The Lonely Centrist

A place for reasoned debate about the issues of the day.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

More Self Parody at the New York Times: Electoral College Reform in California

Reading the editorial pages of the Onion... er, I mean New York Times,is always a hoot. Today the Daft, ... er, Gray Lady unloosed a salvo against a proposal circulating in California to allocate the state's electoral votes by congressional district, rather than winner take all. There are many good arguments against this proposal, not the least of which is the perception that one party - in the case the Republican - is trying to change the rules to affect a predictable outcome that will favor that party, as is often done with the campaign finance laws of which the Times is so enamored. On the other hand, there are also legitimate, neutral arguments for this proposal, which is used now in two small states, Nebraska and Maine. But the Times, as always, has no nuance - just a partisan screech.

The Times calls the proposal, "a sneaky initiative that, in the name of Electoral College reform, would rig elections in a way that would make it difficult for a Democrat to be elected president, no matter how the popular vote comes out. If the initiative passes, it would do serious damage to American democracy."

Damage to American democracy? The Times doesn't say how this would be, other than its apparent identification of the interests of the Democratic Party with American Democracy. (It's probably that "demos" root that causes the confusion). The Times insist that this initiative is supported by a "shadowy group," with a "misleading" identity, although - confusingly to we simple-minded readers - the Times article begins by informing us that this is a Republican initiative, launched by "a prominent Republican lawyer" (presumably the Times knows his name, but if they don't, the Sacramento Bee informs us that it is Thoms Hiltachk - maybe this is not so "shadowy" after all.) (The Republican Party - "a shadowy group." LOL) The proposal is "bad faith" and "mischief." "No principled voter" should support it. Instead, the Times suggest an alternate reform that would make it harder for Republicans to win the presidency. Go figure.

Of course, the Times didn't always feel such a plan was quite so disreputable. On October 2, 2000, the Times published an op-ed by Michael Lind, who wrote:
Fortunately, it is possible to transform our presidential elections, while keeping the Electoral College and without amending the Constitution. All we have to do is change the way that the states allocate their electoral votes.

Today all but two states -- Nebraska, which has five electoral votes, and Maine, which has four -- give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the state's popular vote. If every state were to divide its electoral votes among the candidates on the breakdown of the popular vote, presidential politics would be reinvigorated.

For example, even if a majority of Californians and New Yorkers preferred the Democratic candidate, the division of their electoral votes would give a Republican candidate an incentive to make lots of visits to these states and to listen to voters' concerns there.

On August 15, 2004, it published a letter to the editor by one Joe Cobb of Dana Point, California. If you've ever tried to get a letter into the Times, you know it ain't easy, and while they publish a few letters with an opposing point of view, you've got to be a pretty big wheel, and/or have what they think is a pretty strong arguent, to reach print. But Mr. Cobb did, arguing:
There is another possible reform, which is to follow the lead of Maine and Nebraska. Those states already allocate electoral votes on the basis of the popular vote in each Congressional district, instead of using the ''winner take all'' method. They also give two electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

If all states used this method, it would bring the electoral vote into much closer alignment with the popular vote. It would also preserve the benefits of the Electoral College: restricting the impact of voter fraud or irregularities to localized areas, preventing overwhelming majorities in a few states from obviating the voters' choice in less populated areas, and assuring that candidates need to campaign nationwide.

Now, in fairness to the Times, they have long opposed the California plan. But compare the careful, intelligent, measured tones of this 1992 editorial to the one quoted above. Here is what the Times wrote then - so far as we can tell, the last foray by the editorial board into this particular proposal:
Changing the way America picks its President calls for national consensus. It deserves serious thought, not just partisan, state-by-state wrestling in the heat of a campaign year. That's reason enough for a sigh of relief that Florida's flirtation with a proposal to split its electoral vote seems to have ended, at least for the moment.

Under the Constitution, each state has as many electors as it has representatives and senators; a majority of the national total is needed to win. Florida currently gives all its electoral votes to the Presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes statewide. The new plan gives candidates one vote for each Congressional district they carry; the statewide winner would get the other two.

Maine uses this system, and Nebraska will, starting this year.... Florida, the fourth-largest state, has 25 electoral votes -- and usually votes Republican for President. That's why Democrats wanted new rules and Republicans didn't.

Applied nationwide, a district-by-district system would yield electoral votes roughly proportional to the popular vote -- rather than lopsided electoral majorities as in 1988, when President Bush took 48 states but only 53.4 percent of the popular vote. In close elections, it might change the outcome.

A split-vote system would also open opportunities for third-party and independent candidates like Ross Perot. It is hard for such a candidate to wrest a whole state away from established parties.

The proposal's backers also argue that it would impel candidates to give the Florida voters more attention instead of writing off the state, as the Democrats did in 1988. But critics say the state would get less attention because the split prize would be worth less.

This year's unusual race, which includes a plausible third candidate, makes piecemeal reform even less attractive than usual. In the heat of the moment, there's no way legislators can remain focused on reform rather than partisan interests.

In fact, on the merits, I actually agree with the Times. California shouldn't switch. But the difference in tone and quality between its 1992 and 2007 editorials, thinks the old Centerman, is demonstrative of the decline of a once proud, influential editorial page into screaming paranoia.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Prime Minister Obama?

Here is a worthwhile column on Barack Obama's lack of experience, highlighted by his recent uninformed comments on the "president" of Canada (hint - Canada doesn't have a President, it has a Prime Minister). I don't like picking on such minor details, and we shouldn't expect a person to speak perfectly at every moment. Yet in this case, I think there is something to consider, summed up in this quote from the article:
A reference to the "president of Canada" is more than a memory lapse. It is a mistake that reminds us that Obama has never met a Canadian prime minister --indeed, that he has barely ever dealt with U.S.-Canadian issues, notwithstanding that his state of Illinois borders on the Great Lakes and that Canada is Illinois' most important foreign trading partner.

That lacuna in Obama's resume in turn reminds us of all the other things he has never done. Barack Obama has never dealt in any official capacity with any foreign government on any issue, ever. He has never made any important statement on foreign affairs before launching his candidacy for president. He has never borne any kind of responsibility in any area of foreign or security policy. He has never run an organization larger than the office of a U.S. Senator. He has never served in the armed forces of the United States.

If elected president, Obama will arrive in office with less relevant job experience than any president since Warren G. Harding. Maybe that will not matter: Abraham Lincoln did not have much relevant experience either, and he did OK. But maybe it will matter. Nobody will know until it is too late.

This may still be too picky - most candidates have not dealt in "an official capacity" with a foreign government, and we generally don't want or expect our governors to be making major speeches on foreign affairs before deciding to run for president. But Obama's resume truly is light. It is one that shows ability, but not much in the way of serious public policy acheivements or even thought.

I've long thought it would be fun if we still made people's names into cruel jokes, like in the middle ages: Pepin the Short; Ethelred the Unready; Charles the Bald; etc. etc. In our modern society, we would have folks with names like Charles Big Ears and Jerrold the Fat (I hate to think what my name would be). Senator Obama remains the great gamble of 2008. The next Lincoln? Or Barack the Unready?

New FEC Commissioner?

According to the Washington Post's Al Kamen (who tends to be right in these things), Congressional Democrats have settled on Cyndi Bauerly as the next Federal Election Commissioner, replacing Ellen Weintraub, who has been serving as "acting" Commissioner since her term expired in April of this year.

I've never heard of Cyndi Bauerly before, but it turns out she is Legislative Director to Senator Chuck Schumer, whom not long ago was hit with over $250,000 in fines and penalties by the FEC for violating campaign finance laws. Beyond that, there's not much out there on Bauerly, beyond the fact that she was active in feminist and multi-cultural issues while in law school at Indiana University (scroll down to "From the Dean"). There she was "co-chair the Teachable Moments Committee of the Commission on Multicultural Understanding," no doubt known to her friends as the "TMCCMU." According to the bio in National Journal on Congressional aides, Bauerly is a 36 year old from St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Early in her career, she
clerked for judges at a federal court in California and the
Indiana Supreme Court. Then Bauerly headed to Washington, where
she worked on appellate litigation for Jones Day and then spent
two years as Schumer's counsel on the Senate Judiciary
Committee. She helped him in his effort to force cellular
companies to make phone numbers portable, and Schumer's
legislation persuaded the industry to adopt new standard
practices. Bauerly took a yearlong hiatus to work on
intellectual-property cases for the Minneapolis law firm of
Fredrikson & Byron, and then returned to Schumer's staff in

We find nothing indicating that Bauerly has the slightest familiarity with campaign finance laws, but suspect that in fact, she probably has exactly that - the slightest familiarity with the law.
Schumer, for his part, has historically been a big backer of campaign finance regulation, including public financing, but not only has he had his own problems, as noted above, but his support is sometimes fickle, that is, determined, it appears, by partisan concerns.

Well, isn't this grand? It appears that the Democrats have decided to put knowledge of the law in the backseat, and appointed someone whom, from what little we can tell, is likely to be both pro-regulation and highly partisan. I hope I am being unfair and judging Bauerly prematurely.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Fixing the "Debates"

In this column, the Chicago Sun-Times' Steve Huntley argues that presidential "debates" (really joint press conferences) have turned into "cheap theatre" that is "debasing our electoral process." He'll get no argument here. The Centerman has thought as much for a long, long time.

Huntley blames all this on the loss of a role for the League of Women Voters, but that's wrong. The League-sponsored general election debates in the late 1970s and early 1980s were not substantially different than the general election debates sponsored since then by the party-dominated Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The format is remarkably the same, with a panel of journalists asking questions of the two major party nominees (and, if those nominees consent, a third party candidate, as in the Reagan-Anderson League-sponsored debate in 1980 and the Bush-Clinton-Perot Commission-sponsored debates in 1992). The questioning seems no better or worse. Moreover, the primary debates are not sponsored by the CPD, but by a variety of organizations, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, the Des Moines Register, the South Carolina Democratic Party, and a host of news organizations. Similarly, way back in what Huntley imagines to be the halcyon years of League sponsorship, the primary debates were not sponsored by the League, but by media and other organizations. Ronald Reagan's famous moment, when he refused to allow the moderator to cut him off, took the microphone and stated "I'm paying for this microphone," came in a debate sponsored by the Nashua Telegraph.

The problem is the format itself, which is, as noted, really that of a joint press conference. The candidates don't actually debate much. Rather, a substantial portion of the "debate" time is given over to the journalists who asks the questions, and the candidates are limited to ridiculously short answers that are an invitation to offer canned soundbites and regurgitate campaign lines, rather than engage in deeper substance. These problems are amplified in the primaries, wherein as many as nine candidates must be squeezed in to the program, with the Mike Gravels, Dennis Kuciniches, Ron Pauls, and Tom Tancredos being treated as seriously as the Rudy Giulianis, John McCains, Mitt Romneys, Hillary Clintons, and Barack Obamas.

There are several reasons for this, and unfortunately, there is not a lot to do about it. First and foremost is the candidates themselves. Candidates, not surprisingly, insist on controlling every element of the debates that they can to assure that they are not placed at a disadvantage. Thus, over the years candidates have negotiated everything from podium heights, so that Geraldine Ferraro and Michael Dukakis did not look too small, and so that Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had the same amount of torso showing, to the identities of their inquisitors and the format for asking quesitons. This is to be expected. A change will come only when candidates think it will cost them more to skip a debate than to participate in one in which they do not agree with every such element of staging and format.

Similarly, assuring maximum coverage and promotion of the debates requires media complicity in those debates. Particularly in an era of cable and satellite, when viewers have many options to debates and, in fact, broadcasters can often do better with reruns of reality TV programs than debates, there is no reason for broadcasters to cover a debate from which they are excluded. So we can expect to continue to see attention hogging hosts who, as Huntley correctly notes, have as much or more interest in provoking on-stage theatre and fireworks as substantive discourse.

Finally, campaign finance laws hinder better debates. Campaign finance laws require that candidates be treated more or less equally, or otherwise the event will be viewed as a contribution by the sponsor to the participating candidates. Under the law, a debate sponsor can set criteria for participation, but it must be even-handed. A university sponsoring a debate, for example, cannot decide to exclude Mike Gravel, who has no chance of ever being president, while including Joe Biden, a more legitimate candidate, unless in accordance with a set of pre-determined criteria that is not designed for the purpose of excluding Gravel. So it is difficult in the primary stage to really whittle the field.

Having said all this, what we pass off as debates do actually seem to inform viewers. They are, it seems, better than nothing. But we would offer two modest ideas - ideas which, for the reasons just stated, we know will not be adopted:

1. Primary debates should focus on specific topic areas. There is little point in watching former Democratic Press Secretary Chris Matthews ask all the Republicans about abortion, and then watching former Democratic Press Secretary George Stephanopolous ask all the Republican candidates about abortion, etc. The debates could be become more focused simply by agreeing to topics. One debate could be limited to Iraq and the War on Terror - abroad. One could be limited to domestic civil liberties and homeland security. One debate could be limited to tax and fiscal policy. One could be limited to social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. One could be limited to health care.

2. Rather than take questions from journalists (or internet audiences), let's have a series of resolutions framed that can actually be debated, pro and con. I do not suggest that this would be easy, but it would be possible. Resolved: The Bush tax cuts should be made permanent. How tough is that? This would be most effective in the general election, where presumably it would be easier to set up pro and con stances for the candidates. In the primaries, to frame the issues broadly: we want an exchange on tax policy, or health care policy, with each candidate given a few minutes to speak, followed by a moderated crossfire.

Well, it ain't gonna happen, so time to get back to work.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Effects of the Loss of Civility and Rationality in Political Discourse

One of the things have said here, from my first post onward, is that centrism, as conceived here, is less about lack of conviction or even moderation - whatever that means - than tone and lack of raw partisanship. In this interesting Wall Street Journal column, former Rumanian intelligence officer and naturalized U.S. citizen Ion Pacepa discusses some of the costs America, and freedom, of the bitterness and over the top rhetoric of American politics. I particularly like his reference to former DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe's doormat, a small matter which always struck me as the height of juvenile behavior with no seeming regard for the dignity of his position or the importance of world affairs.

  • The Skeptic
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Michael Barone
  • The New Republic
  • National Review
  • Democracy Project
  • Bob Bauer
  • Center for Competitive Politics
  • Ryan Sager
  • Going to the Matt
  • Professor Bainbridge
  • Volokh Conspiracy
  • Mystery Pollster
  • Amitai Etzioni
  • Alexander Chrenkoff
  • Middle East Media Research Institute
  • Right Democrat
  • Democrats for Life