Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Um, so there's this election today...

...and I figured, you know, maybe I might say a word or two about it. There was a point a couple of years ago when I thought this humble blog ought to be a humble political blog, and I sort of had a go at it for a while. I soon realized a few things about political blogging.

  1. It's very time-critical. I thought I was pretty good about staying on top of current events, but you're basically screwed if you ever miss a day. No vacation, no sick days, no sleeping through any part of the 24 hour global news cycle.
  2. It's a lot of work. On top of the writing, you have to spend a lot of time reading, looking for new stories.
  3. It quickly becomes unrewarding, due to the echo chamber effect. There are only so many ways to say "me too". And even if you come up with a new, hilarious, and extremely persuasive way to say it, you're still saying "me too".
  4. To keep it up, you have to stay angry all the time. And I don't like me when I'm angry.
  5. It attracts trolls, and trolls suck.
  6. Others are a lot better at it, and some even make a career of it. They've got all the time in the world, they've got money, they've got a critical mass of contributors and commenters, they get more readers every second than I'd get in a week or more. Not only are you part of the herd, you're a very small part of the herd.

Eventually, I realized I was done talking about Bush & cronies. I felt I'd made my point to my own satisfaction, and nobody was exactly begging me to say "Bush = bad!" one more time. It occurred to me that I was past being angry, and I was now simply waiting (impatiently) for the 2008 election, and for inauguration day, 2009. And then I just put politics in a box, taped it up, and put it in storage for a while. Or at least I stopped posting about it. For about the last month or so I've been obsessively watching polls, reading news, following a bunch of blogs by the aforementioned people who are good at this stuff. The long-awaited 2008 general election is tomorrow. Finally. I'm out of practice at actually writing about politics, but I thought I'd have a go at it, this being a special occasion and all.

It's a bit late to really call this an "endorsements" post. Oregon's a 100% vote-by-mail state, and if you're the sort of person who cares about politics enough to wonder what people are saying out here in the far corners of blogospace, you've probably voted already. So instead, I'll merely say that this is how I voted. If you're still an undecided swing voter on any of the candidates or issues of the day, and somehow you managed to end up here, maybe you'll find something persuasive here. Or not.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a swing voter. I wonder what it must be like to have trouble choosing between D's and R's every two years. I wonder what it must be like to vote one way one election, and do the opposite the next time. I imagine that would make elections more interesting, and in a way I'm almost jealous. But as I said, I really am puzzled about what it must be like. I even get party-line Republicans more than I do genuinely undecided people.

As I've explained many times on this humble blog, I'm not much of a joiner, and I'm not much of a herd animal, and I recoil at the idea of just voting a straight ticket on all the candidates and ballot measures. As part of this, I play an occasional game of looking for "Republicans Who Don't Suck". I feel like I'm trying to be responsible that way, holding out the theoretical option of voting for someone if they met my (admittedly high) standards of non-suckage. Which is not to say that I necessarily would vote for such a hypothetical R; to be honest, I still probably wouldn't. But I do think we'd get a better crop of Democrats in office here in Oregon if they had to face an occasional, genuinely competitive race. As it is, every four years they put up another repulsive flat-earth wingnut in the governor's race, so we can nominate a useless doofus like Kulongoski and win, time after time. In general, I'd like to see the Democrat in the race win, but only by a few percentage points, to keep them from getting lazy and arrogant. And if a really bad Democrat came along, which is not as uncommon as I'd like, I'd like to have at least one other viable option on the ballot.

There was a time when I thought McCain might be one of these semi-mythical Republicans Who Don't Suck. Even as recently as the primary season, I remember telling someone that if he was the obvious choice if, for some reason, I was forced to vote in the Republican primary. I may have even said something about giving him a serious look if Hillary was the D on the ticket. Which was silly, of course; in the end I'm not really going to vote for someone who's wrong about just about everything, no matter how sincere and likeable they might seem to be. Whether it's about Iraq, or choice, or healthcare, McCain fails pretty much every litmus test out there. All the wishful thinking in the world won't make the R's nominate anyone remotely centrist-esque. Not now, and I imagine not anytime soon. And about the whole "maverick" thing -- his campaign this time has been your generic paint-by-numbers Republican campaign, riling up the base and spending 98% of the time bashing the other guy. It's the sort of thing that makes you wonder whether his earlier public image was nothing but smoke and mirrors all along.

As for Obama, I admit I initially wasn't sold on the guy. Cynic that I am, I figured that every election cycle has an "insurgent" campaign or two, and they rarely go far, and pinning any hope on one is a recipe for disappointment. Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, Ross Perot, Nader, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean, Mike Huckabee, the 2000 version of McCain... those are just off the top of my head. So I made what turned out to be a dumb call, and decided I was for Edwards. I liked what he was saying, although I wasn't sold on the guy himself. Which just goes to show that the nation is fortunate that I'm merely one voice among millions. Edwards was out (fortunately, as it turns out) by the time the Oregon primary rolled around, so I went with Obama. In the beginning it was strictly for anyone-but-Hillary reasons, but I warmed up to the guy after a while. It occurred to me that if he'd been on the ballot when I was 18 or 24 or so, I'd have been completely stoked about him. It's just that I've gotten more cynical since then, from getting burned one too many times. Even now, just hours from the polls closing, with Obama way ahead in the polls, I still can't quite believe he might pull this off. When I play with one of those clickable interactive electoral maps (the year's most horribly addictive videogame), my best guess is Obama 338, McCain an even 200. Which sounds promising, but my immediate reaction is to scale that back, and point out that 270 is the magic number, and anything beyond that is gravy. It's all about not getting one's hopes up too high.

As for state races, we've got an exceptionally boring set of contests this time around. I may be unusual in calling the Smith vs. Merkley contest "boring", but you know, there wasn't any way I was voting for Smith. Everyone says he's a really nice guy, and I don't doubt that. I'm sure he'd be great as a next-door neighbor, if you could afford to live next to him. On a strictly personal level, he probably is a Republican Who Doesn't Suck, but he's still a very conservative politician, so that's that, then.

We do have a semi-interesting state treasurer race, which pits Democrat (and recent ex-Republican) Ben Westlund against current Republican Allen Alley. Much of the print media's endorsed Alley. I think they're nostalgic for the days when we had moderate Republicans here, and they figure he might be one. I suspect they also think an R is the default choice for treasurer, since the job involves handling money. Which suggests to me they haven't thought it through too well; after the events of the last few months, I think we can summarily dismiss any idea that Republicans have any special talent at finance or can be trusted with our money.

Elsewhere on the ticket, my Congressman (David Wu) and my state Senator (Ginny Burdick) face only token opposition this year. I don't care for either of them, so I voted for the token opposition in each case. I've never cared for Wu, as I've explained in previous years' election posts, and his speech a while back about Iraq and "fake Klingons" was just freakin' embarrassing. He's yet another useless doofus who has a safe seat in what ought to be a competitive district, strictly because the R's -- when they nominate anyone at all -- generally nominate someone from the wacky "black helicopter" wing of the party. As for Burdick, two years ago she ran unsuccessfully for Portland City Council, with the backing of the local business community, with the goal of tearing down the city's new public campaign finance system. I still hold that against her. She's also the legislature's #1 advocate of strict gun control laws, which I disagree with -- and which are probably unconstitutional under the state constitution anyway. So that's two strikes, and I decided I didn't need a third. It's not that I'd actually prefer to have an R in either job, because I don't. But sometimes you just have to register a protest vote.

We've got a raft of ballot measures again this year, but the majority are the usual Sizemore/Mannix crap, and I'm not going to waste any time on them. The only two "interesting" ones for me are #56 and #65. Measure 56 would repeal the current double-majority rule for tax measures on the ballot. At present, if a tax measure is up for a vote, to win it needs to get a majority of the votes cast, and the turnout of registered voters must be at least 50%. The only exceptions to the voter turnout requirement are primary and general elections in even-numbered years, which generally pull in that many voters anyway. Measure 56 would expand this exemption to May & November elections in any year. Which sounds like a small tweak, but as a practical matter it's a nearly complete repeal. We'll be back to the old situation where there's one property tax levy up for a special election, and it wins narrowly with just 17% of registered voters bothering to vote. I'm sorry, I don't usually go for Republican tax-limitation ideas, but this strikes me as more of a basic good-government measure. Rather than doing away with it, I'd actually like to expand the double-majority rule to cover all ballot measures, not just tax levies. The state legislature can't do business without a quorum of members present. Everybody agrees it would be unfair to do otherwise. If the public's asked to pass any sort of law directly, I think there ought to be a similar "quorum" requirement. And besides, designing the measure so it looks like it's just a partial repeal is sneaky, and I'd be inclined to reject it on those grounds even if I agreed with its premise. So I voted NO on 56, but I expect it to pass anyway, since the political establishment, the media, pretty much everyone except the hardcore anti-tax crowd, have all come out in favor.

Measure 65 switches us to an "open primary" system, in which all D & R candidates are in the same pool in the primary election, and the top two go to a November runoff, regardless of party affiliation. So if the top two votegetters are both Democrats, there's no Republican on the ballot when the general election rolls around. The idea is that this would somehow reduce partisanship and polarization, and force all candidates to seek the political center. The measure's backed by a couple of former Oregon secretaries of state, one of whom was one of our last moderate Republicans to hold statewide office. Actually she was one of the last Republicans, period, to hold statewide office, and I gather she's nostalgic for the old days before the crazies took over the party. The days when the two parties were fairly similar, ideologically, which made bipartisanship that much easier. Proponents argue that the current closed primary system rewards hardline ideologues and encourages party-line polarization, and by changing the law we can push the voters into picking moderates instead. Two arguments against that: First, it's a poor idea to change election law because you don't like who the voters keep picking. Second, I'd argue that they've got their causes and effects all wrong. Voting patterns have changed because the voting public has changed, not because the election laws are picking the "wrong" winners. The voters here and across the country are more ideology-driven than they once were. When some hard-left or hard-right candidate gets the nod, it's because that's who at least a substantial chunk of the electorate wants. For good or ill, the ideological divide in this country is real, and changing the law to try to paper over it is an ill-conceived idea. It will satisfy nobody, and will reward candidates nobody's particularly wild about. Partisanship is not all bad, you know; remember how people used to complain that you can't tell the two parties apart? Haven't heard anybody say that for a long time, have you? So vote NO on 65.

Oh, and there's a trio of tax measures on the ballot. Portland Community College wants some cash for construction projects, the Zoo wants money for new exhibits, and the city's "Portland Children's Levy" wants money for a smorgasbord of Commissioner Saltzman's feel-good pet projects. I voted for the PCC measure, and NO on the other two. The Zoo's asking for money now because they have an adorable new baby elephant, which features prominently in all of their ads. The ads are odd, actually, going on and on about how substandard the facilities currently are. They're practically running negative ads about their own zoo in the hope of getting more money. That's weird, but the main problem is that I'm not convinced elephants belong in zoos. Wildlife sanctuaries, maybe, but not zoos. It's widely understood at this point that keeping elephants in such cramped, unnatural surroundings causes all sorts of health problems. The zoo isn't proposing to give the elephants a large chunk of acreage to roam around in, and even if they did, there's no room for that up in Washington Park. The situation's similar for many species of bears and big cats, which tend to go utterly insane in this kind of captivity. It pains me to say this. I've enjoyed going to the zoo for as long as I can remember. But at some point you have to accept that certain things just aren't humane, and there's no just way to make them humane within the context of a traditional zoo. When parents have to try to explain to their kids why the polar bear spends all day pacing around its enclosure, endlessly following the same route over and over again, that should be a sign that things are seriously awry. I could go on and on about this, but the bottom line is that I don't want to give them any more money if they're just going to continue their current practices with shiny new cages.

I also object in principle to the "Children's Levy", for a variety of reasons. By standard practice, social programs are the responsibility of the county and state governments, not cities. But somebody (i.e. Saltzman) figured the public could be manipulated/guilt-tripped into coughing up additional money "for the children". It's a bad way to fund programs even if they're desperately needed (which I'm not sold on either). Associating a program and its funding too closely with one politician is a bad practice too -- the program is, in effect, one particular guy benevolently handing out cash to "good causes". It smacks of old-school, East Coast machine politics, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Besides, the campaign signs for the levy are made to look like a kid made them with crayons, although it's pretty much a given that some top-flight graphic designer actually did the job and made a ridiculously large pile of money in the process. I'm sure this is true because I know Portland, and this is what always happens.

So anyway, there's other stuff on the ballot, but these are the interesting races this cycle. We're getting a very promising new attorney general too, but it's not much of a race. Kroger won the Democratic primary, and when nobody ran in the Republican primary, he ended up winning it as well due to write-in votes. We have a long tradition of asleep-at-the-wheel, do-nothing AG's, and he really looks like he'll change that. But in the meantime, it's not exactly a suspenseful race.

So that's about it for now. It looks like the polls will start closing in some eastern states at 3PM Pacific time, and I already have a bunch of political sites open in different Firefox tabs so I can sit there and hit refresh every few minutes, ok, seconds, and see how this goes. Maybe I'll do another post about the results tomorrow or so, if I decide I've got another political post in me.

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