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What America’s leftward shift means for elections

February 24th, 2014

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With each new poll, it’s becoming clear that the United States is shifting to the left. A majority of Americans now supports same-sex marriage.  And legalization of marijuana.  And normalization of relations with Cuba.

Gallup reports that, in 2013, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as liberals reached its highest level since 1992. True, it’s only 23 percent. Conservatives, at 38 percent, still outnumber liberals. But the trend has been slowly and steadily upward for liberals since 1996, when it was 16 percent.

This shift is due entirely to Democrats becoming more liberal — 29 percent of Democrats in 2000, 43 percent in 2013. At the same time, Democrats have won the national popular vote in five out of the six presidential elections since 1992 (all but 2004). Barack Obama won a majority of the popular vote twice — something Bill Clinton couldn’t do.

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What unites Democrats? Republicans!

February 13th, 2014

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Back in 1901, Finley Peter Dunne’s character Mr. Dooley said, “The Dimmycratic Party ain’t on speakin’ terms with itsilf.” Is that happening again now? You might think so, given the talk about a populist revolt on the left.

But Democrats are in fact remarkably united on most issues. They agree on everything from increasing the minimum wage, to extending unemployment benefits to raising the debt ceiling.

Yes, there are divisions emerging over trade and energy. But it’s not anything like the bitter confrontations we used to see among Democrats over civil rights and the Vietnam War. It’s also not anything like the bitter civil war that’s broken out in the Republican Party. No one is threatening to walk out.

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Can Obama circumvent Washington?

February 3rd, 2014

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Washington is broken,” Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president, said in September 2008. “My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works.”

There are three ways that Washington works: compromise, crisis and clout. Compromise is the way Washington is supposed to work. It’s practically mandated by the Constitution, with its complex system of checks and balances and separation of powers. It’s the way the U.S. government has worked for more than 200 years.

But it’s not working very well any more. Party positions have dug in. Deal-making is harder now that there are fewer moderates in Congress. It has taken more than two years for the House of Representatives to pass a farm bill, and it’s already under attack by both conservatives and liberals.

Congress did pass a budget deal last month, and there’s a reasonable chance that some version of immigration reform will go through this year. In both cases, the driving force is fear. Congressional Republicans are desperate to avoid another government shutdown over the budget. They are also determined to avoid a repeat of 2012, when minority voters, angry over Republican opposition to immigration reform, voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Things can get done quickly in Washington if there’s a sense of crisis in the country. It took only a few weeks after September 11 to pass the Patriot Act, for example. The financial crisis of 2008 drove a whole slew of legislation — from the government bailouts under President George W. Bush to Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, remarked early in the first term. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

But a crisis cannot be declared. It has to be real. Voters have to feel an overwhelming sense of urgency. That’s why politicians are always hyping issues. They declare an education crisis or an environmental crisis or an energy crisis. Or they try to rally the country to fight a “war” on something — a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on terror. If the public urgency is not authentic, however, opponents won’t have much trouble blocking government action.

Recently, Democrats have been talking about a growing crisis over income inequality. “Those at the top have never done better,” the president said Tuesday night. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened.”

The income gap between rich and poor in the United States is the widest of 10 advanced countries, according to the Pew Research Center. But fewer than half of Americans think it’s a big problem. That’s the lowest level of concern of any country except Australia, which has a much smaller income gap.

Obama is counting on the inequality issue to get two significant pieces of legislation through Congress this year: an increase in the federal minimum wage, which was last raised to $7.25 an hour in 2009, and an extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed.

“This Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people,” Obama told Congress.

The measures are far from certain to pass. Which is why the president decided to resort to Option 3 — clout. The White House calls it a “pen and phone” strategy. Use the pen to sign executive orders. Use the phone to persuade private operations to adopt policies that are in the public interest. No congressional action required.

During the State of the Union, the president singled out the owner of a Minneapolis pizza parlor who just gave his employees a raise. “Tonight,” Obama said, “I ask more of America’s business leaders to follow John’s lead and do what you can to raise your employees’ wages.”

Then Obama announced he was signing an executive order requiring future federal contractors to pay workers a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. He also said he would sign executive orders mandating higher fuel efficiency standards for trucks, more investment in classroom technology and better federal job training programs.

“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I am going to do,” the president told Congress.

Republican lawmakers are calling it a power grab, but who cares? The public’s opinion of Congress could hardly be worse. The problem is that executive orders are usually narrow and impermanent. “How many people, Mr. President,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asked, “will this executive action [requiring future federal contractors to pay at least the minimum wage] actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”

An executive order can always be rescinded by the next president.  It’s much harder to repeal legislation — as Republicans are discovering with Obamacare.

Clout is an assertive approach to governing that usually produces modest results. Usually, but not always. The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, using his wartime authority as commander in chief. But it still did not have the force of law. In order to abolish slavery permanently, Lincoln had to maneuver Congress into passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution two years later. (It’s all in the movieLincoln.)

Obama’s speech was an acknowledgment of failure. He has not been able to “change how Washington works.” So he has to circumvent the process.

Obama is not alone. The last four presidents — two Democrats and two Republicans — all tried to change Washington. They all failed.

The problem isn’t Obama. The problem is the problem.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.

Polar Politics

January 7th, 2014

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All politics is national. Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim, “All politics is local,” which he said he learned from his father in 1935, no longer applies.

Political parties in every corner of the country have become nationalized. There used to be very liberal Democrats in New York and very conservative Democrats in Texas. No more. Now Democrats are the progressive party everywhere. There used to be liberal Republicans in the Northeast — Senators Jacob Javits from New York, Lowell Weicker from Connecticut. No more. Now Republicans are the conservative party everywhere.

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2014: Another Election About Obamacare

December 23rd, 2013

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Here we go again.

2014 will be the third election in a row in which Obamacare is the central issue. The Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010, contributed to a fierce voter backlash against Democrats in November 2010. After the Supreme Court upheld the law in June 2012, the issue seemed to be settled by Obama’s re-election that November.

But no.

The botched Obamacare rollout this year has again thrust the issue to the top of the political agenda. Republicans are counting on opposition to Obamacare to propel them to a majority in the Senate next year. A conservative group is already running an ad attacking Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for supporting Obamacare: “Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don’t, you know what to do.”

2013 came to a close with two big political stories. The government shutdown in October was immensely damaging to Republicans. So damaging that House Republicans defied their conservative base and voted for a compromise budget deal last week. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attacked the Tea Party, accusing them of pushing congressional Republicans “into this fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government.” A fight Boehner said all along was unwinnable.

The message was, “No more shutdowns.” Republicans didn’t want to step on the second big political story, one immensely damaging to Democrats: the rollout of Obamacare.

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Can States’ Rights Work for Liberals?

December 5th, 2013

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Can states’ rights work for liberals? It has always been a conservative cause. Conservatives use states’ rights to resist federal policies that protect civil rights, voting rights, and abortion rights. Today, however, federal action is often blocked. So progressive states are passing laws that bypass gridlocked Washington and advance the liberal agenda on their own.

In his famous keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama criticized pundits who “like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.” His rejoinder: “I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.”

Obama was wrong. Americans have become more and more politically segregated over the past 50 years. Since the 1960s, politics has come to reflect lifestyle and values, and people often choose to live among others who share their lifestyle and values. And therefore their politics.

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