Stories by Fred Bauer

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.  He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm.

GOP Picks the Wrong Spending Fight

May 16th, 2011 at 8:20 am 8 Comments

One might note within many ostensibly conservative discussions about the debt ceiling a strain that comes far more from Leon Trotsky than from Edmund Burke. One of the principal tenets of Burkean conservatism is the importance of avoiding Armageddon: crises are best held at arms’ length, and revolution should be the measure of last resort.

Not raising the debt ceiling now could very likely be Armageddon: it would immediately force the government to spend no more than it took in in taxes. In 2010, tax revenue covered not even 60% of federal spending, so over 40% of the federal budget would have to be cut NOW to make up for it. Unemployment benefits–ended. Air Force jets–grounded. You need heart surgery, grandma? Maybe next year.

Not raising the debt ceiling would not necessarily lead to defaulting on the debt: the US could still make its interest payments. However, some prominent Republicans are now suggesting that even defaulting on the debt wouldn’t be that bad. Since the election of George Washington, the federal government has never defaulted. Is it really worth throwing that legacy away to make a political point? Defaulting on the debt would very likely lead to higher interest rates and make the debts of private individuals as well as those of many governments even more onerous. An outright default could wreak havoc on the domestic and global financial systems.

Such an outcome could be a sure way to reduce the Republican party to the party of the 30% and make it radioactive for years to come.

And that political price would be by far the least problematic result of that scenario for allies of traditional liberty and conservatism. Deficit spending may perhaps be an important reason why we have not seen turmoil in the streets a la Greece, Egypt, and the waning days of the Roman republic. In terms of employment, this is the worst economy since the Great Depression. The social safety net is being strained in extraordinary ways, and the sudden cuts required by not raising the debt ceiling could be the equivalent of cutting it away. With those cuts to institutions that people have built their lives around (such as Social Security), a huge cross-section of this nation could erupt in rage.

Mob outrage is almost the polar opposite of classical American conservatism, and, if we did come to such public turmoil, there is no guarantee that the result would be a more economically free society.

One realizes that much of the debate over the debt ceiling is an exercise in partisan cynicism. Every Democrat opposed raising the debt ceiling in 2006, while almost every Republican (including the leading opponents of raising the debt ceiling) supported the raise in 2006. Meanwhile, almost every single House Republican has de facto pledged to raise the debt ceiling by voting for the Ryan budget, which gives us trillions of dollars in more debt over the next few years. House and Senate Republicans overwhelmingly backed nearly a trillion dollars in tax cuts and stimulus spending at the end of 2010. The premise of those tax cuts and stimulus spending was that they would push the economy along, even though those measures will, in the short term at least, add to the debt. By their votes, Congressional Republicans have declared that this nation can handle more debt.

The whole debate over raising the debt ceiling is also, in part, a game of chicken: Republicans want to force more spending concessions and potential entitlement “reforms” from Democrats. But something of the complexity of entitlement reform is perhaps the last thing that should be rushed; Republicans should not want entitlement reform to replicate Obamacare (and other measures), when Congress is voting on unread and uncomprehended bills.

Ironically for authentic opponents of debt, not raising the debt ceiling and defaulting on the debt could make the federal debt that much worse. One of the driving forces for federal debt over the past few years has been the poor economy: the economic slow-down, with its resulting decrease in tax revenue and encouragement of government spending on unemployment benefits and so forth, is probably the single biggest contributing factor to our current deficit. The poor economy is an immediate dagger aimed at the fiscal heart of this nation.

In order to keep from hitting the debt ceiling, Republican leaders may find it wise to offer their support for a relatively small increase of the debt ceiling (say a few hundred billion or even a trillion dollars). Classical conservatism teaches that, sometimes, if you can succeed in delaying a crisis enough, your prudence can ensure that there will be no crisis at all. Sometimes that strategy fails (witness the Civil War), but it can often succeed. And even if delay fails, sometimes that delay allows you time to gather your forces to help you cope with the eventual crisis; at least the Civil War didn’t happen until the Union was strong enough to weather such a war. Many of the trappings of the current federal government are sustainable, especially with modest long-term reforms. The long-term fiscal situation of the nation may be somewhat scary, but it can be improved. Kicking the can down the road isn’t always a bad thing, not if it gives you time to solve the problem. From a classical conservative perspective, inciting a crisis now in order to avoid a potential crisis in the future may be a bad trade.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

Can Mitt Move Beyond Romneycare?

May 11th, 2011 at 8:13 am 37 Comments

It’s perhaps hard not to feel some sympathy for the situation Mitt Romney has found himself in. By the close of the 2008 Republican primary, he was seen as the standard-bearer of conservatism, picking up the support of the likes of Ann Coulter and Jim DeMint. Yet now, he finds himself attacked as a lefty RINO and utter traitor to the conservative cause—for Romneycare, a measure he backed in 2006. Romney’s record as governor did not change from 2008 to 2011 (he stopped being governor in 2007), but the perception of the conservative commentariat has. Notoriously derided as a flip-flopper, Romney has now found that some in the right-leaning punditocracy have flip-flopped on him. And these attacks on Romney emphasize not merely how the partisan optics have changed since 2008, which they have, but often criticize his politics on a much deeper, ideological level.

The Massachusetts health-care law has become an albatross around the neck of the man who could maybe almost be the Republican front-runner. The passage of Obamacare made health-care reform a central litmus-test issue for grassroots conservatives. The fact that the Obama White House boasts of similarities between Romney’s reforms and Obamacare is not going to endear Republicans to Romney.

From the perspective of free-market conservatism, the reforms Romney sponsored have not been a resounding success. The rate of health-care uninsurance in the Bay State has dropped significantly, which is good (over 98% of the Commonwealth has health insurance). Wait times have potentially increased a little, though trends for longer delays for receiving care were in place before Romneycare passed. But costs are exploding. Romney’s Democratic successor, Deval Patrick, is now looking to create a regulatory infrastructure to control insurance rates (and thereby doctor pay) as a way of coping with these skyrocketing bills. With unchecked Democratic power in Massachusetts, further state control of health-care delivery may be only just around the corner. Unless further reforms are made, Romney’s health-care reform may prove to be quite the shot in the arm for private health-care in Massachusetts: a lethal injection.

So Romney’s big speech on Thursday may prove to be a necessary but also somewhat desperate gamble. Faced with the (perhaps unfair) public perception that he is an opportunist who will shift in whatever direction may benefit him the most, Romney seems to have decided that he cannot utterly repudiate the Massachusetts health-care law. The fact that he has spent so many years defending these reforms would give a repudiation now an especially high political price.

Either a total defense of Romneycare or a total repudiation of it could damage his image in the eyes of grassroots conservatives and potential swing voters. Successfully resolving the health-care issue could help scrape away some of the veneer of artificiality so many voters have doubts about while also burnishing his conservative bona fides. Here are some thoughts about what Romney might want to achieve politically in this address:

Make clear the distance from Obamacare: Romney may attack Obamacare as inefficient, destructive, problematic, and so forth, but he should particularly emphasize those features of it (such as the 50-state mandate) that differ from the Massachusetts reforms. Attacking Obamacare is bound to win applause from righties. But Romney’s attacks will ring hollow if he has not posed enough plausible distance between his policies in Massachusetts and those of Obama.

Build on the strengths of Romneycare: There are some positive, free-market features of the Massachusetts health-care law, which the Heritage Foundation praised. Romney could tout those.

Show technical expertise: The ability to maneuver through complex bureaucracies will be key for any potential Republican administration. Romney has a wealth of experience in running large organizations and a considerable proficiency with the details of policy. His speech on Thursday can showcase those skills. This speech doesn’t have to be—and probably shouldn’t be—a total wonkfest, but a suggestion of Romney’s wonky tendencies would play to his strengths as a credible, center-right technocrat.

Move the debate forward: This is perhaps the most important political objective for the speech. If Romneycare dominates his Republican primary narrative (including both his campaign and what is said about his campaign), Romney loses. Game over. In this speech, Romney needs to change the topic to present a forward-looking approach to federal health-care reform (which he looks likely to do). Romney knows that even the all-out repeal of Obamacare will not be enough for our nation’s health-care system, which does need reform. Moreover, every serious Republican candidate is probably going to talk about repealing Obamacare. By focusing on a specific set of policies for a way forward, Romney can distinguish his candidacy from the rest of the pack. For his political survival, Romney must make this campaign about the future.

Moreover, the right does need creative ways of trying to reform the health-care system to make it more affordable and efficient. Such a tangled web of government/non-profit/for profit institutions has been set up that any reform will have to be as careful as possible to avoid any drastic and unpleasant unintended consequences. By focusing on the future of health-care reform (both for the private market and for Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs), Romney can keep the past from sucking all the air out of present debates.

This could be a pivotal speech for Romney. If Romney can prove his viability on the health-care issue, he could start to solidify a core of support. If he cannot resolve the public perception of his health-care policies, he may find himself limping along and find the path to the nomination that much harder. Moments of testing can make or break a candidacy, and this may be one such moment.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

How Means Testing Social Security Could Backfire

April 13th, 2011 at 6:24 pm 12 Comments

Yuval Levin’s provocative essay on going “Beyond the Welfare State” offers the following prescription for a conservative re-thinking of entitlements:

Second, essentially all government benefits — including benefits for the elderly — should be means-tested so that those in greater need receive more help and those who are not needy do not become dependent on public support. Most retirees would still receive some public benefits (and the poorest could well get more than they do now), but the design of our welfare programs would avoid creating the misimpression that they are savings programs. People who are already retired or nearly so today should be exempted from such means-testing, as they have planned for decades around the existing system; Americans below 55 or so, however, should expect public help only if they are in need once they retire. Means-testing should, to the extent possible, be designed to avoid discouraging saving and work. And private retirement savings should be strongly encouraged and incentivized, so that people who have the means would build private nest eggs with less reliance on government.

Means-testing for entitlements for the elderly has been a notion recently gaining in popularity among some sectors of the right, but I think there is reason for some skepticism about means-testing all elderly entitlements, particularly Social Security.

One of the more dangerous aspects of Great Society-style welfare was its encouragement of unsustainable and deleterious behaviors. Welfare checks provided to single mothers were no doubt motivated by a worthy spirit of compassion, but those very same checks indirectly financed the breakdown of the urban family. Rather than ending misery, they often ended up subsidizing it. Unlike private charity, government subsidies can create a sense of entitlement that may undermine the behaviors necessary to support a government capable of providing such subsidies.

As it stands now, Social Security mostly avoids that trap. Whether you manage your resources well in retirement or manage them poorly, you receive the same check. Far from encouraging bad economic behavior, Social Security tends to reward good economic behavior: if you achieve success in the workplace and improve your salary, you also reap a higher Social Security check when you retire. But even if you struggle in the workplace, you still will collect some benefit to help you in your old age. In many respects, this is exactly how government should work from a conservative perspective: it rewards industry but also provides a safety net for the less fortunate.

Means-testing could utterly vitiate that structural tendency. Instead of rewarding a person for economic success over a career, means-testing for Social Security could penalize them for this success. Levin notes some of the challenges of means-testing when he says that means-testing “should, to the extent possible, be designed to avoid discouraging saving and work.” Yet I think it might be very hard to means-test Social Security so that it did not discourage saving and work.

If we means-tested Social Security based on the net-worth of a household, we would give the elderly little incentive to save. Say government offers the following choice: live close to the bone for years until you exhaust your savings and then get a Social Security benefit OR spend it extravagantly and then get that very same benefit. What choice would many people make? While elderly men and women are unlikely to start an explosion of illegitimacy (thankfully), subsidizing profligacy and discouraging prudence are rarely smart policies for a government; our current economic troubles are testament to the dangers of that course of action.

Means-testing on income could result in a significant lowering of the standard of living for the elderly. Right now, elderly Americans who have some level of health can work to supplement their Social Security income and so raise their standard of living. Means-testing could take that incentive away. The elderly could sit at home and collect that government check OR they could go out and work, with the dollars earned in the workplace eating into their government checks. Many people of an advanced age would find it hard to earn enough in the market in order to make more than their government-guaranteed income, so many elderly Americans might find Social Security checks the absolute limit for their income.

I suppose some of these doubts are predicated on my suspicion that Social Security is not driving any potential entitlement crisis. Currently around 4.8% of GDP, Social Security is scheduled to peak at around 6.1% of GDP and stay around there for as far as federal actuarial accounting can see. That is a manageable number and a manageable increase. Many deficits the program may face could be eliminated by making a few relatively minor changes to the program (such as raising the cap on taxable income). Compared to something like Medicare, Social Security is very sustainable.

Granted, some of these objections could be worked around, but fiddling with Social Security is a dangerous business, and not only from a short-term electoral perspective. Compared to many government programs (including many means-tested ones), Social Security provides a social insurance safety net of equity while also encouraging individual initiative and prudence. Those advantages should not be overlooked.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

For GOP Nominee: 2012 Win Won’t be Enough

March 25th, 2011 at 6:45 pm 28 Comments

Any Republican contemplating running for president in 2012 has two formidable obstacles: November 2012 and what happens starting January 2013.

For the first obstacle: Republicans should not underestimate Barack Obama. He’s a vicious political fighter who seems to get a thrill from the campaign for power. His political team proved itself a master of media narratives in 2008, and many in the media will be willing to give Obama an assist against any Republican opponent. The president has already somewhat turned around his poll numbers from the nadir of November 2010; Republicans should keep an eye on that trend continuing. Moreover, recent polling shows him with a significant lead over a generic Republican in 2012.

Obama’s approval rating may still be under 50%, but Republicans would be premature in expecting a cakewalk in 2012. One of the big lessons of 2010 is that candidate quality does matter. There were numerous statewide races in 2010 that, by many metrics, Republicans should have won–but ended up going Democratic. If a Republican candidate cannot close the deal with voters, Barack Obama could end up being reelected, even with a sub-par economy and middling approval ratings.

If a Republican does win the presidency in 2012, he or she will have a host of problems to face. A Republican president in 2013 would likely inherit the longest-running economic stagnation since the Great Depression. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have witnessed a massive expansion of the federal government; if a Republican president is serious about paring this government back, a lot of work lies ahead.

In the past, I’ve suggested some avenues for a rethinking of Republican policies, and what follows are some thoughts (in no particular order) about qualities a Republican candidate should possess, for both a successful campaign and a successful administration.

Articulate a vision. John McCain struggled to articulate a comprehensive vision for his campaign or a McCain presidency, a weakness Obama eagerly exploited. The “vision thing” is often crucial for successful presidential campaigns. This vision may not be enough (see Goldwater, Barry), but it is important, especially if a president wishes to build a longer-reaching legacy. There’s a fine line between a vision and a mere slogan, and it was not always clear on what side of the line George W. Bush’s notion of “compassionate conservatism” stood. Still, Bush was able to conjure some kind of purpose to his campaign. A successful Republican candidate in 2012 will have to do the same thing.

Take on the map. A candidate who has to reach for the “Bush” states is probably a candidate the party would be better passing by. Yes, a candidate could win with those states in the end, but those states should more be viewed as a last-ditch firewall than a goal. And it’s worth noting how fragile the Bush coalition of the 2000s was: the loss of one closely contested state (Florida in 2000, Ohio in 2004) would have cost Bush the White House. One of Obama’s greatest electoral strengths in 2008 was his ability to open up the map for Democrats; this led to an Electoral College victory greater than any Republican has enjoyed since George HW Bush in 1988. The actual contours of the new GOP coalition might vary depending on the eventual candidate. But there’s no reason to write off states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oregon, Minnesota, or Wisconsin. Some of these states recently elected a Republican senator in 2010. And the GOP also needs to keep its eye on states Bush barely won (or didn’t even win in both elections): New Hampshire, New Mexico, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada, to name a few.

Lower the temperature of social issues. This is not the same thing as surrendering on social issues. Social conservatives are a key part of the Republican coalition; many socially conservative positions are among the more popular parts of the GOP platform. Moreover, there is, I think, an often undervalued theoretical affinity between social conservatism and fiscal conservatism. But one can argue for socially conservative positions without sneering at those who disagree with them. Dualisms like “Heartland Real Americans” vs. “Coastal Elitists/Fake Americans” (or suggestions that Republicans don’t deserve the freedoms of the Constitution) are probably better left behind. A game-changing Republican presidential candidate will need to be able to show that he or she respects the views of a variety of other Americans, even if he or she doesn’t always agree with them.

Remember managerial competence. Unfortunately, the challenges that face this nation cannot be dissolved with a few easy votes or executive orders. Repealing Obamacare will not be enough to stabilize the nation’s healthcare system; cutting earmarks will not restore the nation’s fiscal health. In order to be successful, a Republican president has to have the ability to recognize and promote competent bureaucrats. The White House must be part of the “reality-based” community if it is to succeed.

Be willing to experiment. Government policy is often less about blind obedience to absolutes and more about being able to muddle through. Contrary to the wishes of some, the president–even at the peak of power–does not have a totally free hand to write policy. Various Congressional factions, public interests, and bureaucratic inertia all shape policy. Moreover, many policies can lead to effects completely unanticipated by their designers. All these facts will require an administration to be fluid, resourceful, and flexible. It’s worth noting, though, that flexibility in means need not require an empty faith in political ends. One can still have deep principles and be flexible in applying them.

Fight the big battles, even if they cause you to lose the small ones. Barack Obama did not win every news cycle as a candidate in either the primary election or the general. Yet some of these daily losses led to his overall victory. Consider, for example, the flap about his willingness to meet with the leaders of countries like North Korea and Iran without preconditions during the primary battle of 2007/2008. The Clinton people hit Obama hard on this, and he endured some rocky coverage in the media, but this admission also illustrated Obama’s break with some of the rhetorical tendencies of the Democratic past, at least during that part of the campaign. This break in turn helped solidify his image as the “change” candidate in a cycle in which “change” was very hot. A candidate, Republican or Democrat, must be willing to take the heat of taking a strong stand at times. This willingness to face criticism can strengthen the image of a candidate’s inner fortitude and also can allow the candidate to push the parameters of public debate.

The political pendulum has swung fairly wildly from one party to the next in recent years. It remains to be seen how much the Republicans will be able to make good on their significant gains in 2010 for the presidential race in 2012. There is the real possibility of a major victory in November of next year, but there is also the possibility of a major disappointment–in that month and in the months after it. The GOP currently has the benefit of a wide-open field, and Republicans should welcome this opportunity for debate, trial, and exploration.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

What’s at Stake
in Wisconsin’s
Budget Fight

February 20th, 2011 at 2:17 am 60 Comments

The Wisconsin budget battle is really not about today or tomorrow but the day after tomorrow; it is far less about helping the state make up for a projected $137 million budget deficit than it is about changing the role that public unions play.

This budget shortfall was not unexpected. Indeed, Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, has pushed for policies that, in the short term at least, have exacerbated the state’s deficit. Walker and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin state legislature passed in January $117 million (over the next two and a half years) in tax breaks for businesses and health savings accounts. Part of the budget deficit is really the story of transferring some state subsidies from public employees to private businesses. That transference may be good or it may be bad, but it is a key detail of this battle.

Moreover, it seems as though union leaders are open to accepting Walker’s demands that members contribute 5.8% of their incomes towards their public pensions and at least 12.6% of their incomes towards health-care plans. This increased contribution would be a de facto pay cut for union members (for example, University of Wisconsin union members could see a 8-15% pay cut). Union leaders have suggested that they would be willing to make these concessions. If this battle were just about the upcoming deficit, it would be over.

But it isn’t. There’s one concession that unions are not willing to make: surrender their collective bargaining power. Walker’s proposal would deny most unions the ability to collectively bargain for anything more than salary (and even that would be limited); Walker’s proposal excepts from these collective bargaining rules his political allies in the police and firefighters unions. His proposal also puts up additional hurdles for unions to maintain their union status. These measures set the stage for a long-term structural change.

Consider education. The elimination of union collective bargaining could open up the door for destroying tenure, limitations on teaching load, pay for extracurricular activities, limits on working hours, and state funding for continuing the education of teachers. The end of collective bargaining could also help undermine public employee pension funds.

Scott Walker has borrowed a page from Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel and is not letting a crisis go to waste. As with Obama, the most contentious part of Walker’s proposals (collective bargaining) serves a far more structural purpose than a short-term one.

(A couple other structural notes: At a time when private sector employment is stagnating and wages shrinking, public workers are not going to be able to defend ever-increasing wages and benefits for themselves. Also, many public unions made the choice to full-throatedly back Democrats, which has limited their leverage over Republicans. With Republicans newly empowered in state legislatures across the country, the hands of public unions are significantly weakened. These unions could be paying a price for their partisanship.)

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm

Want to Cut the Deficit? Jump Start Job Growth

February 16th, 2011 at 12:09 am 41 Comments

After having backed a $800+ billion tax-cut/stimulus package last December, House Republicans are now looking for ways to trim $100 billion from the federal budget. The new wonky cocktail party comment on the battle over Obama’s new budget is that non-defense discretionary spending was merely 15% of the 2010 budget. Defense spending came out at about 20% and interest payments on the ballooning national debt were about 5%. The rest of the budget came from “mandatory” programs. Last year’s deficit was about 40% of the federal budget, so, even if we were to reduce all discretionary spending to zero, we would still have a considerable deficit. Even reducing defense spending to zero might not erase the deficit.

So “mandatory” spending is the only thing left on the chopping block. The left likes to appeal to this “mandatory” spending as a device for arguing that taxes should be raised; the right likes to appeal to this “mandatory” spending percentage as an excuse for “entitlement reform.” Both views may have some substance.

But what is “mandatory” spending? Despite what some media reports or pundits may imply, it’s not just Social Security or Medicare. While both are part of “mandatory spending,” plenty of other measures are as well. Indeed, if there will be an “entitlement crisis” for Social Security or Medicare, we probably haven’t even hit it yet.

Many of these outstanding “mandatory” costs over the past few years can directly be traced to the nation’s poor employment picture. Even the Obama administration forecasts the unemployment rate for 2012 to be 8.6%. That would mean nearly four years (at least) with an unemployment rate above 8%. We have not seen that continuously high level of unemployment since the end of World War II. With the government safety net bearing more weight than it has in decades, it’s no wonder that it is straining.

According to the Heritage Foundation, government spending on unemployment benefits jumped from about 30 billion in 2010 dollars in 2000 to about 194 billion in 2010. And unemployment benefits are only part of the picture. Section 8 housing benefits would grow 7.5% for the next year under the Obama budget proposal, from $26.6 billion to $28.6 billion. Food stamps spending would grow from $68 billion to $80 billion. Spending for all these measures has been fed by economic stagnation.

This increase in unemployment has also hit tax receipts. Government revenue fell from a high of 2.7 trillion (in 2010 dollars) in 2007 to 2.1 trillion in 2010. If tax receipts reached 2007′s levels, we would cut $600 billion from the deficit. A drop in the need for unemployment assistance could easily cut federal spending by at least $150 billion. That’s already about half of last year’s deficit taken care of without making a single cut to any program. (And those figures do not take into account other areas where unemployment has increased federal spending.)

The fastest, politically easiest way to reduce the deficit would be to restore the health of the labor market (which might be the same thing as saying that the fastest, easiest way to reduce the deficit would be to rub a lamp until a genie come out). This is not to say that there is not a cloud in the fiscal future of Medicare or Social Security, or that there is not waste in federal expenditures, or that making certain budget cuts would be a bad idea, or that taxes should not go up (it’s worth noting that we have had nowhere near a balanced budget since the Bush tax cuts passed). This is not even to say that there are no hard choices that face us in dealing with mounting debts. But the focus should be less on trying to shave off a billion here or there and more on getting the nation’s economic house in order so that it can get its fiscal house in order.

For the past few years, if not the past decade, the US has been in a period of economic stagnation. If the unemployment rate continues to hover around 9% and tax receipts do not go up through increased taxes, expect either more debt or a radically diminished standard of living or perhaps both. The government has been able to mask some of the effects of this stagnation through increased subsidies to the unemployed. We are borrowing to pay for that mask now. Perhaps the best strategy for the nation’s immediate fiscal future would be to make that mask unnecessary.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

What’s at Stake in the Filibuster Fight

January 4th, 2011 at 1:35 pm 8 Comments

Frustrated by the fact that Republicans were able to use the filibuster to block or temper numerous “progressive” power grabs during the first two years of the Obama administration, Senate Democrats, led by Tom Udall (NM), seem to be making a determined play to modify the filibuster. Meanwhile, Harry Reid is in negotiations with the Republican Senate leadership about some kind of compromise or deal about the filibuster. Brian Beutler at TPM has done some excellent reporting on this, though there is still much uncertainty about the actual movements. In 1975, Democrats changed the filibuster rules by using the controversial strategy of invoking the “Constitutional option,” one Udall and friends seem inclined to use when the Senate reconvenes later this week. This “option” would find that the Senate could modify its rules (including the filibuster) by a bare majority vote on the first day of the Congress. Normally, it takes 2/3 of the Senate to change the rules. Ironically, the reform of 1975, by requiring a 3/5 vote of the whole Senate to override a filibuster, actually made the filibuster stronger and helped it become more common.

Filibuster reformers have a few different options. Perhaps one of the more striking ones is requiring 41 votes to sustain a filibuster. As Beutler explains,

Here’s how they propose to change that. Under this plan, if 41 or more senators voted against the cloture motion to end debate, “then you would go into a period of extended debate, and dilatory motions would not be allowed,” Udall explained.

As long as a member is on hand to keep talking, that period of debate continues. But if they lapse, it’s over — cloture is invoked and, eventually, the issue gets an up-or-down majority vote.

This change would offer a radical shift in the burden of the filibuster, transferring it from the majority to the minority. There is something to be said for this reversal, but making the filibuster threshold 41 votes (instead of, say, one-third of the senators voting) would be a great weakening of the power of the minority.

Furthermore, Udall’s plan may provide a further weakening of the filibuster in that it seems to suggest that cloture never needs to be successfully invoked for a majority to override the minority; it only needs to wait that minority out. So 51 votes (or even fewer) could have greater power in the Senate.

Udall has a number of proposals floating around, but all have the same goal: weakening the power of the minority. Democrats have a smaller majority in 2011 than they did in 1975, but the caucus is also much more under the thrall of a “progressive” ideology as well. One of the key tenets of many self-styled “progressives” from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama is the importance of centralizing power. A bicameral legislature helps check this centralization, and the filibuster, by stressing the need for bipartisanship, further exasperates “progressives” eager to have government by monolithic ideology.

Some Republicans may think that, with the GOP controlling the House, the party would be insulated from any diminution of the filibuster—and that 2012 will bring Republicans to power in the Senate and the White House, so a weakening of the filibuster now would set the stage for a conservative empowerment shortly in the future.

This would be an incredibly short-sighted assumption. According to the conventional Washington narrative, Barack Obama went from being politically untouchable to being a political Untouchable in under two years. There’s no reason to think that that process can’t be reversed. It would be a foolish thing indeed to underestimate Obama’s political strength.

There are deeper structural issues at play as well. Republicans and Democrats will both have their time in the minority. Partisan alienation is never in short supply in our republic, and the traditions of the Senate that limit the power of smaller majorities help build a bipartisan consensus. Checks on small majorities (and that’s what the filibuster is, in part) incentivize cooperation and help keep the federal government from dissolving into wild swings as one temporary majority flips into another.

In the days ahead, a few questions remain. Perhaps the most prominent of them: Are the Democrats really serious about “reforming” the filibuster? True, Senate Democrats have almost unanimously signed off on a letter asking for some procedural changes in the next Congress, but there’s a lot of vagueness in that desire for change. While “progressive” netrooters salivate over ending the filibuster, numerous Senate Democrats approach this issue more as practical politicians and less as ideologues. Senators know that the filibuster can be a valuable tool when they are in the minority, and have an interest in keeping that tool. Democrats might be able to herald as a great victory some weakening of the (sometimes abused) power of anonymous holds. They might put on a good show of Senatorial kabuki, rile up activists, and leave things pretty much the way they are.

Or they might decide to make a real move against the filibuster. Republicans should fight any radical assaults upon the power of the minority. Under the current Democratic gameplan for attacking the filibuster, there are a lot of delays that Republicans can use to rally popular support in defense of the rights of the minority and the spirit of compromise. The “opening day” could presumably take “weeks” as Republicans demand debate on rules changes.

Moreover, this debate about Senate rules could put a hold of the Senate’s business. As a memo from one of Beutler’s sources states,

Reform Senators would need to object to any attempt to transact substantive business or seek a unanimous consent request to that effect. The objective is to ensure that the reformers do not waive any rights to amend Senate rules on opening day by majority vote.

The GOP could use this tactic to its advantage. After all, the Obama administration does have a number of pressing issues, especially the raising of the debt ceiling. How much patience will the public have with a seemingly unchastened Democratic party attempting to arrogate more power to itself instead of doing the nation’s business?

Having experienced a substantial setback in 2010, “progressives” are trying to reach for more power and undo checks on the power of future “progressive” forces. It remains to be seen whether Republicans and moderate-minded Democrats will allow them to succeed.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

O’Donnell’s Epic Ad Fail

November 2nd, 2010 at 12:57 am 7 Comments

I’ve been in contact with a source closely involved with Comcast Channel 28 who has given a fairly detailed timeline of the events about the Christine O’Donnell ad problems. A key detail about this story is that the company that O’Donnell contracted with to broadcast the ad (Positive Promotions) only supplies content to Channel 28; it does not have full control of the broadcasting technology. That will have important ramifications below.

So here’s the timeline:

Afternoon of Friday, October 29: Station is told to expect O’Donnell epic ad by 5:30 that day.

5:00 pm Friday: Station employees are told that they will not be receiving the epic ad until Saturday at 2.

Saturday: 3 ads and a 2-minute piece are delivered (which are available on the TV station website), but no epic ad.

Sunday: Told that epic ad would be done by 2 pm on Sunday.

9 pm Sunday: Epic ad is delivered. But it needs to be converted.

10:30 pm Sunday: Ad ready for broadcast. But it needs to be taken to the Comcast studio. Here’s where it runs into some serious problems. As the source relates:

…the employees running the show at Comcast do not have the time to take a show that arrives that close to airing with what they are already busy doing on Sunday nights. I believe there was a live taping at 11pm. The program needs to be loaded into the automated system, before it airs. The employees leave at or before midnight, and they are not legally obligated to [Positive Promotions] to load a program into the system before they leave. In fact, it is my understanding that programs should arrive 48 hours prior to airing, but they usually make exceptions for [Positive Promotions], but right before airing and before they want to leave is not one of them.

The source also relates that the Comcast studio employees do not begin to work until 3 pm on Monday, which explains why the Monday morning broadcast did not go forward (since the program wasn’t in the system, it couldn’t be broadcast).

The source emphasizes the O’Donnell people were warned about the consequences about submitting the epic ad late. The source also suggests that Positive Promotions was not required to post the shorter ads on their website but did so as an act of goodwill.

Based on this timeline (which no O’Donnell person has yet challenged), it would seem hard to accuse the employees of Positive Promotions of any grave misdeed or sinister conspiracy to destroy Christine O’Donnell. Of course, if anyone has any information to the contrary, they are welcome to come forward.

O’Donnell’s people now seem to be trying to smooth things over with Channel 28, which is now airing the epic ad.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

How the Right Came Back to Life

October 26th, 2010 at 9:20 am 19 Comments

This is the first in a series, order click here for part 2 and part 3.

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama took the office of president with, it seemed, the wind of history at his back. Winning a higher percentage of the popular vote than any Democrat had in over forty years, he brought with him huge majorities in the Senate and the House. He seemed to come as a standard bearer for a new generation in politics. Analysts far and wide spoke of a new era of Democratic dominance; a political sea change had occurred.

Not even two years later, whispers and proclamations of a failed presidency abound. A new age of hope sank into a swamp of acrimony, alienation, and anger. Hyperbole has swung the other way, as some now talk of a doomed Democratic agenda and new era of Republican dominance. A movement has semi-spontaneously sprung to life in radical opposition to the current “progressive” agenda and in considerable suspicion of the purportedly “moderate” Republican establishment. The end of 2008, with the economy teetering on the precipice, seemed a tidal wave of public frustration, but the wrath of the present time makes that wave seem like the tiniest ripple.

How did this happen? How have we come to the third “wave” election in a row? Democrats argue that the glum economic situation has brought Obama and his congressional allies to this point; Republicans aver that Americans have decisively rejected the Democratic party and the big government consensus. Both views are probably too glib. The Democratic argument is too reductive, and the Republican argument glosses over the very mixed feelings many Americans have about numerous Republican (and conservative) small-government policies.

In what follows, I hope to explore the road to 2010. This road goes back farther than January 2009. Many of the dynamics felt in this electoral cycle have being nourished for years. Economics, political rivalries, and cultural antagonisms have all come together in this road. The observations that follow are tentative: they make no claim to exclusivity or theoretical absolutism. But they do offer one sketch of the path to November 2.

The Resurgent Right

By 2009, the wrath of many years of suffocation had grown on the right. Though many conservatives supported the President Bush’s record in foreign affairs, they had numerous misgivings about his domestic record. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was never calculated to appeal to members of the small-government right. This faction was willing to go along with the president for electoral purposes (feeling that Bush would have been far preferable to either Gore or Kerry), but they never felt a deep devotion to Bush’s domestic agenda.

It seems that, for many members of the right, the two most celebrated positive domestic accomplishments of the Bush administration were his tax cuts and his nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. That’s relatively thin gruel for fans of small government when the president is radically expanding the federal government’s intervention in the education system, shooting the deficit through the roof, and otherwise putting forward a case for an activist, “compassionate” federal government. The gruel is thinned even more by the fact that Bush nominated Alito to the Supreme Court only after a grassroots revolt over his first choice for that seat, Harriet Miers.

Electoral politics placed a gag about certain topics on this faction of the right, which seemed to devote more energy to mocking John Kerry in 2004 than defending the total domestic record of President Bush. This gag was partially removed in the wake of 2006, when Congressional losses allowed these members of the right to excoriate the Republican party for its failings. And Bush’s attempt to push through some kind of immigration “reform” in 2007 offered one outlet for conservatives to express their dissatisfaction with an increasingly unpopular president.

2008, however, led to a reimposition of this gag. John McCain may have pivoted to the right, but he wasn’t exactly a leading proponent of a small-government message. For reasons of personal temperament and political policy, McCain was unable to offer a significantly contrasting vision to Barack Obama’s conjuring of an active, redemptive federal government. McCain may have had one-liners and certain facts on his side, but he was unable to find a message that galvanized the right (or the rest of the country). Other than a few partisans on the left, most agreed that he was an honorable man, but personal honor is not always enough to guarantee an electoral victory, let alone a philosophical one.

Again, the small-government right went along, defending a man who was no great ally of its cause against a man who seemed an outright opponent of it. Many right-leaning pundits seemed far more to fear an Obama victory than to desire a McCain win. This mood not only was a sign that McCain’s role in the 2008 campaign was primarily a reactive one; it also led to the outpouring of conservative anger in 2009.

At last, with Barack Obama inaugurated, the small-government right no longer needed to defend any incumbent federal power structure. The resentments that had been simmering for years and years could finally break into a boil.

This anger was helped by the fact that the man coming into office in January 2009 was the proponent of a more radically expansive government than had been seen in decades.

More to come…

Originally posted at A Certain Enthusiasm.

GOP Buckles Down in Close Races

October 14th, 2010 at 3:15 pm Comments Off

Here are some possible GOP-takeover House races which are very tight:

MI-01: Dan Benishek (in the race to replace Bart Stupak):

Benishek leads state Rep. Gary McDowell, D-Rudyard, 42 percent to 39 percent, in a survey of 404 likely voters released by Washington-insider newspaper The Hill. The 3 percentage point lead is within the 4.9 percent margin of error, and shows a significant shift from early post-primary internal polling in the district, which showed Benishek with double-digit advantages.

Benishek’s running hard against Obamacare.

NY-19: Nan Hayworth:

Republican challenger Nan Hayworth leads two-term Democratic Rep. John Hall by three points — 46 percent to 43 percent — among 610 likely voters, Siena found.

Hayworth’s lead fell within the poll’s margin of error (plus or minus four percentage points), making the race a dead heat.

That’s consistent with forecasts by independent political handicappers such as the Cook Political Report that rate the race a tossup.

Analysts expect the GOP to pick up at least a few seats in New York. With a little effort, this seat could be one of those pick-ups.

PA-07: Pat Meehan (for Joe Sestak’s House seat):

The race between Republican former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan and Democratic state Rep. Bryan Lentz is essentially tied, says today’s The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll, which has Meehan leading Lentz by a single percentage point, 40-39. They’re running to replace outgoing Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.

The survey of 405 likely voters was conducted between Oct. 2 and Oct. 7. Meehan’s edge is well within the poll’s margin of error of 4.9 percent.

One percent of respondents said they would vote for another candidate, and 20 percent said they were undecided. The only other candidate in the race is Jim Schneller, a conservative independent who was placed on the ballot with the help of Lentz’s allies, including one of his top campaign workers.

Democrats look like they were hoping to split the right’s vote. That’s not a sign of great confidence in their candidate. The fact that 20% are undecided probably helps Meehan more than Lentz, but it suggests that this race isn’t over yet.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.