November 28, 2012 2:27 pm

Media Bias, Alive and Well

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Back in early October, Paul Ryan told Fox News anchor Chris Wallace that “it goes without saying that there is definitely media bias … as a conservative, I’ve long believed and long felt that there is inherent media bias, and I think that anybody with objectivity would believe that that’s the case.”

Of course, Republican accusations of liberal media bias have become as banal and ubiquitous as the evening news itself. And beyond making the average liberal roll his eyes, the complaint has even begun to perturb some of the conservative movement’s most outspoken leaders. Just after Ryan’s comments, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hesitated to support his fellow Republican: “I’m not going to sit here and complain about coverage of the campaign. As a candidate, if you do that, you’re losing.”

To Christie’s credit, that much is probably true. But now that we all agree the Romney-Ryan ticket has already lost, perhaps Christie would agree that it’s time to take a look at the numbers.

To many, media bias seems an obvious and inevitable phenomenon; serious analyses of media bias date back as far as the Lincoln-Douglas days over 150 years ago. But honest and objective analyses clearly indicate that such bias has only worsened.

During President Obama’s 2008 campaign, the overwhelming majority of news media was clearly and unabashedly behind the campaign of hope and change. Time‘s Mark Halperin called it “the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq War. It was extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage.” Los Angeles Times writer Mark Barabak expressed similar sentiments: “I think it’s incumbent upon people in our business to make sure that we’re being fair. The daily output was the most disparate of any campaign I’ve ever covered, by far.”

Their statements were not only backed by traditional analyses of media coverage, but also by a more revealing statistic: the Democratic Party received a total donation of $1,020,816 from 1,160 employees of the three major broadcast television networks in 2008, while the Republican Party received only $142,863 from 193 donors.

After such blatant and self-admitted media bias in 2008, we might have expected this year’s election coverage to become far more balanced. Instead, news organizations remained blatantly in the bag for the president and his Democratic allies.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism recently released its report on the 2012 election, and the numbers are clearer than ever. While Governor Romney and President Obama received approximately the same amount of coverage, the type and character of coverage provided were much different. In evening network news, for example, narratives of President Obama remained approximately balanced, while the negative exceeded the positive by 17 percentage points for Governor Romney. Coverage of Romney was also twice as negative as that of President Obama (23 percent versus 11 percent).

Of course, the go-to scapegoat for liberal critics will be the conservative-leaning Fox News Channel. There is no question that Fox News exhibited a right-leaning bias in its coverage: fully 46 percent of news coverage for the president was negative. However, not only was Fox News essentially the only media organization to not have a leftward skew, the bias in its coverage also paled in comparison to that of MSNBC, where coverage of Romney was 71 percent negative (over one and half times more negative than Fox coverage of President Obama). And perhaps the most telling statistic is from the final week, when MSNBC ran no negative coverage of President Obama and no positive coverage of Governor Romney, the most absolute bias of any of the cable news channels.

Even network television (ABC, CBS, NBC) exhibited an apparent bias for President Obama. While Romney received a roughly even amount of positive and negative coverage during the day, evening coverage (when the majority of viewers tune in to network news) saw a stark change, giving a positive three percent boost to President Obama while Romney received two-to-one negative coverage.

Some may argue, as former Clinton-Gore campaign adviser Peter Mirijanian did back in late September, that there are simply more negative things to say about Governor Romney: “the media covers the horse race, they cover the gaffes, and unfortunately the Romney campaign has had more gaffes lately.” But let’s be honest with ourselves—for every time the mainstream media excitedly exploded coverage of gaffes like Romney’s 47 percent comments, they pushed those of the opposition under the rug.

Consider what Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen at Politico wrote in May:

On the front page of its Sunday edition, the New York Times gave a big spread to Ann Romney spending lots of time and tons of money on an exotic genre of horse-riding. The clear implication: The Romneys are silly rich, move in rarefied and exotic circles, and are perhaps a tad shady.

Only days earlier, news surfaced that author David Maraniss had unearthed new details about Barack Obama’s prolific, college-age dope-smoking for his new book, “Barack Obama: The Story” — and the Times made it a brief on A15.

This comparison isn’t meant as a limited and single example; it simply epitomizes the more general and daily practice of blatant bias on the part of mainstream news media. Vandehei and Allen continue: “Republicans cry ‘bias’ so often it feels like a campaign theme. It is, largely because it fires up conservatives and diminishes the punch of legitimate investigative or narrative journalism. But it also is because it often rings true, even to people who don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh – or Haley Barbour.”

And this point is visibly true in our daily news. How much less covered were the gaffes from Vice President Biden, an unimaginably extensive string of occurrences that might put former President George W. Bush to shame, perhaps the most egregious of which came when Biden told a largely African-American audience that Republicans would “put y’all back in chains”? Imagine if Romney or Ryan told the same crowd of African Americans that Democrats would put them all back in chains. Any objective viewer would admit to such a double standard.

Media coverage of foreign policy was no better. Foreign policy should have been a low point for the Obama campaign, especially with Benghazi and other scandals emerging throughout the last few months. And while foreign policy coverage of the president was 3-1 negative, for Romney it was somehow worse: 5-1 negative.    

At what point will we admit that Paul Ryan’s lamentations of liberal media bias aren’t so far-fetched after all, and in fact raise serious concerns? In the end, an electorate that continues to be partially-informed each and every election year is nothing to shrug our shoulders about.

 

Photo Credit: Politico

 

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November 21, 2012 10:56 pm

The Case for 51

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On November 6, 2012, while the rest of the country was transfixed by the presidential election, the 3.7 million residents of the American territory of Puerto Rico were focused on their own historic election. In addition to voting for Governor, non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress, and members of the local legislature, Boricua voters also had the opportunity to vote on a referendum to determine the future of the island’s relationship to the United States.

The referendum was split into two questions: the first asking whether or not to maintain territorial “Commonwealth” status, while the second asked which non-territorial status voters preferred. The non-territorial statuses offered—statehood, full independence, and “Free Association” between the US and Puerto Rico similar to the status of the Marshall Islands—were those that had been previously approved by commissions appointed by each of the last four presidential administrations.

Turnout for the status referendum was a historically high 75%, and the results of the first question were a decisive and unprecedented 54-46 rejection of the status quo. Furthermore, defying the expectations of two previous HPR writers, statehood garnered 61% of the vote in the second question. Statehood supporting Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierliusi (D, NPP-PR) and Governor Luis Fortuño (R, NPP-PR) plan on submitting a bill admitting Puerto Rico to the Union to Washington before the 113th Congress is seated in January. If everything goes according to plan, a 51-star flag will be raised over the Capitol on July 4, 2013.

Despite the clear results, opponents of statehood claim that the fight is not yet over. Many make the claim that because 25% of eligible voters left the second question blank, the results cannot be seen as binding. The flaws in this argument are obvious, as not voting is not the same as voting against the winning side, and turnout for the second question without the abstentions was still a majority of eligible voters.

The pro-status quo party PDP argues that the blank votes should all be considered part of a protest campaign against the second question, claiming that their preferred “Enhanced Commonwealth” option was left off the ballot. The problem with this argument is that “Enhanced Commonwealth”, defined by the PDP as a variant of the status quo where self-rule cannot be terminated unilaterally by the Federal government, is invalid under the territorial clause of the US Constitution, as indicated by commissions established by the Bush and Obama administrations. Sovereign Free Association, a constitutionally valid version of “Enhanced Commonwealth” which would have allowed for permanent self-rule but permitted Puerto Rico to continue to participate in many of the Federal programs it does now—like FEMA, Social Security, and defense—was on the ballot, but the PDP refused to endorse it. Even if these arguments are taken into account, the raw total voting for statehood in the second question exceeded the number voting to support the status quo in the first; even if “Enhanced Commonwealth” had been included in the second question, it would have still lost out to statehood.

Anti-statehood activists have also pushed the argument that the defeat of pro-statehood Governor Luis Fortuno by PDP candidate Alejandro Padilla signals the strength of the anti-statehood position, but this misreads Padilla’s mandate. Padilla’s victory was by a razor-thin margin of .7%, or just over 13,000 votes. Additionally, Fortuño—Puerto Rico’s first Republican Governor in generations—spent his term pursuing unpopular economic reforms. The Padilla campaign focused on this and Fortuño’s perceived softness on crime, rather than spending any time discussing the statehood issue. The fact that Pedro Pierliusi, a fiscally moderate Democrat allied with Fortuño on the statehood issue, won re-election (with more votes than Padilla) as Resident Commissioner to Washington, DC should put a lid on the “mandate” argument. Pierliusi is, after all, the man ultimately responsible for submitting Puerto Rico’s statehood petition to Congress.

Perhaps recognizing that their other arguments lack merit, opponents of Puerto Rican statehood have taken to arguing that the GOP-controlled House would never permit the admission of a majority Spanish-speaking state to the union. This argument seems to ignore the fact that the most ardent opponents of Puerto Rican statehood in the House are mainland-born Puerto Rican Democrats. It also seems to disregard that a House bill submitted in 2009 by then-Commissioner Fortuño—authorizing a version of the referendum that ultimately took place—passed the House with bipartisan support (co-sponsors included future Tea Party favorites Marsha Blackburn and Eric Cantor) before dying in Harry Reid’s Democratic supermajority Senate. Additionally, given the GOP’s huge defeat among Hispanics in the General Election, the Republican Party can hardly afford to be seen as opposing the interests of America’s largest ethnic minority group.

If all else fails, Pierliusi can always argue that private demand for 51-star flags to replace the 50-star versions that have been flying outside homes for 53 years could create thousands of “shovel-ready” jobs without the need for a cent in tax increases.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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November 12, 2012 1:53 pm

Hurricane Sandy: A Political Storm

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Despite the relatively mild effects of Hurricane Sandy on Cambridge weather, Harvard students were nonetheless impacted by the storm, as the administration cancelled classes for the first time in 34 years. But beyond the comforts of campus, others were not so lucky: more than a half-dozen states suffered billions of dollars in damage and a number of lives lost. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called it “incalculable.”

But the significance of that storm runs deeper than the immediate physical impacts. Indeed, many had already begun to discuss the political ramifications of the storm just hours into its solemn aftermath, with various possible scenarios contributing both positively and negatively to each campaign. And although both sides insisted that they weren’t focusing on the political impacts of the hurricane, their campaigns were certainly affected to no small degree.

The swing states of New Hampshire, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia–all of which were in practically a dead-heat–experienced the brunt of Hurricane Sandy. Campaign appearances, rallies, fundraising events, television advertisements, media coverage, door-to-door efforts, and early voting options, to name a few things, were all affected in these vital battleground areas.

This meant consequences for both candidates: Romney’s momentum stalled, and Obama missed out on vital campaign time (his scheduled rallies with Bill Clinton in Florida and Ohio were all cancelled). In addition, likely voters may have stayed home. The number of ways in which the election was affected is immeasurable.

But more important than any of this, I believe, is the image the candidates began to cultivate in a time of crisis. And for President–not candidate–Obama, this meant both the opportunity to craft a presidential image and the risk of crafting an incompetent one.

Romney clearly capitalized on an opportunity to redeem a presidential image; he was accused of using the national security crisis in Libya for political gain, and moved away from this strategy with Hurricane Sandy, instead distributing food and supplies from his campaign bus to those in need. However, the president, as commander in chief, clearly stood to gain or lose the most in terms of political image. This could be interpreted in multiple ways: the country often rallies around the president in times of crisis, but also often blames the incumbent for the effects of natural disasters. Many have suggested, for example, that severe drought and excessive rainfall hindered enthusiasm for the incumbent party in 2000 and may have cost Vice President Al Gore the election.

But for President Obama, how he chose to handle the crisis proved decisive. As president, Obama did an excellent job; even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was a top surrogate for Governor Romney and has previously referred to President Obama as “nothing more than a Chicago ward politician,” praised the president’s response.

This gave President Obama not only a presidential image, but a bipartisan one as well. Indeed, the president saw his approval ratings receive a solid boost in the run-up to the election; his favorability rating rose by six percentage points while Romney’s dropped by seven, and he suddenly received the resounding endorsement of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Because of this, I believe the polls on Election Day were friendlier to the president—and perhaps rightfully so.

It has become clear that Hurricane Sandy was a major storm in more ways than one. History will inevitably show that an unprecedented storm was a deciding factor in last week’s presidential election.

 

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November 9, 2012 3:45 am

Becoming a Kennedy

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Four friends and I took the hour-long drive up to New Hampshire on November 4th. We canvassed for a day and woke up at 4am the morning after to arrive early to Concord – a city that would be considered fairly small in most contexts, but has seen about as much political might roll through as the UN these past few months, due to its electoral influence. This time, President Obama himself took the stage.

The experience itself was a lot of fun, but something about the president’s rhetoric seemed different. Below is an excerpt from the speech:

You know, the folks at the very top of this country, they don’t need a champion in Washington.  They’ll always have a seat at the table.  They’ll always have access and influence.  That’s the way things work.  We understand that.  The people who really need a champion are the Americans whose letters I read late at night after I come up from the Oval Office, the men and women that I meet on the campaign trail.

The laid-off paper mill worker who’s retraining at the age of 55 for a new career in a new industry — she needs a champion. The restaurant owner who’s got great food, but needs a loan to expand and the bank has turned him down — he needs a champion.

The cooks and the waiters and the cleaning staff working overtime at a Vegas hotel, trying to save enough to buy a first home or send their kid to college — they need a champion.  (Applause.)  The autoworker who got laid off, thought the plant was going to close and then got called back, and now is filled with pride and dignity, building a great car — he needs a champion.

That teacher in an overcrowded classroom with outdated textbooks, digging into her own pocket to buy school supplies, and not always getting the support that she needs, but knowing every day she might reach that one child and make all the difference in that child’s life — she needs a champion.

All those kids in inner cities and small farm towns, in the valleys of Ohio, the rolling Virginia hills, the streets of Concord — kids dreaming of becoming scientists or doctors or engineers or entrepreneurs or buisnesspeople or teachers or diplomats or even a President — they need a champion in Washington.

They don’t have lobbyists.  The future never has as many lobbyists as the vested interests in the status quo.  But it’s the dreams of those children that will be our saving grace.

This is different from 2008, in one way more than others. In 2008, we were going to change the country. We were the change we wanted to see in the world, and we comprised were the engine of progress that America needed. The president still uses that rhetoric in his campaign today – in fact, in Concord he let slip that he was merely a “prop” for his energetic 25-year-old campaign workers, and in turn was merely a representation of the energy of voters, “we” – but the excerpt quoted above portrays a much different view of the presidency. President Obama was casting himself as a “champion”; a protector of the vulnerable and crusader for the weak.

Douglas Brinkley characterized Obama as a “Progressive Firewall” and the “Curator-in-Chief of the New Deal,” in a recent Rolling Stone interview. This implied acquiescence to the Past seems, at the very least, off-message with Obama’s 2012 campaign (and at the most, a misguided characterization of his administration thus far). It’s more clear that the President’s speech implied a movement from “we” to “he,” that seems fitting after four years in office. The president, or so he projected, has finally mastered the learning curve of the Oval Office and is ready to wield his power as chief advocate, rather than chief representative, of the middle class.This shift in attitude lends itself to a new view of President Obama, one much closer to the Noblesse Oblige Democrats represented in the Kennedy or Roosevelt clans – groups already successful in society that pursued politics as a duty to those less fortunate, as opposed to elected officials who rose from within the ranks of the “everyman,” such as Truman or Carter.

At the start of his campaign, Barack Obama’s youth and life experiences placed him squarely between identifying as one of his young, headstrong supporters and identifying as their leader. Four years of the Oval Office seem to have cleared up any misconception: the president is the voice for a movement, not just the voice of a movement.

Maybe I’m reading too much into a few lines in his speech. Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve attended a political event, and I’ve forgotten that the excitement of a moment can hyper-sensitize anyone to the subtleties of rhetoric. But I know what made this speech stick out, at least for me: The president mentioned “the cooks, and the wait staff, and the cleaning staff working overtime in some Vegas hotel trying save enough to buy a first home or send their kids to college.”

That’s exactly who Robert Kennedy fought for. It’s who he died fighting for, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. There ought always to be an empty seat in the White House for the spirit of Robert Kennedy. Maybe the president has filled it.

Photo Credit: answers.com

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November 5, 2012 9:55 pm

Confessions of a Child Pundit

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Like most of my colleagues, I plan on spending tomorrow night watching the returns with baited breath, matching state calls with my own personal forecast. And though it’ll be my first presidential election accompanied by Twitter, hard liquor, and neo-Georgian surroundings, the air will be heavy with a tangle of anticipation, jubilation, and dejection as old as the election night broadcast.

But compared to these cosmetic changes, there’s an important way in which Election Night 2012 will be different from all my other election nights. Given that I don’t have much patience for either candidate or major party, tomorrow night will be the first time I experience election night not as a glandular, world-changing battle between my side and the bad guys—but rather, as a cultural spectacle to be taken in with amused detachment.

Far from what most college friends imagine, I was a diehard Republican for eight prefrontally challenged years. One of my most vivid childhood memories concerns Election Day 2000, spent with my grandparents in their Monroe, New Jersey retirement community. I had already learned to forgive Grandma Sylvia for being a Democrat, but I’ll never forget the confused righteous anger I felt when Grandpa Stan, a lifelong conservative Republican, pulled the lever for Gore. “Why?” I asked.

“Because Lieberman’s Jewish.”

After struggling to get my bedtime extended, I fell asleep in the upstairs den at 9:30, particularly nonplussed by the announcement that Florida had gone blue.

The next morning, Grandpa Stan told me wryly over Grandma’s French toast that in fact, nobody had won. The electoral count hung at 249 to 246, with Florida, Oregon, and Wisconsin still in the balance—an ambiguity for which my little Manichean mind was not prepared at all. I half-convinced myself that it was all an act of grandfatherly ribbing, until arriving at school, where throngs of proto-Democratic New Jersey Jewish third graders awaited me with the awful news that Wisconsin had been called for Gore, leaving him within ten electoral votes of victory. My heart sank. I fumbled heavily over my times tables.

I followed along with my parents (Republicans of the most benign, reasonable variety) as days of uncertainty grew into weeks of Florida recount drama. As the last few counts drew Gore within hundreds of votes from the presidency, my mind began to conjure up images of—I don’t know what: murdered babies? Willie Hortons? A Soviet resurgence?—certain only of the fact it was too bad that old people in Palm Beach didn’t know how to vote, but rules were rules…

When Katherine Harris stopped the clock at 537, I thanked God and went back to being a normal third grader.

On the morning after Election Day 2004, I taunted our Democratic family friends on a trip up to Boston as it became clear that Bush had earned another term in office. Stu insisted that we’d be best to just turn the radio off, but I think he was kindly suggesting as much of my voice box. In 2008, when my Manichean conservatism was on its last limb, I watched in despair as Obama—whom I’d bet would wait another four years to even consider running—wiped the floor with my childhood political hero. One of two Republicans in a room full of equally Manichean little Democrats, I felt utterly devoid of the will to show up to my locker the next morning, the Sons of Light having been so badly routed by a newbie messianic claimant.

I care much less today. I’m amused by how despite the overwhelming similarities between the two candidates, so many smart people around me continue to labor under the illusion that It’s All Over If the Other Guy Wins. It’s quite clear to me that Barack Obama, a recipient of massive corporate funding, doesn’t want to reconfigure America into a command economy; it’s equally clear that Mitt Romney, whose wife has donated to Planned Parenthood, has no intention of imposing Christian shari’a in American wombs and bedrooms.

But it’s hard to blame people for falling prey to thinking about politics in ingroup-outgroup terms: it’s our nature, it’s fun, and it’s morally satisfying. Unlike in 2000, nothing electoral this year could lead me to the point of near-death from anticipation. I won’t have a chance to enjoy the adrenal ecstasy of 2004. And for better or worse, there will be none of 2008’s brooding, poetic self-assessment. If you can relate, at least take solace in the fact that you’ve grown up and become a little bit less animal than you once were.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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November 5, 2012 3:05 pm

A Showcase of Electoral Unpreparedness

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This election, I will not be voting for Barack Obama.

To be fair, I won’t be voting at all. Before I arouse the wrath of slogan-wielding youth vote activists, let me say that it’s not out of any apathy on my part, but rather due to what Harvard University officials implicitly deemed an “act of God”—the East Coast’s own “frankenstorm,” Hurricane Sandy.

As I write, more than 3.7 million households along the East Coast are without electricity; among them is the Manhattan Board of Elections. Currently, the New York City-area voters’ hotline is entirely out of service, and a spokesperson for the Board of Elections stated that the entire computer system is down due to outages resulting from the hurricane. While most states are due to have power restored in time for Election Day, the hurricane might have made a lasting impact on one of the major arenas of the presidential election, early voting.

Early voting has played a significant role in the presidential election in years past, and 2012 is expected to preserve that trend. According to a George Mason University study, more than 31.7 million voters cast their ballots early in 2008, whether in-person or by mail via absentee ballot. As of November 2, close to 25 million ballots had already been cast in the presidential election.

But what about those early voters impacted by Hurricane Sandy? In North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, in-person early voting in some counties was suspended for as long as 48 hours following the hurricane. In many states still without power, election officials are working overtime to ensure that physical polling stations will be up and running in time for Election Day.

Those who planned on voting absentee and had yet to receive their ballots before the storm hit are simply out of luck. As my repeated calls to the Manhattan Board of Elections went unreturned, the most significant help I could receive for my plight was the constant refrain: “our entire computer system is down.” Apparently all that’s standing between me and my constitutional right to vote is a long enough extension cord to reach the nearest emergency generator.

It’s difficult to tell at this juncture how many would-be absentee voters have been deterred by Sandy. The HPR’s calls to the New York Board of Elections went unreturned, and no statistics have currently been published about the number of people requesting absentee ballots who have been unable to receive them. It’s also possible that voter turnout could be affected by the storm, as many New Jersey polling stations will be replaced by military vehicles and what the state’s lieutenant governor called “a big sign saying ‘Vote Here.’” Some New York City voting sites may simply be tents hooked up to a generator.

Still, the voting challenges presented by the hurricane are mitigated by the fact that the three states most heavily-hit by the storm, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, are all decidedly likely to go blue. At worst, the storm could reduce the president’s share of the popular vote, but it’s unlikely to have an impact on his electoral votes.

But what if Sandy had been a more destructive storm? Or what if it had made landfall a few days closer to the election? It’s not particularly comforting to think of the fragility of the logistical nightmare that is the United States’ national elections. While Sandy is unlikely to have caused a catastrophic electoral disturbance, it’s interesting to think what might have been had the hurricane been on the scale of 2005′s Katrina. As Maya Roy wrote in 2007, Hurricane Katrina would have radically changed the face of Louisiana politics, disenfranchising urban Democratic voters in New Orleans and giving way to a Republican majority in the northern counties of the state. Instead, then-Governor Kathleen Blanco postponed all of 2005′s remaining elections as well as the primary and general elections scheduled for early 2006 to accommodate the electoral needs of displaced voters.

Electoral officials currently scrambling to cope with Sandy don’t have the luxury of time permitted the Gulf states. From the perspective of those states currently affected, a further challenge comes in the form of the upcoming election being a national, rather than local, one. The administration of the presidential election is barely touched on in the Constitution, but one of the only provisions is that Congress “may determine the time of [choosing] the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.” Postponing the election to accommodate those who evacuated or are unable to access early voting mechanisms would require national coordination from a Congress currently in recess. In short, even should Congress have wished to postpone the election, it would likely have not had the opportunity to do so.

Though Sandy has disenfranchised a few unhappy voters, myself included, the storm was not destructive enough to derail the presidential election. As a cautionary tale, however, Sandy has much to show us about our national unpreparedness to deal with a disruption of our elections. Currently, the United States has no federal contingencies to deal with electoral obstruction, whether by national disaster or acts of terrorism. With a right as fundamental as the people’s right to choose their president, it’s unwise to leave so much up to chance.

 

Photo Credit: David Shankbone

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November 5, 2012 2:15 am

Harvard Undergrads Predict Obama Victory

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Abstract

This election year, the Institute of Politics and the Harvard Political Review at Harvard College co-sponsored a survey of Harvard undergraduates to collect 2012 Election predictions. Overall, 196 students participated in the survey, sharing their predictions on outcomes in the presidential, senatorial, and house races. According to a majority of those who participated in the survey, President Barack Obama will be elected to a second term in office, the Senate will be controlled by the Democrats, and the House of Representatives will remain under strong Republican control.

Methodology

Survey participants were asked to make predictions in three categories: the Electoral College, the popular vote, and congressional races. In the first category, participants were asked to predict the outcome of 10 swing states and predict the number of electoral votes each candidate would receive. In the second category, participants were asked to predict the percentage of and number of popular votes each candidate would receive. In the third category, participants were asked to predict the outcome of 11 swing Senate races across the country as well as the change of seats in the House of Representatives.

The survey was administered via email and was limited to Harvard undergraduates only. There were 196 self-selected undergraduate participants in the survey over a five-day period, from October 29 to November 2. The survey was publicized as a contest, with one award being given in each category.

Results:

The Electoral College

Who will win the following swing states?

(% of respondents)

Swing States Barack Obama Mitt Romney
Colorado 64% 36%
Florida 16% 84%
Iowa 78% 22%
Nevada 83% 17%
New Hampshire 84% 16%
North Carolina 13% 87%
Ohio 84% 16%
Pennsylvania 96% 4%
Wisconsin 82% 18%
Virginia 42% 58%

 

Based on the survey predictions, participants believe that the electoral map will look like the following on Election Day:

Electoral map is courtesy of CNN

 

 The Popular Vote

 Popular Vote Projection:        Obama-64,432,061       Romney-61,972,518

Percentage of the popular vote Projected for each candidate:

Congressional Races: 

 Who will win the following swing Senate races?

(% of respondents)

Swing Senate Races        Democratic Candidate         Republican Candidate
Arizona (Carmona v. Flake)                       13%                     87%
Connecticut (Murphy v. McMahon)                       91%                      9%
Indiana (Donnelly v. Mourdock)                       48%                     52%
Massachusetts (Warren v.  Brown)                       90%                     10%
Missouri (McCaskill v. Akin)                       78%                     22%
Montana (Tester v. Rehberg)                       23%                     77%
Nevada (Berkley v. Heller)                       25%                     75%
Ohio (Brown v. Mandel)                       86%                     14%
North Dakota (Heitkamp v. Berg)                       20%                     80%
Virginia (Kaine v. Allen)                       74%                     26%
Wisconisn (Baldwin v. Thompson)                       70%                     30%

 

Average projected change in the House of Representatives: Democrats gain 4 seats

 

Limitations

The sample is likely to have a bias towards politically active students, which might occur for two reasons. First there is likely a self-selection bias, since politically active students are more likely to have opened and participated in the survey. Second, there is likely a bias in administration, since the survey tended to be sent out over email lists with large numbers of politically active students, as opposed to lists that would reach populations with a more diverse range of political interests.

 

 

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November 4, 2012 6:48 pm

Can We Do Politics After November 6th?

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“…be a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.” – Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Joseph C. Cabell

Do something: Vote. Or better yet: Run.” – Harleen Gambhir, Julia Konrad, Victoria Wenger, Politics Matters

I’m sitting at a bar watching two hip Harvardians drink down neat whiskey cocktails and denounce each other as “traitors to the cause of the American Left.”

On one side, an Obama campaign volunteer is pounding his fists on the table. To the left of him, his girlfriend is waving her hands histrionically in the air.

Of all the politics in the world this brainy and beautiful couple could be discussing tonight, with a few short days till the 2012 elections, they have, apparently, chosen to spend their evening expostulating on a short editorial by The Crimson, published in September, titled “Don’t Waste Your Time.”

Noam Chomsky’s theory of voting.

This author happens to be an aficionado of all things Harvardian and controversial (as well as, I should mention, a preternaturally talented eavesdropper, blessed with almost breathtaking stenographic abilities—which I add here only so you don’t dismiss this whole account as a cute meta-fictional ploy meant to dramatize this author’s own ambivalence towards the value of electoral politics), so I knew their subject well.

The Crimson alleged that “real” leaders at Harvard shouldn’t “waste their time” with the Undergraduate Council, because real change on campus won’t come from its “unwieldy bureaucracy” and “futile subcommittee meetings.”

Real change won’t depend, in other words, on the only representative student body this school has. Campus politics must mean something other than campaigning for campus elections, because elections, at least in this case, at least according to The Crimson, don’t matter.

But what could politics be without elections?

“That damn cynicism,” the Obama Volunteer pronounces, “is this place’s problem! No patience for process!”

He continues. “Of course the U.C. is stinking to the brim with it”–and note, he uses a racy word for “fecal matter” at the end of that clause that I am, natch, not allowed to print–“but in life, even here at Harvard, people’ve sometimes got to wade knee deep in it to get anywhere. The best people even bend down and clean it up!

“What I’m sayin’ is that we’re committed to the U.C. for the same reason we’re committed to every ‘failed institution’ that freights down the centralized state of this late-date American Republic.

“The reason is this: the laws these institutions pass matter; they affect change at a scale we couldn’t hope for by any other means; and more than that, the laws they yield are legitimated by the fairness of their processes and their accountability to the people.

The IOP’s Election Week.

“So listen, the people who are elected to vote for those laws that matter—they matter too. And the people who vote in the people who are elected to vote in the laws that matter—they matter most of all. That unsexy game of voting and of waiting is called ‘democracy’—whether it’s here on campus or in Washington, D.C.—and it’s quite something to have Harvardians declaring it dead just because they’re not having fun.”

Satisfied with his scatological preaching, he looks at his skeptical sweetheart.

“It appears to me” she replies, putting her hand atop his, “that you are the cynical one. And it appears to me, contra you, that The Crimson‘s message is the one that’s full of hope!”

She proceeds. “Their point is simply this: we can do more than vote. Indeed, we can do more than run.

“My dear, you must overcome your illusion that we are weak—that politics is the process of asking people’s permission, that sharing opinions (on Facebook or at the poll booth) is enough, or that the best we can hope for is to affect some binary change in some distant ‘bureaucratic borg’ that you admit is quite far from our daily lives.

“As you know my dear, Ezra Klein named the 112th Congress the ‘least productive’ since 1947. Is your great democratic dream that we might get one one-hundred-millionth of a say in the structure of this body every two years? And indeed, only if we live in the 25 percent of districts where the election is even competitive, or in one of those seven states that’ll actually determine our next president? Is this all we’ve got to show for our vaunted self-governance?

“If voting is the sine qua non of our democracy, then most of us simply can’t be democrats most of the time!

“The truth,” she intones with regal gravity, “is that politics is not the sharing of opinions. It’s not the running for office. It’s not even the voting in of laws. Politics is one thing, and one thing alone: politics is solving public problems.

# of laws passed by each Congress, from Ezra Klein.

“Congress, the U.C.—these are tools at our disposal in the process of helping people live better lives. But so is the media, the market, the streets, the clinic, the lab, the law, the freaking jazz club! By saying we ‘shouldn’t bother’ The Crimson is merely telling us to pick our tools. The article illuminates the fantastically exciting fact that there are dozens of entry-points into social change, a nearly infinite repertoire of possibilities for propelling forward our community. We don’t need to wait for any damn Tuesday….”

“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote when we can!” her boyfriend interjects.

“You’re right,” she replies, “we should still vote.”

“Listen,” the Obama Volunteer concludes, looking into his girlfriend’s glimmering eyes with a warmth that makes you imagine how vitalizing their relationship must be, “just don’t demotivate my goddamn Obama Army before November 6th with your Social Entrepreneurial Dreams of Grandeur speech while I’m trudging through post-Hurricane Sandy swamps to get out the vote in order to do my small but real thing to make our country better even though it’s not the biggest thing possible and I sometimes too wonder whether I shouldn’t be trying to cure a disease or rebuild a neighborhood rather than call wealthy people to give a candidate money to run a campaign that admittedly sometimes devolves into caricatures and rarely invites my reading of the policy dilemmas so I can try to improve them creatively even if in the end I know my being there is something rather than nothing and that matters!”

“I won’t.”

“Won’t what?”

“Demotivate anyone!”

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October 31, 2012 1:54 am

So Goes Ohio, So Goes the Nation

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The Buckeye State serves as America’s microcosm, a sort of melting pot between Northern manufacturing, Midwestern farmland, Appalachian terrain, and Upper Southern culture—all squeezed in between bustling urban centers. It’s often remarked that candidates in Ohio really run five campaigns, each with a different message tailored to the four corners and central area of the state. Everything—party splits, rural/urban divides, racial percentages, education levels—combines nicely into a sample quite representative of the nation at large.

It’s not surprising then that, except for favorite sons, Ohio has supported the winner in every presidential election since 1888, save for Kennedy in 1960. In recent years, it’s sported NRA-approved Democratic Governors and pro-tax Republican senators; extremists rush away like the Ohio River, never escaping a primary.  But in the new, more polarized era of politics, even Ohio will be electing a true party loyalist to the Senate. Buckeye voters as a whole haven’t shifted their opinions, but Washington rhetoric has convinced primary voters to consistently reach for the more and more partisan. Ohio serves as a case study in the fundamentally altered political landscape in America. Whichever candidate is elected, the winner of this race will take an important place in the Senate and personally help redefine their party’s tone for the next six years.

Candidates

Incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown—ranked twice by National Review as the “most liberal member of the Senate”—was elected in the Democratic sweep of 2006. Brown, however, cannot be described simply as a Democrat; he often finds himself left of his caucus. An initial and vocal opponent of the Iraq War, he’s spent his career in the House championing single-payer healthcare and opposing free trade agreements (he’s penned multiple books explaining his opposition). Furthermore, he’s not one to settle for compromises. He voted against the extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010 and spending cuts to social programs, and he’s been a vocal spokesperson for the progressive left. Nonetheless, he remains highly popular—his fiery populist appeal, support of the auto-bailout, and modest appearance have burnished his image as champion of the people.

Brown faces off against Tea Party favorite Josh Mandel. Mandel, a marine who served two tours in Iraq, became the darling of the far right early in the primary. Notable Republicans from across the country—from Chris Christie to John McCain—have lent their support, and the little known former councilmen and state treasurer has become something of a conservative celebrity. While his record as treasurer shows impressive growth and credit ratings compared to others states, some controversy has arisen over his attendance (or lack thereof) at meetings and cronyism that he promised to fight against. Nonetheless, Mandel embodies the perfect candidate: young family, good-looking, fundraising machine, and a clean life story.

Importance

Needless to say, neither of these candidates is a stereotypical Ohio politician—or for that matter, American politician. Whether either would have been able to survive a Senate primary just a decade ago is debatable, if you assume that Brown would have moved to Massachusetts and Mandel to Texas. This is not to say that either is a bad man or unqualified for the job; rather, both have personal qualities and legislative skills that let them compete for moderates that otherwise would be disillusioned with the race. It’s simply that their policies have the ability to polarize moderate voices within the Senate. Don’t think that this is merely another tally towards either party getting fifty-one votes.

Take evidence of the Republican minority versus the Democratic supermajority during a large part of 2009. In theory, Democrats should have been able to pass legislation with reckless abandon—they held a filibuster proof Senate and control of the House and presidency. But they ended up passing a relatively modest number of bills, thanks in large part to the fiery rhetoric of the Right that scared the Blue Dog Democrats of losing their next election. Even what they passed, most notably Obamacare, was reduced to far more moderate compromises.

Yet, during the conservative takeover of the House, the rise of the Occupy Movement reenergized the Left. Obama began to take more liberal stands, and debate shifted from the deficit to unemployment. Some more moderate Republicans—think Scott Brown—began to work well with the Democrats, also concerned with their re-election campaigns. Not many bills got passed, as the two chambers of Congress still made different parties in the majority, but the tone of debate resonated much farther on the Left than beforehand.

Thus, the value of Brown and Mandel doesn’t lie merely in a consistent voting record; each will energize their caucus while forcing more compromise from less strong-willed opponents. Through the Senate seat, the winner will gain an audience for their voice and hold a prominent spot within media coverage; the loser will be largely ignored. By virtue of this stark difference, the winner’s rhetoric may eventually make more of a difference than his policy-making.

Money

This importance has not fallen on deaf ears, making this campaign (depending on your source) the most expensive of all Senate races this year. Brown relies on small donations and Union support. The AFL-CIO has stood strongly behind Brown, but their donations are several orders of magnitude behind the money the Right raises. Thus, the Democrats have employed more of a grassroots campaign—the conservative Fraternal Order of Police backed Brown and has worked vigorously to re-elect him. Andrew Zucker from Brown’s campaign told HPR that “the FOP hasn’t endorsed a Democrat since ‘88—Sherrod Brown is on the side of Ohioans, and they know that. He stands up for firefights, policemen, physicians. Josh Mandel stood up for Gov. Kasich.” FOP support provides numerous campaign aides as well as community support, and has been known to swing ballot issues on an annual basis.

Mandel has wooed various conservative Super PACs, most notably, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers. These have generated some controversy. Brown quickly points out that high-powered conservatives benefit from tax cuts and deregulation, making there donations near investments, while wealthy liberals like George Soros donate against their own self-interest.

Travis Considine from Josh Mandel’s campaign, however, gave HPR a different spin: “Ohio’s an expensive state—media ads aren’t cheap. The more Ohio learns about Sen. Brown, the less they like him, and the more they learn about Josh, the more they like him.” Biased as this may be, he’s right, as the ads have proved very effective at boosting Mandel’s support.

The Race

Of course, this race has gotten quite nasty. Mandel attacked Brown’s voting record as “un-American” (while sitting adjacent Brown) and his ads/statements are frequently questioned by PolitiFact, dubiously giving Mandel the “Pants-on-Fire Crown” for his “casual relationship with the truth.” Conservative blogs have released records accusing him of abusing his first wife and neglecting his children, and Mandel has not been shy to mentioning Brown’s “hypocrisy” on women’s issues (Brown denies any such cruelty, and his wife has admitted to “angry words” during the divorce).

The attacks have not gone as much the other way, though your perspective depends on whether that’s due to Brown’s above-the-fray campaign or Mandel’s lack of major transgression. Mandel has gotten some grief for illegal donations from the Suarez Corporation—which he quickly returned—but nothing from the Brown campaign has pointed to them. The most notable attacks have focused on Mandel’s time as treasurer, including continued absenteeism to meetings he was meant to run and promotion of political allies to important positions.

The White House

How do the presidential and senate candidates interplay with one another? Considine puts it plainly: “Presidential and Senate elections tie together everything together. … We’re banking on the presidential election bringing a lot of people to the polls.” Similar sentiments were offered by Democratic staffers, and coupled with the divided nature of the election both sides are likely to get their wish; “safe” Democrats and Republicans will both likely make their ways to the polls, spend the hours going door-to-door, and donate more to campaigns.

Chris Maloney from Mitt Romney’s Ohio told HPR that campaigns have “become seamlessly integrated”, sharing resources, enthusiasm, and messaging. He may be leaving out the most important aspect of all—polls. Just as Obama’s support jumped several points in Missouri after Todd Akin talked of “legitimate rape”, Mandel and Brown have their fates intertwined with the presidential candidates.

Looking Ahead

Like former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and current Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, both candidates have been the subject of speculation for their parties’ respective tickets. Mandel has already received early comparisons to GOP young-gun Marco Rubio, while Brown has been getting some action from British bookies for the 2016 Democratic Nomination. Even if those lofty expectations fall short, the winner of this election likely has a bright future within their respective party—the loser, a humbling return to state politics.

Ohio voters are faced with a stark contrast. Energized on both sides after a successful Democratic effort to recall Republican legislation, the state will likely remain polarized through the election. Brown represents the far left of the Senate, and Mandel would be firmly on the right. Assuming no supermajority arises anytime soon, the Senate will have to operate through moderate compromises; each politician in the ideological wing of their party adds one more vote requiring even greater concessions. Intraparty disagreements may play a larger role than ever before, with this election—like any in Ohio—serving as a framework through which to view the entire country.

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October 23, 2012 12:43 am

Debates, Pensions, and a Bunch of Stuff

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When I was in the sixth grade, my social studies teacher organized an election-themed play to be performed before the entire elementary school and a smattering of overeager parents. As the odds would have it, I portrayed President Bush, and my closest friend was cast as Senator Kerry. I remember spending days practicing my now-forgotten Texas twang with a pencil between my teeth to practice enunciating loudly and clearly. When the big day finally came, I was prepared.

But when I walked on stage and waved to my adoring fans, my stomach knotted. Perhaps I would forget my lines. “Fool me once, shame on—shame on… Fool me you can’t get fooled again.” Maybe one of my friends would freeze. Even after I was finished with my segment, the knot stayed taut. It was the kind of knot I get when watching The Big Bang Theory. It was the kind of knot that says, “Something awkward is probably about to happen, followed by a reference to sinusoidal curves or nested trigonometric functions.”

For the past 4 presidential and vice-presidential debates, that knot came back. I wasn’t sure how each debate would end, but either Sheldon or Leonard would surely say something incredibly uncomfortable before each commercial break. And boy, did each candidate live up to my expectations, albeit not with trigonometric references. The first episode revealed a feisty Romney simultaneously dispatch Big Bird and slip Obama an Ambien. With one fell swoop, the beloved icon was knocked off his sky-high pedestal and threatened with an early retirement, although he continued to lead in the Electoral College.

The following debate revealed to us, in the illustrious words of Vice President Biden, “a bunch of stuff.” My knot returned quickly as I watched the man consume copious quantities of laughing gas as his grandson looked on peevishly, unsure of how to respond. The two quickly resorted to speaking in Irish, using mysterious words like “malarkey” and “netanyahu.”  I became increasingly concerned about the future of the vice presidency, until I remembered that Biden actually is the Vice President, and, well, we could have had Palin.

The next debate amounted to little more than middle school bickering. The two took questions from randomly selected voters, none of whom seemed to know what was going on. The confusion was palpable. One audience member asked, “Do both of you support women’s rights?” Another mused to the candidates, “How do I order a ballot? And which one of you two is Obama?” Rather than answer the questions, though, the two candidates occupied themselves by mercilessly taunting the other. “My pension is bigger than your pension.” “Well I treat my pension better than you do.”

Obama and Romney stood scarcely a foot apart, glaring at each other and gesticulating wildly with clenched fists and furrowed brows. “Well, mine is prettier.” Candy Crowley practically had to stand between the two and separate them in order to prevent what many believe would have become a no-holds-barred strangling contest. “Boys, please keep your pensions in your pants,” she told them, shortly before she settled into one of Romney’s binders. Romney, in his defense, does have more women in his binders than Obama does, regardless of the size of their respective pensions. Romney is, after all, a Mormon.

The final debate was no different in nature. “My navy would have more ships than your navy,” Romney quipped. Obama was quick on his feet: “Well, that may be true, but my navy has more nuclear submarines than yours would. And mine are bigger, too, with bigger torpedoes.” Romney threw it right back at the President with a pithy, “At least my army wouldn’t have pulled out of Iraq too soon, and my drones would never fire prematurely.” But Obama was always one step ahead, and responded with a well-timed: “I’m rubber and you’re glue.” I cringed.

Now that all the debates are over, I can finally breathe easy. The embarrassment has passed, albeit temporarily, and the knot in my stomach is finally gone. We will, of course, have to choose one of these men to lead the nation for the next presidential term. If only I could figure how to order a ballot, I’ll vote for the guy with the bigger pension. And this time, I’ll try not to leave a hanging chad. Fool me once, shame on…  Whatever, you get the point.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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October 22, 2012 12:49 am

Religion in the 2012 Race

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Election Day is November 6, 2012. Over the past 18 months, Americans have debated immigration and health care policy. We have confronted marriage equity and homosexuality, welfare and taxes, foreign policy and foreign aid. Yet, one topic curiously underrepresented, ignored even, is religion in American public life. On October 11, during the vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan declared of all public officials, “Our faith informs us in everything we do.” Barack Obama is Christian, and Mitt Romney is Mormon. Both are religious, and both have stressed past community involvement. Yet, neither candidate highlights religious leanings often in civic discussion.

Two obvious causes come to mind: perhaps both candidates avoid religion in fear of alienating voters. Or, both act out of sensitivity to differing religious beliefs in society. While political strategy and social fragility may be contributing factors, I do not believe that either fully accounts for religion’s omission in the 2012 presidential election.

If religion were truly an effective wedge issue against either candidate, it would be employed … by the candidates directly, by non-affiliated super PACs, by supporters. As it stands, the presidential election is far too close for polarizing issues to be deliberately ignored. Racism in America is equally divisive, yet one hears accusations of both candidates “playing the race card” repeatedly. If anything, sensitive issues in society are exploited in politics to garner support.

Rather, I believe religion has not received prominent attention in the 2012 presidential election because most voters already accept religion’s role in American public life. Broad religious appeals are not effective in American politics because the place of religious values in culture and among political ideologies is already widely known and accepted.

Robert Bellah, the Elliot Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, writes extensively about religiosity in American society. In the article “Civil Religion in America,” Mr. Bellah endorses the concept of civil religion as “the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged.” Religious differences still permeate society, yet only at a concrete level. The broad implications of monotheistic religion contribute to societal norms.

Religion looms large in various aspects of American popular culture. The national anthem is played at sporting events, and presidents are sworn in on Bibles. God is referenced both on American money and in the American Pledge of Allegiance. Civil religion is active within various political ideologies as well. Two opposing schools of thought, Communitarianism and Revisionist Liberalism, recognize the benefits of a unifying, cohesive force in society; their agreement suggests religion may be ineffective in politics as a means of building and broadening support.

Communitarians emphasize the role of groups and shared identity in society. As Ronald Thiemann, a former professor at Harvard Divinity School, notes in his book, Religion in American Public Life, Communitarians seek to invoke religious morals and reasoning in civic discussion to help people identify a shared heritage and common history. In contrast, Revisionist Liberals prefer religion be kept separate from public discourse. Yet, according to Mr. Thiemann, many Revisionist Liberals concede that moral disagreement requires “a fundamental consensus … never simultaneously and universally called into question.” Both ideologies call for a unifying, centripetal force in society.

Therefore, given broad political support, what is the most effective unifying force around which a democratic polity can coalesce? The “ethical principles” Mr. Bellah endorses must come from religious precepts for pragmatic causes: to preserve civic legitimacy, ensure social stability, and instill republican virtues. Other outlets for public passion—mainly, patriotism and sports teams—may also serve as cohesive factors, yet none enjoy similar cross-cultural appeal in American society. Religion’s historical and modern legitimacy in American life is significant; in fact, many discuss American culture in terms of Judeo-Christian values already. Emphases on religiosity in society would not cause social or political disruption.

In addition, mainstream religions preach virtues beneficial to democratic society: nonviolence, mutual respect, and compromise. The Ten Commandments explicitly preclude murder, theft, and adultery. The Koran preaches similar ideals. Unlike some nationalistic appeals to patriotism, religion may help stabilize many societal institutions and relations among individuals.

Finally, religious principles introduce a philanthropic impulse in society. Supporting sports teams or bolstering a nation serves narrow purposes. In contrast, religion can appeal to a broad audience and through various forms. Active citizens can improve their communities, support their families, give to charity, etc. Selfless values disconnected from religious divisiveness would serve to promote goodwill and harmony in society.

Ironically, Communitarian and Revisionist Liberals’ potential embrace of civil religion indicates the increasing secularization of American life. According to a Christian Post poll recorded on October 9, 2012, 1 in 5 Americans identify as non-religious. Generally speaking, fewer Americans have identified as religious every year since 1948!

Yet, civil religion offers a third option; American society does not need to be either religious or secular. Rather, the American public should welcome the secularization of religious values. Religious precepts can inspire and help others at a national level. Efforts by President Obama and Governor Romney to avoid specific religious doctrine in civic discussion allows for a more temperate and policy-driven 2012 election. Similar values embraced by all in society could allow for a more civil and cohesive national dialogue as well.

 

Photo Credit: AP

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October 18, 2012 2:22 pm

Charting a New Trajectory

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On September 22, just over six weeks before the election, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan surprised the attendees of a town hall meeting in Orlando, Fla., by beginning his speech with a topic previously ignored by the Romney campaign: space exploration. Appealing to voters on the “Space Coast” of this electorally valuable state, Ryan promised a new path forward for NASA, one ensuring jobs, technological advances, and prestige.

The Politics of Silence

Romney, while campaigning in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in January, commented on the politics of space policy. “In the politics of the past, to get your vote on the Space Coast, I’d promise hundreds of billions of dollars, or I’d lay out what my mission is,” he said. “I’m not going to do that. I know that’s something very attractive, very popular, but it’s simply the wrong thing to do.”

In 2008, both John McCain and Barack Obama took detailed stances on space policy. Both candidates proposed budget increases for NASA and specified goals for the development and deployment of certain capabilities, focusing on access to space, research and development, and cooperation with the private sector. In the 2012 Republican primary, other candidates presented specific proposals for space policy. Newt Gingrich promised to establish the first permanent base on the moon by 2020 and a $10 billion prize to spur innovation.

Romney’s lack of a specific space policy can be attributed to divisions within the space advisory group for his campaign. Mike Griffin, a vocal supporter of the since-cancelled Constellation program, is a policy advisor for the campaign. As NASA administrator under President George W. Bush, he promoted government involvement in space exploration. This approach runs contrary to the fiscally conservative ideology present elsewhere in the campaign.

Philosophically, such fiscal conservatism would drive Romney to support private sector transportation capabilities. Endorsing such a strategy would be complicated for the campaign, since it is a plan the Obama administration has embraced. The successes in the private sector, namely SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft lifting off on the Falcon launch vehicle this past May, were made possible through cooperation with the Obama administration.

The campaign had been criticized for silence on space exploration while its opponents have dominated the issue, and the Obama campaign has released statements calling attention to Romney’s lack of a space policy. These releases also highlight achievements of the past four years and objectives for the next four, reiterating the objectives identified in the official space policy of the United States, released in June 2010.

Releasing a plan has not quelled criticism of the campaign. Newt Gingrich criticized Romney for failing to release a “robust” enough strategy. The Obama campaign in Florida released a statement criticizing Ryan’s track record of voting against NASA funding in Congress.

The Romney Plan 

Moments before Ryan’s speech began, the campaign released a policy statement outlining NASA’s objectives under a Romney administration. The white paper begins with a critique of Obama’s failure to articulate a clear path for the United States in space, especially regarding transportation capabilities. The coherent direction a Romney administration would provide would focus on four objectives: clarifying NASA’s priorities, partnering internationally, protecting national security, and revitalizing industry. The private sector would eventually gain control over “commercially viable activities,” selling services to the government.

The singular plan is one that has been Romney’s space policy throughout the campaign. If elected, he will convene a commission of experts on space policy from the Department of Defense, academia, industry, and NASA itself. These panelists will collectively identify specific missions to affirm the objectives of the space program.

“It’s clear that a Romney administration would take NASA in a different direction than it currently is under the Obama administration,” commented Dr. Jeff Foust, editor and publisher of The Space Review, in an interview with the HPR. “The problem is that the Romney administration isn’t necessarily clear on what that specific direction would be other than how it would do it: by focusing NASA and engaging stakeholders to come up with new missions.”

The Obama Precedent

What Romney is proposing has been seen before. “Mitt Romney saying, ‘I’m going to set up a commission to look at NASA,’ is basically what Barack Obama did when he came in,” noted Kenneth Chang, a science reporter for The New York Times. “He had a commission led by Norm Augustine that spent the better part of a year crafting opinions, . . . looking at the budget, looking at what was possible.”

On the campaign trail in 2008, then-candidate Obama proposed altering the vision for NASA from the objectives championed by President Bush. He laid out a plan proposing broad policies: developing the next generation of launch vehicles, cooperating internationally, supporting scientific research, and maintaining national security. As for specificity in programs, an Obama administration would follow the recommendations of a panel of experts in the field.

The Human Space Flight Plans Committee, known informally as the Augustine Commission after its chairman, commenced its evaluation of space policy in June 2009, six months after President Obama took office. The panel was comprised of two former astronauts, three academics, four industry veterans, and a retired Air Force general. By October, the committee released a report providing the contours of overall objectives in space and tangible policy goals NASA could meet before 2020 to realize these aspirations.

One decisive recommendation of the report was to cancel the Constellation program. This redeveloped system of crew and launch vehicles and a lunar lander would allow astronauts to explore further into space, using the International Space Station as a jumping-off point to eventually land on asteroids and Mars. The Augustine Commission found that the program was “behind schedule, over budget, and unachievable” and recommended its termination.

The cancellation of Constellation proved to be political poison. The aerospace community was divided by the decision to do so, effectively complicating collaboration. Though support for private sector initiatives has returned resources to the Kennedy Space Center area, many residents still blame Obama for the loss of jobs that followed the end of Constellation. The program was cancelled without input from Congress, which exacerbated tension between the two branches of government.

President Obama ultimately released the National Space Policy of the United States of America, a comprehensive set of objectives and programs the country will pursue beyond the Earth’s surface. Acting on the counsel of the Augustine Commission, the Obama administration followed through on the campaign promise to shift the focus of NASA with the release of this document in June 2010. With a budget increased by $6 billion over five years, NASA will enhance robotic exploration and observation of the Earth while extending the life of the International Space Station. Most importantly, President Obama pledged $3 billion for the development of a heavy lift rocket, which would perform the function Constellation would have served.

With urgent issues both at home and abroad, it is unlikely either candidate will prioritize what happens beyond the Earth’s surface. However, as the election draws close, both candidates are making their pleas for votes. Florida is the battleground state with the largest number of electoral college votes. It is the heart of the space industry. Nestled in a state with a history of playing a decisive role in presidential elections, the Space Coast, and thus space policy, may receive more attention as the campaigns race toward their conclusions.

 

Photo Credit: Johnny Shaw

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October 17, 2012 2:51 pm

It’s the Economy, Stupid

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During last week’s vice presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked: “Tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that.” Vice President Joe Biden responded to the question masterfully, simultaneously noting his devout religious beliefs and his desire not to impose those views on “equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.”

Unfortunately, this masterful point seems to have been one of the most memorable of the entire debate.

In 1992, campaign strategist James Carville coined a slight variation of the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid.” At that time, Carville was attempting to emphasize the importance of the struggling economy in then-candidate Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Although originally intended for an internal audience of campaign workers, the phrase became a de facto slogan for the entire campaign.

Today, Carville’s phrase is more applicable than ever. As the United States still faces enormous deficits, a $16 trillion dollar debt, sluggish improvements in unemployment, and some of the slowest economic growth in recent memory, the aftermath of the Great Recession is and should be the centerpiece of this election. Unfortunately, Martha Raddatz’s questions distracted from this fact. As a result, this campaign’s one and only vice presidential debate was characterized much more by foreign policy and social issues than by jobs and the economy; only three of Raddatz’s eleven questions were economically inclined. This distracts from by far the most important issue facing our nation in this election.

In this election, those who believe that social issues and foreign policy are even close to the economy in importance simply don’t realize how dire our economic and fiscal straits truly are. Though less physical in character than an Al Qaeda attack or a nuclear-armed Iran, the threats facing our economy are as menacing to the continuity of our republic as any we’ve ever faced.

In fact, the threats to our economic standing endanger more than just jobs and living standards. They stand to destroy our power, influence, and respect on the world stage. If we don’t make fixing our economy and changing our fiscal outlook the most important issue in governance, complete economic, military, and social collapse is not an unrealistic consequence. To this point, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has written: “Imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises: sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, and the mounting cost of servicing a mountain of public debt.”

Our disastrous economic and fiscal situation jeopardizes America’s well-being in a way that no other issue does. Yet our vice president’s most memorable contributions to this last debate concerned religion and bygone Supreme Court decisions. Abortion is only one example of the distracting issues in this election–gay marriage is another. Though as important a social issue as any, the debate on gay marriage was aptly characterized by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels: “If we collapse fiscally and economically, it really won’t matter very much what legal status we conferred on gay cohabitation.”

Although a debate exclusively on domestic policy, our first presidential debate was fortunately much more focused on the economy. And the results were clear: Mitt Romney pulled off what many have called the clearest debate win in presidential campaign history. And Paul Ryan, who is much more inclined to discuss the policies of spending cuts, fiscal discipline, and economic improvement that have defined his approach to government, was obviously outside of his comfort zone in the vice presidential debate.

The idea: people care about the economy, and they want the candidate who’s more qualified to improve a dismal economic outlook, not the one who can give a better answer on abortion. In the upcoming weeks, let’s hope that both our candidates and our moderators can keep their minds on what’s really important in this election.

Hint: it’s the economy, stupid.

 

Photo Credit: Barack Obama

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October 6, 2012 1:04 am

The First Presidential Debate: The Aftermath

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Two days have gone by since the first presidential debate. Since, we have political pundits decrying Obama’s passive tactics, a new Twitter account for Silent Jim Lehrer, and a series of Big Bird memes. Public backlash was strong against Obama, and commentator Andrew Sullivan even suggested that Obama might have lost the election Wednesday night. However, when sorting through these myriad opinions, it is important to use a historical viewpoint and to also view the debate with perspective.

Yes, Romney won. While Obama effused confidence in his plan and maintained a calm demeanor, there was something listless about his movements all night. Perhaps unaware that, for the first time, debates would be viewed on split-screen television, Obama spent much of the night looking down and taking notes while Romney was talking. He was unprepared for Romney’s blatant denial of Obama’s assertions that the plan Romney champions would add $5 trillion to the deficit through tax cuts for the rich, repeating it as though stunned when Romney insisted this wasn’t the case.

To his credit, Romney—who trailed Obama in the polls coming into the night—played the attacker from the beginning and went after the president’s record on issues from the economy to energy policy. He was animated from the onset and nothing, not even moderator Jim Lehrer, stopped him from a harrowing attack on Obama’s record. The aggression was borne out of desperation; Romney has steadily been falling further and further back in the polls since the Democratic National Convention, and nothing truly positive has bolstered his campaign since.

Yet, if the expectations for Romney had not been so low coming into the debate would we have been all that surprised? The knock on Mitt is his inability to empathize with his constituents—his comments about the “47 percent” refueled criticism that he is out-of touch—but he displayed a talent for debating during the Republican primaries. His one gaffe, offering to bet Rick Perry $10,000 on an outcome, was tactless but displayed his comfort on the stage.

You could have watched this debate without sound and proclaimed him the victor, much as you could during the Republican primaries. Here Mitt looks more comfortable than at formal functions; his body language is positive, and his expression reflects his eagerness for confrontation. Obama’s reputation as a great orator is well deserved, but Romney is no slouch in this department. Had we come into this debate acknowledging Romney’s skills, perhaps the result would not have been so shocking.

Similarly, it is important to acknowledge the nature of the first debate. The discussion topics—the economy and health care—lent themselves to a discussion of Obama’s record. They are major topics in the election, no doubt, but topics that Obama was unable to turn into a discussion of Romney’s history. Phrases like “the one percent,” “Bain Capital,” and “the forty-seven percent” were conspicuously absent from the president’s lexicon as he abstained from a full-on attack of Romney’s record.

The first debate routinely goes in favor of the challenger, and there are two more to come. In the meantime, Obama will likely regroup and prepare to come out focused and on the attack from the first question. In the first debate, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows writes, challengers are “elevated simply by being matched on equal footing with the president.” Obama was also forced to publicly argue with someone directly opposed to his views for the first time in four years, while Romney spent his winter crisscrossing the country swapping intellectual banter with Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich. While not the liberal standard-bearer Romney faced Wednesday, the trio provided a diverse array of attacks on Romney’s record he quickly learned to parry and avoid.

Polling shows a wide discrepancy in the number of Americans who declared Romney the victor—as much as three to one by CNN’s estimate—but we should view these findings with caution. A simple random dialing method of polling American households still riding the emotional crest of the debate is insufficient evidence for how this will affect the race moving forward. The number of undecided voters remaining is a minute fraction of the total electorate, and few committed votes likely switched sides after Wednesday night.

Media hyperbole like Sullivan’s draws good ratings but is too preemptive. There are three more debates and, if the 67.2 million Americans that tuned in Wednesday night are any indicator, the country will be watching. Next week’s matchup of two political bulldogs in Joe Biden and Paul Ryan should set the tone for a more adversarial Barack Obama and Mitt Romney matchup the week after.

Certainly Romney outperformed expectations, but lest we forget, some were on the edge of declaring the race over as little as a week ago. The first debate favors the challenger, the second the incumbent. This story is far from over.

 

Photo Credit: AP

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