Archive for October, 2012


More than any election before it, this one has been about the polls.  Right now, it’s about the discrepancy between the  national polls and the state polls, especially in Ohio and other mid-western states.  Other stories say that it comes down to 100 swing counties, which is another way of saying that if you know how those counties vote, you have a good idea of how the rest of the country voted.  On election night, we’ll be looking at particular states and counties, and Michael Barone, he of the electoral calculator, will be able to tell us that if a certain county moved X% from 2008, that means…

All of which reminded me of a short story by Isaac Asimov from 1955, called “Franchise.”  It’s one of his Multivac stories, and it’s about elections.

In 2008, it’s possible for Multivac, the massive computer housed in miles-long tunnels, to figure out the results of every election on every issue, all across the country, by asking a single Elector a few hours’ worth of questions, none of which actually is, “Who do you vote for?”  The Voter is chosen by Multivac as the most representative of the population of the United States for that year.  (Fame and riches naturally follow, although the Voter can’t really tell anyone anything about the experience – one of Asimov’s jokes.)

The joke, of course, is the people treat Multivac like God: nobody wants to question its omniscience, and when the Voter for that year is disappointed that he won’t get to see Multivac, he’s reassured that since they can communicate with it, Multivac is, in a very real sense, there with him.  The joke, of course, is that there are limits to our knowledge, that elections are subject to the law of large numbers, and that Asimov – while an atheist – is making fun of our tendency to deify technology.

The irony is that 2008 and 2012 are the most socially-networked elections in history, with a broadly-distributed vote.  All that Big Data could soon be amalgamated into something as predictive as Multivac.

But it would likely resemble one of Asimov’s other great creations, Psychohistory, more than the conscious brain depicted as Multivac.

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Inflation – Bad for the Economy, Bad for Society

In The Great Wave, his history of price revolutions and inflation, David Hackett Fischer associates waves of inflation with social instability, and a pessimistic culture as reflected in the art and philosophy of that time.  If he’s correct, we could be in for much more than just a bout of price instability.  Indeed, it’s possible that the recent increases in gas prices and food prices may already be stirring some dark forces we’d probably rather leave along.

The FBI reports a continuing drop in both property and violent crime.  It’s important to remember that the BJS report and the FBI report draw from two difference sources, and that they are intended to complements each other, like the household and employer surveys of employment.  One might show changes sooner than the other, for instance, or simply be more volatile.

There’s plenty of evidence for this even in the last century.  Germany was primarily destabilized by inflation, not so much by the relatively quick Depression.  It was the brief but horrid inflation of 1923-24 that wrecked people’s faith in the institutions of Weimar.  In the meantime, the US was wracked by a long, deflationary Depression, which didn’t come close to tearing the country apart.  Compare that to crime rates in the 60s and 70s, which only began to subside once people recognized that inflation was dead and buried, at least for the time being.

Crime isn’t just the poor and lower middle-class losing faith in their futures, it also eats away at the social fabric generally, because the middle class ends up being the most victimized.  It results in frustration an anger.  Wages go up, masking price increases that always stay ahead of wage increases, and nobody knows what their savings or earnings are worth any more.

I’m obviously not the first one to propose this relationship.  It’s been observed in other countries, as well as the United States.  According to that study, macroeconomic factors don’t explain more than 15% of the changes in property crimes over time, but almost all of that explanatory power comes from inflation.

None of this is to say that you can’t have serious social upheaval in times of deflation or even price stability.  Gold standard enthusiasts point to the 19th Century as a sort of golden age of macroeconomics.  But the changes wrought by industrialization, along with the over-expansion and inevitable contraction of the railroads, led to serious social unrest and the first stirrings of mass unionization.  Walter Russell Mead has been sounding the alarm about a similar reconfiguration now, we just don’t yet know what the other side is going to look like.

But if we are going through a Great Recalculation, a metaphor preferred by Arnold Kling, it’ll be a lot easier to meet without the complicating destabilization of people not knowing what their dollar is worth.

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Udall Runs Interference For Obama


Beginning at 16:19:

WALLACE: Senator Udall, you are on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also on the Senate Intelligence Committee. How do you answer critics who say that the Obama administration has bungled this, before, during and after the attack?

UDALL: Chris, we share the grief that Mr. Woods exhibited in that segment.

Let me say this: we’re going to get to the bottom of this. The Intelligence Committee is going to hold hearings when we return right after the election and the State Department has its own investigation underway. But I have to say this: any impartial observer who looks at what happened in Benghazi, would have to say this situation has been politicized. Governor Romney himself realizes that his actions and his reaction was unbecoming for a potential commander-in-chief. He’s backed off those comments in that point of view. In the debate this last week, Benghazi and Libya wasn’t even raised when the governor had a chance to discuss it.

We ought to be acting in the spirit of Ambassador Stevens. We ought to be pulling together. After 9/11 —


WALLACE: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Senator… Certainly, it is a legitimate issue to discuss before an election, when four Americans were killed, and there are questions of intelligence failures before and during the attack, is it not?

UDALL: It is a legitimate issue, but, every story leads to political commentary, and trying to point fingers. After 9/11, we came together, there were a lot of questions that had to be answered, let’s operate in that same spirit. And let’s remember what Ambassador Stevens was riding to do and let’s stand together, because the Middle East is crucial. We need to be tough there, but we need to be smart. We need to be engaged.

This discussion has been politicized. It hasn’t been helpful. It hasn’t helped us get to the bottom of what happened.

WALLACE: Let me ask you one direct question. There were drones that were flying over Benghazi at the time of the attacks, during the hours, when first the consulate and then the annex. And it was about six or eight hours were under attacks.

Were those drones armed?

UDALL: We’re going to find that out. As you have mentioned, I sit on the Intelligence Committee and so does Senator Warner. We’re going to get to the bottom of this. We’ll find out what happened. And that information, if appropriate, will be revealed —


WALLACE: Do you know whether they were armed, sir?

UDALL: I can’t comment on that at this point in time, Chris.

WALLACE: But you certainly agree that if they were armed they could have, without as Leon Panetta said, sending more troops into harm’s way could have been used to break up the attack?

UDALL: The drone assets that we have are remarkable and they save the lives of many, many Americans, while we have been getting the bad guys. I look forward to discussing it with you further when I have the information and am able to share it with you.

Right. We wouldn’t want a little thing like Benghazi or the situation in the Islamic world to become politicized or anything. Especially after all the restraint that President Obama and the Democrats have shown in not spiking the football over bin Laden.

Never mind the hypocrisy in a Democrat – the party of “the personal is political” – asking for something, anything, not to be politicized. He claims that what hasn’t helped us get to the bottom of what happened is that the Republicans have been asking the questions. If the Democrats on the Intel Committee like himself had been asking these questions, instead of playing the political equivalent of Dean Smith’s Four Corners offense on the thing, then they could have made it bipartisan. They chose not to.

What’s kept us from getting to the bottom of this is that the administration has been lying about what happened since Day 0, September 11, 2012, and the only way they can stop themselves from lying is to stop talking.

Udall asking us to wait until after the election is the worst sort of politicization of the issue, the defense equivalent of Nancy Pelosi telling us that we have to pass Obamacare so we can find out what’s in it.

Udall is a disgrace to Colorado, and a disgrace to the office he holds.

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Does Primary Care Actually Save Money?

One of the arguments for Obamacare has been the claim that increased access to primary care will result in long-term cost savings, but studies show conflicting results.  The theory in favor of this is that early detection will allow treatment in earlier stages.  The theory opposed to it is that keeping people alive costs money, as well.

Still, before we commit to a government takeover of health care, isn’t there a pretty simple experiment that we could run to find out?  If access to primary care really does save money in the long run, why aren’t insurance companies providing incentives to the insured to make more and better use of their PCPs?  There are some experiments in the works to incentivize doctors to be more accessible, and Anthem is even cutting them in on the presumed savings.

But the problem may be on the demand side as well – people just don’t like going to doctors, and not only because of the wait times.  Presumably the problem isn’t just putting off going to the doctor when you’re sick, it’s also putting off the routine physical or the annual checkup that could catch trouble early, before there are any symptoms at all.  So why not cut the co-pays?  Or why not mimic the safe-driver discounts and rebate an increasing portion of the co-pay for every year you go for your physical?  The latter would also help create the habit of going to the doctor regularly.

Insurance companies live and die on the sort of actuarial math that would let them detect any positive results from these experiments pretty quickly.  And if anyone is culturally geared not to fall for the fallacy of the seen and the unseen, it’s insurance companies.  (The fallacy states that people fall for redistributionist schemes because the beneficiaries are immediately identifiable, while the costs are distributed among the many.  In this case, presumably, the beneficiaries are largely unseen, while everyone sees the hit to the bottom line.)

So, is there are good reason that insurance companies don’t do this?  Is it just that they haven’t thought of it, or is there actual evidence that it doesn’t work?  Is anyone aware of any results from the Anthem experiment that show one way or the other?

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Sooner or later, the press will have to cover this story.  If you ask them, they’ll say that either it’s not an important story, or that it’s too complex and fluid a story to be responsibly reported this close to an election.  The breathtaking hypocrisy of this position aside, they refuse (with certain noted exceptions, Kyle Clark) to even ask the questions.

If there’s no story there, if the administration really does have satisfactory answers to who knew what when, then the story will go away upon being reported on.  And even if the administration refuses to answer those question, stonewalls, or dissembles, that would be valuable information in and of itself.

Benghazi is not just an election issue.  It’s certainly legitimate fodder for the campaign, as is just about anything that happens.  But it’s not Quemoy and Matsu, or Big Bird, Binders, and Bayonets, the kind of thing that gets remainderd after the election, because it’s a policy decision to be decided, or a triviality to be forgotten.  It will be remembered, and it will be investigated.  It can cripple an administration, forcing it to spend time dealing with the investigation, and forcing out the president’s preferred advisers as they lose the confidence of Congress and the public.  And while real problems fester, the partisan nature of such an investigation will make it harder to cooperate on (assuming the Democrats are interested in such).

So they’ll have that to answer for, too.

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A Barzun Roundup

I promised a Jacques Barzun round-up, and here it is.  Arts & Letters Daily, sadly, confined their links to the American mainstream media, so not much there you can’t find on your own.  But there’s been some good blog coverage.  Here’s what’s worth reading, and one hopes it will spur you to read some of Barzun himself.

A little Shabbat reading has given me some grist for the mill for at least one future post.  After the election, assuming we have a winner, I’m sure I’ll be reading a lot of his work.  I know, I ought to have done four years ago when he turned 100, so I could have posted when he was alive and exchanged worthy letters with the great man himself.  Ah, well.

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Jacques Barzun, RIP

You would think that a death so long anticipated wouldn’t have much effect, but it doesn’t work that way.  Jacques Barzun, cultural historian, iacademic, intellectual, and evangelist for Western culture, died today just a month short of his 105th birthday, and it still seems a shame.  He was part of that glorious mid-Century intellectual atmosphere that not only sought to think, but to think publicly and to make its thinking accessible to the public at large.

Many of Barzun’s books are scattered about the house, in various parts of the library.  I’ve read some, and will read the rest.  I worked my way through his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence when it came out, when he was a mere 93.  I nibbled at The Culture We Deserve.  I’ve read most of his essays in A Reader’s Companion, (brilliantly reviewed by Joseph Epstein).

I have a first edition of his 1959 critique of the suicide of American intellectuals, The House of Intellect, along with two reviews of it, one by Harold Rosenberg and the other by Daniel Boorstin, future Librarian of Congress, no pikers they.  When you merit having your books reviewed by them, you know you’ve arrived.

I have an unerring appreciation for books despised by their prolific authors.  From what I can tell, Peter Robinson would just as soon forget Postcards from Hell, about his time at Stanford Business School, and Richard Miniter has never responded to my compliments for The Myth of Market Share.  For some reason, I always figured that Barzun felt the same way about God’s Country and Mine, an appreciation of the culture of mid-Century America as only an immigrant can appreciate it.  (Clifton Fadiman liked it, which may by itself be enough to spark a re-appraisal on my part.)  Latino immigration may have changed this, but for about a century, more of us were descended from Germans that from any other European race, a fact not lost on Barzun, the French American-by-choice:

Our popular culture Germanic? Yes. It is not merely that at Christmas time we all eat Pfeffernusse and sing “Heilige Nacht,” nor that our GIs in the last war found ever country queer except Germany….

One could go on forever; our appalling academic jargon bears a deep and dangerous likeness to its German counterpart; our sentimentality about children and weddings and Christmas trees; our taste in and for music; our love of taking hikes in groupsm singing as we go; our passion for dumplings and starchy messes generally, coupled with our instinct for putting sweet things alongside badly cooked meats and ill-treated vegetables – all that and our chosen forms of cleanliness (every people is clean in different ways about different things) show how far a characteristic culture has spread from the three or four centers where Germans first settled.

Barzun first came to my attention in high school, not for his academic work but for his Modern Researcher, which he continued to update for decades.  He kept it updated for decades, but the brilliance of the book isn’t in the technologies it describes, but in the basic fundamentals of the detective work, and how to keep your notes and mind orderly enough to make sense out of what it is you’re finding.  When you’re done researching, keep Simple and Direct on your desk, open, next to Strunk and White.  There’s a video of him discussing writing a couple of years ago with a small group in San Antonio, where he lived.  Folks, this is a video of a 102-year-old man, and there are days when I don’t feel as lucid as he is in this video.

One of the gifts that Barzun’s long life bestowed on us was an embarrassment of mature work.  Consider that when he wrote God’s Country and Mine, he was 47, one year older than I am now.  This is the book of a mature man, and almost all the work I have from him is later than that.  A huge percentage of what he wrote came with a lifetime or more of experience and seasoning.  When he defended the value of the Western intellectual tradition and culture against the barbarians, he knew what we were in danger of losing.  This wasn’t a political defense; it was born of an understanding that the West said things that had never been said before or since, and to abandon that tradition was in a very real sense criminal neglect of some of mankind’s greatest, most liberating ideas.

He could stand neither Marxism nor the self-loathing of American that it brought to academia.  It’s only justice that as long as the execrable Eric Hobsbawn lived, Barzun, 10 years his senior, outlived him.  Bully.

As I’m writing this, obits are being prepared all over academia, and Arts and Letters Daily will hopefully have a round-up of them tomorrow.  I’ll pick out the best and link to them here.

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A Retention Vote for Morris Hoffman

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I usually vote against retaining judges.  It’s not out of any personal animus, of course.  For citizens who are asked to keep track of so much when they vote, it’s almost impossible to learn enough law, let alone enough about every judge, to make a truly informed decision on a given judge.  But we have retention votes for a reason, and it’s helpful to judges to be reminded every so often that the law belongs to the people, not to the lawyers, or even to the legislature.  As long as the retention voters weren’t close, a No vote was a reasonably safe protest vote that would only tip the scales if other, well-known information about that particular judge pushed a lot of other people to vote the same way.

But times have changed, the retention votes have gotten closer, and it’s important now to reward judges who’ve actually done a good job on the bench.

So I’ll be voting to retain Morris Hoffman as a Denver judge, and I would ask all those voting in Denver to do the same.

I had the pleasure of sitting in Hoffman’s court eight years ago as he decided Common Cause v. Davidson – an attempt by Common Cause and other Democrat groups to hijack the voting rules in Colorado in order to prevent certain basic ballot security measures – and was impressed with Hoffman’s humor and ability to keep things moving without cutting people off.  The opinion is readable even by laymen – not an easy thing for a judge to do when time is short and the pressure to be right is long.  And the ruling itself was a model of understanding both of the role of judges and of the nature of voting.

I quoted some of the salient bits at the time, but they’re worth quoting again:

But the Court has also recognized that the right to vote, unlike some other individual rights that are exercised in essential opposition to the state, is a right that has meaning only in a highly regulated social context. A vote is not merely one individual’s casual expression of political opinion at any particular time on any particular subject. Votes count, and because they count they must be sought and given in a structured environment that allows the votes of all other proper voters to count….

Maximizing voters’ access to the process is just one part of the compelling interest the state has in regulating the architecture of elections. Preventing voters from voting more than once, preventing otherwise ineligible voters from voting, and preventing other kinds of election fraud, is part and parcel of this same compelling state interest, as the Burdick Court expressly recognized when it included the words “fair and honest” at the very beginning of its litany of state interests in structuring elections. Professor Chemerinsky had it only half right, and perhaps not even that, when, in the aftermath of the controversy of the 2000 election, he wrote “What good is the right to vote if every ballot isn’t counted?” (Erwin Chemerinsky, Fairness at the Ballot Box, 40 TRIAL—APRIL 32 (2004).) A complete description of the state’s interest in regulating elections should have included something like, “What good is the right to vote, even if every ballot is counted, if the votes of duly registered voters are diluted by the votes of people who had no right to vote?”

It may or may not be true, as Plaintiffs claim, that as an historical matter actual voter fraud has been rare in Colorado. But the state has a legitimate, indeed compelling, interest in doing what it can to make sure that last month’s fraudulent or no-longer-eligible registrant does not become next month’s fraudulent voter. Ms. Davidson and local election officials testified that once a fraudulent regular ballot is cast, and the voter’s identity forever divorced from the ballot, there is no way to remedy the fraud. The fraudulent vote will count. That is, election fraud must be detected before fraudulent regular ballots are cast and fraudulent provisional ballots are counted.

Nor do I think it likely that Plaintiffs will be able to demonstrate that the identification requirement is discriminatory or will have disparate impacts…. Plaintiffs’ suggestion that the identification requirement will “chill” people without identification may be true (though there was absolutely no credible evidence of that), but then again it may also “chill” fraudulent voters. Whether one kind of chill justifies the other is precisely the kind of public policy choice that must be made by legislators, not by judges legislating under the cover of strict scrutiny.

In what must surely qualify as one of the understatements of the year, even Plaintiffs’ own witness, a Denver election official, testified that allowing voters to vote in any precinct they wished “could be problematic.”

…At the moment, if I were to try to design a system that maximizes the chances that fraudulent and ineligible registrants will be able to become fraudulent voters, I’m not sure I could do a better job than what Plaintiffs are asking me to do in this case—allow voters to vote wherever they want without showing any identification.

(My own emphasis added throughout.)

For better or for worse – and probably for the much worse – courts across the country haven’t accepted these basic tenets of how a voting system ought to work, but that doesn’t make the reasoning here any less correct.

I don’t want to go overboard here.  We’re talking about one decision, one data point, in a much longer judicial career.  But given the stakes of the case, it’s a pretty large data point, and it’s one more than most of us will have on most of the judges.  Let’s reward it.


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Tonight’s Surprise – China?

In trying to anticipate Monday night’s debate, we’re all thinking about Benghazi.  (Well, all of us except the New York Times, in whose Sunday edition the word does not appear.)  But the White House has more or less gone silent on Benghazi in the last few days, refusing to answer questions about it.  And they have to know that Romney will know the timelines backwards and forwards, ready to remind people of what they know they’ve heard.

What if, instead of trying to rebut the charges – surely a futile task – President Obama tries instead to divert attention?  Where would they turn.

I think the answer is China.  First, reports are that the administration is going to trot out a 5-year-old video from Mitt Romney’s last presidential run, showing him, ah, not hating China.  Here’s what he says:

You know, I think it’s important first for the American people and our leadership to understand that China is not like the Soviet Union of old.  The Soviet Union, Khrushchev in particular, wanted to bury us.  China doesn’t want to bury us, they want to see us succeed and thrive so that we can buy more Chinese products and they’re a competitor economically.  More power to ‘em, we know how to compete.  We want to make sure that competition is fair and legal, and that they protect our intellectual property rights and that they have a monetary policy that’s fair, so we’ve got some challenges to make sure that the playing field is level with China, but we can compete, we can be successful with China, and I will reach out to them, I’ve already met with their leadership and will do so again if I’m lucky enough to be president. Making China a partner for stability in the world will be one of my highest priorities.

China is really key in many respects as they become a very large economy; their GNP is going to surpass ours at some point just given the scale of the nation’s population.  We have to recognize that they’re going to be an economic powerhouse like us.  And with that reality we gotta make sure that we are friendly, that we understand each other, that we’re open in communicating, and that we’re collaborating on important topics, like keeping North Korea from pursuing the nuclear armament which they’ve begun, getting Iran to abandon their nuclear ambitions, China and we together will have a great deal of positive influence for stability if we’re able to work that relationship properly.

It’s unclear why the Obama campaign thinks this is damning, but I suppose you could take the words, “China doesn’t want to bury us, they want to see us succeed and thrive so that we can buy more Chinese products,” out of context, and try to portray Romney as a flip-flopper on China.  I don’t think it’ll work.  I think Romney knows what he said, and in his calm, smooth, reassuring style will remind us that he was insisting that we make China play by the rules, because it’s in everyone’s interest.

I suppose it’s also possible that they’ll use the second half of the statement to claim that Romney is naive on China.  But coming from a president whose naivete on the Middle East is unsurpassed in several generations, and whose “pivot to Asia” is about to be undermined by drastic budget cuts to the Navy, that probably won’t work too well, either.

Obama may also try to use China to salvage his Solyndra payoff investment, inasmuch as that company’s remnants are suing Chinese solar companies, trying to blame them for Solyndra’s failed business model.  Doing that would give him a two-fer: getting to play the Romney-the-outsourcer card, while saying that China is eating our lunch on green technologies, and that he’s the guy to put a stop to it.  (Never mind that China’s paying a heavy price for its own market interventions, even as they continue to blame the West for it.)

So keep an eye on China this evening.  That may be where the real fireworks come from.


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Obama Campaign Flying on Auto-Pilot

There’s a saying among pilots: Plan your flight, and fly your plan.  If you’ve done your homework beforehand, your plan is the surest way out of trouble and to your destination.

Nevertheless, any good flight plan includes alternatives in the case of, say, unexpected headwinds.

For several months, it has been clear that the Democrats’ closing argument was going to be about abortion and birth control.  With the economy still in the tank, and foreign policy not a top-line issue for most voters, there was no place else for them to turn.  Now that foreign policy has turned obviously and embarrassingly sour, all the moreso.

The demographic reasons for this are obvious – abortion and “free” contraception are largely issues for younger, single women, and the “gender gap” is as much as “marriage gap” as anything.  The Democrats know that the best way to get a woman to start voting Republican is for her to get married (which also probably explains about 95% of “Julia”).

The Democrats knew this at the beginning of the year, when George Stephanopolous asked Mitt Romney repeatedly about states banning contraception in that debate, and when the HHS issued its mandate that employers buy contraception for their women employees.

They knew this because they were trying to replicate the success that Michael Bennet had here in Colorado in 2010, winning re-election to his Senate seat in a Republican year, and doing it by beating his Republican opponent Ken Buck up on abortion.  Guy Cecil – his campaign manager and now head of the DSCC – repeatedly said so.  Bennet himself said so at the DNC, and more recently when introducing Joe Biden up in Greeley.  The NY Times said so.  Rachel Maddow said so.  From the beginning of the year, they’ve made no secret of the fact by this point in the election cycle the cries of “contraception” and “abortion” would be so loud you couldn’t hear the math.

My wife used to be a registered Democrat, and so ends up getting almost all the Democrat mailers.  Four mailers, all about abortion and contraception.

And it’s not just the race for president where the Dems have adopted this carpet-bombing strategy.  The only ads I’ve seen attacking incumbent Republican Congressmen Scott Tipton and Mike Coffman have centered on abortion and contraception.

The problem is, it’s not working.

Yes, there’s still a gender gap, but with women only giving Obama a slight plurality, and men overwhelmingly supporting Romney, the numbers just don’t seem to be there for the Democrats at the Presidential level.  And if this is their primary attack in Senate races – so far, I’ve seen it used in Ohio, Virginia, Connecticut (with a woman Republican nominee), Montana, North Dakota, and of course, Missouri – there’s good reason to think the Dems are setting themselves up to lose the Senate, too.

To return to the flight metaphor, the Democrats are flying their plan, but they didn’t count on those headwinds, and they’re now running out of fuel without any alternate airports around.  They have no alternative strategy except to continue to amp up the volume, with cries of “Romnesia” by the President, and the possibility of a an October Surprise not in Iran or Libya, but by Gloria Allred.  I’d be surprised if that works, mostly because it’s already been factored into people’s votes.

The Democrats are flying their plan, but instead of remaining engaged, looking for alternatives, staying abreast of the weather reports, they’re flying it on auto-pilot.

Which as any pilot will tell you, is a great way to not reach your destination.

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