"Now, it's time for the happy recap." - Bob Murphy
Politics 2013 Archives
December 9, 2013
POLITICS: Hispanic Voters Lose Faith In Barack Obama
We all know how far President Obama's approval rating has fallen, 13 months after his re-election. Gallup had a fascinating look at who exactly has lost faith in Obama, among poll respondents who approved of him a year ago. And prominent among the groups with the biggest drop is the supposed bedrock of the "Permanent Democrat Majority" - self-identified Hispanic voters.
As always, bear in mind that Gallup is only one pollster, and not the most reliable one at that, and that sub-samples tend to be smaller sample sizes than an entire poll. That said, a comparison between two polls by the same pollster at different points in time is an apples-to-apples comparison, and so of some use in tracking trends. I'd supplement this with similar data from other pollsters, but surprisingly few of the daily, weekly or monthly presidential-approval tracking polls provide this kind of breakdown on a regular basis (although a mid-November Quinnipiac poll showed Obama's approval underwater with Hispanics, 41-47, compared to 67-18 approval a year ago). That's precisely why Gallup's results are so interesting.
Here's Gallup's chart, which measures the net drop in points among different groups in their approval of Obama between his post-spring-2009 high water-mark in December 2012 and November 2013:
Bearing in mind that some of these are overlapping groups, you can see not only that Hispanics register a 23-point drop in approval, the largest of any group, but others near the top are also essential elements of any winning Democratic coalition: the youngest voters (18-29 year olds), the poorest (incomes under $24,000), the least educated (high school or less), various stripes of moderates and independents, women, the unmarried, the irreligious and voters in the Northeast and Midwest. Obama has lost the least support among those where he had the least support to start with: conservative Republicans, conservatives, Republicans. He's dropped at least 8 points among everyone else.
But a second way to look at these numbers is in percentage terms, to adjust for the fact that it's easier to lose more support among groups where you had more to start with. So, here are those figures:
Here, we see unaffiliated independents - perhaps unsurprisingly - at the top of the list, along with liberal Republicans, but Hispanics in a very close third place, with the poor, the uneducated and Midwesterners also high on the list (the latter is a danger sign for Democrats in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota next fall). By contrast, on a percentage basis, the three least-shaken elements of Obama's base are - unsurprisingly - black voters, among whom he's lost just 10% of his prior support, and liberal Democrats and Democrats as a whole, the only other two groups to show less than a 16% decline - and the dropoff among those two groups would doubtless be higher if you excluded his unshakeable support among black voters.
And bear in mind, these are losses among people who approved of the job Obama was doing after watching him in office for four years. These aren't voters who reject liberals or Democrats out of hand, or - if you buy into the excuse for every criticism of Obama - voters who don't like him because he's black. Most of them likely voted for the man, twice. And the most likely reason they are turning on him is simply because he's not getting the job done - his policies aren't working, the economy continues to disappoint, and he still isn't delivering the things he promises. As the LIBRE Initiative's Executive Director, Daniel Garza, put it, after noting that the November Quinnipiac poll had showed just 44% approval among Hispanics for Obamacare:
The dramatic drop in support from the U.S. Hispanic community should not come as a surprise to anyone. Instead of effectively addressing Immigration, the slow economy, the lack of access to affordable care, and other critical issues over these past five years, President Obama has delivered mostly empty rhetoric and a record of stagnant Unemployment , diminished household incomes and a tepid GDP growth rate. Americans deserve better.
The immediate lesson here is that, for all the Democrats' bluster, Hispanics are simply not African-Americans. They may have identified to some degree with him against his critics as the first non-white President, they may like some of the things the Democrats stand for, and they may even feel - not without reason - that Republicans want to kick them out of the country. But none of that alone is enough to make them permanent Democratic partisans if they don't see results.
Republicans face a variety of challenges in appealing to Hispanic voters, even moreso than some of the other voter groups that are increasingly disenchanted with Obama. They will not be cheap dates for the GOP. But Democrats are learning that they are growing increasingly tired of being told to just sit back and pull the lever for Obama's pursuit of MacGuffins. Republicans have an opportunity, if they will work for it.
December 2, 2013
POLITICS: Have You, At Long Last, Sir, No Sense of Shame?
Just when you think Team Obama's "everything is an occasion for list-building, fundraising and community organizing" attitude can sink no further, you come across something like this, from Organizing For Action, Obama's tax-exempt political organizing arm that, among other things, runs his Twitter account. Yes, OFA is inviting its members to sign up to hold an organizing event to celebrate the 1-year anniversary of the Newtown school shootings. OFA's email to its mailing list lays it out:
"OFA will give you the resources you need to ensure your event is a powerful reminder of what we lost a year ago, and a reminder that we as a nation need to do more to prevent gun violence and keep our communities safe," the organization said.
No instructions are included for helpful decorating tips or suggested refreshments; maybe you need to request the "resources" to get the full details on how to throw your Newtown shootings party.
Me, I'd suggest saying a silent prayer, but I guess that's why I don't have Barack Obama's mailing list.
November 25, 2013
POLITICS: We Are The 55% (Or: Mitt Romney Was Wrong About Obama's 47% Floor)
Daily polls can make your head spin, and getting too excited or distressed by a single poll is never advisable. But sometimes, a clear trend emerges in poll after poll that cannot be denied. And that trend is now beyond dispute: a majority of American voters think Barack Obama is not doing a good job as our President. Looking at the RealClearPolitics polling average, Obama has:
-Had more voters disapprove than approve of his job performance every day since early June;
-Seen over 50% disapproval consistently since early August;
-Seen the disapprovals outnumber the approvals by double digits on November 8 for the first time in his presidency, and stay there; and
-Hit 55% disapproval five days ago and stay above that level.
Obama's approval is now down to 40.5%, registering above 42% in only one poll in the average, Rasmussen Reports (Rasmussen, once a reliable if somewhat GOP-leaning pollster, has become increasingly volatile and less transparent since the departure of its founder Scott Rasmussen, who started scaling back his involvement earlier this year and left the company in August). It's possible that it may drop below 40 for the first time any day now, as it's no longer rare to see individual polls with a 38 or 39% rating - an approval rating lower than crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Over at the Huffington Post's HuffPost Pollster page, Obama's approval rating is so low it has literally fallen off the chart; you have to adjust the default settings (which bottom out at 42.5%) to find it:
In one bit of irony, consider Mitt Romney's famous remark:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.
As far as approving of this President, Romney has been proven wrong: Obama's approval rating hasn't seen 47% since June 10.
It's true, of course, that a chunk of the people disapproving of Obama are his own 2012 supporters - but that's the point! Presidents don't really get in trouble until they start disenchanting their own side. It's also true, as we recall from 2012, that national polls of this nature are not as precise as state-by-state polling in predicting voter behavior and turnout - but a persistent and growing gap this size is hard to hide, and if you use HuffPo's widget (which lets you examine a sub-sample of pollsters) to back out the impact of Gallup and Rasmussen, Obama's numbers get worse, not better.
Why does all this matter? Let's quote a few of the arguments.
Sean Trende looks at the impact on 2014 House races, although of course the calculus as to the map is quite different for Senate races:
[P]residential job approval is still the most important variable for how his party fares in midterm elections, explaining about half of the variance. The relationship is highly statistically significant: For every point in job approval the president loses, his party loses 0.6 percent of its caucus. (The chart doesn't measure drop in job approval; just job approval.) So, at 60 percent, the president should lose 5 percent of his caucus; at 50 percent, it is around 12 percent of his caucus lost; at 40 percent, it's about 18 percent of his caucus lost -- which would be 36 seats.
Chris Cillizza notes the impact on Obama's ability to get things done, and that the trendline of his approval rating is more in common with that of George W. Bush than more popular second-term presidents like Reagan and Clinton who left their party in good shape in the next national election:
The loss of the Senate majority and a smaller minority in the House after November 2014 would make any attempt to rack up second-term accomplishments before he left office extremely difficult for Obama. Combine that with the reality that Obama’s second term has not exactly been larded with major wins to date and you understand why Obama and his legacy are on the ballot in 2014 - even if his name is not. And that means his poll numbers matter. A lot.
John Sides at The Monkey Cage noted back in June how much this can matter:
[I]t matters for whether the President gets what he wants from Congress-with some caveats. Here's a sense of some of the scholarly literature on the relationship between presidential approval and legislative success. One question is whether Congress simply passes legislation that the president supports. In one study (gated) of 208 roll call votes in the House between 1989-2000, political scientists Brandice Canes-Wrone and Scott de Marchi found the House was more likely to do what the president wanted when the president was more popular. This effect was only significant among legislation that was both salient (mentioned a lot in news coverage) and somewhat complex (focusing on regulatory matters in particular). But, of course, that's exactly the kind of legislation-e.g., immigration, gun control-that Obama would like to sign right now.
Harry Enten noted in September that the odds are against Obama recovering by 2014: "The president's approval rating has never increased by more than 7pt from this point after re-election until the midterm election."
Enten, after looking at 2014, notes that the impact goes beyond it to 2016:
[T]he president's approval plays a role in the election to find his successor. Once we control for the economy, every 5pt increase in a president's net approval rating increases his party's candidate's margin by 1pt in the presidential election per Drew Linzer. An election his party might have won by 1pt had the incumbent president had a +5pt net approval rating becomes an election the incumbent party loses by 1pt with a -5pt rating.
By and large, presidents whose parties have done badly in 6th-year midterm elections have also seen their party lose ground in the national popular vote in the next election. Here, I charted out the parties from best to worst showings in holding onto their share of the popular vote in the next presidential election following a two-term presidency, and how they had done in the prior midterm - for example, the Democrats lost 0.9 points in the popular vote from 1996 to 2000, and I line that up here with their showing in the 1998 midterms; Republicans lost 7.8 points in 1960 from 1956, and I line that up with the 1958 midterms.
Here's an expanded chart with a few more of the post-1860 presidents who don't fit as neatly (for example, the GOP in 1904 had held the White House for 8 years, but its candidate was an incumbent, not a new contender trying to run on the party brand).
Here's two charts lining up the showings overall of parties seeking to defend a presidential race after re-electing an incumbent; historically, Democrats have struggled slightly more than Republicans in hanging onto their share of the voters:
Note that Obama only won the popular vote in 2012 by 3.9 points, and there was no significant third-party candidate, so if the Democrats lose 2 or more points off their 2012 showing, they lose the popular vote (and you can win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, as Bush did in 2000, but mathematically it's almost impossible to do so unless it's so close as to be almost a tie). In other words, if the Democrat in 2016 falls off Obama's 2012 showing by 2 or more points, there's a high likelihood that the next President will be a Republican - and the only non-incumbents running after an incumbent was re-elected (and thus, seeking a de facto third term with a new candidate) to suffer less than a 4-point falloff in popular vote were Gore in 2000 and Hoover in 1928.
None of this should suggest that Republicans don't have problems of our own, or that success is about to fall inevitably into our laps. But with 55% of the public disapproving Obama and unlikely to change their minds in significant numbers, there's a major opportunity for the GOP ahead.
October 28, 2013
POLITICS: Conservatives Need More Carrot, Not Just More Stick
Conservatives are frustrated: why doesn't the Republican Party deliver better results for us? Part of the answer, of course, is that the Republican Party only controls so much of the government, but there remains a lot of resistance in GOP leadership to fighting for conservative priorities. Why?
Conservatives have tended to see this as a problem to be solved my making threats: We'll primary you! We'll stay home! Not One Cent! We'll go third party! In terms of asserting the legitimate supremacy of the voters over their elected representatives, these are healthy impulses. But they can never be a complete solution, because all these ideas are rule by the stick, by fear. And anyone who knows anything about managing or motivating people knows that fear alone has limits.
I submit that, if we want small-government conservatives and social conservatives to have real influence in the Republican Party, we need to go beyond the stick and offer the carrot; go beyond punishment and offer rewards. We need to prove to the leadership of the party that if they do what we want them to do, they will be richly rewarded with the things they value - advancement, re-election, fundraising, a growing caucus. Until we can offer those things, we will always be frustrated by the limits of our influence.
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Let me quote here at some length from an analysis of the recall of two pro-gun-control Colorado State Senators from The Atlantic's Molly Ball, one of the best liberal journalists in the business and a cheerleader for the gun control crowd's "totally new strategy" only nine months earlier, as to why same-sex marriage was winning in the Democratic Party and gun control was losing:
Here's what matters for the future of gun control: Advocates needed to send a signal that politicians could vote for gun control without fear of ending their careers. Instead, they sent the opposite message. Now risk-averse pols, already all too aware of the culture-war baggage the gun issue has historically carried, will have no incentive to put their political futures in jeopardy by proposing or supporting gun-control legislation. Indeed, it doesn't seem far-fetched to think that gun control might go back into the policy deep-freeze where Democrats had it stowed for most of the last 10 years.
Ball's description of the predicament of the gun control crowd perfectly captures our problem. Conservatives over the past three years have shown the stick, and that gets us a hearing and in the door. Leaders like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell fear us and want to mollify us. They speak our language, and try to offer us things to get off their backs. They know that the angrier conservatives get, the more headaches we will make for them, the more of their caucus that will face primaries.
But what we don't have is the carrot. At the end of the day, GOP leadership and many wobby GOP Congressmen and Senators don't believe that if they stick their necks out for us, we can save them from other people they also fear. And so a hearing, and soothing words, and scraps from the table are all we get, because we cannot give them rewards for going the extra mile to do what we actually want. We cannot promise them that if they deliver for us, we will get them re-elected.
Some in the GOP establishment, of course, genuinely resist conservative control of the party, but many simply fear that we can't beat the Democrats. In either event, doubling down on threats to them is a tactic of inevitably diminishing returns precisely because - at present - they fear us winning, when instead we should want them to see us as a bandwagon that rewards those who hop on it. Until that changes, just threatening them with more stick will get us nowhere.
Look at the Democrats. The Ned Lamont campaign in 2006 proved that progressives had the stick, but not the carrot - so the progressives were feared by a few moderate Democrats, but nobody really respected them, and Rahm Emanuel's strategy of picking more moderate candidates to run in House districts continued in 2006 and 2008. It was the victory of Obama in 2008 and especially 2012 that brought progressives the carrot, that convinced the Democratic establishment that you could win in purple states mainly by running to your base.
Let me illustrate here with two news stories. First, we have the Virginia Governor's race, where Mike Bloomberg is dropping a million dollars into the race to push Terry McAuliffe to a more pro-gun control position: "[Republican Ken] Cuccinelli is trailing in the polls, partly because he is getting so massively outspent on television. Groups like Planned Parenthood, the National Education Association and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer have poured in millions."
(Bloomberg's recent, late-in-game spending on behalf of McAuliffe and Cory Booker, by the way, is a rather transparent effort to repair the damage to the gun control movement's reputation for wielding the carrot, in two races where the hard work of building a lead in the polls had already been done).
Then we have New Jersey, where Chris Christie recently threw in the towel on appealing to the New Jersey Supreme Court a lower-court ruling compelling the state to approve same-sex marriages (which Christie opposes). An appeal would likely have been fruitless symbolism, as the NJ Supremes had made clear in a preliminary ruling that they would affirm the lower court, but abandoning it nonetheless illustrated that Christie calculated no real political upside to making a big symbolic showing of fighting same-sex marriage to the bitter end. BuzzFeed reported that big-money GOP donors, scoping out Christie as a potential national candidate, were pleased:
[T]he GOP's donor class quietly rejoiced that Christie - widely viewed as the golden boy of his party's moderate, Northeastern, corporate establishment - had chosen to abandon this particular culture war battle. Though few of them are eager to acknowledge it on the record, the monied tri-state-dwelling donors who made up Mitt Romney-s core base of donors and are likely to fund Christie's 2016 campaign generally support same-sex marriage. More importantly, they see it as a losing issue for their party.
The contrast could hardly be clearer. Cuccinelli, a guy who has fought the good fight on conservative causes both popular and controversial from Obamacare to climate science to abortion to even his effort to salvage the criminal convictions for sodomy of convicted sex offenders, has done everything social conservatives in particular could ask to prove his mettle. True, he has problems that are non-ideological in nature, mainly a gifts-from-donors scandal that engulfed Bob McDonnell in July and hit Cuccinelli as well - precisely the moment when Cuccinelli fell behind McAuliffe in the polls. And he also has ideological problems not of his own making: Virginia conservatives are demoralized by McDonnell's tax hikes, while Virginia moderates were spooked by the government shutdown.
But ultimately, it's the tough races that are the real tests of a movement's strength. Conservatives need to demonstrate that people who do what we say will be rewarded with money, ground support and ultimately winning elections. The Beltway class is closely watching the Cuccinelli campaign for signs that this is true, and not seeing them; money is pouring in to McAuliffe in droves, but not to Cuccinelli, who has been outspent 1.5-to-1 overall and 3-to-1 over the last four weeks. If he loses, we'll have to wait until 2014 to show that we can deliver wins outside of the safest precincts. Meanwhile, in deep-blue New Jersey, Christie is cruising to a landslide (at this writing, a 26 point lead in the polls) and raking in the cash. Money talks very, very loudly in primary contests - and as long as guys like Cuccinelli get buried in fundraising while our donors celebrate candidates like Christie, money will call the tune in planning for general election campaigns.
The Left understands this; the ActBlue platform has directed $92 million to candidates since 2005, the largest source of campaign cash in politics in the past quarter century by a margin of more than $30 million. As Cuccinelli withers on the vine for lack of financial support, we're not even playing the same ballgame. You can send him money now to help turn that tide. Like it or not, money is a huge driver of who the political pros take seriously. Some say "not one cent" to squishy party committees - fine, but you need to put that money on the table when a conservative is running in the general election.
But that's just the first step, because money may be necessary but it's not enough by itself. Some say we're suffering because disillusioned conservatives have dropped out of the process - fine, so go call them, knock on their doors, get them out to vote when there's somebody worth voting for. You want to convince the party establishment that they're ignoring people who won't show up to vote for monderates, you have to prove that those people will show up for conservatives, in numbers that will impress them. You have to actually bring new people into the process.
None of this is easy. It's one thing for the Left's menagerie of organizations to swarm activists and money around the country wherever it's needed, as the Left has a larger professional activist class as well as more people without family and other responsibilities tying them down. Conservatives, by the very nature of our coalition, tend to have children and churches and jobs and a focus on their own states and localities, and so tend to be harder to rally to the cause of a state legislator or gubernatorial or House candidate in some far-off state.
But if we want to be more respected, we have to flex more muscle in a positive direction. More shouting won't get us anywhere, and more primary challenges won't get us much further than where we are now. Until we show that conservative-backed candidates are a force to fear in general elections, we will be all stick and no carrot.
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October 17, 2013
POLITICS: Obamacare Can't Quit The Individual Mandate
The launch of Obamacare's online insurance exchanges has been such an operational trainwreck that even the White House Press Secretary, the DNC chair and boosters like Ezra Klein have had to acknowledge that it's been a disaster. Industry observers are mystified. But the technology is just the surface problem; the larger issue is that the entire economics of the insurance sold on the exchanges - always tenuous at best - is threatened by the combination of poor functionality, intrusiveness and sticker shock, leading not only critics like Phil Klein and Megan McArdle but even supporters like Jonathan Chait to argue that the Obama Administration should delay portions of the law to salvage it (more on that here) - a result that would be deeply ironic and humiliating to the Administration, after President Obama just spent a month beating back furious Republican efforts to force delays in the launching of the exchanges and the individual mandate. But suggestions for delaying the mandate without going hat in hand to an irate Republican Congress ignore an important reality: any delay of the individual mandate would risk lawsuits in which the legal positions the Obama Administration took to defend the mandate could come back to handcuff its freedom of action.
How Universal Insurance Is Designed To Work
Let's recall that the heart of Obamacare is not the exchanges and it's not the subsidies to help people buy policies they can afford; it's three rules designed to (1) compel both insurers and individuals to do business with each other, so that everyone gets covered, and (2) do so without bankrupting the insurers or sending the cost of subsidizing policies sky-high. The problem is pooling of risk: if only the sick and the old buy policies, the insurers will have to charge them as much for their policies as it would cost to just pay for their care, which defeats the entire point of insurance. You need some people paying in who are not already making claims, so you need to entice young, healthy people to buy insurance that effectively subsidizes the rest.
The first rule is guaranteed issue: insurers cannot turn away people with pre-existing conditions. This alone drives up the insurers' costs, which is why healthy people need to be compelled to buy their policies to keep the system solvent.
The second is community rating, which - to simplify - controls the premiums that can be charged by requiring insurers to price policies by looking at the risk of the entire pool rather than just the specific actuarial characteristics (including pre-existing conditions) of the individual. Community rating doesn't control the premiums of the overall pool, it just shifts and socializes that cost onto young, healthy policyholders.
The third is the individual mandate, which provides compulsion of the individual in the form of what the Supreme Court characterized as a tax. Without the mandate, healthy people may rationally choose not to buy overpriced insurance priced at community-rated premiums, leaving the insurers forced to cover a small, self-selected pool of the sick and the elderly.
Hypothetically, let's say the Administration decided to keep the exchanges open, requiring insurers to keep providing guaranteed-issue policies priced at community-rated terms, but announced that it would delay enforcing the individual mandate. There's no way the Administration could or would keep the exchanges open otherwise, since the whole economic benefit of the project for people in immediate need of coverage would be gone, and indeed many would simply be denied coverage.
But that would be a disaster for insurers, roped into the guaranteed-issue mandate but unable to compel healthy people to buy the policies that make guaranteed-issue even remotely economically feasible. They would simply hemorrhage money. And because businesses don't exist to hemorrhage money and the statute doesn't authorize a suspension of the mandate, some insurer would likely challenge any delay in court.
And that's where the Administration could be hoist on the petard of its own legal arguments. When Obamacare went to the Supreme Court, one of the issues presented was "severability": that is, if the Court struck down the individual mandate, would it also strike down the entire statute. The Solicitor General's brief on behalf of the Administration said no - but argued that if the mandate was struck down, the Court would have to also strike the guaranteed issue and community rating provisions because Congress would not have authorized them without the mandate. The key passages are pretty unambiguous:
The minimum coverage provision [i.e., the individual mandate] is essential to ensuring that the Act’s 2014 guaranteed-issue and community-rating reforms advance Congress’s goals… As Congress expressly found (and as experience in the States confirmed), those provisions would create an adverse selection cascade without a minimum coverage provision, because healthy individuals would defer obtaining insurance until they needed health care, leaving an insurance pool skewed toward the unhealthy.
Here's a longer excerpt of the SG's brief:
The brief goes on to detail Congress' "empirical support" from the experience of states that have experimented with community rating and guaranteed issue without a mandate, with bad results.
It's impossible to predict how the courts would rule on a legal challenge to delaying the mandate without delaying guaranteed issue and community rating. But the Administration's own legal arguments would provide a powerful argument for insurers that Congress never intended these provisions of the statute to be enforced against them while the mandate was not in effect.
October 1, 2013
POLITICS: How Obamacare Burns the Ships
September 17, 2013
POLITICS: Obamacare and the GOP's Negotiation Crisis
Should Congressional Republicans (1) fight to completely defund Obamacare, putting the brakes not only on its immediate implementation but also on any efforts to plan for its future implementation, (2) fight to delay implementation of the individual mandate and/or other provisions (following the Administration's lead in delaying the employer mandate, or (3) leave the issue alone and focus on other elements of the budget? What tactics should the GOP use: should it hold up the next continuing resolution, creating the threat of a government shutdown? Tie it to the next debt ceiling fight?
I have tried, with mixed success, to steer clear of this inside-baseball tactical debate, which has generated an outsized amount of acrimony within the Beltway GOP and the conservative movement alike. The pro-defund caucus has been accused, not without reason but with a lot of unfair ad hominems, of being unrealistic in its expectations and misleading the grassroots into a losing battle. The anti-defund caucus, formally aligned mostly behind the "delay" solution, has been accused, not without reason but with a lot of unfair ad hominems, of being spineless, afraid of its own shadow, and in some cases actively scheming to keep Obamacare alive.
For a flavor of the arguments, see Ben Howe on the fear of defeat driving the don't-defund side, Drew M. on the grassroots' lack of trust in the leadership, Erick on why this is a "read my lips" moment for GOP leadership's credibility, the Wall Street Journal on why the leadership thinks the grassroots and the backbenchers have lost their minds, Avik Roy on the argument for replacing rather than repealing Obamacare as part of a larger entitlement reform strategy, and Robert Costa on how the fight is energizing conservative pro-defund groups. Ben Domenech, in this morning's Transom newsletter (an indispensable read on this issue), reviewed the "delay" options and concluded:
I remain unconvinced that any of these approaches are any smarter or more likely to succeed than the somehow "more radical" defunding approach, and I think it's a bit silly to expect GOPers who won't hold the line on a government shutdown to hold the same line on risking default. I do share the belief that fighting for delay is always more realistic (and polls better) than defunding, and that a debt ceiling fight reflects more on the president than the Congress (where the reverse is true of a CR), but it also makes sense to open any conflict with defunding, because you're only going to move backwards from there. After all, you are a Republican.
There are valid points being made on both sides here, and I'm probably more where Ben is than anything. The issue of trust is pervasive, and a lot of the ire in this fight is a proxy for other longstanding grievances on the Right. It seems to me that we have a fundamental set of internal disagreements on the essentials of how negotiation works in politics, and rather than wade into the weeds, it's worth stepping back to consider those essentials.
1. Know Your Bottom Line: As I noted during the last fiscal cliff showdown, it's essential to enter a negotiation knowing what turf you can feasibly defend, what you can't, what you're willing to retreat on and where you will stand and fight. You need to game those things out in advance, understanding that once you begin a fight, the other side gets a say and all the dynamics that have led to the resolution of prior legislative battles will come to the fore again. You go to war, as they say, with the leadership you have: what is important is to know how realistic it is that these Republicans will hold the lines they have chosen.
2. Unity Wins: Too much emphasis is placed on which side's leadership intends to hold out longer. Leadership is important, and can do a lot to influence rank-and-file members - but a negotiating position is only as strong as its weakest link. And with two Houses of Congress to deal with, even committed leadership on one side isn't enough. That means that not only does John Boehner need to know how many people in his caucus are ready to hold out to the bitter end for a particular result, he also needs to know how much support he has in the Senate; if he starts out knowing that Mitch McConnell and Senate leadership aren't up for a tactic, he will be swiftly isolated and outmaneuvered. There's an inherent advantage in having the White House, because even a weak President still presents a more unified face than Congress. The inability of either the delay or defund side to coalesce into a single strategy suggests that neither starts off in a strong negotiating position.
3. You Have To Convince The Other Side. All the brave talk in the world about Republicans not blinking is no use unless the Democrats can be convinced to blink first. And nobody seems to have a plan to make that happen. First of all, the long history of Republicans caving in fiscal showdowns means that Democrats enter any negotiation with morale high and confident of victory; there must be a plan to change that. Second, the hubris of national Democrats certain of a permanent demographic majority is hard to puncture these days - vulnerable 2014 Democrats in Congress may fear polling showing the deep unpopularity of Obamacare and even some public support for a shutdown, but history shows that the White House is disinclined to listen to them even though the August 2011 debt ceiling fight was the lowest point of President Obama's approval ratings. And third, the institutional memory of the 1995 government shutdown has left Democrats convinced that they will always see their political prospects improved by budgetary brinksmanship. These are realities that any strategy must take into account.
4. The Voters Get A Say: In a back-room negotiation, there's something to be said for being stubborn, as well as for starting off with an unreasonable opening demand and falling back to where you want to be. But inevitably, both sides here are trying to convince the public to take their side - and perceived voter movement will influence the outcome. That means that there's a lot to be said for starting off with a demand that seems more reasonable in the first place, although one could also make the case in some circumstances for taking a harder initial stance and then making a great show of compromising.
5. Perception Trumps Reality: Related to the prior point: one reason disputes over polling are so hotly contested is because much of the ability to win fights on Capitol Hill is driven, not by actual public opinion, but by its appearance. Expect pollsters to craft the phrasing of their questions, and their choices of which polls to release publicly, with that in mind.
6. Sometimes, You Fight To Lose: This is perhaps the biggest thing motivating the intensity of the debate over defunding. The strongest position in a negotiation is actually the position of entering a fight you are willing to lose. Pro-defund conservatives see themselves as playing a long game to change how Congress does business, so they see a losing fight as beneficial in the long run. GOP Senate leaders focused on recapturing the Senate are looking only to what plays best in 2014. Anti-defund conservatives are worried about burning out the grassroots base with yet another failure. The biggest divide is not what we expect to win, but what we're willing to lose.
September 9, 2013
POLITICS: The New York City Mayor's Race: Race, Crime, Unions, Taxes, and...Other Stuff
Tomorrow - Tuesday, September 10 - New York City voters go to the polls to pick the major-party candidates for their next Mayor. Candidates need 40% of their party's vote to avoid an October 1 runoff election among the top two finishers in the primary. At this writing, it appears that the nominees - possibly without a runoff - will be Republican candidate Joe Lhota (a former Rudy Giuliani aide and more recently Andrew Cuomo's appointee to head the MTA transit system) and Democrat/Working Families Party candidate Bill de Blasio (a former David Dinkins aide and the city's Public Advocate). To get from here to Election Day, the City may reopen old racial wounds and have to grapple with the legacy of its last three Mayors.
Five Decades, Four Mayors: Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg
The Dinkins Debacle
It pays to begin with a thumbnail sketch of the past four mayors, beginning when David Dinkins toppled Ed Koch in the Democratic primary in 1989. Koch, elected in 1977 as the City reeled from a financial crisis, was then seeking his fourth term as Mayor after a scandal-riddled third term; Dinkins was running to become the City's first African-American Mayor. Koch, once a liberal Congressman, had governed as a relatively pro-business Democrat (he was both the Democratic and Republican nominee in 1981) and rejected liberal political correctness on crime, although his anti-crime initiatives were less vigorous and successful than his revival of the City's economy and finances. New York under Koch enjoyed the prosperity and Wall Street boom of the 80s, but it was neither particularly clean nor safe, with the burden of high crime rates falling most heavily on poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods; Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities aptly captured New York in the Koch era. But Democratic primary voters made the problem worse. Facing a 'historic' black candidate in Dinkins, Koch lost roughly 95% of the black vote in the primary, a showing on par with former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke's 4% of the black vote in the general election for Louisiana Governor in 1991. (The Jewish Koch, a fighter for civil rights in the 60s, also had an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Jesse Jackson after Jackson called New York City "Hymietown" - an anti-Semitic slur - in 1984, as well as with rabble-rousing street preachers like then 35-year-old Al Sharpton.) Dinkins rolled up similar margins among black voters along the way to winning the general election against Rudy Giuliani, best known at the time as a crusading US Attorney who took on the mob, drug dealers and Wall Street insider trading.
To describe Dinkins as a failure as Mayor would be a massive understatement. Not even Jimmy Carter managed to discredit liberalism in action as garishly as Dinkins, who saw the murder rate explode and the city descend into the sort of chaos and racial strife that had liberals declaring it inherently ungovernable. In a 1993 rematch providing the same sort of perfect storm of opportunity to move the electorate rightward as Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory over Carter, Giuliani ousted Dinkins - but, this being New York, only narrowly. "Bad as the previous four years were - about 1,700 private-sector jobs lost every week on average, homicides surpassing 2,000 per year, more than 1 million residents on welfare - just about half the city was reluctant to give up on its first black mayor, and the voters in November 1993 ratified change only grudgingly. Incumbent David Dinkins was widely seen as ineffectual, but out of 1.75 million votes cast, in so heavily Democratic a town, Giuliani won by just 50,000." To this day, Dinkins contends that racism rather than the catastrophic state of the City was behind Giuliani's law-and-order campaign and victory (that's not hyperbole: according to his 2013 autobiography, "I think it was just racism, pure and simple").
The Rudy Revolution
What followed was a staggering turnaround in the City's fortunes in general and its law enforcement in particular, completely revising everything people believed about the city's safety and governance. Left-wing frequent Giuliani critic Michael Tomasky wrote that "[m]odern New York, with its safe streets, its gentrified Brooklyn, and booming tourist economy, was born on January 1, 1994. And, love him or hate him, it was Rudolph Giuliani who made the city what it is." George Will called Rudy's tenure "the most successful episode of conservative governance in this country in the last 50 years," Reagan included. Thanks in good part to aggressive, hands-on policing that started with a "broken windows" theory of going after petty offenders like squeegee men, New York became the safest large city in America, the stratospheric murder rates a distant memory. The welfare rolls were cut in half, the public-sector unions brought in line, a few particularly onerous taxes cut, Times Square reclaimed from the hookers and the sex shops to be a place so family-friendly Disney would (literally) later open a store there. Rudy's New York was still socially liberal and far from a libertarian paradise, but he had made it governable again.
Of course, there were always those who never accepted Rudy or his methods, most of all the Sharptonite resistance to Giuliani's law enforcement policies. But a combination of internal Democratic division and external force kept them from unifying when Rudy's tenure was up. Term limits put in place with the Koch third term in mind had made Rudy a lame duck by the time New York voters went to the polls on primary day of his final year in office: September 11, 2001. Between a racially divisive primary against Fernando Ferrer that saddled ultimate Democratic nominee Mark Green with low black turnout in November and the long shadow of the September 11 attacks, the voters elected to stay the Giuliani course with Mike Bloomberg. When the dust settled (literally), the billionaire who had built his fortune catering to Wall Street with trading desk terminals and business news was given the task of rebuilding the City's shattered downtown.
Bloomberg Finds New York's Center
While it's easily forgotten in national conservative circles that revile him, Bloomberg's 12 years in office (he shoved aside the term limits with the collusion of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn) have struck a course that is essentially centrist within the context of NY City politics, complete with drifting in and out of the Republican Party as it suited his purposes. Bloomberg continued and in some ways refined Rudy's approach to law enforcement and management, making it more sophisticated in its use of increasingly detailed data. Rudy had been tough on guns; Bloomberg raised it to the level of anti-gun zealotry. He's held the line against pressure to raise income taxes, and left the private sector mostly free of interference for economic purposes (as Bloomberg responds to charges of being 'in the tank for Wall Street': "I'm in the tank for industries in New York City! That's my job. That's the way people here eat!"). But Bloomberg often sticks his nose into business to advance one of his lifestyle crusades like banning big sodas, tossing smoking out of bars or inveighing against salt, and he also signed off on multiple rounds of property tax hikes. He's pursued a neoliberal policy on education, accumulating more power in the Mayor's office (his long-time schools chancellor, Joel Klein was Bill Clinton's antitrust enforcer), promoting charter schools and using government controls to hold public schools more accountable - which, combined with a negotiating line that prevented reaching a contract with the teachers' union the last several years, has earned him the enmity of the teachers. Befitting a former business executive, Bloomberg has proven a highly capable manager of day-to-day government operations, but has struggled when crises ranging from heavy winter snows to attempted terrorist attacks have called for him to rise to the occasion. And in myriad ways, when Bloomberg needed to buy off support or acquiescence to his policies and ambitions, he's done it by throwing around his own considerable wealth rather than the taxpayers' money.
Many New Yorkers have wearied of Bloomberg's personality, soured on his evasion of term limits and dissented from this or that policy - as Jonathan Chait notes, Bloomberg's contempt for the liberty or good opinion of the individual citizen has over 12 years worn poorly even in New York - but most observers of the New York scene would be hard-pressed to find evidence that the electorate wants a return to Dinkins-era progressivism run wild. A February 2013 Quinnipiac poll showed Bloomberg with a 53-40 positive approval rating and found that 31% of New York City voters cited Giuliani as the best Mayor of the past 50 years, with 25% saying Koch and 24% Bloomberg - compared to just 6% for the archliberal Dinkins, 6% for Great Society liberal Republican John Lindsay and 1% for conventional Democrat Abe Beame.
Bloomberg's Heir: Christine Quinn Misreads The Primary Voters
The conventional wisdom entering the 2013 race, therefore, was that the City's inherent Democratic partisanship (Democrats control nearly everything but the Mayor's office) was overdue after two decades out of power to reassert itself, but most likely in the form of a candidate who would not run dramatically far to Bloomberg's left. Enter Bloomberg's reliable ally and co-conspirator, Christine Quinn. By any reckoning, Quinn was the heavy favorite when the primary began and well into the summer, and is the establishment candidate in the race, winning a rare trifecta of primary endorsements from the New York Times, the Daily News and the Post and running with Bloomberg's blessing and de facto backing. Quinn backed Bloomberg on term limits and has mostly supported his education policies while joining forces on his various nanny-state crusades, and in a broad sense is seen as his heir. Yet, Quinn is distinctly more liberal than the billionaire, most notably on issues relating to private sector business, ranging from a more pro-union stance where Bloomberg has been generally neutral in private-sector labor disputes to an insane law permitting suits for discrimination against the unemployed that she passed over Bloomberg's veto to caving to union pressure on a paid-sick-leave bill. (Quinn has been endorsed by the Teamsters and the building-trades unions). She's also been an increasingly strident critic of the NYPD's "stop and frisk" policies, and has a sour relationship with the NYPD's union.
The massively powerful teachers' union has been a particularly big obstacle for Quinn. Having worked four years without a contract, the teachers are looking for a budget-busting retroactive pay raise that (along with demands by the rest of the City's 300,000 unionized workers) carries an estimated price tag in the $7-8 billion range (that's a thousand dollars from every New Yorker). The 70,000-member UFT hasn't endorsed a successful candidate since Dinkins, prompting Bloomberg to label its endorsement a "kiss of death." The GOP candidates have opposed retroactive raises, with Lhota taking the lead on the issue; Weiner has suggested they be conditioned on concessions on the unions making contributions to their own healthcare (along the lines of what Chris Christie negotiated in New Jersey); Thompson has eagerly endorsed the teachers' demand for retroactive raises, earning him the UFT's endorsement; City Comptroller John Liu's left-wing platform earned him the endorsement of District Council 37, the City's largest public-worker union. Quinn and de Blasio have been cagier on the issue; Quinn has refused to deal in "hypothetical" questions about budget deals, while de Blasio has refused to rule in or out retroactive raises. The difference in their positions, however, is less important than issues of trust: teachers angry at the long stalemate with Bloomberg and his efforts to bring the schools under more Mayoral control have been unwilling to trust his wing-woman.
Quinn's lead in the polls has crumbled so badly that she's now seen as unlikely to make the runoff, if there is a runoff; liberal as she is, and as hard as she pushes identity politics (she touts herself as the potential first woman Mayor of New York; she would also be the City's first openly gay Mayor - Koch's sexual preferences were the subject of much speculation but never confirmed), she's not a likeable campaigner and the Democratic primary voters seem inclined after two decades out of power to reassert their differences with Bloomberg. All of Quinn's substantive dissents from Bloomberg haven't managed to separate her in the public mind from the Mayor. And perhaps the most enduring lesson of Quinn's imminent failure, in light of her alliance with Bloomberg on education, is that a white female Democrat simply cannot afford to be at odds with the teachers' unions.
Dante's Identity: Bill de Blasio and Race
For much of June and July, the Democratic primary race was divided into four tiers: Quinn and Anthony Weiner battling for the top spot in the low/mid 20s, de Blasio and Bill Thompson fighting for position in the low teens, Liu stuck in fifth place due to a lurid campaign-finance scandal, and the rest of the candidates (because what this goat rodeo really needs is more candidates) not even worthy of being polled and not registering when they were. As this great New York Times infographic illustrates, New York City politics remains a labyrinth of racial, religious, ideological and union voting blocs. Many observers, myself included, thought that it was premature to count out Thompson, given that he had won 48% of the vote in the 2009 general election against Bloomberg (who broke all known records for per-vote spending in a major election) and could draw on the traditional loyalty of African-American voters to black candidates, a particularly pronounced tendency in New York City over the years.
The race was rocked on July 23 when Buzzfeed broke the blockbuster revelation that the disgraced Weiner had continued his 'sexting' ways on the internet after being driven from Congress, beginning the process of the bottom dropping out of his support. By August 8, the RCP polling average had Quinn with a 10-point lead and Weiner, de Blasio and Thompson all tied up around 16%:
The Family Card
That's when de Blasio rolled out this ad, featuring his 15-year-old son Dante (visibly reading off cue cards, but hey, he's 15) and his eye-catching throwback-70s Afro:
The ad was such a hit that Dante has had to field questions about his own future political ambitions (he'd probably have to keep the now-signature Afro if that's his plan). Quinnipiac, which has polled this primary race more than any other pollster, illustrates the dramatic effect that followed:
The "Dante" ad wasn't the only factor at work, but it worked on two levels: one, at the level of raw identity politics, it spread awareness that de Blasio's wife and son are African-American; and two, it hit directly on the racial hot-button accusation that the NYPD's "stop and frisk" policy "unfairly targets people of color." The cherry on top is de Blasio's pledge to raise income taxes.
As to the former, on Saturday, Mayor Bloomberg made headlines with his response to the ad, which he initially described as "racist" before backtracking (and later pressuring NY Magazine to drop the "racist" reference):
I mean he's making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it's pretty obvious to anyone watching what he's been doing. I do not think he himself is racist. It's comparable to me pointing out I'm Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.
On one level, Bloomberg misses an important point: a guy named Bloomberg doesn't have to tell voters he's Jewish, any more than Bill Thompson has to tell people he's black or John Catsimatidis needs to tell people he's Greek. But de Blasio, a white guy with an Italian surname, has to show people his family to make the point. Identity politics is a sad reality of politics, but we usually don't see candidates remind voters of it quite so bluntly.
If the goal was to prevent Thompson from consolidating black voter support behind the only black candidate in the race, it succeeded wildly. The latest polls show de Blasio leading Thompson among black voters by double-digit margins: 37-26 according to Quinnipiac, 42-26 according to PPP, 39-25 according to Marist.
The Politics of Stop and Frisk
But de Blasio's push is about more than just identity itself; the bigger element of the ad is the racial wedge issue of "stop and frisk." Now, it's important to stop here for a minute and do what Bloomberg and so many others fail to do, and define our terms, because talk about race in politics is chronically beset by confusion over words that have distinctly different meanings:
Racism is a set of ideas and beliefs, about the superiority or inferiority of different groups of people as defined by "race." Of course, race itself is largely an artificial set of distinctions among people who are biologically different only in superficial ways, which is one reason (not the only one) why racism is idiotic nonsense. In practice, it's less important what you believe than what you do - Abraham Lincoln and his generation of Republicans had many beliefs that would strike us today as racist, but what mattered was that they put their blood and treasure on the line to improve the lives of enslaved black people. That said, voters are rightly interested in the beliefs of political candidates, which are often more enduring than their promises. The problem with accusations of racism in politics is not that they're unimportant but that they're non-falsifiable: that is, there's no type of evidence that can be presented to disprove them (indeed, citing any available type of evidence is usually regarded as additional proof that you're actually a racist).
Racial discrimination is the real offense: treating people differently because of their race. That's the case whether the discrimination is individual or whether it's a systematic structure of discrimination like Jim Crow or apartheid. In theory, everybody's against discrimination - except, you know, racial preferences in education and employment.
Disparate impact is treating people the same, but in a way that affects people within different racial groups differently. To use a recent and fairly mild example of this, some people have referred to a tax on tanning beds as "racist," which is ridiculous; that said, for obvious reasons tanning is mostly a thing white people do, so if you're against every possible form of disparate impact, that's the kind of thing you end up crusading against.
Racialism is the habit of viewing everything through the lens of race, a terribly destructive habit but - of course - a hard one to shake when you attempt to write about New York City politics, or national politics in the Age of Obama.
Racial wedge issues, or race-baiting, or the race card, or any number of similar terms refer to pressing political issues or appeals that divide people along racial lines, and that's where we get to what's really at stake with the stop-and-frisk debate and how we talk about it.
The NYPD has - using crime data and statistics - conducted an increasingly active campaign of preventive law enforcement built around stopping individuals on the street for questioning (a tactic blessed by the Warren Court in 1968 in Terry v Ohio so long as there is "articulable suspicion") and frisking them for weapons when deemed appropriate. Beat cops have been concentrated in high-crime areas. A lawsuit charging the NYPD with discrimination did not produce evidence of any policy of racial profiling (thus, no overt evidence of racial discrimination on a non-isolated basis), but relied on statistical evidence to argue (persuasively, to the district judge) disparate impact and an inference of discrimination. In a nutshell, the evidence showed that black New Yorkers were stopped in numbers far disproportionate to their numbers among the population - while the City noted that the demographics of people stopped matched well with the actual population of criminals (as determined both from arrests and victim reports). The evidence also showed that the NYPD was more likely to have "false positive" stops of blacks - ie, stops without a well-explained basis or a resulting arrest.
We have not racial-profiled, we've gone where the crime is....
The merits of the debate demand a more detailed look than space permits here; Slate's Eric Posner explains why the decision got the wrong result:
Twelve percent of the stops resulted in an arrest or summons...So, police stopped black people more often than they stopped whites even though whites constitute a larger fraction of the city's population; they used force against blacks more often; and yet they found weapons and contraband less often when they searched blacks than when they searched whites.
There's the rub: an ideal stop-and-frisk policy will never be error-free, and liberals of all people should know better than to denounce any government program that's not error-free. The question is whether the errors are worth the benefits, and whether they are fairly distributed. As to the former, it's hard to look at New York today compared to the Dinkins years and not want to give a lot of leeway to the NYPD's nearly-miraculous record of crime reduction, a record few government programs in any field can match. As to the latter, an ideal policy will produce a rate of stops that looks like the actual criminal population - that's not a Bayesian fallacy but a recognition that the distribution of errors should mirror the distribution of successes. If the impact on innocent black men is disproportionate, it's because - unfortunately - they disproportionately live in neighborhoods victimized by black male criminals. Any effort to skew the numbers away from the proportions they would hold if they were 100% accurate, simply for purposes of spreading the pain to other racial groups, is not fairness, but its opposite.
For political purposes the question is less about the merits than about how it resonates with the voters - and despite being the major beneficiaries of lower crime rates, black voters are especially hostile to stop-and-frisk and particularly receptive to explicit political appeals arguing that it's racist, discriminatory or at least racially unfair. Is it fair to raise a political issue that divides voters so explicitly on race? I'm no fan of racial politics, for a lot of reasons: playing the race card and gaining voter loyalty on racial lines is often a way of distracting from the real issues and insulating inept or corrupt politicians from accountability. But fundamentally, public policy issues like stop-and-frisk are important issues, just as things like prison furloughs or racial preferences are important issues the voters should be heard on. Liberals who spent two decades freaking out over Willie Horton and the famous Jesse Helms "hands" ad against Harvey Gantt have no moral standing to defend de Blasio's use of a similar racial wedge issue - but even if de Blasio's wrong on the issue and his supporters are hypocrites, that doesn't mean it's an illegitimate issue. Indeed, the parallel to the Helms ad is pretty obvious: in both cases, the candidate is appealing on explicit racial lines to the group that is asked to have innocent members pay the cost of a government social policy (the difference being that preferences are a true zero-sum issue, whereas lower crime rates benefit everyone). That may be ugly and it may be divisive, but at some point, it's still the voters' business.
The Dinkins Legacy
With de Blasio and the other Democratic candidates vowing to put an end to stop-and-frisk (all they'd need to do is drop the City's appeal of the ruling), there's little question that this election will now put at stake 20 years of thinking about law enforcement. The Wall Street Journal reports that it's already taking its toll on the cops' willingness to perform stops.
If all of this seems like de Blasio is trying to overturn 20 years of Giuliani/Bloomberg consensus on law enforcement - and all the crime-fighting success that entails - it's no accident. De Blasio appears to be already looking down the road to make the general election against Lhota a referendum on relitigating the Dinkins-Giuliani races, as evidenced by his reaction to a report (denied by the Lhota camp - "David Johnson has zero affiliation with our campaign and no one on our campaign has ever heard of him") that a Georgia pollster had been polling the public's reaction to de Blasio's interracial marriage:
"I did see the Lhota campaign try and distance themselves from it," Mr. de Blasio replied when asked about the report. "I hope that's true. Because I know who Joe Lhota worked for. He worked for Rudy Giuliani; he was the top deputy for Rudy Giuliani when Rudy was dividing this city as a matter of political strategy."
Given the relative public standing of Dinkins and Giuliani, de Blasio's desire to refight those elections and tie himself and Lhota to Dinkins and Rudy seems mystifying. But by his own admission, de Blasio is a Dinkins guy all the way down:
[After working on his campaign as a volunteer coordinator, w]hen Mr. Dinkins won, Mr. de Blasio secured a job as a City Hall aide, a four-year position "foundational for everything I've done since then," he said. Not only did Mr. de Blasio acquire a taste for politics, he made a series of instrumental contacts, including another young Dinkins aide named Chirlane McCray, whom he met in 1991 and eventually married.
A key element in de Blasio's appeal to liberal activists and older African-Americans has been attempting to revive the reputation of Dinkins, New York's first black mayor. The Dinkins mayoralty meant a great deal to de Blasio, who met his wife and came of age in local politics while both were working for the Dinkins administration. Dinkins, according to de Blasio, was, unbeknownst to the public, a staunch and effective crime fighter. His problem, argues de Blasio, was communications, not substance, though many who lived through the paralyzing fear of the Dinkins years would probably disagree.
Ironically, Dinkins himself - playing to caricature to the end - joined Charlie Rangel in endorsing Thompson rather than de Blasio.
Higher Taxes: What Can't They Do?
The other area where de Blasio has stuck out is taxes: while the Democratic candidates have mostly been non-committal on property taxes, de Blasio pledges to raise income taxes on the City's top tax bracket. There are two obvious problems with this, even beyond the usual problems with tax hikes. One is that these are the very same taxpayers who were already hit when President Obama raised the top federal tax rate by letting the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012, and when Andrew Cuomo raised the top state tax rate in 2011; going back to that same well could push the top marginal rate to a very bad part of the Laffer Curve. And second, for reasons of New York state law and economics, the City can't raise income taxes without the permission of the State Legislature in Albany, and so de Blasio's plan would be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled State Senate.
That leaves the other big piece of de Blasio's economic message, union organizing in the private sector, an approach that won him the endorsement of SEIU Local 1199, the largest union in the City:
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the front-runner in recent polls, has been most explicit about the role of the mayor in such efforts. Asked on Wednesday about his approach to private-sector unionization, he said elected officials "have to think like community organizers."
His community-organizer approach has come with predictable downsides. Though it's gotten less attention than Liu's campaign finance scandal, de Blasio is dogged by his own scandal, deriving from his support by the Working Families Party, an all-but-socialist third party (the WFP is closely akin to the PIRGs, ACORN and similar groups). The US Attorney's Office launched an investigation into the WFP and de Blasio shortly after his 2009 election as Public Advocate, based on accusations during the campaign that the WFP was pervasively violating campaign finance rules. In 2011, the WFP paid $100,000 to settle state and federal lawsuits charging it had used a for-profit arm to provide below-cost services to campaigns as a facade to provide unreported contributions, something the City's campaign finance board had warned de Blasio and other WFP-backed candidates about during the 2009 race. In 2012, a special prosecutor was appointed to dig further. Earlier this spring, the WFP itself went to court to fight subpoenas in the special prosecutor's investigation.
(de Blasio's other job after the Dinkins years was with Andrew Cuomo and Kirsten Gillibrand in the Clinton-era HUD, which started the nation down the road to the 2008 housing crisis. It's not hard to see why de Blasio would be hesitant to tout that.)
The City's 20 years without a Democratic Mayor is a vivid illustration of Robert Conquest's First Law ("everyone is most conservative about the things he knows best"); even leading liberals like Josh Marshall aren't willing to claim that de Blasio's economic policies will actually work:
The interesting thing about de Blasio...is that he is running as an unabashed progressive....[F]or three decades rising economic inequality has been a cornerstone of the Democratic critique of the direction of the country. It's been a theme of many campaigns. Yet most elected Democrats, particularly those in executive positions, have shied away from implementing the set of policies that might actually change or ameliorate the trend...I don't know if those 'things' will work in the big picture. (That's not just a throwaway line. I'm cautious and somewhat skeptical about our ability to shift these trends through policy....)...
Where is the GOP in all of this? With a much more low-key 3-man race of its own, but really two-man:the most conservative candidate, George McDonald, has drawn positive notices everywhere he's gone but hasn't gained any traction and lacks the resources to get his message out. That leaves the unpronouncable against the unspellable: Lhota (the "H" is silent), endorsed by his old boss Rudy, against Catsimatidis, a Greek-born self-made grocery billionaire endorsed by George Pataki. Catsimatidis' immigrant-makes-the-American-dream bio may be inspiring, but as a candidate he's been prone to all the well-known pitfalls of clueless-rich-guy, consultant-meal-ticket GOP politics, and has made his closing argument that Lhota can't win because he doesn't have enough money. Catsimatidis also doesn't sound like a guy who is willing to go for de Blasio's jugular. Then again, the "Cats Man" did manage to put Lhota in the position of having to make this classic debate denial:
Lhota was forced to answer for a controversial statement he made to New York before Labor Day, when he said he would not have stopped train service to rescue beloved vagrant kittens August and Arthur. "I'm not the anti-kitten candidate," Lhota insisted. "Let's talk about the facts, let's talk about the real facts here. First off, as you all know, I have pets. I love pets. I grew up with cats ... We have thousands of cats, literally thousands of cats, that are in the subway system every single day, day and night, scurrying across the tracks and they don't get killed." The remark removed all doubt that lost and adorable cats would be left to fend for themselves under a Lhota administration.
We get daily mailers from both these guys, and the latest Lhota mailer has more pictures of Rudy than of Lhota; at the end of the day, while Lhota knows he needs Democratic votes to win, he can't avoid the shadow of his old boss and shouldn't try. Lhota isn't a perfect fit for conservatives (given his stances on abortion and same-sex marriage) or libertarians, given his support for stop-and-frisk, but he's easily the best thing GOP voters could have hoped for after Police Commissioner Ray Kelly declined to run. Matt Welch of Reason Magazine argues that Lhota would actually have something to offer to fans of smaller government; as Lhota told the NY Post:
Asked how he differs from Bloomberg, Lhota cites health initiatives in general and Bloomberg's bid to bar sales of super-sized soda in particular.
Tomorrow, we find out if this three-ring circus is finally ready to reduce to a two-man race.
August 6, 2013
POLITICS: 73 Rules For Running For President As A Republican
We do not yet know who the Republican presidential nominee will be in 2016. We do not even know for certain who the candidates will be, although several are visibly positioning themselves to run. We all have our own ideas about who should run and what the substance of their platforms should be. But even leaving those aside, it's possible to draw some lessons from the past few GOP campaign cycles and offer some advice that any prospective candidate should heed, the sooner the better. Some of these rules are in a little tension with each other; nobody said running for President was easy. But most are simply experience and common sense.
1-Run because you think your ideas are right and you believe you would be the best president. Don't stay out because your chances are slim, and don't get in because someone else wants you to. Candidates who don't have a good reason for running or don't want to be there are a fraud on their supporters.
2-Ask yourself what you're willing to sacrifice or compromise on to win. If there's nothing important you'd sacrifice, don't run; you will lose. If there's nothing important you wouldn't, don't run; you deserve to lose.
3- If you don't like Republican voters, don't run.
4-Don't start a campaign if you're not prepared for the possibility that you might become the frontrunner. Stranger things have happened.
5-If you've never won an election before, go win one first. This won't be the first one you win.
6-Winning is what counts. Your primary and general election opponents will go negative, play wedge issues that work for them, and raise money wherever it can be found. If you aren't willing to do all three enthusiastically, you're going to be a high minded loser. Nobody who listens to the campaign-trail scolds wins. In the general election, if you don't convey to voters that you believe in your heart that your opponent is a dangerously misguided choice, you will lose.
7-Pick your battles, or they will be picked for you. You can choose a few unpopular stances on principle, but even the most principled candidates need to spend most of their time holding defensible ground. If you have positions you can't explain or defend without shooting yourself in the foot, drop them.
8-Don't be surprised when people who liked you before you run don't like you anymore. Prepare for it.
9-Be sure before you run that your family is on board with you running. They need to be completely committed, because it will be harder than they can imagine. Related: think of the worst possible thing anyone could say about the woman in your life you care about the most, and understand that it will be said.
10-You will be called a racist, regardless of your actual life history, behavior, beliefs or platform. Any effort to deny that you're a racist will be taken as proof that you are one. Accept it as the price of admission.
11-Have opposition research done on yourself. Have others you trust review the file. Be prepared to answer for anything that comes up in that research. If there's anything that you think will sink you, don't run.
12-Ask yourself if there's anything people will demand to know about you, and get it out there early. If your tax returns or your business partnerships are too important to disclose, don't run. (We might call this the Bain Capital Rule).
13-Realize that your record, and all the favors you've done, will mean nothing if your primary opponent appears better funded.
14-Run as who you are, not who you think the voters want. There's no substitute for authenticity.
15-Each morning, before you read the polls or the newspapers, ask yourself what you want to talk about today. Talk about that.
16-If you never give the media new things to talk about, they'll talk about things you don't like.
17-Never assume the voters are stupid or foolish, but also don't assume they are well-informed. Talk to them the way you'd explain something to your boss for the first time.
18-Handwrite the parts of your platform you want voters to remember on a 3x5 index card. If it doesn't fit, your message is too complicated. If you can't think of what to start with, don't run.
19-Voters may be motivated by hope, fear, resentment, greed, altriusm or any number of other emotions, but they want to believe they are voting for something, not against someone. Give them some positive cause to rally around beyond defeating the other guy.
20-Optimism wins. If you are going to be a warrior, be a happy warrior. Anger turns people off, so laugh at yourself and the other side whenever possible, even in a heated argument.
21-Ideas don't run for President; people do. If people don't like you, they won't listen to you.
22-Your biography is the opening act. Your policy proposals and principles are the headliner. Never confuse the two. The voters know the difference.
23-Show, don't tell. Proclaiming your conservatism is meaningless, and it's harder to sell to the unconverted than policy proposals and accomplishments that are based on conservative thinking.
24-Being a consistent conservative will help you more than pandering to nuts on the Right. If you can't tell the difference between the two, don't run.
25-Winning campaigns attract crazy and stupid people as supporters; you can't get a majority without them. This does not mean you should have crazy or stupid people as your advisers or spokespeople.
26-Principles inspire; overly complex, specific plans are a pinata that can get picked to death. If you're tied down defending Point 7 of a 52 point plan that will never survive contact with the Congress anyway you lose. Complex plans need to be able to be boiled down to the principles and incentives they will operate on. The boiling is the key part.
27-Be ready and able to explain how your plans benefit individual voters. Self-interest is a powerful thing in a democracy.
28-If you haven't worked out the necessary details of a policy, don't be rushed into releasing it just because Ezra Klein thinks you don't have a plan. Nobody will care that you didn't have a new tax plan ready 14 months before Election Day.
29-Don't say things that are false just because the CBO thinks they're true.
30-If you don't have a position on an issue, say that you're still studying the issue. Nobody needs an opinion on everything at the drop of a hat, and you'll get in less trouble.
31-When in doubt, go on the attack against the Democratic frontrunner rather than your primary opponents. Never forget that you are auditioning to run the general election against the Democrat, not just trying to be the least-bad Republican.
32-Attacking your opponents from the left, or using left-wing language, is a mistake no matter how tempting the opportunity. It makes Republican voters associate you with people they don't like. This is how both Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry ended up fumbling the Bain Capital attack.
33-Be prepared to defend every attack you make, no matter where your campaign made it. Nobody likes a rabbit puncher. Tim Pawlenty's attack on Romneycare dissolved the instant he refused to repeat it to Romney's face, and so did his campaign.
34-If your position has changed, explain why the old one was wrong. People want to know how you learn. If you don't think the old one was wrong, just inconvenient, the voters will figure that out.
35-If a debate or interview question is biased or ridiculous, point that out. Voters want to know you can smell a trap. This worked for Newt Gingrich every single time he did it. It worked when George H.W. Bush did it to Dan Rather. It will work for you.
36-Cultivate sympathetic media, from explicitly conservative outlets to fair-minded local media. But even in the primaries, you need to engage periodically with hostile mainstream media outlets to stay in practice and prove to primary voters that you can hold your ground outside the bubble.
37-Refuse to answer horserace questions, and never refer to "the base." Leave polls to the pollsters and punditry to the pundits. Mitt Romney's 47% remark was a textbook example of why candidates should not play pundit.
38-Hecklers are an opportunity, not a nuisance. If you can't win an exchange with a heckler, how are you going to win one with a presidential candidate? If you're not sure how it's done, go watch some of Chris Christie's YouTube collection.
39-Everywhere you go, assume a Democrat is recording what you say. This is probably the case.
40-Never whine about negative campaigning. If it's false, fight back; if not, just keep telling your own story. Candidates who are complaining about negative campaigning smell like losing.
41-"You did too" and "you started it" get old in a hurry. Use them sparingly.
42-If you find yourself explaining how the Senate works, stop talking. If you find yourself doing this regularly, stop running.
43-Never say "the only poll that matters is on Election Day" because only losers say that, and anyway even Election Day starts a month early now. But never forget that polls can and do change.
44-Voters do not like obviously insincere pandering, but you cannot win an election by refusing on principle to meet the voters where they are. That includes, yes, addressing Hispanic and other identity groups with a plan for sustained outreach and an explanation of how they benefit from your agenda. Build your outreach team, including liaisons and advertising in Spanish-language media, early and stay engaged as if this was the only way to reach the voters. For some voters, it is.
45-Post something as close to daily as possible on YouTube featuring yourself - daily message, clips of your best moments campaigning, vignettes from the trail. You can't visit every voter, but you can visit every voter's computer or phone.
46-Never suggest that anybody would not make a good vice president. Whatever they may say, everyone wants to believe they could be offered the job.
47-If you're not making enemies among liberals, you're doing it wrong.
48- If you don't have a plausible strategy for winning conservative support, you're in the wrong party's primary.
49-The goal is to win the election, not just the primary. Never box yourself in to win a primary in a way that will cause you to lose the election.
50-Don't bother making friends in the primary who won't support you in the general. Good press for being the reasonable Republican will evaporate when the choice is between you and a Democrat.
51-Some Republicans can be persuaded to vote for you in the general, but not in the primary. Some will threaten to sit out the general. Ignore them. You can't make everyone happy. Run a strong general election campaign and enough of them will come your way.
52-Don't actively work to alienate your base during the primary. Everyone expects you to do it in the general, and you gain nothing for it in the primary.
53-Don't save cash; it's easier to raise money after a win than to win with cash you saved while losing. But make sure your organization can run on fumes now and then during dry spells.
54-If you're not prepared for a debate, don't go. Nobody ever had their campaign sunk by skipping a primary debate. But looking unprepared for a debate can, as Rick Perry learned, create a bad impression that even a decade-long record can't overcome.
55-The Iowa Straw Poll is a trap with no upside. Avoid it. Michele Bachmann won the Straw Poll and still finished last in Iowa.
56-Ballot access rules are important. Devote resources early to learning, complying with them in every state. Mitt Romney didn't have to face Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum in Virginia - even though both of them live in Virginia - because they didn't do their homework gathering signatures.
57-If you can't fire, don't hire. In fact, don't run.
58-Hire people who are loyal to your message and agenda, and you won't have to worry about their loyalty to your campaign.
59-Don't put off doing thorough opposition research on your opponents. By the time you know who they are, the voters may have decided they're somebody else.
60-You can afford to effectively skip one early primary. You can't skip more than that. You are running for a nomination that will require you to compete nationally. (Call this the Rudy Giuliani Rule).
61-Use polling properly. Good polling will not tell you what to believe, but will tell you how to sell what you already believe.
62-Data and GOTV are not a secret sauce for victory. But ignoring them is a great way to get blindsided.
63-Don't plan to match the Democrats' operations and technology, because then you're just trying to win the last election. Plan to beat it.
64-Political consultants are like leeches. Small numbers, carefully applied, can be good for you. Large numbers will suck you dry, kill you, and move on to another host without a backward look.
65-Never hire consultants who want to use you to remake the party. They're not Republicans and you're not a laboratory rat.
66-This is the 21st century. If you wouldn't want it in a TV ad, don't put it in a robocall or a mailer. Nothing's under the radar anymore.
67-Always thank your friends when they back you up. Gratitude is currency.
68-Every leak from your campaign should help your campaign. Treat staffers who leak unfavorable things to the press the way you would treat staffers who embezzle your money. Money's easier to replace.
69-Getting distance from your base in the general on ancillary issues won't hurt you; they'll suck it up and independents will like it. Attacking your base on core issues will alienate your most loyal voters and confuse independents.
70-If you are convinced that a particular running mate will save you from losing, resign yourself to losing because you've already lost.
71-Don't pick a VP who has never served in Congress or run for president in his or her own right. Even the best Governors have a learning curve with national politics, and even the best foreign policy minds have a learning curve with electoral politics. And never steal from the future to pay for the present. Your running mate should not be a Republican star in the making who isn't ready for prime time. In retrospect, Sarah Palin's career was irreparably damaged by being elevated too quickly to the national level.
72-Never, ever, ever take anything for granted. Every election, people lose primary or general elections because they were complacent.
73-Make a few rules of your own. Losing campaigns imitate; winning campaigns innovate.
July 24, 2013
POLITICS: For Paul Krugman, Everything's An Exception
The failure of Detroit is only the latest dramatic illustration of the practical failure of liberal-progressivism, standing in contrast to the great successes of free markets and conservative governance. If you are Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning New York Times columnist, this sort of thing ought to give you pause about the connection between your big-government ideas and reality. Instead, it is only the latest example of how Krugman simply writes off any facts he finds inconvenient.
There are influential people out there who would like you to believe that Detroit’s demise is fundamentally a tale of fiscal irresponsibility and/or greedy public employees. It isn’t. For the most part, it’s just one of those things that happens now and then in an ever-changing economy.
This at least is less egregiously dishonest than the chorus of left-wingers engaged in arguing that Detroit was done in by conservative racists rather than the actions of its own wholly Democratic, wholly liberal government and population over the past six decades (with a big assist from the State of Michigan, which has been far more often in liberal Democratic than conservative Republican hands over those years - think Jennifer Granholm - in large part due to the voting power of Detroit). But it's also sadly symptomatic of how Krugman deals with contrary examples.
Dealing with the disparity between job growth in Texas and a stagnant national economy outside Texas, Krugman insisted that "Texan experience offers no useful lessons on how to restore national full employment." Krugman contended that Texas is unusual because of its growing population, ignoring the fact that much of that population growth came from an influx of people looking for work they could find in Texas but not in, say, California or Illinois or Mexico.
How about Greece? To Krugman, in the same column discussing Detroit, "the truth was that Greece was a very special case, holding few if any lessons for wider economic policy."
It's true, of course, that the same economics and public policy will play out differently in different times and places, but eventually you run out of ways to explain away failure by saying everything's an exception.
July 17, 2013
POLITICS: Fear of the Missing White Voters
RealClearPolitics election analyst Sean Trende has come under coordinated red-hot rhetorical fire from the Left for his thesis that one of the major causes of Mitt Romney's loss in 2012 was that a disproportionate number of white voters - mostly downscale whites outside the South - stayed home. Much of the criticism of Trende's thesis is based on deliberately misreading his policy prescriptions - but it's also based on a simpler failure to grasp the basic math behind his calculations. Like any exercise in reading exit polls and census data, Trende's assumptions (which he lays out explicitly) can be critiqued by people who are serious about understanding the issue; there are no definitive answers in this area other than final vote counts. But the vehemence directed at Trende's number-crunching suggests a Democratic establishment that fears honest debate intruding in its narrative of an inevitable, permanent Democratic majority built on a permanently racially polarized electorate.
Given the intense and growing racial polarization of the Obama-era electorate, it is sadly necessary to look at the race of voters to make sense of what happened in 2012 and what it says about the two parties' coalitions going forward; on this, analysts on all sides agree. Indeed, those who argue for a long-term Democratic majority do so primarily on the basis of maintenance of current levels of racial division. It is also agreed among all analysts that turnout was down in 2012 from 2008; the raw numbers show that about 2.2 million fewer people voted, while the population grew. The issue is how to measure the rates of turnout among each racial group.
Who The Missing Voters Were
Trende's original thesis was based on the initial exit polls released immediately after the election as compared to Census Bureau population estimates, and developed in a four part series beginning last month. Naturally, given the nature of the data sets involved, his numbers changed as more precise sources of data became available. He conducted a simple five-step exercise:
1. Look at voter turnout - total and by race - in the 2008 election;
2. Look at Census data to determine the growth of eligible voters in each racial category;
3. Project what the 2012 electorate would have looked like if each category turned out at the same rates as in 2008, but adjusted for the 2012 population;
4. Look at voter turnout - total and by race - in the 2012 election;
5. Compare Step 3 to Step 4 to determine how each group's rates of turnout changed from 2008 to 2012.
This is not a controversial methodology; total population growth and total election turnout are hard data, and the only real issues are which of various Census reports you use to compute population growth by racial category, and which of various election sources you use to compute turnout by racial group. With a little cutting and pasting to combine his two charts, here is what Trende's June analysis concluded:
In other words, compared to 2008 levels of turnout, white voter turnout was down far more than non-white voter turnout (6.2% vs 3.8% for black voters and 1.6% for Hispanic voters), and there were approximately 6 million "missing white voters," as compared to about 871,000 black and Hispanic voters. Trende also finds about 1.3 million missing "other" voters ("other" being mainly mixed-race voters, as well as Native American, South Asian, and other groups - not necessarily a bloc as heavily Democratic as black or Hispanic voters). The "other" group is a statistically significant part of the analysis, but, as Trende's later analysis shows, that last figure may be an anomaly due largely to mathematical rounding issues, without which the number of "missing" non-white voters in total drops in half when you use later, more accurate data - more on that below.
There is one error in Trende's computation, which brings his total short of the 129.2 million votes cast in 2012, and that's Asian voters (who have broken heavily Democratic in recent elections after being a GOP voting bloc in the Reagan-HW Bush years). Trende finds about 70,000 Asian voters missing, when in fact Asian turnout was up enough that he should be showing about 575,000 extra Asian voters (I contacted Trende and he confirmed this). Asian voters are an oft-overlooked and growing piece of the puzzle, and they still turn out in very, very low numbers compared to their (still-small) share of the US population, but reaching out to them is an important consideration going forward. In any event, when you adjust for the proper counting of Asian voters, you find that it actually strengthens Trende's thesis that white voter turnout was down relative to turnout of the major non-white voting blocs.
Where The Missing Voters Were
Trende also produced a map showing where the missing voters were most likely to be found, although the map can't break them out by race; the areas in blue on the map represent the biggest drops in turnout, red represents growth in turnout compared to population growth.
As you can see from the map, a good number of the "missing" voters were in uncontested states like New York and Oklahoma where they would not have made a difference. And the big chunks of deep blue in New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota (as well as the heavy dropoff in turnout in Alaska, not shown on the map) are consistent with a dramatic decline in Native American voter turnout.
But a significant number of others were in Pennsylvania (Obama by 309,840 votes out of 5.75 million cast), Ohio (Obama by 166,272 votes out of 5.59 million cast), Michigan (Obama by 449,313 votes out of 4.74 million cast), and Minnesota (Obama by 225,942 votes out of 2.94 million cast). This is consistent with Trende's conclusion that - while these voters were not, in and of themselves, the cause of Romney's loss - they were a contributing factor large enough to consider, and one that may loom even larger in a closer future contest between a better Republican candidate and a Democrat who has less visceral appeal to non-white voters. (The lower turnout throughout the Northeast also surely reflects the influence of Hurricane Sandy).
The White-Voter Path To GOP Victory
Later in his series, Trende moved on to a second thesis: that it's possible - not likely, but possible - that depending how turnout develops (eg, if African-American turnout and voting patterns revert to pre-Obama levels), that the GOP could start winning national elections on the basis of winning a growing share of the white vote without eroding the Democrats' hold on non-white voters. As Trende notes, while this scenario requires some leaps from where we stand today, white voters have been trending gradually more Republican:
Democrats liked to mock the GOP as the "Party of White People" after the 2012 elections. But from a purely electoral perspective, that's not a terrible thing to be. Even with present population projections, there are likely to be a lot of non-Hispanic whites in this country for a very long time. Relatively slight changes among their voting habits can forestall massive changes among the non-white population for a very long while. The very white baby boom generation is just hitting retirement age, and younger whites, while unsurprisingly more Democratic than the baby boomers (who, you may recall, supported George McGovern), still voted for Romney overall.
Nowhere does Trende argue for the GOP to turn up its nose at Hispanic outreach, or counsel a harder line on immigration; rather, he argues simply that there are enough different variables that it's unwise to write off the GOP just yet on the basis of mathematical and demographic determinism, even if the GOP does defeat the current iteration of "comprehensive immigration reform." There is more than one way to build a winning electoral coalition.
The main salvo against Trende can be found in a belligerent ThinkProgress blog post by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz entitled, "No, Republicans, 'Missing' White Voters Won't Save You." Stripping away the rhetorical overkill ("GOP phone home! Your missing white voters have been found, and it turns out they weren't really missing"), the main point of contention is that Teixeira and Abramowitz simply reject the notion that turnout was down at differential rates:
Trende was using an estimate of around 2.7 million additional eligible whites between 2008 and 2012. That's wrong: Census data show an increase of only 1.5 million white eligibles....[U]sing Census data on eligible voters plus exit poll data on shares of votes by race, we calculate that turnout went down by about equal amounts among white and minority voters (3.4 and 3.2 percentage points, respectively).
This attack on Trende was predictably amplified by Paul Krugman, who doesn't seem to have even read Trende's essays, calling them a "Whiter Shade of Fail"; Krugman concludes on the basis of reading the ThinkProgress blog post that "the missing-white-voter story is a myth." (Josh Marshall takes a similar line).
But careful reading is your friend. And a careful reading shows why Teixeira and Abramowitz are long on vitriol - because they are short on trustworthy data.
The immediate problem here is that Teixeira and Abramowitz don't show their work to explain how they come up with these percentages, so a certain amount of deductive detective work is required to figure out what they did (not making your computations transparent is generally not a sign of confidence in your data). From the links in their post, it appears that the main issue is that they and Trende are using different Census Bureau reports for their data. Also, critically, Teixeira and Abramowitz don't break out turnout among the component elements of "non-white" voters, who they treat as a monolithic mass.
The CPS Bait and Switch
As Trende observes, Teixeira and Abramowitz "look at a different data set -- the CPS [Current Population Survey] data," a monthly survey in which people self-report employment data and (after the election) self-reported voting participation. Trende, by contrast, used Census Bureau population estimates derived from the actual 2010 Census.
If you take it at face value, however, the CPS survey has a serious flaw that should be obvious even to a Nobel Prize winner:
[T]he CPS data conclude that there were 1.4 million more Hispanics who voted in 2012 than in 2008, 547,000 more Asians, 1.7 million more blacks, and 2 million fewer whites. That works out to a total of 1.8 million more votes cast in 2012 than 2008, according to the CPS survey.
In short: the CPS turnout figures cannot possibly be correct. It's like a preseason baseball prediction where the whole league is over .500. It's mathematically impossible. Now, it's certainly possible that CPS is wrong proportionally - that is, that it overreported the turnout of all groups equally. It's also certainly possible that it's not proportionate. But there's no way from looking at CPS alone to know, so relying on it as an authoritative source without caveat or explanation is a very questionable choice.
Teixeira and Abramowitz stake their whole argument on the CPS - but then they use it selectively. As noted above, the actual turnout figures produced by CPS support the idea that white turnout was down in absolute terms, while black, Hispanic and Asian turnout was up. If they broke these groups out individually, as they appear in the CPS data itself, that would destroy their entire argument that turnout was down equally across all groups. So they do two things to cover their tracks. One is to clump these groups together with "other" non-whites; but as Trende notes, "the large mass of missing 'other' voters is probably a rounding issue. This isn't a minor point; those voters represent 60 percent of all the non-whites that Teixeira and Abramowitz are discussing."
Second, as Trende demonstrates, Teixeira and Abramowitz are only able to use the CPS data to their advantage by mixing and matching it with other sources (specifically, exit polls) - if you use only the CPS, "the CPS data actually show a larger decline in the white vote than do the exit polls." (Trende, because he's using non-election-related Census data, has to use the exit polls for his turnout figures - but if Teixeira and Abramowitz think CPS is the more reliable source, why do they avoid using it to compute turnout?)
There is no perfect answer to these questions. The Census is the best possible population figure, but the interstitial estimates involve some inherent guesswork. Exit polls may be biased in who answers them, and the CPS is obviously biased to over-report voting and may be biased in who over-reports; we can't know. (One difference being that exit poll respondents don't know who won the election when they respond; CPS respondents do, so there may be a possible bias towards overreporting by non-voting supporters of the winner. But that's speculation.) What we do know is that Trende has put his methodological choices on the table and they are reasonable ones; Teixeira and Abramowitz have not, nor offered any defense for their methods, nor explained how they can square their theory of perfectly proportional decline in turnout across groups with the fact that the very source they use shows the opposite. Under those circumstances, it's not hard to decide who to trust.
The Wider Universe of Missing Voters
For all the heat over Trende's computations, it should not be forgotten that the "missing white voters" are only the difference in turnout patterns between 2008 and 2012 - both elections in which uninspiring and poorly-organized GOP campaigns faced off against Barack Obama (a uniquely inspiring figure to non-white voters due to his status as the first non-white President), and the first of which - the baseline - already involved a uniquely bad political environment for Republicans. In fact, voter turnout is a volatile variable that changes from one election to another; while it can be useful to perform an exercise like Trende's, it requires a serious failure of imagination to regard the 2008 and 2012 turnout environments as the outer boundaries of potential voter turnout.
How many voters are "missing" depends very much what your baseline is - a baseline that never stops moving. It's debatable exactly how many eligible voters there are at any given time (different sources use different measurements) but consider that Michael McDonald of George Mason University (on whom Teixeira and Abramowitz rely) figures a "voting eligible population" of 221,925,820 in 2012 - which means that compared to the entire universe of eligible voters, there weren't six or eight million missing voters, there were 92.7 million missing voters, 40% more than the total that voted for Obama. On the other hand, McDonald calculates that, while 58.2% of eligible voters voted in 2012, only 51.7% voted in 1996 when Bill Clinton ran for re-election. If you take McDonald's figures and use 1996, the last election with an incumbent Democrat on the ballot two years after a GOP rout in the Congressional midterms, as your baseline, suddenly you're not talking about missing voters at all - you're asking where 8.4 million extra voters came from.
I do not, of course, mean to suggest that there were 92 million voters that either campaign could reasonably have expected to turn out. My point is, the dropoff of some 6 million eligible white voters and 1.6 million eligible non-white voters as compared to the 2008 baseline is just one segment of a much broader universe of eligible non-voters, some of whom will doubtless be turned out by the winning presidential campaign in 2016 or 2020, just as some of the folks who turned out for Obama, Romney or McCain will surely drop out of the process in the next two elections even if they remain eligible voters. Turnout as a whole can be volatile over time, as McDonald's estimates show:
Turnout rates dropped as more previously ineligible voters entered the system, particularly after the voting age was reduced; it spiked in 1992 when Ross Perot's campaign offered an outlet to voters unhappy with both parties, and again in 2004 and 2008 as the Bush and Obama campaigns found distinctly different paths to bring previously disaffected voters to the polls. The increasing volatility of turnout rates in recent years suggests that improvements in technology, combined with changes in voting practices (e.g., early voting) may be improving campaigns' ability to locate new voters. And there's a second, equally important piece of the puzzle that I frequently stress: the two parties' bases, turnout methods and reasons for appealing to voters are asymmetrical. Look at this chart of the vote totals of the Democratic and Republican tickets in presidential races between 1976 and 2012:
The Democrat vote grew steadily year to year throughout this period, consistent with the view (implicit in all of Teixeira's analyses and those who follow a similar demographics-are-everything approach) that the Democrats are mainly a collection of interest groups that grow with the populations they represent. The Republican vote, by contrast, was much more volatile (and susceptible to being drawn off by dissenters like Perot), reflecting the fact that Republicans are a more ideological party and therefore more dependent on the issue environment (particularly the presence of national security as a major issue) and the quality of the party's candidate and platform to draw votes. Candidates and campaigns still matter, and matter more to Republicans. It's entirely plausible to think the GOP will run better candidates and better campaigns in the future - that the McCain and Romney campaigns were not the best of all possible Republican campaigns.
Specifically, we are not so far removed from George W. Bush and his Karl Rove-led political operation figuring out how to increase the GOP vote from 39 million voters in 1992 and 1996 to 50 million in 2000 and 62 million in 2004, a feat that astounded liberal observers at the time and upended conventional wisdom that the GOP could only succeed in a low-turnout environment. The 2004 election came after Ruy Teixeira and John Judis had published their "Emerging Democratic Majority" book in 2002, and Teixeira spent the 2004 election arguing so vociferously that the polls were overestimating Republican turnout that Mickey Kaus acidly remarked the day after the election "Bush 51, Kerry 48: Pollster Ruy Teixeira demands that these raw numbers be weighted to reflect party I.D.!"
Teixeira wasn't the first or last election analyst to assume that dramatic changes in the turnout environment were implausible; many observers on the right, myself and Trende included, spent a good deal of 2012 questioning how Obama could recreate the dramatic shift away from 2004's turnout that we saw in 2008. The point here is the danger of assuming that present trends will continue unabated forever.
In short, we're discussing the current margins - of the 92.7 million eligible voters who passed on the Obama-Romney contest, around 9% of those would have shown up at 2008 levels of turnout; of the 129.2 million who did vote, around 6% of those would have stayed home at 1996 levels of turnout. But until we run the next election, we don't know how far each side can push those margins, or with which populations of eligible but not certain voters. The history of American politics suggests that we have not seen the last new development that will surprise observers of the political scene.
Ruy Teixeira's Methods Seem Familiar
Reading through Texiera's flailing assault on Trende, I felt a strange sense of deja vu - because I had read this before, in Teixeira's review of Jonathan Last's excellent book What to Expect When No One's Expecting. And as with his dismissal of Trende, Teixeira's review was greeted by the usual head-nodders on the Left as an excuse not to deal with Last's arguments but rather dismiss them out of hand.
Last's book develops his argument that birth rates in the United States and around the world are falling to a point that threatens a declining population, that many changes in society, economics and government can flow from such a demographic shift, and that a lot of these could be very, very bad. Last's book notes that Hispanics (particularly recent arrivals to the U.S.) have been the only major group having enough children to keep the United States from falling below "replacement level" birthrates, but that trends among Hispanics suggest that they may also fall back towards the rest of the U.S. population over time. Finally, he argues that, while immigration has helped the U.S. stave off the more dire declines in population faced by countries like Japan, Russia and Southern Europe, there are downsides to relying too heavily on new immigrants to replace the native-born population, and reasons (especially given Mexican birthrates) to suspect that a steady supply of immigrants may dry up down the road.
Teixeira applies the same rhetorical sledgehammer to Last's carefully-researched, copiously footnoted and even-handedly argued book that he deployed against Trende: "If Last's claims sound hysterical and overwrought, that is because they are....If Last's claims about the impending population crash are fanciful, his claim that fertility decline will lead to economic collapse is completely ridiculous." But as with his attack on Trende, Teixeira's assertions don't stand up well under scrutiny.
To begin with, Teixeira's review of the book is astoundingly parochial: something like half of the book and scores of its examples (both anecdote and country-level data) look at birthrates around the world and in history, and a good deal of Last's argument addresses how the U.S. will be impacted by demographic changes in other countries, some of them very dramatically underway. But aside from one hand-waving reference to UN projections (more on which below) and a reference (which Teixeira refuses to engage) to Last's reliance on slowing Mexican population growth, Teixeira completely ignores everything happening outside the United States and all the book's discussion of history as an example.
Teixeira accuses Last of being "truly the man with a hammer who sees nails everywhere," yet the entirety of his critique of Last's solutions is to ask, "why not support immigration reform, as well as generally higher immigration levels?" and accuse him of being an immigration restrictionist who "just isn't very interested in seeing more immigrants in the country." It seems Teixeira is the one who only has a hammer, given that the argument for more immigration and growing political power for Democratic-leaning Hispanics is also the entirety of his attack on Trende, his attack on the 2004 polls and the 2002 book that made his name. As Last noted in response, if you actually read the book, you'd see that Last is not arguing against more immigration, just explaining why it's not the whole answer to every problem.
As for number-crunching, Teixeira didn't even bother to grapple with Last's marshalling and sifting of the demographic data; he just appeals to authority:
The Census Bureau does project that the fertility rate will diminish, but only by a modest .09 over the next 50 years. And while the fertility rate is likely to remain below the replacement rate for the next 50 years, the Census Bureau expects us to add another 100 million people by 2060 due to immigration and "demographic momentum." (Despite sub-replacement fertility rates, a relatively large proportion of the population will be in prime reproductive years for decades to come.) So much for population collapse.
At least this time, Teixeira looked at what the Census Bureau had to say. But he offers no reason why we would expect declining fertility rates to reverse themselves down the road, and while Last explains the implausibility of the UN's 2010 projection (which represented an abrupt and not credibly explained about-face from its prior stance), Teixeira incuriously accepts it at face value and then asserts these inherently speculative projections as fact. Last himself admits that many of the future projections involve uncertainty - but the past and current trends are hard facts. As Last notes, this is far from the only area in which Teixiera just hand-waves whole detailed sections of the book - unlike Teixeira, Last actually considers the experiences of other countries to see what works and what does not, rather than just blithely assuming that demographic trends will reverse themselves of their own accord.
Liberal pundits and Democratic activists - and the line between the two can be hard to locate - have increasingly overinvested in two excuses for insulating themselves in a bubble: that no data can possibly support any arguments by analysts on the Right, who can be dismissed with an ad hominem, a quick hand-wave and a lot of nodding, and that demographics alone will deliver them a permanent electoral majority without the need for their side to actually win any more arguments. These are hazardous trends, and the imbalance between Teixeira's rhetoric in dealing with pundits like Trende and Last and the actual substance of his critiques is an illustration of the dangers of the need to sustain this illusion at all costs to a writer's own credibility.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 3:30 PM | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Politics 2016 | Comments (2)
July 7, 2013
POLITICS: Barack Obama Wants Your Mom To Nag You To Buy Insurance
Once upon a time, young voters, you remember Barack Obama: cool, hip, The Future. But not anymore. Now, he's just a guy who wants your mom to nag you to buy the insurance policy he's having trouble selling:
The Obama administration and its allies need lots of healthy young adults to sign up for insurance this fall to make the president’s health-care law successful.
Democrats are hopeful that a nagging mother will be hard to say no to:
"In the end, it will be the moms of America who are going to decide if their families get coverage," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has conducted focus groups for health exchanges in three states. "They will decide and then insist their children and husbands sign up."
But "[m]others, however, have been turned off by the divisive nature of the debate over the law, Lake said. Even for mothers engaged in politics, the law’s close association with President Obama is not always a plus."
That's right: Mom finds the guy a little too pushy, too.
Of course, the whole point of getting young people to sign up for Obamacare is that it's not in their best financial interest; they're supposed to overpay for the insurance they receive, to subsidize the older, sicker people in the program. Which is why the effort to dragoon Mom into nagging you may not work: because at the end of the day, your mother usually knows best.
June 21, 2013
POLITICS: Wedge Issues and the Rape Exception
Winning political parties don't change their core principles or flip-flop on the major issues that animate major elements of their coalition. But they do pick their battles with care to maximize the number of wedge issues that favor them. Understanding this is key to understanding why the House GOP is right to push a late-term abortion bill that contains a rape exception.
A Compass, Not A Straitjacket
The foundation of any political party's success - before we can even start to talk about winning over persuadable "swing" voters - is having a large enough, motivated enough party base to be competitive. That, rather than any failure with the middle, was the particular difference between George W. Bush (who narrowly lost independent voters in 2004) and Mitt Romney (who won independents by 5 in 2012). The voter-turnout analysis in Sean Trende's latest column should offer a sobering look at who and where the GOP in 2012 failed to turn out voters who might have been receptive to its message. (More here and here). Abandoning major elements of the party's platform - becoming the party of legal abortion, higher taxes, comprehensive Washington regulatory schemes, gun control, and a torpid national defense - is the road to sawing off more chunks of the existing base in the mere hope of replacing them with people who are not currently reliable Republican voters. This has never been a recipe for political success - it's not how the party came back from the doldrums in 1968, 1980, 1994, 2000 or 2010, and it's not how the Democrats did it in 1992, 2006, 2008 or 2012.
Bobby Jindal is right: the GOP is in a hole and one that could grow to be a very large hole - but right now, that hole isn't really so deep, not when we hold the House, 30 governorships and total control of 24 state governments. Our goal should be to build from that, not tear it down and start over.
But just because the party's ideological direction is set does not mean that it can't have a flexible strategy. Our principles are a compass, not a straitjacket. So much of what goes on at campaign time is not argument about core issues, on which the parties' brand identity is fairly well-set; it's about "wedge issues" at the margins of those issues. Not abortion, but stem cells and rape exceptions and contraceptive mandates. Not immigration, but driver's licenses and the DREAM Act. Not taxes, but tax "loopholes" and the "Buffett Rule." Not gun ownership, but background checks. And so on.
Wedge issues have always been a mainstay of elections, and at least now that Barack Obama has perfected their use, we are temporarily free of ridiculous columns and books by liberals claiming that they are somehow an illegitimate part of politics. A lot of us on the Right thought that many of the wedge issues raised by Obama in 2012 were silly and juvenile, but the reality is, they were effective - and in many cases, particularly effective with young voters (voters under 30 provided Obama's entire margin of victory) because they were juvenile.
The path back to victory is to follow Newt Gingrich's longstanding advice: be the guys pushing more of the 70/30 and 80/20 issues than the other guy, more wedge issues where the public is on your side. (I cited Newt's response to the birth control question in the debates as a prime example of how you do this rhetorically). It is emulating George Washington, who knew when to retreat to more defensible positions to preserve his army, rather than take the Stalingrad position of "not one step back, no matter the cost." You pick your battles, or your battles pick you. And lately, without strong or trusted party leadership or a broadly agreed-on strategy, Republicans have been letting the other side choose what battles to fight.
This is bad enough when Republicans are trying to avoid losing ground on wedge issues, as with Democratic pushes to raise the top marginal tax rate or pass new gun laws. Sometimes, you have to accept a few of those fights. But it's insane when the party is actually proposing to make policy progress on an issue, and we are told that we can't run for five yards if we won't get ten. Which is precisely where we are on late-term abortions and the rape exception.
Save The 99%
Late-term abortions are generally unpopular for reasons of both emotion and science: as a child develops further in the womb and as ultrasound technology advances, it is simply harder to look at that child and deny his or her humanity. The Kermit Gosnell case drove home that reality. On the other hand, for equally powerful emotional reasons, voters tend to be unwilling to ban women from getting an abortion after they've been raped.
Neither of these is a logical distinction to those of us who see the abortion issue as a straightforward question of who is and is not a human being. But voters' emotional and empathetic reactions are the stuff of democracy, and we ignore them at our political peril.
When asked to discuss the rape exception, pro-life Republicans should remember two simple points:
First, rape and incest account for a very small proportion of all abortions, by most accounts less than 1%. (A celebrated 1987 study by the generally pro-abortion by the Alan Guttmacher Institute is the main source for the 1% figure; there are a number of methodological pitfalls in measuring this, but most of them suggest that the Guttmacher figure is as likely to be overstated as understated). For pro-lifers, that means a rape-and-incest exception is an opportunity to save 99 or more lives for every one lost. That may be a tragic "Sophie's Choice," but it's also a powerful reason to save the 99 first and worry later about going back for the 1, rather than let all 100 die in order to stand on principle. For pro-choicers, it means that every time they focus on rape, they are effectively admitting that they are using a small number of hard cases to hide the fact that they can't really defend the remaining 99% of abortions. Every Republican should be willing to accept a rape-and-incest compromise in order to make real progress on abortion, and be up front with voters about that - even pro-life Republicans who would, given their druthers, ultimately like to see all abortions in such cases outlawed.
Second, back in 1977, the (all-male) Supreme Court ruled that rape just wasn't a bad enough crime to justify the death penalty - that it was "grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape" and "a disproportionate penalty for the crime of raping an adult woman.":
Rape is without doubt deserving of serious punishment; but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public, it does not compare with murder, which does involve the unjustified taking of human life....rape, by definition, does not include the death of or even the serious injury to another person. The murderer kills; the rapist, if no more than that, does not. Life is over for the victim of the murderer; for the rape victim, life may not be nearly so happy as it was, but it is not over, and normally is not beyond repair.
In 2008, the Court extended that rule to say the rape of a child was also not bad enough for the death penalty. It takes a truly cold-hearted set of priorities to say that rape isn't bad enough to kill the rapist, so let's kill the child instead.* Democrats looking to press the rape issue should be forced to defend the inhumanity of this view.
It's not unreasonable for pro-life Republicans to want to save the life of every innocent child, but a savvy political party must learn to meet the electorate half-way. A demonstrated willingness to do that in crafting legislation is the first step towards shaping a battlefield where we once again hold the high ground.
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* - As a matter of policy, I do not support the death penalty for ordinary cases of murder or rape, but only for cases - such as terrorism or murder by organized crime - that demand killing in societal self-defense. But I see no basis whatsoever for a Constitutional rule that says rape isn't bad enough to kill the rapist.
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June 5, 2013
POLITICS: Maybe Just Tell Us What's Not Racist
There is nothing, nothing, in politics more infuriating than the Democrats' relentless use of racial division to cement the kind of thinking Courtland Milloy illustrated in his latest Washington Post column. The ever-expanding list of things that are considered racist to criticize so long as Obama is president is perhaps the most absurd manifestation of this line of thinking. Nearly all of these fail "the John Edwards test" for things Republicans would quite reasonably have been expected to say if Edwards rather than Obama had been the next Democratic nominee and president. But even in that context, Martin Bashir of MSNBC has reached a new low.
Via the National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke, we have Bashir claiming that "IRS" is the new "n-word": "the IRS. Three letters that sound so innocent. But we know what you mean":
I wish I was making this up. You really cannot satirize the desire of Obama's defenders to deploy his race as a sword and shield to override even discussion of how the federal government uses its power over ordinary citizens. The entire purpose of this relentless drumbeat is to create an environment in which rational discourse and debate is impossible.
Voters who vote on the basis of race are - as you can see from Milloy's column - not voting on the basis of the actual policy decisions, competence and integrity of the people they vote for, and indeed may end up making every possible excuse to avoid holding those people accountable. It's deeply corrosive to democracy to approach politics this way - it invariably leads to a corrupt, incompetent one-party government, secure in the knowledge that it can play its trump card to keep the voters at bay and avoid political competition. (Indeed, the Democrats' use of race in the Jim Crow South held back for years the movement of many white Southerners to their more natural home in the GOP, and the use of ethnic and racial wedges has been a staple of corrupt urban machine politics for centuries).
Racial politics are the true last refuge of the scoundrel. We should be unsurprised to see ever more of them, the more Obama's Administration struggles under the weight of multiple scandals.
May 23, 2013
POLITICS: Peggy Noonan, Nate Silver & Punditry
Nate Silver kicked up a minor fuss last Friday with yet another NY Times column deriding the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan. There's less than meets the eye to the specifics of this particular dustup, but what's interesting is Silver's ongoing critique of Noonan and what it says about both of them. For today, I'll focus here mainly on Noonan.
Assume A Can Opener
Noonan's Thursday column on the IRS scandal, relying in part on an earlier column by Kimberley Strassel, used anecdotal examples (those cited by Strassel are fairly hair-raising, as are those in this National Review piece by Jillian Kay Melchior) to suggest that the IRS' admitted practice of targeting Tea Party and other conservative non-profits for audits was symptomatic of a larger dynamic in the use of the IRS (and possibly other regulatory agencies) to target President Obama's identified enemies. Dramatic anecdotes are long a staple of illustrating and humanizing the impact of policy stories and scandals - they're a big part of how political communications work, and sometimes you need to get the smoke in your nostrils to decide where to look for the fire.
Silver's response, complete with a superfluous chart, is to note that there's a large enough number of people audited every year that by chance alone, "it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of Mitt Romney voters were selected for an audit in 2012 .... [and] it’s also likely that hundreds of thousands of Mr. Obama’s supporters were audited." Which might be a useful caution against drawing conclusions from small sample sizes, if a few anecdotes was all we had. But this requires that we ignore the facts that (among other things) (1) the IRS has admitted to targeting conservative non-profits; (2) IRS management and senior employees are heavily Democratic and very political, giving some 75% of their campaign donations to Democrats; and (3) the NTEU, the union representing IRS employees, is even more heavily Democratic (94% of donations) and militantly anti-Tea Party. And indeed, some of the examples cited by Strassel or others - when considered in that light, along with the fact that some of these folks were targeted by multiple agencies at once - suggest a broader problem that bears further detailed investigation. Silver concedes of his statistical analysis that "this calculation assumes that individuals’ risk of being audited is independent of their political views," which of course is the very thing in dispute; it's like the old joke about an economist stranded on a desert island with a stack of canned goods whose solution begins, "assume a can opener." All things being equal, all things are equal.
Peggy Noonan's Feelings
Sensing the weakness of his argument on this occasion, Silver goes back to surer ground for him:
[T]he principle is important: a handful of anecdotal data points are not worth very much in a country of more than 300 million people. Ms. Noonan, and many other commentators, made a similar mistake last year in their analysis of the presidential election, when they cited evidence like the number of Mitt Romney yard signs in certain neighborhoods as an indication that he was likely to win, while dismissing polls that collectively surveyed hundreds of thousands of voters in swing states and largely showed Mr. Obama ahead.
Now, I would agree that if you're reading Peggy Noonan columns instead of polls in the closing weeks of an intensively-polled national election campaign to figure out who's going to win, you've about lost your mind. My own analyses of the odds at that juncture were based almost entirely on quantifiable data. And I've had my own issues with Noonan in the past - we identified Noonan by name in a 2008 RedState editorial denouncing conservative and Republican commentators who failed to take seriously enough the threat of Obama. More broadly, the commentariat is infested with too many veteran pundits who have been writing on auto-pilot for years and lack subject-matter expertise, real-world experience or the work ethic to dive into the weeds of an issue. But all that said, I think Silver's drumbeat of criticism aimed at Noonan and her type of punditry misses the value such pundits can bring to the table.
Noonan's 1990 book What I Saw At The Revolution was a fantastic read, probably the best book written on the Reagan presidency until Steven Hayward's history, but even then, Noonan's was a book about words, feelings, and personalities - about political communication and how it works and reaches voters. She's never been an interesting writer on policy, facts or data - she writes about hopes and fears and how candidates speak to them. She writes from her heart and her gut, not her brain, with empathy rather than logic. Like her less coherent left-wing counterpart and contemporary, Maureen Dowd, Noonan's style is an exaggeratedly feminine approach to punditry (not all female politics writers are like this, by any means - Strassel's not, for example).
The reason why Noonan's writing in the past has been interesting, other than simply her talent as a stylist, is that she empathizes with the hopes and fears of a certain brand of voter sharing one or more of her own characteristics - white, female, adult, Catholic but not too Catholic, suburban and/or middle-class in background, not Southern (Noonan's from New Jersey and lives in Manhattan). And, as befits a successful presidential speechwriter, she's often had useful insights into why such voters act the way they do. Polls and other hard data can predict events in the very near future, but all the hard data in the world tracking the behavior of voters is no substitute for understanding why they come to flock behind some candidates, parties, and movements - and those are often the biggest questions confronting political parties and candidates over the long haul or even over the length of a single campaign.
The kind of voter Noonan empathizes with has long been the core swing voter in American politics, the voter who went for FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and the Bushes. Obama still did fairly well with them in 2008 - but not in 2012, as I have illustrated previously with this chart showing the share of the two-party vote among different groups won by the winning candidate in elections between 1972 and 2012:
Those are the voters who were the center, the core of the old Nixon and Reagan coalitions, and for all his failings (including, conspicuously, getting such voters to turn out in sufficient numbers), Mitt Romney succeeded in winning them over, in keeping together the old coalition. When Noonan wrote that Romney was doing the things he needed to do to win the voters who would decide the election, she wasn't wrong about her intuition: he did win those voters. Obama lost swing-voter group after swing-voter group, majorities of majorities - he lost independents, white women, white Catholics, suburbanites, voters age 30 and up, etc. He lost the center, but he ran up the score so much at the margins that the old center was no longer the center of the 2012 electorate. The 50-yard line had moved.
Not every bad idea was originally a bad idea, and not everyone who is wrong today was always wrong. Political communication matters - and pundits who understand it are still useful. The challenge for a pundit in Noonan's position is staving off obsolescence as the center of the electorate shifts (including understanding where and why it will shift in the future). It is entirely possible, for example, that none of the things Noonan thinks of as factors that would lead to a loss of voter confidence in Obama and his Administration - incompetence, pettiness, abuse of power - are things that matter to the people who make up his political base. But writing off the entire project of empathizing with the psychology of voters runs the risk of failing to understand why all present trends in the data will not continue forever.
May 13, 2013
POLITICS: PPP on the Brown-Warren Senate Race: A Polling Post-Mortem
Polls are back in the news, with the release of four public polls and an internal Gabriel Gomez campaign poll in the June 25 Massachusetts special Senate election to replace John Kerry. 3 of the 4 public polls show Ed Markey with a distinct but still surmountable lead, an average of 6 points; the fourth shows him up by 17 and looks like an outlier, adding 2.7 points by itself to Markey's lead in the RCP average. The Gomez campaign's internal poll shows Markey by 3; if you use the general rule of thumb that a campaign conducts multiple internal polls and will only release its most favorable internal, that's consistent with this currently being a 5-7 point race. Which is not a bad place for a Republican to be in Massachusetts five weeks before the election - it gives Gomez a puncher's chance in a special election - although you'd clearly still put better than 50/50 odds on Markey.
The closest public poll so far was put out by progressive Democratic pollsters PPP; its first poll of the race has Markey up by 4, 44-40. Let's take a look at how PPP polled the last Senate race in Massachusetts, the 2012 race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, which Warren ultimately won 54-46. That race may be less predictive of this one than the 2010 special election between Brown and Martha Coakley (in which PPP was one of the more reliable pollsters), but it's interesting as an exercise in examining how PPP samples the electorate.
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PPP v Rasmussen
PPP is one of two national pollsters - the other being Rasmussen - to publish regular statewide polls across the country, and that frequency in and of itself has made both pollsters into major players in public polling. At the moment, PPP is riding high, having posted a better record in 2012 than Rasmussen, while Rasmussen (who did some polling for Republicans in the past and retains a presence in conservative media) had built its reputation in better years for the GOP like 2002 and 2004. There's a chicken-and-egg question in there, as to whether pollsters with something of a partisan tilt are just getting lucky in years when the electorate favors their side; as I noted in my November post-mortem, the stricter likely-voter screens of pollsters like Rasmussen worked better in the turnout environments of 2002 and 2004, while PPP's looser screen better approximated turnout in 2012.
For an example of a race that Rasmussen polled much better than PPP, consider the 2010 North Carolina Senate race between Richard Burr and Elaine Marshall. PPP is based in North Carolina and closely tied to that state's Democratic Party; I have no idea whether it was doing non-public polling for the Marshall campaign, but its polls were clearly less favorable for Burr than Rasmussen or other pollsters. PPP conducted 11 of the 30 polls taken in 2010 that were included in the RCP average. 7 of those 11 polls showed Burr polling below 45%, including two that had him below 40%; only 3 of the other 19 polls conducted by other pollsters showed Burr below 45% at any point in the race. 8 of PPP's 11 polls had Burr with a single-digit lead; only 4 of the other 19 did. Between September 8 and October 25, the race was polled 8 times; the two PPP polls in that period showed Burr leading 49-36 and 48-40, while the other six polls all showed a lopsided race, with an average result of Burr 52, Marshall 35. PPP's final poll suddenly got with the program (Burr 52, Marshall 40), and the race ended Burr 55, Marshall 43. You can see in this graph the PPP and Rasmussen polling of that race, which Rasmussen also polled 11 times in 2010:
PPP's polling single-handedly drove the coverage suggesting that Burr was vulnerable, it was out of step with the other pollsters, and it was flat-out wrong. PPP was hardly the first or last pollster to blow a race, of course; the point here is to identify an example of a race where Rasmussen's approach was clearly a lot more reliable guide to what was happening than PPP's. All pollsters require careful scrutiny if we are to use their work product as tools for advancing rather than obscuring our knowledge of elections, and the halo effect surrounding PPP after the 2012 election should not exempt it from that scrutiny.
As we have seen before, PPP's methodology for polling differs from that of Rasmussen and other pollsters; in lieu of likely-voter screens, Tom Jensen (who runs PPP) has described how he models the demographic composition of his polls:
Jensen conceded that the secret to PPP's success was what boiled down to a well informed but still not entirely empirical hunch. "We just projected that African-American, Hispanic, and young voter turnout would be as high in 2012 as it was in 2008, and we weighted our polls accordingly," he explained. "When you look at polls that succeeded and those that failed that was the difference." Given the methodological challenges currently confronting pollsters, those hunches are only going to prove more important. "The art part of polling, as opposed to the science part," Jensen said, "is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the equation in having accurate polls."
And those hunches can change over the course of a race - consider PPP's shifting estimate of the racial makeup of the Florida electorate in 2012, as compiled by Sean Davis:
As you can see, PPP dramatically shifted gears based on something starting in its October 14 poll, and that enabled it to get closer to the final result as reported by exit polling. The vagueness of Jensen's public explanations of his methodology suggest a man who is not really sharing his secret sauce. My guess - which I stress here is pure speculation in the absence of evidence, so I'm happy to be corrected by Jensen - is that PPP may have been doing non-public work for OFA or some other Democratic or liberal-interest-group client, and gathered information (maybe about OFA's superior turnout operation, maybe about non-public polls) that was not generally available, and modeled its polling assumptions around that. (There's nothing illegal or necessarily unethical about doing so, but if that's the case, it would suggest that public polling is more driven by non-public information than you might think). If that's how Jensen formed his assessments of the electorate, then we can assume that PPP's turnout-projection models will continue to be superior so long as Jensen has access to better-informed sources of non-public information than other pollsters (it's clear that in 2012, Democratic campaigns knew things about turnout that Republican campaigns didn't, and Republican campaigns did not know any things about turnout that Democratic campaigns didn't; one hopes this will not always be the case, as it plainly was not in 2004).
On the other hand, if we take Jensen at face value and assume he really is just guessing, then his guesses are as variable as those of any other reasonably well-informed pundit. The 2012 Massachusetts Senate race is just one of many case studies from which we can look at how PPP's shifting assumptions about turnout interacted with its polling.
Brown v Warren
PPP polled the Brown-Warren Senate race in polls released on August 21, September 16, October 12, and November 2. (I'm citing here the dates the polls were publicly released; PPP generally takes polls over the prior 3 days). Here's the topline result of those polls:
PPP showed Brown with a 5-point lead in August, at a time when Brown held about a 1-point lead overall in the RCP average - but according to PPP, the race shifted 7 points in Warren's direction in September, 4 more points in October, and 2 more into November. PPP's final result actually understated Warren's margin of victory by 2 points. What changed? In each case, I will compare PPP's internals to the exit polls.
The truck-driving Brown against the archetypically schoolmarmish Warren was a race tailor-made for a gender gap, and what is perhaps most striking about PPP's polling down the stretch run of this race is the sharp turn towards a female-dominated electorate:
The exit polls - assuming those are accurate, which is never really certain - suggest that PPP went overboard in projecting that the Massachusetts electorate would be 55-57% female in 2012, and the final poll understated the gender gap, which ended up closer to what PPP's October poll had estimated. That said, clearly the shift to more female voters in the sample had a measurable impact on Warren's support. For what it's worth, the current poll showing Markey up 4 also has a 55% female sample, although the gender gap is less pronounced (Markey leads 46-36 with women, Gomez leads 45-41 with men).
As it did in Florida, PPP started upping the non-white share of its sample in Massachusetts near the end of the race. But this time, it overshot the mark: the exit polls showed an electorate that was 14% non-white, lower than the 16-18% in PPP's polls from September-November.
A share of the vote that small is bound to be "noisier" - that is, there's a small-sample-size problem where it's harder to get enough non-white voters to poll them reliably if they're less than 20% of the people in your overall sample. While the trend in PPP's poll was a dramatic dropoff in Brown's non-white support, the actual numbers are just nuts: there's no way Brown went from leading among non-white voters with 47% of the vote in August to down 35 points in November to losing by 72 on Election Day. It's possible that there's some instability here among whether Hispanic voters were reporting themselves as white, but that result just doesn't make any sense at all.
Among white voters, PPP's final poll showed Brown pulling ahead for the first time since August, even as his overall standing was at its low ebb; the exit poll showed him winning white voters 51-49 but losing the race due to his poor standing with the remaining 14% of the electorate.
PPP's Gomez-Markey poll has an 84% white electorate with Gomez down 2 points among white voters (41-43), underperforming Brown but with a lot of undecideds, and 13 among non-white voters (36-47), a showing with non-white voters that's consistent with Brown's August-September polling but wildly inconsistent with the exit polls.
The other big dividing line in 2012 was the youth vote. Let's look at what PPP's poll sample looked like by age:
The number of 18-29 year olds answering the September 13-16 poll dropped in half from August and didn't recover until November - that could be the result of any number of anomalies, but I have to assume that it had something to do with it being the start of the college calendar (Massachusetts has an enormous proportion of college students). But even so, not one of PPP's polls matched the 19% under-30 turnout of the exit polls (bear in mind here, however, that younger voters may be more likely to answer exit polls). The youth-voter sample is, again, noisy - Warren was bleeding Brown's support among young voters into October, but PPP's final poll had Brown winning 50% of the under-30 vote; the exit polls had him lose it by 12 points.
(Note one other minor methodological discrepancy: PPP's use of an age 30-45 bracket, whereas the exit polls used a 30-44 bracket).
The Gomez-Markey poll had just 9% voters under 30, which may not be a bad estimate for a special election after the end of the college year, with Gomez down 40-33 among young voters.
The great polling debate of 2012 was weighting of polls by party ID and the corresponding importance of independent voters. Massachusetts is a strange animal: independents are traditionally close to half the electorate, while there are more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans. Most independents in Massachusetts are not closet Republicans, as the usual strength of statewide Democrats can tell you, but many are persuadable - and given the tiny number of self-identified Republicans, a Republican candidate needs to clean up in a large way with independents to win. Brown's support among independents never faltered in PPP's polls or the exit polling (although if both sets of polls are treated as credible, it would suggest that Warren corralled all the late-deciding independents), but the partisan polling shows a different story:
The October PPP poll oversampled Democrats and the August poll with Brown up 5 actually undersampled Republicans, but otherwise PPP's polls were fairly consistent in their partisan sampling for this race. But what PPP was reporting was a steady consolidation of Democrats behind Warren as she made the race more ideological and put the primary behind her. On the other hand, every PPP poll, especially the final one, understated Brown's support among his own party.
(By contrast, the self-reporting of voter ideology was about the one element that was very consistent month to month in PPP's polling, but I've never really put much stock in self-reported voter ID).
The Gomez-Markey poll had a D-heavy sample at the expense of independents, 41/17/42 D/R/I, with Gomez up 47-31 among independents, Gomez drawing 21% of Democrats and Markey drawing 17% of Republicans - all signs of a race the voters haven't really focused on yet.
The new conventional wisdom on polling is that the key to accurately forecasting elections is getting the demographics right: if you predict who will vote, by race, gender, and age, you can pretty accurately profile who they will vote for. Yet despite PPP's status as one of the icons of this brave new era of polling, its record in the 2012 Brown-Warren race - a race in which its topline results ended up on the mark - suggests that it was actually better at modeling the electorate by party ID and ideology than by race, gender or age, that its assumptions about the demographics of the electorate changed a good deal from month to month, and that within each demographic group its reported results were often highly unstable.
Given the difficulty of accurately projecting turnout in special elections, even the polling averages have to be taken with some grain of salt in the best of times, but polling in the age of Obama is ever more art than science.
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April 16, 2013
WAR: Calling The Thing By Its Name
Three hours after yesterday's Boston Marathon Bombings, President Obama gave a short statement in which he pointedly declined to use the word "terrorism." Shortly after his appearance, an unnamed White House official issued a written statement "Any event with multiple explosive devices -- as this appears to be -- is clearly an act of terror, and will be approached as an act of terror." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel echoed that this morning, calling the bombings a "cruel act of terror." This morning, Obama followed suit, specifically using the term "terrorism."
Presidents must choose their words carefully in these situations, and I do not fault Obama for moving with caution* just hours after the attack, when he undoubtedly had not had the time to gather the full input of all the relevant agencies or separate fact from rumor.** But he is right to call this what it is; as as we move forward, we must all have the courage and clarity to call this terrorism.
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The Act of Terror
We do not yet know who launched yesterday's attacks, what their motive or cause was, whether they had any outside assistance, or even whether they believed they were acting for or against any political, religious or social cause at all. And I recognize that standard governmental definitions of terrorism often demand that these things be present. But in my view, this is mistaken, and part of the confusion that has plagued us for years, especially since September 11.
By definition, setting off bombs in a crowd of civilians at a peaceable event should be regarded as terrorism, regardless of what kind of terrorism it is. Of course, terrorism by a lone domestic nutjob with no coherent political ideology and no real allies presents different issues and requires different solutions than terrorism committed by an international organization with money, ideology, know-how and a recruiting and logistical apparatus. But both meet the essential criteria of terrorism: they seek to spread fear and horror by mass violence directed at society at large. Moreso than individual crime, the harm they cause is larger than the victims themselves: acts of this nature have a disproportionate cost in public fear and naturally tend to lead to expenditure of money on public safety and restrictions on liberty in order to preserve the ability of citizens to gather safely in public places. That harm is the same regardless of the motive.
This is related to why I favor an objective definition of hate crimes, in which motive is similarly irrelevant. If the circumstances of a crime would cause an objective observer of the crime to believe it's a hate crime, it's a hate crime and should be singled out for an elevated degree of punishment regardless of the motive and regardless of the kind of hate involved; the appearance of targeting a stranger for violence for any identifiable or apparent characteristic should be enough. Let me elaborate with an example: a white man attacks a black stranger in public, while shouting the "N word". It doesn't matter whether that crime is racially motivated or not - the effect will be a larger intimidation of black people in the area than a random street crime, because a reasonable observer would believe that it signifies that black people are in danger there merely due to the color of their skin. It's that additional effect that we punish above and beyond the punishment for the crime itself. If it looks like a random street crime but the perpetrator secretly reads skinhead books at home, the effect is not the same (obviously the use of racial slurs is not the the only objective indicia you would look to, but the test should be an objective one considering the observable circumstances). As with an objective definition of terrorism, eliminating motive has a clarifying effect: certain acts cause harm beyond their victims by nature of act, and are more damaging for that reason.
Terrorism At War
This may seem like a semantic point, but it is not. The inability to define our words with clarity, and to use them to draw meaningful distinctions, always has consequences. This is even more true at war as it is in domestic disputes like the battle over the meaning of the word "marriage" or the various efforts at euphemisms to describe abortion. Whatever words we use, sooner or later become the name of the thing. Words are never unimportant.
The effort to put specific kinds of political terrorism in a box separate from other mass atrocities is partly a result of the imprecision of the term "War on Terror": the Obama Administration doesn't want to admit to suffering a major terrorist attack on American soil, and doesn't want to feel compelled to ramp up the whole "War on Terror" machinery over every such incident. The fault runs back to the Bush Administration's use of the term - you don't fight wars against a tactic, but an enemy, and the difficulty of defining an enemy has been a major part of our difficulty in properly explaining at home and to the world what we are doing and why. Part of what we've been struggling with since September 11 is that our imprecise language reflects inability to think or communicate clearly.
America is not at war with Islam any more than it is at war with "Terror" or "Terrorism," but a specific faction within Islam is at war with us, and not every terrorist attack or international dispute in the world is part of that war. You can call them, for lack of a better term, Islamists; we can debate the proper nomenclature ("Islamofascist" was more accurate but clunkier), but you cannot be a serious person and ignore their existence and role in violence around the globe. The enemy is not a single terrorist organization, but a larger movement with a political ideology that spans state and non-state actors, Arab and non-Arab Muslims, and factions within both Sunni and Shi'ite Islam. It is a political movement with political ideas and goals, albeit ideas and goals that are advocated in the name of a religion and with citation to religious authority. The relationship between Islamism and Islam is a subject for another day, but it's important to recall that, in addition to citing chapter and verse of the Koran and the history of the ummah, the political movement's propaganda and ideology also borrow extensively from Western sources - the propaganda and ideology of the Nazis, the Communists and academic lefists of the Edward Said/Noam Chomsky variety (all of whom have borrowed freely from each other's sources of propaganda over the years when it suits their purposes).
As an act, the Boston Marathon Bombings are terrorism whether or not they turn out to be connected to that war. If evidence shows that they are not connected, that does not change the ongoing nature of the war, which thankfully has mostly been conducted outside the United States and outside the West since the London bombings of 2005, as the attention of the Islamists has turned to the turmoil within the heartland of North Africa, the Arab Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it does turn out to be connected, we will undoubtedly be reviving many of the debates we have had previously about the "War on Terror." Either way, we should not fear to call either the act or the perpetrators by their true names. Calling a thing what it is, is the first step to facing it.
* - Yes, I know that, in other cases like the Henry Louis Gates flap and the Trayvon Martin story, Obama has been quick to jump in with hair-trigger conclusions when he feels he can score a point. But that's not a trait of his to encourage. Likewise, there's a longstanding pattern, repeated again yesterday in some quarters, of mainstream media figures and liberal politicians rushing to convince the public before the facts are in that every terrorist act and mass shooting is the work of right-wing extremists. But again, this sort of thing should be denounced, not imitated. Political conclusions about a terrorist act can await the facts.
** - This is why Mitt Romney botched the criticism of Obama on Benghazi. The problem wasn't when the President used the right word; it was the fact that the Administration was pushing a false factual narrative (that the attack in Benghazi was the result of a protest against a YouTube video rather than a planned assault backed by Islamist extremists) well after the Administration knew it to be false.
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POLITICS: The Popup Presidency
I went to the White House website this morning, whitehouse.gov, looking for a copy of the President's statement on the Boston Marathon Bombings, and instead found the front page roadblocked by this popup ad:
Now, the White House's website is inevitably - and properly - going to reflect the president's governing agenda. But it shouldn't be necessary to explain why the White House deserves an official .gov website with less overt partisanship & more dignity than popup agitprop. The fact that the website would be doing this even this morning, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on American soil, is sadly reflective of the current occupant's partisan smallness.
Joe Klein, usually a bitter-ender defender of all things Democratic, has complained of late that the shoddy implementation of Obamacare illustrates that "Barack Obama is not a 'how' President" - he's long on public pressure campaigns and short on actually making the government run properly. So perhaps we should not be surprised that the White House website is now just another vehicle for left-wing community organizing. But we can still be disappointed that, five years into his Presidency, this is what it has come to.
March 25, 2013
POLITICS: Christine Quinn and the NY City Council Punish The Creation of Jobs
It would be hard to design a more obvious example of why New York City employers should be terrified of Christine Quinn's Mayoral ambitions than the passage earlier this month of an unprecedented bill allowing lawsuits for damages by unemployed job-seekers against any employer that tries to hire in the City:
When the law takes effect in three months, the city will be the fourth place in the country with some form of legislation against discriminating against unemployed job-seekers. But it will be alone in letting applicants sue employers for damages over claims that they were rejected because of their joblessness.
The measure, backed by Quinn, passed over a veto by Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg has made a lot of headlines with his social liberal nanny-state-ism, but he remains mostly a moderate on this sort of bread-and-butter business-climate issue; it can and will get a lot worse for New Yorkers if Quinn or one of the other Democratic aspirants becomes the first Democratic Mayor of New York since David Dinkins was run out of town on a rail in 1993, kicking off the city's economic, safety and quality-of-life renaissance.
Employment discrimination law is already a costly and dysfunctional mess, but at least there are legitimate reasons why we tolerate some of that in the name of deterring, say, racial discrimination. But being unemployed is not any sort of immutable characteristic subject to historic claims of discrimination, and what's more, some people are unemployed for good reasons that should set off prospective employers' alarm bells. It's in the self-interest of any employer to tell the difference between those applicants and people who got blindsided by a bad economy - and historically, when the job market heats up, employers get a lot less picky about hiring people who have been out of work. But creating a new right to sue for damages is a serious deterrent to hiring, given that each new job opening could potentially lead to multiple lawsuits, to say nothing of the levels of legal review that must be added to protect companies against such suits in advance.
New York City is alone in taking this step, but not for lack of trying by liberals characteristically oblivious to consequences:
Unemployment-discrimination laws have been floated around the country in recent years. President Barack Obama proposed one in 2011, and New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., have passed laws barring jobs ads that say applicants must be employed. New Jersey, which enacted the first such measure in 2011, has cited at least one company for an ad that excluded jobless applicants, its state Labor Department says.
We are in the midst of an era of unchained liberal hubris, the likes of which we haven't seen since the 1970s. If Christine Quinn becomes the Mayor, expect New York to adopt still more ideas too pie-in-the-sky liberal for Jerry Brown or Mike Bloomberg.
March 21, 2013
POLITICS: Ahead of His Time
Those of us who supported Rick Perry over Mitt Romney in 2012 can take a small measure of vindication in this look at how Perry was ahead of the curve on immigration, education, entitlements and other issues in terms of anticipating where the GOP would be headed next. That's without even mentioning Perry's tax plan or his stances on Turkey and Syria.
If Perry had been the nominee in 2012, it's hard to see what states he loses that Romney won; the worst that happens is that he ends up more or less with the same electoral results as Romney and possibly a worse popular vote margin. But how the race's dynamics unfold? That's unknowable. On the upside, we're finally done with Romney, and can have a Romney-less contested primary for the first time since 2000.
Perry has an outstanding record and resume, but my sense is that he's best off playing Goldwater to the next nominee's Reagan rather than trying to run again himself. There's plenty of younger talent ready to go, and he'd have an uphill battle to unmake his first impression.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 2:39 PM | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Politics 2016 | Comments (5)
February 25, 2013
POLITICS: Jane Mayer's McCarthyist Attack on Ted Cruz
The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, in a pair of blog posts, served up the latest attempted Democratic Party talking point on freshman Texas Senator Ted Cruz: that Senator Cruz is the second coming of Joe McCarthy. (ThinkProgress coordinates with a predictable illustration for those too simple-minded to get Mayer's point). As it happens, I have some firsthand knowledge of the subject of Mayer's vague, thinly-sourced hit job. She'll have to do better next time, because Ted Cruz is right about Harvard Law School in the mid-1990s. If she'd talked to more people, she might have figured that out.
Here's the part of Cruz's remarks at a 2010 event that Mayer presents as shocking evidence of Cruz's mendacity:
He then went on to assert that Obama, who attended Harvard Law School four years ahead of him, "would have made a perfect president of Harvard Law School." The reason, said Cruz, was that, "There were fewer declared Republicans in the faculty when we were there than Communists! There was one Republican. But there were twelve who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government."
Leaving aside Mayer's failure to check a fairly basic fact in the president's biography (Obama graduated in the spring of 1991; Cruz entered HLS in the fall of 1992), Cruz is absolutely right on the basic point here: there were multiples more Marxists on the Harvard Law faculty at the time than open Republicans. I know because I was there. I was a year behind Ted at Harvard, and was president of the HLS Republicans in 1994-95, when Ted was a third-year law student. I can't say I knew Ted well at the time (he was more involved in the Federalist Society and Law Review), but we crossed paths a few times, and even then everyone knew he was a superstar who was going places in life. He was undoubtedly reflecting on the same things I saw in those days.
Aside from a generic denial by a current Harvard spokesman, Mayer's only source for the original article is Charles Fried, my old constitutional law professor who was - at the time - the faculty advisor for the HLS Republicans, but has in more recent years become a vocal spokesman for all things Obama. On the one hand, Fried argues that Cruz has understated the GOP presence in the extensive Harvard faculty:
I can right offhand count four "out" Republicans (including myself) and I don't know how many closeted Republicans when Ted, who was my student and the editor on the Harvard Law Review who helped me with my Supreme Court foreword, was a student here.
Ironically, given the tenor of Mayer's article, she never asks Fried to name any of these people, but just takes him at his word that he has a list of Republicans on the faculty. Now, closeted Republicans may have been known to Fried in the faculty lounge, but they were of little help to those of us in the student body, seeing as how both the liberals and the left-wing radicals were all very open and vocal. At the time, I was aware of only one other Republican or conservative of any stripe on the faculty besides Fried: Mary Ann Glendon, who was busy during much of 1994 and 1995 with activities on behalf of the Vatican (which she represented at a 1995 conference in Beijing). The fact that we had so little representation on the faculty was a running joke among conservative students; I still have the t-shirts we printed after the 1994 elections:
When Fried was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1995, we legitimately feared that we would not be able to find a faculty advisor, which of course any student group needs; as it turned out, Professor Glendon stepped in with Fried's departure. It may be the case that there were two other Republicans on the faculty, but to this day I have no idea who they were; I assume Ted Cruz didn't either.
Of course, the more controversial part of Senator Cruz's equation is his charge that there were Marxists on the faculty. Mayer weakly allows:
It may be that Cruz was referring to a group of left-leaning law professors who supported what they called Critical Legal Studies, a method of critiquing the political impact of the American legal system. Professor Duncan Kennedy, for instance, a leader of the faction, who declined to comment on Cruz's accusation, counts himself as influenced by the writings of Karl Marx. But he regards himself as a social democrat, not a Communist, and has never advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government by Communists. Rather, he advocated widening admissions at the law school to under-served populations, hiring more minorities and women on the faculty, and paying all law professors equally.
Cruz's spokeswoman confirmed, in response, that this is precisely the faculty clique he referred to, and Mayer does not dispute their numbers on the faculty. But her description is a rather serious whitewash of what Kennedy and the other "Crits," as they were colloquially known on campus, professed and taught: a menu of class conflict, false-consciousness theory and subversion of property rights that would have fit comfortably on the syllabus at Patrice Lumumba University. Here's how one of Harvard's own courses describes the movement:
A self-conscious group of legal scholars founded the Conference on Critical Legal Studies (CLS) in 1977. Most of them had been law students in the 1960s and early 1970s, and had been involved with the civil rights movement, Vietnam protests, and the political and cultural challenges to authority that characterized that period. These events seemed to contradict the assumption that American law was fundamentally just and the product of historical progress; instead, law seemed a game heavily loaded to favor the wealthy and powerful. But these events also suggested that grassroots activists and lawyers could produce social change.
Now, it's something of a hyperbolic flourish to describe armchair radicals of this sort as people "who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government," and as Fried notes, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 had necessarily pushed a lot of previously proud Marxists to go underground and readjust their rhetoric. But as even Matt Yglesias conceded, "[t]he conclusion that ...a follower of Marx's ideas is, like Marx, a Communist seems perfectly plausible." The fact that the fall of Communism made the Crits somewhat abashed about their intellectual heritage and its logical conclusions is no reason to discount the thorough Marxist influence in their work, or shrink from asking why arguably the nation's leading law school should employ several times more of them than Republicans.
Cruz made quite clear who he was talking about and why, and any fair-minded observer can draw their own conclusions - unlike, say, when the Senate Majority Leader last summer claimed an unnamed, anonymous source who told him Mitt Romney hadn't paid his taxes. Cruz didn't stretch to connect people via tenuous associations, like those who tried to paint Sarah Palin as a secessionist for a marginal political party her husband briefly joined or Rick Perry as a racist for something written on a rock by a person who sold land to his father. He called a bunch of Marxist professors Marxists, and while he may have thrown in a rather excessive dramatic flourish, his speech drew the obvious conclusion to where Marxism necessarily leads. If Mayer had done her homework, she would have recognized what pitiful support this provides for the talking points she was laboring to shore up.
But for a freshman Senator to draw the kind of fear that generates this type of assault from the New Yorker, he must be doing something right.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:00 AM | Law 2009-13 | Politics 2013 | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)
February 1, 2013
HISTORY: Reflections on the American Revolution, Part III of III: The Militia
How did thirteen colonies, with a barely functioning central government and a thrown-together, underfunded and poorly supplied army of constantly fluctuating size and composition, win the Revolutionary War? One reason was the colonies' ability to rely on their common citizens to supplement the Continental Army with local militia. I've looked previously at the demographic and physical conditions and foreign alliances that shaped the war and the generals who led the armies. Let's conclude this tour of the American Revolution with the militia.
The Militia: Americans then and now have had a romantic attachment to the citizen militia, epitomized by the Massachusetts "minutemen." The importance of the militia as both a bulwark against tyranny and a line of national defense was, of course, famously the backdrop for the Second Amendment and other militia-related clauses in the Constitution (including allowing Congress to arm them and the President to command them at need "to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions"). Yet it was ultimately the Continental Army, not the militia, that had to do the bulk of the work needed to win the war. Nonetheless, the story of the American victory cannot be told without the militia.
Massachusetts: The militia's finest hour came at the beginning, before there was a Continental Army: Concord and Bunker Hill. At Concord, in April 1775, the sudden appearance of the Massachusetts militia in significant force, firing largely from behind the cover of trees and stone walls, drove the (mostly inexperienced) redcoats back to Boston with surprising casualties. At Bunker Hill two months later, Massachusetts militia entrenched largely on high ground and firing from behind fortifications and stone walls inflicted a staggering casualty rate of almost 50% on the British regulars (even higher among the officer corps); the militia then beat a mostly orderly retreat when they were finally overcome. Those two battles left the British besieged in Boston, where they would remain for nearly a year until dislodged by Henry Knox's artillery in March 1776. Bunker Hill also traumatized the British command, haunting their thinking about attacks on entrenched positions for the rest of the war. When the Continental Army was assembled to carry on the siege, much of its manpower and officer corps was drawn from the militia, including key leaders like Knox and Nathanael Greene. Moreover, the artillery that liberated Boston had been seized by militia in 1775 when Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, leading the Vermont militia (the Green Mountain Boys) in an expedition supported by Massachusetts and Connecticut militia, captured the lightly-defended Fort Ticonderoga. And without the militia, the army in 1775 would have been unarmed. The Continental Army being chronically short on supplies and having no official, standard weapon, recruits early in the war fought with whatever guns they brought to the army, either their own or those supplied by the state governments - but while that system was essential to forming an army from scratch, Washington found it unsatisfactory to carry on the war. As a 1981 U.S. Army study described the situation:
It was the policy of the Continental Congress in 1775 to "hire" arms, which meant encouraging each new soldier to bring his own gun, a practice that had been common in militia service. Having established this policy, Congress then left the task of equipping the troops to the Commander in Chief. More often than not, however, the men arrived at camp without arms. When Washington undertook to form a Continental Army from the forces before Boston in 1775, he initiated the first of several measures designed to arm his troops. He began by seeking to retain for the use of the new Continental force the muskets that the men hurrying to the defense of their country had brought to Cambridge. He ordered that no soldier upon the expiration of his term of enlistment was to take with him any serviceable gun. If the musket was his private property, it would be appraised, and he would be, given full value for it. All arms so taken and appraised were to be delivered into the care of the Commissary of Military Stores. To make doubly sure that the weapons would be retained for Army use, Washington threatened to stop the last two month's pay due a soldier if he carried away his gun.
Among the factors contributing to the shortage of arms in the spring of 1776 was the carelessness of the soldiers in maintaining their arms in good working order. An examination of the weapons of the army in New York revealed them to be in shocking condition. Washington issued an order to the regimental commanders to have the arms put in good order as soon as possible and to see that each musket was equipped with a bayonet. Those soldiers who had lost the bayonets they had been issued were to pay for new ones, and if any soldier had allowed his gun to be damaged by negligence, the cost of its repair was to be deducted from his pay. This order by no means eliminated negligence in caring for weapons. It persisted throughout the war....
There were other warning signs of the militia's limitations in 1775 as well: the militia at Bunker Hill had strategic depth but failed to use it, being too poorly organized to bring reserve units into the fight in time, and the Green Mountain Boys didn't linger to garrison Fort Ticonderoga once its liquor supplies had run out. An army constituted for the long haul would have to do better.
New Jersey: Problems persisted, but so did the militia's contributions. Washington was disappointed when more New Jersey and Pennsylvania militia didn't show up to assist his campaigns in the region between late 1776 and the summer of 1778. But the New Jersey militia played a valuable role in the series of skirmishes known as the New Jersey Forage War in the winter of 1776-77. Acting sometimes alone and sometimes with modest support from the Continental Army, the militia repeatedly staged ambushes and opportunistic attacks on British and Hessian detachments looking for food and forage for their animals, inflicting a slow bleed of casualties and leaving the enemy jittery and under-supplied: a classic guerrilla campaign, although the word hadn't been coined yet. The New Jersey militia would eventually even draw praise from Washington, long a critic of militia, for its ongoing role in assisting Greene in turning back the final Hessian efforts in 1780 to assail Washington's position in Morristown; Washington wrote of the militia after the Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield that "The militia deserve everything that can be said on both occasions. They flew to arms universally and acted with a spirit equal to anything I have seen in the course of the war."
Saratoga: Militia were also important to the pivotal Saratoga campaign. Allen and Arnold's capture of Fort Ticonderoga had cut the British lines of communication in two, severing Guy Carleton's Canadian forces from the Thirteen Colonies. General Burgoyne's expedition, marching south from Canada, was designed to turn the tables. His aim was to seize control of the Hudson River valley and link up with Howe and Clinton in New York, reuniting the British forces while cutting New England off from the rest of the colonies. It started well, as such things often do; Burgoyne seized the forts in early July and scattered the Continental Army's forces in the region with barely a fight. But Burgoyne didn't count on the patriot militia.
Burgoyne's plan called for him to link up with Barry St. Leger, who was marching southeast down the Mohawk River that runs through Western and Central New York and flows into the Hudson just north of Albany. The plan - and reason for the two British forces to march separately - was for St. Leger to gather with him the Iriquois Six Nations and the Loyalist militia. St. Leger laid siege to Fort Stanwix, which controlled the Mohawk River; to relieve the siege, local militia leader Nicholas Herkimer hastily raised about 800 militia, a few dozen Oneida Indians (one of the two Iriquois tribes that sided with the colonists) and wagonloads of supplies. St. Leger chose to meet Herkimer with a thousand men, the bulk of which were Mohawk and Seneca Indians, who ambushed Herkimer as his column wound through a densely wooded ravine on August 6, 1777. The result was the savagely bloody Battle of Oriskany, depicted above. The militia was caught by surprise, several key officers were killed in the opening volley, and Herkimer had his leg broken falling from his horse (he would die of the wounds a few days later). But the militia fought on, Herkimer directing the battle while propped against a tree and regrouping his men to counterattack after a downpour. The battle ended in a British victory, with enormous American casualties that broke Herkimer's militia. But heavy losses from the battle demoralized St. Leger's Indian allies and Loyalist militia, who had expected to play a support and ambush role and let the British and Hessians do the heavy lifting, and instead found themselves fighting a desperate, cornered militia at close quarters. Most of St. Leger's support melted away, greatly weakening his force and leading to its ultimate failure to capture Fort Stanwix (which was relieved by Benedict Arnold on August 22).
While St. Leger was bogged down on his right, Burgoyne faced a second militia threat from his left that ultimately cost him nearly 1,000 casualties, more than 10 percent of his expedition. Approximately 2,000 New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont militia under John Stark (a veteran of Bunker Hill who had served for a time under Washington in the Continental Army before returning home), who raised this force in a little over a week, set out to harass Burgoyne's advance. Burgoyne sent a detachment of Hessians - considered some of Europe's best professional troops - to gather supplies and intercept Stark before he could do more damage or link up with the Continental Army. At the ensuing August 16, 1777 Battle of Bennington (actually located in present-day New York near Bennington, Vermont), Stark's militia faced the Hessians in a pitched battle, albeit with the advantage that the Hessians arrived in two groups of around 600, allowing Stark to defeat them in detail with a large numerical advantage. Stark's militia surrounded the elite Hessian dragoons holding an elevated redoubt; the Hessian commander, Friedrich Baum, was mortally wounded in a last, desperate saber charge, and hundreds of his men surrendered. Few of the Hessians made it back to Burgoyne's army.
As Burgoyne marched south, weakened by the failure of St. Leger, the loss of the Hessians and the defection of his Native American allies and with the Americans felling trees in his path, the Continental Army under Horatio Gates was bolstered by the arrival of thousands of militia, to the point where Burgoyne may have been outnumbered more than two-to-one at the second and final Battle of Saratoga. Militia units fought in the line of battle with the Continentals at Saratoga, which rivals Yorktown as the most important American victory of the war. More important than anything the militia did at Saratoga itself, their presence on the battlefield gave weight to the Continental forces that Burgoyne could not overcome. His surrender on October 17, 1777 permanently ended the effort to divide the colonies and link up with the British forces in Quebec, and was crucial to bringing France into the war.
The South: In the South, the militia had to come more directly to the rescue of the regulars. When the British moved the focus of their offensive operations to the South in 1779, they found a Continental Army much less well prepared and led than Washington's army in the north. Cornwallis routed the defenders of Savannah in 1779 and Charleston in May, 1780, followed shortly by Tarleton's massacre of a smaller Continental Army force at Waxhaws. Horatio Gates attempted to replicate his victory at Saratoga by rallying the militia around a new Continental Army force, but was wiped out by Cornwallis' army (under Lord Rawdon) at Camden on August 16, 1780 (Washington regarded Camden as another foolhardy attempt to rely on militia). Between Charleston and Camden, Cornwallis had captured over 6,000 prisoners, including most of the Continental Army left in the South. The road seemed open to claim the prizes of North Carolina and Virginia.
It didn't work out that way. Heavy-handed Loyalist militias, first under Christian Huck and later Patrick Ferguson, combined with Tarleton's brutality at Waxhaws, enraged the population of the Carolinas and Eastern Tennessee. The first militia victories, at Ramsour's Mill in North Carolina in June and the killing of Huck in South Carolina in July, were small, almost spontaneous engagements (although a study of the records of the militia who fought Huck showed that a number were Continental Army veterans and most had been fighting the British in one form or another since 1775). A landmark of the growing resistance came in October 1780, when a muster of nearly a thousand militia from the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee cornered Ferguson in the forest at King's Mountain near the North/South Carolina border, killing Ferguson and destroying his Loyalist militia. In November, Tarleton's feared British Legion - including hundreds of British regulars - were bloodied and beaten by the militia at Blackstock's Farm, South Carolina. There were scores of other, smaller ambushes and militia-on-militia engagements in this period, some with the character of a blood feud.
The militia's victories in the Carolinas begat more American recruitment and more caution for Cornwallis, buying time for Greene to enter the southern theater in late 1780 and re-organize the regulars. But with only a small regular force of a few thousand men, Greene still needed plenty of help from the militia. At Cowpens, South Carolina on January 17, 1781, a combined force of militia and Daniel Morgan's crack riflemen broke the back of Tarleton's British Legion, killing or capturing more than 80% of Tarleton's 1,150-man force and effectively ending British control over South Carolina. Probably less than half of the American force at Cowpens was Continental regulars. The major engagement of the campaign came at Guilford Court House, North Carolina on March 15, 1781, at which Greene (while nominally losing the battle) inflicted sufficient casualties to convince Cornwallis (himself down to less than 2,000 men) to fall back to Virginia, where he would consolidate his forces only to meet his great defeat. As at Saratoga, while the fiercest fighting was done by the Continental regulars, the militia were important at Guilford Court House for their sheer numbers; Greene outnumbered Cornwallis more than two-to-one with a force that was probably around 70-80% militia.
The West: Finally, the Western theater of the war was almost entirely conducted by militia; beyond Western New York and Pennsylvania, there simply wasn't much the Continental Army could do to support operations in the West. The one time in 1781 when the army sent a detachment to assist George Rogers Clark in his campaigns in what became the Northwest Territory, they were defeated en route. This left Clark, a Virginia militia commander, to seize outposts in present-day Illinois and Indiana using Virginia and Kentucky militia. The militia also conducted both offensive and defensive campaigns in the West against the Native American tribes. (The Spanish also made use of militia in the West and South during the war, both in the defense of St. Louis and in Bernardo de Galvez' campaigns in Louisiana and the Floridas).
The Militia, Assessed: The militia were never an adequate substitute for a regular army. Bennington and Bunker Hill notwithstanding, they were often not useful in conventional engagements, especially offensive operations. They maneuvered poorly (e.g, the failure of the militia to arrive in proper position to support the Continental Army at Germantown and Trenton), a key weakness in 18th century warfare, and when not fighting from cover like stone walls or trees they were notorious for breaking formation and running when charged by the enemy. Continental Army commanders had no end of frustration trying to get militia companies to carry out orders and assignments, or even to determine in advance how many militia would show up when mustered. Washington himself had despised the militia as useless ever since his experiences with the Virginia militia in the French and Indian War (beware of Washington quotes about the militia and the right to bear arms that you may see on the internet; several of these are apocryphal and at odds with his actual thinking). Militia units were usually more effective fighting other militia or Native Americans than regular soldiers. And being amateurs who often had families to support, they preferred to stick close to home; Clark was never able to get enough volunteers from the Kentucky militia to carry out his grand plan of a march on Detroit.
The 1779 Penobscot expedition, in which a force composed mainly of Massachusetts and Maine militia (supported by a small detachment of marines) was to make an amphibious landing in Maine and assault a British fort, was a textbook example of the kind of complex operation completely unsuited to militia: despite superior numbers compared to the enemy and some initial momentum, the unwieldy joint command co-ordinated poorly with its Continental Navy support, the Maine militia turned out in smaller numbers than expected, and the militia maintained an ineffective siege and cut and ran when counter-attacked. The commanders of the expedition, including Paul Revere, ended up being hauled before a court-martial, and Maine remained in British hands the rest of the war.
Getting the most out of militia units in battle required tactical flexibility. Daniel Morgan, at Cowpens, ordered the first line of the North Carolina militia to fire two volleys from an advance position and then make an orderly retreat to the rear, with the second line firing three volleys then doing the same; the regulars in the third line would absorb the British charge. Morgan had no faith that the militia could withstand a charge without breaking, and quipped that he made sure not to make a stand near a swamp so the militia couldn't disappear into it at the first sign of the enemy. Herkimer, at Oriskany, had to order his men in the midst of battle to start fighting in pairs, taking turns shooting while the other reloaded, because they were vulnerable to tomahawk attacks while reloading.
But for all their drawbacks, the ability to put militia units in the field was undeniably important, at times crucial, to the colonial cause. The main reason is the balance of manpower. The British, as I noted earlier, usually had 25-30,000 soldiers to work with, of whom 22-25,000 were either British or Hessian regulars. The size of the Continental Army at various points in time can be hard to ascertain due to spotty records, desertions, illness and short enlistments, but its main body seems to have peaked with about 20,000 around the Battle of Brooklyn, and Washington usually fought with about 10-12,000 men at his larger engagements; aside from the large force assembled at Saratoga, the army rarely had more than 5,000 men in any other place, and more often the commanders outside Washington's immediate vicinity had only a few thousand regulars to work with. The Continental Army usually fought with smaller groups of regulars than its adversaries, it lost more battles than it won, and when Washington's main army wasn't present, it almost never won a significant engagement without the presence of militia. The army simply couldn't defend most of the countryside. The militia was a force multiplier that prevented the British from consolidating control, which in turn would have forced Washington to seek active battles he couldn't win. But with the support of the militia, the Americans had the advantage: the British couldn't easily replenish their manpower, which had to be requested from London and shipped across the ocean (this is why they relied on their own Loyalist militia), while the Americans could do so on short notice whenever local authorities felt the need, without even consulting Congress. Besides numbers, the militia harassed the British supply lines, also a vulnerability for an army operating thousands of miles overseas.
And the militia bought time. In the North, the militia confronted and bottled up the British in Boston and seized their Hudson River forts at a time when there was no regular army. In the South, the militia kept up the fight after the regulars had been crushed, buying time for Greene. In New York, the decentralized ability to rapidly raise militia companies to bleed and eventually outnumber Burgoyne's army was essential to the pivotal Saratoga campaign after the regulars had been dispersed by Burgoyne's advance.
The militia didn't win the war, and would never have won it alone. But it is hard to see how there is a Yorktown, a Treaty of Paris and an independent United States without the efforts of thousands of militia from 1775 to 1782.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:49 PM | History | Law 2009-13 | Politics 2013 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
January 14, 2013
POLITICS: Harry Reid's Priorities: Immigration, Not Assault Weapons
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gives some revealing insight into how he sees the Senate's priorities this spring - priorities, in line with his support back home in Nevada, that are long on addressing immigration and not so high on banning "assault weapons":
Calling for a "cautious" approach to gun control, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid downplayed the chances of the Senate renewing an assault-weapons ban in a weekend TV interview, suggesting he will instead move forward on measures with a better chance to pass muster in the Republican-controlled House.
But Reid is much more enthusiastic about getting bipartisan support for immigration bills:
"Immigration's our No. 1 item," Reid said. He later added, "It's going to be the first thing on our agenda."
Your mileage may vary on which of these topics is more likely to produce mischief. But clearly, Reid in reading the tea leaves of the last election thinks Republicans are more apt to bend on immigration than guns. He may be right.
POLITICS: More Cigarette Taxes Equals More Cigarette Smuggling
A recent study from the Tax Foundation and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy looking at cigarette taxes and cigarette smuggling reminds us, yet again, of how big government always ends up legislating the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Tax That Smoker Behind The Tree
You have to tax something to fund government, and if you're taxing sales, cigarettes are as good a target as any: while legal, they're universally known to be unhealthy and sometimes regarded as immoral. On the other hand, they're also a predominantly American-made product that's disproportionately consumed by lower-income Americans, meaning that a cigarette tax is more regressive than most taxes. In theory, the tax is supposed to serve the public health purpose of discouraging smoking; it's refreshing to hear this argument from liberals who usually deny that taxes discourage behavior, but in practice, it takes a lot more taxing to discourage smoking than most other activities because people are physically addicted to the product. This is to say nothing of the concern that state governments themselves get more or less addicted to tobacco revenues.
We know from long experience that when you ban something there's a public demand for, it gets less common, more expensive and more under the control of the criminal class - but it doesn't go away entirely. That's true whether you are talking about cigarettes, guns, alcohol, drugs, gambling, abortion, prostitution, pornography, or illegal immigration. And what's true of outright bans can be true as well of activities that are heavily taxed or regulated: the more costs government imposes, the more you get black markets. And that's exactly where we stand today with cigarette taxes.
Smuggling and Black Market Cigarettes
Any review of tax-hiking Democratic governors in recent years - or indeed, even Republican governors looking to raise more tax revenue without calling it "tax hiking" - will reveal a lot of hikes to cigarette taxes. That's nowhere more true than here in New York City - with predictable results:
New York has the highest cigarette tax rate of any state, and nearly two-thirds of the state's cigarette market is illegal, announced the think tank Tax Foundation on Thursday.
The issue is especially acute in New York due to a long-running state dispute over tax-free cigarettes manufactured and sold by the Oneida Indian Nation, one of the Native American tribes with significant sovereign land in the state (the Oneidas are one of the Iroquois Six Nations). The Michigan-based Mackinac Center has more on how the issue plays out in Michigan, which is not only a market for smuggled cigarettes but also an exporter of them to Canada.
As you can see from the study, the rates of smuggling correlate pretty strongly with tax rates, with smugglers having a strong incentive to export cigarettes from low-tax jurisdictions and sell them on the black market in high-tax jurisdictions. The study looks at tax rates and rates of smuggling in 2006 and 2011. Here's the rates of smuggling in 2006, plotted against the per-pack tax rate:
Here's the same graph for 2011:
And here's the change in rates of smuggling plotted against the change in per-pack taxes between 2006 and 2011:
One study is never the be-all or end-all of any policy debate, and as I said, some cigarette taxes are a sensible way of raising money at the expense of a socially undesirable activity. But at the end of the day, black markets are one of the ways in which high tax rates push us to the far right end of the Laffer Curve, and the Tax Foundation/Mackinac study suggests fairly strongly that a lot of jurisdictions have passed that point with these taxes.
January 2, 2013
POLITICS: Silver Linings in the Fiscal Cliff Deal
I will not try to convince any conservative that the final fiscal cliff deal that passed the Senate with only a few dissenting votes and needed Democratic votes to pass the House with a divided GOP caucus is a good deal, nor that it is the best deal available under the circumstances. It is, however, important to remember that this was a deal negotiated under just about the worst possible conditions: the president freshly re-elected, the largest tax hike in American history set to trigger automatically in the absence of a deal, the GOP leadership divided among itself and estranged from its grassroots/activist base, which itself was divided on how best to proceed. Republicans have illustrated dramatically why poker is not a team sport.
For all of that, there is some good news here for Republicans and conservatives if we know how to use it.
What's In The Deal?
The tax deals mostly bring a permanent settlement (subject, of course, to new legislative action) to a variety of previously temporary tax policies:
-The 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts to income, capital gains and dividend taxes will be made permanent for income up to $400,000 ($450,000 for married joint filers), but will be allowed to expire for income above those levels. Taxes will go up on many small business owners as a result.
-A similar half-a-loaf extension is being done for the estate tax, with the rate rising on estates above $5 million.
-The Alternative Minimum Tax will be indexed permanently to inflation, reducing the number of taxpayers hit with it and ending the annual debate over fixing it.
-The temporary payroll tax cut will be allowed to expire.
-5-year extensions are given to the Child Tax Credit and EITC as well as the college tax credit known as the American Opportunity Tax Credit, all of which can involve tax "credits" that are actually payments to people who pay no income taxes.
-Some exemptions and deductions will be phased out for incomes above $250,000 ($300,000 for joint filers).
-A variety of mischief was included or extended in the corporate tax code.
The good news is that the Bush Tax Cuts are now permanent for some 98% of all taxpayers; the bad news is the 1-2 punch of the expiration of the payroll tax cut and of the top-rate cuts. Even the left-wing Tax Policy Center admits that the net result of all this is higher taxes in 2013 for 77.1% of taxpayers, due in large part to the expiration of the payroll tax cut:
More than 80 percent of households with incomes between $50,000 and $200,000 would pay higher taxes. Among the households facing higher taxes, the average increase would be $1,635, the policy center said....The top 1 percent of taxpayers, or those with incomes over $506,210, would pay an average of $73,633 more in taxes....The top 0.1 percent of taxpayers, those with incomes over about $2.7 million, would pay an average of $443,910 more, reducing their after-tax incomes by 8.4 percent. They would pay 26 percent of the additional taxes imposed by the legislation.
That's increased new federal taxes; it doesn't take into account the numerous new Obamacare-related federal tax hikes already hitting in 2013 (including big hikes on the same people getting socked in this deal) let alone Democratic efforts to 'soak the rich' with state tax hikes in some states. And the tax changes are most of the deal. Matthew Boyle:
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the last-minute fiscal cliff deal reached by congressional leaders and President Barack Obama cuts only $15 billion in spending while increasing tax revenues by $620 billion - a 41:1 ratio of tax increases to spending cuts.
That's $62 billion a year, when you decode the CBO/JCT math, as unreliable as that is. RB has a chart illustrating exactly how little a dent that makes in the deficit.
On the spending side, little was definitively resolved, although conservatives are rightly concerned that yet another crisis came and went with no real action on spending and entitlements. New spending was authorized for unemployment insurance to be extended yet again, raising the question of whether Democrats think there is any limit to such insurance or any reason to believe the economy under Obama will ever produce a significant number of new jobs. Most of the rest of the automatic cuts in the sequester were put off for two months; the Medicare "doc fix" put off cuts for one year. Nothing was done to Social Security. No agreement was reached to extend the debt ceiling, which looms as the next crisis as early as February and Obama still pledging to refuse to negotiate.
Around The Web
Let's round up some reactions from around the web and then I'll offer my own thoughts.
From the Right
Ben Domenech (subscription):
Well, this looks like an insult to fig leaves everywhere....For all the talk of solving deficit problems, grand entitlement bargains, and steps toward dealing with out of control spending, Republicans and Democrats came together in the past 48 hours to endorse a solution which was about as small as it could possibly be. On the spending side, it trades the endorsement of higher taxes for every working American by Republicans for essentially nothing, with the promise of more nothing in the future.
Ben Howe: "I'm hoping that these last few years of constantly debating temporary tax rates will forever close the door on the use of such a negotiating tactic."
Democrats have made one major miscalculation. The pro-deal Democrats think that they have set a precedent for getting Republicans to agree to future tax increases -- that Grover Norquist's pledge is dead. This is a fantasy. This tax increase happened only because a bigger one was scheduled to take place. Republicans are not going to vote affirmatively to raise taxes, especially after taxes just rose. The deal makes future tax increases less likely, not more.
[L]iberals have a real reason to be discouraged by the White House's willingness - and, more importantly, many Senate Democrats' apparent eagerness - to compromise on tax increases for the near-rich...if I were them I'd be more worried about the longer term, and what it signals about their party's willingness and ability to raise tax rates for anyone who isn't super-rich....Is a Democratic Party that shies away from raising taxes on the $250,000-a-year earner (or the $399,999-a-year earner, for that matter) in 2013 - when those increases are happeningly automatically! - really going to find it easier to raise taxes on families making $110,000 in 2017 or 2021? Color me skeptical: The lesson of these negotiations seems to be that Democrats are still skittish about anything that ever-so-remotely resembles a middle class tax increase, let alone the much larger tax increases (which would eventually have to hit people making well below $100,000 as well) that their philosophy of government ultimately demands.
Maybe the expiration of the payroll tax cut really will amount to a significant economic hit in 2013 [quoting uniquitous liberal economist Mark Zandi]...Perhaps this - along with the rest of the fiscal cliff-hanger - will be a useful lesson about "temporary" tax changes. Congress usually enacts them to provide a spark to the economy, and intends to end them once the economy is in better shape. But the economy is rarely in such great health that taxes can be raised without some sort of deleterious impact; as we may experience, taxes jump back up before there's a robust recovery and the hikes cause the economy to sputter again. (In this light, the permanency of the Bush tax cuts for those making less than $450,000 per year may be one of the most significant economic reforms in the recent era.)
For liberals, this was not a moment of danger to be minimized but by far their best opportunity in a generation for increasing tax rates (which is the only fiscal reform they seem to want) and for robbing Republicans of future leverage for spending and entitlement reforms. And it is likely the best one they will encounter for another generation...some liberals believed [extending most of the rate cuts] could be overcome through much expanded caps on deductions...which would both raise more revenue and make Republican-style tax reform (a broader base with lower rates) much more difficult later. And they believed that the Republicans' opposition to tax increases would also give Democrats an opportunity to score some other points, like forcing Republicans to sign on to Obamacare-style counterproductive provider cuts in Medicare, so that Republicans couldn't criticize those anymore.
From the Left
By any measure, the fiscal deal that finally passed the House yesterday should have been something House Republicans could have enthusiastically supported. After all, as Jonathan Weisman put it, the bill 'locks in virtually all of the Bush-era tax cuts, exempts almost all estates from taxation, and enshrines the former president's credo that dividends and capital gains should be taxed equally and gently."
To listen to all the moaning out of the House of Representatives yesterday, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Republicans are losing the fiscal battle in Washington.
Kevin Drum: " my real preference was for a deal that would have allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire completely...there's not much question we're going to need more revenue" to pay for health care entitlements.
The Path Forward
Conservatives these days tend to be gloomy about the road ahead, partly due to lack of faith in the GOP's leadership and establishment and partly due to lack of faith in the electorate. But this is no time to throw in the towel. There is good news here, too, as a number of those quoted above on both sides have noted, and we should not hesitate to celebrate it.
First, the nonsense idea of "temporary" tax policy has hopefully had a fatal stake driven through it: both parties had lauded their ability to deliver temporary tax relief in the past, and must now swallow voter anger that those tax cuts were allowed to expire. One of the golden rules of Washington is that bad policies rarely end until both parties have suffered a downside from them. The only reason for tax policy to be "temporary" in the first place is to game the broken system of budget scoring.
Second, the Democrats have truly conceded far more ground on taxes than the Republicans. The ATR no-tax-hikes pledge was bent and mutilated badly, but not completely broken, given that Republicans accepted the expiry of temporary cuts and did so only after exhausting numerous efforts to save them. But Democrats who spent a decade blaming deficits, the housing crisis, and weeds in your lawn on the Bush Tax Cuts have now delivered the votes to make nearly all of them permanent - something that was unthinkable any time during Bush's presidency and even as recently as 2010.
Third, the table is set for Republicans in 2014 and especially 2016 to seize anew the initiative on taxes: on broad-based reforms that simplify the code, make it more pro-family, and cut taxes for everyone (possibly even slashing or abolishing the payroll tax) - variations on a platform that worked in 1980 and 2000 and can work again. After four years of bobbing and weaving, Obama now has signed off on raising taxes on nearly everyone, and that is sure to play into the GOP's natural strengths.
Fourth, the table is also stacked against the Democrats demanding new tax hikes in the next spending battle. Maybe Boehner and McConnell won't bring much back home in spending cuts - I never really believed that Obama would ever sign off on significant spending cuts or entitlement reform, and I still don't - but there really is no case at all to be made for returning so soon to the well of tax hikes.
Fifth, the tone is set for Obama's second term, and while it is hardly a great tone for Republicans, it also signals that Obama will need to either keep his ambitions small, stop demanding Republicans vote for deal-beakers, or start offering them something real in exchange if he wants to get anything accomplished. It's unlikely that he will be negotiating from as strong a position again.
Sixth, it will now be much harder for Obama to avoid ownership of the economy, having embraced most of the centerpiece of Bush's economic agenda while adding his own personal stamp. He's socked new taxes on investors, on small business owners, and on ordinary working people. Nobody forced him to do any of these things. Politically, that's a double-edged sword (Republicans have a lot of governors up for re-election in 2013 and 2014 who could be innocent bystanders if their states get blindsided by bad federal tax policy), but it is rarely good news for the party in power in the sixth year of a president's term.
The temporary-tax-cut trap had stuck Beltway Republicans in an uncomfortable morass that was, to a large extent, one of their own devising. They did not emerge unscathed, but at least they have put it behind them, and that creates a lot more flexibility going forward - an important consideration in a party that is largely united on policy but deeply divided on strategy. That's an opportunity, and no amount of gloom should cause us to lose sight of that.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 3:30 PM | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
December 28, 2012
POLITICS: CBO Projection Fail
Jim Pethokoukis offers a wonderful example of CBO 10-year projection failure: in 2002, the CBO projected that debt would be 7.4% of GDP by 2012. The actual figure: closer to 74%.
Did a lot of unexpected things happen between 2002 and 2012? Of course they did. They always do. This is precisely why you should never regard 10-year budget forecasts as "facts." It's why I apply what I call Crank's First Law: government budget and financial forecasts are always, always wrong.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 7:13 PM | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
December 26, 2012
POLITICS/LAW: Gun Control, Gun Rights, Gun Politics and Newtown: Part I of II
The school shooting atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut has, predictably, touched off another round of the perennial gun-control debate. Especially for parents of young children (my youngest is the same age as most of the victims), the horror of the shootings is almost beyond description, and tends to make rational discussion impossible. And also unseemly, as Jonah Goldberg has explained. More to the point, this is one of those issues where the public demands foolproof solutions that remain elusive: we keep saying "never again" after mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and all sorts of other manmade and supposedly preventable disasters, but there's never a perfect answer that guarantees that any such thing will never happen again (this is, for example, why anti-terrorism policies are best focused on terrorist organizations rather than lone nuts). We can only and always base public policy proposals on what will reasonably improve the situation without imposing costs we can't live with.
The reality of no perfect or costless solutions lends both a hysterical quality to the gun debate as well as a one-sided burden of proof. Gun control advocates suggest a goal (the complete non-existence of firearms) that is not politically, legally or practically possible, and argue that opponents of any gun control measure show how their alternative would be 100% effective by comparison to a gun control utopia that doesn't and never will exist. In a more rational, realistic debate, you would compare the actual proposed gun controls to a world without those proposals - and in that rational world, the first question for gun control advocates after Newtown is why gun control in Connecticut didn't work after the Brady Campaign hailed the state's tough gun laws as a model of public safety. Gun control - complete with an "assault weapons ban," waiting periods, background checks, "gun free school zone" laws and the rest - was already tried in Connecticut, and it failed to make a difference. If Newtown means anything in the gun debate, it's that gun control doesn't work.
The trenches are long-since dug on both sides; if you can find clips of Archie Bunker discussing an issue on YouTube, chances are that we have already had a "national conversation" about that issue. Of course, changing the culture can be at least as important as changing the law, so it is certainly helpful to look again at how we handle things like responsible gun ownership and mental illness (besides the shooter himself, his mother bears responsibility for having firearms under the same roof with such a mentally unbalanced young man). If there's one valuable service the NRA could provide in this debate - and Wayne LaPierre's ham-handed press conference failed to provide - it is stepping up the cultural battle to engage responsible gun owners outside of government.
But both advocates and opponents of gun control tend to fall too easily into knee-jerk slogans that go too far. It is no less true for being a truism, for example, that guns don't kill people, people kill people, and that we don't get nearly as many calls for controlling, say, knives or baseball bats when they are misused. But it is also true that guns are the most efficient, portable, and cost-effective killing tools we have: that's exactly why they remain the weapon of choice for soldiers, cops, criminals, and hunters all over the world (and why the right to own a gun matters). There's a strong case that good people with guns can be a more effective answer to armed criminals than gun control; gun control advocates are almost invariably willfully blind to the value of this. But that doesn't mean that proposals to arm everyone, everywhere are a good idea with no costs or a perfect, foolproof solution. It does no good for defenders of gun rights to overstate their arguments, any more than it helps proponents of gun control to ignore the costs and limitations of gun control or to react with incredulity to the idea that the Constitution means what it says. Frankly, if your approach to the Second Amendment is to laugh and ignore it, I'm not going to trust you to take the rest of the Bill of Rights seriously either.
I am probably a lot less pro-gun, and a lot less interested in guns, than most conservatives; I've never owned, fired or even held a gun, and personally I could be perfectly happy keeping it that way. I'd be personally content to live in a world with no guns at all. And I'm open to supporting reasonable gun regulations where there is reason to believe they will have more than just symbolic effects. But I also respect practical reality, the Constitution, and the rights of other people to freedoms that aren't personally important to me. A few thoughts and observations on guns, Newtown and the way forward:
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The NRA and the History of Gun Control
The NRA, as the nation's most vocal guardian of the right to own a gun, naturally comes in for a lot of abuse after any major shooting, and its leadership sometimes doesn't help the cause (there's a reason why small-government conservatives have battled at times with the NRA, and why the Gun Owners of America exists). But much of the effort to paint the NRA as some sort of moneyed special interest that buys its influence ignores the group's structure and history: it's a consumer group of gun owners, not the trade association of gun manufacturers. As Frank Fleming noted on Twitter, "[p]eople don't support gun rights because the NRA is so powerful; the NRA is so powerful because people support gun rights." It would have faded years ago without that grassroots support. Brian Palmer at Slate explains where the NRA came from and how it got into politics in the first place:
For the most part, the NRA's lobbying arm didn't gin up the emotional fervor of firearms advocates - it resulted from it. The NRA was founded shortly after the Civil War by Union veterans who felt the Confederacy only lasted as long as it did because of the Southerners' superior marksmanship. For nearly a century, the NRA catered to competitive shooters and merely dabbled in politics. As with so many other American cultural issues, things changed in the 1960s. Crime soared. Armed members of the Black Panthers began following police officers around American cities. Riots broke out in Newark and Detroit, and some government officials blamed easy access to guns. Assassins killed two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, under pressure from terrified constituents, Congress passed the first major gun control legislation since the 1930s. A backlash ensued, as American firearms enthusiasts feared the government planned to take their guns. They pushed the relatively apolitical NRA to lobby on their behalf. When the leadership balked in 1977, a group of activists staged a coup. The new leaders commissioned a poll, which found that lobbying was the members' biggest priority. They turned the group into a political force, with the Second Amendment as their bible.
This is much like the history of the abortion issue, in which heavy-handed liberals created an ideological opposition where none had existed before the 1960s. And as with abortion, the history of gun control in the U.S. begins with an explicitly racist agenda. UCLA law professor Adam Winkler observes:
America's most horrific racist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, began with gun control at the very top of its agenda. Before the Civil War, blacks in the South had never been allowed to possess guns. During the war, however, blacks obtained guns for the first time. Some served as soldiers in black units in the Union Army, which allowed its men, black and white, to take their guns home with them as partial payment of past due wages. Other Southern blacks bought guns in the underground marketplace, which was flooded with firearms produced for the war.
Kentucky firebrand Ida B. Wells urged that "the Winchester rifle deserved a place of honor in every Negro home." The first generation of legal battles by the NAACP were centered on defending Blacks who had used firearms in self-defense – e.g., hiring Clarence Darrow to defend Dr. Ossian Sweet who was mobbed for attempting move into a white neighborhood
As Winkler notes, even the NRA itself turned away from its history to help devise the first gun-licensing laws in the 1920s, designed to keep immigrants from obtaining guns. And as he explained in a 2011 article for The Atlantic, the modern gun control movement was as much a response to the Black Panthers as anything.
The NRA's position since the 1970s may seem unduly uncompromising - but it's also more respectful of equal civil rights. And while we have thankfully moved on from the age of organized hate crimes, Jim Crow, and secession, they are not such distant memories to make us smug about the assurance that nobody in America need ever worry again about the need for protection against fellow Americans.
Guns are also the great equalizer, in a way that can be of importance to women and the elderly, particularly in high-crime areas or when traveling alone at night. Most crime is committed by men, disproportionately young men who are often physically stronger than their victims. Guns, far more than any other weapon, place women on an equal footing with their assailants. Just as today, the Founding Fathers' generation understood this: I've recently been reading HW Brands' sterling biography of Benjamin Franklin, and one of the anecdotes in the book recounts how Franklin's wife prepared with the family gun to defend their home (while Ben was away in England) from a rampaging anti-Stamp Act mob.
Moreover, harken back to the original idea of the NRA: to teach marksmanship skills that could later be used in military service to the nation. In an age of all-volunteer militaries, this is a particularly important point: I don't know whether anyone has formally studied the issue, but just from anecdotal experience I'd be willing to bet that young men and women who grow up with a gun in the household are much more likely to volunteer for military service, especially in the Army or Marine Corps. Which brings us to the Second Amendment - why we have one, what it means, and why it matters.
What Is The Second Amendment?
As you probably know, the Second Amendment to the US Constitution - adopted in 1791, and ceding pride of place in the Bill of Rights only to the freedoms of speech, religion and assembly - states that "[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
A similar provision appears in the bills of rights of 43 states, including states that adopted them prior to 1791. Hunting - and in some parts of the country, protection from dangerous wildlife like wolves and bears - is a major reason why guns are popular, widespread and useful. But the Founding Fathers did not put the right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights because they were worried about restrictions on hunting. It is a political right: the right to bear arms in defense of one's self, home, and state against intruders of all kinds, up to and including the national government, foreign invaders, secessionists or domestic hate groups like the Klan. I can't really explain why better than this spellbinding Newt Gingrich address to the NRA in 2011, especially the ten minutes starting around 4:50:
The men who wrote the Bill of Rights did not include the Second Amendment as an oversight or a rhetorical flourish; as Newt explains, the history of the right to bear arms was real, vivid and a life-or-death matter to them and one they saw as "necessary to the security of a free State." Madison in Federalist No. 46 explicitly argued at length that an armed citizenry would protect even against our own federal government:
[Compared to the small federal military Madison envisioned] would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it. Let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion, that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession, than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of their oppressors.
Madison would, it turns out, underestimate the federal government, which would go on over the next 80 years or so to impose its will on all manner of armed citizens - the Whiskey Rebellion, John Brown's abolitionists, the Confederate Army, the Mormons. (Nat Turner's slave rebellion was conducted without firearms, with predictable lack of success).
Madison's Constitution - even before its inclusion of an express right to bear arms - already contained other provisions relating to the citizen Militia, over which Congress was given specific but not plenary powers:
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
The President's Commander-in-Chief power is likewise explicitly extended to "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States." And immediately following the adoption of the Second Amendment, the Congress of the Founding generation used the authority granted in the Militia clause:
A 1792 federal law mandated every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters - where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls.
The Supreme Court has recently affirmed, in two landmark cases (DC v. Heller and McDonald v Chicago), a conclusion supported by extensive scholarship: that the Second Amendment protects an individual right, one that exists regardless of whether an individual has been called into militia service. (I have argued before that it may also protect a state's right to permit or promote gun ownership within its own borders). I won't rehash the ins and outs of the argument here except to note that a huge majority of the liberal commentary on the issue basically amounts to laughing and saying "that can't be true!" rather than actually investigating the facts and the history of the right (not for nothing has Second Amendment scholarship been dominated in recent decades by the pro-gun-rights scholars). The failure to take the Constitution seriously is one that continues to plague the gun control movement.
But what "Arms" are protected? Given the political purpose of the right and its intimate connection to national defense - and how Congress read the Militia clause in 1792 - it is illogical in the extreme to argue that "assault weapons" or "military-style weapons" or some such are not covered. The entire point of the Second Amendment is to ensure that citizens could be armed and ready to be converted, on short notice (think: "minutemen") into a military force. In 1791, that meant the standard equipment of an infantryman of the day, a musket or rifle and likely a bayonet. (Veterans of the savage fighting at Bunker Hill would scoff ruefully at the notion that muskets were not "assault weapons"). Of course, even the colonial militia only had a right to possess infantry weapons; even in the 18th century, the militiamen owned muskets and rifles individually, but the town or state collectively owned the cannons. No serious reading of the Second Amendment would protect your right to own artillery, tanks or fighter jets. It is a fair question where or whether there is any limit to what kind of infantry-style weapons (rifle, sidearm, etc.) would count as "Arms" under the Second Amendment, but the mere description of a weapon as a military-style rifle makes it more rather than less likely that it would be the sort of thing the right was written to protect (indeed, the gun control side argued - unsuccessfully - in Heller that handguns were not protected because they were not of sufficient military use).
By contrast, the Second Amendment specifically speaks of the militia being "well-regulated" and gives to Congress explicit powers relating to that regulation. That makes the right to bear arms less like the more absolute rights to free speech and free exercise of religion (about which "Congress shall make no law") and more like the right against searches and seizures, which the Fourth Amendment bans only when "unreasonable." Indeed, Congress used that authority in 1792 to require gun registration and ownership. The obvious conclusion is that, while neither Congress nor the states can properly bar the ownership or possession of any class of guns, one or both may impose reasonable regulations. Again, we can argue about the limits of what kind of regulation is wise or permitted - I personally tend to support background checks, limited waiting periods and even a gun registry - but there's no particular reason to believe that the Second Amendment is intended to present a meaningful obstacle to such regulations of the right.
(Gun owners often argue that a state or national gun registry would make confiscating guns easier. That's true, but we don't prevent the government from licensing the broadcasting spectrum or knowing where newspapers are published, because we have a tradition of respecting freedom of speech. If we took the Second Amendment more seriously, we might have less paranoia around regulating gun ownership).
Even aside from the Constitution, in considering how changes in the law would play out, a little perspective should be in order from all sides. First of all, it is simply not the case that a ban on all guns is politically possible in the United States; even a Washington Post snap poll after the shootings found 71% of Americans opposed, and 56% strongly opposed, to a total gun ban.
Moreover, we know from long experience that when you ban something there's a public demand for, it gets less common, more expensive and more under the control of the criminal class - but it doesn't go away entirely. That's true whether you are talking about guns, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling, abortion, prostitution, pornography, or illegal immigration. That's not a reason to give up on banning any bad things, but it means that you have to look down the road at what you do next, and in this case that's a world where the illegal gun population would not decline nearly as much as the legal gun population. There may be something like 300 million guns already out there in the U.S., which can not feasibly be confiscated. If you like the War on Drugs, you'd love a War on Guns. Moreover, long experience with restrictive gun control, as in Chicago, suggests that criminals are much more likely to endure the risks and expenses of buying illegal guns, tilting the playing field further against law-abiding citizens.
This is why a mass shooting is the perfect storm for gun control advocates: the debate on guns and crime or even guns and terrorism is a losing one for them, because people easily grasp that gun bans don't make a dent in guns owned by the bad guys and that the better path is to crack down on the criminals, not the guns. Criminals will always make the extra effort to get illegal guns; terrorists are just as happy to use bombs; suicides and crimes of passion will just as easily reach for whatever stands at hand. Ben Domenech has a must-read roundup of what we know and have learned about both gun control and mass shootings, and it's not a record that inspires confidence in the superiority of the gun control approach.
What is more likely to be proposed is some form of "assault weapons ban." But we know from experience of the Clinton-era ban that the final legislation is likely to be shot through with nonsensical distinctions drawn from the difficulties of defining what it is that the statute aims to ban. It is sadly the case that a huge amount of the gun control debate is driven by liberals and journalists with little or no personal experience with guns, and therefore no concept of how to draw the distinctions at issue. Tim Carney, as part of a larger explainer on the various distinctions ("use of the phrase semi-automatic when talking about guns is like using the phrase 'gasoline cars.'") recalls the 1994 bill:
First, all guns can be used to assault someone - even a muzzle-loading black-powder rifle.
Efforts to block the access of a very small subset of people - mass shooters - from to a narrow band of originally-legally-purchased firearms (the Newtown shooter was blocked by Connecticut's tough gun laws from buying a rifle just days before the attack, so he stole one instead) is a worthy goal, to be sure; some of the proposals under discussion might reduce the number of victims in some future incident. But in practical terms, the odds are much greater that in our effort to lock this particular barn door, we are talking about a large national political debate, the restriction of freedom on a large number of people, and the additional burden on law enforcement nationwide for a slight reduction in firepower that could potentially save maybe a handful of lives per decade.
It's hard to keep perspective after an event like Newtown - it's almost impossible, in fact, for parents to regard such an atrocity with any perspective at all - but the likely result of all this debate is a whole lot of political posturing for not very much result. In some ways this recalls the Terri Schiavo debate in 2005, when national politics ground to a halt over the life of one woman - a noble goal, perhaps the noblest of goals - but one that squandered the opportunity for a newly re-elected president to do bigger things affecting a much larger swath of the country's future, but which our political system was unable to resist because of the moral certainty of those who fought for Schiavo. (Our priorities can seem quite strange in this way: Planned Parenthood kills twenty children every half hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and we do nothing about that.)
The next round of gun control debates is likely to be long on symbolism and short on practical solutions. Congress should not pass any laws - in this or other contexts - without some good reason to believe they will actually accomplish something. The burden remains on the advocates of new gun laws to show not only that their proposals are constitutional and not undue burdens on the rights and freedoms of law-abiding citizens, but that they actually have some practical chance of working.
(In Part II, I will look at the different ways - prevention, preemption, deterrence, disarmament, self-defense - that we look at violence)
« Close It
Posted by Baseball Crank at 3:15 PM | Law 2009-13 | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)
December 20, 2012
POLITICS: Republicans: Don't Get Outbid On Taxes
Unlike some of my RedState colleagues, for reasons I explained on Tuesday, I agree with the basic theory behind John Boehner's Plan B solution to the tax side of the fiscal cliff standoff: rather than trading Republican blessings on tax hikes for illusory "spending cuts," let Democrats get the tax hikes they want with no pretense that Republicans support them, pass a bill making permanent those tax cuts both sides can agree on, and take the dispute back to the voters in 2014 and 2016. Then we can have the straight-up spending debate, and hold the line on further demands for even more tax hikes beyond the ones that Obama can get simply by not making a deal.
But Boehner has made what I regard as one significant mistake in this fight: he's letting the Democrats get to his right on middle class tax cuts. Democrats are complaining that Plan B doesn't extend some of the tax cuts for middle and lower income taxpayers, such as the "temporary" payroll tax cut, the Alternative Minimum Tax fix and the "American Opportunity Tax Credit" for certain college expenses (you can see the White House's talking points, driven off yet another study by the left-wing Tax Policy Center, here and here). Some of this is disingenuous, as Democrats characterize the end of temporary government spending on non-taxpayers (including some aspects of the child tax credit and Earned Income Tax Credit) as "tax hikes." But there are also some legitimate increases in taxes actually paid, mainly the expiration of the payroll tax cut, that will go into effect in the new year if Plan B is the only thing that passes. In other words, Democrats really are pressing for some tax cuts that Republicans are not.
This should never, ever happen to any competent Republican. It's precisely how Obama outflanked Romney on the tax issue during the summer, and you would think the election results should have taught GOP leadership not to repeat that mistake. If anything, Republicans should up the ante: make the payroll tax cut permanent, and dare Democrats to block it. Any time Republicans get a Democrat to concede the value of tax cuts, that's a conservative victory and should be taken to the bank while the getting is good. (As to the particulars of tax credits, Republicans uncomfortable with the structure can always devise an alternative of equal size). Make the Democrats be the ones to argue that Obama's own payroll tax cut is unsustainable or unworkable. As things stand right now, workers - including members of the "47%" who pay no federal income taxes - are enjoying the benefits of being able to spend the money they earn instead of having it taken by the federal government. They are seeing in action the most important conservative fiscal policy argument of all. Republicans should never be the ones standing against that.
I believe it was Conn Carroll who remarked after the election that Ronald Reagan would have looked at 47% of the country paying no federal income tax and called it "a good start." That philosophy animated Republicans under Reagan's and George W. Bush's presidencies and under Newt Gingrich's Speakership: cut taxes for as many people as possible at every possible opportunity. While GOP tax cuts in those eras often benefitted the wealthy who paid the most taxes in the first place, they frequently offered proportionally equal or greater benefit to taxpayers at every income level. That's why the party's tax-cutting brand helped it appeal to middle class and non-wealthy suburban voters. The Romney campaign never understood the importance of never letting Democrats pose as being to the Republicans' right on taxes, and as a result let Romney and the party get painted as too narrow in its economic appeal. If he wants the GOP to stop being the Stupid Party, Boehner should learn the lesson of Romney's defeat, and amend Plan B to include, extend or expand every tax cut the Democrats claim to be willing to support. And Republican tax policy going forward should make that a line as stringently defended as the ATR no-tax-hikes pledge.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 3:00 PM | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
December 18, 2012
POLITICS: Republicans Must Retreat, Not Surrender, on the Fiscal Cliff
It's time for John Boehner and the House and Senate Republicans now engaged in the fiscal cliff negotiations to learn a lesson from George Washington: when faced with fighting a losing battle, the wisest course is to retreat rather than surrender.
George Washington didn't get to be the Father of His Country by leading his often outnumbered and outgunned troops on suicide missions. Washington fought few pitched battles in the Revolutionary War, usually unsuccessfully (as at Long Island, Brandywine and Germantown). His signal successes involved surprise attacks (at Trenton) or trapping or cornering his foes without a full-scale open-field engagement (at Boston and Yorktown). Facing numerically superior forces, Washington often preferred to retreat to save his army from disaster, even after successful smaller engagements like the fight at Harlem Heights. Often in 1776 and 1777, as his army unsuccessfully sought to defend New York and Philadelphia from the steadily building British army, Washington would have his troops disengage and slip away in the dark, even at the cost of eventually having both cities captured by the enemy. For much of the war, Washington would resist Congressional entreaties to launch more ambitious offensives (such as an impractical invasion of Quebec), and at times would hastily abandon positions (like at Stony Point) that his men captured but could not defend.
Washington's evasiveness - and his army's endurance of hard marches in the snow at Trenton in the winter of 1776 and winter quarters in the bitter cold at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 - enabled him to keep his forces together until they were strong enough to fight the British to a standstill at Monmouth and until the reinforcement of allied troops from France arrived. Washington's subordinate Nathaniel Greene conducted a similar campaign in the South, harassing Cornwallis while losing most of his battles (as Greene wrote, "[w]e fight, get beat, rise and fight again") but remaining on the run, avoiding a decisive engagement until Washington and the French could trap Cornwallis at Yorktown in September 1781.
Washington's approach didn't just help his army avoid annihilation or capture until it could grow stronger and obtain outside help. It also staved off an ever-threatened collapse in morale, as Washington's men avoided more of the kind of disastrous routs that would lead to more desertions and fewer recruits. In time, it bonded Washington to his men, who grew to trust his judgment. Of perhaps particular interest to Boehner and McConnell, it also helped Washington avoid being replaced from his command by an antsy Congress. And in the end, it brought him victory.
The one thing Washington never did in the Revolution was surrender. Only once, at the outset of his military career, did he do that, and it ended in disaster for all involved. In 1754, Washington - then a Colonel in the Virginia militia under the command of the British royal governor - was sent to scout the frontier in what is now Western Pennsylvania, with orders that authorized him to fight anyone obstructing British settlements in the area. Finding the French in possession of a partially constructed British fort, Washington and his Iroquois allies launched an attack (begun under circumstances that are murky to this day) that ended up with the French commander, Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, being killed and scalped by the overzealous Iroquois leader, Tanaghrisson, possibly while attempting to negotiate a cease-fire. ("Overzealous" may be putting it mildly - Tanaghrisson split Jumonville's head open and washed his hands in his brains. Boehner's and McConnell's issues controlling their caucus seem mild by comparison.)
The French in the area, under the command of Jumonville's brother Louis Coulon de Villiers, launched a counterattack along with their own Native American allies, cornering Washington (now abandoned by the Iroquois) at Fort Necessity. Villiers threatened to storm the fort and let the Native Americans scalp Washington and his entire garrison, but since the two countries were not at war, he offered Washington safe passage with his men back to Virginia if he surrendered. The deal also included a prisoner exchange at the conclusion of Washington's withdrawal from the area. Badly outnumbered, with rain soaking his ammunition and his men breaking into the fort's liquor supplies, Washington capitulated - and signed terms written in French by a vindictive Villiers that would haunt him:
All Washington had to do was sign the terms of capitulation.
Washington, duped, blamed his translator, Jacob Van Braam, and never spoke to him again. Neither side ended up honoring the remaining terms of an agreement negotiated in bad faith under duress. The succeeding controversy touched off the global war known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War, with dire results for all sides. For Washington, it meant being sent back to confront the French along with a British expeditionary force led by General Braddock. Braddock sought decisive battle and got it, with his expedition ending in a rout that killed its commander and required Washington to shepherd the remaining forces home safely. For the French, the war itself resulted in the loss of all their North American possessions. For the British, Braddock's defeat convinced the colonials that they could handle battle as well as the British regulars, a discovery that would help trigger the American Revolution 21 years after the surrender at Fort Necessity (a revolution that itself would help contribute to the fiscal crisis that collapsed the French monarchy).
Today's Field of Battle
The Legislative Terrain
The "fiscal cliff" negotiations, which by design were set for right after the presidential election, have been built around the legislative Doomsday Device constructed by the two parties in 2011 and having its roots all the way back to George W. Bush passing tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that would expire in 2010 unless extended. The "cliff" refers to a bunch of things that will happen automatically without legislative action - signed by the President - to prevent them:
This cliff is composed of several parts.
By choosing to fight right after the election, Republicans took the risk that Obama would win and negotiate from what is likely to be the high point of his second term popularity. Each side holds hostages: Obama holds the extension of the tax cuts, especially the cuts for the top tax rates, which Republicans want; Republicans hold the extension of the debt limit. On the tax side, Democrats (in a sharp reversal from their position during the Bush years) profess to want to make the Bush tax cuts permanent below a certain income threshold, and have previously passed a bill in the Senate to do so. Obama's hostages among the top rates include the capital gains rate, which is of particular importance to the economy:
The Senate-passed bill to extend Bush tax cuts for income under $250,000 ($200,000 for a single filer) applies to both the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, and thus also allows tax rates on capital gains and dividends over $250,000 to return to 20 percent. It would also reinstate separate tax provisions cutting the amount by which high earners can benefit from the personal exemption and itemized deductions.
On the spending side, the sequester cuts include dangerous cuts to defense spending, which Republicans want to avoid and which Obama professed to not want during the election campaign, and a variety of social-program spending the Democrats want to preserve. Items that could potentially be included in a deal range from entitlement cuts to eliminating deductions in the tax code. Different economists project various sorts of doom from "going over the cliff" or for pretty much any other possible solution; your mileage may vary as to how seriously to take these.
The Political Terrain
Republicans and Obama both have immediate political stumbling blocks and goals aside from their long-term policy interests. For Republicans, the top of that list is the Americans for Tax Reform no-tax-hikes pledge, which most have taken. Grover Norquist, the head of ATR, doesn't wield all that much power by himself, but House and Senate Republicans who have taken the pledge can be in a very bad place with their own constituents (think: "read my lips, no new taxes") if they break it without a really compelling reason to do so. No GOP-controlled House since the institution of the income tax has ever raised rates. But they also have one possible escape hatch: it's not a real violation of the pledge for tax hikes to happen automatically without a vote, especially if Republicans have gone repeatedly on record trying to extend them.
Obama's goal is twofold and related. First, he wants to break Republicans, and divide the party to it's less able to resist him in his second term. And second, he wants to get the core of his economic agenda - the top-rate tax hikes and "Buffett Rule" tax hikes on investments - passed with GOP support so that he can spread the blame for the consequences. Obama may be slow to learn this lesson, but he understands that the game theory calculus from the 2009 stimulus - that the only safe place for Republicans is to wash their hands of his agenda - requires him to find a way to keep Republicans out of that place. Bipartisan cover is particularly important to Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 in Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana (all states Obama lost twice), as well as states like North Carolina, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Like Villiers at Fort Necessity, Obama wants Republican signatures on a deal that can be used against them.
But that's if there's an agreement. If there is none, the political reality is that the media is prepared to blame the GOP for any failure to reach an agreement, pretty much no matter the course of negotiations, and in the immediate honeymoon period following Obama's re-election, this will probably work. Democrats have internalized this argument, saying the GOP is checkmated. This has emboldened Obama. Treasury Secretary Geithner declared that the Administration would go over the cliff unless a deal included hikes on taxpayers above $250,000. Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted, as Obama had said repeatedly during the campaign, that Social Security would not be on the table. Dick Durbin says the White House told him the Medicare eligibility age is not on the table. And on the debt limit:
President Obama is saying flatly that he will not negotiate under any circumstances over raising the national debt limit....the President says he won't negotiate under any circumstances. And his top advisors say he's adamant on the point - not just because of the current impasse but to take hostage taking over the national debt off the table for good.
This is all consistent with Obama's traditional approach of offering nothing of value to Republicans to get bipartisan deals done. As usual, Obama is attempting - even without control of the House of Representatives - to proceed on what I've described before as the annihilation strategy of winning legislative victories.
Learning To Retreat
Nervous Hill Republicans have taken all this as a sign that they must accept a deal, any deal, and that Obama has them over a barrel, even if it means trading tax hikes for the illusion of spending cuts. But that is the wrong approach. The GOP can always retreat - but it must be to more defensible ground.
As I have written before at length, you win battles in politics by picking fights you are willing to lose. As streiff's analogy to Keyser Soze makes clear, that includes showing a willingness to stand back and let Obama shoot his hostages. But it doesn't mean the GOP is holding a strong position, either. Some hardliners think "no surrender" means we have the leverage to win all kinds of concessions, and Phil Klein explains why this is madness, and specifically why just walking away completely could leave Republicans in a much worse position come January:
[Consider] the effect on [the GOP's] low-tax brand from letting everyone's taxes go up on Jan. 1. At that point, Obama can go on television and demand a $3.7 trillion tax cut for 98 percent of Americans. What happens to the brand if Republicans oppose a tax cut for the middle class because it doesn't also lower rates on those with the highest incomes?
I highly recommend reading both Klein's and streiff's essays in their entirety, as they frame the two possible approaches to walking away from a deal, along with Drew M's "Let it Burn" argument. Klein says the GOP should just pass an extension of the Bush tax cuts for everyone below $250,000, dare Obama and Harry Reid to oppose them, and leave town; streiff argues that Republicans should just let the whole cliff go into effect, tax hikes and all, because the cliff includes cuts the GOP couldn't get at the bargaining table; Drew argues that voters simply need to see the consequences of electing Obama. I think Klein has the better argument, the one that places Republicans in the position George Washington would have appreciated: having retreated to more defensible terrain where they can use their leverage over the remaining hostage (the debt limit) to ransom the defense cuts and perhaps get some additional modest concessions, while making clear that it was the Democrats alone who chose to raise taxes. It now appears that Boehner is pushing a "Plan B" that could do something like that - making the Bush tax cuts permanent for everyone below $1 million.
Of course, a retreat does not mean the end of the fight. And while Republicans do not have great leverage, they still have an advantage that gets undercovered by the media: the Democratic camp itself is divided on what it can and can't swallow. For example, Obama may be willing to accept letting the payroll tax cut expire, a move that is deeply unpopular with base groups like MoveOn.Org. Senate Democrats are also divided over "Chained CPI," a method of restraining the growth of Social Security benefits. But the George Washington approach - engage, retreat, maneuver, and make the Democrats show their cards - is a better way to tease out those divisions than either a suicidal last stand or an abject surrender.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:00 PM | History | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
December 13, 2012
POLITICS: Why You Can't Trade Taxes For Spending
Should Republicans trade tax hikes for spending cuts? Much of the debate over the current fiscal cliff standoff centers around discussions of "ratios": Republicans will agree to X dollars of tax hikes, Democrats will agree to Y dollars of spending cuts, and so forth.
Much of this discussion is based on numbers that are misleading or worse, because Washington doesn't calculate taxes and spending the same way. A tax hike will raise real, immediate costs on real taxpayers, whether or not it actually raises any more revenue. The targets of a tax hike are citizens, who do not have a choice whether to obey. By contrast, a "spending cut" may simply involve altering future projections of the rate of increase of spending, and thus agreements to cut spending rarely actually result in less spending. And the targets of such spending cuts are future Congresses, who can disregard them at will; they're not binding.
The only real equivalents to tax hikes are (1) complete elimination of federal spending programs or (2) changes in the eligibility criteria or benefits formulas for entitlement programs. There are fair arguments about the best GOP strategy in managing the tax debate, but if a negotiated agreement is to be reached that will require Republican votes to pass, Republicans should not even consider agreeing to trade tax hikes in exchange for anything less.
Read More »
Taxes: The Case Of The Tax on Widgets
To consider how this works, let's consider a hypothetical budget deal. On the tax side, we have a $1 tax on widgets that brought in $100 million in 2011 and $100 million in 2012. The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) presently projects that the sale of widgets will grow steadily by 5 million widgets a year, year-to-year, adding $5 million in new revenue each year on top of what's already collected, and that over tax years 2013-2022, the tax will bring in $1.275 billion. The White House wants to double the widget tax to $2. JCT dutifully applies a "static" revenue growth assumption: that is, it assumes that doubling the widget tax will have no impact whatsoever on sales of widgets (Phil Gramm once had the JCT score a proposal to tax income at 100%; JCT had no choice but to compute the resulting tax revenue on the assumption that people would work just as hard for no after-tax pay. JCT claims to have modified this somewhat in the intervening years, but its projections are still more or less done the same way). As a result, JCT projects an additional $1.275 billion in revenue over ten years.
As an aside, tax and spending numbers are always presented in these "total over ten years" figures, with no adjustment for the time value of money; thus, you can play all kinds of budgetary games by back-loading some parts of a budget package and front-loading others. This was famously done by Obamacare, which started its taxes before the spending so that 10 years of taxes could be counted against 6 years of spending as if this would be a continuing feature of the annual cost of a permanent program.
Anyway, the tax gets passed, and it has real effects on real taxpayers: every widget must either cost an additional dollar or be produced at less profit. Some buyers cut back their purchases of widgets; some widget manufacturers go under; some industries that buy widgets in bulk build new offshore factories to buy widgets from overseas manufacturers that aren't subject to the tax. And even aside from that, JCT - because it lacks a crystal ball - fails to foresee a recession starting in 2020. Instead of an additional $1.275 billion in revenue over ten years, the widget tax hike ends up bringing in just $77 million in new revenue (a pitiable $7.7 million a year), while a whole bunch of American widget workers lose their jobs, adding to the government's spending on unemployment insurance and other automatic expenditures. Ten years down the line, the tax is still 50% higher than it was in 2012, but brings in only 30% more revenue than 2011 or 2012, and the same amount as in 2013.
Here's what that looks like in chart and graph form:
Spending: The Case of The Department of Departments Budget
What did Congress get in return for the widget tax? An offsetting $1.275 billion reduction in projected spending by the Department of Departments. The Department spent $60 million in 2011, and had its budget nearly doubled to $100 million in 2012. You might think a billion-plus-dollar cut in spending means spending less than $100 million in 2013, but you would be wrong. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) sets a 'baseline' that calculates what current spending levels are and then adds to those levels projected future spending growth based on a set of assumptions. Any "cuts" will simply be reductions in the future growth projections. If the CBO ran a diet, you could declare that you've succeeded at weight loss by projecting a decrease in your expected weight gain over the next decade.
In our example, the current CBO baseline has the Department's budget increasing another 30% in 2013 from 2012, 50% over 2013-14, and 900% by 2022 - all of that baselined against 2012, ignoring the huge jump in its budget from 2011, which is banked as a permanent part of the baseline it spends every year. Under the budget deal for the widget tax, these insane numbers are pared back to...something still insane: a 20% increase in 2013, a 65% increase by 2015, a 500% increase by 2022. In theory, this is an offset of $1.275 billion; in practice, we went from a widget tax taking in $100 million vs the Department budget of $60 million in 2011 to the widget tax taking in $130 million in 2022 while the Department spends $500 million. And unlike the tax hike, 89.5% majority of the projected savings are more than 5 years in the future, and thus is much more subject to future uncertainties. Jonathan Chait describes what happens when Congress claims to cap future discretionary spending:
What usually happens is that Congress plans for tight caps to this category, and then when it comes time to implement it, and Congress discovers it actually means things like firing FBI agents and slashing the weather service, it balks.
In 2012, for example, the Senate voted to avoid the spending caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act, and Democrats howled at the idea that Republicans would actually hold them to the caps in proposing a "jobs bill" with a bunch of new spending. Past budget deals, like the "firewall" in the budget deal in which the first President Bush agreed to break his read-my-lips-no-new-taxes pledge, proved unenforceable.
And that's what happens in our example. The Department's budget includes some unemployment-related programs; the widget tax throws some more people out of work in 2013, and Congress goes back and adds a $10 million increase in the budget - which now gets added to the Department's baseline. When the 2020 recession hits, that goes up another $50 million. Now, not only has Congress traded a tax that brings in just $7.7 million a year for allowing the Department to quintuple in size, it ends up saving just $1.5 million a year over the next five years, and a total of $1.025 billion instead of $1.275 billion. You can see how the net result of this sort of thing leads to out-of-control spending getting passed off as budget "cuts":
In summary, in our hypothetical budget deal, an on-paper even trade ends up with the deficit between the widget tax and the Department of Department's budget going from a $40 million surplus in 2011 to even in 2012 to a $370 million deficit in 2022, while being scored by the JCT and CBO as a $2.55 billion reduction in the deficit. That's a systemic failure in how we keep score of these things. It's why we are launching Underscore.us, a website dedicated to taking a closer look at how the JCT and CBO scoring systems bias policymaking in Washington towards ever-increasing spending and against tax relief. We hope you'll join us in trying to make sense of this often-arcane but increasingly crucial topic - because you can't win the game if you don't even understand the scoreboard.
No Magic Beans
Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform no-tax-hikes pledge is not a religious oath; it's a promise to voters, and politicians can survive breaking promises to voters if they can show that they traded them for something of greater or equal value. But simply reciting smoke-and-mirrors dollar figures for nonbinding, back-loaded "cuts" in hypothetical future growth rates of government spending, in exchange for immediately effective increases in taxpayers' tax bills, is not what voters sent Republicans to Washington to do. If Republicans are to consider breaking the ATR pledge, they must get much more concrete policy benefits in return, changes in law that will permanently alter the spending picture - for example, changes in eligibility or benefits in entitlement programs, wholesale eliminations of categories of government spending such as entire agencies, or at a minimum, actual dollar reductions in 2013 domestic spending compared to 2012 domestic spending. (I say "domestic" because Obama is already counting as "spending cuts" the predictable wind-down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which unlike domestic spending programs were not designed to be permanent). Any ratio of "spending cuts" to tax hikes that simply slows projected future growth rates is a fraud on taxpayers and not worth the paper it's printed on.
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Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:30 AM | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)