Friday, November 5, 2010

True Believers (and other Election Day thoughts)

In 1999 I made my first – and still only – contribution to a political candidate. I gave fifty bucks to John McCain for his first Presidential run.

McCain’s policies were not in sync with mine – very few voters get to vote for a candidate they agree with on everything – but I was truly seduced by McCain’s honesty, the Straight Talk Express and all that. After eight slippery years with the Clintons, I was kind of desperate for a politician who seemed to have genuine beliefs, and was unafraid to express them even if it hurt him politically. Further, his extraordinary personal story* told me that his integrity was hard-earned.

* Five and a half years in a POW camp. Whenever I see that number – five and a half years is 2000 days– I’m struck by how long a period a time that is, and how much daily personal suffering he endured. And I bitch and moan when my internet connection is slow.

Bill Clinton, I decided, believed in only one thing: Bill Clinton. He was a skilled politician and incredibly smart; and policy-wise I was nearly as comfortable with him as I was with McCain (Northeast Republicans are more like Southern Democrats than Southern Republicans). But I had reached the point where I needed a breather from the Clinton’s Eternal Campaign style of politics. The Clintons, I thought, would do or say just about anything for one more vote. I wanted someone who believed in his positions, not just his electability.

Well, this week’s election marks the 10th anniversary of the period of True Believers. However different George W. Bush and Barack Obama may be, these are two Presidents who believe in their mission.

Bush fervently believed in the global threat of Saddam Hussein and the transformative power of democracy and aligned his Presidency behind that belief, even as the country turned against him. Obama fervently believes in the necessity for national healthcare and the efficacy of stimulus spending and aligned the power of his Presidency behind that belief, even as the country turns against him.

(I could take this analogy a little further. Both were so convinced that invading Iraq/passing healthcare legislation was vital to the national interest that neither was above stretching the truth to ensure it happened. The interesting thing was that the supposedly inarticulate divisive Bush was infinitely more successful at persuading his political opponents and the country at large that invading Iraq was a good idea than the supposedly eloquent and post-partisan Obama has been at selling his policies. Many Democrats voted for the Iraq war resolution and large American majorities supported it, while no Republicans supported Obamacare and a majority of Americans opposed it).

The point is, this whole true believer thing isn’t really working out for us. The war in Iraq proved to be more painful and less necessary than promised. The stimulus bill was the government equivalent of throwing a trillion bucks in the fireplace. And national healthcare – we don’t know what it’s going to be exactly, but we’re pretty certain it’s not going to be what the President promised.

The problem with true believers is that they, far more than practical-minded politicians like Bill Clinton, are victims of confirmation bias. To stay with our current President a moment, the American electorate has been telling the Obama Administration for some time - since at least the stunning election of Scott Brown - that they disagree with his policies. But he won’t be persuaded. He persists in believing that we just don’t understand them, that his only failure was explaining the policies well enough to us (which is kind of ironic, given his allegedly great oratorical skills).

Makes me long for the days of cynical politicians who will do anything for a vote. Slick Willie, where are ya?

Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made
We had an interesting Election Day in my home state of New York. Democrats rolled to landslide victories in the 3 big races (Governor and both Senate seats) but Republicans took 5 House seats. Among the defeated House Democrats was John Hall, the guitarist/songwriter for the band Orleans who had two big hits in the 70’s (Dance with Me and Still the One).

For the first time in my life as a voter I left one column blank. I couldn’t vote for either Andrew Cuomo or Carl Paladino for Governor. I’ve disliked Cuomo since he made his name in politics. He’s a self-righteous screeching moralizer – a pre-scandal Spitzer but without Spitzer’s cunning intelligence. And he’s got his Dad Mario’s faux-populism without the eloquence. Paladino was worse, significantly worse, and would have been an embarrassment to the State. I wish I had the presence of mind to write in a vote for Amare Stoudamire or my dog Finnegan, but I just left it blank.

Another interesting note in New York: Harry Reid’s come-from-behind victory in Nevada was good for the Democrats but bad for New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. Schumer would’ve been Senate Majority Leader had Reid gone down in flames. If that had happened, Schumer would be omnipresent in American politics – it’s said the most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a camera. Chuckie is such a publicity-hound that he held a press conference a few months ago calling on Apple Computer to fix the antennae problem in the iPhone. Thank heaven for small mercies.

That’s No Salamander
Everybody knows the numbers 6 and 60 – the GOP took six Senate seats and sixty House seats. Less known is the number 680. That is the stunning number of State legislature seats the Republicans won, taking over 18 state legislatures. Close readers of FreeTime, and there are at least 3 of you, know my obsession with gerrymandering. Well, state legislatures control the re-drawing of districts, and according to the Washington Post, “When the next round of redistricting -- the decennial re-drawing of all 435 House districts -- occurs next year, Republicans will have complete control over the process in four times as many House districts as Democrats do, districts that comprise nearly half of the entire House.”

That may be the worst news of the day for Democrats.

Occasionally Right
Mind if I point out a few instances in which I was right?

After Obama's election - when many pundits were proclaiming this was the beginning of an enduring alignment in American politics - I wrote a not-so-fast piece entitled A Sea Change Election. Very few American elections are truly transformative - by my count only three in American history - and it is usually a mistake to overread the results of a single election.

Republicans would do well to remember that now.

I also wrote a couple of pieces (see here and here) arguing that the passionate faith of Obama's followers put unreasonable expectations on him, ones that would be difficult to meet. I think that proved true.

I may have been wrong about a couple things, but you'll have to find those yourself...

Jekyll & Hyde
I’m trying to imagine what the city of San Francisco was like on Tuesday. I’ve spent a lot of time in Frisco* through the years, and it is a freakishly liberal place (I say that with affection for my liberal San Francisco friends, some of whom will read this). It was a sad day for liberals, and SF’s own Nancy Pelosi lost her gavel, of course. But (speaking of freaks) Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco Giants won the World Series! That must have been a seriously bi-polar city this week.

* San Franciscans hate the nickname Frisco, and if you use it you are disdained as an outsider who doesn’t know the city’s ways. But why? It’s a cool nickname – much better than San Fran or SF, and shorter than the full San Francisco. Come on, Friscans, embrace the Frisco!

1 comment:

Whitsey said...

Thanks for giving me something entertaining and intelligent to read as I consumed my lunch! But I have to tell you: Frisco was the name of a character on General Hospital back in the 80's. It can never work as a good nickname for SF....sorry.