Thursday, January 31, 2008

Phase Change

One of the most fascinating phenomena in physical chemistry is the phase change. Did you know that the temperature of a melting ice cube does not change? As you add heat to an ice cube at melting point, the heat does not go towards raising the ice's temperature, but to changing the phase of the water from solid to liquid. And did you know that the temperature of a pot of boiling water also does not change, for the same reason? The additional heat goes towards changing the phase from liquid to gas, not towards raising the temperature.

There are other phenomena I find interesting, that are kind of similar. For example, you can take a very hot pot of water, and dissolve a bunch of sugar. Then, if you're careful, and cool the solution very slowly, all of the sugar will stay dissolved. This is what you call a super-saturated solution -- it has way, way more sugar dissolved in it than it ought to at that temperature. But the solution is very unstable. The extra sugar wants to come out of solution, badly. Drop one crystal in, and foom! Instantly, the water clouds up as sugar crystals precipitate out of the saturated solution.

I feel a little as if I were watching something like that happen.

Last time, I was writing about a complex race for the Republican nomination for President, and a three-way scrum for the Democratic nomination. All of a sudden, the picture has become much more plain.

Well, I knew that Giuliani had to pull big numbers in Florida if he wanted to stay competitive. He didn't, and was set to crash and burn in short order. What I didn't expect was that he'd be so ruthless about cutting his losses and pulling the plug once it became clear that his gamble didn't pay off. What I really didn't expect, and what caught me completely gobsmacked, was seeing John Edwards bail out, too.

Some observations follow:

First, the early primaries have worked more or less as intended. They've shaken the tree and flushed out the flakes and lightweights. Those still clinging on have either lots of support, or rather more than the normal ration of stubborn tenacity. Leaving aside the stubborn cranks -- that means you, Dr. Paul and Sen. Gravel -- the remaining candidates represent substantial constituencies within their respective parties. Now, the state parties get to sort out who represents them come November.

Second, Super Tuesday is liable to set up the political equivalent of a Breakout and Pursuit situation, possibly in both parties. At this point, I really think the Republican nomination is John McCain's to lose. He won big in Florida, and picked up some key endorsements not only from Giuliani, but from Governor Schwarzenegger of California. Given their respective popularity within New York and California, that probably safely delivers those states into the McCain camp. Big, big advantage there. McCain can probably still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but he'll have to put in a Herculean -- nay, a Clayton Williams-ian -- effort to do so.

(Ah, Clayton Williams ... Now there was a rare one. He had an easy run at the Republican nomination for Governor of Texas in 1990, plenty of money, a solid grass-roots organization, and he was facing a Democratic opponent weakened by a brutal, ugly primary campaign. But with unerring precision he swept all of these obstacles aside, and from tranquility wrought a smoking, chaotic ruin. Ann Richards stunned everyone with a come-from-behind win. We may never see his like again. But I digress...)

The picture on the Democratic side is muddier, but looking steadily less favorable for the Clinton camp. They took a stinging hit in South Carolina, and another body blow with the endorsements from the Kennedys (Ted and Caroline) for Barack Obama. And that was before the bombshell dropped that Edwards was quitting. It's far too early to say that the race is Obama's to lose, but I do think it's fair to say that Obama is inside Clinton's decision cycle. If that persists, then the junior Senator from Illinois will take it all the way home. Clinton simply has to do something to regain the initiative, she's sunk otherwise.

Third, I think that the Republican base is about to fracture. How the Republicans manage this will determine if their center can hold, and whether they can run a competitive campaign come November. As I see it, there are three basic constituencies within the Republican party: the National Security conservatives, the Fiscal conservatives, and the Social conservatives. Reagan somehow spot-welded these into a coalition that's lasted almost thirty years now. It's beginning to show cracks. Each of these constituencies has a candidate in the primary. John McCain is the natural choice for the voter who's interested in a strong military and a bullish foreign posture. Mitt Romney's business acumen and background is attractive to the fiscally-oriented voter. And Mike Huckabee is a natural fit for the social conservative. Only one can win, and I've already said that I think McCain is the man. Question is, do the other two factions line up and play ball, or do they sit it out? I think the fiscal conservatives will, but will the social conservatives? I think many of them did sit out 2006. Too early to tell, and this may not be the year it goes blooey, but the schism's coming.

Mind you, all of this may change at a moment's notice. That's what makes this season so interesting.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fight's On!

What a difference two months makes. As I mentioned earlier, I was afraid that the front-loading of the primary season would essentially pre-select the nominees, making the process essentially superfluous. Boy, was I ever wrong.

This is shaping up to be the most wide-open primary season since 1928: for the first time in living memory, neither party has an incumbent running for re-election, nor does either have a vice-president standing for his own first term in the top job. It's a no-holds-barred full-contact scrum, which is first-rate entertainment for those of us who consider politics to be their favorite indoor sport. But some serious questions are at stake, as both parties must contend with figuring out where they go from here. So, with no further ado:

The Republicans

The race for the Republican nomination has settled down into a four-man brawl between Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani, with poor Ron Paul hanging on at the end out of sheer bull-headed stubbornness. (Capital-L Libertarians are good at sheer bull-headed stubbornness.) Super Tuesday on February 5th will probably cause a down-select to a three-man or two-man field, but will probably not cement anyone as a clear front-runner. We may even arrive at a contested convention for the first time in ... well, damn near forever. Capsule TTS reviews of the candidates, in descending order of current delegate count:

Mitt Romney is an empty suit. I'm sorry, but that's about the only way I can put it. He put in a good turn as Governor of Massachusetts, and his health insurance legislation actually makes a lot of sense. But what does he really believe? What direction would he take us in foreign affairs? What does he really think about domestic policy? To me, it seems like he says whatever he thinks will stick, poll-wise. That might make him a savvy politician, but a damn poor excuse for a leader. Thank you for playing, Sir, your consolation prize is a job running the RNC for the next four years.

John McCain can sometimes be an angry, angry man. Anger is a useful servant, but a perilous master; I think he has finally learned this, and has managed to keep that in check so far this year. Of all the Republicans, I like him best. His record of service is above reproach, and it's a fact that no one in this year's list has made greater sacrifices nor suffered more in America's cause than he has. He's the least nutty on domestic issues, and having worn the uniform himself will think long and hard before sending our warriors into harm's way. But his campaign is running on a shoestring and a prayer, he might end up running out of money. Strong showings so far have kept him afloat, and a strong showing on Super Tuesday keeps him in the fight, possibly for the duration.

Mike Huckabee is the real-world name for the presidential candidate that Robert Heinlein predicted would win in 2012: Nehemiah Scudder. It's scary: old Bob sure could call 'em, couldn't he? But he's going nowhere fast. Aside from the God-Guns-Gays trifecta, there's precious little daylight separating him from John Edwards. He's not so much a conservative as he is a Christian socialist. After his surprise win in Iowa, the antibodies of the Republican party have come out. The old guard is not about to let him win the nomination. Expect him to make a good showing in the rural South, and then sink without a trace.

Rudy Giuliani was the widely-expected front runner about a year ago, but his poll numbers have been in steady decline since then. Chris Rock likens him to a pit bull: sure, he'll keep burglars out of your apartment, but he might eat your kids. He's the all-security-all-the-time candidate. This made him a good mayor for New York at the time, and he did make the streets safe for walking again. But he's scary, scary, scary when it comes to civil liberties. He may or may not last, though. He's put all his chips on Florida. Unless he comes up with big money there next week, he's probably toast.

Ron Paul, God bless him, is the Dennis Kucinich of the Republicans. He's an earnest nut, but he's still a nut. The only thing keeping him going at this point is pure titanium-skulled stubbornness. Which means he'll probably be in the race for the duration, unless he flat runs out of money.

The Democrats

The also-rans have, for the most part, been flushed out of the Democrat field, leaving three serious contenders and one stubborn bastard: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Mike Gravel. Super Tuesday may or may not force a down-select, but it will probably firm up a de facto two-way race between Clinton and Obama. If Edwards pulls enough delegates he might swing some clout in a brokered convention. It's a long shot, but could still happen. Unless Edwards pulls that kind of support, though, we'll probably exit Super Tuesday with a clear front-runner.
Capsule TTS reviews of the candidates, in descending order of current delegate count:

Hillary Clinton is ... problematic. I have no doubt that she can do the job. She probably wouldn't suck. Bush has set that bar appallingly low. But I can't go there. You see, anyone younger than their early to mid twenties has never known a President who wasn't named Bush or Clinton. Dynastic succession is something that happens in places like North Korea or Syria. It is not something that should happen in a Republic. Besides which, I have a generational beef. With liberals of her generation, it's always 1968, and every stinking foreign policy issue ends up in the damn rice paddies. It's completely got them wrapped around the axle, and when it comes to considering foreign interventions, they're incapable of rational thought. I so want to get past that.

Barack Obama offers a fresh approach, even if he offers nothing else. I like most of what he's said so far, and even the things I don't agree with are at least well reasoned out. He appears to be someone with whom you can have a substantive discussion without it breaking down into name-calling. He's someone who can talk to conservatives, not at them. Which, given his background, is no real surprise: he was a law professor at the University of Chicago, not an especially liberal institution, and had decent working relationships with his conservative colleagues. And he's an example of what's still right with America: there are very few things that the sons of immigrants can't aspire to. If he's smart enough to surround himself with good advisors, and wise enough to know when they're smoking rope, we could do rather worse than elect him President. (We could elect Huckabee, for example...)

If John Edwards were any kind of real man at all, he'd have withdrawn his candidacy as soon as he found out that his wife's cancer had metastasized. And that's really about all I have to say about him. I have had a low opinion of Edwards ever since the wrap-up to the 2004 election. The day after, when they were considering the Ohio vote, John Kerry swallowed his disappointment like a man, and decided to spare America another long drawn-out period of indecision. Edwards wanted to fight on regardless. It didn't matter what kind of collateral damage he would do to America, so long as he could fight for his own power. Him, we don't need. G'bye, and good riddance.

Mike Gravel is a magnificent stubborn old coot that no one's ever heard of. I have to admit, I have a certain amount of admiration for guys that hang on despite the fact that Satan will drive a snowplow to work before they win the nomination. But as an Alaskan who is accustomed to waiting six months for the next sunrise, patience is something that comes as second nature to a man like Gravel. God bless you, brother, and I'll be a little saddened to see you go. But your campaign ain't long for this world... He'll probably end up as the down-selectee come Super Tuesday.

The Expected Results

If God is merciful, we'll get to choose between John McCain and Barack Obama in November. It could still shake out that way. It probably won't: Clinton will probably be the Democrat front-runner after Super Tuesday, with Obama nipping at her heels going into the convention. But God alone knows who'll be ahead on the Republican side. I like McCain's chances. Romney probably doesn't have the staying power, and Giuliani has got to do something to arrest his slide. Rudy's Super Tuesday gamble might pay off. If not, he's outta here. If it stays a three- or four-way race, the Republican convention could be a righteous scrum indeed. Get your popcorn ready, 'cause it's gonna be one wild ride.

Vote early, and vote often!