Thursday, April 30, 2009


The outcome of the special election that I wrote about here, has been decided. Yesterday, Democrat Scott Murphy took the oath of office as the new congressman from the 20th district of New York. Murphy's Republican opponent, James Tedisco, conceded defeat last weekend. The outcome was in doubt for almost a month, because the margin of victory was very small.

That completes a musical chairs game in New York politics, that was set off when Hillary Clinton, then the state's junior senator, was appointed secretary of state. Murphy replaces Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to succeed Clinton in the Senate.

Murphy's victory adds to his party's sense of momentum on Capitol Hill, occurring in the same week as Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter's decision to move to the Democratic side of the aisle.

The 20th district had been in Republican hands for several years, before Gillibrand won it, when the Democrats' regained a majority in the House in the 2006 election. So, it's exactly the type of district that the Democrats need to keep, if they're going to maintain their majority in 2010 and beyond.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Morning After

Here is this morning's New York Times report on yesterday's decision by Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to switch to the Democratic Party.

That article sheds light on some of the issues I listed in my first post on this topic.

The Times article implies that Specter won't chair any committees until after the 2010 election. Such a delay would avoid two problems: 1) displacing a current Democratic chair; and 2) the appearance of a deal, dangling a chairmanship in front of Specter as an enticement to make the switch.

When then-Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party in 2001, he immediately became chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, now the majority leader, had been the ranking Democrat on that committee.

Unlike Specter's move, the Jeffords switch changed the Democrats from minority party to majority party in the Senate. Therefore, Jeffords was not displacing a Democratic chairman. But he did elbow aside the next Democrat in line. However, Reid was apparently willing to give up that spot, possibly in order to advance his own party leadership ambitions, which were later realized.

As far as I know, there still has been no public announcement about Specter's committee status. My speculation is that either those decisions have not yet been made, or the announcement is being delayed, so as not to complicate the favorable publicity the Democrats are enjoying from this event.

Regarding next year's Democratic primary here in Pennsylvania, several major Democratic power brokers have already lined up behind Specter. President Obama and Vice President Biden put in a public appearance with Specter at the White House. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter have also spoken in favor of Specter. That should make it extremely difficult for any major Democrat to oppose the senator.

I also note in the Times piece that the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, seems to be setting up the Republicans' campaign theme for next year, i.e., you gave the Democrats total power in Washington, and see what happened. Now you'd better prune them back. It's too early to say whether such a message will get any traction.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Possible rematch, with a twist

On April 27, 2004, Senator Arlen Specter defeated then-Congressman Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania's Republican U.S. Senate primary. Specter went on to win a fifth term in the Senate, but that primary result was a close call. Specter won 50.8% to Toomey's 49.2%.

Toomey had been gearing up to again oppose Specter in the 2010 Republican primary. But the picture is now radically changed with Specter's switch to the Democratic Party. Now, it's quite possible that there will be such a rematch, but in the general election.

Toomey told local TV news here that he welcomes such a rematch. But I suspect he is, to quote a Hall and Oates lyric, wearing a mask of false bravado. It seems clear that it would have been much easier for Toomey to defeat Specter in the Republican primary, than in the November election. Toomey would then have faced some lesser-known Democratic name in the general election.

The general election is still a year and a half away, so too bold a prediction is perhaps not in order. But, unless there is a major trend back toward the Republicans in next year's election (such as the one in 1980 when Specter first won the Senate seat), I don't see how the stars can be aligned to produce a successful general election challenge to Specter from the right.

The Arlen Spectrum

Arlen Specter, who was elected to the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket, on the coattails of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, and has represented Pennsylvania in that body ever since, announced today that he is switching to the Democratic Party.

I see four major implications:

Specter's reelection campaign in 2010. The senator said that, as a result of his support of the economic stimulus legislation earlier this year, it's become obvious to him that he could not win next year's Republican primary. He now apparently becomes an instant front-runner for the Democratic nomination as his gateway to this state's general electorate, which has already sent him to the Senate five times. He's made it clear that he wants a sixth term, and this move seems to make that more likely.

Democratic hopes for a 60-vote Senate caucus. That is, of course, the magic number to cut off any filibusters that the minority Republicans make, to block elements of the Democratic legislative program. Specter now becomes the 59th Democrat. That might put more pressure on Norm Coleman, the Republican nominee for reelection to the Senate from Minnesota, not to concede to Democrat Al Franken, as the recount and challenge process regarding that election drags on. Franken would represent the 60th vote, so the Republicans will probably be more intent on at least delaying, if not preventing, the seating of Franken.

Committee chairmanship. Specter lost his position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, when the Democrats won a majority in the 2006 election. Now, he'll be back in the majority and, with his seniority, should be eligible to chair at least a major subcommittee, if not a full committee. Committee chairs in both houses of Congress have great influence on legislation within their areas of responsibility, and it's often said that "Mr. Chairman" and "Madam Chairwoman" are the most coveted titles on Capitol Hill.

Apparently, there's no word yet on how he'll be slotted into the Democratic hierarchy on committees. There tends to be controversy about whether a senator being courted by the other party is offered a chairmanship as part of a deal to get him to cross over.

Whither the Elephant? Is the Republican Party being reduced to a right-wing hard core, to paraphrase Specter's characterization of that party here in Pennsylvania? There is a debate brewing about the party's future, and the best way for it to revive its political fortunes. Some would say that offering a clear ideological alternative to President Obama and his party is the best way to lead the G.O.P. back to power. Others (and I lean toward this latter approach) would have the party veer more toward Specter's moderate stance, and away from the conservative populism of the likes of Sarah Palin. We'll see.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Wanna Bet?

After having observed politics for some decades, I'm surprised every once in a while, to encounter a story I've never heard before.

Such is the case with this BBC report about a minister in Britain's Labor government getting into trouble because he allegedly placed a bet against his party in the next general election. That election will be held some time within the next year or so, at a date to be determined by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Gambling is less restricted by law in the United Kingdom than in the U.S. One can place a bet over there on just about anything, including all aspects of electoral politics. So, politicians might be subject to the same temptation that sometimes gets athletes and coaches in trouble in the sports world.

Involvement in betting on activities in which one is involved, especially when the bet is against one's own side, has been troublesome. Some of the most famous such allegations are those that have kept two of baseball's all-time best hitters, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and Pete Rose out of that sport's hall of fame. If the allegations in the current British case are true, it seems that Lord West has not learned a lesson from those players of that strange variation on cricket in the Colonies.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

India 10: Us and Them

Now that I've taken a quick trip through the political history of independent India, I want to, even more quickly, go back over that history, this time with emphasis on Indo-American relations.

From its independence in 1947, India pursued socialist policies for more than four decades. While it could not have been classified as a Marxist-Leninist state, it got along well with the Soviet Union. Therefore, from the American point of view, India was not exactly a Cold War enemy, but could not have been described as a close friend.

Here is a web page that describes summit meetings between various American presidents and their counterparts as prime minister of India.

India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was founded in 1955. In theory, its members were not aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union in the Cold War. But, in practice, that didn't hold up.

The movement included countries that were closely allied with the Soviet Union, such as Cuba. Others, such as India, tilted toward the Soviet side. Only some, such as Yugoslavia, whose Communist regime broke with Moscow early on, could truly be said to be non-aligned.

Nehru's leading role in that movement put some distance, but not exactly enmity, between India and the U.S.

India's wars with China and Pakistan complicated its relationship with America.

During the early years of Indian and Pakistani independence, the U.S. generally had better relations with Pakistan than with India. In contrast to India's non-aligned stance, Pakistan was formally allied with the U.S. in the multilateral alliances SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) and CENTO (Central Treaty Organization, or "Baghdad Pact").

India and China went to war over a border dispute in 1962. The U.S. gave limited support to the Indian side in that dispute. At that time, the U.S. had no relationship with China. But later, during Richard Nixon's presidency, when America began to pursue such a relationship, the tense nature of Sino-Indian relations played a role in Nixon's Asian chess game.

Two Indo-Pakistani wars, in 1965 and 1971, presented the U.S. with a more difficult situation.

In 1965, the U.S. did not side with Pakistan as much as might have been expected. Lyndon Johnson's administration cut off arms shipments to both sides. American had been supplying some arms to India, but was a much bigger factor in arming Pakistan. This may have contributed to Pakistan forming closer ties to China.

The American attitude toward the 1971 war was colored by Nixon's overtures to China, which were underway at that time, and would lead to Nixon's first visit to China, in 1972.

The friendly relationship between China and Pakistan was useful to American diplomacy. In fact, Henry Kissinger's 1971 secret flight to Beijing to begin laying the groundwork for Nixon's trip, took off from Pakistan.

These considerations, along with a difficult personal relationship between Nixon and Indira Gandhi, led Nixon to side more strongly with Pakistan in 1971, than his predecessor had in 1965.

Next: Economic and geopolitical factors lead to better Indo-American ties in later years.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Happy birthday, James!

Today is the 218th birthday of the only American president who was born here in Pennsylvania. He was also the only president who remained a bachelor all of his life.

The birthday boy is: James Buchanan.

Buchanan is one of a handful of one-term presidents whose pre-presidential accomplishments did not lead to successful presidencies. Other examples are John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover.

Buchanan served in both houses of Congress, and as secretary of state. He also held diplomatic posts in Russia and the United Kingdom.

Here is a post about Buchanan on one of my favorite blogs.

Oh, and the bachelor thing, what's that all about?

Richard Brookhiser, in his 2002 book about John Adams and his descendants, entitled America's First Dynasty, describes Buchanan as a "gracious, gutless homosexual". Those adjectives are interesting, but are not my reason for quoting that passage. That's the first time I remember seeing a reference to Buchanan's sexual orientation in the form of a statement of fact, rather than speculation.

Here is a discussion of that topic, with less certainty than that shown by Brookhiser.

I too have done the Buchanan house tour described in that article. I didn't confront the tour guide as directly as James Loewen did. But I did skeptically note the just-couldn't-find-the-right-girl tone of the tour narration.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New York Newspapers

Shortly after I wrote about the political leanings of The New York Times, past and present, that newspaper carried this obituary.

Whitelaw Reid, who had held executive positions with the New York Herald Tribune, a newspaper that ceased publication during the 1960s, died this past weekend.

New York City has far fewer newspapers than it did a few decades back. The Times has the broadsheet market pretty much to itself. However, The Wall Street Journal, since its recent acquisition by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, has made moves to position itself to compete more directly with the Times. News Corporation also owns one of New York's tabloid newspapers, the New York Post. The Post's main tabloid competitor is the Daily News.

In addition, a Long Island-based tabloid called Newsday has made on-and-off efforts to compete in the city market.

Those are more choices than one would get in the average American city. But, go back a century, and a New York reader had a few additional alternatives, including the Herald, the Journal, the American, the Tribune, the World, and The Sun.

The Herald and the Tribune merged in 1924. Whitelaw Reid's family had run the Tribune, and continued to control the Herald Tribune, until it was sold to John Hay "Jock" Whitney, in 1958.

The Herald Tribune had strong Republican leanings. Democratic President John Kennedy reportedly canceled all White House subscriptions to the newspaper for a period of time, in retaliation for negative coverage of his administration.

The Herald Tribune repeatedly had financial problems throughout its life. Nowadays, newspapers' financial problems largely stem from the rise of the World Wide Web, and have been exacerbated by the current recession. Earlier generations of communication technology also had an adverse effect on newspapers. Radio and television competed as sources of news, and outlets for advertising.

Then, unions staged a strike against the New York newspapers from December 8, 1962, to March 31, 1963. The Herald Tribune resumed publication but never fully recovered.

In a last-ditch effort to save a handful of struggling papers, the inelegantly-named New York World Journal Tribune was formed from a 1966 merger. When it went out of business the next year, several long-time newspaper lineages came to an abrupt end.

Yet another example of the fine things that unions accomplish for working people.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

India 9: More Dynasty

Indira Gandhi, who was prime minister of India, on and off, from 1966 until her assassination in 1984, had two sons. The elder son, Rajiv, succeeded Indira as prime minister in 1984, served until 1989, and was assassinated in 1991. The younger son, Sanjay, was a controversial adviser to Indira during the 1970s, and died in a plane crash in 1980.

Rahul Gandhi, 38, is the son of Rajiv Gandhi, and his widow Sonia Gandhi, who is the current leader of the Indian National Congress, the political party of all of the aforementioned Gandhis.

Rahul Gandhi was elected to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's federal parliament, in 2004. There is a widely-held expectation that he will, at some point, succeed his mother as party leader. If that happens, it's possible that he could represent the fourth generation of his family to hold the office of prime minister of India, carrying on the dynasty that began with his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, when India became independent in 1947.

Here is a recent New York Times article about Rahul Gandhi and his role in the current general election.

The whole family must be proudly supporting the young man's ambitions, wouldn't you think? Well, actually, no.

Feroze Varun Gandhi, 29, son of Sanjay Gandhi, is a parliamentary candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The New York Times recently reported on a controversy surrounding remarks Varun Gandhi is alleged to have made, fomenting Hindu-Muslim hatred. The BJP is closely aligned with India's Hindu majority, while Congress has always had a more secular orientation.

Varun Gandhi was subsequently freed from prison, at least temporarily.

Apparently, Varun is not as prominent in his party as Rahul is in his. But, with both of those cousins in high-profile roles in their respective parties, there is a chance that the dynasty will be carried forward, regardless of the outcome of this election.

Monday, April 20, 2009

India 8: Two-Party System

As I noted here, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a rising force in Indian politics in the 1990s. Before that, India had never had a two-party system. The Indian National Congress governed, except during short periods when particularly fierce opposition to Congress had brought its opponents into ad hoc coalitions.

The 1996 general election was the first in which the BJP won the highest number of seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's federal parliament. But a would-be BJP government died aborning, when it failed to build a sufficient coalition.

After two years of shifting coalitions, backed from behind the scenes by Congress, India faced another general election in 1998. This time, the BJP, which again finished first, was able to construct a coalition government with its leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as prime minister.

Vajpayee and his party survived some continued instability. The withdrawal of a coalition partner forced another general election in 1999. The BJP strengthened its parliamentary position, and was finally able to build a long-term coalition.

In the meantime, the Nehru dynasty re-emerged within the Congress Party. Rajiv Gandhi's widow, Sonia Gandhi, took over the Congress leadership in 1998. She was controversial for at least two reasons: 1) she was associated with the controversies of the three Nehru-Gandhi prime ministers; and 2) she was a native of Italy, who did not become an Indian citizen until 1983, 15 years after she married Rajiv.

The economic boom that had begun in the early '90s continued through the period of BJP government. Therefore, that party confidently approached the next general election, in 2004. But they turned out to be overconfident.

In a surprise result, Congress won the highest number of seats in 2004, and that party and its allies were able to form a governing coalition. Sonia Gandhi declined to take the post of prime minister, which instead went to Manmohan Singh, who had been the architect of India's first major economic reforms, as finance minister in the early 1990s.

Arguably, that was the point when modern India became a mature democracy. For the first time, the voters threw out one viable coalition, and replaced it with another. As of now, it's not (yet, at least) clear that a stable two-party system is firmly in place, but India has come closer than ever to that situation.

Next: The dynasty looks likely to continue to the next generation but, as is the case with so many families, not all of the Gandhis are on good terms with each other.

India 7: Coalitions and Growth

Shortly after the 1991 assassination of India's former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, which I discussed here, Gandhi's Congress Party finished first in a general election. It was not a landslide, as had been the case with the 1984 general election in the wake of the assassination of Gandhi's mother, Indira. But the 1991 victory was sufficient to allow Congress to head a coalition government.

Congress had routinely maintained an overall majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) in the early years of Indian independence. But no general election since 1984 has produced an overall majority for any party, so coalition governments have become the norm.

P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister in the Congress-led coalition government that took office in 1991. That was a rare time when no member of Jawaharlal Nehru's family was available to head the Congress Party. However, Nehru's Italian-born granddaughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, widow of Rajiv Gandhi, eventually became party leader.

In an earlier post, I mentioned India's persistent economic problems. By 1991, it had still not opened itself up to globalization. During that year, the country found itself bankrupt, so it had no choice but to change its economic policies.

Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh (now the prime minister), implemented deregulation, privatization and more free trade. Since then, India's economy has grown at a greatly accelerated pace.

India is now often compared with China, which began implementing similar reforms under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, a few years earlier. With their huge populations, those two countries have the potential, if they can continue to increase per capita Gross Domestic Product, to bypass the United States and become the largest economies in the world within a few years.

Another development in India in the 1990s was the appearance of a semblance of a two-party system in the country for the first time. Congress's counterpart in that system is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Many parliamentary seats are still scattered among myriad small parties, but the elections since 1996 have resulted in either Congress or the BJP emerging as head of a coalition government.

The BJP is aligned with India's Hindu majority. It is an enthusiastic proponent of the capitalist economic policies which the Congress Party had adopted only under pressure.

The BJP won the highest number of seats in the 1996 general election, but was unable to assemble a viable coalition. For a brief interim, H.D. Deve Gowda of the small Janata Dal Party served as prime minister. In 1997, Congress withdrew its support of Gowda's coalition, and he was succeeded by I.K. Gujral. Gujral's time in power was also brief, and another general election was called in 1998.

Next: India gets closer to a two-party system.

Friday, April 17, 2009

India 6: Dynasty

India started voting in its general election yesterday. However, as I described here, the voting is stretched out over a period of four weeks, and we won't know the results until the end of that period. In the meantime, I will continue with some of the historical background, and the previous such post left off with the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1984.

She was succeeded as party leader and prime minister by her only surviving son, Rajiv Gandhi. He represented the third generation of his family to have headed the Indian government.

Economic problems had bedeviled independent India all though its history. Early Congress-led governments had pursued socialist economic policies.

India's economic growth had fallen behind that of other Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea. And, by Rajiv's time in office, the Chinese economy had also begun to grow strongly. India was said to have a "Hindu rate of growth".

I'm merely quoting a phrase that was coined by one of India's own economists, and I intend no disrespect to the Hindu religion. Here is a blog post that purports to explain the pun behind that phrase.

Growth averaging around 3.5% annually, was insufficient to pull India's burgeoning population out of poverty.

As prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi took some tentative steps toward free-market economics. But major improvement in economic growth was years ahead. Some of his actions, however, facilitated the expansion of the country's information technology industry, which was a key engine of the accelerated growth that started in the following decade.

Gandhi had led Congress to a huge general election victory in the wake of his mother's assassination. But, in 1989, he lost the next election, after corruption scandals had arisen within his government. As had been the case when his mother was voted out of office in 1977, Rajiv Gandhi's opponents had formed an unstable coalition that temporarily assumed power.

V.P. Singh succeeded Gandhi as prime minister, but only held the post for less than a year, between December 1989 and November 1990. His tenure was ended by the loss of a confidence vote in the parliament.

Chandra Shekhar briefly succeeded Singh, but the coalition became even less stable, and a new general election ensued in 1991.

Gandhi was assassinated during the 1991 campaign. As had been the case with his mother, his opposition to an independence movement led to this death. The difference was that, in Rajiv's case, the dispute was external to India.

A civil war has long raged in Sri Lanka, an island country off the coast of India. A minority ethnic group, the Tamils, are fighting to establish an independent state for themselves in the northern part of the island.

In the late 1980s, Gandhi's government intervened in an attempt to settle the Sri Lankan dispute, including sending peacekeeping troops to the island. In apparent retaliation, a Tamil suicide bomber killed Gandhi on May 21, 1991.

Next: India moves in new directions after the 1991 election.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

India 5: Indira

My last post on the politics of India ended with Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, becoming prime minister in 1966. The notion of a "Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty" was born at that point. She served in that office, on and off, until her assassination in 1984.

My discussion of Indira Gandhi will focus on three sets of events during her tenure:

  1. War with Pakistan in 1971, and the creation of Bangladesh.

  2. Suspension of democracy in 1975, and her party's first electoral defeat, when elections were resumed in 1977.

  3. Assassination.

I wrote here about the violence that accompanied the 1947 partition of British India into two independent states, a largely-Hindu India, and a largely-Muslim Pakistan. That violence did not end with the implementation of the partition. It continues to this day, and has at times erupted into full-scale war.

Pakistan, as it emerged from the partition, consisted of two separate chunks of territory, more than 1000 miles apart. By 1971, civil war had erupted between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. India backed the independence aspirations of East Pakistan, which soon succeeded under the name of Bangladesh. In December of that year, India went to war against Pakistan, in order to support that cause. Pakistan surrendered after a brief struggle, and Bangladesh secured its independence.

In 1975, Gandhi was convicted of having violated election laws during the general election campaign of 1971. That disqualified her from holding office, but she refused to resign. In response to widespread protest, she declared a state of emergency. India temporarily lost its title of "world's largest democracy", during that period when democratic political processes were suspended. (The United States held that title from 1975 to 1977.)

The guilty verdict against her was the direct cause of the trouble. But there seem to have also been other causes underlying the sharp anti-Gandhi reaction. Various web-based sources cite: 1) economic problems; 2) the increasing influence of Indira's younger son, Sanjay; and 3) a coercive family planning program, intended to rein in India's population explosion.

In 1977, Indira Gandhi restored democracy and scheduled a general election. Before that election, Gandhi's Congress Party had never failed to win an overall majority in the lower house of parliament. But, by 1977, Congress was split, and her opponents were more united than ever.

Various opposition groups banded together in a new party called Janata, which won a parliamentary majority. Morarji Desai, who had formerly been a rival to Gandhi within the Indian National Congress, became prime minister.

But opposition to Gandhi was not enough to hold the new coalition together. At the next general election, in 1980, Gandhi's faction of Congress regained a majority in the lower house, and she once again became prime minister.

In that same year, her son Sanjay was killed in a plane crash. Her desire to maintain the family dynasty caused her to persuade her older son Rajiv, a reluctant politician who had established a career as an airline pilot, to become the heir apparent.

A major domestic issue during her second tenure as prime minister involved a secessionist movement by the Sikhs in the Indian state of Punjab. Gandhi cracked down on that movement and, in retaliation, Sikhs among her own bodyguards assassinated her on October 31, 1984.

Next: Rajiv Gandhi carries on the dynasty.


"Here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion -- I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country."

So declared Governor Sarah Palin, Republican of Alaska, at her party's 2008 national convention in St. Paul. As we all know, she didn't move to Washington at all.

This article in The New York Times describes the aftermath of her ticket's defeat, and confirms that, whether she has sought it or not, she has not obtained the approval of eastern reporters.

The timing of this article is interesting, coming immediately after a much more favorable portrayal, in that same publication, of one of Palin's fellow Republican governors, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.

One might have thought that the Times would consider any one Republican presidential hopeful just as evil as any other. But now I wonder whether they're trying to manipulate the G.O.P. campaign in favor of a candidate more palatable to them.

If so, I agree with their point of view. I am not a Palin supporter. Her presence on the Republican ticket last year was one of the major reasons why I voted Democratic for president for the first time in decades.

No Republican can gain national support in that party, by completely divorcing her- or himself from the religious right. But I fear that Palin leans a bit too far in that direction. I don't want a president who might think that Earth is only 6,000 years old, thereby ignoring the first 4,499,994,000 years of terrestrial history.

Pawlenty strikes me as the sort of Republican who can follow Ronald Reagan's example of keeping disparate factions of his party's coalition together, without furthering some of the more extreme positions of certain factions within that coalition.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Good Publicity?

Long ago, when it was routine for an American newspaper to openly align itself with one of the political parties, The New York Times was a Republican paper. That type of blatant partisanship has fallen out of favor, but every newspaper has its particular ideological tinge. And, these days, no one would accuse the Times of being a house organ of the G.O.P.

So, what should Governor Tim Pawlenty, Republican of Minnesota, make of a largely favorable write-up in that publication?

Should he follow the usual Hollywood line that all publicity is good publicity? I don't think that applies to political life, in the same way it applies to other branches of show business. But, perhaps, all good publicity is good publicity, regardless of who publishes it?

Be that as it may, Adam Nagourney has outlined, in the article to which I've linked above, a plausible case that Pawlenty can make to the electorate in 2012. Nagourney mentions the fact that Pawlenty has never been based in Washington, and therefore might have an advantage in offering a new alternative to the partisan national debates of the past few years.

Actually, Pawlenty wanted a Washington job a few years ago, but maneuvering by the Bush White House derailed that ambition. Pawlenty, who was then the majority leader of the lower house of the Minnesota Legislature, wanted to run against U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone in 2002. But Bush and his political staff talked him into instead running for governor, and leaving the Senate race to Norm Coleman. Pawlenty and Coleman won their respective elections, that year.

Many of us in the Republican Party believe that, while some of the spending increases by the Bush and Obama administrations have been necessitated by war and recession, the expansion of the federal government has been excessive. If Pawlenty can make an outsider's case for that point of view, he might find a receptive electorate.

If, that is, Republicans can forgive him for being favorably mentioned in That Newspaper.

All The Minnesota News That's Fit To Print

Adam Nagourney of The New York Times has published two articles about the politics of my native state of Minnesota. They are somewhat unrelated, but a common thread is the potential presidential candidacy of that state's Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty.

One of those articles addresses the current status of the never-ending U.S. Senate election between Norm Coleman and Al Franken, now that a state court has confirmed the result of the recount in favor of Franken. Coleman will appeal to the state supreme court, but the issue facing Pawlenty is whether, at some point, perhaps after the Minnesota supreme court decides the matter, he will need to issue a certificate of election, even if further appeals are pursued.

Two interesting excerpts from that article:

First, Nagourney describes Coleman, a Brooklyn native, as an "expatriate" for having moved to Minnesota. That term is usually applied to one who leaves one's native country, rather than one who merely moves from one U.S. state to another. Sorry, Adam, shocking at this might be to a New Yorker, that midwestern state of ice fishing, dairy cattle, and people who talk like the characters in Fargo, is in the same country as the boroughs of New York City.

Second, he ties this race in to the 2000 presidential election deadlock between George W. Bush and Al Gore. That's appropriate, up to a point. But this statement is puzzling:

This is not merely another example of the kind of whisker-close political contest that has become a regular part of the American political landscape since the 2000 presidential race.

There were close elections in this country before 2000. (As I've repeatedly mentioned, the ones that are most relevant to the Franken-Coleman race are the Minnesota gubernatorial election of 1962, and the New Hampshire U.S. Senate contest in 1974.) And there have been close elections since 2000.

He seems to imply, contrary to that history, that the 2000 deadlock caused a new trend of close elections. Presumably part of Karl Rove's evil plan to destroy America.

In the next post, I'll discuss how helpful it is for a Republican presidential hopeful to get a positive mention in a newspaper that many of his fellow party members despise.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

India 4: Parties and Electoral History

India's general election is almost ready to begin, so I want to continue where I left off here, giving some background to the current political situation in the world's largest democracy.

The main political force in independent India has been the Indian National Congress. That organization, whose history I wrote about here, still exists under that name. However, it is often referred to as the Congress Party.

And, in turn, that party has largely been dominated by one family. As I described in this post, in a republic that, officially, has no hereditary succession to office, voters can still choose to perpetuate dynasties.

At the time India became independent, Jawaharlal Nehru was leader of the Congress Party, and he became the first prime minister. Then, in 1951, when the first general election was held under the country's new republican constitution, Congress emerged as by far the largest party in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. They had a sizable overall majority, with 364 of the 545 seats, with the remainder parceled out among almost two dozen parties.

That sounds similar to two later cases where a dissident movement became a political party, once they were allowed to participate in fully democratic elections. The first was in Poland, when the Solidarity trade union broke the Communists' political monopoly by winning an election in 1989. The second example involves South Africa, where the African National Congress emerged as the governing party, when non-white people were first allowed to vote, in 1994.

After those Polish and South African movements saw off the Communist and National parties, respectively, they dominated the new political scene in those places, until new parties emerged. That is also the case in India, but Congress's hegemony lasted through the general election of 1971.

Nehru stayed in power until his death, in 1964. He was succeeded by Lal Shastri. Shastri had a much more brief tenure as prime minister; he died less than two years after taking office, during a visit to the Soviet Union. Shastri's death led to the first, but not the last, occasion when power passed to a descendant of Nehru.

Nehru's daughter Indira, whose married name was Indira Gandhi, became prime minister in 1966. (That surname causes some confusion; her by-then late husband, Feroze Gandhi, was not closely related to Mohandas Gandhi.)

More on her tumultuous prime ministerial tenure, and death, in the next post in this series.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Outta Here

Unfortunately, this is the second time in less than a week, when I feel compelled to go off-topic, and write about the death of a favorite broadcaster.

Harry Kalas died today at the age of 73 in Washington, DC, after collapsing in a broadcast booth at Nationals Stadium. He was in the midst of pre-game preparations, in his role as play-by-play announcer for baseball's World Champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Harry's voice defied description. Even if you've never heard Phillies' broadcasts, you may have encountered The Voice narrating video presentations ranging from NFL Films to Chunky Soup commercials. There are audio clips available all over the Web today, so you may want to search them out, and see what I mean.

I don't think there's any reason to feel sorry for Harry on this sad occasion. He got to spend 44 of his 73 years announcing major league baseball games. The end came while he was pursuing that vocation. And, in what turned out to be the last year of his life, he played master of ceremonies at the culmination of the World Series parade at Citizens Bank Park. But, for those of us left behind in the baseball world, the sad fact is that, like many a baseball at Veterans Stadium and C.B. Park since 1971, Harry is "outta here".

Political Spectrum 4: Evolution of Labels (Conservative)

If you accept the statements I made here, about the meaning of "liberal" and "conservative", you might want to read my theory about how those words have evolved. So here goes:

Prior to Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, which began in 1933, government (especially at the federal level) was smaller than it is now; taxes were lower; business was less regulated; and government at all levels took little, if any, action intended to protect specific groups perceived as being disadvantaged.

All of those positions fall under one or more of the various definitions of "conservative" that are generally recognized today.

Government in this country has moved away from that conservative stance during the subsequent 76 years. That was a gradual process. The U.S. did not go from laissez-faire on March 3, 1933 (eve of FDR's inauguration) to socialism on March 5, 1933. But I think it's correct to view March 4, 1933, as the beginning of the transformation that did take place.

Of course, there were those who advocated bigger government, more regulation of business, etc., before 1933. During those years they were generally unsuccessful. Taxation and federal spending spiked upward during World War I, but were brought back down during the post-war Harding and Coolidge presidencies.

Those advocates of change derided their opponents as conservative and, of course, they were right in the sense of their opponents' desire to conserve the status quo.

In the years following 1933, those identified as conservative argued, largely in vain, against the growth of government. On economic issues, those arguments mostly came from the Republican Party. (Racial issues were a different story.)

I consider it to be a symptom of linguistic laziness that those Republicans continued to be called conservative. In earlier times, they had come to be so closely identified with that label, that people no longer thought about the literal meaning of the word. Now that big government was the status quo, they were no longer looking to conserve that. But they were still described as though they were.

Some ideas that are labeled "conservative" in present-day political discourse, such as School Choice, are really quite radical, in light of the degree to which they would depart from current and past practice. In future posts, I will attempt to show that the effects of that sort of confusion are not limited to upsetting those of us who are too anal about the language. Use and abuse of words such as "conservative" in political debates have had a substantial impact.

But, in the meantime, the next subject will be a further discourse on the dreaded "L-word", "liberal".

Thursday, April 9, 2009

21st Century Carpetbagger

After the Civil War, many northern Republicans opportunistically went south to fill the power vacuum that was left after the collapse of the old Democratic pro-slavery power structure. From their supposed tendency to carry makeshift suitcases made from folded-up rugs, those northerners gained the label of "carpetbaggers".

During the heady days of Reconstruction, some African Americans were elected to Congress on the Republican ticket. But, when the occupation of the south by federal troops ended during the Hayes Administration, white Democrats regained control. Black candidates were not elected to public office in the south again until the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. In modern times, almost all of the African American officials are Democrats.

Now, another northern Republican has followed in the footsteps of the carpetbaggers. Former New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith moved to Sarasota, Florida, after losing the Republican primary for reelection in New Hampshire in 2002. Politico reports that Smith plans to seek the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Florida Senator Mel Martinez, in 2010.

Members of the British House of Commons frequently represent constituencies with which they have no long-term ties. One implication of that is that no one cares if, after they've represented one part of the country for a while, they instead represent an entirely different constituency. For example, Winston Churchill represented four different constituencies during more than six decades in the Commons. He was defeated for reelection from Dundee, in Scotland, in 1922. Undeterred, he went on to win the English seat of Epping, two years later. But such switches are extremely rare in American politics.

For some reason, the one U.S. Senate seat that has been most welcoming to carpetbaggers has been New York's Class I seat. In 1964, Robert Kennedy moved his official residence from Massachusetts to New York, and defeated incumbent Republican Senator Kenneth Keating in that year's general election. Six terms later, in 2000, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, who had previously lived in Illinois and Arkansas, had also moved to New York, in her case to attempt (successfully) to succeed Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Actually, Clinton was more of a carpetbagger than Kennedy. He had lived, as a child with his family, in Bronxville, New York, from his pre-school days to the point when his father became Ambassador to the Court of St. James's (i.e., ambassador to London), in 1938.

As a northern Republican who has headed south, Smith's candidacy more closely parallels the experience of the 19th-century carpetbaggers. But he would be replacing a fellow Republican, which was generally not the case in the wake of the Civil War.

More to the point, it strikes me that Smith's personal odyssey parallels that of his party. I wrote here about the decrease of Republican power in New England, and here about that party's gains in the south. Smith symbolizes that geographical shift in his party's center of gravity.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Radio in the North

I've always been interested in old-time radio. Growing up in the '60s and '70s, I was a bit too young to have experienced the golden age of radio. But I have read about it, and have heard recordings.

Also, some remnants of that era remain, although they are very few and far between.

There seems to be something about my native state of Minnesota that has worked to preserve some of those remnants. Perhaps it's the climate. They're kept intact, like those neanderthal bodies that have been found encased in ice in the Alps.

One prime example is Garrison Keillor. host of A Prairie Home Companion, performed from St. Paul on public radio. (I'm sure he'd love to be thought of as a neanderthal fossil!)

Another throwback to that earlier era died yesterday. Steve Cannon, the veteran afternoon-drive-time announcer on WCCO Radio of Minneapolis, died of cancer at the age of 81.

Unlike Keillor, Cannon never did national broadcasts. But you can hear some brief excerpts here, and experience his amazing skill in playing multiple characters in a single comedy bit, and switching back and forth effortlessly between the roles. Even those of us who listened to him over a period of years, and knew he was doing all the voices, never lost the impression that there were multiple actors in the basement studio, playing the various parts.

I'm amused by some of the comments about it being un-cool to listen to that radio station. For those of us who were baby-boomer youngsters in those years, that was certainly the case. To have the other kids know one listened to WCCO was like being seen at the mall with one's parents. But after having moved around to a handful of different cities, I've never known a local ratio station that did anywhere near as good a job as that station did in those years.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sorry, Too Busy

Here is a BBC report on further speculation about the next British general election. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is taking the same public position that he has for some time now, that he's too busy dealing with the economic crisis, to pay any attention to something as trivial as an election.

Those who are unfamiliar with the process of setting a British election date can find an explanation here.

Brown's Labor Party has generally been trailing in opinion polls, since he took over as prime minister in 2007. But the Conservative Party's lead was narrowed last fall, when Brown received some good publicity about his reaction to the economic crisis. Before taking over the top job, he had been the finance minister, under the title "Chancellor of the Exchequer", for 10 years. Therefore, with economic issues on the front burner, he seemed to inspire more trust than the less-experienced Conservative leader David Cameron.

Labor's support deteriorated again in polls during the winter. When that happened, Harriet Harman, Brown's deputy party leader, was kind enough to suggest that Brown would find more career satisfaction in a proposed new job of global economic regulator. Being even more the good friend, she made it clear that he needn't worry about things back home; she would agree to bear the burden of replacing him as prime minister. Surprisingly, he rebuffed her generosity.

Now, Labor's poll numbers have received a bit of a "bounce", after Brown hosted the G20 summit in London. Being seen with fellow world leaders, especially the popular new American president (and the even more popular new American first lady), has boosted his image.

Each of these twists and turns brings new speculation about the election date. But, with the Conservatives still leading, it remains highly likely that Brown will wait until the last minute, in 2010, before calling an election.

Is it really true that he's not thinking about the next election? I'm sure that that's not true, and what's more, that it should not be true.

Friday, April 3, 2009


As I discussed in this post, the dispute about Minnesota's U.S. Senate election could either be settled relatively soon, or extend for a very long period of time.

Now, Politico describes statements from both parties, about plans to pursue ethics investigations against whichever candidate eventually prevails.

Certainly, no politician should be above the law, and legitimate charges of ethics violations should be thoroughly investigated. But if the electorate perceives both parties to be preparing to exact revenge if they lose, that will probably exacerbate the "pox on both your houses" attitude that many voters hold toward the parties.

I think we need more of the spirit expressed in Al Gore's remarkable concession speech in 2000, when he said:

This has been an extraordinary election. But in one of God's unforeseen paths, this belatedly broken impasse can point us all to a new common ground, for its very closeness can serve to remind us that we are one people with a shared history and a shared destiny.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


My fascination with the subject of political language leads me to comment on this New York Times article. That report describes how President Obama has not, yet at least, changed the substance of American foreign/military policy much, but his administration is making a major effort to change the language that is used to describe those policies.

This is a topic that easily lends itself to demagoguery. Bush people accuse the Obama people of playing semantic games, to the detriment of American security. Obama's staff say that it was Bush and his aides who played the games, while the Obama people are only trying to undo that damage, and describe things properly.

Now, of course, if a president were to spend his entire workday trying to decide whether to call Al Qaeda's attacks "terrorism" or "man-caused disasters", that would be a waste of his time. But the words a president uses are extremely important.

People often talk about the difference between a president's words and his actions. In a certain sense, that's a meaningless distinction. All of a president's actions involve his use of words. If a federal courthouse needs to be constructed in Cleveland, the president doesn't grab hammer and nails and go out to build it. He accomplishes that by writing "approved" on an appropriation bill, and saying "I appoint you" to the officials who will oversee the work.

But beyond that utilitarian use of language, there is also the question of the bully pulpit, and inspiring presidential rhetoric. Perhaps the Obama White House should pay more attention to words, not less. Certainly, “overseas contingency operations" doesn't pack the same punch as, for example, "the war to end all wars".

So, yes, a comedian such as Jon Stewart can make fun of the semantic twists and turns that presidents attempt. And there's something to that. But there is a serious purpose behind those verbal gymnastics.

As someone who writes, as both vocation and avocation, I take it as a personal affront when someone dismisses an issue as being "just semantics". Taken literally, that phrase devalues what I do, because all writing involves semantics.

By the way, if any of you are shocked that Stewart would attack a Democrat, you probably didn't see Jon on the Letterman show recently. The question was whether it's more difficult to do political humor, now that Bush has gone into retirement. Stewart's response (and he acknowledged the high-brow nature of this metaphor) compared the situation to Bewitched. There's a new Darren, but it's still Bewitched.

Bibi is Back

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Winston Churchill, who had famously spent the previous few years criticizing the British government's appeasement of Hitler, was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty (one of those overdone British titles that means he was in charge of the navy). Churchill had resigned from that same job in 1915, after the Dardanelles fiasco during World War I. The story has it that His Majesty's ships at sea were informed of Churchill's return to that position via a cable reading "Winston is back".

Well, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu's absence from the office of prime minister of Israel was much shorter than that, but the message out of Jerusalem yesterday was that Bibi is back. Netanyahu became prime minister (an office in which he had served from 1996 to 1999) as head of a coalition government that, as expected, excludes the Kadima Party, the largest party in the Knesset, Israel's unicameral parliament, but includes parties two, three and four, his own Likud, as well as Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor.

Much has been said about those parties' various positions on peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as Netanyahu's coalition partners, have favored the so-called "two-state solution", that would create an independent Palestinian state in territories that Israel occupied after the Six-Day War of 1967. Netanyahu opposes that idea but, in light of his government's dependence on the support of the U.S. and of those Israeli parties, he apparently is not ruling it out.

But, regardless of which Israeli party has led the various coalition governments in recent years, there has been no significant progress on any peace plan. Israel has made two unilateral withdrawals, from Lebanon when Ehud Barak (the Labor leader who will continue as defense minister in the new government) was prime minister, and from the Gaza Strip by Ariel Sharon's government. Sharon's successor Ehud Olmert subsequently went to war in each of those zones.

Some critics of George Bush's policies on Palestine hope that President Obama and Secretary Clinton can successfully push for a two-state plan. American diplomacy might, for better or worse, be the decisive element.

And, in case you're wondering, Netanyahu's 10-year absence from the office of prime minister is not the longest such period in Israeli history. Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister from 1974 to 1977 when he was forced to resign as leader of the Labor Party, due to a financial scandal. Menachem Begin's Likud won a general election that year, and Shimon Peres became Labor's leader of the opposition.

Rabin was rehabilitated in 1992, after Peres had repeatedly failed to restore Labor to its previous dominant position. He again became prime minister when Labor finished first in a general election that year. So his period of exile was half-again as long as Netanyahu's.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Barry Meets Betty

It's a big moment for any new U.S. president to meet the Queen of the United Kingdom. But it's old hat (or is that "old crown"?) for Elizabeth II, who has been on the throne since Harry Truman was president.

Here is ABC's report on President Obama's meeting with Her Majesty, during his current trip to London for the G20 summit.

Old Joke

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Two guys run for a seat in one of the houses of Congress. The campaign gets a lot of national attention. Come Wednesday morning, we discover that the two are in a virtual dead heat. Questions arise: What happens next? How long will this take to resolve?

This time it's the special election in New York State to replace Kirsten Gillibrand in the U.S. House, after she was appointed to a vacant Senate seat.

Of course, that New York tally is not all that close. Democrat Scott Murphy leads his Republican opponent James Tedisco by a landslide margin of 42/1000ths of a percentage point. That is more than four times the lead that the Minnesota U.S. Senate recount shows Al Franken holding over Norm Coleman.

Apparently, those New York numbers do not include absentee ballots. So that lead could widen, shrink, or disappear, before any consideration of a recount.

Even if Democrat Murphy's lead does not hold up, this looks to me like a positive indication for his party. Even after President Obama has got himself into various controversies, Democrats still made a good showing in one of the normally-Republican congressional districts they gained in their 2006 takeover of Congress.