Mourning In America

A New York Democrat on politics, journalism, and the Mets

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Saturday, August 16, 2003
Rating the Pols Now that the lights are coming back on, it's fair to look back and assess how well our leaders reacted to the crisis. Here's my take:
NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg -- Led

NYS "Governor" George Pataki -- Followed

President George "Wobbly" Bush -- Got Out of the Way

Bloomberg took to the airwaves early and often to keep his city's residents as informed as possible. With hindsight, his early pronouncements that Friday would be "business as usual" in the city were clearly too optimistic, but better that than the latter, and they didn't cause any damage -- no one stopped trying to find alternative ways home because they were betting that the lights would be back on Thursday night.

While the media seems convinced that the outage severely limited the audience for Bloomberg's comments, I think they're wrong -- I walked a good portion of the length of Manhattan on Thursday, listening to the coverage on the radio, and I passed hundreds of people doing the same.

Bloomberg's press briefings were the only source of useful information -- and a very welcome departure from WCBS anchor Tony Guida's incessant reminders that Thursday's Yankee game would be carried on WFAN instead of CBS, or the CBS reporters' personal tales of terror during the blackout (Panting Reporter: "I was in the Lincoln Tunnel when the lights went out, and I thought, 'so this is how it ends.' I was just waiting for the water to start rising.").

As important, the city government was able to back up Bloomberg's reassuring presence by keeping the peace and eventually even sorting out the traffic gridlock that tied up much of Manhattan. The similarities between Bloomberg's performance and that of his predecessor during the city's last major crisis were striking, and could help cement his effort to rebuild his public image in the wake of his tough-but-necessary moves to cut spending and raise taxes.

New York's "Governor" wandered some weird tangents. With the city police and other emergency services units keeping the peace very effectively, Pataki was reduced to making sure everyone knew that he could call out the National Guard, and would ... just say the word! Pataki also sought to seize the role of uninformed angry man -- demanding "answers" from the electric utilities just a few hours after the blackout, when cooler heads were worrying about finishing the successful evacuation of Manhattan and restoring power.

Presumably he knows that the utility deregulation he and his fellow Republicans championed over the last 10 years is likely to be implicated for, if nothing else, establishing an environment in which the nation's utilities under-invested in their transmission infrastructure. In shouting for "answers," Pataki is hoping to drown out the questions that will be coming his way.

This 4-paragraph Reuters dispatch is one of the few stories in which Pataki is the main player -- and that's simply to announce that the power was back on, which presumably the audience already knew!

That leaves us with the President. Again, he reverted to his 9/11 form -- disappearing. And don't believe the White House's revisionist hype about his single-minded devotion to getting to the bottom of the blackout -- there was money to be made! Bush went ahead with a $1 million fundraiser in San Diego Thursday night.

On the other hand, maybe the less he said the better -- sometimes it's in the nation's best interest to believe that its leaders are competent, and exchanges like this one in the President's first meeting with the press after the blackout (more than 4 hours after the problem emerged!) are not reassuring:

Q Mr. President, you said that the state and locals had said they have all the resources they need. Can you talk about what the federal government might do, or might already be doing to help them out?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, one thing, of course, we're doing is we're getting the airlines running. The FAA is -- as I understand, has cleared flights out of LaGuardia and Newark, for example.

Oh, yeah -- at 8:30 PM EDT, with darkness falling and the city on edge, waiting to see if any looters would emerge, I'm sure Bloomberg was sitting in his City Hall bullpen thinking, "Man, Thank God they've cleared flights out of Newark.

Friday, August 15, 2003
What's Behind the Blackout? There'll be a lot of talk about lightning strikes and "cascading failures" in the next few days, but I think it's safe to conclude that the blackout was completely planned by the government -- sort of a cultural-immersion program for New Yorkers.

The question is, was it intended to teach us what it's like to live in Baghdad, or San Francisco?

Thursday, August 14, 2003
The Opposite of Florida? Members of the media who are predicting chaos following the October California recall election often fall back on a stock phrase, warning about "another Florida." I think we're likely to see a familiar spasm of post-Election Day confusion and claims that the vote is non-representative of the people, but the route to that result might be very different.

In 2000, thousands of Florida ballots were disqualified because voters punched more than one hole in their ballots. The biggest problem in California could be people not punching enough holes in their ballots. Consider this: The Wall Street Journal today carries a long feature story on Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's "No on recall, Yes on Bustamante!" slogan, calling it "a difficult voter-education job if ever there was one."

But at least he's aware of what he's up against -- and, importantly, is reminding his voters that there are two questions on the ballot. On the other hand, Schwarzenegger's campaign thus far has taken voter support for the recall of unpopular Gov. Gray Davis as a given, instead focusing almost exclusively on Schwarzenegger's ability to help the state. Could that approach end up fatally underplaying the recall question itself? Here's the scenario:

  • Tens of thousands of infrequent or never-before voters show up on Oct. 7 to support the Terminator, only to be confronted with long lines (since most counties are cutting back on the number of polling places even as turnout is expected to surge).

  • When they finally get to the front, they are met with huge ballots listing at least 145 candidates' names.

  • Feeling pressure to keep the line moving, they quickly scan the sheet. The first familiar name they come across is Gray Davis' (in the context of the question of whether he should be removed from office) -- they move on right away, knowing they don't want any piece of him. They go on to find Arnold's name and check him off, submit their ballot and leave ... without ever opining on the recall itself!

  • As the votes are [slowly] tallied, watch to see if the votes for replacement candidates(in aggregate) are outpacing votes on the recall itself. If it plays out that way, it's gotta be good for Davis. If current polls showing public opinion running 2-to-1 in favor of the recall, he's toast anyway, but if it's close...

    NEW YORK TRIVIA: Incidentally, "undervoting" is the most common voter error in the voting-machine equipped precincts in New York. The way it works here is that for your vote to be cast, you need to flip down the tags alongside each of your chosen candidates, then pull back the big lever to register the vote. Pulling back the big lever returns the little tags back to their original position (thus ensuring that no one else can see your choices). But many privacy-obsessed New Yorkers flip down the tags, thinking that alone registers the vote, then manually return them all to the original position before pulling the big lever, thus filing an empty ballot. The machines can be tweaked to eliminate that possibility, and a lawsuit is pending that seeks to force the Board of Elections to do just that, contending that thousands of voters have inadvertently forfeited their choices...

    Wednesday, August 13, 2003
    Georgie Needs a New Set of Headlines Any number of gems in the President's press conference on the economy today, but let's start here. Apparently, poor George is feeling a bit overshadowed by Arnold:
    THE PRESIDENT: It is the biggest political story in the country? That's interesting. That says a lot. That speaks volumes.

    Q: You don't agree?

    THE PRESIDENT: It's up to -- I don't get to decide the biggest political story. You decide the biggest political story. But I find it interesting that that is the biggest political story in the country, as you just said.

    Q: You don't think it should be?

    THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I think there's maybe other political stories. Isn't there, like, a presidential race coming up? (Laughter.) Maybe that says something. It speaks volumes, if you know what I mean.

    I'm not sure what he means, but I'm thinking that if Arnold keeps leading the networks' newscasts, I might think about staying away from Tehran or Damascus. I haven't heard a Republican this upset since Newt was relegated to the back of Air Force One...

    Monday, August 11, 2003
    Smarter Than The Average Barbarian? Kausfiles has an interesting take on Schwarzenegger's preparation for the "real issues:"
    We now know Schwarzenegger faked out practically everyone by raising expectations that he would not run and then running -- a feint that dramatically heightened the impact of his announcement. Is he setting up a similar trap on the issue of policy "specifics?" It seems clear to me that he is smart enough to deliver the outlines of, say, a budget deal while staying vague where he has to. Yet, with reporters hounding him daily for "substance," expectations are now so low and impatience so high that when he does deliver some specifics, it will seem like a triumphant revelation. ...

    I'm still hung up on his opening-night miscue in which he inadvertently declared that the state's bond rating had fallen to junk status, so I'm not buying yet. But the possibility is intriguing...

    UPDATE: For those who care, here's a transcript of his opening-night press conference. The bond-ratings gaffe is in the second paragraph. It's worth scrolling to the bottom for my favorite quote of his campaign: "Everything has to be provided for the people." Socialist leanings die hard... oh, wait -- wrong actor.