Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Palin Choice

My views on the selection of a Vice Presidential candidate were stated earlier, and it's not surprising that Democrats have jumped at what they see as a politically motivated choice of an inexperienced running mate by Senator McCain for a running mate.

A call to reserve judgment comes from a surprising source:

At a stop in Monaca, Pa., Barack Obama seemed to distance himself from his campaign's first, harshly critical response to the Palin pick. 

"I think that...campaigns start getting these hair triggers and the statement that Joe and I put out reflects our sentiments," he said, according to the pool report, apparently criticizing his staff for going overboard, as he did occasionally in the primary. 


"I'm pleased with my choice for vice president, Joe Biden. I think he's the man who can help me guide this country in a better direction and help working families."
 This is Obama at his best.  Rather than belittling his opponent, he states the positive case for his own choice.  While politicians some times have others take the low road only to seem "above the fray," I don't think that's the case here.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Speech

Looking for commentary on "the Speech" from last night? Try one of these.

I thought it might be useful to clarify what this site is about by saying what it's not about. First, it's certainly not a political news site. I can't keep up with those who work at the links to the right, and don't try.

Next, I'm going to try to keep political opinions pretty much to myself, because mine aren't any better than yours. And, there are plenty of people at Fox, PBS, MSNBC and elsewhere who are all to happy to share theirs.

What I DO bring to the table is a working knowledge of the federal government, and hope that by sharing that, I can help those who read understand a little bit better what their government does. I'm more interested in improving our understanding of civics, and raising the right questions for consideration than shoving answers (even as I understand them) down anyone's throat.
Although not talking out the speech as a political document, though, we WILL discuss some of the points that were raised and what they may mean for government in an Obama administration in future posts.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

One place NOT to get your political news...

Apparently MSNBC is more interested in their on air "talent" than what's actually being said at the Democratic National Convention.

Amid a spate of awkward on-air conflicts among MNSBC anchors at this week’s Democratic convention, some staff members say there are sharp internal disputes at the cable network over whether its opinion and personality-driven political coverage has crossed the line.
So far, the television coverage of the conventions has been fairly sad, with the traditional network news only covering an hour a night, cable and NPR has had to pick up the slack. Part of this reflects the changing nature of conventions from places where news is made as the parties make real decisions to pageants celebrating them. But it also marks the decline of traditional news coverage as something that only happens for a set hour out of the day.

One alternative? C-SPAN is providing gavel to gavel coverage, with no commentary.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

When is a Keynote Address Not a Keynote Address?

Mark Warner's speech last night was advertised as the "Keynote" speech. Tyoically, the keynote address is a major event. Ann Richards, Barrack Obama and Mario Cuomo became major political figures after giving Democratic convention keynote addresses.


Warner's speech wasn't in prime time (defined as the 10 PM - 11 PM time slot);

Wasn't carried on the networks, which didn't turn to the convention until 10 PM.

In short, it was merely an "opening act" for Senator Clinton.

What gives?

Worse, it was followed by a better received, more partisan address by Ohio Governor Ted Stickland, which appears to have been the "real" keynote address as it did begin after 10 PM and was carried on the networks.

(Again:much if not all the convention is being carried on NPR or, even better, C-SPAN is carrying all of it if you can do without the talking heads)

This leads us to the question: Is a keynote speech really a keynote speech if no one hears it? More importantly, why was Warner's speech billed as the keynote, yet the former Virginia governor and soon to be Virginia Senator given the city councilman treatment?

Perhaps the real goal was to troll for votes in Virginia, which typically votes Republican in national elections, but has been leaning more Democratic in state elections in recent years, and is viewed as a potential Democratic pickup in 2008. The New York Times blog reports:
Mr. Warner’s high-profile appearance at the convention – his speech was the gathering’s keynote address – reveals just how crucial Senator Barack Obama’s campaign believes he is to their success in November. Virginia is a key swing state, and Mr. Warner is a highly popular political figure there who appealed to voters across the political spectrum in all areas of the state when he was governor.
If that was the goal, it certainly didn't serve its purpose. I suspect few swing voters in Virginia have any clue that Warner was given a place of honor at the Democratic convention.

If Warner's speech wasn't the typical "fire up the crowd" address favored at political conventions, it was a model for a civilized, forward looking address that kept negativity to a minimum.

It was hopeful:

Not the campaign for the Presidency. Not the campaign for Congress. But the race for the future. And I believe from the bottom of my heart with the right vision, the right leadership, and the energy and creativity of the American people, there is no nation that we can’t out hustle or out compete. And no American need be left out or left behind.
Humorous and humble:
After I graduated law school, it didn’t take long to realize that America really wouldn’t miss me as a lawyer. So I started a business. My first company failed in six weeks. My next one was much more successful. It failed in six months.
And did not overreach:
In George Bush and John McCain’s America, far too many. Let’s be fair, some of these challenges were inevitable. But all of them are more severe, more immediate, and more threatening because of the misguided policies and outdated thinking of this administration.
It's a real shame that Warner aborted his own Presidential run as early as he did. It's also too bad that his address wasn't given the usual "keynote" treatment.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Speech Worth A Listen (Maybe)

Last night, the Democrats laid out their basic themes and provided a biographical picture of thier nominee (for a good synopsis of yesterday's activities and the current "state of play" see here).

Still, there was some substance presented in the form of feaux "town halls" where delegates were allowed to "ask" (scripted) questions of policy experts sitting on stage. While not exactly the Brookings Foundation, it did present at least some opportunities for those watching to begin to understand what the priorities would be under an Obama administation.

Note: in order to see this and similar things on stage, you really should watch the conventions on C-SPAN, which pretty much just shows the audio and video feeds from the hall without the talking heads and cutaways to network analysts.

I mostly listened from my computer while doing some other work, but I mostly liked what I heard. I made a point of watching Michele Obama at the end of the evening, and thought she presented a powerful story for her husband, which is part of the narrative campaigns (of any sort) use to sell a candidate or product.

Tonight, we'll hear the keynote by former Governor Mark Warner (D-Virginia). According to this morning's report on NPR, Warner will present a fairly bi-partisan address based on his governance of Virginia, where he had to work with a Republican legislature. Because he is running for the Senate in Virginia this year, he plans to avoid a "red meat" applause getting rant.

I'll be very interested to hear his speech. Warner was a very good governor, and took his duties seriously, acting in a fairly non-partisan (or post-partisan if you will ) mode, which is how Senator Obama has pledged to govern if elected. If Warner can paint a vivid, believable picture of how Obama could do this nationwide, he'll do his party (and himself) far more good than would a typical convention speech full of platitudes, bombast and negativity.

He'll be on sometime after 9 PM ET.

Monday, August 25, 2008

On the Eve of the Democratic Convention - A Plea for Substance

As the Democrats get ready to nominate Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) for President, the pundits are in high gear on to what he needs to do (for a brief but sound description see here) for a successful convention.

Perhaps the one piece of advice I most hope he takes, however, comes for Sean Wilentz, an academic and Democratic Party activist who first came to public attention for his passionate defense of Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings.

Wilentz makes no attempt to hide his activism and his party allegiance. While he supported Senator Clinton in the primaries, he assuredly will be voting for Senator Obama this fall (something a lot of other Clinton supporters will not be doing).

Wilentz notes that Obama has the style, but alleges that he been less forthcoming with the substance we need from a presidential candidate:

Obama's most ardent admirers, who include much of the political press and practically all of the liberal intelligentsia, will almost certainly report and analyze the event as a mammoth historical occasion, and quite possibly praise the speech as one of the greatest political orations ever. But will Obama, amid the pulsating theatrics, also attempt the less glamorous and more difficult task of explaining specifically where he wants to move the country, and how he proposes to move it, above and beyond reciting his policy positions? History, as well as recent public-opinion polls, suggests that he badly needs to do so. As a lifelong Democrat who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primaries, I would like to see him succeed in fulfilling his promise.
Instead, Obama should lay out a program for energetic government like his Democratic predecessors did, according to Wilentz, until Jimmy Carter, whose bland, anti-Washington centrist appeal led the party from its roots.

While making no endorsement of Wilentz's preferred policies, I endorse what I take to be his call for a campaign of substance, an annunciation of clear positions, and an intelligent defense of them. On both sides.

Instead, what we're more likely to get from both conventions are entertainment, glitz and platitudes, and we'll keep getting them until we ask for something more. There's nothing wrong with making politics entertaining, but let's demand that they inform as well.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Government Ill Executed - For the Public Benefit

(This is an installment in an ongoing series of Paul Light's new book, A Government Ill Executed)

The first characteristic of an "energetic federal service" regards its missions, namely that they be "extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit," according to Hamilton. Or, as Light puts it succinctly, "missions that matter."

The reasons for this are several. First, we only have so many resources. If we try to too much we risk underfunding vital missions, leading to failure. Next, we cause dismay and lower morale among the federal work force when we keep adding to their current job without increasing the resources. He cites what has happened to domestic agencies since 9/11:
9/11 may have created a greater sense of purpose at the federal departments and agencies such as Defense and State involved in the new war on terrorism. But it may have diluted a greater sense of purpose at other[s]...(such as Agriculture, Education, Housing, etc.)
If this is the case, it reflects a failure among the leadership of these agencies to retool themselves to ask how they can remain relevant in a time when combating terrorism is among the nation's highest priorities? Perhaps Agriculture could get rid of its extracurriculars (it runs a giant adult education program for those lucky enough to live in Washington, DC and enjoy cut rate college type classes) and plowed its resources into creating a world class system for ensuring the safety of our food supply?

What follows in this chapter is a lengthy analysis of those tasks undertaken by the federal government since World War II - a "top fifty" of the government's "greatest" endeavors. They range from advancing human rights, to educating and training veterans, consumer protecting, expanding home ownership, protecting the right to vote, etc. The list, Light notes, grows but as it does old items do not get pushed off. Instead, they merely become underfunded, leaving underinspired federal employees to manage them in addition to the new flavor of the month.

Light calls on the government to decide which missions truly matter. To aid him, he has polled a large cadre of political scientists to evaluate the top fifty in each of the following categories: (1) importance, (2) difficulty, and (3) success (he acknowledges the many biases such a system will have).

Among the most important missions identified were expanding voting rights, rebuilding Europe after World War II and increasing low income families access to health care. The most difficult were identified as advancing human rights, arms control, and fighting work place discrimination. The most successful were rebuilding Europe, expanding voting rights strengthening our nation's highway system.

There's certainly a lot to disagree with in the list, but one thing that struck me is this: two of the most important were also two of the most successful - when this country really wants to get something done, it generally can (expanding health care, however, comes near last in success).

Light's essential point in this chapter is that government really needs to focus on high impact missions - those of most importance. Arguably, however, this needs to be done at the expense of lesser important programs. His survey reveals the following the be among the least important missions:

-Controlling immigration;
-increasing market competition; and
-devolving responsibility to the states.


Here we see the bias Light was talking about among the academics Light polled. Clearly, immigration is not among the least important issues given all the political heat that exists around it. Had Light polled economists, they would have been able to explain how increasing market competition has led to power prices and more public welfare than many if not all government programs.

This leads us to another conclusion: there's no good consensus in many cases on what government should be doing. This is important because administration come and go. Control of Congress can change hands, or at least Congressional Committee heads change, which can mean different priorities. The programs we're most concerned about, however, require steady attention, oversight and funding. Without consensus, this won't happen for a sustained period long enough to see them through to successful completion.

It seems to me that we should begin talking about a framework to determine what is truly important for the federal government to do. In addition to asking what the impact of the mission is on the nation's citizens, there are a few other questions that I think need to be asked. First, what among those high impact missions can ONLY the federal government accomplish as opposed to the private sector or NGOs or state and local governments. Next, on which missions is there the necessary consensus along the political spectrum to ensure that they are adequately funded year in and year out rather than waxing or waning depending on who is in power?

Here's my takeaway from this first chapter:

When we can focus the federal government on those missions we can all (read: mostly all) agree that most impact our lives and that only it can perform, we'll be on our way to a government well executed.