Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hillary For 2008, Or Is It 2012?

It's three weeks before the Ohio and Texas primaries, so Hillary still has a chance to reverse the Obama tide. She is more qualified, and voters may just grasp this in time.

She currently faces "momentum" and herd instinct (aka peer pressure) that disproportionately influences younger people, which is working for Obama. He also has the African Americans favoring him by 80% or more, without a backlash among other Democrats.

But I also see something that I touched upon in the third bullet point of my January 5th post. This is Republicans who have no intention of choosing Obama in a general election nevertheless voting for him in the primaries simply to undermine Hillary who's more likely to beat McCain. I've long suspected this to be one of the reasons for the unusually large turnouts in Democratic primaries that favor Obama. This is why I strongly favor closed primaries in all states, open only to voters registered for that party way earlier.

Instead, the Democratic primary of Ohio is open (or semi-open which is essentially the same thing), as is that of Texas. Most TV networks are curiously silent about this. But a couple of days ago Dick Morris who's now a bitter enemy of the Clintons talked on Fox News about this manipulation by Republicans. He did this to support his prediction that Hillary will fare worse than expected in both these states. He may well be right.

There's little Hillary can do about this so where does she go from here? In the days ahead she certainly needs to reshape her message. For example, she should change those "35 years of experience" and "ready to be President on day one" lines that were weak and off the mark to start with. She's now looks to be doing this and stressing her more significant advantages, like her substance over his rhetoric, or achieving solutions instead of just making good speeches.

Beyond that, how should she act once she wins or loses the nomination?

If Hillary wins she should immediately ask Obama to be her running mate. Whatever her personal feelings about him, she now needs him as part of the "dream team" to unify their bases, including the youth and the African American vote. For his part, Obama should accept. The VP stint will give him the standing and the experience to become an odds-on Presidential favorite in subsequent elections, when he'll still be young. It is actually in his interest to accept the VP slot much earlier, if the Democratic primaries outcome looks to be headed to a stalemate by end of March, or early April.

And what if Obama wins the nomination, or looks to be certainly headed there with committed super-delegate support? Then Hillary and Bill should say nice things about Obama, call on the entire Democratic party to support him, and then both retire from the scene for the remainder of 2008. If Obama offers Hillary the VP spot, she is better off graciously declining him. She has nothing to gain. After eight years of an Obama Presidency she will be less electable at age 68, and any missteps by the Obama Administration in the meantime will rub off on her.

More than this, contrary to the sayings of pollsters and TV pundits, I expect Obama to lose to McCain unless McCain says or does something very stupid. You saw it for the first time here - in case of an Obama - McCain matchup without Hillary in the picture, I predict Obama will lose by five points or more.

In that case Obama post-2008 will be little more attractive than other general election losers: Dukakis after 1988, Gore after 2000, Kerry after 2004 - you get the idea. In the past 60+ years I recall only one instance when a prior general election loser won subsequently. That was Richard Nixon in 1968, who won in unusual circumstances after Democratic frontrunner Robert Kennedy was assassinated. So here's my take in case Obama wins the nomination now: Hillary should just wait for 2012 and hope the Democrats choose better then.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

United Airline's Unfriendly Skies

About six years ago United Airlines had the best frequent flier program. I was prepared to pay up to $50 extra to fly United just for this reason. Now a lot of that has changed. I want to caution fellow US travellers so that they don't get burned.

But first here's what I had liked about the old program:
  • If there was a seat available on a flight you wanted, you could get it even at short notice for just 25K miles. Easy availability and no sneaky "fees"
  • If you booked your "free" (or Mileage Plus award) ticket and your plans changed, you could change bookings on the same itinerary without charges or penalties, so long as seats were available
  • You could go to the airport and fly standby on a different date on forward or return legs without any charges and restrictions, so long as seats were available and you were sticking to your original itinerary (same departure and destination airports)
  • Your miles did not lapse so long as there was some activity in your account in the preceding 36 months
  • If your your account had no activity for close to 36 months, you would get a cautinary notice from United a few months in advance about the impending loss of miles

Now consider the changes in United's program. None of these has been announced except for the one about the period of account inactivity that triggers forfeiture of miles being reduced from 36 months to 18 months:

  • Now very few (and sometimes none) seats per flight are available for "saver" award fares of 25K miles. After that some other seats are available for "standard" award fares of 50K miles. And you may get neither even if the plane has plenty of vacant seats because their set "quota" of designated award seats has been allocated
  • You can still change your dates without charge on your original itinerary, but only if award ticket seats in that category (like "saver") is available on that flight. Good luck finding that though
  • Trying to go standby on a different date is no longer allowed, even if the flight you want to go on is empty
  • The no activity period in your account after which you lose miles has been reduced from 36 months to 18 months from the beginning of this year (2008)
  • This is really sneaky. They no longer warn you of impending forfeiture of your miles. In fact the monthly and quarterly statements they send you do not even contain a "last activity date" or date when miles lapse, unlike any of the other airlines.

All my daughter Rubina's miles were quietly taken away last month. She had not been traveling on United in the past 18 months because her flight destinations were inconvenient on United's flights, and their prices were significantly higher. Leave alone sending a warning, United deliberately does not mention the mileage expiration date in the monthly statement that they email or mail to members.

I called up customer service to point this out while requesting her miles be restored. They refused, saying this is their new policy. They said customers should log into their Mileage Plus accounts and then track their expiration dates. They offered to sell her back her lapsed miles - at a price amounting to $350 for a "free" saver fare, or $650 for a "free" standard fare. Thanks a lot. I asked United customer service why they don't mention the mileage expiration date or last activity date on their emailed/mailed statements like other major carriers do. No answer.

Other airline programs have negative features as well. Air Tran and Southwest frequent flier benefits are useless unless you accumulate enough miles for a free ticket within a 12 month period, because they all lapse otherwise. Delta and American charge fees of $85 and $50 respectively if you book tickets less than 20 days in advance, with even higher fees for booking within 7 days. Many airlines offer 25K awards only on the routes with least demand. But at least you don't feel they're stealing your miles outright.

I'll still fly United or Air Tran or Southwest, but may go with other airlines with better mileage programs if their fares are less than $25 - $50 higher.