Friday, January 10, 2014

2014 General Political Preview: US

Unlike 2013, a phony election year which led to broad, mistaken conclusions about the body politic and enormous efforts to raise money for a very small number of races, 2014 is a real election.  One-third of the Senate, all the House, and a whole lot of state governors' races are being contested this year.

CNN had an interesting poll recently in which they asked the voters who had more to fear from the 2014 elections.  33% of respondents said the Republicans; 19% said the Democrats; but the plurality (48%) was that the party that had the most to fear was The Voters.  I think they had it almost right, as the Democrats have as much to fear as the Republicans from 2014, but mostly we recognize that we are going to be bombarded with solicitations, ads, a lot of baloney, and not much to show for it.The 2012 election's results led to a lot of people saying, "elections have consequences"; those consequences were not fully apparent last year, and I'm not sure about 2014, either.  Similarly, this election will have a lot of hullabaloo--mostly about the "do-nothing Congress" and the contrarian point of view that inertia is a Good Thing--and an endless series of fund-raising efforts, but the fear I share with those who selected The Voters is that the consequences may be vanishingly slight.

Nevertheless, the risks that are present with this year's balloting, and the attention it will draw, suggest that I should go out on the limb--once again--and tell my dear reader what s/he should be listening and looking for in this year's cacophony, and what one can predict about the likely outcomes.  Today, we address the issues that are going to be salient; in a post in the near future, we will get down to cases.

Issues: It's not the Stupid Economy
Of course people will always vote their pocketbooks to some extent--whether they perceive their economic interests accurately and vote them effectively, that's another matter.  As the vast money raised and blown on the Romney campaign in 2012 showed, even the big-money contributors are having a hard time getting what they want out of their freely-donated "speech".

This year, though, I can't see either party making a trenchant economic argument that will move voters, absent a sudden collapse of some kind--and I don't think even a bursting Wall Street bubble would qualify, unless accompanied by a more general unraveling.  A lot of people would be glad to see those wolves and parasites (those people's view; not wholly mine) down on the same level with the rest of "us". The economy isn't doing that badly, after all. Fifth year of sustained growth, unemployment down to new normal levels, inflation very low, interest rates low--sorry, I can't agree with the nay-sayers on either side of the aisle.  The new Fed chair-pilot Janet Yellen seems to have worked out the glide path with outgoing chair Bernanke and the plan is for a seamless transition toward autopilot and cruise control.  There are issues that will have economic ramifications, but I think those are secondary for them--they are primarily social issues.

My view is that healthcare will not be the hot issue in 2014 that some think, fear, or hope.  The Republicans got their mileage from it, but the program is not going to be stopped, and the Democrats--if they have any sense--will stop short of accepting comprehensive ownership of the whole mess and stick to what the Affordable Care Act actually does and does not do.

Neither will the Republicans be able to make any more hay about the budget deficit this year.  President Obama has essentially fulfilled his promise to reduce the budget deficit by half and the current deficit is not in itself a problem.  There is a problem, but it is a long-term one, and it will not be addressed honestly this year by either party. The failure of the government shutdown effort has dampened Republican enthusiasm for mud-wrestling on the deficit and the debt ceiling, and just in time for their chances this year, I'd say.

Return of the Social to the Media
So, what is there that will get people excited?  I think there are a few social issues that have gotten people's attention in recent months and upon which politicians may be forced to take positions.

First, it is evident that the recent flood of states that have moved to legalize same-sex marriage has raised it as a topic that will remain current for 2014. Those states that came out forcefully and made popular-backed changes may have moved on, but there are several states where the outcome is still conflicted, and there are still more in which the issue has only begun to rise.  Then there is the federal question, whether the marriages of one state should, or must, be recognized by others--my understanding is that same-sex marriages do not yet have that federal cross-border protection.  The momentum for the movement to allow same-sex marriage remains strong, and the reaction is regrouping, so there will be some relatively hot clashes in the near future.

Next, there has been a creeping anti-abortion movement which has obtained success in several states by making access to abortions difficult.  Limitations around the term of the pregnancy, reducing the doctors or clinics that can perform them, putting onerous hurdles in the way of those seeking them (your ultrasounds, permission slips, required re-educational programs, etc.) are having an effect, and there is a majority on the Supreme Court--with all of swing Justice Kennedy's temporizing--that can only be watching all this with concern.  Whether or not SCOTUS takes some action this year--and I'd bet against--I think the activists on both sides of this issue will be pumping hard for contributions and working the candidates to take stands, particularly in contested state gubernatorial and legislative elections.  I think it will be the central issue in the Texas governor's race, for example, and could spark a surprising result if Democratic candidate Wendy Davis, who came to national view in filibustering abortion restrictions in the state legislature, can mobilize national support and Texas women and minorities.  Someday it will happen, if not in 2014, and it will make a dramatic change in the political landscape when it does.

Then there is the Herbal Liberation Front--the strengthening movement for decriminalization of marijuana.  Despite major victories in a couple of states, the definitive success of the effort is far from secure; with the current status, a new administration could legally decide to crack down on legalized distribution in those states--both for personal and for medicinal use--and we would be back to Square Zero. (and I do mean Square!) As I argued recently, the key initiative--one which will not pass in this Congress--will be a Federal protection for states to take the measures they choose to liberalize possession, or not. Candidates for Congress will, and should be expected to, take positions on this issue, and those positions may have consequences.  Further, there will undoubtedly be new state initiatives on ballots in 2014, which will keep attention on the issue regardless of Congressional candidates' reluctance to antagonize either pro-pot libertines and libertarians or anti-pot reactionaries.  My priority on this will be to express continuing solidarity with the experiment of Colorado and Washington and protect it from ridicule or Federal intrusion.

Finally, there is the growing inequality of income and wealth in the country, which is really a social issue with economic implications, and what can and should be done about that inequality. The fact that the economy's growth is all going to relatively few would not be so bad, if they were spending it in ways that were perceived, or actually, helping the rest.   The Democrats are hoping that they can use empathy for the less fortunate as a wedge issue to either embarrass Republicans or pressure them to pass things they don't like, like unemployment insurance, food stamps, or an increase in the minimum wage.  I would predict the results will be:  embarrassment--yes; unemployment insurance extension - no (!); food stamps--yes; minimum wage--no.

I do think that 2014 will see a renewal of debate about taxation, which from a long-term point of view is really the way to address this issue.  President Obama will look to accomplish something in this area, probably in the next Congress, but the debate this year may begin to frame the possible outcome. It's early to predict how that will come out, but I could envision a compromise solution which involves both more progressive and less progressive taxation:  raising the income limits substantially (or eliminating them) for the (regressive) Social Security contribution, lowering the top tax rates on the basic income tax, but removing enough deductions to make general tax revenues neutral (or slightly higher).  I could also see a trade-off with the special low tax rate for capital gains ending in exchange for lower corporate tax rates.  With this logic, the debate will focus on the types of deductions to be removed, and this will up the ante for those special interests who need to protect theirs. I can see both parties goading the lobbyists to put down PAC money by raising this threat.

Is It Safe Out There? 
There are two topics that are generally discounted, but I think could emerge as major issues in the 2014 elections.  I will say first, that I hope these two emerge, because they are debates that we need; second, I would bet that they would, but only if I am given generous odds.

The first is a new, post-GWOT (Global War on Terror) debate on security, military spending, and foreign policy.  I think President Obama is ready to allow this one to come forward and not try to snuff it out with some sort of demagogic, flag-waving artificial scare tactics, which is usually the case.

I am hoping that the issue will not arise because of some tragic incident, and I'm definitely putting the advice out there to beef up security at all our embassies, consulates, and other outposts on September 11, 2014, especially anywhere in the Middle East.   We should take a couple of divisions that are being removed from Afghanistan, send home the veterans, but keep the units in the region, and parcel out the new recruits  to these locations. The contrary argument--bring everybody home--will be a popular one, but it is unwise, and I don't think it will be adopted.

Afghanistan itself will present an issue, with this proposed Security Agreement that would potentially keep American troops on the ground there for 10 more years (albeit in reduced numbers).  This is unpopular in the extreme at home, and it's likely to  be an unsettled issue in Afghanistan itself until after the elections there:  will the new President want us there--as a tripwire to help prevent a collapse--or will he want us out in order to remove an obstacle to a possible peace agreement?  And how will we feel about that, when the new President makes a deal and lets the Taliban back into controlling Kandahar?  About how we feel about letting the Sunni militants take back Fallujah (as they just did), I'd say.

Then there are all the other countries in the Middle East and the security issues--about one or two per country.  I don't think Iran and its nuclear program will be the hot button this year, but their involvement in the scraps in Syria and Lebanon could be.  Then there is Israel, and the Palestinians, and their respective inclinations to pretend to make a deal, and the Egyptians who are thumbing their nose at us, and the Libyans who are thumbing their nose, and the Saudis who feel will be surprising if there is not an urgent security crisis of some kind in the Middle East this fall that will draw our attention.

The Meta-Election 
You saw the term here first:  this is the second issue that I am hoping will surprise and emerge. I think there's a good chance that a huge portion of this year's electoral dialogue could be about the nature of our elections themselves, as we conduct them today, and the Cost of Bad Quality associated with them.  One way this could come forward would be through a series of "third-party" independents of left (Democratic dissidents), center (moderate Republicans), and right (Tea Partyists) who make serious bids for office challenging the two major-party candidates.  An even more helpful development would be a debate about the ridiculous amounts of money being spent, and what would be required to scale back the fund-raising arms race.

At the end of 2013, I was receiving about fifty emails a day from various party fundraising groups and individual candidates, all trying to convince me that I really needed to give them money so that they could meet some arbitrary year-end fundraising goal.  With one exception, Lois Frankel, who is trying to pre-empt a return run by Allen West in her district (anything to keep him out of the limelight), I did not give to any of them--what's the point, really?  Do they really think that showing that they can raise a bunch of money quickly from out-of-state contributors is going to inhibit their opponents from running, or raising money? Giving only encourages them, at this point.

I think that people are about fed up with the current electoral system, and a recent poll suggested they are ready to look at wholesale change. So, what is needed to change?  A couple of constitutional amendments, the way I see it.  One would be to specify that corporations (or special-purpose vehicles, limited liability companies, non-profit organizations) have certain rights and responsibilities, but that they are not the same as those for individuals.  A second one would be to eliminate the Electoral College and select the President through the popular vote.  I also think it's time to bring forward the idea that we should have the President serve one six-year term:  I am convinced there will never be another President who has a successful second term (the last was Eisenhower, I guess).

Another aspect of this meta-election concept is the whole question of access to the voting booths, with the Democrats driving to make it simpler and the Republicans seeking to obstruct the masses. We can expect the volume level on "voter fraud/voter suppression" to rise dramatically as the election approaches, as turnout will be a make-or-break issue for the Democrats. Particularly it concerns access for the minority voters, and this is what the Congressional block on immigration reform is all about:  trying to impede the growth of Hispanic voting power for the long run. That is why the piecemeal approach of the House to the issue this year will include more visas for professionals and will look to reduce conflict about deportation, but it will not grant a path to future citizenship for the undocumented.

This bring us to the bottom line:  the main issue which will be resolved in the 2014 elections will be the political careers of those who are running.  I will address their concerns in a future post.

In the meantime, let me give one more plug to Nate Silver, the proven colossus of sound statistical analysis for use in predicting electoral outcomes  Nate has packed up from the New York Times (and they have left to be bought up by some silly Chinese merch site--don't go there!) and moved to ESPN.  He has been recruiting additional editorial talent and will be starting a site there (I think it will be called "FiveThirtyEight", though I hope that reference to the Electoral college will become obsolete soon)--in the meantime,ESPN's blog Grantland has provided him a temporary home when he gets the chance to post, as he did here about the shutown.

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