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Archives for 2008 Election

Palin Resignation Is Wasillogical


Alaska Governor Sarah Palin shocked the nation Friday when she announced, abruptly, that she would vacate the Governor’s Mansion on July 26. The suddenness of her announcement led to wild speculation over holiday barbecues for a simple reason: Palin’s decision to leave office 18 months into her first term does not fit within the logic of conventional wisdom.

It would not have been a surprise to many if Governor Palin decided against seeking a second term. Her star on the national political stage had the potential to shine much brighter than the Big Dipper that graces Alaska’s state flag. But few expected her exit her current job so soon and so abruptly.

Her quick departure caused many to speculate that something else was going on in Palin’s life. Was there an FBI investigation? Did she or husband Todd have an undisclosed health crisis? Was eldest son Track being discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for taping an amateur porn video? Crazier things have been said about the family Palin, so it wouldn’t have been too surprising if any of these were, in fact, true.

In many ways, Sarah Palin seems like a contradiction to the common political observer. She supports the Religious Right, but, according to sources in her hometown of Wasilla, she only went to church on Christmas and Easter – until she sought higher elected office. She wants to legislate family values, but seems unable to instill them on her own children.

While to many, that would seem hypocritical, to Palin, it is simply being a “maverick.” And understanding Sarah Palin allows us to take her words at face value. Taking Governor Palin’s words at face value – something most Americans are loathe to do with politicians – her decision to leave office was “Wasillogical”. That is to say, it might make sense to people from Wasilla, Alaska, but not to the rest of us.

In Palin’s words, “And so as I thought about this announcement that I wouldn’t run for re-election and what it means for Alaska, I thought about how much fun some governors have as lame ducks… travel around the state, to the Lower 48 (maybe), overseas on international trade – as so many politicians do. And then I thought – that’s what’s wrong – many just accept that lame duck status, hit the road, draw the paycheck, and “milk it”. I’m not putting Alaska through that – I promised efficiencies and effectiveness! That’s not how I am wired. I am not wired to operate under the same old “politics as usual.” I promised that four years ago – and I meant it.”

Or to translate, Palin made the decision that she was no longer going to be Governor. Once that decision was made, what was the point of remaining Governor? So she decided to resign.

Logical would be a little bit like a married couple deciding to divorce. Few couples would decide after two years of marriage that they should get a divorce a year after making their decision. If they’re going divorce, they want to do so immediately. That is logical to most American

However, Palin’s decision feels a little different. “Wasillogical” would be more like that of the couple who, after they decide not to rush into marriage, one party abruptly declares that they can no longer be friends because he does’t just want a romantic relationship. On the surface, it sounds illogical. Yet in some ways it kind of makes sense not to continue walking down a dead-end road…and that’s Wasillogical.

The problem with being Wasillogical, however is that it is very difficult to parse out Palin’s thought process and understand her motives and considerations. We ascribe our own explanations to the situation (which fit our standard, lower-48 experiences) and talk about “another shoe to drop,” call her a “quitter” or worse.

So, if Palin hopes to re-enter the national political spotlight, she needs to remain in it following her departure from office. She needs to continue her conversation with the American people and give us something to think about other than her bizarre exit from Alaska’s political stage.

Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 4:52 PM | Permalink

Marriage By Any Other Name


Following last week’s decision on Proposition 8 by the California Supreme Court, proponents of marriage equality in the state rushed to lay the path to its undoing. The establishment gay rights groups are heading to the ballot box, with an initiative planned for 2010. Meanwhile a Hollywood-backed lawsuit with a marque legal team seeks to challenge the initiative on due process grounds in the Federal Courts.

For some reason, however, nobody is talking about going to the California State Legislature, which has twice voted to grant marriage equality. But that’s what the court decision demands. In its controversial ruling, the California Supreme Court created the possibility for a legislative remedy to the battle over same-sex marriage.

And despite the cheers coming from the proponents of Proposition 8 that the “protected marriage,” for Californians, they may have, in fact, planted the seeds of its destruction.

On Page 34 of their decision, the court tortuously states:

…”[b]ecause in common speech the term “right to marry” is most often used and understood to refer to an individual’s right to enter into the official relationship designated “marriage,” and in order to minimize potential confusion in the future, instead of referring to this aspect of the state constitutional rights of privacy and due process as “the constitutional right to marry,” hereafter in this opinion we shall refer to this constitutional right by the more general descriptive terminology used in the majority opinion in the Marriage Cases — namely, the constitutional right to establish, with the person of one’s choice, an officially recognized and protected family relationship that enjoys all of the constitutionally based incidents of marriage (or, more briefly, the constitutional right to establish an officially recognized family relationship with the person of one’s choice).”

Or for us non-lawyers, as a result of the Proposition 8 ruling, the “constitutional right to marry” in California, is now a “constitutional right to establish, with the person of one’s choice, an officially recognized and protected family relationship that enjoys all the constitutionally based incidents of marriage.”

If the Supreme Court were the Supreme Court of Fantasyland, not California, that would be all well and good. Unfortunately, in the Golden State, there exists no means to “establish, with the person of one’s choice, an officially recognized and protected family relationship that enjoys all of the constitutionally based incidents of marriage.”

The court, in other words, created something which does not exist and the state legislature needs to remedy the disparity between what is offered statutorily to same-sex couples and marriage, whether they call it domestic partnerships – a legal status that does exist – or something else.

But even then, when it comes to basic privacy rights, if this new “not-marriage” is only offered to same-sex couples, it poses a legal and practical conundrum. For example, my car insurance company distinguishes between married couples and domestic partners, which they call “cohabitants” and just plain roommates, which must be listed as “friends”.

And even if married spouses and “cohabitants” were treated equally in terms of insurance rates and protections, should gay and lesbian people be required to divulge their sexual orientation every time they fill out such a form?

What if, instead, the California legislature established a new category of officially-recognized relationship which allows two consenting adults to, in the words of the most recent state Supreme Court decision “establish, with the person of one’s choice, an officially recognized and protected family relationship that enjoys all of the constitutionally based incidents of marriage,” and applied it equally to all couples – same-sex or opposite sex – beginning January 1, 2010?

The legislature could choose any term but “marriage” to describe this new kind of contract created by the courts, be it a familiar one like “matrimony” or get creative and invent one…call it “spousage”. Heck, they could probably even call it “merridge” and be constitutionally in the clear. If this new institution is available to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, the privacy issues raised by the courts would be addressed.

It may well happen. With a legislature and Governor that are firmly behind marriage equality, Proposition 8′s attempts to “protect” marriage, may well lead to its undoing in California. If the legislature does create “marriage” under a different name we will see just how much faith people people place in the statement that there is no difference between marriage and marriage-by-another-name.

Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 4:50 PM | Permalink

A Gay Marriage Coaltion That Can Win


The California Supreme Court has spoken, ruling that voters had the right to amend the state’s constitution and eliminate the fundamental constitutional right to marry for same-sex couples. And while the legal arguments over Proposition 8 are settled, the issue of gay marriage will by no means go away.

It is time to expand the coalition of allies in order to win in 2010, when California voters will likely be asked to restore marriage equality for all Californians, not just those who are heterosexual or happened to get married between June and November, 2008. Looking to the future, gay and lesbian Californians should say that today marks “the first day of the rest of my life,” and put the battle over Proposition 8 in the past, where it belongs.

Even if the court had overturned Proposition 8, gays and lesbians would have still face inequalities, mostly at the federal level. Gays and lesbians are not allowed to serve openly in the armed forces. Nor can gays and lesbians claim any of the nearly two thousand federal benefits of marriage – tax benefits among them – or receive housing or employment protections in many states. As couples move to, from or between states and even countries that honor gay and lesbian marriages, the rights and responsibilities that apply to the couples will remain unclear until settled under federal law.

This discrimination continues to exist and as the movement towards full equality progresses, gays and lesbians must remember to put their own interests first, despite the appeal of building a big tent of allied causes. Today, gay and lesbian activists must not assume that because they lean left all of their allies follow suit. Forcing a “progressive agenda” onto the movement for equality risks alienating volunteers, donors and potential allies.

During the ballot battle over Proposition 8, a rainbow coalition was cobbled together among people of faith, people of color, business leaders, Republicans and many others. But because of the diversity and frailty of the coalition, good opportunities to leverage allies to the cause were missed. The opposition to Prop 8 by conservative figures like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and outspoken Affirmative Action opponent Ward Connerly was largely downplayed or ignored through most of the campaign, for fear that these spokespeople may alienate liberal members of the coalition, like labor and the NAACP.

Had opponents to Proposition 8 looked at the 30% support they had among Republican voters and increased it – instead of letting it slip to 18% by election day – there would have been no need for a Supreme Court ruling. In Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire, Republican legislators cast the deciding votes on whether marriage equality became the law. And in New York, it looks as though a handful of Republican Senators will decide whether gay and lesbian couples may marry.

But in looking at how the public campaign for same-sex marriage is being waged, It feels like some labor activists, having taken note of the new energy – and disorganization – in the gay rights movement, decided to co-opt that energy for its own cause. If gay and lesbian activists allow this to continue, it will be at their own peril.

Yet this is exactly what these public – and publicity-minded – activists risk doing. Rick Jacob’s Courage Campaign seized the anger of gay and lesbian activists over November’s vote in favor of the ban to push what they call a “new era for Progressive Politics in California.” Somehow, I fear, Jacobs is not trying to become the next Hiram Johnson.

The Stonewall 2.0 group, Equal Roots, used a Gay Pride week protest at the Long Beach Hyatt as a cover to protest the working conditions of housekeepers who were required to clean at least thirty rooms a day.

Even after Doug Manchester, a San Diego hotelier who donated $125,000 to get Proposition 8 on the ballot, sought to make peace with gay and lesbian activists, boycott organizer (and former tobacco lobbyist) Fred Karger refused to call off the boycott because the labor issues remained unaddressed.

Cleve Jones, who worked closely with Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black has effectively moved from being a gay rights activist and is now a union organizer for UNITE HERE, which represents, you guessed it, hotel workers.

Stonewall Democrats have teamed up with the AFL-CIO to form a campaign to support federal card-check legislation to take away worker privacy during union organizing campaigns.

As a supporter of marriage equality and full rights of citizenship for gays and lesbians, I could care less about whether my hotels’ housekeeping staffs are unionized. And, as a Republican, I am not alone in either position.

Aside from those who are or have family members who are gay or lesbian, the most likely Republicans to support gay and lesbian equality are those people who are Republicans because they are pro-business. They remember when the party stood for a strong economy, above all. It’s a tough sell to ask these pro-business Republicans to support a movement that is actively working against them – labor unions – but that is exactly the road that many gay and lesbian activists have taken in the wake of Proposition 8.

Now that the Proposition 8 and its fate has been decided, it is time for the gay rights movement to turn towards the future and put full equality for gays and lesbians at the forefront of the agenda, and build a broad coalition that includes all allies. Only then can supporters of marriage equality win in 2010.

Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 4:49 PM | Permalink

California’s Call to Convention


For the second time in four years, California voters have “sent a message” to Sacramento, rejecting budget reforms in the face of spiraling deficits. Yesterday, California voters killed all but one of a package of budget ballot measures designed to partially paper over the state’s growing deficits, just as they killed Governor Schwarzenegger’s attempt to “blow up the boxes” of state government back in 2005.

Now, it seems the only way to fix the state’s problems may be through a Constitutional Convention. And depending on the actions of the State Supreme Court in the next few weeks, Schwarzeneger and the business community may pick up an unlikely ally: The usually liberal gay and lesbian community.

Over the years, a series of constitutional amendments, and a the boom-and-bust cycle of the economy has made California practically ungovernable.

In 1978, voters passed Proposition 13, which limited the amount of annual increases in property tax assessments, thereby limiting the growth in property tax revenues received by state and local governments. Later that year, they also passed Proposition 8, which allowed for property owners to lower their maximum assessed values during real estate busts, like the cycle California is currently in.

But the pendulum swung back the other way a decade later, when voters, concerned that school funding was limited by these measures, passed Proposition 98. Prop 98 sets a minimum spending level for K-14 education. In 1988-89, it was 39 percent of state revenues. But Prop 98 also said that the dollar amount of funding shall never decrease AND that half of any new tax revenues be added to the Prop 98 minimums, in addition to adjustments made for enrollment growth.

Since 1998, California has seen boom and bust and boom over again. When the Internet bubble grew, state revenues expanded exponentially under Governor Gray Davis. When the bubble burst, so did capital gains revenues paid in the state – but Prop 98 mandates remained. The budget went so far out of balance that voters recalled Governor Davis.

Davis’ replacement, Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to initiate spending caps and budget reforms at the bottom of the budget crisis upon taking office, only to be rejected. Instead, the state budget “balanced” itself on the housing boom. As we well know, that went bust, and California’s budget with it.

That’s the fifty-cent version of how we got into the mess; but how does California get out of it?

Some budget “reformers” say that all California needs to do is lower the super-majority needed to pass a state budget and raise taxes to fifty percent from the two-thirds vote required today. The move is popular among California Democrats because the Republican Party, with 31 percent registration, is nearly regulated to permanent minority status in California.

Fixing California’s governance problems will require much more. Among the reforms needed, both the politically popular Proposition 13 and Proposition 98 need to be reconsidered – in tandem – so that state revenues and spending are not going on auto-pilot in different directions. And the roles of California’s four branches of government – the executive, legislative judiciary and electorate – should be reconsidered.

That is why the business-oriented Bay Area Council has called for a Constitutional Convention. They are finding allies across the political spectrum from Governor Schwarzenegger to the liberal editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times.

And these reformers may have another unlikely ally, depending on the outcome of litigation over last year’s Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment to eliminate the right to marry for same-sex couples. Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, wants a Constitutional Convention to also consider reinforcing protections for minorities and removing the discrimination added by voters last November: “If there is a constitutional convention, prohibiting discrimination against minorities, including marriage for same-sex couples, must be included in a broad package of reforms,” Kors has said.

A Constitutional Convention would be messy. The selection of delegates will have candidates running from all sorts of positions -limiting taxes, protecting special interest spending, restoring marriage rights, or taking away constitutional protections from minorities. There is no guarantee that the result of a Constitutional Convention would be any better than what we have today. But as former Los Angeles King Wayne Gretzky says, “you miss a hundred percent of the shots never take,” and California cannot afford to miss a chance on goal.

Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 4:48 PM | Permalink

California Republicans Should Fear Prop 8


Last fall, the theocratic wing of the California Republican Party took solace in a narrow victory on Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment eliminating the right to marry for same-sex couples. They cobbled together a coalition with just enough Latino, African-American and older voters to write the law into the constitution. But as minorities, the groups that passed Proposition 8 – including California Republicans – should hope that the law is struck down.

At some point between now and June 1, the California Supreme Court will render its decision on the constitutionality of Proposition 8. While the decision will impact whether the right to marry is restored to all Californians, it will have little to do about gay marriage as an issue. Instead, the court will be weighing a broader constitutional question: Who is the ultimate arbiter of fundamental freedoms in California?

“Rights are in the power of the people,” argued Proposition 8 defendant Kenneth Starr, claiming that rights may be granted or taken away by simple majority votes, regardless of their status in the Constitution.

If the court overturns Proposition 8, it will be because, historically, the role of the state’s courts is to protect the constitution freedoms of California from the over-reaching arms of the other branches of government – the executive, the legislature and the electorate. On the other hand, if the court upholds Proposition 8, it will abdicate its authority to the so-called “will” of the people to decide questions of civil rights by moving that power out of the courts and to the ballot box. As their numbers shrink, California Republicans should be worried if Proposition is upheld. The Grand Old Party’s membership is a minority of California voters – and its falling.

Republican registration efforts in California have gone bone-chillingly cold. Registered Republicans number but 31 percent of the state’s electorate. According to political guru Allan Hoffenblum, these precipitous drops are happening statewide, even in Republican districts. “Back in 2001, when the redistricting mapmakers gerrymandered the 80 Assembly districts in an attempt to keep the status quo of 50 safe Democratic districts and 30 safe Republican seats, five of the assembly districts had solid Republican majorities and an additional five had a GOP registration of between 48 – 50 percent. Today, it’s zero majority districts and only two with GOP registration over 48 percent.”

As more immigrants are naturalized, the California Republican Party’s anti-immigration posturing will only alienate these new voters and shrink the Republican registration numbers further.

Compare Republican registration at 30% to the 5% of California voters who identified themselves as gay or lesbian in 2008, and you see that California Conservatives are as much at risk of being the target of a ballot initiative as any other minority group in the state.

While it is unlikely that voters would try to target straight white Christian men – also known as what is left in the California GOP – for any ballot initiative, the values and freedoms that Republicans hold dear could easily come under attack if the court upholds Proposition 8. It is not far-fetched to think that the powerful California Teachers’ Unions might pass a constitutional amendment forbidding home-schooling. Nor is it a stretch to see the majority of Californians voting for such a ban. And while it might seem ludicrous to propose a “Traffic Mitigation and Freeway Safety Amendment” which would, for instance, ban Asian women from driving, that measure, too, under Starr’s theory, be constitutional as long as the measure were approved by a majority of voters.

This is anarchy. When rights are subject to the whims of the voters – as suggested by the backers of Proposition 8 – no right is secure. As a rapidly-shrinking minority, this should scare California’s Republicans.

Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 4:47 PM | Permalink

If You Can’t Regulate Stupid, Teach It


On opposite coasts, New York and California have struggled in recent years with a public health obsession with obesity. In each state, there have been different solutions offered – both of which have rankled libertarians and conservatives who oppose big-government intervention in people’s lives. The approaches offer a choice between empowering the individual or disenfranchising people, and only a few months in to each experiment, my personal experience tells me that knowledge is power.

In California, Los Angeles school board officials launched the battle on obesity by banning soda pop and other junk food in public schools. These items were inherently bad and children should not even have the choice to buy them – so went the board’s logic. By contrast, New York, the City recently required that chain restaurants list caloric content prominently on their menus.

Restaurant owners sued in New York, claiming that the law was a violation of the restaurants’ free speech rights, a view that was not upheld by the courts. But, given the choice between disclosing calorie counts or not serving items at all, the former is clearly the better option since people generally visit restaurants to eat.

Unlike most people, on a recent visit to New York, I actually paid attention to the calorie counts on the menu, and was somewhat surprised.

At Starbucks, I was shocked to see that, outside of plain oatmeal, one of the lowest-calorie items on their pastry menu was the bacon and egg sandwich. Conversely, the plain glazed donut ran close to 500 calories – or the equivalent of a quarter of the average person’s recommended daily caloric intake. And I’m taking another hint from this newfound knowledge. Starbucks New York doesn’t even serve my favorite item – the chocolate croissant!


Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 10:15 AM | Permalink

Losing Faith in “Hope” for a Change


Not two months into his Presidency and Barack Obama is showing the first signs of self-doubt. Stepping outside the arena of politics and policy for two television appearances last week, the President sent signals that he no longer believes in the personal narrative that brought him to the White House.

This is, after all, a man who claims to love the game of basketball. He’s got game, as they say. But when it comes to putting hope and faith in change into his picks for March Madness, our leader disappoints. And that’s not the only danger sign!

Everywhere he goes, Obama surrounds himself with trappings of the presidency. The best part about being on Air Force One, the president told Jay Leno, was that there is a jacket with the presidential seal on it. I don’t know about you, but the lie-flat bed, made to order food and the goes-anywhere-I-tell-it seem like much better perks than a jacket with a logo on it.

Barack Obama’s obsession with the presidential seal is nothing new. Last June, Obama’s presidential campaign rolled out a new logo. It looked so much like an official presidential seal that he was widely criticized for his arrogance and presumption – an allegation which troubled the Obama campaign for months. Three days later, it was gone.

Even when he made his picks in the NCAA basketball tournament on ESPN, the president made sure we knew he was president, again with the presidential seal on his official picks for the NCAA tournament, alongside the words “Presidential Bracket.”

Could it be that, after two months on the job, Barack Obama is internalizing his critics when they said that someone with less executive experience than Sarah Palin may not be ready to serve as leader of the free world? This obsession with the presidential seal, and making sure that everyone around him knows that Barack Obama is, indeed, the president, smacks of the opposite of arrogance. It’s instead a feeling of inadequacy!

And look at how he’s making his picks for the NCAA championship; talk about same-old-same-old. Obama chose the Tarheels of the University of North Carolina to win – like that’s never happened. “Here’s what I like about Carolina: experience and balance,” Obama said.

Experience and balance, you say? That sounds like the campaign narrative of Obama rivals, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, both of whom claimed to be ready to serve on day one. As an avid basketball fan, I’m here to tell you that if Barack Obama were truly confident in his personal narrative and campaign slogans of “Hope” and “Change”, then the Tarheels wouldn’t have been his pick.

Instead, he should have chosen the twelfth-seeded Arizona Wildcats.

Like the nation, the Wildcats got new leadership in the last year, with the retirement of coaching legend Lute Olson. Like Obama, they didn’t win every game, but won the right ones, and just enough to get by – narrowly slipping into the tournament as one of the last at-large teams. And like Obama, the Cinderella story of this year’s tournament gives us hope that in this country – like in this tournament – anything can, indeed happen.

If he believed in “hope” and “change” for college basketball, which as we know mirrors life exactly, President Obama would have gone with the Wildcats. But he didn’t. And that tells us as much about what he knows about basketball as it tells us about how well he knows himself.

Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 10:13 AM | Permalink

Penny Bonuses on Bailout Dollars


From Washington to Wall Street, Americans are talking bonuses, bonuses, bonuses, specifically the $165 million paid executives at American International Group, which is also the beneficiary of more than $170 billion in federal bailout funds. But like stem cells and social “wedge” issues, the outrage only distracts from the serious problems facing the economy.

$165,000,000 is a lot of money, and it seems outrageous that anybody receive a seven-figure bonus in order to stay in a job, especially in this economy. But relatively speaking, it is like finding pennies on the sidewalk. But in the grand scheme of things, the AIG bailout bonuses are minuscule when compared to AIG’s–and the nation’s–larger problems.

All the screaming and yelling over AIG’s bonuses amount to crying over a dime when you’ve already lost a hundred-dollar bill. For each hour Congress spends demagoguing the retention bonuses paid at AIG, they’d have to spend more than a year focusing on all the money that went into the corporate insurance giant’s pockets from the taxpayer.

Some back-of-the-napkin math renders easy comparisons. The bonuses that are getting all the media attention and Congressional scrutiny amount to one-one-thousandth of the bailout money paid to AIG, and just one-tent-thousandth of the Federal Deficit proposed by President Barack Obama for 2010.

If Congress spent proportionately as much time on its own financial mis-management, they’d have to start working on the budget for 2020, today. Which, come to think of it, that it might not be a bad thing!

It is tempting to wonder whether Congress would be upset if, say, union workers at a major automobile manufacturer received outrageously-disproportionate pay while their company was subsidized by taxpayer dollars. Would be the same scrutiny if the AIG bonuses were paid out under a union contract?

We – Congress, economists, elected officials of both parties – have been aware of a pending housing-prompted financial crisis for well over one year. The problem is not going away. When Bear Stearns collapsed one year ago this week, I called for prosecution on a grand scale–of Wall Street criminals and the Main Street criminals whose lies and irresponsibility toppled the house of cards that was America’s housing bubble.

A year later, those we considered Wall Street criminals are getting billions in bailouts. Those people whose financial decisions and fraudulent mortgage applications got them into homes they couldn’t afford are going to stay in those homes, with the help of taxpayers.

Recuperating the bonus bucks while turning a blind eye on the other 99.9% of dollars given to AIG is like putting a bandaid on s stab wound. Congress and the President are doing America a disservice by playing to populist principles the protect themselves from criticism that they may not have the right answers for fixing the economy.

But rather than address the fundamental problems in the economy, the Obama Administration and Congress following its lead, seem happy to distract us with the latest cultural or class warfare story-of-the-week. To borrow a phrase, that’s hardly change we should believe in.

Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 10:33 AM | Permalink

Barack Obama, Cultural Warrior


Barack Obama is pulling a page from Karl Rove’s tactical playbook: when things aren’t going so well, distract the masses with a culture war. Just because the Obama White House doesn’t agree with its predecessors doesn’t mean they cannot employ the Bush Administration’s tactics.

Unlike Bill Clinton, who tried to triangulate the culture war as president, bringing us Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, school uniforms and the Defense of Marriage Act, President Obama is betting, like Rove, that the best route to political success is to divide and conquer the public with a series of wedge issues. Some could even accuse Obama of using the dirtiest of Republican tricks to take our minds off an acceleratingly worsening economy.

While Bill Clinton unsuccessfully tried to placate social conservatives while pursuing universal healthcare and higher taxes, the Republican Party, was perfecting the use of hot-button wedge issues to divide voters and drive voter turnout among those who would most likely support their candidates. In 1994, California Republicans rode two wedge-issue ballot initiatives – Three Strikes and the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 – to their last major statewide victories.

The lesson Republicans thought they learned from that election was that they could divide and conquer the electorate by advocating issues on which the majority of voters agreed with them. But ever since the great victories of 1994, the California Republican Party has gone from a governing party to a group that can barely govern itself, let alone help get its members elected to public office.

Today, when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner failed to live up to the hype and deliver a plan to fix the banking system, the White House created the Limbaugh Petard – an attempt to drive a wedge between the newly elected leadership of the Republican National Committee, Chairman Michael Steele, and the nation’s foremost “conservative” talk show host.

When his hypocrisy on earmarks in the omnibus spending bill was revealed and job losses accelerated, President Obama trotted out the social issues, ending his predecessor’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

In the short term, lifting the embryonic stem-cell ban sounds like good politics. The other side – mostly motivated by their opposition to abortion – seems out of touch and inarticulate. Opponents of embryonic stem-cell research talk about the destruction of embryos, and speak of a “culture of death,” using the same language they use to oppose abortion. But they lose the argument with the American public over this issue because of the hope – much of it false – that sick people have for the process of stem cell research and its ability to cure everything from cancer to the common cold.

Obama knows how people react to the hope of science and to him, this issue is a winner. But in the long run, will becoming a cultural warrior hurt the President?

There’s two sides in a culture war and the majority of the American public falls with one or the other some of the time but not all of the time. So the most effective cultural warrior picks his battles. And rather than find common ground on cultural issues and bring America together, Obama is fanning the flames of the culture war in the territory where he has a strategic advantage.

As California contemplates a series of state-wide elections, the divide-and-conquer strategy remains a tactic Republicans hope will work again, as they try to convert African-American and Latino voters who supported the elimination of marriage rights for same-sex couples the GOP. It won’t work for them and this strategy won’t work for Obama, either.

Americans are struggling to get by. Banks aren’t lending money, even to those who still have a job. Americans want real solutions, not a renewed culture war.

If President Obama intends to distract America out of this recession, come 2012, he may end up finding himself a beneficiary of the extended unemployment benefits he made law. But if he becomes a cultural peacemaker, like Bill Clinton, then even the worst depression may not be able to bring down Barack Obama.

Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 1:44 PM | Permalink

California’s $11 Billion Election


As a result of last month’s State Assembly budget negotiation marathon, Californians will get yet another chance to cast a seasonal ballot on tax and other issues in the state’s May 19th special Spring election. And while $11 billion in higher taxes seems like a high price for democracy, given what’s on that ballot – spending caps and other reforms – it may well be worth it.

As part of the deal, however, the state will get a chance at real reform by, ironically, following Louisiana’s lead and voting in June 2010′s Spring Election on whether to change the California’s primary system. Granted, Louisiana is known for throwing good parties, not for having the best political system. But the legendary endemic corruption of the Bayou State has nothing to do with the manner in which they elect their legislators.

On the contrary, just about everything that makes California a practically ungovernable state can be derived from the way we elect our legislators. With gerrymandered districts drawn by the politicians who hold – and want to keep the seats – and a closed primary system, California’s legislators represent the political extremes, both red and blue, in what is an overwhelmingly purple State.

The state’s political parties have effectively made November general elections little more than exercises in chad-punching. The number of Republicans and number of Democrats remains basically fixed in Sacramento, and Republicans know that because of their minority status, the only thing keeping them relevant is their ability to block super-majority votes, like the two-thirds needed to pass a budget in California.

Because there are so few competitive general elections in California, most of the politicking goes on in primary season. Since California primaries are closed, these contests cater to the fringes of the political spectrum. In 2008, Democrats ran on a platform of impeaching George Bush, ending the war in Iraq and doing the labor union’s bidding. At the same time, successful Republican primary candidates ran on platforms of closing the border, deporting the illegal Mexicans and no new taxes.

None of this adds up to doing much good for a state government in crisis. And, because nearly a fifth of California voters choose not to affiliate with any political party, their usually-moderate voices are effectively disenfranchised from the process.

The blanket-primary concept is simple. Every candidate, irrespective of their political affiliation, is on the same ballot. If someone gets fifty percent, they’re elected. If not, then the top two candidates, regardless of political party, go to a runoff. In places like San Francisco, you could end up with two Democrats or a Democrat and a Green Party candidate on the runoff ballot for the statehouse; behind the Orange Curtain, voters may choose between two Republicans.

Ideally, a candidate will always try to appeal to a majority of voters in a given district, regardless of party. In a runoff scenario, that will be a necessary tactic, as voters will have either a competition of ideals between parties, or two members of one party courting the votes of the entire electorate. The political extremists that now run Sacramento may not be chased out of town, but they will no longer have a stranglehold on the government.

The result of this system does not make the partisans happy. Liberal blog Calitics declares, “we’d have a Senate full of Susan Collinses — and Joe Liebermans,” as if that were a bad thing. Conservative Flash Report complains that conservative obstructionism of the state budget process would be history under the plan.

Sounds to me like any sensible centrist should be rushing to support the blanket primary plan. But with the cost of circulating and qualifying ballot initiatives in the million-dollar range, I wonder if taxpayers will stand for being stuck footing the bill – to the tune of $11 billion – to get this on the ballot. But if it passes, it may well be worth event that cost!

Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 8:57 AM | Permalink

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