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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> November 2009

Today, Let Us Give Thanks for Our Union

Amidst a monumental struggle for the preservation of the American Union, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the final Thursday of November, 1863 to be a day of Thanksgiving. He declared:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God...

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens...

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

That Americans in 1863 would give thanks to God for all His blessings just months after the horrors of Chancellorsville, Gettsyburg, and Chickamauga is a testament to the great faith of this great people.

In the midst of so much political division, consumed as we are today by sharp disagreements over health care, the economy, and the environment - It is easy to forget what binds us together: the simple and true fact that all of us - Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, blue states and red states - are so privileged to live together in the United States of America. Today is a day to put aside our differences, to praise God for the blessings of this American Union, and to remember with gratitude those Americans who labored to bring it into being and who saved it from the malevolent forces of secession and slavery.

What would our lives be like without the Union? The unhappy times of the 1780s give us a hint. That was an age when foreign powers played state governments off one another, when no state had the power or authority to stabilize the economy, when the territorial integrity of our nation was under threat, when it appeared as though civil unrest would destroy America's experiment in self-government shortly after it had begun. Statesmen like George Washington, James Madison, John Jay and others recognized that for America to survive, the Union had to be strengthened beyond the measly provisions of the Articles of Confederation. And so, fifty-five men gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 with the purpose of forming "a more perfect union," one that would "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Historians have called the fruits of their labor the "Miracle at Philadelphia." And what a miracle it was! The Framers drafted an ingenious document that bonded the 13 diverse, far-flung states together in a Union strong enough to secure the blessings of liberty without threatening liberty itself.

In the decades that followed, it became clear that slavery posed a grave threat to this Union. As the divide between North and South grew wider, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the "Statesman for the Union," offered a Great Compromise in 1850. During the debate over this consequential measure came the most eloquent defense of the American Union any person has ever offered. On March 7, 1850 Daniel Webster of Massachusetts rose to address his country thusly:

Mr. President, I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States. . . .I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union. "Hear me for my cause."...

Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe...

And now, Mr. President, instead of speaking of the possibility or utility of secession, instead of dwelling in those caverns of darkness, instead of groping with those ideas so full of all that is horrid and horrible, let us come out into the light of day; let us enjoy the fresh air of Liberty and Union; let us cherish those hopes which belong to us; let us devote ourselves to those great objects that are fit for our consideration and action; let us raise our conceptions to the magnitude and the importance of the duties that devolve upon us; let our comprehension be as broad as the country for which we act, our asperations as high as its certain destiny...

As it happened, the Compromise of 1850 only postponed what William Seward would term "the irrepressible conflict." Shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 - South Carolina seceded from the Union, perceiving that the advocates of slavery were now to be in the minority forever. Other states followed, and the country would soon be consumed by a horrific conflict in which more than 600,000 Americans would perish.

It would have been easy for President Lincoln to lose focus amidst the unprecedented death, devastation, and horror that was the Civil War. Yet he never did. As a lawyer in Springfield, he had followed the debates in 1850 closely, and he arrived in Washington determined to carry on the noble work of Clay and Webster: the preservation of the Union at all costs. Like those great statesmen, Lincoln understood that there was no such thing as "peaceable secession." A division between the states would eventually endanger all Americans - North and South. This was unacceptable. The Union had to be saved.

Lincoln also knew that the survival of the Union ultimately hinged upon the question of slavery. Back in Illinois in 1858, he stated:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.

Lincoln had campaigned for office on a platform of keeping slavery out of federal territories - and in his first inaugural address he averred that he had no intention to abolish it in the Southern states. Yet by 1862, with the bloody toll of that dreadful war increasing every day, the President had come to believe that this existential threat to the Union had to be eliminated once and for all. The war must not only be won to preserve the Union, but to perfect it. And so, on January 1, 1863, the President proclaimed:

I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion...do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

With his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln made clear his intention that the United States would become all free - that from so much death, "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth in freedom." Less than three years after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution would abolish slavery forever. Later, the 14th Amendment would ensure that all Americans have the full rights that citizenship entails, and the 15th Amendment would secure the right of all men to vote. Future generations of Americans could thus enjoy the fresh air of Liberty and Union, as Daniel Webster said.

Tragically, Abraham Lincoln would not live to see his vision of a more perfect Union enshrined in the Constitution.

Four American presidents have been murdered while in office. Yet only one has been martyred for the cause of the American Union. Abraham Lincoln. Like the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who perished during those horrible years of Civil War, he sacrificed his own life not only to save the Union, but to strengthen it. And indeed, Lincoln's heroic efforts ensured that the notions of secession and slavery were placed on the ash heap of history, where they rightly belong. None of us need worry that the Union will come under such a threat ever again; all of us are committed to the principle that government of the people, for the people, by the people shall never perish from the earth. For that, we owe a debt of gratitude to the sacrifices of Abraham Lincoln and the soldiers who lost their lives while under his command.

So today, in the year of our Lord two thousand and nine, and of the independence of the United States the two hundred thirty-fourth, it is altogether fitting and proper that we give thanks to the Almighty for this American Union, and those whom He has guided over the centuries to secure its blessings for us. Let's give thanks for the equanimity of George Washington, for the persuasive pen of Thomas Jefferson, for the keen mind of James Madison, for the eloquence of Daniel Webster, for the political craftsmanship of Henry Clay, and for the sacrifice of Abraham Lincoln, who gave the last full measure of devotion to preserve, protect, and defend this Union against the greatest threat it has ever faced.

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-Jay Cost

The Michael Steele Vanity Project

As I have written time and again, I think Republicans should be concerned that Michael Steele is working to transform the Republican National Committee from a behind-the-scenes fundraising/campaigning powerhouse into a platform for his own political career. I have written about this at length, and now Politico adds a new wrinkle:

Trevor Francis, communications director of the Republican National Committee, abruptly resigned Monday, and two Republican strategists familiar with the situation said he was pushed out because Chairman Michael Steele didn't feel he was getting enough credit for the GOP's electoral success earlier this month...

A former official at public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, Francis was tasked with trying to keep the voluble Steele on message and explaining away the instances when he strayed.

While still occasionally committing gaffes, Steele has become more disciplined in his frequent TV appearances.

But after Republicans won the closely watched gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey this month, Steele expressed frustration that he wasn't receiving accolades for the party's success, said the two Republicans, both of whom conveyed frustration with the chairman's leadership style.

OK. Reality check. Chairman Steele deserves very little credit for the Republican resurgence this year. He may have contributed the cash, but this cash came in just as cash always comes into the RNC, and any chairman in his right mind would have contributed to promising campaigns. Come on.

As I have written many times, this is the "candidate centered" age of elections. It's not the "What Up! Everybody look at me, I'm Michael Steele!" age of elections.

If Trevor Francis lost his job because Michael Steele is confused on this matter...oh dear.

Memo to Republican pooh-bahs: This fellow is a problem, an unnecessary problem in a midterm cycle in which you hope to take a giant step toward a full comeback. The requirements for the RNC chairman are pretty straightforward: raise the cash, spout the party line on cue, don't cause trouble.

Can Steele do this?

If he can't, what are you going to do about it?

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-Jay Cost

How Far Will Democratic Leaders Go?

The two American political parties are great institutions with long, rich histories that stretch from the 1800s all the way to the present day. Today's parties are deeply connected to their past incarnations. Abraham Lincoln "belongs to the ages," as Edwin Stanton said, but the Republican Party of today has a special bond with the 16th President. The same goes for the Democrats and Franklin Roosevelt. All Americans can be proud that this country produced such a great leader. Yet he was a Democratic leader, which gives today's Democratic Party a special linkage to him. These connections are not merely nominal. Rather, there is a real intellectual tradition in both parties that unites past, present, and future.

This is why I have been frankly surprised by some of the concessions the Democratic Party's leaders have been willing to make in pursuit of a comprehensive health care reform bill. Each party has short term policy goals - in this case, the Democrats want to expand coverage. Yet these short term goals fit into a bigger philosophical framework. Some of these compromises seem to challenge that framework.

A big issue I have already discussed is their planned $491 billion reduction in Medicare over the next ten years. Medicare is the most significant fiscal policy achievement of the Democratic Party in the last seventy years. Protecting it from Republican cuts was a major reason Bill Clinton won reelection. To say the least, it is surprising that today's Democratic leaders are willing to make reductions in Medicare. What's especially surprising is that the cuts are coming not as an end in themselves (i.e. the party is finally focusing on stabilizing the system for future generations), but to find spare cash to finance another entitlement. Medicare has been lost in the shuffle of public options, abortion restrictions, taxes, regulations, and mandates - none of which has anything to do with it.

This lack of consideration is apparent in another aspect of the Senate bill. Keith Hennessey points out that it includes a Medicare payroll tax increase on those making more than $200,000 a year. He speculates that Senator Harry Reid chose this as a way to make up revenue lost by limiting the tax on "Cadillac" insurance plans. Hennessey rightly notes the significance of this policy:

With this proposal, Senator Reid is leading Democrats across a major philosophical threshold. Since Social Security was created in the 30's and Medicare in 1965, payroll tax revenues have been "dedicated" to financing these programs. While not all funding to finance Medicare comes from payroll taxes, all funding from the Medicare payroll tax finances Medicare. In other words, the 2.9% Hospital Insurance payroll tax that you and your employer pay on your wages is all supposed to offset Medicare spending. That is part of the social insurance model, in which everyone pays in a fraction of their wages, and everyone receives benefits later...

Leader Reid's bill would use new Medicare payroll taxes to finance a new health entitlement outside of Medicare. His bill would turn Medicare payroll taxes into a general financing mechanism like the income tax. There is a slippery-slope argument against this that I would normally expect from the Left. If Republicans (or my former boss) had proposed this, I would expect AARP to come unglued and raise fears among seniors that, if this proposal becomes law, future Congresses might take payroll tax revenues and use them for highways or defense or other non-social insurance spending.

This expansion of the payroll tax is indeed a major shift. The social insurance model was a political innovation that sold Americans on the idea of Social Security. It was a way to provide for seniors without making anybody feel as if they were on the dole. This is not something that you would expect the Democrats to alter without serious deliberation - but they apparently are. Plus, as Hennessey notes, it potentially threatens the system in the future. If some Medicare dollars can be used to finance an expansion of welfare rather than the social insurance system, who's to say that more dollars from the system couldn't be used to finance capital gains tax cuts or missile defense?

Both of these policy innovations seem inconsistent with the grand traditions of the Democratic Party. I would expect its leaders to treat Medicare a little more reverently. And there might be one more innovation in the offing: the elimination of the public option. This would produce an extraordinary policy, one you would not expect to come from the Party of Jackson.

Why? Because there will presumably still be an individual mandate in the bill. Keeping the individual mandate but dropping the public option means that the Democratic Party will force many individuals to engage in commerce with private businesses that would intend to make a profit from such interactions. That is unbelievable! The Democratic Party was founded as an opposition group to the established economic and political orders. That opposition connects party leaders across the ages: Jackson's destruction of the Bank of the United States, Bryan's "Cross of Gold," FDR's New Deal, LBJ's Great Society. These leaders pursued different means, but ultimately for the same end: protect the little guy from the powers that be. If the Democrats pass a health care bill with an individual mandate but without a public option - they'll be forcing the little guy to contract with those powers. And remember, the government is going to be imposing more regulations on these companies, and providing subsidies to them (by covering at least some of the costs of those deemed eligible). So, expect the insurance companies to quadruple the number of lobbyists they have stationed inside the Beltway, whispering in the ears of legislators about what sort of changes should be made to the system. Yet the little guy doesn't have any K Street lobbyists, and he won't be sending any in the future. That's what makes him the little guy.

Franklin Roosevelt did not go against the core principles of the Democratic Party to achieve his policy goals. Instead, he re-imagined those principles with his ingenious social insurance model. That's how he could provide assistance to the elderly without the label of "welfare." It was an important distinction for Americans, whose individualism is unmatched throughout the entire world. This social insurance model was such a durable framework that Lyndon Johnson could expand it to include Medicare for seniors. The Democrats want to expand health care further. A noble goal - but their challenge is to do it in a way that the public accepts and that is true to their history. It seems less and less likely that the final bill will fit these requirements.

As I have noted on my "About the Author" page, I am not a Democrat. Yet I respect the Democratic Party, not only because of its important contributions to the nation's history, but also because America needs the Democratic Party, just as it needs the Republican Party. The evolving health care proposal does not feel like something I'd expect the Democratic Party to produce. Instead, it is starting to seem like something drafted by a bizarre hybrid of the old Federalist Party and the British Labor Party.

I think it's time for Democrats to return to their Rooseveltian roots: find a commonsensical solution to the health care problem that the country can embrace, and one that is more consistent with the party's history and core beliefs.

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-Jay Cost

Tomorrow's Anticlimax in the Senate

The media is stirring up drama regarding tomorrow's vote - namely, they are speculating whether Landrieu and Lincoln will vote with Reid to start debate.

Of course they will. Three big reasons:

(a) "Keep the Ball Rolling". Tomorrow's vote - like all of the votes to date - is a process vote, meaning that Obama and the leadership can argue, "Vote yea to keep the process going. We can improve the bill later if you stick with us." Every vote they have won to date has, I think, been won based on this argument - and it should carry the day tomorrow. The problem comes with the last vote, i.e. to end the process and enact the law. You cannot argue to keep the process going on the final vote!

(b) No Harm For Yea. GOP candidates could conceivably tie tomorrow's vote to a vote for health care, but that's a very specious argument to make. I would guess that local newspapers and television outlets would call them out on it. Plus, if (for instance) Blanche Lincoln votes yea tomorrow but ultimately votes against closing debate - those ads would be very ineffective. What's more, there is an easy rejoinder, which we are already hearing: "I voted to open debate. What's so bad about debate?"

(c) Lots of Harm for Nay. A nay vote would gravely damage prospects for reform. And legislators on the Democratic side do not want to kill reform unless/until they absolutely have to, i.e. voting in favor on a particular item would seriously hurt their political careers. As noted above, a yea vote tomorrow will not damage anybody's political prospects. A nay vote, on the other hand, would make that senator a pariah in the broader party (the interest groups, activists, and enthusiasts on the Democratic side) - which, I hasten to add, is the primary funding source for all of these members. Lieberman's Independent Democrat status makes him basically half a Dem and half a GOPer. He's voting yea, which should tell you all you need to know.

Final point. The fact that these Democratic moderates are actually spending time "pondering" whether to vote against starting debate is a sign that they are very skittish about this bill. My guess is that this deliberation is just a dog and pony show for the folks back home - what's noteworthy is that these senators feel they must do this. The reason why is pretty clear. Take the nationwide net approval/disapproval of this bill, then subtract 10 to 20 points. That will put you in striking distance of what the voters in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska think of it. Then remember that Blanche Lincoln is up for reelection next year, Ben Nelson is up in three years, and Mary Landrieu has yet to develop much electoral security in her increasingly Republican state. She's up in 2014 - and if Obama wins reelection, she would have to stand before the voters of Louisiana in one of the roughest macro environments around (incumbent party's second midterm).

If I had to bet, I'd say the bill has maybe 54-56 votes in the Senate - with Bayh, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, Nelson, and Pryor all at least a little iffy. Losing Olympia Snowe between the Senate Finance Committee and the floor is a big deal - ideologically, she and Susan Collins are indistinguishable from Nelson. Also, these moderate Democrats come from generally Republican states [except Lieberman, who is going to need every Republican vote he can muster in 2012], and having Snowe on board gave them bipartisan cover that they do not have anymore. Liberals have been complaining about "President Snowe" for some time, but her support was a big deal. A few weeks ago, the story supposedly went that President Obama wanted Harry Reid to pursue Snowe's trigger idea. I'm not sure I believe that, frankly (it seemed a bit like a C/Y/A ploy by the White House) - but if it was true, then this is why. Keeping Snowe on board guarantees at least 61 votes. Losing Snowe might cost the Democrats up to six more senators.

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-Jay Cost

Have Democratic Leaders Gone Mad?

With the introduction of Harry Reid's health care bill - talk will inevitably focus on whether the public option or the Stupak amendment will undermine the legislation. Yet, if the bill dies, I do not think either of these will be the primary cause of death.

I think this will be the culprit:


This is the CBO's analysis of how the Reid bill will cut Medicare. The total reductions come out to $491 billion over 10 years when everything is factored in.

The following has been said by other commentators, but I have to add my voice to the chorus: This is insanity, Democratic leaders. Why are you doing this?

Getting AARP's support might give you cover among the Washington crowd, but let's inject some common sense here. Lots of people are members of AARP, but that does not mean they are intensely committed to it, and will therefore follow its lead on such an important issue. AARP is not like the unions in that regard. Lots of people join to get discounts on auto insurance and movie tickets, meaning that affiliation with the organization is broader than it is deep.

Obama's current numbers among senior citizens demonstrate the validity of this point, not to mention the concern that Democrats should have heading into 2010. Gallup has him at 45% among those over 65, and at 49% among those between 50 and 64. Hint. Quinnipiac has him at 42% with those over 55. Hint hint. Rasmussen currently shows Democrats losing the generic ballot among seniors by 15 points; in 2008, Democrats split the senior vote with the GOP. Hint hint hint.

Let's review the political power that American seniors wield. In the Virginia gubernatorial election, people over 65 accounted for 18% of all voters. In New Jersey it was 19%. People over 65 accounted for 19% of all voters in the 2006 House midterm. And even in the "Yes We Can!" presidential election of 2008, when college kids supposedly overwhelmed the normal electoral process, the 65 and over crowd still accounted for 16% of the electorate (unchanged relative to 2004).

The 2006 House exit poll showed the Democrats winning the national vote by a margin of 54 to 46. If, however, we plug in Rasmussen's current generic ballot number among seniors in place of what the Democrats actually won from that cohort in 2006, their lead falls to 52-48. Note that this assumes no change among younger cohorts. That's seniors alone cutting the Democratic margin in half. This also assumes that seniors do not come out in greater numbers in 2010 to defend against perceived assaults on their Medicare benefits.

Blanche Lincoln knows what I'm talking about. When she won reelection in 2004, seniors made up 16% of the electorate and went 59-41 for her. In the 1998 midterm, seniors made up 26% of the electorate and went 60-37 for her. In both contests, they were her strongest supporters. I wonder what she thinks of Table 2 in the CBO's analysis of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Bob Dole knows what I'm talking about, too. From January through September of 1995, Bill Clinton's job approval numbers were tepid, with a typical net approval rating of about +2.5. Things turned around for him in late 1995 when the budget battle heated up and Clinton took a stand against...GOP reductions in projected Medicare spending! I'll let Michael Barone finish the story. This is from the 1998 Almanac of American Politics:

[I]n August 1995 [Clinton] started running political ads against the Republicans' Medicare plan. All this was part of a strategy pollster Dick Morris called "triangulation," taking positions between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans so as to elevate the president's stature above both...In November and December he negotiated on the budget with Speaker Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, promising them agreement at times, but he ultimately vetoed most of their appropriations bills. That technically shut down non-emergency functions of the federal government, a step which many Republicans initially welcomed and thought would be popular. This was a stunning miscalculation, as was their lack of a strategy to deal with Clinton's vetoes...By the time Republicans backtracked and agreed to Clinton's terms, their ratings were down and they were running behind Democrats in the polls.

The President declared at the time the deal was struck that his proposal was a "sensible solution" that showed "you can balance the budget in 7 years, and protect Medicare and Medicaid, education and the environment and provide tax relief to working families." He cruised to reelection.

Not coincidentally, Dick Morris was the first to suggest that mucking around with Medicare would mean trouble for the Democrats. He knows what he's talking about, and in September he wrote:

The Democratic Party, led by Obama, is systematically converting the elderly vote into a Republican bastion. The work of FDR in passing Social Security in 1937 and of LBJ in enacting Medicare in 1965 is being undone by the president's healthcare program. The elderly see [Obama's] proposals for what they are: a massive redistribution of healthcare away from the elderly and toward a population that is younger, healthier and richer but happens, at the moment, to lack insurance. (Remember that the uninsured are, by definition, not elderly, not young and not in poverty - and if they are, they are currently eligible for Medicare, Medicaid or SCHIP and do not need the Obama program.) The elderly see the $500 billion projected cut in Medicare through the same lens as they viewed Gingrich's efforts to slice the growth in the program in the mid-1990s. [Emphasis Mine]

Why are Obama, Pelosi, and Reid doing this? How could they be so foolish as to repeat the most egregious mistake of the Republicans of the 104th Congress? Why are they forcing their vulnerable members to vote on a bill that would cut Medicare in this fashion? Do they dislike their moderate colleagues? Do they find the chore of being the majority party too burdensome? Have they simply gone mad?

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-Jay Cost

Another Look at Obama's Job Approval

If you are looking for a good snapshot of where President Obama's job approval is right now, you cannot do better than the RealClearPolitics average. It's intuitive, straightforward, and indispensable.

Another way to look at Obama's job approval is to examine the trend line for each pollster. This can offer a way to control for their "house effects." The following chart does that by looking at the monthly average of eight major media pollsters (Fox, CBS, CNN, Ipsos, Pew, NBC, ABC, and AP).

Obama Job Approval.jpg

A few observations are in order:

1. By separating the pollsters from one another, we can see the various house effects. For instance, CBS and ABC are the most favorable polls to Obama while Fox and NBC tend to be the least. AP and CNN are the "bounciest." Some months, they are above the average. Other months, they are below.

2. Obama's job approval slid precipitously from July through August. This coincides with the heating up of the health care debate. This trajectory is consistent across all eight pollsters.

3. The President rebounded a bit from his August/September lows, but he is now at or near his lowest point in all of the polls except the (bouncy) AP poll, which had him much lower in September than the other polls. This chart makes that clear:

Obama High and Low.jpg

4. The polls generally find Obama's overall job approval higher than his approval on various issues. For instance, these are the results of the latest ABC News/WaPo poll:

ABC News:WaPo Issues.jpg

One can't help but wonder if a legislative success on the health care package will result in a further decline in the President's job approval rating.

5. What will be interesting to watch next year is whether the President's job approval slides further as the campaign begins in earnest. Will the Republican argument against Obama and the Democrats - once it hits the airwaves - damage the President's standing further? It is possible. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both suffered about 8-point declines in their job approval ratings from January to November of their first midterm years. [Obama is about where both Presidents were at this point in their terms, a little behind Reagan and a bit ahead of Clinton.] George W. Bush's net approval dropped 36 points in 2002; of course, it was very high after 9/11. Also regarding Bush 43, when the Democratic campaign against him heated up in early 2004, his net job approval slid 13 points from the first of the year to the beginning of the summer.

Will the Republican argument against Obama push some voters who disapprove of Obama on specific issues into overall disapproval? Will it push some of those marginal approvers into disapprove/don't know?

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-Jay Cost

Pinochle and the Politics of Health Care

This weekend my wife and I went to my in-laws to play pinochle. I play on my mother-in-law's team, and after she pulled double aces, we decided to call it a night. As it usually does, the conversation turned to politics, and then to the health care debate.

Both of my in-laws are swing voters. They were skeptical of Obama last year, but finally voted for him after the financial collapse in September, 2008. "Time for a change," they explained to my wife. So, I was interested in their views. They expressed great skepticism of the reform efforts, and freely admitted that they don't know what's in these bills. "Nobody knows what's in them!" my father-in-law said emphatically at one point. Health care is a major issue for them, but neither of them seemed to have faith that the Democratic offerings would solve any of the nation's health care problems, about which they know a great deal.

This got me thinking, not only about the health care debate - but also the ebbs-and-flow of electoral politics. Partisans on both sides like to make much of the last election that favored them, while ignoring the others that didn't favor them. For many Democrats, 2008 was the definitive election. 2004? An outlier, an aberration, something to be cast aside in the Age of Obama. Just as many Republicans made the same mistake in 2004, happily overlooking returns from 1992 through 2000 when the Democratic presidential candidates won more votes than the Republicans.

But if we take all of those results seriously, how can we make sense of them? Part of it, surely, is that the electorate favors the incumbent party when times are good, and punishes it when times are bad. But I don't think that accounts for everything. Both parties offer a whole menu of policy proposals, and only some of them relate to the management of the economy or issues of war and peace. The country swings back and forth because there are a host of voters - folks like my in-laws - who can at least tolerate the policies of both sides. Why?

The following hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis. But I'll offer it because I think it is intuitively plausible, and hopefully it can generate some good discussion. The Republican Party has historically been, and remains today, the party of business. The Democratic Party has long been the party of those whose interests are not aligned with business - poor farmers in the 19th century, labor unions in the 20th, immigrants, and so on. Today the Democratic Party is aligned with an expansive government, and the Republican Party is not. These attitudes toward government have not been written in stone - instead they have varied according to the needs of the parties' core constituencies. In the 19th century, business generally wanted tariffs - expansive, taxing government! - so the GOP pushed for steep tariffs. Today, business generally likes low taxes, and so the GOP is a low tax party. A similar transformation happened with the Democrats. In his 1832 campaign against Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic President, demagogued the Bank of the United States, the symbol of intrusive federal government in the early Republic. Yet after the Democrats embraced the idea that the government could be mobilized to support social welfare, it began to advocate a more expansive role for the feds.

This has resulted in the fundamental political divide of the day: business or government. This is an oversimplification in some respects, but I would maintain that a choice between the two parties is often a choice between which entity you distrust more at the time of the election: big business or big government. Perhaps this helps explain the peculiar American tradition of swing voting.

My in-laws are a good case in point. They don't like big business. They think big business is happy to sacrifice a fair wage for profit, and that the government needs to do what it takes to rein it in. They often remark negatively upon the massive bonuses the Wall Street execs have pulled in while average Americans have taken it on the chin. They often criticize Wal-Mart for its failure to provide health care for many of their employees. But they also don't care much for big government, either! They don't view the government as being particularly effective or efficient, and they do not want its role in their health care to increase. They don't see the Congress or the President representing the interests of the people very well, so they aren't terribly thrilled with the big government proposals that these branches have produced.

The Democrats are stuck in a rut because of this health care debate, even after the back-to-back thumpings they delivered to the GOP. Maybe this is why. After all, a vote against the business party is not necessarily a vote for the policies of the government party. The public can want the government to stop letting business interfere in their affairs without wanting the government to start interfering! They can - and do - distrust both big business and big government. I don't think the Democrats - or at least a lot of their leaders who run the show in Washington, D.C. these days - really thought of it that way when they were formulating their legislative agenda last winter. Maybe that is what has caused them to lose so much political momentum so quickly.

Maybe not. I'll say this, though: if the Democrats keep on the path they're on, I expect my in-laws to swing back the other way next time around.

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-Jay Cost

How To Divide a Party, In Three Easy Steps!

So, you've decided to become the leader of a big political party. Only one problem: it's too big! What to do?

Well, you've come to the right place. Here at the Horse Race Blog, we've developed a three-step guide to making that broad party a little more...narrow. Just follow these simple instructions and your majority party will be smaller and a little easier to handle in no time!


Step 1: Participate in a bitterly divisive nomination battle against a prominent opponent, making sure that you only win certain factions within the party. Leave your opponent to win other factions, even down to the very last contest. If possible, make condescending remarks about how bitter, clingy, and xenophobic some of those other factions in your own party are. This will ensure that they remain perpetually skeptical of your administration.

Having won the nomination, make no serious effort to unite this divided and fractured party. Do not nominate for vice-president somebody who is a prominent member of the opposing faction. For instance, if you're a Northern/urban candidate looking to alienate Southern/rural members of your party - make sure that the well-regarded governor of Tennessee does not find his way onto the ticket. Also, no unity tickets. Make your primary opponent swallow hard and endorse you, then give the veep nomination to somebody else.

If you complete Step 1 perfectly, you should see early signs of success. Namely, lifelong members of your party will vote for the opposition, perhaps for the first time ever. If they do this in an election that you win decisively anyway, all the better. That's how you know you're off to a good start.

Step 2: Design your cabinet so that there are few (if any) prominent members of the opposing faction installed in any important posts. If you followed Step 1 perfectly, it means your primary opponent is still out in the cold. You might have to nominate her to a prominent spot. That's less than ideal, but it is understandable. However, make no additional gestures to those other factions in the party.

That popular governor from Tennessee? He should be nowhere to be found. That senior statesmen from Georgia? Again, nowhere. How about that bipartisan bridge-builder from Louisiana? I don't know where he is, but he better not be at your cabinet meetings. After all, what you don't want are those hard feelings being softened because of the composition of your government.

Also, think big. It's important to be as broadly dismissive as possible. For instance, your cabinet should not only sample almost exclusively from the North, it should also draw heavily from urban areas. Bottom line: don't think one-dimensionally about your cabinet. It can be used to disgruntle multiple factions in your party at once!

Finally, it's smart to staff your West Wing with as many "hacks" from your campaign as possible. After all, these are the people who helped you split your party into two pieces in your quest to win the nomination. It's a good idea to keep them around, for there is a lot more work on that front left to do!

Step 3: These opposing factions in your party will now be thoroughly frustrated. Good work! It's time to kick it up a notch - by aggressively, relentlessly pursuing a legislative agenda that they obviously can't support.

Ideally, you'll want the leadership in the Congress to be chock full of fellow Northern/urban members. You can't control that yourself, but if you're so lucky as to have leaders equally committed to shrinking the size of your party - you can let them do most of the work. Take a back seat and just exhort them to follow their instincts. They'll know what to do!

Again, think multi-dimensionally. For instance, if the focus is on health care, encourage them to push through a massive expansion of government. That's bound to aggravate the South, which has never been too thrilled about the idea of a big federal government. But also, do not try to stop your urban allies if they push for a "robust" public option, which would be a particularly tough pill for rural members of Congress to swallow.

Other things like a massive government bureaucracy for "cap-and-trade," subsidization of the auto industries, and retaining your predecessor's bailout of (mostly Northern!) banks are all excellent ways to tweak those pesky Jacksonian "friends" of yours! Also, encourage those congressional leaders to help you blow a huge hole in the deficit, so that those Southern deficit hawks know that there's a new sheriff in town.

Ultimately, what you want are not simply defections for the major bills, but also defections on small ball procedural matters. That's a sign that your rank-and-file "allies" have realized that your legislative program is so unpopular in their districts that they must oppose you on every vote. Voting against the rule is halfway to joining the opposition, which means you're halfway to your goal!


Following these steps to the letter will ensure a nicely divided party heading into the midterm elections. Of course, the mainstream media will not notice this, as they will be obsessing over the comparatively insignificant divisions in the opposition. But take heart! You have now finished the hard work necessary for long term success: a smaller political party that is less able to build a majority coalition in years to come. Congratulations!

That's what you wanted, right?

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-Jay Cost

The Most Absurd Post-Election Spin

There are a lot of absurd post-election memes floating around out there. For instance, I've seen people suggest that NY-23 has national implications, but the GOP takeover of the NJ governor's race and its running of the tables in VA (winning all three statewide races and extending its majority in the House of Delegates) were purely local. That one makes me chuckle. If there was an Olympic medal to be had for pretzel logic, it would probably win the silver.

But not the gold. The gold must go to the ridiculous notion that the GOP is in so much trouble because it is divided, as evidenced by the results in NY-23. Never mind the fact that the party came together in New Jersey and Virginia. No: the divisions in a district that saw just 135,000 votes cast is a sign that the GOP is divided.

I think this is ultimately a faulty argument, but I can see how one would make it (kind of). The reason it gets the gold is not by an error of commission, but of omission. For, the GOP's divisions - whatever they may be - are utterly, totally dwarfed by the continuing divisions in the Democratic Party. Not only in scale, but in significance. Republicans might be divided over the symbolic role of Sarah Palin in the party, but Democrats are divided over what to do about health care.

Consider: three Democratic House committee chairs have committed to vote against Pelosi's bill on Saturday: Bart Gordon of Tennessee (Science), Colin Peterson of Minnesota (Agriculture), and Ike Skelton of Missouri (Armed Services).

Consider: up to 30 House Blue Dogs are considering voting no.

Consider: they're still going to lose at least a few pro-life Democrats on the vote, even if they adopt the compromise language proposed by Brad Ellsworth.

Consider: the House has decided to punt on the issue of immigration reform in the bill, knowing full well it will explode the fragile coalition they are putting together. Here's Politico:

And gone, for the moment, is an immigration fight that threatened to derail the entire bill when Hispanic lawmakers protested a move to include Senate verification language that would bar illegal immigrants from purchasing insurance through the exchanges.

That fight, like the one over biofuels, will be waged on another day, in a showdown with the Senate over just about everything else in the bill. For now, it seems Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally exhausted enough of her weary troops into the "yes" position.

And lest you think that the House Hispanic Caucus is kidding around, consider the following from The Hill:

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was also weighing its options on what to do about a push by some vulnerable centrist members to block illegal immigrants from being able to buy insurance on the bill's "exchanges," even with no subsidy.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said he "would have a hard time voting for" a bill or procedural measure that did that.

"I'm tired of feeding hatred and bigotry," Gutierrez said.

He's talking about "feeding hatred and bigotry" on the Democratic side of the aisle. Remember, no Republicans are involved in the House process!

This does not even get into the tensions between the House and Senate. As significant as the tensions within the House are, I still expect Pelosi to get to 218 on her bill. The real fireworks will come if/when they get around to merging the bills (assuming that Reid can produce something that get can to 60 votes in his own chamber...substantially more difficult than Pelosi's task). After all, it was John Conyers, the Democratic Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who once said that the Democrats were "in trouble" because of Max Baucus, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Senate Finance's product, incidentally, is well liked by the Blue Dogs, who want the final product to be more like it. But then again Raul Grijalva's reaction to it was that it did not have "legitimacy." He's the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus.

But divisions are a Republican problem this week! Yep.

So, congratulations to all of you pundits spinning the NY-23 race as a sign of the crippling divisions within the GOP. I cannot offer you an actual Gold Medal in Pretzel Logic, but perhaps I'll offer you a complimentary copy of this 1974 classic from Becker and Fagan:


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-Jay Cost

What the Voters Told Us Last Night

The following points are what we know for certain:

1. The voters of Virginia declared a preference for Bob McDonnell over Creigh Deeds.

2. The voters of New Jersey declared a preference for Chris Christie over Jon Corzine.

3. The voters of New York's Twenty-Third Congressional District declared a preference for Bill Owens over Doug Hoffman.

And that's it. Anything else is reading between the lines, and subject to the haziness that necessarily goes along with such an endeavor.

As the great political scientist, E.E. Schattschneider, once famously said (and I'm paraphrasing here): the voters are a sovereign with a vocabulary of just two words, yes and no; moreover, they can only speak when spoken to. Reflecting on this insight over the years, I have found it to be one of the most profound lessons for understanding American elections.

The nature of our electoral system is such that voters are given a very limited role in the process of governance. With the exception of ballot initiatives, they do not get to sound off on specific issues. And, when it comes to elections for office, they only get to register their preferences for a candidate. They do not get to indicate what they liked about their candidate, what issues motivated them, what problems are worrying them, and so on. The exit polls provide us with some insight on their motivations, but they remain fundamentally obscured.

If the voice of the people is limited, our interpretation of what they have said must rest heavily on our filling in the many gaps. That can be a tricky endeavor - for we're always inclined to fill in those gaps with our own voice, interpreting electoral returns in a way consistent with our own ideological dispositions. That can sometimes cause trouble.

A great case in point comes from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like most of America's successful presidents - Roosevelt had keen democratic instincts. He knew how to build a winning political coalition, and more importantly he knew how to hold it together. He won a big victory in the 1932 election, which he took as a mandate to initiate the New Deal. The voters agreed. They gave him even more congressional Democrats in the 1934 midterm, which he took as a mandate to expand the New Deal to include items like Social Security. Again, the voters agreed. When he stood for reelection in 1936, he won a resounding victory.

This is the point at which the story of the Squire of Hyde Park takes a turn. Historians shift from praising him to criticizing him. He took his resounding victory in '36 as a mandate to do several things, including cutting spending, purging New Deal opponents from the Democratic Party, and packing the Supreme Court. But, as it turned out, that is not what the public wanted - and they turned on Roosevelt in the 1938 midterms, sending nearly 100 Republicans to the House of Representatives and leaving his majority there entirely dependent upon Southern Democrats.

Viewed in hindsight, it's easy to be critical of Roosevelt, as many historians are. But when we examine matters from his perspective, it gets more difficult to blame old FDR. After all, he took his previous victories - in '32 and '34 - as mandates to promote big changes in the structure of the government. And he was right! So, what is so ridiculous about the proposition that '36 gave him leave to alter the Supreme Court? More generally, why were '32 and '34 mandates for what FDR wanted, but '36 was not? Judged solely by the votes themselves, we'd have to conclude that '36 was his largest victory to date, and thus perhaps his broadest mandate yet. But, as it turned out, that's not what it was at all.

This points to the difficulty in scrutinizing electoral returns for deeper meaning. I'm not saying it is impossible. It is possible. I do it myself from time to time. But it's a very difficult task because - as I noted above - the voice of the electorate is so very constrained. You have to fill in the blank notes for yourself - and if a maestro like Roosevelt could have so much trouble with that...what hope do the rest of us have?

Personally, I'm a big believer in a humble, narrow interpretation of election returns. On a purely political level, I think a politician is better served by under-interpreting his mandate than by over-interpreting it. It's true sometimes they mean big things - 1860 and 1896 come instantly to mind. But other times they don't mean much of anything. In the earlier part of this year, I argued strenuously that many Democrats were wildly over-interpreting Barack Obama's election in 2008. I disagreed when they pronounced it to be the dramatic inauguration of the new, permanent Democratic majority. My attitude then, as now, is that this is inconsistent with a fair and broad read of electoral history, the party system, and the general mood of the public. So, my narrow interpretation of last night is that the results we saw are in tension with that permanent majority hypothesis - and that they are more consistent with the alternative theory of continuing, robust competition between the two parties.

Was last night a "message" to Barack Obama? Maybe yes. Maybe no. I have my suspicions, but ultimately I'm not sure because he was not on the ballot anywhere. I think last night can be understood as a cautionary tale for the President - and here I would point to the case of New Jersey. Times are tough in the United States of America. And Corzine's defeat should remind us that when politicians get the blame for tough times - no amount of campaigning, spending, union organizing, or anything of the sort can spare them from the wrath of the voters, even in a state that is highly partial to their side of the aisle. Jon Corzine got the blame for the tough times in New Jersey, and that meant an end to his political career. If Barack Obama ends up getting blamed for these tough times - no number of rallies, campaign dollars, magnificent speeches in filled-to-capacity stadiums, or optimistic slogans will keep him in the White House.

A large portion of the country is now prepared to assign blame to him, in some form or another. The RealClearPolitics average shows a large minority - 44% - registering disapproval of the President's handling of the job. That is not just the conservative base of the GOP. It is larger than that, and that number could grow over the next year. The lesson from last night, I think, is that Jon Corzine won roughly the share of voters who approve of the job he was doing - and his opponents won those who disapproved. The same fate awaits Barack Obama. He'll be judged on how well he governs - and if the country deems him to have done an insufficient job, all the politicking between now and the end of time will not do a thing for him.

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-Jay Cost

Five Reasons NY-23 Doesn't Tell Us Anything

Wow. The pundit class is in full swing, interpreting the meaning of NY-23. "What's it say about Obama's administration?" "What's it say about the state of the Republican Party?" "What's it say for the upcoming health care debate?" So many questions. I'll do my best to answer them, each in turn.

Nothing, nothing, and nothing!

I'm sorry to disappoint (I'm not sorry!). I know we're all excited to have a dramatic election to ponder - so I hate to be the party pooper (I relish being the party pooper!). No doubt the twists and turns have been dramatic. But sometimes drama has a deeper meaning - like in Hamlet. And sometimes it doesn't - like in the Young and the Restless.

This is the Young and the Restless. There are few, if any, broader inferences to draw from this race about the national political climate.

Here are five reasons why:

(1) Dede Scozzafava was selected by the Republican Party in an extraordinary way. This should pour a bucket of cold water on the idea that there is some internal revolution happening in the Republican Party. Most Republican nominees have to go through a primary process in which the "base" evaluates candidates. This did not happen, and that created two big problems: (a) a candidate too moderate for the Republican base was chosen (b) in a process that does not have the legitimacy that primary elections have. If Scozzafava had to compete in a primary, she either would have lost (most likely scenario) or, had she won (less likely), she would have been able to claim a legitimacy that she could not claim. Because most party nominees are chosen by primaries, it means you cannot extrapolate from NY-23 to the broader party.

(2) Dede Scozzafava was a TERRIBLE candidate. Her people called the cops on John McCormack. Seriously. She held a press conference in front of Doug Hoffman's campaign office, and enabled the Conservative Party candidate to produce this lovely bit of free publicity:

Scozzafava Hoffman.jpg

Scozzafava didn't drop out only because Hoffman was on the rise. She dropped out because she was running out of money. I wonder why. Suppose you're a donor to Scozzafava. You're a Snowe-Collins-Specter type Republican, convinced that you're the future of the party and so on and so forth. Still, your money is as hard earned as any buck held by a tea-partier. Are you going to give it to this woman? I doubt it. That's what we call chasing good money after bad.

If Dede Scozzafava was a substantially worse candidate than your average Republican nominee in a competitive race - and she clearly was - then we cannot generalize from her fate to the fate of Snowe-Collins-Specter type nominees.

Incidentally, I don't know why pundits are so obsessed with northeastern Republicans. Hasn't anybody noticed how many seats from the South the GOP has picked up in the last 20 years? That seems to me to be an extraordinarily beneficial tradeoff for the Grand Old Party. The Northeast has been shedding seats decade after decade. In the last thirty years, the Mid-Atlantic region has lost 18 seats. And they're going South - Florida and Texas have picked up 18 seats in the last 30 years. If, in 1976, the Ghost of William McKinley (the quintessential Republican) had been offered the following deal: "Decline in the Northeast but rise in the South, or stay the same in both regions"...wouldn't he have taken the swap? Maybe not at first - but after the Ghost of Mark Hanna had told him all about the upcoming demographic changes in both regions - I bet he would!

Relatedly, it seems to me that the Republican Party - being a party that stretches across all regions of the country - should weigh its attention according to population. And, in that kind of analysis, more focus should be dedicated to fielding good candidates in the Midwest and especially the South than in the Northeast. That's where the most potential pickups for the GOP are. So why so much attention given to the Northeast? (Partial answer: Most people encouraging the GOP to focus on the Northeast rarely if ever vote Republican. E.g. David Axelrod's recent advice for how the Republican Party can build a majority. But that's a column for another day!)

(3) New York has long-standing third party options. One purpose of the New York Conservative Party is to act as a check on the Republican Party. Most states do not have this, and if this race had occurred in, say, Pennsylvania - where there is no such third party - Hoffman would not have had the kind of opportunity he found in the Conservative Party.

This makes a big difference. This was a real three-way race because New York has real third parties. Most states don't. Again, this makes it really hard to generalize from NY-23 to the rest of the country.

(4) Turnout could be really, really low. The NY-20 special election had about 160,000 people vote in it. Compare that to the more than 287,000 who voted in the general election in NY-20 in 2008. The special had just 57% of the turnout that the general had. This makes a huge difference.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that turnout in NY-23 will be 57% of what it was in the 2008 general. That would put it at about 125,000, meaning that you'd need 62,501 votes to win a majority. I'll posit that there are this many potential Hoffman votes in the district and this many potential Owens votes, too! What matters is who actually comes out to vote. That's the dominant factor in low-turnout special elections.

This matters to some extent in general elections, but not nearly as much. Accordingly, it is very difficult to generalize from a special election result to the sentiment of the entire district, let alone the country at large!

(5) The 2010 midterms are a year away. I'll make two observations about many of the pundits tut-tutting about NY-23:

(a) They'll admit that a year is a "lifetime" in politics, but this only ever serves as a C/Y/A cliché rather than a fundamental truth that informs their analysis.

(b) They'll have forgotten about NY-23 a year from now.

A year is a long time in American politics. In November, 2008 Barack Obama won the presidency of the United States. A year prior, he was trailing Hillary Clinton badly and under fire from his own supporters for not wasting his money as HRC was. A year before that, few people even knew who he was. In November, 1991 George H.W. Bush's job approval stood at 62%. A year later a folksy governor from Arkansas had unseated him. In November, 1938 Republicans picked up nearly 100 House seats in the midterm election, and FDR looked to be finished. A (little less than a) year later, Germany invaded Poland and the prospect of world war made FDR the center of the political world once again. In November, 1928 Herbert Hoover was elected in the third consecutive Republican landslide in what really looked to be an enduring majority. A year later...well, you get the idea.


So, am I interested in the results of NY-23? You bet I am. But I'm a political junkie, and I find this stuff highly entertaining. That doesn't mean that it carries with it any particular meaning. You can be entertained by Hamlet and Y & R, but only one of them means anything.

Fellow junkies, I implore you: let's see this contest for what it is - simple, meaningless entertainment - and stop pontificating on its broader implications!

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-Jay Cost

The Lesson of NY-23

With all the twists and turns in the race for New York's 23rd Congressional District, it seems like it should mean something, right? You don't have all this drama without some higher purpose, or so the thinking goes. Predictably, pundits have been working overtime to explain the point of this soap opera in Watertown.

For what it's worth, I do not think that a special election - any special election - is a particularly good barometer of the political climate of any place outside the district in question. Factor in low turnout, and sometimes it is hard to argue that it's even a good barometer inside the district. The race in NY-23 is further complicated by a prominent third party candidate. So, I think there are no inferences to draw from this race about national politics. And I think most analysts would essentially agree on that point. Pontificating aside, will anybody update their 2010 predictions based on the outcome in this race?

That being said, I do think there is a lesson to be learned here. It just doesn't have anything to do with the 2010 midterm, Barack Obama, the health care battle, etc. It's not so much a current events lesson as it is a civics lesson. The drama in this race is yet another example of the fundamental truth about the contemporary party organization: it is extraordinarily weak. And I don't mean that the 2010 Republican Party is weak. I'm talking about the whole system: Democrats and Republicans; local, state, and federal; congressional and electoral. Weak, weak, weak!

Consider the circumstances of this three-way, now two-way race. The local Republican Party organization nominated a candidate that the party's core electorate was not prepared to accept. What happened next?

If the party organization was strong, we would have expected the base to swallow hard, respect the power of the organization in this case, and get behind Scozzafava. But since the organization is weak, the base revolted and started migrating to the Hoffman camp.

Predictably, the national and local party organizations stood behind Scozzafava. That's their job, afterall. But as the race drew national attention - strategic politicians with ambitions for higher office began to involve themselves. What happened next?

If the party organization was strong, we would have expected those strategic pols to recognize the dangers of upsetting the powers-that-be in the party machinery, and to back Scozzafava against the base. But since the organization is weak, they started lining up behind Hoffman, one after another. Some of them even "bravely" changed their endorsements after they realized that the base disagreed with their initial decisions!

A unique factor facilitating this turnaround was the Conservative Party, a mainstay of New York politics that helps set the electoral agenda in the state. In this case it gave disaffected Republicans an easy outlet to voice their grievances. Still, when we strip away all the unique features of this particular race, we find a generalizable quality to this contest: the political power of the Republican Party is not really housed in the party organization - not in NY-23, and not really anywhere else. Instead, party power lies in the nexus of party activists/donors, base voters, and ambitious officeholders/candidates. As the events in NY-23 have made pretty clear, the party organizations play a limited role in the game of power politics.

In fact, they have been weak for a long time. Progressives took the general right to nominate party candidates away from them. The New Deal and good government reforms stripped them of most of their patronage. So nowadays, party bosses don't really have the power to boss anybody around. They have no carrots and no sticks. That's not a good recipe for a 21st century Boss Tweed!

The drama in NY-23 shows just how weak today's party organizations are. Quirkily enough, the local party had the technical power to nominate a candidate without a primary. However, while there wasn't a de jure primary here - the base's response to Scozzafava was tantamount to a de facto primary. Party leaders like Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty were quick to "certify" those results because they have national ambitions that will ultimately require the support of those same base voters. And that was it for Scozzafava, the choice of the local party organization.

As I have argued many times on this blog, contemporary party organizations - from the Republican National Committee all the way down - really have just one job: to launder money to cash-strapped candidates who must spend massive amounts of dollars in a campaign finance environment governed by restrictive laws like the FECA and the BCRA. Once these organizations step beyond this role - and especially when they go against the mass of voters who constitute the party base - they have virtually no authority.

This party impotence extends from the very top and travels all the way down to the local level. At the top, the victorious President gets to redesign his national committee in his own image. Congressional party leaders have no power whatsoever to remove defectors from their seats. In actuality, they'll funnel as much money as possible to defectors who are in electoral trouble. And state and local parties? If the withdrawal of Scozzafava isn't evidence enough of just how little power they actually have, I'll put it this way. Most of you reading this are greatly interested in politics. A lot of you probably contribute dollars and maybe even time to your favorite candidates. To you, I'd ask: how much money and time have you contributed to your state and local parties?

-Jay Cost