Topic: Government and Politics

What Do TV Ratings for Speeches Mean?

Last week it was reported that Barack Obama’s acceptance speech was the most-watched convention speech ever, with 38.4 million viewers. Then, six days later, the Republican vice presidential nominee came within an inch of his record total. And then Nielsen reported that John McCain’s speech edged out Obama’s, making him the most-watched presidential nominee ever.

But there’s a footnote to this victory. Nielsen rates the audiences on commercial networks. But PBS says that 3.5 million people watched its broadcast of Obama’s speech, while only 2.7 million watched McCain on PBS. Why? Need you ask? PBS is a government-funded network for liberals. More people watched McCain on the conservative Fox News Channel, more people watched Obama on the liberal PBS. So if you add in the PBS figures, Obama probably has a very slight edge in total viewers. (Nielsen also doesn’t rate C-SPAN, which doesn’t release viewing figures.)

But does any of this matter? Dudley Clendinen reported in the New York Times [$] on August 26, 1984, that more people watched Walter Mondale’s acceptance speech than President Reagan’s. Reagan went on to win the election by 59 to 41 percent. And Jesse Jackson’s convention speech drew more viewers than either Reagan or Mondale.

And that wasn’t the only time, Clendinen reported: “Mr. Humphrey outdrew Mr. Nixon on television [in 1968], but not in the polls. The same thing happened with Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter [in 1976]. And it happened again four years ago, when President Carter lost to Ronald Reagan.”

So enjoy your Nielsen victory, Republicans. But don’t assume that a victory at the boob tube presages a victory a the ballot box.

(Footnote: I wondered if today’s candidates were really drawing more viewers than earlier nominees, in the days of three networks and no cable competition. As far as I can tell, yes they are. Reagan and Mondale in 1984 drew 19 million viewers each. Cable was already taking big bites out of the networks by then. Nielsen says that 35 million watched Jimmy Carter’s speech in 1976. He got a much larger percentage of a smaller population.)

Bipartisan Nonsense on “Energy Independence” and Trade

Sen. John McCain reinforced his bipartisan credentials Thursday evening by sounding as confused as the Democrats on the nation’s assumed need for “energy independence.”

In his acceptance speech at the GOP convention in St. Paul, McCain pledged federal support for alternative energy so the United States can reduce the amount of energy it imports from abroad. “When I’m president,” McCain told cheering delegates, “we’re going to embark on the most ambitious national project in decades. We are going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much. We will attack the problem on every front.”

He then pledged his support for more offshore drilling, nuclear power plants, wind, tide, solar and natural gas.

Whoa! Before we embark on a project that could cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars, let’s get the facts straight. Specifically, where did that $700 billion number come from?

That is far more than what we pay for imported energy. In 2007, Americans spent less than half that amount—$319 billion—for imported energy of all kinds, including oil and natural gas. Even with higher energy prices in 2008, our total bill for imported energy this year will be nowhere near $700 billion.

Contrary to popular perception, most of our oil imports come such friendly countries as Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and the United Kingdom, or from more neutral suppliers such as Iraq, Kuwait, Nigeria, Angola, Chad and Congo (Brazzaville).  Only a third of our imported oil comes from the major problem countries of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Algeria, Ecuador and Russia. We don’t import any oil directly from Iran. [You can check out the latest Commerce Department figures here.]

The $700 billion that Sen. McCain probably had in mind is America’s total trade balance, known as the current account. Last year, Americans rolled up a $731 billion current account deficit with the rest of the world. That account includes not just energy but also manufactured goods, farm products, services, and income from foreign investments.

The current account deficit is not driven by energy imports but by the underlying level of savings and investment in the U.S. economy. We run a current account deficit because, year after year, more is invested in the American economy than Americans save to finance that investment. Foreign capital fills the gap, and the resulting net inflow of foreign investment more or less directly offsets the gap between what we import and what we export.

If the federal government dramatically increases spending on alternative energy, as Sen. McCain and his Democratic opponent both seem to want, the result will be a bigger federal budget deficit, a smaller pool of domestic savings, more foreign capital flowing into the United States, and an even larger current account deficit.

You’re No Reagan—or Lincoln

Last night John McCain proclaimed himself the candidate of “the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan.”

One of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches was his 1852 eulogy for Henry Clay. “He loved his country partly because it was his own country,” Lincoln declared, ”but mostly because it was a free country.”

John McCain managed to give a lengthy tribute to America’s virtues without mentioning that it was a free country:

I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.

Fine sentiments, and he did mention that America is “an idea, a cause worth fighting for.” But what is that idea or that cause? He didn’t say. He never mentioned the Constitution, or the Declaration, or the freedom that has made America a beacon to the world. Indeed, his message seemed less like Lincoln’s and more like John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Gerson to McCain: Move Left Fast

Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, one of the big-government-conservative columnists who are all the rage with the Establishment Media, denounces Barack Obama for having “the ideology of Walter Mondale” and then calls on John McCain to adopt the ideology of Walter Mondale. Here’s his prescription for a winning acceptance speech:

McCain needs to announce new and unexpected reform proposals. Perhaps he should courageously follow the logic of his health plan and promise health coverage as a universal right guaranteed by subsidies for the purchase of private health insurance. Perhaps he should embrace the goal of getting all American electricity from renewable and non-carbon sources by some ambitious but realistic date. Perhaps he should offer guaranteed funding of higher education in exchange for national service.

With Republicans like that, who would need Democrats? If you want the big government of Walter Mondale, you might as well elect Walter Mondale, or his contemporary successor.

And of course it’s not at all clear that such a program would distinguish McCain from the Bush-Hastert-Frist Republicans who have become so unpopular. Ever since Gerson wrote for Bush the words “There is another destructive mindset: the idea that if government would only get out of the way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose than ‘Leave us alone,’” the Republican party has been eagerly embracing openhanded government. Taxpayer funding for prescription drugs. Subsidies for every form of energy. Huge increases in federal education funding. How would Gerson’s proposed agenda for McCain be “the right address for a rebel?” It would in fact confirm the Bush-McCain alliance to destroy the remnants of Goldwater-Reagan conservatism.

McCain-Palin vs. Obama-Biden on Earmarks

Robert Bluey of the Heritage Foundation beat me to the punch by detailing the differences between McCain-Palin and Obama-Biden on earmarks.

Bluey makes an important point: even unquestioned reformers like Jim DeMint (R-SC) only recently found earmark religion. Better late than never. Especially in a state like Alaska, which is basically a welfare state where corruption is the status quo, Sarah Palin has built an impressive record of reform. Important questions remain to be answered about her stances on tax and budget policy, but compared to Obama and Biden, there’s no question the appropriations cardinals would be sweating bullets under a McCain-Palin administration.

Palin on Health Care, Limited but Encouraging

As with most other issues, Sarah Palin’s record on health care reform is, well, thin.  But what we do know suggests that she leans in the right direction.  She has said that the key to health care reform is to “allow free-market competition and reduce onerous government regulation.”   As governor, she called for abolishing Alaska’s anti-competition certificate-of-need (CON) requirement.  (CON requires that health care providers seek state approval before building or expanding hospitals, purchasing capital equipment, or offering new or expanded services).  She also established a state office to provide health care consumers with information about price and quality.  While this should more properly be handled by the private sector, it shows she understands the importance of making the health care system more transparent and putting consumers at the center of any health care reform.   Given the dismal record of most politicians from both parties on this issue, Palin’s record should be considered limited but encouraging.