Friday, April 30, 2010

Independents in Elections

Florida Governor Charles Crist has announced that he will drop out of the state's Republican primary for the US Senate and instead seek the seat as an independent. In our chapter on political parties, we discuss the fate of third-party and independent candidates. In a New York Times blog post, I connect this analysis to Crist:

Polls show a lot of unhappiness with both major parties. But don’t expect an independent surge in November. At no time over the past half-century has either the House or the Senate had more than a couple of independent or third-party members.

There is currently no reason to think that the 2010 election will produce anything different. The dominance of the Democrats and Republicans stems in part from the mechanics of the electoral process.

Ballot access poses a big hurdle: it can be difficult and costly for other kinds of candidates to get on the general election ballot. Then they find it tough to get campaign money. The major parties have well-established fundraising networks, including contributors seeking to curry favor with incumbent politicians. Those on the outside have nothing comparable.

They also have to contend with the “spoiler” image. Voters worry that, by supporting a minor candidate, they could be helping a major-party candidate that they dislike.

In 2000, Ralph Nader drew votes from Al Gore, thus tipping Florida to George W. Bush — a result that most Nader voters probably did not intend. Six years later, a Republican senator from Montana got “Nadered” by a Libertarian, and his loss enabled the Democrats to take control of the Senate.

Of the few victorious off-brand candidates, most have not been true independents at all, but Republicans or Democrats carrying on a factional struggle. In 1970, New York State elected James L. Buckley as a Conservative. He won because many Republicans saw him as a more faithful representative of their party than incumbent Charles Goodell. Once in the Senate, he caucused with the G.O.P.

Governor Crist is hardly avatar of independence. He was very happy to receive the endorsement of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and was looking forward to the support of the party establishment. He bolted only because rank-and-file primary voters were about to reject him with a thump.

His decision to run as an independent is not the tip of the iceberg. It is a lonely chunk of ice with very little beneath.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Polarization and Deliberation

In our chapter on political parties, we discuss the impact of polarization. William Galston has some thoughts on this topic. On the one hand, he says polarization may have healthy effects, such as presenting the electorate with clear choices. On the other hand, there are downsides. One involves deliberative democracy:
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once commented that while every man is entitled to his own opinion, he is not entitled to his own facts. But the ideological turn in American party politics meant that all too often, each party embraced its own version of reality. It is one thing to say that the 2003 decision to initiate war in Iraq was wrong in principle, quite another to maintain that the 2007 decision to surge troops wasn’t working, long after it had become clear that it was. Ideological polarization, it turned out, meant that rather than being used to test preconceptions, facts were twisted to fit them. So the contemporary system of “responsible” parties turns out to be incompatible with deliberation, one of the requisites of a healthy democracy.
Galston also notes that polarization saps trust in government. While a certain degree of mistrust may heighten vigilance against threats to liberty, some trust is necessary. He uses a Madison quotation that we cite in chapter 2:
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among us for self-government.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mojave Cross

In our chapter on civic culture and civil liberties, we note the often-controversial place of religious symbols in American public life. In Buono v. Salazar, the Supreme Court dealt with a Latin cross on federal land in the Mojave National Preserve honoring American soldiers who died in World War I. The New York Times reports:

A badly fractured Supreme Court, with six justices writing opinions, reopened the possibility on Wednesday that a large cross serving as a war memorial in a remote part of the Mojave Desert may be permitted to remain there. The 5-to-4 decision provided an unusually vivid glimpse into how deeply divided the court is on the role religious symbols may play in public life and, in particular, the meanings conveyed by crosses in memorials for fallen soldiers.

“A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a plurality opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies would be compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”

Justice John Paul Stevens rejected that view. “The cross is not a universal symbol of sacrifice,” he wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. “It is the symbol of one particular sacrifice, and that sacrifice carries deeply significant meaning for those who adhere to the Christian faith.”

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is the Internet a Force for Political Good?

Has the Internet been a force for political good? In Foreign Policy, Evgeny Morozov raises doubts:

Does it make government more accountable?
Even the most idealistic geeks are beginning to understand that entrenched political and institutional pathologies -- not technological shortfalls -- are the greatest barriers to more open and participatory politics. Technology doesn't necessarily pry more information from closed regimes; rather, it allows more people access to information that is available. Governments still maintain great sway in determining what kinds of data to release. So far, even the Obama administration, the self-proclaimed champion of "open government," draws criticism from transparency groups for releasing information about population counts for horses and burros while hoarding more sensitive data on oil and gas leases.
The Internet has certainly created new avenues for exchanging opinions and ideas, but we don't yet know whether this will boost the global appeal and practice of democracy. Where some see a renewal of civic engagement, others see "slacktivism," the new favorite pejorative for the shallow, peripheral, and fluid political campaigning that seems to thrive on the Internet -- sometimes at the expense of more effective real-world campaigning. And where some applaud new online campaigns purportedly aimed at increasing civic participation, such as Estonia's planned 2011 launch of voting via text-messaging, others, myself included, doubt whether the hassle of showing up at a polling place once every two or four years is really what makes disengaged citizens avoid the political process.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Gallup reports that Democrats have an edge with the young:

Gallup Daily tracking data reinforce the value of younger voters for the Democrats, showing that 18- to 29-year-olds favor the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate in their local districts by a 12-point margin. In contrast, the Republican candidate is on top among all groups of voters aged 30 and older.

But lower turnout potentially diminishes the value of that advantage:
Younger voters remain less enthusiastic about voting in this year's midterm elections than those who are older, underscoring the challenge facing the Democratic Party in its efforts to re-energize these voters, who helped President Obama win the presidency in 2008.
Lower youth turnout is consistent with historical patterns. As we discuss in our chapter on public opinion and political participation, young people have long voted at lower rates than older people. Here are the turnout rates by age for citizens in the 2008 election:

18-24 48.5%
25-44 60.0%
45-64 69.2%
65+ 70.3%

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bureaucracy and Benefits

At The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes writes:
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and local government salaries are 34 percent higher than those for private sector jobs. Okay, that’s partly because government workers tend to have white-collar jobs. Benefits, 70 percent higher for these workers, are the real rub. And benefits for government retirees are the most flagrant. They’ve become a national scandal, a fiscal nightmare for states, cities, and towns, and an example of unfairness of the sort liberals routinely complain about but are mostly silent about just now.
The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees has a different take:
However, most public plans require member contributions, and almost all public plans invest their assets and earn additional income. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, state and local pension plans ­accumulated $2.3 trillion in investment earnings from 1982 through 2005, compared with total employer (taxpayer) contributions of $885 billion and employee contributions of $435 billion. Consequently, taxpayers paid 24% of the total amount paid into public plans during this period, with the remaining 76% coming from investment earnings and employee contributions. Every dollar taxpayers paid into public plans generated an additional three dollars, to be returned to the economy as retirement income.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Deliberation and Disagreement

In a paper at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Kevin M. Esterling, Archon Fung, and Taeku Lee look at a natural experiment in which some 3000 people split into small groups and deliberated about health care reform in California. They note that deliberation "requires individuals to listen to one another and to adjust their own views and positions in light of what they hear." They ask an important question:
Are we the kind of creatures who will respond positively -- by tolerating, listening and adjusting in this way --when we engage in deliberation with those who hold with diverse views and who disagree with us? Or, do we recoil from disagreement, entrenching our positions, resenting those who challenge them, perhaps lose confidence in our own positions, and suffer in silence?
From the experiment, they find that "individuals are more likely to learn, to change their minds, to enjoy, and to regard as worthwhile deliberations in which there are moderate levels of disagreement."

Friday, April 23, 2010

As Lincoln Never Said (Continued)

"Remember November," a Republican website criticizing President Obama, features this quotation from Abraham Lincoln: "It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you may even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time."

There is no evidence that Lincoln ever said any such thing. From Respectfully Quoted:
Many quotation books have also attributed this to Lincoln, and the sources given have varied. According to Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 3, p. 81 (1953), “Tradition has come to attribute to the Clinton [Illinois] speeches [September 2, 1858] one of Lincoln’s most famous utterances—‘You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.’” But he goes on to say that the epigram and any references to it have not been located in surviving Lincoln documents.





Thursday, April 22, 2010

Federal and Private Pay

Paul Light argues for pay caps for federal contractors and grantees:

[Congress] should consider pay standards for public leaders of all kinds, and not just those who work in charitable organizations. Some of these leaders receive their checks directly from the U.S. Treasury, but many others are hidden from view because their salaries are paid through contracts or grants. But no matter how they get their pay, they are all public leaders nonetheless, and are bound by a common commitment to what Alexander Hamilton called "extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit."

The Obama administration is starting to get the point. Its "pay czar" capped CEO salaries at bailout banks at $500,000 per year, and is working to find some answer to the compensation puzzle on Wall Street. The administration is also beginning to wonder whether it is time for a cap on total compensation for its contractors and grantees.

If there is to be a cap, it should not be a penny more than the $223,500 that the chief justice receives. The nation would quickly find out how long the penury toward government's top officers will last. Contractors and grantees would fight the cap with every lobbying dollar they have, of course. But if Congress and the president stand firm, perhaps they can restore at least some balance to the CEO pay scale.

The Hamilton quotation is from Federalist 72. Hamilton was not talking about compensation, however. Instead, he was arguing against presidential term limits:

Even the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds, which would prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit, requiring considerable time to mature and perfect them, if he could flatter himself with the prospect of being allowed to finish what he had begun, would, on the contrary, deter him from the undertaking, when he foresaw that he must quit the scene before he could accomplish the work, and must commit that, together with his own reputation, to hands which might be unequal or unfriendly to the task.

In any case, federal pay is not all that bad:

Federal employees earn higher average salaries than private-sector workers in more than eight out of 10 occupations, a USA TODAY analysis of federal data finds.

Accountants, nurses, chemists, surveyors, cooks, clerks and janitors are among the wide range of jobs that get paid more on average in the federal government than in the private sector.

Overall, federal workers earned an average salary of $67,691 in 2008 for occupations that exist both in government and the private sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The average pay for the same mix of jobs in the private sector was $60,046 in 2008, the most recent data available.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

National Day of Prayer, Continued

The entry for April 16 mentioned that a judge had ruled unconstitutional the statute designating a national day of prayer. According to Politico, members of Congress are reacting:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Big is Ugly

In our chapter on civic culture, we explain that Americans have long distrusted government power. With the rise of big business in the late 19th century, a reformist movement tried to curb the power of big business. Distrust of big government and big business is apparent in the latest poll from Pew Research:

Monday, April 19, 2010

International Views of the United States

The BBC reports:
Global views of the United States have improved markedly over the last year while views of many countries have become more negative, according to the latest BBC World Service poll across 28 countries. For the first time since the BBC started tracking in 2005, views of the United States‘ influence in the world are now more positive than negative on average.

The survey, conducted by GlobeScan/PIPA among more than 29,000 adults, asked respondents to say whether they considered the influence of different countries in the world to be mostly positive or mostly negative. It found that the United States is viewed positively on balance in 20 of 28 countries, with an average of 46 per cent now saying it has a mostly positive influence in the world, while 34 per cent say it has a negative influence.
...

While positive views of the United States increased in most countries polled, the most significant increases were in Germany (up from 18% in 2009 to 39% this year), in Russia (up from 7% to 25%), in Portugal (up from 43% to 57%) and in Chile (up from 42% to 55%) with negative perceptions also falling significantly.

The only countries where perceptions of the United States became more negative overall were Turkey (where the proportion with positive perceptions of the United States fell from 21 per cent to 13 per cent and negative perceptions increased from 63 to 70 per cent), and in India (where positive perceptions dipped from 43 per cent to 39 per cent and negative views increased from 20 to 28 per cent).

The only two countries to have majorities with negative views of the United States are Turkey (70%) and Pakistan (52%). Russia is also quite negative (50%).


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Americans with Disabilities Act, Unanticipated Consequences, and the Movies

Edward Jay Epstein writes:

Why do the newer multiplex theaters have relatively small auditoriums?


Answer: To circumvent the ADA.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that theaters with more than 300 seats provide wheelchair access to all the seats. Providing such access requires about one-third more space for the necessary ramps--space that cannot be filled with revenue-generating seats. To save themselves this expense, theater owners usually do not build auditoriums that have more than 300 seats.


See here for the Justice Department's ADA progress report.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Religion and Drug Treatment

In our chapter on civic culture, we note that faith-based organizations have played a big part in rehabilitation programs for substance abuse. The courts, however, have ruled that Alcoholics Anonymous must not be the only therapy available to probationers because it is religious. The Sacramento Bee reports on a case in Redding, California, involving drug offender Barry A. Hazle, Jr.


The Entry Fee for Direct Democracy

In our chapter on campaigns and elections, we discuss direct democracy. Although ballot initiatives aim to empower ordinary citizens, such campaigns often require the help of major donors, especially in large states such as California. The Orange County Register reports:

The recent spate of abandoned citizen initiatives underlines a simple fact: If you want to put a measure on the ballot, you're going to have to raise a million bucks to hire signature gathers.

Think you have enough popular support to get 700,000 valid signatures just using volunteers? Say you've got the anti-illegal immigration folks behind you. Or the Tea Party folks. Or the gay community.Forget it. All three factions have thrown up their hands and walked away from drives to get initiatives on the November ballot.

"Nobody ever gets that many signatures with volunteers," said John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at USC. He's studied initiatives since 1991. "I can't recall an initiative ever getting on the ballot in California with volunteers."

Friday, April 16, 2010

National Day of Prayer: Constitutional Issues

A federal district judge has ruled that the statute creating the “National Day of Prayer” (36
U.S.C. section 119) violates the establishment clause of the United States Constitution.
It goes beyond mere “acknowledgment” of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience. “When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual's decision about whether and how to worship.” McCreary County, 545 U.S. at 883 (O’Connor, J., concurring).
The ruling, however, does not take effect until the appeals process runs its course.

At the Los Angeles Times, Michael McGough disagrees:

Like Michael Newdow's challenge to "In God We Trust" on U.S. coins, the Freedom From Religion Foundation's lawsuit against the Day of Prayer might be justified on a purist 1st Amendment theory about the establishment of religion.

But there is a doctrine in the law known as "de minimis," from a Latin maxim that basically says that government officials shouldn't concern themselves with trivialities. The National Day of Prayer is a pretty good candidate for the "de minimis" rule.

Not throwing a constitutional fit about what is sometimes called "ceremonial deism" makes it easier to oppose serious breaches of the wall of separation, like official prayers in public schools. In the culture wars, as in real ones, sometimes you need to choose your battles.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Conflict and Consensus

Gary Andres, a political scientist who is a top public affairs consultant in Washington, quotes a 2002 book by John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work.

Congressional debates often reflect these deep differences as policy moves from campaign rhetoric to the lawmaking process. For example, large majorities of Americans said they supported “reforming the health care system,” yet working out the specifics became another story.

The same is true for stimulating the economy. Everybody is for that, right? Yet when Congress debated the economic stimulus bill last year it devolved into a partisan circus, with all the Democrats supporting their version of stimulus and Republicans promoting completely different ideas.

All the discord produced during these and many other debates just turns people off because they believe consensus should not be that hard to find. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write: “People dislike political conflict because they think solving problems is easier than it actually is.” ... The myth of consensus on public policy explains why many Americans hate politics. They just don’t understand why Congress and the president can’t find common accord. The answer: that consensus doesn’t exist.

An Associated Press poll finds that 50 percent of Americans oppose the health bill that Congress passed last month, while 39 percent support it. In early March, the figures were 43 percent oppose, 41 percent support.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What's Wrong with this Sentence?

Adam Clayton Powell IV announced that he would challenge Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) in the Democratic primary. Rangel originally won the seat after defeating Powell's father in a primary. The New York Times report on the challenge contains an odd passage. Can you spot the mistake?
During a colorful, freewheeling news conference, Mr. Powell speculated — apparently, without any direct knowledge — that Mr. Rangel would seek re-election and then resign, to control the appointment of his successor -- a suggestion that aides to Mr. Rangel immediately dismissed.
Time's up. Under the Constitution, there is no way to get a House seat by appointment. Filling a vacancy requires a special election. (The Seventeenth Amendment does allow for the temporary appointment of senators, but that provision does not apply to the House.) Online comments following the story suggested that the passage probably referred to New York election law, which enables party leaders to control nominations in special elections.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Gloomy News Executives

The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism reports on a new survey of news executives:
Fewer than half of all those surveyed are confident their operations will survive another 10 years—not without significant new sources of revenue. Nearly a third believe their operations are at risk in just five years or less. And many blame the problems not on the inevitable effect of technology but on their industry’s missed opportunities.
...

And most news executives think the Internet is changing the fundamental values of journalism. Six out of ten feel this way—though executives from broadcast operations (62%) do so more than executives from newspapers (53%). And their biggest concern is loosening standards of accuracy and verification, much of it tied to the immediacy of the Web.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lee Hamilton and Deliberation and the Congressional Process

Former House member Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana) shares his experience and wisdom on the issue of whether lawmakers should care about process as well as results:
Over the last few decades on Capitol Hill, expediency has often trumped by-the-book procedure. This is why the budget process is broken; massive "omnibus" bills are the norm now, not the exception; and regular conference committees are mostly a memory.

Yet congressional procedures did not develop because Capitol Hill goody-goodies thought they'd be nice; they developed over many years because Congress recognized that results are not the only thing that matters - so do deliberation and fairness. Our representative democracy rests on the promise that alternative proposals will get careful scrutiny and all voices will have a chance to be considered, not just those of the majority.

Americans understand this at a gut level; this is why they care as much about how Congress works as they do that it does work. Democracy, in other words, is as much about process - how we go about resolving our differences and crafting policy - as it is about results.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Religion and the Court

Although the Constitution forbids any religious test for office, Americans have often been aware of the religious preferences of public officials. The first Catholic justice of the Supreme Court was Roger B. Taney. The first Jewish justice was Louis Brandeis. And now the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens marks an unusual moment. At Gallup, Frank Newport observes:
Some observers have taken note of the fact that, with Stevens’ retirement, there will be no Protestants or other non-Catholic Christians on the Supreme Court. Six of the remaining eight justices are Catholic. Two are Jewish. At the moment, that means that 67% of the U.S. Supreme Court is Catholic and 22% is Jewish.

This proportionality is, of course, widely different from the religious composition of the overall U.S. population. My latest calculation from over 350,000 Gallup Daily tracking interviews conducted in 2009 is that 24.3% of American adults identify their religion as Catholic and that 1.8% identify as Jewish. By far the largest group of Americans, religiously speaking, are Protestant/non-Catholic Christians -- 54% of all adult Americans in our 2009 data. After Stevens steps down, this group will have no representation on the court.

Also. Beyond Protestant/non-Catholic Christians and Catholics, the next most prevalent group in America is the 15.3% who say they have no religious identity, or who don’t otherwise give a response to our religion question. I don’t know how many potential nominees will openly say they have no religious identity. But presumably, some observers may argue that this group of atheist/non-believers also deserves their place on the court.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Citizenship Call-In

The New York Daily News reports:

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Half Pay No Income Tax

In our chapter on economic policy, we talk about the distribution of the tax burden. About half of Americans do not have to pay income tax. Associated Press reports:

Tax Day is a dreaded deadline for millions of Americans, but for nearly half of U.S. households, it's simply somebody else's problem.

About 47% will pay no federal income taxes for 2009. Either their incomes were too low, or they qualified for enough credits, deductions and exemptions to eliminate their liability. That's according to projections by the Tax Policy Center, a Washington research organization.

The vast majority of people who escape federal income taxes do pay other taxes, including federal payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, and excise taxes on gasoline, aviation, alcohol and cigarettes. Many also pay state or local sales, income and property taxes.

At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson says that the data pose a problem in civics.

So 50 percent of the country is not contributing to the part of the budget that electeds actually control. With half the country currently shielded from the burden of funding a defense and discretionary budget, there are serious questions to ask about how that changes the politics of taxing and spending.

The even more interesting question that spans economics and morality is whether a tax code that exempts half the country is just. The New Yorker's John Cassidy argues from a moral perspective that wealth is a social creation whose marginal utility declines with income, which supports the philosophy of a progressive tax system.




Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Expatriation and Taxes

In our chapter on citizenship, we have a section on "expatriation" -- the cutting of ties with the country. The Wall Street Journal reports on a new trend:

The number of American citizens and green-card holders severing their ties with the U.S. soared in the latter part of 2009, amid looming U.S. tax increases and a more aggressive posture by the Internal Revenue Service toward Americans living overseas.

According to public records, just over 500 people world-wide renounced U.S. citizenship or permanent residency in the fourth quarter of 2009, the most recent period for which data are available. That is more people than have cut ties with the U.S. during all of 2007, and more than double the total expatriations in 2008.

An Ohio-born entrepreneur, now based in Switzerland, told Dow Jones he is considering turning in his U.S. passport. Mounting U.S. tax and reporting requirements are making potential business partners hesitate to do business with him, he said.

"I still do dearly love the U.S., and renouncing my citizenship is not something I take lightly. But more and more it is seeming like being part of a dysfunctional family," said the businessman, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution.

"The tax itself is only a small part of the issue," the Swiss-based entrepreneur said. "It's the overall regulatory environment."

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Snopes!

In writing our "Myths and Misinformation" boxes, we frequently checked with Snopes (www.snopes.com), an excellent site that debunks urban legends. The New York Times has profiled Snopes and its founders, David and Barbara Mikkelson. An excerpt:
Snopes is one of a small handful of sites in the fact-checking business. Brooks Jackson, the director of one of the others, the politically oriented FactCheck.org, believes news organizations should be doing more of it.

“The ‘news’ that is not fit to print gets through to people anyway these days, through 24-hour cable gasbags, partisan talk radio hosts and chain e-mails, blogs and Web sites such as WorldNetDaily or Daily Kos,” he said in an e-mail message. “What readers need now, we find, are honest referees who can help ordinary readers sort out fact from fiction.”

Even the White House now cites fact-checking sites: it has circulated links and explanations by PolitiFact.com, a project of The St. Petersburg Times that won a Pulitzer Prize last year for national reporting.

Another such site (not exclusively political) is http://urbanlegends.about.com/


The Filterless Presidency?

In our chapters on the presidency and the mass media, we discuss press coverage of the White House. Presidents often dislike that coverage, so for decades they have sought ways to "go over the heads" of the reporters. President Obama has taken that effort to a new level as Lloyd Grove observes in The Daily Beast:

With their audiences eroding along with advertising revenue, long-established television and print outlets are painfully cinching their belts. They are shutting down Washington bureaus, firing hundreds of experienced journalists and—as with a planned presidential trip this Wednesday to Prague, where Obama will sign an arms-control deal and meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev—not even anteing up for the usual White House press charter. Members of the press corps who wish to cover the visit will have to make their own way to Prague by flying commercial.

Next stop: The Filterless Presidency?

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near that,” said Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton, by way of denying that gambling is going on in Casablanca. Burton resists the notion that he and his colleagues are scheming to undermine the trained professionals in the pressroom, in order to have a clean shot at disseminating their spin. “We do take advantage of the new technology to give more information to as many people as we can. The president made a commitment to the transparent White House, and we are working for that effort with new media—working in any way we can to get more images and information to the public.”

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Race to the Top

Governors are questioning the "Race to the Top" initiative, wondering about the criteria for picking winners. The New York Times reports:

A dozen governors, led by Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado, sat with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a hotel ballroom in Washington a few weeks back, praising his vision and gushing with enthusiasm over a $4 billion grant competition they hoped could land their states a jackpot of hundreds of millions of dollars.

But for many of those governors, the contest lost some sizzle last week, when Mr. Duncan awarded money to only two states — Delaware and Tennessee.

Colorado, which had hoped to win $377 million, ended in 14th place. Now Mr. Ritter says the scoring by anonymous judges seemed inscrutable, some Coloradans view the contest as federal intrusion and the governor has not decided whether to reapply for the second round.

“It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s,” Mr. Ritter said.

The Times also notes a possible political angle to the timing:

Administration officials say they consider last week’s outcome a splendid success. By awarding only $100 million to Delaware and $500 million to Tennessee, Mr. Duncan retained $3.4 billion to dole out to up to 15 winning states in September, weeks before the midterm elections — a political bonus that officials insist is mere serendipity.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Easter Reflections on the Establishment Clause

At the Huffington Post, John Whitehead recently wrote of a case in which a school superintendent forbade student musicians from performing an instrumental version of "Ave Maria" at graduation, lest anyone take offense.
In an attempt to avoid offending anyone, America's public schools have increasingly adopted a zero tolerance attitude towards religious expression. The courts have not helped, allowing schools the discretion to let an offended minority control a cowed majority. Such politically correct thinking has resulted in a host of inane actions, from the Easter Bunny being renamed "Peter Rabbit" to Christmas Concerts being dubbed "Winter" Concerts and some schools even outlaw the colors red and green, saying they're Christmas colors. And now, simply because someone is offended by the title, students cannot play music that has no words and is performed with no religious intent.



Friday, April 2, 2010

The Declaration and the Constitution

Fox reports:

In a video posted on You Tube, Adam Sharp of the St. Louis Tea Party asked Rep. Phil Hare which part of the Constitution authorizes the government to mandate that all Americans buy a private product such as health insurance. The Illinois Democrat replied, "I don't worry about the Constitution on this."

"Jackpot, brother," Sharp said.

Hare cringed in disgust and said, "Oh please. What I care more about, I care more about the people dying every day who don't have health care."

"You care more about that than the U.S. Constitution that you swore to uphold?" Sharp shouted back.

When an observer pointed out that those words come from the Declaration of Independence, Hare said, "Doesn't matter to me. Either one."

In attributing "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" to the Constitution, Representative Hare made a common mistake. Here are a few of many examples from The Congressional Record:

  • Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA), May 18, 2009: "The question of whether one is ever able to take the innocent life of another intentionally lies at the root of not only Catholic doctrine, but lies at the root of the Judeo-Christian tradition which has given voice to the Constitution where it says we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, with life being the first of those three."
  • Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), January 29, 2009: "I don't see how anybody can vote against an amendment that protects the life of the unborn child after having read the Constitution about its great desire to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
  • Rep. Jim Ryun (R-KS), May 13, 2004: "Finally, I encourage all Americans to take this opportunity to rededicate themselves to the ideals set forth in our Constitution that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
  • Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D-OR), January 28, 1998: Our brave men and women in law enforcement are a well ordered militia. They must be the ones to preserve law and order to keep our streets safe. The Constitution guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Presidents have made the mistake, too. In proclaiming Citizenship Day and Constitution Week in 1982, President Reagan wrote:

The Constitution provides the structure of our federal system and a system of checks and balances that applies equally to each branch of government, to relations between the states and the Federal Government, and, as importantly, to each of us. It protects the rights of all Americans to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and limits governmental authority to ensure these liberties are faithfully protected-both by and from the state.
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Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Problematic Poll

Our chapteron public opinion and participation urges readers to look at survey results with care.
The Harris Poll has put out a remarkable release that illustrates the point:
A new book, Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America by John Avlon describes the large numbers of Americans who hold extreme views of President Obama. This Harris Poll seeks to measure how many people are involved. It finds that 40% of adults believe he is a socialist. More than 30% think he wants to take away Americans' right to own guns and that he is a Muslim. More than 25% believe he wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a world government, has done many things that are unconstitutional, that he resents America's heritage, and that he does what Wall Street tells him to do.
ABC polling expert Gary Langer writes:

The poll starts by telling respondents “here are some things people have said about President Obama,” then asking if they think each is true or false. Fifteen statements follow, with all (excluding “he is a Muslim”) unrelentingly negative. “True” answers run from a high of 40 percent, for “he is a socialist,” to a low of 13 percent, for “he wants the terrorists to win.”

The problems are fundamental. “Some people have said” is a biasing introductory phrase; it imbues the subsequent statements with an air of credibility – particularly when you don’t note that others say something else. (That approach can have problems of its own; the “some people” vs. “other people” format implies equivalence.)

The subsequent statements, for their part, are classically unbalanced – there’s no alternative proposition to consider. A wealth of academic literature, neatly summarized here, demonstrates that questions constructed in this fashion – true/false, agree/disagree – carry a heavy dose of what’s known as acquiescence bias. They overstate agreement with whatever’s been posited, often by a very substantial margin. (This reflects avoidance of cognitive burden, which tends to happen disproportionately with less-educated respondents, as is reflected in Harris’ results.)