Friday, February 27, 2009

Choosing Senators

George Will has weighed in on a subject I addressed here, which is Senator Russ Feingold's proposal to ban gubernatorial appointments to fill U.S. Senate vacancies.

Will points out what I had earlier noted, that Feingold's goal of making the Senate responsive to popular will, runs contrary to the intent of the founders. But I'm not willing to go as far as Will, who wants to return to the system of election of senators by state legislatures.

He has cherry-picked some examples of senators from that earlier era who are considered great, and some from the direct-election era who are thought to be less than great.

Will ignores criticisms of the original plan, which are summarized by the Senate's historians. One of the issues is that deadlocks among state politicians sometimes left Senate seats vacant for periods that were even longer than the one Minnesota is going through as the near-tie between Al Franken and Norm Coleman is resolved.

Post-Hillary New York

I've noticed two articles this week on the continuing political implications in New York of Hillary Clinton's move from the Senate to the State Department.

When Governor David Paterson appointed Kirsten Gillibrand to replace Clinton, that necessitated a special election in the congressional district that Gillibrand had represented since 2007. Here is a Washington Post article about that campaign.

The district had been represented by Republicans for many years, before the Democratic landslide of 2006. Therefore, there is a chance for something that has been rare in recent years: a Republican gain. However, the Post report notes that President Obama is still pretty much in his honeymoon stage, and that Obama carried the district last November. Therefore, Democrats are making a push to lock in their gain in that district.

Meanwhile, The New York Times published an article about Gillibrand, as she takes up her Senate duties, and runs for election to a full term. That piece mainly addresses her long-windedness. I agree with Ross Goldberg's conclusion that that does not preclude political success. Most Americans in this day and age will think of the name he mentions in that regard, Bill Clinton. But those of us who are from my native state of Minnesota, and who have long memories, will think instead of Hubert Humphrey.

But what mainly caught my eye in Goldberg's article was his reference to Gillibrand's "newfound zest for gun control and a moratorium on immigration raids". When Paterson appointed her, Gillibrand's relatively conservative record in the House was controversial. Now, she appears to be acting as politicians typically do, and conforming more closely to the majority views of her new, broader, constituency.

Another example of that phenomenon became an issue in the presidential campaign of 2000, when Al Gore was criticized for having moved steadily to the left as he went from representing a conservative Tennessee congressional district, to representing that state as a whole in the Senate, to running for national office.

Barack Obama went in the other direction, when he quickly shifted from representing a left-wing state Senate district in Chicago, to becoming president of the United States.

In my opinion, criticism of politicians for this, shall we say, fluidity, is valid only up to a point. They must strike a delicate balance between, on the one hand, doing what they think is right and, on the other hand, representing the opinions of their constituents. Going too far in the former direction is undemocratic, while too much of the latter constitutes a lack of leadership.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ballots and Bullets

"Ballots not bullets" is a popular catchphrase to describe the ability of democracy to settle disputes that might otherwise be settled violently.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate considered the measure I described in this post, to give the District of Columbia voting representation in the House of Representatives. Republicans proposed amendments to the bill that would turn that cliche on its head, and give D.C. both ballots and bullets.

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision I described here, some have pushed for broader rights for D.C. residents to own and carry guns. The Washington Post report, to which I've linked above, describes senators' efforts to add that issue, and others, to the Senate bill.

It also points up one key difference between House and Senate rules. One of the amendments was ruled out of order in the House, because it's not germane to the bill.

The House's rules are very strict regarding attempts to combine unrelated provisions in the same bill. Here is a summary of those restrictions, provided by the House Rules Committee. The basic guideline in that "the House should only consider one subject matter at a time".

By contrast, the Senate can combine different subjects in the same bill, with very limited restrictions. Congressional procedure wonks can get more detail on page 10 of this document.

The Senate considered the question of the constitutionality of the bill. With this roll call vote, the Senate rejected a point of order to the effect that the Constitution doesn't give Congress the power to extend House representation to entities other than states. The vote was 36-62. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia was the only Democrat to join 35 Republicans in questioning its constitutionality. Byrd has long been legendary for his knowledge of Senate rules and of constitutional law. And that's not only because he's been in the Senate longer than anyone else; he had already established that reputation early in his Senate tenure.

That Senate vote is, of course, not the final word on constitutionality. Any such challenge will be considered by the judiciary, and probably ultimately by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

State of the Union

In commenting on President Obama's speech to Congress last night, as is my wont, I will not try to settle the dispute between John Hinderaker (it was ineffective), Paul Mirengoff (the oratory was too effective for anyone's own good), and Andrew Sullivan ("the politics and rhetoric are superb").

But it seems like a good opportunity for me to discuss the implementation of the provision of Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution that requires the president to "from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient".

The constitutional parameters are vague, but custom and practice have turned that into an annual message, delivered as often as not in written form. The presidents from Jefferson to Taft took the written approach. Woodrow Wilson then revived the practice of making a speech in person to a joint session of Congress, setting a precedent that has been followed in most of the years since 1913.

The address has both retrospective and prospective elements. That is, it both describes the current state of things, and proposes future policies. In a presidential transition year, the outgoing president is best suited to provide the former, while it makes most sense for the incoming president to do the latter.

Here is a history of state of the union addresses, from The American Presidency Project at UCSB. That document indicates that outgoing presidents have considered it to be optional as to whether or not they give an oral or written address in their final year. According to that history, recent presidents, including George W. Bush, have done neither.

Incoming presidents often address Congress early in their presidencies, in speeches that take the same form as state of the union addresses, but are not called that.

John Kennedy made such a speech, 10 days after his inauguration. After he had settled in, and got off to a rocky start, he made a sort of second state of the union speech on May 25, 1961. It was then that Kennedy proposed the Apollo man-on-the-moon program.

Obama has followed the lead of more recent predecessors, addressing Congress after some weeks in the White House, mainly on economic issues.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

He's number 3. Will he try even harder?

I vaguely remember a story from my college days about a dorm room which, by pure coincidence, was vacated mid-year by two different people during the same academic year. With typically tasteless and childish college humor, the third resident was told he (or she, I forget which) was moving into the "cursed room".

Perhaps that's how former Governor Gary Locke, Democrat of Washington, will feel, if the reports are true that he is President Obama's third choice to be secretary of commerce.

Locke has impeccable Democratic Party credentials, making him a more conventional choice for that job than the Republican senator who backed out.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Good Old Days?

From time to time, I've mentioned my skepticism about a "golden age" view of American political history, that looks back to a supposed bygone era, when philosopher kings (or their republican equivalents) made policy without regard to special interests, and erudite journalists wrote objective (dare I say "fair and balanced"?) accounts of the politicians' learned debates.

Apparently, the situation is the same on the other side of the Atlantic. Nick Robinson, a senior political reporter for the BBC, has written a blog post that introduces a radio series he's about to begin, on past British prime ministers. In it, he compares the troubles and reactions that faced their first prime minister, Robert Walpole, with those encountered by the incumbent in that office, Gordon Brown.

Robinson's commenters have mixed views about the effectiveness of the lessons of history. My blog is largely based on the notions that the American body politic can learn, not only from the lessons of our own history, but from the experiences of other countries.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Are Two States Better Than One?

I want to attempt to clarify what I wrote here, about the Israeli parties' positions on the issue of whether the Palestinians should have an independent states in territories that Israel occupied after the Six Day War of 1967.

The rising star of Israeli politics, the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, has a distinctive stance on that issue.

Some parties, including Kadima, support, in principle, the so-called "land for peace" concept, of tying Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to a peace agreement by which the Palestinians would commit to ending terrorist attacks on Israel.

Others, such as Likud, the party that has been tentatively chosen to head the next coalition government, are leery of that formula. I get the impression that opposition to "land for peace" is a combination of pragmatic concern that the Palestinians would not live up to their commitments, and ideological opposition to giving up what some Israelis deem to be the biblical land of Israel that was a divine gift to them. Certain small parties that are possible coalition partners with Likud, and that are centered around Orthodox Jewish religious concepts, take that position.

Lieberman and his party want to combine the concept of Palestinian independence with steps designed to minimize Arab influence in the State of Israel. Two prominent planks in their platform are:

First, setting the borders between Israel and an independent Palestine so as to maximize the proportion of Jewish residents on the Israeli side, and Arabs on the Palestinian side. The party summarizes this as: "Israel is our home; Palestine is theirs." ("Israel is our home" is the literal translation of the party's name.)

Second, a pledge of allegiance to the State of Israel, and national service (military or otherwise) as prerequisites for voting rights and other citizenship rights in the state. Currently, there are no such requirements on Arab citizens of Israel.

Remember the old beer commercial, "Yes you can have it all"? Well, Israel can't have it all.

Demographics dictate that the State of Israel cannot have all of the following: 1) a Jewish state, 2) a fully democratic state, and 3) a state that incorporates all of the land that can be considered the biblical land of Israel. Depending on exactly how one draws up the boundaries, such a state would, either now or in the future, have an Arab majority. The rate of natural increase in the Arab population is greater than in the Jewish population, so the demographics will increasingly be an issue as time goes on.

One note on spelling: You'll often seen Middle Eastern names spelled inconsistently in English-language news media. That is because languages in that region, such as Hebrew and Arabic, use a different alphabet than that used in English. The names therefore need to be transliterated. That entails finding a spelling that approximates that sound of the name in its original language. The political party I'm describing in this post is variously transliterated as "Yisrael Beiteinu", "Yisrael Beitenu", or "Yisrael Beytenu".

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Next Step

In this post, I described the procedure for replacing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as a four-step process. They're now in step 4, negotiating a coalition among the parties who won parliamentary seats in last week's general election. But step 4 really has a step 4(a) and a step 4(b).

President Shimon Peres performed step 4(a) today, when he designated former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, to try to put together a coalition government. If successful, Netanyahu would return to the top job, which he held from 1996 to 1999.

Now, the main question is whether those negotiations (my "step 4(b)") will result in a right-wing coalition between Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and several smaller parties, or a broader coalition including the centrist Kadima Party and the left-wing Labor Party, which are the main partners in the current governing coalition.

Both Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, have said they want such a broad coalition. But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the Kadima leader, has resisted that idea, without totally ruling it out.

Two major policy considerations are involved:

Peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Labor and Kadima are more supportive of the two-state solution, i.e., setting up an independent Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, than Likud. That was the main reason why then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left Likud and founded Kadima in 2005. Livni is wary of taking Kadima into a Netanyahu-led coalition that might at best pay lip service to that goal.

Secular vs. religious government. Yisrael Beiteinu's support largely comes from emigrants from the Soviet Union. They tend to be less religious than many other Israelis. That party opposes the power of the Orthodox rabbis over, for example, marriage laws. That complicates the negotiations, because religious parties with which Yisrael Beiteinu agrees on the Palestinian issue, don't share its secular outlook.

Netanyahu faces a six-week deadline to form a government. If he fails, another potential prime minister (probably Livni) could be designated by joint action of the parliament (Knesset) and Peres. Then, if she fails, a new election would be held.

Free Trade, Eh?

Barack Obama has made his first international trip as president.

During a day trip to Ottawa, Obama took a different approach to Canadian-American trade than he had at some points during last year's presidential campaign.

I've previously mentioned that there are cross-currents that influence Washington politicians' positions on international trade issues. In recent decades, Republicans have more often supported free trade, while Democrats have tended more toward a protectionist stance (reversing the positions those two parties took a century or so ago). But presidents, regardless of party, generally support free trade more than members of Congress.

While leaving himself a lot of wiggle room, Obama's statements during his visit to Canada seem to have definitely been intended to put forth a free-trade message. He seems to feel the institutional imperative that presidents usually do, to uphold the general interest, rather than the parochial interests of individual districts or states.

I don't mean to be particularly critical of Obama for changing tack with the change in his circumstances.

Recent Republican presidents have sounded like ardent free traders in campaign debates. But Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both took some significant protectionist actions during their administrations.

And Bill Clinton, while saying the right things to protectionist elements in the Democratic base, such as the unions, put together what I consider to be the most pro-free-trade record of any recent president.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Canadian Chill

Following up on a story I wrote about in December, Canada's national political situation, which had been described as being in a constitutional crisis, has calmed down.

The Liberals and the New Democrats had been plotting the downfall of the Conservative minority government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Two developments in the meantime have derailed that plan:

  1. The Harper Government amended its budget proposal in a manner that was sufficient to bring the Liberals on board.
  2. Michael Ignatieff took over from Stephane Dion as Liberal leader. Ignatieff is less enamored of the prospect of a coalition than Dion was.

This Calgary Herald report fills in some of the details on this story, since my last post.

While things are calm for the time being, the situation is likely to remain unstable until the electorate gives one party, or a viable coalition, a majority in the House of Commons.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Beginnings and Ends

President Obama has said that the enactment of his economic stimulus plan, while not "the end of our economic problems ... does mark the beginning of the end.” Quite a bold statement.

Politicians tend to quote Winston Churchill from time to time. If Obama had been in a more cautious mood, he could have taken his cue from one of Sir Winston's World War II speeches.

In 1942, British forces defeated the German General Erwin Rommel at El Alamein in Egypt. In retrospect, the tide had begun to turn against Germany, but that not as evident at the time.

In describing that victory, Churchill said:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

I hope that the Obama plan leads to victory over recession, as El Alamein led to victory in the war. But, as I see it, even if the stimulus program turns out to be the right prescription, the enactment of the legislation can be described as, at best, the end of the beginning.

Revolving Door on the Newsroom

This article in Politico strikes me as an example of shoehorning the facts to fit a narrative that the writer has decided to tell.

Michael Calderone makes it sound as though no journalist ever took a job in a Republican administration.

The highest profile such case in the George W. Bush administration was the late Tony Snow, who left FOX News to become White House press secretary. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that, historically, that revolving door has more often led into Democratic administrations than Republican ones, but I don't think the picture is as black-and-white as Calderone paints it.

And given the current economic realities in journalism, that Calderone describes, my guess is that at least some of the journalists in question would have viewed jobs in a McCain administration as a welcome alternative to unemployment.

I've previously mentioned how many senators President Obama has appointed to high office, in contrast to the governors that Bush appointed. In any sort of hiring situation, whether in the public or private sector, one gravitates toward candidates with whom one is familiar. Obama's Washington experience was in the Senate, so he has often looked there for job candidates. Bush, by contrast, had experience as a governor, so he appointed some colleagues from that group.

Everyone in government becomes familiar with journalists, whether they want to or not. So it's natural for those in government to consider journalists when hiring.

Will the Stimulus Vote Haunt Specter?

Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, one of only three members of his party in Congress who voted for the economic stimulus bill, has sent this message to his constituents.

Specter is surprisingly candid in describing the purpose of this written explanation of his position on that legislation:

My vote was cast recognizing the very substantial political peril that I face. I know that there are many on the Republican political spectrum who do not like the vote. I remember, obviously, the tough primary fight I had in the year 2004. But I felt in the final analysis, given the very severe consequences which might befall the country, that my duty was to look out for the public interest and not my own personal political interest.

Specter is being proactive in addressing the electoral implications of the vote, which I described here. That's understandable, but I would not have expected him to so directly say, in effect, "you won't like what I've done, but vote for me anyway".

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Road Trip

President Obama is raising the ante on the stimulus bill. He plans to sign the legislation today in Colorado, at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

There is a wide range of potential presidential responses to a bill passed by Congress. As I see it, the one that's intended to signal presidential approval in the most high-profile way, is to sign it in a public ceremony away from Washington.

A site for such an event is chosen for symbolic reasons. The science museum is meant to point up the stimulus plan's spending for alternative energy.

Lyndon Johnson signed the original Medicare bill in 1965, at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, in one of the more memorable past examples of this type of signing ceremony. Truman had unsuccessfully advocated a socialist health care system during his presidency, and it's still possible that Medicare will represent the first step toward the eventual adoption of such a system in the U.S.

Of course, the White House, which provides a powerful venue for any event, is not a bad place to draw attention to a new law, either. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the executive mansion. The leaders of both parties had supported that legislation, and the Washington site made it more feasible for the entire congressional leadership to attend. But that type of scene could not be created for a bill such as the stimulus package, which was passed by near-party-line votes in both houses.

When there's legislation that a president deems necessary, but he wants to draw no more attention to it than necessary, he can sign it privately. And, if he really wants to avoid being identified with it, he can let it become law without his signature, by taking no action on it for 10 business days, while Congress is in session.

His other option is to veto the bill, and a president can also draw a greater or lesser degree of attention to that action. If Congress has adjourned in the meantime, then presidential inaction equals veto (the so-called "pocket veto").

Obama's high-profile (and mile-high) signature ceremony should accentuate the effect I mentioned here, of tying his Democratic Party's future prospects to perceived success of the stimulus program. On the other hand, to the extent the plan is perceived as a failure, that should aid the Republican Party, almost all of whose members in both houses of Congress opposed it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Resignations of national leaders take different forms.

At 9:00 pm, Eastern Time on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon, who had been accused of wrongdoing, announced his intention to resign the office of president of the United States. The next morning, he was carried away from the White House by helicopter. By noon on August 9, his resignation had become effective, as he was flying over the midwest.

On July 30, 2008, Ehud Olmert, who had been accused of wrongdoing, announced his intention to resign the office of prime minister of Israel. More than six months later, he is still on the job, with no set date for his departure.

An American president has a vice president (or others, if that office is vacant) ready to take over immediately, if necessary. In Nixon's case at that time, that person was, of course, Gerald Ford. Replacing an Israeli prime minister seems to be more complicated.

Before it's over, the Israeli transition will involve four major steps, three of which have been completed: 1) the selection of a new leader for Olmert's Kadima Party, 2) that leader's (Tzipi Livni's) attempt to form a new coalition (which failed), and 3) a general election. Each of those steps took a matter of months.

Now, a new set of coalition negotiations must begin, and it's expected to take a few weeks. Olmert will remain as caretaker prime minister during that period.

As I wrote here, a distinctive political culture evolves in each country. So, I'd be very reluctant to suggest that Israel should follow our way, or vice versa. But I find the difference interesting.

The rest of the world is primarily concerned about whether an Israeli political deadlock will further delay a resumption of peace negotiations. Until recently, they could not have resumed anyway, due to the American presidential transition. But now that that's settled, attention is focused on Israel's transition.

Aside from the failed experiment I described here, the Israeli electoral system has pretty much stayed unchanged in its six decades of existence. Now, there is talk of another reform effort, this time focusing on reducing or eliminating the degree of proportional representation.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stimulus Vote, Take Two

The votes in the House and Senate on the final version of the stimulus bill, as worked out by a House-Senate conference, were very similar to the two houses' earlier votes on their separate versions. No House Republicans voted in favor and, on the Senate side, Republican support was limited to the same three northeasterners who had supported the bill initially: Arlen Specter, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

As I've noted before, presidents tend to get too much credit for a good economy, and too much blame for a bad economy. The party-line nature of these votes should only accentuate that effect.

If a recovery is underway by the mid-term congressional elections next year, Democrats will take credit, and will blame the Republicans for doing all they could to try to block the Democrats' efforts to bring about that recovery. If not, Republicans will blame Democrats for prescribing the wrong remedy.

And what will the political implications be for the three Republicans named above?

I've already written about Specter's reelection contest next year. His vote on the stimulus bill might increase the chances of his facing a challenge from the right in the Republican primary.

By contrast, in Maine, Collins was reelected last year, and therefore won't face the voters again until 2014. And Snowe is next up for reelection in 2012. In any case, I don't know that they face as conservative an electorate as Specter does, here in Pennsylvania.


There's a word that, in the lyrics of a musical jingle from a TV commercial for cigarettes (back in the bad old days when there were such ads) means "different things to different people". Similar to "progressive", as I noted here.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich embraced the "populist" label in an interview published in The Daily Beast.

Gingrich has maintained a higher profile recently, apparently aiming to fill the leadership gap in his Republican Party, now that the leaders of the executive and legislative branches are Democrats. Among other activities, he maintains a website with a sort of latter-day Contract with America.

I don't know whether he intends to run for office again, or will be content with offering ideas from the sidelines. Count me as one Republican vote for the latter.

The word "populist" has been applied to politicians of both the right and the left. Here is Merriam-Webster's definition, which emphasizes identification with the "common people", which, of course, begs the question, who are they?

Members of the People's Party were called Populist with a capital "P". That party was gaining force in the midwest in the 1890s. But, in what in retrospect was probably a strategic blunder, in 1896 they nominated William Jennings Bryan for president. Bryan was the Democratic nominee and, by taking this "me too" step, the Populists raised questions about their viability as a separate entity.

But, while that formal party structure did not last, the "populist" label was a staple of 20th century political rhetoric. One politician with whom that word was strongly associated was Huey Long, governor of, and senator from, Louisiana.

With the Republican Party currently at low ebb (at least, we hope things go no lower), the question becomes: What platform should the party adopt going forward, in order to return to power?

If the answer is to be some variation on the populist concept, that would probably bode well for Sarah Palin, who has espoused a right-wing version of the populist approach. Not my first choice, but the tea leaves currently indicate that the party might be heading further in that direction. Perhaps Joe the Plumber gets more than 15 minutes of fame.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Israeli Election Result, sort of

We now know the result of the general election that was held in Israel on Tuesday, in the sense of knowing how many Knesset (parliamentary) seats will be held by each party. But we don't know the result in the sense of knowing the identity of the next prime minister, and the composition of the inevitable coalition government.

The Kadima Party, which heads the current coalition government, finished first in the balloting, but just barely. Their 28 seat total is only one ahead of that of the second-place party, Likud.

This is a textbook example of something about which I wrote here. The head of state in most parliamentary democracies has mostly ceremonial duties. But in a situation where no one party leader is the obvious choice to head a coalition government, such a head of state, e.g., Israel's President Shimon Peres, is called upon to make a major decision.

The election results could justify Peres's designating the head of either Kadima (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni) or Likud (former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) to attempt to put together a coalition.

Kadima is the largest party, which is usually the deciding factor. But with Likud being further to the right of the spectrum, they have more natural allies among the smaller parties.

Peres comes from the Labor Party, which is in coalition with Kadima. Elected heads of state in parliamentary democracies typically have a background in one of the parties. But they are expected to act in a non-partisan manner in the head of state role. So any favoritism that Peres might be perceived to show toward Kadima and Livni could stir up controversy.

That non-partisan role is very much in contrast to the American head of state, President Obama, who acts as leader of the Democratic Party.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Third Time's a Charm?

You know all of the analysis (all brilliant, of course) on this blog of the implications of President Obama's choice of Republican Senator Judd Gregg to head the Commerce Department? Never mind.

I wonder who his third choice for that job will be?

Quite A Day

I've already mentioned that today is the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. But, across the Atlantic, someone else entered the world on February 12, 1809: Charles Darwin.

Unlike Lincoln, Darwin was not a politician, so one might question his relevance to this blog.

Well, I would venture to guess that Darwin's name gets invoked in political debate more often than that of any other scientist. My wild guess is that a not-very-close second might be J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who worked on the U.S.'s Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons during World War II, who later lost his security clearance.

Much material has appeared lately, both in print and on television, about the birthday boys, Lincoln and Darwin. Among other topics, those descriptions of Darwin have addressed the contributions that others made, before, during and after Darwin's time, to our understanding of evolution and natural selection. But, for whatever reason, Darwin's is the only name that most people associate with those ideas.

Ever heard of Wallace's theory of evolution? Me neither.

This New York Times article contrasts the treatment of Darwin with that of Isaac Newton. And, while we do sometimes speak of "Newtonian Physics", the "ism" that is Darwinism takes things to a different level.

I wonder whether, in Darwin's 19th century, but not in Newton's 17th, we had already started creating intellectual celebrities in the modern sense. Later, in the 20th century, with wider availability of books, and the advent of television, that phenomenon became common with, for example, such media celebrities as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

Darwin's political impact is mostly felt in the realm of education. What, if anything, should public schools teach about the origin of species? From the "Monkey Trial" of the 1920s, to the "Intelligent Design" arguments of our day, Darwin continues to rock our political world.

Taxation With Representation?

An idea that was stalled in Congress a couple of years ago, is now being reconsidered. The Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee has approved a bill to allow the District of Columbia to elect a voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Here are accounts of that action from the committee, and from The New York Times.

The proposal is in the same form as similar legislation in the previous Congress. It would expand the House by two seats, to 437. The other of those two new seats would go to the state that was closest to qualifying for an additional seat, in the apportionment after the 2000 census.

That math results in a politically convenient balance. The other seat would go to Utah, one of the most heavily Republican states. So, the Democrats' numerical lead over the Republicans in the House would remain unchanged.

However, as noted in the Times piece, Republicans are concerned about creating a precedent that would eventually result in creating two Senate seats for the District. Assuming that no one is willing to allow Utah four senators, there seems to be no way to strike a balance similar to that which is proposed for the House.

I think this proposal can be faulted on procedural grounds, but not in terms of equity. It's always been a strange anomaly that those who live among the central institutions of American democracy have limited political rights. Washingtonians were given a place in the electoral college, effective with the 1964 election. They subsequently gained the right to elect their municipal government. It's difficult to argue, except on nakedly partisan grounds, that they should be deprived of full congressional representation.

D.C. drivers display a hallowed American slogan on their license plates: "Taxation Without Representation".

The procedural question, of course, is whether this should instead be accomplished by constitutional amendment. The District's right to vote for president and vice president was implemented that way.

That would require supermajorities in both houses of Congress, as well as ratification by 38 state legislatures. A bit more difficult than a simple majority in the House, potentially a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, and the signature of a president who is already on record supporting the plan.

A while back, the Congress tried to statutorily implement the line-item veto for appropriation bills, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. I would expect quite a few sparks to fly, if the D.C. representation issue faces a similar fate.

UPDATE: In response to the comment regarding the notion of returning the District to Maryland, Wikipedia has an article on that. Two problems are cited: 1) Maryland is apparently unwilling to take it back, and 2) it would be more complicated than the retrocession of the Virginia portion, because the main federal government institutions were always on the Maryland side.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

With Room To Spare

Let no one say that the Democrats put together the smallest possible coalition to get the stimulus bill past a filibuster. With their 58 votes (including those of two independents), they need two Republican votes to invoke cloture, and pave the way toward a vote on final passage. Instead, they followed through on their plan that I mentioned on Saturday: they garnered no less than three Republican votes!

Now, the Democrats were elected to govern, and they should do so, subject to those procedures that protect the minority position, such as the cloture rule. But I find it interesting how quickly their rhetoric of bipartisanship has come up against the realities of day-to-day politics.

Secretary of Commerce-designate Judd Gregg, who is still a Republican senator from New Hampshire, was absent. As Church Lady would say, "how convenient!"

UPDATE: The Senate vote on final passage was in line with the cloture vote. The only three Republicans in favor were Specter, Collins and Snowe. And again, Gregg abstained. Of course, with the House having approved a different version, final passage isn't final. The two houses will need to reconcile their differences before the bill goes to President Obama.

FURTHER UPDATE: I've finally got around to watching the entirety of the president's press conference. He says he'll work on developing bipartisanship, and breaking Washington's bad habits, over a period of time. I'm reminded of President Reagan's 1986 tax bill, which passed Congress almost unanimously, including a House with a Democratic majority. His 1981 tax bill was mainly supported by his fellow Republicans, but it had more bipartisan support than the Obama plan, and there was a Democratic majority in the lower house at that time, also. Then, five years later, Reagan was able to get a truly bipartisan tax plan enacted. We'll see what Obama accomplishes, as time goes on. And by the way, why, when most Democrats in 1986 supported lowering the top marginal income tax rate to 28%, did they later want to crucify George W. Bush for getting it lowered to 35%?

Israeli Election Day

Today is election day in Israel. The process that was set in motion last summer, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his intention to resign (although he is still a caretaker prime minister), has now reached the point where that country's voters are ready to cast ballots in a general election for the parliament (Knesset).

The Likud Party, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is favored to finish first in the balloting, although far short of an absolute majority of the 120 Knesset seats. However, Likud's lead over the Kadima Party, whose leader is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has narrowed significantly, and Livni has a chance to be in the leading position, when negotiations begin over the formation of a coalition government.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the Israeli electoral system can read my descriptions of their pure form of proportional representation, and the further scattering of votes among multiple parties in recent elections.

At the beginning of the campaign, it looked like a three-way race. In addition to the two parties mentioned above, there is the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister. He has been praised for his leadership of the recent military action against the Hamas faction of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. However, his party continues a long-term decline, and the country seems to prefer Barak in his current job, rather than as prime minister.

But now, a fourth party has emerged from the pack to become a major player: Yisrael Beiteinu. That party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is among the country's large population of emigrants from the Soviet Union. He takes a hard line on security issues related to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His party might overtake Labor, and become the third-largest group in the Knesset.

Once today's voting is over, American observers can expect something more akin to our 2000 presidential election, than the 2008 American election. Unlike Barack Obama's election, which was assured as that Tuesday was ending, the true outcome of today's Israeli election is not likely to be known for a matter of weeks. It won't be a matter of recounting the people's votes, as happened in Florida in 2000, but rather counting Knesset seats in putting together a coalition of at least 61 votes in that legislative body.

Negotiating the formation of an Israeli coalition government usually entails long and complicated discussions.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Audiobook Review: Lincoln-Douglas Debates

As you may have heard, Thursday is the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. In the run-up to that milestone, and in the wake of last summer's 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, BBC Audio has produced the first unabridged audio version of the debates.

The part of Lincoln is read by David Strathairn, with Richard Dreyfuss voicing Stephen Douglas.

Professor Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College gives a short introduction. But, otherwise, the recordings are a primary source, giving a verbatim recounting of the actual speeches. Anyone who is familiar with the story will get a lot out of listening to these. Otherwise, you will probably want to study the background a bit, before delving into these discs. Guelzo's brief introduction is very good, but it is very brief; anyone seeking an extensive explanation should look elsewhere, perhaps to Guelzo's own book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America. (I have not read it, so I can't make a recommendation.)

I think there are two common misconceptions about the debates:

  1. Lincoln and Douglas ran against each other for president in 1860, so people sometimes assume that the debates were part of that campaign. But those same two men also campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858, and it was that contest that featured these debates. Lincoln was the Republican candidate, challenging the Democratic incumbent Douglas.

  2. The candidates' positions are sometimes oversimplified as: Lincoln was anti-slavery and Douglas was pro-slavery. But the disagreement was not that stark, and it's interesting to listen for the nuances in the two men's stances.

I'll write more about the substance of their arguments in a subsequent post.

Both performances are very good. Dreyfuss is of course well known for his 40-year career in motion pictures. Strathairn is perhaps best known for portraying Edward R. Murrow in the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck.

Both actors succeed in putting quite a bit of personality into what could otherwise be a dry rehearsal of the original lines. And Strathairn hits a happy medium between two extremes in portrayals of Lincoln. Some actors have given him a powerful, deep voice that seems fitting for a great orator. Others have done more of a high-pitched screech which, while possibly accurate, can be annoying to listen to. Strathairn's Abe is believable as an Illinois lawyer with Kentucky roots.

The events before, during and after the Civil War remain relevant to our understanding of American politics, and the history that brought us to our present state. The discussions about racial issues during last year's presidential campaign are evidence of that.

All in all, I recommend this audiobook to anyone interested in American political history.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Over So Soon?

Is President Obama's honeymoon over?

Newt Gingrich compared Obama's approach to his "stimulus" bill, to the poor congressional relations that existed when Jimmy Carter was president. 32 years ago, Carter was in a position similar to that of Obama. He was a new Democratic president, with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Carter is generally thought to have wasted that opportunity, by underestimating the need to "woo" Congress. Two years later, those majorities were sharply curtailed, and a further two years later, Carter was sent back to Georgia.

In the Senate, Obama's bipartisanship can apparently be described as "minimalist". According to this New York Times report from yesterday, Democrats are working on a deal with the three left-most Republicans in the Senate, Specter of Pennsylvania, and Collins and Snowe of Maine. That would give them enough votes to guard against a filibuster, but would not be much of a show of bipartisanship.

If Secretary of Commerce-designate Judd Gregg is still in the Senate when the final vote comes up, it will be interesting to see how he votes.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Secretary of Commerce, sort of

Glenn Thrush, on Politico, writes about speculation that the White House is drumming up plans to prevent Secretary of Commerce-designate Judd Gregg from controlling the 2010 Census. (The Bureau of the Census is part of the Department of Commerce.)

I wrote here about the politically-sensitive nature of the Census.

I've repeatedly written that I'm not a fan of bipartisanship in the Cabinet. If it's going to be a sham, where a Republican department head can't run his department, that certainly doesn't work toward changing my mind on the question.

New New Hampshire Senator

Catching up on a story from earlier in the week, New Hampshire's Democratic Governor John Lynch has announced whom he will appoint to replace Republican Senator Judd Gregg, assuming Gregg is confirmed by his Senate colleagues to be the next secretary of commerce.

That choice is Bonnie Newman, a Republican.

Lynch seems to have found someone who, from his point of view, is the perfect nominee. In that Newman worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, her Republican credentials are difficult to challenge. On the other hand, she apparently is not ideologically in tune with her Republican future colleagues. In this Politico report, a local pollster describes her as a "Rockefeller Republican".

That is how Lynch dealt with the questions I posed in this post.


Yesterday, Amy Klobuchar, formerly the junior senator from Minnesota, now the senator from Minnesota, addressed one of those Washington dinners where the politicians are expected to make humorous remarks. According to this report by Politico, she was quite a hit.

I'm not all that familiar with the senator. I left Minnesota in 1982, long before she became a public figure. But I knew of her father, Jim, a long-time newspaper columnist in Minneapolis, known for his dry wit. Apparently, it's in the genes.

Some of her fellow Democrats are talking about her as a rising star in her party. These days when, as David Letterman says, the road to higher office runs through his guest chair, her sense of humor is an asset.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


With the process of appointing his Cabinet and staff running less than perfectly, those who expected President Obama to walk on water have seen him get a little wet. An overall assessment of his presidency is a long long way off but, if these developments cause people to view the president in more realistic terms, I think that will be a good thing.

Also Ran

After I wrote a fair amount about Richard Nixon recently, this obituary appeared in The New York Times.

In 1948, when Nixon ran for a second term in Congress, he "cross-filed" in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. That was allowed by California law from 1915 to 1959, and had originally been considered a progressive reform. He was unopposed in the Republican primary. In the Democratic primary, he beat Stephen Zetterberg, the subject of the obituary. That allowed Nixon to run unopposed in the general election, even though a Democrat had filed to oppose him.

The obituary quotes Frank Mankiewicz, a Democratic operative who wrote a book about Nixon, as saying that Zetterberg would have won the general election, had he survived the Democratic primary. In other words, it was Tricky Dick's trickery that won him reelection.

That doesn't make any sense to me. If Zetterberg could not even win a majority among his own party, how could he expect to draw enough Republican and independent votes, to win in November? Mankiewicz's analysis seems to me to be yet another example of Nixon's opponents going overboard in criticizing him.

As I wrote in the post to which I've linked above, I'm curious as to why people overreach in their criticism of Nixon, when there are many issues about which they could more objectively criticize him?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Appointing Another Senator

President Obama has created yet another vacancy in the Senate (subject to the confirmation process). If his nominee for secretary of commerce, Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, is confirmed by his fellow senators, Democratic Governor John Lynch will appoint Gregg's Senate successor.

Apparently, a tacit deal has been worked out, whereby Lynch will appoint a Republican, so as to not to give the Democrats a 60-seat theoretically filibuster-proof supermajority. Lynch's statement, as quoted in this blog post by Marc Ambinder, does not exactly say that. But it seems to nail it down well enough.

However, there are Republicans and then there are Republicans. In the absence of a stricter deal, Lynch could appoint a RINO (Republican in name only). I know there are such creatures here in Pennsylvania, and I suspect they might be even more prevalent in New England. Now, I might support such an appointee, if they reflect traditional Republican principles, without being a disciple of Pat Robertson. But who knows what to expect?

One option would be to voluntarily submit to the procedure that was followed, pursuant to state law, when Senator Craig Thomas, Republican of Wyoming, died in 2007. The Wyoming Republican committee submitted a list of three names to Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal, who chose John Barrasso from that list to be Thomas's successor.

Also, I wonder whether Gregg has communicated, directly or indirectly, with Lynch about specific names.

Another question is why Gregg would end a long career in Congress (continuously since first elected to the House in 1980, except for a four-year break to serve as governor), to take a mid-level Cabinet post. I suspect he might feel like one of the last specimens of an endangered species. That once-great beast, the New England Republican, formerly roamed that region in great numbers. Maine's two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are now the only Republicans in either house of Congress from that region, other than Gregg. Something about handwriting and walls?

Odd Place for Bipartisanship

Past presidents have been accused of appointing secretaries of commerce with the intent of having them funnel money to and from their major financial backers. This report by the PBS show Frontline discusses that topic.

Under the old Post Office Department structure, before the quasi-independent U.S. Postal Service was created in 1971, presidents often appointed their campaign managers as Postmaster General, which was then a Cabinet position. Why was that?

Before 1971, the president appointed many of the local postmasters. Many observers, including Bill Schneider in this CNN report dating back to 1997, describe that as an opportunity for a president to reward political allies around the country.

Now, postmasters are chosen by the civil service merit system and, in the opinion of some of those observers, the Commerce Department has taken over the patronage function.

By selecting, if belatedly, a member of the opposition party for secretary of commerce, President Obama seems to be signaling that he does not intend to use the department that way.

Cabinet Still Unsettled

Various updates regarding President Obama's Cabinet appointments:

Yesterday, the Senate confirmed Eric Holder's nomination for attorney general. All 21 "nay" votes came from Republicans. Their party was almost evenly split, and that split was very much along ideological lines, with those closer to the center supporting the nomination.

In this post, I underestimated the degree of bipartisanship in the Obama Cabinet. In addition to retaining Robert Gates as secretary of defense, Obama appointed Republican Ray LaHood to be secretary of transportation.

Now, the president has appointed a third Republican, Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. Gregg is the nominee for secretary of commerce, a position that has remained open because Obama's original choice, Governor Bill Richardson, Democrat of New Mexico, backed out.

All of that does not change the opinion I expressed earlier, that Republicans should stick with forming the loyal opposition to the Obama Administration, the better to be able to offer an alternative to the electorate in 2010 and 2012.

And some more breaking news: former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle has asked that his nomination to be secretary of health and human services be withdrawn. That nomination had been stalled over personal tax issues.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Pennsylvania 2010: Governor

Reviewing the 21st century so far, in terms of the fortunes of the Republican Party here in Pennsylvania, I fall back on the old saying: "If it weren't for bad luck, we'd have no luck at all." But now some good news: that formidable vote-getter in the other party, Governor Ed Rendell, is running up against a term limit.

In 1967, the state constitution was amended to allow governors to serve two four-year terms. Before that, they were prohibited from running for reelection. Since the first gubernatorial election under that amendment, in 1970, the parties have traded the governorship back and forth, at eight-year intervals. During that period, no governor has been denied reelection, but no governor has been elected to succeed a governor from the same party.

If that pattern holds, it will be the Republicans' turn in 2010.

Dozens of names have been mentioned as possible candidates.

Some of those most frequently named on the Republican side include:

  • Tom Corbett, 59, Pennsylvania's attorney general.
  • Jim Gerlach, 53, the 6th district congressman.
  • Pat Meehan, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
  • Rick Santorum, 50, former U.S. senator.
  • Mark Schweiker, 56, who served as governor for the last 15 months of the 1999-2003 term, after Tom Ridge took the Homeland Security job in Washington.

Those who might try to change history, and give the Democrats a third consecutive term, include:

  • Tom Knox, a Philadelphia businessman. He ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic mayoral primary in 2007.
  • Don Onorato, 47, Allegheny County (of which Pittsburgh is the seat) executive.
  • Mark Singel, 55, former lieutenant governor. He served as acting governor for six months in 1993, when Governor Bob Casey was recovering from a heart-liver transplant.
  • Jack Wagner, Pennsylvania's auditor general.

The race seems to be wide-open in both parties, but I'll mention one additional element of Pennsylvania gubernatorial politics that might help to narrow down the field. In addition to alternating parties, the electorate has alternated between electing governors from the eastern and western halves of Pennsylvania. If that pattern holds, the Philadelphian Rendell will be followed by a westerner. That would suggest Corbett, Santorum, Onorato or Wagner.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Cancel That Appointment

Nate Silver has some interesting comments about a proposal by Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin (who chairs the subcommittee with jurisdiction over this issue) to amend the Constitution to prohibit gubernatorial interim appointments to fill U.S. Senate vacancies.

Feingold's stated goal is to make the "Senate ... as responsive as possible to the will of the people". That was certainly not the vision of the founding fathers. They designed the upper house, with elections that were less direct, and less frequent, than those for the House of Representatives, to be less subject to the popular will.

This article by the Senate Historical Office quotes some of the founders:

Madison explained that the Senate would be a "necessary fence" against the "fickleness and passion" that tended to influence the attitudes of the general public and members of the House of Representatives. George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the framers had created the Senate to "cool" House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea.

That vision of the Senate has changed over time, especially with the introduction of direct election of senators, almost a century ago. But the Senate's debate rules, that require a three-fifths majority to cut off debate, still carry an element of that "cooling the passions" concept.

Still, in this era of direct election of senators, I agree that it's anomalous to allow appointment of senators, when there is a strict requirement that House vacancies must be filled by election.

It's interesting to note, though, that, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, there was some support for going in the other direction, and allowing appointments to the House, under extreme circumstances. Here is a statement by Ron Paul, opposing that idea, which was not adopted.

Pennsylvania 2010: Senate

The state in which I reside, Pennsylvania, was an important factor (one might even say, a "keystone") in the 2008 presidential race, both in the Democratic primary, and the general election. But there wasn't much going on at the state level.

Next year, however, there will be elections for both governor and U.S. senator.

Republican Senator Arlen Specter plans to seek a sixth term in the Senate, at the age of 80. He is 12th in seniority, fifth among Republicans.

He is the Ranking Republican on the Committee on the Judiciary. Specter chaired that committee during the last two years of the most recent period during which his party controlled the Senate (2005-2007). That entailed presiding over the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

Specter long ago established an odd niche in American history, as one of the key staff members of the Warren Commission, which was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination of his predecessor, John Kennedy.

In the Senate, Specter has been further to the left than most Republicans. In 2007, the American Conservative Union gave him a rating of 40 (on a 100-point) scale, making him the third least conservative of the Senate Republicans. In fact, according to the Patriot-News, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper, there has been serious talk, which Specter has rejected, of his switching parties.

This Congressional Quarterly article gives some background on Specter's electoral history, as well as his upcoming reelection campaign.

The identity of his opponent(s) is not yet clear, but his sixth Senate campaign is shaping up to be similar to past races. Specter may well face a challenge from the right in the primary, and then may or may not come up against strong Democratic opposition. To once again quote my favorite philosopher: it's déjà vu all over again.