Friday, March 16, 2012

Commitment Issues

Yes, commitment is a wonderful thing.

Alabama Primary 2012 has come and gone. The financial boon enjoyed by broadcasters, hoteliers and restaurateurs catering to the media, and attention-seeking middle-level Republican leaders being solicited for endorsements has passed, not to be repeated until 2016. Because Alabama will be deemed one of the least competitive states in this November’s election, the attention paid to our politics will enjoy a similar slumber. The national media’s terminal case of ADHD will compel it to focus on Illinois, until it’s some other unfortunate state’s turn.

The inability of the national media to analyze the results in any state for more than a couple of hours on its primary night often leads it to miss critically important facts about what happened on the ground that day. Even the pampered caucus-goers of Iowa don’t get any meaningful post-caucus analysis, and it would be foolhardy for Alabama to expect any better. When you combine these facts with the media’s obsession with the Republican Kill-Thy-Neighbor primary, it’s not surprising that something amazing in the Democratic primary could be overlooked.

I am referring to the relatively high number of Alabama Democrats who declined to vote for President Obama in our primary, and instead cast a vote for “uncommitted.” While total results are not available on the Secretary of State’s website, in those counties currently reporting, 16.8% of Democratic primary voters declined to vote for Obama, and voted “uncommitted.” Among those reporting counties, “uncommitted” actually beat Obama in at least seven counties.

Once upon a time - before the presidential campaigns of George Wallace - uncommitted delegates were quite common in Alabama presidential primaries. Sending uncommitted delegates to a convention gave the state bargaining leverage. A number of loyalist Democrats continued the tradition into the Wallace era, providing Wallace foes a voting option in the primary. Since the election of Jimmy Carter, however, the phenomenon has faded into disuse, although remaining a legal option. Until now.

Obviously, a significant number of Alabama Democrats felt compelled to register unwillingness to support the President. One caveat is in order about the 16.8% figure: as the map shows, a number of the counties not yet reporting in the Secretary of State’s system are in the Black Belt. Those counties will undoubtedly lower the 16.8% figure when full results are officially canvassed. But the figure will still be significant; those counties don’t account for enough of the state’s vote to lower it much. And the fact remains that “uncommitted” carried a number of counties.

Several explanations offer themselves for this phenomenon. The most obvious is that of race. Many of the counties carried by “uncommitted” are overwhelmingly white, and were carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary. Obama got a mere 10% of the white vote in the 2008 general election. But there is at least one county where race isn’t such an easy explanation, and that is Washington County. Washington County is 26.2% black. Common sense tells us that the Democratic primary electorate is going to have a much larger percentage of black voters than that. Compounding the complexity of analyzing Washington returns is the fact that white voters have not, for the most part, abandoned the Democratic primary for the Republican. Only 16% of the total votes cast for President in the Washington County primary were cast in the GOP contest. The Democratic primary is still, apparently, a white-majority affair. Even so, in picking through the precinct results for Washington County, I noted at least a couple of precincts where Obama’s total fell below the black percentage of the population reported by the Census. In sum, race may be the explanation, but the data isn’t good enough to draw any conclusions. If only the media had exit-polled the Democratic primary.

The alternative explanation - and the two can coexist - is residual discontent among Democrats with the incompetent messaging of the Obama administration, which, as I have noted, has had disastrous effects on the Alabama Democratic Party. More serious are continuing concerns - which I also previously noted - that Obama’s team made a conscious decision to allow the Alabama GOP to torpedo the Democratic Party by leaving corrupt Bush U.S. Attorney Leura Canary in place in Montgomery, where her politically-motivated sham indictments contributed greatly to 2010 GOP gains. (Please sue me for defamation, Leura. I’d love to have subpoena power to take depositions and unearth bank records. You’d love Tallahassee. And congratulations to Milton McGregor, the other victims, and their legal teams.)

A look at the map above, and a passing familiarity with the 2010 Democratic casualty list, reveals that several of the “uncommitted” counties were represented in the Legislature by Democrats who lost their seats, or their leadership positions. Those Party leaders certainly weren’t motivated to support Obama in the primary, and it would take a very short leap of the imagination to see them, and their supporters, exacting a measure of revenge.

Yet another fact that should be considered is that many of the “uncommitted” counties still have Democratic courthouses. Voters must vote in the Democratic primary to have a meaningful voice in the election of their local officials. Among the “uncommitted” counties, for example, Jackson had contested races for probate judge, circuit clerk, superintendent of education, and commission president. Neighboring DeKalb, which Obama carried, had only a single local race for superintendent to draw voters. A larger primary cohort could well have brought in voters more likely to express racial bias in their votes.

Those counties carried by “uncommitted” are, for the most part, the foundation of the historic Democratic base in Alabama. A problem in those counties, whatever its etiology, signals a problem the Obama campaign badly needs to address. While solving the problem might not make Alabama competitive in November, Obama has “reach” states in the South - Virginia, North Carolina, and maybe Georgia - where every vote will count. In those states, Obama can’t afford to leave base Democrats off the bus.

Having entered the White House like the fortunate prince of whom Machiavelli said, “Coloro e’ quali solamente per fortuna diventano di privati principi, con poca fatica diventono, ma con assai si mantengono; e non hanno alcuna difficultà fra via, perché vi volano: ma tutte le difficultà nascono quando e’ sono posti,” Obama had better hope that the sage was wrong in noting that “E chi crede che ne’ personaggi grandi e’ benifizi nuovi faccino sdimenticare le iniurie vecchie, s’inganna.” (Il Principe, Chapter VII. The quotes are the first and the penultimate sentences of the chapter. )

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Battle for the Republican Soul ... and Other Oxymorons

This Tuesday is the occasion for the Alabama 2012 primary, moved to its early date in the 2011 legislative session in an effort to make Alabama more relevant to the presidential nominating process. In a further effort to save money (it does cost a lot to run an election), the Legislature also moved the primary for downballot races to the March date.

The media, as it is wont to do, has put a laserlike focus on the presidential primary. This is not wholly irrational. Alabama will indeed be the focus of the nation’s attention Tuesday night, especially as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (I am not going where his tie choice leads!) try furtively to push each other out of the Republican race. As only one example of this focus, The Washington Post offers this catchy graphic showing the race’s importance. Mitt Romney, in an effort to secure a win in the Deep South that would contribute substantially to his “inevitable” theme, has expressed a newfound affection for grits and other Southern culture, that is certainly as genuine and sincere as his commitment to freedom of reproductive choice and universal health insurance. The Alabama GOP presidential primary is worth watching, and it will be worthwhile to pick over the numbers starting Wednesday.

I say this because of the adage in Sun Tzu’s widely-read classic The Art of War, that “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.” But if we really want to know our enemy, the GOP presidential race may not be the place to look. That contest has become an exercise in pathological syncretism, as the three non-Paul contenders have devoted their full energies into seeing which can most totally pander to the Tea Party wing of the GOP. (Much to the justified delight of President Obama’s campaign staff.) Because of this, the Republican presidential results are going to tell us little more than which of the three was most effective at deploying this strategy.

The more perceptive analyst will be looking at downballot GOP races, in particular at those for Chief Justice and President of the Public Service Commission.

The race for Chief Justice features incumbent Charles Malone of Tuscaloosa, appointed last year by Governor Bentley; Mobile County Circuit Judge Charlie Graddick, and former Chief Justice Roy Moore. Many write off the latter two as contestants for the Shorty Price Award for Futile Candidacies. Graddick burst on the state political scene in 1978 as the candidate for attorney general whose “fry ‘em til their eyes pop out” TV ads (the posted clip is the only remnant I could find online) brought him to the head of a crowded field in the Democratic primary. After two terms as AG, he ran for governor in 1986, and won the Democratic runoff against Bill Baxley. He was properly, if inartfully, stripped of the nomination by the SDEC for encouraging illegal crossover GOP votes in the runoff. After another unsuccessful statewide run - this as the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor against Don Siegelman in 1994 - he settled into a circuit judgeship in Mobile County, where he had started as district attorney in the 1970’s.

Judge Roy Moore, of course, is widely perceived as a caricatured religious fanatic, whose insistence on placing the Ten Commandments in the Heflin-Torbert Building led to his ouster as chief justice. While Moore’s views on the First Amendment need work, his brief tenure on the Court was somewhat more complex. His fixation on the Ten Commandments, for example, includes the radical concept that “Thou Shalt Not Steal” applies to banks and insurance companies, and “Thou Shalt Not Kill” applies to Fortune 500 companies that knowingly sell dangerous products to consumers. This, more than any tactical retreat in the face of public opinion, explains why the state GOP stood silently by while he was ousted from the Supreme Court. (The Judicial Inquiry Commission that prosecuted him was then chaired by a Democratic stalwart, Circuit Judge Randall Cole of DeKalb County.)

Chief Justice Malone is not only a political protégé of Governor Bentley, he is a fellow Tuscaloosan. Like Bentley as governor, he has disappointed as chief justice in not standing up to Business Council interests, but both have had to look over their shoulders at GOP primary races, and both have doubtless not wanted to become the primary target of Business Council wrath. Whether either can, or will, do better after those primaries remains to be seen, but our corporate masters have to have some residual anxiety about that prospect.

Thus, the race for chief justice gives us a pretty good picture of three competing power centers in the GOP. Moore’s vote will give us a clear picture of the strength - or weakness - of those Republicans for whom the New Testament is the shibboleth. (Pardon the mixed biblical metaphor.) Malone, like Bentley, represents that part of the GOP that would like to see the party appeal to a broader constituency than the Mountain Brook Country Club or the First Baptist Church of Gardendale. (For that reason, this element may be the most dangerous to a Democratic renaissance in Alabama.) Graddick probably represents the quiet wishes of the Business Council element of the party. Although The Birmingham News reports that “Malone has the backing of the state’s business establishment,” take that with a grain of salt. Malone’s support from the business community represents more of a hedge, and a prudent support of a chief justice who will, regardless of the primary outcome, be in office until next January. A careful review of Graddick’s financial disclosures will reveal substantial business support, if only viewed through the prism of the actual weakness of the GOP’s much-ballyhooed PAC-to-PAC transfer ban.

The race for the right to face Lucy Baxley for PSC president this fall provides a sharper picture of the BCA-Tea struggle within the GOP. Associate Commissioner Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh is the consummate Business Council puppet. She is so close to BCA lapdog Bob Riley, that she could avoid conception by giving the former governor her Yaz. Her support is clearly centered on that wing of the GOP.

Her principal opponent in the race is Kathy Peterson of Shelby County.
Peterson is the wife of unsuccessful 2010 agriculture commissioner candidate Dale Peterson, whose YouTube ad continues to bring ironic chuckles. (If only people knew that Dale and Kathy’s “farming” business is based on raising show llamas!) Peterson’s vote is going to give us a good feel for the continuing vitality of the Tea wing of the Republican Party. Her husband’s support of the brief bubble of presidential candidate Herman Cain has been repaid by the salesman of mediocre pizza’s campaigning in Alabama on her behalf.

In many respects, these GOP contests are not between light and darkness, but between darker shades of pitch. We should be as careful of rooting for a “moderate” in these races, as we would be of rooting for a “less extreme” mullah in an Iranian “election.” While I will be watching the presidential returns closely, in the long run, I will be picking apart the returns in these two statewide races more closely. They will tell us much more in the long run about the beast we need to slay. Or, at least, cage.