Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Charlie Rangel's Troubles

After years, it looks like Charlie Rangels various legal difficulties might be resolved in the near future. There is speculation that he will cut a deal with the committee investigating him. House Democrats are said to be prodding Rangel towards a deal in hopes that a trial won’t damage Democrats in the fall campaign. But I really doubt that Rangel going through a trial will much hurt Democrats, and that they should focus their nervous energy elsewhere.

Republican strategists would like to think that the “culture of corruption,” a prominent Democratic meme during the 2006 midterms, won Democrats the control of the House that year. It is true that voters said that corruption was an important factor in their votes. But more important were two other issues: the war in Iraq and the economy. Voters who said those issues were important to their votes trended heavily Democratic in the election. Remember too that in fall 2006, Iraq was in chaos. This was before the surge brought some measure of security and stability to the country. A majority of voters in fact, supported bringing some or all troops home.

Is that weren’t enough to sink the Republicans, George W. Bush was. By late 2006, 56% of Americans strongly disapproved of the job Bush was doing. Voters were disenchanted with the slow pace of progress in Iraq as well as his handling of Hurricane Katrina. Simply put, Bush was an albatross around the necks of every Republican running for office.

That brings me to 2010. The biggest issue on the minds of voters, above deficits, the war in Afghanistan, and anything else will be financial crisis. Consumers aren’t spending, and so many voters are fearful that the next pink slip could be theirs or a loved one’s. By the time November rolls around voters will likely have forgotten about Rangel, and be focusing in on their own financial situation. Need proof? Ask yourself how many people around you are still talking about Mark Sanford or Mark Souder. Even though their scandals happened just last year (or earlier in this one), people have moved on. Very few will cast their votes based upon their troubles. So will it be with Charlie Rangel.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is the Tea Party Bad for Blacks?

Last week I asked whether tea partiers were more likely than the average American to be racist. This week I want to consider a different question. Would Tea Party policies, if enacted, widen racial disparities between blacks and whites?

People will of course answer this question differently based upon their ideological predispositions. Conservatives might say that tea party policies would have no impact on blacks, or even a positive one. They believe that liberal welfare policies since Great Society have led to the breakdown of the black family by incentivizing women to keep having children and to not settle down and marry lest they lose their welfare payments. Children without fathers are more likely to have discipline problems and more likely to grow up in poverty. All the while, single-mother headed families have become dependent on government programs and been sapped of their initiative. By drastically reducing welfare, conservatives might argue that they will foster a better culture in the black community which will ultimately produce self-suffiency.

Liberals on the other hand see things differently. They would point to disparities in income and education as well as continued racial discrimination as reasons that the government must still take an active role in promoting the welfare of blacks. Repealing healthcare laws designed to ensure that the poor—who are disproportionately black—for example might only lead to worse health outcomes for blacks relative to whites.

Furthermore, returning more power to the states at the expense of the federal government has uncomfortable overtones for liberals. Segregationists invoked states’ rights to oppose integration. Historically, the federal government has been the better guarantor of minority rights. The federal government for example passed several civil rights acts—including the one in 1964 that Rand Paul has issues with—the voting rights act, as well as the fourteenth amendment before southern states could return to the union. Along the way, it had to force these pieces of legislation on recalcitrant states. Older blacks especially are understandably leery of new calls for more autonomy for the very states that discriminated against them.

There is a more nuanced way to make this argument that doesn’t involve simply invoking history. Individual states might be more likely to have above-average levels of racial tension and segregation. In states like this, the black minority would be at the mercy of a white majority that harbors racial animus. At the federal level though, that white majority in Mississippi might be balanced out by voters in regions without as much racial tension, not to mention other minorities like Asians and Hispanics.

These arguments are difficult to evaluate in certain cases. It is certainly plausible that repealing healthcare legislation which would disproportionately help blacks would increase the health gap between blacks and whites.

But in other ways, tea party policies might not be so bad for blacks. Tea party politicians would probably continue Obama’s “race-to-the-top” funds for education which encourage states to innovate with their education systems. Remember, conservatives tend to oppose teacher tenure and across-the-board pay raises; instead they favor merit pay and school vouchers. The depth of the achievement gap means that experimentation is a necessity. What remains to be seen though, is whether tea partiers would push to reduce educational funding, which would also be problematic.

As for the argument about southern states suppressing minorities, a lot has changed. North Carolina and Virginia both gave their electoral votes to Obama in 2008. They are becoming more diverse with more Latinos moving in. Moreover, a new generation has been born with tolerance and political correctness as the norm. However, there is no doubt that substantial racial tension still exists in the South (as it does elsewhere in the country).

It would be fascinating to see a debate between the NAACP and the tea party about whose policies would best help the black community to help settle this question. I doubt we’ll see it anytime soon though.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Is the Tea Party Racist?

The tea party has faced allegations of racism ever since the movement started. It didn’t exactly help the cause when Kentucky’s Republican nominee for the Senate, Rand Paul, expressed reservations about portions of the Civil Rights Act which prohibited discrimination by private organizations. Things have heated up over the past week as the NAACP came out with a resolution condemning what it perceives to be racist elements of the tea party.

I wonder what the effect of this will be politically. It surely won’t really give any tea partiers pause. Many of them think that the NAACP is just a tool of the Democratic Party, and that the organization throws the term “racist” too much. In fact many conservative tea partiers seem the type to oppose affirmative action and think that it is “reverse racism.” So they may actually welcome a fight with the NAACP.

The more important question is what the effect of this will be on moderate white voters in November who will decide the midterm elections. They may not be crazy about the NAACP either, but they don’t want to be affiliated with a group that is openly racist. Any candidate who openly panders to racist sentiments, or who has vocal racist supporters might be in danger of losing votes from these white moderates. For this reason, Republican candidates might be slightly more wary of the tea party, and could be on the lookout for a “Sister Souljah” moment where they can disown any racist elements in the tea party movement.

I actually suspect that the political effect will be negligible in the final analysis. The biggest issue as I have maintained for some time will be the economy. By November, voters will be thinking about whether they feel secure in their job and what the general direction of the economy is. Controversies like this will fade as people start heading to the voting booth.

The substance of these accusations is likewise hard to evaluate. It goes without saying that opposing expansion of government power, being hawkish on deficits, and wanting tax cuts don’t make a person a racist. It’s true that Blacks and tea partiers tend not to see eye to eye on the issues of the day. But one of the reasons is economic, not racial. Blacks are more likely than whites to be uninsured, and would benefit from extending insurance benefits to a wider swath of the population. Whites in the tea party are more likely to have health insurance and would like to avoid paying higher taxes to move to a healthcare system they’re leery of.

One of the most interesting arguments I’ve heard for why the tea partiers are racist is that tea partiers were silent about their fiscal concerns during the presidency of a white man, George W. Bush, but are vocal now that there is a black president, Barack Obama. While there is definitely hypocrisy here, I’m not sure racism is behind this discrepancy. Many of these tea partiers do identify with the Republican Party. They may have supported George W. Bush for his tax cuts and approach to the war on terrorism and wanted to keep John Kerry out of the White House in 2004. This provides a charitable explanation for why they are now protesting Obama’s deficit policies, but didn’t speak up about Bush’s. Democrats should be able to relate. After all, many of them were disgusted by Bill Clinton’s conduct during Monica-gate but declined to criticize him much, and in fact rallied around him to fend of the Republican attack on his presidency.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What Will Divided Government Be Like?

All signs currently point to large Republican gains, if not a takeover of Congress in the midterm elections. Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat, will still occupy the White House however. What might divided government look like over the next two years?

In terms of policy, I’m not sure. A Republican congress will be disinclined to support any more stimulus, and inclined to pursue sharp cuts in government spending overall to tackle deficits. Obama of course, believes that government must spend until the economy is well on its way back to health and the private sector can pick up the slack. What we may end up with is a series of compromise measures that alternatively allows short term stimulus and then imposes severe cuts on programs like unemployment compensation. This scenario becomes even more possible if Democrats manage to retain control of at least one house of Congress. It’s hard to see bond markets being reassured by these sorts of gyrations in policy.

Of course there is a best case scenario as well. With Republicans—who are ideologically opposed to the current size of government—to help him, Obama might be able to rein in entitlement spending like Social Security and Medicare, something the country desperately needs to stave off fiscal disaster. With Obama leading the way on this issue, many Democrats might also support needed reforms to the programs. Such action would go a long way to assuring global markets that the government is indeed serious about protecting its fiscal health, and this could lead to lower interest rates on US bonds, which will in turn make it easier to pay off the debt that government does take on.

Republicans will not get everything they want, even if they control both houses of Congress. Obama will veto any attempt to repeal healthcare legislation passed this year, and I just don’t see Republicans getting a 2/3 majority to override a veto. At every turn, they will have to compromise as much as Obama will.

Politically, a divided government could be interesting. While many observers remember the 1990s fondly, it is important to remember that government actually shut down in 1995. Government employees were furloughed and passports went unprocessed. There was even the prospect that retirees would not receive their Social Security checks in the mail. Resurgent Republicans might demand that their leaders tack hard to the right on a range of issues. Meanwhile Obama will be under pressure from his liberal base not to cave in to Republicans. While compromise might eventually happen, so might shutdown as happened in 1995.

Politically, a divided government could produce political benefits for both sides. Republicans pushing for, and producing meaningful cuts in government spending will bring disgruntled Tea Partiers back into the fold for the foreseeable future and fire up their base for the 2012 elections. For his part, Obama can compromise on entitlement spending, and then turn around and say to crucial elderly voters that his hand was forced by heartless Republicans. Such a ploy would be cynical, but it also might be effective. Of course, people see evidence all around them of the failure to put government on a sustainable fiscal path. Swing voters might be ready to accept cuts in a way they weren’t 10 years ago.