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Reelecting Obama, questioning Aquino

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Say this for that much-disparaged American invention, the Electoral College: It makes a convincing mandate possible in a closely divided nation. While Barack Obama won the popular vote by Lincoln’s whisker—a simple majority of 51 percent to Mitt Romney’s 48 percent, according to NBC News—he won well over three-fifths of the 538 electoral votes at stake. (The popular vote margin was some 3.3 million votes, much lower than the 10-million vote differential recorded in the 2008 election.)

The “main argument” for the use of the College then, as Timothy Noah of The New Republic manages to mention in a thoughtful post proposing the abolition of the institution, “is that it manufactures majorities.”

It isn’t exactly true, as I heard anchors on both CNN and Bloomberg News say last week, while the polling booths were still open, that the Electoral College is population-based. The total number of electoral votes is based on the number of members of the US House of Representatives (435), plus the number of members of the US Senate (100), plus the number of votes allotted to the District of Columbia (3). The composition of the House changes according to the latest census, so this part of the formula is population-driven. But each state gets two more votes—regardless of size (just like in the Senate). This arrangement combines with the convention where 48 of the 50 states plus DC award all their electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote to give most presidents-elect a sizable majority.

To Filipinos who struggle in the post-Marcos era with diminished electoral mandates (as I have written before, our multiple-party, first-past-the-post system gives us, at most, a 40-percent presidency), the majority-making aspect of the Electoral College is not an inconsiderable argument. To Americans who have just emerged from the world’s longest and costliest election, Obama’s 332 electoral-vote victory is a mandate that cannot be denied.

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The alternate universe that the American conservative movement inhabits surfaced for all to see last week, after Obama won a convincing reelection. Or perhaps we should correct that and say: as Obama was winning reelection.

The now-classic confrontation between the number-crunchers at Fox News’ “decision desk” and Karl Rove, a Fox News commentator and the mastermind behind a $300-million advertising campaign against Obama and the Democrats, illustrates the clash between the math of the real world and an ideologically constructed reality. When the right-wing Fox News network decided to call Ohio for Obama, Rove dissented—essentially because Romney campaign operatives and the Republican secretary of state of Ohio were giving him other numbers. It was the alternate universe calling.

But while the results of national surveys were close, they were also (a) consistent for almost the entire duration of the presidential race and (b) clear in their implications, especially among the so-called swing states. (Mindful of the need for accountability even among journalists, I hazarded a “forecast” on the day of the election, on Twitter, using the excellent “election dashboard” of the Huffington Post. You can look it up.)

But the election was Obama’s to lose, and the work of polling aggregators like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame, Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium and Drew Linzer at Votamatic (plus two others I consulted only occasionally, those hosted at Talking Points Memo and the HuffPost) showed that the numbers pointed to reelection.

As Bill Clinton said: “Arithmetic.”

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An issue raised in last Friday’s editorial on the latest short list of candidates to the Supreme Court has unsettled me, and prompts me to raise the question myself.

The editorial notes that President Aquino has formalized a vetting process of his own, a one-on-one interview with the nominees named by the Judicial and Bar Council, and then ventures the notion that this practice could be, perhaps may be, unconstitutional.

“An exchange of views between the President and a prospective justice is justifiable if it is meant to help Mr. Aquino determine for himself whether the nominee has the essential qualities of a judge, as defined by the Constitution: ‘proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence.’ But if he means to use it to impose a litmus test, to make sure that the nominee shares his views on a particular issue, for example, then he undermines both that nominee’s independence and the Constitution itself.”

The procedure for naming new Supreme Court justices has always been at the mercy of the politicians. The Judicial and Bar Council was an innovation introduced by the 1987 Constitution; after a generation’s worth of unhappy experience, however, many can see that the JBC has not successfully depoliticized the nomination process.

President Aquino’s preferred method of sit-down interviews with prospective appointees seems to be apolitical—like conducting a final job interview, as the editorial put it. But it is the “exchange” part that worries me; can this unduly influence a new appointee? We can argue about the value in the President asking the candidate for his or her views on a legal issue, but what is the value in the candidate finding out about the President’s views on that same issue? As today’s generation will say: Too much information.

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jnery@inquirer.com.ph/@jnery_newsstand


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