Sunday, February 1, 2015

Romney's Out: The Invisible Primary Claims Its First Victim

As I said in my last post, Mitt Romney did not appear to be a man about to embark on a third presidential campaign when I saw him speak at Mississippi State University on January 28, 2015.  In fact, we now know that he is not running.  He has, in essence, become the first casualty of the 2015 'invisible primary.'  The question then turns to what does Romney's decision not to seek the nomination mean for the rest of the field?

First, Romney's 'departure' eliminates one of the three contenders for support by the business (establishment) wing of the Republican Party donor class.  It appears from news reports that one of Romney's main considerations was whether he could lock in the financial support of many of his biggest contributors from 2011-12, some of whom wanted to support a 'fresher' face in the upcoming campaign.  Jeb Bush seems to be in the best position to capitalize on Romney's exit as he and Romney's fundraising list shared some 40+ zip codes loaded with wealthy donors.  The Bush fundraising machine is in high gear and it will be interesting to see what the numbers look like when he has to start reporting them.

Second, Romney's declination to run opens a window for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to make a serious bid for the nomination.  Like Romney and Bush, Christie should get a lot of support from the business community and its wealthiest members.  A big unknown, however, is what impact the numerous mini-scandals (Bridgegate and the like) will have on Christie's appeal outside of NY and NJ.  It is unlikely his brash northeastern attitude will play well in some parts of the country that are used to politics that are more refined than what we typically witness in New Jersey.  If Christie is able to raise the $50 million or so it will take to run a decent race for the nomination heading towards Iowa and New Hampshire next January, it could set up an interesting battle between he and former Florida Governor Bush.

Third, Romney's decision not to enter the race is likely good news for another group of second tier candidates who might have struggled to raise the necessary funds to be competitive and generate name recognition.  At the top of this list are two names that will be competing for much of the same space on the political spectrum, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Both have struggled to generate much excitement from the Republican establishment so far, though Walker's speech at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Summit was apparently a big hit with the crowd.

Finally, others who might stand to benefit from Romney's departure include Mike Huckabee, though I personally think his appeal is limited to the evangelical wing of the party, and Rand Paul (again, limited appeal to the libertarian crowd), and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (if he runs).  Of these three, my bet would be on Kasich having the most success appealing to multiple wings of the GOP.  The big question for each of them is foreign policy knowledge.  None has any experience with foreign affairs and given the dangerous world we live in today it is a good bet the GOP will want someone who has the skill and experience to tackle threats like ISIS and deal with the renewed threats coming from the Russian Bear.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mitt Romney Redux?

Last evening I had the opportunity to attend a speech by the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney at Mississippi State University's Bettersworth Auditorium in Lee Hall.  Governor Romney was here as part of the Mississippi State University Global Lecture Series, which has featured prominent public servants such as General Colin Powell, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and others in recent years.  Governor Romney spoke for about 35 minutes then settled down for a brief conversation with former Mississippi Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to a Mississippi State University audience as part of the university's Global Lecture Series.Photo by: Beth Wynn
Romney began the speech by recounting his own college years as an English major, which according to him meant he had no idea of what he would do for a living.  That elicited a laugh from the students in attendance (and some faculty I presume).  The first fifteen minutes of the speech was dedicated to a more personal conversation that seemed much like an address one might hear at a college commencement ceremony rather than a campaign speech.  To be sure, Romney gave no indication about whether he intends to seek the Republican nomination in 2016 except to say that 'you may have heard I have been thinking about running' for president again.  Judging from the applause in the audience, he might have the support of quite a few of them if he did choose to run.

The speech turned political during the second half of the governor's address as he went directly after President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  First, Romney accused the president of being either 'naive' or 'deceptive' during his recent State of the Union address for not calling ISIS what it is...a group of Islamic Jihadists that pose a serious threat to world peace and American interests abroad.

Next, the governor went after the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by criticizing her for pressing the 'reset' button on America's relationship with Russia.  In Romney's view this 'reset' enabled Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade and seize portions of Ukraine last year.  Of course, this conveniently ignores the fact that Putin's invasion of Ukraine took place in the middle of 2014, more than a year and a half after Secretary Clinton was replaced by former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.  Romney went on to remark that Putin wants to reassemble the old Soviet empire by taking invading sovereign nations, which is not what great powers do.  He pointed to the enormous strength of the U.S. Military and claimed that we never use that power to invade a sovereign country.  Perhaps it slipped his mind but the U.S. did recently wrap up two wars in which we did, in fact, invade sovereign nations and topple their governments (Afghanistan and Iraq).  That is not to say those invasions were not justified...just that any discussion of the use of U.S. military power must include those events as well.

The final portion of Romney's speech involved his view on the economic situation in America.  By his own admission, the economy has improved for many Americans, especially those who are very wealthy like the governor himself.  He stated that the Obama Presidency has been very good for people like him as the stock market has reached new highs and increased the wealth of the very rich in America.  He also said that for the rich, it doesn't matter who the president is because they will always do well.  For the poor and middle class, however, the last six years have not been so good.  He intoned that the gap between the rich and the poor has grown under President Obama, which is somewhat true as the wealthy have recovered much of what they lost when the Great Recession hit in 2008.

While trying to lay this gap at the feet of the current president, however, Romney admitted that it is part of a trend that has been going on for several decades.  Yet, he claimed that 'liberal policies' were to blame and indicated that it is time to give conservative ideas a chance to work.  I could be wrong but I seem to recall that more than half of the time frame covered by the rise in the gap between the rich and the poor has been presided over by Republican Presidents and Republican Congresses.  To be fair, the governor did criticize both parties for failing to take the actions necessary to ensure a prosperous future for all Americans, though he did not go into detail about what those actions might entail.

Finally, in a rather surprising appeal, Romney indicated that it is well past time for Republicans to stop paying attention solely to the voices that are important for winning the Republican nomination and to start paying attention to those who typically view the party as hostile to their interests, minorities and the poor.  Only by doing this, Romney said, will the GOP stand a good chance to win a general election and recapture the White House.  It was, in essence, a tacit admission that the strategy he employed in 2012 to capture largely older white voters is doomed to fail in 2016 as the share of the electorate comprising that demographic continues to decline.  In 2012, Romney famously said he did not need to pay attention to the '47% of Americans who refuse to take responsibility' for their lives and just want a handout from the government.  Today, it appears, that he realizes Republicans cannot win the presidency without reaching out to at least some of those voters.  In this writer's estimation that is a positive development if the party follows through with it.

So...does this mean Governor Romney is planning to launch a campaign for the presidency again?  To be honest, I'm not sure.  What I do know is that whatever happens with the GOP over the next 18 months or so, Governor Romney wants to be a part of that conversation.  Like America (according to the governor), the Republican Party has a leadership problem today.  It is like a ship adrift with all the crew members thinking they should be captain.  The last Republican President, George W. Bush, has dropped off the face of the earth it seems, except for news of a new painting or a book praising his father every now and then.  He certainly has shown no indication that he wants to be an elder statesman for the party the way former President Bill Clinton has for the Democrats.  The elder Bush, George H.W., is in frail health at 90 years of age and unable to travel much these days.  So the party has no true leader.  It seems that Gov. Romney, as the most recent nominee for the GOP, is trying to put himself into that position.  Only time will tell just how successful he will be in that endeavor.

Overall, the evening was informative and Gov. Romney seemed very at ease discussing everything, including his loss to President Obama in 2012.  On election night in 2012, just after the networks called the race for President Obama, my wife told my then six year old daughter that Barack Obama had been reelected President of the United States.  My daughter asked, 'Momma, is Mitt Romney sad"?  Judging from his speech last night and the ease of which he spoke about the 2012 campaign I'd have to say 'no, he appears to be doing just fine.'

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Invisible Primary & Scott Walker

Every four years the time comes when political scientists around the United States become like little children on Christmas morning anticipating opening their gifts to find out what is inside.  They rush to their offices, fire up their Macs (if they're anything like me), and begin exploring the day's happenings in the political world.  Of particular interest for folks like me this time of year is what we refer to as 'The Invisible Primary.'  The phrase refers to that period of time between the announcement of an intention to seek the presidency and the first votes being cast in the Iowa Caucuses, which typically occur in January of the following year.  Most of this time is spent by potential nominees courting party elites and well-heeled donors in an effort to raise the $50 million or so necessary to be competitive during primary season.

The 2015 invisible primary is well under way following the announcement by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush that he intends to 'explore' a run for the presidency.  Bush's announcement caught some of the potential GOP candidates off guard and potentially provided the governor with a head start over his rivals.  This set off a scramble among other potential candidates to hire talented individuals who could help them raise money and test the waters.  Shortly after Bush jumped into the race Mike Huckabee walked away from a lucrative deal at Fox News to explore a possible candidacy.  Others in the GOP all but certain to run include Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum.  Rumors of another run by Mitt Romney are sort of like the stories regarding the exaggeration of the death of Mark Twain.  It makes for good political fodder but it just makes no sense at all.  His time came and went and the party has moved on.

The challenge for each of the potential candidates is to figure out where their political support is most likely to come from and lock up that support over the next 11 months.  Political Scientist Jason McDaniel does an excellent job laying out the case for one of these candidates, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, in his latest post at Mischiefs of Faction.  McDaniel also created the following Venn Diagram to show the political space occupied by each of the potential candidates for the GOP, which is another way of saying where each is most likely to find the greatest level of support.  If a candidate appears in more than one of the circles, he likely has appeal to two or more factions within the GOP, thus making him more 'viable' to party elites and important donors.  Candidates who appear in only one circle have limited appeal outside their own circle and will likely struggle to win the nomination. This isn't to say they cannot win it, just that it is highly unlikely because such a candidate will have a hard time raising the kind of financial support necessary to make a serious run at the nomination.  In 2012 we saw this happen to candidates such as Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Tim Pawlenty.  I would go so far as to argue that even Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were not truly viable candidates in 2012, though they got to hang around due to the support each received from a wealthy donor.

Back to Scott Walker.  McDaniel's analysis makes sense on some level since the 2016 race for the GOP nomination seems to lack a clear frontrunner.  Could Walker win the nomination?  If so, he would be the first major party nominee since Harry Truman in 1948 without at least a bachelor's degree.  Even so, some have argued that Walker is well situated since he has won three elections (including the misguided recall attempt) in a state that has reliably supported the Democratic candidate for president since 1988.  Yet, one aspect of Walker's three victories is rarely discussed.  Each of them occurred with a midterm electorate that is typically older, whiter, and more conservative than that seen in a presidential election.  That may suit him fine in seeking the GOP nomination, which will look in many ways a lot like the electorate he faced in Wisconsin.  The biggest challenge for Walker may not be his appeal to the GOP base, rather it will be his lack of name recognition.  If he can overcome that obstacle he has a slight chance of securing the nomination.  He can win Iowa with its historic tendency to back evangelical candidates but New Hampshire and heavily unionized Nevada may pose serious problems.  The good news for Gov. Walker?  If he lasts until the proposed SEC primary in the southern states in early March, he could rack up a lot of delegates in a hurry.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

2014 Midterm Election Post-Mortem: What's Next?

Now that the votes have been counted, the tears have been shed, the champagne has been consumed, and the unemployment insurance claims filed it is time to consider what the results mean for government and governing in America over the next two years.  I'll start with a look at the House of Representatives, the Senate, and then the executive branch.

The House of Representatives

As of November 9th the GOP controls 244 seats in the House to 184 for the Democrats with seven races still undecided.  A quick look at the NY Times big board indicates that the GOP is likely to capture five of those undecided seats.  That will put them right around 250 seats, their largest caucus since Herbert Hoover was president.  Archie Bunker would be proud.  Does the increased majority make it more likely the House GOP starts governing again?  I think it does and here's why:

John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker and Majority Leader in the House, are for the most part moderate establishment politicians.  They're not obstructionists like some of their fellow bomb-throwing extremists who demanded a shut down of the federal government in 2013 and threatened to allow the nation to default on its sovereign debt.  Boehner and McCarthy are conservatives without a doubt but they are conservatives who want to see Washington work efficiently.  Sure, they live in a fictional bubble where smaller government is possible and Big Bird loses his head but, hey, you have to dream big in order to keep waking up every day, right?

Seriously, the larger majority in the House for Boehner allows him to do something he has not been able to do since being elected Speaker in 2010...tell the Tea Party to take a hike and get with the program or become irrelevant.  The question is whether he will do it or not.  My bet is he will and we will see a much more productive House in 2015 and 2016.  We might even see some major legislation emerge such as immigration reform and tax reform.  To be sure, it will reflect Republican priorities so Boehner and McCarthy will have to do some negotiating with the president if they want it to become law.  I think they'll find a way to get it done.  The alternative is to go into the 2016 presidential election as the party that controlled Congress for two years and did nothing.  Given the different electorate we are likely to see in 2016 I do not think that is a very good strategy.  I suspect Boehner and McCarthy would agree with that assessment.  Had the Republican House such a majority in 2014 I suspect the bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by the Senate would have been brought to the floor of the House and passed with bipartisan support and then signed into law by President Obama.

The Senate

It appears right now the GOP will net nine seats in the Senate, which will put them at 54.  That's not enough to end a filibuster if a the Democratic minority decides to play the obstructionism card the way the GOP did for the past four years.   There are a core group of institutionalists within the minority that will prevent obstruction from becoming the norm for the next two years.  Further, the Democrats have nothing to lose and everything to gain by working with newly minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to find areas of common ground to move policy forward.  They likely will not get everything they want but history shows that Democrats have been much more willing to compromise in order to govern than the GOP has in recent years.  As of now, I see no evidence to indicate that will change in the 114th Congress.  The wild card is Harry Reid, the presumptive minority leader.  Reid has the potential to make life hell for the GOP if he wants to.  I wouldn't blame him if he did after what he has been through for the last four years but eventually the time comes to stop playing tit for tat and acting like a grown up.  Perhaps both McConnell and Reid will realize that the time has arrived.  Otherwise they both ought to retire to some Kentucky stud farm.

Taking control of the Senate also means that Republicans can no longer point fingers at the Democrats for failing to pass a budget, ignoring the minority, and all the other ills that Harry Reid has been accused of passing on to the country.  The GOP will have to stand or fall in 2016 based upon its own performance.  America has given the party a chance to prove it can govern.  Govern it must or 2016 will see a return of a Democratic Senate, though the odds are somewhat longer of that happening if the GOP does indeed have 54 seats.  Donkeys would need to net four seats and the presidency in 2016 or five seats if the GOP wins the presidency.

The President

In some ways, losing control of Congress has got to be a relief for the president.  He is now free to work with Republicans without regard to what Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi wants.  The major players for the president now become John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.  Sure, that doesn't mean they'll sit around holding hands, sipping Kentucky Bourbon, and singing Kumbaya.  But it does mean the president has an incentive to accomplish some things over his final two years in office.  If the president is wise he will employ the triangulation strategy that worked so well for Bill Clinton.  In essence, President Obama will attempt to co-opt some of the Republicans priorities in the next Congress, which allows him to get the credit when they enact what is essentially their agenda.  Such a strategy only goes so far, however.  It is unlikely the president will give on his core principles, which is sure to setup a showdown with the new Republican Congress.

Moving Forward

The takeover of the Senate by Republicans may well be a blessing in disguise for the president and the Democratic Party.  As I said, if the GOP fails to govern for the next two years it benefits the Democrats in 2016.  Using a spatial analysis approach, what matters most over the next two years are the pivot points for the major players.  Pivot points reflect the optimal position of the 218th member of the House, the 51st (or 60th) vote in the Senate, and the preferred position of the president.  The larger majority in the House may mean the 218th vote position has moved slightly right or slightly left from where it was in 2013-14.  If it has moved to the right (due to greater Tea Party strength) then the next two years will be an exercise in brutal futility as there will be little ground for compromise.  If the pivot point for the 218th member of the House has moved slightly left (due to greater moderate strength among new members) then there may be more room for deals to be struck with the Senate and president.

The pivot points in the Senate have shifted significantly to the right with the GOP taking control.  The 51st vote now rests with the 4th least conservative Republican as opposed to the 4th least liberal Democrat.  That means John McCain or Lisa Murkowski is likely to hold the 51st vote on items that can be passed on a simple majority vote.  If 60 votes are required due to a Democratic filibuster (or threat thereof) the 60th vote will likely come from Jeanne Shaheen or Michael Bennet (40th most liberal).

The president's pivot point is likely to also shift rightward.  Despite the rhetoric of many conservative Republicans many of President Obama's actual policies have been quite conservative from the tax cuts implemented in 2009-2011 to the transfer of wealth from individual citizens to big insurance companies under the ACA, which was modeled on a plan first proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation.  Since Obama has shown little hesitancy to move to the right when a deal could be struck with the House leadership I expect him to continue to do the same in 2015-16.  Only now the deals will be between Obama, Boehner, and McConnell.  If Boehner and McConnell can reach agreement then the president is likely to come along unless it involves a gutting of Obamacare or any of his other signature accomplishments.  The most likely major agreements are on immigration reform and tax reform in the next two years.  There will also likely be some tweaks to Obamacare but unless the Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional it is here to stay.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

2014 Midterm Election Post-Mortem

November 4th has come and gone and like with any natural disaster the time for picking up the pieces begins with the light of day, at least for the Democrats.  The Republicans, on the other hand, will likely be hung over from their victory parties for a few days to come.  Regardless, the questions are what happened, why, and what does it mean for the country for the next two years?

What Happened: The Electorate

Simply put, it was a bloodbath for the donkey party.  The elephants drowned the donkeys in a sea of red in virtually every winnable race.  From the House to the Senate to gubernatorial races there wasn't much good news for the donkeys up and down the map.  Of course, there was nothing really surprising about that because the party controlling the presidency has lost seats in 18 of the last 21 midterm elections.  There are a variety of reasons for that but James Campbell's explanation seems to be the most accurate.  Campbell attributes the midterm loss phenomena to the fact that there are two electorates in the United States, one that shows up for presidential elections and one that shows up for midterm elections.  Some voters are in both of these electorates but the electorate for a midterm differs demographically from that of the presidential election in a couple of significant ways.

First, the electorate during a midterm election tends to be older than that of a presidential election.  According to the exit polls, 22% of the electorate was 65 years or older.  In 2012 that number was 16%.  Those over age 65 currently tend to vote Republican (56% in 2012, 57% in 2014).  Voters between 18 and 29 years of age made up only 13% of the electorate in 2014.  Two years earlier they comprised 19% of the electorate.  In 2012 younger voters split 60-37 for the Democrats while in 2014 they split 54-43 for the Democrats.  The six percentage point increase in senior voters was enough to seal the fate of Democrats in many close races.

Second, the electorate in 2014 was whiter than in 2012.  In 2012 whites made up 72% of the electorate and 59% of those voted Republican.  In 2014, whites comprised 75% of the electorate and Republicans carried 60% of that vote.  African-Americans were 13% of the electorate in 2012 and slipped to 12% in 2014.  They voted 93% to 6% Democrat in 2012 but 89% to 10% Democrat in 2014.  Latinos consisted of 10% of the electorate in 2012 and supported Democrats by a 71-29 margin while in 2014 they were 8% of the electorate and voted 63-35 for the Democrats.

In sum, if the electorate in 2012 had looked like the electorate in 2014 we would be looking at a unified Republican government under President Mitt Romney today.  But it didn't and it most likely won't in 2016 either.  By 2016 most analysts expect the electorate to be about 70% white.  Barring major changes in the way African-Americans and Latinos vote, that means the Republican nominee will need to carry about 62% of the white vote to win the presidency.  That hasn't happened since Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election in 1984.

What Happened: Geography

Geographically speaking, the electoral map favored the elephants heading into the 2014 midterm election so it really is no surprise that Republicans took control of the Senate and increased their majority in the House.  The donkeys were defending Senate seats in at least 7 states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 including three in the south.  Republicans won two of the three outright on November 4th and will likely win the runoff in Louisiana in December, which means the 114th Congress will not have a single Democrat in the Senate from the old confederacy except for purple Virginia and purple Florida.  The transition of the south from solid (conservative) Democrat to solid (conservative) Republican is officially complete.   In the Old Dominion (VA) the incumbent Democrat is clinging to a 12,000 vote lead with 95% of the vote counted so a flip in that state is still possible.

Outside of the south, Republicans picked up two seats in states Obama carried in 2012 (Iowa and Colorado) in races that turned out not to be as close as the poll watchers predicted.  Alaska has yet to be decided but the elephant appears to have an insurmountable lead over the donkey there.  When all is said and done it looks like Republicans will control 54 Senate seats to 44 for the Democrats plus two independents who caucus with the donkeys.

On the House side of things, Republicans stand at 242 seats, which puts them just a few shy of their postwar high water mark with 19 races left to decide.  It is entirely possible that Republicans will get to 250 seats.

What it Means

Sadly, not much.  Sure, Republicans now control the Senate and its committees.  That means legislation emanating from that body will reflect Republican priorities (hasta la vista Big Bird!).  In all seriousness, however, it takes 60 votes to get anything of substance through the Senate, which means either the GOP will need to learn how to compromise or it will look exactly as useless as Harry Reid's Democrats have for the past two years.  In addition, President Obama still wields the veto stamp so any significant changes to the Affordable Care Act are likely a pipe dream for the GOP.

Other issues, such as immigration reform, tax reform, and entitlement reform may have a small chance of seeing some action but that may well depend on the whether or not the House is ready to govern.  The larger Republican majority there may mean Speaker Boehner will have an easier time working out deals with the Senate and bringing them to the floor sure of 218 Republican votes.  He did not have the luxury in the last Congress, which allowed the Tea Party to control him on the big issues and why a bipartisan immigration reform bill cleared the Senate with 70 votes died in the House.

The GOP Senate will also be able to force the president to select nominees for judicial vacancies that are moderates if he hopes to get them confirmed.  Ultimately, what happens is anyone's guess.  Parties typically talk a good game right after a midterm election but as we have seen for the last four years, talk is cheap.  Republicans now have a chance to show the country they are prepared to govern and work with a president they despise.  Failure to do so may well lead to a very short Senate majority come 2016.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What's the Matter with Kansas, er, Thomas Frank?

Thomas Frank, author of a splendid little story called What's the Matter with Kansas?, apparently woke up on the wrong side of the Kansas/Missouri border earlier this week and he blames political scientists for it.  Really, he blames just about everybody but himself.  His latest missive on takes on an article that Ezra Klein (of the Washington Post) wrote for Vox a few weeks back during the American Political Science Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.  In the article, Klein argues that the inability of political elites in Washington to speak in anything other than partisan soundbites and ambiguous self-serving statements has driven many young Washington journalists into the open arms of the numerous political scientists, like myself, who study and write about political behavior.  As a political scientist I say it is about dang time they pay attention to what we know!  Every time I read a story about the 'Six Year Itch' or how Democrats are 'tax and spend' liberals or Republicans are 'racists' I just shake my head and cringe.  What does this have to do with Thomas Frank?  Everything.

You see, the thesis of Frank's book is that Republicans have duped white middle class voters into voting for them on the basis of social issues like opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and opposition to gun control.  Then, once they get into office, they abandon the social issues to implement their economic agenda, which is detrimental to white middle class voters.  The problem, as political scientists like Larry Bartels points out, is that there just isn't any evidence to support Frank's thesis.  Survey data indicates that outside the south white middle class voters still tend to vote for Democrats.  The data also indicates that most voters are more driven by economic issues than by social issues.  So what does Frank do?  He blames the data and those who analyze it while insisting that he, and he alone, understands why Democrats will likely lose seats in the November midterm elections.  Brace yourself for Frank's most unlikely answer to that question.

In a nutshell, Frank thinks the problem has nothing to do with structural factors that advantage the party out of power in midterm elections.  No, it has nothing to do with conservative voters angst over not controlling the Senate and/or the White House.  So, why, according to Frank, are Democrats going to get whipped in November?  Are you ready?  Here it comes...Democrats are going to lose in November because they just aren't liberal enough for white middle class voters!  If only they had more left wingers like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren the party would fare exceptionally well with white voters in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and all the other states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.  I am absolutely certain that a left winger in Mississippi would fare quite well, considering the recent Republican primary debacle in which many white conservatives voted for the guy that would have eliminated the federal government entirely!

In his despondency over why Democrats will not regain control of the U.S. House in November Frank writes,
"You might recall that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from the early 1930s until 1994 with only two brief Republican interludes. What ended all that was not an ill-advised swerve to the left, but the opposite: A long succession of moves toward what is called the “center,” culminating in the administration of New Democrat Bill Clinton, who (among other things) signed the Republicans’ NAFTA treaty into law."
You got that?  Two things are to blame for why Democrats no longer control the House:  (1) they moved to close to the center between the 1930's and 1994 and; (2) Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law.

Wow, it is remarkable how Frank is able to engage in revisionist history in such a few brief sentences.  His first point is just plain wrong.  Every analysis of party ideology shows that since the 1930's the Democratic Party has become more liberal, not more centrist or conservative.  To be sure, the party has not moved as sharply leftward as the Republicans have moved rightward.  It is also true that the Democratic Party has become much more friendly with business interests and is much more dependent upon them than it was a generation ago.  However, that is not the same as moving to the center as Frank asserts.  He conveniently glosses over the fact that for much of the period from the 1930's to 1994 the power brokers in the Democratic Party were conservative southerners.  They held most of the committee chairs and enabled a coalition with conservative Republicans that could stop any liberal legislation the coalition opposed.  Jonathan Bernstein does a good job taking Frank down on this point.

As for NAFTA, sure it may have cost Democrats a few seats in Congress but it is by no means the massive shift to the center that Frank insinuates.  It might even have been a mistake for Bill Clinton to sign it but hindsight is almost always 20-20.

In the end, what's the matter with Thomas Frank is simply that evidence doesn't matter to his view of the world of politics.  He tells a great story but one that is largely a work of fiction.  Perhaps that what the people of Kansas need to get them through troubled times.  I'll stick with the evidence, even if I wish it sometimes told a different story.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Universal Healthcare: Is It A Disincentive To Work?

The political press is ablaze today following the latest report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on the labor market.  Buried somewhere in the report is an estimate that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may result approximately two to two and a half million Americans choosing to work less or not at all within a decade due to the availability of subsidized health insurance.  While this isn't the focus of the report, it is what the political elite chose to fixate upon. Republicans seized on the estimate as proof positive that the ACA is a bad thing and creates a disincentive to work and incentivizes laziness and dependency upon the government.  The Republican aligned Washington Times spun the story as one that will 'Push 2 Million Workers Out of the Labor Market.'  The left-leaning Washington Post spun the story as one of choice by claiming the ACA would 'prompt over 2 million to quit jobs or cut hours', ostensibly because they could keep their health insurance even if they gave up their job.  Democrats immediately began arguing that this is a positive thing as some of those who gave up their jobs might take a risk and start a business that could end up employing others.  Others might take their new found independence from working a low wage job to spend more time with their kids or spouses.  Either way, the spin from the political elite highlights one of the idiosyncratic features of the American economic ethos...tying the provision of health insurance to an employer.

Adopting a normative framework, one might ask why health insurance in America is so intricately tied to one's employment status?  Do people without jobs have no need of health insurance?  What about those in low wage industries whose employers do not offer coverage?  If we are going to link employment and health insurance it seems logical that all employers should be required to offer it to their workforce.  Yet, prior to the ACA that was not a requirement.  Even after the ACA small businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from providing health insurance coverage to employees and those with more than 50 employees only have to pay a $2000 fine (per employee) if they fail to offer insurance.  Considering that providing coverage to a worker costs far more than $2000 per worker, the real disincentive in the law is benefit for employers who can save hundreds of thousands of dollars by dropping health care coverage for their workforce.  Of course, many of those workers will then qualify for federal subsidies to purchase insurance on the market exchanges, which means that once again the government is subsidizing large corporate employers as it has done for decades.  For example, McDonald's and Wal-Mart employees are among the largest recipients of federal benefits in the country.  Why are taxpayers subsidizing below poverty level wages at these highly profitable companies?  So we can have a $.99 cheeseburger or pay $.06 less for a loaf of bread?  Please!

A second aspect that arises from all the chatter about the potential effect of the ACA on employment is just how much politicians, Republicans in particular, love to talk about work.  It is as though work has been raised to the status of a demi-god.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for working and I do my fair share of it between a full time job and two side jobs now and then.  And I am in the rather unique position of loving what I do, something many Americans cannot say.  Nevertheless, the emphasis on work also seems to be something idiosyncratic to America.  Many cultures, both past and present, place more emphasis on the family or community or the life of the mind than we Americans do.  For example, Australia requires all employers to provide 20 days of paid vacation per year plus 10 paid holidays.  French workers get a minimum of 5 weeks paid holiday leave plus up to 22 days of reduced time for workers who work between 35 and 39 hours a week.  Even our Canadian neighbors to the north mandate a minimum of 10 paid vacation days per year.  The good old USA?  0 days of mandatory paid vacation.  It makes one wonder if there is a correlation between the disintegration of the American family and the emphasis placed upon working at all costs, even in dead end low wage jobs.

In the end, we all have the same fate to look forward to.  I think it was Barbara Bush who said something to the effect of this:  At the end of your life when all is said and done it is highly doubtful you will look back and wish that you had gone to the office just one more time or pulled that double shift at Burger King. No, the thing you will wish you had done more of is spend time with your kids, with your spouse, with your friends and loved ones.  So...I say, if the ACA makes that possible for some people, it's a step in the right direction.  I'm okay with that, how about you?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Slavery? Beholden to a foreign master? Seriously, Sarah?

Correct me if I am wrong but didn't we have an election about 5 years ago in which the country told Sarah Palin to pack her bags and go back to Alaska?  I seem to recall her and her running mate losing by more than 7 million votes in 2008.  But hey, I'm getting older so my memory could be slipping.

So let's get this straight...Sarah Palin believes that the United States' $17 trillion dollar debt is the moral equivalent of slavery?  It is, in her mind, the equivalent of one person being able to own another and deny him/her basic human rights.  It gives our 'foreign masters' the right to whip us at will, sell us to any other party, or kill us without repercussion?  Is that what you're saying, Sarah?  I just want to make sure I understand before I proceed.

Okay, so what's wrong with Palin's analogy?  So much that I don't know where to begin.  I guess the beginning is as good a place as any.  Palin says,
"Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China..."
What 'free stuff' would that be?  Government services aren't free and they never have been.  Fighting two wars in the middle east wasn't free.  Building a 21st century infrastructure of roads, bridges, rail networks, and schools is not free.  Caring for the weakest among us is not free.  Keeping 25% of the world's prison population locked up is not free.  All this 'stuff' costs money.  We, as a society, have chosen together to do these things, regardless of what you and your merry band of naysayers want to believe.  You and people of your ilk have engaged in obstruction, refused to allow the appropriate level of taxation to pay for the things WE have chosen to do together, leading us to the $17 trillion in debt we have racked up...most of which accumulated under Republican leadership.  The following graph shows the change in the debt as a percentage of GDP since WWII.

What we see in the above graph is that debt began to grow during the Reagan Administration and but for a few short years during the Clinton Administration has continued to grow ever since.  There are several reasons for that, including repeated tax cuts, increased spending commitments, and slow economic growth (except 1997-2000) when compared to the period from 1945-1980.  Another way to look at it is in terms of total dollars added to the debt, as the chart below shows.

Using this scenario, both President George W. Bush and President Obama have added a lot to our debt, though Reagan is still the debt king in terms of the percentage by which the debt increased while Clinton and Obama have increased it by the smallest percentages.  Perhaps this is due to Republicans rediscovering their fiscal conservatism whenever a Democrat is in the White House?  

What about Palin's primary claim that we are 'taking money from our children and borrowing from China'?  Is this true?  Yes and no.  We aren't literally robbing our children's piggy banks any more than a parent who buys his/her kids' Christmas presents with a credit card is taking money from them.  Only, we are not buying presents, we are investing in our future as a nation.  Yes, someone has to pay for that, whether it is the current generation, the next generation, or the one after that.  Unless economic growth returns to the 4-5% annual rate it was in the 1950's we won't have the money to pay for all our commitments without substantial tax increases.  I would, of course, argue that some tax increases are in order as we are currently paying the lowest rate of federal taxes in over 60 years and nearly half of all Americans pay no income tax at all (I'd rather abolish the income tax but that is for another day).  To move those individuals into tax paying status requires economic growth that includes substantial growth in wages for lower middle class workers, which have been stagnant for 35 years.  

Okay, so what about our 'foreign masters'?  Does China really own us?  Not really.  It is a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of lazy people like Sarah Palin to believe that.  Here are the facts:

The United States is currently a little over $17 trillion in debt, though that is somewhat misleading since we have $200 trillion in assets (oil, gas, land, buildings, etc...).  Of that debt, about 1/3 is owned by government agencies.  The single largest creditor for the U.S. government?  The Social Security Administration (SSA).  As of August 30, 2013 the SSA owns $2.764 trillion in government treasuries.  This is because for nearly 80 years Social Security has collected more in revenue than it has paid out in benefits.  The excess money is invested in US treasury bills, allowing the SSA to collect interest on the excess.  Someday, those T-bills will come due and the government will either have to raise taxes to pay them off or issue more T-bills and pay the old ones off with the proceeds from the sale of the new T-bills.  That is essentially what the government has been doing for 35 years.  The rest of this part of the debt is held by pension funds for the government, FDIC, and some other federal agencies.  

What about the other 2/3 of the debt?  Isn't that owned by China?  Well, no.  About $12 trillion of our national debt is what we call 'debt held by the public', which includes foreign held debt.  As of March 2013 almost half of the debt held by the public was held by the central banks of foreign governments.  Why?  Because America pays her bills and is viewed as a solid investment.  Or at least we were until Sarah Palin and the Tea Party started threatening to default on the debt.  Overall, $5.7 trillion of our public debt is held by foreigners.  China is the largest single holder of that debt at $1.27 trillion (August 2013), or roughly 10% of the total of public debt.  Japan's central bank is second at about $1.1 trillion.  But the largest holder of U.S. public debt?  The Federal Reserve Bank of the United States ($1.74 trillion).  

The fact is, most of our debt is money we owe not to China or other foreign interests but to ourselves.  We're in no danger of being whipped or hogtied by our 'foreign masters' because of the national debt. The debt is concerning for other reasons but fear of being a slave to our Chinese masters is not one of them.  

Full details on the debt can be found here.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Strange Bedfellows: The Tea Party and Karl Marx

Karl Marx died 130 years ago in London, yet his legacy lives on through America's latest populist uprising.  No, I don't mean the flame out that was Occupy Wall Street, though that group certainly shared some of Marx's ideological heritage as well.  The populists I speak of are America's own Marxists, aka the Tea Party.  To be sure, many who associate themselves with the tea party will take umbrage with the veracity of my analysis.  I don't care...if it acts and thinks like a Marxist it must be a Marxist.

I began thinking about this subject after a conversation with a gentleman who said Bill O'Reilly was too 'left of center' for him and that Van Jones was further to the left than Karl Marx.  When Bill O'Reilly is left of center I'm no longer certain where the center is.  Nevertheless, let's explore a little of the core beliefs of Karl Marx and the Tea Party.  I'll begin with Marx.

First and foremost, Marx was a philosopher writing about the political economy that existed in mid 19th century Europe.  What he saw everyday was hordes of workers shuffling off to the factories and fields, exchanging their labor for minuscule wages so they might continue to subsist.  Not thrive mind you but just continue to breathe.  This exchange of labor for pay was not voluntary, it was a form of forced servitude that removed the individual's freedom to be his own master.  Unlike modern neo-Marxists, Marx himself was not an egalitarian.  His primary concern was how the unbridled capitalism of his day restricted the individual from achieving his full potential.  Capitalism did this through the alliance of the bourgeoisie and the state.  Compare that with the Tea Party rhetoric opposing crony capitalism and the loss of individual freedom at the hands of the statists, of whom Barack Obama is supposedly the chief.

The free market, Tea Partiers argue, should choose winners and losers, not the government.  Perhaps, but it is now and always has been a myth that there is a truly 'free' market.  A truly free market would be based upon the free exchange of something of value for something of equivalent value.  That would leave neither party worse off nor better off than they were upon entering the market.  When a laborer exchanges his labor for a wage that allows him to survive does he enter that transaction freely and upon equal standing with the one who has a job that needs to be performed?  Only in an economy where there are exactly the number of workers needed to for every available job.  In any other situation, one side or the other is disadvantaged.  Usually, it is the laborer.  Additionally, the laborer is not free to abstain from the marketplace and open his own business because the cost of entry into many areas of commerce are enormous.  Suppose one wants to begin a railroad to deliver goods from a port to warehouses more efficiently than another.  The capital needed to create the infrastructure to compete in that market is prohibitive.  The effect is a monopoly that is usually supported by the state. Sure, the costs of entry may be lower and less prohibitive in some other markets but so too is the risk of market over saturation, which may lead to the collapse of some businesses and the falling into destitution Marx envisioned as stronger competitors eat up weaker ones.

Further, in order for the capitalist to survive, he must realize a profit from the exchange he has made with the one who labors.  If I sell eight hours of my time to an employer for $100 I must produce something valued at much more than $100 if the employer is to remain in business.  In this, Marx recognized how capitalism in his day had abandoned the Lockean principle of private property that meant the laborer had a right to keep what he produced or created.  Marx referred to this as the exploitation of the laboring class.  The greater the difference between the amount the laborer received for his work and what the capitalist could reap from it was the level of exploitation experienced by the worker.  This becomes important when discussing the Tea Party because it ostensibly opposes the oppression it perceives to come from the crony capitalists such as bankers and the political elites, or those who benefit from their affiliation with the state they oppose.  The irony is, of course, that the Tea Party by and large are white, male, and over 45.  They also largely support the Republican Party, which is every bit as state oriented as the Democrats.  Therein lay the roots of the civil war being waged within the modern GOP.

The Tea Party, like Marx, had he been alive today, opposes the modern welfare state, though for very different reasons than Marx would have.  For the Tea Party, the welfare state takes what they have earned from them by force and gives it to those who have not earned it.  Yet, much of the Tea Party opposes any changes to Medicare or Social Security, the two largest entitlement programs.  The Tea Party also largely supports the military industrial complex, the ones who carry the guns for the state they so deplore.  Rather, Tea Partiers oppose 'welfare' programs for the poor, who they see as lazy slackers.

Marx, on the other hand, would likely oppose the welfare state because it interferes with the rise of the proletariat by mitigating the effects of capitalism.  By providing a level of sustenance to the poorest and propping up many low wage earners with programs like SNAP and Medicaid, the impetus to organize and overthrow their oppressors is largely removed.  This why Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of the creation of the welfare state, could say that he was 'The best friend capitalism ever had.'  Apart from the welfare state, it is likely America might have seen some uprisings such as have occurred in many poorer nations in South and Central America.

In sum, the Tea Party and Karl Marx share much in common.  The Libertarians in the Tea Party hate the state and see it as a coercive force that steals their God given liberty.  Marx saw the state as stealing individual liberty from the proletariat through its alignment with the capitalists.  Marx's hatred of the state drove his vision of a communist utopia that emerged from the wreckage of not only capitalism, but its successor, socialism.  Far from being anti-capitalism, Marx saw it as a necessary stage in the development of communism.  Ironically, the anti-welfare state mentality of the Tea Party, if made reality by gaining power, could very well be the catalyst that awakens the proletariat that has been lulled to sleep by the statists on the left and the right.  The very thing the Tea Party fears most may be what it ultimately creates.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Could Shutting Down the Government Cost Republicans the House in 2014?

Forrest Gump said, 'Stupid is as stupid does.'  More and more these days I am convinced he was talking about the American media establishment.  Serious investigative reporting has been replaced by nonstop discussion of the latest polling data, which quickly becomes the conventional wisdom among the media elites.  The latest example comes from recent polls that show Republicans are less popular than they have ever least since modern polling began in the 1940's.  The most recent poll puts the party's approval rate at around 28%.  That's not very good but is it the end of the world for the GOP?  Not by a long shot. 

Social scientists have been gathering data on the voting habits of Americans for at least 60 years and we have learned a lot over that time.  One thing we know is that party identification is the strongest predictor of how an individual will vote in any given election.  Republican identifiers vote for Republicans and Democrat identifiers vote for Democrats at very high rates.  Additionally, most independents are not truly independents but are weak party identifiers who usually vote for the same party in most elections.  The idea of an American electorate that swings back and forth is a myth.  American elections are largely driven by structural factors, not careful deliberation by voters analyzing the nuances of public policy. 

The problem with all the discussion of the unpopularity of the GOP possibly costing the party the House next year is that no matter how unpopular Republicans are in national polls it doesn't amount to a hill of beans at the local level.  Midterm elections are driven by dynamics that are not present in presidential elections.  If 2014 were a presidential election year the discussion of Republicans losing the House might be more salient.  But it isn't. 

The party holding the White House enters every midterm election at a disadvantage simply because partisans affiliated with the party out of power are more motivated to vote and check the power of their opponents.  In 2014 this probably means that more Republicans than Democrats will turn out to vote in the midterm elections next year.  Those Republicans will vote for Republican candidates no matter how unpopular the party is nationally. 

Further, the way most congressional districts are structured provides the party currently holding the seat with an inherent advantage.  Democratic supporters are often packed into urban districts that may be 70-80% Democratic, which means that a lot of Democratic votes are 'wasted' electing a Democratic candidate who would win the election anyway.  Republican districts are not as compact and often encompass many rural voters unlikely to switch parties regardless of the current popularity of their party.

To be clear, this does not mean Republicans cannot lose the House next year.  Anything is possible in politics.  Consider, however, that the last two times the party holding the White House gained House seats in a midterm election the gains were 8 seats in 2002 for the GOP and 5 seats for the Democrats in 1998.  Democrats currently need to pick up 17 seats to take control of the House.  The last time a party controlling the White House won enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives in a midterm election?  It has never happened in American history.  Does that mean it won't happen in 2014?  No, but 225 years of history tells me it is highly unlikely.