07 November 2012

General reactions to the defining moment of our times...

Which for me boiled down to a choice between flavors of ice cream rather than anything momentous and important. And probably will come down to it as equally bland in historical terms years from now also.

1) I think conservative skepticism of polling had some merit to the general arguments, but the problem was that they seemed interested in rejecting the entire trend line of polls, conducted by different agencies with different methodologies, etc, and accepting only information which conformed to the "Romney is going to win! Woot!" narrative rather than information which could be used to describe the political landscape as it existed in 2012. Liberals and Democrats have learned how to analyze polling data after Kerry was defeated in 2004 (and Gore in 2000), and then to use it to inform ways to motivate their base, or to target groups of swing votes. At some point conservatives may do the same. I'm not sure yet if that means most Republicans will.

2) From following various conservative pundits reactions, the likely step is going to be a double down strategy on the idea that Mitt wasn't conservative enough. I think this is politically stupid, but I also have nothing invested in Republicans per se either (the idea of conservativism is sensible enough in forming a basis for a governing party, but we seem to have lots of reactionaries rather than conservatives at the moment), so go right ahead. The basis of this presumption appears to be the maintenance of the House as somehow legitimatizing the Tea Party style operations. There are huge logical gaps in this. First, I don't think anyone thought Democrats could win the House back, perhaps even many who thought there would even be substantial gains. So predicating a victory on voters maintaining the status quo is rather faulty logic (I think the same applies to Obama's win also, though less in the Senate). Voters usually maintain the status quo as that's part of the voting bias. Second, from the information I am seeing, the Tea Party style operations seem to have cost Republicans the Senate, both in this election and in 2010. Running ridiculously unqualified people who say insane things (O'Donnell, Akin, Angle, Mourdock, Buck) is not an encouraging electoral strategy for achieving long-run victories. Democrats had some of the same painful lessons in the wake of the Iraq War (trying to get rid of Lieberman for example), but Republicans are having a lot of trouble absorbing the lessons and adjusting their electoral strategies.

Most of the Tea Party styled victors for Senate seats were in relatively safe states for Republicans (Utah, Kentucky, etc). So the effect has been to move the Republican caucus to the right (in some ways, not in others). There's a few contrasting cases (Wisconsin?) where they managed to find saner or competent seeming candidates that still had high base appeal. I'm not at all convinced this is a sustainable trend wherein the Republican establishment manages to find tame enough people capable of winning elections but also who can win over Tea Party voters in primaries. This plan might work okay in the House, but not for President or Senate. As a correlated problem, moving the caucus to the right allows liberals to paint mostly moderate Republicans with the same right-wing extremist brushes and cast them aside in more liberal states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, etc) where they may otherwise stand a chance of winning. It assures that Republicans become less competitive in those states.

Finally, what seems to me the most significant source of power to maintain many House seats was the 2010 elections that granted Republicans considerable control over redistricting from the 2010 census changes. Ohio in particular has a cadre of pretty safe hard R seats out there now surrounding the liberal bastions of Columbus or Cleveland that are effectively conceded. While this may allow for some Republican control over relatively safe seats for another decade and hence insure some divided government gridlock, it doesn't say much about winning over the rest of the country to their agenda. And if last night's results were any indicator, it doesn't say much about assuring that those are safe seats. Allen West looks to have lost, Bachmann nearly so, and so on.

* A note: I consider the "tea party" to consist not just of a set of fiscal priorities. This is largely because conservatives tend not to agree on how best to resolve those priorities, or what they in fact are. Other than a general sense that deficits are bad, at least when run by Democrats or not caused by defense spending, and that the debt climbing is bad, I do not see much progress here on how to address these as problems. Where there is broader agreement among conservatives is on social policies. Which is precisely where they have made progress at the state level enacting their agenda. Moving away from these types of candidates, the types likely to say expansive and stupid things about female biology when discussing rape victims or to admit their come-to-Jesus moment involving witchcraft, or to include chickens as a viable form of currency, would be a big start. I do not think this is a likely result if they were to double down on the political figures involved in order to say, focus on Rand Paul or Tom Coburn or even Paul Ryan styled conservatives, with their intensity on budget matters and the tough choices involved therein. They're more likely to get DeMint or Bachmann styled conservatives in less safe districts and states who insist that social and fiscal conservativism are melded as one.

3) I don't think Republicans need to abandon a message of smaller government or conservative principles to win over voters to their cause. But they should be aware there's a lot of people who no longer resonate as clearly to mixing a message of fiscal restraint with expansionist foreign policy or moralising social policies, and that when they go off message and discuss these things or try to pass agendas based on them, many voters will find them unpalatable. Not just liberals. Keep in mind that while Romney lost, he didn't lose by very much (some tens of thousands of votes in various states). It would not take very much adaptation and moderation on some issues to go back to winning national elections moving forward. The question is whether Republicans are interested in analysis or rage. I suspect the latter.

4) I also think it would help a great deal to have a saner approach to fiscal restraint. Reaganomics had what successes it had in the 1980s economy because it was part of a broad set of reforms, from monetary policy under Volcker, to neo-Keynesian spending increases, to tax simplification and flattening of the tax code, and as an offshoot of some successful de-regulatory moves made under the Carter administration. Most of those specifics do little to translate to the current environment. Tax simplification while desirable has a lot of embittered constituencies who would fight for some of the complexity. Spending cuts do likewise. And both sides seem willing to talk about culling the excessively broad quantity and reach of regulatory power, but do little to curtail it while in power, even in relatively sane arenas where there are competing and patchwork laws. Instead of tackling these with sensible proposals, for the most part Republicans have offered soft messages like "balanced budget amendments", which if they stood a chance of passage would be accompanied by a constituency willing to make hard cuts, or insane messages like flirting with debt defaults while mostly ignoring entitlement spending, risking both the safety of that spending and the financial stability of the nation as a whole. To be sure, the Romney plan eventually provided some hard choices in tax reform specifically, and the Ryan budget plan is a good starting point for talking about entitlement reforms. But these fledgling signs of fiscal prudence are balanced by Romney's desire for tax cuts more broadly when we're at historically low levels of taxation and an insistence on defence spending, all while demagoguing Obamacare in part because of cuts it makes to entitlement spending. It's hard to know which part of that message to take most seriously, and an honest assessment of our political structures would tell us that only parts of it would ever pass into law in the first place. And probably not the good parts.

01 November 2012

Please. Everyone shut up and look in the mirror.

I've seen and heard multiple people insisting on a desire for political figures to "do what's right", or to "do something" rather than bicker and argue pointlessly. I maintain that there are many, many problems with this desired approach to government.

Firstly, "doing what's right" is a very uncertain phrase, wherein people would likely find that their elected political figures would be doing a lot of things they wouldn't like very much and replace them with people that will do what they want, rather than what is actually necessary and effective to do. The American public wants a lot of inconsistent demands, low taxes and expensive public (and federal) services for instance. Mitt Romney's entire political shtick seems to be based around delivering this magically flavored ice cream where both are possible. There's a reason it's successful. Promising people things that are not possible or are not wise (more or less anything he's said he will do regarding China), is politically popular.

Second. The impetus of requirement to "do something" is very troubling. Often doing nothing is a perfectly reasonable response to a problem. Indeed, the public seems content for the government do very little about problems like Syria or Iran (as it should, as I'm not sure there's very much we could effectively do in the first place). It only becomes a concern when it is OUR problem. A natural disaster occurs, somebody better be helping out. To be sure, one may concede that there are basically good Samaritan style reasons why we might want some public goods and charity dispensed in the wake of a wave of tornadoes or a hurricane, earthquake, volcano, tsunami, whatever. And while there are arguments why we might not want large scale public assistance (for example, to incentivize people to relocate to places that don't have these major disasters), we also need to acknowledge that these are otherwise desirable places for people to live (California's climate for example is excellent, coastal cities around the world are always high demand, etc) and that some measures are appropriate to protect the citizenry from the folly of such geographical stubbornness. But this is distinct from saying the government must do everything in such scenarios to assist, or, more concisely, to point out that just because a legitimate form of public goods may exist in disaster assistance, does not mean that a form of legitimate public goods or externalities also exist in some other realm of intervention and assistance. Medicare for example is distinct from the provision of public health. Same with public school monopolies and education (or hospital monopolies) or Social Security or the Post Office and so on down the line.

Finally, the reason that we have (basically) two political teams that fight and contest everything is that we (basically) have two Americas, sorted ideologically into combative teams. Both sides only claim victories not when they work together (and when they do work together, generally I am skeptical that it's beneficial anyway), but when they achieve something ideologically designed and can lord it over their enemies. The reason isn't just zero sum politics, but that the public perceives only these sorts of victories as desirable. The public wants it this way, we desire the incivility and contest. We desire the battle and the shedding of blood in our rivals; "their" defeats and "our" triumphs. We do not desire unsatisfying compromises about what kind of governance we shall appoint through reasoned debate over these mutually exclusive demands into some sort of utilitarian affected views where the public shall and shall not intervene into the private business and affairs of our countrymen to achieve stated ideological goals. Only boring policy wonks celebrate technocratic achievements of this kind. If we wanted effective conservatives, and effective liberals, we would elect them, support them, and recognize them. We do not.

We should blame ourselves and shut the hell up about these inconsistent desires for productive, effective governance and incivil electoral combat. You can't have both. This is your problem. Not the politicians.