James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

Elizabeth Warren is running for president

Posted by James McPherson on April 23, 2014

elizabeth warrenThough I rarely produce journalistic scoops these days, here’s something that you can say that you read here first: Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts will run for president in 2016, despite what she told ABC just a couple of days ago. Even if Chris Cillizza states flatly, “Elizabeth Warren is almost certainly not running for president in 2016.”

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps even Warren herself doesn’t know that she’ll be a candidate in 2016. And though I’m often blown away by her intelligence and her grasp of economic issues — and so I shouldn’t suggest that I know something she doesn’t — here are six reasons that I know she’ll run:

First, she wrote a book. And not just any book, as Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll pointed out yesterday, but “a campaign book.” Not a major policy work, but an autobiography, “nothing explosive, but juicy enough to feed the Washington media machine.” A book that “can, at times, read like an extended stump speech.”

Years ago, in my book about the post-World War II rise of conservatism in the U.S. (and previously on this blog), I compared Barack Obama’s campaign to those of earlier candidates. I wrote that Obama “wrote a popular book that might be compared to conservative icon Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Obama’s The Audacity of Hope offered an image for the nation’s political future, calling for in one reviewer’s words, ‘a mode of liberalism that sounds both highly pragmatic and deeply moral.'”

A second reason I believe Warren will run is that we’re seemingly seeing her everywhere. Some of the most effective Senators — such as Hillary Clinton, for example — become what are known as legislative “work horses,” keeping their heads down and doing the hard work of legislating. Others become “show horses,” speaking out not only in public hearings but whenever they can on television. Do a search on YouTube for “Elizabeth Warren.” The result? “About 221,000 results.”

Third, Warren not only seems to be everywhere, but she also has something to say. As I wrote about Obama, in my book: Both Obama and Ronald Reagan “found themselves in demand as speakers inside and outside their parties. Though Reagan had a sharper wit, a folksier manner, and a more practiced delivery, both he and Obama spoke on behalf of their values in direct, positive and personal ways that connected with listeners.” Warren may be smarter than either of those men, and manages to tell us horrible news about financial institutions  in a way that makes it seem as if there might be an answer.

Fourth, Warren herself is the answer for the problems she raises, problems that most Americans can identify with. Without her, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would not exist. She rightfully should have been that agency’s first director, but Obama chickened out from appointing her, convinced that opposition from banks and Republicans would be too strong for her to be confirmed.

Fifth, as just pointed out, banks and Republicans don’t like Warren. That makes her appealing to Democrats who don’t happen to be bankers, and helps her raise money. Even if she were wishy-washy about the idea of running, she’d be getting a lot of pressure to run.

And finally, a sixth reason we should expect Warren to be a candidate: Her timing will likely never be better. Many said that Obama was running “too soon,” that he should wait four or eight more years to run. I think that his presidency — and the nation — has suffered in some respects because of his lack of experience. But as I have noted, we actually seem to prefer inexperience in our presidential nominees. Someone such as John Kerry or John McCain or Hillary Clinton who has served for a long period of time in government has a record that can be used and distorted by opponents.

Besides, if not now, when? If a Democrat should happen to win the presidency in 2016, that person would probably seek re-election in 2020. The earliest that Warren could run in that case would be in 2024, after she had already served a dozen years in the Senate (assuming she won a second term; if she lost a Massachusetts Senate race she couldn’t be a credible Democratic candidate afterward).

So, there you have it. She’s running. And if I’m wrong, well, I’ll be just like every other political pundit, hoping no one remembers later.

 

 

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Women | Tagged: , , , , , | 23 Comments »

Comparing Obama to other presidents — and to mermaids

Posted by James McPherson on May 31, 2013

mermaidAfter watching an Animal Planet program about mermaids the other night, I realized that the sea creatures and President Barack Obama have some things in common. Perhaps the comparison is inevitable, considering that the Weekly World News, a “news source” at least as reliable as World Net Daily, assures me that Obama has met with mermaids. Less surprising is that the article tells us that the mermaids are being “kept at an undisclosed aquarium.” Perhaps in Cuba?

And yes, I know the show was fiction, even if many people have apparently been fooled by the “documentary” style and the lengths the network went through to trick viewers. The fact that folks were duped isn’t a big surprise, though one might hope they would check things out before buying into the latest version of “Alien Autopsy.” I am a bit disappointed to find that Animal Planet is apparently now as much about animals as the History Channel is about history and the Arts & Entertainment network is about the arts.

In part, though, people believe in mermaids (check out some of the claims and a bad poem about mermaids and sonar in the comments section here), for some of the same reasons they believed–and in some cases, continue to believe–that Barack Obama is liberal, anti-war, anti-business, Muslim, a gun-grabber, Kenyan-born, a supporter of economic regulation, deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, a socialist, or the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In fact, because both were relatively unknown and perhaps unknowable, mermaids and Obama became defined by how others want to see them. (We often elect “outsiders” for that reason.) But just for fun, here are some other comparisons:

  • Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid was translated into dozens of languages and led to an animated movie; Obama’s Dreams from My Father was translated into dozens of languages and led to an unanimated presidency.
  • Mermaids are famous for melodious singing that mesmerized sailors; Obama is famous for melodious speeches that mesmerized Democratic voters.
  • Mermaids hang out with fish; Obama also has been accused of having some fishy compatriots.
  • In some cultures, mermaids are thought to be seeking souls; Obama brought soul to the White House.
  • Mermaids can be found all over the world; Obama also has made appearances all over the globe.
  • Mermaids never appear on television without the help of CGI; Obama rarely appears without the aid of a teleprompter.
  • And perhaps most significantly, mermaids are thought to be half human, half fish; Obama seems to be half Democrat, half Republican.

In fact, Obama is pretty much like most other presidents, and that’s the problem. He’s certainly no liberal; like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama is a politically practical neo-conservative who relies on a combination of charm and corporate money for his power. Like FDRHarry Truman and Bush, he’ll freely kill civilians abroad to look politically strong while reducing American military casualties (for example, more Americans have been killed by guns in this country just since the Newtown massacre than were killed in the entire Iraq War). Like Bush and Roosevelt, Obama will overlook civil liberties to lock up potential “enemies.” Like Nixon and Bush, he is secretive. Also like Nixon and Bush, Obama is willing to let the government be intrusive, if not abusive.

I’ve noted previously the similarities between Obama and Ronald Reagan, and have become increasingly troubled by some of the current president’s similarities to Richard Nixon. (I agree with Bob Dole’s recent statement that neither Reagan nor Nixon could be elected as Republicans, though I think either might have a shot as a modern-day Democrat. After all, both Reagan and Nixon were more liberal in many respects than Obama.)

Obama is not particularly brave, nor especially effective in accomplishing his goals. He has accomplished some good things while doing some bad ones. He seems to be more reflective than Bush, but who isn’t? The one thing that liberals and conservatives might agree on in regard to Obama is that he has been … a disappointment.

Obama’s new support for a federal shield law and his nomination of James B. Comey as FBI director might seem to be encouraging notes in a presidency that has otherwise been marked by its obstruction and intimidation of the press and a general lack of once-promised transparency. But it’s worth noting that Obama previously helped kill the shield law (which probably would prove largely meaningless, and may actually make things worse for journalists, anyway) and the drone warrior’s latest “transparency” promise lasted all of about a week. And, of course, Comey may have had the gumption to bust Martha Stewart and WorldCom execs, but he also is another demonstration of how the president is continuing the work of George W. Bush, even if Comey proved to be a thorn in Bush’s side.

Obama’s attorney general apologized for the administration’s treatment of the press, but I wonder why he felt the need to offer the apology in an “off-the-record” meeting. (I’m also troubled by the fact that three of the five editors who attended the meeting promptly violated the terms to which they had apparently agreed; they should have done what most media organizations did and boycotted the meeting.)

So while it is true that some of Obama’s recent words sound good, we’ve heard false promises in the past. Until I see more evidence, I’m not putting a lot of faith in either Obama or mermaids.

Sunday follow-up: Slate offers some more perspective on the Animal Planet’s mermaid tales, and five things the channel could better be focusing in regard to the world’s suffering oceans. Related to#4 of the list, today I bought a tie covered with pictures of a dozen kinds of sharks. Maybe they ate the mermaids.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

Gulp; Rubio can’t help GOP — so I’ll try

Posted by James McPherson on February 14, 2013

Some Republicans have been talking about how their party needs to come up with a new message. Aside from trying to “stop being the stupid party,” though, they apparently haven’t figured out what that message might be, and so I want to help.

You might think I’m kidding because I generally oppose almost everything the modern Republican Party seem to favor, but in this case I’m absolutely serious. And I’m willing to help out the GOP for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not a loyalist of any party (I didn’t vote for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney). I want to see progress (and the end of pointess gridlock), regardless of who can claim responsibility. Second, the few Republicans who read this will probably automatically dismiss it, anyway, either because they can’t believe a liberal would have a good idea or because they’re so cluelessly entrenched in their own decreasingly relevant mindset that they can’t budge.

Before I get to what the national Republican message should be, though, a few words about the messages we heard Tuesday night. Obama’s State of the Union Address was about what you’d expect — not much discussion of the current  state of the nation, but a well-delivered (if sometimes inaccurate or misleading) speech that matters little in the long run. More interesting was poor dry-mouthed Sen. Marco Rubio. who became yet another victim of the official SOTU response, the latest Jindalesque would-be GOP savior to prove himself not ready for prime time. As Ian Crouch wrote for the New Yorker:

By the second minute of Marco Rubio’s official Republican response to the  President’s State of the Union address last night, it was clear that the  Senator’s body was betraying him. His lips caught each other in the way they do  at moments of stress, when we are suddenly confronted, after long lapses of  unthought, with the actual mechanics of speech. Under the hot lights, Rubio’s  mouth went dry. A few minutes later, sweat trickled down his right temple, and  he moved his hand instinctively to wipe it away. The dry mouth persisted, and,  at times, his eyes flashed with a kind of pleading and mounting desperation: the  speech was less than halfway over, with words and words to go. His hands,  already large in the frame when he kept them low in front of him, flashed a few  times to his lips. And then back to his temple.

And then, of course, came Rubio’s awkward eyes-forward stretch for what appeared to be Barbie’s water bottle (which did create a new marketing opportunity for his PAC), the moment destined to become the one thing most viewers would remember from his speech. However unfair, we live in a television age; as the Republicans who keep idolizing a misremembered Ronald Reagan should know, staging matters.

And instead of being able to cooly reach for a glass that should have been placed before him in case he needed it, Rubio ended up lunging as if he were trying to keep his presidential hopes from rolling off of an off-camera table. Or perhaps he just wanted to be sure to emphasize the GOP’s anti-environmental approach by highlighting not just bottled water, but water from  company that repeatedly has been the subject of a lawsuits over its product.

Rubio did follow up with a nice little story about how he still lives “in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in,” a story that was irrelevant to any plan he might have for actually improving the state of the union. It also was a story that make Rubio look like just another shifty politician, since apparently he’s trying to abandon that “working-class home,”if he can get someone to shell out $675,000. And apparently it’s OK for Rubio to benefit from lots of government help, but others should make do with less.

From a substantive point, the worst thing about Rubio’s speech was what it didn’t offer: answers or solutions to anything beyond the rotely regurgitated but meaningless “free market solutions” that voters soundly rejected three months ago. As David Brooks pointed out immediately afterward, except for a vague mention of immigration reform, Rubio’s speech was virtually indisinguishable from one Mitt Romney might have given a day before he was hammered in the election. Or as I heard someone say the next day, Rubio was “another Romney — just add water.” Ouch.

As a Republican friend of mine has said, “We can’t just say no to everything.” And since national Republicans don’t know where to go, I’ll help them out: The “states’ rights” party should actually look to the states for direction. After all, despite its failures at the national level, the GOP controls most state legislatures and most governors’ seats. At that level, many party ideas obviously appeal to voters. Perhaps that’s because at the state level they’re actually more in touch with the voters, and less influenced by national lobbyists and interest groups.

Obama actually gave me the idea for a new Republican strategy, by highlighting the success of early-childhood education programs in the deep-red states of Georgia and Oklahoma. Recall that the model for Obamacare was signed into law by a Republican governor (remember him?). And some Republican states are now embracing expansion of Medicaid and the opportunity to create state-run insurance exchanges as ways to meet their obligations under the law while keeping some control over how the projects work.

What national Republicans ought to do is to start seeking out and embracing the various state-level successes, encouraging other states to adopt programs similar to those that work elsewhere. At the same time, they can then point out to voters what responsible leaders can accomplish without federal interference. And if they focus on the things that people actually want and need — better roads, schools and medical care, for example — maybe the nation as a whole will benefit.

In truth, I don’t think this plan will go anywhere. One problem is that some Republicans would be inclined to cite the dumbest state actions — such as Arizona’s immigration policies — as the models for others to follow. And too many states likely would simply continue to neglect their poorest and most needy residents, regardless of how much federal money and control was shifted their way, leading to all-new calls for federal intervention.

Most significantly, such a plan would require conservative voters to embrace some level of government (and some taxes), a hard pill to swallow for too many modern Republicans even at the state or local level — regardless of how many little bottles of fake spring water they may gulp to wash it down.

Posted in History, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Lost in America–or at least in two cities

Posted by James McPherson on January 30, 2013

Though at least one major political party seem to be wandering aimlessly, I wasn’t ever actually completely “lost” during a just-completed 18-day trip to New York and Washington, D.C., with a dozen students (see the class blog here). But do I lack a great sense of direction and don’t use a smart phone, and so rely heavily (if not always well) on maps–as some of my students humorously chronicled in the video below.

I will note that we visited approximately 20 media-related sites in the two cities, and found our way to each meeting with time to spare. On the other  hand, I guess the video may provide some support for the common but nutty claim that liberal professors are leading students astray.

I’m fortunate to work in a university that values off-campus study, and have been lucky enough to coordinate two of my last three every-other-year study programs with presidential inaugurations. To be sure, there were a lot fewer people in Washington this year than four years ago–but it was interesting to see the shift in crowds from the Obama supporters there for the Inauguration at the beginning of the week to the people who came for the annual “March for Life” at the end of the week.

Demonstrating that political views are not black and white in America, at least one of my students attended both the inauguration and the march. I avoided both, and though I may disagree with the student’s politics, as a fan of peaceful political activism I commend her decision. Though students sometimes disappoint me, they far more often make me proud to be associated with them.

This year’s group had the added benefit of sharing a hostel with Wiley Drake, a somewhat pitiful “pastor” who earned some degree of notoriety a few years ago by praying for President Obama’s death. A birther who claims Osama bin Laden died in 2007 and who ran for president himself last year, Wiley has an Internet radio/TV show that he broadcasts (poorly) from wherever he happens to be–including from the hostel dining room.

Frankly, my students would do a better job of broadcasting than Drake does, and would generally make more sense. Even if they keep making the mistake of thinking I know where we are going.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

The cowards among us: killers, legislators and the NRA

Posted by James McPherson on December 15, 2012

A question for parents: How many of you have toy guns or “first-person-shooter” video games nicely wrapped under your Christmas trees as you get ready to celebrate the birth of Christ?

Here in America, of course, that’s just the batcrap-crazy norm, as we go from one supposedly shocking mass killing to another and another and another. Maybe this year the deaths will hit triple digits. And unless you’re related to them, or it involves a member of Congress, you probably won’t remember any of their name  by New Year’s Day.

“They packed the pews to remember, mourn and pray,” wrote CNN’s Dana Ford. “What else can you do?”

What, indeed? Surely we can’t have a serious discussion about gun control, or get members of Congress to stand up to the National Rifle Association for even common-sense legislation. After all, some folks think it outrageous that “government” keeps us from easily owning automatic weapons, machine guns and hand grenades.

We also can’t adequately fund education or mental health care, especially at the risk of raising taxes or cutting military funding. We can’t rationally discuss what it is about US that makes mass murder now commonplace. To do that would be both too scary and too political.

Despite the fact that most Americans, including most members of the NRA, favor some gun laws, we apparently can’t have any millionaires or billionaires stepping up to found an organization with lobbying influence to combat the NRA. No reason they should, since they live behind gates and their kids are in private schools. (Ironically, the chidren of workers for the country’s second-biggest gun lobby could actually be among the Newtown, Conn., victims, considering that the National Shooting Sports Foundation–which offers members a newsletter titled “Pull the Trigger,” boasting such articles as “It’s the Indian, not the arrow“– is within walking distance of the school.)

We can’t have gun-totin’ conservatives admitting that Barack Obama doesn’t really want to take away our guns, or that it’s easier to own a gun today and you can carry one in more places than before he took office. Or that conservative “hero” Ronald Reagan actually supported stricter gun laws than we have today, or than have been supported by any so-called liberal president since. After all, one of the many things Obama and Mitt Romney shared duting the recent presidential campaign was cowardice when it came to talking about guns.

Oh, we can do a few things. We can breathlessly watch the news media report the tragedy as quickly as possible, guaranteeing that they’ll get some things wrong in the process–yet again. We can expect the NRA to somehow use this tragedy as an excuse to fundraise while its followers tell us that it’s “wrong” to use a tragedy to discuss the politics of gun control. And we can continue to have nutjobs such as Spokane city councilman Mike Fagan suggest that we arm teachers or administrators.

After all, what could go wrong having stressed, distracted people in charge of too many children also packing heat? Of course they’d have to lock the firearms away, to avoid letting kids get to them. And if the gun and ammo were locked away, it would probably be useless in an emergency situation–especially because anyone looking to wreak havoc would know to shoot the teacher first, because s/he might be armed.

So what can we really do, other than to remember, mourn and pray? Well, after doing that for a few days (and perhaps for a few minutes on every Dec. 14 for the next few years) we could just let things go back to “normal” until the next mass killing. That’s what I’m betting we’ll choose. After all, it probably won’t be in your kid’s school.

Merry Christmas.

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

Sandy, Bloomberg & Christie should help Obama win re-election

Posted by James McPherson on November 1, 2012

Barack Obama made this election a lot closer than it should have been by sleepwalking through his first debate with Mitt Romney and, in my view, by failing to run enough of an optimistic campaign that emphasized his many noteworthy accomplishments. Those include an improving economy, the expansion of gay rights, the auto bailout, increased access to medical care for young adults and people with pre-existing conditions, and improved student loan policies.

For many individuals, he has been a very good president, and who knows what might have been accomplished without the worst, craziest, and most obstructionist Congress in history, a Congress dedicated from the outset to try to make Obama fail even if it meant reversing their own positions?

Since most American voters seem to have the attention spans of gnats, flip-flopping on one’s supposed values too rarely hurts politicians–even in the case of pathological Etch a Sketch liar Mitt Romney, who has actually improved his standing with voters by avoiding answering any questions from the news (including even GOP house organ Fox News) for the past three weeks. His latest campaign strategy has included a phony “hurricane relief” rally and repeatedly lying about the auto industry–to the degree that even company executives declared that Romney (who once joked about his father closing American auto plants) is lying to scare voters. One can only wonder what highers-up in the Mormon church think about such dishonesty.

So now the election is relatively close, as predicted and desired by media folks and talking heads that I’ve previously ridiculed. Some polls have Romney leading, and some people (including Michael Graham of the Boston Herald and conservatives Michael Novak, Karl Rove, Frank Donatelli, Steven Hayward and Boris Epshteyn) predict a GOP win. Former Bill Clinton aide Dick Morris, who has managed the nearly impossible trick of looking even sleazier than Clinton and a few others (see here, here, here and here, ) have gone so far as to predict a Romney landslide.

I hate the reliance of the news media on polls over substance, so I actually appreciate the fact that this year’s polls seem to be contradictory and confusing. Still, barring some GOP to steal the election through rigged voting machines or even more voter suppression than expected, however, I have strong doubts about the chances of a Romney victory. In fact, as I’ve been doing consistently since last spring, I predict an Obama win with at least 290 electoral votes (270 are needed to win). I also expect Democrats to hold the Senate while Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives.

The facts that Obama has been endorsed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, largely endorsed by GOP favorite Chris Christie, and that Hurricane Sandy has allowed Obama to look presidential while Romney avoided and then struggled with questions about whether he would fund FEMA, makes me more confident in my prediction. Based on information released today about a jump in consumer confidence and a jobs report by the ADP Research Institute, I suspect that tomorrow’s Labor Department jobs report will fail to give Romney a boost and may help the president.

Whether Obama deserves to win (or whether either either of these two guys should be elected) is another question, but most of the people who use a statistical approach expect the same electoral result. In that camp are Nate Silver (who has drawn considerable attention both positive and negative for his influence), Sam Wang’s Princeton Election Consortium, Drew Linzer’s Votomatic, polltrack.com, the New Republic‘s Nate Cohn, Andrew Tanenbaum’s electoral-vote.com, Josh Putnam’s Frontloading HQ, Thomas Holbrook’s Politics by the Numbers, Scott Elliott’s ElectionProjection.com, (Several of those I’ve mentioned previously, but some I learned about just today from Asawin Suebsaeng of Mother Jones.)

The conservative Rasmussen Reports, Real Clear Politics, the Washington Times, CNN, PBS, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Intrade, the Huffington Post, 270towin.com, all have Obama leading the electoral vote, though all their maps have “toss-ups” that include Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and/or Florida.

Right or wrong, obviously I have plenty of company. Either way, a lot of people who make considerable money off of their predictions (I make none from mine) are going to be wrong. And those folks probably all will be back, making equally bad predictions, four years from now.

So with that in mind, I’ll go ahead and offer my first prediction for 2016: Seeing how well bizarre flip-flops worked for Romney, and trying to up his credibility with both Hispanic voters and conservative Christians in a 2016 bid for the White House, Christie will legally change his first name to “Jesus” and drop the last two letters of his last name from campaign literature distributed in solidly conservative states. And at least 23 percent of voters in Texas will fall for it.

Posted in History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 55 Comments »

My breakfast with George Will, and correcting his errors

Posted by James McPherson on October 16, 2012

Today I had the opportunity to have breakfast with noted conservative political commentator and baseball fan George Will, someone I’ve both admired and criticized at times in the past. OK, saying I had breakfast with him is stretching things: In truth, it was me and several hundred other people eating breakfast, while Will addressed the crowd and then answered a few questions as part of an event hosted by my university.

I wore my best suit and sat at a table sponsored by my local newspaper, chatting before and after the speech with the publisher, the business manager, and and a few editors of the Spokesman-Review. I met Will during a reception after the event, and I’m sure he didn’t remember my name 15 seconds later. Nor should he have.

As would be expected from someone as intellectual, witty and well-paid (typically $40,000+ per speech) as Will, he gave an interesting speech about politics, well-illustrated by baseball anecdotes. Several of the lines I’d heard before, but they were well-delivered, often funny and greeted with appreciation. He didn’t come across as a big fan of Mitt Romney, which might not be surprising considering Romney’s inconsistencies and the fact that Will’s wife has worked for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry during this campaign.

Still, Will got some things wrong in his speech. For one thing, Will offered the common conservative complaint about inheritance taxes. You can take all your money and blow it in Las Vegas, and that’s fine with government–but you can’t give it to your kids, he said. And of course that’s a blatant mischaracterization long promoted by “death tax” folks. In fact, if you choose to toss away all your money in a casino, the casino will pay taxes. Likewise, you can give away anything you want, to anyone–but the recipient should expect to pay taxes on the gift. Despite what Will and others would have you believe, it’s not the giver who is taxed; it’s the receiver.

And most of the time, if we’re talking about inheritance taxes, even the recipient isn’t significantly affected. Only the estates of millionaires like Will actually get taxed at all by the federal government–a fact that would Founding Father and “Common Sense” author Thomas Paine would find appalling. It is ironic that so many Will-style conservatives who promote “equality of opportunity” have no problem with the children of millionaires starting out with little chance of having personal stupidity bringing them down to the economic level of the smartest and hardest-working children born into poverty.

Will also criticized the format of the presidential debates, and I happen to agree with him in that regard. These tightly regulated political events are not “debates,” and (like me and many others) Will suggested he would like to see Lincoln-Douglas-style debates in which each candidate talks, uninterrupted, at length. But then Will added something like, “Can you imagine either of these guys being able to string together coherent paragraphs for an hour?” Many in the audience chuckled at the implication that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney would be smart enough to keep up with someone like, say, George Will.

But in fact, I can imagine it. In fact, though it will never happen because of cowardly party handlers, I love to imagine such a scenario. Neither of the presidential candidates got where he is by being an idiot, and having the opportunity to speak for an hour or so at a time–which both men have undoubtedly done numerous times in their noteworthy pasts–and then to answer an opponent’s comments might actually force each to stray from pre-scripted jokes and talking points. Obama might even prepare (though after his first debate performance this year, I assume he’s done a bit more prep for tonight’s version).

Will’s mischaracterizations of inheritance taxes and of the intellects of Obama and Romney are common ones, of course, and today’s errors were pretty minor compared to some in his past. And to be fair, someone who spends as much time in the public eye as Will does is bound to be wrong or to speak too flippantly some of the time. I’ve criticized him in a book (something I didn’t bring up today) for a couple of things: helping Ronald Reagan practice for a debate with Jimmy Carter (using a stolen Carter briefing book) and then praising Reagan for his performance after the debate, and for repeating a myth that Al Gore (rather than a supporter of George H.W. Bush) was the first to “use Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis” in 1988.

I started reading Will’s column when I was a kid, and have always admired his intellect, his use of the language and his love and understanding of baseball–but frankly I thought he went a bit nuts during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, letting his disgust over Clinton’s personal behavior color his perspective on more political issues. Since then he seems to have reverted to his more rational self, and I do enjoy reading his column and listening to him on Sunday mornings. But I never forget that he’s every bit as biased as I am, and therefore prone to errors that support his own side.

And even when we’re not factually wrong, sometimes we’ll just disagree. For example, Will criticized early voting, because he misses the civic exercise of going to a polling place on election day. I miss it, too–but I’d rather have more people voting while diminishing the prospect of having an “October surprise” swing an election. The old system favors financially secure conservatives, while early voting aids those who work long hours. I wish Will–a lifelong fan of perhaps the ultimate working-class team, the Chicago Cubs–had more empathy for their struggles.

Next day: After the breakfast Will went on to San Francisco to provide debate commentary for ABC. Afterward he declared Obama the winner and indicated that the debate was far, far better than what his words of that morning indicated he expected: “It was a very good fight. I have seen every presidential debate in American  history since the floor of Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. This was immeasurably the  best.”

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Romney mountain-high in Colorado

Posted by James McPherson on October 4, 2012

Colorado may be a swing state, but Barack Obama may have developed a new dislike for the Centennial State this week. First came his dismal debate performance, in which Obama demonstrated that he didn’t learn from Clint Eastwood not to walk onto a stage unless you know what you want to say. Now two Colorado professors–using a model they say has correctly predicted the winner of the past eight presidential elections–say that Mitt Romney will win the presidential election.

Actually they originally said so back in August for a peer-reviewed study, and conservative blogs have been touting the study ever since. But since the researchers noted that their data was from data gathered in June and would later be updated, I essentially ignored it–other than to send political science professors Kenneth Bickers and Michael Berry an email requesting an update when they were ready to release it. Today, professor Berry kindly sent me a link to the press release announcing the new results.

As far as I know, only the Denver Post has beaten me to the announcement that, according to the new data, “President Barack Obama is expected to receive 208 votes — down five votes from their initial prediction — and short of the 270 needed to win.”

Perhaps Bickers and Berry are right. But the conservative professor that I had lunch with today and I think otherwise. Neither of us happens to be a political scientist, just political junkies, but a host of electoral maps from the likes of Real Clear Politics, CNN, polltrack.com, electoral-vote.com, Intrade, Nate Silver, the Washington Post, the Princeton Election Consortium, 270towin, and even the conservative Rasmussen Reports also show Romney to be in serious trouble.

One thing about it though: If Berry and Bickers are somehow proven right, they ought to auction off their services for 2016. And now conservatives will have one more reason to be enthused, while Romney has another reason to appreciate the Colorado state motto: Nil Sine Numine, or “Nothing without Providence” (sometimes translated as “Nothing without the Deity”).

P.S.: Reading the press release a bit more closely, we see, “The model foresees Romney carrying New Mexico, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.” But even Rasmussen is calling Pennsylvania “safe (for) Obama,” and most maps have him leading in almost all of the swing states. Romney could win. But most of us who follow politics closely don’t find it likely.

Post-election update: Of the eleven states mentioned above, Romney actually carried ONE–North Carolina–demonstrating the difference between political science modeling and actual polling.

Posted in Education, History, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 24 Comments »

Undebatable: Presidential race now more interesting

Posted by James McPherson on October 4, 2012

Mitt Romney won the first 2012 presidential debate handily, as everyone from Michael Moore to the foreign press could see. I’m surprised that President Obama failed bring up “the 47 percent,” women’s issues, the auto industry or immigration, or to counter Romney’s many misstatements and exaggerations.

Still, I can’t say I’m shocked at the outcome. I doubt that George W. Bush is, either, considering his first debate as an incumbent–or that he would be, anyway, if he weren’t getting ready to visit Romney’s bankers in the Cayman Islands. First debates are good for challengers.

Remember, Obama hasn’t debated for four years. He speaks better when he has a teleprompter, or when can interact with (and feed off of) an audience, and the debate crowd had been muzzled. Jim Lehrer did an abysmal job as moderator. And despite all the talk by pundits before the debate about how good a debater he supposedly is, I’ve never seen it. Hillary Clinton beat him in their debates, and John McCain did more to lose the 2008 presidential debates than Obama did to win them. Besides, McCain had to debate with Bush and Sarah Palin strapped to his back.

Debate moments may matter to the media and political junkies, but probably no presidential debate has ever made a difference in the outcome. To repeat: Not one presidential debate has changed the outcome of an election. Despite all the recent talk about Ronald Reagan’s supposed “comeback” against Jimmy Carter, as researchers have pointed out, “No candidate who was leading in the polls six weeks before the election has lost the popular vote since Thomas Dewey in 1948.” And stats guru Nate Silver gave Obama an 86 percent chance of winning just before the debate.

Obama still leads in the states he needs to win, has a better ground game than Romney, and is better on the stump. He still has the natural advantage of any sitting president, in that he will be seen on the news every night and has the opportunity to do things that only a president can do. He’ll probably throw out the first pitch at a Nationals playoff game–and maybe an Orioles game, too. Obviously he should do more “presidential” stuff–meeting with world leaders, for example, rather than hanging out with the ladies of “The View.”

It’s still the president’s contest to lose–but ask Bush’s former baseball team, the Texas Rangers, if it’s possible to blow a big lead. Obama may have to wake up and study up for the next two debates. He shouldn’t take for granted that Americans are too intelligent to elect a guy with no meaningful foreign policy experience or who makes vague domestic promises that he won’t be able to keep. After all, that’s exactly what voters did in 2008. Just ask our current Secretary of State.

Same-day follow-up: Rachel Maddow had a fascinating piece tonight, demonstrating that of the seven times a sitting president has debated a challenger, presidents now have a sparkling record of 1-6. Even Ronald Reagan won as the challenger and then lost as president. In addition, Nate Silver actually boosted his calculation of Obama’s chance of presidential victory to 87 percent. James Downie of the Washington Post is probably correct when he  writes, “Obama lost the first debate, but he will still win the election.” And Obama himself seemed cheerful and confident on the stump today.

Posted in History, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

Ten things we’re told could influence the presidential election–but won’t

Posted by James McPherson on September 13, 2012

While President Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney seems to be widening and Romney seems to be sinking stupidly into dishonest John McCain-style desperation, and despite the fact that I’ve been predicting an Obama victory for some time, I do recognize that there is time for the electoral picture to change. Perhaps the debates will swing things in Romney’s favor, if he doesn’t offer to bet Obama $10,000 or if he suddenly becomes the anti-war candidate that Obama once pretended to be.

Or if Obama suddenly starts referring to Romney as “John” because he forgets which tall, stiff, rich Massachusetts flip-flopper he is debating. (Romney’s practice opponent has done this gig before, pretending to be John Edwards, Al Gore and Obama).

With the possibility of an electoral shift in mind, I offer the following list of ten things that media folks and others (I’ve fallen into one or two of the traps myself) often suggest will make a difference in presidential elections–but which, in fact, almost certainly won’t matter  in this or any future presidential election:

1) Your vote. I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere, so won’t go into detail here. But your presidential ballot has virtually no chance of affecting who becomes president. Still, you should turn out to vote: Cast a protest vote for president, and recognize that your ballot might mean something in a local election where fewer people vote.

2) Public opinion polls. At least those measuring the popular vote, since it’s the electoral vote that matters (ask Al Gore). And if we look at the Rasmussen poll (which I chose because it is considered one of the most politically conservative), we see that Obama has a big lead in the electoral count. According to Rasmussen, only seven toss-up states remain–Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, Missouri and Colorado–and if Obama claims ONLY Florida, or Ohio and ANY ONE of the other six, or ANY THREE of the seven, he wins the election. By contrast, Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll would give you the impression that the election is close. And that impression would be wrong.

3) Citizens United. Yes, this was a horrible Supreme Court decision that lets corporations and lobbying groups spend too much power to try to influence elections. But that’s not necessarily much of a change. And there’s so much money in presidential politics that neither major party will lack enough funds to compete in the states that matter. On the other hand, just as your vote means more in local and state elections, big money also has more influence in those elections.

4) The current economy. Yes, since even before Bill Clinton, we’ve been hearing, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Maybe that was true in 1932. In fact, the economy today may even help Obama. To repeat, economic models tend to favor Obama, not Romney, in part because voters care more about trends than about where the economy sits.

5) Evangelical Protestants. Ironically, if these folks get their way in November, for the first time ever we won’t have a Protestant president, vice president or Supreme Court justice. Conservative Christian influence has probably peaked.

6) Candidates’ verbal gaffes. All candidates tire and say dumb things. The media then overplay the gaffes, but I doubt that voters make decisions based on the verbal slips of a candidate. (Again, the state level may be different.) Sarah Palin’s gaffes have mattered more than most because we heard so little else from her.

7) Cable news networks. There’s some evidence that Fox News changed the 1980 election, but probably not any election since then. Now every voter knows that Fox News is a house organ for the GOP, just as MSNBC has become for the Democrats. Besides, more Americans watch mainstream network news and any number of reality shows than watch anything on Fox News, MSNBC or CNN.

8) Convention platforms. Yes, I previously suggested that these might matter, and both the GOP platform and its Democratic counterpart drew attention during the conventions. Now they’ll be largely forgotten, including by the candidates themselves, until 2016.

9) Vice presidential candidates. Here again, at times I’ve thought these people mattered, but they haven’t since at least 1960. People vote for presidents, not vice presidents. Palin may have hurt McCain a bit, but she helped him first. And after eight years of George W. Bush, even Jesus Christ would have had a tough time winning as a Republican in 2008.

10) Candidates’ wives. Some are more glamorous than others. Some are smarter. Some bake better cookies. And until they run for office themselves, as Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton did, they’re entertaining diversions that don’t matter much in the big picture.

So take some time to study local issues and vote thoughtfully. If you’re in a swing state, worry about things such as voter suppression that actually might influence the election. But stop worrying about things that won’t matter, anyway.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , | 41 Comments »

 
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