Obama on the Move


Gallup has introduced a new national tracking poll that shows Obama making up serious ground on Hillary Clinton.  For the curious, Pollster.com's Mark Blumenthal has a nice explanation of why we should put a lot of stock in this poll.  I'm hoping Hillary's Florida “win” does not offer her any bump. 

More on Hillary and Florida

Ezra Klein does a much better job slamming Hillary for her little stunt in Florida last night and goes into some detail for why it is so fundamentally dishonest.  Some highlights:

In comments, many of you asked how I could be so dismissive of
Floridians who voted for Hillary Clinton. And the answer is, I'm not. I
didn't keep their vote from counting. Hillary Clinton did. When the
Democratic National Committee decided to impose order on an
out-of-control primary process by stripping Florida and Michigan of
their delegates if they refused to return their primaries to their
original dates, there were three individuals who could have restored
the franchise to those states. Howard Dean, the Chairman of the DNC,
could have changed his mind, or changed his proposed penalty. Even in
the face of his intransigence, however, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama
could have simply refused his entreaty to avoid the offending states. A
declaration by either that they disagreed with the DNC's decision and
would instruct their delegates to alter the rules at the convention and
seat Florida and Michigan would have forced all the other candidates to
do the same, and the DNC's prohibition would have collapsed. The voters
in Florida and Michigan would have attended speeches, and seen ads, and
hosted a debate, and been able to make an informed choice

That didn't happen. Clinton's campaign manager backing the
DNC, said, “We believe Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina
play a unique and special role in the nominating process, and we
believe the DNC's rules and its calendar provide the necessary
structure to respect and honor that role.” So Florida and Michigan
didn't get their primaries. They didn't get campaigns. They didn't have
serious Get Out The Vote efforts. And now, they're being cynically
used, the language of democracy revisited and dusted off in service of
a power play for additional delegates. Where, rightly or wrongly, the
campaigns agreed to deny them a primary, now Clinton's campaign, which
in Michigan won because they were the only campaign on the ballot and
in Florida won because no one contested their lead, is demanding they be seated.

Of course, Clinton's campaign has calculated that more will be gained from generally misinformed voters thinking she “won” Florida than from really annoying intelligent people following the campaign.  Its that kind of crass opportunism that makes me think Hillary certainly deserves a good deal of (though surely not all) of the negativity she gets. 

Of Hillary, Ken Follett and my diminished blogging

I've obviously been a bad blogger lately.  Been pretty busy at work, but what's really done me in is World Without End by Ken Follet.  Regardless of when they are actually posted, I write a fair number of my blog posts in the evening before bed.  That's also the time, I like to get my pleasure reading in.  As it so happens, I've been so completely enthralled by World Without End for the past week or so (it is 1000 pages, so even though its keeping me up late every night, I'm still at it), that I've not wanted to take any time from reading in order to blog.

Tonight, of course, I did take a break to check on the Florida primary results.  I've already been quite unhappy with Hillary (and Bill!) due to their recent negativity and shenanigans, but Hillary's “victory speech” in Florida tonight was enough to snap me out of the blog slump.  The Democratic candidates all agreed months ago that they would not campaign in Florida, since it held its primary before the February 5 date imposed by the national Democratic party.  The party stripped Florida of its delegates, and thus any victory is only hollow.  Now that she's feeling desperate and has been up in the polls in Florida (Hillary has always led where there's not an actual contest– that Clinton name is pretty powerful in Democratic circles), she decides that today's out-performing Obama in Florida is a victory.  The Post's Dana Milbank calls it like it is:

Cheering supporters? Check. Election returns on the projection screen?
Check. Andrea Mitchell and Candy Crowley doing stand-ups? Check and
check. In fact, the only piece missing from Sen. Hillary Clinton's
Florida victory party here Tuesday night was a victory…

But in a political stunt worthy of the late Evel Knievel, the Clinton
campaign decided to put on an ersatz victory party that, it hoped,
would erase memories of Obama's actual victory in South Carolina's
Democratic primary. “Thank you Florida Democrats!” Clinton shouted to
the cheering throng. “I am thrilled to have this vote of confidence.”

I am so done with Hillary.  I'll vote for her should she get the nomination.  But as I've mentioned, I am a true yellow-dog Democrat– I would vote for my yellow lab, Lira, before any of the Republicans.  So, that's not really worth all that much. 

Rudy’s Polls (plus his free pass from the media)

Rudy Giuliani's strategy of risking is all on a stand in Florida never seemed to have too much chance of success, but the latest polls suggest that his campaign is done for.  Via pollster.com:

POLL: ARG Florida Primary

A new American Research Group Florida survey (conducted 1/20 through 1/21) finds:

  • 600 Likely Republican Primary Voters (± 4%)

    29 McCain

    22 Romney

    17 Huckabee

    16 Giuliani

    6 Thompson

    6 Paul

    1 Keyes

    3 Undecided

Furthermore, this pre-South Carolina primay analysis by Political Scientist Charles Franklin, clearly makes the case for Rudy's death spiral.  In short, McCain has directly benefitted from Rudy's fall:

After leading in national polls throughout the first three quarters,
Giuliani's support took a sharp turn downward in the late fall, closely
associated with the timing of the indictment November 8th of his long
time friend, partner and associate, Bernard Kerik. (I also think
failing to compete in early primaries, and then doing quite badly, is a
contributing recent cause of Giuliani's decline. Late win strategies do
not have a good track record… ask John Connally.)

McCain's rise comes after Giuliani's decline begins. Given that both
candidates appeal more to moderate and somewhat conservative
Republicans (as opposed to the conservative base of the party) it is
likely that these voters turned from Giuliani and found McCain the most
attractive among the remainder of the field.

McCain also shares with Giuliani the advantage of perceived
“electability”. As Giuliani's fortunes fell, McCain emerged as the
candidate Republicans see as having the best chance of defeating any
Democrat in November. In primaries, perceived viability is an important
asset.

As we watch the death throes of Rudy's campaign, I do have to mention one thing that really annoys me.  He actually tried really hard in NH, only leaving that state when the polls refused to budge in his favor despite his efforts.  Yet, pretty much every media report is giving his sad 4th place (and only 9%) finish in NH a free pass and is following the Giuliani campaign spin that Florida is actually the first primary he is seriously contesting.  Anyway, looks like it will be a moot point if the new polls in Florida are at all accurate. 

Is Hucakbee pandering to racists?

In Slate, Christopher Hitchens makes a damn good case that, yes, he is.  The heart of the matter:

Gov. Mike Huckabee made the following unambiguously racist and demagogic appeal in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last week:

You
don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what
to do with your flag. In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us
what to do with our flag, we'd tell 'em what to do with the pole;
that's what we'd do.

1) The South Carolina flag is a perfectly nice flag, featuring the palmetto plant, about which no “outsider” has ever offered any free advice.

2)
The Confederate battle flag, to which Gov. Huckabee was alluding, was
first flown over the South Carolina state capitol in 1962, as a
deliberately belligerent riposte to the civil rights movement, and is
not now, and never has been, the flag of that great state.

3) By a vote of both South Carolina houses in the year 2000, the Confederate battle flag ceased to be flown over the state capitol and now only waves (as quite possibly it should) over the memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers.

Hitchens also discusses why he thinks the media has given Huckabee a free pass on the story– where I think the essay is on weaker grounds.  As far as making the case that this is racist pandering, though, Hitchens is quite convincing.  I don't think this is quite what God had in mind when he chose Huckabee for when he led him to victory in the Iowa caucus (as Huck has suggested). 

What should you read?

What I recommend, obviously.  Sadly, I have become a full year behind in updating my on-line reading list/book reviews.  I've now caught about half way up on putting last year's reading on the list and since, who knows when I'll finish it, I'll go ahead and link to it now.  I'll also report back when I get around to adding the 10 or so more books I need to review (some of which will make my all-time favorites).  

No compassion here

Former Bush speechwriter, and now Wasghington Post columnist, Michael Gershon, one of the driving forces behind Bush's so-called “compassionate conservatism” sticks it to the modern Republican party (though singles out Fred Thompson) in a great column today:

At a campaign stop attended by a CBS reporter in Lady's Island, S.C., Thompson was asked if he, “as a Christian, as a conservative,” supported President Bush's
global AIDS initiative. “Christ didn't tell us to go to the government
and pass a bill to get some of these social problems dealt with. He
told us to do it,” Thompson responded. “The government has its role,
but we need to keep firmly in mind the role of the government, and the
role of us as individuals and as Christians on the other.”

Thompson went on: “I'm not going to go around the state and the
country with regards to a serious problem and say that I'm going to
prioritize that. With people dying of cancer, and heart disease, and
children dying of leukemia still, I got to tell you — we've got a lot
of problems here. . . . ” Indeed, there are a lot of problems here –
mainly of Thompson's own making.

While he is not an isolationist, he clearly is playing to
isolationist sentiments. His objection, it seems, is not to government
spending on public health but to spending on foreigners…

Thompson's argument reflects an anti-government extremism, which I am
sure his defenders would call a belief in limited government. In this
case, Thompson is limiting government to a half-full thimble. Its
duties apparently do not extend to the treatment of sick people in
extreme poverty, which should be “the role of us as individuals and as
Christians.” One wonders, in his view, if responding to the 2004
tsunami should also have been a private responsibility. Religious
groups are essential to fighting AIDS, but they cannot act on a
sufficient scale.

Thompson also dives headfirst into the shallow pool of his own
theological knowledge. In his interpretation, Jesus seems to be a
libertarian activist who taught that compassion is an exclusively
private virtue. This ignores centuries of reflection on the words of
the Bible that have led to a nearly universal Christian conviction that
government has obligations to help the weak and pursue social justice.
Religious social reformers fought to end child labor and improve public
health. It is hard to imagine they would have used the teachings of
Christ to justify cutting off lifesaving drugs for tens of thousands of
African children — an argument both novel and obscene.

I don't know, pretty much sounds like an indictment of the better part of the Republican base to me.  Gerson clearly is a man of compassion– sadly, I think he's wasting his breath trying to convince fellow Republicans they need more of it

God, the Constitution, and Huckabee

My modestly soft spot for Mike Huckabee may completely harden up if he keeps up with comments such as:

“What we need to do, is to amend the Constitution so it's in
God's standards rather than trying to change God's standards so it
lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how
we treat the family.”

Salon's Tim Grieve draws out the logic to show just how absurd this statement is:

In an interview with Fox News — Crooks and Liars has the video
— Huckabee says an amendment banning abortion and another banning
same-sex marriage “are the two areas I'm talking about. I'm not
suggesting that we rewrite the Constitution to reflect tithing or
Sunday school attendance.”

Fair enough, but why not?

If it is, as Huckabee said the other day, “easier to change the
Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God,”
what's the basis for stopping at abortion or same-sex marriage or even
at tithing or Sunday school? Why not push for an amendment outlawing
homosexuality entirely? On the other hand, maybe God would be
interested in passing the Equal Rights Amendment. How about an
amendment banning the death penalty? Or maybe an omnibus amendment
outlawing preemptive war, the touching of pigskins and the getting of
haircuts?

Who should be the arbiter of “God's standards”? How do we decide which
of those “standards” can be ignored and which are important enough that
we “need” to address them by amending the Constitution? And how would
Mike Huckabee feel about having someone else — say, Hillary Clinton or
Barack Obama or John Edwards or Dennis Kucinich — making those
decisions for him?

Here's an idea, let's leave God's laws to God (and churches) and America's laws to American citizens.

It’s all about the bacteria

This week's science news that a particularly nasty strain of MRSA (a highly antibiotic resistant staph bacteria) is becoming the scourge of gay men in San Francisco has given me the push for finally posting on the best non-fiction book I read last year: Good Germs Bad Germs by Jessica Snyder Sachs.  This book helps explain how we got to the point where we have a previously easily-treated type of staph that is now resistant to 6(!) potent antibiotics.  At first, the book was quite distressing, as we learn the story of how the amazing hubris and shortsightedness of modern medicine has led us to a point where, after a golden age of antibiotic success, it seems that we may again be facing many bacterial diseases for which there is no effective treatment.  The good news, is that scientists are using a variety of truly amazing (and smarter) techniques to come up with new ways to fight bacteria that should not lead to this current cycle of creating resistance.  What I found most interesting about the book, though, is the emphasis on “good germs.”  In truth, the human body is really a complex ecosystem that has evolved symbiotically with hundreds of bacterial species over tens of thousands of years.  I've been telling everyone I know my favorite fact from the book– for every one of your own cells, you have ten cells of bacteria.  The vast majority of these are quite beneficial to you, though.  A clear lesson, both in terms of antibiotic resistance and autoimmune disorders, is that we should be very careful in messing with this ecosystem.  I've also mentioned to a number of people that I've never been on antibiotics and I've been quite surprised at just how uncommon this appears to be.  I'm also bummed that I have my own (very minor) autoimmune disorder (seasonal allergic rhinitis, i.e., hayfever) despite this fact.   Last factoid: children are less likely to acquire autoimmune disorders if they: spend time in daycare, have a family dog, and have older siblings– all of which expose people to a broad range of bacteria. 

I could go on, but I'll stop.  The book is great– I actually stayed up and lost sleep several nights while I was reading it.  For a short auditory introduction, check out the podcast on it from Quirks and Quarks

With Daily Alcohol Use, Male Fruit Flies Court Other Males

The headline says it all.  Details here:

A team of researchers at Penn Sate has used an animal model to reveal,
for the first time, a physiological basis for the effect of alcohol on
male sexual behavior, including increased sexual arousal and decreased
sexual inhibition. The research resulted in four novel findings with
broad importance for further addiction research. It is the first study
to characterize the effects of chronic alcohol exposure in fruit flies…

Among the team's discoveries is that male fruit flies, which typically
court females, also actively court males when they are given a daily
dose of ethanol.

Losing the War on Drugs

Back in November, Rolling Stone ran a great story, “How America Lost the War on Drugs.”  I printed it out (it's pretty long), and just got around to finishing it.  A truly fascinating read, especially as I had enjoyed reading Mark Bowden's Killing Pablo, about Pablo Escobar's rise and fall, several years ago (special thanks to my friend Jeff P for getting me an autographed copy).  Anyway, I won't say too much about the story, other than to strongly suggest you read it, but I will mention a couple of points…
1) Just in case you were under any illusions we were winning, or even at a draw, in the “War on Drugs,” we're not.
2) Really interesting story about how we probably had the ability quash the spread of meth before it really got going, but pharmaceutical companies lobbied hard to prevent more restrictions on the availability of pseudoephedrine. 
3) Due to a number of studies, we have a pretty good idea of what works and what does not work in the war on drugs.  I'm sure you will be shocked (shocked!!) to realize that George W. Bush's administration does a lot more of what doesn't work and less of what does. 

Well, no sooner do I post this than I come across Jack Shafer's “Stupidest Drug Story of the Week” in Slate.  Apparently, the Drug Czar has decided to make a big deal out of ecstasy being laced with meth, yet it turns out that this has been the situation for years and is actually nothing new.  From the article:

The New York Times' Jan. 9
story about the alleged avalanche of methamphetamine-laced MDMA
(ecstasy) cascading down on the United States from Canada?”Rise Seen in
Trafficking of Enhanced Ecstasy”?harmonizes, almost bar for bar, with
the Jan. 3 press release from the office of White House “drug czar” John Walters.

The “drug czar's” press release attempts to foist as news the frequent adulteration of MDMA with other drugs, and the Times
article helps advance that notion. The “drug czar” would have you
believe that the MDMA-meth recipe is something new. Again, the Times lines up the official sources to make it appear so…

The only significant deviation comes when the Times declines
to confirm the catastrophic public health threat that the “drug czar”
posits. Sheepishly?if a news story can be sheepish?the paper reports
that the MDMA-meth cocktail “has not been the source of emergency room
admissions, overdoses or new clients in substance-abuse programs,
according to experts on both the law enforcement and the treatment
side.”…

Because Canadian authorities and journalists know all about ecstasy
adulteration, they were perplexed by the urgency of “drug czar”
Walters' media event. The Jan. 4, 2008, National Post reported:

Yesterday's
release of the alert by the top American anti-drug official took a
senior RCMP drug officer by surprise but he does not dispute the
message.

“He is not wrong. But this is nothing new. We've been
telling them this for years,” said Superintendent Ron Allen, head of
the RCMP's Drug Section for the Greater Toronto Area.

Furthermore, it turns out that the amount of meth is really not that significant:

the “median amount of meth in the [ecstasy] tablets was eight
milligrams, with 16 mg the high and four mg the low.” How powerful is
16 mg? Consider prescription methamphetamine, which is used to treat obesity and attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity in children. The manufacturer's recommendations (PDF) state that children 6 and older take no more than 20 to 25 mg of the drug daily.

Obviously, putting meth and MDMA together creates an
additive, and potentially adverse, effect. I intend no endorsement of
ecstasy tablets by pointing out how little meth often appears in them,
but there you are. But at least I'm giving it to you straight,
something the Chicken Little “drug czar” and the Times didn't do for you this week.

Just a little bit of pointless scaremongering in the War on Drugs. 

A ballot order victory?

There are, of course, all sorts of explanations for Hillary's dramatic NH victory on Tuesday (for a really nice analytical run-down, check out Mark Blumenthal at pollster.com), but I wanted to highlight one interesting factor that may be enough to account for Hillary's narrow victory margin– the order of the candidates on the ballot. 

Back when I was at Ohio State and had the distinct pleasure of knowing and even working with Political Scientist extraordinaire, Jon Krosnick, I remember him presenting some really interesting data on how the order of candidate on the ballot can affect results.  I seem to recall that he was an expert witness in an Ohio court case on the matter.  Anyway, Slate's Trailhead blog cites Krosnick's research in looking at how NH's ballot order advantaged Hillary Clinton:

Until this year, New Hampshire rotated the order of the candidates from precinct to precinct. An analysis of recent primary elections in New Hampshire by Stanford social psychologist Jon Krosnick,
an expert in polling methodology, found that candidates averaged 3
percent better than their overall performance if their names were
listed first among the leading candidates…

The new law
dictates that New Hampshire now set its ballot order by publicly
drawing a random letter of the alphabet to determine where the state
will begin listing names alphabetically. (For example, drawing an E
would have meant that, among major candidates, John Edwards? name would
be listed first, while Chris Dodd would be last.) This year Z was drawn,
effectively starting back at the beginning and listing Joseph Biden
first, even though he was no longer in the race. The system applies to
every ballot in the state uniformly. 

This method might appear to be equally unfair for
everyone, except that candidates? surnames are not equally distributed
throughout the alphabet. On the Democratic side, for example, the major
candidates where heavily skewed toward the front of the alphabet. The abecedarian
lineup of Biden, Clinton, Dodd, and Edwards meant that the latter three
had only a 1-in-26 chance of being first?that is, only if the letter of
their last name was drawn (since their last names were adjacent to each
other in the alphabet). With Biden out of the race, the advantage
effectively fell to Clinton. 

Clinton?s gain was Obama?s loss. As the last
candidate alphabetically (not counting the various fringe candidates
who were on the ballot), Obama faced a large probability of being last.
There are 11 letters after O in the alphabet, all of which would result
in Clinton being first among viable candidates still in the race once
the alphabet cycled back to the beginning. Add three for the odds of
drawing an A, B, or C, and Clinton had a 14-in-26 shot at being first.
(That?s 54 percent.)  

One might scoff at the idea that this really
matters, but Krosnick insists that the data is there to support it.
When I spoke with him last night at about 11 p.m. ET, he said that, had
the previous rotation of names been in effect, ?my guess is this race
would be too close to call.?

Even had Hillary lost by 1 point, instead of triumphed by 2, this would have been portrayed as a huge comeback, given how she far exceeded media expectations.  Nonetheless, it is much better to be the victor, and should she go on to win the nomination, wouldn't be interesting to wonder if NH's (stupid) ballot law played a role.

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