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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Democratic Strategist

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Obama’s 2008 Coalition Won’t Save Him This Time

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
The latest Gallup report, based on a massive sample of more than 39,000 adults, contains troubling news for Democrats. Individuals identifying with the Democratic Party are a smaller share of the American people than they were early in 2008, and their views are less representative of the people as a whole. This means that the Obama team, which faces the crucial choice of either doubling down on its 2008 winning mix of professionals, young people, and minorities or rebuilding support among Independents in the heartland, should emphasize the latter option. Any general election strategy that relies solely on mobilizing the party’s diminished base will have a hard time forging a majority of the popular vote.
Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents now total 43 percent of the people, down from 50 percent in the first quarter of 2008. During the period, Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents rose from 37 to 40 percent. (Pure Independents who don’t lean toward either party rose from 12 to 15 percent of the total.) As a result, the earlier 13-point gap in party identification shrank to only 3 points, which, as Gallup notes, is “more in line with the pattern … in place between 2001 and 2004.”
While the ideological center of gravity of the Democratic Party has moved left, the country as a whole has moved in the opposite direction. In early 2008, 35 percent of Democrats and leaners called themselves liberals, versus 23 percent conservatives. (The rest identified as moderates.) By 2011, the liberal share of the part had risen 2 percentage points to 37 percent, while the conservative share shrank by 3 points, to only 20 percent. At the same time, conservatives increased their share of the total electorate from 40 to 42 percent, while liberals dropped a point to only 21 percent.
These may not appear to be notable changes, but they are. The sample is so large that the margin of error is only plus or minus one percentage point, so nearly all the shifts are statistically significant. And these results are politically significant as well, because they portend a much closer election than 2008 turned out to be. If the electorate of 2011-2012 is closer to the one that prevailed during the first Bush administration, then the Obama campaign would have to do an even better job of mobilizing the base than it did in 2008.
This casts in high relief the fundamental choice facing the Obama team: The first option is to run a campaign that amounts to 2008 on steroids, mobilizing huge numbers of upscale professionals, unmarried women, young adults, and minorities–the coalition that reelected Colorado Senator Michael Bennet in 2010. This approach implies a focus on “new majority” states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, North Carolina, or even Arizona and Georgia, which the Obama team reportedly regards as being within reach. Option two would focus on rebuilding support among Independents, which include large numbers of white working-class and middle-class families–an approach compatible with an all-out effort to win the heartland states stretching from Pennsylvania to Iowa that gave Obama one-third of the 365 electoral votes he ended up winning.
For reasons that I’ve laid out at length in “One Year to Go: Barack Obama’s Uphill Battle for Reelection in 2012,” the latter is the course more likely to succeed in the end. Briefly: It won’t be possible to recreate the political context that permitted the extraordinary mobilization of young adults and Hispanics in 2008. And it’s no accident that no Democrat since JFK has won the presidency without carrying Ohio, which is a demographic, economic, and political microcosm of the country as a whole. Most Democrats remember that Obama’s share of the popular vote topped John Kerry’s by 5 percentage points. They are likely to forget, however that liberals contributed less than one point to that increase, while moderates contributed about two and a half points and conservatives, about one and a half. Reenergizing the party’s liberal base is a necessary but not sufficient condition for victory next year.
This latter strategy–rebuilding support among Independents–implies that Obama’s task is one of persuasion as well as mobilization. He will have to convince some of the voters he has lost since his inauguration to give him a second look and another chance. This may seem to be mission impossible. If it turns out to be, his chances of winning reelection are remote.

An Occupy Wall Street Message that Could Resonate with a Majority

This item is a guest post by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin, Co-Editors of CenteredPolitics.com, from which it is cross-posted. Allan Rivlin is also a Partner with Hart Research Associates/Garin Hart Yang.
The Occupy Wall Street message: “We are the 99%” has the benefit of simplicity but conveys a deep and complex message that is likely to find acceptance far beyond the mostly young people camping in urban centers around the world. The slogan is a challenge to rebalance a system of democratic capitalism that has lost its equilibrium and no longer seems to be delivering on its promises for the majority of participants. The social contract offering a middle class life for workers, a secure retirement, and a better life for the next generation now seems to be a broken promise except for those at the very top. But beyond this breakdown of the economic system, the breakdown of the political system presents an even greater challenge to what it means to live in, and believe in, a country based on democratic capitalism.
The Occupy movement has started a national conversation about inequality and, as noted by EJ Dionne, even Republicans are starting to address the phrase. House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor and House Budget Committee Chair, Paul Ryan raise the topic of income inequality as a legitimate concern before turning to accuse President Barak Obama of “class warfare.” We have said for a long time that when Republicans make this charge against Democrats the proper translation of “class warfare” is “Ouch! That hurts us.” For decades, Republicans respond quickly to anything uttered by a Democrat that remotely sounds like an appeal to class consciousness because they know just how threatening it could be to support for Republicans. It is not clear whether Republicans should be blaming President Obama, the Occupy movement or themselves, but despite their best efforts to avoid it, they seem to be on the wrong side of a class struggle in an election year.
Herman Cain’s response to the protesters was: “Don’t be jealous, don’t be envious. I don’t have much patience for someone who does not want to achieve their American dream the old-fashioned way.” But this is about much more than envy of the haves by the have-nots. The power of the movement, embodied in the four word slogan, is that it is an indictment of our economic system, our political system and especially the relationship between the two.
This is not just a story of economic disappointment. What has changed is the relationship between the economic and political spheres. The continual contradiction that is democratic capitalism, the tension between the one-dollar-one-vote capitalism, and the one-person-one-vote democracy, can be both the heart of its strength or the center of its weakness. When these forces are working in balance, as they did during the decades of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, the majority uses its democratic power to elect leaders who will restrain the natural tendency of capitalism toward concentrations of wealth and power. The “1%” may have both outsized wealth and political clout but the 99% have the votes. And the slogan challenges everyone who is not among the very rich, a category that includes the poor, the middle class, and even most of the upper-middle class, to vote as if votes still matter in our democracy.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Two New Polls Show Why 2012 Will Be an Ugly Election

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
With little more than a year until the presidential election, two new reports–a survey from CBS/NYT and a CBO brief on household income–illuminate the treacherous terrain on which the campaign will be waged. The candidates will be fighting for the sympathies of an electorate that is utterly dispirited and in no mood for promises of uplift from either party. They say they want change, but they have lost confidence in the public sector as the agent of change.
That would seem to give the edge to the Republicans, but unfortunately for them, most people think they’re out to serve the interests of the rich, who already have too much. That would seem to move the edge back to Obama and the Democrats. But unfortunately for them, the people can’t figure out whose interests Obama and the Democrats want to serve–or whether they have a plan that could translate good economic intentions into tangible results.
Let’s begin with the latest CBS/NYT survey, which finds that only 10 percent of the electorate trusts the federal government to do what is right most of the time–by far the lowest level of confidence ever recorded. Only 9 percent approve of the way Congress is doing its job, which–as Senator John McCain is fond of stating–pretty much narrows its base of support to staff and family members.
Trust in the political system is low because the country is widely perceived as heading in the wrong direction and politicians aren’t seen as providing answers. From Barack Obama’s inauguration through the end of 2009, on average, 39 percent of the electorate thought that the country was generally heading in the right direction–not great, but much better than the 2008 average of 13 percent. But things have gone downhill ever since: The “right direction” choice averaged 33 percent in 2010 and 28 percent thus far in 2011. As of this week, it stands at 21 percent.
When it comes to the public’s faith in government providing effective answers, in mid-September, 43 percent of the people thought that Obama had a clear plan for creating jobs. Five weeks later, after a non-stop presidential jobs tour, that figure has fallen to 38 percent–unimpressive, but far better than the Republicans in Congress, who have persuaded only 20 percent of the electorate that they have a jobs plan. But the people aren’t grading the president on a curve: Only 35 percent approve of the way he is handling job creation, and only 38 percent approve of his handling of the economy as a whole. (By contrast, public approval of his handling of foreign policy and Iraq stands at 50 and 60 percent, respectively. But these aren’t likely to be voting issues next year.)
Such high levels of pessimism and mistrust should be political gold for Republicans. But the electorate has its own distinct worries about the GOP, and they center on the issue of income inequality. The CBS/NYT survey asked the people a blunt question: “Do you feel that the distribution of money and wealth in this country is fair, or do you feel that the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly divided among more people?” 26 percent of the respondents thought that the current pattern is fair, versus 66 percent who thought the distribution should be more even.
This brings me to the second new report–from the Congressional Budget Office, on trends in household income. Its core finding can be stated simply: In the three decades from 1979 to 2007, the distribution of household income became substantially more unequal, even taking transfer payments and taxes into account. The bottom four quintiles saw their share of income drop, while the share going to the top quintile rose from 43 percent to 53 percent. And in that top quintile, near all of the gain went to the top 1 percent, whose share rose 9 percent points, from about 8 percent to 17 percent. Among that rarified group, average real household income after taxes rose by 275 percent, versus 35 percent for households at the median. When the “Occupy” movement talks about the 99 percent, they’re on to something. And so are the people as a whole.
CBO identifies the widening dispersion of income derived from the market–wages and salaries, capital and business income, and capital gains–as the major reason for the increasing inequality of household income. It turns out that all these sources of income have become less equal. In 1979, the bottom 80 percent of households received 60 percent of total labor income, 33 percent of business and capital income, and 8 percent of capital gains. By 2007, those figures had fallen to 50, 20, and 5 percent, respectively.
Simply put, people are justifiably worried that income inequality is too high, and they see Republicans as working to exacerbate it. For example, when asked whom they think the policies of Congressional Republicans most favor, 69 percent say the rich. Only 9 percent say the middle class, and only 2 percent say the poor. Only 15 percent believe that Republican policies treat all groups equally. Here are the comparable figures for the Obama administration: 28 percent say its policies favor the rich, 23 percent say the middle class, 17 percent say the poor, and 21 percent say Obama’s policies treat everyone equally. The American people know what Republicans stand for, and they don’t much like it. By contrast, they can’t figure out what Obama stands for–and they don’t much like that either.
In sum, while Americans sense that generating jobs and economic growth is an urgent task right now, they’re also concerned about the long-cycle trend toward increasing inequality and whether it’s compatible with either economic or civic health. But they still have no idea to whom they should turn to address those concerns. Unless the way the free market works changes dramatically, they know they can’t expect the “invisible hand” to reduce inequality. If the people want more equality, which they say they do, they can only get it through public policy. The catch is they don’t think they can trust the government to get the job done. They feel, in other words, that they’re stuck with a status quo they dislike.
It will be the job of the presidential candidates, of course, to capture and appeal to this dispirited mood. In that way, one thing is already clear: It won’t be a campaign full of “hope and change.”

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: 2012 Will Be a Referendum on Obama, Whether He Likes It or Not

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
By all accounts, the Obama campaign wants to avoid having the 2012 election turn into a referendum on the president’s first term, hoping instead to turn it into a choice between the two major parties’ candidates and visions for the country’s future. But if history is any guide, that will be an uphill battle.
Some presidential elections do consist of a head-to-head comparison of the candidates: They just happen to be the ones involving non-incumbents, candidates whose competence to serve as president can only be predicted. In those instances, each voter’s choice typically reflects an affirmative evaluation of the preferred candidate rather than rejection of the other candidate. In 2008, for example, 77 percent of Obama’s supporters said that they were casting their votes in favor of him, not against McCain, while 64 percent of McCain’s supporters said that they were casting their votes in his favor, not against Obama.
Campaigns involving an incumbent look very different. When a president is running for reelection, the electorate is primarily motivated by its judgment of the incumbent’s job performance. Consider some Pew Research Center data on recent presidential contests.
In the spring of 1992, two-thirds of George H. W. Bush’s supporters said that they would be casting their vote for him rather than against Bill Clinton, while two-thirds of Clinton supporters said their vote reflected opposition to Bush. In the spring of 1996, 60 percent of Clinton’s supporters said they would be voting for him rather than against Bob Dole, while 60 percent of Dole’s supporters said their vote reflected opposition to Clinton. Early in 2004, more than 80 percent of George W. Bush’s supporters were for him rather than against John Kerry, while two-thirds of Kerry’s supporters were motivated by opposition to Bush.
To be sure, these numbers tend to shift during the general election as the contenders become better known. Still, by Election Day in 1996, only 47 percent of Dole’s supporters said that they were casting their vote in his favor rather than against Clinton; by election day in 2004, only 43 percent of Kerry’s supporters said that they were casting an affirmative vote for him.
Now look at the most recent Pew results, which showed Obama in a tie with Mitt Romney. About three-quarters of Obama’s support is for him rather than against Romney, while more than two-thirds of Romney’s supporters say they will cast their votes against Obama rather than for Romney. Try as Obama might to channel populist anger against the economic policies that the eventual Republican nominee is proposing for the future, most Americans are going to make up their minds based on what they think about the policies the president has already enacted over the previous four years.
In a general election contest against an unpopular incumbent (one with an approval level significantly below 50 percent), the main hurdle that the opposition candidate needs to clear is that of competence. In 1980, for example, voters made their decision in two distinct stages. Between late January and mid-April, Jimmy Carter’s approval rating sank from 58 to 39 percent and never exceeded 43 percent for the remainder of the campaign. This represented stage one, in which the voters concluded that they didn’t want to return Jimmy Carter to the Oval Office for a second term–if they had a reasonable and non-threatening alternative. In the second stage, which occurred immediately after the sole presidential debate, they decided that despite their earlier doubts, Ronald Reagan represented such an alternative. Reagan’s humorous and avuncular affect in the debate dispelled fears that he might be the second coming of Barry Goldwater. To filch a phrase from Mike Huckabee, Reagan was clearly a conservative, but he wasn’t angry about it.
That’s why the Republican nominating contest matters–indeed, why it may well determine the outcome of the general election. There’s scant evidence right now that a majority wants to reelect Obama, whose approvals ratings are currently averaging around 44 percent. (I can find no evidence of a successful reelection campaign involving an incumbent president with an approval rating lower than 48 percent on election day.) But if the Republicans insist on choosing a candidate whose self-presentation reinforces a hard-edged conservatism, they may make history and lose anyway.
Granted, Mitt Romney is a flawed candidate whose vulnerabilities can be exploited, especially in intra-party combat. But in a general election, he has a better chance than any other Republican of reassuring persuadable voters that he represents a safe and competent alternative to the incumbent. Unless the economic environment changes a lot during the next twelve months, skepticism about Obama’s performance as president should be enough to propel Romney to victory, if not one of landslide proportions.
Republican primary voters, of course, are free to choose whomever they want to serve as their nominee. Early in 1980, let us recall, many Democrats believed that Reagan would be easier to beat than his principal rival–George H. W. Bush–because his brand of conservatism would alienate swing voters. One might argue that history is repeating itself, with Romney filling the role of Bush 41 and Rick Perry starring as Reagan.
Maybe. But having spent more than two years as Walter Mondale’s issues director during his presidential campaign, I got to size up Reagan’s record and political skills. Rick Perry isn’t his equal as governor, and he certainly isn’t his equal as a candidate. If circumstances are dire enough next November, he might win anyway. But I very much doubt it.
Over the next six months, then, Republicans will decide how much they want to win the 2012 election. Indeed, the party’s fate next November is in its own hands–and to that extent, very much out of President Obama’s.

Wake up, commentators. The most dangerous group of “right-wing extremists” today is not the grass-roots tea party. It is the financial and ideological leaders in the Republican coalition who have embraced the extremist philosophy of “politics as warfare.”

In recent days the mainstream media has been rapidly converging on a new common wisdom — a set of clichés that they will use to frame the rest of the campaign for the Republican nomination and the election of 2012. This new common wisdom portrays the intra-Republican struggle as one between more moderate and extreme wings of the party, with “pragmatic” Republican elites seeking a candidate who can beat Obama in opposition to the more “extremist” fringe elements and candidates of the grass-roots Tea Party.
It is inevitable that the mainstream media will find this image utterly irresistible. It not only serves their personal and professional needs but also reinforces their ideological preconceptions.
The image of “Republican elites as pragmatic, the tea party fringe as extreme” suits commentators’ personal and professional needs because it allows them to be publically disdainful of “extremism” without ever having to actually use the term to describe any powerful and significant figure in the Republican coalition who might be in a position to retaliate. A suggestion of “extremism” directed against anyone in this latter group is a social – and possibly career-damaging – faux pas that mainstream journalists will take every imaginable step to avoid.
At the same time, the “Elites as pragmatic, grass roots as extreme” image also validates mainstream commentators’ essentially condescending view of political life, in which “extremists” are always scruffy, largely disreputable individuals on the lower rungs of society – the kind of people who live in trailer parks and rant incoherently about the second amendment. Wealthy, powerful and influential “movers and shakers” within the Republican world, on the other hand, regardless of their actual views, are still invariably accorded respect as essentially serious and sensible individuals.
There is nothing new about this pattern of behavior among the mainstream media. It follows the same pattern as the “both sides are equally to blame” clichés about partisan gridlock and “dysfunctional government.” Writers and commentators who, in private, will cheerfully concede that, of course, the crisis is fundamentally the fault of Republican intransigence will then fall back on “both sides are equally to blame” clichés in their public writing — not only to avoid charges of liberal bias but also to portray themselves as impartial and intellectually superior observers of all career politicians.
There is, unfortunately, one major problem with this “elites as pragmatic, fringe as extreme” view: it is deeply, profoundly and fundamentally wrong. The most dangerous group of political extremists today is not the grass roots supporters of the Tea Party. It is the major sector of the Republican financial and ideological elite who have embraced the philosophy of “politics as warfare.”
To see why this is so, it is necessary to very clearly distinguish between two entirely distinct meanings of the term “extremism.” On the one hand, it is possible for a person or political party to hold a wide variety of very “extreme” opinions on issues. These views may be crackpot (e.g. “abolish paper money) or repugnant (“deny non-insured children medical care”). But as long as the individual or political party that holds these views conducts itself within the norms and rules of a democratic society, this, in itself, does not lead such groups or individuals to be described as “political extremists” by the media or society in general.
Libertarians and the Libertarian Party offer the best illustration. Vast numbers of Americans consider many libertarian views “extreme.” But, because the libertarians conduct themselves within the norms and rules of a democratic society, they are virtually never described by the media as “political extremists.”
The alternative definition of the term “political extremists” refers to political parties or individuals who do not accept the norms, rules and constraints of democratic society. They embrace a view of “politics as warfare” and of political opponents as literal “enemies” who must be crushed. Extremist political parties based on the politics as warfare philosophy emerged on both the political left and right at various times in the 20th century in many different countries and circumstances.
Despite their ideological diversity, extremist political parties share a large number of common characteristics, one critical trait being a radically different conception of the role and purpose of the political party itself in a democratic society.
In the politics as warfare perspective a political party’s objective is defined as the conquest and seizure of power and not sincere collaboration in democratic governance. The party is viewed as a combat organization whose goal is to defeat an enemy, not a governing organization whose job is to faithfully represent the people who voted for it. Political debate and legislative maneuvering are seen not as the means to achieve ultimate compromise, but as forms of combat whose objective is total victory.
This basic conception of the role of political parties leads to the justification and use of two profoundly anti-democratic strategies.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: How Democrats Can Make Common Cause with Occupy Wall Street

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Many pundits are asking whether the Democratic Party and the White House should “embrace” the Occupy Wall Street movement. The question is poorly posed. The real issue is the nature of the problems that now confront us and the most effective response to them. The party and the administration should make common cause with OWS to the extent that doing so is consistent with an agenda and message that Democrats can take to the country next year with a reasonable hope of rallying majority support.
Some basic facts are clear. The emergency measures the administration implemented in 2009 averted all-out catastrophe but did not restore the economy to health. The patient is still in the ICU, and the blood transfusions are coming to an end. The economy is growing far too slowly to make a dent in unemployment and is likely to do so for quite some time. While the top 1 or 2 percent are doing very well, the middle class is suffering. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 14 that median household income in the United States declined 7 percent from 2000 to 2010, the worst ten-year performance in more than forty years. Projected increases over the next decade will not be enough to regain the lost income, which means a full two decades of stagnation.
While there are many reasons for this gloomy picture, the most important is household debt, which remains much too high relative to disposable income. The administration’s program has done little to address the epicenter of the debt crisis–burdensome mortgages–a gaping hole that conservatives such as Glenn Hubbard and Martin Feldstein have urged the administration to fill. And young unemployed or underemployed college graduates are struggling with their own debt crisis–large students loans that they can’t repay. While saving the financial system imperfectly was preferable to letting it collapse, the failure to act with equal urgency to save the middle class will go down as a strategic error that ensured a populist reaction, which duly transpired–first on the right, now on the left.
A deeper issue underlies this outburst of discontent. Every community of any appreciable size has an elite–often more than one. Elites are tolerated, even respected, if the rest of the population sees them as using their wealth, power, prestige, and talents on behalf of the community’s interests, as well as their own. Elites are not expected to be saintly altruists, but they are expected to care about the rest of society, not just themselves.
And that is the nub of today’s populist revolt. It is very difficult to find anyone outside a couple of Manhattan zip codes who believes that the financial sector has added value to America’s economy and society over the past two decades. Financial “innovations” ended up expanding risk, not opportunity; the Masters of the Universe redivided the pie without noticeably expanding it. While wages stagnated, financial elites became untethered from the real economy and sailed off into the stratosphere of nine and ten-figure wealth. A capitalist economy loses credibility when its results diverge too far from public sentiments about decency and fairness.
That’s where we are today. The most recent Time Magazine survey found that 86 percent of Americans think that Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington, while 79 percent think that the gap between rich and poor has grown too large. Of those with at least some awareness of the OWS movement (about three quarters of those surveyed), 68 percent believe that the rich should pay higher taxes, and 71 percent that financial executives responsible for the financial meltdown should be prosecuted.
The task of political leadership is not to mirror or pander to these sentiments, but rather to articulate the important truths that underlie them. History shows that when elites fail to discharge the responsibilities their privileges entail, they sow the wind. America’s elites ignored this time-honored truth, and they are now reaping the whirlwind of their heedlessness.
In 2009, at a time when one might have expected maximum feasible humility from financial leaders, Lloyd Blankfein opined that Goldman Sachs was doing “God’s work.” While he was limning a previously unnoticed theological equivalence between himself and Mother Theresa, Brian Griffiths, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International and also chairman of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Fund, was invoking John Rawls’s Difference Principle. In a 2009 discussion at St. Paul’s Cathedral, he had this to say about compensation in the financial sector: “We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” And so we would, if it did. But where is the evidence that it does? I’m not even sure that Griffiths’ proposition was intended as a statement of fact. It seems, rather, like a ritual incantation designed to ward off evil spirits. If so, it has lost its protective powers.
It is time for a new American discussion about the responsibility of elites. Their role in helping to rebuild a sustainable fiscal course for our country would be a good place to start. Someone on Wall Street should circulate a petition endorsing the Senate Democrats’ call for a 5.6 percent surtax on the earnings of millionaires. It would be interesting to see how many banking and financial executives would sign it.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: How George Will Misunderstands Both Elizabeth Warren and Liberalism

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
George Will and I have something in common: We were both trained in the close reading of political texts. Will recently applied his interpretive skills to a statement by Elizabeth Warren, who is running for the Democratic senatorial nomination in Massachusetts. Here is what Warren said:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there–good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. … You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea–God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is [that] you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

After applying to Warren’s words William F. Buckley’s description of John Kenneth Galbraith–a pyromaniac in a field of straw men, refuting propositions no one asserts–Will moves to the gravamen of his argument: Warren’s vision entails a collectivist political agenda. He tartly and uncharitably described that agenda as follows:

[Its] premise is that individual is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so that the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize–i.e., conscript–whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession.

I have never met Warren. For all I know she may privately embrace the premise Will sketches. But even a cursory inspection of her public words reveals that she is saying nothing of the sort. Rather, she is making a straightforward argument. Without the enabling framework that only government can create, individuals cannot securely enjoy the fruits of their endeavors. Every return on investment, then, is actually a return on two sources of investment, one reflecting individual choice, the other public decisions. Taxation is not theft; nor is it, as the late philosopher Robert Nozick once put it, “on a par with forced labor.” Rather, it reflects the return on the public investment to which nearly everyone contributes. It does not rest on the claim that all resources are collective and that individuals receive what is theirs as an act of grace, but rather on the more modest claim that we all owe something in return for the collective goods without which our individual striving cannot succeed.
And Warren is saying something else as well–that (to quote a thinker with whom Will has more than a passing acquaintance), “Society is indeed a contract … a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Warren’s homely phrase, “pay forward,” captures the moral bond that connects this generation with the next. If we don’t adequately provide for their future, we are breaking that bond. A decent political community has the right–indeed the obligation–to honor that bond–if necessary, by compelling individuals who refuse to look beyond their own immediate concerns to contribute their share to the common future.
To be sure, these general arguments don’t come close to settling the question of who should pay how much in taxes. That’s what elections and political contestation are about. But they do establish a sturdy foundation for the idea that individual choice does not create all our obligations and there is nothing in principle objectionable when society presents its bill to each of us. I hope that is one of the straw men that Will (unlike some of his less tutored conservative brethren) never intended to deny.
Not content to accuse Warren of collectivism, he proceeds to accuse her of determinism, or at least to tar her of that sin by guilty association. Warren’s statement, he contends, is a “footnote to modern liberalism’s more comprehensive disparagement of individualism and the reality of individual autonomy. A particular liberalism, partly incubated at Harvard, intimates the impossibility, for most people, of self-government–of the ability to govern oneself.” This premise–public incompetence–is said to warrant a “tutelary government” that owes “minimal deference to people’s preferences.”
As Will might say, Well. Let us set aside Galbraith, John Rawls, and the bedraggled remnant band of Marxists clinging to the doctrine of false consciousness, none of whose views can be fairly be imputed to Elizabeth Warren. As I understand it, her case for reasonable regulation does not ignore, but rather reflects, people’s preferences. We don’t want to be misled or cheated, but the complexity of modern contractual arrangements can baffle even the most educated among us. So we collectively opt for a framework that protects us against those who have more time and expertise to devise deceptions than we do to ferret them out. No, government shouldn’t make our choices for us, and we shouldn’t ask it to. But it does have a legitimate role in ensuring that the information relevant to those choices is accurate and intelligible.
Again, we can argue about the details. No doubt the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Warren conceived and hoped to lead is imperfect in some respects, as is every human creation. If so, experience will expose its flaws, and the political process can improve it. But the claim that it rests on a necessary presupposition of individual incompetence–and worse, the denial of individual autonomy–is unfounded. And so is Will’s root-and-branch dismissal of modern liberalism.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: How Congress’s Showdown With China Puts Obama in a Serious Bind

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
While all of Washington fastened its gaze on Chris Christie, the most important issue of the week–maybe of the year–was playing out on the floor of the Senate. By a margin of 79 to 19, senators agreed to consider a measure that would allow the United States to impose tariffs on another country if the Treasury found its currency to be “misaligned.” As the Wall Street Journal points out, this is a less demanding standard than current law, which “requires a finding of intentional manipulation.” If this newfound bipartisan comity in Congress over the issue of confronting China culminates in a bill that passes both houses, it will put Obama in a serious bind: either adopt a similarly hawkish stance and risk a trade war, or issue a veto that would expose him to attack from the Republican nominee and provoke a populist backlash from workers and communities throughout America’s hard-pressed manufacturing sector.
The huge bipartisan majority on the procedural question this week virtually guarantees that the bill will make it through the Senate, and it illuminates the changing contours of the China trade issue. Nearly every Democrat voted to proceed; Washington’s Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and (intriguingly) Claire McCaskill of Missouri were the only dissidents. And fully 31 of the 47 Senate Republicans supported the motion as well, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander, Policy Committee Chairman John Thune, and John Cornyn, who heads the committee responsible for electing more Republicans to the Senate in 2012. Among the party’s leadership, John Kyl stood alone in opposition.
This Republican split should have come as no surprise. Last year, just a month before the midterm elections, a similar bill won the support of 99 Republicans, with only 74 opposed. If anything, the balance inside the new House Republican majority has shifted even further toward confronting the Chinese: Compared to traditional business-oriented conservatives, Tea Party populist conservatives are significantly more hawkish on Sino-U.S. trade relations. In a nomination contest in which Tea Party sympathizers will enjoy disproportionate influence, it is not hard to understand why even a quintessential business candidate like Mitt Romney has chosen to embrace a hard line on Chinese currency and trade practices.
Republicans are hardly out of step with the country, either. In a Pew survey conducted earlier this year, 54 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said that it was very important to get tougher with China on economic and trade issues; so did 52 percent of Democrats and their independent leaners. Among Republican identifiers and leaners, 60 percent of Tea Party sympathizers agreed, compared with only 49 percent of non-Tea Party sympathizers.
This is not to say that Americans see China as an adversary, a position endorsed by barely one-fifth of the population. And nearly three in five Americans believe that it is very important for the United States to build a stronger relationship with the People’s Republic. The question is whether we can have it both ways.
It’s easy for business-oriented leaders and publications to dismiss these sentiments as raw politics. But there’s more to them. In a recent NBER paper, “The China Syndrome,” economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson, who cannot be accused of shilling for anyone, examine the effects of Chinese import competition on the U.S. economy. Their conclusion: The more exposed a local labor market is to that competition, the larger its negative effects. They summarize matters this way:

Rising exposure increases unemployment, lowers labor force participation, and reduces wages in local labor markets. Conservatively, it explains one-quarter of the contemporaneous aggregate decline in U.S. manufacturing employment. Transfer benefits payments for unemployment, disability, retirement, and healthcare also rise sharply in exposed labor markets. The deadweight loss of financing these transfers is one to two-thirds as large as U.S. gains from trade with China.

I hope that other economists will examine and assess these findings, which seem solidly grounded. If Autor, Dorn, and Hanson are right, the United States has a problem that goes well beyond the vagaries of populist politics.
And speaking of politics, what about the House and the White House? John Boehner characterizes the Senate’s action as “dangerous” and believes that forcing another country to revalue its currency goes “well beyond what the Congress ought to be doing.” If he has his way, the bill will never come to the House floor. But it’s not clear that he will, because he probably doesn’t speak for a majority of his own party, let alone of the House. If a bipartisan coalition feels strongly about the matter, it can probably get enough signatures on a discharge petition to override the Speaker’s wishes.
As for the president, he has declined to take a position on the matter. Trapped between the imperatives of global diplomacy and pressure from the Democratic base, no doubt he is hoping that the Republican leadership can keep the bill bottled up indefinitely. If not, he’ll have to declare himself. And if legislation reaches his desk, he’ll be forced to make what could turn out to be a fateful choice: Sign the bill and risk a trade war, or veto it and face an onslaught from Mitt Romney throughout the Midwest. No wonder many Democrats are urging him to get engaged and negotiate with the Hill before he is faced with only these unpalatable options.
In a lead editorial, the Wall Street Journal argues that “a major benefit of free trade is its stabilizing effect on rising powers like China.” There’s something to this, as the history of the 1930s suggests. But American workers are entitled to ask why they are always the ones paying the price for our global diplomacy. If the U.S. business community wants to sustain an open global trade regime, it should start investing in job-creating enterprises here at home. And if the Obama administration wants to maintain a good working relationship with the world’s second-largest economy, it should use the leverage created by the pending currency legislation to wring significant economic concessions from China’s leaders. The alternative is a trade war that will benefit no one, and the collapse of the modest cooperation that now exists on issues such as North Korea and Iran. The clock is ticking, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Why the Electoral College Won’t Help Obama

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, Gerald Seib rightly reminds us that presidential campaigns are won and lost state by state in the Electoral College, not in the nationwide popular vote. (Once in a while, this turns out to be a distinction with a difference; just ask not-quite President Gore.) Based on state results from the past five elections, Seib argues that the Electoral College gives Democrats a distinct advantage: They’ve won the same 18 states plus the District of Columbia, totaling 242 electoral votes, in each of those elections, compared to only 13 states with 102 votes for the Republicans. I can’t argue with Seib’s math, but the question is whether it leads all the way to his conclusion.
Strictly speaking, one party enjoys a structural advantage in the Electoral College if its popular votes are distributed more efficiently than the other’s. If so, that party should be able to win an Electoral College majority with less than 50 percent of the two-party popular vote. We can test that proposition by applying the vote efficiency metric to the actual 2008 results.
In 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain by 365 electoral to 173. Now let’s do an alternative history based on two assumptions: (1) the two-party popular vote was evenly divided; and (2) Obama’s margin of victory in each state was reduced by the same amount–7.26 percentage points–yielding an equal division of the popular vote. Under that scenario, Obama would have lost five states that he actually won–Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, which total 86 electoral votes–but still would have prevailed in the Electoral College, 279 to 259. That would seem to validate the hypothesis that Democrats enjoy a structural edge: They get 10 more votes than an even split would yield.
But not so fast: The 2008 presidential election was the last to be carried out based on the 2000 census, and the distribution of electoral college votes did not reflect population shifts that had occurred in the ensuing years. The 2012 presidential election, on the other hand, will reflect those shifts, and it makes a difference. Reapportionment shifted six electoral votes from Democratic to Republican states. If we rerun the 2008 election with the 2012 electoral vote allocation plus an even split of the popular vote, Obama wins by a very narrow margin–273 to 265. So the current Democratic structural advantage is four electoral votes–not nothing, but not much either. The probability that Obama could win reelection without a majority of the popular vote is extremely–vanishingly–low.
Readers who haven’t lost patience with this jeu d’esprit might be interested in the end of the story. Given the assumptions underlying the math, the state that Obama carries most narrowly and that puts him over the top is … Colorado, which he would have carried by 1.7 points–50.0 percent to 48.3 percent–with an even division of the popular vote that reduced his margin in every state by 7.26 percent. (For the mathematically challenged: subtract 3.63 percent from the 53.66 percent of the vote Obama won in Colorado in 2008 and add it to McCain’s 44.71 percent.) Indeed, Seib singles out Colorado as a state Obama must win in the event that he loses Ohio, and David Axelrod has publicly identified that state as a key electoral template for the president’s reelection campaign.
Now back to the real world. The last Democrat to win the White House without carrying Ohio was John F. Kennedy, who pulled off the feat with 73 electoral votes from south of the Mason-Dixon line and another 26 from the border states of West Virginia, Missouri, and Arkansas. Obama’s likely haul from that territory: zero. And as Seib points out, the president is facing an uphill climb in much of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region–including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all of which went his way by larger margins than did Ohio. (For more evidence, see the latest Pennsylvania survey, which finds that 54 percent of registered voters disapprove of Obama’s performance and 51 percent don’t think he deserves reelection, while it has him running even with Romney in a state he carried by 10.3 points in 2008.) In short, the president won’t have the luxury of building his campaign on a solid-blue foundation of 242 electoral votes in 2012.
So what does this all mean? Barring unlikely circumstances, the core challenge facing the Obama campaign is not to execute a thread-the-needle Electoral College strategy. It is rather to spend the next thirteen and a half months giving the people credible reasons to believe that the economy will fare better in a second Obama term than it did in the first.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Left Behind: How Democrats Are Losing the Political Center

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
If you don’t think ideological perceptions matter in American politics, you need read no further. If you do and you’re a Democrat, there’s something to worry about. Even as the terms of the political debate in Washington, in the eyes of many Democrats, have moved steadily to the right, the electorate is increasingly likely to see itself as ideologically closer to the Republican Party than to Democrats. Unless Obama and Democrats can find a solution to this riddle–and find one fast–they will be contesting the 2012 election on forbidding terrain.
In mid-2005, as disaffection with the Bush administration and the Republican Party was gathering momentum, the Pew Research Center asked American to place themselves and the political parties on a standard left-right ideological continuum. At that time, average voters saw themselves as just right of center and equidistant from the two political parties. Independents considered themselves twice as far away from the Republican Party as from the Democrats, presaging their sharp shift toward the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term election.
In August of this year, Pew posed a very similar question (note to survey wonks: Pew used a five-point scale, versus six in 2005), but the results were very different. Although average voters continue to see themselves as just right of center, they now place themselves twice as far away from the Democratic Party as from the Republicans. In addition, Independents now see themselves as significantly closer to the Republican Party, reversing their perceptions of six years ago.
There’s another difference as well. In 2005, Republicans’ and Democrats’ views of their own parties dovetailed with the perceptions of the electorate as a whole. Today, while voters as a whole agree with Republicans’ evaluation of their party as conservative, they disagree with Democrats, who on average see their party as moderate rather than liberal. So when Independents, who see themselves as modestly right of center, say that Democrats are too liberal, average Democrats can’t imagine what they’re talking about.
Compounding the problem, the American people are gradually polarizing. According to Gallup, twenty years ago, as Bill Clinton began his presidential campaign, self-described moderates formed the plurality of the electorate–43 percent; conservatives were 36 percent, liberals 17 percent. By the summer of 2011, the conservative share had risen to 41 percent and liberals to 21 percent, while moderates declined to 36 percent, surrendering their plurality status to conservatives. Because nearly all conservatives now vote for Republicans and liberals for Democrats, the share of the shrinking pool of moderates that Democrats need to build a majority is now larger than ever.
Another Gallup finding that should alert Democrats is the ongoing collapse of public confidence in government. A survey released earlier this week found that Americans now believe that the federal government wastes 51 cents of every dollar it spends, the highest estimate ever recorded. Twenty-five years ago, that figure stood at only 38 cents. While estimates of waste at the state and local level remain lower than for the federal level, they have also risen by double digits in recent decades.
Overall, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the ideological playing-field heading into 2012 is tilted against Democrats. This reality only deepens the strategic dilemma the White House now confronts. The conventional strategy for an incumbent is to secure the base before the general public gets fully engaged and then reach out to the swing voters whose decisions spell the difference between victory and defeat. By contrast, the Obama team spent most of 2011 in what turned out to be a failed effort to win over the Independent voters who deserted Democrats in droves last November, in the process alienating substantial portions of the base. To rekindle the allegiance and enthusiasm of core supporters, the president now finds himself having to draw sharp ideological lines, risking further erosion among Independents and even moderate Democrats. Tellingly, a number of at-risk Democratic senators up for reelection in 2012 have already refused to go along with key elements of the president’s recent proposals.
Granted, ideology isn’t everything. Political scientists have long observed that Americans are more liberal on particulars than they are in general–ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. (Surveys have shown majority support for most individual elements of the president’s jobs and budget packages.) And the Republicans could undermine their chances by nominating a presidential candidate who is simply too hard-edged conservative for moderates and Independents to stomach.
In the face of widespread skepticism and disillusion, it will be an uphill battle for Democrats to persuade key voting blocks that government can really make their lives better. But if they fail, the public will continue to equate public spending with waste, the anti-government message will continue to resonate, and Democrats will be in dire straits when heading into what is shaping up as a pivotal election.