What National Election? Electoral College Is the Only Tally That Counts

This is a static snapshot of today - the version in the side column will be updated dynamically.

It’s time once again to launch Electoral-Vote.com’s tracking widget — almost exactly four years to the day after it made its first appearance on my humble blog.

For better or worse, we don’t have national elections in America. We have 51 state elections.  Occasionally this matters a lot — just ask President Gore about his half-million-vote “national victory” in 2000.

It takes 270 electoral votes to win, so if the election were held today, polls indicate Obama would win with 284 electoral votes (plus or minus 13, depending on Virginia, which currently is deadlocked). Looks like the Senate would be deadlocked at 49-49, with two seats too close to call.

But the races can be volatile.  Four years ago this week, the same widget predicted 275 EV for Obama, 250 for McCain.  On Election Day, Obama actually won 365 electoral votes, more than twice McCain’s total of 173.

This year on Nov. 6, the Web Goddess and I will cast presidential votes that are utterly meaningless — not just because we’ll cancel each other out, but also because there is zero chance that Romney will carry New Jersey. The states that matter most this year are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

As near as I can tell, every poll ever taken on the subject shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans think the Electoral College should be eliminated in favor of direct national elections.  But don’t look for a Constitutional amendment any time soon — the amendment process is even more strongly skewed in favor of smaller states than the Electoral College itself.

A non-profit called National Popular Vote Inc. has been pushing a proposal that would technically retain the Electoral College, even while rendering it irrelevant.  From their homepage:

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the entire United States. The bill preserves the Electoral College, while ensuring that every vote in every state will matter in every presidential election. The National Popular Vote law has been enacted by states possessing 132 electoral votes — 49% of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate it.

Interestingly, the big state vs. small state struggle doesn’t seem to come into play.  Jurisdictions that have passed the NPV bill range from the smallest of the small — Vermont and District of Columbia, with three electoral votes each — to California, the biggest jackpot, with 55 electoral votes.

No, the divide that matters is on red-blue lines.  The other states that have enacted the bill include New Jersey (which managed to enact it in 2008 without me noticing), Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Washington.  Every single one of these states has gone to the Democratic candidate in each of the past five presidential elections, going back to 1992.

Maybe the red-blue split has something to do with the fact that the only election in living memory that would have gone the other way in the absence of the Electoral College is Bush vs. Gore in 2000.  The last time before that was Harrison vs. Cleveland in 1888.

Happy Birthday America!

I’m pausing briefly between grilling the veggies and grilling the chicken to give thanks for the blessing of American citizenship, a lottery I won on the day I was born.

On this sun-drenched afternoon, inspired by the Episcopal Collect for Independence Day, I’m grateful for the patriots who lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn.  I’m grateful for the modern-day men and women of the U.S. armed forces, who sacrifice to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.

A special shout out to Petty Officer Second Class Harry Petersen, aviation boatswain mate on the U.S.S. Nimitz, currently pulling hardship duty… um… in port in Hawaii.  But hey, he’s done two tours in the Arabian Sea, and helped provide disaster relief after the Japanese tsunami.

Be safe, son.  I love you.

Race, American Exceptionalism, and the Delicate Art of Criticizing Obama

A few weeks ago I had my virtual fingers slapped by some Facebook friends.  It happened after I clicked, for the first time ever, one of those little “Like” buttons at the bottom of an op-ed.

Here is the paragraph in the op-ed that caught my eye:

To be sure, no white candidate who had close associations with an outspoken hater of America like Jeremiah Wright and an unrepentant terrorist like Bill Ayers would have lasted a single day. But because Mr. Obama was black, and therefore entitled in the eyes of liberaldom to have hung out with protesters against various American injustices, even if they were a bit extreme, he was given a pass. And in any case, what did such ancient history matter when he was also articulate and elegant and (as he himself had said) “non-threatening,” all of which gave him a fighting chance to become the first black president and thereby to lay the curse of racism to rest?

You of course are free to agree or disagree, but I thought the paragraph did a good job of describing how a first-term Senator with a thin resume and a dodgy taste in friends was able to convince 69 million Americans that he should be elected to the most powerful office in the world.  I saw the Like button, I clicked it, and I went on to something else.

I’m not sure what I thought the Like button would do, but I soon found out.  It copied the headline and subhead of that Norman Podhoretz op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to my Facebook wall, topped by an unambiguous statement of my approval.  Thus:

Kirk Petersen likes a link:

“What Happened to Obama? Absolutely Nothing.
He is still the same anti-American leftist he was before becoming our president.”

The first response came from a civil and fair-minded friend, who pointedly asked, “What is it you like about that, Kirk?”  Other offended friends, thoughtful people one and all, weighed in, and I quickly realized I had fallen into the common trap of overlooking the rhetorical excesses of someone with whom I otherwise largely agreed.

Labeling Obama a leftist is certainly fair game, but calling him anti-American borders on calling him a traitor. Besides being unfair, it’s counterproductive. It’s the type of drive-by slur guaranteed to alienate virtually all of those 69 million Americans, some of whom might otherwise be open to a more measured critique of the Obama presidency.

So after a feeble attempt to defend my beliefs while regretting Podhoretz’s choice of words, I deleted the link and posted this instead:

Two lessons learned tonight: 1) Inflammatory language inflames people. 2) Impulsively clicking a “Like” button on an op-ed can be an insufficiently nuanced way of expressing an opinion.

Three weeks later, also in the Wall Street Journal, Shelby Steele provided the missing nuance.  It is not that Mr. Obama is anti-American, but rather that he rejects the very idea of America as the one indispensable nation.

Mr. Obama came of age in a bubble of post-’60s liberalism that conditioned him to be an adversary of American exceptionalism. In this liberalism America’s exceptional status in the world follows from a bargain with the devil—an indulgence in militarism, racism, sexism, corporate greed, and environmental disregard as the means to a broad economic, military, and even cultural supremacy in the world. And therefore America’s greatness is as much the fruit of evil as of a devotion to freedom.

Mr. Obama did not explicitly run on an anti-exceptionalism platform. Yet once he was elected it became clear that his idea of how and where to apply presidential power was shaped precisely by this brand of liberalism. There was his devotion to big government, his passion for redistribution, and his scolding and scapegoating of Wall Street—as if his mandate was somehow to overcome, or at least subdue, American capitalism itself.

Anti-exceptionalism has clearly shaped his “leading from behind” profile abroad—an offer of self-effacement to offset the presumed American evil of swaggering cowboyism. …

So, in Mr. Obama, America gained a president with ambivalence, if not some antipathy, toward the singular greatness of the nation he had been elected to lead.

In 2009, during his “global apology tour” shortly after taking office, Obama was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism.  His answer showed that either he did not understand the term, or that he was carefully pretending not to understand it:  “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”  Obama thereby signaled that he rejected a belief of America’s role in the world that goes back more than 170 years, to Alexis de Tocqueville.

As Shelby writes,

Clearly Americans were looking for a new kind of exceptionalism in him (a black president would show America to have achieved near perfect social mobility). But were they also looking for—in Mr. Obama—an assault on America’s bedrock exceptionalism of military, economic and cultural pre-eminence?

American exceptionalism is, among other things, the result of a difficult rigor: the use of individual initiative as the engine of development within a society that strives to ensure individual freedom through the rule of law. Over time a society like this will become great. This is how—despite all our flagrant shortcomings and self-betrayals—America evolved into an exceptional nation.

To describe Mr. Obama’s attitude as anti-American is to caricature it.  But he does seem motivated by a vision of America as just one more unremarkable country among many.  That point of view has a constituency — but I’m not part of it.

Two lessons learned tonight: 1) Inflammatory language inflames people. 2) Impulsively clicking a “Like” button on an op-ed can be an insufficiently nuanced way of expressing an opinion.

Happy Independence Day to You;
Happy Blogiversary to Me

Three years ago today I posted my first substantive blog post, about Senator Obama, the Democratic nominee for president.  Here’s how it began:

From the start, my take on Obama has been that he’s a talented and charismatic politician who some day could become an important senator.

We know now, of course, that Obama will never be an important senator.  But I think the post holds up pretty well.

There have been 443 posts since then (some of them more substantive than others). They’ve attracted more than 1,000 legitimate comments.  There also have been more than 93,000 spam comments, blocked by my Akismet plug-in.

Since I added Google AdSense advertising to my site in May 2009, the ads have earned me $93.16, or an average of 12 cents a day. Once that total reaches $100, the Google people will send me a check. (Ca-ching!)  I’ve had more than 47,000 unique visitors from 150 countries, and I’m grateful to everyone who has taken a look.

These stats don’t exactly make me a titan of the blogosphere, but I enjoy having an outlet for writing. My heaviest traffic came from my one and only Instalanche, in a post noting that Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner’s tax problems got less attention from the media than Joe the Plumber’s.  The one post I’d like you to read if you haven’t already is “Honest Labor: From Mach 2 to Muenster to Madison.”

I was going to do  this as two posts, but between entertaining, the sunshine, fireworks and various pressing chores, I didn’t get my July 4 post up in time.  Let me end with a favorite quotation from the Collect for Independence Day in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (page 242).  Regardless of your faith tradition, I hope you’ll join me in giving thanks for the Founders of America, who “lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn.”  And to my favorite sailor, thank you for your service, son.

Happy 5th of July!




“Lit the Torch of Freedom for Nations Then Unborn”

Now that I’m a professional Episcopalian, I can think of no better way to mark our nation’s 234th birthday than with the Collect for Independence Day, page 242 of The Book of Common Prayer:

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Because of a happy accident of birth, I have the extraordinary privilege of being a United States citizen. I’m grateful for that every day, but especially on July 4. Happy Independence Day!

Channeling His Inner Neocon: Did the Nobel Speech Launch the Obama Doctrine?

US troops in Afghanistan (AFP/Getty)

US troops in Afghanistan (AFP/Getty)

I may have been too quick to sneer yesterday at President Obama’s appearance in Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

The prize itself is still ridiculous, of course.  (And don’t get me started on the statue.)  But in addition to the obvious point that the honor is unearned, the president has faced critics from his left who believe the recent escalation of Mr. Obama’s War is inconsistent with the prize.

Seeking to answer those critics, Obama used his acceptance speech to issue a ringing declaration of American exceptionalism (although he would not use that term).

In the last 24 hours, I’ve watched one conservative after another find things to praise in the speech.  Neo-neocon (not an Obama fan) called it “the most robust defense of American military action I’ve ever heard him give,” and quoted this passage (my emphasis):

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…

But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.

In a post in The Corner titled “Obama the Neocon,” Michael Ledeen said:

It’s “only a speech,” to be sure.  And there things I wish he hadn’t said, or said differently.  But it’s a very different sort of speech, and it contained many words that are downright neoconnish:

America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal. We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran. It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation. And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear that these movements — these movements of hope and history — they have us on their side.

It sure sounds like President Obama just endorsed the Green Movement in Iran.

In a roundup titled “Conservative Praise for Obama Speech,” Politico notes the endorsement of former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich:

It’s already being called the “Obama Doctrine” – a notion that foreign policy is a struggle of good and evil, that American exceptionalism has blunted the force of tyranny in the world, and that U.S. military can be a force for good and even harnessed to humanitarian ends.

“I think having a liberal president who goes to Oslo on behalf of a peace prize and reminds the committee that they would not be free, they wouldn’t be able to have a peace prize, without having [the ability to use] force,” Gingrich said. “I thought in some ways it’s a very historic speech.”

The conservative other conservatives love to hate, Kathleen Parker, wrote in the Washington Post:

The speech was a signal moment in the evolution and maturation of Obama from ambivalent aspirant to reluctant leader.

Rising to the occasion, he managed to redeem himself at a low point in his popularity by reminding Americans of what is best about themselves.

At Contentions, Jennifer Rubin (really not an Obama fan):

But this speech is perhaps the closest he has come to throwing the American antiwar Left under the bus. America will defend itself. There is evil in the world. And yes, we are at war with religious fanatics:

Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war.

For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint – no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith – for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

It is not at all what the netroot crowd that lifted him to the presidency had in mind. It seems that reality may be dawning, however dimly, on the White House.

I could go on and on. (I guess I already have.)  I expect in the future I will continue to have more criticism than praise for Mr. Obama. But while I am always proud to be an American, today I am proud of my President.


God Knows: An IED in Iraq Shows Who, How, and Why We Fight

IED_detonator 400The Web Goddess, who truly is a Renaissance Woman, is fascinated by neurology. She hungrily devours any book or article for general audiences about how the brain and central nervous system work.

If you share that interest at all, I highly recommend the story she flagged for me this morning, which was in yesterday’s New York Times Science section.

I find the story gripping for an entirely different reason, about which more to come.

It turns out that when it comes to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), fancy American technology is great, but there’s no substitute for the instincts of (certain) American soldiers.

[H]igh-tech gear, while helping to reduce casualties, remains a mere supplement to the most sensitive detection system of all — the human brain. Troops on the ground, using only their senses and experience, are responsible for foiling many I.E.D. attacks, and, like Sergeant Tierney, they often cite a gut feeling or a hunch as their first clue.

Everyone has hunches — about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others’ do.

“Sergeant Tierney” refers to a soldier who saved the life of a comrade one summer morning by sensing that something was wrong on a nearly deserted street in Mosul.  The article opens with a scene-setter about a soldier under Tierney’s command who sought permission to give some water to two Iraqi kids in a closed car on a 120-degree day.

The 2,100-word article makes you wait to the very end to learn what happened, but you can guess the outcome.  Sergeant Tierney denied permission for the humanitarian gesture — and when the soldier turned around to fall back, the car was exploded remotely.  The unidentified soldier suffered only minor injuries — but the two young Iraqi boys, of course, suffered the fate their elders intended.

Sort of puts waterboarding a known mass murderer into perspective, doesn’t it?

My point here (and I don’t necessarily speak for the Web Goddess) is not to advocate waterboarding, a practice I oppose.  To paraphrase a recent American president, my point is that good and evil both exist in the world — and the God of my understanding is not neutral between them.

That’s right: I believe God is on our side, in a war against an enemy that has perverted a major global religion.

America is not perfect.  Americans are not perfect.  But to quote an unsuccessful recent presidential candidate (who also opposes waterboarding), “America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world.”  I would tack on: “this side of the Almighty.”

Some will argue that a belief in God’s blessing is exactly the kind of self-justifying mindset that leads to excesses like waterboarding.  I think the opposite is true.

Our society has a passionate yearning for God’s approval (or for my secular friends, a yearning to be Good).  That yearning leads us to wrenching but necessary national debates about the precise point where interrogation goes too far — while our enemies deliberately murder two young co-religionists in an effort to take advantage of our humanitarian instinct.

Never forget.

(Public domain photo of IED detonator from Wikimedia Commons)

The Whole World Celebrates America’s Independence Day

Big Ben July 4As a big fan of the concept of American exceptionalism, I’m always happy when our country gets its props in the broader world.   So I was glad to see a CNN item about July 4th celebrations around the globe, organized by Yanks living away from home in cities like Buenos Aires, Sydney, Rome and London.

If I recall correctly, our July 4 holiday originally had something to do with throwing off the oppressive yoke of British imperialism.  Nice to see the Brits have a chance to get in on the fun.

The article started with a snappy lead: “(CNN) — Hot dogs? Check. Fireworks? Check. Big Ben? Wait a minute…”

Cool, I can get a nice light holiday blog post out of this.  I bet I can fire up Google Images and find pictures of fireworks at Big Ben… Check!

All right, let’s flesh this out… oops.  Turns out this is one of those stories that journalists describe as being “too good to check.”  CNN helpfully links to the website for the London celebration … but a visit to that site reveals a couple of problems.

First, the celebration is at Battersea Park, which looks quite nice in the pictures but turns out to be not particularly near Big Ben. Second, the fireworks got canceled at the last minute.

But hey, the Big Ben picture really is snazzy, and the celebration will continue, from my hometown of Maplewood to London and around the world.  Happy 233rd Birthday, America.  It’s been an extraordinary journey, and I’m convinced there are plenty of good times still to come.

(Photo: Getty Images)

American Ideals in Bush’s Third Term

obama_in_cairoPresident Obama sometimes sounds a lot like President Bush — and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Barack Hussein Obama, Cairo University, June 4, 2009:

But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things:  the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.  These are not just American ideas; they are human rights.  And that is why we will support them everywhere.

George Walker Bush, second inaugural address, January 20, 2005:

America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty…. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

If the passages were swapped one for the other, neither president would miss a beat.

I’ll second Rich Lowry’s assessment at The Corner:

I don’t want to make exalted claims for the speech. It was a mixed bag and there are limits to the effect any one speech can have. But I think some in the conservative blogosphere are pronouncing it a scandal because they leave out all the good things. Consider: He extolled America as “one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known”; pledged we will “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our country”; condemned Holocaust denial as “baseless, ignorant, and hateful”; said “it is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus”; insisted that “the Arab-Israel conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems”; and called for more democracy, religious freedom, and women’s rights in the Muslim world. And he got a standing ovation.

Photo: White House

Douthat’s Prescription For Republican Recovery

From his new op-ed perch as a New York Times token two-fer (conservative and bearded), Ross Douthat bids good riddance to Arlen Specter, and reminds us that ideas are more powerful than partisanship:

douthat-profileThe Reagan-era wave of Republican policy innovation — embodied, among others, by the late Jack Kemp — has calcified in much the same way that liberalism calcified a generation ago. And so in place of hacks and deal-makers, the Republican Party needs its own version of the neoliberals and New Democrats — reform-minded politicians like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, who helped the Democratic Party recover from the Reagan era, instead of just surviving it.

Hart, Clinton and their peers were critical of their own side’s orthodoxies, but you couldn’t imagine them jumping ship to join the Republicans. They were deeply rooted in liberal politics, but they had definite ideas for how the Democratic Party could learn from its mistakes, and from its opponents, in order to further liberalism’s deeper goals.

No equivalent faction — rooted in conservatism, but eager for innovation — exists in the Republican Party today. Maybe something like it can grow out of the listening tour that various Republican power players are embarking on this month. Maybe it can bubble up outside the Beltway — from swing-state governors like Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, or reformists in deep-red states, like the much-touted Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Utah’s Jon Huntsman. But to succeed, such a faction will have to represent something legitimately new in right-of-center politics. It can’t sound like Rush Limbaugh — but it can’t sound like Arlen Specter either.

With apologies to William Buckley, conservatism needs to be about more than just “standing athwart history, yelling Stop.”  Sometimes it’s appropriate to yell Stop, but there’s got to be more than that.  The clash of competing ideas has served America well over the long run, and I expect it will continue to do so.