Friday, December 25, 2015

Over the Line

"I have to admit yesterday when I saw that cartoon — not much ticks me off but making fun of my girls, that'll do it."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas)

I have always been an advocate of the First Amendment.

Now, I was brought up to believe in all of the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, but the First Amendment has always been my thing. That is no surprise, I guess, given my background; ordinarily, I will come down on the side of freedom of speech and freedom of the press over just about anything else.

When I was in college, I took what amounted to an exception–free stance. I saw no circumstances in which freedom of the press or freedom of speech could justifiably be abridged. To do so, I felt, was contrary to the concept of true liberty.

As time has passed, though, my positions have modified, and I have come to believe that there are limits. Freedom of speech does not give one the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater — to actively encourage public hysteria. There is the greater good to be considered.

And freedom of the press does not give anyone the right to publish anything. People who are in the public eye are one thing. Most of them chose to be where they are — there are exceptions, of course, but I'm not talking about people who are thrust into the spotlight through no choice of their own. I'm talking about politicians, movie stars, professional athletes. They knew — or should have known — what to expect. But usually their families are off limits.

The Washington Post crossed that line with its cartoon of Ted Cruz and his two young daughters this week.

Now, it is important to remember that there is no law that prevents a publication from running a cartoon on any topic the editor and/or the editorial board desire. There is no legal obligation for any newspaper or magazine or TV program to avoid mentioning a politician's children, but there is a moral one. It is the guideline of good taste and sound judgment, and it is a line that most news outlets, regardless of their editorial leanings, will not cross. This week the Washington Post went over the line.

One can debate, I suppose, Cruz's judgment in using his children in one of his television commercials, but the truth is that he is far from the first politician to do so. In fact, I can't recall a truly serious candidate for the presidency in my lifetime, whether he was his party's nominee or not, who did not use his family in his campaign. And I can't recall a single candidate for a lesser office, from my developmental years in Arkansas through my adult years in Oklahoma and Texas, who didn't bring forth the family during the campaign. Photo ops, TV commercials, rallies, the spouse and kids were everywhere — especially if they were photogenic.

This is the first time in my memory, however, that a candidate's children were attacked editorially for participating in that candidate's campaign advertising.

The editor of the Post tried to wriggle out of it by observing that, because Cruz had used his family in a Christmas–themed political commercial, he could understand why cartoonist Ann Telnaes thought the Post's prohibition on such depictions of a prominent politician's children had been lifted, at least in this case. He admitted failing to review the cartoon before it was published and said he disagreed with Telnaes' assessment.

"When a politician uses his children as political props, as Ted Cruz recently did in his Christmas parody video in which his eldest daughter read (with her father's dramatic flourish) a passage of an edited Christmas classic, then I figure they are fair game."

Ann Telnaes
Washington Post cartoonist

But the damage has been done, and the Post now acknowledges that the episode was a "gift" to the Cruz campaign, which has criticized the media for its double standard in its coverage of Democrats and Republicans. It gives him lots of ammunition to whip up the faithful in the weeks and months ahead. It may give Cruz added momentum heading into the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

I can only imagine the outcry if Barack Obama's daughters were portrayed in an editorial cartoon as monkeys.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Return of the Bradley Effect

I have written here before of the "Bradley effect," but that was in the context of the 2008 presidential election, a time when voters were deciding whether to elect the first black president. That wasn't as inconsequential a decision as you might think now, more than seven years after the fact. After all, Barack Obama has been elected president twice now. Voters face a different kind of decision in 2016.

Simply put, the Bradley effect refers to the 1982 California gubernatorial campaign of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Bradley was black, and polls prior to the election showed him leading the race. But he lost — narrowly — to Republican George Deukmejian (who won by less than 100,000 votes out of more than 7.5 million).

I suppose it goes without saying that the outcome of that election prompted a lot of soul searching, and the general conclusion that most people seemed to reach was that Bradley fared better in the polls because those who were polled did not wish to appear racist — so even if they were undecided or leaning toward the Republican, they told the pollsters that they would vote for Bradley, thus creating an artificial lead for him.

When they went into the voting booths, though, the voters did not have to concern themselves with what others would think of them, and they pulled the lever for the Republican — regardless of what they may have told the pollsters.

I bring this up because I think we could be seeing a new — and fascinating — twist on that theme in the campaign of Donald Trump. It isn't necessary to say much about Trump. So much has already been said about him, including the seemingly daily assertions that the Trump campaign has peaked, which always seem to be followed by a new poll showing Trump with even more support than he had before. Clearly, this guy is tapping into something, with his rhetoric about Muslims and immigration, but it's something a lot of people don't seem to want to acknowledge.

It's all about perceptions. Thirty–three years ago, a lot of Californians didn't want to appear to be racist. Today, perhaps a lot of people don't want to appear to be supporting a racist. Well, a perceived racist.

In case you haven't heard, a Quinnipiac University poll that was released today suggests that half of Americans would be embarrassed if Trump became the president. Could the same dynamic be at work here?

It reminds me in a way of a congressional campaign in my district in central Arkansas a couple of years after the Bradley election. There was a rather flamboyant sheriff in Pulaski County at the time named Tommy Robinson, who had apparently been angling for higher office with some publicity stunts.

Now, that district was represented for decades by Democrat Wilbur Mills, and he was succeeded by a Democrat when he stepped down, but that Democrat chose to run for the U.S. Senate after serving a single term, and a Republican was elected to the seat. The Republican held the seat for six years, then he, too, chose to run for the Senate, and Tommy Robinson announced he was running for the House seat as a Democrat. Historically, it was the right choice. Until the Republican incumbent was elected, the district hadn't been represented by a Republican since Reconstruction.

I don't remember much about the advertising in the Democratic primary (which Robinson won in a runoff) or the general election, but I do remember one of Robinson's ads. I think he used it in both the primary and the general election. It showed a series of vignettes in which friends were talking and one would say, "Who are you voting for for Congress?" and the other would say something like, "Well, you'll probably be surprised, but I'm voting for Tommy Robinson."

And that opened the door to confront all the negative stories that had been circulating about Robinson for years.

Now, as it turned out, Robinson was a crook who got caught up in the House banking scandal. But that was still several years in the future when Robinson first ran for the House.

And my memory of that campaign is that pollsters were quite certain that Robinson's Republican opponent, Judy Petty (who lost to Mills 10 years earlier), would win. Polls were showing her leading, which wasn't really hard to imagine. Petty was running as a Ronald Reagan Republican in a year when Reagan carried three–fifths of the vote in that district.

But the Gipper's popularity didn't trickle down enough for Petty to prevail. Or perhaps those people who told the pollsters they would vote for Petty actually voted for Robinson instead.

And perhaps Donald Trump, like George Deukmejian and Tommy Robinson, will have the last laugh.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Going in the Wrong Direction?

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the "Six–Year Itch" — the clear tendency since the end of World War II for American voters to turn on the party in power by the time of the administration's sixth year in office. We saw ample evidence of that happening in last year's midterms.

I wrote that with presidential approval ratings in mind, but I have been studying the results of the elections a little more closely since I wrote that, and I have concluded that you really can't grasp the situation unless you consider another question that pollsters usually ask.

It concerns the direction of the country, and the question that Gallup tends to ask is this: "In general are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States?"

Pollsters haven't been asking that question very long at least when compared to other basic polling questions. But it's kind of like another question that tries to gauge the country's mood — the one that asks whether people approve or disapprove of the job Congress is doing. The answer in both cases is almost always negative, resoundingly so. That is why presidential nominees' coattails are so important down the ballot in Senate and House races.

It's the trickle–down theory applied to politics, but it still just a theory. Some presidential candidates have been more successful than others in transferring their political popularity to other candidates in their parties.

Folks who are in government service — and those who want to be — are wise to watch the results closely. Just how negative is the response? How did the out–of–power party fare when disapproval of the direction of the country was similar to the level we have today?

Obviously, the lower the better for the incumbent party, but that is seldom the case. The country consistently falls short of most people's expectations — even though, if you study your history, it is clear that this nation has always been a work in progress. To expect it to become a utopia in a single presidency is naive and unrealistic.

Well, there's a lot of that going around.

It's been more than 10 years since the question about the direction of the country got a positive response — and that probably had more to do with the residual effect of the rally–'round–the–flag atmosphere following the 9–11 attacks. Usually, more than 50% of respondents — typically far more than 50% — are negative. Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country has been over 70% most of the time for years.

Satisfaction with the direction of the country rose into the 30s in the early months of the Obama presidency, but it slipped below 30% by his first Labor Day. It went above 30% in the months before Obama's re–election but quickly fell below 30% again, then briefly returned to the 30s last winter.

Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country isn't always fatal to a president's hope of being re–elected, but it is almost always impossible for a candidate of a term–limited president's party to win if both satisfaction with the direction of the country and approval of a president's job performance are in negative territory.

Barack Obama's most recent approval figure was at 42%, his lowest level in at least a year. Combined with 71% of respondents who currently say the country is going in the wrong direction, that makes Hillary Clinton's task of becoming Obama's successor considerably more daunting.

Does that mean Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States? Possibly, but the selection of the nominee for the out–of–power party is a different subject — not entirely removed from the topics of presidential approval and satisfaction with the direction of the country but not unrelated, either. It's just that there are other factors to consider — and, while Trump's campaign has been defying political wisdom, it is important to remember that no one has voted yet. Republicans won't officially begin the process of choosing their nominee until after the holidays.

We're still nearly 10 months from Election Day, and that is an eternity in politics. Much can happen, and those numbers could turn around. The window won't stay open indefinitely.

Realistically, voter attitudes tend to harden by the May before an election, so there isn't as much time as Democrats probably would like to think.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Terrorism and Politics

"Lawmakers burst into debate over gun control, philosophers analyzed the nature of violence, and the nation was described as grieving.

"Yet 'grief' suddenly seemed like a faintly obsolete word. Nor would 'shock,' 'rage,' 'dismay' do, either. Such anthropomorphic words have been, for generations, the most convenient shorthand of political observation, inviting writers to describe millions of people as if their emotions were fused by a single spasm of 'agony,' 'despair,' 'vengeance' or 'sorrow' — as if, indeed, they were one community. But it is impossible ever to describe a great nation as if it were a community — and, in 1968, the essence of the matter was that the old faith of Americans in themselves, as a community of communities, seemed to be dissolving."

Theodore H. White, 'The Making of the President 1968'

Donald Trump's meteoric rise in the polls — in defiance of all conventional wisdom — is clearly baffling to many people (although the latest poll from Iowa hints that Trump may finally have peaked). They don't know what it means. Is it racism? Is it fascism? Should we pass more laws that would have been totally ineffective in preventing the latest massacre?

I think it is fairly easy to see what is happening in this country today — in large part because I can remember what happened in this country many yesterdays ago — and I have formed a theory about it and the 2016 presidential campaign.

I am speaking of a time when the United States really appeared to be coming apart at the seams — 1968 — when political assassinations and violence in city streets were commonplace.

I was only a child at the time, and I didn't fully understand everything that I saw and heard, but I could comprehend a lot of it. I saw TV reports of riots in the streets of big cities. I saw protesters being beaten by police, and I saw protesters throwing rocks and bottles at the police in response. I saw reports of prominent Americans being assassinated.

I knew fear and chaos when I saw it, and I see the same thing happening now.

Don't get me wrong. There was unrest all over the world. There always is — somewhere. But not usually everywhere — and that is what seemed to be happening in 1968. I'm not saying that actually is what was happening. But it sure seemed like it.

And it was frightening.

You had a pretty good idea in those days which places were best to avoid. In the summer of '68, for example, you didn't want to be near the Democrats' convention hall in Chicago.

You could avoid the obvious places for protests — but those places aren't so obvious anymore. We've seen riots recently that occurred in unpredictable places. That kind of thing tends to make people feel unsafe, you know?

So do seemingly random attacks like the one in San Bernardino, Calif., less than two weeks ago.

Now, we all know that bad things can happen to any one of us at any time. That's life. And, eventually, life is going to end for us all. We may get sick or injured and never recover, or we may be in a fatal accident of some kind. Or any of 10,000 or so other potential causes of death. (The list is virtually endless.) I think most of us have accepted that. So we continue to drive our cars to restaurants and concerts and work, always with that reality tucked away in the backs of our minds.

We know that we will never get out of this world alive. We don't like to be reminded of it on a daily basis. And we don't expect death to come when we're shopping or eating — or participating in an office holiday party.

I think it was Woody Allen who said, "I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens." If we're honest with ourselves, no matter what we think happens or doesn't happen when we stop breathing, that's how we feel, too.

Of course, the kind of spiritual leaders that we have historically had here in the West — ministers, priests, rabbis — remind us that we will die, but they do so as part of a long–term campaign for souls, not to encourage listeners to hasten the day when others' souls will be won or lost — for good. That image, fairly or not, is what many Americans see in their mind's eye when they think of mosques and Muslims.

I think Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are probably correct when they say that most Muslims are peaceful, but you can't ignore the fact that most of the recents terrorist acts, both here and overseas, have been committed by Muslims — and that causes fear. And when refugees are streaming across the border, it isn't possible to tell which ones can be trusted and which ones cannot.

I see 1968 and 2016 as being comparable. Then, as now, people felt unsafe, and they looked for a leader who would take a firm stand against what scared them. President Johnson left a vacuum in this regard, much as Barack Obama has left a vacuum; Hubert Humphrey was left holding the bag for the administration in '68, and he lost a close race to Richard Nixon — the only man in modern American history to win the presidency after having lost a previous presidential election — because the administration had repeatedly demonstrated that it didn't have a clue what to do.

And Nixon won with a third–party firebrand named George Wallace running. Wallace received more than 13% of the vote, with most of those votes coming from the South, and he carried five Southern states that almost certainly would have voted for Nixon if Wallace had not been in the race.

History tells us that the Republicans won five of the next six presidential elections — in large part because they won the battle for the hearts and minds of the voters on the issue of law and order.

I hear many Republicans fretting about Trump running as an independent if denied the GOP nomination. If that happens, the logic says, Hillary Clinton will be the beneficiary just as they allege that her husband was elected because Ross Perot got one–fifth of the popular vote in 1992. I don't think that is true. History shows that third–party candidacies, when they are most appealing to voters, tend to be a problem for whichever party is in power.

Exit–poll surveys in 1992 indicated that, if Perot had not run, Clinton and George H.W. Bush each would have picked up about 40% of his supporters, and the remaining 20% would not have voted at all. The numbers would fluctuate by state, of course, and it is fair to suggest that states where the race between Clinton and Bush was close could have swung the other way if Perot had not been on the ballot. But in the states where Clinton or Bush had decisive leads, it is unlikely that Perot's absence from the race would have meant much.

If the '92 exit polls are correct — and I have neither heard nor seen any evidence that would lead me to believe they are not — I suppose many Republicans believe Bush could have won that 20%, but I'm inclined to think those voters wouldn't have chosen from the major parties' nominees. They were drawn in to the process by Perot and most likely would have receded into the shadows from which they came if he had not been on the ballot. They weren't responsive to Bush or Clinton.

A dozen years before that, in 1980, there was talk right up until Election Day that Rep. John Anderson would siphon off enough votes from both President Jimmy Carter and former Gov. Ronald Reagan to force their race into the House of Representatives. Anderson had run against Reagan in the Republican primaries before deciding to mount a third–party campaign, and he was widely praised as an alternative to the major nominees. But the experts overestimated his influence on the campaign. Anderson won no states and received only 6.6% of the vote.

Perhaps Carter would have won most of Anderson's votes if Anderson had not run as a third–party candidate, but, outside the South, where Carter lost nearly every state but held Reagan under 50% in most, it hardly seems it would have mattered. Reagan won in a landslide.

The issue right now is not whether Trump would fracture the party and allow Hillary Clinton to win next year. The issue for voters is who makes them feel safe. Trump has been successful at that. If his Republican challengers want to be relevant in the 2016 campaign, they will need to address it, too.

Because 2016, like 1968, is going to be about an increasingly insecure nation and how it deals with its greatest fear.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Rare Event

Tonight at 7 (Central) we will witness something that has been a rare event in this presidency — an address to the nation from the Oval Office.

People can — and do — call Barack Obama many things, but one thing no one could call him is camera shy. He seldom hesitates to say what is on his mind (which is the very definition of loose cannon, is it not? But I digress ...) yet, in fact, this will be only the third time in nearly seven full years as president that he has spoken to the American people from the Oval Office.

It took an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to prompt the first one. The second was a victory lap after the short–lived departure of troops from Iraq — and now it is (presumably) to clarify his position on ISIS, a fully functioning and extremely threatening terrorist group that Obama has famously dismissed as "the jayvee team" and, more recently, as being "contained."

Both assessments have been demonstrably false.

Presidential addresses from the Oval Office were commonplace for every president I can remember prior to Obama — and I'm not speaking of the weekly five–minute radio addresses that are usually delivered from the Oval Office. An Oval Office speech was usually (but not always) a good indication that the subject was an important one and every American needed to hear what the president had to say about it. That wasn't always true, of course. Presidents from both parties misused the bully pulpit, and because the forum has been abused in the past, I can appreciate the notion that an Oval Office address should be reserved for truly significant moments and issues.

I really don't know if that is how Obama feels about it, but, whether it is or is not, the fact remains that, under Obama, the pendulum has swung much too far in the other direction. The American people have been left in the dark on too many important issues for too long. They are entitled to better than that from their leaders.

Obama's speech, of course, comes days after the horrific attack in San Bernardino, Calif., that killed 14. In the hours after that attack, Obama hemmed and hawed when asked whether it was terrorism even though his own FBI, which has followed the president's lead on terrorism in the past and hesitated to label such acts, was calling it terrorism within hours. says, "This is the first sign that the Obama White House is preparing to address the threat of terrorism seriously after appearing reluctant to define the attack in California as terrorism."

That's pretty generous. And, you must admit, it is remarkably fair, a virtual acceptance that White House spokesman Josh Earnest was correct when he said that, in addition to speaking about the shooting itself, "[t]he president will also discuss the broader threat of terrorism, including the nature of the threat, how it has evolved and how we will defeat it."

I already know about the nature of the threat — and, whether they will admit it or not, I think most Americans do, too — and how it has evolved. I need no presidential lectures on those.

Personally, I'm still waiting to hear the president call this what it is — Islamic terrorism. These acts are being carried out by Islamic extremists who have interpreted the Qur'an as permission from God to kill all who disagree with them. The president has yet to acknowledge this. He and Hillary Clinton insist on reminding us that Islam is a peaceful religion, and the United States is not at war with Islam.

That's a straw man.

No one (to my knowledge) has suggested that this is a religious war. It is a war against extremists who are hell–bent on killing others. They clearly don't care about the religious beliefs of their victims. Other Muslims have been killed in their attacks as well as Christians and Jews.

The fact that these extremists, these murderers all claim to be Muslims is an identifying trait. Some people will say that is profiling, and I suppose it is, but it is also a fact that cannot be ignored. It may be a regrettable fact of modern life that we must take a closer look at Muslims who try to enter this country. That doesn't necessarily mean that Muslims who live here are being or will be denied their right to freedom of religion.

Well, I guess I can't make a blanket assertion like that. Most assuredly, there will always be bigots for whom unpleasant but necessary restrictions on certain groups are nice little byproducts.

But that is one of the things about which we need to have a national — and rational — conversation. We may also need to talk about how and whether to monitor and have legal provisions for shutting down mosques or any similar facility where violence is encouraged.

I know. This kind of thing smacks of the Nuremburg Laws, doesn't it? But the key difference, it seems to me, is that the Jews of Germany and Europe were not hijacking airplanes, attacking diners in restaurants or shooting up Christmas parties.

To deal with a modern threat it is necessary for us to label the enemy.

Identifying the enemy is the first step in defeating it. Once Obama has done that, I will listen to what he has to say about defeating it.

Until then, I have no tolerance for useless drivel about closing gun show loopholes or issuing executive orders to make it even more difficult for Americans to arm themselves.

If someone is determined to kill — and the willingness, even eagerness, of these animals to kill themselves and leave orphaned children, even infants, behind in the process is pretty good evidence of just how determined they are — whatever is available will do. These terrorists do not need guns to kill. They share information about making bombs, and they are constantly experimenting with new ways to conceal explosives. They have used knives in the past when no other means for killing were available. No doubt they would resort to throwing rocks if that was all they had.

No, they don't need guns to kill, but they won't let a minor annoyance like a gun control law keep them from getting guns if they need them.

Instead of talking about closing gun show loopholes, we should be talking about closing the other loopholes that made the San Bernardino shootings possible. There is an enormous loophole along this country's borders. If Obama doesn't think there are terrorist "sleeper cells" all across this country whose members have practically waltzed across the border, he is truly living in a fantasy world.

Everyone wants to be fair on immigration. No one wants to deny the hope of citizenship to those who truly wish to come to America and co–exist with all kinds of people. But it only makes sense to have a process in place that safeguards the people who are already here from immigrants who, knowingly or unknowingly, threaten their safety.

In the Ellis Island days, that usually meant temporarily quarantining people who might have been exposed to a deadly disease. Today quarantining immigrants would be done with the intention of giving authorities enough time to do background checks.

And I'm not talking about the cursory background checks that have been conducted — if time and resources permitted them to be conducted at all — up to this point.

The time has long since past when we could keep terrorist cells out of this country or quarantine enough of the suspicious immigrants long enough for background checks to weed out the most dangerous ones.

For tonight's Oval Office address, as rare as they have been in Obama's tenure, to have any historical meaning, it must spark a serious discussion about the most effective way to keep the American people safe.

That doesn't mean belittling those who have dedicated their lives to being first responders when crisis strikes.

That doesn't mean letting political correctness overrule common sense.

It means being a leader. Under this president, who almost always leads from behind, being a true leader has been even more rare than Oval Office addresses.