Thursday, September 18, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Obama Plebiscite?

The 2014 national midterm election will turn out its results
depending on one vital question: Will the individual elections
for governor, U.S. senator and U.S. house of representatives be
determined (as is usual) mostly by local circumstances and
personalities, or will they be considered by a large number of
voters (mostly independents) as a plebiscite on President
Obama, his administration, and their performance in office?

The Democratic Party needs the answer to be the former; the
Republican Party and most independent voters want the answer
to be the latter. The huge amounts of money being spent by
outside groups for vulnerable Democratic incumbents reveals
how intensely the liberal party and its supporters are trying to
keep this cycle as local and personal as possible. They have had
some success, it should be noted, but the price has been high.
Campaigns of defamation and personal attack when supported
by massive TV and mail advertising are proven strategies.
Republicans are fighting back, but their financial resources this
cycle are more limited, especially against incumbents.

Evidence of all this can easily be seen by the Democratic
candidates themselves. Most of them are attempting in one way
or another to keep Mr. Obama out of the minds of voters in their
races. One Democratic candidate recently got as specific as
possible by publicly stating “I am not Obama!” The president’s
poll numbers are at, or close to, his all-time lows. In Minnesota,
for example, he is currently at 38%, although he carried the state
easily in his two presidential elections. If his unpopularity is on
Minnesota voters’ minds on election day, both Governor Mark
Dayton and U.S. Senator Al Franken have a serious re-election
problem. Both of them are currently ahead of their Republican
challengers, but each of them are under 50% in most polls. This
is also true of many close races across the country where
Democratic incumbent still lead in the polls, but are notably
under 50%.

Historically, truly undecided voters at the end of an election
campaign rarely vote for incumbents or the party in power.

The stock market is up, but a number of stock analysts are
openly predicting a steep decline or crash ahead. Official
unemployment is down, but the true numbers are still very
high. The economy is uncertain. Inflation, interest rates,
government deficits, home real estate values and higher
taxes are a concern for most American voters as election
day approaches. Foreign affairs, usually not significant in
U.S. voter decisions, fills the daily headlines with terrorist
threats, U.S. diplomatic missteps and blunders, and
American retreat from its hitherto preeminent global
influence.

The leadership of President Obama, senate majority leader
Harry Reid, and house minority leader Nancy Pelosi has
moved the nation abruptly to the left since 2009. They and
whomever the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee
will be in 2016 want the voters to confirm their actions and
policies in 2014. With a new figure at the top of their ticket in
2016, Democrats can then anticipate remaining in power and
continuing these policies.

If many voters decide in 2014, however, that their only way to
signal their dissatisfaction with the Obama policy regimen
and its results is to vote massively for the opposition party,
all bets are off for the next presidential election.

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Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Jungle Creatures

The cinema has not usually been a source of truly profound
utterances, but there is a line said by Eleanor of Aquitaine
(Katherine Hepburn) to her husband Henry II (Peter O’Toole)
in playwright James Goldman’s great film “The Lion In Winter”
in which she says, “We are jungle creatures, Henry, and the
dark is all around us.


The first time I saw that film, and watched that scene, I knew
I had heard something very powerful and true. Years later, it
still echoes as I read the latest headlines about the enduring
barbarity in the world in which we all live.

I am talking about the “civilization” of the species known as
human beings. I know many of my readers will protest that
I should not include most of Western “civilization” which
includes Europe and North America, but why should I not
include them?

Yes, democratic capitalism has advanced human society
beyond the “naked” tribalism which has long existed in much
of the world, and still prevails over a great portion of the
human population. But more than two hundred years after
democratic capitalism emerged in the West, and prevailed
among some persons in some areas of the world, astonishing
levels of barbarity survive and reappear in its midst.

The 20th century was among the most barbaric in all of recorded
human history, and in spite of so many advances in technology,
millions were unspeakably murdered in some of the previously
most advanced societies. The 21st century, now in its early years,
continues with more of the same. This is the century of the
internet, astounding medical breakthroughs, and the rapid
transformation of science fiction into science fact. And what do
we also have? A worldwide religious war of savagery and
intolerance. and a “United Nations” which supports and
celebrates the denial of human rights, while it promotes
conflict and hatred. In less than a century after they occurred,
Europe has a case of amnesia about its Holocaust, and Russia
has a case of amnesia about the murder of millions of Ukrainians
by Stalin.

The world seems determined to repeat its past depravities
again and again.

I know the reader would prefer a message of a more hopeful
and positive world ahead. I would much prefer to write it.

But we are jungle creatures, and the dark is all around us.

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Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 12, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Waiting For The Fat Lady

There has recently been an excess of speculation in the media
and by the U.S. political class about whether or not there will
be a political “wave” on November 4, 2014.

I have suggested that this is a spinning of punditry wheels
with no destination since a “wave” is in fact the truly undecided
voters going overwhelmingly to one side or the other at the very
end of the campaign, and the more intense motivation to go to
the polls by voters on one side or the other, something that will
not be known until on or about election day.

I am not saying there will be, or will not be, a political wave in
the national midterm elections this year, but I am saying the
wave will not be genuinely evident until the very end of the
campaign.

The appropriate phrase for this circumstance comes from the
words of a Dallas sportscaster during a football game in 1976
when he said, “the opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings.”
(This now usually generically reduced to "It's not over until 
the fat lady sings.")

The word “opera” gives us a clue to what the sportscaster had
on his mind. He was very probably referring to the 19th century
Wagnerian opera series “The Ring of the Nibelungen” and its
concluding work “Gotterdammerung” in which the soprano in the
role  of the valkyrie Brunnhilde sings an exceptionally long aria
just before the opera’s end (which is the end of the world of the
Norse gods). The sopranos who traditionally sang this role were
almost always quite corpulent, hence the “fat lady.”

This is a very long opera, and the sportscaster no doubt once sat
through it.

The enduring quality of the phrase is not diminished by its
origin in a sports broadcast. I used to think the reference was
to Kate Smith, the great American popular singer of the 1930’s
and 1940’s, but apparently that is not so.

When I write a column entitled “The Fat Lady Is Singing,” the
reader will know that I think we have a wave this year or not.

It was that singular American post-modern philosopher Yogi
Berra who took the "fat lady" phrase to its next, and probably final,
level when he said, “It ain’t over until it’s over.”

It is perhaps appropriate, considering its origin, that a sports figure
would have the last word on the subject, as the voters properly also
will have on the election itself.

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Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Penmanship

The art and practice of penmanship used to be an important
skill in American life, and whether or not you were good at it,
writing in cursive longhand was something almost everyone
had to do to communicate until the commercial typewriter
was invented in 1868.

Today, longhand or cursive writing by most Americans is
limited to signing a check, signing a credit card slip, or
writing a few words on an otherwise printed document.

Letter writing survives technically, but most communications
today are by e-mails or text messages. Pen and ink, or even pen
and pencil, are almost extinct.

Until the 19th century, every book was written in longhand
before being typeset. Today, more and more books are being
written, published  and read electronically.

It is an irreversible phenomenon.

A few persons, however, insist on writing letters. Among them,
for example, is Tom Ridge, former congressman, governor of
Pennsylvania, and first cabinet secretary of the Department of
Homeland Security. Throughout his public career, and no doubt
before it, Mr. Ridge writes letters in longhand, in ink and on nice
paper. I might add that they are not perfunctory letters. However
short, they are always original and engaging. I prize the ones I
have received from him over the years. President George H.W.
Bush did that before him, and many Americans possess treasured
examples of his gracious penmanship. Some other Americans,
both famous and non-famous, also persist in communicating in
handwritten form. Fine writing instruments and fine papers
to write with them are still made, but pen and paper companies
are disappearing. The number of persons who write letters
or anything else in longhand is fast dwindling.

The extinction of handwriting has been hastened by the
many new devices with which you can scribble your signature
on a credit card screen with your fingernail, or send money
and information electronically without any signature at all.

Collectors of autograph letters and manuscripts no longer
have contemporary material to acquire. Autographs and
signatures themselves can be made with a machine.
Handwriting itself will soon be something only found in a
museum.

If handwriting survives at all, it will likely be as an art form
like painting, and practiced only by s few artists.

In a few generations, ordinary handwriting will likely not be
readable by anyone except a few scholars and trained
experts. The handwriting that billions of us now take for
granted will be like cuneiform, ancient pictograms and
hieroglyphics are regarded today. It will be the same for
those who speak English and other Indo-European languages,
and those who write in calligraphic ideograms and non-Roman
letters such as Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic and Hindi.

The question is, therefore, how long will penmanship be
taught in schools? Will the children of the future even know
how to write?  Common Core does not ban teaching cursive
longhand, but it also does not require it. Even the word
"penmanship" has become politically incorrect.

Because computers use keyboards, the skill of typing is still
an important one. But even the ability to type may soon be
extinct. I’m old enough to recall that I thought the invention
of the electric typewriter was “amazing.” New devices now
accurately transpose the spoken word into print on a
computer screen. It is being widely suggested that even
the spoken word might be soon extinct, as new inventions,
already in development, can transpose words you “think” to
a computer or readable device. No “sound” will be necessary.

It is all happening very quickly, and even if inevitable, it will
change the whole nature of how human beings communicate
to each other in only a few generations, and with sudden
alterations of human culture itself.

What happens when the intimacy and privacy of letter writing
are gone? How does language change when no one any longer
"writes" in it.

Who knows the now inestimable consequences of this rapid
disappearance of human handwriting?

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Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Home Stretch Begins

The 2014 national mid-term elections have now entered
the final turn of their campaigns. Less than two months
remain, and the number of truly undecided voters is
beginning to diminish with greater velocity.

A few weeks ago, some pundits asked aloud whether a
potential “wave” election was in fact going to occur. I wrote
at that time that “wave” elections rarely appear visible
until the final weeks and days of a political cycle, but that
signs do appear to indicate that one one might be forming.

I have suggested that a clear pattern of increasingly
vulnerable U.S. house and senate seats now held by
Democrats was just such a sign. I also suggested that most
of the notable “gaffes” of the 2014 cycle were happening
in Democratic campaigns (unlike 2010 and 2014 when they
occurred in Republican campaigns).

The latest example of the latter  took place in Alaska where
incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Begich, seemingly
holding his own in a close race with Republican challenger
Dan Sullivan, ran a spurious and self-destructive ad against
his opponent, an ad which he had to quickly withdraw. But
the damage has been done, and it has changed the race.

Earlier, Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley, his party’s
senate nominee in Iowa, made absurd remarks about his
Iowa GOP senate colleague Chuck Grassley, belittling the
fact that Grassley was an Iowa farmer. Braley, at that point,
was comfortably ahead of his eventual GOP opponent Joni
Ernst. The race is still competitive, but Braley has not
regained his momentum, and is now behind.

Appointed Montana Democratic Senator John Walsh had
acquired incumbency in his contest against GOP Congressman
Steve Daines, but revelations of earlier plagiarism forced
Walsh to resign his nomination, and the race is no longer in play.

Incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who is part of
a powerful family dynasty in Louisiana, had been leading narrowly
her GOP opponent Bill Cassidy, a physician, but new revelations
that she is spending more time at her residence in DC, and claims
her parents’ home in Lousiana as her state residence, have been
further negatively compounded by assertions that she is the
District of Columbia’s “51st senator.” The race could end in a
December run-off, but if Republicans win control without her, her
claim of senate influence would disappear, and she would likely
lose the run-off.

For a while, it seemed that Republicans were going to get by
“gaffe-free,” but the senate race in Kansas has been turned
upside down by allegations that GOP incumbent Pat Roberts
spends little time in the state, and has run a weak re-election
campaign. His Democratic opponent has just withdrawn from
the race, leaving independent Greg Orman, a moderate
businessman, as the suddenly new frontrunner. Roberts might
still win, but if he does not, it might not be a net loss for the
GOP since Orman has declared he will caucus with the party
which has the majority in the new senate. Nontheless, the sudden
political reversal is an embarrassment to the Republicans.

Another late-developing surprise have been polls in heavily
liberal (or blue state) Illinois. Not surprisingly, controversial
Democratic incumbent Governor Pat Quinn is trailing his GOP
opponent, but no one I know ever suggested that incumbent
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin was anything but a shoo-in
for re-election. Durbin, however, is under 50%, and his unknown
Republican opponent only 7 points behind, an unexpected
political shock. Durbin will still probably win, but now has to
take his race seriously in its final days.

Otherwise, several hotly contested senate races remain close,
including in North Carolina, Arkansas, New Hampshire,
Colorado and Michigan. Potentially close races exist in
Minnesota, Oregon and Virginia. Vulnerable GOP seats remain
in Kentucky and Georgia. How these races “break” in the final
days of the 2014 elections will signal whether or not a true “wave”
election is about to happen.

Unless there are more and new gaffes by individual candidates,
the month of September should be relatively quiet politically on
its surface. Most of the undecideds, many of them independents,
will likely make their minds in October as election day approaches.
A second group of pivotal voters, disaffected Democrats, will also
decide whether or not they will vote at all.

This consequential election cycle is not yet over.

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Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 29, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Novorossiya?

A new geopolitical word has crept into the eastern European
crisis now centered in Ukraine and Crimea.

That word is “Novorossiya” or the Russian language word for
“New Russia.” Actually, the term is an old one, and comes
from the czarist imperial description of southern Ukraine
when it was part of the old Russian empire.

Russian President Putin is now using the term to describe
the Ukrainian rebels, tentatively giving credence to a
possible rationalization of the annexation of eastern
Ukraine in addition to the annexation he has already done
Crimea.

President Obama has denounced recent Russian
aggression, and has been joined by his major NATO allies,
but so far their action has been limited to economic
penalties. Putin has responded with counter-penalties.
To be fair, it is unclear what more action Western nations,
including the U.S. could reasonably take, given historic
European passivity and a war-weary U.S. public.

The problem is, of course, that Ukraine is a sovereign
nation, albeit declared so by the Soviet Union when it
controlled most of eastern Europe either as puppet
satellites or “socialist republics” in the Soviet Union itself.

The dismemberment of Ukraine today is an extra-legal
disruption of post-Soviet Europe, both west and east.
Whether by Napoleon, the Central Powers led by the
German kaiser,  the Axis Powers led by Hitler and
Mussolini, or the Soviet Union led by Stalin, modern
Europe has endured these disruptions for more than two
centuries. Mr. Putin is only the latest aggressor.

History tells us that only force repels force. Otherwise,
aggression in Europe has only led to more aggression.

That, alas, is what is in store for the post-war European
Union that was created to deter and eliminate European
wars “permanently.” Force meeting force, however
necessary, has once more become very unfashionable.

In an adjoining region of the world, an Islamic new
caliphate has been self-proclaimed, and is aggressively
on the move against its neighbors.

Here we go again.

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Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Is A Voter Wave Coming?

Some pundits and pollsters are now asking out loud if a
voter wave is coming for the national mid-term 2014
elections in November.

The reasons for these questions is the lack of polling data
with which dispositively to predict there will be one.

So far, there is little question that the traditional boost
for the party not holding the White House is taking place.
Republicans seem on target to win back control of the U.S.
senate (albeit by a narrow margin), increase their margin
in the U.S. house, and to hold their own in state governors
(although almost twice as many GOP incumbent governors’
positions are being contested this cycle}.

If this trend continues to election day, it would be, of
course, a very good day for the conservative party, but
being an off-presidential-year cycle, not in itself a true
wave or landslide election. The Democrats, if this happens,
would still be in a position for a recovery in 2016 with a
new presidential candidate.

A wave election in 2014, it seems to me, would require the
GOP to pick up at least 9 senate seats, 8-10 or more house
seats, and draw even or better in the gubernatorial races.
That’s an imperfect definition, and some might quibble
with my exact numbers, but a political “tsunami” this year
would have no ambiguity. The voters would be sending
“the government” a message.

First of all, with about two months to go, it is not surprising
that poll numbers do not show a wave. Republican
challengers are leading or tied in many races that would be
pick-ups, but the margins are not large. This is because
many likely voters, especially independents, as I see it, are not
yet willing to commit their vote to a pollster. However, since
most of the contested races are seats now held by Democrats,
it is problematic for the liberal party, led by President Obama;
the fact remains that, as an election draws near, undecideds
are less and less likely to go with incumbents. This traditional
rule is compounded by current conditions of economic
uncertainty, unemployment and an uneven modest recovery.
World events are particularly tense this summer, and the
hesitating White House response to international threats does
not help the party in power with voters.

Polls are showing perhaps a larger number of undecided
voters at this point, but I would argue those numbers reflect
problems with polling more than the state of voters’ minds.
Furthermore, if there is to be a wave election, it will be fueled
on election day with a wave of truly undecided voters in the
last two weeks before election day.

I am not yet predicting a wave election, however. World
events can always have an impact. The Democrats,
furthermore, have had the superior ground game
(get-out-the-vote) effort for a decade, and their advantage
in this was powerfully demonstrated in 2012. If the liberal
party can get their voters effectively to the polls, the
results in 2014 would likely not be a wave election, no matter
the final tally.

Republicans have had fair warning about their opponents’
ground game. Supposedly, there are now GOP campaigns
employing the new technologies to identify their voters,
and the means to assure they vote in 2014.

Democrats will not have the advantage of “problem” GOP
candidates this cycle, as occurred in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
In fact, most of the candidates making blunders this year
are Democrats (Bruce Braley in Iowa, now-withdrawn John
Walsh in Montana, et al). Nontheless, Democrats have
outraised the Republicans in campaign funding, and are
laboring mightily to make as many races be determined by
local issues and candidate personalities as possible.

The key, when all is said and done, to a wave election will
be in fact whether or not voters feel their choices will be
made as a reflection of their attitude and mood about
the national situation.

Watch for the signs of this to begin to appear (or fail to
appear) in polls about two weeks before election day. Until
then, the numbers will gyrate within a narrow range, and
several individual race outcomes will be uncertain.

Halloween falls on the Friday before election day this year.
We will by then have a better idea whether 2014 is going to be
trick or treat.

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Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.