Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Old-fashioned Fisking
At my brother's request, I have undertaken to Fisk "this whiner." Should be fun—I hope you stick through to the end. The title of the piece is "Ask Me About Cleveland," it is by Sarah Vowell, and it opens:

I've been putting it off. This summer, I had hoped to get around to abolishing the Electoral College. But it's been so hot. Now I'm willing to delegate. Maybe other people should handle it. Like members of Congress. Or Norman Lear.
I won't comment on style, but let's just say that hers is not my favorite. And for those who might not know, Norman Lear was a TV producer, who later turned to political activism to found People for the American Way. That organization, you may remember, took a lead in the original Borking. So, after those few, stilted sentences we know that, in terms of political leanings, Ms. Vowell fills Maureen Dowd's chair quite nicely—also in terms of ability to provide inane drivel, but we'll get to that more later on.

I have to say, that initial paragraph is comforting to me. As long as the people who are dumb enough to think that getting rid of the Electoral College is a good idea are also lazy enough to leave the effort to people who aren't quite so drained by the heat, we can rest confident that it will last for some time yet. I have little patience for people who get all worked up about a particular cause, but aren't willing to do anything about it. And starting out a column by describing your laziness is like giving a speech about how hard it was to write that speech—just keep your big yap shut.

Let's move on:
The 2008 presidential election is, by my calculations, at least three years away.
Haha, isn't that cute. She's pretending not to be entirely sure when the next presidential election is. How witty. How marvelous.
But it's been on my mind for at least three reasons. First of all, I just read Jess Walter's swell thriller "Citizen Vince," the tale of a guy in the witness protection program with a subplot involving Election Day in 1980,
Now that's good product placement, if a little—OK, entirely—random and off-topic.
and I realized how much, despite all logic, I'm itching to vote. "It's a nice, small feeling," thinks Walter's protagonist of the moment in the voting booth, making his choice.
First of all, I don't know what a "small" feeling is. I assume she means that you feel so tiny, like a cog in the big electoral machine. That's fine—not the way I typically look at voting, but it's fine. Personally, I think about how amazing it is that this responsibility has been entrusted to me. And that makes me feel large, not small—but, again, that's fine. Just remember that she's a little off.

Additionally, why would it be so illogical to be itching to vote? I love voting—so do a lot of people. And why does she need a presidential election to vote? I voted last night in my town caucus; I'll vote in November in local elections. She just isn't making any sense with that line of reasoning, but let's continue:
Second, the National Governors Association descended on Des Moines last weekend. All I had to read were the words "governor" and "Iowa" and I knew the campaign had already started, that someday I might have to get used to the unlikely sound of President Vilsack or the unlikelier President Pataki.
This paragraph isn't too bad. I don't know what I'd do without her brilliant observation that people are posturing for the next presidential campaign—especially considering the fact that it's been covered in the mainstream press for months now I'm curious to know what last name she thinks is likely to follow the word "president," but I understand that opinion journalists have space considerations to worry about. Moving forward:
And, finally, all the recent chitchat about the disproportionate amount of counterterrorism money received by the State of Wyoming
Sorry to interrupt, but I can't let that one go. She's talking here about the fact that, per capita, Wyoming is getting significantly more money for Homeland Security than, say, New York State. (According to this site, New York is getting $15.54 per person, California $8.05, and Wyoming $27.80).

The thing is, the amount of money going to Wyoming (in real dollars) still pales in comparison to the amount going to New York. This money has, by in large, been tasked to specific causes, some of which occur in each state. These causes do not revolve around the number of people in the state—there are absolute bare minimum costs that do not change based on the number of people who live there. So when you have an absolute cost to protect the state, and the state has relatively few people in it... of course your per capita number will go up! That is in no way sufficient to show that Wyoming is being overfunded or that New York is being underfunded.

Also, this "chit chat" is old news—it has been kicking around for a while, and there's no way it just got her thinking about the Presidential election. The article I cited above, for example, is from January.

Again, my apologies for the interruption:
reminded me of the looming fiasco of Wyoming's disproportionate electoral voice in the event of an Electoral College tie.
No comment... yet.
I would rather not spend the next Election Day the way I spent the last one: wondering just how much to hate Ohio.
I wonder—would she be saying that if Kerry had won? Somehow I get the feeling that she didn't hate Ohio (quite a task in and of itself) because the election was close, but because the election was close and swung to Bush.
My vote was written off because I live in the perpetually sewn-up state of New York. But because the citizens of that battleground state could not make up their gosh darn minds, their votes actually counted. They chose the current president of the United States.
Interesting. Apparently it's Ohio, a state that as a general body (a strange way to think of that many people) carefully weighed the potential candidates and then made a selection on Election Day, who is to blame for Ms. Vowell's weakened vote. We're supposed to fault Ohio for its deliberation of electoral decisions, and blame on it the plight of New York, a state that has (almost) never seen a liberal it didn't like right off the bat. Maybe we should be a little more concerned about New York's prejudicial voting than Ohio's careful consideration. Honestly, is she really making an argument for cutthroat partisanship at all costs?
Or rather, to be accurate, last Nov. 2 they chose the rich guys and party hangers-on known as the electors of the Electoral College, and on Dec. 13, those folks elected the president.
Dear God! Party hangers-on! Whatever shall we do?

At least they're not partisan hacks masquerading as journalists.

Anyway, now she's going to tell us about her objection to, and desire to abolish, the Electoral College, right? Well, not quite:
But here's the depressing what-if. If neither John Kerry nor George Bush had received the necessary 270 electoral votes to win - which was a real possibility - the House of Representatives would have chosen the president. What's wrong with that? Nothing much - if each state's representatives all voted. But in such a contingency, each state in the union is allotted a single vote for president. Let me repeat that: a single vote. So the half-million residents of Wyoming would have had the same amount of say in electing the president as the 34 million citizens of California.
Actually, she's wrong. Neither the half-million residents of Wyoming nor the 34 million residents of California would have any say in it—their elected representatives would have to sort it out for themselves. This is why some pundits thought there was a real possibility of a McCain presidency despite his not having run in 2004—the House can pick whomever they want.

And I think her slip is showing here. It's now pretty obvious that her complaint lies not with the Electoral College, but with the apparatus in place should the Electoral College fail. (I certainly hope her next column complains about the Senate, by the way).

And can anyone tell me why we're picking on Wyoming? Rhode Island only has a million or so residents, Delaware about 900,000 or so. We'd better complain about those (blue) states, too. Hmm. Well, let's keep reading. Maybe Ms. Vowell has a better reason for picking Wyoming than that counterterrorism money problem:
What is the most pressing social issue in 92-percent-white Wyoming? Whether people should be able to ride snowmobiles in Yellowstone.
Ahhh, there it is! That's not just a neat fact about that backwards state, it's evidence that it is a backwards state. They're nothing but a bunch of white hicks who want their snowmobiling. Far be it from me to point out to Ms. Vowell that snowmobiling in Yellowstone is not a state issue, as Yellowstone is federal property—that's beside the point. If you ignore that misleading piece of trivia, she's got a neat fact there. It really gets at the heart of Wyoming, doesn't it? Want another neat piece of Wyoming trivia? Wyoming was the first state (in 1869) to grant women's suffrage. Geez, maybe it's not such a bad idea to have give Wyoming a say in things. Is Ms. Vowell now arguing against women's suffrage?

See, here's the point: her little statement about snowmobiling is meant as a rip at Wyoming, pure and simple. She's trying to communicate to New York liberals what a terrible idea it would be to let one of those unimportant states in flyover territory play any sort of key role in presidential electoral politics. New York and California matter—Wyoming is full of hicks and can be easily dismissed. It's shameful to see this kind of state-ism.
(I will go on the record as being against snowmobiles in Yellowstone - not because I'm an environmentalist but because I am not "fun.")
Well, I could have guessed that.
Am I the only New Yorker (or Californian or Texan) who, nearly nine months after Election Day, can still name the specifics of Ohio's concerns to a "Behind the Music" level of detail? That its jobs have gone to China and its schools have gone to hell? That Cleveland is the poorest big city in America?
It's like she's trying to talk to me, I know it. What is she asking here? First off, why does she only worry about what big-staters think? Second, why does it matter what Ohio's concerns are? She's already determined that Ohio's concerns don't matter as much as those of New York or California, and she hates them for having those concerns and being unsure how to act on them—so why is she bothering to ask these rhetorical questions?
I will never forget the moment last fall when, about an hour into the third presidential debate, John Kerry brought up the statistic that half of the black men in New York City are unemployed. I felt all tingly, and curiously proud. Hey, I thought, he mentioned us! The Democratic nominee finally noticed that my town can be unfair to black people, too. In your face, Cleveland.
What the hell? This paragraph (and the previous one, for that matter) just confuses the hell out of me. I could try and dissect it, but I think my head might explode. Half of all black men in NYC are unemployed because the city isn't fair to black people? What does that even mean?
I can probably live with the fact that the Electoral College won't be abolished during this or any summer for the rest of this century.
We're back to wanting the Electoral College abandoned, which she still hasn't actually addressed—why do we want to abandon the Electoral College if her complaint is that Wyoming is overly represented if a Presidential vote goes to the House? The EC has absolutely nothing to do with Wyoming's representation in such a scenario. She's just all over the map here.
I can probably live with an increasing number of campaign updates from the (also maddeningly arbitrarily important) states of Iowa and New Hampshire - then Toledo, Toledo, Toledo in the coming months and years.
It's not arbitrary, it's out of tradition. And I agree that it's strange, but propose an alternative instead of just bitching about it. "Wah wah wah, I don't want to hear about Iowa or New Hampshire anymore." Great, so what should we do instead? If we change the order of the primaries, some other state will be arbitrarily important. If we make them all occur on the same day, then the entire system of running for President changes, and a lot of the important vetting that occurs in the Iowa and New Hampshire system (candidates meet with a lot of people personally, and those people are more than willing to express honest opinions about those candidates) would be lost.

So what's your solution, Ms. Vowell? If it's broke, propose a way fix it. If you can't even try, then shut up.
But I cannot live with that equation of Wyoming = California, that one-state-one-vote House contingency. I know it is merely one small procedural rule. It is not as dramatic or as significant as Supreme Court confirmations. It is not as pressing a morass as the war that looks as if it will go on for the rest of all our lives. That is actually why it is a pleasant problem to ponder in the middle of July, years away from the next election. It is solvable.
Oh! I spoke too soon! I apologize, she's going to propose a solution! Shhh, let's listen:
I bet commuting Senator Joe Biden alone could draft the entire bill tomorrow morning on a napkin in the Amtrak snack bar, some version of "herewith the whole House votes."
Hmmm. So her solution to one state having too much relative power is to have one man amend the Constitution. That's logical.

Now, I don't actually know what the rationale is behind having one vote per state in this scenario. I can only assume it's the same sort of reasoning as having the Senate—so let's think about it from that perspective.

If we allow the entire House to vote on the presidency, then California, New York, Texas, and a handful of other states can decide the election in a way that benefits the larger states. In the current set-up, Wyoming (no matter how out of proportion its power is) cannot run the table. Even Wyoming and a few other states cannot run the table. That's probably a pretty practical consideration. Granted, we never really did run into the "big states vs. little states" dilemma that the Founders predicted, but that doesn't mean we couldn't someday down the road.

One of the beauties of the Constitution is that it allows, in most cases, for all kinds of contingencies, and there is almost always some way to deal with the unforseen through the policies provided for in the document. Ms. Vowell wants to throw that away for the convenience of today's problems. She communicates through this column that, ideally, there would be a direct election of the president—democracy, to her, is the highest goal possible. The problem is, democracy really can cause catastrophic problems.

Think back to the recounts in Florida, and the lawsuits over those recounts. Now, imagine that happening in every district across the country because, suddenly, every vote really does count. The losing candidate knows he can pick up some votes here or there with selected recounts; the winner must defend his victory with selected recounts of his own. Back and forth it would go, and the entire system would likely collapse.

I appreciate that Ms. Vowell isn't satisfied with the system as it stands today. But to sit there and bitch and moan about it, without considering the possible consequences of a change in policy, and without even proposing a remotely viable new policy—well that's just lame.

Sorry it took me so long to say that, and thanks for sticking around.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Although I am hesitant to agree with your outcomes of a direct election, it is invigorating to see such a horrible post given its due. Thank you once again for providing legitimate, well organized political debate-even if that includes the occasional trimming of the hedges.
~Alex