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Steven’s hope is to return to aviation. That is his love.” — Howard Turman, attorney for Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater, arrested after exiting a plane via emergency slide after an alleged altercation with a passenger


midterm elections Myths about 5 by Alan Abramowitz and Norman Ornstein


With Tuesday’s elections in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia and Minnesota over and the feuds that mark primary season finally winding down, voters and pundits can turn their attention to this year’s real political fight: November’s general election, when all 435 House seats, along with 37 Senate seats, will be up for grabs. Midterm elections are a uniquely American ritual — most democracies choose their legislators and executive leaders at the same time — and they have, over the years, given rise to their share of homegrown political wisdom. But not all of that wisdom is borne out by recent history.


Midterm votes foretell future election results.


Midterm elections are largely determined by short-term factors, including the popularity of the president and the state of the economy. As a result, they rarely indicate anything about longer-term trends, and they have no value in predicting the results of the subsequent presidential and congressional elections. Presidents whose parties have suffered major midterm losses — such as Harry Truman in 1946, Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Bill Clinton in 1994— have gone on to win reelection easily two years later. So even if Republicans make major gains in 2010, as is widely expected, it won’t tell us anything about what will happen in


1


2012. That said, presidential elections


often predict midterms. For one thing, the president’s party almost always loses seats in the midterms. And if a president’s election provided major coattails — big gains for his party in Congress — his party tends to lose more seats than usual in the next midterm elections. But even here, there are exceptions. Although Clinton was elected president in 1992 with negative coattails (Democrats lost nine House seats that year), his party still suffered a massive loss of 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate in the 1994 midterm vote. Later, Clinton’s second midterm election, in 1998, was one of only three in the past century in which the president’s party actually gained House seats. In 2008, the Democrats picked up 21


seats in the House, having just gained 30 seats in the 2006 midterms. It is exceedingly rare for a party to have gains that large in two consecutive elections — and unprecedented to have a third big gain in a row. So even as Republicans reeled in humiliation after their rivals’ landslide victory in 2008, they might have taken comfort in the prospect of a sharp comeback in 2010.


It’s an anti-incumbent year. 2


We hear this almost every time midterm elections come along at a time of widespread


voter discontent. But even when voters seem very unhappy, the vast majority of incumbents in both parties are reelected. Despite Congress’s low approval ratings this year, only a handful of incumbents have lost their primaries, and there were peculiar reasons for several of those defeats. While a second round of incumbents is likely to lose seats in November, it is unlikely that more than 10 percent of lawmakers will be ousted. Even in 1974, which was the worst midterm for incumbents in the past 50 years, 87.7 percent of Congress won reelection. Voters are highly selective in voting out incumbents in the general election — even when polls suggest that they are eager to boot all the rascals and clean house, they rarely follow through. The incumbents who do lose in a given midterm tend to come overwhelmingly from the president’s party. In 1994, during Clinton’s presidency, only Democratic incumbents lost; in 2006, during George W. Bush’s second term, only Republican incumbents lost. This year it is likely that almost all of the incumbent casualties will be Democrats.


The president’s message is crucial.


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In fact, his message has little effect on midterm elections. If voters are unhappy with the president and the economy is bad, even a great communicator such as Reagan can do little to prevent significant losses by his party. The same is true for presidential advisers. Karl Rove looked like a genius in 2002


because Bush was still enjoying strong public approval in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Four years later, in 2006, Rove didn’t look so smart when voters took out their dissatisfaction with the president and the Iraq war on Republican congressional candidates. Of course, some individual seats will


always be affected by the president’s message. And in a year when the difference between Democrats losing 35 or 40 House seats is the difference between having Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Speaker John Boehner, every district matters. But overall, there is probably little that Obama can say or do in the next couple of months to change the broad outcome of this year’s elections. The die has already been cast.


It’s always about the economy.


to significant losses by that party in the midterms. But a poor economy does not automatically mean electoral disaster — and a strong economy does not guarantee good results, particularly if voters are concerned about other problems, such as scandals or wars. In 1966, for instance, the economy was booming, but Democrats suffered big losses in the midterm elections, in part because voters were unhappy with President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War and his response to domestic unrest, and in part because the pendulum was simply swinging back toward the middle after big Democratic gains in 1964. In 2006, the economy was in decent shape, but growing opposition to Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq and high-profile Republican congressional scandals contributed to big GOP losses. In 1982, unemployment was at 10.8 percent as the midterms neared, and conventional wisdom said Reagan’s Republicans were done for. Republicans did lose 26 of the 33 House seats they had gained in 1980 — but they gained a seat in the Senate. This year, however, the economy


4


may trump all. Thanks to the economic collapse, the bailouts of fat cats that followed, and stubbornly sluggish growth and high unemployment, it’s once again the economy, stupid.


Not always. A down economy generally makes the president’s party look bad and contributes


Midterms provide mandates. 5


To the degree that voting results in congressional districts around the country add up to


any unified message, it is a judgment on the party in power — and usually a negative one at that. But the winning party, aided by a media that wants to dramatize election results, tends to spin this judgment as a sign of public support for its policy goals. If they win big in November, Republicans will no doubt argue that they have received a mandate to pursue their agenda — and more important, to block or even try to reverse the president’s agenda. Democrats similarly claimed their own mandate when they recaptured Congress in 2006. But such declarations can backfire: After their big win in 1994, congressional Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, acted as if the president were irrelevant and they were in charge of the government. That gave Clinton an opportunity to portray the Republicans as arrogant and extreme, and it ultimately contributed to his easy reelection in 1996. If Republicans make the same


mistake in 2011 — and already, some House Republicans are talking seriously about cutting off funding for the health-care overhaul and parts of the Wall Street reform plan passed this year — the public reaction is likely to be the same as it was in 1995, when the GOP-engineered shutdown of the government caused a huge backlash against Gingrich and his party. That would make Obama the big winner of the 2010 midterm elections.


Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley professor of political science at Emory University and the author of “The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization and American Democracy.” Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a co-author of “The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.”


on washingtonpost.com


Alan Abramowitz will discuss this article Monday at 11 a.m.


at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


THE WASHINGTON POST


Sorry, white bread. There’s a new loaf in town. I


In 1913, a Parisian professor named Le- by Greg Beato


n July, one of the longest losing streaks in the history of culinary combat finally came to end. Accord- ing to the Nielsen Company, 52-week dollar sales of packaged wheat bread topped those of white bread for the first time in U.S. supermarkets. Call it a victory for health — but nutritional aspects alone don’t account for this reversal of fortune. For years — no, make that millennia — the public has chosen white bread over its darker, grainier counterpart. In 77 A.D., Pliny noted in his Naturalis Historia that his fellow Romans preferred to mix the “swarthy” wheat of Cyprus with the “white wheat of Alexandria” to produce a lighter loaf. As humanity marched forth into the supermarket era, its tastes remained un- changed, and white bread commanded far more shelf space than wheat. To overcome such entrenched consumer preferences required more than just a superior supply of fiber and antioxidants. It required supe- rior marketing, too. Indeed, it’s not as if we’ve only recently learned that bread made from refined white flour — which includes the starchy endosperm of the wheat berry but not the nutrient-packed branand germ— is not as healthy as bread made with whole-wheat flour. In the 1830s, the furiously chaste Presbyterian minister and baker Sylvester Graham railed against the evils of refined white flour.


tulle published, in the words of a contem- porary report in the New York Times, “an energetic protest” against white bread. “The childishly unfortunate idea that the peasant’s black bread is less fine and desir- able than white bread is a national peril,” the professor thundered. “France has changed an essential of her nourishment.” Around the same time, a British profes- sor observed that in his country, “the gen- eral public, and especially the working classes, prefer the white bread produced from the higher grade flours of the roller mill.” In the late 1920s, whole-wheat-bread


evangelists apparently had some impact on eating habits in the United States. “The fanatical food faddists that lurk in the so- called intellectual centres of the self-suffi- cient East have, through their insidious and poisonous propaganda against the use of white bread, cut down the national consumption of wheat to the point where the farmer must produce it at a loss,” ex- claimed one irate white-bread loyalist rep- resenting 6,000 Kansas hotels and restau- rants that aimed to “return white bread to a semblance of its former prestige.” Apparently their effort worked. In 1935, white bread was back in favor, at least in New York, with local bakers reporting that it accounted for 83 percent to 95 percent of their bread sales. In 1943, English, Scot- tish and American soldiers released from Nazi prison camps expressed their desire for white bread and cigarettes. In 1947, a


survey of 5,000 U.S. homemakers conduct- ed by the Department of Agriculture found that only 16 percent of them were using whole-wheat bread “most frequent- ly.”


In that era, a loaf of Wonder Bread still had cachet. It was bread as machine-made staff of life, the yeast-and-flour analogue to an Eames molded plywood chair: streamlined, utilitarian and built to last. Each slice was exactly like all the others, a product of extreme capitalism that para- doxically projected more than a little all- for-one-one-for-all collectivist spirit. Each slice was a squishy, 60-calorie serving of America at midcentury. But even a major dose of calcium propi-


onate cannot preserve a brand’s popu- larity forever. In 1970, a dishwasher study- ing to be a Zen priest submitted his book of bread recipes to a hippie publishing


In this world of pandemic


connoisseurship, there’s no place for supermarket white bread.


company in Berkeley, Calif. The “Tassajara Bread Book” became a surprise hit, help- ing launch an artisan breadmaking craze. Many of the fancy new loaves that started showing up in restaurants and grocery stores were still white bread — think seed- ed sourdough boules and potato rosemary ciabatta — but they all reinforced the idea that good bread was handmade from a limited number of ingredients that didn’t take a PhDin food science to decipher. In the decades that followed, funky health-food stores evolved into the design- er supermarket Whole Foods. Ciabatta trickled down from Chez Panisse to Jack in the Box. And now, everywhere you look, stylish, discerning rebels reject the ano- mie of highly industrialized, global con- sumerism in favor of a more local, pictur- esque, upscale version. They drink small- batch vodka infused with heirloom beets at underground farmers markets. They wear limited-edition blue jeans made in historic North Carolina denim mills using vintage shuttle looms. In this new world of pandemic connois- seurship, there’s no place for standard su- permarket white bread. Forget its lack of nutritional value and its status as a symbol of technological progress. It has no inter- esting story to tell. It isn’t made with local- ly harvested anything. Slightly obsessive bakers using painstaking old-world tradi- tions never laid their hands upon it. In his book “In Defense of Food: An Eat-


er’s Manifesto,” Michael Pollan demotes products such as Wonder Bread from food


ALLISON GHAMAN/


to “foodlike substances.” They’re not au- thentic. They have no provenance. Whole-grain bread is just the opposite.


It’s tastier than it was 20 years ago, but just as important, it’s more tasteful, too. It sig- nifies the sophistication of your palate, your appreciation for texture and variety. It certifies your preference for sensible products that deliver real value. Of course, frazzled parents shopping af- ter work aren’t necessarily looking for sta- tus symbols in the bread aisle. But what starts with cultural tastemakers such as Pollan eventually ripples outward. And in a surprisingly short time, whole-wheat bread has gone from a “yes, but” product to one with real cachet. “It used to be, ‘Oh, you poor thing, you have that nasty brown bread,’ ” says Kara Berrini, program man- ager for the Whole Grains Council, a non- profit advocacy organization. “Now it’s, ‘Oh, you poor thing. You have that nasty white bread. I have this amazing complex whole-grain bread, and there’s stuff on top, and there’s a lot going on, and I’m so sorry for you.’ ”


Or to put it another way, white bread is Old Bread, legacy bread, a bygone era’s carbohydrates. Wheat bread is contempo- rary. The grainier you like it, the more re- fined your sensibilities. The darker it is, the greater your chance for enlighten- ment.


gbeato@soundbitten.com


Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.


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