Time's Joe Klein reports on a focus group and a common complaint against Barack Obama:
"Change" as a theme is over. Too vague. And Obama's rhetoric has begun to seriously cut against him. "No more oratory," one woman said. "Give us details." (There may be a racial component to this, by the way, as some white people associate soaring oratory with African-American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson.)
I always wonder about this stuff. I mean, it’s inconceivable to me that this woman is genuinely yearning to learn more about the details of Obama’s policy agenda. If she actually wanted to know, she could, you know, look into it. She could learn all about the differences between auctioning emissions permits and giving them away, about the implications of having the federal government provide reinsurance for catastrophic medical expenses, about the case for a permanent R&D tax credit, etc., etc.
He may be right, but I wonder whether "details" really means "priorities." That is, people know that Obama isn't going to do everything promised on his website during his first year in office, so they may want to know what's at the top of the list. There are plenty of simple policy proposals here; why not put 10 of them on Obama's home page? It worked for the Republican Party and its Contract with America in 1994.
Time magazine political analyst Mark Halperin is getting some heat for his This Week appearance in which he seemed to go against conventional wisdom. As Steve Benen reports:
For those of you who can't watch clips online, the roundtable discussion turned to the story about John McCain having so many homes, he can't remember how many he currently owns. "My hunch is this is going to end up being one of the worst moments in the entire campaign for one of the candidates, but it's Barack Obama," Halperin argued, adding, "I believe that this opened the door to not just Tony Rezko in that ad, but to bring up Reverend Wright, to bring up his relationship with Bill Ayers."
Benen and others point out that McCain has been running tough negative ads against Obama for weeks, and they argue that McCain would have brought up Rezko/Wright/Ayers without any provocation from Obama. But Helperin's comments make sense if he meant that McCain will now get more traction from his anti-Obama ads. My guess is that, regardless of the frequency and content of each side's negative ads, political reporters/pundits will stick to a moral equivalency narrative, to the effect that both campaigns are equally negative and misleading. Even if Obama never runs another negative ad (an inconceivable possibility, I'll admit), the press will be able to use the multiple-house-McCain commercials as a counterexample to anything McCain puts on the air.
Of course, Halperin is one of the people most respsonsible for fashioning the campaign's narrative in the media, so his This Week remarks constituted less of a prediction than a promise.
While everyone focuses on the medal count in Beijing, where the Americans are #1, folks at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education think tank, have been running a parallel international competition on educational achievement and things aren't going well for Team U.S.A. Using four main international measures of student achievement, the institute's "Education Olympics" puts countries to the test in 58 categories. While the U.S. medal count in Beijing currently stands at 101, we have grabbed just one measley medal in the Education Olympics, a gold in the civics category that measures students' ability to distinguish fact from opinion and interpret political cartoons. Leading the medal count in the Education Olympics are Finland (35), Hong Kong (33), and Singapore (16).
The outgoing chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison has written a blunt piece about the direction of his state for the current issue of Madison Magazine. John D. Wiley's thesis:
Our politics has become a poisonous swill, and the most influential voice for the business community has been taken hostage by partisan ideologues.
Wiley looks approvingly toward Massachusetts, aruing that supposedly high-tax states have better economic conditions than low-tax (and low-income) states:
So which economies should we aspire to: the dynamic, high-income, high-tech, twenty-first-century economies of Minnesota, Delaware and Massachusetts, or the economies of South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama? Would raising Wisconsin's existing tax rates move us toward the former? Clearly not. State economies involve lots more parameters than the rate of taxation, and Wisconsin's current tax system is so unbalanced that simply raising rates would drive us in the wrong direction. But it is equally clear that higher taxation, by itself, hasn't hampered the economies of states that are outperforming Wisconsin, and lower taxation hasn't made the economies of Tennessee and Alabama any better in ways that benefit the citizens of those states.
Not surprisingly, Wiley also stresses the importance of investment in public higher education -- a bit ironinc given the fact that "dynamic" Massachusetts is not a big spender in this area and relies more heavily on private higher education than just about any state:
As chancellor, I had lots of occasions to meet with prominent, influential Wisconsin citizens and business leaders, and public support for public education was always at or near the top of my agenda for discussion. With almost no exceptions, everyone agreed that we can't grow our future economy without significant new investments in education--or at least a restoration of some of the last fifteen years worth of cuts. Those in the high-tech community are especially worried about the state's direction.
It might be a good thing if higher gasoline prices keep people from driving this winter, since higher prices for road salt might make the streets a little sloppier. Mike Stucka reports in the Salem News:
The cost for road salt is going up — dramatically. A Boxford-based consortium that buys salt for several local towns is facing a 30 percent price increase — from $48.90 a ton last year to $63.83 this year.
Ipswich, which is part of the consortium, expects to spend an extra $100,000 on salt, so it may leave roads a little slushier and stop clearing private ways, something it does now to let firetrucks and ambulances through.
The attention given to Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in this year's presidential campaign may be statistically justifiable. The map above (click it to enlarge) shows "bellwether" counties in the US -- not based on who won the them in recent elections but on how closely the came to matching the nationwide swing for or against the winning party. I calculated the percentage-point differences between each county's swing and the nationwide swing for each election from 1980 through 2004, then added them all up to find out the places that have deviated the least from the US total over that time. (For example, there was a swing toward the GOP and George W. Bush of 2.86 points in the last election. A county that swing 12.86 points toward Bush and a county that swung 7.14 points away from Bush would each be penalized 10 points for that election.)
Most of the bellweathers are in the Rust Belt states from Pennsylvania to Illinois -- but around the edges of the region rather than in the more economically vulnerable counties of Appalachia. There are few bellwethers in the South, where trends in presidential elections seem strongly influenced by whether a party puts a Southerner on its ticket. The Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states are usually tougher on the incumbent party than is the nation as a whole, perhaps because of their distance from DC. The more affluent Northeastern Corridor and Southern California counties generally lag behind the rest of the country in swinging against the party in power.
UPDATE: Counties with an *asterisk swung toward Barack Obama in 2008 to a much greater degree than the US as a whole and will probably be dropped from this list. The one county with a #pound sign swung away from Obama and will also likely be eliminated. The counties where Obama lost the most support were concentrated in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee and were not bellwethers to begin with.
1. Defiance, OH 2. Cumberland, PA 3. Howard, IN* 4. Ogle, IL 5. Susquehanna, PA 6. Kane, IL* 7. Cass, MI 8. Marion, OH 9. Lancaster, PA* 10. Wayne, IN 11. Bradford, PA 12. Boone, IN* 13. Adams, PA 14. El Paso, CO 15. Carroll, IL 16. Butler, OH 17. Tulsa, OK 18. York, PA 19. Madison County, VA 20. Hancock, OH 21. Johnson, IN* 22. Marshall, IN* 23. Sacramento, CA 24. Allen, OH 25. Berks, PA 26. Fulton, OH 27. Washington, MD 28. Hendricks, IN* 29. Wayne, PA 30. Yamhill, OR 31. Campbell, KY 32. Bartholomew, IN* 33. Delaware, OH 34. Kenton, KY 35. St. Joseph, MI* 36. Stanislaus, CA 37. Lycoming, PA 38. Wood, OH 39. Sampson, NC 40. Roanoke City, VA 41. Washington, NC 42. Monroe, MI 43. Salem City, VA 44. Harrison, TX# 45. Boone, IL 46. King William County, VA 47. Maricopa, AZ 48. Crawford, PA 49. Williams, OH 50. Pima, AZ
It's not in the same league as gay marriage, but Carla Howell and company's attempt to abolish the state's income tax through a voter referendum is getting some national exposure. The Wall Street Journal's Tom Herman uses the somewhat antiquated "Taxachusetts" label in the lead of his round-up of tax questions across the US. Here's part of his write-up:
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington-based coalition of taxpayers and taxpayer groups opposed to tax increases, agrees. The Massachusetts vote, officially dubbed "Question One," "could be a model for the future" in many other states, he says.
Critics of the proposal say passage would be a major blow. "It would be an absolute disaster for the state," says Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a Boston public-policy research group funded primarily by employers.
Herman mentions Gov. Deval Patrick's opposition to the proposal, but he doesn't note Patrick's recent high-profile signals (vetoing public pension increases, curbing highway police details) that he's trying to tighten state spending -- moves that may be more important than any ad campaign against Question One. It's hard to believe that Patrick didn't have the impending vote in mind when he authorized one of his cabinet officials to do this:
After a public rebuke from the Patrick administration, MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas agreed yesterday to rescind a 9 percent pay raise for executive employees that had been criticized as excessive for an agency struggling to pay its bills...
[H]e backed down yesterday after state Secretary of Transportation Bernard Cohen, who is also chairman of the MBTA board, sent him a letter urging him to rescind the raises for the most highly paid employees.
The Daily News Transcript reports that the lower chamber on Beacon Hill came to a standstill yesterday over a single liquor license in Westwood. At this point, the town needs unanimous legislative approval to grant a liquor license to the new Wegmans Supermarket this session, but state Rep. Angelo Scaccia is reportedly dead set against the idea. (So is a competing grocer without a liquor license.) As Lindsey Parietti reports, Westwood state Rep. Paul McMurty, a supporter of the license, isn't willing to drop the matter and move on:
McMurtry said he will continue to halt House proceedings until the issue is resolved.
"It's unfortunately the only way that I can emphasize the significance of this bill," he said. "I will be here for every informal session and I will do everything within my elected ability to see that democracy is heard."
Waiting for the running-mate picks to change the dynamics of the presidential election (maybe), I checked in at FiveThirtyEight.com to see where the state-by-state polls are right now. Using their poll averages (not their projections), I came up with a very shaky 296-242 Electroral College win for Barack Obama -- on the basis of him winning all of John Kerry's states, plus Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and Ohio. If turnout matched that of 2004 in each state, and currently undecided voters broke 50-50 (neither of which will be true), Obama would win by 46 percent to 43 percent in the popular vote and get a raw-vote margin of about 3.5 million. Again, a shaky lead for the Democrat as of mid-August.
Looking at individual states, Obama is polling at least five points behind John Kerry's 2004 showing in Massachusetts and New York (which he'll win anyway), and in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia (which he never had much chance of carrying). He's at least three points behind in the swing states of Michigan, Nevada, and Ohio.
John McCain is a bit farther back from his party's 2004 mark. He's polling at least 15 points behind George W. Bush in Idaho, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, but only North Dakota is considered remotely winnable for Obama. He's at least 10 points behind in Indiana and Montana, both historically Republican states that have been unexpectedly close in the polls.