By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
June 20, 2008
The calendar may say it is still June but the level of activity on the presidential campaign trail and the amount of news coverage it continues to generate suggests, as that great baseball philosopher, Yogi Berra once said, "It could get late early this year."
That means even before the two presidential candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, have picked their running mates, they are running their campaigns at an intensity that suggests it's already September.
It seems like the two political camps are attacking each other daily (with the only truce coming when the two candidates sat next to one another during Tim Russert's memorial service in Washington). There seems to be no topic the two can't find some differences, and both respond immediately when attacked. One of the latest disagreements is about accepting public funding for the fall campaign.
After earlier all but committing to do so, Obama has made the decision to decline the $70 million-plus involved in public funding. He says he is still an overall supporter of government-financed elections and once even talked with John McCain (long before either of them was considered a likely nominee) about both running only with public funds. But Obama now says the public finance system is broken and he would be at a disadvantage to the GOP if he took only tax dollars for his campaign. Indeed, Obama's campaign has become a fund raising machine and it has a huge advantage in funds presently. Besides, Obama may need the extra money to fight off expected attacks from the outside organization like the Swiftboat group which so bedeviled Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
As for McCain (who is accepting the public funding), he is attacking Obama for changing his mind about how to finance the fall campaign. It will be interesting to see how all this plays. Obama is the first major party candidates to decline public funding since the funding was created after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. Can McCain convince voters this is a sign that Obama can't be trusted, that he does represent change or new politics, that he will say one thing, then do another? Will voters care one way or another? Both candidates seem to be doing what's best for their campaigns. Obama would be foolish tactically to give up his huge monetary advantage over McCain, while McCain will likely better off with public funds since he has struggled so much raising funds on his own. The sticking point will be if Obama's decision can build voter doubt about Obama's credibility. He loses that, he will lose a lot more than just is fund raising advantage in this campaign.
SO WHERE DO WE STAND?
For now (and remember it's still very early despite the level of campaign activity and political coverage) Obama seems to be holding a slight edge over McCain both in national polls and early surveys of the Electoral College. The WASHINGTON POST-ABC NEWS survey (June 17) has Obama up 6 points (48%-42%) which it says is about what John Kerry was ahead this time four years ago when he ultimately lost his bid to unseat President Bush. But the President is much more unpopular now and Democrats seem more energized than Republicans about voting, factors which present serious challenges to McCain, although his appeal to Independent voters could offer him some hope, says the survey.
CNN, in its poll of polls (June 18), also has Obama up narrowly in its latest Electoral College Survey. It shows Obama safely ahead or leading in 15 states with 211 electoral votes (you need 270 to win) while McCain is safely ahead or leading in 24 states with 194 electoral votes (Tennessee is solidly red in his column, by the way). That leaves 11 states with 133 electoral votes to decide the matter.
Some pundits have expressed surprise that with the end of the bitter, extended primary contest between Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton, there hasn't been more of a positive bump for the Democratic candidate. I'm not. John McCain didn't get that great a bump right after he emerged victorious in the Republican contest. Over time, he has begun to rally the GOP base and I expect Obama will reunite his party too (although this is likely to be a work in progress for both candidates throughout the campaign). For example, Obama angered some former Clinton supporters by naming one of her former (fired) campaign managers to be chief of staff for whoever he names as his running mate. Clinton supporters saw this as a clear signal she would not be seriously considered for the VP slot and they resented how he did it. Obama says his action is nothing of the sort, that he knows the campaign aide and her family well, and believes she is the right person for the job. But the slight remains.
MORE CHANGING TIMES?
TIME Magazine has a story (I found it posted online June 17) headlined "Can Georgia Be Obama's Ohio?" It is another indication of how the presidential battlefield for votes may be very different on a state-by- state basis this year.
The article focuses on comments made almost a year ago by Obama about how he could put certain states in the South with larger minority populations into play, whereas in the last few presidential cycles, they have been solidly Republican. The article continues by focusing on the fact that Obama has had 15 full-time staffers in Georgia for over a month, as well as in North Carolina and Georgia, all working to increase Obama's vote there, especially among black voters.
It's still too early to know how well this will work, or if Obama can continue to fund such efforts once the campaign gets into the final stretch. But the article also points out that another wild card in all this, at least in Georgia, is the Libertarian presidential candidacy of Georgia Congressman Bob Barr. Could he pull enough votes in his district and across the state to tip it to Obama?
And then there's the most shocking poll numbers from a recent survey by Quinnipiac. In three crucial battleground states, it shows Obama leading McCain by 12 points in Pennsylvania, by 6 in Ohio and by 4 points in Florida. These are all states that Obama lost decisively to Clinton during the earlier primaries and it was thought he would struggle to do better in the general election there. But, if these polls are accurate, not so far.
Already the electoral map appears a bit different in terms of battleground states with the latest CNN national poll showing Obama "running strongest in the west-and not just California." A CNN article (June 19) quotes Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College: "The 10 Rocky Mountain states have been traditionally the most Republican party of the country. So that's why it is so amazing that the polls show Obama doing well out here." The article goes on to cite Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado (where the Democratic convention will be held later this summer) as three states now vulnerable to a Democratic takeover after voting for President Bush four years ago.
THE TALKING POINTS
Our national politicians continue to struggle mightily to find a way to effectively respond to rising gas and energy costs that are slowly squeezing the life out of our economy.
John McCain first floated the idea of a federal gas tax holiday. But that hasn't generated much political juice (even among fellow Republicans) so now he's got another suggestion: Expand the area off the East and West coasts of the country to allow more drilling and exploration for oil and natural gas. That got immediate support from President Bush (maybe not the first person McCain wanted to speak out, but hey, take support wherever you can find it, right?). And McCain does seem to be finding more support for this idea. Both of Tennessee's U.S. Senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, who have been somewhat standoffish in their support of McCain, have issued statements in support of the expanded drilling concept. Even new public opinion polls show more support for the idea than in the past (gas is around or above $4 a gallon, so anything helps, I guess).
The boomlet for drilling has made for some fascinating positioning on this subject for some politicians. For President Bush, it was his father, who by executive order while President, helped designate the current limits on off-shore oil production. And it is President George W. Bush's brother, Jeb, the former Governor of Florida who has long been opposed to more ocean oil drilling for fear of what a spill could do to Florida's beaches and tourism business.
But the most stunning reversal of position so far is coming from Florida's current Governor, Charles Crist, who within hours of McCain's announcement of his plan, reversed years of opposition to the idea and said he now supports more off-shore drilling because of rising gas prices. No mention by the Governor of what role being on McCain's short list for Vice President might play in his change of heart?
I am not sure this latest McCain energy proposal will get very far. Democrats control Congress and they are unlikely to vote for it. And even if it were approved, everyone admits it will be years before any new oil supplies are generated. And isn't the real problem not just the supply of domestic oil (so we are less dependent on imported supplies), but also our ability to refine oil into gasoline and other products? There is so far no mention from McCain about increasing refinery capacity, so the idea of increasing drilling seems more a gesture (like the gas holiday) than a real plan for action.
Senator Alexander, meantime, has been in Nashville in recent days touting the future of electric cars, especially with the abundant amount of "excess electricity" he says TVA has available, particularly in the evening hours when most folks would be charging their hybrid car batteries. OK, but even the Senator admits it will be some time before the batteries being used will have the kind of long-range driving capabilities to be of much use to anyone, other than those of us who commute very short distances around town and mostly stay off the interstates.
There are a couple of other issues to consider in this matter. Has the Senator priced the "abundant" TVA electricity he is touting? It's a lot more expensive than it used to be, and likely going up even more. So just how much will drivers save paying for the electricity to charge their electric car batteries vs. paying for gas at the pump? And then there's the likely complaint coming from environmentalists about the "carbon footprint" of increased electricity use, especially power generated by burning coal (which TVA does a lot of these days)? Sure, some of the extra power could come from increased nuclear power generation, but environmentalists (who may well be the most likely adapters of electric cars) aren't real keen on that power source, either.
My point is not to rain on anybody's energy parade. It's to point out (again) that there are no quick or easy answers to our energy struggles, despite what you may hear coming out of Washington in an election year.
But it is interesting to see and hear the Republicans all together again on their oil drilling talking points. It's been awhile.
For the Democrats, at least here in Tennessee, we have seen the opposite problem in recent weeks.
In fact, Democratic leaders in this state have engaged in something of a circular fire squad over the issue of just who is Barack Obama?
It all began when Fred Hobbs, a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee, made a very foolish statement in an article in THE CITY PAPER, raising the issue (based on news reports he had seen on the FOX NEWS Network) of whether Obama has ties to terrorists. The plot thickened when Beecher Frasier, the top aide to Congressman Lincoln Davis (who has already been trying to keep his distance from Obama) seemed to validate Hobbs' statement (or at least he didn't repudiate it).
That quickly led to former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. denouncing both Hobbs and Frasier, which created further uproar since Davis was a major player in Ford's unsuccessful 2006 race for the U.S. Senate. Ford and Davis already seemed estranged when Davis announced (then backed away from) statements he was running for Governor. Those close to Ford felt the Congressman should have consulted Ford (who also may be considering a 2010 race) before getting out front.
At that point, people started cooling off a bit. Davis, after a bit of false start, denounced Hobbs' remarks, as did his aide. Hobbs himself publicly apologized (for several days it seemed) in the media, leaving the only remaining unresolved matter: Just where does Congressman Davis stand on supporting Barack Obama? Davis, who represents a rural, conservative district where Obama is likely to struggle, would only say: "I won't endorse John McCain."
Of course Davis is not the only Tennessee Democratic leader keeping his distance from Obama. Congressman John Tanner, a super delegate for Clinton, is so far also staying away from an Obama endorsement. But Tanner has not gotten embroiled in the kind of controversy Davis has, so he has managed to keep from the being the poster child on this issue that Davis is. This is not helping Obama either, as all the media coverage continues to repeat, over and over again, the inference that he has terrorist ties (which he strongly denies). But Obama has his own problems with how to position himself on this issue, recently angering some Michigan supporters, who were asked by campaign volunteers to remove themselves from a picture with the candidate because they were in Muslim garb.
By the way, the political laughter you hear over all this is coming from Robin Smith and Bill Hobbs of the Tennessee Republican Party. They've gotten a lot of media ink, air time, political mileage and controversy from their recent YouTube video mocking Michelle Obama, as well as the news release and photo they sent out featuring Obama in Muslim clothing and repeatedly using his middle name of "Hussein". But in their wildest dreams, they could never produce a video as damaging as what these Democratic leaders have blundered their way into the last few days.
The current chairman of the State Democratic Party, Gray Sasser, is aptly named.
Trying to stay in control of this party in Tennessee would turn anyone's hair gray. J
I have no earthly idea how much electricity Al Gore uses at his Nashville home. A local conservative think tank says despite the former Vice President's effort to "go green" at his Belle Meade home, his electric usage has gone up another 10%. Last year when the group tried to make a big deal out of Gore's large energy consumption, it touched off worldwide news coverage, especially given Gore's commitment to the environment and his efforts to curb global warming.
The Gore people say the think tank group has it all wrong. They say the renovations at the Gore home have dramatically cut energy use (up to 40% in some cases).
Who's right? Again, I don't know. But I can read a clock and a calendar. The think tank charges against Gore came within a day or two of his endorsement of Barack Obama for President. Maybe's that a pure coincidence. But in this world of "gotcha politics," I kind of doubt it.
School may be out for the summer, but the future of Metro Public Schools continues to dominate the news like no other story in our area.
So we've invited back a panel of journalists who cover public education in Nashville in a daily basis. Jaime Sarrio of THE TENNESSEAN, Amy Griffith of THE CITY PAPER and NewsChannel 5's Rodney Dunigan know their beats inside and out.
We will get their thoughts and insights on where things stand in the search for a new Director of Schools; the expanding state takeover of public education in Metro because of the system's failure to meet No Child Left Behind standards; the new redistricting proposal that has parents and other school supporters about as upset as they were over the last plan that failed a few months ago; this summer's hot school board races where over half the nine-member board is up for grabs; and several other school issues and programs that are constantly in the news.
INSIDE POLITICS airs each weekend on both NewsChannel 5, C omcast Channel 50 and on the main channel, WTVF-TV, Channel 5.
Here's the schedule:
FRIDAY JUNE 20
7:00 PM NewsChannel5 Plus, Comcast Channel 50
SATURDAY JUNE 21
5:00 AM NewsChannel5 Plus
5:30 PM NewsChannel5 Plus
SUNDAY JUNE 22
5:00 AM NewsChannel5 Plus and WTVF-TV, Channel 5
12:30 PM NewsChannel5 Plus
As we predicted in the last column, Metro has its budget approved in record time this year. The Council gave final approval almost two weeks early. Frankly, if you don't have a lot of money, there's not much to fight over, although still about 30 Metro employees will be laid off and others will have to take job transfers or demotions.
The original budget had close to 200 layoffs and some in the Council felt so good about what they managed to accomplish they had a party after the final Council vote. Given some of the rifts that have developed in the Council that may be a good thing, but doing it with a budget that still lays off employees and cuts back services may not send a good signal to some.
And there are serious storm clouds ahead, particularly in the area of mass transit. While the Council and Mayor Dean did identify about a $1 million in extra funds for the MTA before the final budget vote, that's only enough to keep three bus lines operating that had been scheduled to be discontinued. At a time of record ridership because of high gas prices, five other routes will still be axed. There's also the issue of the working poor. Some of them rely on the routes being cut as their only way to and from their jobs. What are they supposed to do now?
And there's also the Music City Star. It is seeing increasing ridership levels on its one route from Lebanon to Nashville, but because of high insurance costs, it also faces a $1.7 million shortfall in next year's budget. A committee made up of the mayors of Nashville and the surrounding counties has been asked to come up with a short-term plan of how to handle the matter. The Music City Star only has a three- month budget funded as of right now, and officials say they have no plans to cut service or increase fares. Does that mean the only short term fix that can be worked out in the next few weeks will be a direct appropriation by the local governments involved in the Regional Transportation Authority to have their local taxpayers bail out the system? And what happens after that with the budget for 09-10?
There's also the Metro School budget for 2009-10. It seems schools are everyone's top priority in Metro and this year's spending plan from the School Board was fully funded. But it was funded with $20 million out of the schools' reserve funds. That means unless property and sales tax collections for schools grow more than $20 million in the next year, it could be facing a decision about whether to drop back into reserve again next year just to keep the same level of services it is providing now.
It never gets easier and next year's Metro budget process, which also coincides with a countywide property reappraisal, could be even more of a witches' brew than this year's was. Party, party.
A change in long-term care in Tennessee apparently required a long term signing session as Governor Phil Bredesen went all across the state penning into law a bill that will funnel more state funds into at-home health care and other services, allowing more of our seniors to remain where they are, rather than be forced into nursing homes to get the care and services they need as they age.
This legislation was expected to draw strong opposition from the nursing home industry lobby on Capitol Hill, but it never materialized. The signing sessions were all political love fests, with lots of lawmakers and the AARP celebrating a legislative victory many years in the making.
Since many of the changes the new law makes don't take effect until July 2009, it will be awhile before we can judge how effective it is. But having seen so many of my friends and relatives having to deal with the issues of their aging loved ones, and facing my own senior years in the (no longer) not-too-distant future, all I can hope is that we are all still as happy about this new legislation as everyone seemed to be when it was signed into law.
And much like when Tennessee became the crucial state in 1919 to approve the constitutional amendment to allow women to right to vote (by a one-vote margin), it was again an elected official's mother who helped make it happen. The lawmaker who cast the deciding vote for women's suffrage said he did so based on his mother's advice in a letter. Governor Bredesen said he decided to get behind this new legislation because of the influence of his mother. "I've just seen how much my mother (who lives in another state) wants to stay in her own home, and I know there are many families out there who want these types of choices. I am pleased this is the year we begin to make that happen in Tennessee."
Another week, another less than flattering audit report about a division of state government has been released. Last time it was about the State Safety Department and how it is not doing its job in terms of providing efficient service for people looking to renew their drivers' license (long lines) as well as the job the Department is not doing in inspecting school buses and day care vans.
Now it's the Division of Mental Retardation Services which is being cited for mismanagement of funds and lax controls over spending and filing systems. How bad it is? According to a TENNESSEAN article (June 19) the audit says the failure to "accurately file paperwork or file it all, has cost Tennessee taxpayers...nearly $67 million over the past eight years by missing out on federal reimbursement that was available."
Other examples according to the audit: Spending $1,100 a month for two years for telephone lines that were no longer used and exceeding the department's budget one year by $30 million.
Like the Safety Department, these are not new audit issues. They've come up before in previous audits. Why have they not been fixed? A department spokesman is quoted by THE TENNESSEAN as saying: "We knew we were losing money, but we had to fix the system...It basically has taken us this long (since 2003 when the Bredesen administration came in) to put mechanisms in place to correct all this." It took five years?
All this comes as over 11,000 state workers, designated by their departments as "non-essential" are mulling over taking a voluntary "buy-out" offer to leave state service. At least 2,100 have to take to avoid involuntary layoffs. The Governor says the decisions on who would be offered the buyouts and who was "non-essential" was done in a business-like way to create the least amount of disruption in state services. But some state workers are beginning to speak out, wondering if those chosen were picked because of workplace issues or personality conflicts with superiors, not on the basis of who is "essential and "non-essential." The State Employees Association says it is monitoring the situation and could go to court if it finds things are not being done properly.
Meantime, state workers looking at the buyout (which looks pretty generous overall) also must consider the state's overall employment situation if they plan to continue to be in the work force after leaving public service. In that regard, the latest employment figures for Tennessee look very gloomy with unemployment for May up to 6.4%, a full 2% higher than this time last year, and now above the unemployment average nationwide (5.5). This month's increase in the jobless is the largest in state history. Yikes!
The Governor says overall these latest figures show the state is making the right move to go through this voluntary buyout plan to lower the number of state workers. He says it is wise that state leaders resisted using one-time reserve monies to try and get out of this current budget shortfall, since these unemployment figures indicate Tennessee could be in a economic downturn for some time yet to come.
Here's some potential good news from Washington. Senator Alexander says the Department of Homeland Security has granted another extension to all 50 states on the implementation of its REAL ID program.
Senator Alexander has been one of those leading the charge against this unfunded federal mandate, which is being promoted as critical way of protecting the country (through imposing federal standards on drivers' licenses, even though (according to a news release from Senator Alexander's office) it was passed in 2005 without any Senate and without almost any federal funding to implement this massive program.
Alexander says the overall cost for REAL ID could be as much as $4 billion with only $90 appropriated and only $6 million distributed to the states.
So he's right to get this plan put on hold another year to see if we really need it or want it or, most importantly, can pay for it.
Senator Alexander is also joining with Senator Corker to support a consumer bank hotline bill that will establish a nationwide toll-free number to handle consumer questions and complaints about banking. Right now, it can be confusing to figure how what to do if you have questions or problems. Sounds like a good idea. In fact, it sounds too good, given this is a bill pending in Congress. You know, I'm with the government and I'm here to help.
A CHANGE IN THE WAR
Congress seems poised to approve continued government funding for the War in Iraq through the end of President Bush's term next January (the Senate willing). And Democratic congressional leaders seem willing to do without any timetables or guidelines for a troop withdrawal.
Such a development would have seemed impossible a few months ago. What's changed? It's pretty clear, with the troop surge over and as violence and the American death rate in Iraq has declined, then remained relatively stable, the Iraq War is not quite the issue it once was or that the economy is now.
It's apparent Democratic leaders made this deal because in exchange for the Iraq money, President Bush has promised not to veto funds also in the appropriation bill that would increase G.I. benefits and extend unemployment compensation. Those matters may be much more important to voters now as the fall elections approach. This doesn't mean the war is now popular or more people want American troops to stay. It is just recognizing the political reality that the Bush administration will veto any troop withdrawal deadlines or timetable and he still has the votes to sustain his vetoes. So rather than continue gridiron, Congress seems ready to move ahead with other economic matters and wait for a new administration.
Other than seeing him regularly at 11:00 AM Mass every Sunday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, I did not know Monroe Carell very well.
However the indelible mark this great philanthropist left on Nashville (before he succumbed to cancer at age 76), even a complete stranger to our city can plainly see.
Where I have seen it best is as member of the Board of the Monroe Carell Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. To see the tremendous healing work that facility and its wonderful staff provides to children and their families from all over this area, is truly heartwarming. Indeed much of it has been possible because of Mr. Carell's personal generosity and his fund raising abilities. The current hospital and the planned major expansion of that facility will be a living memorial to him for generations to come.
It would be easy to view Mr. Carell for his achievements as a hard driving, successful businessman, who built a relatively small, local parking company (Central Parking) into a world-wide giant in that industry. That's true and it made his a lot of money.
But what I remember best about him is how this tough business guy was always reduced to tears when he came to the hospital for its annual birthday party. It would come time during the celebration ceremonies to show a special video and then for Mr. Carell to speak to the crowd. He would start talking about his love for the hospital and its work and the children and families it serves, and it would always become very difficult for him to continue. There weren't many dry eyes in the rest of the house either.
And it's not just at the Children's Hospital that you will find the lasting impact of Monroe Carell. He was a man of faith and was generous to his Church and to the local Catholic Diocese here. Travel north to the new John Paul II High School in Hendersonville; see the newly expanded and renovated Motherhouse for the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia out near Metro Center and his contributions to St. Edward Catholic Church and school. Outside the church, he was generous to the Harpeth Hall and Ensworth Schools as well as Cheekwood and the Nashville Symphony Children's program (and thanks to local author and historian Bill Carey for providing that list).
For me, his work to help the Dominican Sisters strikes a special note. My mother and uncle grew up at the Dominican Motherhouse and my mother graduated from high school there. To see that wonderful building (some of which dates to pre-Civil War times) restored and expanded for the growing congregation of sisters there is a wonderful contribution that will serve not only the local Catholic community well, but all of Nashville for years to come.
It seems we are losing more and more of our great community leaders these days. We can only hope, in the great tradition of Monroe Carell that others will continue to step forward to lead the way for the betterment of our city. He's left some big shoes to fill.
STRIKE AND SPARE!
The column may seem a little shorter this week. I am off to go bowling as a part of a company staff outing. I just hope I can do as well as Obama.