One Person's Opinion

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Ted Kennedy, as you may have heard, is very ill. In response, a number of people on both sides of the political spectrum have poured out their sympathies. I think that's great. I would hope it would be the same if, for instance, Bob Dole was stricken.

But I noticed that a fair amount of the conservative commentary consisted of self-congratulation and comparison to liberals, who it is alleged never express sympathy for conservatives who are stricken. The evidence of this was scattered comments by anonymous commenters on liberal websites saying that they hope that this or that conservative would die.

Of course, liberals do the same thing, pointing to, for instance,, which is famous for having some rather vituperative commentators. But there have also been recent allegations that perhaps Mike Huckabee and Hillary Clinton have been rooting for political assassinations. (For the record, I think both instances were slips and were not meant to be malicious.)

The point, though, is that this pitch of moral superiority has become a standard feature of American political discourse. Yes, you can say something nice about the opposition, but only as a tool to congratulate yourself and your side of the aisle for its classiness, and pointing out how trashy the other side has been.

There is a variant of this that is the flip side of the coin, which is claims of media bias. Obviously, nobody is going to claim that the media is never biased. But not everything is a matter of media bias. And this is a standard trope when one's own side gets caught with a hand in the cookie jar.

So, when John McCain was forced to disown John Hagee for his remarks about Hitler, plenty of conservatives tried to change the subject to whether the media was treating McCain unfairly and whether a liberal politician would suffer the same punishment for the same sort of activity.

And this comes on the heels of Obama supporters wondering whether conservatives would ever have to pay for their associations with loony pastors in the wake of the Reverend Wright episode.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying that one should never complain about media bias or that such complaints have no merit. What I am saying is that complaining about media bias is not a substitute for evaluating one's own position and the activities of people on one's own side. Democrats in New York, for instance, can complain rightly about the Bush Administration and the media going after Eliot Spitzer for activities that so many politicians are engaged in. There may well be a double standard. That doesn't, however, excuse Spitzer's conduct.

And that's the problem with too many discussions of media bias now. They are an all-too-convenient way to change the subject. And what they share with the moral superiority trope is that in both cases, someone is trying to score a political point rather than confront the real issue.

So let's try to address our political issues without constantly referencing how much better we are than our opponents, or how we get treated so much worse by the media, OK?


Tuesday, May 20, 2008
We are starting to see the outlines of Hillary Clinton's master narrative for her candidacy during the closing weeks of the campaign. Essentially, she is inspring a lot of feminist commentary about how Barack Obama and the Democratic establishment and the media are forcing her out of the race before the votes have been counted, and denying her supporters (especially women eager to support a serious female candidate) the opportunity to vote for her.

It's politically irrelevant (there are few scenarios in which she can win the nomination, and those involve deus-ex-machina type events, not adjustments to her campaign strategy) but a fascinating study in the use of feminist rhetoric in American discourse.

This is, of course, not the first time Hillary has claimed that the old boys are trying to keep the women (represented by her) in their place. She did this in the runup to the New Hampshire primary. She did this when she complained that Obama always got the first question in the debates. She did this when she contended that Rick Lazio, her opponent in the US Senate race in 2000, was "invading her space" at a debate. And, of course, she did this over and over again as First Lady.

The thing that interests me about this line of rhetoric is that while it is very effective for her and is labeled a feminist argument, it actually is the kind of thing that is quite bad for actual feminism. Not that discourse doesn't matter to feminists. Deborah Tannen has enjoyed popularity in both academic and public intellectual circles discussing the relationship between gender and discourse. And language reflects and can shape reality. Workplaces full of sexist language can create a hostile environment. Condescending language (such as male supervisors calling female employees "honey" and "sweetie") can reinforce antiquated views about female subordination.

But even though that is true, and even though it is further true that we want women in politics to face a level playing field with men, it is nonetheless true that the rhetorical climate faced by Hillary Clinton is far from a feminist priority, or at least it should be. For one thing, Hillary Clinton can capitalize on it. It doesn't hurt her candidacy when hecklers chant "iron my shirt" at her; it helps it.

Additionally, however, most of the things that Hillary Clinton and her supporters are complaining about are simply not, in the scheme of things, that big a deal. It is certainly true that Clinton's supporters saw the debate with Lazio as an example of a male invading a female's space. (Lazio came over to Clinton's lectern to make a point). But the reason why feminists are concerned about men invading women's space has no application to political debates. Nobody thinks that Lazio was actually threatening physical violence against Clinton or was imposing his physical size on her to get his way.

Similarly, the fact that several male candidates ganged up on her in early debates is, in fact, a feminist triumph, because it was a tribute to the fact that for the first time, a woman was a frontrunner in a presidential primary campaign. And many Americans want a President who has been tested in some way under fire, it's not a good thing to protect female candidates from this sort of dynamic. Such protection doesn't help them get elected. It's simply not the same as men ganging up on the sole woman in a male-dominated worksite. (Indeed, if anything, the complaints made by the Clinton campaign and their supporters were almost demanding that she be placed on a pedestal, which is the worst possible thing for feminism.)

In the meantime, there are actual feminist priorities out there. Reproductive rights. Equal pay. The second shift of housework that many women who are married or in relationships do. Continued job discrimination and sexual harassment. Lack of child care. The last thing the feminist movement needs is to have the brand associated with relatively trivial issues about the symbolic complaints of female political candidates with respect to procedural issues. Moreover, to the extent that Hillary's campaigning in this manner breeds resentment against Barack Obama in the fall and a dropoff in his support, this could really set back the feminist agenda. (I am skeptical that this will happen, but the cynical use of feminism by the Clinton campaign doesn't help things any.)

We need to stop pretending that the feminist cause begins and ends with Hillary Clinton's wishes and desires. I understand the emotional appeal of second wave feminist women, who fought to integrate schools and workplaces and blazed the trail for younger generations, to voting for a credible female candidate for President, an opportunity that may not come again in their lives. But the feminist movement is about all women, not one woman. And voting against Hillary Clinton and for Barack Obama is simply not anti-feminist. Indeed, it may advance the cause of feminism more than voting for Clinton would.


Monday, May 19, 2008
Credit where credit is due. John McCain proposes that if he is elected President, he will make himself available for questions from the Congress in the style of the Prime Minister's Questions in the UK.

Anyone who has seen the unlikely combination of insult and gentility, theater and policymaking that is the Prime Minister's Questions in the United Kingdom knows that, if nothing else, seeing the President answer questions from Congress would be very entertaining. But it is actually much more than this. Question Time is a form of accountability, a concept that has been sorely lacking the past 8 years. Yes, Bush has occasional press conferences, but political opponents ask better and tougher questions than the press. Plus, they ask questions on a wider variety of issues; the press might ask Bush 8 questions on the Iraq War, 3 on gas prices, and 2 on the 2008 presidential campaign, but during Question Time, Gordon Brown or his predecessors have had to faced questions such as the price of cattle in Jersey or traffic abatement in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. It forces the Prime Minister to study and to learn more about the country. I would bet that whatever one thinks about his ideology, Bush's Katrina screw-ups would have been less likely to happen if he had faced an occasional question about levee policy in Louisiana or the state of FEMA readiness.

This is not to say that Question Time is a panacea. Lots of time is eaten up with stupid questions. The MP's belonging to the same party as the Prime Minister ask softball questions that allow the PM to trumpet this or that success. Further, Britain's parliamentary system, with its third and fourth parties, helps immensely; Gordon Brown gets attacked from the left (by Liberal Democrats) as well as the right (by Tories), and also has to answer questions from Ulster Unionists regarding Northern Ireland. (It is unfortunate that Sinn Fein can't get over it's objection to the oath of office promising loyalty to the United Kingdom, or there would be a competing view about Northern Irish politics also represented in the body.)

Here, it would likely be the case that a Democratic president would be attacked from the right but not the left, and vice-versa. Most Democrats in Congress were far to the left of Bill Clinton, for instance, but they weren't about to launch attacks against the guy given his capacity and willingness to retaliate politically against his critics.

Nonetheless, I have to believe that Question Time would still be a distinct improvement in terms of oversight in American politics. Plus, it might have a civic benefit as well-- it is tremendously entertaining, much more so than a presidential press conference or State of the Union speech. It might even become a hit on television (C-SPAN's reruns of British Question Times draw a cult following). Seeing President John McCain face off against Senator Hillary Clinton on health care policy might draw lots of viewers.

All and all, not a reason for a liberal to vote for McCain, but a praiseworthy proposal nonetheless.


Thursday, May 15, 2008
Today, the California Supreme Court decided that the equal protection clause of the state Constitution requires that marriage, if it is offered to straights by the government, must be offered to gays. I am sure there will be plenty of mostly predictable commentary about the substance of the decision. Personally, I find this decision to be less compelling than a similar decision in Vermont, which held that the state was required to offer civil unions to gays and lesbians. Essentially, while I know why the word "marriage" is important to gays (and it would be important to me if I were gay and wanted to hold a commitment ceremony with my partner), the equal protection issue with respect to gay marriage arises out of the fact that straight people get favorable treatment from the government that is denied to gays and lesbians. Indeed, understanding this point is crucial to the gay marriage issue.

If marriage were nothing more than what religious conservatives claim it is, i.e., a religious sacrament and a traditional institution and ceremony for men and women to enter into, their arguments might make some sense. Marriage could be seen as for 1 man and 1 woman in the same sense that bar mitzvahs are for 1 teenage Jew.

But the problem is that the state attaches a bunch of benefits to married couples. These benefits range from things like automatic hospital vistiation and inheritance to tax breaks to one of the most important benefits possible, the right to bring one's spouse into the country and to adjust his or her immigration status. All of these benefits are denied to gays and lesbians. Only some can be replicated through contracts and legal documents, e.g., inheritance.

Further, private industry is also authorized to discriminate on the basis of marital status. Thus, insurance companies can offer coverage to one's spouse but not to one's partner, for instance. An employer can allow an employee time off to care for an ailing spouse but refuse it to a gay employee caring for an ailing partner. Et cetera.

Thus, the lack of gay marriage is like passing a thousand little discriminatory laws against gays and lesbians. (Indeed, this is true even as states legalize gay marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships, because many of these issues are governed by federal law, and the federal government doesn't recognize gay marriages even from states that permit them.)

I am afraid that a decision like the California Supreme Court's will miss this point. I am all for gays being able to "marry" as opposed to entering a "civil union" or forming a "domestic partnership". But while I can see that issue's importance to gays, it isn't nearly as important as creating a union for gays that entitles them to all the benefits that straights have, i.e., an end not only to state discrimination but to federal discrimination against gays and lesbians. Does today's decision get us closer to that point? Not necessarily. Indeed, it is quite possible that, after the Court relied on the state legislature's passage of generous domestic partnership benefits in holding there was no basis for withholding the term "marriage" to the unions, other states and the federal government may shy away from granting any benefits to gay and lesbian couples, lest a court later adopt the California Supreme Court's ruling.

But I have another point about this issue. A lot of the commentary condemning the decision is sure to come from out of state. We are likely to hear tired conservative arguments about how unelected judges (never mind that California Supreme Court judges face retention elections) are imposing their will on Californians (never mind that California's elected legislators twice passed gay marriage bills, and while they were vetoed by the Governor, he nonetheless supports today's court ruling).

I have one thing to say to those commentators. This is none of your business. As long as the federal Defense of Marriage Act remains law, this decision will not prevent homophobic bigots in other states from outlawing gay marriage. Nor will they be required to recognize California gay marriages in homophobic states.

Accordingly, whether we do this by court decision, legislation, or vote of the people is irrelevant to you. We did it. Just like we legalized medical marijuana, which has also been criticized by conservative outsiders. (Indeed, conservatives are attacking Barack Obama for the sin(?!?) of arguing that California should be able to enforce its own marijuana laws without federal interference.)

Conservatives believe in federalism, remember? If and when there is a challenge to federal marriage laws, commentators in all 50 states can certainly speak up. But what we do in our state to our laws is not the concern of bluenoses in more conservative parts of the country. So leave us alone.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Today, Barack Obama did something he should have done weeks ago. He was criticized for it by the news media, but it was nonetheless the right decision. He decided to ignore the West Virginia primary and concentrate on his general election matchup with John McCain.

What's that, you say? He hasn't won the Democratic nomination yet? Sorry, from his vantage point, he has. Politics is about creating expectations. One reason Bush was able to win the Florida recount in 2000 is that his partisans were skilled at creating the belief that he had already won. It didn't matter whether they had or not; Bush and his surrogates said it enough times that it was taken as a plausible argument.

At this point, nothing can derail Obama other than some out-of-the-blue attack. By engaging with Clinton and pretending she's still in the race, Obama increases slightly the chance that such an attack might stick. So, he's not doing it anymore. He spent today in Missouri, a state that has already had its Democratic primary and will be important as a swing state in the general election. He's going to Michigan later in the week, a state that held a no contest primary which Clinton defrauded Obama into not campaigning in, but which will be important in the general election.

I don't think Clinton's continued presence in the race harms Obama. But that doesn't mean that Obama has any obligation to engage her. Let her stay in the race, but don't take the bait. The superdelegates are clearly breaking for Obama, there's no way Clinton can catch up in the pledged delegate count, and the thing's going to be officially over the day after the last primary (as even Clinton supporters are now conceding). Just start running ads and making attacks against McCain, and keep on visiting important general election states. If you act like the race is over, it will be over.


Sunday, May 11, 2008
John McCain made some news last week giving a boilerplate speech about appointing conservative judges. (Memo to conservatives: saying "I favor judges who interpret the law and don't make law" is not a serious analysis of jurisprudence.)

There's nothing particularly remarkable about this: both Bushes promised the same thing (although Bush 41 diverted from his rhetoric and appointed liberal David Souter as well as conservative Clarence Thomas, and Bush 43 sought to put crony Harriet Miers to the Court). Reagan said it, and Dole said it too.

But what's strange about this is the timing. John McCain has already clinched the Republican nomination. This rhetoric on judges is the type of thing you do to attract conservatives during the primaries. The primaries are over. Conservatives (many of whom love the Iraq War and almost all of whom aren't willing to vote for Obama) are going to vote for McCain. They have nowhere else to go. Yes, they don't like his positions on campaign finance and immigration, but they have no leverage.

Richard Nixon, who, whatever you think about him, was quite good at winning elections, mastered the art of moving to the right in the primaries and moving to the left in the general election. And yet the right stuck with him until the last dog died. Why? Because they loved the fact that he won elections and drove liberals crazy. Indeed, despite my ambivalent opinion of Bill Clinton, it is clear most liberals loved the guy, for the same sorts of reasons-- he won elections and drove conservatives crazy.

John McCain cannot win this election by offering warmed over conservativism. Period. Huge majorities of the American people deserted conservativism due to Katrina and Iraq. The economic situation doesn't help conservatives either, and health care is also a winning issue for Democrats. I know a lot of conservatives think that they can win the election on meaningless hot-button issues like they did in 1988 with the Pledge of Allegiance and 2004 with the Swift Boat Veterans, but this isn't happening. In 1988, Bush was running for Reagan's 3rd term, and Reagan was immensely popular. The flag salute and Willie Horton are well remembered, but Bush would have won anyway. And in 2004, Kerry barely lost. Had he been able to articulate a plausible alternative narrative on Iraq, he would have won. He lost because he had originally supported the war and couldn't explain his twists and turns.

2008 is a much worse environment than 2004 for Republicans. We have had four more years of the pointless carnage in Iraq (and no, the "surge" is not a winning issue the way Republicans portray it-- it's one thing to "surge" and get out, but what Republicans advocate is permanent occupation of Iraq). We have had Katrina and what it exposed about Republican governance. We have a terrible economy and distress.

John McCain, if he wants to win this election, needs to start screwing over conservatives, big time, and moving to the left. Nixon favored the EPA, OSHA, a guaranteed income for all Americans, and national health care, and he at least professed the desire to end the Vietnam War and get American troops out. He needs to dare conservatives not to vote for him. Because the truth is that their threat is complete bluster. Meanwhile, the threat of average American voters deserting the Republican Party is very real. And Jeremiah Wright isn't going to bring them back.


Thursday, May 08, 2008
The other night, one of the networks "called" Indiana for Hillary Clinton very early on, while the other networks decided to wait until later in the night. Hillary Clinton ended up winning in a close vote, but the decision not to "call" the race early looked good in light of the fact that Obama closed the deficit late in the count as results came in from Gary, Indiana, from voters who presumably knew Obama from Chicago politics and overwhelmingly voted for him.

But that raises the question of why networks "call" races at all. In an election, after all, there are a certain number of votes, they are counted, and some prize is awarded based on the result of the count. (In Democratic primaries, in fact, the total vote counts of states are actually less relevant than the media would have you believe-- the delegates are allocated according to complex formulae, sometimes according to congressional district, sometimes proportionally, sometimes in a sort of hybrid.)

Leaving the parenthetical point aside, the state is "won" by the candidate who receives the most votes. The votes are counted and the tallies are announced. But networks "call" states based not on those tallies (or not solely on those tallies), but based on "exit polls", statistical samples of voters (which, it might be noted, have not been particularly accurate in the last few election cycles).

Why, exactly, do we need this? Who decided it was a news story what a sample of voters who were polled decided? This is an especially strange type of "news" considering that news organizations do not generally release the actual results of the exit polls (perhaps because they don't want to call our attention to how inaccurate they are). Indeed, the media consortium that conducts exit polls has gone to greater and greater lengths each election cycle to prevent us from knowing the exit poll results. (Of course, these attempts have been largely ineffectual, but that hasn't stopped them from trying.)

So, it is considered big news-- indeed, bigger than the actual vote counts, given the amount of hoopla the networks surround their projections with-- that the network has used a poll that we cannot see the results of to predict what candidate will, in a few hours, turn out to have more votes.

Of course, the obvious reason they do this is because waiting for electoral results would require that networks stay on late into the night. The projections, therefore, allow the network to get the news coverage off the air and get back to regular sponsored programming. All the better to make money.

This would be harmless enough if we were talking about something like "American Idol". But elections matter. And network projections matter. Exhibit A for this is 2000, when the networks first projected Florida for Gore, and then reversed and projected for Bush (and with that second projection, further projected that Bush had won the election). By the time they withdrew their projections, the networks had implanted in millions of Americans the idea that Bush had won the election and Gore was trying to overturn the result.

I don't see much that can be done about this. The networks aren't going to change their ways. But we viewers can and should ignore network projections. Let them count the actual votes. Sure, maybe we won't know who won the election until breakfast. Is that really such a big deal? Are we that impatient?


Wednesday, May 07, 2008
While the Democratic presidential race looks like it may finally be coming to a conclusion, the issue of what to do about Florida and Michigan’s delegations is still unresolved.

As a preliminary matter, I am not at all convinced of the conventional wisdom that Florida and Michigan delegations must be seated for electoral reasons. This is based on the theory that voters who would otherwise vote Democratic (say, because they want to end the war in Iraq or want better health care or are ticked off about Republican mismanagement of the economy or disaster relief or just because they like Barack Obama) will be so ticked off over who gets credentialed at the (likely meaningless) Democratic Convention in Denver that they will sit out the election or vote for John McCain. That entire line of reasoning seems doubtful at best.

But assuming the issue has any importance at all, the media has gotten this quite wrong. What happened is this. Traditionally, political primaries were not that important. New Hampshire went first, but many states didn’t have primaries at all and many states that did have primaries didn’t have much impact on the election because the voters did not vote for leading candidates. Rather, political insiders controlled the bulk of the delegates at the conventions and they selected the presidential nominees.

In the 1960's and 1970's, this began to change, with more states holding primaries as well as caucuses (which were more informal and had lower rates of participation than primaries), leading candidates campaigning through the primaries and caucuses, and the media covering them. Suddenly, the primaries were important, and New Hampshire was still going first. And Iowa secured its spot in 1976, when Jimmy Carter, a not-particularly-well-known state governor, won the Iowa caucuses which were held before the New Hampshire primary.

Ever since then, the history has been as follows: the primaries have grown to greater and greater importance each cycle, with more media coverage and more importance attached to early primary results. Thus, you can no longer enter the race in March, as Robert F. Kennedy did in 1968, and have a shot at the nomination. Rather, you have to campaign at least a year out in Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates respond to this by pandering to these small, unrepresentative states’ parochial interests, giving us stupid ethanol subsidies because of Iowa’s powerful corn industry. More important to our story, candidates also pander to Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s strong desire to maintain their first-in-the-nation positions and their outsized influence.

Meanwhile, in a series of successive elections, the nomination got decided earlier and earlier in the process. States that held late primaries found themselves holding meaningless votes. Not only that, but even those states whose votes were early enough to “matter” were left with 2 or 3 viable candidates to vote for, because the bulk of the candidates (including some very qualified people) were forced to drop out after Iowa and New Hampshire as their money dried up after poor showings.

So, the natural reaction of other states was to move their primaries up in the calendar. Now here’s where it gets interesting. Because the national parties actually like Iowa and New Hampshire. There are many possible reasons for this, though, interestingly, it doesn’t get as much comment as it should. I suspect part of it is that small states like Iowa and New Hampshire are actually more susceptible to the influence of insiders, because superior organization, provided by party insiders, and important interest groups (such as labor unions), can win a small state. (In contrast, you win a big state by putting lots of advertisements on the air, and fundraising, unlike organization, is harder for insiders to control or influence.) Another possible explanation I have seen floated for the love of New Hampshire, at the very least, is that it is close enough to the Washington, D.C. and New York areas to be relatively easily accessible for the candidates, donors, and media.

In any event, whatever the reason, it is clear that the parties are committed to having Iowa and New Hampshire go first. So each election cycle, they pass rules that punish states that move their primaries up and position them either before Iowa and New Hampshire or too soon thereafter. The usual way this works is that they refuse to seat at the convention some of the delegates from the states that move up their primaries.

Of course, this has proved to be a toothless sanction, as states accurately perceived that the conventions didn’t matter but the time you held a primary did. So they continued to move up primaries despite the sanctions. In response, Howard Dean, the DNC chairman, upped the ante in 2008. He responded to criticisms about Iowa and New Hampshire being unrepresentative states by allowing the more diverse small states of Nevada (with plenty of Hispanics) and South Carolina (with plenty of blacks) to go earlier than other states (though Iowa would still be the first caucus and New Hampshire the first primary). But he also said that if any state went early, they would lose all of their delegates. Not half, all. Further, Dean got the major candidates to agree tht they would not campaign in rulebreaking states, in the hope that the lack of campaigning would discredit the results and keep the media from covering them or assigning them any importance. (Remember, media coverage is crucial here, because it is precisely the media coverage given to early states that makes them so important. Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s respective shares of the total number of delegates to the conventions are minuscule.)

Of course, that gets us to Florida and Michigan. They perceived that even losing all of their delegates and not having campaigning wouldn’t outweigh the advantage gained from going early. And, to address a talking point put forth by Clinton supporters, this was true of Democrats as well as Republicans. If there is one thing that is a matter of true and genuine bipartisan agreement, it is the belief in big states that it isn’t fair that their votes in presidential primaries don’t count while Iowa and New Hampshire voters are kingmakers.

So, Florida and Michigan decided to buck the rules, based on the calculation that this was the only way to ensure that their voters’ votes would count at all, because media coverage of their primary election winners was more valuable than actual convention delegates selected too late in the process to matter.

Of course, they lost their bet. First, Obama and Edwards took their names off the ballot in Michigan, effectively rendering that primary into a farce. Second, it turned out that the later primaries did matter, because Obama and Clinton were so closely matched. (It should be mentioned that the bet was only a bad bet on the Democratic side– Florida Republicans got to be the voters who ended Rudy Giuliani’s bid and propelled John McCain to the nomination.) Third, again because of the close match between Obama and Clinton, the party is not in a position to seat the states delegations’ notwithstanding the rules (this ran contrary to another assumption of Florida and Michigan political leaders, who figured that after the nominee was selected, the parties would find a way to seat delegations so that all 50 states were represented at the conventions). Rather, the party has to remain neutral on the issue and insist on enforcing the rules as long as Obama and Clinton continue to compete for the nomination, because anything else would be seen as changing the rules to benefit Clinton.

Now, here’s the key. If you listen to the media, there are many villains here. Hillary Clinton, of course, gets blamed (and rightly so) for insisting that these states should count after she agreed they wouldn’t when she was pandering to get votes in Iowa and New Hampshire. The politicians in Michigan and Florida are blamed for moving up their primaries and then seeking a rule change when it didn’t work out the way they planned. They were warned, of course. State legislatures are being blamed, along with the DNC and the Obama campaign, for not coming up with a scheme to hold make-up primaries or caucuses.

But what is amazing to me is that the most culpable parties in this entire story are getting off scot-free, with no criticism whatsoever. That’s right, Iowa and New Hampshire. It is their insistence on going first that caused the entire problem.

The fact is, nobody would ever deliberately create a system where two lily-white tiny states with parochial interests and populations that are so unlike the rest of the country would be given a disproportionate influence on the presidential selection process, including the power to veto candidates who might be more effective and desirable representatives for the much larger populations in the bigger states. And this crisis flows directly from their insistence that only they can go first.

I have heard a lot of talk about how the Democratic Party, the states, and the campaigns might fix the Florida and Michigan situations in this cycle. But absent a serious reform of the process that lets other states in and doesn’t give an entirely unfair and inordinate amount of influence to these two states, there’s no reason to believe that other states won’t again move up their primaries in 2012. And who can blame them? In the vast majority of election cycles, we won’t see a Clinton-Obama-style race where the late states matter. And the only way a state can participate in screening the candidates and narrowing the field is to go early. Until the parties take on Iowa and New Hampshire and put them in their place, this problem is likely to recur every four years.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008
I support Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries. Indeed, the supposed political brilliance of the Clintons has always eluded me-- Bill Clinton got less than 50 percent of the vote twice against crappy opposition, he lost the Congress in 1994 for the first time in 50 years because the public was so dissatisfied with his performance, he was impeached in 1998 because he decided to lie in a deposition and drag the country through 8 months of further lies until he was caught dead to rights, and while he ran the country well enough (especially on budgetary issues and the economy), he failed to accomplish anything particularly meaningful in eight years.

And Hillary, of course, ran health care into the ground (without even proposing a liberal plan in the first instance), won a Senate seat by leapfrogging over more impressive New York politicians like Nita Lowey who had paid their dues for years, and didn't accomplish anything in the Senate except voting for the war in Iraq, the biggest American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam.

Nonetheless, while tonight's loss in North Carolina and virtual tie in Indiana will increase the volume of calls for her to get out of the race, I don't have any particular desire to join the chorus. Why? Because I think the arguments for that-- the alleged harm of attacks against Obama and the need for a "unified" convention-- are entirely overrated.

First, it is important to note that Clinton, while in second place, is not far behind. In truth, if she could convince superdelegates to vote for her, she could still wrest the nomination away from Obama. (She won't do that, but that doesn't mean that she is mathematically out.) In the old days, a candidate with Clinton's level of support would have certainly been permitted to take her cause to the convention.

Why, then, must she drop out after winning more votes than any second place finisher in history? Allegedly, it is because her attacks on Obama are helping the Republicans. But are they? First, her attacks are fairly mild-- she is careful to praise Obama often, and making stupid arguments about a gas tax holiday is hardly a historic example of dirty politics. And forcing Obama to respond to mild attacks probably does him some good as a candidate.

Second, there seems to be this abiding conviction that the political conventions need to be shows of unity. But why? I'll let you in on a dirty little secret. Nobody watches conventions anymore. People don't care about them. Networks don't cover them. They may be slickly produced, expensive infomercials, but they are completely inconsequential ones.

Except-- if a convention actually decided something, people would watch. Indeed, a contested Democratic convention would be the best thing to happen to Democratic politics in years. While the Republican snoozefest would be ignored, millions of Americans would tune in to see the Clinton folks do battle for the nomination. Yes, there would be some disunity on display. But this would also mean that millions of Americans would hear Democrats giving speeches on Democratic issues, like health care, the economy, and opposition to the Iraq War. While in politics, unlike some other parts of life, there is such a thing as bad publicity, in this scenario, the good would clearly outweigh the bad.

So let Hillary take her cause and her delegates to the convention. She earned it, and it's good for the party. But I do wish she'd shut up about that gas tax.


Monday, May 05, 2008
One with no acquaintance to the sport of horse racing probably wonders, after high profile fatalities like the loss of Eight Belles in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby and the eventual death of Barbaro as a result of a breakdown in the 2006 Preakness, why such a cruel sport is legal. A cynic, of course, would point to its lucrative betting pools and resulting tax revenues, though in truth the sport is down and doesn’t generate the interest that it once did. (While much in the film “Seabiscuit” was dramatized and fictionalized, the depiction of the large crowds that attended big horse races in those days is entirely accurate.) And, of course, there’s the fact that when something is culturally accepted and a societal tradition, it is much harder to legislate against it. Surely many Spaniards know the cruelties involved in bullfighting and are sickened by it, but don’t expect Spain to make it illegal any time in the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, why do so many Americans love a sport that clearly puts beautiful animals at risk? Of course, betting is part of it. While horse racing is no longer the only option for legal gambling, it is still a game of skill that offers better odds than the lottery and at least the theoretical possibility that the game can be beaten. Horse racing also offers an intellectual puzzle; a combination between statistical analysis of the horses’ and trainers’ past performances and intuitions about the trainers’ intentions and how the race might be run.

But there’s more to it than degenerate gamblers. Many fans of the sport truly love horses. I am probably not the best person to comment about this– to me, most horses look pretty similar– but the sight of horses running in a pack at top speed has a visceral appeal to many people. And even I can tell you of some champion horses who looked like champions– a horse like 1989 Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer was huge, with bright red hair, and ran with an efficient stride that appeared to gobble up ground. He was a thrill to watch.

So horse racing fans are in a bind. It is a wonderful sport, both for the gambling action and for the pageantry of the sport. But it is a terrible sport, because even top horses risk their lives. Now, to be sure, statistically, fatal breakdowns are not common, and the fact that we have seen two in the past three Triple Crown cycles is a horrible coincidence.

Nonetheless, the sport is not where it should be on safety. An analogy can be drawn to meat eating. The truly ethical position is to be a vegetarian. However, we are programmed to eat meat, meat is often economical, and for some it is the only convenient food available. Nonetheless, deciding that it is not unethical to eat meat doesn’t mean that our factory farming system, with its reliance on inhumane conditions, massive doses of growth hormones, and environmental pollution should be tolerated or is morally justified.

Horse racing is filled with practices that make the breakdown rate worse. Horses are bred with little regard to soundness, because the breeders just sell the horses as yearlings and the injuries are not their problem. Buyers just want to make their money back as quickly as possible, so horses are rushed to the track. Injuries are masked with pain-killing and performance enhancing drugs, which shouldn’t be legal but are. Trainers, wanting to protect their employers’ investments and maximize their breeding value, no longer race horses into condition and instead come into big races off workouts alone.

And the true tragedy is that although everyone in the sport realizes these things, the regulatory apparatus for horse racing is so diffuse, with different regulations in every state and racetracks and governmental agencies sharing the regulatory burden, that it is likely that nothing will ever get done about them.

The only major reform coming down the pike is synthetic racing surfaces. And it is true, these might reduce breakdowns (the results are inconclusive so far). But synthetic surfaces are being treated as a cure-all for all that ails the sport, when in fact all they are is mitigation for all the horrible ways in which the sport is abusing the animals.

I suppose I will like horse racing until the day I die. But the sport does not make itself easy to love. And if these high profile breakdowns continue to happen, perhaps the public will reach a point when it is had enough. The interests who are preventing reform of the industry are hastening that day.

Sunday, May 04, 2008
One of the biggest cliches in our public discourse is the term "moral equivalence". "Moral equivalence" is supposed to be a huge sin. It occurs when a person compares action A, usually done by the United States or one of its allies, with action B, done by some notoriously evil regime. The argument is that comparing action A to action B in that situation is improper, because it makes it sound like the generally good regime that engages in action A is the moral equivalent of the evil regime that engaged in action B.

When placed in this abstract form, one can instantly see several things wrong. Most importantly, it refocuses the debate away from how similar actions A and B are to how the nation engaging in action A is good and the nation engaging in action B is evil. To see how this is pernicious, let's conduct an experiment (and violate Godwin's Law in doing it). Suppose the United States decided to round up all Jewish Americans, place them in concentration camps, and kill them with poison gas. Now, an objector to this policy stands up and says "this is a terrible policy! This is exactly what the Nazis did!"

In response, a defender of American policy replies "you are drawing a moral equivalence between us and the Nazis. You should be ashamed of yourself. Why do you hate America?"

Now, obviously, that analogy is exaggerated for effect. But the point is that the validity of any analogy between two regimes depends on how similar the policies being compared are, and
the concept of "moral equivalence" does not add anything here; rather, it distracts from that analysis in favor of a per se rule that one can never compare the actions of "good" regimes to the actions of "evil" regimes.

Further, the "moral equivalence" argument is itself a very pernicious concept. It is an attempt to shut down criticism of the regime that engages in action A. Analogies are very powerful arguments. They can be false, of course, or circumstances can be different. But, take the torture debate. While many people can figure out that torture is wrong without an analogy, it certainly is powerful to point out that some of the worst regimes in history waterboarded and used other "enhanced interrogation techniques". That is evidence that such techniques are, in fact, torture. The entire point of "moral equivalence" claim it to make sure that this powerful analogy never gets made. Essentially, it doesn't matter how many techniques associated with Stalin and Pol Pot that we adopt, since we are not Pol Pot or Stalin (true enough), there is no basis for criticizing our conduct.

Additionally, the claim of "moral equivalence" is intellectually dishonest. People who draw these analogies are not, after all, saying that the regime engaging in action A is the moral equivalent of the regime engaging in action B. Indeed, they are saying the opposite-- that because everyone knows that the regime engaging in action A is not the moral equivalent of the regime engaging in action B, it is deeply troublesome that the former regime would adopt some of the latter regime's tactics. The whole point is that regimes should hold themselves to higher standards than those set by people like Hitler. The person raising the issue of "moral equivalence", therefore, is deliberately miscasting the argument so that it can be discredited without refutation.

"Moral equivalence" is poison to the discourse. It should be jettisoned.