Archive for February, 2013

Republicans’ logic on the sequester

The news on our next of many fiscal crises is that the Republicans in the House do not want to make a deal to stop the sequester. The sequester, you will remember, is the law that cuts about $1 trillion in spending over the next 10 years. It was enacted in 2011 in order to get Republicans to agree not to make the US default during the debt limit crisis. The sequester will deeply and indiscriminately cut both domestic programs and defense spending starting in March. Mostly everyone agrees that these untargeted, indiscriminate cuts are a terrible way to reduce spending and will do great damage to the economy. However, Republicans will let them go through because they are better than any likely alternatives.

The important thing to remember here is the Republican caucus’ fiscal priorities. They go something like this:

  1. Lower taxes on the rich as much as possible
  2. Cut spending (primarily on the poor/young) as much as possible
  3. Protect defense spending
  4. Anything else

Many Republican defense hawks do not like the defense cuts in the sequester. Democrats thought that including these cuts in the sequester would bring Republicans to the table to negotiate a reasonable compromise on the debt. It appears they miscalculated.

Even though the majority of Republicans are uneasy with the military cuts, they are not about to negotiate with Democrats and trade the military cuts for getting rid of tax loopholes. Republicans hate revenues even more than they love defense spending. The money to be gained from closing those tax loopholes is reserved (in Republicans’ minds) for reducing tax rates later on down the line. With all the revenue from cleaning out the tax code, President Marco Rubio will be able to pass huge tax cuts for the rich, wiping out all the tax increases Obama passed in the fiscal cliff deal.

Republicans can’t just cancel out the sequester entirely because that would mean they would have to cancel out the domestic cuts as well, and obviously objective #2 is higher than objective #3.

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Will the Republican re-branding effort work?

The Republican Party is looking to revamp its image after performing much more poorly than expected in the 2012 elections and after seeing their favorability ratings (especially those of Congressional Republicans) reach new lows. Several well-known Republicans (who are likely to run for President in 2016) have made high-profile speeches designed to reset public perceptions of the party, including: Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. Though all the speeches have contained some criticisms of the party, none of them have actually suggested re-thinking any of the Republican Party’s favored policies, (with the notable exception of Rubio on immigration policy). Instead, all the speakers simply said some version this:

Asked what voters were saying to Republicans on Election Day, Ryan suggested that they did not understand what his party was about.

“We have to do a better job of explaining and demonstrating why our ideas are better” on such issues as fighting poverty and helping people move up “the ladder of life,” Ryan said.

So how is the Republican Party going to re-vamp itself if it doesn’t actually change any of its policies that people hate? Simple, Republicans believe they don’t have to change anything to get more people to vote for them next time, they just have to sell their unpopular policies better. Are they right? Here’s the scary thing: I think they are.

Republicans can continue to hold policy positions abhorrent to the American people and win elections as long as they frame them the right way. One dirty little secret of politics is that it often doesn’t matter what you’re saying as how you’re saying it.

For instance, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were always in favor of forcing rape victims to carry their rapist’s children to term. Those positions, and the public’s disapproval of them, were a constant throughout their campaigns. They were both favored to win their campaigns until they stated these positions in an offensive and callous manner. Crucially, it was not the fact that these men believed and proposed unpopular policies that doomed their candidacies. It was the way they articulated these policies that made all the difference. Had their campaigns steered away from highlighting these facts, both men could today be US Senators.

However, the best example of this phenomena may be John Huntsman.

John Huntsman

You may recall that among all the flashy crazies in the 2012 Republican Presidential field, there was a fairly minor candidate, John Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah.  Republicans never really liked him too much, but he was the candidate nearly every “centrist” “independent” thinker, reeeeeally wanted to win the Republican primaries, because supposedly he was the “moderate” who would bring the GOP back to its senses.

Huntsman is the perfect example of the sad political truth that Republicans can be as extreme and “severely” conservative as they like, so long as they present their beliefs in a way that makes them seem sane, thoughtful and caring. Dressing up terrible policies in this way will ensure that independents and even very intelligent centrists will long for you to wisk them away to that bipartisan nirvana that your tone implies but your substance completely precludes. Consider:

Jon HuntsmanHuntsman had an economic agenda that was to the right of Mitt “47 percent” Romney. Huntsman’s tax policy entailed a massive redistribution of wealth from poor to rich. Under Huntsman’s plan, Mitt Romney, Warren Buffett and many very wealthy people would have paid something less than 1% in taxes (from their current 15% tax rates). Further, Huntsman (like the rest of the field) said he would not accept even one dollar of tax revenue in exchange for 10 dollars of spending cuts, putting him to the right of everyone in America who isn’t an anti-tax ideologue. He also endorsed savage spending cuts that would have devastated our civil society and social safety net.

Economics is certainly an important area of policy, but maybe Huntsman was a social moderate? Not really. Huntsman endorsed a personhood amendment to the Constitution, which would completely outlaw abortion. On immigration he was about Rick Perry status: pro-border fence and not in favor of citizenship for undocumented migrants, though he did support in-state tuition for the children of undocumented migrants. On gay rights, I guess he was to the left of the other candidates in supporting civil unions, but still to the right of America which now supports gay marriage.

Many of my friends who were quasi-Huntsman supporters could probably say “O but he at least supported science.” Yes, he did famously tweet “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Bravo! Did he propose doing anything about climate change? No. And that is exactly the rhetorical bait-and-switch that Republicans are trying to pull off. They distract you by saying “yes, we understand your issues and have the same concerns as you do,” while at the same time pushing the same policies they always have!

Saying you favored Huntsman for President (if you were a moderate, centrist or liberal) was the equivalent of saying that when politicians took food from starving children’s mouths you’d much rather have Huntsman do it while saying “sorry I wish I didnt have  to do this” rather than Romney sneering as he snatched it from their grubby little 47-percenter paws. Yea, I guess the change in attitude would be nice, but maybe we just shouldn’t cut food stamps.

The point

Jon Huntsman gives us an important lesson about how the beltway media and many voters judge candidates and parties. It is often far too confusing and takes too much effort to dig through the policy weeds and hold politicians accountable for the true consequences of their policy proposals.  And oftentimes people can strenuously disagree about the impact of relatively straight-forward policies (like how Paul Ryan was able to claim that his plan to nearly completely eliminate domestic discretionary spending somehow wouldn’t get rid of the FBI, Head Start, the school lunch program, etc).

And so, voters and the media tend to weigh tone and politicians’ assertions much more heavily than they things they’re actually proposing to do. Its easier that way and it makes people think that they’re actually sizing up the candidates themselves. Only that doesn’t tell you the whole story. If Republicans can start talking like Jon Huntsman instead of like Todd Akin, then they can pass Akin’s policies and all the while, centrists will claim “aw, they’re not so bad!” Its a brilliant plan and as Huntsman shows us, it just might work.

Immigration reform and amnesty

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has a column out today about how he wants immigration reform to play out. Through all the immigration debate, conservatives have been carping about not wanting to allow “amnesty” for undocumented migrants, even though the requirements to gain citizenship will likely be quite strict. Krauthammer lays out his case for why this is indeed “amnesty.”

It is true that only after some commission deems the border under control do illegal immigrants become eligible for green cards and, ultimately, citizenship. But this is misleading because on the day the president signs the reform — long before enforcement even begins — the 11 million are immediately subject to instant legalization.

It is cleverly called “probationary” legal status. But the adjective is meaningless. It grants the right to live and work here openly. Once granted, it will never be revoked. Consider:

Imagine that the border-control commission reports at some point that the border is not yet secure. Do you think for a moment that the 11 million will have their “probationary” legalization revoked? These are people who, in good faith, would have come out of the shadows, registered with the feds and disclosed their domicile and place of work. Do you think the authorities will have them fired, arrested and deported?

To which I say: yes Charles, that’s the point. The proposed bill framework is meant to give a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented migrants currently living in the US. Its purpose is not to give a pathway to citizenship to the people who are able to remain hidden between now and 2020 when a panel half-full of Republicans finally certifies that the border is “secure” in their estimation.

Everyone agrees that having 11 million people living and working in the US in a state of legal limbo is not a good situation. It would make no sense to pass a bill that prolongs this untenable situation for years and years for no good reason.

The border is now more secure than its ever been, thanks to President Obama’s strict border-enforcement policies. Deportations are at record highs and the number of undocumented immigrants has even dropped by a million since 2007 and is unlikely to ever resume the pace set in the 2000s or even significantly grow again. How much more border security progress do these people need?

Moreover, while on “probationary legal status” immigrants will still have to show good behavior and remain ineligible for many government programs, such as Medicaid.

Bringing these people out of the shadows is the right thing to do and America shouldn’t have to wait for a commission full of Jan Brewers or Joe Arpaios to say we can. The purpose of comprehensive immigration reform is to solve this problem, not to put it off even longer.