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An Election Democrats Can Win

April 11th, 2014

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Obamacare versus Ryanomics. That’s the battle line for 2014. It’s also a battle Democrats can win.

Why? Because most Americans are pragmatists. Pragmatists believe that whatever works is right. Ideologues believe that if something is wrong, it can’t possibly work — even if it does work. That’s the Republican view of Obamacare: It’s wrong, so it can’t possibly work.

But it now looks like Obamacare may work. More than 7 million people signed up for health insurance by the March 31 deadline, meeting the Obama administration’s original goal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “The Affordable Care Act, whether my Republican friends want to admit it or not, is working.”

Republicans admit nothing. “Even though the Democrats are trying to take some victory lap, it’s very short term,” Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) told the New York Times. “The bad news continues. The hits keep coming.”

Do they? The Affordable Care Act continues to be unpopular, though some polls show a slight uptick in public support. “House Republicans will continue to work to repeal this law,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) promised last week. (They have already voted to repeal all or parts of the law 55 times.) The Republican view is simple: It’s wrong, therefore it can’t possibly work.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to repeal a law that gives health insurance to so many Americans. A recent Rand study estimates that 9.3 million American adults were added to the insurance rolls as of March, a figure that includes those who signed up in the new marketplace, received new employer coverage or enrolled in Medicaid. They are all being helped by Obamacare.

Still, it’s too early to conclude that the law will work. There are many challenges coming. The employer mandate goes into effect next year, and some employers may use the requirement to cover their employees’ health insurance as a pretext to reduce workers’ hours and wages.

Moreover, insurers will announce new premiums for 2015 this fall. If the risk pools do not include enough young and healthy people, premiums could skyrocket.  That would set off a backlash among those currently insured — just in time for the midterm elections.

In the public’s view, the Affordable Care Act should be mended but not ended. What people don’t want to lose are the two most popular provisions of the act — requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ policies until age 26.

Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said those provisions would be too expensive to include in any Republican replacement measure.

The least popular component is the individual mandate requiring every American to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty. If you do away with the mandate, however, the entire plan falls apart. So mending the law won’t be easy.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Democrats had a stroke of luck.  On April 1, Ryan came out with a 10-year budget plan involving massive cuts in popular federal programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, education, student loans and environmental protection. Ryan’s proposal would eventually change Medicare — the most popular of all federal programs — from an insurance policy to a “premium support” program, where seniors would be given subsidies to purchase private insurance. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney proposed doing that in 2012. Look where it got him

“Thank you, thank you, Congressman Paul Ryan for reminding us what Republicans would do if they had control,” Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) remarked. Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House Democratic whip, called it “a bad April Fool’s joke.”

Ryan’s proposal, which includes repeal of Obamacare, is a severe austerity plan aimed at achieving a balanced budget by 2024. There is no evidence that most Americans are willing to make the kinds of sacrifices necessary to get a balanced budget. Nor is Ryanomics likely to be signed into law.

What it does is give Democrats something to run against. “The choice is stark,” Reid said, as he stood on the Senate steps flanked by more than 30 Democratic senators. “The American people are watching.”

Democrats will run against Ryanomics. Republicans will run against Obamacare. Remember the rule of pragmatism: Whatever works is right.

If Americans come to believe Obamacare works, they will be reluctant to throw it out.  Especially the millions who will already have a stake in Obamacare. On the other hand, Ryan is threatening to do away with programs like Medicare that people know are working. Why? Because he and his fellow Republicans think those programs are wrong. Attacking programs that work is pure ideological bloodlust. And a losing battle for sure.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.

What Are Our Teachers Learning?

March 25th, 2014

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You don’t get a medal for 19th place. Yet when America’s 15-year-olds took an international test to discern how much they’d learned, 18 countries outranked them. American teens were even further from the medal stand in math and science, scoring well below the international average and sitting in the back row with Lithuania. This has become an old story.

So why aren’t we even in the competition for global academic gold? Maybe we should take a closer look at our teacher preparation, all the way from college training to professional development for existing teachers and principals. As students have languished further behind, we’ve done almost nothing to ensure today’s teachers will get the training they need to better reach students in the classroom.

Think about all of those professional development days that teachers take which leave kids home for the day. Are they improving teacher outcomes? As it turns out, all too often professional development for teachers is ham-handed at best, and at worst it’s a complete waste of time. Just ask those teachers in Chicago who were caught on video last month robotically repeating directions as part of their required instructional training.

All of this “professional development” is coming at a cost to the taxpayer — around $1 billion each year at the federal level.

That’s an issue a pair of prescient members of Congress are now seeking to address. Last week, Reps. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Donald Payne Jr., D-N.J., teamed up to introduce bipartisan legislation to ensure that professional development for teachers and principals actually leads to increased student learning. If successful, the Great Teaching and Leading for Great Schools Act would mean no more blank checks for useless workshops. Instead, they would be replaced with training for teachers that actually has research behind it to show its effectiveness.

It seems so obvious as to be unnecessary, but it would actually be a stark change from the status quo, since almost no empirical evidence currently exists to determine if any of the current professional development programs do anything other than keep kids home from school a few days each year.

Measuring whether a professional development program is working won’t be that hard, thanks to the president’s Race to the Top initiative and other education reforms that now connect teachers to their students’ achievement. With these accountability measures in place, we can see which teacher development efforts directly improve student results. And this is one of the rare happy places in the education debate that doesn’t pit reformers against unions. For the first time, the largest teachers’ union is on board for using student achievement data to measure the effectiveness of professional development programs for teachers, as the National Education Association has endorsed the Polis-Payne plan. The National Education Association knows that teachers deserve more too, including individualized development and skills-building, not the one-size-fits-all training found in most schools today.

In order for the U.S. to once again lead the world in education, we must take the necessary steps to improve how we develop those tasked to lead our schools on a daily basis. In Shanghai, where students have dominated on international benchmark exams in recent years, they emphasize using their teacher evaluation system to provide professional development that is laser-focused on improving instruction. A similar approach in the U.S. would be a vast improvement for teachers over today’s “throw everything against the wall and hope something sticks” mentality.

Teachers in the U.S. spend significantly less time engaging in professional development than their international peers (a recent study found that teachers in the U.S. spend 80 percent of their time teaching, compared to an average of 60 percent for teachers in other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries), requiring us to make every dollar and every hour count. After all, if teachers are going to be held accountable for how well their students perform, then the programs we use to train them should be held accountable, too.

This piece was originally published via U.S. News & World Report.

The first woman president is not about the past

March 10th, 2014

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Want to know the latest meme in U.S. politics? Here it is: Hillary Clinton is a candidate of the past.

It’s been spreading through the political press. Now Republicans are beginning to echo it.

“Elections are almost always about the future,” says the Washington Post, “and Clinton is, for better and worse, a candidate of the past.” The woman who ran for president most recently, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), contrasts Clinton with President Barack Obama. Obama, she told Politico, was “new and different,” while Clinton is an old-timer less likely to excite voters.

Want to see excitement? Look at the polls. In the latest CBS News-New York Times survey, 64 percent of Americans say they would like to see Clinton run for president. No other potential contender in either party — Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — gets more than 33 percent.

The first woman president of the United States is not about the past. It’s about the New America — the coalition that Obama brought to power. It’s a coalition of out-groups — including African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, working women, gays, young people, the unchurched. What holds the coalition together is a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The New America gave us the first African-American president. It’s bound to be excited by the prospect of the first woman president.

Speaking in Florida this week, Clinton said, “Inclusive leadership is really what the 21st century is all about.” She explained, “It is the work of this century to complete the unfinished business of making sure that every girl and boy, that every woman and man, lives in societies that respect their rights no matter who they are, respects their potential and their talents, gives them the opportunities that every human being deserves. No matter where you were born, no matter the color of your skin, no matter your religion, your ethnicity or whom you love.” That’s the credo of the New America.

Her husband has become a magnetic figure on the campaign trail. President Bill Clinton went to Kentucky this week to campaign for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic Senate candidate who’s running against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Clinton carried Kentucky twice. Obama, not once. Obama’s job rating in Kentucky is 32 percent.

Democrats are defending seven Senate seats this year in states Republican nominee Mitt Romney carried in 2012. They are clamoring for Bill Clinton to campaign for them. Obama? Not so much.

The story is told that when George McGovern was the Democratic nominee back in 1972, his campaign manager called a Democratic congressman in Ohio and told him, “I have good news. Senator McGovern is going to come and campaign in your district.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” the congressman said. “I’m going to be in Florida, visiting my mother.”

“Wait a minute,” the McGovern manager said. “I haven’t told you when he’s coming.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the congressman replied. “Whenever Senator McGovern shows up, I’m going to be in Florida, visiting my mother.”

Republicans will not be shy about bringing up the bad memories of the Clinton years. Paul recently labeled the former president a “sexual predator.” The Democratic contender in Kentucky had an answer for that. She summed up the Clinton years as, “Goodbye recession, hello prosperity!

To many Americans, a vote for Hillary Clinton would be a vote to restore the Clinton era — which they associate with good times (in every sense of the word). A vote for, say, Biden would be a vote for a third term for Obama.

Obama has managed to make the Clintons look more moderate. And more populist. In 2012, for the first time, a majority of Americans described the Democratic Party as “liberal.” In 2013 according to Gallup,43 percent of Democrats described themselves as liberals — the highest figure ever.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, criticized “the 1990s Clinton days where big corporations run the show and both parties suck up to them.”

Educated, upper-middle-class liberals like Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are trying to push the Democratic Party away from Bill Clinton’s New Democratic centrism toward what they regard as a more populist direction.

That’s the populism of the Occupy movement. It’s very popular at Harvard, where Warren used to teach, and Park Slope, Brooklyn, where de Blasio lived. The Clintons’ populist appeal is more authentic. They don’t talk about going after Wall Street or rich people or big business. They talk about bringing back prosperity.

Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, told the Washington Post, “I think it’s really not helpful for the Democrats to turn this into an attack on the 1 percent. . . . As Republicans attack immigration, we attack rich people? If you learned anything from the president, selling hope is better than selling hate.”

A lot of experts believe the Senate is likely to go Republican this year. If that happens, the clamor for Hillary Clinton to run will be deafening. Democrats will see her as the only Democrat who can save the White House. And keep Republicans from gaining total control of Washington and obliterating the legacies of both Bill Clinton and Obama.

Will Hillary Clinton have an easy ride to the White House? Of course not. Republicans will hit her with everything they’ve got. They won’t stop talking about Benghazi. They’ll label her the godmother of Obamacare. As for the first woman thing, Bachmann told Politico, “There was acachet about having an African-American president because of guilt. People don’t hold guilt for a woman.”

One thing Clinton can’t promise to do is end the polarization of U.S. politics. The last four presidents — two Republicans and two Democrats — promised to do that. They all failed.  In the CBS-Times poll, an overwhelming 82 percent of Democrats say they would like to see Clinton run for president.

What percentage of Republicans would like to see her run? Zero.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.

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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