News from the Votemaster
As expected, Pope Francis' speech to Congress yesterday tilted sharply to the left. Among other items, he argued for accepting desperate refugees who want to immigrate and for more environmental regulation. He was also against some things, in particular, the arms trade and the death penalty. Earlier this year he called unbridled capitalism "the dung of the devil," although it is a bit hard to see how capitalism could have spread so widely from the devil's bathroom. The pontiff spoke in heavily accented English. The leaders of both parties in the House, Speaker John Boehner (R) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D), are Catholics, but clearly Pelosi is much happier with the speech than Boehner. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a Southern Baptist. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is a Mormon.
All members of the Supreme Court were invited to the pope's speech, but five of them skipped out. Three of the justices who didn't come are Catholic (Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito). The other two are Jewish (Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan).
That a pope could be invited to address Congress shows that change is possible in America. From the founding of the nation until 1959, no Catholic was ever elected President and only one was even nominated, Al Smith (D) in 1928. He was crushed by Herbert Hoover, winning only eight states. As recently as 1959, it was unthinkable that a pope could be invited to address Congress. John F. Kennedy was the first (and only) Catholic President and his election campaign in 1960 was marred by anti-Catholic bigotry. Many people feared that he would take his marching orders from the pope. On Sept. 12, 1960, Kennedy gave a speech in Houston to a group of Protestant ministers in which he declared that the separation of church and state is absolute, something many current Republicans do not agree with at all. These Republicans want certain religious doctrines (e.g., relating to homosexuality) to be written into law. But this creates problems for them when religious authorities (such as the pope yesterday) call for public policies they don't like. Either church and state are separated or they are not. It is hard to have it both ways at once.
With Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and other candidates saying they could never accept a Muslim President, we have a situation analogous to what Kennedy faced in 1960. Kennedy showed that he could win when he triumphed over Protestant Hubert Humphrey in the Democratic primary in West Virginia, a state with almost no Catholics. Today a Muslim candidate would probably have to sweep the Bible Belt primaries to show he was acceptable.
With all the talk about whether a Muslim President would or would not be acceptable (which is irrelevant since there are no Muslim candidates), there has been surprising little talk about whether a Jewish President would be acceptable. If Hillary Clinton stumbles in the primaries, it is certainly conceivable that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is a nonpracticing Jew, could win the Democratic nomination and then the White House. The difference, in part, is that Jews are much more accepted now than Muslims (e.g., 10 senators and 19 representatives are Jewish but there are no Muslim senators and only two Muslim representatives. Also, many Christians accept the Old Testament as the word of God, although some are picky about it. The parts about homosexuality being an abomination are more popular than the parts about shrimp cocktails and cheeseburgers being abominations (shellfish aren't kosher and eating meat and dairy products together is forbidden). The Old Testament is full of abominations.
The pope hadn't even boarded his plane to New York before Senate Democrats had announced a plan to invest in new technologies in order to reduce greenhouse gas and counter global warming. The timing, of course, was not coincidental.
This maneuver clearly signals the Democrats' intentions to make climate change a central part of their case in 2016. The issue looks like a winner for them—voters who don't believe the 99% of scientists (and the pope) when they say global warming is a problem caused by humans are not voting Democratic anyhow. Everyone else is surely concerned about the issue—whether a little or a lot—and it appears that the Democrats will be the only party offering a plan of action. This is the kind of thing that could sway some independents.
After listening to Pope Francis' speech, senators actually did some work today (if killing a bill is considered work). Conservative Republicans want to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood because one of its many activities is providing abortions. As a procedural move to placate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other opponents of Planned Parenthood, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called for a vote on a bill to fund the government but without any funding for Planned Parenthood. As expected, Democrats killed it by de facto filibustering it. The bill got only 47 of the required 60 votes to force a floor vote. Eight Republicans joined the Democrats in filibustering it, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AL). All of these face tough reelection races next year.
McConnell knew very well the bill would fail to get 60 votes. He only brought it up so he could then say to Cruz: "I did what you wanted. I brought up a bill to fund the government and defund Planned Parenthood. It failed. Now please shut up while I get back to actual governing." Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) called the whole thing a "publicity stunt." Nevertheless, there is a real danger the government will shut down on Oct. 1, something McConnell will do anything to prevent because he knows it would hurt the Republicans next year.
Over in the House, Speaker Boehner is planning a similar maneuver but he has to be much more careful than McConnell. A substantial fraction of his caucus might move to replace him if he ultimately gets a bill to fund the government and Planned Placement through the House with the aid of Democratic votes. His problem is that many House districts are so gerrymandered that extreme Republicans can get elected in them. The Senate can't be gerrymandered. As a consequence, the Senate Republican caucus is not as extreme as the House Republican caucus.
Speaking of gerrymandered districts, two members of Congress made headlines yesterday with controversial remarks. Florida Rep. Janet Adkins (R-FL) was caught on tape telling some Republican voters that the best way to defeat Rep. Corrinne Brown (D-FL), who is black, would be to redraw Brown's district "in such a fashion so perhaps, a majority, or maybe not a majority, but a number of them will live in prisons, thereby not being able to vote." Meanwhile, Rep Louie Gohmert (R-TX) believes that confirming a gay man (Eric Fanning) as Secretary of the Army would send the message to Muslims that Americans tolerate child molestation (he thus rolled about six conservative bugaboos into one sentence.)
Such remarks will likely help Adkins and Gohmert with their own constituents or they would not make them. They irritate RNC chairman Reince Priebus and the party leadership, however, since they feed the perception that the Republicans are reactionary and demagogic. Nonetheless, there is little that the party can do to rein in extremists who prioritize their own re-election campaign over the national party's needs. In the United Kingdom, a Conservative who does not follow his marching orders will quickly find himself reassigned to a borough where Labour is in the majority (residency is not required). In the United States, by contrast, the central party can withhold money (which candidates in safe districts don't need), or can try to withhold plum committee assignments, but that is about it.
As further evidence that he has a tin ear, yesterday Jeb Bush said that he could attract more black voters with promises of "hope and aspiration" than with promises of "free stuff." Factually, the statement is certainly correct. It is hard to imagine him picking up a lot of votes by going to Harlem and saying: "If elected, I will give you free stuff." What Bush doesn't seem to understand is that the mere suggestion that what blacks want is "free stuff" is itself very insulting. When Mitt Romney talked about the 47% "takers" vs. the 53% "makers," he was at least doing it in private to a group of wealthy Republican donors and never expected his remarks to become public. Bush's remark was to a large crowd in South Carolina.
An analogous bit of praise that will be endlessly replayed should Vice President Joe Biden decide he wants a promotion is his 2007 comment about his now-boss, President Obama: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Politicians have to be careful that what they think is a compliment cannot be interpreted as an insult. This is why Hillary Clinton is seen as "aloof." She is very careful about what she says so as not to insult anyone.
Bush's bumbling campaign style is costing him. A new CNN/WMUR poll puts him fifth in New Hampshire at 7%. Worse yet, only 16% say he is the most electable Republican and "I can beat Hillary Clinton" was always his strongest argument.
Donald Trump has a way of needling his rivals that gets under their skin. He said Jeb Bush was "low energy" and Bush responded, indicating that the arrow had found its mark. He said Ben Carson was an "okay" doctor and asked who would want to vote for Carly Fiorina's face? Now he has called Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) "sweaty." Why did he do it? Probably hecause he thinks it is a weak spot and can get his opponent off his or her game. If Rubio now begins worrying more about his appearance than his policy positions, it could hurt him. Also, in Rubio's case, it plays to a racist stereotype about Latinos.
Quite a few media outlets and pundits have declared that political polling is either dying or dead (most recently, the Boston Globe). The national poll released yesterday by Quinnipiac University, which declares that Joe Biden and Ben Carson are the strongest general election candidates in their respective parties, does little to dispel that notion.
An old axiom among statisticians is that any new study should tell you some things you know (as evidence that the study was on the right track) and also some things you didn't know (otherwise, why do the study?) The results of this poll are so thoroughly in the latter category that they simply cannot be taken seriously. How can Ben Carson really be the strongest candidate when Donald Trump is dominating media coverage and every other poll? And are we really to believe that all of the Democrats who are giving time and money and attention to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are just secretly waiting for Joe Biden to declare? A closer examination of the numbers also reveals strange anomalies, like respondents putting Bernie Sanders in a dead heat with Jeb Bush (44-44) but losing by 10 points to Carson (49-39). Is it really plausible that one voter in 10 prefers the very liberal Sanders over the moderate Bush, but likes the very conservative Carson most of all?
Political polling may or may not be dead—we will have to wait until November of next year for the verdict on that. What we can say, however, is that when there are so many candidates and so many months until voters have to commit to an actual decision, polls are little more than noise.
Also factors here are that cell phone usage is up and response rates are way down. By law, pollsters may not use autodialers to call cell phones, so some of them just don't bother. Furthermore, pollsters are lucky if one call in 10 results in a completed survey. As a consequence, the sample may not have enough wealthy black lesbian Republican vegetarians or some other group, so the pollster is forced to apply statistical techniques to normalize the data. But these corrections require having a very good idea of what fraction of the (voting) population is wealthy, black, lesbian, Republican, and vegetarian. Few of the demographic numbers are well established and some of them change over time. What is surprising here is that Quinnipiac University is a serious pollster. Somebody at the polling group ought to have looked at the numbers after they were compiled and said: "This doesn't pass the smell test." Maybe the Officer in Charge of Smelling had a cold.Email a link to a friend or share:
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