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Saturday, October 30, 2010

changing back

It goes without saying, but everyone be sure to vote. It's gonna be a bad year, but there's still a pretty big range in terms of how bad.

Now for some of this and that...

This op-ed by Steven Perlstein is still probably the best commentary on our present circumstances that I've come across. Here's the conclusion:

The simple truth is that Obama and the Democratic Congress were dealt a lousy economic hand, and they've played it about as well as anyone could. Along with their predecessors and the holdovers at the Federal Reserve, they prevented a collapse of the global financial system and a 1930s-like depression. But given the magnitude of the financial crisis and the global imbalances that gave rise to it, a prolonged period of slow growth and high unemployment was almost inevitable.

The political reality, however, is that voters are unwilling to accept that economic reality. They want to believe that government has the power to control the economy and fix it quickly when it breaks down. They are encouraged in that belief by politicians and special interest groups, by the media and by too many economists.

That said, trying to convince voters that things could have been worse was not a viable political strategy for Democrats in 2010. Against a backdrop of stagnant incomes and declining home prices and 10 percent unemployment, toting up the number of jobs saved, mortgages modified or bridges repaired was never going to be a winning argument. What voters needed was a broader vision of where the country needed to go and how we could get there, a credible story of how shared sacrifice today could lead to shared prosperity tomorrow.

The inability of President Obama and Democratic leaders to articulate such a vision and tell that story now threatens their governing majority. Republicans may soon be the beneficiaries of that failure. Their victory, however, will be similarly short-lived if they mistake their good fortune for a mandate for lower taxes, less regulation and further erosion of the economic safety net.

In politics as in many competitive arenas, sometimes you win simply because the other guy loses.

The only thing I would quibble with here, though, is the notion that the government does not have the power to fix the economy. True,politically our government is not capable of doing what would be necessary, but that's not to say it couldn't if everyone somehow got on the same page. We've seen it in our own history: after Pearl Harbor our government began deficit spending on an unprecedented scale. It was a rare moment when "deficit hawks" were silenced by the existential threat posed by the Axis powers. After the war, the economy now out of the Depression and running on all cylinders we managed to pay off the debt relatively quickly. (To be clear, I'm not for deficit spending in good times, just as a way of getting our economy in gear... in the long term we do need to get our fiscal house in order, but that's not going to happen as long as our economy is stuck in the mud)

We could act with the same seriousness now that we did after Pearl Harbor, but rather than building war ships we could spend the money on our own infrastructure and solving the energy/environmental crisis... except, of course, that we can't. But that's a political problem. Not an inherent limitation to the power of government.

Now I don't know if it could be possible to convince the public of the necessity of such drastic measures... but I can say with a degree of certainty that it's unlikely to happen without even making the argument. That's where I do believe the Obama Admin deserves some criticism.

Along those lines, Paul Krugman considers how we got here:

This is what happens when you need to leap over an economic chasm — but either can’t or won’t jump far enough, so that you only get part of the way across.

If Democrats do as badly as expected in next week’s elections, pundits will rush to interpret the results as a referendum on ideology. President Obama moved too far to the left, most will say, even though his actual program — a health care plan very similar to past Republican proposals, a fiscal stimulus that consisted mainly of tax cuts, help for the unemployed and aid to hard-pressed states — was more conservative than his election platform.

A few commentators will point out, with much more justice, that Mr. Obama never made a full-throated case for progressive policies, that he consistently stepped on his own message, that he was so worried about making bankers nervous that he ended up ceding populist anger to the right.

But the truth is that if the economic situation were better — if unemployment had fallen substantially over the past year — we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We would, instead, be talking about modest Democratic losses, no more than is usual in midterm elections.

The real story of this election, then, is that of an economic policy that failed to deliver. Why? Because it was greatly inadequate to the task.

Krugman makes the crucial point that the stimulus was barely enough to counter-act cuts at the State and local levels, meaning, in effect, there was no stimulus.

David Leonhardt thinks he knows the moment the Obama Administration took their eye off the ball:

On the evening of Dec. 3 last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics sent an advance copy of the next morning’s jobs report to the White House. It’s standard procedure for top White House and Federal Reserve officials to get an early look at the numbers, but there was nothing standard about this particular report.

It showed that job losses had all but stopped in November, after nearly two years of big declines. White House aides exulted. Christina Romer, a top economist, brought a copy of the numbers to the Oval Office, and President Obama embraced her. A photograph of the moment, with a Christmas tree off to the side, was hung in the office of the Council of Economic Advisers. The good news — and the optimism — would continue for the next few months.

Today, that brief period of optimism looks like one of the worst things that could have happened to the White House, other Democrats and, above all, the economy. The nascent recovery removed the urgency that the Obama administration and Democratic senators felt in early 2009. They still favored more action, like aid to states and tax cuts, but it was no longer their top priority.

They assumed a recovery was under way.

We now know, of course, that the recovery has stalled. From November of last year — the month whose job report brought cheer to the White House — to May, the economy added almost one million jobs, thanks partly to census hiring. Since May, almost 400,000 jobs have disappeared.

More than anything else, that change explains the midterm losses that Democrats are bracing for next week.

Tim Dickinson argues in Rolling Stone that Obama deserves more credit than he's getting:

During his campaign, skeptics warned that Barack Obama was nothing but a "beautiful loser," a progressive purist whose uncompromising idealism would derail his program for change. But as president, Obama has proved to be just the opposite — an ugly winner. Over and over, he has shown himself willing to strike unpalatable political bargains to secure progress, even at the cost of alienating his core supporters. Single-payer health care? For Obama, it was a nonstarter. The public option? A praiseworthy bargaining chip in the push for reform.

This bloodless, if effective, approach to governance has created a perilous disconnect: By any rational measure, Obama is the most accomplished and progressive president in decades, yet the only Americans fired up by the changes he has delivered are Republicans and Tea Partiers hellbent on reversing them. Heading into the November elections, Obama's approval ratings are mired in the mid-40s, and polls reflect a stark enthusiasm gap: Half of all Republicans are "very" excited about voting this fall, compared to just a quarter of Democrats. "Republicans have succeeded in making even the president's victories look distasteful, messy — and seem like bad policy steps or defeats," says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Many on the left have expressed nothing but anger, frustration and disappointment."

But if the passions of Obama's base have been deflated by the compromises he made to secure historic gains like the Recovery Act, health care reform and Wall Street regulation, that gloom cannot obscure the essential point: This president has delivered more sweeping, progressive change in 20 months than the previous two Democratic administrations did in 12 years. "When you look at what will last in history," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells Rolling Stone, "Obama has more notches on the presidential belt."

In fact, when the history of this administration is written, Obama's opening act is likely to be judged as more impressive than any president's — Democrat or Republican — since the mid-1960s. "If you're looking at the first-two-year legislative record," says Ornstein, "you really don't have any rivals since Lyndon Johnson — and that includes Ronald Reagan."

Less than halfway through his first term, Obama has compiled a remarkable track record. As president, he has rewritten America's social contract to make health care accessible for all citizens. He has brought 100,000 troops home from war and forged a once-unthinkable consensus around the endgame for the Bush administration's $3 trillion blunder in Iraq. He has secured sweeping financial reforms that elevate the rights of consumers over Wall Street bankers and give regulators powerful new tools to prevent another collapse. And most important of all, he has achieved all of this while moving boldly to ward off another Great Depression and put the country back on a halting path to recovery.

Along the way, Obama delivered record tax cuts to the middle class and slashed nearly $200 billion in corporate welfare — reinvesting that money to make college more accessible and Medicare more solvent. He single-handedly prevented the collapse of the Big Three automakers — saving more than 1 million jobs — and brought Big Tobacco, at last, under the yoke of federal regulation. Even in the face of congressional intransigence on climate change, he has fought to constrain carbon pollution by executive fiat and to invest $200 billion in clean energy — an initiative bigger than John F. Kennedy's moonshot and one that's on track to double America's capacity to generate renewable energy by the end of Obama's first term.

On the social front, he has improved pay parity for women and hate-crime protections for gays and lesbians. He has brought a measure of sanity to the drug war, reducing the sentencing disparity for crack cocaine while granting states wide latitude to experiment with marijuana laws. And he has installed two young, female justices on the Supreme Court, creating what Brinkley calls "an Obama imprint on the court for generations."

What's even more impressive about Obama's accomplishments, historians say, is the fractious political coalition he had to marshal to victory. "He didn't have the majority that LBJ had," says Goodwin. Indeed, Johnson could count on 68 Democratic senators to pass Medicare, Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act. For his part, Franklin Roosevelt had the backing of 69 Senate Democrats when he passed Social Security in 1935. At its zenith, Obama's governing coalition in the Senate comprised 57 Democrats, a socialist, a Republican turncoat — and Joe Lieberman.

In his quest for progress, Obama has also had to maneuver against an unrelenting head wind from the "Party of No" and its billionaire backers. "Obama is harassed as well as opposed," says Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. "The crazy Republican right is now unfettered. You've got a Senate with no adult leadership. And Obama's up against Rupert Murdoch, Dick Armey, the Koch brothers and the rest of the professional right." Compared to the opposition faced by the most transformative Democratic presidents, adds Wilentz, "it's a wholly different scale."

Despite such obstacles, Obama has succeeded in forging a progressive legacy that, anchored by health care reform, puts him "into the same conversation with FDR and LBJ," says Brinkley, "though those two accomplished more." Goodwin, herself a former Johnson aide, likens the thrust of Obama's social agenda to LBJ's historic package of measures known as the Great Society. "What is comparable," she says, "is the idea of using government to expand social and economic justice. That's what the health care bill is about. That's what Obama tried to do with the financial reforms. That's what he's doing with education. The Great Society was about using the collective energies of the nation to make life better for more people — and that's what Obama has tried to do."

Unfortunately though, most people don't see things that way (Bloomberg):

The Obama administration cut taxes for middle-class Americans, expects to make a profit on the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to rescue Wall Street banks and has overseen an economy that has grown for the past five quarters.

Most voters don’t believe it.

A Bloomberg National Poll conducted Oct. 24-26 finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the Nov. 2 midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered.

“The public view of the economy is at odds with the facts, and the blame has to go to the Democrats,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm that conducted the nationwide survey. “It does not matter much if you make change, if you do not communicate change.”

Paul Krugman on the kind of politics we can look forward to:

In the late-1990s, Republicans and Democrats were able to work together on some issues. President Obama seems to believe that the same thing can happen again today. In a recent interview with National Journal, he sounded a conciliatory note, saying that Democrats need to have an “appropriate sense of humility,” and that he would “spend more time building consensus.” Good luck with that.

After all, that era of partial cooperation in the 1990s came only after Republicans had tried all-out confrontation, actually shutting down the federal government in an effort to force President Bill Clinton to give in to their demands for big cuts in Medicare.

Now, the government shutdown ended up hurting Republicans politically, and some observers seem to assume that memories of that experience will deter the G.O.P. from being too confrontational this time around. But the lesson current Republicans seem to have drawn from 1995 isn’t that they were too confrontational, it’s that they weren’t confrontational enough.

Another recent interview by National Journal, this one with Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has received a lot of attention thanks to a headline-grabbing quote: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

If you read the full interview, what Mr. McConnell was saying was that, in 1995, Republicans erred by focusing too much on their policy agenda and not enough on destroying the president: “We suffered from some degree of hubris and acted as if the president was irrelevant and we would roll over him. By the summer of 1995, he was already on the way to being re-elected, and we were hanging on for our lives.” So this time around, he implied, they’ll stay focused on bringing down Mr. Obama.

True, Mr. McConnell did say that he might be willing to work with Mr. Obama in certain circumstances — namely, if he’s willing to do a “Clintonian back flip,” taking positions that would find more support among Republicans than in his own party. Of course, this would actually hurt Mr. Obama’s chances of re-election — but that’s the point.

get ready for it!

This Vanity Fair profile of John Boehner gave me some perspective on the guy. He comes less as a zealot and more as a political creature responding to the demands of his increasingly crazy constituents. This doesn't make him any less dangerous, but still interesting nonetheless. Here's a key excerpt:

He is not ashamed to acknowledge that he raises a glass, or two or three, when day is done. “He smokes and he drinks, and God bless him,” says John Feehery, who was press secretary to the last Republican Speaker, Dennis Hastert, and who has been on the receiving end of some of Boehner’s sartorial tips and injunctions to lose weight. “The thing that’s most important about Boehner is he’s very even-keeled. He’s not mercurial. Unless he’s giving a speech on the floor, he’s not going to get overly excited. From a leadership perspective, he’s been there before. I don’t think he’s necessarily out to prove anything.”

Yet the reality of the modern Republican Party is that Boehner has to prove himself every day to his truculent colleagues, which is part of the reason he has offered such consistently unyielding opposition to Obama. It’s impossible to imagine a Speaker Sam Rayburn adopting a “Hell, no!” strategy with Dwight D. Eisenhower, or a Tip O’Neill adopting it with Ronald Reagan, whatever their real policy differences or partisan electoral objectives might have been. Were he to be left to his own devices, it would be easy enough to imagine that Boehner might like to close the sale for a change, instead of just closing the door. But he can’t—it would cost him his job. It was Boehner himself who shouted “Hell, no!” on the House floor just before the final vote on the health-care bill. Although he likes to say that Obama has refused to listen to G.O.P. ideas or bargain in good faith, the truth is the other way around. Boehner was among the architects of the strategy by Republicans in both houses to resist the president at every turn, regardless of whether they thought his proposals made sense or might be good for the country. Led by Boehner in the House, the Republicans voted down measures they had previously agreed with, even been the first to propose. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, has openly acknowledged that this approach was a deliberate effort to build the party’s political fortunes at the expense of the president’s.

Boehner has vowed that, if the House were to come under his management as Speaker, he would run the place differently. Even if he tried, it is not clear how much difference it would make. “Boehner does understand the legislative process, he values the legislative process,” says Don Wolfensberger, a former top Republican staffer on the House rules committee and now director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington. But legislating has become “more and more difficult, because things have become so much more partisan.” If the modern Senate has been twisted into knots by the ever present threat of filibusters to prolong debate, the House has seen the reverse: a precipitous decline of substantive debate among members on the floor, through the use of restrictive procedural rules that bar, or severely limit, amendments to pre-cooked bills that emerge from the powerful Rules Committee. The use of so-called “closed” rules began to increase about 30 years ago, after Reagan’s election, when House Republicans staged rearguard warfare against the Democratic majority by seeking to attach rafts of amendments, and Democrats clamored for relief. As part of the original Contract with America, Republicans pledged more open debate, but the best they were able to do was to have open rules on 58 percent of legislation reaching the floor, according to Wolfensberger’s calculations. Since then, that percentage has declined steadily. In the first two years of renewed Democratic control, in 2007–9, only 14 percent of bills reached the floor in a form that allowed unlimited amendments. In the current Congress, not even one such bill has reached the floor.

Boehner routinely deplores this state of affairs, but he would have a tough time changing it. It is also hard to see just where and how he might be able to work with Obama, though they agree on several broad fronts of foreign policy, including the war in Afghanistan. Boehner has been deliberately opaque about what his own priorities would be as Speaker, in part lest he rank too low on his own agenda some item that is high on the agenda of the Young Guns. (He is anti-abortion, for example, but he has never shown much interest in the culture wars.) But Boehner holds out some hope, and cites the messy passage of Obama’s health-care bill as proof, that big and complex things cannot be done effectively on pure partisan votes. “This is one of the reasons why I believe that beginning to break down the scar tissue that’s been built up by both political parties is critically important for the future of the institution that I’m seeking to lead,” he said recently to a group of journalists in Washington. “And both parties have built up a lot of scar tissue that prevents members from working together again. But I’m going to tell you what: we’re not going to be able to solve the big problems in our country until members begin to work with each other again and trust each other once again. Ain’t gonna happen overnight.”

That’s an understatement, and Boehner is, in the end, a most unlikely candidate to lead any kind of revolution. He is a traditionalist, and an institutionalist, and, Lord knows, he is anything but a fresh face. He is the captive of forces more powerful than himself, and he has evidenced a form of Stockholm syndrome, which his captors may or may not find convincing. The pitiful reality of contemporary Washington is that institutional perspective is in such short supply that anyone with even a smidgen of it might pass for having qualities of statesmanship. If John Boehner is a statesman, he’s one who starts from an unenviable position: neither the leader his party may really want nor the kind his country most needs.

Here are a few other random things I found interesting:

Jonathan Chait reviews the most popular conservative book of the year, The Battle by Arthur Brooks, calling it a notable signpost on the road to idiocy.

Sean Wilentz traces the Tea Party's roots back to Cold War fringe groups like the John Birch Society. He notes that many of the books being promoted by Glenn Beck and gaining currency among Republicans lately are by people who were shunned in their day by the likes of William F. Buckley.

Tom Junod on the "sore winners"

The Stewart/Colbert rally is starting soon. Have a great weekend people!

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