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Stories by Fred Bauer

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

Why the Filibuster is Here to Stay

July 30th, 2010 at 6:30 am 8 Comments

This Hill story on fractured Democratic opposition to the filibuster reveals that many Democrats (of all ideological stripes) are defenders of this senatorial prerogative; at least ten members of the 59-member caucus are willing to express public reservations about allowing 51 votes to rule the Senate absolutely. Considering how hostile many “progressive” activists and commentators are to the filibuster, it would not be surprising to find that other members of the Democratic caucus are secret sympathizers to the filibuster, which protects minority rights in the Senate and helps ensure that a temporary narrow majority cannot steamroll all opposition. Many Democrats praised the filibuster during the Bush years and were able to use it to ward off Bush administration proposals.

But there’s more to this story about the filibuster. Even if opponents of the filibuster do not have the votes to kill it, they believe that they have much to gain by threatening to kill it. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) are among the leaders of a movement to destroy the filibuster with a so-called “constitutional option,” a movement talked up by Ezra Klein. Here’s the potential game plan for the exercise of this “option”:

If Vice President Joe Biden — who has spoken out against abuse of the filibuster and has been studying ways to reform it — were to rule on the first day of the next session that the Senate has the authority to write its own rules, Republicans would immediately move to object. Democrats would then move to table the objection, setting up the key vote. If 50 Democrats voted to table the objection, the Senate would then move to a vote on a new set of rules, which would be approved by a simple majority.

The simple act of holding the vote would have a therapeutic effect on the Senate even if it fails, said Udall, as it would inspire fear that abuse of the rules could lead to their destruction.

The point here is not that opponents of the filibuster believe that they can succeed; they only need to appear to believe that they can succeed. This appearance of success could intimidate believers in the filibuster to try to cut a deal to save the procedure.

Of course, the use of this option could easily open Democrats up to this narrative: having taken a beating in the 2010 Senate races, Democrats now change the rules to make it easier for them to pass legislation. Assuming that the midterms do result in significant gains for the Republicans (not exactly a ludicrous assumption), the public momentum would seem to be against the Democrats. This kind of rule-changing could easily seem a desperate move to grab as much power as possible in the waning days of “progressive” ascendancy.

While many “progressives” would be glad to push through the most radical measures possible on a 51-vote margin (or maybe even a margin of 50-50 plus tie-breaking vote by the VP), many Americans hold a contrary view that, if a measure can’t achieve broad bipartisan support, maybe it really isn’t that moderate and that maybe moderation is, after all, a good thing. And many of the bills the Democrats most blame the filibuster for blocking are quite unpopular. Many voters might not see the filibuster as frustrating but as defending popular sentiment.

Because the filibuster protects the minority — no matter who this minority is — it provides many advantages to a senator over the long term. Yeah, it might frustrate a few measures, but sometimes that partial frustration is a building block for good governance (see checks and balances). Defenders of the filibuster should not lose heart—and certainly should not roll over for some blustering political intimidation.


Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

Making Government Smarter

July 23rd, 2010 at 12:43 pm 16 Comments

While Americans maintain a healthy skepticism about the size of a centralized federal government, order they also have aspirations for this government. The eternal grousing about governmental waste and incompetence is an indirect proof of these aspirations; they complain because they expect, diagnosis or at least wish, their government to be effective. Because the United States is a democratic republic, many Americans look upon the federal government as one vehicle for achieving their ends of happiness.

It is a fact of politics that public opinion about the individual leaders of a given political movement shapes public opinion about the principles of that movement. Since the public is deeply alienated by administrative incompetence, it is important, as a matter of practice and of holding power, for the leadership of this movement to be competent—and not merely competent in winning elections, but competent in governing. The seeds of many an electoral defeat are sown by an incumbent’s very own policies.

There are two important components of competence in government: knowing the effects of various policies and being able to respond appropriately in moments of crisis. While the world is complex enough that we cannot know all the implications of a given policy (this complexity is a strong argument for a skepticism about top-down masterplans), being able to evaluate the broad or immediate effects of a policy is key for successful government. So many policy debates are questions of agency—which policy details will most effectively achieve our ends? For example, if we’re looking to stimulate the economy, what is the best way to do that—through government spending programs, payroll tax holidays, targeted subsidies, etc.?

Despite what some technocrats may wish, politics is not solely about debating the best way to achieve certain aims. It is also about discussing what ends are worth achieving and what limits we should place on ourselves in order to achieve these ends. But knowing how our actions will affect our search for our chosen ends is a key component of achieving these ends. It can be said that many of the negative results of the policies of the Bush administration (excesses and shortcomings in Iraq after the fall of Saddam, the financial crisis, the buffeting of the middle class) were not sought for, but these policy failures did not bode well for the Republican party or for small-government thinking.

The ability to respond well in moments of crisis may seem merely a specialized application of a general sense of competence, yet, in politics and as much else, making the transition from general theory to practical application can be a considerable jump. Responding effectively to a crisis places especial weight upon the ability to make use of civic powers with speed and insight. This response involves projecting a complex and partially unstable mix of calmness, energy, passion, and technical skill. Leadership at moments of crisis can make a president or break him. The contrast between the performances of President Bush on 9/11 and during the aftermath of Katrina in 2005 is instructive in this regard. The first elevated his presidency; the second hardened narratives about administrative incompetence and helped cripple his second term. President Obama’s response to the oil spill in the Gulf has undercut his narrative of effectiveness and has no doubt not helped his poll numbers.

Crisis places particular burdens upon the structure of an administration’s decision-making process. Can an administration succeed in getting a diversity of expert opinions? Can it then succeed in synthesizing these opinions in a workable action plan? Does it have appropriate figures in the chain of decision making, linking the Oval Office to boots on the ground? Can it shape a media narrative of adversity and effective response rather than one of incompetence and back-pedaling?

It is easy to dismiss questions of administrative competence in the face of ideological demands. But, on balance, it is probably better to have serving in office those who broadly agree with certain political principles and are competent legislators/administrators/etc. than to have those who can tick off all the key points of dogma without any sense of how to get things done—in Washington, in state capitals, or in local offices. The fact of the matter is that the United States has a huge and complex federal government; state governments are also huge and complex. Skill and probity in running this government serve as key political qualifiers.

Good government and small government can be complementary. Ronald Reagan did not only come into Washington pledging to cut the size of government; he also came to restore the faith of Americans in the capacity of the federal government to work, to be managed, and to manage. While some may pose a theoretical opposition between the aim of small government and that of effective government, in practice the two aims often reinforce each other. A government that seems efficient does not need to arrogate more powers to itself. Confidence in American institutions so often leads to increased confidence in the action of one’s fellow Americans (and vice versa), a confidence that is key to maintaining an authentically liberal society.

Governmental efficiency and decentralization complement each other in another way. Often, decentralization is itself the most efficient way to run a government. The flexibility that decentralization brings can, in many circumstances, allow an institution or a set of institutions to respond more effectively to on-the-ground facts.

The details of government matter; politics is about means as well as ends. As the GOP seeks to regain power in 2010 and beyond, competence in administration and in legislative design will be key for both electoral and governmental success.


Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm

Why Obama Loses Even When He Wins

July 16th, 2010 at 2:02 pm 21 Comments

This Politico piece by John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei contains some interesting moments in the midst of a more conflicted analysis. Perhaps one of the loudest notes of a process-obsession can be seen in the following two paragraphs:

‘I tell you, it’s very frustrating that it’s not breaking through, when you look at these things and their scale,’ said a top Obama adviser, who spoke on background to offer a candid take on the state of play. ‘Can you imagine if Bill Clinton had achieved even one of these? Part of it is because we are divided, even on the left… And part of it is the culture of immediate gratification.’

But there are many other reasons for Obama’s woes. Based on interviews with officials in the administration and on Capitol Hill, and with Democratic operatives around town, here are a half-dozen reasons why Obama is perceived as failing to win over the public, even though by most conventional measures he is clearly succeeding…

The words of this Obama adviser may be a sign that the rhetoric of historical “achievement” and scale is more than merely a talking point for the Obama administration: they may actually believe that radical change is, in and of itself, a good thing.

Politics is, alas, more complicated than merely getting what you want, and getting the policies that you desire is no guarantee of a successful presidency. Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon got things done, but how many people would call these three men successful presidents?

Whether you are succeeding by the conventional standards of the Beltway does not necessarily have that much to do with actual political and electoral success. And the results of Obama’s policies cannot be adjudicated by the opinions of the DC cognoscenti: reality is there, and the voters will eventually encounter it.

The voters have seen, for example, that the Obama administration’s economic model for the stimulus was wildly inaccurate. According to this model, unemployment would be kept under 8% with the stimulus. The unemployment rate has stayed well above 8%. Obama staked massive political capital on this stimulus bill and rammed through a bill with close to no Republican support.

Democrats–on the stimulus, on healthcare, and on other topics–chose to turn their backs on bipartisanship and their plans have not delivered. Is it any wonder that independents are abandoning the administration?

Obama was able to pass his healthcare reform package over massive public opposition, which is a substantive legislative accomplishment. However, the partisanship, double-talking, and legislative hardball involved in passing healthcare reform have made the passage seem less a victory for the republic and more a triumph of cynicism and ideology.

The title of Harris and VandeHei’s piece is appropriate: “Why Obama Loses by Winning.” Thus far, Obama has been able to chalk up a number of legislative wins, but the substance of these wins may undermine the electoral future of Congressional Democrats and, potentially, the Obama administration. In politics, as elsewhere in life, you might at first enjoy getting what you want, but, if you don’t want the right things, you may end up regretting your achievements.


Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm

Burr Faces Tough Fight

July 14th, 2010 at 4:44 pm 2 Comments

North Carolina Senator Richard Burr is often listed as one of the most vulnerable Republican Senate incumbents. Unfortunately for Burr, recent polling underlines the danger he could be in.

While he does lead his Democratic opponent, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, by ten points, a 46-36 race isn’t exactly comfortable territory for an incumbent. Burr’s 28/27 favorable/unfavorable rating isn’t great news, either. Marshall has a 25/12 rating. She is a lower profile figure right now, so public opinion could change once the race heats up.

The example of 2008 might only stoke the anxieties of Burr supporters even more. Incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole led her Democratic challenger Kay Hagan in the beginning of 2008, but she never got much above 50%. By the end of the summer, Hagan had gained a lead, and she ended up ousting Dole 52-44.

Burr has a number of advantages going into this race: money, the Democratic Congress, and Barack Obama. He maintains a healthy fund-raising lead over Marshall, and the voters of North Carolina are exasperated with the performance of Congress and the president. Only 36% approve of Obama’s performance; 45% disapprove. If Burr can make the case that a vote for Marshall is a vote for the current powers-that-be on Capitol Hill and in the White House, he could end up with a strong win.

A warning to Burr, though: don’t get too negative. The viciousness of Dole’s attack ads on Hagan may have helped boost Hagan’s support in the closing days of 2008. The types of voters that Burr needs the most to improve his image with (women, self-described moderates, independents) are perhaps the ones most likely to be turned off by over-the-top attack ads. Burr will need to walk a fine line between rousing his own supporters while winning over voters in the middle.

This is a race Republicans can win. A loss by Burr would be crushing to Republican hopes of regaining the Senate. The political environment of 2010 is not that of 2008. If Burr can make the most of this change, he can look forward to another six years in the Senate.


Originally posted at A Certain Enthusiasm.

Byrd’s Seat Up For Grabs

July 12th, 2010 at 4:06 pm 4 Comments

There seems to be a slightly growing underground sentiment that it is not worth running a serious Republican candidate against likely Democratic candidate Gov. Joe Manchin in the likely special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Robert Byrd. A Rasmussen poll showing Manchin leading Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) 53-39 would seem, according to this sentiment, to be proof of the folly of running against Manchin.

It seems to me that it would be a considerable strategic blunder for Republicans not to contest this seat. West Virginia is hugely favorable territory for a Republican pick-up. Republican presidential candidates have won the state for the last three presidential elections; Bush and McCain each won it by about 13 points in 2004 and 2008, respectively. Though West Virginia has a long tradition of supporting Democrats, and Democrats still dominate in many state and local offices, the state is deeply dissatisfied with the current status quo in Washington, DC. Obama’s approval rating? 35%, according to multiple polling outfits.

It’s true that Manchin is hugely popular in West Virginia, but he can still be tied to the national Democratic party. While his approval rating sits at the sky-high value of 80%, he at the moment seems only able to muster 53% against Capito. This number suggests that voters are capable of approving of him as governor without backing him for Senate. A Republican candidate for Senate could build on that sentiment.

And healthcare is definitely an electoral albatross that Republicans can hang around his neck. 67% of West Virginia voters want healthcare “reform” repealed. In March of 2010, Manchin indicated that he supported passing Obamacare. He will no doubt try to run away from that position now by emphasizing his various objections to the healthcare bill, but the fact of the matter is that, at the end of the day, he supported passing a bill that 67% of WV voters now want repealed. He is also on record as being very open to a “public option.”

Let’s look again at the 53-39 match-up of Manchin and Capito. First of all, that’s only a 14-point deficit for the Republican. Manchin’s lead is hardly insurmountable; consider how much races in California, Florida, Massachusetts, etc. have swung around in the polling. Secondly, he’s pulling this lead against a member of Congress whose district only encompasses about a third of the state’s voters. Manchin starts off with a much higher public profile, but he’s not exactly running away with this race. Capito has plenty of space for her candidacy to grow. She has a 59% approval rating, with 8% of voters being unsure about her. Opinion about Capito does not seem fixed on a statewide level. Only 11% of voters view her very unfavorably; 23% view her somewhat unfavorably, so she could probably push some of those voters over into the favorable column.

In the probable election to come, Manchin will try to dance away from the Obama agenda (citing his objections to cap-and-trade, etc.). But Republicans can tie him to this agenda. The passage of the health-care bill was just one instance of supposedly “independent” Democrats marching to the White House’s tune; every single Democrat in the Senate voted for Obamacare.

If the GOP is serious about retaking the Senate, it needs to put serious effort into every single seat that has even the remotest potential of flipping. West Virginia is no place to surrender before the fight begins.


Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm

GOP Takes On Jesse Jackson Jr.

July 9th, 2010 at 2:37 pm 3 Comments

IL-02 is represented in Congress by Jesse Jackson, Jr. This district has not sent a Republican to Congress for decades.

Yet the Republican party has a new standard bearer in this district: minister and community activist Isaac Hayes. A former Democrat, Hayes is making a play for Jackson’s seat by hitting Jackson on one of the areas where he may be most vulnerable: ethics. As Kyle Stone writes:

But with Jackson making headlines more recently as “Senate Candidate No. 5″ and allegations that his supporters offered to pay then-Governor Rod Blagojevich to appoint him to the Senate, Hayes sees his opening. And while Jackson’s role in the Blagojevich scandal remains unclear, he has not escaped unscathed. Jackson was named one of the fifteen most corrupt members of Congress by the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, and Hayes is rightfully making his integrity gap a campaign issue.

Hayes’s campaign is wisely staying away from national hot-button rhetoric and is focusing on a few key talking points: “Integrity in Illinois,” “Jobs and Small Business Investment,” “Parental Choice in Education,” and “Safe Neighborhoods.”

By reframing conservative notions about personal responsibility, decentralization, and civic opportunity, Hayes may be able to break through conventional dogma about Republicans in his district. For example, in his response to the Supreme Court’s overturning of the Chicago gun ban, Hayes argued that this ruling will provide increased protection to families and private property.

Consider Hayes’s discussion of improving the business environment:

The role of government is to create the conditions to spur innovation and sustainable economic growth. Due to a lack of real leadership, Illinois is 48th in job creation, ahead only of Massachusetts and Ohio. We need a trickle-in economy that reduces the barriers to producing goods and services, stimulates investment in business infrastructure and equity markets, and provides business training, seed capital grants and support to help aspiring entrepreneurs launch a microenterprise. Congress must work to free up the credit markets so that families can once again finance a new home, a new car, or a college education for their kids. It is time to get America moving again and that starts by helping families through these tough times. Families like those in Ford Heights which has a 53% poverty rate.

This is a very pro-growth message, but one tailored to the conditions of many poor communities in IL-02. Note that here Hayes is not talking about how it’s the government’s job to create innovation or economic growth, but to create the conditions for innovation and growth.

Hayes’s swipe about the “lack of real leadership” clearly plays to anti-incumbency sentiment. Hayes’s continued focus on ethical issues may also appeal to voters tired of the Congressional status quo; he even embeds these issues in his web address (www.isaac4honesty.com).

A Hayes victory here would certainly be hard-fought. But some polls do show scandals taking their toll on Rep. Jackson.

And whether or not Hayes wins in 2010, a strong Hayes showing would be the first step in restoring Republican standing in IL-02. In 2008, Jackson won with nearly 90% of the vote. As Republicans seek to rebuild the party, they should do their best to increase their appeal in these kinds of heavily-Democratic districts. The current political paradigm may be shifting, so the GOP should make the most of the opportunity of 2010. If a Republican could get even 30% of the vote in this heavily African-American district, that could lay the groundwork for a stronger Republican showing in 2012 and beyond. A short-term expenditure here could lead to long-term favorable outcomes for the GOP.


Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

GOP Pushes Back 2012 Primary Calendar

July 7th, 2010 at 4:55 pm 3 Comments

A key RNC committee proposes changes in the primary calendar for 2012, the Hotline reports:

The new rule, written after months of painstaking negotiations among senior members of the national committee, would push the beginning of the presidential nominating process back a month, to February, as part of a plan to prevent wealthy candidates from stealing the nomination.

GOP caucuses and primaries would be held that month in the 4 early states — the rule codifies IA, NH, SC and NV as states allowed to hold contests in a “pre-window.” Every other state would be allowed to hold their nominating contests on or after the first Tuesday in March.

But there’s an important caveat, members of the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee said: Any state that holds its nominating contest before the first day of April — that is, any state that rushes to front-load their nominating process — will have to award their delegates on a proportional basis.

That’s a dramatic change from previous party rules; many states awarded delegates on a winner-take-all basis, setting up key dates on which candidates could win big chunks of delegates and shut out their rivals. In ’08, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) won all of FL’s delegates, even though he won just 36% of the vote. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee won a combined 59% of the vote — and no delegates. Giuliani, who had viewed the state as a firewall, dropped out of the race that night.

This is a welcome change for Republicans in a variety of ways. As Ed Morrissey notes, this change would allow for candidates with lower initial name recognition to have a stronger shot at the nomination and would also draw out the primary contest.

One of the principal benefits of a drawn-out primary calendar that starts with smaller states is that it allows candidates who might not start out with the most money or the highest name ID to prove themselves to the voters, building a movement state-by-state, county-by-county. A national primary or a primary that is extraordinarily front-loaded greatly incentivizes the ability to raise money fast and generate free national media coverage. This set of incentives might not always lead to the strongest general election candidate.

Stretching out the primary calendar may also have other electoral benefits for Republicans in the 2012 cycle. 2008 witnessed the slightly unpleasant spectacle of the primary campaign beginning in earnest at the end of 2006/very beginning of 2007, a situation only exacerbated by the front-loaded primary schedule. Some of the most intriguing possibilities for the GOP nomination (such as Bobby Jindal, Scott Brown, and Chris Christie) could only benefit from spending a little bit more time ripening on the national stage. Christie, for example, would hardly be a plausible candidate if he had to stop governing at the end of this year in order to conduct a year-and-a-half primary campaign. But by around the middle to later part of 2011, if his budget gamble has paid off, Christie could make a very strong case indeed.

There is no historical necessity for a primary battle to begin almost two years before the election. Bill Clinton waited until October of 1991 to declare that he was running. And a drawn-out primary fight in 1992 only strengthened his candidacy.

Regardless of which party controls Congress after the 2010 elections, 2011 looks likely to be a very fluid year. Especially if Republicans end up controlling the House and/or the Senate, they will need to have as much focus on governing as possible throughout 2011. Pushing back the primary calendar and drawing it out can only help them in this regard.


Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

How to Build a Better GOP

May 25th, 2010 at 11:14 am 30 Comments

If Republicans are able to regain some measure of power in 2010—an increasingly likely possibility—their victory will, discount as of this moment, be due less to Republican policy successes and more to a fantastic display of self-immolation on the part of their Democratic rivals.

The tactics of opposition, however, are not a substitute for a forward-looking policy portfolio.  Running as the not-Democrat may be, at the moment, an effective electoral tool, but it need not be an effective political one in the long term.  Democrats ran very effectively against George W. Bush in 2006 and 2008, yet they now seem to have hit the rough waters of actual governance.  It was in part the policies of the 2000s that set the stage for the GOP’s electoral drubbings in 2006 and 2008.

Whether or not Republicans are able to take control of Congress and the presidency again in the next few electoral cycles, they will need a new policy regime.  This policy regime will have to confront political on-the-ground realities.  It will also need to have realistic expectations.  Pie-in-the-sky dreams often prove a fragile foundation indeed for a political program.

It is probably not enough to govern as a party pledging to roll back the policies of the Obama administration.  Even if these policies are rolled back, the rolling back will not solve the underlying problems that these policies were created to solve.  Focusing merely on the repeal of the leftist agenda also risks surrendering policy direction to the left, allowing it to define the debate.   If the right wants to run something other than a gradual retreat from leftist ideology, it will need to change the terms of political discourse.

These are some points toward a rhetorical reform of the GOP agenda.  These points are not meant to be a total system but instead suggestions in the direction of a political rethinking of the GOP’s purpose.

End the bad faith libertarianism. This is not a criticism of libertarianism as such, but the GOP can no longer run as the party that says with its lips that it will reduce the size of government while its hand signs into existence huge expansions of government.  The hypocrisy is made worse by a kind of policy schizophrenia, in which anti-government thinking is erratically applied.  So we have No Child Left Behind and managerial incompetence, government subsidizing of inflated mortgages and non-regulation of much of the financial markets.  This schizophrenia—loving tax cuts and spending hikes—is a recipe for fiscal disaster.

Realize that the government is not always the enemy. Relentless unfocused ranting against the government misses one of the key selling points of liberal democracy: having a government that is aligned with the principles of human freedom (very different from no government).  Reagan’s statement that, “[i]n the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” shows a fine balance of particular circumstance and liberal principle.  It is not an enraged attack upon government itself but a precise critique of the actual practices of a particular governmental moment.  Republican discourse about government needs to strive for that register.  The American people, for all their complaints, do not hate the federal government, and Republicans, as their political practice shows, aren’t exactly opposed to it either.  If Republicans aren’t going to drown the government in the bathtub, they should work for a government that is efficient, appropriately limited, and credible.

Reinforce the civic compact. Our sense of civic togetherness has taken a beating since the 2000 election; a shoot of common fellowship after 9/11 soon withered before a burst of almost pathological anxiety, social alienation, partisan cynicism, and civic despair.  Americans may have hoped for a return to a civil fellowship in the election of Barack Obama, who supposedly promised a transcendence of the old culture war antagonisms.  They seem to have gotten instead just a further radicalization of them.  Republicans should take the lead in working to restore a sense of civic exchange.  The kind of sacrifices and changes that may be necessary in order to restore some level of fiscal and governmental sanity may only be able to occur in a society in which citizens feel somewhat on the same boat.  Republicans should redirect the energies of the culture wars to craft a common space for dialogue and civic engagement.  They should stand for an authentic multiculturalism of engagement, not a pretend (and all too common) “multiculturalism” of cultural antagonisms and the cynical exploitation of these antagonisms.

Become the party of sustainability. Since World War II, Republicans have often been the voice for sustainability for the government: think of Eisenhower’s fiscal sobriety, the post-1968 emphasis on law and order, and Reaganite policies to reform the welfare state.  Unfortunately, over the past decade, we have witnessed an indifference to sustainability in the pursuit of temporary partisan gains (borrowing policies that would make an addict drool, reckless expansions of government programs, etc.).  Republicans need to step forward to make sure that our entitlement programs remain sustainable and more effective.  This includes market-oriented health-care reform as well as a serious eye to new spending.

Embrace a common prosperity for individual enrichment. It can clearly be seen that the attempt to create the illusion of wealth through capacious borrowing (even as the advanced labor and manufacturing components of the economy are hollowed out) leads to a political and policy nightmare.  Some have advocated using the power of government confiscation to cope with the growing economic inequalities of American society.  Republicans should make the case for a free-market order that allows for economic upward mobility.  This approach may demand a rethinking of trade deals and immigration policy, as well as the enforcement of labor laws.  It might also offer an incentive for an investment in infrastructure, which provides a common foundation for individual achievements.

Know the virtues of freedom and federalism. In devising new solutions to new problems, the fifty states provide fifty different testing grounds.  Federalist diffusion also allows for a moderating of hot-button issues.  Freedom in civic discussions is in part its own reward, yet this freedom brings many other rewards, too—of satisfaction, prosperity, and independence.

Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party fought for freedom, federal legitimacy, and industrialization.  The times are different, and the precise policies will change, but Republicans today would have much to gain by following in that legacy of liberty, civility, and opportunity.

Defeating Obamacare with GOPcare

March 18th, 2010 at 8:50 am 10 Comments

If Republicans and moderates and disaffected “progressives” are serious about cobbling together a majority to delay the deeming and passing of the Senate bill, they would be wise to stress their openness to and even eagerness for the passing of a smaller, more targeted reform measure. As Allahpundit suggests, a pledge to make healthcare reform the number two priority next year (behind jobs) on the part of Republican leaders could be effective.

I think opponents of the Senate bill might go even further and state that they want to keep working on healthcare this year. There is a moderate coalition out there in support of a variety of reforms for healthcare.

Currently, the lefty radicals have been driving the debate—that it’s either this bill or no bill, “reform” or stagnation. Centrists cannot let the radicals monopolize the mantle of reform and they should not accept the radicals’ interpretation of history. There are more choices than the partisans pose.

Currently, the centrists are serving as legislative cannon-fodder for many of the radicals in Congress. The actions of Democratic leadership, overwhelmingly supported by the left wing of the Congress, have endangered the moderates’ electoral chances, and now the moderates are being asked (or threatened) to take another big swallow and vote for this measure.

If an authentically moderate reform passes the House and the Senate, the president can sign it and still take credit for it. He might express some disappointment with the limitations of the measure, but he can still sign it with fanfare. Moderate Democrats can still give their president a win, if he wants it.

Opponents of the Senate bill should give fence-sitters something to vote for or at least the possibility of something to vote for. Real legislative reform can happen that can cross party lines. There is a place still for the vital center in politics, Senate bill opponents might remind the undecideds. Voting “no” on this bill need not be a vote for inaction—merely a vote for a different kind of action.


Originally posted at A Certain Enthusiasm.

Republican Equality

April 24th, 2009 at 8:05 pm 10 Comments

Politics, like an alliance between thieves or a Renaissance mistress’s affection, is an inconstant affair.  Coalitions rise, fall, splinter, combine.  The California that swept Nixon and Reagan into power is now firmly Democratic; the “Solid South” is now a bulwark for the GOP.  Circumstances change, as do the favored policies of a given faction.  Yet there are tendencies that underlie and endure past the life of a temporary movement.  The political DNA of the Republican party — going from Federalist to Whig to the GOP (a partial and distorted picture, I know) — has persistently been allied to the middle and upper-middle classes.  If there is a “base” for such a political strain, the middle class is it; the times of darkest Republican fortunes have occurred when the party has even lost much of the middle class.

Throughout the various permutations of Republican policy, it’s easy to see why such an alliance has endured.  When the country was transforming from a rural to industrial society (a social form long associated with the growth of the modern middle class), the Whigs and, later, Republicans were staunch advocates for national investment in infrastructure and allies of industrial development.  In the face of an increasingly interventionist federal government during the later part of the twentieth century, the middle class, which also enjoyed and supported some governmental protections, found the Republican rhetoric of fiscal sobriety and civic discipline attractive.

With such a relationship between the middle class and the GOP, it’s perhaps not too surprising to see some overlap between shrinking Republican support and growing economic inequality, the rack upon which the middle class has been thrust.  David Frum has written on the simultaneous decline of economic equality in certain areas and the fall of the GOP’s political fortunes, and Jim Manzi provides some interesting data showing some correlation between the economic inequality within a given region (at the county—not state—level) and its support for President Bush.  The recent election, as inequalities and certain pressures on the middle class mount, demonstrates some of the economic challenges facing the Republican party.  If the rise of the “Reagan Revolution” can partly be understood as the belief of the broad middle class that reigning Democratic ideas of welfare and taxation needed to be reformed (splitting between Carter and Ford in 1976, the middle class swung to Reagan in 1980), 2008 shows how far Republicans have fallen with the middle class.  The most John McCain could do was eke out slim victories in a few economic demographics: 49-48 in the $50-75,000 bracket, 51-48 in the $100-150,000 bracket, and 50-48 in the $150-200,000 bracket.  McCain lost the least compared to George W. Bush in 2004 in the $15-30,000 bracket; he lost the most ground in the extremes (the under $15,000 and over $200,000 brackets).  McCain performed best in the middle class brackets, and an interesting detail of the 2008 election is that it marks the first time the Republican candidate for president lost the rich (Obama beat McCain 52-46 in the $200,000+ demographic) since at least 1976.  If the election of 2008 is representative of broader enduring trends, Republicans have lost the poor and the rich and are losing their already very tenuous grip on the middle class.  Those are not hopeful numbers for a political coalition.

Theories of the free market have long concerned themselves with the role of inequality.  In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith famously argues that the development of advanced modes of production and commerce undermined the stark inequalities of the feudal world.  The thirst of the rich for luxuries such as diamond buckles led to a breakdown of the system of feudal-agricultural dependence, in which wealthy landholders held not merely economic but also political domination of those below them.  Smith’s argument has two salient implications for the current political right/classical liberals/conservatives: (1) certain forms of radical economic inequality can result in significant political inequalities (witness the petty tyrannies of medieval nobles), and (2) the functioning of the free market can serve as a way of mitigating these inequalities, of leading to a turnover of wealth, of making differences in levels of income less poisonous for civil liberties.  The free market and inequality thus have a quarrelsome relationship: the market helps create inequalities, but it also undercuts the financial inequality of any given moment, allowing the rich to fall and the poor to rise.  Inequality in results is a key characteristic of a market economy, and the very operations of a free exchange can prevent these inequalities from hardening into radical caste differences.

However — and this is a crucial “however” — the market itself, particularly in the wake of modern industrialization and certain forms of government intervention, can result in inequalities so vast that they begin to undermine a faith in free markets.  And the growth of these radical inequalities can lead to a creeping sense of the hardening of financial differences.  If one of the promises of the free market as a vehicle for an authentically liberal-democratic politics is in its ability to allow for social and economic mobility, increasing doubts about the existence of these mobilities also increases doubts about the efficacy of the market and its contribution to political equality.  Radical inequalities and a sense of economic stagnation can in turn lead to a widespread rejection of the instruments of the free market and, more broadly, the free society.  The early twentieth century, that high tide of income inequality (the top .1% took home about 10 % of the national income in 1916), was also the high-water mark of the Socialist Party of America; Eugene V. Debs won 6% of the national vote in the fractious election of 1912.  Granted, the rise and fall of the SPA cannot be reduced to that single statistic, but wide income disparities perhaps set some of the conditions for this rise.

Aside from questions about social and economic ideals, this hard practical fact endures: in the modern welfare state, if a great majority believes that it can no longer economically advance, it has the political power to legislate the confiscation via taxation of the wealth of the rich.  Now, this confiscation may not succeed in reducing inequality — the grotesque inequalities of so many “workers’ paradises” are built upon the failure of this confiscation to equalize — but it can still be attempted.  In addition to ethical objections about such a policy, a kind of economic hope as well as an economic fear serve to restrain this confiscatory enterprise.  The fear is that such governmental power could be turned against the members of a temporary majority; the hope is that the poor could, too, become rich, so they would want to be able to enjoy their wealth.  But at a certain point, the fear of the misuse of power can recede before other, more immediate fears (such as starvation or death of exposure).  Social mobility, on the other hand, feeds this hope.  If one of the free market’s benefits is social mobility, this mobility itself helps increase public support for the free market and protects it from overweening government.

The free market and government regulation are, then, both double-edged entities for issues of inequality.  The free market can create radical inequalities through allowing a select coterie to dominate and entrench itself as an economic elite, but it can also unsettle entrenched elites and provide the hope of mobility through an open exchange; governmental regulations can prevent monopolies from forming and ensure limitations on the power of the extremely wealthy, but these very regulations can be tools for the hyper-rich to shut down the market and prevent competition.

What, then, to do about inequality?  How to walk that slippery tightrope, in which incentive can easily lead to addiction and assistance can become entrapment?  On the right, Frum and Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, among others, have offered some solutions.  Many of these reform-minded critiques have drawn attention to the stagnation of wages for the middle and working classes.  These wage difficulties are then compounded by increasing expenses — for colleges, health care, housing (at least until recently), and so forth.  The decline of industry, an influx of new (and often unauthorized) immigrants, globalization of companies, and other factors have helped drive this movement toward inequality.  Without going into all the possible solutions for inequality, here are three helpful, but not exhaustive, points of reform: regulation, entitlement, and infrastructure.

In attacking certain forms of onerous regulation (on the local and federal levels for small businesses and would-be small businesses), we can lower barriers to access.  Through empowering this ground-up innovation, our society can also empower independent businesses and organizations, which would not have to rely upon the largess of huge corporations.  Republicans should also consider advancing business regulation reforms that would recalibrate the incentive structures of larger corporations (perhaps including a reform of corporate governance) in order to ensure more transparency and long-term viability.  Financial regulations serve as a means of coordinating interests, and, since the government will be deeply involved in certain financial matters, it should work for a regulation structure that encourages sustainability, transparency, and growth.  A corollary to this financial regulatory reform is ensuring the soundness of our currency and warding off crippling financial commitments for the federal government.

Labor reform is an important subsection of this regulatory reworking.  It could partially involve reform through the enforcement of labor laws.  This reform would also mean encouraging the development of technical and other high-economic-value skills here in the United States while also providing for increased wages for those without advanced degrees.  Any effort toward egalitarian reform will have to confront the fact that the financial gains of the past twenty-five years have been disproportionately distributed based on levels of education.  According to these statistics compiled by ETS, lifetime income for males has gone down (measured in constant 2005 dollars) for all education levels below that of a master’s degree.  A tighter labor market may help increase these wages, as may a reconsideration of certain credentialing standards in order to increase career mobility.  This egalitarian type of reform could take steps toward assuring that the economy works for a broad section of society and not only for the holders of postgraduate degrees.

We can also advance the cause for equality in scaling back or reforming certain government programs.  I don’t especially mean that infamous “pork” here but more certain welfare-state policies that feed into a cycle of inequality through subsidizing poverty-producing behavior.  For example, insofar as some of the “Great Society” welfare policies encouraged the breakdown of the poor urban family, they contributed to the growth of inequality over the past few decades.  The bipartisan efforts toward welfare reform in the mid-1990s may present a tentative step in the direction of such egalitarian reform.  Furthermore, the general preference for federal non-intervention into the market (a position Republicans have at least said they support) can also limit the ability of the wealthy and politically-connected to use government power in order to enrich themselves.

Prudent investment in infrastructure and other public goods — highways, rail lines and other modes of transport, schools, energy sources — may be another tool for coping with inequality.  Infrastructure can be the foundation of the wealth of tomorrow, and a common investment can help provide a common wealth.  Throughout the history of the United States, investment in infrastructure and public education has been a key vehicle for growth, public betterment, and civic integration.  Education reform would include working towards a system that meets the real needs of students and tries to make the best of each student’s individual potential.  The aim for such investments should be the creation of a common platform from which talent and effort may rise.  These types of investment, in giving people access rather than entitlement, encourage the entrepreneurial spirit.

In addition to other policies (especially in the health and industrial sectors), these reforms can strengthen the middle class and help the poor advance.  Politics is not only about interests, but it is partially about interests.  If it wants to appeal to the middle and lower classes, the GOP will need to put forward policies that speak to them and their needs.  It needs to start a positive feedback loop, in which increased economic opportunity and growth in turn lead to increased capacities to make use of those opportunities.

Reducing inequality, strengthening the economic middle, and increasing economic mobility could prevent a scenario in which the USA becomes the inner cities of the 1960s and 70s writ large: a society torn by the struggle of ethnic resentments, in which the poor are shunted into housing projects and hooked on various kinds of pernicious dependencies while the rich wall themselves off, a society in which the middle class is eviscerated through a combination of taxation, crumbling infrastructure, and broken public trust.  That kind of scenario would not only be bad for the right (How many Republican mayors has Chicago had in the past seventy years? 0); it would be bad for the country. That kind of dynamic leads to cronyism and often well-intentioned but usually counterproductive redistributive policies.

If there is a political or a partisan imperative for coping with inequality and the middle class, there is also an ethical one.  Too often the right has ceded the ground to the left in talking about broader questions of social justice.  Indeed, we have reached a point where a phrase such as “social justice” has a decidedly left-wing ring.  Questions of basic fairness and civic sustainability are not “left” or “right” issues: they are issues that concern us all, as people and as citizens of the United States.

A case can be made for a free market egalitarianism.  There should be no fear of arguing, insofar as it can be argued, (and many, to be fair, are not afraid of making this argument) that freedom and the free market can be a platform for some of the best forms of compassion.  Private charity is wholly compatible with a capitalist, individualist society; moreover, public institutions and regulations can be oriented in such a way that they encourage self-development and financial independence while also recognizing economic liberty.  This kind of free market egalitarianism means using the government’s intervention in the market — and the government, as long as it exists, will intervene — in order to encourage and sustain a public spirit of independence and liberal self-sufficiency.  It means taking into account the current policy structures of the government and not merely wishing them away in some anarchic-utopian fashion.  Sometimes, it will require the elimination of programs, where those programs exacerbate inequality and corruptingly distort freedom, and, sometimes, their reform.  It would mean an opening of opportunities and a rigorous accounting of realities.

Perhaps the best means of coping with inequalities is through the empowerment of individuals — not the imprisonment of talent but its channeling and development.  The right has a place (as does the left or any other political orientation) in speaking for a liberal egalitarianism, an equality of diversity and not homogeneity, in which the free choices of free men and women flower in a richly variegated profusion of dreams, efforts, and accomplishments.  This variety will lead to differences in outcomes — how could it not? — but these differences need not cripple our republic or undermine our faith in an equality transcending politics: that we are all men and women, with the responsibilities and possibilities that our humanity entails.