Obama's Cuban legacy

By Hannah Blyth in Sydney, Australia

6 January 2015

Hannah Blyth is an alumnus of the Centre's master's program.

President Barack Obama’s decision to take executive action to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba is domestically bold, but may prove a strategic win for future American foreign policy.

Taking many casual observers by surprise, the President announced on 17 December that he would sidestep Congress and use his presidential authority to re-establish full diplomatic ties with Cuba. This includes reviewing its position on the state sponsor of terrorism list, and lifting restrictions on travel, commerce, and the flow of information between America and its nearby neighbour.

While the President cannot repeal the five-decade-long embargo without Congress, his move to use presidential power on an issue as divisive as Cuba will not be without domestic consequences.

The question is why did President Obama choose to act now?

Domestically, Obama has made it clear that in the face of congressional gridlock and a now–hostile majority in both houses after the 2014 midterms, he will use executive action. We saw this in November when he announced sweeping immigration reforms that incensed House Republicans, and now we see a similar use of power in American foreign policy toward Cuba.  

The ageing population of Cuban-Americans in the swing state of Florida has also paved the way for a once-taboo political topic. As the New York Times reported in October, the once solid voting block of exiled Cubans who stoically supported Cuban isolation is giving way to a younger generation of voters more open to a policy of engagement.

On a global scale, Obama has timed the reengagement with Cuba with strategic precision. Since the crippling US embargo established in 1961 and further tightened by the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, Cuba’s sluggish economy has relied on subsidies from its more powerful allies. These came from the Soviet Union up until its collapse in the 1990s, followed by Venezuela, who has supplied heavily subsidised oil to Cuba ever since. The key problem is world oil prices have dropped by almost 50 per cent since June, and Venezuela’s economy is on shaky ground. With oil revenues accounting for about 95 per cent of Venezuela’s export earnings according to OPEC, the country is now on the verge of a debt default. President Obama is taking this chance to establish new relations with Cuba that have the potential to provide real growth to Cuba’s stagnant closed economy.

The Cold War threat that Cuba once posed as Fidel Castro allied himself with the Soviet Union is no longer relevant to the American homeland. At 88 years old, revolutionary-turned totalitarian leader Castro has all but disappeared from public life. His younger brother and current president Raúl is not far behind him at 83 years old. As succession-planning for the future of the Cuban state begins, President Obama’s diplomatic olive branch is well-timed to provide a taste of economic freedom, including the internet, to the Cuban people. Not such a bad strategic move when Havana is less than 100 miles off the coast of Florida.

The President’s move has been met with criticism ranging from predictable Republican voices such as Marco Rubio and the hard-line Cuban-American community, to the less predictable Washington Post, whose editorial board labelled it an "undeserved bailout." However if all goes to plan and Obama manages to get a Cuban ambassador confirmed through Congress, the short-term domestic criticism may just give way into a key mantle of Obama’s presidential legacy. It will also pave the way for new American foreign policy and engagement with one of its closest neighbours. 

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On a Greyhound, to Mobile, from Tallahassee, somewhere outside Panama City, Florida

By Jonathan Bradley in I-10 on the Florida panhandle

12 May 2013

I wondered in Tallahassee[1] if I had yet properly reached the South. I was in the Florida panhandle, and the cosmopolitan Caribbean of Miami had long receded. The Floridian capital is one of tidy antebellum architecture and broad hanging Southern live oaks — photos of which fail to properly capture the way these vast trees droop over the avenues, as if the heat in the air were too much for them — and that other great American architectural triumph, and of the American South particularly — the strip mall.

Another part of town, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks, is less pretty: the strip malls here contain pawn shops and gun shops, and pawn-and-gun shops, and wig stores and auto repair shops and nail salons and car customising services. The product of the latter stands in one of the massive parking lots — the one filled with a continuous soundtrack of soul music emanating from one of the roadside car washes at its edge — a gleaming, salmon-pink sedan with matching oversized pink wheels elevating the car to well over twice its normal height above the ground. Next to this one is another automobile, less magnificent but equally pink. In a CD store selling bootleg copies of mixtapes by Boosie and Mouse and Webbie and Gucci Mane and other less well known Southern rappers, as well as classic albums from outside the South — Illmatic, Ready to Die, Reasonable Doubt, The Marshall Mathers LP — sits a silver haired man probably in his fifties, dressed tidily in clothes slightly too small for him. He strikes up conversation with me because, he says, he’s the only other white guy in the store. “I’m the manager,” he says, as if to explain his presence. He then clarifies that he hosts parties at clubs with one of the store’s proprietors. “When I first came around, they thought I was the bookie,” he continues. “Because I used to be a bookmaker.”

I’m in this part of town looking for a theatre; the official Tallahassee visitors’ website had advised that this evening would mark the first of three performances of A Raisin in the Sun, the story of a black family in 1950s Chicago who buy a house in an all-white neighbourhood. It was the first show written by an African American woman to play on Broadway. The theatre, when I found it, was in one of those Southside strip malls, in the concrete expanse of an empty store front. About thirty people attended. The performance was enjoyable, though its energy flagged from time to time — always a risk for plays as long as this one. I’m not sure if theatres in America are commonly found in strip malls, but either way, I don’t wish to suggest the production was an amateurish one; it was nothing of the sort. The stand out performance was probably that of Zakiya Jas, who played the long-suffering wife of the show’s hero-of-sorts, Walter Lee Younger, a man in his mid-thirties chafing at the limitations of his job of chauffeuring a rich white man. (Summer Hill Seven handled the lead role capably.)

Tallahassee was where I saw Confederate flags for the first time this visit — on the licence plate of a truck driven by a large and neatly-presented white woman — but I’d also seen Confederate flags in Charlottesville, Virginia[2]. I imagine folks might argue that the home of the University of Virginia has more in common culturally with the suburbs of Washington, DC, than the rest of Dixie. I saw a sign outside a chicken restaurant advertising the “best liver and gizzards in town,” but can a town really be properly representative of the South if it hosts two universities and a state government — and which are the three biggest employers in town? Tallahassee does feel like a college town in many ways. And Tallahassee is unusually Democratic politically for a Southern town (though it probably isn’t meaningful in this regard that even the local paper is called The Democrat).

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Outside Tallahassee and further along the panhandle, however, things get undeniably Southern. The vegetation turns thick and lush, the ground swampy. Little in the way of anything lines the narrow highway, save for lone, low, modestly-constructed houses, the odd trailer, and dirt roads disappearing rapidly into the woods. In the distance, the occasional water tower announces the name of a passing town. Churches — small, cheaply but neatly constructed, invariably white and marked by tall, prominent crosses — are a regular occurrence. A handmade poster posted on a telegraph pole reads “IMPERIALIST SOCIALIST BENGHAZI COVER UP.” I guess the author considered it unnecessary to explain the context or object of her complaint.

I’ve seen plenty of country Australia, and this is nothing like country Australia. It’s much greener for a start. The heat is unfamiliar too: not more intense by any means, but perhaps damper? These are preliminary observations. And I’ve left out the parts that could be found anywhere in America: the chain “ale house” I at dinner at last night, for instance, that had hockey and basketball on the TVs that crowded into every possible point at which a person’s gaze might turn and a tantalising selection of craft beers behind the bar. Or the shopping mall that could have been anywhere if not for the quantity of Seminole and Gator merchandise on sale. Or how, now, between Panama City and Pensacola, along the Gulf Coast, Walmarts and hotels and half-constructed pre-fab townhomes are a more common occurrence than rundown shacks.

I have seen little of the South. I will see more.

1. To be precise, while eating a chicken sandwich in a Chick-Fil-A there. I'm sad to report that chicken sold by bigots is delicious.

2. And in California, too.


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¡Bienvenido a Miami!

By Jonathan Bradley in Miami, Florida

10 May 2013

Miami Beach

I said on Twitter the other day that I hadn't encountered a city to which I was more spectacularly ill-suited than Miami, which sounds like a criticism of the city. It's not though; this is a rather pleasant place. Its streets are walkable, its public transport system is functional — including the Metromover, a free elevated train system that loops through downtown — and the weather has been invariably warm, but not hot. (I can't guarantee it will stay this agreeable into the summer months — or hurricane season.) So Miami is a fine city, albeit one in which I'm a completely alien presence.

Let me explain: I'm on vacation right now, and Miami is a town made for vacationing. There's sun, there's the beach, there's shopping, there's gorgeous art deco architecture and palm trees; there's the ever-present potential to spend your days doing pretty much absolutely nothing at all. And, well, all that makes me feel kinda nervous. 

I won't pretend to be a workoholic — lord knows I can be truly talented at goofing off. But there's a reason I'm taking my vacation in the very place I spend every day at work thinking about, and that's because I can't really relax if I'm doing nothing and not thinking anything. Also, I don't like the beach. A friend imagined me here: "I see you standing uncomfortably on the sand in shoes, colourful trousers and striped shirt with 'beautiful' people all around." She was pretty much right! (I will admit that Miami's enthusiasm for applying pastel as plentifully to its buildings as its apparel is one that suits my sensibilities perfectly.)

Miami approaches a weird, blissful, and uncomfortable perfection; its attempt to be America's paradise at the end of its longest peninsula approaches the maniacal. And in true American habit, the form that mania takes is capitalistic and hedonistic. South Beach, particularly, is crazy: due to delayed flights I checked into my hotel here at 2am on a Sunday evening, expecting all around me to be dark and dead. Not so. Dance music pounded from the entrance to my hotel. My room was a dark wood-panelled, chandelier-endowed grotesque. Highly attractive Miamians — the concentration of extremely good-looking members of both sexes, many of whom consider clothing to be optional —  strolled the streets as if it were just dusk. Convertibles roamed the boulevards as if they were lost from the set of a rap video.

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Across the causeway, in Miami, the atmosphere is less resort-like, but still as effortlessly moneyed. The skyscrapers, filled with hotels and investment banks don't cluster but smear along the long stretch that is downtown. The restaurants at their base are industrial in scale, plush in presentation, and possess the uniformity of upmarket chain-dining. Beyond here is Brickell; a neighbourhood of lush tree-lined avenues and regiments of towering luxury apartment blocks arranged along the waterfront for miles. Miami wears its money more naturally than New York, where it   rubs shoulders with broke artists and Bronx brolic, or Los Angeles, where it secludes itself in residential enclaves. Sure, out there in the great suburban expanse of the greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood-etc. metropolitan area is the financial insecurity of one of the states hit hardest by the Great Recession, but here in the city and by the beach, the wealth is so plentiful that it has been synthesised almost imperceivably into happiness.

South Beach hasn't birthed it, but, for instance, it is the natural cultural home of the most commercial end of contemporary American rap music: big-sellers like Rick Ross, Drake, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, and the like. Bass-augmented beats and tales of an endless disposable melange of wealth, sex, and party drugs (rap's had a recent obsession with ecstasy) make sense here. Miami is America's VIP section, with all but bottle service provided.

A banner celebrating 500 years of Florida

These banners, hanging around downtown, and interspersed with ones celebrating another of the city's obsessions, the Miami Heat, the team that used its dollars to seduce superstar LeBron James from hard-scrabble Cleveland and is now tied with the Chicago Bulls in a playoff series closely watched citywide, say two things about America: that it's really old, and that it has, throughout the European portion of its history, been a Latin American place.

Sure, 500 years is young by old world standards, but no European structure in Australia pre-dates 1788. Florida contains the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in America: St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish in 1565. (Conquistador Juan Ponce de León first sighted Florida in 1513, hence the 500 year celebration.) I'm not sure about the rest of Florida — I head north to the panhandle in a few hours —  but Miami is the most Latino part of America I have visited, moreso than even Los Angeles. I hear Spanish being spoken on the streets almost as much as I do English. The ever-present soundtrack in the city is that of the dem bow riddim, the insistent beat that defines the Puerto Rican–created rap-derived music called reggaeton. (The music of Cuban-American rapper Pitbull also booms in regular rotation from cars and shopfronts.)

In Little Havana, the effect is intensified. This area is not like the ethnic neighbourhoods of other cities, the Chinatowns or Little Saigons that intensify an immigrant culture into a few tightly-packed blocks. Little Havana's Calle Ocho extends for miles. The supermarkets are Latino chains and the advertisements are in Spanish. At a cafe at which I stopped for strong, sweet Cuban coffee, the staff spoke barely more English than I do Spanish. (Mine is mal.) Old men play dominoes in a small park through the day. Refugees from Castro's communism plaster Romney-Ryan stickers on the fixtures. In this part of America, Spanish is the lingua franca, just as it was 500 years earlier.

I must end here. Next stop will be in genuine Confederate territory; the maxim in Florida is that the farther north you go, the more Southern the state gets. I'll keep you guys updated.


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Attempted democracy

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

5 November 2012

The first time I saw an American election up close was in 2004, when I was living in Bellingham, Washington. Seeing long lines and punch card ballots at my local polling booth*, a thought first struck me that has recurred every so often since: Americans love democracy, but they're so bad at it. I wasn't any more reassured when, that evening, reports out of Ohio told of such poor electoral preparation in minority heavy districts had resulted in people waiting deep into the night to cast a ballot at polls that only remained open due to court order.

For the most part, I'm being unfair here. America's a big country and, for the most part, tales of confusing ballots, voter disenfranchisement, and poor organisation are the exception, not the rule. (Gerrymandering and partisan redistricting, however, is very much the rule.) But my sour take on one of the United States' msot valued traditions pops its head up again every so often, and, well, here's a current report from Florida:

What began Sunday morning as an attempt by the Miami-Dade elections department to let more people early vote devolved into chaos and confusion only days before the nation decides its next president.

Call it the debacle in Doral.

Elections officials, overwhelmed with voters, locked the doors to their Doral headquarters and temporarily shut down the operation, angering nearly 200 voters standing in line outside — only to resume the proceedings an hour later.

As one voter quoted by the Miami Herald said: "This is America, not a third world country ... they should have been prepared." I've voted in elections in Australia for more than a decade and never encountered anything like the experience described by The Herald.

But perhaps my experience is the anomaly. Centre visiting professor Simon Jackman makes a good point about comparisons between :

It isn’t really a fair comparison, since there isn’t such a thing as “US election administration.”

Rather, like national elections themselves, there is a “rich tapestry” (um “wild riot”?) of state and county level election administration systems in the United States, with much variance in law, technologies, budgets, professionalism, partisanship and traditions.

... I’ve been banging on about this for years to Oz journos etc; Australians ought to better understand and appreciate the minor admin miracle that the [Australian Electoral Commission] is.

True! And as such, might I offer a modest proposal to the various US electoral administrators? The AEC has a history of helping other countries run their elections — Cambodia and Namibia are notable examples. America, why not outsource your electoral administration to Australia? Our commission can offer you fair, non-partisan redistricting; efficient polling places without short lines or difficulty of access; and simple, straight-forward ballots that won't have you casting a vote for Pat Buchanan when you wanted to pick Al Gore. 

Think it over and get back to us. America has done so well out of globalisation; why not globalise your elections?

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*On the other hand, one aspect of my visit to an American polling booth was enormously positive. On that day, I went inside and told one of the workers that I was a visitor from Australia and was curious about how Americans conducted their elections. She gave me a sample ballot paper and a couple of "I voted" stickers as souvenirs. Later on, when things had got a bit quieter, I got a chance to try out one of the voting booths and create a few hanging chads on my punch card. Great experience.



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"Souls to the Polls": Black churches and the election

By Nicole Hemmer in Miami, Florida

29 October 2012

It’s nine days before Election Day in the US, and, here in Florida, the polls already boast long lines. This weekend, over half-a-million Floridians will cast their ballots, some queuing up for nearly five hours in order to vote.

Today (a Sunday) lines will be even longer as the state’s black churches launch their “Souls to the Polls” drive. The Sunday before Election Day historically sees high turnout for black voters. Local churches arrange car pools to neighbourhood polling venues following Sunday services. Typically next Sunday would be an even more important date, but the Republican legislature here has cancelled voting on that day.

The attempt to block “Souls to the Polls” and early voting is of a piece with Republicans’ nationwide efforts to drive down voter participation among Democrats. Stringent voter ID laws, limited polling hours, and voter-roll purges comprise a comprehensive attempt to ensure minorities and the poor, who tend to vote Democratic, can’t participate in this year’s election.

Early in-person voting benefits Democrats because of the peculiar structure of elections in the US. Held on a Tuesday but not a federal holiday, the election requires Americans to squeeze in voting before or after work. Those working 12-hour shifts, juggling childcare, or lacking transportation face real limits on their ability to vote. Low-income and minority voters tend to be most affected by the dynamics of workweek voting, and are the constituencies most likely to take advantage of early voting.

Which is why GOP lawmakers have been so keen to limit access to the polls outside working hours. In Ohio, which, like Florida, is a critical swing state, the Republican legislature has mandated polls in Democratic counties close by 5 pm (Republican counties will have evening and weekend polling hours). Only a court injunction has kept polls in Ohio open on the Sunday before the election.

That Sunday before the election is crucial to black voters for two reasons. First, black Americans are far less likely than white Americans to have reliable transportation. Rides to the polls, then, become a critical component of the get-out-the-vote drive in black neighbourhoods and are easier to arrange on weekends.

Second, as the “Souls to the Polls” effort suggests, the church plays a central role in black voting. Indeed, the church has served a political, social, and religious function in America’s black community for well over a century, thanks in large part to segregation and systematic disenfranchisement.

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Unable to participate in electoral politics between the 1890s and 1960s, black Southerners built leadership and community-service networks in the one place they could regularly gather: their churches. It is not mere happenstance that black civil rights leaders in the 1960s were pastors, nor that the freedom songs of the black freedom struggle were spirituals and hymns.

In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a bus boycott began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white rider in violation of the city’s segregation ordinance. A few days later, some 5,000 black community members gathered at the local church to hear the words of a 26-year-old pastor.

He told them that their fight against discrimination was just, because it was rooted in the promise of equality and freedom embedded in both the American and Christian tradition. “If we are wrong,” he told the gathered crowd, “the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong ... If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning.”

The boycott lasted for over a year, ending when both the bus company and the city relented and ended segregation on city buses. The pastor, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., would go on to lead the black freedom struggle for over a decade.

Church-based political organising, then, has a long tradition among black Americans, one Republicans are trying to thwart. But the GOP’s efforts may be backfiring. As I write today from Miami, a local pastor is engaged in Operation Lemonade, a wholesale civil- and voting-rights day of action to not just get black Miamians to the polls but to call attention to the undemocratic attempts to keep out their vote.

In the United States, black Americans have lost their jobs, their homes, and their lives in the struggle to gain equal access to the ballot box. Attempts to keep them — or any American, of any political stripe — from their right to choose their leaders give lie to the political compact upon which America was built. If the US is a democratic republic in which citizens can freely vote to elect their leaders, then this Block the Vote drive is un-American. It deserves censure not just from both sides of the aisle, but from supporters of democracy across the globe.

This post was originally published by The Conversation


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Steal this vote

By Nicole Hemmer in Miami, Florida

4 September 2012

All eyes were on Florida last week thanks to the Republican National Convention. By now, workers have broken down the stage and packed away Clint Eastwood’s prop chair, but Team Romney hasn’t disappeared entirely. They’ve left behind a bustling Hispanic outreach operation to try to capitalise on this week’s stellar performances by New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Winning over Latino voters is a key part of the Romney strategy here in Florida. Currently he trails President Obama 37 per cent to 53 per cent among swing state Hispanics, a number Romney must change if he wants to win Florida and the election. But the Republican plan to win the Sunshine State involves more than making sure some Latinos vote for Romney — it also requires making sure some of them don’t vote at all. 

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott kicked off his first term in 2011 by pushing through new voting laws to restrict registration drives and eliminate early voting. He followed this move by requesting a list of non-citizens in order to purge them from the state’s rolls. That list contained 2700 names, 87 per cent of them minorities, all of whom had their voter registration cancelled.

At least 500 of them were citizens and eligible voters.

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All this is being done, in Scott’s words, to ensure “no Florida citizen’s vote is diluted by noncitizens.” In Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other swing states facing new restrictions on voting, the argument is the same: voter fraud constitutes a real and imminent danger to democratic elections, and must be stopped in order to save the republic.

Just one thing: only ten cases of in-person voter fraud have been recorded since 2000. The Republicans have launched a war against what comedian Stephen Colbert calls “an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere.”

Americans simply aren’t casting fraudulent votes. But now eligible voters across the country — particularly poor and minority voters in swing states — are being denied access to the ballot. That, not voter fraud, is the real danger to democratic elections.

The federal government has now intervened in Florida. The US Justice Department sued the state of Florida for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law put in place at the height of the Civil Rights movement. The Justice Department won that case in mid-August. And just this past Wednesday, the courts struck down Governor Scott’s restrictions on voter registration. 

That ruling, however, may have come too late. New Democratic voter registration is down over 95 per cent from 2008. That’s not a function of disappointment in President Obama; that’s a willful — and successful — attempt to deny Americans the right to vote.

And not just any Americans. At a time when money plays an increasingly large role in American politics, the one place the poor and powerless can have their voices heard is the voting booth. But certain GOP officials would prefer they not. And I’m not making a cynical partisan point here. From the mouth of an Ohio Republican pushing to end early voting in his state: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban" — read African-American — "voter-turnout machine.” Fortunately for voters in Ohio, on Friday a federal judge stopped the drive to end early voting.

Floridians may not be so lucky. Rick Scott’s secretary of state has vowed a new purge of the voting rolls, though fortunately there may not be time to implement it. But one thing is clear: state GOP legislators are determined to secure electoral victory not by winning the argument, but by closing off the vote. And in a democratic country, such tactics damage not just Florida, but the very political compact upon which our government was founded. 

That, not Clint Eastwood ranting at an empty chair, should have been the story coming out of Florida last week. Perhaps next time he could argue with an empty voting booth. If Rick Scott and other Republicans have their way, there should be plenty on hand come November.


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Clear eyes, full hearts, throws like a girl

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

3 September 2012

Erin DiMeglio, believed to be the first girl to play high school football in Florida


South Plantation High is near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., nestled in one of the nation’s high school football hotbeds. The Paladins’ roster is filled with college prospects. The star running back has committed to Miami, and its starting quarterback has offers from Navy and Air Force. And, yes, one of the backup quarterbacks is a girl.

Erin DiMeglio, a 17-year-old senior, was 2 for 3 passing in that scrimmage at Loxahatchee. And on Friday night, she took two snaps in the Paladins’ 31-14 season-opening victory against Nova, handing the ball off both times. She is believed to be the first girl to play quarterback in a Florida high school football game.

A quirk in the American accent makes the story even better:

When the Seminole Ridge Community High School announcer told the crowd Erin DiMeglio was at quarterback, there was little reaction, because the name Erin, when pronounced, does not connote a gender.

Outside of America, of course, the names "Erin" and "Aaron" are pronounced distinctly differently.

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Notes from a swing state: Isaac steals the show

By Nicole Hemmer in Miami, Florida

28 August 2012

It’s Sunday night in the US, and my hurricane shutters are rattling as Tropical Storm Isaac brushes past Florida. Downed palm fronds and deep puddles have remade the landscape both here in Miami and up the road in Tampa, the site of this year’s Republican National Convention.

Hurricanes are hardly unexpected this time of year in Florida, something the GOP knew when they chose the site. But Florida could swing the election, and voters in the I-4 corridor that cuts through Tampa could swing Florida, so here we are.

Not that Isaac changes much. The oncoming storm forced Republicans to cancel the first day of the convention, but that makes little difference. Networks had already decided not to cover it.

Why? Because conventions have become so…conventional. There used to be multiple votes to decide the nominee, sometimes lasting for days. There used to be floor fights in which delegates literally wrestled over control of the nomination. But the last left hooks flew during the 1952 Republican convention, when supporters of conservative Robert Taft went toe-to-toe with Eisenhower backers. The 1960s saw some bloodied protesters and a few contested nominations, but the meetings soon became slickly-packaged affairs.

No wonder earlier this spring so many pundits floated the idea of something far more exciting: a brokered convention. With primary voters unwilling to rally behind Romney or his opponents, it seemed possible no candidate would enter Tampa with enough delegates to be the nominee. If that were the case, anyone could be chosen.

Well, theoretically anyone. That the Republican Party would choose a nominee who’d won nary a primary vote defied logic. But the idea of Romney sewing up the nomination and coasting to the convention was, well, boring. So pundits spent the first three months of 2012 musing over which politician not running for president could become the GOP nominee.

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Here Florida shone. Not one of the candidates in the race hailed from the Sunshine State, but Florida politicians topped the Not-In-It-To-Win-It list. Florida congressman Allen West was a Tea Party favourite for a brokered convention. West served in Iraq and was the state’s first black Republican congressman in 135 years.

True, he’d only been in office a year. And he was found responsible for misconduct while interrogating a suspect in Iraq.  And he suggested his colleague Keith Ellison, America’s first Muslim member of Congress, “really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established.” Then there was his whole “there are 78-81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party” thing.

Okay, so West may have been a long-shot in the 2012 Fantasy Nominee game. But Florida had two other politicians in the draft, ones much more palatable to establishment Republicans. Marco Rubio was a bit wet-behind-the-ears, but what the new Florida senator lacked in experience he made up for in demographics: young, Hispanic, handsome, from a swing state.  But at 41 he was more running-mate than leading-man material.

Besides, another Floridian had become the idée fixe among both pundits and Republicans: Jeb Bush. Governor from 1999–2007, Jeb’s name soon became a reflexive response anytime someone uttered the phrase “brokered convention.” His name was floated by the head of the American Conservative Union, recent Republican convert Artur Davis, a “top GOP senator,” conservative commentator Erick Erickson.

Baffling. One had to wonder: did Republicans spend so much time surrounded by elephants that they failed to notice the one Jeb Bush brought into the room? With that last name, his support would be limited to contrarians, closet monarchists, and people with short-term memory loss.

It was all an intellectual exercise anyway, a longing for days when conventions were sprawling week-long dramas where anything could — and often did — happen.

Yet conventions still matter. A good chunk of undecided voters make up their minds at convention time. And in a close election, as the undecideds go, so goes the nation. So it may turn out that while Isaac delivers all the drama and unpredictability, this week’s tightly-managed affair in Tampa may have the bigger impact: it could deliver the election.


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Swing state preview: Florida

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

8 June 2012

Disneyworld, in Orlando, Florida

Well that’s embarrassing. I had intended to do these swing state previews in alphabetical order but jumped right from Colorado to Iowa. Hopefully, my understanding of Florida's demographics is better than my ABCs.

Who can forgot 2000, when the outcome of the presidential race remained uncertain as the hanging chads in Florida were examined?

Although the Bush v. Gore election was almost certainly the high water mark of Florida’s electoral influence, the state will stay play an important role in the 2012 election cycle. Over the past sixty years Florida has been amongst the fastest growing states in the nation. The Sunshine State now has the fourth largest population in the US — translating into 29 electoral votes. The expanding population has also greatly diversified the Floridian electorate, as 270 To Win explains:

Influxes of Cubans, retirees, service workers to the theme park economy booming near Orlando and other groups have resulted in a state much more diversified — both economically and politically — than many of its southern brethren.

Obama won the state by about 3 points in 2008 but Mitt Romney and the Republicans are determined to not let that happen again. The GOP is pulling out all the stops: holding their convention in Tampa and pouring resources into the state. Economic trends should work in Romney’s favour here as well. It’s very possible that if it weren’t for the financial crisis Obama would have lost Florida in 2008, but what helped him four years ago could be his undoing this time around. The state has been hit especially hard by the recession, with the unemployment rate remaining well above the national average.

While polls currently show the two candidates deadlocked, the aforementioned factors make Romney a modest favourite here for now. If there’s a silver lining for Obama it’s that he has a lot of routes to 270 that don’t run through Florida. Changing demographics in the southwest mean that winning Florida isn’t as critical for Democrats as in elections past. For Romney though, a victory here is almost a must.

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Conspiracy theorists imagine America to be more capable than Americans will allow

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

21 March 2012

A high speed rail link in Taiwan

A high speed rail link. Not in Florida. (photo: jiadoldol)

Arikia Milikan has a fascinating post up about a Haitian conspiracy theory. The claim? The United States is building a tunnel under the Caribbean, from Florida to Venezuela, and the construction work is causing earthquakes in the local area. The tremors are real, of course, with the 7.0 quake in 2010 the best know, but the tunnel only exists inside the imagination of the Discovery Channel.


A simple Google search brought up descriptions of the “Caribbean Sea Tunnel,” otherwise known as the “Florida-Haiti Interstate Tunnel” or “I-95U,” a six-lane tunnel containing a high-speed rail system that floats 75 meters below the sea surface and spans 600 miles to connect southern Florida with Cap-Haïtien, a city on the northern tip of Haiti.

According to what appears to be the original article, hosted on the Constructed Worlds Wikia site, the Caribbean International Highway construction was featured on the Discovery Channel’s Extreme Engineering documentary series, and is a project organized by CARICOM, a multinational assemblage of Caribbean states. In addition to a tunnel from Florida to Haiti, the site claims that this tunnel is but one of the many segments within a network of underground tunnels connecting the United States with Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and eventually Venezuela.

The United States is a powerful nation capable of great projects — think the Hoover Dam, Apollo 11, or the 1150 calorie Carl's Jr. Double Six Dollar Burger — and it has a bit of a reputation for riding roughshod over local concerns when pursuing its own interests. Although the Caribean Sea Tunnel is complete fiction, I can understand why it rings true to a population that might not have the means to fact check rumours.

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But at the same time, many of the details of this are utterly absurd to anyone who pays attention to US politics. An expensive public works project at a time when Congress is leery about coming up with the cash to fund the national highway system? To Venezuela, the country lead by Hugo Chavez, who in 2009 said “in all history, there was never a government more terrorist than that of the US empire"? (And via Cuba, a communist country that has been the subject of an American embargo since 1962?) 

Yet what really pushes this project outside the realm of reality is the suggestion that it contains a high speed rail link. From Florida! The state that couldn't build a high speed rail line from Tampa to Miami because its governor, Republican Rick Scott, turned down $2 billion of federal government funding!

The US is in a bad way if a conspiracy theory is proved false because it includes the far-fetched notion of fast American trains. And yet here we are.


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The end of the road for Gingrich?

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

30 January 2012


Five days ago Newt Gingrich held a 10 point lead in Florida and looked poised to carry his momentum from South Carolina down into the Sunshine State. Alas, five days is a lifetime when it comes to campaigns. Over the last several days, Mitt Romney has surged back ahead and now is the clear favourite to win the January 31 Florida primary.

This is obviously bad news for Gingrich, but it’s especially damaging given the campaign schedule. The four upcoming states (Nevada, Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota) were all carried by Romney in the 2008 Republican primary. If Gingrich stalls in Florida, it will be exceptionally difficult to regain momentum.

And, as the support dries up, so do the campaign contributions. Money is always important in the primary, but in the earlier, smaller states like Iowa and New Hampshire, a candidate can somewhat compensate for a lack of resources by campaigning aggressively across the state, and holding face to face meetings with voters. However, as the campaign drags on, this becomes an increasingly difficult task. The number of days between each state primary shrinks, and a number of states begin holding their elections on the same day. A candidate simply doesn’t have the time to personally visit all the counties in each state. Under these circumstances, having the resources to blanket the airwaves with advertisements is an enormous advantage.

Of course, if we’ve learned one thing during the campaign, it’s not to count out Gingrich. Every time he’s been left for dead, he’s managed to rise from the ashes in a blaze of populist rhetoric. And the creation of Super PACs means that Gingrich can potentially rely on advertising campaigns financed by wealthy individuals, even if his own direct campaign contributions begin to dry up.

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Still, given the unfavourable upcoming primary schedule and increasingly harsh attacks from other Republicans, Gingrich is facing an uphill battle going forward. South Carolina was critical for Gingrich, but it was also essential for him to build from that performance by winning Florida as well. Now, he needs to find a way to recapture momentum — and hold on to it for more than a week — if he wants to stop the Republican primary from becoming a Romney blowout.


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Yet another New York story

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

9 December 2011

Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix, Arizona

Alyssa Rosenberg doesn’t like the sound of a new, untitled CW comedy:

The CW, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that its next comedy will be about a young woman who marries her best friend to get around rules about roommates that would forbid said friend from moving into the main character's "swanky New York co-op." And I've had enough of fake pop culture gay people.

Right. But another thing: I’ve discussed before my impatience with American creatives who apparently believe that the only stories worth telling are ones that happen to people who live in the country’s two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles. This program Rosenberg highlights is a perfect illustration of the problem. Do that many Americans actually experience the challenges associated with getting a really nice apartment in Manhattan? Does America have no better stories to tell than ones surrounding the difficulty in wrangling access to coveted real estate?

Over the past few decades, some of the fastest population growth in the United States has occurred far from New York, in the sprawling cities of the Sunbelt and Mountain West. Thanks to the housing crisis, the problem in those cities is not a lack of desirable properties, but too many empty ones. The construction boom has left housing stock in cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, Tampa and Atlanta standing empty. Why not ditch vacuous facsimiles of Big Apple chic and instead create stories about the places Americans have been moving to and building lives in?

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And you know something about Arizona, Nevada, Florida, and Georgia? None permit gay marriage. Rather than make a TV show about two straight women who want to exploit an existing law, isn’t there more potential in one about two gay women who aren’t able to access the rite of marriage? I understand that networks like to shy away from political controversy, but if the CW thinks gay marriage is so commonplace that it’s a reasonable topic for a sitcom to lampoon, then it should think it reasonable to make shows about gay folks who live in places that won’t allow them to marry.

This is the problem with the limited creative imagination that results in shows like these: It ignores entirely the lives of the people they hope will watch their programs. And that means it ignores the problems they face as well.


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The old Electoral College try

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

7 September 2011

Larry J. Sabato does the numbers on the Electoral College:

Republicans therefore are a lock or lead in 24 states for 206 electoral votes, and Democrats have or lead in 19 states for 247 electoral votes. That's why seven super-swing states with 85 electors will determine which party gets to the magic number of 270 electoral votes: Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18) and Virginia (13).

Prior to Obama's 2008 victories in each of these states, several had generally or firmly leaned Republican since 1980. Virginia, which hadn't voted Democratic since 1964, was the biggest surprise, and its Obama majority was larger than that of Ohio, which has frequently been friendly to Democrats in past decades. Massive Hispanic participation turned Colorado and Nevada to Mr. Obama, and it helped him in Florida.

The GOP has gotten a quiet advantage through the redistricting following the 2010 Census. The Republican nominee could gain about a half-dozen net electors from the transfer of House seats—and thus electoral votes—from the northern Frostbelt to the southern and western Sunbelt. Put another way, the Democrats can no longer win just by adding Ohio to John Kerry's 2004 total. The bleeding of electoral votes from Democratic states would leave him six short of 270.

I think predictions about the 2012 election this far out are basically useless, but two things:

1. Sabato gives Indiana and North Carolina, which Obama won, to the Republicans. Sure, OK, but even so, Dems have a lot more paths to victory than the GOP does. From Sabato's seven toss-ups, if Obama were to just win Florida, he'd still win the election. Ohio and Iowa stay blue? An Obama victory. If the Republican candidate wins Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia, leaving Obama with just Ohio and New Hampshire, that's still only good enough for a tie. The Democrats have a formidable defence.

2. The redistricting advantage is really overstated. Sure, red states have been picking up electoral college votes at a greater rate than blue states, but they've also been turning more purple. The movement of voters from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt has resulted in Democrats being competitive in Southern and Western states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado, that even a decade ago they had little hope of winning. The Electoral College is a bogus system, but it's still pretty keyed to population, and the occasions on which it contradicts the popular vote are exceedingly rare.

Nonetheless, close analysis of the Electoral College this far out is particularly useless. State-by-state returns tend to follow national swings, and those are a better guide at the moment. This fantasy football approach to elections is fun, but it's not instructive right now.

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Final flight for Atlantis

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

21 July 2011

The Atlantis Space Shuttle landing at the Kennedy Space Center

As aghast as my ten year old self would be to hear me say this, it makes a lot of sense for NASA to end the Space Shuttle program, as it did when the Atlantis touched down at Cape Canaveral at 5.55 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time today. When describing the reasons for space programs like these, I instinctively reach for childlike superlatives: awesome, amazing, wondrous. No doubt, the ability to send human beings quite literally out of this world is a magnificent human achievement. It does not follow, however, that is a human achievement for America to continue making again and again.

I'm not one to harp on story's of American decline; they tend to be overblown. That said, when I was growing up, space launches were one of those marvellous things America had, like Disneyland and Hollywood, that distinguished the country as exceptional. (At one stage in my life, the realisation that I would never go to Space Camp because it was in a country far away was a significant disappointment to me.) The regular feat of sending people into orbit was something my country couldn't do, but America (and the USSR) could. The emotional power of space exploration continues to have an unreasonable hold; think of the not unpositive reaction in 2004 when President George W. Bush announced ambitions to send Americans to Mars and back to the moon. But given the vast deficits facing the country, and particularly at a time when the country is trying to slash trillions of dollars in spending from its budget, manned space flight no longer seems a means by which America use to mark its superpower status. It's also an arena in which it is no longer exceptional

China has recently joined Russia and the US in the club of nations to have launched manned space missions, and private enterprise has also shown interest. That's the way it should be; government frequently makes the prohibitive initial cost investments into research and development, and then steps back to permit entrepreneurs and businesses to benefit. (The internet is one of the greater successes of this approach.) It's been close to half a century since the United States first sent a man into orbit, and though, compared to genuine big money budget items like Medicare, Medicaid, defence, and Social Security, the shuttle looks like an easy cut at a time when the nation's politicians are looking for much more than easy cuts.

A consequence of this cutting, however, is that reduced NASA spending will affect the local economies of the parts of the country where the space industry is located. This is actually a neat demonstration of how government spending can create jobs. The New York Times recently reported on the impact the end of the shuttle program would have on Central Florida:

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The Kennedy Space Center employs 13,000 people, and many thousands more work for aerospace contractors. Then there are businesses like the Foleys’ — on the order of NASA-themed restaurants and surfboard shops that take spectators on the water to watch the launchings — that are bolstered by a regular tide of shuttle tourists. All of this in a county with 10.8 percent unemployment.

“The biggest focus economically is going to be keeping these talented, highly educated people in the area,” said Bill Moore, the chief operating officer of the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex. “We all have friends or husbands or brothers at the space center, and they’re looking for work.”

Space center contractors have already announced 7,000 layoffs this year. And local officials worry about declining tourism as baby boomers age and memories of the golden age of space travel fade.

Government spending has clearly helped these communities a great deal! The solution, however, is not to continue spending on a boondoggle, or to cut spending and wait until these parts of Central Florida find a way to attract new jobs to the area. America has high unemployment, is able to borrow money at a low cost, and has plenty of new infrastructure demands. If the government could put so many people to work by sending a few into space, surely it could spend that money on, say, green energy, fast rail construction, or other infrastructure projects, and improve the lot of a great many unemployed Americans?


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Take it down south

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

17 May 2011

The U.S. Census Bureau has a great new toy up on its website. The graphic above tracks the path of America's centre of population throughout the nation's history. The centre of population is, as the Census Bureau explains, "the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all residents were of identical weight."

I'm interested in this kind of stuff because immigration, both external and internal, has always been a defining aspect of American identity. The first European immigrants to the continent in its colonial days were people willing to take a risk and uproot their lives in order to better themselves, and the country's populace has never lost this quality. As newcomers crowded into the cities of the East, Easterners packed up their things and ventured into the broad expanse of the plains under the dictum of manifest destiny; the belief that it was right and inevitable that America should expand to the very Western edge of the continent. The Oregon Trail, the California gold rush, and even Brigham Young's Mormon exodus to Utah are icons of a people unwilling to settle.

Since 1790, the centre of population has shifted from Kent County, Maryland to its current location in the tiny town of Plato, Missouri. It's course tells the history of America: its origins in the old centres of the North East, its industrialisation in the cities of the Mid West, and, over the past few decades, the reorientation of its economy to the post-manufacturing service industries of the South and West. From the suburban idyll of the 1950s, America is shifting toward the sprawling, decentralised exurbs of states like Florida and Arizona. According to the Census Bureau, over the past ten years the centre of population moved farther south and less far west than usual. This is a story in itself; towns like Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina have become the face of a new South. Where the New South was once exemplified in 1960s Atlanta's self-conception as the City Too Busy To Hate, these cities are becoming ones that don't hate even when they're not busy.

This shuffle is changing the country's political face, as well. Old Democratic strongholds like Michigan and the New England states are losing seats, while traditionally Republican states like Texas and Georgia are gaining them. But the changing culture of the South is similarly altering the political map: Barack Obama turned North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida blue, and in the case of the former two in particular, this was the result of demographic changes in a region that, as recently as the 1960s, would have prevented the current President from using the same bathroom as a white man.

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A third President Bush?

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

28 March 2011

Former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush

In the comments, Judith Dimitrov asked of the Republican primary race: "What about the rumours that Karl Rove and the Koch brothers are tooling up to launch Jeb Bush?"

It's a fair question. Jeb Bush, the younger brother of the 43rd President George W. Bush, was the son the Bush family originally expected to reach political greatness. He did, to some extent; he served two terms as Governor of Florida, and enjoyed high public approval while in office. But his younger brother George was the one who reached the Presidency first. For some time, Jeb has been talked about as the third president the Bush family will send to the White House.

That said, I don't think it will happen in 2012. Bush told Politico last month that he wasn't interested in a run next year, which doesn't actually rule him out of contention. Politicians are wont to declare they have no interest in the presidency until the day they enter the race. And high profile conservatives have been calling for Jeb to run; Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) and National Review columnist Rich Lowry, for instance, have talked him up.

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But Bush hasn't been laying the groundwork for a nomination: copious speaking engagements, for intance, or frequent visits to the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire. That doesn't mean it's too late for him to start, but it does suggest he's telling the truth when denying his interest in a 2012 run. Further, while American opinion of George W. Bush has softened a bit since he left office, he's still widely disliked. The Bush name might still excite the Republican right, but it reminds the general population of Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, and the financial crisis. GOP politicians are often loath to speak too well of George W., and Jeb will be less easily able to convince voters that he thought his brother did a bad job. Tim Pawlenty or Mitt Romney can claim they disapproved of the economic stewardship of President Bush as well as Obama. Jeb, however, will find it difficult to distance himself from Obama's predecessor. With the economy likely to still be suffering the effects of a recession voters blame on President Bush, that will be a severe handicap.

That doesn't mean it's impossible for Jeb Bush to ever get the presidency. He hasn't ruled out a 2016 run, and though, as Lowry points out, he'll still be a Bush then, the economy will likely have improved enough that it won't be a crippling handicap. It is likely, however, that Bush's time has been and gone. A third president from the same family would be a lot for Americans to swallow, and as successful as the Bush name has been, it doesn't even have the positive connotations today that Clinton or Kennedy does. (And those names carry a lot of baggage with their positive connotations.) Time may prove me wrong, but I believe if America ever has another President Bush, he or she will come from at least one generation beyond the current one.


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Midterms 2010: Ten House races to watch

By Jonathan Bradley in Seattle, WA

3 November 2010

While Republicans are a long shot to win the Senate, they have a much better shot of taking the House. In fact, they're favoured to do so, and it's the likely result from tonight. But there has been a lot of variation in the polling, and while the GOP is expected to win about 50 seats, their margin could be much bigger or much smaller. They need to gain 39 to take the House. Here are ten races to keep an eye on:

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01. Virginia-05: Currently held by Democrat Tom Perriello

While most Democrats have been distancing themselves from President Barack Obama's achievements, Perriello has warmly embraced them. This could be crazy, a measure of political conviction, or both; his district is a conservative one, and Perriello won it from the Republican Party just two years. Can he defy the common wisdom and keep his seat?

02. Florida-08: Currently held by Democrat Alan Grayson

Republicans would love to claim this scalp. Grayson is the pugilistic Democrat congressman with a knack for stunts, particularly one memorable one that claimed the Republican health care policy amounted to "If you get sick, die quickly." Even some Democrats are uncomfortable with his stunts, and it will be telling to see if Grayson's divisiveness works against him.

03. Ohio-01: Currently held by Democrat Steve Driehaus

Ohio's 1st was a hotly contested race in 2008, and Driehaus's victory over the Republican incumbent was a a major coup for Democrats. Now Republicans will want the Cincinnati-area back in the red. Driehaus was disappointed when Obama bypassed his district in his cross-country tours these past few weeks; it was effectively an admission that Democrats were giving up on the seat. If he has any hope of hanging on, it will depend on turning out the black voters who showed up for Obama in 2008.

04. Ohio-18: Currently held by Democrat Zack Space

Space took the seat from long time Republican representative Bob Ney in 2006, and increased his vote to nearly 60 per cent in 2008. The fact that he's in trouble this year is indicative of how much the political landscape has changed. Democrats will feel a lot more comfortable if members like Space can hang on.

05. Louisiana-02: Currently held by Republican Joseph Cao

Joseph Cao won this usually-Democratic New Orleans district in 2008; his opponent is now serving thirteen years on corruption charges. Cao drew attention for being the only House Republican to vote for one of the early versions of the health care bill. Even with liberal votes like that, however, Cao won't get such an easy run this time round. But if ever there were a year he might pull off a fluke second term, this would be it.

06. Colorado-04: Currently held by Democrat Betsy Markey

Markey delighted Democrats when she switched her vote on the Affordable Care Act from no to yes this year, fully aware it could cost her her seat. The race is a tight one, and if Markey hangs on, Democrats will consider it karma. 

07. Illinois-10: Open, currently held by Republican Mark Kirk

Kirk has given up this northern Chicago seat to run for the Senate, and it could be one of the rare Democrat pick ups this cycle. The Dem nominee, Dan Seals, has been compared to Barack Obama, and this is one city in which that isn't a negative. Nonetheless, Republican Robert Dold is well-positioned to keep the district red, and 2010 could be the third election in a row in which Seals has contested for the 10th and lost.

08. Arizona-07: Currently held by Democrat Raúl Grijalva

A symbol of how much trouble Democrats are having in this electorate. Both John Kerry and Barack Obama polled well here, and the large Native American and Latino populations mean this should not be a tight contest. But Republican Ruth McClung is giving Grijalva a lot of trouble, and if Democrats lose the House, Grijalva might well lose his seat.

09. Washington-08: Currently held by Republican Dave Reichert

I mentioned Democratic challenger Suzan DelBene in my post on the recent Barack Obama/Patty Murray here in Seattle, and she has a slight chance of taking this seat from Reichert. If Democrats perform better than expected, look for a victory here. The 8th covers the Seattle area's eastern suburbs, and though much of it encompasses the wealthy Republican parts of town, it's also home to a large Asian population, which usually votes Democratic, and contains the Microsoft headquarters. Perhaps the tech geeks will turn out for the Dems this year?

10. Hawaii-01: Currently held by Republican Charles Djou

Djou gained the unusual distinction of being a Republican representative from Hawaii in a special election earlier this year when Democrat Neil Abercrombie resigned his seat. Djou benefited from a vote split between two Democratic candidates in that election, and in only facing one Democrat, Colleen Hanabusa, this time round, his stay in D.C. is likely to be short. It's one more seat the G.O.P. needs to flip the House in that case, but if Hawaiians defy expectations and stay with the incumbent, Republicans can consider it the icing on a night of good electoral cake.


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On needing a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

By Jonathan Bradley in Seattle, WA

20 July 2010

The Simpsons' Mayor Quimby in episode

In the words of Springfield Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby: "If that is the way the winds are blowing, let no one say I don't also blow."

Jonathan Chait says he has "a soft spot for bluntly transactional politicians," like Mitt Romney or Charlie Crist, who shamelessly reconfigure their political viewpoints to suit their ambitions. Crist, the Republican Governor of Florida, is running as an independent for the state's Senate seat this November, and since severing ties with his party, he has veered left on issues like abortion, health care reform, and education, and has admitted the shift is partly for reasons of political expedience. Chait explains his new-found affection for Crist's pragmatism:

I think it actually takes real guts to admit something like this. There's no such thing is a non-opportunistic politician. Even a genuine ideological fanatic like Rand Paul is feverishly trimming his sails. For a pol to just come out and admit the obvious is refreshing.

I have some sympathy for this view. Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking, writing, or reading about politics develop a good understanding of how much theatre is involved in lawmaking, and when a politician comes along, winks at us, and acknowledges the game-playing involved in the business of politics, we find it refreshing. "Finally!" we think. "Someone in government prepared to treat us like adults!" But voters tend not to have such a positive view of these wry cynics, and understandably so. 

While campaigning, politicians make a lot of promises, and while these are often useful insights into the visions these candidates hold for the nation, promises and policies alone are not particularly helpful when it comes to working out how a politician will govern. First, whether president or mayor, senator or city council member, no one in government acts alone. A promise made on the hustings will always be modified as it makes its way into law. And secondly, as politicians govern they will be asked to confront problems that may not even have existed during their campaign for office. If Crist is elected to the Senate, he will be voting on legislation until January 3, 2017. Who knows what bills he'll be asked to give his yea or nay to six years from now?

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Far more useful for voters are indications as to how a candidate thinks, and whether he or she can be trusted to keep thinking that way. If a Floridian awards a vote to Charlie Crist because of his stance on, say, education policy, that voter probably wants to know that Crist won't decide to completely reverse his opinions a few years later because the political winds have shifted.

That's why it was so damaging to John Kerry when he got pegged as a flip-flopper in the 2004 campaign, or why Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter found himself wanted by neither party after he switched affiliation from Republican to Democrat last year. It's why Mitt Romney failed to gain much traction in his Presidential bid in 2008, and why, ever since he began shifting rightward during the '08 campaign, John McCain has lost much of his lustre. Mercenary tactics are often necessary in politics, but a politician who seems to hold no firm beliefs will soon end up out of office.

That said, voters also understand that politics is a game. It's just that they don't like the game. This creates a cruel paradox, because the political process requires a lot of game-playing; it's how democracy works and how stuff gets done*. The most successful politicians are those who acknowledge the game, shake their head at the cravenness of it all, and then, rather than disavow it, get up to their elbows in it. A neat illustration of this? Try Barack Obama, as observed in Ryan Lizza's 2008 New Yorker profile of the then yet-to-be-elected President:

E. J. Dionne, Jr., of the Washington Post ... wrote about a young Barack Obama, who artfully explained how the new pinstripe patronage worked: a politician rewards the law firms, developers, and brokerage houses with contracts, and in return they pay for the new ad campaigns necessary for reëlection. “They do well, and you get a $5 million to $10 million war chest,” Obama told Dionne. It was a classic Obamaism: superficially critical of some unseemly aspect of the political process without necessarily forswearing the practice itself. Obama was learning that one of the greatest skills a politician can possess is candor about the dirty work it takes to get and stay elected.

That's not to say all Machiavellian political manoeuvres should be tolerated. But an effective politician is one who voters think they know inside and out, but is still able to shift when the winds tell them to.


*For an interesting, lengthy and somewhat whimsical exploration of this, I recommend Mike Barthel's Politics is a Unicorn series.


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