Category Archives: Current Politics & Media

Why Patti Davis and Michael Reagan are both right–and wrong–about their father

I am finding this light family spat between our 40th president’s two children fascinating. It highlights a generational difference that is more nuanced than partisan marriage equality supporters (and detractors) care to admit and highlights the inevitable folly of bringing one’s own outlook to those of your deceased predecessors.


Patti Davis posing provocatively in 1994.

Davis (born in 1952), is (as is common for her Boomer cohort) naturally trying to make the personal political. In her view because her father had no personal animus toward his gay friends, many of them in long-term couples, of course he would be supportive of same-sex marriage if alive today! From everything I’ve read about President Reagan his nonchalant attitude toward gays is indeed accurate and matches what Davis recalls. The first I’d read about this was in the biography of silent movie actor William Haines. Not only did Ronald and Nancy Reagan seem to concur with Joan Crawford that William Haines and Jimmie Shields were “the happiest married couple in Hollywood” the author’s interviews with Nancy Reagan confirmed a close friendship and sincere outreach to Haines’ partner after Haines died. Patti Davis in her interview mentions a lesbian couple they who babysat and housesat for the Reagans, openly as a couple.

Davis plays to the (at least historic) GOP position on less government to say: “He was well known for wanting less government. He would truly be baffled at what the problem is.”  While this may be true, I think it downplays Reagan’s legacy of throwing more than the occasional bone to the religious right-wing of his party, at least once in office. Davis should know her father was a politician and just as the modern GOP overstates the man’s staid conservatism (he raised taxes when necessary and demurred from armed conflict in Beirut in the face of terrorism, for instance) she shouldn’t overstate his Social Libertarianism either. When it came to 1978’s Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gays from being public school teachers in the state of California, Reagan did ultimately oppose legislating discrimination and spoke out against it. His response/reasoning appealed to basic sense of privacy plus distrust of government meddling in personal lives and employment opportunities. While brave for someone who was soon to be entering the primary battle for nominee of the Republican Party, gay issues had not yet been established as a partisan litmus test either way. Reagan was not boldly flouting his base in 1978 as he would have been in 1988 or 2008. The current level of engagement on that issue is something Reagan would not have even fathomed. For that matter nor would have his openly gay colleague William Haines. Plus, being accepting of individual gay people does not always translate to brave political moves on their behalf. While I appreciate Patti’s warm memories there really is no way of knowing how publicly he would have came out for marriage equality in the last days of his dementia (when marriage equality was only just beginning to be presented as a serious issue) or how much he would have (perhaps begrudgingly) accepted the ever-rightward lurch of his party through the 1990s.


Michael Reagan posing provocatively in 2005

However, if you set aside the absurd homophobic slips and slopes in his rebuttal, deeply conservative son Michael Reagan actually has a fair point when refuting his sister and speculating himself: “He would have pulled both sides in and found the common ground of what everybody was looking for.”  I can go along with this because Reagan did have a spectacular ability to keep the various factions of his party under the same big tent. He–unlike Bush 43–was a master at keeping the extreme Right aboard without alienating the socially moderate, fiscal conservatives in the older Rockefeller/Ford tradition. People forget there was serious talk of bringing ex-POTUS Gerald Ford onto the ticket in 1980 as VP in order to bridge the Far Right and Rockefeller Republican factions! I doubt that Reagan would have called for a divisive Constitutional Amendment to define marriage (as Bush did in 2004 and is still GOP official platform), but that really is just my own speculation.  During the GWB era I did notice, generally, the older the Republican the less strident on the social issue legislation they tended to be. Think of McCain’s tepid support for gay marriage bans in the 2008 campaign or Alaska’s giant Senator Ted Stevens as pro-choice anachronism within the GOP. While the reverse was, generally, true for Democrats: the older the Democrat the more reticent or coy they tended to be on marriage equality.

That said, I suspect Reagan would have had plenty of ready platitudes and dog whistles to religious conservatives about traditional values, child-rearing, God’s unique place in America, et. al. since he played that balancing act so expertly through the 1980s with issues like abortion and school prayer. For all Patti’s assurances there is no reason gay marriage would have fared any differently once it picked up momentum a decade after Reagan’s death as a hot-button issue. During Reagan’s presidency it simply wasn’t a mainstream debate, and so Patti has the comfort of deferring to her father’s personal benevolence. Never a heavy church-goer, Reagan was still readily willing to speak the language of the Evangelicals even while rarely bringing their pet issues to the front burner. Many have blamed his odd silence on the AIDS crisis on this fearful balancing act. In their different ways Michael and Patti are both awkwardly grafting Boomer 90s culture war perspectives on someone far older and more complicated.

Stuck in the 90s

I admit I do sometimes find Ann Coulter wickedly funny. Yet, the last 8 years or so she seems to be ramping up the rhetoric and the outrageousness and the cheap shots–and falling completely flat. More shrill, less funny. Why is this? The vitriol about Latinos and immigration in particular seems unhinged. Her latest race book? Eye-rollingly terrible. Or maybe I’m just jealous, if I’d known merely pointing out the Senate Republicans of 70 years ago were better on Civil Rights was enough meat to get published I’d have jumped on it too!

I didn’t mind this recent piece by her. Why? I think this harkens back to Ann Coulter circa 2000 when she was at her “best” (I put that in quotes because 9 times out of 10 I still fundamentally didn’t agree with her, but would at least muggedchuckle once or twice and grudgingly admit she got in a good dig at Democrats/Liberals/etc). However, the fact she had to take on New York City Bloomberg subway ads to get an old-school Ann Coulter piece demonstrates that the landscape has changed. Ann–an older Gen X–came of age in the era of Michael P. Keaton young conservatism.  When the overarching narrative, with some truth, was that conservatism offered the common sense approach during the Reagan years. Conservative talking heads like Limbaugh and Coulter milked the perceived hypocrisy, pettiness, and corruption on the Democratic side for comedy gold. People forget that in the 1990s Rush Limbaugh was much less angry and bitter and more of a common sense conservative with a sense of humor (something those dour Liberals were perceived as not having circa 1991).

Yet, everything has changed. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart cannot be over-credited with that. Liberals ability to make fun of themselves (and conservatives, of course) has become well-entrenched for some time. South Park as well. Things like the soda ban in NYC does harken back to the 1990s condescending PC debates that Limbaugh and Coulter made a living off of exploiting for humor.  However, that’s the exception more than the rule today.  Let’s face it: 90% of the mock-worthy stunts today come from the conservative side of the aisle. From things like “legitimate rape” to believing gay marriage will embolden North Korea’s pursuit of the bomb. How can you NOT make fun of the hypocrisy or people like Larry Craig? Or Sarah Palin? Pat Robertson? The jokes write themselves. Outrageous comments made by every local bigot or moron with an “R” after his or her name can spread across Facebook faster than an STD. I thought Ann Coulter’s tweet about Sandra Fluke getting impregnated by Bill Clinton backstage at the Democratic Convention was funny. But let’s face it: it was a dated Lewinsky joke re-spun. The jokes are mostly coming from the Right these days, and I think she knows it. This is why the sharp humor has, for the most part, degenerated into cheap shock value.

My response to Justice Roberts’ question on DOMA

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: So 84 Senators -it’s the same question I asked before; 84 Senators based their vote on moral disapproval of gay people?
MS. KAPLAN: No, I think — I think what is true, Mr. Chief Justice, is that times can blind, and that back in 1996 people did not have the understanding that they have today, that there is no distinction, there is no constitutionally permissible distinction -
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, does that mean — times can blind. Does that mean they did not base their votes on moral disapproval?
MS. KAPLAN: No; some clearly did. I think it was based on an understanding that gay — an incorrect understanding that gay couples were fundamentally different than straight couples, an understanding that I don’t think exists today and that’s the sense I’m using that times can blind. I think there was — we all can understand that people have moved on this, and now understand that there is no such distinction. So I’m not saying it was animus or bigotry, I think it was based on a misunderstanding on gay people and their —
JUSTICE SCALIA: Why — why are you so confident in that — in that judgment? How many — how many States permit gay — gay couples to marry?
MS. KAPLAN: Today? 9, Your Honor.
JUSTICE SCALIA: 9. And — and so there has been this sea change between now and 1996?
MS. KAPLAN: I think with respect to the understanding of gay people and their relationships there has been a sea change, Your Honor.
JUSTICE GINSBURG: How many States have civil unions now?
MS. KAPLAN: I believe — that was discussed in the arguments, another 8 or 9, I believe.
JUSTICE GINSBURG: And how many had it in 1996?
MS. KAPLAN: I — yes, it was much, much fewer at the time. I don’t have that number, Justice Ginsburg; I apologize.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: I suppose the sea change has a lot to do with the political force and effectiveness of people representing, supporting your side of the case?
MS. KAPLAN: I disagree with that, Mr. Chief Justice, I think the sea change has to do, just as discussed was Bowers and Lawrence, was an understanding that there is no difference — there was fundamental difference that could justify this kind of categorical discrimination between gay couples and straight couples.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: You don’t doubt that the lobby supporting the enactment of same sex-marriage laws in different States is politically powerful, do you?
MS. KAPLAN: With respect to that category, that categorization of the term for purposes of heightened scrutiny, I would, Your Honor. I don’t -
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.

Overall I think that Roberta Kaplan did a good job during this banter with Chief Justice John Roberts. Although, as it played out, he was clearly coaxing her down a path so that he could spring his point: that BECAUSE gay marriage is becoming more and more accepted (and certainly more accepted than it was in 1996 when DOMA came into being) the whole “increased scrutiny” of Equal Protection under the 14th Amendment is a weak point. Kaplan did kind of fall into a trap here, for she was left to concede that the tide probably has turned in political clout and the power of public opinion.

But let’s back up. I think the biggest opportunity Kaplan missed was earlier on in this exchange. Roberts starts with a sort of mock astonishment question that in 1996 84 out of 100 educated US Senators were 100% (“solely”) motivated by moral disapproval toward gay people. He is goading her, and she knows that probably this was not entirely true, although in Jesse Helms’ case and others it was raw homophobia (Kaplan: “some clearly did”).  Her response is a bit choppy and you can tell that Roberts and Scalia were rather underwhelmed by her phrase “times can blind”. Had I been responding to Justice Roberts I would have probably said “either moral disapproval or political expediency“.

Whether 84 Senators truly felt in their heart of hearts “moral disapproval” of gay people is irrelevant. At the very least they felt a majority of their constituents did. These 84 senators, plus President Clinton, believed signing DOMA was the better choice for their political careers.  Its morality or constitutionality took a back seat. They signed into law unprecedented federal meddling into something that had for 200 years been left to the states: the powers of marriage, divorce, and custody. Equal Protection’s heightened scrutiny is meant for exactly situations like this: to avoid scapegoating a minority group, it doesn’t matter whether it was out of deep animus or political cowardice (I think we can all agree it’s the latter in Bill Clinton’s case?). Whether said minority group is currently out of favor with the public or (as Roberts snarkily put) the public is “falling over themselves to endorse” is irrelevant.


My response to Justice Scalia’s question on Prop 8

JUSTICE SCALIA: You — you’ve led me right
into a question I was going to ask. The California
Supreme Court decides what the law is. That’s what we
decide, right? We don’t prescribe law for the future.
We — we decide what the law is. I’m curious, when —
when did — when did it become unconstitutional to
exclude homosexual couples from marriage? 1791? 1868,
when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted?
Sometimes — some time after Baker, where we
said it didn’t even raise a substantial Federal
question? When — when — when did the law become this?

MR. OLSON: When — may I answer this in the
form of a rhetorical question? When did it become
unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages?
When did it become unconstitutional to assign children
to separate schools.

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s an easy question, I
think, for that one. At — at the time that the Equal
Protection Clause was adopted. That’s absolutely true.
But don’t give me a question to my question.


JUSTICE SCALIA: When do you think it became
unconstitutional? Has it always been unconstitutional?

I would argue it’s not 1791 (Bill of Rights ratification), or 1868 (14th Amendment) or even 1967 (Loving case) but somewhere around between 1890-1925 when the concept of “homosexual” as something you are rather than something you did became entrenched as a concept (albeit mainly a negative one). “Homosexual” as a noun only began appearing in dictionaries in the 1890s. Granted, it took another half century or so of people coming out of the closet in large enough numbers to push society to grapple with the implications of this. Yet once that status as something you are had been accepted by society (even if adversely) the Equal Protection of the 14th Amendment kicks in I would think. Even if 99.9% of the population (including gay people themselves) couldn’t fathom it!

A Trite One-Liner

I recently had a chat with a good friend of mine working on his PhD dissertation in English. He said he loathes meeting someone new and admitting that he is an English PhD student. The reason? He often gets a trite response like “oh I better mind my p’s and q’s” or “I better watch myself and not to use a double-negative”! He asked me if there were any parallel annoying one-liners to studying history and I’ve thought of one culprit:

“Oh studying (insert New World nation here: USA, Canada) must be easy since they don’t have much history unlike (insert European nation here: France, Britain)!” *

A) This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what historians do. They don’t memorize dates and facts that are Palace of the Governors Santa Fe, NMunchanging gospel and then somehow finish the task. A PhD in History isn’t about learning 3 times or 4 times more “facts & dates” as a Bachelor’s degree in History. More it’s that they analyze what we think we already know about a period and try to say something new, uncharted, undiscovered about it. Or prove something we’ve thought all along has been a mistake. Or find a way something in the past got us into a current situation. Or reassess a group or people or event that’s been side-lined or maligned. You could write a historical thesis on American 1940s feminine hygiene product advertizing, for instance, and what it meant in relation to women in the workplace during WWII. Or follow-up with its implications vis-a-vis the push for traditional suburban life in the 1950s. Something from 50 years ago is no less historical than 500. You’ll never “run out” of historical research. Ever. There is no final word on the subject. Ever.

B) Most historians only do strict segmenting of history between nations because of the classroom. You can’t talk about British history without talking about French history without talking about American history without talking about Mexican history. So, yes, historians will have their areas of expertise but it’s as likely to be a theme (labor, military) as it would be one modern-day country. They sort it out into neat, nation-state categories for text book publishing and classroom purposes. The further along one studies the more it all starts to get wonderfully blended and messy.

C) It’s kind of racist. Saying “the USA has no history” implies that only white people’s’ history is “real history”. People lived in the US and Canada and Mexico during the Thirty Years War and the Crusades. Just because they weren’t Caucasian and weren’t swinging around cool swords like in Spartacus: Blood & Sand doesn’t make it any less historical.

* occasionally China or Japan is granted honorary “Old World” status here.

Modern view of the (still in use) Palace of the Governors Building in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Built in 1610. To put in perspective that is about 100 years before London's Buckingham Palace.

Modern view of New Mexicans selling jewelry at the (still in use) Palace of the Governors Building in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Built in 1610. To put in perspective that is about 100 years before London’s Buckingham Palace and nearly 250 years before the Irish Potato Famine.

He Wants A Change Too


The 1876 image immediately above is by Thomas Nast and is called “He Wants A Change Too”. Nast is probably the most prolific political cartoonists for Reconstruction politics. This being in response to the Tilden/Hayes election in which the infamous deal was cut that effectively ended Reconstruction and African-American civil rights for decades. Watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained yesterday this cartoon instantly popped into my mind (I think I first saw it in one of Eric Foner’s books?).

As Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg mention you really can’t have a talk about the history of US gun laws without talking about race. I still have conflicting opinions on what the exact interpretation of the 2nd Amendment should be in modern times, but not on the NRA and the gun lobby itself. I can’t help but notice that after the recent bloody Newton shooting the NRA response was to arm every teacher with a gun (“the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”). Yet, after the unarmed Trayvon Martin was shot, I can’t seem to recall the NRA clamoring for African-American youths to be armed in order to protect themselves.

Social Security Panic Syndrome

With all the current talk in Washington DC about the so-called “fiscal cliff” I’ve been surprised how much the nearly 80 year old American Social Security system is being dragged into the debate.  This is unnecessary and plays into a long-standing American tradition of pulling the Social Security system into any and all fiscal dilemmas.  I call it Social Security Panic Syndrome.

Let’s be clear: there IS an upcoming tipping point somewhere between 2032 and 2037 where there will be more money going out than money coming in.  You hear it referred to as “a ticking time bomb” or a “looming disaster”.  This is gross overstatement and fear-mongering by people who either A) have an agenda to end a very successful program as we know it* or B) don’t actually understand the existing reform history and demographics faced.

Here are 3 things that NEVER seem to get mentioned when these charged conversations about debt, entitlements, and the mythological “ticking time bomb” are happening.  Next time you hear alarmism about Social Security just keep calm, carry on, and keep in mind these three things:

1) Even if we do absolutely nothing, the worst case scenario is a 23% benefit cut beginning about 2035. Again this is the WORST CASE SCENARIO should we sit on our hands and do absolutely nothing to bolster Social Security. This is not good, but it is also not a ticking time bomb. In my mind showing up to work and finding the doors are locked, the company has gone under, and you are out of a job would be the bombshell. Showing up to work and finding out you are receiving a 23% salary cut? Shitty, but not the entire system imploding forever.  I would rather spend the energy finding some patches and fixes to make up that 23% than completely scrap a successful and highly popular program. Ask President Bush how that privatization plan went. Nevermind the administrative and political cost which would be required to reinvent the system, but a stock-market based plan could easily tank even more than 23%. Case in point: most Americans’ 401Ks circa 2008.

2) Baby Boomers will die eventually.  Yes, this generation has dominated policy discussion on social and economic issues for so long I think we have ceased to be able to imagine an America without Boomers! Well, it will happen. They too will die. This is a demographic hump to get over, and then the road is smooth again.  Once the Boomers begin to head off to the great Woodstock in the Sky the system will return to ordinary solvency. Radical overhaul is not needed for a temporary demographic hump.  Some fine-tuning and tweaking is.

3) We ALREADY raised the retirement age.  Another talking-point parroted as gospel by Social Security nay-sayers: “people live so long now! we have to raise the retirement age!”.  Here is the thing: in the 1980s President Reagan and the Democratic controlled Congress in bipartisan collaboration DID JUST THAT.  If you were born in the 1970s or later, you will not retire with full benefits until age 67.  Again, I think those whose agenda is to scrap or privatize the system purposefully ignore this important and necessary reform from 1983. Most current Republicans fail to grasp–or purposefully ignore–what a savvy ability to compromise Reagan often had, but that is for another blog post. Post-Boomers will be retiring between 67 and 70.  According to the 2010 census data the average US life-expectancy is 78.2 years.

Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill at the signing of the 1983 Social Security Reform Bill

Personally, I do think a little creative doctoring of the system needs to happen in order to keep the solvency over the next 40 years or so.  However, I feel strongly these three facts need to be front and center in any discussion of what those fixes should be. Otherwise all perspective is lost in the shuffle. My generation has been so raised in “ticking time bomb” hyperbole I daresay most aren’t aware of the above three realities.  Here is my solution:

1) Raise the maximum taxable earnings limit.  Currently an American worker only pays into the system on their first $110K of wages. I think due to the upcoming demographic hump that figure should be increased to somewhere between 175K and 195K.  I feel it should be done as soon as possible so that those workers who are currently in their 50s will have helped to keep the system solvent before their own retirements at age 62-65.

2) Immigration Reform.  When we do hit that 2035-ish tipping point of full Baby Boomer retirement there is an obvious solution: bring in more young workers to boost the worker-to-retiree ratio (which is currently 3 to 1, we should get it even higher). People are having smaller families in 2012 than they did in 1948, for instance, so we can counter-balance the graying of our populace with younger workers from abroad.  These immigrants will pay into the Social Security system their whole lives so the younger we can bring them into our workforce the better.  There should be no reason a foreigner who achieved a marketable degree or skill on a US student visa shouldn’t be able to easily transfer that to a work visa and begin paying into Social Security. Baby Boomers should be the first to support immigration reform for this reason.

3) Should #1 and #2 still fall a little short? So be it.  Let the Social Security payments in 2035 be slightly smaller than expected. Remember, the 23% slash of promised benefits is the do-nothing scenario. Immigration reform and a modest raise on the payroll cap should take care of that.  All post-Boomer generations are already taking the hit via the aforementioned 1983 increased retirement age, Boomers can carry their fair share of the burden with a slight reduction in expected benefits (less than 10% probably) in order to keep the system sustainable for their children and grandchildren.  It’s a shared sacrifice and I think most Americans understand that some small compromises from all is preferable to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

FDR signing the Social Security Act: August 14, 1935

* There is a legitimate philosophical argument to be made from a Libertarian perspective that the entire US Social Security system should be scrapped and retirement should be an individual’s responsibility: sink or swim pre-1935 style.  I find few politicians willing to argue that openly and honestly and, rather, am pushing back in this piece against those who clamor for radical overhaul under pretexts of impending disaster.

Hillbillies, Economics, & Soda Pop

If there was one unavoidable pop culture phenomenon this past autumn it was TLC mega-hit reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.  I’ve only watched a couple episodes–and several snippets–but there did seem to be collective snobbery and (faux?) outrage around the fact Alana’s mother gave her Mountain Dew and Red Bull to ramp her up before pageants.  What is it about Mountain Dew, exactly, that makes it perennially associated with hillbillies? Here is a commercial for the soda from the early 1960s:

Redneck connotations for Mountain Dew obviously pre-date Honey Boo Boo.  In the past there were definitely more regional beverages out there.  This one from the 1920s, Topsy, made the uncomfortable decision to name itself after the slave girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  People forget today how much Topsy, Eva, Simon LeGree, et. al. were once a part of the American lexicon even for those who’d never read the book itself.  The term “white trash” has it’s roots in slavery. So, the racial aspect is always an underlying element in redneck mockery, I feel, and the now-extinct Topsy chocolate beverage definitely reflects that.

Soda–whether Mountain Dew or others–DOES seem to represent some sort of American cultural short-hand for class and/or poverty.  Mountain Dew served in a tippy cup being the ultimate in pearl-clutching shock over redneck parenting.  More serious debates of the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP, better known as “food stamps”) inevitably ask the question “should soda be allowed?”.  Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’s infamous “go-go juice” is just the latest in a long and rich American tradition of hillbillies and soda pop.  Author Jefferson Cowie in his 2010 book Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class argues that in those times of economic hardship Americans developed an interesting nostalgia/fascination with “redneck culture”.  Witness the popularity of television shows like the The Dukes of Hazzard during the economic tough times of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Or the play and film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: there WAS a period of redneck-chic during the Carter years. Further back, during the Great Depression, Americans flocked to the escapism of watching the saccharine films of Shirley Temple.  Honey Boo Boo seems like an amalgamation of those two past impulses.


Australia, Schadenfreude & Conservatives

It has not yet been a week from the election and there has been a lot of schadenfreude from those who supported President Obama.  Personally I am comfortable with this–for now. If it is still thriving by US Thanksgiving weekend, though, I think it will be time to let it rest.  There is a fine line between celebrating and gloating.

This one has been making the rounds on the internet:

This IS hilarious, the facts about Australia are 100% accurate and–of course–gives American progressives another little jab at the other side. It fits so easily into a stereotype of the American right-wing: ignorant people with absolutely no knowledge or interest in the world beyond the USA’s borders.

I’ll say this, though, while it is a hoot and a half the author is a teenaged girl. A girl who may be parroting something she heard her parents claim (she has since deleted her Twitter account–probably after being soundly mocked by thousands of tweeters!).  I’ll smirk a bit (well, a lot) but let’s be fair, I reckon we ALL said things as teenagers that would make us cringe today.  Personally, I am still haunted by a heated discussion over the first Gulf War I once got into as an adolescent at the Rasmussen Library and am eternally thankfully there was no audio, video or social media to preserve it in perpetuity! I’d die of humiliation.

What’s interesting is Australia has popped up among those frustrated with Obama’s election quite frequently this last week. Most claims are probably about as meaningful as those knee-jerk reactions made by Americans about emigrating to Canada when their party-of-choice loses (and, please, can we give that a rest Democrats?). Yet, this go-around I seem to see “Australia” thrown around more than anyplace else. It’s fascinating.  It’s certainly not for any true knowledge of the Australian political system, health care, or any reality that the system Down Under would be a haven to USA Neoconservatism.  However, I bring it up because it proves a niggling feeling I have had for YEARS about a crucial PR error those who believed in health care reform have been making when offering up international alternatives.

Beginning with Nixoncare, through Hillarycare, to the 2010 debate over Obamacare, you would often hear about alternate single-payer systems throughout the world that were absolute paradise. I won’t argue their merits or deficiencies here but, strictly from a salesman’s spin, I think Michael Moore’s Sicko probably did more harm than good by using France as its example. Again, the French system is probably great–I don’t know enough to argue for or against it here–but France? Really? In a 2007 film? Immediately after the demonization of their (perceived) anti-Americanism and “Freedom Fries” hysteria?  Whatever its virtues France was a terrible sales pitch for Middle America: too foreign, too effete, and just too, well, French.

What about Britain’s NHS? Not a good example to persuade on-the-fence Americans either (remember, that’s who the health care debate was aimed at: not ultra-conservatives who even opposed Nixon’s sensible health care reform plan in 1974) since there is NO shortage of Brits ready and willing to relate horror-stories of the NHS.  Plus, there is the running US half-joking-but-kind-of-true idea that Sister Wendy is what NHS dentistry looks like.

For several years, now,  I’ve argued that a missed PR opportunity would have been to have used Australia as the example of a good single-payer model when trying to convince Americans to give some reform a try. Sure, it is not much different from Canada in essence but the Left has rang that Canadian bell so much that I suspect a lot of independents’ eyes glaze over and ears stop listening during a “Canada” name-drop the same way the others do when conservatives repeat “small business” like someone with Tourette’s.  It’s become trite. Also–again–“Latte Liberals” and Hollywood elites like Matt Damon or Cher threatening to move to Canada has become such a tired cliche it’s probably tainted the brand.

Back to Australia: your average American probably knows next-to-nothing about its health care system and this would have been a good thing during the Hillarycare fights in the 1990s, for instance.  Also, many Americans would concede that, say, Sweden’s system is perfectly great for Sweden.  Yet, they would counter, it could never work in a big, rough and tumble, pioneering nation like the good ole US of A. Europe’s just so different. Yet, Australia also has that big, multi-cultural, tamed-by-pioneers panache in US mythology.  I think a lot of Middle America would have been comfortable, and perhaps even respectfully listened to, an Australia comparison more so than France.

Personally, I’m happy the Affordable Care Act–or at least the best parts of it–are now likely to be an established part of the US system following President Obama’s re-election and polls are showing most Americans turning against the idea of scrapping it as more and more of it takes effect.  I did chuckle at poor Kristen and her ignorant tweet, but I also hope non-gloating Democrats maybe extract a kernel of wisdom there. In politics, just like in sales, the medium is the message.

*EDIT: a follower of my blog in Canada has informed me that after the 2004 election of President Bush the Canada Dept of Immigration website did receive 6 times the daily average number of hits. So not just hot air that time around?

Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in an early 1970s picture. “It’s Time” for universal health coverage. This was around the same time US president Richard Nixon proposed his health care reform plan which was defeated.

The Confederacy Vote is not “the White Vote”

Lately there has been so much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over Obama and “the white vote” you’d think there was something new, wide-spread, or unprecedented going on. There isn’t. If you look at the data state-by-state it is obvious that the President is polling in alignment with most Democratic candidates over the last few years. Or better. Clinton lost the white vote in both 1992 and 1996. Remember, Obama was the first Democratic candidate to win with over 50% of the white vote since Carter in 1976.

“The white vote” (like I argued this spring for “the Catholic vote”) is a voting-block concept that, frankly, needs to be retired for lack of meaning.  I know it makes for flashy alarmist headlines on CNN and FOX but let’s be clear: caucasian generational and geographic diversity–as well as partisan identification–trumps race ultimately.

Take a look at these numbers.

Washington, Oregon, and Vermont are three mainly caucasian states: Obama is comfortably getting 59%, 60% and 68% (!) of the white people’s’ vote here.  Obviously, these are Blue States so voters were naturally predisposed to the “D” after the name and race played less of a factor.  But, that’s kind of my point…

However, look at the states of the former Confederacy (Table 2).  Alabama white vote? 10%. Mississippi white vote? 11%. Georgia, even with progressive Atlanta, Capitol of the New South?  Still only 23% of the white vote went to Obama in 2008.  It can’t be emphasized enough: the Southern white vote drastically skews the national “white vote” average and muddies the whole picture to appear different than a typical Red/Blue or Dem/GOP divide.  Keep in mind the former Confederate states are extreme even compared to other lily-white Republican states.  North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska are so consistently Red most candidates in either party don’t bother to campaign or focus campaign funds there. They also have majority-caucasian, Republican-dominated populations. However they are not even close to the drastically out-of-whack Confederate numbers: North Dakota: 42% white support for Obama in 2008, Montana: 45%, Alaska 33%.  In swing states (like Ohio) it’s razor-thin and 50/50.  So yes, the votes of some working-class over-55 white people could make that crucial difference thanks to our Electoral College system.  Yet, this shouldn’t bring about alarmist headlines about Obama (or any Democrat) losing the white vote as a whole. 

Map of states in existence in 1861: Red States are the Confederacy, Blue States Union, yellow states had legalized slavery at some level but did not join the Confederacy.

From Nixon’s Southern Strategy to today the GOP has slowly but steadily painted itself into a corner as a Southern-dominated party, much the way the Democrats did 100 years ago. This is not news for post-Nixon Democrats: for about thirty years it was obsessively (and in my opinion often foolishly) focused on plunking any white Southerner onto the Democrat ticket (John Edwards, really?) in hopes of peeling off a Southern state or two.  As the parties re-aligned 1968-1992 (roughly) this proved a less and less effective path to victory: culminating in the razor-thin election of 2000 where Gore (at the top of the ticket!) couldn’t even bring his home state of Tennessee over to the Democratic column.  Think about it this way: for all of Bill Clinton’s newly rejuvenated popularity every talking head would agree he’d need to fight tooth and nail to win his home state of Arkansas (and in my opinion would probably still lose it) in 2012.

However, Clinton wouldn’t have to lift a finger for California: home state of Reagan and Nixon and the biggest electoral prize of all.   Neither does Obama.  Obama’s numbers reflect the changing demographics of the nation as a whole, a 40-year realignment of the parties’ base, and geographic changes.  Rather than yet another repetitive article (or book) fixated on a 2% or 3% drop among rural working-class white voters in the Midwest, how about a piece on the freakishly skewed numbers among white voters in the Deep South?