Friday, October 31, 2008

Start Early

In their relentless pursuit of "reform" the DOE implemented a new gifted and talented admissions policy this year. Every interested child entering kindergarten and first grade took two tests. Those scoring in the 90th percentile or above got to enroll in the gifted and talented program. At the time the new policy was announced, it was painted in terms of fairness and equity. I seem to remember reading that this uniform policy was going to make G&T programs available to more kids across a wider demographic gain. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, I kind of new that wasn't actually going to happen. Turns out, I was right.

According to the New York Times, the new policy has resulted in a smaller, whiter cohort of children entering the G&T programs across the city. All I can say is, what did you expect?

I think that there are probably some pretty good justifications about running the system the way the DOE is trying to do now. It does provide a certain standard bar that eliminates the "friend of the principal" possibilities that used to exist. It also ensures that being in a G&T program means that at least at some level, the children are gifted and talented. Both of those are valild justifications for running the program this way.

It was always ridiculous, from the very start, to say that this was going to increase access and diversity in the programs. Haven't these people heard of the achievement gap? Haven't they heard that it starts at a young age?

The possible value of this program for education researchers and reformers is that it pretty convincingly demonstrates that the achievement gap exists before the kids ever enter the school building. Keep in mind that these are kids entering kindergarten and first grade. At least half of them have never set foot in a school building. And yet, black and hispanic children do not score as well as their white counterparts. My guess is that this would track along economic lines too, but I don't see the data on that in the Times article.

To me, this sets out in pretty clear terms that when we talk about the achievement gap, we cannot blame its existence entirely on substandard schools. True, the schools are where this can change, but we need to look beyond the schools also. Early childhood education, parenting classes, nutrition and health care - these are the things we need to look at before children ever walk into their first day of kindergarten.

Either a car or an insurance company is running ads now that says the safest way to survive an accident is to never get in one. Well, the best way to close the achievement gap is to never let one open. These test results give us a better clue of where we can start working.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Other Fall Classic

Last night, after the resumption of a game suspended due to rain, the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Tampa Bay Rays to win the world series. Honestly, I didn't watch more than about 5 minutes of the entire series because I don't much care about either team. However, now that baseball's new king has been crowned, it's time to analyze what impact it's going to have on the other fall classic - the presidential election.

Of course, I don't think that there's actually going to be an impact. Let me lay that out right from the beginning. However, in the worlds of symbolism, metaphor, and wild speculation, here are some thoughts.

The team from Pennsylvania beat the team from Florida. Both states are considered battleground states. So if it's a choice of putting resources into Pennsylvania or Florida, look to Pennsylvania. Of course, polls are showing Obama leading in both races, so that may not be a key point. Advantage: Obama.

The team (Phillies) that knocked off the favorite from New York (Mets) won it all. Could that be a metaphor for Obama's victory over Hillary Clinton (the NY senator heavily favored to get the nomination)? Of course, Tampa Bay also beat out a New York favorite (the Yankees), but that was early on and the Yankees didn't even make the postseason. Kind of like McCain beating out Rudy Giuliani early on in the primary season. Advantage: Obama.

The Rays were a fresh-faced team pretty much out of nowhere; the surprise of the season. They had tons of raw talent, but not much experience. They got beaten by the team with more experience. Advantage: McCain.

The offensive barrage of Ryan Howard and the Phillies beat out the usually solid defense of the Rays. Going on the attack worked. Advantage: McCain.

The Phillies had a much larger payroll than the Rays. The team with more money wins it all. Advantage: Obama.

I could probably go on, but it's time to go to work. If you have any baseball as politics metaphors (and trust me, they're fun to think of), post them in the comments section.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Still Don't Get It

As I was writing yesterday about the failures of No Child Left Behind to provide a meaningful sort of accountability on high school drop out rates, the Department of Education was preparing to release new rules designed to boost that accountability. The only problem is that when the new rules were released, there was nothing in them that will actually boost accountability. The administration still just doesn't get it.

According to the new rules, states must show they are making progress in raising graduation rates not only across the board, but also within each demographic group. This has actually been one of the good things about NCLB. It requires reporting that shows where the achievement gap is happening. It doesn't allow for one group's results to hide the results of another. So in order for states to say they're making progress in their graduation rates, the states need to show that they're making progress for all students. I like that idea.

Where the new rules don't do anything meaningful is that they leave it up to the states to say what constitutes appropriate progress. I went over this yesterday, but it's frankly ridiculous. Given the system that's in place with the law (make progress or lose funding) there's no incentive for states to set ambitious goals. Instead, there's a very strong incentive to set the bar very low. That's what New York is doing. And it's hardly alone in that.

The Department of Education can talk all they want about holding schools accountable. Obviously it makes good press for them. But as long as the ones being held "accountable" get to make their own rules, we aren't going to get very far. I mean, imagine if we let all those kids being tested in third through eighth grade decide what score they needed to get to show they're ready for the next grade. We wouldn't even be able to pretend that we were holding standards. So why do we allow it when it's states instead of kids?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How Low Can You Go?

When the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, it was supposed to fight the "soft bigotry of low expectations" by testing all kids and making sure that each state had specific goals that it had to meet and would be held accountable to. The only problem is that no one at the federal level said what those goals had to be. Given that states lose money in NCLB if they don't meet their goals, guess what happened. The states set ridiculously low goals.

If you check out the chart here you can see the high school graduation goals as set by state. Some states like Indiana have the bar set at what looks to be about 95%, meaning their goal for 95% of Indiana school kids to graduate from high school. That's a nice ambitious and meaningful goal. A few other states have the bar set at about 90%. But then you get down to the New York section of the chart. New York, the cultural center of the nation, has set as its goal a graduation rate of 55%. That's not even where we are now, that's the goal! Just incredible. The state set as its goal 0.1% progress each year. How is that a goal? How is that really going to be helping kids? What happened to getting rid of the low expectations?

Perhaps even more than the unfunded mandate part of NCLB, the thing that bugs me most is how it looks like we're holding schools and teachers and kids accountable, but we aren't actually doing any of those things. It's just a big show to look busy in case anyone happens to look over and see what we're doing.

Given this, it's not a huge surprise that kids today are less likely than their parents to graduate from high school. That's right. The system is regressing so that kids today have less opportunity than their parents. Kind of like the American Dream in reverse.

That's bad enough. It's worse that we're pretending to make progress when we aren't actually progressing.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Going Rogue

I don't know quite what to make of the story that VP candidate Sarah Palin may be "going rogue" from her own running mate. At least, that's what CNN is reporting some McCain aides are saying. It seems like there's a couple of possibilities here, none of which paint a particularly rosy picture of what we're going to see over the next week.

The first possbility is that Palin actually is going rogue and is setting off on her own against the wishes of the McCain campaign. That would pretty much be a sign that the campaign was collapsing. Not terrible news if you're on the Democratic side of things, but it will make for an ugly week of infighting and potential nastiness before it's all over.

The other possibility is that she's not actually going rogue, but that the campaign is trying to set her up that way so that she can really go after Obama while providing a level of plausible deniability to McCain and his campaign. In that case we'll see an ugly week of fake infighting and nastiness before it's all over.

The upside of all this is that in eight days now, this campaign will be finished. After such a long season, it's kind of hard to believe that it will ever end. Depending on how this week goes it may feel even longer.

Friday, October 24, 2008

They Did It

Well, they did it. Despite a poll showing that 89% of New Yorkers wanted the issue put to a public referendum, the City Council voted to extend term limits from two terms to three. This will allow Mayor Bloomberg and roughly two thirds of the Council to run for an extra term. Even though the Council got it wrong, I'm glad that this whole thing is finally over. Sure, there's probably a few court challenges left, but nothing like what we've been seeing. Maybe there'll be some room in the papers for other stories now. Maybe.

I have been on record as opposing this move by the Council pretty much since the Mayor proposed it. That being said, I think that many of my fellow opposers may have gone a little off the deep end. Here's Councilman Bill DeBlasio (who, FYI, a few years ago whole heartedly supported a similar measure): “We are stealing like a thief in the night [the people's] right to decide the shape of their democracy."

Somehow I doubt that many thieves hold public hearings about their thefts covered by every news outlet in the city. But maybe I'm wrong.

The fact is that people still have a choice. Now, in fact, the choice is expanded by one person. If people don't like the Mayor, they can vote him out of office, even if he does spend $80 million on his campaign. The shape of the democracy still comes down to an election every four years. It's up to the people to use it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

In Defense of Spreading the Wealth

Lately, McCain's campaign has been focusing a lot on Obama's comment that he wants to spread the wealth around. This comment has given rise to charges of closet socialism and repeated references to Joe the Plumber. It's pretty much universally taken as a bad thing to have said. But I'm not so sure. I mean, isn't spreading the wealth exactly why we have a government in the first place?

First of all, every single government service from national defense to education is premised on the idea that we as individuals should pay into a common fund for the common good. That's how we have roads and firemen and schools. Given that some people pay more than others but receive essentially the same services, this is one form of spreading the wealth. I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

Second, government isn't the only institution that looks to spread wealth around a little. For this, take a look at insurance companies. Every covered member pays in a similar amount and then people withdraw from the central fund based on their need. Holy privatized socialism! That's just how the system works. Again, I'm not sure if this is necessarily a negative.

Third, like an insurance policy in which the sick and infirm take more than their fair share compared to the healthy, shouldn't government serve a similar function in our society? I agree with everyone who says that government should not do for people what they can do for themselves. But what about the things that people can't do for themselves? Doesn't it make sense that we have some sort of common safety net to keep help protect and care for our society? Yes, that involves spreading the wealth, but it's also the right thing to do.

The bottom line on all this, though, is that Obama isn't even proposing Stalin-style redistribution of wealth in order to make sure that everyone is exactly equal on all financial matters. Rather he's proposing a kind of broad based national insurance policy. Everyone pays into it and, yes, some people pay more and get out less. But since we're all in this together and you never know when you're going to be the one on the bottom, it just makes sense.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Just Not There

With all that's been going on in the presidential election recently, I haven't been focusing much attention on education. It turns out that I'm not alone in not looking to the schools. According to a report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, 20 percent of New York City public school elementary school students missed more than a month of school last year. That's 90,000 students who each missed more than 20 days of school. Incredible. The problem is even worse for middle and high school students. Unsurprisingly, the problems are concentrated mostly in Harlem, Central Brooklyn, and the South Bronx. Most of the disturbing trends in New York City public schools are concentrated in those neighborhoods.

In the New York Times article I linked to above, "city officials" put most of the blame on school principals who are supposed to manage and deal with chronic absenteeism. There may be some merit in blaming the principals. The real blame, though, I think has to lie with parents. Ultimately, they are the ones who are responsible for their children's lives. They are the ones who need to make sure the kid gets to school.

Just thinking back on my own academic record, I think that I probably didn't miss much more than 20 days of school during my entire schooling. Going to school was just something you did. It wasn't an option. You just went to school. That was the value that my parents had and they made sure that it was the value that I had. They were good parents.

A parent who allows their child to miss a month of school during a single year is not a good parent. That's the bottom line. Being a parent is about giving your child the opportunities to have the best possible life. Allowing them to miss that much school effectively undermines that goal. It shows that education is not valued. It shows that consistency and attendance and punctuality (all skills that are valued in the job market) are not valued. The city can blame principals if it wants. But the real blame lies much closer to home.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's Still Not Over

Shockingly, the race for President isn't over yet. Despite the last few weeks of pundits declaring that Obama was in command and McCain was slipping, the fact remains that Obama is not yet President. In fact, CNN's polls show that his numbers may be slipping somewhat. This is the kind of thing that I was warning about when I wrote on the subject just recently. In the rush to break news, the media often seems to break stories that aren't technically true yet. So while Obama does still have the lead and the electoral count looks pretty promising, there's still some time left. Let's not forget that as we move forward.

Speaking of forgetting, is anyone going to remember that Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama when it actually comes times to vote? It's one of those splashy things that at first looks really good. After all, you have a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State (for the Bush administration, no less) saying that Obama is the best choice for president. Wow! What a coup! Now it's really over. Except that who was sitting on the fence waiting for Colin Powell's endorsement before deciding who they're going to vote for. It certainly doesn't hurt Obama's campaign and it probably will help him a little. But I don't think it's going to be ay sort of "game changer."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dispatch from Anti-America

Every so often during a campaign a candidate will say something that they probably didn't mean to say but did probably mean. Republicans have been harping on the comment by Obama to "Joe the plumber" about spreading the wealth around. Not to be outdone, Palin came out with her own statement about "the real America." Here it is in her own words:

"We believe that the best of America is in the small towns that we get to visit, and in the wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation."

There's already been a fair amount of outrage tossed around on the campaign trail about this, so I won't go too far down that road (Biden's response was pretty good). I do want to say, though, that in a country in which the majority of the population lives in urban areas (a trend that is growing, by the way) , saying that small towns are the "real America" is a little silly. I have a bit of a personal stake in this as I live in New York City, which is almost certainly outside of Palin's "real America." Frankly, that's just ludicrous. More and more it seems like Palin is playing the role of Ann Coulter, saying shocking things mainly to get attention and rouse a hardcore base. The only difference is that there's no chance for Ann Coulter to be in the position to make actual decisions for our country.

It seems to me that in Palin's estimation, the pro-America areas of this country magically happen to correspond to the pro-McCain parts of this country. If only voting in November was restricted to those areas as well, I'm sure Palin would be pretty happy.

Friday, October 17, 2008

In Praise of Howard Dean

If Obama wins the presidency there's not going to be anyone happier than Howard Dean.

Dean, whose own presidential aspirations dissolved shockingly quickly after his Iowa primary defeat (and scream), could fairly be called the godfather of the Obama campaign. He's the one who ran to represent the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party" and said that we couldn't beat George Bush by running as Bush-lite. He was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and proponent of a definitively progressive agenda. He used the internet in new and exciting ways and (tried to) mobilize young people to vote in large numbers. When the campaign collapsed, he became head of the DNC and vowed to implement a 50-state strategy to build a nationwide network or grassroots Democratic activists. On each of these points he was called unrealistic or downright crazy.

Well who's laughing now?

Using pretty much the same playbook, Obama has put himself in a strong position to win the presidency in less than a month. I know it's not a terribly original insight, but I think we should take a moment to think some good thoughts for Howard Dean. Turns out maybe he wasn't crazy after all.

Also, because it's Friday you should check out this video. Guaranteed to get stuck in your head.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Final Round

It's almost becoming a cliche, but last night's debate was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be. McCain came out significantly more aggressive than he had in the previous two debates. Obama did not rise to take the bait nor say anything that would torpedo his chances (i.e. "You're right! I am a terrorist!"). Given that, it's hard to see much of a change in the race stemming from last night's debate. I think that the dynamic of the last three weeks is pretty set in place at this point and it's just a matter of seeing how everything resolves itself.

That said, of course I think Obama won. That's the advantage of being right on the issues.

Also, a few points that I want to look at a little more. First, McCain tried a couple of times to paint Obama as an extremist. One of his positions put him in league with the extreme environmentalists. Another put him in the extreme pro-abortion camp. But let's look at those positions. Obama says that if we want to use nuclear energy, we need to make sure that it's safe. Apparently that's an extremist position. So a mainstream perspective is that it's okay to use unsafe nuclear technology? I'm not sure who is really advocating for that kind of approach. Same thing on abortion. Being concerned for the health and life of a mother is an extreme position? Maybe McCain and I use that word differently.

Speaking of viewing the world differently, did anyone else hear McCain say that the ACORN voter registration scandal might threaten the very fabric of our democracy? I forget the exact quote, but it was something along those lines. Again, really? The fabric of our democracy? I may be underestimating the problem this poses, but that's definitely overestimating it.

It was also fitting, I thought, that it wasn't until the last question of the last debate that someone thought to ask about education. That could be a metaphor for education's place in this campaign - an afterthought if we have time. In McCain's answer, he stuck to his line that choice and vouchers are the way to improve schools. That would be a fine claim if the evidence actually supported him. However, even the DC voucher system he was so in love with didn't work all that well. The kids who got the vouchers didn't do any better in school than the kids whose parents applied for the vouchers but were not accepted. That's not reform. That's sticking with a failing policy.

And that may be a metaphor for McCain's campaign and platform. He may call it reform, but it's just more of the same.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Lamest Duck

As of last Sunday, there were only 100 days remaining in the presidency of George W. Bush. He says he has "a lot of work to do" and that may be true. But it's also true that he is probably the lamest of ducks right now.

I know that the phrase lame duck was invented for this kind of period where the president doesn't really matter that much. People are taken in by the election of the new president and so they spend their time focusing on what the potential incoming chief executives are saying rather than the aged outgoing boss. That even makes a certain amount of sense. However, the degree to which George Bush seems irrelevant, even in the midst of major events, is somewhat stunning.

During the whole plan over the bailout, where was Bush? Yes, he addressed the nation and said that Congress had to pass the bailout, but that didn't even work. The House initially voted it down. Paulson got the credit/blame for being the head person on the bailout. Press coverage focused a lot on what Obama and McCain were doing about things. In all of that it sort of got lost that, oh yeah, Bush is still president.

As I think about it, I've heard barely anything from W. in months now. Again, part of that has to be attributed to the fact that he's the lame duck president in the midst of an exciting presidential election. We can also attribute it to the fact that this president has simply made himself irrelevant by his poor judgement and leadership on issue after issue over the last eight years. And now there's only 97 days left. Start your countdowns.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This is Reform?

If you read a lead paragraph of a news story that went, "Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin abused her power as Alaska's governor and violated state ethics law by trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from the state police, a state investigator's report concluded Friday," wouldn't you think that would get a lot of attention? I'm not saying that it should be banner headlines from coast to coast, but it seems like it should be something that people are talking about. Maybe I'm just out of the loop with the long weekend and all, but I'm not seeing much on this. Very strange.

It's not that the findings themselves were especially shocking. After all, we've kind of known this was coming for a while now. Within about 15 minutes of being announced as McCain's running mate, the news got out that she was under investigation in Alaska for abusing her power as governor. So for the whole time that we in the lower 48 have known of her existence, we've also known of the existence of this investigation.

You would think that a finding by a bi-partisan panel that Palin abused her power as governor would hurt her ability to say that she was running as a maverick reformer who's going to clean up Washington. When that's your only claim to vice presidential worthiness and it turns out to be undermined by your actual actions, that would seem to put your candidacy in a lot of trouble.

Then again, maybe it is. According to Real Clear Politics this morning, Obama is on track to get 313 electoral votes without even throwing in potential toss-up state wins. That's enough to handily win the election. There's still time left, but I like the way it's looking.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bloomberg and Washington

If you haven't read a good, old-fashioned rant lately, I would recommend Ron Rosenbaum's piece posted on Slate yesterday. As screeds go, this one is pretty angry. I actually got tired of it and stopped reading in the middle of the second page, but he seemed like he'd built up enough momentum to go for a while longer still. The subject was Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to overturn term limits in New York City. Rosebaum is against that plan.

From reading the New York papers recently, you'd think there were only three stories left in the world: the economy, how unhappy Yankees fans are because they aren't in the playoffs, and term limits. Occasionally something gets dropped in about the election, but that's mainly just to fill space if there's any extra room on a page.

Rosenbaum's point (before he launches his ongoing rhetorical nuclear assault) is that Bloomberg is running a sort of cult of personality where one person assumes all authority to deal with all the ills facing a city. He says that's the kind of thing that happens in a Bannana Republic (a phrase that isn't used much anymore), but not in New York.

Underneath all the bluster, I tend to agree with Rosenbaum. I think Bloomberg has been, on the whole, a good mayor for the city. I think that he's done lots of things to really improve New York in a forward-thinking way. However, I don't think that he's the only one who can do good things for the city. The implicit assumption in overturning term limits is that during tough times, the normal rules of our society don't matter and all that matters is finding an extraordinary person to guide the rest of us through.

I think that idea is undemocratic and unAmerican. After all, if George Washington (as close as one man has ever come to being indispensible for his country) could step down after two terms and the country could continue, I think New York will be able to muddle through without Mike Bloomberg.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

It Ain't Over ...

I think my alarm must not have gone on this morning because when I woke up it seemed like the election was over and Barack Obama had already won. Don't get me wrong. This is not an unpleasant thing to wake up to. Hopefully it's true. I just think we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves.

The facts as they stand are looking pretty good. According to Real Clear Politics, the electoral count isn't even going to be close. They have Obama six electoral votes away from winning without factoring in any of the toss-up states. Obama has done an excellent job appearing presidential and in-command at the debates and the main issues facing Americans seem to favor him right now.

Meanwhile, the punditocracy has lost their collective minds in proclaiming Obama the winner. Even Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, is standing athwart history yelling "Obama looks like he's going to win!" When the National Review is buying into the momentum hype about the Democratic candidate, you know things are looking good.

Yet there's this feeling that I just can't shake. It comes back to numbers again. Namely that two weeks ago this race was pretty much a dead heat with McCain even leading. Now Obama is way ahead. But there's still three weeks left. In other words, plenty of room for yet another wild swing in the polls. I hope that doesn't happen. I really do. But this election has made pretty clear that no lead is safe and there's a lot of news cycles left until November 4.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Debate Thoughts

On the whole, I think that last night's debate (like the first one) was pretty much a tie. Neither candidate delivered any sort of knockout punch that's going to settle this election a month before the actual voting. Obama didn't say anything about bitter, small-minded Main Streeters and McCain didn't go off into a raving rant about Obama being friends with terrorists. Both clearly presented their views, which while contrasting, don't necessarily give one side an advantage over the other.

That said, I think that another tie probably favors Obama. Remember, McCain is the one who's experienced - the "steady hand on the tiller" as he said. But now in two debates, he's not been able to come across as noticeably more presidential or in command than Obama. If the concern with Obama is that he's too "green behind the ears" (a new one to me) then being able to stand toe to toe with McCain and appear plausible as president is a victory. Despite a slow start where my panic level was beginning to rise, I think he did just that. I don't think polls will show one candidate "winning" the debate by any great margin over their opponent. However, I do think that the election polls are going to continue to slide over to Obama's favor.

Now for some random thoughts.

John McCain should stop trying to be funny in the debates. He just isn't and the attempts at it come across as very awkward. Obama isn't an especially funny guy either, but he didn't make as many attempts.

Newsweek's cover a few weeks back showed "Mr. Cool and Mr. Hot." I thought those personalities were on vivid display last night. Where McCain paced around and spoke like he was always pressing an important point, Obama stayed mainly in one place and had a fluid, point-by-point answer. I don't think that either personality - as we saw them in display last night - makes one better or worse suited for the presidency. It was just a clear picture in contrasts.

The exchange on Pakistan was interesting. McCain wasn't saying that he wouldn't launch an attack into Pakistan if Osama bin Laden were there. He was just saying that we shouldn't say we're going to do that. I'm not sure if that makes a whole lot of sense. Also, his assertion that "I'll get bin Laden. I'll get him" would have been more convincing if he'd followed it up with anything to say how.

Lastly, I thought Tom Brokaw was terrible last night. The telling moment came at the end when the candidates went to shake hands and he was trying to read his teleprompter. He basically said, "Hey, you presidential candidates, get out of my way. I'm trying to read something here." The whole debate was kind of like that. He was continually whining (is there another word for it) about the candidates not sticking to time constraints. Also, his "follow-up" questions were overly wordy/complicated and seldom actually followed up on the original question asked or the answers that the candidates gave. It's like he really wanted to be moderating a debate on his own, rather than hosting the town hall debate. Who would have guessed after the first debate that we'd be longing for the good old days of Jim Lehrer moderating?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Guilt By Association

Yesterday I bemoaned the state of mudslinging in the campaign and laid the blame squarely in the McCain camp. While I'm still moaning (and still blaming McCain), I also want to level some criticism at the Obama campaign, in the interests of fairness.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that the Keating Economics video that the campaign is circulating is similar in spirit to the Ayers accusations that McCain and Co. are throwing at Obama. Of course, there are numerous differences. McCain was involved with Keating at the time that he (Keating) was doing bad things. Obama was 8 when Ayers was doing his dirty work. There was an investigation into McCain's dealings with Keating and he was chastised by the Senate Ethics Committee. But that investigation is exactly the point I want to bring up. Remember, the investigation found that McCain did nothing wrong. His judgement was poor and that allowed him to be put in a position where it looked like he might be doing something wrong, but he didn't take part in any wrongdoing himself. As we start throwing criticisms around, we should remember that facts matter. Any unfounded attempts to paint someone with the guilt by association brush are lamentable, no matter which side they come from.

Clearly McCain started this round of character attacks (he even said he was going to be). But saying, "He started it" isn't a great reason for doing something. I'd also like to point out that the "Oh yeah?" response isn't really a recipe for raising the level of political discourse. If I were advising Obama I'd say to focus relentlessly on the fact that McCain isn't putting forward any plans to help the middle class or to end the war in Iraq. Every time McCain says anything I'd say, "Once again, Senator McCain chooses to focus on X rather than present a plan for how he's going to help the middle class and end the war in Iraq." That's a change we can believe in.

On a slightly related note, you should really read this article from the New Yorker. It's their editorial board's endorsement of Obama for president. It presents a comprehensive, thoughtful, and thorough take down of the McCain campaign and at the same time builds up Obama's. It was one of the clearest articulations of the choice in this election that I've seen. Just brilliant. I didn't even know the New Yorker did endorsements.

Of course, for a candidate being accused of East Coast liberal elitism, the New Yorker endorsement may not be the most coveted one out there.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Here's Mud in Your Eye

I'm glad this election is going to be over in slightly less than a month now because at the rate we're going, if it lasted much longer the Republican candidates would really start slinging mud. I mean that literally. I'm picturing a debate where John McCain takes a handful of mud and throws it at Barack Obama. That seems to be the next logical step in the ever-increasing virulence of attacks directly on Obama.

The latest round comes as polls show McCain is getting clobbered in the election. So what's a maverick who pledged to run an honest, positive campaign to do? Well, it must have seemed pretty obvious to the team of mavericks, because they're going for the low blows.

Over the weekend, Palin said, "We see America as the greatest force for good in this world. Our opponent though, is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."

This is from the campaign headed by a guy who said he would never question his opponent's patriotism. Isn't that what just happened? Isn't she saying that Obama not only hates America but that he's friends with terrorists who target America?

Of course, the McCain campaign sticks by the comments saying that it's a matter of fact. Never mind that the CNN fact check said this claim was false (as does everyone else who's seriously and honestly looked at the issue). What's important here is that people are hearing the words Obama and terrorist in the same sentence. That's not calling into account his judgement, that's just an outright smear. I really hope that people see this for what it is.

Friday, October 3, 2008

As Expected

I just typed out a full, brilliant blog post that my computer decided to replace with the letter C. Hopefully that's not an omen for the day.

Anyway, I thought that last night's debate went exactly as I thought it was going to. I know that people usually see what they think they're going to see, so perhaps my rightness isn't exactly surprising. But I really was right about last night.

First, Biden cam across as calm, prepared, and ready to go. He had the facts ready to go and continually hit McCain as being the second coming of George Bush. For the most part, he pretty much ignored that Palin was even on the ticket, which was probably a smart choice. I thought Biden did a great job presenting his case. His "John McCain is not a maverick" series was just great.

Palin was exactly what I thought she would be. There was never a point where she was reduced to the babbling that has become her hallmark during network television interviews. That being said, I did think she came across as someone who'd spent the night cramming for a test rather than someone who actually understood the basic facts and realities. Her down-homeness was on full blast as every answer seemed to incorporate "ya know", "you betcha", "darn right", and a talking point that had little to do with the actual question being asked.

I liked the moment in the debate where Palin said something along the lines of how Biden kept looking backward to the Bush years rather than focus on McCain. Of course, Palin never once during the debate offered a single instance in which McCain differed from Bush on major foreign or domestic policies. I wish Biden had made a bigger deal of that.

The CNN post-debate poll showed that people mostly agreed with me. A majority said that Biden won the debate, but that Palin was more likable. The most telling detail, though, was that while 87% of people thought Biden was qualified for the job, only 42% said the same for Palin. You betcha there's a leadership gap there. I'm just surprised that she got up to 42%.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Don't Expect Tina Fey

I missed my chance to say this before Sarah Palin's convention speech and was kicking myself for it, so I'm not going to make that mistake again. I'm going on record right now to say that Palin's debate performance tonight is going to be quite strong. Given her recent record at interviews, I know that I'm going out on a limb here, but I really think she's not going to blow it the way that many (me included) are hoping she will.

First of all, as Jack Shafer has pointed out, the debate format for tonight isn't really conducive to an actual debate in the traditional sense where the candidates engage each other on a series of issues. Rather the format is more akin to a dueling press conference where each side gets a sound bite sized length of time to make their case and then it's on to the next point. No question that Palin can hit her marks, it's when she's pushed beyond the usual talking points that she gets into trouble. As Katie Couric has learned, using the phrase "what specifically ..." is pretty much like flipping a switch on the Sarah Palin gibberish answer machine. But again, the format of the debate doesn't really allow for anyone to push for specific answers on things like what newspapers she reads.

The fact is that Tina Fey is not going to be showing up for the debate tonight. Instead, we're going to have a well-prepped, chock full o' sound bites Sarah Palin. Given how low the expectations are for her tonight, pretty much anything other than drooling on herself or removing herself from the ticket in the middle of the debate is going to be considered a victory. That's a pretty low bar to get over.

P.S. My new favorite Palin interview moment is her response to a question about the bailout. Her answer occasionally borders on coherence, but sounds much more like a list of talking points got put into a blender and were then recited in a stream of consciousness manner that would make James Joyce say, "Huh?" Don't expect to see a repeat of that one.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Democracy and Term Limits

Mayor Bloomberg wants to have an elected office at the end of 2009 and since the presidency doesn't look too likely, it's looking like he's going to settle for a third term as New York City Mayor. The only problem is that New York City voters have voted to create and uphold term limits twice over the last 15 years and that limits office holders to only two terms in office. This is ordinarily the kind of thing that would present a problem for someone seeking a third term. But showing the bold, visionary thinking for which he is renowned, Bloomberg has a solution: have the City Council overturn term limits. By some quirk of legislative maneuvering, the elected officials whose power was checked by voter referendum have the power to uncheck themselves. Weird, I know, but that's the way it is.

Let me say that on the face of it, I'm not a big fan of term limits. I think that in a democracy we get to vote every four years on whether someone is doing a good enough job representing us that we want them to stay or not. That's a pretty good term limit to me: four years. If someone is doing a good enough job that a majority of the people they represent want them to stay, why should there be a rule saying that they can't? It really is pretty undemocratic.

I also love it when people post on message boards things like: "All politicians are corrupt. Throw the bums out." Term limits have been in place for long enough that the bums were thrown out. They were apparently just replaced by more bums. I think that's endemic to politics no matter what kind of limits are put in place.

To return to the point about democracy, though, the inescapable fact of the matter here is that twice, via direct referendum, the citizens of New York voted to establish term limits. Clearly this was no accidental law that happened to wind up on the books. The people have spoken. No matter how much I may like the job Mayor Bloomberg is doing and no matter how much I may dislike the notion of term limits, overturning them without going to the citizenry for a referendum on the issue is simply and completely undemocratic. There's a right way and a wrong way to do things. On this issue, Bloomberg is going the wrong way.