Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Senator Franken?

The Minnesota Supreme Court has reaffirmed the recount that showed Democrat Al Franken the winner of that state's U.S. Senate election last year, against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.

Minnesota's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, has made strong statements (with perhaps some wiggle room) in recent days, that he would sign a certificate of election for Franken, if the Court so decided. I will be surprised if that doesn't happen in short order.

UPDATE: Coleman has conceded the election to Franken.

Supreme Court Journalism

In contrast to my own writing about the Supreme Court, here is an example of a very poorly-written article about that institution.

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post writes about Associate Justice David Souter's last day in that office.

Milbank seems to be trying to paint a picture of a group who engage in known-down-drag-out fights with each other, with only the kinder, gentler Souter (thereby bearing at least some resemblance to the president who appointed him) standing above the fray.

Now, I've never been invited into the conferences at which the justices discuss their positions on cases. But Mr. Milbank is not allowed in the conference room either. The nine justices are the only human beings in the room. Those nine consistently and unanimously report that never is a voice raised in anger during those conferences.

I suppose it's possible that they could all be lying about that, but I doubt it. If I'm correct about that, then we can assume that the words of "friendship" and "sadness" that were exchanged between Souter and Chief Justice John Roberts were sincere. Too bad; Milbank would have a much more exciting story, if the truth were otherwise.

Milbank incorrectly states that, if Souter had not voted to reaffirm the Roe v. Wade abortion decision, "abortion would be illegal in the United States today." Abortion would only have been illegal in those states that would have chosen to reinstate their statutory prohibitions of it. Most observers think that that would be a small minority of the states, at most.

I don't advocate the overturn of Roe, but such an overstatement of the consequences doesn't contribute to reasoned debate on the issue.

Only someone who wants the Court to be a super-legislature, would think that its decisions would (and/or should) have such implications.

Supreme Court 18: Privacy (Lawrence)

Once upon a time, the states had laws on their books that prohibited any sexual activity other than heterosexual vaginal intercourse. Based on what I would argue is a misinterpretation of Genesis 19, they were called "sodomy laws".

By 2003, most of those laws had been repealed. But Texas, and a few other states, kept those statutes in force. And the Texas law, unlike those in many states, limited the prohibition to same-sex activity.

In 1998, John Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested for violating the Texas sodomy law, when police were called to Lawrence's Houston home, by a neighbor who falsely reported a weapons disturbance. Lawrence and Garner moved to dismiss the charges, arguing that the law was unconstitutional.

The case made its way through the appeals process, and the federal Supreme Court agreed to take the case, known as Lawrence v. Texas, in 2002. On June 26, 2003, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy issued the majority opinion, which stated that:

The petitioners [Lawrence and Garner] are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government.
The Court thus reversed the result of its 1986 opinion in a similar case, Bowers v. Hardwick. The Court decided that case by a vote of five to four, upholding the constitutionality of the Georgia sodomy law.

The only justice who switched sides between 1986 and 2003 was Sandra Day O'Connor. She was also the only one of the six justices voting to strike down the Texas law, who wrote a separate opinion. Her main point was:

I agree with the Court that Texas’ statute banning same-sex sodomy is unconstitutional. ... Rather than relying on the substantive component of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, as the Court does, I base my conclusion on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

In other words, she didn't make a mistake in Bowers. She still repudiates the application of the due process (i.e., the right to privacy) argument to the sodomy-law issue. In Lawrence, she found a different basis for deciding the issue.

I recall wondering at the time whether her separate opinion was a face-saving gesture. Had she actually just changed her mind on the issue, but didn't want to say so? The issue would not only have been saving face for herself personally, but also for the institution.

As I wrote here, the courts operate under the doctrine of stare decisis. They follow past precedents. But, for the Supreme Court at least, that's not an ironclad rule. The Court can overrule a precedent, but it needs to be careful about how it goes about doing so.

The danger is that the Court might be perceived as just another political branch of the federal government, along with the legislative and executive branches. A Democratic president can overrule decisions of a Republican predecessor, as President Obama has done on some issues. But the Court would lose legitimacy, if it were perceived as acting in a similar manner.

It's OK for a justice such as O'Connor to say, in effect, I agree with the line of legal reasoning I've cited in Lawrence, but not the reasoning of the dissent in Bowers. But, if she says, I changed my mind, and I no longer think that sodomy laws are acceptable, she's become legislator-for-life, with all of the implications that that entails for democracy.

In dissent, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia went, in my biased opinion, a bit over the top:

State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise sustainable only in light of Bowers’ validation of laws based on moral choices. Every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision; the Court makes no effort to cabin the scope of its decision to exclude them from its holding.

Silly me. I didn't even know masturbation was illegal.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Supreme Court 17: How narrow can you go?

Interrupting my discussion of the privacy issue for a moment, I want to describe a decision that was announced by the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

There is endless debate about the power of the Supreme Court relative to the other branches of government. The arguments for the Court's weakness are: 1) it cannot initiate action on any particular issue; it must wait for a case to be brought to it by someone who has an interest in the matter; and 2) it must rely on the Executive Branch to enforce its decisions.

I've already addressed one counterargument in this and subsequent posts, i.e., that the checks and balances on the Court are difficult for the political branches of the federal government to implement. Another such consideration, which is my main point in the current post, is that the Court has discretion to decide a case in as broad or narrow a manner as it sees fit. That flexibility gives the justices more control over the effect that their decisions will have on the world.

One example of a case where a Court majority used this ability is Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, the decision on which was announced last Monday. Some background:

In 1965, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act, which, in some parts of the country, represented the first effective implementation of the 15th Amendment, which banned racial discrimination in voting. That amendment had been ratified in 1870.

Due to the demonstrated ingenuity of southern officials in finding creative ways to disenfranchise African Americans, the Act required election officials in places that had practiced discrimination, to clear any changes in election procedures with the federal government. Depending on one's point of view, that clause either:

  1. Fulfilled its purpose, and can be honorably retired; or
  2. Is still required, either to: 1) combat ongoing discrimination; or 2) serve as a deterrent against any effort to revive discriminatory practices.

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One sued the federal Justice Department, seeking exemption from the pre-clearance requirement under the Act's so-called "bailout" provision. The trial court interpreted that provision to apply only to political subdivisions who perform the task of registering voters, which the utility district does not do.

In its appeal, the district asked the Supreme Court to rule that either: 1) as a matter of statutory interpretation, the district is entitled to seek a bailout; or 2) as a matter of constitutional interpretation the pre-clearance requirement is no longer valid.

The Court went for option #1, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion. Roberts wrote:

That constitutional question has attracted ardent briefs from dozens of interested parties, but the importance of the question does not justify our rushing to decide it. Quite the contrary: Our usual practice is to avoid the unnecessary resolution of constitutional questions. We agree that the district is eligible under the Act to seek bailout. We therefore reverse, and do not reach the constitutionality of §5 [i.e., the section of the Act that imposes the pre-clearance requirement].

Observers on both sides of the question were braced for the ultimate confrontation over the Voting Rights Act. One possible outcome would have been for the "liberal wing" (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer) to vote to uphold the Act, with the "conservative wing" (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito) taking as wide a swing as possible to dismantle the Act, and the "swing justice" Anthony Kennedy making it 5-4 in whichever direction he would choose.

That did not happen. By crafting his opinion narrowly, Roberts was able to get seven of his colleagues to sign on with him. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate opinion, agreeing with the majority that Northwest Austin has the right to be exempted from the pre-clearance requirement. However, Thomas would have gone further than his colleagues:

Because the Court’s statutory decision does not provide appellant with full relief, I conclude that it is inappropriate to apply the constitutional avoidance doctrine in this case. I would therefore decide the constitutional issue presented and hold that §5 exceeds Congress’ power to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.

The Court has left its options open as to whether it will consider the broader constitutional question in the future. The possibility that they could eventually find some or all of the Act to be unconstitutional, is bolstered by the fact that all nine justices agreed to statements as least as skeptical as this one that appears in the majority opinion:

Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Presidential Trivia -- John

Haven't tried this in a while. Who is the only Republican (the Republican Party as we know it today, not the Democratic-Republicans or the Whigs) president whose first name was John?

Where in the world is Mark?

The list of 10 Republican presidential hopefuls, that I published two weeks ago, is now a list of nine hopefuls. The Palmetto State is no longer represented on the list.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Supreme Court 16: Privacy (Romer)

On November 3, 1992, Colorado voters amended their state constitution to prohibit cities and other governmental subdivisions within Colorado, from enacting laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In 1996, in its most far-reaching affirmation of LGBT rights up to that time, the U.S. Supreme Court found that amendment to be unconstitutional. The case was Romer v. Evans.

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for the 6-3 decision.

This case doesn't exactly fit in with this series on privacy, because it does not cite the cases of Griswold and Roe, that I described in earlier posts. But I include it, because Romer is cited, along with Griswold and Roe, in the Court's 2003 opinion in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, which this series is leading up to.

Apparently, because the issues in Romer involved discrimination in employment, housing, etc., the majority of the justices felt that their decision could rest firmly on the equal-protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment, rather than the case law that had derived a right to privacy from that amendment and other constitutional provisions.

In dissent, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the Colorado vote represented

a modest attempt by seemingly tolerant Coloradans to preserve traditional sexual mores against the efforts of a politically powerful minority to revise those mores through use of the laws.

Therefore, as Scalia saw it, there was a justification for the voters' action that the Court was bound to respect.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Supreme Court 15: Privacy (Roe)

More than seven years after its Griswold decision established a constitutional right to privacy, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the question of whether a state could prohibit the abortion of a pregnancy.

On January 22, 1973, the Court issued its decision in the case of Roe v. Wade, striking down as unconstitutional a Texas law that had prevented Norma McCorvey, who sued under the pseudonym of "Jane Roe", from seeking an abortion in that state.

Associate Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, on behalf of the majority, that the right to privacy, as established by Griswold and other cases, applies to the issue of abortion, but not in as absolute a manner as it does to other privacy issues. The pregnant woman's privacy is not the only interest at stake:

We repeat, however, that the State does have an important and legitimate interest in preserving and protecting the health of the pregnant woman, whether she be a resident of the State or a nonresident who seeks medical consultation and treatment there, and that it has still another important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life. These interests are separate and distinct.

In balancing those interests, Blackmun's opinion allowed for stricter regulation of abortion after the point of "viability" of the fetus, i.e., the point at which the fetus could survive outside of the womb.

Some opposed that concept, because it provides the least protection at the time when the fetus is most vulnerable. That faction came to be called "pro-life".

Others would go at least as far as Blackmun and the Court majority did, in establishing abortion rights. They became known as "pro-choice".

The dissent was written by William Rehnquist, then an associate justice. Among other criticisms, he raised the issue of a procedure, the critics of which call "legislating from the bench":

The decision here to break pregnancy into three distinct terms and to outline the permissible restrictions the State may impose in each one, for example, partakes more of judicial legislation than it does of a determination of the intent of the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Only Associate Justice Byron White joined Rehnquist in dissent.

I suppose there have been Supreme Court decisions that have had a greater impact on American life, than has Roe v. Wade. But I wonder whether any of them have had more effect on political practice in this country.

Opposition to Roe was a major factor in building up support for the Religious Right. Before 1973, there was much less emphasis on fundamentalist Christians being a political interest group.

The pro-choice and pro-life labels that I referred to above, became key identifiers for political candidates, as "internationalist" and "isolationist", or "wet" and "dry" had been in earlier times.

Future Supreme Court appointments became a much bigger issue in the campaigns of presidential candidates, who would potentially appoint them, and senatorial candidates, who would potentially confirm or reject them. That has been based on the fear (or hope, depending on one's point of view) that, in a future case, the Court might overturn Roe.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Supreme Court 14: Privacy (Penumbras)

In deciding the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a Connecticut law that outlawed contraception.

The federal Supreme Court can invalidate a state law, only if it finds some basis in federal law for doing so. Associate Justice William Douglas's majority opinion in Griswold was based on the U.S. Constitution. But how could he do that? The Constitution says nothing about contraception.

Douglas wrote that such a ban violates a married couple's privacy. But the Constitution also says nothing about a right to privacy.

Douglas wrote that "specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance." He cited amendments #1, 3, 4, 5, 9 and 14, and argued that those provisions, considered in combination with each other, establish a right to privacy.

In dissent, Associate Justice Hugo Black rejected Douglas's analysis:

The Court talks about a constitutional "right of privacy" as though there is some constitutional provision or provisions forbidding any law ever to be passed which might abridge the "privacy" of individuals. But there is not.

But Black was one of only two justices (the other was Potter Stewart) dissenting on the nine-member Court, so the state law went into the wastebasket.

So what?, one might ask. Even though the largest religious denomination in this country still (ineffectively) forbids contraception, the view that it should be allowed is not particularly controversial among the general public.

But the principle of stare decisis is not limited to providing that a precedent applies to future cases with the same facts as the original. No two cases present exactly the same facts.

In subsequent years, the right of privacy that was established in Griswold, was applied to other issues involving sex and reproduction that are more controversial than married couples' use of contraception.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Today is the 37th anniversary of the Watergate burglary.

When "Deep Throat" died last year, I wrote about the dwindling list of surviving major figures in the scandal. In the meantime, The New York Times published this obituary of Bernard Barker, one of the burglars.

The scandal has been thoroughly dissected, in books, films and TV documentaries. The broad outlines of the story are very clear.

The biggest remaining mystery is: what could possibly go on, in the national committee headquarters of the opposition party, that would be so important to a presidential campaign, that they would take the risk of burglarizing that committee's office?

The story in the Barker obituary about checking for ties to the Castro regime doesn't ring true for me. I suspect that either 1) there's more to the story that has not come to light, or 2) there was no reason that was sufficient to justify the risk, and Nixon's people made an unwise decision to go in anyway.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Frozen Instant Runoff Voting

Last year, in a series of posts, including this one, I discussed proportional representation. There are other alternative voting systems that, like proportional representation, have mainly been used outside the U.S.

Now, my native city of Minneapolis is adopting one of those systems, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), for its municipal elections. Actually it's normal IRV, not FIRV as indicated in the headline on this post; I'm merely fondly remembering (from a safe distance) the winters of my childhood.

That city's former procedure had involved a non-partisan primary. There was only one primary, rather than a separate one for each party. And no candidate was identified by party on the ballot. The top two vote-getters in the primary would face off in the general election, again without being identified by party. Barring a tie (highly unlikely, although the state came close to such an outcome in its U.S. Senate election last year), the winning candidate in the general election had a majority of the votes.

Rather than casting one vote for their favored candidate, under IRV a voter will rank all of the candidates in order of preference. If one candidate gets a majority of first-place votes, he or she is elected. Otherwise, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and the second-place votes of that candidate are distributed among the remaining candidates. That procedure is repeated until one candidate has a majority. (The city also holds elections, such as that for its park board, which involve filling multiple positions. The math gets more complicated in those cases. For a further explanation, see this court opinion which rejected a challenge to the city's adoption of IRV.)

One clear benefit for Minneapolis is that it will avoid the expense of holding separate primary and runoff elections. The electorate will vote only once, and the "runoff" will merely be a matter of doing the math.

Other practical considerations involve potential difficulties. People like me, who eat, sleep and breathe politics, will have known about IRV for many years, and will be ready to go, when the first IRV election comes up. But I'm absolutely certain that, despite all efforts at voter education by the state, the parties, and the candidates, there will be many voters who go to the polls, and still need to have it explained to them, why they can't just put an "X" next to their favorite candidate's name, as they've been doing all their lives.

Also, there will be some issues with counting the votes. According to some reports, polling places will not, yet at least, be equipped with voting machines designed to handle the IRV process.

But aside from all that, how might it change voting behavior? My guess is that, in places such as Minneapolis where it's replacing a non-partisan primary, not much. IRV is just a more efficient way of implementing the same runoff that that system has always had.

If, however, IRV were implemented at a general election, following partisan primaries, I suspect that it would result in increased support of third-party candidacies. In recent years, the Independence Party, the third party that grew out of Jesse Ventura's successful gubernatorial candidacy in 1998, has been getting a sizable share of the votes in Minnesota's statewide elections. None of its candidates, other than Ventura, have come anywhere near victory, but it continues to garner much higher percentages than, for example, the Libertarians or the Greens.

Under the traditional system, an Independence voter will have no say about the preference between the Republican and Democratic candidates, if, as is usually the case, the Independence candidate finished third. But, under IRV, a voter can vote Independence with a Republican second choice, or Independence with a Democratic second choice. That would not be a wasted vote. And if there were enough such voters, then perhaps third-party candidates might win every once in a while, and not only once in a lifetime when the stars are aligned just right, as they were for Ventura in 1998.

Whether that would be a good or a bad thing depends on whether you want 1) the stability represented by continuation of the existing two-party system, or 2) the shake-up that would come with at least occasional third-party victories. I lean toward #1, but I think it's somewhat of a close call.

Friday, June 12, 2009

George H.W. Bush -- Part 2

Continuing the story I started here, about our 85-year-old birthday boy:

Economic Policy

About half-way through George H.W. Bush's presidential term, America experienced its mildest recession since the Great Depression. Even though growth resumed in 1991, and was robust by the time of the 1992 election, the economy contributed to Bush's defeat, because:

  • Unemployment is a lagging indicator. It always stays relatively high for a period of months or years, after the economy has started to grow again.
  • Large employers were turning to outsourcing. Therefore, there were several shocking headlines about large layoffs, many of which merely involved shifting people's status from employee to vendor. That made the mild recession seem worse than it was.
  • Bill Clinton aggressively pushed the notion that the recession continued into 1992, notwithstanding the facts. Bush failed to effectively explain the truth to the electorate.

And, of course, there was Bush's strange ventriloquist act. Unlike any ventriloquist other than Edgar Bergen, Bush's lips were moving. But, what we all failed to notice was that, when the sound that came out was "no new taxes", the lips were actually saying "don't you believe it".

Only four years after a Congress in which each party controlled one house, voted nearly-unanimously to reduce the top income tax rate to 28%, Bush and congressional Democrats considered it absolutely necessary in 1990 to start the tax rates on an upward trend once again.

Republican voters, who could swear he had said "no new taxes", were not amused. Since 1993, Bush has had plenty of time on his hands, to reconsider that decision.


Since Gerald Ford died in 2006, Bush has been the oldest living former president. However, Jimmy Carter is only about 3 1/2 months behind him. They both have more than eight years to go, if they want to challenge Ford's record longevity of 93 1/2 years.

The last time I saw them together, which was at President Obama's inauguration, Carter was looking much more sprightly than Bush. The way things look right now, Carter can challenge both Ford's longevity record, and Herbert Hoover's record of the longest ex-presidency. Hoover lived for 31 years after leaving the White House. Carter is at 28 years and counting.

Before I almost have Bush dead and buried though, I have to acknowledge that there is apparently a lot of life still in him. Once more, he has done a birthday parachute jump.

Happy birthday, prudent George

Today is the 85th birthday of former President George H.W. Bush.

We have a preliminary historical perspective on this man, 16 years after he left the White House. But we can't call it the final word. Historians are still re-assessing the first president who bore the name of George, so, clearly, 16 years is not enough time to allow for the dust to settle.

Foreign/Military Policy

Gulf War One. Bush's decision to end the war without regime change will probably be debated forever. But, in the wake of Gulf War Two, that decision looks sensible, and I lean toward that point of view. However, I can also understand the argument that we would have needed to topple the Hussein regime sooner or later, and it might have been easier in 1991 than in 2003. One clear error on Bush's part was encouraging Hussein's internal opponents to stage a revolt, when the U.S. had no intention of giving them sufficient support to carry it through.

Victory in the Cold War. The question of who gets credit for that victory, is another one that will be debated endlessly. Those who were involved before Bush's presidency, including Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and even Harry Truman and George Kennan, in some combination get the bulk of the credit.

But Bush's reaction, when events started to snowball, shortly after his January 1989 inauguration (with the opening of the Austro-Hungarian border, the semi-free Polish general election, the opening of the Berlin Wall, and the reverse-domino-effect on the Soviet-bloc regimes in Europe), which was in large part a hands-off approach, seems to have worked well.

We can ask questions such as whether he could have done more to forestall: 1) the Balkan Wars; and 2) the resurgence of Russia under Vladimir Putin.

One can look at the subsequent violence in the Balkans in a glass-half-empty-or-glass-half-full way. The 1990s Balkan Wars were horrible, and there has been criticism of the failure to intervene to prevent specific atrocities, similar to that regarding the massacre in Rwanda.

But, overall, the level of violence in the broader transformation of East-Central Europe was remarkably light. I wonder whether any comparable geopolitical transformation was ever implemented with less violence than that. One caveat is that I can't necessarily write about this in the past tense. As last year's mini-war between Russia and Georgia showed, violence arising out of the events of 1989-91 is not necessarily over.

Given the way Yugoslavia was artificially created at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, under the direction of Woodrow Wilson, and the lunacy of the Marxist-Leninist misgovernment of the place during the subsequent seven decades, its story was not destined to have a happy ending. I don't think there was anything that any American president could have done, to totally prevent a violent breakup.

What about Russia? The higher the price of oil, the greater is Russia's ability to attempt to restore its hegemony over its region. The manner in which Bush pursued Gulf War One helped, at least in the short run, to hold that price down. It's a bit more difficult to tie his actions into the price level 10 years and more after his presidency. But I think it's clear that oil prices would have been higher than they actually have been, if Hussein had been allowed to take control of more middle eastern oil reserves. And that would have strengthened the geopolitical position of oil producers such as Russia.

I don't know that anyone can tie any aspect of the manner in which the USSR collapsed, into the eventual rise of Putin and his aggressive approach to the non-Russian former Soviet republics. But, one humorous note comes to mind. During the short-lived coup d’├ętat against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Bush said he was wary of saying too much about that situation. It was the only time I remember him saying (other than in appearances on Saturday Night Live) that something "wouldn't be prudent".

In the next post: domestic policies, and some additional stuff.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

But what will it be worth?

Here is a not-necessarily-complete list of potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates. For the sake of fairness, I've listed them in alphabetical order. But, of course, I've already tipped my hand. When you get to the bottom (but most definitely not the top) of the "P" listings, you'll find my favorite:

  • Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour
  • Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush
  • Former Speaker Newt Gingrich
  • Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee
  • Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal
  • Alaska Governor Sarah Palin
  • Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty
  • Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney
  • South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford
  • South Dakota Senator John Thune

Will that nomination be a prize worth having?

Running against an incumbent president is always difficult. The challenger goes around in a rented campaign plane, making promises about the future. The incumbent swoops down in the most impressive aircraft in the history of aviation, and often doles out real right-now money, in the form of federal grants to local projects.

Exactly how difficult has that been? During the past century, 11 presidents survived through a complete first term, and sought reelection. In four of those cases, the challenger unseated the incumbent. Most of the other seven challengers went on to be appointed or elected to public office, but none of them were nominated for national office ever again.

The list of 11 challengers (a list on which the aforementioned prospects want to be the 12th) is as follows:

  • 1912 -- Woodrow Wilson -- defeated incumbent William H. Taft, and was president from 1913 to 1921.
  • 1916 -- Charles E. Hughes -- was secretary of state (1921-5) and chief justice of the United States (1930-41).
  • 1932 -- Franklin Roosevelt -- defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover, and was president from 1933 to 1945.
  • 1936 -- Alfred Landon -- never served in public office again.
  • 1956 -- Adlai Stevenson -- was ambassador to the U.N. (1961-5).
  • 1972 -- George McGovern -- won one more term in the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1981.
  • 1980 -- Ronald Reagan -- defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter, and was president from 1981-9.
  • 1984 -- Walter Mondale -- was ambassador to Japan (1993-6).
  • 1992 -- Bill Clinton -- defeated incumbent George H.W. Bush, and was president from 1993 to 2001.
  • 1996 -- Bob Dole -- never served in public office again.
  • 2004 -- John Kerry -- remained in the U.S. Senate, where he now chairs the Committee on Foreign Relations.
One scenario that doesn't appear on that list is: 1) candidate loses to incumbent, but 2) gets national exposure, and 3) is rewarded by his party with a chance to run for president four years hence, when there's an open race (except, of course, during the period when FDR was president-for-life). But this is a small sample, so there's no saying that couldn't happen.

It's much too early to predict whether President Obama will be in the Taft/Hoover/Carter/Bush category but, on the basis of those statistics, the odds of his avoiding that fate are in his favor.

Of course, all of those GOP hopefuls want to win. But I wonder if some of them, especially young up-and-comers such as Jindal and Pawlenty, are thinking in terms of positioning themselves for 2016.

Most of the seven also-rans on the list of past candidates, had some significant achievements after their presidential candidacies. But no one runs for president hoping to become an ambassador or a congressional chairman. All of those Republican hopefuls are trying, against the odds, to win the presidency either in 2012 or 2016.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

State Senator Creigh Deeds won yesterday's Democratic primary for governor of Virginia.

The match-up was seemingly a remake of the David and Goliath story. A state senator takes on a man who had been a senior figure in the Clinton Administration, and later chaired the Democratic National Committee.

The sequel had the same result as the original. Deeds hit his Goliath (Terry McAuliffe) right between the eyes. Deeds won 50% of the vote, to 26% for the second-place McAuliffe. Brian Moran, a former state legislator, finished third with 24%.

In the general election, Deeds will face former Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who was unopposed in the Republican primary. In the 2005 general election for attorney general, McDonnell defeated Deeds by a razor-thin margin.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

No change, yet

As the dust settles from local and European elections in Britain last week, it appears as though Prime Minister Gordon Brown will be able to stick with what has apparently been his plan, ever since he backed off on holding a snap election shortly after becoming prime minister, in 2007. That plan is to remain leader of his Labor Party, and wait until the last possible moment, within the five-year deadline, to schedule the next general election.

Here is the BBC's report of Brown's meeting yesterday with the Parliamentary Labor Party, where he received a show of support that seemed sufficient for him to survive until a June 2010 election.

In the meantime, Labor will probably feel like the Conservative Party did, in the run-up to the 1997 general election. Still in government, but positioned like cattle in chutes at the slaughterhouse, slowly, but inevitably, being led toward the knives.


From time to time, things happen in the New York state government in Albany, that are difficult for New Yorkers to understand. So, those of us in other states have no chance of figuring them out.

Therefore, I will report, without detailed analysis, that Republicans in New York's state Senate, who lost their majority at the last election, have entered into a coalition with dissident Democrats, to retake control of that body. And I will link to local media reports here, here and here.

Does this have any bearing on a busy election year in that state in 2010, when they will elect a governor (in a race without a strong incumbent), and two U.S. senators?

Monday, June 8, 2009

European Parliament Elections: The Continent

Much attention has been focused on the British election of its representatives to the European Parliament, but all of the other European Union (EU) countries voted, as well. The EU has now grown to encompass 27 member states.

Before going any further, I want to assure you that the Swedes have not again become militaristic, with plans to seize ships on the high seas. True, the Pirate Party did win one seat in that country. But their issue is Internet file sharing, not forcing captains to walk the plank.

The results in much of Continental Europe were similar to those in the U.K. Center-right parties generally did well, and extreme-right parties won seats in a few countries. But Green parties also did well in some places, so there was somewhat of a tendency to move away from the center, in both directions.

Here are reports from the BBC, Germany's Deutsche Welle, Radio Sweden, and the English-language edition of the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

Germany is another country where the EU election results are being watched, in anticipation of an upcoming general election for their national parliament. The center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), led by Chancellor Angela Merkel (in permanent coalition with its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU)), wants to be freed from its "grand coalition" with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

Will a favorable result for the CDU/CSU in the European Parliament elections translate into general election success in September? Not necessarily. The voter turnout percentage is likely to be higher in the national election. Also, the phenomenon that I identified here in the British context, also applies to Germany. There is a tendency to cast protest votes in a Euro-election, but center-left protest-voters might find the SPD a safer choice at the general election.

European Parliament Elections: Britain

In this post, last August, I wrote about how the British Labor Party, which had been a minor factor in that country's politics during its first two decades, suddenly emerged as a major party, in a 1924 general election.

The results of this year's European Parliament elections were declared yesterday. You have to go back further than that 1924 breakthrough, to find an election at which Labor scored worse than they did in the EU election last Thursday.

During the past few days, I've been listening, via the Web and NPR, to several BBC radio reports about the current British political situation. One journalist identified a benchmark for judging the impact of the election results on the Labor Party, and its leader, Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He said that, if the far-right British National Party (BNP) won a seat, that would be a disaster for Labor. Well, the BNP did not win a seat; they won two of them.

Here is the BBC's summary of the results.

The Conservatives finished first and gained one seat. The anti-EU UK Independence Party ran second, also making a one-seat gain. Labor, in third place, finished lower than second for the first time during the period when the European Parliament has been directly elected (those elections began in 1979).

Brown is scheduled to address a meeting of his party's members of the House of Commons, later today. That gathering is being watched for any indications of an attempt to oust Brown, and force an early general election.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Virginia Primary

On Tuesday, Virginia will hold the primary election that I wrote about here. Only the Democrats have a contested primary for governor.

The three-way Democratic race is still close. Terry McAuliffe, a former aide to President Clinton, is the best-known candidate nationally. This Washington Post report describes support for McAuliffe by leading Democrats outside of Virginia.

Clinton staff members have a mixed record, in their own candidacies for elective office.

Erskine Bowles, who was Clinton's chief of staff in 1997 and 1998, twice lost elections for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina.

Rahm Emanuel, a White House aide from 1993 to 1998, has been more successful than Bowles. Emanuel recently gave up a safe seat, and a lower-rung party leadership position, in the House of Representatives, to return to the White House, as chief of staff to President Obama.

Also, one might count Hillary Clinton in this category. She, of course, won two U.S. Senate elections, and lost a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Here is a 2006 FOX News report, mainly centered on Clinton Administration figures who served, not in the White House, but in the executive departments.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Life Imitates Hockey

Let's take a moment off from politics, to discuss something really important.

By 1997, Wayne Cashman had performed so well as an assistant coach for several National Hockey League teams, that the Philadelphia Flyers made him their head coach. After he was fired from that job, after less than one season, Cashman stayed on as an assistant coach with the Flyers, and later held down that same job with the team for which he had played from 1965 to 1983, the Boston Bruins.

The consensus in the league was that Cashman's success in a subordinate role did not translate into a talent for the top job.

Gordon Brown got rave reviews for the job he did, running Britain's Treasury, as chancellor of the exchequer, from 1997 to 2007. Then, he was promoted to prime minister. Now, it seems as though everyone in the U.K. believes that Brown, like Cashman, is not cut out for the #1 job, even though he did well in a subordinate role. Everyone, that is, except Gordon Brown.

After heavy losses for Brown's Labor Party in local elections in some parts of England on Thursday, he again insisted that he's keeping his job.

As expected, Brown implemented a Cabinet reshuffle yesterday. It was less far-reaching than some had anticipated. The only major change involved Alan Johnson, a potential successor to Brown as Labor leader, being moved up from health secretary to home secretary.

Does all of that mean that Brown anticipates that the results of Thursday's other election, for the European Parliament, due to be announced tomorrow, will be less than disastrous for his party?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Statuary Hall

In 1807, the U.S. House of Representatives began meeting in a new chamber in the Capitol building. The meeting room was destroyed in 1814, in the British burning of Washington, during the War of 1812. Restoration of the House chamber was completed in 1819.

There were two main reasons why it was replaced by a new House chamber, in 1857. For one thing, as the country grew, the number of representatives increased, going from 141 in 1807 to 234 in 1857. They needed more space. Also, the acoustics in the old meeting hall were horrible. House members found it difficult to hear their colleagues during congressional debates. (Of course, some of them might have thought that was just fine, but the situation was untenable.)

The old House chamber then became National Statuary Hall. Each state was invited to submit two statues of prominent citizens. The room is still used for that purpose, but it eventually became overcrowded, and some of the statues were moved elsewhere in the Capitol.

California was originally represented by statues of Father Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish missionary, and Thomas Starr King, a 19th-century Unitarian minister. But, this week, King got demoted to the state capitol in Sacramento.

His replacement was Ronald Reagan. In 2000, Congress authorized states to make such substitutions. The only other replacement was done by Kansas, which honored another former president, Dwight Eisenhower, in place of one of its 19th-century governors, George Washington Glick.

Here is an account of the installation of the Reagan statue in the New York Times blog, The Caucus. As one might expect, the most prominent roles in the ceremony were played by Republicans, but the Democratic leaders of both houses also took part.

Image: Architect of the Capitol

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reform Proposals

I've written, in this and other posts, about the scandal currently exploding in Britain, involving improper expense reimbursement claims by members of the British Parliament.

One interesting by-product of that, is that British politicians are rushing out proposals to reform their political system.

The proposals include:

  1. A fixed term for the House of Commons, which would abolish the prime minister's right to set the date of a general election.

  2. An elected upper house of Parliament, in place of the current House of Lords. Originally, membership in that body was based on hereditary titles. Now, most members of the House of Lords are, in effect, appointed by the party leaders.

  3. Increased ability of backbenchers to introduce legislation in the House of Commons.

In Britain, members of the Cabinet also serve in one of the houses of Parliament. That is not true of the U.S. Cabinet and Congress. Members of the U.K. House of Commons ("MPs") who are not either Cabinet secretaries, or assistants to those secretaries ("ministers") are called "backbenchers". Cabinet secretaries and ministers sit on the front benches on their party's side of the House of Commons chamber. As the title implies, the backbenchers sit behind them.

Backbenchers can introduce legislation, but only under strict limitations. Most policy proposals come from the front benches.

The proposals listed above would make Britain's system more similar to that of the U.S. (Others, such as proportional representation, would not.) Should they take a closer look at American politics, and be more careful what they ask for?

One obvious thing about these suggested changes is that they have nothing directly to do with reform of the expense reimbursement system.

As I understand it, the indirect argument for reform is as follows. The balance of power has shifted further toward the government, and away from backbench MPs, in recent times. Therefore, it has become more difficult to justify higher salaries for those MPs who do not have government positions. It has been alleged that that led to a system that sneaks additional compensation into MPs pockets, via a loosely-administered expense-reimbursement system. If MPs are made more important again, their compensation can be more above-board.

A more cynical explanation is that the politicians are trying to distract voters' attention from the specific issue, and to portray themselves as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Either way, some of the proposed changes might have far-reaching effects. I wrote here about the danger of grafting aspects of other countries' political systems onto one's own. That can produce unintended effects.

One side note: The British cast their votes today for the European Parliament. Those returns will be watched closely, for an indication of how upset the electorate is with the governing Labor Party. But the results will not be known until Sunday. Each European Union member state votes on its usual election day, which is Thursday in the U.K., but is Sunday in most of those countries. Those countries voting before Sunday are not allowed to release their results until everyone has voted.

New Jersey Match-Up

Christopher Christie yesterday won the Republican primary for governor of New Jersey. Nearly-complete returns show him winning 55% of the vote, to 42% for his main challenger, Steve Lonegan.

In the November 3 general election, Christie will face incumbent Governor Jon Corzine who, as expected, prevailed over token opposition in the Democratic primary.

Most polls have shown Christie ahead of Corzine.

Many articles, such as the New York Times report to which I've linked, emphasize that no Republican has won a statewide election in New Jersey, since then-Governor Christine Whitman was reelected in 1997. That's true, and is not insignificant. But there's an asterisk.

During that time, the office of governor has been the only office in state government in New Jersey, that has been subject to a statewide election. Unlike other states, where the attorney general, secretary of state, etc., are separately elected, in New Jersey those positions are filled by gubernatorial appointment.

Effective with this election, the state has created the office of lieutenant governor. During past gubernatorial vacancies, such as when Whitman resigned to take a federal office, and when Jim McGreevey resigned due to scandal, the president of the state Senate has become acting governor. Oddly, those acting governors have retained both their seat and leadership position in the Senate, while serving as governor.

The candidates for lieutenant governor will be hand-picked by the gubernatorial candidates, and will run on a ticket with them, so that doesn't create a separate statewide election.

My point is that there are fewer statewide elections in New Jersey, and therefore less chance for the minority party to pick up at least a token office in state government.

Be that as it may, the Republicans have gone through a 12-year drought, and they hope that Corzine's unpopularity will allow them to break that losing streak.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Pawlenty of time until 2012

Governor Tim Pawlenty, Republican of Minnesota, has announced that he will not run for a third term in that office, next year. That changes the dynamics in the gubernatorial election, but it might affect two other elections, as well.

Pawlenty has been positioning himself to seek his party's presidential nomination in 2012. Leaving office at the beginning of 2011 will free up his time for presidential campaigning. Also, it might help him, if he avoids day-to-day involvement with difficult state budget issues. Economic growth is expected to have resumed by 2011, but economists generally expect a lukewarm recovery. Anything a governor does, under those circumstances, is subject to criticism from all sides.

Additionally, state campaign finance laws would apparently restrict his ability to raise funds for a presidential run, if he were also a gubernatorial candidate.

Several Democratic candidates (in the party that, in Minnesota, is called Democratic-Farmer-Labor) have emerged to try to succeed Pawlenty. The best-known name is that of former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton.

The other question is: who will enter the now-cleared Republican field? One name frequently mentioned (and this is how a third election might be affected) is that of another former U.S. senator, Norm Coleman. Coleman ran for governor in 1998, only to be beaten in a three-way race (which is not the same as two out of three falls) by Jesse Ventura.

Coleman's appeal of a state court's decision in favor of Al Franken, Coleman's opponent in the 2008 race for U.S. senator from Minnesota, is being considered this week by that state's supreme court. If Coleman decides to run for governor, perhaps that will lead him to concede the Senate election, and allow Pawlenty to avoid what might otherwise be an uncomfortable decision on whether to sign a certificate of election for Franken.

However, there is also speculation in the other direction, i.e., that, not having to face Minnesota voters next year, Pawlenty will feel more free to deny Franken the certificate, and allow Coleman to appeal to federal court.

Heads Are Rolling

In 1649, the English beheaded their King Charles I. Currently, the phrase "heads will roll" is often used in London, but not literally, only figuratively. But it is being used figuratively, quite a bit.

I wrote here about how an expense account scandal involving members of the House of Commons, led to the resignation of that body's speaker, Michael Martin. The significance of that event was largely symbolic, because the office of speaker of the House of Commons is much less powerful than that of speaker of the House of Representatives in the U.S. But now, it appears that more powerful heads than Martin's are being positioned into the virtual guillotine.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith will reportedly lose that job, in a Cabinet reshuffle that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to implement, after the European Parliament elections this Thursday. (The position of Home Secretary has no exact counterpart in the U.S. Its bailiwick is somewhat similar to that of our Department of Homeland Security, but the British Home Office has more responsibility for day-to-day law enforcement, a function that is more centralized in the U.K. than it is in the U.S.)

Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling might be next in line for political execution. That is Britain's high-falutin' title for its finance minister. Punsters who have had fun with the incumbent chancellor's surname will not lose anything, if, as rumored, Brown appoints Ed Balls, the schools secretary, as the next chancellor.

The next question is whether Brown himself will also lose his job. Since, as the BBC has reported, Brown has denied that that will happen, that must mean it is a possibility.

Expensive Chat

One phenomenon that fascinates me is The Club, that consists of the few men (so far, all men) who have been president of the United States. Two members of The Club, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, earned some pocket change this week by making a joint appearance in Toronto.

Here is a report on that, in The New York Times.

I've written about the bond that is generated, even among those who differ in political philosophy, by being among the very small number of men who have had that extraordinary experience. But, to a great extent, all of Washington works that same way.

Washington is a company town. Everyone has to work and live in close proximity to each other. Of course there are disagreements, but the politicians must interact with a certain degree of civility. Otherwise, it would be impossible to work together.

If the Bill and George show comes to your town, and you're tempted to shell out big bucks with the hope of seeing a knock down drag out fight, save your money. It ain't gonna happen.

Monday, June 1, 2009

British Electoral Test

As I described here, British voters are upset about claims for expense reimbursement by members of the House of Commons. This week, for the first time since that scandal broke, those voters will have a chance to register their opinions at the ballot box.

On Thursday, Britain will elect its representatives to the European Parliament. Unlike general elections for the U.K. Parliament, the European elections are on a fixed schedule, and are held once every five years.

Voters tend to use those elections to cast a protest vote against the party in power. And there's a temptation to vote for fringe parties, such as the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which advocates British withdrawal from the European Union (EU). There are two reasons why many voters feel comfortable with that type of protest vote:

1. European Parliament elections are conducted under a system of proportional representation. Therefore, it's easier for a small party to win parliamentary seats, and there's less of a feeling that votes for such parties are wasted.

2. While the EU has taken on many of the functions that would otherwise be handled by national governments, the European Parliament is not as powerful within the EU structure, as national parliaments tend to be, within their respective national political systems. It cannot initiate legislation; its role is limited to ratifying policies initiated by the executive bodies of the EU. Since the outcome matters less, voters feel free to cast a symbolic vote.

In the U.K., the governing Labor Party seems to be hardest hit by the expenses scandal. The Liberal Democrats have pushed Labor down into third place in at least one poll of voting intention in the general election that will be held by next year. But the reputations of all of the parties have suffered.

The latest buzz has involved the notion that independent candidates and minor parties might win a significant share of House of Commons seats at that general election. The European election will be scrutinized for any hints of such a trend.

There will also be local government elections in some parts of the U.K. on Thursday, but the European election will provide a broader reading of voter attitudes.