It’s become a commonplace observation to note that the 2008 presidential race, particularly on the Democratic side, is already achieving an unusually frantic pace. And perhaps the best evidence of that hypothesis is the fact that each of the Big Three Democratic candidates, Clinton, Obama and Edwards, has already been described, by the Conventional Wisdom of the Washington chattering classes and key elements of the blogosphere, as undergoing a potentially fatal “swoon.”HRC was the first to be thusly described, especially when Barack Obama entered the race and predictably started building support among the African-American voters who had previously tilted heavily to Clinton, erasing much of her early, big lead in the polls. The fact that this trend coincided with a MSM and blogospheric obsession with her refusal to apologize about her vote for the Iraq War resolution, compounded by her lukewarm appeal to independent voters, led some smart people to predict her early demise.Just a few weeks ago, of course, John Edwards had to put up, however briefly, with reports that he was actually about to drop out of the race, and/or would be capsized by public concerns about his wife’s health, and/or couldn’t raise any money.And now Barack Obama is suffering from a bit of a drop in support in the polls, explained by many as the result of his refusal to get specific on policy ideas, and/or to give Democratic audiences the red meat they expect. As a new and relatively balanced New Republic article by Noam Scheiber reflects, the emerging CW is that Obama’s buzz factor is fading (just as many Obama-skeptics in the punditocracy had long predicted), leaving him in a downward trajectory unless he changes course.Taking all these “trends” together, the lesson is that you shouldn’t pay much attention to the early CW on any of these three candidates. The best bet is that the Big Three are all viable and tightly bunched, which is mainly bad news for the Little Three (Richardson, Dodd and Biden) who need some oxygen to get taken seriously by the media, the activists, and the money folk.What’s more interesting to me is the extent to which the Big Three have taken varying courses in laying out a rationale for their candidacy.When you boil it all down, our last two presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, were rich in policy proposals and Shrumian “fighting” rhetoric, but largely bereft of any overarching message (Gore, to be more precise, had several messages, but couldn’t settle on one for any length of time).Nobody needs Bob Shrum any more to convey an intention to “fight” Republicans. Obama is all message (the same message of beyond-polarization and reform that John Kerry rejected and Wesley Clark botched in 2004), and part of his early appeal is that he scratches a long-standing itch among message-starved Democratic and independent voters. It also enables him to simultaneously run to the left and right of his main rivals.HRC, so far, stands in the Gore-Kerry all-policy, no-message tradition, assuming that “I’m in it to win!” is a short-term, tactical slogan designed to deal with doubts about her electability.Edwards is the one candidate so far to put together both a clear message (an updated version of his “Two Americas” theme from 2004) and a lot of policy detail. But I strongly suspect that Obama and Clinton will soon catch up on that front, and then we’ll begin to see some real and congruent competition. The other thing that’s likely to happen is that George W. Bush will find a way to make moot the current tactical arguments among the Democratic presidential candidates over Iraq, which will make their opinions on other topics more visible and politically relevant.Each of the Big Three has a distinctive set of strategic issues to navigate.HRC is clearly the least vulnerable to mood swings, media narratives, or gaffes; she’s already suffered the most important setback, the loss of her overwhelming African-American support. She’ll be fine if none of her rivals, Big or Little, catch fire.Obama needs to overcome the current negative buzz about his campaign; continue, through heavy and broad-based fundraising and competitive poll numbers, to solidify his status as a national candidate who doesn’t have to win early; and unfold a policy agenda that satisfies the critics without pigeon-holing him ideologically.And Edwards, aside from getting past the rumors about the impact of his wife’s health on his candidacy, needs to continue his interesting tandem strategy of becoming the preferred choice of the activist Left, while maintaining his appeal as a regional Southern candidate, which could be very important after New Hampshire. So far, he seems to be pulling it off, as evidenced by his recently unveiled and impressive endorsement list in South Carolina (no, endorsements aren’t all that important in themselves, but in this case they do show he hasn’t in any way become toxic in his home region. He should say a prayer every night in thanks for Mark Warner’s noncandidacy). Unlike HRC and Obama, Edwards really does need to win or at worst finish a strong second in Iowa, but if he does, he could be in very good shape.This post does obviously reflect the CW in focusing on the Big Three, as opposed to Richardson, Dodd and Biden. But in this case, the CW may well be accurate, given the front-loaded caucus and primary schedule, the strength of the Big Three in the early states, the Little Three’s money disadvantage, and the absence of any issue on which the Little Three–with the possible exception of Biden’s relative hawkishness, which doesn’t look like a winner among Democratic voters in 2008–could distinguish themselves.The most likely dark horse is Bill Richardson. The good news for Richardson is that all the rumors over the decades about his alleged “zipper problem” are probably just bunk; we’d have almost certainly learned otherwise by now if it were otherwise. The bad news for Richardson is that he almost has to win in Nevada to have a prayer, and even then, he’s not well-positioned to win in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.So: get used to the idea that the Democratic nominee will likely be named (to list them alphabetically) Barack, Hillary or John, and that you can ignore a lot of the daily buzz about the Big Three until people start voting, which will be soon enough.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
May 31: Debt Default Crisis May Soon Give Way to a Government Shutdown Crisis
In reviewing the Biden-McCarthy debt limit deal, it became apparent to me that a lot of disputes were delayed more than resolved, as I pointed out at New York. Don’t get too comfortable just yet.
Since the federal government will be unable to meet its debt-servicing obligations as early as June 5, per Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the political world is understandably focused on Congress ratifying the debt-limit deal reached between negotiators representing President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Despite the deep desire of many members of Congress in both parties to vote against this deal, it will likely be enacted after some significant yelling and screaming. But it’s important to understand that the deal is by no means self-implementing. Its crucial agreements on federal spending have to be enacted via the entirely separate congressional appropriations process. To a considerable extent the dealmakers have simply kicked the can down the road until autumn when actual funding decisions are made.
Moreover, the provisions of the deal that constrain the appropriations process reflect a House Republican obsession that didn’t get a lot of attention during the debt-limit negotiations: demands for a return to so-called “regular order,” in which the federal government is funded by 14 distinct appropriations bills. The last time Congress actually completed all of these appropriations bills was in 1996; more typically, big chunks of federal spending are appropriated through catchall “continuing resolutions” or “omnibus appropriations bills” that (according to conservatives) protect liberal spending priorities and associated policies. But it’s supposed to happen prior to the September 30 end of the current fiscal year when FY 2023 appropriations expire.
There will probably be plenty of partisan fighting over the contents of these appropriations bills. The debt-limit deal specifies some of them (e.g., funding levels for defense and veterans’ benefits backed by both parties). But others will be worked out in the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, on the House and Senate floor, and ultimately through House-Senate conferences and potential veto battles with the White House. If any of these appropriations aren’t settled by October 1 and aren’t addressed in stopgap spending deals (which, again, House Republicans tend to oppose as a matter of principle), the portions of the federal government affected will be shut down. And in the details of the debt-limit-deal legislation is a final, powerful inducement to regular appropriations: At the end of the calendar year, any appropriations contained in a stopgap spending bill will automatically be cut by one percent (via the “sequestration” process employed to enforce the spending caps enacted during the previous big debt-default agreements in 2011 and 2013) above and beyond any cuts already enacted.
This means it will be impossible under the debt-limit deal to paper over partisan and House-Senate differences on spending levels for individual federal programs by just tossing them into a stopgap spending bill that ultimately gets extended until the end of the fiscal year, after which the whole process begins again. So the odds of at least partial government shutdowns beginning in October and extending to the end of December are very high. Moreover, if Congress cannot somehow regain the ability to enact 14 appropriations bills for the first time this century, the cuts in appropriated programs will go deeper than previously expected via the mindless across-the-board cuts inflicted by sequestration.
We have learned during the prior 21 federal-government shutdowns that these interruptions in the normal functioning of agencies are deeply annoying but tolerable, especially compared with a debt default that could throw the national and global economies into recession. And the cuts we will ultimately see in nondefense programs that aren’t specifically protected in the debt-limit deal will be preferable to a debt default triggering a recession that forces even deeper funding cuts by increasing future debt-service requirements and reducing revenues. All in all, the debt-limit deal could have been worse, and the alternatives could have been disastrous.
But let’s not pretend the deal has resolved anything other than avoiding a default; the one big fight over the debt limit will give way to a thousand battles over appropriations. And don’t forget: The even bigger act of kicking the can down the road reflected in the debt-limit deal is the understanding that spending levels beyond FY 2025 will be determined by the results of the 2024 elections. If either party wins a trifecta, it could be in a position (subject to the Senate filibuster) to impose its spending priorities on the minority party. If, as is more likely, divided government continues beyond the next election, the sort of interminable battles over the size and shape of the federal government that produced the current debt crisis and the imminent government-shutdown crisis will continue for the foreseeable future. American voters really do owe it to their country to give somebody effective control of Washington next year. Otherwise, the shadow show of agreements now to disagree later could become the annual game in Washington.