EDITORIAL ROUND-UP

Posted in Quick Hits on October 26th, 2008 by Ed

Just a collection of good Sunday-before-the-Sunday-before Election Day reads.

David Frum continues the drumbeat of right-wingers abandoning ship with a semi-impassioned plea for the GOP to forget about McCain and focus on other electoral goals (WaPo, "Sorry, Senator. Let's Salvage What We Can.")

David Brooks says something semi-intelligent, although I wonder if he really believes that 2008 is when the GOP "Ceded the Center" (NYT). I'd say that happened circa 1980, Davey.

The Anchorage Daily News damns Palin with faint praise while endorsing Obama for President.

Mark Steyn, the guy who wrote that best-selling book about how we oughta be terrified that the brown Islamic hordes of brown brown people are fuckin' faster than whitey, lets loose a scattershot sampler of every last-ditch right-wing scare tactic in "Point of No Return" (National Review Online). Note how he, like Reagan often did, quotes Calvin Coolidge, that fiscal sage who greased the skids of America's bobsled ride to total economic collapse.

Bill Kristol decides that Palin didn't fail, she was failed by the McCain campaign. Those knuckleheads simply neglected to properly utilize the powerful asset that is Governor Know-Nothing.

PLAUSIBILITY, OR: NORTH DAKOTA?

Posted in Election 2008 on October 24th, 2008 by Ed

The American public has the long-term memory of a fruit fly desperately trying to escape from a blazing bong. It is also, as we are all aware, light on facts. These two things, combined with a healthy dose of denial among half the population, leads to some very curious interpretations of what is or is not plausible in the context of this election.

It has become very fashionable lately for polling numbers to be rejected out of hand because, well, obviously the results are ridiculous. Montana? North Carolina? Georgia? North Dakota? Pffffft. That's retarded. Anything which puts Obama ahead, or even competitive, in those states surrenders credibility immediately.

When did the 2000/2004 incarnation of the electoral map become the alpha and omega of American political geography? Maybe, just maybe, there was a constant in those races (Our Leader) and two opponents who had limited appeal. In 1996 – as if ancient history like twelve years ago could ever be relevant! – Clinton/Gore won states in the deep south and 51% of the vote in West Virginia, where Obama's recent polling competitiveness has been the subject of mockery. The Democrats also carried Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico in that race, proving more than competitive in the mountain west. Bob Dole won South Dakota that year – by 3%. Raise your hand if you realized any of this. The point is that it wasn't all that long ago that the states we now definitively classify as "red" or "blue" were competitive – not quite the Verdun-like fortresses of partisanship they are now made out to be.

Montana? Can Obama really be competitive in Montana? Well, Montana has a Democratic Governor (Brian Schweitzer, a finalist in the VP search), two Democratic Senators (Max Baucus and future leadership-appointee Jon Tester), and a Democratic majority in the State Senate. Frankly, I'd be more suspicious if the polls indicated that Obama had no shot. Is he the favorite? No. Are polls showing the state to be competitive completely off base? Up to you, but it does not appear to be an outlandish idea.

North Dakota? Two Democratic Senators and a Democrat in its At-Large House district. Bill Clinton had some traction there. Again, you'd be foolish to call Vegas and put money on Obama, but a poll indicating competitiveness shouldn't be rejected out of hand.

North Carolina and Virginia both have huge African-American populations and young, growing populations overall. Northern Virginia and the Research Triangle aren't exactly backwoods GOP country. Warner is winning his VA Senate race in a laugher (after a narrow win by Jim Webb in 2006). It's not much of a stretch to see a weak GOP Presidential candidate struggling, or even trailing, in these environments.

We will know the outcome of this election for certain in just 11 days, but pieces of data suggesting that our electoral map won't look like 2004 aren't cause for skepticism. The Bush years are over. Anyone who lived through them is likely to have a hard time believing that. But it's true. We respond differently as a nation to different candidates and, as McCain is quick to remind you, George W. Bush isn't running. Compare 1984 to 1996, 1996 to 2000. You'll see significant differences. Hell, 20 years ago California was GOP country and West Virginia was one of the mere eight states that Michael Fucking Dukakis won. What you see in 2008 simply isn't going to look like 2004, regardless of who wins. Different times, different issues, different voters, and different candidates. If a Democrat can get elected to Congress in rural Utah and Hawaii chooses a female Jewish Republican Governor, there aren't too many things that should be considered geographically implausible in American politics.

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UPDATE: TWO WEEKS OUT

Posted in Election 2008 on October 23rd, 2008 by Ed

I was part of a group email exchange recently in which some Obama fans noted their unshakable pessimism, the idea that McCain will somehow win irrespective of the current conditions. This is the nagging feeling that Democrats have earned from decades of being the Washington Generals of American politics. Nothing can ever go right. They will always snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

I would like to share that pessimism, especially after 2004. Try as I might, I just cannot make the math work for McCain. There are only two ways to conjure up a McCain victory at this point: electoral fraud, which I do not endorse, or the assumption that literally hundreds of polls conducted by independent, Democratic, and Republican organizations are wrong, with which I can't agree.

To win, McCain will need to prevail in every single swing state and two or more states (depending on which ones) in which he currently trails by a statistically significant margin. I do not have the words for how unlikely or implausible that appears at the moment. The polls will narrow over the next two weeks as undecideds finally extract heads from asses, but there are only two ways to get around the data showing Obama in the lead. First, assume that the polls are just wrong. All of them. Significantly wrong. In a dozen states and nationwide. That sounds more like a childish denial of reality than a logical argument. Second is to believe, absent any empirical evidence, that he's about to mount an overwhelming and rapid comeback. Good luck with that.

Money-wise, Obama's recent figures stagger me. Regardless of my preferences, I find the amount of money required in these elections to be sickening. Obama raised more than $5 million per day in September – that means that his campaign raised $58 per second for an entire month. McCain isn't exactly hurting, raising tens of millions as well, but the fund raising by Obama has dwarfed anything conceivable even a few years ago. Obama can literally piss money away on any half-cocked idea that crosses the campaign's mind. Campaign hard in North Dakota? Why not! Thirty minutes of network TV time? Buy it! Six million dollars worth of advertising during each NFL game? Do it! It is like an episode of Supermarket Sweep at this point, sprinting down the aisles, arms outstretched, pushing anything in reach into the cart.

What's he doing with that cash? He's straining McCain to the mental and financial breaking point. Unlike Kerry, who unwisely devoted all of his attention to just a few states, Obama is running hard and running hard everywhere. McCain can't just focus on "swing states." He has to waste precious time and money making sure he holds Indiana. That is not good.

I expect very little to change in twelve days. Barring some world-shattering event (the Russians invade, the stock market plummets to zero, etc) I feel like the dynamics of this race will not substantively change in such a short time. Minds are largely made up and the contest becomes a battle of who will show up on Election Day. McCain should spend less time throwing the kitchen sink of "hot button" issues at the media to turn undecided voters against Obama. Instead, he should do everything in his power to keep his existing supporters motivated. If they say "fuck it" and give up, he has no chance. If they stay fired up, he has some chance. Hoping that his base outnumbers Obama's support might not make great odds, but they're better odds than throwing inane smears around and hoping they work.

Obama's plan shouldn't change: stay calm, talk about the economy. That's it. As long as everyone's focus remains on our pitiful economic climate, the odds of voters flocking to McCain's "message", whatever the hell it is, are slender.

FAIR; BALANCED

Posted in Quick Hits on October 22nd, 2008 by Ed

Fox News headline on Obama's record-obliterating fund raising exploits: "Obama Shatters Records With Unprecedented Money Grab."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is almost verbatim a joke from The Simpsons. Except they are not kidding. That is Fox in a nutshell: "No, seriously, this isn't satire" should be their new motto.

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TARDS IN POWER

Posted in Rants on October 22nd, 2008 by Ed

Being in a position of political power, contrary to the occasional populist assertion otherwise, requires intelligence and not "common sense." Aside from the implications for decision-making, really dumb people in positions of great influence tend to spend most of their time abusing power for their own benefit and that of their cronies.

Now, I don't argue that it requires a PhD and two victories over Deep Blue in a chess tournament to be the Mayor of Detroit. But it would probably help if said Mayor was a little brighter than Kwame Kilpatrick, a stunningly incompetent oaf who's on the greased rail to federal prison. Kilpatrick, who recently resigned after pleading guilty to two felonies, spent most of his time in office funneling $250,000 in state grant money to an organization whose sole employee was his wife, hiring his incompetent friends and family at lavish salaries, using $8500 in city funds on a five-star resort vacation, having stripper parties at the public Mansion provided for his use, and firing whistleblowers. It was the latter, embroiled in an extramarital affair to boot, that earned him eight indictments. This is a classic example of crass, stupid people in power; they believe that rules don't apply to them and their sole purpose in office is to be an 1880s-style patronage dispenser. We are all aware that politics is about distributing the goods in exchange for favors, but there's a difference between being subtle (and legal) about it and doing the equivalent of stick-up in a dark alley.

Ex-Mayor Kilpatrick is hardly the sole example. My place of origin, Cook County, IL, is legendary for its corrupt and "distributive" view of politics. We've all heard the stories about Old Man Daley, but the current Democratic machine also provides us examples like Todd Stroger, son of late County Board bigshot John. Junior also favors jobs for moronic relatives and massive "consulting fees" from contract bidders for work that we can only assume involves strippers. In Chicago this barely raises an eyebrow, but it provides a good example nonetheless of what we get when we choose candidates based on criteria that have nothing to do with brainpower: corruption, corruption, and more corruption. And it isn't subtle or clever. It's brazen, arrogant, and opportunistic.

There's a certain governor who also illustrates the point nicely. The AP has learned (hey look! occasional investigative journalism!) that she had the RNC buy her $150,000 in new clothes to perfect that dashing style that gets talk radio's puds furiously pounded. This gets at least as much attention as John Edwards' expensive haircut, right? How about the $21,000 she hung on the taxpayers of Alaska for 64 round-trip flights for her daughters? Oops, forgot the extended stays in $700 per night hotels for the kids too. Certainly the kids were on "official state business." At least Bristol was supervised. Last but easily the most ballsy, she took over $17,000 in per diem money to work at home – a rate of $60 per day – in addition to more than $40,000 in travel costs for repeated Wasilla to Juneau trips.

I really respect good thieves. I respect good criminals in general, an attitude that has gotten me many a disapproving stare over the years. I don't care; if you concoct a brilliant, well-executed plan to steal something or blow up a building, I will tip my hat to your ingenuity while disapproving of your moral judgment and hoping you get the punishment you deserve. These kinds of politicians don't even try, though. They're not simply lazy, they're dumb. Their thievery is crass because they're incapable of devising anything more clever. If Jack Abramoff's corruption or the S&L scandal were the Great Train Robbery, Kilpatrick's or Palin's corruption is a $20 smash-and-grab robbery at a ghetto liquor store.

THOU ART A SHITTY WRITER

Posted in Quick Hits on October 21st, 2008 by Ed

Re-reading yesterday's entry, something struck me about Ross McKenzie's handjob/commentary:

So how about a single word to describe John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running-mate? Sensational. If he becomes the next president, he may well look back and see this decision – this long Statue-of-Liberty pass downfield – as winning the game for him before Labor Day.

The "Statue of Liberty" play is a running play (like so or, famously, by Boise State in their improbable Fiesta Bowl win). It is decidedly not a pass. I don't fault someone for not understanding the fine points of American football, but why use metaphors without understanding them? I believe you meant "Hail Mary," Mr. No Proofreading. Way to be a lazy hack of a writer. This is precisely why I don't use cricket metaphors.

DON'T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB

Posted in Election 2008, Rants on October 21st, 2008 by Ed

There is a divide among political scientists between those who treat polling or survey data as sacrosanct ("Of course it's reliable, look at how scientifically we collected it!") and those who consider it slightly more accurate than flipping a coin. I fall somewhere in the middle. Polling is riddled with issues that aren't easy to explain away or "correct" with post-measurement methodological voodoo (social desirability and question-order effects, for example) but a dozen polls all pointing in the same direction are a reliable indicator of a trend. I suppose I could describe myself as a believer in Zaller's "Miracle of Aggregation" theory with respect to polling – any one is of limited value, but in quantity they paint a useful picture.

My attititude suggests, therefore, that I believe Obama is going to win. Why? Because it is essentially impossible to find a poll that says otherwise right now. He has won every nationwide poll since Palin opened her mouth and he is the clear trend leader in every important battleground state. His electoral vote total will range between 313 and 375 – a crushing victory – based on aggregated single-state polls. Polling has him ahead in utterly improbable places like North Dakota and North Carolina.

In short, and I say this with due respect to my pollster colleagues, if Obama loses this election the entirety of the contemporary polling industry should be ridiculed into oblivion. Now that literally every single poll is pointing squarely at a solid Obama victory, his defeat would not mean simply that the polls "got it wrong." It would mean that they got it so utterly, overwhelmingly, and inexcusably wrong that the entire art, science, and industry of measuring public opinion will have to be blown up and rebuilt from scratch. This would not be "getting it wrong" like some journalist who picked the Red Sox over the Rays. This would be Dewey Defeats Truman wrong. Maginot Line wrong. They'll Hail Us As Their Liberators wrong. Coke II wrong. Historically, epically wrong.

Could they really be that far off? Well, there are two ways to be wrong in this game – missing high and missing low. Here are a pair of logical, ostensibly plausible scenarios that illustrate how.

  • Scenario 1: McCain Wins – Let's say that there is some characteristic about likely McCain voters that makes them unwilling to admit their support. Maybe they're embarrassed or maybe they just like fucking with the librul media and its polls. Whatever the reason, they're saying "Undecided" when their preference is McCain. So in every state where the polls split along the lines of Obama 47, McCain 45, McCain will come out on top because the 8% of respondents indicating "Undecided" or "Don't Know" are really his supporters.
  • Scenario 2: Obama Hits 400 EV – Polls are often accused of undercounting young, black, and low-income voters (more on that later this week). They also under-represent cell phone users in most cases, although good organizations are correcting for that in their samples now. But for the sake of this argument, suppose that turnout among (overwhelmingly Democratic) college-aged and black voters positively dwarfs anything we've seen before. Both demographics turn out in droves, far in excess of the rate at which they are sampled in polls. Obama not only wins everything he is currently predicted to win but pulls a few "holy shit!"-style upsets in places like Tennessee, Louisiana, and Georgia.

    Is either scenario likely? We can only speculate at this point. I know enough about the guts of big polling operations – and some of the folks involved – to be certain that they have thought of these issues. Gallup et al employ high-level statistical wizards and experts in polling methodology to correct for or avoid such landmines. I have confidence in my colleagues. What I don't have confidence in is the efficacy of quantitative ways to "correct" the inherent limitations of survey-based research. When shove comes back to push, we are still basing conclusions about an electorate of over 180 million eligible voters on the responses of ~800 yahoos who are lonely enough to sit on the phone talking to a pollster (or worse, a robo-dialer) for 15 minutes.

    The error and obstacles inherent in this process means that we shouldn't be shocked if polls are wrong – we should be amazed that they're ever right. But this year, with every single indicator pointing in the same direction, there will be consequences for being wrong. The entire industry can't just chuckle and say "Well, nature of the beast!" Heads will roll, souls will be searched, and we will have to go back to the drawing board. The Smooth Jimmy Apollo excuse from The Simpsons ("When you're right 52% of the time, you're wrong 48% of the time!" "OK Jimmy, you're off the hook.") isn't going to cut it. It's not possible to blow something this badly and simply go back to business as usual.

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    THE TIME MACHINE

    Posted in Election 2008 on October 20th, 2008 by Ed

    Although not a "writer" per se, perhaps my favorite living writer not named Thomas Frank is recording engineer Steve Albini. He writes very little these days, but when he was younger and had a more active pen (not a metaphor for his penis – an actual pen) he authored some of the most classic rants about the music industry you would ever hope to read. He has heavily influenced my writing style, probably more than anyone realizes.

    Among the classics is a 1994 rejoinder to Chicago music critic Bill Wyman entitled "Three Pandering Sluts and their Music-Press Stooge." Mr. Wyman had written a feature about three successful "indie" musical groups – Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, and Liz Phair. Aside from the copious swearing and Albini's uncanny ability to be a complete dick in writing, my favorite portion is his conclusion: "Clip your year-end column and put it away for ten years. See if you don't feel like an idiot when you reread it."

    Sure enough, fourteen years later Wyman's effusive praise does seem ridiculous. SP went into a nosedive and even their "good" albums sound incredibly dated now. Urge Overkill disappeared 15 minutes after this was written. Liz Phair attempted to turn herself into a teeny-bopper, the results of which were so embarrassing that she should have been imprisoned. Wyman, in short, bought marketing hype and spoke glowingly about what turned out to be flavors-of-the-minute. Now that those artists' fad has passed, the author's laudatory words are silly in hindsight.

    Lesson learned: if you're going to write something down for posterity and general consumption, put a little thought into it with an eye toward avoiding future embarrassment. Before something is drowned in praise, be fully informed and make sure it has some staying power.

    Right-wing columnists, of course, are unable to feel shame or humility and their employers never hold them accountable for their past inaccuracies. It's simply not worth it for them to fret about how their words will look weeks, months, or years later. The only thing that matters is stoking the prejudices of their base and getting through the day's talking points. Nonetheless, you have to wonder if some of the pundit class regrets their words about Sarah Palin during and immediately after the GOP convention. Without knowing anything about her, they dove headlong into hyperbolic ass-kissing mode. I wonder if re-reading that stuff makes them feel like idiots yet.

    Bill Kristol, who privately lobbied McCain to pick Palin, gave us the classic shitburger "A Star is Born?" on September 1. At least he covered his ass by noting:

    If Palin turns out not be up to the challenge for which McCain has selected her, McCain will pay a heavy price. His judgment about the most important choice he’s had to make this year will have been proved wanting.

    Bullseye, Billy! But caveats and restraint were soon off the table as Kristol followed up a week later with "A Heartbeat Away." Here he lets us know that:

    McCain didn’t just pick a politician who could appeal to Wal-Mart Moms. He picked a Wal-Mart Mom…A Wasilla Wal-Mart Mom a heartbeat away? I suspect most voters will say, No problem. And some — perhaps a decisive number — will say, It’s about time.

    Kristol was actually shy compared to some of the others. Ron Dreher said "Why does the Angry Left hate Sarah Palin? Because of the potentially transformative power of her example" in his handjob piece, although he certainly changed his mind in a hurry! Ann Coulter chimed in with the characteristically-intelligent "The Best Man Turned Out to Be a Woman." Cal Thomas humiliates himself in "Steel Magnolia," laden with gems like:

    McCain's selection may be risky, my bet is that the pretty, pro-life, gun-toting, hockey mom is going to pleasantly surprise a lot of people with her toughness and common sense view of life and the world.

    Monica Charen tells us, in "Game Changer," that:

    McCain must also have sensed that a young, attractive woman from a western state would inject a dose of energy and enthusiasm into the race. On this, McCain may not have even guessed at how right he was (though one senses that Cindy McCain knew). Sarah Palin is political dynamite. She has transformed Republicans from flaccid to fired-up overnight. Just by being pro-life, small town, patriotic, and religious, she set the teeth of the media types on edge. By being all of that AND smart and articulate, and a budget hawk, she sent conservatives over the moon.

    The return trip from the moon didn't take long. Ross Mackenzie blows his colleagues away, though, unhinging his jaw like a snake to swallow a few extra inches of wang for the right-wing base:

    So how about a single word to describe John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running-mate? Sensational. If he becomes the next president, he may well look back and see this decision — this long Statue-of-Liberty pass downfield — as winning the game for him before Labor Day. What’s so terrific about Gov. Palin? How much time do you have?

    We all know, for example, that writing an email or phoning someone while angry is a bad idea. Emotional, knee-jerk reactions never look good in hindsight. The world of right-wing media operates by different rules, but only to a point. Some well-known righties have done rapid 180s on Palin; others will defend her to the bitter end. All of them, however, have left a trail of words that we outside of the 30% Club will be only too happy to revisit.

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    OLIVER STONE HAS A BAD IDEA

    Posted in No Politics Friday on October 17th, 2008 by Ed

    Oliver Stone's new George W. Bush biopic (or "dramatization" or whatever one calls a life story retold with poetic license) seems, even in comparison to every other Oliver Stone movie, like the wrong movie at the wrong time. The acting may be great, it may be funny, it may be accurate, and it may cure cancer after two viewings, but….who in the hell actually wants to watch a movie about George W. Bush after seven years and nine months of living the George W. Bush experience?

    Matthew Brady, undoubtedly the most important (and first) photojournalist, is famous today for the thousands of uncensored images he made of the American Civil War.** What is often forgotten is that immediately after the War he went bankrupt and died penniless, many of his images being destroyed in the process. It wasn't because his pictures were not gripping or lacked artistic merit – it was simply that after the Civil War, no one wanted to look at pictures of the Civil War.

    Stone's film might have been the perfect movie for 2011. Maybe at that point we will have gained enough distance from these events to appreciate them as a source of comedy, irony, or entertainment. Right now it feels a little like expecting the public in 1866 to pay to see photos of mangled, bloody Union soldiers and burnt villages. Maybe I am incorrect and the public will flock to see the film, but I very much doubt it. Sticking with the Civil War theme, when Booth's co-conspirators were executed in 1865, a newspaper called the Evening Star stated:

    The last act of the tragedy of the 19th century is ended, and the curtain dropped forever upon the lives of its actors. Payne, Herold, Atzerodt and Mrs. Surratt have paid the penalty of their awful crime. In the bright sunlight of this summer day the wretched criminals have been hurried into eternity…We want to know their names no more.

    That is the best summary of how I feel about this administration and everyone responsible for the events of the last eight years. There will come a time when I want to think about them in great detail, but it certainly is not now.

    **He also photographed 18 of the 19 presidents between 1824 and 1900, excepting only William Henry Harrison, and is responsible for the only extant photographs of six presidents. Among them is John Quincy Adams, the earliest president (chronologically) to be photographed, albeit late in his life and many years after he left office. The first president to be photographed while in office, also by Brady, was John Tyler.

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    GINANDTACOS PRESENTS: GREAT MOMENTS IN BEING RETARDED

    Posted in Election 2008, Quick Hits on October 16th, 2008 by Ed

    This is the McCain campaign in a nutshell: his "Joe the Plumber" prop from last evening's debate is related to a man who married into the Keating family. Not exactly a close relation, but why in the name of god would McCain use an example – an example he KNOWS we are going to dash off and research – that will lead back to, and hence remind everyone of, his Keating Five connections?

    The only good answer? Because he is retarded.