Senate Pondering

Thursday, 30 October 2014, 14:39 | Category : Politics
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With just a few days left before election day, it’s getting more and more difficult to see a way that Democrats retain control of the Senate. In Montana and South Dakota, the Democratic candidate has essentially no chance. In Arkansas and Iowa, slim chances appear to be slipping away. Colorado, somewhat surprisingly, is moving in favor of Cory Gardner (R), even though Mark Udall seems to be a fairly popular incumbent. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana looks increasingly like a losing candidate. Lose those six states with no offsetting Democratic gains, and the Republicans take control of the Senate, 51-49. Of those, Colorado looks like the best chance for Democrats to hold on, but if the polls are correct, that chance is fading. And there are other states where Democrats could well lose their seats – Alaska, North Carolina, New Hampshire. Kay Hagan appeared to have stabilized her race in North Carolina, but the past few days have seen her lead shrinking. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is a couple of points behind in most polls, but Alaska polls are notoriously inaccurate, so nobody can really say what’s happening there. Jeanne Shaheen looks like she’s ahead in New Hampshire, but the race is tight. On the Republican side, two races that should be safe are surprisingly not, and the most surprising is in Kentucky, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a very tight race with Allison Lundergan Grimes. Georgia, a red state that is beginning to trend purple, wasn’t expected to be a problem for Republicans, but David Perdue (R) and Michelle Nunn (D) are probably headed to a January runoff. And then there’s Kansas, which will either re-elect a very unpopular Republican (Pat Roberts) or elect an independent (Greg Orman) who isn’t saying which party he would caucus with.

What’s the likely worst case for Democrats? Losing all six of the states where they’re in the most trouble, and adding one or more losses in North Carolina/New Hampshire/Alaska would put Republicans in control with somewhere between a 51-49 advantage and a 54-46 advantage. And given the factors lined up against Democrats – President Obama’s unpopularity, traditional mid-term losses by the President’s party in the mid-term of his last term, and the lack of gaffe-prone Republican candidates this time around – the most likely outcome is a Senate that ends up with 52 or 53 Republicans. But if Democrats somehow manage to hold on to their expected wins, and salvage victories in a couple of their endangered seats – say, Colorado and Iowa – or pull off upsets in Kentucky or Georgia, then they could retain control with 50 or 51 seats (a 50-50 tie keeps Democrats in charge with Vice-President Biden casting the tie-breaking vote). That would be a shocker, however. And given the advantages for Republicans this time around, a Senate still controlled by Democrats would be a crushing defeat for Republicans.

Why? Because 2016 could be a strong year for Senate Democrats. 23 Republicans will be up for re-election, compared to only 10 Democrats. And among those 23 Republicans are a number in traditionally blue states: Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. John McCain (Arizona) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) could well retire. And if a Republican Senate majority following 2014 starts playing hard to the Tea Party faction, they could turn many moderates against them. So a Republican win in 2014, while painful for Democrats, may be a short-lived pain, and could actually enhance Democratic prospects in both the 2016 Senate and Presidential races.

Now We Know What Isn’t Enough

Wednesday, 20 March 2013, 8:04 | Category : Politics
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As expected, there will be no ban on assault weapons in the Senate gun bill. And it doesn’t appear that the limit on magazine size will be in there, either. As I’ve said before, we love our kids, but we worship our guns. And now we know that the slaughter of 20 first-grade children and 6 teachers isn’t enough to bump the needle when it comes to gun control in the United States. The NRA’s “any gun, any time, anyone, anywhere” philosophy is used like a bludgeon any time the slightest limit on any gun is proposed. So if the bar isn’t set at 20 children, where is it? 30? 40? Maybe Girl Scouts selling cookies? I’m not necessarily arguing for a ban on assault weapons, or any particular restriction. I’m just wondering what it will take to spark a real discussion on guns in America, without the specter of the NRA looming over any politician who dares to speak against them. Because somewhere down the line, some incident will take place that is so horrific that the discussion will start, and will be driven by those who want to bring about the extensive ban that the gun nuts and survivalists fear. Frederick the Great said “Little minds try to defend everything at once, but sensible people look at the main point only; they parry the worst blows and stand a little hurt if thereby they avoid a greater one. If you try to hold everything, you hold nothing.” Unfettered freedom has never been a part of the American tradition. A willingness to accept some moderate restrictions now might avert more severe restrictions later, but that isn’t the NRA’s way. So they win another round, and the deaths of 20 little children in a classroom in Connecticut will have resulted in little more than an astounding increase in sales of AR-15s and ammunition. The right of the people to bear tragedy after tragedy shall not be infringed.

The Most Dangerous Man In America

Wednesday, 28 November 2012, 20:41 | Category : Politics
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OK, not really. Or mostly not really. Except maybe in the fiscal sense. I’m talking about Grover Norquist. In the past quarter-century, he has probably done more to distort US fiscal policy than anyone. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a low-taxes policy. But when it’s wielded like a mace in all situations, it isn’t a policy, it’s a creed, and as we’re beginning to see now, those adherents who fail to strictly conform are branded apostates. Since 1986, Norquist has reigned supreme as a no-tax-increase zealot, and signing the pledge to oppose any tax increase has become mandatory for any serious Republican office-seeker. Among other things, this has come to mean that there’s no longer such a thing as a temporary tax cut. Once a tax goes down, for whatever reason, it can’t go back up. The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were “temporary”, with a supposed sunset of 2010.

Why the sunset? Because a permanent tax cut would have required 60 votes in the Senate, and the Republicans didn’t have that many. So they used a legislative mechanism that required only a simple majority and passed “temporary” tax cuts, that were never intended to be temporary. Their presumption was that as soon as they got 60 Republicans in the Senate, they would make the cuts permanent. That never happened. What also never happened was any decrease in spending. As I’ve said many times before, Democrats are tax-and-spend; Republicans are spend-and-spend. So the hard, simple reality is that a decade of tax cuts were paid for with borrowed money, to be repaid by our children and grandchildren. President Obama and the Democrats don’t get off either – the 2% payroll tax cut is probably the biggest disagreement I’ve had with his policies. It was a poorly-played political move that yielded essentially no political benefits. But back to Norquist – there are basically two ways to manage government budgets: revenues and spending. Sure, you can play around the edges with economic policy incentives, but what it really boils down to is revenues and spending. The essence of Democratic government is compromise, but thanks to Norquist and his single-issue political theology, the Republicans have set aside half the mechanism. Until, perhaps, now. We’re seeing just a hint of weakening in the ranks. Maybe. Norquist has vowed revenge against anyone who breaks ranks in any way, whether it’s on tax rates or deduction caps*. No one, in Norquist’s America, can ever pay more in taxes than they do today. He exists in a world where spending cuts will somehow create all the deficit reduction we’ll need. And, of course, none of those cuts can come from defense, no matter how high military spending has grown. It’s a fantasy, and a dangerous one.

* – Once again today, I heard a Republican senator saying that he wouldn’t allow any increase in tax rates for the wealthy, because increasing tax rates would cause small businesses to cut jobs. But, he said, he would be willing to consider a cap on deductions, which would, of course, cause their tax bill to be higher. Somebody help me out here – do small business owners have one pot of money for paying taxes due to tax rates, which is also used to create jobs, and another pot to pay the tax bill resulting from lower deductions, which isn’t used for job creation? Because otherwise the “job creators” argument makes no sense.

Lame Ducks And Dead Polar Bears

Tuesday, 13 November 2012, 15:34 | Category : Politics
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Congress returns to work today, and we’ll once again be treated to a nearly endless series of “lame duck” proclamations. They have 16 days to accomplish something, or do nothing, or waddle somewhere in between. And despite what you’ve heard, it isn’t all about the fiscal cliff (a term I already hate with something approaching a passion). Somewhere out there is a farm bill, which is only important if you grow food for money, or pay money to buy food. The debt ceiling is out there once again. And there could be bills about disaster funding, the Law Of The Sea Treaty, and dead polar bears (seriously, and no, this isn’t about the ice floes melting). But what we’ll hear most about is the looming fiscal cliff. And if you aren’t already frightened into your survivalist cave by this, there are plenty of people on airwaves all around you who will do their best to make you think that civilization as we know it will end come January 1, and if that’s the case, then the only thing standing between us and the abyss is a bunch of lame ducks.

I’m not making light of the situation, but I’m thinking that as the days and weeks go by, if Congress and the President don’t come to a compromise solution, the hysteria will grow until we’re all scared to death. Despite all the statistics and numbers, the economy is driven by attitude much more than we’d like to admit, and the endless fear-mongering is going to make sequestration worse than it has to be. FDR would say “fear of sequestration is worse than sequestration itself”. Come January 1, the government is not going to show up at your door demanding you turn over, in cash, an amount equal to the higher taxes you might owe. They aren’t going to start pulling fighter jets off the runway for storage. No army platoons will be demobilized and sent home from Afghanistan. And they won’t start cancelling aid to the poor. What will happen is that a non-lame-duck Congress will have to start negotiating on an entirely different set of propositions – cutting taxes instead of raising them, which would make Republicans especially happy – but also playing one set of cuts off against another, which won’t make so many people happy. So it wouldn’t be something to trifle with, but it would be a scenario open to many sorts of compromise that aren’t there right now. Maybe Congress should set the budget mess aside and use the next 16 working days to deal with some of the other issues, like what to do with those dead polar bears.

The real question is whether Congress will do anything. While the Democrats appear to have gained maybe 8 seats in the House, there hasn’t been any significant shift in either people or positions. It’s still the same old Congress. If Republicans feel chastened by the election results, they may be willing to give a bit on taxes. If John Boehner feels sufficiently chastened, he may lean on some of his less-chastened members to take a few steps back towards the center. Or the Republicans may stand fast to their Norquistian Pledges, and hoping their interpretation of the election results is correct, that it was a combination of a bad storm and a worse candidate, with some voter shenanigans thrown in. If that turns out to be the case, they need to get their spinmeisters involved quickly. Thanks to the Pew Center, Boehner now knows who’ll get the blame if no compromise is found and we dive off that cliff. I don’t think they asked any questions about polar bears.

Getting To 60

Thursday, 8 November 2012, 16:29 | Category : Politics
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One of the real surprises of Election Night was the added strength of Senate Democrats. While going in, Republicans had hopes of taking over the Senate, when the dust finally settled by mid-day on Wednesday, Democrats had actually gained 2 seats, giving them 53, with 2 more seats held by independents (Sanders in Vermont and Angus King in Maine) expected to caucus with them. Sanders is essentially a given, while King may prove a little more true to the independent label at times, but most analysts put him in the Democrat-leaning camp. What this does is put Senate leader Harry Reid closer to that magical number of 60, the number of votes needed to defeat a filibuster (or in today’s political reality, a threatened filibuster). He would need to carve out 5 Republican votes, certainly not an easy task. But if he chose to try, who might he target? There aren’t many Republicans left who would qualify for the moderate or maverick label, but there are a few, under the right circumstances:

  • 56 – John McCain – he’s shown an independent streak in the past, and is probably secure enough back home to fend off a challenge from the right – which wouldn’t happen until 2016, anyway.
  • 57 – Susan Collins of Maine. Up for election in 2014, she is also probably secure enough to hold on to her seat during a primary challenge. Beyond her, it gets tricky…
  • 58 – let’s say Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. In the past, he has at times acted like he wanted to be considered an elder statesman of sorts. If he chooses to run again, he certainly wouldn’t be immune to a challenge from the right, however.
  • 59 – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She won re-election as an independent, after losing in the primary to a Tea Party type backed by Sarah Palin. But she’s in office until 2016, which would give her time to repair the damage that might result from a defection to break a filibuster – although Republicans have long memories.
  • 60 – if the previous 4 were wishful thinking, getting to 60 represents fantasyland, I guess. But let’s play along. At one time I might have put Charles Grassley in this slot, but I think he’s moved into the conservative camp pretty solidly. Lindsey Graham has occasionally displayed a maverick streak, but defection for him would mean a strong challenge from the hard right. So I’ll go with Thad Cochran of Mississippi. At one time, Cochran was a pretty solid moderate. Like most Republican senators, he’s sounded much more of the conservative message for a while. But his term is up in 2014, and there’s wide speculation that he won’t run again. The right issue might pull him back to his more moderate former self.

So are the chances any better if you wait until 2014 and try to pick up seats in that election? Unfortunately for the Democrats, probably not, unless the Republicans nominate more crazies that don’t know when to keep silent. Republicans will be running in Alabama, Georgia, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. There’s almost zero chance for a Democrat in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas (in Mississippi there is one Democrat who could mount a serious statewide race, but he seems to have little stomach for office now). Wyoming, Idaho, and Nebraska could, I suppose, see a Democrat in the mold of Jon Tester rise from the stubble, but I have no idea who that might be. If Susan Collins chose to retire, Maine could easily see a Democratic pickup, and Alaska is a bit of a wild-card, I suppose. But unless there is some earth-shaking change in the political environment in multiple states, there just doesn’t seem to be any chance for the Democrats to pick up 5 seats in 2014. Filibusters or the threat of filibusters, then, will continue to paralyze the US Senate (unless Harry Reid can somehow change the rules). It doesn’t bode well for problem-solving at the national level.