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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Case Against Re-electing Obama

The conventions are over. The GOP and the Democrats have had their parties and spent six days preaching to their respective choirs. Ratings and surveys show us that few people watched the conventions and those that did had already made up their minds.

Unfortunately for me the conventions offered little to clarify my choice. You see, I'm an undecided voter. And contrary to the claims of many a pundit, I'm not undecided because I know too little about the candidates or issues. I'm undecided because I know too much.

I do not want to vote for President Obama because he has not earned a second term. I had serious reservations about Senator Obama in 2008. He lacked much experience and ran a campaign premised on vague promises designed to let voters hear what they wanted to hear. There was nothing in his time as either a state or US Senator that suggested he was prepared to be President. In fact, his qualifications appeared to be his ability to give great speeches.

As I consider his record during the last 3.5 years I believe that my reservations regarding his preparedness were largely validated. After promising to be a post-partisan President, Obama repeatedly deferred to then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to craft his legislative agenda. Pelosi is proud partisan who actively sought to exclude House Republicans from any meaningful discussions of legislation.

Obama's first substantial legislation was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (stimulus bill). More than a simple stimulus bill it was actually a Christmas Tree bill adorned with projects House and Senate Democrats had been unable to enact during the prior 8 years of Republican control. Worse, the bill cynically offered financial assistance to states for cash starved Medicaid and Unemployment programs, but in order to receive the temporary funds states were required to make programmatic changes that would increase costs long after the stimulus dollars were gone. Though the President promised much of the stimulus funds would be directed to "shovel ready jobs," only $111 billion of the $800 billion stimulus went to infrastructure. Estimates are the stimulus created or saved 3 million jobs - but at $800 billion that's about $266,000 per job. This is because most of the funds were not directed to job creation. It was a missed opportunity.

Obama again deferred to Congressional leadership for what would become the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In the House, Pelosi shut Republicans out of the process entirely. In the Senate, only Finance Committee chair Max Baucus actively sought a bipartisan bill. In the end his committee produced a bill that did receive the vote of Republican Senator Olympia Snowe. But when it came time to introduce the bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced a version that excluded the bipartisan efforts of Baucus. Throughout the process President Obama consistently refused to engage in the debate. He offered little leadership and frequently confused the process as he seemed to waffle on issues such as whether there should be a public option.

When Democrats lost their filibuster proof majority after the stunning election of Republican Scott Brown in early 2010 - an election that served as an early indicator of public opposition to the health care law that was taking shape - the President held a hastily arranged "bipartisan" summit to discuss ways in which Republicans could be part of the reform process. They talked, he listened, and then he ignored their suggestions. In the end, the White House and Congressional Democrats chose to rely on a procedural trick - the use of budget reconciliation - to pass the reform law. Reconciliation allowed the measure to avoid an expected GOP filibuster.

Though I support universal health care, the manner in which the bill was enacted was unacceptable. Additionally there are two major problems at the heart of the bill. The first is the individual mandate - a requirement that every American purchase health insurance. Senator Obama had rejected such a mandate when running for President, but then embraced it after the election. My real objection the mandate was the claim that the Constitution's "Commerce Clause" empowered Congress to compel a citizen to purchase a private good - health insurance. Contrary to the claims of many a partisan pundit, such a claim of power was unprecedented. Ultimately the Supreme Court rejected the commerce clause argument, but upheld the mandate as little more than a tax under a different name.

The second problem with the legislation is its reliance on expanding Medicaid. The law expects to add 17 million people to the rolls of a program that is already breaking most state budgets and suffers from severe physician shortages. In many ways the Medicaid expansion is a cruel joke. It offers the promise of coverage, but many enrollees will still be unable to receive care.

Though I support many of the President's policy goals, I am repeatedly disturbed by the manner in which he achieves them. In November 2010, voters elected a majority Republican House of Representatives. In response to this voter-imposed obstacle to his agenda the President has shown a blatant disregard for constitutional limits on his power and the separation of powers.

He has made recess appointments while Congress was not recessed. He used executive orders to initiate substantive policy changes to the No Child Left Behind Act and the 1996 welfare reform law - even though the originating legislation makes no provision for such executive discretion. He unilaterally decided that he would not enforce elements of US immigration law in order to end deportation of folks who were illegally brought to America as children. Again, I support the goal - allowing folks to remain in the only country they've ever known rather than deport them for laws broken by their parents - but such a decision should be made legislatively and not unilaterally.

But all of these issues pale in comparison to President Obama's national security abuses. The President has established a "secret kill list" and has authorized the execution of suspected terrorists - including American citizens. How this can be defended or justified is beyond explanation. He authorized military action in Libya in direct violation of the constitution and the War Powers Act. And, the President has taken drone warfare to new limits in North Waziristan where he is responsible for the deaths of not just terrorists, but hundreds of innocent men, women, and children - including a 16 year old American citizen in Yemen.

To borrow a phrase from The Atlantic's Connor Friedersdorf, these many transgressions are simply deal-breakers.

I have problems with Mitt Romney and view votes cast for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein as wasted votes. But for all the things I find objectionable about Mitt Romney, he has never killed a 16 year old American citizen. And that sort of makes the whole "47%" comment seem pretty silly.

Cardin is Vulnerable, but will Win in a Landslide

On the morning after the Maryland primary I wrote a piece in which I argued the results revealed some dangers for Maryland Democrats. In the newly gerrymandered 6th congressional district more Republicans than Democrats turned-out to vote even though the 6th district featured the only contested Democratic congressional primary in the state.

I argued then that the presence of ballot initiatives on marriage equality and the Maryland Dream Act may boost conservative and Republican turn-out in November. Such a boost may be enough to protect Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (the Republican targeted by the 6th district gerrymander) and could provide a boost ( a boost, not a win) to Republican Dan Bongino's challenge to incumbent Senator Ben Cardin.

Democrats in the state reacted as they always do when I dare to be critical of them - by accusing me of being a Republican plant trying to provide spin (the fact that I support marriage equality, the Dream Act, and Sen. Cardin are apparently all a part of my brilliant cover). I'm just a fan of good government and two party competition - it helps keep the parties honest and responsive to the public when in power.

I stand by what I wrote in April and I think the new Gonzales poll lends credence to what I wrote. The just released poll finds Ben Cardin receiving the support of only 50% of potential voters. Cardin is vulnerable. He's the most vulnerable Democrat in the state either statewide or at the federal level.

For reasons that I cannot fully explain, Cardin has consistently received the lowest approval ratings of all statewide Democrats. This is surprising to me in that Cardin is one of the few grown-ups left in DC. He demonstrates no clear partisan zeal and seems dedicated above else to simply doing his job. His reward for being an adult has been marginal approval ratings in prior polls and a bare minimum 50% reelect number in this new poll.

The only explanation I can offer is that the lingering effects of the Cardin/Mfume primary in 2006 and the Cardin/Muse contest in April have resulted in soft support for Cardin among African-American Democrats. Cardin receives 71% of the African-American vote in this poll - low for an incumbent Democrat. African-Americans are they most loyal and important voting bloc for the Maryland Democratic Party, yet the party has repeatedly passed over African-American candidates for statewide office. And the newly gerrymandered Congressional districts denied African-Americans a deserved third majority-minority district so that African-American voters could be used to instead protect incumbent white Democrats. African-American voters have cause to be upset with the state party and Cardin may be the outlet for their frustrations.

Yet Cardin will win reelection by double digits. Why? Because two candidates are vying for the 50% of voters not committed to Cardin. The Republican nominee, Dan Bongino, is a political neophyte with precious little money but an impressive life story and credentials. The other candidate on the ballot is Rob Sobhani, an Independent candidate with deep pockets (and equally impressive credentials) who has twice sought and lost the Republican nomination for Senate in Maryland - both times to horrible alternatives.

Bongino has spent nothing on advertising (his first ads start tomorrow) and Sobhani has spent $1.4 million over a recent two week period. The Gonzales poll shows the result of that spending imbalance - Bongino and Sobhani split the anti-Cardin vote down the middle.

The Bongino/Sobhani split reveals one of the greatest contributions to the ongoing success of the Maryland Democratic party (despite it's many problems) - the complete dysfunction of the Maryland Republican Party. Sobhani is a moderate Republican and that likely explains his prior nomination defeats. The Gonzales poll shows him drawing more support among Independents than either Cardin or Bongino. But Maryland's Republican Party refuses to acknowledge a simple reality - the path to being a viable alternative to the Maryland Democratic Party runs through the political center and not to the political right.

Republicans in Democratic states like Massachusetts have shown that moderate GOP candidates can win, but the Maryland GOP keeps running to the right. And that opens the party to a third party threat that will only protect Democrats.

In the last 35 years Democrats have witnessed their voter registration advantage fall from a 70% - 25% split to a 56% - 26% split. Voters have been leaving the the party. But they have been registering as Independents or unaffiliated voters. Maryland Republicans have not been able to capitalize on that decades long flight from the Democrats. In fact, Republicans did better in Maryland when Democrats had a larger registration advantage - because the party ran candidates like Connie Morella, Wayne Gilchrest, and Mac Mathias. Those folks would be run out of the party today - in fact Gilchrest was.

Unless state Republicans can broaden their appeal and design an agenda and a message tailored to Maryland voters and not the national GOP base they will continue to lose races - even ones that are winnable. The Maryland GOP seems to think it can just run on an agenda of "we oppose everything the Democrats do" and win. No, not enough. The Maryland GOP were first to nominate a woman for Governor and first to nominate an African-American for statewide office. Yet they've done nothing policy-wise to broaden their appeal. Nominating candidates is not enough. African-Americans may be frustrated with the state Democratic Party, but the MD GOP has given no reason in recent years for African-Americans (or any minority group for that matter) to even consider supporting a Republican.

The smartest thing the MD GOP could do to begin broadening their appeal is open their primaries to Independent and unaffiliated voters. The Republican base may not like that option or the centrist nominees it would produce, but one has to assume they'd come around pretty quickly if they actually started winning elections again. Of course an upside to this would be that Democrats would then open their primaries and the two parties would compete for Independent voters.

In the absence of a competitive Republican Party, Marylanders will be left with the governance of a single dominant party that has grown complacent and arrogant in the absence of any check on its power. No one is served well by such a situation (No one other than deep pocketed special interest groups like the gambling industry that was able to buy a special session of the General Assembly).

If the goal for the GOP and Sobhani is to defeat Cardin then either Sobhani or Bongino need to exit the race. If the goal, however, is to help reelect a worthy public servant by a comfortable margin then both men are doing an excellent job.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Crowded Gubernatorial Primary in Maryland in 2014?

In January I published a piece in which I explored the likely Democratic field in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial contest. As I saw it at the time: "there are likely to be four big names (and what a rarity that is - four credible candidates) seeking the Democratic nomination, Attorney General Doug Gansler, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman."

In that review I concluded that Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, and not Doug Gansler, was the likely favorite in a 4 person race.
Though many observers of state politics argue Gansler is the clear front runner, I would suggest that conclusion is anything but certain. If the 2014 primary were like a typical Democratic primary in recent years with only two credible candidates then certainly Gansler would be the favorite - but in a three man race his odds drop considerably and in a 4 man race a clear new favored candidate emerges from the pack - Lt. Governor Anthony Brown. In a multi-candidate race featuring Brown, the closest competitor will be the candidate who can appeal to rural Marylanders in Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and Southern Maryland - that candidate is not (at least not yet) Doug Gansler.

Franchot has positioned himself as the candidate of fiscal constraint and is clearly attempting to create a relationship with parts of Maryland long overlooked by Democrats and Democratic candidates. If Franchot can become the candidate of "the rest of Maryland" while dividing the I-95 corridor vote, he may emerge atop the pack.
In the 9 months since I made those assessments I believe that they still hold. I argued at the time that Brown's greatest threat was likely to be O'Malley fatigue. The disaster that was the 2012 legislative session followed by the two special sessions that yielded O'Malley advocated tax increases on Marylanders and substantial tax cuts for millionaire casino operators I think the O'Malley fatigue problem will weigh heavily on Brown.

Franchot has been a consistent and forceful voice of opposition to the tax hikes and the to expansion of casino gambling. But Franchot has been especially vocal in his anger over the role of money in influencing the casino issue during the special session. His demands for disclosure of gambling related donations received by members of the assembly and his recent call for real time disclosure of contributions were all welcome calls for reform - that I believe resonate well with the public.

For these reasons and more I see Franchot's stock rising in the 2014 guber-stakes. Hints that Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur is considering a run adds in many ways to Franchot's stock. Mizeur is a rising star in the state Democratic Party and no one should underestimate her future. But in a multi-candidate primary I believe that Mizeur's presence only serves to divide the core progressive Democratic base. In a contest featuring Mizeur, Ulman, Gansler, and Brown the I-95 corridor will be split multiple ways and suddenly "the rest of Maryland" as I termed it in January becomes that much more crucial. That only helps Franchot.

But there are storm clouds threatening Franchot's chance in that 5 person race - a cloud in the shape of former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith. In a July, 2011 piece I wrote of the 2014 contest and theorized a 3 person race that included Gansler, Brown, and Franchot. I concluded then that a three person race helped Franchot, but offered this caveat:
In a three-way race, if Gansler and Brown have split the base vote of the party, Franchot can emerge the victor with no more than 34% of the vote. It's a wise strategy, but also the only strategy available to him.

Only one thing could upend Franchot's approach - Jim Smith. Smith is the former county Executive from Baltimore County and a former judge. He is a moderate Democrat with a base of support in an important part of the state.

If Smith enters the race and Gansler and Brown split the base vote and Franchot and Smith split the moderate to conservative vote then anyone of them could become the nominee with no more that 26% of the vote.

I had since dropped Smith from consideration as I was hearing quite clearly that he would not be running, but today Maryland Juice is reporting that Jim Smith is considering a run... a 6 person contest.

I still believe Smith and Franchot would split the moderate to conservative vote. In such a scenario I think the odds shift back to Brown - but in many ways this mix of candidates throws the race wide open.

Stay Tuned...