Sunday, October 31, 2010

They Know What You Want

"In a Univision interview on Monday, the president, who campaigned in 2008 by referring not to a 'Red America' or a 'Blue America' but a United States of America, urged Hispanic listeners to vote in this spirit: 'We're gonna punish our enemies and we're gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.' "

Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen
Washington Post

They keep promising it to you.

They just won't give it to you.

Why? Because it's such an effective mobilization tool.

If they actually gave it to you after you gave them your vote, why, they couldn't use it anymore!

And they want to keep using it because they want to keep getting your vote.

So they keep promising it to you, speaking of it with fondness, nostalgically. For many, it is the holy grail, a relic from the past, a treasure to be pursued and, if ever captured, to be guarded.

It's like the proverbial carrot on a string ... always just out of reach. If the donkey ever gets it, he will no longer be motivated to pull the heavy wagon.

So the farmer makes sure he can't get to it.

What am I talking about?


A sense of common purpose. That all–for–one–and–one–for–all mentality that my parents and grandparents spoke of when they recalled the nation's approach to the Great Depression and World War II.

It was what made America great, I was frequently told as a child, this sense of a common cause.

My elders saw it in the way family and friends unhesitatingly opened their arms and their doors to the jobless and the homeless during hard times.

(Maybe there are some families — some parents, some siblings — and some friends who will do that today. Not many, in my experience.)

They saw it in the way people back home eagerly took on the most mundane of projects if it could contribute in even the smallest way to the national effort to win the war.

(How many real sacrifices have the folks on the home front been asked to make for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?)

That's what Americans crave, more than anything else. At heart, they're an optimistic lot. They desire inclusion rather than exclusion.

They want to work together to solve problems.

I believe their instinct is to focus on the things they have in common, but, for a long time now, America's leaders — in both parties — have looked for ways to drive wedges between races, generations, genders, religious faiths, sexual orientations.

And, once they have found these hot–button differences, they have exploited them relentlessly. It is always done under the hypnotic guise of unity — but the intent is division.

Divide and conquer.

"Yes we can." — Barack Obama, 2008.

"A uniter, not a divider." — George W. Bush, 2000.

"United we stand." — Ross Perot, 1992.

Many bemoan the politics of negativism and outright demonization, and, while American politics has always had an element of that, I believe the modern model emerged in 1988, when the George H.W. Bush campaign shamelessly capitalized on racial fear with its infamous "Willie Horton commercials."

But I have also believed, for a long time, that it didn't begin there.

I believe the 1988 model had its roots in the polarizing politics of Richard Nixon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

After the long, bitter, rancorous campaign of 1968 — the year that saw the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King — the president–elect appeared to try to reach out to a fragmented electorate with a tale from the campaign trail of spotting a teenager holding a sign that said, "Bring us together."

But Nixon won that election by cynically manipulating the electorate with his "Southern strategy" that used racial fear as a wedge issue. Nixon expanded on the theme in 1970 when he campaigned for fellow Republicans in the midterm elections, and many of the Republicans who followed him picked up the baton.

Its success in the South has been all too clear.

Thus, it was with considerable interest that I read an article in the Washington Post by two guys with impeccable Democratic credentials, Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen.

Caddell is a pollster and consultant who had considerable influence within the Carter White House. His involvement in Democratic politics goes back nearly 40 years to the insurgent George McGovern campaign. After the Carter presidency, Caddell worked for Democratic hopefuls like Gary Hart, Joe Biden and Jerry Brown.

Schoen is a pollster and political analyst who has worked for many Democratic campaigns, including Hillary Clinton's 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In the Post, they marveled at "[w]hat a change two years can bring."

"President Obama's post–partisan America has disappeared," they write, "replaced by the politics of polarization, resentment and division."

They make a case with which it is hard to find fault.

Early on, they lament the disappearance of inclusion from the Obama White House.

"Obama is conducting himself in a way alarmingly reminiscent of Nixon's role in the disastrous 1970 midterm campaign," they write. "No president has been so persistently personal in his attacks as Obama throughout the fall."

And they make this remark that echoes what I have been thinking for more than 25 years — among " recent presidents," they write, only Nixon showed the "indifference to the majesty of his office" that Obama has shown.

We hoped for better than this, they write. "Instead, since taking office, [Obama] has pitted group against group for short–term political gain that is exacerbating the divisions in our country and weakening our national identity."

In the past, Caddell and Schoen have aligned themselves with the idealists. They'll have to get used to the notion that the idealists are no better than the ones they replaced.

An important first step is recognizing it.

It seems Caddell and Schoen already have taken that step.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Dewey Defeats Truman

At first, I couldn't believe my eyes.

But there it was, in black and white.

"First woman House speaker may be toppled," said the headline at the Reuters website.

And my first thought was that — in this midterm election year that is looking as bleak for many Democrats as the search for jobs has been for many unemployed Americans — Nancy Pelosi is in electoral trouble.

But then I realized that, if Pelosi really is in trouble, that might be the biggest story in American politics since the Republicans captured the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in that special election back in January.

Pelosi, after all, has held her House seat for more than 20 years, and she seldom drops below 80% of the vote.

The very idea that she might be in trouble was absurd, once I thought about it. If there had been even the slightest inkling that Pelosi — who is clearly a lightning rod for the right wing — is in danger of being booted out by her heavily Democratic constituents, word certainly would have leaked out long ago.

The thought that she might be in danger of losing her seat surely would have been seen as an obvious sign of a Democratic apocalypse.

After all, Pelosi's counterpart in the Senate, Harry Reid from neighboring Nevada, is in a tough fight for re–election, and there has been no shortage of articles about it in the media or references to it in political speeches.

Reid's in trouble, and everyone has known it for a long time. He's every bit as reviled by the right as Pelosi is. But, until today, I had heard nothing — nothing! — from the campaign trail in Pelosi's district.

Logic insists that, if there was any chance Pelosi could be driven from office, Republicans would be pouring money into her district and sending their biggest guns to campaign there.

But I've heard no suggestion that Pelosi might not win another term.

And, when I read the article, I realized that what the headline was talking about was the possibility (which I believe is a probability) that the Republicans will capture the House in next Tuesday's elections. Consequently, when the new majority takes over, Pelosi will be replaced as speaker of the House.

But speculating about that at this stage amounts to getting ahead of ourselves. The headline took its cue from the article, but it didn't accurately reflect the content of the article.

I felt the headline was misleading. I know what it was trying to say. It just said it wrong.

Perhaps I am more sensitive to it than most. I worked on newspaper and trade magazine copy desks — which included writing headlines on a regular basis — for more than a decade. I taught young journalism students in the 1990s, and I'm back in the classroom as an adjunct today.

When I work with young journalism students today, I preach the same three values that I preached then — accuracy, consistency and clarity.

The Reuters headline doesn't raise any consistency issues of which I am aware, but it does raise a boatload of accuracy and clarity issues for me. As I say, I think it was misleading. It suggested to me — and I doubt that I could possibly be the only one — that Pelosi was in a tight race for re–election.

In a year in which one of the incumbent Democratic senators from California — as well as incumbent Senate Democrats in places such as Arkansas, Nevada, Wisconsin and Washington — are, at the very least, in trouble and, at most, clearly headed for defeat ...

And political observers have been predicting for weeks, without hesitation, that Republicans are all but sure to pick up at least 39 House seats (and probably more) that are currently held by Democrats, thus giving them the majority in that chamber ...

It isn't unreasonable to interpret a headline that says "First woman House speaker may be toppled" as meaning that Pelosi's race was much, much closer than anyone ever would have predicted.

(If that had really been what the article was reporting, I would have felt that we really had veered into through–the–looking–glass territory.)

But that isn't what the article was saying.

I live two time zones away from California, and I have no idea whether Pelosi is even opposed in this year's election. If she is opposed, the Reuters article didn't mention it. Its emphasis was on what would happen to Pelosi after this year's crop of representatives takes office in January — so I conclude that, if Pelosi has any opposition, it isn't significant.

I don't think the headline was accurate, and it certainly wasn't clear. But was that really the fault of the article — or the reporter who wrote it?

I know that early voting has been under way in many states for several days, if not weeks, by now. In fact, I voted early, as I usually do.

But no votes have been counted yet. No offices have been won or lost yet. The Reuters headline and article act as if the election has been held, the votes have been counted, and the Republicans are going to control the House when Congress convenes.

And, if most political analysts are right, that probably is what is going to happen. But it hasn't happened yet.

Reuters isn't in the fortune telling business. It is in the news reporting business, and, while I have issues with the subject of the article, the reporter was reasonably straight forward in it.

But whoever wrote the headline — whether it was the reporter himself or an editor — was guilty of sloppy speculation.

By and large, the article reported the facts as we know them. The headline strayed.

Far too often, newspapers use whatever headline is attached to news service articles instead of writing their own. They do this for many reasons — deadline pressure is always part of it, but today, with many newspapers cutting back on their copy desks to save money, those editors who are left may be more tempted to use a wire service's headlines than they were before.

Those headlines are written with no space constraints or specified point sizes — which can pose many problems for the editors of real–world newspapers as they try to make those headlines fit whatever space they may have for the story.

But, back at the wire service, space constraints are no barrier. In theory, the headline writer's space is, essentially, infinity. With the apparent freedom to write as little or as much as one needs, there is simply no excuse for imprecision.

When I used to work the wire desk, most headlines that came with wire stories generally appeared to be modestly restrained, as if they were written with some kind of limitation in mind.

Perhaps the articles that were written in those days saved most of their long–term speculation for predictions about sports playoffs.

And none that I can recall got that far ahead of actual events in its speculation.

Seems to me it would be a good idea to keep it that way — until the votes have been counted and we know whether a new speaker of the House will be needed.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Heckuva Job?

Please, someone, tell me that Barack Obama did not say, on The Daily Show last night, that Larry Summers did a "heckuva job" as Obama's economic adviser.

I mean, unemployment was around 6.5% when Obama became president in January 2009. Today, virtually on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, unemployment stands at around 9.5%.

Doesn't sound like a heckuva job to me. For formerly hard–working Americans who have found themselves tossed on the economic scrap heap, the last couple of years have been as devastating as any hurricane.

And, of course, that phrase — "heckuva job" — is bound to remind most Americans of George W. Bush's much–ridiculed endorsement of former FEMA head Michael Brown's handling of the disaster response/relief effort.

Oh. Obama did use that phrase, eh?

Well, that's bad enough. I mean, throughout his presidential campaign — and long after he took office, when he was awarded a Nobel Prize essentially on spec — Obama and his supporters portrayed him as the anti–Bush.

Dubya couldn't speak in complete sentences — although he did use completely nonexistent words at times (remember misunderestimate?). But Obama was well educated, a constitutional scholar. He'd written more books than Dubya had read, a diehard Obama supporter told me two years ago.

He would restore literacy — among other things — to the presidency. We wouldn't cringe, anymore, I was told, when the president of the United States stood up to speak.

And yet, here he was, in his attempt to appeal to the very groups that got him elected in the first place (and now appear to be abandoning him), and one of the gems to spring from his mouth was an unavoidable reminder of one of the bleakest chapters of recent American history.

Speaking of the American economy with the same words used to praise the incompetence of the "response" of FEMA to Hurricane Katrina is hardly reassuring.

And essentially saying "Well, things could have been worse" doesn't seem likely to rally anyone beyond Obama's unshakably devoted supporters — and their numbers continue to dwindle — to get out and vote next Tuesday.

But, frankly, being reprimanded, however gently, by Jon Stewart, who admonished him that "You don't want to use that phrase, dude" only serves to remind many voters of how amateurishly many things have been handled by this administration.

And for the president of the United States to be called "dude" is demeaning to the office, no matter what one thinks of its occupant.

Obama should have said so.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Midterm Adjustment

"Isn't it great to live in a society where the penalty for lying to a congressman can be up to 30 years in jail, but the penalty for a congressman lying to you is another two years in office[?]"

Peter Schmuck
Baltimore Sun

In 1981, after Republicans had taken control of the White House and the Senate and Democrats retained only a modest control of the House, Democrats were feeling somewhat put upon.

Many folks who were sympathetic to Democrat positions on the issues of the day — and resisted the growing political influence of the religious right, the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell — were drawn to a new organization, People for the American Way, which was founded by TV producer Norman Lear.

We've been hearing about the "American way" practically since the day that independence was declared. It isn't a new thing, especially in a midterm election. But, after one party suffers through a disastrous election and loses control of one or both of the chambers of Congress, the members of that party align themselves with the traditional values embodied in the "American way" — a phrase, incidentally, that is almost always manipulated to suit the needs of whoever may be using it at a particular point.

It has been a significant part of the "American way" for voters to send people to Congress in midterm elections who will exercise some restraint on the power of the president who was just elected two years earlier. Go ahead. Look it up.

The party that is in power never likes this, of course, and usually tries to find some way to excuse it. Some supporters of this president stubbornly stick to the excuse of racism — which may be legitimate in some cases, but, really, doesn't that ignore the fact that many white Americans voted for Barack Obama two years ago?

I think it is odd that neither party understands this "phenomenon" — as often as it has played out in American history. And it is strange how every president seems to be caught by surprise by it.

Mind you, midterm shifts aren't always as extreme as the one this year seems all but sure to be. It's the "equal and opposite reaction" your physics teacher told you about. The farther the pendulum goes in one direction, the farther it will — inevitably — swing back.

There must be something deep in the American DNA that resists the dominance of a single party. I guess it provokes a pre–independence response, reminding us of the subjugation of King George and the valiant stories of the citizens who left their homes and their farms to fight for a new–fangled idea — self–government.

But, for all the posturing and preening by politicians in both parties, relatively few really seem to comprehend what is going on. Most of them, it seems to me, need to study up on their history — especially the ones who are supposed to be so knowledgeable about Americans and the "American way."

Recently, I read an interesting article — "The Education of President Obama" by Peter Baker in the New York Times Magazine.

And the thought that kept occurring to me is how the education of a president often seems to mean at least moderate and sometimes severe growing pains for the rest of us.

Even when what the president is learning should have been obvious — even to those presidents with the most rudimentary knowledge of American history (never mind a constitutional scholar).

I think that one of the most revealing aspects of Baker's article is Obama's admission that he neglected "marketing and P.R. and public opinion" after he took office, as if that was his presidency's only barrier to greatness.

He and his subordinates thought the hard part was over when the election had been won. But the hard part was just beginning. And the Obama White House thought it could achieve lasting change through the sheer force of its personality and the power of persuasion.

There was a regal sort of arrogance in this that we've seen all too often in modern American presidents. True, some revive their political fortunes, but it requires them to make the kind of compromises that I'm not sure Obama is capable of making.

"It took Clinton and Bush some time to really grow into the presidency," Baker writes, "until they wore it comfortably."

So perhaps there is hope for this president.

But, if he is to succeed in 2012, he needs to be aware of how many people have been losing their hope in the last couple of years.

And how quickly they will turn against him if he fails to deliver what they want.

As bad as things may seem today, this is only a warning shot across Obama's bow. The next two years will be the true test of his leadership — and his responsiveness.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Can the Democrats Hold the Senate?

The math in this year's Senate races is really pretty easy to understand.

Democrats actually hold 57 seats in the Senate. There are two third–party/independent senators who caucus with them and usually vote with them.

But, from late June of last year, when Al Franken was declared the winner of the Minnesota Senate race, until January of this year, when Republican Scott Brown won the special election to pick the person who would complete the unexpired term of Democrat Ted Kennedy, the Democrats controlled 60 seats — which, at least in theory, protected them from the threat of a filibuster by the minority party.

In theory — if not in practice — the Democrats could have done anything they wanted to do in that six–month window of opportunity.

But, if they took advantage of that opportunity and rammed through any landmark legislation during that time, I guess they must have assumed that the voters would just know without being told.

And that is a very dangerous assumption to make. (Politics, as you may have noticed, is not a good profession to choose if one is squeamish about self–promotion.)

At the same time, I can understand the frustration of some people in public service who do good deeds all the time and don't want to take credit for them — but then get criticized for not doing enough simply because they assumed the voters would be smart enough to make note of what they had done.

They seldom do, of course. That's part of the reason why the most successful politicians are the ones who learn early how to repeatedly exploit their own accomplishments, as meager as they might be, and tear down the opposition at every opportunity.

There are people in both parties who excel at this. And it can be frustrating for the rest of us who just want to see government do what it is intended to do — and don't particularly care who gets the credit.

"The masses are asses," an old friend of mine liked to say. And, after just about any election, you can find someone who will say something similar.

That being the case, I have no doubt there will be many Democrats expressing such a sentiment after Nov. 2 — but, if they hope to win an election in the future, they won't say it too loudly.

Anyway, unless the Republicans can count on the two third–party/independent senators to vote with them, the GOP needs to win at least 10 Senate seats to claim a majority in that chamber.

A gain of nine seats won't be enough. Nine seats would make the division a tie — and Vice President Joe Biden would cast the deciding vote in the case of a tie. If you're a Republican, that isn't really what you're looking for.

Ten seats is a tall order. That's 10% of the total.

But is it really so far–fetched? Yesterday, I predicted that Republicans would increase their total in the House by 45 seats — and that is more than 10% of that chamber's total.

Now, it is true that such a shift in the Senate is quite uncommon. It has happened only a handful of times in the last 100 years. But it is not unprecedented.

Republicans won 12 formerly Democratic seats in 1980 when they took control of the Senate. In 1958, Democrats seized the Senate when they won 13 Republican seats plus two newly created seats.

Republicans also enjoyed a double–digit gain in 1946. Democrats had double–digit gains in 1932 and 1910.

In 1994 — when Republicans seized control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since the 1950s — the GOP only won nine Senate seats. But that was impressive enough, and it was more than was needed for the Republicans to take control of the Senate from the Democrats.

In 1986, Democrats won eight seats as they took back control of the Senate for the first time in Ronald Reagan's presidency.

But that is what happened in the past. What is going to happen in the immediate future?

Well, let's start by acknowledging that about one–third of the Senate seats are up for election in any given election year. So roughly two–thirds of the members will be back in Washington the January after the election.

Sometimes the number of seats that will be on the November ballot exceeds one–third. That's the case this year. Both the president and vice president were sitting senators when they were elected in 2008, and temporary replacements had to be named, but it was known all along that special elections would be held this year to pick their successors.

And, then, President–elect Barack Obama chose two sitting senators to join his Cabinet — so similar arrangements were necessary in those states.

And, following Sen. Robert Byrd's death last summer, a special election had to be held in West Virginia to pick his successor.

As a result, the occupants of nearly 40 Senate seats will be decided in this election.

Yet only about half of the races are regarded as being competitive — to any extent — and that includes races in which the nominee of either party is said to be likely to win or the voters are said to be leaning in either direction.

Among the seats that are on this year's ballot are seats that are regarded as safe — in both parties. Democrats can expect Daniel Inouye, Barbara Mikulski, Chuck Schumer and Patrick Leahy to be returned to the Senate, just as Republicans can be confident that eight of their incumbents are in no danger (and that open seats in Kansas and Utah will remain in GOP hands).

Can the Republicans achieve a net gain of 10 seats under those circumstances?

The Senate

Let's examine this from three perspectives:
  • Seats Likely to Flip From Republican to Democrat: At this point, the Democrats seem unlikely to capture any of the currently Republican–held seats that are on the ballot in 2010 — with the possible exception of Jim Bunning's vacated seat in Kentucky. That appears to represent the Democrats' sole chance to pick up a seat from the other party, and it is regarded as a tossup by most political analysts.

    But recent polls from both Mason–Dixon and Rasmussen say Republican Rand Paul has a five–point lead. In the waning days of the election, it will become harder to make up that much ground.

    So it appears probable, at this point, that Republicans will hold that seat — and, thus, retain all 41 of the Senate seats they currently hold. That doesn't mean that Republicans are certain to retain all their seats. Republicans do hold vacant seats in which their nominees are in front (i.e., Missouri and New Hampshire), but not by enough to make victory a sure thing at this point.

    And, while there is some question about whether Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was defeated in her bid for renomination by Alaska's Republicans, can succeed in her write–in attempt to hold her seat, there seems to be little doubt that either she or the Tea Partier who toppled her will win. The Democrat really doesn't appear to have any hope of winning in that libertarian state.

    Likewise, in Florida, where Republican–turned–independent Charlie Crist is running second to Republican Marco Rubio, the Democratic candidate is so far behind that he appears to have no chance.

    But those seats — as well as the one in Ohio — are open seats. In races where Republican incumbents are on the ballot, few, if any, are in any kind of jeopardy. Louisiana's David Vitter, for example, seems to be safely ahead, and North Carolina's Richard Burr is in front, but he doesn't seem to have persuaded a majority of likely voters yet.

    Nevertheless, most political analysts refuse to irrevocably close the door on any possibility that the challenger(s) in those races might win.

    So hope lives for Democrats in those states — at least until Nov. 2.

  • Seats Likely to Flip From Democrat to Republican: I'm sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that the story is quite different on the Democrats' side of the aisle.

    With nine days remaining until Election Day, Republicans now seem all but certain to win the seats being vacated by Democrats in Indiana and North Dakota.

    As for the Democratic incumbents who are on the ballot ...

    The news is not good for Russ Feingold in his bid for a fourth team as the senator from Wisconsin. He may well win, but polls suggest he faces the most significant challenge he has ever faced.

    If it is true, as polls have been saying all year, that Republican voters are more energized about voting this year than are Democrats — and I suspect it is — Feingold's chances may depend on the enthusiasm level for other races on the ballot.

    But neither Feingold nor his supporters can find much comfort in that. The Republican who is seeking the governorship that is presently held by a Democrat enjoys a nine–point lead in a recent poll so if there is any trickle–down benefit to be had, it probably will be on the Republican side. (Wisconsin's governor announced last year that he wouldn't be running for another term.)

    And, well, I suppose the less said about Blanche Lincoln and her quixotic quest for a third term as the senator from Arkansas, the better.

    So that's a net gain of four seats for the Republicans.

    Which brings us to ...

  • The Battlegrounds: The challenge, therefore, facing the Republicans — assuming that they can count on winning those four seats I just mentioned — is to win at least six of seven Democratic seats that are currently rated as tossups.

    If they do, they will reclaim the majority in that chamber. Think they can do it?

    Yesterday, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times acknowledged that Republicans are "in a strong position to win the House" but insisted that Democrats are clinging to "a narrow edge in the battle for the Senate."

    If that edge is as narrow as it seems to be — and it appears to be paper–thin — it may not take much of a nudge in either direction to push many of these states into the other column.

    Let's look, briefly, at those seven states:

    California — Sen. Barbara Boxer has been seen by many as unbeatable. But I think that, like the unsinkable Titanic, she, too, can go down.

    And the New York Times reports that Republicans in California have been energized by their desire to defeat Boxer.

    Recent polls conducted by Rasmussen and SurveyUSA have found that Boxer leads by two percentage points — which is well within the margin of error so such findings mean a statistical dead heat — but Boxer may well benefit from a reverse of the Wisconsin situation.

    Instead of trailing her challenger by two percentage points, Boxer leads. And, in California's race to choose a successor for its Republican governor, the Democrat leads by six points.

    In short, Boxer just might pull it off. But it's still too close for anyone to take for granted.

    Colorado — When Obama tapped Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to be a member of his Cabinet, Michael Bennet was named to fill the remainder of the term. Now, he's seeking a full term on his own.

    Bennet currently trails by three points, according to Reuters/Ipsos. It's a neck–and–neck race that will bear watching on Election Night.

    Illinois — Speaking of Obama ...

    When he was elected president, as just about everyone knows (or ought to know), he had to resign his seat in the Senate, and the governor of Illinois, who had to appoint Obama's replacement to serve until the voters could select his successor, was accused of offering the seat to the highest bidder.

    Eventually, of course, a replacement was chosen, and the replacement is not seeking a full term.

    But if the latest Mason–Dixon survey is correct, the Democrats won't hold on to the seat after the midterm elections are over.

    It's close, within the margin for error. Keep an eye on it.

    Nevada — When this election campaign is over, I definitely will not miss the weekly updates on the Sharron Angle–Harry Reid battle.

    No matter which side you're on, you have to admit it has been a volatile campaign. And the lead seems to change with each new survey. Right now, the wind seems to be favoring Angle — at least, according to Rasmussen.

    But that may change before the election. Angle leads by three percentage points. The week before that, her lead was two points. In the weeks prior to that, Reid held similar leads.

    Pennsylvania — Eighteen months ago, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter couldn't switch parties fast enough. Observers said he was salvaging his political career by climbing aboard the train with all the momentum.

    But that train left the station without him. He lost the Democratic primary a year later, and now it looks like Specter might have been doomed from the start. The fellow who was said to be likely to beat him in the Republican primary, Pat Toomey, is leading the fellow who eventually beat Specter in the Democratic primary, Joe Sestak, by three or four percentage points.

    Washington — Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is in a tight race for re–election. Mind you, she has never been the recipient of the kinds of victory margins that many incumbent senators get — typically, her support level has been in the mid– to upper 50s, which has been respectable, comfortable even, but never quite a sure thing until the election is over.

    In this apparently Republican year, the original "mom in tennis shoes" has been battling a formidable adversary, Dino Rossi, who lost the closest gubernatorial race in American history six years ago.

    Clearly, he knows how to compete for votes. And the race has been unusually fluid, even for Washington, where close races seem to be the norm.

    West Virginia — This race is perhaps the most bewildering of this year's Senate races for me, and there are many reasons for that.

    For starters, it wasn't on anyone's radar until Byrd died in late June. I don't know if Byrd would have sought another term when his current term expires in 2012. He was in his 90s, after all, and he had been in poor health.

    But when he died, I think most people believed the voters would elect another Democrat to replace him.

    True, West Virginia has voted Republican in the last three presidential elections. But, since 1958, only Democrats have been elected to represent the state in the U.S. Senate — and no West Virginia Republican has been elected to a full six–year term in the Senate since 1942.

    For another, Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, who is trying to win the special election that will choose the person who will complete Byrd's term, comes from a prominent political family and is popular with the voters. He was elected governor with nearly two–thirds of the vote in 2004, and he was re–elected with about seven–tenths of the vote in 2008.

    Yet he is in a seesaw battle with businessman John Raese. Last week, Rasmussen reported that Raese led by seven percentage points. But, prior to that, I saw a poll that had Manchin leading by 10 points, and the week before that, I saw a poll that showed the race was a dead heat.

    Who ya gonna believe?

    Raese is no political novice, although he has never held political office. He ran unsuccessfully against both Byrd (in 2006) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (in 1984), and he also ran an unsuccessful bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination (in 1988) so there seems to be little about waging a statewide campaign in a largely rural state that could possibly come as a surprise to him now. He just hasn't experienced the successful part.

    But I have a hunch that's going to change.
My Bottom Line: Of these seven battleground races, I believe Republicans will win five, giving them a total of nine pickups from the Democrats. I believe Boxer and Murray will hang on to their seats; the remaining Democrats will lose.

That means that the Republicans will control 50 seats and the Democrats will control 50 seats (48 of their own plus the two independent/third–party senators who caucus with them).

Friday, October 22, 2010

Predicting the House

I was never a mathematician.

I mean, when I was a child, I did all right on my multiplication tables. And I managed to keep up with my classmates — sort of — when we moved on to more advanced types of math, like algebra and geometry.

But I must confess that, when we got into numerical constructions that involved figures that went into five or six digits or more, that was about the point where I got off the bus.

I do understand enough about math to know that the Democrats are about to get pummeled. I don't know how badly, but I suspect that it will be impressive, much like the 1994 midterms — and with about the same outcome, too.

Anyway, today my attention is on the battle for the House. In the next couple of days, I will write about the battle for the Senate.

As I say, I am not a mathematician. But I know the numbers are crumbling for the Democrats.

And many of them seem to be caught by surprise, like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. How could that be possible? The signs have been all around them for more than a year.

First, there were all those polls showing slippage for both Barack Obama and the Democrats after the euphoria of the spring of 2009 wore off.

But many Democrats chose to ignore the signals the polls were sending to them. I distinctly remember one of my friends admonishing me that polls aren't accurate, that no matter what the polls were saying, the voters would stick with Obama and the Democrats because the Republicans were clearly to blame for all the nation's ills.

And they went forward, full speed ahead, with an increasingly unpopular health care proposal while ignoring the very issue that had made Obama the first Democrat in more than 30 years to receive a clear majority of the vote — job creation.

It got a little harder to ignore the gathering storm when Republican Scott Brown captured Ted Kennedy's Senate seat back in January. Many Democrats were understandably stunned by that development.

But Jeff Jacoby suggested, in the Boston Globe, that the Democrats had been handed a "blessing in disguise."

His only condition? "[I]f only they are wise enough to recognize it." And the Democrats were assuaged.

Well, I guess we'll find out if they were that wise in a little more than a week. But I never felt that they were, and their last–minute attempts to breathe life into an employment picture that is half again as bad as it was the day Obama took office have been transparent, at best.

In their hearts, Democrats seem to know what is coming; the recriminations have already begun.

I'll give Obama credit for realizing that he failed to give adequate attention to the political side of issues in the first half of his term and for placing the blame for it squarely on his own shoulders — well, sort of.
"I think that one of the challenges we had two years ago was we had to move so fast, we were in such emergency mode, that it was very difficult for us to spend a lot of time doing victory laps and advertising exactly what we were doing, because we had to move on to the next thing," Obama said. "And I take some responsibility for that."

The attitude was to get the policy right, "and we did not always think about making sure we were advertising properly what was going on," Obama continued.

CNN wire staff

Well, as Mario Cuomo observed a quarter of a century ago, "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." And this president, while gifted at the poetry part, has never been able to master the prose.

Much like his predecessor, he just can't seem to take the blame for anything.

And that, I suspect, is at the heart of the disconnect between Obama and the voters. Obama feels compelled to remind the voters that he inherited the bad economy. But that isn't the problem.

The problem is that the voters already understand that. Their disenchantment is not due to origin. It is due to the absence of evidence of improvement.

Obama may think all sorts of grand things about himself and his historically inevitable role, but the thing that broke open his race with John McCain was the economic implosion and the massive hemorrhaging of jobs that continued through his first year as president.

He has never been enough of a politician to recognize the one thing that the voters expected from him above all else — leadership through harrowing economic times. Even if a president can't produce jobs, he should be enough of a politician to know how to take credit for his efforts to promote job creation by those who can do it.

That is called reassuring the voters. And this president, as intelligent as he is, couldn't grasp the national need for that. Even if you have limited knowledge or understanding of history or human psychology, you know that Americans respond favorably to — and remember with fondness — presidents who feel their pain.

Presidents who appear aloof or distant in trying times usually do not remain president very long.

Many were expecting some sort of solidarity from the coalition of irregular and first–time voters who fueled Obama's election two years ago.

But, one by one, the groups that helped Obama by actually coming out and voting for him in unprecedented numbers on Election Day 2008 have been slipping away from the president's party (lately, Helene Cooper and Monica Davey indulged in some hand–wringing in the New York Times about the defection of women voters — who usually vote for Democrats but appear to be pulling away from them this year; so, too, did Liz Sidoti and Darlene Superville with the Associated Press).

They aren't necessarily switching parties. They're just resuming their usual pattern — and not voting at all. Some may be disappointed — as idealists often are — and some may feel permanently alienated from the system, but there are always some of those.

It's just more pronounced this time, with so many first–time and seldom–participated voters who showed up to vote for Obama last time — and now appear to be living down to expectations in the midterm.

There's no telling, of course, what these folks might do in 2012. But one thing, I think, can be said with some certainty as we approach Election Day 2010: even if the Republicans aren't winning over these folks in the midterm, Obama isn't retaining them. Electorally, they might as well not exist. They might as well be one of George Orwell's "unpersons."

Meanwhile, the GOP base — the composition of which has been fairly consistent for the last two or three decades — is said to be energized and eager to vote.

Whether turnout is low or high, Gallup is saying, Republicans stand to win and win big. Pollster Peter Hart recently said the Democrats face a Category 4 hurricane on Election Day.

The House

And I was reminded of something John Boehner said about six months ago: "at least 100 [House] seats are in play." Many political observers scoffed at such bravado; after all, what Boehner suggested would be truly historic, unprecedented in this nation's history.

(Well, a 100–seat swing might be unprecedented, but we have come close to that at times in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century.)

No matter what has happened in the last six months, to be honest, it still doesn't seem likely that the Republicans can win 100 House seats from the Democrats.

Of course, Boehner didn't say Republicans would win 100 seats, only that 100 would be in play. And, while each party would like to think it can win all the seats that are in play in a given election (and can devote seemingly endless hours to concocting scenarios in which it is conceivable to do so), such a thing simply never happens in modern America.

But today, some of the foremost political observers in America are suggesting gains that even they might have found impossible to believe only a few months ago.
  • Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and perhaps the most spot–on political prognosticator in America today, predicts that Republicans will gain 47 House seats.

    To put that into context, let's look at the largest gains experienced by either party in the last half century — Republicans won 54 seats in 1994, 47 seats in 1966 and 34 seats in 1980, and Democrats won 49 seats in 1974, 49 seats in 1958 and 34 seats in 1964.

    If Sabato is correct — and last time, he was darn near perfect — it would match the Republicans' gains in 1966.

    Oh, and take note, you Boehner defenders — Sabato says 99 Democrat–held House seats are in play.

  • Nate Silver of the New York Times predicted something similar.

    The GOP, he said, will win 49 seats on Nov. 2.

  • Charlie Cook, another accurate political handicapper, projects a 52–seat gain for the Republicans.

    Which puts him in roughly the same range as the other two ...

  • But Jay Cost's prediction at The Weekly Standard dwarfs them all.

    Cost says Republicans will win 61 seats. That would be their biggest gain in more than 70 years.
No matter which one you think is more likely to be correct, the Republicans would take control of the House. They need to win 39.

I, too, think the Republicans will capture control of the House. I think Cost's prediction is too extreme, that it is more likely to be somewhere between Sabato and Cook.

I'm more inclined to favor Sabato — but I think his number, too, is too high — and say that I expect the Republicans to win about 45 House seats.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

He Might Have Been a Giant

I'm sure you've heard the saying, "There's a sucker born every minute."

Most folks will tell you that P.T. Barnum said that. Actually, according to, one of Barnum's competitors said it — and it is connected to a hoax that was perpetrated 141 years ago today.

And, oddly, Barnum was linked to the hoax — but he didn't try to pull it off. He just wanted a piece of the action.

The hoax involved the so–called "Cardiff Giant," a 10–foot tall "petrified man" who was discovered by some well diggers on a farm near Cardiff, N.Y., on Oct. 16, 1869.

The hoax originated when an atheist named George Hull got into an argument at a revival meeting over a passage in Genesis about how giants once roamed the earth. The argument inspired Hull to create a "petrified giant," bury it and arrange to have it discovered.

Hull had a block of gypsum carved out in Iowa, then shipped it to Chicago, where a German stone cutter was hired to chisel it into the likeness of a man. The carving was subjected to various treatments to give the "body" an authentic appearance, then Hull shipped it to his cousin's farm in New York in November 1868.

Nearly a year later, the well diggers were hired and instructed to dig in precisely the spot where the "giant" had been buried the previous year. Upon their "discovery," one of the diggers was said to have exclaimed, "I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!"

Anyway, Hull began cashing in on the "find" almost immediately, erecting a tent over the site and charging admission, which he doubled after a couple of days.

There were scholars who insisted the "giant" was a fake. There were geologists who tried to tell anyone who would listen that there was no physical evidence supporting the digging of a well in that particular spot. Yet there were also ministers who insisted the "giant" was genuine.

Hull sold his interest in the "giant" to a five–man syndicate that included a fellow named David Hannum. They put the "giant" on display and drew such crowds that Barnum made an offer for it, but he was turned down.

So Barnum hired a man to make a copy, then put his copy on display and claimed that his was the original and the other was a fake.

Upon hearing of this, Hannum dismissed both Barnum's claim and those who believed it, saying, "There's a sucker born every minute."

The whole thing wound up in court, where it was established less than four months after the discovery that both "giants" were frauds. Hannum had sued Barnum for calling his "giant" a fake, but, when both were revealed to be fakes on Feb. 2, 1870, the judge let Barnum off the hook, saying he could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.

And now you know the rest of the story.

God Only Knows

Today would have been my friend Phyllis' birthday.

Regular readers of this blog might remember when Phyllis died back in August, and I sought to use my blog as a way of coming to terms with the sense of loss I was feeling.

Well, actually, I used all three of my blogs that way. In addition to this blog, I write a blog about movies and music and books, and I write another blog about sports. My memories of Phyllis transcend topics so, at one time or another after she died, I felt compelled to mention her in each of my blogs — more extensively in some than others.

How am I doing? Well, I'm OK, I guess. I'm still having my random thoughts, my doubts about the afterlife and all that. But, while this could be said to be part of my grieving and healing process, I want to focus today on some random memories of Phyllis.

Because, no matter how I'm feeling or how I'm coping (or trying to cope) with my loss, October 16 is and always will be Phyllis' day in my mind.
  • Phyllis and I met in sixth grade. In my then–small hometown, children went to one of three elementary schools, depending upon where their homes were located. Phyllis and I went to different elementary schools through the fifth grade, then the students from all three elementary schools were mixed together in the middle school melting pot, and (assuming their families remained in town) they stayed together through the end of high school.

    Consequently, when you advanced to middle school and started sixth grade, there were the familiar faces of people you had known since first grade and a whole bunch of unfamiliar faces, people you needed to get to know because they were likely to play important roles in your life for the next seven years.

    Middle school was a real change. In the first three grades, as I recall, students had the same teacher all day. In fourth and fifth grades, we had different teachers for different subjects, but we moved from one teacher to the next as a group throughout the day. The only face that differed from one class period to the next was the teacher's.

    In middle school, the structure was pretty much what it was for the rest of my public school life. There were hour–long class periods, and one's teachers and classmates changed from one hour to the next.

    I might start the day in math class, for example, but then, when first period was over, I would go to my next class, which might be history or English or science or whatever. There might be some students in that class who were with me in first period but not always — and rarely very many.

    I remember quite well the sea of faces that greeted me on that first day of middle school. I couldn't tell you who most of them were, but I do remember Phyllis.

    Now, as I wrote in August, I always think of music when I think of Phyllis and, for some reason, I think of "My Sweet Lord" when I try to remember the first time we met. Since I wrote that, though, I have been less and less certain that the song actually was playing nearby, on the radio or a stereo, when we met.

    I speculated a couple of months ago that that song may have been a hit on the radio when Phyllis and I started sixth grade. Maybe it was. Or maybe my mind is linking a popular song from that period to Phyllis because of her flair for music — or because of her faith in God.

    In short, there may be no event from my childhood that is buried in my subconscious mind that should make me think of "My Sweet Lord" — but I think of Phyllis when I hear it, anyway.

    God only knows why.

    I guess the earliest memory I have of Phyllis that is based on an actual event is from those early days of middle school, when everything was new.

    Our teacher — a middle–aged black woman (the first black teacher I ever had, by the way) — was going through the class roll and trying, without much success, to pronounce some of the most difficult surnames in our class. (Years later, many of those names would cause similar pronunciation problems for the folks who had to call out our names as we walked across the stage to receive our diplomas the night of our high school graduation.)

    Phyllis' last name was Yarbrough so, alphabetically, hers was always the last — or nearly the last — name to be called. By the time our sixth–grade teacher got to her name, she seemed to be on the verge of just giving up and looked out at the young faces in the room, seemingly searching for help, and she just said, "Phyllis ..." and sort of trailed off.

    Phyllis had been through that before, and, without batting an eye, she told the teacher that other teachers had had trouble pronouncing it, too. One teacher, she said, called her Phyllis Yarber. Then she told the teacher how to pronounce her name.

    But if the teacher got it wrong, Phyllis said, she shouldn't worry about it.

    "I'll answer to just about anything!" she assured the teacher, and the rest of the class laughed.

    As nearly as I can tell, that was the first time we met. I knew, right then and there, that I liked her. And I think the rest of the class felt the same way.

    I even mentioned that memory to Phyllis during one of our Facebook "chats" in the last year of her life. She didn't exactly recall the incident, which was understandable, I guess. How could one remember a single incident from one's childhood?

    But that memory has remained with me, and I hope it always does because — to me — it says so much about who Phyllis was.

  • She was born just about six weeks before I was. One day shy of six weeks, as a matter of fact. Exactly 41 days.

    So, on Sept. 15, I quietly noted the fact that I had lived as long as Phyllis did. A month has now passed since that day.

    Even if I die in the next few minutes, I still will have lived longer than my friend. But I doubt that I have acquired as much wisdom as she did.

    And I really don't think my death, whenever it comes, will be as significant to as many people as hers.

    That isn't really a regret, just a statement of a fact, recognition of how much she meant to so many people.

    You know how, when you toss a pebble into a pond, it creates rings that start out small but keep expanding until they reach the shoreline — or whatever physical barrier they may encounter? That was what Phyllis' influence on people always seemed like to me. It started small, with the initial contact, and then got greater and greater.

    I guess most people have a similar ripple effect — for good or evil — on all the lives they touch. It is more pronounced, I suppose, with those who are at the extremes.

    A serial killer, for example, may leave in his wake the parents, siblings, lovers, children, friends, classmates, co–workers of his victims, and, if he is given the death sentence, few, if any, of those people will mourn his passing when it is carried out.

    But there are those at the other end of the spectrum, like Phyllis, who encourage the people in their lives, who lift them up and help them find their way.

    And, as the angel Clarence told George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," they leave a huge hole when they aren't around.

    Phyllis left a considerable hole in a great many lives.

    There was a time, back in January, when I was pursuing what appeared, at the time, to be a promising writing opportunity. Part of my "audition" — for lack of a better term — required me to submit ideas for a potential TV show that would be aimed at children in the 8–12 age range.

    I have never married and I have no children of my own, so I didn't have much experience upon which to draw, but, in the last couple of years, I have reconnected (through Facebook and other sources) with many old friends who have been married and who have raised children. And I sought input from many of them.

    To be totally honest, I was really amazed at the response I got. I didn't ask for Phyllis' input because, although she had two stepsons, she didn't raise them, but I told her about the assignment and I listened, as always, to anything that she had to say.

    Anyway, I remember talking to her about the response I had received from maybe two dozen of the women with whom Phyllis and I went to school. I never thought of myself as particularly popular when I was growing up, and many of the women who responded to my inquiry were the sort who struck me, when I was a teenager, as being among the elite.

    They were, in my eyes, the beautiful people, and, when I was a teenager, I didn't think they would want to have much to do with the likes of me.

    But maybe I was wrong. Or maybe (probably) attitudes changed over the years. Anyway, I was telling Phyllis about the response to my inquiries. I guess, in spite of my best efforts, some of that inner 14–year–old boy came to the surface, and she could tell how astonished I was.

    "Sounds like a lot of people love you," she said.

    That was such a typically Phyllis thing for her to say yet, in a way, it took me by surprise. If we had been sitting in the same room and we'd been having that conversation, I probably could have said it with her, word for word — and we might have laughed, the way that only people who have known each other for a long time can.

    That's one of the things I will always remember about Phyllis. The laughter. She was always laughing. And she never laughed at you. She laughed with you.

    If she ever laughed at anyone, it was herself.

    Anyway, I might well have anticipated — in a Radar O'Reilly kind of way — what she was going to say.

    But it surprised me, too, because it contradicted what I have always thought about myself and my relationships with many of the people I knew growing up.

    Maybe it's true that most people simply cannot see themselves as others see them.

    God only knows.

    But if anyone I ever knew was truly loved by many, it was Phyllis. I don't know if she ever knew that. I hope she did.

  • For whatever reason, I've been remembering, this morning, a truly meaningless incident from our high school days. Phyllis and I were in some sort of civics class together, and one night we were attending a city council meeting for that class — perhaps as an assignment, perhaps for extra credit. We were keeping notes that we were to turn in to our teacher.

    Anyway, something came up during the meeting, and Phyllis and I got kind of sidetracked by it. One of us started writing a note to the other, then handed the notebook to that person, who read it and wrote a response in his/her notebook and handed it to the other one.

    This process was repeated over and over and over for the rest of the meeting, creating a running dialogue that balanced precariously between the two notebooks. I recall neither of us mentioning any of the agenda items that were discussed after we veered off on our tangent.

    I also recall that we started giggling a few times, which drew disdainful looks from some of the council members so we tried to stifle our laughs. After all, we wanted to remain in the council room.

    Somehow, we avoided being ejected. But the episode wasn't over.

    Now, for the fallout ...

    Our teacher, who retired several years ago and may or may not still be living, was apparently stressed to the max by trying to grade our notes/papers.

    I don't remember the grades (or extra credit) we received, but I do remember that she wrote identical paragraphs at the end of our notes, complaining about having to juggle our papers to keep track of the conversation!

    And she half–threatened to give us only half credit for attending the meeting. But Phyllis and I didn't take that seriously. We were her two best students. She wouldn't lower our grades for being silly!

    Looking back on it now, it wasn't a great moment in education or community government, but it was a good example of the playful nature of our friendship.

    As I say, totally meaningless and probably a waste of a minute or two of your time, but a memory that brings a smile to my face. It is a real pleasure, on this day, to remember that evening all those years ago.

  • Even now, nearly three months since her death, Phyllis is teaching me things about life. Like how completely honest old friends can be with each other.

    In life and on Facebook, Phyllis rarely threw anything away. Facebook will post even the most innocuous of your activities, and Phyllis was a devotee of Facebook games like FarmVille and the like. On Facebook, you can delete anything on your "wall," but, if you visit Phyllis' page, you can find announcements about her achievements in FarmVille and other activities from a year ago — or longer.

    Anyway, not long ago, I was looking back at the things people wrote on her "wall" on this day last year. It was sort of like a time capsule.

    There were many messages that wished her a happy birthday or advised her to do something special. I'm sure you can fill in the blanks yourself.

    Then there was a post from Phyllis, and the birthday girl thanked her friends for their birthday wishes — and for not mentioning her age.

    Then there was a post from a mutual friend of ours from our high school days. "Gee, you're old," he wrote.

    That's the kind of thing that only an old friend can say.

    And it makes me regret all the more that I won't be able to enjoy the pleasure of Phyllis' company as I get older.

  • Not long after Phyllis died, I pointed out that she died on the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death.

    I guess that is appropriate. Phyllis, as I have said before, was a fan of old movies — and old movie stars. Her favorite was Clark Gable, who died when she was a toddler.

    I suppose, if Phyllis had been given a choice, she might have chosen a different star with whom to share her date of death. If she had lived another three months, she could have died on the anniversary of Gable's death.

    (Well, maybe August 5 was the next best thing. After all, Marilyn and Gable co–starred in what turned out to be the final movie for both.)

    But I only recently learned something about the day Phyllis was born. On that very day, George C. Marshall died at the age of 78.

    It seems fitting to me. Marshall was an accomplished man in many endeavors — a skilled military leader who helped prepare the Allied forces for the D–Day invasion (and who might have been president if he had been chosen — as was widely presumed at the time — to lead the invasion instead of Dwight Eisenhower), a humanitarian who, as secretary of state, oversaw the implementation of his Marshall Plan that played a crucial role in Europe's postwar recovery — and was rewarded with a Nobel Prize.

    Marshall was admired by many for his accomplishments on a worldwide stage. Phyllis' stage was considerably smaller, but her influence was no less to those whose lives she touched. She left behind many friends and admirers who will long remember her achievements.

    Well, Phyllis was one of those people who is hard to forget.
Most of the time these days, the memories of her life's achievements make me smile.

Those memories are made bittersweet, of course, by the knowledge that I can't share them with her. Ever again.

And there are still times when those memories bring tears to my eyes.

So, I guess, even on this day — Phyllis' day — when I want to think only of the happy times I shared with my friend, I can't entirely avoid my own conflicts.

I want to be happy for her, to be glad that the pain she experienced is over. I want to believe she is in a better place — but, while I do find personal inspiration, as I did when I was growing up, in the stories of Jesus' teachings, I can feel my faith waver on the subject of the afterlife.

And the questions have been more persistent since Phyllis died.

As I say, I'd like to believe she is in a better place. But, if I am honest with myself, I am not sure about it. I can only hope — perhaps mostly for selfish reasons — that there is an afterlife.

Because, if there is an afterlife, I can hope to someday see Phyllis again — as well as my mother and my grandparents and many other friends who are missed.

But, if there is not an afterlife, then this is all there is. Death will mean returning to the void from which I came.

I guess that wouldn't be so bad — except that it would make what happens here kind of pointless.

Well, I guess that depends on your point of view.

Phyllis was one of those people who believed that contributing in some way to an improved quality of life for those who follow is what matters, whether there is a God or not. She happened to believe that there is a God, and she felt called upon by God to do whatever she could to make things better for future generations — but, even if you could have proven to her, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God does not exist, she still would have felt that improving the quality of life for those who follow is what is important.

That's just the way she was.

That brings to mind an exchange we had in one of our Facebook chats in the last year of her life. We were talking about the 2008 election. Phyllis, as I wrote at the time of her death, was raised a Democrat, but she became a Republican when Ronald Reagan was elected president.

Anyway, in 2008, she voted for John McCain, but she spoke in our chat of how happy she had been for her black countrymen, most of whom supported Barack Obama, on Election Night. "I was glad that it was so empowering for them," she told me.

Seldom, if ever, in my life have I heard a member of one political party speak so generously of the supporters of a victorious candidate from the other political party.

But that was Phyllis. She never mentioned whether she was particularly moved by the experience of voting for a presidential ticket that included a woman (I presume it was her first time to do that. I mean, she could have voted for the Mondale–Ferraro ticket against Reagan, but I don't think she did). She only spoke of the boost Obama's victory gave to black Americans.

Sometimes, I visit Phyllis' page on Facebook. I'm not sure why. But it seems that others do, too.

Phyllis was cremated and her ashes were scattered in a meaningful place, which is not a bad thing, but the problem is that there is no grave to visit, no place to pay one's respects.

No place to seek a semblance of closure. And I'm sure that may seem, to my longtime readers, like a strange statement to come from me. They know I'm skeptical about the concept of closure. But the crazy part is that I do feel a kind of closure when I visit that page.

Well, perhaps closure is the wrong word. I'm just not sure what the right word would be. Peace, maybe? Or calm?

I think, this must be how people who have lost loved ones at sea — or, perhaps, how the friends and relatives of many of the September 11 victims, the ones of whom no trace was found — must feel. Maybe that is why I come to Phyllis' Facebook page. It may be why others do, too.

Most may be like me — periodic visitors who just drop by to look and think, to meditate, as if one were sitting next to a babbling brook or beneath a shady tree. But a few leave messages, even though they know Phyllis can't read them.

It is sort of like lighting a candle or leaving a bouquet of flowers. Therapeutic, I suppose.

It's kind of like an emotional/psychological yardstick. Do you remember how your parents would use a yardstick to periodically measure you to see how tall you were? I kind of feel those messages for Phyllis are like that. If you're missing her more than usual, you can leave a message on her wall and come back months later and compare how you are feeling to how you had been feeling then — and measure your emotional growth.

"Missing you," wrote one.

I know that feeling. There are often times when a simple thought crosses my mind — "I miss you, Phyllis." I don't know where that thought comes from or what prompts it. Just an honest statement. It seldom comes with a context — even one as simple as "Gee, I wish you were here."

Actually, I guess, I kind of prefer the times when there is a logical context for that feeling. I just started teaching again (on an adjunct basis) after several years away from it. Phyllis was once a teacher, and there are times when I really miss the insights she could have provided — and that I expected to receive until about two weeks before the semester began.

But often — inexplicably — just that simple thought — "I miss you, Phyllis" — is what crosses my mind. Nothing else.

This isn't really new for me. I have been having that same experience since my mother died 15 years ago. There has seldom been a day in all those years when I haven't thought, at least once, of how much I miss her.

Sometimes my thought is not addressed to either Mom or Phyllis in particular but with both in mind — as if their spirits were sitting in the room, nodding knowingly and silently, barred from communicating with me directly because of some heavenly dictum.

I know all too well what it is like to miss someone who is never coming back.

Another wrote that she was "happy that you are out of pain ... sad for the rest of us who don't get to joke around with you anymore."

And I agree with that. Phyllis was in a lot of pain in the last years of her life, and I'm glad that is over for her. But still I miss her. I can't help it.

I swear, I really didn't want to write about how I'm coping. Today is supposed to be Phyllis' day.

When will I stop missing you, Phyllis? Will I ever stop missing you?

God only knows.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Great Tragedies in Life

"There are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

There is an ongoing debate among scholars concerning who first said or wrote this.

I have often heard it attributed to George Bernard Shaw, and, indeed, it did appear (in a slightly different form) in his play "Man and Superman," which was written in 1903.

But the line, as I have entered it above, appeared in an Oscar Wilde play that was written more than a decade before. Based on that, I would have to give Wilde a pat on the back for it.

It's such a good line, I can understand why the devotees of both Wilde and Shaw would want to take credit for it. Yes, it's only a couple of brief sentences, but it says so much, though, doesn't it? What is implied is very thinly veiled.

And the essence of the truth it speaks should be kept in mind as one watches Barack Obama in the homestretch of the midterm elections — and his sprint past the finish line into the race for 2012.

Recently, writer Bob Woodward said the possibility of Obama replacing Joe Biden with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the 2012 ticket was "on the table" — something both Biden and Clinton denied.

(This is not new. I wrote about this possibility more than two months ago, when Doug Wilder proposed the same thing as a way to energize Obama's base.)

And tongues started wagging. Has Obama written off the midterms, abandoned his fellow Democrats and shifted gears in anticipation of his own re–election campaign? I think that, perhaps, he has, but — but, unlike many folks who are shocked! shocked! to find there is gambling going on in here — I don't think it is a recent development.

Woodward's "trial balloon" on the Hillary–for–veep question appears to be only the latest manifestation of a self–centered mentality in this White House. More than seven months ago, I wrote about Politico's own observations about Obama's 2012 preparations.

That was long before the primaries really began — but only weeks after Ted Kennedy's Senate seat had been lost to the Republicans. Following that, Obama suggested he got the message and was embarking on a new phase of his presidency in which he would emphasize job creation constantly, every day.

That, of course, didn't last.

Congressional Democrats insisted that they had gotten the message — and that they couldn't possibly be caught flat–footed, the way they were in 1994, because they had plenty of advance warning and could start preparing an effective counter–attack.

That, too, didn't last.

But it all told me a lot about what really motivates this president.

Which brings me back to the Oscar Wilde — or George Bernard Shaw, if you prefer — quotation I cited above.

It seems to me Obama is betwixt and between the two tragedies in life. In 2008, he got what he wanted. And, if his party loses its grip on legislative power, the rest of his presidency may be in jeopardy, and he may very well lose his bid for re–election.

It's nothing new, of course, for a president to see his fondest achievement slip through his fingers. Other presidencies have gone through this Shakespearean tragedy.

But perhaps the real tragedy for Obama would not be for his party to lose control of Congress — and, consequently, give him the kind of political ammunition that was handed to Bill Clinton, who could rail against an obstructionist Republican majority in his campaign for re–election — but, rather, for the Democrats to retain a slim majority in one chamber — or both — and thus be denied an obvious villain if (or when, depending upon your point of view) conditions don't improve.

That would be very similar to the Jimmy Carter years — during which Carter was swept into the presidency on an anti–Republican wave but rapidly lost voter support, then managed to retain reduced congressional majorities for his party in the midterms but was overtaken by events and went on to a resounding rejection in his re–election bid in 1980.

That is radically different from the scenario I hear many Democrats muttering about today. Obama can be an early 21st century Clinton, they say, bouncing back from a disastrous midterm to win a second term in the White House.

And perhaps he can. But there are many differences between now and the mid–1990s. For one thing, unemployment wasn't nearly as severe in 1994 as it is today. It's closer, actually, to what the country experienced in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Regardless of the barriers to legislative action that exist (i.e., the filibuster) that would take on greater significance with a reduced Democratic advantage, the voters in 2012 could look at the recent past and say that Democrats had been in the majority in Congress for the last six years, and a Democrat had been in the White House for the last four. If they don't see much change by that time, the story of Obama's presidency may look an awful lot like Jimmy Carter's.

And what about ... Hillary?

Well, Robert Shrum says observers should relax and take a deep breath. "Hillary won't venture a coup," he writes.

That comes to you from the same man who, less than two weeks ago, assured anxious Democrats that the Republicans will not gain majorities in either chamber of Congress.

See, Democrats? Nothing to worry about.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Coming Home?

In the late 1970s, movies about the experience of the Vietnam War and its aftermath were abundant — on both TV ("Friendly Fire") and the big screen ("Heroes," "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now").

And there was a movie called "Coming Home" — which was nominated for eight Oscars and won three — that examined the trauma of the war on the home front.

To a degree, I suppose, you could say that about the others, too — although much of the trauma that was examined in the others (and the even more introspective films that followed in the 1980s) was the trauma of battle (a subject that has been examined in the context of every war in which America has been involved) and not so much the trauma that was experienced by those who didn't actually serve in Vietnam but, nevertheless, had to live with its consequences.

Anyway, there is no truly relevant link between that movie and what I want to write about today, except for the film's title, which popped into my mind as I read articles suggesting that the ever–volatile American electorate was experiencing a new seismic shift away from the Republicans, who heretofore had been regarded as heavy favorites in next month's midterms.

(Well, perhaps there is an analogy to be made between a film about a war and the state of modern political conflict in America — but I'll leave that to others.)

Now, personally, I am deeply skeptical of any suggestion by anyone that the momentum is shifting — at least permanently.

Voters may be having second thoughts. This is something I have heard about since taking political science courses in college, where I became acquainted with what is called the "left at the altar" syndrome.

But that has been more frequently observed in presidential politics. Most recently, I recall hearing distraught Republicans insisting, right up to Election Day, that the tide was turning in 2008 — which, of course, it was not.

Some voters may have hesitated in the final weeks and asked themselves if they really wanted to change parties in the presidency, but few, if any, appear to have changed their votes as a result. The political pendulum continued to lurch leftward.

There have been relatively few moments in the history of mankind — let alone the comparably brief history of this nation — that had the power to move great numbers of people to the opposite side on even a temporary basis. Permanent shifts are more uncommon.

Yet it seems that every man who has won a presidential election has believed that he has been given a mandate to govern in a certain way, that his election was transformational.

Seldom, if ever, has he been willing to entertain the notion that the voters simply rejected the other guy — or, in his absence, as was the case in 2008, his party.

I suppose those who seek the presidency and those who invest much of themselves in electing these individuals don't want to think that anything that demands that much personal sacrifice can be lost in a seemingly casual manner. Perhaps that undermines them and their motivations.

The true believers, it seems to me, want to believe the voters have made the same kind of commitment that they have, and they simply won't believe it is possible to lose their support until it happens.

At this stage of a losing campaign, self–doubt starts to creep in. And then those on the losing side will seek the reasons why the political equivalent of a "perfect storm" occurred. Sometimes they start wondering before the storm strikes.

Most of the time, the evidence was all around them all along. They didn't see it — or they didn't want to see it.

In recent months, I have heard bewildered Democrats asking themselves what could possibly have gone wrong. How could the once hugely popular Barack Obama and his party have fallen so far from grace?

I've heard some people suggest that Obama was guilty of overreaching, of trying to do too much at once. And there may be an element of that in the voters' criticism. I believe that perception has fueled — at least, in part — the resistance embodied in the Tea Party movement.

Others have said that, when they went to the polls two years ago, they simply wanted the next president, whoever that turned out to be, to right the economy and start bringing unemployment down. The Democrats' general avoidance of the issue has alarmed them, frightened them, angered them.

For these and other reasons, the American voters appear to be poised to hand one or both chambers of Congress over to the Republicans. That's pretty bewildering for some folks. I've heard Democrats ask, "How can they vote for the party that drove the economy into a ditch in the first place?"

That seems perplexing on the surface, but the answer really is simple and, in its own way, logical.

In a two–party system, when voters are angry or frustrated or scared, their only recourse is to vote against the party in power. In 2010, many voters are angry and/or frustrated and/or scared, and many may rationalize that the Republicans have learned from four years of being in the minority after a dozen years of being in the majority.

Lately, both parties have taken encouragement from Gallup's latest generic congressional ballot.
  • Democrats eager to believe that the voters are "coming home" after considering their alternatives embrace Gallup's finding that, among registered voters, the race is neck and neck.

  • But Republicans enjoy a large advantage among likely voters, the ones whose voting histories indicate that they are likely to participate in the midterm elections. Not everyone does. And it has been observed frequently that the very groups that propelled Obama to the presidency and Democrats to their congressional margins two years ago — minorities, the young — do not have voting histories that make them likely voters.
Decisions are made by those who show up.

The enthusiasm factor makes all the difference sometimes. In 1994, there were many House — and even Senate — races that were decided by narrow margins.

But, in a democracy, a one–vote margin is as good as a million. There may be recounts, but, eventually, a winner will be declared.

In 1992, the Democrats won nearly identical congressional majorities to the ones Democrats enjoyed after the 2008 election. And, when the dust settled in 1994, the Republicans had seized both houses of Congress.

Much of what contributed to the Democrats' decline stemmed from two things — their failure to adequately address the economic problems that lingered after Bill Clinton took office and their ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of health care reform.

I, for one, have always found it to be ironic that Obama chose to center his presidency around the issue of health care reform — as if he was defying history to repeat itself. And you should never do that.

(It reminds me of an old Bill Cosby line from an album I listened to when I was a kid.

("Never say that things can't get any worse," Cosby told his listeners. "Because that's when the gremlins say, 'Worse!' ")

Don't challenge history. History always wins that one.

Yes, Obama did mention health care on the 2008 campaign trail — but it wasn't the initial focus of his candidacy (ending the war in Iraq was) and it wasn't the focus of his campaign after the American economy imploded. I recall it mostly being mentioned in an afterthought kind of way.

But, for whatever reason, Obama spent his political capital in pursuit of the passage of a contentious health care reform bill instead of seeking a truly bipartisan effort to stop the bleeding of jobs from the national economy.

Perhaps it was the arrogance of power that made Obama believe he could follow his own path in the presidency — and, in spite of themselves, the voters would see the wisdom of his ways.

Are the voters "coming home" in 2010? I don't think so.

But, if the Republicans do capture Congress this year, that triumph should come with a disclaimer — Political power evaporates quickly.

And Obama needs to study up on Bill Clinton's strategy for dealing with a Republican Congress in 1995. He was re–elected two years later.

And I'm getting the feeling that both parties need to be concerned about this Tea Party movement. There may not be many of the so–called Tea Partiers who win this time — but this movement seems to stem mostly from the sense that the folks in office — Republicans and Democrats — just don't listen to the people anymore.

So I would advise the folks in the next Congress to be sensitive to the voters' wishes long after November.

If they aren't, they're apt to discover this Tea Party movement has legs.