Posts Tagged ‘ democrats ’

Yes, Republicans are to blame for the polarization in Congress

Of course since I’m a Democrat I’d think this, right? But hear me out, there is very good evidence showing that Republicans have become radically conservative over the past few decades. Democrats, on the other hand, have remained a centrist party and in many ways also have gotten more conservative. Our current problems with political polarization are almost entirely to blame on a Republican Party that has marched steadily to the right for over three decades. Additionally, anyone who says “both sides have become extreme lately” is clearly wrong.

A new study by two political scientists provides a good visualization of this trend:

Starting roughly in 1976, Republicans started becoming an unprecedentedly conservative party. In good years the GOP becomes more conservative, in bad years it becomes more conservative, without fail. Contrast that to the Democratic Party, which was about the same distance from the political center in the mid 60s as they were in 2009-2011. (Unlike with Republicans, electoral victories tend to move Democrats closer to center, while those representatives left after electoral defeats lend to be more liberal)

This is a nice graph of this trend, but more importantly, here are concrete examples of this phenomenon.

Health Care

The health care plan passed by Democrats in 2010 was much more conservative than the one proposed by Clinton in the early 1990s or any of other earlier Democratic plans. In fact, Obama’s plan was first proposed by Republicans in response to Clinton’s plan and first enacted into law by Republican Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Today, Republicans say that same health care plan represents the death of liberty in America. Clearly on this issue, Republicans have moved to the right to oppose a plan they once favored and Democrats have moved right by passing a plan that Republicans once favored.

The Environment

You may remember that it was Republican Richard Nixon who first created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Today, it is the Republicans who are talking about repealing the EPA or putting coal and oil executives in charge of the agency. This is clearly a major rightward turn for the party.

In the debate over man-made climate change, Republicans have gone from proposing solutions to the problem to denying that it even exists. A cap-and-trade solution to limiting carbon emissions was (you guessed it) originally a Republican idea. The 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain even went around the country advertising cap-and-trade as his solution to climate change. In 2009-2010 Democrats moved and adopted cap-and-trade instead of their old idea of a carbon tax. Predictably, Republicans now say cap-and-trade is the greatest job-destroyer in America. On this issue (again) both parties have moved right.


It used to be, taxes were just the way we paid for the things we wanted government to do. Democrats and Republicans went back and forth over how taxes should be structured and over their levels sometimes, but no party has ever denounced taxes as a moral evil and as antithetical to American values the way the current Republican Party is. Every Republican president up until Bush Sr. raised taxes at some point in his Presidency (to my knowledge). Now to do so would be blasphemy.

Democrats have also moved to the right on the issue of taxes.  Democrats raised taxes under Clinton before Bush Jr. lowered them in 2001  and 2003. Now Democrats don’t even want to raise all of our taxes rates to the place they were under Clinton, they only want to raise taxes on those making more than $200,000/year. On this issue as well, both parties have moved far to the right. Republicans now see taxes as the devil and Democrats refuse to raise taxes on 98% of the population!


In the 2000s, some Republicans favored compassionate and fair immigration reform. Now, you’d be hard pressed for a Republican spouting anything less than “round ’em all up,, shove  ’em in jail and post automatic machine guns to mow down anyone trying to cross the border.” Republicans are even against giving citizenship to children who were brought to the US as children have lived here almost their entire lives and agree to go to college or serve in the US military (a bill called the DREAM Act).

Under former President Bush, many Republicans favored an even looser version of the DREAM Act. This version would have only required prospective DREAMers to graduate high school and did not include many other provisions restricting access to this benefit. Democrats still favor the DREAM Act, but Republican support for it has all but disappeared.


Looking only at issues overlooks procedural ways the Republicans have increased polarization, such as how they now filibuster every small issue that gets brought up in the Senate, where before only major issues were seen as deserving of a filibuster.

As should be obvious, Republicans have moved sharply to the right over the past couple decades. I cannot think of any issue where  the Democrats have similarly moved to the left (except on gay rights, I suppose). As studies show and party rhetoric confirms, Republicans are mostly responsible for the polarization and dysfunction in our government today. The solution to these problems involves finding someway to change the Republican Party.


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

Explaining the individual mandate

What is the individual mandate?  

Protesters in front of the Supreme Court this week

In 2014, it will be a tax penalty that will be assessed against anyone who can afford health insurance but who chooses not to purchase it. It will be a penalty of 2.5% of income or $695, whichever is greater. People on Medicare, Medicaid, on their employer’s health plan, or who have bought an individual policy will not have to pay this penalty. (Also starting in 2014, the government will begin giving out subsidies to individuals so that they can afford to purchase health care individually.)

Why did Congress enact the individual mandate?

The individual mandate is in the law as a companion to the law’s prohibition on discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. As it stands now, insurance companies will refuse to cover people who have ever been struck by a serious disease or who are at risk for one in the future. Yes, another side-effect of childhood leukemia is that you will never be able to qualify for private individual health insurance for the rest of your life! So Congress, reasonably enough, put a stop to this practice in the Affordable Care Act.

However, this does present a legitimate problem for health insurance companies. If they can’t refuse coverage to people with existing medical conditions, what’s to stop someone from calling to buy medical coverage from the ambulance on the way to the hospital? (to take the most extreme example) In order to keep people from waiting until they get sick to buy insurance (and thereby overloading the insurance system), Congress said that anyone who does not buy insurance will be docked a tax penalty.

Why is the individual mandate being challenged before the Supreme Court?

Detractors say that Congress does not have the power to enact an individual mandate. They say this would amount to forcing people to buy a private good which they may not want. They say that the Constitution only gives Congress the power to regulate “economic activity” and not a person’s choice to remain “inactive” in the health insurance market.

Supporters say that everyone is involved in the health care market because disease or illness can impact anyone at any time. Therefore, to protect society at large from having to pay for an individual’s medical bills, Congress can require people to have some form of insurance to cover them when they fall ill. They say that the Constitution’s “commerce clause” gives Congress the power to regulate health care and the “necessary and proper clause” gives Congress the power to enact a mandate as part of an broad regulatory scheme.

Who originally thought up and popularized the “individual mandate”?

Actually, the same people who now say that this is an unprecedented and unconstitutional infringement on civil liberties are in many cases the individual mandate’s old supporters. Republicans across the board used to think the mandate was a great idea. However, once Democrats decided to include it in their health care bill, every Republican politician in the country suddenly had a collective change of heart. As Ezra Klein shows: “If you’re talking about Republicans who were in any way active during the 1990s, there’s a very good chance you’re talking about Republicans who either supported or said nice things about bills that included an individual mandate.”

How does the mandate relate to the rest of health care reform?

The mandate is very intertwined with the law’s ban on discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions  and some other reforms to the individual health insurance market. But the law does much more than just reform the individual insurance market. It expands Medicaid, reforms Medicare, regulates insurance companies’ profits, allows young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans, etc. However, the Supreme Court has the power to strike down much of the rest of the law if they determine it is inextricably linked to the individual mandate. More on this in my next post.

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.

How to Fix Congress, part 1

As I discussed in my last post, the curious thing about American politics is that the majority party (almost) always needs the help of the minority party to implement absolutely anything, while it is normally in the interests of the minority party to make sure that the majority party fails. This paradox results in gridlock as a political system built on cooperation runs into political parties that are currently built on rigid, ideological opposition to the other. So how do we fix this? I am planning a three- or four-part series advocating simple, easily implemented reforms that have a precedent in American politics. The goals of the reforms, like the problems they are meant to solve, are two-pronged: to make Congress more effective by requiring less cooperation between increasingly opposed parties and to reduce partisanship in Congress.

Two of the best ways to reform the House of Representatives would be to lengthen the terms of Congressmen from two to four years to get rid of the endless campaign cycle, and to eliminate the process of gerrymandering, whereby liberal politicians pack their districts with liberals and vice versa for conservatives.

Politicians generally need time to breathe and to get down to the hard work of legislating after a campaign. The public also needs time to digest their politicians’ work and respond to it. Our current system forces US representatives to begin raising money, pandering to special interests and looking for ways to score cheap political points almost immediately after they win their election. Two years is a very short time in politics, and when legislators constantly have the next election in the back of their mind, they may prove unwilling to take a politically unpopular stance that is nevertheless good for the country. Quick elections also mean that Representatives must constantly be raising campaign contributions, distracting from their job of public service and putting them at the mercy of their big donors. More infrequent elections mean that members are less vulnerable to the corporate slush funds and superPACs that now dominate our elections.

Ending gerrymandering should be a no-brainer. In most states, politicians fiddle with political district lines to do their best to deny voters the right to choose their legislator. Its the ultimate case of politicians choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians. Gerrymandering has made it so that the majority of Congressmen are never in danger of losing their seats. Most districts in America are either soooo conservative or soooo liberal that there is never any doubt as to who is going to win an election. Here’s a primer on gerrymandering. Gerrymandering also causes some really lopsided results.

Let’s use Florida, one of the most politically moderate states in the nation, as an example. Because Florida Republicans have been so successful in cheating their citizens out of their votes, the Florida Congressional delegation is made up of 20 Republicans and 7 Democrats. Florida’s Republican politicians have made it so that one of the most notorious swing states in the nation has to send more Republicans to Congress than Democrats, no matter what. The same thing has happened in Texas. You could use Massachusetts or North Carolina as somewhat less egregious examples of Democrats doing the same.

The simplest way to solve this is to have independent commissions of judges or private citizens draw district lines without any considerations of party or the residences of lawmakers. Several states do this already and as we can see from California’s experience this year, doing so results in more competitive seats and less political favoritism. Independent commissions should be adopted across the country to make our districts more fair and to give voters a choice when they go into the ballot box.

The peculiar feature of American government

I have been thinking recently about how it is that people can blame a President for our economic woes. People do this all the time of course, and there is a considerable amount of academic literature that says that a President’s re-election is almost entirely dependent on economic performance during his term. Despite this fact, a President’s ability to affect the economy is very small.

This is how its supposed to work:

  1. The people elect politicians to represent them.
  2. Those politicians then implement their economic vision.
  3. After a few years, the ruling politicians face re-election where people either re-elect them or fire them, based on how their economic policies worked.

If step #2 never happens, then does step #3 make any sense?

For instance, right now people (like me) are urging the government to do something, anything to promote job growth in America. However, the President has little power to increase or decrease jobs on his own. The power of the purse lies with Congress. The President has some influence over Congress, but not as much as people think. If Congress doesn’t want to promote job growth, the President can’t make them.

I’ll use President Obama as an example (the parties could easily be reversed and the same dynamic hold true, however). Even when the Democrats had unprecedented majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama needed the help of Republicans to pass the financial reform bill, the stimulus package, and to repeal DADT. Even though many of them had previously supported health care reform and efforts like it, all Republicans opposed the Democrats’ bill because doing so would weaken the President. The weird thing about American politics is that the President almost always needs the support of the opposing party to get anything done. (you can also substitute the examples of Bush’s tax cuts, the Iraq War and Social Security privatization)

This is a problem. We elect our leaders to lead and we judge them on their accomplishments. But the President, even when his party controls both houses of Congress, cannot accomplish anything without help from the other side. Right now, people blame the President because the economy is weak. Well, the President might like to pass another stimulus package, because  it is now clear his first one was too small. Unfortunately, he cannot do that because he will not get Republicans to support him. How then can the public judge the President’s economic record if he never gets a chance to fully implement his economic policies? (steps #2 and #3, above)

In American politics, the President needs Republican support to fulfill his campaign pledges. How ironic is that? Republicans who campaign against almost everything the President says must vote for the President’s policies in order for them to become law! The President has an interest in compromising with the other side. However, the other side has no interest in compromising. It has an interest in the President’s failure. If the Obama can’t accomplish anything, he looks weak and like a promise-breaker and the Republicans win in the next election. Democrats need Republicans to govern, but if Democrats can’t govern, then Republicans gain. You see the contradiction there?

This wasn’t such a problem before extreme partisanship, the filibuster and national campaigns became the norm, but now what Republican has an interest in making the President look good?

The peculiar feature of American government then, is that we elect politicians to lead and expect them to perform well, but our governmental structure does not give them the power to do so.

The million dollar question is: if the President has an interest in strong economic growth over the next year (strong growth means he will be re-elected), doesn’t that mean that the Republican Party has an interest in sabotaging the economy over the next year? Then once they win, won’t Democrats have an interest in sabotaging growth so that they can win the next election? If I’m right (and please point it out if you think I’m wrong)  then something is very, very wrong with our governmental system. A system that gives a party both the incentive and the ability to sabotage the economy seems bound for self-destruction.

Coming up soon: how to fix it.

The false equivalence of Democrats’ and Republicans’ negotiating positions

If you watched even 5 minutes of coverage of the debt limit debate, you probably heard the refrain “Democrats refuse to allow cuts to entitlements and Republicans refuse to allow tax increases.” This was repeated by every major news outlet as the basic underpinning of political negotiations over the US debt. If we take it at its word, it means that neither party is serious about the debt because solving our long-term debt problems will require us to both raise taxes and cut entitlements. The major problem with this view is that it is completely wrong. There is no equivalence between the parties’ negotiating positions.

Let’s start with the Republicans and their no-new-taxes stance. This line is completely true. No leader of the national Republican Party has passed, or pushed their members to pass, a statute increasing taxes since President George Bush Sr in 1990. That instance was widely viewed as a betrayal of Bush’s “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge is also widely viewed as the reason Bush Sr. was not elected to a second term. Ever since then, no Republican Congressional leader or major national politician has dared to propose or vote to raise taxes. The closest we have come recently (in my memory) was when John Boehner almost went public with the $4 trillion debt-solving deal he had made with President Obama earlier this year. As a result of Republican refusal to raise taxes on absolutely anyone, the United States lost its AAA credit rating and almost defaulted earlier this month. Republicans are almost unanimously, stridently and absolutely opposed to any new revenues.

Now Democrats and their apparent “no entitlement cuts” stance. We can look back just a year and see that Democrats are not really philosophically opposed to cuts in entitlements, like Republicans are ideologically opposed to any new taxes. The Affordable Care Act cut the deficit because it slowed the growth of Medicare by $500 billion over a decade. In doing so, it added several years to Medicare’s life and provided a mechanism for reducing costs without cutting benefits  (the IPAB). Also, even from the debt ceiling deal we saw that Democrats recognize that Medicare’s growth has to be curbed. The Democrats agreed with Republicans that should Congress fail to agree to a debt-reduction deal  in the next year, a set of triggers will kick in. One of those triggers is a $200 billion cut to Medicare. How much of the trigger consists of tax increases? None. Because the GOP would never let tax increases get on the table.

The GOP is militantly against tax increases and so is militantly unserious about solving the US’s debt problem. How should we then view the Democrats’ anti-entitlement cuts stance? Its a bargaining position, meant to counter the GOP’ anti-tax stance. Democrats say there can be no cuts to entitlements without new taxes and are therefore able to negotiate taxes into deal (besides looking like the responsible party, on the side of public opinion) while “giving up ground” on entitlements. That’s how negotiations work. We know its  a bargaining position because  Democrats have shown that they are flexible there.

Well, wait. How do we know the GOP’s stance isn’t just a bargaining position too? We know because since 1990, the GOP has never given ANY ground on its no-new-taxes stance. The GOP base crucified Bush Sr. for giving in on that issue and nearly did the same to Boehner. The GOP was ready to see the country default, rather than give an inch on taxes. No new taxes is a matter of orthodoxy for the GOP and that is why they are completely radical and unserious in the debate over the debt.