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.

Friday, August 22, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The 2014 Campaign That No One Is Talking About

In 2014, there are three national campaigns taking place.

The first is the mid-term campaign of the Democrats to
re-take control of the U.S. house and to keep control of
the U.S. senate. Prospects are virtually non-existent for the
former and increasingly unlikely for the latter. The
Democrats will be trying to upset these expectations, but
they are problematically limited by their need to defend
unpopular President Obama, unpopular Obamacare
legislation, an ambivalent economy and the deteriorating
administration foreign policy.

The second campaign are the efforts by the Republicans
to add to their current control of the U.S. house and to retake
control of the U.S. senate. Both those outcomes now look
quite positive, although the latter is not a certainty since the
GOP must make a net gain of six seats.

Making matters more difficult for Democratic Party
aspirations are two factors. First the “rump” wing of the
GOP, usually described as the “tea party” wing, failed
throughout the primary season to dislodge any GOP
senators or to defeat any notable (more establishment)
challengers to vulnerable seats now held by Democrats.
Although some establishment conservatives failed to win
nomination, and some GOP incumbents will lose, the
Republicans seem likely to gain a net of 5-10 seats in the
U.S. house. Even in governorships up this cycle, in which
twice as many incumbent Republicans were facing the voters
than incumbent Democrats, early liberal hopes for significant
gains have been dashed, and the net change in state capitals
will probably be minimal.

The strategies of these two campaigns, easily predictable and
now evident, are (for the Democrats) keeping all races local,
and (for the Republicans) trying to make as many races part
of a national referendum on the president and his
administration as possible.

There is, however, a third strategic campaign underway by
each party in the midst of all this. These are the campaigns
and plans of each party’s leadership in the aftermath of
November’s results to position themselves and their candidate
for president in 2016.

Since the most likely outcome of 2016 (although by no means
yet a certainty) is the Republican control of the Congress and
a “lame duck” Democratic president, it must be assumed that
each party’s leadership and their likely 2016 candidates are
making plans for the post-November period when the 2016
presidential campaign will begin.

Although there is now a growing likelihood that Republicans
and conservatives will have some measure of success this year,
the relative positions of the two parties under that circumstance
might (paradoxically) favor the Democrats for 2016.

Already some are suggesting that Hillary Clinton, the early
favorite for the Democratic nomination to succeed Mr. Obama,
could “triangulate” Republican control of Congress and the
inevitable stalemate that would likely result, and (Harry
Truman-style) run against a do-nothing GOP house and senate.
That presupposes, of course, that she could separate herself
from the president she served for four years as secretary of
state, and that she could come up with a liberal program that
is in contrast to the Obama/Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid record.

After November, 2014, the Republicans have a very difficult
task in spite of likely “Obama fatigue” and Democratic policy
failures. They have to come up with an appealing and
understandable alternative to the past eight years, and they
will need a candidate to carry the message of that alternative.
The ingredients of the former already exist thanks to Paul
Ryan in the U.S. house, several successful GOP governors in
the states, and policy thinkers such as Newt Gingrich who
have been discussing “outside-the-box” new approaches to
governing. While these ingredients do exist, they are not yet
a whole and integrated program, and probably won’t be until
the party has a nominee (or a likely nominee).

This latter requirement is also a problem for the conservative
party which has a large “bench” of suitable candidates, but
no single frontrunner. Governor Chris Christie was emerging
as that candidate, but local New Jersey controversies have at
least temporarily waylaid his early momentum. Former
Governor Jeb Bush has the stature, but not yet the declared
intention to run. Mitt Romney, whose statements in his 2012
campaign now are looking better and better, has numerous
obstacles to a renomination. Senator Rand Paul has a
nationwide base, and several of the aforementioned
successful GOP governors could yet emerge. A volatile and
spirited contest for the GOP nomination lies ahead,

There are also a number of issues, such as immigration reform,
which face the Republican Party in the next two years.

If indeed the GOP is successful in controlling the Congress in
January, 2015, its leadership must then figure out how to deal
with President Obama who, so far, has shown no interest in
compromise, and will have at that point even less motive to
do so. As previously suggested, the GOP will have the delicate
task of proposing legislation that will not seem unconstructive
to the voters over the next two years, and will appear so
plausible that voters, especially independent voters, will look
favorably to the Republican alternative. This is much more
difficult than it might seem today when Democratic policies
are unpopular, but GOP policies are unclear.

While party strategists are now eager to discuss the 2014
campaign, and to show their “stuff” in its remaining two
months, a much bigger political chess game will succeed it.

That is the campaign no one is talking about just now, but it
is also invisibly taking place because of what awaits the 2014
winners and losers, and the much bigger stakes which will
follow.

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Real Global Warming

The true global warming in 2014 is not in the climate.
Instead, it is geopolitical, as the heat has been turned up
several notches at national borders all over the planet.

In some of the obvious places, the temperature is sizzling,
including Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Turkey, China, Sudan,
eastern Africa, Argentina and Central America. But the
political thermometer is also going up in other places
as well, including the European Union, urban U.S., Brazil,
Viet Nam, Burma, Cuba and Pakistan.

Historians will argue whether or not the foreign policy
ineptness and retreat of the Obama administration in 2014
is a major or minor cause of this global political heat.

Mr. Obama entered his presidency with the U.S. weary of its
military actions, and its casualties, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It would be unfair to accuse his disengagement policies of
being contrary to American public opinion. ANY new president
in 2009, either Democrat or Republican, would have had to
fashion a reduction of active U.S. military engagements in the
world.

The real test of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy is HOW he
constructed his lowering the military temperature of the
U.S. armed forces. His critics are contending that his
inexperience and lack of skill in foreign policy have not only
weakened the nation’s defenses, but encouraged rogue and
hostile forces in the world to increase their aggression and
violence in the world’s hotspots.

Unfortunately (for ALL Americans), a good case for this can
be made by citing the precipitous reduction of the U.S. military
personnel and presence, the dysfunction of relations with
traditional American allies, the public ambiguity in reaction
to localized military aggression. and the consistent message of
U.S. withdrawal from the problems in the world.

The challenge, also to be fair to Mr. Obama, was not entirely of
his own making. Whether or not the American public is weary of
foreign involvements and affairs, the international community is
a volatile phenomenon, and constantly in conflict as malign and
totalitarian forces rise and fall while attempting to exploit some
dispute or another into increased advantage and power.

In a phrase, the world is always in play with aggression and
violence. And this man-made conflict is seemingly always
compounded with unpredictable forces of nature which human
beings cannot control, but which periodically inflict hardship
and disaster, including violent weather, earthquakes and floods,
volcanic eruptions, epidemics and the impact on the earth of the
sun.

President Eisenhower was for many years denigrated as a U.S.
chief executive, but history is now making clear how useful was
his great knowledge of world affairs (gained from his years as
as a military commander during World War II) in dealing with
a similar political heatwave that occurred during his presidency.
The Cold War, ending hostilities in Korea, the Soviet invasion of
Hungary, the closing of the Suez Canal and the incipient
revolutionary activity in southeast Asia all confronted him, and
for the most part, he made good decisions, showed restraint and
tactical lowering of political temperatures while at the same
time preserving American power and self-defense. Mr. Eisenhower
came into the presidency better prepared for foreign policy
perhaps than any other commander-in-chief in his time.

Much is made by political scholars and pundits about how
unimportant foreign policy is to American voters. Certainly
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not elected in 1932 for his prowess
and experience in world affairs (something the man he defeated,
Herbert Hoover, had much of even before his own election in 1928),
but as the clouds of war gathered in the late 1930’s in Europe and
Asia, President Roosevelt had acquired the experience to lead the
nation at a critical time.

The next president of the United States needs not only foreign
policy experience or knowledge, but more importantly, good
judgment in foreign affairs. President Roosevelt was the right
person for the job in 1939-41, but by 1944-45, his lack of
knowledge about Asia and his ill health made him the wrong
person for the job. Harry Truman had no visible foreign affairs
background, but his generally good sense enabled him to act
in U.S. interests during most of his presidency. Richard Nixon,
for all his many shortcomings, understood foreign policy.

The economy and domestic matters will understandably fill
most of the space of the 2016 presidential campaign, as they
have done so throughout most of our history. But the world is
truly and rapidly changing under all of our feet, and it will be
necessary for voters to take the rising global political
temperatures into account when they select the next president.

If the do not, they risk a disastrous global political cold
shoulder to America in the years ahead.

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