In light of the president’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence, I wanted to quote briefly from an AP story about the administration’s latest crime-fighting initiative, dated June 17:
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is trying to roll back a Supreme Court decision by pushing legislation that would require prison time for nearly all criminals.
The Justice Department is offering the plan as an opening salvo in a larger debate about whether sentences for crack cocaine are unfairly harsh and racially discriminatory.
Republicans are seizing the administration’s crackdown, packaged in legislation to combat violent crime, as a campaign issue for 2008.
As Republicans like to say in defense of the mindless, “tough” sentencing policies that have represented virtually their only criminal justice strategy in recent decades: “You do the crime, you do the time.” But I guess that depends on who you are.
Mitt Romney’s campaign has quite naturally created a discussion of parallels between the former governor of Massachussetts, who’s the first Mormon to run for president, and John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts who was the first Catholic to be elected president. According to the conventional wisdom, JFK’s famous Q&A session with a panel of Protestant clergymen in Houston in 1960 took religion off the table in that campaign. And Romney has often been urged to do something similar. Indeed, Mitt’s whole campaign to become the True Conservative Candidate has probably come down to a Tale of Two Kennedys: overcoming the socially liberal positions he took when running against Ted Kennedy in 1994, and seizing JFK’s mantle as a pioneer who convinced skeptics to accept his specific faith as irrelevant to his candidacy.
Polls have shown significant but declining resistance to the idea of a Mormon President, and Romney has done pretty well in gaining the support of the conservative evangelical Protestants thought to be most concerned about Mormonism. And in fact, his candidacy is providing a fascinating test of the evolution of conservative evangelical thinking. There’s quite a disconnect between the vast gap separating evangelicals and Mormons theologically, and their consanguinity on many cultural and political issues–not to mention the natural admiration of evangelicals for the Godly Commonwealth the LDS Church has built in Utah (I first thought about this when a member of my own extended family, a decades-long Southern Baptist Deacon and inveterate world traveler, came back from a visit to Salt Lake City more enthused than he’d ever seemed after a road trip. “It’s so clean!” he kept saying).
But still, there are lingering doubts among some conservative Christians about Romney and Mormonism, and via Alan Wolfe, it’s interesting to learn that at least one highly influential Christian Right figure has suggested that anti-Mormonism is a legitimate reason for rejecting Mitt.
That figure is Richard John Neuhaus, the Lutheran-turned-Catholic-priest whose periodical, First Things, has become the most intellectually respectable and ecumenical Christian Right forum. Fr. Neuhaus was the first to popularize, back in his 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, the idea that church-state separation represents a secularist assault against the religious liberties of American Christians, now a gospel truth among religious conservatives. He’s also willing to throw bombs, as in the 1996 First Thingssymposium wherein he roiled conservative circles with his incendiary proposition that “the current regime” in America had forfeited the legitimacy to govern, and the allegiance of its citizens, by its tolerance of legalized abortion and gay rights.
So Neuhaus’ take on Romney and JFK as religio-political pioneers is of more than passing interest. Contra the conventional wisdom that Kennedy took a candidate’s religious affiliation permanently off the table with his Houston encounter, Neuhaus observes (correctly, if you look at the vast pro-Democratic swing among Catholic voters in 1960, which clearly outmatched any anti-Catholic backlash) that JFK’s Catholicism actually elected him president.
More importantly, Neuhaus argues that a candidate’s religion can and should still matter, and not because he or she is suspected of conflicting loyalties between church and state:
The question is not whether, as president, Mr. Romney would take orders from Salt Lake City. I doubt whether many people think he would. The questions are: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? The answer is almost certainly yes. Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is it legitimate for those Americans to take these questions into account in voting for a presidential nominee or candidate? The answer is certainly yes.
So according to Neuhaus, it doesn’t matter if Mitt emulates Kennedy by arranging some big speech or forum where he defangs his faith or, like JFK, describes it as “an accident of birth.” If you don’t like Mormonism, and don’t want to see it grow (and it certainly is growing–by some estimates, more than any religious denomination on earth), it’s fine to vote against Mitt Romney.
It will be interesting and important to see if Neuhaus’ advice gets picked up elsewhere on the Christian Right, where Romney is in a white-knuckle competition for support with Fred Thompson and perhaps Mike Huckabee. If it does, not only is Mitt in trouble, but the common assumption that a candidate’s religious affliliation doesn’t much matter any more will take a big and dangerous hit.
It’s safe to say that the character and relative importance of self-described independent voters is one of those topics that endlessly divide political junkies. You hear the wildest array of assertions about indies: they’re the Keys to the Kingdom; they’re irrelevant; they’re confused and conflicted; they’re sophisticated; they’re centrists; they’re a radical fringe; they actually behave just like partisans; they’re the nucleus of a potential third party; they vote; they don’t vote, and so on and so forth, world without end.
Sunday’s Washington Post featured a new survey on independents, done in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard, and it helps sort through the partial truths in many of these commonly heard descriptions. Pace Matt Yglesias, who dismissed the survey as uninteresting due to the bland generalities in the accompanying cover story, I think it’s rewarding once you drill down a bit.
You should read the whole, elaborate thing, but the great utility of this survey is its typology of independents, who are neatly divided into five “D’s”: Disengaged (24%), Disguised Partisans (24%), Deliberators (18%), Disillusioned (18%) and Dislocated (16%).
The first two categories are self-explanatory. Deliberators are the classic, true swing voters, likely to vote, open to persuasion, and fond of bipartisanship. The Disillusioned are angry at both parties, require persuasion or mobilization to vote, and are the best third-party bait. And the Dislocated are people with well-defined views that straddle party lines (typically social liberals and fiscal conservatives, though some are the opposite).
As a group, indies currently lean Democratic, and voted that way in 2006; they are most in line with Democrats in their disdain for the Iraq War and their interest in issues like health care (they are also significantly closer to Democrats than Republicans on every question dealing with national security). Demographically, they are fairly typical of voters at large, though they tend to be less religious. Unsurprisingly, they are more open to third-party candidacies than regular partisans, though they are not overwhelmingly vibrating at the idea of a Bloomberg presidential run.
In terms of the size of the independent sector, this poll shows 29% of adults identifying as indies, a bit lower than in most recent polls, but closer to the 27% of actual voters who identified that way in the 2006 exit polls. Since nearly half of the indies in the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey are either likely non-voters or are actually partisan, we’re talking about something on the order of 15% of the electorate that’s truly independent–not a giant segment, but potentially decisive nonetheless.
Though the Post analysis doesn’t get much into the implications of the survey for 2008, the typology suggests a Democratic strategy of attracting the Disillusioned with a strong “change” message; connecting with the Dislocated through sharp contrasts with Republican social conservatism while maintaining fiscal credibility; and winning Deliberators with superior policy ideas for solving big problems, if possible across party lines.
At present, there’s nothing at all about such a strategy that makes it difficult to reconcile with efforts needed to mobilize a highly motivated and partisan Democratic base. But as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira pointed out in their recent American Prospect piece on the Democratic coaliton (“Back To the Future”), there may be significant long-range tensions if Democrats regain power and begin to rub many indies the wrong way with their deployment of government power.
Overall, the survey casts a lot of light on some of the more outlandish claims about indies. They are not frauds or irrelevant, to be sure, but they are also not a centrist monolith that Democrats can win simply by moving to the right on this or that issue. As of this moment, it appears the main indie worry about Democrats is not that they are too dovish on national security, but that they are too reckless fiscally and too much a part of the misgoverning status quo. But by definition, independents are fluid politically, and bear a lot of watching in the months and years to come.
The best time for bridge-building being the weeks after a presidential election, now is not a good time to make nice toward Republicans. All good Dems should instead be creatively visualizing an ’08 landslide of historic proportions, after which we will know just how much opposition support is needed.
Nonetheless, a couple of impressively-credentialed Big Thinkers over at Foreign Policy, Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz, have an article “Grand Strategy for a Divided America” that merits a thoughtful read by Dems concerned with post-election strategy. They are especially-sharp on defining the ideological divisions between the parties. For example:
So exactly how big a fiasco has the immigration reform bill been for the Republican Party?
We already know that the saga has been a disaster for the GOPers who supported the “comprehensive” effort. Moreover, according to most of the right-wing accounts I’ve been reading, the Republican Party isn’t getting much credit for finally rejecting the bill in the Senate. “Amnesty” opponents are congratulating each other for bringing their leaders to heel, with at best patronizing glad-you-turned-out-to-be-gutless expressions of appreciation for the flip-floppers, and probably fantasies about future grassroots efforts to get the compassion out of conservatism.
But as a new USA Today/Gallup poll illustrates, the Bush-Rove strategy of using immigration reform to consolidate a Republican majority among Hispanic Americans is completely in ruins. Only 11 percent of Hispanics now identify as Republicans, as compared with 27 percent for the general public. With leaners assigned, the poll shows 58 percent of Hispanics as Democrats, 22 percent as independents, and 20 percent as Republicans (among all voters, the numbers with leaners assigned are 53 percent Democrats, 9 percent independents, and 37 percent Republicans). If, as Karl Rove long believed, Hispanics have become the key swing voter category for the future, they ain’t swinging right for the GOP.
In a nice illustration of the overall futility of the Bush-led immigration reform drive, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Non-Hispanic Whites have almost identical, and quite negative, feelings about “the government’s recent efforts to deal with illegal immigration in the U.S.”
On the other hand, and this could be important down the road, the USA Today-Gallup survey showed that overall hostility to levels of immigration is actually quite a bit lower today than in the 1993-95 period, and in the immediate wake of 9/11. But I don’t think this is going to matter a lot in 2008.
One other quick note: this poll illustrated Hillary Clinton’s very high popularity levels among Hispanics, providing one reason for her consistently robust poll numbers among Democrats generally despite the loss of a very big chunk of her original African-American support to Barack Obama. At present, she is supported by an impressive 59 percent of Hispanic Democrats, with Obama at 13 percent, fellow-Hispanic Bill Richardson at 11 percent, John Edwards at 7 percent, and the rest scattered over the remainder of the field.
When I said earlier that the “big news so far” for today was the rejection of the Senate’s immigration bill,” I hadn’t begun to digest the Supreme Court decision (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1) that overturned racially-conscious school assignment systems in Seattle and Louisville.
Four Justices (Roberts, who wrote the official Court decision, supported by Alito, Scalia and Roberts) leaped squarely to the radical position, long urged by conservative legal activists, that race-conscious state action in education is unconstitutional absent a direct relationship to efforts to dismantle state-sanctioned (i.e., de jure) school segregation. Four Justices (Breyer, Stevens, Ginsberg and Souter, with the first two writing dissents expressing not only disagreement but alarm) dissented. And the Court’s current arbiter, Justice Kennedy, agreed with the decision on factual grounds, while disagreeing explicitly with the Roberts position prohibiting race-conscious remedies.
Many millions of words are probably going to be written about this decision in months to come, so I won’t use that many. The Roberts position would essentially bring to a close the Brown v. Board of Education era of official efforts to promote racial integration in schools, except in those very limited cases where current racial school attendence patterns can be traced directly back to Jim Crow. Integration itself would have no favored status, and indeed, measures to achieve it would be deemed in violation of the Equal Protection Clause if race-conscious remedies were employed.
As in the big abortion decision in April (Carhart v. Gonzales), it’s clear that Justice Kennedy is the only obstacle–and a limited, perhaps even ineffective obstacle at that–to a conservative activist majority on the Court with potentially revolutionary goals. Justice John Paul Stevens, in his poignant dissent today, suggested that not a single member of the Court he joined in 1975 would have likely agreed with Roberts’ position, or even with the decision Kennedy enabled. And that Court, mind you, included William Renquist.
Why is this an issue of concern at The Democratic Strategist? It’s simple: the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court is going to be and ought to be a major issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, and perhaps well beyond it. It’s already an overriding issue on the Right. But while Republican politicians have long mastered a dog-whistle rhetoric designed to promise the social engineers of the Right the kind of Supreme Court they want without unduly worrying others–even Rudy Giuliani has learned to talk about “strict constructionist” judges–Democrats have only begun the task of dramatizing judicial and constitutional issues, other than in sidebar discussions with the pro-choice or civil rights activists who are already focused on them.
The Supreme Court is on the brink, and progressives need to push back on a broad front that mobilizes people far beyond the activist ranks.
Today’s big news so far is that the Senate decisively rejected a cloture motion on the immigration reform bill, ending the debate, in the Senate at least, until after the next general election.
The margin was pretty stunning: 46-53, or fourteen votes shy of the 60 necessary to cut off debate. And even though (annoyingly) the Post article linked to above suggested the bill was killed off by attacks “from the left and right,” it’s clearly GOP support that collapsed. Democrats (including their leader, Harry Reid) supported cloture 33-15, while Republicans (including their leader Mitch McConnell) opposed it 37-12; the two independent split, with Lieberman voting for cloture and Sanders against it. All the Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate (Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Obama) voted for cloture, along with 2004 nominee Kerry. With Sam Brownback, an earlier supporter of the “grand bargain,” voting “nay,” John McCain stands alone, more than ever, in the Republican presidential field.
Presumably, the House won’t volunteer to shut down its phone and email systems by taking up any immigration bill, now that it’s clear the Senate’s done for the time being. But the issue is obviously not going away. Even as they high-five each other for killing “the amnesty bill,” conservative pundits and activists are already talking about next steps towards an “enforcement first” policy (check out the ongoing discussion at National Review’s The Corner for details). And newly emboldened by their Senate victory, anti-immigration conservatives are not likely to be satisfied with fences or border control money or other such amelioratives. If not in the Senate or House, then in the right-wing blogs and on talk radio, we will soon see an effort to make mass arrests and deportations, along with big-time employer sanctions, a limus test for Republican candidates for president and for Congress in 2008.
What Democrats do about all this, other than standing back and watching the carnage, is an open and important question. The Senate bill certainly had obnoxious features (most notably the whole guest worker abomination) that legitimately led some Democrats to oppose it and to help, in a small way, to kill it off. But if the Right takes over this issue in the Republican Party against an increasingly marginalized George W. Bush (not to mention a politically doomed John McCain) and tries to draw the lines as pro- or anti-“amnesty,” Dems will need to explore their own “grand bargain” to provide mercy and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants along with a serious look at fixing the broken process for legal immigration.
Next time you hear somebody complain that they don’t know what Democrats stand for, refer them to the cloture vote on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), in essence a vote for or against stronger trade unions in America.
In the wake of GOP Senator Richard Lugar’s call for an end to the troop ‘surge’ in Iraq, a CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted 6/22-24 reports that 38 percent of Republicans now say they oppose the war and 42 percent support withdrawing at least some troops.
The 2017 elections have cast some new light on the 2018 midterms, and I did a reassessment at New York.
Just under a year before the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic prospects for gaining the 24 net seats they need to take control of the U.S. House of Representative are getting stronger. Aside from a number of long-in-advance indicators like presidential approval ratings and the congressional generic ballot, the 2017 election returns, capped by high-profile Democratic wins in Virginia and elsewhere on November 7, have provided objective evidence that Democrats are regularly exceeding expectations based on past performance (if not always meeting last-minute expectations of big wins). But you win elections in particular places and one at a time, and at the level of individual races, Republicans retain a lot of advantages that could keep them in control of the House even if they lose the national popular vote.
Republicans also have a lot of exposure, having made a net gain of 68 House seats in the last three elections. This can matter even more than presidential approval ratings: In 2010, Obama’s pre-midterm approval rating was 45 percent, but his party — engorged by big House performances in 2006 and 2008 — lost 63 seats. Four years later, Obama’s approval ratings were sharply lower, at 40 percent, but his party only lost 13 net House seats.
The big-picture factors favoring Democrats are clear. The party controlling the White House almost always loses House seats in midterms; the two exceptions in recorded history occurred in years in which the presidents in question were enjoying very high approval ratings (Clinton at 66 percent in 1998 and George W. Bush at 63 percent in 2002). Since 1946, the average midterm House losses for presidents with approval ratings under 50 percent has been 36 seats. President Trump’s approval ratings (using the RealClearPolitics polling averages as a benchmark) have never topped 50 percent, and have mostly bounced around the low side of 40 percent since the spring.
The other big indicator for House races is the generic congressional ballot: a polling question that simply measures partisan voting intentions for upcoming congressional elections. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten, the final generic ballot before midterm elections is on average as accurate as final presidential polls, hitting within 2 percent of the actual national House popular vote. The generic ballot can, of course, change significantly during the final year of a midterm cycle; at this point in 2009, for example, a CNN survey gave Democrats a six-point advantage in the generic ballot; the final RealClearPolitics average just before the 2010 midterms favored Republicans by 9.4 percent. But such big movements tend to occur in synch with presidential approval ratings, and beyond that, the usual trend is away from the president’s party, as in 2010.
The current RealClearPolitics generic ballot average gives Democrats a 10.2 percent advantage. The gap has been slowly increasing throughout 2017; six months ago it was at 5.8 percent.
Special (and regular off-year) elections in 2017 have shown a similar Democratic advantage. In an analysis of 38 such contests (mostly for state legislative seats), Daniel Donner found a clear trend:
“Out of all the special elections with typical Democrat vs. Republican dynamics, Democrats have overperformed the 2016 presidential margin by more than 10 points in 25 of them. Republicans have overperformed by more than 10 points in just four — but one of those was actually a Democratic flip! On average, Democrats are doing about 13 points better than Hillary Clinton.”
The Virginia results in November were equally impressive, with gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam winning by the largest margin of any Democrat since 1985. And the Donkey Party’s shocking Virginia state legislative gains, heavily concentrated in suburban communities, showed that the disdain for Donald Trump among college-educated white voters was rubbing off on down-ballot Republicans.
Still, all these positive indicators for Democrats don’t translate proportionately to gained House seats, even if they persist in 2018. The generic ballot, for example, simply predicts the national House popular vote, not seats gained, and it’s not at all clear how big a margin in the popular vote Democrats will need in 2018 to win back the House. Harry Enten explained the problem back in February:
“[I]f Democrats win the national House vote by a margin in the low- to mid-single digits, that may not be enough to take back the House. The median congressional district was 5.5 percentage points more Republican-leaning in the presidential race than the nation as a whole in 2016, meaning Democrats are essentially spotting the GOP 5.5 points in the battle for control of the House. And even that may be underestimating Republicans ability to win a majority of seats without a majority of the vote. Since 2012 (or when most states instituted the current House district lines), Republicans have won, on average, 51 percent of the two-party House vote and 55 percent of House seats. If that difference holds for 2018, Democrats would need to win the House popular vote by about 8 percentage points to win half the House seats.”
Incumbency and redistricting are the big institutional reasons the GOP upholds its House majority, despite likely Democratic margins in the overall popular vote. But as the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter notes, those advantages may be eroding as the party and its president grow less popular:
“In the most recent October survey, [NBC News] found that Republicans had a six-point advantage in GOP-held seats (R+6), while Democrats had a 29 point advantage in seats they hold (D+29). What’s significant—or what NBC/Wall Street Journal pollster Bill McInturff called a “flashing yellow light,” was that the GOP advantage in seats they already hold dropped eight points from September to October—from R+14 to R+5. It also stands in stark contrast to the average generic advantage Republicans had in seats they held in the most recent mid-term elections (R+15 in 2010 and R+18 in 2014).”
The pace of House Republican retirements has picked up recently as well, and with incumbency worth an estimated seven points as compared to similar races with non-incumbents, that could be a really big deal. But most of the 29 announced GOP retirements are for Members in non-competitive districts. According to Cook Political Report, there are at present just six competitive House seats being vacated by retiring Republicans, along with three such Democratic seats. A few more, particularly in the 23 certified Trump-resistant districts carried by Hillary Clinton last year, could make a big difference. Another factor that could erode the usual advantages of incumbency is the unusually large number of Democratic challengers who are raising serious early money….
In 2010, the last wave election, the Cook Political Report showed the competitive districts literally doubling between November 2009 and November 2010, with the number of vulnerable Democratic seats jumping from 37 to 91. One thing to watch right in the very near future is whether House Republicans pass a tax bill that kills the state and local tax deduction — hammering upper-middle-class itemizers in California, New Jersey, and New York — and how many of the nine vulnerable GOP incumbents from those states vote for it. As the actual midterm election year approaches over the holidays, it could be a perilous time for House Republicans.
In the end, control of the House would be of great value to Democrats, given the majority’s power in that chamber to control what comes to the floor and what gets attention. It would signal a formal end to the GOP’s window of opportunity in enjoying a federal government “trifecta.” But even if Democrats simply make significant gains short of a majority, shrinking the GOP margin could have a major practical effect. As we’ve seen in the Senate this year, the Republican Party is not unified enough to pass legislation with much of a margin for error.