Friday, June 27, 2008

Guns and Abortion

Despite loudly proclaiming his belief in a strict interpretation of the Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has just written the majority opinion in a case that miraculously discovers rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Incredible!

In District of Columbia v. Heller the Court ruled that individuals have the right to bear arms. This had been a bit of a Constitutional sticking point over the years because the second amendment seems to tie that right to the need to have a "well-regulated militia." However, the Court has chosen to interpret that clause pretty broadly and say that it applies to individuals who never have and never will serve in any sort of militia, well-regulated or otherwise. Slate's Timoth Noah also writes that in the process, Justice Scalia discovered the right to convenience.

On Constitutional matters, I know just enough to sound like I know what I'm talking about, but I'm hardly John Marshall. As such, I can't say that I know how the Constitution should be interpreted to suit modern times. What is clear to me though, is that you can't simultaneously argue for a strict construction of the Constitution, argue that there should be no recognized right to privacy (the basis for the decision in Roe v. Wade), and say that the Constitution guarantees the rights of individuals to carry handguns despite it not saying that in the document itself.

This case may be a strike against gun control laws in DC and elsewhere. But the next time a privacy case comes up, Scalia's writing in Heller may prove to be a pretty good tool.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hillary is 44?

Every so often I come across something that needs to be shared. Sometimes the sharing is for good, other times for bad. What I'm about to show you is not in the good column.

Hillary is 44 is a website seemingly dedicated entirely to the fact that even though Hillary Clinton lost the nomination to Barack Obama, she should still be the 44th President of the United States. For those of you who've only read about the vehemence of the pro-Clinton/anti-Obama crowd this is a pretty thorough crash course. I can't go through it point by point because the site is huge and so filled with flawed logic and out of context facts that it would take me more time than I have right now to go through it all.

What's incredible to me is the stubborn insistence in spite of all facts to the contrary that Hillary Clinton not only should, but will be the Democratic nominee for the presidency. Die hard only begins to describe it. These are people who say that they're looking forward to the day that Obama gets his comeuppance and loses the election. This election has become so personal for them that they would rather no Democrat win than a Democrat other than Clinton win.

If I were a Republican, I would think that sites like this were a gift from God. As a Democrat, I'm deeply concerned.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Testing Symbols

New York has done it again. For yet another year, English and math test scores have risen. This time, officials and newspaper writers are using words like "skyrocket" to describe the test results. Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Education are claiming that all the recent reforms have made the difference and that the schools in New York are drastically improving. That may be the case, but I'm not satisfied. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the scores are going up. But I can't help but be a little suspicious about what it all means.

First, as Eduwonkette posted on her blog (which should be read regularly), "Is there any reason to believe that teachers suddenly became several times more successful in improving ELA and Math skills?" It's a fair question. Assuming that the scores are valid (as opposed to an easier test) and achievement has gone up across the state, what makes the difference? Has there been a dramatic increase in teacher quality? Have the kids just gotten smarter? What happened from last year to this year?

Ultimately, we'll never know simply because there are too many variables to consider. Of course, that didn't stop the state DOE from chiming in that funding has been increased, that curriculums have been set and embraced, and that the system is responding to the realities of testing.

It's this last point that chills me as it should anyone who has seen the tests given to kids and been present to witness the culture that it breeds. Do we really want a system that responds so well to the testing culture?

What's been lost in New York - and indeed, across the country - is the understanding that testing and accountability are means, not ends. Seeing test scores rise is good, but is not an end in itself. Or at least it shouldn't be. So little of life consists of taking multiple choice tests that I have to worry about an education system that focuses almost exclusively on teaching kids how to succeed at taking multiple choice tests. As anyone who's taught a test prep unit knows, good scores reflect testing savvy almost as much as they reflect actual reading or math ability.

So now we know that kids in New York are getting better at being tested on their reading. But are they reading for pleasure and information? Are they applying the lessons of literature to the world around them? There's no test for that, nor should there be. But in the end, that's the goal that we should be striving for.

As I've written before, I worry that symbolic action will take the place of real action. In this case, the symbol is the improved test scores. Whether or not children are better educated or better prepared for life remains to be seen. I hope that as a system we can keep working toward that goal rather than see victory in a symbol and call it a day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Confusion at the Times

In an editorial yesterday, the New York Times praised New York City's efforts to bring in a more qualified, higher achieving teaching corps. According to the Times the efforts have been a success and New York's kids are reaping the benefits (presumably in the way of higher test scores, which I'll address tomorrow).

While I'm all for having the best teachers possible and thought it was great for the editorial page of the paper of record to be addressing educational issues, I'm a little confused as to the reasoning employed here.

First, the paper praises the city for doing away with temporary licenses for uncertified teachers and increasing the standards for teacher preparation programs. Then, the editorial praises programs like the Teaching Fellows and Teach for America that operate on provisional teaching licenses with no more than a month of training before entering the classroom.

I think both approaches are shown to have merit. However, they are not the same approach and that needs to be recognized. Unless we start recognizing what actually works in the classroom, we're never going to be able to improve education as much as we'd like.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Public Financing By Another Avenue

Barack Obama's decision to opt out of public financing for the general election has definitely led to some major controversy among the media and his opponent. John McCain went so far as to call it "disturbing to all Americans." Big talk for someone who's on record saying that he would be fine staying in Iraq for another 100 years.

In terms of real people, I don't think this does much to sway people at all. I mean, do you really see people deciding who to vote for based on whether or not they accept public money? Is that one of the pressing issues of the day?

Perhaps more importantly, Obama has demonstrated that he is committed to following a different - and likely more effective - method of public financing for his campaign: asking the public to finance it.

I can't even say how many articles have focused on the way the Obama campaign has tapped into huge resevoirs of small cash donations from the general public. Regular people giving and owning a piece of the campaign (to paraphrase the fundraising e-mails I get) is probably a more authentic way to "publicly" finance a campaign than the official FEC program.

Yes, it's a little troubling that Obama is going back on his word on this issue. But is it the end of the world? Of course not. The end result is going to be the same. It's just that the road to get there is a little different.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Streets of New York

The following story is true to the best of my memory. I'm not making it up or exaggerating in any way.

Yesterday morning found me standing on a street corner on the Upper East Side petitioning to get the local Democrats' names on the ballots for the fall election. It's a pretty thankless job. Some people are very friendly. Others are ... well ... not.

One gentleman who fell into the first category was about 70 years old and seemed to hang out at the street corner every morning because he knew just about every person who went by. After chatting with him for a while he actually started getting some of the people he knew to sign the petition, which was very nice.

After about a half hour of being there a similarly aged friend of his came up. It turns out the friend was a Republican, but was actually a fan of Obama. What follows is part of the conversation I had with these two men.

Older Man: That Obama is really impressive. He's like FDR. Just a great politician.
Republican Friend: I like him. I think I may vote for him. I mean, I like McCain, but Obama is just something else.
Me: Yep.
Republican Friend: I mean, he's like the Tiger Woods of politics. He's young and smart. Very charismatic.
Me (in my head): That's a really good analogy. Both are charismatic young black men who have become phenomenons in what is traditionally a white field.
Older Man: He's got a real chance in this.
Republican Friend: Now don't get me wrong, I hate the blacks.
Me: Oh.

And that was the end of that conversation. Take from it what you will.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Science of Vouchers

School voucher programs have become such an undeniable part of conservative orthodoxy that people writing about voucher programs often have to part with reality in order to make their arguements work.

Take an article published Monday in The Hill by David Keene. Writing about efforts to end Washington D.C.'s school voucher program, Keene writes that it's no surprise that liberals oppose this successful program. He says that liberals only care about bureaucracy and expanding the reach of government and don't care about kids. Never mind that the second part of the attack is ridiculous to the point of not even needing to be refuted, Keene is even wrong when he says the program was a success.

As the New York Sun reported, the results were mixed, at best. Frankly, having looked over the mix, that's even a little charitable. A recent study found that after two years in private schools, the vouchered kids showed no statistically significant academic gain compared to kids who applied for the program and didn't get in. That's right. This "successful" program didn't actually improve the academic achievement of the kids for whom it was so successful. Mission accomplished, anyone?

Things like vouchers, school choice, and introducing market-based reforms to education all make sense on paper. That's why they've gained such a following, particularly among conservatives. The only trouble is that there's no basis in the real world for thinking that the programs actually work.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gay Rights and Religious Freedom

I never cease to be amazed by the level of alarmism that springs up anytime there's some sort of victory for gay rights. The latest example comes to us courtesy of the California Supreme Court's decision that the state has to allow gay marriage. This prompted the LA Times op-ed titled: Will Gay Rights Trample Religious Freedom? The piece ends with the author writing, "it is religious rights that are likely to be 'obliterated' by an emerging popular majority supporting same-sex relationships."

Really? Allowing same-sex marriage is goiong to obliterate religious freedom?

The courts have always held that you're allowed to believe what you want but that your actions must be in accordance with the interests of society as a whole. In other words, you can believe as fervently as you wish that human sacrifice is the path to heaven and there's no problem. Once you decide to start actually sacrificing humans, there's a big problem.

The same situation stands here. Churches can believe and preach that homosexuality and same-sex marriages are wrong. They can refuse to perform those ceremonies. However, the court has said that the churches that refuse to do so cannot dictate terms for those that are willing. Furthermore, the state must honor those marriages that do take place.

Rather than limiting the religious freedom of those churches that will not perform same-sex marriages, this ruling broadens religious freedom for those that are willing. That's not quite as catchy as claiming the obliteration of religious freedom, but it does have the distinction of being true.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Problem with Sexism

I was at an event last night in New York City surrounded by middle aged and beyond women to discuss that state of gender equality in the country. It was just one of those things for work. While the discussion ranged from the thoughtful to the absurd, the one point that most stuck with me was the complaint - universally accepted as truth among this crowd - that Hillary Clinton's campaign was the victim of sexism, particularly from the media.

Admittedly, I'm male and a partisan for the other side, so I can't even claim to be a neutral observer or evaluator of this claim. That being said, I think it's a disservice to the real sexism that exists in the country (wage gap, etc.) to blame Clinton's campaign failure on unfair media bias.

The reason that Clinton lost the campaign was bad strategy. She focused just on the big states and, if you'll recall, didn't win a state for about a month. Male or female, it's hard to complain about the bad press you're getting when that's the state of affairs. At the end of that stretch, Obama was clearly way ahead with no realistic hope for Clinton to catch up. Is it sexism to say that she should drop out when she can't win? Wouldn't it be sexist to not say it just because she's a woman?

I don't know. I'm willing to believe that there were elements of campaign coverage that were different because she is a woman. However, I don't believe those elements were as decisive as her followers would have us believe.

Also, has anyone else noticed a certain "The South will Rise Again" quality to many Hillary supporters recently. I keep hearing people refer to her campaign in the present tense and point out that she just suspended her campaign, she didn't concede. She's still retaining her delegates. This worries me. Not because I think she'll actually be able to snatch the nomination away. Rather, because it's a major hurdle for party unity when a good portion of the party is still waiting for the other candidate to come back.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Real Fathers

Whereas many fathers spent yesterday receiving ties or other well-intentioned gifts, Barack Obama called out America's absent black fathers. "They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it," Obama said.

This is the kind of thing you don't hear from too many presidential candidates. That's in part because McCain would probably be accused of playing some sort of race card if he did say it. But that's partly what makes Obama's statement nice. Not only is he uniquely positioned to say it and be applauded (rather than condemned) for it, but he actually did say it.

Not only did he just call fathers to task (in CNN's words), he has also taken specific actions to try to make it financially feasible and desirable for fathers to stay with their families. He's actually doing something about it.

There's no question that this is an important issue. The point Obama makes abouot the foundations of our families being weaker without fathers is absolutely true. Yes, a single mother or father can do a good job, but it's much harder. Once we strengthen the families we can begin to strengthen the communities in which they exist. And that's a tremendously important step to take. It's good that there's a presidential candidate who's saying so.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Long Summer

The nominees are chosen, election interest is in temporary decline, and all indicators seem to be pointing to a long summer ahead of us.

Case in point is a feature that Slate ran yesterday looking at what happens to humans' brains as they age and how that might affect John McCain during a campaign and the presidency. Admittedly, the piece was very tongue-in-cheek, but still. Really?

What set the piece apart is that it offered substantially nothing to the presidential debate or our understanding of the candidates. No policy positions, no real personality insight, just the idea that McCain is old and when people get old their brains change.

It's the official mark of the doldrums. From here through the conventions, we're going to see a lot more stories like this and a lot more meaningless skirmishes about semantics and the like. Brace yourself for a long summer.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Reagan for the Democrats

Bob Beckel had an interesting piece published yesterday about the numerous parallels one can draw between Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential bid and Barack Obama's today. He does do a pretty amazing job picking out parallels from nearly 30 years ago - from foreign policy to economic strife. Clearly, the similarities are there. That's part of the great promise of an Obama presidency.

I've written before on several occasions about the possibility for this to be a big election. I won't fall into the fallacy of predicting a permanent party realignment (remember what happened to the last guy who did that), but I will say that Obama represents the best chance for the Democratic Party to gain real ascendency in America in the same way that Reagan helped the conservative movement. Furthermore, Obama represents a progressive wing of the party that hasn't been represented for quite a while.

The real power of the presidency - aside from all that Constitutional stuff about negotiating treaties, etc - is the power to set the national agenda and garner popular support for programs and policies. Given Obama's clear rhetorical gifts and ability to motivate, excite, and activate supporters, he could be extremely powerful in that role. His ability to move the country in the direction of a more progressive politics is exactly why I support him. Because the Democrats need someone who can inspire people by saying what he believes in, not what they want to hear. That was Reagan's gift. We'll see if Obama can match him.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On Laptops and Learning

A new economic study found that giving laptops to poor kids doesn't help their academic achievement very much and, in fact, may actually hurt their learning. Undoubtedly there's someone out there right now thinking that this is proof that schools are overfunded and that teachers and/or kids are just lazy and should get their acts together.

But that person isn't much of a critical thinker.

Really, what this study shows is that laptops are tools and that tools alone are not enough to get the job done. Ultimately, a tool is only as useful as the person using it knows how to make it. So a hammer in the hands of a skilled carpenter can build all sorts of things. That same hammer in the hands of a small child could be dangerous. Such is the case with laptop computers.

Kids who lack the skills to be successful in school probably won't benefit that much from having a laptop dumped into their lives. Rather than use it for productive pursuits, it becomes a huge distraction. However, in the hands of someone who knows how to use it, a laptop can become a very useful learning tool.

So the lesson here is not that computers are bad for learning. The lesson is that laptops alone don't create learning. They're just another tool and the user has to be taught to make the most of it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

All's Well That Ends Well

Hillary Clinton gave her concession (or should I say suspension?) speech on Saturday. I have to say, I think it went pretty well. She didn't make any ridculously martyr-ish statements and even echoed a few Obama themes, which was a nice touch.

I'm not 100% sure why she waited to give the speech in the first place. Perhaps it was to create a sense of suspense or to make her speech seem more concilliatory and gracious than it would otherwise be considered because there had been some doubt as to whether or not she would even give it. But, she did it. Even if it was a bit of a non-event.

Now comes the real campaign and we'll see how serious the calls for party unity really are. I don't think that a united Democratic Party will have any trouble beating John McCain in the fall. But the Democrats have beaten themselves before, so let's keep the old fingers crossed.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Great News

Great news everyone! Polls are showing an extremely close race between Obama and McCain in the general election. I know that wouldn't be as great as, say, polls showing that Obama was way ahead, but let's consider the context.

First, McCain has had the Republican nomination sewn up for months now. He's had no one attacking him and has had a chance to travel all over the country making his case for why he should be president. He's even been taking shots at the Democrats while they were preoccupied with each other.

Second, the Democrats have been pretty preoccupied with each other lately. While McCain was coasting along, Clinton and Obama were in a (dare I say it) bitter primary fight. We keep hearing from Hillary supporters who say that they'll never vote for Obama. Everything from his church to his foreign policy was brought under heavy attack.

Third, most of the polls took place before Obama officially became the presumptive nominee. That's right, when the poll was taken, he was still in that fight and under heavy attack from both Democrats and Republicans.

So here's where it stands. McCain, in the best position he can reasonable expect himself to be in for the remainder of the campaign, polls a little bit worse than Obama, who at the time the polls were taken was not even the nominee and was being hit hard by both sides of the political aisle.

That's great news.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

End Game

Well, the end of times are upon us. Or at least, the time to end is. After being clearly destined to be the loser for months and a day after it became clear that Obama was the winner, Hillary Clinton announced that she was ending her campaign for the Democratic nomination.

In an e-mail to supporters apparently sent last night, Hillary announced that she was going to be stepping out of the race and giving her support to Obama. The letter seems to kind of pretend that she wasn't claiming to be winning as recently as yesterday. Nor does it say that she lost. It just says that now she'll be supporting Barack Obama for president. It's kind of like she woke up one morning and decided that she didn't want to run anymore.

Her actual announcement is apparently scheduled for Friday. We'll see how she handles things there, but right now she seems to be backing out with dignity. We'll see how well she does trying to move her supporters over to Obama (and more importantly, how he does at bringing them in).

As this chapter of the race comes to a close I just have to say how really exciting it all is. Never mind that I've never really supported a winning candidate before; we're now looking at an election set up to be a clash of contrasting visions for what America should be as we move into the future. Both McCain and Obama present unapologetically different world views and visions of what the country can be. I hope that the race stays clean and focused because if it does, we'll get to see which vision of America people really want to follow.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Good Day

I have to admit that I woke up this morning with a certain sense of elation. It became clear last night that Barack Obama is officially going to be the Democratic nominee for president. YAY! After a grueling primary that literally lasted through all 50 states, the Democrats not only have a nominee, they have the right nominee. So life is good this morning.

Or is it?

Did anyone else notice that Hillary Clinton is still hanging around? And judging be her speech last night, she's not exactly in a conciliatory mood. Even though she's now officially lost the race she's still making claims about having more votes than "any primary candidate in history." This is the party coming together? This is starting to campaign vigorously for whoever the nominee is?

In a lot of ways, Hillary has painted herself into a corner that's going to be very hard to get out of. Here's the situation as it stands:

1) Given the bitterness of the nomination fight, a united Democratic Party needs Hillary Clinton to be a huge advocate for Obama and help get her supporters to become his supporters.
2) Hillary is going to want to save face and bow out on her terms rather than be ignomiously forced out because she out and out lost.
3) The essential reality that fueled her rationale for staying in the race has not changed. Namely, when you count Michigan or don't count any of the states Obama won, she has more votes.

Here's the options available to Hillary. Option 1 is that she basically say that her math was bogus the entire time and that she knows she's lost the race and is looking forward to working to put Barack Obama in the White House. I wouldn't hold my breath for this one for obvious reasons.

Option 2 is an ostentatious show of self-sacrifice where the popular vote winner bows out of the race not because she lost the election, but "for the good of the party." This will simply enrage the hard core Hillary supporters and drive a further wedge into the Democratic Party. Yet, especially given her speech last night, this seems to be the more likely route for her to follow.

There may also be some as of yet unenvisioned third or fourth options. However, anything that comes next for Hillary has at its root options 1 or 2. She needs to repudiate her own logic or hold to her rightful claim but leave anyway.

So it's a good day, but not a great one. There are still too many unknowns for a great day. But until those unknowns are known, I'll take a good day.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Beginning of the End

I imagine that we're going to see a lot of Winston Churchill quotes in the news pretty soon. You know where he says that we're at the "end of the beginning." Nice try. But today definitely marks the beginning of the end of the Democratic nomination contest and Hillary Clinton's campaign. As it stands this morning, Obama is only 42 delegates shy of claiming the nomination. Coupled with good showings tonight and the expected post-primary surge of endorsements, and Obama should have the nomination.

That didn't take long.

I'm going to echo what every other living commentator has said, which is that once he's got the nomination, Obama needs to move quickly and aggressively to consolidate the Democratic base and unite the party behind his leadership. Some of this will happen naturally, to be sure. But there's going to be a diehard contingent of Hillary supporters who aren't so happy about it. And they're very strident in their Obama attacks. I know. I get regular e-mails from them.

The best case scenario is that Obama tallies two wins tonight by a margin of about 400,000 votes. That way, he's ahead of Clinton no matter how anyone tallies the popular vote (i.e. counting Michigan, but giving Obama a zero in that state). Given the relatively small populations of the states voting tonight, I'm not sure how likely that will be. Which brings up back to Hillary.

What she does in the next few days is going to have huge impacts on the rest of this race. I'll write more about this tomorrow, but for now suffice it to say that she's going to need to do some pretty agile tap dancing in order to remove herself from the race without further riling up her base. Because we know they're plenty riled already. Now is the time for calm and reconciliation. I hope she's got it in her.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Solomon and the DNC

The DNC Rules Committee sat down over the weekend and made perhaps the most predictable move in this entire campaign. Faced with two rogue states holding out of season primaries, now turning out to be important, and having lots of people upset, the Democrats basically copied the Republicans. The grand Solomonic compromise they reached was to seat all the delegates from the states and award them a half vote each. In other words, cut the delegates in half.

Brilliant, eh?

This essentially leaves the campaign exactly where it was. Obama is still unreachably far ahead in the delegate count. Clinton is still using some pretty twisted logic to show she's ahead in the popular vote. Obama supporters are whining that Clinton hasn't dropped out yet. Clinton supporters are making crazy claims that they'll vote for McCain if Clinton isn't the nominee.

All in all, not the best weekend for the Democratic party.

The thing is, at this point there's really nothing left to do. The DNC can't plausibly reinstate all the delgates from the two states with full votes if it wants to have any authority in future elections (or even this election). So that's out. They certainly won't go back to excluding all the delegates, so that's out too. So here we are, right where we're going to stay.

On Tuesday, the last states will hold their primaries. Obama is polling ahead in both of them and regardless of the outcome, will lead in delegates, states, money, and reasonably counted popular vote. Then it will be time for Clinton to decide whether or not she's in this race for herself or the greater good. It will also be time for her supporters to take a similar look in the mirror.