Monday, August 23, 2010

"Ground Zero Mosque" Controversy Brings Strange Bedfellows

Liberal columnist Maureen Dowd and conservative columnist Michael Gerson both came out in support of the "Ground Zero Mosque" (neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero). More striking, however, were the alliances on display within the columns themselves. On the one hand, you had Dowd wishing President Obama was more like the second President Bush:

The war against the terrorists is not a war against Islam. In fact, you can’t have an effective war against the terrorists if it is a war on Islam.
George W. Bush understood this. And it is odd to see Barack Obama less clear about this matter than his predecessor. It’s time for W. to weigh in.
This — along with immigration reform and AIDS in Africa — was one of his points of light. As the man who twice went to war in the Muslim world, he has something of an obligation to add his anti-Islamophobia to this mosque madness. W. needs to get his bullhorn back out.
 On the other hand, you had Gerson (a former speechwriter for Bush) defending Obama:
By this standard, Obama had no choice but the general path he took. No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment. If a church or synagogue can be built on a commercial street in Lower Manhattan, declaring a mosque off-limits would officially equate Islam with violence and terrorism. No president would consider making such a statement.
 Looks like we still have bipartisanship after all.

Top 5: Reasons Democrats Will (Most Likely) Lose Control of the US House of Representatives This November

Last December, I predicted that Republicans would gain about 25 seats this November. I would like to revise that prediction. I now believe that Republicans will gain enough seats to take control of the House (at least 40). Here is why.  

1. The Withdrawn Coattail Effect

Candidates of the same party as the winning presidential candidate get a boost in the number of votes they get. This is known as the "coattail effect". It happens because winning presidential candidates usually mobilize additional voters to the polls that normally would not vote. When these voters enter the ballot booth to vote for their preferred candidate, they will usually vote for that candidate's party for the rest of the ballot. The "withdrawn coattail effect" happens in midterm elections. Without the candidate that excited them on the ballot, these additional mobilized voters do not turn out to vote in the midterm. This is one reason the party of the president typically loses seats in midterm elections. Many of the voters who were energized in 2008 to vote for Obama will not turn out in 2010 to vote for Democrats.

2. Independent Voters are Swinging Republican

One reason Democrats did so well in the 2006 and 2008 elections was that independent voters (voters with no party affiliation) lost confidence in Republicans and voted Democrat in high numbers. Now, independent voters have lost confidence in Democrats and will be favoring Republicans in high numbers. Scott Brown was able to win the special election in Massachusetts to replace Ted Kennedy because of independents voting for him in high numbers, for instance. In a generic ballot (where respondents are asked if they would prefer a Republican or a Democrat without naming a specific candidate), independents preferred the Republican 52% to 21%, in an August 16, 2010 Rasmussen poll.

3. Republican Voter Turnout Will Be High

Republicans will be more energized to show up at the polls this November. Mobilizing voters for what they are against is often easier than mobilizing voters for what they are for. Republicans are upset with the health care reform bill, high levels of government spending, and tax increases (contained in the health care bill and due to arrive next year with the expiring Bush tax cuts). Republican leaders have not put forth a clear agenda as they did in 1994 with the Contract With America, but in the current political climate that does not matter. Republicans have plenty of reasons to show up on election day.

4. Democratic Voter Turnout Will Be Low

Democrats have not maintained the high levels of energy and enthusiasm that led them to turn out to vote in high numbers in 2006 and 2008. Ironically, while Republicans charge that democratic leaders have been too liberal, Democrats generally feel that their leaders have moved too far to the right. This is especially true in foreign policy matters. Many Democrats had hoped a democratic administration would mean a drawing down of combat forces. The number of combat troops in Afghanistan, however, have dramatically increased. (Something Obama promised he would do during the 2008 campaign, by the way.) But even on domestic policy, some Democrats feel that the health care reform and stimulus bills did not go far enough, and they are disappointed that Congress has not passed cap-and-trade or immigration reform. With less enthusiasm for the direction of their own party, fewer Democrats will show up on election day.

5. Troubles at the RNC Don't Matter

The Republican National Committee (RNC) has had a lot of difficulties recently, from the misuse of funds to the many verbal gaffes of its chairman, Michael Steele. These troubles do not really matter, though, because political parties in the US are not structured hierarchically. Steele is not "the leader" of the Republican party and the RNC's influence on candidates and state parties ranges from limited to none. If donors do not wish to give to the RNC, they can give to the National Republican Congressional Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee, any of the state parties, any number of independent groups, or the candidates themselves. Indeed, in the US, we have candidate-centered campaigns, where candidates can build their own campaign organizations that rely little on party support. So, all the difficulties of the RNC will do little to prevent Republicans from performing well this November.

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Top 5: Reasons McCain (Probably) Can't Win

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Students Betting on Their Grades

The Wall Street Journal contains a story today about an internet company that allows students to place wagers on what grade they will get in classes they take. Placing bets on higher grades or more difficult classes will win a higher return than betting on lower grades or easier classes.

Reading this story immediately took me back to my 10th grade biology class. I bet a friend one day that I would do better than him on the next exam. He took me up on the offer and I was glad to take his money after the next exam. That one bet steamrolled as more classmates got involved on consecutive exams. After our teacher discovered what we were doing, he would, with great drama and fanfare, announce the winner after each exam.

The whole experience was great fun, but something else happened--all of our grades went up!  I made straight A's in the class after I started making bets. It wasn't even a lot of money. Most bets were about $1, if I recall. The amount of money didn't really matter because what motivated me was my desire to win. So, from my experience, betting on grades can be a great motivator for students.

I do, however, have a couple of concerns about the website. Apparently, you can also bet against yourself. It makes no sense to me that the website would allow this. It should be easy for students to engineer the outcome. Plus, to state the obvious, betting against yourself won't help you make good grades. In addition, I don't envy the professor with the student in their office begging them to change their grade from a B- to a B so they can make $100.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Buying Into Politics

Money or Party

Florida is regularly in the political news. Often it is for less than admirable qualities, including our inability to fill out a ballot properly or even for scheduling our primaries out of order. There is always a microscope on the Sunshine State, and now there is a good reason.

There is an interesting political experiment going on in Florida. The party establishment is being challenged by money. No, it is not a grassroots movement of voters. It’s hot in Florida; keeping grass alive in August is far too hard. The green that seems to matter in Florida is the greenback, and it’s creating a new kind of primary.

In the Democratic Senate Primary, there is a party candidate and a money candidate. Kendrick Meek is a party regular with endorsements from Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. He was well on his way to the nomination, having cleared the field of any credible Democrat, until the Forbes 400 wing of the Democratic Party announced their candidate: Jeff Greene. The billionaire and close friend of boxer Mike Tyson is self-financing his campaign and running without institutional party support. No worries, though. According to his rabbi, Greene is renowned for throwing his own parties.

Not to be outdone, the Republicans have a very similar race for the GOP nomination for Governor. Bill McCollum is a party regular. In state GOP tradition, McCollum waited his turn and was given an open field to claim the nomination. But wait. Rick Scott launched himself into the primary with a self-financed multi-million dollar advertising campaign. Already having won honors as one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential people and “CEO of the Year” by Financial World Magazine, the former hospital executive is looking to add Governor to his trophies.

Parties have had a monopoly on access to public office, and as a result, power within the party organization has been critical to success in both state or federal politics. This is not to say that outsiders have never competed, but the ability to contest with party regulars has always been limited. But two things have changed this dynamic. First, the media and Internet age present many opportunities to reach voters, making the access granted by party organization less relevant to people with their own resources.

Second, there is an increasing political mood favoring outsiders in the political contexts, creating an opportunity for non-traditional candidates to compete for votes that might not have been there in years past; if they can reach them. Money is reach and a class of idle millionaires and billionaires can reach for the sky.

It’s not clear that either Greene or Scott will win. After big launches, both candidates have lost ground recently due to politics and the power of parties to call home their voters. Even if both candidates fail, which is far from certain, their ability to enter races so late and compete so effectively has opened the party system is a new way, even if it is an opening limited to the wealthy.

Yet, perhaps any opening beyond the political class is a good thing, if only a small one.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What the Ground Zero Mosque Debate Really is About

I support the building of the “Ground Zero Mosque”. Opposing the building of the mosque damages relations with Muslims around the world. Plus, I don't believe in such a thing as “hallowed ground” (a theological conviction, not a political one). But even if I did, opponents have not put forth a reasonable explanation for why two blocks from Ground Zero is hallowed, but four blocks (the proposed relocation site) is not. Where is the dividing line between hallowed and non-hallowed, and why is it there?

Having said that, most of those who agree with me and support the building of the mosque have failed to understand the position of those who disagree with us. In public debates, supporters have consistently argued that the Imam who wishes to build the mosque has a right to do so because in the US we have rights to freedom of religion and private property. As long as they follow local ordinances and zoning laws, owners are free to build whatever they wish.

This argument, however, misses the point of the opponents. Opponents of the mosque are not arguing that Muslims have no right, or that it should be unlawful, to build a mosque. Rather, opponents argue it would be unwise to build the mosque. They want to convince the builders, through persuasion not legal action, to build somewhere else.

If we want to convince someone of an argument, we must first understand our opponents side. If we don't, we will simply be talking past them, and our arguments will go nowhere.

I accept the fact that there are others who disagree with me on the idea of a hallowed ground. I welcome those views in the public square and would like to see those on my side do a better job of listening to those who disagree with us. In public debates listening can be just as important as talking if we are to come to reasonable understandings and compromises with each other.