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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dispatches from the Summer of Discipline

I thought to myself last spring that I have had enough fun in my life for now. It was a great ride eating Taylor Gourmet, Chiptole, Capriotti's, Chinese food, pizza, and Subway, among other salivating foods, in regular rotation - and barely exercising. I could never say I was deprived...though you could argue I was deprived of those famous cookie jars that kids desperately reach for at the top of the kitchen cabinet. I don't really remember such jars in my childhood. Well, I guess my mom made me plenty of Jello, cinnamon buns, and Persian kabob to make up for it -- and not in that order but that'd be a hell of a meal, I think.

If you can't decipher it by now, I really love food. It got the best of me though. I was noticeably much heavier than I was in my early high school years and unhealthily so. If you calculated my BMI, it was up there though maybe not as dire as Mike Huckabee's situation back in the day. Perhaps that's what TGI Friday's will do to you? Disclaimer: I still love TGIF and couldn't resist at least one visit with a few friends in July for Endless Appetizers for only $10! Anyway, time was running out to reverse this image before college ends because oh yeah, there was only one more year of college left! So the summer of 2014 would become the self-imposed "Summer of Discipline" (#SummerofDiscipline). The discipline in aiming to lose weight though would extend further to include LSAT studying too since I am taking the LSAT on September 27 so I can maybe eventually become a civil rights attorney, constitutional law professor, Senator, and....well, you get the drift. As the summer nears its end, I can celebrate a record of real results (yes, that is the same exact tagline I crafted when I managed Phyllis Mundy's 2010 reelection campaign and I have no regrets about using it here). Since the spring, I am down 17 pounds, my LSAT score has improved, and, despite my thought that I had enough fun in my life, I still had a lot of fun this summer too. Here's what I learned along the way:

Coaches help - a lot. Be thankful for their presence.
Though the summer of discipline is ostensibly supposed to be about discipling yourself, it doesn't hurt to have the help of others. In fact, it is enormously beneficial because it gives you the motivation, the stamina, and the desire to impress, to work harder, and to keep up with an established, scheduled regimen. That's why I am grateful to my personal trainer, Emily Willhoft, and to my LSAT course instructor, Palmer Heenan. The impact personal training courses and LSAT prep classes have had in improving the summer of discipline is immense. These teachers help give you the willpower, the tools, and the resources to stay strong. If you are trying to lose weight or studying for the LSAT or doing both at the same time, and you can afford to do this, get a personal trainer and sign up for an LSAT class. There are exercises that I know how to do and have a real impact on weight loss and there are questions I know how to answer on LSAT practice tests because of my personal trainer and my LSAT class, respectively. 

Summer is the best time to do this kind of thing.
For two simple reasons: 1) you spend more time outside and 2) frankly, you see so many good looking folks enjoying life in the summer, and clearly in full knowledge that they are indeed very good looking, that you think, you know what I got more work to do. 

I'm pretty lucky to have plenty in resources but once you get going, it's easier than you think. 
I want to emphasize: I was able to succeed in this effort so far in no small part because I am lucky and privileged enough to have the resources to do so, namely: a financially stable household, free (for me) access to two gyms, and caring and generous parents. Obviously, that is a massive help. However, it should also be noted that once you have the momentum instilled in you, you keep going and it is easier than you think. As my friend Jack Cartwright advised me, every single time I would look at food or drinks that looked appealing but was really not good for me, I would think to myself, what would I rather, that I eat this and ultimately gain weight or that I not eat this and ultimately lose weight. The answer was obvious each time. Further, once you get in a routine of exercising daily and eating right and studying at least an hour a day, there's no stopping for you, especially as there are constant reminders around you of what the product of success looks like.

News flash: Positive reinforcement > Shaming. 
You guessed it: fat-shaming people who are overweight is -- spoiler alert -- not a great idea! Aside from being straight up bullying and mean and rude, it is also not effective at actually motivating people to lose weight. What I found was most helpful to me in terms of other people's interactions was that words of encouragement, support, and positive reinforcement were incredibly uplifting. When friends and family cheer you on, insist to you that you are capable of something despite your skepticism, and when they applaud you along the way for the progress you've made, it makes a real difference. Nevertheless, it is crucial to note that honesty is really the best policy and it is especially useful in this circumstance because it's the sober assessments of friends and family, who tell you when they think you've gone wrong or taken a step backwards, that can make you also jolt yourself back into the swing of things. 

What's the secret formula? None! Sorry, Plankton. 
No secret and no magic and nothing complex. Eat right (I basically, with some variation of course given vacations and 4th of July weekend): special K with skim milk for breakfast, turkey on whole wheat sandwich for lunch, and chicken with salad for dinner. As for LSAT: study...a lot. Practice makes perfect. Take as many practice tests as you can, do the homework of your prep course, and utilize any and all online resources you can -- and hope that you have a great fraternity brother like Ryan Jerome who leaves behind for you all of his LSAT prep books he doesn't need anymore because he is going to Fordham Law. 

There are very few blog posts that I do without mentioning something political so, in my parting words here, can we all do a summer of discipline if we put our minds to it? YES WE CAN! 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Midterm Profiles 2014: Pennsylvania - Governor's Race

During this midterm election season, I am starting a new component of this blog: profiles of various contested, closely watched races across the country for governors' mansions, the U.S. House, and, most importantly, the U.S. Senate. These profiles will be based on a variety of sources including on the ground accounts, what the central policy differences are, what polling averages indicate, and the broader importance of each race. Since I am also a proud Democrat though, I will unashamedly include information on how you can help the Democratic candidates in each of these races too. We will begin in my backyard, in the great state of Pennsylvania...

PENNSYLVANIA: GOVERNOR'S RACE

Who's running? 
Incumbent Republican Governor Tom Corbett is running for a second term in office. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf, the revenue secretary under former Governor Edward G. Rendell, is running to unseat Governor Corbett.

What do the polls show?
The RealClearPolitics.com polling average shows Mr. Wolf leading by 21.7 points.

What are the political prognosticators saying?
RealClearPolitics.com rates the race as "likely Dem." The Cook Political Report says it's a "toss up." Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com says, "to come back from this deficit, Corbett probably needs Wolf to say something outlandish." National Journal recently said that Corbett is "dead man walking" and compared his situation to that of Rick Santorum's in 2006 when the then-Pennsylvania Senator lost reelection to now-Senator Bob Casey by 18 points.

What are the central policy differences? 
Governor Corbett is strongly emphasizing his support for pension reform, indicating that he wishes to see that "new employees would receive a defined pension benefit based on their average salary, years of service capped at 25 years, and a multiplier...[while] employees and the state would contribute to the plan, as would school districts for their workers," per the Hazleton Standard-Speaker. Corbett appears to be making this pitch central to his proposed second-term agenda as he promoted it in a stop in Sugarloaf, a town not too far from my neighborhood, earlier this week. The governor is also framing his support for natural gas drilling - which has expanded on his watch - as a job-creating economic boon.

Tom Wolf is decrying Governor Corbett's large cuts in education spending in his first year, promising instead to amend the funding formula for education in the state so as to allow for great education spending. In terms of the Marcellus Shale drilling issue, Mr. Wolf is heavily underscoring his backing of a severance tax on drilling -- something the governor has strenuously opposed -- and highlighting his support for stricter rules and regulations on drilling to, as he sees it, ensure it is done safely. Wolf is also highlighting his support for economic development projects and investments in manufacturing after Corbett cut economic grant programs championed by former governors Bob Casey, Sr. and Ed Rendell.

What's Corbett's and Wolf's biggest strengths/weaknesses? 

Corbett Strength: Well, there's not really much here. Corbett is extremely unpopular (more on that later) but his biggest strength, if anything, is that he can claim he's moved to the center on some issues lately. He signed a large bipartisan transportation funding bill last year, has sought to restore education funding in the last year, stopped the state's appeal of the gay marriage ban (thus ensuring gay marriages would continue after a federal judge's decision legalized it), sort-of endorsed banning employment discrimination of LGBT Pennsylvanians, and became the only GOP governor in the country to utilize a loophole in the new federal farm/food stamp law that avoids a cut to SNAP recipients' benefits.

This effort to shift to the center -- almost certainly politically motivated -- though has failed to move Corbett's numbers. Corbett is doing quite well in fundraising though, per FEC reports analyzed by PoliticsPa.com which says "Corbett is fundraising like an incumbent", as he rakes in big money from influential businessmen across the commonwealth. In a race where Corbett is running against an extremely wealthy man like Wolf, all of the fundraising that Corbett can do only helps him.

Corbett Weakness: Where to begin? Ever since his first year in office, Corbett has been an enormously unpopular incumbent. It began with the 2011 education cuts - and of those voters who say education is the number one issue for them in this election, they break heavily for Wolf - and only went downhill from there. Corbett became embroiled in controversy in 2011-2012 as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal as accusations were made that the governor, when he was attorney general, stalled on investigating Sandusky (AG Kathleen Kane has cleared Corbett of wrongdoing). Further, Corbett's remarks that women should just "close their eyes" when being subject to a fetal ultrasound - which is what one anti-abortion bill in the legislature sought to do - attracted considerable negative national attention for him.

Beyond that, Corbett's controversial plans to privatize the Pennsylvania Lottery (for which he was scolded by Attorney General Kane, who called it "unconstitutional"), his budget cuts to various social services and programs for the poor, and his refusal to support a severance tax for gas drilling have created for him not only many political enemies but also a large swath of the electorate that truly dislikes him. A majority of Pennsylvanians told Franklin and Marshall pollsters at the beginning of this year that Governor Corbett does not "care" about the problems of people like them.

Wolf Strength: Mr. Wolf's biggest strength is actually Mr. Corbett's biggest weakness: running in a climate in which the Republican incumbent is deeply unpopular. However, on a personal level, Mr. Wolf proved immensely appealing to voters in the Democratic primary. His ads, in which he demonstrates that he's ostensibly a common-sense businessman who shares much of his profit with his workers and is depicted as a regular guy riding a Jeep, resonated in the primary. He is broadly perceived as likable, relatable, and easygoing. It also does not hurt that Mr. Wolf is extremely wealthy. His wealth permitted him to self-fund much of his campaign in the primary and that ability is critical in a race in which Governor Corbett is raising much money himself too from sources like the Comcast hierarchy (based in Philadelphia).

Wolf also has a fine ground game that will be of help to him. Cassandra Coleman-Corcoran, the mayor of Exeter and Senator Casey's deputy finance director, has done an excellent job in her campaigns in northeastern Pennsylvania and in her fundraising for Casey and her talent and skill in her effort for Mr. Wolf's campaign has already proven crucial and will continue to be a key factor in his success. Bill Vinsko, a Wilkes-Barre attorney who is a former congressional candidate, has also been able to utilize his extensive network of friends and supporters locally to rally support. At the legislative level, Democratic candidates for the state legislature, including incumbent Democrats running for reelection, have done all they can to mercilessly criticize Governor Corbett and to tie themselves to Mr. Wolf, which can only help Wolf's cause. In our region, state Rep. Phyllis Mundy and state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, both very popular in their districts, endorsed Wolf in the primary thus signaling to their constituents that he was someone who shares their values. Further aiding Mr. Wolf is that quickly after the primary ended, Wolf was readily publicly embraced by Senator Casey - who is the most popular elected figure in the state - on Hardball on election night and his former primary rival Katie McGinty formed a PAC, "Fresh Start PA," that's aimed at assisting Wolf and Democrats across the state in this fall's elections. All in all, these developments indicate that Wolf has a strong backing behind him beyond merely Corbett's unpopularity and his own wealth.

Wolf Weakness: To whatever extent the national political climate has an effect in Pennsylvania, it would hurt Mr. Wolf. President Obama, despite comfortably winning Pennsylvania twice, is not very popular here anymore, nor is he popular nationally. His approval rating has dipped into the low 40s both nationwide and in Pennsylvania. Governor Corbett's website already features a photoshopped picture of Mr. Wolf's head next to the President's head. Further, Governor Corbett is portraying Mr. Wolf as the "millionaire Revenue Secretary," indicating that Wolf's massive wealth -- an issue that, in part, helped sink Mitt Romney here in 2012  -- could be a liability.


How can you help Tom Wolf? 
You can sign up to volunteer for Mr. Wolf's campaign here (where you can also find a link to donate): http://action.wolfforpa.com/page/s/volunteer.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Advice for Hillary, Democratic Unity, and Why I Love Match Game



(PHOTO: President Obama and Secretary Clinton, then both senators, hold a joint rally for the Obama campaign in Unity, New Hampshire in June 2008).

In this multi-pronged blog post, there are a few items I touch on so please forgive me but here's what's on my mind:

First of all, Hillary Clinton appears to have hit a rough patch - though definitely not a fatal one by any stretch of the imagination - as she has made some unfortunate remarks that exacerbate the questions surrounding her wealth. She first said that she and her husband were "dead broke" and then said that her family was unlike the "truly well off." There is a better way to handle these questions and Secretary Clinton would be well suited if she took advice from a source very close to her on how to tackle questions like this: President Clinton. Despite being very wealthy obviously, Clinton always responds with an effective retort such as, "I didn't ask for a tax cut" or "I don't need a tax cut," demonstrating essentially that he is supporting progressive policies like tax fairness despite the impact those policies will have on his financial well-being. Something along those lines could easily quell the issue.

The best way to squash questions regarding 'hypocrisy' of scolding wealthy elites while being wealthy is to emphasize that you're actually being selfless by supporting policies that would hurt your own finances and your class. This is of course why FDR was famously called a "traitor to his class." (And, yes, I realize that the wealthy elite doesn't mind higher income tax rates on the rich as long as you don't hit Wall Street with a financial transactions tax and stiffer rules and regulations -- but that discussion is for another day). As a political matter, there is an easy way to diffuse this using the kind of language Bill Clinton has deployed and actually this very good article on MSNBC.com I noticed just minutes after I began writing this post -- I swear, not before! -- emphasizes this exact point very well. Further, as she did on the campaign trail in the last couple months of the 2008 primary, Secretary Clinton would be wise to instead underscore that she actually did not grow up wealthy and was raised middle class thus reasonably allowing her to credibly say she empathizes with middle class struggles. This tactic was successfully deployed by President Obama in his campaigns -- i.e., "Michelle and I paid off our student loans just a few years ago" -- and by President Clinton, who trumpeted himself as the "man from Hope" in 1992. Finally though, it should be noted that these issues probably will not matter much for Secretary Clinton because for one, as Dave Weigel pointed out on Facebook this weekend, the Democratic Party is after all the party of the FDR and JFK, and second, her record of working for and advocating for vital progressive policies that help working families -- like childcare, paid family leave, universal pre-K, etc. -- will be more crucial in a campaign anyway.
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(PHOTO: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden rally Democratic Party supporters at a 2010 Moving America Forward rally).

Second of all, in an extensive interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, President Obama made an interesting remark that caught my attention when he noted that Democratic voters are "surprisingly united" on issues such as economic inequality and wages. In the past, the President has remarked similarly on how amazingly unified congressional Democrats have been too on key issues in his presidency and the facts back up that assertion. It is indeed amazing to see such strong Democratic unity in both Congress and among Democratic voters in the Obama years. This unity exists despite the fact that elements of the media like to claim that there are massive divisions within the Democratic Party -- usually, these schisms are wildly exaggerated. It is incredible because the history of our party is one of incredible divisions. During the tenure of the last Democratic President, Bill Clinton, many Democrats in Congress voted against Clinton's major legislative achievements, like NAFTA and welfare reform, and liberal Democratic voters' disgruntlement with Clinton was far worse than any progressive disenchantment Obama has faced. In Jimmy Carter's presidency, Carter was unable to get key Democratic priorities like a consumer protection agency and health care reform through an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress thanks to divisions within his party. Carter would later write that he got along better with GOP members of Congress than with Democratic members of Congress. He faced a modestly strong primary challenge from Ted Kennedy too that was really alls bout the divisions of the party. The divisions within the Democratic Party during Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency are obviously well documented. Even more recently though, we can point to a famous example of Democratic division: the 2008 primaries!

Nevertheless, in the Obama era, such division is seemingly nonexistent. President Obama received the highest percentage of votes from Democratic voters of any president ever -- 92 percent -- and, according to public opinion polling, is the most popular president among Democratic voters ever, all Senate Democrats voted for the Recovery Act and for the Affordable Care Act, Democratic voters are overwhelmingly liberal on social issues and now even extremely unified on economic matters, and Hillary Clinton appears to be the clear frontrunner in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Why this remarkable unity? A few factors are probably at play. The GOP going far to the right and President Bush's legacy are part of it though this unity is consistent with the overall partisan polarization in the country. A very small part of it may be that the current president is quite effective at uniting various elements of the party as a consequence of begin economically progressive and socially liberal but aggressive on national security, traits that unite various factions in our party.

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(PHOTO: Panelist Richard Dawson makes a point during a taping of Match Game in 1975).

Last but not least, as the 41st anniversary of the premiere of the most popular version of Match Game is this Wednesday, I think it's appropriate I share why exactly it is that I love this game show so much. For one, few game shows in the annals of television history can boast such amazing chemistry between the host, the celebrity panelists, and the contestants. The antics on display on the set were nothing short of surprisingly hilarious entertainment that actually overshadowed the rules of the game -- a point host Gene Rayburn himself made. It is the freewheeling nature of the interaction between the outlandish Rayburn, the definitely drunk panelists, and the nervous contestants that made the show so unbelievably funny for a game show. That's why an exchange like the 1977 "school riot" episode wound up in a TV Land/TV Guide list of TV's 100 most unexpected moments - an unusual distinction given that game shows are usually seemingly carefully scripted. A huge part of this success was undeniably because of the impeccable talent of Gene Rayburn, who earned a lifetime achievement award shortly before his 1999 death and who was rightly recognized as the third greatest game show host of all-time by TV Guide. Rayburn's wild nature, somewhat surprising given his age, allowed for the genuine spontaneity on set that viewers happily embraced.

Beyond these aspects of the show, the risqué fill-in-the-blank questions and the ability of contestants and celebrities to actually say on air words like "boobs" and "bosom" reflected the relaxed cultural standards of the era in which the show hit its peak popularity: the mid-1970s. At the same time that TV sitcoms like All in the Family and Three's Company were venturing into new territory by touching on issues of race in a jocular manner or by utilizing sexual innuendo, Match Game similarly pushed the envelope on these matters thus distinguishing itself in the then-crowded game show universe. Perhaps that is why the show became a cultural staple as it captivated young Americans who rushed from school to watch the afternoon-time show and as it broke records at the time as the most popular daytime television show in American history. Lastly, though the format was kind of unusual, the latter half of the program, which relied upon previous audience surveys on fill-in-the-blank questions and stoked curiosity among viewers as to what their peers would say in response to such questions, was unique enough to even spawn a spin-off in the form of Family Feud. Given the amazing chemistry on set, its cultural significance, and the impact it has had on TV, Match Game - #4 in TV Guide's 2013 list of the 60 greatest TV game shows ever - has rightfully earned its storied place in TV history.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Importance of Keeping the Senate and the Obama Second Term Paradox


(PHOTO: From The Guardian - President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sit in the Oval Office, October 2013).

Recent developments underscore how critical it is that Democrats continue to hold control of the U.S. Senate. As reported by Adam Serwer at MSNBC and by the Huffington Post, it is evident that filibuster reform has been an enormous boost to President Obama. Thanks to the threat of the filibuster being removed from most presidential appointments, Obama has been able to slowly remake the federal judiciary in a more progressive direction. "A majority of appointees on the federal district and circuit courts," Serwer writes, "are Democratic appointees." Further, the President's slate of nominees for the federal bench are the most diverse collection in history, racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and in background, as many have a history of being involved in Public Defender offices. 

This power is hugely important as these federal judges decide crucial cases that influence American social policy and our understanding of constitutional law for decades, beyond the tenures of the presidents who appointed them. For instance, it was U.S. District Judge Robert M. Shelby, an Obama appointee, who ruled in Utah before last Christmas that same sex marriage ought to be legal in the state. That ruling set off a judicial firestorm and was naturally quickly appealed. A federal appeals court ruling this week reaffirmed Shelby's ruling and this decision may lead to a path that ends with the U.S. Supreme Court finally hearing a case on whether gays have a fundamental federal right to marriage. The President's recent EPA regulations regarding emissions from coal-fired power plants may survive the test of judicial scrutiny thanks to the fact that he was finally able to muster through the Senate his nominees for the D.C. Circuit Court, a very influential body that often hears cases regarding government rules and regulations, as a consequence of filibuster reform. These judges have a real impact on real lives and without a Democratic majority in the Senate for Obama's final two years in office, it will be extremely difficult to fill the vacant seats on the federal bench with progressively minded judges.

Further, another development this week demonstrates how critical it is to keep the Senate in Democratic hands. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that President Obama overstepped his executive authority to make recess appointments when he appointed three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during a Senate 'pro forma' session in January 2012. Though they could have been more aggressive in their ruling, the Court still somewhat restrained the presidential prerogative of recess appointments, at least from the viewpoint of the Justice Department. Now that filibuster reform has removed the filibuster as a possibility when it comes to presidential appointments, recess appointments have all but disappeared. Nevertheless, the ruling demonstrates that such recess appointments would be difficult to pull off in a Senate controlled by Republicans. The GOP Senate leaders would likely do everything in their power now to ensure that the Court decision is strictly enforced, including lessening recesses to a point at which it would become close to impossible for Obama to make any recess appointments would a Cabinet position be vacated. This would make it more likely that the White House would have to nominate individuals who are not very strong on key issues for progressives but would satisfy the GOP Senate leadership. 

Lastly, on a different note, it was telling that President Obama said this week in Minnesota that he just wants to "say what's on [his] mind" these days as he is freed from the burdens of running for another term. He's certainly done more of that these days, as reflected in his extensive interview with David Remnick in The New Yorker earlier this year, in his blunt comments on gun violence at a Tumblr-hosted event at the White House recently, and in his surprisingly candid remarks on Trayvon Martin and race in America last summer. At this stage, it appears that the President is attempting to carve out a positive legacy that reflects the values he campaigned on, and regardless of how the politics of such language plays out, it is certainly a welcomed development for many progressives. There seems to be an interesting paradox at play. As Obama's approval rating has dipped and issues surrounding the NSA, the ACA rollout, and troublesome events abroad damaged his popularity, he has, in the mean time, become considerably stronger and more progressive on several important policy matters that liberal activists have urged him to improve on and that he has cared about throughout his career. In his second term, Obama is noticeably more accomplished and robust on policy when it comes to climate change and gun safety reform, even stronger on gay rights, shrewder on Iran, and vastly superior on issues of race, the war on drugs, and reforming the criminal justice system, in no small part because of a reinvigorated Attorney General Eric Holder. This may help explain why, despite an overall lower approval for Obama in his second term thus far, the President has held steady among Democratic voters, especially liberal Democrats, who give Obama a resoundingly high approval rating in the mid-80s. Most importantly though, his improvement on these issues in his second term is in the long term better for the country as we finally begin to seriously tackle the menace of global warming, prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, tackle inequalities in criminal justice, and continually expand the rights of LGBT Americans. Given his track record recently on these issues, combined with his impressive first term litany of legislative achievements that are already making a difference such as the Affordable Care Act and the creation of the CFPB as part of Dodd-Frank, Barack Obama is bound to be regarded as one of the more activist Democratic presidents. At the moment, the politics do not look rosy for him or his party but slowly but surely, he's leaving an impressive mark on the country. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Who is Ever Ready to Be President?

In the summer of 2008, President Clinton, when asked if Barack Obama is ready to be president, demurred and answered, "you can argue that nobody is ever ready to be president." "I certainly," Clinton explained, "learned a lot about the job in the first year." (Clinton went on to strongly endorse Obama as "ready to be president" in the Democratic National Convention weeks later). Four years later, Steve Schmidt, John McCain's campaign manager in 2008, appeared on Morning Joe, following the release of HBO's Game Change (based on the book), to make the case that neither Sarah Palin nor John Edwards - the losing VP nominees of the major parties in 2008 and 2004, respectively - were qualified to be president. Beyond these musings, as has been well documented, there were various questions raised by not just Bill Clinton but a variety of politicians, media figures, and activists in 2008 as to whether President Obama was prepared for the White House given his limited experience. Hillary Clinton famously ran an ad in March 2008 depicting her as a capable leader who could answer a phone call, implicitly on serious national security concerns, at 3:00 a.m. Months later, Sarah Palin would be widely derided as unprepared for the office, with Matt Damon describing the prospect of her presidency as a "bad Disney movie" and Obama even running a TV ad specifically chastising McCain for his choice.

Bill Clinton faced similar questions as those posed to Obama about his own preparedness in 1992. President George H.W. Bush claimed that his dog knew more about foreign policy than Bill Clinton and Al Gore while Pat Buchanan said at that year's Republican National Convention that their foreign policy experience was limited to visiting the International House of Pancakes. Four years before that, it was Dan Quayle who was maligned as not being prepared for the office as Lloyd Bentsen derided him in the VP debate as being "no Jack Kennedy." 14 years earlier, it was President Gerald R. Ford who was questioned by NBC's Tom Brokaw as to whether he was "intellectually" up to the job of being president. As far back as 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran and was criticized for his ostensible lack of experience, there have been questions about whether candidates are truly up to the task of the presidency.

All of this begs the question of something that my friend Jack Cartwright and I discussed recently: who is ever really qualified, or ready, to be president? For one, anyone who is 35 years old, a natural-born citizen (have that birth certificate ready!), and a U.S. resident for at least 14 years is technically qualified to be president. What makes one truly qualified and ready for the awesome responsibilities of the Oval Office though? Despite all of the media attention afforded to this question in some presidential races, it really does not matter a whole lot to voters as long as the candidate agrees with them on the issues. Indeed, party affiliation and ideology are among the most reliable indicators of how individuals will vote, especially in a general election, way more so than whether a candidate has enough experience or preparedness for the position. On the one hand, this makes sense given that, just by human nature, you would want someone in power who shares your world view. So why does this question even matter? Well, on the other hand, it can be troubling given that the candidate might be so ineffective at carrying out the policies you prefer that he or she could potentially make those policies more maligned (this was among the many arguments made by Ted Kennedy-supporting liberals in 1980 about President Carter, who was also questioned about his preparedness for the presidency in 1976). That latter point, combined with the history of presidents having to guide us through perilous moments like the Osama bin Laden raid or 9/11 or the Cuban Missile Crisis or the world wars or the Civil War, makes the question of readiness all the more important. It is for these reasons - the fact that a president may be so woefully inexperienced that he or she could not effective promote the public policy their campaign championed and the fact that a president may not be able to be a steady hand at the tiller in times of crisis - that this question is worth examining.

Arguably, the answer does not depend exclusively on the extent of experience in political office of a certain leader, as Jack and I agreed. As Jack pointed out, Abraham Lincoln only served a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives - and before that eight years in the Illinois state legislature - yet he was an absolutely remarkable and exceptionally brilliant leader amid the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson's political experience was limited solely to the governorship of New Jersey for just two years yet he was a strong and effective leader in several respects, successfully implementing various progressive domestic policies despite the country being majority Republican and leading Allied forces to victory in World War I. John F. Kennedy, though maligned for his supposed inexperience, was an amazingly capable leader throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis. Barack Obama, despite only serving four years in the U.S. Senate and seven years in the Illinois Senate, has, in my opinion, demonstrated admirably calm, cool, and collected leadership in situations such as the financial crisis, avoiding a Depression, and in the raid on Osama bin Laden (General McRaven offered significant praise for his handling of the latter). However, a significant amount of political experience is no detriment. George H.W. Bush, arguably the most qualified president in history, was a good leader in the sense that he navigated his relationship with Congress very well and had a rational, nuanced foreign policy. Lyndon B. Johnson's experience as Senate Majority Leader was instrumental to his understanding of his former congressional colleagues in working to push through his Great Society programs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as governor of New York and as assistant secretary of the Navy, was a tremendous leader as well. Nevertheless, George W. Bush, despite serving six years as governor of Texas and being surrounded by politics his whole life (as my friend Haydn pointed out), was arguably not a good leader given his unwise decision to invade Iraq and sustained mismanagement of the war and his horrid response to Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, some political experience is probably necessary because it gives one the necessary understanding of the political process, the tools and skills of managing relations with legislators, and the comprehension of public policy issues and their implementation that can make one a solid leader. However, merely because x candidate has more political experience than y candidate does not make y candidate less prepared for the presidency.

However, the answer does arguably depend, to some extent, on the professional background of a candidate. Ulysses S. Grant, though having a remarkable history as a Civil War general, was an ineffective leader given the rampant corruption in his administration. His lack of any elected political experience may have contributed to this problem. George W. Bush may have been surrounded by politics because of family history before his governorship but his life experience prior to the governorship included jobs like running a failed oil business and being an owner of the Texas Rangers and so this did not necessarily give him the kind of skills to be prepared for the presidency. Jimmy Carter, a politically ineffectual president in terms of promoting his domestic priorities, suffered as well from a lack of varying professional experience as he relied solely upon advisers from Georgia and was way too much of a micromanager - thanks to the kind of skills he learned in previous jobs - to be effectual. This question of professional experience is important because it is arguably the distinction between what made Barack Obama, in my judgment, qualified to be president but Sarah Palin, in my opinion, not ready to be president. Prior to Obama's political experience, he was already an incredibly impressive individual and that professional experience gave him important skills for the presidency. He was a civil rights attorney, constitutional law professor, an accomplished author, the president of the Harvard Law Review, a leader of a statewide massive voter registration initiative, and a community organizer helping poor people stay in their homes in the south side of Chicago. This experience mattered because it gave him the kind of argumentative, rhetorical, management, and intellectual tools, skills, and background that helps one be an effective president. On the other hand, Sarah Palin, prior to her governorship, was a mayor of a small town, on a city council of a small town, and chair of an oil and gas conservation commission. Before that, she was a local sports news broadcaster and beauty pageant. This limited professional experience did not give her the depth of understanding of public policy that Obama boasted in 2008.


Further, personal characteristics and qualities of a president, especially the temperament of a leader as Jack explicitly argued, are important in the sense of preparedness. You need a steady hand at the tiller and someone who can provide calm, measured, cool, and reasoned leadership in times of crisis, danger, and uncertainty. This is one of the arguments Obama made against John McCain in 2008 as he directly called into question McCain's "temperament" at that year's Democratic National Convention. Voters seemed to agree as McCain was ridiculed for his "erratic" behavior- as many in the media described it - during the campaign while Obama was widely praised for his calm stewardship abilities.

In the end, the kind of person who is prepared to be president is someone who ought to have some kind of political experience, important and relevant professional experience, and the right personal stamina and calm-headedness to handle the task of the presidency. However, I agree with this assessment: "I feel like it really depends on the person," Jack said. Really, that answer to the question, though frustratingly simple, is very much true. All of the evidence that has been presented here, and in our long history of presidential elections featuring candidates of varying qualities, shows this to be accurate. In 2016, we will have to judge for ourselves. When it's 3 a.m., who do you want answering the phone?

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Road to Marriage Equality in the State of Independence

When President George W. Bush visited northeastern Pennsylvania several times in the 2004 presidential campaign, he highlighted his staunch opposition to same-sex marriage. Bush proudly touted that he was the only president in American history to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to prohibit gay marriages. Playing to socially conservative voters of both parties in northeastern Pennsylvania, Bush figured he could capitalize on this issue here, and elsewhere, to stoke enough fears - combined with his emphasis on national security issues - to achieve a narrow win. Bush was reelected but ultimately lost Luzerne County in 2004, succumbing to Kerry by a 49 percent to 51 percent margin in this heavily Democratic yet swingy county that Ronald Reagan won twice. However, it's likely that his margin was closer than in 2000 - both countywide and statewide as Bush lost Pennsylvania in 2004 by less than he lost it four years prior - in part because of his strongly anti-gay marriage stance.

A decade later, this position of opposing equal marriage rights for gay couples is so politically toxic in Pennsylvania, including in northeastern Pa., that our state's GOP governor, Tom Corbett, imperiled in his reelection bid, withdrew his efforts to appeal the recent court decision legalizing same-sex marriage here. This political progress is nothing short of incredible but it is not by mistake. It is the result of hard and determined work on the part of gay rights activists, gay and lesbian couples who fought against a discriminatory law in the federal courts, and public servants willing to stand up for equal rights even when it was politically risky. This collaborated experiment on the part of such individuals in changing public opinion and ultimately changing the law is a reflection of the best of America: people working together at the grassroots level to rally public support to pressure individuals in power to expand equal rights. This phenomenon, as historians and political scientists and social policy experts (most notably Howard Zinn) have pointed out numerous times, is what our history is all about in fact.

Locally, people like John Dawe and Bill Browne worked to gather public support for marriage equality, public officials like Rep. Phyllis Mundy and Congressman Matt Cartwright were the first out of the gate at the state and federal level, respectively, to embrace gay marriage thus further legitimizing it in a sense, and the alliance that all of these individuals provided to the couples fighting the Pennsylvania DOMA in court ultimately helped allow it to fall. As a result of their work, happy couples who have waited years to marry can finally do so -- and a majority of the public, both statewide in PA and here in NEPA according to several public opinion polls, is finally on board as well. Cheers to Judge Jones, the folks who worked so hard to make marriage equality a reality, and to the people of Pennsylvania.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Understanding America's Social Ills

In two separate appearances at the Historic Sixth and I Synogauge here in Washington, Politics and Prose Bookstore hosted Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Both individuals were touting their new books, A Fighting Chance and Six Amendments, respectively, while discussing their broader belief systems. In addition to listening to Warren and Stevens, I had the privilege of meeting and introducing Vice President Joe Biden, who we as GW College Democrats alongside the Program Board and the Student Association booked as our end of year speaker, as he addressed GW students. Biden addressed the Democratic criticisms of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal. All three of these public servants demonstrated that they firmly grasped the social ills facing the country, the plight of working class and middle class individuals shafted by special interests and a broken political system, and the need to utilize social and political levers to alleviate inequality. However, action is required beyond words in order to ensure that real social change is achieved.

Nevertheless, it is comforting that there are longtime public servants who understand the true injustices that have visited hardworking, decent people and who have the know-how, experience, and tenacity to see through it that these injustices can be reversed. None of these individuals are perfect by any means. Each of them have made flawed judgments that, in some cases, are not reflective of the interests of working class and middle class individuals. However, all of them fundamentally understand that it is these people who are the backbone of the economy, that it is their success that is inextricably linked to broader national prosperity, and that progressive public policy is necessary to advance their interests.

This understanding on their part was reflected in the language Biden, Warren, and Stevens used to make their cases. Vice President Biden powerfully made a compelling argument against the House GOP budget, outlining how philosophically, the Republican viewpoint is at odds with the history of our country being one in which economic success is driven by the middle class. Ryan and his acolytes believe in "this incredibly narrow mindset that presumes that wealthy investors are the sole driver of the economy - that all employers work solely by the grace of the shareholders' capital gain," Biden asserted. Senator Warren railed against the "system being rigged" in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected who, in the last three decades, have had a ladder up while folks at the bottom rung of the economic ladder have been denied such opportunity thanks to decades of laws pushed by big corporations to enhance their political and financial power. Justice Stevens scolded his former conservative colleagues on the Court for crafting decisions that have been favored by the Chamber of Commerce and big business interests, such as Citizens United in which he penned the dissenting opinion, and marginalized those with less.

It is reassuring that Biden, Warren, and Stevens articulate well the social ills facing the country and that they comprehend the disturbing outsized growth of power of the very wealthy as opposed to the meager growth of those making less. Further, the policy prescriptions they propose are ones that will materially improve the lives of those struggling to make ends meet. These ideas include a budget that rewards lower and middle class people while eliminating loopholes for the rich, more robust rules and regulations to constrain the financial sector from wreaking havoc, and a strong reaffirmation of core civil rights and civil liberties. In order for these policy initiatives to be implemented into law though, mass collective action is required to put pressure on politicians to make these changes. As Elizabeth Warren demonstrated in her successful fight to create a consumer protection agency, which the President embraced and fought for as well, it is worth a fight even if the interests seem stacked against you. Ultimately, the power of the masses yearning for the realization of full economic equality for working class and middle class people has, historically, won out, even after periods in which we had terrible inequality. It requires public mobilization though because as FDR said, "I agree with you, now make me do it." Make them do it.