Understanding the Issues: Now and Months from Now

This fall, I came to see how little I understood the major issues of the American federal election. I'd like to figure out a long term strategy for learning about the world and keeping informed about the relevant issues in politics. I compiled a lot of sources to use in following the election, but once the election is over, we're going to be facing different short term challenges from those months before the election. I'll come back to sort through my list a month or two from now once the dust settles a bit.

I was right, more or less

I went out on a limb (sort of) and made some predictions about yesterday's vice presidential debate. This morning, I am now prepared to claim that I was basically right about my predictions: that Joe Biden won't say anything really silly, that Sarah Palin would do well in the debate (by not making any big gaffes), and that overall the debate won't shift things too much for the two tickets. It might be too early to declare victory but I can say that James Fallows would (more or less) agree with me: James Fallows (October 02, 2008) - Your VP debate wrapup in four bullet points (Politics)

Learning as an amateur pundit

Although I always suspected that I was a political junkie, I only had unmistakable confirmation of my obsession these last couple weeks. Laura knows how much like to talk about politics. One of the fascinating aspects about political culture is that everyone seems to have an opinion, whether it is well-founded or not. I also have opinions, some of which are based on deep thinking and care for the reality of the world -- and others that are probably just unexamined prejudices. I do tend to be reticent about expressing my opinions about things that I've not through very carefully. Overall, I'm pleased with my disposition towards careful, thoughtful expression.

The downside though is that you can learn a lot by actually just saying what you believe, without worrying primarily about whether you have all the facts and reasoning straighten out. I find it difficult to say what I feel in my gut to be true if I haven't had a chance to carefully think everything through. The problem is that some matters are so complicated that it's difficult, if not impossible, to reason everything through Before saying anything at all. The end result would be confused silence.

The upshot of this musing: make a prediction on something relatively minor and then to see how my prediction bears out. OK -- I'm pretty keen to watch tonight's vice presidential debate, wondering how it will affect public perception of Obama/Biden vs. McCain/Palin. Let me guess what will happen:

  • I don't believe that Sarah Palin is adequately prepared for the job of vice-president, as evidenced by her weak answers during her interview with Katie Couric. However, I think she'll do quite well in tonight's debate. She'll be able to come across as very personable in her prepared remarks, and I think she'll be successful in staying vague in areas she doesn't know much about. I expect her to be well prepared. I think that Joe Biden, in trying to exercise restraint in not indulging his trademark loquacious, won't be able to put Palin in a bad light. I also don't think the moderators of the debate will be too effective in highlighting Palin's shortcomings.
  • I don't expect Joe Biden to say anything really silly. In fact, I'm concerned that item will be to restrained because he might get dinged for appearing to be overbearing (too knowledgeable???)
  • It's too bad that we are wondering about matters (such as whether Biden or Palin will slip up), stuff that really shouldn't be the focus of our attention. I don't know much about Joe Biden, but was deeply impressed with him when I heard him on Sept 11, 2001, urging the country to remain calm and exercise restraint.
  • Overall I don't think this debate will shift things too much in terms of the public perception of the two tickets, though some think it might.

This is what I think will happen, though I'm far from confident that I'll be correct. I may have to eat my words! I'm struck by how much my expectations for this debate -- and my whole framing -- have been strongly influenced by media coverage and analysis. The interesting thing for me will be to compare the predictions with what actually happens and analyze where and how I predicted correctly and where I didn't. (The outcome of tonight's debate isn't necessarily the most important thing for me to be pondering today but it was the first thing I reached for as the subject of my amateur punditry.) I hope that this process of making predictions and seeing how I do will help me become a more insightful -- and humble -- analyst of the world.

P.S. I'll have to compare my views with something like Cue The Comeback:

    So, my advice to Governor Palin is to stop letting your fussy handlers freak you out. You're going to do just fine. You won't be on that stage alone. Biden is bound to open himself up for at least a couple of good scoldings. The media is poised to write your comeback story. Your base is going to love you no matter what. And if things do happen to go badly, you can always claim that Ifill wanted to take you out as a way to sell more books. All things considered, there's really no way you can lose. Unless this Ifill book dust-up compels the debate commission to replace her with Katie Couric tomorrow night. Then you're pretty much screwed.

Summarizing where the presidential candidates stand on the issues

Although I am an Obama supporter and have some sense of where he and his opponents stand on various issues, I haven't worked to make my understanding systematic. In addition to reading widely and compiling my findings, I figure that I could get a jumpstart by first studying the Wikipedia article Comparison of United States presidential candidates, 2008. One thing that you immediately learn at a glance from the article is that there are people other than McCain and Obama running for President. I like most people tend to ignore those minor candidates because they have very little practical chance of winning. However, their advocacy for other positions serve to critique and illuminate the mainline candidates' positions. It's all too easy to confine ourselves unnecessarily to the relatively narrow spectrum of thinking represented by Democrats and Republicans.

following the predictions for Obama vs. McCain

The American presidential election has become quite a horse race. As a political junky, I like the follow the latest predictions of who will win and why. Websites that I have found helpful for this purpose include:


I enjoy watching online episodes of the PBS series FRONTLINE. Yesterday, I started viewing FRONTLINE: on our watch:

    The world vowed "never again" after the genocide in Rwanda and the atrocities in Srebrenica, Bosnia. Then came Darfur. Over the past four years, at least 200,000 people have been killed, 2.5 million driven from their homes, and mass rape has been used as a weapon in a brutal campaign supported by the Sudanese government. In On Our Watch, FRONTLINE asks why the United Nations and its members once again failed to stop the slaughter.

The program prompted me to revisit Save Darfur's Take Action section. I also discovered a source of analysis that I hadn't known about concerning Darfur and Sudan: sudanreeves.org :: Sudan Research, Analysis, and Advocacy by Eric Reeves, an English professor who has devoted the last nine years researching and writing about Sudan. I took a small action today by signing my name to an email urging President Bush to take some immediate action. I hope that it will make some difference, even a small one, in bringing justice and peace to the region.