Opinion

The Great Debate

What America’s leftward shift means for elections

With each new poll, it’s becoming clear that the United States is shifting to the left. A majority of Americans now supports same-sex marriage.  And legalization of marijuana.  And normalization of relations with Cuba.

Gallup reports that, in 2013, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as liberals reached its highest level since 1992. True, it’s only 23 percent. Conservatives, at 38 percent, still outnumber liberals. But the trend has been slowly and steadily upward for liberals since 1996, when it was 16 percent.

This shift is due entirely to Democrats becoming more liberal — 29 percent of Democrats in 2000, 43 percent in 2013. At the same time, Democrats have won the national popular vote in five out of the six presidential elections since 1992 (all but 2004). Barack Obama won a majority of the popular vote twice — something Bill Clinton couldn’t do.

The New America has come to power. It’s a coalition of 10 Democratic constituencies that united to elect and re-elect Obama: young voters, working women, single mothers, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Jews, gays, educated professionals and the “unchurched” (the nearly one in five Americans who have no religious affiliation). Eight of those 10 constituencies — all but Jews and African-Americans — are growing as a percentage of the electorate.

Democrats now have the advantage in presidential elections. You can’t say Democrats have a lock on the presidency, however. There are too many other factors involved, like the state of the economy and the appeal of the candidates. But Democrats are well positioned to keep the White House.

Populism: The Democrats’ great divide

One day after President Barack Obama called for moving forward on trade authority in his State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared, “I am against fast track,” and said he had no intention of bringing it to a vote in the Senate.

Reid’s announcement came after 550 organizations, representing virtually the entire organized base of the Democratic Party outside of Wall Street, called on Congress to oppose fast track. Though obscured by the Democrats’ remarkable unity in drawing contrasts with the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress, the debate between an emerging populist wing of the Democratic Party and its still-dominant Wall Street wing is boiling.

For a constantly disputatious “big tent” party, Democrats are remarkably unified behind the jobs and inequality agenda the president ticked off in his State of the Union address — raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, paycheck fairness for women, paid family leave, investment in infrastructure, education and research and development, and an “all of the above” energy strategy. Republicans block action on all these relatively modest reforms, providing ammunition for Democrats in the November midterm elections.

Filling judicial vacancies to protect the progressive legacy

What could never happen, finally did.

For more than 30 years the Democratic Senate caucus feebly stood by as Republicans seized control of the federal courts. Now, however, faced with a GOP filibuster of nominees for three vacancies on the appeals court that could determine the fate of most of President Barack Obama’s initiatives, the Democrats have at last responded.

The Democratic Senate majority last month eliminated the 60-vote requirement to end filibusters against presidential nominees to the lower federal courts and the executive branch. With this, they blocked a key element of the GOP’s long-term strategy to overturn the progressive legislative and judicial advances of the past 50 years, and prevent new Democratic initiatives.

Five years into Obama’s tenure, Democratic judicial appointees are still barely even with the number of active Republican judges. There are 93 vacancies, including 37 judicial emergencies as of January 7, with 53 nominations pending. If Obama is to preserve President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy – as well as his own — against the many hostile judges now on the bench, he and the Senate will have to act quickly.

Troubled Ties: The Clintons and populism

What’s behind the sudden outburst of populism in the Democratic Party?

Partly the weak economic recovery. Most economic indicators have turned positive — economic growth is up, unemployment down, the housing market is in recovery. But ordinary Americans are not feeling it. In last month’s CNN poll, two thirds of Americans said the nation’s economy was poor. More than half expect it to remain poor a year from now.

People at the top of the income ladder have been raking in the money while wage growth for working Americans has stagnated. That’s a recipe for a populist explosion.

Remember the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that started in 2011 and spread across the country? Most pundits don’t believe it had any impact, especially compared with the Tea Party. They’re wrong. In a stroke of marketing genius, the Occupy movement introduced the phrase “1 Percent” into the nation’s political vocabulary. That’s what defeated the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney was Mr. 1 Percent.

2014: Another election about Obamacare

Here we go again.

2014 will be the third election in a row in which Obamacare is the central issue. The Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010, contributed to a fierce voter backlash against Democrats in November 2010. After the Supreme Court upheld the law in June 2012, the issue seemed to be settled by Obama’s re-election that November.

But no.

The botched Obamacare rollout this year has again thrust the issue to the top of the political agenda. Republicans are counting on opposition to Obamacare to propel them to a majority in the Senate next year. A conservative group is already running an ad attacking Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for supporting Obamacare: “Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don’t, you know what to do.”

2013 came to a close with two big political stories. The government shutdown in October was immensely damaging to Republicans. So damaging that House Republicans defied their conservative base and voted for a compromise budget deal last week. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attacked the Tea Party, accusing them of pushing congressional Republicans “into this fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government.” A fight Boehner said all along was unwinnable.

The Senate after filibuster reform

The Washington Post editorial page led the charge in denouncing the change in Senate filibuster rules engineered by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and 51 of his Democratic colleagues last Thursday. Many other media voices quickly followed suit.

Reid’s action to allow a simple majority of senators present and voting — not the longstanding 60 — to end debate and proceed to a vote on presidential nominations to executive and judicial offices (except the Supreme Court) has now been widely characterized as a radical step, certain to accelerate the poisonous partisanship in Congress. It will, critics insist, grievously damage the Senate’s comparative advantage over the House of Representatives in fostering bipartisan negotiation and compromise.

The procedure Reid used — setting a new cloture precedent with a simple majority despite a Senate rule requiring a two-thirds majority to change Senate rules — was gutsy. Yet this method has been long available to the Senate. It was even proposed by Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist in 2005 and occasionally used to make minor changes in the filibuster.

What Democrats have going for them? Republicans

Democrats had one thing going for them in the election this week: Republicans. That kept President Barack Obama’s party from faring much worse.

Dissatisfaction with the economy is still very high. In the network exit polls, more than 80 percent of Virginia and New Jersey voters said they were worried about the nation’s economy over the next year.

The economy was the top issue in both states. New Jersey voters concerned about the economy voted 2 to 1 for Republican Governor Chris Christie — even though he was the incumbent. It isn’t his economy. It’s Obama’s economy. That’s the new rule in American politics: All politics is national.

Post-Partisan: Fixing our ideological divide

As Americans examine the astounding dysfunction of their government, gerrymandering is usually cited as the prime culprit. This narrative offers a compelling villain: venal politicians who draw district boundaries for partisan advantage or to protect their own incumbency.

On the surface, it makes sense that manipulating district lines could be responsible for the increase in non-competitive, non-diverse congressional seats and the rise of ideologues who take radical positions without fear of voter retribution. But this ignores evidence that gerrymandering is only partly responsible for the current partisanship — and that eliminating it will not address the calamity we are witnessing.

No one disputes that congressional districts have become less competitive. During the last government shutdown in 1995, 79 of the 236 House Republicans represented districts that supported President Bill Clinton in his 1992 election. Today, only 17 of the 232 House Republicans represent districts that backed President Barack Obama — demonstrating more partisan consistency at the district level.

The power in a president’s mandate

The controversy over responsibility for the government shutdown has brought about one surprising consequence: a debate over the meaning of the term “presidential mandate.”

Republicans are asserting President Barack Obama has no warrant to call on Congress to fund the Affordable Care Act — since his victory margin in 2012 was so slender and the voters kept Republicans in control of the House of Representatives. The White House, meanwhile, is countering that the healthcare legislation was not only approved by both houses of Congress, and validated by the Supreme Court, but also was authenticated by his election triumph — after a campaign in which his opponent made hostility to the healthcare reform law his main point of attack.

“Presidential mandate” is an ideal brickbat in a political struggle because it is so carelessly used. Republicans who question Obama’s credentials today were quick to claim after the 2004 presidential election that, in then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s words, “the nation responded by giving [Bush] a mandate.” They ignore the reality that Obama gained re-election by a larger percentage of the popular vote than George W. Bush had received, and that his advantage in the Electoral College was 126 votes in contrast to Bush’s 35.

GOP’s path to Senate control is through Louisiana, Alaska

For Republicans to win control of the Senate next year, top officials in both parties say, all paths to a majority have to go through Alaska and Louisiana. In addition to being crucial in determining Senate control, the Democratic incumbents in these two battleground states share the same political and policy vulnerabilities.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu won reelection by 52 percent in the 2008 Democratic wave buoyed by President Barack Obama’s victory. Alaska Senator Mark Begich, even with those same Obama coattails and an assist from Justice Department officials putting their thumbs on the scale in his favor, was barely able to knock off longtime Republican incumbent Ted Stevens — 47.7 percent to 46.5 percent.

Since these Democratic wins, however, Republicans in Louisiana and Alaska have completely taken over the state governments — legislature and governors’ mansion. Today Democrats don’t hold a single statewide post in Louisiana. They couldn’t even find a credible contender to put up against Governor Bobby Jindal, who cruised to re-election without breaking a sweat in his 2011 landslide.

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