The Moderation Conversation: The Monstah and the Moderate

Welcome to another installment of the Moderation Conversation, a feature in which Matt and Chris get together for a live chat and completely rewrite the subsequent transcript to make themselves seem more eloquent than they actually are.

Tired of reading about the curious case of Hillary Clinton’s disappearing emails? Weary of pundits debating whether Jeb Bush is really his own man? Sick of seeing the artist formerly known as Donald Trump tease yet another godforsaken non-campaign for the highest office in the nation? RM is, too. As the country homes in on potential candidates for the 2016 election, Matt and Chris discuss two little-mentioned longshots who they would like to see become serious contenders for their parties’ respective nominations. 

(As an aside, this happens to be RM’s one hundredth post since its kickoff in mid-2013. The editors would love to invite all of you over for cake and merrymaking, but they recently squandered their annual budget on some unfortunate online purchases.)

The 2016 Election

Matt: Okay, so now that it’s 2015, we feel somewhat less guilty about talking about 2016.

Chris: Only somewhat.

M: Only somewhat. Because the presidential election is still about twenty months away. But, you know, the race is heating up!

We wanted to discuss the candidates that we would be interested in seeing run and the potential campaigns that we’re most excited about. Not necessarily because we would be backing those candidates, but because we think they might have something interesting to contribute to the conversation.

So Chris, why don’t you kick it off?


Bernie Sanders – The Monstah

C: Well, one of the candidates we’ve both been very excited about has been Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. You were the one who originally got me interested in Bernie’s would-be campaign. You mentioned that one of your friends from Haverford has been a very enthusiastic supporter of Bernie since he started hinting that he might be running. And you showed me a Bloomberg interview that he did in which he lovingly talked about how he plays “monstah” with his grandchildren.

M: For anyone who isn’t familiar with his background, Bernie Sanders is a senator from Vermont but he’s originally from Brooklyn and has an extremely thick Brooklyn accent. So he basically never pronounces the letter ‘R’.

A lot of articles that I read about Bernie say that he always comes off as extremely serious and somewhat pedantic and that he’s constantly painting a very dark picture of things. But I think that if you listen to some of his speeches you’ll find out that he’s actually got a pretty dry sense of humor that I imagine could play well on the campaign trail.

C: I think that’s actually a very big strength, that his rhetoric can be both dry and serious. That could help him quite a bit in 2016.

M: A big potential liability, though, is that Bernie Sanders is the only member of the United States Senate who identifies himself as a socialist. People generally run away from the word “socialist” in American politics. It’s used as a pejorative and politicians usually are not rushing to embrace it.

Do you think that will be a problem for him? That he’ll have to work extra hard to explain that label to an American public that recoils from the word “socialism”?

C: Yes. I think especially if he were to make it out of the Democratic primaries, that would be a huge, huge hindrance. It could even be a problem within the Democratic primary as well, just because his opponents would be able to argue that he is far too extreme for the party.

M: Now, Sanders is not actually a Democrat. He is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. He’s talked a lot about how he’s thinking about running for president, but he’s kept alive the idea that he might run as an independent in order to capitalize on the anger that exists toward the two-party system.

At the same time, he has acknowledged that he doesn’t want to be a Ralph Nader-type spoiler. Even though he doesn’t like the two-party system he believes that the Democrats are a much lesser evil than the Republicans and he wouldn’t want to throw an election to their candidate. So if he runs he’ll probably run as a Democrat, but it’s not 100%.

C: In press conferences and debates he’s been quite critical of the Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and her relationships with big business.

M: Yeah, that’s true. There are also two more reasons why I think Bernie Sanders’ candidacy would be worthwhile even if he doesn’t win. One relates to what you said about socialism. I think it would be valuable to have a somewhat wider range of perspectives represented in American politics. I mean, we tend to believe that there’s a very large ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans, and there is. But when you look at something like the recent election in Greece, where between 10 and 15% of the vote combined went to literal communists or literal Nazis –

C: That’s horrifying.

M: Like, that’s horrifying, and I’m not saying that I’m looking forward to something like that happening here, but in a lot of other advanced countries the political spectrum is much wider than it is in the U.S. Some of that has to do with the fact that we don’t have a system of proportional representation, so it’s much more difficult for smaller parties to really gain influence. But I think in general it would be good for our discourse if we had more marginal voices able to get their thoughts out there, especially on the left. If there weren’t such a stigma against “socialism” as a political philosophy we might be able to hear from socialists in the mainstream media more often and have them actually defend their views rather than just be the butt of some joke.

So that’s one point. The other is that, based on the things that I’ve heard Bernie Sanders say in the videos that I’ve watched of him speaking, it sounds like he is really interested in trying to broaden the Democratic coalition. And for a party that has seemed over the past few months to be trying to do some soul-searching about why it lost so badly in November, someone like Sanders could be able to provide a roadmap for how to expand the Democrats’ appeal.

He really seems to downplay the so-called “social issues”. He’s mentioned in his speeches the events in Ferguson, Missouri and talked about how there’s obviously been a very acrimonious debate about race in America. But he goes on to point out that we don’t really hear a lot about how African-American youth unemployment in Ferguson and in other minority communities nationwide is something like 30 or 40%.

He always seems to try to refocus these debates onto economics and away from tribalist culture war arguments. And I think it would be good to see the Democratic Party pivot away from the culture war and try to reach out to some people who might not accept the entirety of the Democratic platform but who might be on board with some of the more bread-and-butter issues.

C: Great points. To your second argument, in considering his candidacy, I think it’s worth looking at the issues that he’s been discussing to see what he could bring to bear on the Democratic platform in 2016.

Regulation of big banks would be a huge part of his campaign. That’s been probably the number one issue he’s discussed in interviews and speeches in the last few months. That’s certainly important. There is bipartisan support for measures to rein in the big banks, and it seems like he’d be a very good person to channel that anger and that resentment.

M: Why do you say that? Why would he be uniquely well-situated?

C: Perhaps aside from Elizabeth Warren, who still has not indicated that she’s going to run, he seems like the most likely candidate to actually take action against the big banks. According to The Week, some major Wall Street investors have been very positive about a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy, which suggests they don’t perceive her as much of a threat. So if this is a debate that we want to see going forward, if we really would like to crack down on corporatism, it seems like Bernie Sanders would be a good person to do so.

That said, I don’t think that more taxes on large corporations and the wealthiest one percent are enough to solve the structural inequality that he continually highlights. This is something the Democratic Party needs to consider in the run-up to the election, but they probably won’t. Raising taxes on the wealthiest and big businesses is simply not enough to solve every single problem they’re calling attention to.

I’d love to see Bernie gain traction in the primary so he can start a debate on policy planks like infrastructure investment. Things that might not otherwise be talked about. That in and of itself would be a success.

M: Yeah! Just say the word “infrastructure” and I will probably vote for you.

C: He’d also like to expand healthcare further, which is going to die a slow and painful – actually, a quick and painful death, because it’s never going to happen.

M: [Laughs]

Maybe that’s enough about Bernie Sanders. Suffice it to say, he’s a monstah.


John Kasich – The Moderate

M: A candidate that we’re both interested in seeing run on the Republican side is someone who has said a little bit less about his intentions for 2016, but who does seem like he might be seriously considering a run. And that would be Ohio Governor John Kasich.

One thing I think we’re both really impressed by, given our general interest in seeing more cooperation among elected officials from different parties, is the fact that he was willing to accept the Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Care Act in Ohio. He opted not to engage in a lot of the confrontational tactics that other Republican governors had chosen to pursue.

C: I think that in looking at Kasich’s appeal, it’s important to consider him relative to the other potential candidates on the Republican side. He may not, in and of himself, be a particularly strong candidate. He’s not someone who’s really well known outside of Ohio. But he just won reelection in the 2014 midterms by double digits, so that’s why he’s been getting some press.

Betsy Woodruff and Daniel Strauss discussed this a little bit in their Bloggingheads podcast, and Betsy argued that Kasich has no chance because we’re so far along in the run-up to 2016 that he simply does not have enough name recognition to gain traction. Which is a shame. As you said, Kasich has shown himself to be open to certain aspects of healthcare reform, saying that expanding access was “doing God’s work.” This indicates that he’s willing to work with Democrats and other members outside his party to accomplish his goals. The fact that he’s able to appeal to voters in the state across party lines will be very important, especially because the other potential candidates include a lot of confrontational figures like Ted Cruz.

M: So, Betsy Woodruff – who we interviewed, by the way! – seemed to think Kasich’s comments about accepting the Medicaid expansion being motivated by his Christian duty to take care of the poor would be a negative, because the Republican base presumably wouldn’t be too pleased with someone who defends Obamacare by invoking Jesus.

At the same time, Mitt Romney got the nomination after having implemented what was essentially Obamacare in Massachusetts. And I think a broad segment of the electorate outside of the Republican base will appreciate that he’s somebody who takes his faith seriously and is motivated by that to want to work towards social justice.

One interesting thing about John Kasich that I didn’t know was that he actually ran for president in the year 2000. He was a Congressman from Ohio and he ran in the Republican primary against George Bush, who obviously ended up getting the nomination and becoming president. Apparently at the time he was a somewhat brash figure, but he has significantly mellowed out since then and is now seen as a more low-key, deal-making sort of politician instead of a firebrand. But again, maybe that’ll be a drawback if it means that he can’t generate a lot of excitement.

C: You had mentioned to me that he supports a budget policy that’s a little questionable…

M: Oh yeah. He’s working for this organization called Balanced Budget Forever. Sounds like a really bad band name.

C: That obviously will be fine in the primaries. But in a general election, those type of fiscal policies could come back to haunt him.

M: Why do you say that? I mean, it seems like a balanced budget amendment might be pretty popular.

C: You think so?

M: I don’t think it’s a good idea from an economic standpoint, but I think it could be popular. It’s something that has a lot of intuitive appeal.

C: I don’t know. Democrats could make convincing arguments for why, especially now, as the United States has been doing quite well economically compared to other European countries, it’s not critical that we balance the budget at this juncture and in fact it could be quite harmful. I think there’s plenty of ammunition on the Democratic side to puncture holes in that.

M: Another Kasich policy worth mentioning: he was partly responsible for implementing an earned income tax credit in Ohio, which the state had not had up until last year. The earned income tax credit is something that, in theory, both Democrats and Republicans like: it was expanded under Bill Clinton but a lot of Republicans also tout it as an alternative to raising the minimum wage. So it’s another indication that he seems to be serious about policies to help lower-income Americans, and if that’s a quality that he would bring to the White House then that makes him very attractive.

C: To that point: I don’t know the exact numbers, but job growth in Ohio has been very strong since he became governor. He’s going to be able to use that as a talking point if he does choose to run. And it’s especially impressive when compared with the record of other moderates like Chris Christie, whose time as governor has actually seen anemic growth in New Jersey. Our state unemployment rate has not really improved since he took office, so it seems like in terms of being a more moderate candidate on the Republican side, Kasich has solid credentials, at least for the primaries.


Monstah vs. Moderate

M: There seems to be some asymmetry here. Whereas on the Democratic side we like the candidate who appears to many to be more extreme, we’re gravitating towards the Republican candidate who seems the most moderate. Do you think there’s some disconnect there?

C: Yeah, I’d agree that there’s some disconnect. I think part of it is our appreciation for Bernie Sanders as a political character, almost. Because he is such a unique personality, he’s very interesting to watch. He has passion about what he’s talking about. It’s unlikely he has much of a chance of winning, but we’re rooting for him to run because of his charisma and because policies like infrastructure improvement could be very positive.

Whereas Bernie is one of the lone “fringe” candidates in his party, it seems like on the Republican side most of the candidates and party leaders have been more towards the fringes as of late. So there we’d like to see someone more temperate who can get the party back towards the middle.

M: To me, it seems like Bernie and Kasich might have something uniquely in common: both of them are interested in prioritizing economic issues. I already discussed this in the case of Bernie, but even for Kasich, who is fairly socially conservative, it seems like the issues he’s most eager to address are economic: finding ways to boost wages for low-income workers, finding ways to provide healthcare, and pursuing more traditional fiscal conservative goals like a balanced budget amendment.

C: So do you think this election is going to be focused on economic issues for the most part? It feels like the early stages of Hillary Clinton’s pre-campaign have mostly been based on other things outside of economic policy.

M: I mean, I hope the election is mostly focused on economic issues. I assume defense will also be a pretty big component in light of the upheaval in the Middle East. But I would certainly rather Hillary Clinton’s candidacy not become something like Mark Udall’s single-issue campaign in Colorado, which dealt with the abortion issue and almost nothing else. That’s not to say that abortion is not something we should debate, but it is far from the only issue and I would hope that both parties find a way to talk about other things people care about.

C: It’ll be interesting to see who ends up running. Most of the early coverage has focused on the Republican Party, and we’ve seen names of upwards of a dozen potential candidates who may or may not be interested.

M: Ben Carson.

C: Ben Carson, yes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but on the Democratic side, we’ve only heard from Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, possibly Bernie Sanders, and probably not Elizabeth Warren.

M: And possibly Martin O’Malley from Maryland.

C: The narrative thus far is that Hillary has already been elected. And again, that’s one of the reasons I’d love to see Bernie Sanders run, just because it’d be good to see someone bring an additional perspective to that debate.

M: Amen.

Would a “Catholic Party” Be Bad for the Church?

This article first appeared at Ethika Politika.

Last September, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout dealt Gov. Andrew Cuomo a major embarrassment in New York state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary when she finished with just over a third of the vote and carried 30 of the state’s 62 counties. That may not seem like much of a victory, but few believed that a race between an incumbent governor and someone who had never sought elected office would be at all competitive. The conventional wisdom in the run-up to Primary Day held that Teachout, who ran no TV ads and spent only about $300,000 on her campaign to Cuomo’s $20 million, would be lucky to crack 15 or 20 percent of the vote.

Teachout’s candidacy was portrayed by the media as a challenge to Cuomo “from the left,” but her views are not so easily shoehorned into the usual political categories. In fact, her appeal may be a sign that those categories are breaking down and that a realignment of the coalitions of American politics is in the offing. Such a shift is not likely to produce a party with a platform that lines up perfectly with the social doctrine of the Church, but it could potentially bring about a political milieu in which Catholics who are committed to seeing that social doctrine put into practice as consistently as possible find it more straightforward to reconcile their religious commitments with their partisan loyalties. And as an added bonus, it could even make it easier for the institutional Church to avoid unseemly political entanglements.

Central to Teachout’s message was her claim that concentrated power, whether economic or political, is antithetical to a democratic society. Styling herself an “old-fashioned trustbuster,” she and running mate Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia who coined the term “net neutrality,” called for blocking a controversial cable merger between Time Warner and Comcast and even joined with conservatives like Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino in opposing “Common Core” educational standards and in pressing Albany to devolve more power to local governments.

Teachout frequently invoked Thomas Jefferson while on the stump. At a campaign stop in Oneonta, she described how he had wanted an explicit anti-monopoly clause to be included in the U.S. Constitution. Yet Jefferson, who believed that the powers of the federal government should be sharply limited and that the American economy should be powered by a strong agricultural sector, clung to a vision of society that would seem to be at odds with that of many contemporary progressives.

Indeed, Jefferson’s vision is at odds with that of many progressives, which is precisely why the Teachout phenomenon may portend a struggle on the Left akin to that between the Tea Party and “establishment” Republicans on the Right. In a recent essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, New York University’s Christian Parenti argues that the thinking of Jefferson’s foe Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, provides the better template for contemporary liberals. Parenti writes that “Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites,” whereas “[Hamilton’s] mission was to create a state that could facilitate, encourage, and guide the process of economic change.” If progressives like Parenti have any say, Teachout-style insurgents will not be able to take over the Democratic Party without a fight.

The Left generally worries about concentrated economic power but is less concerned about concentrated political power; the opposite is true of the Right. But what if this pattern is changing? We seem to be witnessing the recapitulation of a debate from the earliest days of the Republic: Jeffersonian advocates of the diffusion of power versus Hamiltonian enthusiasts of centralized power put to work for the public good.

It is not inconceivable that the combatants in these intra-party struggles could decide that it is easier to win elections by forming wholly new coalitions than by engaging in an endless war of attrition against their own co-partisans. One reason to think such a development likely can be seen in the early reactions to the possibility of a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush matchup in the 2016 presidential election. Both Republicans like the New York Times’ Ross Douthat and Democrats like former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have bemoaned the idea of a race between two candidates who both have close ties to the existing power structures in Washington and on Wall Street.

On the other hand, there are some who are eagerly looking forward to just such a contest. Politico reporters Ben White and Maggie Haberman last year quoted an unnamed lawyer from the financial services industry as saying that

If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine … we could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine. It’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.

Given the almost insurmountable obstacles to building a successful third party, anti-establishmentarians like Douthat and Schweitzer will only be able to challenge the status quo in a fundamental way to the extent that they can transform one of the two major parties into an effective vehicle for their ideas. And should such a transformation be successful, there would be strong incentives for those on both the Right and Left who oppose Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren-style populism to join forces in the other party.

To borrow from the vocabulary of Catholic social thought, voters could one day find themselves choosing not between a party of the Left and a party of the Right, but between a party of solidarity and a party of subsidiarity.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines subsidiarity as the principle that “all societies of a superior order [e.g. national governments] must adopt attitudes of help … with respect to lower-order societies [e.g. local governments, families, etc.]” (186), and solidarity (quoting Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis) as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (193). In other words, we are obliged to work toward eliminating social ills even if they do not affect us directly, but our solutions to those ills ought not to be imposed from on high and should be formulated and implemented by the lowest-level governmental or civic institutions possible.

This would not be quite the realignment for which some Catholics have been hoping. In the wake of Pope Francis’s election in March 2013, the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters penned a piece for the Daily Beast in which he laments the fact that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” He concludes with a cautious prediction about the future of the two-party system:

The estuary where religion and politics intersect is constantly changing. It may be that in a generation, the two parties will sort out their ideologies, with one party standing for libertarian impulses across the board and the other adopting a more communitarian approach. If that happens, the communitarian party might be the Democrats or it might be the Republicans, but either way, it would be a decidedly Catholic Party.

Winters’s forecast may turn out to be correct, but the Church should prefer the realignment that I’ve outlined to the one for which he yearns. From the standpoint of the American hierarchy, the existence of a “Catholic Party” would be bad news for the same reason it would be good news: The bishops would be free to support a single party and its candidates without reservation. For anyone concerned about the politicization of religion, this would be a worrisome state of affairs.

Catholics like Winters may complain about never being able to vote for a politician who has not taken morally objectionable stances on at least some issues, but the silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

In a world inhabited by a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party, though, the hierarchy could still maintain this distance by emphasizing not only the ways in which Catholic social thought is compatible with each party’s outlook, but also how its principles can be served by healthy competition between the two. The Church has already made clear that solidarity and subsidiarity are complementary and mutually reinforcing. It even holds that pursuing one at the expense of the other can lead to social dysfunction:

The action of the State and of other public authorities must be consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and create situations favorable to the free exercise of economic activity. It must also be inspired by the principle of solidarity and establish limits for the autonomy of the parties in order to defend those who are weaker. Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a “Welfare State,” while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centered localism. In order to respect both of these fundamental principles, the State’s intervention in the economic environment must be neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society’s real needs (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 351).

Another upside for communitarians like Winters is that the alliances that would hold these two parties together would militate against their taking uncompromising stances on hot-button culture war issues in their official platforms. A party that brought together liberals like Teachout and conservatives like Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

A “Catholic Party” may seem like an appealing idea to Catholics frustrated by some of the more difficult trade-offs associated with electoral politics, but the cure could easily be worse than the disease. Better, it seems, to hope for a political culture in which both parties eagerly welcome the contributions of those working to advance a Catholic vision of the common good.

A Q&A with Slate’s Betsy Woodruff

Betsy Woodruff is Slate’s staff writer for politics and the co-host of Bloggingheads’ Woodruff & Strauss We’ve really enjoyed Betsy’s coverage of the midterm elections and her insightful podcast commentary, so we reached out by e-mail to get her thoughts on her work, gridlock in Washington, and the political landscape over the next two years. 

Congratulations on your new position at Slate!  What sparked your interest in political reporting?  What do you like most about your work?

My family always followed politics closely. We had lots of dinner table conversations about it, and I grew up very aware of the way public policy impacts people’s lives. It’s always been really interesting to me.  The best part of my job is that I get to meet a huge variety of people, which is really fun.

We hear a lot of talking heads these days lamenting the politicization of journalism and the erosion of even a basic consensus about what the facts are. Yet there are also pundits who take the “This Town” view of DC as a place where politicians and reporters alike are steeped in this common worldview that is totally out of touch with what “real Americans” outside the Beltway think and believe.  As someone who’s worked for outlets like National Review and Slate that come at things from notionally different ideological angles, which of these perceptions would you say has more merit? 

I think that’s probably a bit of a false dichotomy. My top pet peeve is when people refer to “the media.” The media is not a monolith! There are reporters who are really close with top Hill aides, and reporters who cover DC from thousands of miles away, and reporters who are very open about their partisan/ideological allegiances, and reporters who are total straight-shooters and will never betray any bias. And all of that is good. Variety is good. There are stories that outlets like Free Beacon and Talking Points Memo will get that mainstream outlets would miss. And there are stories where Politico and Washington Post will blow everyone else out of the water. “The media” contains multitudes. That’s good, because it means news consumers have a huge number of choices, and it means old media empires have to watch their backs (which makes them better!). Today, people have more access to high-quality political journalism than they have ever had in human history. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but forests, trees, etc etc.

My main concern is that people can get ideologically siloed — in other words, you have liberals only reading liberal outlets and conservatives only reading conservative ones. It’s easy to get lazy and stop thinking critically about the policies you like and the politicians you admire. That’s bad. Conservatives should read Mother Jones and Talking Points Memo. Progressives should read National Review and The American Conservative. Moderates should read all of those. You miss a ton of good journalism if you only read writers who agree with you.

What do you think can be done to ameliorate the gridlock we see at all levels of government? Do we need more politicians willing to engage and compromise with the other side, or more partisans who will resolutely argue for their convictions and push hard to implement their vision?

One man’s Gridlock-mongerer is another man’s Horatius at the Bridge, so I’m disinclined to say that gridlock is necessarily a bad thing. Here’s a non-answer answer: One example of gridlock is in drug sentencing reform. I’ve written a bit about the bipartisan backing this has on the Hill — when Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren are on the same side, you’d think something would get done. But many politicians are terrified of changing mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws because they don’t want their opponents to run TV ads against them saying “Rep. McGillicuddy is Soft On Crime!! Why Won’t He Protect The Children?!?!?! Why Does He Support Heroin?!??!” In that case, I think it’s voters’ responsibility to pay attention to complex issues, to call their congressmen (phone calls make a difference!) when important votes are coming up, to pay attention to advocacy groups who work on issues they care about (in the case of sentencing reform, it’s FAMM), and to shame candidates who use cheap, mendacious scare tactics.

Another point: The same politician can happily compromise one week and resolutely argue for her convictions the next week — in other words, voters don’t always have to pick between “politicians willing to compromise” and “partisans who will argue for their convictions.” Many politicians fit into both categories, depending on the issue. Ted Cruz is a good example of this.

We’ve really been enjoying your Bloggingheads episodes with Daniel Strauss.  How did the idea for the show come about? 

I met Daniel at CPAC this year and he suggested we start doing Bloggingheads. As you can tell from listening to his BH commentary and reading his stories at TPM, he’s an insightful, funny guy who is great to work with. We have a really good time.

Based on the midterm elections, what trends or potential events should we be aware of in the next two years?  What are you most looking forward to covering during the 2016 campaign season?  Any predictions about how the presidential race will play out?

I’m really excited about covering the Republicans. How do they talk about immigration, 4th amendment issues, and foreign policy? Who are the dark horses? Does the Tea Party make up some of the territory it lost in 2014? Does Sarah Palin win back any of her nigh-nonexistent relevance? Do we see the apotheosis of Kingmaker Mitt Romney? I have zero predictions. I have no idea what’s going to happen. Hooray! America!

We’d like to thank Betsy once again for taking the time to answer our questions! Be sure to check out her work at Slate and her Bloggingheads series with Daniel Strauss.

The Mississippi Senate Primary and Why We Need Instant Runoffs

Until this past Tuesday’s Senate primary in Mississippi, the pundit class had spent much of this election season pushing the dubious (and possibly incoherent) narrative that the Republican “establishment” has finally tamed the insurgent “Tea Party” and set the GOP up for success in its bid to retake control of the Senate this November. From Sen. Mitch McConnell’s victory over Matt Bevin in Kentucky, to Thom Tillis’ trouncing of Greg Brannon in North Carolina, to the failure of Rep. Paul Broun to advance to a runoff in Georgia, evidence that Republican voters were finally getting tired of rolling the dice on unelectable political novices was said to be everywhere.

But even if there were not already serious reasons to doubt this theory, let alone reasons to question whether the “establishment vs. Tea Party” framing actually makes any sense, there certainly are now. The almost-victory of former talk-radio host Chris McDaniel over six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi is a glaring counterexample to the conventional wisdom.

Or maybe not. We’ll have to wait two more weeks to know for sure, since McDaniel’s 49.5% vote share fell just short of the 50-percent-plus-one needed for him to prevail outright and avert a June 24th runoff. The sprint to the finish line will be an expensive affair: Republican donors and PAC’s are estimated to have spent around $13.4 million on the race thus far, and while some prominent outside groups have announced that they plan on sitting out the final phase of the campaign, Politico has reported that “millions of dollars more” will likely be spent between now and the 24th.

McDaniel and Cochran finished within 1,400 votes of one another, and the former would almost certainly have triumphed were it not for the little-known Thomas Carey, who earned fewer than 5,000 votes out of over 300,000 cast, or about 1.5% of the total (holding the number of votes constant, Cochran would have had to win roughly two-thirds of the ballots that went to Carey in order to prevail). A National Journal profile of Carey, a former realtor who now works in prison ministry and who raised no money and ran no ads, referred to him as “the man who just cost Republican donors millions.”

In light of the fact that we can reasonably assume McDaniel would have won a two-man race against Cochran, and the fact that we can reasonably assume McDaniel will win a two-man race against Cochran, it’s frustrating to contemplate the amount of money that will be spent on this contest in the days ahead. To be sure, runoffs serve an important purpose; guaranteeing that a winning candidate has the support of a majority of voters is important, and one need only look as far as the governor’s office in Maine to see how first-past-the-post systems can allow candidates whose views are clearly at odds with those of the majority to slip into office.

But they’re also incredibly wasteful, especially when you consider the fact that we can accomplish everything runoffs are designed to accomplish in a single election by making use of instant runoff voting (IRV). Under IRV, voters are asked to rank some or all of the available candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate is able to command an outright majority when all of the first-choice votes are tallied up, the ballots going to the candidate who comes in last are reassigned to the second choices of those voters. Depending on the number of candidates and how evenly they split the vote, this process can be iterated as many times as necessary until someone emerges with a majority.

There are some potential pitfalls associated with IRV. IRV is often said to foster greater political competition, because it assures voters that they will not be “throwing away their vote” if they back a third party candidate; whether it actually does so is unclear. Critics also allege that IRV is confusing for voters, and that the rate of mismarked ballots tends to increase under such a system. But research suggests that such worries are misplaced, and the fact that IRV is used both internationally and in a few cities here at home should put to rest fears that it’s not ready for primetime.

Although there are good reasons to abandon runoffs entirely and fundamentally rethink the way that we elect politicians in the U.S., that probably won’t happen anytime soon. In the meanwhile, why not conduct runoffs as cheaply and efficiently as possible? And as for the charge that IRV is confusing, it seems to me that it’s actually less confusing and less of a hassle for voters than a traditional runoff. Not only does everyone only have to turn out on a single day to cast their ballots, but IRV allows runoffs to be conducted without voters having to understand all of the mechanics. Which of the following sounds like a more complicated message to communicate to the public?

  1. “Show up next Tuesday and vote for your favorite candidate. If nobody gets a majority, show up again a few Tuesdays from now and cast a vote for one of the top two finishers, which may or may not mean voting for the same person a second time.”
  2. “Show up next Tuesday and vote for your favorite candidate. Can you also tell us if you have a second choice? And maybe a third? Thanks.”

Educating voters about IRV would not be any more difficult – and might even be easier – than educating them about traditional runoffs. Political junkies have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which most Americans pay attention to politics and elections, but when it comes to IRV the pendulum swings in the other direction and voters are presumed to be too thick to learn a new way of doing things.

The amount of money that will be spent on the Mississippi Senate runoff is miniscule compared to what will be spent on some of the higher-profile races of 2014, but we should not pass up opportunities to reduce waste where we can. Instant runoffs would simplify the electoral process, and would help make sure that unknown real estate agents can’t drag out an expensive campaign for three extra weeks.

Dave Camp Makes the Case for Taxing Red Meat

On February 26th, Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, released a proposal for a major overhaul of the individual tax code that he claimed would significantly reduce the amount of effort that individuals would have to expend on preparing their returns. I read a bit about Camp’s ideas when they first came out, and had planned on offering some thoughts here at RM. Unfortunately, his observation that the process of filing tax returns can be quite burdensome turned out to be an astute one: I spent the following seven weeks (right up until midnight yesterday!) working hard on my taxes, and had not a moment to spare to write about the Camp Plan until now.

Okay, not really; I actually just forgot. (I also started and finished my taxes this past Sunday, thank you very much.) But I was reminded of the issue as I filled out my forms and searched under the couch cushions for my W-2’s over the weekend, and now that everything is in the mail I thought I’d take a minute to discuss some of my reactions to Camp’s bold proposal.

And boy, is it bold. The sheer political implausibility of some elements of the plan led many commentators to declare it dead on arrival, with a few even going so far as to claim that its release was only ever intended as a bit of showmanship. Despite the early buzz, the proposal seems to have faded from the headlines; the conventional wisdom is that nothing even remotely that ambitious could pass Congress in an election year.

But that fact alone is no reason to ignore Camp’s work. The Republican Party has seen a relative flowering of policy entrepreneurship in recent months, even if some of the more wonkish conservative thinkers and pundits are misguided about how broad-based the renaissance really is. And even if none of Camp’s agenda has any chance whatsoever of becoming a reality anytime soon, parts of it could very well make their way into the platforms of future Republican candidates for higher office who are eager to present voters with fresh ideas.

On the whole, I think that Rep. Camp’s proposal is a serious one. It contains a number of good ideas that ought (in a less polarized political environment) to enjoy broad appeal among members of both parties. But it is not without its weaknesses, and it certainly isn’t above gimmicky red-meat-throwing. In fact, those two tend to coincide, with the most questionable parts of the plan also those that were most clearly included to score political points and poke political enemies.

First, a few of the commendable bits. Camp advocates scaling back the mortgage interest deduction, which is one of the most expensive tax subsidies in the individual code. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that it reduced federal revenues by about $70 billion in 2012 alone. Since it is a deduction (which reduces taxable income) and not a credit (which reduces the dollar amount of taxes owed, and which in some cases may increase the size of a refund even if nothing is owed), its benefits tend to flow to those in higher tax brackets. In fact, the CBPP figures that in recent years more than three-quarters of the benefits associated with the mortgage interest deduction went to individuals with incomes above $100,000.

Although many budget experts have recommended converting the deduction to a credit, Camp at least takes a step in the right direction by lowering the cap on the amount of mortgage interest that is eligible for the deduction. Rather than allowing filers to deduct the interest paid on the first $1,000,000 of a mortgage, Cap would limit them to writing off only that pertaining to the first $500,000. He projects that this wouls only affect “less than 5 percent of the most expensive homes on the market today.” Given that the intent of this policy is presumably to facilitate homebuying for those who might otherwise be shut out of the housing market, and not to allow those who can already easily afford a home to afford a larger one, this tweak is certainly a sensible one.

Camp also demonstrates some courage by embracing ideas previously endorsed by President Obama and other Democrats, including “eliminating special depreciation benefits related to corporate jets” and treating “carried interest” as regular income rather than as capital gains for the purposes of taxation. He also takes steps toward shedding the GOP’s image as the party of plutocrats by proposing a quarterly 0.035% tax on any assets held by financial firms in excess of $500 billion. He defends this policy on the grounds that corporations designated as “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” or “SIFI’s” by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 are believed to enjoy lower borrowing costs on account of the fact that other market participants think they will be the recipients of public assistance (read, bailouts) in the event of another financial meltdown. Camp argues that taxpayers ought to be compensated for what is in effect an implicit subsidy.

Although – or perhaps because – only a handful of the very largest banks would be affected by this tax, it has provoked a great deal of backlash from lobbyists representing Wall Street banks. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum has wondered whether Camp might have intended to provoke this backlash in order to guarantee that a SIFI tax would not be included in Republican reform plans in the future, but it’s unclear whether his motives were really that cynical. The GOP certainly has an image problem when it comes to its ties to the financial industry (although the Democrats are not immune to this problem either), and Camp seems to be at least trying to do something about it. Moreover, the notion of a financial transaction tax is one that has been endorsed on the merits by economists and pundits from across the political spectrum.

Now for the questionable parts. Camp asserts that waste and fraud in the tax system is an overwhelmingly serious problem:

Not only is the way Washington takes your money unfair, it wastes the money it takes from you… This is particularly true of existing refundable tax credit programs, where the IRS is unwilling or unable to stop the waste, fraud and abuse. For example, over the last 10 years, the IRS erroneously sent out an estimated $132 billion of your tax dollars to false claimants. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the largest refundable tax credit, consistently ranks among the worst government programs in terms of waste, fraud and abuse [emphasis added] – even though it is one of the most important tools to help low-income, working Americans. Last year, 21 to 25 percent of all EITC payments were incorrect, costing American taxpayers as much as $13.6 billion.

Leaving aside the question of whether fraud is really a problem that the IRS has not been effectively tackling, singling out the EITC for special criticism seems strange. The Republican Party’s standard response to calls from Democrats for an increase in the federal minimum wage has been to argue that expanding the EITC would be a much more effective and less costly strategy for boosting the wages of poor and low-skilled workers. Granted, Camp acknowledges that it is “one of the most important tools to help low-income, working Americans,” but this is clearly a footnote to the main argument being made here.

Deficit hawks have plenty of examples of silly or frivolous federal spending from which to choose, and are generally untroubled by creating the impression that spending of that sort represents a much, much larger share of federal outlays than it actually does. So why go after the EITC? Considering that he has three or four more examples of allegedly wasteful programs in the next several paragraphs, why not just omit it?

We should give credit to Mr. Camp for being less demagogic than many of his colleagues and for illustrating his point with more serious examples than “beaver management.” We should also acknowledge that he never actually calls for abolishing or even meaningfully scaling back the EITC. But in his zeal to attack a perennial conservative punching bag, he ends up undermining the plausibility of his own party’s alternative to a hugely popular minimum wage increase. Especially if other Republicans run with this meme in the future, the self-inflicted wound could split open even wider. (For the record, I support an expansion of the EITC in conjunction with a minimum wage hike, and I think Camp’s criticisms are more clumsy than damning.)

Another element of the plan that attracted a great deal of attention in the press when it first came out was Camp’s proposal to repeal the deduction for state and local taxes, including income, property, and sales taxes. His contention is that “[t]his deduction redistribute[s] wealth to big-government, high-tax states from small-government, low-tax states.” Commentators rightly read this as a jab at blue-state governors and legislatures, and Camp correctly notes that this benefit is most valuable to those who live in states with high taxes, which by-and-large are those that lean Democratic.

That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at this deduction is as a benefit that redistributes wealth toward states that are self-reliant and away from those that depend most heavily on the federal government. The states with the largest total burden of state and local taxes also tend to be those that receive the smallest amount of federal spending for every dollar they send to Washington. According to the center-right Tax Foundation,

[t]hanks to a steeply progressive federal income tax, states with higher incomes [i.e. blue states, on average –MM] pay vastly higher federal taxes, payments that are unlikely ever to be matched by federal spending directed to those states.

The Tax Foundation regularly produces a ranking of states based on their average tax burden, excluding federal taxes. In 2011, four of the ten states identified as bearing the heaviest burdens – California, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York – were also among the ten states with the largest net revenue contributions to the federal government, based on tax data from the IRS and spending data from Four of the ten states identified as having the lightest burdens – Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas – were among the ten states with the largest net inflow of spending from the federal government (calculations available upon request).

This is just a quick, unscientific exercise, and we can quibble about the best way to measure which states are most “self-reliant.” But they are incredibly suggestive, and provide some support for the intuition that the states that levy the highest taxes on their citizens are also those that are Washington’s largest revenue-raisers. If there’s any redistribution going on here, it’s toward low-tax states. In the absence of the state and local income tax deduction, that redistribution would be even more stark.

Why does this matter? Conservatives are typically champions of devolving as many functions of government as possible to the states, and states that do more for their residents will tend to require more revenue. Yet encouraging states to reduce taxation may incentivize them to shift more of the work of providing public services to the feds. One can understand on a political level why Camp would want to axe this particular piece of the tax code, but he ought to have thought more deeply about the potential policy consequences of doing so.

Rep. Camp has offered a credible template for revamping the tax code. Although his core assumption that complexity is its main defect has come in for some criticism – The New Republic ran a piece for Tax Day presenting survey evidence that most Americans don’t consider it that difficult to do their taxes, and that the ubiquity of tax preparation software could even allow us to implement a system with infinitely many tax brackets without much pushback – it seems like a good idea to regularly reevaluate whether the code makes sense and to pare back some of its kludgy accretions.

Camp is surprisingly honest about the tradeoffs required by any such root-and-branch reform, and is willing to write concrete proposals that take on some of his party’s sacred cows. This is not the plan that I would have come up with, but in a less acrimonious political universe it would offer a reasonable starting point for bipartisan negotiations (I stand by my claim that “reformocons” would have a better chance of getting a hearing in the Democratic Party, but that’s an argument for another day).

Yet whenever Camp indulges in political gimmickry, his plan is consistently the worse for it. Maybe the next congressman to release a brief on tax reform can propose a tax on red meat.

Are Republican Reformers Trying to Reform the Right Party?

The recent effort by a handful of Republican politicians to put forward plans to alleviate poverty and boost stagnant incomes, undoubtedly brought on by a Democratic messaging strategy increasingly centered on the subject of income inequality, has been enthusiastically welcomed by the so-called “reform conservatives” or “reformocons.” The reformocons are a diverse and diffuse group of conservative pundits and writers who not only argue that the GOP needs to replace (or at least supplement) its reflexive denunciations of the Obama Administration with a positive economic agenda aimed at providing greater economic security for the poor and middle class, but who have sketched out ambitious ideas of their own for how to accomplish those goals.

Chief among the would-be reformers are the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, who celebrated the movement’s small successes at gaining traction in his latest Sunday column; National Review’s Reihan Salam and Ramesh Ponnuru; National Affairs editor Yuval Levin; center-right healthcare wonk James Capretta; and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Strain. In 2008, Douthat and Salam coauthored a manifesto for “Sam’s Club Republicanism” called Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, the main thesis of which was that the Republican Party would need to craft a domestic policy agenda more attuned to working class anxieties about job loss and declining wages if it wanted to remain competitive in future national elections. In their view, the GOP’s Bush-era economic platform remained stuck in the 1980’s, with lowering marginal tax rates for high-earners, reducing the regulatory burden on business, and balancing the federal budget (primarily if not solely through spending cuts) seen as timeless solutions just as well-suited to the problems of the mid-2000’s as to those of twenty or thirty years earlier.

Of all the specific issues discussed in Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam’s top priority is shoring up the two-parent family, which they consider vital to not only guaranteeing that children are raised in stable homes, but to lessening the extent to which the social safety net is called upon to care for the next generation. To that end, they advocate for an expansion of the child tax credit and a recognition of the fact that raising children is essentially an investment in society’s future that society should strive to encourage and support in whatever ways it can.

The pair also express qualified admiration for the Roosevelt-era New Deal, which they believe was successful in laying the groundwork for the greatest period of shared prosperity in American history, in part because of the New Dealers’ efforts to consciously design programs like Social Security in a way that incentivized marriage and parenthood. And while they agree that contemporary mores forbid us from revisiting some of the New Deal’s more explicitly sexist elements, they are nevertheless critical of modern liberalism for being “allergic to moralism in public policy,” and maintain that it is wholly legitimate for the government to design social programs in a way that privileges certain family structures over others.

The (relative) flowering of Republican policy entrepreneurship in recent weeks, from Marco Rubio’s speech on poverty to the publication of an essay by Michael Strain in National Affairs on why the Right ought to be taking far more seriously the problem of mass long-term unemployment – a piece hailed by David Frum as the “Ninety-Five Theses” of the nascent reform movement – has seemingly made reformocons like Douthat hopeful that their moment has arrived at last. Yet their ebullience has been met with skepticism in certain quarters. In response to a Times column by David Brooks about how “[t]he emerging conservatives won’t have to argue with or defeat the more populist factions on the right; they can just fill the vacuum,” Richard Yeselson penned a strident piece for The New Republic which proclaimed that the GOP base has little appetite for the kind of reforms being pushed by the Grand New Partiers:

The Tea Party (which Brooks never mentions, but which is clearly on his mind) is not some aberrant or exogenous issue for the GOP. It is, in fact, the base of the party, perhaps totaling more than 50 percent of its support… Republicans are, at best, ambivalent about social insurance and transfer payments. They oppose universal health insurance, food stamps, and unemployment benefits…

This is today’s ideologically and ethnically homogenous Republican Party, an institution that must care enough about Yuval Levin’s grand plans to actually convert them into law and policy. There is no evidence that state or national Republican politicians will do so… There are no major policy arguments with the GOP, only tactical disagreements like whether or not to leverage the renewal of the debt ceiling. This is pretty much the agenda supported from everybody from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader John Boehner to first-term legislators in Texas, North Dakota, and Mississippi…

Are [the GOP’s donors] any more likely than an Evangelical in the Deep South or a Tea Party libertarian in Arizona to support Michael R. Strain’s job proposal—which, among other things, includes worksharing, infrastructure investment and providing subsidies for workers who move where jobs are more plentiful—rather than their usual demands of low taxes and minimal regulation? Are the Koch brothers reading the National Interest and thinking they need to invest $100 million in passing the Strain plan? The Chamber of Commerce may be looking for smoother, less obviously extreme candidates next time around—but that is a cosmetic, not ideological, difference.

Regardless of how accurate Yeselson’s portrait might be, the reformers do indeed have their work cut out for them. Or do they? If their goal is to transform the Republican Party into a suitable political vehicle for the sort of ideas discussed at length in Grand New Party – tax reform targeted at working families rather than high-earners, near-universal catastrophic health coverage – then the task is certainly daunting. On a range of issues, they are faced with the challenge of not only persuading Republican office-holders or candidates to adopt their particular solutions to problems like widespread unemployment or rising healthcare costs, but to consider those problems urgent priorities in the first place. Douthat has insisted that the innovative conservatism championed by individuals like Utah Sen. Mike Lee is the most intellectually fertile of all the various strains of Republicanism circulating today, and that its future is bright. But that kind of conservatism also has serious liabilities that may limit its ability to turn “Sam’s Club Republicanism” into a reality.

On the other hand, if the goal of the reformocons is merely to see their ideas accepted and implemented regardless of who does the implementing, then their job is potentially much easier. In a recent issue of Commonweal, J. Peter Nixon argued that the “conservative alternatives to Obamacare” advocated by Douthat, Salam, Capretta, and others are not so much alternatives to Obamacare as they are slight modifications to its basic structure. Amending the Affordable Care Act’s minimum benefit requirements to allow insurers to sell plans that would cost consumers less upfront but offer less comprehensive benefits wouldn’t actually be such a terribly radical move. As Nixon sees it, it might be easier for those truly concerned about fixing the law’s structural defects to work on convincing the Democrats to do the fixing:

The irony is that for all these differences, Obamacare and the conservative reform plans have a lot in common. Both subsidize the purchase of private insurance as a means of expanding coverage, both seek to increase competition among health plans as a way of driving down costs, both want to prevent insurers from discriminating against the sick, and both try to make this economically viable by bringing more healthy people into the insurance pool.

One could certainly imagine changes to Obamacare that would address many of the concerns raised by Ponnuru, Douthat, et. al. The benefits package could be made less generous and more catastrophic options could be allowed. States could be given more flexibility in running their exchanges or managing Medicaid. The excise tax on high-cost employer-provided health plans could be raised, making plans less generous and consumers more cost-sensitive.

But that is hardly “repeal and replace.” Rather than being a radically different “conservative alternative” to Obamacare, what the reform conservatives are proposing is just a few steps to the right along the same continuum. While one can hardly expect the left to endorse it, the real problem for reform conservatives may be their friends on the right. For the GOP base, the struggle against Obamacare has become an apocalyptic battle between Freedom and Tyranny, not an opportunity for the kind of policy give-and-take the reform conservatives are offering.

There already appears to be latent bipartisan support for scrapping some of Obamacare’s most controversial elements, like the medical device tax or the employer mandate, so it’s not as if selling Democrats on the political upside of making some “conservative” changes to Obamacare would be an especially Herculean task. It seems as if at least some of the Democratic reluctance to relitigate aspects of the ACA has been motivated more by the political need to defend its legitimacy and general conceptual outline against sustained Republican attacks than by any particular affinity for every last detail of the law.

Healthcare is just one issue, but the same logic applies to others as well. The 2009 stimulus, signed into law barely a month after Barack Obama first took office, could no doubt have been designed and implemented in a more targeted way, and few deny that infrastructure projects can be a breeding ground for cronyism and rent-seeking. But if you are interested in using government power, be it in a restrained or more muscular fashion, to address the lingering unemployment crisis, would it be better to pitch your ideas to the party that considers that problem one of its top priorities, or the one that has moved on to other concerns?

The reformocons are justifiably interested in returning us to a time when real, meaty, center-right alternatives were offered up in response to liberal legislative proposals. The problem is that, as Paul Krugman has opined from the left, the key to restoring a healthy dialectical relationship between the two major parties may not be to focus on changing the tone of the conversation and on refining the intellectual quality of the debate in a hope that substantive policies will follow automatically from the fact that everyone is talking about serious ideas and being nicer to one another.

Rather, it may be to see to it that policies that will reinvigorate the economic fortunes of the middle class are put into place, even if one party has to do so by itself, and then watch as a new bipartisan consensus forms around those policies as it did in the years and decades following the New Deal (in many respects, this was the theory to which the Obama Administration seemed to subscribe early in the president’s first term). The view of someone like Krugman about what policies those should be obviously differs from the view of someone like Douthat or Salam, but the principle remains the same. Get your agenda enacted, get the great mass of the American people behind you, and then see if the other party is willing to engage you in a more productive way.

The counterintuitive bottom line here is that the reformers might have more luck building their Grand New Party within the Democratic Party. Of course, a natural rejoinder will be that the Democrats would be just as opposed to embracing the sociocultural priorities of conservatives as the Republicans would be to embracing the economic priorities of liberals – perhaps more so. I’m not sure this is true. Just as much of the opposition on the left to any tinkering with Obamacare is driven by fears that that tinkering will lead to wholesale sabotage, so too does it appear that liberal apprehension about “family friendly” policies is driven at least in part by a fear that they are simply disguises for anti-gay animus and the like. David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, whose “New Conversation on Marriage” project I wrote about a while back, believes that liberals might be more willing to embrace a “pro-marriage” agenda in a world where same-sex marriage is legal and revanchist attempts to roll it back have largely faded away.

And indeed, there is clear evidence that this could be the case. Public Discourse featured an essay last week that discussed Barack Obama’s support for initiatives to combat fatherlessness, albeit as part of a case that such support is logically inconsistent with his endorsement of same-sex marriage. The most philosophically rigorous social conservatives will no doubt find Obama’s gay rights advocacy to be an insurmountable obstacle to taking seriously his apparent concern about the problem of fatherlessness, but what this anecdote actually reveals is that prominent Democrats, up to and including the most prominent Democrat of all, recognize that family breakdown is a real problem requiring real solutions. Since public opinion is clearly headed in the direction of greater acceptance of same-sex marriage, the day when Democrats are willing to embrace a Blankenhornian or even a Douthatian vision of how the levers of public policy can be used to promote marriage may be nearer than its conservative critics believe.

Douthat’s Sunday column explains how, after years of struggle, reform conservatism is finally ascendant in the Republican Party, but it never defends the tacit assumption that the Republican Party is where it should be struggling to ascend in the first place. Near the end of the piece, Douthat strikes a cautionary note:

The more likely solution for the G.O.P. has always required a two-step process: rising-star politicians coalesce around a new agenda; then a winning presidential candidate puts it into effect. Which may not happen in this case — because the party’s base may be too rejectionist, because Hillary Clinton may actually be unstoppable no matter what her rival’s platform says, because two senators do not a reformist moment make.

As I see it, Douthat underestimates precisely how formidable an obstacle that first threat – the “rejectionism” of the GOP base – really is.

The cover of Grand New Party features an endorsement from David Brooks declaring that the book offers a roadmap for “where the GOP should and is likely to head.” The second half of that statement seems like wishful thinking. If Hillary Clinton “may actually be unstoppable no matter what,” then maybe it’s time for the reformocons to broaden their search for a patron.

How Nuclear Weapons Can Serve the Cause of Moderation

I had planned on posting a response today to Chris’ recent take on the flawed rollout of Obamacare, but that will have to wait. There’s simply no way we can talk about right now when this week brought something far more consequential for the future of American politics. (Actually, we might be able to talk about somewhere along the way. We’ll see how it goes.)

Around noon on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), backed by 51 of his fellow Democrats, set off a nuclear bomb on the floor of the Senate. “How did they get it past security?”, you might ask. Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t a real bomb! The nuke in question was the so-called “nuclear option,” a parliamentary tactic that allows the chamber’s rules to be altered by 51 senators (a simple majority) where ordinarily 67 (a two-thirds supermajority) are required. Technically the nuclear option does not involve formally changing the rules, but rather successfully appealing a ruling from the chair in a way that creates a new, binding interpretation of them. The proximate cause of the showdown, which represents a dramatic escalation of a long-simmering crisis, was a Republican filibuster of three of Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit on the grounds that the court is “underworked” and the president is attempting to “pack” it with his ideological allies.

The history of both the phrase and its threatened use has been amply documented in media coverage of the rule change, and so I won’t go into all of the details here. Instead, I want to focus on how I think people interested in moderate and effective governance should feel about this development, and what its likely effects on the dynamics of the American political system will be over both the short run and the long run.

The essence of the change is that only 51 votes will now be required to cut off debate on most presidential nominations to executive positions and to seats on federal courts, which are required to receive the “advice and consent” of the Senate before they take effect. For now, Supreme Court nominations will remain filibuster-able, as will legislation. One immediate consequence is that it will now be much easier for the President to staff the government with individuals of his choosing. Some tentative steps were taken last year toward giving the president greater power over executive appointments when Congress voted to exempt dozens of positions from the requirement of Senate confirmation, but Thursday’s change goes even further in this direction.

One reason why this is significant is that some federal agencies are structured in such a way that their legal powers are not fully instantiated until they have an official, Senate-confirmed head. One such agency is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. Republicans blocked the nomination of Richard Cordray, Obama’s pick to lead the Bureau, for over a year because they wanted it to be restructured in a way that decentralized its authority. (Cordray was ultimately confirmed several months ago as part of a deal whereby Republicans dropped their objections to several nominees in exchange for Democrats agreeing not to invoke the nuclear option. Quite a durable deal, that was.)

Cordray is in fact an illustrative example of the opposition’s modus operandi on appointments throughout the Obama Administration. Senate Republicans have publicly admitted on numerous occasions that the individuals whom they choose to block are not unqualified, nor do they suffer from character defects that ought to bar them from taking office. Rather, the objections are usually based on the fact that blocking nominees is a way of blocking aspects of the President’s agenda, insofar as the implementation of that agenda involves regulatory or other extra-legislative actions. In other cases, the Republicans have stymied nominees for reasons wholly unrelated to either the nominees or their would-be positions, as when Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) announced that he would place a hold on every nomination he could until he received permission from the White House to question survivors of the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

The key question is whether such practices should be permissible. Republicans have warned that Democrats will come to rue the day they detonated the nuke; at some point, when they are once again consigned to the minority in the Senate and a Republican once again sits in the White House, they will be unable to block nominations they don’t like. But Reid and his allies calculated that this was a risk worth taking – to the extent that they even viewed it as a risk.

While I remain partially agnostic about the procedural legitimacy of the way in which the rules were changed, I agree with the argument put forward by Senate Democrats that the benefits of a president – any president – being able to staff the government in a timely fashion outweigh the costs of sometimes seeing the government staffed by a president with whom one disagrees. After all, allowing the president more autonomy and discretion in the implementation of laws already passed will make it easier for voters to judge whether a particular administration has been successful. It will now be far more straightforward for the electorate to know whom to reward when the government is managed well and whom to punish when it is not.

It also makes it more likely that presidents will fire officials who do their jobs poorly, since it will now be much easier to replace them. Slate’s Dave Weigel, after musing on Twitter that the path is now cleared for Obama to put Bill Ayers on the Supreme Court, noted that Obama could dismiss Kathleen Sebelius for her role in the debacle and not have to worry about the prospect of getting a new Secretary of Health and Human Services confirmed (see, we got to talk about!). Wonkblog‘s Ezra Klein concurred, and speculated that more individuals might now be willing to accept presidential nominations, since the risk of another Peter Diamond affair has diminished. And, freed from the need to mollify enough members of the observation to dodge a filibuster, he added they might even be willing to express their views with greater candor during the confirmation process.

Now that the stigma against using the nuclear option is gone, it is virtually inevitable that the filibuster will be weakened further or even outright eliminated in the future. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It seems to me that one of the long-run effects of this rule change and the rule changes that are sure to follow will be to increase, if only slightly, the standing of Congress in the eyes of the public, and to restore, if only somewhat, Americans’ faith in the efficacy of government. In so doing, the influence of anti-government or anti-establishment ideologies may be diminished, a development that would greatly benefit the cause of political moderation.

Defenders of the filibuster argue that it compels consensus-building and prevents the majority from running roughshod over the minority. It has certainly succeeded at the latter, though it has failed miserably at the former. Political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have written about the fact that the institutions of the federal government were not designed for an environment in which polarized parliamentary-style political parties wielded significant power, and that, now that we find ourselves in such an environment, we ought to take steps to move toward a different kind of governmental model.

The reason that we got by for so long without a total meltdown of the Senate was because there were unwritten rules of conduct and implicit codes of behavior that governed the actions of senators, in addition to the rules that are actually written down. Those norms have been steadily eroded, to the point where many are now nonexistent. The filibuster did not compel moderation; moderation compelled the judicious use of the filibuster.

Shouldn’t moderates worry about what might happen if the majority is consistently able to ignore opposing viewpoints? Maybe. But again, perhaps counterintuitively, empowering the majority might serve to combat some of the primary sources of cynicism about government. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) declared on the floor of the Senate after the rule change that Republican intransigence is a major cause of Congress’ rock-bottom approval ratings:

It is because of my great reverence for this institution and my love for our country, that I come to the floor today. One does not need to read the abysmal approval ratings of Congress to know that Americans are fed up and angry with their broken government. In too many critical areas, people see a Congress riven with dysfunction. Citizens see their legislature going from manufactured crises to manufactured crisis. And, they see a legislature that is simply unable to respond effectively to the most urgent challenges of our time.

Of course, there are a myriad of reasons for this gridlock: increased partisanship, a decline in civility and comity, too much power in the hands of special interest groups, a polarizing media, and the increasing time demands involved in raising a large amount of money to run for reelection.

But, make no mistake; a principal cause of dysfunction is the rampant abuse of the filibuster in the United States Senate. And, it is long past time to make the Senate a more functional body, one that is better able to respond to the nation’s challenges.

In response, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) argued that the real reason for the public’s disgust was the fact that Democrats had resorted to desperate and unseemly measures to pass major new legislation, like holding a middle-of-the-night Christmas Eve vote on healthcare reform in 2009.

Perhaps they’re both right. Although we’ve written before about the false allure of false equivalence, the question of who started the Senate’s filibuster wars really does look like a chicken-or-the-egg-type conundrum. Maybe the GOP started blocking judges because of the Democrats’ indecorous Obamacare machinations. Maybe the Christmas Eve session was itself a reaction to Republican obstruction. Regardless of which story is more accurate, one can see that eliminating the use of the filibuster on most appointments might have a salutary effect. Blocking nominations will no longer be a viable tool of political retaliation, and engaging in arcane procedural tactics to try to short-circuit obstruction will no longer need to happen as often.

As Tom Harkin explained in his floor speech, it doesn’t really matter who started it. The fact is that the federal government – and especially the Senate – is wildly dysfunctional, and even if people don’t know whom to blame they know they don’t like it. Maybe this small step toward functionality will be a small step toward dissipating some of the unremitting pessimism about the direction in which our country is headed.

Assessing the Political Repercussions of the Obamacare Rollout

President Obama has been taking serious heat for the botched rollout of Obamacare.  His approval rating has dropped to a new low of 39% amidst ongoing glitches with and the revelation that all Americans will not, in fact, be able to keep their current health insurance under Obamacare.  It appears that 10 million people have received or will receive cancellation notices for their current policies which do not fulfill the full “grandfather” clause of the new health law.  The subsequent and ongoing negative reactions to these issues prompted yesterday’s announcement that insurers could keep enrollees on their current plans through 2014 without any financial or legal consequences.

Whether you support or disagree with the Affordable Care Act, it behooves our country to hope for an immediate resolution to the issues plaguing Obamacare’s rollout.  Collective uncertainty about the status of individual health coverage will only amplify anxiety and confusion about the law as time goes on, which will make its implementation (or, for the Republicans out there, its theoretical repeal) all the more time-consuming and costly.  Even if you don’t think the law produces desirable outcomes, increasing uncertainty in the interim is not a desirable status quo.

Of course, many Republicans don’t feel this way.  Flip on a conservative television program or visit a conservative site and you’ll find a bevy of gleeful talking heads and columnists arguing that they were right all along.  Obamacare was a disaster from its inception, they say, but the President and Congress wouldn’t heed even the most simple of Republican requests to delay its implementation for a year.  And now look what’s happened!

This is, to my mind, the nightmare outcome from the budget battle-debt ceiling brouhaha that Matt and I covered last month.  Congressional Republicans went all in on the idea that Obamacare was so costly, inefficient, and harmful to the American people that it needed to be repealed (or, at the very least, delayed) at all costs.  We condemned this all-in mindset as reckless and needlessly dangerous for the health and credit of the United States and its people, and we still believe the Tea Party-led shutdown was a deeply irresponsible exercise in “governance.”

Now, however, those same Tea Partiers and Republicans who supported a repeal-Obamacare-or-bust mentality in budget negotiations have actual evidence to support their rationale.  GOP favorability ratings plummeted in the wake of the shutdown, but now Republican Senators and Congressmen have a message that actually might convince their constituents back home to vote for them: “We feared this kind of inefficient rollout would happen, which is why we explicitly demanded that the law’s implementation be delayed for a year.  Democrats wouldn’t compromise at all with us and forced us to shut down the government.  And now look what’s happened- we were right.  The law needs to be delayed.  We were the solution, not the problem.”

Bear in mind that I don’t buy this line of argumentation, but I think it could be quite convincing to independents and any voters whose health insurance was identified for cancellation under the new Obamacare standards.  Early information indicates that voters are indeed angry about the coverage gaffe in particular and Democratic Senators up for reelection in 2014 are furious at President Obama for the potential risk to their seats.  Ezra Klein has a good rundown of this situation in November 14’s Wonkbook.  Money quote from Joshua Green:  

Clearly, the failed rollout of the president’s health-care plan is causing the public to lose faith in him. But let’s remember that congressional Republicans forced the government to shut down, and that it was still shut less than a month ago. Yet today, Americans have more confidence in Republicans’ ability to govern than they do in Obama’s. This is plainly a lesser-of-two-evils situation. But it’s pretty remarkable nonetheless: Republicans haven’t just survived the shutdown, they’ve prospered—at least relative to Obama.

I have no particular affinity for the Democrats whose seats will be contested in 2014, but from a political standpoint, it is maddening that the irresponsible behavior of the Tea Party might prove to be a rhetorical asset for their upcoming electoral prospects.  There is little doubt that Tea Partiers are going to make the case that their shutdown / debt ceiling brokerage initiatives were justified.  The evidence they can provide to voters is increasingly damning if not effectively addressed immediately by the Obama administration: ongoing problems that probably won’t be fixed by December, anemic enrollment thus far, and the fact that 10 million Americans are losing their insurance despite Obama’s constant promises to the contrary.  It would be sickening to see the recklessness of Cruz and his scorched-earth colleagues rewarded with substantial 2014 gains because the President and HHS dropped the ball so spectacularly.

The final cap on the shutdown fiasco, and the first step to decreasing the Congressional influence of uncompromising absolutists in the Tea Party, would have been a successful Obamacare launch that proved to the country it was popular and relatively efficient.  At that point, one hopes that a new crop of Republicans who accepted the reality of its implementation would work with Democrats to fine-tune the law and make it as cost-effective and fair as possible (or would have at least provided a comprehensive replacement plan if they insisted it was still unworkable).  Instead, we have the absolute worst-case political scenario brewing if isn’t fixed immediately.  The same Tea Partiers who shut down the government actually have more leverage than before to argue why the law is unworkable and potentially detrimental to the country.  To see these same Tea Partiers reelected with a mandate to continue their zero-sum fight would lead to a disheartening political mess for the foreseeable future. 

President Obama needed to ace his signature achievement’s implementation, not just for the benefit of the millions who stand to gain coverage from it, but for the immediate prospects of more moderate and practical governance.  The former will likely be attainable in the near future, but I fear the latter might have been lost for the near term.

Why Did Democrats Fold in the NJ Gubernatorial Election?

In the wake of Chris Christie’s 22-point drubbing of Barbara Buono in the New Jersey gubernatorial election, Matt posed a question on Twitter that is well worth asking:

“The mystery is not why Christie won. It’s why the Democrats (in NJ and elsewhere) never put up a fight.”

Indeed. As opposed to Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, Buono did not enjoy extensive campaign support from President Obama and other major Democratic players, and she was swept away by Christie’s fundraising, earning only $2.7 million to Christie’s $13.2 million. Over 50 Democratic mayors also broke party ranks and endorsed Christie, which bolstered his crossover appeal and suggested that Buono was too weak to even control her own party, as the Star Ledger pointed out in its endorsement of Christie. (See Matt’s excellent parsing of this endorsement for more.)

Was Buono hung out to dry by her fellow Democrats? Absolutely. Buono received a paltry $7,600 from two Democratic Governors Association groups this year, for example, compared to the $3 million that the DGA donated to ex-governor Jon Corzine’s reelection campaign. And Buono was not happy about this lack of support- at all. In her concession speech, Buono thanked her supporters who “withstood the onslaught of betrayal from our own political party.” Pretty vicious, venom-inflected stuff.

Buono’s disappointment with her party seems to be mutual. In an interview for NJTV News on November 7, state Democratic Committee Chairman John Currie gave a decidedly lukewarm evaluation of Buono’s campaign, suggesting the party had had little intention of providing her with substantive support. “Did her party let her down?” interviewer Mike Schneider asked Currie. “No… The party did not let her down. Maybe people let her down,” Currie said, an amusingly empty answer that elides the massive spending disparity and lack of party endorsements Buono received. “Did she run a bad campaign?” asked Schneider. “You know… she worked hard. She really worked hard,” Currie responded. Not exactly a ringing vote of confidence or approval.

On the one hand, it’s not surprising that Buono lost so heavily and failed to attract substantial support. Christie was enjoying double- and triple-digit leads months ago and it makes sense Democrat funders and party leaders would ultimately conclude the race was unwinnable. It’s also understandable why no other, stronger candidates entered the gubernatorial race, as it was a high-risk campaign with a low probability of victory that would only serve as a major career deterrent or even disruptor. That’s why Cory Booker opted for a relatively easy campaign for the late Frank Lautenberg’s U.S. Senate seat and why other Democrats, including state Senate president Steve Sweeney, opted to sit this one out. “It would have been tough for anyone to beat [Christie] at this time, right now,” Currie told Schneider, which is probably why so many Democratic mayors hitched their cart to his breakneck horse. It might have made sense for the party as a whole to try and defeat Christie, but no individual politician wanted to risk current job security to become a sacrificial lamb.

Although Democrats understandably backed down from direct fights against Christie, it doesn’t make sense why there was a total lack of national and state funding to oppose him, especially in light of his clear aspirations to run in the 2016 presidential election. If he’s able to make it through the Republican primary process unscathed, Christie will be an immense threat to Hillary Clinton or whomever the Democrats nominate- much more so than any other Republican currently in consideration. The NJ gubernatorial election would have provided the perfect opportunity for national party leaders to sow the initial seeds of doubt over Christie’s qualifications for holding a higher office. While it might have made sense for Democratic leaders to avoid lucrative support for Buono, this race was a good point to start making the case against Christie.

And what a case there was to be made. Mere days before the election, an excerpt from Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Double Down: Game Change 2012 provided a laundry list of Christie incidents or issues that, in total, convinced Mitt Romney’s team that Christie wasn’t fit to be a Vice Presidential candidate:

The vetters were stunned by the garish controversies lurking in the shadows of his record. There was a 2010 Department of Justice inspector general’s investigation of Christie’s spending patterns in his job prior to the governorship, which criticized him for being “the U.S. attorney who most often exceeded the government [travel expense] rate without adequate justification…” There was the fact that Christie worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Securities Industry Association at a time when Bernie Madoff was a senior SIA official—and sought an exemption from New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. There was Christie’s decision to steer hefty government contracts to donors and political allies like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, which sparked a congressional hearing. There was a defamation lawsuit brought against Christie arising out of his successful 1994 run to oust an incumbent in a local Garden State race. Then there was Todd Christie, the Governor’s brother, who in 2008 agreed to a settlement of civil charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission in which he acknowledged making “hundreds of trades in which customers had been systematically overcharged.” (Todd also oversaw a family foundation whose activities and purpose raised eyebrows among the vetters.) And all that was on top of a litany of glaring matters that sparked concern on Myers’ team: Christie’s other lobbying clients, his investments overseas, the YouTube clips that helped make him a star but might call into doubt his presidential temperament, and the status of his health.

While none of these “scandals” is by any means politically fatal, one can’t help but imagine a scenario where Democrats dug deeper to find this kind of information in early 2013 and started blasting it in sequential media blitzes throughout the year. It’s still probable that Christie would have won due to his popularity, his handling of Sandy, and the fact that all of these accusations could be defended against and swept under the rug. But it’s equally likely that Christie’s margin of victory would have been much narrower than it was in the end, given the potential for doubt these kinds of revelations would have raised in Christie’s character and preparedness for another term.

More importantly, broadcasting these attacks would have been a powerful and immediate offensive against a potential Christie 2016 run. It’s obviously too early to make any definitive predictions, but Democrats would be much better positioned if they end up facing a Rand Paul or Marco Rubio type instead of Christie, who combines a strongly conservative record (low taxes, anti-unions) with evidence of across-the-aisle compromise and practicality (not continuing to fight the gay marriage ruling). That Christie won 57% of the female vote and an astonishing 51% of the Hispanic vote has to have Democrat party leaders quaking in their boots. Investing in attacks on Christie now could have put a strong dent in these results and raised greater doubt about how successful a Christie presidential run could be.

And yet… nothing. National party leaders barely lent Buono a hand, and Christie rolled along all year with nary a challenge to his message of resilience against the storm and a record of bipartisan success. And that puts him in an excellent position for a presidential run. “Christie’s gigantic win positions him as one of the front-runners for 2016, and he came through this re-election campaign unscathed,” said Ed Rollins, who ran Ronald Reagan’s successful campaign for the White House in 1984. “He now gets a jump-start on any other potential opponents in lining up operatives and fundraisers.”

Perhaps the Democratic rationale was that it wasn’t worth spending money on a race that Christie was bound to win, given Buono’s lack of star power or ability to unite the state party. Or maybe it was based in the assumption that Christie will have a difficult time getting through the presidential primaries without doing major damage to his moderate standing, either through overabundant association with a tarnished GOP brand (Shutdown 2013, baby!) or through a fiery outburst that doesn’t play well with the folks in Idaho. Those are real concerns, and Christie could emerge with scars that leave him severely weakened for a fight with the Democratic nominee.

But it still seems like Democrats missed a golden opportunity to trim the governor’s wings and guarantee that he’ll have a harder time flying down the road. Christie’s reelection has launched him to the front-and-center of the 2016 race, and he’s now enjoying more recognition and national influence than ever before (see his upcoming ascendancy to chair of the Republican Governor’s Association). A greater anti-Christie campaign wouldn’t necessarily have made a substantial impact in the present, but it could have paid great dividends down the road if Christie’s current robust level of support is the engine to his continued rise in advance of the primaries. One has to wonder if Democrats will soon look back on the 2013 gubernatorial election and wish they could have done more to ground Chris Christie from the get-go.

The Political Economy of New Jersey’s Minimum Wage

Barring any last-minute surprises, New Jerseyans are poised to head to the polls on Tuesday ready to take the paradoxical step of reelecting Republican Governor Chris Christie by an overwhelming margin at the same time that they amend the state constitution to raise the minimum wage to $8.25 and to provide for automatic cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) in the future. Paradoxical because of the fact that Christie publicly opposes the ballot measure, and vetoed a bill passed by the Legislature earlier this year that would have enacted a policy almost identical to the one now being put to the voters.

In a statement following his conditional veto of a measure that would have raised the state minimum to $8.50 from the current federally-mandated floor of $7.25 while also instituting annual COLAs, Christie argued that the “sudden, significant minimum-wage increase in this bill, coupled with automatic raises each year tied to the United States Consumer Price Index, will jeopardize the economic recovery we all seek.”

Democrats in the Legislature argued at the time that Christie’s action was one he would come to regret, and that the opportunity to put the issue before voters in November would ultimately redound to their own political benefit. The electorate might not have been enthusiastic about the party’s little-known gubernatorial nominee, State Sen. Barbara Buono, but the minimum wage question would, according to this line of thinking, prod Democratic leaners to show up at the polls and allow the party to tap an otherwise unmotivated reservoir of anti-Christie votes. The excitement generated by a referendum campaign would help to make up for the enthusiasm gap left behind when better-known Democrats like Cory Booker – who, as the Star Ledger put it last December, “picked a cozy run for Frank Lautenberg’s Senate seat over a bare-knuckle brawl with the big man” – took a pass on the race.

But with polls now projecting that both Christie and Question Two will easily prevail, it is clear that this strategy failed to deliver. That said, the Democrats were not necessarily crazy for believing it would improve their chances; Christie just happens to be an exception to this particular rule of political thumb. The minimum wage has always been an effective cudgel with which Democrats can beat up Republicans. The policy is easy to understand and speaks to the personal experience of a sizeable fraction of the American population (even though only a small share of the workforce is earning the minimum wage at any given moment in time, the proportion of workers who have ever earned the minimum at some point in their lives is much higher).

The most common argument against raising the minimum wage, like many arguments proffered by Republicans in defense of less government regulation, relies on an apparent counterintuition. Claims that low-income people are hurt the most by policies that require employers to pay their low-income workers more, whatever their validity, resonate less with voters than the simple populist refrain that wealthy business owners can afford to (and therefore ought to) share more of their surplus with the little guys. For that reason, Republicans will almost always be at a rhetorical disadvantage whenever the issue comes up. Those who are worried about the party’s long-term viability and competitiveness in national elections should be eager to find some way to take it permanently off of the table.

Ten states have minimum wages that are indexed to inflation. Both Barack Obama and his former challenger Mitt Romney are supportive of inflation indexing at the federal level, yet congressional Republicans continue to block the proposal. By doing so, they only guaranteed that the issue will be resurrected by their opponents again and again. Perhaps Christie had all of this in mind, and vetoed the original bill in an attempt to let the Democrats resolve the issue for good without having to alienate his allies in the business community. Not that he didn’t alienate them anyway, though; some business groups are just as opposed to automatic minimum wage hikes as they are to ad hoc ones. The National Federation of Independent Business, a conservative advocacy group best known as the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that upheld the Affordable Care Act, recently tweeted that it is inappropriate to use constitutional amendments as a vehicle for making economic policy (given their support for state amendments prohibiting individual health insurance mandates, one suspects that this position is one of expedience rather than principle).

NFIB believes that allowing a provision like this to make it into a state constitution will make it harder to remove or amend when the injurious side effects of an ever-higher minimum wage begin to materialize. Even if their warnings about these effects are overblown, they may have a point: on my reading, the ballot measure only provides for increases in the minimum during years in which the Consumer Price Index rises, meaning that it would remain flat in the event that the CPI stagnates (similar to the way that COLAs work for Social Security). This means that a relatively severe bout of deflation could lead to a sharp increase in the minimum wage in real terms, potentially increasing the severity of an economic downturn.

How exactly this scenario would play out is an open question that will have to be left to empirical economic research, but all else equal, policymakers would indeed find it more difficult to tinker with the law if it were embedded in the constitution rather than dictated by statute. Early in his first term, Governor Christie advocated amending the state constitution to cap local property tax increases, though he ultimately struck a deal with the Legislature to enact a statutory cap instead. This was seen at the time as a victory for the Democrats, since a statutory cap would be easier to undo if, as many of them predicted, towns and municipalities found it too onerous to abide by the caps without sacrificing vital priorities.

All of that said, conservatives should still on balance find the idea of minimum wage COLAs appealing. They reduce uncertainty for businesses and make it easier for them to plan for the future. Instead of large, discrete hikes in the minimum that can come at unexpected times and be driven by the vicissitudes of public opinion and the vagaries of the political cycle, all future increases under such a policy regime would be modest and would occur at regular intervals. In response to Christie’s conditional veto of the original minimum wage legislation, Senate President Steve Sweeney declared that “[Christie’s] action shows that he believes politics and politicians need to remain part of the process on minimum wage… I think they need to be removed from it entirely.” Shouldn’t conservatives worried about the threat posed to the private sector by uncertainty be supportive of making labor market regulations more predictable?

Both Christie and the business community will likely come to be thankful for the fact that the minimum wage will never again be a subject of debate in New Jersey (if they don’t quietly believe this already). Democrats, in achieving a spectacular policy victory, will have relinquished a reliable political weapon. Imagine the benefit to the national Republican Party if it too came to grasp the deep logic of this issue and disposed of it once at for all at the federal level. Can anybody think of some candidate who, come 2016, might be able to help it connect those dots?

The U.S. Catholic Bishops: Right on Immigration, Wrong on Immigration Reform

This piece was previously posted at Millennial Journal

The Bishops Take a Stand

Left-leaning Catholics are used to being disappointed: disappointed by the Republican Party, for its apparent indifference to the economic travails of the working class; disappointed by the Democratic Party, for its slow but steady drift away from a big tent approach and toward the same with-us-or-against-us culture war mentality on divisive social issues that has overtaken the GOP; disappointed by conservatives within the Church, who insist that Catholics are morally obligated to vote against pro-choice politicians, but that one’s views on war and peace, gun control, poverty reduction, or the death penalty are merely matters of “prudential judgment;” disappointed by the media, which have tended to portray developments within the Church, justly or unjustly, in a generally negative light (at least until the election of Francis); and disappointed by the Catholics who in turn portray the media as persecuting the Church and who equate sophisticated anti-Catholicism in America with the mass murder of Christians in the developing world.

In recent years, these Catholics have also at times been disappointed by the Bishops, who so often demonstrate their political tone-deafness and frustrating knack for contributing to at least some of the trends driving intolerance of the Church in modern society. While those most sympathetic to the Bishops’ political positions and rhetorical strategies are certainly correct in claiming that they often do talk about other things that the mainstream media simply fail to notice, they tend to overlook the fact that there really are dramatic disparities in the amount and nature of attention the Bishops pay to different issues. Sure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has spoken out against the GOP majority’s sustained push in the House of Representatives to cut funding for nutritional assistance programs, but have they sponsored a “Fortnight for Food Stamps” to rally Catholics against the Republicans’ attacks on the social safety net?

Given the expectation among liberal Catholics that reading a front-page story about the Bishops’ latest comments on matters of public policy will quite possibly result in vigorous facepalming, it ought to be especially satisfying to see the USCCB not only siding largely with President Obama and the Democrats on the issue of immigration reform, but backing the cause with nearly as much energy as it spent fighting the administration over the Affordable Care Act. Although the issue is in danger of slipping off the political radar entirely as Washington is consumed by another series of fiscal skirmishes and the current government shutdown, it seems that their commitment to making sure it doesn’t disappear is genuine and strong.

It really ought to be satisfying, but alas, it isn’t. As happy as I am to see the Bishops endorsing a legislative initiative of the Democratic Party with the full force of the episcopal bully pulpit and finally drawing public attention to the fact that the social vision of the Church does not map perfectly onto the platform of either major party, I’m afraid I have to point out that I think the Bishops have gotten this one wrong, too.

Mind you, this is not to say that they should be backing the majority Republican view. To the extent that the dominant conservative position on immigration is founded upon principled objections to the sort of proposals that have been embraced by most congressional Democrats and many congressional Republicans (and not on raw xenophobia), it is largely misguided as well. Ever longer and taller border fences are probably not the best use of public resources.

It is also not to suggest that their hearts are in the wrong place. I am well aware of the irony involved in appropriating the argument that Catholics can differ over matters of “prudential judgment” but not over “fundamental moral precepts” when I just alluded in my opening paragraph to the way in which that argument has been used as a cudgel by those with a minimalist understanding of what it means to be pro-life. That said, I really do think the Bishops are right about the principles that ought to inform the immigration debate, if not about the policy. In fact, I think they’re more right about those principles than most of the politicians involved in the ongoing national conversation, including many Democrats.

In an editorial published in USA Today several months back, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and current President of the USCCB, opened by saying that

[i]mmigration reform is an issue close to Catholic hearts. America has wonderfully welcomed generations of immigrant families, and our parishes, schools and charitable ministries have long helped successfully integrate immigrants into American life.

This column kicked off a summer of advocacy by the Bishops, which included preaching about immigration at Sunday Masses and lobbying Catholic legislators to support reform. The New York Times at the end of August quoted Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the USCCB, as saying that “[w]e want to try to pull out all the stops… They have to hear the message that we want this done…”

On June 27th, the United States Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (BSEOIMA) of 2013, the so-called “Gang of Eight” bill authored by Senators Bennet, Durbin, Flake, Graham, McCain, Menendez, Rubio, and Schumer. Not only does the bill deviate from the Washington norm of naming legislation with clever backronyms – they couldn’t have thought of something pithier than “BSEOIMA”? – it also fails to comport with the norms of justice and fairness that the Bishops have declared must be made manifest in any overhaul of the immigration system.

As I see it, the BSEOIMA should be opposed (by everyone, but especially by the Bishops) for three primary reasons:

  1. The bill moves U.S. immigration law away from a system that values and prioritizes family unity and toward one that evaluates potential entrants on the basis of their economic utility;
  2. The bill expands so-called “guestworker programs” that offer immigrants little recourse in the event of mistreatment or exploitation by their employers;
  3. The bill threatens to exacerbate deeply entrenched economic problems that affect the well-being of large segments of the American population, without taking any measures whatsoever to counteract these trends.

Competing Visions of the Purpose of Immigration

Currently, U.S. immigration law allows U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents to sponsor certain categories of relatives in their own bids to legally enter the country. Although permanent residents are only permitted to sponsor their spouse or child, citizens may also sponsor their parents or siblings. The Gang of Eight bill would put an end to sponsorship of siblings.

It gets worse, though. Since there are quotas on the number of visas that can be issued for each category of family member in a given year, as well as restrictions on the percentage of these visas that can go to potential entrants from given parts of the globe, there are long waiting lines to be approved for legal entry – lines that can last for decades. The Gang of Eight bill does not simply bar the brothers and sisters of American citizens or permanent residents from petitioning for citizenship in the future, it actively culls those who are currently standing in line. Relatives who have been waiting for years to join their loved ones in America will now be denied the opportunity to do so.

And for what purpose? There might understandably be a need to tighten up the law if citizens and green-card holders were allowed to sponsor third cousins twice-removed, and there is little doubt that the difficulty of detecting fraudulent petitions would increase if such distant relatives were permitted to petition for entry. But we’re talking about brothers and sisters!

It turns out that the purpose of this provision has nothing to do with preventing fraud. Rather, it is motivated by the belief that decisions about which immigrants to welcome into the country should be based on judgments about their expected economic value. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the Gang of Eight, has declared that

[g]reen cards should be reserved for the nuclear family. Green cards are economic engines for the country. This is not a family court we’re dealing with here. We’re dealing about [sic] an economic need.

This vision of the ultimate purpose of immigration is directly at odds with that of the Church, as articulated by Dolan in the editorial quoted earlier:

[F]amily unity, based on the union of a husband and a wife and their children, must be a cornerstone of immigration reform, because strong families are the foundation of the robust communities that integrate immigrants into American life.

One can try to interpret the allusion to the “union of a husband and wife” in a number of different ways. It could be a reference to the issue of same-sex marriage, which has since been divorced from the immigration debate by the Supreme Court’s June ruling invalidating Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It could even be an endorsement of Lindsey Graham’s position that only the “nuclear family” should qualify for preferential treatment under immigration law.

Yet it is undeniable that these are in fact two radically divergent understandings of what immigration is for. According to the utilitarian perspective that sees green cards as “economic engines,” immigration is only a means to an end. The immigrant is granted the privilege of entering our country on the grounds that he is likely to be more productive than others who are similarly situated. According to the Church though, immigration is a natural right. As the Catechism puts it,

[t]he more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (2241)

In Graham’s opinion, the purpose of immigration law is to restrict the entry of those who will not increase America’s GDP; in the Church’s view, legal restrictions on immigration are at best a necessary evil, a kind of administrative inevitability that should interfere as little as possible with the right of foreigners to seek “the means of livelihood which they cannot find in their country of origin.” Of course, “various juridical conditions” like visas, background checks, and the like will always be necessary to keep track of newcomers and to ensure that they are not engaging in criminal activity or otherwise threatening the well-being of others. Restrictions on the entry of individuals with communicable diseases might also be an example of sensible regulation in this area.

Now, it is certainly true that even “prosperous nations” are limited in the number of immigrants that they can reasonably be expected to welcome, especially if the immigrants that they receive end up requiring public assistance or the help of the social safety net. Difficult choices about whom to turn away are unavoidable, and it is entirely appropriate to consider skills and employability when making the tough calls. This doesn’t change the fact that family unity ought to be the priority. It should not be considered a luxury or treated as a subordinate concern. If we faced a situation in which we were up against the absolute limit of how many immigrants we could let in to the U.S., then it might be justifiable to cancel sibling sponsorship so as to maintain sponsorship for parents and children. We are clearly up against no such constraint.

The page on the USCCB website devoted to comprehensive immigration reform says that “[c]hanges to family-based immigration should be made to increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times.” Nowhere does it specify that only “nuclear families” count as families. Although the theology of the Church certainly privileges marriage as a unique kind of relationship, it would be disingenuous to claim that the Bishops do not have other relations in mind when they speak of “family unity.”

During the healthcare debate of 2009 and 2010, a small bloc of pro-life Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) signaled that they would not vote for the final legislation unless stronger protections were included to ensure that federal funds would not be used to pay for elective abortions. President Obama was ultimately able to secure their votes by signing an executive order reaffirming the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortion, but the USCCB was not satisfied. It continued to oppose a piece of legislation that advanced an objective which the Bishops themselves had deemed to be of vital importance – access to healthcare for the poor and uninsured – on account of a hypothetical harm.

If the Bishops were willing to fight legislation containing provisions that could possibly have resulted in outcomes that the Catholic Church would find unacceptable, then surely they must be willing to resist a bill that will in fact lead to the continuation of inhumane policies. Yet anyone who considers it a close call need not base his opposition on this one provision about sibling migration. Even more insidious than the changes to the rules governing family sponsorship are the portions that relate to so-called “guestworker programs.”

The Exploitation of Guestworkers

There are currently two major types of visas granted by the United States: immigrant visas (“green cards”), which are given to “permanent residents” who are seeking to eventually become naturalized citizens, and non-immigrant visas, which include those issued to tourists and others who will only be in the country for a limited period of time.

This latter category also includes the H1-B, H2-A, and H2-B visas, which are issued to skilled professionals (those with a bachelor’s degree or higher), non-skilled agricultural workers, and non-skilled workers in other sectors, respectively. The Gang of Eight bill would not only increase the annual cap on the H1-B visas by over 100,000 per year, but it would create new guestworker programs.

One of these, the “W visa,” would issue up to 200,000 permits to those seeking work in construction, retail, and other sectors. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank that describes itself as “pro-immigrant” but in favor of “low immigration” and that describes its mission as creating an America “that admits fewer immigrants but affords a warmer welcome for those who are admitted,” the Gang of Eight bill “would increase annual temporary worker admissions by more than 600,000 each year over the current level.”

Why is this a bad thing? Doesn’t this dovetail with the Catechism’s call for governments to facilitate the migration of those seeking to work hard to improve their lot? Not necessarily. Recipients of H1 or H2 visas are granted a residency status that is contingent on their continued employment by the particular firm that sponsors them. This means that they have to leave the U.S. almost immediately in the event that they are let go by that firm. It’s easy to see how this puts guestworkers in a precarious situation. If they do anything to rock the boat, they can be dismissed and sent back to their home country.

Mary Bauer, the former Director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, testified to Congress back in 2008 that H2-A and H2-B visa holders are routinely cheated out of wages and sometimes made to endure abusive work conditions. She argued that “[g]uestworkers… live in a system akin to indentured servitude” and provided numerous examples of troubling and exploitative practices, including workers who are paid less than half the minimum wage but who “because of their vulnerability… are unlikely to complain about these violations;” some whose employers “refuse to provide [them] access to their own identity documents, such as passports and Social Security cards” in order to “guarantee that [they] remain in their employ;” and others who suffer serious injuries but are “discouraged” from filing for workers’ compensation lest they invite investigation of their employer’s problematic business practices. Bauer urged Congress at the time to do away with these programs, or at least reform them so as to stop these abuses. Yet Congress is not currently discussing whether to continue them, but how much to expand them.

There are many reasons why adding 600,000 temporary workers to the American labor force every year might not be ideal. The possible exploitation of a not insignificant share of those workers is one important reason. Another is the deleterious impact of drastically expanding the labor force during the worst period of mass unemployment since the Great Depression.

Of Salaries and “Super-Immigrants”

While we should generally be skeptical of complaints that a certain view is not being given a fair hearing in the political arena because it has been sidelined by the “elite consensus,” it is true that there is wide-ranging agreement along the whole spectrum from left to right that increasing the level of skilled immigration would be good for America. Highly intelligent and capable immigrants are, according to the conventional wisdom, likely to develop products or ideas that will lead to more employment and a better standard of living for domestic workers.

Even immigration reform critics like Daily Beast writer David Frum and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat are generally supportive of increasing the number of high-skilled visas, and the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives at one point signaled an openness to working on legislation in this area. Stony Brook economics professor Noah Smith once wondered on his blog what constituency could possibly be against such a win-win policy, writing that “for the life of me, I can’t figure out who is against high-skilled immigration.” Various others in the blogosphere have portrayed the importation of more “super-immigrants” as a free lunch for the American economy.

The problem is that talk of super-immigrants elides an important point, which is that the overwhelming majority of “skilled” immigrants, while no doubt intelligent and productive individuals, are not multifaceted geniuses and do not hold two doctorates or dozens of patents. Very few of them are Randian übermenschen who will start the next Virgin Galactic or Tesla Motors. What exactly would be the impact on the economy of bringing more of them into the United States?

The technology industry, for its part, has insisted that there are not enough American scientists and engineers to fill the positions that need to be filled. The shortfall is allegedly so severe that it can only be adequately dealt with by opening our borders to more foreign workers. Silicon Valley moguls like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have argued that firms like his increasingly have to look abroad to find the talent they need to remain competitive.

But if there really were a shortage of high-skilled workers, then the principles of supply and demand would suggest that wages would be increasing rapidly in the fields hit hardest by that shortage. Yet this is not what has been happening. According to a report from Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn and B. Lindsay Lowell of the Economic Policy Institute, wages in the information technology (IT) sector and for college graduates with majors in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields “have remained flat, with real [inflation-adjusted] wages hovering around their late 1990s levels…” Their conclusion is that

[t]he IT industry was able to attract increasing numbers of domestic graduates during periods of rising wages and employment, leading to a peak in wages and numbers of computer science graduates in the early 2000s. Since that time, the IT industry appears to be functioning with two distinct market patterns: a domestic supply (of workers and students) that responds to wage signals (and other aspects of working conditions such as future career prospects), and a guestworker supply that appears to be abundantly available even in times of relatively weak demand and even when wages decline or are stagnant… immigration policies that facilitate large flows of guestworkers appear to provide firms with access to labor that will be in plentiful supply at wages that are too low to induce a significantly increased supply from the domestic workforce.

The Center for Immigration Studies notes that this bifurcation of the labor market in certain sectors could help explain why firms that employ IT or STEM workers are so insistent that they face a shortage of talent:

Employers become accustomed to paying low wages and structure their businesses accordingly. Raising wages seems out of the question; they even [convince] themselves that wages actually don’t matter when recruiting.

Or as the economist Paul Krugman put it in a post on his blog “The Conscience of a Liberal” in late 2012,

[w]henever you see some business person quoted complaining about how he or she can’t find workers with the necessary skills, ask what wage they’re offering. Almost always, it turns out that what said business person really wants is highly (and expensively) educated workers at a manual-labor wage. No wonder they come up short.

While it may be true that there are no good arguments against increasing the number of visas for people who will revolutionize whole industries and create thousands of jobs, there is a simple argument against dramatically increasing visas for skilled workers in general: it will lead to downward pressure on wages in sectors of the economy that have seen flat or declining wages for a decade or more, without doing anything to apply countervailing pressures that might return us to a world in which incomes consistently rise over time.

If it’s true that talk of a shortage of STEM workers (or high-skilled workers more generally) is largely a myth, then there must be a veritable glut of low-skilled workers. After all, unemployment statistics have consistently shown that those in blue-collar occupations were, on average, hit harder than their white-collar counterparts by the recession and its aftermath. Yet wealthy donors to both the Republican and Democratic Parties have lobbied hard for an expansion of low-skilled visas as well, including the H2-A’s discussed above. The super-immigrant argument clearly does not apply in this case. Arguing for an increase in family-based visas that would have as an incidental side effect an increase in the population of low-skilled workers is one thing. Pushing for an increase in the number of work visas allocated to this category is much harder to justify.

What a Better Reform Might Look Like

What would immigration reform look like if we wanted to do it right? And why is the legislation discussed here sufficiently at odds with Christian notions of the common good that the Bishops should actually come out against it? It may seem that the arguments I’ve presented lead to contradictory conclusions. I began by maintaining that U.S. immigration law should be primarily family-based and that provisions regarding sponsorship of relatives should be much less restrictive. Yet I’ve also warned about the dangers of permitting unchecked immigration at a time of mass unemployment. How can we reconcile these apparently conflicting principles?

This is in some sense a false dilemma. We should not have to choose between welcoming foreigners seeking a better life in America and guaranteeing the welfare of native-born citizens. When we say that all men are created equal, we don’t mean that all American men are created equal and that everyone else is somehow secondary. Nationalistic and patriotic sentiments are ultimately no justification for offering preferential treatment to some individuals merely because they happened to grow up on a certain side of the ocean.

While I’m sympathetic to the impulse to encourage shoppers to “buy American” or to promote policies that will “insource” American jobs that have been shipped overseas, it may actually be the case that it would be best for the American economy in the long run if certain industries moved to other countries and new industries were allowed to rise up and take their place. “Our” gain does not have to come at the price of “their” loss. This need not be a zero-sum game.

At its root, the immigration debate is not, as reactionary xenophobes would have you think, about protecting the American homeland from the threat of the other. It’s about protecting the rights and dignity of all people who want to work hard and provide for their families. To that end, we should be pursuing policies that generate both a growing economic pie and that ensure that the poor and middle class are able to share in the fruits of that growth. We should be taking advantage of the fact that the federal government can borrow at historically low interest rates by putting construction workers back on the job repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We should be offering aid to struggling states and local governments to rehire police and firefighters and teachers who were laid off during the depth of the recession. Anxiety about foreign competition for American jobs would diminish dramatically if the economy were booming and anyone who wanted employment could find it.

A sensible, humane immigration policy would involve relatively open borders and would deter illegal entry, not with drones and barbed wire, but by expanding the use of systems like eVerify, which checks a person’s eligibility to work in the U.S. against government databases and which makes it harder for employers to hire undocumented migrants. To combat exploitative work arrangements, we should replace employer-based visas with permanent residency for all new entrants, not just those fortunate enough to have an employer willing and able to sponsor them – a policy that has been endorsed by professional organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. This would empower workers by increasing their willingness to challenge their bosses when they act in ways that violate labor laws or nondiscrimination statutes.

As I made clear earlier, we should make family-based immigration as easy as possible and should see to it that immigrants are not separated from their loved ones whenever it is in our power to prevent that from happening. Moreover, we need to recognize that access to certain basic necessities like food or healthcare should not be dependent on legal status or lack thereof. The Gang of Eight bill contains provisions that would make those currently in the country illegally ineligible for most public assistance programs even as it supposedly puts them on a “path to citizenship.” This is an unduly punitive stance that does not advance legitimate governmental interests.

In response to the inevitable criticism that I’ve fallen into the same trap the Bishops fell into during the healthcare debate by making the perfect the enemy of the good, I’ll simply point out that the Gang of Eight bill is not merely less than ideal. I do not suggest that the Bishops ought to oppose the bill because it does not solve every problem out there. They ought to oppose the bill because it creates new problems that have no hope of being solved by any Congress we are likely to have in the near future.

This is not to suggest that it does not contain anything good at all. On the contrary, the provisions that establish the so-called path to citizenship, a process for legalizing the existing population of unauthorized immigrants, are among its most laudable features and should be eagerly welcomed (if anything, the path should be made even simpler). For many people who aim to live and work in the United States, there is currently no way for them to enter the country legally even if they wanted to. That ought to change.

Consider what the USSCB argues on its website ought to be the core elements of any attempt at comprehensive reform: an “earned legalization program;” regulations that ensure “workplace protections, living wage levels, safeguards against the displacement of U.S. workers, and family unity;” changes that “increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times;” and enforcement measures that are “targeted, proportional, and humane.” In my view, it’s hard to argue that the Bishops had anything like the Gang of Eight bill in mind when they wrote that list.

Some commentators have pronounced immigration reform dead for the foreseeable future, but it is possible that we may be on the cusp of a renewed push to have the House of Representatives render its judgment on the Gang of Eight bill. While I clearly would like to see this particular incarnation of reform taken off the table, it may end up being defeated for the wrong reasons, including the fact that it doesn’t “build a big enough fence.” I find it frustrating and unfortunate that I have to rain on a rare parade of bipartisanship and argue that we shouldn’t deal with an issue that Congress has actually summoned the political will to address, but I believe that the Gang of Eight bill would ultimately do more harm than good, at least without a concurrent commitment to counteract its negative effects.

The Bishops often style themselves the defenders of unpopular and countercultural truths. Indeed, one can hardly accuse them of choosing their battles out of a concern for their approval ratings. Liberal Catholics should welcome their eagerness to encourage the leaders of both parties to finally tackle the serious problems that plague our immigration system. At the same time, they should hope and pray that this is not the issue where the Bishops decide to stop being countercultural.

Opposing Debt Ceiling Hostage-Taking is the Reasonably Moderate Thing to Do

Chris has offered a clarification of what he wrote last week about the “debt ceiling consequences of the [government] shutdown” in which he explains that he was not so much focused on how the shuttering of federal agencies might change the House Republicans’ calculations about how to approach the matter of increasing the debt limit as he was on the fact that a prolonged closure of the government would inevitably see the two disputes fused into one mega-dispute that would be much harder to resolve.

Given that these issues have been impossible for the two sides to dispose of separately, there is little reason to think that it will be any easier to do so if they are combined. Late last week, reports began surfacing that GOP leaders were coming to believe the only way out of the quagmire would be to finally strike a hitherto elusive “Grand Bargain” on taxes and spending with Obama and the Democrats. Business Insider’s Josh Barro posted on Twitter that “[t]he idea that resolving the shutdown becomes easier if you try to reform entitlements at the same time is so insane.” Convincing the Republicans to reopen the government and extend federal borrowing authority in one piece of legislation when they have been completely opposed to doing either separately will not be an easy task. Convincing them to do both of these things while also negotiating a fiscal accord that could not be concluded during any of the many attempts made since the wave election of 2010 – and to do all of that before the end of next week – would be downright Herculean.

Talk of the Grand Bargain may have faded, but the October 17th deadline is approaching fast and time to develop alternative plans is running short. This Week host George Stephanopoulos maintained on his ABC show this past Sunday that “the chances of actually tripping over into default are higher than they’ve ever been.” Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog has debuted a fun (but frightening) feature called the “Daily Default Dashboard” that uses a composite index of financial market indicators and online betting statistics to keep track of just how likely that outcome might be. As of yesterday, the needle had moved from “something’s not quite right” to “getting kind of scary” on account of interest rates on one-month Treasuries nearly doubling overnight.

I agree with Chris that the case for pessimism is strong. Yet I still think we as a nation are in a better position right now than if the Republicans had totally capitulated on the government funding issue and provoked the “whale of a fight” over the debt ceiling that House Speaker John Boehner promised back in August. For one thing, polls are beginning to show that the Republicans are indeed taking more of the blame than either Obama or congressional Democrats for the shutdown, and that even their own co-partisans are doubtful of the ultimate merits of their scorched-earth strategy (if one can call it a strategy). Unity in the Republican ranks is breaking down, even if the process of disintegration has so far proceeded in fits and starts.

By contrast, congressional Democrats – and especially Senate Democrats – have preserved their cohesiveness to a remarkable degree, selling even vulnerable red state members up for reelection next year on the benefits of maintaining a united front against the GOP. As a result, the Republicans have repeatedly downsized their demands and now seem willing to settle for relatively small-bore concessions like a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax or further means-testing of Medicare. Of course, the president’s position is still that any concessions are too many, but it is only because of his having adopted such an uncompromising stance in the first place that the opposition appears ready to end the crisis in exchange for token gestures.

On a related note, I think it’s important to flesh out a meta-point Chris made about his thoughts on the debt ceiling, namely why he felt the need to “come down so hard against the GOP.” He writes:

Negotiating over the specifics of a budget deal is one thing. A minority party’s use of its standing to block spending bills and dictate the legislative process is something else entirely. There will be a Republican President and Senate in the future; what happens if they encounter a Democratic House? Would we really want to go through this mess again? Establishing strong principle is imperative here, not for the benefit of the Democratic Party but for the integrity of the governing process.

Liberal commentators and politicians bemoan what they see as a “false equivalence” promoted by journalists, whom they perceive as reluctant to report on any example of bad behavior by members of one party without simultaneously highlighting a commensurate transgression on the other side of the aisle. While that is indeed a real problem, the current crisis has actually seen a range of nonpartisan media outlets displaying a greater willingness to assign blame solely to the Republicans.

To anyone who might charge us with abandoning our commitment to reasonable moderation by not offering up equally forceful criticisms of both parties, we answer that opposing debt ceiling hostage-taking is the reasonably moderate thing to do. As Chris pointed out, there are aspects of healthcare reform that can and should be changed, and we ought to having a vigorous debate about the fixes that need to be made as implementation proceeds. I suspect that he and I differ on what those fixes should be; maybe we can hash that out sometime soon. But for now, we are in agreement about the fact that the Republican Party’s current conception of the rules of American political engagement is a dangerous one. If we are ever again to be a fully functioning democracy, putting an end to these tactics is critically important.

More on the Budget Battle and Debt Ceiling Consequences

Matt’s post yesterday elucidated why the current budget battle might provide calmer waters for the upcoming debt ceiling debate. I hope he’s correct. The consequences of the government shutdown are harmful, to be sure, but they pale in comparison to the effects of breaching the debt ceiling. If the former precludes the latter, the argument can be made that our current squabbling was, in some unsatisfying ways, justified.

Unfortunately, it’s not guaranteed that the budget fight will assuage the Tea Party’s insistence on getting something out of the debt ceiling debate. Matt provides testimony from Evan Soltas, Ezra Klein, and Noam Scheiber about how the budget fight should temper the Republicans’ drive for extraction, but it’s still very much uncertain whether the House will roll over and lie down. Matt acknowledged this: “It is not necessarily the case that a shutdown-induced PR nightmare will diminish [the hard Right’s] appetite for further escalation. In fact, it might even do the opposite.”

More worrisome is the fact that the budget situation and the debt ceiling debate are increasingly joined at hip. Matt correctly points out that I didn’t clearly discuss the connection between the two in my previous post, and I apologize for that. By “possible spillover effects,” I meant that the entrenched disagreement between the House and the Senate / President Obama would carry on from the budget battle into the debt ceiling debate. Based on the risk of this entrenched opposition, the debt ceiling debate becomes a potential consequence of the budget battle when:

1) It’s decided that they should be addressed together, either by necessity or by agreement.

2) A limited timeframe for solving both mandates a sweeping policy proposal for immediate resolution.

Point number 2 becomes increasingly unavoidable as each day passes, and point number 1 is already happening. On September 28, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (W.I.) told National Review Online that “I think (the government shutdown) will fold into the debt ceiling fight. I think that’s inevitable. And preferable in my opinion. I like combining all of our leverage, which is sequester and the debt limit.” Perhaps more disconcertingly, even Democrats acknowledge this is a desirable outcome. “We’d like to move them both together,” says Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Democratic leader. “I think having them together is a good thing because who wants to go through this again. The hope is maybe once the Tea Party has realized it’s not getting its way on shutting down the government that they won’t try the same stunt on debt ceiling.”

(Another scenario not suggested by Ryan or Schumer: the GOP gives up on the budget battle and focuses solely on negotiating a non-Obamacare deal, such as additional sequester, with the leverage of the debt ceiling. This idea was adamantly supported by a host I briefly heard on the radio earlier this week. You know, because bargaining with the full faith and credit of the United States in the balance should always be the go-to strategy.)

Ryan and Schumer’s quotes are equally disturbing. Ryan speaks to the main reason why the Tea Party will continue to advocate for a government shutdown: it forces Congress to deal with both issues at once, supposedly giving the GOP a stronger hand against the Senate and President. This is the opposite outcome of Matt’s scenario and risks creating even further deadlock. Schumer, on the other hand, assumes Matt’s outcomes but uses Ryan’s rationale to come to them. It’s problematic if Democrats believe that combining the debates and giving Republicans a power play will somehow lessen the danger of toying with the debt ceiling.

Of course, one Senator and one Congressman do not a collective decision make. More importantly, John Boehner’s staff indicates that he will not allow House Republicans to wage a debt ceiling coup and will instead rely on a combination of Democratic and Republican votes to push a raise through regardless of the Tea Party faction’s objections. Most financial organizations are assuming this will be the outcome of the current squabbling; I read a quote (can’t recall the source) from one analyst saying that people are delusional if they think the U.S. would actually default on its debt obligations.

Although it’s highly unlikely we’d cross that line, it’s still a little unnerving to see some banks and organizations prepare for worst-case scenarios just in case. And even if a solution is reached before the October 18 deadline, consequences will still be felt if a lengthy negotiations process occurs. A drop in consumer confidence, declines in the stock market, and a credit downgrade all occurred in advance of the last-minute 2011 debt ceiling deal and economists are already warning about similar effects this time resulting from protracted negotiations.

Beyond the economic effects of continued squabbling over the debt ceiling, it would be supremely frustrating to have endured multiple weeks of government shutdown only to see the House force-pass a clean continuing resolution and an uncontested debt ceiling increase. The exact same outcome could have been achieved without any collateral costs had the same decisions been made in early September. Economists indicate that 0.1 to 0.2 percentage points of 4th quarter GDP growth could be lost with the government shutdown when all is said and done, notwithstanding any effects from a loss of consumer confidence linked to debt ceiling uncertainty. That’s in addition to the personal, social, and cultural effects of the shutdown, a number of which I listed in my previous post.

Matt correctly argues that this entire process could be an attempt by Tea Partiers to gain credibility with their caucuses via a major battle with President Obama. While it might be a cunning political decision for select Tea Party Congressmen to spend two weeks’ demonstrating their hearty opposition to Obamacare, the intent reeks of opportunism and selfishness. I wrote in my earlier post that the GOP can’t win this fight and I still don’t think they’ll be able to extract any meaningful concessions from the Democrats, which is ultimately why this whole process was a waste of time and resources. This might be how the political game is played but it doesn’t make it less sickening to watch.

Matt raises an excellent point about the potential risk of another debt ceiling fight in the run-up to the 2014 elections. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal of the Tea Partiers: go to the limits now to demonstrate their opposition to Obamacare, and agree to a new debt ceiling increase without any blowback next year. They’ll argue how they fought to the end without any success in 2013 and don’t want to risk another series of ill effects this year when, clearly, this President just won’t budge. Again, politically cunning but a disheartening use of force that causes more harm than good.

A brief word on why this writer is coming down so hard against the GOP. First, there’s the rationale that Ezra Klein gives on behalf of the White House:

Top administration officials say that President Obama feels as strongly about this fight as he has about anything in his presidency. He believes that he will be handing his successor a fatally weakened office, and handing the American people an unacceptable risk of future financial crises, if he breaks, or even bends, in the face of Republican demands. And so the White House says that their position is simple, and it will not change: They will not negotiate over substantive policy issues until Republicans end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.

Negotiating over the specifics of a budget deal is one thing. A minority party’s use of its standing to block spending bills and dictate the legislative process is something else entirely. There will be a Republican President and Senate in the future; what happens if they encounter a Democratic House? Would we really want to go through this mess again? Establishing strong principle is imperative here, not for the benefit of the Democratic Party but for the integrity of the governing process.

I also maintain that the GOP would have been better served fighting for smaller concessions right up to the October 1 deadline. Had they avoided a budget shutdown, they could have seized the difficulty-registering-for-Obamacare narrative immediately and added evidence to their case of why Obamacare, as currently constructed, is not necessarily the best path forward. This would afford them two avenues in advance of 2014: a better rationale for why the law should be repealed, or specific policy fixes that could be used to make the law more efficient. (I’d prefer to see the latter but I imagine Republicans would take the former.) Either way, it seems like they would have been better served, and would have better served the American people, by avoiding obstructionism. Their political gambit went the other way. Perhaps Matt’s forecast is correct and it will reap rewards for them down the road. Perhaps it won’t.

To extend Matt’s comparison, it might well be the case the shutdown is comparable to The Purge. Given the uncertainty we still seem to be facing, though, it’s possible that we’ll wind up with two separate purges or one big combined purge, either of which defeat the whole point of a purge in the first place.

The Government Shutdown is Kind of Like That Movie “The Purge”

Chris had a very thorough post on the debt ceiling crisis earlier this week that looked at both how we got here and at what might happen if Congress fails to increase the Treasury’s borrowing authority in the next couple of weeks. I think his analysis of the situation is correct: Congressional Republicans backed themselves into a corner in the course of their attempt to delay, defund, or repeal Obamacare in exchange for keeping the government open, and had better figure out a way to end the shutdown and raise (or “suspend”) the debt ceiling as expeditiously as possible. Whereas the shutdown “is more of an inconvenience than a minor cataclysm” (although “each passing day makes the situation increasingly worse for more and more people”), failure to raise the debt ceiling would at best result in unthinkable levels of austerity – and at worst an international financial crisis.

I was somewhat disappointed when I finished the piece though, since it was titled “The Debt Ceiling Consequences of the Shutdown” [emphasis added] and yet it never actually discussed the connection between the two events. Chris writes:

More problematic is that the largest potential consequences of the shutdown are still yet to come. It’s possible that the budget battle will have spillover effects for this month’s upcoming debt ceiling vote, a critical legislative process that could have global financial consequences if not handled responsibly.

He then presents us with some quotations about the negative impact of the 2011 debt ceiling debate on the U.S economy and on our reputation in the eyes of at least one of the major ratings agencies, as well as the likely result of letting the current standoff continue to escalate. But what exactly are the “possible spillover effects” of the current crisis on the next one? He never tells us.

I’m curious to hear more detail about how Chris thinks the two fights are linked, because I agree completely that they are. It seems to me, however, that the connection is much less ominous than you might think after reading his screed about how the House Republicans need to put an end to their “spitfire histrionics.”

In fact, I actually think it’s a good thing that we’re experiencing a shutdown right now, given the political climate in which we find ourselves. There were early signs that House Speaker John Boehner, who served under Newt Gingrich during the shutdowns of the 1990’s and knows from firsthand experience that the Republicans were widely perceived as having sustained more political damage from that debacle than Bill Clinton, would attempt to avert a shutdown by convincing his members that the best time for staging an apocalyptic confrontation with Obama would be when the debt limit needed to be increased.

The U.S. never having defaulted, the aftermath of a debt default is largely a collection of hypotheticals and unknowns. This means that, unlike in the case of a shutdown, there is no precedent for a failure to raise the debt ceiling having gone badly for Republicans. Therefore, according to this line of thinking, failure to raise the debt ceiling has more potential upside for the GOP than failure to pass a continuing resolution that keeps the government running. This may or may not seem like a strange argument, depending upon how risk-averse you are and how much you believe the warnings of economists and financial analysts who say that this is a very dangerous game to be playing.

Wonkblog’s Ezra Klein wrote back in August that “trading a government shutdown for a debt-ceiling breach is like trading the flu for septic shock” and that Boehner’s apparent attempts to “talk his party down from this tree [allowing a shutdown]” would only make it that much more difficult to get it down from “that higher, more dangerous, tree [allowing a breach of the debt ceiling]” in a few months’ time.

By the last week of September, Wonkblog was featuring a post entitled “We may have a shutdown after all. And that may be a good thing.” Echoing the logic of his earlier tree metaphor, Klein and his co-blogger Evan Soltas reacted to the view of Politico reporters Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan that if “unified Democratic opposition forces Republicans to swallow a government funding bill they deem less-than-satisfactory, House Republicans will certainly counter by increasing their demands for reform when it comes to the debt-ceiling legislation.” Soltas and Klein reply that

when it comes to the final compromise on the bill, Sherman and Bresnahan are surely right: House Republicans are going to be more resistant to raising the debt ceiling if they feel they didn’t even stand and fight on the CR [continuing resolution]. If avoiding a government shutdown means breaching the debt ceiling — or even just increasing the likelihood of a breach in the debt ceiling — that’s a very bad trade. The corollary, of course, is that accepting a shutdown for a much lower likelihood of a debt-ceiling breach might be a good trade…

It’s a mark of the insane and reckless turn in our politics that shutting down the government so one of our [two] major political parties can get the brinksmanship out of its system is emerging as the sober, responsible thing to do. But here we are, greatest nation the world has ever known.

It might be helpful to think of the shutdown as kind of like that movie The Purge, which I have never seen. My understanding of the premise is as follows: at some point in the near dystopian (utopian?) future, society figures out that the most effective way of keeping crime rates low is to designate a single day every year on which all criminal activity is temporarily legal. A twenty-four hour period in which everyone is free to unleash his darkest impulses functions as a sort of emergency release valve that keeps violent and anarchic tendencies from erupting unexpectedly at other points during the year. (Yes, I realize that this is a strange model of human nature, and that this “cure” is in many ways worse than the disease, and that we’re actually discussing this movie as if it offers meaningful insights about reality. But just suppose for a moment that there’s something to it.)

All politicians talk about “fighting” for their constituents and for their agendas, but the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement is imbued with military imagery to an unusual degree. Insurgent conservative politicians nowadays are loath to express a willingness to work with members of different ideological persuasions. It’s natural to expect that constant assurances by Tea Party-backed congressmen that there will soon be an epic battle with Obama that never actually takes place will only result in an unhealthy cycle of heightened expectations followed by crushing disappointment.

At some point, these congressmen will actually need to deliver on their promises to avoid facing primary challenges and the wrath of their donors. Better for them to force a real-life showdown when failure to reach a deal implies as little actual damage as possible. At least they’ll retain some credibility in the eyes of their supporters when the time comes to cave on something else. As Klein and Soltas put it, maybe it would be best for everyone if the extreme wing of the GOP “got the brinksmanship out of its system now” and gave itself permission to behave more responsibly during the next crisis. Perhaps the shutdown will see to it that the darker thoughts swirling around in the Tea Party id are purged for the foreseeable future.

A related argument says that allowing the more belligerent members of the GOP caucus to experience the political blowback of precipitating a government shutdown will deter them from wanting to endure the presumably greater pain associated with a default. Writing before the shutdown began, The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber concurred with this line of reasoning:

Suppose Boehner surrenders… and avoids a shutdown. The only way he’s likely to keep his job in the face of the inevitable conservative backlash is to promise a for-real-this-time confrontation a few weeks later, in which the House insists on a year-long delay for the individual mandate, the linchpin of Obamacare, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling…. Problem is, Obama has absolutely refused to negotiate over the debt limit in any way…. [E]ither Boehner gets it or the global economy gets it….

If Boehner resigns himself to a shutdown, on the other hand, suddenly the future looks manageable. After a few days of punishing political abuse, Boehner will be able to appear before his caucus, shrug his shoulders in his distinctive Boehnerian way, and bleat that he executed the strategy conservatives demanded… The demoralized conservatives will realize they’re out of moves – at least in this particular battle – allowing Boehner to raise the debt limit a few weeks later with little drama.

The problem, as we have already seen, is that the prospect of a default seems legitimately not to frighten many of the hard-liners in the House (and Senate). It is not necessarily the case that a shutdown-induced PR nightmare will diminish this faction’s appetite for further escalation. In fact, it might even do the opposite.

There is one other point that isn’t entirely related but that I think has been largely overlooked in the commentary on the GOP’s strategic morass and bears mentioning. The assumption seems to be that any debt ceiling increase would last for one year, with even a leaked copy of a Boehner proposal from a couple weeks ago containing a provision to “suspend” the borrowing limit for exactly that long (until December 2014). Scheiber mentions the House’s push for a one-year delay of the individual mandate, which seems to have been designed to give the appearance of a fair trade: conservatives would get a one-year reprieve from the Affordable Care Act in exchange for Obama and the Democrats (or rather, the country and global economy) getting one more year without utter calamity.

Assuming that the Republicans do end up taking more heat than Obama from the public as a result of this brinksmanship, why would they possibly want to replay this entire debacle in the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections? The GOP has a real shot at taking over control of the Senate and would presumably want to do everything in its power to wipe this egregious episode from the electorate’s memory far in advance of next November. It is often said that politicians think too much about politics and not enough about doing the right thing for the country. It’s clear that at least some of them don’t think much about politics either.

In less than two weeks, we’ll find out whether this theory is correct. If it isn’t, then maybe we all need to watch The Purge and learn how to stay safe when the world ends.

The Debt Ceiling Consequences of the Shutdown

The current government shutdown is an embarrassing and deeply unfortunate byproduct of the Republican Party’s calcified rejection of Obamacare.  It’s one thing for Republicans to continue to question the efficacy of the health care law, as Ramesh Ponnuru points out.  But it’s entirely another matter when they refuse to pass a budget bill that does not include funding for Obamacare, even though the Senate and the President have made it clear that these bills will not be passed.  Rod Dreher’s thoughts on this extremely frustrating and irrational position are ringing quite true.

More problematic is that the largest potential consequences of the shutdown are still yet to come.  It’s possible that the budget battle will have spillover effects for this month’s upcoming debt ceiling vote, a critical legislative process that could have global financial consequences if not handled responsibly.  James Surowiecki:

The ceiling is the legal limit on the amount of money that the government is allowed to borrow, and raising it is necessary not just to keep the government running in the future but to allow it to pay for obligations it’s already incurred. As Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson convincingly showed last year, the 2011 imbroglio over the debt ceiling put a significant dent in both business and consumer confidence, held back hiring, and further weakened the recovery. It also sent the stock market tumbling—even though a debt-ceiling deal was eventually reached, the Dow fell almost fourteen per cent in less than a month during the crisis, in part because it made people realize that a U.S. default was no longer unthinkable. (It also led to the first downgrade of the U.S.’s credit rating in history.) So it’s hardly surprising that the standoff in Washington is spooking—if not yet terrifying—investors. Markets dislike uncertainty, and what the Republican hard-liners in the House of Representatives have done, most significantly, is to make the future look uncertain by suggesting that, if they do not get the concessions they want (above all, the repeal of Obamacare) they are willing to let the U.S. default.

Martin Wolf looks at the consequences of a debt ceiling debacle:

At best, a failure to raise the debt ceiling would necessitate a sharp cut in spending. At worst, the US would default. Analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch argue that hitting the ceiling would require the US to balance its budget at once, cutting spending by about 20 per cent, or 4 per cent of GDP. That would push the US into another recession – even if there were no default. The consequences of an actual default, particularly one that lasted for some time, are beyond prediction. Unlike a shutdown, there is no precedent, for good reason. The notion is suicidal.

Michael Mackenzie, also of the Financial Times, has more information on the consequences of hitting the ceiling.

Right now, the government shutdown is more of an inconvenience than a minor cataclysm.  But each passing day makes the situation increasingly worse for more and more people.  Brad Plumer recaps the nine most harmful effects of the current closure, including cuts in nutrition and health programs, potentially delayed benefit remittance to veterans, and a hit to fourth-quarter GDP growth.

With the debt showdown looming as an ominous potential climax, it would behoove the Republican Party to resolve this situation as quickly as possible.  The Democrats in the Senate should be open to small negotiations on non-Obamacare policies to facilitate this process, but the onus is on the GOP to face the reality of the situation.  Its best bet was to allow the implementation of Obamacare and then emphasize the most inefficient parts of the plan throughout 2014 while simultaneously offering counterproposals for a new system.  That the public currently opposes the health care law 47% to 45% suggests demonstrated failures in the system would have lent credible evidence to buttress the Republicans’ case against the law.  Now, they’ve gone all in without any road map to extricate themselves from the reality that Obamacare will not be defunded, despite the fact that 72% of Americans oppose their shutdown strategy.  The faster the Tea Party wing of the House acknowledges this mistake, the more smoothly the next two weeks will go.

Enough of the spitfire histrionics that are engulfing the House.  It is unconscionable that veterans stand to lose access to benefits over an unnecessary fight that the Republicans cannot win, and it is obscene that this risk could extend to policy that affects the health of the global economy.

A Heatseeker Apart

First off, a quick note of apology for my infrequent posting for the past month.  A combination of things (travel, work, getting hooked on Breaking Bad) kept me from completing any longer posts, but I’m aiming to publish a few new pieces over next couple of weeks.

On August 5, Quinnipiac University released their “Thermometer” poll that tracks the “heat,” or popularity, of leading political figures.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie placed first on the list and Hillary Clinton placed second, lending credence to the speculation that each is a respective frontrunner for their party’s presidential nomination in 2016.

Well- sort of.  Although Christie’s high ranking suggests he’s uniquely poised to challenge and possibly defeat the Democratic nominee, he only ranks eighth in popularity among Republican voters.  Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum, among others, are more popular than Christie.

I’m hesitant to ascribe any meaningful weight to this Quinnipiac poll, since it doesn’t directly concern the 2016 election (which a long way off), and the concept of “heat” or “popularity” is murky compared to actual voting polls.  But it does seem to emphasize a worrisome trend that we’ll probably discuss quite a bit on this site: a gap between the Republican base and the broader interests of American voters.  Christie is a gift-wrapped candidate for the GOP, a strong personality with crossover appeal despite a consistently conservative record.  Polls like this show he has a legitimate shot of going toe-to-toe with the next Democratic candidate, at least in terms of his persona and the support he’s gleaned from current policies.

It’s a worrisome sign, then, that Christie is so disproportionately regarded by Republican voters and the general populace.  It’s disappointing to see the GOP base rally behind the same ideological group that was handily defeated in 2012, and it’s even more discouraging to see Christie’s cooperation with President Obama after Superstorm Sandy hurt his party prospects.  One can’t help but fear that the GOP plans to continue doubling down on the same package of platforms that voters rejected in the last election.  A continued insistence on policies that won’t be successful, such as defunding the health care plan while the President is still in office, will sacrifice Republican credibility on other issues where strong counter-proposals to Democratic initiatives are welcome.  (Internet privacy and market-based solutions to reducing energy consumption are two issues that immediately spring to mind.)

On a semi-related note, New York Magazine has a worthwhile look at Christie’s success in advance of this November’s gubernatorial election in New Jersey.  Despite a limp conclusion and some amusingly purple prose in the introduction (apparently NJ is “the site of a fevered, haywire sexuality, a place where all of the most full-blooded human instincts run loose”), it’s a comprehensive read on how Christie became so popular.

Grand Old Pats on the Back

The College Republican National Committee (CRNC), an umbrella organization that represents a quarter million young Republicans on nearly two thousand college campuses across America, has released a new study entitled “Grand Old Party For a New Generation.” It deals with the question of what the GOP needs to do to more effectively appeal to young people, a topic that has gotten much attention from party leaders following Mitt Romney’s dismal performance among 18-29 year-olds.

The main conclusion of the report is that time-honored conservative arguments about the importance of promoting entrepreneurship, lowering taxes, and reducing regulations on small businesses really do resonate with younger voters. The problem is that young voters’ enthusiasm for these ideas is dampened by the perception that today’s Republicans are skilled at offering paeans to wealth and professional success, but not at explaining how they intend to help college graduates find jobs or pay off student loans. The authors worry that the GOP has become “the party that will pat you on your back when you make it but won’t offer you a hand to help you get there.”

CRNC Chairwoman Alex Smith and pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson were interviewed Tuesday evening by Bill O’Reilly, who seemed dismissive of the need for Republicans to reach out to “kids who don’t know anything” – or indeed to think seriously at all about the notion that the party’s demographic challenges pose a grave threat to its future electoral prospects.

But if you can look past O’Reilly’s impatient interruptions and simplistic counter-proposals (“You know what it comes down to, ladies? A charismatic candidate who can reach younger people and use words they understand”), the exchange is certainly edifying. Soltis Anderson makes an interesting point about the “decoupling” of the culture war issues among Millennials and Smith attempts to debunk the idea that young voters broke for Obama because he was perceived as “cooler” than Romney.

You can watch the segment below.