Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Virginia 2009: Governor

Virginia gubernatorial elections are out of the ordinary in at least two ways.

Most of the states hold their gubernatorial elections in even-numbered years. In the majority of those states, the election is on the November election day that's half-way between presidential elections. Virginia is one of a handful of exceptions. Its governors are elected in an odd-numbered year, on the November election day that comes one year after a presidential election. So, their next election for that office will be on November 3 of this year.

Virginia governors cannot run for reelection. Many states formerly had such a restriction, but every such state other than Virginia has repealed that limitation. Here in Pennsylvania, for example, one of the constitutional amendments initiated by a constitutional convention held in 1967-8 allows our governors to serve up to two consecutive terms.

Therefore, Virginia's Democratic incumbent Governor Tim Kaine will not be on the ballot.

The highest-profile name on this year's Democratic primary ballot is that of Terry McAuliffe, who was a senior aide to President Clinton. McAuliffe received quite a splash of publicity this week when AFSCME, the public employee union, endorsed his candidacy.

The primary will be June 9. His opponents are Creigh Deeds, a state senator, and Brian Moran, a former member of the legislature's lower house, the House of Delegates. The polls have so far shown no clear leader.

Bob McDonnell, formerly Virginia's attorney general, is unopposed for the Republican nomination.

There's an interesting quirk, that I noted here, whereby Virginia's electorate seems to enjoy the opportunity that their election schedule provides, to cast a protest vote against the party of whichever president had been elected the year before. McDonnell is counting on a continuation of that trend in 2009.

Constitutional Amendment The Easy Way

There is yet another effort underway to amend the Constitution without amending the Constitution. Nate Silver writes about this ingenious plan to, in effect, do away with the electoral college for presidential elections.

You can follow that link to the full details, but the gist is that certain states (totalling at least 270 electoral votes, which constitute a majority of the total) would require their electors to vote for the winner of the nationwide popular vote.

The comments raise all sorts of interesting issues.

One that comes to mind for me is: what would the penalty be on an individual elector who votes against his state's instructions? Looking at the states that Nate mentions, might a Democratic elector from Vermont refuse to vote for a Republican popular-vote-winner, or vice-versa with a Republican elector from Arkansas? The author of one of the comments would send such an elector to jail. Maybe, but that seems doubtful.

This seems less vulnerable to a constitutional challenge than the line-item-veto legislation a few years back, or the current proposal for Congress to grant House representation to the District of Columbia. However, the possibility of a challenge under the Voting Right Act is noted.

I've already expressed my opinion that we should, at the very least, be careful about changing or abolishing the current system, so as to avoid unintended consequences.

I understand why there was a strong reaction to George W. Bush being elected in 2000, despite having lost the popular vote to Al Gore. But, it almost seems as though Bush's opponents think they can go back and change history, if they now change the rules. I'm reminded of a scene from Back to the Future, in which Michael J. Fox's character, having gone back in time to the point where his parents were first dating, starts to disappear every time something happens that might keep them apart. No matter what we do to the presidential election procedure now, we won't get the reverse of what almost happened in that movie. Bush's presidency will not retroactively disappear.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Michigan 2010: Governor

Ben Pershing, in his Capitol Briefing blog on The Washington Post's website, describes the current state of play in the upcoming race for governor of Michigan. Democratic incumbent Jennifer Granholm is term-limited.

When the Republicans were the party of the North, and Democrats the party of the South (before the electoral map got turned upside down in the mid-to-late 20th century), the G.O.P. dominated Michigan politics. From the beginning of the Civil War to the end of World War II, Republican governors were in office for 70 years, to only 14 years for Democrats. However, the parties have spent just about equal amounts of time in that office in the post-war years.

The presidential vote in Michigan since 1948 has also been split 50/50, with the state's electoral votes going eight times to Democrats and eight times to Republicans. However, Democrats have carried the state in the five most recent presidential elections.

From a national perspective, Democrats have made gains during the current recession. However, it may be the inevitable fate of a Democratic governor such as Granholm, to be caught up in an anti-incumbent mood, regardless of which party holds power in Washington. Some high-profile Republicans seem willing to try to exploit that mood.


National Republican leaders are still taking a hard line on the question of pursuing appeals of the U.S. Senate recount in Minnesota that showed Democrat Al Franken to be the winner over Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.

Politico reports that Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican campaign chief, is OK with a federal appeal process that could go on for years, during which Minnesota will continue to be limited to one senator.

If the state court decision goes against Coleman, and he is unsuccessful in appealing that to the state supreme court, I think Coleman should then concede the election to Franken. I say that, not because I want another Democratic senator, but because I want to head off a backlash against Republicans in Minnesota, and perhaps elsewhere.

If the state's Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty is perceived to be putting partisan considerations ahead of the state's interests, that could endanger both his position as one of the few remaining Republican officeholders in Minnesota, and his apparent hopes for national office.

Minnesota has tended to be sensitive about its reputation for above-board politics. I've been away from there for a couple of decades, but I'm guessing that attitude hasn't changed much.

Democrat Wendell Anderson was a very popular governor of Minnesota, until he engineered his own appointment to a U.S. Senate vacancy in 1976. When that Senate seat came up for election in 1978, Anderson lost in a huge landslide. His downfall also contributed to his party's loss of the governorship and the other U.S. Senate seat (in a special election necessitated by Hubert Humphrey's death) that same day.

The Republicans are currently much weaker in Minnesota than the Democrats (called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in that state) were in the run-up to the 1978 elections. But they could become even weaker, if the voters now render the same verdict of misbehavior against the Republicans, as they did to the DFL in 1978.

It's possible that the Republicans won't follow through on their tough talk. If they do plan to concede at some point, they would not want to signal that willingness in advance.

Friday, March 27, 2009

He Won't Be Back

During a period of just a few months, two members of the cast of Predator have opted out of U.S. Senate races. The more recent of those two is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican of California.

According to this post on The New York Times blog The Caucus, the Gubernator has ruled out a run for the Senate in 2010. Democrat Barbara Boxer's third term ends next year.

Carly Fiorina, the ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard, who has become increasingly political lately, with her high-profile presence in John McCain's presidential campaign, is another Republican possibility. Boxer leads in early polls, according to this Rasmussen report.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I believe this is the first time I've seen a direct reference in a major media outlet, to Newt Gingrich as a presidential hopeful for 2012.

I wrote here about the higher profile Gingrich has been aiming for this year, with a leadership vacuum in his Republican Party. In that post, I speculated open-endedly about where that might lead.

Newt will turn 69 years old in 2012 so, along with other baggage, his age could be an issue.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Evan In The Middle

There has been an interesting development on a subject about which I've written a few posts on this blog, i.e., ideological diversity within the Democratic Party.

Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress for most of the period from the 1930s to the 1990s. But most of the real power during those years rested with the so-called Conservative Coalition of northern Republicans and southern Democrats (for more details, click here).

In that post, I speculated about whether recent Democratic gains would again produce an ideological divide among Democrats. It seems as though that is now happening to some extent. As Democrats have expanded their majority in the Senate, they've won seats in such places as North Carolina, Montana, Colorado, Alaska, etc. Some of those new senators have joined up with veteran moderate Democrats such as Evan Bayh of Indiana, to form an informal moderate caucus.

I don't think that the rift will be as big as it was between northern and southern Democrats during the Conservative Coalition era, but this new group should be able to have a moderating influence on legislation backed by the White House and the Democratic Senate leadership.

Up to now, it has looked as though Majority Leader Harry Reid would continue to be engaged in picking off a handful of northeastern Republicans, whenever a cloture vote is needed. With this new development, he may occasionally struggle just to put together a 51-vote majority among the Democrats.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lost in Translation

Politico reports on a snafu perpetrated by the staff of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a recent meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

The Obama Administration has continued to pursue the theme of "reset" in their approach to Russo-American relations. Clinton gave Lavrov a "reset button", with a Russian translation. A cute idea, but her aides mistranslated the word. Lavrov reportedly laughed it off, and it's only considered a major issue in the hypercritical atmosphere of Washington.

But I'm reminded of a much more embarrassing gaffe by a previous Democratic administration. During Jimmy Carter's arrival speech when he visited Poland in December 1977, he spoke of wanting to get to know the Polish people. Well, his translator used the wrong word for "know", one that denoted carnal knowledge, rather than merely personal acquaintance.

That would have been an awkward situation in any country. But in light of the fact that the Germans, the Russians, and others, had repeatedly taken the action Carter described against Poland (figuratively speaking) throughout history, it got the president off to a bad start.

Toward the end of his first year in office, Carter had started to develop a reputation for incompetence. His budget director had resigned amid a scandal. He showed a remarkable degree of difficulty in getting his legislation through a Congress in which his party had large majorities in both houses. The mistake in Poland added a bit more fuel to the fire, as Carter slid downhill toward his eventual reelection defeat in 1980.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dubious Achievement

Minnesota has passed a milestone of sorts. The disputed Senate election between Norm Coleman and Al Franken will now become the longest such deadlock in the state's history.

The 1962 gubernatorial election, to which I alluded here, was held on November 6, 1962. The winner of the recount, Karl Rolvaag, took office on March 25, 1963, after an interval of 139 days.

As of today, 139 days have passed since election day 2008, and there is no end in sight to litigation arising out of the recount.

National Republican leaders have been quoted in recent days as saying that Coleman should pursue every possible appeal. Had I still been a Minnesota resident, I would have voted for Coleman. But is it worth pursuing a total war strategy over this?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Andrew Johnson and other running mates

I've happened upon this interesting blog about Abraham Lincoln. The blogger is Brian Dirck, assistant professor of history at Anderson University.

Dirck has done a series of posts on Lincoln's worst mistakes. That's an interesting angle that seems vaguely sacrilegious, at least to a northerner like me.

This one is about Lincoln's choice of a running mate (Andrew Johnson) for his reelection campaign of 1864. Some of the comments on that post discuss the question of how much a presidential candidate controlled the selection process at that point in history.

Dirck cites the two Whig vice presidents who became president upon the death of their predecessors, John Tyler and Millard Fillmore. One might think that the less-than-stellar presidencies of those two men would have caused future presidential nominees to give more thought to, and take more control over, the choice of a running mate.

I think it's an interesting commentary on human nature, that it took the McGovern/Eagleton debacle of 1972, before presidential nominees significantly changed their VP selection process. I suspect George McGovern would have lost the 1972 election anyway, even if he had not deemed it necessary to drop Thomas Eagleton from his ticket. But subsequent nominees of both parties seem to have taken a lesson from the Eagleton situation, and been much more careful in choosing running mates.

But the issue of mediocre vice presidents becoming president seems to have had far less impact on presidential candidates' behavior.

Opinions vary on the quality of the "accidental presidents" subsequent to Andrew Johnson. Theodore Roosevelt is generally listed among the greats. As to the others, my opinion is that Coolidge is underrated and Truman is overrated. And I think most of us would agree that Andrew Johnson's namesake Lyndon was a mix of good and bad, with most of us believing that the bad outweighs the good.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that, up to and including 1972, presidential nominees performed next to no due diligence on their vice presidential choices. So there was always the potential for disaster, if a low-quality vice president were suddenly called on to take over the top job.

In other words, it was only the immediate concern about possible negative impact on their candidacy, that hit their radar screens. Not that they intend to harm the country (as much as that may sometimes seem to be the case), but, when campaign decisions are made, the long-range impact on America can take a back seat, when the urgent need to obtain votes takes up all of a candidate's attention.

Big Tent?

There is a new development in the process of forming the next coalition government in Israel.

In this post earlier this week, I described reports that the Likud Party's leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been designated by President Shimon Peres to form a government and become prime minister again, seemed to be on the verge of forming a narrow coalition.

Now, Peres is allowing Netanyahu more time, to attempt to broaden that coalition. According to this New York Times report, his main target is the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister (and fellow former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak.

The Times article leaves the impression that inclusion of the centrist Kadima Party, led by Tzipi Livni, is off the table.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Games People Play

Top Ten signs that Nate Silver has too much time on his hands:

#10: He analyzes the electoral-college implications of President Obama's March Madness bracket.

I'm not really criticizing him. I too have been known to seek out the intersection between politics and sports.

It's interesting to have a president who is such a basketball fan. But will he emulate one of his predecessors, and draw up a play for a pro coach, perhaps the Washington Wizards' Ed Tapscott?

On another sports topic: It's a stretch to find any political connection here (although I can do it; see below) but any of us who are sports fans in the Minnesota diaspora (even we alums of high schools that despised the Cake-Eaters) should find this article in the current Sports Illustrated to be a fun trip down Memory Lane.

The political connection: it mentions a school in the capital city of that state, whose teams are called the "Governors". Not only that, one actual governor played hockey for that school.

Drawing this all together, once the basketball president leaves the White House, how about a hockey president?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Records are made to be broken

As I mentioned here, I'm a proud member of the baby boom generation. Not only that, I was born at the very peak of the boom, in 1957.

So I was taken aback by this report, finding out that, after half a century, my year's distinction of having more live births than any other year in American history, is no more. The record was surpassed in 2007.

That's in absolute numbers. As the Journal article notes, the birth rate per 1,000 of population was higher in the boom years than in 2007. The population base from which the boom emerged was far lower then than now. So it remains true that my generation had the biggest impact (I'll leave it at that, and let readers interpret that positively or negatively, as they see fit) on the country.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Coalition Is At Hand

The lengthy process of replacing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to be nearing its end. Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud, has concluded a coalition agreement with Avigdor Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beiteinu. He is expected to reach similar agreements with a handful of smaller parties very soon, which will produce a majority coalition in the Israel's 120-member parliament, the Knesset. That would return Netanyahu to the office of prime minister, a position he held from 1996 to 1999.

Netanyahu's efforts to bring the centrist Kadima Party into the coalition seem to have been abandoned. Kadima's leader Tzipi Livni has rejected that possibility, due to differences of opinion on peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

I've painted myself into a corner, by rejecting the notion of wings on the political spectrum, either right or left. How do I now describe the ideology of the parties who are potential coalition partners with Likud?

The answer -- and this is the great thing about blogging, where I'm writer, editor and publisher -- is that I can give myself special dispensation (not that I claim to be pope, too) to call those parties "right wing".

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Political Spectrum 3: Labels

Politician "A" wants economic decisions to be made, whenever feasible, in the private marketplace, according to individual choice, and the law of supply and demand. She is more interested in equality of opportunity, than equality of results.

Politician "B" thinks markets should be heavily regulated. If income inequality passes what he considers an unacceptable threshold, he advocates government action to redistribute income.

Some (though not many in present-day America) would call "A" a "liberal". Some would call "B" a "liberal". What gives?

If one traces the words "conservative" and "liberal" back to their root meanings, they turn out not to be antonyms of each other. And over time, their meanings have been twisted in new directions.

"Liberal" derives from the same root as "liberty". So a liberal is an advocate of liberty.

To some, that means liberty from government abuses, such as excessive taxation, imprisonment without due process, restrictions on speech or the press, etc. That's sometimes called "traditional liberal" or "libertarian".

Others argue that an activist government is necessary, in order to provide liberty. Poor people have no liberty to pursue education, or the hallowed "pursuit of happiness" generally, unless government provides them the resources so to do.

And what about "conservative"? From "conserve", i.e., to conserve the status quo. In other words, a conservative is opposed to change.

Therefore, if the status quo is liberal (by whichever definition one chooses), then the conservative is a liberal.

How did our use of these words evolve to reach the current state of things? Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Political Lens

The New York Times has reported on Charles Freeman's withdrawal of his nomination to a top spy job in the Obama Administration. Freeman has been criticized for antagonism toward Israel.

I'm staunchly pro-Israel, and the derailing of Freeman's nomination is probably a good thing. But that's not my main point. Instead, I'm zeroing in on the following sentence in the Times article:

Some of Mr. Freeman’s defenders say his views on Israel are extreme only when seen through the lens of American political life, and they asked whether it was possible to question American support for Israel without being either muzzled or marginalized.

Now, my guess is that the reporters are not contrasting the "lens of American political life" to the lens of Saudi Arabian political life or French political life or whatever. Instead, I think the question is whether a nomination should be seen through a political lens, or some other type of lens.

As I noted here, there is an American tendency to consider "political" to be a dirty word. "Politics" is that unsavory process that goes on over a period of several months during, and just before, a leap year. Once that unfortunate period is over with, whichever elites have been chosen can get on with the process of governing which, according to this point of view, is best done without reference to politics.

The implication seems to be that those of us outside the Beltway should wait to be told by our betters on the other side of that road, what should be done about an issue such as the Freeman nomination.

There can be legitimate debate as to whether a minority faction within the electorate should be able, through concerted lobbying, to hold a veto power over a proposed government action in which they have a particular interest. But I think the answer should err on the side of freedom of expression, and wide political participation. In this case, there was grassroots lobbying that seems to me to be very appropriate.

(And not to be too coy in dancing around the obvious issue: I don't think that American pro-Israeli organizations should receive a free pass for every last thing that they advocate. But I believe that the strongest criticism of the "Lobby" reflects traditional antisemitic conspiracy theories, and therefore needs to be heavily discounted.)

The elitist anti-"politics" viewpoint seems to see campaigning and governing as two totally separate activities. When President Obama traveled around the country advocating his economic stimulus plan, some said, with a disapproving tone, that he was continuing his political campaign. Whether you agree or disagree with the stimulus legislation, I think you have to agree that Obama was doing the same thing all modern presidents have done, in seeking grassroots support for major legislation.

Presidential campaigns involve a lot of silly TV commercials and photo opportunities. But they are a necessary part of the workings of our democracy. And I think there should be more continuity, not less, between campaigning and governing.

In other words, it's a good thing to judge pending decisions "through the lens of American political life".

I'm sure that the Washington elite considers voters to be inconvenient things. But we have a legitimate role in governing, beyond just being herded to the polls on election day.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Political Spectrum 2: Shape

I believe that most political observers, if asked to draw a graphic representation of the political spectrum, would draw a line. A point would be placed on the line, representing the center. To the left are socialism, affirmative action, gay rights, "green", "pro-choice", separation of church and state. To the right are low taxes, laissez-faire, "pro-life", "don't ask, don't tell", "In God We Trust".

The further to the left someone is on the political spectrum, the further they are from the views of those on the far right of the spectrum. And vice versa. Of course. Or not?

As I see it, the logical end point that both extreme left and extreme right approach, is anarchy. They don't get all the way there. After all, anarchy is a utopian state, in the literal sense of "a place that does not exist". But they approach that end point, the way a mathematical series will approach but never quite reach a certain point.

"Anarchy" has long been the battle cry of the extreme left. One example is the Haymarket Riot of 1886. Some of the protesters against the Vietnam War and, more recently, some "anti-globalization" protesters, have also embraced the label of "anarchist".

In the other direction, there are the extreme libertarians. They don't tend to embrace the label of "anarchist", but, of course, they aim to limit government's size and functions as much as possible. Again, they don't get all the way there, and there's a big difference between limited government and no government, but the further out one is on the libertarian spectrum, the smaller one wants government to be.

What is shared in common between a make-love-not-war protester, and a libertarian with a Daniel Boone-like "when I can see the smoke from my neighbor's chimney, I'll move further out on the frontier" approach? (Libertarianism doesn't necessarily equate to radical individualism. One key libertarian concept is being communitarian through voluntary associations, rather than government. But I think the furthest end of the libertarian scale is that which most emphasizes rugged individualism.)

To state it tautologically: each person wants government not to do what each person wants government not to do. Now, to delve deeper into that incredibly profound statement: Those on the left usually want to limit government's regulation of their personal lives, e.g., unconventional sexual relationships, recreational use of drugs, freedom not to serve in the military. Meanwhile, on the right, they don't want to be taxed, have their businesses regulated, or be told what values their children should be taught.

So where does that leave our "shape" question? In a circle, of course.

According to that interpretation, there is no "left" and "right". There's just one arc of the circle that, in various ways and for various reasons, wants government to do more, and another arc that wants government to do less. Oh, and a huge retinue of politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and consultants whose livelihood depends on that first arc, and is threatened by the second.

Political Spectrum

When I started this blog, my choice of a title for it was somewhat random. The reference to "Political Spectrum" was as much a tribute to a sports arena that is slated for the wrecking ball, as anything else.

But, for the sake of truth in advertising, I will now write about the political spectrum. I have two unorthodox ideas on that subject, that I'll address in upcoming posts:

First, the political spectrum is usually thought of as a line. I will argue that it is better represented by a circle.

Second, as I see it, the words "conservative" and "liberal" are used in a way that bears no resemblance to their original meanings. I will go on to argue that 1) they are not antonyms at all, and 2) their misuse has resulted in muddled thinking about political philosophy.

Monday, March 9, 2009

India 3: Election Day(s)

A while ago, I had started setting out the background for the upcoming general election in India (see posts 1 and 2). Inaugurations, back taxes, stimuli, etc., distracted me, but now the election has been scheduled, so I'll try to get back on track with that subject.

How do they deal with being the world's largest democracy? One way is that they don't hold the election in every area on the same day. This New York Times report describes India's plan to hold the election over a period of four weeks, starting April 16. I don't know of any other country that schedules a general election that way, although it's somewhat similar to the U.S. parties' method of nominating presidential candidates.

The Times article mentions the many small parties which will form a coalition either with one of the two largest parties, or perhaps with each other, putting the Congress and Bharatiya Janata parties out of power.

In future posts, I will describe how the party structure evolved as it has. Also, I plan to discuss how India, even though it long ago divorced itself from the British monarchy, has been dominated by one family.

Decisive Election

North Korea has shown itself to be much more efficient than Minnesota, in holding elections. In North Korea's parliamentary constituency #333, there will be no recount, no contest in court, and no controversy about signing a certificate of election.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

New York 2010: Senate

There's an old saying in Washington that every senator who looks in the mirror sees a potential president. If so, further south on Capitol Hill, there must be quite a few House members who see a potential senator. (Some congressmen, such as Mo Udall and Dick Gephardt, thought they saw a president, but it turned out to be an optical illusion.)

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, recently made the move from House to Senate. Now, some of her former colleagues in that state's House delegation (and other Empire State politicians) want to make Gillibrand's shift a temporary one.

Here is The New York Times' latest report on the campaign for the special election next year that will ratify, or not, Gillibrand's appointment to replace Hillary Clinton.

The list of challengers includes the holder of a municipal office that is unique to New York City, that of borough president. Two New York mayors (Robert Wagner, Jr., and David Dinkins) had been Manhattan presidents but, generally, the office has been a political dead end. The incumbent Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has emerged as a possible Senate candidate.

Two phenomena are at play here, that are typical of Senate politics within a state.

The first is the tension between urban and rural factions, especially in a state such as New York, which is dominated by one metropolitan area. The gun-totin' Gillibrand is a tough sell in Manhattan. But by the same (subway?) token, the city-slicker Stringer has his work cut out for him upstate.

Governor David Paterson was presumably looking to extend Democratic support into the upstate counties, when he appointed Gillibrand. I assume that that region must have been a key base of support for previous long-serving Republican governors, such as George Pataki, Nelson Rockefeller and Tom Dewey. (I couldn't find data down to that level on the Web; if anyone knows of such a source, please let me know.) Paterson's own run for full a term in 2010 will be much easier, if he can cut into Republican support in those counties.

The second is politicians' fear of missing out on an opportunity, when a Senate seat comes open. New York is not exactly a one-party state, but the Democrats have been dominant recently. Before Gillibrand, or some other Democrat (or Rudy Giuliani?) gets locked into the seat, many New York politicians, both within and outside the House delegation, will want to at least strongly consider a run. Otherwise, they might have a long wait.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Does it matter?

Politico reports on early criticism of Michael Steele's performance in the job he took on a bit more than a month ago, that of Republican national chairman.

That criticism may or may not be valid, but I think one thing is clear: the job is not as important as it sounds. Some want to compare the job to that of a party leader in a parliamentary system. But a U.S. party chair is not in line to become head of government, the way a party leader in, for example, Germany might be.

George H.W. Bush was once Republican chairman, but it was primarily his experience in other positions, such as congressman, ambassador, intelligence director and vice president, that propelled him to the presidency. (Plus experience in the private sector, when there used to be such a thing.)

Having said all that, the position of chairman is not totally insignificant, either. I will look at variations in its importance along two time scales: 1) a long-run decrease through American history; and 2) cyclical ups and downs, depending on the party's fortunes.

Successive developments in communication technology have allowed messages to flow more directly from the politicians to the electorate. First radio, then television, then the Internet, decreased the parties' role as conveyors of information. In earlier days, party members received much of their political information by gathering at party clubhouses. Now, they are much more likely to do so in their individual homes, in front of a T.V. set or a computer.

Although the label "political boss" still gets applied to certain people, that role no longer exists in the same form it did in bygone days. Matthew S. Quay, who chaired the Republican National Committee from 1888 to 1891, is an example of the classic political boss. Quay controlled the Republican political machine that held sway here in Pennsylvania. (In that era, the political map, which has since been turned on its head, had Republicans in power in the north, and Democrats in the south.)

To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: Mr. Steele, you're no Matthew Quay.

If party chairmen are less influential than they used to be, they are even less influential in the president's party (the "in-party"). As I've previously noted, the American president is the leader of his political party. That sets him apart from many other heads of state, who are required to act in a nonpartisan manner. The voice of the president (I wanted to see if I could avoid the cliché "bully pulpit"; I guess not) drowns out other leaders of his party.

In the "out-party", the chairman is usually one of the leading voices in the party. But, even in that situation, other leaders will often take center stage, such as the party's congressional leadership.

The last previous time when the Republican Party was out of power in Congress and the White House, was 1993-4, which ended with the Republican midterm congressional victory of 1994. Who was the Republican national chairman during the 1994 campaign? It was Haley Barbour. Barbour, who is now governor of Mississippi, is certainly a political heavyweight. But the 1994 victory is known as the Gingrich Revolution, not the Barbour Revolution.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Talk talk talk talk ...

President Obama and his Democratic Party have an ambitious agenda. After eight years of a Republican presidency, and shortly after a period of 12 years of almost uninterrupted Republican control of Congress ended, they have their best opportunity in many years to realize their goals.

Congressional Democrats have stayed pretty well united in the votes that have been taken so far. They have a large majority in the House, so the handful of Democrats in that body who have opposed Obama on some votes have not derailed his agenda.

They also have a large majority in the Senate but, of course, the game is played differently over there. These circumstances have focused renewed attention on that long-standing Senate tradition: the filibuster. Two articles published on the website of The New York Times over the past few hours, are part of that discussion.

In the 100 Days blog, Jean Edward Smith provides a good history of filibusters, and decries the increasing frequency of the use of that delaying tactic.

Meanwhile, on the Op-Ed page, David RePass describes how the changed nature of filibusters has contributed toward that trend.

Smith argues that the change to direct election of senators, which began with the 1914 election, did away with the distinctive nature of the Senate. Therefore, he sees no continuing rationale for obstructing majority rule. However, the "one person, one vote" standard that Smith mentions, still does not apply to the Senate, whose members are not apportioned according to population. One might argue that that aspect alone gives sufficient protection to minority opinion, but Smith seems to want to go well beyond that position and, it seems to me, he ends up out on a limb.

But aside from any abstract arguments about democracy and representative government, it will always be true that most of those opposing the filibuster at any point in time will be those who support the party that currently holds a majority in the Senate.

Democrats, who want to enact Obama's legislative agenda, raise arguments about the undemocratic nature of the filibuster, even though they used it between 2003 and 2006, when Republicans controlled the Senate. And, of course, vice versa with Republicans.

If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is reluctant to push as hard against Republican filibuster threats as Professor RePass would like, that may be because Reid is mindful of one iron rule of politics. I have no idea whether Reid listens to '60s rock but, if so, he could take his cue from Blood, Sweat and Tears: "What goes up must come down. Spinning wheel got to go round."

The next time the wheel spins, and the Democrats are back in the minority, they will rue any precedents that had weakened the rights of the minority party.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Separation of Powers

The Constitution does not refer to the phrase "separation of powers", nor does it use the word "branch" to describe the three main parts of the federal government. However, those concepts are implicit in that document's language, and the independence of the judiciary is particularly important in maintaining the rule of law.

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, the longest-serving current member of the U.S. Supreme Court, feels so strongly about that, he has spoken out against a recent trend that he perceives to be a symbolic attack on judicial independence.

Justices of the Supreme Court take two oaths of office (and not because they get it wrong the first time, as they sometimes do when administering the oath to a president). Apparently those two are the constitutional oath and the judicial oath, although I've never understood the difference.

In recent years, new justices have taken their first oath at the White House, and the second at the Supreme Court building. Stevens advocates the procedure that was used when he joined the Court in 1975, which was to take both oaths in the court's building. The president who appointed Stevens, Gerald Ford, went to the court to witness the oath, rather than expecting the new justice to come to the White House for the ceremony.

I agree with Stevens that such symbolism is important. However, I think he overestimates the degree of independence that the justices have had from presidents.

Members of the Supreme Court have accepted temporary job assignments from presidents. Chief Justice John Jay represented President Washington in the negotiations for a treaty with Great Britain in 1794. Associate Justice Robert Jackson acted as a prosecutor at the post-World War II war crimes trial at Nuremberg. And Chief Justice Earl Warren chaired the presidential commission that produced the official report on the assassination of President Kennedy.

After President Lyndon Johnson appointed Abe Fortas as an associate justice in 1965, Fortas reportedly continued to serve as an unofficial adviser to Johnson.

Is Stevens attempting to maintain a degree of purity in the separation of the branches that never really existed?