Advertising Absurdity

President Obama and Mitt Romney were determined this week to keep their political storm away from Frankenstorm. TV networks, too, took a break from broadcasting 24/7 election coverage.

But, seemingly, no one thought to apply the same standards to the tone deaf political ads interspersed with CNN footage of submerged roads and decimated buildings.

For National Security Studies Program Fellow Haroon Moghul, two ads stood out, raising questions about the role of government in the lives of citizens, how we should define ‘crisis,’ and why climate change isn’t more central to the natural disaster discussion.

The first ad, he writes in a piece for Religion Dispatches, featured a Hungarian refugee cautioning against big government and socialism.

“If there is one thing people need during a national disaster, it is functioning and effective government, “ he writes. “If there is one time we need redistributive justice, it is during a crisis. Much of politics perhaps just comes down to what is, and is not, a crisis—a hurricane I hope we can all agree on. But what about climate change? Or health care? What is life-threatening? What is an emergency?”

The next ad advocated a reversal of EPA regulations “in favor of exploiting America’s coal,” Moghul writes.  “Now, I don’t know about you, but the last thing I was concerned by during the previous 48 hours were onerous EPA regulations. Perhaps we need more of them, so we don’t have to prepare for storms that cost lives and leave us billions of dollars in the hole, potentially year after year…We cannot of course trace any single weather event to climate change, but we can be left with certain critical impressions that should be part of our political conversation.”

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The High-Stakes Illusion

Mitt Romney and President Obama have campaigned on the same message: The stakes of this presidential contest are exceptionally high– and if the other guy wins, he’ll put America on a path to ultimate ruin. It's a message that has underpinned breathless campaign commentary on both sides of the aisle.

But it’s overwrought: In Quartz today, New America Vice President Andrés Martinez challenges the election hyperventilation, arguing that the outcome of Tuesday’s contest won’t dramatically alter the near-future course of America's foreign policy, healthcare system, fiscal situation and immigration reform.

Both Romney and Obama are “pragmatic moderates” who make decisions and solve problems in similar ways. And they happen to have analogous perspectives – whether they’d admit it or not – on a host of critical policy issues.

To be sure, Martinez isn’t arguing that the election isn’t important – just that, compared to other elections, it ranks among the least consequential.

“Certainly the campaign’s shrill atmospherics—the uncivil tenor of discourse, the amounts spent, the hyperbole on both sides—suggest Nov. 6 is an epic showdown,” Martinez writes. “And there is no denying that hyper-partisan factions in both parties have a louder voice than ever, that the blue-red national divide seems more entrenched; that these two candidates don’t particularly like each other, and that a racially-tinged animosity towards President Obama remains a factor in the constant efforts to delegitimize him (for not really being American/Christian/one of us)—all of which has made this election season especially nasty. But we shouldn’t confuse the heat of the contest and its surrounding rhetoric with the stakes involved.”

Read the full post here.

Image credit: Reuters/ Kevin Lamarque

Squaring Off: The People's Choice?

In Squaring Off, we invite authors into the public square to answer five questions about the essence of their books. For this round, we pose questions to Robert W. Bennett, a constitutional law professor at Northwestern University and author of Taming the Electoral College.

Bennett has written extensively on perilous aspects of the Electoral College, a system created by the Founding Fathers over 200 years ago. America’s presidential election process is one of the most complicated in the world, and it can create odd situations where the winner of the presidency doesn’t have a majority of the popular vote, electors change their minds about whom to vote for, and candidates devote campaigns to a handful of swing states.
1. The framers of the Constitution created the Electoral College to serve as a buffer between the people and the presidency during a very different time in America. Do you think it’s an antiquated system that needs to be thrown out, or should certain aspects remain?
If it could be done smoothly I would readily substitute a nationwide popular vote for the Electoral College, but doing it smoothly would not be easy. One reason is that the right to vote varies from state to state. Perhaps most important are differences in things like photo ID laws, early voting, and voting day registration. As a result there would be no integrated nationwide vote. That isn’t to say there are no problems with the Electoral College as is—chief among them the possibility that an election result might be turned around by “faithless electors” who do not vote for the candidate(s) of the parties that nominated them as electors.
2. Speaking of these “faithless electors,” they could become an issue in this election, as poll watchers and political pundits say a tie—Romney and Obama each getting 269 electors—is a possibility. How common is it for an elector not to vote for the candidate he or she has pledged to vote for, and do any states have laws against it?
The number of faithless electoral votes over the years depends in part on what counts as “faithlessness,” like refusing to vote for someone who has died. But clear-cut cases in presidential elections do occur. There was a “faithless” abstention in 2000 and a faithless vote for John Edwards for president in 2004. But faithless votes have never changed a presidential outcome, and for that reason many remain unconcerned about the possibility. Still, more than half the states do have laws that forbid or discourage the practice, but they do so in various ways. Some extract pledges of faithfulness; some say voting faithlessly constitutes resignation from the office of elector; some forbid faithlessness outright but without mention of penalty. In part because of the variation, the Uniform Laws Commission has formulated a Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act (an effort I am involved in) and will be pushing for state-by-state adoption after the upcoming election.
3. The most popular argument against the Electoral College is that it can allow someone to become president despite failing to lose the popular vote, which has happened four times: 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. Should that be tolerated?
With an election this close, it is entirely possible that there will be a winner of the electoral vote who “loses” the popular vote count across the nation. The quotation marks around “loses” are important, however, because the rules of the game—well known to both major candidates—are that the electoral vote winner wins. Had the popular vote been what matters, the campaigns would have been waged differently, spending lots of time, for instance, in California. So we don’t really know who might have won the popular vote under different rules in the years you mention. Still, there is no doubt that the rules contemplate the possibility of our electing a president who might not be able to carry a majority of ballots cast nationwide. As with the apportionment of the United States Senate, this is a reminder that we are designed to be a union of states, not individuals.
4. As a result, the electoral college creates an environment where candidates spend an exorbitant amount of time and money in swing states like Ohio and Florida but pay little attention to most of the country. Is it fair for an election to come down to a handful of states?
That is the worst consequence of the Electoral College mechanism. But, to be fair, a nationwide popular vote would also cause candidates to concentrate on some voters to the neglect of others. Candidates would go where they could “harvest” votes most efficiently, likely the most populous states.
5. Past attempts at changing the Electoral College have inevitably failed. How likely is it, really, that changes—either by constitutional amendment or state-by-state laws—will be realized in the near future?
The optimal scenario conducive to moving to a nationwide popular vote would likely be an Electoral College victory for Obama combined with Romney capturing a clear majority of the nationwide popular vote. That would mean that each party had been “burned” by the present system within four elections. Short of that, I hope we’ll see a widespread adoption of the proposed Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act. That effort, too, would be advanced by a close electoral college count in the coming election and either some actual faithlessness or evidence of efforts to court it.
This post also appeared in Zócalo Public Square, a project of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and the New America Foundation.


Mother Nature to the Candidates: Can You Hear Me Now?

This election season was the first time since 1984 that the presidential and vice-presidential candidates didn’t mention climate change during all four debates.

“All these other years it was recognized as a major issue,” Schwartz Fellow Mark Hertsgaard told journalist Marco Werman during a Public Radio International interview on the absence of climate change in the campaign discourse. “Back in 1988…there was no hemming and hawing from the journalists, some scientists say it’s true, some don’t. It was look, here’s this problem, what are you guys going to do about it?”

Now, the monstrous Frankenstorm – a hybrid cold front-hurricane tempest – is pummeling the Eastern Seaboard. Spooky coincidence – or is it Mother Nature’s way of telling Romney and Obama to listen up? Either way, scientists agree that it’s probably a consequence of The Phrase That Must Not Be Named.

“This super-storm is yet another example of the dangerous, extreme weather that climate change is making more common,” Hertsgaard told Delve. “Are you paying attention yet, President Obama and Gov. Romney? And if you want our votes next Tuesday, shouldn't you be telling us what you plan to do not only about such storms but also the climate change that is driving them?”

For proof that climate change is driving these storms, or is at least making them fiercer, Hertsgaard recommends reading Joe Romm’s Climate Progress blog on Alternet. Yesterday, Romm compiled recent scientific studies and stories that back up his thesis: “…manmade carbon pollution is making many of the most destructive kinds of extreme weather events — Frankenstorms – more frequent and more intense.”

Photo credit: Reuters/ Andrew Kelly

It's Not a Small World After All

What do Mexico, the European Union, India and Venezuela all have in common? All were absent from this week's presidential foreign policy debate. The 90-minute conversation "was a lopsided map of the world’s troubles and potential crises, with some critical subjects completely unmarked, like a fifteenth-century scroll depicting the world beyond the known seas," writes Steve Coll in The New Yorker. In his article, Coll reflects on the six most significant topics that the candidates neglected. "Some could be the nexus of a  major crisis; others are certain to produce major policy decisions during the next Presidency," he writes.

Coll was also a guest on New America's weekly news podcast, The Sidebar, to talk about why the candidates abandoned some of those critical issues, and how U.S. foreign policy may change post-election. 

Listen to the podcast and read the full article.

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