Saturday, September 27, 2008

What's Wrong with being "Professorial"?


In the commentary before and after last night's debate, some argued Obama needed to not sound "too professorial." I even had one of my students making the same point. As a professor, I had to wonder, what is so bad about sounding like a professor? I realized from the context that they associated professorial with being long-winded and abstract.

I feel the need to defend my profession against these slanderous attacks. Professor's must take difficult concepts and explain them with clarity and precision--not an easy task. Sometimes we do this well; other times we do this poorly. But, it certainly isn't a poor training ground for a presidential debater. Actually, I recommend teaching US government to college freshmen (a task I'm familiar with) to anyone preparing for a presidential debate.

Now, for my thoughts on the debate: Obama did better in the first half of the debate when they were answering questions about the economy. McCain looked dull and did not do a good job answering Obama's attacks. Though, I would've liked to see Obama offer some specific programs that he would cut in tough economic times, as McCain did; and both candidates seemed conflicted (the same word I used to describe my own position) about the $700 billion buyout plan.

When the debate moved to foreign policy, McCain looked a lot more comfortable and displayed more spunkiness. He obviously had a two-fold strategy of showing his experience in foreign policy by talking about the foreign leaders he knows personally and the places he has been, and showing Obama's inexperience by saying things like "Obama doesn't understand..." (which he did several times). McCain may have seemed condescending at times, but overall I think the strategy was effective. On the other hand, Obama didn't make any major blunders and came across as knowledgable and presidential. Since this was expected to be Obama's weakest debate and he got through it OK, the Obama camp should be happy with the results.

Also, there were a few moments where both candidates expressed their position with clarity and precision. In other words, they were professorial, which is a good thing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Congress and the Bailout

I'm not an economist, so I'm not going to tell you how Congress should vote on the proposed $700 billion plan to buy problematic mortgage backed securities. That question is "above my pay grade." Personally, I'm conflicted on the issue, as are, I suspect, most Americans. From the perspective of a congressional scholar, however, there are two things that concern me about the proposed legislation.
  1. I don't trust Congress to make wise choices this close to an election. The financial crisis is a complicated issue. Even with their incumbency advantage, members of Congress are often concerned about losing their next election, especially when it is two months away. Will they be able to devote thought and energy to this problem, keeping in mind what is best for the country, rather than how it will look to swing voters in their district?
  2. "Bipartisan" often just means "incumbent protection." I know most Americans like bipartisanship, but when I see the parties working together, I worry. The one thing that Republican and Democratic members of Congress can agree on is they want to keep their seats. (Think about the tax rebates, for instance.) So, how much of this vote will simply be members of Congress showing their constituents that they are doing something about the problem? We won't know if they made the right decision until well after the election.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How Liberals are Helping McCain

I've been fairly critical of McCain's VP pick on this blog, but it pales compared to the maliciousness with which those on the left are attacking Palin. If you're a McCain supporter, this should not worry you, however, because ultimately it helps McCain.

If Obama is going to win, he will need blue-collar Democrats and independents from swing states like Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan to vote for him. If you look at the attacks on Palin, many of them are attacking Palin for being like these same voters. Here are three examples:

1. This editorial cartoon by Pat Oliphant recently appeared in the Washington Post:
As you can see, it mocks Palin's charismatic background. So, how does mocking the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the US (and the world) help the Democrats? Additionally, the charismatic movement has been particularly strong among the politically important Latino population. (To its credit, the Washington Post later condemned the cartoon and it no longer appears on its website.)

2. Maureen Dowd's September 16 editorial in the New York Times, "Barbies for War!," makes fun of hunters, Wal-Mart shoppers, and Pentecostals. She writes about her experience of walking through a Wal-Mart in Wassilla, AK as if she were visiting a zoo and describing the strange things she discovered there. So, how is she helping Obama win over those rural middle-class voters in places like central Pennsylvania?

3. And then there was this odd little tirade by Matt Damon:



There were nearly 3 million views of this video on Youtube. Ultimately, I think that if Damon has had any impact with his remarks, it is to energize McCain's base. Think about it this way: what undecided voter is going to be swayed by Matt Damon? Particularly, when his argument is as incoherent as this one?

If liberals really want Obama to win, they should stop talking about Palin. Whenever they do, it helps McCain. There are essentially two reasons for this. First, it energizes his base. The base of the Republican Party was never excited about McCain. But every time Palin is attacked it energizes them to help defeat Obama.

Secondly, when the question of Palin's experience is raised, it puts the issue of experience in the heads of voters. Voters vote for the top of the ticket, however, not the VP. So if they head to the polls with the issue of experience on their minds (even if it was put there by liberals attacking Palin) it will help McCain and hurt Obama.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What if it's a tie?

I was playing around with the New York Times electoral map today. It will let you try different scenarios to see which states each candidate could win in order to get the 270 electoral college votes necessary to win. Among the current swing states, if McCain wins VA, OH, and CO, and Obama wins NH, MI, NM, and NV, then the electoral college vote would be 269-269--a tie!

So, what happens then? The House of Representatives would determine the winner, with each state delegation getting one vote. The candidate with 26 or more state delegation votes becomes the winner.

Who would win the House vote?

Two states would break even and not vote: AZ and KS.

McCain would carry these states:
AL, AK, DE, FL, GA, ID, NE, NV, NM, OH, OK, KY, LA, MI, MT, SC, TX, UT, VA, WY

Obama would carry these states:
AR, CA, CO, CT, HI, IL, IA, IN, ME, MD, MA, MN, MS, MO, NH, NJ, NY, NC, ND, OR, PA, RI, SD, TN, VT, WA, WV, WI

Therefore, by a vote of 28-20, with 2 abstentions, Obama would win.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors Targeted - washingtonpost.com

Generally, when we think of interest group influence, we think of the legislative branch. Even the term "lobbyist" comes from those hanging out in the lobby of Congress to speak to its members. But interest groups can also lobby, or try to influence, the other two branches or the bureaucracy. Here is a good example of how interest groups can effect public policy through the judicial branch.

In the 1950s, Congress passed a law saying that if a religious group endorses a political candidate, they could lose their non-profit status. There are some who think this violates the free exercise clause and the principle of separation of church and state, and want to challenge the law. Therefore, on Sept. 28, a bunch of pastors will give political sermon, in defiance of the law, and the IRS has been informed that this will take place.

This is not as unusual as you might think. In the US, the courts cannot simply look at a law and declare it unconstitutional. They must have an actual case before them. This is not true for all democracies. So, if an interest group wants to challenge a law, and there are no current cases suitable for this purpose, they might create a case themselves. I can think of two other recent examples when this happened and went to the Supreme Court: the DC gun law case, and the Texas sodomy law case.

Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors Targeted - washingtonpost.com

Update: NPR also ran a piece on the story.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Choosing Veeps: A Simple Proposal for the RNC and DNC

Neither of our major party candidates have chosen an appropriate running mate. On the Democratic side, you saw a race where Democrats split their votes nearly evenly; but, as in Highlander, "there can be only one." It seems to me that in this circumstance, the consolation prize for the second place finisher should be the VP spot. Obama couldn't choose Clinton, though, because it would undermine his message of change.

On the Republican side, McCain chose a candidate that has helped energize his base, and may propel him to victory; but, Palin in clearly not qualified to be president. This judgment has become even more solidified in my mind after watching her ABC News interview with Charles Gifford. She could not identify the Bush Doctrine, a topic that could be found in any introductory US government textbook for the last five years.

The problem, as I see it, is giving the candidates the responsibility of choosing their VP in the first place. In the midst of an election, these candidates are thinking about winning, not governing. In choosing candidates that will help them win, rather than help them govern, they make poor choices.

My simple proposal, therefore, is to take the choice out of the hands of the candidates and give it to the voters. Let the candidate with the second-most delegates become the VP nominee. By taking the choice out of the hands of the candidates, the veep choice is not likely to effect the outcome of the election. Which is, I think, how it should be.

An additional benefit to my proposal is that it would make the primary season last longer. This year was unusual in that we had a candidate willing to stay until the end. Usually, the party's nominees have been decided before most states have even had a chance to vote on the party nominees. If we make the nomination contests a race for first and second place, the race will likely last much longer and more states will have an opportunity to have an impact.

Another nice attribute of my proposal is that it won't take an act of Congress. All that needs to change is for the RNC and DNC to change its party rules.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Third Party Candidates, Part II

Yesterday's post is in need of a correction, update, and clarification.

Correction:
Ralph Nader is not a third-party candidate. He is running as an independent. In 2000 and 2004 he ran as the Green Party candidate. This time, the Green Party candidate is Cynthia McKinney, a former member of the US House from Georgia. Another third party candidate is Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin.

Update:
After writing yesterday's post, I was driving home from work and heard this story on NPR. Ron Paul, who ran for the Republican nomination, held a press conference with the main third-party candidates (absent Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr). Paul gave a general endorsement of third-party candidates without endorsing any particular candidate.

I was struck by the general tone of NPRs piece. The reporter, Ari Shapiro, was basically mocking the candidates. He began the segment by referring to them as a "motley crew," for instance. NPR seemed to present the news as a humor segment, something that we should laugh at, rather than as serious news about the 2008 election. I think that NPR, or any serious news organization for that matter, should treat these candidates with more respect than that. They should leave the teasing to Comedy Central, Saturday Night Live, and the late night talk shows.

Clarification:
My desire for third-party candidates to be included in one of the debates and to be treated with more respect by the news media does not constitute an endorsement of any candidate in particular, or a "Ron-Paul-esque" general endorsement of third party candidates. Learning About Politics does not endorse candidates.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Presidential Debates and Third Party Candidates

Have you noticed that none of the third party candidates have been invited to the presidential debates? I can understand why Obama would not want Ralph Nader in the debate. Nader voters would likely vote for Obama if Nader were not in the race. I can understand why McCain would not want Bob Barr in the race. Barr voters would likely vote for McCain if Barr were not in the race. But if you let both Nader and Barr in one (and I'm only asking for one) of the debates, wouldn't that balance out the lost votes from either major party candidate?

If we had a debate with the third party candidates, it would increase voter interest in the election and voter turnout would be higher. Anything wrong with that?

Both Obama and McCain are presenting themselves as a different type of candidate than the "politics as usual" candidate. They claim to rise above partisanship. So, Senators Obama and McCain, if you really want to set yourselves apart, as someone outside the "usual" politics, why don't you take the high road and invite third-parties to one of the debates? As David Brooks put it in a recent editorial: in this election, "weirdness wins."

If you agree with me and have a Facebook account, you can join the Let Third Parties Debate! group.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Top 5: Myths Assumed by Presidential Candidates

Watching the conventions over the past two weeks, I embarked on a thought experiment. If aliens from another planet watched these conventions, and the conventions were the only information that had about our government, what are some wrong assumptions they would make? This is what I came up with:
  1. Congress does not exist. Candidates make bold pronouncements about the bills they will pass, ignoring the fact that legislation is produced by Congress.
  2. State and local governments do no exist. They also assume that they will have a great deal of authority over responsibilities normally left to the state and local governments, such as reducing crime and reforming education.
  3. Everyone's lives will dramatically change because of this election. Change happens slowly in the US. This is by design. You wouldn't know that by listening to these candidates.
  4. "Special interests" are the cause of all our problems. It's not entirely clear, of course, who these "special interests" are. Let's assume they're not talking about the ones that donated to their campaign.
  5. Washington, DC, "inside the beltway," residents are evil. I have no doubt that there are some in DC whose main purpose is to advance their self-interest. There are also plenty who serve the public good, engaged in much of the necessary, but less glorified, work of government.
Can you think of any others?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Energy Challenge - Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid’s Limits - Series - NYTimes.com

This story in last week's New York Times points out one of the difficulties in increasing our use of wind power. We currently do not have the infrastructure needed to accommodate a large amount of wind power. Most of the places that are well suited to wind generators are in rural areas. To get power from these areas to the metropolitan areas where it is needed will take a lot of power lines that we don't have.

One of the obstacles to meeting this challenge is the design of our government, namely federalism. Most of our power grid is developed at the state level. As the New York Times notes,
in most states, rules used by public service commissions to evaluate transmission investments discourage multistate projects of this sort. In some states with low electric rates, elected officials fear that new lines will simply export their cheap power and drive rates up.
So, if we are going to take advantage of wind energy, Congress will first need to get involved to build a power grid to handle the energy produced.

The Energy Challenge - Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid’s Limits - Series - NYTimes.com