The Case Against Voting

It was a rainy day in 2004 when Katherine Mangu-Ward had an epiphany. She was reporting a story in Ohio about the manufacturing of voter fraud statistics before the presidential election, and “and I realized that (a) from a self-interested perspective, this was a better use of my time than waiting in line at a polling place in Washington, D.C., and (b) it was also a better way to perform my civic duty as an engaged citizen.”

In other words: voting is futile.

This month, Mangu-Ward articulated the case against voting in a story for Reason magazine, where she is managing editor. So far, she’s been flooded with feedback – and most if it seems to misinterpret the crux of the piece.

“Living in a country where our leaders are selected in free, fair elections is wonderful thing,” the New America Schwartz Fellow told Delve in an email. “Living in a country where people of all genders and races can vote is a wonderful thing. That's not what the story is about. The argument in the piece is about whether your individual vote is likely to be decisive in a large public election (spoiler alert: it's not) and whether you have a duty to vote (youprobably don’t, and you might have a duty not to vote if you are especially ignorant about the candidates).”

Mangu-Ward has practiced what she preaches, or at least she thinks she has. “I'm pretty sure I've never voted,” she says. “To be honest, though, I may have voted absentee in college the first year I was eligible. Those years are kind of a blur.”

Read her case for why you should stay home in November here. And listen to her break down the presidential candidates' debate performances on The Sidebar

Debate a Game Changer?

It only took about 15 minutes before the Twitter-verse declared Mitt Romney the winner of the first presidential debate on Wednesday night.

The near consensus remained after the debate: an aloof President Obama failed to meet expectations, while Romney came off strong by transforming back into “Massachusetts Mitt,” a more moderate version of himself.

But did the debate significantly change the race?

On Thursday evening, four political reporters gathered to dissect both candidates’ performances and what they may mean for the election at a New America NYC event in collaboration with The New Republic. Frank Foer — New Republic editor and New America fellow — moderated a conversation with Nate Cohn, staff writer at The New Republic, Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, and Noreen Malone, also a staff writer at The New Republic.

Foer kicked off the conversation with a question looming in the political world.

“Is there anything that can be said in Obama’s defense after last [night]?” he asked teasingly.

Smith argued that Obama didn’t make any major gaffes that will stick in people’s minds or replay constantly on YouTube.

While that may be true, Malone said he also didn’t do himself any favors.  Obama spent no time catering to his base — he never mentioned women, Latino, or LGBT issues.

“He wasn’t controlling what was being talked about,” Malone said.

As for the reason behind Obama’s passivity, Smith said he believes the Obama campaign deliberately put the president on the defense to make Romney look “testy” and “unlikeable.”

If that was the intention, it didn’t quite work out the way they planned.

It’s true Romney steered away from his far-right message.  But many — including Cohn — argue his talking points weren’t that unexpected and Obama should have been better prepared to counter them fairly easily. Foer even called Romney’s repositioning to the middle “screamingly obvious.”

Why did it take Romney so long to move to the center?

One reason, according to Cohn: Since Romney is trailing by four or five points in the national polls, it’s easier for him to go moderate without hearing complaints from the far-right.

The question now: What’s next for the two candidates?

Cohn, who crunches polling data daily for The New Republic, said debates rarely shift the polls much. But if they do, it’s almost always the first the debate that nudges the numbers. Still, even if Romney gets a bump, Obama holds a strong enough lead in key swing states that he will likely still be the expected the winner, Cohn suggested.

But there’s still one month (and two presidential debates) left before Election Day. It seems the takeaway is that the race is still anyone’s for the taking.

Check out a full podcast from the event here.

Civility: The Real Winner of the Debate

This week’s first presidential debate, which seemed to have taken place years after the campaign started, seemed strangely disconnected from the months of political vitriol preceding it, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of advertising surrounding it.   Belying the notion that we are living in a period of unprecedented polarization and political incivility, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seemed to go out of their way during the debate to treat each other with respect and to minimize their differences, rather than to exaggerate them.

The result was widespread dissatisfaction among political activists and the commentariat on both sides, those with a vested interest in politics as a zero-sum, stakes-never-higher blood sport.  But the evening was a welcome reminder that there is a gravitational pull in American politics, perhaps encouraged by polling data in each camp, towards some measure of civility.   Debates are theater, of course, and perhaps if left to their own devices the candidates would have mimicked their surrogates on any number of cable news shouting fests, but it was heartening to see the two men running for president feel pressured, once politics breaks out of the junkies’ inner circle and into the realm of broadcast, to adopt a far different tone.

And so, rather than treat each other like a mortal threat to the republic, both candidates seemed eager to emphasize their areas of agreement in the debate. On at least eight occasions, they explained which positions they hold in common (and that doesn’t include the time they agreed that they disagree on Medicare). Perhaps some of it was tactical: Obama said he agrees with Romney that corporate taxes are too high, and Romney conceded that Wall Street must have regulations. Both candidates have said these things before, and they went on to say what they would do differently than their opponent. But in a debate that sought to draw out their differences, moments like these positioned the candidates closer to the center, and toward each other, than we’ve seen yet. 

The effect was most pronounced for Romney—especially when he apologized for saying “Obamacare,” explaining he “use[s] that term with all respect,” as if people tuning in to watch hadn’t followed politics the last two years (and the point is that plenty haven’t!).  On policy, one of his biggest shifts, as policy analyst Maggie Severns notes on New America’s Early Ed Watch blog, was his promise not to cut federal funding for education. After making statements in April that he’d either consolidate the Department of Education “or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller,” Romney went so far last night as to praise Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his work on the Race to the Top initiative.

On the other side, Obama’s critics panned him in post-debate analysis for not going on the offensive as Romney sidled to the center. Chris Matthews’ rant on MSNBC best captured (or perhaps parodied) the left’s frustrations. The president’s supporters wanted to see him take control, confront Romney, and unload some zingers. But the effect of keeping it civil, even if it meant appearing weaker on stage, may be more beneficial in the long run. Obama has shown before that he can be snarky in conversation. His comment in the 2008 Democratic primary that challenger Hillary Clinton was “likable enough” drew heavy criticism and is credited with his later defeat in the New Hampshire elections. So even if he could have done more to challenge Romney, that attack strategy could have backfired.

There was a good deal of detailed substance, too, for a debate taking place in a campaign accused of lacking it.  Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, was quick to praise the evening as a “substantive and serious dialogue about how to put America back on a sustainable fiscal path.”Of course, there were pointed  disagreements, as there should be. . Romney said the president was not entitled to make up his own facts regarding Romney’s budget plan. Obama flashed his sardonic side when he said Romney would have a busy first day in office with everything he wanted to repeal.

With two more debates, there’s still plenty of time for the nastiness of the surrounding campaign to filter into the personal exchanges between Romney and Obama.  But for now we’re left with the images of the two families lingering onstage after the debate, seeking to convey to the millions of Americans tuning in that they respect each other, and can disagree about things in an agreeable manner, and maybe even work together on some problems in the long run.   One can only hope.

Photo credit: Reuters/ Jason Reed

Seeing Red

In 13th century Europe, justices kicked off the judicial season by attending a special mass where priests asked God to guide the court through the grueling process of creating and interpreting the laws of the land.  It was called Red Mass for the rosy robes worn by the priests and judges.

Delve heard about the tradition this week, and was astonished to discover that it still takes place today all over the U.S. – a country that prizes its separation between church and state. Six of the nine Supreme Court justices attended this year’s mass at Washington D.C.’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

To help us parse whether this timeworn ritual is an egregious abandonment of America’s secular roots, we called up Mike McGough, a senior editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times who has written extensively about the Supreme Court and religion. Excerpts from the conversation are below.

Delve: You noted in a blog post about Red Mass a few years ago that “the walls of separation between church and state have always been porous” in the U.S. But this tradition seems particularly problematic. Should it alarm us?

Mike McGough: I don’t think so. It strikes me as being not any more sinister than the mention of God in a Supreme Court session, or the attendance of one or more justices at a graduation ceremony at a Catholic or Jewish college. I think there’s a kind of self-policing here that if the bishops at the services get too political, which apparently has happened in the past, at least in Justice Ginsberg’s mind, the justices don’t have to go back.

Delve: Are there instances you can recall when the sermons have gotten too political for comfort?

MM: I don’t remember particular sermons myself. But I know that Justice Ginsberg was quoted saying she felt extremely offended when she went to one Red Mass where there was a fairly unsubtle anti-abortion point made in the sermon, and that even the Scalias felt bad about it.

Delve: Have you ever been to one?

MM: I’ve been to only one Red Mass when I was a reporter covering the Supreme Court years ago. As I recall, there was not any sort of overt politicking on the part of whoever gave the sermon. I think people who are very strict separationists don’t like this. Barry Lynn from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State made a comment this year that it looked to him like an attempt by the church to put its agenda for the court before the justices. I read this year’s sermon and it was extremely bland.

Delve: Looking ahead to this year’s caseload, is it possible that any of the upcoming decisions could be influenced by this year’s sermon?

MM: I don’t think so. I have a very hard time thinking of any cases on the docket right now that the bishops would be particularly eager to try to influence. Down the line, there are legal challenges to the contraception mandate that the Obama administration has set up as part of the healthcare plan. So one could say that had there been a very heavy didactic speech about religious freedom, which is something the bishops have been harping on over the last few months, maybe that would’ve been an awkward experience for some of the justices.

I am a pretty strong believer in the separation of church and state. And I think I would probably be offended on the justices’ behalf if they were really lobbied in a very unsubtle way at one of these things. But to the extent that it’s a kind of bland program asking god’s blessing, it doesn’t particularly offend me.

I think the people [who] object to it probably object to the optics as much as anything else -- a picture of the chief justice of the United States standing next to archbishop of Washington with the archbishop wearing his miter. I can see for a lot of very separationist-minded people this would look like an unholy union of church and state. But I do think that’s kind of an exaggerated reaction. 

Debate Notes: Romney's Education Surprise

The post below was written by Education Policy Program Policy Analyst Maggie Severns and published on New America's Early Ed Watch blog.

During last night’s presidential debate, both candidates linked education into their arguments as a major workforce development issue- rhetoric that is often used by education and labor advocates but less often by presidential candidates, who are more likely to focus on the economy and other top-tier voting priorities.

Romney swung towards the center on many issues last night, and education was chief among them. When it comes to education and student aid, Romney said, “I'm not planning on making changes there.” Once again, he praised Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Race to the Top, and often focused more on what he had in common with Obama’s education policies than where they differ. One big exception, however, came when he touted his “backpack” program, in which students can use Title I and IDEA funds to attend whichever public school they choose. Some have called this a voucher program, though Romney hasn’t used that terminology to describe it.

Obama went after Romney’s approach to balancing the budget, saying that Romney would make cuts that would “[gut] our investments in schools and education.”When Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate, the Ryan budget raised eyebrows among many with its drastic cuts in domestic discretionary spending, a pool that includes education. As I and my colleague Clare McCann have noted on Early Ed Watch before, Ryan’s budget could have a big impact on federal education spending—though it won’t necessarily “gut” every education program.

But there’s also reason to believe that a Ryan-Romney administration might try to avoid decimating education spending: Romney has a history of maintaining education funding from his time as governor. Ryan’s proposals to cut up to 20 percent of domestic discretionary spending are less encouraging, but unlike many Tea Party members, Paul Ryan appears to see some role for the federal government in education: He voted for both No Child Left Behind in 2001 and the Head Start Reauthorization Act in 2007. (While these  laws are not designed to dictate annual funding levels, they do set goals for how federal agencies will use federal dollars.)

In early education, Romney cut Massachusetts state-funded pre-K by small amounts towards the beginning of his term but increased it in subsequent years. President Obama, by comparison, has consistently asked for increases in K-12 and early education programs in his budget requests.

During the election season, both Romney and his running mate have had an incentive to claim they would downplay or eliminate the federal role in education to play to Tea Party voters, who feel strongly about limited government involvement. But last night, Romney was—though not exactly an advocate—a moderate within his party on education.  

A few other education moments in last night’s debate:

Romney Punts the Big Bird Vote

Romney did put one education-related program on the chopping block last night: the Public Broadcasting System. “I'm sorry, Jim [Lehrer]. I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I'm not going to — I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it,” he said.

Sesame Workshop, which relies in part on PBS for its funding, has been developing educational programming with an aim of helping low-income young children for over 40 years. One 2001 study showed that Sesame Street’s impact on a child’s reading gains and overall academic achievement lasted through high school. But Sesame Workshop’s reach has extended beyond its TV programming. In addition to producing Sesame Street, the workshop’s research arm focuses on creating better children’s media and invests a lot of time and money on studying and distributing research on the impact of educational digital media on children’s growth and development.  

A Hundred Thousand More Math and Science Teachers

President Obama touted plans to hire a hundred thousand more teachers and mentioned a teacher he met in Las Vegas who had 42 students in her class. Early Ed Watch has discussed large class sizes in Nevada before, but the research on whether small class sizes really improve learning is mixed when considering public school classrooms up through the 12th grade. A 2011 report from the Brookings Institute, however, added to previous research showing that small class sizes can make a difference in younger classrooms.

Grading Schools

Another proposal that Romney emphasized last night is his plan to give schools report cards with grades that provide information to parents. According to a white paper released by Romney’s campaign earlier this year, the report cards would “evaluate schools and districts on an A through F or similar scale based primarily on their contribution to achievement growth.”

Providing parents and the public with information on how public schools are achieving is important. But schools do have these report cards already: Parents and the public can go to a state’s Department of Education website and access information on a given school including its No Child Left Behind accountability data. Some states even use an A-F grading scale. Romney’s plan to provide parents with report cards is essentially a plan to repackage existing report cards as tools to help parents choose better schools.

Photo credit: Rick Wilking/ Reuters

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