Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I Saw An Angel Falling From Heaven...

...or at least that's what the precipitous decline of GOP candidate Herman Cain's fortunes have resembled over the past month.  Cain has gone from the anti-Romney, Tea-Party darling of the GOP to an absolute train wreck in a short time.  Riding a wave of popularity, largely due to his catchy 9-9-9 slogan, Cain crested at around the same percentage (25%) in many national polls that GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney has captured almost since beginning his presidential campaign 4 1/2 years ago.  Cain even held the lead in several early voting state polls like Iowa and South Carolina.  The Cain campaign has been undone primarily by three events.

1)  Allegations of sexual harassment against Cain while he was the head of the National Restaurant Association.  Even though the campaign was given a 10 day advance notice by the media investigating the story it failed to respond in a coherent manner when the story broke, instead preferring to compare Cain to Clarence Thomas and claim it was a left-wing 'high tech lynching.'  Eventually, the campaign had to admit there was some substance to the allegations of at least two of the women who had received cash settlements from the NRA in the late 1990's.  That in itself was not enough to bring down the campaign, however.

2)  Libya...uh, yeah, Libya.  At a meeting with a journalist in Wisconsin (what was he doing in Wisconsin when they don't vote until March?) Cain was asked whether he supported President Obama's policy on Libya...and he looked dumbfounded and couldn't even remember what that policy was.  It was sort of similar to Sarah Palin and the Bush Doctrine moment from her 2008 interview with Charlie Gibson.  At least Cain didn't say he could see Canada from Wisconsin!

3)  The latest allegation is that Cain had a long running affair with Ginger White.  She claims it lasted 13 years while he says they were 'just friends.'  It appears they were friends with benefits, if she turns out to be credible.  Ms. White said she had Cain's personal cell phone number and gave it to a reporter who texted him from her phone and Cain called right away.  Oops.

What does any of this mean?  Nothing really.  Herman Cain was never really running for president and never stood a serious chance of winning.  Everybody with the slightest inkling of political knowledge understood that his campaign was about selling books and enriching himself further.  To that end, it has worked marvelously.  But if the most recent allegations are true, it may cost him his marriage of 43 years.  That's a huge price to pay for selling a few meaningless books.

Since at least the early 90's America's elite political class has focused on playing the 'politics of personal destruction' as a way to avoid substantive debates on substantive issues.  The media fuels the fire by seeking sensationalist stories devoid of substance and intelligence.  Both approaches serve to disengage the mass public and ensure we pay as little attention to politics as possible.  Both lead Americans to distrust their government and, in some cases, dislike it.  Case in point...recent polls have Congress' approval rating at a mere 9% with the general public.  Many Americans believe our governmental institutions have failed.  Apart from a commitment to reverse recent trends, it is only a matter of time before they become irrelevant and our democracy is endangered.  People who don't trust their government are prone to abolish it.  Will the next revolution be called the American Spring?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Update

It's been a while since I've posted, largely due to a busy travel schedule and end of the semester preparations.  Most of November was spent preparing for a conference presentation in Philadelphia, wrapping up some assessment work at MSU, and getting my classes to the finish line, which is now in sight.  Classes end on December 2nd and finals end on December 9th.  My students have no finals, just papers.  So I'll be busy reading those once they come in before taking a much needed break until the 10th of January.

So what has transpired over the past month in the world of American politics?  Several important events to be sure...and I'm sure I'll miss some along the way.

1)  The remarkable rise of Herman Cain as the GOP's anti-Romney seems to have come full circle as his poll numbers have shrunk after a series of missteps, including his campaign's unorthodox handling of the sexual harassment allegations against Mr. Cain.  The allegations, some apparently well-documented, others blowing in the breeze, didn't hurt Mr. Cain as much as his unclear and occasionally contradictory refutations of them did.  Following the allegations Mr. Cain's weakness on foreign policy and national security issues was exposed in consecutive Republican debates, fumbled answers to direct questions at a sit down interview with a Wisconsin reporter, seeming not to understand that Cubans speak Spanish, and so on.  Some will argue that this is evidence of a conspiratorial left-wing media out to destroy a viable GOP candidate.  I think, rather, it is evidence of a candidate not yet ready for primetime.

2)  Dovetailing with the fall of Cain from grace has been the meteoric rise of Newt Gingrich.  Newt has gone from the high single digits in most pre-November polls to the lead in several early primary states as the GOP desperately seeks anybody but Romney to be their standard bearer, even if this means nominating a man who has been divorced three times, suffers from foot in mouth disease, and thinks it might be a good idea for grade school children to work evenings as janitors cleaning up their schools.  Newt is nothing if not an idea man...in many ways the right-wing version of a policy wonk like Bill Clinton was for centrist Democrats.  There is no doubt about Gingrich's talents and abilities but the practical implications of his policy preferences are as yet unknown.  Can he hold on until Iowa and snag a few early victories?  Probably because he is really the only other candidate in the race qualified to be president apart from the two Mormons, Romney and Huntsman.

3)  The Super Committee failed spectacularly at cutting $1.2 trillion from future deficits, largely because the GOP was adamant about not raising taxes on the 1% to offset some of the cuts in benefits and services they proposed on the 99%.

4)  The Occupy Wall Street movement gained some traction and got plenty of good press over the past few weeks along with some not so good news as they were evicted from their camps in many cities.  I had the chance to visit one of these camps in Philadelphia last week and while I share many of their concerns I have my own qualms about their methods.  On the one hand, ensuring that a sector of society that is usually invisible is noticed is a good thing.  On the other, failing to police their encampments and ensure sanitary conditions is not.  While in Philly, OWS marched down Market Street and seemed to be well received by those gathering on the sidewalks as they passed by.  The demonstrations there were peaceful and well ordered as the police department cleared pathways for the demonstrators and ensured public safety.  Kudos to the Philly PD for a great job.

I'm sure there is plenty I missed over the past few weeks as well.  If there's anything you'd like to see posted here just drop me an email or make a comment.  Hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving.


Friday, October 28, 2011

Coming to a city near you, Occupy Anytown, USA

It's been a couple of weeks since the last post here, primarily due to a very busy couple of weeks in the office and classroom.  Grading exams and papers, preparing lectures, and writing a paper for presentation in Philadelphia in November has left me with little time for blogging.  But enough about that.  Something seems to be afoot and the Obama Administration is paying attention.  In the past week the president has announced executive initiatives to make it easier for those with 'underwater' mortgages to refinance their homes and for individuals with low incomes to reduce their student loan payments and have their unpaid balances forgiven after 20 years instead of the current 25 years.  Both are steps in the right direction.  The Occupy Wall Street movement deserves, at least in my humble opinion, a little bit of credit for that.  Yesterday, I spent a half an hour talking with a reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger about the movement and its message.

Occupy Wall Street, hereafter OWS, began nearly two months ago as a protest in New York City aimed largely at the 'fat cats' on Wall Street who have done exceptionally well over the previous three decades while much of the rest of America has ostensibly been left behind.  The top 1% has prospered while the bottom 99% has floundered, or so the argument goes.  The OWS movement has a lot of solid ground upon which to base their argument, such as a report by the Congressional Budget Office showing that the top 1% of earners enjoyed real, after-tax income growth of 275% between 1979 and 2007.  The next 19% saw their incomes grow by 65% over that period, while those in the 21st to 79th percentile saw income grow by an average of 40%.  The bottom 20% saw average income grow only 18% over the 28 year period.  The full CBO report can be found here.  To many in the OWS movement this is indicative of greed on the part of Wall Street and other wealthy interests.  I think they are partially correct because greed drives markets in general, but I also think they may be barking up the wrong tree.  The question, what has enabled the tremendous growth of income for the top 1%, is a good one.  The answer, I think, is far more complex than OWS protesters recognize or want to admit.

The real answer lies in the capture of government by corporate special interests.  Over the past 50 years Washington D.C. has been inundated by special interest groups taking up residence on K Street and clamoring for policy makers to protect their constituents (or provide them subsidies).  They've argued against regulations and worked to roll back tax rates on the wealthy, some of which reached 90% during the Eisenhower Administration.  The devil has been in the details, as the old adage goes.  Recently, political scientists Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker tackled the question of why the distribution of wealth and income in America has been much less equal since the 1980's than it was between 1946 and 1979, when incomes grew at a good pace for nearly everybody.  In their book, "Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned its Back on the Middle Class" they take on some of the classic arguments about technology, globalization, and just plain working harder.  Each is found to be lacking when it comes to explaining the increase in inequality over the past three decades.  While not pointing a finger at either party in Congress, Pierson and Hacker argue that the culprit is public policies that have been designed by elites for elites.  As a result, the top 1% of Americans have gone from controlling about 9% of the wealth in 1980 to 24% in 2007.  This is not the result of simply working harder or smarter.  If it were, I'd be perfectly fine with it since I support the idea the of reaping the fruits of one's labor.  It is the result of deliberate choices made by our elected representatives.

I think OWS has a significant message to get out to the American people but I fear they are targeting the wrong people.  Most Americans are not aware of the income distribution inequality in the country and are often shocked when they realize just how skewed it is.  In large part, I think, it is because we have segregated ourselves into like-minded groups sharing the same socio-economic status.  Millionaires are not hanging out with people earning $10 an hour who find it difficult to fill their gas tanks with gasoline at $3.50 a gallon.  The people who shop at Wal-Mart are not the same people who frequent Neiman-Marcus or Sak's Fifth Avenue.  There is a divide in America today between not only the rich and the poor but between the lower middle class and the upper middle class.  OWS has at the very least made more Americans aware of this.  Sadly, some have taken to lawbreaking to get the message out, which only serves to reduce its effectiveness.  Fortunately, this appears to be a very tiny percentage of the protesters who are engaged in unlawful activity.  Instead of occupying Wall Street, perhaps they ought to be occupying K Street in Washington, D.C.?



Friday, October 14, 2011

It Cain't be, Cain it?

I've spent a lot of time in this space talking about polls lately and today I'm going to continue that theme.  In the past week we've had yet another sparsely watched GOP debate, a slew of new polls, a few high ranking endorsements, and much more news about the Boston Red Sox than we ever need to know!  For you Sox fans, you know what I mean. 

The Republican Debate Tuesday at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire was interesting if only for the format itself.  The 'perceived' eight genuine candidates were seated around a conference table facing three moderators asking questions.  The group was led by Charlie Rose, who did a good job overall.  The questions centered on the economy and economic policy, which really played to Mitt Romney's strength.  It also led to lots of opportunities for Herman Cain to say 'nine-nine-nine.'  So many, in fact, that he is now leading the GOP field in several national polls.  Huh?  Whazzat, you say?  Exactly. 

Who is Herman Cain?  Where did he come from?  Are his polling numbers for real?  Slow down, Betsy, we'll get there.  For now I'll just say 'Who knows, Who cares, and Nope.'  The question everyone ought to be asking is not who is he or where did he come from but why is he doing so well in the polls? The answer to that one, dear reader, is actually pretty easy.  I'll get there soon enough as well. 

First off, who is Herman Cain?  Nearly everybody knows he is the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza (a truly awful pizza, in my humble opinion).  Less well known is that he served in various capacities on the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in the early 1990's.  He's also a Baptist minister and has run for the GOP nomination for senator from Georgia (lost in the primaries).  By all accounts he has been remarkably successful in both the private and public sectors. 

Where did he come from?  Proverbially speaking, out of the blue!  He's been a candidate longer than anyone in the field except Mitt Romney, who's been running since 2007 pretty much non-stop.  Cain announced his exploratory committee in January 2011...beating now President Barack Obama's 2007 announcement by more than a month.  He officially entered the race in May and struggled to make headway until the Florida GOP debates, after which time he took off in the polls. 

So, are his numbers for real?  I don't think so.  That's not to say he can't win a few states and give some members of the GOP establishment heartburn (and present southern conservatives with an interesting choice between an African-American conservative and a Mormon pseudo-conservative).  Just as Mike Huckabee did in 2008 when he won the Iowa Caucuses, so, too, could Cain.  But that would likely be the end of his amazing rise.  One thing is for sure though, win or lose, Cain will come out of this race better off than he went in. 

On to the main question...why has Cain suddenly taken off in the polls?  The quick and dirty answer is that 'he ain't Mitt Romney.'  The conservative base, led by the demagoguery of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, despises Mitt Romney, largely because he represents a wing of the Republican Party they've been trying to kill off for more than a decade.  Romney is a centrist, pragmatic, northeastern moderate with a center-right philosophy of governing.  He is, in other words, a part of the GOP establishment.  He's not a fanatical 'true believer' in rolling back the New Deal, shrinking government so it 'can be drowned in the bathtub', as Grover Norquist has intoned.  Mitt Romney understands that doing those things would bring America to her knees and make all of us worse off, not better.  And that's why Cain has risen so rapidly.  The previous GOP savior and true believer, Texas Governor Rick Perry, turned out to be all too human.  Gasp!  He...compromised?  He cared about the children of illegal immigrants and whether they would become productive members of the Texas economy?  Heaven forbid!  He tried to do something that might save thousands of women from dying of cancer needlessly?  Off with his head, they cried!

Before the rise of Herman Cain it was Michelle Bachmann, winner of the Iowa Straw Poll.  Darling of the right wing media and the Tea Party.  An empty suit with an empty head who confused where Lexington and Concord are (MA, not NH) and where the Revolutionary War began, failed to distinguish between the birthplace of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy and American screen legend John Wayne.  A woman who claimed to have adopted 23 children...until someone discovered that she actually was a foster care provider (a good thing, IMHO) and that some of the children were only in her care for a month.  Her fall from grace was as precipitous as Governor Perry's and may be unrivaled by anything in history other than Lucifer's fall from heaven.

The others in the field have never really been able to gain any traction but I wouldn't be surprised if between now and the Iowa Caucuses on January 3rd to see another of the candidates rise spectacularly to the top.  If I had to bet on one of them, it would be Newt Gingrich.  But it would be a bet I would not be too confident about.  I also think Ron Paul could make a daring move to the top before imploding.  Make no mistake, the rise of Herman Cain has everything to do with anti-Romney sentiment and nothing to do with Herman Cain.  Just as it did with Perry and Bachmann before him, the tide will turn, and Cain, too, will not be able to knock Mitt Romney off his perch.  And that is just as it ought to be. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Invisible Primary & Why Early Polls Matter

The period of campaigning that takes place in the year prior to a presidential election is what political scientists sometimes refer to as the 'invisible primary.'  It is the time when the hopefuls are spending vast amounts of time building their organizations and wooing voters in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.  It is a time of 'retail politics' where candidates and voters get plenty of face to face exposure to one another, a chance to ask (and have answered) the hard questions, and above all, the opportunity to prove oneself a viable candidate for the party nomination.  We call it an 'invisible' primary because much of what happens apart from the speeches, town hall meetings, and political ads occurs beneath the surface and in back room negotiations.  We call it a 'primary' because even though the public may not be voting, the party elite and the big money donors are aligning with the candidate they will support and raise funds for throughout the campaign.  In short, 'silly season' or the 'invisible primary' is largely about separating the serious contenders from those who don't have anything better to do with their time.  The ones who prove the most viable will harness the 'bundlers', wealthy, powerful individuals who can raise a lot of money from their equally powerful friends.  That's what the invisible primary is all about.  That's also why the early polls matter.  They may not tell us who will win but they almost certainly tell us who is viable.  And they send that signal to the fundraisers each candidate hopes to entice onto his or her side.

Since we're knee deep in the invisible primary I thought it might be nice to take a look at just what the top candidates are saying about their opponents right now.  The following are ads from the Mitt Romney website, the Rick Perry website, and Herman Cain's website.

The video below discusses the ramifications for Florida of turning Social Security over to the states as Rick Perry suggests:



The following video by the Perry camp tries to tie Mitt Romney to President Obama's health care reform package




The final video is from the Cain campaign emphasizing his business acumen and the fact that he admits to not having an answer for every question.

Monday, October 3, 2011

GOP Nomination Polls

**Updated October 5th**

I was curious about how much fluidity has been present in the preference polls regarding the candidates seeking the 2012 GOP presidential nomination so I decided to plot the candidates percentages for the last 12 polls.  That takes the data back to August 17th, immediately after Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy.  The final poll is dated October 5th.  This is what the chart looks like:
GOP Candidates Poll Numbers August 17-October 5 (Click to enlarge)



A few things are evident in the chart:  The bottom group (Huntsman, Santorum, Bachmann) are going nowhere.  Bachmann's support has virtually fallen off a cliff since winning the Iowa straw poll in August.  Huntsman and Santorum haven't been able to gain any traction whatsoever.  The second tier (Gingrich and Paul) have more or less been treading water for two months.  Their poll numbers have bounced between 7 and 10% most of the time, though each man topped 11% on a few occasions.  A friend recently suggested that perhaps Gingrich was running for VP instead of president.  Maybe. 

The top tier has changed since August as Michele Bachmann has fallen out and Herman Cain has risen.  They have virtually flipped positions in the polls as Cain has now polled above 15% in four consecutive national polls.  Whether it is a bump from winning the FL straw poll or not, his numbers will likely help him sell more books on his current book tour.  Of course, abandoning the campaign trail in Iowa and NH for a month to peddle books will probably cost him any real chance of winning either state next January, severely diminishing any prospect he has of securing the GOP nomination. 

The most startling data in the chart is that of Texas Governor Rick Perry whose chart line looks more like the trajectory of an aging NASA satellite crashing back to earth than a serious contender for the nomination.  He has fallen from a high of 37% near the end of August to just 12% in today's CBS poll.  Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has run a slow and steady campaign, hovering in the high teens and low 20"s for much of the period.  Conservatives may not like him or trust him but he has been the most presidential of the candidates seeking the nomination.  Perhaps the most telling feature of the new CBS poll is that undecided polls higher than any of the named candidates and only 19% of Republican voters say they have settled on their choice.  There is room for the field to improve their numbers but time is running short.  It ought to be an interesting couple months.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Presidential Leadership, Ronald Reagan, and Chris Christie

The media are buzzing around like bumblebees in springtime, floating from flower to flower as we prepare for the next presidential election.  Many media elites have fawned over Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney for much of the year while speculating about other possible entrants in the GOP field.  When Texas Gov. Rick Perry officially threw his hat in the ring in August, the media painted a bullseye on his back, as did his fellow candidates when early polls showed him leading the pack.  After a little more than six weeks of scrutinizing his record and three relatively miserable debate performances, the media are looking elsewhere for the new savior of the GOP.  Apparently, so are many of the movers and shakers in the Republican Party as well as the party rank and file.  The new darling of the media and the party seems to be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  Why?  One clear reason is because he is an unknown quantity.  He has very little baggage since he has been governor of NJ for only about 21 months.  He is also a decent speaker, appeals to the Reagan wing of the party, and is not an ideologue.  He believes in solving problems rather than kicking the can down the road.  He believes that leaders do not look to the polls to figure out what to do.  Leaders change the polls by persuading the people that their proposals are the right way to solve a problem.  Leaders don't preclude opposition ideas, they incorporate them into a solution that can garner bipartisan support and address the problem.

In many ways, I think, that attitude is lacking in many of our elected officials today.  They are so self-centered and focused on preserving their careers by getting reelected that they fail to be frank with their constituents.  Rather then educating the people about the right course of action they fall back on ideological conviction, even when that conviction will lead to disaster.

There are two primary theories regarding the role of the representative and what his function ought to be in a democracy.  The first argues that elected officials are delegates sent to enact the people's will, whatever that means.  How does one discern the people's will?  Exactly which people are we referring to?  Is it even possible to determine what the will of the people truly is?  Is it the fraction of the people who are motivated enough to get off their couches and turn off X-Factor and go vote?  Is it the silent majority who don't vote?  Is it the people who contribute money to political campaigns?  Is it the tiny core of activists in each party that are not representative of the party as a whole?  The delegate model of representation requires the elected official to know what this will is and to act accordingly or suffer the consequences.  This is the model preferred by the Tea-Party.

The second model of representation is that popularized by the conservative Edmund Burke in the 18th century.  We call it the trustee model.  Burke argued that the representative is not merely the instrument of the people sent forth to do their will.  Rather, the representative was sent forth to use all the talent and education he possessed to deliberate over every course of action and choose the one he thought best for the nation, though it might conflict with the immediate interests of his local constituency.  It was, Burke surmised, the job of the representative to persuade the people that his course of action was the right one.  This was the leadership style of Ronald Reagan and, I think, why historians rank him among the top 10 presidents in history.  It is also what made Franklin Roosevelt a great leader.  NJ Governor Chris Christie appears to be a Burkean as well.  Perhaps it will one day lead him to be our next great president.  If you haven't watched it yet, the following link is to the speech he delivered at the Ronald Reagan Library on September 27, 2011.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Pox On All Your Polls!

We are a nation obsessed with polls and surveys.  Every organization wants to know how you feel about virtually everything these days.  I stay in a hotel and within a day or two a survey shows up in my email box asking me to evaluate my stay. I go out to eat and there it is on the table, the ubiquitous survey to rate my food, my waitress, the price, the atmosphere, yada, yada, yada.  There are internet survey companies that specialize in product marketing or political polling for clients.  Then there are the national organizations like Gallup and Zogby and others.  You can even post a poll on Facebook for all your 'friends' to take.  I stopped at Dunkin' Donuts for a coffee Monday and my receipt had a link to a survey promising a free donut if I just completed the poll within three days!  Of course, I'd have to drive 50 miles round trip to get my free donut.  Even I'm not immune to the polling craze.  As part of my summer research project I developed a survey on political attitudes that I'm putting the finishing touches on now so it can be sent out, hopefully nationwide with a little help from my friends (cue the Beatles music here...).

Which brings me to my main point:  Everywhere we turn these days we are inundated with news about a new poll or survey telling us what we think, usually about politics and our elected leaders.  Congress approval ratings hit new low, one poll tells us.  Another survey has Sarah Palin within 5 points of President Obama.  The next one shows Romney or Perry in a dead heat with the president.  The latest polls are trumpeting the fall of the house of Obama.  Do the polls mean anything?  Not much.  Is Obama's approval falling through the floor?  Not really. But the media is obsessed with the polls nearly 14 months before the next election and 4 months before the first votes are cast in Iowa.  Just for fun I thought I'd take a look at recent presidents and their poll numbers.  Here's what I found.

President Obama Approval Ratings Chart
 President George W. Bush Approval Ratings Chart
 President Clinton Approval Ratings Chart
 President George H.W. Bush Approval Ratings Chart
 President Reagan Approval Ratings Chart
 What's the point, you ask?  Simply that the media narrative doesn't fit the polls.  If we look at the past five presidents and their poll numbers over their terms we see a lot of fluctuation, usually from a high point early in their presidency (the honeymoon) to a low point just after the midterm election followed by a subsequent rise, except in the case of George W. Bush who just kept declining from his post 9/11 high point.  What is most interesting about the Obama numbers isn't that he sits around 42% in the most recent Gallup Poll, though one poll found the number as low as 39 percent, but that his numbers have been remarkably stable for nearly 18 months.  Disapproval has risen a bit as one would expect in the wake of the repeated cave-ins to the GOP (Republicans won't like Obama no matter what he does so getting the disapproval rate below 40% is nearly impossible, though, yes, a recent poll suggests that even Republican voters support the key elements of Obama's job plan) as liberals express some disapproval. 

The bottom line is really that his poll numbers have been stable for quite awhile.  No massive swings in popularity or disapproval, just stability.  This indicates that those who don't like the president have solidified in their opposition and those who do have solidified in their support.  Barring an economic disaster or an unforeseen economic boom, President Obama will be facing reelection in 14 months with very similar numbers.  That's not great news for the president but neither is it the knell of death.

**Charts can be found at http://webapps.ropercenter.uconn.edu/CFIDE/roper/presidential/webroot/presidential_rating.cfm#.Tnnqn0_tJHo**

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mr. Turner Goes to Washington (briefly)

Yesterday voters went to the polls in two special elections to fill vacant seats in the House of Representatives.  Republicans won both seats, one in disgraced Democrat Anthony Weiner's old district, NY-9, which is largely Democratic, though much more conservatively so than thought.  Political analyst Charlie Cook rates the district Partisan Voting Index a D +5, which means that the Democratic nominee for president in the last two presidential elections exceeded his party's national average (51.3%) by about 5 points.  Thus, the Democratic candidate for the House is assumed to have approximately a 5 point advantage in the district.  In practice, the advantage may be larger or smaller due to incumbency and a host of other variables.  The other seat up for grabs yesterday was NV-2, a seat vacated by Dean Heller when he was appointed to replace the scandal plagued Republican Senator John Ensign.  Cook rates the district R+5, largely on the strength of President Bush's 16 point win in the district in 2004.  President Obama and John McCain split the district in 2008, even though it remains a Republican stronghold.

The question is whether the outcome matters for 2012?  The answer is a resounding no, though Republicans and the media are sure to say otherwise (see here, and here).  The victory for Republicans is no more (or less) important than the Democratic takeover of NY-26, a district with a rating of R+6, last May, with one exception:  NY is slated to lose two house seats as a result of reapportionment from the 2010 Census.  One of those is likely to be NY-9, as it will likely be carved up to meet the reapportionment requirements established by the constitution.  Since the Democrats and Republicans share power in the redistricting process in NY, it would not surprise me to see NY-26 become the other casualty...thus effectively eliminating the party swap that occurred in NY this year.

Another reason that the results of many special elections don't matter is because they are notoriously low turnout affairs.  Few people pay attention to the contest and even fewer of those go to the polls.  NY-9 is a low turnout district as it is.  In 2010, Democrat Anthony Weiner coasted to reelection by 21 points over Bob Turner, who won the seat in the special election yesterday.  Yet, only 110,000 citizens bothered to vote in a district of 660,000 people (voting age population is about 450,000), which is less than 1 in 4 voters.  I expect turnout last night was even lower, though full results are not yet available.

In the end, the election doesn't matter.  NY-9 is a district that has been trending Republican since 2000 and will likely be sliced and diced during redistricting.  That means the newly elected Republican Bob Turner will have to run for reelection next year in a heavily Democratic district that will likely be far more liberal than the current 9th district.  Enjoy your time in Congress, Mr. Turner.  It probably won't last long. 

**NOTE: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated the Democrats took over NY-23 in January. It has been fixed to reflect the fact that it was NY-26 and the election was in May.**

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

President Obama's 'Jobs' Bill & The CNN/Tea-Party Debate

President Obama unveiled his more than $450 billion 'jobs' bill yesterday and asked Congress to pass it immediately.  While it would no doubt spur some temporary economic growth and add to the nation's GDP it is likely to have very little lasting impact, particularly if paid for by increased spending cuts elsewhere.  The big winners if the package were to pass would be construction workers, states and local governments that are currently laying off workers, and taxpayers making less than $106,000 a year as they would not see the payroll tax return to 6.2% next year.  Businesses would also realize a 33% savings in their payroll tax bill for a year.  While the president thinks that would spur hiring, I think he's wrong.  Businesses have been insanely profitable since the crash in 2008 but they aren't hiring new workers very quickly.  Republicans argue that the health care reform passed in 2010 is responsible.  They may have a point for some very small businesses hovering right around the 50 employee mark.  But these businesses are far from the majority of businesses in America. 

No, the real problem for economic growth has been weak demand, both at home and abroad for more than three years.  Demand at home has been weak since 2008 due to the bursting of the housing bubble and the reluctance/inability of many Americans to buy on credit.  Add to that the decline in real wages for the median worker and you have a double edged sword driven deep into the heart of the American economy.  Consider the lack of demand for American products overseas and you have a dagger stuck in America's back.  Democrats have no answer to solving this problem other than turning to Keynesian style stimulus, which is exactly what the president has proposed.  Keynesian stimulus has been vindicated time and time again during normal economic downturns, Republican lies not withstanding.  But this downturn is different because it resulted from a huge decline in demand when the housing bubble burst, overextended households, stagnant wages, and irresponsible greed on the part of the banking and mortgage industry.  Until we deal with all four of those issues any stimulus package is likely to have a very limited and temporary effect.  For what we ought to do I urge you to read Freefall by Noble Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. 

Which brings me to the CNN/Tea-Party debate.

Let me start by saying I hate these dog and pony shows.  CNN introduced the Republican candidates as though they were entering a boxing ring.  My favorite by far had to be when Herman Cain was announced as 'The Businessman.'  After all the candidates were on stage and had waved to the audience, the national anthem was performed.  Only Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney sang along so I wonder whether the others even knew the words.  LOL. 

Once the theatrics ended and the debate began in earnest, Governor Perry was attacked furiously from all sides.  He defended himself well during the first half hour but lost it after that.  Not that it will matter because he was in the midst of a friendly crowd.  Bachmann and Santorum scored some points by attacking Perry on his executive order forcing 12 year old girls to receive the HPV vaccine, while Ron Paul attacked Perry for raising taxes, and Romney went after Perry's categorization of Social Security as a 'ponzi scheme.'  When the smoke cleared Perry was still standing, though he lost some points when he spoke truthfully about the futility of trying to build a 2000 mile long fence or wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. 

All told, I think Perry had a better night than in his first debate.  Romney and Huntsman still looked and sounded like the only true presidential candidates out there while the others pandered for support.  In the end, however, it won't really matter, because nobody was watching this dog and pony show except the political junkies like me, and the GOP party activists.  None of the candidates offered real, workable solutions to the economic crisis at hand, preferring instead to fall back on supply side arguments about tax cuts and job creators that have been thoroughly refuted by empirical research time and time again.  By all accounts it seems the race is a two man contest.  Romney and Perry, Perry and Romney.  The lead will likely change hands a few times before these horses reach the finish line in Tampa, FL next summer.

Next event:  The Fox News GOP debate Thursday Sept. 22.  Softball question time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Political Misperceptions and the Resistance to New Information

One of the things political scientists have understood for quite a long time is that it is difficult to change people's minds regarding things about which they are passionate.  Take, for example, the avid sports fan who believes his team is the best in the league.  When the team fails to live up to that billing on the field or court, the passionate fan seeks to shift the blame away from his team and onto the referees, injuries, the manager, a player she doesn't like, or a multitude of other factors having to do with anything other than the admittance that the team just isn't very good.  Some might call this faith in one's team a form of a worldview and acknowledging that part of that view is wrong could create cracks in the rest of the foundation.  So our passionate fan lives in denial, insisting that 'but for ...' the team would have won it all.  A similar thing happens in politics with political presuppositions.  Before long, facts don't matter, what becomes important is how strongly we hold to our worldview (and reject anything that contradicts it, even if true). 

Political Scientist Larry Zaller argues that in order for people to change their views about anything (right or wrong), three things must occur.  First, they must be exposed to the new information.  This is a large problem when it comes to political viewpoints because while most people have one they aren't very attentive to politics.  It also has become a problem due to the self-selection problem.  In today's world there is a wealth of (dis)information available to anyone who seeks it, and sometimes to those who don't.  Many people simply gravitate toward sources that confirm their preexisting worldview.  Conservatives flock to Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and Rush Limbaugh.  Liberals head for MSNBC, the Daily Kos, and NPR.  Thus, rarely are partisans exposed to new or disagreeable information.  The second step, Zaller argues, is reception.  Not only must an individual be exposed to new information, she must also receive that information.  Reception indicates a willingness (and ability) to hear and think about new or conflicting information.  Once the information has been received the individual moves to the third stage and either accepts or rejects the new information.  Many people never make it past step one let alone get to step three.  All three steps are necessary to effect an attitude change in a person.  The fact that such a large percentage of the population never experiences these three steps leads political scientists to doubt the claims of many partisans about media effects on attitudes. 

Let's go back to our passionate sports fan to see how this works.  Our fan loves the Boston Red Sox and thinks they are the best team in baseball.  He either listens to all the games on WEEI or watches them on NESN and hears the home team announcers reinforcing his views again and again.  Suppose one day both stations are off the air and our fan has to listen to the game feed from the opposing team, the Phillies.  Their announcers rave about how great the pitching is, the offense and defense, and how the Phils will win it all.  Our fan has been exposed to conflicting information.  He must either receive that new information or dismiss it as the ravings of the opponents fans.  If he thinks about it and starts to study the stats, he has received the info.  Finally, our fan must either accept what the others are saying and conclude that he was wrong about the Red Sox or he must reject it on the basis of his investigation.  Like most political partisans, our fan probably never goes beyond the first step. 

Getting back to the point, some recent research in political science has asked why it is so difficult to dislodge people from errant beliefs.  Brendan Nyhan has done some excellent work in this area.  The following is the abstract of his latest manuscript:

"People often resist information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. This disconfirmation bias is a particular problem in the context of political misperceptions, which are widespread and frequently difficult to correct. In this paper, we examine two different hypotheses about the prevalence of misinformation. First, people tend to resist unwelcome information because it is threatening to their worldview or self-concept. Drawing from social psychology research, we test whether affirming individuals' self-worth and thereby buttressing them against this threat can make them more willing to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. Second, corrective information is often presented in an ineffective manner. We therefore also examine whether graphical corrections may be more effective than text at reducing counter-arguing by individuals inclined to resist counter-attitudinal information. Results from three experiments show that self-affirmation substantially reduces reported misperceptions among those most likely to hold them, suggesting that people cling to false beliefs in part because giving them up would threaten their sense of self. Graphical corrections are also found to successfully reduce incorrect beliefs among potentially resistant subjects and to perform better than an equivalent textual correction. However, contrary to previous research, affirmed subjects rarely differ from unaffirmed subjects in their willingness to accept new counter-attitudinal information."
 If you're interested, check out his blog and download the paper.  Next up...President Obama's jobs speech and the CNN/Tea-Party debate in Tampa.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Politico/NBC News Republican Debate at the Reagan Library

The Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA was the host of the first of several Republican debates as we wrap up the 'invisible primary' season in preparation for actual voting beginning early in 2012.  There are at least two more debates scheduled this month with a few more in October and November as the candidates try to improve their support among Republican voters before the primaries. 

The Reagan Library is situated on a bluff overlooking Simi Valley and is a stunningly beautiful facility. I've had the pleasure of visiting the library on two occasions and eagerly look forward to another visit when I return to California.  It is a tranquil place that opens itself to much reflection in the midst of our ever busier lives and beckons one back to a time when things were a bit simpler, or at least it seems that way.  One of my favorite exhibits is the replica of the Oval Office replete with a jar of Jelly Belly jelly beans on the president's desk.  Call me nostalgic.  Whatever. 

Last evening at the library eight GOP hopefuls gathered for a debate sponsored by Politico and NBC News that was televised on MSNBC.  It marked the first debate for the Republicans since the entrance of Texas Governor Rick Perry into the race in mid-August.  His announcement catapulted him into the lead in all major polls taken since August 15th so it was highly anticipated that the media and the other contenders on the stage would be gunning for him.  We were not disappointed.  I won't bother to recap the entire debate as you can read about it here, here, and here.  I will, however, endeavor to give you my thoughts on how each candidate performed.  I'll begin with the frontrunner, Governor Perry.

Texas Governor Rick Perry:  Perry has come out swinging in the race for the GOP nod and the right to face off with President Obama next fall.  I want to like Rick Perry, even if there is little chance I'd ever vote for him.  But I can't.  In his first opportunity on the national stage I was listening for solid policy proposals, intelligent discussion of issues, ideas for turning around an educational system in crisis, and so on.  I heard none of that.  What I did hear is Governor Perry pandering to the rabid right wing of his party, talking about Social Security as a ponzi scheme and a monstrous lie.  I heard him call the president of the United States a liar and bumble a question about climate science with an answer about how the 'science isn't settled' yet and how irresponsible it would be to impose environmental regulations on polluters when only 98% of climate scientists agree that man made pollution is contributing to climate change.  I heard him dodge questions about the failure of Texas education system (test scores have improved because the tests have been made easier, not because students are learning!) and talk about how the $4 billion cut in education was 'responsible.'  I have a feeling many educators in Texas might disagree.  Overall, I think Perry helped his standing with the hard right but probably lost the moderates in the party and many independents. 

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney:  Romney has been sliding in the polls since Perry entered the race.  He needed to take on Perry directly in last night's debate and he did just that.  The two men locked horns and challenged each other on jobs creation, social security, and a few other issues.  In each case, Romney displayed the acumen and vocabulary of a serious contender for the presidency.  Most of Romney's dialogue was on message with a few jabs here and there at Perry, especially on the social security issue when he stressed that any Republican nominee who wants to win the presidency must be committed to saving what he called a successful system for millions of senior Americans.  Romney has a clear vision about what it will take to win Florida for a Republican nominee.  Anyone committed to the destruction of the program has no chance in Florida due to it's huge senior population.  The same can be said about Nevada and, to a lesser extent, Arizona.  In terms of winning the debate, Romney came out clearly ahead and appeared the most presidential and the most like Ronald Reagan, a pragmatic conservative. 

Texas Congressman Ron Paul:  Paul seemed some what off his game last night and really looked much more like America's cranky uncle than a serious presidential contender.  Of course, he wasn't given all that much time to speak as it is now clear that the media establishment believes the race for the GOP nomination is down to the top two candidates.  Paul's temper came through when he chastised Brian Williams for portraying libertarians as lacking compassion when Williams mentioned Lyndon Johnson's commitment to provide nutritious school lunches for children after seeing some children in Texas come to school with distended stomachs.  Overall, Paul looked much more like a candidate whose star has faded than one who is on the rise. 

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann:  Talk about a meteoric fall from grace!  Less than a month after becoming the media darling by winning the Ames Straw Poll she has sunk to 4th place in the polls, shaken up the staff of her campaign, and promised to lower gas prices to $2 a gallon if elected president.  Bachmann is clearly out of her league and exemplifies all the criticism often dished out to the tea-party.  Like Paul, her face time has diminished as Perry's has increased.  It is far more difficult finding a path to the nomination for Ms. Bachmann today than it was just a month ago. 

Former Senator Rick Santorum:  Steady and smooth as he always is but simply lacking in appeal to anyone other than social conservatives.  Sure, he's probably a fiscal conservative as well but he just isn't electable on the national scene.  His claim that nobody worked harder than he did on poverty issues in the U.S. Senate and his claim that the 1996 welfare reform wasn't about spending cuts and punishing the poor was laughable.  I'm not even sure he believes that. 

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich:  Perhaps the smartest man on the stage but also the one with the loosest tongue.  Gingrich frequently invoked Ronald Reagan and how he worked with Reagan in the 1980's but apart from that had little to say substantively.  He did praise President Obama's 'Race to the top' initiative for providing education funds to innovative schools but then returned to the traditional 'school choice' language, which is really just conservative code for busting the strength of teachers unions.  Gingrich did not hurt himself but neither did he help himself.  He's just there as a sideshow now. 

Pizza Mogul Herman Cain:  Why is he here?  He has no chance of winning the nomination no matter what he says.  The Republican Party today is a regional party that is very strong in the old confederacy and virtually nowhere else.  And the confederacy simply isn't ready to support an African-American candidate, regardless of party.  Cain is entertaining to listen to and may have had the best line of the night in reference to his 'ni-yun, ni-yun, ni-yun' plan to cut corporate taxes, income taxes, and impose a national sales tax rate of 9% when he said 'if 10% is good enough for God then 9% should be good enough for the government.'  Ok, but he won't win anyway. 

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman:  Definitely the George H.W. Bush wing of the party candidate.  He is smart and articulate like Romney, unafraid to disagree with the anti-science crowd, and willing to call many in his party 'cranks', though he shied away when given a direct opportunity to name one on the stage...though he clearly eyeballed Rick Perry and Ron Paul.  Huntsman's problem isn't that he's not a smart guy or likable.  It is that he is too smart and too pragmatic for today's Republican Party.  If this were still the party of Ronald Reagan, Huntsman would wipe the floor with the other seven candidates.  It isn't and because of that Huntsman can't gain any traction with prospective GOP voters, though I'd be willing to bet if he did he would become Barack Obama's biggest nightmare.  Huntsman helped himself immensely with his performance last night and if the GOP takes a moderate turn in the near future, he could be a star for the party.  As long as the party remains well to the right of Reagan, Huntsman has no hope.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Constitutional Convention, Week 1

This update is a little late following the long holiday weekend and the torrential downpours from Tropical Storm Lee (we got 9.5 inches of rain, no flooding thankfully). 

The honors students met in their constitutional committees for the first time last Friday and here are the results of their initial discussions:

Executive Committee Proposals:
  • Eliminate the Electoral College or change to 1 vote per state
  • Perhaps establish a ratio vote based upon popular vote
  • Give President the title of Commander in Chief but reserve role of military strategy for Generals
Legislative Committee Proposals:
  • Eliminate personal income taxes
  • Allow corporate income taxes
  • House of Representatives Districts not bound by state lines
  • Permanent residence in district and community service required
  • Term limits (Two 6 year terms discussed for Senate?)
  • Reduction in pay--make service rather than wealth the incentive
  • No travel on private aircraft permitted
  • No representation for territories
Judiciary Committee Proposals:
  • Supreme Court terms of 10 years, may serve 2 terms
  • Justices should be elected but president will appoint two members 
  • Chief Justice elected from peers
  • No final authority, may be overruled (how-unstated)
  • Decisions binding only on lower courts
  • Supreme Court terms of 18 years with 1 elected every 2 years (no 2nd term)
  • May serve between age 25 and 65 and must retire after reaching age 65 (may complete term)
  • Court may override Congress' decision to declare war
  • Eliminate death penalty
  • Enhance state sovereignty
  • Supreme Court holds trial if Congress impeaches the president
The simulation is off to a good start and lots of ideas are being tossed out.  We'll see how many make the final cut when the convention decides on a final constitution.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

The (premature) Death of the Roosevelt Consensus

Michael Gerson penned a column for the Washington Post yesterday asking a very important question:  Has mainstream American thinking about entitlement programs and government spending changed in the past few years?  The answer he gives is more or less a big perhaps.  Gerson is an unabashed conservative who served as a speechwriter and advisor to President George W. Bush so it should not be surprising he would write such a column trumpeting Gov. Perry's opposition to the New Deal and its legacy program, Social Security.  Eradicating Social Security has always been a goal of staunch conservatives, primarily because it is an example of liberal government successfully addressing a major societal problem (senior poverty).  Most rational conservatives understand that Social Security has lifted the standard of living for many seniors and disabled people in America, thus making the whole of society better off.  These rational conservatives, such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan (who ensured the solvency of the program through 2035 with reforms in the 1980's) and Dwight Eisenhower who cautioned his fellow Republicans that any attack on Social Security will doom the party to minority status permanently.  Yet, there are still those who cling to the notion that it is a 'ponzi' scheme and an unjust transfer of wealth from workers to retirees (really now...do YOU know anybody who is getting rich on Social Security?).  It seems Rick Perry has forgotten Eisenhower's warning.

Gerson goes on to quote Perry as follows:


“that the Progressive movement was the beginning of the deterioration of our Constitution from the standpoint of it being abused and misused to do things that Congress wanted to do, and/or the Supreme Court wanted to implement. The New Deal was the launching pad for the Washington largesse as we know it today.”
 
The Progressive movement that brought about things like the end of legalized segregation, discrimination on the basis of race, guaranteed the right to vote for African-Americans, protected defendants from overwhelming state power in criminal trials, reduced the poverty rate, improved educational standards for all Americans, electrified much of the rural south, and guaranteed access to medical care for our senior citizens is now responsible for 'the deterioration of our constitution' according to Mr. Perry.  Does he really want to return to pre-New Deal America?  An America where two classes of people existed, the very rich and the very poor.  There was no 'middle class' to speak of in 1933.  It, too, was created largely by the 'Progressive movement' Governor Perry disdains so much.  And the creation of that middle class, not the rugged individualism Perry touts, is what created the 'American Century' and led the United States to become the most powerful nation on earth.  
Gerson then states three possible outcomes of Perry's rhetorical attack on the New Deal:
  • Republican primary voters will question his electability and turn towards Romney
  • Republicans will embrace the message and alienate enough voters to reelect Obama
  • Perry and the Republicans have tapped into an ideological sea change and will lead the nation out of the 70 long years of darkness imposed by radical liberalism
From Gerson's analysis of the possibilities it is clear he thinks the third is the more likely, though he makes his case using selective information, none of which he is specific about.  Instead he asks, "Will America need to break decisively from the European social model to avoid Europe’s economic fate?" without providing even the slightest detail about what the phrase 'Europe's economic fate' means.  The savvy reader will understand he speaks of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and perhaps the U.K. and the budget woes those countries have had in recent years.  He implies that those woes are a direct result of European social democracy, i.e., the welfare state, neglecting the fact that the whole world has been in the midst of an economic slowdown for nearly four years that was brought about by bad decisions by lenders, consumers, and the collapse of the housing market.  In the midst of this global recession many European nations have managed quite well, even running budget surpluses while still providing all the social welfare benefits promised.  See the chart here for more information.  Many will return to surpluses once the economy has fully recovered, if it is able to do so.  

In the end, it is a fallacious argument to attribute America (and the world's) debt problems to social programs.  Medicare and Social Security have both run a surplus for decades.  Due to uncontrolled inflation in health care costs the surplus for Medicare will likely run out by 2021, if not sooner.  Social Security currently has around $2.4 trillion in surplus and is expected to remain fully solvent through 2035, though reductions in the payroll tax designed to stimulate the economy may decrease that by a year or so.  Reforms are necessary.  Everyone agrees, liberals as well as rational conservatives.  
 
The real problem, which radical conservatives are loathe to admit, is that they (and many Democrats) have pursued unwise fiscal policy since 2001, enacted huge tax cuts while fighting two wars, created a Medicare prescription drug benefit without paying for it, and expanded the defense budget.  New spending coupled with tax cuts has created the problem, not the Progressive movement.  Get it right Governor.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

States Rights and Federalism: Are They Synonomous?

If you pay any attention to the political arena today you'll likely hear a lot of chatter from the political elites about the constitution establishing a system of federalism.  But it is often unclear exactly what is meant by the term and many political elites confuse or conflate it with the idea of states rights.  My goal here is to explain what the system created by the founding fathers is and is not as well as breaking the false link between the two concepts.

First, we must ask 'what exactly is federalism'?  The word does not appear in the constitution itself, nor in the writings known as the Federalist Papers authored by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton to persuade New York to ratify the constitution.  The word federalism has taken on many meanings since 1787 and continues to mean different things to different people today.  People on both ends (and in the middle) of the political spectrum claim to believe in federalism and often defer to state and local governments to make many decisions.  In a nutshell, a federal system is one in which formerly sovereign entities, in our case the several states, voluntarily surrender some of their sovereign power to a different entity, relinquishing all claim to that power in the future.  An example of such a surrender of power is seen in the constitution that authorizes the federal government, not the states, to raise an army or coin money or regulate interstate commerce.  In other areas, however, the states retain their sovereignty.  We see this through the issuance of driver's licenses, marriage certificates, and regulation of intrastate commerce.  The federal government has no say in these areas unless the states consent to a constitutional amendment.  In some other areas the states empower the federal government but also retain some power as well.  This is most commonly seen in the taxing power.  The states granted the federal government the power to levy an income tax directly upon citizens by approving the 16th amendment in 1913.  Prior to that time only the states could tax income, if permitted by their own constitutions.  Even today, there are a handful of states that have no state income tax.

Second, does the constitution establish a fixed form of federalism or is it one that changes as the nation changes?  Many conservatives today would argue the former while many liberals argue for the latter form.  Historians have identified two primary strands of federalism that have alternately shaped the nation we know and love today, dual federalism and cooperative federalism.  In a system of dual federalism each entity has separate and distinct powers that are mutually exclusive.  Any attempt by one or the other to breach the barrier between the two entities is viewed as unconstitutional.  In a cooperative federalist system both the federal government and state governments work together to solve national problems.  Both of these differ from a purely national system of government in which all power rests with the central government but may then be delegated to the states or local governments. 

Third, the type of federalist system one prefers often transcends partisanship or ideological conviction and depends upon the issue.  One recent example of this is the debate about what powers states have in controlling illegal immigration.  The issue came to the forefront when Arizona passed a strict anti-immigration law allowing law enforcement officers to request proof of legal right to be in the U.S. if they were stopped for an unrelated offense.  The constitution, however, grants the power to regulate immigration to the federal government alone.  Thus, liberal judges have struck down those portions of Arizona law believed to violate that barrier.  On other matters it has been conservative judges striking down state or federal actions seen to breach the federalism wall, such as the Gun Free School Zones Act passed by Congress in the 1990's.  Schools, the court argued, do not engage in interstate commerce and so Congress had no authority over them or the surrounding area.  Another issue that has traditionally fallen into the purview of the states is marriage.  Yet, there has been much discussion about regulating who can marry whom by amending the constitution or strengthening the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).


Finally, what does any of this have to do with states rights?  Not much really.  States rights is more of a political phrase bandied about by those who disapprove of some action taken by the federal government regardless of whether it legally possesses the power to take that action.  A generation ago states rights meant that states should have the right to discriminate against citizens on the basis of race, religion, or gender.  Today it means discrimination on the basis of immigration status, sexual orientation, or marital preference.  So the next time we hear a candidate say they believe in 'states rights' perhaps we should ask exactly what 'right' is meant.  We should also refuse to allow our political leaders to conflate federalism and states rights.  The former is a valid debate for our great nation as we move forward.  The latter is a thinly veiled form of demagoguery.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Towards A New (and better) Constitution

So it begins...every Friday between today and November 11th the undergraduate students in my Honors College class will meet as delegates to a new constitutional convention.  Their task, simply put, is similar to that which was given to the delegates at the convention in 1787...to revise and strengthen the existing document that created the United States of America.  Some 224 years have passed since the delegates began meeting in Philadelphia in the late spring of 1787.  By the time they finished in September of that year the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were no more.  In their place was a brand new document replete with new (and stronger) governmental institutions than had previously existed.  The ratification debate over the next year would be fierce but in the end the constitution would be ratified by the requisite nine states on June 21, 1788 when New Hampshire assented.  Virginia and New York would follow later that summer and the Congress created by the Articles of Confederation agreed to cease existence on March 4, 1789. 

Now, 224 years later, how has that constitution held up?  Most would argue that it has held up quite well due to adaptation, amendment, and a common political culture committed to the constitution as the supreme law of the land.  That is not to discount the terrible struggles of the 19th century from the nullification crisis in the 1830's to the most destructive war the United States has ever fought, our own Civil War.  Yet, through it all, Americans have hung together, committed to making the system work for all Americans, though it is doubtless that improvements can and should be made.  For if we cannot learn from history we are doomed to repeat it.  Our various political factions alternately accuse each other of violating the constitution, be it by employing 'secret rendition', unauthorized wiretaps, or mandating every American to purchase health insurance or pay a fine/tax.  Obstructionist tactics have risen to new heights as partisans threaten filibusters to prevent legislation from even being considered on the floor of the Senate.  The number of threatened filibusters between 2007 and 2011 is greater than ALL the filibusters over the previous 200 years.  As little as 20 years ago, senators would have to carry out, not just threaten, a filibuster to prevent unwanted legislation.  House Republicans have adopted a new tactic this year to prevent the president from making recess appointments by refusing to allow Congress to go into recess during the annual August recess even though the House has NO role in the nomination and confirmation process.  Senate Democrats did something similar during the final months of George W. Bush's 2nd term, though they were in control of the Senate at that time.  It is unprecedented for the House to obstruct presidential action (and not at all clear if constitutional) for which it has no say in the process. 

Beyond obstructionism, Americans have lost confidence in their political institutions.  Congress' approval rate stands around 13%, the president at 39%, and the Court at near 50%.  Corporations have been declared to be 'persons' with free speech rights, allowed to create 'super-pacs' and make unlimited contributions to them for the purpose of promoting the defeat or election of candidates to the federal Congress.  They spent over $300 million in 2010 doing just that, 2/3 on behalf of Republicans.  Democrats will respond likewise in 2012.  Some $20 million was spent in a special election race in NY early in 2011 and $30 million on recall efforts of state senators in WI in July and August.  Deficit spending has become a huge concern for Americans, as evidenced by the rise of the Tea-Party movement in 2009, though it is unclear how much of that is really anti-Obama politics at this point.  Representatives spend nearly all their time cultivating contacts and raising funds for reelection.  The reelection campaign for the presidency often begins 21 months before the election and nearly a billion dollars will be spent by all the parties involved.  Compare that with the British Parliamentary elections, which run about six weeks and feature free air time for each party to make it's case to the people, followed by a term of up to five years for the victorious party to go about the task of governing rather than electioneering.  Of course, there are drawbacks to parliamentary systems as well, such as little to no voice for the opposition. 

All in all, the time has come for reform and I am giving my students a chance to accomplish it.  It shall be interesting to see what they create, what rights are preserved, what institutional structures remain intact, and so on.  I will write about the results here each Friday as time allows.  Let the convention begin! 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Of Liberal Democracy, Constitutional Republics, and Ascriptive Hierarchy

Most Americans assume that the United States is a liberal democracy.  I mean liberal in the classical sense that refers to freedom and the equality of all persons under the law, not in the pejorative sense that some conservatives use the word today.  Indeed, many of the key components of a liberal democracy are found in our history, our institutions, and modern society.  These include the concept of popular sovereignty, the idea that power rests with a free people who consent to be governed by leaders who will protect their lives, liberty, and property, provided those leaders are subject to the same laws and can be replaced by the people.  Thomas Jefferson waxes eloquently about the rights of free people and how they are God given and unalienable in the Declaration of Independence.  Though for all that eloquence, some 235 years has passed and yet the United States has not achieved the full promise of Jefferson's masterpiece.

There is yet another strand of political theory woven into the fabric of our political institutions that is drawn from republican thought, not to be confused or conflated with the Republican Party, as the two are not identical.  The republican model is far more elitist and defers to the learned population, selects its leaders from among that class, and designs its institutions to more or less insulate the privileged from the will of the masses.  We see this in the design of Congress, a bicameral legislature with one chamber elected by the people, the other to be appointed by the state legislatures to represent the interests of the states (changed to direct election by the 17th amendment in 1913, perhaps unwisely).  The requirement that both the people's representatives and the state's representatives must agree fully for any legislation to pass is indicative of the founding fathers' distrust of democracy. 

Further, the president is elected not by the popular vote of the people but by a small group of elites, precisely 538 of them to be exact, though only 270 must agree in order to choose a president.  As of 2000, there is no law binding 257 of these electors to vote for the winner of their state's popular vote.  The remaining 281 electors are bound by state law to vote for the candidate carrying the state's popular vote, except in Maine and Nebraska, where electoral votes are allocated to the winner of each congressional district.  In theory, it is possible to elect someone as president who fared very poorly in the popular vote, though it hasn't happened since 1824 when John Quincy Adams was named president by the House of Representatives after finishing second to Andrew Jackson in both the popular and electoral vote.  And lest we forget, the members of the judiciary are selected by the president and confirmed by the representatives of the states.  The people's representatives are accorded no role in this process, though many would argue, and I would agree, that senators now represent the people of their states rather than the states themselves. 

So we have two theoretical traditions forming the basis of the United States.  Yet neither has fully lived up to its promise.  Over the past two centuries Americans have whittled a way at the republican foundations of the government, slowly democratizing the system by expanding the franchise to all citizens eighteen years and older, save those incarcerated or otherwise ruled ineligible to vote.  As stated previously, senators are now directly elected by the people.  There is even a movement afoot to effectively eliminate the electoral college by binding electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote.  As of August 8th, nine states and the District of Columbia (129 electoral votes) have agreed to the compact.  It becomes binding when a total of 270 electoral votes is reached.  So we are neither fully a democracy nor fully a republic but rather a democratic republic.

Even then, as Rogers Smith has argued, America has violated her principles time and time again through what he has called 'ascriptive hierarchy', which refers to the fact that throughout our history America has not been fully 'liberal' but rife with competing ideologies based upon race, gender, or other characteristics that excluded some persons from consideration as fully free and equal citizens of the United States.  The argument is fully detailed in his book Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History.  In a nutshell, Smith points out that though the Declaration of Independence declares all men to be equal and free the reality in America has been vastly different.  From mistreatment of Native American populations to slavery to denial of voting rights based on gender, ideologues have dominated our political institutions at both the national and state levels, using their positions to grant preferences to those in their hierarchical category while denying full citizenship to those deemed to be lower in the hierarchy.  The sad history of the African-American population in America serves to illustrate that quite well.  Though the Civil War Amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed citizenship to freed slaves (and equal protection of the law), and established voting rights for blacks, ideologues in both the south and the north worked hard to relegate blacks to a lower rung on the hierarchy through things such as literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, separate entrances for blacks and whites, separate drinking fountains, and segregated schools, all with the assent of the United States government until 1954 (and some might argue well beyond that).  Segregation by race (though not 'officially' sanctioned by state or federal policy) continues today in much of the country, particularly the south where private 'academies' are populated almost exclusively by white children, even those struggling to make ends meet. 

The ascriptive hierarchical system continues today as we assign people to different places on the ladder based on sexual orientation, immigration status, religion, education, and even political viewpoints.  It permeates all aspects of American society as ideologues clamor to deny equal rights to homosexuals, demand that everyone present a photo ID in order to cast a vote (potentially reducing turnout amongst the poor and African-American communities), or denigrate 'liberals' as unpatriotic and haters of America.  Of course, the truth could not be further from the rhetoric.  The liberals I know are not America haters.  Rather, they love America too much.  So much so that their primary desire is for America to finally live up to the ideal standard she has set and proclaimed to the world for 235 years.  May the hypocrisy end and freedom truly begin to ring from sea to shining sea. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why Hello Mr. Perry...Welcome to the Rest of America

Five whole days have passed since Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his entry into the battle royal to become the next Republican nominee for president.  The media has been engaged in an all out effort to figure out just who he is and what his entry into the race means, as seen here, here, and here.  Perry is, it seems, the political flavor of the week.  The media's new toy is a giant plushy in the shape of Governor Perry. 

But the real question is, just who is Rick Perry?  What do we know about him?  How conservative is he?  Does he still think Texas ought to consider seceding from the union?  The governor has certainly been busy tossing red meat out to movement conservatives to bolster his credentials, as seen by claiming that 'a substantial number' of climate scientists have manipulated their data to ensure government funding, or by holding a prayer rally in Houston (is he governor or a pastor?), or backtracking on his remark that New York's legalization of gay marriage is "fine with me."  Pavlov's dogs are salivating. 

Some are asking whether Governor Perry is electable while the first national poll shows him with a comfortable lead of second place contender, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  I can't vouch for the polls methodology but Rasmussen is usually semi-reliable.  Of course, at this time four years ago Rudy Giuliani was leading in all the national polls and he never quite made it out of his Florida rocking chair.  What has Perry done to deserve all this attention?  Is he really the savior of the GOP?  Let's take a look.

First, Rick Perry was launched into national stature by the election of George W. Bush as president in 2000.  Perry was Bush's Lieutenant Governor beginning in 1999.  Prior to that Perry served in the Texas House and as Agricultural Commissioner.  Perry is rather unique among modern politicians in that he has never lost an election.  In his first run for governor in 2002 Perry received nearly 58% of the vote in cruising to an easy victory.  Four years later, however, when facing three challengers, Perry's share  of the vote dropped to just over 39% as he received over 1 million fewer votes than in 2002.  In 2010, he easily vanquished a gubernatorial primary challenge by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, though combined his GOP challengers managed to pick up 48.9% of the primary vote.  He sailed to victory in November over Houston Mayor Bill White by a 54% to 42% margin.  The sad fact, however, is that fewer than 1 in 3 eligible voters in Texas even bothered to cast a ballot meaning that Perry was elected to a 3rd term by about 1/6th of Texas voting eligible population (Texas has the lowest voter turnout rate in the US).

Second, Mr. Perry has made his case that he ought to be the Republican nominee for president (and the next president) based upon his so-called 'Texas Miracle', a reference to the fact that nearly 40% of the new jobs created in the United States since the beginning of the Great Recession have been created in Texas.  Perry attributes this to his pro-growth policies such as low taxes and less regulation of business.  What Perry doesn't say is that much of that growth has occurred because Texas population has been growing faster than almost every other state as Americans migrate from chilly northern climates to the sun belt in record numbers, as evidence by the results of the 2010 census.  He also doesn't talk about the fact that Texas unemployment rate is 8.2%, currently 25th worst in the nation, and trails such anti-growth states such as Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York.  Governor Perry also doesn't want to talk about the fact that 1/3 of all the new jobs in Texas are government jobs, or that he balanced his state's budget the last four years largely because of $17 billion in 'failed' stimulus funds provided by President Obama.  He doesn't want to talk about the fact that Texas is tied with Mississippi for the highest percentage of the work force earning minimum wage or that Texas just balanced its budget by cutting $4 billion from education in a state that trails the nation in education quality already.  This has prompted some, such as Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, to proclaim Rick perry's Texas as an 'unmiracle.'

So the question becomes one of who's right?  Is Texas the unbridled economic miracle that Governor Perry claims or is it the disaster that his critics contend it is?  Will 'President Perry' do for America what he has done for Texas?  Do we even want him to try?  Time will tell. 


Monday, August 15, 2011

And Then There Were Three (or four)

Somewhere between 17 and 18 thousand Iowa Republicans showed up in Ames, Iowa on Saturday for a day long political carnival featuring rousing speeches by several of the GOP candidates hoping to receive their party's nomination for president next year.  Following the speeches, the faithful took part in the traditional Iowa straw poll, an indicator of preferences among the partisan base.  The poll also acts as a bellwether of organizational strength.  Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty invested more than a million dollars in Iowa hoping for a strong showing in the poll.  He finished third in the balloting with 14% of the vote, about half the total received by the top two finishers, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rep. Ron Paul.  Governor Pawlenty then announced on Sunday that he was ending his campaign for the presidency.

The media narrative now has the field for the GOP narrowed down to three (Bachmann, Romney, and Perry), two of whom did not even compete in Iowa, while all but ignoring the strong showing of Texas Rep. Ron Paul.  While I think it will be difficult for Paul to win the party nomination I don't think it will necessarily be any more difficult than Bachmann winning it.  Neither of them has any executive experience to speak of, both have a fervent band of supporters, and both play to the libertarian/Tea-party wing of the Republican Party.  Financially, Paul might have an edge and he definitely has the experience to run a national campaign while Bachmann has had some notable struggles raising money at times.  Paul has become famous for his 'money bombs' when he attempts to raise millions of dollars in a day.  Bachmann does have the support of the 'tea-vangelicals' (a term I despise) going for her but it remains to be seen what kind of force they will be in the caucuses next January.  Finishing in the top three in the Iowa Caucuses next year will be crucial to both candidates campaigns.  Only one of them will manage that.  If it is Paul, his campaign will be buoyed and sustained (though he likely continues to campaign in futility if he doesn't make the top three).  If Bachmann fails to make the top three her campaign will be effectively dead.

That leaves current Texas Governor Rick Perry, who will have to neglect the needs of his state in order to wage a full time campaign for the presidency, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a moderate Mormon who isn't trusted by much of the GOP base.  Perry has a natural appeal to social conservatives, many of whom are southerners, while Romney appeals more to the classical pro-business wing of the GOP.  Both have their strengths and weaknesses entering the campaign.  Perry has a solid, if somewhat ambiguous, record of accomplishment as governor of Texas.  He has presided over a state that has boomed in terms of job growth in the last decade, though critics point out that 1/3 of the growth has been government jobs while much of the rest has been in low wage service industries.  Romney, on the other hand, was elected governor of one of the most liberal states in America, largely based on his reputation for 'saving' the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games.  Critics point out that job growth in Massachusetts during his tenure was below average and that he signed the nation's first universal health care law featuring the exact type of government mandate he opposes at the federal level.  Financially, Romney will have a huge advantage over the rest of the field.  His personal net worth is around $250 million and his fundraising ability is second to none.  Perry remains untested at raising funds on a national scale, though he has been quite successful in Texas.

So given these three, or four, who will eventually secure the Republican nomination and the right to face off against President Obama 15 months from now? The smart money is on Romney right now but with four candidates appealing to disparate interests within the Republican Party, coupled with the rule changes regarding the allocation of delegates from the primaries and caucuses, the stage could be set for the first contested convention since 1976, when Gerald Ford bested Ronald Reagan for the nomination.  Bachmann and Perry will compete for the evangelical vote, Romney for the financial sector and moderate Republicans, and Paul for the Libertarian wing of the party.  In the final analysis, I think the GOP will go towards electability rather than ideological purity because it may be better to win with someone you don't fully trust than to lose with someone you do.  That means Romney gets the nod with the VP slot going to Perry or Bachmann.  I can't wait for January!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

GOP Debate, Iowa, and Governor Perry

Several Republican wannabe's gathered for a debate sponsored by The Examiner and moderated by the friendly folks at Fox News on Thursday night.  Many of the questions were like 'red meat' tossed to a pack of vicious dogs and hungrily gobbled up by the candidates trying to prove their conservative credentials to the activist base of the party.  One example that illustrates just how out of touch with America the GOP has become was asked by Fox News Special Report anchor Brett Baird.  When asked if any of the prospective nominees would accept a budget deal that cut spending by $10 for every $1 in revenue increases, all of them said they would reject such a deal.  Even Baird was not sure he heard them right and had to repeat himself.  Now, maybe it is simply that the candidates felt they had to play to the base of the party.  If not, however, it shows how ideology has been elevated above resolving the nation's fiscal problems.  They'd be crazy not to accept a deal that reduced the deficit by $10 trillion just because it contained a $1 trillion revenue increase.

The highlight of the evening had to be the when Chris Wallace began questioning former Minnesota Governor Tim 'T-Paw' Pawlenty about some comments he had made about Representative Michele Bachmann's experience and ability to be president.  The two candidates sniped back and forth at each other in a clear violation of Reagan's first maxim of politics: speak no evil of another Republican.  In what is being called the 'Minnesota Melee' T-Paw had the best line when responding to Bachmann's claim of having led the fight against the stimulus package, against Obamacare, and against raising the debt ceiling (all of which passed Congress) when he said, "If that's your example of leadership, please, stop, you're killing us!"  Of course, all this really avoids the bigger question about her experience.  Republicans (and Hillary Clinton) harped on President Obama's lack of executive experience in 2008, claiming it made him unqualified to be president.  Why isn't the same true of Rep. Bachmann?  A double standard?  Perhaps.

Much of the debate has no real meaning except that today in Ames, Iowa, 20,000 or more Republicans will participate in a straw poll indicating their preference for the GOP nominee to face President Obama in 2012.  It is an exercise with very little predictive power.  In 2007, Mitt Romney won the straw poll, Mike Huckabee won the caucuses a few months later, and, of course, John McCain won the GOP nomination.  The straw poll, like the Iowa caucuses, serve to winnow the field of candidates.  A candidate who does well in the straw poll will likely make it to the caucuses, where the top three usually continue on to NH and a few other primaries.  A poor showing at the straw poll probably means a candidate has limited appeal and his/her viability is in question.  Some candidates may even drop out of the race after the straw poll.  Mitt Romney, recognizing the limited value of the poll and combined with his huge financial advantage over the other Republicans, has decided not to participate.  This leaves Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul as the likely favorites.  Which leads us to Governor Rick Perry.

Perry is poised to enter the race for the presidency today with a speech in Charleston, South Carolina.  Whether his speech is designed to downplay the news that comes from Iowa (he won't win because he isn't on the ballot) or just coincidence, it injects a new element into the race.  It also substantially reduces the likelihood of Michele Bachmann winning the GOP nomination, regardless of the outcome in Iowa, largely because they are both seeking support from many of the same Republicans, evangelical Christians.  Given Perry's record of more than a decade of executive experience and evangelicals comprising an above average percentage of southern Republicans, Perry will likely do well among this group.  Bachmann, on the other hand, has some questionable Christian credentials and ties to dominion theology.  She also derives a large amount of support from the tea-party and serves as their pro-forma leader in the House. 

What remains to be seen is how Perry will handle the demands of national campaign when everything in his record will be scrutinized, checked, and rescrutinized.  While no stranger to the politics of personal destruction, he has never been subjected to them at the level that he soon will be.  Nor has Bachmann.  Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has been through it before.  That experience, and his cash advantage, may be the difference in the race.  Perry will do well among southerners and Christians, while  Romney, a traditional Republican and Mormon, likely caries the northeast and mid-Atlantic.  It should be an interesting primary season.  I can't wait for the cold of January!