30 January 2012
Five days ago Newt Gingrich held a 10 point lead in Florida and looked poised to carry his momentum from South Carolina down into the Sunshine State. Alas, five days is a lifetime when it comes to campaigns. Over the last several days, Mitt Romney has surged back ahead and now is the clear favourite to win the January 31 Florida primary.
This is obviously bad news for Gingrich, but it’s especially damaging given the campaign schedule. The four upcoming states (Nevada, Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota) were all carried by Romney in the 2008 Republican primary. If Gingrich stalls in Florida, it will be exceptionally difficult to regain momentum.
And, as the support dries up, so do the campaign contributions. Money is always important in the primary, but in the earlier, smaller states like Iowa and New Hampshire, a candidate can somewhat compensate for a lack of resources by campaigning aggressively across the state, and holding face to face meetings with voters. However, as the campaign drags on, this becomes an increasingly difficult task. The number of days between each state primary shrinks, and a number of states begin holding their elections on the same day. A candidate simply doesn’t have the time to personally visit all the counties in each state. Under these circumstances, having the resources to blanket the airwaves with advertisements is an enormous advantage.
Of course, if we’ve learned one thing during the campaign, it’s not to count out Gingrich. Every time he’s been left for dead, he’s managed to rise from the ashes in a blaze of populist rhetoric. And the creation of Super PACs means that Gingrich can potentially rely on advertising campaigns financed by wealthy individuals, even if his own direct campaign contributions begin to dry up.
Still, given the unfavourable upcoming primary schedule and increasingly harsh attacks from other Republicans, Gingrich is facing an uphill battle going forward. South Carolina was critical for Gingrich, but it was also essential for him to build from that performance by winning Florida as well. Now, he needs to find a way to recapture momentum — and hold on to it for more than a week — if he wants to stop the Republican primary from becoming a Romney blowout.
27 January 2012
This chart comes from the Tax Foundation, via Ilya Gerner. It turns out that though Mitt Romney pays a much lower rate on his earnings than most comparably wealthy people, because he can claim them as capital gains, he still pays a greater proportion of those earnings in income tax than most Americans.
This is a good thing to keep in mind, but in the graphic above, the Foundation seems to be using that old sleight of hand where “taxes” and “federal income taxes” are supposed to be the same thing. I’m going to assume the culprit is an understandable desire for simplicity from the Tax Foundation, which describes itself as nonpartisan, rather than intentional deception. The post describing the chart is generally pretty good about clarifying that it’s talking about income tax, but it gets sloppy in the conclusion:
Which gets us back to Mitt Romney’s effective tax rate of 14 percent, after deductions. As the chart shows, this rate is still higher than the average rate paid by taxpayers earning up to $200,000. There are about 136 million taxpayers who have adjusted gross incomes less than $200,000, or 97 percent of all taxpayers. So even with an average tax rate of 14 percent, Romney paid a higher average rate than 97 percent of his fellow Americans.
I assume they intended “average rate” to be a shorthand for “average federal income tax rate.” But let’s not forget that as well as getting a sweet deal because his income arrives in the form of capital gains, Romney also sees a lower proportion of his earnings disappear in sales taxes and payroll tax.
And also, it’s worth discussing whether Romney’s capital gains earnings should be taxed at a lower rate than those rare wage earners who have done well enough for themselves to get paid $200 000 or more a year. The idea is that Romney is an investor, and the lower tax rate encourages him to keep up this economically valuable activity. There’s another school of thought that this rationale doesn’t amount to much.
26 January 2012
I've got a reaction to yesterday's State of the Union address up at American Review; you should head over there to get my complete thoughts on what may be President Obama's final one. The short version is that this was a bold address aimed at reminding the American people why they should give Obama a second term: "This was a State of the Union by a president who wants people to know that he gets things done."
One thing I did notice about the speech was that, toward the end, Obama declared "the state of our Union will always be strong." I wondered: How does that assessment compare to previous years?
- 2012: "The state of the Union is getting stronger ... the state of our Union will always be strong."
- 2011: "The state of our Union is strong."
- 2010: "Despite our hardships, our Union is strong."
- 2009: "The United States of America will emerge stronger than before."
- 2008: "The state of our Union will remain strong."
- 2007: "Yet we can go forward with confidence — because the state of our Union is strong."
- 2006: "Tonight the state of our Union is strong, and together we will make it stronger."
- 2005: "The state of our Union is confident and strong."
- 2004: "The state of our union is confident and strong."
- 2003: "America is a strong nation and honorable in the use of our strength."
- 2002: "The state of our Union has never been stronger."
- 2001: "The entire world has seen for itself the state of our Union — and it is strong."
- 2000: "My fellow Americans, the state of our Union is the strongest it has ever been."
Turns out the state of the Union tends, by and large, to be... strong?
Actually, I did some digging, and it turns out this cliche is a relatively modern one. At the first State of the Union address, given by George Washington in 1790, the president didn't even bother to spell out his thoughts on the matter. The closest he got was a direction that he would have his underlings provide Congress with more detailed information:
I have directed the proper officers to lay before you, respectively, such papers and estimates as regard the affairs particularly recommended to your consideration, and necessary to convey to you that information of the state of the Union which it is my duty to afford.
But who was the first president to use the precise construction "the State of our Union is strong"?
It was the great Showman-in-Chief himself, Ronald Reagan. On January 25, 1983, President Reagan told Congress "As we gather here tonight, the state of our Union is strong, but our economy is troubled." Three years later, he had upgraded its condition: "I am pleased to report the state of our Union is stronger than a year ago and growing stronger each day."
After that, presidents have been pretty insistent on telling the American people that their Union is strong. Perhaps Obama's prediction of eternal strength can end this piece of rhetorical filler for good?
Interestingly, presidents haven't always been so triumphal. In 1948, Harry S. Truman was ambivalent. "The state of our Union," he said, "reflects the changing nature of the modern world." In 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson affirmed the Union was always "equal to the test," but only predicted future strength. "The State of our Union will be much stronger eight years from now on our 200th birthday," he said.
In 1976, Gerald Ford was downright glum: "Just a year ago I reported that the state of the Union was not good. Tonight, I report that the state of our Union is better — in many ways a lot better — but still not good enough."
Ouch. Maybe the election Ford lost that year discouraged future presidents from being so pessimistic. His successor, Jimmy Carter, said in his first State of the Union address, in 1978, "Militarily, politically, economically, and in spirit, the state of our Union is sound."
Much more reassuring.
25 January 2012
President Obama’s State of the Union address was an opportunity to lay out his agenda for the coming year and make the case that he deserves a second term. The address was pragmatic and policy driven, mostly absent of the lofty rhetoric that has highlighted many of his past speeches. The goal was to draw a stark contrast between his proposals and those of the Republicans. Obama opened and closed with relatively uncontroversial remarks on the military, but the majority of his speech focused on the economy. The president struck a populist tone, criticising the reckless behaviour of Wall Street and calling on the rich to shoulder a larger portion of the tax burden. Obama also responded to attacks from the Republican candidates, while trying not to give the impression that he was in full on campaign mode. You can view the full transcript of the speech here, but these were a few of the highlights.
On the Economy
The state of our Union is getting stronger. And we’ve come too far to turn back now. As long as I’m President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.
My message is simple. It’s time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America. Send me these tax reforms, and I’ll sign them right away.
I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That’s why my Administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That’s why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office.
The opponents of action are out of excuses. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now. But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.
In the next few weeks, I will sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects. But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.
And tonight, I’m asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorney general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis. This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.
Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.
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.
23 January 2012
What is it they say about a week being a long time in politics?
Certainly Mitt Romney’s week started well: claiming two wins from two states, a lead heading towards Saturday’s South Carolina primary, and the endorsement of fellow moderate presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, who bowed out after coming third in New Hampshire.
The Romney campaign could have been forgiven for starting to think ahead to the coming main game against Barack Obama.
But what’s this? A recount of the tens of thousands of handwritten ballots from the Iowa Caucuses on January 3rd found that Rick Santorum was now 34 votes ahead of Romney, not eight votes behind as declared on the night.
Mitt Romney: one from two.
The week dragged on.
Before he could face the potential humiliation of another debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry saw the writing on the wall on last week’s Freaky Thursday, suspended his campaign and became one of the few politicians to endorse Newt Gingrich.
Within an hour of Perry’s announcement, Newt’s former wife Marianne was reported to have told ABC her husband had asked for an “open marriage” to carry on an affair with now-spouse and potential First Lady of the United States, Calista.
It was shaping up to be a good day for Mitt…
That was until that evening’s CNN debate, when Gingrich angrily denied the “open marriage” claim and chastised the debate moderator, earning, literally, a standing ovation.
Gingrich had risen again from his political grave, more zombie than messiah, perhaps, and seeking revenge not offering salvation.
Yet on Saturday in South Carolina, Newt was seen as the saviour of conservatives still unhappy with the “Massachusetts moderate” who seemed destined to lead their party into the fall.
They delivered a 40 per cent to 28 per cent thumping of the frontrunner.
Mitt Romney: one from three.
All agree this is going to be a longer race than it appeared a week ago.
Mitt Romney’s inability to win over the majority of conservatives must be troubling for him and the Republican Party establishment as a whole, who quite clearly dread the prospect of Newt Gingrich as their presidential nominee.
Yet their favorite, Mitt Romney, is still having trouble connecting with voters, and a large part of that is because he’s so damned rich — a personal fortune of around $250 million.
The drum beat for Romney to disclose his tax returns had become deafening, and after saying it would come out in April — the same month as most of his predecessors chose to disclose theirs — the Romney campaign said it would be available this week.
And now all will be able to see how much money that money can make. If there’s one thing Americans hate more than politicians right now, it’s Wall Street greed — and Romney appears to belong to both clubs.
Still, as Florida beckons on January 31st, Romney must like his chances. After all, the Sunshine State is big and diverse; more favorable to moderates, and a place where a slick TV advertisement on high rotation is at least as important as a warm, dry handshake.
Mitt Romney is still the favourite this week, as he was seven days ago, and by a wide margin. But as a slugfest in Florida looms, Barack Obama’s prospects may have just increased a little too.
22 January 2012
I daresay we'll hear it said a lot over the next few days: No Republican has won his party's nomination without winning South Carolina since 1980. In fact, here's a New York Times report on Saturday's South Carolina contest, won resoundingly by Newt Gingrich, saying exactly that:
And after being so confident just 10 days ago, the Romney campaign is now fighting not only the perception that Mr. Romney cannot consolidate broad support among conservative voters, but also at least one troubling fact: No Republican has gone on to win the party’s nomination without winning South Carolina since before 1980.
Meaningless statistic is meaningless! We're talking about five races in which an incumbent Republican president was not running — hardly a decisive precedent. (Make it six if you consider Pat Buchanan's challenge against President George H.W. Bush in 1992 to have actually stood a chance.) And remember a week ago, when Mitt Romney was thought to have won Iowa and been all but a sure thing for the nomination, how commentators were fond of saying that, in the modern primary era, no Republican challenger had won both Iowa and New Hampshire? It was as if the eight votes by which Romney had been thought to have won by actually indicated some exceptional electoral strength that proved his competitiveness.
South Carolina's track record in picking winners is aptly explained by Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect:
After defecting from the Democratic Party over civil rights, Senator Strom Thurmond argued that the state’s whites should direct their political activities toward amassing as much influence as possible in the national GOP. “That notion, that you wanted to have maximum influence on what the national Republicans believed, tended to produce a kind of caution in supporting an insurgent nominee for president,” says Lacy Ford Jr., a historian of the South and Southern politics at the University of South Carolina. “A lot of people outside of South Carolina thought that Bob Dole would be vulnerable in 1996 to such a candidate, but that wasn’t the case at all—he took out Pat Buchanan decisively by beating him in South Carolina.”
This year, however, says Bouie, South Carolina Republicans were looking to buck the trend and follow their political instincts to a hard right conservative:
[Tea Party Republicans] see this contest as an opportunity for finding a more ideological nominee. “I go to a lot of party meetings and party functions, and it seems like voters are looking for people who match up with their values first and can win last,” says Edward Cousar, second vice chair to the state GOP and head of the Black Republican PAC, a group devoted to supporting Afri-can American candidates in South Carolina and across the country. Karen Floyd, a former state Republican Party chair, agrees. “I think the grassroots effort is crucial in the state of South Carolina, and I think some consultants can help deliver that, but really, it’s all about message. Most people are looking for the person who is most authentic and can help us get out of the situation we’re in.”
Gingrich had been assidiously courting such voters all week, and his efforts bore fruit today. But not too much has changed. Gingrich is still a severely flawed candidate, and though his rival Mitt Romney might have had a truly awful week, Romney is still better organised, better funded, and, with Florida, Michigan, and Nevada set to vote in coming weeks, looking at a more friendly electoral calendar. South Carolina might well have lengthened the GOP race today, but Romney is still the favourite, and Gingrich is still as non-viable as ever.
20 January 2012
Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek article defending President Obama against criticism from both the left and the right has garnered much attention — in large part due to the pugnacious cover title, “Why Are Obama’s Critics So Dumb?” that the editors decided to slap on the piece. Sullivan’s own words are controversial, if less inflammatory:
It’s not that I don’t understand the critiques of Barack Obama from the enraged right and the demoralized left. It’s that I don’t even recognize their description of Obama’s first term in any way. The attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren’t out of bounds. They’re simply—empirically—wrong.
Here, I’d like to focus primarily on the criticism of Obama coming from members of his own party. Sullivan is correct that Obama’s list of accomplishments is far more substantial than many on the left give him credit for. To a large extent, Obama's perceived failures have been the result of unrealistic expectations. I was attending a left-leaning college in Minnesota at the time of his election, and many classmates seemed ready to summit Mount Rushmore, chisel in hand, and carve Obama’s likeness right alongside Washington and Lincoln. Many, myself included to some degree, blurred the line between the historical significance of his election and what he could realistically achieve as president. And, as Sullivan points out, Obama never promised to be the “left wing crusader” that some had hoped for.
Still, it’s not as if Obama played no role whatsoever in creating this hype. He billed himself as a transformative figure who wanted to reform a “broke system.” Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig commented in a recent interview that Obama emphasised during his campaign “that the current system made it impossible to solve problems in a way that advanced the interests of either the left or the right,” but in his first term he’s seemed entirely content to “work within the current framework” rather than address its flaws. I can understand the frustration of those who saw the Obama presidency as the chance not simply to enact certain policy proposals, but to at least try and change the way Washington works.
Sullivan also explains that critics have mischaracterised and misinterpreted Obama’s political strategy:
To use the terms Obama first employed in his inaugural address: the president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider.
The article acknowledges that this strategy takes time, but says Obama has stuck with it, and it has proved increasingly successful. I agree with parts of this argument, but it strikes me as a little too flattering. Much of Obama’s first term has been the journey of a talented but still relatively unseasoned politician trying to find his voice and style of leadership. For example, on health care reform Obama seemed content to lead from beyond and let Congress move the bill along without his help. This strategy did not prove especially successful, and eventually the administration had to pivot towards a new approach. Obama’s changing role in the process seemed more the result of trial and error than any sort of precocious game plan.
Finally, Sullivan may be right that what matters to Obama “is what he can get done not what he can take credit for,” but a president, especially one who is up for re-election in ten months, needs to able to communicate his accomplishments and vision to the American public. A recent New York Times poll shows that independents have soured on Obama and voters do not have a clear idea of what he wants to achieve in his second term. Sullivan has made his argument for why Obama’s re-election remains as “essential for this country’s future as his original election in 2008”; it remains to be seen if Obama can effectively make the same case to the American public.
19 January 2012
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum might be struggling to convert his strong Iowa showing into a successful national campaign, but he should be cheered by one vote of approval — that of HBO Mafia don Tony Soprano. The above clip comes from a 2006 episode of "The Sopranos," Live Free or Die, which featured one of Tony's mobsters, Vito Spatafore, being outed as gay. Vito flees to New Hampshire to escape the persecution of his compatriots, and Tony struggles to reconcile his revulsion at homosexuality with his lack of concern for people's personal lives as long as they don't interfere with his business activities. He particularly likes, he says, the anti-gay stance of Senator "Sanitarium."
Unfortunately for Santorum, the New Jersey primary won't be held until June 5th — and fictional characters can't vote.
18 January 2012
In accordance with the principle of federalism, each state in the US is given substantial freedom to conduct and regulate elections for state and federal offices. Consequently, there is great variation in election procedure between the states. While a few of these differences are abundantly obvious, such as the presidential caucus system used in some states, others are much less readily apparent. The distinction between a closed and open primary may not be a headline grabber (I haven’t seen it mentioned in the Australian media’s coverage of US politics) but it can impact the outcome of elections. While there is debate within the US over the virtues and empirical consequences of both systems, I’d argue that open primaries are superior in that they shift power from the political parties to the voters themselves, and can serve as a tool in alleviating the hyper-partisanship that contaminates the American political system.
In a closed primary, voters need to be a registered member of the party in order to participate, while in an open primary anyone can vote regardless of party affiliation. Even within these two categories there is much variation. For instance, some states hold semi-closed primaries, which permit first time registrants to participate in either party’s primary.
By limiting the pool of eligible voters to only long-term party members, closed primaries might encourage the selection of more ideologically extreme nominees. While more moderate candidates could have a good chance of winning in the general election, they are often weeded out in the primary stage, where it is the views of the party base that matter most. After the primaries, voters are often left with a choice between a very liberal Democrat or a very conservative Republican, and no middle ground. More open systems can help address these problems by allowing independents and members of the other party to vote in either primary.
To be fair, there is much scholarly debate over the effect of open primaries on the ideology of nominees. Many studies [PDF] have shown that open and semi-closed primaries lead to candidates and elected officials whose positions are more in line with the median voter in their constituency, but other academics find no strong relationship between the type of primary and the political views of the nominee. Still, I think the combined theoretical and empirical evidence suggests good reason for favouring open primaries, and hopefully these systems will continue to be refined to create a more broadly representative electoral process.
Of course, as I alluded to earlier, there are plenty of critics of open primaries. Proponents of a closed system argue that it’s only logical that the Democratic nominee should be chosen by registered members of the Democratic Party, and vice versa. Primaries are about choosing candidates who represent the values of the political party. Further, in an open system, Democrats and Republicans could cross over and vote in the other party’s primary for the candidate they think is the least electable in the general election.
However, while political parties may be private groups, they are choosing candidates to run in public elections for public offices. Under these circumstances, the freedom of association rights of a political party are different from that of other private organisations. For instance, a local club or church can exclude certain groups from becoming members, but a political party cannot prohibit racial or religious groups from voting in their primary election. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens illustrates this idea in a dissenting opinion from a 2000 case:
In my view, while state rules abridging participation in its elections should be closely scrutinized, the First Amendment does not inhibit the State from acting to broaden voter access to state-run, state-financed elections.
What about the danger of members of one party “strategically voting” for a weak candidate in the other party’s primary? I admit that the prospect of “party raiding” is unappealing, but studies have found no real evidence that it occurs on a large scale in states with open primaries. An abstract concern that is not borne out by actual evidence is not sufficient reason for dismissing the concept of an open primary
The open primary is not the magic bullet for reforming elections. Still, given the flaws in the objections against it, and its potential to address some shortcomings of the primary system, the open primary remains a valuable tool in encouraging broader participation in all stages of the electoral process. Academics and lawmakers should continue to explore ways to organise elections so that candidates are responsive to the needs of all citizens, not just the most extreme members of their own party.
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