Monthly Archives: November 2012

The General Assembly Vote on Palestinian Observer Status

I think the hardest tack for one to take over the Israel-Palestine Conflict is to be simultaneously substantive and humane.  It is certainly more-intuitive to simply take a side.  Take the recent violence between Israel and Hamas, which touched not only the Gaza Strip but also Israel’s largest cities: Israel supporters typically focus on Hamas rocket attacks launched in peacetime while at least declining to broadcast any opinions about the total blockade of a population the size of Manhattan or Israel’s continued construction of settlements in West Bank lands they have never made legal claim to; many Palestine sympathizers focus on the hundreds of Palestinians killed every time the IDF undertakes a major operation in the Territories, thereby claiming disproportionality in the use of violence–which implies, whether they will verbally admit to this or not, that months of prior attacks by Hamas with the express purpose of killing Israeli civilians (or Hamas’ strategic decision to hide in dense civilian neighborhoods) are morally and politically irrelevant in Israel’s decision to resort to violence.  There are the positive neutrals (“I hope that both parties are able to bring this conflict to a quick and peaceful solution”) whom are of course well-represented in the diplomatic corps, and the negative neutrals (“I wish these asses would just blow each other up already”) of whom you probably know a few personally.  I for one am frustrated by the State of Israel’s disingenuous foot-dragging over giving Palestinians more control over their land and their government, and making reasonable restitution for Palestinian land, property and life lost after taking the strategic upper hand in multiple wars.  I am also frustrated by what appears to be a total lack of discussion among Palestinian sympathizers of the harm done to the Palestinian cause by militants.  (Apparently the non-violence that worked for India, Black Americans in the South and Black Africans in South Africa would just never work for Palestinians in the Territories or abroad…But then the Territories have been under occupation for 45 years and armed struggle has actually spoiled proposed improvements in their status.)  Like the positive neutrals I am pleased to see the violence stop, but I  have a greater trepidation that these episodes are nothing but a perverse political negotiation in which some of the parties are both foreign and non-public.  (A certain Islamic Republic comes to mind, and if I am right it definitely isn’t helping.)  I share nothing of the negative neutrals’ animus in this case, aside from a mistrust of many of the powers that be–especially Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition and Hamas.

Yesterday the United Nations General Assembly granted Observer status to the Palestinian Authority.  Acceptance of the Palestinian Authority’s bid for recognition from the General Assembly was widely anticipated.  While this vote does not make the Palestinian Authority a full member in the UN and certainly does nothing substantive to make Palestine a functional state–full membership would have to be granted by the Security Council where the United States wields veto, and Palestinian functional statehood is unattainable without consent from the State of Israel–this vote represents the consensus of the General Assembly and would allow the Palestinian Authority access to a number of United Nations institutions–including, potentially, the International Criminal Court.

The International Criminal Court was organized to deal with charges of war crimes against individual persons.  The danger of the Court (which is the reason the United States is not a party to it) is that charges of war crimes can be issued on an inconsistent or politically-motivated basis.  Now that the Palestinian Authority gains Observer status at the UN, if it is granted access to the ICC it could bring charges of war crimes against IDF or Israeli government officials.  The United Kingdom, which ultimately abstained from the vote, had indicated that possible participation in the ICC was one of its greatest reservations against granting observer status to the Palestinian Authority.

I for one applauded the Palestinian Authority’s decision to pursue this acknowledgment from the United Nations, and I congratulate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on its success.  While my country and Israel both insist that nationhood can only be granted through negotiations between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, negotiations have effectively been frozen since the fall of the moderate Olmert government.  (Intransigence from the far-right Likud government is a major culprit, of course, but after former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial withdrawal from multiple settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel has not committed to any further concessions.)

The simple fact is that Israel is taking advantage of the current situation.  As I have said before: This is Netanyahu’s fault for dragging his feet, period. He has never had any intention of granting Palestinians further rights or self-determination. This is why you negotiate in politics–yes, even with your “enemies.”

Again, to head-off the skeptics and the shruggers with all their damned reasonable arguments: This certainly isn’t full recognition, let-alone functional statehood or a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but fair play to the Palestinian Authority for peacefully asserting Palestinians’ rights.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s (and Likud’s) position remains that the Palestinian Authority must be unitary, accept Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence before the State of Israel will enter any new negotiations.  (These conditions sound entirely reasonable until one reflects on how many wars could never end if they were offered as preconditions for just talking.)  Fatah in the West Bank has met these conditions while Hamas has not. When Hamas narrowly won a majority in the Palestinian Parliament in the 2006 elections, Israel cut off all the tax revenues it was collecting on the behalf of the Palestinian Authority.  This led to a brief but decisive civil war between Fatah and Hamas, resulting in 2 separate semi-state entities in the West Bank and Gaza.  The Israeli government of Ariel Sharon may have felt it had no choice but to deny revenues to Hamas, but now the Netanyahu government refuses any negotiations with the Palestinian Authority because it “will not renounce violence.”  This is a fraud; Likud is just using the Palestinians’ internal divisions as a convenient excuse to leave them in legal limbo.

The Territories have been under military occupation for 45 years.  This would be a tragedy if there weren’t a short list of Israeli, Palestinian and Iranian government officials we can hold morally responsible for it.  The idea that “the Palestinians” must assume all moral responsibility for this state of affairs, while Netanyahu’s coalition government (which includes public figures who in the American political system would be called unabashed fascists) builds and maintains new settlements in the West Bank at will, is offered in such bad faith that I suspect its aim is to maintain this situation of military occupation always, in the vague and fantastic hope that over 4,260,000 Palestinian nationals will simply…go away.

No, I am not implying what you’re probably thinking.  I recognize no obtuse and offensive likeness between Israel and the Nazis.  I will be the first to admit that the State of Israel could do far worse than it has to the Palestinians at any time.  But there are limits to the pertinence of such a point.  It in no way changes the fact that the conditions the Palestinians must abide are awful.  If there is a consensus in Israeli politics that Hamas is illegitimate, that doesn’t explain why the State of Israel cannot negotiate further agreements (whether final or interim) with the Palestinian Authority through the agency of Fatah, at least to increase their control over and freedom within the West Bank.  But no further agreements have been inked with the faction of Mahmoud Abbas, which has probably wanted meaningful negotiations all along.  The real reason Abbas unilaterally pushed for acknowledgment through the UN General Assembly is because his receptivity to Israel has brought him nothing–not even evidence that any kind of political deal was possible.  He was pushed to this point.  Our government’s position was that Abbas’ action is “not helpful;” I say, he obtained something for Palestinians and did not have to use violence–indeed, used a legitimate international mediating institution–to do it.  What is there to gripe about, unless one wants the Palestinians to have nothing?

40% of the West Bank is either under IDF jurisdiction, is reserved for the settlements, has been unilaterally annexed by Israel or has been designated a nature preserve by Israel on the Palestinians’ behalf.  Palestinians cannot pass from 1 side of the West Bank to the other.  Palestinians cannot leave the West Bank at all except through Israeli-occupied territory.  Israel continues to build new settlements wherever it finds a water table.  Note that I haven’t said that the 1967 boundaries are sacred, or that everyone who claims descent from a Palestinian refugee should have a “right of return.”  I have only mentioned East Jerusalem implicitly.  I have made no argument that the State of Israel is illegitimate in itself, and I am not going to.  But should we expect the Palestinians to be entirely politically-passive?  Should we accept premises and offer arguments that assume they will be politically-passive?  We are supposed to believe that Bibi Netanyahu really just wants peace, but has tragically been frustrated for want of an honest negotiating partner among the Palestinians?  That is absurd.

I recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist and its right to defend itself.  In everything else it has done, I have long suspected the Netanyahu government of acting in bad faith.  Do not forget: Of President Obama–whose Ambassador to the UN vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning unilateral settlement expansion, and who just voted against granting Palestine Observer status in the General Assembly–Prime Minister Netanyahu sees such an obstacle to the sort of partnership he wants in the United States that he met with the new Republican House Majority Leader to get assurances of more help, and tried to stir-up pre-election controversy to help Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney–who had promised him unqualified support.

Observer status for the Palestinian Authority is far from an ideal status (and certainly isn’t profoundly-portentous)–but it is something.  I will not just shrug-off a nonviolent call for legitimate recognition by the Palestinian Authority.  If it causes Israel institutional headaches, that marginally increases the political prospect of some kind of concessions, whether negotiated or unilateral.  Even incremental progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been almost unheard-of since Prime Minister Sharon went into a coma.  This minimal level of recognition from the UN General Assembly creates institutional ties that reinforce the concept of and capacity for Palestinian statehood; as I am convinced that Netanyahu has absolutely no intention of allowing Palestinian statehood, this is the 1st development that improves the prospect of a 2-state solution since Sharon undertook the unilateral withdrawal of West Bank and Gaza settlements.

I don’t think the distinctions I have made here are brilliant, profound, or novel.  I do think they are unusual, and require some measure of courage on one’s part to say all at once.  This is because the many unqualified supporters of either side have dumbed-down this debate, preferring to speak to the like-minded and invoke their respective cases of victimhood rather than seek help with their own moral blind spots.

I have not pretended to be an “objective” or “unbiased” observer of these events, whatever that means.  But I am trying to support the policies and the attendant sentiments which I consider most-humane.  I have often seen no choice on the part of the State of Israel but to use military force against Palestinian militants.  This has earned me consternation from friends who support the Palestinians.  On a day to day basis, or in an event such as this when the Palestinian Authority peacefully seeks further concessions or brings claims against the State of Israel which the latter finds embarrassing or damaging, I find myself referring to the same litany of abuse or neglect which advocates of the Palestinians claim.  This seems to puzzle or frustrate friends who support the State of Israel.  I only claim a preference for those policies and goals which I think most-humane.  The thing I like least is manifest violence; the thing I like next-least is oppression.  I also find invocation of historical grievances useless, especially after generations have passed and the principal victims and perpetrators are dead.  We should find it outrageous that there isn’t a serious discussion about the terrorism Hamas regularly perpetrates or attempts against Israel; we should find it outrageous that the Palestinians have had to live under military occupation for 45 years.

We should also find it outrageous that so little passion is contributed to holding both sides to account simultaneously.  I should have more to say about this, but I feel burdened with general points on which there should be agreement but which are usually just a signal of one’s politics.

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It’s Politics. You Negotiate!

So, President Obama has now anted-up and offered Congressional Republicans his deficit-reduction proposal.  His plan to avoid Taxmageddon, better-known as the “Fiscal Cliff,” is a wish list of Administration budget proposals that should offer no surprises, save in one sense.

That the President is offering such a demanding proposal to Congressional Republicans after 2 weeks of back-and-forth budget discussions evidences either a real clumsiness at these negotiations or a disturbing lack of faith in the prospects of a negotiated compromise.  If President Obama and Congressional Republicans are not able to negotiate a budget agreement to deal with Taxmageddon which Senate Democrats can live with, Federal income tax rates will rise on all income tax payers; the estate tax will rise; President Obama’s unsustainable but economically beneficial and popular temporary 2% payroll tax cut will lapse; and the doomsday budget cuts of last year’s “Sequestration,” including about $600 billion in 10-year cuts to military spending that neither party wants, will kick-in at the same time.  Oh, and a .9% payroll tax increase for Medicaid and a 3.8% capital gains tax increase will take effect for individuals making over $200,000 a year and married couples making over $250,000 a year, as part of the funding for the Affordable Care Act.  Taken in isolation, any of these individual developments would represent a setback to which the US economy could adjust.  Taken in conjunction, particularly in the current political context of partisan paralysis and growing unease about the inability of American politicians to negotiate budget agreements across party lines, Taxmageddon and the broader “Fiscal Cliff” represents the kind of blow that will deliver a recession.  This recession will not come overnight; the US economy is not going over any literal cliff.  But over $500 billion would be directly-removed from the economy, and it would be done so in a manner not truly of our elected officials’ choosing and through the loss of a series of tax cuts and budget items many of which were designed to be stimulative.

How did President Obama respond to yesterday’s call by Congressional Republicans to put a budget proposal on the table?  He has called for $1.6 trillion in new taxes over 10 years (including a proposal to tax capital gains at the same marginal rate as personal income)–about 1/2 of what House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) tentatively agreed to in summer 2011, about $50 billion in new spending to institute an infrastructure bank (a worthy proposal on its own, perhaps, but at least in theory an unrelated item) a comparatively-modest $400 billion reduction in entitlement spending, and Congressional relinquishment of its power to proactively set the Federal debt limit–a controversial power which has recently led to dysfunction in the Federal budgeting process.  The President proposes that Congress exchange this power for the ability to override the President’s unilateral increase of the Federal debt limit through a 2/3 majority of both chambers.

The President has advanced each of these proposals at some time in the past.  And again, taken one by one, they aren’t unreasonable.  But how could he think, after the firm tone Republicans have continued to take on large tax increases–or their willingness to use blunt instruments like the debt limit against the President–that they would agree to these terms now?

So, I say President Obama’s tough offer at this late date represents either an artlessness in cross-party negotiation or a lack of faith about the Congressional bargaining space.  It is surreal for me to say this, but here is a part of political tact that former President George W. Bush was very good at and which Obama appears to be bad at: Offer a brief philosophical rationale (even a poetic one) for your policy choices, put a clear policy proposal (even your idealized version) on the table, and negotiate your way to the best deal you can live with.  Do not make bigger concessions than you can swallow and don’t renege on terms you have agreed to; be consistent in acknowledging the other party’s concessions and in scolding it where it has not seen the light.  W. was actually good at this part.  In their strangely-inconsistent alternation between conciliatory gestures and frustrated insistence that the other party “get serious” about budget talks–a term which I think implies that both parties are further from an agreement on substance than they really are–both parties are playing poker in a situation where there is nothing to gain from it.

So both sides are currently in dereliction of duty.  By now President Obama and Speaker Boehner should both have come forward with proposals that halt drastic cuts to military spending, cut Federal spending (preferably by reforming Medicare and Medicaid), and proposed a minimum of $800 billion (last year’s House ante) in new Federal revenues.  Instead, the President continues to insist that Republicans are being ideological in refusing to raise tax rates on top wage-earners (which the same amount of tax revenue could be raised on the same taxpayers while capping their income tax deductions, which apparently Republicans count as a consolation prize) while Congressional Republicans demand the President stick his neck out and offer a proposal, while they strangely decline to do the same.  In the interest of full disclosure, I am more-sympathetic to the President’s proposal and reasoning than to the rather vague sentiments and insubstantial distinctions advanced by Congressional Republicans.  But until today, neither Democrats nor Republicans had actually made much effort to save us from the coming man-made disaster.  Now that the President has offered a plan, he is open to credible charges of asking for too much, too late.

In the President’s defense, his rather unpalatable offer to Republicans does represent a compromise from the hard line of Congressional Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has recently insisted that entitlement reform is off the table in any such interim budget deal, should also stop drawing lines in the sand and be willing to follow the President’s lead.  He has a majority in the Senate but not a filibuster-proof supermajority; he also stands between a Democratic President and a Republican House dominated by Conservatives.  No good can come from him acting as an additional veto player.  We just held national elections at the beginning of this month; no one in the Federal Government should be campaigning right now.  Both sides should offer at least the outlines of a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan they can live with, so they can begin negotiating their way to mutually-acceptable policy space.

At this rate we’re all in a lot of trouble, because neither side is taking responsibility.

With More Perspective, George W. Bush Looks Like an Even Worse President

When reflecting on what a frighteningly-bad President George W. Bush was, I still recall this Onion article from January 2001. You should read this, bearing firmly in mind that it was written before W. was inaugurated, and was intended as alarmist hyperbole. What follows is a fairly-straightforward summary of the 8 years that followed.

Lest we forget, we complacently tolerated 8 years of pious incompetence, relying on sound bytes and circular reasoning while W. squandered every advantage left to him by the Clinton Administration. On almost any dimension you choose to compare January 2001 to January 2009, the reversals of this failed Presidency look absurd.

Conservative Columnists and the New Republican Strategy

The Republican recriminations have begun.  Among those in Republican editorial opinion, the worst conclusions reached from the 2012 Elections were so crude in their analysis as to leave Republicans more resentful and confused about their electoral problems, as when so many FOX News editorialists wrote-off single women as loose and wanting free birth control.  The implication was supposed to be that married women were more-grounded and voted on “real” economic issues–as if most single adult women really had any reason to believe a Mitt Romney Presidency would leave them remotely better-off.  (You’ve got to hand it to FOX: Its leading luminaries may be shameless, but at least they’re visibly lacking in dignity.)

For more-sophisticated fare, there is the Conservative intelligentsia at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and–here I am reaching a bit–the National Review.

In 2008 William F. Buckley Jr. died and all but took the National Review with him.  Even as a Liberal I always found Buckley a pleasure to read, humbling in his knowledge and range of experience and exemplary in his erudition; I knew damn well that he was a Conservative and if anything this made me more eager to know what he thought.  Today the National Review is a depository of many hackish opinions that often appear composed to reassure the right that they should avoid even the physical proximity of Liberals where practical.  The extent of its insulation, its surprising philistinism (considering how Buckley possessed cultural literacy in abundance) and its tendency to treat the validity of reliably-Conservative positions on almost every issue (excluding national drug policy, where Buckley moved his branch of Conservative opinion towards ending the Drug War in the early 1990s) as self-evident gives a Liberal little cause to read the rag now.

Thomas Sowell, who seems to enjoy dabbling in history once a month when he has a few minutes to spare, comes up with a bizarre argument that the Republicans’ problem in 2012 was failure to communicate Conservative ideas.  In what has to be 1 of the most-stock lines of Conservative argument available, he holds every (moderate, it is presumed) failed Republican candidate since the 1980s to the Reagan standard–as if economic change, large demographic shifts and the ensuing cultural changes really have nothing to do with Republicans’ major electoral reversals in 2008 and 2012.  The 2012 Election, in Sowell’s view, was lost on rhetoric.  He takes as a settled fact that President Obama utters “things that will sound both plausible and inspiring to uninformed people, even when they sound ridiculous to people who know the facts. Apparently (President Obama) believes the former outnumber the latter, and the election results suggest that he may be right.”  So: The President and other Democrats are as a rule either intellectual flakes or liars, and yours truly and anyone else persuaded by Obama’s propositions over Governor Romney’s are ignorant.  That’s a counterintuitive thesis, considering the exit polls show President Obama won 55% of college postgraduates.  I am not oversimplifying his argument, something that should routinely be established when paraphrasing Thomas Sowell.  And no, I am not particularly offended by Sowell’s insinuations against my intelligence for being an Obama supporter; I am offended by the poor quality of his thought.  Moving on…

Victor Davis Hanson, a longtime National Review contributor, presents what I see as a conventional argument for the magazine.  Essentially, it comes down to a restatement of Governor Romney’s sad “47%” comments–that is, the Democrats have supposedly got a critical mass of the US population right where they want them, in dependency, and now the “gimme constituencies” will vote themselves benefits on the backs of those who work:

“…We have never quite had the present perfect storm of nearly half not paying federal income taxes, nearly 50 million on food stamps, and almost half the population on some sort of federal largess — and a sophistic elite that promotes it and at the same time finds ways to be exempt from its social and cultural consequences. For an Obama, Biden, Kerry, Pelosi, or Feinstein, the psychological cost for living like 18th-century French royalty is the promotion of the welfare state for millions of others who for now will be kept far away, in places like Bakersfield or Mendota.

“The solution, I fear, may be near-insolvency along the Wisconsin model, and self-correction after some dark Greek-like years, or, in contrast, in extremis blue politicians having to deal with the consequences of their own policies. In the manner that an Obama can vastly expand drones and renditions without a whimper of liberal angst, so too someone like him will have to deal with bounced Medicare reimbursements or free cell phones that can’t be replaced when they break, or long lines in federal health clinics emptied of doctors who have gone elsewhere. The laws of physics ultimately prevail.”

So, Hanson’s analysis of Republicans’ poor overall performance in the 2012 Elections is that people living off of government benefits just voted themselves more government benefits.  Republicans ostensibly cannot do much to stop this, but it is implied they can wait serenely for the country to go bankrupt (as a certain Conservative orthodoxy insists it must) like the free-market eschatology in Atlas Shrugged.  Then, Republicans get to build their electoral majority, apparently having won the argument in the long-term by default.

All I have to offer in response to Victor Davis Hanson (and other Republicans currently telling themselves this comforting narrative) are the words of a paleoconservative who’s out of his league–from Richard Weaver’s introduction to Ideas Have Consequences:

“…It is here the assumption that the world is intelligible and that man is free and that those consequences we are now expiating are the product not of biological or other necessity but of unintelligent choice.  Second, I go so far as to propound, if not a whole solution, at least the beginning of one, in the belief that man should not follow a scientific analysis with a plea of moral impotence.” (emphasis added)

Writing in the New York TimesRoss Douthat (a good column addition on the right, I’ve always thought) warns that the Republican Party will have to take a more-holistic approach to broadening their base than simple appeals to women and minorities:

“…Republicans are also losing because today’s economic landscape is very different than in the days of Ronald Reagan’s landslides.  The problems that middle-class Americans faced in the late 1970s are not the problems of today.  Health care now takes a bigger bite than income taxes out of many paychecks.  Wage stagnation is a bigger threat to blue-collar workers than inflation.  Middle-income parents worry more about the cost of college than the crime rate.  Americans are more likely to fret about Washington’s coziness with big business than about big government alone.”  In Douthat’s view, the Republican Party’s Conservative ideology, as it stands, is simply irrelevant to Americans’ contemporary concerns.  He warns against Republican strategists simply trying to play identity politics, acknowledging there is a real risk of such a superficial effort “because playing identity politics seems far less painful than overhauling the Republican economic message.”

David Brooks, the senior Conservative voice at the New York Timesmade the same argument, but from the demographic angle:

“The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values.  Two findings jump out.  First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work.  By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

“Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government.  In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

“Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government.  It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise.  It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil.  It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable.  It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

“For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant…”

Neoconservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer declined to be so reflective when he penned this strategy for Republicans after Election Day:

“The only part of (the demographics argument) that is even partially true regards Hispanics. They should be a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example).

“The principal reason they go Democratic is the issue of illegal immigrants. In securing the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney made the strategic error of (unnecessarily) going to the right of Rick Perry. Romney could never successfully tack back.

“For the party in general, however, the problem is hardly structural. It requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word. Shock and awe — full legal normalization (just short of citizenship) in return for full border enforcement.”

Oh, wow.  I hope Republicans embrace this argument, partly because I want the millions of undocumented immigrants living in America to be able to come out of the shadows, and partly because I’m more-than-fine with the electoral defeat Republicans would likely face in 2016 if they concluded that the only policy change they need to contend with to command a majority is immigration reform!

Krauthammer is right when he says from a strategic standpoint when he says that “The country doesn’t need two liberal parties,” and “Yes, Republicans need to weed out candidates who talk like morons about rape.  But this doesn’t mean the country needs two pro-choice parties either.”  Some exultant Liberals have insisted that the Republican Party will simply have to give up on limited government Conservatism or social Conservatism–whichever one they don’t like–in order to win elections from now on; I tend to think this is wishful thinking on their part rather than a conclusion from a clear assessment of the Republican Party’s structural disadvantage.  But contrary to Krauthammer’s crude prescription, the Republican Party does have a real structural disadvantage now, and single-issue pandering to Hispanics–however far-reaching the issue–won’t leave them bound to vote Republican with so many bread-and-butter issues confronting them.

Actually, it has been the Liberal argument for quite some time–an argument I find quite convincing after the tenor and demographic cast of the 2008, 2010, and 2012 national elections–that were it not for an unexamined belief that government taxed whites at high rates to pay for Federal benefits enjoyed primarily by minorities, far more of the white middle class would vote Democratic.  There is still the risk that Republicans don’t recognize their peril, toying with longtime Federal benefits enjoyed by the white middle and working class, such as Social Security, Medicare, the mortgage interest tax deduction, and Federal highway spending among other things.  Many professed small-government Conservatives simply take these extensive Federal benefits for granted.  Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of The National Review, understands this.  Of all the post-election ruminations I saw in The National Review, his was the most-sober and most comprehensively-countenancing by far.  It also addresses the scope of Republicans’ electoral weakness in a way that underscores the limitations of Krauthammer’s analysis.

“Romney was not a drag on the Republican party.  The Republican party was a drag on him.  Aaron Blake pointed out in the Washington Post that Romney ran ahead of most of the Republican Senate candidates: He did better than Connie Mack in Florida, George Allen in Virginia, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Denny Rehberg in Montana, Jeff Flake in Arizona, Pete Hoekstra in Michigan, Deb Fischer in Nebraska, Rick Berg in North Dakota, Josh Mandel in Ohio, and of course Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.  In some cases Romney did a lot better.  (He also did slightly better than Ted Cruz in Texas, a race Blake for some reason ignored.)

“None of those candidates were as rich as Romney, and almost all of them had more consistently conservative records than he did.  It didn’t help them win more votes.  The only Republican Senate candidates who ran significantly ahead of Romney were people running well to his left in blue states, and they lost too.”

Ponnuru continues with a pretty-unsparing account of the electoral weakness of the Republican Party–which he alleges has never been a national majority party since 1930.  He argues that Republicans have made real inroads against Democrats in national elections since 1968 when they have captured issues of particular concern to the middle class:

“The absence of a middle-class message was the biggest failure of the Romney campaign, and it was not its failure alone. Down-ticket Republican candidates weren’t offering anything more — not the established Republicans, not the tea-partiers, not the social conservatives. Conservative activists weren’t demanding that Romney or any of these other Republicans do anything more. Some of them were complaining that Romney wasn’t ‘taking the fight to Obama’; few of them were urging him to outline a health-care plan that would reassure voters that replacing Obamacare wouldn’t mean taking health insurance away from millions of people.

“Romney’s infamous ’47 percent’ gaffe — by which he characterized voters who do not pay income taxes as freeloaders and sure Democratic voters, which they aren’t — made for a week of bad media coverage and some devastatingly effective Democratic ads. It was not, however, a line of thinking unique to Romney. It was an exaggerated version of a claim that had become party orthodoxy.”

The fact that Republicans are Governors of 30 States, and hold a majority of State Legislatures, he sees as irrelevant: The Republicans tend to hold the Governors’ mansions and State Legislatures in the smaller States, making their accomplishment look more far-reaching than it actually is.  Ponnuru doesn’t offer substantive policy prescriptions (It’s still the month of the Election, after all, and that’s not his job), but he warns Republicans that their policies must focus on the middle class, not the heroic “job creators” most people know very well they aren’t.

To his credit, Fred Bauer wrote a shorter if less-powerful version of this argument.

Now, this is how you respond when you are disappointed by an election: Michael Gerson, another Conservative Washington Post op-ed columnist, reaches completely sober conclusions.  He acknowledges that President Obama’s win is significant because it was achieved with a message of Liberalism in a Presidential Election that was about ideas; the President ran and won on his appeal to Democratic base constituencies.  Governor Romney ran ahead with independents and senior citizens but still polled behind almost constantly–and lost the Election unambiguously.

Gerson proudly and prudently rejects the petty condemnation of the electorate we’ve heard from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, but he doesn’t abandon Conservatism or deny the political importance of the Republican Party’s base constituencies. He acknowledges that his party lost this election in part over its hostility towards illegal immigrants, in part over evidence that Republicans wanted to gut funding for public education and emergency assistance for the poor, in part over its lack of an economic plan for the old industrial core, and in part because of so many candidates’ callousness towards involuntary pregnancies due to rape or incest. While he doesn’t attribute the party’s current electoral troubles to this, he seems to believe Conservatives are now in retreat on their opposition to gay marriage.

Though he is not exactly rooting for them, the Liberal Ironist nonetheless salutes those initial few Republicans who have said “The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves,” and offered serious suggestions for how their party can win elections now that the contemporary Democratic base is larger than their own.  There’s no dearth of elite opinion that wants to help the cause; now we’ll see if the base is eager to grow–or if, again in the words of Richard Weaver, “we are in effect asking for a confession of guilt and an acceptance of sterner obligation; we are making demands in the name of an ideal or the suprapersonal, and…cannot expect a more cordial welcome than disturbers of complacency have in any other age…”

Whither Republican Party?

I do enjoy a good circular firing squad.  It’s not a matter of gloating over Republicans’ post-Election disappointment (though I will insist that worse things have happened to less-deserving people), but because I’m intrigued to see how the Republican Party reinvents itself as I was eager to see how it would reinvent itself in early-2009.  As it turned out, the growing frustration of Conservatives with outgoing President George W. Bush’s several Progressive initiatives targeted at suburban soccer moms (the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act for education), senior citizens (the 2003 Prescription Drug Benefit), and Hispanics (the President’s well-thought-out but failed 2007 initiative that would have given undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship)–not to mention the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program, also known as the “Bank Bailout”–led to a limited-government and often anti-immigrant rebellion from the Republican base.

The 178 Representatives and 40 Senators who formed the rump of Congressional Republicans in the 111th Congress of course tended to be from the most safely-Republican Congressional Districts and States; as such, they tended to be the most-Conservative members.  The 87 Republican freshmen who joined their ranks in the House–36% of the House Republican Conference in the 112th Congress–and the 14 Republican freshmen in the Senate–30% of the Senate Republican Conference–were definitely more-Conservative overall than the Republicans they replaced.  Several of those who entered the Senate had previously served in the much more-partisan House of Representatives; many in both chambers had been elected explicitly on a message of cutting Federal Government spending and regulations, both of which they could now conveniently lay at the feet of President Obama (George W. Bush’s demons of inclusion having been thoroughly expunged from the Republican Party).

What followed, shockingly-enough, was 2 years of brinksmanship between the most-Liberal President in almost 40 years and the most-Conservative Congress in at least 62 years.  Though his support attenuated in some parts of the country (inevitable to an extent, given the strong reaction against George W. Bush and Republicans generally in the midst of the ongoing Iraq War and the 2008 Financial Crash), President Obama was re-elected by a sound margin, 51%-48% in the popular vote and 332-206 in the Electoral College.  While President Obama’s support nationwide wasn’t very deep, it was actually very-stable in the polling.  The President took 9 out of 10 swing States, leaving only North Carolina to Governor Romney, in a result that polling averages had usually predicted since late-June.

According to the exit polls, this result came about because a coalition of out-groups turned-out solidly for President Obama–single women (68%), the under-30 crowd (60%), Americans making under $30,000 in income (63%), Blacks (93%), Hispanics (71%), Asian-Americans (73%), gays and lesbians (76%).  These groups are generally growing (or at least not shrinking), and while the existing under-30 crowd are of course aging-out of that demographic, their reasons for supporting President Obama are often generational (greater tolerance of different lifestyles such as homosexuality, looser attachment to religion or atheism, being comparatively…cool with Obama), and not likely to change as they age.  The simple fact, as I’ve already said before and as indeed we’ve heard many times in the past 11 days, is that the Republican Party’s base is smaller than the Democratic Party’s base, and their base is shrinking while the Democrats’ is growing.  Higher turnout in Midterm Elections and wider geographic dispersion of Republicans may help mitigate their downward electoral trajectory, but it is a downward electoral trajectory nonetheless.

Looking back, the Presidential Elections from 2000 on reflect this trend; while Republican George W. Bush was re-elected President in 2004 with a majority of the vote, it took the threat of religious terrorism and the Iraq War to stack the election narrative in the incumbent’s favor, and his outreach to various normally-Democratic constituencies allowed W. to be competitive with those constituencies, which was enough.  But of course, President W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservative” left-right policy heterodoxy fell apart quickly in his 2nd term with the failure of tax reform, Social Security investment accounts (thank the divines!), and his quite-good guest worker proposal for illegal immigrants–as well as the mounting deficits brought-on by Bush’s bad habit of cutting taxes and increasing spending, regardless of whether the economy was doing well or if we were already at war.  Voters punished the Republicans for following his lead in 2006 and 2008, and the Conservatives took control of the rump Republican Party, something they had been wanting to do at least since the creation of the Prescription Drug Benefit and the passage of the Federal Budget in 2003.

Then the Republicans took the Governors’ mansions in New Jersey and Virginia in 2009, and had a fantastically good year in all but the Bluest of States in 2010.

Looking back, though, even in 2010 there was an early indication of the narrowing of the Republicans’ base: In Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico–generally considered swing States before 2008–both 1st-time and incumbent Democrats in both State-wide and down-ballot races held-on in numerous cases where it was unexpected.  Colorado was even previously thought of as more of a Red State.

Then came 2012.  Virtually all serious Republican prognosticators, including many not attached to the Romney campaign or to Republican campaign efforts in any way such as George Will and Michael Barone, predicted a Romney blowout on November 6th.  What they got was a Romney fizzle.  Most of them made the same argument: “Sure, the swing State polls have indicated President Obama will get re-elected almost constantly, but they’re wrong; they assume a lot of minorities and under-30s will turn-out to vote like they did in 2008, and they’re wrong about that.  They’ll stay home.”  Actually, most pollsters weren’t making assumptions about which demographics would turn-out to vote when they conducted their polls; it was Republican strategists who were making assumptions about who wouldn’t turn-out to vote, a critical mistake for political strategists and election handicappers to make.  Pollsters like Rasmussen, which were popular with Republicans, actually assumed more Republicans would turn-out to vote than Democrats and never modified those assumptions; as a result Rasmussen proved 1 of the most-misleading pollsters of this election cycle.

In any case, the young and minority voters did turn-out in 2010 like in 2008, and they and other constituencies, sickened as they were by various statements and policy actions that strongly suggested…well, bigotry and callousness on the part of Republican candidates, engaged in straight-ticket voting for Democrats.  In addition to Governor Romney’s unambiguous loss in the Presidential race, Republicans lost Senate races in Indiana and Missouri for no other reason than because insurgent candidates who upset establishment choices and won the Senate primaries there were too Conservative for Indiana and Missouri.  Swing State Wisconsin, which by all accounts is pleased with its Republican State government, just elected 1 of the most-Liberal members of the House Democratic Caucus, Tammy Baldwin, to the Senate over Tommy Thompson, a popular former Governor who is a well-reputed moderate and was George W. Bush’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.  Wisconsinites appear to have been averse to giving Republicans more power in the US Senate on principle.

While Republican partisanship has been the primary source of gridlock in the Senate, however, many of the 14 freshmen Republican Senators in the 112th Congress were so untrusting of their own party leadership that they repeatedly helped Senate Democrats defeat Republican bills.

So, Republicans are getting ruled-out of previously-safe races because they are too Conservative, but Republican primary voters thus far have insisted on nominating more Conservatives.  And when these Conservatives actually do get elected–think Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), and the more-senior Jim DeMint (R-SC)–they vote against their own party conference–often with the Democrats–because their party’s proposals aren’t Conservative-enough for them.  But now that many Conservatives have lost their Senate bids (George Allen in Virginia, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Todd Akin in Missouri), help isn’t coming.  Rather than marking the start of a new movement, these Senate Republicans are now just stationary spoilers for Mitch McConnell to deal with.

Consider the recent disposition of so many rank-and-file and elected Republicans–the emotive town hall-crashing during the 2009 informational sessions on the health care law, the Conservative wave in Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012, the intransigence or preference for confrontation of so many recently-elected Republican politicians, perhaps peaking in some of the curiosities and high-profile embarrassments to come out of the Republican Presidential Primary debates.  Republicans have been undergoing their party’s equivalent of 1971-1972 for the Democrats.  The Republican Party’s nominating process used to be pretty elite-driven.  There is mounting evidence that this was much better for the party, but there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.  The Republican Party as an institution has stoked mistrust of elites to electoral advantage for 40 years, but its elites (however-Conservative) aren’t able to exempt themselves anymore.  The Tea Party insurgents may have improved turnout for the favorably-districted and comparatively low-scrutiny House of Representatives (at least in their initial election in 2010), but in the Senate there’s really no question in my mind that Tea Party insurgent candidates have turned what by now could reasonably be a 55-45 Republican majority into the reverse.

If you consider how stubborn new Republicans like Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT) have been about voting their conscience, their presence in both the House and Senate has actually made John Boehner and especially Mitch McConnell weaker, not stronger. My party essentially cannot win Senate seats in Kentucky and Utah, but we can sometimes count on Paul and Lee and the like to vote with the Democrats on some measures, or at least not to support bills promoted by Boehner and McConnell. So this shift to the right in recent House and Senate candidates has often weakened Congressional Republicans’ ability to promote their agenda even when they win safe elections.

I understand why Republicans might want to narrowly-interpret the problem as candidate weakness, considering that some Senate candidates who were just plain stupid threw races that Republicans would normally win in Missouri and Indiana.  But that doesn’t explain what happened in other States this year.  Olympia Snowe didn’t retire because she couldn’t win the Maine Senate primary; she retired because she concluded partisan gridlock was preventing her from doing her job.  Nominating and electing more ideological Republicans, even if they are relatively competent like Marco Rubio (R-FL), will make this problem worse, not better.  Just look at the vote record.

Rick Berg in North Dakota and Denny Rehberg in Montana were probably the best Republican Senate candidates available in their respective States this year; particularly Congressman Berg’s failure to win his race against a newcomer in a very-Republican State that wants the Keystone XL Pipeline built as quickly as possible, is a setback of significance. Berg and Rehberg didn’t really make any attention-grabbing missteps on the campaign trail (though Rehberg had some issues, such as a municipal lawsuit).  To say that personality issues tanked Republican candidates in these States is to ignore a real problem the Republican Party has.  What I think we’re seeing is that there isn’t a majority constituency for Conservative government in America; people merely liked the way its sentiments sounded.  When the public sees candidates who take their ideologies literally and seriously, Republicans lose support.

It’s hard to “factor-out” some contingent circumstances, but Vice President Gore won the popular vote in 2000 and President Bush won it in 2004 after No Child Left Behind, the massive Prescription Drug Benefit, aggressive and meaningful outreach to Hispanics and consistent messaging of the fighting terrorism/wartime issue.  In 2008 the post-Iraq, post-Financial Crash reaction against Republicans was so strong that it was possible to hedge on what Senator Obama’s 53%-46% blowout of Senator McCain meant.  But 2012, I think, was as fair of a fight as we’ve had in Presidential politics since at least 2000.  The Republicans ran on their best version of a Conservative argument; the Democrats ran on their best version of a Liberal argument.  The simple fact is that since the end of the Clinton years we’ve been in a steady demographic trend where it’s getting easier and easier for Democrats to get elected President running on their base, and harder and harder for Republicans to get elected President running on theirs.  Because it’s comparatively-easy for Republicans to win legislative races in more-diffuse districts at the same time, they are able to hedge on this fact, but it seems to be a fact nonetheless.

This isn’t to say the Republican Party can or should stop being the party for Conservatives, but they do need to find a formula for George W. Bush-style policy and social outreach to appeal to women and minorities that they can live with.  The Republican ideology must become heterodox, because the Republican base must become heterogeneous. Or Republicans could just ignore the very-straightforward message their party just received. The exit polls have never been more-revealing.  If the Republicans somehow conclude that what they need is better data-mining for Conservative voters and better candidate recruitment and message-control, I think my party will be in pretty good shape in 2016.

But time flows like a river.  As much as we get it down to a science, politics is about arbitraging hitherto-undetected trends and movement in society.  Democrats can be pardoned if they’ve forgotten of late, but the Republican Party definitely has an intelligentsia.  Some of them–many who work at FOX News or the National Review–went into stunned temper tantrums.  But many took the 2012 loss gracefully, as an opportunity to learn, and went straight back to the drawing-board.  Their recommendations are preliminary, of course, but some of them are discerning.  It’s not too early to discuss them.

Conservative Woman Beats Right-Wing Man: House Republicans Put a Lid on It

Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), the face of Not the Knee-jerk Far Right.

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Conservative Chairman of the House Budget Committee and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s running mate in the recent Presidential Election you may have heard about, endorsed her opponent in the bid for House GOP Conference Chair, the #4 position in Republican leadership in the House of Representatives.  Since early 2010, Congressman Ryan was recognized as a rising star in the Republican Party, a disciplined voice for a more-Conservative Republican Party, author of “the Plan” that would take the Federal Government in a more-austere direction and streamline the Federal tax code, making it fairer and friendlier to business.  When Governor Romney nominated Ryan to serve as his running mate in mid-August of this year, this decision represented an unambiguous doubling-down on the moderate Governor’s strategy of courting his party’s Conservative base ahead of the Election.  While this decision may have been clever from a Congressional cat-herding perspective (removing a potential articulate center of ideological opposition from the House if he were to win the election), it did not produce a ticket with broad appeal: 2 white and male scions of aristocratic families from States neither could really hope to deliver in the election, 1 of them a pretty-solid Conservative and the other a decent imitation of a Conservative.  In any case, Congressman Ryan’s role as an heir-apparent in top-level Republican leadership seemed all-but-assured following his place on the 2012 Presidential ticket.

But all is not well in the Republican Party–and that circumstance implicates its recent ideological leadership.  After President Obama’s fairly-solid re-election win, a net 2 seats lost in the US Senate, a projected net 8 seats lost in the House of Representatives after an ostensibly-favorable round of redistricting, a weaker-than-expected performance in gubernatorial races nationwide, a loss of several State Legislatures and surprising support for tax increases and social Liberalism in numerous State ballot initiatives this year, the Republican establishment has its case for pushing back against the previously-triumphalist Conservatives elected in the Republican wave year of 2010.  A comparatively-moderate Conservative, Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), initially considered an easy win for the position of House GOP Conference Chair, had to fight for it after Congressman Ryan endorsed Tom Price (R-GA), an honest-to-God Conservative, in his come-from-behind bid for the role.

Nevertheless, McMorris Rodgers beat the insurgent candidate–no irrelevant feat considering the 87-strong Class of 2010 House Republicans were at least as Conservative as the 179-member rump House Republican Conference from the 111th Congress, meaning that the outgoing Republican Conference is both the largest and the most-Conservative in generations.  This wasn’t necessarily a fair fight for Ryan; the House Republican leadership had already presumed upon (though not endorsed) McMorris Rodgers, and Ryan gave Congressman Price his endorsement late.  But after 2 years of political setbacks and radical but failed policy initiatives in the House and primary upsets by Conservative challengers depriving them of as many as 10 seats in the Senate, the “Tea Party”-brand Republicans may finally be ready to abandon their fantasy of some final victory just around the corner.  (Spoiler alert: This final victory isn’t coming.)  The truth is, Congressman Ryan’s coherent but ideological vision (which in fairness was articulated with grace and respect) hasn’t profited the Republicans much more than Mayor Palin’s uninformed and emotive rhetoric (which in fairness revealed her as unbalanced and self-involved to anyone who cared enough to pass judgment).

Cathy McMorris Rodgers was certainly preferred by the party from a political-optics perspective; she is the only woman in top-tier House Republican leadership, and the House Democratic Caucus currently has about twice as many women as the House Republican Conference.  Governor Romney’s failure to run competitively among women overall in the Presidential Election, particularly among single women, is already well-documented.  Ms. McMorris Rodgers was the House liason for the Romney campaign.  Considering the wide presumption of her succession of Jeb Hensarling, who is moving to the House Finance Committee, as GOP Conference Chair, it may be indicative of Speaker Boehner’s trepidation in dictating too many terms to the rank-and-file that he didn’t formally endorse her; Congressman Ryan, however, came out with the abrupt endorsement of Congressman Price.

But now it seems it’s the Conservatives in the Republican Party who have overestimated their strength.  The GOP establishment is fighting back.  There’s nothing like unexpected and dramatic failure to put a damper on unwelcome and uncalled-for innovation.

The 2012 National Elections: What Just Happened

President Obama speaks to the faithful after a formal announcement that he had won a 2nd term. He ascribed the results of the 2012 Elections to a changed electorate and reaffirmed his party’s principles. Associated Press Photo by Carolyn K.

They liked to compare him to Jimmy Carter.  The 39th President of the United States, after all, was elected as a fresh face and an honest alternative to all the corrupt politicians (in particular the 2 recent Republican Administrations) who would change the way things were done in Washington.  By all accounts he turned-out to be an ineffectual President, and following a near-decade of economic malaise and the international embarrassments of Carter’s 1 term in office, the former California Governor Ronald Reagan was elected in an undeniable wave election, with a mandate (as such things go) to reform the Federal Government from a Conservative policy perspective.  As this narrative frame went, President Barack Obama was a similarly-failed President, a well-meaning but clueless party man who could not lead and didn’t understand the ordinary needs of business, his muddled pragmatism only leading us deeper into public debt and further economic collapse at home, and strategic irrelevance abroad.  As the more-elaborate conjurers of this analogy would have it, President Obama’s chief legacy would be in policy failure so total that the electorate would call-out for a Conservative deliverer, voting by a wide margin for a Conservative restoration, leaving Liberalism and, perhaps more-importantly, George W. Bush’s ideologically-hybrid “Compassionate Conservatism” on the dust-heap of history.

This vague analogy required no empirical updating or reappraisal from those who liked it.  It was completely-divorced from reality–as were almost all Republican expectations for last Tuesday.  The 2012 Elections were indeed a blowout–for the Democratic Party, which successfully defended the Obama Presidency, padded its majority in the Senate and made inroads (such as were strategically-possible) in the heavily-gerrymandered House of Representatives, as well as making major advances against Republicans in State Legislatures in 6 States.

Consider the Republicans projecting a massive nationwide win for Mitt Romney: Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Dick Morris, Michael Barone, George Will…All of these men are partisans, but all of them are also known for some intellectual heft and have (or in some cases had) reputations as canny political handicappers.  Meanwhile, most serious Democratic prognosticators and most non-partisan handicappers (yours truly included, I’ll cockily add) were in agreement that President Obama was on his way to a pretty-solid re-election–indeed, the results Tuesday night were in-line with their more-optimistic projections.  Quantitative political analyst Nate Silver regarded calls of this election for Governor Romney with eloquent derision.  But Republican pollsters and prognosticators, all on their own, apparently decided that the political success of their message of market-based national renewal was all but fated.  Some pretty-serious traditional political analysts also indicated that Republicans had no reason to believe this, but their preferred prognosticators consistently told them that Governor Romney would defeat President Obama with over 300 electoral votes when this thing was finally called.

Ho, ho.  Truth is stranger than fiction–especially if you ignore it for several months.

“…If the state polls are right, then Mr. Obama will win the Electoral College. If you can’t acknowledge that after a day when Mr. Obama leads 19 out of 20 swing-state polls, then you should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public.” –Nate Silver on November 2, 2012. Silver had the most rigorously-quantitative, and the most-accurate, election calls of any handicapper this year–as he did in 2008. Photo by JD Lasica, Socialmedia.biz.

In stark contrast to Republican expectations, Barack Obama is the 1st Democratic President to win an outright majority of the popular vote for President twice in a row since Franklin Roosevelt.  The official count currently stands at 62,252,809 votes–50.6%–for President Obama, the 2nd-largest popular vote total in an American election in history; Governor Romney by current count has 58,885,041 votes–47.8%.  (Then-Senator Obama came in 1st with 69,498,215 votes–52.9%–in 2008, and George W. Bush has the current 3rd place with 62,040,606 votes–50.7%–in 2004.)

What does all of this  mean?  I’m very-attracted to Nate Silver’s analysis of early-September: Barack Obama’s base is larger than Mitt Romney’s and growing; Romney’s, essentially while males and married white females, is shrinking steadily.  Far from proving the effective “Etch-a-Sketch” of right-wing policy promises his campaign notoriously assured us he could be, by appealing to the Conservative base of his party during the general election campaign Governor Romney hitched his wagon to an aging animal.

I mean it.  This is the important story of the 2012 Elections: The Republicans ran on a message that was too narrow-minded or offensive to the voters the party needed to command the kind of support President Obama could count on for re-election just by inspiring his base.

I’d be surprised if mine is the 1st analysis you’re reading that has offered this argument.  But for much of this year I’ve had the growing suspicion that the Republican Party had failed to pivot prudently from a message that had worked in 1 election to a message that would work in another.  It’s true Republicans had a very good year in 2010, with 700 seats in State Legislatures, a net of 5 Governors’ offices, 63 US House seats and starting with a special election in January 7 US Senate seats.   For a Midterm, turnout was legitimately-encouraging for Republicans as well–about 41% of registered voters–but still below the roughly 63% turnout of the 2008 Presidential Election.  Republicans in the midst of their skepticism towards the pollsters had argued that turnout patterns would be very-different from 2008 this year, and so they could afford to run on their Conservative message.  This hopeful assumption of their turned out to be wrong, of course, but more to the point Republicans never seemed to confront the fact that the national electorate would be about 50% larger in 2012 than it was in 2008.  Even if they were right about depressed Democratic turnout and energized Republican turnout (both party bases were energized…and there are more Democrats than Republicans in this country), the simple fact that turnout in this election would be much higher than in 2010 in any case should have given Republican strategists pause; yet they failed to recognize such a simple cause for concern.  What were they trying to accomplish, crafting all of their appeal for the benefit of the plurality who turned out for their party in the down-ballot elections 2 years earlier?

The New York Times has excellent Election data in their online politics section.

President of the United States

Electoral Vote: Obama 332–Romney 206

Popular Vote: Obama 62,281,602 (50.6%)–Romney 59,900,448 (47.8%)

There was wide acknowledgment that Governor Romney’s concession to President Obama was exceptionally graceful, even touching when he lamented that his wife wouldn’t become First Lady. The mood from the Republican crowd in Boston was predictably somber, with the audience split between applauding Romney’s well-wishing and respectful words for the President and booing the President. Photo by Getty Images.

There are many fascinating observations one could make about this election.  Here’s 1 of my favorite: In which Presidential Election did an incumbent President beleaguered by the controversy surrounding his biggest policy commitment face an impersonable Massachusetts politician who sought to run on his personal history rather than his policy record, in which case the incumbent President decided to run an early attack campaign, aided by privately-funded outside organizations seeking to disqualify the challenger’s personal history, then take an advantage in the polls going into September as the challenger’s Convention failed to give him a bounce and his own Convention featured a prominent cross-party endorsement, only to lose that wide polling lead during the 1st Presidential Debate which the challenger was widely-expected to be eager to engage, then to regain some of his standing in the polls when his older and controversial Vice President walked all over the challenger’s nice-guy running mate during the Vice Presidential Debate, followed by flailing attacks by the challenger that went nowhere in the Town Hall Presidential Debate and finally a 3rd Presidential Debate in which the challenger seemed to have nothing to contribute, only to go to a general election that the challenger’s party seemed confident it could win due to very-misleading swing State polls by a favorite pollster with a narrow methodology, resulting in the incumbent winning re-election with over 62 million votes and a popular vote margin of just over 50.6%?

The answer is, “The 2012 Presidential Election, and the 2004 Presidential Election.”  While I am partial to the narrative that says President Obama won this election because his base is simply larger and growing faster than the Republicans’, meaning they will have to embrace a few Progressive policies to win at Presidential politics in the future, there is also a less-favorable narrative implying greater agency.  Then-President George W. Bush won his re-election bid in part benefiting by default from the attacks of the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” against Senator John Kerry, who ran on his distinguished Vietnam war record when he should have run on his plan for Iraq.  The same can be said for Governor Romney, who liked to run on his business experience but seemed strangely-circumspect about explaining aspects of his tax, spending and regulatory proposals that he was clearly smart-enough and articulate-enough to communicate to the public.  Though President Obama was slow to offer a substantive defense and expansion of his policies, like President W. Bush he became more-confident in the way he discussed his record and his reasoning as the race went on, in both cases particularly after his poor performance in the 1st Presidential Debate.  Finally, both incumbents won a shallow but broad victory–and both would see their party command exactly 55 seats in the Senate at the start of their 2nd terms.

So, the case could be made that the 2012 Presidential Election is simply the story of the power of incumbency.  I do think an incumbent President has certain advantages that comment him for re-election, but I think this narrative is irrelevant this time.  President Obama’s first 2 years as President, alongside the 111th Congress, implicated him in many controversial policy choices.  He gradually won the public over on many of those policies since the 2010 Midterm Elections which were so disastrous for his party, but the Affordable Care Act will probably have to wait until full implementation before the public makes final peace with it.  Michael Gerson, a Conservative columnist for the Washington Post, took a sober look at the scope of President Obama’s support for re-election and reached a conclusion:

“The 2012 election was a substantial victory not only for President Obama but also for liberalism. Obama built his campaign on abortion rights and higher taxes for the wealthy. He was rewarded by an electorate that was younger, more pro-choice and more racially diverse than in 2008. The Obama coalition is not a fluke; it is a force.”

Gerson didn’t mean to say that all was lost for Republicans, but he did observe that President Obama’s Democratic base is larger than the Republican base–large-enough, in fact, to win elections by explicit appeal.  This year both parties ran principally on what their bases wanted to hear from them, and the Democratc came out on top.  It seems we’ve seen a little too much authenticity from the Republicans…

The United States Senate: 55 Democrats (+2 D)–45 Republicans (-2R)

Todd Akin, outgoing Republican Congressman and failed US Senate candidate from Missouri in 2012, set in motion the utter collapse of Republican ambitions to take the Senate this year when he insisted that a woman who was a victim of a “legitimate rape” couldn’t get pregnant from it, thus exceptions to his party’s stance against abortion rights were not necessary. Rather than provoke a proactive effort at message-control from the Republican Party, Akin was just the 1st of several Republican House and Senate candidates–Steve King (R-IA), Richard Mourdock (R-IN), and Joe Walsh (R-IL) among them–to come-out as thoughtless, despicable men in the following weeks. Associated Press photo.

Let’s consider some of the Republicans’ downballot disappointments.  It might be more-revealing here to address these developments tersely rather than at length.  1st there are the Democrats’ pickups of Republican Senate seats: Maine, Massachusetts, and Indiana.  Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) announced her retirement earlier this year, citing Washington’s charged partisan atmosphere as a prime reason she was no longer able to do her job in a way she found satisfying.  In Massachusetts Scott Brown, a personally well-liked moderate Republican (such as are to be found in the Senate these days) lost his re-election bid to a well-known skeptic of corporate power, in a Liberal but corporation-friendly Commonwealth.  In Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite, defeated longtime Senator Richard Lugar (a knowledgeable staple of the Senate who everyone agreed could have coasted to re-election) in the US Senate primary shortly-thereafter–and then went on to say that women who became pregnant following a rape should be grateful for their “gift from God” and lose a key election in a very-Republican State.  Then there are the Democrats whom it was thought wouldn’t be able to defend their Senate seats–incumbent John Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp as Kent Conrad’s prospective replacement in North Dakota, and incumbent Claire McKaskill in Montana.  Heitkamp in particular had against her that she was running for her seat for the 1st time, while President Obama was under attack from Republicans for holding up an oil shale pipeline proposed to run from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico.  (This suspension of the plan was only temporary, waiting for a study, supported by Nebraska Republicans, for a way to protect the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska.)  Democratic Senator McKaskill was very-unpopular in very-Conservative and very-Christian Missouri, but ended up winning her Senate re-election bid by about 55%-39% after her opponent, a Tea Party challenger named Todd Akin, insisted in an interview that a “legitimate rape” will not lead to pregnancy, thus making exceptions to laws against abortion for cases of rape and incest unnecessary in principle.  That all of these candidates were able to defend Democratic seats in States with strong underlying Republican fundamentals in a time of low split-ticket voting tells us that there is pronounced skepticism towards Republicans right now.  Finally, there is the failure of Republicans to make any inroads in Pennsylvania, Ohio or Florida against swing-State incumbents previously thought to at least be vulnerable, and in Virginia, Wisconsin or Connecticut against successors to retiring Democrats or Democratic-leaning independent Senators.  In Virginia Republican and Democratic former Governors squared-off.  The latter was a former Chairman of the Democratic Party, and running in a traditionally-Conservative Commonwealth he was able to beat Allen.  Then there’s swing State Wisconsin, where 1 of the most left-wing Democrats in the House of Representatives was able to defeat Tommy Thompson, a moderate Republican former Governor.  That result–again, telling for a swing State–can hardly be interpreted as anything more than an effort by politically-unaffiliated segments of the electorate to keep the Republicans from gaining more power in Congress.

The House of Representatives: 234 Republicans (-8R)–201 Democrats (+8D)

Speaker of the House John Boehner at a press conference in Washington, DC on Friday, November 9th, 3 days after the Election. While his House Republican Conference is projected to shrink by 8 seats when the 113th Congress meets in January, he is nonetheless a prime beneficiary of this election. Some wayward Republican Representatives lost their re-election bids, and his warnings to his Conference that hard-charging policy declaratives and brinkmanship wouldn’t be effective proved prescient. Why have a larger House Conference if it’s harder to lead? Photo by REUTERS.

In the House of Representatives, votes are still being recounted in the 8 closest races but a clearer picture is emerging now: The Republicans have fallen from 242 seats in the 112th House to 234 in the 113th, and the Democrats have risen from 193 to 201.

This isn’t exactly a repudiation of the Conservative politics of House Republicans.  The House Republican Conference lost 31 seats in the 2006 Midterms and 21 seats during the 2008 Presidential Election, and at the time their party had already gerrymandered many States’ Congressional Districts to have underlying Republican proclivities.  Having made out very badly in 2 elections in a row, the Republicans then more than made-up for all their losses in the House, gaining 63 seats during the 2010 Midterms.  All 3 of those elections were wave elections, as was 1994 in which Republicans picked up 54 seats and ended a Democratic House majority that had been stable for 40 years.  Compared to those blowouts, a loss of 8 seats is hardly a message of displeasure.  In a recent column Ezra Klein neatly exploded that idea that Republicans’ surviving House majority constitutes “a mandate…not to raise taxes,” as Speaker of the House John Boehner put it, but he also implied that, were it not for “the power of redistricting,” Republicans would have lost their majority outright.  I have doubts that this is true.  It does look like House Democrats took a majority of the popular vote for the House, but however you draw the bluest Congressional Districts in the country, it is unlikely that Republicans would contest some of them, or at least field a viable candidate for them.  In those cases people still turn-out to vote, either to support their Congressman or for the up-ballot and down-ballot races.  So, you have a number of Democratic Congressmen in uncontested races contributing substantially to House Democrats’ popular vote lead; this doesn’t mean House Democrats have the geographical breadth of popular support they would need to take the House of Representatives.  While it is very-probably true, at least since the last round of redistricting for 2002 and 2004, that Republican State governments have manipulated the terrain in their favor, this has probably simply padded their majority or protected individual Republican Congressmen moreso than it has subverted the popular will to elect a Republican majority to the House of Representatives.  Let’s not forget that the Democratic Party currently has partisan gerrymanders in place in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, and Illinois.  True, Republican gerrymanders are more-numerous and extensive, but on an individual basis they have not proved more-aggressive; in some States like Georgia and Florida they are now fairly-restrained, either by constitutional change or by demonstration of past campaign promises.  The non-partisan redistricting commission in Arizona hobbled Republican ambitions greatly, converting a 5R-3D House delegation to a 5D-4R House delegation.

House Republicans very probably should take a hint, however.  The silent story in this aggregate focus is that many States–Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Missouri and Texas all experienced Republican rewrites of Congressional District maps in which Republicans either tried to shift a few House seats their way, or to consolidate their somewhat-inflated gains from the Republican-tiled 2010 Midterm Elections.  In these States Republicans did whatever the law would allow to reshape the Congressional balance in their favor.  (Again, the Democrats made similarly-dogged efforts in Maryland and Illinois, but those were essentially the only States in which they were in a position to carry-out partisan redistricting to pick up more seats.)

So, in spite of Republicans’ best efforts at consolidation of their recent pickups, they fell back by 8 seats.  This result is hardly shocking and still leaves them with a comfortable (by their own historic standards) House majority.  But a loss of 5 House seats in the 1998 Midterms following the Monica Lewinsky investigation and impeachment effort against President Bill Clinton was seen as enough of an embarrassment that Republicans felt compelled to eject their partisan House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, in favor of more-restrained leadership.  As in the 112th Congress it has generally been House Speaker John Boehner who has been trying to tone-down Tea Party and Conservative enthusiasm within the House Republican Conference in order to pursue deals with President Obama, the current Republican setback has already given the Speaker the opportunity to tell stunned House Conservatives that it is time to sit down and shut up.

In Sum…

Republican intransigence in Congress for the better part of the last 2 years has been motivated in large part by the sense that a thwarted Obama Administration would give way all the more-easily to the election  of a Republican President, who would then work with a large House Republican Conference and at least a narrow Republican Senate majority to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, eliminate many of President Obama’s new Federal regulations, cut Federal programs they view as wasteful, permanently lower tax rates and aggressively restore Defense spending.  In practice Congressional Republicans haven’t even been particularly effective at thwarting President Obama, once you consider that all legislation has to come out of Congress and Republicans have a lock on the House of Representatives.  As they are now stuck with President Obama for the next 4 years and Democrats have made gains against both of their Congressional Conferences against initially long odds, Congressional Republicans will simply have to have a reasonably-good working relationship with the President if they are to have any policy accomplishments to point to at all.  The alternative is a status quo that leaves the President’s signature policy achievements intact, gives the President the power to veto every single bill Congressional Republicans pass (assuming any of them even make it through the Senate), and prompts the President to legislate by executive order and administrative fiat or through favorable appointments to the Federal bureaucracy wherever possible.  Simply-put, Republicans could widen 2 years in which they have nothing to show for themselves and the President does end-runs around them into years in which they have nothing to show for themselves and the President does end-runs around them–if they don’t learn some humility and work with him.

What face should Congressional Republicans present to the public in light of all this?  Well, that’s too weighty of a subject to tackle here, and will have to wait for another time.  In the meantime, this election reveals that we have reached an era in which a Democratic Presidential candidate can win an election on his party base while a Republican cannot, as well as one in which America will probably elect a Republican House of Representatives by default–even if it has nothing to show for itself.