Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Cost of Winning

If you get a few minutes, DeTocque highly recommends the following article at RollingStone.com on Democrats' "real enemy" in winning elections -- their own consultants.

Holding the Dems back are: the excessive cost and payment structure of their consultants/pollsters vis-a-vis the Republicans' aides, the lack of new blood amongst Demcrat strategists (save Bill Clinton's staff), and the overreliance on shot-gun style network advertising.

Assuming the article's research is sound (lots of fudge-able finances are included), such assertions are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Though the article alludes to the answer, none of the candidates are interviewed to defend their repeated choices of, frankly, expensive losers. Which candidate will go out of his/her way to find that up-and-coming strategist without the losing record? How much of an effect does this really have on the democratic process? Why do candidates need thousands of ineffective stratgists? Do these advisers actually care who wins as long as they get paid?

A successful Democratic candidate must:
1. Ditch his current team. Most of the current candidates are recycling old hacks.
2. Restructure the compensation contract to avoid a high percentage commission on the media-buy (which, the article states, is slowly happening)
3. Have the courage to ignore the strategists' advice from time-to-time.

It's been clear for quite some time that Republicans are just plain better at winning elections (look at the recent presidential election record -- R wins in 04, 00, 88, 84, and 80; and whether they're better at actually governing is a different story altogether...), and maybe now we know why.

Hopefully this article turns a head or two within the Democrat establishment, it might just save their bacon.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Conviction is Power, Right or Wrong.

There's one aspect of Alberto Gonzales case that intreagues: George Bush's demeanor. (And in the interest of full disclosure, John Stewart made mention of this on The Daily Show the other night.)

After six years style over substance, Bush's act may be falling apart. With everyone and their dog believing that the AG won't last more than a few weeks (just look at the InTrade.com future contract on him), it's a pretty decent bet that you could win a few bucks by placing a wager on his near-term ouster.

But you'd never know that by what's written on Bush's defiant smirk at the press conference. It's been a well-known tactict of the administration to speak with assertive conviction on issues where it may lack the moral high ground, but the fact of the matter is that no one buys it any more. Even the highest ranking Republican members of the Judiciary Committee are casting long doubts on 'Berto, and we see no change in character from the White House.

What's next? So much of the voting public is dying for some Executive Humility, but it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. Why maintain the act? We're all pretty sure that 'Berto is hasta la pasta, so the public is collectively begging you, Mr. President, to admit this is a sketchy deal and just fire the guy.

The public wants to have confidence in its President. Bush's hardnosed approach to this doesn't inspire it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Testify Under Oath.

Despite the assertions of a few talking political heads, it is not a brilliant strategy for the White House to offer to allow Karl Rove and Hariet Miers to "testify", but not under oath or with a transcript. Pundits think this somehow puts the Judicial Committee in an awkward bind. Quite simply, the Judicial Committee is well within its rights to subpoena Rove et al.

For arguement's sake, let's dive in a little deeper. Bush justifies his refusal by saying it sets a dangerous precedent for future White House aides to give honest advice to the President if their words are under constant scrutiny. Maybe so -- one tends to keep one's mouth shut if running one's mouth gets one in trouble. On the other hand, if one provides clear, upstanding advice devoid of petty partisanship or nefarious intentions, then one should not worry about telling the public about it. Therefore, if we use the transitive property DeTocq learned in 8th grade, in this situation we must conclude that Rove, Miers, Gonzales and the lot were involved in some conversations that would professionally embarrass them.

Too bad. These aides are public officials working by an administration elected by the people, for the people. We should be allowed to hear them.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dirty Appropriations Tricks

The new funding bill put to Congress this week is a ghastly representation of politics' nastiness. There are so many problems with this legislation that it's difficult to know where to begin. Read an excellent Washington Post piece here.

It includes enough war funding only to keep the Iraq war up and running through next year (at $124 billion of your hard-earned tax payments). That's fine and well, and at least proves that the Democrats are really, really serious about ending this thing.

The bill gets ugly when the Democrats start enticing Congressional members who would otherwise oppose this appropriation and vote for more funding, with home-district earmarks. The inclusion of extraneous earmarks is contemptable in and of itself, but this tactic goes immorally further by compromising Congressmen's integrity. For example, if Johnny Representative favors continued Iraq engagement, he still might vote for the current fund-cutting bill because a Democrat slipped in an earmark worth several million bucks in economic assistance for his district. It becomes a choice between war ideology and easy cash to buy votes.

There are many differing options as to how much, and for how long, Congress should fund this conflict, but the addition of juicy home-district earmarks may compromise members of Congress who ideologically support continued military presence in Iraq to vote their conscience. In a time when ideology on the war is so important to American voters, votes on war funding should be separate appropriations bills where Representatives express their feelings on the war with no strings attached. This is politics at its worst.

We're not sure how, but opposing the war with such dramatic tactics could still dangerously backfire.

Confidence in Alberto?

President Bush today stated he had confidence in Alberto Gonzales, the embattled Attorney General.

In addtion to everything else that has completely sunk this White House, even Presidential support doesn't count for much any more. Just ask Donald Rumsfeld, who also received public administration support after his removal was already a done deal behind closed doors.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Managing war expectations

Today's news brings us the quarterly report on progress in Iraq... This is a Pentagon-produced, Congressionally-mandated report on the state of the war, and is often considered "propaganda," to use one law-makers phrase of choice. In the past, the report has painted a more glowing picture of the country than the ground truth would dictate.

Why, then, would the report issued today (and covering the last quarter of 2006) finally say, after so much semantic-related wrangling, that Iraq really is in a "civil war", and openly state that the last part of 2006 was the most violent in Iraq since 2003? The change in tone is striking.

The simple answer involves "managing expectations." It would not be too tough to believe that US military commanders (and the adminstration, for that matter), who just launched a controversial "surge" of some 30,000 troops, are hoping to set the bar as low as possible for the end of 2006 (conveniently in the "pre-surge" timeframe). Then, with even the remotest calming in Iraq, or the most modest calming of the situation during the first part of 2007, look for subsequent reports to point to improved conditions.

The Commander-in-Chief can then claim that the surge was the right strategy.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Democats on Iraq...

Are the Democrats opposing the Iraq war in the right way? How much can actually get accomplished by threating to cut off funding, either to US forces in Iraq, or those that are part of the "surge"?

If the Dems continue on their current trajectory, one wonders if they're tap dancing on that political mine field at little too heavily: The $20 in DeTocq's pocket says that there's no incentive to actually cutting cash to forces in the Iraq, because such a nix on appropriations would give the Republicans political cover. Think about it -- the Democrats vote to cut off funding, the US begins to bring forces home, Iraq slides further into all out chaos, and the Republican nominee in 2008 just hammers those vicious Congressional Democrats who killed the administration's plan to finally fix the whole thing.

On the other hand, there's no real effective way to oppose the war other than to cut off funding. The Dems can scream at the top of their lungs about what a misguided, mismanaged debacle this is, but Joe Voter wants to see something tangible from them... Given the country's mood and the type of historical precendent associated with a funding cut in Vietnam (where funds were actually cut to the South Vietnamese, not US soldiers), that probably resonates with people.

So where does that leave us? DeTocq bets on this: Exactly the same place where we were with the infamous "non-binding" resolution of a month or so ago. Dems will get really fired up and create tons of publicity about it, Republicans will pay lip service to opposing the idea, but secretly pray that the vote comes to pass. Then both sides will get embroiled in a drawn out debate on the "rules of the debate" which leads to exactly ZERO legislative action.

Yup, you heard it hear first -- the funding rhetoric just may be just that, rhetoric. Dems love the idea and would probably do it, but they will look for some sort of reason to not actually raise the issue on a technicality and then blame the Republicans, who would love nothing more than to have Democrats pass the bill.

Fun as usual, my friends.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Feeding the world? Or just St. Paul?

DeTocque hasn't heard much more on this besides an NPR piece this afternoon, but the subject bears mention: American food relief to the world's poorest nations.

The way the system currently works, USAID buys wheat, corn, and other agricultural goods from American farmers and then ships them around the globe. This system is relatively inefficient because of the higher costs and time delays involved in the purchase and transportation. The nasty little kicker is that this system provides millions, if not billions, of dollars in subsidies to America's farmers, who like to brag that they're "feeding the world."

Recently, USAID tabled a funding request to allow it to purchase one quarter of its food from local farmers in the respective poor countries. It's obvious that this would reduce the inefficiencies in cost and lag time by buying cheaper local products and quickly redistributing them to the local market, as well as give a direct income boost to third-world farmers. In short, by using some of USAID's food-assistance budget to buy local products, the American government could be feeding more people, doing it faster, and providing desperately-needed cash into third world economies. The NPR report even mentioned a wheat field in Africa that was left unharvested one year despite a bumper crop because no one could afford the goods. It wouldn't have if this proposal gets through.

If nothing else, what a wonderful P.R. opportunity for the U.S. -- after nearly 5 years of negative press, this is something the U.S. could hang its hat on. It is therefore astonishing that it's the Democrats who want to derail this extremely reasonable proposal. House Agricultural Committee chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) literally laughed into the microphone when asked about this issue and essentially called it a non-starter. Why? Well, his Minnesota farmers and truckers would lose a lot of income to those obviously evil, nasty, poor, starving third world wheat growers.

How ridiculous. Congressman Peterson has just proven that he is in no way interested in providing food aid to starving Africans, but is more interested in providing production subsidies to his inefficient farmers. Minnesota's farmers may be doing a little to feed the world, but a 25% reduction in their income could save many, many lives. Aid to America's farmers is being cloaked as aid to Africa. If Congressman Peterson really cared about the world's poor, he would encourage his farmers to leave their highly bloated, subsidized jobs that are a drag on the American economy by setting up retraining programs so that workers could learn new skills. The labor force would then be more sensibly reallocated to higher-paying more technical jobs.

Then we'd have a winning situation in both St. Paul and Lusaka. Instead, Congressman Peterson is taking the easy way out. Shame on him.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Quick review of the French election

It appears Francois Bayrou, candidate from the centrist UDF (Union for French Democracy) Party, is making a bit of a run in the polls. Figures from yesterday put him at some 19%, which is well withing striking distance of the Socialist candidate Segolene Royale (25%) and Nicolas Sarkozy (29%), from the rightist UMP (Union for the Presidential Majority).

In an election system where only the two leading candidates advance from the first to the second (and final) round, Bayrou still falls short. There are a few wild cards in play which may skew the numbers -- most prominently Jean Marie Le Pen, the extreme right candidate. Voters typically have a tough time admitting to pollsters that they are about to vote for an immigrant-hating, Euro-phobic, ultra conservative whack job like Le Pen, but about 12% of them actually do in any given election (2002's election would be the exception to the rule, where Le Pen miraculously received 18,5% of the vote and snuck into the second round ahead of Lionel Jospin, the Socialist). While Le Pen may only poll at ~10%, these numbers are usually a bit lower.

The second (and related) issue, is the "heart vs. head" argument. With the two-round election, voters typically feel freer to vote their true feelings ("heart") in the first round (which leads to such a wide dispersal), but with only two candidates in the second, the masses are then shoe-horned into the more "logical" choice. Bayrou, as the centrist, probably doesn't stir the emotions enough to get voters enough to be the "heart" choice and get into the second round on that ticket.

But, hold the show for a minute -- there's a third consideration which may serve Bayrou well: With Sego embracing Mitterand's tactic in the 80s of running "hard left" during the first round -- to shore up the party base and avoid a Jospin-esque disaster from '02, and Sarko trying to pluck a few of Le Pen's supporters, there might just be a chance. If enough "center-center left" and "center-center right" voters decide that Sego and Sarko are pandering to their bases too much, there might be enough space in the political center for Bayrou to garner enough support to slip through. He has mentioned favoring a Socialist Prime Minister (whom he appoints), which helps his cause to steal from Sego...

It will be close, but, using Le Pen's '02 example, anything is possible.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Ted Turner for budget responsibility!

Congratulations to CBS's 60 Minutes for airing an excellent piece on the current state of the American budget. Read the online version of the story here. In short, it focuses on David Walker, the comptroller general of the United States, who is doing his best to raise public awareness of the gross inadequacies of the projected US government revenue and expenditure. Walker is on a tour of states scheduled to hold early presidential primaries in the hopes of getting somebody to pay attention.

DeTocq doesn't have the level of off-handed expertise to delve into the nitty-gritty on numbers, but suffice it to say that this issue deserves to be on par with the recent surge in public notarity for global warming. The difficulties faced by proponents of budget unsustainability roughly match up with those faced by the global warming crowd as recently as a few months ago: both problems are long-range issues which current politicians have little incentive to care about before their next general election, and the issues were very valid within the confines of their smallish wonky circles but faced problems of widespread public acceptance. The global warming problem has only received widespread public support since Al Gore's remarkable transformation into a genuine "cool" A-list celeb. (And who would have bet $100 that Gore would have had this cult superstar status in 2000? Can you say "landslide"?)

Who will be the budget's celebrity champion? Any politician who espouses lowering taxes but increasing spending is plainly lying to their constituency, so most of them are out. But somehow, somewhere, this issue needs its Al Gore -- a recognized leader with public credibility educate the masses. Though Walker, the comptroller, is doing an "enormous public service", as stated by Sen. Conrad (D-ND), the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, he is, quite frankly, a boring accounant who doesn't command much attention. How about a figure like Ted Turner? He's a respected businessman with history of public credibility through massive charity support.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Dictators' three piece suits

If we were at a fashion show in Milan and espousing on the virtues of miltary olive drab for this fashion season, which world leader would pop into your head? The answer, of course, is quite obvious -- Fidel Castro.

Think about other authoritarian regimes of today and yesteryear -- in many, if not all, cases, one can probably discern a mainstay vestment category.

Consider the selections --
Hitler = khaki military uniform, schwaztika armband;
Kim Il Song/Kim Jong Il = grayish "workman's uniform" (plus spikey hair and fabulously outrageous sunglasses in the case of the son);
Mao = button up version of the same;
Hugo Chavez = red shirt and hat combo;
Amadinejad = "man of liesure" top-button-open dress shirt/casual jacket.

The list could go on to be sure.

The question then passes to why: Are these heads of state trying to "brand" their "revolutions"? Are they trying to encourage their cult-of-personality? Are they seeking to project an air of stability through attire? Is it to inspire confidence through visual identification?

DeTocque's guess is probably a combination of all of the above, plus a few more. If anyone decides to do a PhD dissertation on the topic, please pass on your conclusions...