Posts Tagged ‘analysis’

Obama on national security: too weak, too strong

President Barack Obama (Source: White House)

President Barack Obama (Source: White House)

One of the weird muddles complicating the scandals swirling around the Obama administration is that the accusations –broadly speaking — stem from two fundamentally different convictions about the White House and its stance on national security and the war on terror.

On the one side is a conservative narrative about Benghazi that goes something like this:

When US forces were under attack in Libya, Obama was tuned out, overly passive, and ineffective.

His team failed to use all the resources available to try to prevent the death of American personnel on the ground.  The result?  Four people dead.

In the days afterward, so goes the storyline, Obama’s team downplayed or tried to conceal the fact that an act of full-blown terrorism had occurred, giving incomplete and inconsistent answers to the public and Congress.

This picture takes on its gravest connotations when you fold it into the wider right-wing narrative about Obama, that he is a Muslim sympathizer – perhaps even a closet Muslim – who has weakened America, perhaps deliberately.

On the other side is a liberal narrative about drone attacks, Guantanamo Bay, the killing of American citizens, and the AP-Justice Department probe that goes something like this:

Team Obama has internalized too many Bush-era ideas about the war on terror.

He has acted far too aggressively and unilaterally, using military force with abandon, failing to shut down Gitmo, and compromising first amendment rights by investigating journalists who publish national security secrets.

According to this storyline, Obama moved to wrap the imperial-presidency-smoking-gun foreign policy agenda of the Bush-Cheney era in a kinder, gentler Democratic Party veneer.

The results?  A lot of hellfire missiles raining down on peasant villages in Pakistan and guys in orange jumpsuits on hunger strike at Gitmo.

One can see why this might be fraught political territory for a Democratic president. There is little hope of winning over conservatives by being tough.  There is a great danger of alienating liberals by appearing too militaristic.

But so far at least, the public seems to feel relatively comfortable with the idea that in a messy, dangerous world, Obama’s team is getting it more right than wrong. His poll numbers are holding steady.

And despite high profile attacks like the one in Boston, the number of people dying in the global terror conflict — including attacks here in the US, as well as fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq — continues to decline.

So here’s my question to you.  As you think about the big picture, Americas national security in Barack Obama’s second term, and the current rash of scandals, what do you see as the fundamentals?

Is the president getting the porridge too hot, too cold, or just right when it comes to foreign policy and keeping America safe?  Comments welcome below. Also, check out President Obama’s national security address from this week.

How the mighty (corrupt) have fallen

Is this the best you got? Malcolm Smith is allegedly at the center of a New York corruption scandal. Photo: NYS Senate

While traveling this week in Costa Rica, I’ve been following the unfolding narrative of New York’s own banana republic-style politics.

The allegations are sweeping and, let’s be frank, juicy.

Former senate majority leader Malcolm Smith, a Democrat from Queens is said to have helped funnel roughly $100,000 to various Republicans in an effort to buy the GOP line on the New York City mayoral ballot.

Real estate developers are involved.  The FBI had an undercover agent and an informant working the beat.

The FBI even went for the pop-culture reference in describing the affair, calling it “Malcolm in the middle.”

Now before I get to the nut of my reaction to all this, some boilerplate stuff.

First, Smith and his fellow travelers are innocent until proven guilty.  Second, public corruption is serious in New York.

That said, it’s impossible to avoid the sense that Albany and New York City wheel-greasers have lost a lot of their storied mojo.  I mean, New York is a state that helped invent corruption.

Democrat Boss Tweed ran Tammany Hall for decades in the 1800s and some estimates of his total take run as high as $200 million.

“It’s hard not to admire the skill behind Tweed’s system,” wrote William Tweed biographer Ken Ackerman.

“The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization.”

As recently as half a decade ago, Republican deal-maker Joe Bruno was accused of using his majority leader post to funnel more than $3 million to his private enterprises — a Federal rap he managed to beat.

Which brings us back to Malcolm Smith, a guy whose tenure as head of the state Senate will be remembered not for corruption but for sheer, muddled incompetence.

This is a guy who parlayed electoral victories statewide — not to mention a chance to gerrymander the state Senate into Democratic hands for a generation — into chaos and humiliation.

This is the guy Republican operatives and real estate wheeler-dealers (allegedly) chose to get into bed with?  A guy whose scheme was to buy himself the mayor’s office — as a Republican?

Sad.

It’s also kind of pathetic the scale of corruption at play here.  If the Federal charges turn out to be true, these guys and gals sold their reputations, their livelihoods and perhaps their freedom for paltry wads of cash.

Boss Tweed would be embarrassed.

But in all seriousness, there are some silver linings here.  These indictments suggest that anti-corruption efforts are working, derailing alleged conspiracies before they metastasize.

They also suggest that the smart money is staying away from these schemes — especially when a guy like Malcolm Smith is purportedly in the middle.

Yes, the Republican Party is changing

“We have to stop divorcing ourselves from American culture,” says Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. (Source: RNC)

The last couple of weeks brought another cycle of painful news stories for conservatives and for the Republican Party.

The CPAC conference featured an often woeful cast of eccentric, angry right-wing voices.

Sarah Palin, a former governor and vice presidential contender reduced to joking about her “rack”?  Yikes.

Meanwhile, Republican National Convention Chairman Reince Priebus was releasing a blistering report on his party’s image. (Corrected spelling of Reince Priebus’s name.)

The GOP brand for many voters is “scary,’ ‘narrow minded,’ and ‘out of touch’ and that we were a Party of ‘stuffy old men” according to an internal study released last week.

An internal study by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor found similarly that Republicans desperately need to move beyond a laser-beam focus on Federal deficits and the size of government.

It’s a painful spot indeed.

American voters are increasingly impatient with the GOP’s Christian traditionalism, with its white-leaning ethnic message, its rural anti-urban sensibility, and the sometimes ugly rhetoric about women, gays and lesbians, and undocumented immigrants.

The apparent lean toward the interests of big business and corporation also threatens to alienate more and more voters.

The results of this political agenda have been predictably painful.

Republicans have won the popular vote in exactly one presidential race since 1988.  They held control of the House last year not by winning the majority of votes (they didn’t) but through aggressive gerrymandering.

That’s a deep hole.  Deeper than many conservatives like to acknowledge.  And there’s been a lot of chatter — yes, including from me on this blog — about the very real difficulties and hurdles complicating fundamental change within the GOP.

Even now, many conservative leaders are claiming that they can massage the packaging and the media approach of their message, without changing fundamental policy ideas.

That argument faces increasing fire, from conservative pundits and some Republican leaders.

Behind the scenes a fundamental shift on key issues is already underway.  “Principles” are being massaged or scrapped altogether.  Here are four major, tectonic changes I think we’ll see by 2014 and even more dramatically by 2016.

1.  Capitulation on gay marriage.  Rob Portman’s pivot in Ohio was huge.  The libertarian view that fussiness about same-sex marriage is a form of big government bigotry is gaining ground fast among Republicans, especially among younger conservatives.  GOP leaders will be working hard to take this issue off the table by 2016.

2.  A fix will be found for illegal immigration.  It won’t be pretty.  It won’t make anyone happy.  But the GOP will partner with Democrats to achieve some kind of accord for the nation’s millions of undocumented workers.   And yes, it will include a path to citizenship and an end to chatter about “self-deportation” and electric fences.

3.  Republicans will get much, much better on race.  And not just because a Hispanic, Marco Rubio, will be a standard bearer.  According to Priebus, the GOP is hiring a new team of black and Hispanic political operatives whose primary task is bringing conservatives and minorities together at the policy table.  This won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

4.  The kooks will be marginalized.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be eccentrics and radicals within the GOP or on your AM dial or on Fox News.  But if you want to talk about legitimate rape, or rape babies being a blessing from God, or diseased Hispanic immigrants, or Barack Obama’s birth certificate, or the sinfulness of contraception, expect some serious push-back from your own side of the aisle.  Karl Rove’s effort to shape primary races is only the first salvo in this fight.

I make these predictions confidently because the alternatives are more or less inconceivable.  Even the National Republican Committee has been describing their internal report as an “autopsy.”

They know that without (a lot) more support from Hispanics and women, their political brand will continue to go the way of the Whigs and the Tea Party.

Yes, House members in highly conservative districts will push back against many of these changes.  So too will talk radio hosts and bloggers.  And a lot of the change will come wrapped in fuzzy language and spin.

And Republican leaders will likely draw some lines in the sand that won’t be crossed.  I’m guessing abortion is off the table.  The conviction that government is more of a burden than an aid to average Americans will remain.

But the GOP writ large is made up of very smart, very ambitious people, who very much want to win big elections. They don’t want to preside over the marginalization of one of America’s most beloved political institutions, the Party of Lincoln.

That will mean accepting once and for all that the “real” America is the America we’ve got, not the America that existed twenty or forty or sixty years ago.

The party’s top figures — Priebus, Rubio, Rand Paul, Karl Rove, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush — have already begun this reinvention.  The process will be noisy and messy, but it’s also inevitable.

NY21: What in the world happened to Bill Owens?

CORRECTION:  Bill Owens did not vote for the Federal stimulus plan backed by Barack Obama in 2008.  He didn’t take office until the next year.  We regret the error.  Owens did later embrace the policy, advocating for stimulus projects in the North Country.

In a blog post yesterday, I copped to the fact that I sort of expected Democrat Bill Owens to lose his race against Republican Matt Doheny.

I called Owens’ campaign “quiet” and “lackluster.”  During the final weeks of the campaign, I was in room after room where the energy and audience support for Doheny seemed bigger and noisier.

When Siena’s second poll of the NY 21 showed that Doheny had closed a big double-digit gap and moved to within a single point of Owens, the three-year incumbent from Plattsburgh, I thought it showed real momentum.

But on election night, Owens was the one who surged past Doheny, picking up big margins in Clinton and St. Lawrence County, which lifted him to victory.

So what happened?  Here are five theories about why Owen prevailed.

1.  Incumbency really matters.  I don’t mean this in a cynical way.  Owens has drawn strong reviews during his first three years for helping constituents with individual problems, while also working hard on big problems, including the aftermath of tropical storm Irene, the Crowne Point Bridge crisis, and the regional economic downturn.  As a consequence, even many elected Republicans have endorsed him or described him as a good partner.  When early polls showed Owens leading by 13%, it was clear that his job performance had built a reservoir of good will.

2.  Owens had the centrist resume.  When Bill Owens first ran for office as a Democrat in 2009, a lot of people thought he was a Republican.  He had a strong record of helping boost economic growth in Clinton County.  After he went to Washington, he was careful to tack hard to the center.  Yes, he voted for Obamacare and later backed the Federal stimulus (which was approved before he took office).  But he also won a strong rating from the NRA and focused a lot of his attention on veterans and farm issues.  This made it harder for Doheny to tag him as a Nancy Pelosi liberal.

3.  Owens is establishment.  Matt Doheny tried to brand himself as the businessman in the race, but Owens has much deeper ties to North Country’s chamber of commerce class.  He’s served for decades on bank boards.  In his own law firm he partnered with legendary North Country state Senator Ron Stafford, a Republican.  And Owens himself has a North Country persona — less brash, less noisy, less young, less fast money — that’s much more in synch with the business community here.

4.  Owens campaign wasn’t that lackluster.  I stick by my argument that Doheny out-hustled Owens.  And the barrage of third-party money from conservatives was extraordinary.  But Owens built a big war chest and spent a ton of dough on campaign ads, including a couple that were highly effective.  He also quietly mobilized union groups to help with his get out the vote effort.  In the final days, he was supported by robo-calls from Bill Clinton and a big influx of spending from Democrats in Washington.

5. Owens faced a flawed candidate in a Democrat-friendly election.  In the past I’ve described Owens as the luckiest politician in North Country history.  This time, he won straight-up, without all the stars aligning in his favor.  But the simple truth is that Republicans are still suffering under a very damaged brand right now and tensions within the conservative movement are making it very tough indeed for even the best GOP candidates to prevail.  For all his good qualities, Doheny wasn’t strong or appealing enough to overcome those hurdles.

The bottom line is that Bill Owens has now emerged as the most influential and important politician in the North Country, and he no longer has an asterisk by his name.

If someone had suggested a half-decade ago that Owens’ political resume would grow to rival that of Stafford, his one-time Plattsburgh law partner, I would have told them that they were crazy.

But as Owens pivots from the campaign to tackle monumental issues including the farm bill and the fiscal cliff that threatens Fort Drum, he will be influencing decisions that will shape our region for decades to come.

 

NY21: What in the world happened to Matt Doheny?

Matt Doheny left the North Country’s political stage last week after falling at least 4,000 votes shy of toppling Democratic incumbent Bill Owens in the 21st district congressional race.

After three attempts at winning the region’s House seat, and spending at least $750,000 of his own money in this year’s contest, Doheny says he’s retiring from politics.

As the dust settles, I find myself circling back to the question of what happened to this once-promising, ambitious politician — a man his national party labeled a Young Gun.

What is it that prevented Doheny — a self-described moderate-conservative — from winning back a seat that once seemed like a safe bet for Republicans?

Here are six thoughts about what might have clipped his wings.

1.  Sheer bad luck.  If Bill Owens drew winning hands in 2009 and 2010, in the form of a nasty, divisive Republican-Conservative cat-fight, Doheny got the shaft.  His best efforts at unifying the center-right were stymied by bitterness and ideological disputes beyond his control.  By the time he was able to harness his side into anything like a unified force, Owens was already established as a three-year incumbent.  Doheny had also earned himself a fair amount of distrust from some conservative activists who felt like he got in the way of Doug Hoffman’s tea party destiny.

2.  An untimely resume.  Doheny wanted voters to see him as a straight-up businessman, but he made a ton of money on Wall Street doing the kinds of Bain Capital-style things that average citizens don’t understand and are increasingly leery of.  That CV might have looked A-OK before Washington bailed out Wall Street.  But now?  Doheny argued that skeptical questions about his business history were a kind of class warfare.  And he worked to brand Owens as a lawyer who didn’t understand entrepreneurship.  But in many ways the Democrat’s resume and history sounded more Main Street than Doheny’s.

3.  A cultural disconnect.  Matt Doheny was hard-charging, aggressive, forward-leaning, brash.  Those aren’t bad things.  But it didn’t always scan well. My sense is that it sometimes came across as glib.  It contrasted sharply with Owens quieter, more mature posture.  Doheny at times seemed more eager to talk than listen.  He sometimes answered hard, complex questions with blunt, one-word answers.  I’m not sure how that played with the moderate Republicans, women, and independents who decide North Country races.

4.  Personal baggage.  Doheny made a big deal of his decision to marry just before the election heated up, but I suspect that voters were still a bit leery of his personal history.  In 2004, Doheny was tagged twice for boating while intoxicated on the St. Lawrence River and Coast Guard officials described him as “uncooperative, very angry and combative.”  This year, Doheny was spotted in public with a woman other than his fiance, prompting the Glens Falls Post Star to question his “late-night dalliance in Washington D.C. that was videotaped and played up in the New York City tabloids.”

5.  That killer ad.  I’ve described Bill Owens’ campaign as “quiet” and “lackluster” and I stick by that description for the most part.  But there were a couple of TV spots produced by the Democrat’s team that I think landed serious blows on Doheny, in large part because they tapped into the narratives in points 2, 3 and 4 above.  The most effective was a spot called “Four Islands.”  I’m not saying the spot was entirely accurate or fair.  But did it do Doheny damage?  I’m guessing Yes.  Check it out.

6.  A shifting political tide.  Doheny himself has pointed out that the district’s voters tilted to Obama this year, making it tough for a Republican challenger to buck the regional trend.  I think it’s a fair argument.  But I also think it’s reasonable to point out that Doheny didn’t do much to distance himself from elements of his party that don’t play well here.  He was fiercely anti-union in a part of the world where unions are accepted even by many GOP leaders.  He made a big deal out of attacking President Obama and healthcare reform, and opposing tax hikes for the wealthy, even though those issues have complicated textures in the North Country.  Doheny, like a lot of Republicans around the country, bet the farm that average voters here were ready for a much more conservative line in Washington.  They were wrong.

I acknowledge cheerfully that this is all Monday morning quarterbacking.  There’s no prescience here.  If you had forced me to bet my nickel on one of these candidates last Tuesday morning, I guess I would have bet on Doheny

Given his defeat, the field for Republicans is wide open for 2014.  There are signs that Doug Hoffman, the Conservative candidate, may be interested in throwing his hat back in the ring.

Tomorrow in the In Box, we’ll look at how Owens won this race, and we’ll look at what it means that a Democrat has captured the North Country in a straight up contest with a sane, well-funded, centrist Republican.

Can the GOP weed out the crazies?

Is this man really good for the future of the Republican Party?

I know this will be heresy to many Republicans, but it’s time — long overdue, in fact — for the GOP to abandon Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment.

“Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,” Reagan wrote.  “It’s a rule I followed during that campaign and have ever since.”

But that was in a different time, a different era.

These days, there are so many outright, full-bore crazies in the conservative movement that Republican leaders need to do some serious trash talking.

Even more, they need to do some gate-keeping.

How bad is it?  After Tuesday’s election, long-time Republican front-man Ted Nugent dispatched a series of tweets calling American voters “soulless fools.”

“What subhuman varmint believes others must pay for their obesity booze cellphones birthcontrol abortions & lives?” Nugent asked.

Donald Trump, meanwhile — one of Mitt Romney’s most visible surrogates during the election — called for “revolution” as the results were coming in.

“We can’t let this happen,” Trump insisted.  “We should march on Washington and stop this travesty.”

And then there was Bill O’Reilly, blaming the outcome of the election on brown-skinned people who “want stuff.”

“It’s a changing country,” O’Reilly said, his voice breaking.  “It’s not a traditional country any more.”  He went on to clarify that “the white establishment is now the minority.”

And then there was popular conservative talk radio host Neil Boortz, who responded angrily to the idea of congratulating President Obama on his victory.

“I would like to congratulate Ted Bundy on sneaking into yet another sorority house and killing another coed. I would like to congratulate Adolf Hitler on his invasion of Poland. I would like to congratulate the — Al Qaeda for their successful attack on New York City. I would like to congratulate the Ansar al-Sharia crowd over there in Benghazi for their successful assault on our consulate. Congratulate Barack Obama? I’m sorry.”

This stuff isn’t “conservative” and it’s not “principled” and it’s not the “real” America.  It is, to bend a phrase, crazier than an outhouse rat.  It’s bonkers.

When you have top-tier Republican candidates talking about “legitimate” rape and pregnancies resulting from rape being “God’s will,” it’s vicious and it’s unhinged.

When you have leading Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain calling for construction of a fence along the Mexican border that is “electrified, with a sign on the other side that says it can kill you” it’s ugly and nuts.

When you have top conservative voices calling the President of the United States “a retard” (Ann Coulter) or “Barack the Magic Negro” (Rush Limbaugh), it’s grotesque and lunatic.

When conservative allies blame hurricanes on gay people or earthquakes on abortion, they aren’t devout or fundamental or churched.  They are creepy and weird.

So here’s the 12th commandment for the Republican Party.  If you say crazy things — about “diseased” immigrants, say, or about women advocating for contraception being “sluts” — you are out.

O-U-T.  Persona non grata.  Done.  Finished.  If you babble on about the President’s birth certificate, or his secret Muslim faith, you are banished.

The GOP has a steep enough hill to climb, rebuilding its damaged brand, without being hoisted again and again on the petard of the lunatic fringe.

Taking this kind of hard-line on nuttery will be frightening for party leaders because they’ve let so many kooks into the big tent.

It’s also true, as David Frumm has pointed out, that a lot of carnival barkers are making kajillions of dollars by co-opting the Republican brand, joining what he calls the “conservative entertainment complex.”

It’s good business — damn good business — for Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Michael Savage to bounce off the walls and tell people to go out and buy gold and survival kits in advance of the coming apocalypse.

But it’s not good for the Republican Party.  Not by a country mile.

So where does the GOP start?  How about saying good-bye to Trump?  Or Nugent? Surely, the GOP is capable of that kind of baby step toward sanity and self-policing.

If not, then we will certainly continue to see legitimate conservative causes — and smart, sane conservative voices — eclipsed and deligitimised by the kind of people you wouldn’t trust to baby-sit your dog, let alone run your country.

GOP outflanked in NY and nation

The Republican Party’s brand new crisis in New York state is a metaphor for what’s happening to the GOP nationally.

In case you missed it, while Mitt Romney and Senate Republicans were getting spanked around the country, Democrats were also quietly making moves to take final, complete control of the state legislature in Albany.

Yes, the votes are still being counted, but make no mistake:  New York Republicans thought they had this election in the bag and were convinced, especially after this year’s redistricting efforts, that their state Senate majority was safe.

What went wrong?  It’s pretty simple, really.  The Republican Party has been outflanked in the American political scene, not once but twice, and we’re seeing the impact here in the Empire state.

On the right, Conservatives and tea party activists are increasingly well organized and dogmatic.

Republicans who don’t toe the inflexible line carved out by purists will be punished, either with primary challenges or with third-party attacks during the general election.

We saw this drama play out through the spring in the GOP national primary, with Mitt Romney swatting desperately at ultra-conservatives who were unelectable, yet who held broad appeal with many voters inspired by tea party rhetoric.

Even after Romney moved to center himself for the final push to the White House, fringe Republicans kept popping up with loony arguments about “legitimate” rape and pregnancies caused by rape being “God’s will.”

Here in New York, meanwhile, conservative Republicans went hard at moderates in the state Senate, unseating Roy McDonald in Saratoga county in the primary.

Then Conservatives ran a third party challenger against Poughkeepsie moderate Stephen Saland in the 41st district Senate race.

Saland’s crime against conservative orthodoxy?  The Republican supported same-sex marriage.  Without that challenge, Saland would have won handily.

In an interview with Gannett,  Conservative Party chairman Mike Long was unrepentant about attacking the GOP from its right flank.

“I want [Republicans] to keep control but I was not going to throw the principles of the party out the window for the purpose of keeping control,” Long said.

“That’s the lesson that legislators have to understand. They have to understand that when they vote—many times, not all the times—votes have consequences.”

Meanwhile, however, Republicans are also being challenged on their left flank.

The Democratic Party, which is less purist, less insistent on orthodoxy than the conservative movement, has been running more moderate candidates.

Many of them are pro-business centrists.  They’re following Andrew Cuomo’s lead, taking a progressive line on social issues, while embracing regulatory and tax reform.

Terry Gipson, the man poised to steal away the traditionally Republican seat in the Hudson Valley, is a businessman and a moderate, who campaigned on jobs and the economy.

No longer are Democrats offering up candidates in upstate races who have no funding, and who campaign exclusively on liberal causes that give them little chance of winning.

With Democrats willing to move to the center, the electorate in New York state is also becoming more and more Democratic.  That combination gives them a powerful edge in elections.

In an interview yesterday with NCPR, state Senator Betty Little said her Republican Party will have to change to compete in this new climate.

“I think [party leaders] have to look deep and look at where the country is going.  And I think they need to be a little more centrist than what they have been in this election.  They do need to be more inclusive,” she argued.

But in the months and years ahead, the path walked by the GOP will likely grow narrower and narrower. Welcome to the razor’s edge.

If Democrats continue to gobble up moderate positions — pro-business, pro-growth — while Conservatives continue demanding hard-line social stances — anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage — Republican lawmakers may find themselves toppling.

Indeed, we’ve already seen some talented, moderate Republicans leave the scene or change flags altogether.  Dede Scozzafava now works for Democrat Andrew Cuomo.  Teresa Sayward endorsed Democrat Bill Owens and Barack Obama.

Those are the kind of women who might have been the future face of the GOP.

Now, instead, they’ve moved on — weary of ferocious attacks from conservatives.  The fear for Republicans is that more and more voters will do the same.

 

 

The chink in the Democrats’ armor

[NOTE:  This essay first appeared in May of this year.  I've posted it again here with a few small additions.]

I’ve reported here repeatedly that the Democratic Party is riding a long-term wave of demographic and cultural trends that bode well for its future.

A more urban, multi-ethnic, women-empowered society — and those are all measurable, real-world changes our nation is experiencing right now — will almost certainly benefit the party of Obama and Pelosi.

But as we head into the crucible of the 2012 election, there is still a massive, gaping omission in the story that the Democrats are telling to voters, one they will need to remedy if they are to become the party of the future.

Put simply, Democrats need to explain how they will pay for the government which they believe America wants and needs.

Before I explain what I mean, let me detour for a moment to point out that Democrats don’t need to spend much time or energy arguing in favor of their vision of “big” government.

By overwhelming margins, Americans support all the big-ticket items that make up about 90% of the US budget, from Social Security to Medicare and Medicaid, to education, the military and homeland security.

Yes, we all grumble about pork and waste.  But that’s just the normal bird-dogging of citizens who, quite reasonably, want to get good value for our tax dollars.

There is no evidence that voters have bought into the broader, conservative, Ron-Paul-esque notion that the fabric of government itself needs to be unraveled or dismantled.

When pressed, Americans are even pretty comfortable with the idea that there should be an appropriate safety net, to help citizens who stumble, or fall into poverty, especially if they are children or senior citizens.

And we also want — indeed, we demand — a robust network of police and first responders.

The big question, then, isn’t what government should look like in the future.  The real question — and, yes, I lay this predominately at the feet of Democrats — is how to pay for it.  How to sustain it over the long term.

[Why do Democrats' carry this burden?  Because they are, for the moment, the political movement that supports maintaining something that looks more or less like the status quo.  The modern Republican Party does not -- which is one reason they lost big last week.]

Currently, roughly half of all US spending is borrowed.  Which means that any vision for a long-term, stable government on the scale that Democrats (and their constituents) want will have to include some enormous changes.

Some cherished services will almost certainly have to be cut, not because leaders oppose them ideologically but because they are just too expensive.

I’m guessing that in the future people probably won’t be able to retire at age 65 and draw government checks for the next quarter century of their lives.

[I'm also guessing that a moment is coming when Americans will no longer feel comfortable spending more on our military than the next five most powerful nations combined.]

Other services will have to be provided more cheaply, either by allowing the private sector to deliver them (not always the solution, but in some cases it might help) or by demanding concessions from public employees.

(The era of lifetime health insurance and pensions ended long ago for private sector workers, and I’m betting the time has come for public sector workers to see a big change as well.)

We will also have to generate a lot more revenue.  Some of that will come from growth, as the economy bounces back, but it’s also time to level with the American people:  all of us will have to pay more if this is really the government we want.

Taxing rich people won’t get us there.

The short-term reality, of course, is that Republicans will block enactment of any vision that achieves a sustainable balance.  They’ll argue that even when balanced with spending cuts, any new tax revenues are a socialist scourge.

But that doesn’t mean Democrats can’t or shouldn’t lay out what their plan looks like.

Some on the left will point out that Republicans have also quietly embraced big government, and done little to bring down our national debt.  This is true.

Most economists believe the various budgets put forward by GOP leaders over the last year would grow rather than shrink the long-term deficit, because of massive tax cuts that aren’t off-set by spending cuts, and because of plans to grow the military.

But fair or not, the identity and core values of the Republican Party aren’t linked to the health, quality, and sustainability of the Federal government.

On the contrary.  Many conservatives would be quite cheerful seeing even good programs cut or eliminated, even if it requires insolvency to get us there.

So for better or worse, Democrats carry the torch of the government model created during the New Deal.  They will be the ones to figure out how to pay for it, and put it on an even keel, or no one will.

Until President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi put forward that vision, they will remain vulnerable to the suggestion that their vision, no matter how laudable or popular, is simply a pipe dream.

And right now, that pipe dream is adding about $1 trillion a year to the national debt.

Is Republican voter suppression real? Sure. And it’s mostly legal.

This debate has simmered in the comment section of the In Box for the last couple of weeks.  Is Republican voter suppression real?  If so, how big an impact does it have?

First let me acknowledge up front what many conservatives will see as a bias in the framing of this essay.  Some will argue that the real question is Do Democrats really try to skew elections through voter fraud?

So let me treat that question first, very briefly.

There have been many and frequent investigations into this concern over the last decade and they have all concluded that there is no significant or systemic voter fraud being committed by Democrats in major elections.

Accusations sometimes get made and they are promptly investigated, and it turns out that either the allegations were incorrect, or the improper voting was the result of error rather than malice — and in any event, the number of votes in question are trivial.

“It’s part of the mythology now in the Republican Party that there’s widespread voter fraud across the country,” said Steve Schmidt, the Republican political operative, speaking recently on MSNBC.  “In fact, there’s not.”

The reasons that voting fraud by Democrats doesn’t occur are pretty simple:

First, the voting systems in most of the key battleground states are controlled by Republicans.  Second, the system is monitored closely by attorneys and civil servants from all sides.

Finally, and most significantly, Democrats have no motive to cheat in this way.  Democrats have a vast pool of voters available at their disposal.

Their challenge isn’t a shortage of bodies — which would make it necessary to recruit illegal immigrants or repeat voters — it’s a problem of motivation.

So rather than engineers some massive, complex and legally risky scheme to get people to go to the polls fraudulently, Democrats have instead created a massive, complex and legally proper system to get legitimate voters to go to the polls.

It’s cheaper, it’s more effective, and at the end of the day you don’t go to prison for it.

Now let’s pivot to Republicans, where the question of motive is very different.  Republicans do, in fact, have a problem with an actual shortage of voters.

Demographically speaking, if all eligible Americans voted, Republican politicians would have very little chance of winning.  They would be overwhelmed by the minority and young voters who tend to vote Democratic in high percentages.

In a 1980 speech, one of the founders of the modern conservative movement, Paul Weyrich, addressed this dilemma, laying out an argument that has shaped much of the political climate since.

“How many of our conservative Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome?” Weyrich asked contemptuously.  “Good government.  They want everybody to vote.”

“I don’t want everybody to vote. [Weyrich continued.] Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

In 1980, when Weyrich threw down this gauntlet, the demographics were actually much  kinder to conservatives.

The population of Democratic-leaning urbanites, blacks, Hispanics, unmarried voting-age women and young people was significantly lower.

In the thirty-two years since that time, the voting calculus — and thus the motivation to tip the scales — has grown steadily and rapidly more painful for conservatives.

Some within the Republican Party have argued that the movement should embrace the new America, finding messages that would appeal to minorities and younger voters.

But so far, the right-wing of the movement has prevailed.  GOP candidates have skewed further and further to the right, winning less and less support from Hispanics, blacks and young people.

This makes it even more important (from the conservative point of view) that whiter, older voters continue to play a disproportionately high role in elections.

How do Republicans accomplish this?  For the most part, perfectly legally.

They push for new laws that require additional hurdles before voting, including the possession of identification which many poor, minority Americans lack.

Republicans have also moved aggressively to limit the number of early voting options, particularly those available in urban communities and neighborhoods that tend to vote against their politicians.

In 2012, this has meant three- to four-hour waits for many low income voters who simply want to cast their ballots.

In minority neighborhoods, conservative groups have also posted threatening billboards — many written in Spanish — that warn of arrests and felony charges for people who commit voter fraud.

These may not sound like big hurdles, but politics is often a game of very small percentages.  If adding one more step to the voting process, or one more nervous qualm about an encounter with authorities, causes a small chunk of black and Hispanic voters to drop away — that’s a victory for the GOP.

Conservatives often couch these tactics in terms that reflect a desire to defend the sanctity of the voting “privilege.”  Here’s how Florida Republican Mike Bennett explained it, speaking on the floor of the state Senate last year:

“Do you read the stories about the people in Africa? The people in the desert, who literally walk two and three hundred miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do, and we want to make it more convenient? How much more convenient do you want to make it? Do we want to go to their house? Take the polling booth with us?

“This is a hard-fought privilege. This is something people die for. You want to make it convenient? The guy who died to give you that right, it was not convenient. Why would we make it any easier? I want ‘em to fight for it. I want ‘em to know what it’s like. I want them to go down there, and have to walk across town to go over and vote.”

Unfortunately, this kind of thing falls into a long tradition — one that begins literally at the time of emancipation — of limiting voting rights through the establishment of poll taxes, literacy tests, passage of laws that ban voting by convicted felons, or through outright intimidation.

In modern times, of course, suppression efforts aren’t so egregious.  Voters aren’t physically threatened.  But again, it’s a game of percentages.

If political operatives can make it just a little more inconvenient for black voters than for white voters, that may be enough to swing the outcome.

I do think that this tactic has a limited future for Republicans.  Last August, Senator Lindsay Graham told the Washington Post that the GOP has to broaden its appeal.

“The demographics race we’re losing badly,” he argued. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

Indeed, this general strategy — maximizing white voters and doing everything legally possible to minimize the impact of minority voters — gets harder and harder as the percentage of whites in the overall population dwindles.

By 2016, the growth of legal Hispanic voters in states like Arizona and Colorado may have put those states out of reach for a Republican candidate with the get-tough-on-undocumented-workers message that Mitt Romney carried.

“This is the last time [a GOP presidential candidate] will try to do this,” a Republican operative told the National Journal, speaking of the Republican Party’s white-majority electoral strategy.

Which leaves the question of how all this will affect today’s vote, particularly in close-fought states such as Florida and Ohio where Republican voter-suppression measures have been the source of intense court battles.

The short answer is, Nobody knows.  If the outcome is balanced on the edge of a knife, it could well matter that certain groups of Americans faced a longer, more difficult road to the ballot box.

 

 

Are conservatives poised for a North Country revival? It’s already happening.

As we head into election day, Democrats face the prospect of a massive conservative surge in North Country politics, possibly forcing them to give up the last of the historic gains they made beginning in 2006.

That was the year that Kirsten Gillibrand surged past Republican John Sweeney in the 20th district House race, leveraging a scandal to overcome a nearly-80,000 voter GOP enrollment advantage.

Gillibrand repeated the feat in 2008, the same year that Democrat Darrel Aubertine captured a North Country state Senate seat.

Meanwhile, three moderate Republican women were defining the political culture within the GOP, with Dede Scozzafava, Janet Duprey and Teresa Sayward all supporting same-sex marriage and declaring themselves pro-choice on abortion.

The center-left momentum continued in 2009 and 2010, with Bill Owens twice capturing the 23rd district House seat, the first time a Democrat had held that seat — ever.

In those elections, voters rejected Conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman and conservative Republican Matt Doheny by narrow margins.

But in 2012, the landscape appears very different.  Aubertine and Scozzafava are already gone, with both now holding posts in the Democratic Cuomo administration — and both were replaced in the state legislature by Republicans.

The “Gillibrand” House seat, meanwhile, was lost by Demorats in 2010 to Republican Chris Gibson.

Teresa Sayward, the champion of same-sex marriage in the state Assembly, is also on her way out, having chosen not to seek re-election.  Her likely successor, Dan Stec from Queensbury, is considerably more conservative.

Janet Duprey, from Peru, faces a fierce Conservative challenge on Tuesday from Conservative Karen Bisso in the 115th Assembly district, with the outcome made more uncertain by this year’s shifted redistricting maps.

Finally, Owens is locked in a tight re-election contest with Doheny and he faces an avalanche of conservative spending, which now tops $3.2 million dollars when you factor in the money the Republican has spent from his own bank account.

If, after tomorrow, the North Country in 2013 is represented by Matt Doheny, Karen Bisso, Dan Stec and Patty Ritchie, it will be a very different landscape than it was just a short time ago.

Was the era when Democrats and moderate-to-liberal Republicans dominated the political scene an aberration?  Are we drifting back toward a more traditional “red” North Country?

That’s not entirely clear.  Polls show that Barack Obama, Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Cuomo — all Democrats — still draw significant support in our region.

More plausible, I think, is the idea that Democrats have simply failed to organize, recruit candidates and build on their success that mobilizes long-term support.

Part of the problem may lie with the resignation of June O’Neill, the St. Lawrence County political operative who stepped down as head of the state Democratic Party in 2011.

I think it’s arguable that O’Neill’s leadership gave the North Country’s Democrats an extra spark, and fresh energy.  That seems missing now.

Owens has run a quiet-to-lackluster campaign this year.  Democrats failed to field a top-tier candidate to challenge for Sayward’s vacant seat.  They also failed to capitalize seriously on Duprey’s third-party Conservative challenge in the 115th district race.

Whatever the cause, Democrats are clearly being outmatched by Conservatives and Republicans.  It’s one thing to win a spate of big elections.  It’s another to build the kind of political infrastructure that moves the needle over the long-term.

I think the same argument can be made about the old Rockefeller wing of the North Country’s GOP.  Candidates like John McHugh, Scozafava, Duprey and Sayward were once the standard for the region.

Even if Duprey picks up a win on Tuesday, it’s clear that that the growing tea party-social conservative tide that has changed the rest of the country’s Republican brand has arrived in force in our corner of the world.