There’s been some fascinating coverage of the Obama campaign’s strategy for winning the Democratic nomination, including Justin Sizemore’s accounting of how the race played out in delegates and, earlier, Ben Smith and Avi Zenilman’s profile of Jeffrey Berman, Obama’s delegate counter. Reading these pieces together, I’m struck by the resemblance to Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.

It seems obvious in retrospect, but by focusing on delegates and the places where the largest marginal amount of delegates could be picked up — caucus states, congressional districts with odd numbers of delegates — the Obama campaign was paying attention to the right statistics. By contrast, thinking about about states won and lost or even the popular vote could be considered a distraction; it appears, from this distance, that that was what Clinton’s campaign was doing — early in the race, they focused on states won and, later, perhaps in a too self-serving way, on the popular vote.

Hendrick Hertzberg makes the good point that “the popular vote is a relevant moral category” even though it is a “juridical irrelevancy” for both the nominating process and the general election. This is clearly a place where American politics feel broken and out of step with modern-day democratic beliefs. However, in the real world, the metric on which a race is decided — delegate count or electoral college vote — is clearly the right one to focus on. At the end of the day, the Obama campaign, as winners generally do, looks very smart.

The Speech

During my commute yesterday, I listened to Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia on race and religion. It was amazing and inspiring, but not in the usual way one expects to use the words. The oratory was rarely soaring and it didn’t build to huge crescendos.

Instead, what made the speech so good was the combination of Obama’s honesty and the sense he was not talking down to his audience. I heard a smart, black constitutional lawyer speaking about American history, politics, race, religion, and his personal story in simple, straightforward language. This shouldn’t be shocking, but it is. There was no political correctness, no “red meat” for the diehards, no sound-bite pablum, and no simple answers. I felt like I was being treated as a thinking adult, not a demographic, not just a vote up for grabs.

If you’ve only seen or read clips of the speech, I recommend reading or listening to the whole thing. It’s one of those moments we should aspire to.

(Thanks to Dave Winer for the link.)

How to Deliver Information

“Tell me what you know, then tell me what you don’t know, and only then can you tell me what you think. Always keep those three separated.”

— Colin Powell to Mike McConnell, summer 1990, as reported in Lawrence Wright, A Reporter at Large: The Spymaster, The New Yorker, January 21, 2008

The article’s well worth reading and quite scary, I thought, both for the incompetence of the “intelligence community” and the frightening steps McConnell wants to take to make it effective, but I loved directness and efficiency of Powell’s advice.

The Folly of Independents

I am an independent and looking for a president with integrity. Should I vote for John McCain or Barack Obama?

Didn’t we all swear to stop picking the candidate who would be most fun to go on a picnic with? You’re torn between the guy who’s been against the war from the beginning and the guy who’s willing to stay in Iraq for 100 years? Between the guy who wants to pay for a $50 billion-a-year health care program by eliminating tax cuts for the wealthy, and the guy who wants to keep the tax cuts and pay for them by cutting the budget? Get a grip.

— Gail Collins, A Voter’s Guide, The New York Times, February 2, 2007

Collins’s comment is absolutely true: on almost all policy issues where there is a difference between candidates, Obama and McCain disagree. So there should be no difficulty for anyone with political opinions in picking between them. But, a campaign between them would, like any other presidential contest, largely be decided by who attracts the most “independent” voters. I guess I just don’t understand voters without a strong bias towards one or the other party.

And yet, even though I consider Collins’s hypothetical question silly, I’m a lifelong Democrat and liberal who finds McCain appealing. (I even cast the sole vote in my life for a Republican for him. It was in the California primary in 2000, when Gore had sewn up the Democratic nomination and I was hoping against hope that Bush, who, it was clear would make a terrible President, would not get the Republican nomination. Even though McCain, with his independent appeal, was clearly more electable.) I won’t vote for McCain in the general election and am ecstatic to be voting for Obama, especially in a primary where my vote actually matters. But I also can relate to the politics of personality, where both candidates, based on their integrity and clarity of vision, pull the attention of voters from across the spectrum.

Why I’m supporting Barack Obama

Barack Obama appears to be a once in a generation candidate: he’s smart, he’s appealing, he speaks well, and he seems to be viewed more positively across the political spectrum than negatively. In addition, his policy positions are closer to mine than I could reasonably hope from a leading candidate. I’ve been supporting his campaign for a while, but haven’t been too vocal about it until now.

I should start off by saying that I think it’s clear that any of the leading Democratic contenders would do a much better job as President than any of the Republicans. In policy, in temperament, in intelligence, all three of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Obama all have the makings of a very good President.

If Hillary Clinton weren’t the former first lady (can we lose that title?), she’d be easier to support; but after a sequence of Bush/Clinton/Bush, the last thing I think this country could use is another Clinton — handing power between two dynasties feels distinctly unamerican. Her early vote for the Iraq war was either too naive, too hawkish, or too cynically political; in any case, she was wrong and it reflects bad judgment. The 1994 health care plan showed her doing a bad job on policy and politics at the same time as holding Cheneyesque views on secrecy. And I think the intense dislike that much of the country feels for her is a problem, both in a general election and, assuming she’s elected, in governing; it could just be too easy for Republican legislators to demonize her and obstruct any of her proposals, with no political consequences.

I keep wanting to like John Edwards, but I find it hard not to fault him in part for the incompetence of the 2004 campaign. As a pro-business liberal, I think his policies on trade and globalization are wrong-headed and short-sighted. And, Edwards, too, has an Iraq war vote that shows poor judgment, even if he’s now willing to call it a “mistake.”

Obama, first and foremost, was right on the Iraq war in his pre-Senate days. At the same time, he isn’t isolationist or always opposed to intervention, as his statements about Pakistan made clear. I find his ability to make his policy a function of the facts appealing. As to details of his policy proposals, I prefer some to those of his opponents, some of his opponents’ to his (Edwards on health care, almost anyone else on ethanol), but, overall, there is not much difference among the Democratic candidates and a lot of difference between the two parties.

What also seems different about Obama, though, is his appeal and lack of negatives across the political spectrum, which makes him feel more like a Kennedy or Reagan than any other active politician. (That sense of Kennedy may only be true in hindsight and not reflect any actual mandate while he was alive; I was born three years after his assassination and have no memories of the time.) Obama’s success in his state senate career in uniting people behind progressive measures is impressive; getting things done counts.

Currently, it looks as though it’s Clinton’s race to lose. It would be a shame if she walks to the nomination without competition — it’s still early (even with this year’s ludicrously accelerated campaign schedule) and it doesn’t seem like much of the country is paying attention yet. Still, the good news is, any one of these three (or several of their competitors) would be as good a President as we’ve had in a long time.

How does he know?

Senator David Vitter, caught in the DC madam brouhaha, said, according to the Washington Post, “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife.” Now, I’m not a believer, but how does one know that one has received forgiveness from the almighty? Isn’t there a certain lack of humility in such a statement?

Book of the Day: Perfectly Legal (David Cay Johnston)

Appropriately for tax season, I recently finished reading David Cay Johnston’s Perfectly Legal. The book describes the current state of the U.S. tax system; the description is of a no-longer progressive, mostly flat system which systematically offers loopholes to the richest while hunting for cheaters among the poorest.

Johnston covers taxes for The New York Times. I’ve read Johnston’s articles for years and I had expected the book to have the Times‘s grand, objective style. It doesn’t; it’s an angry, muckraking book about what he rightly sees as an injust transformation. The message of the book, ultimately, is that the tax code is promoting income inequality.

Johnston blames the current situation on the power of the “political donor class,” the rich few who make the bulk of political donations in this country. That’s undoubtedly true, but I think it’s only part of the story. I think that the rise of an anti-tax ideology as the key pillar of the dominant political party in this country — and the attribution of Republican success to the party’s opposition to taxes — has meant that, regardless of how it happened, taxation doesn’t need explicit opposition from the political donor class anymore.

His chapters on the lack of enforcement of the tax code among the rich and the tax-deniers were, I thought, the most interesting and informative. He also goes into great and informative detail Alternative Minimum Tax; the AMT has been discussed a lot, but Johnston makes clear how far from its original purposes it is today.

The book does has flaws. The biggest is probably that it’s very repetitive. On the other hand, for a book on taxes, it’s not in the least dry — this is a book which should make you angry.

The question, of course, is how to do anything about it. As a political donor, it makes me want to give money to candidates who’ll fix the system, even if that runs counter to a narrowly-constructed version of my self-interest. But nobody’s even running on a “collect the taxes we’re owed” or “make the tax system more progressive” ticket — as Johnston points out, people run away from those ideas today. I don’t think the American political mainstream includes the notion that taxes can be done well; ultimately, I don’t think the country can survive that for very long.

Legal Evangelicals and Values Secularists

I found Noah Feldman’s suggestions for the relationship of church and state to be both unsatisfying and pernicious. The unsatisfying portion is that it is weakly argued and filled with wishful thinking in favor of his own opinion; he picks and chooses bits of history to support his case and argues that a “solution that will work must bind us to the past,” but there’s at least as much history which he cites that either disagrees with his narrative (early public schools that were teaching “sectarian Protestantism in disguise”) or which he says doesn’t approve of (19th century treatment of Catholics generally).

What’s pernicious for me is the strawmen he sets up of “values evangelicals” and “legal secularists.” Since I’m pretty sure Feldman would call me a legal secularist, I object more to that caricature than the other one. However, using his terminology, I think I’m values secularist; that is, I have strong moral values — that I’d describe as “progess,” “fairness,” and “compassion” — which I think should influence politics. (I suspect Antonin Scalia would consider himself, in Feldman’s terms, a legal evangelist.) Feldman leaves no place at the table for a atheist who wants to see moral arguments in politics or a religiously motivated person who wants to read the original meaning of the consitution. The reduction in his argument to these two sides lets him try to split the difference with his proposals, without addressing anything of substance.

Consider, in the context of the public debate over teaching evolution, this statement of Feldman’s:

Secularists who are confident in their views should expect to prevail on the basis of reason; evangelicals who wish to win the argument will discover that their arguments must extend beyond simple invocation of faith.

Like most secularists, I am confident that reason should have prevailed in curriculum disputes; it has not. I am sure there are many advocates of creationism who believe it is based on more than faith. Do Feldman’s proposals — encouraging the inclusion of explicit consideration of sincere religious belief but shutting off state funding of religious activities — really get us closer to any agreement here? I think not; I think they legitimize moving away from reason as a basis for argument and into a nasty, strict majoritarianism.

Sandra Day O’Connor is retiring; thus we will probably get an altered jurisprudence of the establishment clause. Feldman has a new book out which advocates for less state money but more political influence for religion; will the coincidence mean that he gets credit for what is at least half-likely to occur with a Bush appointment to the court?

Kevin Drum says something I wanted to say, but better

Kevin Drum says something I wanted to say, but better:

We’re almost exactly where we were four years ago.

Which, really, is an amazing thing. You’d think an event like 9/11 would act as a catalyst that blows apart existing political dynamics and realigns the electorate, but instead it seems to have cemented it into place. Not only are we at the same place we were four years ago, but the divisions are actually more entrenched than ever.

I don’t know who I’m writing this to, but I need to write

I don’t know who I’m writing this to, but I need to write.

For all the reasons, across all everything I know and have seen, electing George W. Bush is a mistake for the U.S. People have seen him as president for four years and they should know this. But there’s a disconnect between me (along with almost all the people I know) and the 51% of the population that’s voted for George Bush. How do we have such different world views?

While I could find many reasons to vote for Kerry and against Bush, there was really should have been only one issue in this election, national security. I found Kerry exactly right about Iraq: the war was a distraction from the fight against Al Qaeda and, more broadly, terrorism. And given that our most important immediate foreign policy objectives must be nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, I find it much easier to believe that Kerry could do a good job. My understanding is clearly not the majority view.

As I read things right now, it looks as though at most 1-2 states flipped from 2000. That means we’re in an entrenched position, with almost nothing changing. Has the country ever had a repeating, near stalemate in the electoral college before? Perhaps the 1870s and ’80s?

And yet, the popular vote did shift. We saw the millions of new voters go to the polls — nominally a great predictor of Democratic returns — and the balance tip towards Bush. Was this “security moms”? Karl Rove’s missing four million evangelicals? Whatever it is, I am shocked by how unpopular the Democratic ticket was.

Since I’m a democrat (and not just a Democrat) and a strong critic of the electoral college, the popular vote difference is more fundamental to me. Given the outcome of 2000 and my sense that fairness means playing by what the rules are, I do think the Democrats should fight on in the electoral college, at least until the provisionals in Ohio are tallied. But doing so requires an admission that the popular vote went clearly in the other direction and our positions are antithetical to a (narrow) majority of voters.

Perhaps this at least gives hope that both parties are willing to eliminate the electoral college. While a small consolation, it would leave the country’s politicial processes healthier in the long run. But it’s very small consolation right now.

I’m very confident that Kerry, if he pulls off a win, will govern from the center. I’m also confident that Bush, given the chance, will not. And certainly this election would give him no reason to change direction.