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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Friday, May 24, 2019

Paradoxes of American life

A month ago, on April 27, I reviewed Liah Greenfeld's book, Mind, Modernity, Madness.  More reflection has developed some of the thoughts that it inspired me about where the United States is today, and where our discontents come from.  This relates in particular to the growth of tribalism based upon race and gender, and how it is changing how millions of Americans see the world.  It's time for me to share some of these thoughts.

The Constitution and our state and national laws were only one part of the intellectual foundation of the United States in roughly its first two centuries of history. Another key aspect was the belief that any man in America could make almost anything he wanted out of his life, limited only by his own capabilities.  I used the word "man" advisedly in that sentence.  Most women customarily spent their lives as wives and mothers, although some careers, including teaching, were always open to them, as the story of one of my great-grandmother's lives showed.  Most of the population was agricultural and formal education did not correlate nearly as strongly with success in life as it does today.  While it is true that our first ten presidents owned plantations or had made careers as professional men, plenty of early politicians came from genuinely modest backgrounds, and Americans like Eli Whitney and Cyrus McCormack, whose inventions transformed the nation, became legends early in our history.  In the second half of the century our industrial barons included Andrew Carnegie, a poor Scottish immigrant, and John D. Rockefeller, whose father was a con man, as well as J. P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who came from distinguished and wealthy families.  Presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland also had modest origins, and Lincoln and Cleveland numbered among the many lawyers who had never attended a law school.  While most men and their families undoubtedly ended their lives more or less where they had begun them on the social scale, enough did not to fire the imagination of any ambitious young man.  That helped hold society together.  Immigrants also came to the United States believing that they could find a completely new life, as many did.  Black slaves, of course, did not enjoy much opportunity under slavery and did not achieve full legal equality after emancipation, but by the twentieth century the black community had formed its own professional class of doctors, lawyers, teachers and undertakers, and were distinguishing themselves in various walks of life.  The idea that any man could become anything could, of course, also be a terrible burden, leading to more than a few suicides when dreams did not work out.  Yet it evidently had enough truth in it to sustain a rapidly growing society.

In the first half of the twentieth century Americans in much of the nation--especially in the midwest and the far west--enjoyed another extraordinary benefit: access to nearly free higher education at great state universities.  That was how my own father, the son of immigrants who had prospered for a while in America as builders but lost everything in the housing bust that preceded the great depression, managed to attend the University of Wisconsin.  That situation reached a climax in the wake of the Second World War, thanks to the GI bill that financed veterans' education.  As late as the early 1960s, the great University of California system charged no tuition.  And in the New Deal era, Franklin Roosevelt and his political allies around the country added a key corollary to the idea of the American dream: the provision of minimum subsistence levels and important economic rights for the Americans who did not manage to rise out of the working class.  The federal government became an employer of last resort, social security made some provision for the elderly, the government recognized and protected the rights of labor, and even tried to build housing for the less well off.  Thus was born the relatively equal America of the 1950s and 1960s within which the Boom generation grew up.

Changes during the last Awakening (1965-83) and subsequent economic changes have created a completely new America--and a new set of attitudes among various different sectors of our society.

The first big change, of course--which was wrought by the GI generation and its political leadership, and by Supreme Court justices from the Lost Generation--was the end of legal segregation and the grant of full political rights to black citizens.  That both opened up every available opportunity, including Harvard Law School and the White House, to at least a few black Americans, and tended to destroy the segregated institutions that had already provided some upward mobility.  Black Americans, however, were not starting from the same point as their white fellow citizens.  Many decades of slavery, segregation, and few or no public services in the deep South had left them much poorer and less educated, as a group, than whites.  A new generation of black activists blamed all this on racism and demanded immediate redress.  By 1970, Republican politicians were complaining that the goal of equal opportunity had given way to the goal of instant equality.  Affirmative action became a mainstream Democratic provision, even though, as  referendums in California and Michigan on university admissions showed, it was not popular among the majority of the public.

The second change--a bigger one, because it involved so many more people--was the change in the attitudes of, and toward, women.  No longer, in much of our society, were they encouraged to plan their lives around marriage, or to depend on a man for support.  The explosion of the divorce rate made that strategy untenable anyway.  Women, like men, would increasingly be defined by their occupation and their success in it.  Certainly they have risen to the challenge, but that means that nearly all of us, now, are competing for the same range of occupations and salaries, with the same often frightening responsibility to define themselves and their relation to the rest of society largely on their own.

Two other unrelated changes have turned our society into an even more unforgiving jungle.  First, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed. Adjusted for inflation, Harvard College now costs three times as much as id did in the mid-1960s, and the increase at the top state schools is even greater than that.  Thus, young people routinely graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, making it extremely difficult to buy a house or start a family.  Secondly, the pool of good jobs for non-college graduates has drastically shrunk with the de-industrialization of the US.  It is both more important, and much more difficult, to get into the upper ranks of our society, whether one is a man or woman, white, black, or Hispanic, native born or an immigrant.  That might explain why Survivor is now, I believe, the longest-running series on television: it provides a good metaphor for what real life has become.

Now the distribution of income, wealth, and good jobs does show that white males make up a vastly disproportionate share of the top reaches of our society.  That, I think--and here I know that I am risking offending some of my readers, but I can't remain silent about this--encourages people who are not white males and who are dissatisfied with their progress through life--or with their work environment, or with anything else that goes wrong for them--to blame their misfortune on their demographics.  That tendency is especially common among the academics and journalists who claim to speak for nonwhitemale sectors of the population. And indeed, it seems to me, liberal orthodoxy has just about abandoned the idea of fair competition within society, designed to identify and reward the most capable individuals.  It assumes that oppression has rewarded certain demographics (white males in particular) in the past and this must be corrected by redistributing the rewards now.  I know that the economic chances of 1000 randomly sampled women or nonwhites are probably less than those of 1000 randomly sampled white men, but I also know that there are tens of millions of white people, men and women, anchored firmly in the lower half of the population who are also facing tremendous obstacles to upward mobility.  And the tragedy of our current era is that while the nonwhite portion of that lower half votes almost entirely Democratic, the white part of it votes Republican, with women probably voting slightly more Democratic among them than men.  That split stands in the way of a real egalitarian movement in this country that could reverse the growth of inequality and corporate power.  And that in turn leaves more and more hardworking Americans struggling, locked out, and angry.

Last, but hardly least, our common institutions--our governments--are not giving us the sense of common purpose and identity that they did in decades past.  When it was fighting the Depression, winning the Second World War, building the interstate highway system,outlawing legal segregation, or going to the moon, the federal government was making all its citizens part of great common enterprises, paid for with tax dollars collected according to a very progressive code.  Only a relatively small number of Americans even remembers that kind of feeling now.

The combination of equal political rights on the one hand and a free economy on the other upon which the United States was founded has put great strain on every individual to succeed.  The pressure is worse now that we provide less of a floor or a ceiling on income.  The resulting divisions among us are playing out in the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination, with some candidates and pundits arguing that the party must regain ground among the white working class while others treat that suggestion almost with contempt.  I think we need a way out of this mess to assure the future of the country.  And no single group can find that way out on its own.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Impeachment: An historical perspective

Should the Democrats in the House of Representative decide to impeach President Trump, this will be the fourth time in our history that Article II, section 4 of the Constitution has come into play.  A review of the three earlier cases reveals two different patterns in these four actual or prospective episodes, and casts doubt on the wisdom of impeachment from the Democrats’ point of view.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, is one of the most striking illustrations of the pitfalls of the institution of the vice president.  A Democrat from East Tennessee who had rejected secession and stayed in his seat in the Senate after 1861, he won the Republican vice presidential nomination in 1864 to give the wartime ticket the broadest possible appeal.  He turned out, however, to be a fairly typical hill country white southerner, who hated both big planters and freed slaves, and he refused to cooperate with the Radical Republicans in the Congress with respect to Reconstruction, favoring the quick readmission of the southern states on terms that would leave the whites in power.  After the Republicans won veto-proof majorities in the Congressional elections of 1866, they passed a series of tough reconstruction measures over his veto, and union generals effectively governed much of the South under the sympathetic eye of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whom Johnson had inherited from Lincoln. Then, to prevent Johnson from removing Stanton, they passed a new Tenure of Office Act, giving the Congress an unconstitutional power to prevent the President from removing cabinet officers without its consent. Johnson expressly defied them by trying to replace Stanton early in 1868.  Even though Johnson would surely fail to re-elected (as it turned out, he was not even nominated by the Democrats) later that year, the Republicans decided to impeach him.   Given the partisan nature of the whole controversy and the act that Johnson had been accused of violating—which was quickly revised as soon as his Republican successor took office—it was not surprising that a handful of Republican Senators refused to vote for conviction, and a 35-19 vote left Johnson in power for ten more months by a single vote.

Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was riding high in early 1973, when a series of revelations showed that his re-election committee’s involvement in the Watergate break-in the year before had been covered up by a conspiracy including top White House aides.  Nixon had to appoint Archibald Cox as special prosecutor, but had him fired when Cox subpoenaed tape recordings which, as it turned out, proved that Nixon himself had participated in the cover-up as well.  An impeachment investigation began in February 1974, and on July 27-30, the House Judiciary Committee, with six Republicans joining 21 Democrats, impeached Nixon for obstruction of  justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.  The full House would have undoubtedly followed suit, but before it could vote, Nixon lost his attempt to keep other tapes secret in the Supreme Court, and a new tape transcript confirmed his guilt.  With all support in the Senate collapsing, he resigned.  His responsibility for paying off witnesses to remain silent and using the CIA to try to stop the FBI investigation of Watergate had been clearly established.

By 1998, when he had been President for six years, Bill Clinton had been dealing with Ken Starr’s Whitewater investigation for some years.  Starr never brought any charges against the President over Whitewater, but he had extended his mandate into issues arising from a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton by Paula Jones, including the President’s brief sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Although the two had never had intercourse, Clinton gave misleading statement s about their relationship both to a grand jury and to the public. During 1998 Starr released his detailed and explicit report showing that the President had lied about their relationship, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich began pushing for, and campaigning in the fall for, impeachment.  The Republicans lost a few seats in the fall elections and Gingrich resigned as speaker, but when Congress convened after the election, a lame duck session impeached Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice (the latter charge based in part on his attempts to persuade Lewinsky to help conceal their relationship.)  Only a handful of House Democrats voted for impeachment, and a matching handful of Republicans opposed it.  The newly elected Senate, which had a 55-45 Republican majority, tried Clinton on these counts in January and February, and the Senate rejected the perjury charge by a vote of 55-45 against conviction, and the obstruction charge by a tie vote of 50-50 (67 votes would have been required for conviction.)  A partisan House majority (including Lindsay Graham) had insisted on an impeachment on charges having nothing to do with the President’s conduct of his office that had no chance of leading to conviction.

How would the impeachment of Donald Trump fit into this historical picture?

A fair reading of the Mueller report, in my opinion, suggests that President Trump committed acts designed to obstruct justice, including the firing of James Comey, the request to White House Counsel Don McGann to remove Mueller, the public intimidation of witnesses, and the dangling of possible pardons before defendants like Steven Cohen and Paul Manafort. What differentiates his case from Nixon’s, however, is that none of these steps seems to have been successful, and that Mueller failed to find an underlying crime that Trump was trying to conceal.  Comey’s firing led to Mueller’s appointment and a thorough investigation, McGann refused to remove Mueller, and Cohen and Manafort turned state’s evidence (although Manafort apparently continued lying on many points) and are now in prison.  Trump subordinates including Attorney General Barr and Secretary Treasury Mnuchin are now putting themselves in contempt of Congress—one of the charges against Nixon—but they, not the President, would presumably be the targets of impeachment on those grounds.  One may feel, as I do, that Trump’s election represented a collapse of American democracy and that he shows on a daily basis that he is unfit for office, but also feel that no offense has been demonstrated that rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  That would certainly support the charge that an impeachment would be mainly a partisan measure.

Of the three previously impeached (or nearly impeached) presidents, Nixon alone had indisputably committed serious offenses against the law and the Constitution.  He alone earned significant bipartisan support for his impeachment and conviction, and he alone would have been convicted in a Senate vote. Trump, like Johnson and Clinton, would surely avoid conviction because no member of his own party would vote for it.  Impeachment and trial would become yet another partisan spectacle of the kind that much of the country is already heartily sick of.  The remedy for the Trump Presidency lies at the polls.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Citizenship, the census, and the future of the US

The controversy over the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which reached the Supreme Court this week, illustrates once again the catastrophic state of our politics in our hyperpartisan era.  The status of millions of immigrants in the United States presents a serious problem, but neither party seems interested in giving them the permanent status that they deserve.  Instead, they focus upon the partisan advantages to be gained or lost from the census.  Meanwhile, the Republican Party seems to want to use the issue to return us, in yet another way, to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when a large portion of the American working class did not enjoy the right to vote.

No one knows how many illegal immigrants are living in the United States.  11 million remains the most commonly quoted estimate, a carefully developed 2018 estimate found that the true number is probably about twice that figure.  These people now face increasing harassment from ICE, which is trying to speed up the deportation process.  Meanwhile, they make up a significant portion of our labor force, especially in certain states and in certain industries.  Our economy, in all probability, could not function without them.

A functional federal government, it seems to me, would recognize that most of these people now belong to American society and deserve the status of citizenship.  Such a government would also want to know how many of them there really are.  For these reasons, it seems to me, a question asking U.S. residents for their citizenship status on the census form makes perfect sense, and indeed, the census asked questions about citizenship 14 times since 1820, either about all enumerated adults, all enumerated people, or a sample of enumerated people.  The argument before the Supreme Court suggested that a 5-4 majority is likely to approve the question, and I personally cannot regard such a decision as unreasonable.

Rather than provide an argument for giving legal status to illegal immigrants, however, the Trump Administration’s question seems designed to shift the political balance of power further in favor of the Republican Party in two different ways.  First, evidence does show that in today’s climate, significant numbers of inhabitants may try to avoid census takers altogether rather than acknowledge their status.  That will undercount inhabitants in certain states, particularly in urban areas, and thus potentially reduce their representation in Congress in the redistribution of seats that will follow the 2020 census.  That, however, is not all.  In Texas and elsewhere, Republican officials want to use answers to a citizenship question to base the drawing of congressional, state and city legislative districts on equal numbers of citizens, rather than people.  That would shift representation away from poorer, largely nonwhite areas.  And while the Constitution specifies that the number of representatives in each state must be based on the whole number of persons in that state, it does not mandate using the same standard for drawing the districts within a state.

Thus, under Republican rule at the local or national level, the citizenship question may allow ICE to expand deportation measures against millions of people, while also creating a large class of unrepresented inhabitants in our elections.  This is not without precedent in American history.

The Union victory in the Civil War, led, first, to the abolition of slavery in the 13th amendment, then to the extension of citizenship (although not the right to vote) to all persons born in the United States, and lastly, to the end of restrictions on the right to vote based on race in the 15th amendment.  White southerners accepted black suffrage only at the point of guns carried by federal troops, however, and after the withdrawal of those troops in 1877, various forms of intimidation, including murder, either kept black voters away from the polls or persuaded them to vote for ex-Confederate candidates.  In subsequent decades state laws made it virtually impossible for black citizens—and many poor white ones as well-- to vote.  These measures had spectacular results.  In Mississippi, which had the largest proportion of black inhabitants, the total presidential vote fell from 165,000 in 1876 to 70,000 in 1896.  In South Carolina the total vote fell from 233,000 to 69,000 in the same period.  Not only nearly the entire black population, but also much of the white working class, lacked the vote in the southern United States from the late nineteenth century until the second half of the twentieth—a situation that allowed for the rule of an oligarchy in much of the United States.

A 5-4 Republican majority invalidated a key section of the Voting Rights Act in 2015, and since then, Republicans in various states have taken steps to make it harder—although hardly impossible—for poor and black people to vote.  Those steps, however, threaten democracy less, in my opinion, than the continued presence of millions of lower-paid workers and their families who are not citizens and therefore cannot vote.  Such people may already hold the balance of power in Texas, now our second-largest state, and in other states.  The Trump Administration’s public focus on “border security” has diverted attention from their status, and if Democratic politicians favor granting them a quick path to citizenship, they are certainly being very quiet about it.  I do not think that even the Trump Administration seriously imagines that they might deport most or all of those millions of people, or that the nation would tolerate the consequences of doing so.  But I do think that the Republican Party wants to keep a large segment of the working class without rights, by refusing to make them citizens, and therefore to make it easier to keep political power in the hands of our economic elite.  That in turn increases resentment between citizens and non-citizens among the lower half of the population, making it harder for them to unite to reverse the growing trend towards inequality.  The question before the country is whether we truly want to undo all the gains of the last 120 years or so and return to an era of oligarchy and deeply flawed democracy.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

The Democratic Race - non-random observations

The two leaders in all Democratic polls, by far, are two men from the Silent generation, whose youngest members (like Joe Biden) will turn 76 this year.  They achieved this status by different routes, each of which says something about modern American politics.

In 1960, the last sitting Vice President to have won his party's nomination for President was Martin Van Buren, in 1836, and he was the only Vice President to have done so since the passage of the 12th amendment to the Constitution.  Since then,  five sitting or immediately former Vice Presidents, Richard Nixon (twice), Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, and Al Gore, have won their party's nomination for President, and Biden would become the seventh.  Richard Nixon, who took office under a President with no political background, created the modern Vice Presidency, serving as the number one surrogate campaigner and link to the party faithful and donors.  He was also the first Vice President of the television age, which gave him the national recognition that the vast majority of previous vice presidents never had.  That combination of public visibility and private influence has obviously given holders of the office a huge head start when they decide to run for President, and Biden's numbers, and strength within the establishment, show that that advantage has not died out. Mike Pence, I suspect, will also exploit it either next year or, more likely, in 2024.  Biden has another potential advantage. A provocative recent story in the New York Times argued persuasively that there is a good chance that the Democratic nomination for the first time since 1952, will not be decided on the first ballot, and superdelegates will vote in subsequent ballots, if there are any. Biden would be their favorite.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has achieved the second spot in the polls by an opposite route--by emerging in 2016 as the outsider in the field, the status that won Donald Trump the nomination on the Republican side.  It's sad, and a bit ironic, that he could not be nominated in 2016, since he is a more authentic outsider and authentic man than Trump, but much of his following evidently remains loyal.  Sanders is nearly the last of a type of American Senator who played a much bigger role in our politics in the first half of the twentieth century.  Writing their classic, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, during the Hoover Administration, Drew Pearson and Robert Allen  devoted part of a chapter to a small group of "insurgent" Senators, including young Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, William Borah of Idaho, and George Norris of Nebraska, who believed strongly in effective democracy and economic justice, but who came from agrarian backgrounds and agrarian states, and had little talent for organization and no strong connection to either side of the struggle between capital and labor.  Although Sanders hails, of course, from New York, he represents one of the most rural states in the nation, which has allowed him almost total independence in developing and presenting his views on just about every issue except gun rights.  He is obviously his own man, and young people, in particular, seem to respond to him for that.

Behind these two come five Senators, mostly from relatively large and/or very urban states: my own Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker,  Amy Klobuchar, and Kamla Harris. Warren differs from the others both because of her age--she will turn 70 this year--and her focused, highly developed economic liberalism.  She is my candidate, at the moment, because of her thoughtfulness and integrity, but like my father in 1960, when he originally favored Hubert Humphrey, expect to need another candidate by the time the race is over. Warren would be vulnerable against Trump because of her unfortunate decision to list herself as a Native American at Penn and Harvard Law schools--a decision, I feel certain, which had nothing to do with her being hired, but which she regarded as a favor to her Dean.  She has not demonstrated the same appeal to younger voters at large as Sanders.   (It is rather extraordinary that Warren is the only major candidate from the Boom generation in the race, even though they now are between 59 and 76 years old.) The other three are competing for the legacy of the last two Democratic candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Like both of them, they want to become the favorite of the nonwhitemale vote, but they seem certain to divide and weaken it in the primaries.  One of the  electoral traps of identity politics is this: they encourage a proliferation of candidates, one to match each visible identity.  Last but hardly least come two wild cards who have never held statewide office.  The first is Beto O'Rourke, who demonstrated broad appeal in his Texas Senate campaign, and, were he nominated, would follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, another politician who parlayed a losing Senate race into a presidential nomination two years later.  (Few people realize, however, that Lincoln in 1858 won the Illinois popular vote against Stephen Douglas, but lost the election in the Illinois legislature.)  The second is Pete Buttigieg, who is obviously very capable and intelligent and who is also attracting more attention because he is gay and married.  One might argue that he, at the moment, comes closest to the status of Barack Obama in 2007, but he is younger than Obama, holds only a local office, and, like all the others but Sanders and Biden is not breaking into double digits in the polls.  O'Rourke might have the widest appeal of any of the candidates in the general election, but he has to do a lot better to get there, based on today's polls.

These candidates, meanwhile, will be competing for votes from a Democratic electorate that is dominated, in many states, by minority voters and women, a good many of whom now feel entitled to a candidate who, in one of the many unfortunate phrases of our new public discourse, "looks like them."  Failing that, they want any successful candidate to adopt one of their preferred positions, which, for black voters, now include reparations for slavery.  Several of the candidates, including Warren and Harris, have given a guarded endorsement to the idea of reparations, without committing themselves to anything specific.  It is sad, in my opinion, that many (though by no means all) of minority or female voters now focus more on the public visibility of their own demographic in high office, than on what a candidate could or will do for people of their economic status, regardless of race or gender.  It is equally sad that many loyal base voters in the Democratic Party don't seem to understand that while no candidate can win without them, he or she can't win without a lot of other non-base votes, either.  Those blind spots may help re-elect Donald Trump next year, but for the moment, we are obviously stuck with them.

All the Democratic candidates, meanwhile, will have to struggle with the practices of the modern mainstream media.  Our msm is of course almost totally Democratic in orientation, but nonetheless carries on an endless campaign to uncover all the faults and vulnerabilities of Democratic candidates.  The campaign has barely begun, but we are already reading that Joe Biden is too touchy, that Bernie Sanders's campaign failed to deal with sexual harassment issues in 2016, that Amy Klobuchar is an office tyrant, that Elizabeth Warren has an almost random element of native American ancestry, that Kamla Harris was too tough on crime as a prosecutor and Attorney General, that Beto O'Rourke married into a wealthy family, and that Pete Buttigieg controversially fired a black police chief.  More such stories will inevitably follow, tarnishing whoever finally wins the prize.

The ideal Democratic candidate, in my opinion, would be a strong economic liberal with a national reputation and a relatively young age--no more, I would argue, than 60.  I do not see such a candidate in the race.  Let us turn now to another front in the struggle, the Congress.

The Democrats in the House have the opportunity, like the Democrats in 1958-60 or the Republicans for much of the Clinton Administration and the Obama Administration, to put their party forward as offering something new.  They are torn, however, by the distraction to focus on investigating President Trump, to make the strongest possible case against him, if not to impeach him.  That, I think, is evidently what the President hopes they will do, and I think he may be right.  The House already passed a sweeping bill to reform voting and campaign finance--excellent ideas--but it has gotten almost no attention because of the furor over the Mueller report and other investigations.  The House is also distracted by conflicts within the new majority involving newly elected candidates who represent relatively extreme views within the Democratic base.  Meanwhile, the drumbeat of apparently good economic news is getting louder and louder, which is going to make it much harder for the Democrats to argue that the country really needs them in office in 2021.

Torn by generational and demographic conflicts and by their relentless self-criticism and jealousy, the Democrats lack loyalty and discipline.  The Republicans do not.  Politics is war by other means, and loyalty, organization and discipline count more in war than fighting for the right cause.  Many unforeseen events on the economic, political, and personal front can utterly transform the electoral landscape during the next 18 months, but right now, the picture doesn't look particularly hopeful to me.