Does the Bush name help Jeb?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

17 December 2014

My take on the Jeb Bush run for the Republican 2016 nomination is that the former governor's family name is nothing but a hindrance to his hopes. Big brother George W. might be remembered slightly more kindly now than he was when he left office — when his Gallup approval rating was 34 per cent — but the Bush legacy is nonetheless one few Americans would like their country to carry on. As recently as February of this year, more Americans blamed President Bush for the country's poor economic performance than they did Barack Obama. The Americans have no appetite to repeat the Bush administration's foreign policy adventurism either. That might be unfair, but so too are any positive benefits a well-known political name might bestow upon any contender. 

Jonathan Bernstein, however, makes the best possible case for Jeb Bush benefiting from his family connections:

What we can say is that if he were Jeb Smith, a former two-term governor of Florida who has been out of politics since leaving office in 2007, and who has unorthodox positions in more than one policy area, he would be viewed as a longshot.

But something about the Bush family just makes a certain breed of Republicans go all weak at the knees, and has ever since Jeb’s grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a senator and a possible vice-president. That means Jeb will have easy access to the resources (money, endorsements, expertise, and more) that matter in presidential nomination politics. Republicans haven’t had to live with extreme uncertainty about their nominee for a long time; and some may be very tempted to just settle for the next Bush in line. And by all accounts, Jeb is simply a better politician than either his brother or his father (or, for that matter, his grandfather).

Not bad! And it's true that Republicans have a far more positive memory of the Bush years than the wider population. (Yes, to win the presidency, Jeb would need to triumph in the general election as well as the primary, but if he were to gain his party's nomination, he'd also gain millions of supporters willing to explain to the American public why he's nothing like his brother.) 

I still consider him a non-starter as a candidate, however. His support for Common Core might not be as disqualifying as the sort of people who think American politics is scripted by Aaron Sorkin suppose (where else would federal education policy be such a big deal for conservatives?) but his liberal stance on immigration is both out of step with a party that parted ways with Rick Perry in 2012 over much less and disadvantages him by comparison with another contender, Marco Rubio, who better suits the party's approach to resolving its problems with that issue. On such questions, Republicans tend to prefer representation — which Rubio's Latino heritage satisifes — to policy.

And while the GOP does retain a cadre of Bush family loyalists, the wider party is orienting itself towards the next generation of Republicans: more conservative, less patrician, and less overtly identified with the party establishment. The unlikely Ted Cruz aside, not one candidate in this race will provide all the red meat the base wants, but until Jeb Bush gives a sign that he's able to remake himself for the 2014 incarnation of his party, rather than the 1998 one that existed when he first claimed the Tallahassee governor's mansion, I'm going to consider him yesterday's news.

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Obama prescribes political fix for Ebola

By Justin Burke in Sydney, Australia

24 October 2014

President Obama at the CDC

The upcoming American midterm elections were recently described by David Brooks of the New York Times as making voters “giddy with disinterest, tingling with ... ennui and quivering with apathy.”

It would be a mistake, however, to minimise the stakes. On 4 November, votes will be cast for all 435 seats in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives; 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate, also likely to pass into Republican control; and governorships of states including Florida, which could confer crucial advantages in the next presidential election.

No single issue had galvanised voters. That was until the Ebola virus outbreak, which has so far seen the infection of Dallas nurses Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson while treating a Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, since deceased.

And, on Thursday, a doctor named Craig Spencer who had recently returned to New York after treating Ebola victims in West Africa, tested positive for the virus.

Now giddiness, tingling, and quivering have taken on much more sinister connotations, with more than one thousand Americans under supervision for symptoms of the deadly disease.

And public alarm is becoming widespread. A poll published last Monday by Politico showed an overwhelming majority of voters in the most competitive elections saying it felt as if events in the United States are “out of control.” Further, voters who intend to support Republicans in the most pivotal Senate and House elections had significantly less confidence in the federal government’s response to the occurrence of Ebola.

Illustrating the levels of concern at the highest levels, last week President Obama — who is not on a ticket but is supporting fellow Democrats — did something he has rarely done in the past: he cancelled political rallies and fundraisers to take direct involvement in the crisis’ management.

In contrast, recent months have seen Obama attend fundraisers the day a passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine, head directly from his condemnation of James Foley’s beheading to a golf game, and continue his vacation during the riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

The political dimensions of the Ebola crisis in the US are immediately apparent.

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Firstly, the competence of the Obama administration, and particularly the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is being harshly judged.

Confusion around personal protection protocols and the fact that Amber Joy Vinson was permitted to fly from Dallas to Cleveland to visit family last week have shattered the public’s confidence.

Secondly, the blame game of “who voted for what budget cuts” is reverberating throughout debates in the various races: a notoriously muddy area which is likely to cut both ways politically.

And, finally, border security has been called into question, an issue that Obama, who has failed to deliver his long-promised immigration reforms, is already profoundly weak on.

Marco Rubio, a Republican Senator from Florida and a likely 2016 candidate for President, announced Monday he will introduce legislation to create a temporary ban on new visas for nationals of the countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

The key White House response to the crisis last week was the appointment of Ron Klain as “Ebola Czar.”

A long-time political fixer who was previously chief of staff to vice presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, Klain is perhaps most famous for being depicted by Kevin Spacey in Recount, the HBO drama about the disputed 2000 election recount. But he is not well known for anything vaguely related to public health.

This politics-heavy response is not merely due to the looming midterms, which, according to the FiveThirtyEight Senate election forecast model, has looked like a probable loss to the Democrats for some time.

Obama will also be keen to avoid the Ebola crisis becoming his "second term curse," the strangely predictable political phenomenon whereby a tired administration is overwhelmed in its final years by crisis and scandal, from Hurricane Katrina, to Clinton’s impeachment scandal, to Iran Contra, to Watergate.

Specifically, Obama will not want his signature — and solitary — domestic policy achievement of healthcare reform, Obamacare, overshadowed by a rolling public health crisis.

But in a larger sense, the contours of Obama’s legacy are already in place, as Ebola crisis or no, history would suggest he is unlikely to achieve much more, especially with a Republican-controlled Congress.

Simply put, he showed that America was capable of electing and re-electing a black man, an historic achievement.

But in respect of almost every other issue, he has merely proven once again that Washington DC is impervious to outsiders spouting high-minded rhetoric about hope and change.

Justin Burke is a special election analyst with the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, and a journalist with The Australian. Follow him on Twitter: @justinburke


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Is there still a GOP Senate in America's near future?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

20 October 2014

2014 Senate

The Senate race, through the eyes of and Sabato's Crystal Ball

A bit more than two years ago, a month prior to the 2012 election, I wrote a post titled "There's a GOP Senate in America's near future." This was my argument:

[W]ith six year terms, the Senate has a habit of periodically returning to the mean, and this year has Democrats defending big gains in 2006. By all rights, Republicans should be well-placed to install Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader next year.

And yet, due to a combination of Obama's coattails and poor nominees (e.g. Todd Akin), Nate Silver currently gives Democrats an 80 per cent chance at retaining control of the Senate this election. If Obama wins re-election, he might start his second term with an unfriendly House, but his party will probably control a majority of the Senate's votes.

That's unlikely to last, however. A second Obama term would likely see a Republican controlled Senate at some point. Remember, Democrats not only had a good cycle in 2006 — 2008 also worked out for them as well. That's the election that handed them, for a short while, a filibuster proof majority. And the six year terms they won then will be the one's they have to defend in 2014.

If, as predicted, Democrats (and Democratic-aligned independents) end up with 52 Senate seats after this election, Republicans will have a tantalizing array of possible pick-ups in 2014.

Democrats actually did even better than predicted: they emerged from the 2012 election with a caucus 55-members strong. This was rather extraordinary, considering that they were defending big gains they made in 2006. They were indeed helped by the coattails of a president winning re-election, but also by a number of Republican nominees that proved too conservative and controversial for public tastes.

But the dynamic hasn't changed in the 2014 midterms; the Democrats coming up for re-election this cycle won in 2008, a year so good for their party that it briefly claimed a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. In 2014, nearly everything is working against these senators. HuffPo's poll aggregator gives Barack Obama a 42 per cent approval rating — belonging to the same party as an unpopular president doesn't help win elections. Further, the president's party rarely picks up seats in the midterms; since the Civil War, it's happened only in 1934, 1998, and 2002, in response, respectively, to the Great Depression, resentment over the Clinton impeachment, and the 9/11 terror attacks. And, finally, Republicans have been smarter about keeping their candidates on message — and perhaps at filtering out the genuine crazies this time: there are no apparent Todd Akins, Sharron Angles, Christine O'Donnell, or Richard Mourdocks in this race.

That's why it looks likely that Republicans will do what they should have done in 2012 and take control of the Senate. Nate Silver currently rates their chances at 62.2 percent.

Let's pull something else out from my 2012 post: my list of 2014 races to watch:

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  • Alaska: currently held by Democratic Freshman Mark Begich — Republicans will be eager to win back Ted Stevens's old seat
  • Virginia: currently held by Dem Frosh Mark Warner — Virginia went Obama in 2008 and may again in 2012, but it still has a lot of time for GOP politicians, and Republicans will fight hard to win this seat back.
  • North Carolina: currently held by first term Dem Kay Hagan — outside Charlotte and the Research Triangle, North Carolina remains pretty red.
  • Arkansas: Dem Mark Pryor won a second term without having to face a Republican opponent, but he might not be so lucky in 2014. The Natural State hasn't turned away from Democrats as decisively as the rest of the South, but if Republicans get their act together, this is territory ripe for the picking.
  • Louisiana: Three-termer Mary Landrieu has done well by moderating her views for her conservative electorate, and in 2008 won with 52 per cent of the vote. Louisiana does have a Democratic base — the state voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and has a not insubstantial African American contingent — but is increasingly hostile to Dems.
  • Colorado: Another purple state that sent a freshman Dem to DC in 2008, in this case former Congressman Mark Udall. Republicans fumbled a good chance to pick up a Centennial State Senate spot in 2010 by nominating Tea Partier Ken Buck. Expect another closely fought race next time round.

I also mentioned West Virginia and Montana as likely GOP pick-ups, which, combined with the above, would give Republicans a 53-seat majority. 

So what's changed since then? Well, some good news for Democrats: surprise three-way races in Kansas and South Dakota have made safe Republican seats highly unpredictable. The race in Georgia has both proved closer than I had anticipated, though Republicans are slightly ahead. (Then again, they are also doing well in Dem-held Iowa.) Democrats are putting up a tough fight in Arkansas, Louisiana, and, especially, North Carolina, all states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. And while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is so dismayed with Alison Lundergan Grimes's much-criticised campaign in Kentucky that it has pulled its funding support, Grimes still has an outside chance at unseating Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell.

So although Republicans are likely to finally claim a majority this time round, the story isn't that different from 2012: the party is having to fight harder than it should to win or defend seats that should naturally be theirs. If Democrats somehow hang on to their upper house lead, that will be why.

Republicans need to hope they don't though. In 2016, the reverse dynamic applies: the party will have to defend seats it won in the Tea Party wave of 2010. Seats in blue states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin will not be so easy for the GOP to hang on to if the economy is still growing and the larger and more diverse electorate seen in a standard presidential year is voting.


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American Exceptions: Where Americans love voting

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

28 March 2014

One of the results of the United States being such a large and diverse place is that, even when they're accurate, any generalisations you might make about the country don't apply everywhere. As such, I thought it might be a fun idea to start a series of posts I'm calling American Exceptions. This is about those ideas everyone has of America that, in general, are accurate, but aren't accurate everywhere. Sometimes it might be a single state that disproves the rule, others an entire region, and on other occasions a mere city or metro area. 

Why does this matter? Because rarely does any observation about America apply to all of America. And to treat the country like a monolith is to misunderstand it in a fundamental way.

Exception #1: Americans have low-turnout elections...

It's absolutely true that, for the high value it places on democratic institutions, voter participation rates in the United States tend toward the dismal. Australians particularly notice this because we're used to compulsory voting ensuring turn-out rates in the 90s. But even democracies that don't require their citizens to vote tend to have higher turn-out rates than the US. In lower house elections between 1960 and 1995, Iceland, for instance, averaged an 89 per cent turnout rate, Canada 74 per cent, and Japan 71 per cent. The US, meanwhile, averaged 55 per cent for general elections in presidential years (with 48 per cent if you take midterms into account.) The turnout rate in 2008, 61.6 per cent, was the highest since 1964, when 61.9 per cent of elegible voters cast a ballot. The 49 per cent rate in 1996 was a notable low.

There are a variety of reasons for why elections in the US might be low–turnout affairs. Southern states have historically put great effort into disenfranchising black citizens, and, in the process, disenfranchised many white ones as well. Though these overt efforts ended with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many states retain measures that make it difficult for citizens, particularly poorer ones, to cast a ballot, including photo identification requirements and inadequate voting infrastructure. The practice of holding elections on Tuesdays might also make it tougher for some citizens to get to a polling booth, and the sheer number of public positions filled by elections (including, in certain jurisdictions, sheriffs, judges, and attorneys-general) requires voters to put in more effort if they want to fully participate in the democratic process. Historic and cultural expectations of the responsibilities of a democratic citizenry also influence turnout rates.  


...except in Minnesota.

If American polls in general bring to mind faulty machines, long lines, and a population that can barely be bothered showing up, Minnesota is the exact opposite. Citizens of the North Star State not only love to vote, they do so in elections that are models of comity and efficiency. Consider a 1962 gubernatorial contest that ended with the top two candidates separated by just 58 votes. Initially the two sides went to court to battle over the form a recount would take, but they quickly decided it would be better if they put aside their differences and hashed out together a recount system that all parties involved could consider fair and valid.

Minnesota has had the highest voter turnout in 13 of the past 17 elections,[1] including the past nine straight[2]. According to the United States Elections Project, between 1980 and 2012[3], Minnesota averaged 72.4 per cent turn out, compared to 56.5 per cent for the country as a whole. In 2012, three in four eligible Minnesotans showed up to the polls, while in 2004, a high of 78.4 per cent cast a vote. That's not the level of participation we see in Australia, but it's perfectly respectable by international standards. And since those are average figures, they obscure even higher turnouts in particular districts, where more than 90 per cent of eligible voters turned out.

So why are Minnesotans so enthusiastic about voting? It's a combination of culture and smart election laws.

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These laws include permitting same day registration, which lets Minnesotans with certain types of identification — or an already registered voter willing to vouch for them — to add themselves to the roll and cast a legal vote on the day of the election. (Wisconsin, which regularly ranks second in turn-out rates, allows the same process.) The result, according to an Ohio State University study [PDF] is a system that "facilitates voter participation, while it also avoids the potential of contentious post-voting disputes over the eligibility of provisional ballots." Close to 20 per cent of voters in 2004 used same day registration, and yet Minnesota elections have very few cases of electoral fraud.

Other good voting practices conducted by Minnesota, according to the OSU study, include efficient use of its Optical Scan Ballot voting machines and no law requiring voter identification. But although Minnesota runs its elections well, and other states could benefit from adapting its practices, the state also has a long history of a participatory civic culture that encourages voting. In Minnesota Politics and Government, Elaar, Gray, and Spano argue Minnesotans' "political participation is rooted in the moralistic political culture." Minnesotans, they say, demonstate many characteristics associated with high participation, including:

...keen interest in politics, high attachment to community, and strong faith in state and local government. Minnesotans also believe in a positive role for government in solving problems, although they do not think of themselves as liberals. We believe Minnesotans are closer to the communitarian position; that is, they want to balance individual rights with community responsibilities. They take public service seriously. Minnesota also exhibits the socioeconomic characteristics associated with high participation — above-average income, above-average levels of education — though it is far from the highest state in either category. Finally, Minnesota exhibits the legal and political characteristics associated with high participation — faciliative voting laws, moralistic political culture, and intense party competition. All these factors together seem to produce the Minnesota ethic of participatory citizenship.

Elsewhere, the authors call Minnesota

"the archetypical example of a state informed and permeated by the moralistic political subculture: both the general public and the politicians conceive of politics as a public activity centered on some notion of the public good and properly devoted to the advancement of the public interest. The tone set by the state's political culutre permeates Minnesota's civil society, its politics, and government, giving Minnesota a 'clean' image."

They attribute this to the state's emergence as a civil society in the ideologically intense years leading up to the Civil War, and to a moralistic political culture brought by Yankee settlers and the Scandinavian immigrants who initially populated the state.

So, sure, Americans in general vote at a lower rate than many other advanced democracies. But in November every two years, up there in the frozen north, Minnesotans trudge through the cold to defy a national stereotype. 

1. Note that though this link says 12 of the past 16, the story in question was written before the 2012 election had been held.

2. A Census survey suggests Minnesota's standing slipped in 2012, but there are good reasons to doubt its findings. 

3. This is a different data series used to the one mentioned earlier in the post, covering a different time period, and so isn't directly comparable. Nonetheless, the numbers for each are similar, though there has been an uptick in voter participation rates since the low of the 1996 election: 60.4 per cent on average nationally.


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Vote yrself clean

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

12 February 2014

If pundits live or die by the success of their predictions (ha!), here's a black mark against my name:

Nothing about the contemporary Republican Party suggests it will grow more comfortable with a changing America. As such, the big question is not how this current crisis will end, but how soon the Tea Party contingent will force the next one.

That's how I ended a column I wrote for SBS Online last October, when the US government had been shut down by GOP intransigence and the country was facing the very real prospect that it might default on its debt. In the end, Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats made credible their refusal to negotiate over Republican hostage-taking, and the GOP surrendered, after inflicting some political cost on the President but much more on themselves. That might explain why, despite the continuing truth of my larger point — Tea Party Republicans are seeing their country transform into a place they do not recognise, and believe intransigence and obstruction to be the only remedy — tactical moderates in the GOP today agreed not to force another debt ceiling showdown:

The House passed a yearlong suspension of the Treasury’s debt limit Tuesday in a vote that left Republicans once again ceding control to Democrats, following a collapse in support for an earlier proposal advanced by GOP leaders.

In a narrow vote, 221-201, 28 Republicans voted with 193 Democrats to approve a “clean” extension of the federal government’s borrowing authority — one without strings attached — sending the legislation to the Senate for a posssible final vote later this week. Two Democrats and 199 Republicans voted no.

This represents a significant shift for a party that, just four months ago, was spoiling for a fight and keen to extract all it could from a president they were persuaded would give in to hardball tactics. Part of the story is that Obama demonstrated he wouldn't back down, as his opponents presumed he would, but the larger story is that the debt ceiling showdown/government shutdown did not benefit Republicans the way they thought it would. Although Americans told pollsters they didn't like government spending and they really didn't want to raise the debt limit, voters blamed the GOP for the shutdown by 22 points. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had the party's favourability rating at an all-time low during the dispute. Forecasters began immediately talking up Democratic prospects for the 2014 midterms. 

The Republican Party leadership — and, evidently, enough of its caucus — has clearly decided that winning elections is more important than political purity, at least for the time being. A party that had spent so much of its time worrying about the wrath of primary voters is refocusing on the lure of general election ballots. Not that right wing pressure groups have announced surrender in the party's civil war:

Conservative advocacy groups reacted negatively to Boehner’s plan to bring the clean bill to a vote, with spokesmen for Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth urging members to vote “no” and including the vote on their scorecards, which serve as guides for their supporters. “When we heard that House leadership was scheduling a clean debt-ceiling increase, we thought it was a joke,” said Barney Keller, a Club for Growth adviser. “But it’s not. Something is very wrong with House leadership, or with the Republican Party.”

The Senate Conservatives Fund, an outspoken tea-party group, blasted Boehner for his eleventh-hour decision in an e-mail, saying “Boehner must be replaced.” They also launched a petition seeking to encourage at least 15 House Republicans to refuse to support Boehner for speaker -- a move that would deprive him of a majority of the House.

Sean Trende demonstrates why the Republican mainstream is turning away from its militant faction:

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As a general matter, the journalistic narrative hasn’t yet caught up with the deterioration of the Democrats’ political standing since the early summer. Polls showing tight Senate races in New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado and Michigan are met with surprise and disbelief. But they are exactly what we’d expect to see given the president’s national job approval rating. I think they’re accurate barometers of the state of the races.

I noted at the end of last year that the Senate playing field in 2014 is substantially worse for Democrats than it was in 2010. If Democrats ultimately suffer losses in marginal seats at the rate they did in 2010, we’d expect them to lose nine to 10 seats. This time, I’m going to take a slightly different tack, and look at these races from the point of view of the president’s job approval.

Basically, Obama's approval rating is slumping — HuffPo's Pollster average has him at 42.4 per cent — and Republicans don't want disputes over the debt ceiling to distract from their argument against the President. They'd prefer the public to be thinking about the mess that was the Obamacare roll-out than to be reminded of the mess that is the Republican Party. 

(Incidentally, Mark Blumenthal and Ariel Edwards-Levy have an intriguing argument that the slide in Obama's approval rating has been halted and his numbers have actually been trending upward since October. I wouldn't get too excited about it, but if Obama's figures do turn around, it would prove likely that the process has already started and we just haven't noticed yet.)

A couple of other notes:

  • Yesterday I linked to an Alec MacGillis article praising Paul Ryan's newfound intellectual honesty. A day later, it seems like we shouldn't get too excited about any outburst of responsibility from the vice-presidential nominee (h/t Kevin Drum):

    Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy voted for the increase. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, on the other hand, voted against the bill.

    Let's not to be too hard on him though. This is essentially the same vote Obama (didn't) cast as a senator in 2006.

  • I was excited to see an editorial today from the Wall Street Journal making the eminently sensible suggestion of getting rid of the debt ceiling altogether:

    What then? Some Republicans continue to see the debt ceiling as political leverage against President Obama. And once in a great while the debt ceiling has, with a willing President, imposed a modicum of spending discipline. That includes the 2011 sequester deal that lasted two years, and the Gramm-Rudman limits of 1985.

    But Mr. Obama vowed after 2011 never again to let Congress use the debt limit to impose spending oversight, and he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have turned every borrowing-limit fight into another media-assisted episode of blame the GOP for risking a debt default. Republicans are never willing to shoot their debt-limit hostage, so the limit has now become Democratic leverage against Republicans. Why continue the pretense of fighting over a debt limit that doesn't limit debt?

    Great idea! After all, Congress has already voted to spend the money the debt is required to cover. Why force votes on what is, essentially, a decision to pay a bill the Treasury has already racked up? But then:

    Before it created the debt ceiling in 1917, Congress had to vote to approve each new government bond issue, specifying the amount to be borrowed and the terms. This is in stark contrast to today's practice, when Treasury is generally free to borrow at will until it hits the statutory borrowing limit. Congress could repeal the debt ceiling and go back to approving each new debt issue.

    Returning to the pre-1917 practice might provide better negotiating leverage to limit taxes and spending. It would also make Congress again directly responsible for government borrowing, returning some political accountability for federal debt accumulation that hasn't existed for nearly 100 years.

    Ah. No. The Journal is proposing the equivalent of a debt ceiling fight on every occasion the Treasury issues any bonds at all. And sanity seemed within such close reach...


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Solving the dilemma of campaign finance

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

3 July 2013

Ever since the Supreme Court struck down restrictions in independent campaign spending in the Citizens United case, electoral funding has vexed advocates for good government and fair elections. What spending caps might the Court assent to? Is a more robust system of public funding the answer? Perhaps formalise the whole thing and declare corporations as citizens as well as people and end the days when a Wal-Mart outlet can be taxed but can't vote.

Might I suggest that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has given us the answer? See, today when Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes announced she would run against McConnell in 2014 for the Bluegrass State's senate seat, the McConnell campaign responded the way the office of any national politician in party leadership would: by Auto-Tuning his opponents words and cobbling together a deeply bizarre, and (admittedly) unexpectedly catchy attack ad.

What does this have to do with campaign finance? Well, I propose that instead of capping spending or increasing public funding, Congress simply pass a law requiring all campaign commercials to be produced within half an hour. Given the original version of the ad misspelled Senator McConnell's name, I reckon the Mitch for Kentucky team put this one together in no more than 22 minutes.

UPDATE: I would also be OK with a law requiring all campaign commercials to be Auto-Tuned, which would have the added benefit of making it substantially more likely that T-Pain could get elected president.

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The South Carolina special election is not that important

By Luke Freedman in Seattle, Washington

6 May 2013


Hi, I'm Mark. But enough about me, what are your thoughts on Obamacare?

It's easy to understand why Tuesday's special election in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District is getting so much press. The Democratic candidate, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, is the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. The Republican, Mark Sanford, resigned as governor of the state in 2009 after disappearing for six days to meet his mistress in Argentina.

It's an entertaining matchup. I get it. But at the risk of being a buzkill, the broader political significance of the race is close to zilch.

There are times when special elections have big implications for pending legislation. Think of Scott Brown's victory in the Massachussett's Senate race, denying Democrats the filibuster-proof majority seemingly needed to pass healthcare reform.

But, the circumstances here are quite different. The only major legislative item on the agenda is immigration.* And while its fate is still very much in the air, one vote out of 435 isn't going to make the difference.

Even if Colbert Busch wins, it will be an uphill battle to keep her seat past 2014 in such a conservative district. The Cook Partisan Voting Index, which measures how heavily a congressional district leans towards one political party, rates SC-1 as Republican+11.  By my count, only 2 other districts with a larger political lean are represented by a politician from the opposing party.

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Incumbency can partially compensate for these disadvantages. For instance, House Democrat Jim Matheson has used his familiarity with voters and some sort of wizardry to remain in office in Utah since 2001.* But that's far from the norm. And Colbert Busch should start the 2014 election as the decided underdog once she's facing an opponent who won't be in court two days after the election for supposedly trespassing at his ex-wife's house.

Which brings us to what this election is really about: will Republican voters prioritize their political beliefs over their personal feelings about Sanford? Right now it's up in the air. A Sunday Public Policy Polling poll had the former governor ahead by one point despite a net favourability rating 17 points lower than his opponent.* 

In short, the special election isn't a bellwether of the political landscape heading into 2014. The reason this race is so close has nothing to do with national politics or current trends; but the simple fact that the Republican candidate seems like a borderline crazy person. 

Colbert Busch recognizes this, and is doing everything she can to distance herself from national Democrats. While campaigning on Sunday she referred to the Affordable Care Act as "so problematic" and explained that she had "a respectful disagreement with President Obama's budget." It's probably a good strategy. Nancy Pelosi has a 24% approval rating in the district with Obama fairing only slightly better at 39%. 

An email I got the other day from the Democratic Congressional Committee exclaimed that a victory on Tuesday would be "monumental" and "the heaviest blow to the Republican Party since President Obama's re-election." It's a good way to fire up donors, but describing the outcome of a race which national Republicans haven't spent money on in weeks as "monumental" is full-blown hyperbole.

*Edit: I should have mentioned gun control as well. It's possible that some version of Manchin-Toomey will reemerge before the midterms.

*This past election, Republicans tried to kick Matheson out of office once and for all by redistricting him into Utha's newly created ultra-conservative 4th district. Nevertheless, his R+16 constituents decided to send him back for another term by a thin 768 vote margin.

*It's worth pointing out that PPP's poll two weeks ago had Colbert Busch up by 9 points. Given the trendl I'd make Sanford the favourite to claim the open seat.


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State of the manufactured crises

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

4 March 2013

"The greatest nation on Earth," President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address this year, "cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next." He could have said the same of his presidency.

The package of indiscriminate spending cuts known as the sequester, which took hold on March 1st, are not only bad for the United States, though they are that. The spending not only takes money out of the American economy at a time when there is too little demand to ensure it can remain in its precarious state of recovery, it also reduces government services across the board, without planning or forethought. The result is an unplanned reduction in government funding that hits essential programs as brutally as less essential ones. The sequester, in short, was designed to be so awful that no responsible government would permit it to take effect.

But in addition to the human suffering and economic disruptions caused by the cuts, sequestration is threatening to derail the second term of Obama's presidency. Even if the Administration were to move on from the sequester, bearing the brunt of the reduced spending, and looking to the next fight, it would continue to find itself beset by the same obstacles and having the same arguments. 

The sequester was a manufactured crisis — Congress building a trap that it sprung on itself when it refused to deactivate it — but another manufactured crisis is just around the corner. That comes on the heels of the debt ceiling crisis of last year, when the US almost defaulted on its debt and had its credit rating downgraded by ratings agency Standard and Poor's because Republicans refused to allow the country to pay for its legal obligations. (That's how the sequester came into being in the first place.)

Then there was the "fiscal cliff", the point on January 1st, 2013, at which a slew of payroll and income tax cuts were scheduled to expire and the sequester in its original form was due to go into effect.  This was solved — sort of — when Congress agreed to permit most of the tax cuts to continue, though not those on taxpayers earning more than $400 thousand a year, nor the payroll tax cut, which meant that all American workers, regardless of income, saw their taxes go up as a result. The sequester, meanwhile, was deferred for two months, permitting it to become the next manufactured crisis in a series of them that arrive with languid regularity.

The next manufactured crisis set to roll into Washington is over the continuing resolution. That's the measure Congress passes to pay for everything the government does. If the resolution doesn't pass before the end of the month, the government will not have the funds it needs to operate, and all the services it provides — ensuring food is safe, keeping national parks open, making sure the environment is clean, and much more — will stop.

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The last time that happened was in 1995, when Congressional Republicans tried to extract concessions from the Clinton administration by threatening a government shutdown. When President Clinton refused to deal, Republicans shut down the government. When the American people made clear how unpopular this action was, Republicans gave in.

Now Congressional Republicans again might threaten to shut down the government unless President Obama agrees to certain measures in their proposed budget, such as spending and entitlement cuts. This, like the few before it, would be a manufactured crisis, because there is no reason Congress can't fund the government. It simply has to pass a law that says, in effect, "fund the government". Then, if  lawmakers would like to cut spending and entitlements, they can propose a law doing so and attempt to pass it through popular vote in both chambers of Congress. (This is better known as "democracy".)

The havoc this series of unnecessary crises is playing with the economy is why President Obama called this pattern of Congressional brinksmanship no way for the United States to conduct business. But it's also presenting problems for Obama's presidency as well.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama outlined a number of policies he would like to pursue over the coming months and years. Many of these, such as immigration, climate change, and gun control, are pressing issues that America must address — and, unlike the sequester, they cannot be solved merely by Congress deciding to stop causing trouble for itself.  

But politicians are humans who have only 24 hours available to them in each day. Having important and unresolved problems before them does not give them time they do not have. As such, if, as they currently are, they busy themselves arguing about problems that aren't real — the fiscal cliff, sequestration, a threatened government shutdown — that means they're not addressing problems that are real, like the millions of undocumented immigrants living inside the US, or the dangerously warming planet, or the millions of Americans still out of work.

A cynical mind might suggest that this is exactly what Republican legislators want. After all, the agenda President Obama laid out is his, not theirs. If Congress is not devoting its time to working out how to enact President Obama's agenda it is, by definition, not enacting President Obama's agenda. The manufactured crises are bad for the country, but they have an upside for people who don't want Obama to do the things he would like to do.

Recent reports have suggested Obama might now be willing to wait until 2014, after the next midterm elections, to pursue his policy goals. At that point, Democrats might again control the House, meaning Republicans will be less able to disrupt his plans.

If so, this would be a mistake. Think back to President George W. Bush's second term. At this time in 2005, Bush was riding high after the electorate had returned him to office. he had bold plans to reform immigration and Social Security. But instead Congress busied itself arguing about whether Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who had been in a coma for decades and had no hope of recovery, must be kept alive against her husband's wishes. 

It was the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency's plans. With continuing distractions in the form of Hurricane Katrina and worsening violence in Iraq, Bush was never able to devote the time to his agenda he would have liked. When 2006 he came around, the public turned on him and he spent the final two years of his presidency a lame duck.

Persuading Republicans to pass Obama's proposals into law will be tough — perhaps impossible. But the President should have the chance to persuade them. Deciding whether America should enact economically destructive spending cuts or whether it should keep the government running at all is a pointless exercise that solves nothing. Congress should at least be arguing about something that matters.


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Sequester Primer

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

28 February 2013

These manufactured crises are bad news for the American people but they certainly keep the journalism industry busy. My piece for the Conversation on the sequester.

The problem is that while the sequester is bad, it ironically doesn’t seem to have been bad enough to serve its purpose of forcing a deal. As such, the next in the seemingly endless series of deadlines to keep an eye on is March 27. This is the point by which Congress needs to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government through the next fiscal year. Both sides could try to use this as leverage with Republicans holding out for more cuts and Democrats demanding a more balanced replacement for the sequester. We’ll have to see if the threat of a government shutdown actually spurs some action.

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Sullivan on Marriage Equality

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

28 February 2013

Andrew Sullivan, who's been publicly making the case for marriage equality for nearly half a century, expresses satisfaction that more and more of his fellow conservatives are joining the cause.

A friend recalled visiting a man dying of AIDS at the time. A former massive bodybuilder, he had shrunk to 90 pounds. ‘Do I look big?” he asked, with mordant humor. In the next bed, surrounded by curtains, my friend heard someone singing a pop song quietly to himself. My friend joked: “Well not everyone here is depressed!” Then this from his dying, now skeletal friend: “Oh, that’s not him. He died this morning. That’s his partner. That was their song, apparently. The family took the body away, threw that guy out of the apartment he shared with his partner, and barred him from the funeral. He’s stayed there all day, singing their song. I guess it’s the last place he’ll ever see where his partner actually was. His face is pressed against the pillow. The nurses don’t have the heart to tell him to leave.”

You want to know why this became a life-long struggle? You have your answer. And I did this not despite being a Catholic, but because I am a Catholic. And I did this not despite being a conservative but because I am one.

This hideous cruelty in the midst of such shame demanded a Catholic and Christian response. This attack on people’s families, and their mutual responsibility (that man’s partner had cared for him for months, while his biological family kept their distance) was an attack on those institutions like civil marriage that are vital for a free society to keep its government in check. If that man’s husband hadn’t cared for him, the government would have had to. Why weren’t conservatives celebrating this man’s dedication rather than smearing him? Why could they not see in the gay community’s astonishing self-defense a Burkean model for social change from below – a dedication to saving our community independent of government that, if it happened in any other community, would have led the GOP to put those activists on the podium of the Republican Convention as exemplars of civil society at its best?

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