Thursday, October 24, 2013

Could Shutting Down the Government Cost Republicans the House in 2014?

Forrest Gump said, 'Stupid is as stupid does.'  More and more these days I am convinced he was talking about the American media establishment.  Serious investigative reporting has been replaced by nonstop discussion of the latest polling data, which quickly becomes the conventional wisdom among the media elites.  The latest example comes from recent polls that show Republicans are less popular than they have ever least since modern polling began in the 1940's.  The most recent poll puts the party's approval rate at around 28%.  That's not very good but is it the end of the world for the GOP?  Not by a long shot. 

Social scientists have been gathering data on the voting habits of Americans for at least 60 years and we have learned a lot over that time.  One thing we know is that party identification is the strongest predictor of how an individual will vote in any given election.  Republican identifiers vote for Republicans and Democrat identifiers vote for Democrats at very high rates.  Additionally, most independents are not truly independents but are weak party identifiers who usually vote for the same party in most elections.  The idea of an American electorate that swings back and forth is a myth.  American elections are largely driven by structural factors, not careful deliberation by voters analyzing the nuances of public policy. 

The problem with all the discussion of the unpopularity of the GOP possibly costing the party the House next year is that no matter how unpopular Republicans are in national polls it doesn't amount to a hill of beans at the local level.  Midterm elections are driven by dynamics that are not present in presidential elections.  If 2014 were a presidential election year the discussion of Republicans losing the House might be more salient.  But it isn't. 

The party holding the White House enters every midterm election at a disadvantage simply because partisans affiliated with the party out of power are more motivated to vote and check the power of their opponents.  In 2014 this probably means that more Republicans than Democrats will turn out to vote in the midterm elections next year.  Those Republicans will vote for Republican candidates no matter how unpopular the party is nationally. 

Further, the way most congressional districts are structured provides the party currently holding the seat with an inherent advantage.  Democratic supporters are often packed into urban districts that may be 70-80% Democratic, which means that a lot of Democratic votes are 'wasted' electing a Democratic candidate who would win the election anyway.  Republican districts are not as compact and often encompass many rural voters unlikely to switch parties regardless of the current popularity of their party.

To be clear, this does not mean Republicans cannot lose the House next year.  Anything is possible in politics.  Consider, however, that the last two times the party holding the White House gained House seats in a midterm election the gains were 8 seats in 2002 for the GOP and 5 seats for the Democrats in 1998.  Democrats currently need to pick up 17 seats to take control of the House.  The last time a party controlling the White House won enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives in a midterm election?  It has never happened in American history.  Does that mean it won't happen in 2014?  No, but 225 years of history tells me it is highly unlikely.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Can the U.S. Actually Default on its Debt?

A new meme is beginning to emerge from some of the more hardcore conservatives in the GOP, particularly those in the Tea Party faction, claiming that it is not technically possible for the U.S. Government to default on its debt.  The thinking, if you want to call it that, is that since revenue to the treasury is forecast to be around $250 billion per month and monthly interest on the national debt is expected to be around $31 billion per month (see the president's 2014 budget here), then the treasury should have no problem paying the interest each month whether a debt ceiling hike is passed or not.  Technically speaking, they are absolutely right.  The problem, of course, is that the FY 2014 budget is estimated to be upside down by about $700 billion, or some $58 billion a month.  The treasury is then faced with a dilemma as to how to prioritize revenue outlays.  An additional problem is that the Treasury doesn't have the ability to prioritize payments the way a household might.  For example, a household could choose to pay the most important bills each month first (mortgage, auto, grocery, utility) and then pay the credit cards with what is left.  If the household comes up short, something doesn't get paid unless the household can take a loan to cover the shortfall...most households do this by making purchases on credit with the intent to repay it next month or over time. 

Treasury, however, does not have this luxury.  According to the wonkblog, the federal government receives some 2 million invoices a day for services purchased or debts owed.  Its computer systems are set up to pay invoices in the order received, whether that is grandma's social security check, a payment to a hospital for medical care provided, or an interest payment on a bond.  These invoices are not individually inspected by a human being but are checked by the computer for accuracy and then payment is sent.  There isn't a government accountant with a checkbook somewhere writing out and signing each of the 2 million or more payments processed every day.  Technically, it might even be possible for Treasury to reserve some cash to always pay the bondholders...but without the ability to borrow it would have to skip paying something else.  This could mean a government contractor owed a million dollar payment does not get paid.  He in turn does not pay his employees who respond by not paying the mortgage or car payment.  The consequences of sucking nearly $60 billion per month out of the economy would likely prove chaotic, even if the bondholders got paid. 

In short, what some members of the GOP are advocating right now is a horrible strategy likely to have ruinous consequences on an economy still struggling to pick up the pieces from the 2007-09 recession.  This could be enough to push it off the cliff and make that episode look like the 'good old days.'  That's why many in the business community, typically the GOP's stronghold, have had enough.  Many have begun siding with the president whose policies they have vigorously opposed in the past.  Some have even begun recruiting more moderate Republican candidates to oppose Tea Party darlings in GOP primaries next year.  Conventionally, many mainstream Republicans have avoided speaking out against Tea Party extremism for fear of being 'primaried' from the right next year.  It now appears that at least some Tea Party Republicans may face a challenge from the center.  That, in this writer's opinion, would be a welcome change and just might pull the GOP back from the cliff it seems intent to leap off. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Vacuous Leadership & Modern American Politics

As I write this the Federal Government in Washington, D.C. has begun the third day of what could be a very long shutdown that disrupts government services for hundreds of millions of people.  Millions more may either lose their jobs or suffer a crippling blow to their income.  I'm not just talking about the civilian workforce but those who depend upon tourism to national parks or payments to hospitals, for example.  Already we've heard reports of a significant drop in tourism along the Virginia coast leading to restaurants closing their doors, half empty motels, and layoffs.  The saddest part of this present shutdown is that it is completely unnecessary and pointless.  It is the result of mindless, ideological leadership in Washington, D.C., if we dare even to call it that. 

James Madison, it is said, believed that limited government (a phrase found nowhere in the constitution) required the separation of powers into the judicial, the legislative, and the executive in order to function well.  American children are taught this mantra from the earliest days of their civic education, so much so that it may as well be an edict handed down from God above.  However, as the late Richard Neustadt argued, American government is not so much a case of separated powers as it is 'separated institutions sharing power.'  Because of that power sharing arrangement good leadership depends far more upon the cultivation of individual interpersonal skills than on positions and titles alone.  In his classic book, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan, Neustadt makes the claim that true power is not the power to issue an order to do something but the power to persuade others to do something because it is in their own best interests to do it.  In fact, when leaders must resort to an order to get something accomplished Neustadt argues that it indicates a failure of leadership.  Sadly, that is the state of modern American politics. 

Whether it is the Democratic leadership in the Senate, which has failed to persuade the House to pass a clean continuing resolution that would fund the government, or the Republican leadership in the House that has failed to round up what Devin Nunes (R-CA) has referred to as the 'lemmings with suicide vests' in the House Republican conference, or the President of the United States, who has failed to build the kind of rapport with either congressional Democrats or Republicans that might allow him to engage in serious bargaining, it is clear that a leadership vacuum exists in Washington. 

Take, for example, Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) inability to persuade his caucus that passage of a clean CR, which funds the government at essentially the level that the House agreed to in passing the Paul Ryan budget (see chart below), has precipitated this completely unnecessary government shutdown.  The insistence of a small faction of tea-party Republicans to an incoherent, destined to lose position, reflects not only poorly on the Speaker's leadership but also on the weakness of the modern GOP.  It is, essentially, a party in the midst of a not-so-civil war that threatens to destroy it from within. 

On top of the war amongst Republicans in the House, we now have Senate Republicans claiming that a leadership vacuum exists with the GOP caucus there.  Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has claimed that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has effectively delegated leadership of the party to Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT), as well as the outside interest groups enabled by Citizens United who are promoting challenges to Republican Senators with well-established conservative voting records by redefining what it means to be a conservative. 

We've also now got evidence that Speaker Boehner has been less than genuine in his effort to eliminate subsidies to congressional staffers to help pay for their health insurance on the new healthcare exchanges...something Boehner apparently lobbied hard to keep in the healthcare bill, even going as far as a secret meeting with Harry Reid (D-NV) and President Obama to make sure the subsidies were preserved. Reid's staff has now leaked an email exchange of the discussions between Reid's spokesman and Boehner's spokesman.  These kind of failures in leadership lead only to further  entrenchment and an unwillingness to bargain, as well as deeper distrust between the so-called 'leaders' of their respective caucuses.

President Obama himself is not beyond reproach in any of these failures either.  His own leadership style has left much to be desired.  In his 4+ years as president, Obama has failed to reach out effectively to those in the opposition.  Granted, Republicans were never going to 'like' him but there are steps one can take to at least earn the respect of those with whom one disagrees.  Neustadt maintained that for a president to truly have power and be able to bargain with others, two things are essential.  The first is public prestige, for without the support of the public any president is doomed to failure.  In spite of frequent public addresses and even being reelected to a 2nd term, Obama has failed to move the needle when it comes to public opinion.  The second thing necessary for presidential power is a good professional reputation.  In other words, the president must work hard to earn the respect of those whom he depends upon to accomplish his agenda.  Like the first, the president has failed to cultivate such a reputation, leaving a vacuum in leadership in the White House as well as in Congress.  In a new book by Chris Matthews called Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, Matthews romanticizes about the good old days of the 1980's when two fierce adversaries, Speaker Thomas P. 'Tip' O'Neill (D-MA) and Republican President Ronald Reagan would go at each other publicly but then share drinks together after hours and celebrate each other's birthday.  Perhaps the stories Matthews tells are caricatures or overstate the relationship between O'Neill and Reagan, but it is telling that after Reagan was shot in March of 1981, the Speaker was one of the first to arrive at Reagan's bedside and held his hand while praying through the 23rd Psalm.  One thing is clear from all this:  Reagan and O'Neill had the ability to develop a working relationship with each other despite their personal differences.  Obama and Boehner have demonstrated a complete and utter inability to do the same.  One can only wonder how Republicans would react today if such a misfortune were to befall President Obama. 

For their part, Republicans set out to discredit Obama's presidency from day one, beginning with the infamous meeting in Washington by Republicans distraught over his election recounted in the book Do Not Ask What Good We Do, in which GOP members establish a strategy to delegitimize Barack Obama in any way possible, including personal character attacks, innuendo, and outright lies.  From Mitch McConnell's infamous 2010 statement that Senate Republicans "... single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president" to Joe Wilson shouting 'You Lie' during a joint address to Congress to the birther nonsense to current claims by right-winger Jerome Corsi that the president is a closet homosexual who frequented gay bars in Chicago in the 1990's, it becomes clear the conservative Republicans not only dislike Obama, in fact, they hate him. Reagan, for his part, was never subject to that kind of bitter hatred by those with whom he disagreed.  
The bottom line is simply that what passes for leadership in Washington these days is, in fact, anything but leadership.  It is vacuous, bitter, and destructive.  Unfortunately, we the people are the ones who put these self centered morons in office so perhaps we are getting the very leadership we deserve, which is to say none at all.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Long Slow Death of Shared Governance, or What Would James Madison Say?

At 12:00 midnight on October 1st the United States government came to a screeching halt, or at least it did for 800,000 'non-essential' federal workers, millions of citizens who depend upon them, their families, and many others planning to visit America's museums, national parks, and presidential libraries.  The shutdown is the result of a lame-brained strategy by a few Tea Party extremists who have read a little too much Ayn Rand and spent a little too much time smoking the peace pipe with Charles and David Koch.  Their shared hatred of the president (yes, they hate the president...take a look back at the images from tea bag rallies, the birther nonsense, and the lies they have concocted and perpetuated about the Affordable Care Act) have sent many of them into 'babbling spasms of stupid.'  There is nothing honorable about what this tyrannical minority, as James Madison might have called them.  Nothing worthy of being called U.S. Congressmen and Congresswomen in a single one of these fanatics.  If the American people had any common sense every single one of them would be voted out of office next year.  But they will not be, largely because they reside in congressional districts that have been constructed to ensure they are reelected again and again regardless of how destructive their actions are to American democracy.  Our shared belief in how self-government works has dissipated and our union is weaker for it.

How did we get here?  In some ways it is the culmination of a more than 30 year war on government that began when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980.  In Reagan's first inaugural address he rallied conservatives by declaring that government was not the solution, government was the problem:

The part most commentators miss about his comment is that he was specifically addressing the crisis that existed in 1981...a stagnant economy, high inflation, and widespread unemployment.  Reagan was not anti-government like much of the libertarian infused tea partiers are today.  In fact, Reagan used the tools of government, such as the Federal Reserve, to strengthen the economy, preserve Social Security, Medicare, and deal with the crises that existed in 1981. 

The challenges that exist in 2013 are vastly different than they were in 1981.  A 30 year tax cutting binge in Washington has left the government starved of revenue.  Add to that the stagnant wages of the middle class and you have a recipe for disaster.  Contrary to conservative mythology cutting taxes does not necessarily increase revenue.  If it did the government should just lower all tax rates to zero and then there would be plenty of money, right?  Uh, not exactly. 

Yes, the American economy is stagnant today and has been since the Great Recession began in late 2007.  Things are better than they were in late 2008 and early 2009 when the economy was shedding 400,000 jobs a month.  Yet, the economy is not as good as it should be.  The GOP wants to put the blame for that solely on the shoulders of the president, something they did not do when the economy plunged into recession 6 months into Reagan's first term and unemployment went from 7.4% to 10.8% after Reagan's 1981 tax cuts were passed.  More specifically, the GOP blames the future implementation of the Affordable Care Act for our present woes, even though CEO's say it is the brinkmanship in Washington that creates uncertainty and a reluctance to hire workers and expand their businesses. 

James Madison worried about factions a lot, so much so that he argued the only way to prevent a tyranny of the majority was to break the factions into so many little pieces and so dilute power as to forestall the emergence of any faction that might try to run roughshod over the nation.  The clarity of 236 years of hindsight shows us that his plan has failed.  The emergence of the modern two party system has rent Madisonian Democracy asunder.  The ideal we once shared that elections are about ideas and the way to implement those ideas is to win elections has become but a fond memory.  The GOP has opposed 'Obamacare' from the start, even though its own 'think tank', the Heritage Foundation, proposed a very similar plan in the 1990's, and the party's presidential nominee in 2012 implemented a similar plan as governor of Massachusetts.  First, Republicans lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama.  Then they began making stuff up about 'death panels', 'government takeovers of health care', and the like.  The disinformation campaign has been very effective as nearly 70% of Americans haven't got a clue what the ACA means to them.  Having failed to stop the ACA in 2010, opponents sued in federal court, which culminated in a decision by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. that the ACA and its individual mandate were a legitimate exercise of congressional authority.  Not satisfied with that, the GOP set out to 'repeal' Obamacare and the House has passed some 40+ bills doing that though not a single one to replace it with something else.  The party's presidential nominee in 2012 promised to sign a repeal of the ACA on day one if he won the presidency.  He lost by nearly five million votes.  So now the nonsense caucus in the GOP, a small but very vocal minority to be sure, has taken the rest of the party, and the nation, hostage to its demand that the ACA be undone.  They have effectively put a gun to the head of Speaker Boehner and told him to bring measures to the floor containing attacks on the ACA or they'll revolt and fire him.  So he has complied.  Failing to get anywhere with the Senate and the president through their childish antics they've now shut down the government. 

In a strange and eerie sort of way President Reagan was right when he said government was the problem in the current crisis.  Not all the government, just the 5th column tea baggers who managed to get themselves elected into government for the sole purpose of destroying what James Madison built more than two centuries ago.  Patriots they are not.  Treacherous traitors?  Indeed.