Women in the 2012 Senate Elections

I’ve been trying to figure out how many women could be in the next U.S. Senate.

Right now, 17 senators are women.

Two of them are retiring: Olympia Snowe of Maine (R), and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas (R). So that’s -2.

But in Hawaii, where Daniel Akaka is retiring, the next senator from Hawaii will definitely be a woman, because both major party candidates are women: Mazie Hirono (D) and Linda Lingle (R). So that’s +1.

In California and New York, the incumbent and the challenger are both women: Dianne Feinstein (D) is being challenged by Elizabeth Emken (R), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D) is being challenged by Wendy Long (R). Feinstein and Gillibrand should have easy wins; in any case, that’s +0.

So far, that’s net -1.

What about other races?

There are three races where women are running and are not likely to win (according to Nate Silver): in New Mexico, Heather Wilson (R) vs. Martin Heinrich (D); in North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp (D) vs. Rick Berg (R); and in Maine, Cynthia Dill (D) vs. Charlie Summers (R) vs. Angus King (I). So, that’s +0.

That leaves six races.

Five of those six races could increase the number of women:

NebraskaDeb Fischer (R) vs. Bob Kerrey (D). Deb Fischer is way ahead and will likely win, according to Nate Silver. So that’s a likely +1.

Connecticut: Linda McMahon (R) vs. Chris Shays (D). Nate Silver says Shays is likely to win, so that’s a likely +0. (My instinct says: who knows with this one, but I’ll trust Nate.)

Three of those five appear to be tossups right now:

Massachusetts: Elizabeth Warren (D) vs. Scott Brown (R): 0/+1.

Nevada: Shelley Berkeley (D) vs. Dean Heller (R): 0/+1.

Wisconsin: Tammy Baldwin (D) vs. Tommy Thompson (R): 0/+1.

And there’s one race that could decrease the number of women:

Missouri: Claire McCaskill (D) vs. Todd Akin (R). Despite Akin’s implosion, Nate Silver gives McCaskill just a 65% chance of winning — which is still pretty high, but who knows. So, -1/0.

Tallying this all up, and I don’t know if I’m doing this right, but:

Women in the Senate now: 17
ME (Olympia Snowe retirement): -1
TX (Kay Bailey Hutchison retirement): -1
HI (Hirono vs. Lingle): +1
NE (Fischer): +1
MA (Warren), NV (Berkelely), WI (Baldwin): +1.5 (based on probabilities?)
MO (McCaskill): -0.33 (based on probabilities?)

That works out to 18 plus a fraction. So it seems like there could be a net gain of at least one Senate seat, and maybe even two or three. The next Senate will most likely have 18-19 women. If McCaskill and all three tossups lose (which is possible), there will be just 16. If McCaskill and all three tossups win (which is also possible), there will be 20.

If all women running against men lose their races, the next Senate will have just 16 women; if they all win, even the long shots (CT-McMahon, NM-Wilson, ND-Heitkamp), the next Senate will have 24 women.

So the possible number of women in the next Senate is 16 to 24, with 18-19 most likely.

[Update: I forgot about Debbie Stabenow (D) in Michigan and Amy Klobuchar (D) in Minnesota, who are both heavy favorites for re-election. If they somehow lost along with all the other women, there would be only 14 women in the next Senate, but that's not gonna happen.]

I Like Ike

I’m currently reading my second book in row about Dwight D. Eisenhower. Last week I finished Eisenhower: The White House Years, by Jim Newton, and now I’m reading a brand new biography of Ike that just came out last week: Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith (who wrote a great biography of FDR that I read a couple of years ago).

Eisenhower seems to be a forgotten president these days: a genial caretaker of peaceful 1950s America, smiling and playing golf between heart attacks. FDR, JFK, and Reagan are icons; LBJ and Nixon are larger than life, almost Shakespearean. By contrast, Ike seems like he was a normal guy presiding over a noncontroversial era. But he didn’t merely preside over a time of peace; he helped maintain that peace, at a time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union could have destroyed each other with nuclear weapons. He ended the Korean War, he declined France’s request to get involved on the ground in Vietnam, he worked with Krushchev, he let Joe McCarthy implode, he signed the first civil rights act in 100 years (albeit a pretty weak one, and he had to be dragged to do it), he initiated the interstate highway system, and he maintained the existing social safety net, and as he left office he warned against the growing military-industrial complex.

True, he also authorized coups in Iran and Guatemala. But on the whole, his record looks good.

In his first year in office, he said:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. […] Is there no other way the world may live?

He was not a liberal, as we think of the term today: he wasn’t interested in expanding the social safety net to include national health insurance — for the elderly or for anyone else — and he barely did anything to rectify racial inequality. But he had no interest in lowering taxes or in destroying the existing safety net:

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.

He was the last Republican president before the GOP went nuts.

And of course, before he was president, he commanded the D-Day invasion. He is one of the few U.S. presidents who, had he not been president, would still hold a revered place in American history.

I’d always wanted to learn more about Eisenhower, and I’m enjoying reading about him now. The more I read about him, the more I admire him.

(By the way, isn’t it weird that the man who was president during the all-American 1950s had a German last name?)

Romney, Kerry, McCain

Just a quick post on politics:

Even though Rick Perry jumped into the presidential race and immediately grabbed the lead for the Republican nomination from Mitt Romney, it seems possible that Romney can regain the lead and get the nomination. The more Perry campaigns and debates, the more he seems to fall in the polls.

It seems to me that Romney in 2012 is going to be like Kerry in 2004 and McCain in 2008. Kerry and McCain each had an early lead for their parties’ nominations–not because they were particularly well-liked, but because they seemed electable. Their support started to waver as primary voters began to look for someone who genuinely excited them, rather than someone who just seemed “electable”: Howard Dean in 2004, Mike Huckabee in 2008. But the early front-runner managed to re-grab the lead and win the nomination.

Of course, in each case, the eventual nominee lost the general election.

On Rick Perry

It’s human to want to make predictions about the future, but at this point, I really have no idea whether Obama will be reelected next year. Sometimes I think he will, and sometimes I think he won’t.

And I wasn’t too worried about the Republicans until Rick Perry entered the race.

Mitt Romney? On the one hand, I think Romney is beatable in the general election. He’s like the Republicans’ John Kerry. On the other hand, if Romney did become president, I don’t think he’d be as much of a disaster as some of the other Republicans, because I don’t think deep down he’s as conservative as some of the others. (And yet, any Republican president will be beholden to the crazy Republican base and will be inevitably pulled rightward. Still, at least there’d be a chance of less insane policies from him than from most other Republican candidates.)

Michelle Bachmann? I can’t really see her getting the nomination. She’s a general election loser, and I think enough people would come out in the primaries to stop her.

But Rick Perry? I can certainly see him winning the nomination. And while part of me thinks the American people will not elect another idiotic fundamentalist Christian Republican Texas governor so soon after the last one, another part of me has zero faith in the intelligence or memory of the American people.

I mean, cripes, tons of people out there still don’t understand that raising the debt ceiling was NOT ABOUT NEW SPENDING, it was about paying back what we borrowed for already-approved spending. Which I think speaks to an enormous media failure. As great as it was to see David Gregory relentlessly press Michele Bachmann on her anti-gay bigotry yesterday, he totally let it slide when she lied about the debt ceiling.

I do have hope, though. One, the election is still more than a year away. Two, unlike one-term presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama is a damn good campaigner and debater.

Still, any predictions at this point would be fruitless.

Online Marriage Debates

someone is wrong on the internet

I’ve been debating marriage equality today on a conservative website during some free moments. There was a time when I used to do more of this, but I gave up a long time ago, because (1) life is too short for the unpleasantness and stress that comes from experiencing the vitriol of people who don’t want you to have equal rights; (2) I got tired of saying the same things over and over again to different people; and (3) our side started winning in the court of public opinion. Still, for some reason I felt like doing it today.

There are many problems with trying to debate people online. The biggest problem is that you’re arguing with a disembodied entity. People who engage in online debates tend to forget that they’re arguing with fellow human beings, so there’s a certain amount of empathy and politeness missing. It’s easy to be nasty when you forget that the person you’re arguing with is an actual person.

And it’s not just that people forget they’re arguing with human beings; they forget that they’re arguing about human beings. It’s a lot easier to make silly arguments that gay people are trying to bring down society and are just being selfish little pricks when you don’t know any actual gay people. Human beings are not abstractions; we have desires, and interests, and hobbies, and friends, and hopes, and dreams, and thoughts, and feelings, and pasts.

And the problem works both ways. Sometimes no amount of logical argument will change someone’s mind. Sometimes it helps to try and understand where the other person is coming from and why they feel a certain way rather than fruitlessly try and “win the argument” right now. But on the internet, you have no idea whether you’re arguing with a 55-year-old guy with lots of life experience or a snotty college student who’s not as smart or worldly as he thinks he is. I might use different tactics with each person. But on the internet, that’s usually not possible. This is still one of my most fulfilling moments in more than 10 years of blogging, but it’s very rare.

So why bother? Well, maybe other people are lurking, and maybe they’ll be convinced by what you say. Or maybe those lurkers agree with you and they can use your arguments in other places.

Generally I find it’s not worth it. On rare occasions, like today, I just feel like it. But often I’d much rather have a discussion than a debate, and that’s not really possible in many places online.

Clinton in 1991 vs. GOP in 2011

I’ve been thinking about the current crop of Republican contenders for the 2012 nomination and how it compares to the Democrats in the runup to 1992. Most Republicans don’t seem particularly happy with their slate of candidates right now, and it’s already May. But in 1991, several high-profile Democrats declined to run against Bush, leaving Democrats to ponder losing a fourth presidential election in a row. It wasn’t until October 1991 that Bill Clinton declared his candidacy.

I searched the New York Times archives for articles appearing in 1990-1991 that contained “bill clinton” and “1992.” Here are some excerpts. (I subscribe to the weekend print edition of the paper, so I can access all this stuff online for free, but I realize many of you might not be able to – and that you might not even care about this stuff, for that matter, but I long ago gave up on most people sharing my geekiness.)

December 3, 1990:

Democrats, Albeit Late, Ponder Presidential Bid

With the 1990 midterm elections finally over, Democrats with Presidential ambitions are entering a season of decision.

It is already a remarkably late-starting campaign, given the norms of modern politics. …

But in December 1990, not a single paid worker for a Democratic Presidential campaign plods the streets of Des Moines, says a somewhat mystified Iowa Democratic Party. Elsewhere in political circles, there are quiet whispers in the clubby world of fund-raisers and nervous rumors in the ranks of consultants, but little real action and perhaps even less real information. …

Others who usually get mentioned whenever two or more Democrats are gathered together include Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who has maintained a notable national travel schedule; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, automatically considered a factor in Democratic campaigns; Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, although he says he intends to serve out his new term as Governor; Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, although Democrats are still buzzing about his political near-death experience in last month’s election, and Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. The list could go on. …

Combined with the uncertainty over the economy, the Persian Gulf crisis makes it hard to assess Mr. Bush’s vulnerability in 1992. “Bush could either be politically enshrined or politically deceased based on a couple of events,” said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic poll taker.

May 20, 1991:

Democrats Stick Toes In Waters of 1992 Race

Nine months before the Presidential contests begin, former Senator Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts remains the only official candidate for the Democratic nomination, but a number of Democrats are suddenly sniffing the air. …

They are, by and large, newcomers to Presidential politics, with a chance of making a name in a wide-open contest, and perhaps with less to lose than those higher on the ladder of Democratic leadership. …

Here is a look at some of the most-watched “potentials,” as they are known in Democratic circles, with the caveat that this is an ever-expanding and contracting field:

Gov. Bill Clinton The Arkansas Democrat said he would serve out his four-year term when he ran for re-election last year, but he clearly enjoys the Presidential speculation now swirling around him. Betsey Wright, the state Democratic chairwoman and a longtime Clinton adviser, said she saw “no signs that he has been seriously seduced by it.”

But Mr. Clinton has a national platform as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of centrist and conservative Democrats, and he has been traveling the country honing a domestic message. When pressed on his presidential ambitions in a recent interview, Mr. Clinton said: “It’s not anything I’ve ruled out over the long run. It’s just a question of whether it should be done now.”

(Again, that was in May before an election year, the same point we’re at right now.)

August 8, 1991:

Democrats’ Distress Grows As Presidential Field Shrinks

Democrats struggled today to adjust to the last thing they needed six months before the Iowa caucuses: an already tiny Presidential field that keeps shrinking.

As expected, Senator John D. Rockefeller 4th announced in Charleston, W.Va., today that he would not seek the 1992 Democratic Presidential nomination. That announcement, just three weeks after Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House majority leader, took himself out of the race, combined with the demurrals of other Democratic heavyweights to create a frustrating, embarrassing pattern for the party. …

Representative Robert G. Torricelli, Democrat of New Jersey, said, “This is no longer an entertaining situation. This is becoming a serious problem.”

Senator Rockefeller’s withdrawal is expected to open new opportunities for those who seem eager to run, like Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. It is also expected to heighten the pressure on Senator Al Gore of Tennessee and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York to enter the race.

In the modern world of nominating politics, this is remarkably late for a novice to mount a Presidential campaign, particularly one against a popular President. Both Mr. Gore, who ran in 1988, and Mr. Cuomo are widely considered to have the name recognition, political base and fund-raising potential to jump into the race late and mount a formidable campaign.

August 14, 1991:

Arkansas Chief Seeks to Lead Democrats to Middle Ground

It is an article of faith in the Democratic Party that the nation’s domestic problems will someday be the party’s ticket back to the White House.

But some strategists argue that the Democrats must first deal with the baggage they have acquired over the past generation: the notion, so devastatingly purveyed by the Republicans, that Democrats are addicted to bloated, inefficient “giveaway” programs, financed on the backs of the middle class. Only a rethinking of liberal orthodoxy and a fresh vision of government will reclaim the voters, these strategists say. Symbol of New South

Enter Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who for some in the party is becoming the great moderate hope of the 1992 race for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

He faces the perennial problem of governors: a resume gap on foreign policy, which could be all the more glaring against a President who revels in his role as Commander in Chief. He comes from a small state and will probably pay a price for it in fund raising. He is known by only a tiny proportion of the electorate, according to public opinion polls.

“He may not win the nomination, he may not win the general election, but he does have the potential to remake the party,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, an offshoot of the leadership council. “And I think that’s important this time around, because you can’t let the party keep repeating the same old hackneyed mistakes and lose one more generation of voters.” …

August 16, 1991:

Arkansas Governor Forms Presidential Panel

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas said today that he would form a committee to explore a run for the Presidency next year and would resign as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.

“I want to make it clear that I have not made a decision as to whether to seek the nomination,” Mr. Clinton said in a news release. “But forming an exploratory committee will give me a means to look into this in a lot more detail and get the kind of information I need to consider right now.” …

August 22, 1991:

Gore Won’t Run for President in 1992

Senator Al Gore announced yesterday that he would not seek the 1992 Democratic nomination for President, adding his name to a growing list of Democrats who have decided not to challenge President Bush next year. …

Mr. Gore’s decision not to seek the Presidency in 1992 has placed another layer of uncertainty over a race that has so far been stalled for lack of candidates. …

Only former Senator Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts has formally declared his candidacy for the 1992 race. So far his candidacy has garnered little of the attention that usually accompanies a Presidential campaign. …

Democratic strategists predicted yesterday that Mr. Gore’s decision would most likely help Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who announced last week that he was forming a committee to explore a Presidential candidacy. …

Republicans have appeared to enjoy watching the Democratic field dwindle as candidate after candidate abandoned the race this year. A spokesman for the Republican National Committee would not comment on Mr. Gore’s exit yesterday, but Charles Black, a leading Republican strategist said earlier this month that the decisions “certainly speak to what they think their prospects of winning are.”

If the Democrats now seem at a loss, said Carter Eskew, a friend and political adviser to Mr. Gore, “It’s nothing that a good nominee won’t solve.

August 26, 1991:

By their actions, some of the party’s leaders seem willing to take a pass on 1992 and then reassert their Presidential ambitions in 1996. But after a fourth consecutive Presidential defeat, after losing six of the last seven Presidential elections, how much long-term damage would the party incur? Already, polls show an ominous trend for the Democrats as a Presidential party, with voters age 18 to 29, who have only Jimmy Carter in their memories as a Democratic President, identifying more and more as Republicans.

October 4, 1991:

Arkansas’ Clinton Enters The ’92 Race for President

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas entered the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination today with an unstinting indictment of a decade of Republican domestic policies and a promise to restore the American dream for “the forgotten middle class.” …

Mr. Clinton is the fifth major candidate to enter the race for the Democratic nomination. His declaration today follows a month when the Democratic field suddenly came to life, after a summer when one leading Democrat after another backed away from a challenge to Mr. Bush. The new class of candidates, in contrast, scents opportunity even amid the towering Bush approval ratings.

Mr. Clinton presented his case against the Republicans today with smooth confidence and a trace of disdain. He asserted that the Republicans “have washed their hands of responsibility for the economy, for education, for health care and for social policy.” Rather than leadership and vision, Mr. Clinton asserted, they had offered only “neglect and selfishness and division.”

I like that last part. Some things never change.

Anyway, you just never know. Based on the quality of the GOP candidates, I would say Obama’s chances for re-election right now are pretty good. But so much can happen in a year and a half.

Conspiracy Theories

The past week and a half has seen two stories in the news involving the idea of conspiracy theories and how to disprove them. Last week it was the Obama birth certificate story, and this week it’s been the death of Osama bin Laden. There have always been conspiracy theories in American history, but I can’t remember a time when the proponents of these theories have garnered so much undeserved respect.

There were many news commentators in the last couple of days who were saying that the White House should release Osama bin Laden’s death photos because there are lots of people out there who don’t believe he’s dead and putting the photos out there would prove it. The other day, CIA Director Leon Panetta said the photos should be released, because “the bottom line is that, you know, we got Bin Laden and I think we have to reveal to the rest of the world the fact that we were able to get him and kill him.” And yesterday, Senator Lindsey Graham said this:

The whole purpose of sending our soldiers into the compound, rather than an aerial bombardment, was to obtain indisputable proof of Bin Laden’s death. I know Bin Laden is dead. But the best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove that fact to the rest of the world.

I’m afraid the decision made today by President Obama will unnecessarily prolong this debate.

Why do people pay so much attention to conspiracy theorists these days?

There are a few possible reasons: (1) the internet; (2) the changing relationship between the government and the public, and the idea that the government must satisfy the public’s every whim; (3) the lurid desire of people in the media to see the actual photos because it will make good copy.

The internet gives conspiracy theorists a much larger platform than they used to have. And political journalists and commentators spend particularly large amounts of time online these days, so they’re exposed to the tumult of political discussion to a much greater degree than journalists used to be. They read blogs, they read the same websites as everyone else, they’re on Twitter. So this stuff is much closer to the front of their minds than it is to other people.

But look. Obama released his long-form birth certificate last week and there are still denialists out there. How about the moon landing? It was filmed, it aired on live television, and yet there are people who deny it happened. There are people who deny the reality of historical events such as the Holocaust. Why do we think the releasing of bin Laden’s death photos will satisfy anyone? There are already fake photoshopped photos of his corpse online; why would denialists believe the real photos are real?

This needs to stop. People who believe in conspiracy theories aren’t interested in discovering the truth; they’re interested in pushing a particular belief system. And their ideas are infectious, because people who don’t know the facts can be easily swayed by zealous deniers.

Obama made the right decision in not releasing the death photos. Perhaps the release of his long-form birth certificate last week played a part in his thinking; he saw that it didn’t placate the true denialists. Neither would release of the photos. All they would do is inflame people.

You can never argue with a conspiracy theorist. You’ll always lose.

Brooks on Lieberman

David Brooks unsurprisingly praises Joe Lieberman in his column this morning, and it’s a mess of muddled thinking.

He lauds Lieberman as a man of courage, independence, and integrity. But then he says that if the Senate Democrats had taken away his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee, he might have left the Democratic caucus and voted different on a whole host of issues.

If Lieberman had not been welcomed back by the Democrats, there might not have been a 60th vote for health care reform, and it would have failed.

There certainly would have been no victory for “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal without Lieberman’s tireless work and hawkish credentials. The Kerry-Lieberman climate bill came closer to passage than any other energy bill. Lieberman also provided crucial support or a swing vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the stimulus bill, the banking bill, the unemployment extension and several other measures.

So, wait. Joe Lieberman is a man of “courageous independence of mind.” Except that if he hadn’t gotten his way, he apparently would have voted against health care reform, don’t ask, don’t tell, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the stimulus bill, the banking bill, and unemployment benefits extensions.

Wait, but Brooks also says there’s no evidence that Lieberman’s voting record since 2006 has been based on bitterness at being rejected by liberal voters in 2006.

So Joe Lieberman is a man of courage and independence and there’s no evidence that his voting record since 2006 has been based on bitterness. But if the Democrats had stripped him of his chairmanship, he would have voted opposite the way he really believes, out of pettiness and bitterness.

So which is it?

It’s too bad David Brooks never responds to any of his critics.

“A Platform of Political Discussion”

Arizona Republican Congressman Trent Franks says, regarding whether 30-round ammo clips should be banned after the Tucson shootings:

At this point, I have criticized others for making a political nexus or a platform of political discussion out of this tragedy, and so I am going to avoid doing that myself.

Do you realize that this is not about politics? Do you realize that after a shooting incident in which the killer was stopped only after he paused to reload, it is not a “political discussion” to want to ban those types of ammo clips? Do you realize that the only way to ban these clips is through the political process?

Do you realize that not everyone is trying to take political advantage of this situation? Do you realize that this is something we actually care about? Do you realize that many of us are scared that ordinary citizens are able to buy ammo clips that let them fire 30 rounds without needing to reload? Do you realize that if these clips had been banned, then Jared Loughner would have fired many fewer bullets and that some of the human beings that were killed might not have been killed?

I swear, it’s exasperating.

Tucson

Some thoughts on the Tucson shootings:

My original impulse on Saturday was to blame the shootings on a right-wing lunatic influenced by all the violent political rhetoric we’ve heard in the last few years. To ascribe such blame is not, despite what David Brooks might think, “political opportunism.” It’s a natural human reaction based on deductive reasoning: a Democratic congresswoman gets shot in the head — a congresswoman whose office windows were smashed in 2010, a congresswoman who held a constituent event in 2009 to which one of the constituents brought a gun — and it takes place in a political environment in which Sharron Angle talks about resorting to “Second Amendment remedies” and the need to “take Harry Reid out,” in which a certain Alaskan celebrity says, “Don’t retreat… reload!” and puts out a map with targets on certain congressional districts, in which a new Republican congressman’s chief of staff says, “If ballots don’t work, bullets will,” and in which a guy flies an airplane into an IRS building. What else are we supposed to think but that this was done by a right-wing lunatic?

And yet — we were wrong. Loughner isn’t a right-winger but a truly mentally ill human being. While my instinct is to feel hatred for him, I also find myself wondering abut the nature of mental illness. How much is someone’s mental illness a part of one’s self? Do we blame Jared Loughner for these crimes, or do we blame Jared Loughner’s mental illness? Centuries ago, mental illness was seen as a form of possession by some evil or alien entity. If we could somehow remove the illness from his brain, would Loughner take the stand, or would his mental illness take the stand? It’s probably beside the point, because no matter what, Loughner belongs in confinement. Whether that confinement is conceived as punishment or as a way to prevent him from causing anyone else harm is a secondary question.

But the fact that Loughner is mentally ill does not excuse political exhortations to violence. Such exhortations are, in and of themselves, despicable and unacceptable. We don’t live in the nineteenth century, when Preston Brooks attacked Charles Sumner and some members of Congress carried guns. This is 2011. We long ago learned to settle our political debates without violence. We, as human beings, are supposed to know better today. Or so I had thought.

And as long as I live, I will never understand our nation’s gun culture. I can sort of understand why some people want to carry around pistols for personal protection from robbery or rape, regardless of whether I think it’s a good idea. But can’t we all agree that nobody should be able to buy a 30-round clip at a Sportsman’s Warehouse? When it comes to guns, our country is insane.

Sometimes I just find myself throwing my hands up in the air.

Obama the Rationalizer

You could see Obama furiously spinning the tax cut deal in his press conference yesterday: it’s a necessary compromise! This country is built on compromise!

I’m getting tired of Obama always telling us he deserves points for compromise, as if compromise were the only option. Of course compromise is the only option if you never fight for anything in the first place. It’s one thing to compromise after you’ve been negotiating with someone for a long time; it’s another thing to signal before you even begin negotiating that you’re willing to compromise with an opposition who is not willing to do the same.

What did the country get out of this? What did Republicans give up? The Republicans gave in on unemployment benefits, which they would eventually have conceded anyway. It was just a bargaining position. They know how to negotiate; the Obama White House does not.

I am so tired of this.

Obama thinks he’s such a masterful leader. But he’s not. True leaders think creatively. They look at the chessboard and say, how can I rearrange all these pieces to achieve my goals? If they don’t like the chessboard, they create a new one. They make up new rules and get other people to agree to them. Obama should be on prime-time TV every night, telling the American people why the Republicans are wrong and he is right. The Republicans want to block unemployment benefits? Fine — Obama should go on TV and say, Look at what the Republicans are doing, and all because they refuse to make rich people pay the same tax rates they paid during the Clinton era. They claim they’re concerned about the deficit and yet they have no way to pay the $900 billion cost of these continued tax cuts.

Obama doesn’t do any of that. He’s completely passive. He never even tries to fight. Over and over again, the Democrats let Republicans frame the debate, even on issues where the Democrats have the more popular position. And over and over again, the White House negotiates against itself.

This White House is pathologically afraid of political combat. It’s so afraid of poisoning the political well, when actually, nobody cares about the damn political well. People don’t care about political discourse; they just want results. You can turn off the TV or close the newspaper, but you can’t turn off your economic situation.

Obama just cares about things that most people don’t really care about. He needs to come back down here to Earth where the rest of us are.

Thanks, Chris Christie

New Jersey Transit had delays this morning. Just like one evening last week. I got to work late because of it.

Until train 6610 could be moved, all NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak trains in both directions were forced to share a single track for service to and from New York, resulting in delays that ranged from 30 to 60 minutes.

But yeah, we don’t need another train tunnel under the Hudson.

Fuck you, Governor Christie.

Exceptional

When I was 14 years old, my dad’s company offered him a position in Tokyo, so we picked up and moved halfway across the world. I’ve always considered myself very lucky that I got to live outside the United States for three years and be a third-culture kid.

For those three years we were essentially cut off from anything happening back home. This was before the Web or e-mail, and long-distance phone calls were expensive. The two available English-language newspapers covered some American politics and foreign policy, but they were mostly internationally focused. I could go to the American Club every week to read a week-old Sunday New York Times, and during our last year and a half we had CNN, but that was about it. I basically have an American pop-culture void from 1988 to 1991. We landed at JFK in the summer of 1989 for a visit, and everyone was wearing Batman t-shirts. The following summer it was Bart Simpson t-shirts. It was overwhelmingly strange.

Living overseas gave me a perspective on this country that most Americans will never get to have: the perspective of an outsider. The perspective of a foreigner. Although I’ve been back here for almost 20 years, I have always carried some of that perspective with me. I’m forever thankful for it.

Yesterday I read this piece [via Matt Haughey], and it’s been resonating with me ever since.

It begins:

Americans, I have some bad news for you:

You have the worst quality of life in the developed world—by a wide margin.

It’s a pretty entertaining piece of writing, although some it is over the top. That said, it makes an excellent point near the beginning: most of what the American people accept as normal is not really normal. The frame through which Americans see things is distorted. There is so much that we accept in this country that people in the rest of developed world would never stand for.

First and foremost, our sub-par health care system.

Consider this: you are the only people in the developed world without a single-payer health system. Everyone in Western Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, Singapore and New Zealand has a single-payer system. If they get sick, they can devote all their energies to getting well. If you get sick, you have to battle two things at once: your illness and the fear of financial ruin.

Our system is an outrage. And yet everyone thinks it’s normal.

We were living in Japan when Hirohito, the Emperor of Japan, died. At the time, I imagined a Kansas farmwife back in the U.S. saying to her husband, “I saw on the teevee that the king a’ China died!” Now, I’m sure most middle-aged Americans in 1989 remembered World War II and knew who Hirohito was. But the point is, most Americans don’t care or know about anything that happens outside the United States unless it involves someone attacking us.

Even though other countries have problems, ours are worse. Things here are just fucked up. Life here is seriously out of whack.

Our health care system sucks. Our taxes are too low. Our infrastructure is a shambles. I ride NJ Transit twice a week and those train cars are straight out of the 1970s, and they’re never on time, and a heavy rainstorm can shut things down. In most other developed countries, this would be unacceptable, but here we all accept it as normal. None of this is normal. Thomas Friedman and Nick Kristof are dead on.

It’s the Southernification of the United States. Before the Civil War, the north was innovating, building its infrastructure. The south wanted to remain a stratified, backwoods society. We should have let the South go like they wanted, because the Old South mentality controls the whole country today. It’s ridiculous.

It’s the Overton Window again. Our frame is completely distorted.

People need to stop feeling guilty for wanting health care and higher taxes and a good infrastructure. It is normal to want these things!

And in the rest of the developed world, it is normal to have them.

Americans need to wake the hell up.

Tax Cuts

Someone from the Democratic Party called me last night asking for money, and I said no.

That’s only partly because I’d been receiving a slew of “Blocked” calls on my cell phone over the last few weeks from someone who had refused to leave a message, and when I finally decided to answer one of those blocked calls last night, it turned out to be the Democratic Party asking for money to fund a recount of the U.S. House race on Long Island. The main reason I wasn’t giving the Democrats any money, I explained to the guy on the phone politely, was that they don’t deserve it. A party that keeps ceding the initiative to the opposition isn’t getting my cash.

Which brings me to this: I am so tired of the debate over what to do about the Bush tax cuts.

First of all, the reason the 2001 Bush tax cuts were supposed to expire after 10 years was to get around the Byrd Rule, which allows any senator to block a piece of legislation if it will significantly increase the deficit beyond 10 years. Cap the tax cuts at 10 years (and hey, we’ll revisit the issue in 10 years, *wink wink*) and apparently there would magically be no deficit problem.

And now look at how the goalposts have moved. During the 2008 campaign, Obama wasn’t talking about letting the Bush tax cuts expire. He and the Democrats were talking about ending them early! Extending any of the Bush tax cuts wasn’t even being discussed. Thank you, Overton window.

Now everyone is saying, oh no, we can’t return to the Clinton-era tax rates, not in the middle of a recession! That will hurt everyone!

I would like to think this isn’t true. First of all: unemployed people don’t pay income taxes, so expiration of the tax cuts will not affect them. Second of all, if you have a job, there is no reason to spend less in a recession than you would spend in a good economy; you still have a job. Why should the general economy affect how much you spend? I know things don’t work that way — people spend less because they are afraid they will lose their jobs. Economics are subject to human psychology as much as anything else.

I am mixed on whether to let the tax cuts expire on income below $250,000, to be honest. But more tax cuts for rich people? No way.

To argue as the Republicans would, let’s talk about personal responsibility. Americans always knew the Bush tax cuts would expire after 10 years. They should have been planning for it all along. Tax rates were always going to go back up in 2011. If this tax increase takes you by surprise, that’s your own damn fault.

Not that the Republicans are arguing this, of course. All they really care about are protecting rich people, because tax cuts are always good, because tax cuts are the new religion and you’re not supposed to think rationally about religion, you’re just supposed to have faith that’s it’s true, and if you believe in it hard enough then it is true, and anyway that’s what their team believes and they’re always a part of their team.

And I certainly don’t expect the Democrats to do what’s right and let the tax cuts expire, or to even form a coherent message, one that couldn’t be easier to understand: Republicans are holding middle-class tax cuts hostage to their rich friends. Coherency? Hell — the Bush tax cuts passed in a Democrat-controlled Senate in 2001, and twelve Democratic senators wound up voting for them.

Early this year I decided to become less emotionally invested in politics. The turning point was when it looked like Scott Brown was going to beat Martha Coakley and the poor Democrats responded by quaking in their boots, promising to cave in on health care reform, because, oh noes, we can’t do anything with only 59 seats.

Health care reform eventually passed, but I had already given up. It was their attitude that did it for me. Even Barney Frank had talked about giving in. At that point I decided it wasn’t worth personally investing myself in the Democratic Party, emotionally or otherwise. I stopped thinking of the Democrats as “my team.” I would keep rooting for them, but I wasn’t going to feel personally hurt or embarrassed if they lost. I washed my hands of them.

I’ve felt a lot better since then.

The Relevant President

Quiz:

After the 1994 midterm elections that wiped out Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and gave us House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Clinton was reduced to pleading pathetically to the media that he, as president, was still relevant to the political conversation.

How long after the 1994 midterm elections did this happen?

(a) November 1994, a few days after the election.

(b) January 1995, shortly after the Republicans took formal control of Congress.

(c) Not until April 1995.

Answer: (c). It was not until the evening of April 18, 1995 — more than five months after the election — that President Clinton said the following in a prime-time press conference — a conference that two of the major news networks declined to cover:

The Constitution gives me relevance. The power of our ideas gives me relevance. The record we have built up over the last 2 years and the things we’re trying to do to implement it give it relevance. The President is relevant here, especially an activist President. And the fact that I am willing to work with the Republicans. The question is, are they willing to work with me?

Rhetorically, it was seen as one of the low points of his presidency — having to appeal to the Constitution for his relevance — even though it contained the seeds of his return to public favor.

What’s the point? The point is, give Obama time. Clinton floundered for months after the Republicans took over. He let them overplay their hand. It wasn’t really until a year after the midterms — the government shutdown of late 1995 — that Clinton really got his mojo back.

(Of course, the government shutdown also enabled him to meet a young intern named Monica Lewinsky, so it wasn’t a total plus.)

Incidentally, guess what happened the day after that infamous press conference? The Oklahoma City bombing. Tragic as that event was, it allowed Clinton to play a role the public likes to see in its presidents: chief comforter and expounder of the nation’s grief.

Now, history never repeats itself exactly. Despite what Mitch McConnell seems to think, he is still going to be the Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate, which will deprive Obama of a foil that Clinton had in Majority Leader Bob Dole. It’s not clear whether the economy will come back in the next two years, it’s not clear whether Obama has the political acumen of Bill Clinton, and it’s not clear whether John Boehner will overplay his hand like Newt Gingrich did. We’ll see.

This week’s election results give me hope, in a way, because they point the way to Obama’s re-election. He’s not automatically going to get re-elected; several different things will have to go right.

But there’s certainly a very good chance of it.

Election Night 2000: NBC Coverage

As I mentioned in my previous post, NBC was my choice when it came to news coverage on Election Night 2000. (It’s still my choice today.) Was it because of the anchor, Tom Brokaw? The commentator, Tim Russert? The music? The set? The graphics? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a loyal NBC fan; it’s hard to switch brands in life, whether you’re talking about news or peanut butter.

Anyway, NBC’s coverage that night was terrific. Below is a compilation of the highlights, from the very beginning at 7:00 in the evening to the very end at 5:00 in the morning. I stayed up and watched until they went off the air at 5:00 in the morning. I love Tom Brokaw’s droll expressions of disbelief as things just get weirder and weirder and the mood gets late-night giddy as everyone starts to suffer from lack of sleep. It’s highly entertaining.

(Looks like embedding is disabled, so you’ll have to click on the arrow and then the link.)

Election 2000, 10 Years Later

This Sunday, November 7, is the 10th anniversary of Election Night 2000.

On November 7, 2000, I had been living in my apartment for eight days. I had just moved to Jersey City after living in central New Jersey for about a year. Recently I’d started a one-year law clerkship in Newark, which meant that I could finally move back up to the northern New Jersey/New York City area. I really wanted to live within the five boroughs, but my job required me to remain a legal resident of New Jersey, so I decided to live as close to New York as I could. Jersey City seemed to be an up-and-coming place, so I decided to give it a try.

I was supposed to move into my apartment in September, but the apartment had been newly renovated and the inspections kept getting delayed. I was able to store my stuff there, but I wasn’t able to actually move into my apartment until the end of October.

As for the presidential election, the daily tracking polls had been swinging back and forth for days. For a while, Bush had maintained a small lead, but as Election Day approached, Gore seemed to be closing the gap. Commentators were saying this was going to be the closest election in ages. Nobody really knew what would happen. Some were saying that Bush could win the popular vote but still lose to Gore in the electoral college. Wouldn’t that be typical? Bush, the “popular” and “plain-spoken” candidate, could win the straightforward vote, but that sneaky, calculating Al Gore could wind up winning on a technicality.

As a state employee, I had Election Day off from work. As my co-clerk and I, both liberals, had left the office on Monday evening, we’d tried to bolster each other’s spirits. “I guess the next time I see you, on Wednesday, we’ll know what happened,” I said to her.

On Tuesday I woke up late and voted. (I must have filed my voter registration in advance.) I can’t remember what I did for most of the day — I probably did some unpacking.

That evening I had to attend a continuing legal education lecture until 8 or 9 p.m.; all licensed attorneys had to do this during their first two years of practice. I was really irritated to have it on election night, but I took my Walkman and a pair of headphones with me so I could listen to the early results during the lecture. (It was a big lecture hall with a few hundred people.) Afterwards, I took the PATH back to Jersey City, and as I came up out of the PATH station to walk home, I quickly put my Walkman back on. The conventional wisdom was that if Gore won Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, he had a good chance of winning the election; if he lost one of those three, Bush would probably win the election. The reporters on the radio were saying that Gore had won all three: Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. As I continued walking home, a woman, who must have guessed what I was listening to, said to me, “What’s happening with the election?” I told her about Gore’s winning trifecta of states, and we were both happy.

When I got home I turned on NBC to watch Tom Brokaw, my news anchor of choice. I didn’t have a TV stand, so my TV rested on my desk chair while I sat on my couch and watched in my half-unpacked apartment.

And we know what happened over the course of the night, as the election entered the Twilight Zone: Florida taken from Gore, Bush declared the winner, Bush’s total narrowing, Florida retracted, Bush maintaining an infinitesimal lead in Florida as Gore begins to pile up a lead in the national popular vote, surprising the pundits. I stayed awake and watched it all, riveted to the TV until NBC’s coverage ended at 5:00 in the morning.

Ten years later… here we are.

Jerry Brown Wins

Oh, another thing: it really makes me smile that Jerry Brown will be the governor of California again. Not just because he’s a Democrat, but also because I just love to see people achieve second acts late in life. Perhaps it’s my fear of death or my fear of getting old, but I really like the fact that a 72-year-old man can look forward to governing the largest state in the country for the next four years. It gives me the warm fuzzies.

Why the Dems Kept the Senate

Here’s why the Democrats kept the Senate tonight:

And to ensure that the Senate could protect the people against themselves, the Framers armored the Senate against the people. …

And around the Senate as a whole there would be an additional, even stronger, layer of armor. Elections for senators would be held every two years, but only for a third of the senators. The other two-thirds would not be required to submit their record to the voters (or, to be more accurate, to their legislatures) at that time. This last piece of armor made the Senate a “stable institution” indeed. As a chronicler of the Senate was to write almost two centuries after its creation: “It was so arranged that while the House of Representatives would be subject to total overturn every two years, and the Presidency every four, the Senate, as a Senate, could never be repudiated. It was fixed, through the staggered-term principle, so that only a third of the total membership would be up for re-election every two years. It is therefore literally not possible for the voters ever to get at anything approaching a majority of the members of the Institution at any one time.

– Robert Caro, Master of the Senate

If all 100 senators were up for election every two years, the Republicans would have romped tonight. But two-thirds of the Senate is immune to public repudiation in any particular election.

By the way, the link above takes you to the entire first chapter of Caro’s masterpiece. Essential reading if you want to understand the U.S. Senate.