"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times

11/28/2008

On the Political Relevancy of Religion

I recently engaged in a debate with Rick Frea at his conservative-leaning blog Freadom Nation about the importance of religion and church attendance as they relate to the presidency. Frea lamented in a post called "A secular president" that:

"It appears Mr. Obama is more concerned about himself than his God. No surprise here."
This post was his reaction to a recent story in Politico about how Barack Obama had not attended church since winning the election and cited his desire not to create a distraction for the church members who may not be accustomed to all the media attention he would inevitably bring with him as the reason for his nonattendance. According to an Obama aide:
"Because they have a great deal of respect for places of worship, they do not want to draw unwelcome or inappropriate attention to a church not used to the attention their attendance would draw."
The story also notes that he has used his Sundays to work out at the gym and that "Obama was an infrequent churchgoer on the campaign trail, though he did make a series of appearances in the pews and pulpits of South Carolina churches ahead of that heavily religious state's primary."

In my discussion with Frea, I argued that Obama's church attendance should be secondary to his executive responsibilities and that ardent churchgoers can still be failed presidents. Frea argued that it was important for Obama to set the appropriate moral compass for the nation to follow. After reaching an impasse in our discussion, he wrote a second and much longer post about religion, God, and the presidency. He argued that Obama may have feigned his church attendance during the campaign for political reasons and feared what would happen "if the secularists--of the Obama ilk--ever gained control of this country." I did not respond to this post, but a few other conservatives did and expressed their agreement with Frea.

I thought that this discussion aptly encapsulates one of the major problems Republicans have going forward in this new political landscape. In light of Obama's decisive electoral victory, the states he was able to turn blue, and the demographic groups he was able to win, it suggests that traditional conservative arguments may need to be retooled in order to help Republicans compete in a changing America.

It seems that we may have entered a new era in which voters no longer look to the President of the United States to set a moral standard. And if they do, it is no longer as paramount. That which we can do as average people may no longer be a disqualifying factor for our nation's president as far as the majority of the electorate is concerned.

The president needs to be smart, pragmatic, intellectually curious, thoughtful, and meticulous. The president's policies need to keep this nation safe and prosperous. While we certainly do not want a president who embarrasses our nation through his moral shortcomings, voters may have also realized that a president is not necessarily poor if the way he expresses his personal faith and values differs from our own.

Many voters harshly criticized Bill Clinton for his sexual and ethical transgressions while he was president. Social conservatives in particular said his transgressions were particularly troubling because their children looked up to the president whose job it was to set the standard for others to follow. As a response to this, one of George W. Bush's greatest applause lines during the 2000 campaign was his vow to "restore honor and dignity to the White House." This was code for "I will not be unfaithful to my wife and I will run a much more ethical administration than President Playboy."

Of course, Bill Clinton went to church regularly. But that did not stop him from engaging in his rendezvous with Monica Lewinsky and subsequently embarrassing the nation. And even though his personal approval ratings were in the cellar, Clinton left the White House as a popular president.

To his credit, George W. Bush was indeed loyal to his wife and a strong family man. He also went to church regularly. But nobody cares about that because their pensions are gone, jobs are being lost, the treasury is empty, and our respect among other nations has been lost.

This is where conservatives, particularly social and religious conservatives, risk dragging the Republican Party into the ditch. They place more of an emphasis on the president's duty to do things that any parent can do more effectively and less of an emphasis on the president's unique powers to improve the lives of many.

Parents don't manage trillion-dollar budgets, meet foreign dignitaries, appoint ambassadors and envoys, and negotiate international treaties. That's why we have presidents. We don't have presidents so they can go to church because anybody can do that. The worker at the GM plant in Akron, Ohio, probably cares a lot more about his own job security than the fact that Barack Obama has not attended church recently.

If going to church is all it takes for a president to be successful, then these conservatives should be prepared to explain why the churchgoing George W. Bush is so roundly disliked. They should be prepared to explain why Mike Huckabee did not win the Republican nomination. They should be prepared to explain why they hate Bill Clinton so much.

Democrats, liberals, and moderates generally realize that one's religious practices don't matter so much. These voters are less likely to attend church regularly and are more accepting of those who don't go to church at all. There are undoubtedly many people who voted for Obama and attend church weekly. But while they may personally wish that Obama went to church more often, they are probably more interested in how he will spend the billions of dollars in the next economic bailout than how he spent his last Sunday morning. For Republicans and conservatives to be so consumed with his church attendance, it suggests that they are increasingly out of touch with the electorate and that they have not yet learned the lessons of the last election.

One of these lessons from 2008 is that cultural wedge issues are losing their potency:

1. Barack Obama's middle name was initially considered a liability for the Obama campaign, but it turned into an asset in that Republicans often used it to drum up fears about Obama at McCain-Palin campaign events only to have it blow up in their faces by turning off the nonconverted and portraying Republicans as negative nativists.

2. The rumor campaign suggesting Obama was a Muslim was designed to scare the electorate into thinking that Obama was not "like them." (As a side note, why would a secret Muslim be going to church anyway?) But voters knew Obama was a Christian, Obama did an excellent job of reminding voters of this fact, and Colin Powell, who endorsed him shortly before the election, took things a step further by saying it shouldn't matter even if Obama were a Muslim. Republicans tried to force a debate about religion when the electorate wanted a debate about the economy.

3. North Carolina's Elizabeth Dole tried to paint her opponent Kay Hagan as an atheist who took "godless money" at a fundraiser. She lost her race for reelection and did so by a larger margin than John McCain in a state that hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1976. Dole was repudiated by North Carolinians for engaging in religious tribalism. They knew Hagan was an elder at her Presbyterian church and they resented the implication that Hagan somehow had atheistic sentiments.

4. Gay marriage bans were on the ballot in several states. While gay rights advocates were largely discouraged by the results of these ballot referenda, the referenda themselves did not translate into an advantage for conservatives at the polls like they did in 2004 (e.g., Ohio and John Kerry). California's Proposition 8 was defeated by a far narrower margin than it was the last time it was on the ballot and Obama still won the state decisively. And gay antipathy wasn't enough to deliver Florida for John McCain, a state with a popular Republican governor that George Bush won twice.

Until Republicans find a way to make their policies relevant to people's lives, they will continue to languish in the political wilderness. Barack Obama's church attendance is not relevant to people's lives. It is odd that conservative Republicans look to the president to do things that they can do for themselves (e.g., set a moral standard) even though they claim, as conservatives, that government should have a smaller role in our lives. In addition to a broader electorate that is placing an increasingly smaller emphasis on these social wedge issues, this conservative contradiction when it comes to the promotion of morality is what makes their concerns about Obama's church attendance sound so frivolous.

Republican politicians would be wise to follow Frea's suggestion to me that we simply agree to disagree because their continued focus on these kinds of issues does not play beyond their shrinking base. In the end, parents set the example for their children to follow, not the president. And while religious practices may make someone a good man, they have very little to do with making someone a good president. And after the failed Bush presidency, Americans are really looking for a good president now. This is not to say that Obama will be this good president. But it will take far more than church attendance to make the majority of voters automatically disqualify him.

11/20/2008

The Big 3: Ideology and Reality

Former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney penned a column in the New York Times this week entitled Let Detroit Go Bankrupt. This column was written in response to the financial difficulties General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are experiencing. Their stock values are sinking, their plants are closing, and they are losing market share to Japanese, Korean, and European automakers. Romney argues that providing economic assistance to these struggling companies would only prevent these companies from making the changes they need in order to become more competitive:

"Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course--the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check."
Romney's argument is a classic argument of economic conservatives. Badly managed companies should not have their bad executives be the recipients of billions of taxpayer dollars. A tough love approach that holds these executives accountable by forcing them to survive without government assistance keeps government out of the way and saves taxpayer money.

But these automakers do not operate in a vacuum. And this is where the argument for economic conservatism fails. If GM fails, for example, it may satisfy free market capitalists who believe its executives don't deserve any "bailout money." After all, why should these companies be rewarded with taxpayer money for their own bad business decisions? Why should taxpayers be forced to subsidize this irresponsible behavior?

Because GM, Ford, and Chrysler aren't just about incompetent and wasteful executives. They're about millions of jobs that impact millions of other jobs. The assembly line worker barely keeping his head above water as is may find himself without a job if Ford fails. What will happen to this worker's family? What will happen to his mortgage? What will happen to his health care? This worker had nothing to do with the unwise business decisions that were made in corporate boardrooms by incompetent managers. This worker should not reasonably be expected to be an expert with the stock market and their competitors' market share. That's why this worker was on the assembly line and not in a budget analyst's office.

If a plant closes in Traverse City, Michigan, for example, where will these workers go? In addition to putting hundreds or thousands of people out of work, what will happen to the workers whose livelihoods depend on them?

The diners across the street from the plant that made the bulk of their revenue when the auto plant workers stopped there for lunch may not survive. What will happen to these small businesses?

Anyone involved in the distribution of these vehicles or their components will be impacted. What will happen to the truckers? The porters? The forklift operators?

If fewer cars are produced, dealerships will be threatened. What will happen to the car salesmen? The office secretaries? The mechanics?

If GM fails, plants close, and jobs are lost, the cities in which these plants are located will also be threatened. What will happen to the property values in Traverse City if the laid off workers can't pay their mortgages? What will happen to the public school systems that are funded by property taxes? What will happen to social services and local government jobs that rely on this tax revenue? What will happen to the Traverse City police force? Its area hospitals? Its fire department?

Many of these plant workers receive their health insurance coverage directly from their employer. If they get laid off, if their plant closes, or if the company ceases to exist, how will these workers pay for their health care? And what will happen to their pensions?

Conservatives like Romney advocate that bankruptcy may be the best remedy for these troubled companies. In addition to not "bailing out" bad managers and saving taxpayer money, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection would allow the companies to renegotiate their contracts to cut costs. But who is to say that declaring bankruptcy will allow these struggling companies to get back on their feet?

Who wants to buy a car from a bankrupt company? As the owner of a car from a company that has since gone bankrupt, I can speak firsthand about the unease consumers experience when either considering buying a car from a troubled company or buying one from a company that later disappears. Will my warranty be honored? Where can I get replacement parts? What will happen to my car's resale value? How will my insurance company classify my car and how will that affect my premiums? Are this company's cars safe to drive, or did they compromise safety and build quality to cut costs? Will my dealership even be around in six months?

In other words, if GM's sales are sluggish now, imagine how much more sluggish they will be if everyone knows GM has declared bankruptcy. Chapter 11 bankruptcy (the ability to renegotiate contracts) now may only lead to Chapter 7 bankruptcy (the total liquidation of assets) later.

And what about the psychological impact of knowing that GM, Ford, or Chrysler no longer exists? What would happen to the NFL if the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins no longer existed? What would the world of fast food be like without the Big Mac and the Whopper? Could the United States really concede all of these manufacturing jobs to the Germans, the Japanese, and the Koreans? What will this do to Americans' sense of pride? Given Republicans' chants of "USA! USA!" at their campaign events, it seems strange for Republican politicians (e.g., economic conservatives) to not show more pride in their own country's manufacturing base.

Again, the executives of the Big Three automakers certainly don't deserve a "bailout" or a "bridge loan" or whatever the proper nomenclature is. They couldn't even be bothered to ditch their private jets when they flew to Washington for this week's congressional hearings. However, politicians and economists should remember that the Big Three isn't just about boneheaded and undisciplined executives. It's about the millions and millions of regular people who had nothing to do with running these companies into the ditch who stand to have their own survival threatened. And if Washington can find the money to bail out the investment bankers at AIG, why can't they find the money to bail out the working class people at the Big Three?

How many lives are free market capitalists willing to ruin in order to stay true to conservative economic principles? This disconnect is a good illustration of why Republicans have fallen out of favor with the broader electorate. Regular people are not looking for political dogma and ideological purity. They're looking for meaningful solutions (even if they come from the government) that can help protect their families and communities.

11/16/2008

On Obama's Team of Rivals

After Barack Obama's historic election victory, the media have switched from dissecting polls and envisioning plausible paths to 270 to speculating about his cabinet appointees. Much attention has been paid to the "team of rivals" concept Obama claimed to want to emulate. This approach to governance was popularized by President Lincoln and involves turning defeated and potential rivals into allies by appointing them to White House and other senior-level positions.

Partisan Democrats hoping for President-elect Obama to solely tap loyal Democrats for his administration and ram through strongly Democratic policies may be disappointed by his bipartisan overtures, but Obama may stand to benefit more from this approach to governance than he would if he simply stocked his White House with liberal Democrats whose loyalty to him did not waver during the campaign.

There are several advantages to including political rivals in Obama's cabinet. First of all, it forces his rivals to become political partners and cease being political competitors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, cannot filibuster President Obama's legislation in the Senate. Advisor John McCain cannot badmouth President Obama the way Republican Senator John McCain can. A Republican who is defending Obama's administration is one less Republican who is criticizing it.

Secondly, a bipartisan team of rivals means that both political parties would share political successes and failures in Obama's administration. Republicans are currently locked out of power in Washington. As the minority party with little accountability, they don't have to do much more than take potshots at Obama and the Democrats. But with a bipartisan Obama White House, Republicans would have to be more selective with their criticisms because they may end up politically wounding popular members of their own party.

Obama campaigned on the themes of change and bipartisanship. Including Republicans and rival Democrats in his administration would show that he is delivering on this campaign promise. Voters' trust is the most precious resource Obama has. Keeping this campaign promise would keep this trust from being squandered. And it would stand in stark contrast to the hyperpartisanship that has characterized Washington for the past 10-15 years. And if Republicans refuse to join Obama's administration, they would be the ones who looked like they weren't being bipartisan. Having everyone serve together would also reinforce the idea that in these difficult and uncertain economic times, Americans of all political persuasions are all in this situation together. That could be a political boon to Obama because voters are more likely to support or trust a cause or an administration if they believe they have a stake in it.

One more benefit of tapping Republicans to serve in Obama's administration is that it could be a backdoor way of increasing Democratic majorities, particularly in the Senate. If Obama tapped McCain to be Secretary of Defense or Secretary of Homeland Security, for example, McCain would have to relinquish his Senate seat. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, would then be responsible for appointing his successor. Oregon Senator Gordon Smith would have been another potential appointee, but he lost his reelection bid to Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley.

Additionally, keeping Republicans in the White House would help prevent Obama and his Democratic allies from veering too far to the left. Republicans are hoping that President-elect Obama and congressional Democrats overreach by enacting policies that are too far to the left. This is not to say that left-wing policies are bad. However, Obama and the Democrats are more likely to have an extended grip on power if they are more gradual in their approach.

Liberalism is still a dirty political word (note how many liberals define themselves as "progressives"), so if voters have their fears of a "radical leftist agenda" confirmed by Democrats' overreach, Republicans will hasten their return to political competitiveness in 2010. Conservatism currently has a black eye even if Bush is not a true conservative as Republicans claim, so this is a good opportunity for liberalism to be redefined for an electorate whose memories of the Democratic policies of the 1960s are increasingly hazy.

But because the past few years have been characterized by political gridlock, it may very well turn out that voters don't really care as much about liberal government or conservative government, but rather competent and efficient government. And that is the opportunity for President-elect Obama and congressional Democrats. If Democrats (and liberals by extension) are able to deliver meaningful results for the public, that will do far more to burnish their image and strengthen their political hand than any bit of political sloganeering.

11/13/2008

On Sarah Palin's Future

The 2008 election provided the Republican Party with its second consecutive "thumping." In 2006, Republican scandals were primarily responsible for the party's political bloodbath. The Republican Party as a whole was the big loser of that election. 2008, however, produced several losers who emerged from the election in a far weaker state. Some of these losers include Joe Lieberman (who may enter the next congress without his committee chairmanship), Joe the Plumber (whose 15 minutes of fame came to a screeching halt), Karl Rove (whose playbook of dividing and distracting the electorate proved insufficient), and George Bush (who is widely attributed with starting John McCain's campaign off with two strikes).

While 2008 had a parade of political losers, there is probably no politician who was more seriously wounded by the campaign than Alaska Governor and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Palin has several problems. Perhaps her biggest problem is that of perception. Her unfavorability ratings have steadily risen. Prominent Republicans have turned on her. She is often accused of being a drag on McCain's ticket. And worse yet, a large percentage of voters do not believe she is qualified to be President or Vice President. So it's understandable that she is making the media rounds because she wants to rehabilitate her public image.

Since the election, there have been few stories about John McCain, her former boss, and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who has much more power and relevance than she does. At times, however, it seems like the evening newscasts are giving more time to Palin than to President-elect Barack Obama himself. But given her unfavorability ratings and the sense of exhaustion voters have from the whole campaign, Palin might be better served by taking a less visible role in the media.

The threat to Palin is that she risks overexposing herself. After the election, the main media story has been President-elect Barack Obama's transition to the White House. But Sarah Palin seems to have launched a public relations campaign of her own by giving interviews to several journalists about McCain's failed campaign, the rumors about her and her family, and her own political future. In addition to keeping these negative stories in the headlines, the problem with this media blitz is that people's perceptions of Palin have hardened. And by keeping herself in the news long after the election is over, many voters (again, many of whom are burned out after the election) may simply wish that she'd go away. For example, she revived the Bill Ayers line of attack in a recent interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. Are Republicans really happy that she's doing this since it obviously didn't matter at the ballot box? Other voters may conclude that she simply "wants it" too much. That would undermine Palin in that voters may think she wants to be President because of her own ambitions, rather than because she wants to help make America better.

Having said all of this, Palin remains a passionate and charismatic leader who has a loyal following. She clearly enjoys politics and mixing it up on the campaign trail. So it's likely that 2008 will not be the end of Sarah Palin. The question remains, however, where does she go from here?

It appears that Sarah Palin has four options: Governor indefinitely, senator sooner, senator later, or promotion much later:

1. Palin could continue to serve as Alaska's governor and run for president again in 2012 or even later. This option would allow her to remain as an outsider while continuing to produce demonstrable results in her state. She could come down hard on corruption, generate budget surpluses, and turn Alaska into one of the best managed states in the country. And by spending more time quietly delivering results in Alaska than "running with the Washington herd" (her line) by granting interview after interview, she will give the electorate a chance to catch its breath. Voters who love her now will still love her in 2012. Voters who don't like her now may be a little more inclined to give her a second chance after having "practiced" a bit more.

2a. In the event that Sen. Ted Stevens wins his reelection bid, the Senate may vote to expel him. After all, it would be awkward for Republicans to welcome a convicted felon to their ranks. This would allow a special election to be held in which Palin could conceivably run. If a Democrat is having so much difficulty beating a convicted felon in Alaska right now, it means that almost any Republican with a pulse could win an open election. Thus, Palin has a path to Washington.

Switching from Governor Palin to Senator Palin would not be in her best interests, however. While she would be able to keep herself in the news more easily, get more exposure to national issues, and meet a lot of the political power players, she would be under a tremendous microscope. The media and her political opponents would pounce on any gaffe she makes or any unpopular vote she casts. She would also have to explain why she voted for bills that contained wasteful spending, drastic cuts to popular programs, or other poison pills. She would have to explain why she voted against tax cuts, reducing spending, or decreasing the size of government. I'm not saying she will explicitly vote for or against these issues, but as a senator, she will be forced to support or oppose bills that have these provisions tucked inside. In the Senate, it's common for bills to have these kinds of poison pills or controversial amendments attached to them, even if they are unrelated to the general spirit of the bills involved.

These criticisms matter because they are the exact same criticisms she used against Barack Obama. (e.g., "Obama voted against cutting taxes 94 times!") So she will contradict several of the pillars of her political identity, such as being a reformer, practicing fiscal discipline, and eliminating waste. And as a senator, she will no longer be able to call herself a Washington outsider. As a senator, Barack Obama was wise to run as an agent of change, rather than an outsider. This means Palin would have to find a new mantle to run as well if she launches her own presidential bid in the future from the floor of the Senate.

2b. If Sen. Ted Stevens loses his reelection bid, Palin would have to wait until 2010 to challenge Alaska's other senator, Lisa Murkowski. If she defeats Murkowski in the Republican primary, she almost certainly would win the general election. And she might be a more effective senator if she starts in 2011, rather than 2009. Then she can run for the White House again in 2012 with a stronger hand, although the same Senate pitfalls apply. This option might be better for Palin in that it would at least allow her to get one complete term as Alaska's governor under her belt and allow the passage of time to heal some of the rifts that she created with the electorate in 2008. Also, her Republican contemporaries (Bobby Jindal, Charlie Crist, Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, and Mark Sanford) have more impressive resumes than she does. If Barack Obama's presidency is characterized by failure, it may place a greater premium on experience in 2012. Having served at least one complete term as governor would inoculate her from attacks on her resume.

3. Do nothing. At 44, Palin has at least a good 20 years left to consider running for the White House. If she keeps her profile low and keeps improving conditions in Alaska, a future Republican president will notice and may consider tapping her for a cabinet post or other special appointment. In 2020 or 2024, voters will be more likely to pay more attention to her cabinet-level service in a Republican administration than her performance in the 2008 campaign.

In the immediate future, Palin would be wise to become a bit less visible. While she clearly wants to remain relevant, she should be careful because a lot of what she is saying flatly contradicts her own campaign rhetoric (e.g., "I'm not focused on excessive partisanship.") and does little to assuage voters who believe she talks a lot, but doesn't say anything. It would seem to be in her best interests to refine her message a bit and bone up on her policy knowledge in Alaska first before competing on the national stage because any further missteps on her behalf could abort any further political ambitions she obviously has.

11/09/2008

Republican Problem #2: Demographic Difficulties

John McCain's defeat last week revealed some very serious problems plaguing the Republican Party and presidential politics. In my last post-mortem, I addressed the problem of electoral math and how safe Democratic states significantly outweighed safe Republican states as far as the Electoral College was concerned. In this second installment, I will address a more glaring problem that threatens to gut the party at the congressional level so much that not even gerrymandered districts can save it.

This problem has existed for years, but it wasn't until the Republican National Convention that its starkness could be witnessed by a mass audience. Whether by intention, by accident, or by negligence, the Republican Party's "big tent" is anything but that. It has become a closed party that consists of Whites, Christians, older people, and rural voters. And to compound this even further, it is also the political home of the nativist wing of American society. This assertion is backed up by exit polls, which showed McCain winning Whites, voters over 60, Protestants, weekly churchgoers, and voters living in small towns and rural areas. Barack Obama won everyone else.

Nobody is calling Republicans racist. However, many people who are not White, rural, Christian, or over 50 do not feel the party embraces them, their beliefs, or their lifestyle. And in the unfortunate event that a Republican candidate, operative, or supporter does engage in some form of identity-based insensitivity, others in the party do not deliver a rebuke firmly enough to send an unequivocal message that such behavior will not be tolerated and does not represent the party of Lincoln.

At the Democratic National Convention, one could easily see the diversity within the party. People had light skin, dark skin, turbans, dreadlocks, yarmulkes, prosthetic limbs, business suits, cowboy hats, and T-shirts. They were all crowded together in the convention hall and at the football stadium where Obama gave his acceptance speech. And they looked comfortable together.

One look at the crowds at the Republican National Convention, on the other hand, revealed nothing but a sea of White faces and cowboy hats. There's obviously nothing wrong with White people or cowboy hats, but in a country that is becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly urban, this is a big political problem. It turned out that only 36 of the 2380 delegates were Black, for example. That's 1.5%. The convention attendees may not have noticed it in the convention hall, but it came across terribly on television. One look at the conventions sent a clear message to voters which party was the more inclusive one.

On top of this, Sarah Palin, campaign surrogates, and even some of the people who attended McCain-Palin campaign rallies exacerbated this with their rhetoric which led to outright rage among members of their crowds.

In terms of rhetoric, one of the few major mistakes Obama made during the campaign was calling rural voters "bitter." This was an insult that gave Republicans an opening to attack Obama's character and expose him as a hypocrite who talks about hope and unity in public, but is a condescending elitist in private. But fortunately for Obama, he only said it once and he said it early in the campaign season. Obama apologized for the remark and was able to build up enough goodwill with voters on the campaign trail since then (e.g., he held many campaign events in rural Republican areas that drew huge crowds) for voters to give him a pass.

Republicans, however, unwittingly made the same gaffe over and over again. And this gaffe was far more insulting to far more people and says a lot more about Republicans' political weaknesses than it does about Obama's.

Barack Obama did not beat Republicans in this regard. Barack Hussein Obama did. Obama's middle name may have turned out to be a bigger liability for McCain's campaign than for Obama's, as I first argued in February:

"In fairness, it must be said that the people bringing up the 'Hussein' line of attack may not necessarily be doing McCain's explicit bidding. However, as long as these people continue to speak in McCain's defense and at his campaign events, McCain will be tarnished by association. 'Hussein' might win political points among Republican partisans, but it likely won't win over any new Republican voters--many of whom have already turned a deaf ear on the Republican brand."
Republicans commonly (and unnecessarily) used the name "Hussein" as a pejorative to imply that Obama was somehow foreign, un-American, or a Muslim (and a terrorist by extension). They may claim that they did nothing wrong because, after all, "Hussein" was his middle name. But if these Republicans want to continue using this line of defense, they had better get used to living in the political wilderness because to people who are not in the Republican camp, this repeated use of innuendo came across as mean-spirited and an affront to everyone who was somehow "different."

These people on the outside didn't just hear Republicans mock "Hussein."

They heard them mock Xiaoming.

They heard them laugh at Vijay.

They heard them insult Guillermo.

They heard them ridicule Svetlana.

An attack on "Hussein" was an attack on dashikis, saris, lederhosen, lo mein, chorizo, yakiniku, Buddhists, Pashtuns, boleros, Tagalog speakers, jai alai, sumo wrestling, Cinco de Mayo, Fasching, Lunar New Year, and anyone and anything else that is somehow "different" even though they are just as "American" as Jack Jones, pork chops, tractors, and Garth Brooks CDs. This kind of divisive rhetoric explains why people abroad overwhelmingly supported Obama more than McCain.

Even worse, these attacks on "Hussein" were also very off-putting to "regular" people who didn't understand why any innocent group of people and their culture had to be demonized so often on the campaign trail. Republicans should have heeded Democrats' warnings when many of them changed their middle names to Hussein in protest. Republicans may complain about political correctness, but they whine at their own peril. Somehow, political correctness has usurped the term respect even though they are two totally different things.

Young people in particular are more tolerant as a whole than older people because they have no connection to segregation or the civil rights era, as I argued long before Iowa in an essay about the younger generation. They go to integrated schools, attend universities with diverse student populations, and work in multicultural offices. Engaging in culture wars (like the "Hussein" innuendos) threaten to turn an entire generation of young voters off from the GOP. Consider the overwhelming majority of young Facebook voters who supported Obama over McCain. When can a 26-year old be persuaded to vote Republican again?

Republicans spent a lot of time complaining about "liberal elitists." Rudy Giuliani mocked Obama at the convention for being too "cosmopolitan." Fred Thompson scoffed at the "Georgetown cocktail circuit." Sarah Palin was proud that she "didn't run with the Washington herd." Republicans tried to brand themselves as the party of average people. Sarah Palin herself said she wanted to stand up for "hockey moms" and "Joe Six Packs" around America. But as America changes, the definition of what constitutes an "average American" changes too and more and more people can't identify with the old definition.

One of McCain's senior campaign aides offended millions of voters by claiming they didn't live in "real Virginia." Sarah Palin said she was happy to be campaigning in "real America" and "pro-America" parts of the country. North Carolina Representative Robin Hayes claimed that "liberals hate real Americans." (He lost his reelection bid.) Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann said members of Congress should be investigated for "anti-American" sentiments. John McCain himself overreached when he said voters in western Pennsylvania were the "most patriotic, most God-loving" in the country. The end result of all this is that Republicans ironically became the very people they railed against on the campaign trail. They became elitists whose authenticity as Americans somehow meant more than that of the people they ridiculed on the campaign trail.

And finally, Republicans are going to have to reconsider some of their policies. It is understandable that they may want to maintain their socially and economically conservative policies, which is fine. But at the very least, they will need to do a much better job of explaining to voters of all types how these policies are better for their communities than the Democrats' policies. This means, for example, that instead of simply saying "we are pro-life," they need to say something that connects Republican policies to voters' lives:
"The Republican Party congratulates Barack Obama on his historical achievement. The 2008 election proved that everyone can succeed in America, and Republicans want to ensure that everyone has this chance. Everyone. The baby you are carrying now may turn out to be the scientist who finds a cure for AIDS, the author who supplants Dr. Seuss when you read to your children at bedtime, or maybe even the 51st President of the United States. The Republican Party believes that by preserving all life, we are preserving all opportunities not just for your baby, but for all of America."
It only took me 10 minutes to come up with that. Surely the high paid Republican consultants and strategists can come up with something even better. Simply saying "we are pro-life" has little meaning outside of the pro-life community and it sounds stale because voters have heard Republicans say that for years.

Barack Obama did not surrender any political issue or voter demographic in this election. He openly talked about his faith, he sought common ground on abortion, and he talked about tax cuts for small businesses. He was able to make inroads with all of these types of voters not just by talking with them, but by showing how his policies mattered to their lives.

So the Republican Party has a lot of work to do. It needs to connect its ideology with voters who do not currently make up the Republican base, and it needs to respect these voters in general. But it also needs to be realistic. Rather than trying to win 30% of the Black vote, for example, they could try to win 15%. Rather than aspiring to win 50% of the Latino vote, they could try to win 40%. Had they been able to do this, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida probably would have stayed red.

The Obama campaign ran against John McCain and the shadow of George Bush. The McCain campaign, however, ran against a new America that is only growing. The same old playbook that targets the same old demographics won't work anymore. A Democrat-controlled Washington provides Republicans with an enormous opportunity to show how the Democratic Party is ineffective at serving all voters' interests. But are the Republicans prepared to talk to all voters?

The next installment in this series will address the Republicans' failed tactics.

11/05/2008

Republican Problem #1: The Shrinking Map

Over the next few days, The 7-10 will feature a series of essays dissecting the election results. Most of the political world's attention will understandably be focused on Barack Obama and his transition to the White House. However, that the Republican Party is in serious trouble cannot be denied. These essays will address what these problems are and how to overcome them.

The first major problem Republicans have is their limited appeal in large states. Here are the five largest states that John McCain won:

Texas (34)
Georgia (15)
Tennessee (11)
Missouri (11)
Arizona (10)

These five states are worth a total of 81 electoral votes.

Now consider Barack Obama's five largest states:

California (55)
New York (31)
Florida (27)
Pennsylvania (21)
Illinois (21)

These five states are worth a total of 155 electoral votes. If you want to know why Obama had so many paths to 270 while McCain only had one or two, this is why. Republicans are automatically locked out of too many electorally rich states which increases their number of must-win states elsewhere. Democrats, on the other hand, have more electoral flexibility.

Keep in mind that John McCain appears to have won Missouri by only about 6000 votes, and Arizona almost certainly would have been a battleground if it had not been McCain's home state. The Republican Party cannot remain viable as a national party if it is only the party of small rural states. Do not be fooled by the geographical size of places like Idaho, Nebraska, Mississippi, and Kentucky when looking at the large swaths of red on the electoral map. "Tiny" New Jersey and Massachusetts have more electoral votes than these four states combined.

Democrats have been warned that only moderate or conservative Southern Democrats could be competitive nationally. And they have been warned that Democrats could never win a presidential election without the South. But the non-Southern Obama (and his non-Southern running mate Joe Biden) found a way to do so. Yes, he did win Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. But even if McCain had somehow won all three of these states, Obama still would have won the presidency with more than 300 electoral votes.

Barack Obama won states in every region of the country. In addition to picking the Republicans' pocket in the South and the Mountain West, he totally swept the Pacific Coast, the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the Midwest. Obama won every state from Minnesota to Maine. A future Democrat might not be able to replicate Obama's success in places like Indiana and North Carolina, but Obama's victory proves that Republicans can no longer take these states for granted.

And it's not just about presidential races. It's about congressional races as well. With the defeat of moderate Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, Republicans are literally nonexistent in New England and increasingly marginalized in the West and the Midwest. If the Republican Party is restricted to the South, it will have a hard time expanding its appeal to areas of the country that are less culturally and politically conservative. Republicans mocked these parts of the country a lot during the campaign season, but they will need to be a bit more mature and make sincere overtures to voters in these blue states if they want to expand their political influence in the future. Democrats are not the party with the regional problem. It's the Republicans.

On top of this, demographic changes as a result of immigration and migration to booming centers of international commerce and technology are threatening to swipe the two largest McCain states off the table in the future. In Georgia, Atlanta is growing fast. This urban core may eventually offset the rural, conservative parts of the state. Even worse for Republicans, the booming Latino population and the growth of cities like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio may very well turn Texas into a swing state in 2012 or 2016.

If California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois are safely in the Democrats' column while they have a realistic shot at Florida and Ohio and an outside shot at Texas, there just aren't enough votes elsewhere for Republicans to have a plausible path to the presidency.

Again, this means Republicans will have find a way to increase their appeal to voters in blue states. People of color, moderates, suburban voters, non-churchgoers, and voters living in urban areas cannot be ignored by the GOP any longer because the segment of America Republicans represent is shrinking.

Republicans' demographic problems will be addressed in more detail in the next part of this series.

And finally, some skeptics may say that the reason why Democrats won this election is not because of the Democrats' strength, but rather because of the bad economy. I would counter that this is self-defeating thinking because it means Republicans are automatically surrendering this issue to the Democrats. As a Democrat, Obama did not surrender the issue of taxes to the Republicans. He didn't surrender the issue of national security to the Republicans either. Republicans will have to learn how to fight on all issues so that they won't be caught flatfooted if external events intervene. Obama should get credit for fighting on Republican turf.

11/03/2008

The 7-10's Electoral College Predictions

2008 is shaping up to be another wave election similar to 2006. Barack Obama has expanded the electoral map, Republicans are on defense in red states and in red congressional districts, Republicans only have one realistic Democratic target in the Senate, there is an enthusiasm gap between the parties, and the Democrats have a distinct registration advantage. Early voting totals already show increased turnout among Democrats.

Taking all of this into consideration, it seems more plausible for Barack Obama to win 370 electoral votes than it does for John McCain to win 270 electoral votes. To accomplish either of these, both candidates would have to run the table in the toss-up states. But again, in a wave election, close elections tend to consistently break for one candidate over another. This is why I believe an Obama blowout is more likely than a McCain victory of any sort.

For John McCain to win the election, he will have to win all the remaining toss-up states and overcome Obama's consistent leads in the lone blue state he is targeting. This means he has to win Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. This would get him to exactly 270 electoral votes. And again, he would have to do all of this in spite of the Democrats' advantages in battleground state polling, enthusiasm, fundraising, right track/wrong track numbers, Bush fatigue, early voting totals, and increased registration advantages. This is why it seems easier for Barack Obama to win the remaining toss-up states than John McCain.

In addition to running the table, this scenario would require McCain to defend the 2nd Congressional District in Nebraska, which encompasses Omaha. Nebraska is one of two states that allocates its electoral votes by congressional district. (Maine is the other state that does this.) Omaha is the largest city in the state and is the most Democratic of the state's three districts. It's also next door to Iowa, where Obama invested a lot of time before winning the state caucuses. This probably explains why John McCain has been campaigning in Maine. While he has little chance of carrying the state, he might be able to win the state's rural 2nd Congressional District and offset a potential loss in Omaha.

Obama's magic number is not 270, but rather 269. In the event of a 269-269 tie, the election would be decided by the House of Representatives in the next congress. Each state delegation, regardless of size, gets one vote. If a state's delegation is deadlocked, that state's vote will not count. The majority of state congressional delegations currently have Democratic majorities, and Democrats are projected to add seats after Tuesday's election. This would almost certainly mean Obama would win in a House vote.

The vice president will be determined by the Senate. As a longtime member of the Senate and a member of the majority party there, it is hard to see how the Senate would vote for Governor Sarah Palin instead of Joe Biden. So in short, the Obama-Biden ticket could win the election with 269 electoral votes. The McCain-Palin ticket cannot and needs an outright majority of 270.

Final predictions:

If the Democratic wave is real and Obama's turnout machine performs as advertised: 378 Obama, 160 McCain

In this scenario, Obama will win all of the Kerry states plus Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, and Virginia. The surprise state will be Montana (yes, Montana) because popular Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer and Democratic Senator Max Baucus are on the ballot. A strong Libertarian presence in the state may also hamper McCain.

If Obama peaked too soon: 333 Obama, 205 McCain

If this happens, Obama will win all the states listed above except Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and Ohio.

Other predictions:

1. Based on national polling, it seems that McCain has a better chance of winning the electoral vote than winning the popular vote. In the event that McCain wins the election, but loses the popular vote, it will be interesting to see if McCain concedes defeat anyway. His "Country First" slogan may come back to haunt him in this regard.

2. The three closest states will be Missouri, Indiana, and North Carolina.

3. Elizabeth Dole's negative campaign in North Carolina may drag John McCain down too by either causing Republicans to stay home or leading to an increased Democratic turnout.

4. If the presidential race is called for Obama early in the evening, there is a very real risk that McCain can lose Arizona. Arizona is more similar to Nevada and Colorado than Utah and Idaho.

5. Turnout among Black voters may reach 70%.

11/02/2008

The 7-10's Senate Predictions

When looking at the electoral map, it is clear that Democrats are on offense this cycle. The lone Republican pickup opportunity, Senator Mary Landrieu's seat in Louisiana, seems to have slipped away or gotten buried in the upcoming Democratic wave. The 7-10 is predicting a pickup of 8 or 9 Democratic seats. Even if the Democrats don't win a 60-seat senate majority, there are still enough moderate Republican senators (particularly in the Northeast) who would side with the Democrats on some issues and cut off Republican filibusters.

Most Democratic pickups this election season are in blue states or in red states that are very likely to turn blue: Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, and Virginia. Some of these are open seats, and some of these seats are occupied by strong senators who are vulnerable not because of their own gaffes or ineffectiveness, but rather because of a big blue wave (e.g., New Hampshire and Oregon).

That's five automatic Democratic pickups.

There are two more likely Democratic pickups because of self-inflicted Republican wounds: Alaska (Ted Stevens was recently convicted of a felony) and North Carolina (Elizabeth Dole launched a controversial ad implying that her rival was an atheist).

That brings Democrats to +7.

The Minnesota race is difficult to predict because even though the state is almost certainly going to stay blue, there is a strong independent candidate on the ballot and Norm Coleman is suing Al Franken for defamation. Coleman has the advantage of incumbency, but Franken has the advantage of being a Democrat in a Democratic state. For Coleman to win, he will have to rely on ticket-splitters. If Democrats vote straight-party, Coleman will go down to defeat. If Democrats split their votes between Franken and independent candidate Dean Barkley, Coleman will survive.

This is probably the least likely of the "likely" Democratic pickups, but it would get the Democrats to +8 (and 59 seats overall).

Then there is a gulf separating this first tier of likely pickups and the next tier of long shot pickups: Mississippi, Kentucky, and Georgia. All three of these are Southern states that are generally not in danger of going blue (though Georgia could get swept up in a large blue wave). All three senators (Roger Wicker, Mitch McConnell, and Saxby Chambliss) have some sort of weakness that threatens to bring one of them (but probably not more than that) down.

Mississippi: Wicker is the interim replacement for former Senator Trent Lott. He is running against former Governor Ronnie Musgrove. Polls show Wicker with a fairly comfortable lead, but there is a large percentage of Black voters in Mississippi. Even if Mississippi doesn't turn blue, tens of thousands of new Black voters will turn out to proudly support Obama. Musgrove might be able to ride Obama's coattails and defeat Wicker if the Black vote is large enough.

Kentucky: Unlike Mississippi, this state does not have a large percentage of Black voters. However, McConnell is not just Senator McConnell. He's Senate Minority Leader McConnell. Many Republicans are unhappy with their party because of their party's support for the $700 economic bailout plan earlier this fall. Free market and small government conservatives did not support this government intervention and are upset with the members of their party who did. As the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate, McConnell may pay a price from Republicans who want to steer their party more to the right. Also, the battleground states of Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, and Virginia border Kentucky. Some media markets in these states might bleed into Kentucky, so Obama may be getting free media coverage in Kentucky every time Obama campaigns in southwestern Virginia, southern Ohio, or southern Indiana. That could boost turnout among Democrats.

Georgia: Because of the burgeoning city of Atlanta, this state seems poised to be the first Deep South state to turn blue (I do not put North Carolina and Florida in the "Deep South" category). There is a huge number of Black voters here who will turn out to support Obama. But in addition to that, Chambliss has the problem of having come into power in 2002 by running a nasty campaign against former Senator Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam War veteran. Many Democrats have not forgotten this and vengeance is on their minds. And to further complicate matters, candidates must win with more than 50% of the vote. If no candidate reaches 50%, the top two finishers will have to compete in a runoff. There is a Libertarian candidate in the race who presumably hurts Chambliss more than Jim Martin, his Democratic challenger. Libertarian and former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr is also running at the top of the ticket.

The Democrats will not win all three of these seats, and they probably won't win two of them. But they do have an outside chance of winning one. And if they do, that would give Democrats their 60th senate seat.

Here's one final point to remember: Even if the Democrats don't make it to 60 this year, they will have another chance to do so in 2010 if Obama (should he win next week) is popular. Like this year, Republicans will be defending more seats in 2010 than Democrats. Many of the Republicans who won seats in 2002 and 2004 did so because of President Bush and national security concerns, rather than because of their own merits. As these concerns fade, however, some of these politicians who otherwise would not have won in the first place might be defeated as they go up for reelection. Saxby Chambliss in particular has to battle this scenario now.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.