It’s traditional on the last day of the year to compose lists of notable political developments or personages; J.P. Green’s list of those who deserve a New Year’s toast is a good example, as is Mike Thomasky’s “Worst Americans” list.
I thought it might be interesting to list some widely expected political developments of 2008 that didn’t happen. I’ve had some advice from friends on this subject, which I greatly appreciate.
In roughly chronological order, Dogs That Didn’t Bark included, among others: Barack Obama is a media-driven flash-in-the-pan whose presidential candidacy will be quickly crushed by Hillary Clinton.
Republicans are desperate enough to remain in power that they will toss social conservatives under the bus and go with a presidential nominee like Rudy Giuliani (or, later on, a vice-presidential nominee like Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge or Condi Rice).
John Edwards’ big head start in Iowa, his netroots support, his “southernness,” and his careful positioning to the left of Clinton and Obama will enable him to emerge as the “true progressive” candidate and benefit from doubts about his rivals.
The “front-loading” of the primary/caucus schedule means you don’t have to win IA or NH anymore.
Ron Paul’s internet-based “revolution” will be the surprise story of the Republican nominating contest.
Al Gore will eventually be drawn into the 2008 race.
Once Hillary Clinton loses a contest, her “inevitability” will vanish and her candidacy will quickly collapse.
Barack Obama’s loss in New Hampshire will send his candidacy into a death-spiral.
The “Bradley Effect” means that Barack Obama will always underperform expectations.
The Democratic nomination will be determined on Super Duper Tuesday.
Democratic “superdelegates” will eventually win the nomination for Hillary Clinton.
Obama’s “wine-track Democrat” profile makes him a sure loser like Adlai and Gene and Bill Bradley.
John McCain’s support among independents is his electoral ace-in-the-hole.
Obama can’t overcome the Jeremiah Wright “scandal” (or the “elitism scandal”).
Angry pro-Clinton PUMAs will throw the general election to McCain.
The Clintons will find a way to undermine Obama and throw the general election to McCain, preserving HRC’s ability to run in 2012.
The “success” of the “surge” will throw the general election to McCain.
Obama’s FISA vote will destroy his netroots support and discourage the Democratic base.
Obama’s candidacy will implode if he chooses a running-mate who supported the Iraq War.
McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running-mate is a “game changer” that will attract PUMAs and white-working-class voters to the Republican ticket.
The “expanded battlefield” strategy of the Obama campaign is a hoax or failure; it will all come down again to Ohio (or Florida, or Pennsylvania).
The Iraq War will prove to be the dominant issue in the general election.
The financial crisis will help McCain by making worried voters focus on experience.
The financial crisis and the first big bailout have absorbed all the federal revenues that might have been available to do anything else.
The general election is guaranteed to “tighten up” in the home stretch.
Polls are meaningless.
Hispanics won’t vote for an African-American, particularly against a southwestern Republican who fought for “comprehensive immigration reform.”
There are too many “Appalachian whites” in Virginia and North Carolina for Obama to win either state.
There’s a tape of Michelle Obama ranting against “whitey” that will eventually doom her husband’s candidacy.
Polls are not capturing the vast and unprecedented size of the “youth vote.”
As Obama’s election grows more certain, there will be a backlash against Democratic congressional candidates out of a popular desire for divided government.
Obama can’t overcome the destructive power of being associated with the “L word” (liberal) or “S word” (socialism).
The electorate that elected Obama president just wanted “change” and is as conservative as ever; his support will drop rapidly during the transition.
I’m sure there are many others I am missing, but even this list shows how often real events confound expectations and expert analysis. That will undoubtedly be true in 2009 as well.
No doubt you need some good excuses to drink very liberally tonight as we welcome the New Year. So hoist yer tankards, mateys with gratitude to:
John and Jackie Norris, the Iowa power couple who engineered Obama’s winning strategy in the Iowa caucuses;
Will.I.am and Jesse Dylan for their mega-viral video, “Yes We Can,” a rallying cry for the hopes and dreams of millions of young voters; Nate Silver for charting a more creative course for data-driven political journalism, as well as for nailing the presidential race outcome for both candidates within two tenths of a percent;
Legions of unheralded pro-Democratic lawyers in dozens of states, most of them volunteers, for doing a heroic job in preventing vote theft on Nov. 4;
The clueless Liddy Dole, for lacking the political acumen to see that attacking an opponent’s religious views is a really bad move;
Millions of Republicans who put America’s future before their party;
McCain strategist Steve Schmidt for first suggesting Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate and campaign manager Rick Davis for helping seal the deal;
David Axelrod, for designing and implementing the strategy needed to elect a candidate who was a state senator four years ago and for skillfully navigating a course to victory through the myriad snares and traps of racial and class politics in America;
MSNBC, for Maddow and Olbermann, and for emerging as the best alternative to FoxTV we are likely to see for a good while;
Obama wunderkind speechwriter Jon Favreau, for crafting the best political speeches of the 21st century (so far);
Hillary Clinton, for grace in defeat and for proving herself to be a valuable team player;
Tina Fey, no guys, not for being way smokin’ hot, but for using comedy to wake up a lot of Americans to what was at risk;
Michelle Obama, for doing a tough job with grace and class, and making it look easy;
Barack Obama, for artfully channeling a little Lincoln, FDR, JFK and MLK, for remaining calm and steady, for doing his homework and speaking brilliantly, for mastering the tone of a winner and providing a template for future Democratic victories; and Madelyn Payne Dunham, Obama’s grandmother, who died two days before the election, credited with raising a 10-year-old boy into a man who today provides new hope for millions worldwide.
It’s become something of a test of imagination for progressives to adequately express their anger and contempt for the 43d President of the United States as his destructive eight years in office finally come to an end. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert gave it the college try yesterday:
When Mr. Bush officially takes his leave in three weeks (in reality, he checked out long ago), most Americans will be content to sigh good riddance. I disagree. I don’t think he should be allowed to slip quietly out of town. There should be a great hue and cry — a loud, collective angry howl, demonstrations with signs and bullhorns and fiery speeches — over the damage he’s done to this country
But the bigger kick in the butt to W. (who, like every unsuccessful president, is sure of his vindication by history) is coming from conservative Republicans, the same folk who hailed him as a world-historical titan not that very long ago. Check out this report from the Washington Times:
Republican Party officials say they will try next month to pass a resolution accusing President Bush and congressional Republican leaders of embracing “socialism,” underscoring deep dissension within the party at the end of Mr. Bush’s administration.
Those pushing the resolution, which will come before the Republican National Committee at its January meeting, say elected leaders need to be reminded of core principles. They said the RNC must take the dramatic step of wading into policy debates, which traditionally have been left to lawmakers.
“We can’t be a party of small government, free markets and low taxes while supporting bailouts and nationalizing industries, which lead to big government, socialism and high taxes at the expense of individual liberty and freedoms,” said Solomon Yue, an Oregon member and co-sponsor of a resolution that criticizes the U.S. government bailouts of the financial and auto industries. Republican National Committee Vice Chairman James Bopp Jr. wrote the resolution and asked the rest of the 168 voting members to sign it.
There have always been cranky conservatives who viewed the Bush administration–and before it, the Bush 41, Reagan, Ford, Nixon and Eisenhower administrations–as “liberal,” in the sense that they did not pursue politically suicidal assaults on the most popular elements of the New Deal and Great Society legacies. This goes back at least to Barry Goldwater’s dismissal of the Eisenhower administration as a “dime-store New Deal.”
So it’s not that surprising that many conservatives decided long before the financial bailouts of this autumn that Bush had failed through insufficient fidelity to the Cause; this was the semi-official Republican take on both the 2006 and 2008 electoral defeats.
But “socialism” is a pretty strong word to hurl at a Republican president who so frequently distinguished himself by playing to his party’s conservative base and expressing little but disdain for any Democrat not named Joe Lieberman.
There will inevitably be a few contrarians or sycophants who insist that Bush was a prophet without honor in his own country, though none will probably surpass in sheer hilarity Andrew Klaven’s comparison last summer of W. to the Batman of The Dark Knight.
In general, though, George W. Bush is leaving office without many friends. Unlike his equally failed predecessor, Herbert Hoover, W. can’t point back to the kind of pre-presidential triumphs that earned Hoover the eventually ironic nickname of The Great Humanitarian. There was a time when it sounded like rhetorical overkill when bloggers referred to Bush as the “Worst. President. Ever.” But at present you probably have to go back to James Buchanan for an analogue.
And now Bush is being anathemized by leaders in his own party with the scarlet letter of “socialism.” In the general happiness with which the back of him is being greeted by people all across the political spectrum, you’d have to say that he’s turned out to be a “uniter, not a divider” after all.
In case you missed it, the competition for Republican National Committee chair just got very weird. Tennessee GOP chairman Chip Saltsman distributed a CD to RNC members that included a “parody” song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro,” sung to the tune of the old Peter, Paul & Mary classic “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Adam Serwer at TAPPED has everything you need to know about the song itself, which started out as an African-American “inside joke” that uncomprehending conservatives found hilarious. Rush Limbaugh, natch, played the song on his show on several occasions, and Saltsman saw nothing wrong with sending it around.
Initial reaction to the brouhaha in Republican circles was of the “Keep it at home!” variety, which isn’t surprising given the GOP’s already unsavory reputation among minority citizens. But now, mirabile dictu, there are reports that Saltsman may be benefitting from it, as GOPers angrily react to the reaction by “the media” and other candidates. Specifically, incumbent chairman Mike Duncan and MI GOP chairman Saul Anuzis are said to have hurt themselves by suggesting that Saltsman’s stunt was a bit out of line:
Those are two guys who just eliminated themselves from this race for jumping all over Chip on this,” one committee member told Politico. “Mike Duncan is a nice guy, but he screwed up big time by pandering to the national press on this.”
Interesting, eh? Worrying about the Republican Party’s image as being a little soft on racism is defined by some RNC members as “pandering to the national press.” Who knows: maybe Saltsman deliberately cooked up this whole incident to get a sympathy vote from Republicans who feel persecuted by any and all criticism. But in any event, it’s another example of Republicans occupying a very different mental space than the voters they need to return to power.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist
One of the distinguishing characteristics of modern American conservatism is that it believes in a curious concept of “color blindness.” In this view, racism is bad. But absent truly egregious behavior, it’s not something you’d really get all that upset about nor is it something you should be really attuned do. But so-called “political correctness” — meaning something like anti-racism that’s gone too far — is a really serious problem. Any hint of political correctness is worth getting upset about. And the views of actual members of racial minorities as to what is and isn’t racist should be completely discounted.
Exactly. Conservatives who are forever whining about “political correctness” don’t seem to understand that there really are utterances that are really and truly “incorrect.”
The prominent negative role of southern Republican Senators from states with large foreign auto plants in the struggle over the future of the Big Three automakers has spurred some fightin’ words aimed at the South in many progressive circles. I’ve uttered some myself, reflecting a career-long struggle against race-to-the-bottom economic development strategies in my native region.
But some observers have elevated legitimate condemnation of Southern Republican (and in some states, Democratic) economic policy “thinking” into a Unified Field Theory of southern perfidy, which also plays nicely into progressive celebration of the South’s relative political isolation in the 2008 presidential election.
It is exceptionally appropriate that Michael Lind has led this particular charge, in a Salon piece calling for a “Third Reconstruction” of the South by the nation as a whole. Lind, whose M.O. is to pursue vast over-simplifications with equally vast erudition, has been beating the drum against the evil politics, culture and economics of the South for a long time. In a very influential 1995 article in The New Republic (the strange demise of the TNR archives, unfortunately, denies me a link here), entitled “The Southern Coup,” Lind championed the Hamiltonian nationalist tradition against the southern Jeffersonian tradition which, he said, had achieved its apotheosis in the Gingrich-era GOP. So it’s hardly surprising that Lind now seizes on southern “treason” against national economic interests as grounds for a counter-attack: “The choice is simple — the reconstruction of the South, or the deconstruction of the U.S. economy.”
Turns out that Lind’s “Third Reconstruction” involves not federal bayonets but benign items like a much higher national minimum wage, a national preemption of state economic development programs, and–believe it or not–the truly terrible idea of a great big general revenue sharing program.
Playing off Lind’s essay, Paul Rosenberg has done a series of long posts at OpenLeft reinforcing the case for a self-conscious assault on the South’s political culture. Much of what he writes involves an excellent summary of the historical revisionism whereby both southerners and northerners learned to deny or ignore the true nature of the Confederacy and its Slave Power antecedents in the pursuit of an illusory “reconciliation.” But the upshot for Rosenberg is that the South’s “political system” has always been and is now a unilinear reflection of reactionary racial and economic attitudes–and of the class interests of “southern elites.”
What these two historical accounts indicate is the dominant power that Southern elite interests have had in shaping our national political discourse to satisfy their own ends. That race was central was inevitable, but that was only, at bottom, because race was central to their class interests. Controlling black bodies meant controlling white bodies (and minds) as well, as the well-honed politics of resentment assured, generation after generation, after generation. As clearly indicated in the section on Race and Reunion, the ideologies shaped well over 100 years ago are still alive today.
Unfortunately, this take, like Lind’s, oversimplifies, mainly because, like Lind’s, it obscures conflicts within the South–yes, even the White South–past and present.
While Paul Krugman is hardly alone in warning of the counter-stimulative impact of state spending reductions, he has uniquely captured the problem in a phrase: “Fifty Herbert Hoovers.”
Citing several state budget-cutting steps, Krugman notes:
[S]hredding the social safety net at a moment when many more Americans need help isn’t just cruel. It adds to the sense of insecurity that is one important factor driving the economy down.
So why are we doing this to ourselves?
The answer, of course, is that state and local government revenues are plunging along with the economy — and unlike the federal government, lower-level governments can’t borrow their way through the crisis. Partly that’s because these governments, unlike the feds, are subject to balanced-budget rules. But even if they weren’t, running temporary deficits would be difficult. Investors, driven by fear, are refusing to buy anything except federal debt, and those states that can borrow at all are being forced to pay punitive interest rates.
Unsurprisingly, Krugman endorses the idea of including “safety-net” expenditures, infrastructure investments, and expanded educational assistance (all of which could have profound ameliorative effects on state budgets) in the impending stimulus package. He does not, I am pleased to report, endorse no-strings general revenue sharing, which could perversely encourage states to take the very steps he deplores.
But he does go on to raise a really important question that hasn’t been seriously discussed in Washington since the beginning of the Reagan administration: does the current intergovernmental system in this country really make much sense?
As a nation, we don’t believe that our fellow citizens should go without essential health care. Why, then, does a large share of funding for Medicaid come from state governments, which are forced to cut the program precisely when it’s needed most?
An educated population is a national resource. Why, then, is basic education mainly paid for by local governments, which are forced to neglect the next generation every time the economy hits a rough patch?
And why should investments in infrastructure, which will serve the nation for decades, be at the mercy of short-run fluctuations in local budgets?
As a veteran of the New Federalism wars of the early 1980s, I can certainly say that nothing about our system of federal-state-local relations has improved in clarity or rationality since the days when former Gov. Bruce Babbitt spoke of an “intergovernmental omelet of scrambled responsibilities.” As always, necessity is the mother of invention, and perhaps we are due another long-overdue look at how we allocate authority and resources among the different levels of government. This time, I hope progressives will lead, not follow, the debate.
Closing out a year in which Democratic party loyalty and unity became elevated concerns, in large part because of Senator Lieberman’s doings, CQPolitics has come out with its annual survey”CQ Vote Studies for the 110th Congress.” The study provides percentage ratings for every member of congress for “Presidential Support,” “Party Unity” and “Participation,” with interesting implications for Dems regarding party-building and future cloture votes.
A couple of highlights — while four Republican U.S. Senators (Allard, DeMint, Ensign and Kyl) scored a perfect 100 rating in terms of “Party Unity” — defined as “the frequency with which they vote with their party on occasions when a majority of Republicans oppose a majority of Democrats,” no Dems scored 100. Akaka, Bingaman, Boxer, Clinton, Kennedy, Lautenberg, Murray and Reed lead the Dems with a 99 score, and many others were in the mid/high nineties.
Dems scoring lower than Lieberman’s 81 included: Bayh (65), Carper (80), Johnson (80), Landrieu (69), Nelson-NE (72) and Pryor (79), though none of them endorsed McCain, as did Lieberman. Lincoln and McCaskill tied Lieberman at 81. President-elect Obama scored a 95 (albeit with a low ‘participation’ rate), Veep-elect Biden achieved 97 and Majority Leader Harry Reid got 84.
The U.S. Senator with the lowest party unity score is Republican Olympia Snowe at 39, with no one else of either party very close (Collins 46). Come on over, Olympia. It’s time to come home.
Eight House Dems scored a perfect 100.
At the Washington Note today, Steve Clemons offers a way out of the strangely high-profile dispute over Caroline Kennedy’s aspiration to become the junior United States Senator from New York: Barack Obama should appoint her ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Steve doesn’t offer a whole lot of specific reasons for Kennedy’s suitability for this position. Indeed, he doesn’t even mention the fact that it was held by her grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., under the president so often being compared to Obama, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Maybe he doesn’t want to supplant one dynastic rationale with another.
But the idea does raise the broader issue of the series of appointments that Obama has yet to make: a vast number of ambassadorships. Given his huge low-dollar donor base, and his antipathy towards influence-peddlers, you have to figure that Obama is unlikely to follow the ancient pattern of handing over ambassadorial appointments to his most prominent campaign contributors. If that’s right, he will have a good opportunity to fill diplomatic posts with talented people who will do better overseas than in Washington, and even with career foreign service officers.
Maybe Caroline Kennedy meets the definition of “talented people who will do better overseas than in Washington.” Lord knows the British tabloids would focus on her incessantly, in a neat inversion of the U.S. fascination with the British royals. And there is obviously a bit of poetic justice in the idea of a U.S. president re-exporting “Camelot” to England, particularly in the person of an Irish-American.
A recent headline in Politico may have caught your attention – “Obama, team lawyered up for inquiries.” Although a sub-head in smaller type clarifies that Obama and his team “don’t appear to be investigation targets” the use of the term “lawyered up” is so strongly associated with wise-guy mafia types and urban street criminals that it’s hard to avoid the connotations of guilt and criminality. After all, “lawyering up” is what Tony Soprano tells his wiseguys to do when they are arrested and what Detective Logan on Law and Order sneers as he leaves the interrogation room (“damn it, the little punk “lawyered up” before I could grill him”) . Professional journalists – particularly if they are the individuals whose specific task is to write all the headlines and are thus responsible for establishing a consistent tone – would generally tend to avoid a term like this when they are seeking to be objective.
Of course, this is just one headline, and might be no more than an exception, but it reminded me of something that had been lurking in the back of my mind – not about Obama per se, but about Politico’s headlines that dealt with Democrats and Republicans in the days immediately after the election. While Politico had a number of headlines that used terms reflecting the disaster the elections represented for the Republican party (“dire straits”, “train wreck” “chaos” “back to square one”) they also had a number of news headlines that seemed to be providing advice rather than reporting facts (e.g. “GOP challenge: recruit outside the box”, “GOP must tone down rhetoric to woo Latinos”) Democrats, in contrast, received no similar helpful recommendations.
Again, this hardly seemed a major issue. But it made me curious enough to do a little digging. Take a look at the following group of Politico headlines from the month of December with the words “Dems” or “Democrats” in them and contrast them with headlines using the words “Republicans” or “GOP”
(Note: I’ve left out the headlines that are indeed actually neutral or that attribute words to other people e.g. “Pelosi says XYZ”. This longer list is given down at the bottom of the post)
Here are the headlines that suggest some attitude about the Democrats:
Intraparty tensions could cleave Dems
Dems embrace dynasty politics
Dems rake cash from business
Dems should be nervous about next four years
Now democrats too, must own the war
Did Democrats peak too early?
Democrats smell blood in Florida
Dems scramble to replace Salazar
Now here are the headlines that suggest an attitude about Republicans:
GOP – don’t blame us, blame UAW
GOP 5.0 – what’s next for Lincoln’s party?
GOP hopes rise, Dems hit rough patch
GOP gushes over Blagojevich arrest
GOP hopes Holder makes Dems squirm
The great (GOP) Depression
It’s hard not to notice that every single headline that communicates an attitude about the Dems is essentially negative – either explicitly or through the use of negative terms like “smell blood”, “rake cash”, “embrace dynasty politics” and “scramble to replace”
The headlines about the Republicans, on the other hand, are, with one exception, either explicitly positive or make positive contrasts between them and the Democrats. Republicans are metaphorically identified with state of the art computer programs and the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, Democrats with money-grubbers “raking in cash” and sharks in a feeding frenzy.
I’ve put the entire list of Politico’s December headlines that mention either party at the bottom of this post so you can see that the remaining headlines about the two parties during the month are either neutral or quotations.
OK now, let’s be clear. Some newspapers — like the New York Post or Daily News — very overtly editorialize in their news headlines. It’s actually a major part of their appeal. But there is something a little disturbing about a more subtle partisan tilt being inserted into headlines that will sail by most people almost completely unnoticed. It imparts a subliminal bias into the reporting of which the reader is not consciously aware.
It would be nice if Politico would clarify their editorial policy regarding their headlines. But maybe they won’t. Who knows, they might even “lawyer up” in case the Dems start “smelling blood.” Apparently that’s the way those guys talk over there.
Paul Krugman published an excellent New York Times column yesterday on the need to ensure that the significant expansion of the federal government that will accompany Barack Obama’s recession-fighting agenda is itself accompanied by strong measures to avoid corruption and inefficiency.
Citing the FDR precedent, Krugman argues that Obama’s “bond” with the public depends on making government “good,” even in the emergency conditions he will face on January 20:
First, the administration of the economic recovery plan has to be squeaky clean. Purely economic considerations might suggest cutting a few corners in the interest of getting stimulus moving quickly, but the politics of the situation dictates great care in how money is spent. And enforcement is crucial: inspectors general have to be strong and independent, and whistle-blowers have to be rewarded, not punished as they were in the Bush years.
Second, the plan has to be really, truly pork-free. Vice President-elect Joseph Biden recently promised that the plan “will not become a Christmas tree”; the new administration needs to deliver on that promise.
I’d add two thoughts to Krugman’s very important provisos about stimulus spending.
First of all, the best way to ensure that a stimulus package does not succumb to the parochial constituency-tending or vote-buying interests of Members of Congress is to link it systematically to big national initiatives that not only stimulate the economy but also address overriding policy needs that would be compelling even if the economy were not in such bad shape–health care reform, “green” technologies, infrastructure repairs, and even educational improvements. That’s exactly what Joe Biden kept talking about in his recent press conference on the stimulus package–a point that largely got lost in media reports about his promise that the package would not include “earmarks.” Sure, earmarks typically represent parochial spending, but it’s entirely possible to waste large quanitities of money on less-than-priority investments without earmarks. If the entire stimulus package were devoted (for example) to road and bridge repairs and construction, it would involve a whole lot of pork, with or without earmarked appropriations.
Second of all, it’s important to comprehend that the stimulus package is going to represent a vast “good government” challenge not just for the federal government, or for Congress, but for the state and local governments that will inevitably (and properly) be the conduit for major elements of stimulus spending. And that’s why one of the more dangerous ideas kicking around Washington right now is a revival of the Nixonian concept of general revenue sharing for states and localities.
GRS, which was a big Nixon initiative in 1972, and finally expired during the first round of Reagan budget cuts in 1981, involves no-strings federal assistance to state and local governments. There were (and are) three commonly-heard rationales for GRS: (1) it reduces the dependence of state and local government on their own often-regressive and insufficient revenue sources; (2) it offsets the cost of “unfunded (or underfunded) mandates” imposed by the federal government; and (3) it eliminates the inefficiencies associated with bureaucracy-laden “categorical” grants to state and local governments, which often are too narrow to adequately reflect local needs and conditions.
All three rationales are flawed in that the “solution” is poorly tailored to fit the “problem.” States and localities benefitting from GRS have no incentive to address the inadequacies of the tax systems. The best way to deal with unfunded mandates (itself often a misnomer, since some “mandates,” like civil rights compliance or election reform, reflect fundamental responsibilities of government that shouldn’t have to be bribed into existence) is to reduce or eliminate them, not to offset them with untargeted dollars. And there is a vast middle-ground between the kind of maddeningly narrow categorical grants that were popular in the 1970s and GRS, which completely severs revenue streams from accountability for their use.
I couldn’t agree more that the stimulus package should address needs (e.g., health care, infrastructure and education) in which states and localities are heavily involved. And I also strongly agree that helping state and local governments is essential if you want to avoid the counter-stimulative effect of impending state and local cutbacks in services and investments.
But GRS is the wrong vehicle, and might, in fact, enable Republican governors, legislators and local officials to keep their budgets afloat even as they pursue ideologically-driven services cutbacks and stupid tax cut ideas.
It’s entirely possible to provide quick, flexible assistance to state and local governments while insisting on maintenance of their current services and investments and providing basic accountability for the specific results that the assistance is designed to achieve. Maybe that’s what some Democrats who are talking about “revenue-sharing” have in mind, but they need to be clear about it. Nothing would more thoroughly threaten the “good-government” character of Obama’s first big initiative than measures that would fully delegate the power to do good or ill to other levels of government where the kind of parochialism we associate with congressional earmarks are inherent to their scope of responsibility. And I say that as someone who spent more than a decade working at the state level, and harbors no bias against state or localities. While governors, legislators and mayors are typically no worse than their counterparts in Washington, they are hardly infallible, and cannot be expected to avoid the temptation of having their (no-strings federal revenue-sharing) cake and eating it, too.
After sorting through the Alabama results and comparing them to other 2017 special elections, I figured it was time to look ahead, so I did just that at New York.
[T]he [Alabama] results were entirely consistent with the pro-Democratic trend that has persisted throughout 2017’s special and off-year elections. That would have been the case even if Roy Moore had eked out a narrow win. Republicans can, as Donald Trump has done, rationalize this or that 2017 defeat as being an anomaly. But it is impossible to take an honest look at the overall pattern of 2017 contests without hearing the not-so-distant rumbling of a likely 2018 wave for Democrats.
Harry Enten conducted a comprehensive analysis of 2017 special elections — all 70 of them — taking into account the established partisan “lean” of the jurisdiction being contested.
“The Democratic margin has been 12 percentage points better, on average, than the partisan lean in each race. Sometimes this has resulted in a seat flipping from Republican to Democratic (e.g. in the Alabama Senate face-off on Tuesday or Oklahoma’s 37th state Senate District contest last month). Sometimes it has meant the Democrat barely lost a race you wouldn’t think a Democrat would be competitive in (e.g. in South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District in June). Sometimes it’s merely been the case that the Democrat won a district by an even wider margin than you’d expect (e.g. in Pennsylvania’s 133 House District last week).
“The point is that Democrats are doing better in all types of districts with all types of candidates. You don’t see this type of consistent outperformance unless there’s an overriding pro-Democratic national factor.”
The best elections to examine in order to figure out whether Democrats can win back the U.S. House in 2018 are the seven congressional special elections of 2017. Republicans won five and Democrats two (a winning percentage that’s not surprising since all but one of these elections were triggered by members of Congress joining the Trump administration). But as Enten notes, the average vote-percentage swing to Democrats from prior established partisan levels was 16 points. In a polarized electorate, that’s a large swing indeed.
In thinking about this pattern, keep in mind that the demographic groups most likely to vote Democratic typically don’t proportionately turn out for non-presidential elections, and particularly for special elections. There is a powerful trend under way.
While any single special congressional election is not necessarily predictive of future election results, in larger batches they are highly correlated to the next election coming down the pike. Enten looks at special elections prior to the last six midterms and finds that on average the partisan swing in the former is within three percentage points of the partisan swing in the latter. That would suggest a double-digit Democratic swing (or something close to it) in 2018.
If that seems extravagant, look at the congressional generic ballot (a simple polling question about which party the respondents would like to control the U.S. House), itself highly correlated with the national House popular vote. According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Democrats currently have an 11-point advantage, the highest they’ve enjoyed since last year’s elections.
The question of exactly how big a margin in the national House popular vote Democrats would need to gain the 24 net seats required for control of the House is a difficult one. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz has just published an analysis of House elections dating back to 1946, which also takes into account the impact of GOP-controlled redistricting after 2010, and concludes that a Democratic win as small as four points could do the trick. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report thinks a seven- or eight-point win would be necessary.
Despite the clear trends, there remain a lot of unknown variables as we head toward the midterms, most notably presidential approval ratings and retirements. But the current occupant of the White House has a highly polarizing approach to politics that almost certainly caps his approval ratings (which have never been above 46 percent in any event). And Republican retirements are definitely outpacing those of Democrats; 26 House Republicans are either calling it a day or running for other offices. There’s no telling where the much-rumored investigations of sexual misconduct by large numbers of congressmen will lead. But as Jonathan Chait points out, there are 219 Republican men in Congress as opposed to just 132 Democratic men, so the odds of net damage to the GOP (and to a GOP-controlled institution) are high.
There is more at stake next year, obviously, than control of the U.S. House. Thirty-six states will hold gubernatorial elections, and all but a few will hold state legislative elections. Partisan performance at the state level could have a crucial effect not just on the public policies of the jurisdictions involved, but on positioning for the next redistricting cycle, which will begin between 2020 and 2022. And even in Washington, Democrats now see an opportunity to win back the U.S. Senate, which would have seemed laughably impossible a year ago.
All in all, we will probably look back a year from now and see 2017 as a harbinger of a strong Democratic performance in the midterms. Its precise strength will determine whether Donald Trump enters the second half of his presidential term merely embattled or fully caged and cornered.