Archive for category Harry Reid

Chaos Prevails

Susan Collins, R-Maine

Susan Collins, R-Maine

Republicans and Democrats increasingly seem to be in separate worlds.   Reality is never objectively perceived “as it is.”  It is always interpreted through ones’ perspective, a prism of beliefs and past experiences.   Yet most people are convinced reality is as they perceive it, they believe they are being objective and clear, meaning that those who think differently are somehow flawed.   They may be stupid, dishonest, disingenuous, or have some kind of nefarious belief system.   The US political system depends on a smaller class of people, those who can understand diverse perspectives, and navigate to a position of common ground – even if it’s a option all can barely life with.

I’m not writing to praise Senator Collins’ political views or positions.  I agree with her on some things, disagree on others.  But I do praise the fact that she is one of those able to try to work with people of different views to craft solutions to problems – to have the intellectual capacity for multidimensional thinking, rather than the true believer mentality of the ideologues.

As I write this a wild circus is playing out in Washington DC.   As Senators Reid and McConnell, both who like Collins see past ideological cages, near a compromise, an angry house demands to pass a bill with no chance of support from the Senate or White House.  But as they plan for an evening vote, apparently they can’t come up with anything.   Confusion reigns!  Now it sounds like no vote will occur.

Boehner:  "Truth is we have no idea what we're doing, and haven't for the past three weeks!"  (Well, what he would say if under a spell to tell the truth)

Boehner: “Truth is we have no idea what we’re doing, and haven’t for the past three weeks!” (Well, what he would say if under a spell to tell the truth)

Reading the quotes of the Republican tea party Congressmen is like reading quotes from die hard communists during the Cold War.  They have their ideological world view, and anything not falling within it is, well, a ‘threat to freedom,’ ‘demolishes the Constitution’, or some such silliness.

Speaker Boehner, who is also able to bridge diverse perspectives, at this point has to find a way to balance an out of control House, the need to solve the problem, and the views from the Senate and White House.    He doesn’t appear up to the task – perhaps no one is.  It appears that the lunatics have taken over the asylum!

Consider David Vitter, (R-La)’s defense of the shutdown:  “Approximately 15,000 EPA employees are furloughed, making it less likely fake CIA agents at EPA will be ripping off the taxpayer.”    Sure – while people in the Pentagon are holding food drives for furloughed employees, Vitter sees the government as some pack of demons.

Consider Collins:  “I would encourage people, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both the Senate and the House, to take a look at the proposal that we’ve been working on.  I also think that the Senate needs to act first, and that there’s more chance of an agreement being reached in the Senate and we need to lead.”   You can just hear the tea party folk hissing at her “betrayal of principle.”

But Collins is right about what it takes.   The Democrats made their point earlier in the week when they resurrected demands to roll back the sequester.  If the Republicans want to “negotiate” before opening the government or raising the debt limit, the negotiation can’t be from “the status quo” to closer to where they are – that’s hostage taking.  The negotiation has to be from the Democratic starting point, which is precisely what Reid demonstrated!

From there Susan Collins got involved and crafted a bipartisan plan.  It didn’t pass muster, but Reid and McConnell took over from there, and it appeared we were on track to get an agreement.  It would give the GOP a face saving out, but the House Republicans would have fought a quixotic cause, turning the country against them and making the tea party look like a different kind of crazy.

The Tea Party - a different kind of crazy

The Tea Party anthem album

Simply, blinded by ideology they felt justified making outrageous demands, believing they were RIGHT and fighting on PRINCIPLE!  They scoff at those who compromise as somehow “compromising principles,” not recognizing that it is a kind of psychological malady to think one needs the world to adhere to his or her principles in order to be true to them.   Then as defeat became inevitable and the scope of the damage they’ve done to their party, themselves, their movement and perhaps the country became clear, they veered off in numerous directions.

So tonight meetings continue.   Susan Collins is working behind the scenes, still a major force.  McConnell and Reid are talking – all recognize the scope of the problem.   Still, the real issue is not the debt ceiling or shutdown, but how could we let such a dysfunctional group of Congresspeople veer the country so close to catastrophe?   How could it be that people like Louie Gohmert, who said that President Obama should be impeached if the country defaults (even if his party is the cause of the default) – he’s the same guy who said terrorists were having babies in the US so the babies could commit terrorist acts in 18 years and that John McCain supports al qaeda – can be as influential as Collins?

Republican Pete King (R-NY) put it best:  “This party is going nuts…Even if this bill passed tonight, what would it have done?  After shutting down the government for two and a half weeks, laying off 800,000 people, all the damage we caused, all we would end up doing was taking away health insurance from congressional employees. That’s it? That’s what you go to war for? That’s what we shut down the United States government for?”

I predict they’ll find a way out and pass an agreement that the House will have to swallow.   More important for our future is to elect people with the insight to recognize that our system welcomes political conflict as long as the participants are able to recognize the legitimacy of diverse opinions.   Because if the tea party mentality takes root – and a similar way of extremist thinking grows on the left – our Republic will be on a downward spiral.

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The Coming Government Shutdown

shutdowns

President Obama has effectively cast the debt ceiling issue on his terms.    Raising the debt ceiling is necessary to prevent a series of catastrophic economic outcomes that could push the US back into recession, make total debt even higher, and put at risk social security payments, veterans benefits and other important services.

Republicans are split on the issue.    The hardliners don’t care – they just want to cut spending.   But even moderates want to find some way to leverage their control of the House into forcing the Democrats to bend on spending.   They thought the debt ceiling would be the way to do it, but increasingly the politics around it is forcing them to back down.

But that will be very bitter medicine for the right wing of the party, especially after having failed to prevent tax hikes on the wealthy during the fiscal cliff negotiations.    John Boehner is a smart man.  He understands the issue enough to know it would be irresponsible to let the US default — most of the business community would be angry if that were to happen, and they represent a core portion of the Republican constituency.    But he also knows that he has to appease the hardliners.

In a long press conference President Obama definitively ruled out negotiations over the debt ceiling

In a long press conference President Obama definitively ruled out negotiations over the debt ceiling

Here’s what I expect:   The Republican leadership will decide, perhaps as a sudden surprise, to simply punt on the debt ceiling.     They know that not only does he now have the issue framed on his terms, but the State of the Union address gives him the ultimate bully pulpit.   He’ll set the narrative, it’ll be hard for the Republicans to react.

At the same time they will call for negotiations to begin immediately on finding spending cuts.   They’ll say that they are showing their good faith by raising the debt ceiling, and thus expect President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to show an ability to compromise.   If they don’t, they will warn, do not expect a continuing resolution to fund the government to be passed by the March 27th deadline.    In other words – threaten a government shut down.

Since 1981 there have been five government “shutdowns,” but the first four were hardly felt, except by federal workers.  Two lasted a day or less, the third took place over Columbus Day weekend.

President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich clashed during the last government shut down

President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich clashed during the last government shut down

The last time this happened was between December 16, 1995 and January 6, 1996 (and earlier between November 14 and 19, 1995).  Bill Clinton was President, and Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House.  Gingrich had also threatened not to raise the debt ceiling, but realized the Republicans could not risk the US defaulting.

The shutdown was seen by many as helping President Clinton recover from low approval ratings and win a second term.  Newt Gingrich believes it was instrumental in pushing Clinton to compromise with Republicans to balance the budget.  To be sure, the shut down cost money, nearly a billion extra dollars.   A shut down itself doesn’t save money, even if its used as leverage to get the other side to agree.

Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid would ultimately need to get their caucuses to approve any budget deal to avert/end a shutdown.

Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid would ultimately need to get their caucuses to approve any budget deal to avert/end a shutdown.

Based on what happened back in 1996, here’s what to expect:

*  Social security recipients will keep getting checks, but if newly qualifying recipients may not be able to apply for benefits until the government is back up and running;

* Welfare recipients will still get checks, but again – new applications for things like food stamps would be delayed;

* National parks would shut down;

* Food testing would continue, but farm loans and benefits would cease;

* The armed services would see cut backs in civilian staff, and possible delays in payment for active duty personnel;

* The IRS would not process tax forms, except perhaps ones submitted electronically

* Passport and visa applications will be delayed, with the backlog continuing even after government is up and functioning.

As inconvenient as all that would be, it would be nothing like the devastation of a default.  It would be a high stakes drama, but one we could recover from quickly.

Unlike the debt ceiling, President Obama could embrace negotiating to help pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running.   It would provide the leverage and drama House Republicans want without the economically suicidal path of preventing the country from paying its bills.

Moreover, having won on the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling, President Obama would have cover for compromising on some issues dear to progressives.    Moreover, House Republicans loathe to compromise about anything would have the real ramifications of a shut down staring them in the face.   It’ll push them to compromise as well.

So if you need a passport, apply sooner rather than later — because while I don’t think Republican leadership is irresponsible enough to not raise the debt ceiling, they aren’t going to give up on their core issue of cutting the deficit.   So don’t be surprised if in just over two months the crisis du jour is a government shutdown.

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The Plan B Fiasco

A dark day for the Speaker

A dark day for the Speaker

The Plan B pill is taken by women the morning after having sexual intercourse in order to avoid getting pregnant.  Unfortunately for the Republicans and John Boehner, their plan B could not prevent the birth of a fiasco, meaning the Republicans are screwed.

After weeks of talks it was clear that there was no way Speaker John Boehner could get his party to support the kind of deal that he and President Obama were building to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.    The Republican leadership decided they needed a “plan B” to pressure the Democrats to make more concessions.

At first Plan B was simply to pass a higher tax rate on to millionaires, with rates staying the same for everyone else.  Boehner’s argument:  “I’ve now shown I’m willing to accept a tax rate increase.   That’s what the President has wanted from me.   Now let’s see what he’ll give me in exchange.”   If nothing, Boehner reasoned, the GOP would have some cover -rather than being seen as an intransigent party refusing any tax increase on the wealthy, they could say they had moved and the Democrats need to respond in good faith.

Only thing – Boehner had to get Plan B passed.  At first he figured it should be easy.   His party has the majority in the House, and back in 2011 many Democrats had suggested that raising rates on millionaires would be enough – Boehner could throw their own words back at them.   If it could get through the Senate with Democratic help, it would force Obama to veto the bill and make it look like he was blocking progress.  Fearful of that happening, Obama would have to give the Republicans more of what they wanted.

It didn’t work.

Boehner's best option is now Plan C

Boehner’s best option is now Plan C

First, Democrats were pretty united against it.   What was said in 2011 is irrelevant; this is a new political reality.   Given that, Boehner needed to have Republican unity to get it to at least pass the House.    He failed.   Too many conservatives had taken a career stand against EVER raising taxes, even on millionaires.

Boehner appealed to reason – the lower tax rates will expire on everyone on January 1.   Then the House will be forced to pass a bill lowering taxes on those under $250,000, meaning rates will go up on a lot more people.  “I need this for my negotiations,” Boehner said –  for leverage, it’s not actually going to become law!

Nope.  The hard right, already angry that some of its members had committee assignments plucked away from them for their disloyalty, dug in.   So Boehner added budget cuts to the mix – cuts that meant that any chance that the Democrats could support it withered.   He didn’t care, he was desperate.  He had to pass something in the House.  ANYTHING.

Boehner's fiasco comes a week after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell embarrassed himself by filibustering his own resolution due to a strategic miscalculation

Boehner’s fiasco comes a week after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell embarrassed himself by filibustering his own resolution due to a strategic miscalculation

After a tense meeting on the evening of Thursday December 20, the Republicans managed to impale themselves.   The far right accepted nothing, the Speaker’s leadership was rejected, and the party was split.    Conservatives were gleeful about the separation, believing they had gotten revenge on the Speaker and had stood on principle.    But it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

In the headlines the story is clear:  Boehner’s efforts to compromise even a bit were shot down by extremists in his own party.    Any effort to shift blame to the Democrats or show that the Republicans were negotiating in good faith fell apart. Any deal that gets passed will be a Democratic agreement — the President and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) will craft a proposal that can pass the Senate and the House, appealing to at least enough Republicans to get it through.

Moreover, this will likely happen after New Year’s, meaning that the Republicans might lose the President’s offer to raise rates only on those earning $400,000 and higher.

Conservatives say fine – make the Democrats own what is passed.   Make them responsible for tax increases, make them responsible for any cuts that are made.    Rather than governing, which is what legislative bodies are supposed to do, they want to make stands on “principle.”   But principles are always simplified rules of thumb, inapplicable across all contexts.   Sticking to simple principles is for the simple minded – reality is far more complex.

Governance is about compromise and problem solving.    John Boehner understands that; too many in his party do not.

So now what?   The Republicans are in disarray, still fighting over the lessons of 2012, even as a recent CNN poll shows that 53% of Americans consider the GOP too extremist while 57% consider the Democrats mainstream.    They may hope that 2014 is 2010 redux — another off year election — but the mood of the country is much different.

Simply, they are seeing their “conservative revolution” die.    The country is moving slightly center-left, with pragmatism trumping ideology.   The Grover Norquist types are 20th century relics, whose politics are poison today.  The tea party was the last gasp of this movement, reacting in horror to the election of man they couldn’t imagine as President.   But it was an illusion, they won in 2010 because of the economy and the fact the voters thought it would facilitate compromise.  It wasn’t a popular conservative rebellion against Obama.

The tea party anger of 2010 may have been the last gasp of a dying movement

The tea party anger of 2010 may have been the last gasp of a dying movement

2012 may be seen as the election that solidified a move to the left that started in 2006, and was interrupted by the 2010 elections.  If that’s the case, the Republican party is going to have to go through a kind of reconstruction, rethinking how their principles and beliefs apply in the 21st Century.   They’ll need to look at other successful conservative parties in Europe, and most of all recognize that the world today is not the same as it was thirty years ago.

Perhaps its fitting that a party that has been fighting against contraception insurance with no co-pays for all women should have its Plan B fail.   The party has reached rock bottom, there is no place to go but up.   Will it be a Rubio uniting the conservatives with a more moderate message?   Perhaps Chris Christie’s gruff style can be a pragmatism conservatives embrace?    Right now the Republicans are down and out, but the future is pregnant with possibilities.

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2012 Senate Predictions

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid will likely be keeping their positions in the new Senate

My prediction:  The next Senate will be  Democrats 56  Republicans 44  (D + 3).  The Democratic numbers include two independents expected to caucus with the Democrats.  If I had made this prediction a year ago it would have been laughed at as utterly insane.  As it is, I’m predicting two to four more Democratic seats than do most pundits.   The RCP “no tossups” map shows the Democrats up 54 – 46.

Going into 2012 it looked certain that the Republicans would gain the majority in the Senate.   Math was on their side – Democrats had 23 seats to defend, the Republicans only 10.  This was the result of the skewed wave election of 2006, when anti-war sentiment led voters to give Democrats a huge midterm victory.   With the Senate at 53 to 47 the GOP needs to pick up only four to have a majority (or three should Governor Romney win the Presidency).

Safe seats:   Each party has a number of “safe seats.”

Republican safe:  Utah, Wyoming, Texas, Mississippi, Tennesse (5)

Democratic safe: Washington, Minnesota, California, Michigan, West Virginia, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware. (11)

That leaves 17 “real” races out there.   If they were split 50-50 the GOP would gain three to four seats and yield a 50-50 Senate or even a Republican majority.  However, the Democrats look to outperform expectations actually pick up seats in a year that had looked disastrous to them.   State by State:

Likely Democratic Holds

NEW MEXICO:  At one point Heather Wilson looked to mount a strong challenge to Democrat Martin Heinrich for the seat being vacated by Democrat Jeff Bingaman.   Although one poll shows her down in the high double digits to Heinrich, most show Heinrich leading comfortably.   Given Obama’s popularity and the likelihood of high Latino turnout, I call this for Heinrich.    

FLORIDA:  Bill Nelson was seen by many as likely to fall to Connie Mack this year, as Nelson suffered low job approval and doesn’t appear a “natural” politician.    Connie Mack seemed more charismatic and energized.   Nelson has managed to lead most polls, often in the double digits.   Nelson should hold his seat.

Toss up states likely to stay Democratic:

CONNECTICUT:  At one point Linda McMahon hoped to use her wealth along with experience from her narrow 2010 defeat to overwhelm Democrat Chris Murphy.   However, Murphy has shown a steady 4 to 6 point lead in the polls, and despite a self-financed last minute ad-blitz by McMahon, Murphy looks likely to win this seat being vacated by Joe Lieberman.

MISSOURI:  Although I’m not certain Akin won’t come back — a lot of late money has flowed into this race — Republican Todd Akin, a tea party favorite who defeated moderates Sarah Steelman and John Brunner in the primary, is consistently down in the polls by 4 to 5 points.    This was an easy GOP pick up for anyone by Akin.   If he hadn’t made his controversial comments about “legitimate rape,” causing a queasy GOP to abandon him (at least until near the end), he’d have won.   His rape comments, however, now make it probable McCaskill will hold her seat.

MONTANA:  This race has bounced back and forth, and Democratic incumbent Jon Tester appears slightly up against Denny Rehberg.  It could go either way, but I think late momentum is with Tester and he’ll pull it off.  This is a state Republicans really hope to pick up.  I struggled with this pick.  

NORTH DAKOTA: Late polls show this race a toss up, and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp seems to have momentum.   That said, Republican Rick Berg has had consistent leads of about 5 points.  I think Heitkamp plays well to the independent Dakota mentality and I predict she’ll pull it off, holding for the Democrats the seat vacated with Kent Conrad’s retirement.

OHIO: Incumbent Sherrod Brown has suffered low approval ratings and a genuine decline in popularity, and if he had been on the ballot in 2010, he’d surely have lost.   Republicans thought they had a very good shot at this, but so far Josh Mandel seems to be falling short.   Brown should hold his seat.

PENNSYLVANIA:  Bob Casey is a new deal liberal Democrat who many considered very vulnerable in this election cycle.   Lately challenger Tom Smith has been closing the gap and I’m not as convinced now as I was two weeks ago that Casey will win.   He remains the favorite.

VIRGINIA:  This is a very close race, both in the polling and due to the fact there are two popular candidates.   Tim Kaine has polled better in the more reputable polls than Republican George Allen.  They are contesting the seat Democrat Jim Webb decided to abandon after one term.   Very close, but Kaine should win.  

WISCONSIN:  This seat looked to be trending strongly towards Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who emerged as a surprisingly strong contender against former Governor Tommy Thompson.   Thompson was rusty on the campaign trail and seemed to lack the energy for a tough fight.   Lately Thompson has been closing in and polls vary.    Baldwin seems to be holding her slight lead, and so I predict she’ll keep Democratic the seat open due to the retirement of Herb Kohl.

The openly Lesbian Democrat was once seen as too liberal for greater Wisconsin. Now she has a real shot at defeating Tommy Thompson

Toss up states likely to stay Republican 

NEVADA: Dean Heller was appointed to replace scandal ridden Senator John Ensign.   Shelly Berkley has mounted a decent challenge, but has not performed as well as Democrats hoped.  Still, it remains close.  In 2010 polls had Sharon Angle at a similar advantage over incumbent Harry Reid, but Reid prevailed due to strong Latino turnout.   It might happen again, though I suspect pollsters have learned there lesson.  Heller’s small lead has been consistent.

Predicted Democratic pickups

ARIZONA: This is my long shot pick, Democrat Richard Carmona upending Congressman Jeff Flake.  Carmona, Attorney General under President Bush, has mounted a behind the scenes insurgency to catch up to Flake.   This race got no notice until a few weeks ago when Carmona zoomed ahead in some polls.   Though the Republicans have responded with lots of money and support, Carmona could be bolstered by a better than expected Hispanic turnout.   I’m going to bet Carmona here – it just feels like he’s going to emerge on top. 

INDIANA: This was the safest Republican seat in the country (other than Maine) going into the election cycle.  Richard Lugar’s re-election was assured.  Then tea partier Richard Mourdock upended Lugar in the primary to face conservative Democrat Joe Donnelly.   Like Akin, Mourdock tripped over comments about rape and women’s rights, and now appears unlikely to win.   Surprisingly, Indiana should be the most easy Democratic pick up this cycle.

MAINE:  Maine was also a sure bet for the Republicans before Senator Olympia Snowe announced her retirement.  At first people expected a hotly contested race, but then two things happened.   First, Independent former Governor Angus King got in the race, and second very liberal Cynthia Dill won the Democratic primary.   This has assured that King will retain solid Democratic support.  Though coy on which party he’ll caucus with, King will be unlikely to embrace a Republican party that has viciously attacked him throughout the campaign.   Maine and Indiana will be two Democratic pick ups, both unthinkable two years ago, but now close to sure things.

MASSACHUSETTS:   Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s seat back in 2010 and despite being a tea party favorite at the time, he’s been a traditional New England Republican – moderate and reasonable.   Despite amassing a fortune for this contest, Elizabeth Warren has bested him in debates and appears poised to take back the seat for the Democrats.  Ted Kennedy would be pleased.

Bob Kerrey’s late surge is causing some worry for Republican Deb Fischer, but she seems to hold a solid lead

Predicted Republican Pickups:  

NEBRASKA:  Up until a couple weeks ago this was a no brainer.   Bob Kerrey as an elder statesman no longer had the appeal he had when he was Nebraska’s favorite son twenty years ago.   He’s lived too long outside the state and was no match for Republican Deb Fischer.   Recently some polls showed the contest tightening to within 3 to 5 points (others see Fischer retaining her lead).   Chuck Hagel and Joe Lieberman have endorsed Kerrey.   Some Democrats are hopeful, especially given Kerrey’s history of late minute comebacks.   But it is a tough task – Fischer should win, a GOP pick up of the seat being vacated by Democrat Ben Nelson.

Analysis:   It could have been even much rosier for the GOP.   If the Republicans had chosen the moderate, establishment Senate candidates in Colorado, Nevada and Delaware in 2010, the Senate would be sitting at 50-50 right now.   In this cycle extreme candidates threaten a GOP seat in Indiana and could squander the best Republican pick up opportunity of the year in Missouri.    Given that partisanship led Olympia Snowe to retire and give up her safe Republican seat in Maine, between 2010 and 2012 six seats that would be certain Republican are now possible or probable Democrat — all because the GOP chose to go with ideologues over moderates.

In any event, the idea that the Democrats could emerge from this election cycle remaining in control of the Senate, let alone potentially gaining seats, is perhaps the most amazing story from this election cycle.   The races are close enough that the Republicans could still gain a majority — but unless the polls are way off, that’s unlikely.

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John Boehner Loses Control

The Republicans in the Senate were getting nervous.   The House had passed an extension of the payroll tax holiday for a year in a bill so overly partisan that it had no chance to pass in the Senate.   They believed the Democrats were engaging in demagoguery by saying that the Republicans refuse to raise taxes on the very wealthy but don’t mind the working middle class paying more.

Nobody liked the idea of a two month extension, but intense negotiations between both parties, which included John Boehner, yielded that compromise.  It would buy time for them to reach broader agreement on a year extension after the holidays.   The deal sailed through the Senate 89-10, with overwhelming bipartisan support.   Speaker Boehner indicated the House would vote the deal through as well, and it appeared that the two sides managed to avoid giving the middle class a higher tax bill in January.

Then the rumbling started.   Republicans in the House complained that they shouldn’t yield again to the Senate, and that a two month extension was meaningless.   Lead by the tea party freshman, the House GOP revolted against Boehner and soon he was backtracking.   The House turned down the extension and called for a Conference Committee to come together to patch up the differences between the Senate and House bills.

For Democrats, that’s a non-starter.  First, the Senate bill was a compromise, negotiated between the two parties with Boehner indicating he approved of the agreement.   Given that, a conference committee would not only be inappropriate, but if they couldn’t quickly come to agreement then both parties would share blame for not being able to extend the tax break.   Why should the Democrats risk that?   This way the onus is solely on the GOP.

If the Senate GOP hadn’t sided with the Democrats (with many Republican Senators urging the House to pass the two month extension) then the Republicans in the House would have some political wiggle room.   As it is, they are finding it impossible to spin this as a failure of both parties — it’s a failure of the House Republicans.

Republicans who supported the measure in the Senate include budget hawk Tom Coburn, tea party stalwarts Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio, and of course Mitch McConnell (who was reportedly convinced Boehner would be able to get the measure through).    Only seven Republicans voted “no.”   This was a done deal.

Perhaps the House GOP thought that they could play Russian roulette with this issue like they did with the debt ceiling earlier this year, forcing the Senate and President to cave to some of their demands so they could claim victory and make the President look weak.   Yet the debt ceiling was a serious issue.  If it hadn’t been raised there would have been global economic turmoil and havoc for the US economy.

On this issue Democrats see themselves as having little at risk.   They’re the ones who are calling for an extension, they worked out a bipartisan compromise, President Obama was ready to sign it, and the Republicans in the House moved the goalposts.  Many Democrats see this as the first pivotal moment in the 2012 election cycle, whereby the Democrats nail home the argument that it’s GOP obstruction and extremism that is causing dysfunction in Washington politics.

Moreover the symbolism of the Republicans caring more about avoiding tax increases on the wealthy than imposing them on the middle class make this a dream issue for the Democrats going into 2012.   If class war is being waged, it looks like the Republicans in the House want to wage it on the middle class.   Exasperated Senate Republicans are furious, both at the tea party wing in the House, but also at Boehner for breaking another promise.   It’s not that Boehner wants to break promises, it’s just that his caucus won’t follow him.   The result is a Christmas gift for the Democrats.

John Boehner is proving to be a weak Speaker of the House.   He got lucky with the debt ceiling debacle because even though he had indicated to the President he wanted a grand deal that could include closing tax loopholes, the President got punished in public opinion polls when Boehner couldn’t deliver.   This time he’s not going to be that lucky.   If he can manage to pass an extension early next year and make the issue go away as soon as possible he might limit damage.  Otherwise, 2011 ends with the House GOP delivering a self-inflicted wound that could have profound ramifications for the 2012 election.

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Lessons from the Wisconsin Recall

The recall elections in Wisconsin are almost finished — the final two Democrats up for recall are not considered in serious trouble — and overall it looks like the Democrats managed to recall two of six Republican Senators, not enough to put the State Senate in the hands of the Democrats.

Republicans are happy with the result.  They kept control of the Senate and can claim a victory despite losing two members.    Democrats can take solace in the fact that they were going against Republicans who had won their districts in 2008, a year when Obama took Wisconsin and the public was in a far more Democratic mood.   The fact that the Democrats could bat .333 in such districts — and come within two percentage points of taking a district that hasn’t gone Democrat since 1896 — should give them pause.   They didn’t get a victory so much as dodge a bullet.

Democrats privately had admitted they were only likely to win two — though they hoped for the third (and got close).  But many on the more liberal wing of the party had convinced themselves that public rage against Governor Walker and the GOP, along with voter enthusiasm on the left, would give them more — some thought a sweep possible.   For them this is disappointing, their chance to send a message failed.

The other day I had a post critical of a group Norbrook named the “Frustrati,” — progressives convinced that the only thing Democrats lack are leaders willing to take strong liberal stances and refuse to compromise.  They believe the public will reward strength and principle, and that Obama and Reid have been too willing to work with the GOP.    This election should give them pause.   Even with a very energized and hard working base fervently trying to win at least three elections voters didn’t vote that much different than they did before.   Republicans can also argue that the two who lost were in trouble for personal reasons, that stronger candidates would have won.

Put bluntly: people on both sides of the political spectrum over-estimate how much the voting public agrees with their side.    Each will cherry pick issue polls, look at particular races (e.g., the Democratic victory in a Republican district in New York earlier this year) and read into them a national mood or trend.  The fact is that the country voted overwhelmingly Democratic in 2006 and 2008, willing to elected an untested Barack Hussein Obama who was accused of being far left and somehow not truly American.   Then in 2010 an admittedly smaller electorate turned around and voted a stunning number of Democrats out of office in the House to take control.    The only reason the Democrats held the Senate was that they had few seats up for re-election.   If the 20+ seats up in 2012 had been on the line in 2010, Mitch McConnell would again be Majority leader.

There’s only one way to read that.   The voting public is neither liberal nor conservative.   People do not equate political ideology with principle.   Principles are what guide every day personal choices and ethical perspectives.   Politics is about making deals, compromising, and solving problems.   Pragmatism is the quintessential American philosophy.    People will vote one year for someone whose principles are informed by liberal or even Social Democratic values, then turn around the next time and vote for someone who embraces very conservative views.

Any party that over-estimates the appeal of its own ideology risks overreaching and causing the public to correct the situation in the next election.   Any party that refuses to compromise or show an understanding of different perspectives will be seen as intransigent and unable to govern.   And, though parties must keep their bases in line, giving their base too much power can doom them in the next election.

Right now the Republicans believe Obama is vulnerable in 2012 and the GOP can gain control of the Senate.   They see the potential of repealing the health care reform, dramatically cutting spending, and steeply downsizing government.   Many think that’s the only way to deal with the economic crisis.    If they hang around right wing blog sites and talk with like minded folk, they’ll bolster each others opinions and start to believe their view is self-evidently correct, and that compromise is therefore weakness and wrong.     But so far the more Social Democratic countries of Scandinavia are in less economic trouble than we are, their way is one way to respond, but not the only way.

Obama is vulnerable (though not dead in the water as some believe), but it’s not because Americans have done an ideological flip flop.   Rather, Americans are frustrated about the economy and if they see Obama as ineffective they’ll consider trying something else.    If the Republicans over-reach or show too much ideological stridency, they could lose the House (many tea party Congressfolk are in clear danger) or even cause people willing to vote against Obama to see him as a safer bet.

Democrats have to take from this that the energy of their base is not enough to win the hearts and minds of  voters.   President Obama isn’t having trouble because he’s weak or a bad President, anyone would be having trouble with this economy.  Moreover, you can’t just give beautiful speeches and stand firm and expect the other party to crumble.  The Republicans control the House — some on the left fall victim to groupthink and under estimate the ability of the GOP leaders in the House to play a high stakes game.   Obama can’t force them to vote for what he wants.

Rather, they have to recognize that given the current economic conditions the ideological appeal of big government is probably at a low ebb.  The public wants someone who will talk seriously about reducing debt, solving problems and making compromises.   Despite the problems Obama’s had with the economy, his approval isn’t any worse than Ronald Reagan’s was in the third year of his Presidency.   Obama’s obvious pragmatism and patience is one reason he is still favored by many to win re-election — people may be upset he hasn’t been able to fix the economy, but the 2010 image of Obama as an over-reaching liberal has given way to Obama as a conciliator.     The Democrats best bet in 2012 is to grab the center and hold it as firmly as they can, allowing the tea party rhetoric sure to be flying furiously in the primary season define the GOP.   That doesn’t guarantee victory (though if it were combined with a rebounding economy in 2012 it could come close), but it assures a competitive election.

The Republicans dodged a bullet but risk not learning their lesson.  The bravado of John Boehner saying he got 98% of what he wanted may mollify the base, but risks turning off a public not keen on ideology.    Did 98% of what he wanted guarantee a downgrade?   They have every reason to believe that 2012 will be the second part of the kind of two election cycle the Democrats enjoyoed in ’06 and ’08.   But it’s not guaranteed — and too much red meat for the base may come back to haunt them, they could be their own biggest obstacle to a successful 2012 election.

Both sides should take Wisconsin seriously.   Democrats have to realize the country isn’t mad at the GOP and willing to march boldly to the left.   Republicans shouldn’t think the US embraced tea party ideals and is swinging to the right.   Whoever occupies the center in 2012 is most likely to win.   For the Republicans that would be the safest strategy.   For the Democrats it’s essential.

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Mood Shift?

President Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling crisis may ultimately turn out to be seen as political mastery, a symbolic point where the country shifted from a dissatisfaction with the Democrats to frustration with the way the tea party prevents the Republicans from pursuing the rational policies voters thought they’d get.

Right now Obama isn’t getting a lot of credit for how he handled this.  Many Democrats compare Obama to past leaders and say he could have pushed the GOP harder.   I do not share that assessment.  Too much was on line, especially the nascent recovery that Obama will rely on to bolster his chances at re-election.   A default, a shut down of much of the government to avoid default would do tremendous damage to the economy.   Misuse of the 14th amendment would have started a constitutional crisis, severely damaging the economy and leading many to believe Obama was abusing power.  Any of those scenarios would have destroyed the Obama Presidency.

If Obama were to have played this differently, he would have had to have done it starting last year.   Perhaps even as late as May he could have framed the issue differently and forced an earlier decision.  Even that might not have worked.      Still, criticism of Obama has been rather muted compared to the anger at the tea party.   That is the narrative coming out of this drama, not one of a weak Obama.

When the public and especially independents shifted to the right to vote in a Republican House, they did it for one reason: to force the two sides to compromise and work out solutions together.   The country is moderate and pragmatic, even if the political activists are ideological and partisan.   They thought the 111th Congress pushed too hard to secure the Democratic agenda, over reaching their mandate.    But as the President said, people wanted divided government, not dysfunctional government.

President Obama comes out of this looking Presidential.   He called for a balanced compromise on national TV.  He then stayed aloof from the final negotiations once it was clear the “grand deal” of a $4 trillion mix of cuts and new revenues — a deal that would have been good for the economy — was rejected because the tea party cannot abide ANY tax increase.

He let Reid, Pelosi, McConnell and Boehner do most of the dirty work.   He was criticized for not leading when he spent four days outside the public view making phone calls and having private meetings.    Those saying he wasn’t leading have fallen victim to the idea that media presence = leadership.     It appeared at one point Reid and Boehner were close to a deal that would have been worse for the Democrats, and a private meeting with Obama stiffened Reid’s spine.   Boehner complained, but it was clear that Obama had set down markers that the Republicans could not pass.    As blame grew on the GOP for turning down an historic compromise, Boehner realized he’d gotten all he could get.

The result — a compromise that does nothing, and doesn’t even start making cuts until 2013 — simply pushes the debate down the road.   That is a victory for Obama.   Moreover, it does not harm the economy going into 2012.   The year the cuts could damage the recovery is 2013 — setting up a huge debate for the election.   Not agreeing to any cuts would have assured bond downgrades and loss of investor confidence in the dollar, doing considerably more harm to the economy than spending cuts or tax increases would.

Congress is getting approval ratings lower than any time in history.   Those on the right who were pointing to low approvals of the Pelosi House have gone silent; the GOP is no more popular.   GOP candidates walk gingerly among the tea party brigades.   Some like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman realize they’ll never win over the far right, they have to neutralize their strength.  I suspect this fight has improved their chances.   Moderate Republicans don’t oppose tax increases as part of the mix for debt reduction, and they certainly don’t approve of risking default over a principle.   Many have been horrified by this spectacle and worry about the direction their party has taken.

I’m not predicting certain re-election for Obama, but the chance that it will be either Obama or a moderate Republican like Romney or Huntsman is greater than before.    People like Bachmann will still rile up the party faithful.   The Democrats may not take back the House, but strident tea partiers in unsafe districts face a good chance of losing — even Michelle Bachmann could lose.

In short, public disgust at this whole spectacle — not so much the result but the way in which it played itself out — is going to have political ramifications.   The tea party has, as the saying goes, “jumped the shark.”   They’ve peaked and over reached.    In essence, Americans are becoming sick of the ‘politics of emotion.’    People are tired of angry rants, demonization, refusal to compromise, and mistaking rigidity for principle.    We’ve got real problems, they want people to solve them.   We’ve got real disagreements, they want people to compromise.

Whichever party can appear more adult, level with the American people, and show a capacity to compromise and reach out to the middle, will have the upper hand in 2012.   President Obama played that role in this last crisis, making him the only one of the principles who could truly condemn the ‘manufactured crisis’ with credibility.   John Boehner’s image was tarnished by both outbursts and bravado — bragging the Senate will “fold like cheap suit” while the country is heading to catastrophe doesn’t make him look very dignified.

Democrats may hope that this continues, and that the tea party divides and exerts undue control over the GOP.   That would help the Democrats in 2012.   But that would not be good for the country.   Best for the country would be if the majority of Republicans who do not agree with the tea party stand up and reassert their power.    I’d much rather the face of the GOP be Senator Olympia Snowe than Representative Michelle Bachmann!   This country needs real debate and engagement of diverse ideas, not partisan war.  With the public no longer as entertained by or fooled by the emotion-laden spectacle of Glenn Beck’s rants and tea party calls for revolution, it’s time to settle down and take a pragmatic approach to the problems facing the country.

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Obama’s Big Mistake

In May President Obama should have made a forceful, definitive statement:

“There is some talk about making an increase in the debt ceiling a partisan fight.    That is unacceptable.   The debt ceiling is not about authorizing new spending, but about paying for what Congress already authorized.   If Congress doesn’t want the money spent, they should not put it in their budget — they cannot have their cake and eat it too.     The debt ceiling has been routinely raised whenever we need to borrow more to pay the bills run up by Congress.   President George W. Bush raised it seven times; President Reagan raised it 17 times.

So let me be clear.   I will only accept a clean increase in the debt ceiling.  I will not negotiate on this point, and I will veto any bill that attempts to connect the debt ceiling to other issues.   That would be playing Russian roulette with the American economy, allowing partisan bickering to put at risk our low interest rates, good credit rating and economic recovery.   However, this summer I call on Republicans to join me for a serious discussion on the future of the budget, with the goal of serious deficit reduction as soon as possible.   However, I will not tie that to the debt ceiling, or accept any legislation which does.”

Such a statement, clear and forthright early on in the process could have altered the way in which this discussion has played itself out.   First, real talk on budget cuts could be proceeding without an arbitrary deadline that does not leave time to really think about the implications of perhaps trillions of dollars of cuts in coming years.  Second, America’s economy would be safe from the severe consequences of default.   Finally, the US would not be in a position where the party in the majority in one of the chambers of Congress could use the potential for economic crisis as a way to ram its narrow agenda through.    The Republicans in the House are literally holding the US economy hostage.  It should never have come to this.

President Obama, by deciding he could negotiate and perhaps use this issue to pressure Democrats into accepting cuts, walked into a trap.   It is a trap that goes beyond him personally.   This sets the precedent for a party that does not have the votes to get something done through the usual process to find a way to use threat of real disaster to dictate their agenda to the rest of government.   Rather than trying to win in 2012 (both the Presidency and the Senate will be in play), they want to put a gun to the nation’s head and dare the Senate and President not to give in to their demands.

I’d expect that in a third world state or an emerging democracy in the former Soviet Union, but not in the US.  If politics sinks to this level, then the US is truly in severe decline.    Former Presidential standard barrier for the GOP John McCain lashed out at the House “tea party” Republicans, claiming they were irresponsible and in his words “bizarro.”  Other Republicans have also expressed horror at the events unfolding.   As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, the GOP needs to go back to being the party of Ronald Reagan.   Reagan was an optimist who worked with people to convince them to go along with him.   The current gang in the House are bitter and angry, and want to use threats to get their way.

Speaker Boehner is an enigma.    The most friendly read on his tactics is he simply wants to strengthen his hand and show the tea party brigade that he’s fighting to get the most he can get.   Then when a compromise comes, enough Republicans will join with Democrats to pass it, even if the tea party folk demur.    But to do so in this manner and with this level of incompetence (you don’t announce a plan on national TV when you aren’t sure you have the votes) not only damages the country but hurts his own party — and his chance at keeping his majority.    He may really think he can ram this through, in which case he’s putting the dreams of the American people on the line.

It would be irresponsible for President Obama to give in on this, even if it means default.   The President simply cannot allow the House to dictate policy under threat of disaster.   If he gives in, then the political game sinks to a new low and could get much uglier down the line.   He should have never let it get to this point.

It’s probably too late to demand a “clean” debt ceiling vote.   He’s publicly urged compromise and it would seem erratic to shift now.   But it’s not too late to draw a new line in the sand and mean it.   Compromise that is bi-partisan means something that gets significant support from both parties.   That can happen, and I suspect will — though one gets the sense that process is getting a bit out of control and the principles aren’t really sure where its going.

When a compromise is finally reached, on signing President Obama must harshly condemn the whole spectacle as being an embarrassment to the American people.    He must take his share of the blame, and state that never again will he be party to some negotiation tied to an issue like the debt ceiling.   He must say in late July or early August what he should have said in May.    The US economy cannot be held hostage so that one group can get its way.    That is a threat to the very foundation of our democracy.   They should go through the normal legislative process, including making it an issue in the next election.

President Obama made a mistake opening the door to allow the issue to be used this way.  He must slam it shut, and refuse to open it again, not even a crack.

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A Game of Chicken With the Debt Ceiling?

When I was 16 a friend of mine challenged me to a game of chicken.   I had my 1963 Chevy Bel Aire, he had a 1966 Chevy Nova, both old cars.   He described the game — we’d go to a parking lot, start driving toward each other at high speeds, and the first to veer away would lose and have to buy the other a pizza and root beer.    After thinking it over we decided not to, and just went for the pizza.

In a game of chicken the key to winning is to convince the other person you are actually crazy enough to keep going straight ahead even if it means a potentially fatal head on collision.   The other person, realizing that his or her opponent might actually refuse to swerve will ‘chicken out’ and swerve away first, losing.   Two top quality players will wait until the last possible second and both swerve away in time to narrowly avert a crash.   That’s exciting!

Right now in Washington it appears  something analogous to a game of chicken is taking place.   The Republicans, in control of the House but neither the Senate nor the Presidency, what to use the debt ceiling issue to push through legislation that they would otherwise have no chance to pass given their relative lack of power.    The President, recognizing that the House needs to pass something, has tried to broker a compromise, promising significant spending cuts in exchange for both letting the Bush tax cuts expire and closing some loopholes.

Many Republicans, especially those in the Senate and probably House Speaker John Boehner, recognize that this is a good deal for them.    The cuts are significant, the revenue increases minor (still far below what taxes were after Reagan’s tax cut) and the people most upset are Obama’s own liberal base.   Take this deal and the GOP might be setting up a split in the Democratic party.

Speaker Boehner, however, has a problem with his own party — many of them seem to believe that compromise is a lack of principle, and they should stand firm.   So what if the government defaults — most of them don’t like government anyway!    Going into 2012 with the Democrats potentially threatening to take back the House, Boehner doesn’t want a Republican civil war, so he has to get a deal acceptable to his majority.

President Obama’s efforts to negotiate a deal went far, but ran into a barrier when the “Gang of Six” put forth their ideas.  This group of moderate/conservative Democrats and Republicans apparently had more revenues in their plan than Boehner and Obama had been talking about.   Politically, Obama now realized that to get a plan past the Democratic Senate he could not be closer to the GOP side than the Gang of Six was.   He had to increase the new revenues in his compromise plan, causing Boehner to walk out.

Realizing that the Senate rather than Obama was the big hurdle, Boehner sat down to work out a deal with Senate Majority leader Harry Reid.   After all, just as the Republicans in the House want something they can support, the Democrats in the Senate aren’t going to sign on to a partisan Republican bill.   Yes, the House has to pass it, but so does the Senate — and then it has to be something the President can sign.

Sunday night those meetings broke up without a positive conclusion, causing markets in Asia and Monday morning in the US to go down, fearing that the world’s largest economy and major super power might become insolvent.   Symbolically, this would mark the date when the US officially lost its perch as the world’s dominant power.   The potential chaos this could cause in markets scares even the most seasoned investors and bankers.     No one wants this, and some of the biggest donors in the GOP have sent a message to Senate Minority leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner that this would be catastrophic for the US.

Headlines Monday morning told of the talks breaking down, Boehner accused Reid of not bargaining in good faith, and Reid shot back that the Republicans want it “their way or the high way,” unable to compromise.   Meanwhile both the Treasury department and the Federal Reserve are working on contingency plans of what to do if the US defaults, silent about the specifics so as not to cause more market speculation.

To me this looks like a high stakes game of chicken.  Both sides know a head on collision would be potentially fatal to the US economy.     The Democrats come into this a bit stronger.   Besides having both the Senate and the Presidency, they’ve successfully cast this as the Republicans trying to simply get their way, unwilling to compromise.   Indeed, most Democrats in the House believe that compromise proposals out there already give too much to the GOP, they’d prefer the President to be less willing to compromise.

With time running out to reach an agreement to have it passed and signed by August 2nd, the two cars are racing towards each other.   Reid and Boehner stare coldly at each other as they step on the gas, determined to get the other to swerve first — to give in to their demands.   The analogy isn’t perfect.   To “swerve at the same time” they have to find ways to craft a compromise that each side can accept, even without enthusiasm.   There could be some creative flourishes (agree to consider a Balanced Budget amendment later?) or symbolic victories that can allow each side to “save face” for the concessions they make.

It appears the GOP would like to have the debt ceiling raised for a short period, to bring the issue back around election time.   That’s risky for both them and the Democrats.   It also could get a very negative reaction from markets.  The Senate probably will not back down on that — at least not in the form of  the GOP would prefer.

My prediction is that they will “swerve at the same time,” an argument will be made, each side will claim they gave up more than they wanted to, but it was necessary for the good of the country.   They’ll then say that if the voters strengthen their side in 2012 they’ll be in a stronger position, and this will become a campaign issue.   President Obama will hail the compromise, and this bit of political theater will pass.

Then again, sometimes in a game of chicken the two cars crash, even if both drivers realize too late that they’ve waited too long and try to swerve away.   Small miscalculations can have devastating consequences.   So now is the time that Reid and Boehner have to show they’re competent to steer their parties vehicles in this high stakes game.

Though as entertaining as this is, one has to wonder if this really is the best way to obtain compromise and help the country out of an economic crisis?

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