Friday, March 28, 2008

About that sniper fire

Hillary Clinton has come under fire for transforming her 1996 visit to Tuzla, a base in Bosnia & Hercegovina, into a tale of running for cover under sniper fire.

Some perspective on this flap is in order. Polprint has just finished Means of Ascent, the second volume in Robert Caro's masterful biography of Lyndon Johnson. In the early 1940s LBJ had pledged to Texas voters that if war ever came, he would join their boys on the front lines. So after Pearl Harbor, Johnson hemmed and hawed and finally headed to the Pacific as a "Naval Observer". He tagged along on a single air-bombing raid, during which his plane came under fire from Japanese Zeroes. The flight landed safely. LBJ headed home, having fulfilled the letter if not the spirit of his political pledge, and was awarded a Silver Star by General McArthur.

Not long afterwards, Johnson's wartime service suddenly became magnified. He had not simply tagged along on one flight as an observer; rather, he had "lived with the men on fighting fronts. I flew with them on missions over enemy territory." Once, he claimed to have seen 14 Japanese Zeroes "go down in flames right in front of me." He flourished the silver star to prove his valor. And the press bought it. During the 1948 Senate race in Texas, which Johnson won through hook and crook, one paper cited Johnson's descriptions of how "he was flying in B-29s, helping bomb one Japanese island after another into submission". The Austin-American Statesman wrote of Johnson's "gallantry in combat action".

Johnson would never have survived a day in the Internet era (for this reason and many others). Nonetheless, against such magnifications, Hillary Clinton's exaggerations look tame.

Clinton and pledged delegates

Polprint is back, rested and refreshed after her visit to the land of Chavez, milk shortages and $1.50-a-tank gasoline (really).

Not much seems to have changed here—just Bill Richardson’s endorsement of Obama, and a growing consensus that Clinton cannot win. The starkest blow was struck today by Vermont Senator Pat Leahy, an Obama backer, who called on Clinton to bow out.

Fighting back, Clinton has made the intriguing comment to Time that “pledged delegates” (as well as super-delegates) can make up their own minds. In other words, pledged delegates do not have to cast their vote at the convention in accordance with the voters’ wishes. This may be correct from a legal standpoint, but it seems politically tenuous. If pledged delegates were to strike out on their own, it would directly disenfranchise the voters—which incidentally is what Clinton is trying to argue against doing in Michigan and Florida.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Breaking for Bloggers

Even Bloggers need vacations...and Polprint is headed to the playa in Venezuela. Please check back toward the end of March, for exciting coverage of the run-up to Pennsylvania.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hanging Delegates

It's official: Florida's Democrats will not revote. This spares the world from the spectacle of Hanging Chads: The Sequel. But it does not improve the lot of Florida's Democrats, who must now decide what to do with their 211 Hanging Delegates. At the moment, talk is revolving around alloting Florida's delegation half its usual number of votes; or not seating them at all.

Will all this lead to a Who Lost Florida fight on November 5th? Possibly. Any move the Democrats make risks angering large swathes of Florida voters. But they may be lagging in the state already. John McCain appeals nicely to the elder constituency, and he could choose Florida's governor, Charlie Crist, as a running-mate. But Crist may first have to sort out Florida's economy, which has been hammered by the real-estate bust.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

More fun with Spitzer

Polprint got a chuckle out of this cartoon by Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle (reprinted in today's NYT Week in Review).

Friday, March 14, 2008

Florigan, continued

Polprint is showing signs of becoming a real pundit--meaning that her analysis has proved to be wrong. Specifically: her assertions last week about Florida and Michigan--that they were nearing consensus on a revote--were highly premature.

Obama, according to the LA Times, does not want a revote, especially in Florida. (This position is sensible because Florida is full of old people and Cubans, who doubtless prefer Hillary; on the other hand there is no better way to alienate Florida voters.) Moreover, a mail-only ballot, done in a rush, will spur accusations of fraud. Michigan, for some reason, is closer to a revote agreement.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spitzer and Clinton

Top three ways that Spitzer's resignation could affect the presidential race:

1) A new consolation prize for Clinton: governor of New York. As David Broder of the Washington Post notes, David Paterson can be challenged in 2010. (The next Illinois governorship race will also take place in 2010.) Polprint still thinks that the Senate Majority Leader slot would be better-suited to Clinton.

2) A reminder of Bill Clinton's less savory doings. Bill has been shoved into the background in recent months; the Spitzer scandal, with clutch assistance from Hillary's 3am phone call ad, has set the pundits chattering again. On the other hand, Silda Wall Spitzer's plight could animate the sympathy-for-Hillary voters.

3) The superdelegate tally in New York. Clinton has lost one of her staunchest supporters in Spitzer. But according to this CBS News blog, Paterson has endorsed her too. Paterson already held a superdelegate slot as lieutenant governor, so his vote could go to someone else. (Still, the New York delegation will surely stick together and back their Senator.)

Anything I'm missing?

Spitzer's future

Polprint is not the only one wondering what Eliot Spitzer will do next. The Associated Press ran a piece on the subject last night. The gist: Spitzer could conceivably lose his law license, but Daddy has plenty of money from his real-estate empire: up to $500 million. The other odd thing: Spitzer was known as a frugal man who owned "only a few pairs of shoes". VIP prostitutes are apparently a different matter.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The "Dream Ticket" debate

Ever since Texas and Ohio, the Clintons (first Hillary, then Bill) have been hinting at the possibility of a "dream ticket". The trouble is that they intend for Obama to be at the bottom of that ticket--and he happens to be ahead in the delegate count. Such hints are therefore premature, but they are strategic.

The Clintons want: a) the public to downgrade its perception of Obama from presidential to running-mate material; and, if that doesn't work, b) to pressure the superdelegates to try to force the dream ticket together. (Nancy Pelosi isn't buying.) As Polprint has previously argued, the dream ticket can only go one way: Clinton on top, Obama on bottom. (The Huffington Post makes the case for Obama-Clinton, in which Clinton takes on a Dick Cheney attack-dog role and covers Obama's back.)

Obama has shot down suggestions of a dream ticket. But if things come down to the wire, and Clinton becomes the nominee, Polprint increasingly believes she will have to pick him and that he would most likely say yes. Why?

On the first: if she does not choose him, she will be jeopardizing the future of the Democratic party. People under 40 overwhelmingly favor Obama. Many of these are college students, who are so besotted--not to mention angry at Clinton--that they will not boycott the polls if Obama is not on the ticket. Clinton risks turning off an entire generation of voters.

On the second: Obama is nothing if not ambitious. And one of the chief reasons he has climbed so high so quickly is that he has minimal political baggage. Ironic but true: the lack of a voting record comes in handy when running for president. Eight more years as Senator would not merely "boil the hope out of him", but would also give him a track record that he would have to answer for. Being vice-president would give him policy-making experience supplemented by only the occasional, tie-breaking vote in the Senate. (On the other hand, Obama might detest Clinton too much by this point, and there's always the possibility that Michelle Obama will say no.)

By the way, the Economist's "Democracy in America" blog includes a very funny cartoon, originally from the Oregonian, about Clinton's running-mate overtures.

Good riddance, Governor

So Eliot Spitzer has resigned. The sordid details will doubtless continue to dribble out. Polprint is faintly curious about what he will do next. The supposed "cause of his life" has been combating corporate malfeasance. This scandal completely undercuts his credibility in that area. In other words, Spitzer's hypocrisy is even more pronounced than in most political sex scandals. Perhaps he should become general counsel for a large insurance company.

Anyhow, Polprint should be more worried about the fate of New York state. She looks forward to learning about David Paterson in the coming days.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Ballad of Eliot Spitzer

Okay, so it's not quite a ballad...Polprint has been practicing her limericks in anticipation of a St Patrick's Day party. Feel free to add a verse!
There once was a governor named Spitzer
Who knew that he shouln't have kissed her
But he booked a suite
It was quite a treat
And now he's the talk of Wolf Blitzer.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spitzer, nailed

Like the rest of the blogosphere, not to mention the world, Polprint is staggered by today's developments in New York. Eliot Spitzer is one of the last politicians she would have expected to be linked to a prostitution ring. Wall Street is no doubt breaking out the Champagne. It goes without saying that Spitzer must resign--and if he committed a crime, he deserves to be prosecuted vigorously. What hubris!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Case Against Caucuses

Counting continues following the Texas caucuses--which, to put it charitably, were a mess. One friend of Polprint reports that 1,000 people showed up at a church in Austin, when just 60 were expected. An Obama volunteer in San Antonio complained to Polprint of serious irregularities, such as voters being given incorrect information about where the caucus was held. Clinton supporters had plenty of grievances too, as noted in the Baltimore Sun. Some caucuses did not even begin until 9.30pm, more than two hours after the intended start time.

It is one thing for a small, homogenous and experienced state like Iowa to hold caucuses. It is quite another for a huge and diverse state that has never tried this before. (Caucuses have long been required by Texas's Democratic party, but normally they have been just a formality and nobody goes.) Plainly, reform is in order. Republicans, sensibly enough, determine their delegates based solely on the primary results, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

The debacle gives Polprint an excuse to mount her soapbox once again. There is no place for caucuses in modern society. (That includes Wyoming, whose Democrats are caucusing today.) Caucuses seem to have two principle characteristics:

a) They are confusing--witness Texas; and

b) They are exclusionary. Most ordinary people do not have two (at least!) spare hours to wait out a messy meeting. Emergency workers, overseas soldiers, and countless others are banished at a stroke. Maine does have a hybrid system, in which absentee ballots are allowed at the caucus; and Las Vegas allowed convenient caucuses on the Strip. But these are fringe improvements to a system that is past its time. And what about the awkward fact that at a caucus, everyone's preference will be known and gossiped about?

Caucus boosters try to justify their system by saying that it has two virtues. First, it is cheap. Reruning Michigan as a caucus could cost $10 million less than a primary, reports local TV station WSBT. Second, it is a party-building exercise. People who are dedicated enough to come to caucuses will also be recruited to go door-to-door on behalf of the party’s candidates for less glamorous offices, such as city council or school board. But to limit the selection of a presidential nominee to those likely to serve as party boosters is beyond absurd.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Florigan question

It seems increasingly clear that Florida and Michigan are headed for a rerun. The main questions are: what type of election should be held, and who will pay?

On the first matter: Clinton will resist caucuses, which she regularly loses. Sentiment in Florida seems to be coalescing around a mail-only ballot (doubtless preferable anyhow for Florida’s gray-haired throngs). It will also cost far less—estimates are running around $4 million, versus more than $20 million for a conventional primary. Michigan would be wise to consider a similar system.

As for who will pay: It won't be the states. Michigan's economy is hard up, and Florida is controlled by Republicans who will refuse to spend state money to fix the Democrats’ mess. Nor will private donors pay, because that would lead to charges of vote-buying.

The candidates could split the cost. However Clinton has obvious incentive to resist: she won both contests and has less money than Obama. The other potential funder is the Democratic National Committee. Thus far, the DNC is refusing to bail the states out, since Howard Dean wants to save his cash for the general election. However, the DNC may come around. As a speaker Polprint heard today observed, spending $4 million to keep Florida sweet is essentially a general-election expenditure.

Republicans for Clinton?

Polprint has heard whispers of a trend that could have had an impact in Ohio and Texas: Republicans voting for Clinton, in order to derail Obama (whom they perceive as the stronger general-election candidate). A friend of Polprint's in Texas reports hearing several Republican colleagues boasting of their Clinton vote; another friend from Ohio has speculated that similar things happened in the Buckeye state.

Both were open primaries, meaning that Republicans can vote in either party's contest (not both). Open primaries have generally been considered helpful to Obama, who draws independents and Republicans. But even a small counter-trend in Texas--a heavily Republican state--could have made a difference.

Rush Limbaugh has spent the past week urging listeners to cast a cross-over vote for Clinton. And the exit poll results show some interesting numbers. Republicans in Texas--who accounted for 9% of the vote--went for Obama 53-46. That is a low figure comparated to other states (72% of Republicans went for Obama in Virginia's open primary, for example). The Texas exit poll also says that self-identified conservatives favored Clinton 52-45 (though the term "conservative" would include conservative Democrats; the other possible categories for that question were "liberal" and "moderate").

In Ohio, the exit poll shows Clinton and Obama splitting the Republican vote, and independents only narrowly breaking for Obama, 50-48.

Perhaps it is not such bad news after all for Obama that Pennsylvania is a closed primary.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Morning After

Pity the superdelegates. For the last three weeks they have trickled over to the Obama bandwagon. Now, Clinton is the flavour of the moment. Some who have switched from Clinton to Obama may be secretly wishing that they had stayed the course.

What a mess. Polprint is sticking to her previous assertion that democracy is the big winner in a drawn-out contest. That every state’s vote matters is a good thing. But this seems like a point at which the campaign could get particularly nasty. A desire to end it all and shift the battle to McCain clashes with the genuine indecision of the voters. The problem of Florida and Michigan looms large; likewise that of the waffling superdelegates.

Speaking of Florida: it is worth noting that if Clinton carries Pennsylvania (polls there have shown her ahead in a tightening race), she will have won in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These are considered the “Big Three” swing states in the general election. The Democrats would be wise to pay them particular heed. (Polprint believes that Clinton would have still won Florida even if the candidates had campaigned there, albeit not by such a large margin.)

One more note: Clinton told CBS this morning that the dream ticket "may be where this is headed". Polprint has argued before that while Clinton-Obama is viable and even desirable for the Democrats, Obama-Clinton is not. If Obama gets the nomination, how about a third solution: boot out Harry Reid and give the Senate Majority Leader post to Clinton? A consolation prize to be sure, but she has studied hard at the knee of Robert Byrd. It might just suit her organizational, battle-ax skills.

Finally (promise), can the New York Times count? Today's NYT editorial rightly calls for the rest of the primary to take a more elevated tone. Then it states that "nearly a third of the 50 states have yet to hold nominating contests". Actually, that number is 10--which, according to Polprint's advanced mathematical calculations, equates to one-fifth. (See NYT calendar.) The Times was presumably including Puerto Rico and Guam, which also are yet to come (albeit this still doesn't get us to one-third).

Onward to Pennsylvania

Polprint feels a new malady coming on. It is called political fatigue. How many more plagiarism spats and 3am phone calls and CNN Magic Maps can she take?

Texas is still rolling in--counting is apparently not the strong suit of several cities--but the results there look fairly even (in the primary at least). Clinton has won Ohio and Rhode Island; Obama is saving face with Vermont. (Oh yes, and Huckabee has finally given up.)

More analysis to come after a good night's sleep. The bottom line is that the Democratic race will rage onward, perhaps until the last caucus-goer has been counted in Puerto Rico on June 7 (or beyond). Since Clinton has won at least one important victory (Ohio) by a comfortable margin, it will be tough for party bosses to pressure her to withdraw from the race at this point. Nobody wants to irritate Ohioans, who could very well decide the outcome in November.

Next up: Wyoming's caucus on March 8, followed by primaries in Mississippi (March 11) and Pennsylvania (April 22) . See Wikipedia's primary calendar.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Obama's rhetoric

Is "Yes, We Can" vapid or empowering?

Clive Crook and Gideon Rachman, two former Economist writers who decamped to the Financial Times, have engaged in a spirited debate across the blogosphere.

Rachman says that Obama's style resembles "a man doing an impression of what he thinks a great speech might be like". Crook counters that "Surely the simplest test of a speaker is the effect he has on his audience". In other words hundreds of thousands of people, including Crook, cannot be wrong.

Crook does admit that Obama's tour de forces are not prone to detail. But he insists that this is not the point, since "the best political speeches are almost always vacuous". Rachman ends on a generous note. Having observed Obama's substantive performances in the debates, he writes, "Just because Mr Obama gives lousy, empty speeches, it does not mean that he will be a lousy, empty president."

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sweating in India

Here's a disturbing cocktail-party fact, courtesy again the New York Times: Close to half the population of India lives beyond the electricity grid. That is worrying in two ways. First, it's terrible that nearly 700,000 Indians subsist without modern conveniences like air-conditioning. Second and uncomfortably, it may be problematic for us if this changes. According to the article, India is already the world's fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter. What happens when its now-modest per-capita emissions soar?

This is the fundamental conundrum facing climate change policymakers around the world. The developing world cannot be denied its right to higher living standards. But neither can the atmosphere easily absorb the consequences. In India, as in China, coal is the easy, cheap--and dirty--way to meet demand. How to incentivize alternatives?

Oops, correction to the aboved (a mistake in the original NYT article that was subsequently corrected): it's 700 million, not 700,000. What a staggering figure!

Shivering in Boston

Polprint is no fan of excessive heat. While living in Texas, she snuck off to the Rockies as much as possible during the summer. But a touch of global warming wouldn’t be amiss in New England these days. To exaggerate only slightly: it has snowed practically every week since early December. This is Polprint’s fifth (non-consecutive) winter in Cambridge, and it is by far the snowiest. (Polprint has not seen temperature data except for December, which was indeed unusually chilly. Jan and Feb have felt colder than normal too.)

Today's New York Times assesses the wintery spell. The entire world has caught cold. There was even snow in Baghdad in January, for the first time in recent memory. Austin, Texas enjoyed a non-scorching (and very rainy) summer last year. Arctic sea-ice is mounting a comeback.

Is global warming therefore a hoax, as Sen Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma believes? Most scientists do not think so. According to the Times article, experts attribute the winteriness to the vagaries of weather, as well as La NiƱa. The overall warming trend, they believe, will stand firm. (Another point that the skeptics could raise, however: predictions of strong hurricane activity in the Gulf have been wrong for two years running, if Polprint's memory serves. Global warming is widely expected to result in fiercer hurricanes.)

In any case, the cold spell now gives George Bush an excuse, if he ever needed one, to run out the clock on climate change. Should he set foot in Massachusetts, his reception will now be chilly in more ways than one.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Political crushes

Today's New York Times has a piece about Clinton's allegations of favoritism by the press toward Obama. There is a trendy new term for this, and reporters may be affected too. It's called a "political crush".

In the student-journalism piece that Polprint cited yesterday, the author states that many of his students have "political crushes" on Obama. An acquaintance in Texas recently confessed to Polprint, "I have the hugest political crush on Obama. I've never had one of those before!" Poor John McCain may be rather behind in this department. However, the good news for him is that crushes are, generally speaking, ephemeral.