Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What's Past Is Prologue

Charles Manson died the other day, and I have struggled with my thoughts about that.

He was, after all, 83. He was in his mid–30s when his "Family" committed the 1969 Tate–LaBianca murders on his behalf, not quite 40 when he was convicted and sentenced to death, only to have his sentence commuted to life in prison when the death penalty was abolished in California.

Clearly he lived a lot longer than he probably expected when his conviction was handed down.

And he was the notorious mastermind of murders that shook the nation then but would hardly merit a passing glance from today's media.

There is no reason to mourn his passing. And yet I am conflicted.

In the past I haven't regretted feeling no sorrow over the deaths of those who were responsible for much suffering and showed no remorse for it. Haven't regretted it at all.

I even sympathized with those who celebrated when Ted Bundy was executed or Jeffrey Dahmer was killed by a fellow inmate or the Night Stalker died of apparently natural causes.

But it's a problem for me. It goes against my upbringing to rejoice when a fellow human being dies. I guess I was able to rationalize it better when I was younger. Not so much now.

I'm sure that when he died, Manson was no better than he was when he terrorized Southern California. Every time that I heard a comment he had made from prison, he seemed just as twisted as ever — and I suppose he will always be a textbook case for the argument that some criminals are completely irredeemable — and thus, there is no real point behind incarcerating them for a lifetime.

Except to preserve a life.

I understand the need some people have for revenge, and I don't want to minimize that. There is something to be said for an eye for an eye. I could even support it if I felt it guaranteed closure for the survivors. But it doesn't — not always, maybe not even a majority of the time.

And as Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Power of Anti-Incumbency

I have written here before of the advantages of being an incumbent officeholder in an election year. There is clearly a strong motivation for people to support the re–election of an incumbent. An incumbent has experience doing the job. His or her every move gets attention from the media back home, and free press coverage has a lot of value.

I have also written here about the hazards of midterm elections for the president's party (whoever the president may be).

The power of incumbency isn't always so powerful.

But often the ramifications of neither are apparent until after the elections have been held. Democrats realized too late what they were up against in 2010 and 2014; likewise Republicans didn't see the wave that was upon them in 2006.

Sometimes — but not always — you can get clues ahead of time through party primaries.

Because of their strengths, incumbents usually prevail in their parties. In a typical election, whether it is a presidential year or a midterm, most incumbent senators win renomination; at worst, one may be defeated by a challenger from within the party. Between 1946 and 2012, nearly 1,000 incumbent senators ran for re–election instead of choosing to leave office for one reason or another, and only 46 (or 5%) were denied renomination by their party's voters.

When more than one incumbent senator loses in the primaries, the problem is not confined to a single state or perhaps even region. If the number of incumbents who seek re–election and lose renomination gets higher than that, it is usually — but not always — a harbinger of things to come.

The worst year for Senate incumbents during the primaries was in the first election after the end of World War II. Thirty senators sought re–election that year, and six were denied renomination by their party's voters. That's 20%.

Harry Truman had become president following Franklin D. Roosevelt's death the year before. Even though the Allies had won the war, Truman was wildly unpopular — perhaps in part because Democrats had been in charge of everything for well over a decade but also because of his controversial handling of some high–profile postwar labor strikes — and the midterm election was, as it often is, a referendum on the president.

Truman was seen as such a liability, in fact, that he campaigned for few Democratic candidates — if any. The same phenomenon has been seen in recent years. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were kept at arm's length by their parties' nominees.

Republicans also benefited from what is considered a "good map" — in which the other party has to defend the majority of the seats on the ballot. Incumbents tend to benefit from such maps; open seats typically are much harder to defend.

As it was, the Republicans won seven Senate seats from incumbents who were on the ballot that fall — and captured six others, seizing the majority for the first time since 1930.

The next–worst year for postwar incumbents seeking another term came in 1950.

In the intervening four years, Truman scored his upset victory over Tom Dewey, and Democrats retook control of both chambers of Congress.

But by 1950 Truman was unpopular again, and once again the election was a referendum on him. Thirty–two senators ran for re–election and five of them (16%) were denied renomination. When the votes were counted in November, the Democrats lost ground in both chambers but still retained majorities.

In the Senate, four Republicans defeated incumbent Democrats, and one Democrat defeated an incumbent Republican. (As an historical side note, future President Richard Nixon, a Republican, flipped a Senate seat that year, too, but he didn't defeat an incumbent. The incumbent, a Democrat, retired.)

In the 33 elections that have been held since, the portion of incumbents who were rejected by their party's voters has been 10% or higher only four times. Most could be said to foretell trouble for one party or the other, depending upon who was in the Oval Office, or both — but not all. For example, 14% of incumbent senators were defeated in party primaries in 1968; while Democrats lost part of their majorities in Congress that year, they lost nearly as many Senate seats two years later — but only 3% of incumbent senators lost their primaries in 1970.

In 1978, the midterm of Democrat Jimmy Carter's presidency, 12% of incumbent senators lost their primaries, and 14% of incumbents lost their primaries in 1980, the year of the Reagan Revolution. In all, Democrats lost 15 Senate seats from the time Carter took office to the day he left Washington four years later. In hindsight, the primaries of 1978 and 1980 hinted at the voter frustration that had been building in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam and the trouble that lay ahead for Democrats in the general election of 1980.

For the next 30 years, most Senate incumbents who chose to run for another term won their primaries. Then, in 2010, 12% of Senate incumbents lost their primaries, perhaps heralding an era of discontent. The Senate remained in Democratic hands (but just barely), and the Republicans gained 64 seats to claim a House majority they retain today.

And sometimes so–called wave elections happen even when incumbents don't run into problems in the primaries, and the 2014 midterm is a great example. Republicans won nine Senate seats from the Democrats that year, and the primaries were not factors.

In short, incumbency is usually an advantage, but sometimes it is a hindrance. I recommend keeping an eye on the primaries next year to see if you can get any early clues as to the voters' mood.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sorrow for the Victims

I recall an observation from Thoreau that the more that people accept a concept or principle as valid, the less interested they become in its many applications.

That isn't exactly how he phrased it, but it is a truth that remains so today — and, I suspect, will always be true.

There is always a time when something that was previously considered unthinkable happens, and it is shocking — but the more it happens the less shocked we are.

It has become that way with terrorist attacks and mass shootings. And now, I fear, it is becoming that way with sexual abuse cases.

Sex scandals involving prominent people are not new, of course. Even in sleepy Central Arkansas, the buckle of the Bible Belt where I grew up, such a scandal reared its head when my district's longtime congressman was caught in a relationship with a stripper.

That kind of thing was shocking at the time even though it wasn't new.

And sexual abuse and harassment cases involving vulnerable young women and minors isn't new, either — but with such rapid–fire revelations focusing on more and more prominent people, one begins to develop a sort of numb acceptance. The response is that the point has been made.

For some reason that makes me think of a time when I worked on the copy desk at the old Arkansas Gazette. In a short period of time, there were two high–profile and extremely grim cases of fathers murdering their families — one of which occurred one dark, rainy night (really) in Little Rock. It was so dark and rainy that neighbors who happened to be up that late probably mistook the sound of gunshots for thunder.

Even if they had known what they were hearing, no one could have done anything to save the victims. The patriarch of the family shot his wife and daughters in their heads before turning the gun on himself.

The other murder case occurred around Christmas in a rural setting. The murders were carried out over several days as family members arrived to exchange gifts.

Those murder cases sent shock waves through all of Arkansas, but in hindsight the reaction would have become more muted if more fathers had flipped out and started killing themselves and their families.

I guess my overwhelming emotion is as it was then — one of great sadness for the victims — of whom there are many.

First and foremost, there are the children who have been scarred by people they probably trusted. We all have to grow up and face a sometimes ugly world, and we each do it in a different way. It is a bargain that is made, and it usually comes at a cost. The children in these cases were compelled to pay too high a price.

Yes, I feel very sad for them. But I don't know what can be done — except to try to be more courageous about speaking up when I think something is wrong. Still you can't legislate courage, can you?

And that leads me to a second group of victims — the rest of us.

As polarized as this country has become in recent years, there is little tolerance for those who deviate from what is expected at either extreme.

Or even those who insist on that old–fashioned concept of innocent until proven guilty.

I know that means evidence, and the problem with sexual abuse cases is that there are seldom witnesses. But witnesses aren't the only kind of evidence. In fact, accusations are not proof, no matter how many accusers there are.

Physical evidence is preferred. There may be some kind of trail or some sort of forensic evidence. Finding it probably requires a lot more work than most criminal cases but to obtain true justice, isn't it worth it?

As Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo said, "Justice, though due to the accused, is due to the accuser, too."

That still holds, doesn't it?

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Politics of the Unusual

Tomorrow Americans in some places are going to the polls, but this being an odd–numbered year means that most elections will be held next year.

Which brings me to another point: There is conventional wisdom about everything, I suppose, but it only goes so far, and then you're in uncharted territory.

The upcoming midterm elections of 2018 are a perfect example.

On the one hand, there is the conventional wisdom that the president's party always struggles in midterm elections. This is not a recent phenomenon. This is something that has been happening throughout our history. It doesn't disproportionately affect either party. George W. Bush's Republicans suffered just as much in 2006 as Bill Clinton's Democrats in 1994 or Barack Obama's Democrats in 2010.

Sometimes it is a very modest thing, with the president's party losing little ground, if any, on Capitol Hill; other times it is quite spectacular.

There are exceptions, of course, but those elections are usually preceded by a one–of–a–kind event — such as when George W. Bush's Republicans gained ground in Congress in the election a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

There was no precedent for that in American history.

I guess the closest thing would be the election that was held the year after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but that would not have been a good predictor for 2002. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats struggled in the 1942 midterms. Quite a different voter response. But it was a different world. Americans hadn't been able to watch the attack live in their living rooms in 1941.

There were other differences, too. Most, if not all, of the casualties at Pearl Harbor were in military service. They had agreed to put their lives on the line when they signed up. Their losses were tragic, but, to be honest, they came with the territory. Most, if not all, of the casualties on Sept. 11 were civilians. The folks who were working in the Twin Towers that morning took certain risks when they took their positions, too — there are risks with every job, aren't there? — but those risks had never before included the realistic possibility of an airplane deliberately crashing into your workplace.

Back to 2018.

On the other hand, while conventional wisdom can provide some helpful clues to voter behavior, recent elections have revealed an independent streak that was never seen before in the electorate — well, it had been seen before but never in the numbers we saw last year. Maybe the voters don't like being taken for granted and decided en masse — a la Peter Finch in "Network" — not to take it anymore. Folks in both parties have been guilty of taking voting blocs for granted. So if the voters feel taken for granted, it seems to me that candidates in both parties should be particularly sensitive to their constituents' concerns right now.

There are other things that usually contribute to the incumbent party's prospects — the pocketbook issues that directly affect people's lives. Is the economy thriving or sputtering? Is unemployment high or low?

The approaching midterms should provide fascinating research and lecture fodder for political scientists. They know the conventional wisdom, and they have been watching the news. They know that the polls indicate how unpopular the president is. That makes it sound like 2018 should be a big year for the out–of–power party. All the precedents of the last two centuries point to it.

Except that there is no precedent for 2018, either. Not really.

And that, I guess, is one of the consequences of the 2016 election, an election that was widely believed to be Hillary Clinton's to lose. And then she did precisely that.

We have rarely, if ever, had presidential elections like that one — in which one candidate seemed all but certain to win and then did not — and in my studies of history, I have found only a couple of elections that came close. One was the 2000 election in which Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the vote that has always elected America's presidents — the electoral vote. The other was the 1948 election, in which Gov. Tom Dewey was widely expected to defeat President Harry Truman — and then failed to do so.

But there were precedents for those elections, even if one had to go back a ways to find them. The 2016 election was decidedly not politics as usual — which, by definition, has no precedent.

Consider this: Hillary Clinton spent most of the 2016 campaign arguing that Donald Trump was unfit for office — but he won, anyway. Clinton in particular and Democrats in general have been quick to blame this on misogyny and, implausibly, racism, but that misses the greater point. I know many people who voted for Trump (before that some of them even voted for Obama twice), and I have yet to hear any of them say anything that could be interpreted as misogynistic motives behind their votes.

Those voters consistently expressed their concerns about specific issues — the economy and jobs — and they responded to the candidate who addressed those issues. Nothing new about that. Pocketbook issues are at the very core of politics as usual.

The voters knew Trump hadn't been a saint. They knew he had said and done things they didn't like, but they chose him anyway — which is a clear indicator that modern voters are more than willing to consider unconventional candidates to solve heretofore conventional problems. We are in a period of the politics of the unusual, and the 2018 midterms will tell us just how far the pendulum has swung, just how much the voters are willing to overlook in pursuit of a larger goal.

Further complicating the situation is that the economy is humming along. Like him or not, Trump's administration has presided over some of the results the voters wanted. Democrats can argue that the pieces of the recovery puzzle were put in place by the previous administration's policies, but the voters don't tend to think of things in those terms. They remember who was president when unemployment dropped below 4% or GDP exceeded 3%.

In other words, all bets are off for next year — and for 2020 — and for elections as far as the eye can see.

My major in college was journalism. My minor was history. I studied a little political science in college, and I have studied it informally for years, but I have never heard a lecture or read an entry in a textbook that discussed how an unsuccessful candidate for public office who had been expected to win should behave.

Instinct tells me that such a person would foster considerable good will by being gracious and sincere — and mostly silent.

But rather than acknowledge her own failings as a candidate, Clinton and her subordinates have spent the last year casting blame on others, the lion's share of which has been directed at Donald Trump and his alleged collusion with Russians — which, it turns out, was based on manufactured material from a dossier that had been paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

That revelation led to the uncovering of what could well turn out to be a veritable rat's nest of, to say the least, unsavory activity. While the full extent of it may not be known by Election Day next year, the fact that this has been causing some Democratic angst is clear in the fact that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, regarded as one of the leading candidates for the 2020 nomination, criticized the Clinton campaign and the DNC literally within hours of online publication of Donna Brazile's explosive allegations in Politico.

It is important for political observers not to get carried away with the idea that open seats — in which the incumbents, for whatever reason, are not running — represent opportunities for the parties that do not hold them. It is true in some instances, not true in others.

Take, for example, the congressional district in which I live — Texas' Fifth District, which has been represented by Republican Jeb Hensarling since January 2003. Hensarling announced recently that he won't be running for another term next year.

I have already heard some Democrats speak of how this is an opportunity for them to grab a House seat from Texas, especially since Dallas County (where the Fifth District is located) was one of the few counties to support Hillary Clinton a year ago.

I read an article in the New York Times over the weekend that didn't go so far as to say that vacancies meant easy opposition pickups but it strongly implied that the midterms will "reshape" the House.

That may be true in districts where the incumbent barely won the last time, but Hensarling has a long record of winning by wide margins. So, too, do Republican presidential candidates in the Fifth District. I feel safe in predicting that Hensarling's successor will be a Republican. The question is whether the district will choose a constitutional conservative like Hensarling or more of an establishment candidate.

Still, as I say, we're living in the age of politics of the unusual.