Election Night, 12 Years Ago

I doubt there’ll be any election surprises tonight. But twelve years ago, in the 1998 midterm elections, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal and the House impeachment investigation, the Democrats overperformed:

Democrats roared back in the midterm elections yesterday, winning impressive victories in crucial Senate and gubernatorial races around the country despite months of dire predictions by Republicans and Democrats that President Clinton’s scandal would drag down his party’s candidates.

While Republicans maintained control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Democrats’ strong showing, in an off-year election when the party in the White House typically loses seats, made it far less likely that the Congress would move ahead aggressively with its impeachment inquiry of Mr. Clinton.

Yeah, we know how that last part turned out. Still, the Republicans thought they’d make some gains that night, but instead they lost five House seats and had a net gain of zero Senate seats. Several days later, Newt Gingrich stepped down as Speaker of the House.

It was a good night for Democrats; for instance, it was the night Chuck Schumer ousted Al D’Amato from his Senate seat.

Tonight won’t be quite as fun, but it’s nice to reminisce.

Gail Collins Says

Gail Collins, whose columns I love, wrote the following in the Times a few days ago:

Here’s my thought for the day. The Tea Party people say they’re angry about socialism, but maybe they’re really angry about capitalism. If there’s a sense of being looked down upon, it’s that sense of failure that’s built into a system that assures everyone they can make it to the top, but then reserves the top for only a tiny fraction of the strivers. Capitalism is also a system that lives off of change. When people say this isn’t the America they grew up in, they’re right. Nobody gets to grow old in the America they grew up in.

This is nothing new, of course. There is no logical reason for religious conservatives, the lower middle class, and rich businesspeople to belong to the same political party. It’s a pretty neat trick that people like Dick Armey and Glenn Beck have pulled.

Dems, Attack!

I love this letter in the NY Times today:

To the Editor:

The Sherrod affair has unfortunately confirmed my suspicion of the Obama administration: it has no backbone.

The administration seems not to realize that American politics is a contact sport, not a cerebral exercise. An attack demands an immediate counterattack. Smearing Shirley Sherrod was an attack; firing her was not a counterattack, it was a misguided attempt at damage control.

The Democratic position on virtually every issue (including, or especially, the economy) is far stronger than the opposition’s, but the administration’s defense of its policies is tepid at best.

The Sherrod affair shows that the right keeps on attacking, even when it is wrong, and the left keeps on retreating, even when it is right. For this Democratic president and this Democratic Congress, this is not a formula for success.

Charles T. Grant
Minneapolis, July 22, 2010


“The Sheen is Gone.”

There’s a stunning article in yesterday’s New York Times: “American Dream Is Elusive for New Generation.” From the headline, you think you’re going to get a heartfelt story about young people struggling to get by. But no:

After breakfast, his parents left for their jobs, and Scott Nicholson, alone in the house in this comfortable suburb west of Boston, went to his laptop in the living room. He had placed it on a small table that his mother had used for a vase of flowers until her unemployed son found himself reluctantly stuck at home.

The daily routine seldom varied. Mr. Nicholson, 24, a graduate of Colgate University, winner of a dean’s award for academic excellence, spent his mornings searching corporate Web sites for suitable job openings. When he found one, he mailed off a résumé and cover letter — four or five a week, week after week.

Over the last five months, only one job materialized. After several interviews, the Hanover Insurance Group in nearby Worcester offered to hire him as an associate claims adjuster, at $40,000 a year. But even before the formal offer, Mr. Nicholson had decided not to take the job.

Rather than waste early years in dead-end work, he reasoned, he would hold out for a corporate position that would draw on his college training and put him, as he sees it, on the bottom rungs of a career ladder.

Wow. Just wow. Sense of entitlement much?

It gets worse:

Scott Nicholson almost sidestepped the recession. His plan was to become a Marine Corps second lieutenant. He had spent the summer after his freshman year in “platoon leader” training. Last fall he passed the physical for officer training, and was told to report on Jan. 16.

If all had gone well, he would have emerged in 10 weeks as a second lieutenant, committed to a four-year enlistment. “I could have made a career out of the Marines,” Scott said, “and if I had come out in four years, I would have been incredibly prepared for the workplace.”

It was not to be. In early January, a Marine Corps doctor noticed that he had suffered from childhood asthma. He was washed out. “They finally told me I could reapply if I wanted to,” Scott said. “But the sheen was gone.”

“The sheen was gone.” Seriously? You decided against the Marines because “the sheen was gone”? Oh, Mary.

The article is baffling. “American Dream Is Elusive for New Generation”? Who titled this piece? Cry me a river. You get a job offer and you turn it down because you think it’s not good enough for you?

I really hope this piece was designed to go viral from disgusted readers passing it on to other people. Because if it’s not that… no. That’s really the only possibility. Right? The New York Times can’t be that out of touch. Could it?

I was reading the article and felt nothing but scorn for the guy. But then I decided to try and empathize. Not sympathize, but empathize. Is it necessarily his fault that he has the sense of entitlement he does? Or was he just raised that way? Twenty-four is adulthood, but not necessarily maturity. And it’s really none of my business what kind of job this guy takes.

Still… I think he’s going to regret being interviewed for a long, long time.

And after reading that article in concert with this one, I really wanted to throw things at my computer monitor this morning.

Sharron Angle Runs Away

Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada, who is running against Harry Reid, gives non-answers to a reporter’s questions and then walks away as he follows her. Video at the link.

I wish more local reporters were like this.

No matter how ridiculous a Senate candidate this woman is, she scares me. I don’t have much faith in the intelligence of voters these days, even in a state that voted for Obama in 2008.

The Impossible Presidency

Last week, in light of the BP oil spill, Nick Kristof of the New York Times jokingly suggested that the United States needs a king and queen. We expect too much from our presidents, he says:

Our king and queen could spend days traipsing along tar-ball-infested beaches, while bathing oil-soaked pelicans and thrusting strong chins defiantly at BP rigs…

Our president is stuck with too many ceremonial duties as head of state, such as greeting ambassadors and holding tedious state dinners, that divert attention from solving problems. You can preside over America or you can address its problems, but it’s difficult to find time to do both.

Then there was this article in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, which I haven’t read yet but seems to be about how Obama doesn’t feel comfortable acting as head cheerleader of the Democratic Party.

This makes me think back to a book I read in college: The American Presidency, by Clinton Rossiter. Rossiter wrote his book in the 1950s, but his description of the bewildering number of presidential duties still holds up pretty well today. He identified 10 such roles. The emphasis in the following paragraphs is mine.

First, the President is Chief of State. He remains today, as he has always been, the ceremonial head of the government of the United States… [he is] expected to go through some rather undignified paces by a people who think of him as a combination of scoutmaster, Delphic oracle, hero of the silver screen, and father of the multitudes… The President, in short, is the one-man distillation of the American people just as surely as the Queen is of the British people…

The second of the president’s roles is that of Chief Executive. He reigns, but he also rules; he symbolizes the people, but he also runs their government… He alone may appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate, the several thousand top officials who run the government; he alone may remove, with varying degrees of abruptness, those who are not executing the laws faithfully…

The President’s third major function is one he could not escape if he wished… the Constitution designates him specifically as “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several States when called into the actual service of the United States.”… He is never for one day allowed to forget that he will be held accountable by people, Congress, and history for the nation’s readiness to meet an enemy assault…

Next, the President is Chief Diplomat. Although authority in the field of foreign relations is shared constitutionally among three organs — President, Congress, and, for two special purposes, the Senate — his position is paramount, if not indeed dominant… Leadership in foreign affairs flows today from the President — or it does not flow at all…

The President’s duties are not all purely executive in nature. He is also intimately associated, by Constitution and custom, with the legislative process, and we may therefore consider him to be the Chief Legislator… [he is] expected, within the limits of constitutional and political propriety, to guide Congress in much of its lawmaking activity… Upon many of our most celebrated laws the presidential imprint is clearly stamped… The President who will not give his best thoughts to guiding Congress, more so the President who is temperamentally or politically unfitted to “get along with Congress,” is now rightly considered a national liability…

Yet even these are not the whole weight of presidential responsibility. I count at least five additional functions that have been piled on top of the original load.

The first of these is the President’s role as Chief of Party… No matter how fondly or how often we may long for a President who is above the heat of political strife, we must acknowledge resolutely his right and duty to be the leader of his party. He is at once the least political and most political of all heads of government…

Yet he is, at the same time if not in the same breath, the Voice of the People, the leading formulator and expounder of public opinion in the United States. While he acts as political chieftain of some, he serves as moral spokesman for all… The President is the American people’s one authentic trumpet, and he has no higher duty than to give a clear and certain sound…

Perhaps the least known of his functions is the mandate he holds from the Constitution and the laws, but even more positively from the people of the United States, to act as Protector of the Peace. The emergencies that can disturb the peace of the United States seem to grow thicker and more vexing every year, and hardly a week now goes by that the President is not called upon to take forceful steps in behalf of a section or city or group or enterprise that has been hit hard and suddenly by disaster… in the face of a riot in Detroit or floods in New England or a tornado in Missouri or a railroad strike in Chicago or a panic on Wall Street, the people turn almost instinctively to the White House and its occupant for aid and comfort…

There is at least one area of American life, the economy, in which the people of this country are no longer content to let disaster fall upon them unopposed. They now expect their government, under the direct leadership of the President, to prevent a depression or panic and not simply to wait until one has developed before putting it to rout. Thus the President has a new function, which is still taking shape, that of Manager of Prosperity

In order to grasp the full import of the last of the President’s roles, we must take him as Chief Diplomat, Commander in Chief, and Chief of State, then thrust him onto a far wider stage, there to perform before a much more numerous and more critical audience. For the modern President is, whether we or our friends abroad like it or not, marked out for duty as a World Leader. The President has a much larger constituency than the American electorate; his words and deeds in behalf of our own survival as a free nation have a direct bearing upon the freedom and stability of at least several score other countries…

The president is a ceremonial figurehead, leader of one of the three branches of government, commander of the U.S. military, our most visible face to the world, manager of a domestic legislative agenda, head of a political party, collective national conscience, keeper of domestic tranquility, manager of the economy, and international superhero.

So it’s basically an impossible job. And that’s when times are good. When times are bad, I don’t see how any human being can possibly succeed at it.

Obama and Blackness

Homer said in a comment on my last post, about why the tea-partiers don’t like Barack Obama:

You forgot to mention Obama is black. That is really the problem. All the rest of the crap is just sorta random whining and sound bites. The tea partiers “Want our Country Back” because they never, ever imagined one of the black guys would be running it.

Actually, I think it’s more complicated. They don’t dislike him because he’s black, or at least not just because he’s black. They dislike him because he defies categorization. He has a white mother but a black father. And his father wasn’t an American but a Kenyan. And he lived in Indonesia for much of his childhood. And his first name has origins in Swahili and (OMG) Arabic. And his middle name is Arabic and is the same as the last name of that guy who Bush said had WMDs. And his last name doesn’t sound ‘merican.

Kenyan father, Indonesian childhood, a name with multiple foreign origins. What do they do with all of that? At least “Jesse Jackson” is pronounceable, and his ancestors were American slaves. They know what box to put him in. They know all about black people — they have generations of stereotypes about black people to fall back on. But what about that Obama guy? What box do we put him in? How are we gonna stereotype him if we don’t know what box to put him in? Obviously he must be hiding something. Kinda shifty and suspicious! At least black people are American. This guy doesn’t even seem American!

That’s the mentality, as far as I see it.

Tea Party Contradictions

I have to admit, I’m a little confused as to what the tea partiers want. They blame Obama for bailing out the banks even though Obama wasn’t the president who bailed out the banks. And they blame Obama for doing this while at the same time they call him a socialist. So I guess he’s not a socialist, exactly; he’s… a corporatist-socialist? He’s in cohorts with American big business, while at the same time he wants to destroy it?

There’s an unresolved love-hate relationship with capitalism going on here. It’s been like this ever since the American Puritans decided that working hard and becoming financially secure was the only way to show that they had been saved by God, while at the same time issuing jeremiads against the prosperity they themselves had created.

Capitalism’s great, but along with the good stuff, there’s some not-so-good stuff, too. Ultimately, capitalism is about money, not morality, as the Puritans might have hoped. If you have capitalism, you will have Family Guy and wardrobe malfunctions, because people like to laugh at dirty jokes and look at boobs and that’s what sells. In fact, the people who like to laugh at dirty jokes and look at boobs are — gasp — the very same people who say it’s bad to laugh at dirty jokes and look at boobs. No wonder we’ve got a problem. People don’t know what they think about something as personal as sexuality; how can they know what they think about capitalism?

People want to live in a world where they have the freedom to get rich, and then they get mad when other people get rich instead. That’s why they can simultaneously believe that Obama both loves and hates big business; it’s because they do, too.

In the war of Big Evil Government versus Big Evil Corporate Banks, whose side do they take? Thinking about this would make their heads explode. But it’s not even that simple. Sometimes Big Evil Government is on the same side as Big Evil Corporate Banks, and sometimes not. Because sometimes what’s good for the big corporations is good for the little guy, and sometimes it’s not.

There are no clear “sides” here. There’s a spectrum. And Obama is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. He doesn’t want to destroy the capitalist system; he just wants to soften its rough edges. There are so many people who don’t seem to understand this. They prefer a simpler world where they can have enemies.

It’s frustrating to listen to all the ranting.

Stevens to Retire; Appoint a Woman!

So, there it is… Justice Stevens is retiring at the end of this term, the day after the Supreme Court begins its summer recess.

First, some geekery. His retirement date means that he’ll just miss becoming the second-longest serving justice in Supreme Court history, as I speculated last fall, since the Court will most likely recess on June 28. Even if the Court recesses on July 1 — which is not likely and might happen only if there are too many decisions to announce at the end of the term — Stevens would retire on July 2, and thus tie Stephen Field as the second-longest serving justice. Right now Stevens ranks fourth; 41 days from now he’ll surpass the legendary John Marshall to become third.

I’m sure he doesn’t care about any of that stuff, though. Only geeks like me do.

Now the speculation begins on a successor. And I really, really want Obama to nominate another woman.

It’s ridiculous that in the year 2010, only two of the nine justices are women. Bush tried to nominate a woman to replace O’Connor — Harriet Miers — but when her nomination failed, he nominated Sam Alito, leaving Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the only woman on the Court. Obama did the right thing in choosing a woman to replace Souter, and Stevens’s replacement should be a woman as well.

Demographics should be secondary to a Supreme Court nomination, but when a president is looking for someone of a particular ideology or judicial temperament, there are usually several people to choose from, so he has the leeway to choose another woman. Fortunately, it looks like the name with the most buzz for the last couple of months has been Solicitor General Elena Kagan. Several weeks ago, SCOTUSblog profiled her, as well as a few other contenders, and considered her the front runner.

But this is interesting — if she were nominated and confirmed, the Supreme Court would have six Catholics and three Jews. Would fundamentalist Protestants be annoyed at having no representation? After all, to quote that link, “it’s not like having devout Catholics on the bench is a substitute for having a couple of Protestants, any more than having a Clarence Thomas on the bench is the same as having an African-American.”

The Supreme Court is problematic today — a small group of nine people can enact major change in this country, for better or for worse. Perhaps a larger court would be better, and not just because it would dilute the identity politics somewhat. (The Constitution doesn’t say there have to be nine justices — all it takes is an act of Congress, although the last time a president tried to make that happen, it didn’t work out.)

Of course, even in a larger body — the current United States Senate — only 17 out of 100 members are women. But given the infrequency with which the Supreme Court membership turns over, change comes even more slowly to that body.

Even three out of nine justices would be too few women on the Court. But it would help redress a great annoyance.