12 February 2014
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:
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...
11 April 2012
For the good part of half a decade, Rick Santorum has been a joke — and I'm not referring to the one propagated by Seattle sex columnist Dan Savage. The Pennsylvania senator lost his seat in 2006 by a humiliating 18 points, and, throughout 2011, ran a presidential campaign distinguished by its inability to attract support greater than the margin of error in most polls. With the national economy stumbling along in a recovery not robust enough to get anyone particularly excited, it seemed that the last thing Americans wanted was a social conservative with an apparent fixation on keeping women away from contraception and gay folks away from each other.
America likely didn't want that, but a significant proportion of the Republican party did, and Santorum's threading together of ostentatious religiosity, blue collar boilerplate, and vigorous traditionalism was enough to give him a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. Santorum wasn't the perfect Tea Party conservative, but up against the suspiciously Northeastern Mitt Romney, the fervently unorthodox Ron Paul, and the mercurial and unfocused Newt Gingrich, the Republican base accepted him as good enough. Good enough to throw some support behind — and good enough to keep Mitt Romney from a too-easy ride to the nomination.
But even in forcing the Republican Party to take him seriously, Santorum struggled to make himself a candidate at whom the wider American public would have to take a look. He could not convert his Iowa victory into the campaign donations or party endorsements that would have permitted him to provide a credible challenge to Romney, and his campaign was beset by organisational problems that prevented him from maximising the impact of his victories — in some states, he failed to file full delegate slates, meaning that he couldn't fully convert his popular support to representation at the national convention. Even on his best day, when he won victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, he failed to use the opportunity to jumpstart his campaign. Ultimately the Republican Party proved to be more diverse in opinion than its conservative base, and Santorum couldn't persuade enough of the party that he could beat President Obama in November. His suspension of his campaign, announced today, was a confirmation of the inevitable.
None of which makes his campaign an irrelevancy. The religious right had been marginalised from American politics ever since it had helped give President George W. Bush a second term in 2004, and found itself roundly ignored by him once he was back in office. Santorum didn't just put debates over gay marriage, pornography, and abortion back on the national agenda, he asked Americans to consider the morality of contraception for the first time since the 1960s. He didn't singlehandedly stir up the social conseravtive furore that permitted Democrats to accuse Republicans of declaring a "war on women," but he was a leading voice for a vision of America that many on the right feared had slipped away: a place where order and propriety reigned supreme, and where they did not need to worry that the primacy of whiteness, Christianity, and traditional family structures and gender roles had eroded. Even though it didn't resonate with the general population, Santorum's message was won a lot of Republicans found irresistable, and his competitors, including the party's now presumptual nominee Mitt Romney, were forced into arguing on his territory. To keep peace with his party, Romney had to adopt an aggressively conservative stance that could well come back to haunt him in November — and, if he should win, beyond.
Romney had effectively secured the nomination after he had won in Florida — or, depending on how fervently party actors were looking for an alternative, possibly even earlier. Only now, however, can he turn his full attention to the sitting president. He will do so after a battle that forced him into positions far more to the right than he felt comfortable adopting. (Remember his unintentionally revealing remarks at CPAC, where he declared himself to be "severely" conservative?) Romney will be hoping that with Santorum exiting the race, so too will depart the most strident demands of the Tea Party and the religious right.
7 March 2012
It's really over now. Mitt Romney is the nominee.
I mean, it was really over after Florida, but now the media will have to stop pretending it's a contest and Republicans will have to start acting like he's the presumptive nominee. Though Gingrich and Santorum may — and Paul will certainly — struggle on for a while, Romney can now pivot to the general.
Romney got Virginia and Vermont by reasonable margins — he got over 50 per cent in Virginia, which is impressive and will net him a lot of delegates, and beat Paul by a 14 per cent margin in Vermont, as well as completely destroying the competition in his home state — 70+ per cent there.
Gingrich got his home state of Georgia, but fell short of the 50 per cent he needed to lock in the delegates, so that won't hurt Romney in the long run. Santorum is continuing to do well in deep red states — they've called Tennessee for him, and he's looking good in Oklahoma too.
The only interesting contest left is in Ohio, where Santorum and Romney are neck-and-neck. Because Ohio borders Pennsylvania, there's something of a home state advantage for Santorum, but because of the importance of Ohio in the general, there could be some questions about Romney's electability if he doesn't manage to win there. But those questions won't actually mean anything, because with the number of delegates he'll net today, Romney's lead is unassailable.
No real results from Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota yet. I suspect Romney will do very, very well in Idaho, but it'll be interesting to see the influence of the libertarian vote in Alaska and Idaho.
1 March 2012
It was a good day for Mitt Romney, depending on your definition of good. His convincing and entirely predictable win in Arizona was an uncomplicated positive for the man who is sorta-kinda considered the Republican frontrunner*. Romney's three point victory in Michigan, however, is only good whether your memory extends two days or two weeks.
This, after all, was an impressive effort for a candidate who polls showed had been trailing his strongest opponent, Rick Santorum, in recent weeks. Romney put his money and political connections to work and won over an electorate that was supposed to recoil from his blueblood background and his harsh words for the bailout of the auto industry. If you think back a little further though, you'll remember that Romney originally presumed Michigan would be a cakewalk. It is the state in which he was born, and where his father, George Romney, served as state governor and chairman of American Motors Corporation. The meagre victory Romney scraped together was the result of a last minute scrable to avoid an embarrassing loss, but it was still much smaller than it should have been.
Still, it would be wise not to get too bogged down in this sort of minutiae. A loss would have boosted Santorum and revived a new wave of chatter about Romney's inability to appeal to this electorate or that electorate. Romney's victory, no matter how small, staved that off. Rick Santorum still has a gigantic task ahead of him — perhaps an impossible one. He probably won't do enough on Super Tuesday to turn the race around, and though he has been the subject of much news attention, he hasn't converted it into solid signs that the party would like him to be its standard bearer this fall; precious few endorsements followed his wins in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri.
And it's the big picture that's important. Don't get too worked up about percentages or delegate counts. The most likely outcome is that one of the candidates (let's be straight: Romney) will establish enough dominance over the other that all the other candidates will fall out of practical contention. There's a chance this has already happened and we just haven't realised it.
* Depending on how invested you are in casting the GOP race as competitive, you might have decided that Rick Santorum took the nominal lead at some point in the past couple of weeks. The former Pennsylvania senator certainly gave America a good look at his campaign, and made an impressive showing in some state-based and regional polls, but I don't think he really turned the underlying momentum of the race in his direction at any point. He remained very much the underdog.
15 February 2012
As the candidates trade victories in the 2012 Republican presidential primary contest and the race heads towards so-called “Super Tuesday” on March 6th, when a dozen states will conduct primaries, caucuses, or conventions, an intriguing possibility is emerging: what if nobody wins?
It’s a very big “what if.” But with new GOP rules awarding delegates in early states on a proportional rather than winner-take-all basis, and with the penalties for the states that voted in January, it is possible that a protracted three or four-candidate contest will result in no candidate reaching the 1 144 votes he needs to win the nomination.
And that’s where we could just possibly see something we haven’t seen since the incumbent, appointed President Gerry Ford squeaked home over former California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1976: a brokered Republican National Convention.
What would that mean at the RNC in Tampa, Florida in late August?
In the romantic imagination of we pundits, a brokered convention conjures up images of gravel-voiced party elders picking a future President in a smoke-filled back room, as idealistic delegates on the floor parade under red, white and blue signs wearing boater hats and ribbons.
A modern brokered convention is probably going to be smoke-free and involve a lot of hushed phone calls and texting on BlackBerrys, but the very uncertainty of it would be wonderful theatre (and scare the bejeezus out of the party establishment).
In short, nobody knows what could happen — but it could even see a “dark horse” candidate like Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, or Mitch Daniels (who haven’t contested any of the primaries or caucuses) become the nominee.
The Republican delegations from the various states are bound to different rules, depending on whether they were elected in a primary or by a caucus, and state convention: some are “pledged” to support a particular candidate and some remain “unpledged” — and while they are expected to vote a certain way, that can change.
In a tight race, those “unpledged delegates” are effectively the GOP’s equivalent of the Democratic Party’s “super delegates.”
If, for the sake of this exercise the 2,286 delegates, including 488 unpledged delegates are allocated as follows:
Mitt Romney: 986
Rick Santorum: 614
Newt Gingrich: 408
Ron Paul: 275
No single candidate will have the 1 144 required votes on the first round of voting, and that’s when the games begin.
The same four candidates could stay in for several further rounds of voting and depending on the rules applying to various state delegations, there might be some movement — especially among unpledged delegates.
But then, what if Newt Gingrich took to the floor, and, in an impassioned speech, told his supporters he was dropping out and that they should throw their support behind Rick Santorum as the leading conservative candidate to stop Mitt Romney’s nomination?
The Tea Party movement, which lost its standard-bearers Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry now could emerge as king-makers.
Let’s say most, but not all, do give their vote to Santorum, while some decide to fall in behind Romney instead and just eight decide to vote for Ron Paul.
The new count would be this:
Mitt Romney is close, but still 58 votes short of becoming the nominee. More rounds of voting are called and the numbers stay pretty much the same — it’s a deadlock.
Meetings are called behind the scenes in those now–smoke-free rooms; various party leaders and surrogates speak in support of Romney, Santorum and Paul, until, finally, a deal is done between Santorum and Paul to insert a plank in the GOP platform to establish a congressional committee to return the US to the gold standard.
Ron Paul is given special time to address delegates and withdraws from the next round of balloting. Despite his preference for Santorum, Paul doesn’t direct his supporters; some leave, unable to give their vote to either Santorum or Romney, party officials rush for the rule books and try to muster stand-by delegates — some of whom are as far away as Iowa.
Meanwhile, the party establishment, which has previously stood firmly behind Mitt Romney, sees the writing on the wall. A “Draft-Jeb” movement is formed by former George W. Bush staffer Karl Rove, who extracts a commitment for Romney to bow out in return for the vice presidential nomination.
The former governor of the state of Florida’s name is put forward in the next round of balloting as part of a moderate establishment “dream team.”
Another round of voting is finally called. Most Romney supporters, fearful Santorum would be just too conservative to beat Barack Obama, pledge their votes to Bush, even though many others stand by Romney out of fear Karl Rove has hijacked the nomination.
The votes are tallied:
John Ellis “Jeb” Bush becomes the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee, without standing in the primaries or even leaving the state of Florida.
More likely in a brokered convention scenario is that a conservative “Stop Romney” movement could see Santorum or Gingrich emerge.
Much more likely still is that Mitt Romney will have the 1 144 votes he needs to become the nominee well before the convention.
But in this hiatus between primaries, it’s fun to ponder the possibilities.
9 February 2012
Newt Gingrich (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
If you're looking for a takeaway from the results of tonight's caucuses — in Minnesota and Colorado, as well as the non-binding "beauty contest" in Missouri — you could do worse than marking this down as the moment the last fantasies of Newt Gingrich's viability vanished.
Mitt Romney performed dismally in Minnesota, and with about 60 per cent of the Colorado results in, he's not far enough ahead of Rick Santorum to avoid the conclusion that he's had a woeful evening — whether he eventually pulls out a victory in the Mountain West or not. But in all likelihood — that is, barring genuine disaster — Mitt Romney will be the Republican Party's nominee. It will just take him longer to end the contest, and it will stoke further worries that he can't win in the Midwest.
Beauty contest or not, Romney's loss in Missouri, coupled with Santorum's victory in Minnesota, and a contest in Iowa that commentators are increasingly forgetting was a draw, is all adding up to the impression that Midwsterners don't like the son of Michigan scion George Romney. And any Republicans looking to feel extra gloomy about Mitt should acquaint themselves with the indicators that Barack Obama is improving his standing with swing voters across the Rust Belt.
But Newt! He finished last in Minnesota, drawing just ten per cent of the vote, and is struggling to take third place from Ron Paul in Colorado. He didn't even get on the ballot in Missouri. None of this means that Gingrich will drop out any time soon — his contestation for the nomination is about his ego before anything else, and that's something tough enough to withstand any number of losses — but it does mean the rest of America can stop pretending he's a going concern in this contest.
Goodnight, Newt. Goodnight to one and all.
The cable news networks have called Rick Santorum as the winner in Colorado. Like I said, Mitt Romney is still the overwhelming favourite to be the eventual nominee, but he's showing a frustrating inability to wrap this up. They're not going to make this easy for him.
8 January 2012
In June of last year, I mentioned the oft-repeated theory that the Republican Party likes its nominee to be whoever is "next in line":
Unlike Democrats, who are far more susceptible to the thrill of charming newcomers, Republicans have a habit of handing their party's nomination to the candidate next in line. John McCain was a runner-up to George W. Bush in the 2000 primary contest, and sure enough, he got the nod in 2008. 1996 candidate Bob Dole had previously challenged then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Ronald Reagan had come close to securing the nomination over Gerald Ford in 1976 and against Richard Nixon in 1968 before winning it in 1980. Nixon himself became the party's nominee after losing the 1960 general election and a contest for the governorship of California in 1962. Democrats will give a shot to a relative newcomer like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, but Republicans prefer someone who has been through the process once or twice already.
Eli Lehrer has a plausible explanation for why Republicans "take turns" like this. Rather than party culture, he credits structure:
Nearly every part of the Republican primary process and, indeed, the party’s overall structure gives a massive advantage to people who have run before. The lack of super-delegates (ex officio convention delegates), for example, means that simply becoming well-known in the national media and among national figures conveys much less advantage than it does in Democratic contests. Republicans’ relatively greater reliance on low-dollar direct mail donations, likewise, means that having a well-tested list from a previous run for office conveys a fundraising advantage. Even the structure of grass roots groups on the Right conveys an advantage to those who have run before: the single greatest source of on-the-ground manpower on the Left, unions, are national organizations with top-down structures while the churches, community organizations, and tax reform groups important on the right are rarely centralized. And some right-of-center groups that have central structures–Americans for Prosperity, for example–don’t directly engage in electoral politics.
Mitt Romney will hope those advantages to past runners hold. In an unrelated matter, though still in the realm of intuitive explanations for political phenomena, Nate Silver has a smart guess about how momentum works:
...Voters in Iowa participate early in the process and therefore have less information about the candidates than those who vote later on. Momentum may represent a learning process by which some voters come across salient information about a candidate sooner than others.
If this model is true, the momentum Rick Santorum built leading up to the caucuses yesterday started when a small number of Republicans learned some information about him that convinced them to back him. Then, as time passed, other voters learned that information, and switched their support to him as well. Of course, the increased media exposure this momentum drew in turn informed even more potential supporters about Santorum, adding further to the momentum he'd already accumulated.
The concept as illustrated by this New York Times report:
Mr. Santorum would become openly frustrated when it seemed that every other Republican candidate would enjoy a surge except him. “When’s my bump coming?” he asked Mr. Laudner early last month.
Mr. Laudner replied that when he started to move a little bit, the effect would snowball; if he got to about 10 percent in the polls, “the 1 would be replaced by a 2 very quickly,” Mr. Laudner said.