Archive for the Politics Category

Bill Whalen

Responding To A Woman’s Touch


Here’s one way to prepare for President Obama’s State of the State Address, to be delivered Tuesday evening before a joint session of Congress and a national viewing audience: right before Mr. Obama enters the House chamber, take a glass and fill it to the hallway mark with your beverage of choice (that would be hemlock for George Will, no fan of this televised spectacle).

Now, take a look at the contents of the glass.

On the half-full side: this is history and tradition on display (though a President doesn’t have to do it this modern way – he could just as easily post an email and still be honoring the Constitution). As Barack Obama is a gifted speaker, the pomp and circumstance is right in his wheelhouse – he’ll look and sound presidential, even if you don’t care for the policies.

On the half-empty side: talk is what this President does most and too much, his critics contend – especially when it doesn’t jibe with the realities of an election year that historically is murder for the party in power. Beating up on congressional Republicans with regard to income inequality, immigration reform and gun control may rally the Democratic base, but it won’t produce any bills to sign.

After the address, there’s the matter of the Republican response – in the Obama years, a problematic exercise for the GOP in that the rebuttal invariably lacks the State of the Union’s political sex appeal. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivered it in 2009 – to lousy reviews.  Former Virginia Gov. McDonnell took a crack at it in 2010, copying presidential production value. In 2011, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan took center stage in what turned out to be a preview of the 2012 presidential campaign. As for 2012, the GOP again went outside the beltway with former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who delivered a feisty speech assailing the President as a divider, not a uniter.

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Bill Whalen


The calendar may say that it’s another 770-plus days until the November 2016 election, but that doesn’t prevent us from engaging in a little speculation.

That conjecturing comes in different shapes and forms – the individuals who want to succeed Barack Obama; their strategies for winning their respective parties’ nominations; and, curiously, whether at least one of the two parties will tinker with the timelines and guidelines for acquiring said nomination.

With that in mind, here are three 2016 storylines worth watching for now:

1)  Christie vs. the Field. Every April, gambling junkies agonize over a simple wager: Tiger Woods versus the rest of the field at the Masters Golf Tournament, where Woods has 10 top-five finishes (four of them wins) in 19 starts as well as the tournament’s lowest 72-hole score (so dominant was the younger Woods that Augusta added extra yards and trees to the fabled course to make it a fairer fight). The 2016 equivalent of this wager: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie versus the field of Republican hopefuls – specifically, Tea Party hopefuls. What makes this a fun wager? Part of it is Christie’s penchant for taking potshots at the anti-establishment grassroots movement (including this snippet, right after his landslide re-election win: “On governing, it’s about doing things, accomplishing things, reaching across the aisle and crafting accomplishments”). What sweetens the wager: as the Tea Party isn’t a unified body, can it go after Christie in an organized manner, by rallying behind one standard-bearer, or will several candidates – each claiming to be the true Tea Partier in field – dilute the field? On Election Night 2010, amidst a House Republican landslide, the movement didn’t lack for self-proclaimed leaders angling for camera time: former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth, to name just three. In a 2016 Republican presidential field, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio all could angle for Tea Party support. All of which sounds wonderful from Christie’s perspective: the more Tea Party challengers, the lesser a chance of one Tea Partier getting more votes.

2)   Hillary vs. What Field?  Then there’s the Democratic race, which at this point in 2013 is at least one rider shy of access to an HOV-3 lane. A low-occupancy Democratic field isn’t unprecedented – the 2000 election was a two-man race between Al Gore and Bill Bradley and no other callers of significance; the Democratic contests of 1992, 2004 and 2008 quickly narrowed to two finalists. What’s unusual, for now, is the lack of a splashy challenger to Hillary Clinton (excluding Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who’s trying to turn his Baltimore “believe” argument into a rationale for a national campaign). That all changes should Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren jump into the contest (sure, she’d have only four years in the Senate – just like Barack Obama in 2008). Why the interest in Warren? Depending on who’s doing the analysis, she taps into a growing frustration with establishment Democrats in particular and corporate candidates in general (Hillary being guilty on both counts); she’s closer to the progressive heartbeat than Mrs. Clinton ever will be (translation: not as boring). In sum: she’s a nightmare for the Clinton bandwagon. This should sound familiar to Mrs. Clinton. In 1992, her husband had a hard time shaking off a pesky challenger who had no qualms making very personal attacks against the candidate and his wife’s integrity – in this video, Californians will recognize the attacker (by the way, if Warren wants to co-opt Jerry’s 1-800 hotline number, it’s still working).

3)  What Field to Plow for Republicans? Mitt Romney struggled in various ways in 2012, one being his inability to secure his party’s nomination as quickly as he would have liked. Romney didn’t “go over the top” – surpassing the 1,144-delgate threshold – until the 2012 Texas presidential primary, which was held on the day after Memorial Day (in 2008, John McCain became the de facto GOP nominee on the first Tuesdayin March). By then, the Obama campaign was already running ads attacking Romney’s record at Bain Capital. How to avoid a repeat scenario in 2016? One idea currently being floated would be to create a “Midwestern Super Tuesday” following the traditional early votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, putting in play the Great Lakes states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. Also up for consideration when the Republican National Committee meets next winter: moving up the party’s national convention six weeks earlier, to mid-July (McCain, in 2008, had to wait the better part of six months before giving his convention acceptance speech). The primary schedule did Romney no favor in 2012: 23 states voted by the first Tuesday in March, versus 38 states in 2008. Romney was also hampered by a party rule change that required states with elections before April 1 to proportionally award their delegates. Two other changes to look for: (1) Republicans agreeing to a trimmed-down debate schedule in 2016, versus the debate overload in 2012 – “a reasonable number” being the party’s current guideline; (2) renewed talk of GOP efforts in Pennsylvania and Michigan – Virginia’s out, now that it’s elected a Democratic governor – to alter those states’ allotment of electoral votes (from winner-take-all to awarding by congressional districts). To the question of how to panic a Democratic, the answer would be “electoral college reform”.

Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen

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Bill Whalen


If you’re looking for a definitive message out of Tuesday’s elections, you might want to wait another 12 months and Congress’s turn to face the music.

That vote will be a referendum on Obamacare, the federal government shutdown, plus whatever other fires Washington can start in the months ahead. Be it a good or bad night for incumbents, we’ll have a better fix on which party stands to benefit from America’s frustration with an unsavory status quo (a survey released earlier this month showing Congress less popular than hemorrhoids, jury duty and toenail fungus).

Moreover, the November 2014 vote is an opportunity for some sitting governors – Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez come to mind – to showcase themes that might factor into the next presidential race. It worked for George W. Bush in 1998, when his easy reelection as Texas’ governor fueled presidential speculation.

As for Campaign 2013, it was an off-year election with some offbeat results.

That would include:

1)  Economically distressed Detroit, with an 84% African-American population, electing a non-black mayor. The last time that happened was in 1970, the same year that the Ford Pinto – “the little carefree car” with the exploding fuel tank – first rolled off the assembly lines (yes, I drove one in high school). Mayor-elect Mike Duggan, a former hospital executive with a “Mr. Fix-It” reputation, now gets a shot at fixing a Motor City that’s $18 billion in debt, two-fifths of its street lights out of service, three-fifths of its population long gone, and Chapter 9 bankruptcy looming on the horizon.

2)  In Colorado, voters rejected union-backed Amendment 66, which guaranteed a minimum of 43% of the state’s tax revenues going to education (similar to California’s Proposition 98, which mandates that 40% of general-fund spending goes to education). Amendment 66 also included a $950 million income-tax increase for, among other things, early-childhood education, at-risk students and English-language learners. Apparently, changing the state income tax from a flat 4.63% rate to a two-tiered formula – a 5% tax for the first $75,000 of taxable income; 5.9% beyond that – was too much for Coloradans to digest. The measure lost by nearly a 2-1 margin.

3)  In Texas, voters approved Proposition 5 allowing seniors to purchase homes using reverse mortgages – the Lone Star State being the lone holdout on reverse mortgages, according to a report by the Texas House of Representatives. Somewhere, mortgage pitchman and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is smiling. On a sadder Texas-related note: say goodbye to the “eighth wonder of the world”, now that Houston voters have rejected a ballot initiative that would have renovated the fabled Astrodome.

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Bill Whalen


I spent the first 34 years of my life living either inside the Capital Beltway or within easy driving distance of Washington, D.C. So when a political train wreck occurs – one that shakes up the natural order of things in the nation’s capital, such as the current partial shutdown of the federal government – I like to take a step back and consider the psychological toll.

Here’s what I see: the same kind of hysteria that overtakes the town anytime a snowstorm approaches.

Befitting a political system that can’t turn into a skid, Washington is to snow what the fall’s first rain is to Los Angeles: weather it’s not designed to handle. The first word of a few inches of the white stuff covering the National Mall, and Washingtonians flock to their nearest grocery store to hoard cans of tuna, gallon-jugs of milk and 12-packs of toilet paper (seriously, how long are these people expecting to be shut in?).

In the first 24 hours of life without access to national parks and IRS telephone operators, the media’s coverage of the shutdown has that better-stock-up-on-t.p. quality to it. Reports of nonessential government workers forced to go without a paycheck are long on pathos, but short on mention that those same workers will be repaid once the shutdown ends. We have worried tales of a multi-billion dollar hit to the nation’s economy – not that the government hasn’t wasted billions of dollars in other ill-advised efforts (wars, social programs). And there’s the evergreen tale of a looming GOP implosion.

As for the fascination with the novelty of the federal government (or parts of it) grinding to a halt: it’s happened 17 other times since 1976, or double the number of Giants Pandas who’ve dwelled at the Washington National Zoo (speaking of which, shutdown-crazed Republicans apparently even have it in for cuddly pandas, too).

What’s missing from the coverage is historical perspective from the last time this occurred, when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich butted heads. Which was twice in November 1995 and December-January 1996.

More Than One Bad Guy. You might assume that Gingrich was held alone in public contempt from beginning to end of those shutdowns, which were a running spat over depth and pace of federal spending cuts. Indeed, it started that way. But as the stalemate progressed, Clinton’s approval numbers took a hit (click here to see his poll numbers dip). Clinton won the battle, as Gingrich blinked first, and he won the war later in 1996 when he won a second term – as opposed to Gingrich’s abbreviated speakership. But that may speak more to Clinton’s fabled survival skills and a booming economythan a public rallying to his side over the merits of trimming federal entitlements.

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Bill Whalen


To get a sense of what President Obama is up againstTuesday night when he makes the case for a military strike against Syria:

(1) The timing – giving a nationwide address hours and days later than he’d like. If the purpose were to rally a war-weary public and change votes in Congress, Sunday or Mondaywould have made more sense. But that would have pitted the most powerful man in America against America’s most powerful cartel: the National Football League, which owns TV’s prime time on Sunday and Monday evenings.

(2) The unsubtle irony of a man who sought the presidency with the promise of ending wars, perhaps starting us down the road to yet another. Only, it’s not a war. In Mr. Obama’s words: “Any action we take would be limited, both in time and scope . . .” Mr. Obama wants to come across as a hawkish dove or a dovish hawk – sort of like a Yankees fan with a Boston accent.

(3) The backdrop. Should Mr. Obama give the big speech from the Oval Office, traditionally the home of epic presidential moments, he’ll be doing so in a setting that his former chief speechwriter believes is a lousy stage.

About that wordsmith: his name’s Jon Favreau and he left the Obama White House in May to strike it rich in Hollywood. Lately, he’s been attending White House meetings. So let’s assume he has a say in what the President says on Tuesday.

And exactly will that be – or, more to the point, what can he say that he already hasn’t said, and change what may be a serious setback to his last term in office?

Put yourself in the shoes of the White House rhetoric machine. For the past few days, fueled by copious amounts of Red Bull to Adderall to stay awake and Aaron Sorkin’s liberal fantasies to stay inspired, you’ve been searching for historical precedent – a past presidential means to justice Mr. Obama’s political end. Preferably, it’s a Democratic ex-president as you comrade in arms, as it were.

But here’s the problem: the past doesn’t make for good Syria prologue. Consider the words of these Democrats who rallied their country to arms:

Woodrow Wilson, War Message to Congress, 4/2/1917

“Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles . . .We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.”

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Bill Whalen


Now that San Diego Mayor Bob Filner plans to call it quits this Friday, “America’s Finest City” will hold a special election (sometime before the end of November) to determine his successor.

Rest assured, that election will be “special” in name only. Most of the Democratic and Republican names being bandied about fall into one of two categories: current officeholders or past officeholders. Barring the unforeseen, San Diegans won’t have the choice of a political outsider to help rejuvenate a city whose current leadership is uninspiring, to put it mildly.

In this regard, Filner may have done his constituents a disservice. Had he stayed on and opted to ride out the storm, the alternative was a citywide recall vote and a shot at a much more colorful ballot. All it would have required was 101,000 signatures, or an average of about 2,600 a day – a realistic target given the disgustingness alleged by Filner’s 18 accusers.

Ironically, San Diegan’s avoidance of a recall comes on the 10th anniversary of the mother of all such votes – California’s 2003 affair that gave the world Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The key dates in that process: the petition drive began on Feb. 3; signatures were turned in on July 23, with the election date set the following day; Schwarzenegger sent the contest into a tizzy with his surprise “Tonight Show” announcement on Aug. 6; the actual vote was Oct. 7 – 55% of the electorate voting to recall then-Gov. Gray Davis; on the second question, naming a replacement, 48.6% going with the movie strongman over the other 134 candidates on the ballot.

Surely you recall California’s recall misfits: pre-HuffPo Arianna Huffington, whose answers to California’s woes ran in one of two directions – slam Bush or slam Arnold; the porn starlet who wanted to tax breast implants; the pint-sized ex-child actor whose previous government experiencewas ruling a planet on “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”; and, of course, the watermelon-smashing comedian who wanted to use military helicopters to clear highway accidents.

As they like to say: only in California.

Ten years after the series of event that triggered Schwarzenegger’s quick ascent to the top job in California politics, there’s the question as to the recall election’s lasting effects. My choices:

Window Open, Window Closed. At the time of his first inaugural (Nov. 17, 2003) Arnold Schwarzenegger was the most feared man in Sacramento. He’d run laps around the recall field and would soon make good on campaign promises (repealing the tripling of the state’s vehicle license fee; forcing along worker’s compensation reform). Given his charisma and campaign savvy, Democrats feared a grand fight with Governator over his vow to “blow up the boxes” – i.e., streamline government. However, that fight didn’t come right away. And Schwarzenegger missed a window of opportunity to muscle the Legislature into an ambitious fix to the state’s budget woes. A year later, in the November 2004 election, Schwarzenegger failed to get Republican legislative candidates elected to office. So much for Democrats fearing him. A year after that, he was routed in a special election that pitted his Republican ideas (spending cap, teacher tenure) against California’s liberal special interests (plus Warren Beatty). Schwarzenegger would leave office failing to achieve any significant reform of the state’s ongoing fiscal problems. A decade after the recall, the Golden State is still a shaky landscape of hidden obligations, a “wall of debt” and ever growing spending programs dependent upon unreliable revenue streams. Schwarzenegger’s not entirely to blame, but his was the only real chance to do something dramatically different.

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Bill Whalen


For all the second-guessing and armchair quarterbacking associated with presidential elections, there’s no debating that the Republicans’ ambitious schedule of primary debates turned into a headache for the party out of power in 2012.

At various times, stages were over-crowded with candidates all jockeying for air time, second-tier hopefuls received artificial lifts thanks to the free national exposure, and the party’s frontrunner found himself in the awkward position of balancing the competing interests of red-meat in-studio audiences and the less folks watching back home on the small screen.

In all, the GOP held 20 sanctioned debates in the 2012 cycle. But add in other venues where rivals gathered and the actual count is 27 debates over the course of 43 weeks. The first gathering was the first Thursday in May of 2011, with only five Republican hopefuls in attendance. The last “debate” was on the first Saturday in March of the following year – the third of the so-called “Huckabee Forums” hosted for the former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate.

That may not sound so awful – one debate, an average of every 11 days. Only, it didn’t work that way. Five Republican debates occurred during a 17-day span in November 2011. Another four transpired over a 12-day stretch in December 2011, with yet another four going down during a nine-day stretch in January 2012.

In simplest terms, it’s overkill. And kind of nonsensical, as Stuart Stevens (Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in 2012) has noted: “We pick a president with three general-election debates but it takes 20 debates to understand that maybe Ron Paul wants to blow up the Federal Reserve?”

The GOP isn’t at a point where it’s officially cut back on the number of debates. But it has decided who all can participate. At last week’s Republican National Committee gathering in Boston, delegates resolved to boycott any 2016 presidential debates sponsored by CNN and NBC should those two networks go forward with projects on the life and times of Hillary Clinton – in the RNC’s words: “extended commercials promoting Secretary Clinton.”

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Bill Whalen

Hillary-Ous Conjecturing


Over a decade ago, The Weekly Standard published a scathing look at the writing habits of a prized New York Times columnist.

“The Immutable Laws of Maureen Dowd” pulled no punches, accusing the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner (honored so, for her commentaries on the Monica Lewinsky scandal) of five mistakes: reducing political phenomena to caricatures of the personalities involved; whining rather than offering solutions; writing in a style that’s cute but not coherent; using her column space to justify a consumer-driven, self-involved life; and, what may be the worst sin of all, believing Europeans are always right.

Perhaps it’s time to add a sixth immutable law: her obsession with the psychodrama that is Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Take Ms. Dowd’s latest column, in which she offers this take on the former First Lady and Secretary of State: “From the sidelines, she is soaking up a disproportionate amount of attention and energy, as though she were already Madam President.” And: “We can’t hear ourselves think here this summer over the roar of the Clinton machine — and the buzzing back to life of old Clinton enemies.”

Indeed, there has been an inordinate amount of sleep summertime attention paid to Mrs. Clinton these past few days, much it having to do with the Republican National Committee objecting to CNN and NBC green-lighting (presumably fawning) Hillary biopics – and the odd political alliances the RNC’s complaint has spawned.

Buzz, yes. But hardly the infestation-like mania that Ms. Dowd imagines.

The other form of Hillary obsession: let’s call it the “fait accompli fatalist” branch of the media, which already has her inked in as Barack Obama’s successor. Here’s a particularly egregious example: “16 Reasons Why Hillary Clinton Will Win in 2016”.

A word of caution about assuming that Mrs. Clinton has a mortal lock on the job her husband once held. Should she run in 2016, she’ll be aiming to replace a lone president who’s held the job for eight years (as compared to presidential “co-administrations” – one man dying or quitting, his vice president then taking over – in the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s and 1970s). We’ve faced this scenario only five times in the last 35 presidential elections. However, four of them have happened in the television age – 196019882000 and 2008).

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Joshua Rauh


In a New York Times editorial, Richard Riordan and Tim Rutten propose a national plan to address the pension crisis facing state and local governments. As the authors remark, this plan bears a number of similarities to a plan I proposed in 2010 in a piece in the Economists’ Voice with Robert Novy-Marx, and then again in short form in the New York Times Room for Debate Blog.

There are some important differences, however, between the Riordan-Ruttan plan and our own.

First of all, I agree that some form of federal intervention to stem the state and local pension tsunami is desirable and necessary. Otherwise our cities indeed face the bleak future described in the op-ed: long emergency response times, unfilled potholes, and cash-starved public services of all kinds, as taxpayer resources will be increasingly diverted to pay for public sector pensions. Furthermore, the prospect of more municipal bankruptcies could undermine investor confidence in the municipal bond market and restrict this vital source of capital for states and cities.

Given this state of affairs, I think some kind of carrot-and-stick approach from the Federal government is absolutely appropriate. In an ideal world, we would all tell Washington to “just say no” to any state or local government bailouts. If Congress could make a credible commitment to that policy, then states would on their own have the incentive to reform their own finances and stop running up of massive unfunded liabilities.

The reality today, however, is that Washington cannot credibly commit not to bail states out. As a result, in expectation Federal taxpayers face a huge and ongoing cost associated with the likelihood of a multi-trillion dollar bailout of these systems. Is there some chance this bailout can be avoided? Possibly. But there is a very large chance that it will not be avoided.

A bailout could take many (undesirable) forms, including Federal Reserve purchases of muni bonds (they did it with mortgage backed securities so why not) or direct aid to the most profligate of state governments. And of course cities and states know of this possibility now and are behaving accordingly. Talk about moral hazard.

The main similarity between our plan and the Riordan-Rutter plan is the carrot-and-stick approach. In both plans, the federal government would offer the states and cities some support in the issuance of new bonds to cover pension liabilities (the carrot). And in both plans, a state or city could only access this support if they implemented serious reforms to their pension systems that would stop the accrual of new unfunded liabilities (the stick).

The one point of departure, and it is an important one, is that in the Riordan-Ritter plan, the carrot is larger, as in their plan the program would “essentially serve as an insurance agency,” with participants paying fees, and the federal government guaranteeing repayment on the bonds.

In our plan, there is no new national insurance agency and no federal guarantee for the bonds. The federal support for the bonds in our plan is simply a tax advantage.

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