What About a Stimulus Package?

By Mike Koetting October 29, 2020

I don’t want to jinx anything, but maybe we do need to start taking the possibility of a Biden victory seriously. I am not saying we shouldn’t continue worrying—like we could stop worrying even if we wanted to?—but the polling is solid and there are lots of signs of various Republicans trying to put some distance between themselves and Trump.

So, what should we do if we win?

The whole answer is long and has many facets. I smell grist for upcoming posts. But there is one thing that may require a more or less immediate direction, a stimulus package.

Having failed to come to any agreement about a stimulus package before the election (seems unlikely anything will fall out of the magic closet in the next couple days), there will be a lot of pressure to enact a stimulus bill even before the inauguration. I think Democrats need to think very carefully about signing on.

No one of sound mind doubts another stimulus package is needed. The questions are what size and what is in it. The answer to the first question is easy: BIG! Everyone from Paul Krugman to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell (who was appointed by Trump) agrees that we need a big stimulus package. About the only people who don’t agree are Republican Senators. Let’s spend a moment considering their motives.

Mitch McConnell, while he did fail in his stated attempt to make Obama a one-term president, did second best by hobbling Obama. He used the filibuster to make it impossible for Obama to pass a second stimulus package in 2009—then he blamed Obama for not doing more to recover from Bush’s recession. That, combined with Republican-led backlash to a Black man being president, led to a complete lock on Congress after 2010 that made it impossible for Obama to pass legislation, or fill judgeships for that matter, even after he won a second term. There is every reason in the world to believe McConnell has in mind a similar strategy for a Biden administration. Moreover, even Republican Senators who are starting to put a little distance between themselves and Trump will not want to vote for a big stimulus package. Among other things, it would be used against them in the next primary by “purer” Republicans. No matter how great the need, only a reckless dreamer could think McConnell would allow a big stimulus package unless Trump is re-elected.

In any event, right now he has his cake and gets to eat it anyway: he blames House Democrats’ intransigence for stopping any stimulus without actually putting anything on the table. The media has largely fallen for it when it keeps saying “Congress’s inability to pass a stimulus package” when in fact the issue is Senate Republicans. Trump’s utter incoherence on the issue helps give cover. It became almost comically jumbled when McConnell apparently got Trump to take the fall for ending stimulus talks—although that only lasted a day.

But flash forward in our imagination. Presume we heave a monumental sigh of relief as Trump is defeated and Democrats have won enough Senate seats to have a majority. But they wouldn’t have actual control until January. Should Democrats continue trying to work out a stimulus bill?

The needs are real. The below chart from J.P.Mogan Chase shows that as stimulus checks run out, spending by the unemployed tanks, which corresponds to real deprivations and will eventually drag the entire economy down. This chart is only through August. It surely looks worse by now and will keep getting worse.

There is no evidence that Republicans in fact care about those who are suffering the brunt of the economic damage, which is certainly not their richest supporters. I concede they would say it’s not that they “don’t care” but that they are confident that the longer, more sustainable road to recovery is to avoid….to avoid….well, it changes from time to time. To avoid eroding people’s motive to work, to avoid saddling future generations with taxes, to avoid putting obstacles in the way of the wealth creators, or to avoid inflation are all explanations periodically on offer. None of these explanations have much currency among economists and, regardless of long term effects, all put the immediate pain on those least able to bear it—while the economically better off in our society continue to prosper. So, functionally, they don’t care.

Consequently, it is safe to assume that any post-election deal that McConnell is willing to support is primarily about seizing tactical high ground rather than anything else. It is a sad state of affairs when our distrust of motives is so deep that by definition any possible compromise is suspicious. But that is a well-earned position at this point, so Democrats should be very suspicious of any compromise McConnell appears to agree with.

My best guess is that he doesn’t want to support anything on the grounds it would help Democrats in 2022. He has a variety of tools at his disposal—most powerfully just refusing to call the bill, as he has refused for several months. In which case, the Democrats don’t have to do anything but agree among themselves on what bill to pursue in January, by which time it will be even more urgent.

It is also possible that at some point the lobbying from the White House, assuming it is still interested in what happens in Congress, and his members will increase the pressure on McConnell to do something. It is a safe bet that a majority of his members would vote against any stimulus—and this apparently could be filibustered. But if it were something that all Democrats would vote for, there is some chance of getting enough Republican votes.

I think Democrats might fare better with the skinny bill that McConnell has at various times floated. This would get some immediate aid to the most needed spots—increasing unemployment benefits, small business support and school reopening–but would leave more room for Democrats to move their own bill in January. The danger of the larger bill that Pelosi and Mnuchin are currently negotiating is that at $2T it might create the impression that this is enough and/or we can’t afford another large stimulus.

This also gets back to the question of what should be in a stimulus bill. The negotiations that Pelosi and Mnuchin are pursing would also add direct payments for eligible individuals, funds for testing and tracing, and state and local support. In any longer term these are absolutely necessary to getting the economy back on track. But there are other things that could be in a bill that would further the economic plan that Biden has outlined. This could include more housing assistance, enough funds for states and localities, and expanded public projects, including laying the foundations for a Green initiative.

In theory these could be in a later bill even with the larger amount stimulus. But the example of the Obama stimulus bill is instructive. The architects of that bill assumed there would be a follow-up bill. But it never happened. I think it might make more sense now to wait until there is a Democratic majority and no need to be restrained by negotiations with Mnuchin. Remember, it is unlikely that even under the best of circumstances Democrats would win enough Senate seats to overcome a filibuster. A larger stimulus following a skinny one would present a much more compelling reason for a few Republicans to jump the fence—or for Democrats to blow-up the filibuster if that is necessary.

Either way, getting a very large stimulus bill is absolutely necessary and $2T isn’t enough. Democratic strategy should be structured around getting the largest possible stimulus, even if that means settling for a skinnier one now.

It Just Won’t Go Away Fast Enough

By Mike Koetting October 20, 2020

Like most of America, I can’t wait for the election to be over. I am accustomed to thinking a lot about politics, but this is crazy. It feels like every waking minute. And the cognitive dissonance is psychically exhausting. Everything tangible suggests a substantial Democratic victory. As I write FiveThirtyEight says Democrats flip the Senate 3 out of 4 times and Biden wins 5 out of 6 times, the latter I can’t help but notice, being the same odds you get in Russian roulette. The likelihood of a Biden win corresponds with my own sense of the world. I have never seen an election where so many high-ranking Republicans, including several ex-cabinet members of the sitting president, are refusing to endorse their candidate, or actually endorsing his opponent. Truth is, from my perspective, this president is so conspicuously unfit for the office and so utterly indifferent to democratic norms that the fact he’s even competitive is beyond my imagination. Surely enough people see this.

But I still can’t shed the fear, the anxiety. What if there are really enough people in the country who hate whatever I stand for so much that they would still vote for Trump? What if there are large pockets of Trump voters in swing states unwilling to tell pollsters who they are really going to vote for? What if enough voters in Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and Philly don’t want to wade through all the obstacles the Republicans have created? It isn’t just the uncertainty of how the election will turn out. It is the continual nagging questions of how could people have such different perceptions and is there any way of having real conversations about the direction of the country.

I want it over.

Of course, it’s not at all clear when it will be over. I am hoping for enough of a blow-out that at least the presidential election is decided on November 3. The polls suggest that is a possibility, maybe a likelihood. Florida is a relatively quick counting state, particularly if there are a large number of mail-in and early voters. (In 2016 there were a total of 9.4M votes cast in Florida. Roughly 6M absentee ballots have been requested this year.) If Biden is ahead there on November 3—or in Ohio, another quick counting state—the election is likely over. North Carolina, which used to be a quick counting state, has so many legal challenges under way, it could drag out for a while.

On the other hand, if it is close in those states, it might well take a long time to sort out the results. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania don’t start counting early and mail-in votes until election day; Michigan only a few days before and its secretary of state has already said it might take until November 10 to count all the votes. Pennsylvania is particularly likely to be difficult in a close vote. Like Michigan and Wisconsin, it has a Democratic governor and a gerrymandered Republican legislature and each is trying to re-write the rules. In addition to a growing list of lawsuits, Pennsylvania is allowing anyone to vote by mail in a general election for the first time, all the state’s polling places have new machines and the rules that govern are in flux.

One of the particular concerns is that, based on analysis of elections back to the year 2000, there is strong evidence that late counted votes tend to favor Democrats. This phenomenon, known as “Blue shift” by political scientists who study elections, seems to be related to provisional ballots, which are more often Democratic. Historically, there has been no strong correlation of results by party within absentee or mail-in ballots.

Of course there is no historical basis for this year’s election where we are in the middle of a pandemic and one party has consistently demeaned votes by mail as subject to fraud, both of which might well upset trends. A September CNN poll in Pennsylvania found that 78% of Joe Biden’s supporters plan to vote early or by mail, while 68% of President Trump’s supporters want to vote in person on Election Day. Other polls have similar results.

So now there are two dynamics—a “Blue shift” that generates Democratic votes counted after the election day and oversampling of Republican votes from election-day in-person voting. Together these create the possibility of the so-called “Red mirage” where Republicans are ahead on election night, but see leads dwindle or reverse subsequently. This possibility has led Republicans to imply that only votes counted on election day are legitimate. White House spokesperson  Kayleigh McEnany said an election is “fair” only “where we know who the president of the United States is on election night. That’s how the system is supposed to work.”

This is, of course, nonsense given circumstances. The system “is supposed to work” by counting every vote fairly and accurately. Former Senators Tom Daschle and Bill Frist, speaking on behalf of a national bipartisan commission on election integrity, clearly articulate a sentiment found in a recent poll that 75% of Americans would prefer every vote to be counted over a quick outcome.

Mike Murphy, who before Trump was a Republican political consultant, has suggested that one way of giving transparency to the voting counting is to report exit polling among people who voted early, in person or by mail. Apparently there is a considerable amount of information gathered in high quality polls about early voting by state. His argument is that releasing this data on election night would reduce the surprise element if totals started to shift. I think this is a good idea, but is unlikely to change the fundament dynamics if the election is truly close because few models can accurately predict differences that small.

Given all this, it is necessary for the media—all of it—to avoid premature claims of victory for anyone, despite any residual instincts to be the first to call a winner. I believe most of them understand the problem and are likely be cautious about announcing results too soon.

There are, however, two points of concern. One is Fox News. It has sometimes acted more as a Republican cheerleading outfit than a legitimate news network. If any of the major networks were to break ranks, it would most likely be Fox for Trump. Given the co-dependency relationship between Fox and Trump supporters, it would no doubt create chaos if they declared a Trump victory too early and subsequent counting changed the results.

The other danger spot is the Internet, which is less controlled than major media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have all announced plans to guard against premature victory claims. But, based on track record, it is hard to be sanguine about what will in fact transpire. Posts may, for instance, avoid specific declarations of victory, but may raise suspicions about the count. It is safe to assume that Trump and his acolytes will be calling into question any place where the vote totals are close and incomplete.

So, I guess, I am destined to stew in my existential questions for at least a couple more weeks, with the possibility of this going on for quite a while—even if it doesn’t get to the courts. I can only hope the media will treat the uncertainty responsibly.

The Election and the Rule of Law

By Mike Koetting October 8, 2020

I wrote the first draft of this post about three weeks ago. I was surprised at the number of friends who were at least flirting with the idea that, no matter what was the underlying will of the people, Donald Trump would simply refuse to recognize the results and chaos would ensue. I acknowledged there was concern, but I thought they were overstating the problem.

Things have happened since then. I still believe we will not fall into this tar pit, although my confidence ebbs and flows depending on the day. However, as much as the specific risks, I am alarmed at the broader consequences of the deterioration of public trust. At least one survey reports that half of the country believes Trump would refuse to accept a narrow defeat.

This is potentially catastrophic.

The entire idea of democracy rests on the acceptance that everyone is going to play more or less by the rule of law. The rule of law is not strictly speaking about the legal letter of the law. In fact, strict adherence to the letter of the law can be norm-busting, like the Republican’s use of the power to appoint a Supreme Court justice days before an election.

The rule of law is the overriding set of values that allows us to work together in a society to achieve common aims. The Constitution does not provide detailed instructions for how to keep our democracy. It creates a framework so that, even if we don’t agree on every single “law,” we have enough in common that we are willing to make compromises guided by some higher, more general principles. And we put the survival of the institutions of democracy over any specific policy advantage.

This idea works only as long as the society as a whole believes it is bound by the same ground-rules. If a large enough group stops believing that the rest of the society will abide by these general principles, the power of the rule of law dissipates. That so many people could be actively concerned about the legitimacy of the coming election suggests exactly this waning belief.

Today, one large group of the country suspects that Republicans are so determined to hold on to power that they will take any steps—regardless of how they correspond to the larger spirit of the country—that they have already forsaken the rule of law. Another large group either believes that the Democrats will take illegitimate and fraudulent steps to gain control of power—and therefore imagine the Democrats in violation of the rule of law—or they believe their cause is so important they are obligated to take every possible step to retain power, in which case the rule of law is nullified.

My concern here is not which interpretation is more valid. My question is whether we can get out of this situation with our belief in the rule of law intact. I don’t see either side giving up its beliefs easily. No one is in the mood for forgetting.

This adds to a worrisome time. The political scientist Suzanne Mettler identifies four conditions that often correspond to the break-down of democracies:

  • Large and growing income inequality
  • Extreme political polarization
  • Conflict over who belongs as a member of the political community
  • Centralization of power in the Executive

All of these seem to be operating full force.

Certainly a Trump victory makes it much worse. While there are multiple factors that have contributed to the loss of social solidarity, Trump has turned it poisonously toxic. This is not a matter of partisan disagreement. This is a core difference in the understanding of what is meant by democracy. Trump religiously believes that any winning is winning. In his world view there are the “takers” and “the taken advantage of”. He has no concern, possibly no clue, about the impact of this attitude on a democracy that depends on a generous rule of law. Disclosures about his tax returns illustrate the nature of the problem in technicolor.

If Trump wins in a disputed election, the degree of alienation will be off the chart. I don’t know what Democrats would do if, for instance, the election is resolved by the Supreme Court ending a disputed vote count on a partisan basis as it did in Bush v Gore. Or, as is more likely, through a series of piecemeal decisions that together swing the election by not allowing certain votes or voters.

With no court to turn to and Trump in the White House, there would be widespread outrage. The outlets for such outrage are limited, but would surely damage the foundations of our democracy. If nothing else, it would open the gates for Democrats to take whatever measure they could think of should they ever again gain power. While in some ways gratifying, that would not necessarily lead to a more perfect union. In the meantime, assuming Democrats held their majority in the House, the legislative process would completely grind to a halt and Trump would be even more unchecked.

The best hope for the rule of law is for Biden to win clearly, that is at least a one-half percent margin in any state necessary to get to 270 electoral votes. While that would not create national unity, it would at least replace Trump with a president who believes in the broader vision of the rule of law and sees his job as uniting the country around that vision. In theory, any Biden win would be a step in the right direction, but a narrow win would have less traction. Worse yet, there is reason to worry that it simply might not be possible for Biden to win an election where there are substantial disputes. (Prior to Justice Ginsberg’s death, I was reasonably optimistic that Justice Roberts would do the right thing if the underlying facts supported it. Now that his vote is not necessarily decisive, I worry that anything so muddy as to get to the Supreme Court will be decided on a primarily partisan basis.)

A Biden win would still leave a lot unresolved.  Even if Trump dutifully left office in January, it is hard to imagine he will just slink off to tend to his various legal battles. I am guessing he will continue to rail against “the socialist left”. He will still have many followers. Probably less the big money people who support him because of his largess to the rich; they will find new advocates. Big money is more insidious than water in your basement. But the hard-core Trump base will continue to abhor the Democrat’s agenda, which they see as restricting freedoms that represent values fundamental to their identity.

Republicans will have to decide whether their long run interests are better served by lining up behind Trump-centric obstructionism or by trying to find some ways to forge a post-Trump path that is better attuned to the changing nature of the country. Surely many Republicans know they are riding a death train. They can do the same arithmetic I can—their base is declining and their core product is unattractive unless it is disguised by endless efforts to divide the country. I doubt there is anything so crass that Mitch McConnell would skip if he thought that meant foregoing another trip on the Ferris wheel. But others may understand that there is no long run future in the current party strategy of cynical opposition to everything except tax cuts and radically conservative judges.

On the other hand, if they turn away from the Trump-base, there is no route to electoral relevance for years. That would also leave a material number of voters alienated from the American political system. It is hard to imagine the groups who stormed statehouses signing up for a new Republican party. It is not clear how large this group is, let alone how they might behave.

Democrats will also face some difficult choices about the extent to which they want to be accommodating to the concerns of people who voted Republican. Perhaps exercising the same hard-nosed approach of Republicans works better long run. But perhaps it just further rigidifies the gaps in our society.

At best the election is only the beginning of a long and uncertain process for restoring a real belief in the rule of law. But defeating Donald Trump is essential if we want to begin this journey.

Election Bric-a-Brac

By Mike Koetting September 24, 2020

Today’s post is comprised of three shorter thoughts about the election. I couldn’t think of an easy way to connect them, but they each seemed worth consideration.

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If someone asked you how many days to the election, you’d probably say 40 days. I don’t think that’s the right answer. Voting is already taking place in most states. My conclusion from studying a compilation of the voting practices in the six most critical swing states is that 50% of all votes in those states will be cast by mid-October, maybe more. It is widely believed the majority of votes will be cast before election day. In other words, the election is now.

And the more “now” the better. I don’t think anyone could be sanguine that any vote cast by mail after October 15 would be delivered or counted on time. I am not getting into the issue of whether the Post Office is deliberately sabotaging vote by mail. I think not, but who can rule out anything in these strange times? Nevertheless, whether it’s deliberate or circumstantial, it seems to me that everyone who wants to be certain their vote is delivered on time should either get the ballot in the mail early—or, better yet, switch to a more secure delivery system such as ballot drop-off or early voting in person while it not so crowded.

There is clearly a danger that over-reliance on the mail could result in material numbers of votes not being counted. For instance, an article in The American Prospect constructs a simple simulation that shows if voters take full advantage of the apparent voting window in their state, those submitting in the last week could be at significant risk of not having votes delivered in time. If that is the case, a “vote-by-mail” becomes a trap for Democrats and all Trump’s rantings might be seen as an “anything but the briar patch” strategy. 

The Prospect article recommends a complete pivot in messaging from voting by mail to voting in person. I think that is overkill. I think the correct messaging needs to get more complicated, which is itself dangerous. Something like this.

  • Voters need to know that if their ballots can’t be mailed at least two weeks before the end of the voting window, they should be not be mailed.
  • They need to know with specific clarity the other options relevant to each state/locality (e.g. drop off boxes, return to county clerk, etc.).
  • If they want to vote in person—which  has advantages—they need to be prepared as it may well be constrained, particularly on election day. (And remind them how to be safe.)

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I was very struck by a David Frum piece calling attention to the fact the Republicans declined to publish a platform. I think Frum was making fun of the Republicans for being afraid to make their platform explicit, since, it is so obviously at odds with the underlying realities.

Three days later it occurred to me that, whatever Frum’s intentions, this actually offered the clearest explanation I’ve seen of why the Republican Party maintains traction.

Several of the key “platform” planks did not actually deny the problems that are the core of the Democrats’ critique of America. Rather, the issues were acknowledged, but in a back-handed, diminishing way. The Covid pandemic is over-hyped, environmental issues will be taken care of with emerging technology, BLM is about overblown issues, women have already achieved most forms of equality, and so forth. The appeal of this approach is that it removes the need for any action or sacrifice without having to overtly deny realities that are hard to refute. It’s sitting in a comfortable sofa in the basement that doesn’t require you actually do any exercise.

Second, by not specifically acknowledging these positions, it is harder for Democrats to argue with them—even though, as Frum explicitly states, they are widely accepted among people who are or who lean Republican. Moreover, by leaving it all unsaid, it creates room for the middle-right (who may not want to think that they are part of the deplorables) without denying space to the deplorables, who can fill in the blanks however they want.

I think this is the scariest argument for the Republicans I have encountered.

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I no longer know what to make of polls. Current polls show 5% to 8% of voters nationwide undecided. I am puzzled how at this late date people could find themselves undecided. I fully get that not everyone lives and breathes politics the way I do.  But unless you are living in a cave with no internet connection, you have been making all kinds of choices that will impact your voting.  Are you watching Fox or CNN?  What social media feeds do you follow? Who are your friends voting for? While none of these are 100% predictive, it is hard to imagine that you are not so heavily exposed to arguments from one side or the other, that, no matter what you tell a pollster, in your heart you know which way you would throw the switch.

At least among people who are actually going to vote. Remember, in 2016 more than 40% of the eligible population didn’t vote. My own guess is a relatively high percentage of people who say they are undecided are, in fact, not going to vote. I have no idea how those individuals affect the polls because I doubt the eventual non-voters advertise that fact. As the Pew Research Foundation notes, it is “notoriously difficult to figure out which survey respondents will actual turn out to vote.”

This creates a problem for the media. On the one hand, perhaps more than everyone else, they pretend that the election is on November 3. But, in today’s world, the election is actually a slow motion drip over 6 or so weeks, “election season” as Slate calls it. To fill the vacuum, they talk a lot about polls and, in particular, the “battle for the undecided”. But the real battle for the undecided is rarely the one they are talking about. People have made up their mind about whom they would vote for. The battle is who will decide to actually vote.

Indeed, this may be the critical—issue, particularly in swing states. Romney got more votes in Wisconsin than Trump did, but Democratic turnout was materially lower. The Washington Post has a simulation that gives some notions of how even relatively small changes in turnout among various groups can change outcomes. If I am right that virtually everyone who is likely to vote has made up their minds by October 1, the advertising is mostly about trying to get “your side” to in fact vote.  But to make a difference at this stage, the advertising needs to be increasingly dramatic. Which contributes to the polarization in the country.

Related, I wonder how much difference the debates make. Are they anything more than campaign events for those sufficiently invested in one or the other candidate to watch? The first debate is still a week away, but votes are already coming in. The last debate is October 22. By my guess, a major portion of the votes will already be cast. Even those not actually voting early will find their minds made up by that voting schedule. (Relatives will ask, the media will hype the need to decide, etc.) I don’t think many people who have not made up their mind whether to vote watch the debates. Perhaps the overall opinion of what happened at the debates makes a difference by leaking into the atmosphere, but I suspect questions about whether to vote or not are predominately influenced by totally different dynamics.

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In short, this election is creating an entirely new set of rules. Maybe it will turn out to create useful precedents for new ways of conducting elections. Or maybe we are steaming straight for a giant iceberg.

Republicans Begat Trump—Now What?

By Mike Koetting September 10, 2020

This is the third of three posts on why I think the Republican Party must be electorally annihilated. 

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The first two posts made the argument that the Republican Party no longer had moral claim to be one of the parties in America’s two-party system. These arguments did not mention Donald Trump. I believe Trump is a symptom—a particularly toxic symptom to be sure—but not the fundamental reason for the Republicans’ loss of legitimacy in the American system.

I don’t want to downplay the outrageous excesses of Donald Trump. In private, even Republican legislators shake their heads and roll their eyes at Trump. But however awful Trump is—and he is a real threat to democracy–the more important point for this argument is that he is in fact the logical end point of today’s Republican Party.

It starts with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. As Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute puts it:

When such a tactic is deployed for half a century, no one should be surprised when white-supremacist sentiments turn out to be an animating core of group identity…. Trump is most accurately understood as the inevitable end of a road paved brick by brick through 13 presidential election cycles since 1968.

It continues through Reagan’s open attacks on the legitimacy of government, through Newt Gingrich’s approach to skipping issues in favor of contentless messaging, Karl Rove’s flagrant use of wedge issues and voter suppression, Add 30 years of muttering about presumably otherwise unfettered freedoms that were being curtailed, and 10 years of immigrant bashing, and the Republicans created a core of the electorate that was primed for Donald Trump.

To be sure, they had help. The rise of right wing social media and Fox news accelerated these trends. Of course, the Republican Party winked and nodded at these developments, often adding fuel to various fires. Likewise, the strident anti-New Dealers—most openly identified with Koch, Mercer and the like—but in fact widely sprinkled throughout high income America, provided funds for these ventures, even as they kept their true motives submerged. (It is risible to pretend that Trump could have won had he openly campaigned on the tax bill plan he supported and signed.)

The consequences were a growth of income inequality to levels not seen in a century. But the Republicans deflected from their actual policies by blaming “the other,” “liberals,” and a myth of curtailed freedoms. This created deep bitterness in the hearts of the White losers in the distribution. Trump ruthlessly exploited every one of these cracks in the electorate, but he did not start it and relied on a portion of the electorate cultivated for years to be ready for his message. It is hard to understand how any Republican could have been surprised when Trump won the nomination. He is the president for whom they had been paving the way.

The failure of Republicans to constrain Trump is the ultimate evidence in the emptiness of this party. In 1974, a group of Republican leaders took Nixon aside and told him it was time to resign. Since 2016, the Republicans—with very few exceptions—have continued to defend the indefensible. One might argue about any one of Trump’s questionable actions, but considered as a whole, he is indisputably an outrage. There are no doubt myriad reasons and considerations for Republic inaction, but the net impact is tidily summarized by Stuart Spencer, a former Republican operative:

Trump was the moral test, and the Republican Party failed. It’s an utter disaster for the long-term fate of the Party. The Party has become an obsession with power without purpose.

The prosecution rests. The Republican Party as it currently stands no longer deserves to be one of America’s two governing parties. It has eschewed the responsibilities of loyal and sensible participation in the difficult business of democracy.

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But I want to be crystal clear about what I am not implying. This is not an argument for an unlimited era of total hegemony by the Democratic Party. Democracy rests on the ability to reconcile the diverging needs for a good society, in particular the ability to balance between collective welfare and individual freedoms. In America we have chosen to represent this structurally via a two-party system where each party carries one of these banners a bit more prominently. This hasn’t worked perfectly, but—modifying the old saying—it was good enough for government to work.

I can’t imagine great alternatives to the two-party system in 2020 America. Maybe a multi-party, parliamentary system might be better at some level of theory, but the odds of that here are beyond remote. There may well be systems (various types of proportional voting) that could reduce the likelihood of extreme polarization. Those are worth consideration. But, given context, I think what we need most urgently is a functional two-party system.  At one level, I’m inclined to agree with Steve Schmidt, one of the founders of the Lincoln Project:

I think a good sign of being an idiot in life is believing that all virtue is vested in one of these political parties and all evil in the other.

On the other hand, it is clearly the case that a party can lose its way so badly that it no longer serves its structural purpose. When the gap between its purported values and its actions reaches a certain point, it can no longer function as an honest broker in reconciling the structural tensions inherent in liberal democracy. The Lincoln Project and other similar organizations are raising the same flag of alarm that I am raising.

I also want to be clear this is not a partisan issue in the narrow sense of the term. It sounds partisan because it is explicitly couched in terms of the electoral annihilation of the Republican Party as it now exists. But the argument is not about what the Democrats offer—an important, but separate discussion—but about the degree to which the Republican Party has forsaken its role as a good-faith participant in a two party system. Given that Republicans have abrogated their responsibilities, the appropriate response is to remove them from the board. And the only way to do that is through the political process. This is less about supporting Democrats and more about maintaining our system of democracy.

I don’t know what the next move will be for those who want to regroup around the principles espoused by the Republican Party before the current occupants of the party bent and distorted them to achieve the maintenance of power beyond any other aim. It is possible that an entirely new party will be created. Or the existing party may undergo a severe makeover—as the Democratic Party did between 1960 and 1980 when they shed the Dixiecrats. (The many years of tolerance by the Democratic Party of openly aggressive white supremacy, particularly in the South, is more evidence that no political party has a monopoly on morality.)

I am happy to leave the Republican restructuring project to others. It will be enormously difficult to get all the problems they have let loose back into the bottle. As Annie Lowery points out in The Atlantic, they have built their coalition on culture wars and slash and burn of the safety net. Creating a new brand that is electorally competitive will take a long time. It will be hard to avoid the temptation to enlist those warriors in the new party, but if they do, they will get the same feckless Republican party.

That, however, is not my problem. If the Republican Party in its current form is annihilated, my attention will be more focused on trying to keep the Democratic Party from going off the rails, the possibility of which will most likely be enhanced by the momentary absence of counter-vailing electoral currents.

American democracy will be best served with a two party system when there are actually two responsible parties.

Why the GOP Is No Longer a Responsible Party

By Mike Koetting August 27, 2020

This is the second of three posts on why the Republican Party in its current form deserves electoral annihilation.

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In the decade after Gingrich unveiled the Contract with America, Republicans faced two problems:

  • The number of people likely to be consumed by total fear of the changes in society was declining as the demography changed.
  • The “make whatever you can and treat taxes as theft” message was really attractive to only a small sliver of the population. A sliver with access to phenomenal resources to be sure. But still a message that most Americans found suspect.

Steve Greenberg/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

In short, Republicans had to either adapt their core strategy or try to survive as a minority party. They chose the latter. They used four strategies:

  • Burying messages about their economic intent in a more general message about government taking your freedom, which contributed to general paranoia.
  • Promulgating a series of “wedge issues” designed to motivate sectors of their constituencies to vote on those issues without regard to larger context.
  • Using newly available technologies to gerrymander on an unprecedented scale in order to inflate the value of votes from their supporters. And simply suppress votes where that worked.
  • Legislative obstruction of anything proposed by Democrats

These issues have been well discussed and documented elsewhere. There are tons of articles on how Republicans simply obstructed legislation rather than offering solutions. The refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nomination was a classic example. And David Daly’s Ratf**ked outlined the impressive success of gerrymandering. In Wisconsin, for instance, Republicans hold a 63-36 margin in the House despite the fact that in aggregate Democratic candidates received 190,000 more votes. One in five Americans lives in a state where at least one house of the legislature is controlled by a party that did not get the majority of votes.

But rather than focusing on these issues per se, I want to explore the consequences that went beyond the direct impact.

Increased Dependence on the Base

The more the Republican Party relied on an ever-shrinking base, the less latitude it had within its base because districts had been constructed with scientific precision to achieve maximum leverage with a minimum margin. This made primaries less about selecting a candidate who would do well in the general election—as that was engineered to be a largely foregone conclusion–and more about selecting a candidate who met the test of ideological purity.

Wedge issues had the same impact. Wedge issues gain traction by raising the importance of the issues. Republicans focused on certain issues that had relatively clear dividing lines and treated those as if they were the most important—perhaps the only issue—in an election. But once activated, these “wedge” voters don’t disappear; they stay around and carry that wedge issue into successive elections—regardless of what other issues may also be in play. Thus, the wedge element became an indispensable part of their narrow coalition, effectively imprisoning the party on that issue. The Republican Party, for instance, is now totally fenced in on the issue of gun rights, even when many of its members know that the sentiment of the overall nation is somewhere else and even have questions themselves about what they have unleashed.

Republicans Recognized They Were Propping up a Minority

The Republican Party knew exactly what it was doing when it embarked on strategies to govern as a minority. By the 2012 election it was clear to Republicans that they had a problem. In its so-called “autopsy” on the 2012 election a group of analysts commissioned by the Republican Party concluded that the GOP was seen as too-backwards looking and needed to broaden its base to include younger people and others.

We need to campaign among Hispanic, Black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too. We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities.

But the GOP couldn’t go there. It was too deeply entrenched as a white-party, and, indeed, one that catered to only a portion of the white electorate. So it went the only place it could: governing as a minority party.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here are a fraction of the quotes that outline the approach.

  • The Republican speaker of the Georgia House complained that high turnout would be “extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives:”
  • The Romney consultant who said voting ID requirements and long lines were part of his party’s tool kit.
  • The North Carolina Republican in charge of drawing North Carolina’s 2023 map (that was subsequently rejected by the courts for the degree to which it disenfranchised Black voters) said:  “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

Indeed, the website for REDMAP (the Republican Party $30M initiative to maximize their legislative advantage after the 2010 census) crows about their success:

However, all components of a successful congressional race, including recruitment, message development and resource allocation, rest on the district lines….In the 2012 election Republicans won a 33 seat margin in the U.S. House….having enduring Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.

Republicans Stopped Participating in Policy

As the Republicans became more focused on their ability to govern as a minority party with a narrower base, they gave up on the idea of participating in actual policy, but retreated to pseudo-policy assertions designed to obstruct rather than govern. Don’t have a sensible replacement for the ACA? “Repeal and replace.” (No need to discuss with what.) Need support from big business for environment deregulation? “We really don’t know whether we have an environmental issue.” (What evidence would it take?) Want to lower taxes? “These tax decreases will pay for themselves.” (How much counter-evidence is necessary? And whatever happened to the concern for deficit reduction?)

There may still be ideological differences between the Republicans and the Democrats. But they are no longer expressed in actual policy discussions, which require accepting a standard of evidence and understanding that policy is messy and requires compromise. Rather, as exhaustively documented in Steven Benen’s book Imposters, Republicans stopped participating in the give and take that is essential to the development of policy in a democratic society. They substituted issue engagement with rhetoric that sounds like they are talking policy, but in fact are spinning campaign slogans unconnected to substantive policy analysis, even if occasionally supported by an actual fact.

Among other things, the unwillingness to participate in policy has made Republicans the party of anti-science. Watching this play out in the coronavirus epidemic has been painful. It may be more painful to realize this same dynamic is at play around environmental issues, the potentially catastrophic consequences of which are temporarily masked by the longer feed-back loop of environmental issues. Science does not always have the right answer and it often needs to be tempered by context. But it creates a crucial standard for discussing complicated issues—if you participate.

The Republican Party’s withdrawal from policy has also nourished the anti-government sentiment that has always lurked in American politics. Skepticism of the powers of government is one thing; but openly supporting anti-government sentiment is another—and a dangerous thing for a democracy. Democracy depends on the will of people to be involved. Allowing the idea to flourish that almost any government act can be construed as a deleterious restriction of otherwise unlimited freedom creates foolish understandings of what “freedom” means. Contemporary society will simply not work unless the majority understand that all freedoms are tradeoffs. Moreover, the reluctance to address the worsening income gaps created by weakening the New Deal makes it more difficult for government to deliver benefits to many Americans, further increasing the income gap and undermining belief in the social contract.

Holding Power Is the Only Goal

Many Republicans realize they are prisoners of a base which has large elements deeply at odds with the majority of Americans, realize they are holding on only by manipulating the levers of power regardless of underlying sentiment, and know they have stopped participating meaningfully in public policy.

Still, they want to hold on to power, apparently for its own sake. Maybe they see themselves as some bulwark against the forces of liberalism. But they are unable to articulate that position in a way that relates to the actual policy choices confronting America as opposed to a caricatured version of leftists taking away freedoms.

It is time to face up to the fact Republicans are no longer fit to be one of the two parties governing America. Although it is a bit less obvious at this moment, they are the contemporary Whig party. It is time for the Republican Party as it now stands to meet the same fate. Despite its apparent electoral heft, It, too, is no longer substantively relevant.

Context for a Change in Party Structure

By Mike Koetting August 14, 2020

Perhaps I flatter myself—or flatter you—but I believe that most of the people who read this blog accept the basic notion that most difficult social and political issues don’t have easy or even clear answers. There is a tendency to view all broadly assertive statements with a question about the other side of the coin and etc. So it’s unusual for me to launch a post with a clean, aggressive prescription, in this case that the only way to address America’s political malaise is the electoral annihilation of the Republican Party as it now stands.

Now, there are so many things this assertion does not mean that they will have to be addressed separately in a later post. Until then, today’s post outlines the context for this assertion.

Two Party System

America has a relatively unique political structure—a strong president elected more or less directly by the people and two independent legislative houses with broad powers. Far and away the more common arrangement is a multi-party parliamentary system where the parties elect a prime minister.

While the idea of two parties is not inherent in the American Constitution, it has become so much a feature of the landscape (and state law) that it is hard to imagine a change. There have been third party initiatives at various times, and some of these have definitely changed elections and shaped subsequent events. But they were mostly one-time efforts. The last change in the broad structure of the American parties was in the 1850’s when the Whig Party could not reconcile its northern and southern branches and was replaced by the Republican Party with its relatively clear anti-slavery position.

The two party system has worked well enough in America. But, as numerous political commenters have noted, it worked because the political parties were relatively flexible and tended toward the middle. Years ago a political science professor explained it to me like this:

Imagine a stretch of beach with just two vendors. From a consumer standpoint, optimal location would be for each to be in the middle of his half. But in reality, each will “cheat” toward the middle, assuming that people on their far side would figure it was still closer to that vendor than walking past that vendor to other one.

The result was that differences between the parties, while still generally clear, were blurred enough at the edges that deals got made, legislation got passed and the country managed its way through World Wars, a Depression, a Cold War, expanded the social safety net, and started to enforce the meaning of citizenship for Black Americans. Not a bad half-century’s work.

We aren’t there any more. Any number of academics from all perspectives have shown that the US political landscape is more polarized that at any time since the period leading up to the Civil War, when slavery versus non-slavery was a dichotomous choice. While differences are greater or lesser around specific issues, the below table makes it clear how much the landscape has changed over the last 50 years.

What caused this change? I believe it is a combination of larger changes in the society and deliberate political choices.

The biggest change is in the idea of what compromises the rights of citizens. I don’t want to be simple-minded about this. In hardly any corner of American life are the issues of prejudice and discrimination solved; likewise, few places display the same open racial animosity that existed in 1960. Moreover, the issue of rights of citizens has become more complicated, expanding to a whole range of issues around gender, immigration, gender-orientation and others.

Still, in uneven and disputed ways, a material majority of the country has come to accept this wider-range of the definition of rights. Again, I am not suggesting there is a “liberal” unanimity of view. There isn’t. Nor does the country need it to function. But there has been a new center of what is “mainstream”. As there has been a new mainstream, there have been new definitions of what is “too far off mainstream” to be accorded the same status as differences within the general ambit. I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of the philosophical rights of minorities. Such discussions are important, but for a different day. The point here is that over time certain positions come to be sufficiently outside mainstream thought that society is simply done with them.

These boundaries change over time. For a long time it was acceptable within the political arena to argue that the country should continue to tolerate slavery. Now it’s not. Other differences might not be as a categorically stark, but they are just as important in explaining what is going on in our society. Without denying that some “political correctness” gets silly, much of what is derided by segments of the country is simply an attempt to outline the norms as they have evolved over time—norms that these groups are not prepared to accept.

The second significant change is the shrinking percentage of the non-Hispanic, white population. It has fallen by one third since 1940 and all signs suggest it will continue to decline.

Both of these changes leave a material portion of the country fearful and angry. Yes, there are legitimate policy issues around how the society incorporates these phenomena, including some thorny issues about individual freedom in democracy. But there is a group of people who are, in my view, irrationally angry at the fact that the rules of the game seem to be shifting in ways that affront them and that they cannot control. It is plausible that throughout modern history there has always been such a crowd. But how much do we want these people to influence our national discussion?

Which brings us to the issue of specific political choices.

The New Deal represented the ascendency of a vision of society in which the well-being of the majority was more important than the ability of individuals to purse their ends without limits. While this view enjoyed wide support, it was by no means universal. Those who were radically opposed to this view did not have much political leverage in a two party system where the other side had the majority.

In the Sixties, however, the landscape started to change. The Democratic party had existed for years—pretty much since the Civil War—as a coalition of economic progressives with staunch segregationists in the South. But for reasons both moral and political, the Democrats began to embrace rights for Blacks. The Republican party countered with the Southern Strategy which, among other things, brought the disaffected segregationists into the Republican Party. The latter group included a large part of the people I have described as irrationally angry and fearful.

There were other changes. Some moderate Republicans—hard as it is to remember now, Republicans were the party of civil rights until Richard Nixon pivoted South—gravitated to the Democratic party. Some union members, disconcerted by the changes described above, became Republicans. Other Democrats, fearful of further defections to the Republicans, became more cautious. The net effect was to make the Democratic Party more willing to acquiesce to Ronald Reagan’s specific attempt to begin rolling back the New Deal. And by their tepid responses, they became complicit in his attacks on the very nature of government.

Enter Newt Gingrich. He was not willing to settle for a war of attrition against the New Deal and, with the “Contract with America”,  launched an all-out assault. But it wasn’t just the substance. McKay Coppins, who refers to  Gingrich as the man who broke American politics, describes it thusly:

The way Gingrich saw it, Republicans would never be able to take back the House as long as they kept compromising with the Democrats out of some high-minded civic desire to keep congressional business humming along. His strategy was to blow up the bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating, and then seize on the resulting dysfunction to wage a populist crusade against the institution of Congress itself.

He undertook a thorough process of turning the Republican staff organization from a policy oriented staff to a staff oriented almost exclusively to getting the best spin for Republican slogans. He issued detailed instructions on the best language to use to create divides, down to suggestions on the use of alliterative nicknames to demean other party candidates. All issues became rhetorical and the historic practice of policy compromise that had supported a successful two party system deteriorated.

The extremity of the Contract with America—in its attraction to both the more fearful portion of the population and those relentlessly offended by the New Deal—sent the Republicans down a road that is flatly inconsistent with America’s two party system. It is not clear there is a way back.

This is the story to which I will return in my next post.

Fixing Racism Is Even Harder Than It Seems

By Mike Koetting            June 6, 2020

NOTE: This was written in the first week of June, but I am just now posting. I ran into some nasty health issues that made it impossible to post—and, in fact, put the entire blog on hiatus. But I am recovering nicely and anticipate that I’ll be posting again on my usual semi-regular schedule starting in mid-August. Thanks to all who sent words of support.

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In 1967, I was 19 and spending the summer in New York, where the drinking age was 18. For 10 day in the middle of July, every night was spent in a Bronxville tavern glued to riots, first in Newark, then in Detroit.

If you don’t remember this, I doubt it is possible to recreate the impact of watching the flames and the tanks roll through those cities. Now the very names Newark and Detroit summon images of urban decay and despair. But in 1967, they were still major centers of commerce. Until then we had grown up in this haze of unending, if largely unexamined, national optimism. Riots and tanks in the streets were things that happened elsewhere, not in America.

The conversation those evenings was a stew of despair about what we were seeing and what we understood was behind it, and optimism that somehow we would make it right. This wouldn’t happen again on our watch.

Fifty-three years later, I stood on my balcony and saw the smoke rising from the Loop where the crowd had set a police car on fire. We failed. It was harder than we thought and, one has to concede, we didn’t care enough.

Continue reading “Fixing Racism Is Even Harder Than It Seems”

The Intractability of What We Have

By Mike Koetting May 22, 2020

I am happy to report I got more comments than usual on my recent post outlining my take on what the virus told us about Federalism. Some people applauded that states provided an alternative source power when their populace didn’t agree with the flavors on offer from the central government. Others noted the need for local components to target appropriately for local circumstances and, sometimes, simply to develop local support necessary for a program to be effective.

Both fair comments. But I was still skeptical states are the best vehicle for either of these. So I decided to think about what alternatives might exist.

Set aside the fact that from a practical perspective, making a major change in the role of states is a non-starter, short of a catastrophe so bad that we don’t want to think about it. People like me can sit around and think of reasons why states don’t work until the cows come home. No matter how impressive the list of problems, change seems well less likely than absolutely no way.

Continue reading “The Intractability of What We Have”

Federalism and the Virus

By Mike Koetting May 12, 2020

I am not a big fan of the idea of states. It’s hard to see what reality they are mapping aside from historical precedent. Take Illinois. While the Chicago metropolitan area shares one media market, one air and water space, a common labor pool, a shared healthcare market and intertwined transportation, there are at least two state governments that get involved, often to peculiar results, and two other states impacted. Conversely, the rest of Illinois is perpetually aggrieved by the idea that Illinois government is overly shaped by Chicago.

The history of state governments in the U.S. is of course inextricably linked to the founding of the country. At the time of the Revolutionary War, political and practical identity was tied to individual states, which in fact had already evolved in different ways because of the political and economic circumstances of their founding.

At the time of the Constitution, there was simply no way of creating a unified country that didn’t carefully limit federal power over the individual states. No states, no country. It was as simple as that. It was also as simple as no slavery, no country. Giving states power to regulate that matter was a necessary condition for forming a country. It was a moral dodge required by reality. The Senate, and the electoral college, were part of the package.

Continue reading “Federalism and the Virus”