2012 Elections

Now that the tsunami of punditry on the President’s inaugural address has washed over us, the main conclusion of both his fans and detractors is left standing. He was aggressive in laying out his vision and did not so much as tip his hat to finding common ground with Republicans.

The Kansas Methodist, Rev. Adam Hamilton, chosen to preach at the National Cathedral Inaugural service, lauded the president for “a gift unlike any other President we have ever had” to cast a vision. However, Hamilton’s real message to Obama seemed to be when he told PBS news hour audiences that working across the partisan aisle should be Obama’s vision. Find issues, he counseled him, where you can work together and then build on that step by step to overcome the bitter partisan divide.

What does Hamilton’s vision mean in practice? All say Republicans and Democrats may be able to come together on an immigration policy. But then, why would anyone think they could move on to cure America’s partisan divide, or even reach agreement on any other issue. Is immigration reform the vision we are looking for? Do we just drop climate change, investing in education, gun control, equal opportunity economy, among other elements of Obama’s vision?

Finding common ground with Republicans should not be the centerpiece of Obama’s vision. As Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein told us a year ago in “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks,” America’s problem isn’t political polarization, it is the takeover of one party, the Republicans, by extremists. Those who are pushing to find consensus at all costs are elevating partisan rancor to the vision level and dignifying and validating extremism. To comment on the President’s Inaugural address, as Speaker Boehner did, that the President’s goal is to “annihilate” Republicans was a completely commonplace Republican statement―but extreme nonetheless.

Obama should not see his goal as finding common ground with extremists. Obama’s aggressive promotion of his vision is just that. If Republicans want to take it as aggression against them, they are wrong. He cares about his vision―not about annihilating Republicans. Republicans hate big government; they must hate politicians whose profession is mastering the art of governing. They are the last to say Obama should care more about placating partisan enemies than he does about succeeding in implementing his vision. He is prepared to leave all calls for nonpartisanship aside and go talk to the American people and get their direct support for his vision. What could be more American, more democratic?

Obama’s vision, in its whole and in its parts, should be what we are all talking about and not debating whether he has crossed some red line of the Republicans, who are so leaderless they don’t even have anyone to draw the red lines.

We must clearly separate America’s political dysfunction from a vision for America. Political dysfunction will get cured when the debate is on the vision. Honest disagreements on elements in a vision are welcomed. However, we should reject those who tell us that the President is aggressive and partisan and that his vision should placate the most extremely disaffected among us. That is not a recipe for success. Moving only where there is common ground is a recipe for disaster.
— Elizabeth Spiro Clark


President Obama talks of his vision of change for America.  Many commentators put down his talk in vague criticisms that seemed to call for him to hit back at the hyper-individualism/small government ideology of the Republicans in a more “ideological” way.  The President is not ideological, but he does represent a philosophy that America invented: pragmatism. He wants to find solutions that will work; he has found some and will find more.  The Affordable Care Act isn’t the ideology of “socialism,” as Republicans would have it, it is what will work to reduce health care costs, make Americans healthier and contribute to economic growth.

As Obama said in his victory speech last night:   “I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight.

I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”   — President Obama, Victory Speech

November 7, 2012


The Sunday before the elections, readers of the New York Times and the Washington Post got the strong message that the election was a “tossup”.   This was explicit in the case of the Post, which listed Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida and Ohio as tossup states.  Meanwhile in the New York Times, Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog was absent from the Sunday edition, which led with an “equally tight” theme for the Presidential race (“competitive states that right to the end are producing equal shares of hope and fear among conflicting signals about the outcome.”)

If you go online to FiveThirtyEight, the most detailed and authoritative analysis of election polling, you would have to ask what equal “shares of hope and fear” are they talking about? Of the argument the election is “too close to call,” Silver says:  “It isn’t. If the state polls are right, then Mr. Obama will win the Electoral College. If you can’t acknowledge that after a day when Mr. Obama leads 19 out of 20 swing-state polls, then you should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public.”

Of the Post’s seven “tossup” states, Silver lists only one – Florida – as a “tossup”.  In addition, Silver has Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Wisconsin as not just “leaning” Obama, but  as “likely” Obama (i.e. 80-90%).  Silver gives Obama an 85.1% of winning the Electoral vote.

The Post rather gives away its game with a chart where Obama needs from the “tossup” column only Ohio plus either Wisconsin or Colorado (or Ohio plus “likelies” Iowa and NH). The Post ignored its own giveaway sentence – buried in the text on ‘tossup” Ohio – that “virtually every public poll in the last 10 days shows Obama with an advantage.” But then, the Post needs its “tossup” states to make its story “entertainment”.

Is there a reason why the Post and the Times took this “dead heat” approach? Suspense  sells, but is it also that an entrenched “balanced reporting” imperative  trumps any objective analysis, just when objective reporting counts the most? (Note: to see what objective analysis means go to http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/03/nov-2-for-romney-to-win-state-polls-must-be-statistically-biased/#more-37099).

“There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it… My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” *
— Mitt Romney

Writing off the 47%: Unpatriotic
Appearing on the David Letterman show, Obama accused Romney of “writing off a big chunk of the country” and that Romney was wrong to suggest that “because someone doesn’t agree with me that they’re victims or unpatriotic.” “The one thing I have learnt as President is that you represent the entire country.” What is patriotic about Romney writing off the 47% and claiming he won’t be President of all Americans?

Quite apart from Romney’s clear contempt for 47% of Americans, he doubled down yet again on his contempt for facts by saying “they don’t pay taxes.” Well, for one, all those seniors getting social security and Medicare he hopes will vote for him paid payroll taxes while they were working.

And what is this whole “dependency-is-bad” screed? We are all dependent on each other. As Americans we create through our elected representatives public service institutions set up to benefit us all. Romney doesn’t want any institution that benefits Americans equally (except maybe a flat tax rate, that of course wildly benefits the very rich). In Romney world there is no sense we are in this together as Americans.

It is unpatriotic to divide America, discarding lower-income Americans as less worthy as individuals. When the sense of community is broken America is weakened.

The 47%: Disenfranchise Them!
In Romney’s view if you don’t pay taxes you don’t deserve a say in government. There is nothing in his worldview that wouldn’t fit a policy of returning to 18th century property qualifications for voting. In fact the Romney dismissal of 47% of Americans, fits perfectly with the actual drive of Republicans to disenfranchise Americans in the 2012 elections on the transparently dishonest grounds that they are safeguarding Americans from voter fraud.

In the most exhaustive study to date of voter fraud the non partisan News 21 found in its Who Votes Project that from the years 2000 to the present in the United States there were 2000 cases of voter fraud. Of that 2000 there were only 10 cases of voter impersonation- the only type of fraud photo ID requirements would catch. Given this research it is clear that the motive behind the Voter ID laws is to reduce the number of American citizens who vote, largely, if not solely, because they are assumed to vote for the Democratic Party. The disenfranchised are part of the 47% of Americans Mitt Romney feels aren’t real Americans, so why not disenfranchise them? On this theory, Democrats aren’t real Americans

You aren’t for America if you are Romney; you are for your part of America. Being patriotic means supporting American democracy. Passing laws meant to selectively disenfranchise American citizens for partisan gain weakens American democracy. It is unpatriotic.

The 47%: Is Obama one of them?
Republicans do not accept Barack Obama as their President, as American. The Senate minority leader has said the top priority of the Republican Party is to destroy and defeat the American President. That is unpatriotic.

Being patriotic means supporting American democracy. That means accepting the results of elections, participating in our democratic system of separation of powers, negotiating solutions in the necessary work of government. It means not taking pledges not to negotiate with the other party and owing fealty to non-elected political figures. Vowing obedience to a Grover Norquist no-tax-raise pledge is anti democratic. It is an insult to America. It is unpatriotic.

It deliberately weakens America in the world if the nation is urged not to stand behind its President and if policies are pursued internationally, not to strengthen America but to weaken the President. That is unpatriotic.

*Read more: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0912/81312.html#ixzz26pZDxvJI

Helen Dragas, Chair of the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, came to her position from a career as CEO of Dragas Companies, a real estate and construction firm. She brought to her position a reputation for resolve and decisiveness, which she demonstrated when she fired University President Teresa Sullivan with, initially at least, the support of 15 members of the 16 member Board. The Board was comprised almost entirely of individuals who, like Dragas, are heads of businesses or have business backgrounds. No reasons were given for Sullivan’s firing; the consensus opinion was that Dragas and some major donors wanted better cooperation from the President in bringing the University closer to a business model in its operations.

Dragas was appointed by a Democrat and has given money to Democratic politicians, so her action cannot be ascribed to a Republican Party agenda. However, it is hard not to see in this university leadership crisis the same downsides of a business background and culture at play that would be at play if Mitt Romney, touting his business credentials for the job, became President. It is hard to translate the goal of making money off of building and selling houses to nurturing the values of a great institution of higher learning. It is hard to translate buying up distressed companies, making money, often, off of their destruction rather than their improved operations, to guiding a nation to greater security and well-being for its citizens.

Autocratic decision-making style is not appropriate in either case. The Sullivan firing followed a secretive and abbreviated process that might be termed “model” CEO decision making. The firing immediately led to the resignation of one of UVA’s star academics, who clearly did not see his role as a division chief in a construction firm following orders. Romney has been noted for his secretive style as governor of Massachusetts.

Accountability for the Dragas decision and the swift reinstatement of President Sullivan came partly as a result of outraged student demonstrations in support of Sullivan. The chief mechanism for keeping a President of the United States democratically accountable are elections. If Romney is elected and doesn’t do well, then he can be “fired” at the next election. However, that scenario assumes that after four years of a Romney presidency, the lines of accountability will remain clear after outsourcing of government functions to corporate supporters and unlimited political money channeled from the top 1 percent to political campaigns. The chorus of students, professors, and graduates cannot turn around a national election. The answer is clear: we must work to re-elect President Obama.

Richard Mourdock is the Republican candidate for Senate in Indiana, following his defeat of veteran Senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. He is a man whose avowed mantra is never to compromise, meet in the middle, practice bi-partisanship but rather, as he said of his approach to office holding, “the highlight of politics is to inflict my opinion on someone else.” These are the words of a man with an authoritarian mindset. Mourdock is not alone. This is a clear propensity towards authoritarianism that characterizes today’s Republican party. It imbues every aspect of Republican culture and understanding of power, and it is playing out in battlegrounds of the 2012 election campaign through issues surrounding the role of Super PACS, the role of the church in politics and the role of business as a model for political leadership.

One way to look at the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited political donations by corporations, defined as “persons” with rights of free speech, is to see it as a license for corporations to “inflict” their views on others. Freedom of speech as defined in the Republican lexicon is the freedom to win and then inflict an absence of freedom on others. When Republicans use the word “freedom” think of them as saying “freedom to inflict.” Certainly that is a fair read on what another powerful institution, the current Catholic Bishops hierarchy wants to do to Obama’s Health Care Act. Its position is that religiously-affiliated hospitals or universities are legal persons whose religious freedom would be denied if they were forced to offer contraception in their health care plans. The Bishops continued their war against Obama (and women) even when Obama, seeking a principled compromise, shifted the mandate for contraception coverage to insurance companies. If the hierarchy eventually wins against Obama its “institution as person” can effectively “inflict” its views on non-Catholics, denying them contraception coverage.

In the Citizens United view of corporate personhood Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities are defined as persons whose freedom to insist on adherence to doctrinal purity must be guaranteed, whether or not they serve non-Catholics. In the debate over contraception coverage, no real individual Catholic is being denied any freedom of choice or speech. An editorial in the New York Times (5/27/12) says it best: “The First Amendment is not a license for religious entities to impose their dogma on society through the law… The First Amendment also does not exempt religious entities or individuals claiming a sincere religious objection from neutral laws of general applicability, a category the new contraception rule plainly fits… This is a clear partisan play. The real threat to religious liberty comes from the effort to impose one church’s doctrine on everyone.”

Mitt Romney speaks

Winning five more Republicans primaries on Tuesday, Mitt Romney declared in Manchester, New Hampshire, that “tonight is the start of a new campaign.” He might have used the occasion to give a substantive speech. But the best adjective the New York Times reporters could come up with to describe what he said was “succinct.” “Succinct” was indeed a generous gloss for a stringing together of nice sentiments. “Inane” would have been a better choice. In this speech Romney did remember not to praise the “perfect height of the trees” as he had in Michigan, but he did praise Americans for having “always been a nation of big steppers.” Something to remember.

Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers notes (WP, 4/27) that while President Obama’s budget plan has been scored by the independent Congressional Budget Office, candidate Romney has gotten away in his speeches with saying that he will pay for the $5 trillion in tax cuts he has promised (on top of extending the Bush tax cuts) partly through closing tax shelters that Summers says cannot even approach offsetting the loss in revenue. Romney seems to promise to continue to avoid the substance of how his plans will work, saying of his tax plan, “frankly, it can’t be scored.”

Despite the deliberate vagueness of Romney’s speeches, Romney’s rhetoric on freedom in his address Tuesday deserves serious attention. His vision, he says, is for an America not run by bureaucrats, but where “free people in their own unique ways, create free enterprises that employ more and more Americans.”

How much freedom do Americans have when Wall Street figures out how to package subprime mortgages in “its own unique ways” so that the same Wall Street banks could bet against what they sold to unwitting customers, making huge profits for themselves while failing to create employment for real, not Romney, Americans?

The political philosopher Michael Sandel in his Harvard College course “Justice” gives his students the correct way to think about the role of “freedom” in a just society. “A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably come. ”


Americans Elect: a third “party” hopefully going nowhere

Just when you were breathing a sigh of relief that the Republican primaries would no longer be eating up your brain cells, along comes a third party “movement” complete with plausible leaders like former governor Christy Todd Whitman, former Senator David Boren and columnist super star Tom Friedman to entice you into trying to make sense of what they are doing.

Americans Elect, the movement in question, states its only goal is to put a directly nominated ticket on the ballot in every state in 2012 and to provide a secure online counting process, culminating in an online convention. “At” the convention the presidential nominee must choose a vice president from another party, to underline a rigorous nonpartisanship. “The goal of Americans Elect is to nominate a presidential ticket that answers directly to voters ― not the political system.”

For some incomprehensible reason ― how can running for President be detached from “the political system”? ― columnist Tom Friedman has bought on to Americans Elect and wants NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for President on its ticket. Neither party, according to Friedman, offers an “inspired vision of America renewal” and that’s why the country needs a third party candidate.

Leaving aside a debate on the relative merits of Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama as inspired visionaries, it is important to nail two major defects in the framework of Americans Elect, defects which are, alas, embedded in the terms of the broader political debate this campaign year.

First, in positioning itself in the nonpartisan “center,” Americans Elect claims to be attacking gridlock in Washington. In fact, it is perpetuating the false idea of our parties as equally extreme. There is no extremity equality between today’s Republican and Democratic parties. One side wants to get rid of Social Security, abolish the Federal Reserve and Environmental Protection Agency, end federal guarantee to Medicare Health insurance, cut funding for education, shred the federal regulatory system, and bomb Iran, and the other side ― hold on! ― wants to let tax rates return to pre-Bush 43 levels.

Gridlock in Washington is not the fault of both parties in equal measure. In attacking Americans Elect, Columnist Michael Cohen in The Guardian (3/17/12) said, “Since 2009, the Congress has seen a greater level of procedural obstructionism that ever before in American history ― and it’s all come from Republicans” (italics added). He adds, “If you don’t like gridlock in Washington, vote for Democrats.”

Second, multiparty competitive elections are essential elements of democracy. By running away from the “political system” Americans Elect feeds the current celebrity political culture where all that counts is the candidates’ personal qualities (or those of his wife). But to be an individual on the Republican side in the US Congress means next to nothing. With a few exceptions, Republicans vote in lock step along party lines. Almost all have taken the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge. We are electing members of congress to represent us in taking actions to solve problems and plan for a future that is good for all Americans. How can a Republican in congress make any decisions for the national good if they have pre-decided through pledging what they will do?

Americans Elect is not a solution for the dysfunction of the American political system. It is part of the problem.

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