Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Next Three Weeks

We are now entering a curious moment in the already curious 2010 mid-term elections. The year’s themes and trends have been established, and very little if anything can alter that. The anger at President Obama and his party has been so strong that most Democratic incumbents in the U.S. house and senate, and in gubernatorial races, have seen remarkable vulnerability so far, with very large gains for the Republicans now expected.

Since this anger is emotional as well as substantive, it would seem that the high pitch of voter dissatisfaction cannot like be maintained at this level for the entire next five weeks. With little of substance to salvage what races they can, Democrats have turned to smear attacks against their opponents earlier than usual. (To be fair, in years past when they were behind, Republicans often resorted to attacks on Democrats.)

The natural tendency for grass roots movements to proceed with stops and starts, will produce, I think, a political pause in some (but not all) closely contested races over the next three weeks. This does not mean the outcome will be changed, and in fact, it will likely provide the Tea Party movement and GOP activists with renewed energy as they go into what will likely be a furious and epic final two weeks of the campaign at the end of October.

What will be the specific kind of phenomena we will now see in the next three weeks? First, earlier-than-usual heavy advertising by well-financed Democratic incumbents and their supporting groups, much of it laden with harshly negative personal attacks on their challengers. Second, a great deal of volatility of poll numbers in the most competitive races, including momentary “comebacks” by several Democratic figures who have been slipping in their numbers. Third, a massive effort by the Old Media, including the TV networks (except Fox and C-SPAN) and the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, etc., to resurrect the prospects of the Democratic candidates and the Obama administration. This media effort will attempt to reinforce the negative attacks on GOP candidates, and will also try to portray President Obama, the Congress and its legislative record, in a favorable and upbeat light.

Will any or all of this work? Not very likely. Democratic incumbents, especially those who voted for Obamacare, are prisoners of their president and their own party.

The public has come to expect last-minute tactics by politicians and their campaigns, and although scandal does not help a candidate, this is a year that the public is itching to make a point of its own, and it will employ virtually any challenger to do its bidding.

There is, of course, an after-the-election consequence to the voters’ desire to register their unhappiness. Any Republican elected this year who reverts to politics-as-usual and does not vote to change the current political climate in Washington, DC or their state capital will be summarily dismissed in the next election.

To call to mind an earlier American revolt, this is the whites of their eyes.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Surreality and Provocations

Electoral developments in U.S. politics are taking on an aura of surreality these days as even the most respected and usually accurate pollsters are coming up with numbers so unexpected and extreme that we have to pinch our political selves to make sure we are truly awake.

After an early campaign season in which the anger of the voters became increasingly visible during the primaries, it was understood that Republicans would make signficant gains in many states and regions as the sputtering economy, high unemployment, and a halfhearted recovery from the recent recession surged into the core of the public mood. There was even some far-out talk that the Democrats might narrowly lose the U.S. house of representatives and maintain only a small lead in the U.S. senate after controlling both houses of Congress by large margins for the past two years and after also regaining the White House in 2008.

It was conceded by most observers at the outset of this mid-term election cycle that Democrats who had won Republican seats in 2006 and 2008, especially in traditional GOP areas, might well be vulnerable. This could produce GOP gains of 25-35 in the house, and 4-6 seats in the senate. A pick-up of 3-5 governorships might also be possible.. Now poll numbers are indicating Democratic losses of 50-80 in the house, and 10-15 in the senate, and perhaps as many as ten governors. This seems to be happening in spite of the fact that several GOP nominees are eccentric or have personal and political probelms of their own. (It should also be stressed here that these indications are not necessarily what the final numbers will be.)

Much of this momentum has occurred in the few days since the primary season ended in mid-September, and has infiltrated the campaigns of several “secure” Democratic incumbents who, only a month ago, seemed totally “safe” against any Republican tide.

Now the question becomes, with only about five weeks before election day, where does the voter mood go from here? The apparent “collapse” of the Democrats is taking place well before the final days of the campaign, so it is very difficult to imagine that the current dramatic trend will continue unabated. But what is to change the public mood? The recession has been declared to be “over,” and the stock market is having a mild rally. Several economic indicators are positive.. Earnings declines seemed to have bottomed out, and are reversing upwards. Yet the voters (and consumers) seem to be unimpressed.

I suspect that the response and attitude by the Democratic leadership is the key to understanding the rapid detrioration of voter confidence and predictability. For several months, a number of us in the right, left and center of the “commentariat” class, that is, journalists and op ed columnists, talk show hosts and other broadcasters, and political scientists have been citing the unusual political behavior of the party in power and its leadership. (Of course, many of us were accused of just being very partisan.) At the top of that party, President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid have been promoting and insisting on some rather radical changes in U.S. domestic policy that climaxed in the passage of healthcare legislation known as Obamacare this past spring and summer. Not only was this unpopular (more than 60% of the public oppose it), its secret details and consequences have now begun to leak out, much of it in direct contrast to what its supporters and the Democratic leadership said it was and would be. Huge and continuing financial “bail-outs,” unprecedented takeovers of large U.S. corporations and industries, tax increases and massive new public spending and bureaucracy have conveyed a philosophy of governing, and an understanding of how the economy works, that are the opposite of common sense and what might give the public confidence in those in charge.

In short, the Obama administration and the Democrats have gone too far and too fast.

And that is only looking at domestic policy. In foreign policy (which voters usually care less about), President Obama has had very fews successes in an international environment that is increasingly unstable and threatening. His lack of experience and naive attitude to the complexity of foreign affairs has allowed international problems in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Venezuela and Israel/Palestin to deteriorate.

To be fair to Mr. Obama, he did inherit a domestic recession and a volatile international landscape. Mistakes were made by his predcessors, both Republican and Democrat. But we are now long past the time when a current president can legitimately place the blame of his problems on others. There has been plenty of time since January, 2009, to put new policies, initiatives, and relationships in place. The public intuitively knows and understands this, and a great unease has arisen, and continues to rise in the country.

As many have already pointed out, and I among them, presidents in trouble in the first part of their first terms (Reagan in 1981-82; Clinton in 1993-94) usually change course when their original directions don’t work. Mr. Obama and his advisors and collaborators seem unwilling to admit their failures or to seek new directions. This has aggravated the public mood even more, and provoked the electoral response we now see forming.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Confusing "Centrists" With "Moderates"

There is much discussion now going on by members of the political class in America that political “centrism” is dead, and that the voters have become polarized to the far left and far right. Polling data is produced as evidence of this, as are recent election results in which so-called “moderates”: have been defeated in their own primaries, “forced” to retire, or are likley to lose in the forthcoming November elections. While I do not dispute the election results, nor even most of the polling, I must rise once again to clarify the difference between “centrist” and “moderate.”

Many in the political class (party activists, political consultants, candidates, poltical journalista and editorialists), I suspect, use the terms interchangeably, and might wonder what I am talking about. I suggest that the confusion about the terms would enable anyone, in the political class or not, to misread the phenomena which are motoring the 2010 mid-term national elections.

The primary cause of misunderstaning about these terms concerns their usage. “Centrism” and “centrists” occupy a demographic place in the political spctrum. “Moderates” occupy a mathematical “middle.” I have long argued that the United States is the quintissential “centrist” nation, that is, its public policy center is where most voters are. Sometimes the “center” leans to the right; sometimes it leans to the left. It is not necessarily where its elected officials are, nor even where the poltiical class is. Short of a revolutinary environment, most voters in the U.S. always remain the political center (since, in effect, they define it).

There are always, simultaneously, “moderates” among elected officials, that is those who try to operate in the political “middle” where compromise attempts to deal with those in actual political power. Some of these “moderates” are centrists, too, much of the time, but their modus operandi is merely to moderate poltical action rather than fulfill the “centrism” of the majority of voters.

A case in point was the recent healthcare legislation in which President Obama and the Democratic congress put forward, relative to govenment policy in the past, radical proposals to change the government’s role in healthcare. Very few in America, Democrat or Republican, left or right, would deny that reform of our healthcare system was in order and needed. But the proposals of the Obama administration went much further, in my opinion, than where the voter in the political center wanted to go. Whether these proposals can be accurately labeled as “socialist,” “social democratic,” “European” or simply “radical” is not the question. The question is whether they occupy the political center or not.

Many Republican legislators, now out of power after years of some power since 1994, tried to exert some influence to moderate the legislation, and in so doing voted for the final bill. These senators and members of the house of representatives acted as “moderates,” not as centrists. They only moderated the radical legislation slightly; they did not make it fit the political center.

A large number of voters, many of them in the Republican Party or self-described as “independents” who belong to neither major party, however objected to this legislation, especially as its details and consequences were revealed after passage and signing. When combined with other Obama administration intitiatives in domestic and foreign policy, these actions or proposed actions provoked many outside the political class, but primarily in the political center, to coalesce as the 2010 mid-term elections approached.

I am not saying that the so-called Tea Party movement is the only part of this centrist reaction, but it is the most visible and active part, I am not saying that all Tea Party members and activists are centrists, but most of them are. It is, of course, in the self interests of the Democrats and the Republican “moderates” to try to portray the Tea Party as “extremists,” “radicals,” and “rascists,” but they are, as a movmement, nothing of the kind.

(I note that the politically smartest members of the Republican Party have welcomed the Tea Party, and are now working with them for the November elections.)

Those elected politicians of both parties who have been acting as “moderates” are in much trouble this year. They have confused their role as centrists with acting solely to moderate. Thus, Arlen Spector, Mike Castle (neither as a senator nor a congressman), Lisa Murkowki, George Voinovich (retiring) et al, will not be returning to office next year; and why Democrats Blanche Lincoln, Byron Dorgan (retiring), Evan Bayh (retiring), Michael Bennett, Bill Nelson, Patty Murray, et al, are in so much trouble or just chose not to run.

The fact that some of those chosen by Tea party voters so far this year are eccentric, and may not win in the end, or that a few Tea Party activists hold more extreme views than the vast majority of Tea Party voters. does not alter the reality that the Tea Party is a genuine grass roots centrist movement.

I therefore caution those who would use interchangeably the terms ‘centrist” and “moderate” to be wary about missing the political boat this year. “Moderates” are indeed in trouble, but they are in trouble because the political centrists, those not in the political class, are upset and angry with what has been happening in Washington, DC.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

After Last Night: Upsets and Upstarts

The final primaries of the 2010 mid-term national elections have now been concluded, and they ended with a bit of a bang as the season of upsets and upstarts made one more appearance.

I have argued for many months now that the so-called Republican establishment and the Democratic Party in general make a huge mistake in underestimating and criticizing the Tea Party movement. Now there can be little doubt that they are the emblematic new force in the 2010 elections.

The conventional wisdom is that Christine O’Donnell’s surprise defeat of long-time GOP officeholder Michael Castle in Delaware means that a hitherto “sure GOP win” is now a “sure GOP loss.” The same was said previously about Linda McMahon’s nomination in the Connecticut senate contest when it turned from a “sure GOP win” while incumbent Senator Chris Dodd was the Democratic candidate, but became a “sure GOP loss” when Attorney General Blumenthal replaced Dodd on the ticket andMcMahon won Republican primary. I want to stress, as I have been doing for weeks, that NO incumbent is absolutely safe this year, especially no Democratic incumbent, and particularly Democrats Blumenthal and Koons (Delaware), even though they currently have “safe” leads. Mr. Castle and Mr. Lazio in New York, only a few weeks ago, held double-digit “insurmountable” leads, albeit only in their own parties.

Thus Rick Lazio’s landslide defeat in the New York GOP gubernatorial primary, and the extraordinary weakness of nearly all Democratic candidates for house, senate and governor, tells us one more time what an incredible year it has been, and going to be, with voters aroused as perhaps they have not been before.

It is not the age or sex of candidates that matters this year. It is their attitude, their conduct, and their awareness that there has been a sea change in American politics. Younger candidates such as Lazio and older ones such as Mike Castle represent the “politics as usual” crowd, a crowd of politicians that voters are rejecting left and right this year.

What is this “politics as usual” attitude? It is senators and congresspersons who take care of themselves first, i.e., higher salaries and benefits for themselves, larger staffs, lots of pork barrel, taxpayer-paid trips abroad, voting for highly unpopular legislation, and so forth. Most American voters have had their fill of this. The cliche that voters hold a low opinion of Congress, but support their own member of Congress, is no longer necessarily true.

Democrats should rightly fear the Tea party phenomenon. It is no surprise that their strategists are already slandering this movement as “racist,” “extremist,” and “radical.” It is nothing of that sort. It is a genuine grass roots movement fed up with how Washington is run. It is furious at President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress for its radical agenda. It supports Republicans, but only if they offer change. It is conservative, but not necessarily partisan in the usual sense. And it is very, very angry.

I want to point out that my commentary about this is not necessarily about my personal political views. In fact, on some issues I may well disagree with the majority of Tea Party views. (On many others, I may agree with them.) My observations are my attempt to fulfill my role as a fair and accurate observer of politics, particularly the politics of this remarkable political season.

So if any of my readers think I will now moderate my prediction (made on this space only two days ago) of an historic GOP sweep ahead in November because grass roots Republicans have upset the political apple cart in the primaries, they are mistaken. I may be wrong about this, but so far I see nothing to change my mind. In fact, yesterday’s primaries only reinforced it.

Democrats, rejoice at your peril. Old-line Republicans, complain at yours.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Don’t Look Now, But...

My contrarian nature has been resisting confirming the new conventional wisdom that November will bring very large Republican gains in U.S. house, U.S. senate, gubernatorial and state legislative races across the nation. Of course, I was among the earliest to forecast the GOP trend, when it was not so conventional, but now that it is, I have been wary.

Now I have a new contrarian view which I will state here, and then over the next seven weeks describe in detail, race by race (I will leave the detail, precinct by precinct, to my friend, Michael Barone who can do that as no one else in America can.). [NOTE: I do not mean to imply that he agrees with me on my prediction.]

A caveat (there is always at least one caveat in this business): While there is no longer anything President Obama and his Democratic leadership colleagues can do to salvage their impending defeat by perhaps historic dimensions, there are always unexpected historical events, domestic or international, which can appear at the last minute, and change public attitudes in the short term.

Lacking one of those traumatic events, the defeat of the Democrats is inevitable. Conventional wisdom now has it that GOP gains will be substantial, possibly leading to taking narrow control of the house of representatives. After alternating between bravado and caution, I now see that the voters are in such an aroused and negative mood that they are going to deliver an historic rebuke to Mr. Obama, his radical agenda, and his Democratic accomplices.

This means that virtually all of the still close house and senate seats will be turned over to the Republicans. It also means that several house and some of the remaining up-for-election-this-year senate seats considered “safe” for the Democrats will be lost. Republicans will win even more governorships and take control of more state legislatures than even now predicted. It is slated to be the most historic political reversal in modern American history.

All fingers point to Barack Obama as the prime cause for such an outcome. (Sorry, Mr. President, but the buck DOES stop with you.)

This is just my opinion, at this point, and I could be wrong. I have a track record I’m very proud of in these matters, but I hasten to point out that past performance in political prognostication, as in stock market forecasts, is often illusory when making predictions about events which have not yet taken place.

So watch this space over the coming weeks for examples of the political movement I now see in full flower. Please stay tuned in.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fanning The Flames: The Real Villains

Needless to say, burning or defacing the sacred book of any religious faith is unethical, self-defeating and just plain wrong.

But there is a villain in the recent outburst of publicity over threats to burn the sacred text of Islam. It is not the vast majority of those who practice Islam, nor is it even the attention-getting pastor of the Florida church who got it all started. The villains are those in the media who inflame public opinion, here and abroad, by paying attention to someone who purports to represent a tiny church with less than 100 members.

I agree that if, say, the Methodist Church would decide by a vote of its members, or even all of its clergy, to perform such an act, that would be legitimate news, much as most of us might disagree with it. But to give some weirdo pastor with a tiny church membership an international podium to promote himself is an irresponsible act. I am not talking about censorship (which all of us in the media oppose); I am talking about the responsibility of editorial choice and control.

The bias of the Old Media has been apparent for many years now. It has also accompanied their dramatic decline in readers, viewers and listeners. I am sad to report that some of the New Media have joined in on this sacred book-burning spectacle; albeit they have almost all condemned it which is commendable, but still no excuse for promoting the story.

There are very few persons or institutions which approve of this sacred book-burning act. It is not enough to justify a worldwide sensational story, especially when the fringe persons who perpetrate it are insignificant, and not news. If, as a profession and institution, we cannot demonstrate self-control and good editorial judgment, then eventually there will be those outside journalism who will want to do it for us.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Electoral Avalanche Nine Months Later

On January 6, 2010, I wrote in this space that Republican might gain 12 U.S. senate seats and 55 U.S. house seats (”Electoral Avalanche? Don’t Call 9-1-1″). I think many of my readers and friends WERE tempted to call 9-1-1, but thankfully no one did. What seemed preposterous nine moths ago now seems not only quite possible, but probable. I may even have low-balled the U.S. house number.

Since, however, conventional wisdom has shifted my way, and being an instinctive contrarian, I am now being cautious about the numbers. A takeover of the U.S. senate yet remains questionable inasmuch as current estimates are that Republicans only now have secure leads in 7 or 8 races. Panic among Democratic strategists is beginning to set in as draconian measures are being put forward, but the primary cause of the liberal party’s political problems, President Obama himself, seems not quite fully aware of the problem.

I m not yet predicting a GOP takeover of one or both houses of Congress, but the election is now so near, and the possibility so real, I would suggest that conservative leaders begin to think about what they will DO after election day if they win an historic victory.

Even in mid-term defeat, an incumbent president has certain advantages if he or she is running for re-election two years later. But a dramatic defeat only two years after winning an historic presidential election does put the primary advantages in the corner of those who win the mid-terms.

On the other hand, if Republicans merely gloat, or attempt to behave legislatively as extreme on their side as those they defeated have done, their political triumph may be short-lived. If they treat their colleagues as arrogantly as the Democratic leaders did the Republicans in the past two years, the public will only become further alienated from the legislative branch…..and both parties.

A Republican victory this November is not a mandate for pay-back time. (Voters are not looking for retribution; they are seeking an economic turnaround.) It would be a mandate for the thoughtful promotion of conservative principles, i.e. lower taxes, less government spending, less interference by the federal government in state and local matters, reduction of federal deficits, and less polarization of the country. If Republicans win in November, their leaders should offer to work with, and even compromise with, President Obama to advance these principles (but not his radical principles). If they do not follow this course in general, they risk giving Mr. Obama a legitimate target for his 2012 campaign (assuming, of course, he could win his party’s renomination).

If it is Barack Obama, then, who does not seem to be trying to work with the Congress, then it will be relatively simple for the GOP nominee for president in 2012, whoever it might be, to make his or her case for finishing the job begun in 2008.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Political Somnabulism in September

There is an unprecedented dream-like quality to this year’s mid-term national elections. Normally, regardless of political conditions, the two sides engage in a comprehensible back-and-forth competition for votes. On some occasions this produces a one-sided result, but there is at least some kind of debate about issues and the record of those in power, as well as some level of enthusiasm on each side.

In 2010, President Obama and his Democratic leadership in Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are campaigning, and are defending their record and policies, but in the face of unambiguous and steadily declining unpopularity and rejection of their agenda, they are making no response to the electoral landscape, no adjustment as has been the case of all those in their position in recent decades. They appear, in fact, to be behaving as if they and their policies are enormously popular and successful.

For Republican candidates, who have to be constantly pinching themselves to make sure it is not just a wonderful political dream, there is the consequent political advantage of just saying “No!” and “No thanks” to the Democratic agenda that has featured gigantic bailouts, radical and unpopular healthcare reform, and repeated foreign policy failures. Mr. Obama, Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid seem to be doing the heavy work for them!

For Democratic candidates, it is a nightmare that does not stop, as they watch not only competitive house, senate and gubernatorial races slip away, but usually considered “safe” ones as well. Recent reports that Democratic house leaders and strategists are prepared to “abandon” many of their own (and marginal) candidates to create a “firewall” that will salvage their control, makes it a nightmare-within-a- nightmare for those candidates, already struggling for political air.

This dream-nightmare landscape up to and including September cannot continue without dire consequences for the Democratic Party and the Obama administration. If it does, the political slaughter of the Democratic Party will be of such historical dimensions that the presidential election of 2012, barring some titanic unforeseen international occurrence, will only be a charade. The only question then will be who the Republicans choose for their nominee. In a dream-nightmare, there are no laws of gravity. In the so-called real world, gravity is still operative.

Increasingly, as President Obama campaigns across the nation, as he is doing now, he will be spurned and avoided by his own party’s candidates. It has already begun. Those Democrats who stand at the president’s side will only become the dream wish fulfilled of GOP political admakers.

I do realize that the Obama administration is staking a great deal in the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. With its enormous economic leverage, the U.S. can always force these matters and even make the Israeli and Palestinian leaders say hopeful things to the media. But with powerful and hostile Iran and Hamas in the background, and their allies, any Middle East agreement made today isn’t worth the paper it’s signed on. Besides, the primary issue fueling voter dissatisfaction with the Democrats today is the state of domestic economy and the very high unemployment throughout the nation. The “suspicious” timing of these Middle East negotiations are clearly an attempt to divert public attention from our domestic woes.

So there will almost certainly be an attempt at an “October surprise” this year, as Democrats further wake up to the urgency of their situation. I don’t know what it will be, but there will be one. Watch for it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Democrats Shift To The Center

Less noted in the discussion this year’s mid-term elections, preoccupied as it has been with party labels (and which party will be in control of the senate next January), have been signs of rejuvenation in the Democratic Party’s centrist wing. (This trend, I hasten to say, does not include President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress.)

As I have previously pointed out, the likely election of centrist Democrat Joe Manchin to succeed the aging Robert Byrd in West Virginia is a notable example of this. But the trend is present in other seats vacated by incumbent Democrats (by retirement, primary defeat or death) in 2010. Richard Blumenthal is ahead in Connecticut, and has a record more likely to be to the center of retiring Senator Chris Dodd. Kirsten Gillebrand was appointed to succeed Hillary Clinton in New York in 2009, so the seat is not technically an open one, but Senator Gillebrand is up for election for the first time and has a huge lead in the race. She used to be more centrist when a congresswoman, but she is certainly less liberal than Mrs. Clinton. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania may not win this year, but if he does, he will likely be to the center right of the man he defeated for the nomination, Arlen Spector, a party-switching former liberal Republican. It’s more opaque in Illinois where Democrat Roland Burris was appointed to finish the term of Barack Obama on his election as president. Liberal Burris chose not to run, but it is not clear if the Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulis is much more than a Chicago machine politician, and how centrist he might be if elected. (His center-right GOP opponent seems now to have a slightly better chance of winning.)

Democratic centrists will lose a seat to the GOP in November since Evan Bayh is retiring, and will probably lose another when Arkansas incumbent Blanche Lincoln likely loses in November. Although appointed center-left Democrat Ted Kaufman (who replaced Vice President-elect Joe Biden) is not running in Delaware, likely GOP winner in that race Congressman Michael Castle is himself considered a GOP centrist.

But Castle is the exception this year on the Republican side where likely winning candidates have moved distinctly to the right. Conservative GOP nominee Joe Miller has defeated centrist Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. Appointed Republican George LeMieux will likely be replaced by a more conservative Marco Rubio. Most other retiring Republicans will be replaced by those who are equally or more conservative than they are.

Thus, whether or not the Republicans win control of the U.S. senate in 2010, the upper house will almost certainly become distinctly more conservative. In fact, conservatives may control the senate regardless of their party affiliations.