Archive for category 2010 Elections

Going Over the Cliff!

Going over the fiscal cliff?

Warnings are everywhere that we must avoid the fiscal cliff or else face recession.    The fiscal cliff is a series of tax hikes and spending cuts resulting from an inability to achieve targets on deficit reduction set in 2011.   The spending cuts hit 1000 government programs, touching ones dear to both Republicans (military spending) and Democrats (Medicare).

Most of the cliff involves repeal of the payroll tax cut (which expires in December) and the Bush tax cuts (which expire January 1).   The argument is that the mix of tax increases and spending cuts will seriously damage the economy and cause growth rates to plummet into recessionary territory.

The impact of the “cliff”

All this is set up by the negotiations around the debt ceiling back in 2011.   The Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless budget cuts were made to halt the increase in the deficit.    President Obama entered into negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner to try to reach a grand bargain to do just that.   The talks failed.  The “grand bargain” that the Republicans walked away from would have been about 85% spending cuts and 15% tax increases.

Republicans rejected any tax increase, making a deal all but impossible to reach.   236 of the 242 House Republicans, and 40 of the 47 Republican Senators have signed a pledge to Grover Norquist’s “Americans for Tax Reform” organization promising not to raise taxes ever.    Many Republicans figured that if they held out they could take the Presidency and Senate in 2012  and then craft their own measure with no need to compromise or raise taxes.

At the time people thought the Republicans had bested the President.   He was ridiculed by progressives as having been naive, willing to bargain with Republicans when their goal was to do whatever they could to defeat him in 2012.   He was called spineless for not invoking the 14th amendment to circumvent Congress and raise the debt ceiling unilaterally.  Obama’s lowest ratings were in the wake of the breakdown of those talks.   In retrospect Obama looks like a strategic genius – the Democrats have set up a situation where they hold the best cards, thanks to the sequestration deal and the automatic expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

So will the fiscal cliff cause a recession?   Perhaps, but the damage will be limited.  A couple charts:

Note how quickly the economy recovers after the sharp dip

And:

Note that the damage is mostly in Q1 2013, cliff or no cliff the prognoses for the rest of 2013 are similar

Beyond that, growth after 2013 is robust, even if we go over the cliff:

By 2014, things could be improving dramatically

Going over the cliff could enforce a kind of restraint that would yield long term benefits.  At the very least it would unclog the gridlock preventing real solutions to the budgetary and economic crises.   Letting the Bush tax cuts expire would render the pledge to Norquist meaningless — taxes would go up automatically and any agreement to cut taxes to the middle class would be a tax cut, not a tax increase.

So why all the alarm?

Besides the fact that the slow down in 2013 would be real, there is concern about the cuts themselves.   Many important government programs will be cut, angering the left.   Defense spending will be cut, angering the right.   Good!  This will force them into meaningful negotiations.

The Republicans essentially demanded no tax increases or defense cuts, but steep cuts to entitlements, social welfare programs, education and programs Republicans disliked (such as PBS).   In the heady days after the 2010 election that might have seemed feasible, especially if they were going to win back the Presidency and Senate.   Now it’s a pipe dream.

President Obama was re-elected, the Democrats remarkably gained two Senate seats and even though the Republicans still hold the House, the majority is smaller and overall Democratic candidates for the House received more votes than did the Republicans.    The Democrats have every incentive to make a deal now, while the Republicans would prefer to come up with a piecemeal deal to push the issue down the road to when political conditions are more favorable.   The farther they can get from the 2012 election the better it will be for them.

If we go off the fiscal cliff, the GOP will be forced to deal quickly.  To prevent tax increases on the middle class there may be a will to increase capital gains taxes – something that could raise significant money.   Those low tax rates are why Warren Buffet pays a lower rate than his Secretary and why Governor Romney  thought it more harmful to release his tax returns than to keep them secret.

Nothing should be off the table.    Each side could recover from political hits by the 2014 election, better to act sooner rather than later.   Going over the cliff will make both sides eager to reach a deal.

Expected tax increases should we go off “the fiscal cliff”

The danger in that is that the Democrats could make the mistake the Republicans did and overplay their hand.    In 2014 it is unlikely the Democrats will gain the House, and if this deal goes bad due to Democratic intransigence the Republicans could have another big off year election.    The Republicans blew it by not making a deal when they were in a position of strength, the Democrats can’t afford to make the same mistake.

It could be that the cliff is the only thing that will force both sides to actually make structural reforms that can lead to a sustainable budget.     It’s not just about the money.   The Democrats can “give” on issues like taxes and defense in part in exchange for tougher regulations on Wall Street and less resistance on appointments to agencies like the FHFA (Federal Housing Finance Agency).

Perhaps the Monster has a good heart?

Ultimately we all lose if there isn’t bold action as quickly as possible to get the government to a sustainable budget with a modicum of bipartisan support.    Fear of the cliff stands in the way of making bold choices and creates the danger of kicking the can down the road to deal with at a later date.   Go off the cliff.   Face reality.   A sharp down turn will be short and followed by growth.   The pain will be limited, and it just might force the politicians to make difficult choices.

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Blame the Pollsters too!

The right envisions the election playing out very differently.

If you’ve been reading my “2012 Polls” page, linked above and on the left side of the menu, you know that I constantly up date and report new Presidential and Senate polls as they are released.     So I’ve been swimming in polls, and will keep this up until election day.

Lately the polls are showing a rather pronounced trend towards Obama.    In the swing states that were either tied or leaning slightly, Obama has built sometimes large leads.   Taking the average of recent polls, Obama leads in all the swing states:

Ohio:   Obama + 7
Pennsylvania:  Obama + 9
Florida: Obama + 4
Iowa:  Obama + 4
Colorado:  Obama + 5
Nevada:  Obama + 5
Virginia:   Obama + 4
North Carolina:  Obama + 3

In the national polls it’s the same story:

Pew:  Obama + 8
Gallup Tracking:  Obama + 6
Bloomberg:  Obama + 6
National Journal:  Obama + 7
GWU/Battleground:  Obama + 3
Rasmussen tracking:  tie

The polls have turned dramatically towards Obama in the week since the Romney fundraiser video came out.   Whether its a short term bump or a shifting of the race to one in which Romney emerges as noncompetitive is unclear.   If I were a national pundit worried about my reputation I’d put in all sorts of caveats about how the race is not over.  My gut tells me that absent some kind of major external shock, Obama’s got this thing in the bag.

However, people on the right would argue that I’m living in a fool’s paradise, feeling secure about an election in which Obama is trailing his challenger.   Just as the media got blamed for Romney’s campaign foibles, many now blame the pollsters for creating an illusion that Obama is ahead when he’s not.    One commentator at a different blog thought this was part of an insidious campaign to demoralize Republicans.   Rush Limbaugh claims that the pollsters are in cahoots with Obama’s campaign to try to end the election early because they fear the debates.

A website called unskewedpolls.com, which associates itself with Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Thomas Sowell and Dick Morris, says the polls have it all wrong.    In fact, Romney is actually winning this election handily.   Their average has Romney up by 7.8% as of September 20th, the date of their last update  (the chart at the top of this post).

Their argument is simple, and on its face plausible.  Pollsters should weigh party ID just as they weigh other demographic factors in calculating their results.   I admit, I thought they did that.   But I’ve learned that pollsters believe that it would warp the data tremendously and we couldn’t trust the results if party identification was treated like race or ethnicity.

One reason for that is given by Amy Fried in her blog Pollways:

Voter ID trends are fluid, often reflecting the person’s preferences at the moment for one candidate or the other.

In other words, if people are trending towards Obama, it’s likely more people will identify themselves as Democrats.  If Mitt Romney is unpopular, it hurts the Republican brand.

Yet what about Rasmussen?

Rasmussen is a solid pollster.   Yet in this and past election cycles, he’s often shown a clear partisan lean to the Republicans.   This is especially true during the campaign cycle.   Rasmussen does weigh for party identification, and if he’s using his recent August poll numbers as a guide, he has the population as being more Republican than Democratic.  That is in opposition to the trends noted above.

I don’t know how he weighs it – his methodology page simply says:   “After the surveys are completed, the raw data is processed through a weighting program to insure that the sample reflects the overall population in terms of age, race, gender, political party, and other factors.”

There are two problems with that.   First, his methodology is automated, meaning he is focused on landlines which tends to be a more Republican population anyway.   So his survey on voter ID may be skewed.   Second, his data showing more Republicans than Democrats is contrary to most other indicators out there.

But the argument people make for considering party identification isn’t without any merit.   While party identification may fluctuate, most people do not change parties.   How many Republicans or Democrats do you know that veer back and forth?   Yet that makes it even more problematic to think there are more Republicans than Democrats out there.  From exit polls, we can get a fair sense of what party identification in the US is like.

Trends from 1939 to 2009 show both stability and flux, it’s hard to imagine there are really more Republicans now given past trends

The argument by supporters of Rasmussen (and critics of most pollsters) is that 2008 was an anomaly, voters shifted to the Democrats in response to the mideast wars and the popularity of Barack Obama’s campaign.   Now Obama’s shine has faded and the 2010 off year elections make it wrong to use 2008 data to predict turn out – whether by voter identification or even demographics.

Pollsters seem to understand that, and from what I can gather most use a number of ways to get their likely voter sample.  They screen respondents and look at demographic factors from the last two Presidential elections.   It may be that the youth and minorities will be more likely to stay home in 2012, but how much?   The conventional wisdom in the GOP has been that they have an enthusiasm edge, and if Rasmussen is using that to weigh his data (having fewer blacks, youth, Hispanics, etc.) then that could explain his results.

Voter enthusiasm has been rising, especially among Democrats. The idea Obama supporters will sit this one out is unlikely.

Yet all indications are that the enthusiasm gap is shrinking, and at this time Obama is generating enthusiasm while Romney is floundering.    Quinnipiac released polls on Wednesday showing Obama up 12 in Pennsylvania, 9 in Florida and 10 in Ohio.    Politico called these numbers jaw dropping.  Public Policy Polling also showed Obama up 7 in Iowa.  It appears like there has been a real shift towards Obama.

Therein lies the real reason not to trust Rasmussen’s numbers:  Almost every pollster is showing a shift to Obama at the state and national level.     Rasmussen has stayed flat.   To me this suggests that if he is weighing for party identification and makes demographic assumptions that understate Democratic enthusiasm his methodology is getting in the way of recognizing the trend.

These are all pollsters who have been around for quite awhile and have a good track record, including Rasmussen.   Their reputation is on the line.   They’ve been doing this and refining their methodology for years.   Is it really plausible that they all are making the same systemic error, either by conspiracy or chance?   Moreover, why would that “error” suddenly appear in mid-September, after all the polls had shown a close race before hand?  The evidence suggests Rasmussen’s method is flawed – though he could change how he weighs data as the race continues if he concludes that party ID is not favoring the Republicans and that the enthusiasm gap is disappearing.

Blaming the media and trying to find ways to disregard the preponderance of polls are both symptoms of the same disease: a campaign in distress.

UPDATE:   One other point – the same trend is being seen in Senate races around the country.   Democrats have built leads in seats that looked vulnerable, and candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin (MA and WI) have gone from being underdogs to favorites.   This reinforces the idea that the election is trending Democratic.

UPDATE 2:  Nate Silver did a thorough analysis of Rasmussen after the 2010 election cycle and found empirical evidence that Rasmussen is biased towards Republicans, and did very poorly.

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Republican Crazies

Todd Akin (R-MO) simply said what he and other anti-abortion activists truly believe.

Most Republicans I know are reasonable, intelligent and thoughtful people.   We can disagree and have good intense discussions, and often find that we agree on more than we realize.   Not being a straight ticket voter, I vote for Republicans in a variety of races and have always admired Senator Olympia Snowe.   So my heart goes out to all the reasonable Republicans out there who are finding their party being hijacked by the crazies.

The most recent example is Todd Akin from Missouri who is defying pressure from within his own party to drop out of the race.    While a lot is being made about his comment that a woman who suffers “legitimate rape” will have their body shut down and thus not become pregnant, his view represents a strain of thought that is rather common amongst the anti-abortion activists.

The vitriol against moderates became too much for Senator Snowe

Here’s the deal:  the hard core anti-abortion folk (who also wrote the anti-abortion plank of the Republican platform this year) believe abortion is wrong in all circumstances, including incest and rape.   OK, there is a logical consistency to that.  If it’s murder to kill a fetus conceived by a loving couple, it’s no less murder if the fetus was conceived via rape.   If you think the fetus is a full human, then it’s just as wrong to abort it at three weeks as it is to kill it 23 years after birth.

But that creates an ethical quandry.   Women who have been traumatized and now are pregnant with a baby conceived by rape often lack love for the potential child and have no desire to change their whole life in order to bring a child into the world.   Most people — a vast majority — think abortion is OK in cases of rape and incest, or when the mother’s health is endangered.   More importantly, this quandry convinces a lot of conservatives to make exceptions in their anti-abortion stance, something the extremists can’t stand.

He’s probably never heard of the Higgs Boson either

So they make up a pseudo-factoid.    Women who are victims of forcible rape (which Akin in his apology said he meant to say) have their bodies shut down and thus do not become pregnant.   Rep. Steve King of Iowa said that he’s never heard of a pregnancy resulting from forcible rape or even statutory rape (huh?).  This is very convenient, especially for male anti-abortion activists.   There is no more ethical quandry — if a woman gets pregnant from rape, it wasn’t really rape.   It was either consensual or, at the very least, she must have enjoyed it.    Convince other activists to believe this, and pretty soon you have a neat, convenient world view that doesn’t require taking a harsh, unpopular ethical stand.

One can respect yet fiercely disagree with the principled pro-life stance.  But efforts to evade unpopular moral dilemmas by essentially blaming pregnant rape victims for their plight must be condemned.    Yet such views are common; Paul Ryan’s “pro life” rating is 100%, while Akin’s is only 90%!

There have been other examples of crazy.   Michelle Bachmann and her gang of  bigots tried to claim that Muslims were infiltrating government and affecting US policy.   Hey, it worked for Joe McCarthy!   Republican party leaders were aghast, rejected the claims, and yet realized that this blemished the GOP brand.   John McCain launched a blistering attack on Bachmann’s allegations on the Senate floor, but the damage was done.   And then you get the minor crazies, like Texas Judge Tom Head who claims that we could have civil war if Obama is re-elected because — get this — Obama wants to hand US sovereignty over to the UN and invite the UN army into the country (never mind the fact that the UN doesn’t have an army).

For a different kind of crazy, head south to Texas.

So far Mitt Romney has hurt himself by trying to appease the extremists.    He’ll lose the Latino vote thanks to his claim that illegals should “self-deport,” alongside his promise to oppose immigration reform.   Yeah, he can back track — shake the etch-a-sketch and try again — but the clip is out there and certain to be part of more than a few Latino-focused campaign ads.

For the Republicans, this is mess they brought on themselves.   Since Reagan was elected in 1980 the formula has been the same: give voice to some of the radical fundamentalist positions to get support, and then ignore them when governing.   Reagan could wax poetic on his pro-life stance, but never made it a priority in his Administration.   Karl Rove wooed the religious right to support George W. Bush because they provided high voter turnout, enthusiasm and money.   Yet their influenced declined after the election.

But in 2010 the crazies started to take over the asylum.   The GOP calculus went awry.    Candidates like Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell and Ken Buck assured that the GOP couldn’t win the Senate in their big 2010 landslide, and they barely escaped disaster in Alaska with Lisa Murkowski’s write in campaign.    High profile “tea party” candidates bring with them the baggage of extreme and unpopular views.   This year the damage continues.   The GOP has to win four seats from the Democrats to gain control of the Senate.   Yet two sure seats — Lugar in Indiana and Snowe in Maine — are in jeopardy because of the extremists.  Mourdock beat Lugar in the primary, and Snowe retired.

Tea party victories in 2010 also keeps the House in play — the Democrats would have to win a lot of seats, but due to the extreme positions of many freshman, it’s possible.   If the GOP were seen as a pragmatic party focused on improving the economy and reducing government, Romney would probably easily defeat President Obama and the Republicans might have another landslide.   As it is their positions on social issues and the crazy soundbites coming from the wings create distractions and provide energy for the left.

GOP leaders have tolerated this — and feared the backlash if they didn’t — for too long.

Yet party leaders fear alienating their so-called “base.”   Even Romney’s refusal to endorse Akin has led to a backlash from anti-abortion activists.   The result is likely to be vast majorities for Obama amongst both women and Latinos.   Romney will get a smaller percentage of the black vote  than McCain received in 2008.   This means that Romney’s path to victory is very difficult thanks to how he and his party have tolerated/embraced whacky ideas.

Yet again, most Republicans I know don’t hold such crazy ideas.   Many of them have strong arguments about limited government and the need to reform social welfare programs.   Yet that gets drowned out by the crazy talk from people like Akin.

Extremists disbelieving evolution, dismissing the 98% of climate scientists who insist global warming is real and mostly human made, and embracing ideology-driven beliefs about reality are dangerous.

Mitt Romney needs to take a stand.  He needs to call out the crazies for what they are, embrace the moderation he showed as Governor of Massachusetts and save his party from the extremists.   If he does he’ll win over a lot of independents and counter the image that he’s a wimp willing to say or do whatever it takes to win.   In this case it appears he has no core and is weak, trapped by the fringe.   Leaders don’t get trapped, they lead.   Mitt, take on the fringes of your party in order to save it — otherwise, prepare for defeat.

(By the way, did anyone catch my rock and roll pun?)

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A Sustainable America

The GOP convention will be in Tampa Florida, August 27 - 30

(This is the fourth post in a row about the state of the Republican party.  It sums up my points from the last three posts, and puts forth a vision of how the GOP could recover.   I’m a former Republican who sees the state of a party that used to be far more moderate and pragmatic as sad and dangerous.  Even if they make the changes I suggest I wouldn’t come back – I’ve moved too far to the so-called left.  But I think we need a strong, reasonable conservative voice in the political arena).

I like President Obama and intend on voting for his re-election.  I don’t like him so much that I revel in the apparent implosion of the Republican party.   The country needs two strong parties offering different perspectives and ideas.   As Walter Lippmann noted in The Essential Opposition, democracy is a process designed to produce better results.  To do so requires that both sides listen and engage each other.   If the two parties end up being like parallel universes, not only will it be hard to get anything done, but the crucible of debate and discussion will not help the two sides critically assess the arguments and see ideas and possibilities they overlooked.   Learning stops if people think they have an ideology that gives them all the answers.  Ideologies are always vast over-simplifications of reality.

So to that end, I’ll proscribe what I think the Republicans need to become viable either for 2012, or at least 2016:

1.  An optimistic future oriented message.   As I noted awhile back, the tone of the campaign from the GOP has been intently negative.   America’s collapsing, our freedoms are in jeopardy, Obama’s going to take away your guns, etc.   For the true believing conservatives this is their reality — the Democrats are threatening the American dream enabled by a media that cheerleads and schools that indoctrinate.   It’s a kind of fairy tale where liberals are evildoers wanting to destroy the good, while conservatives are fighting against all odds to preserve the American dream.

That kind of story line will keep the true believers motivated but doesn’t appeal to independents who look at Obama and say, “he doesn’t seem that bad, but I’m not sure he’s handling the job well.”   They aren’t looking for someone to save us from doom and gloom, but someone who might offer a better vision of what should be done.  (Note: one can find a mirror image fairy tale on the far left too — both sides have their true believers).

Here’s my suggestion:  Start with the slogan: Building a Sustainable America.  This slogan may sound awkward at first, but bear with me.  Sustainability has been a key word for progressives concerned about climate change, the environment and the future.   The GOP can claim it as their own and sound forward looking and progressive.  This would appeal to independents and even moderate Democrats.

Second, it can fit GOP policies.   They could talk about economic sustainability (cut spending, focus on debt, defend entitlement reform), social sustainability (the need to protect American values – vague enough to appeal to social conservatives without turning off independents), and political sustainability (foreign affairs, the US role in the world, etc.)    This is a positive forward looking message that would still speak to the main themes of the GOP.   Instead of being negative and petty, it could be lofty and persuasive.  It has the advantage of suggesting that there is a danger inherent continuing the policies in place, meaning that the Republicans don’t have to ditch their critique completely.

2.  Ditch the current crop of candidates:   Mitt Romney probably would be a decent Republican President.  At this time, however he’s damaged goods both amongst independents and within the Republican base.   What they need to do is go into their convention in Tampa without a clear candidate, and then find someone who can unite the party behind a positive message.   Americans don’t really focus until Labor Day anyway, a breath of fresh air could gain quick support.

They also need a fresh face.  Not Daniels of Indiana or Christie of New Jersey.  Daniels is too bland, and Christie too fat.   Presidential elections are very much marketing campaigns, you need a candidate who looks the part.   I think they should instead choose a woman from Alaska.   No, not THAT woman!  I’m talking Lisa Murkowski.

Lisa Murkowski - rugged Alaskan spunk without the crazy!

Murkowski won her Senate campaign in 2010 as a write in candidate, defeating Joe Miller, who narrowly beat her in the GOP primary.  Many tea party types hated her after that, but Miller was a very weak candidate and now her appeal to independents and ability to inspire a rare write in Senate victory play in her favor.   Coming from Alaska her professionalism contrasts to the flakiness that Sarah Palin represents.  In that sense it would put a new, more serious face on the Republican party.

I doubt they’d choose her though, she’s too moderate (and anyway, I’d prefer Olympia Snowe if they went that route).  They need someone not tainted by this year’s mudfest.  Only Jon Huntsman qualifies, he was too weak to be scathed by the infighting; the others are have all been blemished by the sheer negativity of the campaign.  Jeb Bush may be the best personal choice, but the country probably doesn’t want another President Bush, at least not at this point.

3.  Demographics and Infromation reform: There is nothing about conservative thinking that makes immigration reform something to be avoided.  In fact, Ronald Reagan promoted and championed the most comprehensive reform in history back in the 80s.   Now the GOP has to embrace the kind of reform President Bush and Senator McCain tried to push in 2007, only to be stymied by the right wing of their party.   This is essential if they are going to adjust to demographic change in the country.   They have to mount a credible challenge for Hispanic voters, and their current anti-immigration stance hurts them.   Saying “we’re only opposed to illegal immigration” doesn’t work — they have to embrace reform and then court hispanic voters who tend already to be socially conservative.

Polls show Obama leading in the Latino vote 6 to 1, with no Republican above 14%.  That’s because of the immigration issue  and the harsh stance taken by the GOP.   It is the most severe self-inflicted wound the party has given itself.

4.  It’ll never be 1980 again.   All this will go for naught if the GOP doesn’t take seriously the fact that the country is profoundly different than it was 30 years ago.  Gay marriage is here and will continue to expand.   Contraception?   Sorry Rick.   I think the tea party/nostalgia/’end of liberty’ bit in the GOP is a short term reaction to the shock of 1) a black President named Barack Hussein Obama who grew up outside the continental US and seems strange compared to past Presidents; 2) the apparent decline of US power and prestige in the world, creating a fear of a ‘post-American world’; and 3) demographic and cultural change as whites are soon to be less than 50% of the population and society becomes more secular and diverse.   Many can’t comprehend how quickly after 9-11 what they thought was a conservative shift to a more forceful America went south so quickly.

Republicans don’t have to accept the direction the country is going, but nostalgia and a desire to “take back” America in the sense of going back to what used to be isn’t going to work.  They have to futurize their message and their ideology.   That requires rejection of the tea party and a shift towards a less shrill and ideological conservatism.   That’s not going to be easy, but ultimately that’s necessary for the GOP to succeed.

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Was Limbaugh High? (Update)

Sandra Fluke, called a "slut" and a "prostitute" by Rush Limbaugh for defending insurance coverage of contraception

The Republican party is doing its best to distract people from high unemployment, high gas prices, and general uncertainty in the country.   They are doing this through a series of bizarre controversies and statements involving women, reproductive rights, and anachronistic attitudes that are sure to turn off independents and moderates.   I feel like I have entered an alternate reality programmed by Democratic operatives to have the GOP destroy its chances in the 2012 election.

It’s only March so they can bounce back, but Limbaugh’s bullying slur of a Georgetown student cannot help but make conservatives look mean, vicious and petulant.   Moreover his refusal to apologize or admit being wrong adds to the notion that people like him have low self-esteem and believe that admitting error somehow makes them look weak.   We’ve all known people like that, people who can’t admit they are wrong even when it’s obvious.   Their bluster is usually a sign of low self-esteem and self-loathing.  Given Limbaugh’s past addiction to pain killers (no doubt trying to escape from his internal conflicts), one can’t help but feel he’s a deeply troubled soul.   But this incident was so bizarre — and he doubled down on the air even after massive criticism — that I have to wonder if he’s not back on pain killers or something else.   It’s not rational.

Ratings down, Limbaugh has become as likable as Jabba the Hut

If it were just Limbaugh, the GOP wouldn’t be in that much trouble.   Scott Brown (R-Mass), in a tough election campaign, has condemned Limbaugh’s remarks and called on him to apologize.   Other Republicans have distanced themselves from them as Limbaugh loses sponsors.   He’s already past the prime of his career, this could be what pushes him over the edge.

Yet it isn’t just Limbaugh.   GOP efforts to exempt Catholic institutions from including birth control coverage in their health care plans feeds into the narrative that Republicans are anti-woman.   After all, many of the same policies cover viagra.   Considering the Santorum quotes I discussed in my last blog entry the GOP appears to be waging a full blown culture war around the issue of birth control and sexuality.  Add to that the numerous state initiatives around birth control, abortion and “personhood,” and Republicans are pleasing their base by driving away independents and moderates.

Some in the Republican party blame the Democrats, but given the scope and intensity of these efforts it’s a self-inflicted wound.  This is the result of a tea party movement that has overtaken the GOP with such zeal at turning back the clock to ‘retake America’ that they forget that they represent about 30-35% of the population.   The tea party activists, like many on the far left of the Democratic party, believe so fervently in their ideals that they ignore the fact that the US is a centrist country.   It’s not even center-right, it’s moderate/centrist.

The Tea Party movement had success in 2010, but seems to have misread it as a mass movement destined to change America

Any political strategy aimed to changing the country has to appeal to independents and moderates.   By driving them away, the GOP risks losing the House, giving up a chance at the Presidency, and blowing a chance to win the Senate.

It’s not that the country believes in the Democratic vision.   The 2010 election, while driven primarily by a bad economy, shows that there is concern that the Democrats spend too freely, don’t want to make needed entitlement reforms, and are too beholden to special interest groups.   Any Democrat wanting to push the country leftward has to address these concerns, either allaying them or finding creative policies to convince the center that they understand the critiques.

Perhaps the most common cognitive bias in political discourse is the belief that more people agree with ones’ point of view than actually do.  Inbred blogs (by that I mean blogs/websites where only like minded people post — and then gang up and personally attack those who dare whisper heresy against the dominant perspective) reinforce that.  That leads them to think “everyone is agreeing, how can the rest of the world not see the obvious truth?!   All we have to do is get the word out and not surrender on principle!”

President Obama suffered criticism from the hard core left early in his term, though even the ideologues who call Obama “Republican lite” seem to be coalescing around the President in response to the over the top policies and rhetoric coming from the right.   All of this has helped the Democrats recruit good candidates for the 2012 Congressional elections, turning what some thought would be another major Republican victory into a potential Democratic comeback.

Even George Will now asserts that the Presidency is likely beyond Republican reach and the focus should be on not losing the House and if possible gaining the Senate.  That certainly would limit the President’s capacity to bring about change.  Yet at this point with the primaries raging and red meat rhetoric dominating, the Republicans risk digging themselves a hole too deep to escape from.   If they moderate to regain the center they’ll dampen the motivation of their base.  Perhaps they need a constructive defeat to purge the party of the shrill negativity and prepare the way for a more positive conservative message.

Grover Norquist's anti-tax crusade has led to an inability of the Republicans to compromise on tax and spending, resulting in more debt and danger to the economy. Norquist has also suggested that the GOP impeach Obama if they take the Senate.

Democrats should be heartened but not confident.  It is still early March; a lot can change.   Romney could sweep super Tuesday and start recovering from the mud fight.   Democrats have to recognize that even if the Republicans push independents away, Democrats still need to lure them back in order to close the deal, especially if they want to win the House back.

The Republicans have squandered an opportunity.  After the 2010 election President Obama was willing to deal and compromise, but due to tea party pressure and a weird “commitment” to Grover Norquist, they decided to hold out and demand things be done their way or no way.   Instead of using the election to force Democrats to accept Republican policies and tweaks of health care as a quid pro quo for Democratic priorities, they hunkered down.   And now, with Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum leading the way with inane, bizarre and even offensive quotes, they may be on the verge of handing power back to the Democrats.

UPDATE:  I was wrong – he did apologize.   He did not do so unequivocally, and many think it still didn’t go far enough.  I think the lose of sponsors at a scale unprecedented for Limbaugh despite numerous controversies convinced him he had to start damage control.

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It’s Up to the Voters

There was a time when something like the “Supercommittee” set up to cut a relatively modest $1.2 trillion over ten years at a minimum (with hope for a larger deal) would have been almost certain to succeed.  There was a time when the top political leaders would get behind closed doors and say “let’s do what needs to be done, and craft find a deal each of us can live with.”   They’d agree to split the political costs and put the country ahead of the next election.

Those days are long past.  Now DC is divided by a deep partisan rift.  That much isn’t new; partisan division has been the norm in the US since the founding of the country.   Now, however, it has led to political dysfunction as ideology creates a kind of jihadist mentality.   No tax increases ever!  Social Security must be untouched!  Ideology trumps rationality.

I’ve pointed out many times that ideology is a very poor way to interpret reality.  Ideologies are overly simplified visions of reality that, when taken as dogma, make it possible to interpret reality through that lens.  That doesn’t mean you can’t have some kind of ideological world view, it just means one needs to remember that the ideology itself both a simplified version of reality and only one take on it.

Take FOX news for example.   They are perhaps the most blatant “news” source that interprets what they report through a clear ideological prism.   The result: Fox viewers know less about what’s going on in the world than even those who watch no news.    Interpreting the world through an ideological lens without critically reflecting on that lens or the information means one has a poorer understanding of reality.   The survey cited isn’t extensive enough to prove that broader theme, but the evidence fits.

If mediocre minds (and most politicians fit this bill) get comfortable with ideology driven understandings of reality, they can feel they are on like a holy crusade to get the “right” policies passed.   Compromise is seen as weakness.   Yet compromise is the essence of the American political system.   We’ve always had hyper partisan political fights, but the politicians in the end built personal relationships with each other, recognized the need to problem solve, and did what was necessary.   Even the Republican hero Ronald Reagan was a pragmatist when it came to Congress — that’s what the founders intended; the founders were above all else pragmatists.

They looked to Montesquieu and took concepts such as checks and balances and separation of power — something Montesquieu learned about by studying the old Roman Republic — and shaped a system that could not easily be dominated by one party or person.   With frequent elections alongside such divisions of power, it is almost always a necessity that politicians compromise.   Even when one party controls all branches of government compromise can be difficult, as the health care battle of 2010 demonstrated.

However, the system requires the political leaders to want to govern more than just campaign.   The country has to be more important than the next election.   Getting the job done has to be more important than ideological purity.   There are still politicians like that in each party, but they’re getting drowned out by the ideologues.   In the case of the super committee the Republicans are more to blame for its failure, and they perhaps have the most to lose.

Democrats generally supported a plan like that of President Obama to mix dramatic cuts in spending with moderate tax increases, as well as some reforms of medicare and social security.   This would be a high stakes agreement, with the GOP losing the political weapon of saying “we never raise taxes” while Democrats could no longer say “we won’t touch entitlements.”   If done right neither side would be happy, but an important step in fixing the economic imbalances would have been taken.

The Republicans balked at any tax increase.   Even when members of the committee seemed to warm up to the idea it may be necessary to reach a compromise, the message from the rest of the GOP Congress was clear: don’t you dare.   The Democrats may have ultimately had problems with entitlements, but it never got that far — and without tax increases a budget deal is DOA.

When the Supercommittee was created it appeared that it was a victory for the Republicans.   Speaker Boehner said he got “98%” of what he wanted, and President Obama’s approval ratings sank.  He was seen as weak in standing up to the Republicans, and unable to lead in a time of crisis, leading to a downgrade of US bonds by Standard and Poor’s.    Yet now the Democrats find that the triggered $1.2 trillion cuts that get made without an agreement don’t look so bad.   They contain a lot of defense spending cuts that Democrats genuinely find more appealing than do Republicans.   Medicare and the entitlements are protected.    The cuts sting the GOP more than they do the Democrats, and they set up an election that could play into Democratic hands.

DC protesters mock the Supercommittee

First, one has a do-nothing Congress that can’t reach agreement.   The GOP in the House can pass their own plans, but that’s a kind of political masturbation.   The trick is to pass something that both can agree too.   The Democrats in the Senate could face similar criticism but they’ve appeared more willing to compromise and anyway, the House takes the lead on spending and revenue bills.

Second, as Americans start to wake up to how relative wealth has shifted away from the middle class to the wealthiest, the election will pose a simple question: given the crisis we’re in and the spending cuts that we know we need to make, should the wealthiest Americans play slightly higher taxes?   Recognizing that the cuts hurt the middle class and poor, and that even with higher taxes wealthy Americans will still be the least taxed wealthy of the industrialized world, that is an argument the Democrats are poised to win.

Finally, it will appear that the GOP class of 2010 blew its chance to make a difference.   People voted them in not to get a right wing crusade — many of these voters also voted for Obama in 2008.   They wanted to force the two parties to work together and felt that with health care and other issues the Democrats were using their control of Congress to push through their own agenda.   Indeed, the 111th Congress under Nancy Pelosi was one of the most effective in history at getting legislation passed.   But rather than forcing the Democrats to compromise the GOP put up a brick wall, and Congressional approval is lower than ever.   This means the Democrats have a small chance to take the House back in 2012.

It’s up to the voters.  If they vote out Obama and give the Senate to the Republicans, the GOP can start making cuts with no tax increases — and the Democrats will be ready to bounce back in 2014.   If the status quo is maintained the GOP will realize it has four more years of Obama and can’t stall hoping to have the White House soon.  If the Democrats regain power in the House it will be narrow enough that they may see a need to compromise in order to avoid a debacle by 2010.    But the politicians aren’t going to do anything major until they hear from the voters next year.

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Is the House in Play in 2012?

Last week President Obama predicted that Nancy Pelosi will again be Speaker of the House in 2013; Pelosi today noted that due to excellent candidate recruitment and a large war chest that the Democrats have a shot at taking back the House.

The job is tough.   They need to flip 25 seats.   To be sure, the Republicans took over 60 from the Democrats in 2010, meaning that there are a lot of first term Republicans who could be vulnerable.    Moreover, the dynamics of a Presidential election are different than an off year election.   For one thing, the electorate is different.   Off year election demographics favor the Republicans and 2010 was no exception.

So on its face the bold prediction certainly is both plausible and possible.    Brent Budowsky writing for The Hill explains why Democrats are still in a very strong long term position, noting that in polls Hillary Clinton blows away the GOP opposition.   The people may have doubts about Obama, but it’s not because they’ve embraced the GOP.   There have also been recent signs that the economy may start to pick up steam and that Obama is rising from his approval lows.    At this point Obama is still a slight underdog, but given that he’ll fund raise as much as $1 billion and has the advantages of incumbency, no one should underestimate his capacity to win.

But the House?   The House changed parties in 1994 and then again in 2006.   The scope of the GOP win in 2010 was breathtaking, and the idea that the anti-Democratic wave would reverse itself seems unlikely.   On the other hand, the pundits in December 2008 were writing about the inevitability of a big Democratic victory in 2010, so as I noted a few days ago, the political pendulum may be about to swing again.

Going over to Larry Sabato’s website there are 53 Republican seats “in play,” and 46 held by the Democrats.   15 of those seats are ranked as pure tossups, meaning that if the Democrats won every toss up seat they’d still fall well short of the 25 listed without gaining elsewhere.   Sabato also has three seats leaning to switch from GOP to Democratic, but six from Democratic to Republican.  If it’s a stable year and both sides held the seats currently leaning their way, a split of the toss ups would mean very modest Republican gains.

However 18 current Republican seats are simply leaning GOP and not likely GOP.    For the Democrats that number is ten (or 13 if you add the districts already leaning to switch parties).    To get the 25 seats the Democrats would have to win most of the 15 toss ups, keep their leaners and win a large number of current seats that “lean” GOP.

Or to put it another way, there are 186 safe Republican seats and 150 safe Democratic seats.   If you add the likely wins to each total, it becomes 216 Republicans and 173 Democrats.   That means that if they keep those currently rated likely to remain with the party, the Republicans need to pick up only two of the 46 leaners and toss ups to keep their majority, while the Democrats would have to net 45.   Not easy.

There are a number of scenarios of how the election will play out.

Stable:  If everything plays out that each party wins 80% of their “leaners” and splits the toss ups, the GOP would end up with 239 seats, a net loss of three seats for the Republicans.    That would be a good outcome for them as it would stabilize their majority — the longer a member of Congress serves, the less likely he or she is to fail.

GOP advantage:  If the GOP ends up with an advantage and wins all its leaners, 2/3 of the tossups, and 30% of Democratic leaners they would end up with 248 seats, a pick up of six.   It sounds small, but such a result would be a smashing success for the Republicans after they swept almost all close districts and took many that previously were leaning Democratic.

Democratic advantage:  If the same scenario plays out for the Democrats, they would end up with 201 seats, a net gain of nine seats.    That would be less than half of what they would need to gain the house.

However, that’s the view a year out, meaning that we’re only at the half way point.   Calling football games at half time can be dangerous, so can elections.   If the economy improves and Obama emerges as a front runner, perhaps due to a weak Republican candidate or good economic news, one could see a mini-wave for the Democrats — a shift that would be markedly back in their favor, though not as strong as the political tsunami that swept the Republicans to power in 2010.

If that happens the Democrats could keep all their leaners, win 12 of the 15 toss ups, and take 60% of the GOP leaners.   That would give them 208 —  a pick up of 16, but short of control.   Right now, this seems to be to be the upper reach of what Democrats can hope for in 2012.   They could claim a moral victory, especially if the defeated represents the “tea party” wing of the GOP, but they’d still be a clear minority.

Of course if the wave is larger — if the toss ups ultimately all swing to the Democrats, they pick off a couple Republicans currently ranked likely (that often happens), and win 80% of the GOP leaners, they’d be in a position to retake the House — albeit barely.

The only way that’s going to happen is if starting soon there is consistently better news on the economy.  Voters have short memories.  If the forward outlook on the economy is good in July 2012 the doldrums of fall 2011 will be a distant memory.    With foreign policy successes and the GOP seen by many as too extreme, it is not hard to imagine that kind of scenario creating the possibility of what now appears an improbable Democratic wave.

So is the House in play in 2012?   Technically yes, since it’s too soon to make a definitive call one way or another.  But for Democrats at this point it’s a hope rooted in high expectations for the economy and President Obama’s fortunes improving over the next year.    Even if that improvement happens, it still may not be enough to give Democrats the prize.

For the Republicans, if things remain pretty much as they are today they’ll be sitting pretty.   If the Obama Presidency implodes, they may bolster their majority.   Even if Obama wins re-election and the economy improves, Republicans are still likely to keep a House majority.

The Democrats are in the position of a football team down 24-0 at halftime.   All of us have seen teams come back from that kind of deficit.  It requires a mix of good luck, good execution, brilliant adjustments and often the other side letting down their guard and getting over confident.  The odds are always against such a comeback, and they are against the Democrats now.   But in politics a year is an eternity and anything can happen.

UPDATE:  If the Democrats were to move towards having a big year, the indication would be a change in Sabato’s list of likely, leaning, toss ups, etc.   Print out the list as it stands today and compare it as the year goes on.  If it stays stable, it’s unlikely there will be a major shift.   If there is movement from, say GOP likely to lean, or leaning to toss up, that would be good news for the Democrats.  If the shifts are mostly from dem likely to lean or lean to tossup, that would be good for the Republicans.

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The Political Pendulum

After the 2008 election Democrats were on a high.    President Barack Obama had been elected as the first black President, the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, and demographics seemed to indicate that if anything, their future  was brighter than ever.   President Bush left office as one of the least popular Presidents in history, being blamed for a dubious war in Iraq and an economic crisis that hurled the US into recession.

Yet the pendulum swung.   The depth and severity of the recession proved greater than the Obama White House had anticipated, and with the Democrats in control of government they were blamed for anything that went wrong.   After health care reform was pushed through just barely, yielding a compromise that angered conservatives and many liberals alike, President Obama found the honey moon over.   The tea party movement achieved amazing success at shaping the political discourse, and a new narrative took hold.

This narrative said that President Obama’s policies were hindering the recovery, that the stimulus was a waste of money and a failure, and that the raw politicking of the health care deal showed the shady side of Democratic politics.    Republicans said the real solution to the problems the country faces is smaller government and fiscal conservatism.   The hope and change promised by the Democrats was just more tax and spend — more government programs.

In 2010 the GOP achieved dramatic success, something unexpected after two election cycles dominated by the Democrats.   Without the drag of the Iraq war and with President Obama “owning” the economy (even though neither he nor Bush ever could control it) the public swung right.   Some of it was fear that change was going too fast; others thought the Democrats simply moved farther and faster than the public wanted.  President Obama’s approval ratings dropped down below 50%.

Yet even as the Republicans start to lick their chops over electoral prospects in 2012, the pendulum may be swinging again.   The President’s approval ratings are still bad, but they are picking up slightly.   Don’t forget, President Clinton had 40% approval in early 1995, and Reagan dropped to 38% for awhile in 1983.   President Obama is now at about 43%.

The mood seems to be changing.  E J Dionne notes this “narrative change,” citing Paul Ryan’s somewhat bitter speech to the Heritage Foundation as evidence that Republicans recognize that the argument is slipping away from them.   Occupy Wall Street has shown itself more popular and resilient than anyone expected, and the efforts to paint them as a bunch of spoiled hippies and malcontents has failed.     President Obama’s “new populism” is hitting a chord.   Americans don’t want massive redistribution and high taxes, but the idea that the system is unbalanced in favor of the wealthy is gaining traction.

Moreover, the Republican party doesn’t seem to have a clear leader, and their primaries have been dominated by sometimes extreme rhetoric that scares independents.   Herman Cain wants an abortion ban with no exceptions, not even for rape and incest.   That kind of talk scares people.   Michelle Bachmann’s call to bring taxes back to the level they were under Ronald Reagan is illustrative.    Taxes were much higher under Reagan than they are now; as she had to retreat from that statement it reinforced the idea that Reagan would be far too liberal for today’s GOP.    The narrative of an extremist Republican party is building.   Rick Perry’s assault on social security addsto that as the GOP Presidential field tries to capture the tea party electorate that vote in early primaries.

Mitt Romney should be a strong candidate.  He is clearly a moderate who shouldn’t scare anyone, but his Mormonism and moderation might actually decrease conservative enthusiasm in 2012.   He’s benefited from the turmoil in the GOP field, but the Republican party has lost control of the conversation.   Instead of Reaganesque optimism the tune from the right is increasingly antagonistic.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the House start whispering that there are a lot of vulnerable Republicans, especially first termers, who are having trouble raising money and whose ideological voting records don’t play well at home.    All Democrats expect gains in 2012; the idea of winning back the House is not as far fetched as it used to be.

Right now the conventional wisdom remains that President Obama is, if not the underdog, in a difficult position heading into the re-election fight.   But at this point in 2009, when Obama was still above 50% in approval, few people realized that the pendulum had already started a decisive swing away from the Democrats and towards the Republicans.

It’s still too early to know for sure if the pendulum is swinging back in the Democrat’s direction.   Obama is getting kudos for success in Libya, he announced the end of the Iraq war, and there may be an end in Afghanistan sooner than people expect.   The economic news has become slightly more optimistic.    Occupy Wall Street has stolen the attention that the tea party used to enjoy and has spread across the country, gaining a lot of support from Iraq veterans.    In states like Ohio, Wisconsin and even here in Maine conservative causes have led to dissatisfaction — ballot initiatives in both Ohio and Maine might be very telling about the way the mood is changing (Ohio’s involves public labor unions, Maine’s is an effort to undo Republican legislation removing same day voting registration).

It feels like the pendulum has switched directions.   It feels like 2012 could be for the Democrats what 2010 was for the Republicans.   It feels like Obama may join Presidents Clinton and Reagan in the catagory of having their political obituaries written too soon.   Time will tell — there is still a lot that could go right or wrong for both parties.     The good news about the political pendulum is that if you’re on the losing side of an election, it won’t be that way forever.   The bad news is that if you’re on the winning side the same applies.

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Tweedlemitt vs. Tweedlebarack?

It is a match up that the tea party and Occupy Wall Street will abhor.  An inside the beltway Republican whose Massachusetts health care plan was the blue print for President Obama’s health care reform vs. an establishment Democrat who choose Wall Street insiders as his economic team rather than more radical economic mavericks.   President Obama is among the 1% the OWS oppose.

It’s too early to know for sure that Mitt Romney will be the GOP candidate, but it certainly looks that way as he lines up endorsements.   At this point in 2008 Hillary Clinton looked like a shoe in for the Democratic nomination so there still could be surprises.   Yet none of Romney’s rivals have anything like the campaign juggernaut Obama already had in place in 2007 and in modern politics that’s what matters.

Mitt Romney is everything the tea party supposedly opposed.   He is Mormon (not Christian in the eyes of some fundamentalists), he’s been pro-choice in the past, and he governed liberal Massachusetts in a markedly moderate manner.   Like former President Clinton he seems adept at saying what an audience wants to hear, but once in power his pragmatism will mean he’s unlikely to push for tea party ideas that don’t play well with the majority.  In short, he won’t fight for the right wing, he’ll govern to try to solve problems.   A Romney Presidency may not be that much different than an Obama Presidency!

To both the tea party and OWS it leaves little choice.  Most will vote for the guy on their side out of a desire to prevent the other guy from winning.   But many true believers may sit this out or vote for a third party out of protest.

For the GOP the focus will be negative advertising against Obama, mostly by special interest groups not directly associated with Romney.  That way he’s not tied to the tactics and can even criticize them while they push the tea party to vote Romney out of fear/hatred of Obama.   It would be winning ugly, but a win is a win.

For Obama the goal is to infiltrate the OWS movement and try to direct its energy into participation in the 2012 election, recapturing the fervor of 2008.   The idea is that motivated students and young people, as well as others caught up in the protest, will be more likely to vote than otherwise would be the case.    If they aren’t excited for Obama, they can be lured to vote against Romney through negative advertising, or brought to the voting both for ballot issues or lower ballot races reflecting the movement’s ideals.

Obama looks vulnerable, but given the economy he could be in much worse shape.  His third quarter haul for fund raising was $70 million, down from $80 million in Q2, but above expectations.   This means he already has raised about $200 million overall, and the heaviest fundraising hasn’t even started yet.   He’s likely to top $1 billion, and money matters in modern campaigns.   Moreover, with no primary opponent this time he can focus entirely on defeating the eventual Republican nominee.

The GOP, meanwhile, has been suffering the same kind of let down that the Democrats experienced after 2008.   They took the House, but the tea party’s allure has faded and Obama’s numbers remain just under 50% approval.    Obama’s foreign policy also has turned out to be a strong point.  Besides being generally liked and respected abroad, he’s mixed a tough counter-terrorism policy (killing many top al qaeda leaders including Osama Bin Laden) with a reasonably effective draw down of forces in Iraq.   Even Afghanistan appears more stable than it used to be, and the GOP will have trouble making the argument that Obama is soft or ineffective on foreign policy.

It all comes down to the economy, but Republican success in 2010 gives Obama a tool in 2012.   He can blame the GOP for not passing a jobs bill and standing in the way of compromises that could have moved the economy forward.   This is already being said, Vice President Biden claimed recently that the Republicans want to “sabotage the economy.”  In a close election if doubt can be cast on which party really should be blamed for economic conditions, that helps Obama.

All that said, Romney is a consummate politician who unlike the rest of the GOP field is making no unforced errors and doing nothing that will come back to haunt him in the general election (unlike Rick Perry, whose social security stance will cost him elderly voters if he’s the nominee).    He’s managed to play the tea party favorites off against each other and appeal to the average Republican — those more concerned about competence and beating Obama.   He’s not totally ignoring Iowa this time and has an operation in New Hampshire that is almost sure to bring him a big victory there.    He’s got a better than even chance of avoiding a long, bloody primary battle.

While he seems slick, he also appears calm and competent.   Independents disappointed with Obama won’t be scared away from Romney the way they might be from Cain or Perry (let alone Bachmann or Palin!)   If the economy is still in the dumps, it will be relatively easy for people to say, “well, let’s try Romney, let’s see what he can do.”

The question is whether Romney can inspire support, something I noted awhile back when I compared him to Mondale.  Here is where the left and right “movements” become interesting.   Romney’s capacity to appeal to the center is clear, but can he keep the loyalty and enthusiasm of the activists, people who until now have been very cool to a Romney candidacy?   Assuming no third party candidacy, many tea party folk may decide they can’t stomach Mitt as the GOP standard barrier and wait for 2016 and a chance to nominate a “true Christian conservative.”

OWS has two dangers for Obama.  First, just as the tea party scared off moderates from the GOP, OWS arouses skepticism as well.   Just as Nixon used the 1968 protests in his favor, Romney could argue that the country needs to return to a more stable and predictable government.  Second, OWS could turn on Obama and urge people to sit out the election.   Despite Republican rhetoric, Obama’s policies have been very friendly to Wall Street and the business community.   To OWS he’s shown that he’s not a true progressive, they may feel compelled to sit out and try to nominate someone fresh in 2016.  Romney won’t cause fear based Obama voting in the way that a Perry might.

It’s still very early and things could change rapidly.  But right now the 2012 campaign looks to be fascinating.  In a country that appears divided with rival left and right movements, the probable candidates are centrist and more alike then most people realize.     Comparisons with past elections are of little help — the Obama campaign machine and the nature of this crisis will assure 2012 will be a unique, perhaps historic election.   Let the fun begin!

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Occupy USA?

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For over a week protesters have been growing in numbers on Wall Street, with unclear demands but clear rage.  Hundreds have been arrested as they shut down the Brooklyn Bridge and sympathy protests spread to other cities.   Left wing notables such as Chris Hedges, Michael Moore and Matt Taibbi have described this as the start of a new movement (Hedges said it was the ‘best hope’ for America to recover from this crisis) and slowly the media is starting to take note.

So what’s happening?   First, the left has been silent for much of this economic crisis because until early 2011 the Democrats held power in Congress and the Presidency.   As health care reform passed, “Don’t ask don’t tell” repealed and other changes made, most on the left held out hope that Obama would pursue a truly progressive agenda.   To be sure, the Hedges, Moores and Taibbis gave up on Obama long ago.  He stayed in Iraq and Afghanistan, had policies very friendly to Wall Street, and the call for tax increases on the wealthy — something which gets labeled class warfare on the right — is seen as pathetically trivial.    The far left wants real class warfare because, they argue, it’s been waged on the US by Wall Street and the business elite for years.

Students and others whose hope was kindled by the Obama candidacy, and who look at the tea partiers as almost anachronistic, wanting to go back to America like it was decades ago, had drifted towards apathy.   Now a movement is starting that might ignite their interest again — sort of an anti-tea party.

The cause of their ire is clear: Wall Street and big money.   These are firms that created the debacle of 2008 thanks to unregulated derivatives trade and what in retrospect can only be called fraudulent but legal deals.   They raked in hundreds of millions of dollars of bonuses for deals that were setting the stage for a crisis as serious as the Great Depression.   Then when all hell broke loose and Americans were out of work and unable to keep up their mortgages, the government made sure the financial sector did not collapse.   Soon they were back making record profits, even as the world economy sunk.

Beyond that the wealthy have managed to create for themselves a zone of safety where their wealth is not at risk and they don’t have to do anything special to be a top earner.   Just being born in the wealthy class virtually guarantees you will stay there unless you really screw things up.   Meanwhile being born poor assures you’ll remain poor unless you undertake a heroic effort with luck and creativity.   Some accomplish that, but overall class mobility in the US is low.

In the last thirty years as the wealthy have received record tax cuts to the lowest levels in history (and have loopholes and other ways to avoid more), the top one percent have had their income grow by 281%

This chart shows that the more you earn, the greater your income growth.  For the nearly thirty year period the bottom 60% — more than half of the population — had earnings increase by 25%, the bottom 20% only 16%.    Politics is about relative gains and loses, and obviously there has been a relative shift of wealth to the highest earners.   281% for the top 1%, only 25% for the bottom 60%.   For the last thirty years the wealthy have done very well, even as the rest of the country has stagnated.    As unemployment officially lingers at near 10%, but if you took into account everyone who would want to work could be close to 20%, it’s very clear that Americans are hurting, even as the wealthy hold on to their gangs and Republicans scream “class warfare” whenever someone wants to increase their taxes even a little.

This is going to get people mad.    People accepted the massive growth in income disparity over the last 30 years (we were most equal in 1976 in the last year of the Ford Administration, now income distribution is like that of the late 19th Century) thanks to lower prices via foreign goods and the illusion that the economy was a success.   Now that illusion has faded and people are coming to grips with the fact that the US is in decline, with an economy based on consumption rather than production.   Massive debt by both the government (100% of GDP) and the private sector (total debt government and private sector: 400% of GDP) have created a structural crisis, one that can’t be fixed with a quick stimulus or a few policy changes.

The tea party’s rage is real, but they so far have gone for illusory solutions.   If only government spent less and cut regulations, then “job creators” would move in and magically fix the economy.  It sounds so easy, so painless, and thus they are angered by those ignorant Democrats who can’t see that they are standing in the way of a simple, clear solution to America’s ills.  If only it were so easy!    That solution is pure fantasy.   Of course, the Democrats had their painless solution.   Spend more money, save jobs, help out states and don’t worry about the debt — we’ll pay it off when we’re growing again!   They are angered by those ignorant Republicans who don’t understand that cutting spending slows the economy even more than tax increases would!

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which is starting to spread, seems to recognize the folly of the “easy solutions” have been fed to us by an elite which wants to protect its advantage and avoid anything that might get in the way of continuing to profit without significant competition.    They call themselves capitalists but they do all they can to avoid having to undertake the risks capitalism is supposed to entail.  They’ve convinced many people that the choice is “capitalism or socialism” and they’re the good side of that false dichotomy, while “big government” (by definition socialism in that world view) is the bad side.

President Obama until now has tried to reform rather than radically alter the system.   As an outsider, he’s been keen to reassure the moneyed elite that he’s not a threat, believing that will be more effective than creating animosity from those who have the power to make or break his Presidency.   While the tea party complains about “establishment Republicans,” Obama remains an “establishment Democrat.”

So the protests grow.   The left is starting to counter the right in both rage and demands for radical change.   Beneath the surface organizations are being built that can be mobilized for political action going forward, the infrastructure of a true progressive movement is starting to grow.   Just as the tea party irritates establishment Republicans, this group will be a thorn in the side of establishment Democrats.

To many people the idea of protesters in a prosperous democracy modeling their movement after protests that overthrew an oppressive dictatorship in Egypt is silly.   Yet they have felt helpless as both parties have courted the business elite, had the same insiders (Clinton’s economic team was more free market than Reagan’s had been, and many of them were brought into the Obama Administration), and stood back as jobs moved off shore, the middle class lost ground, and the country drifted into decline.

These folk are finding their voice as this crisis, now three years old, enters a new stage.

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