Monday, September 7, 2015

Christian Persecution or Christless Christianity?

The headlines this week are filled with reports about Kim Davis and her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples in Kentucky.  After a federal judge ordered her to comply with the law she still refused and was held in contempt of court, arrested, and jailed.  Ms. Davis claims she is being forced to violate God's law by signing marriage licenses for same-sex couples and that she has been sent to jail for exercising her religious freedom.  If true, it would be a serious charge against the nation and our justice system not to mention a violation of the First Amendment protection of religious freedom.  Yet, in this blogger's view, Ms. Davis does not literally have a leg to stand on and neither do her supporters, regardless of my own beliefs about marriage and the sanctity of the institution.

Ms. Davis claims to owe obedience to God's law rather than to men (or man made law as the case may be).  Even if we concede that position to her as a Christian, it is unclear precisely which of God's laws she has been asked to violate.  Now, if the state of Kentucky required Ms. Davis to perform a marriage for a same-sex couple she might have a stronger argument.  It has not required this of her.  All she has to do is affix her signature to a license permitting couples to marry (regardless of sexual orientation).  I wonder if Ms. Davis had the same objection to traditional couples seeking marriage licenses who had engaged in pre-marital sex or been divorced for non-biblical reasons?  If Ms. Davis truly wanted to take a stand against same-sex marriage (and all other unbiblical marriages) she should have resigned her office.  That, however, would not have made her into the martyr she has become and endeared her to the Christian right.

You see, the Christian right wants desperately to believe that Christianity itself is under attack from the left.  It desperately wants to believe that it is being persecuted for being faithful to the Scriptures and being reviled for righteousness sake as Matthew 5:10 says.  But this is not what's going on here.  Kim Davis is not in jail for taking a stand for righteousness.  She is in jail for refusing to do her job and obey a court order.  As an elected official she took an oath to obey the law and she violated that oath.  Wait, you say, doesn't Scripture say that Christians must obey God and not man?  Yes, but the context of that statement must be considered.  In Acts 5:29, Peter utters those words before the high council of Sadducees and Pharisees.  What command had Peter violated?  A command that he should not teach the people about Jesus Christ.  If Ms. Davis were being punished or persecuted for teaching about Christ I would be on her side.  She's not and so I am not.

Isn't taking a stand against same-sex marriage tantamount to teaching about Christ, you ask?  No, it isn't.  There is a big difference between moralistic Christianity, which in my view is Christless, and preaching Christ and Him crucified.  Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, was frequently persecuted for preaching Christ.  He spends little to no time commenting on the ills of 1st century society other than urging Christians to avoid idolatry, sexual immorality, and such things.  He never instructs Christians to go out and oppose the sins of an unbelieving world.  He says to preach Christ and Him crucified and let God take care of the sanctification of repentant sinners.

Herein lies the whole problem with American Christianity.  Much of it does not know the Christ of the Bible.  It is a moralistic, Christless religion that reduces God's law to a set of commands it can easily keep.  Obey a command, check a box, feel good about yourself this week.  It is not a Christianity that mourns over its own sin, that is meek, that seeks to make peace.  It is a brash, in your face brand of Christianity looking for persecution under every rock and crying about 'wars' on Christmas and religious freedom.  It is a Christianity that tells everyone outside the church how they ought to live while refusing to pay attention to their own lives.  If American Christians really want to know what persecution feels like they should try doing one simple thing:  Preach the gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully to a lost and dying world.  Stop making people like Kim Davis into a cause celebre and teach people about the Jesus who stooped low and told the woman caught in adultery to 'Go and sin no more.'  Or, they could just keep picking up stones and see how that works out.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

State of the Race August 22, 2015--Trumpamania Runnin' Wild!

Here we are in the latter part of August.  The dog days of summer are upon us but the sun is moving southward.  The days are growing shorter, the temperatures are getting cooler, and soon the winter of our discontent will be fully upon us.

At this point in the presidential nomination cycle all we have is speculation.  Not a single vote has been cast for a single candidate.  Yet, the press needs something to cover in order to drive viewers to their channels or readers to their newspapers.  So why not manufacture a little sensationalism now and then? Why not talk about Donald Trump all day and all night?  Why not lead Americans to think our borders are porous and hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal Mexican rapists are flooding across them every day?  Why not speculate about how many laws Hillary Clinton may or may not have broken by using a private e-mail server when she was Secretary of State?  After all, doing so leads more and more Americans to become disgusted with their government and lose confidence in its ability to address our problems.  No, let's not talk about the good things government does or the real problems that need to be solved.  That, dear friends, wouldn't secure viewers and readers.  So let's focus on Trumpamania instead.

Will 'The Donald' be the eventual nominee of the Republican Party?  I don't have the answer to that question but I suspect not.  Donald Trump is a showman with an exuberant personality.  Lots of people like that.  He has a following from years of firing contestants on a reality show that he was paid millions of dollars to appear on.  That gives him something that the majority of the other candidates in the Republican field do not recognition.  Presidential primary preference polls in August almost always reflect name recognition rather than voter preferences based on policy proposals.  Four years ago the leading candidate in Iowa and in several national polls was...Michelle Bachmann.  Remember how well her candidacy went?  She dropped out after the first votes were cast.  In 2007, Mitt Romney was leading in Iowa in August but Mike Huckabee won the caucus the following January.  His campaign sputtered and died shortly thereafter.  The last time Iowa actually mattered was 1999 when George W. Bush was leading and won the caucus.  Of course, Bush was running a campaign with only one serious opponent, John McCain, whose campaign came to a screeching halt after the Bush campaign sponsored robocalls in South Carolina claiming McCain had fathered a black child.  The point is, the polls right now are almost irrelevant.  They tell us nothing about who might be the eventual Republican nominee, though they probably tell us more about who will not.  The question is not whether Trump will be the nominee but who stands to gain as the field begins to shrink?

The latest CNN poll has Donald Trump at 24%, which means 76% of potential GOP voters selected somebody else as their first choice.  There are two other candidates competing for the 'mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore' segment of the vote, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz.  Together they are polling at 14%.  Neither will be the Republican nominee.  Earlier this week Carson suggested to CNN that it would be okay to use drones on the border to blow people away.  Cruz cannot win because even Republicans don't like him.  So, the question is whether the 14% these two are getting right now will go to Trump when they drop out of the race?  I don't see that as very likely, which means Trump's support may well have peaked at 24%.

The rest of the field appeals to two or three segments of the GOP electorate.  There is a very small libertarian contingent who support the now faltering campaign of Rand Paul, who polls at 6% in the latest poll.  If Paul ends his bid early, Cruz or Carson might pick up a few of these voters but they are unlikely to embrace Trumpism.  Cruz or Carson might also benefit from the failure of Mike Huckabee's campaign, which is mired at 4% right now.  Huck's support is mostly drawn from white evangelicals who want a candidate that embodies their faith based principles.  That candidate will not be the thrice divorced, four times bankrupt Donald Trump.

More business oriented Republicans also have a few choices in the GOP field.  The top three candidates appealing to this segment are Fiorina (5%), Christie (3%), and perhaps Walker (8%).  Of these three, Walker probably stands to gain the most when the other two close up shop and hope for cabinet posts.  Fiorina is most realistically running for Secretary of Labor while Christie could aim for Attorney General depending upon who the eventual nominee ends up being.

That leaves us with the remaining three contenders, who are more or less establishment Republicans that are likely to appeal to the less extreme conservative segment of the electorate.  Jeb Bush is the elephant in the party but he has a ton of baggage to overcome if he hopes to be the nominee.  The single biggest obstacle is his last name.  The last two presidents from the GOP were his brother George W. and his father.  Republicans, and Americans as a whole, may just have had enough Bushes for awhile, especially given how disastrous the ending of George W. Bush's presidency ended up.  Americans aren't likely to forget that the economy ended up in the worst recession since the 1930's under GW Bush, which is not to assign blame, though many Americans will associate that with GOP policies just as the Great Depression led to 20 years of dominance by FDR and Truman's Democrats.  The latest poll has Jeb at 13% in second place, right where he has been since Trump entered the race.  The other problem for Jeb is that he is competing in a similar space for support with Rubio (8%) and Kasich (5%), both of whom bring to the table all that Bush does but without his last name.  Another establishment candidate picking up a couple points is Rick Perry (2%).  So here's how it looks if we consider the support levels by category rather than by candidate.

Establishment      28%
Trumpamania      24%
Evangelical         18%
Business              16%
Other                   14%

The race will begin to consolidate in the fall as candidates fail to raise financial support and make traction with potential voters.  The question will be who stands to benefit?  Apart from Trump, who doesn't need financial support, money will be a serious barrier preventing many of these candidates from making it to Iowa next February.  We'll know a lot more by mid-October when the third quarter fundraising numbers are released.  From what we know right now, Jeb is flush with cash between his campaign and the Super PACs supporting his candidacy.  Perry is in deep trouble and all but out of the race.  Walker is relying on Super PACs and 501(c)4 money (from the Koch organization) so he'll likely remain viable through Iowa.  Cruz is banking on a strong showing in the SEC primary (8 southern states on March 1, 2016).

Overall, I think the Trump candidacy is more of a flirtation by disgruntled GOP voters than an Ashley Madison arranged affair.  Little by little they will begin to see that the emperor has no clothes and they'll move on.  Many will do what Republicans always do, which is fall in line behind the party's choice.  Right now, I'd put my money on Bush, Rubio, or Kasich as the eventual nominee.  I think Bush or Rubio will be somewhere on the GOP ticket, whether as the nominee or the VP candidate.

I'll update the rankings and information as we progress through the fall and get closer to the actual voting.  For now, enjoy Trumpamania runnin' wild all over you!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Silly Season Starts!

Hello debaters, my old's good to see you once again.  Silly season swings into full gear Thursday (8/6) with the first of what are sure to be many, many, memorable moments as ten of the GOP presidential hopefuls get their chance to stand before a national television audience and make a pitch for support from the few voters who will actually be watching the show.  I say 'show' because that is exactly what it will be with 'The Donald' on the stage.  Each of the other nine hopefuls will be trying to avoid getting a tongue-lashing from the billionaire real estate developer, now a presidential spectacle.  Fear not, dear reader, as there is no danger of the debate actually resembling anything of substance when it comes to policy issues.  We'll hear lots of railing against President Obama, promises to repeal Obamacare, promises to void the recent nuclear deal with Iran, complaints about how the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba has empowered the Castro regime, and how illegal immigration is the biggest threat America has ever seen (except for President Obama and Hillary Clinton).  Whew, I'm exhausted already!

What you will not hear are any substantive ideas or realistic policy proposals.  You won't hear Rick Perry famously forget which cabinet department he plans to eliminate.  You won't hear the candidates tell you how the Republican Party will grow its base beyond attracting a larger share of the shrinking white population (although one blowhard will probably say he'll win the African-American vote!).  In short, you won't hear a single reason why you should vote for any of these candidates but you'll hear a lot of reasons why you shouldn't vote for them.  The Clinton campaign will be looking for snippets to use against each of them should she be the Democratic nominee.

The thing is, a few of these Republicans have a good shot at becoming the 45th President of the United States.  I'd put Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio in that group.  It would be nice if one of them would tell us why we should entrust the presidency to him rather than why we shouldn't entrust it to one of the others or why Barack Obama has been so horrible for the United States.  But then, it wouldn't be silly season if there was even the least bit of seriousness to these kind of events, would it?  Perhaps we should give them all lethal weapons and let the Hunger Games begin.  May the odds be ever in your favor.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Romney's Out: The Invisible Primary Claims Its First Victim

As I said in my last post, Mitt Romney did not appear to be a man about to embark on a third presidential campaign when I saw him speak at Mississippi State University on January 28, 2015.  In fact, we now know that he is not running.  He has, in essence, become the first casualty of the 2015 'invisible primary.'  The question then turns to what does Romney's decision not to seek the nomination mean for the rest of the field?

First, Romney's 'departure' eliminates one of the three contenders for support by the business (establishment) wing of the Republican Party donor class.  It appears from news reports that one of Romney's main considerations was whether he could lock in the financial support of many of his biggest contributors from 2011-12, some of whom wanted to support a 'fresher' face in the upcoming campaign.  Jeb Bush seems to be in the best position to capitalize on Romney's exit as he and Romney's fundraising list shared some 40+ zip codes loaded with wealthy donors.  The Bush fundraising machine is in high gear and it will be interesting to see what the numbers look like when he has to start reporting them.

Second, Romney's declination to run opens a window for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to make a serious bid for the nomination.  Like Romney and Bush, Christie should get a lot of support from the business community and its wealthiest members.  A big unknown, however, is what impact the numerous mini-scandals (Bridgegate and the like) will have on Christie's appeal outside of NY and NJ.  It is unlikely his brash northeastern attitude will play well in some parts of the country that are used to politics that are more refined than what we typically witness in New Jersey.  If Christie is able to raise the $50 million or so it will take to run a decent race for the nomination heading towards Iowa and New Hampshire next January, it could set up an interesting battle between he and former Florida Governor Bush.

Third, Romney's decision not to enter the race is likely good news for another group of second tier candidates who might have struggled to raise the necessary funds to be competitive and generate name recognition.  At the top of this list are two names that will be competing for much of the same space on the political spectrum, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Both have struggled to generate much excitement from the Republican establishment so far, though Walker's speech at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Summit was apparently a big hit with the crowd.

Finally, others who might stand to benefit from Romney's departure include Mike Huckabee, though I personally think his appeal is limited to the evangelical wing of the party, and Rand Paul (again, limited appeal to the libertarian crowd), and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (if he runs).  Of these three, my bet would be on Kasich having the most success appealing to multiple wings of the GOP.  The big question for each of them is foreign policy knowledge.  None has any experience with foreign affairs and given the dangerous world we live in today it is a good bet the GOP will want someone who has the skill and experience to tackle threats like ISIS and deal with the renewed threats coming from the Russian Bear.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mitt Romney Redux?

Last evening I had the opportunity to attend a speech by the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney at Mississippi State University's Bettersworth Auditorium in Lee Hall.  Governor Romney was here as part of the Mississippi State University Global Lecture Series, which has featured prominent public servants such as General Colin Powell, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and others in recent years.  Governor Romney spoke for about 35 minutes then settled down for a brief conversation with former Mississippi Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to a Mississippi State University audience as part of the university's Global Lecture Series.Photo by: Beth Wynn
Romney began the speech by recounting his own college years as an English major, which according to him meant he had no idea of what he would do for a living.  That elicited a laugh from the students in attendance (and some faculty I presume).  The first fifteen minutes of the speech was dedicated to a more personal conversation that seemed much like an address one might hear at a college commencement ceremony rather than a campaign speech.  To be sure, Romney gave no indication about whether he intends to seek the Republican nomination in 2016 except to say that 'you may have heard I have been thinking about running' for president again.  Judging from the applause in the audience, he might have the support of quite a few of them if he did choose to run.

The speech turned political during the second half of the governor's address as he went directly after President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  First, Romney accused the president of being either 'naive' or 'deceptive' during his recent State of the Union address for not calling ISIS what it is...a group of Islamic Jihadists that pose a serious threat to world peace and American interests abroad.

Next, the governor went after the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by criticizing her for pressing the 'reset' button on America's relationship with Russia.  In Romney's view this 'reset' enabled Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade and seize portions of Ukraine last year.  Of course, this conveniently ignores the fact that Putin's invasion of Ukraine took place in the middle of 2014, more than a year and a half after Secretary Clinton was replaced by former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.  Romney went on to remark that Putin wants to reassemble the old Soviet empire by taking invading sovereign nations, which is not what great powers do.  He pointed to the enormous strength of the U.S. Military and claimed that we never use that power to invade a sovereign country.  Perhaps it slipped his mind but the U.S. did recently wrap up two wars in which we did, in fact, invade sovereign nations and topple their governments (Afghanistan and Iraq).  That is not to say those invasions were not justified...just that any discussion of the use of U.S. military power must include those events as well.

The final portion of Romney's speech involved his view on the economic situation in America.  By his own admission, the economy has improved for many Americans, especially those who are very wealthy like the governor himself.  He stated that the Obama Presidency has been very good for people like him as the stock market has reached new highs and increased the wealth of the very rich in America.  He also said that for the rich, it doesn't matter who the president is because they will always do well.  For the poor and middle class, however, the last six years have not been so good.  He intoned that the gap between the rich and the poor has grown under President Obama, which is somewhat true as the wealthy have recovered much of what they lost when the Great Recession hit in 2008.

While trying to lay this gap at the feet of the current president, however, Romney admitted that it is part of a trend that has been going on for several decades.  Yet, he claimed that 'liberal policies' were to blame and indicated that it is time to give conservative ideas a chance to work.  I could be wrong but I seem to recall that more than half of the time frame covered by the rise in the gap between the rich and the poor has been presided over by Republican Presidents and Republican Congresses.  To be fair, the governor did criticize both parties for failing to take the actions necessary to ensure a prosperous future for all Americans, though he did not go into detail about what those actions might entail.

Finally, in a rather surprising appeal, Romney indicated that it is well past time for Republicans to stop paying attention solely to the voices that are important for winning the Republican nomination and to start paying attention to those who typically view the party as hostile to their interests, minorities and the poor.  Only by doing this, Romney said, will the GOP stand a good chance to win a general election and recapture the White House.  It was, in essence, a tacit admission that the strategy he employed in 2012 to capture largely older white voters is doomed to fail in 2016 as the share of the electorate comprising that demographic continues to decline.  In 2012, Romney famously said he did not need to pay attention to the '47% of Americans who refuse to take responsibility' for their lives and just want a handout from the government.  Today, it appears, that he realizes Republicans cannot win the presidency without reaching out to at least some of those voters.  In this writer's estimation that is a positive development if the party follows through with it.

So...does this mean Governor Romney is planning to launch a campaign for the presidency again?  To be honest, I'm not sure.  What I do know is that whatever happens with the GOP over the next 18 months or so, Governor Romney wants to be a part of that conversation.  Like America (according to the governor), the Republican Party has a leadership problem today.  It is like a ship adrift with all the crew members thinking they should be captain.  The last Republican President, George W. Bush, has dropped off the face of the earth it seems, except for news of a new painting or a book praising his father every now and then.  He certainly has shown no indication that he wants to be an elder statesman for the party the way former President Bill Clinton has for the Democrats.  The elder Bush, George H.W., is in frail health at 90 years of age and unable to travel much these days.  So the party has no true leader.  It seems that Gov. Romney, as the most recent nominee for the GOP, is trying to put himself into that position.  Only time will tell just how successful he will be in that endeavor.

Overall, the evening was informative and Gov. Romney seemed very at ease discussing everything, including his loss to President Obama in 2012.  On election night in 2012, just after the networks called the race for President Obama, my wife told my then six year old daughter that Barack Obama had been reelected President of the United States.  My daughter asked, 'Momma, is Mitt Romney sad"?  Judging from his speech last night and the ease of which he spoke about the 2012 campaign I'd have to say 'no, he appears to be doing just fine.'

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Invisible Primary & Scott Walker

Every four years the time comes when political scientists around the United States become like little children on Christmas morning anticipating opening their gifts to find out what is inside.  They rush to their offices, fire up their Macs (if they're anything like me), and begin exploring the day's happenings in the political world.  Of particular interest for folks like me this time of year is what we refer to as 'The Invisible Primary.'  The phrase refers to that period of time between the announcement of an intention to seek the presidency and the first votes being cast in the Iowa Caucuses, which typically occur in January of the following year.  Most of this time is spent by potential nominees courting party elites and well-heeled donors in an effort to raise the $50 million or so necessary to be competitive during primary season.

The 2015 invisible primary is well under way following the announcement by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush that he intends to 'explore' a run for the presidency.  Bush's announcement caught some of the potential GOP candidates off guard and potentially provided the governor with a head start over his rivals.  This set off a scramble among other potential candidates to hire talented individuals who could help them raise money and test the waters.  Shortly after Bush jumped into the race Mike Huckabee walked away from a lucrative deal at Fox News to explore a possible candidacy.  Others in the GOP all but certain to run include Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum.  Rumors of another run by Mitt Romney are sort of like the stories regarding the exaggeration of the death of Mark Twain.  It makes for good political fodder but it just makes no sense at all.  His time came and went and the party has moved on.

The challenge for each of the potential candidates is to figure out where their political support is most likely to come from and lock up that support over the next 11 months.  Political Scientist Jason McDaniel does an excellent job laying out the case for one of these candidates, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, in his latest post at Mischiefs of Faction.  McDaniel also created the following Venn Diagram to show the political space occupied by each of the potential candidates for the GOP, which is another way of saying where each is most likely to find the greatest level of support.  If a candidate appears in more than one of the circles, he likely has appeal to two or more factions within the GOP, thus making him more 'viable' to party elites and important donors.  Candidates who appear in only one circle have limited appeal outside their own circle and will likely struggle to win the nomination. This isn't to say they cannot win it, just that it is highly unlikely because such a candidate will have a hard time raising the kind of financial support necessary to make a serious run at the nomination.  In 2012 we saw this happen to candidates such as Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Tim Pawlenty.  I would go so far as to argue that even Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were not truly viable candidates in 2012, though they got to hang around due to the support each received from a wealthy donor.

Back to Scott Walker.  McDaniel's analysis makes sense on some level since the 2016 race for the GOP nomination seems to lack a clear frontrunner.  Could Walker win the nomination?  If so, he would be the first major party nominee since Harry Truman in 1948 without at least a bachelor's degree.  Even so, some have argued that Walker is well situated since he has won three elections (including the misguided recall attempt) in a state that has reliably supported the Democratic candidate for president since 1988.  Yet, one aspect of Walker's three victories is rarely discussed.  Each of them occurred with a midterm electorate that is typically older, whiter, and more conservative than that seen in a presidential election.  That may suit him fine in seeking the GOP nomination, which will look in many ways a lot like the electorate he faced in Wisconsin.  The biggest challenge for Walker may not be his appeal to the GOP base, rather it will be his lack of name recognition.  If he can overcome that obstacle he has a slight chance of securing the nomination.  He can win Iowa with its historic tendency to back evangelical candidates but New Hampshire and heavily unionized Nevada may pose serious problems.  The good news for Gov. Walker?  If he lasts until the proposed SEC primary in the southern states in early March, he could rack up a lot of delegates in a hurry.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

2014 Midterm Election Post-Mortem: What's Next?

Now that the votes have been counted, the tears have been shed, the champagne has been consumed, and the unemployment insurance claims filed it is time to consider what the results mean for government and governing in America over the next two years.  I'll start with a look at the House of Representatives, the Senate, and then the executive branch.

The House of Representatives

As of November 9th the GOP controls 244 seats in the House to 184 for the Democrats with seven races still undecided.  A quick look at the NY Times big board indicates that the GOP is likely to capture five of those undecided seats.  That will put them right around 250 seats, their largest caucus since Herbert Hoover was president.  Archie Bunker would be proud.  Does the increased majority make it more likely the House GOP starts governing again?  I think it does and here's why:

John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker and Majority Leader in the House, are for the most part moderate establishment politicians.  They're not obstructionists like some of their fellow bomb-throwing extremists who demanded a shut down of the federal government in 2013 and threatened to allow the nation to default on its sovereign debt.  Boehner and McCarthy are conservatives without a doubt but they are conservatives who want to see Washington work efficiently.  Sure, they live in a fictional bubble where smaller government is possible and Big Bird loses his head but, hey, you have to dream big in order to keep waking up every day, right?

Seriously, the larger majority in the House for Boehner allows him to do something he has not been able to do since being elected Speaker in 2010...tell the Tea Party to take a hike and get with the program or become irrelevant.  The question is whether he will do it or not.  My bet is he will and we will see a much more productive House in 2015 and 2016.  We might even see some major legislation emerge such as immigration reform and tax reform.  To be sure, it will reflect Republican priorities so Boehner and McCarthy will have to do some negotiating with the president if they want it to become law.  I think they'll find a way to get it done.  The alternative is to go into the 2016 presidential election as the party that controlled Congress for two years and did nothing.  Given the different electorate we are likely to see in 2016 I do not think that is a very good strategy.  I suspect Boehner and McCarthy would agree with that assessment.  Had the Republican House such a majority in 2014 I suspect the bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by the Senate would have been brought to the floor of the House and passed with bipartisan support and then signed into law by President Obama.

The Senate

It appears right now the GOP will net nine seats in the Senate, which will put them at 54.  That's not enough to end a filibuster if a the Democratic minority decides to play the obstructionism card the way the GOP did for the past four years.   There are a core group of institutionalists within the minority that will prevent obstruction from becoming the norm for the next two years.  Further, the Democrats have nothing to lose and everything to gain by working with newly minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to find areas of common ground to move policy forward.  They likely will not get everything they want but history shows that Democrats have been much more willing to compromise in order to govern than the GOP has in recent years.  As of now, I see no evidence to indicate that will change in the 114th Congress.  The wild card is Harry Reid, the presumptive minority leader.  Reid has the potential to make life hell for the GOP if he wants to.  I wouldn't blame him if he did after what he has been through for the last four years but eventually the time comes to stop playing tit for tat and acting like a grown up.  Perhaps both McConnell and Reid will realize that the time has arrived.  Otherwise they both ought to retire to some Kentucky stud farm.

Taking control of the Senate also means that Republicans can no longer point fingers at the Democrats for failing to pass a budget, ignoring the minority, and all the other ills that Harry Reid has been accused of passing on to the country.  The GOP will have to stand or fall in 2016 based upon its own performance.  America has given the party a chance to prove it can govern.  Govern it must or 2016 will see a return of a Democratic Senate, though the odds are somewhat longer of that happening if the GOP does indeed have 54 seats.  Donkeys would need to net four seats and the presidency in 2016 or five seats if the GOP wins the presidency.

The President

In some ways, losing control of Congress has got to be a relief for the president.  He is now free to work with Republicans without regard to what Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi wants.  The major players for the president now become John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.  Sure, that doesn't mean they'll sit around holding hands, sipping Kentucky Bourbon, and singing Kumbaya.  But it does mean the president has an incentive to accomplish some things over his final two years in office.  If the president is wise he will employ the triangulation strategy that worked so well for Bill Clinton.  In essence, President Obama will attempt to co-opt some of the Republicans priorities in the next Congress, which allows him to get the credit when they enact what is essentially their agenda.  Such a strategy only goes so far, however.  It is unlikely the president will give on his core principles, which is sure to setup a showdown with the new Republican Congress.

Moving Forward

The takeover of the Senate by Republicans may well be a blessing in disguise for the president and the Democratic Party.  As I said, if the GOP fails to govern for the next two years it benefits the Democrats in 2016.  Using a spatial analysis approach, what matters most over the next two years are the pivot points for the major players.  Pivot points reflect the optimal position of the 218th member of the House, the 51st (or 60th) vote in the Senate, and the preferred position of the president.  The larger majority in the House may mean the 218th vote position has moved slightly right or slightly left from where it was in 2013-14.  If it has moved to the right (due to greater Tea Party strength) then the next two years will be an exercise in brutal futility as there will be little ground for compromise.  If the pivot point for the 218th member of the House has moved slightly left (due to greater moderate strength among new members) then there may be more room for deals to be struck with the Senate and president.

The pivot points in the Senate have shifted significantly to the right with the GOP taking control.  The 51st vote now rests with the 4th least conservative Republican as opposed to the 4th least liberal Democrat.  That means John McCain or Lisa Murkowski is likely to hold the 51st vote on items that can be passed on a simple majority vote.  If 60 votes are required due to a Democratic filibuster (or threat thereof) the 60th vote will likely come from Jeanne Shaheen or Michael Bennet (40th most liberal).

The president's pivot point is likely to also shift rightward.  Despite the rhetoric of many conservative Republicans many of President Obama's actual policies have been quite conservative from the tax cuts implemented in 2009-2011 to the transfer of wealth from individual citizens to big insurance companies under the ACA, which was modeled on a plan first proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation.  Since Obama has shown little hesitancy to move to the right when a deal could be struck with the House leadership I expect him to continue to do the same in 2015-16.  Only now the deals will be between Obama, Boehner, and McConnell.  If Boehner and McConnell can reach agreement then the president is likely to come along unless it involves a gutting of Obamacare or any of his other signature accomplishments.  The most likely major agreements are on immigration reform and tax reform in the next two years.  There will also likely be some tweaks to Obamacare but unless the Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional it is here to stay.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

2014 Midterm Election Post-Mortem

November 4th has come and gone and like with any natural disaster the time for picking up the pieces begins with the light of day, at least for the Democrats.  The Republicans, on the other hand, will likely be hung over from their victory parties for a few days to come.  Regardless, the questions are what happened, why, and what does it mean for the country for the next two years?

What Happened: The Electorate

Simply put, it was a bloodbath for the donkey party.  The elephants drowned the donkeys in a sea of red in virtually every winnable race.  From the House to the Senate to gubernatorial races there wasn't much good news for the donkeys up and down the map.  Of course, there was nothing really surprising about that because the party controlling the presidency has lost seats in 18 of the last 21 midterm elections.  There are a variety of reasons for that but James Campbell's explanation seems to be the most accurate.  Campbell attributes the midterm loss phenomena to the fact that there are two electorates in the United States, one that shows up for presidential elections and one that shows up for midterm elections.  Some voters are in both of these electorates but the electorate for a midterm differs demographically from that of the presidential election in a couple of significant ways.

First, the electorate during a midterm election tends to be older than that of a presidential election.  According to the exit polls, 22% of the electorate was 65 years or older.  In 2012 that number was 16%.  Those over age 65 currently tend to vote Republican (56% in 2012, 57% in 2014).  Voters between 18 and 29 years of age made up only 13% of the electorate in 2014.  Two years earlier they comprised 19% of the electorate.  In 2012 younger voters split 60-37 for the Democrats while in 2014 they split 54-43 for the Democrats.  The six percentage point increase in senior voters was enough to seal the fate of Democrats in many close races.

Second, the electorate in 2014 was whiter than in 2012.  In 2012 whites made up 72% of the electorate and 59% of those voted Republican.  In 2014, whites comprised 75% of the electorate and Republicans carried 60% of that vote.  African-Americans were 13% of the electorate in 2012 and slipped to 12% in 2014.  They voted 93% to 6% Democrat in 2012 but 89% to 10% Democrat in 2014.  Latinos consisted of 10% of the electorate in 2012 and supported Democrats by a 71-29 margin while in 2014 they were 8% of the electorate and voted 63-35 for the Democrats.

In sum, if the electorate in 2012 had looked like the electorate in 2014 we would be looking at a unified Republican government under President Mitt Romney today.  But it didn't and it most likely won't in 2016 either.  By 2016 most analysts expect the electorate to be about 70% white.  Barring major changes in the way African-Americans and Latinos vote, that means the Republican nominee will need to carry about 62% of the white vote to win the presidency.  That hasn't happened since Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election in 1984.

What Happened: Geography

Geographically speaking, the electoral map favored the elephants heading into the 2014 midterm election so it really is no surprise that Republicans took control of the Senate and increased their majority in the House.  The donkeys were defending Senate seats in at least 7 states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 including three in the south.  Republicans won two of the three outright on November 4th and will likely win the runoff in Louisiana in December, which means the 114th Congress will not have a single Democrat in the Senate from the old confederacy except for purple Virginia and purple Florida.  The transition of the south from solid (conservative) Democrat to solid (conservative) Republican is officially complete.   In the Old Dominion (VA) the incumbent Democrat is clinging to a 12,000 vote lead with 95% of the vote counted so a flip in that state is still possible.

Outside of the south, Republicans picked up two seats in states Obama carried in 2012 (Iowa and Colorado) in races that turned out not to be as close as the poll watchers predicted.  Alaska has yet to be decided but the elephant appears to have an insurmountable lead over the donkey there.  When all is said and done it looks like Republicans will control 54 Senate seats to 44 for the Democrats plus two independents who caucus with the donkeys.

On the House side of things, Republicans stand at 242 seats, which puts them just a few shy of their postwar high water mark with 19 races left to decide.  It is entirely possible that Republicans will get to 250 seats.

What it Means

Sadly, not much.  Sure, Republicans now control the Senate and its committees.  That means legislation emanating from that body will reflect Republican priorities (hasta la vista Big Bird!).  In all seriousness, however, it takes 60 votes to get anything of substance through the Senate, which means either the GOP will need to learn how to compromise or it will look exactly as useless as Harry Reid's Democrats have for the past two years.  In addition, President Obama still wields the veto stamp so any significant changes to the Affordable Care Act are likely a pipe dream for the GOP.

Other issues, such as immigration reform, tax reform, and entitlement reform may have a small chance of seeing some action but that may well depend on the whether or not the House is ready to govern.  The larger Republican majority there may mean Speaker Boehner will have an easier time working out deals with the Senate and bringing them to the floor sure of 218 Republican votes.  He did not have the luxury in the last Congress, which allowed the Tea Party to control him on the big issues and why a bipartisan immigration reform bill cleared the Senate with 70 votes died in the House.

The GOP Senate will also be able to force the president to select nominees for judicial vacancies that are moderates if he hopes to get them confirmed.  Ultimately, what happens is anyone's guess.  Parties typically talk a good game right after a midterm election but as we have seen for the last four years, talk is cheap.  Republicans now have a chance to show the country they are prepared to govern and work with a president they despise.  Failure to do so may well lead to a very short Senate majority come 2016.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What's the Matter with Kansas, er, Thomas Frank?

Thomas Frank, author of a splendid little story called What's the Matter with Kansas?, apparently woke up on the wrong side of the Kansas/Missouri border earlier this week and he blames political scientists for it.  Really, he blames just about everybody but himself.  His latest missive on takes on an article that Ezra Klein (of the Washington Post) wrote for Vox a few weeks back during the American Political Science Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.  In the article, Klein argues that the inability of political elites in Washington to speak in anything other than partisan soundbites and ambiguous self-serving statements has driven many young Washington journalists into the open arms of the numerous political scientists, like myself, who study and write about political behavior.  As a political scientist I say it is about dang time they pay attention to what we know!  Every time I read a story about the 'Six Year Itch' or how Democrats are 'tax and spend' liberals or Republicans are 'racists' I just shake my head and cringe.  What does this have to do with Thomas Frank?  Everything.

You see, the thesis of Frank's book is that Republicans have duped white middle class voters into voting for them on the basis of social issues like opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and opposition to gun control.  Then, once they get into office, they abandon the social issues to implement their economic agenda, which is detrimental to white middle class voters.  The problem, as political scientists like Larry Bartels points out, is that there just isn't any evidence to support Frank's thesis.  Survey data indicates that outside the south white middle class voters still tend to vote for Democrats.  The data also indicates that most voters are more driven by economic issues than by social issues.  So what does Frank do?  He blames the data and those who analyze it while insisting that he, and he alone, understands why Democrats will likely lose seats in the November midterm elections.  Brace yourself for Frank's most unlikely answer to that question.

In a nutshell, Frank thinks the problem has nothing to do with structural factors that advantage the party out of power in midterm elections.  No, it has nothing to do with conservative voters angst over not controlling the Senate and/or the White House.  So, why, according to Frank, are Democrats going to get whipped in November?  Are you ready?  Here it comes...Democrats are going to lose in November because they just aren't liberal enough for white middle class voters!  If only they had more left wingers like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren the party would fare exceptionally well with white voters in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and all the other states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.  I am absolutely certain that a left winger in Mississippi would fare quite well, considering the recent Republican primary debacle in which many white conservatives voted for the guy that would have eliminated the federal government entirely!

In his despondency over why Democrats will not regain control of the U.S. House in November Frank writes,
"You might recall that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from the early 1930s until 1994 with only two brief Republican interludes. What ended all that was not an ill-advised swerve to the left, but the opposite: A long succession of moves toward what is called the “center,” culminating in the administration of New Democrat Bill Clinton, who (among other things) signed the Republicans’ NAFTA treaty into law."
You got that?  Two things are to blame for why Democrats no longer control the House:  (1) they moved to close to the center between the 1930's and 1994 and; (2) Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law.

Wow, it is remarkable how Frank is able to engage in revisionist history in such a few brief sentences.  His first point is just plain wrong.  Every analysis of party ideology shows that since the 1930's the Democratic Party has become more liberal, not more centrist or conservative.  To be sure, the party has not moved as sharply leftward as the Republicans have moved rightward.  It is also true that the Democratic Party has become much more friendly with business interests and is much more dependent upon them than it was a generation ago.  However, that is not the same as moving to the center as Frank asserts.  He conveniently glosses over the fact that for much of the period from the 1930's to 1994 the power brokers in the Democratic Party were conservative southerners.  They held most of the committee chairs and enabled a coalition with conservative Republicans that could stop any liberal legislation the coalition opposed.  Jonathan Bernstein does a good job taking Frank down on this point.

As for NAFTA, sure it may have cost Democrats a few seats in Congress but it is by no means the massive shift to the center that Frank insinuates.  It might even have been a mistake for Bill Clinton to sign it but hindsight is almost always 20-20.

In the end, what's the matter with Thomas Frank is simply that evidence doesn't matter to his view of the world of politics.  He tells a great story but one that is largely a work of fiction.  Perhaps that what the people of Kansas need to get them through troubled times.  I'll stick with the evidence, even if I wish it sometimes told a different story.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Universal Healthcare: Is It A Disincentive To Work?

The political press is ablaze today following the latest report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on the labor market.  Buried somewhere in the report is an estimate that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may result approximately two to two and a half million Americans choosing to work less or not at all within a decade due to the availability of subsidized health insurance.  While this isn't the focus of the report, it is what the political elite chose to fixate upon. Republicans seized on the estimate as proof positive that the ACA is a bad thing and creates a disincentive to work and incentivizes laziness and dependency upon the government.  The Republican aligned Washington Times spun the story as one that will 'Push 2 Million Workers Out of the Labor Market.'  The left-leaning Washington Post spun the story as one of choice by claiming the ACA would 'prompt over 2 million to quit jobs or cut hours', ostensibly because they could keep their health insurance even if they gave up their job.  Democrats immediately began arguing that this is a positive thing as some of those who gave up their jobs might take a risk and start a business that could end up employing others.  Others might take their new found independence from working a low wage job to spend more time with their kids or spouses.  Either way, the spin from the political elite highlights one of the idiosyncratic features of the American economic ethos...tying the provision of health insurance to an employer.

Adopting a normative framework, one might ask why health insurance in America is so intricately tied to one's employment status?  Do people without jobs have no need of health insurance?  What about those in low wage industries whose employers do not offer coverage?  If we are going to link employment and health insurance it seems logical that all employers should be required to offer it to their workforce.  Yet, prior to the ACA that was not a requirement.  Even after the ACA small businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from providing health insurance coverage to employees and those with more than 50 employees only have to pay a $2000 fine (per employee) if they fail to offer insurance.  Considering that providing coverage to a worker costs far more than $2000 per worker, the real disincentive in the law is benefit for employers who can save hundreds of thousands of dollars by dropping health care coverage for their workforce.  Of course, many of those workers will then qualify for federal subsidies to purchase insurance on the market exchanges, which means that once again the government is subsidizing large corporate employers as it has done for decades.  For example, McDonald's and Wal-Mart employees are among the largest recipients of federal benefits in the country.  Why are taxpayers subsidizing below poverty level wages at these highly profitable companies?  So we can have a $.99 cheeseburger or pay $.06 less for a loaf of bread?  Please!

A second aspect that arises from all the chatter about the potential effect of the ACA on employment is just how much politicians, Republicans in particular, love to talk about work.  It is as though work has been raised to the status of a demi-god.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for working and I do my fair share of it between a full time job and two side jobs now and then.  And I am in the rather unique position of loving what I do, something many Americans cannot say.  Nevertheless, the emphasis on work also seems to be something idiosyncratic to America.  Many cultures, both past and present, place more emphasis on the family or community or the life of the mind than we Americans do.  For example, Australia requires all employers to provide 20 days of paid vacation per year plus 10 paid holidays.  French workers get a minimum of 5 weeks paid holiday leave plus up to 22 days of reduced time for workers who work between 35 and 39 hours a week.  Even our Canadian neighbors to the north mandate a minimum of 10 paid vacation days per year.  The good old USA?  0 days of mandatory paid vacation.  It makes one wonder if there is a correlation between the disintegration of the American family and the emphasis placed upon working at all costs, even in dead end low wage jobs.

In the end, we all have the same fate to look forward to.  I think it was Barbara Bush who said something to the effect of this:  At the end of your life when all is said and done it is highly doubtful you will look back and wish that you had gone to the office just one more time or pulled that double shift at Burger King. No, the thing you will wish you had done more of is spend time with your kids, with your spouse, with your friends and loved ones.  So...I say, if the ACA makes that possible for some people, it's a step in the right direction.  I'm okay with that, how about you?