Monthly Archives: February 2013

Sequestration: No One Knows How This Story Ends

To hear President Obama and Congressional Democrats speak of sequestration is to receive advance warning of drastic spending cuts that will put as many as 1 million Americans out of work, furlough enough air traffic controllers to delay a lot of flights, many National Parks will become almost impassable, productivity in the civilian Defense Department will plummet while all branches of our military will slip out of readiness while the Navy and Air Force will fall out of a state of good repair, and drug addicts, sick or disturbed children, destitute senior citizens, and very young children awaiting their vaccines all will be abandoned.  Hundreds of millions of dollars in both humanitarian and military aid, including some funding for a successful program to fight AIDS in Africa started by former President George W. Bush, will be cut.  The United States Border Patrol will be cut.  700,000 children lose Head Start services, resulting in the layoffs of 14,000 teachers.  $1.12 billion in total funding will be cut from FEMA.  Hundreds of millions of dollars will be cut from the FBI and prisons, among other law-enforcement and penitentiary institutions.  The National Science Foundation will lose $375 million in research grants, while NASA will lose almost $1 billion in funding.

The Democrats tell us the cuts in spending on these priorities will be catastrophic. All of that is certainly bad–and that’s what the sequester, as programmed, entails.  But what if the spending cuts aren’t as broadly-felt as it sounds like they will, or if creative operational changes or greater budgetary discretion blunts the edge of some of these spending cuts?  What then?

Well, that could represent a major political victory for Congressional Republicans.  In recent weeks, Republican Conference leaders have argued that the coming forced spending cuts of the sequester are insignificant in the scheme of things; as it turns out, $85 billion in cuts expected this year is at least statistically-significant, but a better way of making this point might be to say that the list of cuts described above tells you nothing about what Federal spending is left intact by the sequester, or about how massively Federal spending has grown over the last 12 years.  Adjusted for inflation, President Obama’s budget proposal for 2013 calls for overall Federal spending that is 52.4% higher than the total for 2001, which was President Clinton’s final Federal Budget.  Does a cut of just over 2% of that spending, Republicans ask, really herald the collapse of our civilization, or even more than the needy can bear?

Make no mistake about it: These Federal spending cuts will be as draconian as they are crudely-designed–to the people directly affected.  But I ask my usual crass question: Will the persuadable center segment of the public feel the impact of the sequester cuts as advertised?

Much has been said in the political press about what a risk Congressional Republicans are taking in sitting on their hands over the sequester.  It’s true that Congressional Republicans are already pretty widely disliked by the public; on a related note, it’s true that recent polls suggest Congressional Republicans face prospective blame from a much larger share of the public if the automatic spending cuts go into effect.

But I’m not crowing.  I’m thinking.

Waxing cynical, Chris Cilizza and Aaron Blake at The Fix noted that most Americans are playing little to no attention to the coming budget sequestration, either because they don’t believe the spending cuts will affect them as directly as the tax cuts of the New Year’s Day “fiscal cliff” or because they simply don’t understand what in the budget is being cut.  In any case, President Obama has taken to the road calling for public support for a negotiated budget solution–and it isn’t working.

There is a broadly-sustained conventional wisdom that Congressional Republicans are playing a dangerous game in waiting-out the President and Democrats to let the automatic spending cuts go into effect.  They seem to think in part that they are doing what their base wants, and that they can deflect some of the blame back onto the President by noting that they are offering the Executive Branch greater discretion to decide just what parts of the budget get cut, as long as the cuts fall within the same broad portfolio and aren’t reduced in size.  Reading polls which indicate a small majority of the public are ready to blame Republicans for the sequester, some pundits conclude this is a weak hand, and doomed.

But the impact of the sequester is going to hit some States much harder than others.  This is a big country, and the broad-based spending cuts we’re talking about take more money out of programs that are important to particular cities and States.  President Obama has issued dire warnings about the way people’s lives will be inconvenienced or even needlessly endangered under sequestration, but what if the proposed spending cuts aren’t perceived (or at least not fully-appreciated) by a broad swath of voters outside of the Democratic base?  The dramatic warnings could then backfire, leading Republicans to repeat their charge that the President of playing politics and to demand further spending cuts.

So the conventional wisdom may be wrong.  While most political prognosticators say the Republicans are so committed to the game of chicken that they’ll hurtle off the cliff, there may be less at stake for them in making this gamble.  The Republican Party’s reputation is already in the toilet.  It’s President Obama who commands a tenuous majority support but who is at the start of his 2nd term and whose party faces another Midterm Election in less than 2 years’ time.  Midterm elections, especially in 2nd terms, are characterized by lower turnout–anywhere from 2/3 to 1/2 of what is expected in a Presidential Election–with the opposition party’s voters better-represented due to frustration with the President’s policies.  While the massive Republican gains of the 2010 Midterms were an historic outlier case, they were definitely facilitated in part by President Obama’s and Congressional Democrats’ Liberalism.

Most of the public isn’t paying attention to budget sequestration, President Obama is calling the effects of spending cuts dire and Congressional Republicans are being pushed by some in their divided base to ask for further spending cuts.  As previously noted here, President Obama has committed to a more-confrontational politics in order to inspire the Democratic Party’s growing Liberal base.  He has successfully built public support for a number of his policies this way.  But if, whatever the reason, the impacts of budget sequestration aren’t broadly-felt after the warnings he has issued, Congressional Republicans may choose to characterize his philosophy towards government as archaic.

If they can make that claim, President Obama may lose an edge he didn’t realize he’d wagered.  In politics, it’s dangerous to confuse your own perspective with a microcosm of reality.

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Marco Rubio: The “Savior of the Republican Party” is Just Another Conservative…Only Moreso

Marco Rubio with Bottle Water

No, take your time, Senator; you aren’t saying anything we haven’t heard before. Photo credit: Washington Post, Associated Press.

A lot of buzz has surrounded Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), first elected in 2010, as the savior of the Republican Party.  The case for Republican salvation through the party enthusiasm and principle of the young Senator seem strong if viewed superficially: He is charismatic, he speaks well, he is certainly telegenic, he is Hispanic (check!), and he is a bona fide Conservative (check!).  (Oh, and did I mention he’s young?!)  The Republican Party sees in the young Senator a way to reach-out to several demographics President Obama dominated in the past 2 Presidential Elections–young people and Hispanics.  President Obama’s electoral coalition–minorities, gays and lesbians, college-educated white women, and younger voters–were sufficiently large and sufficiently behind him that Governor Romney was able to take the self-declared independent vote handily and still resoundingly lose the Presidential Election; but if Republicans could make inroads with young voters and Hispanics, then their currently-daunting electoral prospects look manageable, at least for 2016.  So, President Obama takes 72% of the Hispanic vote in 2012, and Senator Rubio gets the Republican Response to the 2013 State of the Union Address.

The problem, simply-put, is that Senator Rubio’s appeal to a larger audience is cosmetic.  I’m not saying that he’s an empty suit or that he lacks substance–though that is the same charge which Senator McCain rather curtly lobbed at then-Senator Obama during their 2008 campaigns for the Presidency, presumably because he was young and…ethnic.  I accept that Senator Rubio knows what he stands for and has legislative ideas of his own; I’m also saying that Senator Rubio’s substance itself will prove anathema to those voters whose support Republicans need to break out of their current demographic confinement.

A look at the Senator’s policy record leaves little reason to have confidence in his political judgment.

Senator Rubio defeated moderate Republican Governor Charlie Crist in the 2010 Republican Senate Primary.  Since his election as US Senator from Florida in that Conservative-Republican wave year, he has usually voted against bipartisan compromises that have passed the Senate by wide margins, and he has taken a stand defending fringe views on a number of social issues.  He voted against the compromise Federal budget passed in April 2011 (thus abetting a government shutdown), he voted against the summer 2011 compromise that ended the debt-limit crisis (thus abetting failure of the US Federal Government to pay its immanent bills, which would likely have set off a worldwide financial crash).  He was 1 of 7 Tea Party-brand Republican Senators who joined Senate Democrats in voting against the House Republicans’ proposal for spending cuts to raise the debt limit…because they felt the House Republicans’ spending cuts didn’t go far-enough to justify raising the limit.  (In truth raising the Federal debt limit requires no justification, since a debt limit increase was necessary in mid-2011 in order to keep the government, and the international economy itself, running.)  Senator Rubio voted against allowing employees of Conservative religious organizations to obtain coverage for contraceptives through their health insurance and even sponsored legislation that would have allowed any employer to deny contraceptive coverage through employer-based health insurance if it violated the employer’s religious beliefs.  Perhaps needless to say at this point, Senator Rubio also voted against the New Years’ Day fiscal cliff deal which exchanged an income tax and capital gains tax increase on the rich (along with the lapse of President Obama’s payroll tax cut which largely benefited the middle- and working-class) in order to preserve the lower Bush tax rates on the middle- and working-class and permanently index the alternative minimum tax to inflation, among other things.

Senator Rubio’s 2011 National Journal vote score ranks him as the 13th most-Conservative (really the 17th most partisan-Republican) member of the US Senate for that year.  His votes were consistently Conservative in all policy areas–and even where Rubio did vote with the Senate Democratic Caucus (thus moderating his Conservative legislative rank somewhat), it was often because he claimed the Republican bills he voted down (such as for Federal spending cuts) weren’t radical-enough.  Senator Rubio ranked among the most-Conservative members of the Senate, an anti-majoritarian legislative body that lends itself to large bipartisan majorities on bills that actually pass.

Senator Rubio’s 2012 National Journal vote score ranks him as the 17th most-Conservative member of the US Senate for last year.  His votes measured a little less-Conservative on social issues, relatively-speaking, but on foreign policy and the many economic policy votes Senator Rubio he remains among the most-Conservative members of the Senate, continually voting against compromise legislation, and recently against filibuster reform designed to make Senate passage of legislation and appointments easier.

In the face of a large bipartisan majority, Senator Rubio sided with Senate Conservatives to abet current Congressional dysfunction.

Senator Rubio isn’t just from the right-wing of his own party, he is from the marginal right-wing of his own party, part of the small faction of Tea Party Senators who tend to sit-out legislation that passes with large bipartisan majorities.  This is the man Republicans gave the prime-time Response to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address.

And how did he handle the response?  Many jokes have been lobbed at Senator Rubio’s odd off-camera retrieval of a Poland Spring water bottle for relief mid-speech; I for one was more-stricken with the monotony of the speech itself.  Not only did Senator Rubio respond with the same conventional Conservative rhetoric we heard from Republicans in the 2012 Elections, but the Response itself didn’t sound like it was directed to the State of the Union Address; it sounded like a rebuttal to a speech President Obama didn’t give.

“Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

“But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.

“This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.

“And the idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hardworking middle class taxpayers – that’s an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried.”

But President Obama didn’t spend most of the time in the State of the Union Address talking about governing taxation and spending policies, or about government regulation of the economy in general.  He certainly offered some philosophical themes reflecting such, but he had a lot to say about immigration and gun control, and about the importance of averting the blunt spending cuts of sequestration, which officially take effect in a week.  Senator Rubio chose his Response to the State of the Union to re-litigate the 2012 Elections–which as judged by another decisive defeat at the Presidential level, unexpected Congressional losses, and the loss of several State Legislative chambers, the Republicans lost.  He didn’t see fit to change the assumptions, the framing, even the emphasis of those old Republican arguments at all.  He is, however, Hispanic, and he is able to offer that Conservative message in Spanish.

Is that all Senator Rubio is–a knee-jerk Conservative who speaks Spanish?  His recent statements and actions offer no evidence that he aims to be more than that; the choice of whether to remake himself for broader appeal, however, remains in his hands over the years leading up to 2016.  In any case, a strategy that aims to stop Republicans’ bleeding with the Hispanic community while doubling-down on every other electoral problem they have is a reactionary strategy–and as David Brooks has already pointed-out, Hispanic voters should not be expected to respond to gimmicks; they actually prefer the Liberal policies promoted by the President.

Because I was aware of his partisan record, I was skeptical when Senator Rubio was chosen to offer the Reponse to the State of the Union; now that he is spoken, I am disappointed by the insularity and rigidity of the Republican Party yet-again.  Its rigor mortis affects even its young.

Just a Theory I Have…

“Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion — mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.  As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances.

“Now we need to finish the job.  And the question is, how?

“In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year.  These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness.  They’d devastate priorities like education, and energy, and medical research.  They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs.  That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as the sequester, are a really bad idea.

“Now, some in Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits.  That idea is even worse.

“Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population.  And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms — otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.

(President elaborates, mostly on proposals designed to reduce cost inflation in Medicare.)

To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and the well-connected.  After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?  How is that fair?  Why is it that deficit reduction is a big emergency justifying making cuts in Social Security benefits but not closing some loopholes?  How does that promote growth?

“Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.  We can get this done.  The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring — a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can’t work the system and pay a lower rate than their hardworking secretaries; a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas, and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that are creating jobs right here in the United States of America.  That’s what tax reform can deliver.  That’s what we can do together.

“I realize that tax reform and entitlement reform will not be easy.  The politics will be hard for both sides.  None of us will get 100 percent of what we want.  But the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy, visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans.  So let’s set party interests aside and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.  And let’s do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors.  The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.  We can’t do it.”

–President Obama, 2013 State of the Union Address, Tuesday, February 12, 2013 (emphasis mine).

I have a theory: For weeks, both parties have decided that the harmful spending cuts of the budget sequestration are inevitable, and offers of alternative policies have essentially been designed to reflect a narrative in which the other party is responsible.  How’s that?  For one, in last week’s State of the Union Address President Obama counts the $1 trillion in sequester spending cuts he wants replaced towards the achievement of about $2.5 trillion deficit reduction he considers accomplished.  The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the recent tax increases and the sequester spending cuts combined will shave about 1.25% off of this year’s GDP growth and cost the national economy about 1.5 million jobs.  This disaster wouldn’t be fully-felt initially, and while it would reverberate through certain industries these Federal spending cuts won’t necessarily tip us back into recession.  (For one, the Dow Jones Industrial Average may have largely priced-in the susceptibility of certain sectors and companies to steep, blunt spending cuts.)  In any case, the President has made it clear that the arrival of these Federal spending cuts would be very bad–for the economy, our competitiveness, and our military standing abroad.

As an alternative, the President specifically mentioned both revenue-raising tax and entitlement reform, particularly to Medicare–in other words, tax increases that cross a red line for Republicans and cuts to entitlements that are outrageous at least to Liberal Democrats.  In short, the President proposed replacing spending cuts that are bad for the health of the country with a combination of tax increases and spending cuts that offend each parties’ ideological sensibilities.

How much confidence could he possibly have in the prospects for a proposal that offends the 2 parties’ base supporters merely because it is in the nation’s common interest?  Reflecting a more-partisan angle, Senate Democrats have offered their own interim proposal to replace the sequester spending cuts, which they also cannot really expect to happen since it both deliberately embarrasses Congressional Republicans and doubles-down on spending cuts that hurt Republican policy priorities.  The Senate Democrats’ proposal leaves the drastic military spending cuts intact while eliminating all US farm subsidies, calls for a 30% minimum effective tax rate on millionaires and closes a lot of tax loopholes that Republicans have protected, the last provision having descended from 2011 proposals leading up to the debt limit crisis.  The temporary measure would only last for a year, but why would Senate Democrats leave the controversial 2nd round of military spending cuts intact and propose abolishing all farm subsidies?  They don’t want Congressional Republicans to seriously consider supporting the proposal.

And what about Congressional Republicans?  Are they negotiating in good faith?  Well, that depends on whether you think negotiating entails ever making an offer–but their self-representation is completely different from the Democrats’.  While President Obama and (somewhat less-plausibly) Senate Democrats have modeled their appeal on an offer of compromise, the Republicans propose a litany of ideological wish-fulfillment that would be politically-damaging to their party if it could actually happen.  House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who while certainly a Conservative has generally avoided either partisan histrionics or dissembling about his policy goals, currently claims to be writing a multi-year budget outline that will balance the Federal Budget in about 10 years.  This is a suspicious promise for Congressman Ryan to make less than 2 years after an already-radical Federal Budget proposal that would have made a neutral balance possible after 30 years cost his party several previously-safe House seats in special elections.  Now the Republicans’ budget specialist proposes an even more-radical plan to cut Federal spending, just months after facing a decisive rejection by the electorate in a Presidential Election explicitly waged over the size and scope of government.  And would you be surprised that Congressman Ryan has been saying for weeks that he expects the sequester spending cuts to happen?

If it’s hard to imagine a plan being a political success both if it were to be seriously aired and debated in Congress and if the effects of implementation were actually felt, you should ask yourself if it could be boilerplate.  Why scale-back your dreams–Indeed, why scale-back your fantasies–if you think being pragmatic won’t avail you?

So, either President Obama and the Democrats wanted a balanced, negotiated solution and Republicans were just too fanatical to accept it, or Republicans were genuinely ready to pursue the ideological budgetary goals their Conservative party base demanded of them, and the Democrats simply blocked them on account of holding the upper reins of Federal power.  Or maybe neither of those propositions is true, and all of this is a rehearsal of the respective eulogies that Democrats and Republicans will deliver for their disparate visions when a very unpleasant round of blunt-force spending cuts take effect on schedule in a matter of weeks.  Make no mistake: The sequester will be bad for the country.  But any significant changes to those cuts will offend 1 or the other of the parties’ bases all the more.  So, the sequester is the most-likely outcome, and both parties have moved on to preemptively setting the tone for this costly failure to compromise.

If this realization causes the less-partisan among you to lose faith in the political system, you should know that the reason stunts like this (and harmful policy results like sequestration) happen is because activists are the ones who pay the closest attention to politics.

President Obama’s 2nd Term Strategy: Real Benefits and Real Costs

President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address laid-out a Liberal policy agenda, validating it in terms of government’s power to help Americans, the need for the rich to contribute more towards Federal deficit-reduction, and our common status as American citizens.  While the tone was amicable compared to that of the President’s bold (some said brash) 2nd Inaugural Address last month, he nonetheless doubled-down on his staring match with the diminished but probably secure Republican majority in the House of Representatives–a chamber he needs in order to pass most of the agenda he laid-out in the Address.

President Obama--2013 State of the Union Address

President Obama during the 2013 State of the Union Address last night. The President has become more confrontation-prone towards House Republicans over the course of the past 2 years; now it seems to be his standing approach in dealing with them, even in central policy speeches. Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/Agence France Presse/Getty Images.

Do you remember President Obama campaign pledge to be the postpartisan President during the 2008 Election?  I do, and that promise is now completely gone.  That is a pretty good mark of how far the President–and the country–has come.

“Bipartisanship is stupid,” a friend–a fellow graduate student in political science–said almost exactly 4 years ago, and I essentially agreed.  Don’t the 2 parties exist in order to represent different material interests or values?  Why would either party agree to work with the other on their legislative priorities, unless it is thereby able to attain what for its members is a higher policy priority in exchange for concessions on a lower priority?

Republicans seemed to feel this way; in general, they never gave President Obama a chance.

I should clarify that I have always liked the idea of bipartisanship in the sense that I do not believe that the other party is just evil or stupid, or that it serves entirely illegitimate interests.  When I was younger I had a little more trouble embracing this notion, but ironically it was shortly before the President George W. Bush Presidency fizzled in 2006 I have accepted that you can tell a lot of clashing stories with reference to the same facts.  (In a different context, 1 of my professors once called this the “Rashomon effect.”)  Taken to an extreme, the sentimental call for bipartisanship ignores premises on which democracy was based–that the meaningful political questions of the day can still inspire people with legitimately-differing opinions, and that the political parties should explain the respective philosophies that motivate them and propose policies which they both think will work and will help them to achieve their values.  At an extreme bipartisanship seeks to dilute that ideal into “Well, here is what I want to do; you should get on-board or you’re being a bad American.”

I’m not saying President Obama was either foolish or disingenuous to call for a bipartisan coming-together (though I do think he was a little naive).  Consider the professions President Obama came from: He has been a lawyer, a Constitutional law professor, a South Chicago community organizer, an Illinois State Senator, a US Senator from Illinois, and 4 years after election to the US Senate he became President of the United States.  During his 4 years as a US Senator he saw President W. Bush have about 4 months of good news and policy successes before the bill started coming due for the information manipulation, unsustainable policies and political contradictions of his 1st term; after that Congressional Democrats found their voice, went on the offensive and enjoyed successive wave elections.

What am I getting at?  Well, Governor Romney did at least have a plausible critique of the President: Barack Obama never ran anything.  I find the President’s policy record compelling and I have found him to be a consistent champion for the right causes; binding those 2 findings together are Barack Obama’s good political instincts.  But the fact remains that his record of dealing with resistance from Congress indicates significant amounts of denial and even avoidance behaviors.  Democrats and Republicans have made those charges.  This isn’t damning–and as I’ve said before, the President has won more political battles than he has lost.  But rather than explain this in terms of President Obama’s professorial inclinations, I think this is best-explained through the fact that his political experience prior to becoming President was through community-organizing and serving in 2 legislatures: Our President has a lot of experience marshaling those who share his causes but before becoming President had never really herded the legislative cats himself.

The low point of my confidence in President Obama’s political abilities came in mid-November 2010, just after the Republicans had their best wave election since the 1920s or 1930s.  While admitting that he had just suffered an electoral “shellacking,” President Obama nonetheless explained his loss in terms of failure to get his message out.

You see, the loss of 7 Senate seats (starting in January of that year), 63 House seats, 6 Governorships and about 700 seats in the State Legislatures nationwide in a high-turnout Midterm Election came about because people just didn’t understand all the great things President Obama and the Democrats were doing.  Wow…

But the fact remains that President Obama was re-elected by a pretty-solid margin for a Presidential Election, with an unusually-high unemployment rate and Republicans running an extremely well-financed campaign around a message of limited government and citizen independence that had them excited.  They had a lot of existing elected officials nationwide to help them carry that message to most parts of the country.  There had been discipline problems, but this message and the 2012 Republican National Convention had largely assimilated intraparty differences of opinion while maintaining substantive policy positions.

Yet as it happened, the Republicans performed worse nationwide in the 2012 Elections than the consensus of the pundits had allowed.

The reason for this was positively identified by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight by late-August of last year, and is simple: The constituencies that tend to support Liberal policies now form a natural majority in Presidential Elections.  This situation has been developing steadily for the past 20 years, though it was not always perceptible on the surface; this year was a fairly-strong test of it.  The Republicans actually dominated the vote of self-identified independents, and they had a bad election year anyway.  As a consequence, President Obama has realized that Democratic Presidential candidates don’t require the support of constituents who might be antagonized by Liberal causes and legislation.  Being “outed” as a Liberal doesn’t preclude election for President by a popular vote majority.

For some, the strategic tack the President should take in light of this realization is straightforward: Divide and conquer.  But the truth is, this situation poses a choice in which both courses of action offer benefits and costs.

Ron Brownstein noted as much in an interesting article for National Journal on the demographic changes that have created an electoral majority for Democratic Presidential candidates: President Obama’s turn from appealing to the center to appealing to his base, crossing a threshold by actively-supporting gay marriage in 2011 and perhaps hitting full-bore with his combative 2nd Inaugural Address, is not just a personal political tack but a bid to capitalize on massive demographic changes that actually make it easier for Democratic Presidential candidates to ignore or even alienate the White working-class voters the Democratic Party used to need in order to win.

The importance of the diverse Democratic Party base to President Obama’s election and re-election is a story that has already been told, but President Obama’s pursuit of a Liberal agenda of immigration reform, new gun control, rescinding the Defense of Marriage Act and new climate change legislation reflects his recognition that aggressively pursuing his party’s platform is actually good politics.  This hasn’t been true for Democratic Presidents since Lyndon Johnson won passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

So we’ve come along way from Senator Zell Miller (D-GA)’s 2003 lamentation that the Democratic Party was A National Party No More because it had alienated social and fiscal Conservatives…or have we, in a more-comprehensive sense?  While appealing to the Democratic base may actually be advantageous to Democratic Presidential candidates now, this strategy comes with a probable cost: it may actively disadvantage the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives. Even without the partisan gerrymandering that so heavily favors Republicans in the Midwest and the South, Congressional races tend to have about 2/3 or less of the turnout of a Presidential Election; even non-partisan Congressional Districts probably aggregate towards a natural Republican majority in the House because of political geography–working-class Whites live in wide distribution through suburban and rural America–and the Voting Rights Act’s mandate to create a proportional number of majority-minority Congressional Districts where possible (which makes drawing adjacent Conservative-leaning Congressional Districts easy).  So, for a Democratic President to promise and proceed to govern from the Left could help the Democratic Party dominate the Executive Branch for the foreseeable future–but it also could also keep the Democrats out of the House for years, perhaps indefinitely, because this strategy basically takes a dump on socially-Conservative parts of the electorate that are more-likely to vote down-ballot, especially in the Midterm years.

I remember the expansion of the party’s ranks in 2006 and 2008. Some of those Congressional gains, at least in 2008, were probably based on the post-Financial Crash reaction against the Republicans and the coattails from President Obama’s high-turnout, massive 2008 Presidential win. But some of those Congressional gains could have been permanent (at least Districts we could have retaken if not held through 2010).  Brownstein’s argument is President Obama’s decision to go to the left was made possible by structural changes in the electorate; it still wasn’t inevitable or even the only plausible strategy.  He suggests, and I think the evidence corroborates, that we had to choose between our Congressional majority and investing in strategic dominance over the Presidency–at least for the next few Congressional terms, and maybe a lot longer.

Live-Blogging the 2013 State of the Union Address

As I am a political junkie and continue to believe that political pageantry conveys valid (if subjective) signals about the preferences and beliefs of our public figures, I will live-blog the 2013 State of the Union Address, as well as the Republican Response and the far-right “Tea Party” Response.

Some things to look out for: Does the President double-down, or is he starting to worry about Congressional Democrats’ prospects in 2014?  Will Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) knock it out of the park (and will people recognize that he’s an arch-Conservative)?  Will Republicans strike a conciliatory tone and pick their battles, or will they gamble on trying to portray President Obama as outside of the mainstream while they are the ones polling in the minority?  Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) will deliver the Tea Party Response; will his speech just rehash Senator Rubio’s, or will he stake-out terrain to the right of the Republican mainstream for himself?  Would doing such deepen the ideological rift in the Republican Party, or is the retrenchment of the Republican establishment succeeding?

11:06 pm: I neglected to say anything about Senator Rubio’s mention of the Republican “plan” to reform Medicare.  Senator Rubio’s decision to defend Congressman Ryan’s “plan” to replace Medicare as an entitlement to certain medical procedures for senior citizens with vouchers for seniors to buy essentially unregulated health insurance suggests to me that the Republicans are still in the throes of their recent indiscipline: “Ryancare,” as it become known, was a badly-conceived blunt instrument for controlling Medicare costs that would wreck the health care entitlement for the elderly in a matter of years.  It result in Republican electoral losses from mid-2011 special elections through the 2012 Elections.

Tonight Senator Rubio has revealed himself to be not only ideological, but politically out of touch.  Reports of the Great Hope of the Republican Party have already been shown to be overblown; at the very best, Senator Rubio has a lot of work to do if he wants to run for President in 2016–or else he will prove to be a gift to the Democrats rather than the Republicans.

10:44 pm: Senator Rubio says Americans embrace economic liberty.  Look, I understand that the Republican Party is going to remain the party of limited government, but this speech is not ideally-crafted to this moment.  This was supposed to be the Republicans’ chance to offer terms of agreement or critique of President Obama’s agenda, which is now emphatically Liberal, and the Senator essentially re-fought the battles of 2012 as if he didn’t learn anything from them.  I accept that the Republican Party is the Conservative party, but Congressional Republican leaders have already shown indications of being prepared to give on certain issues while rallying around others.  What we got here was rehash, and lacking the charisma Senator Rubio has exhibited on other occasions.

But he was able to give the Republican Reponse message in Spanish.  That would help the Republicans (if they had anything to say to Hispanics that the latter would care to hear).

10:41 pm: Drink Poland Spring.

10:40 pm: Senator Rubio has expressed essentially blanket opposition to new gun control measures, putting himself decidedly to the right of Congressman Ryan.

10:35 pm: I already think the Republicans’ choice of Senator Rubio to deliver the Republican Response was a mistake.  He is fixating on issues the President minimally addressed in the State of the Union Address.  He sounds like he is still in denial about global warming, arguing that “government can’t control the weather.”  He expresses indignation at the President’s call for higher taxes on the rich–when all he called for was the closure of special interest tax breaks, not another tax rate increase.

Did Senator Rubio get the right speech?

10:32 pm: Senator Rubio responds to the State of the Union Address by calling the 2008 Financial Crash a result of failed government regulations and claiming that the Affordable Care Act’s regulations will result in layoffs and downgrades to part-time jobs in small business…This is the mainstream Republican Response?

10:30 pm: Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), “a rising star in the Republican Party,” invokes his immigrant and working-class background.  Oh, and did he mention he’s Hispanic?  This is the Republican’s great hope; he’s starting strong, if perhaps laying it on a bit thick.

10:17 pm: President Obama closed-out his speech by championing a 1st-responder who took 12 bullets after a different mass shooting.  When asked why he took-on that shooter alone, he answered, “That’s just the way we’re built.”  The President notes our common citizenship.

This was a good State of the Union Address: The President doubled-down, but he found a way to do it with a gentler tone than in his 2nd Inaugural Address and with a ringing appeal to our common citizenship.  This gives Congressional Republicans real political incentives to relent on resistance to the legislative matters already on the docket and narrow their focus to their core issues–in particular, the fight over the Federal Budget.

10:09 pm: “This time is different.”  President Obama calls for new gun control measures following the mass shooting in a Connecticut elementary school last December.  The President notes that more than 1,000 Americans have been murdered in the 2 months since that massacre.  He repeats his basic proposals requiring Congressional approval–comprehensive background checks and closing of the “gun show loophole” that leaves 40% of gun sales unchecked, a high-capacity bullet clip ban, and a new assault weapons ban.  “If you have to vote against these measures, that’s your choice–but they deserve a vote.”  Invoking the many assembled victims of gun violence or their next of kin present for the Address, he says simply, “They deserve a vote!”  Bipartisan applause.

Bipartisan applause.  Suddenly, new gun regulations are looking less-controversial in Congress than immigration reform which many Republican leaders agree they need to pass in some form.

10:06 pm: President Obama called for expanding medical care and other assistance for military veterans.  This has long been a cause for President Obama; he has done much good, though with more prudent judgment from his predecessor, it would not have been necessary for him to do as much.  Veteran suicides are at an all-time high.

10:02 pm: President Obama applauds the democratic political transition in Myanmar (and its longtime advocate Aung San Suu Kyi) and in the Middle East.  He calls out the mass-murdering Assad Family Regime in Syria, implying that it is doomed.

What I’d really like would be for President Obama to take action to help the Free Syrian Army depose Assad.  Sometimes engaging a firefight is the path of least bloodshed; we were right in our decision to intervene in Libya, and if anything should have done it sooner.

10:01 pm: President Obama has proposed a partnership to negotiate free trade with the European Union.  That could have far-reaching consequences if it could be made to function…I wonder if it could survive the endurance of our and their agricultural and aerospace subsidies.

9:59 pm: The President’s use of euphemism towards the situation in Afghanistan is understandable; he has said “We will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.”  That is a reminder that he is prepared to use military force against the Islamic Republic of Iran if it doesn’t desist in its verboten (and denied) nuclear weapons program.

9:55 pm: President Obama acknowledges our men and women in uniform, and says the job will soon be done in Afghanistan and that our soldiers can come home.  Well, our soldiers have certainly put in their time, and they will be coming home…But corruption, meddling from Pakistan, religious terrorism and Afghanistan’s inability to legalize its most-valuable cash crop are all still conspiring against it.  President Obama has given us peace with honor in Iraq, and soon will do in Afghanistan.  But President Nixon gave us peace with honor in Vietnam so that our ally in the South could collapse under the weight of its own corruption and conquest by the superior force in North Vietnam.

9:51 pm: President Obama notes that a family with 2 children that works full-time at minimum wage lives in poverty; he notes that 19 States have raised their own minimum wage since 2007 of their own motion.  He calls for raising the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour–a proposal that gets applause from almost all Democrats and almost no Republicans.  He also says–and this would be far-reaching–we should index the minimum wage to inflation, so it doesn’t become insufficient to live on with time.  He notes Governor Romney supported the same measure last year.

9:47 pm: Calls for comprehensive immigration reform get a chilly reception from many House Republicans.  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) smiles sheepishly and claps subliminally and intermittently–I am not exaggerating.  What is he trying to say, “Kind of want”?

9:46 pm: President Obama calls for linking college affordability to access to Federal grant money.  Yes, it’s about time colleges were given actual disincentives to pass all costs on to students and their families.

9:43 pm: President Obama notes that German high schools provide vocational and pre-professional training equivalent to what American students get after 2 years in a community college!  Ouch…I know I’m not the 1st to say this by any measure, but reform is urgently needed in higher education.  Not only is it now discouragingly expensive, but at the undergraduate level it also doesn’t provide people with useful professional certification.  So, right now you need a graduate degree in this country to have a level of education that certifies you as jobworthy, more or less.

9:41 pm: President Obama calls for Congressional action to make it easier for struggling homeowners or buyers and small business-owners to refinance.  Particularly in the case of financially-underwater homeowners, this is a good idea that would have been better if it had been identified and tackled 4 years ago, focusing on what struggling homeowners needed rather than simply pushing the banks to be more-forgiving with existing loans while not reducing struggling homeowners’ incentives to default.

9:39 pm: YES.  President Obama has called for new spending on roads.  This is 1 of the most obviously-beneficial thing we could do for ourselves; it creates jobs and improves highway safety, capacity and aesthetics.

He specifically mentions the need to aggressively budget to repair the nation’s 70,000 structurally-deficient bridges.  Sometimes making the hard choices actually means paying to do what needs to be done anyway.

9:36 pm: “If Congress won’t act soon to protect Americans from the reality of climate change, I will.”  President Obama calls for bipartisan and market-based legislation to resist the feedback loops facilitating climate change.  Sounds nice, but what does that look like?  He calls for a Congressional-led proposal similar to the one worked-out by Senators McCain (R-AZ) and Lieberman (I-CT) a few years ago.  If Congress declines to do that, President Obama says he will pass more executive orders in order to regulate greenhouse gas emissions or to promote cleaner energy sources.

9:34 pm: In spite of the way Republicans attacked him in last year’s Presidential Election, President Obama has overseen the transition of our country to energy independence within the next decade.  This is a powerful transformation of our economic and political situation from just a few years ago, and one that vindicates many of the President’s 1st term policies.

9:32 pm: Citing the success and productivity of the 1st, President Obama says he is going to create 3 new business hubs to stimulate local manufacturing growth.  He asks Congress to pass laws to create a total of 15 more.

9:30 pm: “Deficit-reduction alone is not an economic plan.  Growing the economy in a way that creates more jobs must be the north star that guides our efforts.”  I’m glad someone said that.  President Obama thanks the last Congress for passing parts of his proposed JOBS Act; laughing, he asks the current Congress to pass the rest of it.

The unproductive and hostile 112th Congress has become a joke-by-allegory in the State of the Union Address.

9:25 pm: When President Obama said we can’t continue to make promises to spend money on Medicare at rates that cannot be sustained, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) nods, smiles and applauds.  I’d really like to think the President and he can find some way to reform Medicare they can agree on, even if only partially.

Congressman Ryan sometimes seems to be more the leader of the House of Representatives than the Speaker.

9:25 pm: President Obama has proposed ending Medicare’s unsustainable fee-for-service compensation model, that pays doctors and hospitals simply for administering services to seniors at their discretion rather than for attaining improvement in seniors’ health.  That’s a radical proposal for restructuring Medicare, and 1 whose time has come.

9:21 pm: OK, we’re at substance here.  President Obama notes that we have achieved $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction…however dysfunctional the process that led to these budget cuts.  A little more than $600 billion of this deficit reduction came from the tax increases of the New Years’ Day “fiscal cliff” deal.  While noting that “we’re more than halfway there” to the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction over this decade set by the Bowles-Simpson Commission on the Deficit, the President also describes $1.2 trillion in impending blunt-force automatic spending cuts as an unwanted contingency.  (If we are aiming at $4 trillion in deficit-reduction, and we have attained $2.5 trillion thus far, and $1.2 trillion of that deficit-reduction is considered disastrous and unwanted, we can’t really say we’re more than half-done, can we?)

9:20 pm: President Obama invokes the American Dream, saying that Americans believe that if they work hard they can get ahead.  Prolonged economic difficulty probably does make it easier for a Liberal Democrat to claim Republicans’ thick terms for themselves.

9:18 pm: The President announces that “the State of our Union is strong.”  Oh, good!

9:16 pm: “The Constitution makes us not rivals for power, but partners in progress,” the President says, quoting President Kennedy 50 years before.  That isn’t necessarily an expression for hope in bipartisanship; it may be no more than an acknowledgment that politicians of both parties are trying to do good, and that we’ll get there, graspingly.

9:16 pm: Uh, does the President usually hand a manila envelope to the Vice President and the Speaker of the House during these things?  Have I just not noticed?

9:13 pm: President Obama has a brief but very friendly-looking handshake with Chief Justice John Roberts, the man who saved the Affordable Care Act from a partisan savaging.

9:10 pm: “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!”  I’m sure House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) loves hearing that now…

Hell, the Speaker appears gloomy just looking at him.

9:07 pm: The last time I waited this long for a public appearance, strangely-enough, it was for Yassin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def.

9:00 pm: “Mr. Speaker, the President’s Cabinet!”  A long train of well-known political figures shuffles down the aisle–not to take their seats, but to chat, it seems.  President Obama was quite comfortable with taking people out of the Senate and into his Administration with him–his Vice President, his Secretary of the Interior, his past and new Secretary of State (2 past and a possible future Presidential hopeful there!), his controversial but qualified and compelling nominee for the next Secretary of Defense.  President Obama may strike some as protean, but he has the hallmarks of where he comes from professionally all over him.

Between an Ideologue and a Hard Place: Another Tea Party State of the Union Response

Interesting: On Tuesday we will have the State of the Union Address from President Obama, the official Republican Response from Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), and then another Tea Party Response (think Michele Bachmann, missed camera cues, and simplistic charts) from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).

Though Senator Paul may have a more-serious potential constituency than Michele Bachmann (who has never actually been more than a bomb-throwing House backbencher), this is ultimately just more evidence of indiscipline among Congressional Republicans. Senators Rubio and Paul are both on their party’s right flank–though Paul more so, I nonetheless think their voting records clearly indicate that the contrast between the 2 is exaggerated–and they are both known to be Republican 2016 Presidential prospects. If Senator Paul’s message differs too substantially from Senator Rubio’s, the Republican Party will continue to appear divided to the point of self-injury–after everything that happened during the 112th Congress, the Republican Presidential Primaries, and the 2012 Election season. If on the other hand Paul’s Tea Party Response sounds too similar to Rubio’s mainline Response, the Tea Party respondent will look like he’s simply saying “Me too! Me too!” in a self-seeking bid for name-recognition. The Response speech is supposed to lay out the opposition party’s props or skepticism to the President, their premises and their contrasting political vision; how do you prepare an alternate response?

1 further thought on this: Even in 2012, when all the Conservative-insurgents were in there sharpenin’ their knives, they couldn’t beat the obviously more-moderate Governor Romney in what, for all its strangeness, wound-down the way Republican Presidential Primaries normally do.  If 2012 wasn’t the insurgents’ year for the Republican Presidential nomination, what could Senator Paul be thinking in staking-out space to the right of Senator Rubio, himself already on the right flank of Senate Republicans?  Senator Rubio is himself very-much a Conservative, and so poses risk for the Republican National Committee: If they are grooming a Presidential candidate because he communicates well and can appeal to a needed growing demographic (Hispanics, of course), they are betting a lot on the thought that his substantial voting and advocacy record won’t become a matter of controversy in a general election in 2016.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself.  Senator Paul probably thinks his speech will allow him to stake-out 2016 Presidential territory for himself; even this far in advance, I don’t see how the State of the Union Responses can do anything but reveal Senator Rubio eclipsing the heir to the Libertarian right in Congress.