Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

He Almost Made It

Michael Barone must know everything about the history of American elections in the last 50 years. How he remembered or dug this up, I don’t know . . . but it’s a spot on memory for this election. He tells the story of how Gerald Ford came back from a 33% deficit behind Carter to nearly defeat him in November--a change of less than 10,000 votes spread across two states (and yes, one was Ohio) would have made all the difference. (It might have made a difference, too, if he had chosen to play football at OSU instead of Michigan as a young man . . . but that’s probably speculation!)

What made the difference? An ad man. A very good ad man. Academics and intellectuals tend (not always without good reason) to turn up their noses at the crassness of the ad man. But the ad man in a campaign--if he does his job correctly--is the same thing as a popular historian or biographer. He examines his subject well and he tells his story in narrative. That’s what Ford’s man did and, though he was not hired until August 7, he got as close as Ford had any right to hope or expect. Though the political scene today is much like the one in 1976, McCain is not in anything like the poor position Ford was in. He’s only a few point behind . . . if that. But imagine what he could do with the right storyteller. And, really, he’s got such a great story to tell. Barone is right to say that he should quit thinking that everyone already knows this story. Most people still know virtually nothing about either candidate. They’ll start paying attention during the conventions. McCain should give them something really good to pay attention to.

Religious affiliation and voter preference

Well, this time we have a less obviously religious Republican candidate and a more obviously religious Democrat. Does this have any influence on voter preferences? Check out this Pew analysis, comparing voter preferences at this stage in ’08, ’04, and ’00.

The unchurched even more overwhelmingly support Obama, despite the fact that McCain is hardly identified with religious conservatives. Might there be a secularist ceiling for Republican candidates, with even the most resolutely irreligious conservative (if that isn’t already an oxymoron) facing a pretty low ceiling of support among the religiously unaffiliated?

And Obama hasn’t (yet) made many inroads among white Protestants, who may not be supporting McCain at quite the levels they supported Bush, but aren’t yet transferring their affection to Obama. There are a few more undecideds. The question about the latter is whether a more obviously religion-friendly McCain could win those over. (Please note that I’m not saying that McCain isn’t religion-friendly, just that that’s pretty far from the core of his self-presentation.)

Note finally that white, non-Hispanic Catholics favor McCain over Obama by a larger margin than they favored Bush over Kerry. McCain doesn’t do quite as well as Bush did, but Obama seems to fare considerably worse than Kerry did. 13% of this group are undecided. If one or the other candidate can make the sale here (given the concentration of Catholics in swing states), this could be the election.

Of course, it’s only July....

The Economy

I hate to whine or be negative: But I’ve gotten four emails from economists with real jobs and a hedge fund guy, all with the same message. The economy is going to get much, much worse. I have three questions for discussion: 1. Why? 2. What should people do? 3. What’s going to happen to our aging population so dependent on the performance of the stock market? It’s always possible (it’s happened before) that these experts are wrong.

Estrich on the Polls

Susan Estrich is nervous. She’s nervous because the polls don’t show Obama leading with the kind of numbers he should have given all the smiles he’s attracting from the gods of campaign fortune. He’s got money, an adoring media parade following him around like he’s the pied piper, a frenzied and energetic youth base, a less than ideal Republican opponent with a host of his own problems, a demoralized GOP, an unpopular incumbent, a sagging economy, high oil prices, an unpopular war which he opposed . . . shall I go on? And he’s what, 8 or 9 points ahead at best? And it’s July. As Estrich says, ask President Dukakis what it means to be up in July (or ask President Clinton what it means to be down in July).

Estrich posits a host of possible reasons for Obama’s less than stellar numbers and, regrettably, race rates highest on her list. She also wonders whether people are worried about Obama’s youth and lack of experience. It’s fair to say that both are legitimate points for an honest political analyst in this season. But Estrich’s emphasis draws heavily on her ideology. It’s clear that race hurts Obama with at least some small percentage of voters and it would be foolish to claim otherwise. But this factor alone cannot be enough to decide this election. I think Estrich knows that (hence her tentative reference to age and inexperience) but she has reasons for wanting to emphasize race (just as she also had reason to emphasize Obama’s tensions with Jesse Jackson). She wants you to feel guilty about not liking Obama. She wants you to think your legitimate gripes secretly or subconsciously might be racist ones.

One way Estrich attempts to help that guilt along is to remain silent on a number of Obama’s obvious flubs. She didn’t hold back in her criticisms of other Democrats or of the Democratic Party more generally, but she is reserved when it comes to Obama’s real difficulties with voters. For example (and incredibly!) she never even mentions the perception of him (now growing with this Brandenberg Gate nonsense) as an arrogant, wannabe punk. Inexplicably, she makes no mention of his many (Freudian?) slips of the tongue (rural voters clinging to guns and God, etc.). Remarkably, she never thinks to mention the names of Rev. Wright, Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers or Fr. Pfleger. She assiduously avoids any mention of Michelle. She doesn’t talk about Obama’s slick re-engineering of himself and his positions and his absurd tendency lately to take himself way too seriously. Indeed, as Estrich ticked off her list of recent Democratic candidates, I couldn’t help but notice how similar Obama now seems to Kerry, Gore and Dukakis. With the exception of Bill Clinton, Democrats really do have had an uncanny knack to nominate insufferable people who are very difficult for regular people to like. Whatever one may say about his differences with either of the Bushes and Reagan, one didn’t get the sense from any of them that they considered themselves to be above reproach. On some level you knew that these were normal people (or as normal as politicians probably get) and that they didn’t get up every morning reveling in how much smarter they were compared to you. Obama (like Dukakis, Gore and Kerry before him) tends to give the impression that he is a very earnest and very grim student affairs director in charge of a grievance hearing whenever he is attacked. It is hard to imagine him laughing at himself and it looking genuine.

That said, Estrich does ask a fair and rather pointed question about Republicans as she closes her article, "You know there will be a major effort on the Republican side to destroy Obama. But will there be anything else? And if so, exactly what will that be?" It could be a lot more than it has been so far, that much is certain!


Shameless Self-Promotion: I'm Coming to the Land of Lincoln

I will be giving a plenary session lecture next Saturday afternoon (the 19th) in Deerfield, Illinois at a conference for MDs, Christian leaders, and such on Health Care and the Common Good. My talk is at 2; there'll another by the legendary chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, Ed Pellegrino. A basic Google will give you more information. I'll be in town from Friday evening through very early Sunday morning should any Deerfieldians etc. want to come by. My talk will cover everything from Solzhenitsyn to subsidiarity in evaluating our present health care situation.
Categories > Bioethics

Random Observations

1. I’ve been up in Northern Virginia visiting. I had the opportunity to talk to some experts and read print versions of the WASHINGTON POST and the WASHINGTON TIMES. Both those papers are always very informative, and I gotta say the POST is the most genuinely fair-and-balanced paper in the country.

2. The POST’s new poll has Obama up 50 to 42, which is his largest margin yet. The reason: Huge advantages when it comes to the economy. The economy, for obvious reasons, is quickly emerging as the issue for the campaign. Bernake etc. all seem all to agree that growth will continue to slow and inflation will continue to grow, at least through the election. The issue: Which candidate can deal better with STAGFLATION? Two pro-Barack conclusions: He CARES more about the economy, and he is more likely to provide CHANGE.

3. Obama and McCain are about even, or Mac has a slight edge, when it comes to foreign policy, security etc. But right now such issues aren’t that important with the voters. The POST did have an incisive editorial complaining that Barack’s Iraq policy doesn’t really taken into account our recent successes there. He conveys the impression that he might cut and run on the cusp of victory, or at least tolerable stablity.

4. I saw part of McCain’s NAACP speech waiting for my flight at Dulles. That isn’t the best venue for enjoyment. I agree with Joe that the content was fine and showed competence on a domestic issue--education--of interest to all Americans. But I have to add that it reads somewhat better than it sounded. It wasn’t an eloquent address, although it might turn out to have been effective as the first of many efforts to counter eloquence with competence.

5. All the experts seem to agree that the VP picks, although they make for interesting gossip for slow summer news days, will make very little difference.

6. People feel particularly AT RISK right now. Their WHINE is not that we’re in something like a recession, but that this isn’t a normal recession, but something new. Their retirement plans, for example, are more dependent on the stock market’s performance than ever, and the thought is floating everywhere that we may be entering a 10-year period when the market doesn’t easily beat inflation. It goes without saying I have no idea whether or not this is true. My job is easy and usually fun, so I don’t mind working until I drop. But most Americans, with good reason, don’t feel the same way.

7. So Mac’s appeal to an AT RISK population has to begin with the thought that an ALL DEMOCRATIC government (given the failed policies of the past) is very RISKY BUSINESS. Most people know well enough that they can’t really be saved by government bailouts. But the Sam’s Club swing voters--the key to carrying the crucial swing states--have a right to know that government will be orienting itself to helping families do their indispensable jobs in the emerging more individualistic social/economic environment.

Electoral College Watch

Stuart Rothenberg lists Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Nevada and Michigan as the five states most telling and decisive in this election. Ohio Straussians: notice the location of your state on that list . . .

But seriously, Rothenberg gives a good review and one that is also (probably) going to be good for future reference.

McCain at the NAACP convention

This, to my mind, is a first-rate speech. It doesn’t pander, it sharply delineates differences, and it effectively advocates for generally conservative positions.

I especially liked what McCain had to say about education. Here’s a snippet:

After decades of hearing the same big promises from the public education establishment, and seeing the same poor results, it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms. That isn’t just my opinion; it is the conviction of parents in poor neighborhoods across this nation who want better lives for their children. In Washington, D.C., the Opportunity Scholarship program serves more than 1,900 boys and girls from families with an average income of 23,000 dollars a year. And more than 7,000 more families have applied for that program. What they all have in common is the desire to get their kids into a better school.

Democrats in Congress, including my opponent, oppose the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. In remarks to the American Federation of Teachers last weekend, Senator Obama dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as, "tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice." All of that went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools?

Over the years, Americans have heard a lot of "tired rhetoric" about education. We’ve heard it in the endless excuses of people who seem more concerned about their own position than about our children. We’ve heard it from politicians who accept the status quo rather than stand up for real change in our public schools. Parents ask only for schools that are safe, teachers who are competent, and diplomas that open doors of opportunity. When a public system fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children. Some parents may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private school. Many will choose a charter school. No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.

This stands in sharp contrast to Obama’s position, which (to be sure) isn’t all bad. He simply doesn’t acknowledge that the parental responsibility that he rightly highlights can genuinely be fulfilled only if there’s real school choice, the same kind of choice the Obamas themselves exercise.

Obama’s faith-based initiative yet again

Last week, I wrote something for the First Things site, which is posted here. I’m still defending religious hiring rights against those (like Obama) who don’t think that religious freedom is compatible with government cooperation with faith-based groups.

Actually, I don’t know whether Obama actually believes this, but it’s the position his party has held ever since George W. Bush took office: government dollars must needs be secularizing dollars. And rest assured, Barack Obama wants more of those secularizing dollars out there.

Hence Acton’s Robert Sirico thinks that the faith-based initiative is--always has been--a bad idea. If, for Rev. Sirico, there’s a silver lining in Obama’s cloud, it is that perhaps some groups will stay away from those secularizing dollars. But the dollars--more of ’em--will still be there. And, unless I miss my bet, those dollars (secularizing or not) will be there regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.

For another version of Rev. Sirico’s argument, see this post by our friend Jordan Ballor.

Update: MOJ’s Tom Berg has the best brief account I’ve seen of the state of religious hiring rights, an account so nuanced and subtle as to make Harvard Law’s Martha Minow look like an ideologue by comparison.

A Can-Do Attitude for the 21st Century

Is it only a coincidence that the first article I read upon arriving today in Ohio for my annual pilgrimage to the Heartland was this one from Victor Davis Hanson? Maybe not. Hanson offers a sensible and spirited argument about how we might conquer whatever it is that seems to be ailing Americans today; from the economy to immigration to the war to personal depression. A good deal of our recent pessimism, he thinks, stems from a failure to appreciate the value of and properly honor hard work. And this comes from habits born out of lacking much of a need to do much hard work. It seems to him that we have had a couple of generations who forgot that affluence (to say nothing of freedom) was never won but through massive work and sacrifice and was never kept but through constant diligence and effort. But VDH does not despair. He thinks necessity may awaken our latent capacities and that a new generation so awakened may turn out to be hungrier than the one that’s running the show now.

If there’s anything like a grain of truth (and, really, I think there’s more than that) in Hanson’s hopes for the younger generation, then I think McCain should examine this article very carefully. This is the way he should be talking to young people. It’s appealing because it is empowering instead of merely critical (gratuitous reference to Madonna excepted) . . . and it appeals to their vanity and sense of rebellion. It’s saying: "You can do what your parent’s generation couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do. You can make America even greater than she is now and make it stick. You can achieve even higher levels of success than you had hoped to achieve and, more important, you can ground your success in something tangible and solid instead of the latest trends in finance, academia and salesmanship. You can do real things, make real money, and achieve lasting rewards." Considering the unreal nature of much of this campaign’s rhetoric and the lack of solidity in most of the recommendations for young people (Hope! Change!) tell me how a serious and a hard argument won’t sound more authentic? Real hope and real change is going to entail real work and real sacrifice. These happen to be things that John McCain can speak about well and with real authority. Critics who say he needs to be careful about over-doing the stern grandpa who "walked to school uphill both ways without shoes in a snow-storm" routine have a point; but it’s a point that is just as easily over-stated as the thing they’re criticizing. It’s important for McCain not to be critical of the young (and anyway, that’s too easy) but he’s right not to flatter them.

As we approach the Olympic season, consider the coaches you may have had when you were young. When presented with the choice between a mere flatterer and stern but big-hearted coach who will show his devotion to you through sacrifice, real athletes almost always pick the latter. But the choice is not always so clear. Sometimes a coach may mean well but, though he understands perfectly the fundamentals of his sport, he can never convince his potential athletes that he is anything other than an overbearing jerk. This is because such coaches seem to enjoy complaining about the negative or (alternately) seem overwhelmed by the negative; everywhere he looks he sees things that need improving. These coaches don’t inspire confidence in their athletes because they don’t seem either to have it themselves or to really love their athletes. And so the athletes don’t trust the intentions of this kind of coach. It will be John McCain’s (and the GOP’s) task this fall to convince voters (and especially young voters) that they do have confidence in themselves and in America and, especially, in young people. They need to offer a real path toward success that calls for hard work and they need to pledge to honor hard work.

By Bi-Lingual?

Belgium provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of bilingual nations.

Mr Leterme’s short-term political future is, however, a different question from whether this week’s storm will turn into a cyclone that sweeps away Belgium as a state. With every crisis Belgium appears to edge a little closer to the precipice, without ever falling off.

Bilingualism can work, but it sure is difficult.

A Hemi-Demi-Semi Self-Promo Alert

What would you get if you crossed This Is Spinal Tap with An Inconvenient Truth? The answer is Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, which will premier later this week at the Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival of Los Angeles. Doesn’t that just sound like a place I’d fit in? (The link takes to you to trailer, where you get about a half-second glimpse of me from last summer before I dropped 40 lbs. and sold my calorie offsets to Al Gore.)

The filmmaker and "star" of this "mockumentary," Randy Olson, is a former marine biologist who gave it up to go to film school and make films like this. Now there are several ways to go in commenting on this film. The hard core greenies won’t like it because it has fun with this dreary subject, and you’re not supposed to joke about global warming, which, I learned this morning, is even going to lead to more kidney stones! The global warming fanatics remind me of the old joke about how many feminists it takes to change a light bulb. Answer: "That’s not funny!" No doubt Olson will hear from the Green Commissars that he shouldn’t have given the likes of me and Pat Michaels one second of screen time. The film’s sendup of Hollywood superficiality will appeal to any serious person on any part of the political spectrum. The two gay producers of the film tell Olson early on: "We really, really want to make this film, and we feel very, very passionate about global warming, and we’re very, very upset about it. We just don’t know why.” Any why not get Tom Cruise as the host? He’s a Scientologist, you know, and isn’t that the same as a scientist?

But Olsen has a serious purpose, which is to try to debunk, cleverly and with misdirection, skeptics and semi-skeptics like me, and point out to the climate alarmists that they really stink at getting their message across. Turns out Olson and his crew engaged in a bit of performance art in the making of this movie, including an African-American cameraman who affects being persuaded by the skeptics. Seems I didn’t fall for this ruse, though I don’t remember what I said a year ago in the studio taping and my reaction didn’t make the rough cut I have seen. In this and other respects the film is a very postmodern piece of work. It is certainly better viewing than Gore dirge-fest.

The scientific claims throughout are naturally contestable (especially the Hurricane Katrina section), but toward the end the film veers off into the politics and policy of the whole Kyoto Protocol debacle. I’ve made clear to Olson my critique of this section, which really requires a whole separate film treatment to begin to do it justice. There are a couple of factual mistakes here that I have flagged, and a few interpretive issues, too. But on the whole I expect the alarmists will be more unhappy about the film than I might be if I were the sort to be unhappy about such things. One blog comment I’ve seen I suspect will be typical of the reaction: "While I understand the rationale for making a light-hearted film about climate change, it also seems a bit odd to make a comedy about something that could plausibly exterminate the human race."

A new War Powers Resolution?

Recognizing that the old one never worked, a commission has proposed a revision of the 1973 War Powers Resolution. I thought the old version was stupid. Stephen F. Knott, who knows a heck of a lot about a heck of a lot, thinks that the new version is equally bad. Let’s hope that a Democratic Congress resists the temptation to "improve upon" the handiwork of its 1970s successor.

The late 00s are looking more like the late 70s all the time.


New Yorker Cover

I’ve had more time than usual (in a Philadelphia hotel room) to note how the TV talking heads and CNN have reacted to the now famous New Yorker cover of Obama and his wife. I heard the word shocking more often than any other word on CNN. Rather pathetic, all this, revealing how the chattering class need to protect the ignorant demos, as

Jack Shafer notes. The only thing the fake outrage reveals is that many folks actually do not know much about who Obama. Perhaps that’s why he has lost steam in the last few weeks, note this Newsweek Poll. I am still waiting to see if Obama’s fund raising continues its decline (note the decline from February through May). He has yet to release the figures for June. This is not a campaign on the upswing, that’s for sure.

Happy Bastille Day!

In honor of Bastille Day, we offer an amusing reflection on French character and a salutary reminder about the nature of popularity in international affairs, courtesy of John Adams:

[The French] consider nobody but themselves. Their apparent respect and real contempt for all men and all nations but Frenchmen, are proverbial among themselves. They think it is in their power to give characters and destroy characters as they please, and they have no other rule but to give reputation to their tools, and to destroy the reputation of all who will not be their tools. Their efforts to ’populariser’ Jefferson, and to ’depopulariser’ Washington, are all upon this principle. To a Frenchman the most important man in the world is himself, and the most important nation is France. He thinks that France ought to govern all nations, and that he ought to govern France. Every man and nation that agrees to this, he is willing to ’populariser’; every man or nation that disputes or doubts it, he will ’depopulariser,’ if he can.

How One More California Could Save the Electoral College

The principle of democracy is equality, and the political expression of that principle is majority rule. Majoritarianism is democratic because it treats every vote cast by every citizen as equal.

The Constitution departs from the principle of majority rule in several ways, such as requiring overwhelming rather than narrow majorities for constitutional amendments, or giving each state two senators, whether it has 523,000 people, like Wyoming, or 36 million, like California. The rationale for these qualifications of majoritarianism is not opposition to democracy but support for good government. The authors of the Constitution were good democrats, and, as Harvey Mansfield has written, good democrats “must not think that government is automatically good merely by being democratic.” Rather, they understand that “democracy can be good, and when they see that it is not, they take responsibility for reforming it. To do this they must think that good government as a standard is above democracy.” National cohesion and reassuring as many groups as possible that their concerns will be respected are among the aspects of good government that can be advanced by compromising the principle of majority rule.

If the Electoral College is abolished in favor of giving the presidency to the candidate who wins a majority of the national popular vote, American government will be rendered more democratic but less good. The most important virtue that will be lost is that the Electoral College penalizes candidates who amass deep but narrow support, and rewards those who secure broad support. A national popular vote doesn’t, and could lead to unpleasant consequences.

Suppose that access to fresh water becomes one of the nation’s leading controversies, with most of the nation favorably disposed to increased irrigation, but the states with shorelines on the Great Lakes – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York – strongly opposed. If we abolish the Electoral College and elect the president who gets a majority of the national popular vote, a candidate could get 60% of the vote in those 8 states, lose the other 42 states and the District of Columbia with an average of 45.6% of the vote, and still win the presidency. (This calculation is based on the number of votes cast in each state in the 2004 presidential election.) If a candidate gets two-thirds of the vote in the Great Lakes states he could win despite receiving only 42.7% of the vote in the rest of the country; 75% majorities in those 8 states and he would need only 39.1% elsewhere.

The winner-take-all feature of the Electoral College, by contrast, makes it impossible for a candidate to win the presidency if he is widely opposed but also wildly popular in a few states with a common concern or outlook. There is no incentive to run up the score by increasing your majority in the states that already favor you. Instead, you have to campaign in enough states, and appeal to enough voters in different kinds of places and situations, to win. The eight states in the above example cast 141 votes in the Electoral College, far short of the 270 needed to win. The Electoral College, in the scenario sketched out, would give a clear victory to the candidate who received the second-largest number of popular votes, but who demonstrated a much broader degree of popular support, or at least popular tolerance. It would be moderating rather than polarizing.

The problem with the Electoral College is that it is also capable of denying the presidency to a first-place finisher who did not run up the score in just a few states, but who merely had the bad luck to get a national majority distributed among the states in a way that was a little less favorable for the purposes of the Electoral College’s math than his opponent’s. No one has ever contended that Al Gore’s defeat in 2000 was a good thing because his plurality of the popular vote – 48.38% to Bush’s 47.87% - was narrowly drawn from just a few states. Gore won 20 states plus the District of Columbia, including states on the West Coast, New Mexico, the upper Midwest, the middle Atlantic, and New England. Leaving aside the Florida controversy, his margin of defeat in 5 other states was less than 5%. America may have been spared, or denied, many things because of the Gore presidency that wasn’t, but it did not avoid the misfortune of president whose popular support was narrowly rather than broadly based. By the same token, if 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 had switched their votes from Bush to John Kerry, Bush would have lost the election despite receiving nearly 3 million more popular votes than Kerry out of the 122 million that were cast, winning 30 states, and coming in second by a margin of less that 5% in 7 others.

Such outcomes, real or hypothetical, are rightly seen as capricious and arbitrary, rather than curtailments of the principle of majority rule for the sake of promoting good government in some intelligible way. Under the Electoral College, winning a majority of the national popular vote means nothing. If we abolish it in favor of direct popular election, it will mean everything. The best system would be for it to mean something, but only something.

Modifying the Electoral College by means of a “national bonus plan” would accomplish that goal. When I learned that one of the advocates of this reform was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., I was skeptical, too. But good ideas can come from surprising precincts. The national bonus plan calls for keeping the Electoral College, but awarding the presidential candidate who finishes first in the nation-wide popular vote an additional number of electoral votes. The idea is to prevent the silver-medalist from becoming president in an election like 2000, but enable him to do so to thwart something like the Great Lakes coup described above.

How big should the bonus be? Schlesinger suggested 102, two votes for each of the 50 states plus Washington, DC. If you make the bonus that generous, however, you might as well just go ahead and abolish the Electoral College. The number of electors will grow from 538 to 640, meaning the majority needed will increase from 270 to 321. Since the candidate who finished first in the popular vote will already have 102 electoral votes, he would need only 219 of the 538 awarded on a state-by-state basis – 40.7%. Such an outcome advances only slightly the idea that the president should have broad, and not just deep, support.

A smaller bonus promotes both goals. Suppose the winner of the popular were awarded a bonus equal to the number of electoral votes cast by the most populous state. Under the allocation in effect since the 2000 census, that would mean a bonus of 55 votes, California’s total. The new Electoral College would have 593 votes, and a candidate would need 297 to win the presidency. The first-place finisher in the popular vote would have 55 in his pocket, meaning that he would have to win 242, or 45%, of the 538 electoral votes awarded the old-fashioned way.

If you think a president who could have only secured 242 votes under the existing Electoral College still has a base too concentrated for the good of the republic, make the bonus smaller. If it’s 27 votes, one tenth of the number needed for victory today, the number of electors grows to 565, the majority needed for victory increases to 283, and the number a candidate would need to win on a state-by-state basis is 256, 47.6% of 538. If the bonus is only 11 votes, the mean number cast by the 51 states (including DC), then the magic number becomes 275 electoral votes; the winner of the national popular vote would still need to get 264 electoral votes by winning individual states, 49% of the total available by that avenue.

Even the 11-vote bonus would have given Al Gore a 278-271 victory in the 2000 election. Had John Kerry won Ohio in 2004, he would have secured an Electoral College majority of 272-266. The 11-vote national bonus, however, would have given Bush a 277-272 victory.

The national bonus modification of the Electoral College has the additional virtue of making the election of the president partly national and partly federal. When we cast our ballots, we would be voting in our dual capacity as Texans (or Virginians or New Yorkers), and also as Americans. It will prevent miscarriages of political justice, like the one that happened in 2000 and nearly happened in 2004, but also retain the Electoral College’s protections against political competition that becomes divisive and extreme.

American aristocracies

In a recent print issue of NR, Michael Knox Beran argued that Barack Obama and John McCain represented diferent aristocratic alternatives for our liberal democracy. Beran clearly prefers the latter, but seems to prefer even more a Hayekian vision that he recognizes is at odds and in tension with McCain’s military conception of honor.

He suggests that people aren’t "reasonable" enough to Hayekians, and that Republicans can’t win the argument about how best to deliver a chicken in every microwave, even though that seems to be the argument he takes most seriously. What he doesn’t seem to recognize is that the argument he’d prefer to have is one that depends in some measure on the debasement he seems to deprecate in Obama and the people to whom he appeals.

Skipping the Electoral College Pep Rally

Joe Knippenberg has directed our attention to David Lewis Schaefer’s defense of the Electoral College. The November election results might direct our attention to the subject again. Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic Monthly and Harry Siegel of have recently argued that the planets are lining up for John McCain to lose the popular vote but win a majority in the Electoral College and, thus, the presidency.

There are two plausible developments that could lead to this outcome. First, Barack Obama could do significantly better than John Kerry in some of the bluest states, such as Illinois, New York and Maryland. Because of increased turnout by black voters and Whole Foods liberals, he could exceed Kerry’s margins of victories, winning a bigger percentage of significantly larger state electorates. The winner-take-all feature of the Electoral College, used by every state except Maine and Nebraska, guarantees that improving on Kerry’s performance by hundreds of thousands of popular votes in heavily Democratic states will not add even one electoral vote to Obama’s tally.

Secondly, some of the states that Kerry lost decisively could be ones that Obama loses narrowly. Kerry barely managed to secure 40% of the popular vote in such southern states as South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. Here again, increased black turnout could add hundreds of thousands of votes to Obama’s national popular vote total, but not a single electoral vote.

If both these things happen, Obama wins a clear popular vote majority while McCain wins a close but clear majority in the Electoral College. One political consultant told Siegel the odds of this split-decision happening in November were 50/50. Another thinks there’s only a 20% chance, while a third says that an Obama popular vote victory in excess of 52% to 48% would make the split-decision highly unlikely, but “if he gets it by 2 or 3 points, it is plausible. Absolutely.”

Would this be a big deal, or a big nothing? The latter, says Schaefer, who sees no need to abolish the Electoral College “just because candidates who ‘lose’ the popular vote by a small margin sometimes come out on top in the electoral vote.” He is serene about this prospect because “the true purpose of an electoral system . . . . is to choose an effective leader whom even most supporters of the losing major-party candidate will regard as tolerable – so that the government is perceived as representing the people as a whole, not just victorious partisans.”

Prof. Schaefer must hang out with Democrats who take way more Prozac than the ones I know. My impression is that an awful lot of Al Gore’s supporters have never regarded George W. Bush as a tolerable, effective leader representing the people as a whole, as opposed to his own victorious partisans. Many of their reasons are unrelated to the Electoral College, but the ones that concern it cannot be waved away.

These Democrats don’t think that Bush, quote-unquote, “lost” the popular vote in 2000. They think, correctly, that he lost the popular vote. Much of their anger derives from the discovery that under the Electoral College – which they remember vaguely from American Government 101 as being odd, complicated and something they hoped wouldn’t be covered on the final exam – winning the national popular vote not only isn’t dispositive, it isn’t even relevant to the business of picking a president. The starting point of their thinking, in other words, is that the guy who gets the most votes ought to win the damn election, just like “American Idol” or the local school board. If we’re going to have a system where the guy who gets the most votes for our most important elective office doesn’t necessarily win the damn election, the reasons why had better be clear and compelling, rather than murky and esoteric.

This is why Marc Ambinder says that if McCain loses the popular vote but wins the presidency of our nation, where the overwhelming majority of citizens do not have post-graduate degrees in political science, there could be a “constitutional crisis.” According to “one Republican who has advised the McCain campaign,” America “can stand that sort of thing once every 100 years, but not twice in 8 years – especially with the Republicans winning every time.” Ambinder wonders whether our democracy’s “ability to perpetuate itself without violence” can “sustain another disparity.”

It’s probably overwrought to think that McCain’s election as a silver-medal president would bring down the curtain on the American experiment in republican government. But it is merely wrought to think that it would spell the end of the Electoral College. Either a constitutional amendment or the National Popular Vote initiative would have enormous political momentum. Democratic legislators, more numerous and riled up than they have been for many years, would put it at the top of their agenda.

In my next post, I’ll argue that the best solution is to retain, but reform, the Electoral College.

Colson vs. Pills

...with the help of ME. I am some less pro-bad mood than Chuck’s quoting would suggest. But I agree, of course, that you can’t find salvation in any kind of bottle, and that our experts are too likely to believe there’s a chemical solution to whatever ails us. I’m only pro-bottle in a qualified and relative way. According to the country song: "I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."

New book!

Our friend Paul Seaton sends word that his excellent translation of Chantal Delsol’s new book is hot off the presses.

Here’s the blurb I provided the publisher (and I meant every word of it):

“Chantal Delsol has written a magnificent and timely book. Displaying the fruits of immense learning and profound reflection, she argues that our current infatuation with the politics of human rights is ultimately unpolitical and anti-human. But for her, this is not a counsel of despair. The proper response to our condition is, she says, a patient hope rooted in a prudent awareness of our particularity and an openness to a universal and transcendent moral horizon. She saves politics from those who would abolish it in the name of morality and morality from those who would make political action its only vehicle. In so doing, she holds open a place for humanity between god and beast.”

Buy the book.