Archive for June, 2012
Whether Chief Justice John Roberts changed his mind, or is the latest example of Republican justices “evolving” on the bench, he has done the improbable: liberals are praising a Supreme Court that they had trashed as a player in a right-wing conspiracy. Old sins like Citizen United are washed away, as are President Obama’s spring musings about the dangers of an unelected court unaccountable to public opinion. The about-face is jarring even in a political atmosphere where the right result typically makes right.
I’ll offer two quick cautionary notes, though, on the politics,and on the arguably more significant trend signified by the outcome. First, a rebuttal to Democratic wishfulness that healthcare is now a politica lwinner for Barack Obama: the better evidence is that it will be a media inflated victory that is worth no votes. Just as Democrats miscalculated in 2010 by assuming that the passage of the healthcare law would prove that they could get things done, they are probably drawing th ewrong lesson today if they assume the Court’s rescue of a deeply unpopular law somehow validates the Obama term.
The notion that the Supreme Court’s imprimatur alters the electoral equation implies that the hostility to Obamacare among Independents and swing voters is related to their doubts about the law’s legitimacy. To the contrary, there is considerably more polling evidence that the political middle’s resistance to the Affordable Care Act is grounded in bread and butter realities: sticker shot at the cost; reflexive doubts that any fledgling federal bureaucracy will work the way it is supposed to; and a suspicion that for all the hoopla, the reform won’t lower their premiums or improve their coverage. The constitutional gripe never really permeated the congressiona ldebate, and it has become a rallying point only within the GOP’s Tea Party base and on the intellectual right: two places that are not exactly part of the persuadable voter universe, and two sectors that aren’t about to rethink thei ropinion based on a one vote escape act.
From the Romney campaign’s 2 million dollar online fundraising haul in the 12 hours after the opinion, to the usual eventuality that a judicial setback only galvanizes the political losers, there are all manner of reasons to think that a campaign looking for a conservative cause now has one. But in fairness, that cause should be something deeper than the vagaries of the healthcare overhaul. The larger threat–and the most important victory won today– lies in the left’s continuing capacity to achieve political outcomes out of all proportion to their public appeal.
Just as the left has caricatured opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion as retrograde and extreme, it has pulled off the same feat in the context of Obamacare: the case was made, and Roberts bought it, that a Court that has struck down 170 congressional statutes (including another in the next to last case announced today) would somehow be dangerously activist if it added a171st to the mix. It’s a trick that has played out all year: shaping elite opinion by marginalizing positions that roughly half the country holds.
At its core, it is brutally effective politics: a president in a tight race reversed his long-standing opposition to same sex marriage in a country where 36 states ban the practice and in a party whose all-important ethnic base is extremely skeptical of redefining marriage. A universally respected breast cancer charity was beaten up badly over its choice to defund one of the nation’s leading abortion providers and was forced into a mea culpa, at the same time the pro-life constituency is at its highest level in Gallup polling in a generation and outnumbers the pro-choice camp.
It is not news that most liberals regard the courts as a bulwark against public opinion, and that they celebrate the judiciary’s capacity to detach itself from the mainstream. What is more striking is the evolving liberal ideal that the overall political process need not and should not mimic popular sentiment either. Why bother, when reputation sensitive elites can be persuaded without relying on a ballot, simply by invoking their desire to align with “history” and their skittishness about following the “uninformed”?This is a crafty, albeit undemocratic, disingenuous sleight of hand that the left is practicing, but it is winning victories (and for the moment, may have captured John Roberts). Victories, mind you, with a cost: a further widening of the gap between Middle America and the elite, and a little bit more distrust poured into our politics.
A version of this article also appeared in National Review on June 28, 2012
If you’re scoring the Supreme Court’s Solomonic ruling on immigration, consider this counter-intuitive result: liberals who would be expected to cheer a ruling that wipes out much of Arizona’s controversial law have sounded strangely conflicted, and from the New York Times to the New Republic, have described the surviving component that allows local law enforcement to determine the legal status of individuals lawfully in their custody as everything from the “centerpiece” of the statute to “its most controversial” element.
It’s an odd approach to a legal victory. Heretofore, the most vocal concerns around SB 1070 (and copycats like the Alabama version) have focused on the blunt-force impact restrictionist statutes have on prototypical undocumented residents and their families: these laws make no bones about a pretty harsh sounding goal, expelling illegal immigrants from communities by rendering them virtually uninhabitable if you lack valid legal status. For example, Section 3 of the Arizona law, which made it a misdemeanor to lack valid immigration documents, and Section5(c), which made it a misdemeanor for an illegal immigrant to even seek work, had the straightforward purpose of pressuring illegal immigrants to move. To more liberal critics of these measures, the so-called “self deportation” strategy exudes a racial ugliness at worst, and a mean-spiritedness at the least.
But it does not require either compassion or permissive liberalism to recoil at the idea of states solving their illegal immigrant dilemma by kicking the problem next door. Arizona’s toughness, over time, would have almost certainly scattered more of its undocumented population to Colorado, California, or Nevada than Mexico. That entirely legitimate policy instinct may well have influenced the conservative swing justices, John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy, as much as the narrow legal doctrine of preemption that technically decided this case.
It’s revealing, from an ideological standpoint, that liberals have hesitated instead of embracing the Supreme Court’s coalition on Arizona, one of the few of its kind in this polarized court term, as a template for a political break-through on immigration reform. One can see in the outcome of yesterday’s decision and last year’s ruling upholding state penalties against hiring illegals an interesting spectrum: from the left’s resistance to marginalizing classes of people with a virtual social fence; to the populist right’s understanding that illegal immigration is a threat to American labor; to the establishment right’s preference for a consistency in the rule of law that won’t trade one border state’s interests for those of its neighbors, and will avoid the specter of de facto illegal immigrant havens in, say, Colorado and New Mexico being the eventual consequence of Arizona getting tough.
An eventual political outcome along those same lines might include legislation that doesn’t grant citizenship but creates alternative pathways to guest-worker status; that distinguishes between new, unanchored arrivals and family structures that have grown community roots; and that attacks corporate exploitation of low-wage illegal labor.
But that centrist model is not what liberal immigration advocates seem willing to settle for. In fact, the Administration’s opposition to a provision of the law that was reasonable enough to attract a unanimous court, including a liberal Latina Justice, speaks volumes about what an unfettered left-wing agenda on immigration might look like. Instead of some nuanced middle-ground, the end-game for the left is vulnerable to being framed as a disguised roll-back of deportation policies that are already on the book. How else to explain the Administration’s legal position that law enforcement officers have no obligation to inquire into the immigration status of the jailed, detained, or arrested, when employers are legally expected to make essentially the same inquiry about their work-force? Why is one standard an invitation to profile, the other an uncontroversial feature of federal labor law?
More than a few conservatives suspect that the difference is that an employer who ferrets out an undocumented job applicant is extremely unlikely to pick up the phone and call immigration authorities. A sheriff is a cinch to notify federal authorities of an illegal, and possibly deportable, immigrant in his jails. A legal regime that privileges the first inquiry and forbids the second is one that looks like a deliberate inconsistency, a new immigration based breed of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for local cops.
It’s possible to argue that past Congresses have made a muddle by turning immigration violations on the subtlest distinctions: illegal entry is a crime, but only a misdemeanor; remaining here illegally is not a crime at all; some, by no means all, additional offenses by undocumenteds are a basis for deportation; transporting illegals across the border is usually a felony, while hiring illegals is ordinarily not. But that maze of cross-cutting standards is not well understood by the general public, and preemption doctrine doesn’t make for much of a sound-bite in a campaign debate. Democrats pushing for immigration reform are forced to find loftier ground, so they resort to higher-minded rhetoric about Ellis Island and inclusiveness.
That rhetoric, fails, though, when it lumps the sympathetic and the unappealing in the same grab-bag: in this case, extending at least as much energy worrying about suspected law-breakers in custody as is spent worrying about scorched earth restrictions against families who, heretofore, have spent a law-abiding existence in the United States.
It turns out the public seems to have its own carefully calibrated mindset around immigration policy–a blend of toughness and tolerance. It’s why the Dream Act, even the President’s just announced executive version of it, polls well but comprehensive amnesty can’t even command a Democratic consensus. It’s why the most restrictionist state laws haven’t caught on beyond a few jurisdictions, but why tougher enforcement of current deportation laws is generally popular.
This week, the Supreme Court seems to be aligned with the broad contours of public opinion (although the lack of knowledge of the specifics of the law will distort polling on the subject). Democrats, in contrast, sounded out-of-sync: waxing indignant against the most defensible part of Arizona’s law, and seeming weak-kneed on the deportation of criminals. The tone-deafness is almost shrill.
Roger Clemens without steroids is still not a deeply sympathetic character. Even before his brain and emotions might have been corroded by substance abuse, he could be graceless to an extreme: the ever declining camp of black baseball fans winced after Clemens stupidly said he wished he could crack Hank Aaron’s head open: Aaron had the temerity to suggest a pitcher shouldn’t win a season MVP award, and Clemens took umbrage. It was a dumb, brutal joke that echoed the savage letters Aaron received in the throes of his home run record chase. There was also no grace in the Roger Clemens who could erupt at umpires or batters, and who tended to do it most when his skills weren’t working. There are a host of fans who see nothing but an evader of responsibility in Clemens. This is the camp that would shed no tears if he never got to the Hall of Fame, regardless of whether it can be proven that he shot substances into his body.
I differ on the grounds that the Hall of Fame is a baseball venue—a place for the game’s historians to weight records-and it shouldn’t be enlarged into more. Therefore, the only misdeeds that should matter are the ones that might have distorted the stats that make the player’s candidacy (I would say the same for Pete Rose, whose tawdriness never included betting to influence his own games, and who should have been given his shot at a ballot).
But the conventional wisdom, that the baseball case for Clemens is a no-brainer, and that blocking his admission depends on crediting evidence that a jury rejected, is an overstatement and a function of how time can re-frame facts. It’s a budding myth that deserves scrutiny before it gets too much headway.
One version of the pro-Clemens case freezes his candidacy as of 1998—in other words, pre Brian McNamee. Accepting that criteria, the decision is a cliff-hanger. Clemens’ Red Sox career approximated 16 wins a years for twelve years—exceptional and consistent, but there were outlier years like the masterpieces in 86 and 90 balanced against a stretch in the early to mid nineties when Clemens seemed past his prime, and an undeniable pattern of erosion. Then there is the mediocrity of his post-season work for the Red Sox, when the rap was that Clemens seemed to fatigue by October (a precursor of why he might have turned to enhancers). The two Toronto Cy Young years (and 41 additional wins) are clouded, perhaps unfairly, by the proximity to his alleged introduction to steroids, and the murkiness around when the cheating might have started.
Resolving the Toronto uncertainty in his favor, four Cy Youngs through 1998 are probably enough resume material to push Clemens through; if the Toronto years are discounted as too flukish an aberration from the trend in the final Boston years and too close to the accounts of his first steroid use, the case that is left is infinitely more fragile. Either set of results might be weighty enough to lift him past, say, a contemporary like the 254 win Jack Morris, who never won a single Cy Young, and a one time winner like Oral Hershiser, who simply didn’t shine long enough. But the rationale is not iron-clad: there is a way of seeing the untarnished Clemens years as two early seasons of brilliance and (giving him the benefit of the doubt) a couple of seasons of late revival, interrupted by a run of seasons where strikeout power didn’t always equate to dominance or wins, and where Clemens seemed to wilt when it mattered most. There is an element in Clemens of Curt Schilling, a 216 win pitcher who reversed Clemens’ legacy with a record of post-season brilliance and string of unsuccessful Cy Young bids; who matched seasons that were remarkable with seasons of relative mediocrity, and who is not considered a Hall of Fame lock.
Perhaps sensing the vulnerability of claims that end with the pre-Yankees time in Clemens’ world, his allies have suggested an alternative argument that Clemens’ candidacy should get full credit for the second phase of his career, which is really the phase that shaped the Clemens legend: the aura of super-human durability, the breathtaking years with Houston that belong in a time capsule, and the intrigue of the fact that his best postseason work came in his third decade in the league. The theory is that the jury’s verdict is adequate exoneration, that Brian McNamee is hopelessly tainted as a witness, that unproven allegations shouldn’t be credited, etc. There is even a more muted version that the up and down trajectory of Clemens in New York undercuts any perfect correlation between steroids and achievement.
I don’t buy it for a simple reason: the second phase of Clemens’ career is the point when he seemed to lick the significant decline in his performance in the mid nineties, and when he reversed his propensity to falter as the season dragged on into the playoffs. That revival surely has a physical component–Clemens, the workout devotee, certainly said it did–and it is impossible to separate the physical feat from what steroids might have done to bolster a declining body.
The blunt truth is that the sheer improbability of Clemens’ career resurrection, a variable the prosecution never competently introduced, is the best evidence against him. And the untainted Clemens era? It is the mark of a steady but not awesome pitcher, whose awards separate him from the pack more than the actual body of work from 86 to 98. There is the sense that Clemens fits the pattern of his generation’s best pitchers–moments of near perfection that weren’t sustained; a collection of peaks and valleys; and that without resorting to steroids, he would have spiraled and diminished in the same manner as the Morrises and the Hershisers.
A version of this essay is cross-published in the Recovering Politician.
There was genuine suspense in Barack Obama’s announcement that he will through executive order legalize about a million young undocumented immigrants. The details are a bit more nuanced—a minimum five years residency, high school graduate status, and a crime free record are preconditions, and the order contemplates applications for guest worker status rather than citizenship—but it is still a sweeping unilateral move that broke the partisan gridlock on immigration. As such, the non-Fox media has pronounced it a masterstroke that will widen the already sizable gap between Obama and Mitt Romney with Hispanics.
To be sure, the politics are considerably more complicated. The white working class voters whom Obama is struggling with, and who swung decisively toward Republicans in 2010, are unlikely to be impressed. The portion of the Latino vote preoccupied with immigration policy, as opposed to jobs or social issue controversies, could already be secured for Obama and this latest move may not move the needle much more. To conservatives, Obama’s by-pass of Congress drives the narrative that a closet, hard-left agenda is lurking in a second term, which may keep them galvanized to defeat him.
But the ambiguity of the politics for Obama shouldn’t conceal the reality of a missed Romney opportunity. Obama’s maneuver is, no doubt deliberately, a close match with Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s own recent proposal on immigration, with the only substantial difference that Rubio’s contains the stiffer requirement of college graduation or the pursuit of a degree. Imagine if Romney had seized the issue and made the Rubio bill his own template for gradual reform that stops short of citizenship. In one swoop, Romney would have validated the conservative argument that citizenship ought to be a prize waiting for immigrant families who played by the letter of the rules, while refuting the Democratic argument that conservatives are nativists who are skeptical of the Hispanic influx. There would have been some level of grumbling on the right, but the well-worth-making tradeoff would have been progress toward describing a Romney term that is not the backward lurch Democrats want to depict.
There is impatience, understandably, in Republican circles with the legitimacy of the aforementioned argument that Obama’s campaign manager extolled at length in New York Magazine: that Romney is an “avatar of revanchism”, or in non East Coast literary speak, the kind of intolerant, fifties bred white guy who is standing in for all the sexist, anti-minority, homophobic types who want to get back the cultural ground they have lost. Republicans blanche at the theme, for all it implies about the smug certainties of the left, and as sage an observer as Ross Douthat doubts it will work on the grounds it is out of touch with the electorate’s economic priorities.
But the fact that the charge has smug overtones and won’t trump the economy doesn’t ensure that the message won’t sting. It is all but a given that the Democratic effort to enlarge November into a referendum on generational progress will be the last card played, especially if the doldrums in the economy persist. And the aim is not the discrete interest groups who stand to prosper from Obama policies, but the cohort of youngish white professionals who don’t want to be embarrassed by their vote and distrust the cultural base of conservatism. It’s a not unreasonable Democratic bet that their disenchantment with Obama’s results on jobs and deficits might be tempered by the lingering symbolism he (fairly or unfairly) represents.
In turn, there would be remarkable risk in Romney running with no nod toward that swath of voters who are open to replacing Obama but altogether reluctant to disown the sea change in American culture that has crested in the Obama era. A Romney counter-thrust shouldn’t and won’t happen on abortion, where pro-lifers now number a slim majority, or gay marriage, where ambiguous polling is outweighed by same sex marriage defeats in crucial states like North Carolina. But there is room on immigration, where a conservative rationale can be constructed for distinguishing between children and law-breaking adults. Indeed, Obama’s appeal to encourage and reward responsibility could have been crafted just as convincingly for Romney.
At least there was room until last Friday. To be sure, the complex politics of the issue will limit the damage, but there is another kind of injury in close campaigns from a missed opportunity. a
For the same reasons that I didn’t apply the gaffe label to Barack Obama’s sanguine musings about the economy, or Bill Clinton’s rebelliousness on Democratic tax policy, I wouldn’t apply it to Jeb Bush’s recent pronouncements on the Republican Party. The former Florida governor, and the man who would have been elected president in 2000 if he had turned a couple of percentage points in his first Governor’s race, meant to put the force of his substantial appeal behind a warning about the erosion of a certain generational brand in the GOP. If not exactly a lament for Rockefeller type moderates, it was certainly a wishfulness for a strategic and political approach that coopted Democrats on themes like education and healthcare, and that sought active ownership of issues like immigration reform: in other words, the template that got two other members of the family elected president.
Conservative cynics will note that said template did not prevent one Bush from losing reelection, and another from a disastrous second term, and that the failings of both yielded the two most successful Democratic candidacies in the last three decades. But Bush is certainly right about the long view: a Romney presidency that wanted to make headway on entitlements, that wanted to make the authentically bold education reforms Romney is proposing a reality, and that wanted to end Obamacare without triggering a politically dangerous surge in the ranks of the uninsured, would need room to maneuver and navigate through implacable Democratic opposition. It is not heresy to envision a Romney term that breaks gridlock instead of perpetuating it.
As to the part of the Bush address that made headlines, the “Reagan couldn’t survive in today’s Republican Party”, there is a value in a history lesson, and no one has told it better than Craig Shirley’s two year old book on the 1980 campaign, “Rendezvous With Destiny“. Shirley reconstructs the late seventies as anything but a monolithically conservative climate and the Republican Party as a fractious group that was hardly reconciled to Reagan’s candidacy. Edward Kennedy was the country’s most charismatic political star and promised unabashedly to revive an assertive liberalism that did not intend to be constrained by the era’s inflationary threat. Reagan’s opposition was credible and experienced and moderate alternatives like George HW Bush and Howard Baker commanded the loyalties of a significant element of the Republican funding base. Gerald Ford sat on the sidelines, but ran close with Reagan in Republican preference polls as late as the winter of 1980.
That Reagan won so comfortably seems like historical inevitability now, the natural progression of a country shedding itself of sixties style excess. Shirley’s masterful re-telling of that cycle describes something infinitely more inspiring and complex: a brilliantly tenacious politician who survived through the force of his own personality and who re-imagined conservatism as freedom rather than austerity, as a source of confidence rather than reproach. It does Reagan little justice to shrink him to artificial proportions by suggesting that he was only the sum of the elements of his platform; it shortchanges the ideological instability of the times to interpret Reagan’s victory as a simple instance of a candidate meeting his party’s and a majority of the country’s moods. More than any American figure since JFK, Reagan prospered by shaping that mood himself.
And the notion that Reagan’s governing style was the hallmark of an ambidextrous Great Compromiser who couldn’t thrive in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere? It would amuse the air traffic controllers union he rolled over, and the congressional Democrats he bludgeoned in his first budget fights, and the communists he confronted in Europe and Central America. The deals Reagan did cut, over Social Security financing, for example, were imperfect then and now, but they didn’t define Reagan or diminish him with movement conservative because the times he was unmovable were actually the moments that built the public’s confidence. And the rebuilding of that confidence in the aftermath of the disastrous seventies is what installed him as a bipartisan presidential icon, much more than the specifics of a legislative track record.
I won’t venture a guess on how Ronald Reagan would have handled a dilemma like immigration. The simplest thing to say is that a battered border with Mexico was hardly a dominant security threat in a decade when intercontinental ballistic missiles were pointed our way. Nor was low-wage undocumented labor the pressure point in high unemployment communities that it is today. It is the easiest conceit in political argument—putting thoughts in the heads of another generation’s leaders and shape shifting their words into today’s contexts—and it likely works not at all with a politician who defied prediction as much as Reagan.
The fact is that Romney doesn’t have to be Reagan to win and doesn’t have to govern like Reagan to succeed. But it is just as true that but for the way Reagan altered his times, Romney might be leading a party that was a shrunken, permanent opposition camp with no definitive ideological banner: in other words, exactly what it appeared to be in the mid seventies. The guy who figured out how to lift the party out of those doldrums would have won a lot of primaries this year.
When a gifted politician stumbles over words, it is often the case that Michael Kinsley’s venerable definition of a gaffe is the reason: namely, that the supposed miscue is nothing but the truth being told unintentionally. By those lights, there is a value in lingering over the last week of presidential gaffes: Barack Obama’s observation that the private sector economy is “doing fine”; and Bill Clinton’s aside that the Bush tax cuts should be extended for the immediate future.
The Obama blunder has already been discarded by the White House, with the campaign team weakly offering that “doing fine” was a poor word choice offered on behalf of a fact—that private sector job growth has been constant for 20 odd months. Clinton has more doggedly pleaded the defense of context killing by Republicans. The maze of explanation goes something like this: the former president opposes and has always opposed the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy and if he had his druthers, would repeal them; having said that, repealing the cuts not in isolation but as one element in a comprehensive deficit reduction deal is the best strategic approach for the economy; to buy more bargaining space for a deal, Clinton reverts to a short-term extension of the cuts for one year past their expiration this December. Not exactly a model of clarity, but perhaps a model of how to muddy the record.
The Kinsleyan truth is that both men meant it, but didn’t quite mean to say it. As for Obama, the remark on Friday paints a candid picture of this administration’s sanguine view of its economic record. Whereas most of the country incorrectly but tellingly describes the economy as mired in a recession, the Obama team believes it has woven a success story that compares splendidly with the staggering job losses in early 09. While the country hands Obama an approval rating barely above 40 percent on its economic policies, Team Obama grades itself as the architect of an emergency set of maneuvers that averted a depression. While polls show the country leveling at least some blame on Obama for failing to break the gridlock in Washington, it is the president’s conviction that the recovery would be stronger if only Republicans had not been so determined to block his policies out of calculation and extremism.
In other words, it is a self-drawn portrait that is indeed “fine”, perhaps even verging on quite good; it’s premises are recited as an article of faith by Democratic loyalists on every level. If only the country could see it.
As for the 42nd president, it is worth noting that no high profile Democrat more consistently draws a link between taxes and economic growth. On more than one occasion, Clinton has extolled the virtues of the Simpson Bowles Commission and its blend of entitlement reform, discretionary spending discipline and tax reform as well as outright tax hikes—but he has regularly done so with the caveat that the blueprint ought to be adopted now but shelved until after the recovery has gotten more robust. While the distinction can seem like a timing detail, it is in fairness a sharp point of departure from the 44th president, who sought just last summer to forge a substantial tax hike (and a package of spending cuts) in the teeth of the weakest three months of job growth in the last two years.
Nor, for that matter, has Clinton ever fully embraced the Democratic talking point that the slow growth of the last decade undercuts any linkage between tax cuts and business investment: the Clinton case against the 2001 reductions has always been the centrist argument that cutting taxes during a time of war was off kilter.
So, as much as last week’s verbal follies might seem like the trivia of a light news week, they were actually consequential: a president and a campaign team that won in 2008 on the force of their intuition of the public mood have a self-image perilously at odds with that same mood four years later: Obama’s un-careful moment was a window into that divide. To compound the damage, the case for the Administration’s economic mastery is wounded by the policy critique of a successful Democratic predecessor whose job creation record was exemplary. Congressional Republicans look less isolated and less unreasonable in their stubbornness on tax policy: their supposed hard-line is the preferred bargaining posture of the most popular Democratic surrogate. And it is reasonable to wonder if Clinton thinks Obama is wrong here, what other sotto voce criticisms lurk around the corner?
Zoltan Hajnal and Taeku Lee have written an unintentionally distressing account of what they envision American politics will look like in the multi-ethnic, no-one race-in the-majority by 2040 future: highly factional, replete with what they call “narrow casting to different voters”, and loaded up with niche issues that are designed to widen coalitions without simultaneously splintering them. It sounds like the polar opposite of Barack Obama’s coming out party in the Boston Garden in 2004, with its lofty sketches of a politics that avoided racial cleavages and appealed to some common ground.
Interestingly, Hajnal and Lee don’t view it as distressing. They speculate that there is actually a virtue in this kind of politics, in that it would supplant the alternative of one racialized party matched against one white, homogeneous one. It is also striking that they describe their approach of “tightly packaged appeals to targeted [minority] electorates” as a strategic novelty, when it is anything but: even a cursory glance of modern politics yields, on the right, Richard Nixon’s cultivation of Catholics and white ethics, George W. Bush’s deploying of an anti gay marriage initiative to shift black votes in Ohio in 2004; and of course, what Hajnal and Lee describe is a fair rendition of the current Democratic pattern of wedge politics from the left: courting Hispanics with opposition to restrictive local immigration laws, blacks with protective rhetoric about voter ID requirements and, increasingly, with defenses of affirmative action in higher education (an issue the conservative dominated Supreme Court has committed to revisit in the next term).
I can cite any number of arguments from both ends of the spectrum why more of the above is hardly a political panacea. From the liberal perspective, there is a quality of cheap symbolism that is really studied avoidance of more contentious ground like African American poverty or citizenship status for illegal immigrants. On the right, policy minded conservatives might lament that the temptation for the GOP to wield gay marriage and perhaps abortion to offset the Democrats’ advantage with blacks and Latinos is at the expense of more substantive initiatives on education and entrepreneurship.
My gut reaction is that the two authors end up in such a curious place—treating old fashioned racial interest group politics as cutting edge and prescribing more of it despite the obvious costs—because they are trying to make sense of a not widely known phenomenon that their research uncovered: the surprisingly high levels of disengagement from among ethnic minorities from both parties. Their data suggests, for example, that among Asian Americans and Latinos, a majority don’t vote, and almost sixty percent of both groups are independent or don’t identify with either party; even within the monolithically Democratic black community, roughly a third express reservations that their interests are not adequately articulated by Democrats or Republicans.
Hajnal and Lee seem to assume that the disenchantment is a reflection of Tea Party era Republicans more or less rejecting ethnic based appeals entirely and Democrats making them ineffectively, or half-heartedly. But it may be just as likely that what Hajnal and Lee are discovering is decidedly more complex and disconcerting to liberals: perhaps two groups with strongly assimilationist tendencies, Asians and Hispanics, are actually turned off by the identity based appeals that already dominate liberal politics and are searching for an alternative. Perhaps even African Americans have a reservoir of doubt that the Democratic Party has delivered (or an emerging sense that newer constituencies have crowded out the space of influence blacks used to hold in the party).
There is a kind of Republican Party that would benefit from these openings—but not one that mimics Hajnal and Lee’s strategy of micro-targeted ethnic appeals. A conservative flavored version of the approach, more emphasis on black business development and aggressive courting of black evangelicals, fell flat in the early years of the last Bush presidency, and there is not much reason to think it would gain much traction today. The considerably more successful Bush 43 outreach to Hispanics seems a relic of a brief moment when a robust economy made comprehensive immigration reform feasible.
It may be, though, that Republicans can gain ground with the very sort of broad-based appeals that ethnic micro-targeting shunts to the side. A sustained Republican focus on the components of education reform, from overhauling tenure to promoting charter schools and vouchers, might make inroads with younger black and Latino professionals, who increasingly distrust public schools to educate their children. A new emphasis on making the tax code friendlier to two career families might pay dividends with the same cohort. Inevitably, the rise of eventual presidential contenders like Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio will align Republicans with the ambitions of Asians and Latinos who have not seen a credible non-black minority emerge at the national level on the Democratic side.
In other words, instead of a narrowly crafted appeal to specific ethnic self-interest, an embrace of policy prescriptions and politicians that happen to resonate with minority aspirations for upward mobility. It’s a notably more promising vision of the multi-racial future than a doubling down on the niche politics of the last decade.
Ross Douthat has a striking observation on the futile Wisconsin recall: rather than echo the conventional Republican theme that the effort was an ill-conceived liberal putsch, aimed at overturning the fruits of both the electoral and legislative process, he compares the saga to 2009-10, when Barack Obama’s Democrats rammed through sweeping domestic legislation and the Right decisively counterattacked in the midterms. Provocatively, he calls them “mirror image exercises in reverse shock and awe, and…backlash.”
Fascinating stuff. Of course, it’s a message some conservatives will blanche at for the simple reason that a recall is an extremely unprecedented gesture—three governors in our history have fallen victim—while the 2010 off year races were obviously a regularly scheduled democratic exercise. But Douthat surely has the ultimate conclusion right: both sides have gotten well schooled in the gymnastics of cut and slash opposition; it’s just that Republicans are getting the better of it. And as Douthat allows, the outcome in a bluish state that Democrats are still favored to carry underscores the political pull of reeling in outsized spending and the relative weakness of the liberal alternative, when both are put to the test.
I would even go one major step further: in the post LBJ era, the public has arguably never validated a specific, identifiable liberal agenda at the ballot box. The winning Democrats in that time frame—Carter, Clinton and Obama—have won on a tightly crafted appeal that stressed economic anxiety and blurred ideological content. Even the one congressional landslide for Democrats in memory, the 2006 midterms, were linked primarily to fatigue with Iraq and Republican overreach on Social Security. If one reads the post Reagan era as a closely matched siege over time, the left owes its victories to negative referenda on incumbents and a couple of superstar performers. In other words, liberals have been cursed to plot a course identical to the one they dismissively suggested accounted for Ronald Reagan.
But there is a particularity to the debate in Wisconsin that invites caution. More than any soaring theory of conservatism, the firefight up north turned on a Democratic conceit about public sector unions—one assuming public outrage over state employees footing a larger bill for their benefits, even a minimal one compared to private sector contributions. The outrage simply didn’t show up in Wisconsin, at least outside the Democratic base. That‘s a comparatively cheap victory for Republicans, though, in one sense: an electorate that rejects a gilded set of privileges for public sector employees is not inevitably one that would realign, say, Medicare. Perhaps it would if convinced that the venerable entitlement is itself an unsustainable return of benefits that vastly exceed contributions, and that part of what makes it unsustainable is a funding formula that underestimates the affluence of seniors. But the same public might just as easily balk if the reform is categorized as instability and uncertainty taking the place of predictability, which Democrats allege; or worse, a tradeoff forced by Washington elites who are shielded from the sacrifice they are exacting on others.
So, I would count Wisconsin as a mixed blessing. The result confirms the liberal weakness conservatives have been describing, and underscores a very specific liberal fallacy about the public employee sector, without confirming that post 2008 is one rolling, rightward tide set to come ashore this November. The hard fact is that Republicans are nowhere making a national case as specific or definitive as the one Scott Walker’s term has made in Wisconsin—the GOP message is still disproportionately, if understandably, a counter-reaction to Obama, and polling suggests swing voters are largely unacquainted with its content beyond keeping taxes in check. Nor is the Republican blueprint that is on the books (a hard choices deficit reduction program by the other Wisconsin maverick, Paul Ryan) one with the resonance or populist appeal of Walker’s pension overhaul: selling that blueprint would be a supreme test for a President Romney, but it almost certainly won’t be the preoccupation of candidate Romney. To the extent that Republicans miss these distinctions, there is a risk that Wisconsin will be mis-read as a validation of a still untested argument.
Written by Rosalind S. Helderman, this article first appeared in The Washington Post on May 30, 2012.
Republicans on Wednesday were celebrating the defection to the GOP this week of a former Democratic congressman and close ally of President Obama, saying that it underscored their argument that the president has led the country on a march to the left.
Former Alabama congressman Artur Davis, once a rising star in the Democratic Party and the man who helped put Obama’s name in nomination for the presidency in 2008, announced his intention to switch parties and said that he will vote for Mitt Romney in November.
The outcomes in specific US House races rarely matter outside their own borders: the fact that 63 Republicans took over Democratic seats in 2010 is known exponentially more than any single one of the 63 contests. Indeed, the most consequential House-level results in the last several decades have arguably been the defeats that redounded to the benefit of three future presidents: imagine the ways George W. Bush and Bill Clinton might have been diminished had they won their House races, and spent the eighties in congressional firefights and intra-party battles to ascend to the Senate; think of Barack Obama beating Bobby Rush and trying to overcome the marginalizing bounds of holding an African American district.
I’ll venture a guess that Utah’s newly created 4th District is about to break the pattern of irrelevance, at least if a thirty-something African American woman, who happens to be a conservative Mormon Republican, wins a battle that is well within her reach (a dead heat against a Democratic congressman in a Republican leaning seat). Mia Love’s potential breakthrough in one of the whitest districts in America would be a message in a bottle from the future—the kind of promise that is attracting outsized attention and dollars from around the country.
It’s important to note what Love is not: unlike Barack Obama, she is not the beneficiary of a liberal party self-consciously aware of the chance to write history, and there was no racial base ready to rally around her, or to punish the party if she had been rejected in her primary. She is no caricature who bends so far to the right that it seems like a disingenuous pose: there is a distinct absence of fire and brimstone, and her embrace of Republican agenda items like the Ryan Plan is couched in process-minded tones, with no overheated claims that socialism is around the corner. Notably, her own mantra on the stump is that she asks about the sustainability and affordability of programs first—a conservative stance but a contrast with, say, Grover Norquist’s flamboyant description of shrinking government to a size that makes it fit to be drowned in a bathtub.
In other words, Love is a polished, modulated campaigner who spends a lot of time stressing the fruits of her short, but successful stint, as a local mayor. It’s a pragmatic, results oriented conservatism that doesn’t growl. The glory in her rise, if you root for a less race-centric politics, is that her style has almost anything to with her race, and not coincidentally, voters are engaging her in the same race neutral manner.
The winning proposition for Republicans, though, is that Mia Love could almost certainly not have happened if she were a Democrat —to the contrary, had her opponent Jim Matheson stayed put in his original district, and a black Democrat presented herself as an option in CD 4, there is every likelihood that her audacity would have been met with the ridicule and rolled eyes that marked the left’s initial response to Love (one liberal website chortled that the only blacks in Utah were members of the Jazz basketball team—a gibe that would have brought instant and nationwide denunciation if a conservative had made it).
Love exposes a weak side of the Democratic Party on race—its demonstrated propensity to relegate black candidates to obscurity or the label of “unelectability” unless they are competing in a predominately black district: it’s the indulgence of a party that touts its affinity for black political interests but routinely slams doors in the faces of blacks stretching outside their racial boundaries (and that in 2003, made a practice of shunting Barack Obama to back rooms when the young Senate candidate made prospecting trips to DC). If Love wins, she will be the third black Republican in two cycles to break through in a congressional district where her race is a distinct minority; in that same time frame, not one black Democrat has achieved the same feat, and the number of CBC Democrats who don’t hail from black districts is less than a handful out of 42.
Given that demographic trends have constrained the number of majority black seats, the size of the CBC will not grow unless more blacks find a way to win in non-black, and often non-liberal, environments. That’s an eventuality that does not trouble Democratic operatives, who have shown no qualms whatsoever over the absence of black contenders in white dominated districts, even in the Obama era; it also likely does not bother the CBC or the African American blogosphere, both of whom reserve their cheerleading for reliably liberal black Democrats who emphasize their advocacy for the black community.
It’s a limitation that may be of more than passing interest, though, to African American professionals who happen not to live either in the metropolitan areas of Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, etc., or in black majority southern districts covered by the Voting Rights Act. On the off chance that serving their country in Congress might intrigue young black Americans living in, say, Denver or Topeka, or the white suburbs in the South, a Love victory might be a template for a dream that currently looks improbable. For the rest of us, Mia Love in Congress may be a harbinger of what an America cleansed of race-obsession actually looks like.
[full disclosure: I’ve never met Love, never talked to her staff, but wrote her campaign a $500 check a month ago—the freedom of being a columnist on a site I pay for, rather than a journalist on someone else’s dime]