Thursday, October 8, 2015

How Change Happens in Democracies

Greg Sargent makes an interesting case for the candidacy of Bernie Sanders.
Sanders’ message is clear: Skyrocketing inequality is an urgent threat to the country. It’s the result of deep and intractable structural problems with the economy that require correction through major government intervention — via unabashedly redistributive policies that include big tax hikes on the wealthy to fund massive social investments. Our economic problems are enormous and call for major structural change. Nibbling around the edges just won’t do.
"Nibbling around the edges" is how a lot of progressives tend to look at more incremental (or pragmatic) change. In his podcast with Marc Maron, President Obama described how he sees it differently (this is my summary, not a transcript):
The emphasis on “hope and change” during the 2008 election captured our aspirations about where we should be going. But the question becomes, “how do we operationalize these concepts into concrete actions?” When it comes to specifics, the world is complicated and there are choices you have to make. The trajectory of progress comes in fits and starts and where you’re going is balanced by what is and where you’ve been. Progress in a democracy is never instantaneous and it’s always partial.

As president, sometimes your job is just to make things work. And sometimes your task is to make incremental improvements. It’s like steering an ocean liner and making a 2 degree turn so that 10 years from now we’re suddenly in a very different place. You can’t turn 50 degrees all at once because that’s not how societies - especially democracies - work. As long as we’re turning in the right direction and we’re making progress, government is working like its supposed to.
The case the President made is not simply for more centrist change - as many progressives assume - but for change that creates a progressive trajectory. It's the same point he made when talking about reaching a global climate accord.

The argument Sargent makes in favor of Sanders' approach leads people like Paul Starr to call his supporters delusional.
To some extent, both the conservative and progressive frustrations have the same origin—limited power in a divided government. Neither side is able to get its way because neither party controls all the levers of power...

On the Democratic side, the candidates are unlikely to race to the left in a way that’s comparable to the Republican race to the right. But the idle talk about adopting single-payer health care and emulating a Scandinavian welfare state has a similar air of unreality about it. Without a total remaking of American society and politics, these ideas have no chance of being enacted outside of Vermont (which didn’t get anywhere with single-payer after initially approving it).

I get that Democrats need to inspire their base, but I have never found political delusions inspiring.
But give Sanders some credit. He is being very clear that the only way his agenda will be enacted is with a veritable progressive revolution. That means not simply a Democratic majority in the House and super-majority in the Senate, it means a progressive majority and super-majority. I hate to be a Debbie-downer, but the chances of that happening are pretty much zilch.

Short of that, we have to begin talking about how candidates will deal with opposition (both intra and inter party). That is true whether we are talking about a President Sanders or a President Clinton (the two candidates Sargent was contrasting). It is exactly why Obama talks about how change happens in democracies. Given the enormity of the challenges we face today, it is important for Democrats to have a candidate who has thought that one through. Can someone please slip it in as a question for the upcoming Democratic debate moderators to consider?

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Identity Politics vs Class Based Populism is Not an Either/Or Question (Part II)

In a previous post, I critiqued Thomas Edsall's suggestion that the Democratic Party's focus on identity politics was at odds with a class-based populism that would appeal to low-to-moderate income white voters based on presidential election results. Now let's take a look at how the election of our country's first African American President has affected the Party's policy proposals.

Barack Obama was elected President during this country's Great Recession. As such, his first priority was to pass a stimulus package, which he did within 28 days of being inaugurated. The next great battle was over the passage of health care reform. And after that came Wall Street Reform (to correct the abuses that had led to the Great Recession). None of these major pieces of legislation targeted "identity groups," but some have suggested that Obamacare was the greatest redistribution of wealth from upper incomes to lower since the Great Society programs of LBJ.

Since then, with the Republican takeover of the House and the loss of a supermajority in the Senate, Democratic priorities have not been able to get passed in Congress. But the list of proposals have included an infrastructure bank, the American Jobs Act, universal pre-K, raising the minimum wage, paid family leave and free community college. All of these would provide universal benefits that are not targeted to identity groups.

As a matter of fact, President Obama has consistently come under fire for not doing more on issues like the disparities that exist for African Americans on income, housing, education, etc. Joy Reid documents in her recent book Fracture how the Congressional Black Caucus and African American leaders have continually pressured this administration to target legislative proposals towards these issues - only to be rebuffed.

On the other hand, the Obama administration has fought for immigration reform, pay equity for women, criminal justice reform and the end of DADT/DOMA. They have also used the executive branch to investigate police brutality, challenge voting restrictions, prosecute redlining, reach settlements with Black farmers and Native American tribes, etc.

In terms of an over-arching agenda, President Obama has continually articulated what he believes to be "the defining issue of our time." Here's how he talked about it during his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas in 2011.
Today, we’re still home to the world’s most productive workers. We’re still home to the world’s most innovative companies. But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments -- wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t -- and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up....

But, Osawatomie, this is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.
And in a speech at an Associated Press luncheon in 2012.
In the face of all these challenges, we're going to have to answer a central question as a nation: What, if anything, can we do to restore a sense of security for people who are willing to work hard and act responsibly in this country? Can we succeed as a country where a shrinking number of people do exceedingly well, while a growing number struggle to get by? Or are we better off when everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules?

This is not just another run-of-the-mill political debate. I’ve said it’s the defining issue of our time, and I believe it. It’s why I ran in 2008. It’s what my presidency has been about. It’s why I’m running again. I believe this is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and I can’t remember a time when the choice between competing visions of our future has been so unambiguously clear.
And in a speech at the Center for American Progress in 2013.
But we know that people’s frustrations run deeper than these most recent political battles. Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles -- to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement. It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were. They may not follow the constant back-and-forth in Washington or all the policy details, but they experience in a very personal way the relentless, decades-long trend that I want to spend some time talking about today. And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain -- that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.

I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American. It’s why I ran for President. It was at the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office.
I'll stop there because perhaps you get the idea. Throughout his presidency, Obama has referred to this as his "North Star." It's true that, unlike some of his Democratic colleagues, this President doesn't tend to identify and demonize a villain in this story. But to the extent that people don't hear his commitment to addressing income inequality (i.e., class-based populism), one has to wonder whether it also has to do with their issues with the messenger rather than the message...which brings us back to the needs addressed by identity politics.

Identity Politics vs Class-Based Populism is Not an Either/Or Question (Part I)

I remember that, prior to the election of Barack Obama, the conventional wisdom was that Democrats had to find a way to win Southern states in order to elect a president. That was a direct result of the Republican's Southern Strategy and was confirmed by the fact that - after Ronald Reagan's sweeping victory over Walter Mondale in 1984 - the only presidential success Democrats experienced was in electing Southern governors (Carter from Georgia and Clinton from Arkansas). The election of our first African American president from Illinois (and Hawaii) changed the map when it comes to presidential elections.

Now we are hearing from a chorus of pundits/strategists that the only way Democrats can win midterm elections is to abandon "identity politics" and appeal to white working class voters.  Thomas Edsall is one of the people who regularly makes that argument and he's done so again with an article titled: How Did the Democrats Become Favorites of the Rich?

Edsall makes this claim by first of all providing data showing that Democrats are raising money from wealthy donors at the same rate as Republicans and that Democrats now represent congressional districts that "tilt towards the well-to-do." Part of his argument goes as follows:
In 1988, support for the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis fell as income rose. Those making less than $12,500-a-year backed him 63-37, while those making more than $100,000 voted against him 67-33.

In 2012, by contrast, Obama won low-income voters, those making less than $30,000, decisively, 63-35, but also did far better than Dukakis among those making more than $100,000, winning 44 percent of their votes. Four years earlier, in 2008, Obama won among voters with the highest incomes, above $200,000, 52-46, and nearly tied among those making $100,000 to $200,000, 48-50.
Then he goes on to point to policies the Democrats helped pass in the 1990's that aligned with the interests of those donors/voters. As such, he concludes that the party has left its "populist roots" and that this is because they have become "the political home for those whose most passionate cause is cultural, as opposed to economic, liberalism..." Here's his conclusion:
The practical reality is that the Democratic Party is now structurally disengaged from class-based populism, especially a form of economically redistributive populism that low-to-moderate-income whites would find inviting.
Edsall's point about President Obama's appeal to upper income voters reminded me of an article by Andrew Gellman and Avi Feller that I just found recently in which they analyzed data from exit polls in the 2012 presidential election. They open with data showing that the wealthy continued their strong support for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney. But...
...there’s much more to this story. The maps we have made show that the election was not just about red and blue states. What’s actually going on is that the division between red and blue America is mostly about a split among richer voters...
Lower-income voters consistently support the Democratic candidate in nearly every state. Upper-income voters, on the other hand, are more mixed in their political views: wealthy voters in Mississippi are strongly Republican while wealthy voters in Massachusetts are strongly Democratic...

In other words, contrary to what you have heard, there’s only a strong red America-blue America split toward the top of the income distribution. Toward the bottom, the electoral map is a sea of blue.
Gellman and Feller find the same kind of distribution when comparing differences along the lines of age, gender and race. And they conclude with this:
In all these cases, the red-state, blue-state division is sharper in categories that tend to vote Republican. Put another way: Obama’s voting blocs look about the same everywhere in the country, while Romney’s vary more from state to state.

This is not a story about the Obama campaign’s strategy or Mitt Romney’s failures as a presidential candidate — the demographic maps for 2004 and 2008 look very similar. The red-blue electoral map that we’re used to poring over is mainly the result of a political and geographic divide among American voters at the older, richer and whiter end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Another way of saying the same thing is that - outside of the Republican strongholds of the South and Mountain West, Democrats have been winning over the "older, richer and whiter end of the socioeconomic spectrum" - all while maintaining their base among the younger, less wealthy and people of color. That is what made the election of a Black man from Illinois possible.

In Part II we'll take a look at how that election affected Democratic policy proposals.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Retroactive Justice

Back in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act that reduced the disparities in federal mandatory minimum sentences for powder and crack cocaine. But the Act did not address the issue of retroactivity for those who had already been sentenced. Dealing with that issue was left to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The Obama administration has always supported the application of these changes retroactively and former Attorney General Eric Holder testified along those lines to the Commission. Back in July 2014, the Sentencing Commission made their decision.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission decided Friday that nearly 50,000 federal drug offenders currently in prison are eligible for reduced sentences, a move that could flood the nation’s courts and prosecutors with applications for leniency.

By a unanimous vote, the commission made retroactive an earlier change that had lightened potential punishments for most future drug offenders who are sentenced starting in November. Friday’s move extends that change to 46,000 current inmates, allowing them to have their cases reviewed again by a judge.
Sari Horwitz reports on what happened next:
The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction last year after holding two public hearings in which members heard testimony from former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., federal judges, federal public defenders, state and local law enforcement officials, and sentencing advocates. The panel also received more than 80,000 public comment letters, with the overwhelming majority favoring the change.

Congress did not act to disapprove the change to the sentencing guidelines, so it became effective on Nov. 1, 2014. The commission then gave the Justice Department a year to prepare for the huge release of inmates.
That means that today, there is some huge news from the Justice Department.
The Justice Department is set to release about 6,000 inmates early from prison — the largest one-time release of federal prisoners — in an effort to reduce overcrowding and provide relief to drug offenders who received harsh sentences over the past three decades.

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. Most of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release...

The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016.
As Horwitz points out, this is an entirely separate process from President Obama's Clemency Initiative, and has been in the works since the Fair Sentencing Act initially passed 5 years ago. Justice might not always be as swift as we would like. But it is about to arrive retroactively for thousands over the next year.

P.S. And yes, I'm dedicating this post to Ryan Cooper..

Obama Administration Announces Settlement with Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations

This summer, President Obama visited the Choctaw Nation during his trip to Oklahoma. It was the second of his four visits to Native American tribes during his tenure as President.

Today, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel was back for a major announcement.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today announced the settlement of The Chickasaw Nation and The Choctaw Nation v. The Department of the Interior, a lawsuit filed by the nations regarding the U.S. government's accounting and management of funds and natural resources that it holds in trust for these communities. The $186 million agreement resolves a long-standing dispute, with some of the claims dating back more than 100 years, and brings an end to protracted, vigorously contested and expensive litigation that has burdened both nations and the United States for a decade...

“It is a historic occasion to have the Secretary of the Interior visit the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. I am appreciative of having a sovereign-to-sovereign relationship between the Choctaw Nation and the United States government. It is also historic that these three sovereigns have agreed to a settlement of the timber trust account case,” said Choctaw Chief Gary Batton. “We plan for the proceeds to be invested in our people – expanding education, creating jobs, promoting economic development and culture, as well as a portion to be invested in a sustainability fund for the future of our citizens.

“This visit marks the start of a revitalized relationship with the United States. Secretary Jewell’s presence here, coming soon after President Obama’s recent visit, also serves to reaffirm that the foundation of this relationship is government-to-government,” Chief Batton said.
As I have noted previously, this settlement is part of a pattern the Obama administration has been working on for years now.
The Departments of Justice, Interior, and Treasury have been diligently engaged in settlement conversations with more than 100 litigating tribes. On April 11, 2012, the United States announced settlements with 41 tribes for at least $1 billion. Since that time, the federal government has focused considerable, dedicated effort on the remaining tribal trust accounting and trust mismanagement cases. Including the settlement with the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations, this Administration has resolved, since October 1, 2010, breach of trust claims with a total of 86 tribes and combined value of about $2.8 billion.
It's also important to remember that both the Chickasaw and Choctaw Tribes were re-located to Oklahoma in the 1830's as part of the Trail of Tears. President Obama is not just using diplomacy to deal with our country's history of foreign disasters. There is healing required right here at home as well.


From a forthcoming poem by Mary Oliver titled "The World I Live in."

President Obama: A Grand Strategy for the 21st Century

It is interesting that one of the most insightful looks at the foreign policy of President Obama comes from The American Conservative - in an article by Alfred McCoy. And no, as some on the left might assume, it is not a celebration of his droning of terrorists. While I don't agree with everything McCoy writes, he takes a much bigger picture look at how this President is changing the historical trajectory of the role of the United States in global affairs. Here is his opening summary.
Without proclaiming a presumptuously labeled policy such as “triangulation,” “the Nixon Doctrine,” or even a “freedom agenda,” Obama has moved step-by-step to repair the damage caused by a plethora of Washington foreign policy debacles, old and new, and then maneuvered deftly to rebuild America’s fading global influence.

Viewed historically, Obama has set out to correct past foreign policy excesses and disasters, largely the product of imperial overreach, that can be traced to several generations of American leaders bent on the exercise of unilateral power. Within the spectrum of American state power, he has slowly shifted from the coercion of war, occupation, torture, and other forms of unilateral military action toward the more cooperative realm of trade, diplomacy, and mutual security—all in search of a new version of American supremacy.
The one place McCoy can't seem to shake his conservative perspective is that he assumes that the shifts he identifies are all in search of "American supremacy" (he uses the word hegemony a lot). He can't seem to reconcile the dissonance that is obviously present between cooperation and hegemony - even as he is impressed with the success of President Obama's emphasis on the former. I tend to write that off to something he shares with a lot of Americans - the inability to see the power that is present in effective partnership.

But be that as it may, McCoy goes on the give several examples of how the President is correcting "past foreign policy excesses and disasters." He zeros in on the three that Tom Friedman discussed with Obama in their interview about the Iranian nuclear deal. McCoy calls these "Covert Cold War Disasters."
Obama’s diplomats have, for instance, pursued reconciliation with three “rogue” states—Burma, Iran, and Cuba—whose seemingly implacable opposition to the U.S. sprang from some of the most disastrous CIA covert interventions of the Cold War.
Much of the discussion of these diplomatic efforts has ignored the historical role the United States played in contributing to the tensions. McCoy points out how President Truman ordered the CIA to arm Chinese nationalists in Burma, creating that country's isolation from the international community. He goes on to point out that, as the Cold War heated up, President Eisenhower used the CIA as his own secret army to launch 170 covert operations in 48 countries - including a coup in Iran in 1953 and authorization of the "Bay of Pigs" fiasco in Cuba in 1960.

Contrary to what many Republicans claim, President Obama doesn't tend to talk very openly about these past disasters. But in his interview with Friedman, he did acknowledge that his diplomatic efforts with Iran took them into account.
Clearly, he added, “part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first their democracy and then in supporting the Shah and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war. So part of what I’ve told my team is we have to distinguish between the ideologically driven, offensive Iran and the defensive Iran that feels vulnerable and sometimes may be reacting because they perceive that as the only way that they can avoid repeats of the past.
McCoy then goes on to talk about China and trade. While he over-emphasizes the threat posed by China, he puts the whole discussion about the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal in its proper attempt to keep the United States active in what he calls "Obama's Trade Diplomacy."

We have already seen how trade sanctions have been utilized by President Obama with respect to Iran and Russia. Here is how Max Fisher described the potential exhibited in the latter:
The lesson that Putin is learning is that Russia depends on the global economy, whether it likes it or not...

What's cool about this is that it theoretically could apply to lots of other possible acts of international aggression around the world. This is something that economists and political scientists have been predicting since World War One: that integrating all the national economies into the global economy wouldn't just make all of us richer; it would make war more economically painful for the people starting it and thus less likely to happen.
When McCoy describes Obama's "quiet grand strategy" as one of shifting away from the exercise of unilateral military power and "toward the more cooperative realm of trade, diplomacy, and mutual security," this is exactly what he's talking about. No grand strategy ever provides guaranteed success. But the possibility of both learning from the disasters of our past and avoiding war are what make this a foreign policy strategy for the 21st century.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Why a Bill on Gun Background Checks is So Hard to Pass

As Democrats prepare to unveil a bill requiring background checks on all gun purchases today, it is important to remember that 93% of Americans (and 90% of Republicans) support the idea. In light of that, why has it been so difficult to get a bill like that through Congress? President Obama recently said that, as voters, we've got work to do.
You have to make sure that anybody who you are voting for is on the right side of this issue. And if they’re not, even if they’re great on other stuff, for a couple of election cycles you’ve got to vote against them, and let them know precisely why you’re voting against them. And you just have to, for a while, be a single-issue voter because that’s what is happening on the other side.
The premise of that argument is that the power of the NRA (and other groups like them) comes from the fact that their members are prepared to vote against candidates who support any form of gun control. But for gun control advocates, that issue is often overshadowed by other priorities.

David Adkins appears to be making a similar case.
Gun control will pass precisely when legislators become more afraid of the votes of gun control supporters than they are of gun control opponents. That will only happen when interested organizations invest in mobilize voters on that issue, and when liberal organizations work to unseat Democrats who do the bidding of the NRA and replace them with ones who vote to protect the people. That is how the Tea Party accomplishes its goals: not by visibility protests or list-building campaigns, but by making examples of “RINO” Republicans and putting hardcore conservatives in their place. Many Democrats see that as “extremist” and bad form. But it isn’t. The Tea Party is extremist because of its positions, not because of its tactics.
To evaluate this idea, it is helpful to go back and take a look at the last time the Senate voted on the bill sponsored by Senators Toomey (R) and Manchin (D) that would have required background checks for gun purchases. The vote on that bill happened a few months after the Newtown shooting and getting Senator Manchin (a huge gun rights supporter) to sponsor such legislation was a major victory. In the end, 5 Republicans voted for the bill. But 4 Democrats voted against it. They were Mark Pryor (Ark.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Mark Begich (Alaska). As a result, the vote was 54/46 and the bill failed to get the supermajority of 60 votes needed to pass.

So if we focus on Adkins more specific recommendation, what gun control advocates need to do is identify candidates to challenge Senators in states like Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota and Alaska in primaries on the issue of gun background checks. I wouldn't totally dismiss such a strategy. But when you get specific about what it means, you begin to see why its a challenge. Those are all fairly red states and the fact that we had Democrats serving in those seats at all (Pryor and Begich have since been replaced by Republicans) was likely a result of their more conservative-leaning positions. Beyond that, voters in predominantly rural states like Montana, North Dakota and Alaska rarely experience the kind of gun violence that is often more associated with urban areas. Field work in those states to mobilize voters who are willing to prioritize background checks for gun purchases would indeed be an uphill battle.

On the other hand, here are the Republicans who voted for background checks: Senators John McCain (Ariz.), Susan Collins (Maine), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.). Both Toomey and Kirk are from relatively blue states that are home to large urban centers. While Arizona is still considered a red state, its demographics are changing fast and Maine tends to be pretty independent. That is why voters in both Arizona and Maine give their Senators more leeway to be, as McCain would say, "mavericks" when it comes to Republican positions.

Ultimately, for President Obama's suggestion to work, it would require Republicans and Independents in red and swing states (most likely those with major metropolitan areas) to become single issue voters on gun background checks. Is that likely to happen in this climate? I doubt it. But it doesn't hurt to put it out there.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

MARS Voters vs Goldwater Republicans

As I speculated previously, now that the media's obsession with Trump-mania has been interrupted by actual news, "the Donald" continues to fall in the polls. It's not that Trump has changed his tune. He continues to say inflammatory and ignorant things. But with the Pope's visit, Boehner's resignation (followed by the chaos that's about to ensue in the House leadership elections), and the shooting in Oregon, we actually have some other things to talk about.

And so it's interesting to note that, just as all that is happening, John Judis writes what is likely to become the definitive description of Trump supporters. Referring to a 1976 book by Donald Warren, he calls them Middle American Radicals (MARS).
“MARS are dis­tinct in the depth of their feel­ing that the middle class has been ser­i­ously neg­lected,” War­ren wrote. They saw “gov­ern­ment as fa­vor­ing both the rich and the poor sim­ul­tan­eously.”
I would simply note that it would be a more accurate description of MARS if we added one word: "MARS are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the white middle class has been seriously neglected." Also, since the 1970's we have increasingly made the distinction between blue collar and white collar middle class - the former being what we tend to refer to as "working class," who are the heart of the MARS demographic.

Judis suggests that these are the voters who supported candidates in the past like George Wallace, Ross  Perot and Pat Buchanan. Where this is especially helpful in understanding the MARS voters of today is that Judis explains the ingredients that contribute to a burst of Middle American Radicalism: (1) "a widespread sense of national decline," (2) "pronounced distrust of leadership in Washington," and (3) a leader to play the catalyzing role.

What many have been noting for a while now (including me) is that the conservative sense of national decline is fueled by the fact that the white male patriarchy is dying - both as a domestic force and around the world. The fact that our President is African American and their Republican leaders have failed to stop him has inflamed their sense of distrust in Washington. Along comes Donald Trump to tap into all of that.

But when it comes to the candidacy of Trump, here is where Judis provides some optimism: MARS voters tend to make up 20% of the electorate and 30-35% of Republicans. That reality is demonstrated by this chart from a recent Pew poll (note: they polled registered voters rather than likely voters, which is probably wise this far out of a general election). Trump's support peaks with non-college educated voters who make less than $40,000.

What's also interesting to note is that the number of registered voters who are undecided at this point is about 25%. Among those who have decided, support for Rubio and Fiorina peak among college educated voters who make $75,000 or more. That tends to support what I've said previously about "Goldwater Republicans."

The wild card in all this are the Carson supporters - who are pretty evenly dispersed (except for the fact that he gets less support among those who make less than $40,000). If there comes a time that Carson overtakes Trump in the polls (as he did recently in an IDB/TIPP poll), he will likely come under more scrutiny by the media and other Republican candidates. That's when we'll learn whether or not he has staying power or is the 2016 version of Herman Cain (my money is on the latter).

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Time to Declare Debate Winners

The CNN Republican presidential debate came about one week after the end of "silly season" (during which all the media had to talk about was Trump-mania). After an event like a debate, we are always told to wait a while to see how the results are reflected in the polls. What's interesting though, is that by the time we actually get poll results, everyone has moved on. So lets change that. It's now been two weeks since the debate. What happened? Here's a look at the Huffington Post's poll aggregator (but you'll find pretty much the same thing at Real Clear Politics).

From Labor Day until today, here's how things have changed for the top 6 contenders (the rest of the candidates are under 4% right now):

* Trump  - 5.9%
* Carson + 0.6%
* Fiorina + 6.6%
* Bush + 0.2%
* Rubio + 3.1%
* Cruz - 0.3%

Overall, Carson, Bush and Cruz have stayed pretty stable. Trump is down. Fiorina and Rubio are up.

That doesn't tell us whether these trajectories will continue. But if we're ever going to be able to identify the winners/losers in a debate, we now have the data to do so. It's obvious that both Fiorina and Rubio did well. On a purely anecdotal note, my hunch is that Trump's drop is at least as related to the fact that the media isn't talking about him incessantly as it is to a poor debate performance.

While Trump has certainly lost ground, his lead was so "YUUUUGE" (as he would say), that even after slumping almost 6 points, he still leads the pack. Unless someone does something really dramatic (certainly not out of the question), this is probably how things will look until the next debate on October 28th.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Senate Judiciary Committee Will Act of Criminal Justice Reform

Carrie Johnson at NPR is reporting that the Senate Judiciary Committee will act on criminal justice reform this week.
A bipartisan group of senators on the Judiciary Committee is preparing to unveil a criminal justice overhaul proposal as early as Thursday, two sources familiar with the deal told NPR...

The proposal will not go as far as some reform advocates may like, the sources say. For instance, the plan would create some tough new mandatory minimum sentences, after pressing from Grassley. It stitches together proposals that would allow inmates to earn credits to leave prison early if they complete educational and treatment programs and pose a relatively low risk to public safety along with language that would give judges some more discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders.
She also reports on where things stand right now in the House.
In the House, meanwhile, Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., are pressing their own legislation, known as the SAFE Justice Act. The two leaders of the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and John Conyers, D-Mich., are writing their own bills, staff members said.
Given the chaos that is being generated over funding for Planned Parenthood and the looming 2016 campaign, it's difficult to imagine that something will get done this session. But it's clear that the pressure is building to do so.

One element that is contributing to that pressure is the Vice episode that aired last Sunday titled "Fixing the System." If you don't have access to HBO, they have made the hour-long documentary available on youtube. I highly recommend that everyone watch it.

Will Rand Paul Be the Next One Out?

No one is paying much attention to the Republican candidates that didn't make it to the main stage in the last debate (Santorum, Pataki, Jindal, Graham and Gilmore). If any of them were to drop out of the race at this point, it wouldn't produce many headlines. Of the remaining ten, it is looking more and more like the next one to go could very well be Sen. Rand Paul.

There have been a couple of stories lately that might signal a move sometime soon. First of all, one of Paul's SuperPacs has quit raising money.
In a Tuesday telephone interview, Ed Crane, who oversees the group, PurplePAC, accused Paul of abandoning his libertarian views -- and suggested it was a primary reason the Kentucky senator had plummeted in the polls.

“I have stopped raising money for him until I see the campaign correct its problems,” said Crane, who co-founded the Cato Institute think tank and serves as its president emeritus. “I wasn’t going to raise money to spend on a futile crusade.”

“I don’t see the point in it right now,” he added.
Futile crusade? Ouch! When it comes to those polls, Paul was at about 9% at the beginning of the summer according to Huffington Post's aggregator. And today he's coming in under 3%.

The other story has to do with the fact that - as Steve Benen notes - Sen. Paul is the only one of the 20 candidates currently running for president who is also running for re-election to his current Senate seat. Jonathan Easly reported that this week Paul will take a break from the presidential race to do some fundraising for his Senate campaign.

Of course Paul's supporters were quick to point out that this doesn't mean he is giving up on his presidential bid. But you have to wonder how long he can keep this up - and why he'd want to when he's at under 3% in the polls.

Monday, September 28, 2015

"A Shocking, Almost Certifiable Faith in Humanity"

Edward-Isaac Dovere at Politico captured what most people heard in President Obama's speech on Monday to the United Nation's General Assembly.
President Barack Obama took repeated swipes at Vladimir Putin, Dick Cheney and even Donald Trump, without mentioning them by name, in an address to the United Nations on Monday, holding them up as examples of forces playing off fears and attempting to pull the country and world backward.
There is a lot of truth in that summary. But it captures the trees and not the forest. In many ways, the President's speech was an affirmation of an Obama Doctrine. He pointed out the failure of domination as a model for conducting both domestic and foreign affairs.
There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the U.N. charter are unachievable or out of date -- a legacy of a postwar era not suited to our own. Effectively, they argue for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that pre-date this institution: the belief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; that the rights of individuals don’t matter; and that in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force.
Because of the interconnectivity of our world today, we have to work together in order to succeed.
But I stand before you today believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion. We cannot look backwards. We live in an integrated world -- one in which we all have a stake in each other’s success. We cannot turn those forces of integration. No nation in this Assembly can insulate itself from the threat of terrorism, or the risk of financial contagion; the flow of migrants, or the danger of a warming planet. The disorder we see is not driven solely by competition between nations or any single ideology. And if we cannot work together more effectively, we will all suffer the consequences. That is true for the United States, as well. 
Finally, he defined the real source of strength.
Our systems are premised on the notion that absolute power will corrupt, but that people -- ordinary people -- are fundamentally good; that they value family and friendship, faith and the dignity of hard work; and that with appropriate checks and balances, governments can reflect this goodness.

I believe that’s the future we must seek together. To believe in the dignity of every individual, to believe we can bridge our differences, and choose cooperation over conflict -- that is not weakness, that is strength. It is a practical necessity in this interconnected world.
The notion that ordinary people are fundamentally good is something we've heard often from this President. It reminds me of what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a few days after Obama was first elected in 2008.
Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.
I have to admit that there are times that I still "suck my teeth" when I hear things like that. But I think Coates is right...that's my cowardice talking.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cleaning Up the Last Bush/Cheney Mess

One of the sad realities of the Obama presidency is that he and his administration have had to spend so much of their time cleaning up messes that were left by Bush and Cheney. I won't try to capture all of them, but two wars in the Middle East, an economy careening towards a second Great Depression and exploding federal deficits are the three big ones. When President Obama titled his 2015 State of the Union Address "Turning the Page," a lot of what he was saying is that his administration was finally ready to move on from most of that.

But one intransigent mess lingers on...the prison Bush/Cheney built in Guantanamo, Cuba. President Obama is determined to close Gitmo before his term ends and the White House has been clear that they are drafting a plan to do so.

This week right wing media sites have gone a bit berserk over the fact that two more detainees have been released. The first was the man who was reported to be Osama bin Laden's bodyguard.
The former detainee, Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 39, is from Saudi Arabia, and he was one of 32 Middle Eastern men who were captured by the Pakistani military along the Afghanistan border in December 2001 and turned over to the United States. He was among the first batch of detainees taken to the prison when it opened at the American naval station in Cuba on Jan. 11, 2002.
Second was the last of several British residents and citizens who have been held at Gitmo.
The Obama administration has notified Congress of its intent to send Shaker Aamer, a suspected al-Qaeda plotter held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than 13 years, back to Britain, yielding to a lengthy campaign to secure the British resident’s release, officials said Friday.
For a status update on where things stand with closing Gitmo, the New York Times has some helpful graphs. Of the 771 detainees who have been held there, 657 have been released and 114 remain. Of the 53 who have been cleared for release, 43 are from Yemen. The Obama administration has been reluctant to repatriate detainees to Yemen due to the chaos that currently exists in that country. Ten detainees have either been convicted or await trial. Finally, as a testament to how badly the Bush/Cheney administration handled all this, the remaining 51 have been recommended for indefinite detention without a trail - mostly due to the fact that evidence has been tainted by their treatment (read: torture).

In December of last year, Pope Francis offered to help the Obama administration in their efforts to close Gitmo. This is very likely one of the topics he and the President discussed in their one-on-one meeting this week. I would assume that the Vatican might be most helpful in in working with countries to provide alternatives for the 53 who have been cleared for release. No matter how controversial plans for that might be, you can be sure that whatever President Obama proposes to do with the remaining detainees (10 convicted/awaiting trail and 51 to be indefinitely detained), there will be howls from both sides of the political spectrum. The left will suggest that they shouldn't be held at all and the right will complain because President Obama's likely solution will be to move them to a maximum security prison(s) in the United States.

I will simply say that one of the problems that is endemic to cleaning up your predecessors messes is that there is almost never a way to do so that pleases everyone. Nothing more ably demonstrates that than Gitmo. Perhaps the one thing that everyone can agree with is that President Obama deserves some credit for his determination to not leave this one to the next president.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Boehner Gets Himself Out of a Jam

For the record, let's simply note that the idea that this Republican Congress would actually pass a budget went out the window a long time ago. What's on the table right now is a short-term continuing resolution (CR) that would maintain funding at it's current level. Since coming back from the August recess, the Republican lunatic caucus in the House has demanded that the CR defund Planned Parenthood or they'll allow the government to shut down on October 1st.

Furthermore, the lunatic caucus has said that if Boehner tries to pass a CR that does not defund Planned Parenthood, they will initiate a procedure to remove him as Speaker. Apparently they had a least the threat of 30 votes that would throw his re-election into question.

On Wednesday, Democratic leaders in the House made it clear that Boehner couldn't depend on their votes to save his speakership.
"It's not our responsibility to try to solve their divisions," Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday...

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, echoed that message Wednesday, saying it's "their war" and the Democrats aren't ready to engage. He further suggested that it remains unclear if the Democrats stand to benefit by picking one GOP division over another.

"Like the Syrian Civil War, I'm not sure it's easy to discern which side anyone is on," Becerra said by phone.
That led Boehner to make a deal with the lunatic caucus: if he stepped down as Speaker, they would vote for a "clean" continuing resolution and avoid a government shutdown.
Following Boehner’s announcement, House Republicans said there was agreement to pass a clean spending bill to keep the government open though mid-December while broader negotiations on spending levels are held. Several members of the Freedom Caucus, the conservative group that led the revolt against Boehner’s leadership, said they will now support the spending bill without demands that it include language to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.

“The commitment has been made that there will be no shutdown,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.).
Boehner leaves at the end of October and the CR keeps the government functioning through mid-December. In the meantime, House Republicans will have to settle on a new Speaker while the lunatics try to defund both Planned Parenthood and Obamacare via budget reconciliation legislation (which they know President Obama will veto). Or maybe another government shutdown in December...Happy Holidays, everyone!

So Boehner got himself out of a jam and the government won't shut down next week. I guess that's what passes for progress with this Republican Congress.