Friday, June 25, 2010

2010 Midterms: An Electoral Bloodbath in the Making

Based on a spate of recent polls I conclude that if the 2010 midterm elections were held now Democrats would lose the House, the Senate, and crucial gubernatorial races - marking a dramatic turn of fortune since January of 2009.

  • Three current national polls have President Obama underwater with an approval rating lower than his disapproval rating and all three have his approval rating at 45%.
  • Republicans are tied or leading on the generic ballot questions - something that last happened in 1994.
  • A recent NPR survey of the most competitive House races identified 70 and Democrats held 60 of those and trailed the GOP badly in the generic ballot.
  • Senate races that should be safe bets for Democrats in Washington, California, Oregon, and Illinois are all competitive (tied) - while Republicans are vulnerable in only one state - North Carolina.
  • Gallup recently reported that a record number of Americans believe that the Democratic party is "Too Liberal."
  • Congress has an approval rating of 20% and Gallup reports that "in the five midterm elections in which Congress' approval ratings at the time of the election were below 40%, there was an average net change in seats of 29 from the president's party to the opposition."
  • In the reliably Blue state of Maryland, incumbent Democratic governor Martin O'Malley has been losing ground against former governor Bob Ehrlich and is now tied with him. The last time Republicans did well statewide in Maryland were in te strong national Republican years of 1994 and 2002.
  • Last, Gallup reports that since 2008, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as conservative has risen 5 percentage points to 42 percent, while the number of liberals has dropped 2 points to 20 percent. If that figure remains through the end of the year, "it would represent the highest annual percentage identifying as conservative in Gallup's history of measuring ideology..."
Considered collectively these data point to a very unhappy electorate and a very dangerous election cycle for Democrats. If this pattern holds (and it has for more than 9 months now) Democrats will lose the House, the Senate, and a substantial number of governorships - and redistricting in key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania will be overseen by Republican governors.

Today's New York Times includes a report that Democrats see a "glimmer of hope" in key states where the economy has been recovering more quickly, but the article reads more like wishful think on the part of the author and Representative Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

A Transformative Presidency?

Over at Politicalwire, Taegan Goddard writes
Now that Democrats have agreed on a Wall Street reform bill, President Obama is set to have an incredible year of accomplishments. He's already signed major health care reforms into law and is more than likely to have energy/climate change legislation on his desk later this year. Not since FDR has a president done so much to transform the country.
I'm sorry, but as a professor of political science I find the suggestion that Barack Obama has done more to transform the country than any president since FDR to be a ridiculous statement to make 18 months into his presidency - it's also simply wrong.

I invite everyone to consider just one year in the presidency of Lyndon Johnson - 1965:
all were accomplished in one year....

Want to include 1964?
Lyndon Johnson transformed America, and every president since Johnson has been living in the house that he built. Barack Obama has spent the last 18 months doing some remodeling - but he has not "transformed" anything. In no way could any reasonable person compare the half-measure health and financial reforms that have passed this year with the transformative policies of FDR or Lyndon Johnson. To stretch a metaphor, FDR built a modest one-story house of American Public Policy. Lyndon Johnson modernized the first floor, added a second floor, and a two car garage - and invited millions of previously excluded American to come on in. Barack Obama has repainted, added new curtains, and a small deck in the back yard. It looks nice, but hasn't changed much.

Those on the Left that are attempting to overstate President Obama's accomplishments are no more credible than those on the Right who are trying to portray him as a threat to Democracy. So far Obama has been as successful as many recent presidents, but has been no more "transformative" than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. Might Obama be a transformative president? Certainly, but he has not been one yet. And most president are not.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Neither a Racist nor Traitor be....

Don't you just love hypocrisy? In a recent Salon article Jake Knotts trots out the intellectually lazy argument that conservatism, and therefore criticisms of President Obama, are all rooted in a deep racism that rests at the core of conservative belief. This is ridiculous and is used merely as a ploy to intimidate critics. “Criticize my guy? I’ll call you a racist.” It’s a pathetic accusation meant to devalue the very valid arguments put forward by conservatives concerning debt, deficits, and the questionable tactics employed to enact a health reform law that everyday seems evermore less than what was promised. It was but a few years ago when the Left was cricising rising debt and procedural abuses in Congress.  So along comes Herman Cain to challenge the racist claim – from his unique vantage point as a black conservative. Cain rightly refutes the charge, but then commits the same offense by accusing those who use the racist label as the true racists…

During the Bush administration, critics of the Bush War on Terror were frequently accused of undermining the war effort and of aiding the terrorists. "If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists." The clear implication being that those who questioned the President’s tactics were unpatriotic. The intent was the same – intimidate critics. “Criticize my guy? I’ll call you a traitor.” It was a pathetic accusation meant to devalue valid concerns about the use of executive power and the possible violation of basic constitutional rights – rights that neo-cons once considered to be universal, but during the War on Terror decided applied only to citizens, and then only to citizens not linked via six degrees of Kevin Bacon to a terrorist organization.

All of these baseless accusations undermine and cheapen our political discourse. We should hold no greater liberty than the right to openly and forcefully criticize our government – even our President – without being intimidated by those who would smear us as racists or traitors.

Make no mistake; those who accuse President Obama’s critics of being closet racists are no different from those who questioned the patriotism of President Bush’s critics. And they all can look to The House UnAmerican Activities Committee and Sen. Joseph McCarthy for a clear reflection of themselves…

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ehrlich misses the bus on mass transit

In today's Baltimore Sun I argue that Bob Ehrlich made a critical error in his decision to oppose the proposed Purple Line expansion in favor of rapaid bus service.
Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, said Ehrlich's position gives O'Malley an opening in the swing counties where the race could be decided.

"For so many of the voters in the counties Ehrlich needs, they want the expanded mass transit," Eberly said.

Voters in Anne Arundel, Charles, Frederick and Howard counties would take a decision to cut rail projects in Montgomery and Prince George's as a sign that they could never expect such service to come their way, he said
Eberly said that while Ehrlich's opposition to light rail seems to play into his theme of fiscal responsibility, the Republican had erred in the issue he chose to highlight it because business wants infrastructure investment.

"It can really counter Ehrlich's business-friendly message," the political science professor said.

In addition to votes, Ehrlich's stand could cost him in terms of fundraising from businesses that might like his stance on taxes and regulation but oppose him on transportation issues. But he also could achieve gains by cutting into O'Malley support in heavily Democratic areas that oppose the governor's light rail plans.
I believe that Ehrlich has made a serious miscalculation here. This position may help him on the Eastern Shore or in Western Maryland - but he was already going to win those regions.  Ehrlich needs Anne Arundel, Howard, and Baltimore Counties and he needs to have a respectable finish in Montgomery County - bus rapid transit will not secure those results.

"...the big difference here and in ’94 is you’ve got me"

At the height of the health care debate nervous House Democrats met with the President to express their concern that 2010 would turn out like 1994 - when Republicans won the House and Senate. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark reported that the response from President Obama was simple ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’

Berry was not impressed then and it turns out that he shouldn't have been.  A new poll from Public Policy Polling finds that Barack Obama is a drag on the Democratic ticket.
"PPP's most recent national survey found that while Obama had a positive approval rating at 48/47, only 33% of voters were more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by him while 48% said support from Obama would make them less likely to vote for someone."
In 1994, Republicans effectively used television ads that would morph photos of Democratic candidates into Bill Clinton. Such an ad may seem hokey today, but Obama's appearances in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Virginia certainly did the party no good. In 2010, Obama is likely going to be relegated to fundraising among the faithful not rallying the masses - certainly not what many would have predicted just a year ago.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Obama Governs Like an Academic...

Reaction to President Obama's first Oval office address seems to be universally negative.  Even the Huffington Post has dismissed it as "pointless." The normally loving Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann derided it as "Carter-like" and lacking any executive authority.

I think that Michael Gerson hit the right note in the Washington Post:
"The setting of the Oval Office creates an expectation of decisive executive action. It recalls memories of President Dwight Eisenhower dispatching federal troops to Little Rock or President John F. Kennedy announcing the naval "quarantine" of Cuba. This speech will not be confused with those precedents. Obama urges others to take action, kibitzes with corporate executives, shifts some government personnel and signals the start of a review process. A crisis is met with a study. The action verbs in this speech have somehow gone missing. It is all rather limp and weak."
This is of course Obama's greatest weakness - he governs like an academic. His solution to every problem is to call a panel of experts and talk. Surely every problem can be solved if only we bring together the smartest people. Never mind that many of these "experts" have no practical or hands on experience. How many times in one speech could the President mention that our Energy Secretary has a Nobel Prize?
“… I assembled a team of our nation’s best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge – a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation’s Secretary of Energy. Scientists at our national labs and experts from academia and other oil companies have also provided ideas and advice.”
Guess what Mr. President - you have the Nobel Peace Prize - have you actually brought about peace anywhere? Perhaps the Nobel Prize is not the qualification needed here.

Barack Obama approaches governing like a faculty meeting. On every issue that requires executive action he delegates, forms commissions, and schedules future meetings. To him, this is action. And in the egalitarian world of academe it would be.  But in the real world it's anything but leadership.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

2010 is NOT an anti-incumbent year, it's an anti left-of-center year...

Many analysts and pundits have been trying to determine the theme of the upcoming 2010 mid-terms elections. Will it be a repeat of the so-called "angry, white male election" of 1994? Will the Tea Party movement deliver an anti-establishment election? Many friends of the Democratic Party have sought to portray the coming election as anything but a referendum on President Obama and the Democratic Party. Rather, they argue that economic insecurity and frustration with Washington - the same anger and frustration that elected Barack Obama - is feeding a non-partisan anti-incumbent mood among the electorate. This narrative is crucial to Democrats as it helps them convince their vulnerable incumbents that the electorate is simply anti politics and not anti Democratic policies. 

Purveyors of this narrative point to the May defeat of Republican Senator Bob Bennett at the party's nominating convention in Utah as proof. As added insurance for their argument they point to the special election in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District where Democrat Mark Critz easily defeated Republican Tim Burns in a district that had voted for John McCain in 2008. If this were simply an anti-Democrat year, the argument goes, then why the defeat of Bennett and the election of Critz?

At first blush, it is a reasonable argument, but dig a bit deeper and the narrative unravels. 2010 is not shaping up to be a simple anti-incumbent year, nor is it simply an anti-Democrat year. All indications are that 2010 is shaping up to be an anti left of center year and that hurts Democrats. Republican Bob Bennett lost because he was perceived as being too moderate and too willing to compromise with the Democratic party - though to many this may be an admirable trait it was not among GOP faithful this year. Democrat Marc Critz won a special election in a Congressional district that has been held by Democrats for over 3 decades and he won by running as a very conservative Democrat. Critz openly opposed the Obama health reform bill, declared himself to be firmly pro-life, and was unabashedly pro-gun rights. Critz won by running as a Republican.

There are a few other races of note as well. West Virginia Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan was defeated in his state's primary by a wide margin. His 14 term career ended at the hands of a conservative Democrat who campaigned against Mollohan's support of health reform. The case of Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas is also worthy of mention. Lincoln failed to break 50% in her state's primary as she faced a challenge from the left from Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter. In the subsequent run-off contest many considered Lincoln to be a goner. Lincoln withstood the challenge - largely with the help of the consummate centrist, Bill Clinton. So the more liberal incumbent loses in W. VA and the moderate incumbent wins in AR. It's not just an anti-incumbent year.

New polls from Gallup and NPR offer further evidence that 2010 is an anti-left of center year. The Gallup poll found that a record high share of Americans consider the Democratic party to be "too liberal."  According to Gallup "Americans have become increasingly likely to describe the Democratic Party's views as "too liberal" (49%), and less likely to say its views are "about right" (38%). Americans' views of the Republican Party, on the other hand, have moderated slightly..."

Gallup further shows Republicans with a 5 point lead over Democrats on the generic ballot question - historically, Republicans rarely lead the generic ballot.

The NPR poll offers worse news for Democrats. "Democrat Stan Greenberg and Republican Glen Bolger conducted the first public battleground poll of this election cycle. They chose the 70 House districts experts regard as most likely to oust incumbents this fall. What they found was grim news for Democrats." Of the 70 districts, 60 are held by Democrats. In those Democratic districts voters indicated that they WILL NOT vote for the incumbent by an overwhelming 56% to 36% margin. In the Republican districts, Voters said they WOULD support the incumbent by a 52% to 39% margin.

Overall, Republicans enjoy an 8 point advantage in the 70 battleground districts - including a 5 point advantage in the 60 Democratic districts. The NPR poll also found that President Obama is quite unpopular in those 70 districts with 54 percent of likely battleground voters disapproving of Obama's performance and 40 percent approving. Republican voters are also far more energized.

Taken together, all of this suggests that any attempt to define 2010 as an anti-incumbent year is simply wrong. 2010 will be an anti-Democrat year, but largely it would seem that is a manifestation of what is an anti-liberal year. News that will no doubt frustrate many liberals who have lamented that the President and his party have not been aggressive enough in pursuing progressive policies. If this trend continues, expect Republicans to win the 40 seats needed to retake the House and to win at least 7 Senate seats.

Friday, June 11, 2010

All Tied Up in Maryland - O'Malley should be Worried

The latest poll from Rasmussen Reports finds the Maryland raced all tied-up at 45% to 45%. Since Rasmussen began polling this race in February, O'Malley has fallen by 4 points and Ehrlich is up by 2 points. O'Malley needs to be a bit worried about that trend. Consider:
  1. Maryland has weathered the recession better than most states.
  2. Maryland's job situation is better than in most states.
  3. The Maryland General Assembly just concluded a very non-contentious session.
  4. O'Malley submitted a shrunken and balanced budget without any tax increases and a tax credit for businesses that hire unemployed Marylanders.
Yet O'Malley is in worse shape against Ehrlich now than he was prior to the session. O'Malley needs to halt his slide and Ehrlich needs to continue his climb. All told, I would rather be Bob Ehrlich right now. The trend is in his favor and O'Malley has not polled at 50% in any re-election poll. That's not a good sign for any incumbent - just ask John Corzine, the former governor of New Jersey. 

2010 is still shaping up to be a very strong year for Republicans and Ehrlich is clearly riding that building wave. He just needs to hope that wave crests in early November and not in late summer.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Barack Obama's Oil-Soaked Foundation of Sand

In the fall of 2004 President George W. Bush faced re-election with his approval rating resting on the razor's edge. After reaching a peak of 90% in the aftermath of 9/11, Bush's approval rating steadily eroded under the pressure of an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and public concerns over an economy that seemed to be in neutral. Bush was re-elected with 51% of the popular vote - a number that essentially matched his approval rating (it is a well understood axiom that incumbents rarely outperform their approval rating come election day). Bush argued in the days after his re-election that he had earned political capital and now intended to spend it on tax reform and Social Security reform. Alas, it was not to be. Just one year after winning re-election, George W. Bush saw his average approval fall to the upper 30% range. With the exception of a brief spike in early 2006, Bush never saw an average approval rating above 40% again and his post re-election agenda foundered.

Bush's experience between 2004 and 2005 has much to offer Barack Obama - and the president and his advisors should be worried.

First- let's explore a little political theory. In what would be his final scholarly work, Woodrow Wilson wrote in Constitutional Government on the tremendous leadership potential of American Presidents. "Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him... A President whom it trusts can not only lead it, but form it to his own views." Wilson believed that presidents were uniquely positioned to appeal for and gain unrivaled strength from public opinion. Indeed, a century later another political scientist named Jeffrey Tulis would write of the Two Constitutional Presidencies. Presidents derive status, authority, and limited explicit powers from the formal Constitution adopted over 200 years ago. But presidents are further empowered by the small "c" constitution of popular support. The ambiguous nature or Article II of the Constitution bestows upon presidents the potential to make his office "anything he has the sagacity and force to make it," again quoting Wilson.

A quick review of available data reveals that Presidential success in Congress is most closely correlated not with unified party control, but with public approval - popular presidents enjoy greater success regardless of partisan control of government.

So what does any of this have to do with Barack Obama now and George W. Bush in 2004/2005? Simple - there is a downside to the small "c" presidency. Although a presidency premised on the powers of Article II may be somewhat limited, the powers are founded in stone - they cannot be washed away except via constitutional amendment. The small "c" powers of public approval are, however, built on a foundation of sand. Wilson wrote "Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him." What Wilson failed to consider was what would happen should a President lose the admiration and confidence of the people. Can any combination of forces help to restore the loss? Once lost, can a presidency based on public approval and confidence continue to govern?

In 2005, George W. Bush lost the public's confidence. His foundation of sand was washed away by the force of hurricane Katrina, an unpopular war, and an accelerating investigation into allegations that senior members of the Bush administration had "outed" covert CIA operative Valerie Plame in retribution for her husband Joe Wilson's public criticisms of President Bush's claims that Iraq had sought uranium for a nuclear weapon program. The one-two punch of Katrina and the Plame investigation fundamentally eroded public confidence that Bush was trustworthy - regardless of whether one agreed with his policies. Bush never recovered the public confidence. Republicans experienced historic losses in the 2006 and 2008 election and Bush left office with an average approval rating of 32%. He spent his second term largely relying on the limited but secure Constitutional powers of his office - namely the veto - to defend his first term policies.

But Bush was lucky, his foundation of support collapsed during his second term. Obama is facing a similar collapse and he has not yet reached the midpoint of his first term. After several legislative successes -that have proven to be quite unpopular - Obama has seen a significant decline in his approval rating. His peak of 65.5% in January of 2009 has fallen to a point consistently hovering around 48%. The President now faces his own Katrina-Plame one-two punch with the ongoing BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and the growing press and Congressional inquiries into behind-the-scenes White House efforts to discourage Democratic primary challenges in Pennsylvania and Colorado - the accusation being that members of the White House violated federal law by offering federal jobs to potential challengers to the candidates preferred by the White House.

The handling of the BP oil leak raises public doubts about the President Obama's competence, the election meddling raises doubts about his integrity - just as Katrina and the Plame investigation did for Bush. Barack Obama's presidency was very much premised on a foundation of public support based upon a belief in his integrity and competence - qualities the public sought by the end of the Bush years. The President's supporters will protest that there is little the President can do about the oil leak and that nothing untoward happened with regard to the Pennsylvania and Colorado elections - that may be, but much the same was said about Katrina and the Plame investigation.

All of this speaks to a larger narrative regarding the American Presidency - it is an office with great potential for power and the public expects president to present and pursue an agenda with vigor. But that awesome power is tempered by the reality that public support can and often is fickle. The temptation is great for a president to rely solely on the promise of public support, but if lost what power then does a president have? The President and his advisors wrongly believed that foundation was rock solid. Over the course of the coming weeks they are likely to see that belief soundly challenged.