Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Supremely Important

It is a very good thing that the Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will hear arguments as to whether the Indiana Voter ID law is constitutional. Along with the proposed California ballot initiative which, if passed, would change the way electoral votes are allotted in that state (meaning that the Republicans would gain far more than they usually get) and numerous controversies over the use of touch-screen voting machines (mainly, will there be a backup record of these votes) the election of 2008 promises to be a confusing mess once the balloting is over and the counting begins.
Normally speaking, all that is required for a U.S. citizen to vote is a signature in a ballot book. But the Indiana Voter ID law--and others like it around the nation-- insists that voters bring a photo id with them to the polling place, something which is widely seen as an attempt to keep minorities, who often are without proper identification, from voting. Meaning, of course, that Democrats would lose votes.
Those who are proponents of such laws claim that they will cut down on the possibility of voter fraud--voters impersonating other voters, or voting twice, etc.--but in the main, voter fraud in America no longer works this way. It used to. In the 1880s, a decade which is probably more corrupt than any in American presidential electioneering history, operatives of both parties would carry suitcases full of two-dollar bills (the cash was known as "Soapy Sam" for its ability to grease palms) into pivotal states (Indiana was one of them) in order to bribe voters. Each vote, two bucks.
Now, of course, voter fraud is generally perpetrated by political parties who no longer buy votes, but instead attempt to keep people from voting. The most egregious recent example of this was in Ohio, in the 2004 Bush-Kerry contest, when Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell instituted numerous blatant attempts to keep minority Democrats from voting. These included a process known as "caging." In the summer of 2004 the GOP, using zip codes, sent registered letters to 200,000 newly registered voters in urban areas more likely to vote for Kerry. Thirty-five thousand people who refused to sign the letters or whose mail came back marked “undeliverable” were knocked off the voter rolls only two weeks before the election. People were informed of their right to defend their vote only very late in the process; in one county, sheriff deputies allegedly intimated witnesses by showing up at their homes implying they had committed voter fraud by living at a different address than the one from which they had registered.
Also, early in September of 2004, two months before the election, Kenneth Blackwell used an outdated regulation to restrict voter registration. He claimed that the paper registrations needed to be printed on was eighty-pound, unwaxed white paper (postcard paper). This might make sense for registrations going through the mail, but Blackwell insisted that the regulation covered registrations delivered in person, as well, and also that all registrations on different weight paper were retroactively invalid. On September 28, six days before the registration deadline, protests caused Blackwell to rescind his order. But intense chaos had ensued. According to the nonpartisan Greater Cleveland Voting Coalition, at least 15,000 voters lost their ability to vote because of this.
Bush won Ohio and its twenty electoral votes by 116,00 votes. If it had gone the other way, Kerry would be president right now.
The Supreme Court says it will decide the issue of Voter ID laws by June. Not a moment too soon....

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Frontrunner meltdown

Now that Hillary has announced her new health plan (the one that's going to work, this time) and solidified her position by appearing on all major Sunday AM talk shows, she has been officially declared front-runner, a position, as she is no doubt aware, that carries with it historic perils.
There have been numerous cases of front-runner meltdown in the history of American presidential politics, but none so dire as that of Republican Thomas Dewey in his campaign to unseat Harry Truman in 1948. Historians often focus on the grand, "give-em-hell" campaign run by Truman--and it was indeed a doozy, a 31,000 mile whistlestop whirlwind with Harry making rousing speeches at every hamlet in America--but, in fact, the race was Dewey's to lose and he lost it.
Before the campaign began, Truman was so roundly disliked in America--post war inflation had set in and the Red Scare had begun--that even members of his own party wondered aloud in editorials "Must it be Truman?" A nasty joke going around the country asked: "I wonder what Truman would do if he were alive?"
On the other hand, Americans had New York Governor Dewey, who had honorably lost in 1944 to Franklin Roosevelt. Dewey was young (forty-six, the first presidential candidate to be born in the 20th century) handsome (well sort of--a comment, famously attributed to everyone from Ethel Barrymore to FDR had it that he resembled "the little man on the wedding cake"), and a crime-buster ala Rudy Giuliani, the candidate who most closely resembles Dewey today. But Dewey suffered terribly from two attributes which cannot afflict a winning presidential candidate: complacency and caution. Since all polls had him way ahead, his advisers told him to sit on his hands and simply avoid saying anything controversial. All the way to the end, Dewey thought he had it won. In fact, he became enraged when Truman announced he was going to send a personal emissary to Stalin to try to mediate with the Soviet leader during the Russian blockade of Berlin that summer. Dewey told reporters: “If Harry Truman would just keep his hands off things for another few weeks! Particularly, if he will keep his hands off foreign policy, about which he knows considerably less than nothing.”
On Election Day, even as Gallup gave the election to Dewey and The Wall Street Journal published an article predicting who Dewey's chief advisers might be and New York Times columnist Stewart Alsop wrung his hands, wondering "how the government can get through the next ten weeks" with Truman as lame-duck president, Dewey got his comeuppance: Harry Truman won by more than three million votes.
The lesson for front-runners: act like you're the last dog in the pack and be sure to keep barking and braying...

Friday, September 21, 2007

A paean to brickbats

Finally off jury duty -- the case was going to extend into next week, at which point I would be bankrupt and my eight-year-old daughter turned into a latchkey kid. I skipped out of the room with a positively Clintonian (Bill) mixture of guilt and relief, as hardier souls mired in the voir dire stared at me in resentment. But the judge understood: "Mr. Cummins," he said, "as soon as I knew the case was going over, I said, this man is going to have a problem with that."
Bless you, Judge Harold Fullilove...
As I said yesterday, I do wax nostalgic about certain campaign conventions of the past, one of them being the direct and immediate response of hurling objects at a candidate whose opinion you disagree with. In this day and age, however, you're likely to get tasered merely for hurling words (you all saw the John Kerry fracas, right?) But one of my favorite candidates of all time--Wendell Willkie, the bigger-than-life Thomas Wolfe of presidential politics--was a magnet for tossed objects. Willkie was a Republican, but a crusading, maverick one with strong populist support who gave Franklin Delano Roosevelt a pretty good run for his money in 1940. Roosevelt even considered briefly trying to smear the married Willkie by revealing that the handsome, tousle-haired lawyer was having an affair with one Irita Van Doren, a New York writer and editor who was the former wife of Carl Van Doren (uncle to Charles Van Doren of 1950s quiz show notoriety).
This didn't happen, for interesting reasons which I will go into at another time, but Roosevelt was probably the only one who ever held his fire when Willkie was concerned. Whenever the Republican stepped up to speak at podiums in Democratic strongholds like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, etc., he had to duck a veritable hailstorm of objects. One reporter covering the campaign counted cantaloupes, potatoes, onions, tomatoes,oranges, eggs, ashtrays, phonebooks, and even a bedspread.
Willkie usually took such attacks in stride, although outside Detroit he lunged at one protester who had spattered his wife with an egg.
Hurled tomatoes have gone the way of torchlight parades and hard cider, and I suppose its a good thing, but...they did bring a delightful anarchy to the campaign trail...

But enough of me spouting off. Here's a little pop quiz: which U.S. presidential campaign contained the following immortal slogans:
"Let's be done with wiggle and wobble."
"America first!"
"A return to normalcy!"
First in with the correct reply gets one free copy of Anything for a Vote.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bumper stickers

Just back from a long day at jury duty, with another long one coming tomorrow. I am the star of voir dires, a jury magnet. Friends spend their time knitting, catching up on their sleep and reading old Frederick Forsythe novels, while no sooner do I enter a room than both prosecution and defense pounce: we want the guy! Put him in the box!
Telling them I'm a freelance writer who needs to toil every day to make his lousy nickel does no good, nor does venturing less than politically correct opinions, or even dressing to the nines (current get-out-of-jury-duty folklore says that if you show up really well-dressed--say, a fur coat or three piece-suit--you're a cinch to be handed your walking papers).
But I don't have a three piece suit. (I do have a fur coat, but that's another story, believe me.) In any event, ever the Dirty Tricks historian, I was interested to note that the judge asked each prospective juror, during a long interrogation about personal preferences in television shows, exercise routines, and the like, if he or she had any bumper stickers. In particular, he seemed to be interested in "political bumper stickers."
He came up with zero--well, one young man had a decal reading "Honk If You're Horny"--but I could have told him that. Great, nasty presidential election bumper stickers seem to be a thing of the past. Newsweek ran an interesting piece a few months ago on the current crop of candidates and their stickers (read it here), but these are the designed-by-New York-logo-designer, campaign- sanctioned ones. What about all the "Trick Nixon Before He Tricks You" and "Cart Away Carter" bumper stickers that used to appear? Too soon, perhaps -- we do have 13 months to go, although it doesn't feel like it-- but your Dirty Tricks historian fondly remembers the days when two cars used to talk to each other--nay, snarl--as in 1964:
Goldwater supporter: IN YOUR HEART YOU KNOW HE'S RIGHT
Johnson supporter: IN YOUR GUTS YOU KNOW HE'S NUTS.

Don't get me started on the good old days or before long I'll be pining nostalgic for tomato throwing. Remember when people used to actually throw things at candidates? Chances are you don't. I'll refresh your memory tomorrow after a long day spent in the halls of justice. Perhaps I will wear my fur coat, after all....

Anything for a Vote Mailed to Presidential Candidates

Copies of Anything for a Vote are being mailed to the 2008 presidential candidates today. I hope that Hillary, Barack, Fred, Rudy, John E., John Mc., and Mitt all have a sense of humor. Anything for a Vote is also being mailed to President George W. Bush. (Both his of presidential runs are considered two of the dirtiest election campaigns of all time.) In addtion, a book is being sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore for good measure, of course.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Is it 1993?

Sen. Hillary Clinton dismissed critics of her new health care plan today. Clinton, D-New York, told CNN, "I feel very good and quite confident that the parts of the plan that I have put together will find a lot of favor among people who know what we have to do to get to universal coverage.”

This all seems to harken back to Clinton’s—Bill, that is—first term as president when Hillary was first lady and universal health care was her mission. But before Bill was elected pres, he was running against the first George Bush in 1992. (Hey, remember H. Ross Perot?)

William Jefferson Clinton vs. George H. W. Bush

“All I’ve been asked about by the press are a woman I didn’t sleep with and a draft I didn’t dodge.” –Bill Clinton

Just after the successful completion of his one-hundred-hour Gulf War in the fall of 1990, George H. W. Bush approval ratings reached an astonishing ninety percent; he seemed unbeatable in a second term. After twelve years of prosperous Republican rule coupled with extremely weak Democratic presidential candidates, some pundits began to wonder whether the Democratic Party was heading toward political extinction like the Whigs or the Federalists.

But as the Bush Administration progressed, the approval rating slowly started to fall. War may have made Bush a hero, but he never earned the fanatically loyal following of a Ronald Reagan. He broke his famous 1988 pledge of “Read my lips: No new taxes,” which left him open to Democratic attack. Reagan’s legacy of a staggering four-trillion-dollar national debt (up three trillion since 1980) didn’t help much, either. There may have been an explosion of wealth in the top one percent of the American population, but one in ten Americans was living on food stamps, and one in eight lived below the poverty level.

The relatively obscure field of Democratic candidates included Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, and Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas. But Bush had more than Democrats to worry about. Conservative Christian columnist and former Nixon speech writer Pat Buchanan ran well in the primaries, showing that the religious right would not be denied its share of the action. And the fourteenth wealthiest person in the United States, billionaire Texan H. Ross Perot, decided to hell with Federal matching funds, he’d pay for his own campaign--and mounted the most successful third-party challenge since Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party in 1912.

The Candidates
Democrat: William “Bill” Clinton
If there could be such a thing as a “log cabin” presidential candidate in the late twentieth century--an era when nearly every candidate was born with a silver spoon in his mouth--that candidate was William Jefferson Clinton. He was born poor in Hope, Arkansas, in 1946. His father had died in a car accident when he was only three months old, and his stepfather was an abusive alcoholic. Clinton triumphed over all these circumstances to become a Rhodes scholar, go to Yale Law School and, in 1978, become the governor of Arkansas at thirty-two years old.

Married to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton was extraordinarily charismatic--six-foot-two, handsome, empathetic (“I feel your pain”), and a brilliant “policy wonk” with an impressive memory for details. However, according to Republicans, there was the little problem of his being “a pot-smoking, philandering, draft dodger.”

Clinton’s running mate was another southerner, Tennessee Senator Al Gore.

Republican: George H. W. Bush
By the time the election heated up in the summer of 1992, Bush’s approval ratings had dropped to roughly forty percent. Twenty-one years older than his Democratic opponent, he tried to run on his success in foreign affairs, while glossing over his tax increase and the country’s huge deficit, but he lacked both charisma and empathy. While Clinton “felt” the country’s pain, Bush said, in his weird verbal shorthand, “Message: I care.” Focus groups commissioned by the Republican National Committee found that his wife, Barbara, now had higher approval ratings than the president--and his dog, Millie, wasn’t far behind. Even though Bush was told that dumping his hapless vice president J. Danforth Quayle, would generate a net gain of as much as six points in the approval ratings, Bush wouldn’t give up the guy.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Gipper Redux

In 1952, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson's aide George Ball, furious at the clever way the Republicans were packaging Dwight Eisenhower on television, declared that someday "presidential campaigns would have professional actors as candidates."
It was one of the truest predictions a disgruntled staffer of a losing candidate ever made.
The news that thespian Fred Thompson is finally in the race--and announced his candidacy on that hoariest of venues, "The Tonight Show"--sent my heart a-fluttering for the grand old days of Ronald Reagan's first presidential run in 1980. Today's Times discusses Thompson's desire to "don Reagan's mantle," but I'm not sure the erstwhile character actor is even fit to tie the Gipper's sandals, candidate-wise.
In 1980, Reagan--sixty-nine years old and grinning from ear to ear--hit America like a breath of, er, air freshener, blowing away the stale odor of the intrepid but grim Carter presidency with a cheery aerosol hiss. Carter measured his words, even down to the "lust in his heart," while Reagan was prone to astonishing statements. He said "the finest oil geologists" had told him America had more oil than Saudi Arabia. He claimed the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens released more sulfur dioxide into the air "than has been released in the last ten years of automobile driving." In the New Hampshire primary, reporters overheard him telling a joke that began: "How do you tell who the Polish fellow is at a cockfight? He's the one with the duck!" When reports of this were published, Reagan claimed that he was merely providing an example of the kind of jokes that candidates shouldn't tell.
It is doubtful that Thompson, whose main facial expression is that of a man trying to stifle a pressing bowel movement, can provide us with this level of entertainment. We can only hope.
It definitely worked for Reagan, who cleaned Carter's clock for him, taking the popular vote by almost nine million and winning the electoral tallies in all but five states. Of course, it didn't help matters any that Jimmy Carter had a tendency to cite his thirteen-year-old daughter on matters of national importance ("I had a discussion with my daughter Amy the other ask her what the most important issue was. She said nuclear weaponry.")
Yep, as Ronnie would say, there he went again....