Archive for the ‘ political strategy ’ Category

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.

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.

Long-term electoral trends in the United States

Its time to take a break from the rough-and-tumble of everyday politics to take a wide look at our political system. This post will tell you what our government is likely to look like for the foreseeable future. There are many factors which determine who makes up our government, and I’ll break down the know-able factors here and tell you which party is likely to control the government over the next decade or so. We’ll look at the Presidency, the US House of Representatives and the US Senate.

The Presidency

The US President is chosen by the Electoral College, which gives roughly proportional votes to the winner in (almost) every state. Importantly, the person who wins the nation-wide popular vote  is almost always the winner of  the Electoral College vote. These votes are close mirrors of each other, so it is important to look at the overall national voting trends when determining how future Presidential elections will play out.

National voting trends favor the Democrats. Democrats are overwhelmingly the party of young and minority voters, while Republicans are the favorite of white and elderly voters. Research shows that voters tend to stick with whatever party they join at their first vote. It also shows that “age cohorts acquire a propensity to vote or not to vote that proves ‘sticky’ over time.” (PDF, page 19) These facts suggest that young voters, whose turnout was especially high and especially Democratic in 2006-2008 (and looks to be close to the same this year), will continue to vote often and vote Democratic in the future. (more after the break) Continue reading

Obama’s strategy and prospects for re-election

Before continuing with “diversity week” on this blog, I’d like to do something I haven’t done yet and talk directly about President Obama’s prospects for re-election. Currently, his poll numbers are lower than ever, and the Democrats just lost two special elections that may portend bad news for their chances in 2012. The economy is looking like it will grow only slowly for the next year, so unemployment will remain about where it is now.

Since Republicans won the House of Representatives last year, Obama has tried to portray himself as the “responsible adult in the room,” who can mediate Congress’s damaging and unproductive conflicts. The results have been underwhelming. Instead of separating himself from Congress, Obama’s poll numbers have been pulled down along with Congress’s since Republicans almost forced the country to default.

Talking about the deficit, as Republicans wanted to do, meant that talk about jobs and economic revival had to be put on the back-burner. In order to seem reasonable (and because he truly did want a deal to solve the nation’s debt problem), Obama agreed to put Social Security and Medicare on the table for cuts. When Speaker of the House John Boehner refused Obama’s deal on the debt, Obama was just left with egg on his face. He had given miles in the negotiations while Republicans refused to give an inch, making him look like a weak leader and like he was ready to sacrifice Medicare to the GOP. This angered the Democratic base and confused independents, who had previously turned against Republicans in another special election because of their plans to end Medicare as we know it.

Obama’s response has been to sharpen the contrasts between himself and the Republicans. He is going to portray himself as the champion of the middle class and a fighter for jobs. The centerpiece of this effort is the American Jobs Act that he announced last week. The Act is full of traditionally bipartisan policies that independent economists say will create millions of jobs in the next year. These include tax cuts for all working Americans, tax credits for small businesses who hire, and spending on roads, bridges and schools.

According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, it seems that Obama is on very strong ground here. Moving the conversation to the economy is good because people trust him over Republicans to handle the economy 46-37%. They narrowly favor Obama’s entire jobs package 43-35%, but the individual portions of the package have very wide support. For example, his tax cuts, increased funding for roads, schools and bridges, and increased money for states to hire teachers and first responders all receive about two-thirds of Americans’ support.

These proposals are popular and Republicans have supported them in the past, but of course they are not going to support them now  because that would be good for Obama (and incidentally, America). So Obama can paint Republican opposition as hypocritical and as standing in the way of creating jobs.

But wait, Republicans say, Obama wants to pay for this package by “raising taxes”! Ah, yes. Obama wants to lower taxes for all working Americans and pay for it by limiting the tax breaks very rich people can take advantage of. This is also an argument Obama can win. In order to oppose his jobs plan Republicans will argue that the rich deserve tax loopholes more than everyone else deserves a tax break. Obama’s position, that the rich should pay more in tax, is very popular. If this argument comes down to: “do the top 2% deserve a tax break or does everyone deserve a tax break?” then Obama surely wins.

Obama’s strategy is shifting. He has seen his “responsible adult” strategy fail and has also witnessed the power of attacking Republicans on Medicare. It appears he will stop his tendency to make preemptive concessions to Republicans and will propose shrinking the deficit without touching Social Security and Medicare. Republicans’ support for tax cuts for the rich (above all else) can also be used against them.

Imagine Rick “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme” Perry versus Barack “protector of the social safety net” Obama in the next election. Obama certainly is, and he likes what he sees.

Obama pushes Republicans to pass the WHOLE jobs bill

I stated yesterday that I think the Republicans will try to split up and pass only small parts of Obama’s proposal. Doing so will minimize the beneficial economic effects of the American Jobs Act (the jobs bill Obama proposed Sept 8th) and deprive the White House a badly needed win, while making the Republicans look like a reasonable political bloc that is able to compromise. It seems the White House has foreseen this Republican strategy.

Greg Sargent reports that the White House is doubling down on President Obama;s proposal and is pushing Congress to pass the entire American Jobs Act, as is.

In the debt ceiling fight, the White House at first demanded a “clean” extension, only to quickly concede to the GOP demand that it be accompanied by spending cuts. In the days leading up to the construction of the Congressional deficit super-committee, Democrats immediately signaled an openness to negotiate on their core priorities, even as Republicans drew a hard line and said they wouldn’t budge on their principles.

But this time — for now, at least — the usual dynamic seems to be reversed. It’s Republicans who want to be seen signaling a desire to compromise at the outset, while Obama and White House are the one sinsisting they won’t budge — and are even prepared to take their case to the American people to prove it, whether Republicans like it or not.

Its still not likely that this good bill will pass in its entirety. The best strategy for Republicans is still to just sit on their hands and wait for the furor over this jobs bill to pass everyone by. That way the economy continues to get worse and Obama is denied a needed victory. But at least this shows that Obama is aware of the risk posed by splitting up his bill.  If the bill gets split up, the economic benefits are small and Obama is unable to attack Republicans as a “do-nothing” group of partisans. Obama needs to keep his momentum here and keep up the pressure on the GOP for a good, long time.

President Obama’s speech and what happens next

President Obama gave a rousing speech last night in which he called for public investments in our country’s schools, roads and bridges, as well as large tax cuts for the middle class and small businesses. As the President noted, the individual components of the package have typically received bipartisan support. These tax cuts and investments are particularly needed right now as the economy is slumping, teachers are being fired across the country and our infrastructure is crumbling. The President also promises that it will be payed for.

Several economists have given preliminary scores to this $450 billion plan. All think it will help the economy. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s thinks the plan will create almost 2 million jobs. That seems to be the average estimate from economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal. The economists also expect that passing the plan will increase growth by about two percent and bring the unemployment rate down a percentage point or more in the next year. But with Republicans opposed to almost everything the President puts forth, what is the chance that this package will pass through Congress?

First, the political dynamics at work here:

  • An improving economy helps President Obama’s approval rating and makes it more likely he will be re-elected. If the economy improves between now and the election it will be seen as a vindication of his economic leadership.
  • Passing a popular, bipartisan bill also helps President Obama’s brand. He has cast himself as a bridge-builder and as the responsible adult in the room. If he can bring Congress together around a jobs plan, that will help how he is viewed in the public eye.
  • Refusing to consider a jobs plan that is entirely made up of bipartisan proposals (as Obama’s is) probably hurts Congressional Republicans. They are already the most unpopular members of a very unpopular Congress and flat out refusing to consider a bill to put people back to work would hurt their brand even more. It is entirely possible (though unlikely) that voters could throw both Congressional Republicans and President Obama out of office next year, so Republicans must be careful.
  • That being said, Republicans don’t want to do anything that might damage their nominee’s chances of winning next year.

Taking all that into account, what is the most likely course of action for Congress to take? My prediction is that Congressional Republicans will make a show of considering the President’s proposals. They will wait for something to derail the proposals or for the jobs bill to fall out of the news, but their leadership will not come out and dismiss it.

If Obama and Democrats can force the issue and keep up the pressure on the Republicans, I think that they will agree to pass a few limited portions of the bill. This may include some of the payroll tax cuts and some of the tax breaks for small businesses. It is less likely that Republicans will agree to pass the infrastructure-repair, or the proposals aimed at helping teachers and schools. The GOP will complain that they cost too much or that they remind them too much of the stimulus bill, or that they’re too tired to take them up when they have so much else going on, or something of that nature.

Splitting up the bill and only passing some of it, has already been suggested by GOP majority leader Eric Cantor. This option has several advantages for Republicans. By passing some of  the President’s proposals, they can claim that they did indeed work with the President and extended a hand across the aisle. The proposals that they accept will likely be the ones that are most in alignment with their own principles and also the least likely to produce serious job growth over the next year.

By accepting only Obama’s weakest and most conservative proposals, Republicans will hope to get credit for being bipartisan, and rob Obama of his last chance to improve the economy before the election. That helps the Republican brand but also denies the country a chance at economic recovery. Afterall, an economic recovery makes it more likely that Obama will be re-elected.

Republicans want to raise taxes on the poor, lower taxes on the rich

I really wish we lived  in a world where both political parties had convictions and fought for them. That way, even when you would disagree with someone, you still knew that your disagreement was simply the result of philosophical differences. You’d still be able to rest comfortably knowing that both parties wanted what was best for the country. Obviously, this is not the state of American politics today.

Republicans are the party of low taxes, right?? Well, no more. Republicans have come out opposed to a proposed payroll tax cut. This tax cut would affect almost every working American and would be one of the best ways to stimulate the economy. So what’s the problem, GOP? The problem is that President Obama supports this tax cut. So, throw all of your pre-conceived notions about the GOP out the window. The Republican Party cares nothing for the good of the country (or even for one of their party’s central tenets!) if it means they have to agree with President Obama.

Ezra Klein tackles this Republican hypocrisy, thoroughly dissecting 3 possible explanations for why the GOP is suddenly against tax cuts, here are the excerpts:

One possible answer is that (1)a large tax increase in an election year is good for them because it’s bad for President Obama and the economy. But that’s a pretty cynical explanation. Another is that (2)they care more about tax rates on the rich than they do about tax rates on the poor. But they resist that argument. The real answer, Republicans says, is that (3)they just don’t like temporary tax cuts.

But that claim does not stand up to scrutiny, as he concludes:

…In other words, Republicans have frequently fought for temporary tax cuts. When offered the choice between a larger temporary tax cut and a smaller permanent tax cut, as happened in 2001 and 2003 and 2010, they have opted for the temporary tax cut. Now that Obama has come to endorse a temporary tax cut, they have stopped supporting it — a pattern we’ve seen on many other issues, as well. But the idea that the party has had some steady, policy-based objection to temporary tax cuts just doesn’t fit the record.

So, with explanation 3 completely debunked, we  are right back at examining explanations 1 and 2. Ezra tends to lean toward explanation 1, that Republicans want to increase payroll taxes because raising taxes on the poor and middle class will hurt the economy and thus hurt Obama’s chances of winning the election in 2012. There’s a very good chance he is right, but I also think there’s something to explanation 2: that Republicans just don’t care taxes on the poor and middle class so much as they care about taxes on the rich.

The thing about the payroll tax cut is that most of the money would go to the working poor and the middle class, not the rich. Republicans don’t really care so much about taxes on the poor (see: The Bush tax cuts or this article) but love tax cuts for the rich. I think that Republicans would jump on a chance to massively lower taxes on the rich, even if it was Obama who offered them that chance. To be sure, it would be a tough choice for them, if that situation ever arose. The two most important things to Republicans are destroying President Obama and lowering taxes on the rich, country be damned.