In the first month or so after becoming a Democrat, Specter was voting with his new party about two-thirds of the time on these Contentious Votes. While there are some less loyal Democrats -- say, Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- who only vote with their party about half the time, this was certainly less than what most Democratic observers were hoping for.
But since then, indeed, something has changed. Well, a couple of things have changed. On May 27th, Congressman Joe Sestak announced that he intended to challenge Specter for the Democratic nomination. And since that time, Specter has voted with his party on 28 out of 29 Contentious Votes, or 97 percent of the time.
Specter's overall party loyalty score since becoming a Democrat -- counting votes both before and after the primary challenge -- is 87 percent. This contrasts with the 44 percent of the time that he broke ranks to side with the Democratic on Contentious Votes while still a member of the Republican Party. He's basically been behaving like a mainline, liberal Democrat.
Notice, however, that I did not say Specter has become a mainline, liberal Democrat. On the one hand, it makes sense that Specter might have been hedging his bets early on after becoming a Democrat, siding with the Republican on a few issues to avoid looking like too much of a craven flip-flopper. He wasn't going to come out with guns blazing the next day with bills to enact single-payer health care and to prosecute George W. Bush for war crimes. He was going to wait until the spotlight was shining a little less brightly, and then begin to vote somewhat routinely with his new party.
On the other hand, it's hard not to imagine that this process has been strengthened, accentuated, catalyzed, by Joe Sestak's primary challenge. You can draw a pretty clear line in the sand from when Specter went from sorta, kinda Democrat to OMG totally! Democrat, and it coincides with the date that Sestak announced his challenge.
The real question is how Specter will behave if and when he wins the primary challenge, and the pressure from the left is off. This is especially so now that some polling shows Republican Pat Toomey, who forced Specter from the GOP in the first place, competitive against him in the general election.
Indeed, Specter appears to be just as capable of reacting to pressure from his right as to his left. In reviewing Specter's votes, I noticed that there was also something of a breaking point while he was still a Republican. In the first part of the year, after Barack Obama had carried his state by 10 points last November, he was voting with Democrats quite often, including on key measures like the stimulus package. But once the primary pressure from Toomey had begun to heat up -- as emphasized by a shocking March 25th Quinnipiac poll that put Specter 14 points behind his Republican rival -- he had become quite conservative, voting with Democrats only 16 percent of the time in his final month or so as a Republican.
On the one hand, all of this is pretty rational -- at any given moment, Specter was making moves that would seem to have maximized his chances of survival. On the other hand, it seems to have triggered plenty of fatigue with voters, who just can't be sure what they'll get if they vote to re-elect him. Arlen Specter is either just about the best reflection or the worst reflection on the state of our Democracy -- it's just hard to say which one.
The following chart illustrates total development aid flows from all donors to "Least Developed Countries", or those countries who have a human development index of less than 0.5, using constant 2007 US dollars, on a per capita basis.
The large increases in total aid flows have resulted from several trends: First, more donors are present, as oil-rich middle eastern states and others have since the 1980s begun to provide a significant portion of development aid. Second, OECD countries have increased both in number and in disbursals. Large disparity occurs between countries in terms of per capita aid, however, largely driven by high-profile events such as conflicts, natural disasters, and political commitments to domestic populations by former colonial powers.
Since independence and decolonization, and assisted by development aid and strengthening of domestic economies and social systems, the least developed countries (LDC) have made slow but steady progress toward human development*. (Legend for chart here)
From Senegal at the top of the group to Sierra Leone at the bottom, income, health and education indicators -- in part linked with the UN's Millenium Development Goals -- have improved. Cases of famine, civil war, economic turmoil and so forth have stalled or caused declines in many countries however, resetting the development path, such as in Rwanda, DR Congo or Chad. In the larger realm, however, the small advances that have occurred have been quite small. Between 1975 and 2005, HDI in least developed countries has increased at a rate of about 0.028 points per ten years. In other words, if the developed world were held stagnant at 0.95 (about the current level of Spain or the U.S.), it would take about 188 years for the least developed world to catch up.
As we intuitively know, 30 or 40 dollars of extra spending per person, particularly when spent in part on functions not directly linked to human development (such as importing specialized equipment, food aid, and consultants from developed countries), is simply not enough to make a serious dent in the problem. However, it is sobering to recognize that the lack of progress is so stark.
Building in part on the storyline of my last post, let's have a quick look at where G7 spending is actually going.
As long as the priorities are set as such, the trends are certain to continue.
*The Human Development Index, developed by the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, and includes income, education, and health as the key indicators of total human development.
It isn't. It is, first of all, inevitable, and second of all, about as likely to do the Democrats some good as some harm, although that may depend on certain exogenous factors that are relatively outside of their control.
Ten days ago, I wrote a piece entitled, "Why Democrats Have No Time to Waste", the thesis of which was basically that Obama's approval ratings were liable to decline over the near-to-medium term and so Democrats had better get busy on health care while they could.
But a couple of things have happened since then.
Firstly, the media environment has become very treacherous. There's been all sorts of piling on, for instance, about last night's satisfactory press conference -- this is almost certainly the most sustained stretch of bad coverage for Obama since back when Jeremiah Wright became a household name after the Ohio primary.
I don't think the media has a liberal bias or a conservative bias so much as it has a bias toward overreacting to short-term trends and a tendency toward groupthink. The fact is that there have been some pretty decent signals on health care. Yes, it has stalled in some committees, but it has advanced in others; yes, the Mayo Clinic expressed their skepticism but also the AMA -- surprisingly -- endorsed it; yes, the CBO's Doug Elmendorf got walked into a somewhat deceptive and undoubtedly damaging line of questioning about the measure's capacities on cost control, but also, the CBO's actual cost estimates have generally been lower than expected and also favorable to particular Democratic priorities like the public option. This all seems pretty par for the course, even if you wouldn't know it from reading Politico or Jake Tapper, who giddily report on each new poll telling us the exact same thing as though there's some sort of actual news value there.
The media likes to talk about "momentum". It usually talks about the momentum in the present tense -- as in, "health care has no momentum". But almost always, those observations are formulated based on events of the past and sloppily extrapolated to imply events of the future, often to embarrassing effect: see also, New Hampshire, the 15-day infatuation with Sarah Palin, the Straight Talk express being left for dead somewhere in the summer of 2007, the overreaction to "Bittergate" and the whole lot, and the naive assumption that Obama's high-60's approval ratings represented a paradigm shift and not a honeymoon period that new Presidents almost always experience.
I also believe that the media can, in the short term, amplify and sometimes even create waves of momentum. But almost always only in the short term. And that is reason #1 why it's not such a bad thing that the Democrats are getting a breather on health care. They're at, what I believe, may be something of a 'trough' or 'bottom' as far as this media-induced momentum goes. By some point in August, the media will at least have tired of the present storyline and may in fact be looking for excuses to declare a shift in momentum and report that some relatively ordinary moment is in fact the "game changer" that the Democrats needed. This is not to say that the real, underlying momentum on health care has especially good -- and the Democrats' selling of the measure certianly hasn't been. But it hasn't been especially poor either . As I've said before, the health care process has played out just about how an intelligent observer might have expected it to beforehand.
The second reason why the delay might be OK for the Democrats is because of the economy. Nobody much seems to have noticed, but the Dow is now over 9,000 and at its highest point of the Obama presidency; the S&P is nearing 1,000 and the NASDAQ has gained almost 55 percent since its bottom and has moved upward on 12 consecutive trading days. There are ample reasons to be skeptical about the rally -- it isn't supported by strong volumes, and it's almost entirely the result of surprisingly solid corporate earnings numbers rather than the sorts of figures that Main Street cares about. But, there are two big dates to watch out for. On July 31, an advance estimate of second quarter GDP growth will be released, and on August 7th, we'll get the monthly report on the unemployment situation. If either of those reports reflect the optimism elicited by the corporate earnings numbers -- in this context, a job loss number under ~250,000 or a 2Q GDP number somewhere close to zero -- there will be a lot of quite optimistic chatter about the end of the recession which might not penetrate to Main Street, but which will at least have some reverberations on Capitol Hill.
A few hours ago, I asked our readers what they expected Barack Obama's Gallup approval rating to be on August 31st, when the Senate's recess will be just about over and the health care sausage-making will begin again. The average guess was 55 percent, which is exactly where it is today (a new low for Obama, we should mention). I should caution that our readers lean probably 2:1 or 3:1 liberal, and so there might be some optimism bias in this unscientific sample. But that strikes me as about the right assessment. Obama's numbers don't have much more room to fall before they hit the 53 percent threshold that actually elected him last November. And I don't think they're liable to go too much below that mark unless something actually and tangibly bad happens -- a bad unemployment report (or a sharp reversal of the market rally), the actual collapse of health care, some bona fide major gaffe, etc. Any of those things, indeed, could happen. But just as likely Obama will benefit from some good economic numbers or simply some reversion to the mean as the media firing squad picks up and plays golf for a month.
The Democrats could find themselves in a better position after the August recess or they could find themselves in a worse one -- how's that for a bold prediction! But liberals' doom-and-gloom, conservatives' glee, and the media's nearsighted reporting are all equally uncalled for.
Contra Barone's assertion, there's not really any evidence that health care reform is unpopular in the Blue Dog districts. Although there are exceptions, most of the Blue Dog districts are fairly poor. A Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month suggested that while 53 percent of voters overall think "think it's the government's responsibility to make sure that everyone in the United States has adequate health care", 61 percent of voters making under $50,000 do. Also, while Quinnipaic did not break out the results for moderate and conservative Democrats, which are plentiful in these Districts, one can reasonably infer them. In this poll, 79 percent of liberals agreed with the statement as did 77 percent of Democrats -- not a very big difference. Since almost all liberals are Democrats and about half of all Democrats are liberals, that suggests that support for health care reform among non-liberal Democrats is something like 75 percent.
Obama and congressional Democratic leaders are blaming Republicans for their problem. Obama noted that Republican Sen. Jim DeMint and Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol want to "kill" the Democratic bills. But the Blue Dogs' and Polis' letters showed that the mortal threat comes from elected Democrats. Twenty-nine of the 57 letter signers defeated or replaced Republicans in 2006 or 2008. Thirty-three of them represent districts carried by John McCain in 2008.
What we're seeing is the people speaking through their politicians. Obama and many Democrats assumed that the financial crisis would predispose most Americans to favor a larger and much more expensive government than we ever have had before.
But suppose that Barone is right, and that health care -- or at least the current Democratic version of it -- indeed is unpopular in these districts.
Well, then, Mr. Blue Dog, you have a problem on your hands.
You're going to lose anyway.
If these voters are not capable of supporting health care, what other planks of the Democratic agenda are they going to support?
The carbon tax? Not rural, energy-intensive districts.
Maybe your constituents liked the bailout? Didn't think so.
Perhaps they're waiting for Obama to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act? Um, probably not.
The fact is, Mr. Blue Dog, there's a good chance that the reason you're in power is because George W. Bush was in power. When Bush was in power, you didn't have to advance your party's own agenda -- you just had to block some of the more unpopular elements of his.
But you don't have that advantage anymore. You're going to have to endure at least two more elections with Obama as your President -- and since the Republican candidates in 2012 are Dopey, Sleazy and Romney, probably four. You're going to start having to find at least a few things to vote for.
And if health care isn't one of them, it's hard to see what else is, at least in your sort of district.
Maybe you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. But the only world in which you are popular enough to get re-elected is one which this bill is popular enough for you to vote for.
However, all may not be lost, as there was one straggler that came in a few hours after the deadline on Tuesday morning that I'm still in negotiations with. Should have an update soon. (And yes, it's definitely too late to accept any bets now. Maybe next month, though.)
I'm inclined to take this poll mostly at face value, in terms of how things would play out if an election were held today. Quinnipiac is a good polling firm and have been running surveys in Pennsylvania for a long time. The party cross-tabs looked potentially a little bit funky to me, so I re-ran the numbers using 2008 election splits (D 44, R 37, I 18), but it didn't help Specter much -- his lead went from 45-44 to 46-43.
Toomey is much less known than Specter -- only 44 percent were able to register an opinion about him, although most of those that did thought positively of him. Usually when a candidate has poor name recognition this early in a race, it's a good sign, since it means that his numbers have more room to grow. But I'm not sure that's the case here. Currently, only 10 percent of Pennsylvanians describe Toomey as "too conservative" (38 percent describe him as "about right" and 4 percent as "too liberal"!). But Toomey is, in fact, very conservative. While previously in the House, he compiled a DW-NOMINATE score of +.768. That's a very big number; there are only four current members of the House who are to Toomey's right. Toomey did not reside in an especially conservative district, by the way; in fact his former district voted for Barack Obama 56-43. So there's no particular reason to think he'd moderate if he represented the whole state.
Pennsylvania is sometimes thought of as at least being a socially conservative state. While parts of it are -- and the state is idiosyncratic on some issues like abortion -- this isn't really true on balance. In 2008 exit polling, 27 percent of Pennsylvanians described themselves as conservative, versus 34 percent of the nation as a whole. Pennsylvania also isn't a particularly liberal state; it's a moderate one with a strong Democratic machine and a strong Democratic tradition, especially in Presidential elections.
In theory, asToomey has a six-year voting record, Specter ought to be able to point to plenty of controversial votes that he cast and brand him as a ultraconservative rather than a moderate. The question is how much that will resonate. For one thing, since Republicans really aren't in any place to implement controversial measures like, say, privatizing Social Security, or extending the war in Iraq, it might seem to voters like something of a moot point. But more importantly, there might be questions about the person doing the messaging. Toomey, who does not shirk from his conservativeness, will probably have a response something along the lines of: at least I'm staying true to my beliefs, whereas my opponent can't decide what he believes in. In that sense, Specter's primary opponent, Joe Sestak, might have an easier time of things (although expect Sestak to keep the netroots somewhat at arm's-length and highlight his own moderation if he wins the primary and Toomey is running a good campaign.)
Ultimately, I'd still rate either Democrat as about a 2:1 favorite over Toomey, this poll not withstanding. But Pennsylvania will certainly be moving up in next month's Senate race rankings.
It's conceivable, however, that the Democrats could overcome quite a few objections in the House and still pass the health care bill in the Senate. That is, although Pelosi & Co. clearly need to wrangle up a few more votes, they do not necessarily need unanimity or anything particularly close to it. Here's why:
1. There is a proportionately larger 'rump' of conservative Democrats in the House than in the Senate.
The following chart provides the "common-space" DW-NOMINATE scores for members of the current Congress, a measure of ideology that runs from -1 for uberliberal to +1 for uberconservative. (Scores for freshman members of Congress, not yet availble in the DW-NOMINATE database, are extrapolated from ProgressivePunch figures.)
This chart, I'm sure, is a little bit confusing to most of you, but what it suggests is that the ideological makeup of the two chambers is somewhat different, especially on the Democratic side. Whereas the progression of ideologies on the House side is relatively smooth, on the Senate side there is a huge jump between about the 59th most conservative member (Tom Carper of Delaware, who registers at a -.161) and the 63rd most conservative (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, +.263). The three senators in between Carper and Murkowski are Democrat Ben Nelson (-.015), and Republicans Olympia Snowe (+.095) and Susan Collins (+.115). A tremendous amount of power rests in the hands of these three Senators and these three Senators specifically. Getting any one of them on board is oftentimes the equivalent of getting a couple dozen members of the House on board.
Let's look at this from another angle: there are six House Democrats (Walt Minnick, Bobby Bright, Travis Childers, Ann Kilpatrick, Gene Taylor and Glenn Nye) more conservative than the most conservative Senate Democrat, Ben Nelson. But there are 39 House Democrats more conservative than the second-most conservative Senate Democrat, Tom Carper. In theory, if everyone from Carper leftward voted for the health care bill, and everyone to his right didn't, the bill would be approved just barely (219-216) in the House but somewhat overwhelmingly (59-41) in the Senate. Relatedly, if only a majority were required for passage, it would be somewhat easier to pass progressive legislation through the Senate, where the swing vote would be Tim Johnson (-.242), than through the House, where it would be Scott Murphy (-.171).
Of course, 59 votes -- or 51 -- isn't usually enough to pass something in the Senate because of the possibility of the filibuster. But that brings us to our second point:
2. The conservative Senate Democrats don't have to vote for the bill -- they just have to not filibuster it.
It's in fact somewhat common for Senators to vote for cloture (to break a filibuster) but against the underlying bill, or vice versa, although it tends to be less so on major legislation. As our friend Ed Kilgore notes, the Senate leadership clearly seems to be aware of this dynamic and will put a lot of pressure on conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu to at least split their votes in this fashion, particularly given the underlying (if probably idle) thereat of reconciliation, which would circumvent the filibuster. Ben Nelson might vote against health care, and he might vote for all sorts of amendments to water the bill down. But would he actually vote to filibuster the bill, which would mean the difference between success and failure for his party? That seems more dubious.
3. The Senate's bill will be different -- and probably somewhat more conservative -- than the House's.
The two chambers have different hang-ups and, as we've mentioned, different ideological makeups. Pelsoi, Reid and the committee chairs have to be concerned with drawing up a bill that can pass through their respective chambers. If they can do that, then getting the conference report passed, while no gimme, should be comparatively easy. I'd expect the Senate's version of the bill to be more conservative than the House's, particualarly with respect to the funding mechanisms. For instance, I very much doubt that a surtax as high as 5.4 percent on wealthy earners will survive in the Senate version -- more likely there will be smaller surtax, coupled with other fundraising mechanisms like 'sin' taxes or taxes on insureres. Some House Democrats who might vote against their own chamber's version of health reform might be willing to vote for the Senate's.
4. The bystander effect.
The last issue is the matter of leverage. The Blue Dogs' strength comes in their numbers. Once the number of additional votes required to pass health care can be whittled down to a finite number, Democrats can exert extraordinary pressure on individual members to toe the party line. The health care bill is the signature piece of the Democratic agenda and anyone who doesn't vote for it ought to be prepared to be frozen out of the party somewhat permanently. Indeed, if health care fails, there seems to me to be a pretty decent chance that some conservative Democrats will flip parties and become Republicans. This just isn't the case on something like the climate change bill, where geographic considerations play a larger role and the bill will be manifestly harmful to (and unpopular in) certain states and districts.
But while you might be able to muscle one or two or three hedging members into a yea vote on health care (or a vote against a filibuster in the Senate's case), it's much harder to do that 40 or so legislators, where there is less individual accountability.
* * *
I realize that this has been a somewhat academic exercise, but the upshot of it is as follows:
1. Yes, the Blue Dogs really do have some leverage here. It's at least conceivable that the House would be unable to approve health care while the Senate would be.
2. And/but -- if the bill passes by a narrow margin in the House (even by just a few votes) that will not necessarily doom its chances of overcoming a filibuster in the Senate. Nor does the fact that the bill is having some trouble in the House necessarily mean all that much in terms of its prospects in the Senate. The Senate Democrats operate within a much more narrow band ideologically -- there are proportionately fewer true Blue Dogs, and also proportionately fewer uberliberals. If the White House could get assurances that a few key senators like Nelson, Landireu and Snowe won't filibuster health care -- they don't actually have to vote for the bill -- the Senate landscape actually starts to look reasonably favorable to the bill, possibly more favorable than the House's.
(Click on image to see larger version.)
We're mapping estimates from a hierarchical Bayes model fit to data from the 2000 Annenberg survey (approximately 50,000 respondents).
In case you're wondering what Bayesian modeling did for us, here are the corresponding maps from the raw data (weighted to adjust for voter turnout, but that doesn't actually do that much anyway):
(Click on image to see larger version.)
OK, so Bayes gives you a lot. The costs?
- Effort. It took me a couple weeks to make the first set of maps. Some of this was the modeling--I tried several different versions of the model and also had to come up with a quick-and-dirty way of adjusting for the turnout weights amid the regression modeling and poststratification.
(I also put in a lot of work to make the maps look just right, but it's not really fair to count this as a cost: if we were only able to look at the raw data, we wouldn't even be trying to make such maps in the first place.)
- Model dependence. Changing the model will change the estimates and change the maps. I don't feel so bad about this, first because the raw estimates are so noisy, second because so-called raw estimates are themselves highly model dependent.
Everything depends on models, so let's take them seriously
This discussion relates to my disagreement with Kos over the maps of Obama and McCain vote. I graphed model-based estimates constructed using the Pew pre-election polls; Kos didn't trust these where they disagreed with published exit poll results.
The problems with Kos's argument?
1. Exit polls are far from perfect: I've heard that in 2008 the raw exit poll data weren't close to the actual election outcome.
2. Exit poll estimates depend strongly on the model used to select polling locations, assumptions about who responds to the poll, and the models used to adjust for sampling error, nonresponse, and unexpected contingencies.
I'm not trying to pick a fight with Kos here--he had lots of useful comments on my original maps, which motivated me to go back and fix some problems I'd had. I think that the insights of Kos and other people who are closely involved with day-to-day politics, combined with some of our modeling tools, make a good combination.
P.S. I expect that other, non-Bayesian methods could also work well, and I'd love to see how they do on this and similar examples. As we always say, what's important isn't the method, it's the information included in the estimate. A strength of Bayesian hierarchical modeling is that it allows inclusion of diverse sources of information, but I'm sure other methods could do fine also, if set up appropriately.
P.P.S. People have given me a lot of flak on the map colors--to start with, they're not so great for color-blind people. Also I need some better labeling of what the colors mean. More work to be done, and it's good to get these graphs out there to get that kind of useful feedback.
In any case, my focus here is not on the pretty maps but rather on the modeling technology--the impressive ability of Bayesian data analysis to give reasonable estimates for all these subgroups.
P.P.P.S. Brendan O'Connor's made a webpage allowing you to click back and forth between the two maps shown above.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An independent investigator has found evidence that Gov. Sarah Palin may have violated ethics laws by accepting private donations to pay her legal debts.A while ago, I came up with a test called the EMPSCAT to evaluate the impact of minor political scandals based on a five-question battery. The more of these questions are answered in the affirmative, the more likely that a minor political scandal will blow up into a major political scandal. Let's see how this one does based on what we know so far:
The report obtained by The Associated Press says Palin is securing unwarranted benefits and receiving improper gifts through the Alaska Fund Trust, set up by supporters.
An investigator for the state Personnel Board says in his July 14 report that there is probable cause to believe Palin used or attempted to use her official position for personal gain because she authorized the creation of the trust as the "official" legal defense fund.
The fund aims to help Palin pay off debts stemming from multiple ethics complaints against her, most of which have been dismissed. Palin says she owes more than $500,000 in legal fees.
1. Can the scandal be reduced to a one-sentence soundbyte (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence soundbyte)?
No, not really. In fact, the Associated Press had some trouble summing it up in a five-sentence article. And if there were ever a scandal where the two-world phase "clerical error" were likely to be a reasonably effective defense, it might be this one -- at least based on the limited, initial reports.
2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate's brand?
No. Although the McCain campaign briefly tried to position her this way, nobody ever took Sarah Palin seriously as some kind of clean-as-a-whistle ethics champion. The strengths of her brand (which are considerable -- Palin the brand is much more powerful than Palin the candidate) lie elsewhere.
3. Does the scandal reify/reinforce/"prove" a core negative perception about the candidate, particularly one that had henceforth been difficult to articulate (but not one that has become so entrenched that little further damage can be done)?
Yes, because it will reinforce doubts about the motivations for Palin's premature and somewhat mystifying resignation from her governorship.
4. Can the scandal readily be employed by the opposition, without their looking hypocritical/petty/politically incorrect, risking retribution, or giving life to a damaging narrative?
Probably not. The public mostly doesn't like Sarah Palin, but they also don't like the way she's treated by liberals and the media. My immediate reaction to this scandal is that it's right in the danger zone where the media might a fair amount of it, but without there really being enough meat there for it to resonate with the public. With that said, the dynamics are a little topsy-turvy here. Every liberal overreaction to Palin seems to be met with an equal-to-or-greater-than conservative counter-overreaction. It's also not clear if liberals should really be that worried about annoying conservatives on Sarah Palin, because if that makes conservatives angry enough to nominate her for President, that might ultimately work to liberals' benefit.
5. Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?
I might have to modify this rule to read "and/or does the scandal involve Sarah Palin?". It's actually a somewhat busy time now, with health care and the Sotomayor nomination and so forth, but a meteor would pretty much have to hit the earth for the media not to amplify a piece of Palin gossip, particularly in the wake of her resignation.
* * *
Expect the phrase "other shoe" to be used a lot today. And mostly, for it to be used mistakenly. The scandal only meets two of the five planks of the EMPSCAT, and I don't see a great deal of direct political fallout from this unless there are further revelations. Instead, it will more likely become another piece in the proxy war that is constantly being fought on Sarah Palin and will probably continue to be fought until she leaves the national scene.
Overall, her net approval ratings are solid--dropping a bit from the previous poll, but only slightly and potentially the same, given margin of error. She polls better among non-whites than whites--no surprise there. And the key to her confirmation is support among independents and moderates, 60 percent and 65 percent of whom support her, respectively.
The interesting cleavage is among conservatives. ABC News polling unit's Giovanni Russonello writes:
One surprising result is the division among conservatives: While 50 percent oppose Sotomayor’s nomination, that’s less than a clear majority, and indeed 40 percent of conservatives support her. So do 43 percent of evangelical white Protestants, a core Republican group, with fewer than half, 48 percent, opposed. She’s weaker, though, among Republicans themselves, with just 28 percent in favor, 57 percent opposed.
Opposition among Republicans is up 14 points from last month, with fewer undecided. But the center has held for the judge: She’s backed by 60 percent of independents and 65 percent of moderates, as well as nearly eight in 10 Democrats and liberals alike.
Sotomayor avoided controversy at her hearings, expressing fidelity to the Constitution and backing off her statement in speeches that a “wise Latina woman” may come to a “better conclusion” than a white male judge. The issue does not appear to have hurt her significantly; in the ABC/Post poll in June, large majorities rejected the notion that her sex, race or ethnicity play a negative role in how she decides cases.
Nonetheless, her support remains much stronger among non-whites, 76 percent, than among whites, 52 percent. With data from the past two polls combined for sufficient sample sizes, 73 percent of Hispanics and 85 percent of blacks favor her confirmation.
In a fitting, related development, moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine announced today that she will vote to confirm Sotomayor. Said Collins: "Judge Sotomayor has impressive legal experience, has excelled throughout her life and is a tremendously accomplished person. And based on my review of her record, my assessment of her character and my analysis of her adherence to precedent, Judge Sotomayor warrants confirmation to the high court."
However, this is not the economically optimal way to pay for health insurance. Changing the tax code in this way is not liable to resolve any inefficiencies (that is, generate any cost reduction), nor does it have anything in particular to do with health care itself. An alternative that would meet both those criteria would be to remove the preferential treatment for employer-provided benefits like health insurance, which almost certianly does distort the market and increases the cost of health care.
Many serious reform proposals include a removal of the benefits subsidy. However, such a move would undoubtedly be politically unpopular, and so Congress is likely to decide to finance health care through other means. I can live with this: ultimately there is just about no way that high-income earners are going to get through the next decade or two paying the 35 percent marginal tax rate that they're paying now, and so at most this is pushing forward an inevitable future tax increase.
What I have less tolerance for, however, is arguments in favor of retaining the benefits tax exemption on what purport to be solid economic grounds. Such an example can be found in today's Washington Post in this editorial from James Klein and John Sweeney, who are the presidents of the American Benefits Council and the AFL-CIO, respectively. Let me walk you through their editorial and explain why I find their reasoning specious.
With rising health costs burdening businesses and families alike, does anyone really believe that employers or workers lack incentive to hold down costs? The tax treatment of health benefits no more contributes to high health-care costs than the deduction for mortgage interest is responsible for housing costs. Clearly, both are affected by far more complex factors.Is this really the argument that Klein and Sweeney want to be making? We're now experiencing, obviously, a huge collapse in housing prices, which may be the principal factor behind the current recession. The tax subsidies given to homeownership, specifically including the mortgage interest exemption, are oftentimes attributed as a partial cause of the bubble.
The cost of health coverage varies enormously based on geographic region and the age and health status of those in an insured group. Were benefits to be taxed, these common variations would lead to highly inequitable results, with some workers being taxed while their co-workers in other areas -- or those who are part of a group with a different demographic composition but who are receiving the exact same coverage -- would not.The cost of employer-sponsored health care programs actually do not vary that much from state to state -- from a low of $3,549 per year in Hawaii to a high of $4,712 in Delaware. Those living in the states with the most expensive health coverage would be paying about an additional $150 in taxes each year relative to the average, and those in the cheapest states would be paying about $150 less. That's just not that much of a distortion (although the disparities are magnified if you're buying a plan to cover your entire family).
More to the point, regional variance in the cost of health care coverage is small relative to other expenses. $50,000 per year in Chicago goes as far as $97,601 per year in Manhattan or $39,642 per year in Topeka. I don't see a lot of people arguing, say, that housing expenses should be exempted from taxation, something which would benefit those in Manhattan, New York much more than those in Manhattan, Kansas. People can choose, within reason, where they live, with cost of living (including taxation rates), quality of life, the availability of employment, and prevailing salaries all competing factors; the market does a pretty good job of sorting this all out.
The criticism that lower-paid workers with coverage get less value from the tax benefit than those in higher tax brackets is plain wrong. One of the great success stories of labor-management relations over the past several decades is that workers have negotiated for and received comprehensive coverage every bit as valuable as that extended to higher-income Americans. It is hard to think of a tax preference that is enjoyed more equitably across the income spectrum than the exclusion for employer-sponsored coverage. As a Commonwealth Fund report concludes, low-income households with employer coverage receive a larger tax break as a percentage of income than those in higher income households. And the related claim that the current tax exclusion favors those with coverage at the expense of those without -- even if it were true -- is completely inapplicable when everyone is covered -- an essential goal of reform.This is a potentially sounder argument, although other studies have reached different conclusions. However, it would be blunted by the fact that taxation of health benefits would almost certainly include a carve-out for low-, middle, and probably even upper-middle class workers. This is also a case of two wrongs making a right. Personally, I think the tax code should be made somewhat more progressive -- and I also think that the benefits tax exemption is a market distortion. From a tax policy standpoint, the optimal solution would be to remove the benefits tax exemption and simultaneously to change (lower) federal income tax brackets such that the policy would be revenue-neutral, on average, for families making $250,000 per year or less. Of course, people with relatively more generous health care benefits would take more of a hit, but that is the whole point. I don't see why someone making $40,000 cash per year with a $10,000/year health insurance policy should be paying less in taxes than someone making $45,000 cash and a $3,000/year health insurance policy.
A number of unintended consequences could result from taxing benefits. Removing the tax preference could well lead young workers to "opt out" of employer coverage, thereby destabilizing employer-sponsored "group" insurance. Moreover, a failure to adequately index the exclusion would lead to more and more Americans becoming subject to the tax over time -- just as the alternative minimum tax now captures far more people than originally contemplated. Other health-related benefits such as dental, vision and supplemental policies for particularly high-cost conditions such as cancer, as well as popular medical flexible spending arrangements, might need to be purchased on an after-tax basis -- effectively making them much more expensive.The unintended consequence of which Klein and Sweeney speak -- that poorly-designed policy could create imbalanced risk pools if individuals are free to choose between an employer-sponsored plan and a individually-purchased plan -- is a problem with any serious attempt to reform health care and has nothing particularly to do with the taxation of employer-provided health benefits. Their argument about indexing, moreover, is odd: sure, if you didn't index the exclusion properly, it might create unanticipated hardships for some people. The solution to that would seem to be, um, to index the exclusion properly.
While some argue for setting a limit on the tax exclusion, it bears noting that the entire exclusion equates to about 10 percent of the nation's staggering $2.4 trillion annual bill for all health-care expenses. That confirms at least two irrefutable facts. First, the tax exclusion is not responsible for high health costs. Second, for an amount that is roughly equal to one-tenth of the country's health tab, enlightened tax policy makes possible essential health-care coverage to more than 160 million Americans.Ten percent of $2.4 trillion is $240 billion a year. That's a lot of money: about five times the amount that would need to be raised annually to make the the Democrats' health-care plans deficit-neutral.
Klein and Sweeney have also set up a classic strawman argument: nobody has said that the benefits tax exemption is entirely responsible for the high costs of health care. But there's a near-consensus that it's partially responsible. And occasionally these distortions will have grave consequences. I have argued, for instance, that the differential tax treatment of benefits was partially responsible for the collapse of General Motors.
I have no doubt that the employer-based health care system is great -- if you're one of the 160 million Americans that happens to work for an employer who provides health insurance. But if you work for yourself, work part time, work for certain small businesses, or are out of work, you may also be out of luck. Moreover, if you want to leave your job but would be unlikely to procure health insurance in the private market, you're in a heck of a predicament -- imagine the dilemma that someone who is diabetic or HIV+ or has a congenital heart defect might find themselves in if they wanted to start their own business or leave their jobs to pursue an advanced degree but would lose their health insurance in order to do so.
About 63 million Americans do not have health benefits through their jobs and are also not eligible for a government-run program like Medicaid. Of those, only about 18 million -- less than 30 percent -- have bought insurance in the private market. Now, some of the missing 45 million are illegal immigrants, and others are people who could afford health insurance but choose not to purchase it -- I have no sympathy for either group. But others are people who can't afford health care or who are ineligible because of a pre-existing condition. Those are the people who are getting screwed. And it does not suffice, by the way, to take the pseudo-libertarian point of view and say "that's the free market and them's the breaks". The reason we have an employer-based health care system in the United States is because of government interference in the markets, principally in the form of wage and price controls implemented during the Roosevelt administration.
Unionized workers in traditional manufacturing industries and public-sector industries -- basically, those represented by the AFL-CIO -- tend to have great health insurance benefits. (This is less true of the service-sector workers represented by the SEIU, which is why they have tended to be much quieter about this issue). These benefits were achieved through a legacy of years or even decades of difficult collective bargaining negotiations. Although Republicans will complain about it, I have a lot of sympathy for approaches that would grandfather in benefits achieved through collective bargaining, as any Democratic plans that would remove the benefits tax exemption would probably do.
But Klein and Sweeney aren't merely arguing for that; instead they seem to be championing the very system that has led to many of the problems that we find with health care today. Most of the policies that unions advocate are concomitant with the interests of working-class people as a whole. I think a lot of people -- particularly people under 40 -- tend to grossly underestimate the impact that unions still have in getting Democrats elected. This, however, is one of the exceptions. Klein and Sweeney are on the side of public opinion here, but not sound public policy.
I asked Ruy to discuss recent demographic trends, some great reports he recently issued, and what his takeaways were from the 2008 election. As ever, his answers are as detailed and rigorous as the many reports he produces every year, many of which are linked to below and which I highly recommend.
Fivethirtyeight.com: First, your book with John Judis, The Emerging Democratic Majority, received significant validation in the 2008 election results. If you don’t mind taking a bit of a victory lap, how did you and Judis forecast the emergence of this Democratic majority seven or eight years ago, when few others could?
Ruy Teixeira: Perhaps it helped that John and I both read a lot of history, a habit that encourages one to take the long view and look for underlying patterns of change. Many political observers and analysts are concerned to the point of obsession with what just happened and what will happen very soon. That is, their preoccupations are short term and their explanations of politics are similarly short-term. Some of this is useful, of course, and I think a fair amount myself about what is going to happen in the next vote in Congress and or in the next election.
But those short-term preoccupations can get you into trouble when trying to think more broadly about where the country is going. Short-term analyses can wind up dominating the way you think about the future; it becomes harder to look beyond short-term outcomes to factors that might be fundamentally reshaping the political terrain.
Thinking about these underlying factors is what drove John and I to write the book. The more we considered these underlying factors and sifted through the relevant data, the more it seemed like the country was evolving in a way that, on net, was very good for the Democrats and very bad for the Republicans. Demographically, geographically, economically, attitudinally—the effects of what you might term the transition to a postindustrial society were all pointing in the same direction.
This led us to believe that, despite Bush’s so-called victory in 2000, the country was headed in a pro-Democratic direction that would likely lead to electoral dominance by Democrats within the decade. And we stuck to our guns even in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, which we fully realized would be highly beneficial to Bush and the Republicans for some time. But we did not think that 9/11 could reverse the long-term effects of the underlying trends we had identified. We maintained that position through the 2002 and 2004 elections, the latter of which sent many progressives into paroxysms of despair. Rove and the mighty Republican machine will rule forever! Democrats are doomed! We did not share these sentiments. Indeed, Bush’s victory in 2004 was unusually weak for an incumbent President, especially one who could pose as a wartime President. We believed underlying trends would assert themselves in Bush’s second term and they did.
538: You recently put out a report summarizing some key developments of the 2008 election cycle. Can you highlight one or two that are the biggest takeaways from that report?
RT: Yes, that report is New Progressive America, from the Center for American Progress' recently started Progressive Studies Program, which I co-direct with John Halpin. I do not believe you will find anywhere a more comprehensive, detailed treatment of the trends that have tilted America progressive.
As for takeaways, there are many, but here are some of the most important. Start with this one: between 1988 and 2008, the minority share of voters in presidential elections has risen by 11 percentage points, while the share of increasingly progressive white college graduate voters has risen by 4 points. But the share of white working class voters, who have remained conservative in their orientation, has plummeted by 15 points. Want to know why McCain’s strategy failed in Pennsylvania? Same story: white working class voters declined by 25 points between 1988 and 2008, while white college graduates rose by 16 points and minorities by 8 points. Or in Nevada: white working class voters are down 24 points over the time period, while minority voters are up an amazing 19 points and white college graduates by 4 points.
More generally, progressives are doing very well among almost all growing demographic groups, while conservatives are retaining strength only where the country is stagnating or declining. One of the more dramatic manifestations of this pattern is the rise of the Millennial generation (those born 1978-2000). Millennial adults voted for Obama by a 34-point margin, 66 percent to 32 percent, compared to a 9-point margin for Kerry among 18- to 29-year-olds in 2004 when that age group was not exclusively Millennials. Between now and 2018, the number of Millennials of voting age will increase by about four and a half million a year, and Millennial eligible voters will increase by about 4 million a year. In 2020—the first presidential election where all Millennials will have reached voting age—this generation will be 103 million strong, of which about 90 million will be eligible voters. Those 90 million Millennial eligible voters will represent just under 40 percent of America’s eligible voters. (Much more on this generation’s size, voting behavior, demographics, and views on cultural, foreign policy, role of government, and economic issues may be found in my Progressive Studies Program report with David Madland, New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation.)
The geographical takeaway is the close relationship between pro-progressive political shifts and dynamic metropolitan growth areas across the country, particularly within contested states. Progressive gains have been heavily concentrated in not just the urbanized cores of these metro areas, but also in the growing suburbs around them. Even in exurbia, progressives have made big gains. Only in the smallest metro areas and in small town rural America were progressive gains minimal. And only in the most isolated, least populated rural counties did progressives actually lose ground. As with demography, where America is growing, progressives are gaining, while conservative strength is associated with stagnation and decline.
538: In terms of demographic groups and performance, what from the 2008 results caught you by surprise because it was unexpected?
RT: I was most surprised by the extent of the distributional shifts in the electorate, which exceeded my expectations. Between 2004 and 2008, the share of white working class voters decreased by 4 points, while the minority share rose 3 points, which is quite a bit faster than historical trend.# It will be interesting to see if this rapid pace keeps up in 2010 and 2012.
538: Same question, but in reverse: what didn’t happen that you expected to happen in 2008?
Based on pre-election polls, I expected Obama to do better than he did among white working class voters—he lost them by 18 points on election day. Thanks to the distributional shifts mentioned above, very strong performance among minority voters and a sharp progressive shift among white college graduate voters, Obama was still able to achieve a solid victory. Moving forward, however, this poor performance among white working class voters represents a serious progressive vulnerability.
But help may be on the way. Not only did Obama win white Millennials overall, he also won both white Millennial college graduate and noncollege voters (by 16 and 6 points respectively). Some may question the significance of the latter finding since the 18-29 year old noncollege white group contains a considerable proportion of students and is therefore a flawed representation of the young white working class. However, if analysis is confined to 25-29 year olds to eliminate the problem of mixing students on track for a four year degree with other white noncollege youth, the results are even stronger. Obama won 25-29 year old white noncollege voters by 12 points, 54-42, a stunning 40-point swing relative to Kerry’s 35-63 drubbing among the same group in 2004.
The strong support of white college graduate Millennials for Obama is consistent with the continuing shift of white college graduates toward progressives and should strengthen that already-existing trend. But the support of white noncollege Millennials for Obama could indicate a new trend. As relatively progressive white working class Millennials replace older white working class voters in the electorate, the white working class as a whole could become less conservative and more open to progressive ideas and candidates. Given Obama’s big deficit among the white working class in the 2008 election, this would be a significant development, mitigating progressives’ main demographic weakness and adding to their burgeoning coalition.
538: Catholics have long been a bellwether of presidential results, and were again in 2008—Obama carried them and he won. Is there a particular demographic subgroup pundits may not be paying close attention to that you think will emerge as a key bellwether in the coming decades?
RT: Well, I don’t know about bellwethers—a group that points in the winning direction every election. I’m more interested in groups whose movement tells you a lot about where American politics is going, regardless of whether they do or do not point in the right direction all the time. Some groups, for example, can be counted on to generally vote conservative, but the magnitude of the conservative margin is of considerable interest.
One such group is whites with some college, whom I have termed “America’s most under-rated demographic.” They form a critical part of the white working class and get very little specific attention as group. They are about 40 percent of the white working class today, a percent that has been growing over time. Moreover, whites with some college have been stable as a percent of the overall electorate, while the rest of the white working class has been declining sharply.
Whites with some college have, by definition, more education than the rest of the white working class and tend to have more skilled jobs and earn higher pay. They are the most upwardly mobile portion of the white working class. For many elections, the GOP has captured the loyalty of these aspirational voters. In 2004, this group voted for George Bush by 25 points. In 2008, Obama managed a fairly solid 7 point improvement in the progressive deficit among these voters. But he managed only a 3 point improvement among the less educated segment, those with only a high school diploma or less.
This result is consistent with research I did with William Frey before the election, where we found this group trending strongly toward progressives in many swing states over the 1988-2004 time period. If this trend continues, conservative margins among the white working class will be substantially narrowed with big implications for American politics.
538: The Democratic congressional majorities are basically 60 senate seats and 257 House seats. Do you think we’ll see much movement in those totals in 2010, and why or why not?
RT: I don’t think we’ll see much movement—a reasonable expectation is a midteen loss for the Democrats in the House (the post-World War II historical average loss for the President’s party in the first term midterm election is 16 seats) and perhaps a few pickups in the Senate for the Democrats, given the distribution of 2010 Senate races. That said, to the extent there is potential for big change, it is clearly on the downside given the state of the economy. This will come as no great revelation to anybody that much depends on the state of the economy around the middle of next year. If it’s more terrible than expected, especially on the unemployment front, there could be big Democratic losses in the House. On the other hand, if the recovery exceeds expectations and indicators are sharply improving by that time, the Democrats could hold their own in the House and do a little bit better than current expectations in the Senate.
538: Those 2010 results will have some bearing on the control of redistricting. Do you have any sense of which party stands to benefit the most from redrawing the House maps for the coming decade, and why?
RT: That is an interesting question and frankly I really don’t have a good sense of it. There are a number of variables and they don’t all go in the same direction. First, there will be a net gain of around 7 in the number of House seats and electoral votes located in red states (as operationalized by the 2008 election results). That’s good for the GOP. On the other hand, the same trends that are driving population growth in seat/EV gaining red states are also turning these states purpler (Arizona is a great example of this; see my study of the Intermountain West with William Frey for more). That’s good for the Democrats. And, in terms of House seats, where those seats are added within states has to bear some relationship to where the growth is actually taking place. For example, in Texas, which will probably gain 4 seats, candidates for additional seats include Democratic-trending metros like Dallas, Austin and Houston and Democratic south Texas, not super-conservative white rural and small town areas. That’s also a plus for the Democrats.
And then of course there’s the whole messy business of redrawing district lines when seats are added and subtracted. Famously, this redrawing can be gamed for partisan purposes by state legislatures and governors which typically have a major role in the process. Overall, Democrats now control 27 state legislatures and the GOP just 14. This advantage extends to the states that are expected to gain or lose seats: Democrats control 11 state legislatures and the GOP controls 6. So that’s good for the Democrats. But to add in a complicating factor, the states controlled by the GOP will add around 9 seats, while the states controlled by the Democrats will lose 8 seats. And the results of 2010 election could reduce Democrats’ current advantage in state legislatures and governorships. So it’s a bit murky.
Plus, remember what happened the last time we redistricted. The Republicans were thought to have done very well for themselves. But over the course of the decade political change and demographic trends drastically reduced the partisan effectiveness of the new boundaries. The same thing could happen after 2010, regardless of which party seems to benefit initially from reapportionment and redistricting.
538: You recently finished a new report on what you see as the end of the culture wars. Tell us please what your key findings are in this new report.
RT: Yes, that new report is The Coming End of the Culture Wars. In the report, I argue that the culture wars as we have known them are likely coming to an end. Demographic change-- the rise of the Millennial generation, increasing religious and family diversity and the decline of the culturally conservative white working class--is undercutting both the level and salience of conservative cultural views, thereby reducing the effectiveness of such politics. That will not prevent conservative activists around particular culture wars issues from continuing to press their case. Indeed, reaction to their current desperate plight may lead them to intensify their efforts in some states, especially where demographic change has been slow or where local right wing culture war institutions retain strength. But there will be diminishing incentives for politicians to take up these causes for the very simple reason that they are losers.
One great example of how demographic change is undercutting the culture wars is gay marriage. Millennials are so much more favorable to legalizing gay marriage than older generations that, by sometime in the next decade, there will be majoritarian public support for legalizing gay marriage as Millennials fully enter the electorate and take the place of much older, far more conservative voters. Other areas where big demographic effects can be observed is on gender roles and family values, and on race, where rising demographic groups’ proclivities will tilt the country even farther toward tolerance, non-traditionalism, and respect for diversity.
Immigration is yet another issue where demographic change will mitigate culture war conflict. For quite a while, polls have been showing public support for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, and a relative lack of enthusiasm for an enforcement-only approach. That support should grow over time, as should positive feelings about immigrants and immigration, since the white working class, which has relatively negative feelings in this area, is being supplanted by groups like Hispanics, white college graduates, and professionals, whose feelings about immigration are far more positive. And then there is the rise of the Millennial generation. About three quarters (73 percent) of 18-29 year old Millennials supported giving illegal immigrants “the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements” in an April 2009 Washington Post/ABC News poll, which is 31 points higher than support among seniors.
The winding down of the culture wars will certainly not stop those with progressive and conservative cultural views from clustering at the progressive and conservative ends of politics. It will still be the case that voters will be attracted to the political “home” where they feel culturally most comfortable. Conservatives will attempt to capitalize on this by giving a cultural overtone to non-cultural issues such as taxes and government spending. But the aggressive use of specifically cultural issues to divide voters will become less and less common. And the country will be a better place for it.
538: Let’s role play a moment and pretend you are the Ruy Teixeira of the right, not left, and Michael Steele calls you into his office and says, “Ruy, map us out a path to return to power.” What advice would you give him?
RT: OK, here’s my off the hook advice for Mr. Steele and his beleaguered party.
1. Move to the center on social issues. As noted in my previous answer, the culture wars may have worked for awhile, but shifting demographics make it a loser for the party today and moving forward. A more moderate approach would help with Millennials, where the party must close a yawning gap, and with white college graduates, who still lean Republican but just barely. The party also needs to make a breakthrough with Hispanics and that won’t happen without shifting its image toward social tolerance, especially on immigration.
2. Pay attention to whites with some college and, generally, to young white working class voters. The party’s hold on the white working class is not secure and, if that slips, the party doesn’t have much to build on to form a successful new coalition. And that probably means offering them something more than culture wars nostrums and anti-tax jeremiads.
3. Another demographic target should be white college graduates, especially those with a four year degree only. The party has to stop the bleeding in America’s large metropolitan areas, especially in dynamic, growing suburbs. Keeping and extending GOP support among this demographic, who increasingly see the party as too extreme and out of touch, is key to starting to take back the suburbs.
4. Besides social moderation, one way to reach these and other important demographics is through a judicious use of anti-government populism. Despite general public support for the stimulus package and Obama’s budget, there is considerable disquiet about the effects on these spending measures on the deficit and not much belief, so far, that these measures have had a substantial, positive effect on the economy. In addition, public support for the bailouts of banks and insurers has always been very shaky, with Americans convinced that these firms have gotten too much money and been treated too leniently. So, there is an opening for a populist attack that argues all this—including the impending health and energy bills--is too much money for too little payoff and represents the priorities of elites not the people.
5. This kind of populism is something the party is comfortable with. But here’s something they’re uncomfortable with. It’s not enough to just denounce the other side and what they have done/propose to do in populist terms. The party has to have serious solutions of its own to propose that go beyond cutting taxes to using government to address problems, but in ways that reflect conservative values and principles. It is necessary to go beyond being the Dr. No party. That might help the party make some gains in 2010 but it will not be enough to get it back to a majority status. For that, a conservatism must be built that is not allergic to government spending when needed and even to taxes when there is no responsible alternative. Paradoxically, the party must combine an anti-government populism with a pro-government conservatism.
This sounds and is different from what the party has done in the past. But there is no alternative moving forward. The country has changed and the old playbook just won’t work.
#This sentence was incorrect in the original posting because of my transcription error, but has since been corrected.
Over at Intrade, the bettors currently assign a 43 percent chance that a health care bill with a public option will be passed by the end of the year. There is no market, unfortunately, on the prospects for passage of a bill without a public option (something which could still happen under any number of scenarios). What's interesting about this contract, though, is that it's not particularly higher or lower than it has ever been. Sure, health care has had a bit of a rough go of things of late, but perhaps not a particularly rougher go than we should have been "pricing in" to our expectations:
I had argued previously that Obama should have done more to frame the debate and put a particular health care bill in front of Congress, rather than letting Congress handle it themselves. Maybe health care would be in a little bit better shape right now if he had done that and maybe it wouldn't; we'll never really be able to test the counterfactual. But because he didn't do that, Obama still has most of his tactical flexibility intact. And there are at least four scenarios under which health care reform could still pass this year:
1. Whip Democrats Into Submission. This is probably the closest thing to the default approach. So long as there are a dozen or a half-dozen different iterations of health care floating around Capitol Hill, individual Democratic Congressmen can afford to bargain for their preferred version. "Progressive" Democrats from rich districts can object to the plan of raising taxes on the very wealthy to pay for expanded coverage. Labor-backed Democrats can try and play hardball on any proposal to remove the benefits tax exemption. The Blue Dogs can howl at the moon for whatever it is they want -- probably some kind of sweeteners for rural districts, like the ones given to farm-state Democrats on the climate bill. And advocates of the public option can continue to treat it as a sine qua non and threaten to oppose any bill that doesn't include one.
Once a particular bill is put up to a vote, however, the overwhelming majority of Democrats are going to have a difficult time voting against it. Health care reform remains quite popular in theory and at least marginally popular in practice. It will probably do the most good for those districts where conservative Democrats tend to reside.
And then there is the oldest motivator of all: survival. The failure of health care reform in 1994 may have damaged Bill Clinton -- but it really damaged the Congressional Democrats, who lost 54 seats in the House and another 8 in the Senate. Of the 36 incumbent Democrats who lost that year, only four (North Carolina's David Price, Ohio's Ted Strickland and Washington's Maria Cantwell and Jay Inslee) would ever return to the Congress (whereas Clinton, of course, was re-elected). Any Democrat who votes against health care, moreover, can expect to be permanently shut off from the Obama-run DNC and from most or all grassroots fundraising drives, and many of them can probably expect a primary challenger.
There are probably some Democrats who would be better off if health care went away. But once it comes up to vote, I'd imagine there will be very few who are actually better off voting against it.
2. Reconciliation. This is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the other scenarios, but Obama could try and use the reconciliation process to pass health care, which would mean Republicans would lose the ability to filibuster in the Senate and Democrats would need only need 50 votes for passage. This is risky: the extent to which the bill remained intact would depend upon the rulings of the obscure Senate Parliamentarian, and going through reconciliation would cause mayhem on the Hill with somewhat unpredictable political consequences. And it would certainly look overtly partisan -- especially now that Democrats have gained their 59th and 60th seats in the Senate. But if Obama decides that health care is too big to fail, reconciliation is an option.
3. Wyden-Bennett and Other "Bipartisan" Approaches.. I don't see any particular reason why the Administration couldn't press the reset button and push for a different sort of health care bill -- particularly Ron Wyden's, which already has a half-dozen Republican supporters. In fact, it might make Obama look somewhat good to "acknowledge the political realities" (yadda yadda) and adopt a more "bipartisan" approach. A lot of Republicans claim to support health care -- just not the particular approach being put forth by the Democratic Congress. Shifting gears, particularly to a bill like Wyden-Bennett that is strong on cost containment, would reveal many of them to be hypocrites, but probably also secure enough of their votes to make passage a likelihood.
4. Hope the Economy Gets Better (or Some Other Secular Change in Momentum). In general, I'm pessimistic about the state of the economy insofar as it will affect Obama's political capital. Even if the economy formally pulls out of a recession -- some economists think we're already out of the recession -- it will take some time before the employment picture turns around. The past week, however, has brought some relatively good economic news and the Dow is now hovering at about 8,800 points, around its 6-month highs. If the next monthly jobs report is better than expected, if the Dow somehow rallies past 10,000, or if the recession is declared over, that might give Obama a little bit of actual momentum which may be amplified by the Washington press corps, which by that point will have tired of the "Obama is melting!" storyline and may be looking to describe his "comeback" instead.
* * *
I'm not about to go out on a limb with some sort of prediction that health care is going to pass this year. It could very easily fail. But it's not going to fail without the White House fighting like mad for it, and with most or all of its options being exhausted. The fundamental weakness of the White House press corps is that they can rarely see beyond the current 24-hour news cycle -- there are still a lot of news cycles ahead before ObamaCare can be put to rest.
There is both good and bad news for the GOP, I suppose. The good news is that their campaign to demonize the Speaker is working; the bad news is that, when it comes to pushing forward a new generation of Republican leaders, they are still rather thin at the top. I mean, really, who are the leaders of the GOP right now? It's a rather small and lackluster field, that's for sure.
Elsewhere, turning to the New York Senate race, incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand may have trouble on her hands as she attempts to win outright the seat to which she was appointed after Hillary Clinton left for the State Department. Though it's very, very early in this race, Rep. Carolyn Maloney is neck-and-neck with Gillibrand in this recent Rasmussen poll, leading 33 percent to 29 percent. Still lots of undecideds, of course. This race could prove to be yet another test of Clinton family electoral pull, for Gillibrand is a Clinton protege. (She'd be wise to ignore Terry McAuliffe's fate in Virginia--although, to be fair, the Clinton brand in Virginia is not nearly what it is in the Empire State.)
Finally, checking in on President Obama, he's holding steady at around 60 percent net national approval, according to Gallup. Looking at the demographic breakdowns, there are almost no surprises, with Obama doing better among women than men, non-whites than whites, easterners than southerners, younger Americans rather than seniors, and those at the bottom of the income scale. Gallup notes that he's enjoying a healthy honeymoon period, at least as compared to recent presidents (i.e., post-Nixon). We'll have to wait to see if Obama can stack up against the pre-Nixon presidents of the post-war 20th century.