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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: September 2008

House GOP Fiasco: Long Time Coming

I’m often critical of New York Times columnist David Brooks for finding countless ways to reinforce Republican talking points despite beginning almost every column looking at politics from a lofty, independent perspective.
But in yesterday’s column, Brooks threw off the party yoke, and flayed the House Republicans who killed the financial bailout bill as “nihilists” on a “single-minded mission to destroy the Republican Party,” and who may “go down in history as the Smoot-Hawleys of the 21st century.”
Over at Political Animal, Steve Benen welcomed the Brooks column as a “pleasant surprise,” that occurred “better late than never.”
I usually agree with Steve, and I probably have a more positive overall opinion of David Brooks than he does, but my reaction to the column was: “Why did it take you so long to figure this out, David?”
The path that led to Monday’s vote can be directly traced back to those days just after the 2006 Republican midterm debacle, when conservatives talked themselves into the bizarre conviction that George W. Bush and the GOP had lost their way because of insufficient ideological rigor, and excessive concern for “respectable” mainstream opinion. Ever since, they’ve been determined to place ideology first, and have exerted stronger control over Republican orthodoxy than you’d ever imagine to see in an embattled party.
And that same path was strewn with rose petals by the presidential campaign of John McCain, whose incessant pitch to conservatives was that he and they were fellow “mavericks” against the unpopular GOP establishment, ready to win in Iraq, take on Iran and Russia, slash federal spending, “reform” entitlements, revive the supply-side gospel, and finally win the big cultural fights that Bush and Rove would only use as election-time base-bait.
McCain’s “maverick from the Right” campaign in his own party was clinched once and for all when he looked far down the GOP bench and came up with a running-mate who was without any doubt a “maverick from the Right,” mocked as much by neocon double-domes and mandarin pinstripes in the GOP as by any “liberal elites.”
So when conservatives were presented with an opportunity to simultaneously repudiate George W. Bush and express a neanderthal economic ideology, while annoying elites across the political spectrum, of course they jumped on it with both feet. The only surprising thing about it is that the conservative “maverick” John McCain didn’t follow them.
Folks like David Brooks should pay more attention to, and learn to respect as genuine, what conservative activists in and out of Congress say every day. They really do think that criminalizing abortion and demonizing gay people is a lot more important than bailing out financial institutions. And they really do think that economic catastrophe is a small price to pay for resisting “socialism” They aren’t just feckless foot soldiers for the “responsible” GOP establishment that Brooks adores. They are the Republican Party now, and they aren’t going away. Get used to it.

Is there a psychological explanation for John McCain’s recent behavior?

In the very brief recent period between John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate and his erratic behavior during the last few days, very serious and fundamental questions about McCain’s character, behavior and temperament have become widespread.
But observers have found difficulty in fitting McCain’s various behaviors into any single recognizable pattern. Each critique focuses on a different and apparently unrelated issue – his instability, recklessness, tolerance for mendacity and self-righteousness among others.
There is, however, one very interesting psychological framework that actually does seem to fit the broad pattern of behavior we are now seeing.
Consider the following personality profile:

1. The person is impulsive and does not think about consequences – he or she seems to embrace the philosophy – “just do it”
2, the person is a risk-taker and thrill-seeker. His or her conduct often seems reckless and blind to possible damage or harm. There is a lack of normal prudence and caution.
3. The person exhibits an attitude of “the rules don’t apply to me.” The person clearly understands the difference between right and wrong and even becomes outraged and furious when other people violate the rules. But the person simply cannot apply these rules to his or her own conduct. These individuals’ own violations are always “no big deal” or somehow justified by circumstances.
4. The person exhibits a significant degree of self-centeredness and narcissism – He or she seems to operate according to a philosophy of “it’s all about me”. These individuals have an inability to see events in a larger context than how they affect the person him or herself.

Gee. Seems pretty on the mark, doesn’t it.
Yet, in fact, the description above is actually a profile that is familiar to many people in the juvenile justice system – it is a description of the behavioral syndrome seen in many adolescents – often from stable, good families — who become enmeshed in the criminal justice system because of repeated delinquent behavior like speeding, drunk driving, promiscuity, low-level drug dealing or burglary (not for survival but “just for kicks”) and a whole panoply of other juvenile misbehavior.
Traditional psychological approaches were not very successful in developing a coherent theory to explain this behavioral syndrome. Until the mid-1980’s, in fact, the attempts to understand these different personality characteristics were usually presented in separate chapters of standard textbooks.
The revolutionary advances in cognitive neuroscience in the last 20 years, however – and particularly in CT and fMRI based brain imaging – have provided a dramatically new perspective. It has been found that, although these different personality characteristics are localized in a variety of locations within the brain, they all appear to be mediated (“densely interconnected,” in neurophysical terms) through the prefrontal cortex.
This fact, together with the discovery that the prefrontal cortex often does not completely develop until the early 20’s, has led to a tremendous rethinking of youthful delinquency. An emerging body of legal theory, in fact, considers that neural imaging of the prefrontal cortex may even provide a legal basis for a defense of diminished capacity in young adults.
But what does this possibly have to do with a 72 year old man with a long career in political life? John McCain is clearly not going to hotwire a Mustang and drive off on the beltway at 90 miles an hour.
The answer is that some individuals consistently tend toward the expression of these personality characteristics throughout their entire lifetimes. In McCain’s case simple observation also suggests two additional conclusions:

1. That the above noted, seemingly unrelated personality characteristics which McCain is exhibiting are actually part of a single, coherent behavioral syndrome.
2. That, for whatever reason, the expression of these characteristics in John McCain’s behavior has dramatically increased in recent months.

A number of years ago I observed as a leading expert in delinquent behavior delivered the news to the distraught parents of a young man that there was no easy answer or quick fix for their son’s behavior. The expert concluded:

“You just have to wait and trust that time will help to reduce his problematic conduct. In the meantime, just use common sense – don’t go out of town and leave him alone in the house, and –whatever you do – don’t give him the keys to the car.”

Gee, that sure sounds like good advice to me, doesn’t it.

McCain: Acting Like a Senator

There are plenty of theories circulating right now–including the provocative take by James Vega here at TDS–about the origins and nature of John McCain’s recent erratic behavior.
But just over a month before Election Day, a second and arguably more pressing issue is how McCain’s behavior is being perceived by voters. Polls get in the general vicinity of such perceptions with questions about “leadership” and trustworthiness, but these categories are often just placeholders for other factors, include agreement on the issues. And at this moment, it’s unclear whether McCain’s recent slide in the polls is attributable to his behavior over the last couple of weeks, or to (a) a general refocus of the electorate on the economy, an issue invariably helpful to Democrats this year, (b) the specific Republican fingerprints all over the financial crisis and the failed bailout; or (c) simply a return to fundamental strengths and weaknesses for the two candidates after McCain’s post-convention “surge” and the boom and bust of the Palin phenomenon.
In the absence of clear empirical evidence about changing perceptions of John McCain, one theory’s as good as another. But I’d draw attention to one articulated today by Republican operative Patrick Ruffini, who thinks McCain’s behavior during the financial crisis exposed him as senatorial, not presidential:

McCain dramatically overestimated his ability to control the battle space with a single grand maneuver. It was the starkest example in recent history of a candidate gambling — and with seemingly no frickin’ clue what would happen at that — and coming up short.
But more than a misjudgment — hey, those happen all the time in politics — it surfaced a problem that should have been clear all along: McCain’s inability to create a Presidential persona apart from his legislative persona.
Announcing that you’re dropping everything, going back to Washington, and singlehandedly forcing a deal is not a Presidential thing to do, but it is a very Senatorial thing to do. Even in crisis, our Presidents have tended to project a calm, above-it-all demeanor that leaves the sausage-making to Congress, even if the behind the scenes reality is always somewhat different.
By injecting himself into the process so directly, and staking his campaign on it and eventually failing, McCain showed an impulsive nature shaped by years as the maverick of the Senate. When Americans wanted a steady hand at the helm, McCain’s behavior last week seemed not a little erratic. That’s not uncommon for Senators who always have to jockey for position — but unusual for a President.

It’s often noted how rarely senators are elected president, and that fact is often attributed to the long records legislators accumulate that offer all sorts of targets, or to voter doubts about politicians with no executive experience. But Ruffini’s hitting on something else: there is a distinctive senatorial persona that exibits itself in strange, parliamentary language; a heavy emphasis on positioning if not posturing; and a habit of showboating that becomes second nature to people who have to struggle for media and public attention against 99 fellow narcissists. None of these tendencies come across as “presidential,” especially in a crisis, and especially at a time when Congress is held in such terribly low esteem.
Going into the 2004 cycle, I recall a very smart friend expressing a preference for John Edwards on grounds that “he hasn’t been in the Senate long enough to forget how to act and talk like a real person.” As it turned out, my own candidate, the eventual nominee, John Kerry, definitely suffered from a senatorial air. One of the, if not “the,” defining moment of the general election campaign, the “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it” quote, was actually an inartful expression of a legitimate legislative position (the vote “for” was on a failed amendment to an underlying bill Kerry found objectionable).
McCain’s own senatorial persona has been obscured somewhat by his “maverick” reputation. But as Ruffini implies, the “Senate maverick” role is as hoary and as un-executive as any other senatorial pattern of behavior. Indeed, it may be worse when it leads the “maverick” to positions and posturings more irresponsible-looking than that of the standard-brand solon.
Like John Edwards in 2004, Barack Obama probably hasn’t been in the Senate long enough to become a complete Senator. That looked like a problem initially, particularly in comparison to McCain’s long record in Congress. But it may turn out to be an unanticipated blessing for Obama, and a curse for McCain.

NC Emerging as Battleground

Senator Obama has opened up a narrow lead in recent NC polls, in the wake of growing concerns about the financial meltdown, Sarah Palin’s qualifications and McCain’s performance in the first televised debate.
In a survey of 1,041 NC LV‘s conducted 9/28-29 by Public Policy Polling (m.o.e. 3.0), Obama leads McCain 47-45. In more good news for Dems, Senate candidate Kay Hagan increased her lead over Senator Elizabeth Dole to 46-38, a 3 percent net gain from a week ago.
The poll also shows Obama winning 36 percent of NC’s white voters. PPP believes he can win the state with 35 percent. In addition, Obama increased his edge with NC independents by 6 percent over last week to 48-37.
A Rasmussen poll conducted 9/23 also indicates a narrow lead for Obama in NC, 49-47 percent.
Democrats have registered 194,000 new NC voters since January, compared to 28,500 for Republicans. An estimated 1/3 of all new voters are African Americans. NC voter registration ends 10/10, but voters can register and vote at the same time at “One-Stop Voting Sites” across the state between 10/16 and 11/1.
Charlotte is now the nation’s second largest banking center, having overtaken San Francisco, and employs an estimated 83,000 people in the integrated banking and insurance industry, reports Facing South‘s Chris Kromm. Turmoil at Wachovia and Bank of America, two of Charlotte’s banking giants, has raised the specter of a round of layoffs before the election. B of A alone is expected to layoff as much as 10 percent of it’s workforce in the weeks ahead. Wachovia already slashed 11,000 jobs in the area earlier this year, and more layoffs are likely. NC unemployment was 6.3 percent in August, higher than the national average. The PPP poll indicated that Obama has a 55-38 percent lead over McCain among NC voters whose leading concern is the economy.
There is some concern among NC Dems about the so-called “Bradley effect,” in which voters who are polled tend to overstate their support for African American candidates, as happened when Harvey Gantt lost to Jesse Helms in NC’s 1990 senate race. However, Obama’s election percentage in victory and defeat was close to his poll performance, and Nate Silver has concluded that the Bradley effect is no longer a factor.
The Obama campaign has slated new ad-buys and public appearances by the Dem ticket. NC has 15 electoral votes, tied with GA and NJ in ranking 10th among the 50 states, and ranking 3rd in electoral votes on Chris Bowers’ latest short list of swing states, behind only FL and OH. Lots of interesting discussion about the tarheel state’s political transformation awaits readers at Daily Kos.

A Cheaper Shakedown

Even as Republicans try to blame today’s House defeat of the financial bailout legislation on Democrats, some conservatives are coming forward with suggestions on how the requisite 12 House Republicans might be induced to flip their votes.
Predictably, the first with his hand out is K Street Strategy maestro Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform opposed the bill. Grover’s prescription is less than modest:
–allowing companies to repatriate foreign earnings to the U.S. tax-free if the money were used to purchase distressed assets in 2008 and 2009
–creating a capital gains tax holiday for 2008 and 2009; short of this, the capital gains tax rate for corporations could be temporarily cut to the individual rate of 15 percent (down from 35 percent today) in order to encourage corporations to sell assets and purchase distressed assets
–providing that current income and capital gains resulting from the purchase of distressed assets would be permanently free of taxation
–lowering the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent in 2008 and 2009 for companies that agree to purchase some significant amount of distressed assets
In other words, Grover wants to take every bad and regressive conservative taxation idea of the last couple of decades and apply it to corporations buying “distressed assets,” along with a two-year elimination of, or radical reduction of, capital gains taxation for corporations generally.
I don’t have the wherewithal to cost out these pithy suggestions, but the corporate capital gains tax “holiday” alone is bound to be quite expensive, not to mention more than a bit unjust.
Seems to me if we’re talking about buying twelve Republican votes, it would be a lot cheaper to just give them, say, a billion dollars each in one-year appropriations earmarks. Perhaps the great patriot and earmark specialist John McCain could broker the deals.

The Lone Ranger Rides Yet Again!

Shortly after House Republicans killed the financial bailout bill today, a Democratic friend sarcastically asked if John McCain was going to re-suspend his campaign and return to Washington, now that there’s a real crisis.
Now comes Bill Kristol to argue that McCain should do exactly that:

No one wants to take ownership of the task of rescuing the economy right now. The Bush-Paulson plan has failed. The administration, House Democrats, and House Republicans (above all) have all proved unable to deliver. But there is someone who might be able to save the economy–and incidentally the Republican party: John McCain.
He should come back to D.C. But this time he needs to take charge–either by laying out the outlines of his own plan, or presiding over meetings at which a real plan that can pass is cobbled together. He might also insist on the immediate passage of a couple of provisions (raising or removing FDIC insurance limits, for example) that could mitigate the damage that could be done over the next few days.

In other words: since the trick didn’t work first time around, why not try it again? Hell, if he timed it right, McCain might be able to get Sarah Palin out of her Thursday debate with Joe Biden!
Here’s the witty reaction of honest conservative Ross Douthat to this bright idea:

Per Kristol: John McCain flies back to Washington and finds a way to get the bailout passed. The markets recover; the papers trumpet McCain’s heroism, and he’s elected by a thin margin in November.
Unfortunately, I’d place the odds against this happening at roughly – oh, what the hell, I’ll just choose a really large number at random – seven hundred billion to one.

But Ross isn’t in a terribly positive mood about any GOP tactics today. In an earlier post, he said this:

The most likely scenario, as of 3 PM this afternoon: The stock market continues to drop. Some version of the bailout passes in the next week. The American economy staggers into a recession, but passes through the storm without 1930s-style suffering; the Republican Party is not so fortunate. Even though most Americans claim to oppose the bailout, the House GOP’s obstructionism is widely viewed as having worsened the economic situation; the fact that these are contradictory positions does not faze an electorate that wraps all of the country’s current troubles up, ties them with a bow, and lays them at the feet of the Bush-led GOP. John McCain loses by a landslide in November. The Democratic Party regains years or even decades worth of ground among the white working class, consolidates the Hispanic vote, and locks up a large chunk of highly-educated voters who might otherwise lean conservative. The much-discussed liberal realignment happens. And a politician running on a Ron Paul-style economic platform does very, very well in the GOP primaries of 2012.

He also notes that public opinion began to turn in favor of the bailout over the weekend. D’ya think a 777-point drop in the Dow might accelerate that trend?
Maybe Barack Obama should come back to Washington and talk to a few folks, or maybe Democrats should try to put together a bill that would pass with just a few Republican votes. McCain’s had his chance. He failed, while trying to take credit for light duty on what he thought would be a successful vote. He doesn’t deserve a second chance to play Americans for fools.

Desperate GOP Spin

I said some of this in updates to an earlier post, but it bears repeating right now as Republicans desperately try to spin the defeat of the financial bailout bill in the House on Democrats. That’s not terribly surprising, since as of 4:40 p.m. eastern time, the Dow had dropped 777 points, the largest single-day loss in history.
Just to recapitulate: the bill was sponsored, nay demanded by the Republican president of the United States (who just this morning went on the airwaves to threaten economic catastrophe if the bill was defeated) and the Republican Secretary of the Treasury. The specifics were endorsed by the Republican leadership of the House (and the Senate), and by the Republican candidate for president, who as recently as yesterday was bragging about how he had brought House Republicans back into line. It has been understood all along that the legislation needed roughly equal support from both caucuses to survive through the Senate intact.
On the vote, 140 Democrats voted “yea,” and 95 voted “nay,” for a ratio of just under 60%. House Republicans voted 65 “yea” and 133 “nay,” for a ratio of just under 33%. Looks pretty clear that House Republicans killed this bill.
Yet House Republicans held a press conference wherein several of their leaders blamed their own caucus’s overwhelming failure to support the bill on a partisan speech made by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And John McCain’s chief economic advisor blamed Barack Obama, as well as Pelosi, for the Republican votes against the bill.
Amazingly, if somewhat predictably, a lot of the initial MSM reporting on the fiasco reports the ludicrous GOP spin as part of a welter of “politicians pointing fingers.”
But if you want to see how well this spin is wearing over time, look no further than The Corner at National Review, where any GOP-friendly interpretation of today’s events would normally be welcomed.
Here’s Jim Manzi, shortly after the vote:

Well, apparently the House Republicans have decided to run a neat little experiment to test the actual odds of the current financial crisis turning into another Depression in the absence of a bailout plan. What alternative do they propose that could realistically be enacted? How long do they think this would take, and what risks would we run during the period of uncertainty, even if it were successful?
I have no visibility into the current machinations on Capitol Hill, but I’m with Noah Millman: as far as I can see, if I were a senior Democrat right now, I’d introduce a Democratic alternative tomorrow and pass it on a party line vote.

Here’s Ramesh Ponnuru, four minutes later:

Not that it’s the most important fallout, but this vote is very bad for McCain. He was trying to get House Republicans on board, after all, and he failed. Blaming the Democrats for the failure will not and should not work, given the ratios on both sides.
But several conservatives voted for the bill, including Blunt, Boehner, Camp, Cantor, Kline, Lungren, McCrery, Putnam, (Paul) Ryan, Tancredo, Weldon, (Joe) Wilson. I think they made the right call.

Then NR editor Rich Lowry reports on an email from a Republican staffer about the “blame Pelosi” argument and Barney Frank’s mocking response:

Rich – I’m afraid Rep. Frank has a point on this one. Some feelings on the GOP side were hurt, so they voted against the economic well-being of the country?
A very concerned GOP staffer.

Then even K-Lo (Kathryn Jean Lopez) herself, who earlier kept arguing that Democrats should have been able to pass a bill without any Republican votes since they control the House, passed along this damning email from a “Western bank president”:

The failure of the House to pass the bill – combined with the resulting bickering – will likely lead to a substantial market sell-off. We’re seeing part of that occur right now, but we may well see much worse over the coming days as the inevitable sell-off hits overseas markets, followed up by another collapse at home as forced selling really kicks in and many institutional investors are required to liquidate their leveraged positions. While it would be nice if all this was confined to a few select Wall Street bad apples, the reality is ordinary people will be hurt very badly as their investments deteriorate and the economic environment turns even more negative. Unemployment will likely spike sharply from here, and the lack of available credit will impair many small businesses that rely on credit lines to finance their operations.
How any of this could possibly be construed as a positive for either McCain or the Republican Party is beyond me (and I say this as a life-long Republican)? In fact, it would seem much more likely to me that the House Republicans just handed the election to Obama on a silver platter. Blaming the vote on Pelosi’s antagonistic remarks seems especially dumb, and I expect to see Barney Frank-type comments all over the MSM tonight and throughout the week.

Sure, there are a couple of posts reporting happiness with the defeat of the bill, but mainly on grounds that “free-market principles” are worth a very deep recession, and presumably, a Democratic victory in November. Nobody much was buying the idea that the defeat could really be blamed on Democrats.
Let’s hope the MSM treatment of the Republican spin can at least become as skeptical as National Review‘s.

Now What, Batman?

So if you’re online you probably know the House defeated the financial bailout bill by 23 votes. I just saw a floor trader on CNN predict a drop in the Dow of somewhere between 1000 and 1500 points.
There will presumably be some consideration of a second vote on the same bill in hopes that enough Members who hoped to vote “no” while the package passed will reconsider; a net flip of 12 would be necessary. If that doesn’t work, then it’s back to the drawing board, though it’s hard to imagine a new compromise that would attract both Democratic and Republican votes.
One straw in the wind is talk about Democrats putting their own package together that could pass with little other than Democratic votes (95 Dems voted “no”).
Any way you slice it, this is an astounding repudiation of George W. Bush and John McCain by their own party. Better than two-thirds of House Republicans voted against the bill.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist
UPDATE II: With Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) beginning at sundown today, it’s unlikely anything can happen in Congress until Wednesday. House Democrats just held a press conference to rebut the silly idea that the defeat was attributable to hurt Republican feelings about a floor speech made by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Barney Frank commented that if House Republicans could produce twelve members who voted against the bill on these grounds, he’d personally go spend time with them and “tell them how great they are” if it would convince them to reverse their votes.
So there you have it: more than two-thirds of House Republicans voted against a bill their own leaders had signed off on, sponsored by their own president, and endorsed by their presidential candidate as a matter of urgent national importance, and even of patriotism. Yet it’s the fault of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi! Gaze in awe.

Your Tax Dollars At Work: For McCain?

As we all await the House vote on the financial bailout legislation, there was some other interesting political news over the weekend beyond the bailout negotiations and the debate: 33 ministers used their pulpits Sunday to demand votes for John McCain as part of an organized effort to defy IRS regulations against tax-exempt religious organizations expressing candidate preferences.
I wrote about this over at BeliefNet. I won’t cross-post it, because I was speaking from a religious perspective, but here’s a link if you are interested.

Wild Ride

Today will be another crazy day in Washington and on Wall Street, as the House prepares for what everyone expects to be a close vote on the financial bailout deal put together over the weekend.
The bailout legislation survived a close procedural vote in the House this morning, but that may not be a true measure of how many Members will ultimately vote “no.” The bill remains vulnerable among Democrats on grounds that it represents armed-robbery-by-extortion; among Republicans who are hearing from conservative activists that it’s all socialism; and among politically vulnerable incumbents in both parties who naturally want to vote against it without actually suffering the consequences of finding out what would happen if it fails.
Prospects for the passage of the legislation aren’t being helped by the negative reactions of the market this morning, which seem to be less about fears that it will be defeated than about disappointment that the bailout won’t be as fast and as large as originally advertised by Paulson. Why rush to the rescue when the rescuee is already complaining?