Yesterday's historic Supreme Court decision to uphold President Obama's health care legislation caught many pundits and politicians by surprise. Often thought of as the likeliest swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the dissenting minority. Meanwhile, Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee who delighted conservatives when he was nominated, voted to uphold the law.
This court decision obviously disappointed and disheartened Republican voters and politicians. But the real fallout with this verdict lies not with the Supreme Court's actions, but rather with how Republicans stand to further discredit themselves in their responses to the upholding of what they derisively call "Obamacare."
First, there is some obvious damage that has been done to the Republican Party's credibility. Many Republicans criticized the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") as "unconstitutional." They also claimed that the unconstitutionality of this law was even more ironic since it was advocated by President Obama, a "constitutional law professor." (The mocking of Obama as a "constitutional law professor" is akin to mocking him as a "community organizer.") Obviously, since the law was upheld, it renders both of these criticisms moot. The "constitutional law professor" supported a law that was found "constitutional." At the very minimum, that enhances Obama's credibility at Republicans' expense.
More importantly, however, is how Republicans are responding to the Court's decision. Mitt Romney announced that he would repeal Obamacare if he were elected president. Congressional Republicans have also scheduled a vote on a full repeal of Obamacare in mid-July. These decisions are unwise for several reasons:
1. After criticizing Obama for pursuing health care reform at the expense of not paying enough attention to the economy, Republicans could come across as being guilty of the same negligence they accused Obama of showing. Obama will likely and wisely pivot to handling economic affairs, such as tax credits, incentives or infrastructure investments to spur job creation. Even if nothing actually gets accomplished on this front, Obama could claim that he is trying to "put people back to work" while Republicans are "stuck relitigating the past." And since Romney's strongest card this election cycle is the economy, does he really want to make health care reform his top focus on the campaign trail?
2. Obama and congressional Democrats have a plan regarding health care reform. Republicans have nothing to offer on this front except opposition. There is little specificity when it comes to Republicans' health care reform ideas. They commonly say something along the lines of "repeal Obamacare" and put in place "common-sense solutions." What are these "common-sense solutions?" Romney in particular is boxed in on this issue because the very elements he complains about in Obamacare are similar to what he signed into law in Massachusetts. As for congressional Republicans, they should remember that even though Obamacare as a whole and the individual mandate may not be wildly popular with the electorate, the individual provisions of the law are. Do Republicans really want to campaign on repealing provisions that the public likes, especially if they have nothing better (or nothing at all) to offer as a replacement?
3. Republicans will have to get honest with themselves regarding taxation. Chief Justice Roberts may have given Republicans a political opening by asserting that the "penalty" levied against adults without health insurance fell under Congress's authority to tax. Claiming that Obamacare raises taxes is easy politically. But if Republicans wish to repeal Obamacare and replace it with their own legislation (they can't just repeal Obamacare and have the health care system revert to the chaos it used to be), how can they drive the cost of health care down and increase the ranks of the insured in a revenue neutral way? Medicare and Medicaid are among the biggest contributors to the national debt. More people are living longer and seeking increasingly expensive medical treatments. If Republicans do not wish to raise taxes or cut spending on Medicare and defense spending, what all is left? There is not enough money in low-hanging fruit like the National Endowment for the Arts or the Department of Education to offset the costs of Medicare and health care in general.
There is a simple question that journalists should ask anti-tax Republicans: "How low should taxes be for you to no longer seek to reduce them?" Journalists have been derelict in seeking clarity from Republicans on just how low taxes have to be in order for them to stop complaining that taxes are too high or that there are too many taxes in general. It seems that for Republicans, all taxes are bad and all taxes should be lowered. But taxes are necessary in order for a civilized society to operate. Taxes support the American military, food safety inspectors, baggage screeners at airports, embassy officials, and law enforcement personnel. At some point, Republican rhetoric on cutting taxes is going to conflict with the reality of public policy and the math associated with it. That will undermine their branding as the party of "fiscal responsibility." (Note: Democrats are obviously also guilty of not being honest about the need to reduce spending on some government programs, but regarding health care, they at least sought ways to pay for it by taxing people who don't purchase health insurance or taxing high-end insurance plans.)
4. Obama and congressional Democrats have the chance to appear magnanimous while Republicans risk looking partisan and vindictive. Obama announced in his White House statement yesterday that he was willing to find ways to improve the health care law. He also said he wanted to move on. The more Republicans complain about repealing the health care law (instead of modifying it to make it more palatable), the more they may seem too consumed with getting even with Obama or punishing him politically. Now that the Supreme Court has settled the constitutionality of the law, the public might be more inclined to move on. The July 11 repeal vote in the House of Representatives next month has no chance of passing both houses of Congress, so it looks like Republicans are playing a partisan political game and wasting time. While conservatives and critics of Obamacare might not be content with this decision, it would seem that independents who want Congress to get things done would recoil at the thought of yet another fight over something that was debated for over a year and settled by a Supreme Court with a conservative majority.
This is not to say that Obamacare is without its faults. However, Republican resentment of Obama and their fealty to their antitax base may cause the GOP an even greater headache down the road than the one the Supreme Court gave them this week.
Yesterday's historic Supreme Court decision to uphold President Obama's health care legislation caught many pundits and politicians by surprise. Often thought of as the likeliest swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the dissenting minority. Meanwhile, Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee who delighted conservatives when he was nominated, voted to uphold the law.
In my previous 7-10 blog posting, I analyzed Barack Obama's path to 270 electoral votes. The second part of this "Electoral Calculus" series examines the options available to his opponent, Republican Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
To start, as the challenger to a first-term president, Mitt Romney does not have history on his side. Since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933, a first-term president representing a political party that wrested control of the White House from the opposing party in the previous election has only been defeated once. The lone first-term president who failed in his reelection bid was Jimmy Carter in 1980.
FDR was elected four consecutive times. Because he died so early in his fourth term, Truman's election in 1948 was a de facto "reelection." Eisenhower was reelected in 1956. JFK, unfortunately, never lived to face reelection. LBJ routed Barry Goldwater in 1964, but decided not to run for reelection in 1968. Nixon demolished McGovern in his 1972 reelection bid, but resigned before he could complete his second term. Ford lost to Carter in 1976, but never served a full first term and wasn't even elected on the same ticket as Nixon. Carter, of course, lost to Reagan in 1980. Reagan won reelection in a landslide in 1984. George H.W. Bush lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton in 1992, but the Republican Party had controlled the White House for 12 consecutive terms by this point, thus making Bush's defeat different from Carter's. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were two-term presidents.
Incumbent presidents have numerous institutional advantages that presidential challengers simply do not have. A president can control the national conversation, as Obama did with his recent announcement concerning immigration policy. After getting beaten up in the press for two or three weeks over disappointing economic news and gaffes, Obama easily changed the narrative to one about how Mitt Romney is boxed in on immigration reform and how Obama's policy announcement polls well. Presidents also have the ability to speak to tens of millions of voters at once with a presidential address or news conference. They have high-ranking cabinet officials who can act as surrogates. And they can raise a lot of money.
Considering all this, Romney still has a chance to relegate Obama to the unsavory realm of one-term presidents. However, his margin for error is much smaller than Obama's because the onus is on Romney to win back states that Obama won in 2008. Shifting demographics make states in the South and West more appealing for Democrats, as is evidenced by Obama's chances in Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.
However, there is a flip side to these demographic changes. What Democrats gain in the South and West might be offset by a slightly less favorable electorate in the Midwest. This is where Romney will likely focus his efforts. The 7-10 will assume that a comfortable Obama victory (300+ EVs) is more likely than a comfortable Romney victory. So I will begin with what I consider the most likely outcome: an Obama victory with 291 EVs:
For Romney to have any chance at defeating Obama, he MUST carry Indiana, North Carolina and Florida. Nevada and Iowa would be nice to have, but their low number of EVs can be offset elsewhere. Nevada is a possible Romney pickup because of how hard the state was hit by unemployment and a poor housing market. That could sour voters on Obama because they could reasonably conclude that things haven't gotten much better for them with him at the helm. Iowans might reject Obama because of his stance on gay marriage. This state is actually closely divided in presidential years. Giving Romney all of these states gives him 247 EVs.
To get to 270, Romney will or should focus his efforts on the blue states in the Upper Midwest. Using a sports reference, Romney should campaign heavily in the blue states in Big Ten (the athletic conference) country. These states are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. (Illinois is not included here because it has no chance of going for Romney.) If Romney can win New Hampshire, then winning any two these five Midwestern states will send him to the White House. If Romney does not win New Hampshire, he still only needs to win two of these states as long as they are not Minnesota and Wisconsin. He would need a third state in this case. One possible result of this strategy is this map, which puts Romney in the White House at 291 EVs:
Vice presidential speculation has often focused on Ohio Senator Rob Portman and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Selecting either of these potential candidates as Romney's running mate might play well in the Midwest with their blue-collar appeal. Pawlenty may be especially helpful because he has no ties to the George W. Bush presidency (like Portman does), he is not a firebrand that could scare off moderate and independent voters, and he can speak easily with social conservatives and evangelical voters.
The Republican wave election of 2010 shows that Republicans can compete in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. This is not to say, however, that these states are automatic pick-ups for the Romney campaign. Ranking these states in order from most likely to be poached by Romney to least likely, I would rank them as Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
Ohio is a true swing state. Over the past 10 elections, it has voted for the Republican candidate six times and the Democratic candidate four times. However, Republican Governor John Kasich is not popular and Romney faces headwinds from labor unions and auto workers over his positions on the bailouts of the auto companies and his hostility to labor unions.
Wisconsin has voted Democratic in the past six elections. However, John Kerry nearly lost the state. Republican Governor Scott Walker recently survived a recall election. This result has certainly emboldened Republicans both in Wisconsin and around the country. Look for a lot of outside money to enter this race as Governor Walker helps Romney with fundraising. The same caveats apply, however, regarding labor voters and auto workers. It is also probable that the electorate in November will be a little browner, blacker and younger (in other words, more Democratic) than the electorate in this month's recall election.
After Ohio and Wisconsin, there is a considerably steeper climb for Romney to get to the next three Midwestern states.
Michigan has voted Democratic in the past five elections. Recent polling has shown this race to be very close, perhaps because of Romney's family ties to the state. But given the pride Michigan voters have for their car companies and Detroit (and Romney's "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" column in the New York Times), it would seem that these tight polls are not quite accurate. It bears watching these polls to see if they are anomalies or if they are picking up on something that should concern Team Obama greatly.
Like Michigan, Pennsylvania has gone blue in the past five elections. This state has a tendency to look competitive for Republicans only to fall out of play as the election draws near. Pennsylvania is fools gold for Republicans, just like Missouri is fools gold for Democrats. Blacks, Latinos and immigrants in Philadelphia; moderate voters in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs; and labor voters in Pittsburgh are likely very much opposed to Romney. Look for Joe Biden to connect with culturally conservative voters outside these areas who might be more sympathetic to Obama's economic message even if they are closer to Romney when it comes to social issues.
Minnesota has the longest streak in the country of voting for Democrats in presidential elections. The last Republican it supported was Richard Nixon in 1972. Not even Reagan could win this state despite his landslide victories in 1980 and 1984. That alone should relegate this state to tertiary status for the Romney campaign. A Tim Pawlenty selection might make this state more competitive than it otherwise might be because he would be a native son. If Romney is playing hard to win Minnesota, that's likely a bad sign for the Obama campaign because this state appears to be the furthest out of reach. It has a strong progressive streak (consider former Senator Paul Wellstone, for example) and a large urban core of Democratic voters in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Note how this analysis doesn't mention Virginia. While it is a highly contested state, The 7-10 thinks its changing demographics, growing Washington DC suburbs, low unemployment rate, and reliance on federal funding makes this state increasingly difficult for Republicans to compete in. A far more likely Romney result (275 EVs) would be a map like this:
In short, this is definitely a winnable election for Mitt Romney. But it requires a lot of breaks to go his way (e.g., Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, etc.). He will probably not rout Obama by any means, but a narrow Electoral College victory is definitely possible. He will need to maximize turnout among White blue collar voters and social conservatives in order to peel away a few light blue states in the Upper Midwest. He will also need to hope the economy continues to stall because that would play into his message of how Obama has not produced results for average families. Again, at this stage, The 7-10 considers a Romney win to be more unlikely than likely, but the path to victory is definitely there.
As anybody who has at least a passing interest in politics understands, presidential elections in the United States are not determined by which candidate receives the most votes nationwide, but rather by which candidate receives a majority of votes in the Electoral College. Because the Electoral College (EC) has 538 total votes, at least 270 electoral votes (EVs) are needed by a presidential candidate to secure victory.
Because of the winner-take-all system of the EC (with the exceptions of Nebraska and Maine), one fault of the EC is that votes in a politically uncompetitive state, such as New York or Texas, can essentially be wasted while votes in highly competitive states, such as Ohio and Florida, have more of an impact. There is no benefit for Barack Obama if he beats Mitt Romney in New Jersey by 1 percentage point or by 15 percentage points because the EV total would remain the same. This is how George W. Bush was able to narrowly defeat Al Gore in the 2000 election. Gore won by healthy margins in states that were less consequential while Bush eked out several squeakers in states that were more significant.
Keeping this in mind, The 7-10 will endeavor to handicap the general state of the 2012 presidential campaign in terms of how both major candidates (Obama and Romney) can amass the 270 EVs necessary to either ensure Obama's second term as president or elevate Romney to the presidency. This post will focus on Obama's paths to 270; the next post in this installment will address Romney's paths.
Here are the results of the 2008 presidential race (in which Obama defeated John McCain 365-173):
This map will serve as the basis for all reasonable paths to 270 in 2012. However, it must be adjusted to account for the effects of redistricting (for Maine and Nebraska) and the shifting of allotted EVs because of population shifts as reflected in the decennial census. According to the 2010 Census, more Americans are leaving the industrial Midwest and Northeast and moving to the West and South. The booming Latino population and immigration are also contributing to growth in the West and the South. Taking these demographic changes into consideration, if the 2008 election were based on the 2012 electoral map, Obama still would have beaten McCain handily, but by a marginally smaller 358-180 margin:
We start this analysis by making a few assumptions based on Obama's performance in the 2008 race, general polling data, and socioeconomic trends:
1. "Red" (Republican) states that Obama narrowly lost in 2008 are out of reach for him in 2012. If Obama is campaigning in Montana and Missouri this fall, then that likely indicates a Romney wipeout. Slightly redder states that are potentially competitive in future election years due to demographic shifts (Arizona, Georgia and possibly even Texas) are also off the table. This keeps Obama at 358EVs.
2. Historically red states that went "blue" (Democratic) in 2008 will revert to their traditional leanings in 2012. Indiana and North Carolina were probably the two biggest surprises of 2008. If Obama is still competing in these two states in October, Romney is probably in serious trouble. Both states are culturally conservative to moderate, but perhaps the Black, Latino, and college vote may save Obama in North Carolina while the auto workers in Indiana may reward him for providing emergency assistance for the auto industry. For now, The 7-10 will put these states in Romney's column and lower Obama's EV total to 332.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, such as a military strike on Iran or a sudden drop in the unemployment rate, this map, a 332-206 Obama win, is probably the best the president can do in November. It assumes that the other more "purple" (political battleground) states, such as Ohio and Colorado, all break for Obama and that Romney is unable to pick off a blue state like Pennsylvania or Michigan. This map appears to be a healthy victory for Obama but it would likely obscure a much closer popular vote. Keeping in mind that this map is probably Obama's best-case scenario, we now must adopt a more pragmatic or sobering set of circumstances for the Obama team. These scenarios are listed in order of most likely to least likely.
3. Iowa is going to be a very difficult state for Obama to hold. While its unemployment rate is much lower than the national average, social issues may torpedo the president in the very state that launched his presidential campaign. Obama's stance on gay marriage probably will not play well in a state that recalled three state supreme court justices who ruled in favor of gay marriage. And because Obama ran for the Democratic Party's nomination unopposed this year, Republicans had the airwaves all to themselves. Even though these ads were generally targeted against other Republicans, their antipathy towards Obama was a common theme. After hearing months and months of ads about "repealing Obamacare" and "ending Obama's reckless spending," Obama's popularity may have suffered even further. Obama can still win this state because of its favorable economic conditions and the possibility that voters may tune out Republican attacks because of saturation, but this state is highly vulnerable to being poached by Romney. This reduces Obama's EV total to 326.
4. Florida is the mother of all swing states. Only 527 votes separated Bush and Gore in 2000. It's also worth so many EVs that a loss in this state could only be offset by winning two or three medium-sized states elsewhere. Romney almost certainly has to win Florida if he is to have any plausible chance of defeating Obama. If Obama holds onto Florida, that forces Romney to try to flip Ohio, Michigan or Wisconsin. Florida is a highly gerrymandered state at the state level and is dominated by Republicans in its state legislature. It also gave rise to the conservative Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Rick Scott. While Governor Scott may be unpopular, Rubio is considerably better liked. Florida was also hit particularly hard by the crisis in the housing market. Obama can hold this state, but it will come at a tremendous financial cost because of the sheer number and size of Florida's media markets (Miami, Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, etc.). If Obama is at a disadvantage in fundraising, he might not have the resources to match Republican spending in the state on advertising and voter outreach. This could force Obama to cede Florida to Romney so he can hold more critical states, such as Colorado and Ohio. Losing this state would drop Obama to 297 EVs.
5. Nevada is getting the worst of both the housing crisis and high unemployment. That alone should make Romney's economic message may resonate more strongly than it would in a state that is in a better economic situation, such as Virginia. This state overwhelmingly went for Romney in the Republican primaries. There is also a significant Mormon population in Nevada that could turn out for him. The state also has a popular Republican governor and a competitive Senate race that could drive up turnout. At only 6 EVs, Nevada is not nearly as critical as a state like Virginia or Florida, but it does give Obama less margin for error regarding ceding other combinations of battleground states. This would drop Obama to 291 EVs and result in the following map:
This leaves the following seven contested states (listed in order from most vulnerable to least vulnerable for Obama): Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. These states will all likely be decided by fewer than 5 percentage points for either Obama or Romney. But the advantage for Obama with these seven states is that at 291 EVs, Obama still has several viable paths to victory. Obama can still secure 270 EVs even if he loses the following combinations of states:
1. Colorado and Wisconsin
3. Virginia and New Hampshire
4. Wisconsin, Nevada and Virginia (if he holds Nevada)
5. Ohio and New Hampshire (if he wins the congressional district in Omaha, Nebraska)
These scenarios illustrate how Obama has to be at least a slight favorite to win reelection in June despite his mid-40 approval ratings and the tightness of the national polls. The onus is on Romney to actually take states away from Obama. Obama has the luxury of ceding marginal states (e.g., Indiana) at the expense of shoring up more critical ones (e.g., Ohio and Virginia).
A growing Latino population and Romney's "self deportation" remarks from the Republican primaries may save Obama in Colorado. Colorado also has a marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot that may drive up youth turnout even if Obama is opposed to its legalization.
Ohio voters will probably support Obama in November simply because he supported rescuing Detroit. More importantly, he he can remind voters that Romney penned an opinion piece entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt". That alone should make Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and even Pennsylvania uphill climbs for the former Massachusetts governor. If Ohio stays blue, then Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania will almost certainly remain blue as well.
Virginia has a low unemployment rate and benefits from government contractors and federal employees in the Washington suburbs in the northern part of the state. Virginia's population growth is also concentrated in these northern suburbs which have a decidedly more mid-Atlantic (more diverse and immigrant-friendly) feel than Southern feel like towns in the southern part of the state. A combination of Black voters in Richmond, socially moderate-to-liberal voters in the DC suburbs, and voters who believe Republican Governor Bob McDonnell may have overreached or mishandled controversial issues related to women's health may be enough to offset Romney's likely victories in the military-heavy Hampton Roads area (Norfolk, Chesapeake, etc.) and the rural areas of southern and southwestern Virginia. Demographically, Virginia may be trending blue in the long term. One other important factor is a high-profile Senate race between former Republican Governor George Allen and former Democratic Governor Tim Kaine. The winner of this Senate campaign will almost certainly match the winner of its electoral votes.
New Hampshire is a tough state to analyze. Romney was the governor of neighboring Massachusetts and won the state handily in the GOP primaries. Obama also lost the state handily to Hillary Clinton in 2008. But New Hampshire also elected a Democratic Governor John Lynch four times. And on social issues, New Hampshire is not the same as Georgia. Whether the libertarian leanings of New Hampshire concerning taxation offset the socially moderate-to-liberal leanings of Northeasterners in general is up for debate. Romney is not going to win Massachusetts. But will he make a play for New Hampshire in the fall?
To be sure, the 2012 election will probably resemble the 2004 election more than the 2008 election. But because individual battleground state polling matters more than national polling, it would seem that Obama has a slight, but noticeable and important advantage regarding the electoral calculus. Even though this election will be close, perhaps campaign strategist David Axelrod said it best when he said, "I would rather be us than them."
(Coming next: Romney's Electoral Calculus: June 2012)
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker survived last night's recall election against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Results show that Walker defeated Barrett by a healthy 53%-46% margin. Republicans are spinning these results as both an ominous sign for President Obama's chances of carrying Wisconsin in November and as well as an affirmation of Wisconsinites' desire to see Walker continue to advance his conservative agenda. Democrats are trying to portray Barrett's failed bid as a result of big money from out-of-state donors. Both sides are correct in their conclusions about last night's results. Republican enthusiasm is still high and outside money supporting one campaign may outweigh a rival campaign's organization. (Labor unions have to be particularly disappointed after Barrett's defeat because it was Walker's policies towards organized labor that brought about this recall election to begin with.)
Perhaps the two most important statistics from the recall election concern how voters perceived the idea of recalling a governor in general and their preferences for president in the November elections. According to exit polls, 60% of voters think recall elections are only appropriate if there are issues of official misconduct. Only 27% supported recall elections for any reason while 10% said recalls are never appropriate. Couple this with the findings that these same exit polls reveal a preference fro Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a 51%-44% margin.
The fact that a conservative Tea Party governor can survive a recall election while the same electorate supports reelecting a president who is almost the complete political opposite of this governor suggests a refreshing bit of pragmatism among voters. This pragmatism is not necessarily that Governor Walker is better for Wisconsinites or that President Obama is better for the United States as a whole. The issue lies in the point of recall elections themselves. Governors are elected to serve four-year terms. When their term is up, they can (in most states) let voters judge whether their accomplishments and performance as the state's chief executive merit reelection. If voters are satisfied with their governor's performance, they can reelect this person. If the voters would like to move in a different direction, they can vote for the governor's opponent.
In the case of the Wisconsin recall election, perhaps it seemed that the recall election was being used to take the place of regular election scheduled for 2014. In other words, even though Walker was legitimately elected in 2010, buyer's remorse over his policies led some voters (especially those affiliated with labor unions) to seek to hasten his removal from office. This seems strangely anti-democratic in that no successful candidate could ever govern or pursue the policies they ran on in the campaign out of fear that they would anger a section of the electorate and have to fend off a recall effort. I would venture that a not-insignificant chunk of Walker's votes came from voters who are opposed to most of his policies, but wished to send a message that recall elections should not be used against politicians for attempting to implement the very ideas they campaigned on. Wanting to kick out an incumbent governor because of a disagreement over ideology or policies is not the same as wanting to remove a sitting governor from office because of illegal conduct or political malfeasance.
It would be beneficial to the nation if politicians in Washington would let presidents and political parties in the majority exercise their will and have voters render their judgment on their performance in the next election. What we seem to have now is a state of paralysis brought about by a minority party's insistence on opposing almost everything that the majority party proposes. Or we have a president who cannot accomplish anything because the minority party will use procedural tactics to stall or block his initiatives and appointments. The Wisconsin election results show that voters may disagree with their leaders, but are not willing to throw the entire political process into disarray by using recall elections to get rid of politicians they do not like. Are politicians in Washington really ready to let the United States decay just so they can stick it to a president or political party they do not like?
Pundits have long argued that the influence of corporate money and the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling equating political contributions with free speech have corrupted politics to the point that it depresses voter turnout (because of increased negative advertising) and discourages well qualified people from running (because of a disdain on behalf of prespective candidates for subjecting themselves and their families to such relentless scrutiny). These, along with other institutional factors, such as gerrymandering and a lack of term limits, have very real influences on making voters cynical of politicians and the whole political process. However, The 7-10 wishes to address another aspect of politics that, though underreported, may have more of an impact on turning voters off from politics in general.
The issue of which I speak is political rhetoric. More specifically, it's the lack of forethought regarding the consequences of adopting the "solutions" such rhetoric offers. While both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this, this blog post will focus primarily on Republicans' approach to governance because of their ascendancy in the wake of the 2010 elections, the strengthening of Republican-held seats in state legislatures, and the rise of the conservative Tea Party. Before going any further, it must be noted that there is merit in both conservative and liberal approaches to government. However, the problem is that politicians seem to adopt a myopic view that the practical consequences of their policies are less important than the advocay of these policies themselves. The end result is likely a frustrated electorate who feels their politicians lack the sophistication or seriousness necessary to confront our nation's challenges.
For example, Gallup recently released a poll showing that the number of Americans who consider themselves pro-life has exceeded the number of Americans who consider themselves pro-choice for the first time ever. During the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, many candidates talked about restricting access to abortion services, sometimes even in the cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's health is threatened. Claiming to be "pro-life" in all circumstances sounds noble from a public relations standpoint. After all, who doesn't support the "protection of innocent human life?" To be sure, a significant part of the conservative Republican base would cheer wildly at these promises to stamp out all abortions in the United States. Again, this is a legitimate political view.
The problem, however, lies in what happens next. In this case, pro-life-in-all-circumstances politicians tend not to address this. Suppose abortions became illegal in the United States. That's not going to stop women from having them. But if abortions are criminalized, then who would be punished for seeking, performing, or receiving them? Would you send a doctor to jail for performing a procedure that may be deemed medically necessary? If not jail, then would you subject such a doctor to fines that are expensive enough to deter other doctors from providing abortion services? Would these fines be passed onto patients in the form of higher health insurance costs or more expensive emergency room visits? What would happen to the women who sought abortions or attempted to perform them by themselves? Would they be sent to jail or fined? If "abortion is murder," would women receiving abortions be charged with first-degree murder because of the necessity of premeditation? If not murder, then what would be the name of the criminal charge that would presumably stay on such a woman's permanent record? And how would the fathers of the aborted fetuses be punished, if at all? And would the threat of government-mandated fines or jail time fly in the face of conservatives' "limited government" rhetoric?
A second example of crowd-pleasing rhetoric without addressing its very real consequences lies in the desire to "repeal government regulation." According to conservatives, individual liberty and prosperity are threatened by "job-killing regulations" and "big government telling you what to do." But regulations are needed to protect the majority from an irresponsible minority. Regulations exist in the form of toy safety standards, speed limits on interstate highways, and restrictions on what passengers can bring onto airplanes. The key difference between government and private businesses is that government's primary concern is the wellbeing of the entire society and nation it represents while private companies' primary concern is maximizing profits for its stakeholders. This is not to criticize the private sector as greedy or insensitive, but if your motive for conducting business is the financial wellbeing of the people who invested in your company or who have a financial stake in your company, the welfare of the people external to your company is either secondary or perhaps not a concern at all.
Take health care, for example. According to its website, the Department of Health and Human Services' mission is "protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves." A look at the website for BCBS, a leading private health insurance provider, states that its goal is "[to] regulate the Blue brand, administer licenses, and help coordinate national programs to the Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies so they may provide local leadership and solutions to promote safe, high quality and affordable care." There is nothing wrong with this at all.
But how is "safe, high quality and affordable care" ensured? Could "affordable care" be made even more affordable by eliminating government regulations concerning which services must be provided? What's to stop a health insurance company from using a lack of regulation to increase prices because of no regulation on price controls? A common conservative rallying cry is to "let the markets decide." But in the case of health insurance, for example, many companies have near monopolies in the states in which they operate. And would it not be more profitable for a private insurance company to cover fewer services while charging more for them? In the same vein, should we give motorists the freedom to drive 50 mph in a school zone, give passengers the freedom to carry loaded guns onto airplanes, and give toy companies the freedom to use lead-based paint in the toys they produce? What would be the recourse for people who are adversely impacted by the negligence of others who did not appreciate the downside to "unregulated" liberty? What if this lack of regulations actually led to an innocent's death? "Accepting personal responsibility" might punish an offender, but it might not protect the victim before it is too late.
Voters and especially journalists have a unique responsibility to challenge politicians not just on their political ideas, but on how these ideas should be executed in a practical sense. I would venture that answering questions directly and responding with a bit of thoroughness that suggests you are interested more in a political solution than merely a political issue would do more to engage voters in the political process and perhaps lead voters to develop a bit more respect for politicians and the art of politics in general. Sloganeering and rhetoric may move the base, but they do not solve problems and they do not address the concerns of the sophisticated sector of the electorate who wishes to move beyond unsubstantive talking points.