St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

My Photo
Name:
Location: Saint Louis, Missouri, United States

The author of this blog has been a political junkie in St. Louis for over 50 years and was formerly involved in progressive politics. He is a retired attorney. Twitter: http://twitter.com/stloracle

Sunday, June 22, 2014

County Democrats alienate crossover voters

As St. Louis County transitions to a reliably Democrat county, some county Democrats are slow to realize what their counterparts in the City of St. Louis have known – and dealt with – for years. Missouri has an open primary system, in which any voter can take any party's ballot. In Democrat areas, Republican voters often vote Democrat ballots in the primary, because that is where the action is. Especially in south St. Louis, where most city Republicans reside, Democrats have learned to tailor their approaches to grab these votes in the usually decisive Democratic primary. Mayor Francis Slay has mastered the technique.

In spite of the county's new blue hue in the general election, enough Republican voters remain to make the number of potential crossovers in the primary very significant, much more so than in the city. That is especially true this year, as the only Republican primary contests in most of the county are low-key matches for the nominations for county executive and county auditor. The biggest draws for Republican primary voters will be in one state senate district in mid county and just one state representative district. The Republican primary for the right to lose to Democratic 1st District Congressman Lacy Clay is low profile and mostly where few Republicans reside. Neither Republican incumbents for state auditor nor Congress in the 2nd District face primary opposition. The high-profile Democrat tussle for county executive, where both candidates are already on the airwaves, will be tempting for Republican voters to join.

Neither Democrat County Executive Charlie Dooley nor his primary challenger, County Councilman Steve Stenger, seem to have figured that out. Both have played to their party bases in ways that alienate the Republican crossover voters.

Dooley is currently airing an ad that compares Stenger to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. While that plays well with the Democrat base that comprises most of the primary vote, it leaves the crossover voters with a positive impression of Dooley's opponent. Even though Romney lost the county by 14 points in the general election, he out-polled every other Republican on the ballot, and was especially well-liked by the more moderate Republican voters that are most likely to cross over in the primary.

But Stenger burned his bridges to conservative Republican voters last year when running his wife's unsuccessful non-partisan campaign for a seat on the governing board of St. Louis Community College. The Stengers sent out flyers claiming that Allison Stenger would stand up to incumbent Joan McGivney “and her Tea Party friends.” That was a strange, false charge against McGivney, a long-time advocate for women's rights and public education who publicly favored marriage equality before it was cool. The flyer drew broad, unwanted attention when popular Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan lambasted it. Tea Partiers, including county voters outside the district, took notice when a blog post on the St.Louis Tea Party web site protested. Steve Stenger foolishly alienated these potentially favorable crossover voters.

Both politically and in the interests of effective governance, Dooley, Stenger and other Democrats who focus myopically on their base should take lessons from seasoned city officials like Mayor Slay.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Slay must overcome voter complacency to stop Reed

Most of the political smart money thinks St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay will cruise to renomination to an unprecedented fourth term next Tuesday. His administration has been free of major scandal, civic optimism is high, and he enjoys a huge fundraising advantage, which he is using to blanket the airwaves and fill mailboxes with large expensive glossy cards. He also enjoys important endorsements, including Rep. Lacy Clay, his father and legendary predecessor William L. Clay, Sr., civil rights icon Frankie Muse Freeman, Gov. Jay Nixon, Sen. Claire McCaskill, and the city's fading daily, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But the Oracle's crystal ball remains cloudy. Slay must overcome two major challenges to make history.

The first major challenge is Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, whose quest to wrest City Hall away from the mayor has history on its side. Since the city began electing mayors to four-year terms, no one has ever been elected four times. The only other one who tried, Raymond R. Tucker (after whom the downtown stretch of 12th Street is named), was defeated by Alfonso J. Cervantes, who, like Reed, was then the Aldermanic President. That, in fact, was the office Slay himself held when he unseated former Mayor Clarence Harmon twelve years ago.

But Reed has more than just history in his corner. While racial consciousness has settled down to irrelevancy among the city's increasingly progressive white voters, it seems to be on the upswing among African-American voters. Last August, when it appeared that newly drawn districts and well-known white candidates might eviscerate city black representation in the Missouri legislature and the Post Dispatch endorsed exactly zero black candidates (see link to my post about that situation), black voters turned out in unusually high numbers for a summer primary and won all of the contests in question. President Barack Obama's tough but successful reelection campaign added to black racial consciousness and accelerated the momentum. The Reed campaign is well positioned to ride any continuing wave. The Clay endorsement looks good for Slay on paper, but it is paper thin. The worst kept secret in town is that Clays' endorsements are payback for Slay's active support of the younger Clay last election when he beat back a challenge from displaced white Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan. Black voters recognize that Clay is doing what he has to, but few of them will follow his lead this time. Even the elder Clay's former chief of staff, Pearlie Evans, is backing Reed. While Slay has faced at least one significant black challenger in every mayoral election, he will get his lowest share of the black vote this time around.

Reed complements his solid black support with some significant pockets of support from whites. He made the right promises to get the support of the firefighters union, whose members are suing the city over pension issues. The teachers union backs Reed due to old resentment over Slay's past intervention in school board elections and support for charter schools. The St. Louis Police Officers Association is officially neutral, but many officers resent Slay's backing of local control. Of less importance is Reed's endorsement by former 24th Ward (Dogtown) Alderman Tom Bauer, one of only two aldermen to be recalled by voters midterm.

Reed used a similar pattern of solid black support and spotty inroads of the white vote to unseat Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury six years ago. However, consistent street talk at the time said that some of Reed's white support was from Slay backers who were upset with Shrewsbury's independence on the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. Those folks are back with Slay in this contest.



A second challenger, former 27th Ward Alderman Jimmie Matthews, is also running, but he is not Slay's second major challenge. If anything, a black candidate like Matthews could help Slay by splintering his black opposition. But that's not likely to happen here, even though Matthews is gamely attending candidate forums on both sides of town. As the other alderman (besides Bauer) to be recalled by voters of his own ward, the Matthews candidacy will have a miniscule impact.

Slay's second major challenge is the possible complacency of his own supporters. His south side base sees an overwhelming majority of Slay signs on lawns and nothing but Slay ads on television, and they don't think Reed has much of a chance. The mayor and his campaign do not suffer from such complacency and are working very hard. But motivating complacent supporters to get out and vote, especially in the bad weather that is predicted for Tuesday, will be a challenge. Reed's supporters are more motivated and more likely to vote.

These factors make this contest hard to call. Slay will win big in his base in southwestern St. Louis (Wards 12 (his current home), 16 and 23 (where he grew up and served as alderman), and he will win other south side wards by smaller margins with lower turnouts. Reed will win big on the north side, and the size of the turnout will be important. The election will be decided in the central corridor. Reed should do well in Ward 6 (his home ward), but not as well as on the north side. The election will be decided in Wards 8, 17 and especially the high-turnout 28th.

A big Slay win is possible, but a close election that could go either way is more likely.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Re-examining Missouri's urban/rural electoral split

Right after the 2004 election, I posted about the widening electoral gap between metropolitan voters and those in rural or exurban counties, in the context of the evangelical vote. Two presidential elections later, this urban/rural split has not only persisted, it has intensified.

I observed in that original post that, while Missouri’s rural areas have been more Republican in presidential elections than metropolitan areas for years, recent elections have markedly increased the spread. In the 11 presidential elections from 1952-1992, this spread averaged about seven percentage points. The difference was never greater than the 14-point spread in the 1960 religious war centered on the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, and the spread virtually disappeared in the 1976 election involving born-again Christian Jimmy Carter, but seven points was a pretty typical spread.

Then, a realignment of voters began during the 1990s, in which rural evangelicals disgusted by the Clinton sex scandals switched from voting Democrat to Republican, followed by a counter-shift of
“old money” aristocrats and suburban “soccer moms” who were uncomfortable with the social conservatism of the new party members. The urban/rural spread crept up to 12 points in Clinton’s 1996 re-election, and exploded at the start of the 21st Century. In both 2000 and 2004, the metropolitan vote went more Democratic than before, and the exurban and rural vote went more Republican. In 2008, both areas trended Democratic, but metropolitan areas did it more. In 2012 both areas trended Republican, but rural areas did it more. The common thread was the increase in the spread, from 12 points in 1996 to 16 points in 2000, 21 in 2004, 23 in 2008 and up to 25 points in 2012.

County-by-county election returns demonstrate this realignment. Prior to the Clinton years, many Missouri rural counties (especially in eastern Missouri) had been Democratic since the Civil War. Democrats won both houses of the Missouri legislature every time from 1956 through 2000. As recently as 1988, when George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in Missouri, 52-48, Dukakis won 33 rural counties. By 2004, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in Missouri, 53-46 (fairly similar to the elder Bush's 1988 margin), Kerry lost every rural county except one. A Democratic wave in 2008 helped Obama win six rural/exurban counties, but in 2012 he too could carry only one. And the lone Democrat holdout in 2012 was Boone, whose electorate is disproportionately influenced by a large liberal academic community.

Meanwhile, St. Louis County flipped the other way. After voting reliably Republican for many years, including the Bush-Dukakis contest in 1988, the county went for Clinton in 1992 and for every Democratic presidential nominee since then. The suburban part of the realignment mentioned above has been evident in “old money” areas of St. Louis County, like Clayton, Ladue and Webster Groves, but the Democrat takeover of the county was magnified by a major, non-realignment factor, the migration into the county of African American Democrats.

In Missouri, the rural/suburban trade-off has benefited Republicans. The state's congressional delegation was 6-3 Democratic when Clinton won in 1992. Today Republicans hold a 6-2 advantage. Similarly, Democrats maintained control of both houses of the Missouri legislature until 2002, and Republicans have controlled both houses ever since.

Friday, October 26, 2012

POTUS 2012: Another split decision

The tight 2012 presidential race is shaping up as the second split decision in the last three contests, but just the third time ever in which the winner of the popular vote is defeated in the Electoral College. But this year, neither of those divergent results will be all that close.

Recent national polls have trended towards Republican challenger Mitt Romney. I see that trend continuing through election day, with Romney winning the popular vote by as much as 7 million votes and five percentage points, 52% to 47%. Romney will also lead in electoral votes when the local news airs (11:00 eastern, 10:00 central), with leads in most of the uncalled swing states, but awaiting results from traditionally late reporting urban areas. But as the sun comes up the following morning, the urban vote in most of those states will push President Barack Obama over the top, giving him a comfortable majority of electoral votes, possibly as much as 313 to 222.

This historic result will be the largest popular vote deficit of any Electoral College winner, both by percentage points and raw vote. Until now, Rutherford B. Hayes' 3-point popular vote deficit to Democrat Samuel Tilden in 1876 was the largest such deficit by far. Both Benjamin Harrison (1888) and George W. Bush (2000) lost the popular vote by less than a percentage point. Bush's 543,000 vote deficit is the current raw vote record.

How can the popular and electoral votes diverge so much? Because of the President's conscious campaign strategy to devote his resources almost exclusively to nine "swing" states. He will win most of them, including those with the most votes (maybe not Florida, but he won't need Florida). Obama will also win 18 "blue" states that he is taking for granted, but by smaller margins than in 2008. And he will lose all 23 states that he has written off, including Indiana (which he won in 2008) and Missouri (which he lost by a fraction of a percent). In most of the 41 states where virtually no Obama campaign resources are devoted, Obama will significantly underperform his 2008 results.

Romney's surge in popular votes will come primarily from the 41 neglected states, but all but Indiana will nevertheless deliver their electoral votes the same way they did in 2008. Obama will do well enough in enough of the contested swing states to pull out a comfortable Electoral College win.

There shouldn't be any whining from Republicans about this loss. George W. Bush noted when accepting his own minority victory in 2000 that he had campaigned to win electoral votes, and that he would have campaigned differently if the popular vote had determined the outcome. That is exactly what President Obama has done in this campaign, and it is working.

With the veto pen securely in the President's hand for four more years, the Affordable Care Act is assured of implementation, regardless of who controls Congress.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Game on: Battle of the Perfect 10s

Former Gov. Mitt Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to be his running mate creates a general election contest in which both sides have history of their sides.

One can argue till the cows come home (did I write that?) about the effect on the election of the tickets' contrasting views on the economy, the Affordable Care Act, Ryan's controversial budget proposal, Bain Capital, same-sex marriage, the importance of government assistance to small business success, or even the traded cheap shots over transporting a dog on the car roof vs. actually eating dog meat as a child. Like the illogical but persistent recurrence of hemline lengths' and Super Bowl winners' accuracy in predicting stock market behavior, presidential elections over the past half century have turned more on the number of letters in the names of the respective tickets' nominees. (I wrote about this phenomenon four years ago after then-Sen. Obama picked then-Sen. Biden as his running mate.)

Since 1968, a presidential ticket whose surnames added up to exactly ten letters has won eight times out of nine:
1968 and 1972: Nixon Agnew
1980 and 1984: Reagan Bush
1988: Bush Quayle
2000 and 2004: Bush Cheney
2008: Obama Biden
Now, for the first time during this period, two ten-letter tickets go head-to-head! As I also wrote back in 2008, then Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (six letters) could have called Obama's ploy by matching him with a four-letter pick of his own (such as retiring MO Sen. Kit Bond, then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), or then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice). But McCain picked then -Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), who was, among other things, one letter too long.

Romney didn't repeat McCain's mistake (in spite of successive gaffes during the veep announcement ceremony). The cool, calculating Romney picked a four-letter veep to set up the showdown.

Barring an unlikely third-party surprise, we are now assured that a ten-letter ticket will be victorious again for the ninth time since 1968. But which side does history favor in this head-to-head clash? The only historical signal is ambiguous. The election in which a 10-letter ticket lost was in 1992 (Bush Quayle). On one hand, that contest's 10-letter losers were Republicans. On the other hand, they were also the sitting incumbents, presiding over a bad economy.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Primary could dilute African American clout in St Louis

Separate columns in the current edition of the St. Louis American, the city's largest African American weekly, evidence growing angst among African American politicos about the possible outcome of the 2012 Missouri Democratic primary.Veteran columnist Jamala Rogers complained in general terms about the "continued, blatant disrespect of black people by the leading white Dem[ocrat]s." Rising star Alderman Antonio French was more specific, warning that the primary could eliminate all African Americans from the city's delegations in Congress, the state senate and the state house. I have concluded that French is exaggerating, but only by a little. Let's look at the contests.

First Congressional District. This classic member vs. member contest pits Rep. Lacy Clay against Rep. Russ Carnahan, who currently represents the 3rd District that was relocated in redistricting due to Missouri's loss of a congressional seat in reapportionment. Demographically the district is barely a black plurality (and not a majority). The St. Louis Post Dispatch endorsed Carnahan, but hardly anyone reads the Post any more. Clay will win over 90% of the black vote and will probably come close to breaking even with Carnahan among whites, many of whom are unimpressed by Carnahan. Clay will win overall by about 2-to-1. So African Americans will retain black representation in the most visible contest.

But French's concerns about the legislative contests may be well-founded.

State Senate: The city's shrinking population now leaves it with only one complete senate district and a bare majority in another that it shares with St. Louis County. The shared district is represented by Sen. Joe Kaveney, a white Democrat, who has two years remaining on his term. The other district, up this year, is represented by scandal-plagued Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, who is opposed for renomination by state Reps. Jamilah Nasheed (who, like Wright-Jones, is black) and Jeanette Mott Oxford (who is white), in a district with just a small black majority. Oxford"s progressive record has earned her strong support from the progressive community, including many blacks. As the first openly gay woman state senator, she enjoys especially strong loyalty among the city's gay population, much of which resides in this district. African Americans are divided between Wright-Jones and Nasheed. If those two split the vote fairly evenly, Oxford will win, making the city's senate delegation entirely white for the first time since 1960. Oxford has represented a racially diverse house district well, and will do the same if elected to the senate, but black pride, as evidenced by French's column, will be hurt if she wins. The Oracle believes Wright-Jones is toast. While I don't subscribe to identity politics, I believe French is correct in suggesting voters who believe that it is important to preserve black representation for the city in the senate need to unite behind Nasheed.

State House: Six of the city's current ten House seats situated entirely in the city are held by African Americans. Population loss and slicing and dicing by the bipartisan redistricting commission reduce the number of all-city seats to just eight. (Some portions of the city are tacked on to four other districts that are centered in neighboring parts of St. Louis County.) The commission drew five of the all-city districts with black majorities, but that majority in three of them is less than 65%. French's warning that blacks might not win any of them is exaggeration, but blacks could be left holding just the two with black super-majorities. African American Rep. Chris Carter is unopposed in the primary, and all three contenders for the open seat in District 77 are black. But each of the other districts has a serious white contender. In two of them, two serious black contenders could split the vote and create an opening for the white.

Rep. Penny Hubbard is the incumbent in the 78th District, which is 62.3% black. The St. Louis Business Journal, though, reported that the district's voting age population is only 52.8% black. The polarizing Hubbard political family always draws African American opposition, and Samuel J. Cummings, III is doing so now. But also running is Ruth Ehresman, a white former staffer for the progressive Missouri Budget Project who appears to be a very serious challenger. The district is hard to peg geographically, because the district's portion of the city's predominantly black north side includes a substantial and growing white minority in Old North St. Louis, while its portion of the predominantly white south side includes most of the south side's black migration in the southern wing of the 6th Ward.

The 79th District is an open seat with a one-on-one contest between Michael Butler, a black former legislative assistant to Wright-Jones, and Martin Casas, a white businessman. While Casas does not have the advantage of a split opposition, he nevertheless appears to be garnering significant support among blacks, including French himself.. Casas would appeal to the Washington Avenue loft district, if he can persuade those yuppies to vote.

The most interesting contest is probably the 84th District, where incumbent Karla May squares off against the rep she ousted last election, Hope Whitehead. The seat was represented by Clay before his election to the state senate. The white candidate in the 84th District is the very well known Mike Owens, former Channel 5 investigative reporter turned lawyer and husband of 28th Ward Alderman Lyda Krewson. Owens' and Krewson's ward is the highest turnout ward in the district, and its organization is one of the city's most effective in delivering votes in the primary.

For its part, the American has endorsed Clay, but no candidates in these other contests.
UPDATE: In addition to Carnahan, the St. Louis Post Dispatch also endorsed Oxford for the state senate. The Post no longer bothers with state rep races. All-told the Post endorsed zero African American candidates for the primary.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who may face a challenge from African American Board President Lewis Reed in the spring, endorsed African American candidates Clay, Nasheed, Hubbard and May, and joined French in backing Casas.

The concern described by Rogers and French is that African Americans could become very dispirited by white wins in historically black districts. While President Obama is likely to motivate African Americans to go to the polls, they might just vote for Obama and leave the rest of the ballot unaddressed. The appearance on the ballot of Gov. Jay Nixon (whom the American declined to endorse over token primary opposition), who has historically based his political success on appealing to rural white voters by using African American interests as a foil, could reinforce black inclinations to skip down-ballot races.

Former Rep. Bill Clay, the father of Lacy Clay, warned over a month ago that the Clay-Carnahan primary fight could have a "chilling effect" on turnout in November. Rogers echoed that not-so-veiled threat: "It is time for a show-down in the Show Me State." To supporters of white candidates who are running for office in good faith, that sounds a lot like extortion.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Primary reconfirms Obama's rural MO weakness

As I scoured the numbers from last week's "meaningless" Missouri presidential primary, I was startled to find that the real news was not in the hyped Republican contest but in the (technically meaningful) Democratic contest.

Overall, President Obama received a slightly underwhelming 88.3% of the vote in the Democratic primary against three little known vanity candidates and an option to send uncommitted delegates to the convention. Uncommitted, at 6.3%, was the most popular Democratic alternative to Obama. In contrast, incumbent President George W. Bush received 95.1% of his party's vote in an analogous Missouri primary in 2004. No Democrat wants to underperform Dubya!

However, it's the geography behind the numbers that should provide greater concern for the President and his strategists.

Obama was predictably strong in urban areas (the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City plus St. Louis County) where African American voters (Obama's strongest demographic) dominate the vote in the Democratic primary, plus Boone County, where faculty and some students at the state's largest college campus predominate. Obama polled a near-unanimous 96% in St. Louis and Kansas City, 93.3% in St. Louis County, and 92.8% in Boone County.

Unlike St.Louis County, Democrats in Kansas City's suburbs showed less love for Obama, with Jackson County (excluding Kansas City itself), Clay County to the north and Cass County to the south giving the President a little less than his share of the vote in the state as a whole.

But the President's numbers were more concerning in rest of the state. In rural and exurban areas (everything but St. Louis City and County, Kansas City, the rest of Jackson County and Boone County), 17.2% of Democratic Primary voters voted against their party's president. The non-Obama Democratic vote topped 20% in nearly half the rural counties, and over 30% in seven of them. In Reynolds County in the southern Missouri lead belt, it came within one vote of 40%. Even in relatively populous Buchanan County (St. Joseph and environs), the non-Obama Democratic vote was 24.3%.

Democrats have performed poorly outstate in recent November general elections, but the above numbers are from a Democratic Primary! Those numbers aren't significantly tainted by crossover votes, because nearly all of the Republican and independent voters who drive the general election numbers were most likely drawn to the highly contested and well publicized Republican contest, if they voted at all. The voting pool here would have been almost entirely true Democrats, and over a sixth of them in the rural and exurban half of the state said no to their President.

Not everyone who votes against his party's President in a primary votes for the other party's candidate in the following general election. But some (including many who chose not to vote at all in the primary) may exercise their frustration by not voting at all in November. That could adversely affect Sen. Claire McCaskill (who shares much of the President's record) and the rest of the Democratic ticket.

Republican Primary

The contest that I expected to analyze turned out to be pretty homogeneous. There was no significant urban/rural split, as former Sen. Rick Santorum carried every county, including the separately tabulated cities of St. Louis and Kansas City, defeating establishment-endorsed runner-up Mitt Romney by 30 points statewide. Santorum's success here was aided by the absence of conservative rival Newt Gingrich on the ballot, but Santorum also won caucuses the same day in two other states where Gingrich did compete.

Here are what few Republican patterns I could discern:

  • Anti-war libertarian Ron Paul (12.2% statewide) ran strongest in the big cities, winning 20.3% in the City of St. Louis (compared to just 10.6% in St. Louis County) and 15.2% in Kansas City, although his best county was Mercer in northern Missouri, where Paul's 27.9% was good for second place over Romney. Paul had been expected to overperform in academic centers, but only Boone County (University of Missouri) met expectations with 18.2%. Paul ran marginally ahead of his statewide share in Phelps (Missouri S&T), Adair (Truman State) and Nodaway (Northwest Missouri State) Counties, but trailed in Johnson County (University of Central Missouri). Other campuses (e.g. Missouri State) are situated in counties in which their share of the vote is insignificant. Paul's relative strength appeared to come at Santorum's expense rather than Romney's.
  • Romney performed relatively well (30%+) in the Kansas City and St. Joseph areas in western Missouri. Santorum's victory margin over Romney in Buchanan County was single digits. Romney also flirted with 30% (29.8) in St. Louis County, where he enjoyed fundraising success.
  • Santorum's share (55.2% statewide) was quite consistent across the state. The biggest departure from the norm was Ralls County, south of Hannibal, which delivered 75.4% for Santorum. He topped 60% in some exurban counties (Franklin west of St. Louis, and Cass and Lafayette south and east of Kansas City), but not in others. He marginally underperformed his statewide share in urban areas, primarily due to Paul's relative strength there.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Let's not be more irrational than 'birthers'

President Obama's place of birth is much more than the controversy that will not die. It is a matter that is driving both the political right and the political left to make fools of themselves. It's time to chill already.


Even before Obama's election, some conservatives and Republicans (though notably not defeated Republican Presidential nominee John McCain) became obsessed with the idea that their conqueror was ineligible to be president because he didn't meet the constitutional requirement that he be born in the United States. This in spite of the fact that McCain's own candidacy was a bit of a stretch, his having been born in the Canal Zone, at the time a territory of the United States but never a state. It is admitted by all that Obama was born to parents who were attending college in Hawaii, then already a state. But the “birthers,” as they came to be known, contend that Obama's Kansas-born mother foresook the health and safety of American medical facilities and traveled halfway around the world to Kenya, the homeland of Obama's namesake father, to deliver her child in third-world conditions. The absurdity of the necessary assumptions that attend this scenario help to make birthers seem unreasonable to everyone else.


For his part, the President has taken steps to feed the controversy. Promptly releasing (or authorizing Hawaiian officials to release) his actual birth certificate would have ended the controversy. Instead, Obama belatedly released a modern-day abstract or summary of the birth certificate, which birthers contend to be fabricated. Birthers ask why not release the document issued contemporaneously with his birth, complete with signatures of the certifying government officials. They charge that he can't release what doesn't exist. They liken his refusal to a politician caught in a sex scandal defiantly refusing to dignify the charges with a comment.


A conservative friend of mine recently emailed me a pdf file of what purports to be a photo of Obama's Certified Copy of Registration of Birth from a hospital in Mombasa, Kenya. Such a document is easily fabricated with technology widely available to anyone with a computer. But because of the passage of time, the production of the actual Hawaiian birth certificate now would be subject to the same suspicions.


So, why did the President let this controversy fester? He may be trying to protect his deceased parents from the release of embarrassing private personal information that his birth certificate may contain. Whether or not that is true, I believe that Obama has learned that his refusal is leading his opponents to make fools of themselves, and to deflect their efforts away from other issues that might have greater negative impact on his reelection. He is playing this controversy masterfully!


But other progressives are not so masterful, and are embarrassing themselves as much as the birthers. Progressives following Saul Alinski's playbook by ridiculing the birthers are now going a bridge too far. A Facebook page called Ostracizing Birthers was launched this past week, with the stated mission “to purge Birthers from our social networks, online and in person, refusing to interact with known Birthers, with the goal of making Birtherism as socially unacceptable as possible.”


Excuse me, but this is really stupid strategy. The popularity of Democrats in general and the President in particular has improved markedly in the aftermath of the tragic Arizona shooting and subsequent appeals to civility. While my previous post disagreed with a civility movement that sought to repress legitimate public debate, this whole ostracization business is entirely different. The information page for this political organization urges people specifically to “avoid engaging Birthers in arguments about Birtherism or other topics” (my emphasis added) because “anyone who still believes that Obama is not a US citizen is a fundamentally unreasonable person, and a waste of our time and energy.” In promoting the refusal to interact at all with persons holding these particular views, on this or any other topic, it is itself a strategy that represses the free and rational exchange of ideas and political thought.


Moreover, ostracization is a form of bullying, which has recently become the subject of extensive legitimate criticism. That's not the way a political movement wants to be perceived.


Ostracization is also potentially very disruptive to everyday business and even family relationships, not the least because of how relatively prevalent birther views are. The organization's Facebook page linked to a Public Policy Polling poll that disclosed that birthers comprise a majority of all Republican primary voters. In view of the huge generational divide opened by Obama's 2008 campaign, this strategy will necessarily pit Generation X and Millennial children against their Boomer and older parents in many cases. Disagreeing over the dinner table (or, more realistically, at the keyboard) is healthy; ostracizing family members is not.


Progressives need to be smart, stop trying to suppress opponents who are defeating themselves, and avoid being even more unreasonable than those they oppose.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Need for civility: a dissenting view

Much has been said since the Tuscon shooting involving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) about the need for civility in our discussion of political issues and people. From the President on down, both left and right, politicians are falling over themselves trying to look good by taking this “high road,” no matter how hypocritical it may be in the context of the speaker's own rhetorical past.


The most passionate voices of both the right and the left have come under fire for their rhetoric on subjects unrelated to Giffords or her shooting. Keith Olbermann, the most inspiring, uncompromising voice of the left, was canned by left-leaning MSNBC (though ostensibly for reasons unrelated to his rhetoric). That move led many progressives (e.g., Democrat strategist Mo Elleithee and State Rep. Rich DiPentima (D-NH) in Politico's discussion in The Arena) to press right-leaning Fox News to shed rhetorical flamethrowers Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and even opinionated moderate Bill O'Reilly, and for individual stations to disconnect the Rush Limbaugh radio program.


I respectfully dissent.


I'm a big-time First Amendment guy. I view all attempts to stifle free expression of ideas with great suspicion. While courts have extended First Amendment protection to such things as sexually explicit artwork, it is undeniable that speech on political topics is at the very heart of the amendment's protection. It is also undeniable that physical violence is not a protected expression of free speech.


Many politicians and media personalities have seized on the Arizona tragedy to suggest that the incident was the result of predictable reaction to heated political discussion. That's nonsense. And even if it were true, the occasional tragic response of an irrational sociopath to controversial expression is a small, necessary price to pay for our broader fundamental freedoms. After all, traffic accidents cause thousands of deaths every year, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be allowed to drive automobiles.


The fact is, the most virulent expressions of opinion are often the most effective. Displaying photographs of coffins of dead soldiers, though offensive and insensitive to some, is a legitimate, effective way to promote ending war. And I must admit that Sarah Palin's characterization of the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research as “death panels,” though offensive and insensitive, is legitimate and effective in promoting the arguments of health care reform opponents. Those who seek to stifle so-called “toxic” speech are really seeking to suppress the effective, persuasive communication of ideas that they oppose.


Certainly responses to disagreeable expressions of ideas are equally protected and encouraged. Outrageous expressions should not go unchallenged, lest acquiescence be inferred from the silence. Unfortunately, today's society prefers suppression of ideas they don't like over vigorous, reasoned debate, as illustrated by popular culture's favorite retort, STFU. Censorship is wrong, unless there is a clear and present danger to national security. While the First Amendment only limits the government from interfering with free speech and does not prohibit private citizens from doing so, bullying speakers into submission with orchestrated public outcry is just plain wrong.


We don't need to monitor our “tone.” We need more ideas, not fewer. We need to return to the richness of their unintimidated expression. Self-imposed "civility" won't get us there.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Koster should return Comcast contribution

Jake Wagman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that cable giant Comcast Financial Agency Corporation contributed $2,500 to the reelection campaign of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster (D, former R) on Wednesday of this week, one day after Koster (on behalf of the state) joined in a settlement that allows Comcast to merge with over-the-air television network NBC.

The FCC approved the merger shortly after the settlement was reached. This dispenses with anti-trust concerns about the resulting creation of an entertainment conglomerate.

The contribution came to light so quickly because new Missouri ethics rules require immediate disclosure of large donations made during the legislative session. Comcast's donation was more than double what had been allowed under Missouri's former contribution limits.

Wagman quoted a spokesperson for Koster's office trying to explain away the apparent conflict of interest by distancing Koster from the negotiations' heavy lifting. But Wagman, ordinarily an apologist for establishment Democrats like Koster, observed insightfully, "So, in other words, it must be a coincidence that an out of state company with limited operations in Missouri gave Koster a campaign contribution the day after he signed an agreement pivotal to their [sic] future growth."

Since Missouri law allows campaigns not to report contributions which the campaign rejects within 10 business days after receipt, Koster's reporting of the contribution means his campaign accepted it.

This sure smells like "pay to play." At minimum, the contribution represented a reward for playing along. In addition, the ethical rules that apply to Koster's conduct as an attorney require him to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Koster should cleanse himself as best he can and return Comcast's contribution as soon as possible.