December 11th, 2008 by Rightsideup

This article reminds me of the analysis I did a while back on VPs who subsequently run for president. Sounds like the track record for mid-term appointees to the Senate is similar to that for VPs who try to move up a seat:

[New York Governor] Paterson kept talking and displayed why he is fast gaining a reputation as a governor who’s not only forthright and smart, but refreshingly analytical:

Interestingly enough, I was reading that there have been, there have been, I think in the last century, over 80 times when governors have had to appoint senators. And since 1960, there have been 48. Of the 48, 10 have just decided to serve out the term and not run for election. Of the 38 that ran for election, only 18 won. So, less than half actually won. So, as I think about that, because of the precious nature of seniority in Washington, I’m hoping that a candidate that I select would win in 2010. Because what’s very key in the U.S. Senate, and what the U.S. senators that I’ve spoken to have apprised me, is that seniority is very important.

I believe the going rate for re-election of sitting U.S. senators is about 90 percent. So, if Paterson’s reading of history is correct, a less-than-50 percent re-election rate for this subset of incumbents would seem to be a pretty good indication that they were pretty unimpressive. By announcing this fact, Paterson may have just made his own task a bit harder, but he sounds wise enough to handle it.

On that basis, the Republicans may well have a better shot than thought at the Illinois senate seat when the appointee comes up for re-election.

November 17th, 2008 by Rightsideup

A thought has occurred to me in the last few days and has been percolating since then, and it is that Barack Obama is Tony Blair. No, obviously, Tony Blair was not the first black prime minister of the United Kingdom. He didn’t break down racial and cultural barriers in the way that Barack Obama has. But although it’s been exciting to focus on all that stuff since Obama’s election victory, I think it’s actually a lot less important in the long term than a number of other facets of Obama’s campaign and presidency, and those bear a much stronger resemblance to Tony Blair.

So what am I talking about? Try the following:

  • After an unpopular conservative government lasts much longer than anyone thought it would, partly thanks to the opposition trusting its fate several times in a row to leaders who have very little personal appeal, a charismatic leader finally brings the liberal party to power with a resounding victory [the unpopular leaders in the US were Al Gore and John Kerry; in the UK they were Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock]
  • The appeal of the new leader is based to a large extent on things separate from his party, and he has made a number of changes to his party’s usual platform, moving it to the center, in order to be elected. [Blair famously ditched Clause 4, calling for the nationalization of industry, in 1995, and engaged in a broader modernization of the Labour Party; Obama has promised to cut taxes and opposes gay marriage]
  • Personal charisma and a way with words is a major appeal for the candidate at the head of the ticket.
  • It is unclear what major policy changes will be made should the candidate be victorious – voters to some extent project their own hoped-for changes onto the candidate in a way that is likely to leave many disappointed by the reality.
  • The victor’s youth and hipness are also part of the appeal, bringing out young voters who haven’t voted before, and suggesting a broader takeover of key institutions by the young.

I could probably go on, but those strike me as the most important aspects of the comparison.

Now, here’s the point. Tony Blair’s story started well, and he solidified his appeal with a number of subsequent actions, notably (though not importantly, in the grand scheme of things) his handling of the death of Princess Diana. But over the next 10 years, his appeal waned and cracks began to show in the image that had been so carefully constructed, because Tony Blair was not the superhuman some imagined him to be, and because the very nature of his ‘Third Way’ political philosophy meant making compromises and so disappointing those on both ends of the political spectrum. Realpolitik also kicked in over issues like the war in Kosovo and subsequently the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which showed that idealism has its limits as a governing philosophy. He also failed to make a significant impact in the lives of ordinary citizens, with his main achievements being constitutional rather than everyday in nature – half-hearted and still unfinished reform of the House of Lords and devolution in Scotland and Wales. On the key issue of reform of the National Health Service – an interesting parallel to Obama’s promise to extend health coverage to more of the population – the approach was simply to throw more of taxpayers’ money at the issue without meaningful improvements – another disappointment.

I think Barack Obama’s course over the next four or eight years might well follow a similar trajectory. As with Tony Blair, the unpopularity of the government he is replacing and the sheer freshness of his approach will lend him an early imperviousness to criticism as he enjoys a sustained honeymoon period of 1-2 years. There will of course be small missteps (hopefully no big ones) and his opponents will no doubt criticise him consistently, as is their right. But the press and much of the population as a whole will largely give him a free pass for the first little while. However, after the honeymoon period people will begin to demand real results and changes. Although these will be relatively easy to make in the first few months, most will again be symbolic in nature and have little impact on the population as a whole – banning torture and closing Gitmo are among his first priorities according to his 60 Minutes interview but won’t affect any US citizens in a big way – while fixing the economy is a mammoth task started by the incumbent – his predecessor – and likely to take a long time.

The lack of substance which his opponents derided on the campaign trail but which his supporters seemed happy to overlook may eventually translate into a mistrust of anything he says, as they did with Tony Blair. There is no high-profile Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s spin doctor and something of an equivalent to Karl Rove and Dick Cheney combined) in the Obama camp as yet, but he may fall prey to the Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon as Blair did. People stopped trusting Blair because they felt everything he did was about style and presentation rather than substance even when in office – and Obama needs to make sure he makes that transition after taking office – recognizing that people expect their president to do substantive things whereas style is an acceptable substitute in an election.

In four years’ time the honeymoon effect may still be strong enough, and Obama’s personal appeal lasting enough, that he will beat anyone but a really strong and charismatic opponent (unless he becomes another Jimmy Carter and really blows his first term). But by the end of a second term, it is quite possible that America will be very tired of Obama and his endless platitudes, lack of clear policy direction, feeble accomplishments and mishandling of key situations.

As a Republican, I hope the electorate quickly sees through the Obama charm and holds him fully accountable, and that the media does this too (they don’t like being manipulated any more than voters do). But I think this is unlikely to happen until at least midway through the first term, and I think the Republicans have to be very disciplined in finding leaders who can speak out articulately and clearly when Obama goes wrong while not simply defaulting to criticizing everything the man does, which makes voters discount everything they say. We need intelligent and well argued criticism of the Obama administration and cogent arguments for the alternative reality a Republican president would bring about.

The British Conservative Party unfortunately spent the first eight or so of its now 11 years out of power wandering around in the desert without a clear strategy for regaining power, seemingly powerless in the face of Tony Blair’s charm offensive. They have now apparently stumbled upon a winning strategy with another young and relatively charismatic leader willing to make changes. I don’t think the same solution will win it for the Republicans, but I certainly hope they reach the right conclusion much more quickly than their British counterparts.

Epilogue: this piece was entirely my idea and based on my original thinking, but as I began writing I did a Google search and found that I am not alone in reaching at least some of these conclusions. Among the others making the Blair/Obama comparison are:

The first of these does a nice job of ripping the Blair government’s legacy to shreds in a way I don’t have space to here – and may offer a preview of some of what the Obama presidency will bring. But it’s worth bearing in mind that the US and the UK are very different places with very different histories, so the parallels certainly have limitations.

November 17th, 2008 by Rightsideup

As predicted before the election, there’s been a massive round of post-mortem analysis focused on where the Republicans went wrong and the disastrous state the party is in at this point. Here’s a roundup of some of the pieces that have appeared on CNN.com on this topic recently (I tend to use CNN.com as my main source of main stream news – not because I think it’s particularly unbiased but simply because it often has the broadest coverage, and has recently added commentary from key figures on both sides – an interesting feature):

It’s a mix of stupid stuff, more thoughtful stuff (some of which is still wrong) and sensible thinking. The first post is just ridiculous, having as one of its main arguments that the Republican party doesn’t have a leader – did the Democratic party have a leader in 2000 or 2004? No – of course not – that’s just not the way US presidential elections work – unlike, say, UK general elections, where the leader of the losing party remains leader unless an explicit change is made.Zakaria makes some of the same arguments more thoughtfully, and though I think he’s wrong on most of what he says, it at least appears he’s thought about them.

On the other hand, I find Governor Sanford’s remarks (the second link in the list above) and those of Tony Perkins (in the last link) to be much closer to my own views on this subject, as expressed in my final pre-election thoughts a couple of weeks ago. I really think the issue for the GOP hasn’t been its ideas are stale or wrong, but that it hasn’t argued them cogently or governed accordingly when in power.

The whole ‘Joe the Plumber‘ episode towards the end of the election cycle proved that when GOP ideas are well articulated by the right people they have real appeal. Unfortunately, Joe the plumber made the case much better than John the politician, and there’s lots that the leaders of the Republican party can learn from him and those like him – and from Ronald Reagan, who was really the last leader of the GOP to do this well. Newt Gingrich has real potential in this department, but I think his role should be helping a presidential candidate formulate arguments along these lines rather than running for that office himself in 2012.

October 31st, 2008 by Rightsideup

I’ve started seeing the post-mortem pieces appearing in the media about what went wrong for John McCain, how the Republicans are out of touch and need to change, and whether Palin will be the candidate in 2012. Aside from the obvious point about doing an autopsy on someone who’s still breathing, there is a lot of muddled thinking in all that’s being written.

Firstly, the problem for the Republicans in this election isn’t too much conservatism. In fact, it’s the opposite. For president they’re running an apathetically middle of the road Republican with very little personal charm, a notoriously bad temper, serious health issues and very little track record of successfully running anything, who tried to use his VP pick as a bandaid to patch several holes in his own candidacy (youth, gender and conservatism being the obvious ones).

Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress have been doing their best impersonation of Democrats for so long that voters figured they might as well have the real thing. Spending has increased more and more quickly under the Bush administration than under the Clinton administration, and not just because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The utter failure to use their combined occupancy of the White House and the majority offices in Congress from 2000-2006 to push through any meaningful changes or improvements in the way the country is run was reason enough to kick them out. But the fact that they also presided over such a bloating of the government with so little effort to reduce not only pork barrel but also all other forms of spending was a disgrace. They gave their natural supporters so few reasons to vote for them it’s remarkable that they still have so many seats. Of course, that will change next week too.

The idea that conservatism has had its day, or that Sarah Palin represents anything like the kind of candidate needed to revive its fortunes, is preposterous. Republicans (conservative ones, at least in theory, with the exception of Bush 1) have occupied the White House for 20 of the last 28 years. They also had majorities in Congress for a good chunk of that time period. Voters are rejecting not conservatism, but a Republicanism that’s lost its teeth and no longer knows what it stands for. If you vote Democratic, at least you know that the bigger government, higher taxes and increased regulation are all deliberate and coordinated attempts to achieve a certain goal. When Republicans enact the same policies it’s out of lassitude and spinelessness.

The Republicans in Congress were punished in 2006 for not being conservative enough and instead of learning their lesson they nominated one of their own number for President in the face of several other options with no connections to Congress (the only institution in the country with a lower approval rating than President Bush). Far from being a Washington outsider with the power and will to change the status quo, McCain was Exhibit A in all that’s gone wrong in the nation’s capital for the last few years. As such, for all his speeches attempting to misappropriate Obama’s change message, McCain was powerless to say what really needed to be said in this election: that Republicans had abused the trust of the American people and he intended to regain that trust by being true to the core principles of the party. Instead we get this misguided stuff about standing up to his own party: does anyone actually want that? Don’t we really want him to stand up against his colleagues in Congress and be true to his party, which surely consists of registered Republican voters?

Sarah Palin as a candidate in 2012? Why on earth would that be a good idea? She was a terrible and cynical choice for the VP role, simultaneously exposing McCain’s poor decision making and fondness for a gimmick, and neutralising the best attack against Obama that McCain had: the former’s inexperience. If we’ve learned anything since Palin was nominated, it’s that she has very little meaningful executive experience, she’s way out of her depth in a national campaign, and perfect SNL fodder. She has brought no lasting bounce to McCain’s campaign and arguably has hurt it considerably. If all we want for president is someone with reliable conservative instincts and two X chromosomes, there are plenty of choices out there. But if we want someone capable of not just winning an election but running the largest country in the world we surely need much more than that.

Imagine now that Mitt Romney had been either the Republican presidential candidate or McCain’s VP pick. How different things would look. Against Obama’s inexperience and the combined Democratic ticket’s Congressional background, you’d have a true Washington outsider, someone who’s only been tainted by politics for four years, with all four spent in an executive role. Someone who truly understands the economy and money, and could explain it all to voters with patience and credibility. As VP, he would be a wonderful counterpoint to McCain’s crusty maverick – reliably conservative (who wants a maverick with his finger on the nuclear button, anyway?), confidence-inspiring, with economic and executive experience, and ready to take over at any minute should McCain not last the full four years. It’s too late for all that now, of course, but why couldn’t voters and McCain see this at the time? Was McCain really that desperate?

At any rate, the post-mortems will begin in earnest on the 5th, and there will no doubt be much self-examination in the Republican party. I just hope they learn the real lessons from this campaign rather than the lessons the media wants them to learn.

July 10th, 2008 by Rightsideup

(back from vacation so likely to be posting slightly more frequently again)

CNN has a story about a Gallup poll relating to John McCain’s age and Barack Obama’s race, and it draws some strong conclusions from the poll. But it seems to me that the poll is asking the wrong questions:

The question should be, “does John McCain’s age / Barack Obama’s race make you any less likely to vote for him?” The numbers of people who say these facts are a problem in both cases are pretty tiny anyway, but nowhere in this question are voters asked to rank these concerns against other factors that may influence the way they vote. All 11% of those saying McCain’s age is a problem may think that other factors outweigh it (or may be Democratic voters who wouldn’t vote for him in the first place), while many of the 9% who think Obama’s race is a problem are probably systemic racists who would be unlikely to vote for a black man for president regardless of other factors. Don’t we need more information here to draw the kind of conclusion CNN does?

June 25th, 2008 by Rightsideup

I was pleasantly surprised by this article in the Guardian reporting on the horror of the global warming community to find that even the Brits are not convinced by the alarmism they’ve been spreading. The UK has always seemed to me (based on my frequent trips back and conversations with people there) to be much further along in its adherence to the global warming “consensus” and so this surprised me along with the warming lobby. From the article:

The majority of the British public is still not convinced that climate change is caused by humans – and many others believe scientists are exaggerating the problem, according to an exclusive poll for The Observer.

The results have shocked campaigners who hoped that doubts would have been silenced by a report last year by more than 2,500 scientists for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which found a 90 per cent chance that humans were the main cause of climate change and warned that drastic action was needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

I’m tempted to say that the British public is smarter than I thought: they don’t just buy this stuff hook, line and sinker as the media has attempted to suggest. Even 2500 scientists can’t persuade them! In reality of course, many ordinary people simply go by the headlines rather than the detailed analysis – what percentage of those surveyed could have told you how many scientists – to the nearest thousand – had authored/agreed that report? (They’d probably have a better answer for how many climate change scientists it takes to change a lightbulb.)

But in most cases most ordinary people who don’t spend their lives with noses buried in newspapers have to go on personal experience plus the occasional headline, tempered by an inherent distrust of the media. In this case, that’s won out over all the blathering by politicians on this subject and the massive buy-in from the media. Pretty impressive that that’s still possible in an age when most of the electorate seems disengaged from the political process in the UK. Now if only that would start translating to political policies…

June 23rd, 2008 by Rightsideup

The problem with attempting to grab the moral high ground, as Barack Obama has sought to do in the presidential election, is that – unless you’re really serious about it and can live up to it – you essentially raise the bar for your own behavior to the point where it’s very hard to live up to the expectations you’ve created. On the other hand, if you do live up to your own billing for a period of time, you can create an aura of respectability that will cover you even when your actions are very much in contrast to your supposed ideals.

Such has been the case for Obama so far, as he is immunized against much of the fallout from his various misdeeds and missteps by the adulation of his supporters and segments of the media. However, at some point his luck will run out, and he’ll find out whether the American public prefers a man who talks a good talk but can’t live up to it, or a man who makes little claim to be anything other than a straight shooter but generally lives up to that characterization.

There are early signs that at least some Obama supporters are willing to hold him to his word. This YouTube video features an Obama supporter who is disappointed in his candidate’s abandonment both of public financing itself and of a previously stated promise to use it. It’s well worth watching, as I think this could be a sign of things to come from supporters who’ve been swept up in the oratory and grand promises and who will eventually come to realize that the actions of the candidate don’t live up to the vision he sets out. The question is whether these people will then switch to the McCain camp or simply withdraw from the political process in a negation of one of Obama’s supposed greatest achievements – the ability to get ordinary people, and especially young people, engaged in that process.

June 21st, 2008 by Rightsideup

It appears the Obama campaign has adopted a version of the Presidential Seal as a sort of logo to sit on the podium when he speaks at events, and it looks something like this:

There are several objections to this, not the least of which is that it appears to be illegal. But even more than that technical objection, there’s the issue of what it means that he has this seal. It implies a desire to appear to be the president before he’s been through the appropriate process. It suggests an unseriousness, since the Latin motto means, roughly translated, “yes we can”. But above all it’s a betrayal of one of the fundamental principles of American constitutional government – that the nation and its people are sovereign, and not the President. In other countries, including my own home country of the United Kingdom, people swear allegiance to the head of state – a King, Queen or President. But in the United States people swear allegiance to the Flag and the “republic for which it stands”.

Yes, there is a great seal that belongs to the President, but it belongs to the office, and is unchanging regardless of who holds that office. It’s a symbol of permanence and a reminder that the office and not the individual is the one to be reverenced. Obama’s very personal knock-off seems to betray several of those principles, putting his “O” at the center, his own personal (and meaningless) motto where E Pluribus Unum (again, those sovereign people) should normally sit. Even the preservation of the arrows in one of the eagle’s claws is oddly incongruous with Obama’s pacifist positions on foreign policy.

The whole thing is oddly symbolic of the Obama campaign – lack of respect for the United States, the cult of personality, meaningless slogans and conflicting messages. 

June 20th, 2008 by Rightsideup

The media’s going easy on Obama again (contrary to his bizarre suggestion here that the media has been going easy on McCain). This time it’s in relation to his incredible about-face on taking public financing. He and John McCain had made a deal (publicly announced at the time) that they would both take public financing, which is supposed to make the whole process fairer, more transparent and so on (if you’re into that kind of thing). Now he’s dumped the deal, without even talking to the McCain campaign about it first, something else they had promised to do.

The announcement was made in a video (available here on Obama’s website) to supporters. Under the video, the beg for additional funds comes under the heading, “Declare your independence from a broken system”. He just gets more audacious all the time, doesn’t he? The video thing is interesting – you can look at it from the cynical or non-cynical point of view. The cynical POV is that he did a video because when he says stuff people are swept along, but when you see the same words written down they leave you cold (apparently, it was the same with FDR). So when you have a tough message to get out, like this, you have the wonder-candidate speak it to camera instead of issuing a press release. The less cynical version is that he now needs to raise funds all the more, so they turned this into a beg for money, which is often delivered in this form. Which do you think it was?

Of course, Obama’s people have suggested that there was a negotiation with the McCain campaign, and they couldn’t come to an agreement, as per this CNN article:

Obama counsel Bob Bauer said Thursday he had met with Trevor Potter, his counterpart on the McCain team, on June 6 to discuss a possible joint townhall appearance later in the month, and that the two discussed the public funding issue for 45 minutes.

“I asked him to address a [series] of issues of concern to the Obama campaign–the McCain campaign’s active raising and spending of private money since February for a general election campaign, including for media, while we were still in the middle of a primary contest,” said Bauer in a statement. “He gave me his perspectives–the best arguments he could offer for an agreement on both sides to accept public financing–and it was clear to me that these offered no basis for any further exchange.”

The same article was subsequently updated to incorporate comment from the McCain campaign, as follows:

Trevor Potter disputed the Obama campaign’s account, telling CNN Thursday that he had met with Bauer on a completely unrelated subject, and that campaign financing had only been discussed in an abstract way.

“We then spoke in general terms about the public financing system, with Bob outlining reasons it could be considered ‘broken’ or irrelevant in 2008, and I explaining why Sen. McCain remained committed to it and thought it was good for the country,” said Potter.

“Other than this informal discussion, there have been no contacts between the two campaigns on the subject, and this discussion contained no negotiations or even offer to hold negotiations. I cannot begin to explain how the Obama campaign could twist my reiteration of Sen. McCain’s support of the system, and hope the two candidates would participate in it, into what they said today,” he added

“…An attempt to imply otherwise by any representative of the Obama campaign (and an attempt to turn an informal conversation between Bob Bauer and me into a discussion of negotiations between the campaigns) is a complete misrepresentation of the facts”

Another example of the man who talks so much about integrity in the process going against his own word and pursuing exactly the route to financing so derided by so many in his own party, and then lying about the circumstances until someone contradicts his version of events. Who knows where this will go next? So much for Obama’s “purity”.

June 18th, 2008 by Rightsideup

I was watching CNN in the morning yesterday and was struck by a segment on how the flooding in the MidWest was going to affect food prices. The anchor Tony Harris was discussing this topic with Stephanie Elam, a Business Correspondent. Excerpts from the transcript (my emphasis):

HARRIS: Midwest floods not only uprooting lives but devastating the crops we eat. 

Stephanie Elam is “Minding Your Business.” 

You know, Stephanie, I can’t keep reaching much deeper into my pockets here and I know the prices are going to go up for a lot of the produce that we eat here. So give us the toll here. 

ELAM: … and more corn is actually shipped away. It’s exported from the United States than actually eaten here. This could also have an effect on the markets that way as well. 

HARRIS: You know what, I need to get in the grocery store a little more often here. You’re talking crops. I’m talking produce. 

ELAM: I know. 

HARRIS: Hello! Get into a grocery store, Mr. Harris. 

ELAM: … costs are so volatile right now. Well, if you strip those out, in May, it was up 0.2 percent versus 0.4 percent of an increase in April. So we all know what this is about. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone out there because anyone who has been to a grocery store, Mr. Harris, knows that things cost a lot more. 

I’m sure you’ve been to the gas station, though, so you know that. 

COLLINS: He has shoppers beforehand. 

HARRIS: Yes, I have shoppers.

Did you see that? He starts out by talking as if he’s personally feeling the pinch from rising food prices, but does it in such a way (the transcript doesn’t catch this of course) that it’s clear it’s a joke and he knows it – so he’s essentially making fun of people for whom rising food prices are an issue. Then towards the end we get the ultimate negation of that early statement – he doesn’t actually go to the grocery store – he has “shoppers”. How out of touch can this man be? And yet here he and his network are, reporting on the immense toll rising food prices are supposedly taking on the shrinking middle class and being smug about it at the same time. 

How about an assignment for Mr Harris? Send him grocery shopping for himself for a few weeks and see what he reports…