US Elections

Last night WV Senate candidates Joe Manchin, supposedly a Democrat, and John Raese, the Tea Party favourite, met (along with the Mountain party and Constitution party candidates, deservedly trailing far behind) in their only planned TV debate. I thought Manchin was not just much the most impressive of the bunch, but the only one remotely fit for high office. Raese has a steady, confident presence, I grant you, and a fine baritone, but his views are anything but calm. He called Obamacare “pure unadulterated socialism”. He is a full-frontal global-warming denier: (a) it isn’t happening and (b) if it were, it wouldn’t be our fault. On foreign policy: “My philosophy has always been very simple. We win, you lose.” Once you understand that, I suppose, the rest is easy.

Think of Manchin, on the other hand, as a moderate Republican running as a Democrat–for which there is much to be said. He is willing to work with Obama, he conceded, but then he is willing to work with anybody. He looked competent, and sounded as though he might know what he was talking about. In this field, that set him apart. I can see why West Virginians might prefer to retain him as governor (see previous post) rather than send him to DC.

What surprised me about the other two candidates was how unprepared they seemed. It was as if they had been picked up at random and brought to the set with sacks over their heads. Asked to make opening statements, they looked instantly wrong-footed: who said anything about opening statements?  Jeff Becker of the state’s Constitution party is a truther, by the way: he answered a question on Afghanistan by pointing out anomalies in the conventional wisdom about  9/11 and (if I understood him correctly, which I cannot swear I did) alleging BBC involvement in the plot.

I say vote Manchin.

Update: Incidentally, you can watch the Manchin TV spot I mentioned in my Monday column about the race here.

West Virginia is one of the poorest and most beautiful states in the union; recently it has been one of the most interesting to students of US politics. As a new (for the moment, part-time) resident, I am following with particular curiosity the battle for the Senate seat formerly occupied, one might say owned, by Democrat Robert Byrd, who died in June. It is indeed a battle, though it should not have been.

Opinion polls continue to say that Democrats will do badly in next month’s midterm elections. Most analysts expect the Republicans to gain control of the House of Representatives. Many give them a chance of winning control of the Senate, too – which ought to be impossible in a year when the seats up for grabs put the Grand Old Party at a disadvantage.

EJ Dionne tells Obama to take electoral advice from Bernie Sanders — who, Dionne points out, “actually is a socialist and believes devoutly in grass-roots, class-based politics” — and detects encouraging signs that Obama, finally, is doing just that. Rallying progressives is indeed the right strategy, says Dionne, and the polls suggest that Obama’s campaigning shift to the left is working.

His base-rousing speech to a “boisterous” rally at the University of Wisconsin, says Dionne, “reflected the White House’s realisation that Sanders is right…”

The president was not reluctant to draw class lines or ideological distinctions. He cast Republican support for a $700 billion tax reduction for the wealthy against the cuts it could force in Head Start and student loans. He criticized his opponents’ “blind faith in the market” and the idea of letting “corporations play by their own rules.”

Thus the irony: A president who largely disdained a mobilizing strategy for his first year and a half in office has returned to his community-organizer roots to try to salvage an election. Here’s the further irony: He has a real chance of pulling it off, which leads to a question. If Obama succeeds, will he continue to keep his supporters engaged and “fired up”, as Sanders suggests he should? Or will he go back to an insider strategy that helped bring him to the brink of this precipice?

The Tea Party’s startling win in the Delaware Republican primary is a cruel blow to Grand Old Party hopes of gaining control in the US Senate. Christine O’Donnell was the Tea Party’s choice and had the backing of Sarah Palin, darling of the conservative insurgents.

Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics takes a relaxed view of the O’Donnell nomination. Yes, he says, it almost certainly means Republicans will lose a seat they would otherwise have won. At the same time, it doesn’t affect their chances of taking the Senate “all that much”. Given that control of the Senate may turn on the result in one or two states, I have some trouble holding both of those ideas in my mind at the same time.

Trende goes on to say that “this doesn’t mark the end of the GOP”, reminding us that the Republican party has been torn between its establishment and its base many times before — which is true enough. Then he says:

What’s different this year is the depth and intensity of the anti-establishment anger.  The same forces that ended Mike Castle’s career are the same forces that are propelling the GOP toward historic midterm election gains. In other words, some pundits aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. When historians look back on the 2010 elections, O’Donnell’s win over Castle is likely to be nothing more than a footnote in a broader story of what will likely be a very good GOP year.

It’s right that tea-party enthusiasm is helping to propel the GOP “toward historic midterm election gains”, but disaffection with Democrats among centrists and independents is, I would guess, at least as important for that outcome, and has nothing to do with the tea party. If the Democrats get whipped in November, it will be as much because independents turned against them as because the Republicans got out their base. The O’Donnell nomination might make a lot of independents wonder whether they want to vote for either party. Most likely the Republican base would have turned out regardless. In other words, tea-party enthusiasm carried to the absurdity of nominating O’Donnell is a net negative in electoral terms–not just in Delaware, but nationally.

Beyond November, tea-party enthusiasm could propel Sarah Palin to the Republican presidential nomination — the O’Donnell phenomenon scaled up to the national level. Something to think about. O’Donnell’s win over Castle might, as Trende says, prove to be no more than a footnote this year. On the other hand, it might be a sign of things to come.

Never underestimate a political party’s capacity for self-wounding. Democrats expect to lose the House in November partly because the base is uninspired. “Apart from universal health care, far-reaching reform of financial regulation, and an $800bn stimulus, what has the Obama administration ever done for me?” Now the tea party, having (among other things) given Harry Reid a good chance of victory in a state that wants him gone, finally goes postal in Delaware. Take an easy victory, turn it into a likely loss — and let joy be unconfined. “What does it matter if this costs Republicans control of the Senate? Better a Democrat than a RINO.”

It’s the principle of the thing.

We will see what the president has to say in Cleveland on Wednesday–according to the Washington Post, he will pitch the R&D tax credit but no payroll-tax holiday: all told, a non-proposal, stimulus-wise. His speech on Monday already said, in effect, that he is giving up the effort to pass another stimulus. The Labor Day address called for $50bn of new spending on infrastructure, but over six years, and the plan “will be fully paid for”, presumably meaning no increase in the budget deficit. It is a non-starter in any case, of course. But the messaging was revealing. The word “stimulus” was never mentioned.

This is a great mistake, as I argued here. The economy needs another stimulus, and can afford it. But Obama has decided that politics rules it out. He is in campaign mode, praising unions and beating up Republicans, evidently calculating that getting out the base is what matters. Meanwhile, economic policy is on hold.

Is there an alternative? I believe so, and made the case for it in the article I just linked to. A stimulus based on temporary tax cuts–extend all the Bush changes for two more years, and combine it with generous payroll-tax relief–would be difficult for the Republicans to block. Including an extension of the Bush tax cuts for high-income households alongside those for the middle-class might make the package less cost-effective in fiscal terms, though this is not clear. What is clear is that extending all the cuts would deny the Republicans their favourite excuse for saying no: “It’s a tax increase.”

Politically, the downside for the Democrats is obvious: failing to raise taxes on households making more than $250,000 would be seen by the Democratic base–which Obama is now trying to energise–as a victory for Republicans and another sell-out by the administration. For many of these Democratic voters, raising taxes on the rich is not mainly a way to raise revenue, it is an end in itself; and for a few I sometimes think it may be the most important goal of policy, bar none, regardless of the consequences. My guess is, if Democrats could only suspend their zeal to punish high-income households, they could put Republicans on the spot and get a second stimulus through. But they can’t. It’s the principle of the thing.

Read Peter Orszag in the New York Times. He is making a similar argument.

In the face of the dueling deficits [short-term and long-term], the best approach is a compromise: extend the tax cuts for two years and then end them altogether. Ideally only the middle-class tax cuts would be continued for now. Getting a deal in Congress, though, may require keeping the high-income tax cuts, too. And that would still be worth it.

Great column, and I agree with every word.

Barack Obama’s administration faces a torrid time between now and November’s mid-term elections. Mr Obama finds himself at a disadvantage, his political capital running low. One reason is the public’s verdict on last year’s fiscal stimulus.

Continue reading “Good for America, as far as it went”

Obama isn’t giving up, but efforts to revive health care reform seem to be failing. It is worth remembering that Democrats could still pass the bill if they chose to. I still think they should. House Democrats could use their big majority to pass the Senate measure. But they cannot bring themselves to do it. Democrats with substantive objections and Democrats who fear an electoral backlash have fallen in with Republicans to block the reform.

The politics is complicated but fear of electoral reprisals is plainly one critical component. Should it be? Megan McArdle thinks that Democrats would be crazy to press on with an unpopular bill. Nate Silver questions this. He thinks the bill’s unpopularity is suspect. He thinks many people are misinformed or mistaken, and will come round once they see it working. He says it is “better to be strong and wrong, especially when you’re actually right.” It would be political suicide for Democrats to abandon a cause they have championed for so long.

From my point of view, this is the equivalent of a Republican saying: “You know what, my opponent is right – lower taxes are a bad idea on principle.”

Americans liked the idea of health care reform well enough in 2008. What changed their minds? And how easily might they change them back?

Opinion polls offer little guidance. Gallup’s Frank Newport says that his research indicates no great failure to understand the bill. Silver, looking at the numbers, is unconvinced: the polling, he says, is consistent with the idea that opposition to the bill is misinformed.

My take on Gallup’s numbers was different. Like Silver, I’m sure people are confused. But I’m not so sure they would like the bill more if they understood it better. Only 25% of people opposed to the legislation are concerned about higher costs, for instance. More information might drive that number up. It probably ought to. (I support the reform despite believing that it will raise costs.) The same goes for the 28% who said they were worried about greater “government involvement” in health care. Silver sees this category containing “incorrect beliefs” about death panels and socialized medicine. Sure. But it includes valid concerns too. This is a bill which increases government involvement in health care.

I think opposition is driven less by specific concerns of this sort and more by general disgust and exhaustion. As this saga has dragged on and on, it is incredible to me that nobody has tried to explain and justify any specific reform to the general public. The process has been unfathomable, and entirely inward-looking. People see that a major complex change in the works. This promises to transform services that most of them (remember) are satisfied with, so they have something to lose. But nobody is in charge. Nobody is even talking to voters about it, except to pat them on the head now and then and say “trust us”. I’m surprised that the majority opposed to reform is not bigger.

I do think opposition would eventually subside if the bill were passed, and that some of its provisions would in the end be so popular that there would no going back. But the bill is an unfinished work. It will need to be fixed almost as soon as it is passed. So the issue does not go away. Meanwhile, costs as well as (prospective) benefits will be apparent. The pendulum would not swing back by November, that’s for sure. Meanwhile the party would have stuffed an unpopular measure down the country’s throat.

Is Silver’s argument about repudiating a core belief the clincher? Not at all. Democrats do not need to repudiate a core belief. They could say, “We are right, and you know we are right. But we have failed to make our case and do this well. We need to work on this. We remain committed to comprehensive health care reform, and will come back soon with a better, simpler plan, capable of commanding wide support.” What’s wrong with that?

Politically, nothing. That’s the trouble. That’s why health care reform may fail. I still think the House should seize the moment and pass the Senate bill. But I’m not running for election.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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