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The big news this morning is that Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is switching his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. Huzzah! If Al Franken comes through in Minnesota, the Dems. will have a filibuster-proof majority. This is earth-shattering news for a Republican party that's already coming apart at the seams.

Here's how Specter describes his decision:

"Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats… I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans. Since [the stimulus package vote], I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate."

And here's how Republicans responded. Michael Steele, the idiot at the helm of the Republicans ship said this:

"[Specter] didn’t leave the G.O.P. based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record. Republicans look forward to beating Senator Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don’t do it first."

John McCain, vying for the title of sorest-loser also said: "It’s pretty obvious the polls show him well behind his primary opponent." I don't doubt there's some truth to what the Republicans are saying. But this is the equivalent to responding to a witty, biting, true critique by saying 'I know you are but what am I!' or 'Your Mom!'. Steele, idiot that he is, basically just said what Specter himself said: Republicans are now the party of the extreme right. Specter is not an extreme right Republican, and because his ideology is so out of sync with the new (but old) Republican party, he also probably couldn't get re-elected. The two are one and the same.

I don't get it. Doesn't the GOP have a few extra bucks to hire a PR person to tell them when to shut up? How to respond to unfortunate events without sounding like a pissant 12-year old or throwing fuel on the fire? Honestly, an undergraduate intern would do fine.

Today's big news story around here is the California Supreme Court hearing in downtown San Francisco on Proposition 8. For those of you who have been living under a rock, Proposition 8 passed as a ballot referendum last November by a 52.2% to 47.8% margin – that's a 4.4% margin. The famous 14 words of the constitutional amendment approved by Prop. 8 are: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

Today's hearing was about a technical issue – does Prop. 8 represent an amendment to the constitution (which ballot propositions do all the time) or a revision, which can only be done with the approval of 2/3 of both the state house and the state senate, or by Constitutional convention.

The lawyers arguing against Prop. 8 argued what I think is a simple and irrefutable point: 1. last year the California Supreme Court called the right to marry "inalienable." 2. Stripping a group of people of their inalienable rights is not an amendment, it's a major revision. There's no precedent for that.

Now, I happen to agree, but I hope the lawyers thought about another point. News reports are that many of the justices were skeptical, that they somehow think this is just a matter of language, and that nothing has really been taken from gay people. Here are two reasons why that's crap:

  1. Language counts in laws, doesn't it? Don't we spend untold time debating the meaning of language in the Constitution? In case law, to determine where precedent applies? If that's the case, then using the word 'marry' seals the deal. Otherwise, they should have said something like "access to legal unions with all its associated rights and responsibilities is an inalienable right."
  2. Even if the court is going to dismiss the importance of the word "marry" in their earlier decision, they have to recognize the importance of the word in society. Marry and marriage are words that carry a lot of weight. They are symbols of a set of rights and responsibilities that, whether we know it are not, pretty much everyone knows about. So, we've got two choices here. Either we give same-sex couples the right to marry, or else we go out there and find every law, every county ordinance, every plaque, every corporate policy that refers to marriage, and change it to 'marriage or civil union' or similar. Anything less than that would be completely unequal.

From my point of view, the immediate fight is about time. How soon will same-sex couples get their rights back? If it's not within 90 days – the length of time the court has to make a decision – it's going to be within a few years. If Prop. 8 stands, this issue *will* be on the next CA state ballot, and it *will* be overturned. There is no way, no possible way, that California will vote the same way again. This has become a national issue, and it's one that has shocked everyone out of complacency (to use a tired phrase). Still, a few years is too long to wait to give same-sex couples a right they should have had years ago.

I hate who John McCain is right now. This one paragraph from an article in today's NY Times set me off:

Republicans, bolstered by their coordinated opposition to the package, remained on the offensive over the weekend. On CNN, Senator John McCain continued to brand the stimulus bill a “generational theft,” and accused Mr. Obama of not reaching across the aisle despite promises of bipartisanship. The measure gained the votes of only three moderate Republican senators in the Senate. No Republicans voted for it in the House.

Two big problems here:

  1. On Thursday's Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Jon interviewed former Republican Senator John Sununu. It was a pretty testy exchange, and Jon ended up making what I thought was a great point. Future generations pay for everything that government does. No exceptions. Every dime that the government has to borrow, for every purpose, will be paid down by future generations in some form. So isn't it funny that the Republicans are trotting out this argument now, like somehow Democrats are mortgaging the country's future? What about a few years ago when Bush pushed through his ridiculous $1.2 trillion tax cut, which apparently did nothing to stimulate anyone? Who's paying for that? Oh, right, it's our children. And our children's children. And our children's, children's chil… holy hell. Enough already.
  2. From one point of view, maybe it's only fair for McCain to be complaining the Obama's not really reaching across the aisle because he didn't get many Republican votes. Obama himself has admitted it was a mistake to define bipartisanship that way. There was never any real chance of getting many Republicans to vote for the bill. What's happened is that party, in the face of a powerful, popular president and shrinking numbers in congress, have decided to circle the wagons, not give an inch. So, what… Obama's going to give up on Democratic principles to get Republican votes? Nope. But McCain is sticking the screw in, like the little pissant that he's become. I used to respect this guy, but now he's become such a Republican stooge. Maverick my ass.

If you're interested in checking out the Stewart / Sununu interview:

Note: Today I'll be invoking the 'journal' quality of my blog. I'm blogging for me. :)

Today I have two main thoughts, the first profoundly happy, the other like the thick swallow you take before throwing yourself out of a plane, trusting in the parachute.

  1. Barack Obama could very well turn out to be a decent president. Good, even. A President we remember fondly, like Bill Clinton maybe. If that's the case, maybe yesterday won't seem so memorable in 10, 20, 50 years. But then again, if Obama is the kind of transformative President I so badly want, and we as a country so badly need, then I'll remember a lot about yesterday. I'll remember filling in the line on my ballot and touching the names of Obama and Biden a little bit. I'll remember the faint echoes of joyous whoops in my neighborhood, and the tears on Tamar's face when we heard 'Barack Obama has been elected the 44th President of the United States,' even though the polls didn't leave us with much suspense. Right now these memories are very vivid, and I hope they stay that way.
  2. It's a funny thing. At the end of 2 years of long, hard fought campaign in which every conceivable difficult issue was batted around, after endless interviews, rallies, miles traveled, and angry back-and-forth, maybe the toughest campaign ever, after all of that, the prize that Obama has earned for himself is only the hardest job anyone could have. Last night, I thought Obama seemed ever-so-slightly sobered by that weight as he gave his victory speech. It's a lot of trouble, a lot of battle, a lot of repair, and a lot of expectation that's waiting for him.

I find Sam Wang's polling analysis at PEC to be smart and informed, and his commentary to be pretty interesting. But his confidence scares me. Wang seems to be doing all the right things. He's making his data and his models freely available. He's keeping his models purposely simple in order to avoid the chance of a mistake. And he's not fiddling with his model as time goes on. All good things.

But… Wang thought his model was right in 2004 until it turned out it wasn't. And people probably didn't think much of the problems in polling methodology until the Dewey / Truman fiasco, and then they did. What don't we know now? I think the data problem is the more dangerous one. As a commenter on PEC points out, polling is a 'black art', and though we gain a lot by doing a meta-analysis, we're still at the mercy of the underlying numbers. Another commenter points out that for Obama, a win is not a win. We want to crush McCain. Doing so sets a completely different political landscape than a narrow victory would.

Anyway, I don't suggest that Wang should be doing anything differently on the statistics. But, and I'm sure he hates the constant comparisons to Nate Silver at 538, where Nate just says that McCain is in trouble, Wang advises that Presidential race is in the bag, and we should forget about it and start focusing on Senate races. A little more temperance would make the commentary much more palatable for me.

As reported on electoral-vote.com:

Politico went through the financial report the RNC just filed with the FEC and discovered that the Republican National Committee has spent $150,000 for clothes and accessories for Sarah Palin since she was tapped for the VP slot in late August. One shopping trip to Neiman Marcus cost them $75,062.63, for example. They also spent over $4700 on her hair and makeup. Remember how the Republicans howled at John Edwards $400 haircut (which included a house call by the barber)? Google for: Edwards "$400 haircut" and you'll get 27,000 hits. That was major news for a week. That aside, a far more damaging effect of this revelation is that Palin keeps saying she is just an ordinary small-town hockey mom. It is likely that if Joe-the-plumber's wife were to rack up $150,000 in clothing expenses in a single month, Joe might ask how she was planning to pay the credit card bill since the median annual salary for plumbers is $37,514. Palin is already being ridiculed all over the place, and this provides more fodder for the comics.

What do you think about ballot propositions? In California, every election cycle we're asked to vote on somewhere between 4 and 13,000,000 individual propositions. This year, all but one were put on the ballot by petition rather than by the legislature.

I'm conflicted. On the one hand, ballot propositions are a great outlet for representative democracy. Want to see a new government program, or a change to the California constitution? Just get some signatures it it can be on the ballot. Then again, any old dumbass can gather signatures. It seems to me you could find enough people to sign on to even the worst idea and get it on the ballot.

And once it's there, we're putting an awful lot of faith in the knowledge and comprehension of the voting public. I hate to be a cynic, but I just don't trust voters to get it right. Why? Well, I could go for the straight (and offensive) argument that most people are stupid. Meh. Actually, I don't even need that argument. I think to myself: I've got more post-graduate education that your average 3 people put together. That doesn't make me smart, but it does give me a lot of practice with reading tough material, digesting complex issues, making conclusions. And I can't make any sense of most of these things! The frikkin' voter handbook is like 2 inches thick! Yes, it includes the actual text of the law at the back. But then again, it includes the actual text of the law at the back! I need a translation. I need some Advil. And if I can't make heads or tails of it, can most people? Maybe. Maybe I'm just dum.

A few weeks back I was really starting to tire of the constant political punditry. Around the same time someone introduced me to two sites that have now become my first stop for political updates. They're both sites that use a variety of sophisticated statistics to aggregate the avalanche of polls that are coming out on a daily basis. The result, I think, is a picture of what really matters in the election, which voters are really important, which states are truly the battlegrounds.

One site, the Princeton Election Consortium (PEC), is run by Sam Wang, who is a biophysicist and neuroscientist at Princeton, focuses on a meta-analysis to give us a snapshot of how the election stands right now. They don't do predictions. One of the most interesting parts of the site is a graph that charts the median electoral count for Obama since April. Sam has carefully marked some of the events that seemed to significantly turn public opinion. I also note that for the first time since the convention, the 95% confidence interval for the estimator is still above the 270 electoral vote line Obama would need to win.

The other great site out there is FiveThirtyEight.com, which is run by Nate Silver. Nate is actually a sports statistician by trade, and by a lot of people's estimates, he's completely revolutionized the way sports statistics are calculated and used. See the bio of him from Newsweek. 538 (which, incidentally, is the total number of electoral votes out there) differs from the PEC in that it actively tries to make a prediction about what the outcome will be on election day based on current and past information. I don't pretend to understand the statistics, but 538's approach involves, among other things, simulating election results under a variety of parameters. So, for example, right now Obama wins 80.5% of the simulations. More detail on what makes 538 different is available here.

I love geeking out on the stats. of these two sites, even though I don't pretend to understand it all. It gives me a basis for judgment beyond the whims of a particular commentator. Don't get me wrong, both guys are liberals, but they're transparent about it. And they give us all the raw data so we can draw our own conclusions from the models.

Still, I'm taking it all with a grain of salt. In the past, when I've had to teach about statistics I've tried to debunk the popular notion that statistics are objective. I've said that you can't divorce the mathematics of a statistical test (e.g. regression) from the researcher who chooses its inputs and output and who uses it in service of a particular question. A statistic might be objective, but only until you try to say anything about it or use it for a particular purpose.

PEC and 538 are certainly open to this bias and, to be fair, both Wang and Silver know it. PEC's FAQ page includes the question 'Why should I believe the Meta-Analysis? In 2004, didn’t it predict a narrow Kerry victory?' To which Sam Wang responds (touche!), oops, I goofed. Turns out he included an assumption in his model that was influenced by his particular political leaning. Without that assumption, his method predicted the final result spot on. How do we know this won't happen again?

Update: I accidentally referred to the author at FiveThirtyEight.com as Nate Quinn. Actually, his name is Nate Silver. I mixed him up with the site's other major contributor, Sean Quinn. Apologies!

You've run a fine campaign. You've shown that a vigorous and competitive process is an improvement over the usual method of ordaining whichever candidate happens to win the first few primaries. You've made huge leaps for women and politics, and shown that sexism, though still rampant, doesn't have to be a barrier. So, all in all, I think you've done well.

Hillary Clinton

But now it's time to go. Throughout this race you've proven yourself willing and able to do and to say whatever it takes to move forward. You've reinvented yourself so many times that it's hard to know who you are anymore. I understand, that's politics. But the point is that we don't want that politics anymore, and more than that we don't need it. We have an alternative, in Barak Obama, who has told the same substantive story, who has made the same case, who has fought on the issues since the beginning of his campaign. More importantly, by every algebra but yours, he has won more states, more pledged delegates, more popular votes than you have. He's won. So it's time for you to step aside.

Yesterday's DNC Rules Committee meeting was really your last chance to make any gains at all, I understand. (Though, as you know, even if all of the delegates had been seated at full strength, you would still be far behind in pledged delegates.) Thankfully, your attempts to influence the committee failed.

In my view the correct political decision but the wrong moral decision was made. Michigan and Florida need to have a voice, and we need them in the general election, so this was the right choice to that end. However, no reasonable person (without something to gain by it) could claim that the elections in those states were fair or unbiased. It's not the voters' fault, it's the Rules Committee's fault for invoking a bad punishment to begin with. But we can't turn back time. As it is, you've come out ahead! You've gained delegates from unfairly contested elections – can't argue with that!

So, now to the purpose of this letter. (The purpose other than filling up my blog.) Let's see what happens in the last three primaries today and on Tuesday. Then, please, let that be that. You'll have lost. Find a way to bow out gracefully, accept the accolades that are rightfully yours, and throw yourself full-tilt into the fight to get Obama into the White House. Please don't take it to the Credentials Committee, please don't let this drag on. Remember the serenity prayer, and go back to the Senate with new purpose.

All the best.

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