Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
They Said It:
I will add, as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny. If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America — a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.
If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty.
James Madison, Federalist #57, February 19, 1788.
DOMESTIC POLITICS 2014: THEM AGAINST US, REDUX.
One of the most tiresome aspects of American politics today – and certainly there are plenty from which to choose – is that it both suffers from and encourages the notorious inability of the people of this great nation to pay attention to anything for more than a few seconds at a time. This probably wasn’t always the case, but just as with everything else in our society, the rapid pace of technological change and the even more rapid pace of most peoples’ lives have whittled the collective American attention span down to almost nothing, which means that politics and especially public policy are simply too slow, too boring, too laborious to hold many peoples’ interest for any extended period. Add in the much-maligned “24-hour news cycle” and the political class’s unparalleled dedication to the control and “spin” of that cycle, and it’s no wonder that most Americans know almost nothing at all about their government, their constitution, and the republic in which they live.
In the not too distant past, this didn’t matter all that much. The ruling class didn’t know or care much about the people, and the people didn’t know or care much about the ruling class. “The people” understood that the system was messy, sordid, even corrupt. But they accepted this as a fact of life and as long as they received their “entitlements,” felt that they were protected against the nation’s enemies, and retained some confidence in the nation’s economic well-being. A certain balance existed. There were lines between the two parties that both sides knew shouldn’t be crossed. Invisible lines, yes. But generally speaking, lines that were understood by everyone involved.
It is true that the ruling class had slowly over the years encroached upon these lines. And this made “the people” nervous. But they had always been paid a price for accepting these encroachments in the form of greater entitlements and, theoretically at least, greater personal security.
Then, into the world came a soul called Barack Hussein Obama, who was disdainful of the lines, who thought “the people” were being foolish for not accepting the government into all areas of their personal lives. And he took the ultimate step across the line. He would give the people the gift of “health care” in exchange for their freedom to decide how to take care of themselves and their own. And it turned out to have been a very bad deal for a great many of “the people.” It turned out that they had sold their birthright as Americans for a mess of pottage. And finally, some of “the people” began to care.
All of which brings us to….
Forecast #1: Barack Obama’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad second term will continue. Indeed, by the time 2014 is over, Obama will look back on 2013, remembering it as a better, happier time.
One might think, given how 2013 ended, that Barack Obama would enter 2014 a bit chastened; that he might contemplate his mistakes, assess their meaning, and work to correct them, reestablishing himself as both a popular politician and a popular man. But then, one would be wrong. Contemplation and self-reflection are apparently not among Obama’s virtues. You – which is to say 300-plus million of you – may be unhappy with him. But that’s not his fault. It’s yours. So rather than try to be a better president, he expects you to be a better people.
We don’t expect that you will.
Already, the signs show quite clearly that “the one” intends not to change those behaviors that got him into trouble in 2013, but to intensify and amplify them. He views everything as he does the government. If a little is good, then a lot is better. And so if a little royal arrogance and disdain for the common people is good, then . . . well . . . ramp it up!
The most substantive indication of how Obama intends to proceed during this upcoming year took place on December 9, when the White House announced that former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta would be joining the administration as an adviser to the President.
Podesta, for those of you who don’t know, is also the founder and former president of the Center for American Progress, a far-left think tank, and one of the most aggressively nasty and partisan power brokers in Washington. He is best known among the ruling class as the most ardent and assertive advocate of the left-wing imperial presidency. Like his new boss, Podesta tends to believe that democracy is too messy to accomplish the important things, which means that the representatives of the people – i.e. the Congress – should be ignored on a whole host of matters, while the president imposes his will on the nation. As Podesta himself put it:
I think [White House officials] were naturally preoccupied with legislating at first, and I think it took them a while to make the turn to execution. They are focused on that now . . . They have to realize that the president has broad authority, that he’s not just the prime minister. He can drive a whole range of action. They always grasped that on foreign policy and in the national security area. Now they are doing it on the domestic side.
In layman’s terms, this means that Obama is tired of waiting around for democracy to work. And with Podesta’s help, he intends to impose his will on the country. And he intends to impose it on a whole host of matters, starting with global climate change and immigration. As Politico noted in their report on Podesta’s ascension to the White House:
The deal-sealer for Podesta, who has vowed to stay for only a year, was Obama’s assurance that he would be given broad oversight of the administration’s climate change agenda — even though Podesta has agreed to recuse himself from the decision on the Keystone pipeline, which he opposes. And here is where the template for Podesta in action might first become apparent: With chances of major legislation on climate change all but dead given congressional opposition, Podesta will push for aggressive executive action, in addition to backstopping new Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy on controversial new emissions guidelines for power plants.
Moreover, he is almost certain to side with environmentalists over energy companies, as he did during the Clinton administration when he teamed with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to protect vast new tracts of national forest and wetlands from gas and oil exploration.
Of course, the reason that the environmental actions need to be imposed on the country is because they have been rejected repeatedly by the representatives of the people, which is to say that they are so overwhelmingly unpopular that even Congress cannot afford to ignore its constituents. Obama, by contrast, does not ever have to stand for election again. And Podesta has never stood for election of any sort at any time. So what do they care about the people?
This strategy may endear Obama and Podesta to the environmentalists and to the energy companies who have rents at stake in new environmental regulation. But it will not endear any of them to the people.
A second sign that the Obama team intends to pursue its own agenda, even as it alienates greater and greater swaths of the American public can be seen in the high-profile fight over the Health and Human Services contraception mandate, which compels employers to provide “free” contraception and abortifacient drugs to all of their employees as part of their health insurance policies.
As you may or may not recall, we predicted that the administration would drop this silly and aggressively statist mandate long before it arrived on the docket of the Supreme Court. Obama would not, we speculated, want to run the risk of being rebuked in his blatant attempt to stick it to the Catholic Church (among others) by a court that is now packed with Catholics (6 of 9 justices), including one of his own appointees.
We were wrong. This term, the Supreme Court will take up the case of corporate protestors against the mandate. And in the meantime, the forces aligned against the mandate – which is to say the forces aligned in support of religious freedom – have managed to do something rather brilliant. They have put the focus of the fight on the most sympathetic group possible, a Catholic, nonprofit nursing home and hospice in Colorado run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Obama vs. The Little Sisters of the Poor. How does that grab you? Our guess is that it will grab most people accurately, meaning that they will rightly perceive that this entire mandate business is not about “free” contraception, but about bullying those civic institutions that the Obama administration dislikes.
When all is said and done, we suspect that Obama will wish that he had taken our advice and dropped the whole business. Oh well. He can’t say he wasn’t warned.
Of course, all of this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for Obama, which leads us to a related topic . . . .
Forecast #2: Despite the claims of fixed web sites and “successful” enrollments, Obamacare will continue to be a policy disaster and a millstone around the President’s neck.
If you start with the jacked-up premiums, add in the equally jacked-up deductibles and out-of-pocket costs, and then sprinkle in a touch of “no, you can’t keep your doctor either,” people who have bought insurance through the Obamacare exchanges or directly from insurers are going to be incredibly unhappy this year. It’s one thing to contemplate theoretical hardships. It’s something else altogether actually to experience them. And starting now, experience them they will.
Of course, all of this pertains exclusively to the individual health insurance market, which is but a fraction of the overall health insurance market in this country. All of which means that, barring any changes in the law, all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth about premiums, plan changes, doctor changes, restrictive networks, higher deductibles, and so on, will be repeated this year, only on an even greater scale, as employers begin their one-year-delayed transition to Obamacare plans.
Additionally, some of the more odious provisions of the law go into effect this year. Included among these are the $60 billion dollars in new taxes on health insurers, who are not stupid and who will therefore not absorb those costs themselves, but will pass them on to their customers. Also included is the start of $200 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage, the incredibly popular program that serves more than a quarter of the nation’s eligible Medicare recipients. Think about that for a minute. Those who have Medicare Advantage generally prefer it to traditional Medicare, which is why they have the plan. And now, they’re going to feel the pinch of Obama’s wealth transfer affecting them, affecting their insurance, and thus affecting their health care options. That’s one-fourth of Americans eligible for Medicare who are going to get shafted by and thus get angry with Barack Obama and his plans to change the country. And that’s IN ADDITION to everyone else who is already unhappy.
We could, we’re afraid, go on and on (and on and on . . .) about the unhappiness and misery that Obamacare will spread in 2014, but we figure you get the point. The troubles with the new health insurance regime are just beginning. And they will weigh heavily, both on Barack Obama and on his party.
And this last bit brings us to . . .
Forecast #3: In the midterm elections, the Democrats will lose the Senate.
Before diving into this prediction too deeply, we should make a couple of points. First, this is highly speculative, like any and all elections predictions. Ten months in politics is an eternity. And much can change between now and November.
Second, we worded this prediction carefully and consciously. We don’t expect the Republicans to win the Senate so much as the Democrats to lose it. There is a subtle difference, which we shall explain momentarily.
As the Senate stands today, the Democrats own a working ten-seat majority, which means that all 53 Democrats and the two independents (Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King) caucus with the Democrats. Therefore, in order for the Republicans to become the majority party in the next Congress, they will need to pick up a net of six seats. That’s a good number of seats to gain, but it is hardly impossible, which you might have guessed by the fact that we’re actually predicting it.
For starters, we do not see any Republican seats that will switch this election. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly vulnerable, but we doubt it. He may struggle in his primary campaign, but he’ll likely win another term. Beyond that, it’s hard to see what Republican seat might fall.
As for the Democrats, four of their seats look all but certain to switch: the seat in South Dakota being vacated by Tim Johnson; the open seat in West Virginia being vacated by Jay Rockefeller; the open seat in Montana being vacated by Max Baucus; and the seat currently held and being defended by Mark Pryor in Arkansas.
There are at least three more Democratic seats that may switch and which are too close to call: the seat currently held by Mary Landrieu in Louisiana; the seat currently held by Mark Begich in Alaska; and the seat currently held by Kay Hagan in North Carolina.
Lastly, there are at least two additional Democratic seats that may be in play: the seat currently held by Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire; and the seat currently held by Tom Harkin in Iowa.
We expect the Republicans to hold their seats, to pick up the four vulnerable seats, and to pick up at least two of the five others in play. That will give the six they need for a majority.
We also expect that the Republicans will try their damnedest NOT to pick up the Senate. The public’s frustration with the ruling class will boil over in at least one primary this year, causing the GOP to nominate at least one very bad candidate who will lose an otherwise winnable seat. At the same time, we expect that the same frustration will also cause one “outsider” to win a surprise nomination and then to win election to the Senate, joining Senators Mike Lee (UT), Rand Paul (MS), and Ted Cruz (TX) in the “constitutionalist” wing of the GOP Senate caucus.
Finally, we expect one Democrat whom no one suspects is currently vulnerable to lose his or her seat. If we had to guess, we’d guess that this surprise could claim Senator Mark Udall in Colorado or perhaps even Senator Mark Warner in Virginia, who is assumed by everyone to be safe.
Now, if you’ll look carefully at the Senate seats that are likely to flip, you’ll see that they all have one thing in common, namely that they’re seats from so-called red states. Now, the Senate has never been perfectly divided into red and blue; Senate votes aren’t nearly as easy to predict based on partisan affiliation alone as is the presidential vote. But still, over the past several election cycles, the country has been moving more and more in that direction. There are no longer very many Democratic Senators from the Midwest and South. And after this election, there will be even fewer. Gone are the Bob Kerreys, the Tom Daschles, the Sam Nunns, and the Fritz Hollings. In their place are Republicans – or at least there will be Republicans soon.
This is not, we should point out here, necessarily a reflection of the partisan divide in the country as a whole. This is simply the ongoing division of the states into self-selecting, politically homogenous groups. Just as there are no longer many Democrats in the South and Midwest, there are no longer many Republicans in the Northeast or the Northwest. This is a bipartisan phenomenon. And it just so happens that it hurts the Democrats more this cycle, not only because they have more “opposition” seats to lose, but because their national constituency is more densely packed into fewer states. The Senate should be more favorable to the GOP in the next few election cycles, based on demography alone.
Above, when we said that the Democrats would “lose” the Senate rather than the Republicans “winning” it, this was a big part of the reason why. The Senators up for reelection in 2014 were first elected in 2008, which was an outlier year for the Democrats. Obama won handily; the country was largely tired of Republican leadership; and the winning party – i.e. the Democrats – generally won from the top of the ticket to the bottom. That means that some of these seats will, by default, revert to the partisan mean, which is to say that red will revert to red while blue will stay blue.
And this brings us to the remaining house of Congress and to . . .
Forecast #4: The GOP will hold the House, and the Republican majority will, in fact, never be threatened. At the same time, the optimistic predictions of another GOP “wave” election will prove delusional. The Republicans will gain a small handful – maybe 5-10 – seats.
If you listen to or read many in the conservative media, you might get the impression that 2014 is going to be a HUGE year for the GOP. This calculation is based largely on two poll numbers. The first is President Obama’s approval rating, which is in the toilet and unlikely to come out. And the second is the generic ballot test, which Republicans currently lead narrowly. As most commentators note, the GOP trailed the generic ballot question at this stage in the 2010 election cycle and trailed as well just three short months ago – by a rather large eight point margin. Additionally, the generic ballot test almost always underestimates Republican support and overstates Democratic support. All of this taken together suggests that a tide is building. Or so we are told.
Color us skeptical.
Yes, all of that noted above is true. And yes, the GOP’s relative strength in polling at this point is interesting, to say the very least. But none of that should confuse us about what is at stake in November. And what is at stake is a very small handful of seats.
In the Senate, reversion to the mean usually takes a while, largely because six-year terms tend to slow the inevitable march toward partisan stability. In the House, however, where every seat is up every two years, the reversion happens much more quickly. And for the most part, it already has. At this point, there are very few Democratic seats in districts that voted for Mitt Romney. At the same time, there are also precious few Republican seats in districts that voted for Barack Obama. The wave elections of 2006 and 2010 have largely been absorbed and most seats sit precisely where they should, based on presidential voting patterns. A few of them, naturally, are inverted and a few will always be contested. It is from these groups that the GOP’s mild victory is likely to come. In order for things to change dramatically either way, the political system would have to sustain a real, serious, and profound shock, which is possible, but in our opinion unlikely.
Now, we will happily concede that Obamacare holds the potential to shock the political system. Indeed, it already has. It is possible that the ongoing collapse of health care “reform” would push a wave in the GOP’s direction. But again, we doubt it.
One of the lessons that the Republicans are learning – or relearning, rather – is the same lesson that John Kerry learned in 2004 and Mitt Romney learned in 2012, that is it’s awfully hard to beat something with nothing. Yes, it is nice that the Democrats’ dreams of state-controlled health care is falling apart even as we speak. But if Republicans’ really want to take advantage of this they will have to offer a coherent, palatable alternative. And not just to health care. Republicans in Congress have all sorts of health care proposals. But none of these, we’re afraid, will be enough to shift the ground in and of itself. If the GOP wants to be the majority party going forward – which is what it will take to “shock” the political system – then it will have to find and effectively sell a conservative alternative to the administrative state.
And we don’t believe that the Republicans in Washington are anywhere near capable of doing this, much less that they want to.
The mood of the electorate is a second reason that we think that it is more to describe the Democrats as losing the battle for Congress rather than the Republicans as winning. The electorate is tired of the ruling class and its Washington-centric worldview. And that applies to Republicans as well as Democrats. The Republican establishment may be slightly less wedded to the status quo, but only slightly. And that means that these Republicans are hardly suited to lead any sort of revolution.
At best, they will lead us to . . . .
Forecast #5: The Tea Party will continue to defy the reports of its demise. Indeed, it may well expand beyond its traditional bounds.
As you may have figured out over the last few years, we like the Tea Party very much. We don’t really agree with everything that its adherents advocate. And we don’t necessarily think that it always advances the “proper” conservative agenda. But we do think that it represents an important populist awakening among a large segment of the American people. And we are exceptionally grateful for that.
Of all the forms of populism that have blighted the democratic land, the Tea-Party-led form strikes us as the most benevolent and productive. The liberty-loving or small-l “libertarian” spirit that moves the Tea Party and which seeks to reclaim power from the state for the people seems to us to be far more likely to produce a positive outcome than some of the other forms of populism, for example, the hard left “bobo” (“bourgeois bohemian”) populism that put Commsymp Bill de Blasio in Gracie Mansion.
The ruling class is despised – and rightly so. And thus far only the Tea Party has had the guts and the dedication to stand up to the ruling class. As the ruling class’s corruption continues to grow and continues to affect the people, the Tea Party will not only see a resurgence in its numbers and support, but may well spawn other such populist movements.
Along these lines, it is worth noting that any real, genuine left wing response to the ruling class’s power grab will be far different from the “populism” on display these days in places like New York. Bill de Blasio, like Barack Obama, talks a good game with respect to fighting “inequality,” but he doesn’t have the foggiest idea what he’s doing or even how to begin to address the inequality issues in this country.
Part of this, of course, is the fact that the Left in this country remains wedded to policy options that have very little effect on the problems they are alleged to solve. Taxing the rich and giving to the poor will not alleviate inequality, largely because inequality of income as defined in this country does not take into account government benefits. And that, in turn, means not only that the problem is nowhere near as severe as the De Blasios and Obamas would have us think, but it will never be “fixed” by government augmenting the welfare transfer payments already in force. The statistics are constructed specifically to miss the government’s role.
The other part of this is the fact that inequality of income is not the real problem in this country. The real problem is inequality of power. The Left likes to complain about how more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people – and that may well be so. But it’s also largely irrelevant. Wealth is not a finite commodity. As it expands at the top, it can also expand at the bottom. This, after all, is the foundational principle underpinning the Bernanke monetary policy.
Power, by contrast, is largely finite. And if one group has more, then the other groups, almost by definition, have less. And in this country, political and economic power is more and more the province of fewer and fewer. Or as Joel Kotkin recently put it:
Generally speaking, we associate the quest for central government control to be very much a product of the extremes of left and right. But increasingly, the lobby for ever-greater concentration of power – both economically and politically – comes not from the fringes, but from established centers of both parties and media power.
Recently, for example, an article by Francis Fukuyama, a conservative-leaning intellectual, called for greater consolidation of federal power, most particularly, the Executive Branch. Ironically, Fukuyama’s call for greater central power follows a line most often adopted by “progressive” Democrats, who seek to use federal power to enforce their views on a host of environmental, economic and social issues even on reluctant parts of the country . . . .
[M]any progressives also increasing favor a more centralized economy. With a few brave exceptions, notably Vermont’s feisty socialist Sen. Bernard Sanders and incorrigibles such as Ralph Nader there have been too-few voices willing to challenge the growing corporatization of the Democratic Party and the ongoing concentration of power in ever-fewer hands . . . .
This confluence of large government and big business can be seen in the flow of funds to the Center for American Progress, the Obama-friendly think tank whose head, John Podesta, was just named the president’s latest chief of staff. The center’s primary funders include a who’s who of big corporations, including Apple, AT&T, Bank of America, BMW of North America, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, Discovery, GE, Facebook, Google, Goldman Sachs, PepsiCo, PG&E, the Motion Picture Association of America, Samsung, Time Warner, T-Mobile, Toyota, Visa, Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo.
John Podesta, you say? That should be fun . . . .
Forecast #6: Given all of this, we suspect that the 2016 presidential campaign, which will begin unofficially this year, will feature at least one candidate who is very, very different from the usual crowd.
We have no idea who the next president will be. None. Zip. Zero. Zilch.
We do, however, have the notion that he or she may not be drawn from the usual suspects. The odds, of course, favor one of the princes or princesses of our royal caste. But that’s not to say that someone from outside of the royal family (or families, if you prefer) might not make a good run at it.
After eight years of vacations in Hawaii, golf every other afternoon, trips for the wife and kids to luxury resorts at Costa del Sol, and snapping selfies at the funeral of the decade, it is quite possible that the American people will be looking for someone who doesn’t think that the presidency as little more than an excuse to live as luxuriously as possible on the taxpayers’ tab. Obviously, this is a swipe at the Obamas, but not at the Obamas alone. Most of the rest of our nation’s high-profile politicians, nearly all of its nouveau riche power brokers, and many of its big shot media personalities think that luxury and adoration is something to which they are entitled. And they behave accordingly.
All of this then contributes to a sense that the political class is disconnected from the people and, more to the point, taking the people for a ride. As we noted above, most of the regular folks in this country will tolerate this semi-royal entitlement as long as it keeps the prancing and preening popinjays off their backs. But it doesn’t always do so. And it certainly isn’t likely to do so over the next year. All of this will merely add fuel to the proverbial fire. In the end, we guess that from the ashes of this fire, a new populist hero will emerge and will promise to be a normal president, not a pretentious princeling.
Who will this man (or woman) of the people be? We have no idea. But we suspect that he or she will make a great deal of noise over the next couple of years.
Finally, we come to the end and to . . . .
Forecast #7, our “out of left field” forecast: Barack Obama will NOT be impeached. But the GOP will begin preparations for it.
Everyone in Washington remembers what happened the last time the Republicans impeached a Democratic president, namely the beleaguered Democrats actually gained seats in the 6th-year midterm and thus cost the Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich his job. Republicans will not make this mistake again. And they will especially not make this mistake knowing that they could actually convict the guy and boot him from office, if they are patient and wait until they have control of the Senate.
Why, you ask, would they impeach him? Well . . . because.
The Republicans in Congress have already expressed their unhappiness with Obama’s imperial presidency and the effect that it has had on their prerogatives. Add to that the fact that Obama will be a desperate and exceptionally lame duck status and that he will be egged on by the (twice!) aforementioned John Podesta, and it’s distinctly possible that he will push the Republicans finally to draw a line in the sand. And unlike the President, the Republicans will honor their threat.
Obama wants to get things done in the last three years of his presidency. The Republicans do not want him to get things done. If Obama crosses the line and pursues his agenda using means that are questionable, the Republicans will do their damnedest to make him pay for it.
Will that be good for the country or good for the GOP? We doubt it very much.
But then, who ever said that the Republicans in Washington were particularly smart? Heaven knows it wasn’t the two of us. Heck, we’re out a limb here suggesting they will be shrewd enough to hold off until after the elections. That’s hardly guaranteed, you know.
But then, what, exactly, is guaranteed, when predicting the future?
Not a damned thing, we’re afraid.
Happy New Year!