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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Democratic Strategist

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Why a New Poll in Ohio Spells Trouble for Obama in 2012

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Over the past half-century, Ohio has been the quintessential bellwether state in presidential elections. That’s why the nascent Obama campaign should be paying careful attention to a Quinnipiac survey of the Buckeye state released this week, which shows the president with weak job approval numbers and an unimpressive lead over Mitt Romney. The Ohio results bolster the view that if the economy doesn’t improve before next November, a majority of the electorate may well be open to the idea of firing the man they placed in charge less than three years ago.
Ohio has gone with the winner in twelve of the past thirteen contests; the last Democrat to win the White House without carrying Ohio was John F. Kennedy. The last Republican to win the presidency without Ohio? In the 39 quadrennial cycles since the founding of the GOP, no Republican has ever been inaugurated without Ohio in his column. This isn’t because of the raw math of the electoral college; any armchair strategist can find a way for Obama to get to 270 electoral votes without the Midwestern state. It is rather that the formula for winning a national majority is essentially the same as for prevailing in Ohio.
Indeed, Ohio is a political bellwether because it is a microcosm of the country. Its economy is balanced, with shares of its workforce in manufacturing, construction, services, sales, education, health care, and the professions mirroring the national breakdown. Its demography looks a lot like America’s too. The median age of its population is 37.9 years (36.5 for the country); 13.6 percent of its population is over 65, but so is 12.6 percent of the country. African-Americans make up 11.7 percent of the population (12.4 percent of the country). Latinos constitute the only notable difference: 15.1 percent of the country, but only 2.6 percent of Ohioans. This is a double-edged sword for Obama. On the one hand, the paucity of Latinos in Ohio helps to explain why his margin in that state lagged slightly behind his share of the national vote. On the other hand, if the predicted drop-off in next year’s Latino vote comes to pass, it will have much less effect in Ohio than in any other large swing state. [All demographic figures are from the U.S. Census Bureau.] Now for the Quinnipiac survey, released in two tranches on Wednesday and Thursday. To begin, it finds that the 2010 Republican tide has ebbed considerably. Newly elected governor John Kasich enjoys a woeful 35 percent approval rating, in part because his agenda is out of sync with that of the electorate. Although Ohioans think it’s fair to ask public employees to pay more for health insurance and pensions, only 34 percent support Kasich’s push to limit their collective bargaining rights. Fifty-eight percent think public employee unions should be able to bargain over health insurance, 56 percent oppose banning strikes by public employees, and 56 percent support a referendum to repeal Kasich’s changes to Ohio’s labor laws.
While Kasich made his mark in Washington as a leader on fiscal issues, the Ohio electorate is turning thumbs down on his budget as well. Yes, the people like the fact that the budget was balanced with spending cuts, not tax increases. Still, 54 percent of Ohioans disapprove of the way their governor is handling the budget. Fifty percent think that the newly approved fiscal plan is unfair to people like them; 34 percent think that the cuts go too far, versus only 25 percent who think that they didn’t go far enough; and only a third believe that the cuts will help the state’s economy.
In other words, if the 2012 election in Ohio were a referendum on Governor Kasich’s first two years, Obama would probably be home free. But there’s good reason to believe that it won’t be. Take health care. Fully 67 percent of Ohioans disapprove of the individual mandate in the new federal health care law–Obama’s signature domestic policy initiative. A proposed amendment to Ohio’s constitution blocking the mandate’s implementation may well pass and will certainly keep the electorate focused on that issue. In addition, 78 percent of Ohio’s voters (including 66 percent of Democrats) favor a state bill requiring would-be voters to show photo identification in order to cast their ballots, a change that Democratic operatives believe would reduce their margins in lower-income and minority communities.
This brings us to Obama’s chances. Fifty-eight percent of Ohio’s voters disapprove of his handling of the economy, despite the fact that Ohio unemployment has declined by two full percentage points–from 10.6 percent to 8.6 percent–since February of 2010, versus only 0.5 points (9.7 to 9.2 percent) for the country as a whole. Only 46 percent approve of the president’s overall job performance. The same percentage–46 percent overall, and 40 percent of Independents–feel that he deserves to be reelected. While the survey shows him way ahead of Tea Party favorites such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, Obama’s edge over Mitt Romney is a barely significant four points, 45 to 41.
The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey shows much the same thing: Obama’s job approval stands at 47 percent, and he leads Mitt Romney by 48 to 41 percent. And the generic question is revealing: Asked to choose between President Obama and the “Republican candidate,” 42 percent of voters said they’d probably vote for Obama, versus 39 percent who opted for the Republican candidate. But fully 10 percent–a share that hasn’t varied much this year–said that it would depend on the identity of Obama’s opponent.
Of course, it’s early, and as a useful Gallup analysis shows, an incumbent’s ratings in the twelfth quarter of his presidency are more predictive than are those in the tenth, the quarter that Obama has just completed. But it’s not too early to see the basic options for 2012. If the economy perks up even modestly, Obama wins. If not, we’re in for a repeat of 1980, when a majority of the electorate was willing to fire the incumbent, but not unless they felt comfortable with the challenger–a sentiment that didn’t crystallize until the pivotal Carter-Reagan debate. So if the Republicans manage to nominate a mainstream conservative who seems reasonable, they may well win. If they nominate Palin or Bachmann, they’ll commit creedal suicide, as each party ends up doing about once a generation. As for Rick Perry–the Republican flavor du jour–it remains to be seen whether he can become the party unifier who energizes the Tea Party base and Main Street conservatives without repelling the moderates and independents who will decide a close election.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Three Ways Obama Can Fix the Housing Crisis

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Today, more the two years after the official start of the recovery, we find ourselves mired in slow growth and high unemployment. The majority of Americans cannot distinguish between this recovery and stagnation, if not continued recession. One question is why the economy is performing so much worse than in the previous post-recessionary periods since World War Two. And once we think we have an answer to that question, we have another: What is to be done?
Economics is the obvious place to turn for answers. But, despite the impressive gains in the field over the past century, economic policymaking (like the rest of public policy) remains more art than science. We try to find the best way forward without being certain that our efforts will produce the hoped-for outcome. Even if the weight of evidence, argument, and common sense leans strongly in one direction, skeptics who look for countervailing considerations can almost always find them. So let me begin an argument that will lead to specific policy recommendations by stating as clearly as I can what is most probably true about the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
First, it is likely that Carmen and Vincent Reinhart are right: We are now enduring the aftermath of a financial crisis, which differs qualitatively from cyclical downturns and typically requires much more time to recover. In a recent paper, “After the Fall,” the Reinharts look at 15 post-WWII single-nation financial crises and three global contractions–the Great Depression of 1929, the post-1973 oil shock, and the 2007 U.S. subprime collapse. Their survey includes five advanced economy crises: Spain (1977), Norway (1987), Finland (1991), Sweden (1991), and Japan (1992). Here are their principal findings:

Real growth rates decline by about 1 percent in the decade following financial crisis.
Unemployment rises on average by about 5 percent points and remains high for many years. In fully a third of the cases the Reinharts analyze, the rate never falls to pre-crisis levels.
In the decade prior to a financial crisis, the debt-to-GDP ratio rises by an average of 38 percent. After the crisis, it falls by the same amount, but it takes close to a decade to subside to previous levels. While the debt is being worked down, credit is restricted, slowing growth in output and employment.
Median housing prices fall on average by 15 to 20 percent (and in some cases by as much as 55 percent) and remain at depressed levels for the entire post-crisis decade.

When we place U.S. economic trends since 2006 into this historical context, the current downturn looks about average for financial slumps–less severe in some respects, more so in others. Though alarming, the sharp decrease of 55 percent in stock market indices that bottomed out early in 2009 was par for the course, as is the steep rise in the public debt-to-GDP ratio. And, if history is any guide, we may be only halfway through the period of debt reduction and slow growth.
Second, compared to other financial crises, distorted household balance sheets are more central. Household debt surged from 65 percent of disposable income in 1980 to 133 percent in 2007. At the core of that surge was the enormous escalation in mortgage indebtedness. When combined with a bubble in housing prices, withdrawal of equity from homes enabled a level of consumer spending that could not be sustained and that left household balance sheets in tatters when home prices receded. This effect has been huge: The most recent Case-Shiller index revealed that housing has already fallen as much from its peak as it did during the Great Depression. And there’s no guarantee that we’ve hit bottom yet. Prices could decline another 5 percent to 10 percent, millions of homes remain at risk of foreclosure, and millions of others are in earlier stages of delinquency that could lead down the same path.
Third, the pace and extent of this jarring decline in the housing sector is affected by public policy. A recent paper by Atif Mian, Amir Sufi, and Francesco Trebbi showed that, in states with foreclosure laws that favor creditors, foreclosures occur more frequently and rapidly, more homes are thrown on the market, housing prices decline more, and the pace of new home construction is much slower. In the aggregate, these effects are highly significant: The authors estimate that foreclosures have been responsible for 20 percent to 30 percent of the decline in housing prices, 15 percent to 25 percent of the decline in residential investment, and 20 percent to 35 percent of the decline in auto sales.
Assuming the validity of these three premises, one would have expected the incoming Obama administration to have given the housing sector a high priority and to have offered dramatic proposals for stabilizing it, all the more so because candidate Obama showed an acute awareness of this issue. On September 16, 2008, as the financial crisis intensified, Obama vowed to “change our bankruptcy laws to make it easier for families to stay in their homes.” But, as investigations by ProPublica have shown, both the Obama campaign and his administration missed (critics would say rebuffed) numerous opportunities–including the TARP legislation and the stimulus package–to do what Obama promised. Instead the end, we ended up with all-but-toothless voluntary programs that predictably have fallen far short of their goals for mortgage modifications.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: What if the Right and the Left Are Both Wrong About Why the Economic Recovery Is So Slow? A New Theory.

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Ever since it became clear that the pace of the economic recovery was falling short of expectations, two competing narratives have vied to dominate our politics. Movement conservatives argue that the weight of a government that “spends too much, taxes too much, and borrows too much” is suffocating the private sector and that new laws and regulations have throttled investment and job creation by creating uncertainty about the costs of doing business. Keynesian liberals, meanwhile, counter that the problem is the collapse of demand and that the government’s failure to offer a large enough stimulus is consigning us to a rate of growth not easy to distinguish from stagnation.
What if they’re both wrong? That’s the claim of Amir Sufi, a finance professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The data tell a compelling story, he argues: “The main factor responsible for both the severity of the recession and the subsequent weakness of the economic recovery is the deplorable weakness of the U.S. household balance sheet,” which is, Sufi shows, “in worse condition than at any other point in history since the Great Depression.”
Because Sufi’s argument makes so much intuitive sense, I started digging into the data for myself. And the information I found supports his thesis.
For instance, according to reports issues quarterly by the Federal Reserve Board of New York, household debt rose from $4.6 trillion in 1999 to $12.5 trillion in early 2008. After three years of painful deleveraging (mainly through home foreclosures and reductions in credit card balances), it still stands at $11.5 trillion–roughly where it was at the beginning of 2007.
To understand the burden this imposes on households, let’s look at a key measure: the ratio of household debt to disposable income. Between 1965 and 1984, the ratio remained steady at 64 percent. Between 1985 and 2000, it rose virtually without interruption to 97 percent. And then, it shot into the stratosphere, peaking at 133 percent in 2007. Four years later, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco it has come down only modestly: Household debt still stands at 118 percent of disposable income.
The official figures confirm the widespread belief that mortgage debt is the core of the problem. In 1999, mortgages accounted for 69 percent of household debt. Today, it’s 74 percent, of a total that has more than doubled. Worse, the conventional wisdom that households used their homes as piggy banks during the boom turns out to be correct. During most of the 1990s, equity extracted from homes through home equity loans amounted to about 1 percent of disposable income. By the peak of the bubble in 2006, that figure had risen to a rate of $800 billion per year–a stunning 9 percent of disposable income. And we know that all that extracted equity was spent, because the personal savings rate collapsed to near-zero during that period. When housing prices collapsed, households were left with a mountain of debt, and little equity with which to offset it. Not surprisingly, equity withdrawals also collapsed, to -1 percent, by early 2008.
What’s more, consider that it has been 42 months since the peak of the business cycle, and 24 months since the trough. At a comparable point in the aftermath of the two prior recessions (1990-1991 and 2001), real household net worth per person had fully recovered. But, today, real per capita household net worth stands more than 15 percent below its peak. Similarly, at this point in the prior two recoveries, real personal consumption expenditures per person had reached and exceeded their pre-recession peak. According to a “report”:http://www.frbsf.org/publications/economics/letter/2011/el2011-21.html just out from the San Francisco Fed, consumption per person today is still 1.6 percent below its 2007 peak and is growing very slowly.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Why Obama Should Seek An Interim Agreement on the Debt Ceiling

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
With Obama set to meet with congressional leaders from both parties on Thursday in the hopes of working out a deal to raise the debt ceiling, it’s a good time to step back from the details of the controversy and assess the bigger picture. My conclusion: We can’t get through the presidential election without addressing the fundamental issues facing the country and dividing the parties–the size of government, the level of taxation, and the future of Medicare and Medicaid. But with Republicans committed to their anti-tax orthodoxy and Democrats unwilling to surrender to it, the possibility of a compromise in the next 27 days seems as remote as the consequences of a failure to raise the ceiling seem dire. In place of both these options there’s a third possibility–an interim agreement, which has many longer-term downsides but may be the best we can do right now. Here’s the analysis that leads to me this conclusion.
The current negotiations can yield three possible outcomes. First, the parties might defy the odds and reach a grand bargain that includes revenues, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as domestic and defense discretionary spending. According to some reports, before the Biden talks broke down, negotiators had identified possible spending cuts totaling at least $1.9 trillion (excluding interest savings). But as long as Republicans refuse to consider any revenue increases, the grand bargain won’t happen.
Nor should it. Yes, we’re spending too much. But we’re also taxing too little–or, if you prefer, spending too much through the tax code. Writing in the most recent issue of the conservative-leaning journal National Affairs, Donald Marron (a former CEA member and CBO director under George W. Bush) says that “America needs to fix its broken tax system and find additional revenue to help reduce our persistent budget deficits. The best way to achieve both aims is to take a hatchet to the thicket of spending-like tax preference.” He’s absolutely right. Obama and the congressional Democrats should not accept any deal lending credibility to the view that we can stabilize our long-term finances without additional revenues.
A second possible outcome is that the contending parties can’t converge on an interim solution and that we reach August 2nd without an agreement. What then? One possibility might be called “son of TARP”: the markets crash, panic spreads, and those who previously doubted the significance of a default see the error of their ways. Some economists believe that even a very short default would have long-lasting consequences for the perceived credit-worthiness of the United States, and therefore for interest rates. Putting their projection to the test of events strikes me as a reckless risk that no one should choose to run.
Each party has now advanced its favored scenario for avoiding default in the absence of an agreement. Led by Senator Pat Toomey, some Republicans believe that the Secretary of the Treasury could avert default by moving U.S. debt to the head of the line as the first claimant on government revenues. Secretary Geithner denies that he has such authority and insists that the failure to meet our full range of obligations would be perceived as, and have the same effect as, a default on our debt.
An analysis released yesterday by the Bipartisan Policy Center dramatizes this point. The day after the August 2 deadline, the government will have about $12 billion in receipts versus $32 billion in commitments, including a $23 billion Social Security payment. Even if the government reneged on all obligations other than Social Security, it couldn’t send out the checks in full and on time. And that’s just Day 1. By the end of the month, the government would have failed to meet $134 billion in legal obligations.
For their part, some Democrats have urged President Obama to invoke Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.” Doing so would plunge the government into uncharted constitutional waters and all-out partisan warfare. On the one hand, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution clearly vests the power to “borrow Money on the credit of the United States” in the legislative branch, casting doubt on the president’s ability to issue debt in the absence of congressional authorization. On the other hand, the power to borrow money entails the obligation to repay it, and it is up to Congress to meet that obligation–a legal obligation reinforced by the 14th Amendment. While the amendment’s language is rooted in the specific circumstances of the Civil War, the Supreme Court has been inclined to read it more broadly. In Perry v. the United States, one of the Gold Standard cases decided in 1935, the Court declared that:

The Constitution gives to the Congress the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States, an unqualified power, a power vital to the Government, upon which in an extremity its very life may depend. The binding quality of the promise of the United States is of the essence of the credit which is so pledged. Having this power to authorize the issue of definite obligations for the payment of money borrowed, the Congress has not been vested with authority to alter or destroy those obligations.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Jonathan Pollard–What Precepts of Decency Does our State Owe its Prisoners?

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
A man sits in prison, serving a life sentence after committing grave crimes against his country. Meanwhile, his aged father lies dying. The prisoner asks to be released for one day to say goodbye at his father’s bedside. The authorities say no; by some accounts, they do not even reply to his request. His father dies, and he asks to be released for one day to attend the funeral. Again, he is turned down, reportedly after high-level diplomatic consultations.
This is, of course, Jonathan Pollard’s story. But I presented it anonymously because it shouldn’t matter whose story it is. Pollard is a prisoner, but he is still a human being. Honoring our parents by burying them appropriately is one of the defining duties of our humanity. Preventing a human being from discharging that duty is an elemental wrong.
Governments typically deal in aggregates and make decisions affecting millions. Sometimes, however, it comes down to an encounter between state power and a single individual. I do not claim that the moral principles that shape relations among individuals transfer neatly to the acts of public authorities. There is a difference, even if we argue about the specifics of the distinction. Still, basic precepts of decency and mercy do not lose all force when one moves from private to public status.
The Secretary of State and the Attorney-General owe us an explanation. In fact, the President of the United States owes us an explanation. My question is simple: What considerations of public safety, or national security, or international relations were so weighty as to override the dictates of simple humanity?
I do not know whether it is standard practice in the U.S. penal system to allow prisoners to attend their parents’ funeral. If it isn’t, it should be. Nor do I know whether the Israeli government prevents some Palestinian prisoners from attending funerals, as Palestinian spokesmen have recently charged. If that is the case, the Israelis should reexamine their policy and ask themselves whether national security truly requires it.
These are legitimate questions, but they do not touch the core of the point I’m making: There are times when you don’t need an elaborate moral argument to identify a straightforward wrong. If I’m right, the U.S. government’s treatment of Pollard’s request is one of the times. For high officials to persist in their obstinate silence only deepens the wrong.

Teixeira on Obama’s White Working Class Threshold

TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira provides a solid analysis at The New Republic today of precisely how well Barack Obama needs to do among white working-class voters to win re-election in 2012:

In 2008, during his otherwise-solid election victory, Obama lost the white working class vote by 18 points. In 2010, however, things got much worse: Congressional Democrats’ experienced a catastrophic 30 point deficit among the same group. While the first number is a figure Obama could live with repeating, the second could very well prove fatal.

Teixeira goes on to explain that white working class voters, which have been trending Republican heavily in presidential contests since 1996, are particularly important in key swing states:

White working class voters could end up representing as much as 56 percent of Ohio voters in 2012, judging from Census voter supplement data. Anything close to a 30 point deficit in 2012 will almost definitely sink Obama in this state, no matter what happens with the friendlier portions of the Ohio electorate….
Contested states with high proportions of white working class voters like Minnesota (60 percent white working class in 2012), Wisconsin (58 percent), Pennsylvania (55 percent), and Michigan (53 percent) could easily be flipped if this group flees from Obama.

In the long run, of course, white working class voters represent a shrinking percentage of the electorate. But this one-time bulwark of the Democratic Party can still decide elections.

[T]he good news for Obama is that the level of support he needs from this group of voters is not terribly high. While a 30 point deficit might sink him, he could survive pretty easily on a 23 point deficit, John Kerry’s margin in 2004. That Obama would likely win with this very large deficit, while Kerry lost, indicates just how much the demographics of the country have changed in the 8 years since Kerry’s defeat. But while the bar for Obama may be lower, he still needs to clear it, and at the moment, that’s looking like a real challenge.

Bachmann’s Radical Roots

Now that Rep. Michele Bachmann is in the spotlight as a strong performer in Monday’s Republican presidential candidate debate, it’s very helpful to know more about what makes the Minnesota conservative firebrand tick. Right on cue, Michelle Goldberg, an authority on the “Christian nationalist” movement, has written an important backgrounder on Bachmann’s career and ideology for the Daily Beast.
Goldberg makes it crystal clear that Bachmann’s not just some Republican pol who happens to be active in Christian Right causes. She’s the expositor of an ideology that views politics as an arena for the imposition of godly rule as intepreted by a radical strain of conservative evangelicalism. And it comes out in strange but understandable ways, if you have the decoder ring:

On Monday, Bachmann didn’t talk a lot about her religion. She didn’t have to–she knows how to signal it in ways that go right over secular heads. In criticizing Obama’s Libya policy, for example, she said, “We are the head and not the tail.” The phrase comes from Deuteronomy 28:13: “The Lord will make you the head and not the tail.” As Rachel Tabachnick has reported, it’s often used in theocratic circles to explain why Christians have an obligation to rule.

To those who wouldn’t normally look to Deuteronomy for guidance on U.S. policy towards Libya, this sort of approach seems bizarre. But once you are inside the crusading worldview of people like Bachmann, it all makes sense.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Forward Thinking

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Friday’s job growth numbers, reported by the Labor Department, present a sobering picture for President Obama and the Democrats. With the pace of hiring down and the unemployment rate above 9 percent, the report suggests that the nation’s recovery is once again faltering. These numbers only underscore our continuing economic difficulties. And for a mix of political and policy reasons, the federal government has no significant new fiscal or monetary weapons left to deploy. As they head into an election that is certain to focus on the economy, the administration and congressional Democrats have no choice but to put the best face on a bad situation. What can they do?
As it happens, two recently released reports have explored public attitudes on the economy. Taken together, they illuminate the challenges Democrats will face in framing a credible and effective economic message. But they also shed light on surprising opportunities and, read closely, they just might point to the best way forward.
On Thursday, Andrew Levison published a memo asking “Why Can’t the Dems Make Jobs a Winning Political Issue?” His answer: While Democrats’ default response to high unemployment and slow growth is Keynesian, “a very strong anti-Keynesian perspective on job creation is extraordinarily widespread among American voters.” Large numbers of voters don’t think they have to choose between spending reductions and job creation because they see the former as one of the keys to the latter. Not only is government spending seen as a drag on the private sector, but also the most prominent Keynesian stimulus in recent years–the 2009 stimulus package–is widely regarded as a failure. Although a large majority of economists have concluded that it prevented a bad situation from becoming much worse, a majority of the American people believe that it failed. From their standpoint, the fact that unemployment continues to stagnate near 9 percent is proof enough that we can’t spend our way to prosperity. And the Obama administration helped to undermine the credibility of the stimulus early on by issuing an overly optimistic assessment of its likely effects.
To be sure, there are many “ambivalent” voters who are neither Keynesians nor supply-siders but rather are cross-pressured by these competing narratives, and each party needs to win them over. For Democrats to appeal successfully to the ambivalents, Levison contends, they must grapple with four realities:
1. “Simply repeating the traditional Democratic narrative–regardless of how frequently or emphatically–will not produce significant attitude change.”
2. “Doubts about the ability of government to create jobs reflect not only a disbelief in Keynesian remedies for unemployment but also the profound doubts many Americans have about government in general.”
3. “Attempts to convince the critical group of ambivalent voters have to be based on those voters’ distinct way of thinking about political issues–the desire to find a ‘common-sense’ middle ground.”
4. “The widespread progressive assumption that job creation should necessarily be just as popular today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s is simply wrong.”
Levison concludes that any effective Democratic message must tackle the public’s deep skepticism about government and convince the ambivalent portion of the electorate that the party’s economic prescription reflects common sense rather than obsolete assumptions.
Also on Thursday, a second report was unveiled, this time from Democracy Corps, a group headed by long-time Democratic survey researcher Stan Greenberg and party stalwart James Carville. Based on a new survey, it reaches conclusions that are broadly consistent with Levison’s. The report documents a substantial fall in public confidence that Republicans have the right approach to fiscal and economic policy. But Republican losses have not translated into Democratic gains, either for the party or for President Obama. The mood of the public with regard to the economy is pretty close to “a plague on both your houses.” Neither party has an approach to recovery and growth that the public regards as inspiring or even credible.
A majority of Americans continues to believe that the economy is either stagnating or getting worse, and only 44 percent overall (and 34 percent of Independents) approves of Obama’s handling of that issue. Core economic realities shape these attitudes. Forty-three percent of respondents have experienced reduced wages and benefits; 35 percent have actually lost a job; and 27 percent have lost health insurance for some period of time. Fully 20 percent have fallen behind on their mortgage. For these reasons, talking about progress on the economy–either actual or impending–only weakens the credibility of the speaker.
The public has clear views about the major economic problems that public policy needs to address. Thirty-seven percent named “high government spending, the budget deficit, and taxes.” The same percentage cited “the middle class and working people facing rising costs and declining income.” Close behind with 32 percent was the “outsourcing of American jobs and China creating rules that block American exports,” followed by a wasteful government dominated by special interests and not accountable to the people (26 percent), falling behind India and China in education and innovation (22 percent), and taxes and regulations that prevent businesses from hiring people and expanding (19 percent).


At Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Brendan Nyhan has a fascinating analysis of the absence of major scandals in the Obama administration, and of the likelihood that the political environment will soon produce one.
Nyhan defines “major scandal” as “a widespread elite perception of wrongdoing.” By that standard, Obama has done very well:

In the 1977-2008 period, the longest that a president has gone without having a scandal featured in a front-page Washington Post article is 34 months – the period between when President Bush took office in January 2001 and the Valerie Plame scandal in October 2003. Obama has already made it almost as long despite the lack of a comparable event to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Nyan believes the availability of competing news has a big impact on the emergence of scandals, and that Obama (like Bush) has benefitted from big, dominant developments that inhibited the growth of reports, rumors or smears into scandals. But totally aside from any assessments of its integrity, the Obama administration is overdue in the scandal department, particularly since opposition hostility is a big factor in increasing the likelihood of scandals:

Obama already faces low approval among GOP identifiers and a similarly hostile climate in Congress. Back in March, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted that Republicans hadn’t yet made a serious effort to back up claims that the Obama White House is “one of the most corrupt administrations.” As more time passes, pressure to find evidence of misconduct is likely to build — my data suggest that the risk of scandal increases dramatically as the period without a scandal stretches beyond two years.

Indeed, notes Nyhan, Republicans are already busily trying to fan the flames beneath a number of “stories” that could theoretically become “scandals:”

Recent examples include allegations of an administration “enemies list” as a result of a National Labor Relations Board complaint against Boeing; claims of favoritism in decisions to grant waivers from regulations imposed under health care reform; and allegations that Department of Justice officials allowed straw purchases of guns that were smuggled to Mexico, prompting a standoff with Congress that House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) recently compared to Iran-Contra.

Since a couple of weeks of concentrated conservative media hyperventilation coordinated with, say, a congressional hearing, are entirely capable of moving just about any negative “story” to the threshold of a scandal, the key variable could actually be which mini-scandal the Right decides to make an obsession. If Nyhan is correct, that should happen pretty soon, absent another competing mega-story.

DeMint? I’m Down With That!

Into the ragged and treacherous landscape of the 2012 Republican presidential contest now comes a simple and elegant solution: Just nominate Jim DeMint and get it over with.
That’s the thinking of a growing conservative band, according to The Hill‘s Alexander Bolton:
Two GOP factions have begun to draft DeMint for a presidential run.

One is organized by Richard Viguerie, a conservative pioneer in the field of direct-mail political marketing, who helped Reagan win election in 1980.
The other is Conservatives4DeMint, which claims to have about 4,700 members and regional coordinators in 35 states.
Viguerie held a Saturday conference call with allies to plan the initial stages of the draft movement.
“I’ve asked him about the presidential thing twice in the last five or six weeks,” Viguerie said of his recent conversations with DeMint.
“I think he’s giving it serious consideration. Hopefully this will push him over the line and give him the encouragement that there would be a strong base of support,” Viguerie added.
He said DeMint compares to Goldwater in 1964, whom conservatives drafted to challenge President Johnson, and Reagan in 1976 and 1980 respectively.
“He would be the dominant movement conservative leader,” Viguerie said. “He would be the front-runner overnight.”

I think that’s probably true, given DeMint’s national base, cemented by his aggressive (and largely successful) intervention in 2010 Republican primaries.
A DeMint nomination would also be highly appropriate, since he’s the living symbol of the very deliberate turn to the right that the GOP executed after the 2008 elections. Once a lonely crank in the Senate, he’s now clearly more powerful than the alleged Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who jumps when DeMint says “Frog.”
Democrats would probably be fine with a DeMint nomination, too, since he’s been a bit more frank about the conservative agenda, calling public schools “government schools” and talking about the role of Social Security and Medicare seducing the American middle class into heathen socialist ways.
It would save everybody an enormous amount of time and trouble if we could just make this election a referendum on the philosophies of the two major parties. There are very few Republicans who would publicly deny that DeMint is an exemplar of their own philosophy. So bring him on!