Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sarah Palin's Presidential Chances

Suddenly, Sarah Palin’s Presidential chances seem to be improving. She has waded into any number of primary races, and ended up making successful endorsements of insurgent candidates. She retains high name recognition, vocal supporters, and the ability to raise large sums of money.

But I think she has a tough road to the nomination. Her base will consist primarily of evangelicals, tea partiers, and women. She has plenty of competition for those groups, save for women. There is a decent chance Mike Huckabee—who won the Iowa caucus because of evangelical support—will run. At the minimum this will give Palin trouble with this group. And with his credentials as a pastor, he may well manage to pull in a plurality or even majority of evangelicals.

With tea partiers, Palin will likewise have plenty of competition. Governors like Mitch Daniels will be able to point to lengthy records of balancing budgets. In the Senate, someone like James DeMint (R-South Carolina) could run. There are simply lots of Republicans who have given rhetorical support to the tea party, and a smaller but still significant number who have reduced taxes and government. They may not now be as well-known as Palin, but they’ll have over a year to build needed name recognition.

Palin can never be the establishment pick, although it’s debatable how much being the establishment’s pick really helps anymore. In any case, I expect establishment Republicans to support someone like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty whom the establishment will perceive to have a better chance of winning the fall election, and whom it may deem to be more qualified to be President.

So Palin won’t get the establishment’s support, and she’ll be given a run for her money for tea partiers and evangelicals. That is before we get into the issue of electability. Tea partiers and evangelicals may like Sarah Palin a lot. But at the end of the day, I suspect many of them will follow William F. Buckley’s old rule of supporting the most conservative Republican who was electable. After all, the stakes are high for conservatives. Obama has already won the biggest expansion of the welfare state in a generation with healthcare reform and the largest stimulus bill in history. Who knows what he might do with another mandate in 2012? Conservatives believe the country’s future hangs in the balance and that Obama absolutely must go.

That conviction may ultimately prove Palin’s undoing. Nominating someone who wasn’t electable would cost the party the White House, but it might also hurt in down-ballot races where the top of the ticket has some influence. Tea partiers who believe Armageddon is upon us will support the person who offers the greatest chance of avoiding it. Sarah Palin just may not be it.

A look at the earliest states reveals the obstacles even more clearly. Mike Huckabee will give her a run for her money in Iowa. In New Hampshire, conservatives who don’t share her social views may well back a Mitch Daniels or Jim DeMint. In South Carolina of course, she would have to deal with Huckabee again, who nearly won in 2008.

Again, that is not to say that Palin cannot win. But if I were her, I certainly wouldn’t be planning on moving into the White House just yet, whatever endorsement success I might have had in the previous year.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Tea Party's Chance to Overhaul the Welfare State

One of the most pressing issues that might be decided by the November midterms is the fate of the modern welfare state in the United States. Some tea partiers such as Rand Paul envision a much smaller one in years to come.

I have said before that I think most voters will not want big changes to programs that benefit them like Medicare and Social Security. But one possibility that is not usually talked about is means-testing Medicare and Social Security for middle class and wealthier citizens. At first glance, this simply seems like a common-sense move to save lots of money.

But one of the reasons Medicare and Social Security are traditionally more popular than Food Stamps or Temporary Aid to Need Families (typically called “welfare”) is because such a wide swath of the population benefits. There is a selfish motive to keep funding those programs because the average voter expects to benefit from them one day. Moreover, people can relate to those who do benefit because they are not so different from them.

If the average middle class citizen no longer receives Medicare or Social Security, he or she will not have the same personal motive to retain the program. Moreover, he might become resentful of those who do get benefits.In the 1980s, people who received aid from certain programs were termed “welfare queens.” They were seen as people who had not worked hard in life, and who did not deserve to have taxpayer dollars spent on them.

Perhaps the same fate will await shrunken Medicare and Social Security programs. People who receive benefits might be called “welfare grannies” who spent a whole life riding around in pink cadillacs not working. For some voters, this will be particularly galling as these grandmothers might have been the same ones who took in welfare benefits for so many years. With voters angry about program beneficiaries, will they be sympathetic to politicians who want to end the program entirely?

To make sure that enough voters have a staking in continuing Medicare and Social Security, politicians will have to allow the majority of voters to continue receiving decent benefits. They might prevent millionaires from receiving benefits. But they will allow people who led middle class and maybe even upper middle class lives to receive benefits. The problem with this is that while it will save some money, I doubt it will make the program solvent.

So tea partiers find themselves in a difficult situation. If they want to make meaningful cuts in the programs, they have to stop a broad portion of the population from benefiting. If they do that, they may be drummed out of office. However, if they make only small, politically palatable cuts, they won’t obtain their goal of balancing the budget. Just maybe though, they will accomplish a cherished dream many of them have but don’t give voice to: the abolition of two huge entitlement programs.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Series of Banal But True Observations About Education

Education has been in the spotlight recently, in part due to the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” The film follows several children as they attempt to get out of low-performing public schools and into high performing charters. What is interesting and depressing at the same time is how simple the formula for good schools is. Good teachers, involved parents, and invested students. Building a good school isn’t rocket science.

But it is very hard. Let’s start with good teachers. Kids in poor inner-city and rural districts need talented, experienced teachers who are willing to work long hours for student achievement. These teachers need a deep mastery of their subject matter and an ability to invest students. The problem is people who are great motivators and self-starters have plenty of career options, many of which are either more lucrative or much simpler than teaching. Retaining quality teachers and luring quality candidates might require higher salaries or other perks which would stretch stained budgets already strained to the breaking point.

Of course it isn’t enough to have good teachers. We also need students to come in wanting to learn and with a stake in their education. Parents have a critical role to play here. Parents have a relationship with their children that other adults lack. But often, parents in low income areas work multiple jobs and are struggling just to make ends meet. Even when they want to be involved, it is simply more difficult. But somehow, we have to involve parents more. I don’t know how.

Mostly, this post has been full of truisms. But I worry that for the foreseeable future, too many students really will be waiting for Superman.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Are Pro-Lifers Really Pro-Life?

Teresa Lewis’ execution in Virginia sparked discussion about a range of interesting issues. One was whether pro-lifers like Governor Bob McDonnell in fact believe that fetuses deserve the same right to life that fully developed humans do. The reasoning goes like this: McDonnell refused to grant Lewis clemency for the crime of contract murder. In an abortion, the woman is contracting with a doctor to kill the fetus. Since very few if any pro-lifers recommend sentencing a mother to death for having an abortion, they cannot really believe that a fetus has the same intrinsic right to life that you or I do, can they?

It’s possible to supply another explanation. In order to make abortion illegal, pro-lifers will have to succeed in politics. They will either have to elect enough legislators at the state and national level to pass a constitutional amendment, or elect a President who will appoint conservative judges and a Senate that will confirm them. In either of these scenarios, pro-lifers need to cobble together an electoral majority on behalf of their cause.

That cause will need moderate female voters to rally around it. Moderate female voters are often queasy about abortion, but I doubt they would support putting women in jail for having them, much less giving them the death penalty. Opponents would have a field day painting pro-life candidates as heartless extremists. It’s hard to imagine the GOP ever doing well with female voters while there was a party plank to make women having abortions eligible for capital punishment.

To be sure, if one thinks that a fetus has the same intrinsic worth as a developed human, then abortion really is a murder. Many pro-lifers probably actually believe this, but feel that not punishing women who have abortions is a compromise they have to make to retain political viability. The greatest good in this situation would be to end legalized abortion; any compromises that ultimately serve this goal are therefore justifiable. In other words, many pro-lifers might very well make abortion equivalent to the crime of murder if they could. Politically, they cannot.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Repealing the 17th Amendment is a Bad Idea

Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller--who scored an upset victory in the primary because of tea party support-- made news for arguing that we should repeal the 17th amendment, which mandates the direct election of Senators. Before, Senators were elected by that state legislature. I don’t think it made sense, either in terms of politics, or in terms of policy.

Part of the tea party’s appeal is that it speaks for regular Americans who are tired of a disconnected liberal elite in Washington. But how can you be a populist when you simultaneously claim that those same average Americans aren’t fit to vote for Senators to represent them in Washington. Voters who really are upset at what they perceive to be out-of-touch elites might question candidates who want to take their power to vote for Senators from them.

In terms of policy, this move would be bad for a few reasons. First, it would nationalize state and local elections. Special interest groups and national parties would have an incentive to focus on local races much more than they had in the past. The problem is that this all prevents voters from being able to have different preferences at different levels of government.

For example, there are some voters who might prefer Democrats on local issues, but Republicans ones on national ones. That is, someone might want Democrats making education policy at the state level, but Republicans to have more power over national security decisions at the national level. By repealing the 17th amendment, this person would have to vote for a Republican for state senate to get a Republican in the national senate.

Second, repealing the 17th amendment will make it harder for newcomers to get into politics. State senators will likely vote for people they have served with for long periods of time, and who have done them lots of favors. To be sure, there is a very real political establishment that plays a role in deciding who has a realistic chance to win office. But under status quo, a newcomer can at least take his case before the broader electorate if he can’t get the establishment to support him. Ironically, this is how tea party candidates like Marco Rubio and Joe Miller won in the first place. If Miller succeeds in repealing the 17th amendment, he will make it harder for grassroots candidates like himself to win office in the future.

Third, repealing the 17th amendment could undermine the legitimacy of the very Senate tea partiers want to change. When people feel like the Senate doesn’t actually represent them, they will lose trust in the institution at best, or at worst come to intensely resent an institution which decides their taxes and whether the country goes to war because they didn’t have a say in electing the membership. In an extreme scenario, voters might push for a constitutional amendment to abolish the Senate.

There are other good arguments against repealing the 17th amendment as well. You can read them here. Suffice it to say, I am more than a bit surprised that serious political thinkers are actually proposing this move.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How Can You be Libertarian and Pro-Life?

Tea partiers have gained prominence in part by arguing for a dramatically smaller federal government that exercises less influence over the lives of Americans. Government shouldn’t tell people they have to purchase healthcare or how much sugar and salt they can put on their food. It shouldn’t tell people what kind of car to drive. So how can people who in one breath advocate for more personal freedom be pro-life or ally with pro-lifers in another, who want to restrict a woman’s right to choose?

While it is easy to paint such a stance as a contradiction, I’m not sure it actually is. At their core, libertarians do believe in maximizing freedom and minimizing government influence. But that doesn’t not mean they never support government influence. For example, if one company had a monopoly over a resource, libertarians might support government intervention to break up the monopoly and restore competition. This is to allow both consumers and other businesses a basic amount of liberty.

Government would be perfectly within acceptable parameters to safeguard these liberties. This becomes even clearer if we accept the assumption on the part of some pro-lifers that abortion is tantamount to murder. No reasonable libertarian would oppose having a police force to stop murders from happening, or letting the state declare murder illegal. In this case, a pro-lifer with libertarian sentiments is acting consistently when he advocates making abortion illegal.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Charlie Crist's Folly

Article first published as Charlie Crist's Folly on Blogcritics

The Democrats are set to suffer huge losses in the midterms. The biggest loser though may well be Charlie Crist.

At one point, Crist was a rising star in the Republican Party. His endorsement help put John McCain over the top in the 2008 Republican primary, and he was touted as a possible Vice-Presidential nominee. Early on in the Senate race, Crist maintained a sizeable lead. His name recognition and high approval ratings made him seem unbeatable.

That was before he embraced the Obama stimulus package. That was before unemployment stayed well above the 8% the Obama administration predicted and before the tea party arose to oppose Obama’s healthcare plan. Crist’s opponent Marco Rubio found himself in the lead. Crist left the Republican primary, but entered the general election as an independent. It’s probably the worst decision he’s made in his political life.

There are a couple of scenarios. The first and most obvious is that Crist ends up losing again in the general election. A Quinnipiac poll had him trailing by thirteen points. In that case, he’s likely done in politics. He’ll never win a Republican nomination for anything ever again. By bolting the party to run as an independent, he showed that he wasn’t a loyal Republican. He’s exposed himself to charges of political opportunism which will also hurt with independents. And Democrats will have a hard time supporting him when they are reminded of the myriad conservative positions he’s taken on the issues over the years.

The second scenario is that Crist wins. But even under this scenario, it’s hard to see him going appreciably further in politics. There will be immense pressure on Republicans from their base to keep him out of the Republican caucus. He’ll never be a Senate majority or minority leader, or a committee chairman or ranking member. Maybe Democrats will take him into the caucus so they can maintain a majority, but that’s no guarantee that he’ll be reelected; just look at Arlen Specter, who lost in the Democratic primaries to Joe Sestak.

Crist certainly has no chance of becoming President anymore. Independents very rarely have electoral success. When they do, they typically have an issue to run on, a regional base, or a charismatic personality. Think of George Wallace or Ross Perot. It’s not clear Crist will have any of these if he ever wants to run for President, which he surely did at some point. Even if he were a successful independent candidate, successful independent candidates simply don’t win.

The best choice for Crist when he began losing the Republican primary earlier this year was to bow out gracefully and throw his full weight behind Rubio. He should have been seen raising money and campaigning for him. Doing this would have given him a chance to win over tea-partiers and conservatives in the years ahead. He would have gained even more goodwill with the Republican establishment by showing that he was a person who really did put party over self.

There is of course the possibility that Crist left the Republican Party out of principle, in which case attacks on him as a political opportunist are unfair. Even in this case, the decision might have made sense on principle; politically, it made none.