Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Big Picture?

There are many small pictures being painted now about the 2010 national mid-term elections, why they turned out as they did, and to where they lead in the next session of Congress and to the 2012 presidential election. Some of these pictures are crude, but others are finely fashioned, and yet, following the tough expressions of the voters in 2006, 2008 and 2010, small pictures do not seem adequate as we look forward to a provisional and disturbing period ahead.

But what is the big picture? To attempt to draw such a picture, however imperfect, requires a suspension of personal ideology, partisan “spinning” and pre-determined outcomes. I suggest we begin with as many “facts” as possible.

I think it is fair to say that most American voters are distressed not only about economic conditions and rivalries, and external threats, but also about the performance of elected officials and non-elected public bureaucrats, and about government behavior itself. It is not just that there is opposition to higher taxes, and an inexorable growth of government in every citizen’s life, There seems to be a growing doubt that the collective structure of government itself is not working well enough, fairly enough and honestly enough to serve the public needs of today.

This is no small matter. It is also not the fault of only one political party. In its current mood, the U.S. electorate is alternately cleaning the houses of both parties, and with a velocity which has no real precedent in American history.

The American republic was founded on some revolutionary (for its time) principles that attempted to create a workable system of balancing the rights of individuals and the needs of the society of individuals. In a very creative and far-thinking way, the founders of the republic created a constitutional document, since rightfully amended, to make a people’s government do its job, do it well, and enjoy public confidence.

Our national history has had more than few bumps. The original constitution was drastically limited in its civil rights and suffrage, It took a civil war to expiate some of the basic inconsistencies of our earliest governance. The nation, at its inception, had great size, and it grew larger over time, but the population was very small until waves of immigration bulked up American society in time for it to play an important and unique role in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, and the Technology Revolution of the 20th century.

We are the third largest nation in population, but our total is only one-seventh that of China and India, each with more than one billion each, and eventually they will dominate the world economy. It took them some time to arrive at even where they are now because they were to slow to adopt the market structure of democratic capitalism. China persists in employing capitalism without the democratic process, and that will slow them down, but both the Chinese and the Indians have traditions that will, at some point, provide the largest economic markets in the world.

This new “reality” has only become evident in recent decades, and it has upended U.S. labor markets as well as our financial and product markets. In turn, this has provoked continued and growing unease among American workers who, in the current economic downturn, face chronic unemployment and lack of training and opportunity in the new and resulting American economic markets. Consumer confidence in these circumstances is shaken.

Government intervention in economic markets has, at best, a mixed history, and most Americans know that when government tries to run or manage traditionally private markets, it usually fails, and fails badly. That is because government management is not a free market, but instead is a state-run monopoly. We have historically permitted the state to manage certain aspects of the public sector, particularly domestic police and national military functions, but whenever we have allowed the government to go into free market situations, they fail to come close to the traditional success of private free market management. Why should we be surprised? We are, and have been, a free market nation for more than 200 years. Our society and its success have been based on those free markets.

Governments employ unpopular means when they interfere with free markets. They assess taxes and fees, and impose regulations and controls. Some of the latter are necessary to protect public health and safety. Large societies, by necessity, need to place some limits on free markets. Recently, some excesses of U.S. free markets, especially in financial institutions, have produced an economic crisis. Some may argue that past government interference, in the form of taxes, regulations and prohibitions, contributed to that crisis, but the fact remains we are in an economic downturn fueled by failures (described often as “bubbles”) in the private real estate, investment and technology sectors of the economy).

In the past, these economic downturns were soon replaced by economic upturns. This particular downturn seems to be persistent beyond the usual time frame, and some are arguing that the unprecedented government intervention in the markets is causing the problems to persist. Both Republicans and Democrats are complicit in this government intervention. Just as along U.S. participation in the Viet Nam War, with no success in sight, produced a voter reaction in 1968, the U.S. participation in the Middle East, produced a reaction in 2006. The mortgage banking crisis weeks before the 2008 presidential election effectively ended the campaign in favor of the Democrats, but when the Obama administration continued the “bailout” policies of the Bush administration, and compounded these with unprecedented federal intervention on the free market U.S. economy, voters again reacted by dramatically changing the make-up of both houses of Congress.

Does this mean that voters will refuse to re-elect President Obama in 2012? If he and his administration continue their current policies, and these policies continue to fail, we will have a new president on January 20, 2013. If the Republicans resist these policies, and come up with successful policies to replace the Obama program, the new president will be a Republican. The Democrats, as I suggested months ago, could also refuse to re-nominate Mr. Obama and then select someone who the electorate might have more confidence in residing in the White House, especially if the Republicans fail to nominate their most able candidate (whoever he or she might be).

The best candidate for each party will be the person who most ably diagnoses our current circumstances, and sees the biggest picture of where we are and where we need to go from here. The best candidate for each party will have the best understanding of the U.S. role in the world in the years ahead, and how we might navigate through the natural evolution of the world economy, as well as face down and thwart the malign threats the U.S. faces from totalitarian figures and regimes across the globe.

Let this conversation begin.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What Happened?

The first impulse of Tuesday’s national mid-term elections is to ask what it means, and then how it occurred. Believe it or not, I don’t think either of those questions are as important as one that is simpler: What happened?

What happened is that the balance of power shifted dramatically in the U.S. house of representatives from the Democrats to the Republicans. Furthermore, each party’s delegation in this body is now closer to its party base, that is, the Republican members are now more conservative than in the previous Congress, and the Democratic members are more liberal. A large number of moderate and establishment Democratic members were defeated for re-election. This will probably enable soon-to-be former speaker Nancy Pelosi, and current senate majority leader Harry Reid, both to the left side of their party, to win re-election for their leadership positions. Liberal initiatives for legislation are now finished, and conservative initiatives will take their place. As the branch of Congress which funds government and government programs, the house will now be in constant conflict with President Obama and his administration, and will act as a check on his policies.

A working majority in the U.S. senate on most important issues now is 60 members. The Democratic majority in the last Congress was usually able to muster that number to pass their legislation, but their majority is now significantly reduced. Senator-elect Joe Manchin, furthermore, is a very conservative Democrat who ran on the promise that he would oppose many of the liberal proposals passed in the last Congress, and advocated by President Obama. A popular governor, he must now go before West Virginia voters again in 2012 with his voting record since he was elected to fill the remainder of the late Robert Byrd’s term. Other, and surviving, centrist Democratic senators observed what happened to their like-minded colleagues in 2010 who went along with the very liberal leadership. With a presidential election now coming up, Mr. Obama’s ability to nominate liberals to government positions and to the judiciary is now restrained.

The conservative majority on the U.S. supreme court was not affected by the 2010 elections, although the impact of the voting is likely to affect any nominee the president might send to the senate for confirmation in the future.

A significant reversal in state governors now places the majority of state executives in Republican hands. Control of many state legislatures also changed hands in the Republicans favor. Combined with demographic changes that have been favoring Republicans over the past decade, these circumstances give the conservative party a decided advantage in the redistricting process that will occur in 2011, following the 2010 census.

In short, the prospects for conservatives and the Republican Party have been markedly improved, and those of liberals and the Democratic Party have been diminished.

The nation’s critical problems, however, remain, and the time remaining to resolve these problems is less, hour by hour, day by day, month by month.

No matter how it is “spun” or rationalized, the 2010 national mid-term elections was a nationwide rejection by the electorate of the first two years of the Obama administration. But it is not a judgment on the next two years. A national election is an organic act of the citizens. It is, in fact, their only collective way to express their opinion of the actions and behavior of their government.

By keeping the two most prominent faces and promulgators of the past two years in place, the Democrats are, in effect, thumbing their political noses to the American electorate. This is a very dangerous game for a political party in power to play, especially going into a presidential re-election. We still have a representative democracy, and in almost every case when a political party ignores or trespasses the will of an electorate, they are promptly and summarily removed from the temporary power given to them by that electorate.

2010 was a clear, unmistakeable warning. Mr. Obama, Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid can cling to any illusions they may have about this election, but you can count on 2012 making this year’s election seem mild if they do not change course.

Democratic elected officials at all levels of government, and who must go again before the voters in 2012, now must make some of the most difficult political decisions in American history, not only about their course, but who they want to lead them. No excuses will be allowed in the next election.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Undecided" Races Are Still Very Undecided

There are always election races which remain undecided the morning after election day, They occur at every level of government, from the very local to statewide races with national implications.

Apparently, eleven U.S. house races have not yet been called. One U.S. senate race remains undecided, and at least one major governorship.

I will turn attention here to the senate races and the gubernatorial contest.

In Alaska, a three-way race in which the incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski had to run as a write-in candidate, the GOP nominee Joe Miller trails “Write-in” by thirteen thousand votes, but not all of the write-in votes are necessarily for Murkowski. In fact, there are more than 150 bona fide write-in candidates in this race, as allowed by Alaska election law. Furthermore, a sizable percentage of write-in votes (6-8%) are usually disallowed, and in this case, with election recount lawyers everywhere, that percentage is likely to be much higher. Many absentee ballots reportedly are also not yet counted. Write-ins, many of which were sent in before Murkowski announced her effort, are much more likely to provide a significant margin for Miller. This vote count could take weeks or months, especially since every write-in will be examined. If there is a recount after the final official vote, it could be many more months before a senator would be seated.

In Minnesota, Democrat (DFLer) Mark Dayton came out with a margin of less than one-half of one per cent in the raw count in his race against Republican Tom Emmer. If this margin holds or even grows a bit after an official canvas, there will be a mandatory recount according to state law. The canvas will go until the end of November. The recount almost certainly will go into next year. Because the DFL challenged the 2008 U.S. senate race when Incumbent GOP Senator Norm Coleman had a lead after the canvas, and the recount gave his opponent the seat in a bitter confrontation between campaign attorneys, it is almost certain that the GOP this time will do everything legal they can to reverse Dayton’s lead. They may not succeed, but if the recount goes into next year, they will have a win anyway. That is because, in a surprise upset, the GOP won both houses of the state legislature for the first time in 68 years. According to the state constitution, the retiring governor (in this case, GOP Governor Tim Pawlenty) remains in office until his successor takes the oath of office. Since the first session of the new legislature is scheduled only to last three months, the Republicans could theoretically enact their entire legislative program without fear of veto. Thus, if he won the recount, Governor Dayton might arrive in his office in St. Paul AFTER much of the legislation he would have vetoed was already irreversibly the law. Governor Pawlenty, who is running for president, has already announced that he is prepared to fulfill the constitution, and continue in office until the recount is resolved.

Recently, Brazil (which has a population of 200 million persons) held its national elections, and reportedly virtually all of its election returns were counted and reported only a few hours after polls closed. In the United States, even in races that are not close, election officials often do not count or report their totals until many hours after polls close or until even until the next day. Delayed returns routinely provoke charges of vote fraud in Chicago, Gary, IN, Philadelphia, St. Louis and in northern Minnesota (just to name a few). How is that a relatively new representative democracy with a huge population and a large land area (Brazil) can count its votes promptly and credibly report them, and the world’s oldest representative democracy (United States of America) cannot?

It is our national shame.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Goodbye To All That

The law of gravity, as was inevitable, prevailed on Tuesday, November 2. The truth is that government is not the World Series, Super Bowl or “Dancing with the Stars.” The “people’s business” is a serious matter with serious consequences. Both political parties have confused the “people’s business” with their own businesses and predilections, and have elevated gamesmanship over statesmanship. On election night, 2010, the voting citizens said “Goodbye to all that.”

We now enter a provisional period in which the institution of elected officials at all levels of government are given relatively short intervals in which to do the business “the people” require. Words are not deeds, and deeds will be the currency of public business in the era ahead.

The tendency may be to interpret the 2010 mid-term elections as a defeat of the Democratic Party, and a victory for the Republicans. In the technical sense, it was that, but simply to tally up the numbers is to miss the point of what the voters said and did.

I have, throughout my life of public affairs commentary, always argued that the very nature of the American republic is that most of its citizens occupy a great political center. The genius of the U.S. constitution is that from the very beginning, and in new and expanded ways as it was amended over time, it fostered that political center and enabled the course of American public life to be guided by the rule of law, and central principles balancing the individual and the government which serves them.

The conservative and liberal factions of the political center have been part of the nation’s public life since an unprecedented insurrection against the English monarchy put the British colony on the map as the United States of America. Over time, our governments at the state and national levels have alternated between the liberal and conservative factions, but almost always the political center prevailed.

Occasionally, leaders and movements that function beyond the political center arise in the U.S., but almost always the voters have rejected them. In 2008, the majority of voters elected Barack Obama, believing him to be in that long and inherent American tradition, and seeking change from the difficult economic conditions then unfolding. A man with almost no background or preparation for assuming the complex and immensely challenging U.S. presidency, Mr. Obama has allowed his administration to drift outside the political center, albeit the left center, and into areas which trespass the limits of which most Americans feel their government belongs.

John Boehner, soon to be the new speaker of the House of representatives, got it exactly right on Tuesday evening when he said that the American voters had told President Obama to “change course.”

These are times of extreme American vulnerability, facing dangers and threats of a magnitude not ever seen since a few citizens of Boston threw quantities of tea into Boston Harbor more than two centuries ago. President Obama acquired the always temporary right to hold the steering wheel of the American state for a term of office, but as we can only hope he learned on election night, 2010, the captains in our republic always report to the civilians.