Last Build Date: Sat, 11 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600Copyright: Copyright 2009
Sat, 11 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600
The lever they have been using is their political clout. Only 8 percent of private-sector workers are union members today, but nearly half of public sector workers are, and together they pour millions in union dues and "voluntary" contributions to union political funds. The AFL-CIO, the SEIU and other unions have established large and sophisticated political operations over the past several years, run by smart and dedicated people, and enlisting the services of thousands of others.
Unions weren't a major factor in politics in the 1990s, and Bill Clinton largely ignored them. That's different now. Union money and union organizers did yeoman work for Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and union leaders plausibly claim much of the credit for the Democratic capture of both houses of Congress and the White House.
But the lever of political clout has been splintering in their hands. It all seemed so simple just a year or two ago, when George W. Bush was president. The House obediently passed the card-check bill on pretty much a party-line vote. Every Democratic senator not only voted to bring card check to a vote, but also co-sponsored the bill. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter voted to bring it to a vote, too.
With Democrats gaining seven seats in the Senate (and probably an eighth, if and when Al Franken of Minnesota is seated), it seemed pretty simple. Barack Obama has said he'd sign the bill. The House, with 25 more Democrats, would vote for card check again. The 59 Senate Democrats and Specter would cast 60 votes for it in the Senate. Writers sympathetic to unions speculated on how many other Senate Republicans would fall into line.
But it hasn't worked out that way. Now that congressional Democrats face the prospect of casting not a symbolic vote, knowing that a Bush veto was a certainty, but a real vote that will affect the real world, they started having qualms. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi let it be known that the House would not vote on card check till the Senate acted. In other words, if I'm going to ask some of my members to cast a tough vote, one that will be hard to explain in their districts, I want to be sure the Senate won't undercut them.
As for the Senate, Specter announced he won't vote for card check. Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, up for re-election in 2010, said she wouldn't, either. Michael Bennet, the Democrat appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat in Colorado, who faces the voters in 2010, said card check can't pass in its present form. The unions' 60 seems headed down toward 50 and maybe below.
The unions are blaming this on selfish big business. The real problem is that it's hard to defend a law that effectively abolishes the secret ballot. When nobody's looking and it's not for real, politicians may vote that way. But not when it's for keeps. Moreover, as General Motors and Chrysler spiral toward bankruptcy, it's not apparent that adversarial unionism is healthy for the economy. It's not clear that imposing federal arbitration on the private sector is a recipe for economic growth. Certainly it's not a recipe for innovation or flexibility at a time when businesses need them more than ever.
Union sympathizers are now talking about fallback positions. But it's not clear that a bill with minor changes that does not effectively abolish the secret ballot and impose federal arbitration will produce the vast increase in unionization that union leaders seek. There's not much polling showing that vast numbers of private sector workers yearn for union representation.
The unions' lever was strong, but not strong enough to move the world as far as they wanted. And now that it's splintering in their hands, the question is what position they'll be in when they land on the ground.
Sat, 04 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600On Afghanistan, Obama has ordered 21,000 more American troops to the theater -- including 4,000 troops announced last month -- and is continuing unmanned aerial vehicle strikes on unfriendly forces in Pakistan. This is consistent with his long insistence that Afghanistan is the "good war" and with his surprising comment during the campaign that he would strike enemies in Pakistan. But his decision also makes Afghanistan Obama's war and imposes on him the political necessity of securing favorable results within what voters consider a reasonable time, which Bush failed to do in Iraq. And then there are those semantic changes. We are no longer fighting a "war on terror." We are instead conducting "overseas contingency operations" and, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, responding to "man-caused disasters." (Napolitano might have used the gender-neutral "human-caused disasters.") We are no longer holding for indefinite periods "enemy combatants." But we will keep holding indefinitely those we catch on the battlefield who do not obey the laws of war (which is the definition of enemy combatants). We are closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and releasing some of those held there. But the Bush administration released some of those held there, and we will keep holding those deemed dangerous somewhere or other. We haven't quite determined where that is yet. But the town fathers of heavily pro-Obama Alexandria, Va., have let it be known that they don't want any held in their jail for trial in the local federal court. On some matters, the Obama administration is trying to make substantive as well as semantic changes, some out of an impulse, common in most new administrations, to renounce the darn-fool ideas of the jerks in the previous administration. Vice President Joseph Biden promised to push the "reset button" on Russia, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the Russian foreign minister with a big, red reset button. Wrong word, the Russian said, in what I'd guess was a bit of disinformation. The president himself in a video saluted the Islamic Republic of Iran -- not words Bush used -- on the occasion of a (non-Islamic) new year's holiday and has ordered diplomatic approaches to that nation. None of this has evoked even a grunt of emollience from the leaders of those countries. But, as Obama said in his news conference, he didn't expect that, and he believes that in time, persistence will pay off. Well, maybe. In the meantime, an administration of a party that called for respecting our allies has shown disrespect to some and is not getting much respect from others. The administration, at the behest of U.S. labor leaders, is not pushing the free-trade pact with Colombia, the third-largest nation in Latin America. It has banned Mexican trucks from the United States, in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. It has waffled on installing the antimissile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic, which those nations accepted, risking the wrath of Russia. It gave a frosty reception (and some nonplayable-in-the-United Kingdom DVDs) to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and granted a quick Saturday meeting with Brazilian President Lula da Silva. It sent a policy letter to the president of Italy, a head of state who plays no role in policymaking, thus ignoring the pro-American prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. These are rookie mistakes, perhaps, and probably mendable in time. But as Obama embarked on his first presidential tour in Europe, he seemed to face a reception considerably less enthusiastic than he got from the ecstatic crowd in the Tiergarten in Berlin last summer. Economic stimulus packages like America's? Most European leaders are not interested. Military assistance in the "good war" in Afghanistan? Sorry, our troops are occupied elsewhere, and many of those already there must observe rules of engagement considerably more restrictive than those of the NYPD. [...]
Sat, 28 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600One has been set up by the Senate Budget Committee. Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota, whose concern about budget deficits has persisted even though we no longer have a Republican president, has apparently decided that cap-and-trade is off the table for this year. But calculation as well as conviction probably lay behind his decision. Cap-and-trade would impose higher costs on coal-fired electric power plants. In states where most electricity is produced from coal, this would mean higher utility bills for consumers and industrial users. By my count, there are 25 Democratic senators from states that get 60 percent or more of their electricity from coal (in North Dakota, the figure is 93 percent). Conrad needs to hold all but eight of those senators to be sure of the 50 votes he needs for the budget resolution. So you can see why he was ready to ditch cap-and-trade, which, in any case, addresses a problem -- climate change -- whose purported evil effects are decades away. Ditching cap-and-trade, however, may set up another roadblock, since the money the government was going to take out of the private-sector economy was slated for Obama's middle-class tax cut. Another roadblock was erected, in concrete, by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter when he announced this week that he would not vote, as he did in the last Congress, to advance the unions' card check bill. It was easy enough to support it and bask in approval from Pennsylvania union leaders when it was clear George W. Bush would veto the measure. But now that we have a president who would sign it, Specter took another look. Card check would effectively abolish the secret ballot in unionization elections and impose unions on employers when union thugs -- er, activists -- persuaded a majority of workers to sign cards backing the union. And it would impose mandatory federal arbitration after 120 days of bargaining, so that for the first time federal arbitrators would set wages and working conditions without any guidelines. With Specter firmly committed, Republicans now have 41 Senate votes against card check, enough to maintain a filibuster. Moreover, many Democratic senators -- as many as 15, according to one count -- have expressed qualms about card check. They've been hearing loud and clear from small and large businesses in their states that card check would be a disaster. And for any Democrat, it's a little hard to explain what's wrong about the secret ballot. Other parts of the Obama program have, so far, not encountered resistance. Higher taxes on high earners are scheduled to come into effect in 2010 without a vote, though high-ranking Democrats like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel have expressed doubts about the Obama proposal to reduce the charitable deduction for high earners. If you're a university president courting big donors, you don't want to see part of their contributions diverted to the U.S. Treasury. The prospects for national health insurance look pretty favorable. The various healthcare lobbies that would be affected are sitting at the bargaining table, seeking to avoid destruction of their business models and advancing provisions that would give them an advantage over competitors. But then at this stage in Bill Clinton's first term, the healthcare lobbies were sidling up to the table, too -- or as close to it as Hillary Clinton would let them get. The problem on healthcare, as on cap-and-trade and card check, is that this is a big and complicated country. America doesn't have one energy system, one employee relations system, one healthcare insurance and delivery system -- it has many. Members of Congress from different states and congressional districts have constituents who are very differently situated, and those differences cut across party lines. Democrats from coal states like North Dakota see energy issues differently f[...]
Sat, 21 Mar 2009 00:30:00 -0600It's not difficult to see why union leaders want this. Union membership has fallen from more than 30 percent of the private-sector workforce in the 1950s to about 8 percent today. Union leaders would like to see that go up. So would most Democratic politicians, since some portion of union dues -- unions try to conceal how much -- goes directly or indirectly to support Democratic candidates. The unions and the Democrats want to put up a tollgate on as much of the private sector as they can, to extract money from consumers of goods and services. They have already set up such tollgates on much of the public sector. In the 1950s, very few public-sector workers were union members. Today, nearly half of all union members are public-sector employees. In many states and central cities -- think California and New York City -- public-sector unions channel vast flows of money, all of it originating from taxpayers, to themselves and to Democratic politicians. The unions use that money to promote some public policies that are not obviously in the interests of public-sector employees -- restrictive trade regulations, for example, which appeal to nostalgic union leaders who would like to see millions of unionized autoworkers and steelworkers once again. In the previous Congress, the unions got the Democratic House to pass the card check proposal and got every Democratic senator not only to vote for it but to co-sponsor it, as well. But the votes of all Democrats plus that of Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter were not enough then to overcome a Senate filibuster. This year, there is little doubt that Speaker Nancy Pelosi could again jam card check through the House. But moderate Democrats from districts where unions are unpopular have gotten her to spare them a vote until and unless the measure gets through the Senate. There, its prospects are not so good, now that there is no longer a Republican president to veto it. Card check supporters have a list of 15 Democratic senators who have expressed some manner of unease about the issue. Does Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, up for re-election in 2010, really want to pass a law strongly opposed by her state's biggest business, Wal-Mart, long a target of union organizers? Do Democratic senators from right-to-work states where employees can't be required to join unions want to go along? As for Specter, union leaders have publicly said they'll support him if he backs card check. His public response has been to hail the importance of the secret ballot and the undesirability of mandatory arbitration. Politicians can read numbers. Pollster Scott Rasmussen reported last week that 61 percent of Americans think it's fair to require a secret ballot vote if workers want a union. Only 18 percent disagree. Congressional Democrats used to believe that themselves -- in the course of a trade debate in 2001, they urged that Mexico hold secret ballot unionization elections. Rasmussen also reported an interesting difference between current union members and non-members. Union members by a 47 percent to 18 percent margin thought most workers want to join a labor union. But non-members believe by a 56 percent to 14 percent margin that most workers don't. Are non-union members deluded? Why don't they want the supposedly higher wages and job protections unions purport to give them? Maybe it's because the adversarial unionism promoted by the Wagner Act of 1935 is out of date. It made some sense when employers used time-and-motion study to speed up assembly lines and squeeze the last quantum of energy out of workers and could lay off workers at will. But today's employees have unemployment compensation and are protected by various anti-discrimination laws. There is a whole raft of employment law that didn't exist in 1935, and corporate human resources departments are disciplined by that law. As the [...]
Sat, 14 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600
None of the issues addressed in the Obama budget was in any way a cause of the financial crisis. We did not have a housing bubble collapse because we don't have a national health insurance program. We don't have toxic waste clogging the balance sheets of the banks and other financial institutions because of carbon emissions. The Bush tax cuts were not a proximate cause of the giant public debt being run up under the Toxic Assets Relief Program or the 2009 stimulus package.
Moreover, as Galston points out, the New Deal doesn't provide a precedent for the Obama budget. In his first months in office, Franklin Roosevelt concentrated on repairing a financial system that was in much worse shape than ours is today, with most banks closed. Roosevelt got most of them open and running again. It was a couple of years later that the programs we remember the New Deal for were passed -- Social Security, the Wagner labor act, higher taxes on high earners. (Well, Roosevelt did sneak in repeal of Prohibition.) Even Roosevelt's first expansion of welfare rolls, at the end of 1933, was abruptly cancelled when the snows melted in spring 1934.
There's another reason to put aside the Obama budget plans. We're in a severe recession, and each of his major proposals is going to stunt the growth of the private sector economy. But most of them -- national health insurance, forced unionization, higher taxes on high earners -- have the offsetting advantage, from Obama's point of view. They would "spread the wealth around," as he told Joe the Plumber, even if there is less wealth to spread around.
The same cannot be said of cap-and-trade. It would take some $600 billion out of the private sector economy in order to avoid an environmental crisis that is supposed to arrive in -- oh, some time around 2055. In other words, we are not dealing with here-and-now facts, as we are in the financial crisis, but with predictions based on theories ... theories that have not done a very good job of predicting the climate over the last decade (they said it would get warmer; it's gotten a little colder). Theories that do not retrospectively explain climactic variations in the past.
We are dealing here with something more like religion and less like science. We are told that all argument about global warming must end. We must have faith! But it is religion that asks us to have faith; science presents us with theories that can be tested by observation and produce replicable results -- and the results for 2055 aren't in.
We are told that we must repent of our misdeeds, for driving SUVs or (unless you're Al Gore or a Hollywood liberal) flying in private jets. And we are told that we must atone for our sins, by paying more for every bit of energy we use and remembering to recycle.
It is religion that asks for repentance and offers rituals for atonement; science suggests ways we can adapt and cope with change. It makes sense to understand how the physical environment may be damaged by changes in climate and to prepare for repairs that may be needed, and we are already doing that. It makes no sense to cripple a struggling economy in order to prevent damage that may or may not occur many years from now.
Voters seem to understand that. Gallup reports that 60 percent of Americans say global warming will not pose a serious threat to them or their way of life in their lifetimes. Or as Stuart Taylor, another moderate critic of the Obama budget, puts it, when your house is on fire, you don't water the lawn.
Sat, 07 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600Barack Obama's tax plans, announced in his budget message last week, threaten to depress the animal spirits that we depend on for economic recovery. I reach this conclusion on the basis of my past errors. In 1993, I -- like many economic conservatives -- predicted that the Clinton tax increase, to a 39.6 percent marginal tax rate on high earners, would squelch economic growth. It didn't, or at least not so much as to prevent what became, later in the decade, robust growth. Why was I wrong? Because, I came to think, the Clintonites managed to hit a sweet spot with the 39.6 percent rate. It was a number that started with a three. To high earners, not bothering to calculate exact returns to the last decimal point but just concentrating on the big picture, it seemed that the government was taking just about one third -- hey, maybe a bit more -- of their incomes. They would get to keep the other two thirds, pretty much. So they proceeded to try to make intelligent investments and to earn large amounts of money without being preoccupied with how much the government would snatch from their hands. Quite a contrast with the 1970s, when the high income tax rate was 50 percent, and 70 percent on "unearned" (i.e., investment) income. In that environment, the animal spirits of the productive class were directed away from making productive investments and toward sheltering their income from seizure by the government. I remember rich men in locker rooms engaging in discussions along the lines of, "My tax shelter is bigger than your tax shelter." To heck with figuring out whether your investment was going to be productive in the long term. The only question was how much money you could shelter from the tax collector in the short term. I think there is a serious risk that the Obama tax proposals are going to bring back those days. Yes, they call for returning the high income tax rate only to the sweet spot of 39.6 percent. But they also want to reduce the amount of the mortgage interest and charitable deductions for high earners, which would channel less money to charities and more to the government (and thus to public employee unions and, through them, to the Democratic Party) and would raise the effective rate on high earners to above 40 percent -- a number with a four in front of it. Add on to that the state income tax rates of 10 percent or so in place or in contemplation in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California -- states with more than a quarter of the nation's high earners -- and you are looking at income tax rates above 50 percent. When you get a number with a five in front of it, you are in grave danger, I submit, of directing the animal spirits of our most productive citizens away from productive investments and toward tax shelters: "Those bastards want to take half my money, and I'm not going to let them get it." You are at risk of directing our economy back into the unproductive slog of the 1970s and away from the robust growth of the 1980s, 1990s and most of this decade. My economist colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute tell me they know of no studies that buttress my thesis. Economists tend to believe that opinion moves in linear fashion. But that's not always true. Case in point: gas prices. When gas prices earlier last year were at $2, $2.50, $3 and $3.50, most Americans opposed oil drilling offshore and in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When they hit $4, opinion shifted. The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and the governor of Florida suddenly favored offshore oil drilling. As for Alaska, nuke the caribou! Obama in his chosen city of Chicago always assumed that the private sector would be eternally bounteous. As a community organizer following the formulas of Saul Alinsky, he assumed that the political establishment would always be ther[...]
Sat, 28 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600Now it can be said in defense of Clinton's remarks that previous administrations of both parties, from the time of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, have given human rights at best a subordinate place in their dealings with China. And that our past calls for China to observe human rights have been met for the most part with stony silence and acts of defiance. And that the stricken American economy at this point is in need of continued Chinese purchases of Treasury bonds. Still, for anyone with knowledge of American foreign policy over the last four decades, Clinton's remarks were jarring. It is one thing not to press a tyranny very hard on human rights; it is another thing to come out and say you're not going to raise the issue at all. It is a kind of unilateral moral disarmament. One arrow in the quiver of American foreign policy has been our pressing -- sometimes sotto voce (as in the Helsinki Accords), sometimes in opera buffa ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!") -- tyrannical regimes to honor human rights. Hillary Clinton has put that arrow over her knee, broken it in two and thrown it away. She is not the only one. On this as on other matters, she is following the lead of the man who beat her for the Democratic nomination. In his inaugural speech, Barack Obama made only the most passing mention of human rights. In his Feb. 26 speech to Congress, he devoted just 7 percent of his words to foreign and defense policy, and made just one mention of freedom. He is reportedly poised to name as head of the National Intelligence Council a man who has endorsed China's 1989 suppression of pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square. He has noted with cold indifference the success of the provincial elections in Iraq. All of which brings to mind the report of a conservative blogger who watched George W. Bush's 2005 inaugural speech with a group of liberals. Every time Bush called for spreading freedom and democracy around the world, the crowd guffawed and groaned and jeered. For them, evidently, Bush was a figure of fun, and his calls for democracy and human rights laughable. The same people who decried his supposed authoritarian rule at home had nothing but contempt for his call for freedom and democracy abroad. Beneath this stated contempt is, I think, something in the nature of secret guilt. Or rather, anger at the notion that Bush had stolen the issues of human rights and democracy from the liberals. The desire to oppose the Iraq war root and branch, to denounce every aspect of it, imposed a duty to dismiss as laughable Bush's stated objective -- set out eloquently before the decision to take military action as well as after it -- of advancing democracy in the Middle East. A duty to side with those, like the National Intelligence Council nominee, who have long held that governance in the style of Saudi Arabia or Syria is the best that can be hoped for in that region, and the best for all concerned. A duty to dismiss with contempt, or simply to ignore, the rather remarkable strides of the Iraqis themselves made after enduring decades of brutal tyranny. It's quite a turnaround. It was liberals who complained that the United States sided with too many tyrannies in the Cold War and who (in the person of Henry Jackson) insisted on holding up Soviet trade deals to aid those persecuted by the Soviet Union. It was Jimmy Carter who made human rights a plank in his campaign and made it his policy as president, even when it undermined U.S. allies. Not even when the cause of human rights was taken up by Ronald Reagan, in the Philippines as well as against the Soviets, did liberals declare that we should be indifferent to the cause of expanding democracy and freedom in the world. But now they seem to have done so in the desire to repudiate root and bran[...]
Sat, 21 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600This was a revolutionary step. Censuses had been conducted since ancient times, as readers of the Gospels know. But the United States was the first nation to conduct a census at regular intervals. And it was the first nation to base legislative representation on population. Not many federal agencies perform functions specifically set out in the Constitution. The Bureau of the Census does. Today, the census determines more than representation. It also determines the amount of federal funding for a vast array of programs. As a result, politicians have an incentive to try to maximize the numbers of their constituencies. On occasion, they have rejected results they have found distasteful. After the 1920 census showed an increasing proportion of urban dwellers, Congress refused to reapportion seats in the House of Representatives among the states. But under prodding from President Herbert Hoover, a law was passed setting a formula for automatic reapportionment based on the census numbers starting in 1930 and continuing to this day. You didn't hear much about the census on the campaign trail. But controversy flared when Obama nominated Republican Sen. Judd Gregg to head the Department of Commerce, which has housed the Census Bureau since 1903. Almost immediately, there were protests from Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee (who cast the lone vote against military action in Afghanistan in 2001) and Hispanic groups. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declared that the Census Bureau would report directly to the West Wing of the White House. Gregg, perhaps miffed that a major function of the office for which he had been nominated would be taken over by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, withdrew his name from consideration to be secretary. No new nominee has been named, but the issue remains: Will the politicians cook the numbers? The black and Hispanic groups are concerned that blacks and Hispanics will not be fully counted. This is not a new issue. Census statisticians have known since the 1970s that there have been undercounts of people in neighborhoods with high crime rates or large numbers of illegal immigrants. Census Bureau professionals have worked to measure these undercounts and to minimize them by using official records and enlisting local volunteers to locate residents. Their efforts have had some success, as the undercount was lower in 2000 than in 1990. Nonetheless, there have been demands that the Census numbers be adjusted by statistical sampling. The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that sampling could not be used to apportion House districts among the states, but left open whether it could be used for other purposes. But after an intensive three-year study, Census professionals in 2003 said they could not guarantee that sampling would produce a more accurate count than the enumeration decreed by the Constitution. As then-Census Director Louis Kincannon said, "Adjustment based on sampling didn't produce improved figures." Sampling might produce a more accurate number for large units but not for smaller units -- just as the sampling error in public opinion polls is small for the total population but much larger for small subgroups. At the block level, sampling would result in imputing people who aren't actually there. The potential for political mischief, political overrepresentation and greater federal funding for favored groups is obvious, just as Congress' refusal to reapportion after the 1920 Census resulted in political overrepresentation of low-growth rural areas and under-representation of then-booming big cities. The better procedure is to trust the professionals at the Census Bureau. "I found the Census personnel to be among the most conscientious of any group I'd encountered [...]
Sat, 14 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600So it would be unwise to copy the New Deal as a recipe for economic recovery. And the policies that produced the wartime boom are not replicable today. We are not going to have rationing, wage and price controls, government spending nearly half the gross domestic product, 91 percent tax rates and a 12-million-man military (the equivalent today would be 27 million). There has been general agreement, however, that Roosevelt's policies were politically successful. Most of us in the political commentary business make frequent use of the phrase "New Deal Democratic majority" and tend to believe that Roosevelt's policies worked for his party for a long generation extending into the 1960s. I think the picture is more complicated than that. Democrats did win big in the 1934 and 1936 elections. They made big gains in large cities and factory towns, many of which were staunchly Republican in the 1920s. But these gains were not sustained, as the effects of some New Deal policies -- high taxes on high earners, the unionization-promoting Wagner Act and jobs programs like the WPA -- became apparent. In early 1937, unions engaged in sit-in strikes in auto and steel factories; they were plainly illegal, but Democratic governors in Michigan and Ohio refused to enforce court orders against them. Later that year, the "capital strike" Shlaes describes led to a sharp recession. The jobs programs were widely criticized as "boondoggles" and "leaf-raking." Allegations of political favoritism and corruption were widespread. In the 1938 off-year elections, Democrats lost 81 House seats, 51 of them in the industrial belt from Pennsylvania and Upstate New York west to the Upper Midwest. The Democratic governors of Michigan and Ohio were defeated for re-election. The congressional district that included Flint, Mich., site of the first sit-in strike, went from Democratic to Republican; so did most congressional districts in Ohio. As pro-New Deal historians have conceded, New Deal policies no longer had congressional majorities, given the opposition of many Southern Democrats. Nor was the outlook for Democrats rosy as the 1940 elections approached. Polling, then in its rudimentary stages, suggested that Republicans would win if the election were decided on domestic issues. But in September 1939, World War II broke out in Europe. In June 1940, France fell; Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, then allies, seemed to have most of Europe under their sway. Just days later, the Republicans nominated Wendell Willkie, an attractive candidate with no experience in foreign policy. The Democrats met in July, and Roosevelt sent a letter saying that he did not want to be a candidate. But, with help from the Chicago commissioner of sewers piping over a loudspeaker, "We want Roosevelt!" the president was renominated. He won his third term in November not, as he put it later, as "Dr. New Deal," but as an experienced leader when the nation was facing grave peril. "The American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory," Roosevelt declared in his Pearl Harbor speech, and so they did by September 1945. In my view, it was the war effort, the mobilization of big government, big business and big labor, that much more than the New Deal enhanced the prestige of the state. It got Americans proud of thinking of themselves as small cogs in very large machines. It made them amenable to statist policies that they would never have accepted in the 1920s and at which many of them were bridling in the late 1930s. No two political times are ever the same. But as we watch the stimulus package moving to passage, we get the whiff of bailout favoritism and crony capitalism that was also present in the New Deal. The forced unioniza[...]
Sat, 07 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600He had failed over the past three years to pay about $142,000 in taxes. Even more embarrassing, most of the unpaid taxes were for the value of a car and driver service he had enjoyed for three years. He had come a long way since his intensive personal campaigning elected him to the House from South Dakota in 1978 by 139 votes -- out of 129,000 cast -- at age 30. Daschle was the second Cabinet nominee with a tax problem. Timothy Geithner was confirmed as treasury secretary despite having failed to pay about $26,000 in self-employment taxes when he was working for the International Monetary Fund. The argument was made on behalf of both Geithner and Daschle that they were uniquely qualified for their jobs -- but uniquely qualified in different ways. Geithner is arguably uniquely qualified to make policy. As head of the New York branch of the Federal Reserve, he may have had more knowledge of the workings of financial markets than anyone else in the world, with the additional advantage that he had not been working for any of the financial firms that have encountered turbulence. And, with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, he has been making decision after decision in the financial crisis. Daschle was uniquely qualified for his job not on policy but on politics. He evidently knows a lot about health-care policy, but many other people acceptable to the Obama administration do, too. The unique value that Daschle has is that he knows the legislative process and the players (he served with 69 current members of the Senate, and 21 of the rest are Democrats). As majority or minority leader for 10 years, he knows how to put legislation together, overcome objections, negotiate deals and reach compromises. Obama got it right when he told Fox News' Chris Wallace just hours after Daschle's withdrawal that he was the "best person to achieve health-care reform and get people together." It's hard to think of anyone else who has that combination of knowledge and political skills. (One I'd suggest looking at is Tennessee's Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who fashioned a state health insurance program that has turned out to cost less than projected.) So it looks less likely now that the Obama administration is going to be able to put together a health insurance program and pass something resembling it through Congress anytime soon. Getting 218 votes in the House for any Democratic plan will be easy. Getting 60 votes in a Senate that currently has only 58 Democrats (and will have 59 if Minnesota's Al Franken is seated) will be much harder. And there's another problem when you tackle health care. America does not have one health-care and health-care-finance system; it has many health-care and health-care-finance systems. That means that different states and different regions have players with different interests -- interests that will generally get a hearing from their members of Congress. Those who will be negatively affected by an Obama plan will lobby their representatives, including Democrats, and many of them may be heard and heeded. You can imagine what the outcry will be. Special interests! Lobbyists! But remember that the unique qualification that Daschle brought to the table was not policymaking but lobbying. The First Amendment of the Constitution gives all of us, "special interests" included, the right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances." When government channels vast flows of money, or when it decides moral issues on which people have strong views, Americans are going to lobby to affect its decisions. Candidate Obama denounced the influence of lobbyists and said they would have no place in his ad[...]
Sun, 01 Feb 2009 00:40:00 -0600A second uncomfortable realization is that McCain ran dismally among blacks (losing 95 percent to 4 percent, according to the Edison-Mitofsky exit poll) and voters under 30 (losing 66 percent to 32 percent). The good news for Republicans is that there's not much room for Democrats to grow among black voters. The bad news is that voters who were under 30 in 2008 are going to be a larger and larger share of the electorate. To get a glimpse of the future, consider that McCain carried young voters in only nine states with 57 electoral votes. And in only five of those states, with 22 electoral votes, did he win more than 55 percent of the young. A final uncomfortable realization is that the affluent suburbs have, outside the South and even in parts of the South -- North Carolina's Research Triangle, metro Orlando -- become Democratic. Nationally, McCain ran even with Barack Obama among voters with incomes over $50,000 and over $100,000. He actually ran behind among voters with incomes over $200,000. Obama carried narrowly those with college degrees and ran far ahead among those with graduate degrees. The debate among Republicans is whether to go after downscale or upscale voters. Those who argue for going downscale usually have a 2012 candidate in mind: Sarah Palin. She has an undoubted appeal to such voters and revved up part of the Republican base -- cultural conservatives, and rural and small-town voters -- throughout the campaign. Despite the scorn the media heaped on her, she has excellent political instincts and seems capable of developing the knowledge base that would make her a credible presidential candidate in the future. But my examination of the exit poll results and county-by-county election returns has led me to conclude tentatively that going upscale is the right move. As David Frum has pointed out, we're going to have more well-educated and millennial-generation voters in the future and fewer less-educated and Baby Boomers (among whom McCain ran even). There are some immediate targets. Among all voters, Democratic House candidates won higher percentages than Obama. But voters at the low end of the age spectrum and the high end of the income and education spectrums cast higher percentages for Obama than House Democrats. They are, at the moment, Obama Republicans, hopeful that Obama can forge the bipartisan coalitions he has promised and eager for the change they think he represents. But that's not the change that congressional Democrats have produced, at least so far. They passed their pork-laden stimulus package in the House without a single Republican vote. This positions Republican candidates to say, more in sorrow than in anger, that congressional Democrats are preventing our president from governing as he wants to. We want to help. Going upscale also means downplaying the cultural issues that were an important reason for Republican victories from 1980 to 2004. Here, young voters are critical, and their attitudes give guidance. They oppose criminalization of abortion, but they also disfavor it -- the position of the great middle of the electorate. They tend to favor same-sex marriage -- the days of winning votes by opposing it are nearing an end. And while they seem blithely confident that government action can solve problems like health care, they are also a generation that insists on choice in their personal lives. Members of the iPod generation don't wait for their elders to tell them what the top 40 songs are. They make their own playlists. There's a tension here, which Republicans can exploit, between the tactics of the MyObama campaign and the policies he favors that would limit choices -- one-size-fits-all government health insuran[...]
Sat, 24 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600Some of that optimistic plurality may come from voters convinced the nation was declining so long as George W. Bush was president but confident that it will rebound now that Obama is. Americans may be pessimistic about the next year, but we tend to be confident there will be progress over the next decade and the next generation. But I think Americans will forgive Obama for striking a somber note; I think they're in a mood to forgive him for almost anything. The response to Obama since his victory in November reminds me of the response to John F. Kennedy after his narrower victory in 1960. There are many similarities between the two. Obama is the first African-American president; Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic president. Both entered office young, physically graceful, articulate, charming. And both came to office at difficult times. Obama must make decisions about wars and a financial crisis no one fully comprehends. And, though many forget this, Kennedy faced difficult decisions: an economy that seemed to be faltering, which he pledged to get moving again, and a Cold War that had heated up in a Berlin crisis -- and would again -- and that nearly became hot when the Soviets placed missiles in Cuba. Kennedy proved to be an extraordinarily popular president. His job approval ratings started off near 70 percent and stayed around that for his entire presidency, except that he lost the support of white Southerners after he came out for the civil rights bill in June 1963. His ratings remained high even after his first major and highly visible mistake, the Bay of Pigs invasion. I think one reason for this is that he was a "first." Some 63 percent of white Protestants voted for his opponent in a nation whose culture, as the late Samuel Huntington put it, was and is Anglo-Protestant. Some 65 percent of white Protestants voted for Barack Obama's opponent. But I think a large majority of Americans want the first black president to be a good one and are inclined to keep believing that he is unless he does something that is utterly unacceptable to them (as Kennedy did to white Southerners). We are all aware of what Obama called "our patchwork heritage," and are pleased to reward those who come from unusual ethnic backgrounds and have shown they can excel and transcend ethnic stereotypes in our Anglo-Protestant civic culture. I think Obama's job ratings are likely to remain very high for an extended period, as Kennedy's did. An interesting question then is whether Obama will govern, as I have suggested he might, like Dwight Eisenhower, keeping an arm's length distance from his party and seeking a larger consensus. Some of his acts during his transition suggest he is so inclined, such as his inclusion of tax cuts in his stimulus package and his meticulous outreach to congressional leaders of the other party. Some of the things he has been talking about -- responding to the financial crisis, reforming entitlements -- as a practical matter require congressional supermajorities, if only to give all sides political cover. His inaugural contained a few cheap shots to delight the left. "We will restore science to its rightful place." "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." But there were also words that should encourage the right. The market's "power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched." "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense." On Jan. 15, perhaps anticipating Obama's inauguration, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband rejected the idea that we faced a war on terrorism with "a unified, transnational enemy." But Obama said, "[...]
Sat, 17 Jan 2009 00:30:00 -0600Latinos appear to account for a disproportionate share of mortgage foreclosures. The Census Bureau estimates that net immigration in 2007-08 was 14 percent lower than the average for 2000-07, and those estimates don't cover the period after June 30, when the recession really started hitting. Demographic forecasters tend to assume that the long-term future will look a lot like the short-term past. That's why the Census Bureau estimates that there will be more than 100 million people classifying themselves as Hispanics in 2050, compared to 45 million today. But history tells us that trend lines don't go on forever. Sometimes they turn around and go downward. We have had major Latino immigration now throughout the 25 years since the economic recovery of the early 1980s. But I think there is a possibility -- not a certainty, probably not a likelihood, but a serious possibility -- that we may be at an inflection point, at the beginning of a period in which Latino immigration will be substantially lower than it has been the past quarter-century. We have seen such inflection points in migration before. When Leonard Bernstein wrote "West Side Story" in the 1950s, it seemed that the flow of Puerto Ricans to New York City would continue indefinitely. But in fact net migration from Puerto Rico dropped to just about zero in 1961, when average incomes on the island were about one-third the level of the mainland United States. The huge flow of blacks from the South to the North, which started in 1940 due to the labor demands of war industry and the invention of the mechanical cotton-picker, seemed likely in 1960 to continue on and on. But it stopped suddenly in 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act passed, and today there is a small net migration of blacks from North to South. Economics plays some role in this. The apparent downturn in immigration in the past 18 months is surely not unrelated to the recession that began, the National Bureau of Economic Research now tells us, in December 2007. The gaming industry in Las Vegas -- then and for most of the preceding 20 years the nation's fastest-growing metro area -- started declining in 2007, and net immigration to Nevada was down 16 percent in 2007-08 from the 2000-07 levels. And reports are coming in of Latinos leaving town as construction of giant hotels on the Strip is shut down by foreclosure. But immigration is not just about economics. People move, I have come to think, in pursuit of dreams -- or to escape nightmares. One of those dreams -- home ownership in America -- now seems much less attainable than it did just six months ago, with thousands of foreclosures and with subprime loans to low-income buyers presumably a thing of the past. Meanwhile, birth rates in Mexico and much of Latin America took a sharp turn downward around 1990, which means that those entering the workforce there in years hence will have less competition for jobs -- fewer nightmares. George W. Bush has said that one of his regrets is that he was not successful in getting Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration law, with legalization, guest-worker and enforcement provisions. If Barack Obama and congressional Democrats seek such legislation, they should keep in mind the possibility that the situation they are addressing may be changing. So should those who oppose such a law. Since Congress considered and failed to pass a comprehensive law in 2006 and 2007, we have learned that tougher enforcement of existing law is possible and can reduce illegal immigration. Now we face a sharply different economic situation, which is presumably less conducive to immigration. This may make th[...]
Sat, 10 Jan 2009 00:40:00 -0600To be sure, he called for massive infrastructure spending, for alternative energy investment, for more health care spending -- all items from the Democratic wish list. But he also called for tax cuts for individuals and businesses -- the sort of thing Republicans usually press for. Three weeks ago, I put forward the guess that Obama would hold himself aloof from and above his party, much as Dwight Eisenhower did in the 1950s. It seems that, for the moment anyway, I guessed right. All of which strikes me as good politics. Congressional Democrats are complaining about the tax cuts and calling for more public works spending -- even though, for all their talk of shovel-ready projects, pretty much everyone knows that such spending won't provide much in the way of an immediate stimulus to the economy. And that's especially true if their environmental group allies gin up lawsuits to protect this or that supposedly endangered species from imperilment from this or that highway or bridge. Republicans, pleasantly surprised by the presence of tax cuts, are scurrying away from the demands for all-out opposition from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and movement conservatives. They're pleased that Democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi are displeased by Obama's unwillingness to raise taxes on high earners immediately. Obama seems to have drawn this lesson from recent and comparatively ancient legislative history: that both parties need to be drawn into the legislative negotiations, even though Democrats have sufficient majorities to pass a bill all by themselves. Ancient history: Bill Clinton's decision to pass his 1993 economic package only with Democratic votes cost him and his party critical support. Recent history: The failure to draw the ordinarily powerless House Republican minority into discussions resulted in the (temporary) defeat of the $700 billion financial rescue package last September. After 1994, Clinton pursued policies by way of "triangulation," standing above and separate from both parties and negotiating with each. Last October, Democrats and the Bush Treasury made concessions to the House Republicans. Obama is doing the same sort of thing ahead of time. The likelihood then is that the final stimulus package will be supported by many in both parties. And that both parties will be held responsible for the results. Moreover, Obama was careful to note that good results may be long in coming. Just as he eliminated the possibility of a primary challenge by Hillary Clinton in 2012, so Obama seems to be trying to remove an issue that Republicans might run on in 2010. Good politics, then. But is it good policy? That's harder to say. We are in the midst of a financial crisis unlike any we've seen in many years and are facing the threat of deflation, of the sort that choked off economic growth in America in the 1930s and Japan in the 1990s. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke probably knows more about the economics of the 1930s than anyone else on earth. Outgoing Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and incoming Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner know as much about financial markets as just about any two experts you could find. Obama's lead adviser Lawrence Summers, in the opinion of others as well as himself, is one of the world's most knowledgeable economists. But it is not apparent that any of them knows how to produce the optimal economic conditions that Americans have become used to over the past quarter-century at the speedy pace that American voters are inclined to demand. In a time of deflation, prices tend to fall -- and so it makes sense to hold onto your m[...]
Sat, 03 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600The Republican Party throughout our history has been a party whose core constituency has been those who are considered, by themselves and by others, to be typical Americans. In the 19th century, that meant white Northern Protestants. Today, it means white married Christians. Yet such people, however typical, have never made up a majority in our culturally and regionally diverse nation. The Republican core constituency tends to be cohesive and coherent (though sometimes, like now, quarrelsome). But it has almost never been by itself enough to win. As some Democrats like to remind you, Republicans have lost the popular vote for president in four of the last five elections. The Democratic Party throughout our history has been the party whose core constituencies have been those who are considered, by themselves and by others, to be something other than typical Americans. In the 19th century, that meant white Southerners and big city Catholics. Today, it means blacks and singles and seculars and those with postgraduate degrees. Such people, while atypical, potentially make up a majority. But they often do not have a lot in common -- and when they have differences over highly visible political issues, they are hard to hold together. As some Republicans like to remind you, Democrats have lost seven of the 11 presidential elections since their landslide victory in 1964. Partisan enthusiasts look forward to their side achieving lasting majority status. Others might take counsel from the political scientist David Mayhew, who casts doubt on whether permanent or long-lasting majorities are possible. When you look closely at the supposedly permanent partisan majorities of the past, they fade from view. Republicans won all but two presidential elections from 1860 to 1892. But Democrats won majorities in the House for most of that period after the Southern states were readmitted to the Union. Republicans won all but two presidential elections from 1896 to 1928. And they held congressional majorities for most of that time, as well. Yet they won almost nowhere in the South, and at the time their dominance was by no means taken for granted. And what of the New Deal Democratic majority from 1932 to 1968? New Deal Democrats took a hit in the off-year elections of 1938, and polling suggests the Republicans would have won in 1940 if domestic issues had been paramount. Instead, voters re-elected Franklin Roosevelt as a wartime president in 1940 and 1944. Harry Truman, too, benefited from a foreign issue -- the successful Berlin airlift -- in 1948, and John F. Kennedy campaigned in 1960 as the most determined of Cold Warriors. The Democrats held Congress during almost all this period. But as liberal historians note mournfully, liberal Democrats had effective majorities for only a couple of years from the 1930s to the 1960s. All of which suggests to me that the more natural state of partisan politics, in this country at least, is something less like party dominance and more like uneasy equilibrium. Equilibrium that swings to one side or another from time to time, as it has swung in varying measure to Democrats in 1992 and 2008 and to Republicans in 1994 and 2004. Because of their basic character, both parties have difficult tasks in assembling and holding together majorities -- Republicans, because their core constituency is off-putting to those whom it defines as something other than typical Americans; Democrats, because of the difficult of holding together what is usually a very diverse and conflict-prone coalition. Ba[...]