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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 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.

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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Response to “Conscience of a Liberal”

December 6th, 2013

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In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman writes of Third Way’s “fact-free denunciations of progressives for not being willing to cut entitlements.” In response, I offer three points.

First, Mr. Krugman says the “[Social Security] system might possibly have to pay lower benefits in the future.” If you believe the Congressional Budget Office or the Social Security Actuaries, there is no “might possibly” about it. Without changes to either benefits or revenue, the Social Security Trust Fund will be insolvent. The only question is whether that occurs in 2031 (CBO) or 2033 (the actuaries).

Second, our support for balanced fixes to Social Security and Medicare is not to reach some magic budget number, but based on the fact that over the past five decades the balance of federal spending has shifted. At the dawn of the Great Society in the 1960s, federal investments (as defined by the Office of Management and Budget) outstripped federal entitlement spending three-to-one. While that balance obviously needed to change to address poverty and elderly health care, by last year the ratio flipped to one-to-three. In ten years, the ratio will be five dollars for the three major entitlement programs for every one dollar in federal investments. As we’ve seen with the recent budget deals and sequestration, investment programs are the first on the chopping block and entitlements are treated as sacrosanct.

Third, Mr. Krugman says that it is his “strong guess” that Third Way means “raising the retirement age” to address Medicare cost containment. That is incorrect. We do not support raising the retirement age for Medicare eligibility. He also says that we do not offer any ideas to reduce Medicare spending, but on our website are several ideas to do so. They include means testing Medicare premiums for high income seniors, dealing with end of life care, bundled payments to improve care and reduce duplicative treatment, and medical homes. And of course, we fought alongside other progressive groups in Washington to pass the Affordable Care Act.

To be sure, Republicans have been intransigent in their refusal to consider new taxes and their opposition to the Medicare cost saving measures in the ACA. But we believe that Democrats must also be willing to take on some sacred cows if we are going to be able to invest in the future and meet our obligations to our seniors and our poor.