July 2007

That Abominable Snowman

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

The Wall Street Journal has a sober front page piece here about Billiam the Snowman, the star of a Minneapolis-produced video question that stole the show at the recent YouTube Democratic debate.

Billiam has quickly become an emblem, not of climate change (the subject of the snowman’s question to the candidates), but of a changed political environment that is making many candidates and political observers uncomfortable.

Of special note is dissension among Republicans, scheduled to participate in their own YouTube debate in September. Some, including Mitt Romney, are lamenting the lack of dignity in the YouTube debate format. Others are aghast at that response, saying the GOP can’t afford to be too dignified for a medium whose popularity is exploding.

Surely the defenders of the YouTubers are right. I, for one, found the YouTube debate easier to watch than many gaggle-of-candidate conclaves. Some of the questions were foolish, many questioners were busy showing off, and the candidates often refused to give straight answers. But all that is frequently true when journalists or studio audiences ask the questions, too.

More time for the candidates would have been good — but only a little more time.

There was a freshness and authenticity about a lot of the video questioners, I thought. They were direct, smart-alecky, corny — like real Americans.

Other thoughts on the YouTube debate format?

A system that can’t say no

Monday, July 30th, 2007

tice.jpgHere is a characteristically illuminating paper from the Congressional Budget Office, presenting testimony delivered before the U.S. Senate in June.

(Here’s some additional data that goes with it.)

The subject is health care, and the testimony covers a widehealthcare.jpg range of issues concerning spiraling costs and what might be done to control them.

The CBO’s perspective touches in many ways on a fundamental dispute about what’s wrong with U.S. health care that was debated here in a series of posts months ago. It’s the question whether America has too much health insurance (as many free-market conservatives believe), or not enough insurance (as many liberals, focused on the plight of the uninsured, contend).

Here are a few highlights from the CBO testimony:

Quite apart from the pain rising health costs cause individuals and businesses, CBO calls them “the nation’s central fiscal challenge.”

If costs keep rising at the current pace, CBO warns, federal spending on the Medicare and Medicaid programs alone will consume 20 percent of gross domestic product by 2050 — about the same as the entire federal budget today.


How green is my bankbook? Part IV

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

As Washington correspondent Kevin Diaz reports here, the U.S.House has passed its version of the farm bill. It cracks down on subsidy payments to farmers who make more a million dollars a year.corn.jpg

Diaz notes that the issue puts Democrats in an awkward position. It is a complex task to oppose special favors for the rich and still support a policy like this.

Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz says in the story that he won’t defend subsidies for millionaires. But he does defend them for farmers making above $200,000 a year (the level at which the Bush administration wants to cut off payments). Such farmers are still family farmers, he says, put crops in the ground and benefit the rural economy.

How persuasive is that?

Staff writer Mark Brunswick on a reminder of the value of disclosure

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Gov. Tim Pawlenty made an unusual comment while announcing recently that the state would begin negotiating to buy land from U.S. Steel to establish a new state park on Lake Vermilion. He vermilion.jpgdisclosed that Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Holsten owns property on the lake.

St. Louis County records show that Holsten owns land valued at $179,000 on a plat named Thirtysix Island T of Greenwood. Holsten confirmed that he bought the land this spring.

But a check of Holsten’s disclosure statement with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board shows Holsten has reported no such ownership. Holsten says he will disclose the property the next time he is required to file.

“It’s something I have to do,” he said.

His property is described as being near the middle areas of the sprawling lake and the U.S. Steel property is about 10 miles away in a southeast portion, near the current Soudan Underground Mine state park.

No one has suggested any improper connection between the DNR commissioner’s property and the state’s pursuit of a state park on the same lake. In fact, Holsten’s familiarity with the area is being credited for getting the state thinking about making a bid for the U.S. Steel land.

Nonetheless, the situation is a reminder of the value of public officials being asked to fully disclose their assets.

Why could that be important? Here’s one example:

In Minnesota, the state’s Land Exchange Board oversees a DNR program that exchanges state-owned land for privately-owned land. The state may also exchange state-owned land for other publicly-owned land.

The laudable goal of the land exchange is to allow more efficient and productive management of lands. The Land Exchange Board consists of the Governor, State Auditor, and Attorney General.

Any exchange of public lands of the state for any publicly- or privately-held lands must be approved by all three members of the board.

Neither Pawlenty nor Attorney General Lori Swanson have reported owning any real property other than their homes. But State Auditor Rebecca Otto has disclosed owning additional property in Crow Wing County.

That kind of information is helpful to the public when they try to monitor how state business is conducted.

And to be mindful of a valuable Latin phrase: Quid Bono, or Who Benefits?


Come again? I don’t think I heard you quite right.

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

tice.jpgHere’s an unusual New York Times piece that says something about the art and science of polling, something about public attitudes on Iraq, and something about journalists’ attitudes.

The gist of it is that the New York Times/CBS News poll got a survey result earlier this month that surprised journalists at the two organizations. In a poll that was largely concerned with Hillary Clinton they asked some now routine questions about the Iraq war and saw an increase in the percentage of Americans who believe the original invasion was the right thing to do.

So surprised and doubtful were they that they did a second poll. The poll keepers wondered if including the Iraq invasion question in a poll about Clinton might have influenced the answers somehow.

But the second poll, free of extraneous influences, confirmed the first, and also found a drop in the number of people who think the war is going badly.

A few observations and questions:

There’s nothing unlikely about these pollsters’ suspicion about what might have gone wrong. That the proximity of certain questions can influence respondents’ answers to other questions is a constant challenge and hazard in polling, particularly polling on issues, as opposed to horse race election polls.

Chances are, such influences happen pretty often — inadvertantly in quality polls, and maybe not so inadvertantly in advocacy group polls. Most of the time, though, the result won’t be an outcome that stands out as inexplicable. But poll consumers should keep the risk in mind.

What could explain even a modest change for the better in Americans’ feelings about the war? Confidence in Petraeus? Reports that the surge is having some success in some parts of Iraq? Something in the war debate in the developing presidential race or on Capitol Hill? Whether the questions matter of course will depend on whether additional polls confirm any change in attitudes.

Does it reveal anything notable about journalists’ predispositions that this result –a slight improvement in attitudes toward the war — seemed so very odd and unlikely that they went to the unusual effort and cost of double checking their poll? Or would any careful observer have been surprised by the result?

Guestposter Kevin Diaz on a recount of Senate race donors and where they’re from

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

diaz_1.jpgFormer comedian Al Franken took a lot of guff last week when second quarter fundraising reports showed that only 18 percent of his U.S. Senate campaign cash came from people in Minnesota.

By contrast, incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman’s campaign said about 50 percent of his money came from Minnesota, while DFL challenger Mike Ciresi’s campaign reported that 68 percent its money came from inside the state.

Franken, though, can now claim that he got more people fromfranken.jpg Minnesota to give him money than anyone else in the Senate race.

Much was made of Franken’s $1.9 million fundraising total for the quarter ending June 30, compared to $1.5 million for Coleman. Even more was made of Franken’s famed Hollywood connections with Big Entertainment donors like Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Maher and Dan Aykroyd.

“No matter how many millions he raises from his far-left friends outside our state, Al Franken won’t be able to convince Minnesotans he has the temperament, demeanor and experience necessary for the U.S. Senate,” said Ron Carey, chairman of the Minnesota GOP.

That prompted Team Franken to take another slice at the last quarter numbers: Looking at the total number of donors from Minnesota, not just the dollar amounts they gave.

At first glance, Coleman seems to have the lead, with 470 Minnesotans named in his second quarter Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports; Meanwhile, Franken’s report lists 366 Minnesotans.

But the FEC reports only list people who gave more than $200. The rest are unitemized.

In all, Franken’s camp reports that more than 4,000 of his 28,000 donors were from Minnesota, including 3,677 who gave less than $200.

Coleman’s camp reports that about 3,500 of his 7,000 donors for the period were from Minnesota, including a little more than 3,000 who gave less than $200.

Coleman clearly got more money per donor, reflecting a large number of PAC contributions. But Franken found a larger number of individual donors, including a larger number of in-state donors.

“I wonder what the Republican Party’s talking points will be now that they’ve found out that more Minnesotans supported Al Franken than Norm Coleman?” said Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh.

Mark Drake, a spokesman for the Minnesota GOP, stuck to his original point: “Al Franken may not like it, but the fact is that overwhelming majority of his donors come from outside Minnesota.”


The lay of the land for 2008?

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

In the spirit of it’s never being too early to speculate about Election Day 2008, here’s a first-cut analysis about the possible coloration of the electoral college map next November.

According to this stateline.org story, Minnesota promises to be smack-dab in the middle of the tossup states, along with Wisconsin and Iowa, suggesting that the newly-competitive Upper Midwest Iron Triangle of states will be fertile ground for up close and personal campaigning, much as they have been in the past two presidential election cycles.

What to make of it?

Well, that was different

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

Let’s toss it open for some post-debate debate. A couple questions to address:

The format Fun? Distracting from the candidates? Is that good or bad?

Edwards Passionate or straining? Anybody understand his position on gay marriage, or the role of religion in his thinking?

Clinton How impressive is her developing easy-going, unassuming style? Has she finessed her war position? Why the rejection of the liberal label? Is she playing the front-runner position well?

Obama Confident and articulate, but is he making the case that he’s the better choice than Clinton? Nuclear power?

The rest Anybody making a move?

Debate the debate – part 4

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

Tonight, the Big Question will present an opportunity for readers to comment live on the Democratic presidential debate.

Right here, in this space (tech gods willing), the CNN/YouTube debate will commence at 6 p.m. (CST) You will be able to comment and respond in real time.

As always, we ask for civility and substance.

Here are questions 31 and up. You can watch the streaming coverage from CNN right here (requires plug-in).


Debate the debate – part 3

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

Tonight, the Big Question will present an opportunity for readers to comment live on the Democratic presidential debate.

Right here, in this space (tech gods willing), the CNN/YouTube debate will commence at 6 p.m. (CST) You will be able to comment and respond in real time.

As always, we ask for civility and substance.

Here are questions 21 through 30. You can watch the streaming coverage from CNN right here (requires plug-in).


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