifications:
  • For conservatives, Cantor has been given a 100% rating by the American Conservative Union.

  • I don't think McCain would have to worry about Cantor's commitment to the war effort. He is a strong supporter of the U.S. commitment to Israel, and his life has been touched by the tragedy of the Middle East. His cousin was killed in a suicide bomber attack in Tel Aviv two years ago.

  • For those who are worried that McCain projects too much of an elderly image, Cantor is 45 — a couple of years younger than Barack Obama.

  • For those who want a ground-breaking nominee, Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the House. Surveys indicate that McCain already is in position to do better among Jewish voters than any Republican nominee in a generation, reports Noam Levey in the Los Angeles Times. And, as Levey observes, while the Jewish vote "represents just 4% of the electorate, (it) could be critical this fall in close states such as Florida."

  • Need some star power? Cantor was re-elected to his seat in 2002 against Ben Jones, popularly known as "Cooter" on "The Dukes of Hazzard" — with nearly 70% of the vote.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Passing of a 'Golden Girl'

Estelle Getty was a latter-day Grandma Moses, a true inspiration.

She achieved her greatest success late in life — after struggling through 40 years of bit parts and low-paying jobs, she found stardom on ”The Golden Girls” as the acerbic matriarch Sophia.

Getty passed away yesterday at the age of 84.

Getty was actually a year younger than the actress who played her daughter — Bea Arthur. But you never could have told that when the two of them were on stage together.

I wasn’t a regular viewer of ”The Golden Girls,” but my parents were. I guess that’s a reflection of our demographics.

My parents were in their 50s and early 60s when the show was on the air. I was in my 20s and early 30s.

But I’ve seen reruns of the show, and I admire the talents of everyone on it.

Especially Getty, who portrayed a character nearly 20 years older than she was in real life — and won Emmy and Golden Globe awards in the process.

”Don't feel sad about her passing,” one of her co-stars, Rue McClanahan, told the Associated Press. ”She will always be with us in her crowning achievement, Sophia.”

Jindal Says No to No. 2 Slot

Louisiana's young Indian-American Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, took himself out of the running for the running mate spot on John McCain's ticket today.

"I’ve got the job that I want," Jindal said, insisting that he will do everything he can to promote McCain to Louisiana's voters.

Jindal, reportedly, has been on McCain's "short list" for the vice presidency, but it's probably best that he won't be running. McCain has often criticized his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, for being too young and inexperienced — but Obama is a decade older than Jindal, who was elected governor last fall.

Having Jindal on the ticket, even with his conservative credentials, could have undercut McCain's argument about Obama's youth and inexperience.

If Jindal had been nominated for — and then won — the vice presidency, he wouldn't have been our youngest vice president ever.

Close — but not quite.

Most inexperienced? Well, who's to say? I guess it would be fair to say that Jindal would have one of the thinnest résumés of an incoming vice president — although Obama doesn't exactly bring an extensive political résumé to the fall campaign, either.

Who are McCain's top prospects now?

Well, Dana Bash of CNN says "a Republican source ... tells CNN that [McCain] dropped a serious hint about Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty."

I'll say this much — with the Republican convention being held in Minnesota, naming the state's governor as running mate would produce a dramatic story.

And Mitt Romney continues to get talked about. Hillary Chabot writes, in the Boston Herald, that Romney is "near the top of a very short list."

At least, that's what one of Romney's confidantes apparently has told Chabot.

And Romney has made no secret of the fact that he'd like to be on the ticket.

But, as I've mentioned before — and, as just about everyone already seems to know — Romney and McCain don't like each other.

Dick Morris writes, in The Hill, that choosing Romney as his running mate would be a bad idea for McCain.

"Would he help McCain win fiscal conservatives?" Morris asks. "If Obama’s tax plans don’t accomplish that, one has to wonder about their sanity."

Morris apparently likes four other prospects — Condi Rice and Colin Powell ... "Or McCain could send a statement to Democrats and independents and become the first candidate since Abraham Lincoln to cross party lines and put a person from the opposite party on his ticket by selecting Joe Lieberman. ...

"Any of these three choices would make a 'wow' statement that would make voters see McCain in a new light."

Morris also likes former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as a "a slightly less radical" option.

"With almost nothing but his innate skill as a speaker and his warm, friendly personality, Huckabee was able to energize the evangelical base as nobody has since Pat Robertson," writes Morris.

"But, in the process, he challenged it to move on to new issues and embrace causes like global hunger as ardently as the right to life."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Got Those Running Mate Blues From My Head to My Shoes

MSNBC appears to be reporting something that everyone else seems to be suggesting these days — that John McCain will announce his pick for running mate this week.

Mind you, MSNBC is only the latest to make this suggestion. In recent days, Bob Novak wrote, in Human Events, "Sources close to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign are suggesting he will reveal the name of his vice presidential selection this week while Sen. Barack Obama is getting the headlines on his foreign trip."

If that happens, it seems to me that the timing would tell you everything you need to know about how important the running mate selection is for this nominee.

As Novak reported, Obama is overseas right now — ostensibly to demonstrate how engaged he will be as president — but the truth is it's mostly a media ploy, a photo opp that seems designed to reassure voters who are skittish about Obama's credentials on foreign policy.

Of course, going overseas during a presidential campaign is nothing new. Presidential candidates have done it before — and it's a legitimate thing to do, even if it costs the campaign some money to do it. Nevertheless, it's an option that any presidential nominee — or presumptive nominee — is welcome to take.

And, of course, both nominees are expected to name their running mates soon.

But, to this point, the conventional wisdom I've been hearing has said that McCain will wait until after Obama makes his choice.

Obama is under a little more pressure than McCain is. As the presumptive nominee for the party that is out of power, Obama's convention will be held first. And the Democrats will hold their convention starting on Aug. 25, because the Olympics in Beijing will consume most of August and the closing ceremonies won't be held until Aug. 24.

The Olympiad starts on Aug. 8. So, if Obama doesn't announce his decision before Aug. 8, he will have two choices:
  1. he can disrupt the TV coverage of the Olympics by announcing his choice

  2. or he can wait until the convention is about to begin.
The Republicans, on the other hand, are scheduled to hold their convention the first week of September, which gives McCain a little more flexibility for announcing his choice.

Unless he makes that announcement this week, while Obama is traveling overseas.

In which case, McCain clearly cares more about disrupting his opponent's press coverage than he does about choosing the most qualified running mate.

Obama, according to Charlie Cook in the National Journal, is working to strengthen his appeal to skeptical white voters. Depending on the quality of McCain's choice, Obama may feel pressured into making an unwise decision in an ill-advised attempt to mollify undecided centrists.

(Although sometimes I have to wonder why some of our nominees even bother to go on these trips abroad. As David Aaronovitch writes in the London Times, "[E]ventually, we will hate or ridicule Mr. Obama, too — provided, of course, that he is elected." Seems like a no-win situation to me.)

It remains to be seen whether Obama's selection of a running mate appears to be more concerned with appealing to particular demographic groups or with disrupting his opponent in some way than it is with the country's best interests.

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: This is the most presidential decision either candidate will have to make before Election Day.

By the way ...

For the last month or so, MSNBC has been running an interactive game in which participants made their choices for the Republican and Democratic tickets based on a series of head-to-head, single-elimination matchups that resembled the NCAA Tournament brackets.

The contests finally wrapped up this week, with participants choosing (drum roll, please)

Mitt Romney for McCain's running mate and Joe Biden for Obama's running mate.

My initial reaction is that neither choice is right.

McCain and Romney don't get along. It isn't necessary for the president and vice president to get along, but the modern vice presidency requires a working relationship with the president, and I'm not sure McCain and Romney can work together.

And I don't think Biden works because he's part of the "old Washington politics." He's been in the Senate since 1972. I think he's very knowledgeable, very talented, and I think he'd be a great choice for secretary of state or ambassador in the next administration. But I don't think he works as the running mate.

What do you think?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Wanted: A Sensible Energy Policy

Ryan Randazzo writes, in the Arizona Republic, that "people who pay $4 a gallon or more for gas on the way to the polls will likely be thinking of energy issues while in the voting booth."

You think?

Perhaps that's being a little sarcastic, although I must admit I'm getting tired of hearing people suggest that energy might be on voters' minds in November.

Actually, I believe energy should have been on their minds for the last 30 years.

I also believe that there's only one way that energy won't be on the voters' minds in November — but it would require another terrorist attack comparable to 9/11.

And I don't think anyone wants to see that.

(Although, if it does happen, I'd like to suggest something to George W. Bush: Don't encourage us to go shopping again. Encourage us to work together to declare our independence from foreign oil producers.)

But Randazzo does try to be constructive in his article, offering "some questions to help voters weigh the candidates on energy:"
  1. Is the next president likely to enact energy legislation?

  2. Why is there debate over drilling for oil off U.S. coasts and in Alaska?

  3. Obama said McCain is focused on drilling because it "polls well." (Actually, Randazzo isn't asking a question with this one — I presume he's wanting both candidates to defend their positions on drilling.)

  4. Will laws limiting the amount of greenhouse gases from power plants or cars make things more expensive?

  5. Can't we use more U.S. coal?

  6. Why not build more nuclear plants?
Some people seem to insist that the answer is more drilling. Short-term answer, maybe (provided, of course, you're willing to define "short-term" as roughly 10 years from now because that's how long most analysts believe it will be before these drilling ventures pay off). But it's not the long-term solution.

Still, it's clear that we need some sort of answer if we're going to try to bring the economy into some kind of state of equilibrium. The ripple effect is devastating.

"Airlines are cutting back on flights and services as higher fuel costs eat into declining revenues," writes Donald Lambro in the Washington Times. "Increased trucking costs are driving up the price of nearly everything that's shipped. Tighter budgets mean consumers are cutting back on discretionary spending. Retail sales barely budged last month, even despite government tax rebates."

The Times is one publication that appears to have bought into the argument that drilling can accomplish something almost immediately.

"[I]t's another left-wing lie that passing a drilling bill now would have no effect on today's oil prices," Lambro writes. "Just the act of declaring a pro-production oil and gas policy would 'send a message to the market and result in lower prices for oil and gas,' John McCain is telling voters on the stump."

This, in turn, would influence oil futures, Lambro says.

"International oil traders bet on what the world's supplies will be in the future because supply determines price. Increasing oil exploration and production will drive future prices down."

But it won't change the basic facts, which are:
  • The supply of fossil fuels in the earth is limited.

  • When the supply of fossil fuels runs out, the world will need a new source of energy. Clearly, that supply is starting to run out. And, just as clearly, there is no "next generation" energy source ready to take its place.

  • Oil is not a renewable resource. Global demand continues to increase along with the world's population, but the amount of oil in the ground (the supply) remains the same as it's always been — except, of course, for that part of it that has already been extracted from the ground and used up. The traditional rules of supply and demand don't really apply.

  • The United States does not control most of the parts of the world that have the richest oil deposits — therefore, the U.S. is in no position to dictate to anyone about the price of oil or production levels or anything else.
"The conventional wisdom says Democrats will likely make major gains in Congress in November," writes Lambro, "but they may not do as well as expected if the voters blame them for inaction on the biggest economic issue in the country."

With all due respect, Mr. Lambro, now is not the time for pointing fingers. Now is the time for our leaders to act like leaders and put the interests of America first.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Forecasters: GOP Might As Well Give Up on Senate

Charlie Cook writes in the National Journal that "[i]n the House and Senate contests, the debate is about how many seats the Republicans will lose; they no longer have a realistic chance of holding their own."

The grim outlook includes what Cook now expects to be losses of Senate seats currently held by Republican stalwarts like John Warner in Virginia and Pete Domenici in New Mexico.

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics agrees with Cook that Warner's seat and Domenici's seat are likely to be captured by the Democrats this year.

Cook says he's shifted Republican Sen. Gordon Smith's re-election bid in Oregon from "leans Republican" to "toss-up." He says Smith doesn't face "an especially formidable challenger," but "the political climate has effectively erased the natural advantages that Smith brings to the race."

Sabato still has Smith's race rated as "leans Republican," but it appears to have been more than a month since he made any adjustments to that race on his website.

Cook has five other races listed as "toss-ups," and they're all held by Republicans. Four incumbents are running — Norm Coleman in Minnesota, John Sununu in New Hampshire, Ted Stevens in Alaska and Roger Wicker, who was appointed to fill the seat that was vacated by Mississippi's Trent Lott and now runs in a special election to serve the rest of the term.

The fifth "toss-up" is the open seat left by the retirement of Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard.

Sabato says the Colorado seat and New Hampshire seat are likely to switch to the Democrats. He agrees that the Alaska seat and the Mississippi seat look like "toss-ups."

But Mississippi is only a toss-up because Wicker was appointed, not elected. Mississippi, though, has been voting Republican regularly for several decades, so my inclination is to make Wicker the favorite to retain his seat. I'm not convinced that a Democrat can win a statewide race there.

And I'll need to see more evidence before I am persuaded that Stevens is in trouble in Alaska.

Sabato also hasn't changed his opinion that Coleman is likely to hold his seat. Perhaps the announcement that former Gov. Jesse Ventura will not be running for the Senate has something to do with it — although Sabato says that "[Ventura's] votes almost certainly would have come at [Democrat Al] Franken’s expense."

Cook contends that Elizabeth Dole's campaign for re-election in North Carolina is "getting increasingly competitive," although I have yet to see evidence of that.

In fact, I think some of what Cook is being told these days is mostly wishful thinking on the part of Democrats who are letting their imaginations get the better of them.

"Democrats ... contend that they are making progress against GOP Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Pat Roberts of Kansas," writes Cook, "but those boasts are not particularly convincing at this stage."

As someone who lives in Texas, I can assure you that Cornyn is quite likely to win re-election with no trouble. Sabato agrees.

I also lived in Oklahoma for four years, and I find it hard to imagine that Inhofe can be beaten there. Again, Sabato agrees that the seat should remain "solid Republican."

But I think the indications are clear that Democrats will gain about five Senate seats in November — not quite enough to make their majority veto-proof (in case they're having to deal with a Republican administration) but enough to make them formidable, no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

Political observers have mentioned only one Democratic Senate seat that might be in danger — the one currently held by Louisiana's Mary Landrieu. "What is clear is that the state is trending Republican," Cook says of Louisiana, but he concedes that Landrieu, who was narrowly elected in 1996 and then narrowly re-elected in 2002, "has a much stronger record of accomplishments this time ... and she is running a better campaign than in the past."

Sabato seems to agree, although he says the race is "still far too close to call."

A Giant Leap For Mankind

When I was a boy, summer meant many things.

Of course, it meant no school — a fact from which all the other blessings of childhood seemed to flow.

As a child, I grew up on a lake — which was kind of like having an enormous swimming pool in a backyard that was really a rocky hillside. (When I say "rocky," I mean it. Civil War enthusiasts could have re-enacted the South's unsuccessful assaults on Devil's Den or Little Round Top on our hillside.)

(One summer, when I was a teenager, a friend of mine named Johnny got a sailboat and he kept it on our property because his family didn’t live on the lake, like mine did, and he needed a place to keep his boat.

(A perk for letting him use our property was being allowed to use the sailboat whenever we wanted, but I never really became a skillful sailor. I guess I was better at operating our fishing boat.)

There was only one movie theater in my small hometown in central Arkansas in those days. When I was a child, the merchants sponsored a weekly movie for the local kids during the summer. Kids got to see movies at no cost to them (but they still had to pay for soft drinks, popcorn and candy), and mothers got a few hours of freedom.

The mothers took turns driving the neighborhood kids to the theater each week, and that’s where I saw ”Planet of the Apes,” ”The Trouble With Angels,” ”Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and many other movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Summer also meant baseball cards and homemade ice cream and fireworks on the Fourth of July. It meant "camping" in a treehouse with the boys who lived across the road and playing cards by the light of a Coleman lantern into the wee hours of the morning.

And, one special summer, it meant watching a man walk on the moon for the first time.

On this day, 39 years ago, Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon. A few hours later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin emerged from the spiderlike lunar module to take man's first steps on the moon.

It was a different world in 1969. We didn’t have cable TV or fancy graphics to explain things (including a space mission).

Gas only cost 30 cents/gallon.

We didn’t have e-mail to help us keep in touch, but postage stamps only cost 6 cents. (If that sounds cheap, bear in mind that the minimum wage was $1.60/hour.) Of course, self-adhesive stamps were still a long way off in the future so if you used a stamp, you had to lick it yourself.

For kids, the neat new toys were things like "Silly String," "Nerf Ball" and "Toss Across." Traditional gender roles were still being taught, so girls were encouraged to play with dolls and "Easy-Bake Ovens."

On the radio, people were listening to the Beatles' "Get Back," the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women," and the Fifth Dimension's "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In." On TV, people were watching ”The Carol Burnett Show,” ”Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and ”Mission: Impossible.”

And "Star Trek." (Ironically, the original incarnation of "Star Trek" — with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy — was canceled the month before Apollo 11.)

There were a lot of people who thought a trip to the moon was a mission: impossible — or, to borrow a phrase from a popular song of the era, an "impossible dream." I can only wonder what they would think of the technological advances we’ve witnessed in the last 39 years.

Apollo 11 had a lot to do with the changes that have been possible — thanks to the discoveries we’ve made as a result of our space program.

Apollo 11 was special, and everyone knew it. We had all seen rockets lift off before, but it seemed like the world held its collective breath for this one. Everyone knew where this mission was going — to the surface of the moon. The stakes had never been higher.

Four days later, the world held its breath again as Armstrong guided the lunar module to the moon’s surface and then, a few hours later, he and Aldrin left their vehicle and walked on the moon.

The day of the moon landing and walk was a Sunday, as the anniversary is today. I remember that morning, during the church service, the pastor of my church, known to all as ”Brother Ben,” invited everyone in the congregation to the parsonage next to the church to watch the moon walk that night.

It was a hot July day, but after lunch, I went out to our open-air carport. Gulf Oil was a huge sponsor of the space program in those days, and its gas station attendants had been giving away punch-out lunar module model kits in anticipation of the big event.

I had constructed one of those models and I wanted to simulate the moon landing. So I drew a circle on the carport floor with a piece of chalk, tied some string to my lunar module, climbed on top of our car and slowly lowered the model space vehicle to the circle.

I think Armstrong was a better pilot than I was! I missed on my first attempt, but it wasn't entirely my fault. A slight breeze (ordinarily welcome on a hot summer day) took my model off course just enough to miss the landing circle the first time, but I succeeded in landing in the circle on my second attempt.

It was a sobering reminder of how capricious fate can be, even if you think you've prepared for every eventuality.

Not everyone took Brother Ben up on his offer, but my family did. That afternoon, we watched the lunar module land on the moon from our own living room, but we drove into town to share the moon walk with Brother Ben and other members of the congregation a few hours later.

When we arrived at the parsonage, one of Brother Ben’s sons was avidly watching the TV coverage and getting pointers from the anchormen about how to photograph the historic moment.

In 1969, there were no private VCRs so no one could make a video tape. A photograph of the TV screen was the best anyone could do. And Brother Ben’s son wanted to get some tips for making a photograph of a TV image using his new Polaroid camera.

Later that evening, we took turns shooting photos of Armstrong and Aldrin with that Polaroid camera. My photo wasn’t bad, although, as I recall, I goofed and one of my thumbs obscured a portion of the lens. But my image was one of the clearest — not bad, considering I was 9 years old at the time.

Perhaps the moment I will always remember occurred a few weeks after the moon landing.

My family was visiting my grandparents in Texas in late July or early August. I was out walking with my grandfather in the country on a moonlit night. We were walking near a lake and came upon a pier. We walked to the end of it and looked up into the sky.

We stared at the moon for a few minutes, then my grandfather said simply, "Our flag is flying up there now." Then we turned around and began our walk back to rejoin the rest of the family.

My grandfather passed away a couple of months later. I've always been grateful that he lived to see the historic achievement of Apollo 11.

This weekend, TV Land has been showing the film "Apollo 13" every evening — which serves as an interesting tribute to those days, whether by design or coincidence, on the 39th anniversary of Apollo 11.

Apollo 13's nearly tragic flight took place less than a year after Apollo 11. Only one other moon mission had been launched between July 1969 and April 1970, but people had become spoiled. The fact that people all around the world were shocked to discover that space flight was hardly a routine thing is testimony to how well everyone involved with Apollo 11 — including the crew's support staff on the ground — did the job of sending men to the moon and returning them to the earth.

Judging from the world's reactions to the losses of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and its sister ship Columbia in 2003, the people at NASA have continued to maintain their high standards.

And, for that, we have all prospered.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

As Maine Goes ... ?

There used to be a saying that went like this: "As Maine goes, so goes the nation."

It was a tribute to Maine's reputation as a bellwether state.

That piece of conventional wisdom kind of fell into disfavor during the Depression, when only Maine and Vermont opposed the 1936 re-election bid of Franklin D. Roosevelt (prompting a Democratic strategist to quip, "As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.")

Once a rock-ribbed Republican state, in recent decades, Maine has trended more and more to the Democratic side, and, in 2008, the state is generally expected to vote with the rest of the New England states for Democrat Barack Obama for president.

But in the only apparently competitive race in the state (aside from the presidential campaign), the Republicans seem to hold the edge.

Republican Susan Collins has been representing Maine in the Senate since 1996, when she was elected with 49% of the vote to the Democrat's 44%. When Collins was re-elected in 2002, she received 58% of the vote.

Because the national mood has shifted dramatically since 2002 (when Collins joined the majority in the Senate in supporting the Iraq War resolution), Collins has been expected to face a stiff challenge in her bid for a third term.

Yet, Collins is more of a moderate — which places her to the left of most of her Republican colleagues in the Senate — and that may serve to insulate her in a place like Maine. She was one of the few Republican senators, for example, who voted to acquit Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial.

Collins' moderate voting record seems to help her in Maine — even though many people, including Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, believed the Democrats were positioned to capture her seat this year.

But Sabato writes, "Politics can be just like fishing. You can have the best equipment, find the best location, and have the perfect conditions, but sometimes, the fish just aren’t biting. That’s how Maine Democrat Tom Allen feels right about now."

To this point, there hasn't been much evidence of a coattail effect from Obama that could benefit Allen in his Senate race.

Allen has been representing Maine's first congressional district since 1996, and he's usually received 60% or more of his district's vote. He endorsed Obama's presidential bid in May, apparently hoping some of Obama's popularity in New England would rub off on his own campaign, and he's also been trying to link Collins to George W. Bush's policies.

But it hasn't been working. In Maine, as Sabato says, "the fish just aren't biting." While surveys don't mean much at this stage of a campaign, the recent polls have shown Collins consistently maintaining a double-digit lead over Allen.

Certainly there are Republican incumbents who face an uphill climb in their bids to be re-elected this year. Right now, Collins doesn't seem to be one of them.

Sabato says the Senate race in Maine "leans Republican."

The Spirit of '76

With his usual gift for seeing historical patterns and similarities, Michael Barone writes, in the National Review, that the 2008 presidential campaign most resembles the one from 1976 between President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.

In 1976, writes Barone:
  • "The Republicans were the incumbent presidential party ... as they are now, but the Democrats had a big advantage in party identification ... far more than today."

  • "The Republican president who had been elected and re-elected in the last two campaigns ... had dismal favorability ratings, far lower than George W. Bush's."

    (One of my vivid memories from the '76 campaign is of a cartoon by the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Herb Block — better known as "Herblock." It showed Carter being asked by the press what he thought was the biggest obstacle facing his opponent. Carter's reply was a characteristically Southern response: "Pardon?" — which served as a not-so-subtle reminder of Ford's 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon.)

  • "The Democratic nominee was a little-known outsider, with an appeal that was based on the idea that he could transcend the nation's racial divisions."

    Carter cultivated that image by winning decisive victories over George Wallace in Southern primaries. Florida was an early battleground victory that fueled the image of Carter as representative of the "New South" that was emerging and reinforced the message that politicians like Wallace represented the "Old South" that was disappearing.

    I have always believed, though, that the demise of Wallace's national political ambitions in 1976 was due more to the fact that the 1972 assassination attempt had left him wheelchair-bound and gave him the appearance of disability than it was to the phenomenon of his views falling out of favor with the voters.

    Such a phenomenon, I believe, never really occurred.

    To be sure, while Wallace's political influence was confined to his home state of Alabama for the last 20 years of his life, many elements of his political philosophy were absorbed into the Republican Party that has dominated the South for nearly four decades. Wallace remained a Democrat, but many of his supporters — and his own son — long ago shifted their allegiance to the Republicans.

    The sustained support for Republicans in the South seems to confirm Lyndon Johnson's prediction in the mid-1960s that the passage of the civil rights legislation would hand the South to the Republicans for a generation or more.

    Carter nearly swept the Southern states in 1976 — no other Democrat, including fellow Southerner Bill Clinton, has done that since — but it was close in many of them. (And the South has been reliably Republican ever since. In fact, only three Southern states — Louisiana, Clinton's home state of Arkansas and Al Gore's home state of Tennessee — voted for the Clinton-Gore ticket in both 1992 and 1996.)
Ford's situation in 1976 probably was more precarious than John McCain's is today, as Barone asserts.

"An early summer Gallup poll showed him trailing Carter by 62% to 29%," Barone writes. "He had barely limped through the primary contests against Ronald Reagan, who continued his campaign up through the mid-August national convention."

(The Republicans managed to put on a happy face for the TV viewers, as you can see in the above picture.)

Yet Ford managed to close the gap and, by November, nearly pulled off the most remarkable upset in American political history. As Barone points out, a shift of less than 10,000 votes (out of a national total of 81 million) in the states of Ohio and Hawaii would have put Ford back in the White House.

(I remember hearing this argument from Republicans in 1976, and, while the math is accurate, I, for one, have always thought the logic was faulty. Ohio has a political history that would support the conclusion, but Hawaii, with its diverse population, has been a reliable state for Democrats since it joined the Union nearly 50 years ago. It was also one of only a half-dozen states that voted for Carter against Reagan in 1980. Because its population is so small, its vote margins seldom look large.)

It's anyone's guess what would have happened if Ford had won the 1976 election. He would have been ineligible to seek another term in 1980 (having served more than half of Nixon's second term), but voters may have grown weary of Republican presidents by that time — and, thus, Reagan might not have been elected president in 1980.

A Ford victory might have meant the end of Reagan's political career. As a result, the ascendance of Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, or Bush's son, George W. Bush, might never have happened.

Bob Dole, as Ford's vice president, would have been the heir apparent for the GOP nomination in 1980. No doubt he would have been a more vigorous nominee at the age of 57 (his age during the 1980 campaign) than he was at the age of 73 (in 1996, when he actually was the nominee).

(In fact, Reagan and Dole did run against each other in the early Republican primaries in 1980 — but the race rapidly narrowed to Reagan and Bush, and Dole quickly dropped out along with the others in the GOP field like John Connally and Howard Baker. If Ford had been elected in 1976, Dole could have run in 1980 with the advantages of incumbency.)

In short, if those votes in Ohio and Hawaii had swung to Ford, the history of the last 32 years may have been altered in ways we can't imagine.

How did Ford nearly pull off a miraculous, Trumanesque comeback? The Ford campaign turned things around by using advertising to "fill in the blanks" in voters' minds about both candidates.

Ford, of course, was the president, but he had not been elected president or vice president (the first — and, so far, only — person to become president without being elected to either position first) and so voters had not had the normal opportunity to get to know him. And, as an outsider who had little name recognition prior to 1976, there were plenty of gaps in the public's knowledge about Carter.

Ford's advertising team focused on filling in those gaps — and nearly made American political history.

Barone thinks a similar strategy could benefit McCain this year.

"There's an assumption this year that voters know John McCain pretty well," says Barone. "But my sense is that there is still a lot of filling in the blanks that the McCain campaign can do."

As for Carter, Barone writes, "Most voters wanted to support a Democrat, and one who had smoothed over the nation's racial divisions — as they do today. The press up through early summer was giving him mostly adulatory coverage. But voters didn't know much about Carter. He made, as most candidates do, and as Obama seems to be doing now — some mistakes along the way."

Filling in such gaps — and exploiting weaknesses that are exposed by the opposition's mistakes — can only carry a candidate so far. Voters need reasons to vote for a candidate rather than against another one.

(I remember another of Herblock's cartoons, which dealt with the many faux pas committed by both candidates that autumn. In his book about the 1976 campaign, "Marathon," Jules Witcover wrote, "It had not been what one could call an uplifting campaign" and did a fine job of describing Herblock's cartoon:

("Herblock ... summed up the mess by depicting the two presidential candidates as boxers punching themselves in the jaw as the ringside announcer reported: 'Ford is rocked by a left to the jaw — Carter takes a hard right to the mouth — both men are hurting ...'")

Barone observes that the Ford campaign used its incumbency to its advantage. "Voters then, as now, thought the nation was off on the wrong track. The Ford campaign, with a catchy song, 'I'm Feeling Good About America,' and upbeat ads starting off with shots of Air Force One, argued that their candidate was leading the nation around the corner, making Americans feel proud again."

That one may be trickier for McCain. He's not an incumbent. And Air Force One is not his prop to use.

Barone acknowledges the problem. "The McCain campaign needs to do something similar" to what the Ford campaign did in 1976, he writes.

"Exactly how they can do this I'm not sure."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I'll Admit It — These Are Random Thoughts

It's a hot, stuffy July night in Dallas, Texas. And my thoughts are like fireflies, darting from one spot to the next with little warning:
  • I was reading an article in the Washington Post that was discussing a couple of the hottest names being tossed around lately for Democratic running mate.

    They are Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia.

    Both men are from so-called "red states" that are presently predicted to remain in the Republican column in November.

    But the feeling is that either state could flip sides — especially if a native son had a spot on the ticket with Barack Obama.

    Obama has no executive experience so a vice presidential candidate with a background as a governor would be helpful to his ticket. Bayh brings that to the table — he was governor of Indiana from 1989 to 1997.

    In 1998, he was elected to the Senate, winning the seat his father, Birch Bayh, held for three terms.

    Evan Bayh received 64% of the vote in 1998 when he was elected to the Senate, the greatest victory margin ever for a Democrat in a U.S. Senate race in Indiana.

    I remember his father. And, in spite of the elder Bayh's accomplishments, I have to wonder about the wisdom of putting someone with his political genetic makeup on the ticket.

    The elder Bayh had been in the Senate for 18 years when he ran for his fourth term in 1980. Now, I know 1980 was a Republican year, but Birch Bayh lost to Dan Quayle — after debating him several times.

    Quayle, who was never known as a great debater, went on to be elected vice president with George H.W. Bush eight years later — after Quayle had been reminded by Lloyd Bentsen that he was "no Jack Kennedy."

    Of the other prospect — Sam Nunn — well, he'll be 70 years old before Election Day. Won't that kind of negate the age problem John McCain's been having?

    Also, how does Nunn fit in to the image the Obama campaign likes to project about how this campaign is a break with the past? I've been hearing Nunn's name mentioned as a vice presidential possibility for a couple of decades now.

    And he's clearly a part of the "old politics" in Washington. He was elected to the Senate in 1972 and he retired in 1997.

    Nunn was only 58 when he retired — many analysts have said the Democratic Party's "shift to the left" led him to leave public service.

    I've heard rumors that Obama will announce his decision before the start of the Summer Olympics in Beijing on August 8. I hope he comes up with a better choice.

  • While we're on the subject of the vice presidency, The Economist mentions — albeit briefly — a subject that has been discussed tentatively on both sides — picking a running mate from the other party.

    It's not as outlandish as it sounds. It has been done before — and successfully — by no less than Abraham Lincoln, the Republican president who was re-elected with Democrat Andrew Johnson on his ticket. (Of course, let's not forget that Johnson became president when Lincoln was assassinated and then became the first president to be impeached.)

    And the vice presidential prospects make sense — to a point. Especially if the objective is to appeal to voters from the other party. But not particularly if you want to strengthen your own party's base — except on the issue of the war.

    For McCain, the prospect from the other party is Sen. Joe LIeberman — the Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut, as well as Al Gore's running mate eight years ago. "The senators are seen so often in each other’s company that they might be Siamese twins," says The Economist. But, aside from Lieberman's support for the Iraq War, there isn't much for a garden variety Republican to like about him.

    For Obama, the prospect is Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran who has been a very vocal critic of the Iraq War. But, like Lieberman, Hagel brings a voting record on social and economic issues that wouldn't necessarily appeal to most people outside his party.

    The Economist advises both McCain and Obama to "err on the side of caution." I'm inclined to agree.

  • Back in March, when Brett Favre retired, I was saddened to hear the news, even though it was something I had been expecting for awhile.

    This week, with the news reports that Favre wanted to return to action, I guess I've grown accustomed to the idea that his career is finally over.

    As a Packer fan, I'm not looking forward to the losses that I believe will come in the early stages of the "post-Favre era," but I'm prepared for them.

    It's a part of the natural cycle. Teams struggle when their star player retires, whatever the sport may be.

    As much as it pains me to say it, it's time for the Packers to move into their future, and it's time for Favre to move into his.

  • I recently learned that my high school class will be holding its 30-year reunion in another week.

    I won't be able to attend, but I wish I could. I know that a couple of my classmates have died recently, and it would be good to be able to see the ones who are still around and find some comfort from being with them for a few hours.

    Life, as George Carlin was fond of saying, "is a zero sum game."

    (By the way, my high school class graduation was held on Carlin's 41st birthday.)

Perceptions of Race, Politics

I don't suppose it will come as a surprise to anyone, but Adam Nagourney writes, in the New York Times, that a recent New York Times/CBS News poll finds that there are differences in the way that blacks and whites perceive racial relations in America.

And those differences are spilling over into the presidential race.

For example ...

"More than 80% of black voters said they had a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama," writes Nagourney. "About 30% of white voters said they had a favorable opinion of him."

Nagourney concedes that "[a]fter years of growing political polarization, much of the divide in American politics is partisan," but it also "underlined the racial discord that the poll found."

The respondents to the survey found some common ground but not much, Nagourney reports. "Black and white Americans agree that America is ready to elect a black president, but disagree on almost every other question about race in the poll."

One of the most interesting findings was this: "Whites were more likely than blacks to say that Mr. Obama says what he thinks people want to hear, rather than what he truly believes."

The flip side of that issue may be found in responses Nagourney received from white Democrats who tried to frame their differences with Obama in a non-racial light.

"This isn’t a black and white thing," a 69-year-old Pennsylvania Democrat said. "If a conservative African-American like former Congressman J. C. Watts was running, I’d have bumper stickers plastered all over my car supporting him."

Issues should decide the campaign, but it increasingly appears that only one issue — race — is going to be discussed in great detail.

Perhaps it was inevitable, with the first black presidential nominee.

But with all the problems our nation is facing in 2008, do we really want to spend the next three and a half months fighting the Civil War again — more than 140 years after it ended?

Is that the only way to finally exorcise our demons?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Revealing the Silent Witness

It's hard to remember the context now, but 35 years ago today, the revelation that Richard Nixon had installed a massive recording system in the Oval Office to capture every presidential conversation on tape came as a huge surprise to the millions of Americans who watched the Watergate hearings on television.

In mid-July of 1973, many people who had worked or were still working in the Nixon White House had testified before the Senate Watergate committee and many others were scheduled to testify in the coming weeks — and, to that point, only former White House counsel John Dean had contradicted Nixon's version of events.

But the tide began to turn on July 16, 1973.

On that date, former presidential aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the taping system while being questioned on national television.

Butterfield was one of only a handful of people (including Nixon) who knew about the taping system. Nixon wanted the system to be secret. He wanted to be able to compile a complete audio record of the proceedings in his Oval Office — it was so secret, in fact, that Nixon himself apparently forgot about it, thus explaining the candid way he spoke about everything.

In fact, Nixon attempted to conceal his candid language by inserting a parenthetical "expletive deleted" in many offensive spots in the printed transcripts of conversations that he circulated in the press and the public instead of turning over the tapes themselves to investigators.

(Reportedly, Nixon was disturbed by the impression his language would have given to his mother, Hannah Nixon, a devout Quaker who died before he was elected president.)

In later years, Butterfield told interviewers he knew the explosive nature of the information he had, but he had decided not to volunteer anything about it. He would only respond to direct questions.

Ironically, such a direct question was asked of Butterfield by the Republican counsel — Fred Thompson. Butterfield was asked if he was aware of "listening devices" in the Oval Office — which, in hindsight, should have been an obvious question to ask, considering that the burglars who were arrested at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in June 1972 were found to have bugging equipment in their possession.

To give any answer other than the one he gave would have been perjury, as Butterfield (who left the White House after the 1972 election to become administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration) knew. So he acknowledged that he had been aware of such listening devices when he was at the White House.

It would be another year before the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon had to turn over his tapes to investigators — which sealed Nixon's fate. The tapes clearly revealed Nixon's involvement in the coverup, the "smoking gun" that forced him to resign on Aug. 9, 1974.

But Butterfield's testimony was the crack in the dam, and the unrelenting pressure would eventually lead to its destruction.

Watergate will always be a cautionary tale, for public officials and the public they serve.

To remain free, we must be ever diligent. Our enemies are not always outside our borders.