Posts Tagged ‘2010 midterms’

Midterm History (1942-2006)

September 26, 2010

17 midterm elections were held in the period between 1942 and 2006. How did the president’s party do?

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Johan Galtung on President Obama

September 20, 2010

For those of you who missed it, Johan Galtung voiced his discontent with President Obama in an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman last week (September 16).  Galtung described Obama as a man with “megalomaniac” tendencies who hasn’t kept any of his campaign promises and who doesn’t deserve the support of those who stomped for him in 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of President Obama?

JOHAN GALTUNG: I have never believed in him. Never. I have lots of editorials and things written in the election year. I think that I sense something slightly megalomaniac in him, which is disturbing. The idea of being able to unite all of the US, just as he unites skin colors and faiths and origins in his body, and for that reason, leaning over backwards to negotiate with the Republicans and taking on Republican points, whereupon the Republicans vote no. Now, maybe the Republicans will now change from being a “no” party to some couple of “maybe” or “yeses,” maybe. But in the meantime, he has lost the support of the people who are voting for him. If I had been working like mad in 2008 to get him elected, because of some beauties in his rhetoric, and had experienced what I have experienced now, I would not work for the midterm elections.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think he has gone back on, in terms of his promises?

JOHAN GALTUNG: Practically speaking, everything. Guantánamo is still there. Rendition is still there. There is the saying that no torture should take place; I haven’t seen the mechanism to ensure that that’s the case. The withdrawal from Iraq, with 50,000 remaining. Stepping up, escalating the war in Afghanistan. And as we know, whatever withdraws from Iraq essentially goes to Afghanistan instead.

I think it’s very contrary to the kind of thing that he was exuding, including the nuclear point. What kind of thing is this, to get rid of old-fashioned weapons with the Russians and then arguing for $180 billion to modernize the nukes—$100 billion for the weapons carriers, $80 billion for new warheads? What kind of nuclear-free world is this? He should have had the decency, when Norway made the mistake of giving him the Nobel Peace Prize, of saying, “I graciously, gratefully decline. I haven’t earned it yet. Let’s come back when possibly I have earned it.” He didn’t say that, and dispensed with the prize money in a disgraceful way.

AMY GOODMAN: How?

JOHAN GALTUNG: To all kinds of irrelevant organizations. He didn’t even give it to US peace organizations. Let me just mention one: the American Friends Service Committee, which is a fantastic organization doing marvelous work all over the world. Could have given the whole thing to them.

You’ll notice that Galtung’s argument evolves around foreign policy while at the same time criticizing Obama for “leaning over backwards” to Republicans. This assertion, however, is based on Obama’s handling of domestic matters (such as health care reform). Though Galtung’s discontent with Obama might be warranted, he tends to interpret everything political through a lens of foreign policy. By stating that those who worked “like mad” for Obama in 2008 shouldn’t work for him in 2010 — based on the points mentioned by Galtung — Galtung takes it for granted that these voters supported Obama because of some “beauties in his rhetoric” on matters of foreign policy, and that his record on these issues disqualify him from their continued support (note to Galtung: Obama isn’t on the ballot, and many Democrats aren’t exactly highlighting their ties to Obama on the campaign trail).

Democratic Blues

September 13, 2010

Midterm history for first-term presidents. As Meet the Press-host David Gregory put it on Sunday:

“It’s mostly pretty bleak for a president in power.”

According to Nate Silver’s (Five Thirty Eight) latest House forecast (September 9), Democrats will loose more seats in November than the party in power did in 1978 and 1982 combined, but less than the Democrats did in 1994: 45,3 seats.

Republicans have a 2/3 chance of gaining a majority in the House come November.

Odds are Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) will be the new Speaker of the House. But it’s a long time between now and November, and 99 House seats are still in play.

Base Values and the Midterms

September 13, 2010

WITH LABOR DAY BEHIND US and the 2010 campaigns entering their last phase I thought it’d be interesting to turn the clock back to the middle of May and a debate about the importance of ideological purity and base values in the Summer issue of U.S. News & World Report.

Robert Schlesinger, editing the piece “Two Takes”, introduced the issue in the following terms:

In the run-up to the November elections, Republicans and Democrats alike are dealing with internal fights about the path to victory. At issue is ideological purity. Some strategists argue that emphasizing core values will lead to wins, while others say that the parties need new thinking to keep them relevant. Should parties emphasize base values?

Arguing that “clear principles win elections”: Chris Chocola (former Indiana Republican Rep., president of the Club for Growth—a limited-government, free-enterprise political advocacy group).

Arguing that “pure parties are loosing parties”: Edward Gresser (president of the Democratic Leadership Council—which promotes centrist, pragmatic policy solutions).

I’ll start with Mr. Chocola.

According to Chocola, “the political choice between ideological purity and ‘big tent’ coalition building is inherently false. Success requires both. … A political party can’t build a big tent without it being anchored to clear ideological principles.” Arguing that “Republicans and Democrats represent and advocate for two very different worldviews” at their best, Chocola writes that for a party to succeed, it “must persuade voters to reject the other party’s worldview and support its own. But this is only possible if the party actually has a worldview.”

Chocola then draws the following picture of Republicans’ worldview:

For Republicans, that worldview was summed up by Ronald Reagan more than 20 years ago. We should emphasize the things that unite us and make these the only “litmus test” of what constitutes a Republican: our belief in restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty.

This litmus test wasn’t a call to purity or extremism—just the opposite. Reagan was endorsing the broadest and most inclusive definition of a Republican imaginable. If a Republican didn’t believe in these basic things, why would he call himself a Republican anyway?

With this rosy and including image in mind, Chocola draws a different picture of Democrats’ worldview:

Democrats have a corresponding set of bedrock principles, too, like abortion rights and income redistribution.

He then adds the following:

If Republicans suddenly advocated massive tax hikes on small businesses, or Democrats suddenly called for overturning Roe v. Wade, they would not be seen as inclusive, but unprincipled. If they can cave on that, what won’t they cave on? As Reagan noted, there are other issues on which ‘we can disagree among ourselves as Republicans and tolerate the disagreement.’ Barack Obama could say the same of the Democrats. Governing requires compromise, but elevating compromise itself to a principle is like building a house on sand.

What should Republicans do?

Republican politicians in particular must insist on certain principles—especially economic freedom and limited government.

To win again, the GOP cannot merely present itself as a copy of the Democrats. Republicans must draw clear distinctions between the Democrats’ principles and their own. That’s what they have been doing for more than a year now, and that’s why Republicans are more energized than they have been since 1994.

“Coicidentally”: In 1994, just like in 2010, a Democratic president is in the middle of his first term. With that in mind, back to Chocola’s concluding remarks:

For the first time in years, the GOP is returning to its roots and giving voters a reason to vote Republican again. And it is learning an old political lesson: Fight for your principles, and you get a majority, too; fight just for the majority, and you get neither.

Before I move on to Mr. Gresser’s piece, I feel a strong need to address Chocola’s framing of the abortion issue.

While talking about Reagan, conservatism and litmus tests, Chocola manages to frame Democrats as the only party with bedrock principles on the abortion issue—as if the GOP’s opposition to abortion isn’t one of their key principles. Reagan authored a book on the issue. Reagan started a trend of increased emphasis on the issue among Republican presidential hopefuls. In fact, while on the issue of “litmus tests”: every single Republican presidential nominee has supported the party platforms’ line on abortion since its introduction in 1976. Furthermore, in the same period, 8 of 16 Republican presidential candidates drifted in the direction of the party platform’s stance on abortion upon running for the presidency.

According to Mr. Chocola, President Reagan “was endorsing the broadest and most inclusive definition of a Republican imaginable.” That might be true, but only if you adhere to Chocola’s chery picked sense of reality.

Moving along.

As I mentioned in the introduction, Edward Gresser, the president of the Democratic Leadership Council, argued back in May that “pure parties are losing parties.”

Referencing Chris Chocola’s address at CPAC back in February, Gresser writes that Chocola “mixed a suggestion of bright prospects for Republicans this fall with an attack on the GOP of last fall and blamed the party’s 2006 and 2008 defeats not on the record of conservatives in government at the time but on a supposed drift away from conservatism. His solution was a purified party.”

It sounds awfully familiar. Back in 1982, Democrats were unhappy with an energetic president but gaining polling in a period of high unemployment. Lots of Democrats believed then, as many Republicans seem to now, that if we preached the true faith more often, repeated it more loudly, and denounced the president more angrily, we’d restore our fortunes. But the Democratic problem wasn’t lack of ideological purity. It was too much ideology and too few new ideas.

In 2010, Gresser argues that ideological purity “isn’t the solution to the GOP’s problems”, and that the root of their problems is “in the record conservatives built in power.” According to Gresser, “a less purified party, more open to internal dissent, would have done better” in 2006 and 2008.

Republicans shoud be frankly admitting the problem and starting a rethink. Instead, they’re shutting down debate and repeating mistakes we made a generation ago. Bad move. Republican’s don’t need ideological purity. They need self-criticism and new thinking. It’s a bit painful, but they’ll be better off. Believe me. We’ve been there.

This debate seemed pertinent back in May. And although it may seem outdated as we enter the middle of September, it can be argued that the drumming of base values is in fact an important ingredient in Democrats’ and Republicans’ pitch to voters these days:

Republicans want to extend the “Bush tax cuts.” And Democrats have turned populist, defending tax increases for the rich (a return to the level prior to the “Bush tax cuts”).

When the economy turns sour, politicians start making lemonade. And they’re not experimenting with the recipe.

The “Outside the Mainstream” argument

August 26, 2010

ACCORDING TO THE “OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM” ARGUMENT, certain (extreme) views must be disregarded since they (1) aren’t supported by a majority of voters (the numbers might or might not stem from cherry-picked polls), and (2) because they disregard the conventional political wisdom. The framing varies, but the argument is the same: X is too “extreme”, too “radical” or too far “left” or “right” to be taken seriously.

Intriguingly, the argument might prove counterproductive for Democrats (and Republicans) in the current political climate. With certain segments of the electorate high on anti-incumbency sentiments, one might actually contribute to the continued rise of so-called extreme candidates by labeling their ideas and campaign promises as reckless opportunism and crazy talk. If the driving force behind the tea party movement is that the mainstream political movement is out of whack, then it might not be such a good idea to paint tea party candidates as “far outside the mainstream.”

Governor Jennifer Granholm (D-MI) did just that on Meet The Press this Sunday (August 22, 2010) in a debate with former  House majority leader Dick Armey (R-TX) (Freedomworks founder and author of the new book Give Us Liberty:  A Tea Party Manifesto):

MR. GREGORY: One of the arguments that Democrats make about some of the candidates who are supported by the tea party is that they’re, frankly, too extreme for … the mainstream of the Republican Party [and] too extreme for the mainstream of the political country.

REP. ARMEY: Well, first of all, each one of these candidates [Ken Buck, Sharron Angle, Rand Paul and Mike Lee] won a Republican primary as a Republican candidate with a variety of different stresses on different issues. I am not going to take the Democrat (sic) Party’s characterization of a Republican Party candidate’s position on any issue as the gospel truth. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but politicians say insincere things; and, frankly, I don’t quite listen to the Democrats on the candidates. But the voters paid attention to the candidates and made their choice. Now, the Democrats … have a guy down in South Carolina who wins the primary and, and is then convicted of a felony. They ought to concern themselves with, “What is the quality of our candidates, and can we meet the challenge of trying to race against these candidates” who are going to beat their person in the fall.

MR. GREGORY: Governor, is this an example of what they’ve called a mainstream political movement, some of these candidates and their views?

GOV. GRANHOLM: Well, you know, no. I think it’s far outside the mainstream…

Time will show.

Mr. Armey’s response was spot on: If politicians such as Ken Buck, Sharron Angle, Rand Paul and Mike Lee are indeed “outside the mainstream”, then voters will say so in November. And if they don’t, then it is in fact the proponents of the “outside the mainstream” argument who are out of touch and unable to connect with the electorate.

Lincoln is still waiting for someone to come along

May 27, 2010

Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) is an absolute classic. It tells the story of a young and naïve Senator who arrives Washington eager to visit its monuments, but who soon discovers that the nation’s leaders aren’t living up to the famous words carved into them.

The story is driven by Senator Jefferson Smith’s discovery of the corrupt inner workings of his state’s political machine, a machine headed in part by a friend of his deceased father and one of Smith’s childhood heroes – the senior Senator from his state, Senator Joseph Paine.

Prior to this discovery, Mr. Smith travels by train to Washington, D.C. together with Senator Paine, and the two talk about the fate of Smith’s deceased father:

Mr. Paine: ”He and his little four-page paper … against that mining syndicate. All to defend the right of one small miner who stuck to his claim. They tried everything. Bribery … intimidation. And then….

Mr. Smith: ”Ma found him slumped over his desk that morning. Shot in the back. … But, I suppose Mr. Paine, when a fellow bucks up against a big organization like that, one man by himself can’t get very far can he?”

Mr. Paine: “No.”

The scene sets the stage for what the young Senator would experience in the Senate.

After a short while in Washington, Mr. Smith decides to start working on his own piece of legislation, and as a former Boy Scout leader, he decides to create a camp in his state where kids from all across the country can come and spend their summers. Coincidentally, Senator Paine is in the process of collecting the final votes for a large dam project at the very same spot of Smith’s campsite. In order to get Smith out-of-the-way, Paine uses his powerful political machine to attack Smith with all its might, and Smith’s days in the Senate seem numbered.

Embattled, angry and betrayed, Mr. Smith storms out of the Senate and runs to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His secretary Clarissa Saunders follows him, and they sit and talk (read it, it’s worth it):

Saunders: “Well… I see by the papers you certainly got to be a Senator.”

Smith: “You sure had the right ideas about me Saunders. You told me to go back home and keep filling those kids full of hooey. Yeah, just a simple guy you said, still wet behind the ears, lot of junk about American ideals. Yeah, there’s certainly a lot of junk alright.”

Saunders: “Now look, Senator.”

Smith: “I don’t know, it’s, it’s a whole new world to me. What are you gonna believe in? When a man like Paine, Senator Joseph Paine, gets up and swears that I’ve been robbing kids of nickels and dimes. A man I’ve admired and worshipped all my life. I don’t know. A lot of fancy words surround this town, some of them are carved in stone, some of them, I guess the Taylor’s and Paine’s put them up there so suckers like me could read ’em. And then when you find out what men actually do, well I’m getting out of this town so fast it’ll waive them all of words and the monuments and the whole rotten show.”

Saunders: “I see. When you get home, what are you gonna tell those kids?

Smith: “Well I’ll tell them the truth, might as well find it out now as later.”

Saunders: “I don’t think they’ll believe you, Jeff, you know, they’re liable to look up at you with hurt faces and say: ‘Jeff what did you do? Quit? Didn’t you do something about it?'”

Smith: “Oh what do you expect me to do? An honorary stooge like me against the Taylors and Paines and machines and lies.”

Saunders: “Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines, so did every other man who tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against them didn’t stop those men, they were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that, you know that Jeff.  You can’t quit now, not you. They aren’t all Taylors and Paines in Washington, that kind just throw big shadows that’s all. You didn’t just have faith in Paine or any other living man, you had faith in something bigger than that, you had plain, decent, every day common rightness, and this country could use some of that. Yeah, so could the whole cock-eyed world, a lot of it. Remember the first day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there waiting for someone to come along. You were right, he was waiting for a man who could see his job and sail into it, that’s what he was waiting for. A man who could tear into the Taylors and root them out into the open. I think he was waiting for you Jeff. He knows you can do it. So do I.”

Smith: “What, do what Saunders?”

Saunders: “You just make up your mind you’re not gonna quit and I’ll tell you what. Been thinking about it all the way back here. It’s a 40 foot dive into a tub of water, but I think you can do it.”

Smith: “…… Clarissa, where can we get a drink?”

Saunders: “Now you’re talking. Come on over to my place.”

As they walk away, Mr. Smith waves to the statue of Lincoln.

Lincoln will always be sitting at his memorial, waiting for people with “plain, decent, every day common rightness” to come along and represent the interests of the American people. Lincoln will always be waiting for someone who can “see his job and sail into it”. He’s waiting for idealists like Mr. Smith who won’t give up when the going gets tough.

Importantly though, Jefferson Smith didn’t run for the Senate – he was appointed by people who thought they could control him. What Washington needs, then, is someone running for Congress who won’t be controlled by the financiers of his or her campaign. Washington needs someone who’ll do what they think is best for America, without taking into consideration what’s needed to get reelected. Washington, Lincoln, and the American people need nothing less than a miracle.

In the end, Mr. Smith’s adventures in Washington are a work of fiction, but then “idealism” is nothing more than an exercise in lifting your thoughts “up off the ground” with the odds stacked against you – and as Clarissa told Jeff; “Odds against them didn’t stop those men, they were fools that way.” Washington needs fools with faith.

Postscript: In the political satire “Bob Roberts” (1992), a freelance journalist named Bugs Raplin draws a line back to the famous Mr. Smith character: “There are no Mr. Smith’s in Washington. Mr. Smith has been bought. Just a bunch of deal makers. No visionaries.”

If nothing else, Mr. Smith will always be a fabled and well-known character tailor-made for Hollywood comparisons of how politicians and their sausage making differs from Mr. Smith’s ideals and his “every day common rightness.”

Evoking ghosts from the past: Buchanan 1992 v. Gingrich 2010

May 21, 2010

It seems as if Newt Gingrich is borrowing a page from Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

In his upcoming book, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular Socialist Machine, Gingrich writes;

The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.

In his 1992 convention speech, Buchanan stated the following:

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.

Gingrich recently explained his views in an e-mail to Politico:

I have asserted that the secular socialist machine is a mortal threat to the future of America as we have known it just as totalitarian regimes were mortal threats to the survival of America in the past. … In our generation the two mortal threats are radical Islam and secular socialism.

Whereas Buchanan spoke of a “struggle for the soul of America” in which “Clinton & Clinton” were the evil doers, Gingrich’s foes are,  unoriginally, Obama, Reid and Pelosi.

Furthermore, whereas Buchanan’s key frame  was “cultural war”, Gingrich’s newest catch-phrase is “secular-socialism.”

The common denominator is the effort to use religion as a wedge issue.  Gingrich thus strives to create a political climate in which Democrats are framed as secular-minded socialists, while Republicans  are cast as valiantly defending America’s traditional family values. In other words, Gingrich isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here.

Nonetheless, Gingrich clearly masters scare tactics 101: Evoke ghosts from the past by painting a scary picture of the future. Essentially, a volatile cocktail of Reductio ad Hitlerum and Reductio ad Stalinum.

In the long haul, Gingrich’s paranoid style is not bringing any new solutions to Washington. Instead, he is stoking fear by borrowing a page from Buchanan. Obviously, Buchanan was by no means an originator, and both  his and Gingrich’s tactics are part of the paranoid style in American politics so eloquently described by Richard Hofstadter.


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