Ugh

ElephantEarly yesterday evening, when the election returns were just starting to roll in, it looked to me like the results were hewing pretty closely to the pattern of the Presidential contest two years ago.  Well, I thought to myself (from my Democratic perspective), it’ll be a bad night, but not a really bad night.

Nuh-uh.  It was a really bad night.

In the all-important U.S. Senate races, Democrats appear to have won precisely one — uno — of the many competitive seats up for grabs (God bless you, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire), while losing big in several contests thought to be close, and suffering a near-death experience in a Virginia election that wasn’t on anyone’s radar at all.  The GOP won’t just run the Senate for the next two years, they will run it with room to spare, raising questions about Democratic expectations for a counter-flip in 2016 and complicating President Clinton’s ability to govern when her term begins in 2017.

Lots of folks thought that the various races for Governor would offer a kind of alternative storyline of Democratic success, or at least parity.  Not so much.  Yes, embattled Democratic incumbents seem to have held on in Connecticut and Colorado, but when Republicans are winning the statehouses in places like Massachusetts and Maryland, progressives can’t pop any champagne corks.

Democratic losses in the House don’t look all that bad compared to other elections in the sixth year of a President’s term – until you consider that Republicans began the night already holding a sizable House majority and could end up, when all the votes are counted, with their biggest Congressional caucus since Herbert Hoover was in the White House.

In New York State, the results were more mixed.  Governor Cuomo, as expected, won a comfortable victory, although not the coronation that seemed likely at the outset of the campaign. (After watching Rob Astorino’s concession last night, I turned to a couple of friends and said “that would have been a great speech a year ago.”  It’s easier to laugh than to cry.)  At the same time, Republicans picked up several seats in the New York State Senate and will hold the majority there, even if the Democratic caucus is fully united.

The results were similarly mixed in the most important regional contests.  Nita Lowey won solidly, but with her smallest margin in twenty years.  Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney looked shaky in the early returns, but is holding a small lead as of this morning.  And George Latimer, who deserved to win in a landslide, won instead in a squeaker.  On a strictly personal basis, the most disappointing outcome for me was Justin Wagner’s defeat in northern Westchester and Putnam.  Justin is a good friend, who ran a great campaign.  His loss is New York’s loss.

By the way, it seems likely that our great state will have eight — count them, eight — official political parties (these are parties that receive at least 50,000 votes in the race for Governor and are, therefore, entitled to an automatic ballot line until the next race for Governor.)  This proliferation of choices sounds like evidence of a flourishing democracy, but, in reality, is likely only to lead to confusion and mischief in elections up and down the ballot for the next four years.

So what the heck happened?  I can’t add much to the conventional wisdom, which features some combination of the following:

•  when voters are pessimistic, they focus their discontents on the party in the White House;

•  after six years, many people are tired of and/or frustrated by President Obama;

•  national and world events, from the advance of ISIS to the outbreak of Ebola, have raised questions about governmental competence, while also stoking a climate of fear – both helpful to Republicans;

•  an unprecedented amount of “dark money” from undisclosed sources helped bolster GOP candidates in many key races.

It’s just hard for me, from my admittedly biased viewpoint, to square this analysis with the objective record of the last six years.  The President probably saved the country from a second Great Depression and restored us to a path of steady, if unexceptional, growth.  The President extended the security of health insurance to tens of millions of Americans, without any of the devastating consequences predicted by critics.  The President adopted the first serious measures to control greenhouse gas emissions in our nation’s history.  The President has stood consistently for a mature and responsible style of leadership, without the theatrics of government shutdowns or manufactured debt limit crises.

He has done these things over nearly uniform and sometimes hysterical Republican opposition.  And he would have done much more, if he’d had congressional partners who were less dogmatic.

The government in Washington is dysfunctional.  Voters are correct to be angry about it.  But from my perspective, it is the politicians on the right-side of the spectrum who are most to blame for this sorry state of affairs, and handing a victory to these same politicians is like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department.

But that’s just my two cents.  And, in truth, nothing good comes from complaining about or blaming others for elections that don’t go your way.  To believe in democracy is to accept the verdict of a free and fair vote, and to do it without recrimination.  I comfort myself with a great piece of wisdom from former Republican National Committee Chair Haley Barbour, who said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “in politics, things are never as good or as bad as you think.”  This too shall pass.

There’s a tendency to see all this as some sort of a game.  Certainly, the coverage of campaigns, especially on election night, has the feel of a sporting event, with all the fancy graphics and horse-race commentary.  I’m not pointing fingers here; that would be hypocritical, because I was on TV last night gabbing along with the rest of the talking heads, and, indeed, this post you are reading now is more about political score-keeping than substantive action.

But it’s not a game.  Hundreds of millions of lives in this country, and literally billions more around the world, are impacted by the actions of the American government and, therefore, by the individual choices of every voter.  For all the nonsense that surrounds our political process, all the reasons to throw up our hands in disgust, it is the most serious business there is.  And it still deserves our faith.

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Go Vote!

Andrea Stewart-Cousins

Andrea Stewart-Cousins

This morning at 7:35am, I was proud to cast the 32nd vote in election district 11 at New Rochelle’s Barnard School.

The big suspense in New York concerns control of the State Senate.  Democrats are hoping to win enough seats to make Andrea Stewart-Cousins the new majority leader.  Andrea happens to be my State Senator, and it felt good to register my support today, but her own election really isn’t in doubt.  It’s other Senate races that will make the difference, including two contests right here in our region, where George Latimer is running for a second term and Justin Wagner is competing for an open seat.

And then, of course, there’s the small matter of who serves as Governor, not to mention plenty of other federal, state and judicial offices.  I’ll put in a special plug for Congresswoman Nita Lowey, who deserves a resounding reelection, and for Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, a stand-out first-termer in a tight race.  All of these elections matter.

I’ll be on RNN-TV tonight from 9:00pm to 10:00pm offering election commentary as the returns come in.  Tune in.

And be sure to cast your vote!

 

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Bramson’s Election Musings – Part II: Viewer Guide

Negative AdI don’t watch much TV — Game of Thrones, Top Chef on DVR.  That’s about it.  So I’ve been pretty disconnected from the ongoing campaign, which is playing out primarily in 30 second advertisements.  Then the other day, I turned on the box for a few minutes.

Whoa!

Heated charges, ominous voice-overs, dire warnings that the end cometh if Candidate X somehow attains public office.

There’s nothing new about this.  We get it every election nowadays, and I was up to my ears in it myself when I ran for County office last year.  But it gets worse with each cycle, as more money gets poured into the process.

It’s easy to understand why so many people feel disgusted by it all and swear off politics entirely.  But if you want to be a responsible citizen in a democracy, that’s not a good option, so I got to thinking about how to sort through these ads and determine which are worth our attention.

First, step back for a moment and consider how, in an idealized world, we would cast our votes.  In this fantasy scenario, every one of us would have perfect knowledge of how the election of one candidate or another would shape the actions of our government, we would be able to predict with perfect accuracy the consequences of our vote, and then we would cast ballots in order to best advance our own interests and values.  In other words, we’d behave like rational actors in classic economics theory.

Well, even if such perfect knowledge were attainable (and it’s not), who has the time?  So, in the real world, we use short-cuts.  We vote for the candidate who belongs to our party, or the candidate who was more cogent in a debate, or the candidate we met at the supermarket, or the candidate who seems like less of a jerk.  All those 30-second ads are aimed at influencing our shorthand, sometimes emotional, impulses.

And the more I reflected on those ads, the more I concluded that the usual standards for judging them — whether they are positive or negative, whether they are nasty or polite, even whether they are 100% truthful or cut some corners with the facts — kind of miss the point.

The better standard is whether an ad moves us closer to or farther away from that ideal, perfect understanding.  Does it connect our vote to future actions and consequences, or does it draw our attention away from future actions and consequences.  In short, does the ad clarify our real choice, or does it instead obscure our real choice?

How can you tell one from the other?  There’s no foolproof method, but there are a couple of tests that make sense to me.

One, is the ad mainly about who a candidate is or mainly about what a candidate has done and will do?  Anyone can make claims about character, pro or con, and such claims rarely have much to do with the responsibilities of an office-holder.  Give more weight to ads that focus on deeds and plans.

And, two, is the ad about consequential topics or about minor side subjects?   If you’re on the wrong side of the big issues, you try to make the election a referendum on the trivial.  So beware of ads that focus on second or third rank nonsense with short-term emotional punch and no long-term relevance.

Apply these tests, and ads can start to look very different.  A nasty commercial that goes after Candidate X for positions on important public policy may be unpleasant, but it can help clarify our choices.  A gauzy, upbeat commercial featuring the testimonials of Candidate Y’s family may be nice, but it can obscure our choices.

Of course, a lot of this is a matter of opinion.  It would be hard, for example, for a media outlet to subject political ads to an objective clarity-meter, like the more familiar (and largely ineffectual) truth-meters.  But I still find this to be a helpful framework for my own use, and maybe it will be helpful for you, too.

So next time you see an ad for or against a politician, before deciding whether you agree or disagree with the position expressed, before deciding whether the ad leads you to think better or worse of the candidates, ask yourself a more basic question: does the topic of the ad even matter in the first place.  Does it matter to your life, to your family’s life, or the life of your community and country.

If the answer is no, then tune it out.  And if enough of us do just that, it won’t necessarily make our politics less nasty or less polarized, but it might make our politics more relevant, and that would be a step forward.

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Bramson’s Election Musings – Part I: A Grimm Tale

Rational Voters for Grimm?

Rational Voters for Grimm?

Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY) is definitely a bully.  He may be a crook.   And, if the latest polls are accurate, he is about to reelected in a landslide by his conservative Staten Island district.

Over the weekend, I visited my mother for lunch, and we got to talking about this.  “How could people vote for someone like that?” asked my mother, her head shaking in disbelief, and her Israeli accent more pronounced than usual.

Mom makes a good point, of course.  It’s probably best for Congress not to be populated by crooks and bullies, so what the heck is going on in Staten Island?  But then I posed to her a counter-question.  “What if  you were voting in an election for U.S. Senate,” I asked, ” and you had to choose between a progressive Democrat with legal problems or a conservative Republican with spotless integrity?”

Mom, who is a solid Democrat, retreated to a half-hearted response about how it would depend on the circumstances and what was at stake.  Suddenly things weren’t so clear.

It’s easy to condemn the situational ethics and double standards here, displayed both by my liberal mother and by the conservative voters of Staten Island.  But, in fact, I come to praise Mom and the Grimm supporters, not to bury them.

Because their actions (real for Staten Island, hypothetical for Mom) are rational.

We all like to hold an idealized view of our institutions — part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, part Schoolhouse Rock — that imagines Congress to be a place where representatives come together to reason and negotiate, where individual legislators can make a huge difference through force of intellect or ability, and where, therefore, the personal character of particular candidates mattered most.  Maybe there was a time in American history when that was at least roughly accurate.  This is not that time.

Unlike the polyglot Democrats and Republicans of yore, our political parties today resemble their ideologically-pure European counterparts.  We have a parliamentary democracy, minus the institutional trappings.  And whichever party wins a majority gets to run the show.

So if your chief concern as a voter is (and it should be) what government actually does — who it helps and who it hurts, which causes it advances and which it impedes, which values it upholds and which it plows over — then the virtues and vices of individual legislators don’t matter very much.  What matters more is the team they join and empower.

That’s not to say that ethics and character are irrelevant.  Obviously, it is a lot better to have a Congress of honest, hard-working geniuses than of corrupt, lazy dolts, and when it comes to nominating candidates, party leaders and primary voters have a big responsibility to choose well.

But whether Michael Grimm is a crook counts for a lot less than whether the House of Representatives will preserve or repeal Obamacare.  Whether Mom’s hypothetical candidate is an admirable human being counts for a lot less than whether the Senate will approve or reject limits on greenhouse gases.  You can insert your own example of vital public policy . . . the point is that the character of the government as a whole, as measured by its actions, trumps the character of some of its bit players.

A few caveats:  (1) it makes more sense to consider the competence and integrity of a candidate for executive office, who directs and defines an entire branch; (2) this argument is more relevant at the federal and state level, and less to county or local office, where the issues tend to be non-ideological, and the partisan divisions weaker; and (3) there are limits — some conduct is so beyond the pale that accepting it in our leaders degrades the entire political process.

Those caveats aside, holding your nose and voting for a flawed candidate who shares your views is usually the responsible — and even the moral — thing to do.  It sure feels lousy, though.

 

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You Can’t Take It With You (Or Can You?)

You Can't Take It With YouThere’s a heart-warming story in the Journal News about the reunion of the 1957 cast of an eighth-grade production of “You Can’t Take It With You” at Isaac Young.  Here’s an excerpt:

“They didn’t know it then, but these youngsters were also forming incredibly tight bonds with their fellow actors that would last the rest of their lives, no matter where they lived.  This week, nearly 60 years later, 18 people associated with that eighth-grade play gathered from across the country to see a star-studded revival of ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway.”

But you should read the whole thing, especially the last line.

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Parking Management Overhaul for New Rochelle

AvalonWhile we’re aiming to make New Rochelle’s downtown more walkable and bike-friendly, there’s no question that a successful business district still needs safe, attractive, and customer-friendly parking options.

Over the years, the City has worked toward this goal by upgrading parking lots, installing better meters, and adding new spaces on-street.  It’s been an incremental process, with modest improvements building on each other.

This month, at the suggestion of our Department of Development, the City Council approved a much more dramatic and fundamental overhaul of our entire parking operation, utilizing the services of the firm LAZ Parking to oversee every aspect of municipal parking oversight, maintenance, and management.

LAZ will provide about $700,000 in new technology to facilitate pay-by-cell functionality, on-line permitting, and plate-number enforcement.  In addition, LAZ will offer service enhancements like valet parking where appropriate, better way-finding, and improved maintenance.

From a narrow fiscal perspective, this arrangement is basically a break-even proposition, with LAZ’s contract funded out of parking revenue, not property taxes.  More broadly, however, by providing shoppers, diners, and residents with a positive experience, we can certainly help attract investment and strengthen our economy.  Look for the changes to take shape early next year.

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