November 13, 2012
What the Tea Party can teach the resurgent Democrats

As liberals and progressives enjoy their well-earned victories on Tuesday night, allow me to offer a few thoughts on the risks of overplaying their hands going forward:

Like the tea party in 2010, Democrats need to remember that many of their Congressional pick ups in 2012 were in swing districts. Like it or not, most districts in the US have been gerrymandered into safe districts for one or the other party. There are only so many swing districts—places where both parties have a credible chance of winning on election day. On Tuesday, the Democrats won in lots of them. But as 2010 proved, one can lose them, too. Nothing is set.

Like 2010, 2014 is an off year election, and is favorable to out-party candidates. Like 2010, in 2014 Barack Obama will not be on the ticket, nor would any other Democratic president. One consequence of this fact is that it is unlikely that turnout in 2014 will be anything near as good as it was in 2012. GIven that the groups that tend to vote Democrat also tend to be less likely to vote overall, with the exception of during presidential elections, Democrats are likely to be vulnerable in 2014 — especially in swing districts.

The tea party alienated the electorate. You can too. There will be a big temptation to react to this win with the attitude, “go for it.” This attitude will likely be intensified given Republican resistance to the Democrats’ agenda over the last four years. But ideological purity was death in 2012. The appearance of cooperation is key.

Building sustained dominance takes time. 2012 was one good election. It’s a start. Be smart.

June 22, 2012

So I was recently a small part of an exchange on Facebook in which one of the people I was interacting with articulated a fairly tea party-friendly line about the Democrats being engaged in class warfare on behalf of those Americans who live on wealth transfers from those who earn, with government as the mediating agent that takes from those who earn to give to those who don’t.

As it happens, I was astonished to see this screed come from the person it did, and frankly think it must have come during a bad day, or at an inopportune time. It’s just not characteristic of the writer — who, while we don’t always agree, nonetheless usually avoids such rhetorical extremism.

I think what shocked me most was the extraordinary ignorance of social and political reality the sentiment betrayed. After all, we ALL live on wealth transfers mediated through the government. I get to deduct my mortgage interest … something renters don’t get to do. Businesses write off billions on their taxes in capital depreciation “losses,” many of which are losses on paper only. (Landlords get to depreciate rental houses, for example, even if the value of the house increases over time.) Lots of “private businesses” — ranging from defense contractors to private prisons to charter schools — aren’t really free market enterprises: they’re tax recipients. Poor people pay huge percentages of their income in Social Security and Medicare taxes — taxes that are capped at $106,000 income, meaning if you make more than that you don’t pay SS and Medicare taxes on the income over that amount. And, of course, we all get fire and police and lots of other public services paid for out of taxes.

Which brings me to the images above. One measure of whether or not you have earned the pay you get is productivity. In general, the more productive you are the more you make, and as productivity increases wages typically follow. Except that this hasn’t really happened in the last 30 years — our great period of “don’t tax high incomes.” Instead, while worker productivity has increased dramatically, wages and take home pay have been frozen. In other words, you and I work harder and more effectively, but the wealth derived from our increased productivity has not been shared with us. It’s been concentrated at the top, where high wage earners and those who live on inheritances and capital gains find much of their income exempted from the taxes the rest of us pay.

So who exactly is undeserving? It bears thinking about.

February 13, 2012
Mitt’s Romney’s RINO Problem

As the Republican presidential primary season hits a bit of a lull, I’ve been thinking about why it is that Mitt Romney can’t seem to connect with Republican voters. And while I am sure that I don’t have all the answers (don’t tell Mrs. Prof!), I think I have at least part of one:

Mitt Romney has a RINO problem.

The RINOs, of course, are the “Republicans in Name Only,” the name the tea party faction of the Republican Party gave to those Republicans it decided were not sufficiently ideologically pure to call themselves “Republicans.” In general, the RINOs were established political leaders of long-standing whose years of experience in politics taught them that no one person or group can get everything they want in politics, so compromise and incremental change were the most effective strategies for getting things done. Half of something, such leaders thought, was better than a whole bunch of nothing at all.

The tea partiers weren’t having it, of course. Their roars insisted on ideological purity or else. And the or else had an effect: party elders like (very) conservative Robert Bennett and (relatively) moderate Arlen Specter were chased out of the party, and tea party-inspired politicians swept the party to control of the House of Representatives in 2010. From there they have pursued pretty much only one strategy: stop Obama. No matter what. Even if he does something we (the tea party) likes, oppose him. It’s the only way to save America.

This attitude has turned out to bite Mitt Romney on the butt in at least two ways. First, he is the arch-typical RINO. He once registered (briefly) in the Democratic Party; he once espoused pro-choice positions on abortion rights; and, of course, he passed the apparent horror of basically universal healthcare in Massachusetts. Such policies have made Romney anathema to much of the Republican Party’s conservative base, as the endless cycle of “not Mitt” candidates rising and falling and rising again in the Republican primary demonstrates.

But this is only part of Mitt’s RINO problem. The other part is that, as a whole, America is far more politically akin to the RINOs than it is to the tea party. Americans like Social Security and Medicare and a big military—three programs that just in and of themselves occupy close to 60% of all of the federal budget. They also like parks and schools and want their water, their food and their (legal) drugs to be inspected and safe. They just delusionally want all of this for low taxes and no borrowed money. It’d be a neat trick if it was possible, of course, but it’s not … as our ever-growing budget deficits suggest. Still and all, it’s what the American people want, and people who win elections almost always promise that somehow they will square the unsquareable circle of low taxes and extensive programs.

The thing is, every seemingly insincere step Romney takes in his futile quest to endear himself to the tea party just alienates him from the mainstream of the American electorate. That is, in unmaking his RINO persona Mitt Romney has built an alternative image for himself that is essentially unelectable in the broader world of general election politics. And he looks insincere in both modes.

It’s quite a trick old Mitt has pulled. He’s managed to be detested by his party by becoming a politician who claims to represent everything they love, and has managed to alienate the people who actually might have liked him had he stayed the person he was. Perhaps his political epitaph should read: Mitt Romney: Eaten By A RINO.

November 7, 2011
From the “Spinning in Despair” Files

My despair is only euphemistic, but in my large American government class today, basically no one had ever heard of THE TEA PARTY. You know, the central political group of the LAST TWO YEARS. 

If they’re not paying attention to what’s going on NOW, what chance do I have to put any of this in context?

Remarkable. The things one learns … 

October 9, 2011

The top photo places the rise of Occupy Wall Street coverage on a time line, highlighting key events. The second photo charts the comparative coverage of Occupy Wall Street versus the Tea Party over the first three weeks their protests began.

From: Nate Silver, fivethirtyeight.com

August 13, 2011
As the Tea Party grows in influence in Congress and among the Republican presidential candidates, its popularity is in decline nationally among the electorate. From Charles Blow.

As the Tea Party grows in influence in Congress and among the Republican presidential candidates, its popularity is in decline nationally among the electorate. From Charles Blow.

March 29, 2011
(Some) Republicans’ War on the Constitution

In light of recent Republican Party requests for professors’ email records at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan, I think it’s about time we make one thing perfectly clear: there are some Republicans who really, really hate the Constitution.

I’m not talking about whether or not these people pay lip service to the Constitution, or whether they cry when they hear the national anthem. I’m talking about their utter betrayal of the profound logic on which the Constitution was grounded.

So let’s start from a pop quiz: what’s the purpose of the Constitution?

Put simply, it’s to create a government strong enough to govern—to provide the goods and services and guarantees of rights outlined in the Preamble and the history of liberal political theory—yet is not so powerful that it can abuse peoples’ rights and liberties. That is, the Framers sought to make sure that the government had enough power to  protect domestic and international security, promote the general welfare, and secure liberties for the American people while not using those powers to abuse the people’s freedoms.

We don’t always get the balance right, of course, and it’s perfectly okay to disagree about what “the general welfare” entails, but that’s the goal: to protect freedom and yet make government and social order possible.

It’s telling in this context that of the ten amendments collectively labeled the Bill of Rights, seven—#s 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8—are designed to protect the rights of the individual against the power of the state. (Pro-gun advocates would insist #2 should be included in this list, although it’s not as clear that the Framers thought this at the time.) That is, each of these amendments explicitly limit the power of the state to intrude into and override the rights of individuals. Indeed, of these, four—#s 4, 5, 6 and 8—are explicitly intended limit the power of the state in criminal proceedings.

The reason is clear: the Framers recognized that in a fight between the state and the individual, that state holds all the cards. It has the police, and the prisons, and the prosecutors, and the press. In a criminal proceeding, it’s all the resources of the state against … you. It’s not even close to a fair fight. So they sought to rebalance the equation: your right to an attorney, or to a fair and speedy trial in front of a jury of your peers, or not to face double jeopardy were seen as vital to limiting the power of the state to screw over its citizens.

But now, in power, what are some allegedly small-government, Constitution-loving Republicans doing? Using the power of the state to harass and intimidate people they think—THINK!—might be political opponents. It’s appalling.

The abuse of power by the state is a common theme in history. It flares up all too often. And it’s not just a partisan thing: the left has done it, too. But right now, it’s the Republicans’ turn—or at least some Republicans’ turn. It’s time we call it what it is: an assault on the Constitution and its delicate attempt to make it possible to govern a complex society while protecting and enhancing the rights of its citizens.

March 29, 2011
Donald Trump's Birther Fail

So Donald Trump has turned himself into a birther to try to establish his credentials before the tea partying, pro-family values Republican Party presidential primary electorate. To augment his claim, he has released what he alleges is his birth certificate, proving he is a US citizen. Except, it turns out what he released is not his birth certificate. I think we’ve seen this movie before.

March 9, 2011
Rick Scott, or, How to Make Your Party Hate You

Rick Scott, the recently-elected, Tea Party affiliated, former corporate CEO Governor of Florida, who by resume and ideology would seem to be virtually a dream candidate for  conservative and Tea Party Republicans nationwide, has a problem: his fellow Republicans in the Florida state legislature can’t stand him.

For me, the most telling part of this article lies in the following quote …  from a REPUBLICAN state legislator. ‘The governor doesn’t understand there is a State Constitution and that we have three branches of government,’ said State Senator Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey who upset Mr. Scott with rough handling of his staff during a testy committee hearing. ‘They are talking about the attitude that he is still the C.E.O. of his former health care corporation, and that is not going to work in this state, in Tallahassee, in my district. The people believe in three branches of government.’”

This may be the most cogent single statement I’ve ever seen summarizing why CEOs often struggle when they come to politics: they’re not in charge any more. Legislatures, whether at the state or national levels, are coequal branches of government. One simply cannot order the legislature to do something. And while you can dodge legislatures for a while, eventually you need them. And then the chickens usually come home to roost.

There is at least one other reason CEOs often struggle in politics. This relates to my post earlier today: politics is about competing conceptions of the good. Two perfectly reasonable people can want government to do different things because they have differing ideas about what government ought properly to do. They’re not evil—or not necessarily evil—they’re just different. Effective politicians have to learn how to elide differences and build from common ground on contentious issues. It’s part of their skill set.

By contrast, businesses have a fairly common conception of the good: profit. Businesses reach this shared end by different means, and of course there are sometimes titanic struggles within businesses about how to achieve profit, but the goal is the same: to make money for themselves and their shareholders.

Scott clearly takes the CEO approach to his job as Governor—and a particularly hard-charging CEO at that. (It was such hard-charging, it should be noted, that helped him build his hospital conglomerate, Columbia/HCA, into the nation’s largest hospital chain—and that got Columbia/HCA fined $1.7 billion in civil and criminal penalties for Medicare fraud.) It may work in the short term, and indeed it may work in the long-term, but right now it doesn’t look too good for Mr. Scott.

It takes talent to alienate co-ideologues by being more extreme than they are. Rick Scott has managed the trick in two months.

February 10, 2011
The Return of Nullification

A new meme is running around in the background of American politics today, one that, if its logic takes hold, would radically restructure the power relationship that currently exists between the federal and the state governments.

I’m talking about the return of nullification.

Nullification is a doctrine that holds that states have the right to reject—nullify—laws that states believe violate their rights, or that overstep the federal government’s proper authority (as determined by the state governments themselves). Originally asserted in the 1830s as part of a tax debate, the doctrine went on the ground Southern resistance to any apparent encroachment on the right to own slaves.

Over time, the notion that states could nullify federal laws fell away. The Civil War, federal regulation of railroad rates and the food supply (and numerous other programs),  the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the elaborate grants-in-aid programs by which US tax money is shared with state governments (in return for state compliance with federal rules) all shifted the balance of power from the states to the federal government.  There was resistance to this shift, but it happened nonetheless.

But it’s back. One feature of the tea party movement is contained in the concept of “10th Amendmenters.” Such persons assert that since the 10th amendment reserves the powers not specified in the Constitution to the states, or to the people, the federal government is not authorized to take any action not explicitly described in the Constitution.

I can offer a recent account of this logic through a recent letter to the editor from my local, strongly Republican paper. I have excised identifying information, but the writer asserts:

"The advocates of strong states refer often to several of our Founding Fathers as the source of these ideas. In fact, our country’s very name, the United States of America, shows that the original plan put the states first.

Jefferson and Madison wanted the states to be sovereign, reserving to the national government only a limited number of powers to help the states work together.

A source of confusion is the supremacy clause, which many mistakenly think gives the national government dominance over the states in all matters. But that ignores the whole clause which states: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof … shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” Any law that exceeds the limits set forth in Article 1, Section 8 are not made “in Pursuance thereof.” If any national law is not in compliance with that section, it can be declared by the state to be null and void.

Since the Constitution is an agreement between states, it is a state’s right to disagree with unconstitutional law. States’ powers under the 10th Amendment have been upheld by the 1997 Supreme Court in Printz v. United States. It is time for states to reassert their power because it is clear that the national government is out of control.”

There’s actually so much wrong here it’s hard to unpack it all. “Several of our Founding Fathers” are, of course, not ALL of the framers. (And since they’re all dead, it’s not clear to me why they get a vote on this matter but I don’t.) The question of which term matters more, “States” or “United,” was effectively settled by the Civil War—it’s “United.” “A state’s right to disagree with unconstitutional law” is, in fact, contingent on the law being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, not the state’s legislature. Article 1, Section 8 contains something called the “necessary and proper clause,” which explicitly gives Congress the power to make laws not directly defined in Section 8. And, of course, there’s the whole pesky 14th Amendment, which radically amended the power of the federal government viz a viz the states—and which, since it comes AFTER the 10th Amendment, trumps—amends—it.

Let me be clear: it is perfectly legitimate to insist that we ought to amend or overturn the 14th Amendment and restructure the constitutional balance between states and the federal government once again. It’s just not okay to claim the 14th Amendment doesn’t exist, or that it is somehow unconstitutional because it essentially overturned the 10th Amendment—the one you think ought to “count.”

But such arguments of logic are not the point. The point is 10th Amendment people are insisting on the radical restructuring of the balance of power between the federal government and the states, and things like the civil rights laws of the 1960s, equal protections for the aged and the infirm, and yes, the recent health care reforms are in play. The fight is real, and consequential. We need to pay attention.