Saturday, May 30, 2009

The "Racist" Card, Kim Jong Il: Still Nuts

We are in the middle of what would historically be a fairly slow news period in the world of politics. Congress has been on recess the past week and we are far away from any meaningful elections (there are Gubernatorial primiaries in New Jersey at the beginning of June, but the results are fairly well a foregone conclusion that Corzine will be renominated by the Democrats and the alliterative Chris Christie will get the nod on the GOP side -- the general election is a far more intriguing race.) But it has not been quiet.

On "Reverse Racism"
I have to admit, I'm a little surprised by the ferocity of the conservative assualt on Supreme Court Justice Designee Sonia Sotomayor. She is certainly a left-leaning jurist, but certainly no more so than Ruth Bader Ginsberg was at the time of her near unanimous approval by the Senate. Her case load has actually by and large been pretty mundane. She has a compelling personal story. There is no doubt that she will eventually be confirmed. So what's going on here?

First, let me comment on WHO is doing the hatcheting. The perspective of Newt Gingrich and Tom Tancredo is interesting only that it is inflammatory. These two have as much to do with whether Sotomayor gets confirmed as you or I do. They are certainly entitled to share their opinions, but it is worth note that almost no Senators are leveling the criticism and certainly no one from a moderate state or district for whom there could actually be electoral reprecussions. In short, only the furthest right is really leveling the criticism.

But let's take a look at it anyway.

(1) "She's a Reverse Racist"
This argument, made forcefully by Gingrich and Tancredo as well as Rush Limbaugh, is hinged on two points. First, the quote "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life". Let's start by doing what no one in the media has apparently bothered to do and provide the whole context of the quote:

"Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.
Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.
However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."

Sounds a little different than jus the one clip you've heard, huh? If you actually read through it, it is clear to me that Sotomayor is talking about the value of diversity of EXPERIENCE. She explicitly points out that there have been many times that 9 white males have made the leap to put themselves in someone else's shoes, but (correctly in my view) theorizes that this is an extremely tough thing to do. She is making a pitch for diversity in a judigical branch that has historically had little. She says she HOPES that a wise latina woman with a specific set of experiences would use those to form better judgements than someone who has not had the benefit of those experiences.

Hardly a violently racist sentiment.

Newt, Rush, Tom and the gang say that if a white male had made such a statement, he would be instantly branded a racist. In context, the statement wouldn't really make much sense for a white male to make, given that there is no history of white males being excluded from the judiciary. I tried to think of a comparison that I could test, but I just can't.

Now, you are free to disagree with Sotomayor. Some believe that diversity is oversold, that 9 rational white males are ever bit as equipped to decide points of law and justice for all people of all races, just as well as a diverse court. I happen to disagree, but I can respect that point of view. I don't consider those people to necessarily be racists and I don't accept that I'm a racist for believing that there is valuing in having perspectives from people of different backgrounds on a court.

The second part of the "reverse racist" claim involves a case that she ruled on regarding the New Haven Fire Department. The New Haven department administered a test for promotions among their firefighters. When the tests were administered, no black applicants passed, while at least 20 white applicants passed it. The city decided to disregard the test results and issue no promotions. The white firefighters brought suit, claiming reverse discrimination.

Since, again, no one in the mainstream media has presented the actual legal context of this case, I'll give it a shot. The relevant laws to be interpreted are the series of Civil Rights Acts passed starting in the 60s and ending with the on signed into law by former President George H.W. Bush in 1991. The rules of the road are pretty simple:
(1) Any action that creates unequal impact between races is defacto discrimination
(2) Discrimination is illegal UNLESS it is necessary to enforce a bona fide requirement of the job

#1 means that if you test firefighters for promotion and only white applicants pass, it is, by legal definition, discrimination. #2 means that since we have established that the firefighter test was discriminatory, the onus is on the white firefighters to prove that the things that the test tested were actually necessary skills for the promotion in question.

Let me give you a few examples (one real, one constructed) to illustrate how these cases are decided:
(1) Griggs vs. Duke Energy, 1971
Duke Energy had a merit-based system for hiring line workers that required a high school diploma and a minimum score on an IQ test. As black high school graduation rates were significantly lower than those of whites, this had the effect of creating a mostly white work force. The Supreme Court ruled in this landmark case that a high school diploma was not a key skill requirement to be a line worker at Duke and therefore the discrimination was illegal.
(2) Hiring Auto Mechanics
You are an auto repair shop, hiring mechanics to work on cars with major malfunctions. You require a certification from an accredited auto repair training program for hiring. This will no doubt be discriminatory as far fewer women graduate from these programs than men. Likely you would win a court case and the discrimination would be excused as having been trained in auto repair is clearly a reasonable job requirement to do the job of a mechanic.

So where does the New Haven case fall on this spectrum? I'm not sure, actually. It probably falls somewhere in between. I don't claim to know what the relevant requirements are to be a Captain in a fire department or what the contents of the test were. The case is before the supreme court and they will ultimately make a ruling which may overturn Sotomayor's lower court ruling if they feel the firefighters have demonstrated the relevance of the test. But given this context, one can certainly understand Sotomayor's ruling and the New Haven Fire Department's holding up the promotions. This is a complicated judgement, but you can make either legal ruling and not be a racist.

The final criticism of Sotomayor surrounds a Duke University panel that she was on, during which she said that the appeals court is "where policy is made".

Since I couldn't find a transcript to give you her full remarks, I invite you to watch them at the link below:

Although she clearly says on the video that she is not advocating the Court of Appeals making law, I can see where this would give conservatives pause. It certainly appears that there is a nod and a wink about judicial activism here.

But can the party that brough us Bush vs. Gore, the greatest act of judicial activism of our lifetimes really have credible outrage on this topic?

My prediction remains unchanged: Sotomayor will be confirmed with around 70 votes.

North Korean Nukes
North Korea, despite urgings from the entire world (including China!) has gone ahead with a second, larger nuclear test. Kim Jong Il is clearly taunting the rest of the world. They have moved ahead with these tests, in spite of international pressure, because the world has not presented them with any clear consequences to moving ahead. They are already isolated in the world, so there is no trade for the U.S. to cut off. We certainly aren't going to wage war as our forces are already stretched thin and going after nuclear powers is generally a bad idea to begin with.

So what can we do?

#1 Use our remaining economic leverage
Get North Korea cut out of the world banking system. Letting them into international financial markets was a huge mistake of this past decade and we need to cut them off once and for all.
#2 Negotiate with the Chinese on restricting Korean trade
The country most important to North Korea's economy is China as it trades many basic staples with the North Koreans. Getting them cut off would bring the North Koreans back to the table.
#3 State uneqivocoal support for South Korea and Japan
Make it crystal clear that we will defend their interests and the North Koreans had better not threaten them

This is a thorny issue. I'm not sure the suggestions above will solve the problem, but they may help to contain it. It's a dangerous world and we don't need crazies like Mr. Kim Jong holding long-range nukes.

One thing we don't need to do is resurrect the waste of money missle defense system. That program has been a sinkhole of defense cash for over two decades now. It isn't going to solve the North Korean problem. Even if it somehow could work (it has been an abject failure so far), you can't shoot nukes down in the air without devastating consequences. The key is to stop the North Koreans from getting long range nukes, not explode them over cities once they do.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Designee

Court nominations, with the Supreme Court at the top, are arguably the most lasting impact that a President makes. Supreme Court justices can serve 20, 30 or even 40 years and shape constitutional and federal law in an extensive way.

Yesterday, President Obama announced his pick to replace retiring Associate Justice David Souter, Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd Circuit Federal Appeals Court.

I happen to think this is an outstanding pick for a number of reasons, both real and political.

First, Judge Sotomayor is incredibly qualified to be on the court. She has an A.B. from Princeton and her J.D. from Yale Law School. She served 6 years on the Federal District Court of New York. She has served on the 2nd Circuit for over 10 years. You really couldn't write a better resume, experience wise.

Second, her personal story is incredibly compeling. A child of Puerto Rican immigrants, growing up in the poorest neighborhoods of the South Bronx and rising to the top of her profession. Her obvious love for her mother. Whether you like her appointment or not, it is hard ot argue with her story.

Third, while liberal, she is not overly controversial. Sure, some Republicans will try to make hay over a reverse discrimination case that she had reversed on appeal. Sure, there is some old video from a college forum where she suggests that courts make policy (as if that is some kind of secret.) But this is pretty darn benign stuff. She really hasn't ruled on any of the truly controversial issues of the day. Her opinions are certainly left-leaning but are fairly mainstream. There just really isn't that much for conservatives to rally against, although certainly the Christian right will try, as they presume (most likely correctly) that she would vote to uphold Roe vs. Wade. She was put in the Federal Judiciary by George H.W. Bush and then promoted by Bill Clinton, two pretty centrist guys in the grand scheme of things.

Fourth, she adds needed diversity to the court that is also politicially compelling. As I noted in an earlier blog, Hispanics are the largest minority in the country, now be a reasonably large margin. Yet she is the first Supreme Court Nominee of Hispanic Heritage. She is also only the third woman ever picked (okay, fourth, if you count a certain ill-fated Bush nominee.) None of this would matter if she were underqualified. But, trust me, it matters a lot to Hispanics and Women, both in feeling they have a stake in the system and in having role models for their daughters to look up to. It also puts the Republicans who would like to aggressively oppose her in a tough quandry. Hispanic voters will likely decide every national election for the foreseeable future. They voted in droves for Obama. Republicans need to reunite with the socially conservative Catholic vein that runs through the hispanic community. That becomes a lot harder if they trash a pillar of the Hispanic community, who also happens to be Catholic.

The President has requested of the Senate that hearings be held in time to seat Judge Sotomayor by the time that the SCOTUS comes back into session in July. Republicans have started to complain that this provides insufficient time to prepare, which, of course, is nonesense, since the Senate has already twice vetted her record for Federal appointments and over 2/3rds of the Senate is still there from the last vote.

My prediction: there will be some grand-standing by conservative Senators in very safe states. There will be others who quietly vote against her. But in the end, moderates like Snowe and Collins, moderate-conservatives like Murkowski and Graham and conservatives who have consistently held the belief that qualified nominees should be pushed through even if they are not ideologically aligned such as Hatch and Hutchinson join every Democratic Senator (Nelson being the only potential hold-out) to push her nomination through with 70 votes or so. No serious attempt at a fillibuster will be made because the votes aren't close and Republicans would rather save themselves the embarrassment on a public about-face on fillibustering judges when they have no chance of winning the fight.

Welcome to the court, Judge Sotomayor.

With Sotomayor on the court, Obama will have his first Supreme Court appointment to join a court that will be comprised of 2 appointed by George W. Bush, 2 appointed by Bill Clinton, 1 appointed by George H.W. Bush, 2 appointed by Ronald Reagan and 1 appointed by Gerald Ford. The party appointment will shift from 7 Republican-appointed and 2 Democratic-appointed to 6 Republican-appointed and 3 Democratic-appointed, although it will likely not disrupt the ideological balance of 4 judicial liberals, 4 judicial conservatives and 1 key moderate (Justice Anthony Kennedy) for although David Souter was appointed by George H.W. Bush, he has largely aligned with the liberal wing of the court.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

2010 Congressional Projection Update

It is still a long way until the 2010 election (526 days to be precise), but as usual, I'm on top of the latest polls to give you a view of what is to come. As things stand today, things still look pretty bleak for the GOP. The battlefield and public opinion are still not in their favor and I don't see a path at present for them to retake either house of congress. Of course, 526 days is a lifetime in politics, so everything could still change, but here are how things are stacking up today.

The Senate
Key Changes from Last Projection
Colorado -- moves from a toss-up to a lean Republican pick-up -- a new poll shows Sen. Bennett (D) with a -7% approve minus disapprove. This one looks ripe for the taking.

Illinois -- moves from lean Democratic hold to toss-up -- Sen. Burris (D) is so unpopular that he must be defeated in the primary for the Dems to have a chance and the eventual nominee may be wounded, even in this very blue state.

Kentucky -- moves from toss-up to lean Democratic pick-up -- Sen. Bunning (R) is the most unpopular member of congress and still says he is running -- he losses in polling to all possible Democratic contenders. Similar to Illinois in reverse, the GOP must get him gone to hold the seat.

Ohio -- moves from toss-up to lean Democratic pick-up -- state continues to trend blue in this open seat and potential match-ups show the Democrats with a 6% or 7% lead.

North Carolina -- moves from toss-uo to lean Republican hold -- recent polls show Sen. Burr (R) with a 4% to 5% lead over likely challengers. This one is still close, but back in the GOP column

Georgia -- moves from safe Republican hold to lean Republican hold -- shockingly, this race appears to be within 5%.

So, the state of things is:
Safe Democratic Holds (8)
Hawaii, Maryland, New York (2), Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin

Lkely Democratic Holds (5)
Delaware, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania

Lean Democratic Holds (2)
Arkansas, California

Lean Democratic Pick-ups (2)
Kentucky, Ohio

Toss-ups (2D, 2R)
Illinois (D), Connecticut (D), New Hampshire (R), Missouri (R)

Lean Republican Pick-up (1)

Lean Republican Hold (3)
North Carolina, Florida, Georgia

Likely Republican Hold (5)

Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota

Safe Republican Hold (6)
Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah

Current Senate
(assuming Al Franken is seated): 58 Democrats, 40 Republicans, 2 Independents (both caucus with Democrats -- 1 Socialist, 1 Independent Democrat)

Projected Range 2010 Senate:
57-61 Democrats, 37-41 Republicans, 2 Independents

Central Projection
(evenly splitting toss-ups): 59 Democrats, 39 Republicans, 2 Independents

So at least now, Republicans don't stand to gain much ground and could actually lose a few seats. Mid-term elections historical tend to, but do not always, favor the party out of power. The best case scenario for the GOP is probably for them to pick-up all the toss-ups and move the polls about 5-6% where they could pick-up all the "lean Democratic" seats as well. This scenario would see them potentially 7 additional Senate seats, which would leave the chamber with 50 Democrats, 48 Republicans and 2 Independents. Still Democratic control, with the Independents caucusing with Republicans, but it would give them all kinds of new options in terms of fillibustering legislation that they do not have today. I don't consider this the likely scenario at this point (the most likely scenario is my central projection), but it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility that the GOP could gain 5 to 6% nationally between now and November 2010.

The House

Current generic polling shows a range in the polls of Democrats +1% to Democrats +8%, with a central average of Democrats +5%. This gives us the following range projection range:

Potential Range: from +1 Democrats to +22 Republicans

Central Projection: +8 Republicans

Current Make-up of the House:
257 Democrats, 178 Republicans

Projection Range:
235-258 Democrats, 177 to 200 Republicans

Central Projection:
249 Democrats, 186 Republicans

2008 was an absolutely horrid year for the GOP in House races, with the Democrats winning over 55% of the vote nationally for House seats and sweeping in the largest Democratic majority since the 1992 elections. Of course, in a historical testament to how quickly things can change, you will recall that Democrats turned around and lost the house in 1994 with former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R)'s Contract with America. I could point out that most of the Contract, which included a balanced budget ammendment to the constitution, repeal of the marriage penalty, tort reform and congressional term limits was never passed (although other elements, such as a child tax credit, did become law), but that is beside the point. A focused Republican party with a clear vision could take back seats. The House is currently more Democratic than the country's core philsophy, so I expected the GOP to make gains in 2010. Whether they are the modest gains I am presently projecting or something more substantial depend on the GOP's vision and the President's performance over the next 2 years. I do not, at present, see a path for the GOP to retake the House, but as I said, at lot can happen in 526 days.

The Upcoming Supreme Court Fight
Word is that President Obama may name his nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice David Souter as early as tomorrow. The leading candidates are rumored to be Sonia Sotomayor (a liberal federal circuit judge of Puerto Rican heritage), Diane Wood (a moderately liberal federal appeals court judge), Elena Kagan (U.S. solicitor general) and Jennifer Granholm (Democratic governor of Michigan, born in Canada.) Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic ever appointed to the high court and all 4 of the reported nominees would be only the third woman appointed (Sandra Day O'Connor was the first appointed by Ronald Reagan and Ruth Bader Ginsberg appointed by Bill Clinton was the second.)

Republicans such as Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) have already threatened a fillibuster, although it appears pretty clear that barring an unqualified nominee, they would not have the votes to block a nominee as the 57 Democrats would likely be completely unified, the 2 Independents are likely to vote with the Democrats and moderate Republicans such as Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) are unlikely to vote to uphold a fillibuster for a qualified nominee.

It does show how quickly things change. I recall a few short years ago, the Republican argument that fillibusters were wrong for judges and threatening "the nuclear option" to end the fililbuster for judicial nominations. Democrats decried this potential tactic as an affront to Democracy. Funny how both parties have now exactly reversed their traditions.

Oh well, prepare for some contrived drama.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Popularity & Stimulus Updates, The Commencement Speeches, Obama v. Cheney

It is day 125 of President Obama's administration, 8.6% of the way through his elected term and 527 days until the mid-term congressional elections.

Presidential Approval
President Obama's approval has been tracking very consistently since early April, with his approve minus disapprove (percentages of poll respondents approving minus percentage disapproving) continuing to average right around 30%. It had appeared initially as I wrote earlier, that he was bumping up in the month of May, but that has abated and he is tracking almost exactly where he was in April.

Here's our monthly average view. As you can see, the averages are almost identical for April and may, with April's approve minus disapprove of 30.4% and May at 30.6%.

As for our polling methodology breakdown, here are the latest polls:
Adult Americans -- +33%
Registered Voters -- +30%
Likely Voters -- +16%

President Obama continues to be more popular with the general population than he is with people who are actually likely to vote in an election, which is not unusual for a Democrat (as we've discussed previously, demographics favoring Republicans are much more reliable on election day than demographics favoring Democrats, although that has shifted somewhat in the past few years.) Under the toughest test, likely voters only, he still is running 9% ahead of his actual vote count in November, which would mean if an election where held today, he would win all the states he won last November plus Montana, Georgia and Arizona, the Dakotas and South Carolina.

Stimulus Spending Update
As of the latest government issued reports, the stimulus spending totals now stand as follows:
Authorized: $116.1 billion (23.3%) -- up from $88.1 billion in our May 9th update
Spent: $31.1 billion (6.2%) -- up from $28.6 billion in our May 9th update

There has been increased media scrutiny of late surrounding the pace of the stimulus spending. First of all, I'm disappointed in the lack of accuracy in some of the reports coming from news outlets like CNN, who have been reporting the spending figures as a percentage of the total stimulus package rather than as a percentage of the spending portion of the package. Bear in mind $288 billion of the $787 billion package was in the form of tax cuts and tax credits, which took effect in April. Reporting only the spending as a percentage of the overall $787 billion is a distortive view of what is actually happening.

Secondly, I actually think the package is being managed extremely well so far. There have been some hiccups, to be sure (several million approved for programs that are slated to be cut from the President's budget next year, for instance), but by and large, programs are being approved at a relatively speedy pace and spending is on track with what was committed (approximately 40% in 2009, 50% in 2010 and 10% in 2011 was the commitment in the bill.) $499 billion is a massive amount of money and while we want the stimulative effects as quickly as possible, it is also important that the money be used for public good and I'm not in favor of just dumping it without proper thought.

There have been signs of late, with weak home starts, continued high unemployment claims and disappointing retail sales figures that the economic recovery is not as strong or coming as fast as initially expected. The banking sector appears to be stabilizing, with banks successfully raising capital and starting to pay back TARP funds and lending flowing much more freely. But the massive unemployment hit brought on by the bankruptcy of Chrysler and the likely pending bankruptcy of GM will still have to be absorbed and consumers will need to start spending and buying homes for the economic recovery to have legs.

In spite of the new news, I still maintain my projection that slightly positive GDP growth will return in the third quarter of this year, but unemployment will continue to rise until approximately year end and reach around 10% before falling modestly in the first half of next year.

We aren't out of the woods yet and the stimulus money clearly needs to get moving in my mind to restore the labor markets, which are ultimately the engine of consumer spending.

In the future, as we get more data and history, I'll ad some graphs to this recurring section of the blog.

The Commencement Addresses
President Obama's commencement speeches at Arizona State University and Notre Dame last week brought differing controversies.

First, the Arizona State controversy centered around the state declining to give the President an honorary degree on the basis that his "achievements were yet to come". Liberals seized on this, noting the broad group of people that had been granted honorary degrees by the university and also citing, humorously, that Arizona State generally ranks higher on lists of party schools than on lists of academic accomplishments. I personally think this is much ado about nothing. Honorary degrees are meaningless gestures and whether President Obama gets one from Arizona State means nothing one way or the other. The speech went fine and I'm sure this whole story will be quickly forgotten.

The commencement at Notre Dame was far more interesting. The controversy and protest surrounded President Obama's support for abortion rights and the Catholic church's strong anti-abortion / pro-life position. President Obama handled the controversy very well, focusing his speech on finding common ground to reduce the number of abortions ni this country. The media, showing their usual short memory, treated this speech like it was breakthrough thinking, forgetting that former President Bill Clinton gave a similar speech in 1993. This is the right tone to set in this contentious debate with no easy resolution, but let's not oversell things. The words are nice and were well received at Notre Dame, but as soon as President Obama appoints a Supreme Court justice who will likely be solidly pro-Roe v. Wade, I expect all the good feelings to end.

Obama v. Cheney
President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney's dueling speeches last week illustrated the stark contrast in this administration's approach to interrogation and the last. Cheney has been all over the news lately defending his administration's policies and criticizing the current administration as making the country "less safe".

Let me summarize the competing remarks. Cheney contends that enhanced interrogation has saved thousands of American lives by providing critical information about Al Queda and that it was absolutely necessary to protect the country. President Obama has contended that torture does not work and should never be a part of America's policy.

I have stated before that I strongly believe the moral issues surrounding terror supercede any debate around its effectiveness. Layer on top of this that the majority of CIA and FBI operatives appear to have concluded that torture is ineffective and the emperical evidence that we tortured the same few individuals dozens of times to seemingly no effect and I don't think this debate is close.

I do appreciate, however, that Mr. Cheney has toned down his rhetoric surrounding Obama in recent weeks. Defending his administration's policies is fair enough, when he led with uninhibited criticizism of the Obama Administration, it just felt like a lot of sour grapes and fairly classless.

Some have speculated that Mr. Cheney's sudden high profile is indicative of a potential run for the Presidency in 2012. Forget it. Cheney isn't interested, the GOP isn't interested in having him and he could never win. Take Mr. Cheney's comments for what they are, his attempt to shape the legacy of the administration he served in.

What to Do in GITMO -- the NIMBY Syndrome
Closing GITMO in the next year is going to be harder than anticipated. The senate nearly unanimously voted to block funding for the administrations plan to close the base, citing the need for more information about where the prisoners will go.

Senator and Representatives of both parties have been clear that they don't want suspected terrrorists in federal prisons in their backyards. This is silly political posturing, plain and simple. No one has ever escaped from a federal supermax prison. We've housed Timothy Mcveigh, Jeffrey Dahmer and all sorts of charecters that are very scary in those prisons. They are a much better solution for terrorism suspects that the embarrassment in GITMO. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who as you recall, was appointed by President Bush, has said as much.

President Obama has also hinted in recent days that there may be some prisoners who are never charged and never released. This policy is just as wrong now as when it was Bush administration policy. If we have credible evidence against prisoners, let's bring them to justice. If we do not, we need to release them. Holding suspects indefinitely without charge is unjust and un-American. Don't think for a second that this precedent won't have chilling implications on the rest of our criminal justice system. Innocent until proven guilty and the right to a speedy trial are the bedrock of our justice system. I continue to be disturbed by how Obama Administration policy feels like it is drifting towards Bush Administration policy. He promised us better.

Megan McCain, a Breath of Fresh Air
I saw an interview with Megan McCain, the daughter of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on the Colbert Report this past week. She represents exactly what the Republican party needs to be doing. She unabashedly described herself as a "pro-sex, pro-gay marriage Republican". She spoke elloquently about the need for Republicans to focus on the concept of liberty and limited government and how that should extend to social issues as well as economic. She is a young, attractive, well spoken woman with views that mirror broader trends in the country. She has a much more compelling vision and presents a much better image than the bitter image of Dick Cheney and Ann Coulter (and sorry Ann, she is far more attractive than you are as well.)

Republicans would do well to listen to her if they are looking to engineer a comeback in 2010 and 2012, ditch the far religious right and speak about the power of limited government. It isn't a new concept, but Republicans could upstage the Democrats by taking social issues off the table and focusing the discussion on the need for better fiscal management.

Barney Frank, Defender of Freedom
I have had problems with Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) in the past. Nearly 20 years ago, he was tied up in an ugly male prostitution ring. He appears to have been asleep at the switch while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were loosen lending standards in a reckless way.

But there is one issue very personal to me on which Rep. Frank deserves a ton of credit -- online gambling rights. During the Bush Administration, an awful law was passed that made it illegal for banks to process transactions from online gambling houses. Of course, the law hasn't worked as various offshore third parties have stepped in as intermediaries to keep the industry alive, but it has added cost to the system and made law-abiding citizens who enjoy playing poker online for $5 at a pop into technical criminals.

The law is wrong, but there is very little public sentiment or lobbying money behind it. Rep. Frank is fighting hard to overturn this law and may be successful.

With a $1.5 trillion deficit is there any doubt that we could use tax revenue from a legal, legitimate, regulated online gaming industry? Don't we all deserve the right to decide for ourselves if we should gamble.

Keep fighting the good fight, Barney. I'm with you.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

New Laws, New Regulations, A Look at Bipartisanship, A Memorial Day Tribute

4 New Laws Signed + CAFE Standards
It has been a flurry of activity at the White House this week, with President Obama signing into law 4 pieces of legislation: The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, The Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, The Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act and The CARD Act. The President also announced sweeping regulatory reform to auto efficiency standards, which will raise the required fuel efficiency for cars to 39 miles per gallon by 2016 (truck efficiency would be required to go up to 29 MPG.)

The CAFE Standards
Dealing with the CAFE standards first, they have been criticized in some conservative circles as overly expensive, as increasing the risk of auto fatalities and even in at least one case, as being anti-freedom.

I'm a strong supporter of aggressive increases in CAFE standards, which have not changed significantly since 1985, for several reasons.

First, increasing fuel economy is the most powerful step that we can take to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The vast majority of oil imported is for automobile consumption, so increases in fuel efficiency directly impact the power that countries like Saudi Arabia have over our economy.

Second, automobiles account for over half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing efficiency is the surest way to reduce the speed of global climate change.

Let me quickly address the criticisms of the regulation. First, the overly expensive argument is a red herring. There are inexpensive vehicles on the market NOW that get 39 mpg. Will the cost of 20 mpg SUV's go up under this scheme? Absolutely. But will the cost of basic transportation increase? No, it will go down, because more fuel efficiency vehicles will be cheaper to operate.

Second, the safety argument. It is inarguable that if a Mini Cooper and a Ford Explorer have an accident, the Mini Cooper will not fare well. But this isn't a logical argument for bigger cars. Two Ford Explorers in a crash do about the same as two Mini Coopers in a crash. The safety factor now is a risk now for small cars because there are behemoths on the road. Remove the behemoths and small cars are very safe. They control better, stop faster, etc. The roads would be much safer if we all drove Mini Cooper (see auto safety in Western Europe if you don't believe me.)

Finally, the personal freedom issue. Nobody is saying that you can't have your Hummer. We are just saying that the economic incentives are going to force you to pay more for a gas-guzzling, road destroying vehicle that is dangerous to others on the road. C'est la vie. Aren't these the same conservatives who said that we should sacrifice our individual liberties in the name of national security?

The Laws
The four laws were passed with pretty bi-partisan support. They essentially are as follows:
(1) The Fraud Recovery and Enforcement Act -- beefs up the authority and funding of federal regulators to go after mortgage fraud.
(2) The Helping Americans Save Their Homes Act -- provides incentives for mortgage companies to renegotiate with homeowner's whose houses are "underwater" (their home value has dropped to the point that their equity is negative) rather than move forward with foreclosure.
(3) The Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act -- creates additional oversight for weapons systems projects with an aim at reducing cost overruns
(4) The CARD Act -- places restrictions on banking practices pertaining to credit cards, most notably restricting interest rate increases to accounts more than 60 days delinquent and requiring notice of rate increases.

The Bipartisan Index
The fact that these four acts were fairly bipartisan in nature caused me to wonder, how can you define a measure in terms of bipartisanship? As you know, I believe meaningful terms have to be measureable, so I quickly worked at coming up with a mesaure.

I am proud to present you with a measure for legislations: the bipartisanship index. The way the index is calculated is simple. The index runs from 0 (completely bipartisan) to 1 (completely partisan). The scoring is based 50% on the final vote in the House and 50% on the final vote in the Senate (this is done so as not to overweight the House as both bodies represent the entire country, although the Senate has only 100 members to the House's 435.) In each body the index is calculated as:
absolute value (% of Democrats voting for the bill - % of Republicans voting for the bill)

This gives equal weight to both parties -- although the Republicans are out of power now, in terms of "bipartisanship", they are equally important as the Democrats.

Here are a few theoretical examples of how a bill would be scored:
(1) Example 1 -- all members on both sides of the aisle in both parties vote for a bill
Score: 0 -- completely bipartisan
(2) Example 2 -- exactly half of members on both sides of the aisle vote for a bill
Score: 0 -- perfectly bipartisan
(3) Example 3 -- 90% of Democrats and 10% of Republicans vote for a bill
Score: 0.8 -- fairly partisan

To provide a verbal description of the scores, I came up with:
0 -- completely bipartisan
0.01-0.25 -- highly bipartisan
0.25-0.50 -- bipartisan
0.50-0.75 -- fairly bipartisan
0.75-0.90 -- fairly partisan
0.90-0.99 -- highly partisan
1 -- completely partisan

For purposes of this score, I ignore Representatives and Senators not voting or voting "present".
I also ignore Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), even though they usually vote with Democrats as they are technically independents. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) is counted as a Republican up until his switch, after which he is counted as a Democrat.

Let's look at the major pieces of legislation that the President has signed and look at their scores:
Highly Partisan Legislation
Lilly Leadbetter Fair Pay Act 0.94
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act .94

Fairly Partisan Legislation
Children's Health Insurance Reauthorization Act 0.79
Omnibus '09 Appropriations Act* .89

Fairly Bipartisan Legislation
Omnibus Public Lands Management Act .64
Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act .53
CARD Act of 2009 -- Firearms in Public Parks Provision** .52

Bipartisan Legislation
DTV Delay Act .41

Highly Bipartisan Legislation
Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act .22
CARD Act of 2009 -- Main Bill** .22
Helping Families Save Their Homes Act .20

Completely Bipartisan Legislation
Small Business Act Temporary Extension .00
Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act .00

* Note that this act does not appear on the White House website with the other acts, although the President did sign it. Perhaps he would rather that we forget about that pork-laden bill to finish out the '09 budget year.
** The CARD Act of 2009 was voted on in two pieces, the central bill and an amendment to allow firearms in national parks

Of the 13 final votes (on 12 bills because of the separated vote on the CARD bill), only 2 fell into the highly partisan category and only 4 were categorized as "partisan".

Overall on these laws (I'm counting each vote on the CARD bill at 50%, since it really only was 1 law), the average is 0.49.

So, despite all the rhetoric, the point is, bipartisanship is not dead and Democrats and Republicans are actually working together to pass some significant legislation that you don't hear about on the nightly news. Of course, the biggest piece of legislation, the stimulus package, was the most partisan of all the votes, but I see real opportunity for more common ground in these numbers.

Memorial Day
I would be remiss if I didn't take time to pay tribute to the men and women in our armed services, both those serving and those fallen. These brave Americans defend our freedom and carry our flag abroad. They are heroes as young as 18, often put into terrible situations and the overwhelming majority respond with courage and character.

So, here's my Memorial Day wish list:
(1) That we will do something once and for all about Veteran's Benefits. Our wounded soldiers deserve not to have to worry about how to pay for health care and where their next meal will come from.
(2) A permanent, significant pay hike for the enlisted. It is a crime that we have soldiers who have to go on food stamps to feed their families.
(3) An automatic grant of citizenship of immigrants who are awarded service medals. There are thousands of brave immigrants fighting for our country who have not been granted citizenship. If anybody has earned a right to be first in line, they have.

I have a lot to catch up on next post, stimulus updates, the dueling Obama/Cheney speeches, the commencements, popularity poll updates, etc., but for now, enjoy your long weekend if you get one.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Bring On the Soda Tax!, More Pelosi Nonesense, Our Worst Law

Welcome to the Club, Sugar Junkies
The trial balloon floated from congress regarding imposing a $0.005/ounce tax on high sugar and high corn syrup drinks has caused quite a stir. The theory went that it could help finance universal
health care (let's be clear, it would pay for only a tiny fraction of the total cost) while at the same time discouraging excess soda consumption which has been linked to a host of health problems, including obesity and diabetes.

Conservatives and the soda lobby were in arms immediately. What right does the government have to tell people how to live? How dare they invade personal health decisions like that?

To all of you in shock that your 16 ounce soda might go up by 8 cents, I say, WELCOME TO THE CLUB!

As I covered in an earlier column, tobacco smokers are the most vilified group in this country (okay, child molesters might be ahead, but not by much!) On a pack of cigarettes, smokers pay a $1.01/pack federal excise tax, or about a 50% tax on the untaxed retail price. In addition, the average state tax is $1.15/pack (it's over $2.50/pack in New Jersey!), meaning smokers on average pay an over 100% tax. The proposed soda tax, by contrast, equates to about a 12% add-on to retail soda prices, about the same rate we tax gasoline.

So, I say, bring it on, but don't stop with soda. How about an excise tax on all corn syrup and sugar? We could pay for a lot of health care and encourage healthier diets. Don't like it? Shouldn't have stood silent while smokers got taxed like crazy.

Does Anyone Understand what Pelosi is Saying?
I was never told about waterboarding! Wait, I was told that it was considered legal by the Bush administration, but not that it might be used! Wait, I was told it might be used, but not that it would be used! Wait, the CIA lied to me! Now, where is that private jet?

Does anybody believe the words coming out of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is saying? Could she be more transparent with her backtracking?

It is quite obvious to me that she was complicit in the Bush administration's torture of prisoners. Shame on her.

Time for a change at the top in congress.

The Worst Law in the Land
With a Democratic congress and a Democratic President, Gays in the Military is still the law of the land several months later as we continue to fire soldiers and Arabic translators for no crime other than admitting they are gay.

I realize this issue was a sticking point in former President Bill Clinton's first 100 days, but enough is enough. President Obama should immediately halt all prosecutions of military homosexuals and work to reverse the law with all due haste. I realize, the House would have to stop passing resolutions congratulating the anniversary of the American Dental Association for a day (an actual resolution passed this week), but I think the sacrifice is worth it.

I'd like to see some moral leadership from our President here. Gay members of the military deserve more respect than this. And American deserves better than to have useful resources dismissed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sorry, Mr. President, But I'm Not Happy

It is a matter of published record in this space that I supported President Barack Obama's candidacy for President this past November. Since taking office, I've had a mixture of praise and criticism for his policies, but the balance of my commentary has been more positive than not (I gave the President a "B" on my 100 days report card, and I believe that this is reflective of the aggregate of my commentary during this period.)

Today, I'm not happy with our President. I'll cover three topics: the release of torture photographs, proposals to limit incomes in the financial sector and the current state of the federal budget. Two of my three criticisms are from the right, one (the first), is from the left.

Where is the Transparency?
The President's decision that he announced today that he will fight the court-mandated release of photographs from military investigations into prisoner torture is wrong and a full-scale flip flop. The President announced the decision today, claiming that the photos added no new information to the already-released torture memos and that releasing them would put American troops at risk by inciting Al Queda.

This is same sort of utter nonesense that Republicans cited when the President released the torture memos. Let me summarize this theory: Al Queda will want to kill troops more if they see photos? So....they don't already want to kill Americans? Abu Grahib photos and the torture memos didn't incite them but this well? AND there is no new informaiton? It is utterly illogical.

Let's pretend for a second that I accept the premise that release of the photos will galvanize Al Queda (which, if you were unclear in the last paragraph, I do not.) The photos should still be released because it is the RIGHT THING TO DO. We claim to be a free society, with free speech, accountability in government and that we pursue truth. Truth is an important value. If there really are no new secrets here, let's have the facts. Would we demand any less if this were another country?

That President Obama has flip-flopped on this issue is particularly distasteful. He is now attempting to flaunt a court order. Let's hope the courts force his hand. Does this sound a lot like the last 8 years to anybody else?

Limiting Incomes in the Financial Industry
A proposal floated as a trial balloon by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to cap executive pay in the financial industry goes too far -- way too far. Let's be clear here -- I'm not talking about companies taking TARP money. My view is that companies that take taxpayer money are subject to a totally different set of rules -- if you take my money, you are going to be subject to my views on compensation, governance, etc. What I'm talking about here is a proposal to cap executive pay for financial companies that take no federal money.

This proposal undermines the underpinnings of free market capitalism, namely the concept that you can sell something (your labor) for any amount another private enterprise is willing to pay. Do I think that executive compensation has become outrageous in some circles? Absolutely! But that is an issue for the owner's (the shareholders and the board) to manage. Government regulations capping pay for entirely private firms is a dangerous slippery slope. Do we want the government deciding what your job is worth? How would unions feel if the government stepped in and capped industrial wages to keep industries competitive? How would you feel if your pay were capped by the government?

This proposal goes WAY too far and should be quickly discarded.

The Mess of a Federal Budget
This year, the federal government will borrow almost half the money that it spends. Deficits are bad for a ton of reasons, as they not only create a massive liability for future generations, they suck up investment capital that could be going to productive ends like innovation and capital investment.

Yet, the President has yet to present a real deficit reduction plan. Tinkering around with $17 billion in cuts is insufficient. I realize that the tax base collapsed, large stimulus spending was necessary and I certainly don't hold the President accountable for today's budget. But a crisis of this magnitude requires leadership and I've yet to see anything resembling a comprehensive plan for how we are going to get back on track.

Why can't President Obama show us a 10-year budget that gets us back in balance? I suspect it is because he has been unwilling, at least so far, to make the tough trade-offs between spending priorities and tax rates on the middle class.

Simply put, there is no way to do universal healthcare, maintain entitlements, balance the budget and not raise taxes on the middle class. As I've said for a long time, let's come clean about these trade-offs and have a national discussion. Let's quit pretending we can do all of these things without consequence.

I Don't Regret my Vote
Having said all of this, I am still glad I support the President in November. I believe he has done a great deal of good (social policy changes, the stimulus package, foreign policy direction, a very capable cabinet) and is performing far, far better than his predecessor. I hope he will continue to do a lot of promised good.

But I need to call them like I see them, and this week, I'm not liking what I'm seeing.

Monday, May 11, 2009

I Can't Believe I'm Writing About a Beauty Pagent

Miss California
Let me declare, up front, so there is no lack of clarity about this blog, that I think beauty pagents are among the stupidest things on the planet. The Miss USA contest is a show that is about beautiful women in bikinis, viewed by people who are too repressed to actually just pick up an SI Swimsuit issue (or something more racey) but prefer to have their soft-core pornography couched in the pretense of inane questions about world peace and talent competitions that put the rejects from American Idol to shame. It doesn't matter to me one bit who becomes Miss USA, Miss America, Miss World or any of those other crowns.

Having said all of that, I feel compelled to write about the controversy surrounding Miss California. I'm not particularly interested in the ins and outs of her being disqualified for naked photos (again, these pagents are for people who want to view porn without viewing porn, so out-and-out nudes are a no no.) I'm very interested, however, in the flash point surrounding her answer around gay marriage.

I am repeatedly on record as a strong advocate for gay marriage. I believe it to be a fundamental civil right issue. I've yet to hear a credible, logical explanation for why gay marriage should be illegal (most of my debates on this subject devolve into "God says it's wrong", a basis on which I can't have a logical debate.) Incidentally, if you do have a credible, logical explanation that doesn't rely entirely on religious faith, please drop me a line, I promise to give it due time.

In spite of my own strong pro-gay marriage views, I was frankly shocked by the venom from the left directed at Miss California for expressing, when asked, that she believed marriage should be between a man and a woman. While it wasn't a view I agreed with, it frankly, is a view still shared by the majority of Americans.

My first point of discussion was why she was asked the question in the first place. I couldn't for the life of me, figure out why such a sensitive political topic was fair game in a beauty pagent. Oh, but Miss USA is a role model, my friend replied. We have to make sure that she models, and I quote "the right values". This, my friends, is a very slippery slope. Are we really going to screen all our role models for political acceptability? You can't be a role-model if you aren't pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-death penalty and pro-stimulus? I thought Democrats were the pro-first ammendment party. My friend countered whether I would be okay with a Miss USA who was against interracial marriage. A fair point in that it made me think about it a little differently. I'd be a lot more offended. And I struggle to draw a moral distinction between the two. But, ultimately, I think my answer is the same...her views on marriage aren't relevant to a beauty contest.

My friend then proceeded to go on a rant about not giving podiums to people who are haters. This strikes me as insanely harsh. All Miss California did was answer a question that she never should have been asked with the same answer that Barack Obama gave. The same answer Bill Clinton gave. The same answer Hillary Clinton gave. The same answer Al Gore gave. The same answer John Kerry gave. All these people are heros of the left but Miss California is an evil hater? Please.

So, as much as I'm in favor of gay marriage and as much as I disagree with Miss California, I do so respectfully. She never should have been asked about the topic and her answer certainly should not have disqualified her for winning. If we start to apply group think and politically correct litmus tests across society, we stifle free debate and free speech. Those means are far worse than any progressive ends.

And by the way, doesn't the fact that Donald Trump gets to decide whether she keeps her crown make this whole contest an utter farce?

The Chrysler Mess
CNN and Fortune had an excellent piece today on the long odds Chrysler faces. Having now gone into bankruptcy it has shuttered all its factories and stopped all new product development. Even if it emerges, 2010 model year cars will be late rolling off the assembly lines. Chrysler will face huge transition costs to get its 2009 (and 2008!) inventory out of the system. R&D for 2011 model development will be stalled and the models will likely be late. And it isn't like Chrysler was coming from a strong position to begin with.

Strictly Symbolic Budget Cuts
We have an over $3 trillion federal budget, just passed a $787 billion stimulus plan and we are wasting time talking about $17 billion in budget cuts? Sorry, Mr. President, this one doesn't pass the stink test. Utter symoblism.

Shut Up, Mr. Cheney
We couldn't get him to face the press for 8 years in office when he was designing torture schemes, secret classification techniques and the like. Now we can't get him off the air. Everywhere I look, Dick Cheney is on the air criticizing the Obama administration, continually claiming that the President is "making the country have less safe". Mr. Cheney should take an example from his former boss and shut his mouth President Obama deserves his silence and the opportunity to implement the policies for which he was elected.

You are irrelevant to us now, Mr. Former Vice President. Say what you want, you aren't helping the GOP.

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Our Popular President, Gay Marriage in Maine, Stimulus Update, Economic Update, A Slower 2nd Hundred Days?

It is day 110 of the administration of President Barack Obama. This is 7.5% of his full term.

Presidential Popularity Stays High

As we watched President Obama's popularity across January, February and March, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that what he was experiencing was the typical initial surge in popularity that always accompanies a new administration and that his popularity was slowly eroding towards the historical partisan divide that we have seen over the past 20 years. After all, when it comes down to actual elections, the division has remained quite close. Consider the elections of the last 20 years:
1992 -- Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush -- Clinton-Bush = 5%
1996 -- Bill Clinton vs. Bob Dole -- Clinton-Dole = 9%
2000 -- George W. Bush vs. Al Gore -- Gore - Bush = <1%
2004 -- George w. Bush vs. John Kerry -- Kerry - Bush = 3%
2008 -- Barack Obama vs. John McCain -- Obama - McCain = 7%

Essentially, we have voted in a range that went from a high of +9% for the Democrats (Bill Clinton in 1992) to +3% for the Republicans (George W. Bush in 2004), which is pretty narrow when you consider the landslides from earlier in the century that guys like Ronald Reagan (+18% vs. Walter Mondale in 1984), Richard Nixon (+23% vs. George McGovern in 1972) and Lyndon Johnson (+23% vs. Barry Goldwater in 1964).

So is President Obama the next Reagan, Nixon or LBJ, at least from an electoral and popularity standpoint? It's still way too early to tell. What we can say for now is that his popularity is holding on very strongly. The graph below, which shows his monthly average, show his approve-disapprove holding in the low 30s, well above the marks above. After losing 6% in this measure in February and 8% in March, President Obama lost only 2% in April and has regained most of that 2% so far in May.

The daily tracking below shows the same trend -- a fairly remarkable stability in Presidential popularity since March.

How about our breakdown by poll type? Here is the latest:
Adult Americans: +37%
Registered Voters: +29%
Likely Voters: +17%

Even using the most conservative estimate, the likely voters number, if an election were held today, President Obama would do 10% better than he did last November. This would give him all the states he won in 2008 plus Montana, Georgia, Arizona, North and South Dakota and South Carolina (sorry, readers, he'd come up just short in Texas by this measure.)

So is this a harbinger of an era of Democratic dominance as people such as James Carville have been suggesting? Hold on a little. Part of this surge is driven by the extremely strong political skills of President Obama himself and might not translate to future leaders such as Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. Also, we haven't exactly seen an active, engaged Republican Party. Quite the opposite. The key for Republicans will continue to be generating fresh, market-based ideas and finding a way to appeal to more minorities, particularly hispanics. The demography continues to lean more and more Democratic with the current divide, with minorities comprising a greater percentage of the population and a new generation coming of age that has no time for tired positions of social conservatism.

Gay Marriage in Maine
I told you that the winds of change were blowing. Maine this week became the fifth state to legalize gay marriage, joining Massachussetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Iowa. It also became the second state to legalize it by an act of legislature, joining Vermont last month. In total, six states have allowed gay marriage at some point, with California briefly allowing gay marriage, but outlawing it again after a state referrendum last November.

The debate now moves to New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, DC and California.

New Hampshire has passed bills in both houses of the state legislature. A reconciled bill passed Wednesday and now moves to Gov. John Lynch (D), who has, in the past, opposed gay marriage. The votes are not there to override a veto if one is issued, but it is unclear if Gov. Lynch will in fact issue a veto, sign the bill or allow it to become law without signing it. He has until Tuesday to issue a veto or the bill will become law.

New York Gov. David Patterson (D) has urged the legislature to pass a bill to legalize gay marriage in New York, but it appears Democrats in the state legislature are struggling to get enough votes to pass a bill.

Rhode Island, potentially the lone hold out in New England if the New Hampshire bill becomes law, appears to have stalled in efforts to pass a gay marriage bill, facing strong support from the heavily Catholic population there.

In Washington, DC, the city council voted 12-1 to recognize gay marriages from states that allow them (our old friend, former Mayor Marion Barry being the lone dissenter), but the issue must be approved by congress, which has legal jurisdiction over the federal district. Whether the votes are there in congress is also unclear, particularly in the Senate.

In California, which was closely contested in 2008, is expected to be back on the ballot in 2010.

I'm not saying that gay marriage will be the law of the land across all 50 states any time soon, but does anyone else sense a drumbeat of inevitability here?

Stimulus Update
Stimulus funds are starting to move quickly. Here are the latest numbers released by the government. Recall that there is $499 billion in spending authorized, in addition to the $288 billion in tax cuts that have already taken effect.

Allocated so far: $88.1 billion (17.7%)
Spent so far: $28.6 billion (5.7%)

Almost half of the actual spending has taken place in the past few weeks. Recall my benchmark for President Obama is to effectively spend at least 40% of the stimulus within his first year in office. He appears to be off to a good start.

Economic Update
Since the economy started contracting in the third quarter of last year, the dissent was pretty fast and furious through the first quarter of this year:
2008 Q3 GDP Growth = -0.5% annualized
2008 Q4 GDP Growth = -6.3% annualized
2009 Q1 GDP Growth = -6.1% annualized

The total contraction from these 3 quarters is a 3.3% contraction in the economy.
Going to our big board, this recession now ranks as the fifth worst economic contraction in modern U.S. history.

(1) The Great Depression -- 1929-1933 -- 26.6% contraction
(2) The Post-WW2 Bust -- 1945-1947 -- 12.9% contraction
(3) The 1957-1958 Recession -- 3.8% contraction
(4) The Great Depression 2 -- 1938 -- 3.4% contraction
(5) The 2008-2009 Recession -- 3.3% contraction
(6) The 1981-1982 "Double Dip" -- 2.9% contraction
(7) The 1953-1954 Recession -- 2.7% contraction
(8) The 1974-1975 Recession -- 2.5% contraction
(9) The 1980 Recession -- 2.2% contraction
(10) The Post-WW2 "Double Dip" -- 1949 -- 1.8% contraction
(11) The 1960 Recession -- 1.3% contraction
(12) The 1990-1991 Recession -- 1.3% contraction

With continued negative economic growth appearing more likely than not in Q2 of this year, it appears likely that this recession will wind up as either the third or fourth worst economic period in our nation's history.

But let's have a little perspective and consider the gap between this recession and the top 2. Let's very conservatively say that the economy contracts 5% in Q2 (I think the number will be significantly better than that, but let's theorize) and then shrinks 2% in Q3 (I think the number will be positive in Q3 most likely.) That would put the total contraction at 5.0%, definitely third worst, but still not even one fifth as bad as the great depression.

Unemployment is up to 8.9% in the latest release from the BEA, the highest since the early 80s and will likely go higher, probably to 10% or so before it stabilizes and begins to fall. In the Great Depression, it sustained over 25%.

While the orgins were similar (a credit crisis), the tools and checks at the government's disposal (FDIC insurance, the bailouts, Fed management of interest rates and money supply) have blunted the worst.

The stock market has been surging in anticipation of a recovery and I am no longer hearing any serious economists talking about a depression (defined as either a 10% drop in GDP or 8 straight quarters of GDP decline, depending on who you ask) any more.

Not that we are out of the woods -- we need the stimulus funds to be spent, we need to manage through the downward slide of GM and Chrysler (see my previous blog) and we have to maintain consumer confidence, which has started to recover. But things are looking a lot brighter, as I predicted they would.

Presidential Slowdown in Days 101-200?
After a very active first 100 days, it appears President Obama may be headed for a slowdown in change in days 101-200. There are big milestones to be sure:
* An assured confirmation fight for whoever his supreme court nominee is
* A fight on each of the appropriation bills for next year's fiscal budget which may include a fight over partial healthcare reform

But neither of these seems to rival the huge level of activity in the first 100. Part of the reason is that President Obama did all the easy things in his first 100 -- namely all of the executive orders he issued. Part of the reason is that the stimulus fight was so overwhelming in the first 100 days and nothing of that scale, save for possible healthcare reform, rivals the size of that fight.

But these days, President Obama is asking for bills on Credit Card Reform, needed regulation no doubt (it is downright usary that people can accumulate debt at one interest rate and then have that interest rate spiked by as much as 20% even if they have made every payment on time), but hardly game-changing stuff.

It still could turn more active -- particularly if Democrats push hard on universal healthcare reform or cap and trade, but it seems more likely at this point that the second hundred days will be more about administrating (spending the stimulus, enforcing new executive orders, executing the Iraq and Afghanistan strategies) than it will be about major legislative change.

President Obama might be wise to press his strong popularity while he has it to keep pushing for change. People are more ready now than they ever will be. If the economy recovers, the energy for universal healthcare reform will fade as it did on Bill Clinton.

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Incidentally, congratulations to whoever our 1,000 visitor since January 24th is, as it appears likely that this threshold will be crossed in the next week or two. This site has obviously had a lot more than 1,000 visits, but we didn't keep track throughout election season last year, so I don't know the absolute total.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On the Auto Industry Mess and Hate Crimes

For my conservative friends who have been mad at me lately -- here's two issues that we probably agree on.

The Ailing Small Two

Back in the day when GM, Ford and Chrysler used to be three of the five largest corporations in the world, we used to call them "The Big 3". These companies pioneered the American middle class with high paying jobs for high-school educated workers. They also radically transformed transportation in this country, spawning increased interconnectedness and the invention of suburbs.

The name "Big 3" obviously no longer fits. Chrysler is in bankruptcy and GM is on the brink. Toyota is global leader in auto sales. Honda has top selling models in the U.S. BMW and Mercedes own the high end. Only Ford remains as a serious force in the increasingly global auto industry.

So what will become of these aging former giants?

Chrysler is trying to quickly run through Chapter 11 and sell off its assets to Fiat (who knew they were such a big player!) with minority ownership from the federal government and the UAW.

GM is looking to restructure with majority ownership by the UAW and minority ownership by the federal government.

As bad as things have been for these companies -- and they have been BAD -- no innovation, poor quality and declining sales -- can you imagine a scenario when UAW and government ownership would make things better?

This whole deal seems like a major mess. It appears likely that these two companies will stumble along coming out of bankruptcy and continue to spit out second-rate cars as their market share is absorbed by the global big 3 (Ford, Volkswagen and Toyota) as well as established niche players and up-and-comers from Korean and China. In the meantime, it will cost all us taxpayers a ton.

As I said from the start, we should have just stayed out of this mess. This is one case where letting capitalism kill these dying companies would probably have been the best long-term option, if not the most politically acceptable one.

Hate Crimes
Recent legislation to extend hate crimes laws to cover crimes committed against homosexuals has rekindled the age old debate on whether we should have hate crimes laws at all.

I've always been personally deeply divided on this issue. The skin-depth level of debate in congress wasn't particularly helpful (my favorite paraphrases: anyone who opposes this hates gays (from the left), this wouldn't be an issue if gays would just stop telling us they are gay (from the right))

On the one hand, the conservative argument that crimes should be punished based on the crime and not based on what is in someone's heart or mind has some validity. Murder is murder, whether the motivation is race or anything else.

On the other hand, motives are considered all the time in sentencing of crimes. Judges weigh someone's history, their relative remorse, etc., when making those decisions.

On balance, I come down closer to the conservative point of view -- punish all crimes based on the crime, regardless of intent. But extend it fully -- don't limit that thinking to just hate-based crimes.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Updates on the 2010 Races

This site is all about projecting, so let's see how the parties are looking in 2010.

The United States Senate
Overall Projection: From Republican +2 to Democrat +5
There are a couple of possible scenarios in the macro-political landscape here. One is that, come election time 2010, President Obama is largely unpopular and the close races tilt to the GOP. The other is that President Obama is still widely popular and the Democrats continue to ride a wave into traditionally red states. It is too early to tell which of these scenarios will play out, but as I've written about before, the GOP has a major structural problem in 2010, namely that they have to defend a lot more swing seats. This is the natural by-product of the way the Senate is elected - the GOP had strong election cycles in 2000, 2002 and 2004, meaning that they had a lot of turf to defend in 2006, 2008 and now in 2010. They lost a ton of seats in 2006 and 2008 and are hoping to avoid a similar disaster in 2010. If the top side of my projection comes true, the GOP would shrink to just 35 seats in the Senate, making them near-irrelevant in the major decisions of the body.

Here's a breakdown of the key races:
The Toss-ups - 7 races
Colorado -- Sen. Bennett (D) is still a first-termer in a swing state and the polls continue to indicate a close race

Connecticut -- could Sen. Dodd (D) really get unseated? Depends how much people remember AIG come 2010. Forget running for President, he needs to run for his life.

Missouri -- Sen. Bond (R) is retiring and this is swing state number one. All the early potential match-ups are extremely close in the polls and you can bet both parties will pour money into this one.

Ohio -- Another open seat, although this one is in a blue-leaning state. Another expected big money fight.

North Carolina -- this one flips from my earlier projection of Lean Republican Hold to Toss-up. Early polls are mixed on whether Sen. Burr (R) is ahead by 0-3 points or behind by 0-3 points. Either way, all the potential match-ups are very close and as amazing as it would have sounded just a few years ago, North Carolina appears to be a blue-leaning state these days.

New Hampshire -- this one flips from Likely Republican Hold to Toss-up. We think Sen. Gregg (R) is retiring, although even if he stays, he will be target number one for the Dems in what is now a solidly blue state.

Kentucky -- this one flips from Lean Republican Hold to Toss-up in spite of Kentucky being about the most red state in the nation. Sen. Bunning (R) is a nut and an utter traing wreck and if the GOP leadership can't talk him out of running again, he is very much at risk of losing.

The Close Races that Aren't Quite Toss-ups -- 4 Races
Arkansas -- Sen. Lincoln (D) still leads by 8 to 10 points in the polls I've seen, but this is a red state and she will be a top pick-up target for the GOP

California -- Sen. .Boxer (D) should be a safe seat by Carly Fiorina puts a major cog in the wheel.

Illinois -- Sen. Burris (D) is still a disgrace and still very vulnerable. Even if the Dems unseat him in a primary, it will do a lot of damage.

Florida -- Republicans are likely to hold this seat with popular Gov. Charlie Crist (R) running, but it is an open seat in a swing state.

The Races That Probably Won't Be Close -- 11 Races
Pennsylvania -- the dynamic has totally changed and this flips from a Lean GOP Hold to a Likely Democratic hold. President Obama has made it clear he will support Sen. Specter (D) and he is popular with the general population there, just not the Republican party.

Alaska -- Sen. Murkowski (R) was in a tough fight last time and may face a primary challenge from Gov. Sarah Palin (R), but you have to figure this one still goes GOP.

Arizona -- Sen. John McCain (R) -- with Janet Napolitano out of the way, it should be clear sailing for the 2008 GOP Presidential candidate.

Delaware -- the race for Joe Biden's seat may attract some interest, but it is still a Democratic state.

Indiana -- Evan Bayh is still very popular in this now swing state.

Iowa -- leaning blue, but Chuck Grassley has been there a long time and is among the more moderate Republicans

Kansas -- the seat is open, but who can really imagine a Democrat taking it?

Nevada -- Reid is target #1 for the GOP, but he is a political survivor in a blue-leaning state.

North Dakota -- Sen. Dorgan (D) is a Democrat in a red state, but he is a popular Democrat.

South Dakota -- Sen. Thune (R) is probably safe in this reddish state.

Races That Won't Be Close -- 14 Races
These Senators will be easily re-elected:
Sen. Shelby (R-Alabama)
Sen. Isakson (R-Georgia)
Sen. Inyoue (D-Hawaii)
Sen. Crapo (R-Idaho)
Sen. Vitter (R-Louisiana)
Sen. Mikulski (D-Maryland)
Sen. Schumer (D-New York)
Sen. Gillebrand (D-New York)
Sen. Coburn (R-Oklahoma)
Sen. Wyden (D-Oregon)
Sen. Demintt (R-South Carolina)
Sen. Bennett (R-Utah)
Sen. Leahy (D-Vermont)
Sen. Murray (D-Washington)
Sen. Feingold (D-Wisconsin)

The House
The latest poll of polls has Democrats holding a 6% lead in the generic ballot poll. Democrats have continued to gain ground from a month ago when Republicans were actually even in this poll, but they still trail both the final polls and the actual results in 2008.

My current projection is: Republicans +4 to +10

This is a gain for the GOP to be sure, but hardly makes a dent in the Democrat's majority.

How Will the GOP Ever Recover?
Things look bleak for the GOP right now, to be sure. Dwindling membership, fewer and fewer elected officials at all levels of government and no path back to the majority in sight.

The GOP needs to reinvent itself, and come out with bold, fresh ideas. This will likely have to start happening at the state and local level long before it happens at the federal level.

It would seem like a long road back. But let's not forget how much trouble the Democrats were in just 5 short years ago and how quickly and completely they have rebounded, through a transformational leader and some smart politics.

So, despair not, my GOP friends. You just need the Republican version of Barack Obama to rise from the ashes. Until then, just say you are an independent at dinner parties.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Catching Up on the News

I'll write a bigger blog this weekend, but wanted to catch up a little on the news, since I missed covering a few big issues due to my 100 Days retrospective.

The Saga of Arlen Specter

I have made it no secret in the past that I have been a fan of Senator Arlen Specter's. For many years, he represented the contingent of moderate, reasonable Republicans, the kind who dominated Northeast politics in the 1980s. His name, for me, brought back recollection of a time that I voted for Republicans, when guys like Sen. John Warner (R-VA) and Gov. William Weld (R-MA) had a voice at the table at least as much as the christian right. So, it is with sadness that I see Sen. Specter move to the Democratic party.

It's certainly not that I dislike Democrats. I voted for President Barack Obama, as well as the previous two Democratic Presidential nominees. In fact, in the past decade, I've voted for far more Democrats than Republicans. Which is precisely the problem.

See, it used to be that there was a legitimate competition for my vote. These days, it seems all too often, that to get a nomination, a Republican most bow down to the elements of the party that advocate social and foreign policies that rule them out for my vote. Sen. Specter was a representative of what used to be, back in the days of Ronald Reagan's big tent. Now he is just another moderate Democrat.

As for the actual reasons for his sudden conversion, it was political survival, pure and simple. Senator Specter was going to be unseated in the primary by Pat Toomey and saw a way to survive for another term by changing parties. He regrettably showed a great deal of hypocricy by just three short weeks ago playing up the importance of Republicans having 41 Senators as a check against Democratic power, then making the change. But the fact that Toomey was going to easily unseat him is just the problem. There is no room for moderates anymore, it seems, in the GOP. 4 years ago, Specter could narrowly fend off Toomey, but no more, he was headed towards a 25 point defeat in the smaller, little tent GOP.

As for the political ramifications of this move, they are far smaller than advertised. Specter voted for the stimulus when he was a Republican and voted against the President's budget after the switch. He is still the same moderate -- he will support the Democratic agenda when he agrees with it and will oppose it when he disagrees. And if history is any indicator, that's about 50/50. So the Democrats will have the same capability to break fillibusters that they had before -- they will still have to convince moderates to come along. Those moderates may be Democrats like Sen. Ben Nelson or Specter or the last two old school Republican moderates, Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins.

Swine Flu
Seasonal flus kill a quarter of a million people each and every year. Less than 200 have died from swine flu. Does anybody else think that this is just a by-product of a 24 hour hyper-emotionalized news cycle?

Unfortunately, the economic impacts could be very real. It could slow travel, tourism and consumer spending if it keeps people at home. Fortunately, I believe that the recovery is happening fast enough that this will be a blip on the radar.

I suspect three months from now, we will laugh at how small this thing turned out to be.

Souter Steps Down
Supreme Court Justice David Souter will retire in June, creating the first opening for the Obama Administration to fill. This presents wonderful opportunities for the President to break new ground -- I personally think we are very overdue for a Hispanic justice.

It is unlikely that the President's pick will significantly change the ideological composition of the court. Souter was liberal-leaning, despite being appointed by George H.W. Bush. One would expect his replacement will be of similar philosophy.

Can We Get a Refund on the VP?
Really, Joe? Don't travel? Can this guy open his mouth without a gaffe? He was nothing but trouble on the campaign and it seems he's hell bent on keeping the streak going.

Can't we find him some government efficiency study to go do in a quiet office somwhere?

Stimulus Spending Update
As of this week:
Allocated: $73.173 billion (14.7%)
Spent: $15.387 billion (3.1%)

Get spending!

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Next up: Update on the House and Senate races