Friday, April 30, 2010

Senate -- Ohio -- Republican Primary

Next Tuesday, May 4, will be primary election day in Ohio. Republican Senator George Voinovich is not seeking reelection. Voinovich, a former mayor of Cleveland, and later governor of Ohio, has represented that state in the Senate since 1999.

Rob Portman, 54, is unopposed in the Republican primary, in the race to succeed Voinovich. Portman has repeatedly jumped back and forth between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

He held some White House staff jobs during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. In 1993, he was elected to the U.S. House, representing a district near Cincinnati. Portman remained in Congress for 12 years, before being appointed U.S. Trade Representative and, subsequently, director of the Office of Management and Budget, in the administration of George W. Bush.

Senate -- North Carolina -- Democratic Primary

A handful of Democrats are vying in the May 4 primary for their party's nomination to oppose Republican Senator Richard Burr. Two Democratic candidates appear to be the front runners:

Former state Senator Cal Cunningham, 36. He served one term in the state Senate, from 2001 to 2003. A lawyer, Cunningham did a tour of duty in Iraq as an Army reservist.

North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, 64. She was elected to her current office in 1996, after serving four years in the state Senate. In 1996, her Republican opponent was professional auto racer Richard Petty. This is Marshall's second run for the U.S. Senate; she lost the Democratic primary in 2002 to Erskine Bowles, who went on to lose to Republican Elizabeth Dole.

Polls reported by Real Clear Politics show Marshall slightly ahead. There will be a June 22 runoff, if no candidate receives at least 40% of the votes.

Senate -- North Carolina -- Republican Primary

North Carolina will hold its primary election next Tuesday, May 4. The Republican incumbent Senator Richard Burr is running for reelection.

Burr, 54, was first elected to the Senate in 2004. After John Edwards gave up his Senate seat to run for vice president, Burr defeated his Democratic rival Erskine Bowles, who had been White House chief of staff during Bill Clinton's presidency. Burr had represented a district in the northwestern corner of the state, in the U.S. House from 1995 to 2005.

Burr carries the dubious distinction of being a distant relative of Vice President Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr is one of only two vice presidents to have shot someone while in office. And his episode was much more serious than the hunting accident involving Dick Cheney. Burr's victim Alexander Hamilton, died after his duel with Burr. After leaving office, Burr was charged with treason in connection with a plot to set up a rival republic on the western frontier; he was acquitted.

Richard Burr faces token opposition in the primary from three Republican challengers.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


As I noted here, regarding retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and his predecessor, and here, regarding Supreme Court justices generally, people tend to stay in that job for a long time. Unlike most presidential appointees, they are not shuttled out of office with every change of administration.

But longevity in the seat Stevens is vacating has been exceptional. Just coincidence, I suppose, but interesting to a trivia buff like me.

The third-to-last justice in that seat was Louis Brandeis, who was appointed by Woodrow Wilson in 1916. (As an aside, Brandeis was the first Jewish justice, which ties into my discussion of identity politics and the Court, earlier today, on my other blog.) A short-timer by the standards of his two successors, Brandeis was on the Court for almost 23 years.

Brandeis's successor, William O. Douglas, appointed by Franklin Roosevelt, set a record, by serving as an associate justice from 1939 to 1975. After suffering a stroke, Douglas reluctantly agreed to retire from the Court. Stevens has held the seat since being appointed by Gerald Ford in 1975.

The seat that is the second most longevity-prone, by that measure, is that of Anthony Kennedy (Hugo Black 1937-1971, Lewis Powell 1971-1987, and Kennedy since 1988).

The seat with the most turnover is Stephen Breyer's. Still, not much turnover; three justices since 1965: Abe Fortas 1965-1969, Harry Blackmun 1970-1994, and Breyer since 1994. Breyer has one longevity record, which I described here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Nick Clegg

As I mentioned yesterday, the Liberal Democrats have been gaining in the polls for the May 6 British general election, ever since their leader Nick Clegg put in a good performance in a televised debate last week. That gives rise to an obvious question: who is Nick Clegg?

Clegg, 43, was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2007. He was first elected to the House of Commons at the most recent general election, which was held in 2005.

Educated at Cambridge, Clegg spent time in two of my favorite places, before and after university. During what the British call a "gap year", before Cambridge, he worked for a while at a bank in Helsinki, the capital of the homeland of my maternal ancestors, Finland. Then, as a graduate student, Clegg studied for a year in my native city of Minneapolis, at the University of Minnesota.

After five years on the staff of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, Clegg was elected to the European Parliament, in 1999. He remained in that legislative body until 2004. The Liberal Democrats have consistently been the most pro-EU of the major British parties, so it's not surprising that their leader has had such close connections with that organization.

Clegg returned to England in 2005 to run for Parliament from the constituency of Sheffield Hallam, in the county of South Yorkshire. That had been considered a safe Conservative seat, until a Liberal Democrat won in 1997, the year of the Conservatives' landslide defeat. The Liberal Democrats have held the seat in the meantime, and Clegg won with 51% of the vote in 2005, as compared to only 30% for his nearest rival, the Conservative candidate.

Clegg quickly moved into a "frontbench" position, becoming his party's Home Affairs spokesperson in 2006. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats were having issues with their leaders.

Paddy Ashdown, a dashing former Marine and spy, led the party from the 1988 merger that formed it, until 1999. Sort of James Bond in politician's garb. The party did well under Ashdown's leadership, winning 46 seats in the House of Commons in 1997.

His successor, Charles Kennedy, had a less military bearing than Ashdown. But he continued the Liberal Democrats' uphill climb, increasing their total to 52 seats in 2001 and 62 in 2005. Kennedy's main opponent was not Labour or the Conservatives, but rather the bottle. As alcoholism led to increasingly erratic performance of his duties, Kennedy resigned as leader in January 2006.

Sir Menzies Campbell, who was deputy leader at that time, was elected to replace Kennedy. Sir Menzies represented a safe pair of hands, but, at the age of 64, many Liberal Democrats considered him to be past his prime. After an unhappy 19 months as leader, Sir Menzies resigned in October 2007.

Over the past few years, each of the British parties has tried turning to a Fresh Young Face when seeking a new leader. It worked well for Labour, after they chose the 41-year-old Tony Blair, in 1994. The Conservatives did less well with the 36-year-old William Hague, in 1997. Whether the Conservatives' current leader, David Cameron, who was 39 when chosen in 2005, can win a general election is very much an open question at the moment.

Despite that mixed record, the Liberal Democrats elected Clegg, who was then 40 years old, in 2007. Early indications are positive, in light of the party's poll numbers. The BBC reports on its website that its daily averaging of poll results has improved further for Clegg, putting his party in second place, two points ahead of Labour. This BBC report indicates that the other major parties have, presumably as a result of those numbers, been increasingly targeting Clegg and his party.

As a footnote, I will describe the candidates' joint television appearances as "debates", because they have so labeled them. However, I have not changed the opinion I explained here, that they are not really debates, but merely joint press conferences.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Great Debate

Last Thursday, the U.K. saw an event that was new to their political system: a televised debate between major party leaders during a general election campaign. Most of the speculation before the telecast centered on the leaders of the two largest parties.

David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, is a better television performer than Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who heads the Labour Party. However, Cameron, whose party has been leading in the polls, presumably has more to lose than the embattled prime minister.

No one seems to have considered the impact of the party that is currently the third largest in the House of Commons, the Liberal Democrats, being put on equal footing with their larger rivals. Nick Clegg, who has led the Liberal Democrats since 2007, participated in the debate against Cameron and Brown. There seems to be a consensus that Clegg "won" the debate.

Today, the BBC News website has posted poll results showing a major bounce for the Liberal Democrats. The BBC has average out the results of several polls, and shows the Conservatives in first place with 33%, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats tied for second at 29%. Normally, the Liberal Democrats are well down into third place, somewhere around 20%. In the 2005 general election, they got 22.1% of the vote, 13 percentage points behind Labour.

From the 1850s to the 1920s, the Liberal Party was one of the two major parties in Britain's two-party system, opposing the Conservatives. Liberal support collapsed in the general election of 1924. They continued on, as a minor party, for several decades. Labour replaced them as the Conservatives' main opposition. The Liberals won as few as six seats in the House of Commons in some 20th-century elections.

Their fortunes changed during the 1980s. In 1981, a centrist faction left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. In 1988, that group merged with the Liberals, and the combined party is now called the Liberal Democratic Party. They were still the third party, but won 62 seats in 2005, more than they held at any time between 1924 and 1983.

In the runup to the current campaign, there was much speculation about the Liberal Democrats' potential role as a coalition partner to either Labour or the Conservatives in the event of a hung Parliament. If the current poll results prove to be more than a fluke, the question will become whether the Liberal Democrats can emerge as the largest party.

The next debate will be Thursday, April 22. We'll see what effect that has on this unexpected story line.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

30 Years Ago 13: Playoffs

What I've been calling the greatest hockey season in history, that of 1979-80, did not end with the American victory at the Winter Olympics, which I described here. The professional season continued, and culminated in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Montreal Canadiens have historically been the most dominant franchise in the National Hockey League (NHL). And the late 1970s constituted one of their most dominant periods. At the end of the 1978-9 season the Habs (Les Habitants is a rough translation of their name into the official language of their province) won the Stanley Cup (the NHL's championship trophy) for the fourth consecutive year. Their won-loss record was 16-3 in those four best-of-seven final series.

20 years earlier, Montreal had won the cup five years in a row. Would they repeat that feat, by winning it in 1980?

In order to accomplish that, they would need to win four rounds of playoffs. The Habs took the first step on April 11, 1980, when they completed a three-game sweep of the Hartford Whalers. Their next opponent: the Minnesota North Stars.

The North Stars had already established themselves as giant-killers, as I described here. But now they had to travel to the most storied venue in their sport, the Montreal Forum, to take on the defending champions.

Undaunted, the Minnesota team won game one of the best-of-seven series, by a score of 3-0, on April 16. Then, 30 years ago today, the North Stars continued their stunning road success, by winning game two with four goals to one for the Canadiens.

Home ice advantage was now with the North Stars, as the teams prepared for games three and four at Met Center, in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. A comeback after losing the first two games of a playoff series at home is one of the most difficult feats in sports. Could even the legendary Montreal club perform such a miracle?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Republicans and Democrats are gearing up for a fight over President Obama's as-yet-unannounced next Supreme Court nominee. We can, of course, expect strong disagreements about the fitness of any Obama appointee. But the fact that the two sides can't even agree on the history of Supreme Court nominations over the past few decades gives some indication of how stormy the debate might become.

This article in Politico quotes some Senate Democrats as saying that Obama shouldn't even attempt to garner bipartisan support for any nominee:

“I think we need to push someone who would be on the liberal side, on the progressive side, just as Roberts and Alito are on that side,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), referring to Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito, who were both confirmed in George W. Bush’s administration. “Why do conservatives always get the conservatives, but we don’t get to get liberals? What the hell is that all about?”

Not everyone agrees with Harkin's historical analysis.

On the Power Line blog, Scott Johnson quotes from an article by Stuart Taylor, about why conservatives hardly ever get the conservatives:

One reason why so many Republican appointees have turned out to be more liberal than the presidents who picked them has been the difficulty of getting nominees with conservative paper trails through the Senate.

The point is that many justices who were appointed by Republican presidents have ended up at various places on the spectrum between left-wing and center-right, such as Earl Warren, William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter. But what about Democratic nominees?

Democrats Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman totally remade the Court during their combined 20 years in the White House. But, since then, Republicans have appointed 17 justices, to only seven for the Democrats.

Justices such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, the two who were appointed by Bill Clinton, have been reliably liberal on issues such as affirmative action, LGBT rights, and the status of enemy combatants. However, there are legal theories that are more radical than the positions taken by Ginsburg and Breyer and, presumably, those are the ideas backed by Senator Harkin and likeminded colleagues.

As usual, I believe that the truth lies somewhere between these polarized viewpoints.

On the strategic question regarding the upcoming nominee, the Democrats appear to believe that the Republicans cannot hold all 41 of their senators together to sustain a filibuster against Obama's choice. Unless that person is particularly a lightning rod (a sort of leftist version of Robert Bork), they're probably correct.

Friday, April 9, 2010

John Paul Stevens

For only the second time since 1939, the Supreme Court seat held by Associate Justice John Paul Stevens is coming open. Stevens announced today that he plans to retire at the end of the Court's current term. He had telegraphed his intention well in advance, so no one is surprised by his retirement.

Stevens, 89, was nearing records for being both the oldest and the longest-serving Supreme Court justice in history. He has made clear that his longevity on the Court has not been based on an ambition to break those records.

The oldest justice was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was 90 years old when he retired in 1932. Stevens would have surpassed that mark, had he stayed on the Court into the early months of 2011.

The longest-serving justice was William O. Douglas, Stevens's predecessor, who was appointed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, and retired in 1975. That was when President Gerald Ford appointed Stevens as an associate justice. Stevens would have broken that record in 2012.

For the second consecutive year, President Obama will appoint an associate justice. As was the case with David Souter's 2009 retirement, the atmosphere in Washington will be slightly less heated than it might otherwise be, because Stevens, although he was appointed by a Republican president, is classified as being part of the Court's liberal wing. Therefore an Obama nominee will not be expected to change the ideological balance among the justices.

However, as we saw with the nomination and confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor last year, there is no longer any such thing as a non-controversial Supreme Court appointment. I doubt that the Senate's unanimous confirmation of Stevens's appointment will be repeated for his successor.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

May 6 Election

Officially revealing what British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the "least well-kept secret of recent years", he announced that the U.K. general election will be held on Thursday, May 6.

The public announcement followed the formality of Brown going to Buckingham Palace to ask Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve Parliament and schedule the election, which she, of course, did. Formally, that is her call to make, but the precedent has long since been established that monarchs do not interfere in the making of such political decisions. This was the 15th time during her 58-year reign that the Queen has gone through that ritual. Parliament will be dissolved on April 12, and is scheduled to reconvene on May 18.

The BBC report to which I linked above, describes polls giving the Conservative Party a lead ranging from four to 10 percentage points.

I provided more background on the election here and here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hung Parliament

As I mentioned here, the British refer to a situation where one of their general elections fails to produce an absolute majority in the House of Commons for any single party, as a "hung Parliament". That situation is common in other parliamentary democracies, such as Germany and Israel, but less so in Britain, where it hasn't happened since 1974.

Current polls regarding Britain's next general election, which must be held by June, and will probably be scheduled for May 6, indicate the possibility of a hung Parliament this year.

In recent decades, no party has received over 50% of the total votes cast in any general election. But there is almost always one party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Britain's "first past the post" electoral system leads to such outcomes.

One trend that contributes to the chance of a hung Parliament this year is an increase in voting for minor parties. Again looking back to 1974, in the first of two general elections that year, the two leading parties, Labor and the Conservatives, between them won 94.2% of the House of Commons seats. By the time of the most recent general election, in 2005, that total had fallen to 85.8%.

The Liberals won only 14 seats in February 1974. That party was rejuvenated in the 1980s, when it merged with a breakaway faction from the Labor Party. The party that emerged from that combination, the Liberal Democrats, won 62 seats in 2005. During that period, there was also increased support for local parties in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. A higher minor-party vote means that either Labor or the Conservatives needs a higher plurality over the other, in order to produce an overall majority.

Polls for the upcoming election show the Conservative Party leading Labor by five to 10 percentage points. For various reasons, many observers believe that a Conservative plurality in that range will produce, at most, a very small overall majority, and possibly no majority at all. Further explanations here and here.

There are two options for governing with a hung Parliament: 1) coalition government; and 2) minority government. See this post and this post for more background on that.

If a Conservative minority follows British precedent, they will not form a formal coalition government with a sharing of Cabinet positions among parties. Instead they are likely to form a minority government, which tends to involve an informal coalition with one or more parties that more or less explicitly agree not to vote to topple the minority government via a no-confidence motion. A Labor minority government in the 1970s had such an agreement with the Liberals, and a Conservative minority government in the 1990s was supported by unionist parties from Northern Ireland.

Last week, nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales made a joint statement about what policy concessions they would seek, if they hold the balance of power after the general election. The party holding more cards than those groups, the Liberal Democrats, has been less open about any such hopes on its part.

American observers should keep in mind two differences from the U.S. system. First, in the U.K., an election result takes effect immediately, without the two-month interim period between an American election and the January convening of Congress. Second, in Britain, a change in control of the lower house of the legislative branch means there is a new Cabinet (including prime minister); that is different than what an American president faces when an election shifts control of the House of Representatives. Under those circumstances, a president must deal with a speaker from the other party, as Bill Clinton with Newt Gingrich in 1995, and George W. Bush with Nancy Pelosi in 2007. That makes things difficult for such a president, but it does not change the leadership of the executive branch.

British elections are customarily held on Thursdays. If it's clear on election night that there's a new majority party in the House of Commons, the outgoing prime minister resigns on Friday, and the Queen immediately appoints the leader of the new majority party as prime minister. The new prime minister moves into the official residence, 10 Downing Street, that same day.

In some parliamentary democracies, the process takes much longer. When a formal coalition government is put together, negotiations can drag on for several weeks.

After that indecisive British election in 1974, Prime Minister Ted Heath spent the weekend trying to form a coalition. He resigned the following Monday, which seemed like an eternity for the British, but, by world standards, it was a quick resolution to such a situation.

Any prolonged period of coalition negotiations would create uncertainty about the leadership of the government departments. The expectation is that the current ministers, from the Labor Party, would stay in office as a caretaker government. Again, that is standard procedure in many countries, but would be a new experience in Britain.