The Great Debate

How disasters change elections

Even though politicians don’t control the weather, voters punish them for the damage it causes. But analyzing all county-level election results for incumbent governors and presidents from 1970 to 2006 also shows that this punishment is dwarfed by the reward for taking action.

In my study with Professor John Gasper of Carnegie Mellon at Doha, published last year in the American Journal of Political Science, we examined countywide damage caused by natural disasters in the three months preceding elections. When a governor requested aid and a president approved it, presidents received a half-point increase in their county vote share while governors saw a four-point bump.

Hurricane Sandy was unprecedented because it was so destructive and occurred so close to Election Day, which makes its political impact difficult to predict. The impact on state and local elections may take time to discern, but it is clear that Sandy put the brakes on a Romney campaign that had been gaining momentum and thrust President Obama into a leadership role. Actions the president took and images he created will help determine how voter emotions about Sandy are expressed in the voting booth on Tuesday.

Why are politicians rewarded for natural disasters? Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and other calamities are pop quizzes in leadership. While voters switch channels to avoid the millions of dollars’ worth of political ads late in a campaign, in a crisis they tune in for information from mayors, governors and presidents. They seek guidance, assurance that help is on the way and comforting empathy.

Sometimes, they find a proverbial knight in shining armor. When Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans in 1965, the city’s mayor in a U.S. Army “duck boat” rescued at least one citizen stranded on her roof. But leaders sometimes fail the test, as in 1979 when Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic so badly handled a snowstorm that he lost the Democratic primary to Jane Byrne’s insurgent campaign. And recall that President George W. Bush, in his final press conference, was still addressing questions about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

The consequences of Obama’s debt

This essay was submitted through the Romney campaign as a response to Lawrence Summers’ most recent column, “This election, Obama is the wiser economic choice.”

The large budget deficits and expansion of the national debt under President Barack Obama, unprecedented since World War II, have him set to bequeath an immensely costly legacy. Each of his deficits as a percentage of gross domestic product has been larger than the previous post-World War II record, for which Democrats excoriated President Ronald Reagan. Between the debt already racked up and what Obama’s FY13 budget projects, each income-tax-paying family will owe more in Obama debt than a new mortgage on a median-priced home and four years of college costs.

Yet more than three years into recovery from the recession, the president has not proposed a program to deal with the massive debt. Indeed, he abandoned even the long-run goal of a balanced budget, adopting the much weaker goal of stabilizing the debt-GDP ratio at the higher projected FY2016 level. But he did not budget for it, appointed the Simpson-Bowles Commission to propose how to do so, then ignored its recommendations. He has no serious proposals to deal with the even larger eventual long-run deficits in Social Security and Medicare, which total several times the current national debt. When Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was asked by Congress what the administration’s plan was, he said, “We don’t have one.” Vice President Joe Biden guaranteed, “No changes to Social Security.”

How would Tocqueville see this election?

This essay is adapted from On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, published this month by Liveright.

Alexis de Tocqueville never witnessed an American election. He arrived in May 1831, too late for the election of Andrew Jackson to his first term as president, and left the following spring, too early for the congressional elections of 1832 and Jackson’s re-election. Still, it is impossible not to wonder what America’s most distinguished foreign observer might have made of this year’s presidential campaign – indeed, what he might have made of the entire campaigning season. Some things we can guess would have pleased him and astonished him in about equal measure.

Although he said, unconventionally at the time, that Catholicism was the most suitable religion for a democratic society, he would surely have been surprised to see a Supreme Court with not a single Protestant member, and Catholics in a 7-to-2 majority. The fact of a black president running for re-election would have astonished him even more. Such a thing would have seemed almost incomprehensible to the author of the heartrending chapter on “The Futurity of the Three Races” in the first volume of his masterpiece Democracy in America. Tocqueville saw no future for native Americans, and no solution to the problem of Negro slavery. When he died in 1859, he was full of foreboding about the future of a country visibly hastening to civil war. He was bitterly opposed to slavery in all its manifestations, but like many critics of slavery, from Jefferson to Lincoln, he thought emancipation would leave its beneficiaries unemployable and socially isolated.

Why Election Day no longer matters

There is no Election Day in America anymore.

By failing to understand this fact, much of today’s political chatter is based on an obsolete view of the presidential race.

Until recently, of course, elections did occur on a single day. Nine out of 10 people cast their votes on the first Tuesday in November 2000. Now, one out of three Americans vote early, with even higher turnout in the decisive swing states. In 2008, a majority of citizens voted early in 10 states. Those trends continue today.

This is a fairly sudden and radical shift in how we pick our president.

Early voting shortens the race, locking in voter preferences long before big events, like the debates, are even finished. It also reduces the effects of late-breaking developments, from last-ditch October Surprises to unpredictable incidents, such as the video that Osama bin Laden released days before the 2004 election.

Debate jibes ignore Chinese counterfeiting’s long history

Some of the most acrimonious moments of Monday’s presidential debate occurred during the candidates’ discussions of China, with Barack Obama attacking Mitt Romney for his investments in Chinese companies, and Romney demanding that we adopt a tougher line on the Chinese counterfeiting of American products. Romney was particularly shocked to discover that counterfeit valves –bearing fake serial numbers – were “being sold into our market and around the world” as though they’d been made by the U.S. competitor. “This can’t go on,” he insisted, as if this were a fraud being perpetrated for the first time during Obama’s presidency. While Romney’s outrage may make for good politics, history shows that Chinese counterfeiting is almost as old as America itself.

The first American ship to travel to China was the Empress of China, which sailed from New York to Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) in 1784, returning to New York in May 1785 with a cargo of tea, cotton fabric and porcelain. It earned its backers $30,000, a 25 percent return on their investment.

As word of the Empress of China’s successful trip spread, a growing number of American merchants headed out to get their piece of the proverbial China pie. Between 1784, when the Empress of China blazed the trail, and the end of the War of 1812, almost 300 American ships made 618 voyages to Canton.

May the odds be ever in your favor

Editor’s note: This piece was originally written for Tomorrow Magazine, whose first issue comes out this month. The article is being republished with permission.

On May 20, 2011, John Delaney awoke 550 meters from the summit of Mount Everest. Delaney, who founded Intrade, a website for those who love to predict the future, had been trying to get to the top of the world for years. His company invited users to bet on the news: Customers would calculate probabilities, assess risk, make a wager. On Everest, Delaney was doing much the same.

This close to the summit, he was on an area of the mountain known as the death zone, where the atmosphere is about three times thinner than at sea level. Cerebral and pulmonary edemas—the leaking of fluid to the brain and heart—are increasingly likely at that altitude. Still, between 1921 and 2006, just 94 people died at this stage of the climb—above 8,000 meters, but before the summit. Altogether, Everest claimed 192 climbers’ lives in that 86-year span, 1.3 percent of those who attempted a climb. The odds that Delaney would succumb to the mountain were low.

‘Energy independence’ is a farce

It can be hard to find areas of agreement between the presidential candidates on economic or domestic policy. Tuesday night’s debate, though, revealed one exception: energy policy. Alas, what it also revealed is that both President Obama and Governor Romney are making their policies based on a false premise, and they are pandering to Americans’ ignorance instead of telling them the truth.

The second question in the debate at Hofstra University came from audience member Phillip Tricolla, and was directed to Obama: “Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?” The premise that the Energy Department can lower gas prices is incorrect. But Obama chose not to confront Tricolla with the hard truth — that global economic forces have put gasoline prices on a long-term upwards trajectory, and that trajectory is beyond our government’s control.

“The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy,” said Obama, neglecting to answer the actual question. He went on to boast that domestic production of oil, coal, natural gas and clean energy has increased, while he has also raised fuel efficiency standards. “And all these things have contributed to us lowering our oil imports to the lowest levels in 16 years,” said Obama. “Now, I want to build on that. And that means, yes, we still continue to open up new areas for drilling.”

So what is Romney’s foreign policy?

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney gave his “Mantle of Leadership” speech Monday – his third major attempt in a year to outline his views on foreign policy.

In a speech filled with rhetoric rather than substance, and with repeated and false accusations about President Barack Obama’s national security record, Romney once again talked about how he would “strengthen our partnerships” – and once again failed to explain how he would manage relations with our friends in Europe, with whom we work closely on every major global challenge.

One central thesis in Romney’s speech, and in his criticism of the administration overall, has been that under Obama the U.S. has abandoned its allies. In addition to providing no evidence to support this claim, Romney barely mentioned the closest U.S. allies: our North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners. In fact, this neglect has been a consistent theme throughout Romney’s campaign.

First Gilded Age yielded to Progessives, can today’s?


C.K.G. Billings, a Gilded Age plutocrat, rented the grand ballroom of the celebrated restaurant Sherry's for an elaborate dinner on March 28, 1903. He had the floor covered with turf so that he and his 36 guests could sit on their horses, which had been taken up to the fourth-floor ballroom by elevator.

Mark Twain labeled the late 19th century the Gilded Age – its glittering surface masking the rot within. This term applies today for the same reasons: The rich get richer; most everyone else gets poorer. And the public thinks corruption rules.

New technologies similarly transformed the economy in that era and boosted productivity even as life for many Americans grew worse. Bloated tycoons? Desperate workers? A threatened middle class? Poverty amid the sweeping progress? Check, check, check and check.

But the silver lining of our current Gilded Age redux is that we left this stunning income inequality behind once. We can do it again. Americans eventually escaped the Gilded Age because they also made it a period of reform that ushered in the Progressive Era.

Can Romney put foreign policy in play?

This piece was updated after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s major foreign policy address on Monday. It reflects Romney’s remarks.

In the first foreign policy speech following his momentum-gaining debate against President Barack Obama, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney expanded on his vision of an “American century,” a view he tied to the legacy of leaders like General George Marshall as he outlined a muscular, moral U.S. foreign policy with American exceptionalism at its core.

Romney aimed to distinguish his world view from the president’s, as he has in far-lower-profile foreign policy speeches, promising to “change course” in the Middle East by helping to provide arms to Syrian rebels and talking and acting even tougher on Iran.