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Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

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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GOP on Obamacare: Divide and Conquer

December 2nd, 2013

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“Remember the strategy for stopping Obamacare we laid out to you back in July,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Oh.) told the House Republican conference last week. “Targeted legislative strikes aimed at shattering the legislative coalition the president has used to force his law on the nation.”

Thirty-nine House Democrats – one in five — voted for the measure. Democratic leaders breathed a cautious sigh of relief. Earlier last week, they feared that 100 or more anxious Democrats might defect. President Barack Obama’s “fix” for the Affordable Care Act, announced on Thursday, held back what might have been a tidal wave of defections.

Republicans want the old Democratic Party back.

That was the deeply divided party that fought over everything — wars, civil rights, spending, taxes. What happened during Obama’s first two years was something of a miracle. The Democratic Party held its majority together. They governed. We experienced something that is routine in a parliamentary system but rare in the United States — party government.

Democrats held similar majorities in Congress during President Bill Clinton’s first two years, 1993-94. Back then, however, the party could not hold together to pass healthcare reform.

By the time Obama took office 15 years later, however, everything had changed. In 2010, Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act on a strictly partisan vote. Not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted for it.

Republicans are determined to kill it. They can’t do that as long as Obama is in the White House. So their new strategy is to make the law unworkable.

That was what the House vote was all about on Friday. Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) called it “another vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act” — something House Republicans have already voted to do 46 times.

What held Democrats together in 2010 — unlike 1994 — was indignation. The Tea Party had taken control of the GOP and driven it to extremes. The last straw came in September 2009, when Representative Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted “You lie!” at the president while he was addressing a joint session of Congress.

In politics as in physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In 2010, Republican contempt produced Democratic solidarity.

If Democrats are becoming the nation’s new majority party — as last year’s election suggested they are — Republicans want them to be a divided and ineffective majority.

Last week, Republicans managed to peel off more than three dozen House Democrats. What split them off was terror. Most of those Democrats represent congressional districts where Republicans pose a real threat in next year’s midterm. They are terrified that they will have to defend Obama’s pledge that Americans who like their insurance policies will be able to keep them.

If the House bill isn’t going anywhere, where’s the threat to Obamacare coming from? From the one defection that matters: Obama himself. He, too, is threatened. Not by Republicans — Obama never has to face the voters again — but by the prospect of congressional Democrats abandoning him. That’s why he had to reverse course and offer the “fix.” It’s supposed to give Democrats political cover.

Congressional Democrats don’t seem especially happy with the president’s fix. They are trying to put together their own legislative remedy. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is proposing a bill that would allow people to keep their old health insurance plans — not for one year as Obama has proposed, but indefinitely. Several other Democratic senators have signed on, including some, like Landrieu, who face difficult re-election prospects next year.

The threat to Obamacare is clear. Allowing people to keep cut-rate, shoddy policies that do not meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act will create two separate risk pools. A lot of young, healthy Americans will stay with their old, cheap policies, while older and sicker people, desperate for coverage, will enroll in Obamacare.

That will cause insurance premiums to skyrocket next year. “Cancellation today, sticker shock tomorrow,” Representative Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chief sponsor of the House Republican bill, predicted.

Obama is trying to limit the risk by allowing people to keep their old policies for one more year. The president’s expectation is that the old plans will simply die out and everyone will end up in Obamacare. But the old plans won’t die if people are allowed to keep them or if companies are allowed to keep selling them.

Angry liberals see what’s going on — and are furious. They are furious with the president for going wobbly. And with Republicans for trying to kill Obamacare piece by piece.

Liberals “don’t want to see this law eviscerated by death by a thousand cuts,” the executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action told Politico. “The answer is not to undo Obamacare or to undo major provisions of it like allowing those junk plans to continue.”

But that is precisely the game plan Boehner described to his party. So far, everything is going according to plan.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.

What Democrats have going for them? Republicans

November 12th, 2013

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Democrats had one thing going for them in the election this week: Republicans. That kept the President Barack Obama’s party from faring much worse.

Dissatisfaction with the economy is still very high. In the network exit polls, more than 80 percent of Virginia and New Jersey voters said they were worried about the nation’s economy over the next year.

The economy was the top issue in both states. New Jersey voters concerned about the economy voted 2 to 1 for Republican Governor Chris Christie — even though he was the incumbent. It isn’t his economy. It’s Obama’s economy. That’s the new rule in American politics: All politics is national.

In Virginia, however, the poor economy didn’t do the Republican candidate much good. Virginia voters who cited the economy as their top concern split their vote, 49 percent for Republican Ken Cuccinelli and 43 percent for Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

The Republican should have carried Virginia. Obama’s job rating among Virginia voters was down 6 points since 2012. Nonetheless, McAuliffe built solid majorities in the same New America constituencies that had delivered the state for Obama last year: women, racial minorities, educated professionals and young voters. Particularly unmarried women, whom Cuccinelli offended with his attacks on abortion, divorce and contraception. The Republican vote among unmarried women in Virginia dropped from 34 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012 to 25 percent for Cuccinelli in 2013.

Why did Cuccinelli lose Virginia? Because he was linked to the Tea Party. Forty-two percent of Virginia voters said they opposed the Tea Party. Only 9 percent of them voted for Cuccinelli. Among New Jersey voters, opinion of the Tea Party was only slightly more negative (45 percent opposed). The difference was, Christie got 38 percent of the anti-Tea Party vote in New Jersey. Christie is a Republican — but he isn’t part of the Tea Party movement.

Christie cut sharply into the Obama coalition in New Jersey. Women in New Jersey voted 62 percent for Democrat Obama in 2012. They voted 57 percent for Republican Christie in 2013. Christie carried the Latino vote in New Jersey and got 21 percent of the African-American vote. One-third of New Jersey Democrats voted for Christie. What percentage of Virginia Democrats voted for Cuccinelli? Two.

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