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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Democratic Strategist

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Obama’s Remaining Challenge

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
The emerging conventional wisdom among many Democrats takes the form of two equations: 2012 = 2004, and Bain = Swift Boats. There’s also a supporting narrative: The negative campaign against John Kerry fatally weakened his candidacy, securing the victory of an incumbent who could not have won based on his own record. And so, the idea goes, a president whose performance the public doesn’t much like can power his way to a narrow, less than pretty win by eviscerating his challenger.
But the evidence in favor of all of these propositions is remarkably thin. The basic structure of the 2004 campaign differed fundamentally from the one we’re now enduring. The available evidence suggests that even in the short-term, the attacks on Romney have been measurably less successful than were those on Kerry. And Obama’s supporters seem to have forgotten that the reason Bush prevailed was because enough Americans ended up approving of his record and leadership in the areas they cared about the most.
In 2012, there is a single dominant issue–the economy. The people are trying to decide whether Obama has managed our economic challenges well enough to deserve another four years and, if not, whether Romney’s economic experience and plans make him an acceptable alternative.
In 2004, by contrast, there was no single dominant issue. An NBC/WSJ survey published a few days before the election found 24 percent naming terrorism as the single most important issue, followed closely by the economy (22 percent), the war in Iraq (also 22), and social issues and values (17). A CBS/NYT survey conducted not long after the election asked the respondents to name the one single consideration that had mattered the most as they cast their votes. The answers were all over the map. At the top was George W. Bush himself, with 13 percent, following by war (12 percent), Iraq (11), the economy and jobs (9), terrorism (8), and moral values (6).
Indeed, the 2004 election featured a struggle to define the agenda. Democrats focused on the economy and health care, while Republicans emphasized terrorism and values. In mid-September the public was split down the middle, 44-44, on the relative importance of these two baskets of issues. The people saw Bush as significantly more able to handle the former, and Kerry the latter. So the fact that by the eve of the election fully 50 percent had come to see the issues where Bush was strong as more important contributed to the late surge that put him over the top. 52 percent of the people thought that Bush would do a better job dealing with terrorism and homeland security, versus 29 percent for Kerry; they preferred Bush on Iraq, 50 to 37; on moral values, by 47 to 29. Kerry led 48 to 32 on jobs and unemployment and by an even wider margin of 51 to 28 on health care, but by election day those issues didn’t top the concerns of enough voters.
But what about the notorious “Swift-boating” of the decorated Vietnam veteran who headed the Democratic ticket? Most surveys suggest that it did drive down Kerry’s support in August of 2004. The RealClearPolitics survey average showed a decline from 48 percent at the beginning of the month to 45 percent at the end. But according to a detailed Pew report released in mid-September, the effects of that attack waned significantly in the two weeks after Labor Day. Kerry continued his gradual climb throughout the remainder of the campaign, finishing with a share of the popular vote slightly higher than his early August peak in the polls. Moreover, many of the negative impressions of Kerry were long-standing, not the product of the Republicans’ summer assault. For example, as early as mid-March Bush led Kerry by 52 to 34 percent as a strong leader and by 63 to 27 percent in his perceived willingness to take and maintain an unpopular stance. According to CBS/NYT survey released on the eve of the election, 60 percent of respondents felt that Kerry said what he thought people wanted to hear rather than what he really believed. But that can’t be attributed to the mid-summer Republican attacks, because 61 percent felt that way as early as April and never changed their minds. (By contrast, 60 percent felt that Bush said what they believed–again, an impression they formed early on and never revised.)
Because the Republican assault on Kerry focused so heavily on his service in Vietnam and subsequent anti-war activities, one might have expected it to undermine the public’s confidence in his ability to serve as commander-in-chief. But the evidence suggests that just the reverse occurred during the course of the campaign. In May, only 34 percent expressed confidence in Kerry as a potential commander-in-chief, while 61 percent expressed reservations ranging from moderate to intense. But Kerry’s stature grew steadily, even during the summer-long attack on his military record. By mid-October, the share of the electorate who felt confident in him had grown to 44 percent while the share with worries fell by 13 points, to 48 percent.
The real story of the 2004 isn’t that attacks disqualified Kerry as a potential president–they didn’t–but rather that in the two months from Labor Day until the election, the incumbent persuaded just enough people that his record warranted reelection. (His unwavering support of the war in Iraq temporarily halted the erosion of public support for his decision, despite its unexpectedly difficult aftermath.) During that period, the right track/wrong track numbers moved up, and the public’s assessment of Bush’s record on foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the economy all improved. On the eve of the election, his overall job approval averaged about 50 percent, up from less than 48 percent in mid-summer and closely predicting the 50.7 percent share of the popular vote that he received.
Obama now faces a similar task. In the fourteenth quarter of his presidency, which ended July 19, his job approval averaged 46.8 percent–a bit higher than Gerald Ford’s 46.0 percent in mid-1976, but more than a percentage point lower than Bush’s 47.9 percent. While inductive generalizations are not necessary truths, the fact remains that no incumbent has ever been reelected with a job approval below 50 percent. The most recent CBS/NYT survey illuminates the challenge Obama confronts. Not only is his job approval down to the levels of last fall and winter, before four months of good economic news pushed them up, but also other indicators–such as right track/wrong track and management of the economy–are moving in the wrong direction. The people have noticed the difference between 225 thousand new jobs per month and 75 thousand, and they’ve drawn the obvious inference: Only 24 percent of Americans think the economy is improving, down from 33 percent in April.
So the president has some work to do, and he can’t get the job done simply by attacking his adversary. Indeed, as I’ve argued in previous articles, the evidence that the all-out assault on Romney record at Bain Capital is making a difference remains thin at best. Since July 1, while Obama’s survey average has declined from 47.5 to 46.0 percent, Romney’s has actually edged up slightly, from 44.1 to 44.7 percent. A Gallup/USA Today survey released July 24 finds 63 percent of Americans believing that the challenger’s “background in business, including his time as head of Bain Capital,” would cause him to “make good decisions . . . as president in dealing with economic problems that U.S. will face over the next four years.” Only 29 percent disagree. This helps explain why Romney leads Obama by 10 points, 51 to 41, on managing the economy and by 6 points (50-44) on creating jobs.
The survey goes on to suggest that Obama still runs even with Romney because of his perceived edge in character. He leads Romney by 30 points on likeability and by 11 on understanding the problems American face in their daily lives. If the election comes down to these differences, Obama might well win a narrow victory. But there’s one other personal characteristic that tilts in the other direction: Romney has a 5-point edge over the president as a leader who can “get things done.” If the voters care more about efficacy than empathy as they enter the polling booths, Nov. 6 could be a long night for Democrats.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: 2012 and 2004

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
President Obama’s team perhaps once hoped to reenact Ronald Reagan’s triumphant 1984 march to reelection. But it’s now clear that they’re condemned to repeat George W. Bush’s much less inspiring campaign in 2004.
The playbook is clear: A barrage of negative advertising to define your opponent before he can define himself; a stream of issues and events to mobilize your base; and a meticulous ground game to squeeze every last vote out of the base come November. As for the small number of voters who haven’t made up their minds already, you don’t try to argue that they’ve never had it better, but rather that the other guy is unacceptable. In the end, you win a narrow victory by default. Sure, you haven’t really confronted the country’s deepest problems. But there’ll be plenty of time to deal with them next year.
The only justification for such a campaign is necessity, and the only vindication is victory. So how is it going so far? Three recent national surveys offer some clues.
First the toplines. ABC/Washington Post puts the candidates in a dead heat, 47-47; Quinnipiac gives Obama a narrow 46-43 edge, within the margin of error; Pew shows Obama with a 7-point lead, 50-43. ABC/WP places Obama’s job approval at 47 percent; for Quinnipiac, it’s 45 According to the latter, 47 percent of the people believe that Obama deserves reelection, while 49 don’t.
Some other ABC/WP findings help explain the electorate’s reservations about the president. Only 44 percent approve of his handling of the economy, by far the most important issue in this year’s election, versus 54 percent who don’t. When asked which candidate they trusted to do a better job handling the economy, 49 percent said Romney, while only 44 chose Obama. Quinnipiac had it a bit closer–Romney 46, Obama 45. Pew offers this oddity: while its survey finds Obama leading 48-42 on “improving economic conditions,” Romney leads 46-42 on “improving the job situation.” When asked a forward-looking question–what they thought of the president’s plans for the economy, only 44 percent of the Quinnipac sample expressed a favorable view, compared to 50 percent unfavorable. In the ABC/WP survey, only 36 percent thought that Obama’s handling of the economy was a major reason to support him, versus 43 percent who thought it was a major reason to oppose him.
Is Romney in great shape on the economy? Anything but. Only 40 percent of the WBC/WP respondents had a favorable view of his economic plans, versus 46 percent unfavorable. And by 43 to 38 percent, they thought that Obama had presented a clearer plan for the economy than had Romney. (In late October of 2008, Obama led McCain by 50 to 32 on that same measure. Romney’s doing much better than his Republican predecessor, while Obama is doing much worse than he did four years ago.)
For reasons I don’t understand, the Pew surveys have pretty consistently yielded better results for Obama–larger edges and higher shares of the electorate–than have those from most other organizations over the past few months. For our purposes, however, the most important finding from their latest survey is this: “there is no clear trend in either candidate’s support since Romney wrapped up the GOP nomination … The presidential campaign’s dynamics have changed little in recent months.” Quinnipiac finds exactly the same thing, while ABC/WP shows that the boost Obama got from the unsightly Republican nominating contest was at best temporary.
Given the strategic decisions the Obama campaign has made, two questions emerge as decisive. First, what are the prospects for a 2004-style mobilization of its base coalition? By all accounts, Obama’s team has a substantial head-start in the organizational nuts and bolts needed for a successful get-out-the-vote effort. But compared to 2008, it may be an uphill fight. In his first presidential campaign, Obama enjoyed a huge edge among young adults and did worst among older voters. But new numbers from Gallup indicate that by an astonishing 20 percentage points, fewer voters aged 18 to 29 say that they will definitely vote than they did four years ago, and their voting intentions fall short of this year’s average among all registered voters by the same margin. By contrast, relative to the electorate as a whole, more older voters are committed to voting. The same Gallup survey shows diminished enthusiasm among Hispanic voters. In 2008, members of this pivotal group were a modest 8 points below the national average for definite voters. This year, it’s 14 percent.
To be sure, there’s time to gin these numbers up, and history suggests that the intentions of groups who are more weakly attached to the electoral process can change more than those of groups for whom voting is an established habit. Still, Obama’s 2008 mobilization effort had the wind in its sails, while this year’s effort faces some significant headwinds–perhaps enough to negate the much-discussed demographic shift in his favor over the past four years.
The second key question for Obama’s strategy is whether his campaign’s attack on Mitt Romney is succeeding in defining him as an unacceptable alternative. Based on the evidence, it’s too early to say.
On the one hand, the last round of Bain attacks has clearly rattled the Romney campaign, and a smattering of survey evidence suggests that the sustained ad campaign in swing states has scored some points. On the other hand, the Pew survey found no shift since May in swing-state voter preference.
But it’s not too early to say that Obama’s vital signs look dicey. Over the past 33 months, his job approval has been lower than George W. Bush’s at a comparable time in his presidency for all but one week. Bush averaged above 50 percent in the quarter before his successful reelection campaign, while Obama has been stuck in the 46-48 percent range for months. And the famous “wrong track” measure now stands at 63 percent, versus 55 percent in the days preceding the vote in 2004. If these two numbers don’t improve for Obama, his presidency will be in jeopardy. And they probably won’t–unless the economy perks up noticeably.

Starr: The Supreme Court Decision As a Political Opportunity

This item is a special guest contribution by Paul E. Starr, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, co-founder of The American Prospect, and author of Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care Reform.
The Supreme Court decision to allow states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion puts millions of low-income Americans at risk of losing coverage they would otherwise gain under the Affordable Care Act. But while the Court’s decision is unjustified as law and policy, Democrats and progressive activists ought to regard it as a tremendous political opportunity to build support and voter turnout in states under Republican leadership.
Under the ACA, the federal government will pay nearly all the cost of newly eligible Medicaid beneficiaries (100 percent for the first three years, declining to 90 percent thereafter). The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the law will increase state Medicaid costs by less than 1 percent.
As the number of uninsured drops, moreover, hospitals will be relieved of much of their burden of uncompensated care and no longer need to transfer that cost to the privately insured. As a result, the Medicaid expansion will be a benefit not just to the poor but to insured middle-class families too, who will no longer pay the indirect tax for uncompensated care that has long been hidden in their health-care and insurance bills.
Besides paying nearly all the cost of the Medicaid expansion, the federal government will pay the entire cost of the subsidies for the near poor and lower-middle-income people who obtain private coverage through the new insurance exchanges. Together, the expansion of Medicaid and the insurance subsidies will bring billions of dollars into states with large uninsured populations. That revenue will strengthen their health-care institutions and have a multiplier effect, increasing jobs in related industries.
In states whose leaders currently threaten to refuse the Medicaid money, Democrats running for office should be able to make a forceful and persuasive case that carrying out health-care reform will be good for the state as a whole. They ought to use these arguments to put middle-income voters at ease about health reform, while mobilizing voter turnout in the low-income communities that will gain most directly. Accepting the federal funds to expand Medicaid will have clear, real-life benefits–for some people, benefits that can make the difference between life and death.
Moreover, this is not a situation where low-income groups and progressive activists will be on their own. Health-care providers will support efforts to persuade state officials to put aside ideology, consider the best interests of all their people–and take the money.
The mostly southern states that are resisting the Medicaid expansion have a long history of denying adequate social protections to low-income people, but there has never been a more advantageous moment for progressive-minded Democrats to organize around that issue. The Supreme Court shouldn’t have made the Medicaid expansion optional, but now that it has, Democrats should make the most of Republican block-headedness.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Conservatives’ Long March Through the Court Hits a Wall

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is crossposted from The New Republic.
In a stunning decision that will define his legacy as chief justice, John Roberts broke with the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc and provided the fifth vote to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. While declining to uphold the Act under the Commerce Clause, Roberts argued that the mandate could pass constitutional muster as an exercise of Congress’s power to tax. In so doing, he refrained from providing a precedent for what many conservatives regard as an unprecedented expansion of an already expanded New Deal Commerce Clause about which they have grave reservations.
One can only speculate about Roberts’ motives for proceeding as he did. It is certainly possible that, like Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes in the mid-1930s, he had one eye focused on jurisprudence and another on the standing of the institution he heads. This may be another “switch in time” that saved the Court from becoming embroiled in a full-fledged confrontation with the executive and legislative branches.
What is beyond speculation is that this comes as a massive disappointment to movement conservatives who have spent decades strengthening their position in the judicial branch with the ultimate objective of halting and reversing the growing reach of the federal government. Expect recriminations and accusations alleging that, once again, a pivotal conservative has yielded to liberal elite opinion.
If conservatives are to realize their hopes of repealing the Affordable Care Act, the electoral process is their only remaining recourse. Once the dust settles, expect them to mobilize and work even harder for unified government under Republican control. And expect Mitt Romney to wave the bloody shirt all the more vigorously.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Obama Doubles Down on “Two Futures” Message

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Today in Cleveland, President Obama jettisoned the theme of economic inequality that had suffused his economic speeches for more than six months, focusing instead on “how we grow faster, how we create more jobs, and how we pay down our debt.” The real issue, he said, is how we reverse the “erosion of middle-class jobs and middle-class incomes.”
In making that claim, Obama doubled down on the guiding assumption of his campaign–that he can turn the 2012 election into a choice between two models for the future, rather than a referendum on his first term. He made only a brief effort to defend his economic record, focusing instead on what he intends to do in a second term and on what he believes are the fatal flaws of the Republican/Romney agenda.
His argument for reelection is simple: Mitt Romney would take us back to the economic program that failed us under George W. Bush. The alternative, he said, is a strong and growing economy built on a strong and growing middle class–a twenty-first century economy built on a foundation of education, science and innovation, infrastructure, and clean energy, and paid for with a “balanced” program of deficit reduction that asks the wealthiest American to pay “a little bit more.”
All this invites an obvious retort: if that’s the right plan, why didn’t you implement it during your first term? Obama’s answer: the Republicans in Congress wouldn’t let me. And in November the American people should seize their chance to break this “stalemate.”
I’ve long argued that when presidents seek reelection, their record will be the focus of the campaign whether they like it or not. My critics suggest there is a real alternative–but is that really so? When Obama asks why we would return to the policies that failed us, he’s channeling the tag-line of one of the most effective political ads of all time, Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America”: “Why would we ever want to return to where we were?”
But I invite my older readers to take another look at the ad, and my young readers to look at it for the first time. You’ll find that most of it is a summary of how well things are going under Reagan’s stewardship. The concluding rhetorical question gains its force from the contrast between the optimistic experience of the present and the bitter memory of the past. The point isn’t that it was dark before, but that it’s morning now. Unlike Reagan, Obama can’t make that claim.
But it doesn’t matter what I think. The president and his top political advisors clearly reject the view that his record is central and believe they can make this election into a choice between two futures. As a Democrat, I hope they’re right. But as a student of American politics, I fear they’re not.

Making Middle Class Opportunity Our Top Policy Priority

This item, from TDS Contributors Sherri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin (of Peter D. Hart Research Associates) is cross-posted from CenteredPolitics.com.
Unless things change dramatically (it would take something like a new war) there will be only one issue in the 2012 election for president and most other government offices. The issue of which candidate has the best ideas to get the economy moving is the most important question in most elections and there are good reasons for this. Real wages have been stagnant for American middle class families even through boom and bust business cycles for decades going back to the 1970s. Rising standards of living for the middle class have been earned only by more members of the family entering the workforce (especially women) and people working multiple jobs and longer hours, when they are able to find employment.
Two Candidates in Search of an Economic Message
Even though Mitt Romney successfully identified himself as the “economy candidate” against a weak Republican field, he has yet to articulate an economic vision that gives voters a sense of what he would do differently than either Barack Obama or George W. Bush to create good jobs and opportunity. If Mitt Romney had something to say about the economy, we mean really had something to say about the economy, he would not have remained in the tough fight he slogged through for many months to secure the nomination.
President Barack Obama would also be in a lot better position if he could clearly articulate a confidence inspiring economic vision. The President has been struggling, with mixed success, to shore up this weakness and find a compelling economic message. Often it seems Mitt Romney does not even realize he doesn’t have much of an economic message at all.
“Obama Has Failed”
During the primary campaign Romney succeeded in establishing himself, at least among the press covering the race, as the “economy candidate” because he talks about the economy all of the time, but his emphasis is almost entirely on current economic woes and very little on his economic proposals. The message is simply: Obama promised to fix the economy; the economy is not fixed. I was a businessman; I will fix the economy. God Bless America.
When Romney does speak at length about his proposals, there is little outside of Republican economic orthodoxy – less government regulation (especially environmental regulations), a bit of union bashing, lots of specific tax cuts, much less specificity on spending cuts, and a promise of lower national debt. In other words, there is almost nothing in Romney’s economic playbook that was not in George W. Bush’s campaign speeches in 2000, and we all know how that worked out for the economy.
Like most Republicans, Romney wants a semi-permeable embrace of Paul Ryan’s budget; wanting to claim a share of credit for the idea of major budget cuts, but not willing to stand with specific proposals. We see this when Romney continues to attack Barack Obama for proposing cuts in Medicare, even while praising Ryan’s budget that starts with these Obama cuts in its assumptions and proposes dramatically deeper reductions in Medicare spending.
A relatively new element in Romney’s speeches is multiple versions of the Reagan question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The danger is many middle class families may remember what the economy was really like fours ago, when financial markets were in free fall and seizing up, home values were crumbling, and the economy was shedding hundreds of thousands of job per month. The question invites Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs’s effective response, that the essential Republican argument is that Obama did not clean up the mess Republican policies made of the economy fast enough.
So voters are correct when by 58% to 31% they tell a recent FOX News poll they do not think Mitt Romney has a clear plan for fixing the economy. But despite Romney’s weakness, Obama fares no better in the FOX poll with 36% saying Obama has a clear plan to fix the economy and 61% saying he does not. In two other recent polls for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal and for CBS News and the New York Times, Romney leads Obama on the question of who has better ideas to fix the economy.
Obama Needs Clarity (and Charts and Graphs)
At this point President Obama has been favoring tactical economic proposals like the Buffet Rule and student loan financing over offering a strategic view of his economic proposals to help create economic opportunity for middle class families. Voters are confused because they do not know whether Obama is the big spender Republicans have been telling them he is (and they are pretty sure they saw, at least until Democrats lost the 2010 election) or the budget cutter he has been for the past two years in his efforts to make deals with the Republicans.
We have argued for some time that if Democrats believe they have a better grasp of economic policy, and they do, then they should join the battle and debate the issue full on. Obama has consistently shied away from the challenge of explaining his basic economic philosophy of balanced, fiscally responsible Keynesianism – that during a major economic downturn short term budget deficits are good even though long term deficits threaten disaster – believing that it is just too complex of an argument. But it is what the President truly believes and to earn reelection, he has to own it. These economic principles underscore the basic premise of the Simpson Bowles Commission, and they are the heart of “Grand Bargain” on taxes and spending Obama tried to negotiate with Speaker of the House John Boehner.
But instead, Obama’s arguments for the “Grand Bargain” were made behind closed doors, rather than clearly before the people the economic policies are intended to help. The individual elements each got their week of promotion by the President and his surrogates, but rarely (perhaps with the exception of the economic section of the State of the Union address)was there an effort to explain the whole economic vision. Obama needs to own his economic views, and explain why he believes they offer middle class families the best hope to reverse the long term trends and provide the economic opportunity for middle class families and their children.
If the argument is simple enough for a bumper sticker, that’s great, but if not that is ok too. With millions of dollars in the bank, Team Obama can afford longer format communications including charts and graphs like H. Ross Perot or Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. With Republicans continuing to push a supply side economics theory that failed to deliver on its promise that tax cuts would lead to lower deficits for Ronald Reagan (so he raised taxes 11 times), and George H. W. Bush who had to break his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge, and George W. Bush who had to abandon his small government philosophy with billions in bailouts for the financial sector to avoid a financial meltdown and a global depression, and Bill Clinton the only recent president that delivered real wage gains for the middle class and balanced the budget, this should be a debate that Team Obama can win on the merits.
Just recently there have been some encouraging signs that the Obama team gets it and some discouraging signs as well. Team Obama just released a new long format ad titled “Forward” that includes charts and graphs and was even made by the director of “An Inconvenient Truth.” It starts with a reminder of the mess George W. Bush created with his economic philosophy of small government, low taxes and antipathy toward regulation, and it has all of the star power of Bill Clinton and Tom Hanks.
But there is one element missing – middle class families. All of the emphasis is on the bailout of the financial sector, and the auto industry and the tough choices Obama made passing bills in Congress. The stories are told by senior advisors like Austin Goolsbee and Rahm Emanuel. What the video is missing is the stories of middle class families that were able to renegotiate loans and stay in their homes, small business owners that were able to get loans and hire employees, students that were able to finish college and get a job, construction workers that went to work building roads. And we need to hear from families that worry about long term deficits that appreciate Obama’s persistence in seeking balance and compromise even when the other side has all signed a pledge to never compromise, and Mitt Romney and every other Republican candidate for President raised their hand to promise that they would not compromise even for a deal that offered 10 dollars in spending cuts for every dollar raised in taxes.
This election is going to be won among independent and moderate, middle class voters. Barack Obama can win their confidence if he has confidence in who he is and how he approaches the economy. He has been seeking balance between short term and long term needs of the economy for his whole term. If he can talk to middle class voters and explain his economic vision in terms of people as much as policies, and explain how he will ultimately help families realize economic opportunity and long term prosperity, he will earn their support.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: A Tax Reform Proposal That Could Win Over Everybody

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
If I were forced to choose after the election between extending the Bush tax cuts in total and letting them all lapse, I would join Tim Noah in opting for the latter. But I’m reluctant to assume that’s the best we can do. Indeed, as frustrating as the gridlock in Washington is, we should use it as an opportunity to strip down the tax debate to its basics, and reflect on where we want to go. Then we can determine the path that gets us closest to our goal.
In my judgment, the tax code we should aim for should have four key features. It should promote growth, or at least not obstruct growth by diverting resources from productive uses. It should be fair: It should treat taxpayers at similar income levels similarly, and it should tax individuals and families in accordance with their ability to pay. It should minimize complexity, to reduce both compliance costs and opportunities for manipulation. And it should raise enough revenue to pay for the government the American people want. Tax experts tell us that these features are in tension with one another, which means that policy makers must try to strike a reasonable balance among them.
Simply allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on December 31 would fall afoul of at least three of these principles, and probably all four. It would pour a lot of new wine into the same old bottle–a tax code not notable for simplicity, fairness, or its propensity to promote growth. And while phasing in a tax increase would raise significant revenues, a large all-at-once hit to a still-fragile economy could end up reducing a growth rate that was already far from robust, cutting revenues down the road.
Instead, we need to focus on broadening the base of our tax system, in two ways. First, we need to reduce tax expenditures–the many deductions that currently riddle the tax code, most of which violate all four of my principles. I agree with those who argue that proceeding line by line isn’t likely to succeed, as each deduction has backers who would jealously guard it. Instead, we should adopt what might be termed a Comprehensive Flat Tax Deduction. Taxpayers would simply add up all their current deductions, multiply them by a rate that would be the same for all taxpayers (but lower than the top marginal rate), and deduct the result from their taxable income. This simple change would reduce the extent to which deductions now narrow the base of our revenue system. (CBO estimates that setting the rate at 15 percent would raise $1.2 trillion over the next decade; a 28 percent rate would raise less than half that amount.) It would also reduce the massively regressive impact of current tax expenditures, by making deductions less valuable for those at the top and more valuable for those at or near the bottom.
The second strategy for broadening the base of our code should be to look beyond income. No other advanced democracy focuses on income–individual or corporate–to the extent that we do. We should follow other countries’ lead in taxing consumption as well. My preference would be a carbon tax, which would both raise money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But a Value Added Tax on goods would also be acceptable. We could consider doing some of each. Introducing such alternatives could allow us to further lower marginal rates on income, consistent with our overall revenue requirements. There’s something in this strategy for everyone, including environmentalists, businesses that export, and conservative supply-siders.
But all of this will remain abstract and formulaic until we can agree on the size of the government we want our revenue system to finance. Along with most Democrats, I reject the proposition that historical averages offer a sound guide to the future. Demographic changes over the next three decades mean that even with significant reforms to the major entitlement programs, the federal government will consume a somewhat larger share of GDP than it did during most of the post-war period. It is difficult to believe that we’ll be able to make do with a revenue system that raises less than 20 to 21 percent of GDP on a sustained basis.
Most Republicans would choose a substantially lower number, and there’s no hope of resolving this dispute until the public weighs in. That’s why both sides should be willing to wage the 2012 election on the most fundamental domestic questions we confront: How much government do we want, and how will we pay for it? Paul Ryan’s budget, which Mitt Romney has endorsed, clarifies the consequences of holding revenues to post-war averages over the next generation. Discretionary spending would be slashed to levels not seen in generations, while rising health care costs would be shifted to Medicare beneficiaries and state governments. President Obama should hammer these choices home–relentlessly, day by day, speech by speech, between now and the election. If he prevails, he will have created a political predicate on which to build his second term.
That doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to agree on comprehensive tax reform during the post-election lame duck session in which the fate of the Bush tax cuts–and perhaps a larger tax deal–will be determined. The President may be forced to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire without any alternative in sight. But Democrats shouldn’t mistake that eventuality for some sort of grand political victory. We would be better off hoping that the threat of a tax hike that no one really wants will finally force Republicans to agree to a fairer, simpler, pro-growth code, one that yields the revenue that the country needs.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Obama Should Stay Focused On Substance of Health Reform Attack, Not the Supreme Court

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
If the Supreme Court overturns key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, it will precipitate the largest confrontation between the Court and a president since the mid-1930s. Yes, the Court prevented Truman from seizing the steel mills and forced Nixon to give up the tapes. But in those instances the decision ended the controversy because the President chose not to prolong it.
Not so this time: President Obama has signaled his intention to make the Court a central issue in the fall campaign if it guts his signature policy achievement. Although this may be a shrewd short-term political calculation, it raises troubling questions about a president’s broader responsibilities to the constitutional order he is sworn to uphold.
There are good reasons why, if Obamacare is indeed overturned, it would be tempting for the President to mount an all-out attack on the Court in the presidential campaign. First, defeat typically energizes the losers more than victory does the winners. A negative decision by the Court would enrage liberals who have been lukewarm about the ACA and the Obama presidency. And the president would have no trouble channeling this renewed passion toward electoral mobilization.
Second–and more fundamentally–the American people have soured on the Court. Surveys done in the past two years find that three quarters of the respondents believe that justices’ political and ideological views sometimes influence their decisions. The Gallup trend question–“Do you approve or disapprove of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job?”–shows a 15-point decline, from 61 percent to 46 percent, in public approval of the Court since mid-2009. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released last month found only 23 percent of the people expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, versus 30 percent in the presidency (and only 6 percent in Congress). In other words, the Court is vulnerable to political attack.
But there are times when a president should refrain from exploiting a political opening, and this is one of them. The polarization of our politics has already produced a governance crisis; ours is a political system that finds it increasingly difficult even to perform routine functions, let alone agree on solutions to large problems. The inability to act decisively has gotten so bad, in fact, that it verges on a legitimacy crisis as well. The American people have withdrawn their trust from nearly all our governing institutions, and most believe that the government officially based on “We the people” responds instead to a myriad of narrow special interests.
An all-out attack by Obama on the Court, and its institutional role in American public life, would only make things worse–especially if it is framed in terms appropriated from his adversaries. On Monday, the President echoed conservatives’ long-standing critique of “judicial activism,” referred to the justices as an “unelected group of people,” and characterized the overturning of a law passed by a “democratically elected Congress” as an “unprecedented, extraordinary step.”
The president used to teach constitutional law, so he surely knows better. Although justices are nominated and confirmed by elected officials, the founders deliberately insulated the Court from everyday politics. They are “unelected” so they can do their job without being answerable to transient public sentiment. That is because their job is to judge democratically passed laws against constitutional standards and to serve as guardians of those standards, even when it is unpopular. But since judging requires judgment–since it is not mechanical–it is inherently controversial. One person’s judicial activism is another’s constitutional fidelity.
So if the Court does invalidate the individual mandate, Obama should take the conversation in a different direction. He should seize the opportunity to place this constitutional controversy in a broader context–to remind the American people that the substantive political agenda that conservatives are proposing is that of a return to the pre-New Deal era. This is as true of Republicans in Congress, who want to dismantle the welfare state, as it is of the “originalists” in the Supreme Court, who want to abandon the interpretation of the Commerce Clause that became a consensus after 1936 and made possible many of the programs Americans now cherish and take for granted. The 2012 election, he could argue, is a choice not just between two budgets or even two social philosophies, but also between a conception of government adequate to address the problems we face today and a conception that faces backward, not forward. Obama can pay deference to the Court’s prerogative to challenge legislation while attacking the vision of jurisprudence that is currently motivating its interventions.
I sincerely hope that it doesn’t come to this. In my previous column, I urged John Roberts to adopt a view of his role as chief justice that is informed by his responsibility for the legitimacy of the institution over which he presides. Especially in the context of the past decade, another decision split 5-to-4 along ideological lines might well convince the American people that their aspiration for a Court above normal politics is hopelessly naïve. But if that decision comes to pass, it is the president’s responsibility to minimize the damage by speaking to the people’s hopes rather than their fears, to their patriotism rather than their anger. That’s what Obama at his best has always done. And that’s why he was elected.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: What the Supreme Court Will Consider

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
In the weeks preceding the Obamacare case, many veteran Supreme Court-watchers could not bring themselves to believe that a majority of the justices would find the individual health insurance mandate unconstitutional. But now that the oral argument is over, the consensus has abruptly shifted, with increased focus on the supposedly ironclad opposition between the five “conservative” justices and the four “liberals.”
Indeed, as commentators consider what kind of decision the Court will hand down in June, they have been increasingly tempted to apply a simple “it’s all politics” template: Liberal justice will favor the individual mandate, conservatives will oppose it, case closed. But that’s hardly ever the right way to look at the Court, and it’s certainly wrong now.
In the first place, the general assumptions that individual justices bring to particular cases are typically jurisprudential rather than straightforwardly political. Some have broad and well-developed views about how the constitution should be read and interpreted. (On the current court, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Stephen Breyer are the best examples.) Others have firm views about the appropriate role of the Court in the constitutional process: Felix Frankfurter famously counseled restraint and maximum feasible deference to legislative decisions, while Earl Warren believed that it was the Court’s responsibility to defend individual rights–against popular and legislative majorities if necessary.
Second, there’s no single model of conservative jurisprudence–or of liberal jurisprudence, for that matter. For example, press coverage often treats Thomas and Scalia as twins. But they aren’t. Thomas is much more willing than Scalia to overrule prior constitutional decisions even when they are venerable and entrenched. In jurisprudential language: Scalia incorporates stare decisis into his decision-making calculus, while Thomas believes that if a constitutional case was wrongly decided a century ago, its age shouldn’t tip the scales against reversal.
Third, justices have different dominant concerns. For Anthony Kennedy, it’s individual liberty, an issue to which he returned repeatedly as he grilled Solicitor General Donald Verrilli on Tuesday. Early in that day’s proceeding he asked, “When you are changing the relation of the individual to the government in this … unique way, do you not have a heavy burden of justification to show authorization under the Constitution?” Later on he expressed his worry that the individual mandate “changes the relationship of the federal government to the individual in a very fundamental way.” By contrast, Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts appeared more concerned about the distinction between the federal government’s enumerated powers under the Constitution as contrasted with the broader police power of the states. (That said, all the conservative-leaning justices seemed to take seriously the distinction between regulating commerce and forcing individuals to enter commerce, and they seemed uniformly concerned that the government had failed to establish principled limits to the scope of the Commerce Clause.)
Indeed, arguments in the Supreme Court take place against a historical backdrop–not only the Court’s history but also that of individual justices. When the justices enter the conference room to vote on current cases, they bring their past decisions along with them. For example, in his concurring opinion in Gonzales v. Raich, Scalia offered a broad interpretation of how the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause work together to authorize federal government regulation to activities that affect interstate commerce, even when those activities are not themselves part of interstate commerce. Many seasoned Court-watchers believed that Scalia would have a hard time squaring that opinion with a vote against the constitutionality of the individual mandate. But on Tuesday, Scalia argued, as he has before, that the two adjectives in the Necessary and Proper Clause impose separate and distinct tests: A particular means to an end may be necessary without being proper, especially if it runs into a wall of constitutional prohibition. The forcefulness with which Scalia made this distinction showed that he was acutely aware of the implications of his own judicial record on these matters.
It’s also important to point out that there’s no necessary correspondence between jurisprudential and political views. For example, Antonin Scalia is a staunch Catholic, so one might expect him to favor constitutional doctrines that mandate broad accommodation of religious liberty. But just the reverse is true: Scalia authored the majority decision in Employment Division v. Smith, widely regarded as the most anti-accommodationist case in decades. That decision made it clear that Scalia fears anarchy much more than tyranny. For more libertarian conservatives, such as Anthony Kennedy, the reverse is the case–hence his majority decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down a Texas law criminalizing sodomy and was couched in high-minded prose that Scalia has since attacked and mocked mercilessly

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Why Super Tuesday Won’t Deliver a Knockout Blow

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is crossposted from The New Republic.
This year’s Super Tuesday will be “super” in the most obvious way: Ten states with a total of 437 delegates will make their decisions on the same day. What will be the upshot of all these contests? Below, a guide to what is likely to happen and how to interpret the results:
Super Tuesday won’t prove decisive. This is true for two reasons. First, all ten states are using some variant of a proportional system to award delegates. Some are looking to statewide vote totals, while others focus on the results within congressional districts. (Ohio uses a hybrid system: About a quarter of the delegates are allocated proportional to the statewide vote above a 20 percent threshold, unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, in which case he gets all the statewide delegates. The remaining three quarters go to the victor in each congressional district on a winner-take-all basis.) Whatever the details, these proportional allocation schemes virtually ensure that no candidate will score the kind of knockout blow that John McCain did on Super Tuesday four years ago.
Second, the mix of states on March 6 makes it very unlikely that any candidate will pull off anything like a clean sweep. In 2008, Mitt Romney didn’t win a single primary in the Deep South, and almost half his victories came in states that share a border with Canada. With that track record, he’s not likely to prevail in Georgia, or Tennessee, or Oklahoma on Tuesday, though he should win comfortable victories in Massachusetts and Vermont. And because neither Newt Gingrich nor Rick Santorum managed to get on the Virginia ballot, Romney should prevail there as well, barring a shocking last-minute surge in support for Ron Paul. And then there are three smaller states (Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota) where libertarian support for Paul could make a difference–who knows how much, and to whose ultimate advantage?
The biggest prize is Ohio–and it’s still up for grabs. Ohio is the most important state that is voting on Tuesday not because it awards the most delegates (it doesn’t; Georgia is larger in that respect), but because it’s the most significant politically. Since the founding of the GOP more than a century and a half ago, no Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, which is the closest thing we have to a microcosm of the country. Granted, the state’s Republican primary electorate is far from a representative sample of voters in Ohio. But it is large and diverse, and unlike Georgia and Michigan, it’s no one’s home base. In short, it’s a fair fight for high stakes.
So what’s happening in the Buckeye state? Two weeks ago, Santorum had moved out to a eighteen point lead, 42-24, over Romney. As of March 2, that edge had shrunk to only two points, 33-31. (Both findings are from Rasmussen, so it’s an apples-to-apples comparison.) The most recent Quinnipiac survey as of March 2 closely tracks Rasmussen, with Santorum enjoying a 35-31 advantage over Romney. (The next survey from that organization comes out Monday morning.)
The internals of the Q-poll offer some insight into the dynamics of the race. As has been the case in other states, Romney does well among older and better-educated voters, while Santorum is strong among white evangelicals and Tea Party supporters. 69 percent of Santorum’s supporters say they’ve made up their minds. But so have 65 percent of Romney’s. Notably, 48 percent of the voters backing Gingrich say they might change, and those who do are more likely to shift toward Santorum than toward Romney. And the demographics tend to work in Santorum’s favor. Compared to Michigan, Ohio has more evangelicals, more voters with no college education, and a larger share of its population in rural areas. On the other hand, as we saw in Michigan, voters still know less about Santorum than they do about Romney, who has run a national race before. So new information via negative advertising can influence their opinion of Santorum, and we can be sure that the Romney campaign will spend whatever they have in an effort to impugn Santorum’s conservative credentials. These countervailing forces point to a close contest down to the wire.
For Santorum, the difference between success and failure rests on two states. The best outcome for Santorum would be to win Oklahoma and Tennessee by healthy margins, hold on to beat Romney in Ohio, and squeeze by Gingrich in Georgia (unlikely but not out of the question). If that were to happen, Santorum would be declared the evening’s winner, regardless of the delegate count, and the Republican race would continue without a clear front-runner. The worst outcome for Santorum: winning only Oklahoma and Tennessee, fueling the narrative that he can’t expand his base of support much beyond social conservatives and intensifying the effort of those outside that base to rally around Romney.
Gingrich is almost certainly finished. It’s hard to see how he wins anything outside of Georgia and restores his credibility as the leading movement-conservative alternative to Romney. He’ll probably keep on going as long as the cash flows from Las Vegas. But Sheldon Adelson didn’t get to be one of the richest men in America by pouring his money down rat holes. If nothing else, March 6 may be remembered as Gingrich’s Waterloo.