Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Filibuster and Recent History

In what seems a rather transparent attempt to make the most of a diminished majority, Senate Democrats have (almost) unanimously signed on to a letter asking Majority Leader Harry Reid to "reform" the filibuster:
The letter, delivered this week, expresses general frustration with what Democrats consider unprecedented obstruction and asks Reid to take steps to end those abuses. While it does not urge a specific solution, Democrats said it demonstrates increased backing in the majority for a proposal, championed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others, to weaken the minority’s ability to tie the Senate calendar into parliamentary knots.

Among the chief revisions that Democrats say will likely be offered: Senators could not initiate a filibuster of a bill before it reaches the floor unless they first muster 40 votes for it, and they would have to remain on the floor to sustain it. That is a change from current rules, which require the majority leader to file a cloture motion to overcome an anonymous objection to a motion to proceed, and then wait 30 hours for a vote on it.

This "chief revision" may have some merit in some aspects, though it seems that the real aim of many advocates of filibuster "reform" is to limit the ability of the minority to put any brakes on the ambitions of the majority. A radical diminishing of the power of the minority would transform the Senate from an institution emphasizing compromise to one emphasizing majoritarian partisanship.

However, the past few weeks of the lame duck session of Congress have probably complicated the "progressive" mantra that the "Senate is broken." On the tax cut compromise, DADT, and the START treaty, we have seen Senate Republicans cooperating with Senate Democrats and the Obama White House to pass significant reforms. When there is large popular support for a measure (as in the tax cut deal or repealing DADT), the Senate seems quite capable of passing legislation. Bernie Sanders gave one stem-winder of a filibuster---but that did not stop the tax cut deal from passing with overwhelming support. It seems that when unpopular bills are considered (such as Obamacare) that the supposed "brokenness" of the Senate appears.

The past few weeks have shown that it is possible for the Senate to pass legislation and to work in a bi-partisan fashion. The "brokenness" of the Senate may have less to do with structural problems and more to do with limited public support for radical "progressive" dreams.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wheels behind the DREAM

Mickey Kaus suggests that Harry Reid and friends are not just going through senatorial kabuki over the DREAM Act---they actually want it to pass.

Today's long Hill story on the DREAM Act will do nothing to allay Kaus's fears. It goes into detail about how the scheduling of votes on this measure has been a key strategic device for DREAM backers.

However, this story also feed into a media narrative about Republicans vs. immigration "reform":
The bill faces a tough road in the upper chamber. Republicans will filibuster the measure, and a similar bill failed in the Senate in 2007. Since then, party polarization has grown only more severe.
This paragraph seems to imply that party polarization was a big reason for the failure of immigration bills in the Senate in 2007. The record of the final filibuster vote on the "grand bargain" immigration bill of 2007 shows that a thoroughly bi-partisan majority opposed the bill. Opponents of the bill ranged from Bernie Sanders to Jim DeMint. Conversely, supporters of the measure also came from both parties. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama both supported the bill.

There is likewise a potential bipartisan coalition that could oppose the DREAM Act. The narrative of the DREAM Act debate should not be read solely through partisan lenses.

Meanwhile, Kaus has more thoughts on why the passage of the DREAM Act could pave the way for a more "comprehensive" legalization.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Taxing Skepticism

A few thoughts about Obama's two-year, $1-trillion "tax cut compromise":
  • Timing is not necessarily of the essence. In a few weeks, the GOP will have a much stronger hand in Congress. Why the rush now? They could certainly work out a retroactive tax cut in early 2011 (and by 2011, it would be a tax cut).
  • Keep things in perspective. The GOP could pass a continuation of the tax reductions for everyone making less than the top 1% or 2% today. Those tax continuities are not up for debate. The real points at issue are maintaining a taxation rate of 35% for the highest tax bracket (instead of allowing it to rise to 39.6%) and maintaining some kind of estate tax exemption. In exchange, if reports are correct and the Bush tax cut extension is only 1/3 of the $1-trillion package, Republicans are willing to offer $600 billion in new spending and subsidies. So, $300 billion a year in exchange for tax cuts for the highest wage earners?
  • Reputations matter. If the GOP isn't careful, passing this "compromise" could be taking a flamethrower to the Republican mantra that the party has "learned" from the "excesses" of the Bush years and now is serious---really serious---about deficit spending. With that reputation burned to a crisp, the GOP may have running on a message of fiscal sobriety in 2012 and beyond. That image was a big reason for Republican gains among moderates and conservatives, and it is not an inconsiderable benefit to be thrown away. Is two years of tax reductions for top earners really worth that?
  • What about the economy? Krauthammer and others have suggested that this tax cut compromise is a Stimulus II (or III or IV or whatever), aimed at buoying the president's chances of reelection through improving the economic picture. If this plan would end up improving the economy, there are two possible responses. One is that, if the president's policies do improve the economy, then kudos to him, and he deserves some credit for that. On the other hand, there is also the risk (and one I at least am worried about) that the economic stimulus of this compromise would create the illusion of authentic economic growth financed through frantic borrowing---but it would not do anything to improve the actual fundamentals of the economy. This compromise, then, could focus as a kind of narcotic that temporarily hides the effect of continuing economic erosion while in fact making this erosion much worse. And if this compromise can help push the president over the top in 2012, it might give another four years to failed economic policies.
I guess part of my skepticism stems from wondering whether some on the right have conflated policy substance with partisan optics (Ha ha---Obama's fighting with the left! Look---Paul Krugman hates it!). A victory for the latter does not mean a victory for the former. I'm not necessarily opposed to this measure, but I'm not totally convinced to favor it, either.

Krauthammer's recent column seems a centerpiece of growing conservative opposition to the compromise (some more details here), and other skeptical takes can be found here, here, here, and here. Jonah Goldberg seems to be pushing back against this opposition.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Many opponents of the so-called DREAM Act have emphasized focusing on potentially wavering Senate Republicans, such as:
Lisa Murkowski (AK)
Richard Lugar (IN)
Sam Brownback (KS)
Susan Collins (ME)
Olympia Snowe (ME)
Lugar could face a primary battle in 2012, as could Snowe. While Collins may back Snowe's decision on DREAM in an act of solidarity, the other senators on this list could be harder to pressure. Murkowski just made it through an election, and Brownback is leaving the Senate to become governor.

Opponents of the DREAM Act would also be wise to keep their attention on certain Democrats. Democrats facing reelection in 2012 are marked with an asterisk:
Mark Pryor (AR)
Mary Landrieu (LA)
Claire McCaskill (MO)*
Jon Tester (MT)*
Kent Conrad (ND)*
Joe Manchin (WV)*
If opponents of the DREAM Act can get some of those votes, it becomes very hard to see how DREAM can break a filibuster.

Wild cards in this cloture vote include Byron Dorgan (D-ND), George Voinovich (R-OH), and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). These senators will be leaving the Senate in January. Dorgan especially has been known as a skeptic about legalization plans, but it remains to be seen how much influence the White House and others may have over him now.

As Mickey Kaus points out, the DREAM Act may be about more than just legalizing some children:
I have differences with Roy Beck, head of the influential restrictionist group NumbersUSA. (He wants to reduce both illegal and legal immigration.) But Beck's closing analysis of the DREAM Act is quite powerful and damning. He argues that, because there are no penalties to lying on a DREAM application, and because once you file the application you get a work permit good for 10 years (while you comply with the Act's requirements), DREAM is basically a 10 year free pass to any illegal in a broad under-35ish age range who either qualifies or is willing to say he qualifies even if he doesn't.

Patrick '10 = Obama '12?

TNR offers a potential view into White House thinking for 2012:

Of all the historical analogies urged on Obama following November’s drubbing—Truman in ’48, Reagan after ’82, Clinton after ’94—the one the White House has opted for is easily the most obscure. That would be Patrick in ’10—as in Deval Patrick, the recently re-elected governor of Massachusetts. Months after Patrick signed the state’s first sales-tax hike in 33 years, political chatterers gave him little chance of surviving to a second term. Not only did he face the same foul, anti-incumbent mood that elected Scott Brown, he’d drawn an attractive GOP candidate in businessman Charlie Baker.

Patrick’s handlers recommended that he distance himself from liberals in the state legislature—and, above all, downplay the tax increase. The governor overruled them...[R]ecalls one still-traumatized adviser[,] “He thought the way to do it was to be true to what he ran on [in 2006]”—the belief that voters will support someone who levels with them, even if they don’t love every decision. In the end, Patrick and his “politics of conviction” won by a comfortable seven-point margin.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of this narrative in Obamaland, whose principal also fancies himself a teller of hard truths.

Jim Geraghty offers some incisive criticisms of this model:
1) Who’s going to be your Tim Cahill? This article doesn’t mention that Patrick won 48 percent of the vote in heavily-Democrat Massachusetts. Patrick won because the anti-incumbent vote was split by Cahill, who won the 2006 treasurer’s election as a Democrat, served for a while under Patrick, and then rebelled, changing his party to “unenrolled” (equivalent to “independent” in Massachusetts) so he could challenge Patrick. Despite Charlie Baker and the RGA spending enormous resources to try to drive him out, Cahill won 8 percent on Election Day. (A detailed analysis of Cahill’s spoiler role can be found here.)

2) You can only alienate so many supporters before you’re doomed. Deval Patrick’s share of the vote in 2010 was 7 percentage points lower than his share in 2006. If Obama sees similar proportional erosion, he’ll be trying to win the presidency with 46 percent of the vote.

3) Guys, it’s Massachusetts. Any Democrat who does not mock Red Sox fans has a much larger margin for error and cushion than a Democrat running nationally.

4) The economy in 2012 remains an X factor, but it’s worth remembering unemployment rate in Massachusetts was 8.4 percent in September and 8.1 percent in October – not all that good, but almost 2 points better than the national average...
I think #1 and #2 are the most problematic for the White House. Patrick did not gain a majority in 2010, and he started from a much stronger place in November 2006 than Obama does from November 2008.

There are a few other problems for this model. Though TNR talks up the attractiveness of GOP candidate Charlie Baker, he didn't exactly ignite a fire under Massachusetts Republican activists; indeed, operatives of some other Massachusetts Republican campaigns would even privately lament the GOP gubernatorial ticket in the run-up to the election. Baker was no Mitt Romney, who generated a significant amount of excitement among Bay State Republican activists. This could serve as a warning to the GOP in 2012: if Republicans nominate a candidate incapable of inspiring enthusiasm and unable to articulate a clear vision, Obama could end up winning reelection.

Also, Obama's record is significantly different from Patrick's. While voters may not have been happy with Patrick's sales tax increase, that measure pales in comparison to the radical legislation passed over the past few years. Considering the rapidly accumulating number of broken promises about Obamacare, one might wonder whether the aftershocks of Obama's health-care legislation would render the image of a "straight-talking" president a little bit of a stretch.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ann Coulter: Palin Presidential Skeptic?

On a Red Eye episode last week, Ann Coulter said that she hopes Sarah Palin does not run for president: she believes that Palin would be more effective where she is right now in the media.

I can't seem to find a clip of that moment, but, while searching this, I saw that this was not a one-off for Coulter. In a video of an appearance in early 2010, Coulter makes the same point, as she does in the report of an appearance in November.

Though Coulter is famed as a conservative bomb-thrower, her eye as a political analyst is often under-appreciated.

Take her infamous appearance on Hannity and Colmes in late January 2008, in which she claimed that she would vote and campaign for Hillary Clinton if John McCain was the Republican nominee. Coulter's argument revealed a deep antipathy towards McCain, and it certainly generated a lot of buzz for her.

But can you really imagine Ann Coulter campaigning for Hillary Clinton? By late January, Coulter might have calculated that she never would have to campaign for Clinton---because Clinton was not going to be the Democratic nominee. In retrospect, Coulter's endorsement of Clinton over McCain can be seen as a sign of just how dire things were for the Clinton campaign in early 2008. (It might also be noted that, shortly after her H&C appearance, she refused to say that she would support Obama over McCain.)

So Coulter is offering some additional political analysis here---and this analysis implies that Palin would be more effective not running for the Oval Office. Is it time to add Coulter to the list of Palin presidential skeptics?