Kevin Drum - November 2012

The Unappreciated Virtues of Doing Nothing

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 3:31 PM EST

Just a quick point: the conventional wisdom says that Barack Obama accomplished a lot in his first two years but won't accomplish much in his last four. I think this is about right. But this should scare Republicans a lot. Obama really did preside over some substantial changes during his first term—most notably Obamacare—and that made it fairly easy to appeal to centrists who felt apprehensive about this pace of change.

But if Obama spends his next four years presiding over nothing more than the implementation of laws already passed while simultaneously addressing America's fiscal problems—something that's inevitable given the end of the Bush tax cuts and an improving economy—then Democrats will look pretty good in 2016: steady, sober, and decidedly non-scary. It could be that doing nothing is about the best strategy the party could follow. And Republicans are going to do everything they can to help.

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How Right-Wing Media Failed the Right Wing

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 3:18 PM EST

Speaking of "media-driven nightmares about the end of America-as-we-know-it under Obama's leadership," Conor Friedersdorf has a good post today about exactly the problem this poses for the Republican Party:

Barack Obama just trounced a Republican opponent for the second time. But unlike four years ago, when most conservatives saw it coming, Tuesday's result was, for them, an unpleasant surprise. So many on the right had predicted a Mitt Romney victory, or even a blowout -- Dick Morris, George Will, and Michael Barone all predicted the GOP would break 300 electoral votes.

....Conservatives were at a disadvantage because Romney supporters like Jennifer Rubin and Hugh Hewitt saw it as their duty to spin constantly for their favored candidate rather than being frank about his strengths and weaknesses....Conservatives were at an information disadvantage because so many right-leaning outlets wasted time on stories the rest of America dismissed as nonsense....Conservatives were at a disadvantage because their information elites pandered in the most cynical, self-defeating ways, treating would-be candidates like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain as if they were plausible presidents rather than national jokes who'd lose worse than George McGovern.

....On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media. And movement conservatives, who believe the MSM is more biased and less rigorous than their alternatives, have no way to explain how their trusted outlets got it wrong, while the New York Times got it right. Hint: The Times hired the most rigorous forecaster it could find.

It ought to be an eye-opening moment.

Like Conor, I agree that this should be an eye-opening moment but probably won't be. The direct audience for conservative news, after all, may be small, but it's fervent. There's just too much money to be made pandering to them, and the folks who do it don't care much about the fact that this pandering has effects that ripple far beyond the true believer base. Unfortunately, failing to be reality based eventually catches up with you.

The GOP's Four Big Problems

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 2:46 PM EST

Greg Sargent is annoyed by the conservative drumbeat that Democrats didn't win a mandate last night. Barack Obama was reelected by a big margin. Democrats picked up seats in the Senate, something that seemed inconceivable as recently as a couple of months ago. Democrats made substantial gains in state legislatures. And a whole raft of liberal initiatives passed: a tax increase in California; marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado; and ratification of gay marriage in Maryland, Maine, and (probably) Washington. Here's Greg:

What happened yesterday is very clear. Romney campaigned on a platform of repealing (and not replacing) Obamacare....readjusting the social contract at the core of Medicare....and dramatically reducing the amount the rich contribute towards the upkeep of government.

....Obama campaigned on the necessity of continuing to implement health reform....on preserving Medicare....and on the moral need for the rich to sacrifice a bit more to enable a more robust role for government in improving the lives of the less fortunate.

All of this was very explicit....People keep arguing that the campaign was regularly drawn into petty squabbles over offhand remarks by the candidates. But some of those squabbles — such as the battles over Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech and Romney’s “47 percent” remarks — went directly to the heart of the basic ideological conflicts outlined above. Those supposedly petty battles actually embodied big, consequential arguments.

Indeed, Republicans themselves regularly said that this election was a “big choice” between “two very different visions for America.” That was also the regular refrain of pundits just after Romney chose Paul Ryan, the leading architect of the GOP’s overarching ideological blueprint for the country’s future. So by the lights of Republicans and pundits themselves, this outcome should be seen as a big choice by the American people — a big decision about the future direction of the country. Why, now that Obama has won a resounding victory, is this suddenly being talked about as a small, no-mandate election?

That's all true. But let's be honest with ourselves. Obama won the popular vote by a margin of 51-49 percent. The composition of the House stayed pretty much the same. Ditto for the Senate. By a slender margin, we find ourselves in almost exactly the same situation we were in before the election. It's really hard to make the case for a mandate, even assuming you believe in mandates in the first place.

Which I don't. When was the last time a second-term president was able to pass something really significant? You could make a case for tax reform in Reagan's second term, but that's about it.

But there is something else going on. Republicans really do have a problem, and they know it. Or, rather, an interconnected set of problems:

  • They're obviously on the wrong side of history on gay marriage, and they're losing young voters because of it.
  • The Hispanic population is growing, and they're losing that too thanks to their xenophobic immigration policy.
  • Americans are tired of war, and (for better or worse) President Obama has proven hawkish enough that Republicans have lost their edge on national security issues. Mitt Romney more or less conceded that in the third debate by agreeing with practically everything Obama said.
  • The GOP policy of maximal obstruction is probably nearing the end of its shelf life. There are already signs that independent voters are exhausted by it, but the base of the party still demands it.

None of this is especially insightful. In fact, it's practically banal. Everyone knows it. So there's a sense in which it hardly matters if Obama "really" has a mandate. The Republican Party has a choice: either it tacitly acknowledges a mandate and reforms itself to fix the four big problems above, or else it withers further and faces a 2016 election in which the economy is good, the public is tired of crazy talk and mindless obstruction, and there will no longer be any question of whether anyone has a mandate. It will just be a question of counting votes.

I don't expect the Republican Party to reform itself anytime soon. They've become a victim of their own media-driven nightmares about the end of America-as-we-know-it under Obama's leadership, and too many of their supporters now believe this stuff for them to change their tune anytime soon. Nevertheless, change they must. And the sooner they start, the easier it will be.

We Now Have Four Years of Trench Warfare Ahead of Us

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 2:10 PM EST

I'm unaccountably exhausted this morning. I don't know why. I was never all that worried about the election because I believed the polls and figured Obama would win. I live on the West Coast, so I didn't have to stay up late last night. My side not only won, but won bigger than anyone expected, so there's no letdown. So what's the deal?

Beats me. Maybe I'm just loathe to face up to the next four years, which promises to be an awful lot like the past two. I don't think Obama's second term will devolve into scandal, as so many other second terms have, but neither do I believe that Republicans will back down from their all-obstruction-all-the-time agenda. It's going to be four years of faux drama and trench warfare, and that just doesn't seem very appealing.

Then again, maybe I just slept badly. I'll let you know tomorrow. 

Four More Years: The View From the Other Side

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 1:11 PM EST

I don't really have anywhere to go with this at the moment, but I do sort of wonder what's going to happen to the Republican rank-and-file now that the election is over. I'm not talking about party leaders: I assume that after a brief spasm of pretending to be willing to work with Obama, they'll return to maximal obstruction mode without missing a beat. I'm thinking more of the tea partyish base.

Losing a presidential election is always tough, but this one was presented to them in unusually apocalyptic terms. Obama was a closet socialist. He was un-American. He wanted to destroy capitalism. He's been responsible for endless economic misery. He's left America open to attack from foreign enemies. He wants to immiserate small business owners in order to distribute goodies to poor people. He engineered a total government takeover of the healthcare industry. He deliberately allowed four brave Americans to die in Benghazi and then ruthlessly covered it up. He wants to outlaw churches. He wants to take away your guns. Etc. On Fox News last night, there was palpable disbelief from right-wing pundits that he could possibly have won. They thought Mitt Romney should have been able to blow Obama out of the water in a massive defeat, and the fact that he didn't meant the Republican Party ought to commit ritual suicide to pay for its world historic incompetence.

And you know, if you immerse yourself in right-wing media, it all makes a sort of sense. "This is not hyperbole," one Republican told Andy Kroll last night, "This country is done. The writing's on the wall. Dead." A relative told me last night about a friend who's literally afraid that her life savings are now in danger because Obama was reelected. James Fallows has been following the story of a small businessman who says he's going to close up shop now that Obama is back in office. All of these people believe that Obama is something close to a dystopian antichrist. And yet....a majority of Americans decided to put him back in office. If Obama really is the guy you've been told he is, that's not just inexplicable, it's nothing short of criminal.

So what happens now? What happens when churches continue to thrive, the economy recovers, Obamacare turns out to be a fairly benign expansion of healthcare coverage, taxes don't change much, and America doesn't find itself under foreign occupation? I don't know. Like I said, I don't really have anywhere to go with this. But a big part of the conservative base has been told that another four years of Obama will literally result in America no longer being a free country, and their fear of what that means is quite real. So what happens now?

2013 Might Finally Be the Year of Filibuster Reform

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 12:38 PM EST

"The Senate's recent overuse of the filibuster," says newly elected independent senator Angus King, "has stalled progress on practically every issue of importance in America. The 60-vote requirement that it creates is not in the Constitution." Reforming the filibuster was one of his signature campaign issues, and Harry Reid said this summer that he agreed. He's committed himself to filibuster reform when the new Senate term opens in January.

So will it happen? The safe answer is no, but this might actually be the perfect time for it. You see, there are usually two big obstacles to filibuster reform: the opposition party and the governing party. The opposition party doesn't want reform because it's afraid of what the governing party can do without it. And the governing party doesn't want reform because it's afraid of what the opposition party will do if they win control in the next election.

But guess what? We're in a bit of an unusual situation right now. The Democratic Party has a president in the White House, which means that Republicans won't be able to run roughshod over them for at least four years—and the odds are at least decent that it might be longer. Likewise, the Republican Party has a big majority in the House, which means that Democrats can't run roughshod over them. And this majority looks to be durable for at least four years too.

So filibuster reform would have a very small effect right now, mainly making it easier for the majority to confirm presidential nominations. Obviously Republicans wouldn't be too happy about that, but they can't keep obstructing judicial nominations at their previous pace for four more years anyway, so it's not the biggest deal in the world. If Democrats were willing to agree to serious but moderate reforms, there's a chance they could actually get Republicans to go along with it.

Not a big chance, but a chance. We live in interesting times.

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California's Prop 30 Passes, But Probably Wasn't Necessary Anyway

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 12:22 PM EST

On Monday I wrote that if California's Proposition 30 passed, it would mark a symbolic end to the tax revolt started by Proposition 13 three decades ago. Well, it passed. But it turns out that it might not even have been necessary. Thanks to redistricting and the long, slow slide of the Republican Party in California, it looks as though Democrats might very well win two-thirds majorities in both houses of the legislature once all the votes from Tuesday are counted.

Which means they could have skipped the initiative and simply passed a tax increase on their own. It's a fitting bit of irony for an election cycle that was filled with it.

Republicans Have Lost Their 60-Year Advantage on National Security

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 11:57 AM EST

I'll probably end up doing a bunch of random post-election reaction stuff today, so let's start with Dan Drezner:

A glance at the exit polls showed that Obama won the foreign policy question pretty handily. Only five percent of respondents thought that foreign policy was the most critical issue in this campaign — but of those five percent, voters went for Obama over Romney by 56% to 33%. Voters were also more likely to trust Barack Obama in an international crisis (57%-42%) than Mitt Romney (50%-46%).

This is the first exit poll in at least three decades where the Democrat has outperformed the Republican on foreign policy and national security. And I guarantee that whoever runs from the GOP side in 2016 will not have a ton of foreign policy experience. The GOP has managed to squander an advantage in perceived foreign policy competency that it had owned for decades. This — combined with shifts on social issues and demographics — will be a problem that the Republicans are going to need to address.

Thanks, George Bush! We like to say that Americans have short memories, and that's true in a way. On the other hand, a majority of voters still blame Bush for the lousy economy more than they blame Obama, and the Bush destruction of the Republican brand on foreign policy still seems to be going strong too.

A razor-thin loss hardly means that the Republican brand is doomed, but I don't think there's much question that the GOP, in general, is moving in the wrong direction and its extremist wing is finally catching up to it. In four years, they'll likely face both a growing economy and an electorate that's a couple of points browner than it is today, and that's going to be a strong headwind. Add to that growing tolerance for things like gay marriage and a Democratic advantage (or tie) on national security issues, and they face a pretty tough future.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 12:27 AM EST

Todd Akin Loses

| Tue Nov. 6, 2012 11:08 PM EST

I predicted Todd Akin would win despite his "legitimate rape" comment. He just lost. I've rarely been so happy to be wrong. Congratulations to Missouri for displaying some Midwestern common sense.