Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Labor Unrest?

I wrote here and here about the difficulties facing British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Now the BBC reports on speculation about younger members of Brown's Labor Party positioning themselves for a potential challenge to his leadership of that party.

The position of party leader, as it exists in Britain and other parliamentary democracies, has no direct counterpart in the U.S.

A British party leader is the person who becomes prime minister, if/when his or her party wins a majority in the House of Commons.

Americans often comment about how short British election campaigns are. When the decision is made to hold a general election, the election ensues within about six weeks or so. Why is that so much shorter than an American presidential campaign, which can go on for the best part of two years?

Most of the American campaign involves choosing the parties' presidential nominees. Once that is done, the American general election campaign for president is not that much longer than the British general election campaign for the House of Commons.

The British parties have a party leader in place throughout the political cycle. In other words, they don't choose a candidate in the immediate run-up to the general election, as is done at American party conventions.

However, politicians in Britain, as elsewhere, always have their eye on the next election. And it is anxiety about Labor's prospects in the next general election, which must be held no later than 2010, that has given rise to this new round of speculation.

Raising Kaine?

Speculation has greatly increased regarding Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia as a possible running mate for Barack Obama. That means one of two things: 1) Kaine will be the nominee, or 2) Obama will surprise us. OK, so that's tautological: the choice will be either surprising or unsurprising. Profound, huh?

I would not be (paradoxical as this may sound) surprised about a surprise. Candidates have made surprising choices in the past.

I find it interesting that the name of Senator Joe Biden of Delaware is being mentioned with increasing frequency.

A New York Times article, today, describes the Obama campaign's process for vetting potential vice-presidential nominees, and comments on the current state of play among the possible candidates.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Proportional Representation 2: Parties Galore!

A proportional representation system promotes the existence of multiple parties, rather than only two parties, which has been the norm in the U.S.

Let's again look at the example of Israel which, as we saw earlier, has a pure form of proportional representation. At the last election, March 28, 2006, the largest party, Kadima, won only 29 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. 12 different parties are represented in the Knesset. In the election of October 28, 1969, a group called the Alignment, centered around the Labor Party, won 56 seats. That is the closest Israel has come to having a majority party but, of course, it fell short of an overall majority.

Therefore, the State of Israel has constantly had coalition governments since its creation in 1948.

Contrast that with the U.S. House of Representatives which, as we have seen, has no proportional element in its elections. There are currently 236 Democrats and 199 Republicans in the House; there are no independent or third-party members. There have occasionally been independents in the House, such as Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, who represented Vermont in the House from 1991 to 2007, before moving over to the Senate. But there have tended to be clear majorities for one or the other of the major parties.

This is an apples-and-oranges comparison in the sense that, unlike the Knesset, the party balance in the U.S. House does not determine the head of government. * However, it illustrates the electoral effect of proportional representation vs. a single-member-district system, and the greater propensity toward multiple parties in the former than in the latter.

* That is not entirely true. If no U.S. presidential candidate gets a majority in the Electoral College, the House then elects the president. But in that election each state votes as one unit, and a majority of states is required for victory. That constitutional provision has only been invoked twice in history. That does not turn the U.S. government into a parliamentary system.

Monday, July 28, 2008

But Sirius-ly folks ...

I just finished my appearance on Sirius's Blog Bunker radio talk show.

They were right about one thing: the time flew by. I was on for about 15-20 minutes.

We talked about the VP choices, their timing, what process the presidential candidates are probably going through. I said I wouldn't be surprised if they're still working on a short list. Joe seemed to think they must have decided by now. But, as many commentators have pointed out, the process has been remarkably leak-free, and we just don't know.

Joe pointed out that Obama's 9-point poll lead shows a rather small "bounce" from his very successful Middle East and European trip. I speculated that Obama still faces the "3 am question" about whether he's qualified to be commander-in-chief, despite looking presidential, meeting with foreign leaders, and hobnobbing with American troops.

Joe asked what the theme might be of a book about the 2008 campaign, and I mainly cited the historic candidacies of African American and female candidates.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Proportional Representation

Proportional representation is a system under which seats in a legislative body are allocated to political parties based on their respective percentages of the vote in a country (or a political subdivision of a country). It is an alternative to the system under which a country is divided into individual districts, each of which elects one member to the legislative body.

The most pure form of proportional representation that I know of, is used in elections for Israel's parliament, which is called the Knesset. The Knesset has 120 members, none of whom represent individual districts. The voters do not vote for any individual(s); they vote for a party. A party that gets 25% of the votes gets 30 seats (25% of 120 = 30, for the math-challenged). However, a party must get at least 2% in order to be represented in the Knesset.

This is also called a "party list" system, because each party compiles a list of its candidates, with the order of the names on the list determining which individual candidates are elected. For example, in the scenario mentioned above, the top 30 names on that party's list would become Members of the Knesset (MKs).

The Knesset is a "unicameral" legislative body. In other words, there is only one house. In that sense, it is unlike the U.S. Congress and the U.K. Parliament, which are "bicameral" legislatures, in that they have two houses (in the case of the U.S. Congress, the two houses are the Senate and the House of Representatives).

Here is a link to the Knesset's own explanation of its electoral system.

An example of an electoral system diametrically opposed to that one is the method of electing representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives. The Constitution provided for direct election of representatives in the individual states in Article I, Section 2.

However, the Constitution said nothing about dividing the states into districts. A state that is so small that it is apportioned a single representative of course elects that representative on an at-large basis. But some states at some times in the past held at-large elections for multiple House seats. According to this website, federal law has gone back and forth on that subject.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in cases such as Wesberry v. Sanders, set standards for establishing the boundaries of congressional districts. One effect of these decisions has been to enshrine the concept of single-member congressional districts in constitutional law.

At-large elections tend to work to the disadvantage of minority groups. Under the federal Voting Rights Act, the so-called "majority-minority" congressional districts have been created. In other words, in the redistricting process, the states are to create as many districts as possible in which ethnic minorities comprise a majority of the voters in the district. This has increased minority representation in the House of Representatives, but it is not without controversy.

Friday, July 25, 2008

McCain Running Mate: Sooner Rather Than Later?

A Washington Post article today makes a plausible case for McCain announcing his running mate within the next two weeks. Among other considerations, there are some unique timing issues this year, with the Republican convention coming so soon after both the Democratic convention and the Olympic Games.

A double scotch for the prime minister?

I have written recently about the dynamics of by-elections to fill vacancies in the British House of Commons. Yesterday, there was another one, with a result similar to other recent by-elections: bad news for the governing Labor Party.

In Scotland, in the constituency of Glasgow East, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a seat that had historically been considered safe for Labor.

There are separate parties in the constituent countries of the United Kingdom other than England, being Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those parties have varying attitudes about being part of the U.K.

According to the SNP's website, "the primary aim of the SNP is to take Scotland forward to independence."

The U.K. created a separate Scottish Parliament in 1999. Scotland is still largely governed from London, but its own Parliament has limited powers within Scotland. The SNP is currently the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, but lacks an overall majority.

There is a trend in Europe toward the breakup of states that include multiple nationalities. Among the formerly Marxist-Leninist countries of central and eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have split into separate national units.

So far, this has not happened in western Europe, but there is pressure to split Belgium into separate states of Flanders and Wallonia. And the nationalist parties in the U.K. have similar aspirations.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Vice President Schweiker?

In my earlier post regarding vice-presidential nominations, I noted the recent trend that started in 1984, of having presidential nominees announce their choice of running mate before the convention begins.

However, eight years prior to that, a unique pre-convention announcement was made, when a candidate for his party's presidential nomination chose a running-mate, but did not end up being nominated for president.

Ronald Reagan challenged his fellow Republican, President Gerald Ford, in the 1976 presidential primaries. The race was extremely close, but as the convention neared, it became more and more obvious that Ford had just enough of a lead to win the nomination.

In an effort to pry loose some uncommitted delegates from Pennsylvania, and to appeal to moderate delegates nationwide, Reagan announced that, if he won the presidential nomination, he would make Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker his running mate.

Ford won the presidential nomination anyway. The verdict of history is that Reagan's gambit was at best a break-even proposition for him. Schweiker was a remnant of the dying breed of liberal Republicans. Reagan probably lost at least as many delegates on the right as he gained among moderates.

There was some talk of reviving that strategy during this year's contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, which was about as close as the Republicans' 1976 race. However, neither Obama nor Clinton did so.

High Office and Warm Spit: Vice Presidential Nominations

John Adams, the first vice president of the United States, once wrote of that office that:

My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate.

Almost a century and a half later, one of his successors, John Nance ("Cactus Jack") Garner, put essentially the same thought in more earthy terms, saying the office is "not worth a bucket of warm spit". Different sources have different versions of that quotation (and some insist that he referred to a bodily fluid other than saliva) but the gist seems clear enough.

What I want to address here is how vice presidential candidates (running mates) have been chosen at party conventions.

The presidential nominee designates a candidate (with only one exception that I know of) and that choice is ratified by a vote of the delegates.

The exception was at the Democratic convention of 1956, when presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson declined to designate a choice. In an open vote, the convention chose Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee over, among others, future presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

In some cases, the presidential nominee has chosen one of his opponents for the presidential nomination as his running mate. That was the case with Garner in 1932. Other such running mates have included Democrats Lyndon Johnson (1960) and John Edwards (2004), and Republican George H.W. Bush (1980).

Historically, presidential nominees have looked for geographic balance on the ticket. For Democrats, this has often been a case of north-and-south balance. Republicans have more often looked for east-and-west balance. For whatever reason, candidates seem no longer to deem that an important consideration. I would argue that the last classic case of seeking geographic balance was in 1976, when Georgia's Jimmy Carter chose Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale as his running mate.

Since 1976, potential vice presidential nominees have been vetted well in advance of the convention. That is a reaction to the difficulties that Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern had in 1972, when his choice for running mate, Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri, who had been nominated by the convention, later revealed that he had undergone psychiatric treatment. Eagleton resigned from the ticket. After McGovern offered the nomination to several people who declined to take him up on it, he finally settled on R. Sargent Shriver, which choice was then ratified by the Democratic National Committee.

In recent years, not only the screening process, but also the announcement of the running mate is made before the convention. In 1984, Mondale, who was about to be nominated for president by the Democratic Party, announced that Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York was his choice for VP. He made that announcement, not at his party's convention in San Francisco, but rather in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 12, 1984, four days before the convention began.

I'm not sure whether Ferraro's being the first woman so chosen influenced Mondale's timing, and made him feel he needed to give the convention more advance notice of that precedent-breaking choice. But he established a pattern that most nominees have followed in the meantime, of making that announcement before the convention begins.

As I've written in previous posts, Obama and McCain are expected to follow that pattern. The only question is whether McCain will alter that pattern, by announcing his choice weeks in advance, rather than days in advance.

Listen Up! I'll be on talk radio.

I'm scheduled to appear on Sirius satellite radio's show The Blog Bunker. The channel is 110 (Indie Talk). The time slot is 5:00-6:00 pm, EDT, Monday, July 28.

Please tune in.

Ist er ein Berliner?

Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech today at an outdoor venue in Berlin. That harks back (no mere happenstance, one supposes) to two historic presidential speeches in that city.

The first, by John Kennedy on June 26, 1963, is best remembered for the line, delivered in Boston-accented German, "ich bin ein Berliner". (I am a Berliner).

The second of those speeches was made by Ronald Reagan on June 12, 1987. Addressing the Communist general secretary of the Soviet Union, in absentia, Reagan said "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Both of those speeches were given in front of the Brandenburg Gate which stood, during those years, just behind the Berlin Wall. Kennedy's main purpose was to show support for West Berlin, a few months after the construction of the Wall, which began August 13, 1961. Reagan wanted to hasten the demise of the Wall, which began on November 9. 1989.

Obama wanted also to give his speech at the Brandenburg Gate, but that was opposed by the German chancellor (head of government) Angela Merkel. He will instead speak at a park called the Tiergarten.

National leaders need to be careful to avoid the appearance of interfering in other countries' elections. The main practical reason is that they will need to work with the winning candidate, and it would make for frosty international summit meetings, if one head of government had opposed the election of another head of government.

Merkel reportedly felt that the site that had become known as a venue for U.S. presidents to speak, should not be offered to a candidate for that office.

During Obama's current trip, much has been written about non-Americans' opinions of the U.S. presidential race. Obama is preferred by large majorities in major European countries. However, polls in Israel show a large lead for McCain.

One thing that points up is how much more attention people outside the U.S. pay to American politics, than the average American does to theirs.

UPDATE: Here is the text of Obama's Berlin speech.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Are the Elephants Charging?

Polls have indicated that the Democrats will do well in this year's congressional elections, continuing the trend they began in 2006, when they regained majorities in both houses of Congress at the mid-term elections.

Here is a blog post by a Washington Post writer, citing a Republican congressional leader arguing to the contrary. Now, someone in Congressman Blunt's position is going to be at least as optimistic as the circumstances call for, and some of those commenting on that post express a good degree of skepticism.

I'll have more to say between now and November regarding the congressional races, and I may even make some predictions of my own.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

To Snap Or Not To Snap

As I wrote earlier this week, the timing of British general elections is at the discretion of the prime minister. There is a five-year maximum interval between general elections (with very rare exceptions), but theoretically no minimum.

There are, however, practical reasons why a prime minister can't call for a new election too often. For one thing, the expense of holding the election could become a political issue. Even the much-smaller expense of holding a by-election in one constituency was an issue in a recent case, where the need for the by-election was questionable.

Also, if people are asked to vote too often, they can tend to exhibit a combination of irritation and apathy, often labeled "voter fatigue".

But in some cases it is advantageous for a prime minister to call an election much earlier than is usually the case. That is called a "snap election".

Perhaps the most successful such case was in 1966 when Prime Minister Harold Wilson decided to go to the voters less than a year and a half after winning the October 15, 1964, general election with an overall majority of four seats in the House of Commons. In the snap general election of March 31, 1966, Wilson's Labor Party increased its overall majority to 96.

In a much more recent case, however, a prime minister allowed speculation about a possible snap election to reach fever pitch, only to pull back at the last minute and postpone the election.

The current U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown proved popular in the opinion polls after he took over that office from fellow Labor Party member Tony Blair on June 27, 2007. By October of that year, Brown had everyone anticipating an imminent election. Then, the opposition Conservative Party gained in the polls, after the Conservatives' leader, David Cameron, made a well-received speech to his party's annual conference. On October 6, Brown announced that there would be no snap election.

Many commentators said that Brown came out of that sequence of events looking simultaneously weak, opportunistic and dishonest. One of the fictions of the process of setting a date for a U.K. general election is that the prime minster makes his or her decision solely on the basis of national interest. A prime minister cannot publicly admit to calling an election based on good opinion polls, or declining to call an election based on bad polls. It certainly looks as though Brown did the latter, but he can't say so.

Brown's Labor Party has sunk further in the polls since last October. Now, it looks as though he'll follow the usual pattern that I noted earlier for a party in such circumstances, and call the election in 2010, five years after the previous one.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Veepstakes Roll On

In a previous post, I mentioned the issue of the timing of the running-mate announcements. This New York Times article from yesterday addresses, among other things, that timing issue. Apparently, the word is that the candidates will follow the custom established in the last few election years, and announce their choices shortly before their respective conventions. However, there seems to be some speculation that McCain could reveal his choice well in advance.

What's different between the U.S. and Britain (other than the "u" in "colour")? Part Two

Carrying on from where we left off in this post, here is a further discussion of minority governments, and some other considerations regarding British politics.

One implication of a minority government is that the governing party needs to curry favor with other parties, so those other parties don’t gang up against it, and vote it out of power. In the 1970s, Labor had an arrangement with the tiny Liberal Party (since merged into the Liberal Democratic Party) under which the Liberals would stay away from any effort to vote out the Labor government, in exchange for certain policy considerations. That “Lib-Lab Pact” eventually broke down, and the Labor government lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons on March 28, 1979. A general election was then held on May 3, 1979, which resulted in the Conservative Party winning an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons, and Margaret Thatcher becoming Britain’s first female prime minister.

A later Conservative government, with John Major as prime minister in the 1990s also became a minority government through by-election defeats. In that case, Protestant parties from Northern Ireland propped up the Conservative minority government until the general election of May 1, 1997, which returned Labor to power in a landslide.

This discussion of the timing of general elections points up another contrast between the U.K. and U.S. In the U.S., general elections are held at regular intervals (every four years for presidential elections, for instance). U.K. election intervals are variable. There are two ways to describe the process of setting a date for a general election: 1) the formal explanation, and 2) the real explanation. The formal explanation is that the monarch decides when to hold the general election, but listens to advice on that question from her prime minister. The real explanation is that the prime minister decides the date based on political considerations (mainly how his or her party is doing in the opinion polls), and gets the monarch to rubber-stamp the decision.

The interval between general elections can be no longer than five years. (However, an exception was made during World War II. A general election that otherwise would have been due by 1940 was postponed until after the end of the war in the European theater, and was finally held on July 5, 1945. The U.S., by contrast, has not postponed elections during wars.) The usual strategy is to call an election after four years when the party in power is popular, and to wait five years, if they’re not.

The U.K. has not used the mechanism of coalition government to deal with the lack of a majority party. A coalition government in a parliamentary system, such as Britain’s, is a situation where two or more parties whose total number of seats constitutes a majority, jointly form a government, agreeing on policy positions and sharing Cabinet jobs. However, during World War I and World War II, the U.K. had coalition governments, so that opposition parties would share in the responsibility of governing, and internal political battles would not hinder the war effort.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What's different between the U.S. and Britain (other than the "u" in "colour")?

Ready for a break from reading about McCain and Obama? Let's cross the ocean again.
In beginning to set out the differences between the U.S. and U.K. political systems, let’s start with the head honchos. There are two roles for a national leader: head of state and head of government. The American president is both head of state and head of government. By contrast, the British split those roles between two people: the monarch is head of state and the prime minister is head of government.

In terms of day-to-day tasks, the head of state is sometimes called the “ribbon cutter”. When a major building or monument is dedicated, he or she makes a nice speech, and does the ceremonial ribbon-cutting to open it. On the other hand, the head of government sets policy priorities and political strategy, heads his or her political party, and supervises government departments. The head of state has latent powers that can be very important in certain situations but, for the most part, it’s a figurehead position.

As we have seen, the U.K.’s House of Commons is elected, and the House of Lords is not elected. The general rule is that the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons is the prime minister. As of this writing, the Labor Party has a majority and its leader, Gordon Brown, is prime minister.

If no one party has a majority, there are three options: 1) the largest party leads a minority government, 2) two or more parties form a coalition government, or 3) a new general election is held, with the hope that one party will gain a majority.

The monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth II) appoints the prime minister. However, she needs to yield to political realities because the House of Commons can, in effect, fire the prime minister at any time by a simple majority vote (vote of no confidence). Any attempt on her part to appoint someone other than the leader of the majority party would therefore be futile.

Minority government has arisen under two scenarios: 1) a general election is held, and no party gets an overall majority of seats, and 2) one party wins a small overall majority, which is later eroded through by-election defeats. The general election of February 28, 1974 resulted in a “hung parliament” (no party with an overall majority). The largest party, Labor, led a minority government until a new general election could be held on October 10, 1974. At that one, Labor won a tiny majority of the seats in the House of Commons. Before too long, Labor had lost that majority, because they lost a string of by-elections (the governing party usually loses at a by-election, because voters are in a mood to register a protest against the government about one thing or another). So, Labor went back to leading a minority government.

More on minority governments, coalitions, etc., next time.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Sinister Candidates

Yesterday, I was conversing about the election with a co-worker of mine, and the conversation turned to the subject of left-handed politicians.

It just so happens that I'm left-handed, so I'm always interested in discussing fellow southpaws.

Senators Obama and McCain are both left-handed. But that is not another historic "first" for this election. There was at least one other matchup of left-handers in a general election for president. That was in 1992, when Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush. Now, I'm all for the advancement of left-handed people but, all else being equal, I'd rather see a left-handed Republican win, rather than a left-handed Democrat. But as one famous singer (right-handed, as far as I know), has said, "you can't always get what you want". (Ross Perot, who pursued a third-party candidacy in 1992, is also a southpaw).

The word "sinister" is derived from the Latin for "left".

I'm sure there are people who consider McCain to be sinister. Also, some would apply that epithet to Obama. And, alas, a few probably think them both sinister. But many of those people probably don't realize that, as applied to handedness, their comments are not insulting, but merely accurate.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Which Senator Do You Want?

A fair amount has been written about how this year's presidential election will be the first in American history that matches up two current members of the U.S. Senate against each other in the general election.

But that's a bit misleading. There has been at least one streak of four consecutive presidential elections that matched up either current or former senators from both parties (1960-1972). None of the major-party presidential candidates during that period had been governors (though not for lack of trying on Nixon's part).

By contrast, between 1976 and 2004, only one presidential election was won by someone who was not a current or former governor (George H.W. Bush in 1988). Among those eight elections, of the seven times that the winner had gubernatorial but not congressional experience, six times he defeated a candidate with congressional but not gubernatorial experience.

Is there now a trend back toward valuing congressional experience?

All this might amount to no more than political trivia, which I think is fine because I enjoy political trivia. But if you can spot an Important Trend in all of this, please comment.

The criticism of senators who run for president is that they have foreign policy experience, but lack executive experience. The criticism of governors who run for president is that they lack foreign policy experience, unless you count the times they become commercial salespeople and lead trade promotion junkets to foreign countries.

In light of that, it would seem that the ideal candidate would have experience as both a governor and a senator. Depsite there being several politicians who fit that description, no president has had both gubernatorial and senatorial experience since Andrew Johnson, who was president from 1865 to 1869.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Show About Nothing

No, I have not turned TV critic, and decided to blog about Seinfeld.

All that I've written about the history of parties and conventions has led up to this: how does the presidential nominating process work now?

Part of the answer to that is that the conventions don't much matter anymore. I've written about conventions past, when the delegates went on for days, and sometimes weeks, deciding on a presidential nominee. Now it is standard practice to have that decision made before the convention even starts.

Due in large part to the reforms to the delegate-selection process that I wrote about here, rank-and-file party members (and even sometimes independents and opposition party members, depending on the rules in each state) commit their delegates to voting for a certain presidential candidate, via primaries and caucuses.

But the nominations are not official until they have been voted on by the parties' respective national conventions. Some pundits have commented this year that there are a lot of voters in America that don't even know that anymore.

That's probably true. The voting on the presidential nomination, via the convention roll call of the states, starting with "Allllaaabama! ..." used to be the highlight of a convention broadcast.

These days, the presidential nomination, along with the credentials committee report and the platform committee report, are among those things to which the convention gives formal approval, but the television audience is not likely to pay much attention to those items of business.

The parties make every effort to have disputes about any of those agenda items resolved before the convention begins. Credentials, platform, and nominations have all historically involved dramatic confrontations during conventions. Now, the parties avoid them, so as not to disturb the feel-good atmosphere they try to project on TV.

This year, the Democrats resolved, more than two months before their convention, a dispute over their Florida and Michigan delegations, whose states broke party rules by scheduling their primaries too early. And I'm pretty sure that any potential Republican platform battles, a subject I wrote about here, will also be taken care of, well in advance.

One drawback to this trend is that the conventions no longer make for interesting television as much as they used to. The TV networks, who had formerly been proud of their "gavel-to-gavel" coverage of conventions, have now cut back on the airtime allotted to them.

Just about all I watch anymore are the presidential acceptance speeches on the last night of each convention. They are as full of wind as any other political speech, but they give a good summary of the themes that each candidate is taking into the general election campaign. And with the convention scheduling issues of the past out of the way, they are telecast in prime time.

Mating Season

Since I made my bold predictions of the vice-presidential running mates, there has been more speculation, but no clear word yet on when Sens. Obama and McCain will announce their choices. I suspect it will be much closer to convention time, i.e., at least a month away, but I don't know of anyone who thinks they have a bead on that.

Here is a blogger going about an evaluation of the possible running mates in a very systematic fashion.

Monday, July 14, 2008

No Body

CNN reports that this election year will be nowhere near as fun as it might have been. Jesse Ventura will not run for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota.

Step aside, m'lord. I was elected to take your place.

Further to this post and this post, there is some sign of movement, however slow, in the British political system, on the issue of transforming the upper house of their Parliament, the House of Lords, to a partially- or fully-elected body. The British government will soon announce a plan to do so; but, according to the BBC, it's unlikely to go anywhere until after the next general election, which will probably be held in 2010.

We in America might say that we solved that issue almost a century ago. Originally, the Constitution provided for U.S. senators to be elected by the state legislatures. In 1913, the 17th Amendment was ratified, which provided for direct election by the voters of each state. Even under the original system, there was democratic accountability, if a bit indirect, with senators being chosen by elected representatives. The U.S. never had a hereditary right of succession to any office.

However, we do have our dynasties, even though they're subject to election. The fathers of the following current U.S. Senators also served in the Senate: Bayh of Indiana, Dodd of Connecticut and Murkowski of Alaska. These others also had prominent political fathers: Casey of Pennsylvania, Kennedy of Massachusetts, Landrieu of Louisiana and Sununu of New Hampshire. And what more need be said about the junior senator from West Virginia: John D. Rockefeller IV?

At the other end of Pennsylvania Ave., it's of course well known that President George W. Bush's father was president and his paternal grandfather was a U.S. Senator. But did you know that his mother, Barbara Pierce Bush, is a fourth cousin, four times removed, of President Franklin Pierce?

We fought a revolution to free America from the control of a hereditary monarch, King George III, but have we really strayed that far from the hereditary principle?

Don't states like their sons anymore?

No, I'm not going to write about family dysfunction. This post is instead about an extinct political species that was known as the "favorite son". A favorite son was a political leader in a state (often a governor or senator) who secured pledges from delegates in his (usually male; Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine, made history in 1964 by becoming the first favorite-daughter candidate) state to vote for him for president, at least on the first ballot, at his party's national convention.

The favorite-son candidate would not campaign outside his home state. His only chance of winning the nomination would be in the event of a convention deadlock where no one candidate got an overall majority (or two-thirds majority in cases where the rules so required) of the vote on early ballots. In those circumstances, the party might turn to a dark-horse candidate, and the favorite-son candidates would be obvious possibilities for that role.

Also, the existence of favorite-son candidacies would contribute toward producing a convention deadlock. With several states' delegations not voting for the "real" candidates, it was more difficult for those candidates to put together a majority (or super-majority) of the votes on early ballots.

Alternatively, a favorite-son candidate might belatedly endorse one of the front-running candidates, and induce his delegate supporters to follow suit. A bargain might be struck, to exchange such an endorsement for consideration on policy issues or appointments.

The concept of the favorite-son candidacy quickly faded into history after 1968. It is out of synch with the paradigm that currently governs the delegate-selection process in both parties, that the voters should determine the outcome of a nomination by electing delegates, whether via primaries or caucuses, who are committed to voting at the convention for whichever candidate is favored by the voters who elected those delegates.

However, here is a New York Times article, speculating on the possibility of a favorite-son candidacy (which in the event did not come about) as late as 1988.

When is a Democrat not a Democrat?

Here is a link to a New York Times article that I found interesting, regarding Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman was originally elected to the Senate as a Democrat, and was that party's unsuccessful vice-presidential nominee in 2000. He lost the Democratic primary for his Senate seat in 2006. He then won the general election, running as an independent.

He voted with the Democrats in organizing the Senate in the aftermath of the 2006 elections. He thereby helped to shore up the Democrats' narrow 51-49 majority in that body, along with one other independent New Englander, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Lieberman thereby maintained his seniority within the party, allowing him to chair the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs.

This year, he has endorsed Republican Senator John McCain for president. The Times article goes into more detail about all that that entails.

Current polls indicate that the Democrats are likely to increase their Senate majority in November. If so, that party's majority status will no longer hinge on Lieberman's position. That could cause either Lieberman or his colleagues to change their relationship.

I wrote earlier about how the split between the Democratic and Republican parties is now more driven by ideology than has historically been the case. It still oversimplifies to call the Democrats the liberal party and the Republicans the conservative party, but that is now closer to being accurate. It seems to me that the Lieberman question largely boils down to: what does a political leader do when he agrees with his party's ideological position on many issues, but not on other important issues, such as the war in Iraq?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Come Home, America

The title of this post is the catchphrase around which Senator George McGovern's acceptance speech was crafted, at the 1972 Democratic National Convention that nominated him for president. Whether one agreed with the substance, or thought the oratory stirring, is largely irrelevant because, at 2:45 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time, the audience was rather small.

The previous Democratic National Convention, in 1968, had been marred by street protests, which were met with what one Democratic senator called "Gestapo tactics" by the police of the host city, Chicago, much to the consternation of his fellow Democrat, the mayor of that city. On the night of the acceptance speech by that year's Democratic presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, the television cameras were focused as much on the violence on Chicago's streets, as on Humphrey's speech in front of those in the convention hall, who could be called, in the parlance of the day, "The Establishment".

Roles were somewhat reversed four years later. In 1972, much of The Establishment was shut out of the convention. And many of the delegates were of the faction that had been outside protesting in 1968. This reversal was brought about by: 1) significant changes in delegate-selection rules; and 2) a successful insurgent anti-war candidacy for the presidential nomination. And the name at the center of both of those phenomena was George McGovern.

The 1968 convention had created something called the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, which was chaired by McGovern. The commission was charged with recommending new rules for the delegate selection process, to be implemented for the 1972 nomination process. Later, when McGovern became a candidate, the chairmanship was turned over to Congressman Donald M. Fraser of Minnesota.

The major changes that the McGovern-Fraser commission brought about include:
  1. Delegates allocated proportionately according to each candidate's share of the votes in a primary (i.e., no more "winner-take-all" primaries).
  2. Affirmative action goals for underrepresented groups.
  3. Open delegate-selection processes (i.e., no more "smoke-filled rooms").
One result of that third requirement is that most states began selecting delegates through primary elections, rather than party caucuses. Some states still hold caucuses (most famously, Iowa), but they now need to operate with open procedures.

And although the commission had been purely a Democratic Party activity, the changes to a great degree affected the Republican Party, as well. I see at least two reasons for that:
  1. Those changes, such as the introduction of presidential primaries into more states, that involve state election laws, apply to both parties equally.
  2. The Republicans would not have wanted to be seen as the party of old-fashioned machine politics, once the Democrats had adopted their modernized rules. In other words, for competitive reasons, the Republicans needed to make similar changes. That's not to say that the Republicans matched all of the Democrats' changes, however.
As noted above, much of the Democratic "Establishment" was shut out of that party's 1972 convention. The established leaders of the party tended to back candidates such as Humphrey and Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. With the rules changed, so that a potential delegate's presidential preference was more important than their standing in the party, McGovern's success in the primaries did not bode well for those leaders.

One result of all that was that the convention did not run very smoothly. It was certainly not run with the military precision that the Republicans had achieved at their convention that year.

On the final day of the convention, McGovern announced his choice for his vice-presidential running mate: Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri. (More later on post-convention problems for Eagleton.) The agenda of the convention that evening was to ratify the choice of Eagleton, and hear acceptance speeches from both nominees.

If I recall correctly, that Thursday night session started late, in the first place. I don't remember why. Then, the ballot for the vice-presidential nominee turned into a three-ring circus. Eagleton won the nomination in one ballot, but over 70 candidates received votes. They included just about every half-way prominent Democratic politician in the country. The list also included some who did not meet the constitutional qualifications for the office, such as Mao Zedong. The time it took to read out all of those votes put the session further and further off schedule.

I remember commentators saying at the time that that was the young delegates' way of letting off steam after sitting through a week of convention proceedings. They made them sound like schoolchildren who had behaved reasonably well throughout the school year, but started cutting up on the last day before summer vacation.

Getting back to my original point, that is why McGovern made his acceptance speech in the middle of the night. The candidate who could seemingly do no wrong in the lead-up to the convention saw, on the last night of the convention, the beginnings of his campaign turning into a comedy of errors.

Republican President Richard Nixon won reelection over McGovern in one of the largest landslides in American history.

I plan to write more, later, on how this episode contributed to the Democratic Party's creation of superdelegates.

Despite Nixon's landslide victory, he served less than half of his second term. He resigned on August 9, 1974, after he could no longer defend himself in the series of scandals known as Watergate.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Wait Until Next Year

Here is an Associated Press analysis piece on a standard phenomenon at this point in the political cycle, especially when there's a lame-duck president in the White House. It is difficult to move any major initiatives through the Congress, especially in a Congress such as the current one, where the lame-duck president faces opposition majorities in both houses.

The flip side of that coin is that an incoming president feels the need to move quickly to get his initiatives through the legislative process, before this end-of-term sluggishness sets in again. That will be something to watch for next January when of course, one way or the other, there will be a new president

Thursday, July 10, 2008

1972: A Study in Contrasts

In 1972, the Republican Party held a carefully scripted convention, which became the prototype for what conventions have become in the last few decades. By contrast, the Democrats, at their convention that year, let it all hang out. Whether that contributed to one of the biggest Republican landslides in history at the general election and, if so, what was cause and what was effect, is difficult to pin down exactly.

The Republican incumbent, Richard Nixon, was all but unopposed for renomination. Two Republican congressmen challenged him, one from the left and one from the right, but neither challenge was serious. Pete McCloskey won one delegate during the primaries. With Nixon firmly in control of the party machinery as an incumbent president, and firmly in control of the convention, where only one delegate opposed his renomination, there was nothing stopping his campaign from turning the convention into what the television world would in later decades label an infomercial.

Much has been written about how television was, first, Nixon's undoing, in 1960, and then the vehicle for his comeback when he devoted a great deal of his campaign resources toward projecting a good image on television during his successful 1968 campaign. That same type of effort was carried forward to the 1972 campaign.

Spin doctor extraordinaire David Gergen, in Eyewitness to Power, recalls:

"You're in charge of the convention script," [Dwight Chapin] told me....I was to coordinate all of the speeches in the hall, ensuring that they stayed within tight time constraints and didn't slop over each other. Implicit was the challenge of keeping the speeches crisp and fresh for the large audience that watched conventions in those days.

Next: The Democrats take a different approach.

Fly Like a Candidate

It's part of the normal routine of every presidential election: on the last night of each party's convention, the presidential nominee leaves his (so far always "his") hotel, goes to the convention site, and delivers his acceptance speech. But it wasn't always that way.

From 1832 to 1928, it was standard procedure for candidates to stay away from conventions. I suppose it was part of the charade that one did not really campaign for president. Rather, one reluctantly gave in to the insistence of one's fellow countrymen that one's willingness to serve as president was vitally important to the country's future.

The convention appointed a committee to call on the candidate at his home, and officially inform him of the nomination. The candidate would give his acceptance speech, then and there.

Franklin Roosevelt, who defied many established customs, was the first nominee to make an acceptance speech at a convention, when the Democratic Party first nominated him for president, in 1932. He went to the Chicago convention via airplane from Albany, where he was based as governor of New York.

I'm not sure if that was the first time that a candidate flew on a plane during a campaign, but my guess is that it didn't become routine until at least the 1950s. Rail was the most common form of long-distance land travel. Harry Truman famously did his whistle-stop train tour during his 1948 campaign.

In unsuccessfully researching that question I came up with one odd tidbit. Ron Paul is supposedly the first presidential candidate with his own blimp!

The custom of appointing a committee to officially inform a candidate of his nomination continued on (as far as I know, it continues to this day) even after candidates became able to watch their nomination vote on live television.

103rd Time's a Charm

I suppose national political conventions can be fun, but my guess is that it stopped being fun for the Democrats in 1924 long before the 16th and final day. They had to cast 103 ballots before John W. Davis got the two-thirds vote that was necessary under the Democrats' rules during that era.

The convention met in New York City at the second incarnation of Madison Square Garden.

The front-runners were William G. McAdoo and Alfred E. Smith. McAdoo had been Secretary of the Treasury during most of Woodrow Wilson's presidency. He later represented California in the U.S. Senate for one term, from 1933 to 1938. Smith was governor of New York; after failing to win the 1924 nomination, he was nominated for president by the Democrats in 1928, when he lost to Herbert Hoover. Smith was the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party.

The convention eventually compromised on Davis. He had been a congressman, solicitor general, and ambassador to the Court of St. James's (i.e., ambassador to the United Kingdom).

Davis lost the general election in a landslide to the Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge, who had become president the previous year when Warren Harding, whose vice president Coolidge had been, died. Sen. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin ran a third-party candidacy as the Progressive candidate, winning only the 13 electoral votes of his home state, but getting a significant 16.61% share of the popular vote.

Here is a link to an article explaining the disagreements in the Democratic Party in 1924 that led to the long convention deadlock, and landslide defeat in November. That party's divisions over racial issues, which did not result in a full-blown party split until 24 years later, were a major factor.

That article makes a plausible case that LaFollette's Progressive candidacy drew votes away from the Democratic ticket, thereby contributing toward Coolidge's landslide. The dynamics were different than in 1912, when the third-party candidacy of another Progressive Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, was widely seen as siphoning off Republican votes, and allowing the victory of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Celebrity Candidates

In the days since I wrote this about my favorite politician, Jesse Ventura, there has been increasing speculation that Ventura will run for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota this year.

The primary will be held in September, but it's already clear that the major party nominations will go to the candidates who have received the non-binding endorsements of their state conventions.

The Republican incumbent is Norm Coleman, who finished second to Ventura in the 1998 race for governor. Coleman received much national attention in 2002, when he won his first Senate term by defeating former Vice President Walter Mondale. When the incumbent Democrat running for reelection, Paul Wellstone, was killed in an October 25, 2002, plane crash, the party chose Mondale as its substitute candidate.

The Democratic candidate is comedian Al Franken, who grew up in Minnesota, and has now returned to the state to make the Senate race.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

For What It's Worth

The favorite game these days among those who write about American politics is guessing who the vice presidential candidates will be. To give myself just as much chance to be wrong as anyone else, I will jump into the game. And I won't even hedge my bets with a list; I will make one prediction per party:

Republican: Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota
Democrat: Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio

Pawlenty, 47, has been governor since 2003. He received his bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Minnesota. He practiced law, and was elected to the state House of Representatives, becoming its majority leader.

He is a proven vote-getter in a Democratic-leaning state. In 2006, he garnered national attention by narrowly winning re-election amid the mid-term Democratic landslide. He lost a high-profile veto override battle over a gasoline tax increase, but has generally been seen as being effective in dealing with large Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Both parties seem constantly to be chasing after ghosts. Democrats are looking for the next Jack Kennedy and Republicans for the next Ronald Reagan. I see some Reaganesque qualities in Pawlenty. He manages to put forward a conservative agenda while retaining the support of moderate voters. And he's a very good, if not great, communicator.

Minnesota's total of 10 electoral votes, if Pawlenty could deliver them to the Republican column, is not very high. But Minnesota has the longest current streak of voting Democratic in presidential elections, so turning that around would be a significant gain for the GOP.

Strickland, 66, was elected governor in 2006, ending a 16-year Republican hold on that office. He received his bachelor's degree from Asbury College and, among other advanced degrees, a PhD in psychology from the University of Kentucky.

He practiced and taught psychology, and was briefly a Methodist minister. He served in the U.S. House for a total of 12 years in two different periods.

He is toward the right of his party on some issues. That fits in with a major theme of the 2006 midterm elections for the Democrats, which was regaining the so-called "Reagan Democrats", traditional Democratic voters who had become disenchanted with some of the policies of that party, and had begun voting Republican in the 1980s. Senator Webb of Virginia is another 2006 winner who is spoken of that way.

If Strickland can deliver Ohio, he will of course be very valuable to Sen. Obama. Ohio is considered to be the state that decided the 2004 presidential election. With 20 electoral votes, Ohio is one of the larger states. In every election since 1964, the candidate who carries Ohio has won the election.

It was traditionally considered necessary to have geographic balance between a party's presidential and vice presidential candidates. But the successful Democratic tickets of 1992 and 1996, with candidates from Arkansas and Tennessee, had no more geographic balance than an Illinois-Ohio ticket would have in 2008.

CLARIFICATION: Minnesota has the longest current streak of voting Democratic of any state. The District of Columbia has voted Democratic in every election in which it has been allowed to vote for president, i.e., since 1964.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Did you know ...

... that the pryamid-shaped cap on the Washington Monument was made of aluminum, at a time when aluminum was as expensive as silver?

Just a piece of Washington, DC trivia that I saw this morning, and found interesting.

Something you don't see anymore, either figuratively or literally

Smoke-filled room.

That's one of the great political cliches. It is said to have been coined by an Associated Press reporter who covered the 1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago.

Theodore Roosevelt had been considered the early front-runner for the Republicans' 1920 presidential nomination, but he died in 1919. When the convention began, it was a wide-open race. General Leonard Wood led on the first four ballots. He was a career army man, who at one point had been Army Chief of Staff. He was neck-and-neck with Illinois Governor Frank Lowden through the eighth ballot. Meanwhile, Senator Warren Harding of Ohio made slow but steady gains from the third ballot onward.

Party power brokers met in the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. The room in which they met at that hotel is the original smoke-filled room. There, they decided that none of the better-known candidates had a chance to put together majority support among the delegates, so they compromised on Harding, who then won the nomination on the 10th ballot.

I looked on the 2008 Republican convention website, but couldn't find any mention of smoking policy. But my guess is that smoking will be banned in any meeting room of either party's convention. If so, you won't find a smoke-filled room, literally speaking, at either convention. But more to the point, you won't find a meeting of power brokers to resolve a convention deadlock. Both nominations were decided by the primaries and caucuses that both parties held between January and June of this year. The conventions will ratify those choices, but the outcome has already been decided.

By the way, Harding won that election but, as I wrote here, all did not go well.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Building a Platform

Here's a story about impending platform debates leading up to the Republican National Convention in September.

Party platforms are curious things. They are often dismissed as meaningless pieces of writing, that give very little guidance as to the actions that a new or re-elected president will take upon winning the election. But a lot of people seem to take them seriously, while they're being written.

Each party appoints a platform committee to meet shortly before their national convention, and draw up a document listing their party's positions on the issues of the day. The convention then approves the platform, perhaps after amending it.

Convention debate on amendments to the platform can be troublesome. One of the most (in)famous was at the Democratic convention in 1968. The candidate who went into the convention with the nomination locked up was Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He had staked out a moderate position on the Vietnam War. The party's antiwar faction proposed a strong antiwar amendment to the platform. The amendment was defeated, but the extended debate over it, on national TV, contributed to the general impression of chaos at that convention, and to Humphrey's defeat in the general election.

I see a parallel of sorts between that 1968 experience and what McCain is facing this year. In each case, a candidate whose background largely aligned him with his party's dominant ideological faction, came into the election year needing to prove himself to ideologues in his party.

Humphrey was considered the liberal's liberal during his first tour of duty in the Senate, from 1949 to 1964. However, after a term as Lyndon Johnson's VP, he was identified with the pro-war position on Vietnam, which by that time was anathema to many liberals.

McCain has built a Senate record that is considered to be conservative on many issues. However, he clashes with many conservatives on the issues mentioned in the MSNBC piece to which I've linked, above.

As I'll write more about later, the parties don't like to have their convention TV shows marred by intra-party clashes anymore. So it will be interesting to see whether any disagreements hit the floor at the Republican convention this year.

The majority rules, except when it doesn't

As I mentioned earlier, the Democratic Party had a rule at its first hundred years of national conventions, that a candidate needed to secure a two-thirds vote of the delegates to be nominated for president.

Here's how TIME magazine described the history of that rule, on the eve of its being abolished (the rule, not the magazine), in 1936.

Whatever motives anyone might have had for introducing or perpetuating such a rule, it's clear that one effect of it was to give southern Democrats veto power over the selection of presidential nominees. The allocation of delegate seats to each state is based on a combination of population and of support for the party within that state. During the years when southern Democrats worked to uphold their system of legal racial segregation, the Democratic party won elections in that region with overwhelming majorities. Therefore, those states were overrepresented at Democratic conventions. So, while as a region they had less than 50%, they could easily muster a 33.4% vote to block any nominee unsympathetic to their cause.

Segregationists used a similar tool in the U.S. Senate to block anti-lynching legislation and other civil rights measures. That tool was the filibuster. Unlike the U.S. House, where debate is always subject to strict time limits, the general rule in the U.S. Senate is that any senator can speak for as long as he or she wants. To filibuster is to prolong debate so as to prevent the Senate from taking a vote on passage of a bill. Originally, a minority of one could, in theory, block legislation. Then, in 1917, the so-called "cloture rule" was adopted, allowing the Senate, by a two-thirds vote, to end a filibuster. That requirement was later lowered to three-fifths. But still, a minority of 41 of the 100 senators can hold up Senate action on legislation. Finally, by the 1960s, there was sufficient support for civil rights legislation that the Senate was able to invoke cloture.

On the other hand, the segregationists were quite happy to reinforce majority rule within individual southern states, where they were confident of a majority, especially during the period when they employed several mechanisms to prevent African Americans from voting. I refer to the primary runoff rule.

The Democratic primary at that time and place was, in effect, the general election. The Republican Party was all but non-existent in the south, so the winner of the Democratic primary would face no effective opposition. The general rule in southern states was, and continues to be, that no one can be nominated in a primary with less than an overall majority of the votes. If no candidate exceeds 50% in the primary, a runoff primary is held between the two top vote-getters.

Again, there's no absolute certainty as to the motives of those who established these rules. But here's one academic study that considers many possibilities, while coming to the conclusion that the primary runoff rule was intended to suppress African Americans' political rights.

Consider the example of a primary in which only one candidate is relatively liberal on racial issues, and he is running against four segregationists. The liberal may have received only, say, 25% of the vote. But if the remaining 75% is split among the other four candidates, perhaps 20%, 20%, 20% and 15%, then the liberal candidate could win. But, in reality, the liberal candidate would need to compete in a runoff against the second-place finisher, and he would likely be defeated 75% to 25%.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Party Like It's 1832!

Is this the last of my "party" puns? Who knows? Maybe.

The Democratic Party first held a national convention to nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates on May 21-23, 1832, in Baltimore. They nominated Andrew Jackson for a second term as president, and Martin Van Buren for vice president.

Two other parties, the National Republicans, a precursor of the Whigs, and the Anti-Masonic Party, also held conventions to nominate candidates for 1832. Those conventions preceded the Democrats', and were held during 1831.

Given that presidents had been elected under the Constitution since 1789, and those elections had been competitive partisan elections since 1796, an obvious question arises: how did the parties nominate their candidates before the 1832 election, without holding national conventions?

For the first few competitive presidential elections, candidates were nominated by caucuses among the parties' members of Congress. This system had broken down by the 1820s. As with so much of the early machinery of constitutional government, the caucus system was vulnerable to charges of elitism, especially as the country grew, and expanded westward, in the 19th century. Increasing involvement by state legislators, and by party committees at the state level, developed into the system that has continued, albeit in substantially altered form, to the present day, whereby the state parties select delegates to attend national party conventions.

One aspect of nomination by conventions is that a plurality of the delegate votes is insufficient to win a nomination. If, when the convention takes a ballot, no candidate receives a majority, the delegates continue balloting until a majority is achieved. Not only that but, in the Democratic Party from its first convention in 1832 through its convention of 1932, a two-thirds majority was necessary. Later on, I will discuss the effect of that rule on the length of certain Democratic conventions.

The parties then settled into a routine of holding conventions every four years. By 1860, the modern Republican Party had entered into the practice. But its rival party had a more complicated year in 1860.

The Democrats convened at Charleston, South Carolina on April 23, 1860. While northern Democrats were not in line with Republicans on the issue of slavery, they could not reach agreement with southern Democrats on either a platform or a candidate, due to disagreements over slavery. (A platform is a written statement of a party's position on issues, adopted by majority vote of the party's convention.) The Democrats reconvened in Baltimore on June 18, but ended up nominating two separate candidates at two separate meetings in that city. John Breckenridge of Kentucky was the candidate of the southern wing. Stephen Douglas of Illinois was nominated by the main convention, dominated by northern Democrats. John Bell was also on the general election ballot as candidate of the Constitutional Union Party, which was centered around southern Whigs who had not joined either of the two main remaining parties after the Whig Party broke up during the 1850s. Against such split opposition, the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won a landslide victory, and the rest (and this cliche is perhaps rarely as appropriate as here) is history.

The normal routine of party conventions resumed after the Civil War. There were many long battles over nominations, especially among Democrats, who retained their two-thirds rule. I plan to write more about that in some follow-up posts later this week.

Image: Library of Congress

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Member for South Holland and the Deepings

One purely stylistic difference between the British House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives is the way they describe the units of territory that their members represent ("constituencies" to the British; "districts" for us in America).

The British describe their constituencies by name. For those of us who enjoy the place names in Victorian novels or P.G. Wodehouse stories, there's nothing quite like such oh-so-British names such as Ashton-under-Lyne, Basingstoke (for fellow Monty Python fans, that's the one in Hampshire, not the one in Westphalia), Faversham & Mid Kent, Old Bexley & Sidcup and Weston-Super-Mare. Some are quite convoluted, such as East Kilbride, Strathaven & Lesmahagow. And some of the Welsh ones, such as Ynys Môn, are, for those of us who are English-speakers, well-nigh unpronounceable. But MPs must learn to pronounce them, because it's against the rules for one MP, other than the Speaker, to refer to another MP by name during House of Commons debate. One must instead refer to "the member for South Holland & the Deepings", or whatever the constituency.

And if, like me, you wonder what "The Deepings" are, well, through the magic of Wikipedia, you can find out.

In comparison to all that, the American system of referring to congressional districts by number seems hopelessly prosaic. We refer, for instance, to the congressman from the sixth district of Pennsylvania. Now, I'm sure he's proud to have that title (especially after having almost lost it at the last election). But still, it's not the same as being the member for Stratford-on-Avon, is it? I wonder if, before the next general election, he'll go around saying "to be the Conservative candidate or not to be the Conservative candidate, that is the question".

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Body and Mind

As I mentioned in the previous post about Ross Perot's third-party candidacies, his movement faded out over time, at the national level. However, there was an ongoing impact in one of the states.

By 1996, Perot had formed the "Reform Party" as his vehicle for his second presidential candidacy.

In 1998, Jim Janos (using his stage name, Jesse Ventura) was elected governor of Minnesota as the Reform Party candidate. Ventura was never closely aligned with Perot, and the Minnesota party later changed its name to "Independence Party", to sever any remaining connection with the national movement.
Ventura defeated St. Paul Mayor (now U.S. Senator) Norm Coleman, the Republican candidate, and state Attorney General Hubert H. ("Skip") Humphrey III, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (more later on what that means) candidate.
Ventura did not seek re-election in 2002, and his 1998 victory stands as the only major electoral victory for that third-party movement. Independence Party candidates for governor in Minnesota got 16.18% and 6.43% of the vote in 2002 and 2006, respectively (compared to Ventura's 36.99% in 1998). Those numbers make it a major third party, but bring it nowhere near another victory.
Image: Minnesota Historical Society (official portrait of Governor Ventura)

More from Britain

Here's a post on a blog I mentioned earlier this week, regarding a subject I mentioned earlier this week. Baroness D'Souza mentions the awkwardness of a member of an unelected legislative chamber opposing the introduction of elections for that chamber, but she makes some interesting points.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"I'm All Ears"

Henry Ross Perot, who had previously been an IBM salesman, started building his fortune when his firm, Electronic Data Systems (EDS) received a federal contract to computerize Medicare records. He later sold that company to General Motors, and founded another IT start-up, Perot Systems. During those years, he divided his time between his business ventures and various political activities.

In 1992, he launched a third-party candidacy for president.

The Republican incumbent, George H.W. Bush, had near-unanimous support in the polls, following the successful effort to expel the Iraqi military from Kuwait in Gulf War I, in 1991. At that time, there was semi-serious talk of his being unopposed for reelection in 1992.

However, the recession of 1990-1, and the relatively high unemployment that continued into the election year of 1992, resulted in a gradual erosion of Bush's popularity. Employment is a lagging indicator of economic growth, i.e., when recovery from a recession begins, it takes an extended period of time before the unemployment rate decreases significantly. Therefore, it felt to many people in 1992 as though the U.S. were still in recession, even though a strong recovery had begun in the first half of 1991. Bush's Democratic opponent, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, was able to exploit that unease by promising a different turn in economic policy.

Perot's candidacy was largely based on two economic issues: 1) federal budget deficits and 2) international trade. The 1980s had seen budget deficits that were unprecedentedly high in nominal dollar terms, and high, but not unprecedented, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). As GDP grew strongly from 1982 forward, the deficits measured on that percentage basis fell rapidly.

Whether small or large, and however measured, continued deficits meant continued increases in the national debt. The issue of public debt has been controversial for all of American history; here is a discussion of how the founding fathers dealt with the issue.

Perot advocated a combination of tax increases and spending cuts to balance the budget.

Perot took a protectionist position on international trade. He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that was then being negotiated by the U.S., with Canada and Mexico. During the following year, Perot engaged in a debate with Vice President Al Gore on CNN, in which Gore took the pro-NAFTA position.

Perot argued that, as a successful businessman, he had experience that was relevant to handling those economic issues. He contrasted himself with Clinton, who had been a professional politician almost his entire adult life, after a brief stint in academia, and Bush, who went into the oil business after college, but had been a professional politician for over a quarter of a century by 1992.

The counterargument is that an individual businessman tends to seek any advantage he can gain by lobbying government, e.g., for subsidies or for tariffs levied on his overseas competitors. But if a businessman-turned-president were to base the entire system on providing such favors, the system would break down, because resources would be allocated by government fiat, rather than by market forces, and the resulting inefficiencies would hamper economic growth. This is an example of what economists call the "fallacy of composition".

I don't want to be too coy about being the impartial historian here. As you might have guessed anyway, I'll acknowledge that this "counterargument" is the side that I take on that question.

For anyone who doesn't remember a moment of comic relief during a debate between Bush, Clinton and Perot on October 11, 1992, I want to explain the title of this post. Perot was asked about the fairness of his proposal to increase the federal gasoline tax. As part of his answer, he said that if anyone has a better plan, "I'm all ears". That was an unfortunate figure of speech on the part of a candidate with ears out of proportion with the remainder of his diminutive body. Laughter ensued and Perot, who I think has a tendency to take himself too seriously, good-naturedly acknowledged the unintended humor in his remark.

Clinton won with 370 electoral votes, to 168 for Bush. Perot won no electoral votes; however, his popular vote total, at 18.91%, was the highest of any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Perot did better in the midwest and west, than in the east; he finished second to Bush in Utah.

Perot ran again in 1996, but was a lesser factor, with only 8.4% of the popular vote.