Sunday, January 31, 2010

Governor -- Illinois -- Republican Primary

Tuesday's Republican primary for governor of Illinois is a free-for-all. A Rasmussen poll indicates that Andy McKenna has a slight lead over five other candidates.

McKenna, 53, of Chicago, has never been elected to public office. He was Republican state chairman from 2005 to 2009.

The other candidates, in descending order based on their support in the poll:

Former state Attorney General Jim Ryan, 63. Ryan was attorney general from 1995 to 2003. He was the unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2002. He has a law practice in the Chicago suburb of Naperville.

State Senator, Kirk Dillard, 54, of Hinsdale, which is also in the Chicago area. Dillard, a lawyer, is in his 16th year in the state Senate.

State Senator, Bill Brady, 48, of Bloomington. He has been in the Senate since 2002, having previously served in the state House of Representatives. He finished third in the gubernatorial primary four years ago. Brady is a realtor.

Adam Andrzejewski, 40, of Hinsdale, co-founded a publishing company. This is his first bid for election to public office.

Dan Proft, 37, of Chicago, is a political commentator and campaign consultant. He also has never previously run for office.

The Chicago Tribune has endorsed McKenna.

Governor -- Illinois -- Democratic Primary

The Democratic primary for governor of Illinois, to be held next Tuesday, February 2, is a two-way race. A Rasmussen poll shows State Comptroller Dan Hynes leading Governor Pat Quinn, 43% to 37%.

Hynes, a 41-year-old Chicagoan, has been comptroller since 1999. He finished a distant second to Barack Obama, in the Democratic Senate primary in 2004.

Quinn, 61, also from Chicago, was lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2009. He became governor when his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, was removed from office via the impeachment process, one year ago. Quinn had previously served one four-year term as state treasurer.

Here is a Chicago Tribune report on a joint radio appearance by the two candidates. Further proof, if any were needed, that Chicago is one of those places where politics is a contact sport.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Senate -- Illinois -- Democratic Primary

I described the Republican primary here; now for the Democrats. There is more of a contest than on the Republican side, but the Democrats have a definite front-runner: State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

Giannoulias, a 33-year old Chicagoan, was elected to his current position in 2006. He has a law degree, has worked as a banker, and briefly played professional basketball in Europe.

Giannoulias was mentioned as a possible appointee to the Senate seat, when Barack Obama resigned from the Senate after being elected president. I presume Giannoulias would not have accepted an appointment from then-Governor Rod Blagojevich, after the governor was arrested in connection with accusations of corruption regarding, among other matters, the Senate appointment. The conventional wisdom was that only someone whose political career was largely behind him, such as Roland Burris, would have taken the risk of accepting an appointment from Blagojevich. Burris currently holds the Senate seat on an interim basis, and is not running in this year's election.

Here is a Rasmussen poll, showing Giannoulias in the lead in the primary, with 31%.

In second place, with 23%, is David Hoffman, 42, who is inspector general in the city government of Chicago.

The third place candidate, with 13% support in the poll, is Cheryle Jackson. She is president of the Chicago Urban League, and was an aide to Blagojevich.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Four More Years

To bring closure to the story I wrote about here and here, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has been confirmed by the Senate for another four-year term in that job, by a vote of 70-30. Not as close as some had expected, but the most negative votes that were ever cast against any nominee for that position.

UPDATE: The Senate has posted the roll call vote. The 30 who voted "no", range all over the political spectrum. Boxer, Sanders and Franken on the left. Grassley and Specter in the center. Brownback, DeMint, et al., on the right.

Senate -- Illinois -- Republican Primary

The primary elections in Illinois will be held next Tuesday, February 2.

The Republican nominee for U.S. Senate is virtually certain to be Congressman Mark Kirk, 50, who has represented the 10th congressional district since 2001. Kirk is a lawyer, whose career before being elected to the House included the private practice of law, as well as congressional staff work. His congressional district includes northern suburbs of Chicago.

Kirk has a moderate congressional voting record. He scored only 48 on a scale of 100 with the American Conservative Union in 2008. That same year, his "liberal quotient", as measured by Americans for Democratic Action was 55%, compared to an average of 22% among all House Republicans.

This is the Senate seat that Barack Obama won in 2004. Roland Burris, the Democratic interim senator who was appointed after Obama was elected president in 2008, is not seeking a full term.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Obama's Future

A young Democrat is elected president. He carries an unspectacular résumé, but loads of charisma. During the first two years of his presidency, he fails to get an ambitious health care bill through Congress. He faces the prospect of major losses in the congressional elections at the middle of his term. Sounds like a recipe for a failed one-term presidency, right?

Wrong. Bill Clinton was easily reelected, and, while his second term cannot be called trouble-free, and even now it's too early to make a final judgment on his time in office, he's not generally categorized as a failed president.

In recent days, commentators have been speculating as to whether President Obama will recover as well as Clinton did, as Obama experiences circumstances similar to those Clinton faced in 1993-4.

Is the Democrats' loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat a blessing in disguise? That obvious question led George Will to quote Winston Churchill. When Churchill suffered a landslide election defeat just as his country and its allies were on the brink of victory in World War II, he commented that the blessing that his electoral defeat supposedly constituted was very well disguised. Will goes on to discuss the ways in which Obama will now be forced to moderate his agenda. The ability to put a more middle-of-the-road record before the voters in 2012 may well be a blessing to the president.

Eamon Javers, writing in Politico, revives a favorite buzzword from the Clinton White House: triangulation. That concept is attributed to political consultant Dick Morris, who successfully advised Clinton to adopt the triangulation strategy, before Morris's role was ended due to peccadilloes on his part that were similar to those of the president for whom he worked.

Clinton moderated his fiscal policy, subsequent to the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. He also signed some bills favored by Republicans, such as welfare reform and, also, my personal favorite, the one that saves good, traditional, normal, red-blooded, god-fearing heterosexual marriage from those of us who advocate the evil homosexual agenda.

It would be fine by me if Obama drastically scales back his big-government ambitions, as long as he does not, as Clinton did, forget his promises to LGBT people.

One commentator compares Obama not to Clinton, but to Ronald Reagan. Mark Halperin has an article in Time that cites lessons Obama can learn from Reagan. Reagan successfully built bipartisan coalitions in Congress, when the House was controlled by Democrats and, during his last two years, when Democrats also had a majority in the Senate.

I'm not sure what Halperin in referring to when he says "Reagan struggled to find his footing at the start of his first term". My recollection is that Reagan quickly secured congressional approval of two of his top priorities, tax cuts and the defense buildup. Clinton and Obama struggled to find their footing, but Reagan hit the ground running.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

2010 Election for Governor of Minnesota: The Republicans

Former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman announced on January 17 that he will not seek the Republican nomination for governor of Minnesota this year. Coleman's decision, and Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty's statement last June that he will not seek a third term in that office, have left the Republican race wide open.

The candidates include:

State Representative Marty Seifert, 37, of Marshall, in southwestern Minnesota. He has been in the House since 1997, and was the Republican leader from 2007 to 2009.

State Senator David Hann, 57, of Eden Prairie, a suburb of Minneapolis. He has been a senator since 2003.

State Representative Tom Emmer, 48, of Delano, an exurban town west of Minneapolis. He entered the House in 2005.

Minnesota Republicans use the same endorsement system as that state's Democrats, as I described in this post. That process begins with precinct caucuses for all parties on Tuesday, February 2.

The Republicans will endorse a candidate at their state convention, April 29-May 1. Those who lose the endorsement can challenge the endorsed candidate in the primary. But these three candidates have all pledged to abide by the convention's endorsement.

Most reports call Seifert the front-runner, with Emmer being his strongest challenger.

I often note family connections in describing the candidates for any election. In this race, it's quite possible that two relatives by marriage might oppose each other in the general election. Not close relatives, though. According to Seifert's bio page on the Legislature's web site (see link above), his first cousin is married to a third cousin of Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Keliher, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. Practically brother and sister!


A retired politician whose story illustrates how much the American political parties have changed during recent decades, died yesterday. Charles McC. Mathias, a Republican who represented Maryland in the House and Senate from the 1960s to the 1980s, died at the age of 87.

Party identity at the time Mathias began his political career was not based on ideology to the same degree it is today. On average, Republicans in Congress were more "conservative", as that word is understood in modern American political discourse, than the average Democrat. But both parties were more ideologically diverse than they now are.

Mathias's record fits the modern American definition of "liberal". However, he is quoted in his New York Times obituary discussing the root meanings of words such as "conservative":

“I’m not all that liberal,” he told The Washington Post in 1974. “In fact, in some respects I’m conservative. A while ago I introduced a bill preserving the guarantees of the Bill of Rights by prohibiting warrantless wiretaps. I suppose they’ll say it’s another liberal effort, but it’s as conservative as you can get. It’s conserving the Constitution.”

He was correct that one who conserves is a conservative. But granting that high a priority to civil liberties is not called "conservative" in our modern political lexicon. I wrote about that subject here.

Had Mathias remained in Congress in this century, chances are he would have switched to the Democratic Party, as Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter did last year. And, of course, conservative Democrats have moved in the other direction.

There is much anguish in our current political commentary, about the supposed evils of ideological parties. But I don't see it that way.

For one thing, there is a kind of truth-in-advertising advantage. When today's voter chooses a Republican or a Democrat, they have a better idea of what they're getting, than would have been the case a few years ago. During the 1970s and '80s, Mathias and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina would each have appeared on a ballot under the Republican label, even though they disagreed on major issues. Same thing on the Democratic side between, for example, Mississippi's John Stennis and Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey.

There are still gaps between fellow partisans such as Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. But those gaps are narrower, as evidenced by the Senate's party-line health care vote last month.

Another issue is that party allegiances in the past were, to a great extent, based on ethnicity and, by extension, religion. The Republican Party was the party of Protestants, including, especially before Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, African Americans. On the other hand, the Democrats were seen as the party of Jewish and Roman Catholics voters.

As a practical matter, intermarriage and secularization have combined to weaken modern Americans' ethnic and religious identities. That was bound to lead to changes in the basis of partisan identities. Also, perhaps in part as a result of those larger societal trends, partisan identities are also weaker. To identify one's self as independent has become a sort of badge of honor.

Additionally, dividing the body politic along ethnic lines contributed to ethnic stereotyping and segregated political activity. Is that the golden age to which critics of ideological parties want to return?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Democrats jilted by their Beau

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden, has announced that he will not seek the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat that his father held for 36 years, before he became vice president last year.

Ever since Ted Kaufman, who has close ties to the Biden family, was appointed as interim senator, observers have expected Beau to run in the special election that will be held in November. An impending departure to Iraq with his National Guard unit was apparently the only reason he didn't immediately succeed his father.

But as the special election got nearer, uneasy Democrats noted that the younger Biden was not making the necessary moves to launch a candidacy. Today, he confirmed their suspicions that he is backing off.

Republican Congressman Michael Castle now seems to be a shoo-in for the Senate seat.

Chris Cillizza, on The Fix blog on the website of The Washington Post, suggests that this might be just a case of Biden bidin' his time until the next regular election for a six-year term, which is scheduled for 2014. That is based on the notion that Castle, who will be 75 at the time of that election, will perhaps not seek a full term. But if Castle follows the lead of the late Strom Thurmond, he could serve at least four additional terms after that!

Cillizza quotes the vice president as discussing a back-up plan of convincing Kaufman to run. But the interim senator today confirmed his intention to stay out of the special election.

Bernanke Update

Late last week, the conventional wisdom was that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was headed for defeat in his quest for Senate confirmation for a second term in that job. What a difference a weekend makes, or so we're led to believe.

By this morning, the Washington buzz has shifted to talk of a Bernanke resurrection.

In The Washington Post, Neil Irwin quotes several key people in the White House and Senate as predicting a successful confirmation. Interestingly, not all of the senators who were making those predictions were willing to disclose how they would cast their own votes.

I'm reminded of the situation in 2003, when George W. Bush was successfully pushing for an expansion of Medicare. The Democrats, then in the minority in both houses of Congress, were ideologically inclined to support such a proposal, but they were wary of producing a victory for Bush on the eve of his reelection campaign. The leadership went to extraordinary lengths, both to pass the bill, and to ensure that it would be perceived as bipartisan.

Similarly in the current case, many Republicans are reluctant to confirm Bernanke, even though their party put him in the job, when they controlled both the White House and the Senate, four years ago. I suspect that Republican opposition stems from a combination of libertarian opposition to Bernanke's expansion of the Fed's reach, populist posturing against "bailouts of fat cats", and tactical considerations of how best to maintain Republican momentum going into this year's midterm congressional elections.

It seems as though this intricate Dance Of The Politicians may well produce a confirmation. But nothing is certain right now in Washington.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fed Up?

The Senate may be headed toward an unprecedented action: rejecting a presidential nominee for the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board (the "Fed").

The appointment of a Fed chairman is different than presidential appointments of judges and Cabinet secretaries. The Constitution provides that judges "shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour", which, in practice, means that they stay in office until they resign, die, or are removed via the impeachment process. And Cabinet secretaries can be fired by the president at any time; a quaint phrase has it that they serve at the pleasure of the president.

But the Fed chairman is appointed by the president for a fixed four-year term, subject to Senate confirmation. The incumbent, Ben Bernanke, was originally nominated for the job in 2005 by George W. Bush. Last year, President Obama decided to nominate Bernanke for a second term. That nomination is currently on the Senate's agenda.

For the most part, when the White House changes partisan hands, the new president replaces his predecessor's appointees with nominees from the new president's party. There are exceptions, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was originally appointed by Bush, and was kept in that job by Obama. But those exceptions are rare.

The Fed job has, however, not traditionally been subject to such partisan considerations. Bernanke's predecessor, Alan Greenspan, was originally nominated by Republican Ronald Reagan, in 1987. Greenspan's appointment was subsequently renewed four times, twice by Democrat Bill Clinton, and once by each of the Republican Presidents Bush. Similarly, Greenspan's predecessor, Paul Volcker, served two terms, originally nominated by Democrat Jimmy Carter, and re-nominated by Reagan.

Bernanke is under attack from both left and right. There is a school of thought that would say that indicates he's finding the correct middle ground. They might be right; I have no firm opinion on whether Bernanke should stay in his job.

The Fed has been subjected to populist attacks from elements across the political spectrum, since it was created in 1913. It has been involved to an unprecedented degree in the bailouts of financial institutions during the recent financial crisis. That has intensified the criticism which, rightly or wrongly, has fallen on Bernanke. And the populist element in the Scott Brown candidacy (can't quite picture Bernanke driving a truck around Massachusetts) might be making the Senate more sensitive to such concerns.

Sewell Chan describes, in The New York Times (read it now, before you have to start paying for access), the current state of play in the Senate.

One of Bernanke's opponents on the left, Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, put this Huffington Post item on his website. Robert Kuttner wrote, on January 11, when it was only starting to become apparent that Brown might win the Senate election, that:

With a majority of Republican senators apparently ready to vote against Bernanke, Democratic senators risk finding themselves on the wrong side of another populist backlash. If half of the Democrats decide to vote against him, his nomination could go down.

Putting it in terms of economist-speak with which Bernanke would be familiar, Washington has been thrown into a state of disequilibrium and, until the politicians find their footing again, anything could happen.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reining in the excesses

I agree with George Will's analysis of the Massachusetts special election, as far as it goes. But, in listing some historical parallels, he only tells only one side of the story.

Yes, I'm a Republican, and yes, I'm happy about Scott Brown's victory. But the Democrats are not the only party that voters have reined in, when, in the opinion of the middle-ground of the electorate, a party has acted in an extremist and/or arrogant manner.

In 1974, the Democrats won a huge mid-term landslide, as voters reacted to what they considered arrogance on the part of the resigned Republican President Richard Nixon.

After the Republicans' 1994 mid-term victory, to which Will alludes, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his allies started acting on the assumption that the American people were ready to overturn everything that Democratic-majority Congresses had done since the 1930s. That was a case of overreaching. While the Republicans maintained their House majority for 12 years, and nearly continuously maintained their Senate majority for the same period, they were never able to significantly expand those majorities. And Republican nominee Bob Dole suffered a near-landslide defeat in the 1996 presidential election.

Then, in 1998, when the House impeached President Bill Clinton on a near-party-line vote, there was again a widespread perception that the Republicans were overreaching. The mid-term elections that year, which were held while the impeachment proceedings were underway, should have gone well for the Republicans. Mid-term elections six years into a party's hold on the White House had gone badly for the president's party in 1938, 1958, 1966, 1974 and 1986. That trend, combined with the scandal involving the Democratic president, might have allowed the Republicans to expand their narrow congressional majorities. Instead, the Democrats gained five House seats, and neither party made any net gain in the Senate. Hardly a Democratic landslide, but clearly, I think, a repudiation of congressional Republicans.

Most recently, in 2006, Democrats regained majorities in both houses of Congress, in reaction to perceived extremism on the part of Republican President George W. Bush, especially in the foreign policy arena.

In light of all that, I don't think that Republicans should necessarily read Tuesday's election result to mean that voters, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, are ready to sign on to every plank of the Tea Party platform.

Democrats from President Obama on down acknowledge that the House and Senate health care bills are dead. But they plan to try to enact some of those bills' provisions. Brown himself has said that the federal government should take some action to improve the health care system. I concurred, here and here.

The American political system is reasonably efficient in bringing things back to a middle ground with which the bulk of the electorate is satisfied. That middle ground involves bigger government than I would like to see. Ideally a new Great Communicator would emerge, to explain the advantages of limited government. Such a person can shift the middle ground a bit. But, for better or worse, the voters never seem to want too big a shift.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Democrats' New Attitude on Health Care

As I mentioned in this post, congressional Democrats are backing off the idea of using extraordinary parliamentary maneuvers to pass a health care bill, in the wake of Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts.

In Commentary magazine's Contentions blog, Jennifer Rubin provides more details on that. She quotes Congressman Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, as saying that "a compromise between the House and Senate bills, isn’t going to pass, in my judgment, and certainly shouldn’t."

It's one thing to hear such talk from some of the freshman and sophomore Democrats who were elected in 2006 and 2008 in districts formerly represented by Republicans. But if Frank, a senior Democrat in a safe Democratic seat, also has that attitude, there seems to be little, if any, support for the current versions of the legislation.


When will Scott Brown take his seat in the U.S. Senate?

The question of timing seems less important this morning than it did before the special election, because, as I noted here, congressional Democrats appear to have realized that any attempt to try to complete congressional action on a health care bill before Brown takes office, would carry huge political risks for them, leading up to next November's mid-term elections. Such an attempt would have involved some combination of speeding up the legislative process and/or delaying Brown's entry into the Senate.

The Boston Globe reports that "Secretary of State William F. Galvin said he will send a letter with the unofficial results today to the secretary of the Senate, who has the authority to decide when to swear in the winner." That is standard procedure.

The 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for election of senators (replacing the original method of appointment by state legislatures), allows a state to empower its governor to "make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election". That has been interpreted to mean that the term of an interim senator, such as Massachusetts' Paul Kirk, ends immediately after an election is held. The only exception is when it's the regularly-scheduled election for the next six-year term, in which case the appointment is valid until Congress reconvenes in January. To do otherwise would mean that the new senator would have been elected for a term longer than six years, which would violate the Constitution. That, of course, is not the case with yesterday's Massachusetts election.

Taking a historical example (not quite at random), Ted Kennedy won a special election for this Senate seat on November 6, 1962, and he was sworn in to the Senate the following day.

Mass. Revolt

State Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, is moving up to the U.S. Senate, having defeated his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, in yesterday's special election in that state to elect the successor to the late Ted Kennedy. The margin of victory was 52% to 47%.

Republicans will have 41 senators, so, on a party line vote, they can defeat a cloture motion, i.e., sustain a filibuster against Democratic-sponsored legislation.

The New York Times reports that at least some congressional Democrats are resisting the notion of parliamentary maneuvers that could save their party's health care bill. Without citing names or numbers, the Times writes that "House members indicated they would not quickly pass the bill the Senate approved last month." Such a move would eliminate the need for an additional Senate vote. The article also quotes Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virgina, as opposing the tactic of sneaking in a Senate vote before Brown takes office.

As with any election, no one factor determined the result. There is a consensus across the political spectrum that Coakley ran a poor campaign. Last night, when she (as Brown also did) paid tribute to Kennedy, she attempted to quote from Kennedy's concession speech to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, as he ended his campaign for his party's presidential nomination. Tone-deaf to the end, Coakley turned Kennedy's poetic "the dream shall never die" into a more prosaic "the dream lives on."

But anyone who tries to deny that the vote was a repudiation of Democrats more generally, and their health care legislation, must have (unlike one of that party's elder statesmen) inhaled.

Most of the talk before yesterday's election was about the Democrats using every tactic at their disposal to complete the legislative process on their health care bill. Now, on the morning after, reports from Capitol Hill indicate that the Democrats there are losing their resolve to press the issue in a way that's contrary to the apparent intent of the electorate.

The situation seems so fluid this morning, that I'm not in the mood to hazard any predictions. Dare we hope that they'll go back to the drawing board, and start over with a plan that involves common-sense regulation of a free-market-based health care system?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Massachusetts Votes Tomorrow

What seemed unthinkable until just a few days ago, now on election eve looks utterly thinkable. Republican Scott Brown seems to have at least a 50/50 chance of defeating his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, in the special election in Massachusetts to choose the Senate successor to the late Ted Kennedy.

As I wrote here, a couple of weeks ago, the main reason why so much attention has been focused on the special election, is that Brown, who, if he wins, would be the Republicans 41st senator, would enable his party to sustain a filibuster against a compromise version of the health care legislation that has been approved in different forms in the House and Senate. In light of that, the upcoming election has several interesting implications:

In the post to which I linked above, I identified two possible Democratic strategies in the event of a Brown victory: 1) speed up the process, in order to get a compromise bill through the Senate while interim Democratic Senator Paul Kirk still represents Massachusetts; or 2) compromise further, in order to get the vote of at least one moderate Republican. Now, a third possibility has come to light: If the House were to approve exactly the same bill that has already been approved by the Senate, there would not need to be another Senate vote.

That sounds acceptable from a constitutional standpoint, but it carries political risks for the Democrats. Republicans would then be able, in the 2010 and 2012 campaigns, to portray the Democrats as elitists who will do anything to further their agenda, regardless of the will of the voters.

Another possibility is that the Democrats who control state government in Massachusetts could delay the certification of a Brown victory, and thereby allow Kirk to remain in the Senate for some period of time after tomorrow's election. Chris Frates and Manu Raju describe, in Politico, the arguments going back and forth between the parties regarding the legality of that scenario.

Frates and Raju also mention an additional scenario that could derail the legislation, even if, one way or the other, they prevent Brown from voting on the bill. Moderate Democrats who have supported the legislation up until now, could change their minds, if they read the Massachusetts result as a referendum rejecting the health care plan envisioned in that legislation. Looking toward their own reelection, either this year, or in the near future, they could become, depending on one's point of view, either rats deserting a sinking ship, or principled leaders ensuring that the will of the people is heard in Washington.

In order to head off such a reaction, left-wing commentators have been making the case that a Coakley defeat could be attributed to her shortcomings as a candidate, not to voters' dissatisfaction with Democrats generally, including President Obama.

Last week, New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote that:

Martha Coakley, the Democratic Senate nominee, is the kind of candidate who reminds you that the state that gave birth to John Kennedy also produced Michael Dukakis. She is the attorney general, and her speaking style has been compared to that of a prosecutor delivering a summation to the jury. In civil court. In a trial that involved, say, a dispute over widget tariffs.

She is so tone deaf that she made fun of her opponent for standing outside Fenway Park shaking hands “in the cold.” A week before the election, Coakley was off the campaign trail entirely in Washington for a fund-raiser that was packed with the usual suspects. But undoubtedly it was well heated.

The best Collins can do, in attempting to criticize Brown, is to write that his daughter, a reality-show contestant, once spoke a badly-constructed sentence in an interview. I never thought that I would hear a political criticism that is more silly than the one about how former Vice President Dan Quayle was not fit for national office, because he once misspelled a word. But now I have.

Collins is undoubtedly correct that Coakley has not campaigned well. But, if Massachusetts elects a Republican to a Senate seat that has been continuously in Democratic hands since Ted Kennedy's older brother John defeated Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., 57 years ago, I think that would be a sign of more than just a couple of misstatements by the Democratic candidate.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tom Friedman 2: Information

Now for the other issue to which I alluded in this post: the Chinese government's restrictions on the flow of information.

The biggest current story on that topic is the threat by the company that hosts this blog, to withdraw from China. Google says it will shut down its Chinese operations, unless it is able to offer uncensored search results in that country.

The New York Times praised Google, and criticized China, in this January 14 editorial. However, on the previous day, that newspaper's foreign affairs columnist, Tom Friedman, had nary a word to say about censorship, while discussing the factors that will affect China's economic future.

Perhaps some might quibble about whether information will be important to the development of China's business, science and politics (although I don't see how). But Friedman doesn't even deem it worth mentioning.

The closest Friedman comes to addressing the issue of the flow of information is when he praises China for having 200,000,000 broadband Internet users, as compared to the U.S.'s mere 80,000,000. But he doesn't mention the fact that those Chinese surfers of the 'net can only receive information that gets through The Great Firewall of China.

Perhaps Friedman thinks that the Chinese should just listen to their political leaders and follow what they say. If the millions of starvation victims for whom Mao's Great Leap Forward was a Great Leap Into The Grave were around to express an opinion, they would probably warn Tom off that mode of thinking.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tom Friedman

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is a democrat (as well as being a Democrat) and (to a large extent) an advocate for free-market economics. But he sometimes seems ambivalent about letting individual buyers and sellers in the marketplace, and the rank and file in the body politic, make decisions for themselves.

Friedman makes two major points in his January 13 column, "Is China the Next Enron?" The first is that, despite signs of potential "bubbles" in its economy, China is too financially strong to be on the verge of collapse. The second is that the economic growth that China has been experiencing pretty much non-stop since the late 1970s is likely to continue.

I agree with him on the first point. On the second point, however, Friedman ignores certain aspects of the situation that might restrict China's growth down the road.

Friedman lauds China's "political class focused on addressing its real problems". In other words, the politicians are going to make decisions that will produce continued growth. Color me skeptical.

To his credit, Friedman cites legitimate government functions that are necessary to the growth of any economy, such as transportation infrastructure and education. But he ignores the issue of whether governmental restrictions on access to capital, and the flow of information, will be a drag on growth, long before China might overtake the U.S. in overall size of its economy, which would, in turn, be long before it could overtake on a per capita basis.

The beginnings of Chinese economic growth came in the late 1970s, when that country gradually began to allow markets to operate in its economy. Once that happened, it was not particularly difficult to put up impressive numbers in terms of percentage growth, given the small base they were starting from. Compared to Mao's regime, which was so paranoid about giving up control of anything, that it didn't allow markets for food to operate, even when tens of millions of people were starving to death, anything was an improvement.

The Marxist-Leninist command economy has been replaced by free markets in the distribution of consumer goods. And, to an increasing extent, capital is also allocated by market forces. Of all the recent changes in China, the existence of stock markets is perhaps the element most likely to make Mao turn over in his grave.

But significant vestiges of the command economy remain in the allocation of capital. Banks are pressured to lend to politically-preferred borrowers. And political infringements on property rights still impair the workings of the capital markets.

Friedman is probably correct in stating that China's current leaders are making some good decisions. But no one is smarter than the market. Political decisions are necessary on issues such as antitrust, externalities and fraud. But, otherwise, freely operating markets are much better at allocating resources than are central planners. I suspect that the Chinese will eventually find that growth can go only so far, without better capital allocation.

And then there is, of course, the pink elephant in the room that many don't want to talk about: the virtually complete lack of democracy in Chinese politics. That has many implications. But, in terms of the practical effect on the efficiency of the system, they are missing the capacity of democratic political activity to correct mistakes.

No one here in America will say that representative democracy is perfect. Throughout our history, it could be said, in the famously vague phrase of Richard Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler, that "mistakes were made".

But representative democracy provides mechanisms for correcting mistakes. An opposition party has the incentive and the forum to point out the mistakes of the governing party. If the electorate agrees with those criticisms, it can "throw the rascals out".

In China, by contrast, the leaders talk to each other in an echo chamber, and appoint their own successors. A reputation for "rocking the boat" constitutes the biggest danger to a Chinese politician's career path. So there is little incentive for an aspiring politician to point up the shortcomings of those who are currently in power.

Friedman likes to present himself as an average guy, good ol' Tom from St. Louis Park, Minnesota. But he displays some strongly elitist attitudes in his writing. He often underestimates the importance of giving ordinary people their say, both in the marketplace and in the political realm.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New York: Right Flank

About a year ago, when Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a senator from New York, the main criticism from that state's Democrats was that Gillibrand was too conservative. So it's surprising that the man who might become her main primary opponent is saying that she's too far to the left.

Harold Ford, Jr., 39, represented a Tennessee district in the U.S. House from 1997 to 2007. After he lost a U.S. Senate election in Tennessee in 2006, he moved to New York City to take a Wall Street job. Now, he wants to run for the Senate again, this time from his new home state.

According to Michael Barbaro's account in The New York Times, Ford is adjusting the socially-conservative positions he took on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage during his Tennessee campaign. Another Tennessee Democrat, Al Gore, was criticized by those who believed he had made similar adjustments once he started looking for votes in other states.

But, on some issues at least, Ford is positioning himself to the right of Gillibrand. He wants to cut corporate tax rates, and he has criticized Gillibrand for supporting the health care bill, and opposing bailouts to the financial sector.

One issue that probably need not concern Ford is the carpetbagger question.

In Britain, it's routine for politicians to choose the constituency in which they want to run for a House of Commons seat, regardless of their past affiliation with that area. But that is not generally considered to acceptable behavior in the U.S.

However, for some reason, this particular Senate seat has been an exception. Robert Kennedy had spent much of his childhood, plus a brief period as a young lawyer, in New York, but Massachusetts had been his official residence before he moved to New York in 1964 to launch his successful candidacy for the Senate seat now held by Gillibrand. 36 years later, Clinton, whose previous ties had been to Illinois and Arkansas, also won that Senate seat, shortly after establishing residence in New York. Compared to them, Ford is a long-time resident.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The latest from Massachusetts

I'm following up on this post from last week, on the Senate special election in Massachusetts.

In The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne, who I'm sure would rather be writing about a landslide victory for Democrat Martha Coakley, acknowledges that the polls, and other indicators, cast significant doubt on the outcome.

Nate Silver, on the 538 blog, is also a supporter of Democrats, but he is only cautiously optimistic about Coakley's ability to defeat her Republican opponent Scott Brown.

One reason that I'm skeptical about talk of a Republican upset, is that I remember the regular 1994 election for this Senate seat. Mitt Romney was making his first run for public office and, at some point during the fall campaign, I started to hear excited talk about how Romney was about to overtake his opponent, Ted Kennedy. As it turned out, Kennedy won by a 17-point margin.

The current conversation about Brown reminds me of that 1994 situation. But, of course, this is a different year, and these are different candidates. That doesn't prove anything.

Also, this is a special election being conducted separately from the usual November election day. Turnout will be very low. So it depends on who turns out and who doesn't. Tune in a week from tomorrow.

Aren't Republican filibusters horrible?

Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago attorney and author, has written an op-ed piece in The New York Times, about filibusters in the U.S. Senate.

Filibusters are primarily an issue that arises when the president's party has a majority in both the House and the Senate. Under those circumstances, on an issue where the vote breaks down according to party lines, the filibuster is the last-ditch tactic by which the minority party can block initiatives of the majority party. That was the case for the Democrats as minority party from 2003 to 2007, and has been the case since last year for the current minority party, the Republicans.

Not all issues come to a party-line vote. Up until 1964, Southern Democrats filibustered civil rights bills. Even though their party controlled the Senate, a coalition of Republicans and Northern Democrats constituted a majority in favor of such legislation. Nowadays, the parties are less ideologically diverse, so party-line votes have become more common.

In the situation that existed from 1981 to 1987, when Republican President Ronald Reagan's party controlled the Senate but not the House, Senate Democrats were not completely dependent on the filibuster, because their House colleagues could block, or at least significantly influence, legislation advocated by Reagan.

And from 1995 to 2001, with Republican control of both houses of Congress, but not the White House, the Democrats' last line of defense was not the filibuster, but rather the veto pen of Democratic President Bill Clinton.

During the 2003-7 period, the most controversial Democratic filibusters were mounted in opposition to some of Republican President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. In the current Congress, the biggest issue that has brought filibusters into play is, as Geoghegan notes, the health care bill.

I don't want to be unfair to Geoghegan. Perhaps he opposed Democratic filibusters during the last administration; I don't know. But I note that he has chosen this time to challenge the constitutionality of a Senate rule that has been on the books for 35 years. I can't help but speculate that he might be more concerned about what he calls the "recent health care debacle" than about a procedural question, per se.

The Senate's original rules, dating from 1789, did not allow filibusters. But they have now been institutionalized for more than two centuries. And the 1975 rule change that allows "ghost filibusters", which has contributed to making them a routine part of Senate procedure, has not been subjected to a constitutional challenge.

If, as Geoghegan advocates, the courts were now to step in and declare unconstitutional what has in effect become a 60-vote supermajority requirement for normal legislation to pass the Senate, it could be seen as a political move to benefit the party that is currently in power. But I suppose one could argue that a Supreme Court decision to that effect would be no more partisan than its Bush v. Gore opinion that halted the recounts in the 2000 Florida election dispute (although subsequent inspection of ballots showed that further recounts would not have resulted in a Gore victory).

Aside from any questions regarding the political ramifications, a plausible constitutional case could be made for disallowing filibusters. The courts would need to weigh the balance between the Senate's constitutional right to determine its own rules, and those constitutional provisions that strongly imply, but don't exactly state, that legislation is subject to a simple majority vote in both the House and the Senate, except in the wake of a president veto. The routine nature of filibusters in the modern Senate strengthens the case that procedures prescribed in the constitution are being violated.

As Geoghegan explains, the Senate rule has evolved over the years. But senators have never shown any inclination to eliminate filibusters. Majority Leader Harry Reid would rather not be required to build a 60-member coalition for the health care bill. And I'm sure that Reid's predecessor, Bill Frist, would have preferred an easier path toward confirmation of judicial nominations. But both parties have followed that old legal principle, "what goes around comes around". Sooner or later, Democrats will be back in the position they were in during the 2003-7 period. When that happens, they would regret any move they made while in the majority, to cut back on filibusters.

One last point: the procedural issue is not ideologically neutral. Those of us who veer toward the libertarian side, welcome any procedural hurdles in the path of expansion of government. Geoghegan seems to favor activist government, and I suspect that is another reason for him to crusade against filibusters.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

30 Years Ago 3: No Streak No More

Continuing the story from here, it's 30 years ago: January 7, 1980.

In the previous post in this series, I mentioned my job in Minnesota. It was a hockey-mad office. We even had a co-worker whose name is on the Stanley Cup.

Another co-worker asks me if I want to go to Met Center to see the National Hockey League's Minnesota North Stars attempt to end the unbeaten streak of the Philadelphia Flyers. OK.

It was a cold night, maybe a bit below zero, I'm not sure. My co-worker was a man who made the buying of tickets from scalpers into an art form. The previous October, we had gone to South Bend, Indiana, on a Saturday, and managed to find tickets to that day's Notre Dame-USC football game, somewhere around face value. But I digress.

We got into the arena. Good seats. Then, the Flyers scored the first goal of the game (Bill Barber at 3:49 of the first period). Was this destined to become game 36 of the streak? Maybe not. By the end of the first period, the Stars led 3-1.

Still too close for comfort, as the second period progressed. Then, things looked ominous. Bobby Smith of the North Stars incurred a double minor penalty at 4:31 of the second period. So he would spend up to four minutes in the penalty box. Then, his teammate Greg Smith (no relation) got a two-minute minor penalty at 5:41. So, the Flyers had a two-man advantage for two full minutes, a situation from which it's very difficult to escape unscathed.

But escape the Stars did. The roar of the Met Center crowd was incredible, after the penalties were "killed" (expired without the Flyers scoring).

Whether it was inspiration from that moment, or just what, the North Stars went on to score four more goals while their goaltender, Gilles Meloche, let in no more pucks. The North Stars won 7-1, in the 36th game of the 35-game unbeaten streak.

I still rank that as the most memorable NHL game I ever saw in person, 28 years after I left Minnesota, and 17 years after the North Stars (now known as the Dallas Stars) did the same.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

30 Years Ago 2: Unbeaten

Following up on this post, let's see how the National Hockey League's season had gone, by this time 30 years ago, i.e., January 6, 1980.

Lo and behold, the Philadelphia Flyers still had not lost a game since October 13, 1979. Their unbeaten streak had reached 35 games, and their overall record was 26-1-10 (back when that third number mean ties, not overtime losses).

15 days earlier, they had broken a league record, by extending the streak to 29 games.

Meanwhile, this writer was working in his first job after college, in a suburb of Minneapolis. In that same suburb, the Minnesota North Stars were emerging from a string of dismal seasons in the mid-to-late '70s. When the North Stars beat the Washington Capitals on January 5, 1980, their record stood at 19-9-8. That gave them more points (in the two-for-a-win-one-for-a-tie sense of points) that they had garnered in the entire season two years before.

The North Stars were playing their best hockey in seven years. And the high-flying Flyers were headed to town for a game on January 7.

Almost enough excitement to cause one to forget that there were American hostages in Iran, and Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Almost.

Is Massachusetts in play?

There has been much talk in the blogosphere about a recent poll showing significant tightening in the race between Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special election to choose a U.S. senator to replace the late Ted Kennedy.

Here is Scott Johnson's take, on Power Line. Over on the left, Nate Silver, on the 538 blog, anticipated the upcoming Rasmussen poll, in this post.

The poll in question shows Brown within nine percentage points of Coakley, with 13 days to go before the special election. Apparently, other pollsters have stayed away from the situation since the primary, considering Coakley to be a landslide winner. Therefore, the Rasmussen results haven't been corroborated, but there seems to be something going on.

In the short run, the obvious consideration on everyone's mind is the health care legislation. If Republicans pick up a 41st senator, they can sustain a filibuster against a compromise bill. As I see it, that would leave Democrats with two choices: 1) speed up the process of reconciling the House and Senate versions, to allow for a final Senate vote before the January 19 election; or 2) water down the bill enough to snag the vote of Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, who voted in favor of one Democratic version of the bill in the Finance Committee.

Still seems like a long shot, but getting more interesting.

Auf wiedersehen, Chris Dodd

Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, the most high-profile committee chair over the past couple of years, announced today that he will not run for another term this year.

As chairman of the Banking Committee, Dodd has presided over actions related to the recent financial crisis. In addition to that, during Senator Ted Kennedy's final illness, Dodd was acting chairman of the Health Committee. In that role, he oversaw the early stages of consideration of the health care legislation.

Last September, I wrote this post about the Senate election in Connecticut.

Dodd's withdrawal should be helpful to the Democrats. It will clear the way for the state's 63-year-old attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, to carry the Democratic banner, in a fairly strongly blue state, without Dodd's baggage.

Dodd was first elected to the House as part of the Democratic mid-term landslide of 1974, which occurred three months after Republican President Richard Nixon's resignation. Dodd moved up to the Senate six years later (that time, running counter to the 1980 Republican trend).

His election to the Senate was seen in part as vindication for his family. His father, Thomas Dodd, had been defeated in his run for a third term in the Senate, in 1970, after being implicated in a campaign finance scandal.

The son of another Democratic senator who failed of reelection in 1970, was elected to the Senate four years after Chris Dodd. Albert Gore, Sr., lost his Tennessee seat in 1970, not because of scandal, but due to the Republican tide that was sweeping over the South. Al Gore, Jr., was elected to the Senate in 1984 and, of course, later became vice president and, very nearly, president of the United States.

North Dakota Senate Election

Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, has decided not to seek a fourth Senate term. That will end a 30-year congressional career, including 12 years in the House, and 18 in the Senate.

North Dakota has consistently voted Republican in presidential elections. Since 1920, it only voted Democratic three times, supporting the landslide victories of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936, and Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

But, as is the case with many western states, Democrats within the state have been more successful than their party's national tickets. Dorgan's senior colleague in the Senate, Kent Conrad, is also a Democrat, as is North Dakota's only congressman, Earl Pomeroy.

Having lived next-door to Delaware for more than 20 years, I've become familiar with the distinctive political dynamics in those states whose population is too small to have more than one representative in the House. Four major leaders all seek the votes of the same electorate: governor, two senators, and congressman. Sometimes they seem like interchangeable parts. For example, if Representative Michael Castle, Republican of Delaware, succeeds in his campaign for Vice President Biden's old Senate seat, he will have held all three of those offices. And Castle would serve with Democratic Senator Tom Carper, who has also scored that hat trick.

In North Dakota, Republican Governor John Hoeven had reportedly been considering a challenge to Dorgan, and is now presumably even more likely to run for the Senate. Pomeroy seems the early favorite for the Democratic nomination. The musical-chairs game then extends into speculation about House candidates.

North Dakota is larger in area, and colder, than Delaware, but otherwise they seem to have things in common.

Sinkable Gordon Brown?

Britain will hold a general election for its House of Commons this spring. (I wrote here about the process for setting the date for a general election, and here about the timing of this election.)

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leader of the Labor Party, has seemed like a lame duck, ever since his on-again-off-again (and, eventually, off) plan to hold an early "snap" general election, shortly after he succeeded Tony Blair, in 2007.

Brown's unpopularity contributed to landslide defeats for his party in elections for local government, and the European Parliament. After Labor received what George W. Bush might have called a "thumpin'" in such elections last year, some speculated that Brown's party would oust him, perhaps in favor of Foreign Secretary David Miliband. When Brown barely survived that incident, it seemed as though he would remain as leader through the 2010 election. Then, Brown would be replaced after (unless there's a huge surprise) Labor loses that election.

But now, there is renewed plotting to get rid of Brown before the election. Some prominent Labor Members of Parliament (MPs) have proposed a secret ballot among Labor MPs on the question of whether Brown should continue as their leader.

Is it too late to make a change? The expected general election date, May 6, is only four months away, and the final June deadline is five months away.

The Conservative Party's 1990 ouster of Margaret Thatcher took place a year and a half before the next general election.

Anthony Eden successfully led the Tories into the 1955 general election, less than two months after becoming leader and prime minister. But that was not a leadership change that was forced on an unpopular prime minister. Instead it was the result of the long-awaited retirement of the 80-year-old Winston Churchill.

The consensus seems to be that, if current Cabinet members start to desert Brown, that could create a snowball effect that could doom the prime minister. Thatcher faced a similar snowball in 1990.

UPDATE: Now, on the day after those events, it looks like Brown has survived again. The coup plotters are former Cabinet members who failed to get anyone who is currently serving in the Cabinet to join in their cause.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Conference Committee 3: Non-existent

The Democratic congressional leadership has decided not to convene a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate health care bills. Last week, I wrote about the conference procedure here and here.

I'm not sure of their motive. Polls show significant opposition to the bills among the electorate. To negotiate the differences among the Democrats without holding a bipartisan formal conference, keeps Republican fingerprints even further removed from the legislation. The Democrats seem to be shooting themselves in the foot at the beginning of this mid-term election year.

Democrats for Pennsylvania Governor

After reviewing how the Republican primary is shaping up, here is the outlook for the Democratic primary for governor of Pennsylvania.

Since I wrote this post, almost a year ago, an additional prominent name has shown up in this race: Joe Hoeffel, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 2004, who lost to then-Republican Arlen Specter. Hoeffel, 59, had earlier served in the U.S. House for three terms.

Don Onorato, county executive of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, leads in some polls, but with a low percentage of a much-splintered vote. It appears to be a wide-open race between Onorato, Hoeffel, Auditor General Jack Wagner, Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, and Philadelphia businessman Tom Knox.

The Democratic State Committee is scheduled to meet in Lancaster on February 5-6. According to this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that committee could endorse one of the candidates, which might give more clarity going into the May 18 primary. But a three-fourths supermajority is required for endorsement, so the committee might not reach a consensus among such a crowded field.

There has been some talk of Pennsylvania's junior senator, Bob Casey, Jr., seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, the office that his father held from 1987 to 1995. But there seems to be no concrete evidence of such a possibility.

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010 Election for Governor of Minnesota: The Democrats

As is the case with most states, Minnesota elects its governor for a four year term, on the election day that is halfway between presidential elections.

There is no incumbent in the race this year, not because of term limits, which Minnesota doesn't have, but because the Republican incumbent, Tim Pawlenty, declined to seek a third term. He is going through the usual coy ritual, but it's clear, even though he won't say so, that he has cleared his calendar in order to seek his party's 2012 presidential nomination.

There are many candidates, and potential candidates. In this post, I'll look at the Democrats (whose party is called Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) in that state).

The most recent DFL governor left office 20 years ago. In the meantime, Republicans have won four gubernatorial terms, with third-party Governor Jesse Ventura serving for four of those 20 years.

The highest-profile DFL candidate is former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton. Dayton, 62, heir to a retailing fortune, first ran for the Senate in 1982, unsuccessfully challenging Republican incumbent David Durenberger. He was elected to one term as state auditor, in 1990. His next challenge to an incumbent Republican senator was more successful; Dayton defeated Senator Rod Grams in 2000. Dayton did not run for reelection in 2006.

The DFL candidate who ranks highest in state government is Margaret Anderson Kelliher, speaker of the state House of Representatives. Kelliher, 41, has represented a Minneapolis district in the House since 1999, and has been speaker since 2007.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, 54, is another DFL gubernatorial candidate. Rybak was a journalist bef0re being elected mayor in 2001. No mayor of Minneapolis, the state's largest city, has gone on to become governor. However, one of Rybak's predecessors, Hubert Humphrey, was a longtime U.S. senator, and served one term as vice president.

Eight other DFL candidates are currently listed in Wikipedia's article on the campaign. Most of them are current or past state legislators.

The Pioneer Press, a St. Paul newspaper, calls Kelliher the front runner. It can be more difficult to read the tea leaves in Minnesota than in other states. That's because the key event is not the primary election (currently scheduled for September 14, but perhaps about to be rescheduled to an earlier date, to comply with federal law about the amount of time that needs to be allowed for military ballots to be returned), but rather the party's state convention, to be held April 23-25.

That convention will endorse a candidate for governor. That endorsement is not the legal step that gets a candidate onto the general election ballot. However, the expectation is that those who lose the endorsement vote will not challenge the endorsed candidate in the primary. Such challenges do occur, but the convention's choice usually becomes the nominee. Opinion polling for an endorsement contest is difficult, because the outcome depends on which party activists show up for the local caucuses and conventions that lead up to the state convention.