Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Election Reflections

You've probably heard how Republicans are trying to spin last week's election results: The American people have spoken! They want less government spending! They want Obamacare stopped in its tracks! WE have a mandate for REAL change!


The fact is, most Americans seem to have been turned off by both parties. "None Of The Above" was the real winner.

Consider: In my state of Ohio, the turnout rate was a mere 48.7% of registered voters. That was down from about 70% in 2008 and 56% in 2006 (the last time we got to vote for governor).

For the first time since 1978, our new governor - Republican and Fox News darling, John Kasich - won with less than 50% of the total vote. More people voted for his Democratic and other opponents than voted for him. That's not a mandate.

The truth is, both Democrats and Republicans seem to have stayed at home and sat on their hands in shocking numbers. It's just that Democrats were more likely to do so than Republicans, so the Republicans ended up winning more or less by default.

One Florida congressman said on MSNBC that Republican turnout was down 22% in his district - but Democratic turnout was down a whopping 60%. So a case could be made that both parties lost - it's just that Republicans lost less.

A closer look at what people think about so-called Obamacare reveals similar complexities. Although a majority of people *do* seem to be against it, vast numbers of people are against it because they believe it didn't go far enough. In fact, those people about equal the number that are against it for standard Republican reasons. A majority actually seem to be in favor of many individual provisions when their views are probed in detail.

It was thus with much disgust that I myself have been watching Obama's reaction to last Tuesday's results.

The message he seems to have taken away from those results is, "People want us here in Washington to work more closely together, so I'm going to start reaching out to the Republicans and see what we can do."

NO! That is exactly the wrong message to embrace.

Obama has tried to reach out to Republicans again and again in the last 18 months. According to that Florida congressman who appeared on MSNBC, some 100 Republican amendments were incorporated into the health care bill in an attempt to win them over and, in the end, virtually none of them voted for it. The message to take away from this election isn't to continue to pursue this same course of action in hopes of a different outcome - the message is that Obama should do more to energize his Democratic base by flipping off obstructionist Republicans and fighting for the Democratic principles and policies most Democrats want. The fact that he hasn't explains why so many Democrats stayed home this time around. And his decision to act even more like a Republican himself in the coming months might well doom whatever hope he has of actually winning re-election against a real Republican come 2012.

It's about time he started treating his friends better than his enemies.

Those enemies have given him little, if anything, in exchange for his courting of them. And the new batch aren't headed to Washington to reach out and compromise - they're headed to Washington to put an end to his presidency. Instead of continuing to be a co-conspirator in the plot to return a Republican to the White House, he needs to wake up and start fighting for us rather than against us.

Incredibly, his administration has instead chosen to argue against us in a major church-state separation case now before the Supreme Court.

According to a Nov 3 story in the Los Angeles Times headlined Solicitor General Surprises Justices In Religious Schools Case:

"The Obama administration upset liberals as well as the president's two Supreme Court appointees Wednesday by arguing that taxpayers had no right to sue the government if it used tax money to fund religious schools.

"The surprising argument came in this term's most important church-state dispute. At issue is the constitutionality of an unusual 13-year-old Arizona law that gives individuals dollar-for-dollar tax credits up to $500 for contributions to private organizations, which in turn allows taxpayers to direct a $500 tax credit to a private organization, which in turn pays tuition for students in private schools. More than 90% of the money goes to religious schools, the challengers said....

"Acting U.S. Solicitor Gen. Neal Katyal joined Arizona in defending the law but went further, arguing that no one had legal standing to challenge it in court....

"Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer quickly objected. If no one can sue, there would be no way to enforce the 1st Amendment's ban on laws that foster 'an establishment of religion,' they said.

"Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared to agree, commenting that 'this is the state's money' going to private groups that fund only religious schools.

"Justice Elena Kagan, Katyal's boss until she joined the court in August, also objected to his argument. She ticked off a series of landmark rulings that rejected state aid to parochial schools. 'So, if you are right, the court was without authority to decide' those cases, 'but somehow nobody on the court recognized that fact?' she asked.

"'My answer to you is yes,' he said.

"At this, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a key swing vote, called for a pause. 'I just want to make sure I heard your answer. Your answer is yes? Those cases were wrongly decided?'

"Katyal said the court might have the right to say the states had wrongly subsidized religion, but he insisted no taxpayer had standing to sue....

"If the court were to agree with Katyal and broadly shield the government from legal claims that it is wrongly diverting public money to aid religion, the ruling could be far-reaching.

"Liberal advocates said they were taken aback by the administration's stand.

"'The brief they filed is the same that would have been filed by the Bush administration,' said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law. 'There is no reason for the Obama administration to get involved in this case, let alone to take the conservative position that there is no standing.'

"The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the administration's stand 'inexplicable.'"

Inexplicable indeed.

Why should Democrats or others who disagree with Republicans vote for Democrats like Obama if they're just going to pursue Republican policies while in office? Why bother voting at all?

It's hard to understand why Obama doesn't get this - why his reaction to a new batch of radical Republicans should be to reach out to them when reaching out didn't work with their less radical cousins.

The closest thing to an explanation I can find comes from my reading of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Gladwell devotes quite a few pages in that book to explaining why Korean air crews about 10 years ago tended to crash at a frightening rate. The basic problem - according to Gladwell - was that those Koreans had been raised in a culture in which it wasn't proper or polite to question authority. When Korean air crews got into trouble, the co-pilots weren't acting as independent back-ups but as complacent yes men - even when that ended up sending planes into mountains. Once Korean air crews were retrained and co-pilots learned how to assert themselves, the odds that the passengers on their planes would safely reach their destination shot up.

It seems to me that Obama could benefit from some similar retraining.

In 2008 there was much talk about his cool, rational demeanor. There was even some talk about how a black man running for high office in the US simply couldn't afford to appear to be angry. It seems quite possible to me that Obama has gotten much further ahead in his life than angry old Jesse Jackson ever has by simply smiling and compromising and doing his best to appear to be non-threatening.

However essential those qualities may have been in his rise to the presidency, it seems to me that they threaten to permanently sink him now.