Wednesday, December 26, 2012

America’s Real Problem isn’t the Fiscal Cliff, it’s the Fiscal Canyon

The current Congress may or may not address the Fiscal Cliff before 2012 ends.  But even if it does, the odds are that any solution it affixes will fail to solve a problem that has been at least 30 years in making.  The real Fiscal Cliff, or rather the Fiscal Canyon, is the longer-term disinvestment and neglect this country has made in education, infrastructure, and attending to the structural inequalities in the United States that are driving most of the problems we face in the short and long term.
    The Fiscal Cliff is actually a four-fold set of problems that Congress and the president immediately face.
    There is first the expiration of the Bush era tax cuts.  These were the massive and fiscally imprudent tax cuts President Bush and Congress pushed though in 2001.  They occurred at a time when the Clinton presidency and the economic growth of the late 1990s left the country with successive budget surpluses and the belief was that the government had more money than it needed and that the tax cuts would stimulate the economy.  The tax cuts included cuts in the top rates on income as well as capital gains.   They were sold as cuts to benefit the middle class when in reality the vast majority of the benefit went to the wealthiest who did little to invest them in job and economic growth.  The first decade of the twenty-first century witnesses the worst record  in job production in decades.
    The biggest focus of the this aspect of the Fiscal Cliff is that if nothing is done, a typical middle class family of four would experience a tax increase of $2,200 if the Bush era tax cuts expire.
    Second, there is the budget cuts that are due to kick in.  These budget cuts are a result of a deal that Congress and the president reached in 2011.  They agreed, or better yet, kicked the can down the road, to a budget framework that declared that if they could not agree to a budget agreement to reduce America’s $1 trillion+ annual deficit and begin to pay down the nearly $16 trillion nation debt, certain automatic cuts would take place.  Over 1,000 government programs would face significant budget cuts totally in excess of several hundred billions of dollars over the coming decade.  These cuts would come in terms of both military and other discretionary spending.
    The tax increases and spending cuts are the most immediate problems of the Fiscal Cliff.  If no action occurs most economists think that this cliff would throw the economy into a recession.  The reason for this is simple Keynesian economics–a rapid decrease in demand as both consumers and the government cut back on purchases and demand, thereby slowing down the economy.
    But there are really two other aspects of the Fiscal Cliff that are coming due too. 
    The first is that the debt limit for the US government also expires around the beginning of the year.  If that is not extended the US government runs out of money.  That too is a big problem and must be addressed.  If we do not extend the debt limit the United States technically defaults on its loans.  It also means it runs out of money to finance the government, thereby forcing a shutdown  or curtailment of funding for many programs. 
    Finally, the original economic stimulus program that the Obama administration passed in the beginning of 2009 runs out.  Despite all the noise to the contrary, the stimulus did preserve several million jobs according to most credible economists.
    Failure to address any of these four prongs of the Fiscal Cliff is enough to damage the US economy, but letting all four go unintended is a major recipe for disaster.  So what do we do?  Here are the options.

1.  Do Nothing.   This is the disaster just mentioned.  It hurts the US economy both short and long term.   

2.   Kick the can down the road.  Extend the tax cuts for all for another short period of time and delay the spending cuts too.  In effect, “kick the can” down the line for another few months so that the next Congress deals with it.  Congress already did this once back in 2011 and it possible they do that again.  However, this kicking of the can is very temporary and does little to address the short-term jitters in the US economy (companies failing to invest because they want a stable economic picture) or long term to address the broader structural problems in the US economy.

3.  Extend Bush Era tax cuts for the middle class. 
   Enact tax cuts for everyone except those with individual incomes over $200,000 of family incomes of $250,000 per year.  This solves the tax increase problem but does not deal with the automatic budget cuts.  It also fails to deal with the debt  limit and an economic stimulus.
    Republicans in the new Congress may be able to live with part of this since they would be voting for tax cuts for the middle class and could say they did not vote for tax increases.

4.  Enact Simpson-Bowles Commission Recommendations.  The Simpson-Bowles Commission offered proposals on how to deal with long-term debt. This proposal includes reforms (cuts) to entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. It was DOA when its ideas came out but some still this is a framework for addressing problems.
    Beyond the fact that politically it is DOA, it does not really solve economic problems in the long term.  Raising retirement ages or cutting benefits hurts the poor and the young, and in many ways, for those in blue collar jobs, raising the retirement age discriminates against those who do physical labor and will not last long enough.  Moreover, cutting benefits when fewer and fewer people have pensions and serious retirement income options condemns a new generation of people to poverty.

5.  None of the above. In reality, none of the ideas above really solve or address the bigger economic problems facing the United States.  All at best are band-aids or whitewashing over more fundamental  problems facing the economy.
    The key to addressing America’s short and long term debt is by revitalizing the US economy.  In part the reason for the budget surpluses in the 1990s was a rapidly growing economy (with higher tax rates than today) and increasing worker productivity as a result of taking advantage of the new computer and information technologies.   The first priority should be strengthening the economy by increasing employment, productivity, and wages as opposed to worrying about debt reduction. 
    But there are challenges to do this.  The growing gap between the rich and poor and across races has created structural inequalities that compromise mobility and economic productivity.  There  are performance gaps in education, significant affordability for college, and an overall declining position in the US vis-a-vis the rest of the world when it comes to education and training in general.  The country needs to address this issue for long-term growth and sustainability.  This is the Fiscal Canyon–the enormous gap between current expenditures and the investments we need to make in America’s future.
    There is also an imperative to invest in our aging road and highway infrastructure, with some estimates placing the need at over $2 trillion to make repairs.  This does not include investments for the future to modernize telecommunications and energy.
    Finally, there is a demographic issue.  Our population is aging and we need to figure out not only how to pay for benefits promised, but also how to ensure that there are sufficient workers for  the future.  In terms of benefits, the US spends 18% of its GDP on health care–by far the most costly in the world–and it does not have universal coverage or the best marks in terms of outcomes.  The issue of course is still how to reduce costs but simply cutting spending does not solve anything if people are sick.  Conversely, the aging population means fewer younger workers, but those workers need the skills to do the jobs needed over the next 50 years.
    Yes, the Fiscal Cliff is a problem, but the Fiscal Canyon, two generations in the making, is the real issue that Congress and the President should address, but will not.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Safety in Schools, Embassies, and Prisons: What do we know what works

Safety is on our minds as we receive two reports this week.  The first is the NRA long-awaited press conference on how to promote school safety in light of the Newtown shooting, while the other is the final report regarding the attack at Benghazi.  But what actually works in terms of promoting safety?  We have some good information that addresses question.

School Safety and the NRA
Not surprise the NRA found that the problem regarding school safety was anything but guns.  It was video games, mental illness, and perhaps who knows, gun-chewing.   But it certainly was not that there were guns in school that caused the problem.  Their proposal  was for at least one armed guard to be located in every school in the United States.  First, let’s think about the cost issue.

According to the Financial Times, there are approximately 140,000 schools and colleges in the United States.   The average salary for a police officer in the U.S. is $51,000.  Assume one armed guard per school at a cost of approximately $51,000 per guard.    Now no school is going to hire only one guard.  One has to factor in vacations, sick time, before and after school events. Additionally, most schools may need more than one guard since many have more than one building or you need more than one guard for a very large building.  Plus also assume logistics or support services for the guard. 

Let us assume a minimum of about three guards per school.  Thus, $150,000 per year per school is an approximate.  Now multiply this by 140,000 and the total bill for the NRA idea is $21 billion dollars per year.   I am sure with Fiscal Cliffs and tight budgets, coming up with an additional $21 billion per year will be a snap for the federal, state, and local governments.

Hiring an additional 280,000 to 420,000 guards is more than the 100,000 Clinton cops hired in the 1990s. Keep in mind that there are currently 800,000 individuals already working in law enforcement.  We are talking about nearly increasing by 50% the number of gun carrying law enforcement officials in the country.  Yes gun carrying, and that is the beauty of the NRA proposal–more guns.  Think of how many more guns that will need to be sold to supply all these armed guards.  This is an amazing boom to the gun industry.

Of course, it will not just be handguns sold to these guards.  No armed guard with a side piece will be able to take on someone with semi-automatic guns.  They too will need these kind of toys.  Additionally, image the shootout in schools between guards and killers.  It will look like the O.K. Corral.  Even more, assume someone enters a school to kill, the guards still may not be able to respond in an instant.  There is no guarantee that they will be able to intervene immediately.  On top of which, school shooters may target them first in schools, thus escalating the violence.  Finally, believe it or not, schools are actually safer now than 30 years ago.  Schools are not safer now because of more guns.  Other factors such as screening out weapons, less violence in society in general, and other factors are making schools more safe. Spending all this money on more guards and guns makes little sense when perhaps lost costly alternatives exist.

What amazes me is the transparency of the NRA position.  It is not about a principled position for the Second Amendment or advocacy for the rights of individuals.  It is shilling for the gun industry.  The NRA has to be the only special interest group that I know that is captured by a special interest.

But beyond the fact that the NRA proposal is pricy, it is simply a dumb idea.  What made me think about how dumb it was, was to contrast security in schools, prisons, and embassies.  I have been in all three institutions.  I have toured prisons for research and taught undergraduate criminal justice for nearly a decade.  I have been in several US embassies around the world on assignment for the State Department.  I have taught in or attended many schools.

Embassy and Prison Safety
First, do we really want to turn schools and embassies into prisons?  Prisons are expense to maintain, costing more per capita to incarcerate an inmate than we presently spend to educate students, at least at t he K-12 level.  Second, few people realize that guards in prisons do not carry guns.  The absolutely last thing you want a guard to do is carry a gun.  There is no way armed guards could ever subdue a mob of prisoners.  You would literally need such a high ratio of guards to prisoners that the current prison costs would fly through the roof.  Prisons maintain security by keeping guns out, not bring them in.  Perhaps we should learn from that.

Second, in a post-9/11 world the State Department has moved to redesign embassies to be more secure.  They are more prison-like, but their size and populations compared to schools is very small.  They are easier to defend but even then, there is no way we can protect them against a massive mob or attack unless we have a massive military presence at them.  Again, an impossibility. Security for our embassies is provided by good diplomatic relations, cooperation with a host country, and ultimately, we close facilities if we do not believe them to be safe.  Moreover,  Congress, in its infinite wisdom last year. Dramatically cut back on the State Department budget for security.  If Congress was unwilling to spend a few hundred million for embassy security, what makes the NRA think that Congress will come up with $21 billion for schools.

What is my point?  We have a lot of research on how to promote safety and security and the answer is not more guns.  Even on the streets we know that it is impossible to place an armed police officer on every street and that the reality is that this tactic does not prevent domestic in the home or other crimes that take place off the streets.  Additionally, we know that a gun in the house is far more likely to be used against another member of the household than an intruder.  We can cite more facts, but the reality is that more guns is hardly the solution to safety in most situations.

The NRA position is thus either a fantasy that the world is safer with the threat of shootouts or it is merely a shield for the gun industry. But it is not a viable plan for security.  The NRA solution to everything is more guns.  This is just like some arguing that tax cuts are the cure for everything.  Tax cuts to help when the economy is doing well, or badly.  One idea cannot be the same answer to every problem and the same is true with guns.  There are no one size fits all answers.

Quick Thoughts on the Fiscal Cliff
    When it came to Congress and the president acting to solve the fiscal cliff issue, I was always an optimist and pessimist.  Optimistic that an agreement would occur, a pessimist in thinking the deal would be lousy or simply be no more than kicking the problem down the road.  I may be half right.  The deals being discussed was bad.  It would hurt the poor and damage America’s long term  investments.  It would still damage job production at a time when unemployment is high.  The possible deal was bad and deserved to die. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Case for a Federal Uniform Voting RIghts Act

Note:  This blog originally appeared in my October, 2012 PA Times column.

The Electoral College met on November 17, and formally wrapped up the 2012 elections.  Yet while the results were conclusive, the time is ripe to consider and address the problems with elections administration and voting rights in the USA.
   Election administration is perhaps the most important function performed in the United States.  Yet as it has becoming increasingly clear after the 2012 elections, even after all the reforms that have been undertaken in the last 20 years, that the time has come to create a national law to regulate federal elections in the United States.
    The constitutional framers largely left to the states the authority to determine voting eligibility and the administration of elections.  Nowhere in the Constitution does it prescribe a right to vote, even for federal offices.  Originally senators were chosen by the state legislatures, and the president by the Electoral College and electors were also chosen by state legislatures.  The Seventeenth  Amendment in 1913 gave the people the right to vote for Senators.  In 1941 the Supreme Court in United States v. Classic ruled that Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution gave individuals the right to vote for members of Congress, and in the 1964 Reynolds v Sims it declared that the First Amendment established a right to vote in state and local elections.  But to this day, the Court reminded us in 2000 in Bush v. Gore, there is no right to vote for president and state legislatures could decide to make the direct selection of electors instead of letting voters do that.
    But even with these changes, elections are still run as local affairs.  States still get to determine eligibility to vote, as well as the time, place, and manner for running elections.  Across the country states vary in their voter eligibility and election administration practices, designating varying standards for who gets to vote, the technology used, whether absentee or early voting is permitted, and how ballots are counted and elections run.  The result has been far from specular.
    Over time states have adopting varying practices to franchise or disenfranchise voters.  Despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to grant freed male slaves the right to vote, Jim Crow laws in the south prevented most African-Americans from voting until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1966.  Women were denied the right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment, and various other techniques were deployed by states to limit franchise.
    Yet Congress is not without authority to act.  While Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution  gives states the authority to regulate the time, manner, and place of elections, it also gives Congress the power to make laws to change these regulations, but as the Supreme Court said in  Oregon v. Mitchell (1970), that authority extended only to federal elections.  The Voting Rights Act was one of the first modern federal efforts to regulate elections, imposing standards upon specific states that discriminated against minorities.  The VRA has largely been a success in extending franchise rights.  In fact it is so successful that the Supreme Court this year may well declare portions of it unconstitutional because its need is allegedly past.  The 1993 Motor Voter Act was a major boom  to voter registration.
    But the 2000 election dispute in Florida changed everything.  While the Bush v. Gore case revealed significant problems in application of election official discretion in ascertaining voter intent,  the American public witnessed instances of politicized election administration, bad ballot design, and a host of technological and other allegations of voter suppression.  To remedy some of these problems the 2002 Help America Vote Act made money available to states to upgrade voting technology, and it also established the Election Assistance Commission, yet these changes were not enough. The 2004 elections witnessed significant allegations of voting irregularity and sloppy administration in Ohio and across the country, and in the last decade a wave of voter Identification election has been imposed in many states, even though the evidence of voter fraud is negligible.  Pre-election activity, including in 2012 , is marked by litigation and lawsuits, and charges that states continue to set confusing rules up to vote and run elections persist.
    The time for federal action is now.  The public administration of federal elections and the right to vote should not vary across states.  There needs to be uniform rules regarding voter eligibility  and qualifications, ballot design, technology, and discretion ascertaining voter intent.  A Federal Uniform Voting Rights Act would set national standards for voting and administration of federal elections, thereby effectively defining the standards for state and local ones too.  Such a law would  perhaps also enhance the professionalization of election administration, moving it away from largely party and partisan control to field with educational training and requirements.    With uniform standards votes could move from state to state and not worry about confusing registration issues, and the concerns about fraud would diminish with the development of national voter databases. Deployment of other national standards for voting machines, or the introduction of new technologies such as Internet voting could bring the administration of elections out of the eighteenth and into the twenty-first centuries.
    The ideals of American democracy are too important to be left to the current federalism of election rules and administration.  Election laws are the rules that make democracy work and the current rules and practices have demonstrated their inability to serve the important needs they are supposed to address.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

After Connecticut: Excuses and Lessons Still Not Learned

Another shooting, life goes on.

We saw it before Newtown, Connecticut.    Just a few moths ago in the heat of the presidential race there was the shooting at the Aurora, Colorado movie.  Before that the shootings in Columbine, or at Virginia Tech, or Fort Hood, or even that of Representative Giffords failed to shift the dialogue and create and opportunity for a serious rethinking of gun safety in America, the same will happen again.

Yet again the predictable lines of debate and posturing emerged, with the NRA and other pro-gun organizations retorting with the usual litany of arguments. 

*     Gun control will only keep guns out of law-abiding citizens’s hands. 
*    The shooting was an act of a crazy person.
*    Better enforcement of current gun laws would have prevent that tragedy.
*    Had everyone been armed that day then someone could have taken the shooter out. 
*    Guns don’t kill people, only people kill people.

All truly terrific policy responses, but they don’t raise the dead.

Or now one hears in response in claims to make it more difficult to purchase guns: “Have you ever  purchased a gun to see how difficult is?”  An argument about as cogent as arguing that you need to attempt to rob a bank to realize how difficult it is.  Terrific logic.

Even if true that it is difficult to buy a gun this response is besides the point that the guns in Newtown and many other cases were legitimately purchased yet still used for evil purposes.  They were not stolen by criminals but fell in the hands of family members who used them against one another.  This is typical of what happens with many guns–more likely to be used in domestic violence or against those we know than intruders or for self-defense.

Or there is even the blame the liberals argument.  I wonder what the partisan affiliation and voting preferences are of the shooters and victims?

Of course, when all else fails, the response is “We pray for them or the victims and families are in our prayers.”  Prayer is the least one can do when you do nothing else.  Shootings in Newton also raise horrible theological questions about why God would allow innocent children to die.  I should  like to see the Catholic Church and pro-lifers express as much rage and take as much action to protect the sanctity of life once born as they do for fetuses in the womb.  I see no major push from them to do anything substantial regarding gun violence.

Why can we not have a meaningful debate about guns in America?  Yes, the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms means something, but it ought not to be an impediment against reasonable regulation of guns and weaponry.  

It should not make it possible for Adam Lanza to secure the stockpile of guns from his mother and then use them against her and children.  It should not have shielded the ability of James Holmes, the alleged Aurora shooter, to stockpile ammo, booby trap an apartment, and blow away 12 people with an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle. Some tradeoff between individuals rights and collective security needs has to be read into the Amendment, yet instead its meaning has been hijacked by an extremist reading by the gun lobby and industry which has been able to scare primarily Republicans and secondarily Democrats into cowardice.

Had Newtown been an act of terrorism there would have been calls for more security protections much like we saw after 9/11.  Granted many post 9/11 actions were unwarranted or merely symbolic,  if not unconstitutional.  Yet why do we not call what happened in Connecticut an act of domestic terrorism?  Surely the Second Amendment and the Constitution can accommodate reasonable gun safety measures.

No other constitutional amendment is read in such absolutist language.  Not should the Second Amendment.

The NRA and the gun lobby are a potent force in American politics.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, they spend between $5 and $6 million per year lobbying Congress.  Since 1990 they have contributed $27.7 million to Republican and Democrat candidates for federal office with 86% of it going to the former.  They have turned Republicans, the part of law and order, into a tody of the gun industry, supporting legislation that law enforcement officials often oppose.

The gun lobby also expends at the state level.  In Minnesota the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance has expended at least $160,000 in the last decade lobbying for gun rights, successfully advocating for conceal and carry legislation that would have forced schools and churches to allow guns were it not for amendments to the law and a state Supreme Court decision  that overturned that.  They take pride in preventing gun registration and the fact that now more than 100,000 Minnesotans carry guns. The gun industry has probably spent even more to influence legislation through hunting, outdoors, and other ideological  groups, yet current state disclosure laws make it difficult to calculate.

What have the purchased with their investments?  The have browbeaten the government and scholars and academics who wish to investigate gun issues.  It is virtually impossible to study anything related to gun violence because government funding for that purpose has dried up.  The NRA pummeled historian Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture who argued that gun ownership was the exception and not the rule in colonial America.  It successfully convinced a Supreme Court to adopt a theory that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms and not one tied to collective self-defense through the military.

But beyond that it has argued that bans on armor piercing bullets are excessive government regulation.  That Americans should have a right to own automatic and semi-automatic weapons for the purpose of self-defense or hunting.  Guns such as those used to kill JFK or wound Ronald Reagan are entitled to constitutional protection.  In fact the logic of their arguments seems to be that each red-blooded American has a right to own a tank and an atomic bomb.

But that is not where the lunacy ends.  They have defined a political agenda where even what once seemed absurd now is debated.  One always had a right to defend one self with deadly force in  your home, but in Minnesota and other states “stand your ground” legislation would give individuals the right to use deadly force at first instance (and not as a last resort) even out in public.  Such a law in Florida may make it difficult to secure a conviction against George Zimmerman who is accused of killing Trayvon Martin. In Indiana a law lets citizens shoot at police officers if the later engage in an illegal act or raid.

The gun lobby will assert that arming this country has produced a kinder and gentler America.  Arm us all they say and that will be a deterrent to crime. Yet there is no evidence that increased gun ownership has reduced crime in America.  States with more lax gun laws do not reveal lower crime rates than those with more strict laws.  Moreover, the idea of self-defense is largely a myth.  In households with guns, those weapons are more likely to be used against a family member in domestic violence than they are to be used against an intruder or to prevent a crime.  Maybe guns don’t kill people, but people with guns are more likely to kill people than those without guns.  Go ask the people of North Minneapolis about this.

It is not just the crazy and insane who use guns.  Law-abiding Americans in fits of passion misuse them, or they are stolen from them and wind up in the hand of others who misuse them.

The NRA has been brilliant in crying wolf.  They decree that Barack Obama is public enemy number one to guns rights in America, describing first the 2008 and now the 2012 election as a major battle for liberty.  Gun sales have shot through the roof with Obama as president on fear they he will disarm America.  The fact is that the only thing Obama has done about guns is sign a law allowing for individuals to carry them in national parks.  In the next few days gun sales will against soar as fears of regulation will mount. 

But don’t count on it. Politicians are afraid to act. The public has grown numb to this violence.  It is the price of a free society.  Life goes on.  So does death.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

It’s Worse than you think: Quick Thoughts on the Minnesota Fiscal Forecast

Official reports list the upcoming budget deficit for the State of Minnesota as $1.1 billion.  This according to the state economist and the fiscal forecast.  Yet while $1.1 B is bad enough it is really worse than that, and could deteriorate.

Consider some basic facts.

When the 2011 government shutdown was averted $2.4 billion was borrowed from K-12 and the state also borrowed approximately $700 million from the tobacco endowment.  These were both one time revenue sources that need to be paid back.  Add these two obligations to the $1.1 and the real deficit is closer to $3.8 B.

Critics will say that the $3.8 B figure is wrong, asserting that the fiscal forecast does indicate that about $1.3 B will be shifted to pay back K-12 from current surplus.  this is on top of $3.2 M already paid back (but for the sake of argument we will ignore this even though it should be counted toward a larger state obligation for revenue).  But as my grandmother used to say money does not grow on trees and it comes from somewhere.  That $1.3 is coming out of something,a present one time surplus in the current budget cycle that one cannot necessarily count on in the next cycle.  This money represents an obligation to the state and therefore money is stilled owed and must be paid back.  The same can be said about the tobacco bonds.  Thus the $3.8 is a fair figure on the obligations owed by the state beyond current projected revenues to meet spending in the next budget cycle that is roughly the same as it is now in the current one.

It gets worse.  The forecast also notes that the anticipated gaming proceeds to help finance the new Vikings stadium are significantly behind projections.  If they do not pick up then the State (taxpayers) are also on the hook for this additional obligation which could potentially been a few hundred million dollars.  This makes the bad deal for the state look even worse.  Stay tuned on this.

But it gets even worse.  If the fiscal cliff kicks in and hits the state or even if the economy simply slows down, revenues decrease and the deficit gets even worse.  Even the fiscal forecast tells us that.

Thus, the $1.1 B deficit may very well really be one that is over $4 B.  We are back to where we were two years ago.  No surprise.  The last budget was done with gimmicks and tricks.

 We cannot continue to repeat the mistakes and tricks of the lack decade and continue to push the problem down the line.  Yes tax increases may be needed to address the problems here but that is probably not enough.  New revenue sources are needed but cuts may also be needed.  The question will be who carries the burden or takes the cuts.  Will it come from the poor?  Healthcare?  Education?  Higher ed?  Cities?

The issue now is how honest does the DFL want to be in confronting the reality of the budget.  Will it use real numbers, eschew gimmicks, and base projections on realistic assumptions?  This is the challenge for the Governor and the legislature.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Republican Kübler-Ross Moment

Note:  This essay appeared in the November 30, edition of  Politics in Minnesota.  Please consider subscribing to that publication.  Also, for comparison, the December 3, 2012 "Talk of the Town" section of the New Yorker references a Kübler-Ross feeling among House of Representatives Republicans.  I wrote this piece before seeing the New Yorker essay.

Republicans and conservatives in Minnesota and across the United States are having their  Kübler-Ross moment with the 2012 election results and their aftermath.  As they confront their political mortality, their reaction to their failures parallels that of the psychological state of individuals facing their own deaths.
    Elizabeth Kübler-Ross was a Swiss doctor whose book Death and Dying outlined a seven stage process that patients often go through when confronting death.  Her book became famous in the 1979 Bob Fosse movie All that Jazz, featuring Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon.  The stages–shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and acceptance–represent the psychological states that individuals go through as they confront their demise.  Individuals move through these seven stages to acceptance, but often get s truck at a stage and never move on. Politically, Republicans and conservatives across the country are similarly facing their own mortality, psychologically traversing the same path, or worse, getting stuck in one stage and unable to move on.
    Shock.  Many Republicans have yet to accept the fact that they lost the 2012 elections fair and square.  They were out-hustled, out-organized, and most importantly, out-voted.  Obama received more votes than Romney, Democrats have more US Senate seats than Republicans, and for only the fourth time in American history, the minority party in the House received more votes than the majority.  Democrats also made big gains in the state houses, including Minnesota, and here the two Republican-prized constitutional amendments failed.  Romney, as it is now known, was so assured of victory that he did not write a concession speech.  Karl Rove, similarly convinced of victory, had a meltdown on Fox news when that state was called Ohio for Obama on his beloved network.
    Denial.  We could not have loss had it been a fair election.  But for the voter fraud we would have won.  But for Obama giving gifts to minority voters we would have won.  For Kurt Zellers, it was not the two amendments and the social issues, the government shutdown, or bad politics that cost them the control of the legislature.  For Mary Kiffmeyer and Jason Lewis, were it not for the lies and distortions by their opponents, the Elections Amendment would have passed.  For Dan McGrath of the Minnesota Majority, expect him to yell fraud, contending that were it not for the voter fraud that the Elections Amendment was meant to prevent, it would have passed.  Of course, Romney did not lose because he was a bad candidate, with a bad message, appealing to an aging, white, party and demographic that is dying off and which is to the right of mainstream America.  Of course Republicans did not lose Senate races in Missouri and Indiana because candidate remarks about rape and abortion turned off female voters.  No, the problem is not the candidate, the message, or the messenger, it is simply we did not move far enough to the right or that we need to repackage the same ideas in a new way.
    Anger.  We just cannot live a country with Obama as president so we need to succeed from the union, so says those folks deep in the heart of Texas.  Similarly conservatives and Republicans are lashing out against the biased media, lying liberals, and thuggish unions, all to blame for their losses. But as if anger and blame were not spread around far enough, turn inward.  Blame moderates such as Romney, Christ Christie for doing his job in New Jersey, or Clint Eastwood for talking to an empty chair for squandering the chance to win.
    Bargaining.  The president wins, we lose. Democrats gain seats in Senate and House and Minnesota turns true blue in the legislature.  What shall we do?  Stand our ground and force Obama and the Democrats to bargain.  John Boehner claims a mandate and says maybe we shall compromise, but we refuse to raise income taxes, we refuse to make the wealthy carry their fair share, we refuse to give to avoid the fiscal cliff.  Best of all, Mary Kiffmeyer, after refusing to negotiate with the governor and the DFL on voter ID, now generously tells both that she willing to compromise on it.
    Depression.  Oh to have the Prozac concession for Fox News, AM talk radio, and in most of the south.  Depression rings across the red parts of the United States now.  The despondence of having lost a presidential race that should have been won, a US Senate ripe for the picking, or realization  that Obama gets probably to pick several Supreme Court Justices or that same-sex marriage as a legal reality is near is enough to make any Conservative Republican depressed.  How can one live four more years with a president whose middle name is Hussein, who is probably not a US citizen, and no doubt Muslim.
    Testing.  But just maybe there is a way to go on.  Maybe there is a way to let taxes go up without raising taxes.  Perhaps it is by letting the Bush era tax cuts expire and then vote for a tax cut for the middle class.  That’s not raising taxes is it?  Or perhaps eliminate tax loopholes or raise the rates on capital gains.  That’s not raising taxes is it?
    Acceptance.  Ok, so Obama did win and the Democrats did take control of the Minnesota legislature.  But the midterm elections are less than two years away and the next presidential race barely four.  Maybe there is a way to survive, maybe we can obstruct some more, hold on to some old outdated ideas on gay rights and immigration, or maybe Obama and the Democrats will overreach.  Yes we lost, but perhaps there is a silver lining.  It will be purity of message and candidate in 2014 and 2016.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fear and Panic, Minnesota Republican Style

    Fear and panic may be the words for now to express how Republicans, conservatives, and business leaders such as Charlie Weaver view the coming 2013 Minnesota legislative session.  The fear and panic is that with the DFL having control of the legislature and all of the constitutional offices, businesses and the affluent will face higher taxes, the economy will go to ruin, and the Chamber of Commerce will not be able to pursue objectives such as restructuring teacher tenure,   public sector pensions, or state government in general.

Have no fear though, it is unlikely that the DFL control will live up to your anxieties for many reasons.

First, this is not the DFL Party of Humphrey, Mondale, Freeman, and Wellstone.  This is a DFL party headed by a pro-business governor and a party firmly rooted in the Twin Cities suburbs such as Edina. These districts are business-orientated and affluent and it is unlikely that DFLers from areas such as Edina will stray far to the left.  Democrats elected in these suburbs are not liberals, they won tight races in swing districts and any serious move to the left will cost them their seats and possibly a House majority in 2014.

Second, were the DFL majority moving to the left it would have made John Marty chair of Health and Human Services.  Marty, who supports a single-payer health insurance program, has the seniority to receive this chair but was passed over for this position.  Don’t look to see the DFL push real progressive positions.

Third, a DFL governor and coalition already demonstrated this year its pro-business attitude when it gave the Vikings and the business community a new stadium.

Fourth, the business community has already overreached and many of its goals are beyond what they should be addressing.  Issues such as teacher tenure are beyond what the business community should worry about, especially if it concerned about the quality of K-12.  If the latter is the issue, then lobby for early-childhood education, fully funding K-12, addressing racial disparities in schools, and providing teachers, parents, and students with the support they need for kids to succeed. 

Finally, live in reality.  Consider the last time the DFL controlled the governor’s office and both houses of the Minnesota legislature.  It was from 1987 to 1990 when Rudy Perpich was governor.  Wanting to make Minnesota the brainpower state, the governor pushed for reforms in K-12 that helped make sure the state’s schools were among the best in the country and students tested at or near the top in national performances.  It was a time when Minnesotans and businesses were among the highest taxed in the country, and also a time when Minnesota had one of the highest median family incomes in the nation, lowest crime and incarceration rates, and a high concentration of Fortune 500 companies.

Additionally, consider the unemployment rate during those four years.  While the national average was 5.7%, in Minnesota it was 4.7%.  Compare that to October, 2012, with a Minnesota unemployment rate of 5.8%.

Unemployment Rates
Year            USA        MN
1987            6.2        5.1
1988             5.5        4.3
1989             5.3        4.4
1990             5.6        4.8
4 yr Avg        5.7        4.7

Oct 2012         7.9        5.8

Perpich opened up the International Trade Center in St Paul, and under him and the DFL control of the legislature, Dayton-Hudson Corporation (now Target) was able to pressure them to hold a special session in 1987 to change Minnesota corporate law to prevent them from being taken over by Dart Corporation.

The point?  Minnesota and its businesses did not do so badly under the last time when the state was under DFL control.  Now, 23 years later, a more moderate and business-friendly DFL is in charge.  The evidence does not support the panic and fear the business community has and, in fact, it may find a supportive party willing to accommodate them in many situations.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

After the revolution? Recommendations for the Minnesota DFL

Note:  This blog originally appeared in Politics in Minnesota on November 15, 2012.  Please consider subscribing to that publication for news on state politics.

You say you want a revolution?  Well it was not quite that, but November 6, gave Democrats control of the Minnesota legislature and governorship for the first time since 1990.  In fact they occupy all the constitutional offices. Dayton can move his agenda and the DFL can push its priorities.  But less one think that it is now Christmas time for the DFL, there should be some caution in the moves that the Democrats take.
    Yes, the DFL should move an agenda that is Democrat.  Single-payer health insurance, legalizing single-sex marriage,  and commitments to education should guide what the DFL do.  But the political revolution is less than meets the eye.  It is less a mandate for the DFL than it was a rejection of the Republicans.  Republicans overreached.  Kurt Zellers and the Republicans promised that it would simply be jobs and the economy and they failed.  They failed first to get the state’s fiscal house in order.  Yes Republicans claim they balanced the state budget without taxes increases but that is wrong. To “balance” the budget they borrowed approximately  two billion dollars from K-12 and another $700 million from the tobacco endowment.  All this was one time revenue that must be repaid.  The budget deal did nothing to solve a structural deficit problem and the State walks into the 2013 with a yet to be determined real deficit of several billion dollars. Moreover, the balance they claim came with a government shutdown and a loss of the state’s triple A rating.
    But beyond failing at jobs and the economy, the Republicans overreached.  They debated social issues and placed a Marriage Amendment on the ballot.  They sought to rig elections  in the future with a voter Id amendment.  They also debated amendments on abortion, right-work laws similar to those enacted in Wisconsin, and taxes.  The Republicans, hungry for power, saw their legislative majorities as the opportunity to pander to every one of their constituencies and enact every crackpot idea their supporters had.  They foolishly thought 2010 was a mandate when it was simply a rejection of Democrats.  The Republicans sought to take over the state for their own interest, not to govern or lead it for all of us.  And they paid the price on November 6.  Everyone can see this except for the outgoing Republican leadership who are still in denial about the election and their bad performance.
    The Democrats need to avoid the same mistake. They need to lead and govern and not pander.  They too will have pent up demand for many groups wanting it to be their turn now.  The first advice is that Democrats must prove that they can be trusted with the taxpayer’s money.  They must show they are better at handling the state’s finances and economy than were the Republicans.  Given the last biennium, this is a low bar.  But this is the time for the DFL to do the budget right, make the tough choices, and really clean up the budget without any shifts or gimmicks that have been the norm for over a decade.  What might this include?
    The first order of business is developing a honest budget process.  Repeal the foolish 2002 law that counts inflation for the purposes of revenue but not obligations.  Additionally, ban shifts and other short term or one time revenue fixes.  These gimmicks hide the real structural deficit in Minnesota which is probably in excess of $4 billion.   Part of creating a honest budget process may go so far as completely reforming it from scratch.  Change the timing when the fiscal forecasts are issued so that budget work can start sooner. Set earlier committee deadlines or fiscal targets.  Follow the practice of Wisconsin and create a joint legislative committee to do the budget.  Or even change the budget from even to odd years to give legislators one year to learn their job before doing the budget.  Right now we have too many rookies doing a major fiscal job in ignorance.
    But other budget fixes could also include creating an automatic continuing resolution that keeps the current budget in place if no agreement is reached.  This is what they do in Wisconsin and it will avert future government shutdowns.  But reform to the governor’s unallotment authority is also needed to prevent future power grabs as seen under Pawlenty. Fiscal reform also means paying back the money to K-12 and on the tobacco endowment.  If the Democrats can do all this, they have accomplished a lot.
    But all this structural reform requires real budget choices too, while at the same time advancing DFL priorities that serve the interests of Minnesota. Governor  Rudy Perpich got it right when he said it wanted Minnesota to be the brainpower state.  He wanted Minnesotans to be the best educated state in the country.  There are powerful correlations between education and economic development.  The single best investment a state can make is in education.  Thus, repaying money owed to K-12 makes sense, but it is not a blank check.  Minnesota has horrible racial disparities in terms of graduation and learning outcomes.  The racial disparity overlaps with class and poverty.  Better education is not simply about class size, it is making sure that students come to school prepared to learn.  This means healthy, clothed, and well-fed.  Attend to the social service side of education.  Attend also to funding early-childhood education and give students the head start they need.
    But do not ignore workforce training for adults.  The State needs better partnerships with business and higher education and community colleges to make it affordable for people already in the workforce to get new or additional training. Here is where adjustments to the Minnesota tax code make sense.
    Minnesota also has an aging infrastructure.  We already wasted money on a Vikings stadium that could have been better spent on roads and bridges.  Do bonding to alleviate the increased congestion in the Twin Cities making commutes increasingly time consuming and commerce difficult.  But bonding to improve the internet infrastructure in greater Minnesota is also essential.  Level the playing field between brick businesses in Minnesota and Internet businesses by passing the bill that was debated last session.
    What else should the DFL consider? It is inevitable that the wealth should pay more in taxes to fund the state.  There is little empirical evidence that such taxes will hurt or deter job growth, and a lot of evidence that they are in the best position to help foot the bill for many amenities from which they benefit.  The DFL should also move forward to fully implement the Affordable Care Act and perhaps even other reforms to provide more health care for all in Minnesota. 
    The advice for Democrats is thus simple: Do not confuse Republican rejection with Democrat mandate.  Don’t overreach, attend to the economy and budget first, remember your principles, and use them to build a foundation for other changes once broad support has emerged.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Beyond Citizens United: Fixing the American elections system

Note:  Today's blog originally appeared in Minnpost on November13, 2012.

In post-election statements, both Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep.-elect Rick Nolan called for campaign finance reform. They singled out the role of big money and negative ads in campaigns, demanding among other things, an overturning of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Campaign-finance reform is needed, but the American election system is broken, demanding even broader changes beyond reversing Citizens United. These changes extend to the role of money in politics, voting, and the quality of political debate and information.

Money and politics

Citizens United is one of many Supreme Court decisions that try to define the role of money and speech in American elections. Concern that money corrupts the political process goes back to the 19th century. Beginning in 1907 with the Tillman Act, federal law made it illegal for corporations to make direct political contributions to candidates for federal office. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act did the same for labor unions.

Many states have similar laws. The concern, especially with corporations, as Chief Justice Rehnquist once stated in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978) is that the government might reasonably fear that a  "corporation would use its economic power to obtain further benefits beyond those already bestowed."  The task is now to prevent the conversion of resources amassed in the economic marketplace from corrupting the political marketplace.

What Citizens United actually did was to say that corporations (and unions) have a First Amendment right to make direct expenditures from their treasuries to make independent expenditures to advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate for office. The decision did not overturn the ban on direct contributions to candidates, but it overturned laws  that made it illegal for corporations to spend money independently to support a candidate for office.

Is Citizens United responsible for the $6-8 billion election cycle spending that just concluded? Yes and no. Prior to Citizens United, corporations already had lots of ways of getting around the law. They could do issue ads that attacked candidates but did not expressly urge their election or defeat. They could set up political action committees. They could fund get-out-the-vote, voter-registration, and voter-education programs. Individual corporate officers could give money. There were many ways around the law.

Citizens United did not necessarily mean that more money would go into elections; instead it meant that money would enter in different ways and with less transparency. Given that it was illegal for corporations to make express advocacy independent expenditures before Citizens United, when the Supreme Court declared that ban unconstitutional there were no laws in place to force corporate disclosure.  The intensity and closeness of the 2012 elections probably explains how much money was spent; Citizens United tells us about why, in part, we do not know who spent it.

In addition the Citizens United decision was built upon in a 2010 Court of Appeals decision, v. Federal Election Commission, that allowed for the creation of Super PACS that could accept unlimited political donations from corporations, unions and individuals to engage in independent expenditure express advocacy. With limited disclosure and often innocuous sounding names, these groups provided another outlet for money.

Finally, the transparency problem with money was exacerbated in 2012  by the misuse and hijacking of nonprofits. Basically, there are two types of nonprofits under the federal tax code. Entities classified as 501(c)(3)s are prohibited from engaging in partisan politics as a condition of donations to them being tax deductible. But contributions to nonprofits classified as 501(c)(4)s are not tax deductible, and they may engage in partisan politics  and endorse candidates for office so long as that political activity is not a major purpose of their activity.

There is extremely limited disclosure required on nonprofits in terms of donors, and there are no contribution limits to them. Corporations and wealthy donors used them as laundering mechanisms to escape disclosure requirements.

So what could be done on campaign finance? More disclosure is needed and efforts to pass the Disclose Act to force that is a first step. But partisan opposition to it in Congress has prevented that. Overturn Citizens United? That requires a constitutional amendment and that means two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate and ratification of three-fourths of the states. Little chance there. The Supreme Court could reverse itself, but unless President Obama can replace a conservative Supreme Court Justice, that option, too, looks unlikely.

Yet President Obama could act on his own to mitigate some of the problem. He could issue a procurement rule barring corporations from making express advocacy independent expenditures  above a certain dollar amount as a condition of bidding on federal contracts.  Here the issue is about conflict of interest.

Additionally, he could direct the Securities and Exchange Commission to engage in rule-making to require shareholder assent before expending money for political purposes. The issue here is protecting the First Amendment rights of shareholders not to have their money spent for political causes they do not support.  This rule would parallel those already found with unions and their members.

Third, Congress could change the tax code to require more disclosure for nonprofits that use money for political purposes. The president alone might also be able to direct the IRS to do that.


The defeat of the voter ID amendment is a rare victory in the battle to fight the second great wave of disenfranchisement in American history. The first wave was after the Civil War and when  Reconstruction ended. It ushered in the Jim Crow era and a 100-year effort to prevent African-Americans from voting.

Voter ID, based on the erroneous claim of widespread voter fraud, is one part of this disenfranchisement. Across the United States in the last few years many states have enacted voter ID and other laws such as cutting back on early voting and restricting voter registration  drives. Pre-election voting-rights litigation was significant in 2012. The United States effectively has 50 different state laws regarding voting. Were it not that Obama won the 2012 presidential race so decisively, problems this year in Florida would be holding up the election results yet again.

One solution is to use federal voting rules and procedures. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to regulate federal elections. Congress could construct rules regarding voter eligibility, ban voter ID, allow for early voting, or whatever else it wants to do. Uniformity and fairness across states in elections too.

Political speech and rhetoric

The final critique is that political campaigns have become too negative and nasty. Maybe. They are tame by comparison to the 19th century. But there are limits regarding what can be done to regulate political speech.  The Supreme Court correctly in its 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan gave broad First Amendment protection to speech that criticizes public officials and candidates. A free society should encourage robust political debate, and it should be the people and  not judges or government officials who decide what is true. Moreover, attack ads will continue to be used so long as they are effective and voters respond to them.

The bigger problem now is that voters have developed partisan choices when it comes to the consumption of news. The world is increasingly divided between FOX and MSNBC. It seems all of us want our own truth now. The rise of the new and social media has done little to encourage voters to seek out alternative information.

One solution to this would be to reinstate the fairness doctrine and vigorously enforce the equal time doctrine, requiring television and radio to offer opposing viewpoints. The public has a First Amendment right to a diversity of viewpoints and broadcasters, as a condition of holding a license, should be required to honor this.

Overall, Klobuchar and Nolan are correct that the American elections system is a mess.  But the causes are varied and the fixes more complex than they realize.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Now What? Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage in Minnesota

    The Marriage amendment was defeated and Democrats took control of both houses of the Minnesota legislature and also control all the executive branch constitutional offices.  Advocates of same-sex marriage say the time is now and that the DFL should not simply repeal the Minnesota  Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) but move directly to legalize same-sex marriage.  Should that be at the top of DFL agenda come January?  Reasons bode in favor and against this choice.

The cause is worthy.  This is a major civil rights issue not a political question.  As Vice President Dick Cheney said:  “Freedom means freedom for everyone.”  It is wrong and impossible to say to one group: “Wait, Wait, the time is not right.”  But the fact is, the next move on same-sex marriage in Minnesota may be more complex.

Strike while the iron is hot and the momentum strong, according to GLBT activists.  Momentum is important.  It might also be that the time to act is now, that this is an issue that is the right thing to do even if it means losing the majority in the House in two years.  Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights bill fully cognizant, as he said, that it would cost the Democrats the South.  He signed it and it did.  Maybe the DFL should demonstrate the same courage.  That is a reasonable position to take and maybe worth it.

But voter rejection of the Marriage Amendment does not necessarily mean majority support for same-sex marriage.  Lots of people voted against the amendment for lots of reasons and not all for the reason that they supported the rights of same-sex couples to marry.  Some thought the amendment route was wrong or that it was not needed because of DOMA and a court decision in Minnesota making it illegal for same-sex couples to marry. Yes it is the case that the right to marry should not be contingent upon majority assent. But it is not clear the public supports this next step yet.  It is also not clear the DFL have the votes to secure legalization.  It is also the case that election of a DFL majority in the legislature was more of a rejection of the Republicans than support for the Democrats.  Cautious minds might bode against this strategy for fear of backlash or overreach.

But even if the votes are not there now, begin the battle.  Introduce the legislation and work on public opinion.  So many times the rule at the capitol is that laws do not pass the first year.  Again a reasonable strategy.

So what should the DFL do?   There are four options.

Option one is seek GOP support for legalization and only pursue with their support.  The GOP nationally and in MN are in bad shape, out of touch demographically and  way behind the times in support from young people because of gay rights and same-sex marriage.  Follow the path of New York State and move for bipartisan support.  Let Republicans join in sponsoring the bill.

Option two is to legalize same-sex marriage in all but name.  Pass domestic partner legislation regardless of sexual orientation or marital status.  This is not marriage rights but it grants benefits  to couples even if they choose not to marry.  This approach might be more acceptable to many Republicans, but not necessarily to marriage equality advocates.  This is a half-way step that  perhaps builds momentum for full marriage equality.  Conversely, for some this is government getting o ut of the marriage game altogether and maybe that is a viable route.

Option three is wait for the US Supreme Court.  It will been soon–perhaps sooner than many think–that it will strike down bans on same-sex marriage under the US Constitution.  I have argued for two years that Justice Kennedy will do that in a 5-4 vote before he leaves the Court.  Or maybe he or another conservative justice will retire under Obama’s presidency and provide the fifth vote for this.

Option four is do nothing.  This sounds cautious but Obama paid a price with young people in not moving vigorously on gay rights.  If the DFL does nothing it too risks backlash within its own party and among supporters.

All four options carry risks and the DFL cannot avoid making a choice.

Final thoughts on the Amendments:  Supports of the two constitutional amendments got everything they wanted but still lost.  They said they wanted the people to decide and they did.  They got their preferred wording (title and description)  on the Amendments and they lost.  Now the claim is that  there were lies and disinformation by opponents.   The reality is that they lost in the marketplace of ideas.

Announcement:  Since 1999 I have been a professor at Hamline University in the School of Business teaching graduate students.  I am pleased to announce that beginning in the fall 2013 I will be moving to the Hamline University Department of Political Science where I will be again teaching undergraduate students.  I have enjoyed my time in the School  of Business but it will be exciting to be back in political science working with undergraduates again.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A mandate or a rejection? Lessons from the 2012 elections

 Today's post appeared as a guest commentary on November 7, 2012 in Minnpost.

For a year that was not supposed to be theirs, the Democrats appeared to do well across the country and in Minnesota. But while the Democrats may conclude that it was a mandate for them, it is possible that their success was more a rejection of the Republicans. The election returns thus provide important lessons for both of the parties both across the country and in Minnesota.

At the presidential level, President Barack Obama scored a decisive Electoral College victory but a narrow popular-vote win (50%-48%, according to the New York Times). His margin was far less than in 2008, and the total number of votes he received in 2012 was 60 million compared to 69.5 million. Not the numbers of a mandate.

In so many ways this was a campaign he should have lost. Obama had economic numbers that doom most presidents, the public did not like his handling of the economy, and Obama never articulated the case for why he deserved four more years.  All this Mitt Romney seized on in his campaign. But Obama won because the public never really liked Romney as a person, he never connected with the average voter, and he, too, lacked a compelling narrative for why he should  be president. In too many ways, the rival arguments for Obama and Romney as to why they should be president came down to “I am not the other guy.”

Moreover, Romney proved to be a horrible campaigner. In the end he only won one swing state. Obama out-organized Romney and used better math and tracking to locate voters. One of the major stories in 2012 is that the polls called it exactly correct nationally and across the states. Republicans were in constant denial about the polls but they were wrong. Moving forward they need better field operations and campaign information.

The soul searching for the Republican Party thus begins again, much like four years ago.  In 2008 the conclusion was that McCain was not conservative enough, so in 2012 the GOP base – now dominated by Tea Party activists – toyed with Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum before settling on a candidate who did not enthuse them or the American public.

Romney: a caretaker candidate

Romney was a caretaker candidate en route to the 2016 elections. The Republicans are an old, white, Christian, anti-gay and anti-immigrant party out of touch with the changing American demographics. But instead of dealing with that they will move further to the right, making Paul Ryan the obvious frontrunner for 2016. He was one of the few Republican winners.

The congressional elections represented lost opportunities for Republicans. There were 33 Senate races with 23 seats held by Democrats. Republicans lost Senate races in Missouri and Indiana that they should not have. They did it by nominating candidates so out of touch with mainstream America, or with retreads such as Tommy Thompson, that even weak Democrats won.

The Senate also witnessed the loss of some moderates such as Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe. The result is a more polarized Senate with more conservative  Republicans. Democrats still have control, again by default. Finally, the House represents little change from the existing one, with no party taking comfort that they achieved a real victory. More gridlock is the message, along with the reality that the 2014 elections are now less than two years away.

The most interesting of surprises: Minnesota

Minnesota turned out to be the most interesting of all surprises. The Republicans were routed. They had won surprise control over the Legislature in 2010 with talk of jobs and the economy. They failed to deliver on it, and balanced a budget with gimmicks and a government shutdown. They overreached with social issues and pushed an elections amendment and marriage amendment. Both amendments represented a go-for-broke strategy to change the Constitution permanently, and the public rejected the amendments along with the Republicans.

It is possible that this overreach cost Chip Cravaack his seat and almost unseated Michele Bachmann. Bachmann should have won big in a tailor-made district for her, coupled with her money and name recognition advantage. It is doubtful she will be chastened by her narrow escape, but she certainly is a weaker leader for the Tea Party and less a 2014 Senate threat to Sen. Al Franken than before.

Republicans have handed to the DFL the keys to the Minnesota government.  Democrats control all the constitutional offices, including the governor and the Legislature. This is the first unified party control since 1990. Dayton can potentially move his agenda finally, but the Democrats  should heed the lessons of the Republicans in that they need to be cautious about claims of mandates. They may have won simply because the Republicans were inept and awkward, embracing issues that fail to appeal to mainstream and centrist Minnesotans.

The mandate is not here for Democrats. Nor is there a mandate for the Republicans. Neither should assume that the election returns mean the public is happy with them.  The public still wants a change, but perhaps not the type that either party wants to consider for themselves.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Day After the Election: Excuses

Come the day after the election there is a fantasy many of us have that the losing side  in the presidential race will tell the winning side that it was a hard fought and close campaign but that the winner won fair and square.  Unfortunately that will not occur, especially in light of all the pre-election litigation and legal posturing.

Assuming Obama wins, I suspect the argument Republicans make is that the election stolen.  Assume Obama wins close races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Republicans claim that were it not for a court suspending or invalidating voter ID in those states Romney would have won.  Obama’s victory was a product of fraud.  In Ohio the message will be that the courts allowed too many provisional ballots and therefore fraud occurred, and in Florida they will argue that relaxation of some of the restrictions on voter registration and early voting will be the cause of ineligibles voting.  A few will also point to how mediocre a candidate Romney was, but the big issue will be fraud.

Conversely, on the slight chance that Romney wins, the cry will be that voter suppression across these states is the reason for the loss. A few will point to how mediocre a candidate Obama was, but the big issue will be voter suppression.

I am suspecting these talking points are already being cued up by members of this listserv and the two parties in anticipation of efforts to justify litigation, delegitimize the winner, and prepare us for the fact that on November 7, we will be less than two years away from the next elections.

Tocqueville got it right: “There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.  Consequently the language of everyday party-political controversy has to be borrowed from legal phraseology and conceptions.”

Election 2012: Politics in the Age of Division (And final predictions)

    Note:  This blog is based on my November 2, 2012 talk to the Minneapolis Rotary Club.  I have spoken to them many times in the past and they have always been a warm and gracious club to address.

     The polls perhaps say it all.  We have a closely divided race nationally for the presidential race.  In fact, go back six months ago and Obama and Romney were essentially tied at about the same place they are now.  Except for one month between the Democrat National Convention and a period after the first debate, the polls have been stable, revealing a stable yet clearly split electorate.
    I see other signs of division in the scores of individuals who come up to me and express fear that the country faces ruin if Obama is elected, or is it Romney?  The political ads make it seem like the end of the world or Armageddon is near. Facebook postings seem almost like rants and raves and if you are like me, I have seen one too many posts about politics or candidates that border on the lunatic, referencing or posting information whose veracity is at best questionable.
    People ask me if this is the most divided politics has ever been. No, think Civil War.  Additionally, the 19th century was meaner.  We often look at the past through halcyonic or rose-colored glasses thinking the past was more kind and gentle than it is now.   But despite that, politics does seem more divided, nasty and conflicted than in recent memory. Why?  Several factors point to the divide that we see this year and this division has implications for the election.

The transformation of American party politics.  The is some truth about a red and blue America and it starts with the change in traditional party structures.  American political parties used to be more coalitional and regional than they are now.  Parties were more likely to be mixed ideologically.  When I grew up in New in the 1960s my governor was Republican Nelson Rockefeller.  One Senator was Republican Jacob Javits, the other was Democrat Bobby Kennedy.  The lost liberal?  Javits.  The most conservative, Kennedy. 
    The Democrat and Republican parties had liberals, moderates, and conservatives in them.  Minnesota once had a pro-choice republican Governor in Arne Carlson and a pro-life DFL governor in Rudy Perpich.  Neither of those individuals could secure their party nomination today.   The two main parties in Minnesota and across the country have become more ideological and national, much more like European style political parties.  We see a disappearance of moderates in the two parties.  There is a rise of straight party line votes in the Congress, and a rise of straight party line votes in the MN legislature.  Both parties have moved to the right, the Republicans more so.  They have moved from the party of Eisenhower to that of Rockefeller, Nixon, Reagan, and now the Tea Party.  There are no more Hubert Humphreys and Paul Wellstones in the Democrat Party.  As a result, the two parties are further to the right and further apart than ever.

Party Membership and generational divide.  The Democrats and Republicans are a tale of two parties The GOP are older, whiter, male, more Christian, and part of the Silent generation along with some older Boomers.  They vote against gay marriage, abortion, immigration, and favor smaller government.  The Democrats are younger, more female,  less white, less Christian, and they represent the  Millennials and Gen Xers. They favor gay rights, choice, immigration and diversity, and more government.  The two parties represent two generations and world views, and party of the intensity right now is a demographic contest witnessing the passing of power from one generation to another.  It also represents a racial polarization the greatest since 1988, and an identity shift as America moves from a White Christian nation to something else.

Political Geography.  Politics and geography now overlay and intersect.  It is not just red and blue states but red and blue neighborhoods.   There is a political sorting of living space by geography.  We increasingly have Democrat and Republican neighborhoods.  We are divided politically by rural and urban.  The result is a decline in the number of real marginal or swing districts and such a problem is only accentuated by redistricting in some states (or conversely, even the best redistricting cannot overcome the political sorting we are experiencing).  There are only 50 or so competitive seats in Congress, and 25 or so competitive seats in MN Legislature.  The remainder are certainties for either of the two major parties.  Partisan districts create less incentive to compromise, reinforcing  polarization.

Evidence of political polarization by public.   The public is polarized.  In Minnesota support for the marriage and elections amendments divides almost perfectly by party.  Two sides have their own versions of truth.  But the division goes to our consumption habits .  Each party has its own network to watch–MSNBC and Fox News–giving each side its own version of the truth.  The produces we consume reveal our political preferences.  Our geography reveal our political preferences.  Thus, combine target marketing data, GPS, and politics and we see in 2012 the use of very specific marketing to seel candidates. 

Implications for 2012
Overall, the polarization, if not as great or significant as the Civil War, is still significant.  How does it affect the 2012 presidential?  First, the choice of Obama and Romney is not great and neither seems to have a clue about what to do with the economy.  But the polarization makes it impossible for third party candidates such as Gary Johnson and Jill Stein to gain any attention or momentum.  Fear of voting for one’s hopes and it electing one’s last choice dooms alternative politics.

Having said that, for months the race for the presidency was simply a set of three numbers: 10/10/270.  Ten percent of the voters (the undecideds)  in ten states would determine who gets 270 electoral votes and win the presidency.  Now the race is 5/7/270.  Five percent of the voters in seven states will decide who wins the presidency.

The original ten swing states were:
New Hampshire
North Carolina

In those 10 swing states, the Associated Press has argued that it is up to about 106 battle ground counties. How many voters are we talking about that might influence the election of president?
Assume 5% undecided in those ten swing states and the number is 1,835,599 voters.
Assume 8% undecided voters in those ten swing states and the number is 2,936,958 voters.

Now assume North Carolina and Nevada are no longer swinging, we have eight swing states.  In the remaining swing states on average 4.9% undecided according to polls in Real Clear Politics on October 25.  My estimate then is that between 1.500,000 and 1.835.599 voters will decide the election, with the focus being on about 11 counties across the country where the battles are really taking place.  These counties in my estimate are:

Arapahoe County, Colorado
Bremer County, Iowa (Waverly)
Chester County, PA  (some have told me this is not swinging this year, though).
Hamilton County, Ohio
Hillsborough County, NH
Hillsborough County, FL (Tampa)
Jefferson County, Colorado
Pinellas County, FL
Prince William County, Virginia
Racine County, WI
Winnebago County, WI

Finally, now assume in 2012 that the estimated eligible voter population is 222,000,000.  In 2010 it was 217,000,000, and in 2008 it was approximately 212,000,000 with about a 63% (131 million voters) turnout.  Assume again about 63% voter turnout this year due to high interest and intensity in the race.   The average of 1.500,000 and 1.835.599 voters (total number of undeceived swing voters in the swing states) is approximately 1,650,000.  Divide that number by the estimated eligible voting population in 2012 (222,000,000) and this means that approximately 0.74% of the eligible voting population will decide the presidential election.

In fact, if I wanted to pick one county where the race for the presidency comes down to, it is look to what happens in Hamilton County, Ohio.  Whoever wins it wins Ohio and then the presidency.  This shows the polarization we face in this country when such a small number decides who wins.

Final Predictions
Presidency:  Back in March I said Obama would win with 272 electoral votes. He still wins but with 290-305 electoral votes.  He also will get around 50.5% of the popular vote.

US Senate: Democrats retain control with 51 seats.
US House: Republicans retain control but with a slightly narrower margin.

Minnesota Congressional Delegation: No change.  Nolan and Cravaack is too close to call but a slight nod to the incumbent.

Minnesota House: DFL or GOP control by one seat for either and a real chance of 67-67.
Minnesota Senate: Republicans retain close control.

Marriage and Elections Amendments: Both pass.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Amending the Minnesota Constitution

Hi all:

On Thursday, November 1, 2012,  I presented  a talk at Central Lakes College, in Brainard, Minnesota entitled "Amending the Minnesota Constitution."  I prepared a Powerpoint presentation on the history of the amending the Minnesota Constitution that also included a discussion of the two amendments on the ballot this fall.  I upload the Powerpoint presentation to my web page and you can find it there.  At my Web page scroll down on the left until  you get to the section entitled "Amending the Minnesota Constitution."  Here  you will find and can download my presentation.   Feel free to share.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Road to the White House: How Obama could lose it

From a political science perspective Obama is strategically positioned to win the presidency on November 6.  If all the polls are correct Obama has well positioned himself to win the critical 270 Electoral Votes to win the presidency, even if he were to lose the popular vote.  This split in the Electoral Vote and popular vote is a real possibility, but there are so many signs pointing to an Obama victory. He has a better ground game than Romney, he has registered more voters, delivered more early voters to the polls.  He has the demographic advantage with women and people of color.  All of this points to an Obama victory.

Yet for months I have said that Obama should not even be in this race.  The economy should have doomed him already.  Unemployment has ticked down, the GDP is up slightly, durable goods sales are better as is true also with home sales.  But unemployment is still high and past history suggests presidency almost always lose with numbers like this.  If this coming jobs report is bad–or at least spun as bad–Obama is in real trouble because he will not be able to explain away the economy over the last weekend where the news will key in on that.

Additionally, Obama’s major failure all along has been the missing narrative.  Obama has not had a rationale for reelection since at least back to 2010.  The Democrats were trounced in 2010 because they lacked a narrative and even today Obama too still lacks one.  “Forward” is meaningless.  Presidents needs to make the case for why they deserve four more years and Romney has correctly hammered Obama for a failure to articulate a vision for the future.

 A weak economy and no vision–this is a recipe to lose.  All that has kept Obama in the race is that Romney is a weak candidate.  The mistake of the first debate was that Obama made Romney look like a viable alternative.

But there is something else going on right now that is less political science and more intuition and observational.  Obama does have a lead in the critical swing states but that support may be soft and eroding.

Consider for example the October 28, 2012 Star Tribune poll that gives Obama merely a three point lead in the state.   Minnesota should never be a swing state and if it is Obama is in danger.  There are some reasons to thing the poll is accurate.  The Democratic-Republican makeup of the poll is 38%-33%, just about what I think it is in the state.  This should be cause for Obama to worry.  But the land line-cellphone split of 80%-20% probably under samples those who would support Obama.  And the news of the president consolidating support among independents also suggests that the president is doing well in the state.  Yet in a state where the Marriage amendment might pass, many if not most of those who support it might also vote for Romney, Obama might want to consider one more visit to the state before election day.

But nationally there are also worries for Obama.  The Washington Post reports the largest racial divide in the electorate since 1988.  Obama should worry.  Political scientists Charles Tien, Richard Nadeau, and Michael Lewis-Beck concluded that Obama lost five percentage points of the popular vote due to his race.  This time around that see him losing about 3 points.  They may be wrong.  Many working class whites voted for Obama begrudgingly in 2008 because of the economy.  Obama has had a hard time sealing the deal with them this time around.  It is possible that at the last minute that do not go for him.   Here is also some evidence that the waitress moms–working class moms without college degrees, are not as strong supporters this time around and may waiver.

So much of Obama’s 2012 strategy (as I have noted before) is reminiscent of the 1980 Carter strategy to make Reagan look like a nut.  Yet in the last 96 hours of the election the race went from a tie to a Reagan blowout as millions of voters changed their minds.  Reagan’s “Are you better off” question resonated, as did the reality of the continued Iranian hostage crisis pointed to a presidency that appeared to  lack leadership.  Voters liked Reagan as a person and the disgust with the status quo was so powerful that they opted for change over status quo.

There is no Iranian hostage crisis today.  People like Obama better as a person.  Much early voting has taken place.  But there are still 5% undecided voters in the swing states.  Hurricane Sandy if badly handled by the president could further dent his leadership and competency image.  And the economy and race are still factors.

Pure political science suggests today an Obama victory.  Political intuition tempers that.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Minnesota's Constitutional Politics and the Tyranny of the Majority

 (Please note:  This blog is drawn from my comments at a October 26, 2012 conference at Hamline University sponsored by the Hamline University Law School that discussed the two constitutional amendments.)

The case against the Marriage and the Elections amendments can be made on many grounds.  But one argument often overlooked is that their proposal and perhaps adoption by the people represents what America’s constitutional framers feared most–the tyranny of the majority. 
    Consider the context that influenced the framing of the Constitution  in 1787.  On the one hand the framers feared strong central authority and power as exemplified by King George III.  Our American Declaration of Independence is literally an indictment of the king.  Conversely, events such as Shay’s rebellion 1786 instilled a fear of mob rule and the instability that accompanies it.  Thus, the writing of the Constitution set a task: Create a government powerful to maintain stability yet not too powerful to threaten individual liberty.
    This problem of politics is the subject of the Federalist Papers.  According to Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in Federalist 47 and 49, "all government rests on opinion" (Federalist, p. 329).  Public opinion is composed of the sentiments and passions of the majority of  people organized together for particular purposes.  Arguably the strength of popular government is that it rests upon public opinion, drawing its democratic impulse and authority from the consent of the government.   Yet, the weakness of republican government also rests upon public opinion. Alone, humans can be reasonable but not in crowds, at least this is the sentiment expressed in the Federalist.  Crowds and the crowd sociology turns individual thoughts into restless sentiment and passion.  Public opinion is both popular sentiment and popular sovereignty.  The sentiment of public opinion is the ruler in a popular democracy yet this sentiment is not firm but unstable, subject to frequent changes, and to fits of passion and excess.  But the real danger is how such public opinion can decay  and become destructive, degenerating into a faction.
    What is a faction for Madison and how do factions relate to speech and public opinion?  According to Madison:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority of minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Madison is saying four things about factions.  One, people join factions because of some common interest or, two, because of some common passion.  Three, factions can either be composed of a minority or a majority of the population.  However, while Madison is concerned about both types of faction, his real concern is with majority factions because the regular votes of the majority and the weakness of the minority will prevent the latter from being a real threat to others.  Finally, a faction is not defined as simply any band of people who share common impulses or interests.  Their association must be destructive of the rights of others or of the interests of the entire community.  The latter suggests that there is an identifiable common good that can be known and should be defended .  Individuals banding together, can do great things and pursue the public good, but they can also let their passions and interests run wild, thereby threatening the rights of others and the public good.
    Individuals have a propensity to band together for common base interests and desires and this pursuit of desires can constrain or distort the rights of others including the community.
    If a faction is simply a small portion of our society then the majority can outvote them. But what if a faction is composed of a majority, then what?   This is the question Madison asks and in Federalist 10 he states the core problem facing the framers: 

    When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.

The issue for the framers was how to preserve individual liberty and popular government from the threats of majority faction.  Phrased otherwise, the problem, as Alexis DeTocqueville would later ask, is how can the American republic deal with the threats of the tyranny of the majority?  Another way of stating it: How to balance majority rule with minority rights?  How does one allow for majority opinion to rule, as it should in a popular government, but not let it become destructive to minority rights?
    The constitutional solution is a complex combination of ways to break up political power and slow down the forces of political change.  It involves appeals to separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism bicameralism, and the enabling of a robust competitive political process to prevent anyone group from getting too powerful.   Bit is also included eventually in 1791 the adoption of a bill of rights.
    The Bill of Rights takes some issues out of politics.   As Justice Jackson eloquently stated in  West Virginia v. Barnette:

    The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.  One's right to . . . freedom of worship . . . and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

The essential problem for American democracy is balancing majority rule versus minority rights.  Majorities get there way on most issues, but not when it comes to minority rights.  And the problem with ballot measures such as the two constitutional amendments is there legacy in targeting minority rights.
    There is unfortunately an ugly side to American politics where fear and prejudice have prevailed.  The Salem witch trials, slavery, denying women the right to vote, the McCarthy era, and Stonewall.  Majorities do ugly things and the constitutional framers were correct that pure majority rule needs to be tempered by minority rights.
    Seldom do ballot measures and votes by majorities protect minority rights. Barbara S. Gamble’s “Putting Civil Rights to a Popular Vote,” 41 American Journal of Political Science 245 (1997) examined local and state ballot measures related to AIDS testing, gay rights, language, school desegregation, and housing/public accommodations desegregation), from 1960 to 1993. that Minorities almost always lose. In the eighty-two initiatives and referendums surveyed in this Article, majorities voted to repeal, limit, or prevent any minority gains in their civil rights over eighty percent of the time.
        Gamble also found that measures aimed at limiting the civil rights of minority groups were much more successful than other types of initiatives and referendums. She noted that a previous study of ballot measures between 1898 and 1978 found that only 33% of measures  succeeded.  Low passage rates change dramatically when it came to the  limitation of civil rights is the subject of the proposal.  In this case, 78%  of the 74 civil rights measures that she studied resulted in a defeat of minority interests.
    Gamble's findings are consistent with those of political scientists Haider-Markel and Meier. Mei-er and Haider-Markel's study on gay ballot initiatives found that 77% of those seeking to repeal the rights of lesbians and gays were successful in doing so, and in the 13 attempts to extend rights of gays and lesbians, 84% were unsuccessful.  Gays and lesbians, as well as other minority groups, lose when their rights go to the ballot box.
    What does all this mean?  Direct democracy and majoritarian politics inconsistent with the broader substantive values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights which the Framers understood.  They recognized the problems of the tyranny of the majority and the threat that the ballot box poses to individual liberty.  In the case of the marriage amendment, it singles out a specific group for a special disability, in ways that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in Romer v. Evans.  Gays and lesbians (and transgenders too) are the classic discrete and insular minority  that the Supreme Court speaks of in footnote four of United States v. Carolene Products.  Groups unable to defend themselves in the normal political process are those which the judiciary are supposed to protect against the tyranny of the majority.
    Moreover, Carolene Products also spoke of special judicial scrutiny in cases where legislation circumvents the normal political process and closes it down.  Normally we say that if you do not like a specific policy use the ballot box to change it.  The Elections amendment targets the political process, seeking to close down and make it more difficult to vote.  It and the Marriage amendment, by constitutionalizing these policies, aim to circumvent the normal legislative process and place political change beyond the reach of ordinary legislation.
    The opening three words of the Constitution are “We the people.”  Our nation is one that is supposed to be inclusive, respecting the rights of all to compete fairly and equally in the political process.  The tragedy of the Marriage and Elections amendments is how they undermine the promise of We the People and hoe they are inconsistent with the values that our Framers endorsed.