With one major element of the original Bush-Rove “compassionate conservatism” agenda under withering fire from the Right, how are conservatives feeling about the other big “compassion” item, No Child Left Behind? Not well, according to a piece in today’s Washington Post, whose subheadline is: “Conservatives Givng Vent to Doubts; Support for Opt-Out Proposals Grows.”
NCLB is up for reauthorization in Congress this year, and the initial debate offers a reminder that the education initiative in some ways involved compromises as complex and treacherous as those of the immigration bill. Originally cribbed from a Democratic proposal, NCLB basically constituted a grand bargain whereby states and school districts would obtain new federal money in exchange for a commitment to achieve tangible improvements in educational outcomes for disadvantaged students. The administration got conservatives on board by including federal support for private-school vouchers (dropped, predictably, during congressional negotiations to prevent wholescale Democratic defections), and also by giving states considerable leeway in setting their own goals (thus avoiding that conservative no-no, national educational standards).
Now conservatives want their voucher bauble back during reconsideration of NCLB (now more than ever a deal-killer for Democrats), and many are getting behind the op-out proposal, which would crucially undermine NCLB’s character as a national reform effort by letting states bail from the program’s key federal mandates.
None of this should be surprising in an atmosphere where many on the Right have convinced themselves that Bush’s and the GOP’s many problems are attributable to an abandonment of the True Cause. When it comes to education policy, many conservatives are probably looking back fondly to the Clinton era, when Republicans fantasized about abolishing the Department of Education and fought tooth and nail against anything that looked like national standards. And it’s worth noting that NCLB, like immigration reform, was the product of direct negotiations with Ted Kennedy, who retains an outsized position in conservative demonology.
So as the debate over NCLB gains steam later this summer, don’t be surprised if the Right attacks the initiative frontally, perhaps echoed by one or more of the major 2008 GOP presidential candidates. Among conservatives these days, the market for “compassion” has turned ferociously bearish.
The latest developent in the long, painful saga of the Senate’s consideration of immigration legislation is the decision by Republican backers of the bill (presumably with White House support and at least grudging acceptance from some Democrats) to sponsor an amendment expanding the “touchback” requirement for illegal immigrants who want a “guest worker” visa. In the original “grand bargain,” illegals would only have to go home to their country of origin when their visa expired, or in order to apply for permanent legal status (i.e., to get on the “path to citizenship”). Under the amendment, they’d have to go home to apply for the guest worker visa.
This so-called “touchback” provision, dumb as it is (it virtually guarantees a low rate of compliance), is intended to scratch the conservative itch that I described yesterday as representing a neurotic legalism. In effect, it would demonstrate that the U.S. could deport all illegal immigrants (which is what large elements of the Right really want) if it chose to do so. More to the point, the amendment is yet another bone tossed to conservative Senators who are beginning to line up against the whole enterprise. With key procedural votes set for today and Thursday, that’s become a monomaniacal preccuption for the bill’s sponsors.
Obscured by all these placate-the-nativists maneuvers is the growing unhappiness of Democrats with where the bill seems headed. As the New York Timesnoted today, the labor movement is already split on the legislation, with the AFL-CIO formally opposing it, while three big unions in the Change to Win coalition (SEIU, UNITE HERE, and the farm workers) are backing it.
More broadly, Democrats are restless about the implications of voting for an increasingly bad bill “to keep the process going,” counting on the House to pass something more acceptable. Nose-holding votes of this sort are standard fare in Washington, but so too is the fear that if the whole process breaks down at some point, Democratic Senators will be saddled with support for a legislative product that no one much likes.
If, of course, the “touchback” amendment and other concessions to the Right fail, and the whole unseemly “bargain” unravels, Democrats can and should gleefully hold Republicans accountable for the failure; the House could still proceed with something more sensible, though it would be largely symbolic. But if the Senate bill somehow survives this week, the “touchback” amendment may start to resemble a “turnover” of immigration reform to those conservatives who really want nothing more than to roll back immigration generally.
The second in the Washington Post’s four-part series on Dick Cheney was published today, and it continues the story of Cheney’s behind-the-scenes control of administration policy on treatment of terrorism suspects. The story-line is pretty simple: Cheney, through his top legal advisor, David Addington, consistently and successfully pushed the administration into a position of minimum observence of domestic and international laws providing due process for suspects and prohibiting torture, and maximum assertion of a quasi-imperial concept of the president’s national security powers. Aside from its exposure of Cheney’s ability to overcome objections to these policies from the State and Justice Departments (and from the National Security Council), the series is also depicting then-White House counsel and now Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as a weak and often clueless accomplice for Cheney’s designs.
A subtext of the story is that Cheney’s policies have produced a major backlash in Congress, the courts, and among U.S. allies, unraveling some of the more outlandish administration positions. After outlining this backlash, the Post story reaches this sobering conclusion:
[A] more careful look at the results suggests that Cheney won far more than he lost. Many of the harsh measures he championed, and some of the broadest principles undergirding them, have survived intact but out of public view.
That may well be true, but one Cheney victory is right out there in public view: His contribution to the remarkable lurch towards authoritarianism in the Republican Party. The signs are all around, most notably in the glaring contradiction between GOP contempt for the rule of law in the fight against jihadist terrorism, and the hyper-legalism of the emerging conservative position on immigration reform, which focuses obsessively on the alleged outrage of tolerating violation of immigration laws.
Authoritarianism–the belief that those who make the laws, and no one else, can break the laws–is the only ideology that can square that particular circle. And to the extent that the GOP presidential field continues to make advocacy of torture and preemptive war, and opposition to “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, its dual litmus test–let’s call it the Cheney-Tancredo Doctrine–we are witnessing a truly dangerous trend in one of America’s two major parties.
Every now and then someone conducts a poll testing Americans’ knowledge of current events, civics and history, and adjudges the U.S. a nation of ignoramuses. So I wasn’t surprised when Newsweek rolled out one last week, with the snooty title of “Dunce Cap Nation.”
It is indeed discouraging to learn that 40 percent of Americans still think Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. But the number that jumped out at me was this: 59 percent of resondents to the Princeton Survey Research Associates poll successfully identified Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. This finding compares well with the 18 percent who named the latest winner of American Idol (though Pelosi did benefit from a multi-choice offering). Thus Newsweek lost the opportunity to follow up its numbingly predictable headline with the predictable analysis that Americans are spending too much time watching junk TV instead of CSPAN.
Pelosi’s relatively high name ID is undoubtedly attributable to the publicity surrounding her status as the first female Speaker. So even if Americans don’t know much about history, they do seem to notice when they are living through it, unless the subject is Saddam Hussein and 9/11.
Mike Connery has some good news for Dems in his MyDD report on “Capturing the Rural Vote.” Connery Highlights some data the Youth Voter Strategies newsletter culled from crosstabs in a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey, conducted 5/31-6/5. Connery reports that the 18-29 age group of rural youth who voted for Bush over Kerry by a 20 point margin in 2004 now self-identifies 46 percent Republican 43 percent Democratic and and 11 percent independent.
When asked to pick between generic Republican and Democratic presidential candidates for 2008, 48% chose the Democrat and 40% the Republican.
Of course, there is a cautionary flag:
Conversely, when asked to choose between unnamed Republican and Democratic presidential candidates as described by two issues/values statements, 53% chose the Republican and 46% the Democrat.
Natch, the GOP will play the ‘values’ card big time in rural communities in battleground states. Fortunately, the same survey also shows that Iraq is the paramount issue with young rural voters, likely to be an even greater concern this time next year. For a more in-depth look at youth political attitudes, Connery also flags an important New Politics Institute study “The Progressive Politics of the Millenial Generation” by Peter Leyden, Ruy Teixeira and Eric Greenberg.
The big MSM story this weekend was the Washington Post’s first entry in a four-part profile of Dick Cheney’s role in the Bush administration.
The installment focuses on Cheney’s early, successful efforts to short-circuit every established policy-making procedure to force through vast enhancements of executive power after 9/11. Ironically, Cheney subverted the executive branch itself by weaving his way around and over the State and Defense Departments, and the National Security Council, to get George W. Bush to rubber-stamp “anti-terrorism” powers he didn’t himself seek.
None of this is particulary suprising. But the Post’s series matters a lot because it spotlights a new authoritarian strain in the Republican Party and the conservative movement that is not an ephemeral reaction to 9/11 or a peculiarity of an administration with an especially weak president. If you pay attention to what the leading candidates for the Republican nomination for president in 2008 are saying about executive powers and anti-terrorism methods, Cheneyism will survive its author and its presidential enabler if the GOP hangs onto the Whie House. And that ought to be a campaign issue for Democrats.
Is all the time, expense and energy that goes into early political horse race polls and poll analysis justified? Maybe not, if Robin Toner’s article in today’s New York Times is right. Toner pulls together interesting examples and observations from political insiders to make her case. Mark Blumenthal’s Pollster.com article “The Merits of the Horse Race” agrees with Toner that early polls have little value in predicting election outcomes. But he sees value in monitoring polls to assess campaign progress and in polls in early primary states. Blumenthal has a round-up review of recent articles on the relevance of early horse-race polls here.
It’s obviously been a busy week at TDS; aside from the site’s “re-launch,” all three of our co-editors have been active as well. I discussed Ruy Teixeira’s revisitation (with John Judis) of the Emerging Democratic Majority hypothesis earlier this week, and later I’ll talk about Bill Galston’s new piece at Democracy. But today I’d like to direct your attention to Stan Greenberg’s segment of The American Prospect’s new cover package, about the stronger-than-ever imperative that progressive embrace change and reform in the operations of government.
Greenberg’s argument is straightforward: the very incompetence and corruption that led to the Democratic conquest of Congress and the devastation of conservatism’s credibility has also undermined the public confidence in government that is essential to the future success of a progressive agenda. Add in the fiscal constraints created by the Bush tax cuts and it’s obvious Bush and company have left a toxic legacy for those who would seek to use government to meet the big national challenges facing America.
It’s not that Americans don’t want a more active government. As Greenberg notes:
People want government to get serious about addressing the challenges we face as a country. Huge majorities want the government to be more involved in a range of issues including national security, health care, energy, and the environment. To tackle global warming, two-thirds of Americans support stronger regulation of business. When it comes to health care, the results are dramatic. By a two-to-one margin, people opt for a universal health care system rather than separate reforms dealing with problems one at a time…. Americans are rightfully angry and impatient with a government they see as having achieved almost nothing for them in years.
From Iraq to New Orleans to the corruption and influence-peddling in Washington, Republicans have deeply damaged their own reputation for honesty and competence. But they have succeeded in spreading the damage to public faith in what Greenberg calls “Americans’ sense of collective capacity:”
The results of a February study we conducted for Democracy Corps that assessed people’s attitudes toward government stunned us. By 57 percent to 29 percent, Americans believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life instead of helping people. Sixty-two percent in a Pew study said they believe elected officials don’t care what people like them think, and the same number believe that whenever something is run by the government it is probably inefficient and wasteful. The Democracy Corps study found that an emphatic 83 percent say that if the government had more money, it would waste it rather than spend it well. The government receives a job approval rating of more than 50 percent on only one issue — national security. On nearly every other issue, a majority of Americans disapprove of government’s performance.
Given this atmosphere of deep distrust in government, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the job approval ratings of the new Democratic-controlled Congress have quickly sunk to levels as poor as those of George W. Bush.
What can Democrats do about all this? Greenberg suggests that we take a page from the early Bill Clinton playbook and once again make government accountability and reform a major counterpart to public-sector activism in the progressive agenda.
To have any chance of getting heard on their agenda, Democrats need to stand up and take on the government — not its size or scope, but its failure to be accountable — and deliver the results that people expect for the tax they pay.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement earlier this week that he was changing his voter registration from “Republican” to “Undeclared” has revived simmering speculation that he may run for president in 2008 as an independent. And the New York and Washington media are eating it all up.
The questions about Bloomberg generally revolve around “Will He or Won’t He?” (a subject he seems to be fanning with calculated ambiguity), and “If He Does, Who Gets Hurt?” (Pew says Republicans; the New York Post, quoting anonymous GOP operatives, says Democrats; a batch of SurveyUSA state polls say it depends on the field).
To show how rapidly the Mike-o-Mania is spreading in the Big Apple, there’s actually a New York Observerarticle out today rating various prominent politicians as potential Bloomberg running-mates (including, to my amusement, my old boss Sam Nunn, who is more likely to enter the 2008 Olympics as a sprinter).
New York media provincialism aside, the legitimate reasons for this buzz include the much-discussed public disdain for Washington partisanship and gridlock; the exceptionally high “wrong track” numbers in every poll; the persistently high percentage of Americans self-identifying as Independents; the likelihood of a close two-party presidential race where a third force could tip the balance; and Bloomberg’s vast personal wealth, which he has certainly used generously in his New York political career (he spent upwards of $160 million of his own money in his two mayoral races, and spent untold millions more in pre- and post-election contributions to a variety of politically significant organizations and causes).
If the Bloomberg speculation continues, it may be a good idea for TDS to dust off and freshen up the existing research on third-party presidential candidacies. Our own co-editor, Stan Greenberg, after all, did the best research on Perot voters back in the early 1990s, in conjunction with the DLC.
But it’s not wise to assume that a Bloomberg candidacy in 2008 would necessarily follow the Perot model. Over at The New Republic’s site today, John Judis suggests the more likely model is John Anderson’s 1980 campaign, which started as a resolutely centrist enterprise and turned sharply left before the end, almost certainly taking more votes from Jimmy Carter than from Ronald Reagan. Judis is concerned about Bloomberg’s potential appeal to independents on whom Democrats increasingly rely for majorities, especially given Mike’s cultural liberalism (see yesterday’s post here about the revised Judis/Teixeira hypothesis on the Democratic coalition). And having done a post myself over at TPMCafe yesterday saying negative things about Bloomberg’s record, unleashing a surprisingly passionate number of comments defending him on that left-bent site, I wonder if some Democrats might be tempted to go third-party under the right circumstances. (Indeed, TPMCafe regular M.J. Rosenberg, whose main preoccupation is criticizing neocons and AIPAC, did a post entitled: “I Could Vote For Bloomberg.”)
George W. Bush has used his veto pen exactly three times. Once, of course, was to veto the supplemental approrpriations bill that would have imposed a withdrawal timetable for troops in Iraq. And the other two vetoes, one just yesterday, were aimed at legislation relaxing his administration’s restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
On both topics, Bush is swimming against a heavy tide of public opinion. Virtually any way the question is asked, Americans now oppose Bush’s Iraq strategy by a two-to-one margin. Support for stem cell research has risen from 58 percent to 68 percent during the Bush presidency, with half of Republicans supporting it. Fully 60 percent of Americans support federal funding of such research. State stem cell funding initiatives–most famously, California’s–are spreading.
Moreover, on both Iraq and stem cell research, Bush has struggled to articulate a coherent rationale for his position. In the case of Iraq, his “stay the course” rhetoric is jarringly out of synch with media coverage of events on the ground, not to mention Iraqi public opinion and the behavior of Iraqi leaders, as amplified by the vast number of leaks from U.S. military leaders despairing of success. On stem cell research, Bush’s claims that existing stem cell “‘colonies” provide sufficient material for research has been roundly refuted by scientists. On an even more fundamental level, his argument that research “destroys human life” flies in the face of the simple fact that the embyros in question are scheduled for destruction anyway. (I’d love to know if anyone in the administration has considered trying to follow Italy’s lead in restricting embryo generation at IV fertility clinics, which would at least be logical, if politically explosive).
And now, with an override of Bush’s stem cell veto almost certain to fail (in the House, if not in the Senate as well), Congressional Democrats are reportedly toying with the idea of attaching an appropriations rider authorizing research funding, which would make both of the big issues where Bush is defying public opinion subject to the ever-murky appropriations process. And in that legislative swamp, the theorectical power of Congress to impose its will on a president by denying money for objectionable policies contends with the practical ability of the president to force a showdown on his own terms (viz. the 1995 budget standoff between Clinton and Gingrich).
I won’t wade into the fractious debate about the Iraq supplemental, which many Democrats, particularly in the netroots, regard as an example of craven surrender to Bush on an issue where public opinion might support a tougher stance. (That debate, however, is likely to be reignited, at least in the blogosphere, by Sen. Carl Levin’s Washington Postop-ed today defending his vote for the supplemental, citing Abraham Lincoln, no less).
But more broadly, both the Iraq and stem cell issues illustrate that even a weak, lame-duck president has siginificant ability to block change, if not to initiate change, in public policies, even if they are very unpopular, particularly if the opposition party is divided on how to overcome his bull-headedness. The damage inflicted on this country by the Bush presidency is likely to continue right up to the next Inauguration Day.
On the stem cell research issue, the impasse in Congress does potentially make this a significant 2008 campaign issue, and a winning one for Democrats. If anyone other than Rudy Giuliani or John McCain is the GOP presidential nominee (both have opposed Bush’s funding ban), it will be an issue in that campaign.
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.