Jamelle Bouie | The Nation

Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie

 Politics, wonkery and everything in between.

Tim Pawlenty Wants to Super Size the Bush Tax Cuts

Tim Pawlenty’s economic plan relies on a single fantastical notion, that tax cuts always produce an increase in revenue. When challenged on that with the Bush tax cuts, which depressed revenue for most of the last decade, Pawlenty has taken to attacking Bush for insufficient conservatism, blaming the president for spending too much while cutting taxes. To avoid the same trap, Pawlenty plans to do two things: first, make massive cuts in entitlements and social spending, and second, take the Bush tax cuts and pump up the volume. His plan would reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, cut the top income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, and eliminate taxes on capital gains, dividends and estates.

As this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, Pawlenty’s tax plan dwarfs the Bush tax cuts in size and scope:

Under current law, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, the richest 400 taxpayers paid an effective tax rate of 17. Under Pawlenty’s plan, the richest 400 would pay an effective tax rate of 4.7 percent, a 73 percent reduction. To pay for this, Pawlenty would completely dismantle the federal government, leaving it a hollow shell of itself, and leaving millions of Americans to languish in poverty.

Naturally, conservatives love it.

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Washington: 'Let's Cut Spending!' The Public: 'Let's Raise Taxes!'

Conservatives are fond of claiming the United States as a “center-right country,” but public opinion polling routinely shows a country of people who amenable—if not enthusiastic—about liberal solutions to public policy problems. For example, in a recent Pew survey, when asked what they would support to cut the deficit, large majorities support a grab bag of liberal policies: raising the Social Security contribution cap, raising taxes on high-income earners, reducing our military presence, and limiting tax deductions for large corporations. Here's a chart showing the survey results:

This holds true even when broken down by partisan affiliation. Along with 73 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents, 54 percent of Republicans support the Social Security contribution cap. Likewise, 56 percent of Republicans want to reduce our military commitments abroad, and 62 percent want to limit tax deductions for large corporations.

In other words, the deficit conversation in Washington—with it’s near-obsessive focus on spending cuts above all other solutions—is wildly out-of-sync with public preferences. These results beg a few questions: first, why can Republicans demand huge spending cuts and play brinksmanship with the debt ceiling, when most Republican voters prefer other policies to reduce the deficit?

If I had to hazard a guess, it’s this: Republican voters want to see a smaller government, and are probably willing to trust political elites who promise a path to smaller government. In the abstract, they might prefer more liberal solutions, but when push comes to shove, they’re willing to accept the solutions provided by party leaders and like-minded partisans. As for debt ceiling brinksmanship, Republicans voters will support it because they themselves aren’t particularly thrilled about lifting the debt limit.

The second question is a little more straightforward: why are Democrats so timid on liberal policies when they have the public behind them? Simply put, the Democratic Party doesn’t have the ideological or demographic uniformity of the GOP. Given its wide geographic base (everywhere from the Northeast and upper South, to the West Coast and large parts of the Southwest) and extremely diverse constituency, you can think of the Democratic Party as a not-GOP. In other words, it includes everyone who—for one reason or another—won’t support the Republican Party.

The upside is that this helps for winning national elections. The downside is this makes for an unruly party, with a huge number of (often opposed) interest groups, and few areas of consensus. Most liberals might support a deficit deal that hastened withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, but liberals aren’t a majority constituency in the Democratic Party – they’re not even a plurality. This isn’t to excuse cowardice and timidity from Democratic lawmakers, but the sheer fact of ideological diversity means that they can’t present a unified front of liberalism, even if they wanted to.

In any case, the big lesson from this survey is pretty straightforward: public opinion is important, but we shouldn’t overestimate its importance to debates in Washington. Often, what the public thinks is ancillary to what actually happens.

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Can LBJ-Style Toughness Save Barack Obama?

Last week, the New York Times published an interesting op-ed from a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, Joseph Califano, who presents Johnson’s ability to bully and cajole Congress into supporting his agenda as a possible template for President Obama:

In other words, Johnson won because he knew Capitol Hill’s pressure points. Like a great general, he understood the difference between tactics (the private promise, the discreet promise) and strategy (the order of bills, his legislative goals) and he understood how to make them work together.

 Today the White House confronts a similar need to raise the debt limit and eventually increase taxes, alongside demands that domestic spending be sharply reduced. True, Mr. Obama faces a more divided Congress and an unemployment rate more than double that of 1967, but not the kinds of divisions over race and war that prompted Johnson not to seek re-election.

Mr. Obama would be wise to look to the fiscal battles of 1967 and 1968 for inspiration. To slay his own political Cerberus without savaging social programs will take a similar measure of commitment, political wiliness and courage.

This doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, Johnson managed to get a tremendous portion of his agenda through Congress, but that has less to do with powers of persuasion, and more to do with the structure of Congress and the party system writ large. In 1964, the parties were loosely organized and ideologically diverse, with a noticeable absence of party discipline. Southern conservative Democrats stood against Northern liberal Democrats, who often built alliances with Northern liberal Republicans. Likewise, those conservative Democrats were willing to make common cause with Western libertarian Republicans and others on the opposite side of the aisle.

What’s more, certain Congressional rules that we now take for granted—the routine supermajority requirement for legislation—simply didn’t exist in the 1960s. Filibusters were rare, and most legislation (with the notable exception of civil rights legislation) passed with simple majorities. And this, of course, is to say nothing of the political circumstances of Johnson’s presidency; the early part of his agenda was presented as the legacy of an assassinated president, and while this didn’t guarantee passage, it certainly didn’t hurt.

It’s undoubtedly true that Johnson’s political persona was useful to guiding particular pieces of legislation through Congress. But for the whole of his agenda, we have to look to the circumstances of his presidency—and the institutional norms he worked within—if we want to explain his success. Put another way, if the institutional norms of 2009 matched those of 1967, then Barack Obama would be hailed as one of the country’s great liberal presidents. With those norms in place, the Obama administration could have passed an extremely robust stimulus, a strong public option for healthcare (or even single-payer) and legislation to address climate change. Raising the debt limit wouldn’t be a problem, at all, if simple majorities were the rule, and the parties were both ideologically diverse and willing to cooperate.

One last thing: Johnson’s bullying was not cost-free. As a result of his tactics, Johnson was virtually shunned from Washington in his short post-presidency. Johnson alienated Congressional allies, and had he served a second term, his administration would have suffered for it. If anything, Obama should look to Lyndon Johnson for example of what not to do in pursuing an agenda.

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Conservatives Try (and Fail) to Paint Unions as Bad for Black People

Conservative economist Walter E. Williams wants black people to know that unions are out to get them:

“[W]ho are the major supporters of the minimum wage law who spent millions and millions of dollars lobbying for its increase, it turns out to be labor unions. And you have to ask ‘Well, how come labor unions are the major supporters of the minimum-wage law when their members make $40 or $50 an hour often?” Williams said. “Why should they be concerned about a $5 or $7 wage? It turns out the minimum-wage law helps eliminate some of the competition.  […]”

“Well, they always have done that,” Williams said. “If you look at the justification for the David-Bacon Act, which is the federal minimum wage or super minimum-wage if you look at the legislative debate in 1931 unions were major supporters and they want to protect white workers from having to compete with black workers in construction.”

I’m not sure if this is a trend or not, but lately, conservatives have taken to presenting traditionally liberal institutions as sinister threats to the well-being of African Americans. Earlier this year, to use one example, conservative activists seized on the high abortion rate among African American women in order to accuse Planned Parenthood of “planned genocide” against black people. As for unions, Williams isn’t the first conservative to bring up racism as a way to discredit the modern labor movement; last month, Andrew Breitbart’s “Big Government” blog did the same, highlighting a few instances of discrimination in order to present unions as opposed to the interests of black people.

Ignoring, for a moment, the extent to which this message comes from a political movement which has long trafficked in racial scare tactics, it’s worth noting the degree to which unions have played a tremendous role in achieving civil rights and building economic security among African Americans. Lee Saunders, the secretary-treasurer for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), offered a take on this last week:

“Twenty-one percent of all black workers are public employees, making the public sector the largest employer of black workers, according to a recent University of California, Berkeley study. The wages that African Americans earn in the public sector are higher than those we earn in other industries. Furthermore, there is less wage inequality between African-American workers and nonblack workers in the public sector than in other industries.”

Moreover, as noted in a 2008 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike has been crucial to creating upward mobility among African American families. As for their part in the Civil Rights Movement, unions played a crucial role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, and union leaders were key allies as civil rights activists pushed Congress to adopt civil rights legislation. What’s more, as was noted during the anniversary of his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while organizing sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

Were there times in the past where unions were racist and discriminatory? Absolutely. But they occurred at points in our history where the entire culture was racist and discriminatory. As blacks organized and attitudes changed, unions were soon on the forefront of the fight for racial justice. Simply put, the right-wing attempt to paint unions as dangerous to African American well-being is ridiculous. If there’s anything blacks should worry about, it’s the ongoing conservative attempt to destroy those unions, and—in the process—keep millions from attaining economic security.

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The 'JOBS' Act is a Surefire Way to Destroy Actual Jobs

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp has pitched the “JOBS” Act as an effort to strengthen unemployment insurance by giving states leeway to make necessary changes. As he explained this morning, “[T]hese reforms strengthen that core purpose. We also allow States more flexibility to test innovative strategies to help the unemployed return to work, including through wage subsidies and other innovative approaches that have received bipartisan support.”

In reality, the Camp proposal would allow states to bypass their current obligation to spend remaining federal unemployment insurance funds on the uninsured. Instead, state governments could use their share of the $31 billion payment to pay off loans, or make a deposit to thier unemployment insurance trust funds. Regardless of the path they take, states would be removing money from the economy. And the strong multiplier effect of unemployment insurance on the economy, this would damage future job growth. As the Economic Policy Institute points out:

“Putting cash in the hands of unemployed workers generates more economic activity than any other option: it results in more consumption of goods and services produced by private-sector businesses, generating more economic activity by their suppliers and contractors.”

At best, according to EPI, the Camp proposal would create 257,000 jobs, “a loss of about 65,000 jobs compared to current law.” Indeed, as EPI notes, each alternative enabled by the Camp proposal results in fewer jobs for the unemployed.

Between this, John Boehner’s demands for $2 trillion in spending cuts, and Paul Ryan’s plan to destroy Medicaid and Medicare, the GOP is working hard to both slow the recovery and gut the social safety net. That this remains unnoticed by mainstream voices is more than a little amazing.

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Big Banks Shell Out to Members of Congress Who Could Kill CFPB

Campaign finance reform organization Public Campaign points out the extent to which it pays to be a member of the House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit:

"Members of the House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit have received $12.8 million from the political action committees (PACs) and employees of the banking and finance industries throughout their career."

What’s more, this is an equal opportunity benefit. Together, Democrats and Republicans received a total of $3 million from the banking and finance industries in the last cycle. Of that $3 million, Democrats received $1.4 million, and Republicans received $1.6 million. Indeed, the current chairman of the subcommittee, Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), took $114,100 in campaign contributions from big banks and investment firms during the 2010 elections.

With that in mind, it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that the subcommittee recently took steps to weaken the new consumer protection regulations in Dodd-Frank. In Wednesday’s markup of H.R. 1121, the Responsible Consumer Financial Protection Regulation Act, and H.R. 135, the Consumer Financial Protection Safety and Soundness Improvement Act, Republicans led by Capito endorsed bills that would grant bank regulators the authority to block Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rules, and alter the leadership of the CFPB by replacing the single director with a five-member commission.

As Americans for Financial Reform noted on Tuesday, this would empower the same regulators who failed to prevent the financial crisis and drastically reduce the CFPB’s effectiveness. Given the billions banks save by blocking these regulations, spending $3 million on legislators is an incredible bargain; a small price to pay for peace of mind, if you’re a plutocrat.

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Interest Groups Are Serious Business

Yesterday, Matt Yglesias made a fantastic point about what it means for policy to have a status quo bias:

This is something that I think a lot of intra-left discourse tends to miss about why policy reform is so difficult. Any time you want to disrupt a coalition of entrenched incumbent rent-seekers, be they in the oil industry or the health care industry or the financial services industry or what have you, you’re going up against a strong team. And it’s not strong simply because the CEOs have access (though they do) or because the firms can give money (though they can) it’s strong because big companies have employees. And those employees have spouses and kids and siblings and they pay taxes that support local government and shop at nearby stores. And this entire trail of dependents fears change, and deems itself entitled to whatever economic privileges the industry in question currently receives. [Emphasis mine]

Over at his blog, political scientist Jonathan Bernstein adds to this with a note on strategy:

But, yes, a big part of American-style democracy (and, at least in my view, any reasonable flavor of democracy) is going to involve what Robert Dahl called ‘a high probability that an active and legitimate group in the population can make itself heard effectively at some crucial stage in the process of decision’ (Preface to Democratic Theory, 145). In my view, those upset about what they consider the outsized voices of some groups are better off focusing on how to make sure that their own groups, and others they believe are being ignored, get their own chance to be “heard effectively” too.

This also makes for a nice addendum to my earlier post on Gary Johnson and the Republican presidential contest. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that politics in the United States is conducted primarily through interest groups of various stripes. Within both the Republican and Democratic parties, coalitions of interests groups—with shared and opposing priorities—work together or against each other to pursue particular outcomes for their respective “constituencies.” When large-scale change occurs, it’s because those interests have aligned together on something of a shared agenda, and have the electoral strength to show for it.

To borrow from Yglesias, I’m not sure that liberals treat this with the seriousness it deserves. Sometimes, it seems as if the left has two approaches to achieving policy reform: political pressure through grassroots action, and electing the right people at the right time. I don’t want to understate the extent to which those are really important, but I do want to float a possibility: insofar that the left has failed to achieve meaningful policy reform on more marginal issues—climate change and civil liberties, particularly—it’s because progressives have failed to appreciate the importance of interest group politics.

In other words, the problem isn’t so much that Democratic politicians aren’t committed to a particular vision of environmental regulation or civil liberties (though that’s probably true too), but that influential interests within the Democratic Party have yet to sign on to those aspects of the progressive agenda, at least, not in a way that translates into actual support. Put another way, Obama’s first-year focus on healthcare reform was almost predetermined by health care’s extremely high place on the Democratic Party’s list of priorities, and the fact that large swaths of the party had accepted it as an important goal. That climate change received short-thrift—despite Obama’s campaign pledge to the contrary—has a lot to do with its relative youth as an issue priority for Democrats, and the fact that it stands at odds with the other priorities of other groups of Democrats.

The downside of this is that the system has an incredibly strong status quo bias, for reasons discussed by Yglesias. The upside (and this is a big upside) is that the system is also very malleable, and with time and effort, progressives can grow their influence as an interest within the Democratic coalition. What’s more, for those of us worried about the influence of money on politics, it puts things in perspective: money is definitely important, but the sheer strength of money isn’t enough to determine the course of a political party. Again (and I find myself saying this a lot), it’s not the most satisfying conclusion, but it does provide avenues for further (and hopefully, constructive) action.

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Gary Johnson and the Hard Truths About Presidential Candidates

Last week, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson announced his plans to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. His anti-entitlement, anti-tax orthodoxy notwithstanding, Johnson was something of a conservative iconoclast as governor of New Mexico; he opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the recent intervention in Libya. He supports marijuana decriminalization, and is a staunch opponent of the war on drugs. As a few others have noted, Johnson is a natural fit for libertarians on the right and left, and he holds appeal for liberals as well. In his blog post celebrating Johnson’s decision to run, The Spectator’s Alex Massie captures some of this enthusiasm:

If President Johnson were to end the Drug War and that were his sole achievement in office he’d have done more good than any President in 40 years. Not since Milton Friedman helped end the draft has there been a better cause. That alone demands one welcome Johnson’s decision, announced at some point today, to enter the race for the Republican party’s 2012 presidential nomination.

Now, here’s the problem: if Johnson is a serious candidate for president, then these views will become less significant as the primary season wears on. That is, for Johnson to find real success within the Republican primaries, he’ll have to raise money from GOP donors and satisfy the issue preferences of GOP elites, donors and primary voters. And to that end, he’ll have to repudiate positions—like marijuana decriminalization and marriage equality—that run counter to the views of most Republicans.

In other words, for Johnson to even have a shot at the nomination, and thus a shot at the presidency, he’ll have to become a run-of-the-mill Republican, and not the transformative figure his supporters hope for. Put another way, when it comes to winning a presidential primary, the actual views of a candidate—while not unimportant—are ultimately less significant than intra-party conflicts, elite pressures, fundraising and grassroots organizing.

Relatedly, this goes a long way toward explaining ongoing liberal disappointment with Barack Obama. It’s not that Obama entered office and immediately moved to “sell out” the Left, but that in running for president, Obama made a lot of promises to a lot of people within the Democratic Party, and he has to juggle those interests along with his own agenda. If an issue like Guantanamo falls by the wayside, it’s partially because the administration has limited energy and competing concerns. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very satisfying explanation.

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Democrats Prepare to Embrace Anonymous Campaign Contributions

Last year, in the fight to protect their Congressional majorities, Democrats attacked Republicans for the reliance on anonymous donors and others (presumably shadowy) who were using their wealth to undermine the process of democracy. Fast forward a few months, and Democrats are now gearing up for President Obama’s re-election battle in 2012. As the Los Angeles Times reports, some Democrats have taken this as an opportunity to replicate the formerly scorned conservative model of shell organizations and undisclosed donors:

Majority PAC, a new group aimed at electing Democrats to the Senate, and American Bridge 21st Century, which will serve as a research hub, are being organized as so-called super political action committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money from contributors whose donations are reported to the Federal Election Commission. But both are also affiliated with nonprofit 501(c)(4) social welfare groups that can raise money from undisclosed donors and give money directly to super PACs.

The same dual structure is being considered by Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, two former White House aides who are likely to launch their own independent expenditure effort in support of President Obama’s reelection, according to people familiar with the plans.

To be fair, I don’t actually begrudge these Democrats for their willingness to abandon campaign rhetoric in favor of tactical and strategic advantages. The GOP has already embraced anonymous donors, and there’s no reason for Democrats to unilaterally disarm themselves. Unfortunately, as Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer notes in the piece, this will almost certainly spark a new “arms race” between conservatives and liberals, as each seeks to better position outside groups for massive returns.

Independent of everything else, I don’t have a particularly large issue with anonymous campaign contributions; they aren’t the best thing to have in a campaign finance system, but they also aren’t a uniquely corrupting influence. The problem comes when you consider the presence of undisclosed donors in concert with other trends: the slow erosion of public sector unions, the growing dependence on Wall Street for campaign funds, rising income inequality, etc. This isn’t an original observation, but together, these push the parties toward further reliance on rich donors, and an even greater reluctance to challenge the interests of the wealthy.

That said, the last three years of near-complete acquiescence to wealthy interests, I have a hard time imagining how the rich could accumulate more influence.

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Why Judicial Elections Are a Bad Thing

To start, I want to provide a quick introduction. My name is Jamelle Bouie and I am an Alfred A. Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute. My day job is at The American Prospect, where I am a writing fellow, and my work is mostly focused on political behavior and elections, with a particular interest in the nexus of money and politics. That said, I write about many things, and with any luck, I’ll have a chance to explore them here.

Now, on with the post.

This was lost in the uproar surrounding Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, but yesterday—in his home state of Wisconsin—incumbent judge David Prosser lost to Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg in his re-election bid for the state Supreme Court. A Republican, Prosser, was widely known as an ally of Governor Scott Walker, and as such, was an obvious target for state Democrats. His defeat, by a slim margin of 208 votes, is the first electoral repudiation of Walker’s anti-worker agenda, and in all likelihood, a sign of things to come for Wisconsin Republicans.

While this is good news, it’s worth noting that—on the whole—electing judges is a terrible idea. To wit, the United States is virtually alone among advanced democracies in its commitment to the practice.

Why shouldn’t we trust individual citizens with the task of staffing a judiciary? Well, first, it runs counter to the entire idea of an independent judiciary. Elections require cash, and absent full and mandatory public financing, this means fundraising. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s difficult for a judge to appear impartial when, as a candidate, she relied on donors and special interests for support. This might not be a huge concern on a high-profile body, like a state Supreme Court, but it’s undoubtedly a problem among the thousands of lower-court judges chosen by popular ballot.

Indeed, election-year pressure can lead judges to alter their decisions; in a Pennsylvania study, for example, researchers found that all judges increase their sentences in election years, “resulting in some 2,700 years of additional prison time, or 6 percent of total prison time, in aggravated assault, rape and robbery sentences over a 10-year period.”

Beyond the possibility of undue influence, is simply true that judicial elections are low on the radar for most voters. The problem with electing judges is similar to the problem with electing treasurers or the problem with electing dogcatchers; with so many elections, voters don’t have the time or knowledge to evaluate the candidates. As such, there are far fewer eyes watching the conduct of judicial candidates and far fewer barriers to bad behavior. In other words, judicial elections provide the illusion of popular control, at the expense of actual accountability. In an ideal world, we’d dispense with them entirely.

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