Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Partisan Myth

One of the mainstream media’s favorite tropes is to bemoan the lack of bipartisanship in Washington.  Turn on the cable chat or Sunday talk shows that frame political discussion in our country and you will hear some variation on the theme that “Washington is broken.” The culprits vary depending on the speaker, but the overriding message is the same – why can’t our leaders negotiate and … wait for it … COMPROMISE?

As with many fallacies espoused by elite journalists, there is a thin patina of truth overlying a much more partisan answer that they do not want to acknowledge – Republican Presidents have had a far easier go of it in negotiating with Democrats in Congress than the other way around. Indeed, this simple fact was acknowledged, albeit elliptically, by David Brooks in his modest endorsement of Mitt Romney for President. Brooks essentially said that Congressional Republicans were unlikely to bargain with President Obama and therefore, to cut the deals necessary for our nation’s future, electing Romney was the better solution because Democrats are more amenable to compromise. Talk about rewarding bad behavior!

While the mainstream media bends over backwards to amplify vague, if inconsequential statements being made by a few Republicans regarding their willingness to increase tax “revenue” (these plans look suspiciously like ones supported by their just-defeated Presidential standard bearer), those same reporters rarely mention the wide gap between words and deeds when each party is at the bargaining table. Without even harkening back to the days of Ronald Reagan, who received wide support from Democrats on tax increases and immigration reform, or George H.W. Bush, who cut a deal in 1990 to raise taxes on the wealthy, one need only put our two most recent Presidents up for comparison to see the difference in the other party’s opposition.

Much can be said about the ruinous effects of George W. Bush’s time in office, but a lack of bipartisanship on the part of Democrats is not one of them. Bush’s legislative achievements were impressive, though deleterious, to the nation, and in those victories many Democrats “crossed the aisle” to support him. Consider No Child Left Behind, a sweeping reform of education policy. Not only did The White House broker a deal with two of Congress’s most liberal members (Congressman George Miller and Senator Ted Kennedy), the bill garnered more Democratic votes in the House (198) than Republican (182). In the Senate, the ”ayes” were nearly even (44 Republicans/43 Democrats). As another example, sweeping reform of the bankruptcy code, something many liberals bemoaned as making it harder for individuals to utilize that system to get a clean start, was supported by 73 House Democrats and 18 Democratic Senators. 

Where Democrats were more recalcitrant, as in the two massive tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003, each bill still received nominal Democratic support (13 House Democrats and 12 Senate Democrats voted for the 2001 bill, 4 House Democrats and 3 Senate Democrats voted for the 2003 bill); but even there, Democrats’ opposition was immaterial; the House was under GOP control and in the Senate, reconciliation was utilized to avoid use of the filibuster (though based on the final vote, the 2001 tax cut would not have been blocked because less than 40 Democrats would have attempted to block it).

Interestingly, although few Democrats supported the tax cuts that helped lead us into financial ruin, they were the ones providing the critical votes to address the cratering of the U.S. economy in 2008. Nancy Pelosi is a favored piñata of the right wing, but she carried more political water for George W. Bush than any person since Gunga Din at the River Kwai. Pelosi’s caucus provided a no-need-for-Republican-votes majority on TARP (241 votes) and housing relief (227 votes), and a near majority for Bush’s 2008 $156 billion stimulus bill (215 votes). In each of these votes, Republicans were essentially after thoughts – for example, only 19 House Republicans voted for TARP, while Senate Democrats voted in favor of all three in greater numbers than Republicans[1].

Lastly, in foreign policy, 82 House and 29 Senate Democrats crossed the aisle to support the Iraq War Authorization even though the evidence presented was wobbly and nothing like the “Grand Coalition” or clear U.N. authorization that had been amassed by President George H.W. Bush existed. On controversial matters like the 2008 reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, 105 House Democrats and 22 Senate Democrats (including Barack Obama) voted in favor of the law even though it contained a provision granting retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that, based on reporting, appeared to have turned over copious amounts of information (in all likelihood illegally) to the Bush Administration. For all intents and purposes, passage of this bill shut down critical lawsuits that had been filed by private citizens and states in order to ascertain the full scope and nature of the potentially illegal wiretapping, eavesdropping and transfer of phone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency.

Now, let’s flash forward to the Presidency of Barack Obama. The three biggest pieces of legislation passed by the Congress during his time in office are the Affordable Care Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Dodd/Frank. Each of these bills ran into lockstep Republican opposition. Taken together, nine “aye” votes were cast by Republicans for these three bills. Not nine votes for each bill, nine votes TOTAL. The ACA received a lone Republican vote in the House[2] and no votes in the Senate. No House Republicans voted for ARRA and just two Senate Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, voted in the affirmative. As for Dodd/Frank, three Republicans in each chamber supported a bill passed to address at least some of the causes of the Great Recession. That the President received so little Republican support should have been no surprise after a whopping 3 House and 4 Senate Republicans voted in favor of what would become the first law enacted after Obama’s inaugural – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

While it is true that the President has garnered Republican support for other key pieces of legislation, the two that leap most readily to mind were negotiated at the point of a fiscal gun – specifically, the 2010 extension of the “Bush tax cuts” and the 2011 bill that raised the nation’s debt ceiling[3]. In both instances, the result of compromise was the thinnest of accomplishments – allowing the federal government to continue operating, avoiding default on our debt and continuing tax policy that overwhelmingly benefitted the wealthiest Americans. In other areas as significant as a bill aimed at employing more than 1 million Americans and as nominal as the appointment of the U.S. Public Printer, Republicans simply refused to act[4].  Indeed, since the Democrats regained the Senate majority in January 2007, Republican use of the filibuster has been unprecedented, used not only to slow down passage of legislation Republicans disfavor, but to postpone uncontroversial nominations for months on end, throwing sand in the gears of effective governing and delaying the appointment of highly qualified individuals who ended up being confirmed with near unanimous support.

Principled opposition is a time honored tradition in our form of government but blind obstruction is a different matter. On major pieces of legislation that determined the trajectory of our country, from war policy to economic bail outs, Democrats supported President Bush. The reaction of Republicans to President Obama has been the exact opposite. They attempted to stop the implementation of a health care bill whose conceptual framework was created at a right-wing think tank and a stimulus act that included a massive tax cut geared mostly to middle-class Americans. Meanwhile, they utilized legislative tactics aimed at inhibiting the basic functioning of government.  To say “both sides do it” is like saying the flu and terminal cancer are the same because they both make you sick – factually true but entirely beside the point.

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[1]  On TARP, Senate Democrats provided 39 votes, Republicans, 35. On housing relief, 48 Democrats voted in favor, only 34 Republicans supported it. For the 2008 Stimulus, 47 Democrats voted for the bill, compared to 32 Republicans.
[2]  Representative Joseph Cao was that lone Republican, but his presence in Congress was a quirk of history. He won his seat in 2008 opposing William Jefferson, who was under federal investigation for corruption, eking out a 3 point win. Cao was defeated for re-election in 2010.
[3]    It is worth noting that the debt ceiling was raised 7 times under George W. Bush, including twice in 2008.
[4]  Most of the American Jobs Act never saw the light of day and Obama ended up recess appointing William Boarman as the Public Printer.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Saxby Chambliss Is Not A Profile In Courage

Hot on the heels of President Obama's re-election, attention has already shifted to the "fiscal cliff" negotiations that are now taking place ahead of an end of the year reversion in tax rates to those that existed prior to 2001 and the imposition of mandatory cuts to defense spending and non-entitlement programs. A major sticking point is whether the tax rate that the top 2% of wage earners (the so-called "wealthy," which we have now apparently defined as individuals making $200,000 and couples earning more than $250,000) pay on ordinary income above those thresholds should rise from 35% to 39.6%. 

The President, and most Democrats in Congress (as a party, Democrats are pathologically incapable of marching in lock-step) are standing firm that these rates must lapse while allowing tax rates at below these income thresholds to be extended indefinitely. Republicans, by and large, have come out against tax increases, but the few tepid, and infuriatingly vague trial balloons supposedly "courageous" GOP members of Congress have expressed in support of some increase in tax revenue are treated like profiles in courage.  Take Saxby Chambliss, for example. You might recall that back in 2002, Mr. Chambliss won his U.S. Senate seat in Georgia by tagging a Vietnam Veteran named Max Cleland as "soft on terrorism."  That Mr. Cleland left three of his four limbs in the jungles of Vietnam while Mr. Chambliss received military deferments and avoided service was of no moment. Flash forward 10 years, and Senator Chambliss is being elevated to "elder statesman" status for saying that a pledge he signed 20 years ago to never raise taxes is no longer operative and that (without getting into specifics) he wants to "do the right thing" when it comes to our nation's finances and that he won't be held to that anti-tax pledge because he "care[s] too much about my country." (You can read the full 1:21 interview bite here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/23/saxby-chambliss-grover-norquist_n_2177333.html).

Chambliss's supposedly principled stand has yielded an enormous amount of favorable press, but in an effort to lionize any Republican who appears "moderate" (which these days means just to the left of Torquemada), Inside the Beltway types conveniently gloss over a few important facts.  Chambliss has been a member of Congress since January 1995 and in that time, cast "aye" votes in favor of every last major initiative that helped cause the awful debt he is suddenly so concerned about- every Bush tax cut, every appropriation of money for Iraq and Afghanistan, Medicare Part D and on and on. But is Chambliss called to account for these votes? Of course not. It only matters that he's now willing to "look" at ill-defined "revenue raisers."  

Ok, so what about that. Google "Chambliss Norquist Tax Pledge" and hundreds of hits come back, but Chambliss's statements were anodyne and unspecific. He did not come out in support of raising income tax, capital gains, dividend or carried interest taxes on the wealthy, all of which he voted to lower in years past, and have all contributed not just to our massive deficit, but a huge redistribution of wealth upward, or in support of closing loopholes and tax subsidies (and why would he? Along with his Senate colleagues, he filibustered Democratic efforts to get rid of some of the most egregious examples, such as the one that gives a tax break to corporations that own private jets). But mainstream journalists are too busy polishing Mr. Chambliss's posterior to either call him out for his hypocrisy or ask why he should be taken seriously on this issue when his prior votes contributed so mightily to our current economic weakness (we won't even get into the myriad bills Mr. Chambliss helped block in the past two years that could have aided employment). 

When George W. Bush famously went before a joint session of Congress in 2001 to pitch his tax cuts, he said that he spoke on behalf of taxpayers who, having swollen the nation's coffers to the tune of a $236 billion surplus, wanted a "refund." By this logic, Chambliss and his cohorts in the GOP, should, on behalf of the nation, be asking the wealthy to return the favor. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Holiday Hierarchy

Amid much pearl clutching by co-workers that I was <gasp> not spending Thanksgiving with my family, it got me thinking about how not all holidays are created equal. In New Jersey, we celebrate twelve state holidays, and because one of those days is not the day after Thanksgiving, I needed something to do. So here is my, in ascending order of importance, ranking of state holidays:

 Are You Fucking Kidding Me

 12.  Columbus Day: Yes, let us celebrate a man who never set foot in our country, because … Italian, or something.

 11. Good Friday: No offense to Christians, but Good Friday isn’t even a recognized federal holiday. If FOX News wanted to beat its breast about a “war” on religion, one would think this would be a more natural field of battle than Christmas (about which, more below). After all, Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of your lord and savior and yet, people go about their business like any other ordinary lead in to the weekend.

10.  Presidents Day: You would think a holiday that celebrates our two most important (if not greatest) Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, would be higher on the list; you would be wrong. First, there used to be two holidays for these political giants (and rightly so). Downsizing them into one immediately diminished the importance of both. Plus, it’s stuck in the middle of February and feels more like justification for retailers to sell off all their leftover winter stock. Fifty years from now, do not be at all surprised if this becomes a catch-all day to celebrate every great/near great Presidents.

 You Were Saying Something About “Best Intentions?”

 9.  Election Day: Another one that is not a federal holiday, but at least there’s a good civic duty vibe to it. That we “humblebrag” a 55-60% voter rate in Presidential elections (if only to mask the 35-40% participation rate in off-year elections) is pretty sad. Less shop-y, more vote-y, people.

8.  Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: The newest member of the group, this holiday recognizes the enormous contribution one man provided to our nation. While some have picked up on this meme to encourage a “day of service” (volunteerism), most people pencil this one in as a gift three-day weekend hot on the heels of New Year’s.

7.  Veterans Day: Few people realize this holiday was originally created to honor those who fought in World War I (hence, November 11 (a/k/a Armistice Day) and these days, even fewer care. Like all things American, we’ve reduced honoring military service to its lowest common denominator – a flag pin, ribbon and TV interrupting regularly scheduled programming for the 60 seconds it takes the President to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Mix in some solemn music and holiday shopping and voilà, you have baked the perfect nothing burger of commemoration.  

Summer, In Three Parts

6.  Labor Day: You made it through three months of sweating through your clothes, dodging West Nile virus, doing Jäger bombs down the Shore and time with your kids? Congratulations! Here’s a three day weekend in the beginning of September as your reward. Just don’t wear anything white the day after or the fashion police will arrest you. While you’re at it, ignore the sacrifice of workers in the 19th century who toiled in borderline indentured servitude so you could save 25% at Lord & Taylor.

5.  Memorial Day: Another honking excuse to take a long weekend (see a theme here?) that has been stripped entirely of its original meaning (honoring our military dead) and repurposed into the “unofficial kick off to Summer.” And really, who doesn’t love summer? Also, shopping. Civic duties include consuming large quantities of dead animal flesh (BBQ), imbibing copious amounts of alcohol and getting sun burned (weather permitting). If you have some extra time, put the flag out on your stoop.

4.  Fourth of July: Nothing screams U-S-A U-S-A quite like blowing shit up. I was tempted to downgrade Independence Day if only because we sometimes have to suffer through those years where it lands on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday (nothing kills holiday buzz quite like having to work the next day and/or burn a leave day to capture the full impact of a holiday weekend) but hey, the Fourth gives us a great opportunity to bask in a (mostly) unironic celebration of the fact that our democracy, balky as it is sometimes, still kicks the ass of every other form of government in the world. It also marries the best components of its bookend brethren (parties, gorging on food and drinking) while offering the bonus of another eight weeks of summer.

The Secular Saints

3.  New Year’s Day: Ah, the New Year. It’s like a meta enema for the world. All that bad stuff that happened in the year that just ended is miraculously flushed out of our collective bowel. If hope springs eternal, its Garden of Eden is January 1st.  Forever memorialized as the holiday where you have the revelation that your “Sally” is out there, so you must run, post haste, to let her know she is the one you want to think about first thing in the morning and last thing at night, for the rest of your life (or until you get divorced, YMMV). Also, a perfect excuse to get really dressed up, be overcharged for dinner and/or partying and then spend the next day bitching about how you were overcharged for dinner and/or partying.

2.  Thanksgiving: If society did not create it, Madison Avenue would have invented it. Apocryphal story of Pilgrims and Native Americans (né Indians) who looked past their cultural differences to share a feast right before the former spent the next two centuries extinguishing the latter. Good times. Now, mostly an opportunity to watch movies and television premised on the idea that beneath the contempt family members feel for one another is a thin reservoir of love, binge eat and drink, yell about politics with that crazy uncle who does nothing but listen to Rush and Hannity, and prepare for a long weekend of discount shopping that now begins the night of Thanksgiving as opposed to the ass crack of dawn the morning after.

Our True National Holiday

1. Christmas: The next time you see one of those “Keep Christ in Christmas” bumper stickers or hear some blow hard on TV complain about the “War on Christmas,” consider that December 25th is the only day of the year where everything shuts down (after an entire month has been spent with a massive lead in to that day).   I mean, everything (except 7-11 and some Chinese restaurants). A country founded on the separation of church and state selects as its one communal day the birthday of Jesus Christ. It also serves as yearly reinforcement of the other church altar we pray at – consumerism. Pretty much win/win if you were sketching it in a boardroom.


Happy Holidays err … Merry Christmas!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

It's Not The Messenger, It's The Message

While enjoying the circular firing squad that is being formed in the wake of the GOP’s electoral washout on election day, the full "proctology exam" (as former RNC Chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour put it) Republicans appear ready to submit to will hold some uncomfortable truths if they are interested in introspection as opposed to continued blind obstruction in Washington. Consider: 

The Death of Angry White Men:  Notwithstanding the one man "GET OFF MY LAWN" screed that John McCain is on as he attempts to maintain relevance at the expense of leveraging a national tragedy for personal political gain, the 2012 election confirmed that demographic shifts in our country have reached a critical mass that will force Republicans to reform or drift into irrelevance. Mitt Romney collected roughly the same proportion of the white vote as George H.W. Bush did in 1988. The difference? Romney lost in a minor landslide, while Bush carried 40 states. Eighty-eight percent of Romney's vote came from white folks, but the modern-day Republican stew of xenophobia, coded racism and misogynism has alienated every ethnic voting bloc in the country and women, who Romney lost by 11 points.  It's not just that Romney polled in single digits among African-Americans, it's that he lost the Hispanic and Asian-American vote by close to 50 points too. The trend lines for GOP candidates at the national level with every group but married white people (and men generally) are trending down, and fast.

This is a particularly acute problem for GOP messengers, because garnering Hispanic votes cannot be done simply by supporting immigration reform because Hispanics are no more "one issue" voters than anyone else. State level efforts to disenfranchise voters, pass bogus Voter ID laws, restrict access to abortions and other policies that cemented the view of Republicans as deeply reactionary cannot be swept away with a shake of the Etch-A-Sketch. Finally, polling shows that all of these groups have a far more progressive view of government than Republicans espouse. 

The Myth of a Center-Right Country: For the better part of three decades, the Republican bumper sticker was "low taxes, limited government and a strong national defense." This simple message seemed to serve Republicans well, but scratch a bit below the surface and you see the reality is more nuanced. Yes, it is true that Reagan won two landslides and the first President Bush pulled off one as well, but since 1988, the Republican brand of governance has been a tough sell nationally. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six Presidential elections and while George W. Bush won two elections, not only did he lose the popular vote in one and barely win in the other, but his electoral spreads were minuscule, 271-266 (+5) and 286-251 (+35). By comparison, Bill Clinton's electoral wins were +202 and +220, while President Obama defeated his two foes +192 and +132. In other words, Republicans eked out two wins (one of which will forever be contested in the minds of many), while Democrats won four landslides. Why Republicans, or, the media for that matter, continue to push the narrative that our national electorate is "center-right" is beyond me. 

The Myth of Small Government: "Small government" is a foundational concept of modern GOP orthodoxy. Ronald Reagan famously said that the nine scariest words a person could hear were "I'm from from the government and I'm here to help." Republicans internalized Reagan's message although he governed far more liberally than his latter day hagiographers would have you believe (for more on this, please see my post, "The Myth of Saint Ronald: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2011/11/myth-of-saint-ronald.html). Even as Republicans have demonized "government," two "inconvenient truths" have shown that people are not buying what the GOP is selling. First, people like government services. During Bill Clinton's term, Congressional Republicans shut down the federal government when Clinton refused to accede to their demands to make massive cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and lost that fight. When George W. Bush was President, his attempt to privatize Social Security was roundly rejected; however, Bush did create a huge new entitlement when his allies in Congress rammed through a controversial prescription drug benefit for Medicare. And of course, when massive natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have left hundreds dead and tens of billions in damage, most people in this country understand that a federal safety net is necessary to deal with these calamities. 

Second, when presented with the opportunity to put their policies into action, Republican bark is far louder than its bite. The Republican brand claims the mantle of fiscal restraint but Reagan and Bush charged more to the government's credit card between 1981 and 1992 than every President before them, combined. After Clinton righted our fiscal ship, George W. Bush promptly turned massive surpluses into the worst deficits our country has ever seen, charging two wars, the aforementioned drug benefit, and huge tax cuts to Uncle Sam, while doing little to shrink government. Indeed, W created a huge new Cabinet agency and the only net job growth during his years in Washington was in the public, not private, sector. Meanwhile, for all their claims at reducing the size of government, neither Reagan nor Bush on the one hand, nor Bush 43 on the other, did anything meaningful to rein in the pace or growth of it. Finally, both Reagan and Bush 43's terms were stained by financial implosions that required massive (GOVERNMENT!) bailouts of the savings and loan (Reagan) and banking (Bush 43) industries. 

The Military-Industrial Complex: The final leg of the GOP's stool has been a strong defense (Clinton effectively took "tough on crime" off their menu when he passed the 1994 Crime Bill, hired 100,000 new cops and saw violent crime rates plummet). But here, the legacy of Bush's wars is likely to haunt Republicans for a generation. In the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney attempted to articulate a muscular vision that included new battleships and standard fare pablum about protecting our national security, but Obama's deft handling of his predecessor's mess, from extricating us from Iraq to drawing down in Afghanistan, squeezing the Iranians with sanctions and of course, killing Bin Laden, persuasively moved this conversation in his favor. 

Moreover, the American people are both exhausted from war and bankrupt (literally) from it. The two wars have already cost us more than a trillion dollars and that is without considering the out year costs in interest on the money borrowed to pay for those battles, veterans health care, retirement benefits and other assistance for an armed force that has been called upon to perform longer than it has at any time in our nation's history. The quagmire of Iraq and the ambiguous end we are sure to experience in Afghanistan will leave voters deeply skeptical of committing forces in the future. Indeed, even in small scale flare ups under Obama's watch, he has been zealous in ensuring we have no "boots on the ground" (see, e.g., Libya, Syria).
In short, the core of Republican thinking either does not work in practice as it does in theory (shrinking government) or has been usurped by the Democrats (foreign policy). Attached to this anchor is the deep unpopularity of modern day Republican social policy, which was brought into sharp relief during the 2012 campaign. Whether it was Romney floating the bogus idea of "self-deportation" or Senate candidates twisting themselves into misogynistic knots about rape, today's GOP is at a far remove from the country. Indeed, the GOP's recognition of how tarnished its brand is can be seen most clearly in the head snapping speed with which they are throwing Romney under the bus in light of post-election comments he made about various "gifts" Obama gave to voters to get re-elected. 

Coupled with the distance Republicans are putting between themselves and a man they were all campaigning for 10 days ago is a sudden softening on immigration reform. Where once, Senate Republicans were filibustering the DREAM Act and excoriating the President for implementing a form of that bill through executive action, people at the far right of the political spectrum like Sean Hannity are suddenly sounding tones of moderation about a "path" to citizenship and office holders like Governors Bobby Jindal and Susanna Martinez are raising their political profiles as voices of tolerance within the Republicans' shrinking political tent. 

But the problem with simply changing the "messenger" is that the message has not changed. While Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock both saw their campaigns sunk because of their publicly articulated views on abortion, less mentioned was the fact that the GOP's vice presidential candidate also supported (via co-sponsoring legislation) the idea that rape could be parsed as "legitimate." Just because Paul Ryan was never pinned down about that fact or caught on tape espousing this view does not mean it is not true. Bobby Jindal may have a compelling personal story, but just because he's Indian-American won't erase the fact that as Governor, he supported reforms that promote the teaching of creationism in school. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress continue to fulminate against raising taxes on the wealthy while banging the drum of fiscal prudence at the expense of the elderly, poor and infirm. 

Americans have lived under Republican rule twice in the last 32 years and the results got steadily worse. Moderate income redistribution to the wealthy under Reagan and George H.W. Bush skyrocketed under George W. Bush, while job creation, which was robust in the 1980s and tepid under George H.W. Bush, flatlined under the latter’s son. Budget deficits and the accumulation of debt grew at then-unheard of rates under Reagan, started to come down after Bush signed a tax increase in 1990, then fell under Bill Clinton, resulting in a surplus that George W. Bush quickly turned into the deepest fiscal hole we have experienced since The Great Depression. If low taxes translated into job creation, George W. Bush would have created 23 million new jobs, not Bill Clinton, who raised taxes on the wealthy. Instead, Bush bequeathed an economy in free fall and an eight year record with no net private job growth, something that had not happened since the days of Herbert Hoover.   

In other words, people have grown wise to the emptiness of the GOP’s bumper sticker. Americans like and want social services protected and they support the wealthy paying more in taxes. Moreover, they have seen what the reckless use of our military results in (a lot of dead American soldiers and a HUGE dent in our coffers, not to mention even more dead Iraqi and Afghani civilians and the enmity of allies and foes alike) while their wages have stagnated and they struggle to pay the bills. And finally, when Republicans pressed their views more publicly about "makers and takers," access to birth control and limiting abortion rights for women who are raped, they were derided and rejected. It is no coincidence that Democrats won more votes than Republicans for President, the Senate and House of Representatives this November. 

Indeed, the 2012 outcome is critical not just for its slap-in-the-face announcement that the nation's demographics have changed for a generation, but it will, in its way, frame the next Presidential election. You see, the damage wrought by George W. Bush, to our economy, our military, our long-term fiscal outlook and our nation's view of the exercise of its war power is an albatross around the Republican brand that no amount of Frank Luntz-ian wordsmithing will change. If the economy continues to improve, Obama cuts a "grand bargain" with Congress that raises taxes while also "reforming" the tax code and entitlements, passes immigration reform and continues his steady foreign policy leadership on top of the significant legislative achievements of his first term, his place in the annals of great American Presidents will not only be secure, but will provide Democrats a compelling case for another four years of their party's leadership in the White House. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Govern Like It Is 1995

Not that anyone from The White House has called to ask for my opinion on how the President should negotiate over the so-called "fiscal cliff," but if they did, I would suggest Mr. Obama pick up the phone and call his new BFF Bill Clinton and ask for some pro tips. You see, once upon a time, specifically, April 1995, William Jefferson Clinton was a political piñata who had to ascend the podium at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to assert his "relevance" in the wake of a massive Republican tide that came in during the 1994 mid-term elections. Clinton had been put in that corner because Republicans bullied him mercilessly, demonized his signature attempt to reform health care and successfully convinced an off-year electorate that trended more conservative, that their "Contract With America" was the antidote to the wild-eyed liberalism of our nation's first Baby Boomer President. That fall, Clinton masterfully leveraged Republican overreach in budget negotiations to re-assert his authority, subsequently cruising to a second term in office. 

Sound familiar?

Republicans thought Clinton was a push over and assumed the threat of shutting down the federal government would get him to cave on deep cuts to "ME(2)" (Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment), but Clinton had two things going for him that President Obama should take heed of - (1) people liked the programs that Republicans threatened to slash and (2) President Clinton marshaled the singular power of the bully pulpit to frame the debate as one between his reasonableness and protection of popular government policies and a slash and burn method of governing by intransigent Republicans (having Newt Gingrich as his foil certainly did not hurt). After two government shutdowns, Republicans caved and Clinton was triumphant. 

So what lessons can President Obama take from the Big Dog in dealing with Republicans now? Well, first and foremost, Republicans don't compromise until they have to. Gingrich and his allies finally came to the table when it was clear public opinion was against them. As important, Clinton did not back down, even when images of closed museums and historic sites aired on TV. By being willing to call the Republicans's bluff, and, as importantly, driving the narrative that the shutdown was their fault, not his, Clinton got what he wanted. Obama's hand is strong - all of the fiscal and policy impacts that the media is now wringing its hands over, happen if nothing happens. That is, if Congress fails to pass legislation, taxes go up and massive cuts to defense and non-"entitlement programs" occur. The President made an important point at his first public event after being re-elected - the Senate has already passed an extension of tax cuts for everyone making under $250,000 (something that people making more than that also get to enjoy as their tax rates up to that level also go down), and the House simply needs to pass that bill and he will sign it. Once done, he said he will discuss the other issues Republicans would like to negotiate over.  

He must be prepared for the fact that if we "go over the cliff," taxes will go up, people will be unhappy and the media will cover the story incessantly. But in this hyper focus is his opportunity to frame the debate as one between his view, ratified less than a week ago, that people want taxes to rise on the wealthy as part of broader national spirit of "shared sacrifice" while ensuring that needed funding is provided for things like research and development, education and protecting the less fortunate.  The President must put Republican intransigence in the proper light - that their primary concern is protecting the wealthy, who have experienced wealth distribution in their favor unseen since before the Great Depression, for nearly 30 years while his is ensuring that our economy continues to grow, that the tax system be more progressive and we get back to the business of employing workers, educating students and investing in our future. 

But the second lesson the President must learn is just as important. The Republican Congress of 1994 was quick to challenge Clinton because they had done it over and over and won. Similiarly, Obama's track record of negotiation with Republicans since he took office in 2009 is one of capitulation and compromise, largely on the other side's terms. They have no reason to believe he is serious about allowing the country to "go off the cliff" because ever other time Republicans have "taken hostages" they have extracted enormous concessions from him - whether it was extending all the Bush tax cuts at the of 2010 or getting the President to agree to long-term cuts to discretionary domestic spending as part of the agreement to raise the debt ceiling, the things he receives in return seem modest in comparison (for more on this topic, see my post, "How To Negotiate Like A Republican: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2012/04/how-to-negotiate-like-republican.html). 

So, like New Jerseyans told to stock up on water and non-perishable food before Hurricane Sandy, what should the Obama team be doing? Putting my Axelrod mustache on, here is what I recommend:   

1.  Stand firm:  Be clear, in public and private, that the House must pass the permanent extension of the so-called "middle class" tax cuts (up to $250,000) and that nothing else moves until that happens. This tax cut has enormous public support and is a simple vote away from becoming law. If Republicans refuse, the President must be prepared to walk away. The idea of closing loopholes (which can simply be re-opened at a later date) or limiting deductions (which can be reinstated at a later date) is not enough. Locking in higher tax rates for the top 2% is hugely popular and also puts Republicans in the position of trying to justify protecting the wealthy when the CBO has already debunked their main talking point that raising taxes on the wealthy will harm economic growth. 

2.  Be prepared for the visuals:  If we "go over the cliff," every major news organization, blogger, online media outlet and talk radio program is going to be talking about the deleterious effects of this reality 24 hours a day.  The Obama team cannot allow itself to be swayed by the hyperbole; yes, paychecks will be smaller and yes, the stock market may go down, but this will not matter because … 

3.  Be prepared with the message:  The President must have a simple message - I wanted to compromise, they did not. They knew they had to do something before the end of the year and they (Republicans) refused to budge. I ran for re-election telling people that taxes were going to go up on the wealthy, they ran on a platform of protecting millionaires and billionaires. He must be prepared to litigate his case, over and over, in front of the cameras, and utilize the army of supporters that just re-elected him to drive this narrative. 

4.  Find An Achilles Heel: The business community is a slumbering giant and high profile CEOs like Jamie Dimon (JPMorgan) and Howard Schultz (Starbucks) have both talked supportively of the idea that the wealthy should pay a little more.  Moreover, cuts to defense will hit major GOP supporters at corporations like General Dynamics and Lockheed-Martin. They have no interest in losing valuable federal dollars and the swollen profit it provides.  Finally, businesses will suffer if taxes go up, spending gets cut and Americans are suddenly insecure about their economic future. The pressure business leaders can put on Republicans should not be understated. 

5.  Have an out strategy: Whether it's a comprehensive "grand bargain" or a smaller deal, the President and his team must emphasize their ideas and have a deal sheet ready when the time comes. My own view is that this is his opportunity to litigate everything, to fold in a debt ceiling increase, tax rates, the 2013 federal budget, the whole ball of wax, so that we are not subject to constant government by crisis that seemed to define his first term in office. 

As a final note, it is important to remember that nothing that happens on January 1st can't be undone. In 1995, when the government reopened, workers got lost pay, the story quickly dropped from the front page and life pretty much went back to normal.  The President must remember that "this too shall pass." The pressure on Republicans to cut a deal, and one that is favorable to the President, will be there if he exerts his will, marshals his resources and communicates with the American people. The upshot will be that legislation will eventually be passed that will lock in lower tax rates for middle class families, longer term debt and deficit reduction and, not inconsequentially, the Republican bullies will have been vanquished. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Day After

Some initial thoughts on last night’s results:

Demographics: The President’s re-election was a testament to organizing, message and get out the vote, but also a serious bet on the demographic trends in our country. The President won huge majorities of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Pacific Americans, all of whom saw their percentage of the total vote go up, while “white people” made up a smaller amount of the total. They also bet big on women, who gave the President a solid majority of their votes. For as much as I mock Steve Schmidt and Chris Cillizza, each made important points about these trends. First, Schmidt noted that George H.W. Bush won roughly 60% of the white vote in 1988 and cruised to the White House. Romney won (roughly) the same percentage in 2012 and didn’t come close. Cillizza pointed out that New Mexico went for George W. Bush in 2004 but is now part of the deepening blue Left Coast (along with reliable CA, WA and OR). New Mexico, and to a lesser extent, Nevada, are Exhibits A and B for these trend lines and a party that is viewed as anti-immigrant and pro-voter suppression is not a party that will compete in a meaningful way at the national level anytime soon.

Pleasantville (Part I): The GOP and its Greek chorus on FOX News and talk radio cling to some ideal of America as a 1950s Norman Rockwell painting, a black and white (think TV, not skin color) Eden where doors are left unlocked, the milkman delivers to your front door step and little Jimmy rides his bike down to the soda shop after school. This worldview largely explains the genuine looks of shock and horror (not to mention Karl Rove’s epic on-air meltdown when FOX called Ohio for the President) on FOX last night when the tide turned decisively in the President’s favor. When you live in a media bubble where the President is not a sentient human being, but rather, some “other” who is hell bent on the destruction of the country, you have, as Brian Williams noted about Donald Trump, “driven well past the last exit to relevance and veered into something closer to irresponsible.” Sadly, conservatives are among the last to have found out that the country (and the electorate) is younger, more progressive and open to a role for government than they want to believe.  

5 out of 6: Others have noted this, but we have had six presidential elections since 1992 and the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote five times. No GOP candidate for President has surpassed 300 Electoral Votes since George H.W. Bush in 1988, while the Democrats have cleared that bar four times, and but for those hanging chads, well ... we won’t even go there. Not only that, but a solid wall of “blue” states with more than 200 EVs has been erected that would give me great pause if I was a Republican and had to run against an iconic name like “Clinton” or “Cuomo” in four years. Finally, let’s hope the “5 out of 6” meme finally puts to rest the idea that we are a “center right” country.

Pleasantville (Part II): As out of touch and insular as Republicans and their media echo chamber were about the election, the “mainstream” media was equally at fault. “Respected” journalists aped polling data from places like Gallup (predicted whites would make up 78% of electorate, turned out to be 72%) and Rasmussen (final polling was off by an average of 5% in swing states) without digging deeper into their methodology or screening. Further, they gave voice to polling “truthers” who did everything from “unskew” polls (that turned out to be spot on) to lambaste Nate Silver (who only ended up accurately predicting the winner in 50 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia).  In the waning days of the campaign, they uncritically reported about Romney attempts to “expand the map” to places like Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania, none of which ended up being close. More dispiritingly, they constantly framed the race as essentially tied even when poll after poll showed that the electoral math was strongly in Obama’s favor.
(I don’t know shit about politics and predicted the final EV and popular vote less 1 EV - http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2012/11/predictions.html).

On election night, journalists also sounded genuinely surprised that the electorate of their youth- older, white and “center right” (think Reagan Democrats) had been replaced. Not unlike the CIA missing the end of the Cold War, the “media” writ large seems to be well behind the curve in appreciating the shifting demographics of our nation, which would be ok, except they get paid a lot of money to notice shit like that.

Ticket Splitters: Considering that Mitt Romney won North Dakota by 20 points and Montana by 14 and both those states elected (or re-elected in Montana’s case) Democratic Senators is pretty amazing. That Scott Brown even got within sniffing distance of Elizabeth Warren (lost by 7) when the President carried Massachusetts by 23 points is also impressive. While I am one who tends to think Americans are low information voters, that so many people still ticket split shows that campaigns (and candidates) matter.

Obama’s (Non) Problem With White People: Among my least favorite memes of this election was the idea that President Obama had a problem with “white” voters. Last night confirmed this to be false. Obama twice carried largely rural states like New Hampshire and Iowa and blue collar states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Rather, the President (and frankly, any Democrat) has a problem with white Southern voters. There’s a big difference.

Mandates: I’m baffled by the idea being floated that it is incumbent on the President to compromise more with Republicans now that he’s been re-elected.  It’s not just that this trope ignores the four years of lockstep obstruction Republicans put before him or the compromises he has made[1], but also denies the reality of what we saw last night. The President was easily re-elected, Democrats not only gained two seats in the Senate but voters roundly rejected “Tea Party” types like Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin in Indiana and Missouri (Romney carried both and Indiana replaced its retiring Republican Governor with GOP Congressman Mike Pence) and the GOP’s majority in the House shrunk and was saved largely due to redistricting. In other words, why isn’t the chattering class asking the party that has now lost two straight Presidential elections (in near or total landslides) and lost seats in the House and Senate why it is not more willing to compromise?

It’s Not The Pitch, It’s The Product: On Mad Men, Don Draper is fond of saying that if you don’t like the conversation, you change the subject. This morning, some pundits were talking about the GOP’s need to re-brand itself so it sounds more inclusive. The only problem with this prescription is that today’s Republican party does not suffer from bad messaging, it suffers from a bad message. When people like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock have a platform to espouse their reactionary views about rape or when Rudy Guiliani screams about the President having blood on his hands because of the attack on our Benghazi consulate, it’s not the way in which these things are being said that is the problem, it is that they are being said. You can’t re-message crazy, and no amount of Frank Luntz wordsmithing is going to change that. The Republicans are at a tipping point of losing the next wave of voters because they are out of step with the times – last night’s results showed that ours is a society trending more pluralistic, progressive (on issues like marijuana and gay marriage) and majority-minority, so banging the drum on the evils of immigration, passing laws that suppress voting rights and criminalizing abortion are not going to get you the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It will not just be Republican leaders who espouse a new form of conservatism who will lead the GOP, but ones who actually believe it.

[1]  A partial list would include the insertion of more than 160 GOP-sponsored amendments into the Affordable Care Act (Republicans still voted against it), extending the Bush tax cuts for two years, agreeing to spending cuts and budget freezes and proposing a debt commission (Republicans filibustered and the President created Simpson-Bowles by Executive Order).

Friday, November 2, 2012


I’ve looked into my crystal ball and present my fearless predictions for Election Day 2012

President of the United States

Popular Vote (rounded):         Obama: 50%   Romney 48%
Final EV Prediction:                 Obama 333     Romney 205

Obama wins                                                    Romney wins

ME                                                                   WV     
NH                                                                   NC
VT                                                                    SC
NY                                                                    GA
CT                                                                    MS
RI                                                                     AL
PA                                                                    LA
NJ                                                                    AR
MD                                                                  MO
DC                                                                   KY
VA                                                                    TN
FL                                                                     IN
OH                                                                   KS
MI                                                                    OK
WI                                                                    TX
IL                                                                     NE (4 EV)
IA                                                                     SD
NE (1 EV – Omaha)                                         ND
MN                                                                  MT
CO                                                                   ID
NM                                                                  WY
CA                                                                    AK
OR                                                                   UT
WA                                                                  AZ

The state I’m least confident about for the President is Florida. Polling there has consistently shown the race to be neck-and-neck, but the I-4 corridor may be more receptive to Romney’s businessman pitch than it was McCain’s “Country First” claptrap. I also think Romney will narrowly carry North Carolina, owing to its natural Republican tilt. It is also possible Obama will not collect the Congressional District EV in Nebraska that he won in 2008. If so, his EV count drops to 303 (FL -29, NE -1), which would still represent a higher EV tally than either of George W. Bush’s wins. In Virginia, Kaine will win by 5-6 points and I don’t see Romney over performing Allen by that much. Head fakes by Team Romney in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Michigan may have helped his “narrative,” but the President will win all three easily (albeit not be as large a margin as he did in 2008). Similarly, I expect the President to carry Ohio and Wisconsin by at least 3 points (media reports trying to paint each as a “toss-up” are belied by state-level polling). In fact, I think much of the after-action reporting on the President’s re-election will center on the degree to which the Romney folks were spinning to project strength when they knew their man was going to lose. Last point: an Obama win in the popular vote would make this the 5th election in the past 6 where the Democrat carried the popular vote (the lone exception since 1992 being Bush’s narrow win in 2004). While that will not put to rest the mainstream media belief that we are a “center-right” country, facts are stubborn things.

U.S. Senate (Key Races)

Who Will Win: Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy, Claire McCaskill, Tim Kaine, Sherrod Brown, Martin Heinrich

Who I Hope Will Win (& I think will win): Heidi Heitkamp, Tammy Baldwin

Who I Hope Will Win (but worried they will not): Joe Donnelly, Jon Tester

Warren should triumph not just because of Brown’s scurrilous and ugly campaign, but the rising tide that will be Obama’s 20+ point win in Massachusetts. Chris Murphy should benefit similarly in Connecticut, while McCaskill’s re-election in Missouri was secured when Todd Akin decided to share his views on rape with the electorate. Both Tim Kaine and Sherrod Brown have run strong campaigns on their own in Virginia and Ohio, taking two races that seemed like toss-ups and locking them down well before Election Day. Martin Heinrich looks like a strong bet to continue shading New Mexico blue and has also been helped by a weak (and soon-to-be two-time loser) opponent in Heather Wilson.

In other races, I do hope Heidi Heitkamp pulls off a minor upset in reliably Republican North Dakota. From everything I have read about that race, she has excelled at the “retail” politics that are required there and also has a middle of the road record (including a stint as state Attorney General) to run on. Similarly, although she started out as an underdog to former four-term (!) Governor Tommy Thompson, Tammy Baldwin has run a scrappy and tenacious campaign in Wisconsin. Both sides are highly motivated and organized in the Badger State, not just for the Obama/Romney match-up, but the residual mobilizing that was done both for and against Governor Scott Walker. Baldwin would bring needed progressivity to the Senate.

Even though recent polling shows Joe Donnelly leading “rape baby guy” Richard Mourdock by 11 points in Indiana, I am worried there won’t be enough ticket splitters in the Hoosier State to carry Donnelly over the finish line[1].  In Montana, Jon Tester has a similar issue of needing to over perform the President, although Big Sky Country only went for McCain by 2 points in 2008. Tester barely eeked out a win in 2006 in a strong Democratic year and he will need all of that and more to be re-elected. I’m worried he may fall a little short.

The other two races I did not list are likely to cancel one another out – I expect Bill Nelson to cruise to re-election in Florida, while I fear Dean Heller may eke out a win in Nevada (though we underestimate Harry Reid’s turnout machine at our peril).

[1]  I should note, I know nothing about state politics in Indiana, so this is pure speculation (as is much of this blog!) on my part.