Friday, February 08, 2008

Hard Choices

With apologies to Governor Huckabee and Congressman Paul, the GOP race is effectively over, and Senator John “Maverick” McCain is all but sure to claim the Republican party's nomination for President of the United States. This news has provoked a range of responses, and created a condition for all the major players which, at the very least, means a set of hard choices for us all.

First, the hard-line Right. I consider myself as strong a Conservative as anyone I know, and frankly I have no great desire to see John McCain in the White House, but I have to say I am appalled by some of the statements made by even leading Conservatives. Ann Coulter’s claim that she will actively support the Democrats’ nominee out of spite against McCain, is a poor decision on many counts, including comprehension of the difference between even the weakest Republican President and any potential Democrat in the office, as well as simple ideals of the party. Conservatives are bitterly disappointed, and with cause, that the party they worked so hard to build has denied them an effectively Conservative representative in this election cycle. There was no Reagan in this race, not even a Bush. There were people who said the right things, but they never caught on, and the men who won the early primaries were none of them quite what Conservatives wanted. As a result, Conservatives must now choose between a man with whom they have strong differences, a party which threatens massive damage to the country should it claim control of the White House and Congress at the same time, and sitting out the election and hoping for the best. I don’t think any of the three choices will sit well with Conservatives.

Next, Senators Clinton and Obama. You might not think they would have much to worry about, but indeed they do. You see, before Super Tuesday both parties had an all-out tussle going, and while McCain had the lead, if Romney or Huckabee had a big day on Feb. 5 then things would be back to total chaos, while Clinton and Obama each hoped to pull cleanly away from their rival. Instead, the opposite happened – the GOP race is pretty much decided, while the Democrats are neck and neck, and they have some sharp disagreements on their record. At the very least, the Democrat candidates will each have to spend a lot of energy and resources trying to win the party nomination, while McCain can begin his general campaign right now. Clinton and Obama will each maintain something of a negative campaign, while McCain can build up name recognition with the undecided voter as a positive force, memories of his own negative tactics fading as he moves ahead. Figuring out how to beat your party opponent and McCain from the Republicans at the same time, will be unquestionably be problematic for both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama.

Then there are Senator McCain’s own hard choices. McCain won the commanding lead he has, through courting the independent-minded and socially liberal Republicans and middle-ground voters, which may provide some help in the general election for him. But no Republican candidate can win the White House without making sure his party is solidly behind him. And that party support depends heavily on Conservative support. In 1988, almost all Conservatives supported G.H.W. Bush, and he cleared 53% of the Popular Vote, the last Presidential candidate to do so well. In 1992, almost no Conservatives supported “Poppy” Bush, and he barely cleared 37% of the Popular Vote. In 2000, Conservatives were lukewarm to George W. Bush, and he only barely won through a popular minority and Electoral majority. But in 2004, Conservatives poured support on for Dubya, and he cleared 51% of the Popular Vote. Having or not having the support of the Conservatives can therefore be said to mean at least 6% in the Popular Vote margin, and possibly double that. It is obvious that McCain cannot win without the Conservatives behind him, but if he chases the Conservatives, he may lose those social Liberals who would not already have chosen to support Obama or Hillary.

Also, it may be too late for McCain to decide he needs the Conservatives’ support. The war between McCain and Conservatives is not the result of one issue or one incident – John McCain went out of his way, well out of his way in some cases, to make enemies of Conservatives and to attack them, in some cases completely without cause. It’s not just McCain’s vote on some issues as the way he discussed them in public, viciously denouncing Conservatives time and time again. McCain also acted in a narcissistic manner on a regular basis, not merely supporting but leading a movement to deny Senate committee votes to judicial nominees, to prohibit support for public debate just before elections, and in regularly defying his Senate Majority Leader, GOP leadership, and even tossed off regular snipes at President Bush, displaying a petulance and temper ill-suited to a would-be head of state. McCain did not merely burn some bridges, he cratered the landscape around the wreckage, salted the ground and disparaged all efforts to commend him to a more gracious behavior. Just how Senator McCain will be able to construct a unified party in time to win the General Election seems at the moment to be beyond the scope of feasibility.

Conservative bloggers and pundits also have hard choices to make. Posting articles which tear down McCain may be factually accurate and idealistically suitable, but this could help the Democrats, which is universally a bad idea. Supporting McCain without pointing out the areas where he is well out of bounds, however, would be unethical and only encourage his arrogance and false assumptions – anyone want to bet that the Democrats are not ready to go after every one of McCain’s many weak spots? Bloggers also need to keep their emotions in check. Ann Coulter’s little hissy-fit about supporting a Democrat will do no good for the Conservative Movement, especially if some of her readers get the idea that voting Hillary or Obama would be any wiser than dousing yourself with gasoline, lighting up a stogie and tap-dancing through a minefield. Set a better example please, Ms. Coulter. Just as Dan Rather’s criminal attempt to influence the 2004 election with forged documents was unacceptable, those people who are fortunate enough to have a large following must be reminded that they are accountable for the course they counsel their people to follow. While it is true that Conservatives are not lockstep robots, it remains a penultimate sin for an icon to forget that he or she does influence millions of people. This makes the choices weighty, but we must in any case be aware of that fact.

Year of the Rat

In the traditional Asian calendar, there are twelve lunar years, in fashion similar to the Western zodiac of lunar months. Each of the years is assigned an animal, and people born in that year are said to carry the traits of that year’s animal. 2008 is the Year of the Rat. For Asians, the symbolic rat is charming and clever, has lots of friends and often a lot of money as well. The more I think about it, that fits the United States political scene just now. Certainly it is very easy to imagine any of the remaining major contenders for President as rattish in their character and behavior.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Un-Holidays

It’s a week away. Valentine’s Day, a day best known for overpriced guilt trips and mob killings, and about as sincere as a John McCain tribute to President Reagan. We celebrate the real holidays for a variety of solid reasons, but Valentine’s Day stands out for its hypocrisy and mercenary character. We celebrate religious holidays because of our faith, and national holidays to remember veterans and great leaders, but somewhere along the way other ‘holidays’ got mixed in, fake ones which do nothing to celebrate or improve the character of our nation. There’s St. Patrick’s Day, a day best known for promoting the assumption that the Irish are drunks who like to wear green clothing. There’s April Fool’s Day, based on the premise that deceitful behavior and insulting gestures should be universally practiced and praised. There’s Cinco de Mayo, originally a very good celebration by Mexicans who recall the May 5 1862 victory of Mexican forces over France in the Battle of Puebla, which effectively confirmed Mexico’s freedom from foreign occupation, but which has in modern times become a celebration of beer and bad music. To that point, a number of American holidays have gone the same way, such as the many people who celebrate Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day without once visiting a veteran or a cemetary of those who died for our country. There is Groundhog Day, where millions of people take time out to respect the observational skills of a fat rodent, on the assumption that his behavior should direct their meteorological expectations. There is Earth Day, where millions of environmentally sensitive people take the opportunity to shout obscene-laced screeds at people who have been successful in their careers, and leave piles of refuse at their fairs and concerts, polluting the area far more heavily than usual in a gesture somehow meant to convey moral superiority. There is Arbor Day, which is largely ignored by people not really, really desperate for a reason to have a holiday, and on which day the original purpose (planting trees) is almost never remembered, much less performed. There is Labor Day, which is honored by new and bolder Union demands and by retail shopping sprees. There is United Nations Day (Oct. 24), which celebrates the defeat of the civilized world to the bureaucrats and the mandarins. And of course, there is also Halloween, a day created by costume supply stores and dentists and people who wish to defame Wiccans.

But for some reason Valentine’s Day seems the worst to me. A day controlled by the International Chocolate, Snotty Restaurant, and Jewelry Cartel, the day seems designed to play on all the worst human traits. Women get greedy for over-priced shiny rocks, men start dwelling on the (generally futile) hope that buying a negligee for $250 will lead to sex, and anyone who spends less than a week’s pay on the day is considered some kind of skinflint. Valentine’s Day is worse than the other holidays, because even from Elementary school you are expected to play along, enduring a day of Pink and Violet pastel hell where women demand equal rights, but also complete devotion and a set of luxurious amusements. Everything about Valentine’s Day is sexist and mercenary, but all to the benefit of the female. God help the man who fails the least whim of his paramour, let alone a man who wonders when it might be his turn to receive such extravagant and hedonist delights. As we all know well, men are never on the receiving end of such arrangements, except in certain sitcoms and professional athletes and musicians. Life imitates High School. That alone is reason to hate V-Day.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Stakes

It is well-known from my posts, that I do not support the candidacy of Senator John McCain for President of the United States. Other people have equally strong reasons for their dislike of Governor Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, or Congressman Ron Paul. Still others hope against hope that their chosen leader will yet join or rejoin the contest, such as those who say they will write in former Senator Fred Thompson’s name in their primary. Opinions, and emotions, have been strong among Republicans. To a point, this is all to the good, as such debate sharpens understanding of what our party stands for, and why. We will not choose a Republican version of John Kerry, just because someone has declared that he is the ‘most electable’. But that virtue only works to a point.

I believe that after today, the contest will still be in dispute, though someone will win the most of the contests decided on February 5. But it is entirely possible that McCain will dominate the primaries so strongly as to make it near-certain that he will win the nomination, or that Romney’s surge over the weekend will spur him on to a stunning advantage, or perhaps even Huckabee will produce a surprise as he did in Iowa. Regardless, after today Republicans will have to begin to come to grips with the coalescing of the ticket. There will be sharp disagreement on certain key issues, which simply cannot be glossed over, yet we must never, never forget that Hillary or Obama in the White House will certainly be worse than anything we would see from a Republican President. Whether or not we get a candidate who excites us, the lessons of 1976 and 1992 warn us that we cannot risk a Democrat in the White House, given the candidates they put up on their ticket.

The problem is, the Republican candidate – no matter whom he is – does not have the automatic right to support from the people who disapprove of him and disagree with his policies. All of the candidates still in the race on the Republican side have made statements to the effect that they are the most Reagan-like of the candidates. They should remember 1980, when Reagan took care to address the concerns of all Republicans, and to give fair hearing even to those opinions he did not share. Wheather McCain, Romney, or Huckabee, the candidate who wins the nomination must understand that double-talk or arrogance will not win over the Republicans not already on board, that no matter who wins the nomination they have a lot of work to do to mend fences, and that healing the divide in the party must be the top priority between winning the nomination and beginning the general campaign. Taking party support for granted only insures defeat, and the hardest truth is that no matter how much America needs a Republican President, the Republican candidate cannot win the White House simply by claiming the race is over and the party owes support to him, or by ignoring valid criticism and complaint. No one will be compelled to put away discontent or doubt of a candidate they did not support, so Reason alone may hope to settle the dispute. The party nominee, whomever he is, must be bold enough to stand against the Democrats’ onslaught of attacks and slime, yet must also be humble and open to the concerns of his whole party.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Government Spending Priorities

One thing that has puzzled me about Republicans in the last few years, has been spending. Like tax reform, we hear so much about how it’s got to change, yet little seems to change. But I also understand that to know how to solve a problem, you have to get a handle on the problem. So, I took a look to see where we’ve been spending money.

It’s interesting. Here’s a summary by Administration on what areas got money in the budgets. Because inflation is a factor to consider, I represent the numbers as percentage of the total budget, and show the categories which claimed 1% or more of the budget:

FDR (1940-45)
National Defense 70.8%
Physical Resources 5.8%
Human Resources 4.9%
Transportation 3.5%
International Affairs 1.6%
Social Services 1.4%
Environment 1.2%
Agriculture 1.2%

Truman (1946-52)
National Defense 37.3%
Human Resources 16.9%
Veterans Benefits 9.6%
International Affairs 6.8%
Physical Resources 4.4%
Transportation 1.8%
Environment 1.6%
General Government 1.6%
Social Security 1.5%
Agriculture 1.2%

Eisenhower (1953-60)
National Defense 43.9%
Human Resources 17.2%
Social Security 6.1%
Veterans Benefits 4.7%
Physical Resources 4.4%
Agriculture 2.7%
International Affairs 2.4%
Transportation 2.0%
Environment 1.1%

Kennedy (1961-63)
National Defense 33.4%
Human Resources 20.4%
Social Security 9.2%
Physical Resources 5.3%
Veterans Benefits 3.6%
International Affairs 3.0%
Transportation 2.8%
Agriculture 2.3%
Environment 1.3%
Science & Technology 1.2%

Johnson (1964-68)
National Defense 29.6%
Human Resources 21.1%
Social Security 9.4%
Physical Resources 6.1%
Veterans Benefits 2.9%
Transportation 2.7%
Science & Technology 2.7%
International Affairs 2.5%
Social Services 2.1%
Agriculture 1.7%
Environment 1.3%
Health 1.3%
Housing 1.2%

Nixon (1969-74)
Human Resources 28.0%
National Defense 22.4%
Social Security 11.2%
Physical Resources 5.2%
Social Services 3.0%
Veterans Benefits 2.9%
Transportation 2.3%
Health 2.2%
Medicare 2.0%
General Government 1.4%
Agriculture 1.3%
International Affairs 1.3%
Environment 1.2%
Energy 1.2%
Science & Technology 1.2%

Ford (1975-76)
Human Resources 31.7%
National Defense 14.8%
Social Security 11.7%
Physical Resources 6.3%
Veterans Benefits 2.9%
Social Services 2.9%
Health 2.4%
Medicare 2.4%
Transportation 2.1%
General Government 1.7%
Housing 1.5%
Environment 1.3%
International Affairs 1.1%

Carter (1977-80)
Human Resources 31.8%
National Defense 13.7%
Social Security 12.2%
Physical Resources 6.5%
Social Services 3.3%
Medicare 3.1%
Veterans Benefits 2.4%
Health 2.4%
Transportation 2.1%
General Government 1.5%
Environment 1.4%
Agriculture 1.2%
Community Development 1.2%
International Affairs 1.0%
Energy 1.0%

Reagan (1981-88)
Human Resources 32.7%
National Defense 17.1%
Social Security 13.3%
Medicare 4.4%
Physical Resources 4.4%
Health 2.4%
Social Services 2.1%
Veterans Benefits 1.9%
Transportation 1.8%
Agriculture 1.5%
Environment 1.0%
International Affairs 1.0%

G.H. Bush (1989-92)
Human Resources 33.8%
National Defense 15.0%
Social Security 13.2%
Physical Resources 5.3%
Medicare 5.2%
Health 3.4%
Housing 2.4%
Social Services 2.0%
Veterans Benefits 1.6%
Transportation 1.5%

Clinton (1993-2000)
Human Resources 38.5%
Social Security 14.1%
National Defense 11.0%
Medicare 6.8%
Health 4.9%
Physical Resources 2.7%
Social Services 1.9%
Veterans Benefits 1.6%
Transportation 1.6%

George W. Bush (2001-08)
Human Resources 38.0%
Social Security 12.8%
National Defense 11.4%
Physical Resources 3.1%
Medicare 7.3%
Health 5.8%
Social Services 2.2%
Veterans Benefits 1.6%
Transportation 1.7%
Justice Administration 1.0%

The key signals I see in these numbers are the biggest numbers, and what gets moved up and down as the years pass. “Human Resources” is just your basic government operating costs; cute, isn’t it, how the Federal Budget separates “General Government” from the cost of all those people, buildings, supplies and so on that make up the real cost of all those bureaucrats? The percentage of ‘HR’ of the total budget rises from 4.9% of the budget under FDR, all the way to 38.5% under Clinton. It is worth mentioning, that the only President in this track who reduced the proportion of ‘HR’ to the total budget, is George W. Bush, although it’s still an unsightly 38.0% of his budget. Also, you should look at Social Security and Medicare, which combined for less than 1 percent of FDR’s federal budget, but which increased every term on until it reached 20.1% of the federal budget under George W. Bush. Bear in mind that the President does not have control of the SSI and Medicare Budgets; only Congress can scale them back, and no Congress in memory has been in such a mood. Granted, Bush bears responsibility for the Prescription drug benefit package, but that may be balanced by his efforts to reform Social Security. On both ends of that point, it should be noted that Congress had the final say, and Congress clearly ignored its duty. Counting in the areas where the President has no or little control then (Human Resources, Physical Resources, Social Security and Medicare), we see that where FDR could address roughly 79.7% of the budget under his control, by the time we get to George W. Bush, he can only control about 23.7% of the budget. In real terms, this means that if a President wants to add resources to a priority goal, he has no choice but to increase the budget to do it.

It’s also interesting to see what got changed from President to President. Truman slashed military spending, but invested heavily in veteran benefits and the State Department. Eisenhower poured more money into Defense, but he also spent money on Agriculture. Kennedy focused on Science and diplomats, while LBJ built NASA and pursued his Great Society. Nixon focused on treaty organizations and government oversight of business and the environment, very much like McCain wants to do now. Ford slashed defense spending and focused on domestic issues, largely abandoning overseas initiatives which posed any apparent risk, much as Ron Paul says he would do. Carter spent more on researching alternative energy, and less on foreign commitments. Reagan did the opposite, rebuilding Defense and expanding U.S. interests abroad, while scaling back domestic government actions. G.H. Bush followed Reagan’s lead in spending, though he spent less on Defense. Clinton cut Defense to its smallest share of the budget since before World War 2, and spent more on infrastructure programs and health research. And George W. Bush renewed investments in Defense and trade agreements.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Primaries, Polls, and Position = Potential Problems?

The polls this year are a bit strange. Real Clear Politics shows McCain leading Romney in ten out of eleven states going into Super Tuesday, where twenty-one states will hold a caucus or primary to choose the Republican nominee for President. This would appear to be a commanding lead for McCain, and many pundits have gone so far as to claim the race is already over. What’s odd about that, is that discussions with Republicans shows a strong distaste in the party for McCain as the nominee, and many people have insisted they would never vote for McCain. So, how is it that the polls say something which is so different from sentiment among real people? Is there a ‘silent majority’ for McCain? Is there an effort by the polls to get McCain nominated? Is someone lying? On the available evidence and the history of past elections, the answer to all three questions would appear to be ‘no’.

To examine this farther, let’s look at California’s primary, where 173 delegates are at stake. That’s more than twice what any of the delegates has right now, and it’s the richest prize in Super Tuesday’s fat wallet of nomination support. RCP’s average shows McCain 5.0 percentage points ahead of Romney.

But when we look a bit closer, a different picture begins to appear. The RCP average is built from the major polls taken between January 29 and February 2; of those McCain’s range of support runs from 32% (Rasmussen) to 40% (Mason-Dixon), while Romney’s range of support runs from 24% (Field) to 37% (Reuters/CSpan/Zogby), which creates a statistical overlap of 66% (McCain has a 9-point range of support, but only the top 3% is higher than poll numbers reached by Romney in the same period). This is important, because polls are not static conditions but fluid; they change all the time, and a report from a polling agency is a snapshot of one look from one perspective – this is one reason why different polls will report different results, even when using the same methodology. Also, it should be observed that while McCain has the lead in California in 4 of the 5 polls used by RCP for their current average, the poll with the highest number of respondents and therefore the lowest statistical margin of error (the Reuters/CSpan/Zogby poll, with 1185 Likely Voters; the next highest is Rasmussen with only 652 Likely Voters), shows Romney leading McCain in California 37% to 34%. That poll is also the most recent.

I am not going to jump to conclusions from the Reuters/CSpan/Zogby poll, however, for a number of reasons. First, while I am confident that the major polls are doing their best to produce an authentic reflection of voter sentiment, it is never a good idea to depend on just one poll for your conclusions. Also, the R/C/Z poll notes that 13% of the voters are undecided, which is far greater than the difference spanning the two top candidates. Also, I have found in years past that no matter what the stated margin of error is, an analyst should not regard any poll as a significant indicator, when the margin between two candidates is 3 points or less. That’s not only because the margin of error is often that large or greater, but also because fluctuations in support can – even in a short time – change the picture substantially. And in the case of the California primary, there is another detail which drastically damages the validity of any poll reported up to now; the congressional district allocation of delegates.

Here’s the thing; the primary will award 173 delegates, which makes California arguably the most important state in the primary campaign. But the candidate who gets the most votes in California does not get all of those 173 delegates, at least not just because he has the most votes in the state. In fact, it is completely possible that a candidate could “win” California through popular support, but claim fewer delegates than an opponent. This is because the delegates are awarded in California on a congressional district basis. Each district will tally up its results and award delegates on the basis, solely, from that district’s election results. That makes California not one state primary, but in real practice it is 53 separate mini-primaries, which collectively will award the delegates. Anyone familiar with California knows that there are liberal areas of the state, and there are conservative areas of the state, and there are nutjob areas of the state; it would be hopelessly na├»ve for anyone to expect one candidate to win in every one of the congressional districts. The results of the primary are far too complex for opinion polling to give a clear and confident answer about who will claim the most delegates there.

Why don’t the media, or even the polls, tell you this? Because they are in the media business. Polling groups exist not just to collect and analyze data for their clients (who, by the way, are not the general public – you should always be wary of any information you get from a for-profit group for free), but to build their company name and sell attention. A poll which never says anything unexpected or controversial will never gain prominence. Also, the media in general makes its living by making clear statements. They would much rather sell a good story and admit later that they were wrong (like New Hampshire’s primary this year), than admit how much of their predictions are pure guesswork and assumption. The idea is to keep you interested. This is why stories about Britney outnumber stories about Darfur, for example.

I’d like to finish with a final caveat about the polls. The best poll I have ever seen, based on its methodology, its transparency of procedure, and its explanation of results, is the Gallup poll. However, even the Gallup poll has limits to how good its data can be found. In discussing its methodology of recent primary polling, Gallup reported the following Methodology in its daily tracking polls:

Methodology: Gallup is interviewing 1,000 U.S. adults nationwide each day during 2008. The results reported here are based on combined data from Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2008, including interviews with 1,080 Republican and Republican-leaning voters, and 1,205 Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters.”

The significance of that note comes from close examination of the statements. The respondents are not registered voters, or people who voted in the last election. In fact, to reach enough people for their poll results, the Republican and Democrat results are, well, diluted a bit to include “Republican-leaning” and “Democrat-leaning”, which when you think about it can be said to mean independents, and people who do not normally vote because they do not identify with either party’s values enough to call themselves Republican or Democrat directly. Thus, even the Gallup poll cannot be said to cleanly reflect the sentiments and opinions of mainstream Republicans and Democrats. Given the way the primaries are set up, these ‘Republican-leaning’ voters and ‘Democrat-leaning’ voters may be able to vote in their state’s caucus or primary, but history shows that people who do not strongly identify with a party or candidate are generally unlikely to take the time and trouble to vote. This is a final and significant point to consider when applying opinion poll reports to a projection of a primary election.