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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ted Stevens' defeat in Alaska marks end of an era



ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Sen. Ted Stevens' election defeat marks the end of an era in which he held a commanding place in Alaska politics while wielding power on some of the most influential committees in Congress.

It also moves Senate Democrats within two seats of a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority and gives President-elect Barack Obama a stronger hand when he assumes office on Jan. 20.

On the day the longest-serving Republican in Senate history turned 85, he was ousted by Alaska voters troubled by his conviction on federal felony charges and eager for a new direction in Washington, where Stevens served since Lyndon B. Johnson was president.

Alaska voters "wanted to see change," said Democrat Mark Begich, who claimed a narrow victory Tuesday after a tally of remaining ballots showed him holding a 3,724-vote edge.

"Alaska has been in the midst of a generational shift - you could see it," said Begich, the Anchorage mayor.

Democrats now hold 58 Senate seats, when two independents who align with Democrats are included, with undecided races in Minnesota and Georgia.

"With seven seats and counting now added to the Democratic ranks in the Senate, we have an even stronger majority that will bring real change to America," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement.

Stevens' pursuit of a seventh term was damaged by his conviction in federal court - just days before the election - for lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from an oil field services company.

He was trying to become the first convicted felon to win election to the Senate. A survey of people leaving polling places conducted for The Associated Press and television networks found that two of three voters considered Stevens' trial a factor in their decision. Begich voters cited it as an issue more often.

Stevens' lawyer had demanded a speedy trial, hoping for exoneration in time to fight the first serious threat to his seat in decades. But the trial in Washington not only left Stevens a felon, it deprived him of time to campaign in his home state.

"I wouldn't wish what I'm going through on anyone, my worst enemy," Stevens told reporters in Washington on Tuesday before the vote count. "I haven't had a night's sleep for almost four months."

Still, he said he will not ask President George W. Bush to give him a pardon for his seven felony convictions.

Tuesday's tally of just over 24,000 absentee and other ballots gave Begich 150,728, or 47.76 percent, to 147,004, or 46.58 percent, for Stevens. There are about 2,500 overseas ballots yet to be counted.

A recount is possible. Stevens did not issue a statement, and campaign aides did not respond to calls for comment.

In Alaska, the losing candidate or a collection of 10 voters has three days to petition for a recount unless the vote was a tie, in which case it would be automatic. If the difference between the candidates is within 0.5 percent of the total votes cast, the state pays for the recount, to be started within three days of the recount petition. The state Elections Division has 10 days to complete the recount.

The crotchety octogenarian occupies an outsized place in Alaska history. His involvement in politics dates to the days before Alaska statehood, and he is esteemed for his ability to secure billions of dollars in federal aid for transportation and military projects. The Anchorage airport bears his name; to Alaskans, it's simply "Uncle Ted."

"He symbolizes Alaska's legitimacy, that Alaska is a player on the national stage as much as anybody else," University of Alaska Anchorage history professor Steve Haycox said.

His defeat could also allow Republican senators to sidestep the task of determining whether to kick out the longest serving member of their party in the Senate.

When counting resumed Tuesday, 1,022 votes divided the candidates out of about 315,000 ballots cast. Most of the those votes came from areas that had favored Begich - the Anchorage vicinity and the southeastern panhandle around Juneau.

It is a testament to Stevens' popularity - he was once named "Alaskan of the Century" - that he won nearly half the votes, even after his conviction. He routinely brought home the highest number of government dollars per capita in the nation - more than $9 billion in 2006 alone, according to one estimate.

In a state where oil and politics have always mixed, the conviction came as part of a long-running investigation into government corruption centered around VECO.

Following the trial Stevens said he wanted another term "because I love this land and its people" and vowed to press on with an appeal. Professing his innocence, he blamed his legal problems on his former friend Bill Allen, the former VECO Corp. chairman, the government's star witness.

Begich will be the first Democrat to represent Alaska in the Senate in nearly 30 years. He is the son of Nick Begich, Alaska's third congressman, who died in a 1972 plane crash.

Stevens refused pleas from his own party leaders to step down after the verdict, including Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee who said the Alaska senator had "broken his trust with the people."

Stevens' fall came shortly after another Alaskan, Gov. Sarah Palin, emerged as a national figure on the Republican presidential ticket. She called for Stevens to step aside at one point, but appeared to back away from that the day after the election, when returns showed Stevens with an edge.

"The people of Alaska just spoke," she said.

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Associated Press writers Jesse J. Holland and Andrew Taylor in Washington and Rachel D'Oro in Anchorage contributed to this report.

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Sarah Palin is Not Secretly a Genius

Daniel Polansky

And other obvious truths that shouldn’t need proving.

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Some very smart, very serious people have been spending a lot of time lately working themselves into a tizzy trying to defend their ongoing romance with the Governor of Alaska. “Okay,” they seem willing to admit, “Palin might be a little weak on foreign policy, domestic policy, energy policy, financial policy, the economy in general, the fundamental workings of the state and federal government, geography, rhetoric, history and basic grammar, but these are just gaps in her knowledge, easily fixable by a spending a few hours in front of Wikipedia or flipping through flash cards. They don’t in any way cast doubt in some fundamental way on her intellect or character.”

This is such a bizarre and indefensible thesis that one almost feels bad responding to it, as one would the taunts of children or the developmentally disabled. I had hoped that as the election subsided the Governor’s defenders would shrink away chagrined, the bitter morning light revealing the object of their affaire de coeur a false Aphrodite, her nails pasties and her luxurious hair a weave. But the choruses of “Palin 2012” have not abated and thus it becomes necessary to dispense with this whole “Palin is smart but untutored” meme once and for all.

First, Gov. Palin may be young for a politician but she is not in fact actually young. Forty-four is a lot of years to have spent walking the earth without having learned all the countries involved in the North American Free Trade Agreement (there are three, and she’s a governor for one of them.) The suggestion that she’s some sort of prodigy who just hasn’t been exposed to basic civic information is absurd. If this woman were anywhere near sharp enough to be put in charge of any major undertaking she would have picked up this information solely by osmosis after nearly a half-century.

There is also the assumption that all of these nuanced policy-related questions are somehow out of her bailiwick, as if someone sprinted up to her and demanded in-depth information about how to caulk a faucet or snake a drain. But Palin isn’t ignorant as compared with say, the head of the CIA or the Secretary of Education—she seems to lack fundamental knowledge about basic information. Her inability to name a Supreme Court decision in the Couric interview, or obviously the whole is-Africa-a-continent thing—this isn’t like being unsure of the sub-chairmen of the Pakistani senate. Any reasonably intelligent individual, interested in the workings of the society in which they operate and the world in which they reside would have been able to pick most of this stuff up. To return to the previous analogy for a moment, this is the equivalent of expecting her to know that excrement goes in the toilet and not the sink—you don’t exactly need to be Joe the Plumber to have hashed that one out.

All this, of course, is putting aside the obvious truth that she is not only a politician but also an elected official, and thus expected to be capable of coherent speech about politics in general and the government that she serves in particular. The entire purpose of a representative democracy is that the people elect an individual of appropriate intellect and character who is (or at least becomes) an expert on the issues they face. Her ignorance therefore of political issues represents not simply a disturbing lack of intellectual curiosity for the executive of a state but an actual failure on her part to faithfully discharge the duties of her office.

Against these varied and reasonable objections her defenders can offer little. At best they mistake charisma for intellect, at worst they rant endlessly about elitism, as if only latte-sipping New York theater critics consider being able to present one’s thoughts coherently a prerequisite of leadership. If possible they prefer not to enter into the debate at all, fiating simply that by virtue of having obtained her post she must be an individual of substantive intellectual standing. This is a cheap form of argumentum ad populum, and its introduction into the debate is sophistry. I have no idea why the citizens of Alaska elected this woman governor—likely they intuited she wasn’t exactly the reincarnation of Isaac Newton but felt her sufficiently equipped to cut them their oil money check. Mass democracy is a poor method of assigning merit. Hitler was elected chancellor. The people of Washington, DC elected Marion Barry governor (twice). One does not accept consensus opinion over the reporting of one’s senses and the judgments of objective reason.

It is understandable that people like Gov. Palin; she's quite likable. I kind of like her. But it's unreasonable not to recognize that the qualities one finds attractive in Palin are not the qualities that would serve the country in good stead as a national politician. Foremost amongst those traits not in the meaty section of the Venn Diagram between “Successful Leaders” and “Sarah Palin” is the ability to process and synthesize raw information. While it is true in the abstract that intellect and knowledge are not identical, in practice they are two horses that generally pull in the same harness. Ignorant people tend to be stupid, and stupid people tend to be ignorant. In my mind, any reasonable observer watching Palin’s performance since entering the national stage would have to conclude that she is both.

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* News * World news * Obama White House Hillary Clinton to accept Obama's offer of secretary of state job

Jonathan Freedland on the pros and cons of Hillary Clinton becoming US secretary of state Link to this video

Hillary Clinton plans to accept the job of secretary of state offered by Barack Obama, who is reaching out to former rivals to build a broad coalition administration, the Guardian has learned.

Obama's advisers have begun looking into Bill Clinton's foundation, which distributes millions of dollars to Africa to help with development, to ensure that there is no conflict of interest. But Democrats do not believe that the vetting is likely to be a problem.

Clinton would be well placed to become the country's dominant voice in foreign affairs, replacing Condoleezza Rice. Since being elected senator for New York, she has specialised in foreign affairs and defence. Although she supported the war in Iraq, she and Obama basically agree on a withdrawal of American troops.

Clinton, who still harbours hopes of a future presidential run, had to weigh up whether she would be better placed by staying in the Senate, which offers a platform for life, or making the more uncertain career move to the secretary of state job.

As part of the coalition-building, Obama today also reached out to his defeated Republican rival, John McCain, to discuss how they could work together to roll back some of the most controversial policies of the Bush years. Putting aside the bitter words thrown about with abandon by both sides during the election campaign, McCain flew to meet Obama at his headquarters in the Kluczynski Federal Building, in downtown Chicago.

Obama, speaking before the meeting, said: "We're going to have a good conversation about how we can do some work together to fix up the country." He said he also wanted to thank McCain for his service to the country.

Asked by a reporter whether he would work with Obama, McCain, who has long favoured a bipartisan approach to politics, replied: "Obviously".

Sources on both sides said Obama did not offer McCain a cabinet job, but focused on how the senator for Arizona could help to guide through Congress legislation that they both strongly favour.

Given Obama's status as president-in-waiting, the two met in a formal setting, a room decked out with a US flag, and were accompanied by senior advisers. Obama appeared the more relaxed of the two, sitting with legs crossed, smiling broadly and waving to reporters, while McCain sat stiffly, with a seemingly fixed grin.

Although the two clashed during the election campaign over tax policy and withdrawal from Iraq, they have more in common than they have differences. They both favour the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention centre, an increase in US troops to Afghanistan, immigration reform, stem cell research and measures to tackle climate change, and oppose torture and the widespread use of wire-tapping.

Although Democrats made gains in the Senate in the November 4 elections, they fell short of the 60 seats that would have allowed them to override Republican blocking tactics and will need Republican allies to get Obama's plans through. This was highlighted today when the Democratic leadership in Congress announced that a broad economic stimulus package Obama sought was not likely to be passed because of Republican opposition.

Obama confirmed at the weekend that he would offer jobs to some Republicans. One of the names that crops up most often is Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator who is a specialist in foreign affairs and a critic of the Iraq war.

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