Slick Mitt Talks Religion and Politics

Mitt Romney is a slick, well-produced candidate who is losing his grip on the Republican presidential nomination.  He built his say-whatever-it-takes-to-look-like-a-real-conservative presidential campaign strategy around winning the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.  His Iowa lead has turned into a deficit and his lead in New Hampshire is shrinking.  This has caused some consternation in Romney’s campaign as much of the polling suggests that his Mormon faith is a problem for many Evangelical Christians.  The proof that his dream is slipping away came Thursday morning when he did something he long resisted – gave a speech on faith and politics.

Warmly clothed in the credibility provided by being in the presence of former president George H. W. Bush, Romney gave a well-delivered, applause-line filled speech that told me nothing.  When I hear major speeches by candidates, I listen out for something that will teach me something new about the candidate – what he or she stands for or what he or she will do if elected.  Romney failed on that score.  He didn’t tell me anything new about him.  He talked about the need for religious tolerance and the importance of faith in the public square.

Romney has repeatedly said that he doesn’t have to justify his Mormon faith.  I think what he really means is: “I don’t want to talk about my faith so as to not draw much attention to the controversy surrounding it’s teachings and beliefs.  This brings up a delicious irony in Republican politics: A party that has built its success on the support of southern Evangelical Christians is now dealing with a faith-based backlash against one of its best positioned presidential candidates.

I watched the speech on MSNBC and was blown away by the fawning treatment of his speech by Chris Mathews and Pat Buchanan.  Mathews, in an overreaction that is typical for him, contended that a Romney nomination could be traced to the speech; Buchanan concurred and thought Romney clearly explained his position on faith and politics.  I think they both are bending over backwards to applaud a speech that said nothing.  If Romney’s goal was to neutralize or turn around public opinion on Mormonism, then this POLL should send him back to the drawing board.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, December 12, 2007
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Will Edwards Pull the Upset in Iowa?

I stipulate up front that it's an internal memo commissioned by the Edwards for President campaign.  However, if it is correct, then former Senator John Edwards is poised to pull a big upset in next month's Iowa caucus.  Here's the explanatory memorandum.  I believe that his campaign has done a better job of articulating issues of importance to the poor and disenfranchised than the other "frontrunners" but has been not been given much credit in the so-called mainstream media.  He has also been refreshingly aggressive in challenging the big-money political status quo.  However, the media have turned this into a two-person race.  An Edwards win in Iowa would put heaping amounts of egg on the faces of those who believe that it's all about Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Saturday, December 08, 2007
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Radio Interview Clip—NPR’s “News and Notes” (Wednesday, December 5, 2007)

I had the pleasure of participating in a roundtable discussion on NPR’s “News and Notes with Farai Chideya” on Wednesday.  With Jehmu Greene and Brandon Whitley, I discuss Mychal Bell’s plea deal, two college students that robbed a bank to pay their college tuition, and a Black Baltimore firefighter who perpetrated a racial hoax claiming that he found a noose in his firehouse.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Wednesday, December 05, 2007
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Heartland Presidential Forum Observations

The Heartland Presidential Forum brought 5,000 community activists from 32 states to Des Moines, Iowa to quiz five Democratic presidential candidates on issues that resonate in their organizations.  The forum, touted as “real people asking real questions,” was a bit of a disappointment as it failed to ask questions that drew insightful responses from the candidates.  It’s hard not to become cynical about candidate fora after nearly a near of campaigning, but the reality is that we didn’t learn anything about the candidates that we didn’t already know and the lead sponsors seemed to be more dedicated to promoting their own organizations over the issues they purported to address.

One of the major problems with presidential candidates fora is that, at about 90 minutes, they are too short to effectively deal with issues.  This is particularly so when as many as a dozen topics will come up in one event.  So imagine my (pleasant) surprise when I learned that the Heartland Presidential Forum would clock in at about two-and-a-half hours.  I thought the added time would allow for penetrating questions and answers without regard to the candidate.  I was wrong.  The questions, often offered in a sea of emotion and personal anecdote, simply allowed the candidates to insert mini-stump speeches into their responses.

I blame the format, which was problematic, at best.  In trying to be inclusive of as many organizations as possible, the event seemed like a crowded kitchen with too many cooks.  I understand the desire to be different from the other kinds of candidate confabs by allowing “real people” to ask the questions; it’s not often that rank-and-file citizens get to question candidates so publicly.  The problem, though, was that some of the questions were myopic and almost as long as the answers.  Too many of the questions could have been answered with simple “yes” or “no” responses thereby allowing the candidates to easily answer and then go into stump speech mode.  Ultimately, the forum took on the feel of a familiar church where the candidates preached to an already converted choir.  The audience was comprised the left-leaning community activists, so the questions were far from penetrating.

Overall, it’s hard to see this event having a significant impact on the Democratic nomination contest.  The issues have been raised before in other events and the candidates provided “drive-by” responses.  It’s alright, though.  There’s always another forum right around the corner.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Sunday, December 02, 2007
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Heartland Forum

Later today, the Heartland Presidential Forum will take place in Des Moines, Iowa.  The five participating candidates will be asked to address a number of issues that haven't gotten much play by the mainstream media:  housing, agriculture, immigration, low-wage employment, healthcare, and clean elections.  Yes, housing, immigration, and healthcare have gotten some attention but the discussions have been narrow.  For example, everyone is talking about subprime loans and foreclosures, but I haven't heard much about the creation of lower-cost affordable housing in cities and suburbs.  This is particularly notable when considers that homelessness is on the rise in America, especially in New Orleans, where people with jobs are living under bridges in the Crescent City.

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One issue that I hope gets raised is that of the disenfranchisement of ex-felons.  This is a national disgrace.  Many of the disenfranchisement laws date to the post-Reconstruction era when conservatives sought to "redeem" the South and return it to the pre-Reconstruction racial status quo that used all sorts of laws and violence to keep Blacks from participating in the political process.  Over the years, they have been used to substantial numbers of people, mostly Black men, from voter rolls throughout the South.

According to Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, authors of the seminal book on this issue --  Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy -- as of 2004, more than 2 million African Americans are disenfranchised nationally as a result of these laws.   Most of these potential voters are concentrated in the South, where there presence would change the face of presidential elections.

As I note in chapter five of my book Republicans and the Black Vote, in states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40% of black men may permanently lose their right to vote.  The state of Florida had an estimated 827,000 ex-felons who were unable to vote in the 2000 presidential election.  According to one national study, estimates of felon turnout range from a low of 20.5 percent (for the 1974 congressional elections) to a high of 39 percent (for the 1992 presidential election), with an average estimated felon turnout of about 24 percent in non-presidential year Senate elections and about 35 percent in presidential election years. 

While well below general turnout rates, these estimates are significant in that they could change electoral outcomes.  According to one analysis, the outcome of the 2000 presidential election “would almost certainly have been reversed had voting rights been extended to any category of disenfranchised felons.”  This analysis argues that Democratic nominee Al Gore would have one the popular vote by more than one million votes.  The disputed election in Florida reveals the impact felon disenfranchisement had on the 2000 contest.  The analysis argues that given estimated rates of turnout (27.2 percent) and preference (68.9 percent) for Florida incarcerates, Gore would have carried the state by 80,000 votes and, thereby, the presidency.

The political implications of felon disenfranchisement on the result of the 2000 presidential election were not limited to Florida.  According to one study, researchers found that in nine “swing states” – Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin – the number of disenfranchised felons exceeded the margin of victory.  Given the demography of America’s felon population, it is not unreasonable to assert that in these states where Democrats won, their margins would have been larger were it not for felon disenfranchisement; additionally, Republican margins would have been smaller, including some Republican defeats, if this disenfranchisement did not occur.  A total of 846,486 felons were disenfranchised in Democratic states (those won by Democratic nominee Al Gore), which represented 1.2 percent of all voters; just over 2 million were disenfranchised in Republican states (those won by Republican nominee George W. Bush), representing three percent of all voters.

Let's hope the candidates address this underplayed but very important issue.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Saturday, December 01, 2007
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