It’s Senate Democrats, Not Reid, Who’ve Become More Combative

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Over the last few years liberals and progressives who had been critical of him have warmed to Harry Reid. Throughout Reid’s tenure as head of the Senate Democrats–first as Minority Leader, and the last seven years as Majority Leader–a sizable swath of highly engaged progressives and partisan Democrats have been frustrated by the Senate Democrats’ frequent failures at overcoming Republican obstruction.  Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, a lot of people saw Harry Reid as someone afraid to fight.

After deciding he was a wimp unwilling to stand up to Republicans, many of Reid’s critics are now heartened by the “new” Harry Reid, the guy who said Mitt Romney didn’t pay any federal income tax, who calls nutjobs nutjobs, who just doesn’t seem to give a rip if his statements about Republicans come off as intemperate, and most impressively, the guy who was essentially the Democrats’ field general in last year’s government shutdown, and who prevailed upon the President to Not. Back. Down.

I doubt this is a new Harry Reid.

It’s possible Reid feels free to let his fighter flag fly because he knows nobody can touch him. He may not run for reelection in 2016, but even if he does, with the strong Democratic trend in Nevada, he probably (and rightly) figures that if he could survive in 2010, that should he choose to run again he should win comfortably.

More likely, though, is Harry Reid seems newly combative because his new caucus is more combative. Most of the institutional/process conservatives–people like Robert Byrd and Carl Levin, who despite their overall politics, generally opposed institutional change–are already or soon to be gone. Most of the conservative Southern Democrats had retired or been defeated by the time Reid took over in 2005. The Southern Democrats since have mostly been quiet nationally, and not the types who regularly speak ill of their party. There were, of course, several Democratic Senators from outside the South who could be counted on to criticize Democrats and often sell them out, but the worst of the bunch–Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, Kent Conrad, Russ Feingold, Ben Nelson–are gone, and the current members from conservative states (Mark Begich, Kay Hagen, etc) don’t try to protect themselves at home by badmouthing their party to the national press.

Reid also doesn’t have to contend with the big personalities and Senate institutions who were in the caucus when he took over. Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd and Daniel Inouye passed away. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and eventually John Kerry went to the executive branch with Barack Obama. And the big names who came in to the Senate in recent years–Obama, Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren–were new to Congress, and have only known one leader, Reid, so they were less likely to expect or insist on prerogatives they had under Tom Daschle or George Mitchell.

Finally, many of the newer members, like Jeff Merkley, Sheldon Whitehouse, Chris Murphy, and both Senators Udall–are committed to significant procedural and institutional change, most notably with regards to the filibuster and cloture. And unlike as recently as a few years ago, when Joe Biden could claim that we couldn’t come up with any solutions to national problems unless we had a consensus, almost every one of the newer Senators realizes consensus and bipartisanship are, because of the current state of the GOP, impediments to progress and a surrender to reactionaries.

Harry Reid may be more inherently combative, more likely than he was nine years ago to say something that the tut-tutters of elite centrism will find too blunt and coarse. But his new tone isn’t likely a reflection of personal change, as much as a result of personnel change in his caucus. He’s now reflecting the mainstream of his caucus, if not in tone, at least in their understanding of conflict between the parties. It’s taken two decades, but most DC Democrats now have fully internalized that until the GOP changes there is no meaningful compromise with them. And that may be one of the best things to happen in American politics in a long, long time.

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Politics and Personality Threatened Cantor, A Profligate Campaign Doomed Him

No one reason can explain the humiliating primary defeat of House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor. It was probably a mix of numerous factors: immigration, the tea party revolt reaching the guillotine stage, the possibility that he’s just not a very likable guy, and a general anti-incumbent mood in Republican primaries. These are all serious problems, but a strong campaign may have helped save him. But a look at Cantor’s Federal Election Commission filings show why his campaign couldn’t bail him out: he spent most of his time traveling the country spending as much money as he raised, and he spent a tiny fraction of his $5 million campaign fund actually communicating with voters.

Cantor started the 2014 campaign cycle with over a million dollars in his account. [He has other funds--leadership funds--in to which he raises money that can be given to fellow Republicans, but that can't be used on his own election campaigns.] In 2013 he raised a little over $3.3 million for his campaign fund. However, he spent just under $3.3 million. So a year’s worth of prodigious fundraising left him at roughly the same place he was at the start of the year. How did he manage that? Easy: he spent almost as much raising money as he raised.

Cantor’s 2014 filings aren’t fully updated in an easily perused format. But looking just at 2013 reveals some dubious financial management. His campaign spent $1,500 at Dunkin Donuts. $3,000 at DC-area pizza chain Pizza Boli. $10,000 with a North Carolina vendor on gifts. $13,000 at Corner Bakery. $20,000 at the Marriot Marquis in New York City. $110,000 at DC steakhouse Bobby Van’s. Over $200,000 on finance consulting with a firm called Red River Co. But not a penny was spent on voter contact.

In 2013 Cantor spent roughly twice as much at Bobby Van’s as he did on polling.

Cantor’s 2014 finance reports aren’t much better. He spent about $400,000 airing television ads, but that’s probably less than he spent on airfare. He appears to have done no significant direct mail or digital advertising. There are few disbursements that look like field-related expenses. He paid for no opposition research. And his staff costs appear only marginally higher than they were in 2013, which suggests he never really ramped up for the election, but instead maintained his focus on traveling the country on behalf of other Republicans, and while on the road raising enough money to pay for his expenses (which include few nights in modest lodging but plenty of nights at some of the most expensive hotels in the country).

The most an individual donor can give a candidate for federal office is $2,400 per election. However, primaries and generals are counted as separate elections, and many donors contribute more than $2,400. Cantor could take up to $4,800 from a single donor, but he couldn’t spend more than $2,400 of a donor’s total contribution for primary expenses; the rest had to sit in his account unused until after the primary. So some of the money he was carrying in his fund was useless to him in a primary. If he ever realized that he had a tough primary he probably also realized he had burned through most of his primary funds and had little money left to spend on a primary campaign.

Cantor spent money as if the only election that mattered was the House Republican Conference leadership votes. But in spending his time and money on that election, he made himself vulnerable to humiliation at home.

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It May Take a Southern Union To Unionize The South

As Erik Loomis says, this is depressing. The United Auto Workers, off the Volkswagen loss in Chattanooga, appear to be suspending their effort to organize Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama. Erik’s explains the UAW’s strategy, and he’s right the UAW doesn’t have good options. They probably can’t win an election, even if they did everything perfectly. Without changes to federal labor law–in particular, some kind of repeal or route around the restrictions imposed on unions in the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act–it will remain difficult to organize private-sector workers.

Even though it’s hard to organize private-sector workers, organized labor continues to have modest success in the Northeast, most of the Midwest, and along the Pacific Coast (Hawaii and Alaska are two of the three most heavily unionized states). And unionization isn’t only in states that never passed so-called “right to work” legislation, where winning union elections and maintaining a healthy union are harder. Several right-to-work states–such as Nevada and Iowa–have unionization rates much higher than Southern states. Because of factors such as the stability of the workforce and size of the workplaces, manufacturing is one of the easier sectors in which to organize workers, and over the last several decades the South has increased its national share of manufacturing facilities and workers. Manufacturing’s shift to the South is a reason the recent discussions have been about organizing efforts in the South; to paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton, manufacturing unions are trying to organize in the South because more and more that’s where the manufacturing workers are.

Nevertheless, even before the Taft-Hartley amendments–which included the option for states to go “right to work”–it was still harder to organize in the South. The reasons for that have to do with the history, the social and economic power structures of the South, the racial dynamics and factors too numerous to discuss here. But many boil down to “the South defines itself in opposition to the North.”

If we accept that it is different, it may take a different approach to improve labor’s fortunes in the South. It may require a “Southern labor movement.”

150 years after the end of the Civil War, white Southern identity is still somewhat rooted in opposition to full social and cultural integration with the rest of the country. Instead of fulminating about Northern abolitionists, bankers, and railroads, today many white Southerners fulminate against Washington DC, Hollywood, and…France, I guess. And Muslims. At the heart of much of white Southern identification is a sense of historical rootedness in the South and the related defiant belief that they are different from and not inferior to the urbanites and suburbanites in the North and coastal West.

A labor union based in that most black of major northern cities–which (unfairly and simplistically) is seen as an example of everything that’s wrong with almost everything about non-white majority Northern cities–that union may not stand a chance of gaining the trust and allegiance of any group of mostly male, mostly white Southerners, much less a group of auto workers making wages that are pretty good for the South, and who are told that unionizing could force their employer to pick up and move that production and those jobs to Mexico or China.

It’s not an easily tested empirical hypothesis, but a Southern labor movement could be more effective representation of Southern workers. Imagine major unions based in places like Birmingham, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas.  Think about how they might be seen–and whether they would be more trusted–by Southerners if those unions organized workers only in the South. And speculate how white Southern workers might react to a union that’s largely free–real or wrongly attributed–of association with black members, black leaders and black influence.

A Southern labor movement would probably be wrong for the country, because it would help perpetuate rather than challenge America’s two-tiered labor market. It also probably wouldn’t be a strong challenge to the vestiges of white dominance of the South. So a Southern labor movement is not the right answer. But that it may nevertheless be the least bad answer shows the difficulty–in the absence of major changes to federal labor law–of unionizing the South.

And “unionizing” is, in this case, a double entendre.

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Republicans Resist Reality That Sometimes Reality Can’t Be Resisted

When analysis like this is actually better than what comes from most Republican consultants, it’s dispiriting to think that Democrats do not win nearly every election:

Many Republican strategists now see this as a parallel dynamic similar to what the Iraq War issue did in 2006 to President Bush’s job approval, costing the Republicans their Senate and House majorities. That year, Democrats for the House got 54 percent of the national vote. Here’s what the 2006 national media post-election survey showed:

 42 percent approved of the Iraq War and 56 percent disapproved.
 If you disapproved of the war in Iraq, you voted for Democrats for Congress 80–18.
 If you disapproved of the job President Bush was doing, you voted for Democrats for Congress 82–16.

The Democrats’ 2006 strategy was simple: Drive up the disapproval of the Iraq War, which drove up President Bush’s disapproval, which drove up the vote for Democrats for Congress. [Emphasis added]

The authors go on to argue that the situation isn’t quite parallel, and that Republicans can’t count on opposition to Obamacare to be the GOP’s silver bullet. That much is true, since approval/disapproval of the ACA has been fairly static, and three times as many people want to keep the ACA as want to repeal it and go back to the way things were. But the authors have a bizarre view of the relationship between rhetoric and reality, and what influences people’s votes.

In 2006 Democrats didn’t win big because they drove up disapproval of the Iraq War. They won big because they blamed Republicans for supporting what by then was an obviously failed war. Gallup polls during and immediately after the invasion showed a 50 point margin for belief that it was not a mistake to go to war against Iraq. Once US soldiers began taking significant casualties in the fall of 2003 that margin plunged 30 points, to roughly +20 in favor of going to war. By late 2004 the margin was down to roughly +5. And by the run up to the 2006 election support for the decision to go to war plummeted to -15. From 2003, disapproval of going to war had doubled, from 27% disapproving the decision to 55% thinking the war had been a mistake.

What explains that massive shift from overwhelming support to solid opposition? The McLaughlins appear to think it was something the Democrats did. That does not hold up, for two reasons. First, full-throated Democratic opposition to the war didn’t lead public opinion beyond the Democratic base, it followed it. Presidential candidate John Kerry danced around Iraq in 2004, and in 2004 few Democrats in competitive races had opposed the war, or if they had, their messaging on Iraq was defensive, rather than an attack on their opponent for supporting Bush’s war. Even in early 2006, most highly-touted Democratic Congressional candidates challenging pro-war Republicans were timid in their criticism of the Iraq war.

What changed public opinion about the war was not what Democrats said about it, it was the war itself. Most who supported the war bought the story pitched by Bush and the neocons, that it would be a quick war, and then Arab democracy would flourish across the Middle East. But US casualties never came down:

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And it was not just US casualties that soured Americans on the Iraq debacle, it was that things in Iraq looked in some ways even worse than before the invasion. What got to voters were the daily reports of rampant killing in Central Iraq, in particular the “religious cleansing” of Baghdad, which hit a peak right before the 2006 election:

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Claiming what drove up Bush’s negatives was Democrats driving up disapproval of the war is dumb, and it’s also insulting to American voters. Voters are often ill-informed, and can often succumb to clever campaigns of deception, like the Iraq WMD story. But after a while, if they’re confronted with a reality that is hard to deny, most voters will incorporate that reality in to their beliefs and–sometimes–their voting behavior. In 2006 a lot of Americans saw that large numbers of US soldiers were still being maimed and killed in Iraq, and that things in Iraq had gotten horribly worse. Only a third of independents believed the US would succeed in Iraq. Those voters realized that the Iraq war had been a disaster, so they voted against the Republicans. Democrats didn’t win big in 2006 because of turnout–Democrats were 38% of the electorate, Republicans 36%–but because of an 18 point advantage among independents. [Incidentally, in 2010 Republicans won independents by 19 points.]

Iraq didn’t hurt Bush because Democrats succeeded at convincing voters of their illusions at the expense of Republican illusions. No, Iraq hurt Bush and his fellow Republicans because Iraq fell apart, and with it the rationale for the invasion and occupation. It was obviously a failure. To think it was spin over reality appears to be a problem rampant not only among the GOP primary electorate, but a good many of its consultants and strategists as well.

 

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Congress: Worked With FDR to Address a Catastrophe, Working Against Obama to Create One

From Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 State of the Union address:

In the many methods of attack with which we met these problems, you and I, by mutual understanding and by determination to cooperate, helped to make democracy succeed by refusing to permit unnecessary disagreement to arise between two of our branches of government. That spirit of cooperation was able to solve difficulties of extraordinary magnitude and ramification with few important errors, and at a cost cheap when measured by immediate necessities and the eventual results.

FDR’s fruitful partnership with Congress ended not long after that speech, as the expansion of the modern welfare state began to bump against the white supremacist foundations of political and social power in the South. But even after acknowledging that  fundamental legislation like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded most African Americans from their protections in order to get the support from Southern Congressmen they needed for passage, it is undeniable that from 1933 to 1937 Congress and the President effectively cooperated to address the devastation of the Depression without succumbing to the anti-Democratic forces sweeping the globe.

The last five years have been possibly the toughest we’ve faced since World War II and the Depression. But the challenges for government could have been much more easily managed than what faced FDR and those Congresses. But our politics have failed, largely because the Republican party has failed our democracy.

Congress cooperated with FDR to recover from a catastrophe. Our current Congress–specifically, the House Republicans–are so deranged that rather than cooperate with Obama, they are determined to create a catastrophe.

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Shutdown: It’s Not Gerrymandering, It’s The South

Analysts and politicians trying to explain the breakdown of our federal system regularly pin significant blame on gerrymandering for the radicalization of the Republican party. I think Nate Cohn has a good rebuttal to the notion gerrymandering has significantly influenced the composition of the Republican caucus. I wrote about this a few years ago. In 1988, there were 44 Congressional districts in states where the presidential results were more than 15 points away from the national result. In 2008—when Obama won by roughly the same popular vote percentage of George HW Bush—there were 231 Congressional districts that were 15 or more points from the national average. Outside the 12-16 largest states, it’s hard to do much of a gerrymander when the entire state is much more conservative or liberal than the nation overall. [I do, by the way, think gerrymandering has cost Democrats numerous seats in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, although at most enough to narrowly flip the House to the Democrats, but not enough to return to the majorities won in the 2006 and 2008 elections.]

Whatever the causes of the breakdown—and there are many—John Judis rightly argues that this is among the worst crises in American history (I think the worst since the Civil War). Judis puts too much weight on gerrymandering, and he mentions, but doesn’t go far enough, with what I think is a key factor, and one that may make the current crisis both worse, but also suggests a way out around future impasses. Our government isn’t working because too many White Southerners don’t want it to work.

Look at the last shutdowns, in 1995 and 1996. The Gingrich Congress was radical, but not as crazy as the nihilists pressuring the current Republicans in to increasingly catastrophic positions. That previous Republican caucus was led by a (transplanted) Southerner, and they gained their majority by decisively breaking the Democratic hold on the former slave states, which had continued in to the early 1990’s. But that caucus was not dominated by slave state Republicans, and those conflicts were not strongly sectional. But that’s changed, and now the conflict is essentially White Southerners and some allies standing in the schoolhouse door, trying to hold back the rest of America. [For the sake of this discussion I’m excluding Maryland and Delaware, which have largely lost any Southern character and are now part of the extended Northeast megalopolis.]

After the 1994 election the Republicans had a 230-204 House majority. The slave states (the states of the Confederacy, along with West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and Oklahoma) were apportioned 155 seats in the House. Those seats were split 82 Republican, 73 Democratic. Slave state Republicans made up 19% of Congress, and 35% of the House Republican caucus.

Today the Republicans have a 234-201 majority. Reapportionment has slightly increased the representation of the former slave states; they now have 160 seats. But now it’s split 116 Republican to 44 Democratic. Slave state Republicans now make up over a quarter of the Congress, and they make up almost exactly half the GOP caucus.

And it’s not just that the South is more Republican; other parts of the nation that were once fairly competitive have become solidly Democratic, and in much of the country there’s a much stronger tie between region and partisanship. In 1996 the California Congressional delegation was 25 Republicans and 27 Democrats. Today it’s 15 Republicans and 38 Democrats. Texas went from 19 Democrats and 11 Republicans to 12 Democrats and 23 Republicans. New England had 15 Democrats and 8 Republicans; now the 21 New England seats are all Democratic.

The shift is just as dramatic in the Senate. Slave state senators have gone from 12 Democrats and 18 Republicans to 9 Democrats and 21 Republicans, while New England went from a 6-6 delegation in 1996 to a 10-2 Democratic majority today.

Judis refered to nullification, the antebellum theory “that states, claiming a higher Constitutional authority, could refuse to obey federal laws.” That’s close to what’s happening with Medicaid expansion; it’s mostly happening in non-slave states, while the entire confederacy save Arkansas is denying its poor—who are more heavily African-American than is the case nationally—access to free health care. And it’s a refusal to do in what their states the national election results showed they should do (although the Supreme Court gave them a way out). And trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act by shutting down the government and threatening the world’s financial system is definitely nullifcation. People who hold these views, and who represent parts of the country that adhere to these ideas, dominate the Republican caucuses.

In 1996 the shutdown was a partisan battle, but it wasn’t a sectional battle. Many Republicans were not from the South or the rural center of the country, and not every elected official from those areas acted as a radical. Although we’re not in danger of a war, the conflicts in Congress are almost as strongly sectional as was the case in the 1850’s (this time with the ranks of the Southern reactionaries bolstered by reactionaries from the rural Midwest, the Plains and the Rockies). Barack Obama and Harry Reid may be talking to a guy from Ohio, but unless and until suburban, non-Southern Republicans break from their party, Obama and Reid are really managing a conflict with the South.

I intend to plumb this subject quite a bit deeper over the next few weeks. For now, I’ll say that this return of sectionalism, largely overlapped with partisan alignment, means the current Republican caucus will be impossible to work with in the absence of the Speaker bucking his caucus and putting on the floor bills that could pass with only a couple dozen Republican votes. But over the coming years, the radicalism of those looking to the past could so marginalize the Republicans that they become a largely rural party, centered in the interior of the country, strongly rooted in the states rights petulance of the former slave states. The GOP will be so repugnant that they have a deeply hostile relationship with a significant portion of the residents of their own states, and drive the increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse electorates of most of the rest of the country to vote against the party of reaction, and thus marginalize those parts of the country that are home to a lot of people who can’t stand having to share with everyone else the title “American.”

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Montana Senate Race: Far from Over

Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, who was expected to be the Democratic candidate to replace retiring Democrat Max Baucus, announced today that he will not run for the U.S. Senate. This is not good news for Democrats; if Schweitzer had run and there were no new and damaging negatives that hadn’t already been raised during his governor campaigns he may have won comfortably. But the response on Twitter to the announcement was, for the most part, credulous acceptance of the GOP spin that there’s no way Democrats can hold this seat in “deep red Montana.”

That’s BS.

We’ve heard this story before. When North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad announced he would not run for reelection in 2012, pundits generally declared the seat a Democratic lost cause. This blog was one of the only places that in November 2011, when she announced her candidacy, argued that now-Senator Heidi Heitkamp had a great shot of holding the seat. It’s worth remembering this, and also considering the ways in which Montana is even more promising than was North Dakota.

First of all, contrary to the spin of the Republicans and the assumptions of the let’s-never-actually-look-at-data-and-history pundits, Democrats have been doing quite well in Montana for several elections now. After two terms with Schweitzer as governor, in 2012 Montanans went Democratic for the third straight time, electing Attorney General Steve Bullock as governor. Republicans captured the open AG seat, but incumbent Democrats retained the Secretary of State, State Auditor and Superintendent of Public Instruction. Of course, Democrat John Tester was also reelected to the U.S. Senate. Add in the GOP-held at large Congressional seat and Baucus’ Senate seat, and of the eight statewide elective offices, Democrats hold six.

But could the recent Democratic success be a fluke? No. In fact, in historical context, it would be a fluke if a Republican won the seat held by Baucus; Democrats have held that Senate seat since 1913. That’s right, Democrats have held this seat for 101 straight years.  Tester defeated three-term incumbent Republican Conrad Burns for the other seat. Since 1911 only one other Republican ever held that seat, and he held it only one term.

One might argue that being a Democrat is a problem in a state that Obama lost twice. But at the presidential level, Montana has gone Republican in every election since 1948 except the 1964 LBJ landslide and in 1992, when Bill Clinton squeaked through with 37%. During all these losses, Democratic senate candidates have continued to win and win and win.

Even if you limit the analysis to recent years, the situation in Montana is not inherently dire for Democrats. In 2008 Obama lost Montana by only 2 points, his second narrowest loss, after Missouri. Against Romney he did significantly worse, losing by 14 points. (The big swing may be partially due to Montana having the sixth highest percentage of Mormons in the U.S..) But in recent years Democrats have won Senate seats in numerous states that went against Obama, including Alaska, both Dakotas, Nebraska, Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia and North Carolina, and they came close in Kentucky (2004) and Tennessee (2006).

It’s also possible, if there’s anything to this CNN report, that research was unearthing real problems for Schweitzer. While on paper Schweitzer was obviously the strongest potential Democratic candidate, it’s possible that his withdrawal from consideration actually strengthens Democratic chances by removing a candidate with a ticking time bomb strapped to his candidacy.

Schweitzer is out of the race, but Montana is by no means so Republican that the Democrats are doomed. What will probably matter is what often decides elections: the national political environment, the strength of the candidates, and the effectiveness of their campaigns. Handicapping those factors today is impossible, so everyone should just wait a while before declaring the Montana seat a GOP pickup.

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