Monday, August 31, 2009

German Election

Germany is similar to the United States in having a federal form of government. Territorial subdivisions of the country have independent authority on matters where they have not ceded that authority to the national government.

The German word for each subdivision is Land (pronounced lont), and the plural is Laender (LEN-der is at least a close approximation of the pronunciation). Land is sometimes translated into English as "state", but some English publications use the original German, considering "state" to be an inexact translation.

Each Land has its own parliament. The head of government is the Minister-Praesident, of which the literal translation is "minister president", but the title is often rendered in English as "premier" or "governor".

Another similarity between the U.S. and Germany is that political observers watch the state elections for clues regarding the outcome of the next national election. But American elections follow a more regular schedule than those in Germany.

Most American states elect their governors on the November election day that falls half-way between presidential elections. Other states vary from that schedule, but gubernatorial election day is always the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November, of some year.

By contrast, the general elections in the German Laender are held at various times of year, and the interval between elections is four years in some Laender and five years in others.

This year, election day in three Laender happened to come up yesterday, four weeks before the general election for the federal parliament (Bundestag). Here is a New York Times report on those elections.

There are 16 Laender, and the three who voted yesterday are: Saxony (population 4.2 million, 6th largest), Thuringia (2.3 million, 12th) and Saarland (1 million, 15th). Before the 1990 reunification of Germany, Saxony and Thuringia were in East Germany, and Saarland was in West Germany.

The center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, lost ground in all three of those Laender, with the largest losses coming in Thuringia (31% of the vote, down from 43% in the previous election) and Saarland (35%, down from 47%). In Saxony, CDU support declined by only two percentage points, to 40%. (Keep in mind that, in Germany, the title of "chancellor" belongs to the head of government, not, as in Britain, to the finance minister.)

The CDU's losses were not so much to the benefit of its main rival, the Social Democrats (SPD). Two smaller parties, the Free Democrats (FDP), and the Left Party, made significant gains. The Free Democrats are classical liberals, believing in small government and low taxes. The Left Party is a combination of former Communists from the east, and former SPD members from the west, who left the SPD as it moved closer to the center of the spectrum under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, from 1998 to 2005.

Media reports caution against reading too much into yesterday's results. The CDU's largest losses came in some of the smallest Laender, with lower voter turnout than is expected in the upcoming federal election. Still, they can't be construed as good news for Merkel. She hopes to emerge from the federal election in a sufficiently strong position to govern in coalition with the FDP. That would require better results than she achieved in 2005, when she was forced to form a "grand coalition" with the SPD.

For more background on the German system, you can go to this post, this post, and this post.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Japan 7: Change?

As expected, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has won a landslide victory in Japan's general election.

The DPJ already controlled the upper house of the parliament (House of Councillors). As is typical in parliamentary democracies, that gave the party a certain amount of blocking power. But it's not until now, when they have won a large majority in the lower house (House of Representatives) that they can implement their agenda.

Will their new-found power lead to major policy changes?

During the period since 1955, with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) enjoying a nearly-continuous hold on power, two policy positions have been consistently pursued by LDP-led governments: a close military alliance with the U.S., and pro-business economic policies.

Many DPJ leaders, including Yukio Hatoyama, the next prime minister, started out in the LDP. Therefore, one might expect very little in the way of substantive changes, seeing the party rivalry as involving clashing personal ambitions, more than ideological differences.

But Hatoyama and his party have talked about changing those basic policies, by concentrating more on economic equality than favoring business interests, and pursuing a foreign policy that is less focused on the American alliance.

Perhaps this is only product differentiation. A new party needs to show itself to be different from the party it hopes to replace. Otherwise, what motive do the voters have to make a change?

To some degree, that's the same type of product differentiation that a seller of, for example, detergent or toothpaste uses, in competing with a bestselling brand.

Often, such campaign rhetoric from an opposition party exaggerates the degree of change they actually end up implementing.

Looking at some American examples, George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 on a strong free-trade platform. He held to that, to some degree. But he also jacked up tariffs on steel imports.

From the other direction, Barack Obama made reassuring noises to his union supporters, to the effect that he would pull back on free trade. He talked, for instance, about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. That idea seems to have been dropped, now that he's in office.

The fall of the Soviet Union, the economic rise of China, and the nuclear threat from North Korea, have changed the geopolitical picture around Japan in recent decades. So far, Japan has largely maintained its alliance with, and military dependence on, the U.S. It will be interesting to see to what degree Japan's political shift will change that (or not).

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Japan 6: The 2009 Election

I've been describing the history of post-World War II Japanese politics, in this and other posts, in order to provide background for their general election tomorrow (maybe today if you're reading this in East Asia).

The incumbent prime minister is 68-year-old Taro Aso of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). As I described in those earlier posts, the LDP has governed Japan nearly continuously since it was formed by a 1955 merger. Aso has held that office for less than one year.

Junichiro Koizumi of the LDP had been prime minister from 2001 to 2006, when he stepped down due to term limits. He was considered a charismatic leader, in a political system that has often seen less-colorful politicians rise to the top.

Koizumi pursued reform policies, including the privatization of the postal service. Such a move has been controversial in any country that has considered it. But, through its postal savings system, the post office was also the largest financial institution in Japan, offering services such as banking and life insurance. That was where Koizumi was mainly looking, in order to reform the financial system, and help shake Japan out of the economic doldrums it had been in for most of the previous two decades.

Koizumi called a general election in 2005, to establish a mandate for the postal privatization. After he ruthlessly culled his opponents from the ranks of LDP candidates, the party won a landslide victory, and the Diet (parliament) went on to approve the proposal.

It's been all downhill since then, for the LDP. Aso is the third new leader to take over the party in less than three years. None of them have had the popularity or stature of Koizumi. And the recession, which has hit Japan's export-dependent economy hard, has not helped the standing of the governing party.

Now, more than ever before in the LDP's history, there is an alternative that Japanese voters accept as a credible governing party: the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The DPJ was formed by a merger of several small opposition parties in 1998. It got off to a slow start during a period when the LDP seemed to be resurgent. In the long run, that might come to be seen as nothing more than a dead-cat bounce by the LDP.

As this year began, everyone expected Ichiro Ozawa to lead the DPJ into the general election. But he resigned his leadership position in May, due to scandal. His party feared that its seemingly inevitable rise to power might be sidetracked. However, Ozawa's successor, Yukio Hatoyama, seems poised to lead the DPJ to victory, and become prime minister.

As is the case with many opposition politicians in Japan, Hatoyama, 62, started out in politics with the LDP. He has been in the lower house of parliament since 1986. Hatoyama left the LDP in 1993. At that time, LDP defectors were experimenting with various party organizational structures, in an attempt to come up with a credible opposition to the long-time governing party. Eventually, Hatoyama emerged as a senior member of the DPJ.

Both leaders are descendants of elite political families. Hatoyama's grandfather Ichiro Hatoyama was prime minister, and a key player in the LDP merger, as I described here. Shigeru Yoshida, a former prime minister who was the other key merger partner, is maternal grandfather to Aso.

So, in a sense, it's a family quarrel. The many defections from the LDP over the past couple of decades seem finally to be resulting in the end, and perhaps a permanent end, of the LDP's hold on power.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New Senator From Florida

Governor Charlie Crist, Republican of Florida, has announced the appointment of George LeMieux, to complete the U.S. Senate term to which fellow Republican Mel Martinez was elected in 2004.

Martinez had already taken himself out of the 2010 race, and Crist had already entered that Senate race, when Martinez surprised everyone on August 7 by stating that he would resign the Senate seat early, as soon as Crist appointed a successor.

In theory, Crist could have resigned as governor, and arranged to have Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp appoint Crist to the Senate. But Crist presumably knows that voters have reacted unfavorably to other governors who have tried that.

Otherwise, the worst-case scenario for Crist would be to give a leg up to a potential rival for the Senate seat, by appointing, and thereby giving Senate experience to, someone who might run against him in the Republican primary.

In LeMieux, a former aide to Crist, it looks as though the governor has found a safe choice, who will do nothing that might derail Crist's candidacy.

LeMieux, a 40-year-old lawyer, was deputy to Crist when the future governor served as Florida's attorney general. He also worked on Crist's gubernatorial campaign, and as chief of staff to the governor. LeMieux has been active in Republican politics, and has chaired the party in Broward County. But he has never been elected to public office.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy -- Senate Elections

A proposal to reinstate Massachusetts's prior system of filling U.S. Senate vacancies by gubernatorial appointment, pending a special election, seems to be back on the front burner.

If Massachusetts had not had such a procedure in 1960, the late Ted Kennedy might never have got his start in the U.S. Senate.

Massachusetts reelected John Kennedy to the Senate on November 4, 1958. He resigned from the Senate on December 22, 1960, after having been elected president.

The family seemed to view the Senate seat as their personal property, to be bequeathed to the next brother in line. But that brother, Robert, was instead appointed attorney general, under the more lax nepotism rules in place at that time.

The next brother, Ted, had a problem. He was only 28 years old, and therefore two years short of the constitutional minimum age for senators. John Kennedy arranged the appointment of a family friend to keep the seat available for Ted, in the special election that would be held in 1962.

The 1962 special election was a nepotism-fest. The president's brother faced off in the Democratic primary against Edward McCormack, nephew of Speaker John McCormack. Having cleared that hurdle, Kennedy's unsuccessful Republican opponent in the general election was George Cabot Lodge, son of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the incumbent whom John Kennedy had defeated to originally take the Senate seat in 1952.

Ted Kennedy successfully ran for a full term by proxy, in 1964, while recovering from a broken back.

After that, he continued to be reelected quite easily. His most difficult reelection contest came in 1994. A transplanted Mormon who had made millions in the investment world, and was a political neophyte, gave him a bit of, if you'll excuse the expression, a run for his money. That neophyte was Mitt Romney, later governor of Massachusetts, and a Republican presidential candidate. (Another nepotism case, Mitt is the son of former Michigan Governor George Romney.) Kennedy won with 58%.

Kennedy was lucky in the sense that 1994 was the only time he was up for reelection in a year with a general pro-Republican trend. He was able to sit out such strong Republican years as 1966 and 1980.

Ted Kennedy -- Voting Rights Act

I've heard and read comments over the last couple of days that give Ted Kennedy credit for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. More specifically, I have heard that Kennedy sponsored a provision that outlawed poll taxes.

Those taxes were one of the methods that southern segregationists used, to prevent African Americans from voting, during the period between the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment, which theoretically gave former slaves the right to vote, and the 1965 enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which finally gave effect to that goal.

Many African Americans were impoverished at that time and place and, therefore, putting a monetary price on voting placed yet another hurdle in their path. By and large, black would-be voters simply could not afford the tax.

Poll taxes for federal elections had already been rendered unconstitutional by the 24th Amendment, which was ratified in 1964. I presume that the effect of the 1965 Act on that issue was to extend that ban to state and local elections, as well.

I recall a documentary film I saw on public TV during a recent visit to my native state of Minnesota. The subject was former Vice President Walter Mondale. He entered the Senate in 1965, two years after Kennedy. That film gave Mondale credit for getting the Voting Rights Act through the Senate during his freshman year in that body.

The question of who wrote a bill, or sponsored it, is never as clear in practice as it is in theory. While the present-day application of the Voting Rights Act is controversial, Congress's original enactment of it in 1965 is almost universally praised. Therefore, it's no surprise if multiple senators have claimed credit for it over the years.

I'm reminded of something Ted Kennedy's brother Jack said, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco early in his presidency. In accepting the blame for his failure to follow through on promises to support Cuban exiles who had tried to overthrow the Castro regime, President Kennedy noted that victory has a hundred fathers, while defeat is an orphan. I imagine that many of the Republicans and northern Democrats who supported the Voting Rights Act, in addition to Kennedy and Mondale, have claimed paternity.

The Voting Rights Act seems to be the main basis for George Will's surprising statement that Kennedy "lived his own large life and the ledger of it shows a substantial positive balance". In at least one sense I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. Libertarianism has never been at the core of Will's ideology, and, as I see it, it's primarily from a libertarian perspective that Kennedy's policy achievements can be criticized. (I suppose someone who is much more of a hard-core libertarian than I am, would have been happy to leave the issue of voter registration to the states, but I most definitely do not share that point of view.)

I suspect that the Washington-based Will largely reflects the inside-the-Beltway perspective at a time like this, much as he might try to resist. And he may, over the years, have succumbed to the charms of the most gregarious of the Kennedy brothers who lived long enough to establish political careers.

Kennedy deserves praise for his role in the ensemble cast that produced the Voting Rights Act. But that's not enough to change the opinion I expressed, here, that is, on balance, negative toward Kennedy.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

46 Years: Too Long

Ted Kennedy was a U.S. senator for 46 years. Only two senators have exceeded that mark: Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd. Byrd holds the record, at 50 years and counting.

I hold the old-fashioned view that service in public office should not constitute a career. It should instead be a temporary sacrifice that one makes in the middle of a career in the real world.

That's not a partisan dig at Kennedy and Byrd. Thurmond, Bob Dole, Ted Stevens and Thad Cochran, have been, or were, in the Senate too long. Also Arlen Specter (and you certainly can't call that partisan criticism!)

The arguments for my point of view can, I believe, best be summarized as follows. Senators live in a bubble. The longer they stay in that bubble, the further they're removed from a feel for life the way the rest of us live it.

My favorite example is the privacy-policy insert that financial institutions periodically send to their customers. What a waste of paper and postal resources! I would be surprised if as many as 1/100th of 1% of all recipients of such notices actually read them.

I believe (commenters can correct me if I'm wrong) that those notices were mandated by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the act of Congress that allowed corporations such as Citigroup to own different kinds of financial institutions.

The privacy-policy requirement seems like the perfect example of something that sounded worthwhile in the echo chamber in which senators debate, but which in reality makes no sense.

One counterargument is that constituents should be able to elect whomever they want, subject to the requirements regarding age, citizenship, etc. (I certainly don't want to put the birthers out of business.) :-)

The problem with that is that lobbyists and other interested parties contribute money to those in power, perhaps expecting something in return. That contributes to entrenching incumbents in office, and hindering the sort of turnover that I'm arguing is helpful in order to introduce more common sense.

And, by the way, all of these arguments apply to the House of Representatives, as well. The current Dean of the House, John Dingell, has been in that body longer than I've been alive. And I'm not all that young anymore.

My proposal is a 12-year limit on congressional service, with no pension.

Edward Kennedy 2: The 1980 Campaign

Getting over my initial reluctance, which I discussed here, to write anything in the wake of Ted Kennedy's death, I find there is more that needs to be said.

His unsuccessful candidacy for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination is one of many subjects mentioned in the obituaries.

I made it clear in my earlier post that I'm not running for president of the Ted Kennedy Fan Club. But I think he gets a bit of a bum rap, regarding that 1980 race.

The obituaries in The New York Times and The Washington Post mention that the campaign got off to a shaky start. They specifically point to Kennedy's disastrous TV appearance with Roger Mudd, who was a friendly interviewer. But they fail to mention another event that occurred the same day (November 4, 1979): the Iranian seizure of the American embassy in Tehran.

President Carter's poll numbers had been plummeting for some time. That was largely what tempted Kennedy into the race. But there was a rally-'round-the-flag feeling in the country for a while after the seizure of the hostages, and Carter's popularity went back up. That allowed Carter to defeat Kennedy in early primaries and caucuses.

Kennedy won some of the later primaries, after Carter's popularity started to fall again, especially after the failed rescue mission on April 24, 1980. But the president had built up too much of a lead for Kennedy to overcome, and he was renominated.

As I've mentioned previously, I was at that time in a different place politically than I am now. I was active in the Democratic (Democratic-Farmer-Labor) Party in Minneapolis, and chaired our local precinct caucus. Most of us backed Carter, mainly out of loyalty to a fellow Minnesota DFLer, Vice President Walter Mondale.

I think that Kennedy's defeat can be attributed to bad luck in terms of timing, as much as to poor campaigning on his part. How he would have fared against Ronald Reagan is another one of those what-ifs that can be endlessly debated.

Also, it's not clear that Ted had the same burning ambition for the White House as his brothers John and Robert. They both served in the Senate, as well, but, for them, it seems to have represented only a stepping stone to higher office. Even before 1980, Ted had established himself as a true Senate man.

In 1969, Ted Kennedy became the youngest Senate majority whip in history. He lost that title in the wake of the incident at Chappaquiddick later that year. But he eventually accumulated enough seniority to chair, first the Judiciary Committee and, later, the committee that is now known as Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

If Kennedy had been able to hold on to the whip position, he probably could have advanced to majority leader when Mike Mansfield gave up that job in 1977. It's debatable whether a party leader is more powerful than a committee chair. Either way, while I don't agree with the way he used his influence, there is no denying that Kennedy was one of the most influential legislators in history.

Edward Moore Kennedy

We've known for several months that this day would arrive soon. So, I've given some thought to what, if anything, I would write on this occasion.

The easy way out would have been to write nothing. But to ignore an event of this magnitude seems inappropriate.

I could write a bland obituary, designed to offend no one. I could have filled it with true but vacuous statements of the "His death leaves a vacancy in the Senate" variety. But, no.

The truth is that I have nothing very positive to say about Ted Kennedy.

It's not as though I have a general disdain for everyone on the left. When Paul Wellstone died in 2002, I was sincerely saddened, and could, to an extent, join in the grief felt by my left-wing friends. Wellstone's candidacies for elective office all happened after I left Minnesota, and I would not have voted for him, had I still been there. But I had a brief acquaintanceship with him when I was a student in a class he taught at Carleton College in the '70s. I wouldn't call him much of a scholar, but he struck me as a nice man who genuinely cared about his students.

My closest encounter with Kennedy came during my time as an intern in Congress in 1977. During some down time, I went over to the Senate side, and walked into a committee mark-up session (i.e., a meeting to consider amendments to a pending bill, rather than to take testimony in a public hearing) of, if memory serves, the Judiciary Committee. At one point, the chairman (must have James Eastland) commented that the room was too crowded, and that every senator should retain only one staff member at the meeting. Being a House intern, I was no senator's staffer. But, I decided to stay unless/until I was directly challenged. I got a funny look from one or two people, but no one threw me out.

Kennedy was, as you might expect, overweight. (It was said that, when people noticed, two years later, that he had slimmed down a bit, they took that as confirmation of his intent to run for president in 1980.) The thin end of his necktie (the part in back that's supposed to stay hidden) was sticking out well below the broad end of the tie. Overall, his appearance was underwhelming. But no cameras were present, and he had no idea that the odd-man-out in the room would publish this account, more than three decades later.

Kennedy is winning praise from many, for his successful efforts to expand big government. Being for many years the chairman (and ranking minority member when the Republicans controlled the Senate) of the committee now known as Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, he was able to shepherd much legislation that, superficially at least, seemed to help those at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder.

But Kennedy's background, with his inherited wealth, left him unable to sufficiently appreciate the role that wealth creation (which is hindered by big government) can play in socio-economic mobility. He could hardly be expected to understand that, given that his idea of wealth creation was to draw down on his trust fund.

One sees some of that effect in the Bushes, as well. But they, unlike Kennedy, have experience in the business world.

I recently described Kennedy's family in this post. His death leaves only one surviving sibling, 81-year-old Jean Smith. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the family's politics, it's a reminder of the passage of time, for those of us old enough to remember when President John Kennedy and his siblings were the young glamour icons of the '60s.

Ted Kennedy was the only one of the four sons of Joseph and Rose Kennedy to die of natural causes. The best illustration of how exceptional Ted was among the brothers in terms of lifespan, is that his tenure in the Senate was 115 days longer than the entire lifespan of his longest-lived brother, John.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rudy Giuliani

There have been rumors for some time about the possibility of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani running for governor of New York State next year. Now that the election year is getting closer, that process seems to have been shifted into a higher gear. The New York Times has reported on the current state of things. Rudy has made no final decision, but the Times is able to confirm definite activity in that direction.

New York has been solidly Democratic in recent presidential elections. Ronald Reagan, in his 1984 landslide reelection, was the most recent Republican presidential nominee to take the Empire State's electoral votes.

But New York Republicans have been able to win some state and local contests. Republican George Pataki was governor from 1995 to 2006. New York City's incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg is nominally a Republican, although his ties to that party are not very deep (he briefly severed what ties he has to the GOP, when he was mulling an independent run for the presidency). Giuliani himself was Bloomberg's predecessor, winning the office twice on the Republican line.

Those New York Republicans have largely shunned the socially-conservative party line that prevails elsewhere. However, Giuliani, when he ran in the 2008 presidential campaign, and Pataki, when he was testing the waters for such a run, made some more conservative noises than they had generally made at home.

Governor David Paterson, a Democrat who moved up from lieutenant governor when Eliot Spitzer resigned, faces a likely primary contest against the state's Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

After its near-death experience in the 2008 elections, the Republican Party is showing some signs of life. Giuliani, a proven vote-getter, at least in the City, might face a favorable Republican trend, and a divided Democratic Party, if he makes the race. So, despite having fallen about as flat as it's possible for a candidate to fall, in his presidential run, he could have a pretty good shot at Albany.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


A few days ago, I wrote about the patriarch of a Roman Catholic family who, early in the 20th century, sired nine children, many of whom had a major impact on American politics.

But there was another such patriarch who, at roughly the same time, sired ten children. That one was William Frank Buckley. His brood also had a major effect on our political life.

The ten Buckleys are/were:

Aloise Heath (1919-1967)
John Buckley (1920-1985)
Priscilla Buckley (1921- )
James Buckley (1923- )
Patricia Bozell (1924- )
William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008)
Jane Smith (1928-2007)
Reid Buckley (1930- )
Maureen O'Reilly (1933-1964)
Carol Charlton (1939- )

In sharp contrast to the Kennedys, only one of the Buckleys was elected to public office. That was James, who, in 1970, won a three-way race for New York's U.S. Senate seat that had been held by Robert Kennedy until his assassination two years earlier. James Buckley ran on the Conservative Party line in that election. Six years later, running as the Republican nominee, he lost to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Buckley later served as a federal appeals court judge.

James's brother Bill ran as the Conservative candidate for mayor of New York City in 1965. He famously said he would demand a recount if he won; in the event, he had no such problem. He finished third, behind victorious Republican John Lindsay, and the runner-up Democrat, the future Mayor Abraham Beame.

But it was Bill who had the biggest political impact. He founded the magazine National Review, which action on his part is said to have begun the modern conservative movement. Buckley also hosted the TV show Firing Line, on which he debated with people from across the political spectrum. Add to that a seemingly infinite number of books and newspaper columns, and Bill Buckley definitely established his credentials as one of the intellectual stalwarts of the right.

Now, about a year and a half after Bill Buckley's death, multiple books are appearing about him and his family.

I just finished reading one of those: Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir, by Christopher Buckley, the only son of Bill and his wife Pat, who predeceased her husband by less than a year. (Apparently he really did call them "Mum" and "Pup". This writer, with his midwestern working-class roots, is destined never to understand why the eastern prep-school crowd talks that way, but he has decided to accept it.)

Christopher Buckley (I wish I knew him, and well enough that I could call him by his family nickname of "Christo"; for some reason, I always thought that was so cool) intersperses remembrances of things past with not-so-glamorous anecdotes about the last days of his oh-so-glamorous parents. Those remembrances are remarkably frank, showing that the seemingly larger-than-life Bill and Pat were human too.

Fans of the Buckley father and son will probably greatly enjoy, as I did, these insights into that fascinating family. Those of you who are further to the left on the spectrum might have an instinctive reaction against such a book. But then you would miss Christopher's descriptions of his father's close friendships with the likes of Ken Galbraith and George McGovern. Having said that, however, there may be a bit too much Henry Kissinger for your tastes.

And, to bring it all full circle, Christopher Buckley describes the friendship between his daughter Caitlin and Kate Kennedy (yes, of those Kennedys). Buckley apologizes for name-dropping (identifying her really is vital to one of his anecdotes). One can't help but think that he enjoys both the name-dropping and the apologizing about it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

David Cameron -- Uncertainty Principle?

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg, a physicist, stated the Uncertainty Principle, i.e., that it's impossible for an observer to know both the location and the velocity of a subatomic particle.

David Cameron, the odds-on favorite to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom, is a whole lot bigger than a subatomic particle. But, to some extent, the Uncertainty Principle seems to extend to him.

His velocity is known. As I described here, he has moved up the political ladder at something approaching the speed of light. But many consider it difficult to pinpoint his position on the political spectrum.

This commentary from Lynne Featherstone, a member of Parliament (MP) from the Liberal Democratic Party, is typical of the other parties' statements about Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party (the "Tories"). She seems to share my penchant for thought-provoking trans-Atlantic comparisons.

On the surface at least, Cameron has put forth a more modern image for his party. For example, he has got himself photographed bicycling, to establish his Green credentials. That probably addresses a large part of his party's problem in its recent years out of power, which has been an issue of image as much as substance.

The "New Labor" concept that Tony Blair brought in when he became prime minister in 1997 was largely a continuation of the policies of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister who rolled back British socialism in the 1980s. The parties have differences over issues such as taxes and labor unions, but the divide seems to be much narrower than at certain times in the past. Nothing like 1945, when Labor successfully campaigned to impose socialism on the country, while Winston Churchill accused them of preparing to form a Gestapo to enforce their system.

One issue that the Tories have pushed, with little apparent gain, in the post-Thatcher era has been Euroskepticism, a desire to limit Britain's integration into the Continental European system that is centered on the European Union (EU). The Euroskeptics range from those who would remove Britain entirely from the EU, to others who want the UK to have limited European involvement, certainly avoiding, for example, the Euro currency.

It seems as though a large share of the British electorate is skeptical about the Euro, and about an overly close involvement with the EU bureaucracy in Brussels. I suppose their rejection of the Tory message in recent years was based more on a perception of extremism, and of the Conservative Party as a one-trick pony, than a fundamental disagreement on the substance of the issue.

Now, as the British seem poised to allow the Cameron family to live at 10 Downing Street, questions continue to be raised about whether the potential prime minister is merely a repackaged Thatcherite, or is really more of a centrist than his recent Tory predecessors.

That question is based in part on what I see as being a flawed premise. Many Britons toward the center and left of the political spectrum tend to classify Thatcher as a right-wing extremist. But she never challenged the existence of Britain's National Health Service, a government-run system that is even more socialist than President Obama's proposed government-run health insurer. She was pro-choice on abortion. And she accepted much of the EU's system of economic regulation, which I don't think would be acceptable to the American body politic. If someone walked into any Republican meeting in the U.S. and advocated those positions, without identifying herself as Margaret Thatcher, she would be tossed out the door.

As with anyone in his position, we won't know how David Cameron will govern unless/until he becomes prime minister. But I consider it a safe bet that his government would not be as different from those of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as campaign rhetoric would suggest.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Virginia and New Jersey Polls

My impression had been that the parties were going to split the two gubernatorial elections taking place this year, in Virginia and New Jersey. I expected the Democrats to hold on to Virginia, and the Republicans to re-take New Jersey.

But, according to polls reported by Real Clear Politics, Republicans are leading in both of those races, and the G.O.P. is doing slightly better in Virginia than in New Jersey.

In Virginia, Republican former Attorney General Robert McDonnell leads his Democratic opponent, state Senator Creigh Deeds, by 12 percentage points.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey frontrunner, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie holds an 11.3-point lead over incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine.

As I've previously discussed, personal issues regarding Corzine are a factor in the New Jersey contest. But I suspect that, in both states, voters' perceptions of the parties on the national level are playing a role.

The Democrats have been riding high recently, with large gains in the 2006 and 2008 elections. However, now that they have gotten down to the messy business of governing, those knights in shining armor who rode forward to correct the mistakes of the previous Republican congressional majorities, and of President Bush, have seen their armor get a bit tarnished.

High deficits, and a push to increase the federal government's role in health care, seem to have resurrected fears among middle-ground voters of left-wing extremism. President Obama's personal popularity numbers are falling, and that cannot be good news for the likes of Deeds and Corzine.

As I discussed in this and other posts, the Democrats have had momentum in Virginia recently. But it is in those normally-Republican states that responded to Obama's moderate campaign messages, including Virginia, that we should expect the president to be most vulnerable to decreases in support, due to perceptions of a movement to the left on his part.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


In 2004, the Democrat-controlled Massachusetts Legislature changed that state's rules for filling vacancies in the U.S. Senate. They abolished gubernatorial appointments, and provided instead for a quick special election.

This year, that legislative body is considering restoring a governor's power to make an interim appointment to the Senate.

Giving the politicians the benefit of the doubt, as I always do, I'm sure that the switch has nothing to do with the facts that there was a Republican governor in 2004 and the Democratic junior senator was running for president, while there is now a Democratic governor, and the Democratic senior senator is terminally ill.

Of course, we know their true motives. Bay State Democrats have painted themselves into a corner. But it's one they can easily find their way out of, given that their party still dominates the Legislature, and that the federal constitution allows state legislatures the leeway to establish procedures to fill Senate vacancies.

I assume they will reinstate the concept of gubernatorial appointment, and they have the blessing of the senator in question, Ted Kennedy, in doing so. But it's interesting to note that that change flies in the face of a proposal by another leading Democratic senator, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, to amend the federal constitution to prohibit states from giving their governors the power to appoint senators.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TR's Birthplace

One day last week, I was playing tourist in Manhattan, and came across a hidden gem of a museum. The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site is located on 20th Street, between Park and Broadway.

Roosevelt's parents lived in the house from 1854 to 1872, and Theodore was born there in 1858.

The historic site is a reconstruction of the original house. The family sold it, when they moved uptown to 57th Street, in the 1870s. The original house was demolished to make way for a commercial building, in 1916. That decision was quickly regretted and, after Roosevelt's death in 1919, it was purchased with the intent of reconstructing the house as a historic site, which opened in 1923.

Park rangers give tours of the period rooms in the house, which contain many of the original furnishings. In my opinion, park rangers have a tendency to get overly theatrical in their tour presentations, and this one was no exception. That was slightly irritating, but he basically did a good job of describing the house and the history involved with it.

The house is well maintained, and anyone who is interested in museum houses from that period may well find it interesting.

There is a gallery on the first floor, with several photos, drawings and artifacts. The most amazing item is the shirt Roosevelt wore, when he was shot in Milwaukee, during his Bull Moose presidential candidacy in 1912. Seeing the bullet hole in the shirt makes a piece of long-ago history come alive.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kay Bailey Hutchison

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, announced today that she will run in her party's primary for governor next year, against incumbent Rick Perry. Two weeks ago, I wrote about speculation to that effect.

No clear word, as of yet, from the senator, about rumors that she will resign her Senate seat before the end of this year, to concentrate on the gubernatorial race.

Perry was elected lieutenant governor, when George W. Bush was reelected as governor in 1998. Perry succeeded Bush after the latter was elected president in 2000. Perry has gone on to serve the longest tenure of any Texas governor.

This Houston Chronicle report provides further details.

Japan 5: One-Party System

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Japan, under its 1947 constitution has always had multiple political parties. But one of them has been very dominant.

A significant leader of early postwar Japanese politics was Shigeru Yoshida. He was prime minister from 1948 to 1954, and many credit him with putting the country on its path to recovery. His Liberal Party, lacking a majority in the House of Representatives, lost a confidence vote in 1954, and Ichiro Hatoyama of the Democratic Party succeeded Yoshida. But that kind of rivalry and confrontation soon came to an end.

The Liberals and the Democrats shared a center-right orientation, and were opposed by the Socialists. The two right-wing parties merged in 1955, to present a united front against the Socialist opposition. After having thus staked out a large swath of the political spectrum, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) constituted the governing party of Japan, continuously until 1993.

The Japanese electorate's opinion of the LDP blew hot and cold over the years, but they were never sufficiently disillusioned to reach far enough left to grant power to the Socialists, who formed the main opposition to the LDP for many years.

What political competition there was in Japan in those years, consisted of rivalry between factions of the LDP. Each of those factions has been centered around a particular political boss. Apparently, they have always reflected the competing ambitions of their leaders, rather than ideological differences.

In some ways, those factions have functioned like separate parties, and the LDP can be seen as more of a coalition government than a party, per se. However, voters did not generally have a clear choice between factions, in the manner that, for example, an American voter has in choosing between a Republican and a Democrat for Congress. LDP politicians' resultant lack of accountability may bear some responsibility for various corruption scandals over the years.

LDP power was also based in part on a phenomenon similar to one that prevailed in American politics until the 1960s: overrepresentation of rural areas. Some U.S. states failed to redraw district lines for the U.S. House and state legislatures for several decades. Therefore, urban and suburban areas, whose population had grown in the meantime, ended up underrepresented in those legislative bodies. The U.S. Supreme Court put at end to that, with a series of decisions beginning in the mid-1960s.

In Japan, that pattern persisted beyond the '60s and, to a limited extent, continues today. By tailoring its policies to the interests of the rural population, the LDP was able to further cement its hold on power.

Late in the 20th century, some factions of the LDP broke totally away, and started rival parties. The LDP weathered that development reasonably well for several years.

But there was a general election in 1993 in which no party won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. For a brief period, there was a coalition government that excluded the LDP. However, due to a shifting of party coalitions, the LDP was back in power as the leader of a different coalition government the following year. And the LDP again won a majority of seats in the 1996 general election.

Then, in 1998, a development occurred that could, later this month, result in the LDP's fall from power, maybe permanently. It was in that year that the Democratic Party of Japan was founded. More about that organization, and the setting for the general election to be held on August 30, in future posts.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Presidential Trivia -- Time's Up

OK, I've allowed more than enough time for this one.

The Republican president with the first name of John? John Calvin Coolidge.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pennsylvania Polls (Senate)

Politico reports on polls jumping all over the place, measuring potential matchups in next year's U.S. Senate race here in Pennsylvania.

Some recent polls mentioned in that post show former Congressman Pat Toomey, who has a good shot at winning the Republican nomination, leading both incumbent Democrat Arlen Specter, and Specter's main primary opponent, Congressman Joe Sestak.

If, as they say, a week is a long time in politics, then six years must be an eternity. But it would be quite a comeback for Toomey if he could beat Specter in the 2010 general election, after having failed to defeat the senator in a closed Republican primary, in 2004. Before he switched parties, Specter had a tougher time with the Republican primary electorate, than in general elections, when he could count on a fair amount of Independent and Democratic support.

It's early days yet; I imagine the polls will fluctuate quite a bit over the next few months.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


During Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., was the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and later U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. Any ambitions he may have had to progress further up the political ladder were blocked by: 1) his isolationist views at the outset of World War II, which put him on the wrong side of history, and 2) prejudice that, at that time, kept a Roman Catholic such as Kennedy from the highest echelons of leadership.

His large impact on American political life was made through the children and grandchildren of him and his wife, Rose. The story is, of course, well known. One son became president of the United States, and several sons and grandsons served in both houses of Congress. The family has also held other titles, ranging from attorney general to ambassador.

It's interesting to note that, after Eunice Shriver died yesterday, only two of Joe and Rose's nine offspring survive. The nine were/are:

Joseph Kennedy, Jr. (1915-44)
John Kennedy (1917-63)
Rosemary Kennedy (1918-2005)
Kathleen (Marchioness of Hartington) (1920-48)
Eunice Shriver (1921-2009)
Patricia Lawford (1924-2006)
Robert Kennedy (1925-1968)
Jean Smith (1928- )
Edward Kennedy (1932- )

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Donkey Fight in the Keystone State

When Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter switched to the Democratic Party earlier this year, that which was probably the main reason for his move was a very practical one: he had concluded that he could not win next year's Republican primary.

His new party's top leadership, including President Obama, Vice President Biden and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, welcomed him aboard. However, Specter is getting less respect, further down the Democratic ladder.

What has long been expected has now come to pass; Specter will be opposed in the Democratic primary by at least one congressman.

The Democratic Party's resurgence since 2006 has largely been based on opposition to Gulf War Two. That party has made a special effort to recruit military veterans as candidates. Thirty-some years earlier, opposition to the Vietnam War, which came primarily, but not exclusively, from the Democratic Party, gave the Democrats an anti-military image, that harmed its electoral prospects, as the end-game of the Cold War came on, during the late 1970s and the 1980s.

The message that Democrats aim to project, that they support and understand the military, is carried by such veterans as Representative Joe Sestak, the congressman who is running against Specter. Sestak, a Naval Academy alum who reached the rank of rear admiral, has represented a district in the western suburbs of Philadelphia since 2007.

Only Specter can know whether he expected his new party to give him a clear shot at the general election. But I can't help but think that, between his loss of seniority on his committees, and this intra-party challenge, his switch is not turning out as well as he hoped.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Lou Hoax

I'll never forget Thanksgiving Eve, 1986. At the time, I was living in Des Moines, Iowa. As I drove north on Interstate 35 to visit family for the holiday, in Minneapolis, I heard, from the radio announcer I recently eulogized, about the resignation of the head football coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

The coach who had arrived with great fanfare, two years earlier, and had already begun turning around a once-moribund Gopher program, was leaving, to take a similar position at the University of Notre Dame. The radio announcer re-christened the departing coach as Lou Hoax.

I never attended the University of Minnesota. Up and down the Northeast Corridor, where I've lived for quite a while now. people don't tend to understand the concept of being a sports fan of a college other than their own alma mater. But that's quite a common phenomenon west and south of here.

I don't tend to hold grudges in the less important areas of life. But sports are a different matter. I've never forgiven Lou Hoax for walking out on the "U".

Now, while perusing Politico, I find that the ex-coach (whose real surname is Holtz, if you hadn't figured that out yet) is considering running for Congress.

It's possible that Mr. Holtz would perform quite well in the House of Representatives. Although I suspect he's too far to the right, especially as a social conservative, for me. But, regardless of that, he'll always be Lou Hoax and, as such, one Republican I can't support.

European (Dis-?) Union

The New York Times reports on disagreements among leaders in the European Union (EU), with a focus on disputes with one of the EU's newer members, the Czech Republic.

After World War II, the EU started out small, arising out of the idea that an organization promoting economic cooperation in Europe would reduce the danger of yet another pan-European war.

Winston Churchill was criticized as a warmonger in the early post-war years, for speaking about the division of Europe, e.g., in the speech at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, when he coined the term "iron curtain". But in a less-quoted speech that same year, he proposed that "we must re-create the European Family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe."

The first concrete step in that direction was the 1951 founding of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Despite Churchill's enthusiasm for European integration, the United Kingdom did not take part in the earliest organizational activity. Italy, France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were the founding members of the ECSC.

The narrow purpose of the ECSC was to create a common market in those two commodities. The broader goal was to make cooperation, rather than nationalistic competition, the theme for the continent. The largest specific issue along those lines was to integrate West Germany into the post-war European structure. (The remainder of Germany, along with the rest of the Soviet bloc was, of course, excluded from these ventures. If that sounds like foreshadowing, that's because it is.)

By 1957, that structure had been broadened to constitute the European Economic Community, with the goal of forming a common market for all goods, not just coal and steel. The six founding states gradually admitted new members over the years.

When Britain eventually decided it wanted to join, in 1960, its application was vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle. Finally, in 1973, the U.K. became a member.

Various events served as catalysts for further enlargement. For example, Spain and Portugal, which had been dictatorships when the organization was founded, joined in 1986, after they had instituted democratic government.

The largest such catalyst was the end of the Cold War, around 1989, and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, in 1991.

Countries that had been neutral in the Cold War, no longer saw a need to position themselves between the competing halves of Europe. Therefore, Finland, Sweden and Austria joined in 1995.

Then, starting in 2004, countries that had been part of the Soviet bloc started to join the EU. As a result of all of the various enlargements, the organization has ballooned from six to 27 member states.

In its early years, it was relatively easy for six countries to run the community by consensus, and the sharing of major jobs. That's more difficult these days. Efforts to adopt a new constitution for the EU (the current proposed version, called the Lisbon Treaty, is discussed in the Times article to which I've linked) have not, so far, come to fruition. Methinks I even hear a faint echo of Donald Rumsfeld's talk of "New Europe" and "Old Europe" in the disagreements between, for example, the Czech Republic and France.

In a future post, I plan to compare this process to that of integrating the American states into the increasingly-centralized federal structure of the USA.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Female Governors

If Kay Bailey Hutchison wins the Texas gubernatorial election I discussed here, she would by no means be the first woman to be elected to that position.

While 27 of the states have never had a female governor, Texas has elected two women to be that state's chief executive. Miriam (Ma) Ferguson was elected in 1924. She served one two-year term, then left office for six years, before being elected to another two-year term in 1932. As was the case with many female officeholders at that time, Ferguson's husband, James Ferguson (and, yes, he was called "Pa") had previously held the office in which his wife subsequently served.

That usually happened if the husband died, or was disqualified from running for a subsequent term. Pa Ferguson was disqualified, not because of a term limit, but because the Legislature removed him from office via the impeachment process, and barred him from holding public office for the rest of his life.

Ann Richards was elected governor in 1990 (by then the term had been lengthened to four years). By that time, most female politicians (including Richards) won office independently of any achievement on their husbands' part.

Richards was a favorite among her fellow Democrats, for having taken on both of the Presidents Bush. At her party's 1988 national convention, Richards neatly skewered George H.W. Bush for both his ineloquence and his patrician background, by saying he was born with a silver foot in his mouth. George W. Bush achieved the family's revenge against her, six years later, when he defeated her attempt at reelection.

Texas is one of five states with more than one female governor in its history. Arizona leads with four.

Presidential Trivia -- One Last Chance

One more hint, about the presidential trivia question I posed here and here.

This president is said to have had a conversation (of sorts) with a woman who told him she had bet a friend that she could get him to say at least three words, to which he responded, "you lose".

Now do you know who "John" is?

Texas 2010: Governor

Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican who has represented Texas in the U.S. Senate since 1993, appears to be ready to challenge Rick Perry, the incumbent governor, in next year's Republican primary.

This Houston Chronicle article criticizes Hutchison for letting her support slip away by not taking the fight more strongly to Perry. There may be something to that, but it's early days, and it strikes me as premature to write her off to the degree the Chronicle's reporter seems to want to do.

This U.S. News and World Report blog post paints the contest as Hutchison the moderate taking on Perry the extremist. To the extent that's true, it doesn't seem to bode well for her among the state's Republican electorate. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out.

Hutchison has indicated she will resign her Senate seat later on this year, if she does indeed jump into the gubernatorial race.

On that question, it seems politicians are damned if they do, damned if they don't. Several officeholders were criticized for ignoring their duties while running for president or vice president last year. On the other hand, Sarah Palin was criticized for resigning the office of governor of Alaska, in what might be a step toward a presidential candidacy on her part.

Texas has an odd law for filling Senate vacancies. Most states wait until the next regular election day before holding a special election. But Texas law would require the special election to be held next spring, if Hutchison resigns this autumn.

Martin Frost, writing in Politico, analyzes the implications of that, including the possibility that the Democratic Party could elect its first U.S. senator from Texas, since Lloyd Bentsen resigned his seat to become secretary of the treasury, in 1993 (with Hutchison winning the subsequent special election).

It was a quick special election that allowed the Republican Party to begin its ascent in Texas politics, when John Tower was elected to succeed Lyndon Johnson in the Senate, in 1961. Then, Hutchison's 1993 victory cemented GOP control in that state. Could a similar special election start the pendulum in the other direction?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

David Cameron

I've written extensively (most recently in this post) about the expectation that the Labor Party in the U.K., which has governed that country for the past 12 years, will lose the next general election, which must be held by June of 2010.

That brings to the fore a name that may be unfamiliar to many Americans: David Cameron. Cameron is leader of the Conservative Party (a.k.a. the Tories), and will become prime minister if his party wins the upcoming election. He was born in London in 1966. Cameron was educated at some of England's most exclusive institutions, Eton and Oxford.

Since the Tories implemented a system to elect their leaders, in 1965, those leaders have tended to come from rather humble backgrounds. (Before 1965, Conservative leaders were not elected to that position, they merely "emerged". I've never understood what that meant.)

Politicians often try to make their origins seem lower on the social scale than they actually were, (the old "I was born in a log cabin that I built myself" story) but it's clear that modern Conservative leaders such as Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major did not come from the aristocracy that had produced predecessors such as Winston Churchill.

By contrast, Cameron is a throwback to earlier times. He is said to be fifth cousin, twice removed, to Queen Elizabeth II. In short, Cameron has a much more aristocratic background than recent Tory forerunners.

After Oxford, Cameron worked as a researcher for his party. He held various political jobs, until he left in 1994, to work in public relations for a television broadcaster. Then, in 2001, he was elected to the House of Commons.

With the Tories in the middle of a long period in opposition, he was limited to roles in the shadow cabinet. But he rose quickly in that arena, including positions related to local government, and education.

By 2005, the leadership of the Conservative Party had been in flux, ever since the Tories dethroned Thatcher in 1990. Michael Howard, the party's fourth leader during that period, resigned after losing the 2005 general election.

The current system for electing a Conservative leader starts with a vote among the party's members in the House of Commons (MPs), which narrows the field to two candidates. Cameron's final opponent was the much more experienced David Davis, who had 14 more years of parliamentary experience than Cameron, and held a major shadow cabinet position, as Shadow Home Secretary.

But, when each of the candidates spoke at their party's annual conference, Cameron wowed the audience with his youthful charisma. His conference speech struck a fatal blow to Davis's candidacy, and Cameron was elected by a landslide, in the final vote, which was held among the general membership of the party.

For the first time in 15 years, the Conservative Party had a leader who looked like a potential prime minister. (Thatcher's successor, Major, automatically inherited the prime minister's office when he replaced her as leader, in 1990. He went on to win the 1992 general election, in what is seen, in retrospect, as somewhat of a dead-cat bounce. Most would probably now rate him as being equal to the ineffective leaders who succeeded him, such as William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.)

For most of his three-year-plus period as leader, Cameron's party has led in opinion polls measuring voting intentions for the next general election. He now carries an air of inevitability, similar to the aura that surrounded a young, charismatic leader in the other party a few years ago: Tony Blair.