Monday, October 27, 2008

Home Stretch

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist. -- Archbishop Dom Helder Camara
In this week's Sift:
  • The Unlikely Truth About Polls. Those likely-voter models are pretty unlikely.
  • Vote Suppression Update. The latest from Ohio, Indiana, and Georgia.
  • Obama = Armageddon. Calling Obama a "socialist" is starting to look tame. Rhetoric on the right is really going over the top as they realize that they're going to lose.
  • "Not Because They're Racists" Fox News' executive VP is the shameful character in a story that otherwise is just sad: the white female McCain worker who invented a story about being attacked by a big black Obama supporter. She's 20 and probably not wrapped too tight, but what's his excuse?
  • Short Notes. I kind of went wild on Notes this week. My favorite is probably Vlad and Boris singing a Russian love song to Sarah Palin. They can see her house from there.

The Unlikely Truth About Polls
At about this time in every campaign season, failing politicians are saying something like: "I don't believe in the polls. The only poll that count is on Election Day."

This year you have to wonder if that might be the right attitude. Should we believe these polls?

The worrisome thing about them is how scattered their results are. On Thursday, for example, the IBD/TIPP national poll had Obama's lead shrinking to a mere 1.1%, while the CBS/NYT poll had it growing to 13%. Something like that happens almost every day. How is that even possible? If the polls are all measuring the same underlying reality, shouldn't every poll be within the margin-of-error of every other poll?

It turns out that's not what margin-of-error means. A poll's MoE is really only the measure of one kind of error, known as sampling error. That's the easiest kind of error to measure, but it's just the beginning of what might go wrong with a poll. MoE measures what you might think of as the pollster's bad luck. If they do everything else right, but they get unlucky and talk to people who are unrepresentative for no foreseeable reason, the results might be off by as much as the MoE.

But pollsters today do more than just ask people questions and report their answers. They do a lot of number-juggling that brings some of their background knowledge into the results. If they do this right, their polls become more accurate. So, for example, if your sample voters turn out to be 56% male, but you know that the electorate is only 49% male, you might count each male response as only 7/8 of a vote, and so get your gender balance closer to what you know is right. You might also re-balance according to age or party registration or race. Different pollsters balance for different things, and so they might report different results even if they interview the same people and get the same responses.

MoE doesn't account for that.

And that's just if different pollsters are bringing in different background knowledge. It gets crazier if some pollsters bring in background knowledge that turns out to be wrong. What if, say, you re-balance your age distribution according to the results of the 2004 elections -- implicitly assuming that Obama's effort to register more young voters will fail? Or you use 2004 or 2006 to give you the party-distribution balance, ignoring the number of new Democratic registrations this year?

The toughest leap to make is between people who register and people who vote. Pollsters started modeling "likely" voters because the half of the population that actually votes is a little different than the half that doesn't. In general, voters feel more empowered and more identified with society than non-voters. Voters are richer, older, whiter, more educated -- and in most years more Republican -- than non-voters. If you don't account for that in your poll, you'll have a Republican surprise every year.

Every election cycle, some candidate says they're going to get massive numbers of votes from people who usually stay home. They never do. But in the primaries Obama made that prediction stand up. If he can do the same in November, then everybody's likely-voter models are obsolete. Some pollsters have tried to adjust and some haven't. Nate Silver has a great article about this. Another interesting but less readable article is here.

So here's the gist: The polls that say the election is close are the ones that haven't changed their likely-voter models. If they're right -- if Obama's huge registration and get-out-the-vote efforts make no difference -- then the election probably will be close. If, on the other hand, turnout is massive and includes more young and non-white voters than have ever shown up before, then Obama could have a landslide.

Vote Suppression Update
This week brought both good and bad news about the longstanding Republican effort to harrass new voters.

Let's start with Ohio: There are 600,000 new voters registered in Ohio this year. This is a state that Bush carried by a little more than 100,000 votes in 2004 -- after considerable chicanery. About a third of those registrations do not perfectly match other state databases. The vast majority of those mismatches are probably trivial: leaving out a middle initial, listing an address as 17 Pine rather than 17A Pine, a data entry error that has nothing to do with the voter, and so on.

Republicans want the Ohio Secretary of State (Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat -- that's the big difference between this year and 2004; Democrats swept the statewide offices in 2006) to provide those 200,000 names to the local election boards, so that the mismatch voters can be challenged at the polls. Probably they'd be forced to file provisional ballots, which only count if the voters go through a process that the Republicans can turn into a long enough hassle that many voters will give up.

So basically, this is a plot to prevent 200,000 Ohio residents from voting, based on the idea that some undetermined (and probably very small) number of them might have registered fraudulently.

Republicans sued Brunner, but the Supreme Court refused to make a ruling. So far, so good.

Now President Bush has stepped in, and is asking the Justice Department to look into the issue. It's not clear where this goes, but what is clear is that this is exactly what the U. S. Attorneys scandal was about: using the Justice Department in a partisan way to help in a voter suppression effort.

Indiana also has a voter supression case, and here the news is entirely good. Republicans sued to shut down early-voting centers in Democratic parts of Lake County, charging that the centers would increase the likelihood of vote fraud. (As far as I can tell, they provided no evidence vote fraud was actually happening.) Democratic officials offered to open more early-voting centers in Republican parts of the county, but that didn't resolve the issue.

This exchange between Judge Diane Kavadias-Schneider and Republican lawyer R. Lawrence Steele is classic:
Judge: "What of those who have already voted?"
GOP lawyer: "Maybe those votes should be discarded."
We're talking about throwing out votes already cast, the vast majority of them by people whose right to vote is entirely unchallenged. The Judge didn't buy it.

Not clear what's going to happen in Georgia, where 50,000 voters have been purged from the rolls. CNN follows one, a college senior who registered legally, who didn't receive notice of her disenfranchisement until the deadline for contesting the decision had passed.

Obama = Armageddon
Some really amazing science fiction has been coming out of right-wing political types as they anticipate losing this election. The wildest piece is a letter-from-the-future that Focus on the Family has received from "a Christian in 2012".

It turns out that President Obama got to make four quick Supreme Court appointments (Scalia had an unexpected health problem), so the Court suddenly had a 6-3 liberal majority. Then all the Left's anti-Christian plots really came to fruition. Most of these plots had something to do with homosexuality (because, as we all know, if you can't legally implement your bigotry against gays and lesbians, your Christian faith counts for nothing). So
  • the Boy Scouts disbanded rather than allow gay scoutmasters
  • all real Christians quit their public-school teaching jobs because the government said they had to promote homosexuality to their students
  • Christian schools closed for the same reasons
  • Christian adoption agencies closed rather than place children with same-sex married couples
  • businesses had to provide equal benefits to same-sex couples (no word about whether all Christian businesses closed to avoid this)
  • reading the Bible over the airwaves is illegal because the Bible contains "hate speech" against homosexuals
  • Christian doctors are quitting because they can't refuse artificial insemination to lesbians, and Christian lawyers who won't take same-sex couple's adoption cases are losing their licenses
  • Christian marriage counselors are quitting because they have to take same-sex couples as clients
  • homosexuals were given special bonuses to enlist in the military (to make up for past discrimination)
  • military chaplains who denounce homosexuality have been dismissed
  • Christian publishers have gone out of business because their anti-homosexual books were forced off of major-chain shelves.
Let's see, what else happened? Doctors and nurses can't refuse to perform abortions. Pornography is on TV at all hours of night and day. Guns have been banned in eight states. Home schoolers have to agree to use state-approved textbooks and not to teach their kids that homosexuality is wrong or that Jesus is the only way to God. Taxes are high, but we still have a huge deficit because all the productive people moved to other countries.

Al Qaeda took over Iraq. (They poured in from Iran, oddly, given that the Shiite Iranians hate the Sunni Al Qaeda jihadists.) Millions of American sympathizers are being put to death. We stopped wiretapping overseas terrorists without warrants and gave captured foreign terrorists full American-citizen rights, so we haven't been able to stop terrorist attacks at all. Russia re-occupied all the former Soviet republics and satellites in Europe, and Obama did nothing. Israel got nuked by Iran and Obama did nothing. Communist revolutions are happening all over Latin America.

And who's to blame for this endless list of disaster? "Christians didn't take time to find out who Barack Obama was when they voted for him."

While warming up the crowd for Sarah Palin, Iowa Rep. Steve King warned, "When you take a lurch to the Left, you end up in a totalitarian dictatorship.

The rants about California's Proposition 8 (banning same-sex marriage) are perhaps even further off-the-wall. Former Watergate felon (now evangelical minister) Charles Colson describes that vote as "Armageddon". He adds: "If we lose this, we are going to lose ... freedom of religion." (Maybe he also thinks that Christians will have to leave every profession rather than deal with same-sex couples.) And Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council says Prop 8 is "more important than the presidential election. We've had bad presidents before, and we've survived as a nation" -- he should tell that to the Christian from 2012 -- "but we will not survive if we lose the institution of marriage."

I've got to wonder if somebody somewhere is blaming the economic collapse on same-sex marriage. I mean, John Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on a gay parade, so why not? And we know that President Bush's economic policies have been totally sound, so what other explanation could there be?

The rhetoric has got to go one way or the other, because same-sex marriage isn't an abstract boogey-man any more. Massachusetts has been doing it since 2004, and unless you make these kinds of supernatural connections, it hasn't caused any problems.

Speaking of Prop 8 (or Proposition Hate, as its opponents call it), I can't figure out who's ahead. But I continue to believe that it's insane for a state to have a system where one simple-majority vote can amend the constitution.

"Not Because They're Racists"
The weirdest event of the week was that young white female McCain worker in Pennsylvania who made up a story about being attacked by a big black Obama supporter. I think the whole event is sad and has little to do with either McCain or Obama, so I'm not going to repeat the woman's name or link to a picture of her. But there is one peson here who deserves to be singled out for shame: John Moody, the executive vice president of Fox News.

Writing on the Fox Forum blog, Moody called the incident a "moment of truth" and a "watershed event" for the presidential race:
If [the woman's] allegations are proven accurate, some voters may revisit their support for Senator Obama, not because they are racists (with due respect to Rep. John Murtha), but because they suddenly feel they do not know enough about the Democratic nominee.

If the incident turns out to be a hoax, Senator McCain's quest for the presidency is over, forever linked to race-baiting.
Both of these assertions are perverse. Taking the second one first: The incident has turned out to be a hoax, but the strange idea that McCain's candidacy is over now has quietly vanished at Fox. Moody has not even done a what-was-I-thinking follow-up post.

Now re-read Moody's first paragraph. If some black man in Pittsburgh really did attack a white woman, that would cause some voters to "revisit their support for Senator Obama."

Other than racism, what could possibly connect those dots?

But explicit racism is not acceptable in America today, so Moody offers his readers a rationalization: If this incident makes you want to vote against Obama, you're not a racist, you just "don't know enough" about him -- as if there were something you could "know" about Obama that would disconnect him from an event that only racism connects him to.

The New York Times provides a more honest look at people struggling with racism in western Pennsylvania.

Short Notes
You shouldn't let desperate politicians distract you this week, but if you're looking for a way to distract yourself, try Neil Gaiman's new novel. Gaiman is a writer of twisted fantasy for all ages -- just not all ages at the same time. He has written for children (The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish), youth (Coraline), and grown-ups (American Gods), and his 1990s series Sandman is legendary among comic-book readers. Well, what would happen if such a writer did a homage to Kipling's The Jungle Book? The Graveyard Book, of course: Nobody Owens is an orphaned toddler who is adopted and raised by the ghosts from an ancient and all-but-abandoned English graveyard. With the help of a protective vampire and werewolf, the dead keep Nobody safe from those truly scary beings, the living.

We're raiding across Iraq's border with Syria and Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

If Sarah Palin can see Russia, maybe the Russians are watching her too. In "Song for Sarah", Vlad and Boris sing of their unrequited love. And by the way, Palin isn't the Republican front-runner for 2012. You know, there's more Palin stuff to report, but I'm sick of it.

I've told a lot of stories about McCain/Palin supporters behaving badly, so I should point you to at least one where they behave well. And this video is interesting: The sane McCain supporters drive out the hate mongers.

The Chicago Tribune provides a little local perspective on Bill Ayers. Eric Zorn found 60 local-news references to Ayers during the 90s and concludes "the record shows that he just wasn't a very controversial figure." Mike Royko thought he was a jerk, but associating-with-jerks isn't much to smear a guy with.

One of the cutest get-out-the-vote tactics I've ever seen: a customizable video blaming an individual voter for Obama's one-vote loss. Send them to your friends.

Other fun political videos: The guys from the "Wassup" Budweiser ads have been through a rough patch during the Bush administration, but they're feeling hopeful. Ron Howard, Andy Griffith, and Henry Winkler recreate Opie, Andy, Richie, and the Fonz to promote Obama. And here's a satirical Gays for McCain ad.

You how they say that the stock market always goes up in the long run? Well, the Japanese stock market just hit a 26-year low. Imagine: You started investing in 1982 when you were a 39-year-old salaryman from Kyoto. You've regularly bought stocks for your retirement ever since. Today you're 65 and you're behind on every investment you've ever made.

The unitary executive theory is still bearing strange fruit. We've got to hope that the next president rejects it root and branch.

If McCain is elected, the guy overseeing his transition team will be John Lehman -- a former Navy Secretary who participated in the now-infamous Tailhook parties, and complained that Bill Clinton was eroding the military's "macho, tough, warrior culture".

Think about how the Obama-Muslim smear feels if you're really a Muslim.

More unlikely Obama endorsements: Former Republican Governor William Weld, 26 newspapers that backed Bush in 2004, neocon Ken Adelman, the Financial Times, the Anchorage Daily News, and former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Slivers and Fractures
You must address America in its entirety, not as a sliver or a series of slivers but as a full and whole entity, a great nation trying to hold together. When you don't, when you play only to your little piece, you contribute to its fracturing. -- Peggy Noonan

In this week's Sift:
  • It Gets Uglier. Charges of terrorism, socialism, baby-killing, and vote fraud are starting to lead to violence. Does anybody think we're going to be one big happy family again after this is over? Plus some humorous responses to it all.
  • Endorsements. Obama's getting some interesting ones from places like the Chicago Tribune and the Houston Chronicle. And Colin Powell.
  • More on Vote Fraud and Vote Supression. Only one is a genuine threat to American democracy.
  • Short Notes. Want to carve a Barack-o-Lantern?

It Gets Uglier
Instead of substantive proposals for dealing with our country's problems the McCain campaign has treated swing-state voters to this robocall:
You need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans.
Robocalls are an especially insidious way to run a negative campaign. Because they go by so quickly, they're very easy to mishear. So while the sentence above is defensible in a word-for-word way -- a decade ago Obama worked with a guy who decades before that had worked with some other guys who died when their bomb went off by mistake  -- many voters will hear something else: that Obama was involved (and maybe is still involved) in terrorist bombings that kill people.

Senator Susan Collins, co-chair of the McCain campaign in Maine, asked McCain to stop the robocalls, saying "These kind of tactics have no place in Maine politics." When Fox News' Chris Wallace asked the candidate if he would stop the calls, McCain responded, "Of course not."

And the hits just keep coming. Now Obama is a "socialist" and a new robocall claims that Obama voted to deny medical care to babies. 

Rule #1 in a Karl-Rove-style campaign is: Never defend; always attack. So when confronted with this and his other punches-below-the-belt, McCain has been demanding that Obama repudiate a statement by Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the Civil Rights movement. In the third debate, McCain claimed that Lewis "made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace."

One way to spot spin: Spinners characterize a statement instead of quoting it. Lewis in fact made the very apt point that it's dangerous to create "an atmosphere of hate" because you don't know how far other people will take it. "George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun." But he stirred up the kind of people who did. That's what Lewis accused McCain and Palin of doing -- not of being segregationists, bombing churches, or killing children.

And people are getting stirred up. A man in the Cincinnati suburb of Fairfield has hung an Obama effigy in his yard as a bizarre Halloween display. A local reporter was assaulted at a Palin rally in North Carolina. Another Palin crowd in Florida shouted racial insults at a black sound man in the press area. ACORN offices have been vandalized in Boston and Seattle. Sunday a woman at a BBQ restaurant in North Carolina yelled at Obama himself "socialist, socialist, socialist -- get out of here". Also in North Carolina, tires on 30 cars were slashed outside an Obama rally. A California Republican newsletter printed an image of Obama on a food stamp together with watermelon, ribs, and fried chicken. A black Obama supporter in Arizona had swastikas and McCain slogans painted on his restaurant -- including "no niggers 4 president".

Al Jazeera reporter Casey Kaufman (yes, Al Jazeera covers America) interviewed people attending a Palin rally in rural Ohio and filmed statements like these:
  • "I'm afraid if [Obama] wins, the blacks will take over."
  • "He must support terrorists."
  • "Obama and his wife, I'm concerned that they could be anti-white and that he might hide that."
  • "He thinks us white people are trash."
McCain, meanwhile, says that he is proud of the people who attend his rallies. The assaulted Greensboro reporter comments:
After today I'm wondering -- and this is just wondering at this point -- whether Republicans aren't in some respect giving their supporters license for this sort of crap. If the story you peddle is that your guys are the good guys and all those who stand against them are the bad guys, and the "liberal media" is in that second column, might there be a message there -- even if it is one that is misconstrued and carried to stupid extreme in some cases?
What Republicans really are telling their supporters is that Obama and other Democrats aren't loyal Americans. Friday, Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann was pushing an Obama-is-anti-American line on Hardball when host Chris Matthews pointed out that Obama is a U. S. senator. How many other people in Congress, he wondered, did Bachmann suspect of being anti-American? Bachmann left the door open: "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?" (Bachmann's opponent has gotten $650,000 in contributions since.)

Sarah Palin says she likes to visit "the pro-America areas of this great nation." (Numbers wonk Nate Silver analyzes the places Palin goes and notes that they are also the white parts of America.) And McCain surrogate Nancy Pfotenhauer said that McCain has support in "real Virginia" as opposed to the suburban northern areas of the state.

Actually, the McCain campaign is just making explicit something Republicans have been doing for years -- denouncing parts of the United States. John Kerry wasn't just a liberal, he was a "Massachusetts" liberal. Nancy Pelosi has "San Francisco values". Democrats quite literally never do this. Bush is just a conservative; there's no special invective in him being a "Texas" conservative. Places like Utah are never going to vote Democratic, but you never hear a Democrat say "Utah" with a sneer.

Emptywheel points out that this ugliness is not going to go away after the election. If you really believe that your country has been taken over by a vote-stealing, terrorist-loving, baby-killing, socialist revolutionary, are you just going to nod peaceably and go along? John Lewis is right: Bad things will come of this.

In case you think any of this stuff is new, here's a clip from 1954, where Senator Joseph McCarthy says that legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow "as far back as 20 years ago was engaged in propaganda for Communist causes. Now Mr. Murrow by his own admission was a member of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, a terrorist organization cited as subversive."

Keeping a sense of humor, some Obama supporter has spliced the McCain robocall into a scene from "The Matrix". Neo's terror is exactly what the call seems to ask for, and he has some very appropriate reactions: "How do you know all this?" and "This is insane."

American Prospect's Ezra Klein compares McCain's guilt-by-association tactics to those the Penguin used when he debated Batman: "Whenever you have seen Batman, who is he with? Criminals!"

Onion News Network goes "Beyond the Facts" to tell us about an 8-year-old girl who sells cookies and lemonade to finance her anti-McCain attack ad. The adorably precocious blond says: "You can make a lie sound like the truth if you say it over and over again." And ONN's anchor comments proudly: "I'm sure we will be seeing horrible things from that little girl in the future."

This video imagines what goes on in McCain strategy sessions.

Hayden Panettiere (the indestructible cheerleader from "Heroes") makes a tongue-in-cheek McCain commercial (rated R for language). "He's just like George Bush, except older and with a worse temper." And this Women For McCain video is equally satirical, but with more bite. "I promise to let the government tell me what to do with my body if I get raped." This video is related, but it's not funny at all: a teen-ager who got pregnant after a rape tells Governor Palin that girls in her situation should have a choice.

With two weeks to go in the campaign, newspapers have started making endorsements. No surprise that the Boston Globe went for Obama, and while the Washington Post was not a sure thing, that was no great shock either.

The interesting endorsements, however, came from newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, which has never before endorsed a Democrat for president. ("Is that chill coming from hell?" comments one reader on the Trib's web site. "Do I see porcine aviation outside my window??") The L. A. Times also hasn't endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate in its long history -- until now. The Houston Chronicle and the Salt Lake Tribune are red-state papers that endorsed Bush in 2004 -- both are for Obama this year.

Vice presidential candidates rarely make a significant impression on editorial boards, but Interestingly Sarah Palin did -- a negative impression. The Salt Lake Tribune's take is typical: "More than any single factor, McCain's bad judgment in choosing the inarticulate, insular and ethically challenged Palin disqualifies him for the presidency." If you just can't get enough of such sentiments, Daily Kos collects them from nine major newspapers.

The big endorsement news of the weekend wasn't a newspaper, it was Colin Powell. Sunday on Meet the Press, Powell made a sweeping statement of the reasons to pick Obama over McCain. And it's way past time somebody made Powell's point about the Obama's-a-Muslim smear: What if he were? "We have got to stop polarizing ourselves in this way," Powell said.

Damn straight. Islam is a religion, and we have freedom of religion in America. Would we blithely accept people saying "He's a Jew" in the tone of voice that people are saying "Obama's a Muslim"? What if his middle name sounded Jewish -- Menachem or Moshe -- rather than Arab like Hussein? Would we tolerate speakers using it as a taunt?

Predictably, Republicans immediately turned Powell's endorsement into a racial thing. Asked about the endorsement's impact, George Will went straight into: "It seems to me if we had the tools to measure, we'd find that Barack Obama gets two votes because he's black for every one he loses because he's black." And Rush Limbaugh put it like this: "I am now researching [Powell's] past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed."

More on Vote Fraud and Vote Suppression
This week we started to get some appropriate perspective on the fraud/suppression problem. John McCain has already laid the groundwork for claiming fraud if he loses Florida. And in the third debate, McCain made the ludicrous claim that vote-registration group ACORN is "now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick examines that claim and concludes: "Large-scale, co-ordinated vote-stealing doesn't happen." AP's Fact Check comes to a similar conclusion: Some ACORN registrations are fake -- that always happens when you have a voter registration drive -- but "in alleging voter fraud, McCain goes too far."

Lithwick quotes Barnard College political science professor Lori Minnite, who explains the relative sizes of the voter fraud and voter suppression problems.
From 2002 to 2005 only one person was found guilty of registration
fraud. Twenty people were found guilty of voting while ineligible and five people were found guilty of voting more than once. That’s 26 criminal voters -- voters who vote twice, impersonate other people, vote without being a resident -- the voters that Republicans warn about. Meanwhile thousands of people are getting turned away at the polls.
Several people, including the Obama campaign, House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers, former Justice Department voting-rights official Gerry Hebert, and fired U.S. attorney David Iglesias started pointing out the similarities between the vote-fraud investigation of ACORN and the kind of politicized and politically-timed investigations that were at the root of the U.S. attorneys' scandal. Igelisias: "Based on what I saw in 2004 and 2006, it's a scare tactic."

In related news, the Supreme Court over-ruled a lower court ruling that would have forced Ohio to make available the names of 200,000 newly registered voters (out of 600,000 new voters total) whose registrations in some way differ from other state databases. All 200,000 would have been vulnerable to challenge at the polls, usually because some state database has a typographical error, or one database includes a middle initial and another leaves it out. (One voter with such a database mis-match is McCain's buddy Joe the Plumber.) How these mismatches might lead to illegitimate votes being cast is a mystery, but forcing 200,000 Ohio voters to cast provisional ballots might lead to post-election litigation that would make Florida 2000 look tame.

Here's the nub of the issue: If newly registered Ohio voters (most of whom are Democrats) become convinced that they'll be hassled at the polls and their votes may not count, many may decide not to bother. That's the whole point. The fewer people vote, the better it is for Republicans.

Oh, and here's another robocall: This one from the Ohio Republican Party warning people about the Democrats' plan to "rig the election."

Short Notes
This is what a crowd of 100,000 people looks like. Not in Berlin, in St. Louis.

538's Sean Quinn relates a hilarious story about an Obama canvasser in Washington, Pennsylvania. I suspect it's an urban legend, because I sort of remember hearing something similar during one of Jesse Jackson's campaigns, but why ruin it?

If you think a Barack-o-Lantern would just be the coolest thing to have on your porch for Halloween, check out Yes We Carve.

What if our campaigns were comedy laugh-offs rather than smear-fests? You've probably seen clips from this already, but Obama and McCain were each very funny at the white-tie Al Smith Dinner in New York. McCain explained why he refered to Obama as "that one" at the debate, and said that Obama also had a pet name for him: George Bush. And Obama observed that from the doorstep of the Waldorf Astoria (where the dinner was held) "you can see all the way to the Russian Tea Room."

Josh Marshall explains one obscure bit of blogger slang: When reporters or pundits bend over backwards to give McCain the benefit of the doubt -- like explaining how distressed the honorable McCain must be by the reprehensible tone of his own campaign -- they are said to be "on the tire swing". His post includes video of the original tire-swinging pundit.

Remember how government spying on overseas phone calls was only aimed at terrorists? Well, maybe not. ABC's Nightline reports on NSA whistleblowers' accounts of listening in to ordinary people's phone sex calls and all sorts of other things. Surprised? That's one reason why the Founders were so down on the idea of unchecked, unaccountable power: It never turns out well.

Slate's Linda Hirshman discusses why we might not want pregnant 17-year-olds to keep their babies.

Remember the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department? They're the folks who interpret the law for the rest of the executive branch -- the ones who said that the Convention Against Torture doesn't really mean anything. Now they're saying that laws that specifically ban groups who get government funding from hiring by religion -- they don't really mean anything either. Every bad thing conservatives say about the Supreme Court is true in spades (and in secret) about the Bush OLC. They make the laws say whatever they want.

One snowy winter in Chicago, my friends and I realized we were all perversely rooting to break the snowfall record. One guy explained, "Nobody wants to live through the second worst winter in history." Well, this year the federal government had the biggest budget deficit in history. Enjoy.

In case you missed it, here's McCain putting air quotes around "health of the mother" during the third debate.

If you want some substance in your Sift rather than just politics, I sincerely apologize. I'm getting increasingly obsessed as Election Day closes in, and I hope to recover shortly thereafter. Here's a helping of substance to tide you over: The Washington Post analyzes what really went wrong with the market meltdown. And Washington Monthly does a one-stop summary of all the major issues. Seriously.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mob Rule

Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob. -- James Madison, Federalist No. 55

In This Week's Sift:
  • The Bailout Evolves. Secretary Paulson is coming around to a more progressive plan for the bailout. The government should get equity for its money, not just the "toxic assets" banks want to get rid of.
  • Ugly Campaign Excites Some Republicans, Turns Off Others. When your party starts to look like a mob, thinking people start to leave.
  • Voter Fraud: More Hype than Substance. Republicans are always trying to raise the "voter fraud" issue, which appears to have zero impact on elections. This week they succeeded.
  • Troopergate Report: Hockey Mom is Power Abuser. The McCain campaign failed to derail the investigation or muzzle its findings until after the election. Does it surprise you to find out that Palin did something wrong? Or that she's lying about what the report says?
  • Short Notes. Congratulations to Paul Krugman. And (for a different reason) to the state of Connecticut. Sean Hannity tastes his own medicine. Norm Coleman's flack has a bad week. And you can be a racist without knowing it.

The Bailout Evolves
We just had the worst week in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average: down 18%. (During the 1987 crash it dropped 22.6% in a day, but rebounded a little the rest of the week.)

The good news is the Secretary Paulson is beginning to see the light about how a bailout should work: The government should inject capital into the banking system by buying stock, and not by sticking the taxpayer with whatever worthless debt the banks want to get rid of. This change puts the U.S. in line with the British and the other Europeans. It just makes sense: If and when the banking system is actually saved, the government will own something of value that it can then sell.

Asian and European stocks started this week with a rally, and the Dow crossed back over 9000 Monday.

The Republicans won't give up on trying to blame poor people and Democrats for the economic crisis. Here's some more debunking. And here.

Hard times bring out some investment-community proverbs you don't usually hear. My favorite so far is attributed to Warren Buffett: "It's only when the tide goes out that you find out who's been swimming naked." (Translation: When the market is going up, everybody looks like a genius. But when it goes down you find out who calculates their risks and who doesn't.) But I also like this anonymous one about the relative worth of paper assets versus hard assets during an economic disaster: "Always own enough gold to bribe the border guards."

Ugly Campaign Excites Some Republicans, Turns Off Others
The polls have turned sharply in Obama's favor over the past two weeks, and the McCain campaign has gotten correspondingly uglier. McCain and Palin rallies have increasingly looked like angry mobs, where people yell out that Obama is a "terrorist" and make suggestions like "kill him" and "off with his head". (And it's not just one or two wackos. Check out this video of people waiting in line for a McCain rally.) While this mob energy electrifies some Republicans, others have found it frightening and a poor reflection on the party they once loved.

Either because he was becoming alarmed himself or felt that he needed to placate those who are, McCain took a step back Friday, correcting a questioner who said that Barack Obama is an Arab, and saying that Obama is "a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared as president of the United States." The crowd booed him. Think about that. When have you ever heard a candidate booed at his own rally? (And don't give McCain too much credit here. He's still not willing to step back from a Republican official likening Obama to Osama. And now his campaign is trying to tie Michelle to Ayers' wife.)

Rush Limbaugh is one of the people urging McCain to grab a torch and get in front of the mob: "You have a responsibility to defend this country. ... It's time to start naming names and explain what's actually going on. Because, Senator McCain, the people of this country are dead scared about what we face if you lose."

Obama supporters have a hard time grasping this fear, because we don't hear (or can't take seriously) the shadow narrative that's inspiring it, the one that McCain and Palin are plugging into when they ask: "Who is the real Barack Obama?"

What is it that people like Limbaugh think is "actually going on" that requires McCain to "name names"? Various pieces of the shadow narrative have been circulating in those untraceable emails that people forward to their friends: Obama is secretly a Muslim who  was educated in a madrassa and only pretends to be Christian. His birth certificate is fake, and he's not even really an American. Bill Ayers is Obama's mentor. No, wait, Louis Farrakhan is. Or the mysterious Khalid al-Mansour. Obama's Fight-the-Smears web site is devoted to debunking this kind of stuff.

But even those details don't get you to the "kill him" stage. For that you need the full shadow narrative, with all the dots connected. You can find it in the October 6 episode of Hannity's America on Fox News: An anti-American/terrorist/black-Muslim/socialist underground has been grooming Obama since college. His presidency will be the culmination of a decades-long plan and lead to some kind Hugo-Chavez-style takeover of America, turning us into a socialist dictatorship.

CNN's Glenn Beck puts forward the same basic notions (in a form he can claim is just humor) in his "Obama National Anthem" video.

OK, imagine that you've been hearing this kind of stuff from various people and weren't sure whether you believed it or not. Now you hear McCain ask, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" and see an ad saying that Obama is "too risky for America." Sounds different now, doesn't it? (This technique is known as the "dog whistle" -- a message that sounds harmless to one group of people, but says something very different to a group that has been prepped with another message.)

The attacks on ACORN and the trumped-up accusations of vote fraud (see the next article) now take on a different cast. If the election is close, if it hangs on a few votes in some key state, then an Obama victory won't be an election, it will be a take-over, a coup. The Republic will be in danger. Digby sums up:
what we are really seeing is the beginning of a right wing story line about the next president of the United States -- he is a drug user, a foreigner, a terrorist and a traitor. And the importance of that is that it gives permission to the right wing machine to do anything and everything to destroy him. He will not really be president, you see. He will be illegitimate -- a usurper.
It was not just liberals who got scared watching McCain play with this fire. A number of Republicans from the Dwight Eisenhower/Nelson Rockefeller/Gerry Ford tradition -- people who admired the John McCain of 2000 -- were horrified.

Some of the Republicans and conservatives who backed away from McCain this week:
  • Ex-Michigan governor William Milliken. "He is not the McCain I endorsed. He keeps saying, 'Who is Barack Obama?' I would ask the question 'Who is John McCain?' because his campaign has become rather disappointing to me." Millken also describes the prospect of Palin becoming president as "disturbing, if not appalling."
  • Ex-Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee (same link). He denounces McCain's swing to the right and his "divisive strategy" saying "That's not my kind of Republicanism." Palin? "Totally unqualified."
  • Christopher Buckley, son of conservative intellectual icon William F. Buckley. "This campaign has changed John McCain. It has made him inauthentic." On Palin: "What on earth can he have been thinking?" He used to admire McCain, but laments that if he goes out "losing ugly" it will be "grafitti on a marble bust."
  • Columnist David Brooks focuses his ire on Palin rather than McCain, but he turns the standard conservative "class warfare" charge back on the Republican Party itself: "What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. ... No American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin. Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the 'normal Joe Sixpack American' and the coastal elites."
  • Christopher Hitchen, who isn't an across-the-board conservative but describes himself as a "single-issue voter" whose issue is terrorism, is supporting Obama now.
  • Senator Hagel's wife and President Eisenhower's granddaughter are planning to endorse Obama Tuesday.
  • Frank Schaeffer, an author who worked for McCain in 2000. "You have changed. You have a choice: Go down in history as a decent senator and an honorable military man with many successes, or go down in history as the latest abettor of right-wing extremist hate."

John Deeth reports a very weird prayer at the beginning of a McCain rally Saturday in Davenport, Iowa: "There are plenty of people around the world who are praying to their god, be they Hindu, Buddah, or Allah, that (McCain's) opponent wins. I pray that you step forward and honor your own name." So this election is sort of like Elijah competing against the prophets of Baal or something.

This Obama-in-a-turban billboard is on U.S. Highway 63 in Missouri.

Asked about the mob mentality at McCain rallies, campaign manager Rick Davis starts talking about McCain being a POW.

McCain's ads have become almost 100% negative, compared to a nearly even positive/negative mix for Obama. CNN points out that since Obama is outspending McCain about 2-1 on advertising, the sheer number of negative ads is about the same. But it's hardly fair to equate a negative Obama ad to a negative McCain ad. Take this Obama ad: Unravel. It's negative; it tells you why you might not do well under McCain's health care plan. Compare that to McCain's Ayers ad, or the other "too risky for America" ads. They mention no Obama policies, but instead try to raise your anxieties about Obama as a person. It's a little like the difference between criticizing your haircut and calling you ugly.

Voter Fraud: More Hype than Substance
This week has seen a lot of coverage of the voter fraud issue. Fox News always hypes it before an election, but it's also getting attention on CNN and the other networks. CBS reported:
Whether simple error or outright fraud, the charges surrounding ACORN are already raising doubts about the integrity of the upcoming election in key parts of the country.
ACORN is a liberal-leaning independent group that registers a lot of voters, and is the focus of Republican voter-fraud charges, including a police raid on its offices in Nevada.

I was going to write a long deflation of this voter-fraud hype, but fortunately Josh Marshall already did. The key point: Although some bogus voter registrations do slip through the system, they hardly ever result in actual fraudulent votes. (You think a joker who registers as Mickey Mouse is going to show up at the polls, identify himself as Mickey Mouse, and try to vote?) The Bush Justice Department has pushed hard to get arrests and convictions on voter fraud, and has come up empty. That's largely what the U.S. attorney's scandal was about: firing Republican appointees who weren't working hard enough to push bogus or trivial voter-fraud cases.

A closer-to-the-ground view comes from Will Reynolds, who has registered voters in Arkansas and Illinois for Project Vote, which sometimes works with ACORN. He explains where bogus registrations come from.

My office didn't pay on a per-registration basis, but we did require people to be fairly consistent about how many registrations they brought in on a work day. Otherwise you're paying people to do nothing. ... We warned workers about the consequences of submitting false registrations often enough that most people didn't try. But, I did have to fire one person for falsifying forms.
False registrations, in other words, are frauds that lazy workers perform against organizations like ACORN, not frauds ACORN perpetrates against the voting system.

Even if ACORN suspects a registration is a fraud, by law it has to submit the form. (Imagine if they didn't: Your real name sounds bogus, and you think you've registered to vote, but ACORN threw out your registration form.) So it's easy to write an ACORN-submits-bogus-forms story. You don't even have to sift through ACORN's forms to find the bogus ones: They deliver the ones they think are suspicious in a separate pile.

Troopergate Report: Hockey Mom is Power Abuser
Ten minutes after Sarah Palin was first announced as John McCain's VP,
anybody who knew how to use Google knew that she was under
investigation by the Republican legislature -- for misusing the power
of her office to pursue a personal vendetta against her sister's
ex-husband. But McCain apparently either didn't know, thought he could
suppress the investigation until after the election, or expected the investigation to clear Palin.

Guess again, John.

Friday, after the Alaska Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch attempt to stop the investigation and the Republican-dominated legislative council voted 12-0 to release the investigation's 263-page report, the report was released on schedule. The upshot: While the governor has the right to fire the public safety commissioner for whatever reason she wants, pressuring him to enlist in her personal vendetta is an "abuse of power" that violates the state ethics law.

Hilzoy pretty much nails my reaction:
This is, at bottom, a story about the rule of law, and the rules governing the exercise of political power. ... If you don't accept the rule of law, you might think that taking political power allows you to take any kind of vengeance you want on anyone who crosses you.
And isn't that just the mavericky attitude we need from our vice president? Or did we get enough of that already from Dick Cheney?

From Time's more cynical perspective, the shocking thing the report reveals is how amateurish the Palin administration is. "Disturbingly so." Again and again, the report presents Palin aides who seem not to understand their jobs. The head of personnel needs to be reminded that personnel matters are confidential. Monegan has to warn the attorney general that their conversation about Wooten has legal implications. And apparently nobody tells Todd Palin that he's not an official of the State of Alaska. The report "paints an extralegal role for Todd Palin that would have made the Hillary Clinton of 1992 blush."

And how does Palin respond to the report's findings? By lying about them. She appreciates "being cleared of any legal wrongdoing or unethical activity at all." And what color is the sky on your world, Governor?

Oh, and let's not forget those problems with the Palins' tax returns.

After watching the first McCain/Obama debate in a bar (and presumably seeing Joe Biden on all the networks afterward), where did Sarah Palin watch the second debate? A pizza place.

Short Notes
On October 28, Connecticut will become the third state (after Massachusetts and California) where same-sex couples can marry. Friday the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the state's civil-union law unconstitutional. “To decide otherwise," wrote Justice Richard Palmer, "would require us to apply one set of constitutional principles to gay persons and another to all others.”

California's proposed Proposition 8 (up for a vote in November) would end same-sex marriage in that state. The polls are close, but I think the same-sex-marriage defenders have found a good slogan: Don't eliminate marriage for anyone. But the anti-gay forces are working hard. Whatever happens in November, the long-term trend is clear: After five years, the sky has not fallen on Massachusetts. The longer that goes on, the harder it is to keep telling scary stories about same-sex marriage.

Al Franken is supposed to be the comedian in the Minnesota Senate race, but last week a spokesman (Cullen Sheehan) for his opponent (Republican Senator Norm Coleman) had two press briefing so bad they're funny. In the first, Sheehan responds (or rather, doesn't respond) to the rumor that a rich friend buys Coleman's suits. In the second, he goes round-and-round with reporters who want him to resolve an
obvious contradiction in Coleman's statements about Social Security. It would be amusing enough if these were examples of the attack-dog liberal media harassing a hapless conservative operative. But in each case, the reporters are literally begging Sheehan to stop making such a fool of himself.

Here's how you turn the tables on Fox News. Sean Hannity's account of Obama's community organizer days leans heavily on Andy Martin, labeled "Author & Journalist" at the bottom of the screen. Hannity made no criticism or challenge to Martin, and even promoted Martin's book about Obama. Well, it turns out Martin is a well-known anti-Semite who once ran for office on a platform pledging to "exterminate Jew power in America."

After Tuesday's McCain/Obama debate, Hannity interviewed Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs. Hannity decided to ignore the topics discussed in the debate and instead go straight to the Bill Ayers guilt-by-association stuff. Gibbs gave it right back, and used guilt-by-association to accuse Hannity of being an anti-Semite. Fox News is not about debate, it's about theater. Gibbs gave a great performance.

From now on, when I quote economist Paul Krugman I'll have to quote Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.

Nicholas Kristof had a great column about unconscious racism and its effect on voting. Unlike much of the talk about racism, Kristof mentions actual research. In one experiment, whites witness what appears to be a medical emergency. When they were the only bystanders, they called 911. But when there were other bystanders who might make the call, they called 75% of the time for a white victim and only 38% for a black victim. Most of the people who would call for a white but not a black express no conscious ill-will towards blacks. In another study, whites were more impressed by the resume of a white applicant than by the identical resume of a black applicant. Those who didn't recommend the black found reasons -- like his lack of experience -- that didn't bother them about the white applicant. Quite likely, they had no idea racism was involved.

Monday, October 6, 2008

How Far is Down?

What you believe depends on what you’ve seen, -- not only what is visible, but what you are prepared to look in the face. – Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

In this week's Sift:
  • The Economy: No Quick Fix. The $700 billion bailout has been passed, but the world's stock markets are still plummeting.
  • This Week in Sarah. Do debates get graded on a curve? And I wonder if she knows that her closing Reagan quote was from his denunciation of Medicare.
  • Short Notes. We're still losing soldiers in two wars. Polling is trickier than it looks. Apologies to Tom Paxton. Identity is not policy. The Bill Ayers innuendo. Using the Bible to argue for same-sex marriage. And more.

Economy: No Quick Fix
Anyone who was expecting the markets to turn around instantly after the $700 billion financial bailout (or "rescue" or whatever you want to call it) became law ... well, that's not what's happening. European and Asian markets open before Wall Street, and most lost 6-8% today. (Russia was down 15% when they closed the market early.) The Dow broke below 10,000 -- a level it first achieved in 1999.

It's hard to assess what's responsible for what, because the bailout is not the only financial news. We found out that the U.S. economy lost more than 150,000 jobs in September, bringing 2008's job losses to 750,000. Banks are failing in Europe too, and the EU has not come together on a strategy for dealing with it.

In general, I think the mainstream media has done a bad job of explaining how the problems of the banks and the stock market affect ordinary people. So I'll try. The underlying purpose of a money-and-banking system is to make sure that people cooperate economically. When the system fails, sensible cooperation fails with it. At the the height of the Depression for example, you had coal miners going hungry because the mines couldn't find buyers for their coal. Meanwhile, farmers were burning corn to stay warm, because they also couldn't find buyers. Any idiot could see that burning coal and eating corn made more sense. But to act on that insight, the idiot would need capital, and the capital system was broken.

That level of dysfunction is still a long way off. But there have been some worrisome signs pointing in that direction. Unfortunately, you have to learn some financial terminology to talk about those signs. The system by which big organizations borrow money to smooth out their cash flow is called the commercial paper market. It's been shrinking. Another measure of the problem is the London Interbank Offered Rate (usually known by its acronym LIBOR). LIBOR is the interest rate that banks charge each other for short-term loans. Ordinarily, LIBOR is pretty close to the rate on short-term treasury bills, because banks consider other banks to be almost as credit-worthy as the U.S. government. The gap between LIBOR and the treasury rate is called the T-bill/EuroDollar (TED) spread. It's usually small. Early in 2007 it was less than half a percent. Recently it's been close to 4%.

Translation: Banks don't even trust other banks to pay them back. So why should they trust you or your business?

The upshot is that when, say, Sears decides to build up its inventory for Christmas -- that's harder to do now. And the problem doesn't just affect businesses. The State of California asked the federal government for $7 billion loan Friday, because (according to its treasurer) California "has been locked out of the credit markets for the past ten days." Massachusetts made a similar request. If they don't get it, paychecks may start bouncing. "Payments for teachers' salaries, nursing homes, law enforcement and every other state-funded service would stop or be significantly delayed," the California treasurer warned.

Think about that. The problem isn't that teachers, nurses, and cops are no longer needed, or even that California's residents are unwilling to pay for their services. (The spending has already been approved by the political process.) It's just a question of getting the money from here to there. That's what is locking up. Once such a lock-up starts, it propagates. Suppose you're a business with state contracts; maybe you supply food to a UCLA cafeteria. You know the state still wants your services, and you know that (ultimately) the state is good for the money. It would make perfect economic sense to borrow to keep paying your workers until the state comes through. But borrow from who? And if you can't borrow, then what happens to your suppliers, or to the people who were expecting your workers to pay their bills?

That's what the bailout is about -- getting money flowing again. It was never expected to fix the underlying economic problems. Instead, it is supposed to be like the shock paddles that restart a patient's heart. The shock doesn't cure whatever was wrong to begin with, but now the patient may live long enough for the doctors to figure something out.

If real economic reasons -- overbuilding, competition from other markets, diminishing resources, and so forth -- cause stocks to fall, businesses to go broke, and people to lose their jobs ... well, that's capitalism. The business cycle repeats about once a decade, and eventually things turn around. But if stuff is crashing because nobody trusts anybody else ... that's a political problem. And it needs a political solution.

The Wonk Room has one of those proverbial thousand-word pictures: A graph of the national debt relative to the size of the economy. The graph declines from World War II all the way to the advent of Ronald Reagan, when it shoots up. It declines again during the Clinton years, then shoots up again under Bush. Moral: If you worry about the national debt, you don't want another Republican administration.

In trying to understand all the debates about regulation, I've been leaning on a sports analogy: In a game like football, you've got players, you've got referees, and you've got a committee that meets in the off-season to figure out if the rules need to change. (Non-fans may not realize this, but the NFL's rules are subtly different each season.)

To Soviet-style economic planners, all the running, passing, and tackling is secondary. They want the rules committee to decide who's going to win and the referees to implement those decisions.

Free-market fundamentalists, on the other hand, claim that all we need are players. They argue that players' salaries ultimately depend on the health of the sport and the fans' faith in the integrity of the plays, so we should trust the players to make their own rules and referee their own games.

But a sensible person understands that these are three different roles, and they're all necessary. We need players (businessmen, workers, consumers etc.) to make the plays. We need referees (SEC, FDIC, etc.) to figure out what happened and to enforce the rules. And we need a rules committee (policy makers in the administration and Congress) to look at the results and figure out how the game needs to change. We need all three, and we need to keep each from encroaching on the turf of the others.

As I explained last week, in the Republican alternate universe the financial crisis was caused by excessive government regulation and intervention: Regulations pushed banks to lend to minorities, and quasi-government companies like Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac went crazy. This explanation distracts attention from things like the rule-change exempting the big investment banks from capital requirements, and the government's failure to regulate "the shadow banking system" of hedge funds, non-bank mortgage lenders, etc. If Fannie and Freddy were the whole problem, bailing them out would have solved everything. Instead, we're looking at a similar problem developing around credit card debt and car loans, both of which were also a basis for complicated derivative investment vehicles.

Money Meltdown is a one-stop site for making sense of the financial crisis.

Humor never goes broke. Here somebody puts financial institutions into a elimination bracket, like the NCAA basketball tournament. The Joker critiques the bailout. Jon Stewart notices how similar Bush's bailout speech was to his Iraq speech, and recognizes John McCain as "the only man who can impulsively over-react to something ten days old." Scott Bateman annotates another Bush economic speech.

Some humor is unintentional. Here is a three-year-old post from the right-wing blog PowerLine, ridiculing Paul Krugman's crazy notion that there is a housing bubble or that people should worry about it popping: "No matter how well the economy performs, Krugman's bitter vendetta against the Bush administration requires him to hunt for the black lining in a sky full of silvery clouds."

This Week in Sarah
Sarah's big event this week was her debate with Joe Biden on Thursday. How she did depends on what you expected. Graded on the curve established by her Katie Couric interview, she got an A, maybe even an A+. She continues to look like a student taking an oral exam, but this time she was a good student: She had responses -- though not always answers -- to every question, she supported her points with relevant "facts", and she never had long periods where she said nothing or strung words together incoherently.

If you had just dropped in from Mars and knew nothing about the build-up to the debate, though, you would think Biden won. (Polls agree.) He was generally sharper, and he did a better job putting forward his campaign's central message (that McCain has been wrong about Iraq from the beginning and wants to continue Bush's policies on the economy, while Obama offers a new direction on both). He also took better advantage of the short-answer format, which the McCain campaign had negotiated to protect Palin from extended follow-up questions. Biden always knew when the format was going to give him the last word on a question, so he closed with strong statements that left Palin no chance to respond. Palin did not appear to be strategizing on that level.

Palin was by far the folksier of the two, peppering her responses with colloquialisms (like doggone and you betcha) and facial expressions (like winks) that you don't usually see in a national debate. I can't tell how well this played. Neither could conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who clearly was turned off by it, but expected less educated people to eat it up. (Her fellow National Review columnist Rich Lowry did eat it up, but he sounds more like he's reacting to a lap dance than to a political gesture.) I wonder how many people agree with comedian Elon James White (at about the 1:50 mark of Episode 9 of This Week in Blackness):
Why do people like this folksy nonsense? I don't want my president, I don't want my vice president, I don't want anyone who has any power over me being folksy. OK? I don't need to have a beer with you for me to feel comfortable with you running the government. Personally, if I could see myself having a beer with you, I'm probably not going to vote for you. It's the opposite of what I want, OK? My friends, I drink with them all the time, I wouldn't trust them with keys to my apartment.
I grew up in a working-class Midwestern area, where people sound like Larry Bird, use expressions like dumber than a box of rocks, pronounce our nation's capital Worshington (the way McCain does), and talk about nuke-you-ler weapons (as Palin and Bush do). But I also was taught that you don't do folksy in public, because people will think that your family is stupid. I don't know if that taboo is still in force, but I imagine that at least a few older working-class folks were cringing as much as the educated elite were.

Remember Palin's debate claim that she pushed Alaska to divest its investments in Sudan? I don't know why I'm surprised that it's not true.

Palin ended the debate with a moving quote from Ronald Reagan, warning that we could end up telling our children's children "what it once was like in America when men were free." I imagine such a future often in this Age of Cheney, but do you know what great threat to American freedom Reagan was warning us against? Medicare.

Palin: "It's time that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency."

Wall Street Journal columnist and ex-Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan: "This left me trying to imagine Abe Lincoln saying he represents 'backwoods types'."
The Palins released their 2007 tax returns Friday. Mr. and Mrs. Six-Pack made $166,000 in 2007 and gave a whopping $2,500 of it to charity. And they didn't declare the $17,000 in travel per diem the State of Alaska pays her when she works at home.

Palin is suffering collateral damage from the McCain/Letterman feud. And Tina Fey is still doing a Palin impression for SNL. I especially love the part where she brings out a flute for the talent portion of the debate.

Not only can't reporters talk to Palin, they can't talk to people at Palin rallies either.

The Troopergate report is scheduled to come out Friday. The McCain campaign, having lost at all lower levels, is going to the Alaska Supreme Court to block it. If the federal Supremes wind up getting involved, it will be time to talk about Bush v. Gore again. Meanwhile, some Palin associates have realized that subpoenas actually mean something and have decided to testify. The First Dude, however, is still defying the law.

Short Notes
In September, 25 coalition soldiers (all Americans) died in Iraq, and 37 in Afghanistan. American military deaths in Iraq are fairly stable: the last few months have seen 25, 23, 13, 29, and 19 after a spike to 52 in April. After the spring of 2007, when deaths were regularly over 100 a month, the American people seem not to notice 20-some deaths. The 37 in Afghanistan (equally invisible) is down from an all-time monthly high of 46 in August. After nine months of 2008, we've already lost more coalition troops in Afghanistan (236) than we did in all of 2007 (232).

If you obsess over the daily or weekly fluctuations in the polls the way I do, this is a calm-down message: Take a look at the demographic data at the very end of the 9/29 ABC/WashingtonPost poll. What you'll see is that the demographics of the sample fluctuate in totally implausible ways. So, for example, the number of married people in the sample has been trending steadily upwards, from 53% in mid-June to 64% in the latest poll. It was 60% just a week before. Did 4% of registered voters really get married in the last week of September? (Were you invited? I wasn't.) The percentage of white people was also up 5% that week. (So take a bow, all of you who have been phone-banking to convince people that they're white.) Maybe the week-to-week support for Obama or McCain fluctuates for similar reasons, whatever they are.

Correction from two weeks ago: I was right that Arlo Guthrie sang "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler" but Tom Paxton wrote it. To make up for this mistake, here's Paxton's Vietnam classic "Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation" which he updated in 2007 to "George W Told the Nation". You know, a medley of Paxton songs could make a pretty good history of the last 40 years.

Matt Yglesias notices something that's been bugging me about McCain: He consistently substitutes identity for policy. For example, he says: "I know the veterans. I know them well. And I know that they know that I’ll take care of them." Does that mean his policies back that up? No. Ditto for Palin and families with special needs. Is she pushing some particular program or policy change that will benefit those families? Of course not.

The Right keeps saying that the media won't look into Obama's relationship to ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers. Well, the New York Times just did, and found nothing remarkable. Obama and Ayers were politically active Democrats in Chicago, so they ran into each other from time to time. A thousand words later, the story ends.

Here's why baseless innuendo is such a popular political tactic: If there's no story to cover, you can usually count on the media not to cover it. (We never hear about all the reporters who investigate something and come back to their editors with nothing.) Then you can rail about how the biased media is hiding some horrible scandal. So I guess we should be grateful that this time the Times wasted a thousand words to verify that there really is nothing to say.

To repeat a point I've made before, the way you tell a real issue from a fake one is to ask: "What is the accusation?" Look at Troopergate, for example. There, the accusation is simple: Sarah Palin fired Alaska's public safety commissioner because he wouldn't help her pursue her personal vendetta against her sister's ex-husband. Respectable people are willing to stand up in public and make that charge, which has a true-or-false answer. But in the Obama/Ayers or Obama/Rezko attacks, you'll search in vain for anything so direct. Obama has "connections" or "associations" that are "suspicious". It never gets any more specific than that.

Rolling Stone has a devastating retelling of John McCain's life story. The L.A. Times also takes a look behind the myth. Apparently McCain destroyed more American planes than enemy planes.

I've been warning for months that McCain's budget ideas only work if "entitlement reform" means massive cuts in programs like Medicare. The Wall Street Journal is starting to agree with me.

If you're not watching Rachel Maddow's new show on MSNBC, you're missing out.

Here's how you use the Bible in an ad for same-sex marriage.

33 pastors participated in a civil disobedience action sponsored by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund: In defiance of a 1954 law about the tax-exemption of churches, the pastors endorsed candidates from the pulpit on September 28. I can't verify that they all endorsed McCain, but that seems to be the trend.