Saturday, June 19, 2010

What President Does Obama Remind You Of?, The Curious Case of the South Carolina Primary

Carter? W.? Try H-W.
Presidents are always compared to their predecessors. Republicans have been searching for the next Ronald Reagan since Reagan left office in January of 1989. Democrats have been searching for the next John F. Kennedy since Kennedy was shot in Dallas.

President Obama has been compared to a lot of former Presidents. During the campaign, he was widely compared to Kennedy in admiring circles, given his penchant (how soon we forget) for making inspiring, sweeping speeches on the campaign, his relative youth in seeking an office that has often been a home to old men and his ability to inspire young people, as none had done since Kennedy.

Since taking office, President Obama has been subject to some far less flattering comparisons. Republicans have compared him to Jimmy Carter, for his perceived weakness on the foreign stage, his perceived lack of support for the state of Israel and his relative inexperience in foreign policy matters. On both the left and the right, various commentators have likened him to George W. Bush, his immediate predecessor, for his policies in the still-unresolved conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So which of these comparisons make the most sense?

In my opinion, the President's style and approach does closely resemble one President of my lifetime, but none of the ones that are frequently mentioned. He reminds me greatly of President George Herbert-Walker Bush.

Their resumes could hardly be more different. The first President Bush was a fight pilot in World War 2 and an experienced executive, having run the CIA and served 8 years as President. President Obama is one of the least experienced Presidents in modern history, having a mere 4 years in Washington, and that time in a legislative capacity in the Senate, not in an executive position. His origins as a community organizer were the antithesis of the blue blood background of the Bush family. He had no military experience. He was a product of the eclectic blend of Indonesia, Hawaii, Kansas and Chicago versus the ritzy Maine backdrop that H.W. grew up in.

But on substance, they are far more similar than you would think.

H.W. was the most accomplished President since at least Lyndon Johnson in terms of breakthrough policy. Don't believe me? Consider this: the Civil Rights Act of 1991, The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, The Americans with Disabilities Act and the current structure of the tax brackets all came to fruition under the first President Bush. A pragmatic moderate, Bush worked with the Democratically controlled congress to craft the legislation that created the original cap and trade system in this country (for sulfur emissions to eliminate acid rain, a massive success that is widely underreported), drafted our current affirmative action system and signed the legislation that provides the government with the teeth to force BP to pay the costs of the spill clean-up. His deal with the Democrats on a tax package to reduce the deficit, which many believe lead to his undoing in 1992 (I happen to disagree, but more on that later) in many ways set the stage of the balanced budgets in the 1990s. Carter, Reagan, Clinton, W., none can claim such a record of accomplishment.

Bush was also a pragmatist on foreign policy, surgically beating Iraq back from its invasion of Kuwait, but quickly exiting U.S. troops. He was also moderate in his appointments...although he appointed conservative hero Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, he also nominated the moderate-to-liberal David Souter.

What Bush lacked was something that he one referred to as "the vision thing". He was not an inspirer. He did not come off well one-on-one. He struggled to express emotion, be it empathy or anger. When the economy headed south in 1990 and 1991, he was unable to connect with ordinary people or show, in a phrase that Bill Clinton made famous, that he "felt their pain". He was the snobby intellectual that couldn't connect with the unemployed truck driver. He famously ended a speech with the words "message: I care", a painful statement in part because it clarified to everybody that nobody could have discerned from the rest of his speech that he did.

President Obama has a similar record of legislative accomplishment. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is the single biggest shift in our economic policy since the Great Society, with huge investments in infrastructure and tax incentives over three years. Health care reform, while far more limited in scope than many (including myself) would have liked, is the biggest fundamental change in how we manage the health care sector since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. He has also signed the biggest expansion of the SCHIP (children's health insurance) program in history, legislation which massively increases legal remedies for women who were victims of employment discrimination and legislation which fundamentally changes how the credit card industry operates.

On the foreign policy front, Obama has also been more H-W. than W. He is executing a slow, pragmatic exit from Iraq, taking the middle road in that country as H.W. did. He has ramped up presence in Afghanistan, but again with the promise of a definitive timeline and exit strategy, far from the all-in policies of W.

On the Supreme Court, President Obama has appointed on undoubted liberal (Sonia Sotomayor) and one probable moderate (Elena Kagan). He has moved slowly on social change, as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" remains in effect today, almost a year and a half into his Presidency. While theoretically supportive, he has made zero push for pro-union legislation such as the "Card Check" law.

And he has H-W's flaws as well. He has a big empathy gap. The pathetic assurance of Robert Gibbs that he had seen President Obama get angry was equally as sad as "message: I care" in that it was only necessary because we weren't sure he ever got angry, even when an oil rig was spewing thousands of gallons of oil every hour into our oceans. His statement that "I need to consult the experts so I know whose ass to kick" came off far more as geek playing tough guy than genuine angry man standing up for the people. He doesn't have that Clinton-thing in him.

So what does this mean electorally? Non-empathetic, accomplished intellectuals have a mixed record. LBJ was run out of office. Nixon won re-election in one of the biggest landslides in history. And, most recently, President Bush went down in flames, winning a sad 38% of the vote in his re-election bid. What I suspect will determine Obama's fate is the perceived state of the economy in 2012. When people are down and out, they need an empathizer, a fighter, a man that is not Obama. When people feel good about things, they want a smart guy to steer the ship, as they did in 1988 when they first elected H.W.

Unemployed Broke Charged-Felon Wins SC Democratic Primary
Every election cycle has its share of interesting stories. The strange rise of Ross Perot shocked the political establishment. Jesse Ventura's victory in Minnesota was an amazing story. The Florida recount captivated all of us and angered people of every political stripe at one point or another. The epic Obama v. Clinton Democratic fight in 2008 was a heck of a story. But this one might just take the cake.

The South Carolina Senate Democratic primary had received virtually no media coverage. First of all, incumbent Sen. Jim Demint (R) is believed by virtually everyone (myself included) to be at almost no risk of losing in November. South Carolina is probably the most conservative state in the south, it is not a favorable year to the Democrats and Demint is well-resourced. Secondly, there was no real race. Former State Assemblyman Vic Rawl was the appointed sacrificial lamb and had a modest but sufficient budget. He had signs up around the state, he knocked on some doors, he ran a few ads. And he had no real opponent. The only other Democrat who filed for the office was a guy named Alvin Greene, a man who was completely unknown in the state, ran no campaign, put up no signs, didn't even have a website.

Last Tuesday, by the official tally, Greene trounced Rawl with over 100,000 votes to Rawl's less than 70,000. And nobody knows how.

As I mentioned, Greene ran no campaign of any sort and was unknown. Since he won, it has been discovered that he is an accused felon that has taken the court-appointed lawyer for lack of funds. Nobody can even understand how he came up with the over $10,000 needed to file for his candidacy or how he got the requisite signatures to be on the ballot. He has had no press conferences, granted no interviews and has not even shown up for hearings about the issue.

And yet he won.

Theories about, from the mundane to the conspiratorial. Simple theories include the fact that Greene was at the top of the ballot and virtually no one was aware the race existed. Answer honestly, have you ever cast a ballot in a race in which you didn't know either candidate? I'm sure I've done that for the local water board or something. A second theory centers around the fact that Greene has a clearly African-American name in a Democratic Primary that was likely dominated by African-American voters (far more than half of Democrats in South Carolina are African-American.) Either of these theories seems to have some plausibility.

A third theory, that there was broad GOP cross-over (South Carolina has an open primary system) to support Greene does not appear plausible to me. First of all, the turnout numbers don't demonstrate a big GOP crossover with only 170,000 ballots cast and the GOP had lots of competitive down ballot races, with over 420,000 ballots case in the GOP contest (you can only get 1 of the 2 ballots in an open primary.) Secondly, how would you get the word out about a giant conspiracy like that given that nobody had heard about the race? Third, why would the GOP care enough to invest so many resources in the race, given that Demint is a likely shoo-in?

A fourth theory is the one that is most concerning...that voting machines failed either accidentally or intentionally to produce a result different from what the voters intended. Intentional fraud seems pretty far-fetched to me. As I said, the GOP had no reason to be concerned and risk such a dangerous and illegal activity. And Greene hardly seems like a character capable of pulling this off. If you are going to steal an election, you would at least put up a basic website for your campaign.

But accidental failure could happen. There is no evidence it did. But that is exactly the problem...South Carolina utilizes electronic voting machines that keep no paper record. So there is no way to verify if votes were properly recorded. Do I think the machines failed? It is less likely than the first two theories above. But it is not impossible.

This race should be a wake-up call for national voting reform, an issue that we were all suddenly made aware of after the Florida debacle in 2000. But little has been done around standards. An obvious national standard would be to get electronic machines in 100% of precincts to avoid the errors of a hand count, but for those machines to print a paper record of the vote, visible to the voter, prior to vote recording. This would give a paper trail against which electronic machines could be cross-checked in the event of any controversy, but would spare us the pain of detailed and imprecise hand counts. It is so simply and so expensive. We just spent almost $800B to stimulate the economy. Isn't our democracy worth the small fraction of that that it would cost to equip all precincts with the systems I described, which are broadly available.

How about some national leadership on this issue, President Obama?

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