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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> August 2009

Obama's Worst Poll Number

Gallup's breakdown of Obama's job approval by age was illuminating.

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First off, note Obama's drop-off among young people. Young people were supposed to be a critical component of the new Democratic majority. Granted their approval is still slightly higher than the other groups, but it has far and away been the most volatile, dropping more than any other. This should not come as a huge surprise. Baby Boomers were partial to McGovern in 1972, but swung around to Reagan in the 80s. Young people's political dispositions are still being formed.

Yet, Obama's worst poll number here is actually his share among seniors. I'm guessing it relates to the health care debate. The White House should be very concerned, and for one simple reason: seniors vote.

Here are some empirics on that claim. I looked at states that featured hotly contested midterm Senate elections in 2006. I counted ten: Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia. For each of these, I pulled out the share of the electorate that was 65 and over for President in 2008, Senate in 2006, and President in 2004.

Seniors.jpg

First off, there was not a noticeable drop-off among senior voters from 2004 to 2008. Only Ohio shows a significant change, and it has an increase. About half have a slight increase and half have a slight decrease. That's consistent with national polls, which have seniors contributing 16% of the total electorate in 2004 and 2008.

Second, notice 2006. In seven of the ten states, seniors accounted for a larger share of the electorate during the midterm. In several of them, the differences were substantial. At least in the hotly contested Senate elections, the 2006 electorate was noticeably older. This corresponds with national data as well. The national House exit poll in 2006 found 19% of the electorate was 65 or older, compared to 16% in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

One reason for this might be that there is a lot of stimulation to vote in a presidential election - especially the last two matchups, which were hotly contested - but that stimulation drops off for the midterms. Thus, you're left with an electorate voting more out of habit, rather than being drawn to participate by the excitement of the spectacle. That could give seniors an advantage.

If Obama's numbers with seniors stay in the cellar, this could mean midterm problems next year for the Democrats. The silver lining here for the White House is that most of the drop-off occurred recently, which suggests that Obama might be able to win at least some of these people back. If he can improve his overall standing on the health care issue, he'll probably pick up with seniors.

-Jay Cost

Amateur Hour at the White House

I just about fell out of my chair yesterday when I read this in the Washington Post.

President Obama's advisers acknowledged Tuesday that they were unprepared for the intraparty rift that occurred over the fate of a proposed public health insurance program, a firestorm that has left the White House searching for a way to reclaim the initiative on the president's top legislative priority.

This confirms a suspicion I have had for some time, and made clear a few weeks ago: Democratic leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill have only recently begun to take seriously the internal divisions within their own party.

Frankly, I am stunned that they would be caught off guard by this. How could they not have anticipated this? How could they possibly have been surprised that the left and right flanks of the party would not see eye to eye?

To explain my utter, complete astonishment at this bone-headed mistake, I need a visual aid. The following is courtesy of Google Maps. It marks the district offices of four types of congressmen:

(1) Democratic House committee chairmen are marked with blue pinpoints.
(2) House leaders and chairmen closely involved with health care are marked with red crosses.
(3) The top 40 Democratic House members in McCain-voting districts are marked with yellow bubbles.
(4) Committee chairmen from the McCain-voting districts are marked with yellow pinpoints.

Here's the map:

Leaders Versus Marginals.jpg

As you can see, coastal liberals dominate the leadership positions. California has six of the 24 leadership positions I have delineated. Another seven are located roughly within the megapolis that stretches from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Meanwhile, those marginal members are clustered in the South and the Border States, with a few sprinkled across the Great Plains and then into Arizona.

This is a stark visual representation of the divide within the Democratic Party. We can clearly see the source of the problem. Liberal leaders from the coasts were given wide latitude by the White House to write these bills - and, unsurprisingly, they delivered products their fellow liberals love (or at least like). But the moderate and conservative Democrats - whose votes are needed for passage yet who run the risk of defeat next fall should the broad middle of the country sour on the reform efforts - weren't fully consulted, and don't like the bills. Hence, the internal friction - which corresponds pretty well with age-old sectional divisions in the party (more on that in a moment).

It was always going to be a challenge to find something that the moderates could stomach yet the liberals don't think is too watered down. That, more than anything else, was destined to be the highest hurdle for health care reform to jump. Amazingly, the White House waited until after the liberal House bills were published - and all the attending fallout - to take this challenge seriously, or even notice it! Because of this error, it is now in a substantially weaker position to find that middle ground. The liberals already have their bills on the table, so they are at least somewhat committed to them (as the Progressive Caucus has been saying for weeks, and as the WaPo article suggests). The moderates and conservatives are at home getting yelled at by angry constituents, rather than in D.C. searching for that common ground. The acrimony has forced Obama out onto the campaign trail, where he is making mistakes (e.g. the Post Office comment, the Cambridge police comment, and the AARP comment - all a consequence of the White House's desire to get back in front of the health care story). All of this has driven his poll numbers downward, leaving him less able to persuade the marginal members in the caucus, who must get getting nervous about November, 2010.

I can think of five very good reasons why the White House's lack of foresight on the potential for the intraparty squabble is absolutely inexcusable:

(1) For the months between November and January, we were treated to endless comparisons of Obama to the great presidents of the days of yore. One of them was Franklin Roosevelt. Question: who stopped the New Deal dead in its tracks after 1938? It wasn't the Republicans alone. It was Southern Democrats working in alliance with the Republicans. Who are the marginal members standing between Obama and a health care bill...Southern Democrats! Generally speaking, the internal cleavage within the Democratic Party (North v. South; left v. right) is really one of the most significant features of the political landscape since at least the Great Depression. After eighty some years and dozens of failed attempts at liberal reforms, there is no excuse for a President not to anticipate it rearing its head again.

(2) Much of last year was dominated by that famous primary brawl between Obama and Hillary - and all through these states (Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, etc.) the former First Lady made mincemeat of the junior Senator from Illinois. Then, when the general election rolled around, these states voted against him again. Historically speaking, these states usually vote for a winning Democrat. Obama should be very familiar with his struggles in this region, and not terribly surprised that the large number of Democratic members from it could create such problems for bills drafted by coastal liberals.

(3) How many of these members did Rahm Emanuel recruit? Fourteen of these seats changed hands in either 2006 or 2008 when Emanuel was in a leadership position in the House. Is this not a sufficiently representative sample to know that there could be trouble?

(4) Congress usually fails to find compromises on big solutions to big problems - exactly like what is being debated now - regardless of whether the legislature is under control of a single party or if it is split. This means that internal cleavages can do just as much damage to reform efforts as the partisan divide. This should be especially evident for an item like health care reform: Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton failed to deliver anything approaching the scope Obama is envisioning, even though the Democratic Party had complete control of Congress for at least parts of their terms.

(5) As stark as this map looks, the landscape in the Senate is even starker. Thirteen Democratic senators come from McCain states.

It's almost as if the President has absolutely no experience in dealing with the United States Congress whatsoever.

That's so puzzling, considering how Democrats turned down the fresh-faced newcomer who could turn a good phrase on the campaign trail for the old-hand who had been in Washington for 15 years by the time of the nomination battle. Oh wait...

-Jay Cost

Obama Misread His Mandate

After a rough week for health care reform, Democratic leaders appear to be pulling back on their demand for a public option. It remains to be seen whether liberal Democrats, especially in the House where they are more numerous, will go along with this. But this is still a step in the right direction to get something passed this year.

The public option was an overreach. The White House's erroneous belief that it could get it through the legislature - or at least that it could let four out of five congressional committees push it - was a misinterpretation of last year's election results. It has already made a similar mistake with cap-and-trade, backing a House bill that appears to have no chance of success in the Senate.

Bismarck once commented that politics is the art of the possible. So far, the White House has not exhibited a good understanding of exactly what is possible in this political climate. It has been acting as though the President's election was a major change in the ideological orientation of the country.

A lot of liberals certainly saw it as such. All the strained comparisons of Obama to Franklin Roosevelt were a tipoff that many were talking themselves into the idea that the 2008 election created an opportunity for a substantial, leftward shift in policy. Yet the election of 2008 was not like the 1932 contest. It wasn't like 1952, 1956, 1964, 1972, 1980, 1984, or even 1988, either. Obama's election was narrower than all of these. FDR won 42 of 48 states. Eisenhower won 39, then 41. Johnson won 44 of 50. Nixon won 49. Reagan won 44, then 49. George H.W. Bush won 40. Obama won 28, three fewer than George W. Bush in his narrow 2004 reelection.

This makes a crucial difference when it comes to implementing policy. Our system of government depends not only on how many votes you win, but how broadly distributed those votes are. This prevents one section or faction from railroading another. It is evident in the Electoral College and the House, but above all in the Senate, where 44 senators come from states that voted against Obama last year. That's a consequence of the fact that Obama's election - while historic in many respects, and the largest we have seen in 20 years - was still not as broad-based as many would like to believe. Bully for Obama and the Democrats that they have 60 Senators, but the fact remains that thirteen of them come from McCain states, indicating that the liberals don't get the full run of the show.

For whatever reason, the Obama administration has acted as if those hagiographical comparisons to FDR were apt. It let its liberal allies from the coasts drive the agenda and write the key bills, and it's played straw man semantic games to marginalize the opposition. For all the President's moaning in The Audacity of Hope about how the Bush administration was railroading the minority into accepting far right proposals - he was prepared to let his Northeastern and Pacific Western liberal allies do exactly the same thing: write bills that excite the left, infuriate the right, and scare the center; insist on speedy passage through the Congress; and use budget reconciliation to ram it through in case the expected super majority did not emerge.

This might have flown during FDR's 100 Days. But this is not 1933 and Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt.

Now that his legislative agenda is stalling, we're seeing the predictable critiques about the outdated United States Senate, which is the real source of the bottleneck: the Connecticut Compromise was meant to protect the interests of small states, but not states that are this small. Rhode Island, yes. Wyoming, no! These arguments will be conveniently tabled whenever the Democrats return to minority status, so I won't bother to address their merits. The bigger question is: what did they think was going to happen? It's one thing to bemoan the fundamental unfairness of the Senate; it's another thing to overlook it when you're formulating your legislative program. The map is what it is: that big swath of red that runs through the middle of the country then swings right through the South should have been a tipoff that the stage was not set for coastal governance.

The President should have realized what was possible and what wasn't, and he should have used his substantial influence to push the House toward the kind of centrist compromise the Senate will ultimately require. That's called building a consensus - something he promised he'd do but has not yet made a serious effort at.

-Jay Cost

Health Care: Five Political Blunders

As Congress heads into recess, it is a good time to evaluate its efforts in enacting health care reform. My opinion is that the leadership and the President have committed some significant blunders. While a bill is still quite possible, they have to stop making unforced errors. Here are five big mistakes they have made.

No Consistent Message. Will there be a public option, or health care cooperatives? Will there be a tax on gold-plated insurance policies, or the companies that offer them? Will there be a tax just on millionaires, or the middle class? Will there be an employer mandate, an individual mandate, both, or neither? This is just a sampling of the questions people are asking about health care reform. There are not yet any answers because no final bills have been produced - and will not be for some time.

This makes it quite easy to attack reform efforts. All the opponents have to do is pick the most unpalatable of all the options on the table, and go after them. But what about defending them? That's a lot trickier because you have to parse: "Well...I favor this item but not that one," and so on. Ultimately, your defense of the bill has to be contingent upon what's eventually included. That's a weaker rhetorical position.

Divided Messengers. Who said this: "[W]hen you have a Senator like Max Baucus helping us make the decisions on a reform health care bill, you're in trouble." It wasn't Jim DeMint. It wasn't John Boehner. It was...John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee!

Ideally speaking, a political party wants to push an issue that unites its side and divides the other side. For some reason, after fifteen years out of power, the Democrats have chosen as their first major legislative push an issue that does exactly the opposite. So it is that the leader of a prominent House committee criticizes the leader of a prominent Senate committee. So it is that liberal groups attack Ben Nelson, who might ultimately be the pivotal vote in the Senate. So it is that after weeks of arm-twisting and deal-making on Energy and Commerce, Henry Waxman still lost five Democrats on his committee (and not all of them were Blue Dogs). The latter implies a not insubstantial number of defections on the House floor. Some of them will be moderate - but there may be liberals voting nay as well. Late last week 57 progressives signed a tartly worded letter to Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Charlie Rangel and George Miller protesting the deal with the Blue Dogs and concluding: "We simply cannot vote for such a proposal." And this is just in the House.

As if the dry economics of public plans and surtaxes were not enough to divide members - there now is a question over whether the House bill subsidizes abortion. Good - as we all know, no issue bridges the political divide quite like abortion!

We'll see if the Dems' foray into the abortion controversy winds up any better than Jerry's.

Bad Timing. The timing of this push is horrible - of all the unforced errors on the part of Obama and the congressional leadership, this one is the worst. They are debating health care at a time when people are cheering that the economy is only shrinking by 1%, so relieved they are that the "free fall" is over! This Congress and President are simply not focusing on what is worrying the voters. Instead, they're too busy chasing FDR's ghost. Every Democratic leader wants to be the one to expand the New Deal/Great Society social welfare state - and Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid plan to be the ones to do it.

The political problem with this is twofold. First, the electoral risks associated with not staying focused on job one - fixing the economy - are too obvious to bother enumerating. Second, the government has already emptied the Treasury with TARP, the auto bailout, and the stimulus bill. The country is now feeling particularly averse to deficit spending, which makes the current political environment quite different from 1964/65, the last time such an expansion of social welfare was achieved. Back then, the country had been enjoying a five-year economic boom, and times were so good that LBJ could offer Kennedy's tax cut, the Great Society, and an amping up of the U.S. presence in Vietnam. That's not the way it is now. As the AP reports, tax receipts have declined 18% this year - the worst drop since the Great Depression - and President Obama's second choice for Commerce Secretary can now suggest on national television that we're on our way to being a Banana Republic...without anybody laughing him off the tube.

No Clear Legislative Strategy. What's the game plan to get a bill through the whole Congress? I'm not sure anybody has one. I once thought the President did - but after the legislature blew past his deadlines, I'm now quite skeptical. I do not think those deadlines were realistic, which makes me wonder what other unrealistic expectations his team has.

Here is the trillion-dollar question: can the legislature produce a bill that picks up enough moderates without alienating the left flank? I do not know the answer to this question - and frankly I don't think the Democratic leadership in Congress knows, either. I do not think they were even taking the question seriously until recently. How else to explain the pressure that has been exerted on Max Baucus, whose committee remains the best chance for a passable compromise? How else to explain why House Democratic leaders would think they could unveil a bill that made 40+ Blue Dogs choke? How about the objections by the progressives after the deal was reached? The compromise in Energy and Commerce was not so much a solution to the larger problem, but a way to kick the can down the road.

Charles Krauthammer suggested recently that the Democrats would pass something this year, though it would be much less than what has been offered to date. Maybe so - but is that realistic? Keith Hennessey doesn't seem to think so:

Some in Washington think the White House/Pelosi messaging shift is a strategic retreat, laying the groundwork for a fallback position in which the President could declare victory by enacting just the insurance reforms. As a matter of abstract legislative strategy this is a reasonable supposition. The health care reform legislative effort is going poorly for the President, and now is a logical time to make an initial shift to position for a partial win later.

But I don't see it. The health insurance reforms cannot be separated from the rest of the bill for substantive and procedural reasons. While the spending numbers could obviously be dialed way down, I don't see how one would substantively separate the health insurance reforms from the rest of the bill and have it still work. Even if you could, I don't see how you could procedurally get this done given the likely vote situation. Even if the abstract legislative strategy is correct that it's time for the Administration to cut their losses and prepare for a partial victory, I cannot figure out how they could execute such a strategic shift and deliver the desired result. They may be stuck with something close to an all-or-nothing choice.

Too Much At Once? The scope of this bill might simply be too great. Congress is not well-suited for tackling omnibus issues such as "health care reform." The larger the issue a bill deals with, the more likely a member will find some provision in it that he or she just cannot stomach, and the less likely the bill will pass. Congress is much better at passing bills whose scope is more narrow. In the sixteen years since Bill Clinton's efforts for a major overhaul crashed and burned, Congress has not been inactive on the health care front. Far from it. It passed and expanded SCHIP. It also approved a Medicare prescription drug bill. Those are the sorts of bills that, because their scope is more narrow, have an easier time getting to the President's desk.

When you aim for an omnibus health care overhaul, the potential payoffs are greater: you add yourself to the pantheon of great Democratic presidents if you succeed. But the risks are greater still: you increase your odds that something, somewhere in your 1,000+ page bill pisses off the pivotal legislator. To put it simply, there is a reason why no President since Harry Truman has succeeded at what Barack Obama intends here.

-Jay Cost