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 Transparency.gov. 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 Healthcare.gov right now when this week brought something far more consequential for the future of American politics. (Actually, we might be able to talk about Healthcare.gov 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 Healthcare.gov 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 Healthcare.gov!). 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.