Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Crawling through the Wreckage

The Voters in Their Wisdom...blah, blah, blah.

Unlike the politicians, pundits, or others who need the goodwill of the public for their living, I have no compunction about debunking that introductory phrase which will lead almost every speech.

To say that the government cannot continue to run trillion-dollar deficits is the wisdom of the obvious. Those who blame out-of-control discretionary Federal spending programs like the stimulus program for the deficit have it factually wrong, though; most of the deficit comes from the impact of decreased revenue--due to reduced income caused by the Great Crater and the continuing impact of tax reductions--and from the cost of our military and our unfunded wars in Asia (OK, maybe one could call those discretionary, but even that would be an indictment of their continuation, as wars should be compelled of us, not our choices).

In response to the folly of our voters, the lame-duck Congress seems likely to perpetuate the folly of the Bushite tax cuts. It is also factually incorrect to say that our citizens and our businesses are overtaxed, as compared to the other developed economies, most of which have recovered much more vigorously to the Great Crater than we have. Neither does the business community's excuse of "uncertainty" as a reason for holding off (on expansion decisions which would add jobs) hold any water: all business expansion is done in the context of uncertainty, except that which is spurred by monopolistic control--if that's what businesses are expecting as a condition, we are doomed either to fascism or perpetually high unemployment.

I would say that it is instead the certainty which holds them back: certainty of slack aggregate demand, continuing de-leveraging of households' financials, certain continued excesses of available labor which allow them to offer less for more productivity from workers, near-certain continued improvements in productivity largely driven by technology improvement. Plus, there is the negative effect of what everyone sees as not certain, but likely: increases in benefit costs per employee, increases in costs of inputs for those utilizing any sort of raw materials, rising inflation.

Voters' priorities wisely center around the poor pace of recovery and high degree of underemployment. I don't see any sign, though, that their choices are going to promote the chances of a faster, more durable recovery. What is the job-producing agenda of the Republicans? Repeal health care reform; remove the financial oversight and allow the conditions that produced the economic collapse to be restored; maintain indefinitely the deficit-producing tax reductions which were in effect when the economy collapsed? Buh?

Mostly, though, I don't buy the wisdom of voters' choice--and it's mostly two groups of "voters", the independents and those who for whatever reason didn't show up to vote this time--to give the Republicans "a second chance" (and I do feel it's accurate for them to interpret their mandate that way). The Bushites permanently forfeited their party's claim to any demonstrated ability to competently manage our government; giving them another chance was an excessive act of generosity, even if it was not done in that spirit.

That Being Said...
It is impossible to minimize the damage that the voters, "in their wisdom", have done to the great possibilities of the Obama Administration and to their own interests. The damage is political, but the political damage will likely impair our nation's ability to prosper and make intelligent decisions, forward-looking actions, for years to come. As Jon King said, the voters "put the car in R", and thus we go backwards.

Independent voters, again "in their wisdom", have expressed their preference, both explicitly in poll question responses and implicitly through their choices, for divided control of government. To some extent, this is understandable and practical when they are always faced with the choice of Big Party A candidate and Big Party B's nominee. What I find is lacking is any effort to initiate something which allows them to change this system. The Tea Party--even to the partial extent that it was a genuine insurgent movement from the grassroots--may claim to have sympathizers among Democrats and independents, but in its political expression it has shown itself to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican party (at least for now, and I seriously doubt the GOP will ever let them run free). In terms of big money clustered around party organizations and its fellow travelers, nothing seems to be on the horizon, and don't look for that change to come from either the Democratic or Republican public servants.

To get specific about the damage, the setbacks in the House were much worse than they could or should've been, but the damage was in losing control of the body, dropping below 218 representatives--beyond a few seats' cushion, the rest was excess pounding that doesn't have too much significance: just a bigger hill to climb to recover it. Essentially, the Democrats lost all the ground they gained in 2006 and 2008, mostly in districts in red-leaning states or regions of states. There was a national shift of about 5% in support from Democrat to Republican, about the same amount that shifted the other way from 2004 to 2008. The strategy of finding moderate Democrats who could triangulate a tightrope that veered from the anchoring of the national party strategies in somewhat hostile territory, filling the vacuum caused by Bushite failures, has not proved to be a durable success. (How can one triangulate a tightrope?) The House can be won back in 2012, and with just as definitive a majority as the Democrats held prior to this election, but it will be done by moving the electorate, not the previous form of electoral trickery.

Longer-lasting damage may have been caused by deep Republican victories in state legislatures across the country, and by critical victories in governors' races of key states for Presidential elections and upcoming re-districting contests--both decisive ones, like in Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Nevada; and the very narrow, particularly painful ones in Ohio and Florida. These might be thought of as adding another 15-20 House seats to the hill Democrats must climb to recover that majority, and probably effectively taking a couple of states' electoral votes from leaning Democratic to leaning Republican as we go to the next general election.

The Senate bloodbath was not as bad as others I have seen, and not as bad as it could have been. Partly this was due to Republican overreach in selecting far-right candidates in Nevada and Delaware, as well as self-financing would-be plutocrats in California, Connecticut, and West Virginia. Assuming the current leaders in the pending races in Washington and Colorado hold their leads, the loss of six seats does not change things too much: beside the long-indicated losses in North Dakota, Indiana, and Arkansas, the other seats lost were those of Illinois, Wisconsin, and (technically, due to Arlen Specter's late-career party switchover) Pennsylvania. The first of these should be recoverable in the future, but the last two hurt deeply, as Joe Sestak and Russ Feingold were among the best candidates voters could, in their wisdom, have chosen.

In the further wisdom (on top of the voters') of virtually all the pundits', President Obama has been repudiated--whether personally, in his policies and agenda, or in his deficiencies as a human being interacting with others. I see it differently: Obama was not on the ballot, and his chances of re-election were not noticeably diminished (the price of the Intrade contract for an unnamed Democratic victor in the 2012 Presidential election did drop from 61% to 58% through the evening, though). His job will get tougher, the need for him to exercise sensitivity and discretion will be increased, but he will be better focused and more able to deflect any shortcomings in our short-term shared national destiny toward his opponents (a rhetorical approach which clearly didn't work this year).

I would direct those who want some comment on the future political climate, how it will play out, and how President Obama's fate may look to review my forecast at the tail end of my final election preview. Like President Obama, despite the shellacking, I wouldn't change a thing.

My Personal Responsibility
I have to do some soul-searching about the strategy of my contributions--financial, and, more valuably, of my time--in this campaign. I successfully kept myself to a limited budget of both resources, but I can't feel that I got satisfaction for my investments.

Early in this year, I gave moderately small contributions to each of the principal official Democratic party organizations: the Democratic National Committee (through Democrats of New Mexico), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Governors' Association, and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. After that, I resisted all of the many appeals for additional contributions, except one small additional contribution last month to the DLCC.

Instead, I gave some $$ down the stretch to selected candidates through the Act Blue website. I like the fact that it puts the contributor in control of where the money goes, so--in my case--it isn't wasted in futile money-chasing contests to protect the seats of Blue Dogs sitting on deck chairs on the Titanic. I contributed (small amounts) mostly to losing contests, though: Feingold, Sestak, Alan Grayson in Florida, Alex Sink in Florida, Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway, and New Hampshire House candidate Kuster. The two individuals to whom I gave who won were Colleen Hanabusa in Hawaii and (apparently) Michael Bennet in Colorado. Is money given to losing campaigns wasted? Good question, and I have to seriously consider whether I want to participate in the future in a game rigged for big-money, anonymous donations by oligarchs. In 2012, I may just give to Obama's campaign and the DNC and let them channel some, if any can be spared, to deserving races.

In terms of my time, that's where I worked to help our candidates in the New Mexico races. I put about 30 hours of phone canvassing in this cycle, attending some meetings, and helped my wife do door-to-door on Election Day. I think that's a reasonable expenditure of time for unpaid effort.

The results here were acceptable: while Diane Denish went down to defeat (by about 54-46%) in the governor's race, Taos County did its part for the Democrats once again: about a 5-to-2 margin, on vote totals about 80% of 2008's record turnout. For our incumbent House member, Ben Ray Lujan, the county produced a margin of about 7-to-2, similar to that for Obama in 2008, helping him to a 57-43% win over a Tea Party organizer named Tom Mullins. (Mullins ran a creditable race with positions close to his ideological movement, and 40% is not so bad for this district--I wonder whether they are counting him as a TP roll-out loser?) I find this return on my investment to be more satisfactory.

Most Hurtful Losses: 1) Joe Sestak; 2) Alex Sink; 3) Russ Feingold
Most Pleasurable Wins: 1) Michael Bennet; 2) Harry Reid; 3) Lisa Murkowski

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