Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Alternate Reality of Election 2016

We're about a week from Election Day, and I find myself wavering between thinking we are living in an alternate reality or the End Times.

It could be both, I suppose, although I prefer to think of it as the former. As bad as that might be, it need not be final. The latter certainly would be final; you can come up with plenty of alternate–reality scenarios in which we can pull back from the precipice.

It definitely is not business as usual. That may be the real story of this election when all the votes have been counted.

Conventional wisdom used to hold that people really didn't start following presidential campaigns until after the World Series. But conventional wisdom has meant little in this election — and here we are in the middle of the World Series. People aren't starting to tune in to the campaign. If anything, they're tuning out.

Maybe they've seen enough already. If so, then they may be looking forward to the end of the campaign. But I've got news for you. It never ends. Only the current campaign ends, and one of the candidates recedes from the national stage. Unfortunately, though, we'll be stuck with one of them for the next four years.

Alternate reality could be defined as denying reality, I guess, and I certainly have known my share of folks who denied reality, even (or perhaps especially) when it was a reality that had been made possible by their own behavior. The first step in dealing with any problem, they say, is acknowledging that there is one.

But if this is an alternate reality, few are acknowledging there is a problem — at least in the sense of discussing what should be done and how it can be achieved. The situations we face call for a statesman who can bring disparate sides together, understanding that neither side can have everything it wants on issues like immigration, national security, jobs, economic growth, education, energy, etc. Despite a lot of bluster, most political observers see the Senate being closely divided and the House still in Republican hands when the dust settles on Nov. 9.

That clearly leads to the conclusion that compromises will be necessary if anything is to be done under the next president.

The thing that has increasingly alarmed me about this election is the constant decrease in the emphasis on the issues that we absolutely needed to discuss before deciding who should be our president for the next four years. Before you can choose who to follow, you have to be sure that person is going in the direction you want.

I'm not just talking about the fall campaign between the two nominees. I include in that the spring party primaries when the nominees were chosen. If issues have been mentioned at all, it has been incidental.

Instead the election is conducted in slice–and–dice terms. Demographics alone matter. Candidate X will win in State Y because there are too many/few minorities or more/fewer men than women or whatever — as if all members of any group think the same.

Of course, such a notion is idiotic — and anathema to the concepts of individualism and free thought. Nevertheless it is how many people see things these days. Sadly.

I sometimes think of the reaction many of my acquaintances with University of Texas degrees had when they learned that their alma mater had hired Charlie Strong, a black man, to be the new head football coach a few years ago. Strong had some good credentials — in the previous four years as a head coach at Louisville, he led the Cardinals to victories more than 70% of the time, and they reached bowl games every year — but I heard no talk of that or what he could bring to a program with Texas' national stature — or how the quality of the opposition at Louisville might (or might not) be comparable to the quality of the opposition at Texas, thus preparing him for the Austin Hot Seat.

What I heard Texas Exes say when Strong was hired was what a great thing it was that Texas had hired a black coach, that this would negate Texas A&M's recruiting advantage with black prospects (the Aggies hired a black coach in 2012). That was an angle that was worth exploring, but it ignored more long–term concerns — like whether the coach had demonstrated that he could build a legacy of success that would outlive his tenure.

Now, one can argue whether Kevin Sumlin (the Aggies' coach) has done that, but a few things cannot be disputed. (1) While Sumlin has only marginally more experience as a head coach than Strong, he has a winning record; (2) Sumlin is 3–1 in bowl games at Texas A&M, and midway through this season the Aggies have already won enough games to qualify for their fifth straight bowl appearance under Sumlin. Strong, on the other hand, appears unlikely to qualify for a bowl this season even if he somehow keeps his job.

That demographic mindset is essentially the same one used by Hillary Clinton's sympathizers when they speak of what they hope will happen in the Electoral College this year. James Pindell of the Boston Globe wrote recently about what might be different about the Electoral College map this year, starting with the possibility that states like Arizona, Missouri and South Carolina could be in the Democrats' column while states like Florida, Ohio, Iowa and Nevada could vote Republican.

Anyway, I was musing about states that could flip in this year's election in a post I wrote about two months ago, and I labeled states that gave 53% of their vote or less to the candidates who won them last time as potential flips.

Some of them seemed outrageous, I'm sure, and some of them seemed plausible, but from where I sit it looks like most of them are potentially up for grabs.

One of the states I mentioned probably seems about as farfetched as it can get — Minnesota, home of Democrat icons Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, as reliable a state as you could find in American politics, I suppose. Minnesota hasn't voted for a Republican since voting for Richard Nixon in 1972. It was the only state to resist Ronald Reagan in 1984.

But the margins in Minnesota frequently have been narrow. Barack Obama received less than 53% of Minnesota's vote when he sought re–election in 2012. That was still a difference of more than 200,000 votes (in a state in which more than 2.9 million votes were cast). Four years earlier, when Obama first sought the presidency, Minnesota gave him just over 54% of its vote. He won that time by about 300,000 votes (more than 2.9 million Minnesotans voted in that election, too).

John Kerry defeated George W. Bush in Minnesota when Bush was re–elected in 2004. Kerry got just over 51% of Minnesota's vote — a margin of about 100,000 votes in an election that drew more than 2.8 million Minnesotans to the polls. In the infamous 2000 campaign, Al Gore carried Minnesota with a plurality of just under 48% of the vote. He beat Bush there by about 60,000 votes in a campaign that drew more than 2.4 million Minnesotans to the polls. If one assumes, though, that Gore would have received most if not all of the votes Ralph Nader won in Minnesota, his share of Minnesota's vote would have been about 52% or 53%.

Bill Clinton got about 51% of Minnesota's vote when he was re–elected in 1996. With Ross Perot on the 1992 ballot, Clinton carried Minnesota with less than 44% of the vote. Michael Dukakis received just under 53% of Minnesota's vote against George H.W. Bush in 1988. Native son Mondale managed to beat Reagan in Minnesota by less than 4,000 votes in 1984. Jimmy Carter, under whom Mondale served as vice president, won Minnesota with less than 47% of the vote in 1980.

Carter began Minnesota's 40–year run of voting for Democrats when he received nearly 55% of the vote there in 1976. In the nine elections since, no Democrat has received that great a share of Minnesota's vote. I suppose it helped to have the winds of Watergate at your back.

So as you can see, Minnesota's support for Democrats has been steady but not spectacular.

What is the demographic story in Minnesota? Well, the population is nearly 83% white. Slightly more than 5% of the population is black so the kind of racial politics that is being used in other states won't work in Minnesota.

More than one–third of Minnesota's population has a high school education or less. Just under one–third of the population has had some college, but only about 22% completed college degree work, and a little over one–tenth of the population has done postgraduate work.

"Based on my 53% threshold for considering a state at risk for flipping," I wrote, "Minnesota should be on that list. But Minnesota has been consistent in its support for Democrats if not overwhelmingly so. Put an asterisk next to it. It might flip — but it probably won't."

Ah, but what if it did? What if Donald Trump, as an outsider, appeals to the same maverick undercurrent of Minnesota electoral politics that propelled a professional wrestler into the state's governor's mansion and a comedy writer into a Senate seat?

That is the kind of question that will make Minnesota worth watching on election night.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Assassination of Anwar Sadat

For most Americans, the war on terror began in 2001, when the World Trade Center was brought down by two hijacked airplanes. For a few, it may have begun eight years earlier when the first attack on the World Trade Center took place.

And, to be fair, that probably is when the war first came to America.

But it's been going on longer than that — in the sense that Islamic martyrs have been dying for the cause. Thirty–five years ago today, Lt. Khalid Islambouli, an Egyptian military officer and Islamic extremist, assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during the annual Victory Parade in Cairo commemorating the Egyptian army's crossing of the Suez Canal to reclaim part of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel in 1973.

It probably evaded most Americans' radars, but Sadat's final months had been rocky. There had been a military coup in June that failed, and there had been riots. There were those who said the riots were the outcome of domestic issues that plagued the country, but Sadat believed the Soviet Union was orchestrating an attempt to drive him from power.

That was also a particularly violent time in the history of the world — at least in terms of high–profile violence. President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II had survived assassination attempts earlier in the year. Ex–Beatle John Lennon had been gunned down in front of his New York apartment building nearly a year before.

Egyptian Islamists had been angered when Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with President Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978 — for which Sadat and Begin shared the Nobel Prize.

There were several missed opportunities for authorities to take Islambouli into custody before the assassination, most notably in September 1981 when Sadat ordered a roundup of more than 1,500 people, among them many Jihad members, but somehow Islambouli's cell was missed.

Then, in spite of ammunition seizure rules that should have prevented the assassination, the cell managed to get into the parade and jump from the truck in which they were riding when it approached the reviewing stand, where Sadat was supposedly protected by four layers of security and eight bodyguards. Sadat stood, thinking it was part of the show. He was mortally wounded by a grenade and gunfire, along with 10 others in the reviewing stand. Vice President Hosni Mubarak, who had been sitting next to Sadat, was one of 28 who were wounded but survived.

Islambouli was identified as the man responsible for Sadat's wounds and executed the next year.

Nearly 30 years later, Islambouli's mother said she was proud that her son had killed Sadat.

What does this say about the mentality of the Islamic extremists that they are still waging this war nearly four decades later? It says the same thing that a second attack on the World Trade Center eight years after the first told us.

This is a foe that is patient. It picks its battles, and it learns from its mistakes.

Now, I know that a mother's love is a powerful thing. I covered murder trials as a young newspaper reporter, and I would not be surprised to hear the mother of a murderer say that she loved her son/daughter in spite of the crime(s) he/she committed. In fact, I have heard mothers say that. It is certainly not uncommon for Christians to say that they hate the sin but love the sinner.

But this mother says she is proud that her son committed the sin. That is a different matter, and it gives you great insight into a mindset.

This foe truly believes it is waging a holy war, and it is willing to give it as much time as it takes — generations, if necessary. The jihadists take inspiration wherever they can.

Since Sadat's assassination, Islambouli has been inspiring Islamist movements the world over. In Tehran a street was named for him after the assassination. A postage stamp was issued showing him shouting defiantly in his prison cell, and Ayatollah Khomeini declared him a martyr after he had been executed.

This is not a traditional foe, and it cannot be beaten in the traditional ways.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to Sen. Dan Quayle, Oct. 5, 1988

Tonight the nominees for vice president, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence, will meet in their only debate.

Frankly, I have long thought that the vice presidential debate was the most pointless of the bunch.

Presidential debates have the potential to be significant in the story of a presidential election campaign. As we are often reminded, they are rare opportunities to see the candidates side by side answering the same questions at the same time. Fortunately, many (but certainly not all) of the questions that are asked in presidential debates are relevant to the office the candidates seek. The candidates' thoughts on domestic and foreign issues are important because the one who is chosen to be president is likely to have to make some pretty important decisions in four years.

What are vice presidents typically called upon to do? Well, of course, the vice president is first in line for the presidency if the incumbent should die (which hasn't happened in more than half a century) or resign (which has only happened once in American history). Otherwise, the vice president's responsibilities are to preside over the Senate (and cast a tie–breaking vote when necessary) and attend state weddings and funerals.

Consequently, the questions that are truly relevant to the office those candidates seek would involve things like how well — and for how long — they can establish order in public meetings. Or how many weddings or funerals they have attended in their public careers. Whether presiding over the Senate or attending a wedding or funeral, perhaps the most important skill a vice presidential candidate can possess is the ability to sit still for long periods of time without squirming or falling asleep.

But nobody would watch that so the questions in vice presidential debates tend to be questions one would ask of a would–be president. After all, you never know. The vice president might wind up becoming president (although the last seven have not). And sometimes those questions are remembered.

But what tend to be memorable about vice presidential debates are the lines that are delivered. Sometimes you know they were prepared well ahead of time and practiced repeatedly in the hope that the foes would give even the slightest opening for them. That was clearly the case 28 years ago tomorrow when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen delivered his devastating "You're no Jack Kennedy" rebuttal to Sen. Dan Quayle.

Bentsen was judged the winner of that debate — but Quayle won the election as George H.W. Bush's running mate.

Vice President Joe Biden may have channeled his inner Bentsen in his debate with Paul Ryan four years ago.

The first vice presidential debate took place nearly 40 years ago on Oct. 15, 1976 when Sen. Walter Mondale squared off with Sen. Bob Dole. Dole, in one of his lighter moments, may have made the best observation about the vice presidency since John Garner asserted that it wasn't worth "a pitcher of warm ****." Dole's assessment of the vice presidency was that it was "indoor work with no heavy lifting."

That was a pretty good line, and it might have been the one for which the debate was remembered — if Dole hadn't chosen to blame the Democrats for the wars that had been fought in the 20th century.

"I figured up the other day if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century," Dole said, "it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit."

"Does he really mean," Mondale asked sarcastically, "that there was a partisan difference over our involvement in the fight against Nazi Germany?"

The 1984 vice presidential debate was the first to include a woman. Geraldine Ferraro, Mondale's running mate, took on Vice President George H.W. Bush and chastised him for his "patronizing attitude."

Twenty–four years later, when Sarah Palin became the first woman on a Republican ticket, her debate with Biden was remembered for her personal request: "Can I call you Joe?"

In 1992, America had its first — and so far only — three–participant vice presidential debate. It is largely remembered for Ross Perot's running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, and his meandering "Who am I? Why am I here?" self–introduction to viewers — which, of course, was lampooned by Saturday Night Live.

Well, you get the idea.

Caitlin Huey–Burns, in a column for RealClearPolitics, contends that Donald Trump has had a bad week since his first debate with Hillary Clinton — and that raises the stakes for Pence in tonight's debate.

Until something happens to prove me wrong, I continue to believe that the vice presidential debate is a colossal waste of time.

On the other hand, we are only five weeks away from all of this being over.

Of course, that will leave us with either Hillary or Trump as president–elect.

Can't win for losing.