A Dime’s Worth of Balanced Thoughts on SOTU

President Obama seems increasingly divorced from reality on the deficit. First there was his jaw-dropping statement to Speaker Boehner, during the fiscal cliff crisis, that “we don’t have a spending problem.” Now tonight he trots out the usual SOTU laundry list of new initiatives — some of them sensible enough. But he introduces them by saying “nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime.”

Excuse me? Props to the Republican National Committee for being out already with a video that includes tonight’s speech in a litany of video clips of Obama’s dime-saving promises, closing by pointing out that the national debt has increased by 58 trillion dimes since Obama took office.

The Obama-voting Web Goddess, who has to get up early tomorrow, bailed about 10 minutes into the speech, saying it wasn’t very interesting “now that he never has to run for office again.” I said “he’s acting like he never has to compromise with a Republican again, either.” She said “yes, that’s coming through.” Celebrate small victories…

I’m getting tired of Obama’s repeated references to “a balanced approach” to cutting the deficit. Here’s my idea of balance: the fiscal cliff deal imposed tax increases with no spending cuts. Now let’s balance that with a sequester deal of spending cuts with no tax increases.

There will be no sequester deal, of course. The Republicans cannot possibly surrender the only mechanism they have for forcing spending cuts, however clumsy those cuts may be, unless they and the Democrats can agree on alternate cuts of equal size. And there’s no chance of that in the next two weeks. Obama’s White House invented the sequester idea in the summer of 2011, and he and the Democrats have had a year and a half to propose alternate cuts. This president has no intention of cutting anything except defense.

One statement jumped out at me in his discussion of the need for changes to Medicare: “I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don’t violate the guarantee of a secure retirement.” Arrrgh! There is no guarantee of a secure retirement! There are entitlement programs in place that provide subsistence-level support, and even that isn’t guaranteed, because the programs are unsustainable. Anyone wanting “a secure retirement” is going to have to either inherit it or save for it.

After my negative feelings about much of the speech, I was surprised to find myself moved by Obama’s closing, when he offered up the examples of the brave police officer, the noble nurse and the 102-year-old woman who endured six hours in line on election night so she could cast her vote.

That’s just the way we’re made.

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title:

We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

Well put, Mr. President. (Yes, I know that by “certain obligations to one another” he means bigger government, but I don’t have to accept that premise.)

Man oh man, I loves me some Marco Rubio! An excerpt from the official Republican response:

Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.

Preach it, brother.

To end on a bipartisan note, I’ll paraphrase something David Gergen said on CNN: Who would have thought, as recently as a dozen years ago, that we would one day see a state of the union speech by a black president, followed by a response from a Hispanic senator?

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.

Seaman Recruit Harry Kirk Petersen, United States Navy

The other day I sat in a restaurant and watched my son become a man.

Harry recently bailed out of college. He was in the third year of a five-year construction management program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and he hated the place. He had been working at the Philadelphia Housing Authority through Drexel’s co-op program, and he hated that. His grades were good and he fulfilled his modest duties at PHA, but he was bored and sick of it.

Classes had started up again, and he was working part-time while going to school full-time. And he pulled the plug.

Plan A was to enlist in the Marines. This idea was not well received by many in his family and social circle. Consternation ensued. Harry went to live with an uncle and his family in Maryland for several weeks.

Much as he enjoyed getting to know his toddling cousin girls, there wasn’t much for him in Maryland besides a temporary refuge. The weekend before Christmas he came to stay with the Web Goddess and me in Maplewood while he figured out what would be next.

Job prospects were not bright — turns out there’s a recession. He looked for work after the holidays, but found nothing. All the while he kept talking about the service — now he was looking at the Navy Construction Batallions. The Seabees. Plan B.

I live in a deep blue town in a deep blue state. There’s not a great deal of enthusiasm for military service in this corner of New Jersey. When the Web Goddess or I would say Harry is thinking of joining the Navy, well-meaning friends would say things like, “I hope you’re trying to change his mind.”

Well, no.

Over the past several months, in part through this blog, my conservative leanings have been coming out of the closet. In the run-up to the election, I grew used to being the only McCain supporter in virtually every conversation. Nobody has shunned me, at least not that I’ve noticed, but they don’t seem to know how to respond when I say things like, “I continue to support the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein.”

The Web Goddess and I canceled each other out on Election Day, but she’s more financially conservative than I am. She’s pulled the levers for more Republicans than I have, although not recently. As is so often is the case, she knew exactly the right thing to say in talking with our friends.

I’m talking here about good Christian people whom I cherish and respect, and I have no interest in the kind of Internet flamewar that includes “words” like dhimmicrat and rethuglican. Here’s the conversation I’m prepared to have with liberal friends: “Do you think the United States needs to HAVE a military? Yes? OK… who should serve?”

I run a consulting business from home, and my business is every bit as robust as the rest of the economy. Harry and I have had plenty of time to bond while seeking work. When he wanted to borrow the car in January for the first of many trips to the recruiting office, he went with my blessing.

Turns out some of that book larnin’ sunk in — he aced the Ass-Vab (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test, and was eligible for any enlisted field in the Navy. He said that when he told the recruiter he was still interested in the Seabees, the recruiter said no — “you’re going nuclear.” Plan C.

Harry signed up for a six-year stint — basically two years of Nuclear Field training on top of a normal four-year enlistment. He’ll get a $21,000 “signing” bonus if he successfully completes nuclear school, and will end up serving either on a nuclear submarine or an aircraft carrier.

He’s a disciplined athlete and body builder — where the hell that comes from I’ll never know — and he’s not deterred by tales of my own long-ago Coast Guard basic training. He’s been working out more to get in better shape — his only frustration has been that because of the timing of his training class, he was not scheduled to report until October.

That changed earlier this week — he got the message that a slot had opened up — could he report on March 10? He told me this with great excitement when I got home from running an errand. He said the downside is that his 21st birthday is March 15, and he’d have to postpone his first legal purchase of a drink.

I sensed a parenting opportunity. “Suck it up, son.”

“Oh yeah, I already said yes.” He took a shower, and I heard him singing Anchors Aweigh.

We went to a restaurant and talked while we ate. He kept getting calls on his cell phone — it turns out that despite what he’d earlier been told, he needs a copy of his transcript when he reports on Tuesday, so he drove to Philadelphia today to get it. He spent the night at his mother’s house the night before and picked up his birth certificate there. In between still-kind-of-a-teenager enthusiasm — “If I get to kill a pirate, my grandchildren will never hear the end of it” — I watched as a mantle of determination and gravitas settled over him.

I don’t want my son in harm’s way any more than any other parent, and I’m glad he’s not going to be in the infantry. As near as I can tell, the Afghan Navy is not terribly formidable, but America’s enemies are resourceful, and have proven they can strike at sea.

Harry knows that, but feels good about his decision to join the Navy. He’ll end up with a college degree and money to pay off his Drexel student loans, and officer candidate school will be an option. If he decides to put in 20 years in the Navy, he can have a pension at the age of 41. In the meantime, he’s got guaranteed stable employment for the next six years, at a modest salary on top of room, board and free medical care.

He also has one other powerful motivation. It’s not the motivation he talks about the most, but it’s the one that came first.

My son is a patriot. He wants to serve his country.

(Photo by the Web Goddess. This post was written earlier this week, and published March 7 with minor changes. In the time-honored military tradition of “hurry up and wait,” Harry’s reporting date has been postponed. The current expectation is that he will report for duty on March 23.)

Purple Finger Majesties

The Web Goddess and I got up early this morning to perform our solemn civic duty of canceling each other out at the election booth.

The polls in New Jersey nominally open at 6 a.m., but voting was already under way when we arrived at 6. At 6:04 I estimated just under 100 people in the cafeteria at Tuscan Elementary School, where three districts vote. We were out of there by about 6:25, and the crowd had swelled to well over 100, in part because the line for the next district over wasn’t moving at all — apparently a voting machine problem.

Neither of us remember ever seeing so many people at the polls. Conventional wisdom holds that high turnout normally favors the Democrats. There’s no doubt that will be true in New Jersey, where electoral-vote.com‘s average of four recent polls shows Obama with a 16-point lead, 55% to 39%.

I voted straight Republican. Aside from the Presidential race, I was voting in the interests of divided government, not because I prefer the positions of whoever the GOP Freeholder candidate was over the positions of whoever the Democratic Freeholder candidate was. The Republicans did not field a candidate for Congress, so I couldn’t vote against Donald Payne, short of writing someone in. I’ve got nothing against Payne other than the fact that he’s a product of the Newark Democratic machine who has served 10 terms in Congress already.

While standing in line, it was tempting to think of voting in a lopsided race as a waste of time. Then I thought of all of the pictures of Iraqi and Afghani voters waving their purple fingers after voting, at some risk to their lives, in their first meaningful election in decades. And I shuffled ahead as the line moved forward.

The Corner vs. the Messiahmercial

The Web Goddess and I watched the Obamavision special via DVR while snuggling together on the couch. We’re a red-and-blue couple, but in the spirit of bipartisanship, I wore a purple shirt.

I started checking out of the campaign emotionally after the final debate (see “Stick a Fork in Mac, He’s Toast“). So tonight (ok, last night) I took a couple of minor jabs at The One, but afterwards I muted the Obamatron and said to Nina, “he’s good.” I’m in the mode of trying to make the best of the coming Obama presidency, and I was impressed by the performance. His communication skills rival Reagan’s and Clinton’s. I then navigated the DVR to the new Law & Order: SVU that I missed Tuesday night. Up now with a touch of insomnia, I learn that apparently the Phillies won the World Series.

The Corner’s still on the case, however. Some of the Cornerites are trying too hard — “If any undecided voters are moved by this nearly unwatchable garbage, then we will get what we deserve.” But there’s a link to a useful AP deconstruction of the ways in which “Barack Obama was less than upfront in his half-hour commercial.” Then there was this:

I was struck by the guy at the Ford plant; it noted that his father and grandfather had worked at Ford and retired with full benefits. And now he’s only paid to work every other week. Is he suffering currently because of the state of the economy and George Bush’s economic policies, or because his dad and grandad’s union extracted exorbitant benefits and retirement packages that mean Ford is now saddled with crushing financial obligations?

… which eloquently captures the half-formed thoughts that were swirling through my mind at the time.

Nina and I both joked about the “amber waves of grain” that opened the show. Later on we saw the “purple mountain’s majesties” in the backdrop of the Albuquerque (Hi Mom!) vignette. K-Lo came through with the best dig:

“He had me at the waving wheat.” [Kathryn Jean Lopez]
That’s how Rachel Maddow began her show tonight. Must turn off MSNBC.

A Surprise: Hitchens Endorses Obama

Christopher Hitchens, by far the biggest Iraq War hawk on the nominal Left, has endorsed Obama for President. I have to say I was stunned to see it. Three weeks ago, Hitch’s Slate column was headlined: “Is Obama Another Dukakis? Why is Obama So Vapid, Hesitant and Gutless?”

Does Hitchens now plan to wear a button saying “Vote for the Gutless One”?

I do not, btw, subscribe to the idea that Obama is “gutless.” I’ve tried very hard on this blog to be respectful of people with whom I disagree, including especially Obama. This is in part because I know many Obama supporters whom I deeply respect, my wife being first among them. When I’m critical of Obama, I try to base it on policies rather than on personality, and avoid name-calling. [Interior dialog: Didn’t you just call Jeremiah Wright “an anti-American racist”? Well, yes, I suppose I did. I’ll stand behind that… if Wright were on the verge of becoming President, I’d try to develop a more nuanced opinion of him.]

I generally admire Hitchens’s writing, despite (not because of) his tendency to hurl epithets at people (then endorse them three weeks later). And his reasoning here resonates with me to some extent, although I think he overstates his case:

The most insulting thing that a politician can do is to compel you to ask yourself: “What does he take me for?” Precisely this question is provoked by the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin. I wrote not long ago that it was not right to condescend to her just because of her provincial roots or her piety, let alone her slight flirtatiousness, but really her conduct since then has been a national disgrace. It turns out that none of her early claims to political courage was founded in fact, and it further turns out that some of the untested rumors about her—her vindictiveness in local quarrels, her bizarre religious and political affiliations—were very well-founded, indeed. Moreover, given the nasty and lowly task of stirring up the whack-job fringe of the party’s right wing and of recycling patent falsehoods about Obama’s position on Afghanistan, she has drawn upon the only talent that she apparently possesses.

It therefore seems to me that the Republican Party has invited not just defeat but discredit this year, and that both its nominees for the highest offices in the land should be decisively repudiated, along with any senators, congressmen, and governors who endorse them.

But how does Hitch, champion of both the war and the surge from their respective beginnings, reconcile himself to endorsing a candidate who opposed both? Here’s his ringing summation:

I used to call myself a single-issue voter on the essential question of defending civilization against its terrorist enemies and their totalitarian protectors, and on that “issue” I hope I can continue to expose and oppose any ambiguity. Obama is greatly overrated in my opinion, but the Obama-Biden ticket is not a capitulationist one, even if it does accept the support of the surrender faction, and it does show some signs of being able and willing to profit from experience.

Well, I hope he’s right about profiting from experience. His formulation here is interesting — “the Obama-Biden ticket is not a capitulationist one.” Biden voted in favor of the Iraq War, and Obama has certainly moderated his anti-war rhetoric in recent months, so I guess you can say the “Obama-Biden ticket” is not capitulationist. But capitulationism — which I define here as “get out of Iraq regardless of consequence” — was one of the core tenets of the Obama campaign during the primaries, and the reason I preferred Hillary Clinton over Obama.

His & Her Candidates

My lovely wife, the self-taught Web Goddess, supports Obama (as does almost everybody we know in our blue-town/blue-state of Maplewood, New Jersey). I support McCain, primarily on the basis of the Iraq war issue. As I’ve discussed before, this makes for some careful-but-substantive conversations as the election drama unfolds.

Tempting though it may be sometimes to mock the opposing candidate, we know it can easily feel like mocking each other by proxy. Because we have an extraordinary personal bond, there is no worry that political differences might damage the relationship. But out of simple respect, we avoid excessive harshness and look for common ground, even as we state and stand by our opinions.

This model cannot, of course, be replicated in the broader society. Democracy depends upon the clash of ideas, and negative campaigning can be a highly effective way neutralize an opponent’s strength. However, excessive harshness can cause a backlash, as the Democrats and the media (but I repeat myself) have found in their initial feeding frenzy over Sarah Palin.

Palin may have gone too far herself in mocking community organizers in her acceptance speech. Less than a day after Palin’s speech, Daily Kos launched the meme of Jesus vs. Pontius Pilate, and it’s gaining a lot of traction. On Facebook, if you search the popular Flair application for “Community Organizer,” you’ll find more than two dozen buttons making this point. The button at left is the one that comes up first, indicating more people have chosen that than any other similarly themed button. I mention this because this button was created by my wife Nina, whose graphic design skills led her to design a button more readable than the alternatives, featuring a red-blue color scheme that helps tell the story.

The Republicans are seeking to buff some of the harsher edges off of the meme — McCain’s acceptance speech made a nod to community organizing without using the term, and then on Face the Nation he explicitly said that community organizing is “very honorable.”

But I think the Jesus-vs-Pontius debate helps the Republicans much more than the Democrats. The downside for Republicans is it helps establish a High School Mean Girl image for Palin that will cost her some sympathy. However, what it does much more powerfully, I think, is emphasize two story lines that cannot help Obama: the experience issue (by all means let’s argue until Election Day about whether Obama has more experience than Palin), and the Obamessiah image that undermines the ability of many voters to feel comfortable with the idea of Obama in the very pragmatic and secular role of leader of the free world.

So THAT’S Why He Picked Her – What a Speaker!

I take back everything I said or hinted or even thought about Sarah Palin being a drag on the ticket.

She did several things she had to do in her speech tonight:

  • She established that her record of actual office-holding achievement compares very favorably with Obama’s. (Obama’s achievement of winning his party’s nomination for president is extraordinary and admirable. But as Palin said tonight, “this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform – not even in the state senate.”)
  • She demonstrated the combination of combativeness and populist appeal that have given her an 80% approval rating from her fellow Alaskans.
  • She showed she was ready — more than ready — to fill the customary VP role of attack dog on the stump. She even claimed the dog imagery for her own. I had already read the line, which she has apparently been saying for years, that the main difference between a Hockey Mom and a pit bull is lipstick. It seemed a little contrived when I was reading it on the screen, but when she said it, she owned it.

She took lots of hard shots at Obama, but by my count only one cheap shot. I wish she had left out the snipe that Obama’s worry about Al Qaeda terrorists is “that someone won’t read them their rights.” I don’t think that’s fair even as an exaggeration of anything I’ve ever heard Obama say.

But I loved the line that “Victory in Iraq is finally in sight … he wants to forfeit.” The “wants to forfeit” part isn’t literally true either, of course — but it’s certainly true that Obama’s pre-surge proposal to retreat-no-matter-what would have forfeited any chance at a positive outcome in Iraq.

My Obama-supporting wife — whom I love with a love that transcends space and time, let alone politics — didn’t like the speech. We both reacted negatively to the cheap shot on Miranda rights. But Nina was clearly pained to hear a man she admires attacked again and again, first by Giuliani and then by Palin. We watched the speech through different filters. Because I want McCain to win, I felt good about the effective, substantive, sarcastic hard punches being thrown at Obama — a man whom, as I’ve written before, in many ways I admire also.

Nina and I have virtually identical views on social issues. We both think the Republicans are on the wrong side of the abortion issue. Even more strongly, we both think they’re on the wrong side of marriage equality for same-sex couples. She was as angered and appalled as I was by the attacks of 9/11, and she knows the danger isn’t over. But we’ve reached opposite conclusions about which candidate to support. We respect each other’s decision, and we respect each other. We have in-depth, substantive discussions on the issues, but we’re careful not to mock each other’s candidate when we talk. That’s the way it should be in a marriage

But that’s not the way it’s going to be on the campaign trail. Unfortunately, negative campaigning works. Because it works, both sides have to do it. I wish it were otherwise — but no candidate has ever won a major election by staying entirely on the high road.

And so to bed.