Friday, 13 March 2009

Department of Good Ideas

Want to stimulate the economy by spending government money? Also concerned that the automobile industry is moribund, and trying to ward off bankrupcy for some of the country's major employers? Meanwhile, are you hoping to find ways of encouraging people to invest in more environmentally friendly items, including cars?

Why not Cash for Clunkers? I like it. Turns out this policy has increased new car sales in Germany by 21% (!) this year - with the simple mechanism of giving people government cash for trading in their old, inefficient cars with newer more energy-efficient models.

Let's hope the UK and the US will latch onto this clever plan.

Gay Soldiers are Better People Than Me

My thanks to Northern Virginia's representative Jim Moran, who plans to publicise the number of service members discharged from the military each month for revealing their sexuality under the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy (this month: 11). Kudos also go to representative Ellen Tauschser of California, who has proposed an bill to revoke the policy. (Hint - it might be an idea to drop them a friendly note thanking them for their good work in this area. I'm guessing they'll get some less than friendly mail from the other side...)

Stories of gays being kicked out of the military always surprise me a little - not so much the injustice of it as the fact of it. It amazes me that there are gay people who are still willing to sign up for the military.

I mean let's face it - under the best of circumstances, this is a hard job. It takes you far from home, people yell at you a lot, it's a lot of hard work from early to late. Plus, there's the whole "getting shot at and maybe dying for your country" thing, something that has become even more of an issue in recent years. I have absolute respect for anyone who decides to serve their country under those conditions. But then add to that a great big F-You of a policy that says, "we'd really rather you just went away please." Personally, I get insulted if I feel like I'm mildly unwelcome at a party - let alone beign willing to die for my country and being told to get lost.

If I were gay, I'd want nothing to do with these people who apparently want nothing to do with me. The fact that at least some gay folks nevertheless do sign up and stay active is humbling to me. It's better than we deserve, frankly.

John Stewart Rocks My World

Every once in a while, someone is so good at their job that they completely redefine what it means to do what they do. For years now, John Stewart has been in that category - utterly transforming the nature of comedy. He's proved that it can be... journalism.

And the reason he is so good at this is because he's freed himself of the competing limitations of both the comedy and the journalism traditions. The TV comedy tradition demands that participants treat serious matters as if they were fundamentally unimportant, whereas the journalism tradition demands that TV participants pretend that their personal responses are objective truth. John Stewart has discovered that you can talk about things that are serious, important and personal while at the same time being smart and entertaining.

The recent series of pieces he has done about CNBC's appalling financial coverage has been first class - beyond just the best of comedy and the best of journalism. An actual service to the country. AND, I am starting to feel like I understand the financial crisis a little better - something that no other media outlet has been able to do for me so far.

Major props.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

And that about wraps it up for the Lib Dems...

To conclude what has been a mini-series of Liberal Democrat commentary lately, here is my feature post on the LibDem Voice website urging them to be more ambitious. And to my Labour friends out there - you guys have a WHOLE 'nother set of problems. Perhaps I'll do some Labour ruminations next week.

To my Tory friends, however, I'm sorry but I have no advice for you.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Am I Getting Defensive?

So last weekend at my Obama fringe event in Harrogate, one of the speakers was Mark Pack - Head of Innovations for the Liberal Democrats. Being determined to find something that was unlikely to be said by any of us, Mark decided to focus on a list of things Obama got WRONG in his election.

Well, hats off to you Mark, for sheer originality. Even I am beginning to grow weary of the endless recitation of our campaign's manifest perfections.

Still, being the shameless Kool Aid drinker that I am, I couldn't find it within me to entirely agree with all of Mark's criticisms. Here's a quick recap and response:

Alleged Failure No. 1: That the Obama campaign did not involve people in the formation of policy online.

Response: This is absolutely true. They didn't do much of this. However, the complaint contains within it the assumption that this is something a Presidential campaign OUGHT to do - and I'm not sure that assumption is valid. The function of a Presidential campaign is always and only to win an election. If an online policy formation could help us do this, then (as my former President liked to say) bring it on. But I think the judgement was that we specifically didn't want our activists spending their time on this during the eleciton season, we wanted them to hit the ground and get out the vote. It might arguably be a good idea for the DNC to be doing this as part of our ongoing platform process - and I think it very much is something that Organizing for America, the DNC's new grassroots group that grew out of the campaign organisation will do. But Democrats in the US had a pretty fair consensus about the direction we wanted the country to go in. The challenge wasn't finding good policies it was getting into power so that we could implement them (the Liberal Democrats may learn from this what they choose...).

Alleged Failure 2: That the campaign did not successfully respond to the massive numbers of e-mails that they were sent.

Response: I think Mark has a point here, but I'd call this a mixed success rather than an outright failure. Speaking from my personal experience, I found that although I didn't get a personal response to every e-mail I sent, I did get promptly added onto the mailing list as soon as I contacted the campaign. Similarly, I responded several times to feedback requests and surveys where I got an auto-response follow up, which is at least more than others were doing. Still, I think this is definitely one area where future campaigns can do better - the mixed blessing of an overwhelming enthusiasm from supporters is a serious challenge to cope with - DNC General Election Director Paul Tewes called it "drinking from a firehose," which I think conveys some of the sensation of being on the other end of those thousands of e-mails!

Alleged Failure 3: That despite the hype the turnout was not improved by as much as was advertised.

Response: I have to beg to differ with you on that one, Mark. Or at least, to clarify one very important detail that changes the whole landscape: Yes, overall voter participation was only up by only a little more than one percentage point over the already massive 2004 voter participation (although, before I say "only", do you have any idea how hard it is to achieve a 1% increase in nation-wide voter participation? That's millions of people!) but the DEMOCRATIC turnout was up by a little over 2%. Republican turnout, in other words, was depressed compared with 2004. But some will say - why then did Barack Obama only win by 52% of the vote? And this is where it gets depressing - a Democrat has not achieved an outright majority of the US popular vote since Jimmy Carter, and Obama's margin of victory was the biggest Democratic margin of victory since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In other words, Americans for some inexplicable reason don't vote for us very often in large numbers, even though they tend to agree with our policies (surely the Liberal Democrats can relate to that?). I truly think we achieved almost the best achievable level of participation for our voters.

Alleged Failure 4: That the Obama army of small donors was not as large as was advertised.

Response: Mark actually explained the happy cause of this seeming anomoly in his talk, but for those who weren't in the room - the background is that when final financial tallies came in it was discovered that there were a lot more midlevel donors (from $250 to $1,000) than everyone expected and a lot fewer small donors. Simple answer - they were very good at getting additional donations from the initial small donors, turning them into big donors. I started with a $20 donation with no intention to give more. In the end, though, I did wind up giving quite a bit more, although how much more is an Open Secret (that was a hint).

Alleged Failure 5: The campaign did not develop and use new technology, relying instead on perfecting the use of existing technology.

Response: I'd actually dispute this on two levels. Firstly, there was new technology that was developed - Facebook and I-phone applications, clever data mining tools, and lots of others. In fact, one much talked about new application that was developed, called "project Houdini" was aimed at streamlining the Get Out the Vote process by removing voters from the call back lists as soon as they have been identified at the polling places. However, it wasn't a success on election day and wound up being switched off so that it wouldn't take away resources from the more traditional GOTV tools.

Which brings me to my second point. Developing and using new technology was never the goal of this campaign. The goal of this campaign was to win. If the best way to win was by chiseling aramaic letters on clay tablets, that's what we would have done. If new technologies can help, great. But if there's a simpler way to achieve the same outcome, and if it uses technologies that the volunteers and supporters feel comfortable with and can use well, then that's preferable. Technology changes the world by how it's used and that's the kind of innovation that Obama was going for.

Alleged Failure 6: Losing 160,000 friends on MySpace ("the Joe Anthony Incident").

Response: I had to look this one up. Sounds bad. Also seems out of step with the campaign's overall ethos, which was very much to keep hands off whatever anyone else was building for us. Weird.

And finally...

Alleged Failure 7: Did not effectively use Twitter.

Response: Yep, hands up on that one. In my case, I didn't even start using Twitter until after the election, and certainly no one from the campaign was urging me to. I can only speculate that it was a timing thing - Twitter really started to take off towards the end of the campaign, by which point we already had our tools in place and were going full speed ahead for the finish line.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Obama Revokes Bush's Signing Statements

In a radical reversal of established practice, Barack Obama seems to believe that when Congress passes a law the President should treat it as if they meant what they said.

Calling into question the legitimacy of all the signing statements that former President George W. Bush used to challenge new laws, President Obama on Monday ordered executive officials to consult with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. before relying on any of them to bypass a statute.

Mr. Bush frequently used signing statements to declare that provisions in the bills he was signing were unconstitutional constraints on executive power, claiming that the laws did not need to be enforced or obeyed as written. The laws he challenged included a torture ban and requirements that Congress be given detailed reports about how the Justice Department was using the counter-terrorism powers in the USA Patriot Act.

Weird. What's next, actually not torturing instead of saying we won't torture? Oh wait, we're doing that too. Craziness!

LibDemVoice Panel Discussion

Do check out the very interesting panel discussion I participated in. Hosted by LibDemVoice website and featuring myself, Jake Rigg from Obama's speechwriting team, Mark Pack the head of Innovations for the LibDems, and Ed Davey who is MP for Kingston and Surbiton the topic was how to learn the lessons from the Obama campaign here in the UK.

There's good audio of the whole event on the site, and my talk starts just a few minutes in. The event turned out to be massively popular, resulting in much kerfuffle as we dismantled a wall to double the size of the room - and people were still standing at the back, as you can see.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

I'm a liberal Democrat. But am I a Liberal Democrat?

So in America, for years I've been described as a "liberal democrat" by folks who thought that was some sort of crushing insult.

This weekend, I spent a few days in the company of some folks who have gone so far as to join a party CALLED the Liberal Democrats. Who are these raging radicals?

According to Wikipedia:

They support multilateral foreign policy; they opposed British participation in the War in Iraq and support withdrawal of troops from the country, and are the most pro-EU of the three main parties in the UK. The party has strong environmentalist values – favouring renewable energy and commitments to deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Since their foundation, Lib Dems have advocated electoral reform to use proportional representation (a system which would increase their number of seats and those of other minority parties), replacing the House of Lords with an elected chamber, and cutting government departments.

They are also, bless their little cotton socks, a collection of fervently keen political geeks. What the brits call "anoraks", and the Guardian describes as the "beards and sandals brigade." Personally, I found them both good company and a credible political force now that the Labour party is desperately demoralised and the Tories are faced with an economic crisis to which they have no solution.

But the weekend was also a constant reminder for me of the fundamental difference in concept between British and American politics. Politics here is much more party centered - with policy debates held at Conferences like this very much forming the basis of what the party will campaign on in the forthcoming general election (whenever it is called).

Obviously, in the States the Democrats and Republicans both have party platforms that are formed in a somewhat similar way - through resolutions passed at local and national level - but to be frank they are widely ignored by Presidential and Congressional candidates. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, obviously from a democratic-with-a-small d perspective it's bad. It would be seem sensible for party members to have some say in the policies of their party. On the other hand, we do have very open and high profile primarie in which the candidates set out their policies, so you could argue (and I probably would argue) that this is when the voters express their policy preferences in their candidate selection.

But we also have a very different political context in the USA. All three British political parties in the US would fit pretty comfortably within the US Democratic party. So a lot of the policies and approaches of the Democratic party in individual states are going to differ from each other. Therefore national policy setting at a party level isn't really going to be meaningful to folks in Utah or New York.

Anyway - it's all very interesting. A good Conference, and worthy addition to my own political education, for sure (next, I'd like to try some Labour party events...). My major complaint is the hideous, hideous yellow branding. I get that the other two primary colours were already taken, and that the Greens have a claim on the best non-primary alternative but seriously guys, against a yellow backdrop everyone looks jaundiced.

As a side note, one of the stars of the conference was our own Howard Dean, who gave a well received lunchtime keynote address. Dean and I had actually met at a drinks reception a couple days before and he was telling me his thoughts about the LibDem party ("They have a problem that is a lot like the problem my campaign had - their supporters are typically young, highly educated middle class kids. How to you reach beyond that?"). Most interesting, but to forestall any wild rumors I should clarify that the scandalous pictures posted here do not signal a change of orientation.

You can watch his speech online here.