March 6, 2009

A Case in Backward Thinking: The U.S. Military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Policy

I recently came across an enlightening little morsel while reading Portland's Willamette Week. Of course, by "enlightening," I actually mean "apalling." And by "morsel," I actually mean "absurdity." In 2006, the U.S. Military discharged 612 troops due to its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which was actually a 12-year low over the life of the policy. (The policy, crafted by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, was introduced in 1993 as a compromise measure after President Clinton had previously campaigned on a platform to end discrimination by sexual orientation in the military). Over the life of the policy, over 12,000 troops have been dismissed from all branches of the military as a result of disclosure of homosexuality.

Now, here's the kicker. By contrast, from 2003-2006, the U.S. Military allowed
4,230 convicted felons to enlist under the "moral waivers" program, which enables otherwise unqualified candidates to serve. In 2006 alone, the military granted waivers for 1,605 convicted felons.

I have no problem with the military granting waivers to *certain* convicted felons to serve our country. In fact, I think it presents a tremendous opportunity for those whose behaviors have been a detriment to society to rehabilitate themselvelves and contribute to the common good. But it seems glaringly ridiculous and absurd that our political leaders see homosexuals as more of a threat to the integrity of the military than convicted felons.

Germane to this topic is the fact that neoconservative political policies have left our military overextended, charged with policing and rebuilding two Middle Eastern nations while attempting to snuff out and abate the threat of terrorism. I would think the military could use all the enlistees it can get at this time rather than discriminating on the basis of any metric other than character, patriotism, and fitness to serve.

February 8, 2009

Race & American Politics: Part 1

February is Black History Month in many countries around the world. Moreover, Barack Obama's recent inauguration has perhaps made this month that much more relevant for observers of black history.

In this two-part series, I want to explore a pair of political events, one from the 19th century and the other from the 20th, each of which had a dramatic effect on black history and the political landscape in the U.S as it relates to race. When many historians and political scientists discuss identity politics and particularly black history, the focus of discussion inevitably leads to two events -- the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a Dream" speech from a century later. My intent is to focus on two events which are perhaps a bit more under the radar, and examine the impact of each on the political landscape of our country as it relates to race. Without further adieu, the first:

The Presidential Election of 1876

To be blunt, the 1876 Presidential election quite frankly made the 2000 Bush-Gore fiasco look vanilla by comparison. In 1876, Republican Rutherford Hayes cast his die against Democrat Samuel Tilden in an extremely tense and heated contest. For the previous 11 years, "Radical" Republicans had worked to repair a fractured nation from Civil War and ensure the implementation of Abraham Lincoln's creed - equal rights and an end to racial subjugation in the south.

This process was accomplished through Reconstruction, which involved, among other details, concentration of power to the federal government and the courts, and the placement of federal troops in southern States to ensure black suffrage. Reconstruction enraged southern Democrats, many of whom retained bitterness from the outcome of the Civil War and were not pleased to see the federal government wrest power away from the States.

Now, in the general election, Tilden the Democrat appeared to have come out on top after winning 51% of the popular vote (Hayes garnered 47.9%, by contrast). With three States (Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina) still in dispute, Tilden mainted a 184-165 lead in the electoral college. In these three States, each party fervently declared its candidate the winner.

What resulted was a series of backroom dealings between the party leaders. Hayes was awarded the 20 remaining electoral votes, thus giving him a slight edge (185-184) in the electoral college AND the Presidency, despite a popular vote deficit (does this sound familiar, Gore supporters?).

In exchange for gifting Hayes and the Republicans the White House, Democrats mandated that Republicans withdraw all federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction. It was further stipulated per the terms of the compromise that Democrats would be appointed to patronage positions in the South.

So what was the aftermath of the Compromise of 1877? The compromise essentially pushed African-Americans out of existing positions of political power in the South, and disenfranchised many for nearly a century after. Shortly after Reconstruction ended in 1877, literacy tests and poll taxes were erected to restrict blacks from voting. Poorer Southern whites were in effect exempted from these restrictions through grandfather clauses, which stated that men could still retain the right to vote if they had ancestors who shared that right prior to the Civil War (thus only applicable to whites). Since the South was slow to industrialize and move off the agrarian economy (and King Cotton) after the Civil War (despite losing access to free factors of production), the region remained severely depressed. And the economic climate was perhaps harshest on newly-freed blacks, who often lacked both an educational foundation and the opportunity to secure good jobs.

In essence, the outcome of the 1876 Presidential Election legitimized the enactment of Jim Crow laws and sealed in what would become almost 100 years of disenfranchisement, lynching, segregation and institutionalized bigotry in the South. The Compromise of 1877 was seen by millions of former slaves as a "great betrayal" as Republican efforts to extend civil rights were virtually abandoned for the sake of politics.

The Jim Crow era in the South left a legacy of black subjugation and inequality, and stands as one of the greatest stains in our history. And it was perhaps only possible because of the compromise following the 1876 election which saw Rutherford Hayes ascend to the Presidency.

January 20, 2009

President Obama's Inauguration

In a day worthy of celebration whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, Barack Obama was sworn in today as the 44th President of the United States. Below is the video of his swearing in and inaugural address:

Obama takes office amid crisis at home and abroad. Two separate wars in the Middle-East have strained our vital military resources. Al-Qaida, in defiance of Western intervention in the region, continues to garner new recruits and plot violence against the Western world. Unrest in Israel and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank has threatened the stability of the entire Middle-East. And at home, economic recession and heightened unemployment has put a tremendous strain on American families.

Exogenous events often catalyze shifts in Presidential power. With our world in such turmoil, Obama will have the prerogative to chart a new course and stamp his place in history.

January 9, 2009

So Barack Obama's A Wacky Leftist, huh?

If you're at all like Crazy McCain Lady and believed all the rhetoric spewed during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, then you might be surprised to see that President-elect Obama doesn't seem in a rush to tack our country to the political far left (he's also not an Arab, by the way). This despite a very comfortable victory for Obama that also saw Democrats pick up vast majorities in both houses of Congress.

In 1932, FDR toppled incompetent incumbent Herbert Hoover in a landslide (472-59 in the electoral college). FDR used his electoral mandate to repudiate Hoover's
laissez-faire policies and usher in a new era of Keynsian economic policy, marked by dramatic increases in state spending and creation of social programs to stimulate economic growth.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson rode a massive wave of public sympathy over JFK's assassination to victory in the Presidential race, defeating Barry Goldwater with 61% of the popular vote. He used that mandate to implement his Great Society - a set of liberal policies and reforms designed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, which tacked the country further left.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan cruised to a very lopsided victory on a road paved by Teddy Kennedy, after the Massachusetts Senator took incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter to the wire in a heated Primary campaign. Reagan ushered in a new era of supply-side economics, characterized by massive deregulation and a slashing of income and capital gains tax rates (including the marginal income tax rate from 70% to 28% by 1986). Reagan's restructuring of US economic policy was perhaps a consequence of the prevailing winds at the time (as the supply-side theory gained momentum), but Reagan also claimed a mandate by interpreting his margin of victory during a time of stagflation as a repudiation by the public of liberal economic policies.

Each of these Presidents used large margins of victory to justify the introduction of new paradigms into public policy, each leading to fundamental ideological shifts in our political landscape. But while "change" was a key theme of Obama's campaign, at this point it is not apparent that Obama is driven by an unwavering political ideology that will see him tack us back to the left.

First, days after his election win, Obama announced that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would maintain his post under the new Administration. Gates, who enjoys fairly widespread bipartisan support but isn't exactly considered the messiah by antiwar activists, was selected by President Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary in 2006. Obama also announced last month that proposed tax increases for those making over $200,000 per year may be delayed in an effort to stimulate economic growth. This move has infuriated liberals, who see such tax increases as necessary both to finance Obama's domestic agenda and to ease the ballooning federal budget deficit (currently at around $450 billion...and counting).

So, despite an electoral mandate and an allied majority in both the House and Senate, the President-elect thus far has straddled the political center, reaching to both sides while keeping the ideologues at bay. We'll see how long the spirit of bipartisanship holds, but in the meantime, it may be that Obama isn't quite the champion of the political left that many thought during the campaign.

Oh, as for the picture above, I just couldn't help myself. Let's hope that, since Crazy McCain Lady has read so much about Obama, she stumbles across this blog.

December 15, 2008

Mike Huckabee Talks Gay Marriage on The Daily Show

Fox News commentator and former Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently made an appearance on The Daily Show to promote his new book. In a two-part interview, Jon Stewart took the opportunity to grill Huckabee on the ideology of social conservatism. As you can see below , the two had the opportunity for some straight talk on gay marriage:

Same-sex marriage is a real hot-button issue right now, and one that I hope to discuss in greater detail in the future. But first I'd like to address a few of Huckabee's arguments in opposition to same-sex marriage.

The first is a common rationale among religious conservatives - that the purpose of marriage is to provide a platform for procreation and ensure the perpetuation of the species. Huckabee summed up this argument below:

"Anatomically, the only way we can create the next generation is through a male-female relationship. For 5,000 years of recorded human history, that's what marriage has meant."

Here's the problem with this line of thought: Reproduction is not a requirement for marriage. Heterosexual couples who choose not to bear children are afforded the same legal rights under the umbrella of marriage as those couples who do. If we're going to operate under the assumption that marriage exists to encourage or allow couples to procreate, then perhaps we should get to work on revoking the marriage licenses of childless couples.

The second point I want to touch on is Huckabee's belief that marriage is a static entity, unchanged through "5000 years of recorded human history." This demonstrates gross negligence of the evolution of marriage in our society. Prior to 1967, Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 prohibited interracial marriages, citing that:

"If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years."

It took a 1967 Supreme Court decision to affirm the right of interracial couples to marry. As a society, we have redefined marriage before to conform to ever-changing social trends. It's not surprising that the Courts have acted as the catalysts of social change on the issue of same-sex marriage -- often in our history, it is the Courts that have acted to safeguard civil rights and civil liberties against the will of the majority (Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, for example).

Huckabee also touched on the other primary argument in favor of "traditional marriage":

"There's a big difference between a person being black and a person practicing a lifestyle and engaging in a marital relationship."

Here, Huckabee does some verbal tiptoeing, but implies that homosexuality is at its essence a lifestyle choice. Many religious conservative
s still cling to this belief - that one perhaps wakes up in the morning, fixes him/herself some coffee and decides to give the whole "being gay" thing a whirl. The naivety of this rationale is pretty appalling, considering the preponderance of evidence showing that homosexuality may have a genetic component rather than being a conscious decision.

What's clear is that with certain religious conservatives, humanity has taken a backseat to semantics, and reason appears to have been thrown out the window. No one wants to break down the doors of churches and force them to marry same-sex couples. But Mr. Huckabee and the religious right are starting to run short on secular, rational arguments in opposition to state-issued gay marriages.

November 1, 2008

McCain Campaign Governed by Tactics, Not Strategy

There's a reason why the Obama campaign has referred to John McCain as "erratic." McCain's has been arguably the most poorly-executed Presidential campaign since Michael Dukakis' failed bid in 1988. McCain's campaign has been governed not by an over-arching and consistent strategy, but by disjointed and often desperate tactics, which change like clockwork.

You may be scratching your head wondering of the distinction between the two. In 2004, President Bush's campaign strategy (as conceived by the passe Karl Rove) hinged on focusing the debate on foreign policy. His tactics to achieve that end were to hammer Kerry incessently for his perceived "flip-flops" (I know, I can't stand the term either), most notably his infamous "I actually voted for the $87 billion (funding bill for US troops), before I voted against it" gaffe. This tactic was designed to make Kerry appear soft and indecisive. But another Bush tactic was to appeal to voter fears, which had ripened after September 11th. Check out this ad, released by the Bush campaign shortly before election day in 2004:

Bush succeeded in framing the debate around foreign policy, and used appeals to fear and patriotism to convince the American electorate to avoid "changing horses mid race." His message was consistent throughout the campaign, and his strategy was focused, clear and compelling.

McCain's campaign, by contrast, has lacked a consistency of message, instead resorting to erratic and often bizarre tactics to try to spin the race in his favor. The capricious behavior began on September 24th, when McCain abruptly decided to "suspend" his Presidential campaign amid crisis in the Financial sector. McCain's alleged efforts to help push a $700 billion rescue package through Congress were largely in vain, as House Republicans went against the wishes of President Bush (and McCain) to nix the initial proposal. McCain, meanwhile, left us all wondering whether or not he would even show up for the first Presidential debate later that week, only giving confirmation of his attendance the day before the scheduled debate. The entire ordeal left McCain looking scattered and indecisive.

Then, as our economic infrastructure crumbled and Obama's lead in the polls began to swell, the McCain-Palin team decided to shift their focus to character attacks. Led by Sarah Palin's assertion that Obama has been "palling around with terrorists," the Republicans counter-attacked, but the tactic was awkwardly-timed and screamed of desperation, given that the issue had seemingly been put to bed last spring during the heart of the primary season.

Shortly after, McCain claimed during a debate
"I don't care about some washed-up old terrorist." But either McCain was being disingenuous or he had lost control of his campaign, because in mid-October, automated phone ads began running in swing states, claiming that:

"Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans. And Democrats will enact an extreme leftist agenda if they take control of Washington. Barack Obama and his democratic allies lack the judgment to lead our country."

The waning days of the campaign have seen Republicans run ads in Pennsylvania dredging up Obama's connection to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, despite the fact that McCain had previously deemed the Rev. Wright issue off-limits. See the following ad:

Given the "market conditions" in our political climate, it will be very difficult for Republicans, with such a tarnished brand, to win this election. But instead of resorting to character assassinations and tired refrains about socialism and tax & spend liberals, McCain's campaign should have utilized a strategy to focus the debate on experience and foreign policy, while carving out substantial policy differences from the incumbent administration. Instead, the selection of Sarah Palin undermined McCain's experience argument, and McCain allowed Obama to frame the debate around economic policy and paint McCain as a continuation of the Bush regime.

February 12, 2008

Why The Polls Can't Be Trusted

The 2008 New Hampshire Presidential Primaries were notable in that the actual results of the Democratic primary differed greatly from pre-election polls. Here's a breakdown of a few pre-election poll numbers, with the actual results of the Primary listed below:

We all know about Hillary’s 11th hour “teary-eyed” appeal, you know, where she lamented how this election is “very personal” and “not just political,” and that “some people think elections are a game.” And then, just as we think the former First Lady has cast aside petty partisan discourse, even for a minute, she pulls a fast one and rips into a subtle but acute criticism of her chief rival, arguing:

“but some of us are right and some of us are wrong. Some of us are ready and some of us are not. Some of us know what we will do on day one, and some of us have not really thought that through well enough.”

But I digress…

Most pundits declared this the principal factor in Hillary’s triumph in New Hampshire. Given my desire to avoid repeating the obvious, I’d like to explore a couple other reasons why the pre-election polls erred so egregiously:

1) Selection Bias due to the demographic gap between supporters of Clinton and Obama:

A principal reason for the discrepancy is a selection bias that resulted from the demographic gap (in terms of education levels) between Clinton supporters and Obama supporters. CNN exit polls in New Hampshire showed that 43% of postgraduates supported Obama, compared to only 31% for Clinton. Among high school graduates, 46% supported Clinton compared to 31% for Obama. Clinton carried the vote among those without a high school diploma by an astonishing 61% to 25% margin.

Evidence also shows that less-affluent citizens are much less likely to participate in surveys and polls than affluent citizens. Since Obama earns the bulk of his support from the more affluent (as demonstrated above), it is very likely that a larger proportion of Obama supporters participated in pre-election polls than did Clinton supporters, thus skewing the poll results. This phenomenon is what researchers refer to as a non-response error, or selection bias.

2) Defection of Independent Voters to McCain:

Next, by heavily favoring Obama, the pre-election polls may have worked to his disadvantage among independents in New Hampshire, who can vote in either the Democratic or the Republican primary. Obama earned ample support in his Iowa Caucus victory among registered independents, with as many as 40% of registered independents jumping on his bandwagon. Independents in New Hampshire, seeing that pre-election polls showed Obama with an 11% lead, may have decided to swing to the Republican side and cast their vote for McCain, another favorite among independents.

Pre-election polls showed that the Republican race was very close and that the Democratic race was not. Independents, who tend to respond more favorably to Obama and McCain, may have decided that McCain needed their vote more than Obama. Thus, I posit that while these independent voters supported Obama in pre-election polls, they swung their vote to another well-liked candidate (McCain) perceived to be in greater need of their independent votes. It was a strategic vote, and it ended up costing the Illinois Senator in the end.

So what am I getting at? The next time you glance at the polls and think they’re reliable, think again.