Sunday, January 24, 2010

Democrats, lower your expectations. No, lower than that.

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you. - Stealers Wheel

The Republicans grabbed Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts last week. Three reasons why it happened:
1. The Democratic candidate, Attorney General Martha Coakley, couldn't be bothered to campaign. Following her December 8, 2009 primary victory, she went on vacation. By the time it became clear she was in trouble (say, a week and a half before the election), it was almost too late.
2. In those last two weeks before the vote, Coakley campaigned like someone who had bet money on her opponent. Asked a simple question about health care and rules protecting freedom of conscience for Catholic health care workers who do not want to take part in abortions or in dispensing post-coital contraceptives, Coakley said they, "probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room." Thanks a lot, Martha. Half of Massachusetts is Catholic. When it was suggested to her that her campaign was too passive, and that she might spend more time meeting voters, she openly mocked the idea: "standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?" Speaking of Fenway Park, Coakley also committed what may be the ultimate crime in Boston: apparently not knowing anything about the Red Sox.
3. Scott Brown's win was due in some part to what the Washington Post called, "Voter discontent with the direction of the government, economy and the health care."

Voter discontent. Let's explore that idea a little further.

Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic had some very negative things to say about the political scene on the eve of the Republican victory in Massachusetts.

"Democrats can stop hoping at this point...(The Republicans) crafted a strategy of total oppositionism to anything Obama proposed a year ago. Remember they gave him zero votes on even the stimulus in his first weeks. They saw health insurance reform as Obama's Waterloo, and, thanks in part to the dithering Democrats, they beat him on that hill. They have successfully channeled all the rage at the massive debt and recession the president inherited on Obama after just one year. If they can do that already, against the massive evidence against them, they have the power to wield populism to destroy any attempt by government to address any actual problems."

"Ditto any attempt to grapple with climate change. In fact, any legislative moves with this Democratic party and this Republican party are close to hopeless. The Democrats are a clapped out, gut-free lobbyist machine. The Republicans are insane. The system is therefore paralyzed beyond repair."

Hey, wow...are things really as hopeless as that? Well, let's head over the, where the brilliant Nate Silver will give us the low down.

Nate suggests that the Massachusetts race is indicative of the fact that, "Clearly the national environment has gotten worse for the Democrats since Barack Obama's inauguration one year ago," and "perhaps it is somewhat more bad than we had previously realized."

Great, anything else? Well, Nate's analysis also suggests that the Democrats will lose at least another five Senate seats this November.

Finally, Nate offers a post entitled, Will the Base Abandon Hope? that reads a lot like the Andrew Sullivan article discussed above. Nate summarizes the year since Obama's inaguration:

"Barack Obama gets elected, whose very trademark is Hope, and whose very election signifies progress. He promises a lot of things, and you look over the political horizon and see large Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, a logjam of popular, progressive initiatives, and a neutered and discredited opposition party."
"Over the summer, the unemployment rate continues to go up, and the President's approval rating continues to go down... But the Democrats bounce back as resolved as ever to pass a health care bill, and the President makes a strong speech."
"After the New Year, there are a few more signs of trouble. A bunch of Democrats retire. Polls -- not just Rasmussen -- show Obama's approval below 50 percent. Then one shows that things are closer than expected in Massachusetts, where they're having an election to replace Ted Kennedy. A Republican can't possibly win the Kennedy seat, can he? Yes. He. Can."
Wow, that hurts. Hey, Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist and author of The Conscience of a Liberal, how do you feel about the situation?

"I have to say, I’m pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in."

Good grief, is there any hope at all? Back to Nate Silver for a minute:

"Now, look, political cycles are moving faster and faster, and the probability of a turnaround in the momentum back toward the Democrats, even in the near term, is probably greater than generally acknowledged -- even if we can neither identify nor predict the precise mechanism by which this occurs. But I worry that the upside is limited if the base is burned out -- at best toward a Clintonian second term (treading water, competent) and not Reaganesque one (realigning). And these things tend to have a self-fulfilling quality to them -- if the base doesn't believe that you can actually push the country in their direction, they become less likely to donate to you, work for you, and vote for you, and that in turn makes such successes harder to achieve. I don't know if the Democrats have any good moves right now, but watching the base give up hope isn't one of them."

So to summarize, the political pendulum is swinging to the right, but maybe we can hope that it swings back to the left sooner rather than later? Ah, the audacity of hope. The country, and the Democratic Party, are in trouble.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Blue state to go Brown, give Joe the blues

"Let us not be downhearted. One total catastrophe like this is just the beginning." - Monty Python's Life of Brian

I've correctly predicted the outcome of the last 68 US Senate races. I've got to be wrong some time. Please, oh please let it be now.

Prediction: Scott Brown (R) to defeat Martha Coakley (D) in tomorrow's Massachusetts Senate race.

All the big prognosticators have called it. Rothenberg, Charlie Cook, Intrade and Nate Silver all say Brown will carry the day.

Could the stakes be any higher? No, they couldn't. If Brown wins, the Democratic Senate caucus loses their filibuster-beating 60th seat. The final vote on the Health Care Reform bill will be severely jeopardized. President Obama put his reputation on the line by campaigning for Coakley, so did a lot of other big name Democrats. A Brown victory will frighten a lot of Democratic incumbents up for reelection this November, possibly spurring a bunch of retirements. And of course the unkindest cut of all: a Republican capturing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.

I'm already outlining some "why Coakley lost" bullet points. There's a chance of course (say, 1-in-4) that I'll get to write a "how Coakley proved everybody wrong" post. I think her strongest hope is the fact that in close elections, Democrats tend to outperform their polling numbers by a couple of points in blue states, and Republicans do the same in red states. So take Nate Silver's prediction of a two-point Brown victory, give Coakley an extra two points, and there you go.

Election night update:

Ghost of John F. Kennedy: "Ted, I thought you quit drinking."
Ghost of Ted Kennedy: "I did, Jack, I did. But tonight I need one."

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Bring back the real filibuster

Barack Obama made health care reform a cornerstone of his campaign for President. A key part of the Obama plan was the creation of a health insurance exchange in which Americans could choose between private plans and a government operated, not-for-profit public plan. Three out of four Americans supported the public option while health care reform was under debate this past summer, and it was included in the bill passed by the House. But with all the support it had, the public option could not get through the Senate. An historic chance has been lost.

The public option died because its supporters were not able to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster. The Senate rules permit one or more senators to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless 3/5ths of the Senate (60 out of 100 Senators) brings debate to a close by invoking cloture.

The Democrats have 60 Senators in their caucus, but unfortunately can't count on keeping them all in line. The Republicans, aka the Party of No, have made it a policy to use every means available stop all important legislation from being passed, and to hold up the confirmation of President Obama's nominees for ridiculous reasons. If fact, they have made the once rare filibuster into standard operating procedure, invoking it more than 100 times per year since becoming the minority in 2007. That number is double the filibuster rate of the early 2000's. (In the 1970s, the filibuster was used about 20 times per year, in the 1950s once per year, and in the 19th century twice per decade).

So how did the GOP manage to make 60 the new 50? It's because the Democratic leadership has allowed the threat of a filibuster to substitute for the filibuster itself, stunting debate before it even begins. Majority leader Harry Reid has not been requiring the Republicans to actually hold the floor and continue to speak once they have declared their intent to filibuster. The grand political theater in which a single senator would speak for hours to hold up the passage of a bill is long gone.

Aaron Zelinsky of the Yale Law Journal did a great job of summarizing the situation this week. Commenting on recent suggestions that majority leader Harry Reid should use "the nuclear option" of getting rid of the filibuster altogether, Zelinsky suggested a different course: "What we have today is a cheap and easy filibuster-lite; Senator Reid should reestablish the real thing."

"Traditionally, senators had to physically speak on the Senate floor to sustain a filibuster. Filibusters were costly and dramatic. They truly tied up the Senate and the individuals undertaking them. Members of both parties had to be present during a traditional filibuster, the majority for quorum calls, the minority to sustain the ongoing discussion.  "(The modern filibuster) requires no real action or sacrifice by senators. In recent times, Senators merely notify the Majority Leader of an intent to filibuster, and the Majority Leader delays further action unless he has sixty votes." "Senate filibusters used to require large amounts of time, energy, and dedication. Now they are the legislative equivalent of a Wal-Mart product, available at everyday low prices. The result has, unsurprisingly, been the universality of the modern filibuster, which requires no real commitment but the lifting of a senator's finger."

Zelinsky notes that bringing back the real filibuster would not only help break gridlock on important legislation, it would also force both parties to take the President's nominations for important appointments more seriously:
"Moreover, a return to the classic filibuster would force Senate Democrats to fight for the President's nominations. Right now, filibusters happen in the darkness. The public does not know how many filibusters are occurring. Nominations languish on the back burner indefinitely. However, if the Republicans were required to actually filibuster on the floor of the Senate, Democrats would be forced to mobilize in response and to defend these nominations openly."

Other types of filibuster reform are also under consideration. Senator Tom Harkin's plan would reduce the amount of votes needed to break a filibuster the longer it goes on. Senators would need 60 votes to break the first vote but then the amount of votes needed would drop to 57, then 54 votes and finally 51 votes.

I don't know for sure what approach to reforming the filibuster is best, but I do know that Democrats had better think of something, or risk seeing the federal government go into long-term gridlock. Today, they are occasionally able to get the 60 votes they need to end debate, but that's not going to continue for very long. It is highly likely that the Democrats are going to see a net loss of Senate seats in each of the next three elections. I'm already forecasting a net loss for 2010. In 2012, Democrats will have 24 seats up for reelection, while Republicans will have only 9. And 2014 looks absolutely disastrous.

I heard it said recently that Democrats govern like they're out of power even when they're in power, and Republicans act like they're in power even when they're deep in the minority. Senator Harry Reid, I'm looking at you.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

2010 US House Predictions

Current US House, 111th Congress:
256 D, 179 R

Prediction: US House, 112th Congress:
 221 D214 R

This post will be updated continuously through election day 2010.

10/13/10: Am I the last guy who thinks the Democrats can hold the House? Nope! I've got the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Um, hooray, I guess...

9/11/10: Currently, 3 out of 5 top prognosticators are forecasting that the GOP will take the House in 2010:
Nate Silver: GOP to net 46 seats -- Hew House 225 R, 210 D.
Cook Political Report: GOP to net 40 seats -- Hew House 219 R, 216 D.
Rothenberg: GOP to net 37 to 42 seats -- Hew House 219 D, 216 R to 221 R, 211 D.
Larry Sabato: GOP to net 47 seats -- Hew House 226 R, 209 D.
Election Projection: GOP to net 38 seats -- Hew House 218 D, 217 R.

I'm going to go a little more optimistic for the blue team: Republicans to gain 35 seats. Here's my reasoning.
1. Looking at the polls on a race-by-race basis gives a slightly brighter picture for the Democrats. For example: Nate Silver says there's a 74% chance that Democrat Bobby Bright will lose in AL-2. But a recent poll gave Bright a 9-point lead versus his Republican opponent. Ditto MS-1, NY-24, NC-8, and SD-AL, where again Nate gives Republicans challgengers a 50% or better chance of winning, but the polls tell a different story.
2. Ok, I'm a cheerleader for the Democrats, and I'm not going to give up until it looks completely hopeless. Admittedly, Nate Silver is just about never wrong (though in 2008, he predicted Indiana for John McCain, while I called it for Obama. HA!).

8/20/10: "It's the economy stupid." The generic ballot is looking pretty grim for Democrats. While America's combat mission in Iraq has ended, and the gulf oil spill has practically been forgotten by most of the country, the weak economy is leading the news cycle.

The likelihood that Democrats will lose a bunch of House seats in increasing. But I'm not as pessimistic as many. Here's why. The generic ballot shows Republicans with the advantage only in the south, where they already hold the lion's share of the seats. From msnbc: "But could those GOP electoral gains come from just one part of the country? The poll contains this interesting finding: The GOP has a HUGE generic-ballot edge in the South (52%-31%), but it doesn’t lead anywhere else. In the Northeast, Dems have a 55%-30% edge; in the Midwest, they lead 49%-38%; and in the West, it’s 44%-43%."

7/4/10: Happy Independence Day! Swing State Project has a post that gives us some food for thought. Among the Democratic incumbents, it rates 29 seats as Likely Dem, 34 as Lean Dem and 18 as Tossup. The tossups are: FL-08 (Grayson), OH-15 (Kilroy), NH-01 (Shea-Porter), PA-11 (Kanjorski) NV-03 (Titus), OH-01 (Driehaus), CO-04 (Markey), FL-24 (Kosmas), NY-23 (Owens), NY-24 (Arcuri), VA-05 (Perriello), NM-02 (Teague), IN-09 (Hill), VA-02 (Nye), MD-01 (Kratovil), MS-01 (Childers), AL-02 (Bright), ID-01 (Minnick).

Some thoughts: The list doesn't include ratings on the 17 Democratic seats that are open due to retirements. Some of those are tossups or even "lean Republican." Suppose we concede five of the open seats, half of the tossup incumbent Dem seats, and nine of the Lean Dem and Likely Dem seats while subtracting the three seats that Democrats are very likely to pickup this year. That still only gets us halfway to a GOP takeover of the House.

6/17/10: A mixed bag of news. On the one hand, the generic ballot doesn't look to bad, with a new AP poll showing Democrats with a 7-point edge. On the other hand, Nate Silver (who is right about pretty much everything all the time) this week said, "the over/under on the number of net Democratic losses is about 40 seats (i.e. they have about even odds of losing the House), with a 90 percent confidence interval of about +/- 20 seats." Ouch.

5/23/10: The GOP has picked up HI-01, but their 8-pt. loss in PA-12 doesn't bode well for Newt Gingrich's prediction that Republicans will pick up, "somewhere between 40 and 65 or 70 seats." (Incidentally, the fact that a slimeball like Gingrich would be back in the spotlight says a lot about the leadership vacuum on the Republican side). Republican Mark Souder (IN-03), yet another holier-than-thou hypocrite, has retired but his seat is safe. Democrat David Obey (WI-07) has retired, but it's a seat Obama carried by 14 points.

4/25/10: I'm guessing we'll probably lose MI-01, where conservative Democrat Bart Stupak is retiring. Michigan is trending red. We're also fairing poorly in New Hampshire, where we could lose both seats.

3/21/10: I'm removing AL-02 from my list of Republican takeovers. There's no indication that Bobby Bright is going to lose his reelection bid, despite the fact that McCain carried his district by 26 points in 2008. Bright must be some kind of magician. Also removing PA from my list of states to net one for the Democrats.

I realize that many pundits are predicting that the GOP will pick up more like 40 seats than the 5 I'm currently predicting. Here's the funny thing though. Those same pundits aren't saying where, exactly, these Republican victories are going to materialize. I actually feel like I'm being pretty generous in predicting that the GOP will pick off the Democratic incumbents in ID-01, MD-01, and either IN-08 or IN-09. Currently, there's no indication that those races are any worse than toss ups for the blue team. As we get closer to election day, I suppose we'll start seeing more polls showing specific Democrats in trouble. But again, I refuse to announce that the blue team is going to get creamed until I see the race-by-race poll numbers to demonstrate it.

If there's one thing upon which everyone can agree, it's that the Democratic Party will lose seats in the House in the 2010 elections. Let's start by considering the advantages that the Republican party has going into November.
* Here's the big one: current polls demonstrate that conservatives are far more energized than progressives regarding the coming election.
* There are a limited number of vulnerable Republican seats just because the party has fallen so far, it doesn't have much more to lose. They've lost a whopping 55 seats since 2006.
* While the economy is growing again, unemployment is likely to remain high through 2010.
* Historically, the party that holds the White House loses seats in mid-term elections.

While the Democrats will be playing defense, they will also have some advantages:
* Democrats still have a small lead in the generic ballot, and their congressional leaders are more popular than the GOP's.
* While the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats has held steady or risen slightly over the past several years, the percentage identifying themselves as Republicans has plummeted, from 30% in 2004 to only 23% today.
* As I've noted in recent posts, the GOP is engaged in a "purity war" between its tea-party conservatives and more moderate elements. This "circular firing squad" wastes resources they could be using to attack Democrats.
* Speaking of resources, the Republican party is not currently raising the kind of money it needs to wage war on a large number of Democratic incumbents.

To summarize, the Democratic Party would like to keep its losses small enough to continue to be able to push through legislation in the House next year, then regain momentum heading in 2012. They also have high hopes of gaining some advantage in the 2011 decennial reapportionment of Congressional seats. Democrats currently hold much stronger representation in some states in which Republicans controlled redistricting in 2001. In that year, states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas re-drew their congressional maps so as to eliminate as many Democrats as possible.