Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Brennan and Gates: a Big Win, a Continued Loss

Sunday before last, Glenn Greenwald provided substantial pushback on the possibility of one-time George Tenet deputy John Brennan heading the CIA for the Obama Administration. Ten days later, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration, specifically citing a “firestorm” in the “liberal blogs” for blocking his ascent. Well, here’s what I think of that:

It's not so much a victory for the blogosphere as it is a victory for transparency, openness, and the media—be it establishment or new—paying attention to the things that matter to America.

The Obama transition team might be vetting the heck out of prospective administration hires to make sure that they haven't done anything embarrassing on a personal or financial level, but it is up to blogs and other media professionals to vet our next government for things that embarrass us as a nation. That means torture, that means rendition, that means completely mishandling and exploiting the threat of terrorism.

Only with a full airing and open discussion of the viewpoints of potential Obama teammates can we really get the change we voted for, the change we deserve.

. . .

Only hours later, word got out that President Elect Obama would retain the services of Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates, at least for the foreseeable future.

On Tuesday evening, Jane Hamsher appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show to raise doubts about the pick because it hinted at a continuation (an escalation?) of failed tactics in the Afghan theater—which it most certainly does.

However, that is only one part of the problem with this non-pick pick.

Gates, of course, was already covered with the stink of Iran Contra when he was nominated to head the CIA by President Reagan in 1987. So covered, in fact, he had to withdraw from consideration. Four years later, after a report from the panel investigating Iran Contra found that Gates had lied to investigators about what he knew and when he knew it, but that his lies did not rise to the level that warranted prosecution, Daddy Bush re-nominated Gates for DCI. It was a long, contentious confirmation hearing, but Gates lied his way through it—again contradicting the findings in the Iran Contra report.

All of that is to say that Robert Gates is no straight shooter. He is a self-serving liar who has always put his own image and career ahead of duty, honor, and country. There is no reason for a President Obama to expect anything different from the DoD version of Gates just because he is in a different job, or because he is reportedly building his dream house for a much anticipated retirement.

Further, Gates does not really represent “competence.” As Glenn Greenwald recently observed, you can't really separate competence and ideology:

[I]sn't competence determined, at least in part, by ideology? For instance, isn't someone's support for the Iraq War -- the most consequential political issue of the last decade, at least -- a negative reflection on that person's judgment, competence and expertise, just as someone's opposition to that war is a positive reflection on those attributes? How can selecting only pro-war Cabinet members and advisers be justified on the grounds of "competence" -- as though one's support for the War has nothing to do with competence?

If you want to competently re-focus US foreign policy away from the interventionist model, you have to appoint people at the very top who buy into your new approach. Just because Gates has appeared relatively rational when compared with his predecessor, Don Rumsfeld, does not mean that he represents a shift in strategic thinking. If he did, we would have seen a drawdown of our presence in Iraq, and far less reliance on reckless, immoral, and counterproductive aerial bombing in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Leave it to the careerists to provide the continuity—the folks at the top need a vision. We want something more than technocrats; the moment calls for something more than technocrats.

Additionally, since the Truman Administration, we've only had three Secretaries of Defense that were Democrats. Democratic Presidents need to promote the idea that there is a liberal point of view on military engagement. If we keep promoting Republicans to this post, we are going to keep getting advice shaped by their worldview.

The left—or even the center-left—should do a better job of promoting their military minds. Perhaps this community needs to produce more leading voices, but there are certainly enough liberal thinkers in this field to provide more than enough potential staff for top jobs at the Pentagon.

(cross-posted on firedoglake)

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

GM’s “no plan” more of a plan than Citi’s “plan”

Days after the Big Three automakers were sent home without any supper—told to come back after Thanksgiving with a “plan” that shows them to be deserving of $25 billion of taxpayer congressional Treasury largess—Super-sized financial institution Citibank was handed roughly that much cash in an attempt to prevent the bank’s complete collapse. (That is new money added to the estimated $25 billion Citi has already received under the Paulson TARP/injection/bailout extravaganza.)

But one of the big car manufacturers, General Motors, already seems to be ahead of Citibank as far as making plans for financial stability is concerned. GM’s Buick division announced that it has cancelled its five-year, $40 million endorsement deal with star golfer Tiger Woods, while Citibank has confirmed that its 20-year, $400 million deal for the naming rights to the new home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets is still very much a “go.”

GM’s Chief Executive, Richard Wagoner, was lambasted for taking a private jet to last week’s congressional hearings (and that was bad form), but just a week earlier, the company had already decided to let go of two of its five private jets (all five are leased, not owned). General Motors has also made many other (arguably small) cuts in an effort to trim costs—from slashing worker uniform stipends and buying cheaper wipe-up towels, to trimming the size of test fleets and turning off escalators at corporate HQ after 7 p.m.

These cuts could fall under the “penny wise and pound foolish” category, but they stand in striking contrast to the kinds of cuts Citi has made:

At Citigroup, executives had announced more than 27,000 job cuts, including ones shed through the sale of the company’s Indian outsourcing operations and German banking franchise and prior layoffs. But the bank stepped up its efforts on Monday with plans to eliminate 17,000 workers in the coming months. It will also cut an additional 7,000 or so employees by divesting businesses in the future and could shed more jobs through attrition.

The job cuts would be in addition to about 23,000 layoffs already this year and leave the bank with about 300,000 employees, down from its peak of about 375,000 in the fourth quarter of 2008. And Citi executives said there could be more layoffs ahead as they moved forward with plans to reorganize the company next year.

Meanwhile, back at GM, failure to get a bridge loan this year could result in the direct loss of some 120,000 jobs—with an additional seven-and-a-half times as many spin-off jobs potentially lost as a ripple effect. That’s over a million jobs total from GM’s hardships—and that doesn’t figure in Ford or Chrysler.

Though the failure of another big financial institution is likely not in the country’s economic interests, either, based on recent history, it is hard to argue that Citi is more deserving of its backstop than America’s automakers.

(photo by me)

(cross-posted on The Seminal and guy2k)

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Don’t make him angry. . .

. . . because you won’t. . . oh, never mind.

"I pretty well understand anger," said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid after the vote of the Democratic caucus.

"I would defy anyone to be more angry than I was but I also believe that if you look at the problems we face as a nation, is this a time we walk out of here saying, 'boy, did we get even?'"

By now you know about the vote within the Democratic Caucus that allowed Republican sock-puppet Joe Lieberman to retain his seniority and his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In a deal that was brokered behind the scenes over the weekend, Lieberman was forced to step down from his seat one the Environment and Public Works Committee. (A tiny slap on the wrist, but I will try to make a little lemonade here by hoping that this might help kill off once and for all the Lieberman-Warner global warming “effort”—which was a faux-solution designed to check off a box on a congressional to-do list without actually doing anywhere near enough.)

Of course, I, and any other honest, caring Democrats, don’t give a damn about how angry Harry Reid might have been. I’ve been angry at Joe Lieberman for a decade now because of so very many things that he has done to betray his party, his state, and his country—but anger has nothing to do with it. Neither does “getting even.”

Nor, honestly, does the possibility that Lieberman will make the 60th vote in a cloture-ific super-majority (congratulations to our latest Democratic Senator-elect, Mark Begich, by the way). That was just another straw man thrown out there by Senate leaders and media elites to distract us from what this was really all about.

Even if Minnesota’s Al Franken and Georgia’s Jim Martin go on to join the other 56 Democrats and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Senate majority, Joe Lieberman (Party of One-CT) will never be the 60th vote on any matter of importance—and I promise you that will include attempts to end roadblock Republican filibusters. Never.

Remember, Joe was a member of the “Gang of Fourteen,” a group of supposedly “centrist” Senators that undercut Democratic attempts to stop a series of ultra-right Bush nominees from littering the federal bench.

Remember, Joe wouldn’t even vote for cloture on a non-binding resolution to condemn the lawlessness of former AG Alberto Gonzales—when even seven Republicans found the courage to do just that.

Remember, Joe was the guy who just last month warned how dangerous it would be if Democrats controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. . . and campaigned like crazy to try and prevent that from happening.

(Some talking heads like to tell us that Joe won’t matter because Republicans like Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and/or Arlen Specter will be willing to join with Democrats on a whole host of issues; color me unconvinced—I could give numerous examples of all three talking tough and then voting with their party on a litany of important issues.)

No one was seriously arguing that Lieberman should be kicked out of the Democratic caucus (because no one ever asked me), but those that understand the dynamics of power were arguing that Joe needed to be stripped of his committee chairmanship. If Democrats had done that, it would have permanently marginalized Lieberman with little effect on any majorities Dems might amass. Lieberman might have switched parties (though I don’t think that was anywhere near certain, since he had little to gain by doing so), and I expect that he will vote with the Republicans just as often as a nominal “Independent Democrat” because Lieberman has shown time and again that he has no respect for the Democratic Party or, honestly, much of what it stands for. And he has proven that he has no sense of allegiance or gratitude to those that have helped him in the past.

What Joe was never serious about was resigning his seat so that Connecticut Governor Jody Rell, a Republican, could appoint a Republican to replace him. Never would have happened. Not in a million years. I know, and you know, Joe is all about Joe (and practically nothing else), and Joe would never willingly give up the power or the fundraising prowess of his Senate seat. (Seriously, I was amazed resignation was even being discussed on the news shows—it was absurd.)

Now, thanks to Reid’s all-anger-no-action reaction, and similar behavior from a majority of his colleagues, we have the worst of all possible worlds (yes, I said possible—see above). Lieberman will never help his caucus in any meaningful way—I just know this—but he will hurt them, likely repeatedly.

As head of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Joe the Chairman could have used his position to investigate many of the misdeeds of the Bush Administration, but he did nothing of the sort (absolutely nothing). But in that same seat during the Obama Administration, just watch and see if Lieberman suddenly finds the need for scrutiny and oversight (and lo unto the Democrats if they then try to remove or silence him—not only would taking away his gavel mid-session require a Senate vote subject to filibuster, it would unleash the right wing and establishment media hounds).

Watch and see if Joe doesn’t convene some new “gang” of some number—a group of pretend moderates who only exist to thwart Obama Administration or progressive Democratic initiatives—to create for himself a sense of importance and a renewed media interest. I am expecting this, too.

And watch, because you will have no choice but to watch, as the Liar of the Senate goes on news show after news show, filling the designated Democratic seat, and then using the opportunity to bash President Obama or fellow Democrats. He did it throughout the campaign, and, indeed, throughout the last four years (or more), and that was when he supposedly had something to lose; I can pretty much guarantee this will come to pass.

For a generation now, party loyalists and pundits alike have turned with some self-assurance to the pseudo-amusing saw “Democrats never fail to seize defeat from the jaws of victory.” But with the elections of 2006 and 2008, it seemed, if just for a moment, that Democrats might have put that one to bed—but that was before Joe made Harry the Hulk angry. . . . And, I guess Nevada’s answer to Bruce Banner was right—at least for me—I don’t like him when he’s angry.

(With apologies to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

(cross-posted on The Seminal)

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Too late

Over the next two months, Mr. Paulson must impose some coherence and clarity on the bailout. Otherwise he will only fan anxieties and mistrust, which will undermine the effectiveness of his good decisions and amplify the fallout of his bad ones. With markets gyrating wildly, and the economy deteriorating rapidly, the nation needs clear leadership and a sound plan.

After spending the entire length of today’s lead editorial demonstrating just how badly Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has handled the economic crisis and ensuing attempts at a “bailout,” the New York Times undermines its point with this half-hearted admonition. Honestly, if the Times editorial board knows of a good decision by Mr. Hanky, might they have shared it?

The nation does need clear leadership and a sound plan, but, to date, the nation has gotten neither. As pointed out in this very editorial, any “modest easing the bailout initially brought about in the credit markets is now being reversed over doubts about the Treasury’s stewardship of the plan.” Paulson’s actions have been reactive and woefully behind the curve; he lacks anything like a coherent strategy, and the moves he has taken seem less motivated by an interest in protecting wage-earning Americans than in protecting Paulson’s pals and ideological biases.

There is also zero transparency—something many econ-watchers consider of utmost importance to stabilizing credit markets. . . not to mention the stock market. Beyond the lack of oversight as to what the banks are doing with the billions in bailout cash that they have received (much will end up going to bonuses, balance sheets, and the buy-ups of competing banks), it has now been revealed that there was another $2 trillion (!) dispensed by the Fed that is completely opaque.

Paulson has refused to use any of the TARP cash to help homeowners facing foreclosure, even though that might slow the bleeding and even stimulate some local economies, and now he has also rejected using his precious kitty to help the auto industry. Though it’s true that an auto-industry bailout administered with a similar chaotic attitude and the same lack of rules and requirements would do little in the long run to fix systemic problems in this sector, deciding that Goldman Sachs was “too big to fail” but GM is not is as stupid as it is hypocritical.

Given that record, I have no need to extend the rhetorical lifeline the Times so generously offers. Clear leadership and a sound plan cannot come soon enough, and given the noted rapid deterioration of the economy and the number of Paulson’s remaining days, it probably won’t.

(cross-posted on guy2k and The Seminal)

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Friday, November 14, 2008

New York State Budget: More Regressive Ideas From Gov. Paterson

Two days ago I wrote about the proposal to jack up NYC transit fares by 28% and how that was in effect a regressive tax on the sort of New Yorkers whom could least afford it—and how this was being done at the same time New York State Governor David Paterson has refused to consider what’s come to be called the “millionaires’ tax.”

Well, just to add insult to injury, here’s another winner of an idea: New York State has started collecting a $25 child support enforcement fee from those that needed government help to recover child support payments.

To be fair, this insult was originally the brainchild of the Bush Administration and its rubberstamp Republican Congress. As part of the “Deficit Reduction Act of 2005,” the federal government started charging states a $25 fee for child support recovery. However, from then, till recently, New York had covered that fee for its needy residents.

But with the looming state budget crisis, no more. Governor Paterson has decided the state can no longer afford this level of generosity.

Millionaires, however, well, have no fear, the governor is looking out for you.

The “millionaires’ tax” is pretty simple as tax proposals go. Income over $1 million would be taxed an additional 1%, and income over $5 million would be taxed .75% more. New York has one of the highest concentrations of wealth in the country—just one-half of one percent earned 28% of the taxable income back in 2005. The proposed tax surcharge could bring in about $1.5 billion in the first year—or roughly three-quarters of the expected NY budget shortfall.

The millionaires that would have to pay this tax—or at least a few loud ones, like the ubiquitous, selfish, and inevitably wrong Donald Trump—argue that if you make them pay this increase, they just might leave New York. I say, as did the NY Daily News recently, call their bluff.

As the Daily News observed, New Jersey imposed a much larger increase on all incomes over half-a-million a few years back, and they got incredible bang for their buck—about $26 coming in for every $1 fleeing the state.

And they were fleeing New Jersey!

Even New York City’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg—who had previously been heard whining about a surcharge—now says this millionaire flight threat is a lot of hooey:

I can only tell you, among my friends, I've never heard one person say “I'm going to move out of the city because of taxes.” Not one. Not in all the years I've lived here. You know, they can complain, “Oh got my tax bill, it's heavy.” But they've not ever thought that. My friends all want to live here and understand the value.

He oughta know, right? That is his cohort.

As for the rest of us—that would be 99.5% of us—well, I’m guessing a lot of us have a little less mobility. And since Paterson knows he’s got a captive “audience,” I guess it’s up to this rest of us to pick up the slack, balance the budget, and so, look out for the Governor’s interests. . . whether we want to or not.

(PS The information on the child support fee comes from the office of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), who has called on NY State to stop collecting this regressive tax, and has asked the Senate to increase funding to child support enforcement.)

(cross-posted on guy2k, The Seminal, and Daily Kos)

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Prop 8: Nate Silver has my back

Last week, I wrote this:

The implication [of the AP story] is clear, and has been said outright, first-time non-white voters brought into the system by the Obama campaign provided the margin necessary to pass Prop. 8.

Except that if you look at the data from the AP exit poll [now a pdf], that isn’t clear at all.

Unless there are cross-tabulations from this poll that have not been made publicly available, I cannot see how the numbers support the certitude of the claim. . . .

Democrats overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 8, first-time voters overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 8, those who are in accordance with Obama’s positions overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 8, those who supported Obama in the primary overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 8, those who voted for Obama on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 8.

Five days later, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight wrote this:

Certainly, the No on 8 folks might have done a better job of outreach to California's black and Latino communities. But the notion that Prop 8 passed because of the Obama turnout surge is silly. Exit polls suggest that first-time voters -- the vast majority of whom were driven to turn out by Obama (he won 83 percent [!] of their votes) -- voted against Prop 8 by a 62-38 margin. More experienced voters voted for the measure 56-44, however, providing for its passage.

Now, it's true that if new voters had voted against Prop 8 at the same rates that they voted for Obama, the measure probably would have failed. But that does not mean that the new voters were harmful on balance -- they were helpful on balance. If California's electorate had been the same as it was in 2004, Prop 8 would have passed by a wider margin.

Furthermore, it would be premature to say that new Latino and black voters were responsible for Prop 8's passage. Latinos aged 18-29 (not strictly the same as 'new' voters, but the closest available proxy) voted against Prop 8 by a 59-41 margin. These figures are not available for young black voters, but it would surprise me if their votes weren't fairly close to the 50-50 mark.

There are few quantitative analysts I would trust more than Silver (and his presidential predictions were the best of the lot this cycle), so it is a real confidence builder for me to know that when he looks at the data he sees the same thing that I see—or, more accurately, he doesn’t see the same thing that I don’t see. There is nothing in the exit polling to support the narrative that the first-time African American voters brought to the polls by Barack Obama’s campaign provided Prop. 8 with its margin of victory—and, in fact, most evidence seems to point the other way.

Silver believes that the ballot measure owes its passage to older voters, noting that if no one over 65 had voted, Prop. 8 would have failed by “a point or two.” Silver suggests that as that demographic ages out of, um, life, bigoted efforts such as this one will eventually fail.

While I tend to agree overall—the younger you go, the more comfortable most seem with diversity—I think that Silver should take a look at the family factor. Those that are married and have children (31% of the sample) voted in favor of the measure 68% to 32%. All others voted against the gay marriage ban by a ten-point margin.

(I know what you’re thinking: “All others” includes most of the voting homosexual population. That’s probably true. Alas, there is no cross-tabulation for “married heterosexuals without children”—however, because the “all others” segment is so much larger than the “married with children” slice, even if you could subtract the gay vote, I suspect that this segment would still have rejected the proposition.)

The question becomes “Are beliefs about gay marriage static?” Will the young segments that voted against Prop. 8 continue to feel the same way, even as they age and/or have children? To ask it another way: Do those married with children tend to favor the ban more because they would tend to be older than those without kids, or did those that are younger reject Proposition 8 because they had yet to reproduce?

To my eye, the history of civil rights movements in the United States would favor Silver’s take on the numbers, but the numbers don’t confirm this, at least not with absolute certainty. I guess, as they—and the numbers—say, time will tell.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos, guy2k, and The Seminal)

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

NYC subways: fare hikes, service cuts. . . is this the change we need?

Tell me you didn’t see this one coming. MTA Chief Elliot Sander announced this week that economic times being what they are, the Transit Authority’s deficit was going to balloon to $1.2 billion, and so service cuts and substantial fare hikes were now inevitable.

The MTA had already slated eight percent fare increases for next year; they now say they will need an additional 20% to make up shortfalls caused by increased fuel costs and decreasing property values (the MTA gets a good chunk of its budget from property and property-related taxes). If an increase like that is approved, the price of a single ride on a New York City subway or bus would climb above $2.50.

Capital improvements and service expansion are already lagging far behind the needs of a city expecting to grow to a size of 10 million in the next decade, but even if Sander gets all of his fare boost, service and improvements will still have to be cut back to trim the deficit.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is hardly the only state agency facing a budget crisis as the Bush economy and the Wall Street meltdown send shockwaves through the New York economy. (For those of you not familiar with NYS politics—yes, the city’s transit system is run by the state. It was taken from the city during the 1970s fiscal crisis, and NYC never got it back.) Governor David Paterson, who has already negotiated state budget cuts, is demanding the legislature return for another round—and for that round, Paterson is proposing a 25% haircut.

Still, Paterson has made it clear: there will be no state tax increases.

What Paterson means by that, of course, is that he will not countenance a state income tax increase. The ousted Spitzer Administration had floated the idea of a “millionaires’ tax”—a surcharge on the highest of highest incomes to help New York meet its obligations—but Paterson, formerly a state representative from Harlem and once considered a liberal, has thrown that baby out with Eliot’s bathwater.

Of course, a 28% fare increase—more than a dollar extra for every roundtrip commute—would effectively (if not officially) be a tax increase. . . except this one would primarily affect the other end of the economic ladder.

To reiterate: For millionaires, who don’t take the subway all that much—no new taxes; for working class New Yorkers, who do use the subway daily to get to and from work—how does paying an extra $260 per year sound? (That’s per person—if there are kids that use the subways and busses to get to school, multiply accordingly.)

NYC is the economic engine of New York State. (And city residents already pay a disproportionate amount to fill state coffers—they pay out more than they get back in services and benefits.) The fuel for that engine is the city’s workforce—and that workforce relies in large part on public transportation to get to work. Without a functioning and affordable public transit system, New York City’s commerce—the state’s engine—would grind to a halt.

So why is it that all anyone can think of when times get tough is to cut service and raise fares? Why take one of the great advantages that New York has over most other American cities and hobble it? Is it that hard to think of anything else to do?

Let me give it a try. . .

First off, it is high time that control of the city’s mass transit system is returned to the city. For far too long, income from the total of state transit systems has gone disproportionately to commuter rail; subway and bus riders have effectively been subsidizing suburban rail commuters. That has to stop. I’m not saying that commuter rail isn’t important—it is vital—but the subway system is more vital to the workings of New York City, and it deserves the full benefit of its income.

Second, how about some creative thinking?

New York City and State pay more in taxes to the federal government than either gets back—so it is in America’s best interest to keep the New York economy growing. So how about we integrate some of NYC’s financial problems into the national thinking on bailouts and stimulus?

If Washington is going to spend billions to bailout the auto industry, why not spend a couple billion to help out systems that are better for the economy and the environment than cars? Seriously, not only does the MTA itself provide good-paying jobs to thousands of New Yorkers, capital improvements would provide even more, and the service that the MTA provides increases the productivity of practically all city businesses. Backstopping automobile manufacturers will cost tens or hundreds of billions, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much of that will go to the credit divisions, or legacy costs, or executive compensation, or shareholder value. I can pretty much guarantee that one or two billion to the MTA will deliver much more bang for your buck.

Here’s another idea: The coming infrastructure bill. . . what says infrastructure more than subway and light rail? Why shouldn’t the New York congressional delegation insist that this promised investment in infrastructure pick up the tab for system upgrades and expansion? Let fares go to the day-to-day operating costs. For all the reasons cited above, I am pretty sure that few infrastructure investments will provide better ROI.

I got another: What say we reduce the burden of rising fuel costs by making the New York transit system one of the stars of the new green economy? Spur plug-in hybrid innovation by promising the best technology a crack at replacing all of NYC’s busses. Fund an initiative to find a self-sustaining way to generate all the electricity needed to run the subways. Yes, that’s dreaming big, but a) not that big, and b) isn’t that the change we need?

So there you go—in fifteen minutes, I just outlined three (or was that four?) possible alternatives to fare hikes and service cuts. And I am just doing this on my own, pro-bono. There are staffs of paid experts and consultants at the MTA’s and the government’s beck and call—where are their ideas?

Indeed, I’ll go a step further: where is the political leadership? Why is it that the best anyone can think of is to make the poor and working class suck it up, pay more, and make do with less? What makes that leadership? That’s the simpleton’s solution. That’s the coward’s way. Why should we reward that?

When I went to the polls here in Manhattan last week, I didn’t just vote for change at the federal level; I voted for my US Representative, and my state senator and assembly member, too. Two years from now, I’ll vote for all of them again, and a Senator. I expect them to be full participants in promoting the vision and the programs that were highlighted in the campaign of our president-elect. What better place to begin than right here at home?

(cross-posted on guy2k, Daily Kos, and The Seminal)

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Electoral shift more about embracing Democratic values than transcending race

Last Thursday, I wrote that Obama’s path to victory in this election—a strategy that embraced core Democratic values instead of pandering to the center-right—had left me feeling validated if not vindicated for two decades of advocating just such an approach.

Well, thanks to Stanley Greenberg, writing in today’s New York Times, you can now color me vindicated, too. Greenberg, who was Bill Clinton’s chief pollster and one of the men most responsible for reinforcing the notion of “Reagan Democrats,” has decided to finally lay that frame to rest:

I’m finished with the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County in suburban Detroit after making a career of spotlighting their middle-class anger and frustrations about race and Democratic politicians. . . .

For more than 20 years, the non-college-educated white voters in Macomb County have been considered a “national political barometer,” as Ronald Brownstein of National Journal described them during the Democratic convention in August. After Ronald Reagan won the county by a 2-to-1 margin in 1984, Mr. Brownstein noted, I conducted focus groups that “found that these working-class whites interpreted Democratic calls for economic fairness as code for transfer payments to African-Americans.” So what do we think when Barack Obama, an African-American Democrat, wins Macomb County by eight points?

I conducted a survey of 750 Macomb County residents who voted Tuesday, and their responses put their votes in context. Before the Democratic convention, barely 40 percent of Macomb County voters were “comfortable” with the idea of Mr. Obama as president, far below the number who were comfortable with a nameless Democrat. But on Election Day, nearly 60 percent said they were “comfortable” with Mr. Obama. About the same number said Mr. Obama “shares your values” and “has what it takes to be president.”

I was never comfortable with Greenberg’s attributing all of the Democrats’ problems in Macomb to what is, not to put too fine a point on it, racism. Though I don’t doubt that this segment of voters contains racists, I’ve often thought that this rationale sells these people short, and lets the Democrats off too easy. Pardon the pun, but I felt that the racism Greenberg measured in Macomb was only skin deep.

Missing from Greenberg’s old equation were Democrats able and willing to sell the Democratic brand. It was easy for white voters in Macomb to feel that the Democratic Party had turned away from them because in many ways they had. Running scared since 1972, and more so after 1980, Democrats kept quiet about or even abandoned many of the policies and programs once championed by the party—programs that directly helped working class voters like the ones Greenberg studied.

The void created by the Democrats’ ambivalence to their own legacy was exploited by the continuance of the Republican’s infamous “southern strategy,” and filled by rightwing myths like “the Cadillac-driving black welfare cheat”—myths that were allowed to metastasize into full-blown frames. By the time Greenberg brought his white suburban voters into a focus group, the Democrats were no longer the party of New Deals and Great Societies so much as they were the party of over a decade’s worth of government’s failures. That these failures—especially as they intersected lives in Macomb—owed much to the budgetary, trade, and labor policies of Republicans notwithstanding.

So, naturally, to Greenberg, what he heard in the focus groups throughout the 1980s and ‘90s expressed itself as racism (I’ve moderated enough focus groups to easily see how this “finding” could have emerged). And, naturally, as Macomb voters moved to a place of trust vis-à-vis candidate Obama, Greenberg sees this as an evolution away from that racism.

I don’t believe that adequately explains the shift any more than I believe that the election of America’s first bi-racial president means that racism is no longer an American problem. And I think I now have some statistics to back me up.

If last Tuesday was all about America getting comfortable with one candidate’s race, and little else, then Barack Obama should have outperformed other Democrats running down ticket—many of whom are still the plain old white guys that Greenberg’s groups had rejected. Fact of the matter, however, is that down-ticket Dems did better than Obama.

Paul Krugman highlights the work of Andrew Gelman, who demonstrated that congressional Democrats averaged 56% of the two-party vote, while Obama netted 53%, and where Obama influenced a 4.5% swing when compared with John Kerry in 2004, Democratic races for Congress garnered an average swing of 5.7%.

Specifically in Greenberg’s favorite locale, Macomb County, MI, Senator Carl Levin—considered by most to be a liberal Democrat—grabbed over 63% of the vote. Obama managed 53.4% in the same county. (Of course, Levin had the advantage of incumbency, but it is hard to imagine that his visibility was any higher than Obama’s during the last year.)

The point of all this is to say that if all Barack Obama had to do for these lost Democrats was go on TV a few times and prove he wasn’t some scary hybrid of racial stereotypes, it’s hard to explain the performance of other Democrats this cycle. Even more telling, if previous Democratic deficits were about racism—implied or overt—then what explains how a man of color outperformed his white predecessor in a county that is almost 93% white?

I do not think that Obama’s win in places like Macomb is simply the result of his proving that he puts his pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else. Indeed, that is the added barrier that Obama had to overcome, and not some special advantage. For this demographic, or even for this psychographic, the difference in this race was not race, but reality. Voters like this group in Michigan have suffered badly under Republican rule; the change in this election is that Democratic candidates were not afraid to explain this.

Barack Obama and most of his party’s candidates did something Democrats had failed to do far too often in the last three decades: they criticized Republican ideology while embracing traditional Democratic values. Dem candidates attacked tax cuts for the rich, corporate favoritism, and the cronyism and corruption that have been the hallmarks of Republican rule. Democrats then offered an alternative that emphasized tax equity, and policies that could benefit the many like universal healthcare, energy innovation, green jobs, reinvestments in infrastructure, better-funded schools, and more college aid. In short, Democrats returned to campaigning as Democrats.

Don’t get me wrong, as I said up top, I am thrilled that Stan Greenberg has chosen to put his “Reagan Democrats” to bed. But when Greenberg goes to sing his lullaby, it would be beneficial for future Democratic candidates if he made sure he knew the right tune.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Doubt, by the numbers

A snippet of “analysis,” courtesy of the AP (here via the LA Times), seems to have dictated what fast became the received wisdom on the “be careful what you fish for” conundrum of the Obama campaign’s drive for increased minority turnout vis-à-vis the very unfortunate passage of Proposition 8 (eliminating marriage rights for same-sex couples):

California's black and Latino voters, who turned out in droves for Barack Obama, also provided key support in favor of the state's same-sex marriage ban. Seven in 10 black voters backed a successful ballot measure to overturn the California Supreme Court's May decision allowing same-sex marriage, according to exit polls for The Associated Press.

More than half of Latino voters supported Proposition 8, while whites were split. Religious groups led the tightly organized campaign for the measure, and religious voters were decisive in getting it passed. Of the seven in 10 voters who described themselves as Christian, two-thirds backed the initiative. Married voters and voters with children strongly supported Proposition 8. Unmarried voters were heavily opposed.

The sound of this report, what with it being grounded in a poll and all, makes it hard to refute—and, indeed, it seems few have tried. The language in the top paragraph, or some slight variant, appears in most of the major reports I’ve read or heard in the two days since the November 4th referendum. The implication is clear, and has been said outright, first-time non-white voters brought into the system by the Obama campaign provided the margin necessary to pass Prop. 8.

Except that if you look at the data from the AP exit poll, that isn’t clear at all.

Unless there are cross-tabulations from this poll that have not been made publicly available, I cannot see how the numbers support the certitude of the claim. The above narrative is a possibility, but so are many other stories—and I feel that other conclusions are likely just as viable.

First off, while it is true that African American voters in California did vote overwhelmingly for the marriage ban—70% YES to 30% NO—Latinos were more closely divided: 53% YES to 47% NO. That’s significant, but not in the same league as the margin from African American voters. It also should be noted that African Americans accounted for 10% of those polled; Latinos, 18%.

More to my point, however, is the missing cross-tab. There are a good number of sub-samples available in the published results (more on some of those in moment), but “African American first-time voters that voted for Obama-Biden” or even just “African American first-time voters” are not among them.

It is quite possible that with that many cuts, the sample size is too small to yield results that pass statistical muster, but without the ability to run my own cross-tabs, I can’t tell you.

Here’s what I can tell you (based on what is posted), and it is some of these numbers that make me at least harbor doubts about the “new Black voters are conservative on social issues” storyline.

(The first number in brackets is the % of the total sample, the second number is the % that voted YES, and the third is the % that voted NO.)

Democrats (42) 36 - 64
Republicans (29) 82 - 18
Independents (28) 46 - 54

Is this the first year you’ve ever voted?
Yes (14) 38 - 62
No (86) 56 - 44

Union Household (25) 56 - 44
Non-union Household (75) 50 - 50

Who did you want to win in the nomination?
Dems for Clinton (15) 39 - 61
Dems for Obama (23) 31 - 69

Suburban voters (51) 59 - 41
Large city voters (45) 45 - 55

Do you think Obama’s positions are:
Too liberal (32) 74 - 25
Too conservative (7) (sample too small)
About right (56) 31 - 69

Voted for Obama (60) 32 - 68
Voted for McCain (38) 84 - 16

Democrats overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 8, first-time voters overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 8, those who are in accordance with Obama’s positions overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 8, those who supported Obama in the primary overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 8, those who voted for Obama on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 8.

Urban voters rejected the measure by a ten-point margin, while suburban voters supported it by eight. I don’t know what the racial breakdown is of California’s suburbs, but I would assume that large cities would have the larger African American populations.

The only category that could have been influenced by the “Obama effect” (for lack of a better name) is the union vote. It has been widely reported how active organized labor was in getting out the vote for Barack Obama, and, as you see above, union households favored the marriage ban by 12 points. However, and this is a big however, this number might also be deceptive because the “households” category, almost by definition, includes a lot of families. Married with children (31% of the sample) voted YES 68% of the time (all others—69% of the sample—rejected Prop. 8 by ten points).

While none of what I have just detailed rules out the hypothesis that first-time African American voters brought to the polls by the Obama candidacy proved the difference in the passage of Proposition 8, I think there is enough here to call that narrative into question. For all we know, most of the 70% of the African American population that voted YES on 8 would have come out and voted even if Obama wasn’t on the ballot. Conversely, it might be the case that the 30% of African Americans that rejected the measure are the ones voting for the first time. Might be—I just can’t tell.

And if I can’t tell, I am figuring that most of the establishment press parroting the AP’s narrative probably can’t tell either.

No doubt there is much to be done to combat the homophobic bias evidenced in this tally, and in similar outcomes in other states, but the discussion about what is to be done could be influenced by perceptions of which groups bear responsibility for the final outcome. Indeed, the way Obama governs could be shaped by the larger story about what kinds of voters provided the president-elect’s margin of victory. Without the ability to further analyze the exit poll data, we should not accept the center-right narrative or claims of any particular Obama effect.

(cross-posted on guy2k and The Seminal)

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Yes We Brand

It’s been a long time coming.

The first time that I ever voted was the first time that I was eligible—the 1980 general election. And if that’s not enough of a humbling admission, I’ll go a step further: I voted for Barry Commoner. It was a protest vote in a non-competitive state, but the reasons for that protest formed the foundation of my complaints about Democrats—or, if not Democrats, Democratic strategy—for the rest of my political life.

At least until today (more on that in a minute).

I didn’t have a neat phrase in 1980, because the trend did not yet have a name, but I would eventually topline my criticism by saying, “Why vote for the ersatz Republican when you can vote for the real thing?”

The point of that flip and bitter but all too often prescient comment was that Democrats, by pursuing what came to be called “Reagan Democrats”—conservative or right-leaning voters who, by some freak of demographics or inertia, had failed to change their party affiliation even though their worldview had left the Democratic party with the creation of Medicare, the signing of the Voting Rights Act, or protests over the Vietnam War—had so muddied their brand that they turned off or failed to inspire their core audience while failing to convince the so-called center that a second-to-market mishmash was better than almost just-as-good as the original. And when Democrats did manage to tilt Reagan-ward enough to grab the odd brass ring, the result was even worse—for the party and the country—for, you see (and this quickly became the corollary to my first proclamation), in a contest between an old Republican and a new Republican, the victor is guaranteed to be a Republican.

By the 1990s, the Democratic elite had evolved enough to believe that they shouldn’t so much follow the voters as they should follow the money. The Democratic Party of Bill Clinton did manage to divert their way some of the rivers of cash that had been flooding GOP coffers, but, to my mind, they did so at the expense of the party’s natural reservoir of votes.

Flash forward another decade, and suddenly “values voters” were all the rage. Democrats, apparently, didn’t know how to talk about religion—apparently the font of all positive values—and so were losing white evangelicals. Until Democrats embraced the naturally conservative (some might say reactionary) beliefs of this highly organized voting bloc, they would never feel the electoral love. The dreadful results that befell Democrats for more than a decade, or, depending on how you evaluated, perhaps more than a generation, stood as some kind of unmistakable verification of this trope.

Chasing Reaganites, millionaires, or evangelicals all required the same tactic, however (and not surprisingly), and that was a full-throttle fudge to the right.

What the ever-shifting boundaries of this monotonous, mono-directional, and monumentally flawed brand strategy always failed to understand, though, was that the group of habitual voters that Democrats supposedly just had to win-over to win was so very much smaller than the group of natural constituents who had become disenchanted enough to disengage, or who had never been inspired enough to participate in electoral politics at all.

To again put it in a tidier package: Instead of chasing the money, Democrats should have been chasing the voters. There are so many of them naturally predisposed to love Democrats for who they are—or recently were—that if you could just get them excited and invested in the outcome, they would swamp any numbers you might be able to pick off from the Republican base.

Which brings us to the here-and-now.

Though I have some reservations about what type of president Barack Obama might be, I have never failed to praise him as a candidate. The genius of the Obama campaign, and what I have loved most about the last year, is the ability of Barack Obama to reach out to, excite, inspire, and organize a part of the Democratic base that had long been either taken for granted or left for dead. With the voter registration drives, the canvassing, the outreach, and the GOTV, Obama didn’t have to sweat the right—he had something bigger and better: a broader definition of the American electorate.

For, while Obama and his surrogates might talk of an America beyond partisanship, the values and, indeed, the proposals that drove the Obama campaign were solidly Democratic. The fairness he preached and the cool reason he seemed to embody contrast favorably with the selfishness and base emotion of the Bush years. Proposals like more equitable taxation, universal access to affordable, quality healthcare, and a belief in the importance of organized labor feel like the Democratic Party I remember from my pre-voting youth. And a pro-active, fact-based approach to combating global warming is a refreshing reproach to the reactive and reactionary anti-science stance that drives today’s GOP.

Embodied in all of that, too, is the inherently Democratic (and democratic) sentiment that we are all in this together, rather than the sad ethos of the right—that we are all in this for ourselves.

And, amazingly, in returning to Democrats’ core principles and best practices, and not pandering to the Reagan Democrats or values voters or whatever we will now decide to call them, Obama was able to win (win back?) some of their votes. Obama’s victory is a monument to good branding—and I mean that wholly as a statement of admiration (I am, after all, a brand strategist). Barack Obama and many other Democrats this cycle (and I would be remiss if I did not single out DNC Chair Howard Dean for special praise) have proven that crafting a strong brand, behaving as a distinct brand, and not being simply a “not” brand—and then selling the distinct benefits of that brand—is the best route to victory.

After a lifetime of railing and flailing, I feel, well, not vindicated, but, at least, validated. I hope that Obama and other Democrats see it the same way—even if not all will admit it in public. Candidate Obama preached hope while implementing a strong and identifiably Democratic brand strategy. My hope is that President Obama sees that this would be a solid strategy for governing, as well.

(cross-posted on guy2k, The Seminal, and Daily Kos)

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Bears repeating. . .

If you are a regular reader, then I expect that you can guess what I’m going to say when it comes to choosing the next president of the United States. If you call yourself a liberal, or a progressive, or a lover of individual liberty and reproductive choice; if you want quality, affordable healthcare to be accessible to all Americans, if you want to restore some modicum of equity to the tax code, and some degree of sanity to our foreign policy; if you want to approach energy independence and global warming with the seriousness and the urgency those matters deserve; if you want a government staffed with experts instead of ideologues that is led by a man who trusts his intellect enough to be intellectually curious—or even if you just want some portion of all this—then there is only one way to vote on Tuesday: Barack Obama for president.

If you vote on an electronic machine, check your paper receipt to verify your votes.
If you have any trouble voting, and want legal advice, call 1-866-OUR VOTE.
And, trouble or no, you can be, like, your own election monitor: video your vote and post it at

Now get out there and vote!

[ Find Your Polling Place | Voting Info For Your State | Know Your Voting Rights | Report Voting Problems ]

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More Why We Vote

Whether you live in the swingin’est swing state or a solid party stronghold, there are many important reasons to vote on Tuesday beyond the crucial contest at the top of the ticket. Over at The Seminal, where I blog as “Red Wind,” I have been running a series highlighting some of these races.

Each post includes a little bit about the candidate and his or her positions, a brief synopsis of the contest, and a sample campaign ad. I’ll admit to putting in a fair amount of work on this little project, so I would greatly appreciate it if you click on over and take a look.

More importantly, if you live in one of these places or know someone who does, make sure to vote yourself and/or get out your friends’ votes.

I covered a passel of races yesterday (and there are a couple of updates), and here are a few more:

Alaska – Mark Begich for Senate

Nebraska – Scott Kleeb for Senate

New York – Alice Kryzan for Congress

Washington – Darcy Burner for Congress

In case you missed it, I urge New Yorkers to vote Row E (Working Families Party)—with the exception of the US House race in NY-26 (there, please vote for Kryzan on the Democratic line). New York is a fusion voting state, and a vote in Row E counts just as much as a Dem vote, but says you want to see our state and country move in a progressive direction.

And, just in case you just woke up from a 21-month nap, today is November 4th—aka ELECTION DAY! Get out there and vote. Call your friends—all of them—and make sure that they get out and vote.

Finally, and this is important, you can use the tools below to find your proper polling place, if you vote on an electronic machine, check your paper receipt to verify your votes, and if you have any trouble voting, and want legal advice, call 1-866-OUR VOTE.

And, trouble or no, you can be, like, your own election monitor: video your vote and post it at

OK, that wasn’t quite “finally”. . . this is:

To everyone who has volunteered, donated, phone-banked, organized, or blogged this election cycle: Thank you and good luck!

(cross-posted on guy2k)

[ Find Your Polling Place | Voting Info For Your State | Know Your Voting Rights | Report Voting Problems ]

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Why We Vote

Whether you live in the swingin’est swing state or a solid party stronghold, there are many important reasons to vote on Tuesday beyond the crucial contest at the top of the ticket. Over at The Seminal, where I blog as “Red Wind,” I have been running a series highlighting some of these races.

Each post includes a little bit about the candidate and his or her positions, a brief synopsis of the contest, and a sample campaign ad. I’ll admit to putting in a fair amount of work on this little project, so I would greatly appreciate it if you click on over and take a look.

More importantly, if you live in one of these places or know someone who does, make sure to vote yourself and/or get out your friends’ votes.

California – three House races and four ballot measures. (post will be up this afternoonit's up)

Georgia – Jim Martin for Georgia.

Michigan – Mark Schauer for Congress.

Minnesota – Al Franken for Senate. (post will be up in a couple of hours it's up)

New Mexico – Martin Heinrich for Congress.

North Carolina – Kay Hagan for Senate

Oregon – Jeff Merkley for Senate.

Virginia – Tom Perriello for Congress.

Washington – Reelect Governor Chris Gregoire

And, as I have mentioned before, if you live in New York, vote Working Families Party, Row E.

It’s been a long, hard road to get to this point, but we have to push on for one more day. If everyone who reads this could make a few extra phone calls, or volunteer to help get out the vote, we can all cross the finish line in style. . . and with a smile. . . or something like that.

(cross-posted on guy2k)

[ Find Your Polling Place | Voting Info For Your State | Know Your Voting Rights | Report Voting Problems ]

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