Monday, May 25, 2015

Things Change

“Ireland hasn’t just said ‘Yes’ … Ireland has said: F*** YEAAHHHH”
—Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the Irish government’s Equality Minister, in a tweet on Saturday
Last week was an extraordinary one in Ireland.

For me it began on Monday morning when, after dropping off my daughter at school, I met an oncoming phalanx of gardaí (police) in our local village that forced me to the side of the road. I and my fellow motorists sat and watched as a seemingly endless parade of large black vans with gardaí escort passed by.

I knew immediately what is was about. No less a personage than Li Keqiang, the premier of China, was on his way from Ashford Castle to Shannon Airport. The night before he and his entourage had visited a farm here in our parish, in the company of Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny and other Irish government officials. Needless to say, this sort of activity is fairly unusual in our normally quiet corner of the country.

No sooner had Li Keqiang left than the area was visited by Britain’s Prince of Wales and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. (That’s Charles and Camilla to tabloid consumers.) I personally had no roadside encounters with them, but the first day of visiting was based in Galway, just down the road from us, and they stayed in a beautiful lakeside castle that we happen to know because we once attended a wedding there.

The emotional highlight of the royal visit came on the second day when the couple visited Mullaghmore in County Sligo, site of the death of the prince’s beloved grand-uncle Lord Mountbatten. The 79-year-old was killed in 1979 by an IRA bomb blast along with Charles’s 14-year-old godson Nicky Knatchbull, Nicky’s 83-year-old grandmother, Lady Brabourne, and a local boy, Nicky’s friend Paul Maxwell. Three others were badly injured. One version of events is that afterward the IRA received 2 million pounds as a reward from then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad (late father of the current president) at the behest of the Soviet Union. So it must have been very difficult when Charles was to take part in an arranged handshake with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams who, according to some anyway, would have authorized the bomb attack. But that bit of necessary political showmanship paled next to the genuine outpouring of emotion among the local people, who have since lived in the shadow of that day and the fact that the name of their harbor has become synonymous with an atrocity.

But the event last week that drew the most worldwide attention was, of course, the passage of the marriage referendum. Ireland not only became the first country in the world to approve gender-blind marriage by a popular vote, but it is now apparently the only country to have marriage defined in its constitution.

And despite the fact that Ireland is a predominately Catholic country and has always been considered socially conservative, the vote was not even close. Moreover, the public pre-election debate was for the most part civil, polite and respectful. The campaigners for the “no” side were gracious in their defeat.

Given that a mere 23 years ago committing a homosexual act in this country would have been a crime, I find this turnaround in Irish society nothing short of remarkable. Much of the momentum for the change came from the young. Motivated by heartfelt feelings of inclusiveness, my own daughter and her friends were nothing but enthusiastic for the referendum’s passage. But a surprising number of older voters supported it too.

How can we explain this rapid change in the thinking of Irish society? The standard answer is that people starting thinking for themselves because they threw off the repressive yoke of the Catholic Church. And why did that happen? Because people were disgusted about revelations about church scandals, including clerical child abuse. But the abuses had certainly been going on for a long time? What happened specifically in the late 20th century to cause people to view the church and traditions differently?

Obviously, the causes of change are going to involve a lot of factors and will be complex. But here is something that was going on at the same time. For much of its history Ireland was a poor country, but the standard of living went through a marked improvement toward the end of the 20th century. More prosperity results leads to more education and sophistication and independent thought and behavior. And how did Ireland become more prosperous? It was in a position to benefit from the technology boom and it drew employers into the country with a strategy that included, among other things, favorable tax treatment. That would be the same tax treatment that many are now calling a “give away” to greedy businesses and accusing of “robbing” governments of tax revenues.

Yes, the economic boom (dubbed the Celtic Tiger) wound up coming to a dramatic and terrible (but ultimately temporary) halt for various reasons but, before it did, a lot of people’s lives were improved and Ireland became a more socially liberal country. The irony is that many of those cheering the loudest over Ireland’s new marriage law are some of the same ones who dismiss the Celtic Tiger period as mainly being one of greed.

Other people will undoubtedly interpret things differently. But as far as I can see, the change in Ireland is simply additional proof of something I have observed for some time. In good economic times, all other problems tend to improve. In a bad economy, all other problems tend to get worse.

That is why I believe that sound economics should be the first priority of every politician and every voter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Let George Do It

“No one has even come close in recent years to enriching themselves on the scale of the Clintons while they or a spouse continued to serve in public office.”
—Peter Schweizer, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich
When George Stephanopoulis first became a commentator on ABC’s This Week, I found him to be a great source of information and insight. His experience in the Clinton White House gave him the background and sources to illuminate the political process for the benefit of the television audience.

When he made the transition to journalist and anchor, I thought it a bit strange. When I was in journalism school back in the 1970s, it was drilled into us that it was paramount for journalists to be objective and credible and that any serious reporter needed to voluntarily lock up whatever political views he or she might have in a box somewhere.

In the end, though, I found Stephanopoulis to be a credible anchor and interviewer. Although there was never any doubt that he was, at heart, a modern liberal, he generally maintained objectivity on air. He clearly understood arguments on both sides of the political divide and proved to be a decent devil’s advocate when putting conservative arguments to liberals. I was also impressed by how candid and forthright he was in his 1999 book All Too Human: A Political Education, about his experiences in the Clinton White House.

In my view, that even-handedness slipped somewhat during the 2008 presidential cycle. It seemed all too clear that he was mesmerized by Barack Obama, and it showed in his coverage and particularly on the occasions when he interviewed the senator. But, to be fair, much of the establishment press had the same starstruck attitude toward the eventual Democratic nominee.

When it came out recently that Stephanopoulis had donated some $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation. I was surprised—and yet not surprised. It was a surprise that he would make those contributions, given that he had always seemed to understand clearly that he needed to draw a clear line between his previous political life and his new journalistic life. On the other hand, it was easy enough to see why he might have thought the generous contributions should not be a problem. After all, the Clinton Foundation is a charity that has been praised for doing humanitarian work all around the world. Because of this, for years much of the press have treated it as though it were entirely above politics. It was as though it was of a piece with, say, Jimmy Carter going out and selflessly building homes for Habitat for Humanity.

And yet, as Stephanopoulis himself told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show three weeks ago, “[E]verybody also knows when those donors give that money to President Clinton or someone, they get a picture with him; there’s a hope that that’s going to lead to something and that’s what you have to be careful of.” At that point, Stephanopoulis had yet to acknowledge to viewers that he himself was one of those donors.

Some have cited Stephanopoulis’s aggressive interrogation of Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer as an indication that the anchor is in the tank for the Clintons. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with that interview. That was Stephanopoulis’s job: to grill someone hawking a book that makes serious accusations. The real question is whether he will be equally aggressive if and when Hillary Clinton sits down for an interview.

The newly raised questions about Stephanopoulis, i.e. whether he is some sort of “Manchurian candidate” journalist placed to help Democrats from inside the media establishment, have caused me to look back at something odd he did during the 2012 primaries. Moderating a Republican debate, out of the blue he asked Mitt Romney, “[D]o you believe that states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”

This was an issue that was not on anybody’s radar. No one was suggesting or proposing any kind of ban on contraception. Romney, who was clearly gobsmacked by the question, told him flat out that it was “silly.” But the trap had been sprung. The eventual Republican nominee had engaged (however unwillingly) in talk about banning contraception. When employer funding of contraception under Obamacare subsequently became an issue for some individuals and businesses on religious grounds, Democrats conflated the question of a religious exemption with banning a woman’s right to contraception outright, and the War on Women meme was fully launched.

In hindsight, Stephanopoulis might as well have had the Democratic Party playbook sitting open in front of him. With all the grave issues facing the country, there was absolutely no justifiable journalistic reason to ask that particular question on that particular night.

This is why Stephanopoulis will almost certainly not moderate any Republican debates during this election cycle. He has given the GOP an excuse not to accept him in that role. In fact, some are suggesting that ABC News should be boycotted by Republican candidates entirely, although it is hard to see that actually happening.

As for news consumers, some of us will definitely be applying a heavier filter to George Stephanopoulis’s on-air work for as long as he continues working as a journalist.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Triumph of the Shy

“The Liberal Democrats will add a heart to a Conservative government, and a brain to a Labour one!”
 —Soon-to-resign Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, whose party wound up out of government

For us news consumers, there are three stages to an election.

There is the campaign, the election itself and, finally, the spinning of the results.

In other words, one phase consists of politicians angling for power (four weeks in the British Isles, two years or more in the United States), another consists of a brief moment of the people actually expressing their will, and the third consists of years of politicians telling us what the people actually meant. The interminable spin phase begins as soon as the first election day exit polls are released.

The recent election in the United Kingdom had an interesting beginning to the spin cycle. As the exit polls came in, journalists, commentators, analysts, pundits and spokespersons had to quickly adjust to the fact that pre-election polls had seriously understated the support for the Conservatives. No one had time to get comfortable with that adjustment before actual vote tallies started coming in—only to reveal that even the exit polls had underestimated Conservative support. In the end, the foregone and unquestioned expectation that Parliament would be hung and that weeks of negotiation would be required to cobble together the shakiest of coalitions gave way to the reality that the Conservatives had enough MPs to govern on their own and could jettison all that heart added by the hapless Lib Dems, who found themselves severely punished for occupying the mushy middle of British politics.

Everyone immediately began to spin the new reality to suit their own narratives. Needless to say, conservatives all over the world had the easiest job. They simply portrayed it as a vindication of conservative policies. Everyone else pointed out the complexities of the Tory victory, i.e. it was largely owed to a split among left-of-center voters. In Scotland, Labour had been abandoned in favor of the Scottish National Party. It wasn’t so much a shift rightward as a fracturing of the left/center-left. Still, the combined totals of Labour and the SNP fell short of what the Tories amassed, thereby avoiding the sticky question of that particular potential left-wing coalition, so the Conservatives came by their bragging rights honestly.

The interesting question is, why did the polls so consistently and universally underestimate Conservative strength? If it was just one polling outfit, you could blame shoddy samples and biased questions. But everybody had it wrong and over a sustained period of time. That suggests either that 1) polling industry’s standard sampling practices are flawed or 2) a lot of people are simply not answering polling questions honestly. The latter is actually already a well-documented phenomenon. The “shy Tory factor” is something that has been recognized since the 1990s. In a nutshell, British polling often tends to underestimate support for the Conservative Party.

Why is that? Maybe fewer Tory voters have landlines (traditionally, the standard way of contacting polling subjects)? Maybe Tory voters tend to be less truthful? Or maybe, when contacted by someone representing the journalistic/political establishment, Tory voters have been conditioned to be seen as “uncool” or heterochthonous to the mainstream as it tends to be presented by the BBC? After all, every cool celebrity near a microphone was expressing, if not his or her unadulterated support for Labour, then at least a disdain of Conservatives.

In the end, those sorts of recommendations did not seem to carry as much weight as the fact that Britain, while maybe not exactly flourishing under a Conservative-led government for the past five years, was at least faring better economically than most of the rest of Europe. This is a fact probably better appreciated by the average voter than by the (generally more affluent) celebrities pimping for left-of-center parties.

Is there an equivalent of the shy Tory factor in the United States? The science of polling has gotten pretty good over the years, but there is still the occasional surprise where Republicans do better than they are supposed to. In fact, there are currently historic majorities of the GOP running the two houses of Congress to testify to this.

The Conservative victory in the UK is no doubt giving much encouragement to the sprawling crop of Republican presidential candidates, one of whom will eventually face the poll-leading Hillary Clinton. But there is no particular reason to think that an election held last weeks holds much relevance for one to be held 3,600 miles and 547 days away.

On the other hand, the UK election reminds all pols (including Mrs. Clinton) that they can never rest comfortably on a lead in the polls.