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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Comprehensive Case for Biden

Rumor has it that Vice President Joe Biden is strongly considering, and actually actively leaning towards, running for President – for a third time – in 2016. If Biden’s 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns are any indicator, his third bid is likely doomed too.

Professional political prognosticators say as much. There are a number of reasons though why this campaign may be different – or, at least, less likely to flounder than his previous presidential bids. These political reasons, as well as vital policy issues that make Biden a wise choice for president, are compelling enough that the Vice President should run.

First, the trappings, imagery, and aura of the vice presidency provide Biden with certain distinct advantages. Chief among these is the possibility that his boss, President Obama – extremely popular with Democratic primary voters – could very well endorse him. Even if Obama does not make such a move though, it is safe to assume that many Democratic voters might naturally surmise that Biden has Obama’s support.

He is, after all, Obama’s loyal vice-president: frequently by his side in public appearances, a vociferous defender of the administration’s policies, and publicly and privately very close with Obama. One thing’s for sure: Democratic voters will clearly associate Biden with Obama, endorsement or none, especially now that CNN is reporting Obama giving Biden his “blessing” to run. The Obama connection especially helps Biden with the core members of the President’s winning coalitions: African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT voters, and young Americans.

As for the other aforementioned groups, Biden has appeals to them that are key too: he can capitalize on his early endorsement of same-sex marriage, his longstanding support for immigration reform, and his decades-long backing of student loan reform and financial aid for students to win over gays, Hispanics, and young voters, respectively.

Further, Biden has other strong political attributes to offer. He is a gifted, natural campaigner, as evidenced by his performance on the stump as Barack Obama’s running mate in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Biden was, arguably, a large net asset to Obama’s campaigns, particularly in its effort to increase support among Jewish voters, working-class whites, and voters concerned about Obama’s lack of experience.

In both of his elections, in the Scranton, Pennsylvania region, where Biden is originally from, Obama’s margin of victory was so large that it was his second best performance in the state, after Philadelphia. In 2012, Obama’s margin of victory in Lackawanna County was actually larger than it was in 2008.

Beyond that though, Biden is a talented debater, as evidenced by his 2007 Democratic debate performances, and his wins against Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan in 2008 and 2012, respectively. What is also true is that his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech was the most watched speech of a convention widely considered a strong success for the party. His political appeal is also seen in his currently high favorable ratings, his high honesty and trustworthy ratings, and in his above-water job approval rating.

In a potential White House run, he would need to win South Carolina, where he has the strong backing of the former state party chair and a network of political supporters in the Democratic Party apparatus. He would also need to win Pennsylvania, if he wants to indicate he is a serious candidate, given his roots.

Biden would also need to do extremely well, or win (preferably), key states like Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, and Michigan – primaries where, for reasons ranging from his appeal among both minorities and working-class white Democrats to his close affiliation with Obama’s policies, he ideally should have strength. It should be noted though that even if Biden falls short, it is important for hime to run for the party's sake.

Here's why: if the Vice President runs, it is still likely that he loses to Hillary Clinton for the nomination. If so, if you're a Democrat, this should make you pleased for one key reason: competitive primaries like such a race -- as political science professors rightly contend -- are healthy for a party and actually help the party's eventual nominee in the general election. Consider how Clinton's staying in the race in 2008 even after Barack Obama was the clear, leading frontrunner in the Democratic nomination race actually helped Obama in the end.

Obama was forced to compete in various states which also ended up being general election swing states so he had operations set up there well before the fall campaign. He thus had an advantage, in a sense, over John McCain in these states. He also became a better, tougher, and more prepared candidate against McCain thanks to Clinton's campaigning against him. As Vox recently argued, as did First Read on NBC News, Biden can have a similar effect on Clinton. His entry into the race would also arguably make Democratic voters more enthusiastic, energetic, and excited about the primary and about the election generally. Again, that's good for the party in the general election.

It would be a tough, uphill battle to actually win for Biden but there is potential for him to break through in the primary contest if he were to earn more endorsements, especially from the President of the United States. Even outside of his home state of Delaware (where the major elected officials are signaling support for Biden), there are signs of possible supporters emerging from the party.

These include former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, Massachusetts Rep. and Iraq war veteran Seth Moulton, California governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, and even New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. Per the historic political science book The Party Decides, endorsements of party figures are key cues for primary voters so Biden would need to rack up as many as he can get but there is potential. Fundraising is vital too but signs are emerging that Biden is courting key big-money Obama campaign donors who would be instrumental to his bid.

As a general election candidate, Biden is running strongly in public opinion polling against the top-tier GOP candidates: Donald Trump, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush. He would likely be assured of victory in Pennsylvania, is leading Walker in his own home state of Wisconsin, and is popular with black voters in purple states with heavy African-American populations like Virginia. He could win and he would be buoyed by a strong convention most likely given that it is occurring in Philadelphia, the backyard of his Wilmington residence and the largest city in his native state.

Biden would also be the ultimate clarifying candidate as he has said time and time again, publicly and privately, that he would run essentially as Obama’s third term. He ran the Recovery Act and his stewardship of the economic stimulus program would certainly be front and center in his campaign to convince Americans to stay the course: a winning strategy, as any political scientist would tell you, during an economic recovery.

On governance and policy grounds, Biden is the strongest choice. Having seen the job of the presidency up close for seven years, and having served in the Senate for 36 years, Joe Biden is clearly extremely qualified to be president. His strong network of relationships on Capitol Hill, which served him well in his role as Obama’s chief negotiator for various budget deals and legislative priorities, would mean the potential for legislative progress.

Biden has also long been progressive on key issues that are of particular salience in the contemporary political atmosphere: Iran policy, gun safety laws, public transportation and infrastructure, sexual assault and rape, judicial philosophy, nuclear nonproliferation, humanitarian global leadership, campaign finance reform, and immigration.

In fact, on some of these issues, Biden was a leader. He wrote the 1994 gun control laws, crafted the Violence Against Women Act, introduced the first bill to allow public financing of presidential campaigns, was the most high-profile congressional backer of action in Kosovo, vehemently defended relief for undocumented immigrants and nuclear arms reductions in the Reagan era, and, 13 years before the Iran deal was struck, articulated his desire for a more constructive, engagement-focused relationship with Iran.

Most notably, as Biden would likely emphasize in the primary debates against Hillary Clinton, the vice president was often the voice of dovishness and restraint in the Obama White House’s foreign policy discussions. He famously was far less hawkish than Clinton on issues like the Afghanistan surge and action in Libya. Arguably, a perspective like that is vital in the White House, where the penchant for military action on any given foreign policy issue is real.

Obviously, Biden is imperfect. Politically, his appeal in the primary may be hamstrung by the fact that he is a 72-year-old white man who, in some instances, clings to decades-old Democratic Party orthodoxy. In the general election, he may be hurt by his close association with Obama, if the President’s approval rating declines – a possibility, if the economy tanks next year.

On the campaign trail, he often engages in colorful, blunt language that, while appealing to some voters, can turn off large cohorts. His long history of gaffes is ample evidence of this problem. On policy issues too, Biden has demerits, including his proud championing of a repulsive 2005 bankruptcy reform law, his flawed handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings, his vote for the Iraq war, and, most notably, his stewardship of the 1994 crime law.

Lastly, Biden is likely to draw votes away from Clinton more so than Bernie Sanders – something that could risk throwing the nomination to Sanders. However, as is made clear by the above assessment, the positives clearly outweigh the negatives when it comes to a potential Biden campaign, general election candidacy, and presidency. Vice President Biden would be well-advised to run.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Jon Stewart's Legacy

For young Americans, there was a lot to despise about the George W. Bush era. There was the mismanagement of a natural disaster that wrecked a city we love, a misguided war that took many of our fellow young men and women, and an economy that nosedived at a time when we were slowly preparing to go to college, find work, and start our adult lives. Before the ascendance of Barack Obama as the literal, liberal embodiment of "change," arguably nobody in public life better channeled the frustrations of young voters more than Jon Stewart.

Every night on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the lovable, no-holds-barred host would unleash on Bush's dim-witted persona and his slew of controversial policies in a clever and bombastic fashion that resonated with millions. My friend Aidan Hussin once aptly described Stewart's signature style as one which basically boiled down to, "saying what everybody else is thinking."

That is precisely the  sort of comedy Stewart reveled in: unpacking the absurdities of politics, especially when it was hypocritical or, at worst, outright harmful for society. It worked and it came across as sincere because it was lastingly effective and driven by Stewart's own genuine passion, all at once. His impact on the political process should not be understated.

For instance, according to an early 2007 Pew Research Center study, conducted at the nadir of the Bush presidency, Stewart was chosen as the favorite "journalist" of Americans under the age of 30. A year later, this same cohort of Americans helped propel Obama, who ran as the anti-Bush and appealed explicitly to this group, to the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

This is not to say or even suggest that one of the central reasons for President Obama's election is Jon Stewart's performance on Comedy Central. Instead, it is to say that Stewart achieved far more than any television or political experts could have guessed when he made his debut in 1999. He played a role, even if a very small one, in facilitating political change through the power of comedy and laughter and that's no small feat.

Jon Stewart actually can lay claim to several vital legacies beyond this specific aspect of his career. There was his successful 2010 effort to pressure the Senate to pass the 9/11 health workers legislation, his famous Crosssfire 2004 appearance that led to the show's cancelation, and his cultivation of an alumni of show correspondents who went on to comedy fame (Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, John Oliver, etc.)

However, none is as broadly impactful as his influence on young Americans' political mobilization and energy. On a personal note, I can vividly remember racing home after middle school to watch the previous night's Daily Show on my DVR because I so wanted to hear how he articulated the simmering frustrations about President Bush.

He will be dearly missed by many Americans but he will be missed especially by those of us who grew up watching his show in the Bush years, frustrated by politics but relieved to see there was a venue in which our angst was understood and synthesized so well.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Dreams From My Grandfather

 August 7 will be the anniversary of my maternal grandfather's passing. I know he would have loved to be here today as I head off to law school in a few weeks and as Iran and the United States potentially improve their relationship. 

For as long as I can remember, my grandfather was a venerable, beloved figure in my family. He touched, deeply, everyone he knew. He was a vastly accomplished, and skilled, lawyer and judge. Most impressive of all though was the content of his character.

He was an exceptional husband and father -- the stoic, sober rock in a family of three self-described unapologetically, uncompromising women. They learned from each other. My grandfather was inspired by his daughters to speak out when he witnessed injustice but his daughters were compelled by him to reserve judgment until all of the facts were absorbed.

Nobody was a better teacher and student than my grandfather. He liked to learn and he liked to lecture, lovingly. Those qualities were reflected not only in his role as a husband and father but also in his capacity as a judge and, memorably, in his role as my grandfather. As a judge, he valued honesty, impartiality, and respect for the law. 

He upheld standards of public decency, preserved individual rights, and abhorred undue influence upon the law from malevolent actors. He handed down judgments that changed people's lives while, at the same time, the individuals who appeared before him gave him an informed perspective on the complicated, complex lives of everyday Iranians. 

I was lucky enough to experience his love, kindness, and compassion, as well as his aforementioned ability to listen and lecture, respectfully. I was only seven years old during the seven months he visited our family in 2000-01 but he treated me with the utmost respect. He valued my independence, which is the most amazing gift in the work when you're literally seven. 

He also learned diligently from me everything one needed to know about Thomas the Tank Engine, the geography of the Back Mountain, Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, and the history of Hershey, Pennsylvania, among other items I was obsessed with at the time. At the same time, I learned from him, even in that short time he was with us in the U.S., the importance of respecting my parents, the long-term consequence of doing or not doing my homework, and the sensation that was the Beatles. 

Indeed, he listened and, in return, he lectured -- enthusiastically so. For instance, as noted above, he told me about The Beatles. He actually bought for me in Christmas 2000 the Beatles 1 album, my introduction to their music, after picking up on how much I loved Ringo Starr's performance as the conductor in Shining Time Station. 

I taught him about Thomas' adventures and he taught me about the band of Thomas' narrator, in return. Part of this generosity of spirit, for my grandfather, was linked to his character as a husband and father and his demeanor as a judge and attorney: a great teacher and a great listener and learner.

Those qualities were also reflected in his deep appreciation for and love of America. My grandfather came to the United States to study abroad at the University of Virginia during his youth. He came to adore the U.S. in the early 1960's as a beacon of hope, virtue, and liberal progress led by a charismatic, ambitious, and youthful president.

He deeply admired America's constitutional principles of a right to a trial by jury and due process; he yearned to emulate some of those principles in his own line of work as a judge. In his attitude towards America, he showed his own penchant for learning and lecturing.

He learned a lot from America and Americans about responsibility, family, and self-care, among other values he held dear. On the other hand, he was eager to teach Americans about Iranian culture, food, and customs. He believed Iran had a lot to learn from America in terms of political and legal practices and diversity of thought but he also believed America had a lot to learn from Iran in terms of issues of economic justice, war and peace, and decency.

When he returned to the U.S. in the 1990's, for periods of months at a time, and in the 2000-01 period when I remember seeing him, his admiration of the U.S. didn't subside. He was inspired by the generosity, ingenuity, and kindness of the American people -- characteristics he always aspired to and attained in his own life.

For all these reasons and more, he would love to see this day. I try to live a life that harkens back to his personal striving for justice, learning, and teaching and his hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the just, equal America he believed in everyday. America also, in his view, through its actions had demonstrated the same qualities he demonstrated in his own life, of learning from others but teaching others as well.

In fact, he would be extremely pleased to see this day. As I go off to Villanova Law School in the fall, I can't help but think of my grandfather as the anniversary of his passing nears. He would have given anything to see one of his grandchildren begin the process of becoming a lawyer one day. My grandfather would be elated in no small part because he would urge me to learn a lot from my studies so I could be able to lecture others about it in the future.

What's more is that he certainly would also have loved to see this day of Iran and the U.S. slowly, but surely, warming relations as a nuclear accord is reached. My grandfather would've probably surmised that these countries have a lot to learn from each other, much like his own experiences of teaching and learning in return.

As I strive to become an attorney, and as I hope to continue to see strengthened dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, my grandfather will forever be in my thoughts. Those qualities of his character, of generous and kind teaching of others but learning from others at the same time, are ones I hope to see in my own pursuit as a lawyer, in our country's character as a whole, and in the U.S.-Iran relationship. These are the dreams from my grandfather and I know he would be so happy to see them come to fruition. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jimmy Carter's Mixed Legacy

Tonight, I am meeting former President Jimmy Carter at DC's famous Politics and Prose bookstore. I'm lucky enough to say this is the second time I am meeting the 39th President of the United States (the first being in the spring of 2013 in my hometown) and I'm also pretty lucky to say I've met every living Democratic president. As he travels the country on a book tour to promote his recent autobiography, one of a multitude of books he's written, Jimmy Carter is getting a second look in some corridors.

Although it may be a harsh indictment to hand down on President Carter right before I meet him, I am convinced that he is, probably and sadly, the worst Democratic president of the 20th century. On the flip side, he is, arguably, one of the greatest ex-presidents in American history: crisscrossing the world to solve problems like malaria and hunger and rightfully earning the Nobel Peace Prize for such work. It is emblematic of Carter's decidedly mixed legacy that he earns both of these unique distinctions.

Indeed, as president, Carter's record is mixed, at best. On the one hand, he scored crucial foreign policy victories which were in our best interests and strengthened peace around the world. In fact, he owned his ostensible advancement of "peace" as a central theme of his 1980 reelection bid, clearly an effort to distinguish himself from the more hawkish Ronald Reagan.

He was the key, instrumental force in ensuring the success of the Camp David Accords, the 1978 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel which strengthened Israeli security despite the current gripes about Carter being supposedly anti-Semitic. According to a History Channel documentary on the U.S. presidents, Carter literally, physically stood in the way of the Israeli leader, Mr. Begin, from leaving the site of Camp David and insisted that the two sides come to an agreement.

Carter also concluded the Nixon-initiated process of establishing diplomatic relations with China, he agreed to return the Panama Canal to Panama (at great political risk since it was one of the core issues Reagan capitalized on to build his success), and his leadership in the Algiers Accords ensured there would be a diplomatic solution to the Iran hostage crisis, rather than a dangerous bombing campaign.

On the other hand, his foreign policy portfolio was muddled by internal disagreements that tarnished his record even in this area. The rift between the hawkish Zbigniew Brzezinski and the more dovish Cyrus Vance made Carter's Cold War policies a total mess, especially in the African continent where the U.S. was mired in efforts to squash Communist actors, in the deadly aftermath of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and in the hasty response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On Iran matters, Carter was all over the place too: he promised to strengthen human rights but then proudly embraced the Shah but also pushed for specific reforms in the country but also brought in the Shah for medical treatment.

On domestic policy, Carter's record is even weaker. He can claim virtually no major legislative policy achievements here. He had enormous Democratic majorities in Congress and could not get along with members of his own party. He bizarrely refused to provide for jobs spending in members' districts despite it being a net plus and being crucial to advancing vital causes of his.

That's why, among many reasons, Carter failed to achieve consumer protection reforms, welfare reforms, a more robust economic stimulus package than what passed in 1977, and a national health care program. On the latter front, Carter actually backtracked from supporting single-payer in 1976 and enraged Ted Kennedy so much with his noncommittal attitude that nothing happened. On abortion, Carter was also disappointing, as he would not fully commit to supporting a woman's right to choose and sparred with Democrats on Medicaid funding in this arena.

On the environment, Carter could claim a strong record, as he spurred the creation of Superfund sites (among other key reforms), but these issues only came to the forefront because of the 1978 Love Canal disaster. Lastly, unfortunately, Carter's economic policies also gave way to the kind of deregulation and austerity that would become the hallmark of the Reagan era. In hindsight, the raising of interest rates, which did no good in 1979-81 for millions of Americans who would later benefit from their *lowering in 1983 instead, and the deregulation of trucking, among some other industries, were largely harmful.

However, what's also true is that Carter was rather prescient on some matters in domestic policy. His creation of a Department of Energy and his 1979 crisis of confidence speech, in which he warned against overconsumption, as well as putting solar panels on the White House, were bold moves. He also was the first president to meet with gay rights activists in the White House and, long before SCHIP was created, he expanded health insurance for low-income children.

So, what to make of Carter's mixed legacy? Arguably, on the whole, as president, he was not very good, he was politically inept, and he failed to take advantage of existing advantages, like those huge Democratic majorities he enjoyed, to advance a comprehensive agenda. He was a victim of his own management style too, as he relied too heavily on micromanagement, became too mired in intricate details, and stubbornly refused to make reasonable compromises with Democrats.

On the whole though, Carter is a good, decent person, as evidenced by the amazing work he has done since leaving office, he had a mostly fine foreign policy legacy, and he does deserve credit for being ahead of his time on some key progressive matters. However, he should not have been the Democratic Party's nominee in 1976 as the damage he did to the party, both politically and on policy, was long-lasting.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How to Improve the Presidential Debates

From their inception, televised presidential general election debates have been an entertaining, rich cultural ritual. Consistently suspenseful, rancorous, and illustrious, the debates, a decades-long staple of the campaign season, are a spectacle. They are also, almost always, commonly misunderstood as conventional wisdom often trumpets them to be of greater importance to the final election result than what political science research tells us is true.

All too often though, what these debates are not is: informative. Tested soundbites, vapid skirmishes, and rhetorical flourishes are far too easy to come by in the debates. Rather than getting lost in policy minitue, they get lost in the tired Washington trope that is the "spin room."

Thankfully, there are serious suggestions as to how to reform the debates. The widely renowned Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania has issued such recommendations, once and for all. When I first heard of these recommendations, I was thrilled in no small part because, in eighth grade, I gave, really, my first-ever speech.

My "8th grade speech," as the annual rite of passage was known at Wyoming Seminary Lower School, focused on how we could make presidential debates more substantive. In my research, I uncovered various surprisingly frequent and informed criticisms of the current presidential debates structure. These objections to the debate formats, as we know them, are entirely clear and compelling.

The suggestions of the Annenberg Center at UPenn are seemingly a direct answer to those criticisms. Pleasingly, these recommendations just so happen to be similar to those made in my eighth grade speech. Most importantly, the debates, as they are today and as the Annenberg Center recognizes, lend themselves to jocular one-liners, courtesy candidates like Ronald Reagan and Lloyd Bentsen (most notably), intense back and forth clashes like the ones Barack Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in during the 2012 town hall debate, and prime "gaffe" opportunities like Gerald Ford's 1976 quip on eastern Europe.

In a PBS NewsHour special on debates, George H.W. Bush lamented this aspect of our campaigns. Bush, who famously looked at his watch and expressed incredulity at a question on the national debt during the 1992 town hall debate, decried the "show business" involved in debates. "It's not really debating or getting into detail on issues or what your experience has been," Bush told Jim Lehrer seven years later.

To combat this nature of debates, the Annenberg Center has recommended getting rid of the large live studio audience component. In my speech, I called for radio-only debates so as facial and other cues, as well as physical appearance and other attributes, would not have any influence on viewers. However, ridding of the large studio audience would have a similar effect. It would lessen the sporting match-like nature of the debates which currently are far too similar to performance-type theater.

Surely, the boisterous audience reaction in 1988 made Lloyd Bentsen's 'You're No Jack Kennedy' a more effective line; certainly, the laughs that filled the room in 1984 made Ronald Reagan's "age and experience" line against Walter Mondale more memorable. More recently, in an often overlooked debate moment, George W. Bush's nod to Al Gore, as he awkwardly closely approached him during a Q and A, in the 2000 town hall debate was buoyed by the audience reaction that clearly favored Bush.

Another frequent criticism of the debates is the fact that the candidates so freely break the rules on time limits. Many observers noted that Barack Obama spoke for longer than Mitt Romney during the first 2012 debate even though, theoretically, they are given the same opportunities for question, answer, and rebuttal. This shouldn't be the case as there ought to be an obligation to be fair and impartial and that means the debates should adhere as strictly as possible to the TV equal time principles enshrined in our federal campaign laws. Again, the Annenberg Center, with their "chess clock" suggestion of 45 minutes allotted for speaking time per candidate, provides a solid recommendation.

Lastly, a key objection to the current debate model is the lack of diverse, serious, and substantive issues discussed in the debates. In my eighth grade speech, I pointed to studies that demonstrated how vital issues like urban poverty, trade, environmental justice, civil liberties in national security policy, and the impact of the war on drugs were all routinely ignored in presidential debates.

This problem persisted in the coming years. In fact, during the 2012 general election debates, abortion rights, gay rights, free trade, voting rights, and climate change -- very salient issues in our contemporary political debate -- and other policy matters were never mentioned. Gun control, which was thrust into the forefront of the national political agenda mere months after the 2012 election, was only mentioned once and the state of America's poor, a category that grew significantly in the Great Recession, was largely ignored.

In the United States, we pride ourselves and our political system on being model examples to the world of how representative democracy is supposed to work. The best way to ensure that we are living up to our values, in this regard, is to strengthen the discussion of a range of important policy issues in these debates. In my speech, I called for the abolition of the Commission on Presidential Debates, as this group of Beltway partisan elite lobbyists focus on issues that they are more attuned to, as opposed to what affects tens of millions of viewers. The Annenberg Center, on the other hand, has devised serious recommendations that would go a long way towards improving the issues discussed.

These include "expanding the pool of potential moderators," broadening and expanding the pool and methods from which questions are drawn so as to include queries from groups made up of "knowledgable experts" and university professors (among other actors), and some kind of further audience input in questions. These steps would undeniably diversify the questions asked and in case one needed any convincing on that, look no further than the 2007 YouTube Democratic debate.

In that primary debate, viewers asked questions, like ones on international diplomacy with our enemies and gun safety laws, that probably would never have been fielded by the moderators. Consequently, we got insightful answers on questions from politicians like Barack Obama and Joe Biden in that debate and now, when they govern in the way they do on matters like Iran and gun policy, we know what to expect and what guides them as they revealed as much in that debate.

These fixes, if applied properly, will not cure all of the problems with our presidential debates. However, these recommendations, based on thorough and comprehensive research and analysis from bright minds and intelligent experts on these matters, are a proper way forward on debates. These suggestions would certainly improve our presidential debates and, as such, they should be adopted. Read the Annenberg Center's full report here.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The most important thing I learned in college

I learned a lot in college, including in a variety of courses, especially those within my major of political science. In fact, most notably, in the academic sphere, I took three courses explicitly related to anti-poverty programs and social welfare policy. I learned more about the New Deal, Great Society, and Obama-era social programs than probably anything else of academic substance. 

Beyond these issues, I became much more familiar with the political science theories that underpin smart analyses of presidential election outcomes, how to advance social change, how to write better, and even some of the science behind climate change, nuclear energy, and railroads. 

However, the most important thing I learned in college was not any specific piece of information from any of my classes. Instead, the classes themselves, the extracurricular activities I pursued, and my relationships with my friends here collectively taught me one overriding great lesson. 

The most important thing I learned in college was that you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. This is not to imply that I was a hypocrite or vapid before college but instead to say that, in the first half of college, I lost sight of my priorities, became too immersed in pettiness, and became too distracted. 

In this sense, I echo what my friend Charlie Sucher said when he said the most important thing he learned in college was the prioritization of his values. Social science research actually shows, unsurprisingly, that many individuals often profess to believe in certain values of life but do not follow through with actions to back up those words. College is a time when this discrepancy can become wide open as it is, as one playwright famously said, "the most selfish four years of your life."

For me, this gap between walking the walk and talking the talk was particularly present in the first half of college. It is easy for this to happen because of the luxuries and privileges associated with college life, especially at a place like GW where many of us, including me, are lucky to be children of very financially successful families. The impetus for laziness is all too real. 

As time passed though, and as I matured in my worldview and self-care, I learned that in order to gain respect and credibility, and to act in concert with the principles of my Christian faith, I had to adjust. I took better care of myself, read and studied more voraciously, proactively sought to be a better listener with my friends, and demonstrated attentive and arduous leadership when it was demanded in extracurricular activities.

Through it all, I made mistakes, sometimes did not live up to my words, and gave in to temptation. These errors are all too human though. They made me a better person and they forced me to reevaluate my priorities. In the second half of college, I continually strived to refocus my compass on the important notion of walking the walk, not just talking the talk. 

We have a moral obligation to ourselves and to others to live up to the values we profess to believe in in our rhetoric. Despite its natural selfishness, college -- with all of its opportunities for learning and life lessons it can teach you -- is perhaps the most important time to learn this. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Explaining the Radical Shift in Public Opinion on Same-Sex Marriage


(Essay for Professor John Sides' Public Opinion course)

In the U.S., public approval of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples has increased significantly since the question was first asked in opinion polling. Notably, this increase, though crucially strong among young Americans, is seen across virtually all demographics. Consistently now, a majority of Americans tell pollsters they back gay marriage rights. This shift in public opinion is attributable to a variety of factors. These causes include the greater personal familiarity with gays and lesbians in life, the depiction of gays in popular culture, and the decline of religion and moral traditionalism in affecting public opinion. Public support for same-sex marriage cannot be fully analyzed without dissecting the history of public tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality and gays themselves. These concepts are inextricably linked even if support for marriage equality is not entirely consistently reflective of an equal degree of tolerance for gays.  As gays continue to win marriage rights across the country, the future of public opinion on this issue, as well as the implications for public policy, both appear bright for gay and lesbian Americans.

With regards to the dramatic spike in support for gay marriage over the course of the last several years, the evidence is clear and overwhelming. In the Gallup poll, 27% of respondents agreed that “marriages between same-sex couples should be valid” in March 1996. By May 2014, a decade later, 55% of respondents expressed support for this statement – an 11-point increase in just four years. According to the Pew Research Center, 37% of respondents in 2009 supported same-sex marriage legalization but just five years later, 54% of respondents said they favored it. In the ABC News/Washington Post public opinion poll, 49% of respondents agreed in April 2009 that it should be “legal for gay and lesbian couples to get married.” By spring 2013, 58% of respondents agreed with this statement.  In a March 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 59% of respondents supported gay marriage rights – 10 points higher than in October 2009. In a June 2013 CBS/New York Times poll, 51% of respondents agreed same-sex marriage should be legal whereas just 13 months beforehand, only 42% of respondents supported gay marriage legalization.
The increased support for same-sex marriage rights cuts across virtually all demographics. Comparisons of 2004 and 2013-14 polls conducted by ABC News/Washington Post, Pew Research Center, and Gallup support this finding. In a 2004 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 57% of 18-29-year olds, 33% of 30-64-year olds, and 18% of respondents 65 and older supported gay marriage legalization. In spring 2013, 81%, 56%, and 44% of respondents in these age cohorts, respectively, supported it. The same poll showed that Republican, Democratic, and Independent support for gay marriage rose by 18%, 29%, and 24% respectively in this time span. Support among both men and women rose by roughly 25%, by 23% among whites but 33% among nonwhites, by double digits among liberals and conservatives and moderates, and, strikingly, by 19% among Catholics and 25% among white Protestants.
Pew polling found support for same-sex marriage legalization rose markedly among other groups too in the same period. Among religiously unaffiliated Americans, support for gay marriage rights increased from 61% in 2004 to 74% in 2013. Among black Protestants, support rose from 19% in 2004 to 32% in 2013. In 2014, Gallup found support for gay marriage legalization at 67% in the East, 58% in the West, 53% in the Midwest, and 48% in the South – all drastically higher than in 2004.
This rise in public support for gay marriage must be understood in tandem with the history of public attitudes towards gays and homosexuality generally. It is public tolerance of homosexuals that is strongly linked to support for gay marriage rights. Acceptance of gays and support for same-sex marriages do not identically mirror each other but there is a clear link. As public acceptance of homosexuality improved, so too did public backing of gay marriage. The trend lines have been most notably reflected in Gallup data. Gallup noted how the continual increase, from 2004 to 2014, in public tolerance with gay and lesbian relations “mirror[ed] the growth in public support for legalizing gay marriage.” In 2004, 42% of Gallup respondents believed gay and lesbian relations were “morally acceptable” whereas the same exact percentage of respondents believed same-sex marriages “should be valid.” In 2011, 56% of Gallup respondents agreed that gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable while 53% of respondents supported gay marriage legalization. This trend of tolerance and support for marriage equality increasing simultaneously is also seen in the General Social Survey (GSS). 54% of GSS respondents said gay relations were “always wrong” in 2000 whereas 44% said so in 2010. In 2000, 30% of GSS respondents supported gay marriage but by 2010, 46% backed it.
To understand how these changes came about is to understand what factors allowed for this greater tolerance of gays, which, in turn, led to greater support for gay marriage. The single most important influence in this regard was more Americans continually getting to know relatives, friends, and colleagues who were gay and who came out as gay. As a 2007 Pew analysis said, “familiarity is closely linked to tolerance,” a finding reflected in poll results that showed respondents with gay friends and relatives were more likely to favor nondiscrimination against gays and, by a 55%-25% margin, more likely to favor gay marriage (Pew Research Center/Neidorf and Morin, “Four-in-Ten Americans Have Close Friends or Relatives Who are Gay”). Public opinion polling demonstrates that as Americans are increasingly exposed to gay and lesbian individuals, they grow increasingly tolerant of homosexuality. In 2010, 77% of CBS News poll respondents said they “kn[ew] someone who is gay or lesbian” but in 1992, just 42% of respondents said so. 38% of respondents in a 1992 CBS News poll said homosexuality was an “acceptable alternative lifestyle” but by 2009, 54% said there was nothing wrong with gay relationships. Consequently, CBS News determined the polling showed that “knowing someone who is gay or lesbian” was a strong determinant of acceptance of homosexuality (CBS News/Montopoli, “Poll: With Higher Visibility, Less Disapproval for Gays”).
 Further, the phenomenon of how knowing gay relatives and friends fuels higher support for gay marriage is supported by a vast array of polling evidence and professional analysis. In the Pew poll, 61% of Americans said in 1993 that they knew someone who is gay or lesbian but 87% said in 2013 that they did. That same year, a Pew poll noted “roughly two-thirds (68%) of those who knew a lot of people who are gay or lesbian favor gay marriage, compared with just 32% of those who don’t know anyone.” Forcing the Spring author Jo Becker’s research reaffirmed that “the number one reason why [gay marriage support has increased] is that more…people have come out” (Basu, The Atlantic, “Why More Americans Accept Gay Marriage Than Ever”). Indeed, a March 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 77% of Americans said they personally knew a gay person – up 15% from 2004 – and among this group, 65% supported gay marriage rights. Studies dissected by Michael Klarman in his book, From the Closet to the Alter, made the case that the correlation between knowing gays and supporting gay marriage was strong enough to support causation. Citing public opinion polls that showed that, as more Americans came to know people who were gay, public support for gay marriage climbed, Klarman argued, “one of the factors that most strongly predicts support for gay equality is knowing someone who is openly gay” (Klarman, Los Angeles Times, “Why gay marriage is inevitable”). A 2014 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey showed respondents who knew an LGBT individual were more likely to “favor gay marriage” by a 63%-36% margin. The PRRI found that while in 1993, 22% of respondents said they had a “close friend or family member” who identified as gay or lesbian, 65% of respondents said so in 2013. In that time, support for gay marriage rights in the PRRI poll grew from 32% in 2004 to 53% in 2014. Notably, in a 2013 Pew poll, respondents were asked why they changed their minds to support gay marriage and the most popular response, provided by 32% of respondents, was that they “know someone…who is homosexual.”
Pop culture also appears to have played a role in rising support for gay marriage. When Vice President Joe Biden endorsed same-sex marriage in a 2012 Meet the Press interview, he referenced the NBC sitcom Will and Grace. The show, which depicted gay characters, “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything,” Biden said (Barbaro, The New York Times, “A Scramble as Biden Backs Same-Sex Marriage”). The evidence backs up the Vice President’s statement. Several University of Minnesota professors’ studies demonstrated that Will and Grace, and other TV shows with gay characters like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, made Americans more tolerable of gay relationships and contributed to “lower levels of prejudice” against gays (Schiappa, Gregg & Hewes, Comparative Media Studies, “The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis”). A similar effect is visible with ABC’s hit sitcom Modern Family, a popular series that portrays a gay couple. 27% of respondents in a 2012 Hollywood Reporter poll said the show made them “more pro-gay marriage” whereas 2% said it made them “more anti-same-sex marriage.” Public opinion researcher Paul Brewer noted the importance of pop culture was that it challenged stigmas associated with gays so that gays were seen as “individual people rather than as an undifferentiated mass,” per Rosalee Clawson and Zoe Oxley (Clawson and Oxley, 179). In a 2008 Harris poll, 32% of respondents claimed the depiction of gays and lesbians in TV shows and films “helped change their views,” including towards support for gay marriage.
The decreasing role that religion plays in public life, as well as the decline in the importance of moral traditionalism in politics, helped bring about a change in views too. Americans who regularly attend church, identify as Evangelical Christians, and say that moral values are significant in their voting decisions consistently oppose gay marriage (National Journal/Ronald Brownstein, “Preaching to the Choir: How Church Attendance Divides the Parties”). Pew found that “religious beliefs are a major factor” in opposition to gay marriage (Pew, “In Gay Marriage Debate, Both Supporters and Opponents See Legal Recognition as ‘Inevitable’). However, the number of Americans who identify with these traits has declined in the last decade (The New York Times/Dickerson, “The Decline of Evangelical America”). As such, the political factor of moral traditionalism that Clawson and Oxley discussed has faded in its effect in shaping public opinion on gay marriage.  
This linkage of religion with views on gay marriage, and how the declining impact of religion in shaping these views is helping buttress support for gay marriage, is seen in polls. For one, confidence in organized religion, led by anti-gay marriage leaders like the Pope and populated by scores of preachers who routinely advocate against gay marriage, has declined in the Gallup poll. Whereas in 1996, 57% of respondents said they had a “great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion, 45% said so in 2014. In that time, support for same-sex marriage in Gallup skyrocketed. Second, it is clear churchgoing Americans are more inclined to oppose gay marriage while Americans who rarely or never attend church are more inclined to support it, per Gallup, among other sources. Indeed, according to Gallup, “a simple indicator of religiosity – regular service attendance – is a powerful predictor of views on same-sex marriage” (Gallup/Newport, “Religion Big Factor for Americans Against Same-Sex Marriage”). As church attendance has declined though, support for gay marriage has climbed (Pew/Lipka, “What surveys say about worship attendance – and why some stay home”).
Beyond that, Paul Brewer found that the role of moral traditionalism – defined by Clawson and Oxley as “belief that traditional family and societal organization is best” – in public opinion weakened considerably between 1992 and 2000 and this change contributed to stronger support for gay rights (Clawson and Oxley, 178 and 421). Further, in the same month (May 2010) that Gallup found a record high 16% of respondents identifying with no religion, they also found for the first time that a majority of respondents believed gay relations were “morally acceptable.” A 2012 Gallup poll puts these two separate findings into a different context as it showed that 88% of the subset of Americans who do not identify with a religion supported same-sex marriage legalization – a higher level of support than virtually any other group. As this group rises in number, and as it is clear that this group is overwhelmingly supportive of gay marriage rights, this trajectory bodes well for gay marriage proponents.
 Vitally, an April 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll made a convincing case that a decline in the importance of morals and religion in politics in public opinion influenced views on gays. The poll showed that 43% of respondents said a “decline in moral values” was a source of “serious problems” in the U.S. – a sizable decline from the 51% who said so in 1993. As NBC News political analyst John Harwood explained, “the shift helps explain…the rising acceptance of gay marriage” (CNBC/Harwood, “US Problems About More Than ‘Moral Values’: NBC/WSJ Poll). Further, a 2014 PRRI survey lent credence to the notion that disenchantment with religion, especially among young Americans, is helping increase support for gay marriage. The poll found 31% of Millennials who “left their childhood religion” said “negative teachings about” homosexuality was an “important factor” in their decision. Consequently, this group’s support for gay marriage rights has only hardened in intensity.
In terms of the implications of public opinion on gay marriage for political leaders and public policy, there are several important elements that bode well for gays. For one, a March 2015 Huffington Post/YouGov poll showed that 34% of respondents would prefer a pro-gay marriage presidential candidate whereas 26% said they would prefer a candidate opposed to gay marriage. This finding suggests future presidential candidates who oppose gay marriage will be more reluctant to emphasize their opposition at risk of alienating voters. Such behavior would be consistent with the very recent history of political elites largely following the public on this issue. Politicians are mostly receiving their cues on this issue from voters – a trend that is likely to continue. When only 40% of Americans supported same-sex marriage in the Gallup poll in 2008, President Obama was publicly opposed to gay marriage despite his support for other LGBT-friendly policies. In May 2012, during a week in which Gallup showed 50% of Americans supported gay marriage legalization, Obama personally endorsed it too. Obama’s own former political strategist David Axelrod admitted that public opinion was a crucial factor in the timing of Obama’s announcement (CNN/Alexandra Jaffe, “Axelrod explains Obama on gay marriage: ‘Leaders work this way’).
The executive branch is not the only segment of the federal government in which elites are now following the public. A wide array of legal and political analysts widely expect the Supreme Court to rule in favor of a federal constitutional right to marriage for gays nationwide this summer. One core reason why the Court is poised to make this ruling is public opinion. Although the Court ostensibly remains above the political fray, there is significant evidence that public opinion plays a crucial role in influencing the scope and effect of Court decisions. Cognizant of the varying potential reactions to their (often) controversial rulings, justices are keen to the changes in public mood on the issues they adjudicate. As University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner said on this issue, “same-sex marriage is advancing…[and] that’s what the relevant majorities of the justices care about” (Washington Monthly/Voeten, “How the Supreme Court Responds to Public Opinion”).
In terms of the implications for the major political parties, Democratic politicians will likely be in a position in which their base voters – primarily self-identified liberal Democrats – will expect them to support gay marriage. A 2012 Pew poll showed an overwhelming 83% of liberal Democrats support gay marriage. “The strongest gay marriage supporters,” The Huffington Post wrote last March, “are mostly self-described liberal Democrats” (The Huffington Post/Edwards-Levy, “Americans Would Rather Vote for a President Who Supports Gay Marriage”). Given this intensity of support, and given the fact that more Americans strongly support gay marriage than strongly oppose it, it is unsurprising that numerous Democratic members of Congress came out in support of gay marriage in 2012 and 2013 after applied public pressure (Politico/Robillard, “Poll: 58 percent back gay marriage”). With regards to Republican politicians, their own base of senior citizens, Evangelicals, and self-described conservatives, among other voters, remain mostly opposed to gay marriage (The Huffington Post/Shapiro, “New Poll Shows Rocky Road To White House For Any Anti-Gay Republican”). However, the broader public support for gay marriage might compel some Republican politicians, especially those who represent battleground or Democratic districts and states, to endorse gay marriage. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), for instance, has already backed same-sex marriage, likely in anticipation of a difficult 2016 reelection bid in his heavily Democratic state (The Christian Science Monitor/Guarino, “Republican Sen. Mark Kirk backs gay marriage: How big a deal?”).
One key factor though in determining the influence of public opinion on policy here is the salience of the issue. On the whole, a 2014 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed merely 8% of voters identified gay marriage as “one of the most important” issues in impacting their vote. Considering this finding, it is likely that elites will avoid making gay marriage support or opposition a central priority of theirs in their political agenda, rhetoric, and actions. In fact, the low salience of the issue might explain why neither President Obama nor Governor Romney mentioned gay marriage in any of the 2012 presidential debates (NPR/Greenblatt, “During Debates, Silence On Some Issues Was Defeaning”). Ultimately though, the rising support for gay marriage does not necessarily mean public opinion challenges don’t remain for gays.
In additional to all of this evidence, between 2008 and 2010 in Gallup, a notable 8% of respondents expressed support for validating gay marriages but did not believe that gay relations were morally acceptable. Further evidence of a similar discrepancy is observed in Pew polling which showed “it may be easier for a respondent to say legalize gay marriage than to say I favor legalizing it.” Pew found that polls that asked generally about legalization elicited higher support than those that asked about whether respondents personally supported gay marriage (Pew/Kohut, “Yes, More Americans Favor Legalizing Gay Marriage, But Just How Many Do?”) They pointed to a 2013 Quinnipiac poll in which only 47% of Americans favored same-sex marriage when respondents were asked simply if they “supported or opposed gay marriage.” Regardless, the broader truth remains the same: support for gay marriage has risen recently, among all groups, even regardless of question wording.

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