Monday, February 20, 2012

The Myth and Disaster of a Brokered GOP Convention

David Frum takes on the myth of a "brokered convention" this summer when the GOP gathers in Tampa.  He does a good job of explaining how the rise of the primary/caucus system and the demise of the party bosses have made such a myth less and less of a reality and if it did happen, it might spell doom for the party.

1) Imagine that Romney falls just slightly short of the 1144 needed to nominate.
In this scenario, an individual party chairman from a smaller state with more old-fashioned rules might be lured to find some way to redirect his state's votes to Romney. That is what happened in 1976, when Gerald Ford narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan by gaining the last-minute support of the Mississippi state delegation; that's the most recent occasion when a convention chose a nominee.
The problem is that there are many fewer such old-fashioned states today than there were in 1976, with the result that the price such "available" states might be able to exact will be considerably higher than it was back then.

Ford only needed to replace his vice presidential candidate, dumping Nelson Rockefeller, anathema to party conservatives, in favor of Bob Dole, then a conservative hero.

But what price would be exacted from Romney? And what effect would that have on the election? Romney badly needs to pivot back to the center for the general election. Would a convention-season deal to get the votes of strongly conservative delegates veto that pivot and doom his hopes?
 Frum's piece also reminds us that a party that had smoke-filled rooms was a party that had more control and was also a place where moderates could thrive.  What had weakened the power of moderates is not simply some kind of "kidnapping" by the far right as much as how American political parties have been transformed over the last half century. 

Monday, January 09, 2012

Why Is Jon Huntsman Losing?

I've never made it a secret that I really like Jon Huntsman for the GOP Presidential Nomination. I like the former Utah governor's record as a solid Republican that had more moderate to liberal social opinions. He seemed to court a lot of love from a number of moderate and liberal pundits, but when it came to actually campaigning for President, he's been at near the bottom of opinion polls. Why is that? Back in November, Ross Douthat tried to answer that question and came up with the following which is pretty plausible:

Huntsman has none of Romney’s health care baggage, and unlike the former Massachusetts governor, he didn’t spend the last decade flip-flopping on gun rights, immigration and abortion. Meanwhile, on many of the highest-profile issues of the primary season (the individual mandate, Paul Ryan’s House budget, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), he has arguably been more consistently conservative than Gingrich.

At the same time, because Huntsman is perceived as less partisan than his rivals, he has better general election prospects. The gears and tumblers of my colleague Nate Silver’s predictive models give Huntsman a 55 percent chance of knocking off the incumbent even if the economy grows at a robust 4 percent, compared to Romney’s 40 percent.

In theory, then, Huntsman seems like he could occupy the sweet spot that Gingrich claims to have all to himself. In practice, though, his campaign to date has been an unmitigated disaster.

This isn’t for want of substance. On issues ranging from foreign affairs to financial reform, Huntsman’s proposals have been an honorable exception to the pattern of gimmickry and timidity that has characterized the Republican field’s policy forays.

But his salesmanship has been staggeringly inept. Huntsman’s campaign was always destined to be hobbled by the two years he spent as President Obama’s ambassador to China. But he compounded the handicap by introducing himself to the Republican electorate with a series of symbolic jabs at the party’s base.

He picked high-profile fights on two hot-button issues — evolution and global warming — that were completely irrelevant to his candidacy’s rationale. He let his campaign manager define his candidacy as a fight to save the Republican Party from a “bunch of cranks.” And he embraced his identity as the media’s favorite Republican by letting the liberal journalist Jacob Weisberg write a fawning profile for Vogue.

This was political malpractice at its worst. Voters don’t necessarily need to like a candidate to vote for him, but they need to think that he likes them. Imagine a contender for the Democratic nomination introducing himself to liberal voters by attacking Planned Parenthood, distancing himself from “left-wing nutjobs” and giving a series of interviews on Fox News, and you have the flavor of how Huntsman’s opening act was perceived on the right. The substance mattered less than the symbolism, which screamed: I want your vote, but I don’t particularly care to be associated with your stupidities.

There was a time in my life I would have been upset at such a statement.  I would have totally disagreed with the analysis. Now?  Not so much.  The thing is, if you're going to run as a Republican, you have to respect the base of the party.  No one should expect to get very far in the GOP selection process if you call those who you're going to vote for cranks.  Douthat is correct that people don't need to like a candidate, but they need to know that the candidate likes them.  While people on either side of Mitt Romney see him as a flip-flopper who tries to please the base, the fact of the matter is if he wanted to be considered a candidate he was going to have to tailor his views to the GOP electorate.

Of course, if moderates were more involved on the party level, then candidates like Romney wouldn't have to give up their views on gay rights and abortion in order to be considered in the GOP. 

But I think this all goes back to how the base is treated.  I don't think one has to give their more moderate social views to be considered for President, but you need to bring the focus on issues like jobs and not give Christmas presents to pundits by calling folks who might vote for you crazy.  It's crazy to think you can do that and get votes in the current primary system.

Monday, August 01, 2011

John Huntsman: Tea Party Candidate?

So says Condi Rice's former speechwriter. Elise Jordan thinks that the former Utah governor could be the person that brings moderates and Tea Party conservatives together:

His views, though, may prove to be much more popular among tea-party conservatives (and New Hampshire primary voters) than one might at first assume. Tea partiers, like so many other Americans, are fed up with the decade-long war in Afghanistan. Huntsman has made it clear he’s ready to wind it down, leaving behind only a nimble and aggressive counterterrorism force. Although the Pentagon and the commanders on the ground are still pressing to keep as many nation-building troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible, Huntsman said he’ll trust his own instincts. (Unlike frontrunner Mitt Romney, who said he’ll do what the generals tell him to do.) “I’ve been engaged in that part of the world for many years, and I lived next door for the last two years,” he said. “We’ve already had wins for the United States [in Afghanistan]. We can’t wish for stability more than they want it.” And though he’s been portrayed as too moderate for the Republican base, he has a consistent pro-life record, is a big Second Amendment supporter, and enacted the largest tax cuts in Utah’s history.
 James Joyner thinks Huntsman could prove an inviting alternative for conservatives:

Indeed, the notion that someone could be elected twice as governor of Utah, arguably the most conservative state in the union, and be some sort of closet liberal is baffling. Then again, Ronald Reagan made many compromises that would render him a RINO in today’s climate.
Still, while I like what I’m seeing in Huntsman, he’s not yet a significant candidate. Indeed, he’s no longer even showing up in the RealClearPolitics numbers while non-candidates Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, and Rudy Giuliani all register in the double digits.
Then again, it’s pretty clear that Republican voters aren’t exactly in love with Mitt Romney. He remains the presumptive favorite for the nomination but couldn’t even beat a lackluster John McCain last cycle.

While the Herman Cain bubble seems to have burst, Perry, Palin, and Giuliani are all getting significant interest because the nominating electorate is looking for someone to excite them. It’s probably not going to be Newt Gingrich or Tim Pawlenty. And I believe Michele Bachmann tops out around 15 percent. Perry’s path to the nomination is the most plausible of the  others.

Huntsman represents an interesting alternative–a conservatism of a style that put together three consecutive national Electoral College landslides in my lifetime. I’d like to think that it could come back into vogue and, for example, once again put California into play for Republicans. But it’s just wishful musing at this point.
I do think that what is needed is to find a candidate that can somehow please both moderates and the Tea Party.  Huntsman has received a lot of knocks for being too moderate, but a Rick Perry or a Michele Bachmann candidacy will rally the red meat conservatives without making a dent beyond the base.

The question right now for Huntsman is can he get noticed enough to run with the big dogs.

Magical Thinking on Debt and Deficits?

I would agree with a fair amount of David Frum's latest op-ed, but there one part of article that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me:
2) The deficit is a symptom of America's economic problems, not a cause.

When the economy slumps, government revenues decline and government spending surges.

Federal revenues have collapsed since 2007, down from more than 18% of national income to a little more than 14%. To put that in perspective: That's the equivalent of losing enough revenue to support the entire defense budget.

Federal spending has jumped to pay for unemployment insurance, food stamps and Medicaid benefits.

Fix the economy first, and the deficit will improve on its own.

Cut the deficit first, and the economy will get even sicker.

3) The time to cut is after the economy recovers.

Businesses are hoarding cash. Consumers are repaying debt. State and local governments are slashing jobs. (Since 2009, the number of Americans working for government has shrunk by half a million, the biggest reduction in civilian government employment since the Great Depression.) Right now, there's only one big customer out there: the federal government. How does it help anybody if the feds suddenly stop buying things and paying people?
I have two problems with this. First, Frum has talked a lot about David Cameron's Conservative Party which has been busy in the midst of this recession cutting government programs. Yes, there are some differences, but what makes it okay for the Conservative Party to tackle debt, and wrong for the GOP to not take on debt?

Also, Frum says that if the economy is fixed, then the debt will take care of its own. Really?

I think the economy can help make a difference, but part of the reason we were able to get the deficit under control in the 90s was party because President Clinton and the Republican Congress came together to make certain decisions. The same goes for the 1990 Budget deal when President Bush made deals with a Democratic Congress. Deficit issues just don't solve themselves all because economy gets better. Debts and deficits get solved when lawmakers get together and make deals. I'm not saying the economy has no role in alleviating those problems, but to say that somehow problems with the deficit will go away when the economy gets better is about as silly as saying that tax cuts will solve the deficit or revive the economy or cure cancer.

The other problem that I see here is that while I do think most people don't want an all cuts deal as what was agreed to, the fact is voters decided last fall to elect people that at least said they were concerned about government spending. As much as I think that Republicans are wrong to assume that the American public wants only to cut spending alone, legislators would be foolish to ignore that part of the reason the GOP is in control of the House and made gains in the Senate was because of a desire to restrain federal spending.

What Frum has been arguing for within GOP is a kind of conservative-Keynesianism that was fashionable in the Republican Party from Dwight Eisenhower to the Reagan years. Beginning in the 50s, the GOP made (some) peace with the New Deal. This meant allowing for high taxes and government spending. Unlike a lot of folks, I don't think there was anything wrong with this approach way back when. But the problem is, the country has changed. Many liberals (and some reformed-conservatives like myself) thought the election of Obama would usher in a Second New Deal and a rebrith of Keynesianism. But America has changed and in many ways is backing away from full on Keynesianism. That doesn't mean that the nation has embraced the Tea Party's vision for America, but it does mean that the era of big government solutions is long gone.

Tea Party conservatives are wrong to think we can go back to some pristine era of minimal government, but reformist conservatives are wrong to think we can go back the Eisenhower years. Conservatives are going to have to forge a new vision that is centered on a small(er) government that is still activist and willing to be the GOP for today and not sometime in the past.

Friday, July 29, 2011

On the "Cult of Balance"

Over the last few months, I've had a number person chastise me on these pages for being so "even-handed" on the current political climate. Most of the respondents who tend to be liberal, get upset that I try to say their is some blame on the Democratic side. In the minds, they can't understand why I just can't see that this is all the Republicans fault.

I don't think I'm trying to split the blame 50-50 when I do take the political system to task. I think there are many cases where the GOP is more at fault than the Democrats. I think the GOP needs to get off its "no taxes" kick. I think the GOP does need to clean up its act moreso than the Dems.

But I don't think the Democrats at blameless. I don't see them as victims. But that's what those who complain want me to say: that the Democrats are wonderful, good-hearted victims, that have made conscessions to heartless Republicans. They want that the press and the general public punish the GOP for extremism and let the Dems do what they believe needs to be done.

The problem is that in the real world, no one is all innocent or all evil. We are all limited and fallible human beings and politicians are not immune. Here's what Paul Krugman said today about "centrists" who want to place equal blame on both parties:
Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself. I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing....

So what’s with the buzz about a centrist uprising? As I see it, it’s coming from people who recognize the dysfunctional nature of modern American politics, but refuse, for whatever reason, to acknowledge the one-sided role of Republican extremists in making our system dysfunctional. And it’s not hard to guess at their motivation. After all, pointing out the obvious truth gets you labeled as a shrill partisan, not just from the right, but from the ranks of self-proclaimed centrists.

But making nebulous calls for centrism, like writing news reports that always place equal blame on both parties, is a big cop-out — a cop-out that only encourages more bad behavior. The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse.
Clive Crook is also wondering why folks like Paul Krugman think the answer is just to put all the blame on Republicans:
Paul Krugman and EJ Dionne agree that too much centrism is what ails the United States. What the country needs is fewer moderates and more people ready to stand firm on principle come what may. (Actually Dionne draws a distinction that eludes me between moderation and centrism--they are not just different but opposed--but let that pass.)

Lacking a Nobel prize, I find this theory odd. If only centrists would come over to the left and deplore Republicans more vigorously, all would be well? Right now, I would be willing to help out--but would this do much to reduce the House Republican majority? If centrist commentators only joined Krugman's anti-Republican crusade, the country would see its mistake and put things right at the next election? It's flattering, but surely we feeble soggy centrists have nothing to offer that would improve on the quality of the arguments already put forward by writers such as Krugman, Dionne, and many others. Surely they are refuting conservatism as effectively as anybody can.

Of course, what Krugman wants is for the GOP to be entirely discredited if not simply disappear. But that's not going to happen anymore than the Democrat would fade from existence and frankly, you aren't going win centrists over if you come accross in the same snippy tones that Krugman is so good at.

In non-democratic societies, the dictators love to see themselves as angels fighting whatever demon that threatens their powerbase. But in a democratic society, all we have are fallible humans, which means that we all have some (not equal) blame.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Has Huntsman Stalled?

Solomon Kleinsmith wants to know why GOP Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman isn't going anywhere. The National Journal's John Kraushaar makes a good guess:
The biggest problem with Huntsman’s campaign isn’t his centrist ideology; it’s his campaign’s tactics. Huntsman has decided to ignore the fundamental rule of politics—a campaign is about contrasting your record against those of your opponents. Instead of taking on President Obama, he’s praised Obama’s good intentions and avoided outlining many areas of disagreement. He’s run to the left of the president on Afghanistan, calling for faster and deeper troop withdrawals. And at a time when voters are hungry for solutions, he offered a platitude-filled kickoff speech that barely touched on the economic problems that Americans want solved.

This is a Republican Party that wants head-on confrontation with Obama, but Huntsman is selling d├ętente and civility. It’s an electorate that wants a candidate who identifies with the struggles that Americans are dealing with. Instead, his introductory campaign video focused on his love of motocross—an image of recreation at a time when the country is facing major economic pain. Huntsman is also courting independents in the New Hampshire primary, whom he assumes are in the mold of Michael Bloomberg but are as disaffected as any group out there. (In the latest July Granite State poll, 61 percent of independents said the nation was headed in the wrong direction, with a 47 percent plurality disapproving of Obama.)

Huntsman has a good story to tell. He governed Utah at a time of economic prosperity, lowered taxes, and opposed abortion rights. He was one of the first presidential candidates to come out squarely for Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms—which have become close to conservative orthodoxy these days. His apostasy is hardly more egregious than that of George W. Bush, who championed comprehensive immigration reform, downplayed social issues, and acknowledged climate change. Like Huntsman, Bush even expressed his distaste for “nation building” in the 2000 presidential race, though he clearly shifted his views after the 9/11 attacks.

But unlike Bush, Huntsman is making little attempt to sell his conservative views to voters. Instead, he’s offering a milquetoast message, believing that Republican voters prefer conciliation over confrontation. Bush ran his 2000 campaign on the theme of “compassionate conservatism;” there’s no sign Huntsman is campaigning on anything conservative.
Kraushaar makes some good guesses and I think there is some truth to all of this. But instead of merely talking about the article, I want to answer Solomon's question. So here are a few reasons why Huntsman isn't going anywhere right now.

  1. It isn't 2009 anymore. I do think Kraushaar is right here. After the 2008 election, there were a lot of folks, myself included, that said it was time for the GOP to moderate, to be more open to centrists and independents. By 2010, the GOP had scored several victories to be within striking distance of taking the Senate, and took back the House from the Dems. All the talk of being more moderate ended. I like Huntsman and I still think the GOP needs to moderate. But it's not 2009 anymore. What is selling is trying to be conservative. He has to find a way to remain open to moderates and also speak to conservatives who want to talk about cutting spending and taxes. It's a delicate balance, but he has to do that in the changed climate.
  2. Michelle Bachmann. The congresswoman from my current home state of Minnesota has basically sucked the air out of the room. The media is focusing on her and she is leading in Iowa polls. Get a conservative firebrand and everyone pays attention. Huntsman's more modest campaign can't really compete with Bachmann's presence, at least at this moment.
  3. Debt talks. Most of the media is focused on the debt ceiling talks and that has pushed the GOP presidential race to a distant second.
  4. The Vision thing. I don't like Michelle Bachmann and I think she is plumb loco, but you at least know where she stands. As Krushnaar notes, Huntman is selling a more genteel Republicanism that prefers "concilation over confrontation". In many ways, I resemble that description. But I think Huntman and indeed, most of moderate-centrist pols and movements fail because they lack a fire in the belly. Compromise is a good thing, but I tend to think that a problem with folks like myself and Huntsman is that compromise becomes an end in and of itself. I think people want folks to compromise, but they also want the folks to stand for something. Huntsman's record does indicate a good governing conservative, but he hasn't really communicated that and he hasn't done it with a sense of passion. He used the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty to announce his campaign, evoking Ronald Reagan. Nice, but he also needs to evoke some of Reagan's passion as well.
  5. It's only July of 2011 for Pete's sake! We seem to forget that New Hampshire and Iowa are still months away and anything can change. Remember how McCain's campaign was imploding in the summer of 2007? And yet, somehow he ended up the Republican nominee. Bachmann, might be the bees knees now, but will she be come January of 2012? Huntsman still has time to get his message out there.

So, that's my take on Huntsman. What's yours?

Grover Norquist and 1990 Budget Deal

Tyler Craft takes issue with Grover Norquist's assertion that the decision by then-president George Bush to raise taxes led the nation into a recession:
George H.W. Bush’s famous (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) increase to taxes (and reversal in his, in my opinion, foolish “no new taxes” pledge) came out of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) of 1990, which took affect on January 1, 1991. So what actually happened? Technically yes (see graph below), the United States went into a recession following the OBRA of 1990 going into effect. Per the official definition of a recession, that a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth (I’m using real GDP figures), the United States experienced negative growth in the fourth quarter of 1990 and the first quarter of 1991. HOWEVER, the largest period of economic contraction actually occurred in 1990 NOT 1991. The first quarter of 1991 showed a trend of growth beginning that would continue throughout the rest of the 1990s. So using Grover Norquist’s post hoc ergo propter hoc view of the world, The OBRA of 1990 actually brought the country OUT of a recession rather than INTO a recession – of course this would be equally (well maybe not quite equally) fallacious....

One of Norquist’s economic statements was correct; spending did grow following the OBRA of 1990 and along with it the deficit. In fact, public debt as a percent of GDP in the mid-1990s is very similar to its levels in the mid-2000s (around 67% of GDP in each case) – of course we all know that the late-1990s and late-2000s saw deficit and debt figures move in opposite directions (surpluses in the ‘90s reduced debt while growing deficits in the 2000s caused even higher debt). There is, again, more to this story however. The next graph illustrates how total spending and non-defense spending evolved for the last few decades compared to GDP. It shows relative rises with respect to GDP around the time of various recessions and also shows the spike Norquist alluded to in 1991. This is where the data does not tell the whole story and the historical narrative provides some important information. The OBRA of 1990 was not the first budget proposal by President Bush that year, it was actually the third. The first included spending cuts with no tax increases and was rejected by Democrats, the second included spending cuts with tax increases and was rejected by Republicans, and the third was accepted. Interestingly enough, the third proposal increased spending more than the second proposal, but came in the face of government shutdown, which forced enough support to get higher taxes through. The third option also shifted much of the tax increases from excise increases to income tax increases, which is also less conservative – although preferable from a growth and equity perspective.

Is Obama Still a Lock for '12?

When President Obama won in 2008, people already thought he would automatically be a two-term president. I still think it's more likely than not that Obama will win next year, but some folks think Obama is in trouble in the battleground states:
The race for president isn’t a national contest. It’s a state-by-state battle to cobble an electoral vote majority. So while the national polls are useful in gauging the president’s popularity, the more instructive numbers are those from the battlegrounds.

Those polls are even more ominous for the president: In every reputable battleground state poll conducted over the past month, Obama’s support is weak. In most of them, he trails Republican front-runner Mitt Romney. For all the talk of a closely fought 2012 election, if Obama can’t turn around his fortunes in states such as Michigan and New Hampshire, next year’s presidential election could end up being a GOP landslide.

Take Ohio, a perennial battleground in which Obama has campaigned more than in any other state (outside of the D.C. metropolitan region). Fifty percent of Ohio voters now disapprove of his job performance, compared with 46 percent who approve, according to a Quinnipiac poll conducted from July 12-18.

Among Buckeye State independents, only 40 percent believe that Obama should be reelected, and 42 percent approve of his job performance. Against Romney, Obama leads 45 percent to 41 percent—well below the 50 percent comfort zone for an incumbent.

The news gets worse from there. In Michigan, a reliably Democratic state that Obama carried with 57 percent of the vote, an EPIC-MRA poll conducted July 9-11 finds him trailing Romney, 46 percent to 42 percent. Only 39 percent of respondents grade his job performance as “excellent” or good,” with 60 percent saying it is “fair” or “poor.” The state has an unemployment rate well above the national average, and the president’s approval has suffered as a result.
I still think it's just way too early to start thinking that Obama is in trouble. While things look pretty dark for the president right now and the economy is in the tank, we are still well over a year before the election and six months before the GOP primaries begin. If we start seeing these week numbers in February or April of 2012, then its time for the Obama team to worry.

The other factor is that we don't know who the GOP nominee will be. It very well could be Romney, but you can never count Michelle Bachmann out. Who that challenger will be and how they run their campaign will be a factor in whether or not Obama gets a second term.


The Reasons for a Third Party

Observing the current crisis, Wendy Kaminer thinks a third political party would only make things worse, not better:
But perhaps the greatest fallacy of the third party movement is the unspoken, perhaps unacknowledged, underlying assumption that members of a third party would be more informed, intelligent, and rational and less self-interested and demagogic than members of the first and second parties. What if the problem isn't the two party system but the flawed human beings who would also participate, as voters and candidates, in a three party system? What if the problem, in part, is us?
Now Kaminer is well to the left for my tastes, but there is a grain of truth in what she says. I don't think a third party is going to easily solve all our problems. A third party is not going to automatically be better informed or less suscpetible to partisanship. A third party might only make the situation worse.

I've more than once have fallen for the temptation that a "knight in shining armor" in the form a third party will just solve everything. But that's the wrong reason to want to see a third party. If one is going to support a strong third party, it has to be to give people more choice in politics or to represent a group that doesn't feel currently represented in the current system.


But Kaminer's last statement is the one that I think it most interesting. I think it has been easy for us to lampoon those idiots in Washington and to see ourselves as pure and innocent, just wanting to get something done. The problem with that is because in a representative system, we elect the candidates. We support candidates that tend to be the most uncompromising. We throw out members that even dare to talk with the other side.

The problem is totally the fault of the populace, but it does share a good amount of the blame because we elect these folks to Washington to do our bidding.

What's happening in DC with the debt ceiling; this unwillingness to compromise is as much mirroring contemporary American society than it is that Washington is dysfunctional. We live in little universes where the only people that matter agree with each other and where the other side is not simply wrong, but evil. All you have to do is look at Facebook to see people posting about how bad conservative/liberals are and how they are on the side of the angels.

The world that we now live in is one where we really don't talk to each other. We go to places of worship where everyone seems to agree with each other. We have mostly friends who share our world view. There are few public places where we have to get along with each other.

So, if we live in such segregated worlds, why on earth do we expect Washington to be any different?

A third party alone is not going to be the savior of our nation. Unless the American people are willing to change themselves, then we can't expect change from Washington.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Federal Debt Ceiling for Dummies

Douglas Holtz Eakin explains the consquences of not raising the debt ceiling in less than a minute:

Starring the Tea Party as William Howard Taft

Jonathan Rauch has an fascinating piece on how the upcoming 2012 General Election is in effect part two of the 1912 election:
The Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, was a conservative traditionalist who saw the Constitution as providing a short leash on federal power. He faced no fewer than three significant opponents that year, the most formidable being none other than his Republican predecessor in the White House: Theodore Roosevelt had come to believe that a narrow view of federal power left Washington unable to cope with the challenges of the industrial age. He broke with Taft to lead a new party of his own, the Progressive Party.

Jumping on the same bandwagon but shrewdly presenting more mainstream alternative, Democrats nominated a progressive of their own, Woodrow Wilson. And there was an important fourth candidate, the Socialist Party’s Eugene V. Debs, who led American socialism to its only respectable electoral performance: 6 percent of the popular vote.

Roosevelt’s progressives believed that only a stronger, more centralized national government, vigorously led by a powerful presidency, could cope with giant corporations and the increasingly national — indeed, global — economy. Expert-led bureaucracies would guide a newly empowered Washington away from cronyism and toward innovative, impartial solutions.

The Constitution, the progressives insisted, was no pair of rusty shackles. It must flex to accommodate the people’s desires and the nation’s needs. “The people are the masters of their Constitution,” declared the Progressive Party’s 1912 platform. The country’s “resources, its business, its institutions and its laws should be utilized, maintained or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest.”

Taft opposed all those principles. He argued for localism, limited government and a constitution that worked like a brake, not an accelerator. The progressives, he warned, would demolish the government’s “checks upon hasty popular action.”
Sounds familiar, doesn't it. Taft lost the election big time, and while Roosevelt lost, he basically won the argument. That set forth the expansion of federal power in American society that has held until this very day.

But a few mainstream writers have begun to see how the progressive era might be winding down. Robert Samuelson notes that the old order, which he describes as the modern welfare state that has been in place since the closing days of WWII is crumbling:
The old order, constructed by most democracies after World War II, rested on three pillars. One was the welfare state. Government would protect the unemployed, aged, disabled and poor. Capitalism would be tamed. A second was faith in economic growth; this would raise everyone's living standards while permitting income redistribution. Growth was ordained, because economists had learned enough from the 1930s to cure periodic recessions. Finally, global trade and finance served countries' mutual interests.
All three pillars are wobbling. To be sure, the financial crisis worsened matters, and each country's situation is different. America's welfare state is less generous than Germany's. Greece's crisis began because it had vastly underreported its budget deficit; Ireland's stemmed from a burst housing bubble that led to a costly bank bailout. But these differences obscure large similarities.

Start with the welfare state. A blessing to many, it's also a common burden. Its expansion was huge. In 1950, government spending as a share of a nation's economy (gross domestic product) was 28 percent in France, 30 percent in Germany and 21 percent in the United States. By 1999, figures were 52 percent of GDP in France, 48 percent in Germany and 30 percent in the United States, according to the late economics historian Angus Maddison. Aging societies would boost future costs for social security and health care. From 2008 to 2050, the 65- plus population is projected to rise 40 percent in Germany, 77 percent in France and 121 percent in the United States.

Given this outlook, even countries without immediate crises are embracing austerity measures. All face a ruinous choice: The higher taxes or deficits needed to finance more welfare spending might further damage the economy, but cutting benefits stirs popular backlash. Still, benefits are now vulnerable. Ireland cut benefits for the unemployed by about 10 percent, reduced child payments by 16 percent and, beginning in 2014, will gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 68.
Enter the Tea Party. Just as we saw their predecessor in 1912 try to fight off an ascendent progressivism, we see them now as progressivism is at its nadir.

Does this mean the Taft/Tea Party side is now on the right side of history? Probably not. But the rise of Tea Party means that the old progressive order no longer makes sense in the 21st century.

Teddy Roosevelt could see the changes in the nation and made the case for strong federal government. Do we have a TR for our time that can see the changes coming down the road in economics and tailor a government to fit the times.

I don't think the Tea Party's rigid constitutionalism is the answer, but they are a sign that what has worked for a century isn't going to work anymore.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Where Have You Gone, Ted Halstead?

Back in December of 2010 Clive Crook had some harsh words to say about the launching of the centrist organization, No Labels. To say he wasn't impressed is putting it mildly:
Just before Christmas, a group of self-styled moderates launched a campaign against “hyper-partisanship”. The group calls itself No Labels. “We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America,” says their website.
Oh dear. Accentuate the negative, as any marketing expert will tell you. Put the stress on what you are not. No Labels! Well, come to think of it, keep your labels, as the website says: then, united in the belief that you do not have to give them up, put them aside. I think it means keep them out of sight. Wear your label but hide it, with pride, under your coat.
I have another suggestion. No Ideas. Or how about: No Point? Would that be dull enough?
Washington’s partisan warriors of left and right ridicule moderates as unprincipled or clueless or both. Splitting the difference does not give you the right answer, they say. Once in a while, in fact, it might – but in general the partisans are right about this, and the No Labels crowd is the proof.


The thing is, I think Crook is correct. Taking a look at the No Labels website, you see a really slick site talking about working together and all that, but there is no there there. There are no policy ideas, just sentiment.

Which is something that has bothered me about centrists at least as of late: the movement, seems based on niceties more than it does about ideas.

It wasn't always this way. There were what I would call centrist thinkers that proposed ideas that could have been the basis for a real, sustained movement. About ten years ago Ted Halstead along with Michael Lind, put forth a book called The Radical Center. In many ways, this book was a manifesto for centrism in America. Halstead was one of the founders of the New America Foundation and he was able to craft a book crammed with ideas that were not totally left leaning or conservative, but were distinctly American.

Halstead was busy during the Bush years writing opeds promoting centrist ideas. Here's an example from an article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2004:

here are seven big ideas for improving our national condition, each of which defies the conventional political spectrum and could be ripe for the picking by either party:
  • Every baby a trust-fund baby. Just as the nation broadened the ownership of land in the 19th century through the Homestead Act, and of houses in the 20th century through the mortgage interest tax deduction, expanding the ownership of financial assets should be the cause of the 21st century. British Prime Minister Tony Blair set the example by championing a law that endows every British newborn with financial assets from birth. We should follow suit and inaugurate a new era of universal capitalism in the United States.
  • Universal coverage for universal responsibility. Why not approach health insurance like car insurance by making it mandatory? Coupled with public subsidies for those who need them, mandatory insurance could cover all 43 million uninsured Americans and lower the cost of coverage for those who are insured (by broadening the risk pool to include the young and healthy, the 18- to 34-year-olds who are the most likely to be uninsured), all while costing the government less than Kerry's plan, which is said to reach 27 million uninsured.
  • Tax consumption, not work. You would never know it by listening to politicians, but more than 70% of American families pay more in payroll taxes than in any other tax. Yet no other tax does more to retard job creation or to reduce take-home pay, especially among low-income workers. By eliminating the payroll tax and replacing it with a progressive national consumption tax, we could create a lot more jobs and generate a lot more savings -- thereby solving our two greatest economic problems at once.
  • End all farm subsidies. Our farm subsidies are vestiges of the past. They harm farmers and the environment, create agricultural gluts, retard global free trade, hurt Third World countries and cost taxpayers $20 billion a year. By ending these subsidies, we could not only alleviate these various problems but free up the resources to, say, endow every child from birth with financial assets. While we're at it, let's end all forms of corporate welfare, which would free up an additional $50 billion for better uses.
  • Family-friendly workplaces. Although the traditional family is no longer the norm, our workplaces have yet to adapt, penalizing those who need flexibility to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities, often by depriving them of good jobs and basic benefits. This two-tier labor market should be ended by making basic benefits citizen-based instead of employer-based and by giving all workers the flexibility of today's part-time workers, along with the benefit security of full-time workers.
  • A race to energy independence. It is a cliche that the United States should pursue energy independence with the same vigor that once fueled its race to space. Yet we lack a viable plan to light this new fire. The answer may lie in another recent revolution -- the biotech one -- in which a competition between private industry and a public consortium greatly accelerated the mapping of the human genome. Why not apply a similar model to energy efficiency by funding a high-profile contest between public and private parties?
  • Building a global middle class. At a time of a ballooning trade deficit and global overcapacity, the U.S. needs other countries to consume more and to export less. The best way to accomplish both is by exporting the middle-class development model (such as 30-year mortgages) that created mass affluence in our own nation half a century ago. By recasting the globalization debate around the overarching goal of building a global middle class, we could promote prosperity and stability at home and abroad.
Halstead was not just griping about the current state of political parties, he was actually putting forth ideas.

Halstead stepped down as chairman of New America in 2007 and his bio says he's involved in a new green startup and sailing around the world with his wife. Frankly, I wished he would get out of his boat and get back to providing some new ideas.

The reason at times that I've become cynical about centrism in the United States is because it doesn't seems to stand for much of anything, presents few new ideas, and does very little except complain.

I miss not having thinkers like Ted Halstead around. We need someone like that to fire the imagination of centrists in America.

In December I agreed with Crook's assessment of No Labels and wrote the following:
My ongoing problem with No Labels is that I think it is another weak-willed effort to come up with some effort calling on politicians to be nice and nothing more. There is little talk of ideas that might be able to move the country forward.

What I’d love to see is a true centrist ideology, along the lines that Crook talks about or maybe the classical liberal model found in the Free Democrats in Germany or the Liberal Democrats in the UK. Yes, civility is important, but frankly I want bold ideas and people willing to back them up.

I feel bad talking smack about a movement that is all about civility. But at the end of the day, I also think that ideas count for something as well in a democratic society.
Come back, Ted Halstead. We need you.