Saturday, December 17, 2016

I have to write the electoral college post

The Electoral College meets Monday so I've run out of time to write an Electoral College Post that tries to transcend the obligatory.

Because what's to say? Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2 percent but fell 100,000 votes combined short in four key states, so Donald Trump gets to be "president" (sic).

I used that construct -  "President" (sic) Bush - for the first year of this blog, as a snarky protest. I probably won't resume it; the nature of our politics has changed enough in the last 16 years that even the moral high ground of the popular vote win will serve as no restraint. Win with an asterisk, govern like it was a landslide.
Iowa Democrats seem determined to cede the moral high ground of the popular vote win. In the current working draft of their caucus review committee report, they write:
"Candidates for President cannot 'win' the Iowa Precinct Caucuses by running up vote totals in the largest cities with the densest populations of liberal voters."
Which, um, is exactly how Hillary won the national popular vote...

(Yeah, I've seen the whole caucus review committee draft report. Waiting to hear from a few people before I decide how hard I'm going to rip it apart. They DID say I was more valuable on the outside...)

I've been ranting against the electoral college since I was in high school speech. Which made it extra ironic that I actually RAN for it for a couple days this year, at the behest of the Clinton campaign. I lost to a Bernie kid, who then lost to the Republican slate. Also ironic that I list "Electoral College" as my alma mater on Facebook, to avoid getting invited to alumni stuff from my actual school. (That doesn't work either.)

I always though that what it would take to abolish the electoral college would be just ONE post-1888 incident whether the second place candidate assumed office. That finally happened in 2000, and then... nothing.

In fact, the issue barely came up, because all the attention was on the opera buffa of the Florida recount. I still can't hear the name "Chad" without gagging, and if you work in an election office you have already heard every joke WAY too many times. None of that would have mattered without the electoral college, because 537 votes one way or another would not have impacted Al Gore's half million vote national win.

I still like to think there were 538 Prince fans in Florida who were really mad at Tipper.

But the Florida distraction wasn't the real reason electoral college reform was a non-starter. In my high school speech naivete I failed to account for partisanship.

See, the only way a Republican could support electoral college reform, in 2001 or now, would be to tacitly acknowledge the illegitimacy of their presidential "win." and in our hyper-partisan times, that's too much to realistically expect.

Amending the constitution requires a consensus-level super majority - 2/3 of Congress and 3/4 of the states. We last had that much consensus about anything in 1971 when we decided that 18 year olds were adults, because "old enough to fight, old enough to vote" was too powerful of an argument and we still needed draftees for Vietnam. So we locked 18 Is Adult into the fundamental law of the land, then backed away from that principle with a rider to a highway bill. But that's apparently OK because drunk college kids are jerks. Yeah, still pissed.

(The 27th Amendment limiting congressional pay raises that came out of nowhere in 1992 kinda sorta doesn't count. If it hadn't already been sitting on the shelf gathering dust for 200 years there wouldn't have been the momentum to push it.)

These days you literally can't get 2/3 of Congress and 3/4 of the states to agree on basic scientific facts. Literally. So getting 2/3 of a Republican Congress and 3/4 of a set of 50 state legislatures that are Republican dominated to openly acknowledge that their Republican president was unfairly elected and that it means we need to change our fundamental law? Let's not waste energy on that.

We've already wasted too much energy demanding security briefings and going through all the Kubler-Ross stages of grieving. Anger: people who didn't vote protesting the election results. Denial: recounts in states that were not recount-close.

And especially bargaining: let's cut a deal with the "good" Republican electors and all vote for John Kasich. As if that would have made any policy difference. Trump without the tweets.

The last defecting elector was in 2004, under dopey circumstances: a Minnesota Democrat accidentally voted for John Edwards for both president AND vice president. (How do his extramarital shenanigans look now compared to the Pussy Grabber In Chief?)

I expected defecting electors the last couple cycles, on the losing Republican side, figuring some Ron Paul die hard had made it onto an elector slate. I was wrong, but I expect it again this cycle, on BOTH sides.  Below the radar: How many Bernie or Bust people snuck onto Democratic elector slates? Even money that there's as many Democratic votes against Hillary as there are Republican votes against Trump.

But the Grand Bargain of a Democratic/anti-Trump Republican "deliberative" electoral college is a non-starter, and I think that's for the best. It would have undercut that moral high ground of the popular vote win, in a media climate that calls itself "Objectivity" but really means the false equivalency of Both Sides Do It.

We just have to hunker down, fight what we can, and win what we can, which will be more hearts and minds than laws and budgets for the next few years. Then, when we finally get it back, we make the electoral college a priority. Because in the 21st century it's simply inexcusable that the person with less votes wins the election.

Soon after the 2000 election I remember lecturing a group of Russian visitors to our office and trying to explain the electoral college in the aftermath of Bush v. Gore, and they laughed at me.  They'd only had about ten years of democracy in the last thousand, a window that was sadly soon to slam shut, and even they knew that the person with the most votes wins.

Could be worse; could be China.

It's been 8 years, Axl, so that next album is due in 2025.

So I've risen above the obligatory through a set of tangents; time to land this zeppelin. Stop that.

Yeah, I know federalism. That's what the US Senate is for and what state governments are for. Iowans, stop playing the "a popular vote would make Iowa less powerful and important" card. We already have twice the US Senators our population would call for, and after this election we can hardly call ourselves a swing state anymore. Of the six states that flipped from Obama to Trump, Iowa swung the hardest and wasn't even close. All that's  left is the loss of the caucuses and we're just another speck in Flyover Land.

Just because the Founding Fathers (yep, I'll be "politically incorrect" because Donald says that's OK and because they were in fact all men) came up with the idea of the electoral college doesn't mean that it's suited to the 21st Century. There's a lot of archaic stuff in there, like 3/5 of a person and quartering of soldiers and titles of nobility and the concept that owning a weapon is somehow an absolute and fundamental right.

Which wasn't exactly what they meant... but as long as the NRA continues to in effect argue that mass shootings are the price we pay for "freedom," we're stuck with that false interpretation. I go back and forth between which thing in the Constitution I most want to change: the Second Amendment or the electoral college. Till Monday when they meet, it's the electoral college, unless we get another mass shooting tomorrow.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Shortwave Radio Top Ten

It's my birthday, dammit, and I don't feel like writing about politics. Instead you get a music post about my new OCD hobby, the dying world of shortwave radio.

I was fascinated by long-distance AM radio in the 70s, back when the clear channel stations like WLS and WGN from Chicago and KAAY in Little Rock played music all night. And as some of you know I had a brief radio career as a DJ (country!) and reporter.

One recent night as I was spinning through the shortwave radio dial looking for anything other than Radio Havana or the apocalypically paranoid evangelist Brother Stair, I got lucky, picked up some salsa from Radio Nacional Brasilia, and decided I needed a top ten playlist of best songs about shortwave and long-distance radio.

I set a couple rules: Songs should be primarily about radio as a medium, not about music. And although CB radio is technically in the 11 meter band, which would be roughly 27000 AM (27.0 or so FM), I have banned all of the CB novelty hits of the 70s. (I should do a Truck Driver Top Ten, but I can't seem to get past the list's obvious number one, "Six Days On The Road" by Dave Dudley. Told you I was once a country DJ.)

Now, on with the countdown.

Number 10. Radio Birdman the band. Because you would definitely listen to a station called Radio Birdman.

Number 9. "Radio Nowhere," Bruce Springsteen - Almost left this off because of my Radio Not Music rule. There's a whole genre of songs denouncing broadcasting commercialism: "Radio Radio" by Elvis Costello, "Capital Radio One" by the Clash, "Radio Song" by R.E.M. This song fits in that tradition but only makes the list because Radio Nowhere sounds like a pirate station name and because Springsteen.

Number 8. "Mexican Radio," Wall of Voodoo. Technically the border blasters like Wolfman Jack's XERF were AM stations (what shortwave geeks call MW or "medium wave"), but I'm old enough to remember their last days in the 70s and the alien, clandestine feel was there. ("I'm on a wavelength far from home.") This song was a mainstay of my first radio show, a college station in the 80s. Inspirational verse: "I wish I was in Tijuana / eating barbecued iguana"). Honorable mention: "Border Radio" by the Blasters, "Heard It On The X" by ZZ Top.

Number 7. "Pirate Radio," John Hiatt - A lot of this is about the music, but clandestine and questionably legal radio is a priceless part of the broadcast legacy. And if you REALLY want to get clandestine:

Number 6. "Guerrila Radio," Rage Against The Machine. This band actually saw themselves as revolutionaries, hiding in the hills with a transmitter. The other dudes were later in Audioslave, but what HAS frontman Zach de la Rocha been doing the last 15 years, anyway? Honorable mention: Green Day's new "Revolution Radio."

Number 5. "This is Radio Clash," the Clash - RATM imagines themselves in the hills but Joe Strummer does it right and sets up his own station in New York City, brands it with his band's identity, and presents a newscast that's still way too relevant. Honorable mention: "Radio Head,", the Talking Heads and yes that is where the other band got its name.

Number 4. "Wavelength," Van Morrison - Not really ABOUT radio but the title is too perfect, not to mention the synth part that swirls like static and "I hear the Voice of America calling on my wavelength."

Number 3. "Radio Free Europe," R.E.M. - A major moment in rock history as the first single by a major band. The album is aptly named "Murmur," as Michael Stipe's mixed way down vocals are like a distant station you're struggling to hear.

Number 2. "London Calling," the Clash. They get to have two in the top ten because they're my favorite band. The iconic title song from their masterpiece album cops its name from a long time BBC top of the hour ID.

Number 1. "Radio Ethiopia," Patti Smith - It was really hard not to slot the Clash into number one. But this song's signal jamming intro, epic length and collision of styles makes it feel like a trip through the overseas dial.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Beret Bids Are Back!

It's the giving season and time for my SECOND beret auction of 2016. The previous one was for the Johnson County Democrats, but I'm sure a lot of my GOP and non-Democrat friends would love to be seen sporting this lovely head topper.

So this is a non-partisan charitable beret auction on behalf of the Johnson County employees' charity drive. Proceeds may go to either United Way or Iowa, at the choice of the winning bidder.

Official Deeth Blog Berets have raised $631 for charity the last couple years. Peter Byler had the winning (and record) bid last year at $211. We're starting out at 5 bucks this year, which is $3.01 more than I paid for it. The tag from the La Crosse, WI Goodwill is still attached proving that it is not only the kind you find in a second hand store, but was actually found in a second hand store.

Johnson County employees may bid here.  Non-employees may contact me by any means necessary - email to, Twitter direct message, Turtle Express, Facebook message, Special D, or shortwave radio numbers station (they really exist and I've heard them). The deadline for bids is noon Tuesday, December 13. I'll keep the current leading bid prominently displayed on all my accounts.

I Don't Have The Answers

I knew and wrote long before the election that Iowa City was a terrible vantage point. And the normal for Johnson County results bore out that The People's Republic was immune to Trumpism, an urban/academic island in a sea of red getting redder.

The long-time coordinated campaign model that's under attack in a hundred Smart Takes WORKED in Johnson County. We produced the numbers we always produce, the numbers that through 2012 were enough to meet the target for a statewide win. But in 2014 and again in 2016, while we held our own, the rest of the state slipped away.

If you're reading a state level political blog, you've already seen multiple takes and countless tweetstorms about The Democrats' Rural Problem. 

One of the common complaints in those smart takes is the archetype of the staffer kid from the east coast dropped into a small Iowa town and expected to organize with no local ties. But that works in Iowa City because everyone here is either from someplace else or used to dealing with people from someplace else.

It's been 20 years since I lived, briefly, in a small town and ran a losing race in a rural legislative district. I learned a lot, and some of that knowledge still matters. But much of it is outdated enough that my knowledge is even more "outsider" than it was before.

I'm not convinced The Rural Problem is THE biggest problem nationally. I've seen, but can no longer remember to attribute, the argument that Hillary fell between the cracks. The Emerging Democratic Majority of non- White Straight Males that's been discussed for 15 years is growing, but not fast enough to overcome the Farm Belt-Rust Belt losses. This argument holds that we're on the right track and just need more time. But it assumes that the voting rights setbacks that almost certainly cost us Wisconsin and North Carolina won't get worse.

So maybe The Rural Problem isn't the biggest thing nationally, but it's the biggest problem here in Iowa. The bazillion dollar question is: How much of this is because of the decline of the non-coastal non-metropolitan economy? Yes, those things will be hard but they can be addressed. If that's the problem.

But how much of the Democratic problem with rural America is the cultural cluster: gender and race and immigration? How much is the abortion stuff and the gay stuff and the trans stuff and the gun stuff? Or, even worse, how much of it is European style ethno-nationalism?

After thinking long and hard my bet is more of the real Rural Problem is somewhere in there, rather than in the euphemistic excuse of the economy. I think it's somewhere on the less extreme edge of that cluster, in a generalized zone of fear and discomfort and confusion rather than as an emerging neo-fascism.

Assuming that's the real problem, it makes a solution harder. Democrats cannot turn our backs on the core of our own coalition to chase votes that we're currently losing. We can only work to win over hearts and minds and that's a long game.

And we have to do that with some issue realities that will make it harder for us.

One, the NRA's de facto position that mass shootings are simply the price we pay for a "free" society is no longer tolerable. And there's not a way to make it harder for people who shouldn't have guns to get guns without also making it harder for law abiding people to get guns.

And two, climate change isn't solvable without major lifestyle changes.  I suspect if pressed, many climate change "deniers" will admit to the science but are uncomfortable and/or fearful of the lifestyle changes that the solutions will require. It's basic physics: it takes energy to heat stuff, cool stuff and move stuff. (It's not just isolated small towns that need to deal with this; it's long commute suburbs and refrigerated cities in the desert and tropics too.) There are certain realities of the information age, climate change era economy that are especially challenging for communities below a certain size. And that calls into question the long term viability of some sparsely populated areas.

A couple more random thoughts on the road forward:

We can stop worrying about Big Wall Street buying our party, because that money is gone forever. There will still be high-dollar donors, sure, but the financial industry is gone. We will of necessity be shifting our finance model.

And the worst thing we can do now is re-fight the primary. I took the 2000 nomination fight hard and I spend about three years going through the room at events evaluating people in those terms: "Bradley, Gore, Gore, Bradley, Bradley, Gore Gore Gore." It was emotionally toxic - bad politics and bad for me personally.

So the WORST thing Dems can do now is evaluate everything in terms of "Bernie, Hillary, Hillary, Bernie, Bernie," or define that nebulous word "progressive" in those terms either. We don't have the political strength to waste any of our energy on an in-fight. I personally don't have the strength for it either.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

The Post-Election (Personal) Plan

It seems every Democratic writer worth their bandwidth and every Iowa Democrat with an opinion has written their manifesto of What Went Wrong and Where Do We Go From Here. I've of course been considering the question, but have had little to say. In fact, this began as an intro to my attack on that issue, but has instead turned into a separate post, and yet another indication that my head still isn't in the game yet.

Instead,  I've retreated into the personal more that usual. The end of an election, any election, even one where I'm happy with the outcome, is a major life milestone for me. It's essentially the start of my New Year more than the late December/early January holidays are. I go through a big emotional crash bordering on depression as the excitement suddenly stops.  (One New Year's Resolution is to write more openly about my mental health.) This cycle is even more of a milestone, as I've essentially been going non-stop since I started my serious caucus prep work in August 2015.

I did a little theater in college and that's the only thing I can compare it to. You spend weeks and months building and planning and dress rehearsing a show, spending long hours with the same people. There's an absolute, The Show Must Go On deadline. It all ends with an extremely long day - the theater tradition is you strike the set immediately after the last performance - and a late night party. (Cast parties are WAY better than even the best victory parties.)

Then it's over. The thing that was the central facet of your life for so long is gone. The people you practically lived with vanish and scatter. And even if the show was great or the election was won, that's depressing.

It's even more depressing when the outcome is disappointing. I've gone through election cycles not only in my current role as an an election office staffer but also as a volunteer, a journalist, and a candidate. But I NEVER worked harder than the cycle I was a staffer. And that crash has got to be especially hard this time; not only the defeat, but the end of the job AND the loss of opportunities for the next job.

One of my big mistakes that staffer cycle was that I didn't have a post-election plan, even to the extent of "finding my next job." It didn't help that nearly all my local candidates lost.

So even though job hunting isn't necessary for me, I've tried to make a post-election plan since about 2004.  I'm realizing now this would have been more useful to people BEFORE the election. But the writing muse is hitting me now, so I'll re-up it a couple weeks before the next election.

Some of these plans are better than others. In 2006 I got serious about my writing, and in 2012 I had a change in career direction with a new boss and an immediate mini-election season of three special elections in a row. Changes at Work are also part of this year's plan, as the new GOP Trifecta in Des Moines is likely to change election law significantly.

Other plans are less plausible this year, like the Packers 2010 playoff run. Football victory eased the pain of election defeat. Though I'm still mad that Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature, in addition to destroying a century of the Wisconsin Progressive Idea, also ruined the month that the Packers won the Super Bowl.

This year, I've done a week long vacation, which was also part of the 2004 plan. There is a lot of time off coming up as we complete the final stages of election close-out. The government employee holidays cluster tightly from Veteran's Day through MLK, and I'll enjoy them while I can. The nature of public employment is likely to change dramatically in this state come January. The is much scuttlebutt about Trump sending Terry Branstad to China, but I'll bet the beret that he stays in Des Moines long enough to sign the repeal of the Chapter 20 collective bargaining law, the My Precious he's been seeking for almost 30 years.

The snow held off long enough for me to clean out The Smallest Farm and yard. Even managed to harvest one last crop of beans and eggplants, since we didn't get a hard frost until about November 15. Picking hot-weather veggies in Iowa in November. Too bad climate change isn't real, huh.

I got a new tank for Shelley the turtle during the seven day workweeks of  late October and set it up on that first Veterans Day three day weekend. Sometimes, rather than thinking about solving the unsolvable,  it's just more rewarding for me to sit and watch her slow calm life. Bask in the sun lamp for hours - not sure who's lazier, her or the cat. Then go for a swim, with a combination of graceful gliding and floating and goofy awkward leg waving. As one on the autism spectrum I can definitely relate to hand flapping.

Also this year I've developed a new obsession with a geek stereotype hobby, short wave radio. I got my first cheap radio last year, as part of my post-election plan for the city election. (That one was a very big win for me emotionally, but the crash happens anyway.) Then a couple weeks back I got lucky and found a high-end radio at a steal of a price at Goodwill Reboot, and I've stretched a long wire the whole length of my football field sized lot as an antenna.

Short wave has declined as a medium in the internet era, as foreign services have shut down their broadcasts to North America. The only signals that are easy to pick up are religious broadcasters and Radio Havana.

Struggling to pick up an iffy signal from Cuba in my basement in the days after Castro's death has a deeply clandestine feel to it, like you're literally the underground resistance. So maybe it's an appropriate hobby and metaphor for the Dawn Of The Age Of Trump.

Maybe this feels like a cop-out. But like my turtle I'm moving at my own pace. Sometimes you stick your neck out, sometimes you hide in your shell.  If you're reading this two years from now the politics and circumstances may be a bit different but you still should make your post-election plan.

The damage this election did won't be undone in my lifetime, and I'll be spending the immediate future on defense and the rest of my years playing the long game. For the long game, you need your strength. The What Went Wrong Manifesto is still in my head, but right now the Packers are about to kick off.