In his second Daily Kos post on filibuster reform, “The Progressive Benefits of Rules Reform,” Chris Bowers makes the case that the chief benefit of the filibuster reform proposals now being considered is ending GOP obstruction of presidential appointments.
Bowers argues that under the proposed Democratic reforms, “Most notably, the legions of vacancies in our federal judicial, regulatory, law enforcement and diplomatic departments would be nowhere as severe.” He offers Center for American Progress estimates of the large numbers of appointments being held hostage by the Republicans and the time it would take to get them confirnmed under existing filibuster rules. Bowers also cites alarming statistics from Ed Brayton’s post, “GOP Increases Control of Courts” at Dispatches from the Culture Wars:
A determined Republican stall campaign in the Senate has sidetracked so many of the men and women nominated by President Barack Obama for judgeships that he has put fewer people on the bench than any president since Richard Nixon at a similar point in his first term 40 years ago.
The delaying tactics have proved so successful, despite the Democrats’ substantial Senate majority, that fewer than half of Obama’s nominees have been confirmed and 102 out of 854 judgeships are vacant…
When Bush left office, Republicans had appointed just under 60 percent of all federal judges. Twenty months later, the number has dipped only slightly to a shade under 59 percent, according to statistics compiled by the liberal Alliance for Justice. Because of retirements, the percentage of Republican-nominated district judges actually has gone up.
Bowers has a pretty convincing closing argument about the importance of filling the appointments through filibuster reform:
Making the motion to proceed not subject to filibuster, and ending post-cloture debate time on nominations, would put an end to this. Nominations would only be blocked when there were 41 Senators opposed to the nomination. This would fill hundreds of these vacancies very quickly, making for a larger victory than any legislative accomplishment reasonably within the reach of Congressional Democrats in 2011-2012. The people enforcing and interpreting laws and regulations are just as important as the laws and regulations themselves, after all. Further, a government riddled with vacancies becomes a self-fulfilling conservative prophecy of a government that doesn’t function well.
None of this is to discount the potential political and messaging benefit of making the filibuster a real filibuster. It is entirely possible that by making the filibuster real, its use will be significantly reduced and attention to Republican obstructionism will be greatly heightened. However, relative to the concrete benefits of plugging hundreds of holes in the federal government, it is just more difficult to predict what impact the real filibuster will have.
In a couple of the comments following Bowers second post on the filibuster, respondents take issue with his assertion that “…it must be admitted that the current reforms being discussed, making the filibuster real and reducing opportunities for obstruction on nominations, would not have altered the outcome of any of the major legislative fights of 2009-2010.” As one respondent put it, “On first glance, yes, unless you take into account the way a talking filibuster can affect public opinion. The debate over the Civil Rights Act forced opponents to look ridiculous.”
For a more detailed understanding of the likely run-of-show on January 5, also check out Brian Beutler’s post, “The Senate’s Long, Twisted, Bumpy Road To Filibuster Reform” at Talking Points Memo. Main Street Insider also has an in-depth look at “S01E15 – The Merkley Proposal” up at MyDD.
This item is cross-posted from The New Republic.
In the wake of the most productive lame-duck congressional session in years–the crux of which was a grand bargain between Mitch McConnell and Barack Obama, who until recently seemed as if they could cooperate on absolutely nothing–devotees of bipartisanship have renewed their flagging hopes. These seem to include the president himself, who commented: “If there’s any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it’s that we’re not doomed to endlessgridlock.” But au contraire: There is every indication that the next two years will be incredibly unproductive–a toxic mix of budgetary stalemate and bloody skirmishes, in Congress and in the courts, over every conceivable policy issue. For all the punditocracy’s denunciations of mindless partisanship, this state of affairs has largely been caused by disagreements over principle, rather than gamesmanship or hunger for power.
The truth is that, due to the ideological sorting-out of the parties over the past several decades–and in particular the hyper-radicalization of the GOP since 2006–our political system is in the throes of a battle over fundamentals. Democrats and Republicans are engaged in the most intractable face-off over core philosophical questions that Washington has seen in a very long time. Let’s take a look at four issues that used to command some degree of consensus, but which now make consensus impossible: Economic recovery. With George W. Bush out of power, conservatives have rejected the very idea that government spending can stimulate the economy–despite it being a fundamental lesson from Economics 101. Going into the New Year, they are championing huge cutbacks in federal and state spending that are sure to immediately boost unemployment and dampen middle-class purchasing power; and a year from now, expect another brouhaha over the extension of unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, playing off the hard-money fanaticism of the Tea Parties, conservatives are planning to attack Ben Bernanke’s stewardship of the Fed–accusing him of undermining the soundness of the dollar and courting hyperinflation. Progressive taxation. While liberals and conservatives have always differed over the extent to which the burden of paying for government should fall on those most able to pay–and on whether those taxes should be levied from capital or labor–the basic concept of progressive taxation has long been a sacred cow. That’s no longer true. In addition to demanding lower and lower marginal income and capital gains tax rates on the highest earners, conservatives are now publicly complaining that the working poor are not taxed enough, and calling for total exemptions from taxation of both investment and inheritance income. This trend is particularly acute at the level of state government, where Republicans in deficit-ridden states are calling for hikes in consumption taxes while fighting for the elimination of corporate and personal income taxes. In Congress, the Obama-McConnell tax deal has papered over these differences of principle, and there is little room for further cooperation until the question is re-fought with a vengeance in 2012. Constitutional limitations on the role of government. Conservative legal thinkers have long deplored the judicial consensus on regulation that has generally prevailed since the 1930s–under which the Supreme Court adopted a view of the Constitution’s Commerce and Spending clauses that enabled federal involvement in a wide range of issues from banking to the environment. But until recently, the primary prescription that Republican politicians have offered for this problem was a slow counter-revolution via the appointment of conservative judges. Now, with the rise of the Tea Party, Republicans are calling for direct action. Their gambits range from requiring that federal legislation identify specific enumerated powers which enable it, to impeding the implementation of “unconstitutional” legislation through bureaucratic guerilla warfare, to adopting such hardy nineteenth and twentieth-century theories as nullification and interposition. Underlying this behavior is the philosophical focus on “constitutionalism”–the belief that the Founders (if not the Creator) envisioned permanent, substantive limitations on the federal government in defense of private property, the states, and cultural traditions, which cannot be modified by court decisions or even by constitutional amendments. For the next two years, we’re more likely to see slash-and-burn warfare on these issues than bipartisan comity. American exceptionalism. Even foreign policy has become deeply ideological during the past few years, as illustrated by the controversy over whether President Obama is enough of a believer in “American exceptionalism.” The term once referred primarily to the belief that the United States had a special destiny, enabled by its natural and historical advantages, that made it a democratic role-model for nations the world over. Now it has increasingly come to mean the conviction that any legal or ideological limitations on America’s freedom of action–even limitations originally proposed by the United States itself–are deeply offensive to the country’s very purpose. This focus on exceptionalism is particularly useful to a Republican Party that is divided between isolationists, such as Ron Paul, and aggressive interventionists, such as Bill Kristol; both can agree that treaties and international organizations are a threat to America, whether it’s conceived as a fortress or as a global redeemer. With all of the GOP’s 2012 candidates banging the exceptionalist drum–and the relatively modest New START treaty already ratified–conservatives will likely spend the next two years trying to draw foreign policy contrasts between their party and the White House, rather than attempting to cooperate.
To be sure, many pundits–and even the White House itself–seem to think that there is room for agreement on reducing the long-term budget deficit. And in theory, the parties are not as far apart philosophically on this issue as on the four questions above; both conservatives and liberals acknowledge the harm of accumulating long-term debt. But, while conservatives are positively disposed toward entitlement cuts, any deficit deal will be a fantasy if it does not include tax increases–and those are anathema to conservatives. The alternative is a budget that cuts entitlements so far that rank-and-file Democrats will never agree to it. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm of a few libertarians for defense-spending cuts should not be mistaken as a general Republican position–witness the GOP’s enthusiasm for massively expanded missile defense systems and its general support for Obama’s continued engagement in Afghanistan. The upshot is that serious deficit reduction is not going to happen anytime soon.
Perhaps Obama will be able to eke out a few legislative victories–on funding for the war in Afghanistan, for example–that will produce a modicum of bipartisan comity. But ultimately, that will be an insubstantial veneer, as both sides seek to appear as if they are occupying the political “center,” accusing the other of negotiating in bad faith while protecting their own philosophical commitments. And in that respect, pols may be representing public opinion more than you might think, as recently explained by polling expert Mark Blumenthal, who has found that when most partisans (particularly Republicans) say they are for “bipartisan compromise” they mean the other party should give in. It’s not great news, but it is the truth.
Continuing our coverage of the ins and outs, pros and cons of filibuster reform now (Jan. 5th), Chris Bowers, a TDS advisory board member, opines on the topic in “Answering Progressive Fears About Filibuster Reform,” the first installment of a two-parter from his perch at Daily Kos.
Bowers offers two overlooked insights that merit more consideration. First, he emphasizes that “It will still take 60 votes to pass legislation or confirm nominations,” and:
…Many casual observers of the current rules reform fight have conflated this campaign with an attempt to put an end to the 60-vote threshold and go to a simple-majority Senate. This prospect worries quite a few people, especially now that Republicans have increased their number in Congress.
However, this campaign, even if successful, will not end the 60-vote Senate. Of the rules changes being discussed, none of them will prevent 41 Senators from blocking any nomination or legislation. Whether or not you want to see the 60-vote threshold lowered, the 60-vote threshold will not be lowered by this campaign. Period.
…New rules may shift the burden of a filibuster away from those seeking to break a filibuster, and toward those wishing to continue one. That is, 41 votes will be required to continue a filibuster, rather than the current 60 to break one…New rules will also require Senators to show up and engage in a televised talk-a-thon if they wish to filibuster. This will enact a public price for obstruction. Right now, Senators don’t even have to show up to filibuster–it’s painless. Together, these two changes would not end the filibuster, but they would make it a real filibuster.
This may not give much comfort to Dems who would like to see the filibuster threshold number reduced to 55 or so, but it does assuage the worries of those who are concerned that Dems will lose leverage if and when the GOP gains a Senate majority.
Bowers second often-overlooked insight is that “Republicans will change Senate rules no matter what we do,” — it is always a safe bet that Republicans will abuse the process in pursuit of their agenda, while Dems are more prone to agonize about it, often to the point where it stifles our efforts. Bowers amplifies:
…Republicans are going to change Senate rules the next time they are in charge no matter what Democrats do now. Lest we forget, in 2005 Republicans attempted to entirely abolish filibusters on judicial nominations. The GOP acted first on this one, not Democrats. And, as part of their general tendency to more aggressively apply unusual parliamentary procedure to further their goals, Republicans will act to change the rules again, no matter what we do now.
In his third point, Bowers weighs in against the progressive fear that “Senate obstruction helps conservatives more than progressives,” explaining:
Again, no. The only way making it more difficult to filibuster would reduce the ability of Senate progressives to block legislation is if there was actually a bloc of 41 progressive Senators willing to filibuster non-progressive legislation. There is no such bloc now, and there won’t be in 2011-2012 either.
In the short-term, no one will ever get 41 Senate Democrats to oppose any nomination or piece of legislation that is supported by both President Obama and a majority of the incoming House and Senate. Even during the inevitable times when President Obama will face significant opposition from Congressional Democrats over deals he cuts with the Republican leadership, 41 of the current 53 Senate Democrats will never, ever rise up in opposition to those deals. All of 12 returning Senate Democrats opposed the tax cut deal, for example. Senate Democrats are simply not a rambunctious enough bunch to find 41 of their number to oppose a Democratic President on anything.
Bowers concludes with a pitch to “sign up to make the filibuster a real filibuster.” There is no question that filibuster reform will have a major impact on Democratic prospects going forward, and this petition is a quick and easy way for supporters of the campaign to get involved and help the cause.
On January 5th, it appears that a majority of the Senate will vote to change its rules, barring unforseen GOP shenanigans, followed by another vote in which a majority of senators vote to reform the filibuster. The reason it seems like a done deal one week out is that all 53 returning Democratic senators have signed on a letter urging Majority Leader Reid to take up filibuster reform on that day, and they are not likely to settle for anything that preserves the status quo.
It is possible that some kind of weak compromise will keep the filibuster functionally alive, but crippled. But it is quite possible that Dems are ready to shred it, given the damage it has done and the way it has been abused by Republicans. Katrina vanden Heuval explains it exceptionally-well in her Washington Post op-ed:
…Back when Lyndon Johnson was majority leader in the Senate, he needed to file for cloture to end a filibuster only once. During President Obama’s first two years, Harry Reid filed for cloture 84 times. To put that in perspective, the filibuster was used more in 2009 than in the 1950s and 1960s combined.
Even as we acknowledge the progress we’ve made these past two years, we must never forget the policies that lie dead on the Senate floor at the hands of the filibuster. We got a Recovery Act, but a filibuster prevented it from being sufficiently large. We got health-care reform, but a filibuster killed the public option. We got Wall Street reform, but a filibuster killed provisions to break up the big banks. We got an extension of unemployment benefits, a payroll tax cut and more, but the threat of the filibuster killed our chances to do that without giving handouts to the wealthy.
……The filibuster was never intended to be wielded as a weapon of obstruction. Its current abuse was not contemplated by those who created it. Used this way, the filibuster does not just check the power of the majority; it cripples it. It is the very definition of minority tyranny, a concept as antithetical to democratic principles as any in the republic.
vanden Heuval then nails the case that now is the time to put a stop to it:
There is only one day in the year when the Senate can make changes to its rules without the fear of that process, itself, being filibustered – and that day is fast approaching. Jan. 5, 2011, will be the first day of the 112th Congress and, as such, the only day where a simple majority can vote to change the Senate rules (on all other days, 67 votes would be required)……The chances for reforming the filibuster may be the best in a generation.
And while it is unclear at the moment exactly which of the reforms proposed by Democratic Senators will be implemented, all of them are designed to end the present tryanny of the GOP minority, as vanden Heuval explains:
The options they offer are simple and unquestionably reasonable. Sens. Udall and Merkley have put forward what has become known as the “constitutional option,” a basic two-step process in which 51 senators first agree to adopt new rules, and then 51 senators agree on a reform package. Their package probably would not end the filibuster altogether. But it wouldn’t need to. Procedural changes – such as preventing a filibuster on the motion to proceed, shortening the amount of debate allowed between cloture motions and ending the unconscionable practice of anonymous holds – have the potential to remake the Senate.
These reforms would prevent a single senator from wielding the filibuster against the entire body and would allow the majority to challenge the minority without wasting precious floor time. Perhaps most important, the act of revising the rules in response to abuse may in itself serve as a check on the minority, a warning that the overreach of the type the GOP perfected during the 111th Congress will not be tolerated in the future.
If everything goes according to plan, we’ll have to redefine the GOP acronym meaning from “Gridlock, Obstruction and Paralysis,” at least for senate Republicans, to something like…”Game Over, Pachyderms.”
We are in an era when really stupid ideas for stimulating economic growth by corporate giveaways are guaranteed to proliferate in state capitals around the country. Such schemes invariably overrate the extent to which any one state can chart its own economic destiny; overrate the importance of marginal costs to investors; overrate the importance of new, out-of-state investors as compared to home-grown business expansions; and vastly underrate the ability of executives to harvest incentives for doing what they wanted to do anyway.
Corporate welfare as an economic development “strategy” is traditionally beloved of Republicans (especially in the South), but is attractive to Democratic pols as well, especially those desparate to show tangible efforts to create jobs, however crummy or emphemeral. But of all the dubious giveaway-based “economic development initiatives” abroad in the land, few are as egregious as the recent fad of throwing taxpayer dollars at Hollywood to attract on-location film productions.
Via Matt Yglesias, we have a new analysis of film subsidies by the ever-invaluable Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (one of the few Washington-based progressive organizations paying close attention to policy trends in the states). Written by Robert Tannenwald, the CBPP report is a good primer on the false promises created by state film subsidies, which typically are excessive in size, under-audited, poorly targeted for the ostensible goal of creating real, sustainable jobs, and above all, designed to play on the excitement associated with big stars coming to town. Tannenwald doesn’t mention the corruption often associated with film subsidy programs (most notably in Louisiana and Iowa), but does emphasize one point rarely understood: the practice in some states of offering film production companies refundable or transferable tax credits that amount to cash grants, or literally paying corporations to offset big chunks of their costs.
These programs have clearly gotten out of hand as states compete for film business; as Tannenwald calculates, they cost about $1.5 billion nationally in the current fiscal year, even as states have reduced basic investments and laid off teachers and other public employees. The report doesn’t get into evaluating “really bad” or “not so bad” programs, though it’s possible to defend some (e.g., New Mexico’s) as focused on building an in-state infrastructure of film-related professionals and facilities that can become sustainable in the future. All in all, though, it’s a very strange way to spend scarce state dollars in the current, disastrous, fiscal environment, and should become a ripe target for budget-cutters who aren’t blinded by the klieg lights.
I vaguely remember seeing a movie years ago about the Spanish Civil War in which a general for the Republic was depicted as not-so-secretly expressing sympathy for the Franco insurgency. He impatiently responded to the salutes of his troops with the pro forma words: “Yes, Yes, of course, long live the revolution.”
That sort of totemic utterance is becoming common among conservatives who wish to warn their brethren of over-confidence or ideological excesses. To gain a hearing, they have to establish their right-wing bona fides with a recitation of one of the Tea Party’s favorite slurs of Obama and the Godless Democrats.
This was evident yesterday in a column by the once-great Michael Barone, who wanted to express his belief that Barack Obama would be a very formidable candidate for re-election in 2012. After reciting a series of facts and historical comparisons, Barone felt constrained to throw in this ritual incantation:
Working against Obama still will be substantive issues. Most Americans want to repeal Obamacare; he wants to keep it. Most voters rejected his vast expansion of the size and scope of government; he still thinks it’s a good idea.
Obama came to office with the assumption that economic distress would increase support for his policies to (in his words to Joe the Plumber) “spread the wealth around.” But the 2010 midterms make it about as clear as these things can be that voters reject such efforts.
Now the idea that Obama has proposed or executed a “vast expansion of the size and scope of government” is not a fact, or even a theory; it is simply agitprop. Similarly, the very tired recitation of Joe the Plumber’s mischaracterization of an Obama campaign trail comment, as though it represented a proud and much-repeated item of the Obama credo, is complete BS. But presumably Barone felt such pandering to the fantasies of the Right would make his sound advice go down easier.
On another front, Southern Political Report and Insider Advantage honcho Matt Towery did a piece suggesting that his fellow conservatives should be less inclined to call each other RINOs for such heresies as supporting the START treaty (as did Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson). But Towery thought it necessary to preface these thoughts with his own statement of right-wing solidarity:
Here’s both my qualifier and my bona fides for the opinion that
follows: I earned my Republican stripes working for a GOP U.S. senator, for
Ronald Reagan’s first successful presidential campaign and for Newt
By the end of the column, Towery was defensively boasting of his support for the repeal of the 17th Amendment, and railing against Obama’s threats to the free enterprise system and fundamental liberties. And he’s a guy who sorta needs a relatively objective image for the benefit of his public opinion firm’s credibility.
Now I obviously don’t know what’s in the minds of Barone and Towery (and many others) who seem to feel they must offer some sort of party salute or denunciation of opponents in order to express a potentially unwelcome opinion. Maybe the gestures are so empty that they are virtually unconcious. But they sure are conspicuous to those of us who haven’t been inducted into the Conservative Brotherhood, or learned the secret handshake.
Few Democrats need another reason to be outraged by the Citizens United ruling. But Marvin Ammori’s contribution to the Boston Review forum on the Supreme Court decision, entitled “Corruption Economy” should provide cause for serious concern among libertarians and others who consider themselves real “free-market” conservatives and advocates of creative entrepreneurship. Here’s a piece of Ammori’s case:
But Citizens United imperils not only our democracy. It also threatens the U.S. economy. Citizens United adds to the existing institutional tools that encourage a “corruption economy,” long known to waste social resources and reward inefficiency. This economy also systematically disadvantages startups and “disruptive innovators”–companies and individuals whose ideas productively displace entrenched alternatives.
…In 2007 David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times reporter, devoted his book Free Lunch to exploring, in the subtitle’s words, “How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill).” He details how certain laws transfer wealth to the politically powerful by, among other methods, capping corporate liability, shifting tax burdens, and generously subsidizing billionaires at the average citizen’s expense.
Taking this one step further, researchers have attempted to quantify the return-on-investment (ROI) of this corruption. A widely cited study by professors at the Universtiy of Kansas shows a 22,000 percent return on $283 million spent lobbying for tax holidays. Another study demonstrates that large companies got a 600-2000 percent return lobbying for tax breaks. Both of these estimates far eclipse the average ROI for Fortune 500 companies, which is less than 10 percent. As Johnston puts it, corporations can more easily “mine gold from the government treasury than the side of a mountain.”
Ammori then closes the argument as far as ‘upstart’ entrepreneurs are concerned:
….A corruption economy disincentivizes investment in new technologies, human capital, and socially useful products and services. It instead encourages companies to invest in lobbyists, political action committees, and campaign ads…A corruption economy rewards those most adept at the D.C. game, not market competition and innovation. The result is higher prices for inferior products and services.
…In a corruption economy, established companies are given the upper hand. They have legions of lobbyists, revenue to allocate to campaign expenditures, and deep and long relationships with legislators. Upstarts usually have none of that, so established companies use their greater access to government and legal avenues to kill off young competitors. For instance, when a new data format (from home video to YouTube) hits the market, established content providers often file copyright complaints. Following similar logic, established telecom companies attempt to interfere with Internet traffic. This changes the behavior of new companies for the worse. An upstart’s first idea should be a product or service, not an appropriations rider; its first employees should be engineers, inventors, and management, not lobbyists and lawyers.
All of which strengthens the case that President Obama’s next Supreme Court appointment — replacing a retiring Republican, God Willing — ought not only have a progressive record with respect to social issues, but also be a clear and unflagging champion of economic justice for workers and small business people, when pitted against the interests of corporate power. Justice Kagan was a good choice in this regard, and the next nominee ought to be equally opposed to the Citizen’s United ruling.
The Citizens United decision is disastrous for small business conservatives, as well as for Democratic Party liberals. If progressives make the extra effort to insure that this message resonates outside the choir, it could help solidify the Party’s image in a favorable light with a key swing constituency.
It is understandable that progressives had a deeply emotional reaction to Obama’s recent press conference in which he forcefully asserted his commitment to seeking compromise and used the adjectives “sanctimonious” and “purist” to describe inflexible positions on issues like the public option and the deal on the tax cut extension. Aside from the substantive issues, his attitude itself seemed fundamentally unfair – seeming to criticize his most loyal supporters rather than his most bitter opponents and using language that seemed almost deliberately provocative. Coming after months of vicious and utterly dishonest attacks by Republicans, progressives found his words a harsh and demoralizing blow.
Yet, at the same time, Obama’s criticisms could ironically also be most helpful thing he could possibly have done to help American progressives. To understand why this might be so, it is necessary to think clearly about what roles the president and the progressive movement can most usefully play. Last week TDS published an analysis that carefully delineated the very different political roles of activist, moral leader and legislator. As the author, political scientist Andrew Sabl noted: “all three contribute crucial things to democratic politics–but very different things, normally best performed by very different kinds of people…the same person is unlikely to be able to play more than one of these roles well…”
In one sense this seems entirely obvious but it has very important implications for current progressive strategy that have been largely ignored. In the eras of previous social movements there was a very clear separation between the role of the president and the leaders of the progressive mass movements of the time. John L. Lewis and the other organizers of the industrial trade unions in the 1930’s focused their main efforts on union organizing, not influencing congress or President Roosevelt. Martin Luther King and the other civil rights leaders devoted most of their efforts to building a powerful mass movement and relatively little time to working with John Kennedy on the crafting of the Civil Rights Act. It would quite literally never have occurred to any of the activists and organizers in either of these independent grass-roots mass movements that exerting “inside the beltway” pressure on the president should be their primary task, rather than grass-roots organizing. In the social movements of the 1930’s and 1960’s, influencing the detailed shape of legislation in Washington was considered a very — very — secondary activity.
Beginning in the 1970’s, however, independent mass movements built by grass roots organizing began to sharply decline, By the 1980’s many of the major progressive movements like the environmental movement had become more and more deeply involved in lobbying and oversight of legislation and less and less committed to grass roots organizing.
The rise of the internet and the Web in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s powerfully reinforced this trend. While the internet made fundraising, letter writing or petition campaigns much easier – allowing, for example, the development of new online organizations like MoveOn — at the same time they made face-to-face grass-roots organizing even more difficult because they undermined the progressive commitment to traditional means of struggle like demonstrations, rallies and door-to-door organizing campaigns. The explosive growth of the web strongly encouraged the belief that new online organizations could largely replace traditional real-world organizations and the notion of “the netroots” as a modern equivalent of the traditional “grassroots” became popular. The expectation grew that organizing could now be done electronically rather than face to face. The growth of giant online communities like MoveOn, Kos and others seemed proof that this was indeed feasible.
But the rapid growth of these online organizations obscured a fundamental difference between them and traditional progressive organizing: online organizing only “organizes” those people who are already convinced of progressive ideas and already committed to progressive action. Unless supplemented by traditional grass-roots organizing, online organizing cannot effectively reach out, make a connection with, convince and recruit new people who are currently indifferent to progressive issues or unaware of progressive causes. Nor can it dramatize problems and expose injustices in the way that nonviolent protests and mass demonstrations do. In a very large number of cases online communication is not only limited to “preaching to the choir” but also to “organizing the already organized.” Online organizations can efficiently raise money, collect signatures, and coordinate the actions of people already committed to an objective, but they cannot build new relationships and gradually change the attitudes of people who are not already committed to a goal. Traditional grass-roots organizing, on the other hand, can.
In his post “Don’t Believe the Reapportionment Hype,” The National Journal’s ‘On the Trail’ columnist Reid Wilson adds some clarity to the discussion about recently-released decennial census data and Dems prospects in the reapportionment process:
…No one should believe that Democrats have had their heads handed to them this decade….Dems Instead, the reapportionment process foretells a changing dynamic of American politics, one in which minority voters will play an increasingly important and influential role. The eight states that will gain House seats this year appear to give Republicans an advantage, but, in truth, the redistricting playing field is far more level.
Eight states–Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Washington state–will gain representation when the 113th Congress convenes in 2013, figures released on Tuesday by the Census Bureau showed. On its face, those states appear to give Republicans an advantage; they hold complete control of redistricting in all but Arizona and Washington, where bipartisan commissions will draw the new lines.
The outsized growth of those eight states, however, has come largely from dramatic increases in minority populations, particularly among Hispanic voters. Although exact data on race collected by the 2010 census won’t be available for a few months, trends and the American Community Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau, demonstrate that those predisposed toward voting for Democrats have constituted the bulk of the new population boosts.
Wilson goes on to note that minorities are already more than a quarter of the population in 6 of the 8 aforementioned red states, including “a whopping 43 percent in Texas” and the section 5 preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act will insure that they are fairly represented. He sees demographic trends in ‘perennial battlegrounds’ Florida, Nevada and Arizona favoring Democrats, and adds that GOP strategists are now “worrying about their chances for maintaining their grip on Texas’s Electoral College votes.”
The overall political impact of exploding minority population growth, says Wilson, depends to a great extent on exactly where (in which districts) the minorities are now living, and that Census data has not yet been released. But I’d like to see some figures on the frequency of Hispanic and African American residential changes before placing too much stock in snapshot analysis of where they are at any given moment.
Ironically, notes Wilson, “…In the long run, the voters who guaranteed Sun Belt states their new congressional seats will likely turn those states, slowly but surely, into promising Democratic targets.”
Wilson flags a nifty treat at the end of his post, this link to The Redistricting Game, a fun, educational game which teaches participants the tricky complexity of drawing your own districts.
The lame-duck session of the 111th Congress, which was widely expected to be an unproductive nightmare, ended pretty impressively for the administration and congressional Democrats with a 71-26 Senate vote to ratify the START treaty. Here’s Politico’s summary of the end-game:
The Senate voted on START the same day Obama signed legislation that begins a process to repeal the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay service members, and hours after it passed a stripped-down defense authorization bill. On Tuesday, Congress sent the president a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food-regulatory system.
The 111th Congress adjourned for the year Wednesday night, but not before tackling a bill providing health care benefits for ground zero workers.
Some progressives, of course, remain angry about the tax deal that made the late-session activity possible, and we’re now about to enter a new Congress in which an emboldened and ideologically deranged Republican Party has a great deal more power to thwart the administration’s will. But all in all, given the baleful political developments since the enactment of health reform legislation, the very end of this Congress wasn’t so bitter, and even gave some reason for holiday cheer.
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.