6 June 2013
As the Republican Party continues its post-2012 soul-searching, a loose movement of pundits and policy wonks has coalesced in an attempt to offer the GOP a way forward. Luke recently discussed Josh Barro, one of the leading lights of what has come to be known as "reform conservatism," but the ideologically heterodox Barro's vision is not the only one competing for prominence in the party's ranks. It has, however, captured significant attention within the Beltway media. In a recent announcement of an impending hiatus from blogging, another prominent reformer, David Frum, offers a handy five point summation of his vision of reforms necessary for the Republican Party's future:
1) There remain too many taboos and shibboleths even among the conservative reformers. If the only policy tool you allow yourself to use is tax credits, your reform agenda will sputter into ineffectuality. Conservative reformers need to do a better job of starting with the problem and working forward, not starting with the answer and working backward.
2) Conservative reformers are understandably allergic to arguments about income inequality. The conservative project at its best has worked to raise the floor beneath the American middle class, not to lower the ceiling upon the middle class ... The whole immigration debate, for example, is premised on the assumption that the only interests that matter are the interests of the employers of labor.
3) Conservative reformers must not absent themselves from the environmental debate. Humanity's impact on the climate — and how to address that impact — is our world's largest long-term challenge. If conservatives refuse to acknowledge that challenge, they only guarantee that the challenge will be addressed in ways that ignore conservative insights and values.
4) Conservative reformers should make their peace with universal health coverage. It's the law, and it won't be repealed. Other countries have managed to control costs while covering everyone, and the US can too. A message of "protect Medicare, scrap Obamacare" reinforces the image of conservatism as nothing more than the class interest of the elderly.
5) I appreciate that conservative reformers must pay lip-service to shibboleths about Barack Obama being the worst president of all time, who won't rest until he has snuffed out the remains of constitutional liberty, etc. etc. Dissent too much from party orthodoxy, and you find yourself outside the party altogether. Still … conservative reformers should admit, if only to themselves, the harm that has been done by the politics of total war over the past five years ...
Peter Suderman, however, argues that despite garnering press attention, reform conservatism has found little traction with the party's elected representatives. What actually has demonstrated potential, he suggests, is a shift towards libertarianism, exemplified by senators like Rand Paul:
Part of the reason the Rand Pauls of the world have had some success recently is that there’s space for an anti-establishment faction within the Republican party, and a growing frustration with the arrogance and ineffectiveness of the old guard. But that faction has also—though not always consistently—drawn from two important, and related, libertarian insights: that government, especially large and complex government, is not a very effective tool for doing lots of things, and that, as a result, it’s not a terribly useful tool for achieving big-picture social goals. I’m tempted to say that it embraces a politics of difference, but that probably goes a little too far. Instead, it embraces a politics of privateness, one that assumes, as a given, that the public realm, and public policy, can only accomplish so much, and that they should be limited accordingly. It’s another, still-evolving brand of conservative reformism, one that also says it cares—not by what it tries to do for you (or to you), but by what it promises it won’t.
Ross Douthat, one of the standard bearers of reform conservatism, acknowledges the success of this direction, but says its potential is limited:
[Y]ou have a reform of the welfare state that would dramatically reduce the tax burden for the wealthiest Americans while dramatically stripping down benefits and tax breaks for the poor and working class — and which would do all this, crucially, after a long era in which the rich have already been doing just fine (to put it mildly), while wages have grown more slowly for the middle class, the employer-based health insurance system has begun to unravel, and mobility from the bottom has probably weakened.
Would a majority of Americans vote for this combination? I doubt it. Should a majority of Americans vote for it? No, I don’t think they should. Principle matters, but context matters too, and conservatives simply cannot make economic policy successfully (or credibly cast themselves as a populist party on these issues) if they ignore the actual performance of the American economy over the last generation, and if they refuse to see that distributional issues as well as arguments from efficiency and liberty have to play a role in the way that we reform our tax code and our welfare state.
Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias (a liberal), takes a different tack, and says the only conservatives achieving anything are the "militiarists":
Because political pundits are very interested in political punditry, there's been a lot of political punditry written lately about conservative reformers and blah blah blah. But if you talk to folks on Capitol Hill about where the action might be in forging legislative progress on key issues, it tends to revolve around a very different factional concern—military spending.
Specifically: John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, and perhaps a few other Senate Republicans seem increasingly concerned that Democrats aren't bluffing on military sequestration and that the only way to avoid a reduction in America's warmaking power would be to strike some kind of deal with Democrats that includes higher tax revenue. That was the Democrats' original theory of how sequestration was supposed to work, and it highlights a very genuine divide in Republican Party politics.
Of course, all of this assumes the party will change. The conservative faction currently having the most luck within the party is the unnamed one each of these are working against. That's the vast majority of members who believe their best chance of success is to tack further rightward and to try even more determinedly to thwart the Obama agenda.
30 May 2013
News today that 2012 Republican presidential contender Michele Bachmann would not be seeking re-election as the representative of Minnesota's 6th Congressional District was followed, entirely unsurprisingly, by a flood of not-so-complimentary retrospectives of her career. "I am confident this is the right decision," the congresswoman said in her announcement. "Be assured, my decision was not in any way influenced by any concerns about my being re-elected to Congress." (Bachmann retained her once-safe Republican seat in 2012 by a single percentage point.) She also said that her decision was not driven by an ethics investigation into her presidential campaign.
Bachmann's influence has been greater on her party than in Congress, where she achieved little. "Bachmann has left Congress, but her style of politics — steeped in paranoia and resentment — has become the norm for the Republican Party," says Jamelle Bouie, adding elsewhere, "[I]f there’s a 'Bachmann style' in conservative politics, it’s only grown more prominent since her moment in the spotlight." But it isn't a style particularly dependent on holding political office, and many are predicting she'll follow Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee on to a slot at Fox News. "For many prominent conservative elected officials," writes Matt Yglesias, "getting out of politics and into the conservative edutainment industry seems like a more appealing and interesting option than continuing to work in politics."
But these are liberal commentators eulogising the career of a favourite liberal bête noire. Is there anything nice to be said of Michele Bachmann — and I mean nicer than calling her a "fact-checker's dream" or saying that her retirement improves her party's odds of hanging on to her seat? To find out, I turned to some reliably conservative outlets.
- First of all, The American Conservative seems to have nothing to say about her retirement.
- RedState used the occasion to talk at length about Bachmann's stylistic successor Ted Cruz.
- Jennifer Rubin had a lot of criticism for the congresswoman, saying Bachmann should "serve as a warning to young conservatives" and describing her style as that of a "gadfly, which has its limits and grows tiresome." Nevertheless, Rubin did muster up some compliments:
That said, she was more right than not on the nature of the Arab Spring. She was a stalwart supporter of Israel. She did not fall prey to neo-isolationism. And she was a staunch defender of domestic energy development.
- Michael J. New, of the National Review, liked her personal accessibility, as well as some of her policy commitments:
She has certainly endured plenty of criticism over the past few years, but conservatives owe her a great deal of gratitude. Both as a state senator and a U.S. congresswoman, she has always been willing to lead the fight for fiscal limits, pro-life laws, and traditional marriage — issues many mainstream Republicans often prefer to ignore.
For instance, as a state senator in Minnesota, she was the primary sponsor of a fiscal-limit bill, modeled after Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). It was generating considerable interest in the state legislature. Governor Pawlenty’s statements were guarded, but he appeared to be sympathetic. State Senator Bachmann had heard about my research on fiscal limits and invited me to join her at a policy forum to discuss her proposed legislation. Afterward, we co-wrote an editorial about her bill.
She’s a spunky conservative, who’s right on the issues more often than she’s wrong.
- Kathryn Jean Lopez appreciated a moment when Bachmann illuminated the role of religion and secularism in American society.
- Joel B. Pollak of Breitbart says the Tea Party "will benefit from the emergence of new, and perhaps more effective, voices" but also says "Bachmann arguably paved the way for other Tea Party leaders in Congress," adding "She also — as some on the left grudgingly admit — has been one of the most competent members of Congress, serving with distinction on the House Intelligence Committee."
- Finally, wading into World Net Daily, I found full unqualified praise. A sample:
WND has called Bachmann a congressional “rock star” and named her “Woman of the Year” in 2012.
The award is presented to the woman who does “the most to represent goodness, womanliness, perseverance and character” and has “an impact on wider American, and global opinion.”
Bachmann was chosen for her extraordinary dedication to America’s founding principles, her steadfast defense of the Constitution and championing the values of limited government and America’s Christian heritage.
WND also called Bachmann a gutsy, pro-life fiscal conservative who dared to vote against raising the debt ceiling, a God-fearing, gun-loving advocate of tax cuts and domestic oil drilling — and someone who has proven to be one of Obamacare’s worst nightmares.
4 April 2013
Krugman alludes to the curious conservatism in California history
Modern movement conservatism, which transformed the G.O.P. from the moderate party of Dwight Eisenhower into the radical right-wing organization we see today, was largely born in California. The Golden State, even more than the South, created today’s religious conservatism; it elected Ronald Reagan governor; it’s where the tax revolt of the 1970s began. But that was then. In the decades since, the state has grown ever more liberal, thanks in large part to an ever-growing nonwhite share of the electorate.
Curious because, to those of us who were still in primary school when Governor Pete Wilson doomed Golden State Republicans for a generation with his Hispanic-hostile Proposition 187, California has uncomplicatedly been a realm of hippies, Hollywood starlets, and hemp-friendly environmentalists. But this is an example of how quickly political coalitions can swing. Prior to 1992, California had gone blue in a presidential election just once since 1948 — in the '64 Johnson landslide. This is, after all, the homeland of Reagan and Nixon, or, if you prefer more modern take, of the nouveau riche of The WB 's The O.C.
But on Californian conservatism, I think of Didion:
The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.
The Mormons settled this ominous country, and then they abandoned it, but by the time they left the first orange tree had been planted and for the next hundred years the San Bernardino Valley would draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in die dry air, people who brought with them Mid-western ways of building and cooking and praying and who tried to graft those ways upon the land. The graft took incurious ways. This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer.
The West was pioneer territory, but for a long time after that, it was an open, sun-drenched expanse where Americans could create whole communities anew, controlled spaces that were untroubled by the messy histories back east. It was the perfect grounds for the modest fixations of contemporary conservatism to forment. Try also Norman Mailer:
It is not that Los Angeles is altogether hideous, it is even by degrees pleasant, but for an Easterner there is never any salt in the wind; it is like Mexican cooking without chile, or Chinese egg rolls missing their mustard; as one travels through the endless repetitions of that city which is the capital of suburbia with its milky pinks, its washed-out oranges, its tainted lime-yellows of pastel on one pretty little architectural monstrosity after another, the colors not intense enough, the styles never pure, and never sufficiently impure to collide on the eye, one conceives the people who live here — they have come out to express themselves, Los Angeles is the home of self-expression, but the artists are middle-class and middling-minded; no passions will calcify here for years in the gloom to be revealed a decade later as the tessellations of hard and fertile work, no, it is all open, promiscuous, borrowed, half bought, a city without iron, eschewing wood, a kingdom of stucco, the playground for mass men — one has the feeling it was built by television sets giving orders to men. And in this land of the pretty-pretty, the virility is in the barbarisms, the vulgarities, it is in the huge billboards, the screamers of the neon lighting, the shouting farm-utensil colors of the gas stations and monster drugstores, it is in the swing of the sports cars, hot rods, convertibles, Los Angeles is a city to drive in, the boulevards are wide, the traffic is nervous and fast, the radio stations play bouncing, blooping, rippling tunes, one digs the pop in a pop tune, no one of character would make love by it but the sound is good for swinging a car, electronic guitars and Hawaiian harps.
This California still exists, but it doesn't dominate the way it did before the LA riots, before Haight-Ashbury and Castro, before the swelling Latino influx of the '80s, '90s, and '00s.
28 February 2013
Andrew Sullivan, who's been publicly making the case for marriage equality for nearly half a century, expresses satisfaction that more and more of his fellow conservatives are joining the cause.
A friend recalled visiting a man dying of AIDS at the time. A former massive bodybuilder, he had shrunk to 90 pounds. ‘Do I look big?” he asked, with mordant humor. In the next bed, surrounded by curtains, my friend heard someone singing a pop song quietly to himself. My friend joked: “Well not everyone here is depressed!” Then this from his dying, now skeletal friend: “Oh, that’s not him. He died this morning. That’s his partner. That was their song, apparently. The family took the body away, threw that guy out of the apartment he shared with his partner, and barred him from the funeral. He’s stayed there all day, singing their song. I guess it’s the last place he’ll ever see where his partner actually was. His face is pressed against the pillow. The nurses don’t have the heart to tell him to leave.”
You want to know why this became a life-long struggle? You have your answer. And I did this not despite being a Catholic, but because I am a Catholic. And I did this not despite being a conservative but because I am one.
This hideous cruelty in the midst of such shame demanded a Catholic and Christian response. This attack on people’s families, and their mutual responsibility (that man’s partner had cared for him for months, while his biological family kept their distance) was an attack on those institutions like civil marriage that are vital for a free society to keep its government in check. If that man’s husband hadn’t cared for him, the government would have had to. Why weren’t conservatives celebrating this man’s dedication rather than smearing him? Why could they not see in the gay community’s astonishing self-defense a Burkean model for social change from below – a dedication to saving our community independent of government that, if it happened in any other community, would have led the GOP to put those activists on the podium of the Republican Convention as exemplars of civil society at its best?
25 February 2013
On election night last year, it seemed like every Fox News anchor suddenly woke up and realised that the US was engaged in a deep demographic shift. Bill O’Reilly put it bluntly when he said that the increased Hispanic swing towards Obama meant that the “white establishment is now the minority.” Two weeks ago, Republican heavyweight Karl Rove came on board and bemoaned that his party must not select undisciplined candidates such as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. Such a move suggests his desire for the Republican Party to fund and support moderate conservatives in order to attract Hispanic voters.
This sentiment reflects the reality the Republican Party must face. On one hand, the Tea Party movement of 2010 was not a fizzer but now a permanent faction within the Republican Party. On the other hand, figures like Rove realise that funding moderate candidates is required if the Republican Party is to beat the Democrats, attract the Hispanic vote, and ensure their longevity.
So who will be the saviour for the Republicans come 2016?
Many Republicans have pointed at Senator Marco Rubio from Florida as someone who can attract the Tea Party and Hispanic vote. Others, such as newly elected Texas Senator Ted Cruz or George Prescott Bush have also been mentioned. But being a Hispanic American and a Tea Party sympathiser doesn’t mean that the Hispanic and Tea Party vote will automatically swing towards you. The biggest challenge these leaders face is unifying Hispanic Americans who traditionally see government support as a positive with Tea Partyers who reject any form of government spending. This will be a tricky balancing act for Hispanic and Tea Party–affiliated Republicans such as Rubio, Cruz, and Bush. I’m sure their media minders are wondering: how do you attract the Hispanic base whilst championing your Tea Party credentials?
On social issues, Hispanics have traditional views on abortion and gay marriage, much like their fellow citizens in the Tea Party. But on issues of health, education, and employment, which rank as top among Hispanic concerns, the government is seen as a benefactor. On immigration, Rubio has shown that he is willing to work with the Obama administration to find a solution. The Tea Party have cautiously supported the proposals, but one wonders whether their stance may become negative if government benefits are increased to the 11 million undocumented immigrants. When issues of Hispanic health, education, and employment are discussed in the sequester and immigration debates, don’t be surprised if Tea Party members object to these proposals.
The solution is not yet clear. Fox News have established their own Hispanic brand, the GOP now have a Spanish Twitter account, and a bus tour is planned to reach minorities. But what these activities fail to address is how Tea Party values will motivate Hispanics to vote Republican. Time will tell whether leaders like Rubio and Cruz will be successful.
19 February 2013
This is what that phrase “family values,” whose fetishization by the right is so inscrutable to us on the left (for what could better preserve family values, we say, than living wages, paid family leave and all that other stuff the “family values” right could never dream of supporting?) means to them: the prerogative of the patriarch to control his family as he wishes, absent state interference…
This is the uncomfortable problem inherent in thinking about politics — how to respond to your philosophical opposites. (Note that I'm talking about thinking about politics; if you're doing politics you either crush them or negotiate with them.) By which I mean: how do you reconcile the perfectly sound conviction that one's opponents are reasonable and rational individuals whose views are sincerely held and decently derived with the sensible impulse to speak truth, call self-justification and self-interest for what it is, and to see through political fiction? Should we be political naifs or political cynics? Is the best way to comprehend a politician by listening to what she says — after all, how better to understand someone else than by having them explain themselves in their own words — or by observing what she does — why should we believe the words of someone who acts so consistently in a manner at odds with what she has to say?
There's an easy and uncompelling answer, which revolves along the lines of not treating people who disagree with you as enemies or dupes. That is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't really help much when you actually set about grappling with a set of specific ideas. I tire, for instance, of the urge to point out how conservatives don't actually support individual freedom when they oppose abortion or gay marriage. Mocking the famed Tea Party exhortation to get the government's hands off my Medicare is satisfying but it doesn't explain anything about their thought process. Far better to conclude that these folks don't actually believe what they say and set about explaining their actions rather than wondering why they don't use words the way you think they should. But you can't get too far into ignoring what people involved about politics say about themselves lest you start seeing demons as the cause for every demonic act. The problem with explaining what your opponents "really mean" becomes clear when they try to do the same to you.
So does it make sense to complain that conservatives who espouse "family values" are being hypocritical when they don't support a liberal policy that would benefit families like a living wage or whatever? Or complain that "pro-family" conservatives should support gay marriage, as if you can argue an opponent into agreeing with you? So is it better to understand that the conservative "really means" x, even though, for all the insight that might be gained through imagining devious, there's also the potential that we just do it for the fun of it?
I hope it's possible to resolve these contradictory impulses or at least hold them in productive tension. On conservatism, I once wrote:
I’ll throw a not at all well thought-out definition out there: Conservatism is an ideology interested in preserving prevailing social structures — that is, prevailing power structures ... And sure, I understand why folks might find such an ideology appealing: After all, it’s got us this far, and we’re doing OK. (It’s an even better argument if you are doing OK.)
Which I hope works as an example of how to interpret another belief system without succumbing either to naïveté or cynicism. Is my description one a conservative would use for himself? Not likely. But it doesn't dismiss the inherent reasonableness or integrity of his belief system either.
17 December 2012
I lived in the US from 1997 until 2000. Back then, I was a pretty hard-core social conservative, and was pretty unyielding in my support of Republicans. I was anti-abortion, pro-prayer-in-schools, the whole deal. I supported Bush in 2001. I grew and my views changed as I started to feel differently about social issues. But that’s a whole different story.
But even in my most hard-core Republican days, I was a supporter of gun control. I remember arguing with one of my Bible study leaders at church about it when I was about 14. One of my clearest memories of my time there was the fact I was home sick the day of the Columbine shooting, that Mum went out to do the grocery shopping, and that I called her on her new cell phone — the first time I’d ever called a cell phone — in tears after they showed video footage from a helicopter of a blood-covered student waving out the window. I was about the same age as many of the victims. It hit home.
Coming from a country who had enacted widespread and effective gun control immediately following the Port Arthur massacre less than a year before we left, I thought it was stupid that the US couldn’t do the same. I remember ripping a particularly great op ed from Anna Quindlen on the issue and posting it on my wall. I was at a loss to understand why people were willing to accept horrific homicides rates in exchange for a right that hadn’t been moderated as technology came.
We came back to Australia in 2000, but my love of the United States has never really gone away. I enrolled in my MA in US Studies in 2009, and it was only then that I started to really grapple with what the 2nd Amendment means in context, about how guns and gun culture are part of the US. One of the great benefits of the USSC degree is the capacity to closely examine and try to understand the United States from the perspective of an outsider. Not to say “you should be more like us” but rather “why aren’t you?”
I continue to think gun control is a great idea. I continue to think assault weapons should be banned, and the government should try a buy-back. I think concealed carry laws are stupid. But I think it’s far more complicated than just saying “ban guns”, and understanding how gun culture fits into broader American culture — political and otherwise — is really important.
This post was originally published at NaysayersSpeak
3 November 2012
One problem with the Electoral College is that it encourages us to think of states as monoliths; because the winner of each state gets every single one of its electoral votes (except in Maine and Nebraska), we mentally divide the country up into three categories: blue states, red states, and purple states.
This heuerestic is fine if you're a campaign manager intent on winning a presidential campaign, but almost every single one of us does not fall into that category. So the red state/blue state delineation creates a false picture of America: a country composed of stereotypes rather than real people. If you think the most important thing to know about Georgia politically is that is a red state, you might miss that if you're hanging out with a group of Georgian women, you might as well be in a purple state. If your thinking reduces Texas to a red state, you might miss the existence of not just famously liberal Austin, but also McAllen, a southern Texas metropolitan area of around 750,000 people with a majority Latino population, one of the most obese populations in the United States, one of the most expensive health care costs in the country, and one of the largest proportion of Obama votes anywhere in America in 2008. It's the sort of thinking that leads to execrable Jesusland map some liberals began circling after John Kerry lost the 2004 election.
A good example of reality refusing to conform to crude stereotyping lies in famously liberal New York City. The above map comes from the New York Times's county-by-county breakdown of the 2008 presidential election results. And, sure enough, Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Queens were decisively in favour of Barack Obama, handing him between 74.5 and 88.2 per cent of the vote. But what's that patch of pink down at the southern end of the city?
That's the fifth borough, Staten Island. Even in a strong Democratic election like 2008, it sided with GOP nominee John McCain, giving him 52.2 per cent of its vote — 7.2 points more Republican than the rest of the country. Staten Island is represented in Congress by Michael Grimm, a Republican, and also voted for the GOP candidate in the 1992 and 2004 elections. New York might be, in aggregate, deep blue, but, even there, conservatism isn't unheard of.
Political factors are important in understanding culture, and vice-versa, but it's a mistake to suppose that political analysis can take the place of cultural analysis. Red states and blue states will matter a lot this Tuesday, but after that, they'll be rather unhelpful in understanding an America too complex to be reduced to two competing team colours.
27 October 2012
Remember UnskewedPolls.com? Back after the Dem convention and before the first debate, a right wing bright spark by the name of Dean Chambers noticed that Mitt Romney was trailing a fair bit in the polls and decided that the problem couldn't be the electorate — it had to be the polls. So he fiddled around with the internals of a few voter surveys and served up what he considered a fair take on the campaign landscape, one showing Romney with a significant lead.
Now that the polls have tightened and Romney is no longer in such a dismal position, what's happened to the conservative effort to rewrite reality to remove the depressing parts? Quite a lot!
It turns out Romney's brightening electoral situation in real life has carried over to UnskewedPolls as well. Chambers is currently predicting a Romney landslide, including victories in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and even the blue, blue state of Oregon. The analysis reads like Mitt Romney fan fiction. On Ohio, for instance: "Late momentum and great ground game win the Buckeye state for Romney." Prediction: Romney victory by eight points.
Give it a week and the site's version of Romney will have developed magic powers, lavender eyes, and will go by the name of Mittondra.
22 October 2012
I find Joe Biden very annoying. He induces groans from me for his overconfidence in his own ability and knowledge and overexcited speeches personified by his Democratic Party Convention performance in 2012.
However, of all of the political moments of 2012 his Vice Presidential debate performance was just the ticket for American politics.
The media frames the presidential and VP debates as competing sets of ideas, with the general assumption that the ideas from both sides connect to reality (more or less), and that some of these ideas will work out in practice. This is a flawed approach in 2012, as many of the ideas from the Romney/Ryan team are either pure fantasy or deserve to be labelled “tried and failed." The Romney/Ryan secret tax plan is about as believable as Richard Nixon’s secret 1968 plan to end the Vietnam War.
The faith Romney/Ryan place in the free market to deliver cost-efficient health care or the ability of trickle-down economics to “grow the middle class,” as Americans say, are positions that have a mountain of evidence against them. Both have the capacity to be failures on almost the same scale as the neoconservative foreign policy of the Bush/Cheney administration — a policy also embraced by Romney/Ryan.
For me, watching Biden’s emotional body language was about as enjoyable as watching that hammy American 1990s award winner Forrest Gump. However, he was right to call Romney/Ryan’s policies “malarkey,” and unless enough Americans realise Biden was right to laugh at Ryan’s solutions as a joke they will be swimming in the skata.
20 October 2012
This is a smart point from Alan Greenblatt: The debates, he argues, have been a key factor in the recent conservative shift from an anti-Obama stance to a pro-Romney one:
It matters, though, that Romney's big moment came during direct debate with Obama.
He might have headed into the fall with a bounce in the polls from a stronger convention speech. A couple of worse jobs reports would have helped him narrow the gap as well.
But his ability to shine going mano a mano against a president some of the Republican faithful find "absolutely disgusting" — to quote another Iowa voter — has proved emotionally fulfilling for partisans.
"Conservatives looked at this and said, 'He wants this thing and he's going to fight for it and he took the wood to the guy,' " says David Carney, who served as a strategist for Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign.
Remember that the question of who would be most likely to take Obama to the woodshed during the fall debates was itself a hot topic during the GOP primary season earlier this year.
"I am the one candidate who can clearly defeat Obama in a series of debates," Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and erstwhile Romney rival, said on CNN back in January.
Yep. Don't forget: the entire Gingrich spectacle basically arose from his status as an intellectual in the party who could expose an Obama that the right is convinced is secretly a buffoon and an affirmative action–elevated fraud. They don't just want to beat him; they want to expose him. Romney got popular when he started looking like he might be able to do that.
18 September 2012
I wasn't overly shocked by the video Mother Jones released today showing Mitt Romney making some inopportune comments to political donors at a closed fundraiser this past May:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax ... my job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
I mean, these comments are deplorable. But it's not an unusual argument to hear from a conservative figure. RedState founder Erick Erickson created an entire blog devoted to the sentiment. Conviction among Republican politicians, including contenders for the presidency like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, that one half of the nation was piggybacking on the success of the other, has become so widespread that, last year, Ramesh Ponnuru took to conservative magazine National Review to push against it:
That 47 percent of all tax filers have no income-tax liability is now one of the most widely known statistics on the right. (Actually, according to the Tax Policy Center, the figure was 47 percent in 2009 and will be 46 percent for this tax year, but 47 is the number that has lingered in the public debate.) Economist Michael Boskin, a veteran of Republican administrations, fretted in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that tax policy “can create a majority paying nothing and voting more spending at the expense of a taxpaying minority.” When he announced his presidential campaign, Texas governor Rick Perry said, “We’re dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax.” Michele Bachmann, also running for the Republican nomination, says she will reform taxes so that everyone pays some amount in income taxes.
Ponnuru even quotes the man who would become Romney's running mate echoing the sentiment:
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin echoes this concern. “We’re coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society and that could become very dangerous if it sets in as a permanent condition,” he said in a recent speech to the Heritage Foundation.
So when I heard Romney's comments, my reaction was that he should have known it was impolitic to state his beliefs that broadly, but that they were nothing new to Republican politics. But thinking more on it, as outrageous as this freeloader myth is, the really despicable part of Romney's rhetoric is his insistence on casting off the half of the country he believes will never vote for him. This is a man seeking the highest office in the United States, the one single politican position that represents all Americans, and he suggests here that he isn't concerned with their interests? That Romney isn't interested in reaching out to the people he believes to be (literally) bought-and-paid-for Obama supporters should cast serious doubt on his suitability for the presidency.
Talk of bipartisanship can often be meaningless political rhetoric, but at some level, a president actually does represent every single American. He or she could never represent the views of every single American, and shouldn't be expected to. But for a candidate to not even be interested in representing close to half the population speaks exceedingly poorly of him.
Romney's clean-up press conference wasn't much more impressive. This quote, in particular, speaks volumes:
The president's approach is attractive to people who are not paying taxes, because, frankly, my discussion about lowering taxes isn't as attractive to them, and therefore, I'm unlikely to draw them into my campaign as effectively as those who are in the middle.
This is fine as far as cold electoral logic goes, but it's a pretty flimsy basis for policy. It shouldn't be seen as reasonable for a politican to wash his hands of a group of people — especially a group defined by being too poor or elderly to pay income tax — simply because his favoured policy prescription can't appeal to them. Romney goes on to say, "Of course, I want to help all Americans. All Americans have a bright and prosperous future." And yet he has nothing to say that will help a large chunk of the American population achieve that.
2 August 2012
Jamelle Bouie says Ted Cruz's primary victory in Texas won't help the GOP win over skeptical Latinos nationally:
It should be said that things are a little different in Texas. There, Republicans have made a long and serious effort to appeal to Latino voters, in part because Latinos have long been a part of the state's political culture. Groups like Hispanic Republicans of Texas have successfully elected Latino GOPers to Congress, the Texas Supreme Court, and the state's House of Representatives. At the moment, HRC has endorsed 18 Latino Republicans for various offices across the state. Ted Cruz was himself a beneficiary of this boosterism; Club for Growth—the conservative anti-tax group—pumped in $5.5 million to help Cruz win his race for the Republican Senate nomination. And given the Republican Party's commitment to finding and promoting Latino candidates, it's likely that even more money will enter the state, in order to boost the ranks of conservative Hispanic lawmakers. Unlike in Arizona, where GOP lawmakers are outwardly hostile to Latino immigrants, Texas Republicans are more likely offer benefits to immigrants, legal and otherwise (as you'll remember, it's what cost Governor Rick Perry his chance in the Republican presidential race).
It's always useful when moments like these crop up to complicate the red state/blue state dichotomy. Texas is a super conservative state and it will deliver its 38 electoral college votes to Mitt Romney come November. But that doesn't mean its politics are just a super conservative take on national Republican politics. Everywhere in the US has its own local idiosyncrasies, and this is a handy reminder that not even solidly red states are all the same.
18 June 2012
I made mention last week of a David Frum article that argued Mitt Romney's Mormon faith might actually make him more palatable to the American electorate. (A recent study by the Centre's David Smith found the exact opposite.) But one part of the Frum article is worthy of some extra attention:
To be a Mormon, on the other hand, is to feel perpetually uncertain of your place in America. It’s been a long time since the U.S. government waged war on the Mormons of the Utah Territory. Still, even today, Mormons are America’s most mockable minority. It’s hard to imagine a Broadway musical satirizing Jews, blacks, or gays. There is no Napoleon Dynamite about American Muslims.
That seems a reasonable observation, and it calls to mind a passage from Frum's post-2008 jeremiad to the right, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again:
Over the decades, Republicans have been many things: the party of the Union, the party of the gold standard, the party of temperance, the party of free enterprise, and the pro-life party, among others. Amid all these changes, there is one thing that has never changed: Republicans have always been the party of American democratic nationhood.
Democrats, by contast, have historically tended to attract those who felt themselves in some way marginal to the American experience: slave-holders, indebted farmers, immigrants, intellectuals, Catholics, Jews, blacks, feminists, gays — people who identify with the "pluribus" in the nation’s motto, "e pluribus unum." As the nation weakens, Democrats grow stronger.
The last sentence is silly and divisive, but overall, this isn't a bad way of understanding the two parties as they currently exist. It works less well over a historical scale: slave-holders were at the centre of American political life throughout the first 80 years of the nation's existence — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rank among their number — and they only really felt marginalised from the American mainstream when the country dared to elect Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, the African American wing of the Republican Party that existed for the hundred years after the Civil War was never a part of the nation's elite. Frum is doing a milder form of what Kevin Williamson did recently: attempting to smear the modern Democratic Party with its racist history.
But Frum's pluribus/unum division is a useful one if it's applied to liberals and conservatives rather than to two parties that have only become ideologically unified over the past few decades. And since liberals represent the marginalised pluribus, shouldn't they include among their number Mormons, a people who Frum says "feel perpetually uncertain of [their] place in America"?
Of course, Mormons hold many traditionalist beliefs that make conservative politics a more natural fit for them. But, by the same token, so too do large parts of the Jewish, Hispanic, and African American populations, all of which fit fairly uncontroversially within the liberal coalition.
I don't have an answer for this, but here are two suggestions. The first is from a reader of Andrew Sullivan:
Mormons outside of Utah (and the LDS Church among other religious organizations) emphasized families and strong family life to shield themselves from anti-Mormon persecution and shunning, and as a way to purchase acceptance at the Evangelicals' "cool kids" table.
Mormon fear of bullying and the desire for acceptance from other religious institutions has led to efforts to be uber-American, to assist (and lead out on) crusades against the ERA or LGBT rights (although many members overlook the Church's real support in Salt Lake for LGBT protections in housing and employment). I think Mitt is part of this "acceptance at any cost" generation, masking his true self to the point that it's difficult to know where the mask ends and the person begins.
I am not a Mormon and know few of them, so I can't judge the truth of this. But it makes sense why a marginalised group's desire for acceptance might attract it to the unum and hence conservative politics.
The second is from David Smith's paper:
Because of the strength of [the association between Mormonism and conservatism], it is possible that liberals and people without religious convictions increasingly see Mormons as being on the same side of America’s politico religious divide as evangelicals and other religious conservatives who oppose abortion, gay rights and nontraditional gender roles. Social identity theory would predict that liberals, especially with secularist tendencies, would be less likely to trust Mormon candidates the more they associate Mormons with a conservative and authoritarian religious identity that is antithetical to their own. We might also expect that other religious conservatives would increasingly see Mormons as allies, and this may moderate any distrust based on denominational differences.
From this, I infer that the association between Mormonism and conservatism strengthens the ties between the two. Because Mormons seem culturally conservative, they become more fully absorbed into that ideology — liberals are uninterested in reaching out to them and conservatives feel an increasing affinity toward them. I suppose the answer here would be that, yes, many religious conservatives of minority groups are liberal, but Mormons are exceptionally conservative religiously and so are also conservative politically.
I don't know if that's a satisfying conclusion.
14 June 2012
Over at Newsweek, David Frum suggests Mitt Romney's Mormon beliefs could actually make him more acceptable to the American electorate:
Voters are likely to know two things about Mitt Romney: that he’s rich and that he’s a Mormon. At the same time, more than one fifth of Americans tell pollsters they won’t vote for a Mormon for president. Yet if Americans understood Mormonism a little better, they might begin to think of Romney’s faith as a feature, not a bug, in the Romney candidacy. If anything, Romney’s religion may be the best offset to the isolation from ordinary people imposed by his wealth.
It was Romney’s faith that sent him knocking on doors as a missionary—even as his governor father campaigned for the presidency of the United States. It was Romney’s position as a Mormon lay leader that had him sitting at kitchen tables doing family budgets during weekends away from Bain Capital. It was Romney’s faith that led him and his sons to do chores together at home while his colleagues in the firm were buying themselves ostentatious toys.
Brookings fellow Matthew M. Chingos and University of Mississippi assistant professor Michael Henderson argue that contrary to conventional wisdom, “information about the LDS church and Mr. Romney’s affiliation with it poses little threat to his electoral prospects, even among evangelical Christians” and that “in fact, messages about Romney’s religion may even boost his support among conservatives.”
The authors point to decades of polling showing that as many as one in four voters say they would have reservations about voting for a Mormon presidential nominee.
But they argue that the results of an online survey that they conducted among 2,084 respondents — 16 percent of whom were white evangelical Christians — show that information about Romney’s religion actually had little effect among white evangelicals, and could actually give Romney something of a boost among conservatives more broadly.
Sounds reason for Republicans to celebrate, right? Well, actually no. The Post article goes on to note that the survey was "not definitive" and "not based on a nationally representative sample." Daniel Larison is skeptical for other reasons. The language the study used was too neutral, he complained. "If one wants to assess the effect of Mormonism on how voters will respond to Romney, one needs to present respondents with the sort of information about Mormonism’s theological differences that they are likely to encounter in the coming months."
The skepticism is warranted, it turns out. David Smith, an academic here at the Centre, has just completed a paper that, unlike the Brookings study, was based on a nationally representative sample. And it comes to the exact opposite conclusion about how Romney's religion will affect his electoral chances:
In this paper I argue that aversion to Mormons is still an important force in American public opinion, and one that seriously affects Romney’s chances even if he ultimately overcomes it ... Barack Obama’s election did not signal “the end of race” in American politics; race was deeply implicated throughout the 2008 campaign, and he won with a surprisingly low number of white voters. Similarly, John F. Kennedy won the 1960 election with a record low percentage of Protestant votes. Rather uniting the various religious and cultural factions within the Republican Party, Romney’s victory actually laid bare stark divides in Christian identity politics that were more important and persistent than the supposed gulf between the Tea Partiers and the moderates.
It turns out that since Romney first arrived on the national scene in 2007, a couple of opposing forces have been influencing how Americans percive Mormons and Mormon politicians. On one hand, Mormons have been increasingly identified with conservative politics — not just due to Romney's presidential runs in '08 and '12, but also, for instance, because of the church's high-profile support of California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state. That has had the effect of making conservatives feel more friendly toward Mormons and turned liberals against them. As David explains:
The willingness to vote for a Mormon and vote for an evangelical used to be very weakly correlated, because liberals who opposed evangelical candidates saw Mormons as a marginal minority, while conservatives who supported evangelical candidates saw Mormons as un-Christian. Now the two tendencies are quite highly correlated, largely because liberals increasingly see Mormons in the same light as they see evangelicals, as religious authoritarians opposed to social progress.
Yet, at the same time, many religious conservatives continue to be mistrustful of a sect they see as cultlike and unChristian. While conservative Christians have begun to feel a cultural commonality with Mormons, conservative evangelicals are as unwilling as ever to vote for Mormons.
What makes this particularly troubling for Romney is that a voter's attitude to Mormonism strongly predicts her attitude to Romney:
[H]ow individuals feel about Mormons is perhaps the single most important factor in how they feel about Mitt Romney, trumping even ideology and party identification. America’s most famous Mormon politician has certainly tried to minimize the role of his religion in the primary and general campaigns, but this data suggests it will remain an important factor regardless of how much or how little it is discussed. Outside of Massachusetts, Romney remains a largely unknown quantity, and feelings about Mormonism will serve as one of the main heuristics for how people view him.
And though liberals have become less willing to vote for a Mormon over the past five years, the study finds that a significant number of potential Romney voters dislike Mormons enough that they're considering voting for a third party candidate or staying home: "Aversion to Mormons — not Tea Party identification or conservative purity — is by far the most important factor dividing conservatives who say they will vote for Romney from conservatives who do not."
That doesn't mean that Romney can't win in November. And Frum is right that the conservative culture of Mormonism has made some conservatives more willing to vote for a Mormon. But there's still an anti-Mormon prejudice in America, it's not just on the left, and it could well affect Romney's chances of victory.
22 May 2012
Steve Benen argues that conservatives are trying to fight the 2008 campaign again, but it won't work. Americans know Obama too well now:
Last week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R) took on President Obama's record, arguing, "President Obama hasn't run anything before he was elected President of the United States. Never ran a state, never a business, never ran a lemonade stand."
The focus groups must have loved this, because Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus argued yesterday:
"[N]o matter what David Axelrod may say, President Obama's private business experience hasn't seen the inside of a lemonade stand."
This is a pretty standard criticism for any presidential candidate whose background is legislative work. Recent major-party nominees like John McCain, John Kerry, and Bob Dole — none of whom served as a governor or business leader — faced similar critiques.
But as we've talked about before, these criticisms of Obama's record were made four years ago. Since early 2009, he's been president of the United States during a time of foreign and domestic crises. Obama may not have led a state or a business before getting elected, but he led a nation after getting elected.
I understand the urge the right has to re-examine what they dislike about Barack Obama before he became president, but Benen is right. It won't work. Republicans can criticise Obama for what he's done. They can criticise him for what Americans believe he has done. But they can't credibly criticise him on the grounds of experience any more. As much as they'd like to tee off anew, Republicans are only going to win this election if they play the ball as it lays.
9 May 2012
Big news from the Hoosier State today: The longtime senator from Indiana, Dick Lugar, was defeated in the Republican primary by challenger Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer. It's a pretty big deal for an esteemed incumbent in a safe seat to be turfed out by his own party, so I turned to Centre post-doctoral fellow Dr Nicole Hemmer to explain what happened in the contest and what it means. Not only is Nicole an expert in conservative politics — she's at the Centre writing a book about the conservative media's role as a source of leadership for the conservative movement — she's also a native of Indiana. In our discussion, she tells me why Lugar lost, what it means for the Republican Party, and how it will affect the elections this November.
Jonathan Bradley: Senator Lugar has served in the Senate since 1977. What turned Indiana Republicans against him?
Nicole Hemmer: It’s a mistake to think Indiana Republicans as a whole have turned against Lugar. Primaries attract the most motivated part of the base, and as in 2010, it appears that base continues to be strongly anti-Obama and, just as importantly, strongly anti-incumbent. As we’ve seen this past week in Greece, Great Britain, and France, there is a “throw-the-bums-out” attitude permeating electorates in countries that continue to struggle economically and politically. Add in Lugar’s age (he’s approaching 80) and the staggering amount of outside money flowing into the Mourdock campaign from groups like FreedomWorks and other SuperPACs, and the defeat of the six-term senator becomes more understandable.
What are your impressions of the man who defeated him, Richard Mourdock? How would Mourdock differ from Lugar as a politician?
The press has tagged Mourdock a “Tea Party” candidate, and insofar as he is very conservative, that holds. But he’s not exactly an outsider. At 60, he’s spent twenty years toiling on behalf of the state GOP, earning a reputation for party loyalty. Like tea-party candidates, however, Mourdock is what columnist Michael Gerson calls a “Rejectionist Conservative.” He wants to go to Washington to block things, not put forward reforms. Mourdock looks at the current political stalemate in the nation’s capitol and sees compromise as a problem rather than a solution. He’ll fit right in with the Tea Party caucus, but as an obstructionist he’ll make it even more difficult to enact solutions to the nation’s problems.
Senator Lugar’s defeat follows other recent successful primary challenges of Republican incumbents, such as the 2010 defeat of Utah’s Bob Bennett. How is this tactic of “primarying” affecting the Republican Party?
The Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right over the past generation, and these recent primary battles have only accelerated that process. When Maine’s moderate Republican Olympia Snowe announced her retirement earlier this year, it signalled the collapse of the GOP’s already-tiny moderate wing. What’s alarming about the Lugar loss is that Lugar isn’t even a moderate! He’s a conservative Republican whose heresies involve a) allowing Barack Obama to move forward with Supreme Court nominations and b) agreeing with the president that we should secure and scale back nuclear stockpiles across the globe. But his willingness to work with the Democrats on anything has made him persona non grata in today’s Republican Party.
As columnist David Brooks put it a few months ago: “First they went after the Rockefeller Republicans, but I was not a Rockefeller Republican. Then they went after the compassionate conservatives, but I was not a compassionate conservative. Then they went after the mainstream conservatives, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
You told me that conservative media outlets like National Review supported the Mourdock campaign. Where does the right wing media’s allegiance lie?
In this case, right-wing media have spoken in almost one voice in support of Mourdock. There are some outliers: George Will, Peggy Noonan, David Brooks — all conservative columnists who struggled with the McCain ticket once he brought Sarah Palin on board in 2008. But this was a safe race for a magazine like National Review to come out for the more conservative, insurgent candidate. Remember, National Review lost some credibility with the base when it threw its support behind the more moderate Mitt Romney well in advance of the first 2012 primary, while there were still a number of conservative candidates in the field. Suddenly many on the right were dismissing National Review as the establishment, as fundamentally unconservative. This was a chance for the magazine to reclaim its bona fides, to stand up against an aging establishment candidate in favour of an outsider.
Some Democrats hope Lugar’s loss will give them an opportunity to pick up an unlikely victory, as they did in Delaware in 2010 after Christine O’Donnell beat Representative Mike Castle for the GOP nomination. Is this wishful thinking, or have Indiana Republicans genuinely endangered the party’s chance of hanging on to the seat?
Mourdock isn’t like the insurgents we saw in 2010 in states like Delaware and Nevada, where political neophytes knocked out incumbents in the primaries, then bungled their way to losses in the general election. Mourdock doesn’t often wander into absurdity like the 2010 candidates did. (He won’t, for instance, have to make a campaign ad professing “I am not a witch.”) That said, Lugar was well-respected in Indiana by both Republicans and Democrats, and would have easily won re-election in November. Mourdock doesn’t have the same name-recognition or cross-party appeal. And moderate Democrats like Joe Donnelly, who Mourdock will face in the general, have had some success in Indiana. Still, all things being equal, it would have to be a very good year for Democrats for Mourdock to lose in November.
When Democrats defeated Senator Joe Lieberman in a primary in 2006, Lieberman ran as an independent and won. Can Dick Lugar do this in Indiana? Is he likely to?
If Lugar were to run as an independent, he could very well win. Hoosiers like him, and he would draw enough votes from both parties to make a strong showing. That said, he won’t run. He’s getting up there in years and while the primary loss both nettled and embarrassed him, I’m not sure he has the fight in him to go it alone. As exciting as a three-way race would be (remember Crist and Rubio and Meek all duking it out for the Florida senate seat in 2010?), this fall it will be a head-to-head match-up between Mourdock and Donnelly, and Indiana will be seating a brand-new senator.
4 May 2012
Republicans fare substantially better than Democrats on several questions in the survey, as is typically the case in surveys about political knowledge. The largest gaps are in awareness of which party is more supportive of reducing the size and scope of the federal government (30 points) and which party is more conservative (28 points).
The party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush generally supports reducing the size of the federal government? I’m sorry: I fell asleep and forgot when Reagan reduced the deficit and eliminated the Department of Education; and when Bush stopped keeping the Iraq war off the books and said no to No Child Left Behind and tax cuts.
Alfred's right. This is one of my hobby horses, but it's worth repeating: Republicans repeatedly claim to be the party of small government, but there is simply no evidence to suggest that is what they are. Government spending grew under Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, as did the federal deficit. When people tell Pew that the GOP is not more supportive of reducing the size and scope of the federal government, it's not because they're politically uninformed, it's because they're responding to the complete lack of evidence for the claim.
(As for the survey's larger finding that Republicans are better informed: probably true! Republicans tend to be wealthier and wealthier people tend to be better informed on civic issues.)
11 April 2012
For the good part of half a decade, Rick Santorum has been a joke — and I'm not referring to the one propagated by Seattle sex columnist Dan Savage. The Pennsylvania senator lost his seat in 2006 by a humiliating 18 points, and, throughout 2011, ran a presidential campaign distinguished by its inability to attract support greater than the margin of error in most polls. With the national economy stumbling along in a recovery not robust enough to get anyone particularly excited, it seemed that the last thing Americans wanted was a social conservative with an apparent fixation on keeping women away from contraception and gay folks away from each other.
America likely didn't want that, but a significant proportion of the Republican party did, and Santorum's threading together of ostentatious religiosity, blue collar boilerplate, and vigorous traditionalism was enough to give him a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. Santorum wasn't the perfect Tea Party conservative, but up against the suspiciously Northeastern Mitt Romney, the fervently unorthodox Ron Paul, and the mercurial and unfocused Newt Gingrich, the Republican base accepted him as good enough. Good enough to throw some support behind — and good enough to keep Mitt Romney from a too-easy ride to the nomination.
But even in forcing the Republican Party to take him seriously, Santorum struggled to make himself a candidate at whom the wider American public would have to take a look. He could not convert his Iowa victory into the campaign donations or party endorsements that would have permitted him to provide a credible challenge to Romney, and his campaign was beset by organisational problems that prevented him from maximising the impact of his victories — in some states, he failed to file full delegate slates, meaning that he couldn't fully convert his popular support to representation at the national convention. Even on his best day, when he won victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, he failed to use the opportunity to jumpstart his campaign. Ultimately the Republican Party proved to be more diverse in opinion than its conservative base, and Santorum couldn't persuade enough of the party that he could beat President Obama in November. His suspension of his campaign, announced today, was a confirmation of the inevitable.
None of which makes his campaign an irrelevancy. The religious right had been marginalised from American politics ever since it had helped give President George W. Bush a second term in 2004, and found itself roundly ignored by him once he was back in office. Santorum didn't just put debates over gay marriage, pornography, and abortion back on the national agenda, he asked Americans to consider the morality of contraception for the first time since the 1960s. He didn't singlehandedly stir up the social conseravtive furore that permitted Democrats to accuse Republicans of declaring a "war on women," but he was a leading voice for a vision of America that many on the right feared had slipped away: a place where order and propriety reigned supreme, and where they did not need to worry that the primacy of whiteness, Christianity, and traditional family structures and gender roles had eroded. Even though it didn't resonate with the general population, Santorum's message was won a lot of Republicans found irresistable, and his competitors, including the party's now presumptual nominee Mitt Romney, were forced into arguing on his territory. To keep peace with his party, Romney had to adopt an aggressively conservative stance that could well come back to haunt him in November — and, if he should win, beyond.
Romney had effectively secured the nomination after he had won in Florida — or, depending on how fervently party actors were looking for an alternative, possibly even earlier. Only now, however, can he turn his full attention to the sitting president. He will do so after a battle that forced him into positions far more to the right than he felt comfortable adopting. (Remember his unintentionally revealing remarks at CPAC, where he declared himself to be "severely" conservative?) Romney will be hoping that with Santorum exiting the race, so too will depart the most strident demands of the Tea Party and the religious right.
9 March 2012
The L.A. Times reports the fight in California over a proposed high speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles:
Opponents, most of whom are political conservatives, regard the ambitious project as a classic government overreach that will require taxpayer subsidies. But they also see something more sinister: an agenda to push people into European or Asian models of dense cities, tight apartments and reliance on state-provided transportation.
In their view, the rationale of the rail system rests on flawed assumptions that would undermine California's identity, which during the last half-century has revolved around single-family homes that have driven economic growth, family-oriented lifestyles and signature West Coast recreation.
"It is a real movement in California of controlling the masses, controlling land use, deciding where people should live," said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare). "I oppose that absolutely, because it is a form of left-wing social engineering."
This pertains to a massive political fiction that, for years, I've been trying quixotically to expose, and, of course, I've been entirely unsuccessful. That fiction is that conservatives believe in small government.
Yes, I know. Liberals say conservatives believe in small government. Conservatives say conservatives believe in small government. They are all wrong. Conservatives do not believe in small government.
What conservatives believe in is government that rewards things conservatives approve of and does not reward things they disapprove of. (Liberals behave similarly, and, in their own way, are as anti-government as conservatives are; see here for more.)
The situation in California is a perfect example. Yes, high speed rail is a government subsidy that helps facilitate a certain kind of urban living revolving around dense urban cores and freely available public transport. But the model favoured by conservatives — single-family dwellings situated in suburban and exurban sprawl connected by miles of highway — is equally the product of government intervention: oil subsidies, taxpayer funds spent on constructing roads, and inner city building regulations limiting the supply of high-density housing. (On the last point: I have not yet read it, but I believe this is something Matt Yglesias discusses in his new e-book The Rent is Too Damn High.)
For my part, I think anti-sprawl liberals should accept that not everyone is going to accept living in high-density downtown cores and eschewing auto travel. The solution is to foster inner-urban growth, taking the cost and population pressures off the outskirts, and, in the process, making it more practical and cost-effective to provide the suburban infrastructure the right demands.
15 February 2012
Aaron Carroll has put together a chart showing in a new way a counter-intuitive fact I've seen presented many times before: Conservative states rely far more on government spending than liberal ones. Here's another way of presenting similar information (this time showing in red states that receive more than a dollar back from the federal government than they give in taxes and transfers):
When liberals see these charts, their first reaction is usually to crow about conservative hypocrisy. Look at all the Republicans in Mississippi and Alabama, they crow, who claim to hate government spending, but are the biggest beneficiaries of it! Some liberals like to say the blue states should take revenge by ending their subsidies of ungrateful conservatives.
That's the wrong way of looking at it, however. The reason states that vote Republican money get more government money than states that vote Democratic is because red states tend to be poorer than blue states. This does not mean that poor Mississipians are complaining about government spending even while rich New Yorkers are sending them welfare cheques. As Andrew Gelman argued in his book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, although poor states tend to vote for Republicans, poor people vote for Democrats. Gelman:
[W]ho's been voting for Democrats in recent presidential elections? Most of the poor people in most of the country (except for Texas and some of the plains and mountain states) ... Among the rich, Democrats win only in California, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
Conversely, Republicans have been winning the votes of most of the upper-income voters in almost all of the states...
The poor Mississippians subsidised by rich New Yorkers aren't hypocrites at all. They vote according to their self-interest — for the party that wants to maintain transfers to them. However, on election day, their middle and upper income neighbours are more likely to vote Republican than middle and upper income people New York.
Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, has a good explanation of how federal transfer help even the well-off in red states:
One is that high-income people living in low-income states are generally very conservative in their political ideology but probably benefit more from federal income support programs more than they realize. If you own fast food franchises in the Nashville area, for example, you're going to form a self-perception as a self-reliant businessman but the existence of Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit are helping to ensure that your customers have adequate income to sometimes eat at your Taco Bell. These chains of dependency snake even longer. If you sell luxury cars in Florida, many of your customers are probably medical professionals who are earning high incomes because other people have Medicare benefits. The aggregate geographic transfer patterns, in other words, do make a real difference to the economic life of the nation. The existence of transfer payments props up the entire local economies of low-income, low-productivity parts of the country.
Low income Mississippians aren't decrying government spending while relying on the taxes of rich liberals. But middle-class Mississippians might get more out of government spending than they thought.
24 January 2012
Newt Gingrich accomplished something remarkable on Saturday, not just by winning in South Carolina, but by managing to convince Tea Party Republicans that he exemplifies an authentic brand of anti-elite conservatism.
Gingrich rails against MItt Romney, the so called “Massachusetts moderate” who instituted “Romneycare” while governor, but again and again and again, he has voiced his support for the individual mandate that forms the centrepiece of both Governor Romney and President Obama’s health care plans.
Gingrich criticises the elites in the media and within government, but since leaving Congress in 1997, he’s epitomised the term “Washington insider.” Gingrich has served on numerous government panels and task forces, and most notably received $1.6 million dollars for his work as a strategic advisor/lobbyist for the government backed mortgage lender Freddie Mac. It’s true that he’s not the darling of the Republican establishment; but this is in large part because so many Republican colleagues were unimpressed with his leadership as Speaker of the House. If alienating members of your own party in this manner counts as being anti-elite and anti-establishment, so be it, but I don’t think it’s exactly what the Tea Party had in mind.
One of Gingrich’s selling points has been that he is an intellectual leader of the Republican Party; and a few days ago he described his candidacy as being built around “big ideas and big solutions.” However, as Ross Douthat and Ezra Klein note, he’s offered surprisingly little in the way of substantive policy proposals.
In a broader sense, what’s so frustrating about the Gingrich campaign, is that it seems devoid of the virtues of conservatism (humility, vigilance and a healthy scepticism of grand theory and rapid change) while pandering to the most extreme and superficial fringes of the Republican Party.
For example, in December, Gingrich said that in order to combat “activist judges” he would ignore certain Supreme Court rulings and impeach judges, or potentially eliminate entire courts, if their rulings were deemed too radical or “anti-American.” The impulsiveness and lack of foresight evident in this proposal is remarkable. Still, this seems to be the style of campaign Gingrich is determined to run as he reinvents himself as the conservative alternative to Romney.
Romney is still the clear frontrunner, but if Gingrich somehow wins the nomination, Republicans face a dilemma. Most likely, their candidate would lose handily in the general election. The other unfortunate alternative is that Gingrich becomes the face of the party for the foreseeable future.
25 November 2011
Ramesh Ponnuru is alarmed by the number of Republicans calling on the government to require more Americans to pay income taxes:
It began as a retort and became a fear. For years, when liberals would accuse conservatives of cutting taxes for the rich, our main argument was that low marginal tax rates on high earners were good for the economy. But we would also respond that rich people actually pay a large share of all income taxes. Over time, many conservatives grew convinced that the true fairness issue raised by the tax code is that this share is too large — and, even more, grew alarmed by how many people were not paying income taxes.
Among conservatives, this proportion is famously known to amount to 47 per cent of the population, though, as Ponnuru points out, this is the 2009 figure, and it has been unnaturally inflated due to the recent recession. These non tax payers are off the hook either because they receive untaxed income from Social Security or because they simply don't earn enough to pay income taxes. Most of them do, however, pay other forms of taxes, such as payroll taxes, or state and local sales taxes.
Ponnuru explains his fellow conservatives' concerns, and dismisses them:
The argument these conservatives are making has two components. First, it is wrong as a matter of civic morality for some people — let alone large numbers of people — to contribute nothing to the support of the federal government. Second, this situation is politically dangerous because it means that, for a large number of voters, big government is, or appears to be, free. These voters will therefore support the expansion and oppose the retrenchment of government, voting themselves goodies at other people’s expense.
The good news is that these fears are overblown. The 47 percent figure does not mean we are near a tipping point. Most of the people included in that figure do make financial contributions to the federal government, and there is no reason to think that nonpayment of income taxes is turning millions of Americans liberal. The bad news is that worrying too much about this number will lead conservatives down an intellectual and political dead end.
If nothing else, I'm surprised more conservatives are not concerned about the political ramifications of this position on taxation. It's not just that voters, particularly the poor or elderly who currently avoid paying federal income taxes, might look askance at a politician who asks them to pay more. Many Americans likely do not realise they don't pay income taxes. It's that the Republican Party, if it pushes this line too hard, risks losing a big advantage it has built up over time.
I discussed this advantage recently in American Review:
But Republicans tell voters that Democrats want to raise taxes. An informed voter will know the Dems only want to put up the taxes of those making more than $250k. But most voters are uninformed, particularly the coveted genuine independents who are so influential at election time. And for voters who really don't want their own taxes to go up, it's safer to stick with the guys who don't want any taxes to go up, instead of trusting that the Democrats will only tax the wealthiest ... Republican tax policy over recent years is very easy to explain: They don't like taxes. Ever.
Democrats have the difficult task of telling voters that they only want to raise taxes on some people who can already afford it. Republicans, however, have been so opposed to any tax increase of any kind that they've been able to convince voters that voting for a Republican is the best way to ensure your taxes never go up, no matter who you are. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to ask voters to work out whether they're in the 53 per cent or the 47 per cent when the GOP has previously found such advantage in treating voters as the 100 per cent.
That is, the 100 per cent who Republicans think should not have to pay more taxes.
28 October 2011
Greg Sargeant posts the above Pew chart and comments:
Why is it so widely assumed that polls showing high distrust in government automatically support the conservative narrative?
It’s true that multiple polls have shown recently that trust in government to do the right thing is at abysmal lows. And when those polls come out you routinely see Republican operatives Tweeting them gleefully. But the problem with those polls is they don’t probe why distrust in government is running so high. For all we know, some of the reasons for it could also support the liberal narrative. For instance, what if anti-government sentiment is running high because Congress isn’t passing jobs creation and fiscal policies — including tax hikes on the rich — that are supported by large majorities of the American people?
I've talked before about how it's a mistake to see anti-government sentiment as being intrinsically conservative:
The "small government" stance is concerned with different functions of government, but it is not that different — and certainly does not result in a reduced government presence. "Small government" conservatives tend to value government involvement in broad-based universal programs like Medicare or Social Security, infrastructure projects and regulation that facilitate suburban lifestyles, regulations that shift externalities deriving from polluting industries on to the population at large rather than the polluters, rigorous defence of borders, a strong capacity to extend military power, and strong enforcement of property rights. By contrast, conservatives tend to bristle at what they notice as failures of government bureaucracy, such as business regulation, income tax, or services provided to people they consider not worthy of receiving them.
This is the problem with viewing conservative politics as being about "small government." It's not only incorrect; it also leads to sloppy analysis. Dissatisfaction with what government does is not equivalent to a desire for government not to exist, which is in itself not equivalent to endorsement of conservative policy. The American people strongly support federal programs like Social Security and Medicare; they clearly like government when it works. That they don't like government when it doesn't work, doesn't make them conservative or liberal or anything specific.
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