What Democracy Looks Like

Republicans around the country have put a lot of effort in recent years into enacting laws that limit voter access to the polls, with the GOP accelerating these vote suppression efforts in swing states in time for year’s midterm elections. So in other words, for the modern Republican Party, making it harder for people to vote (especially those who aren’t likely to vote for you) is what democracy looks like.

I stumbled onto a different view of what democracy looks like as I was ambling through Terminal 3 at Perth Airport in Western Australia last week. I happened upon Gate 22 — which had been temporarily converted into a polling place for early voting in upcoming state elections. Voting at the airport!

perth22

It is worth noting that Australia has a system of compulsory voting (if you don’t have an acceptable documented excuse for failing to vote you pay a fine), and that arguably obliges the government to make voting as readily available as possible. Also, Western Australia’s economy with its reliance on mining and energy spread over a large territory has a lot of so-called “fly-in, fly-out” workers who come and go to work by air for lengthy intervals. The opportunity for these workers to meet their voting obligation at the airport makes good sense, as Perth discovered in last fall’s Australian federal election.

It turns out, though, that airport voting isn’t unique to that western side of Australia with its mining economy; in the most recent federal election early voting sites were set up at major airports (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and others) in every Australian state.

In the U.S. right now, democracy (in the view of one major political party) means rigging public policy to keep people away from the polls. In Australia, democracy means creating opportunities to vote that reach people where and when they are. Making it hard to vote vs. making it easier to vote … hich smells more like real, functioning democracy?

[Plus in Australia you get to choose on the ballot among all these groovy political parties!]

ballot22

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Lamar Filibusters Reality

lamarupSeeking to fend off a tea-party primary challenger, Sen. Lamar Alexander has been warming up for 2014 by rebranding himself as hostile to the kind of pragmatic moderation that once framed his centrist political persona. With an op-ed in the Washington Post late last week assailing the move by Senate Democrats to do away with the filbuster on executive and judicial nominations, Alexander demonstrates he is also working hard to rebrand himself as hostile to facts and reality.

The Post piece is a model of intellectual dishonesty. Alexander says Democrats built the change in Senate rules on “filmsy excuses, many of which are untrue.” Let’s look at two of them. Lamar writes:

Excuse No. 1: President Obama’s appointees have been unfairly denied seats by failed cloture votes, or filibusters. According to the Congressional Research Service, no Supreme Court nominee has been defeated by filibuster in the Senate … The number of federal district judge and Cabinet nominees defeated by filibuster? Zero. Regarding sub-Cabinet nominees, there were two for President Obama, three for George W. Bush and two for Bill Clinton. That’s it. … As for appeals court judges, Republican filibusters have blocked five, but that happened only after Democrats first blocked five.

The dishonesty here is in the phrase “denied seats by failed cloture votes, or filibusters.” A cloture vote is a vote to limit debate, which effectively ends a filibuster. But filibusters don’t always (or even usually) end in cloture votes one way or the other. By measuring filibusters as a count of failed cloture votes, Alexander is not only dissembling, he is doing exactly what the very Congressional Research Service report (pdf) he cites tells him not to do. According to the CRS, it is “erroneous” to equate cloture motion outcomes with filibusters:

Filibusters can occur without cloture being attempted, and cloture can be attempted when no filibuster is evident. Often today, moreover, it appears that Senate leaders generally avoid bringing to the floor nominations on which a filibuster seems likely. In such cases there are no means by which to identify the merely threatened filibuster.

Cloture votes don’t tally filibusters, the CRS goes on to say, because “a filibuster is a matter of intent; any proceedings on the floor might constitute part of a filibuster if they are undertaken with the purpose of blocking or delaying a vote.” So a better measure of GOP obstructionism regarding Obama’s nominees is found in delay – the amount of time nominees wait for confirmation.

Alexander takes up this angle … and once again mangles reality:

Excuse No. 2: President Obama’s nominees have waited too long for confirmation. According to the Congressional Research Service, Obama’s second-term Cabinet nominees have been confirmed at about the same pace as those of Presidents Clinton and Bush. This year, the Senate has confirmed 36 of Obama’s second-term nominees to circuit and district courts, compared with 14 for Bush at this point in 2005.

The distortion here is really basic. Exploring whether nominees “have waited too long for confirmation” by comparing the raw number of confirmed second-term Obama appointments with the number for Bush at same point in his term is nonsensical since it fails to account for differences in numbers of vacancies and says nothing about actual time nominees have waited for Senate action. Actual data on confirmation delays tell the story Lamar doesn’t want you to hear:

confirmchart

Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of a filibuster rule that empowers legislative minorities to slow confirmations of executive appointments. Unreasonable people (like Lamar Alexander) can torture the facts to invent a false argument about the effects of such a rule.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


My Last Marsha Post. Promise.

"I demand to be taken seriously."

“I demand to be taken seriously.”

I recently promised myself no more posts about the festival of witlessness that is Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s cognition. But alas, I just can’t help myself after her latest public work of self-parodying performance art: the Kathleen Sebelius hearing in the House Energy and Comerce Committee this week.

Asserting that “some people like to drive a Ford and not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red solo cup and not a crystal stem,” Blackburn argued that people should be free to keep the cut rate insurance they have rather than be compelled to buy some of that highfallutin’ Marxist-Leninist Obamacare coverage. Sally Kohn at Salon captures it well, summing up Blackburn’s argument as a brief for the principle that “Americans should be free to hold onto their inadequate, costly and reckless insurance policies that throw them off at the slightest sign of illness while forcing costs up for the rest of us.”

Without question, this is to a significant extent a self-inflicted wound at the White House, which willfully enabled this latest tactical conservative assault on the Affordable Care Act through Obama’s repeated assertions going back three years that under ACA people could keep their existing health insurance if they wished. Although NBC News would have us be stunned by the revelation that the Obama administration knew this claim to be exaggerated, it was actually pretty obvious to anyone paying attention from the outset that ACA would compel many to encounter significant changes in health insurance coverage. A lot of us were cringing at Obama’s repeated assertions on this when he first started making them.

But that doesn’t impeach the imbecility of Blackburn’s way of “thinking” — that no health insurance policy exists that is too flimsy to meet the needs of her fine constituents. Look, she has every right to believe that health insurance should be a wholly unregulated market, but she needs to make the case for that, not just rail against regulatory standards merely because they are regulatory standards. Would she do away with all regulation of all insurance? Does she have even a clue as to the implications of doing so? If you want to use your Congressional perch to shout down administration officials with nostrums of free market liberatarian orthodoxy, it might behoove you and your staff to spent at least a few minutes understanding how these markets and regulatory schemes work, and what the actual policy consequences of doing away with them might look like.

Ok, for real this time: No more Marsha posts.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Hatred for ACA: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

whiteflagIt’s no surprise that Republicans are spinning their strategic retreat on the shutdown and debt ceiling (“strategic retreat” being, of course, a polite euphemism for “abject surrender”) as something else. Who wouldn’t? It is curious, though, that in crafting the spin many on the right think that doubling down on hatred for Obamacare is the way to go.

Yes, ACAphobia was the spark that lit the fire, as the Wall Street Journal’s Jerry Seib aptly summarizes:

To the conservative rebels who brought on a government crisis their party’s elders never wanted, the point is simple: They wanted to demonstrate that they don’t simply oppose President Barack Obama’s signature health-care program, but find it so philosophically objectionable that they will fight it at every turn. To them, it isn’t merely a health program but the very symbol of a big-government philosophy that they find threatening.

These “rebels” now find themselves in the role of victims of the law of unintended consequences: not only did the effort to defund ACA fail entirely; as Seib points out it also “demonstrated definitively that the GOP today simply lacks the votes in Congress under any scenario to force meaningful changes to it.”

Undeterred by this new reality (or perhaps just impossibly optimistic), the spin on the right now holds that it’s only a matter of time before people really come to really see how really disastrous Obamacare really is. The dimwitted likes of Rep. Marsha Blackburn have been misreading polls on the public’s mind on this along. Now, with this month’s crisis averted, Erick Erickson at RedState advances the delusional ball:

The fight was always about Obamacare. Today we know we must keep fighting and fight harder against even our own supposed side … As more Americans watch Obamacare fail them through the Republican primary season, conservatives will be able to put the focus on Republicans who funded Obamacare instead of fighting it.

There’s a problem with this, a rather obvious one: people simply don’t dislike Obamacare as much as Marsha and Erick do, not nearly as much. A new Democracy Corps poll makes this clear yet again (pdf with toplines here).

This new poll does reveal, yes, that equal numbers favor and oppose ACA when asked that straight out (45-45 in this survey). But as in past polls, when you ask whether opponents think the law goes too far vs. not far enough, you end up with not much more than a third of respondents opposed to the law in the way that Marsha and Erick are. Even more telling: Asked whether “we should implement and fix the health care reform law,” or whether “we should repeal and replace the health care reform law” voters prefer “implement and fix” by a whopping 58-38% margin.

The ACA deadenders on the right are clinging to the belief that it’s just a matter of time before Americans wise up to the expensive and complex morass which is Obamacare. What they miss is that most people already understand that our dysfunctional system of health insurance is an expensive and complex nightmare that requires an expensive and complex remedy. Marsha needs to learn the difference between a feature and a bug.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Poll Dancing on Obamacare

marshabI get it: they really hate Obamacare. It’s worse than Stalinism and kidney stones combined. But how do they look themselves in the mirror after spinning such bullshit in print — nonsense that is so readily checked and so easily debunked? That’s what I wondered when I saw Marsha Blackburn’s op-ed in The Tennessean yesterday. In Marshaworld, one look at the polls and it’s clear the thing won’t work and everyone knows it:

It has become very clear that this law is unworkable. A recent CNN poll shows support for the president’s health care law waning, with only 39 percent of Americans now in favor of it, down from 51 percent in January. With the Obama administration’s decisions to delay several parts of the health care law, including the employer mandate, it is clear that even the White House now recognizes what the rest of America already knows: “Obamacare” is a train wreck.

The problem with Blackburn’s position is that while poll results may find that Americans are skeptical about on the Affordable Care Act, the polls also show that Americans want Congress to make it work, not kill it. Yes, the CNN poll she mentions does find only 39 percent of respondents favoring most or all of Obamacare, and a Pew poll completed around the same time (early September) locates approval at just 42 percent, with 53 percent expressing disapproval.

But the Pew poll goes on to ask a crucial question: What should elected officials who oppose the law (that’s you, Marsha) do now? Among the 53 percent in the poll who disapprove of Obamacare, 27 percent say lawmakers should “do what they can to make the law work as well as possible,” while just 23 percent say “do what they can to make the law fail.”

In other words, more than two-thirds of Americans (42% who like the law + 27% who don’t) want to see Congress make Obamacare work. Blackburn writes that “we have seen just how frustrated people are with the impact ACA is having on their lives.” Yes we have, and the answer is “not very.” Asked in the Pew poll how the health care law “has affected you and your family,” a whopping 20 percent said “mostly negative”; the rest were neutral or positive, and just 38 percent think Obamacare has had a negative effect on the country as a whole.

Poll numbers, one can readily concede, do not reveal Obamacare to be wildly popular. Even so, it is nonsense pure and simple to assert as Blackburn does that “the rest of America” sees a train wreck. People may not fully understand health care reform (only 25% told Pew they grasp its impact “very well”), and may be apprehensive about their own health security (hell, who isn’t?). But it is sophistry of the semi-unhinged variety to hold out public opinion as the basis for an argument that the thing is “unworkable.” To the contrary, it’s actually something that most of us want to see work.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


As Goes Mississippi So Goes Tennessee?

dempubThe Atlantic over the weekend ran a piece by Molly Ball, its staff writer covering national politics, enticingly titled Can Democrats Win Back the Deep South? “Less far-fetched than you think” is the answer featured in the subhed and developed in the piece, which takes as its starting point a handful of elections in Mississippi earlier this month in which Democrats won mayoral victories in Republican strongholds. Dem wins in Meridian, Ocean Springs, Starkville and Tupelo had state Democratic Party Chair Rickey Cole trumpeting gains in fund-raising, technology, and ground game, and optimistically concluding that “we are seeing the healthy maturation in Mississippi to a two-party system.” The acid retort from one Republican partisan quoted by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger: “If I was a member of a party that only held one of our eight statewide offices, I would look for victory wherever I can, too.”

Ball’s Atlantic piece ponders the implications of Mississippi’s recent “Blue Tuesday” for the broader possibility of a de-crimsoned South:

A handful of local elections in Mississippi is hardly a blue wave. But Democrats across the South hope what just happened there is the start of something big — the first ripple of a Democratic comeback in the Deep South….A Democratic comeback will be a tall order, to say the least, in a region whose political story in recent decades has been a steady march toward the GOP. “It’s hard to conceive we could go any farther down,” chuckled Don Fowler, the South Carolinian who chaired the Democratic National Committee in the 1990s and is now chairman of South Forward. “But where can you find a place where a new Democratic thrust would be more welcome and could do more good?”

Ultimately Ball settles on the popular theme of demographic destiny as the basis for optimism that a blue South might rise again. As the map below illustrates, southern states are among those with the nation’s fastest-growing Latino populations. Combine that with growth in African-American numbers as well and you have some southern states headed for majority-minority status in the not-too-distant future (Georgia and Mississippi within a decade at current rates of growth, according to the Atlantic piece).

AtlPithChart2

But growth is one thing; actual population is another. Although the map above puts us right there with other southern states in Latino population growth, Tennessee’s markedly lighter blue profile in map below (compared to the Carolinas and Georgia) suggests that Tennessee may be slower than some other southern states to reap the political effects of these demographic developments.

AtlPithChart1

Ball points to newly organized groups pushing a trans-regional strategy aimed at electoral gains for southern Democrats. One is South Forward, a PAC that describes its mission as fostering “an integrated, multifaceted approach to revitalizing and growing the Democratic South.” By multifaceted they mean not just raising money for federal office seekers, but also doing candidate and campaign-management training, as well as providing direct support for down-ballot races.

Another is The Southern Project, an effort launched at last year’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte that sums up its mission this way:

Driven by changes in demographics, [the South] has over the past few election cycles shown increasingly Progressive tendencies. Accordingly, Project New America — which was formed five years ago as Project New West by Western leaders, thinkers, and strategists as a tool to interpret and exploit the values and attitudes driving two decades of dramatic growth in the West — has now turned its resources and expertise to the South.

These kinds of organized efforts are important. Changing demographics may open opportunities for Democrats across the South, but as the Clarion-Ledger‘s analysis of what made Mississippi’s Blue Tuesday possible reveals, the things that win elections are, as ever, good candidates, lots of money, tactics, data, social media, and ground game. For that you need serious organization, not just favorable trends in census data.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


College Republicans on Winning Back Young Voters

CRNCReportThe newest addition to the Republican party’s post-2012 festival of post-mortem-handwringing-and-charting-the-way-forward is one worth spending some time with: a College Republican National Committee report focusing on what it labels the GOP’s “generational challenge.” As the report notes, Barack Obama waxed Mitt Romney among voters under age 30 last November by 5 million votes, a more than 20 percentage point advantage.

Rejecting “conventional wisdom..that young people naturally favor Democrats” and noting that Presidents Reagan and W. Bush did much better with young voters, the CRNC report’s authors declare that “the Republican Party has won the youth vote before and absolutely can win it again.” Incidentally, this thing wasn’t actually written by actual college Republicans; it was penned principally by a political consultant-slash-cable-news-mouthpiece for hire in her late twenties.

The report has promise as meaningful analysis because it draws significantly on data, including a new CRNC-commissioned survey of young voters, a 2012 Harvard Institute of Politics study of young Americans’ attitudes, other polls and some focus groups. But it runs to more than 90 pages, and the CRNC requires your email address to receive a copy (unless, like me, you know someone willing to give her email address and then forward it on). So as a public service, I read the report so you don’t have to.

There are three threads to the report’s analysis of where Republicans go wrong with young voters: technology, policy and branding. Let’s hit some highlights in each area.

The discussion of technology is erected on a perceived GOP deficit compared to Democrats in “understanding the media consumption habits of a new generation.” This part of the report should alarm Republicans, not because it is inaccurate, but because it suggests a party still struggling to keep up with the times. Consider these passages:

Programs like The Daily Show and the emergence of a variety of popular online news sites offer new ways to reach Millennial voters.

New in 2004 maybe. Really, you are only now figuring this out?

The data strongly suggest Facebook as an absolutely critical source of information…Young voters are not just consuming information from Facebook, they are often participating in the
conversation there.

You need to hire a consultant to surface this insight?

[Facebook/Twitter] posts that inspire strong emotions are more likely to be shared than those that fail to generate much emotional reaction.

Duh.

Text messaging is enormously common … with 62% saying they text multiple times per day (with “multiple times per day” in italics for astonished emphasis).

You think? And by the way what does it mean to engage in texting that is not multiple times per day? Who sends one single text per day?

A good Pandora ad is one that reaches the listener with a message that matters personally.

People respond more to ads that matter to them than ads that don’t matter to them? So that’s why we lost the election!

The technology section does arrive at the legitimate conclusion that mastering social media as a political tool requires “getting people to share, not just consume, your message” to improve reach with young voters. The problem, though, is that this is social media 101, and since it was also social media 101 four years ago, the analysis feels creaky and dated.

Moving on…

The report’s treatment of policy works from an assumption that “there are subjects where the Millennial generation and Republican Party are not in perfect agreement.” The GOP challenge is “persuading young people to agree with their policy positions on enough items to win their votes.”

Some of the survey and focus group data informing this section are interesting. On the economy, we learn that young people aren’t all that enthusiastic about Obama’s performance, but they do give him credit for at least trying to improve the situation, and they have no sense that Republicans would do better. This judgment that something beats nothing extends to other issues: “Young voters simply felt the GOP had nothing to offer, and therefore said they trusted the Democratic Party more than the Republican Party on every issue tested.

You see this something-beats-nothing dynamic especially clearly on health care. Although the writers of the report do a lousy job concealing their fervent wish that young voters would hate Obamacare as much as they do, they are forced to concede that the data show young voters regard basic health insurance as a right by a two-to-one margin, and “the general sentiment seemed to be that at least Obama had attempted to change things.” It is refreshing to see actual Republicans openly admit that they have offered essentially nothing of substance on health care: “The advantage that Obama has on the issue is largely due to the fact that he attempted a reform plan at all.” Baby steps.

Things run a bit off the rails when it comes to student loan debt. The data are clear: young voters think Democrats are addressing the student loan crisis and Republicans aren’t. But instead of making the obvious point that Republicans need to change their approach, the report urges Repubs to embrace fringe remedies like Rick Perry’s $10K B.A. and more lending in the for-profit educational market.

There are some other interesting issue-oriented findings. While we all assume that young people are more environmentally engaged than older voters, the data show that young’ns are no more inclined to prioritize the environment over economic growth, nor to use instruments of public policy to do something about climate change. Nor do young voters prioritize immigration policy more than older voters, although they are more apt to support paths to legal status for the children of immigrants.

On social issues, young voters are just about as likely to be pro-life vs. pro-choice as the general population — an interesting factoid. But the report then loses all touch with reality by completely misrepresenting both GOP and Democratic positions on abortion: “Unfortunately for the GOP, the Republican Party has been painted — both by Democrats and by unhelpful voices in our own ranks — as holding the most extreme anti-abortion position (that it should be prohibited in all cases).” I assume that by “unhelpful voices” they mean their own national party’s platform! With equal suspension of disbelief, they sum up the Democratic party’s position as “pushing for abortion to be legal in all cases and at all times.” Earth to GOP: You are not going to win back young voters on this or any other issue by denying the black-letter reality of your own position and twisting the opposition’s into something outlandish and unrecognizable.

On LGBT issues the report comes clean: “Young people are unlikely to view homosexuality as morally wrong, and they lean toward legal recognition of same-sex relationships.” Its authors concede that “gay marriage was a reason that many of these young voters disliked the GOP.” But rather than offer up the obvious remedy — change the party’s fundamental orientation on an issue whose ultimate outcome is clear and inevitable — the report calls on the GOP to “promote the diversity of opinion on the issue within its ranks.” I’d call this the “we’re not all bigots” strategy. Yeah, that’ll work.

And to the last of our three threads…

The branding challenge is summed up this way: “Is it any wonder…that young people reject the GOP when its message is being carried in such a negative and out-of-touch way?” In the CRNC’s focus groups, young voters describe the Republican Party as closed minded, rigid, and old-fashioned. The Democratic Party evokes adjectives like tolerant, diverse, and open-minded. Okay, that’s unsurprising.

It gets more interesting when discussing how young survey respondents define themselves aspirationally — identifying attributes that they hope others see in them. According to the report, young people want to be thought of as smart and competent more than what conventional wisdom would have us believe — that young people wish to be regarded as cool, creative, unique and tolerant. I suspect the report’s authors are over-interpreting their data, but that’s okay because it does drive them toward a conclusion that is important both for their party and, frankly, for the good of the republic: that smart is good and stupid is bad. Being thought of as closed-minded is not a good thing, they observe, adding that “if the GOP is thought of as the ‘stupid party,’ it may well be the kiss of death.

This is good stuff because it is high time that the Republican Party begin to move away from the anti-intellectual impulses of its conservative wing, and the CRNC report appropriately calls this out as a generational concern. (Just the other day influential right-wing blogger Erick Erickson bloviated that conservatism “does not win when it is academic or technocratic.”) Neither party has cornered the market on intelligence, the report declares, and while that may at times seem open to debate when the volume is turned up on some of the GOP’s fringe voices, it is ultimately to everyone’s benefit if the Republican Party works to re-engage its rational self.

To sum up, the CRNC report is worth a look, but there is an overarching problem with many aspects of the way forward envisioned by the document: its framing of the GOP’s need for fine tuning to appeal to young voters simply doesn’t square with how actual Republicans are actually behaving. In a Daily Caller piece marking the report’s release, the principal author along with the chair of the CRNC write that “we’ve been mislabeled the ‘party of no’ … the truth is that we aren’t just the ‘party of no’ … this isn’t about being obstructionist or anti-Obama.” This doesn’t even pass the smell test. The home page of the same CRNC that makes this claim prominently features a video called “The Great Pretender” depicting Obama as a cartoonish imperialist star-fucker with “no shame” who is “laughing while we’re going down” and flushing the country down the toilet (complete with toilet imagery). Right. Not reflexively anti-Obama. Got it.

Democrats certainly have no automatic lock on young voters and shouldn’t take them for granted, and the CRNC report is justified by the obvious concern that a party that doesn’t connect across generations is a party without a future. Even so, Republicans are going to have to do a lot better than technological amateurism and vapid self-delusion if they want to turn the generational tide.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


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