Monday, March 3, 2008

Memo to Obama

TO: Barak Obama
RE: How You Could lose the Election

The conventional wisdom is that you will be the Democratic nominee. And the conventional wisdom is that the Democrats will have many advantages in November:

Americans are tired of Bush;

Americans are tired of this awful war in Iraq;

Americans are tired of other Bush disasters, like the response to Katrina;

Americans are tired of all those tax breaks and other gifts that have been given to the wealthy;

Americans are tired of all those nasty things Bush has done to the environment.

You are a far better candidate than McCain.

Most of the issues help the Democrats—especially health care and the environment.

The Democrats have more money.

They even have Oprah.

The economy is headed South faster than a goose with dysentery.

Winning the election in November should be a cakewalk, right?


The Republicans still have fear. And, as long as the Democrats allow them to, the Republicans have “the surge” and all the political benefits it produces.


Because you and Senator Clinton have allowed the phrase “the surge is working” to roam around the political landscape almost completely uncontested.

This has allowed McCain and others to make a variety of illogical arguments about the war in Iraq. I’ll get to those in a moment—but first the surge.

The Surge

Baghdad and other cities in Iraq are more secure.

McCain would have you think this is because more US troops are in Iraq. That is only part of the reason violence has subsided. Much of decrease in violence is because the Shiites and the Sunni’s have decided to take a time out.

The Mahdi Army—made up mostly of Shiites—is maintaining a cease-fire.

The Sunni’s have severely reduced their violent ways. For the short term, they’ve seen the benefits of not attacking other Sunni’s. They also have decided to take weapons and money from the US. This way, when it is time to fight, they will have bullets and plenty of buckaroos. This has sometimes been called the Sunni Awakening. A more accurate representation might be, “arming for a civil war.”


Because comments about the surge working have been largely uncontested, because the overall situation in Iraq is complicated, because the reporting by the media has been so poor, and because on this issue the Democrats have acted like their old, incompetent selves, many Americans think that Iraq is on the mend.

This is nonsense.

Democrats have to explain how bad things are in Iraq.

Only on the military front are things noticeably better:

Sunni and Shiites still hate each other.

Homes in Baghdad get power around twelve hours a day—six less than under Saddam.

Oil production has not yet returned to pre-invasion levels.

Elections that were to take place in October have been cancelled. This shouts that Iraqi sovereignty remains a dream.

Political progress in Iraq is tinier than a freckle on a midget.

Corruption and incompetence run rampant throughout the Iraqi government.

Many US efforts in Iraq remain pathetic. For example, a large chunk of weaponry was supposed to be headed to the Iraq security forces: 110,000 AK-47s, 80,000 pistols, 135,000 units of body armor and 115,000 helmets—that’s right, enough equipment to make even a dumb white racist feel comfortable while taking a stroll through Watts—all of it, has been lost.

And there’s more bad news:

The Madhi Army—that’s the Shiite’s—their cease fire is about as durable as wet dollar bills.

The Sunni Awakening is being held together by substances that have the tensile strength of chewing gum.


You don’t have to be a strategic genius to know it is better to attack a weak position than a strong one. The great military strategist, Sun Tzu said as much, “In war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”

The idea that the surge is working is a strong one.

You and other Democrats have to debilitate this idea.

Republicans have made all kinds of political hay while the sun hasn’t been shining because they have been able to separate the surge from the overall health of Iraq.

You and other Democrats have to expand the overall definition of the surge to include essential services and political progress. The US could be in Iraq for a hundred years. But unless there is progress on essential services, unless the Iraqi government gets its act together, the US forces are little more than security guards at a rock concert.

The more you and the Democrats let the idea that the “surge is working” go uncontested, the longer Bush Administration’s concept of the surge remains credible.

As long as it remains credible, for McCain and the Republicans, the surge creates a giant platform.

McCain’s Plan

McCain argues that since the surge is working, the US should remain in Iraq. McCain argues that since the surge is working, the US can win the war in Iraq.

McCain hopes assertions like these will add credibility and gravitas to his “no surrender” rhetoric.

Your abilities to tap into huge reservoirs of emotion have been essential to your electoral successes. You are such an amazingly good communicator that you have been able to use concepts like “hope” and “change” to inspire people.

Most politicians use fear.

If comments about the surge are allowed to go unchallenged, fear of America losing the war Iraq may rise.

Many politicians will be reminded how, way back in 1972, the McGovern Democrats managed to lose an election and to immolate the Democratic Party’s national security credentials. The party still suffers huge issues regarding national security.

Polls suggest that the war in Iraq is not at the top of the list of voters’ concerns. But unless you change your tactics, it will be.

You have shown that emotion trumps the logical constructs Senator Clinton has been trying to create. But you’re brand of emotion—hope and opportunity—is very vulnerable.

McCain is intending to wave a huge flag. It’ll look like an American flag. But it’ll have fear written all over it: Fear of losing the war in Iraq. Fear of change. Fear that voting for you will lead to catastrophe.

McCain will try to plant that flag of fear smack dab the middle of the idea that the surge is working.

The Democrats should be saying things like, “Looking at Iraq only from a military point of view is what got us into this mess to begin with.”

Democrats have to link the surge with all the problems in Iraq.

You’re a smart guy. You know that hope and opportunity trump logic.

But do not forget this: fear trumps hope and opportunity.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Few Minutes in the Life of a Superdelegate

A month ago Dan was an overworked Democratic pol. He spent most of his life doing thankless, anonymous tasks for the Democratic Party. His cell phone almost never rang.

Now he’s a superdelegate.

He still spends most of his life doing thankless, anonymous tasks for the Democratic party. Only now his cell phone rings a lot.

Last Wednesday morning Dan was in a good mood. The day before he’d attended a Clinton rally where he’d had his picture taken with Senator Clinton.

His girlfriend called him. She asked him how it went with Clinton.


“Don’t tell me ‘fine.’ What’d you talk about?”

Dan didn’t say anything.





“Some sort of Hail Mary pass that would save her campaign?”


“So what’d you talk about?”

“Pocket protectors.”

“You may be talking with the next president of the United States and
you talked about pocket protectors?”

Dan was talking to his girlfriend via his cell phone, but he nodded.

“There was a guy—”

His girlfriend interrupted, “Who had a pen leak in his shirt. So you talked about pocket protectors. Dan, you were talking with Clinton. You couldn’t have said, ‘Let’s raise some more money? Let’s adjust to what Obama does better? Let’s organize better? And you talked about pocket protectors?”

“The senator agreed with me. The guy who’d had a pen leak, his life would be better if he’d worn a pocket protector.”

Dan had only recently given up wearing a pocket protector. His girlfriend counted it as a victory. The truth is less valiant. The stationary store where Dan used to buy his pocket protectors went out of business.

“Dan, you’re not thinking about wearing a pocket protector again are you?”

Dan has his faults. But he wasn’t an idiot. “Of course not.”

“Phew. That was close.”

He had to go. He had another call.

With Slick

Dan looked both ways, then he crossed a street. Then he looked at his cell phone. Someone other than his girlfriend actually was calling him. He put his cell phone to his ear. He heard a familiar voice. It said, “Hi Dan, Bill Clinton here.”

“Slick! Good to talk with you.” Then Dan remembered that the former President did not like the nickname. Dan apologized.

The former president was gracious.

They chatted—or rather the former President talked.

Dan knew the former president was calling to woo him. Dan knew that this phone call was no more than a political gesture done to solicit Dan’s vote as a superdelegate. But Dan savored the moments the former President talked to him.

The former president tried to persuade Dan to endorse Senator Clinton.

Dan had another call, but he ignored it. Dan said he was waiting until the primaries were over to pledge his vote.

President Clinton praised this tactic. “Don’t want the people think the politicians are tilting the process.” The former President went on to say that the new administration would need bright young minds like Dan’s.

Dan knew he was being pandered to. But he loved it.

The former President asked Dan what he was doing. Dan was on his way to the post office. Then he was going to a bookstore. His girlfriend was taking a class and had to write a paper on the Mideast. He was going to pick up a book for her.

They said goodbye.

As Dan stepped into the post office, Dan’s phone rang again. Again Dan looked at his cell phone. It was definitely his cell phone. And it definitely was ringing.

Michelle Obama had called him. She boiled down a version of her stump speech. She said that Barak cut his teeth on Chicago politics. It doesn’t get much tougher than that. Barak is tough.

Dan had heard the stump speech. He liked the stump speech. But he preferred talking with the former President. He told bigger lies.

As Dan stepped out of the post office, Dan’s cell phone rang again.

He looked up toward the sky. He expected to see pigs flying.

But above him was just regular old sky.

“I hear you’re writing a paper.”

“Dan, this is Madeline Albright.” Albright was Secretary of State under Clinton. “I hear you’re writing a paper.”

Dan wasn’t writing a paper. His girlfriend was. But he listened politely as Albright shoveled quotes to him.

Dan’s favorite quotation was one he’d heard the former Secretary of State say before, “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Dan realized the Clinton camp was not missing an opportunity to massage an opportunity.

Soon after his conversation with Albright ended, Dan’s cell phone rang again. “Dan, this is Bert Wooster. I’m with a plastics trade group. Hear you have a shortage of pocket protectors in your neck a the woods.”

Dan realized someone from Senator Clinton’s staff no doubt had contacted Bert.

Bert schmoozed Dan for a few minutes.

Pictures and Pain

Then Dan realized that the Obama campaign had e-mailed him pictures. Dan opened his cell phone and admired the pictures. Dan saw himself smiling as he stood next to Michelle Obama. Dan saw himself smiling as he stood next to Barak Obama.

Then Dan felt a pain in his chest.

The pain seemed to have tossed him backward.

A large black woman shouted at him, “You tryin to be stupid?”

Dan had no idea what was going on.

He felt a gust of wind. Soon he realized the gust of wind came from an SUV that had raced past him.

The black woman continued to yell, “Wat you doin? Starin at those pictures when youse about to walk across tha street? Mista, you ain’t got the sense God gave a turnip.”

Dan realized what had happened. He’d been thinking about the phone calls he’d been getting. He’d been looking at the pictures. For a moment he had forgotten that he was being pandered to.

For a moment he was dazzled by the people he had been speaking with.

Then he realized he’d almost walked onto the street.

The large black woman probably saved his life.

She continued to yell at him. But he felt nothing but kind, warm, fuzzy thoughts about her. He thanked her.

She shouted at him, “Dat SUV coulda squashed you—you coulda been flatter n week-old Pepsi.”

He got it. The black woman was trying to tell him that looking at photos on your cell phone is a dangerous thing to do . . . if you are crossing a street. Dan also realized that taking the comments from politicians too seriously also was very dangerous.

But important people wanted to talk with him. Important people wanted Dan to think he was important. It was nice being noticed. It was nice to be courted. Dan closed his cell phone and smiled.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Janus and Jerry

Line of the Week

Comes to us courtesy of Late Night’s Conan O’Brien, "After John McCain swept yesterday's primaries he purposely stole a line Barack Obama's been using, 'I'm fired up and ready to go.' When Obama heard this, he stole a line McCain's been using, 'I'm old and not sure where I am.'"

Janus and Jerry

When Janus and Jerry met for dinner last Wednesday, Janus was in a lousy mood. Her mood was not difficult to explain. For the last six months she’d been working eighty hours a week for Hillary Clinton.

In the last days, the senator had lost eight primaries in a row. Obama had taken the lead in the delegate count. And he’d also managed to capture all the momentum and most of the good headlines.

Jerry is not as organized as Janus would like. She’d arrived at seven-thirty; he arrived at eight.
They talked about the campaign for a while.

Jerry said, “The tears were good.”

“The what were good?”

“The tears . . . the tears Clinton cried . . . in New Hampshire.”

Janus nearly snapped at him, “The tears were a hundred years ago.”

Jerry gave a look that shouted, “What do you want from me?”

Janus said, “I want evidence that Clinton has a sense of humor.”

“Clinton laughed once.”

“In 1952.”

“Janus, you’re tired, you should get some sleep.”

“You know the news is bad.”

“It’s darkest before the dawn.”

“I think it’s about eight o’clock in the evening.”

Crash and Burn

Jerry told Janus about a satellite that was falling to earth. The US was going to spend sixty million dollars to shoot it down. Jerry figured it was a spy satellite of some sort. Otherwise they would let it crash and burn.

“’Crash and Burn,’ that’s not a bad title.”

“For Bush’s memoirs?”

“I was thinking of our campaign.”

The waiter arrived. Janus said, “Most of the time the campaign is important people talking about trivial things.”

Jerry said, “I thought that’s what a game show was.”

The waiter laughed.

Janus wondered if a game show format could be used as an effective campaign advertisement.

The waiter handed Jerry and Janus their menus. Then he left.

Jerry asked, “Is it okay if I order this fancy thing? This what do you

“They call it ‘the super.’ ”

“Is it okay if I order ‘the super’?”

“Can you spend a half an hour waiting for your dinner?”

He nodded.

“Can you spend an hour eating dinner?”

He nodded.

“Do you have forty-nine ninety-five?”


“Then you can’t order the ‘super.’”

Later, when the check came, Jerry didn’t reach for it.

She said, “What is this, you’re not organized? You don’t have any money.” Janus continued,

“What is this? The Clinton campaign?”

I Thought it’d be Over

Jerry said, “I thought it’d be over weeks ago. Whenever I date someone for a while, it always ends in February.”

“Jerry, I haven’t been dating you, I‘ve been living with the Clinton campaign.”

“And seeing me on the side?”

Janus nodded.

Jerry asked, “Your job is your life, and your life is your mistress?”

Janus got angry, “Jerry you don’t get it. I’m a woman. You’re a man, You can’t be my mistress.”

Jerry nodded.

Janus continued, “I’m trying to tell you that we don’t have to break up . . . just because it’s February.”

“So there’s no one else?”

“Jerry, I barely have time for you.”

“So I’ve been addressing the wrong things—I’ve had a lousy strategy.”

Janus nodded.

Jerry said, “So you’re saying dinner and a movie and sex—”

“Jerry, when have we had time for a movie?”

“We saw a movie once.”

“Jerry we saw a movie last August.”

“So you’re saying dinner and sex means—”

“It means dinner and sex.”

Jerry looked as if he’d just seen a John McCain roller-skating in a buffalo herd.

Janus said, “So you get it?”

“Of course.”

Janus smiled.

A few seconds passed.

Janus asked. “Are you sure you get it?

Jerry replied, “I never get anything. But when I’m out with an attractive woman and she says, ‘Do you get it?’ I nod.”

“Good tactic Jerry. Good tactic.”

Jerry said, “So you don’t care that I blew it? That I thought we’d be done by say the beginning of February?”

“Of course I care.”

“But I’ve had a lousy strategy, I’m not as organized as I should be, I miss things, I don’t have nearly enough money, I don’t adjust fast enough, I feel I have to lob some miracle pass to catch up . . . I get a sense that it’s all over.”

“Jerry are you talking about us, or are you talking about the Clinton campaign?”

“I don’t know.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Dead FAX Machine Comes to Life, Judas, GW, and the Environment

Recently, I was slaving away at my desk. As someone who is always in the pursuit of the newest nuance in American culture that rocks the American political scene, I was looking for pictures of a very attractive starlet—without any clothes on. As a picture was beginning to appear on my computer screen, the lights on a long dead FAX machine flashed. The machine coughed and wheezed. Soon it was makin more noise than a two-dollar radio. Then the long dead FAX machine spit out a few pages of text.


A wiser person would care more than I do about how and why the long dead machine came to life. Being the geek I am, I didn’t bother with anything like that. I read the FAX.

The FAX was mostly the transcript of a conversation between two people. One was that famous traitor from yesteryear we’ve all grown to know and hate—Judas.

The other participant in the conversation we know as a quixotic blending of twangy simplemindedness, verbal gaffes, and tactical blunders—G. W. Bush.
Judas and Bush are just gabbin away.

And they are sweatin more than a hooker in church. They’re sweatin because they’re in hell. For those of you who care, it doesn’t look at all like Dante’s hell—or even like Wal-Mart the day after Christmas. It looks a lot like a grid-locked freeway . . . somewhere in Georgia . . . in late August.

GW is appealing to move on up, if not to the right side of the big politician in the sky, at least to a slightly cooler locale.

Judas doesn’t have a whole lot to do. So he’s helping with GW’s appeal.

After reading the transcript, I did a little fact checking. It soon became obvious that the words Bush says are not rubba-dub-dubbed, shellacked and spit-polished, or even toilet flushed exaggerations. Bush has said all the comments attributed to him.

Just a Little More Backstory

Much of the dialogue addresses a proposal California and twelve other states championed. They petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency. Inside the Washington beltway, we call it the EPA. Rumor has it that GW calls it epa.

California and twelve other states petitioned the EPA to allow their states to create fuel efficiency standards that are more strict than those the Feds have. These higher standards would require automobiles sold in their states to burn less gasoline. This would make the air cleaner and reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

As you would expect from an administration that has excrement-for-brains, the EPA denied California’s request.

Because the story of the California petition and the EPA denial deserves a great deal more attention than it garnered, and because Judas—unlike so many in the media, asks not one but a series of follow-up questions—the transcript of the conversation follows.

Judas and GW

Judas began this way, “More than one person has whispered to me that they think your policies on the environment distill the essence of your administration. Would saying that be putting words in your mouth?”

"I don't particularly like it when people put words in my mouth, either, by the way, unless I say it."

“Regarding the EPA ruling on the suit brought by California and some other states. Did Governor Schwarzenegger call you specifically to talk about this issue?”

"All I can tell you is when the governor calls, I answer his phone."

“Don’t you think it would be more fair to future generations if Americans did more to clean up the environment?”

“All of us in America want there to be fairness when it comes to justice."

Judas continued, “Would you say that the Bush administration has had a negative impact on the environment?”

"I'm going to try to see if I can remember as much to make it sound like I'm smart on the subject."

“Would you like to comment on why it took so long for the EPA to issue it’s ruling?”

"This process has been drug out a long time, which says to me it's political."

“Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense supported the California initiative. He responded to the EPA ruling by saying, ‘This decision is like pulling over the fire trucks on their way to the blaze,’ Would you like to respond to comments like this?”

"There's a lot of blowhards in the political process, you know, a lot of hot-air artists, people who have got something fancy to say."

“Many say that the EPA ruling is a victory for the auto industry and that rulings like this will decrease the levels of trust people have about politicians.”

"There is distrust in Washington. I am surprised, frankly, at the amount of distrust that exists in this town. And I'm sorry it's the case, and I'll work hard to try to elevate it."

Cheney’s Clout

“Many say that rulings like this one by the EPA provide more evidence of the Vice President’s clout.”

"I think that the Vice President is a person reflecting a half-glass-full mentality."

“How do you respond to the assertion that this EPA ruling is ‘more of the same’ from your administration?”

"I think—tide turning—see, as I remember—I was raised in the desert, but tides kind of—it's easy to see a tide turn—did I say those words?"

“Other nations are taking profound steps to improve the environment. Many suggest the EPA ruling will cause the US to fall farther behind other industrial nations in this regard.”

"I aim to be a competitive nation."

“Many argue that the EPA ruling is further evidence that you have little idea what is really going on in the world.”

"[I]t's a myth to think I don't know what's going on. It's a myth to think that I'm not aware that there's opinions that don't agree with mine, because I'm fully aware of that."

“Many say this ruling provides more evidence that you aren’t fully informed on the issues.”

"I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves."

“Many have criticized your support of the coal industry. Do you think that criticism is justified?”

"We're spending money on clean coal technology. Do you realize we've got 250 million years of coal? Yet coal also prevents an environmental challenge."

“Won’t many view the EPA ruling as just another attempt by your administration to distort the facts regarding global warming.”

"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."

“Critics of your environmental policy suggest that it will cause long term harm to America. Do you have a response to that?”

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

Finally, the Truth about the New Hampshire Polls

It seems like an eon has passed since the pollsters and many of the pundits were bollixed by the results of the New Hampshire Primary. Before the primary, polls (and plenty of pundits) shouted that Obama would win—and probably by a significant amount.

He lost.

Polls (and pundits) suggested that on the Republican side, that McCain would win—and he did. Many who are obsessed with politics wonder how civilization could continue while the mystery about the New Hampshire Polls remained unsolved. Just how could one series of polls (for the Democrats) be so wrong, while the other (for the Republicans) could be so right?

Clinton said listening to voters had helped her find her voice.

Many zeroed in on a teary moment Clinton shared with voters and the media the Monday before the primary.

Some suggested that it was the debates that had made Clinton the front runner before the Iowa

Caucuses, the debate that took place the Saturday before the primary had done it again.

The Bradley Effect was mentioned as another possible reason why the polls had been so wrong. The Bradley Effect is named after it’s first victim, former LA mayor Tom Bradley. The Bradley Effect suggests that voters overstate to pollsters about how likely they are to vote for a black candidate—which is a polite way of saying that a significant percentage of voters lie when they tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate.

Other reasons were floated:

Pollsters stopped polling on Sunday; the election was on Tuesday.

Many voters, confident that Obama would win, didn’t vote.

Students didn’t vote for Obama in the numbers that had been expected.

Many voters were torn between Obama and another candidate became confident that Obama would win. So they had voted for the other candidate.

Some said the surprise was the result of a synergy of all of the reasons.

Finally, The Truth

Hours of investigative reporting—mostly spent plying people with booze—have led to other causes for this apparent polling gaffe:

A fundamentalist suggested that the polling screw-up happened . . . because God wanted it that way. He said if Senator Clinton appeared to be gaining influence, then the Republicans would have a Democrat to hate.

He then went on to explain why hating the Democrats was “the Christian thing to do.”

An aide to Rudy Giuliani camp attributed the polling gaffe to 9/11. No further explanation was given.

But after a few drinks, she showed me a card. It was titled, Responses for the Media.
1) This is a direct result of 9/11.
2) This is a result of 9/11.
3) Though all the data isn’t in yet, when it is, we are confident there will be a connection between this event and 9/11.

I told her that it looked as if she had a very challenging job.

I suggested we use the card she was given to replace the dartboard in the bar.

She smiled and said, “I’ve got something better than that.” She opened her Louis Vuitton Mirror Image Briefcase. Then she retrieved a series of pictures. She had pictures Huckabee, Romney, and Clinton. Some of the pictures had targets superimposed on the faces. She said, “These would be much better for the dartboard.”

“I can see you are a veteran campaigner.”

She smiled. Then she said, “This is my third New Hampshire Primary.”

A spokesperson for an association of anti-immigration groups blamed the polling problem on Hispanics who had come to New Hampshire illegally.

I asked him if he’d been drinking since the 2004 New Hampshire Primary.

He said, “I’ll drink to that!”

My guess is that he would have drunk to George Lopez being elected president.

I reminded him that Hispanics made up less than three per cent of the population of New Hampshire.

When he heard that, his expression made it obvious he was very surprised. Loudly he said, “These guys are organized!”

A small group of people from the International Community For Alien Research joined me for a few drinks. I thought they were making up the name—to get free drinks. After, I Googled the organization. It exits. (And you thought I was making these up!). They had boxes of buttons and a few signs that identified them as Kucinich supporters. They said the polling gaffe was the result of extra-terrestrials influencing the election.

When I told a political veteran about this comment, she replied, “There’s a group of Kucinich supporters?”

A nice guy from the Club For Growth looked at me with a dour expression on his face, then he said, “This so-called polling error is really the result of market forces doing what they do best.”

When I told the guy that I wanted funny comments, the spokesman smiled and said, “This is the result of market forces doing what they do best.”

A few drinks later, I told him that I’d seen his wife coming out of a hotel room with a tax and spend liberal.

He put on his glasses and said, “This is the result of market forces doing what they do best.”

A woman who described herself as a passionate Democrat told me an interesting story.

According to her, George Bush ordered former FEMA officials infiltrate the cadre of New Hampshire election workers. She said, it was a brilliantly executed plan to flummox the Democrats and their pollsters.

This provoked one of the Kucinich supporters to ask, “George Bush constructed a brilliantly executed plan?”

A spokesman for Liars Anonymous said he had data suggesting that the Bradley Effect wasn’t in play. “Voters didn’t lie to the pollsters; but they did lie when they voted.”

I asked him, “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

He responded, “Is the Pope Jewish?”

Friday, January 4, 2008

Ten Things We Should Take From the Iowa Caucuses

1) America is a great nation. Selecting a President is a very important process. Having the first event of that process take place in Iowa is absurd. Ethnically Iowa does not represent the US. Iowa’s economy is not microcosm of the nation’s. Because the event is a caucus and not an open primary—well, that doubles the absurdity of the exercise.

2) A day is a lifetime in politics. The ultimate absurdity of this year’s election process has been dubbed the Super Duper Primary. It takes place on February 5 when twenty-four states are scheduled to hold a primary or a caucus. The Super Duper Primary is thirty lifetimes away.

3) Since 1976, winners of the Iowa Caucuses have not done well. Of the five most recent presidents, only one triumphed in the Iowa Caucuses the year he was first elected president—G. W. Bush.

4) Over a hundred thousand more Democrats went to the caucuses than Republicans. Combine that with the electoral surge that the Democrats made in 2006 and you’ve got this: many Democrats are very happy right now, and there are more nervous Republicans than you can shake used Florida butterfly ballot at.

5) Huckabee and Obama won convincing victories. For that they garner the benefits of winning the Iowa Caucuses. In the hours after the caucuses, they will raise thousands of dollars. And the bright lights of free publicity will shine on them. The downside is that they will have a King Kamehameha-sized target on their backs.

6) In the immediate future, Huckabee has more challenges than Obama. Huckabee does not have the infrastructure in New Hampshire that he will need to make the most of his Iowa successes. There are not nearly as many evangelical Christians in New Hampshire as there are in Iowa. This group served as Huckabee’s base in Iowa. Republican economic conservatives loathe Huckabee. They’ll suggest Huckabee is crazier than a dog in a hubcap factory.

7) Huckabee and Obama gave very good victory speeches. But even here, the Democrats took the prize. Obama’s victory speech was incredibly good. More importantly it showed how unified and coherent his campaign is. Obama blended change, hope, and optimism into a whole that transcended anything the Republican candidates can deliver at this point. At this moment in space-time, Obama has the whole package: a Republican administration many dislike that Obama can run against, positions on issues that a majority of Americans favor, a sterling campaign, a Super Duper-sized recyclable container overflowing intangibles—he’s charismatic, he has a savvy wife with a winning smile, and two incredibly adorable children—and so much money he’ll be able to spend it faster than a jackrabbit on moonshine.

8) Senator Clinton took some very serious hits. Obama earned more votes than she did from the senators most prized constituencies: Democrats, women, Independents.

9) It’s refreshing that Edwards and Huckabee did well in Iowa—though they spent far less money than their opponents. (Huckabee won and Edwards came in second.) Don’t be derided by the talk of their success. Most of the time, in American politics, money remains paramount. After the New Hampshire Primary, money will be of tremendous importance.

10) The next stop in the absurdity we call the American political process is almost as bizarre as the first one. New Hampshire offers an open primary. This is a good thing. Voters may vote for any candidate. Sadly for those who prefer the absurd, this is not Cook County, voters will have to be alive to vote and voters will only be able to vote once. But considerable silliness remains. The primary is happening in a state that ethnically and economically does not represent America.

Last week in this space I offered suggestions to make the primary process more sane. Many wrote—and a few shouted—that I had it all wrong. They argued that we shouldn’t fix the process, we should make things more absurd. To that end I have two suggestions.

11) The first event in the 20012 primary season should be in Hawaii. It will blend the worst of a surfing competition—why not?—with a caucus—this way only a tiny percentage of the state’s population will participate. The winner will be determined by the loudest “Cowabunga” a candidate’s supporters may shout from the beach. They will shout in response to tricks a candidate—or a proxy—does on a surfboard.

12) As he did this year, every election year, Chuck Norris must endorse a candidate. Norris’ endorsement will insure that Chuck Norris jokes will continue to be created and told. This will add an appropriate leavening to the election process which, as we all know, is not silly enough. A few favored Chuck Norris jokes follow:
When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.
Chuck Norris has already been to Mars; that's why there are no signs of life there.
Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.
Some people wear Superman pajamas; Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas.

For those of you who while reading this were distracted by your lattes, cell phones, pagers, iPods, jobs, spouses, kids, families, or the latest crack about Britney Spears, the title of this piece suggested that there were ten things we should take from the Iowa Caucuses. The last two were items numbered eleven and twelve.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Fixing the Primary Mess: The Fair Primary

There are times when life imitates satire. One happened recently when George Bush commented on his education policy, “Childrens do learn.” Way back in April during the first Democratic presidential debate, Joe Biden, a man who is not known for his brevity, answered a question with a one word answer. Students of satire wait with baited breath for those moments when Hillary Clinton is warm and funny at the same moment, the powers that be in baseball show something that represents a backbone, and Paris Hilton turns down an opportunity to be photographed.

But I have left out one of the most absurd processes known to humanity: the Iowa Caucuses.

Whether you are a romantic or a cynic, I think you have to agree that the President of the United States holds a position of considerable influence and authority.

Given it’s importance, shouldn’t the first formal step in the election process be a sane one?

Of course it should.

Is it?

Of course not. Exhibit A: the Iowa Caucuses.

Is Iowa a microcosm of America? Let’s see, Iowa is 91% white.

That doesn’t represent America.

Does it have the same urban/rural mix as the US?


It its median income in the economic middle of the US?


Religiously, does it represent America?


In national elections, does it have a history of voting for the candidate who is elected President?


There’s more bad news.

Is the process that voters go through during the Iowa caucuses similar to the one they will visit later?

No way.

During the Iowa Caucuses less than seven per cent of the Iowa voting public meet in rooms and yak for a couple hours. They make a convoluted journey through a minefield of complex rules. The sum of these idiocies leads one candidate being declared a winner.

However, there is one tremendous benefit the Iowa primary gives us. Iowa is a relatively small state. Candidates can meet and talk with Iowans in small arenas. This is a good thing.

Let’s remember a purpose of a primary is to select the candidate from a party who is most likely to win the presidential election. Therefore, it is an excellent idea to hold the first primary in a state that is a microcosm of the United States.

The benefits of the first electoral exercise are obvious. The winner gets a tremendous boost. If the candidate gets this boost from a state that is a microcosm of the US, that victory will be good for the candidate, the candidate’s party, and the country.

Missouri Gold

Right now, Missouri is the state that is most like the US. It has the same rural/urban mix as the nation. It has the same percentage of Christians, African-Americans, and union workers as the nation. It ranks twenty-seventh in median income—for those of you who are mathematically challenged, that’s one step away from being exactly in the middle. Like the US, it has two blue coasts (the areas around St. Louis and Kansas City) with a large area of red in between.

Missouri is not one of the behemoth states. Relative to some of the electoral monsters out there, it’s downright small. It is roughly ten per cent larger than Iowa.

There’s more good news. Given the various ways that Missouri mimics the US, it should not surprise that Missourians have voted for the president longer than any other state. They’ve done so since 1960. If you allow one exception, in 1956 when it voted for Stevenson, the string goes back to 1904!

I am not advocating that the first primary be held in Missouri for the next century. I am advocating that the first primary be held in the state that comes closest to serving as a microcosm for the US.

Also, the first electoral exercise should mimic the larger exercise many of us go through the first Tuesday in November. It shouldn’t be an event where a tiny percentage of the state’s population participates. It should be a statewide election.

Call it the Little America Primary.

Regarding That Regional Primary Thing

Rightly, there is a good deal of support for rotating regional primaries. There are various plans. All divide the country into regions and rotate the regions. This would be a very good thing. Every region would get a turn at going first. Most years most regions would have a say in the nominating process. Rotating regional primaries would eradicate the primary traffic jam we will experience in 2008. However, most rotating regional primary proposals keep the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in tact.

The New Hampshire Primary is another bad tradition of American politics. New Hampshire is 97 per cent white. It ranks first in median income. It has no history of voting with the country for the candidate who becomes president. New Hampshire doesn’t mimic the demographics of the nation.

But like Iowa, New Hampshire is a small state. This allows candidates to meet and listen and talk with citizens.

Small States

I suggest we keep the benefits of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Elevate the importance of the small states. It’s easy.

Require each region to vote in a particular month. Have Region One votes in February, Region Two in March, and so forth. Hold the first primary in a region in one of the small states in the region.

Every region has one humongous state. You know what I’m talking about, states like California, New York, and Texas. If the primaries held there occur on the same dates of other primaries in the region, the large states will steal most of the thunder. So let the biggest state in terms in a region—at least in terms of electoral wallop—have a stand alone primary.

That leaves two weekends for the rest of the region. Bundle the states together so that it is easier for the candidates to campaign and to buy television time. This will mean each region will have a southern section and a northern section.

To be fair, rotation within a region will be necessary. The small states in the region can rotate to determine which goes first. During one election cycle the southern section would go first, in the next, the northern.

Let’s summarize. The ides of a rotating regional primary is a very good one. But kick things off with a primary in a state that most represents America. Then in February start a series of regional primaries. Dedicate the first primary in each region to a small state. Give the Big Kahuna in each region a stand-alone. And let’s help the candidates a little and bundle the rest of the region into two sub sections. And within each region, rotate.

Call it the Fair Primary.

Some other Good Ideas

Every contest is a primary—no straw votes, no caucuses, no beauty contests.
All primaries have proportional representation. If a candidate wins half the vote, that candidate is awarded half the delegates.

So that people who work have more of an opportunity to vote, hold the elections on Friday and Saturday.

Polls close at the same time on Saturday throughout the region. Because all the states in a particular primary will be in one or two time zones, this should not be difficult.

But polls may open early. And on Friday they may remain open late. For example, areas with a large Jewish population may elect to have polls open early on Friday to allow plenty of time for people to vote before the Sabbath begins. Some areas may elect to remain open late on Friday—so that people have plenty of time to vote after work.

Make the first primary an open primary. Voters may vote once for candidate from any party. This will make the sampling even more like a cross section of America.

All these ideas will make the process more fair. And every election season it will invite new groups of people into the process. This should stimulate interest in a process central to the lives of all of us.

This would be a good thing.


Nattering nabobs of negativity will raise all sorts of flags. The first will revolve around tradition.

My response. . . If it’s a bad tradition, change it.

Another will response will be, How will the current system be changed?

The parties, realizing what a mess things are this year should address the problem.

Call me old-fashioned, mid-Victorian, and all too provincial, but it seems to me that if something is broken and you are going to fix it, it is far better to fix the thing completely—rather than do a patch job.The current primary system is silly and chaotic. The rush to be heard early in the process is a just a symptom of a larger problem within the process we have now.

The Fair Primary is a vast improvement to the way we do things now—and it is darn close to fair.