Friday, September 21, 2012

Ticket Splitters: History's Greatest Monsters

 Voters gonna vote (Source:

I was having a back and forth on Twitter last night about the psychology behind ticket-splitting voters. Based on polls in Wisconsin, Virginia, and Massachusetts, a significant percentage of voters are voting for Barack Obama for President, and the GOP candidate for Senator - in these cases splitting their tickets Obama/Tommy Thompson (WI), Obama/George Allen (VA), and Obama/Scott Brown (MA).

Based on the opinion of Alec MacGillis, who has more intimate knowledge of MA politics, the Obama/Brown polling is not that surprising. But still, polls show Obama's lead 25-34 points in the Bay state, while Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown have basically been running tied for most of the year with them trading small leads.

The Obama/Thompson polling trends are similar. Obama's margin has been larger than Tammy Baldwin's margin over Thompson. And some polls have Obama and Thompson leading. It's been an odd few years in Wisconsin politics with many of the same voters supporting both Obama and Governor Scott Walker, which is sort of like supporting both the Red Sox AND the Yankees. But the Obama/Allen polling is the most curious. Allen represents Old Virginny. Obama's electoral prospects in VA are bright largely because of the influx of college-educated white collar voters in the Northern VA suburbs who are either transplants or have become more liberal as years have passed. But some 3-5% of voters in VA seem to be supporting both Obama and Allen. Although Tim Kaine did have a good poll earlier this week which shows him running about the same as Obama.

People should not underestimate how good of a politician Allen is and apparently how likeable he is in VA. Let's recall in 2006, it was a strong Democratic midterm election year and Allen used a racial slur during the campaign ("Macaca") and yet still barely lost by just 7,231 votes with over 2.36 million votes cast.

And that leads up to my point that people who split national tickets are really hurting our country, mainly by sending mixed electoral messages and increasing the likelihood of gridlock. I understand if you vote for one party locally for mayor or city council or even some statewide races and then vote for the other party for Senate or President. Local interests are different than national interests and often for local elections you do vote the person rather than the party. And some of us live in one-party towns. But nationally, you should vote the party with whom you most identify, period.

For all the 3rd party mumbo jumbo about how the two major parties are basically the same, they are actually quite different. Just compare the party platforms, the competing Obama/Romney tax and budget plans, etc. If you don't see any major differences, then you are just being willfully ignorant and/or justifying your apathy. If you actually pay close attention to politics and have a strong opinion, then it seems hard to reconcile how you'd be an "independent" who could vote for Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008 or 2012. I don't doubt a lot of those voters exist. I just doubt they really pay close attention to politics and rationally think through their decisions.

You grow up presumably forming some opinions on issues and develop a worldview. And then you look at the two parties and figure out which one is most closely aligned with your views, which one addresses your pet issues, and then you vote that party. And over time (sometimes decades) you hope to keep moving the ball forward a few yards at a time. That's how you exercise political influence rationally.

Perhaps back in the days when the filibuster wasn't abused, splitting tickets for President and Senate was more acceptable and possibly even strategically desirable if you were a moderate voter. The theory is the President would then have to compromise with the Senate, which may be controlled by the other party. And then they'd reach some swell bipartisan compromises on all the big issues of the day. Bwahahaha! And then you woke up or you turned off that Aaron Sorkin show you were watching.

That sounds great, but that hasn't really been politically attainable since the regional realignment of the parties neared completion in the 1990s and the use of the filibuster increased in the Senate. These days it works like this: if 41 or more Senators don't feel there's a political incentive to vote for a bill nor feel there's a political price to pay for voting against a bill, they won't vote for it. It doesn't matter if it's something they used to support. It doesn't matter if it's a bill they sponsored in the recent past. The Senate is currently among the world's worst legislative bodies. Voters in VA, WI, and MA who are going to vote for Obama but also vote for the GOP Senate candidate, are decreasing the chances of passing meaningful legislation by potentially making the Senate even more dysfunctional.

And the flip side of that is if you don't want to see Romney become President, then if he wins you are increasing the chances that he'll be working with a majority in the Senate by splitting the ticket. To most Obama supporters, that's actually a scarier prospect and more a motivation to vote for Democrats than the inverse.

You are presumably voting for Obama because you like him and/or agree with his vision for the country and want to see him to succeed and get things done. So a vote for the GOP Senator would make an Obama win less decisive and make it less likely that he'll be able to succeed and get things done. It's self-defeating, irrational, somewhat ignorant of the stakes in this election, and likely will contribute to more inertia in Washington.

I urge you, if you know any of these ticket-splitting monsters who usually lean Democratic, grab them by the collar and explain to them why they need to snap out of it and fall in line before they destroy America! Or something. And if you're typically a Republican voter who is splitting tickets and voting for Democrats, I think you're being completely illogical, but keep up the good work!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why Obama is Winning on Taxes

I said relax. I got this.

Something is happening during this Presidential campaign that I never thought I'd see: a Democrat both wanted a debate on taxes and is so far winning it.

It took a few long steps to get there, but it started last year when President Obama began focusing like a laser on Paul Ryan's budget and on the issue of fairness in the tax code. Mitt Romney obliged by running further to the right than he probably needed to in the primary, resulting in him putting out a revised tax/budget plan that was very similar to the Ryan plan.

In 2010 the Republicans re-took the House mainly due to three issues:

1) the distortion on the Medicare "cuts" in Obamacare
2) the deficit/spending cuts
3) the economy

The first was a result of an older whiter electorate and the second was driven by the energy created by the Tea Party and the cynicism of the GOP caring about deficits only when Democrats are President. And the third was expected given the high unemployment rate and the Democrats controlling the entire government. David Frum pointed out, the Republicans cynically won back power without understanding why and then overestimated the electorate's support for their "real" agenda.

So it was a bit of a gift that one of the first major economic or budget visions the GOP put forth after winning the House was a budget that cut taxes on the rich, ended Medicare as we know it, and still didn't balance the budget for 40 years. In one House vote the Republicans lost credibility on the Medicare and deficit issues. And with no plan to create jobs and address this particular economic situation and not the one they wished existed, they began losing support on the economy as well.

Obama and the Democrats spent months earlier this year hitting Romney on Bain and creating narrative that Romney was a heartless CEO unconcerned about the plight of middle class Americans. As Jonathan Chait noted, then Obama began moving to phase 2 earlier in the summer, which was talking the Romney/Ryan budget and tax code fairness. If voters didn't feel Romney really understood and cared about their problems, they'd be more willing to accept Obama's argument about the choice between the two competing visions for the country.

Obama knew the GOP couldn't very well admit that they don't really care about deficits. So he was able to put Romney in a box over his tax plan. If he did indeed want to cut taxes on rich people above all else and since any plan has to be absolutely deficit-neutral, lest he want to annoy the Tea Party and the Randians, then there is no other way to make that plan work without deep spending cuts to popular programs, increasing taxes on the middle class, and/or eliminating or reducing many middle class tax deductions and tax credits through some type of comprehensive tax reform plan. It is now September 20th, and Romney has still yet to reveal any details about how this plan would work.

The Obama campaign deftly called the GOP's bluff on their fake concern over deficits and contrasted it with their overarching goal of lowering taxes on the rich. And they were able to show how there was no way to achieve both of those goals without screwing the middle class. With Romney's lack of credibility with his base he had no room to maneuver or nuance this issue, so he was stuck defending a plan that either can't work or will screw the middle class. All that doesn't fit on a bumper sticker, unfortunately, but the groundwork was laid for months. And enough voters apparently have come to understand this argument. As President Clinton said, it's arithmetic.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Why do 47% of Americans Pay No Income Tax?

 .....And what matters about Mitt Romney's revealing statement.

Last year conservative pundit Ramesh Ponnuru destroyed the argument of the "freeloader myth." And while I ultimately disagree with Ponnuru's conclusion (that the point of conservatism is to make sure nobody's taxes ever get raised), the rest of his column is on point. Ponnuru painstakingly takes us through the tax code to explain why poor, elderly, and many middle class families pay no net federal income taxes. And he has background on the history of the policies that created this situation.

I really didn't want to have to step through the tax code again, since doing my own taxes is brutal enough, let alone projecting a fake person's taxes, so I'll let Ponnuru tell you:
According to the Tax Policy Center, provisions of the tax code that exempt subsistence levels of income from income taxes — the standard deduction, personal exemption, and dependent exemption — are the reason for about half of the tax filers who owe no income tax. Another large group of filers pays no income tax because its members are elderly and benefit from such features of the code as the non-taxation of some Social Security benefits. The tax credit for children and the earned-income tax credit, an effort to boost the pay of low-income workers, wipe out income-tax liability for other taxpayers. Those credits are “refundable,” meaning that beneficiaries can get money on top of paying no income tax. Other provisions of the code account for the rest of the 47 percent: education credits, the non-taxation of welfare payments, itemized deductions, and so on.
Also as Ezra Klein noted in a blog post last night, of the roughly 47% who pay no net federal income taxes, over 45% of those can be easily explained.

(Source: The Tax Policy Center)

1) 28.3% of the country are middle income folks who pay no net federal income taxes due to a series of tax credits and deductions: Personal Exemption, Dependent Exemption, The Child Tax Credit, the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction, and depending on how far their income has dropped, the Earned Income Tax Credit and other deductions for things like Student Loan Interest. But of course people still pay regressive payroll taxes along with local and state taxes. And of course everyone pays the flat sales and sin taxes that help fund state and local government services.

2) 10.3% of the country are elderly and end up paying no net federal income taxes due to the tax laws that exempt some social security benefits from taxation.

3) 6.9% are poor people with incomes under $20,000. Or as the Republicans call them, "the lucky ones." Again, they take advantage of many of the tax credits and deductions described previously. It's just that their incomes are so low, it results in them paying no net federal income taxes.

4) Less than 1% are the rest - most likely the ultra-rich with complicated tax shelters and some other tax cheats.

Romney has spent the last month or so defending his vague tax plan against valid charges that in order for it to be deficit-neutral, then taxes on the lower and middle income people will go up and/or many lower and middle income deductions will be reduced or eliminated. It's going to be a lot harder for him to make a convincing case that he does not intend to raise taxes on the lower and middle incomes after his revealing comments from this week. His statements show a person who is disdainful to those who are suffering and barely getting by.

And moreover, he and his rich brethren view tax avoidance as a proud moment of individual accomplishment. "I pay all the taxes I'm required to pay and not $1 more" is Romney's standard defense of his tax rate. Yet when lower and middle income people take advantage of similar benefits in the tax code, he treats them as freeloaders. Project much?

For a multi-hundred-millionaire paying, at most, a 13% tax rate in his only tax return we're privy to, his conclusion apparently is that the major unfairness in the tax code isn't that people like him are paying too little, but that middle class people have too many tax deductions and the poor and elderly are extremely fortunate to have insufficient taxable income.

The question is was this just another Romney pander to the economic conservatives in the GOP base or does he really believe it? If it's the former, then it shows a real lack of courage on his part and a questionable cynical strategy at best. And frankly it shows a lack of competence on the campaign trail that is puzzling for someone whose main selling point is executive success. If it's the latter it reveals a person who, in spite of his CEO background, has completely misdiagnosed the real problems in the country during the last decade. Voters should reject him for it either way.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Ezra Klein Demolishes Romney's 47% Argument

 (source: Mother Jones)

A video surfaced today, first broken by David Corn of Mother Jones with Mitt Romney talking about 47% of the country (the number who roughly pay no income tax) with the edited comments in the image above.

And well, I'll just re-post Ezra Klein's twitter timeline from earlier today.

And then after Romney gave a statement, Klein responded with another series of tweets:

An Early Romney Campaign Autopsy

Conservatives and Romney campaign insiders are fudging the truth about why Romney is losing

Politico published the kind of piece that every campaign dreads before an election: a finger-pointing, off-the-record pre-postmortem filled with criticisms by staff and advisers about why a candidate is losing.

This particular story seems to shift most of the blame to Mitt Romney's top strategist, Stuart Stevens, and the rest to Romney himself. My take is that neither Romney nor his top strategist are totally to blame, although obviously both share in it. I agree with the general sentiment that Romney is just not a great candidate. But as Ezra Klein and others have noted, the false narrative in the media, that due to the poor economy it was really Romney's race to lose, overinflated expectations from the beginning. I recall many delusional Republicans last year proclaiming that any candidate with a pulse would beat Obama so they wanted to nominate the most conservative candidate possible. The bottom line is that no matter what the unemployment rate is, as long as the rate is roughly the same or decreasing leading up to the election and the economy is growing every quarter, the incumbent is the favorite to win, not the challenger.

In short, before 2009 Romney seemed like a reasonable competent technocrat. And now he is forced to lead a party at exactly the wrong time for someone with his resume. The id of the party the last few years has been Donald Trump (Birthers), Sarah Palin (anti-elites), Ron Paul (Libertarians), and the Tea Party wings. Only these people or someone from these groups would have excited the base of the party. But the elite establishment in the party understood that any candidate associated with those groups would have no chance of winning over swing voters in the general election. And Romney was the most electable alternative.

However, Romney was handcuffed coming into this race, as any recent Republican governor of a blue or purple state would have been. The party has moved so far to the right in just the last 4 years that any Republican governor who actually had to make moderate compromises to, you know, govern was going to have a really difficult time talking about his accomplishments without depressing the enthusiasm of the base. What were mainstream conservative positions just a few years ago are now poison because Obama and the Democrats supported them. Remember this is the party that is suddenly too conservative for "lefties" like Robert Bennett and Richard Lugar.

The base was always more energized about beating Obama than about voting for Romney or any of the candidates who were running in the primary. So add in some bigotry toward Romney's Mormonism and his inconsistent positions on social issues, and it was obvious a segment of the base was going to be ambivalent towards him. And many of the swing "white working class" voters, in the Rust Belt in particular, were never going to warm to him because of his record at Bain Capital. So in the middle of September Romney is still trying to shore up and energize the base, unable to move far enough to the center for fear of losing the base.

I'm sympathetic to Romney's plight in this campaign. Don't get me wrong - I view him as a complete phony and I've disliked the blatant dishonesty that has been at the core of Romney's arguments. But gaffes aside, given where the Republican party is now, the demands on the candidate to hew to the party line on everything, Romney's own personal appeal problems, and the limits placed on what parts of Romney's bio he allowed his campaign to trumpet, all in all I think the campaign has done about as well as you could have hoped.

Conservatives dumping on the Romney campaign are doing so to explain why Romney is losing in a way that validates their worldview. The reality is that Republican agenda is not all that popular with the public. The party brand is still damaged from the Bush presidency and generally polls confirm that voters prefer the specifics of the Democrats' plans to the Republicans' plans on nearly every issue of importance. You wouldn't know that if you got your news from the Right-wing media bubble, but with the exception of the "deficit", voters give Obama/Democrats more trust and support on every single issue that matters. Obama is even beating Romney on the economy at the moment.

Romney himself may not be trusted as a true conservative by the base, but make no mistake - his campaign and his economic plan are the most conservative in years. Romney has been forced to take a very hard line on social issues. And his economic plan is the most conservative in decades. As noted during the DNC, Romney's campaign is ultimately Bush's economic plan, Cheney's foreign policy, and Santorum's views on social issues. It's a combination of all of the unpopular things the Republican party has advocated over the last decade with a flip-flopping Gordon Gekko as the chief messenger. And people are surprised he's trailing?

The Fox, Limbaugh, Hannity, etc., nexus will inevitably spin a Romney loss as a result of him not being conservative enough or not communicating the specifics of those swell conservative plans well enough. They haven't come to grips with the possibility that their ideas just aren't that popular right now. Romney has acquiesced to every demand of the far right and even put golden boy Paul Ryan on the ticket, yet somehow he's not being conservative enough to much of the base?

This was an election that was always going to be much more difficult for Republicans to win than they had anticipated. And the selection of Romney as the candidate made it nearly impossible to run a coherent campaign that could also appeal to swing voters. It is not the fault of the campaign, it's the fault of this particular candidate and the cynicism of the party that made it so difficult for the candidate to be himself. After four years of obstruction and incoherence on policy, Mitt Romney is without a doubt the candidate the party deserves. He might even be the candidate they need too if it results in a decisive Electoral College loss as well as the loss of the House majority.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Did Clinton's Response to the Medicare Attacks Win the Election for Obama?


We still won't really know what kind of post-Convention bounce Obama will get until early next week. But one essential goal in this convention was for the Democrats to clear up any confusion over the Medicare issue. Since the 2010 Midterm elections the Republicans have hammered the Dems over the "cuts" to Medicare in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and in the process drove up support among voters 50 and over. When your base is old white people, this issue was teed up for them.

Of course President Obama was never going to win a majority of voters in this demographic, but he had to close the gap that opened up 2 years ago. Let's face it, older white voters typically lean Republican anyway. And when you add the race factor, it was always going to be an uphill climb for Obama with these voters. They were preconditioned to believe the distortions about the "Medicare "cuts" with Obama, more so than they'd be with President Clinton for the same reason that a lot of older white women put both hands on their pocketbooks when they see a black guy walking down the street.

But much like Republicans always have a built-in edge with voters on matters of the military and foreign policy, Democrats have always enjoyed a historical "trust" edge with voters on health care, particularly Medicare. This is for good reason, since the Democrats created the Medicare beneficiary program and have defended it from Republican attempts at cuts and privatization for over 40 years.

Some voters may not remember, but President Clinton "cut" Medicare in the 1990's. In exchange for slight benefit cuts (i.e. higher premiums for seniors, most of which were directed at the more well-to-do seniors), Clinton reduced the rate of growth and plowed the savings back into the Medicare trust fund to extend the life of the program.

The ACA essentially did the same thing. It reduced the rate of growth and cut payments to providers and insurance companies, which was estimated to save $716B over 10 years. And then it used that money to close the Medicare prescription drug donut hole (created by a bill Paul Ryan voted for, by the way) and extend the life of the program. Providers and insurance companies agreed to the Medicare payment cuts in exchange for the millions of new customers they will now be getting as a result of what the ACA does to provide access to insurance for people who are under the Medicare eligibility age. You have to look at the ACA in its entirety and not just the Medicare portion to understand how it all works.

Anyway, Clinton explains it better here:
Now, there were two other attacks on the president in Tampa I think deserve an answer. First, both Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan attacked the president for allegedly “robbing Medicare” of $716 billion. That’s the same attack they leveled against the Congress in 2010, and they got a lot of votes on it. But it’s not true.

Look, here’s what really happened. You be the judge. Here’s what really happened. There were no cuts to benefits at all, none.

What the president did was to save money by taking the recommendations of a commission of professionals to cut unwarranted subsidies to providers and insurance companies that were not making people healthier and were not necessary to get the providers to provide the service.

And instead of raiding Medicare, he used the savings to close the donut hole in the Medicare drug program.
And -- you all got to listen carefully to this. This is really important -- and to add eight years to the life of the Medicare trust fund so it is solvent until 2024. So...
So President Obama and the Democrats didn’t weaken Medicare. They strengthened Medicare.
Now, when Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama’s Medicare savings as, quote, “the biggest, coldest power play,” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry...
... because that $716 billion is exactly to the dollar the same amount of Medicare savings that he has in his own budget!
You got to give one thing: It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.
It’s important, because a lot of people believe this stuff. Now, at least on this issue, on this one issue, Governor Romney has been consistent. He...
He attacked President Obama, too, but he actually wants to repeal those savings and give the money back to the insurance company.
He wants to go back to the old system, which means we’ll reopen the donut hole and force seniors to pay more for drugs, and we’ll reduce the life of the Medicare trust fund by eight full years.
So if he’s elected, and if he does what he promised to do, Medicare will now go broke in 2016. Think about that. That means after all we won’t have to wait until their voucher program kicks in, in 2023, to see the end of Medicare as we know it. They’re going to do it to us sooner than we thought.
Now, folks, this is serious, because it gets worse. And you won’t be laughing when I finish telling you this. They also want to block grant Medicaid and cut it by a third over the coming 10 years. Of course, that’s going to really hurt a lot of poor kids.
But that’s not all. A lot of folks don’t know it, but nearly two-thirds of Medicaid is spent on nursing home care for Medicare seniors who are eligible for Medicaid.
It’s going to end Medicare as we know it. And a lot of that money is also spent to help people with disabilities, including...
... a lot of middle-class families whose kids have Down’s syndrome or autism or other severe conditions.
And, honestly, just think about it. If that happens, I don’t know what those families are going to do. So I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to do everything I can to see that it doesn’t happen. We can’t let it happen. We can’t.

And then he dropped the mic.

Not only did he set the facts straight on Medicare, he also reminded everyone that Medicaid isn't just a program for poor people (as noted by Alec MacGillis on Twitter), that seniors and people with disabilities depend on Medicaid too.

And the cuts Romney-Ryan want to make to that program would devastate many families.

Recall, even with a booming economy in 1996, Clinton only managed to get 49% of the vote. With Ross Perot running again, he was still able to win an easy re-election partially by convincing many seniors that Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and the Republicans in Congress would follow through on their long stated goals to "let Medicare wither on the vine and die." Voters trusted Clinton and Gore on Medicare even after the cuts because Dole was stuck defending a more radical plan. Most voters believed that Clinton really did want to strengthen Medicare because that is what Democrats have always done. And most voters believed that Republicans really wanted to dismantle the program because that's what they have always tried to do.

Sound familiar?

If the Obama campaign doesn't end up using snippets of Clinton's comments in campaign ads this fall, they are really missing out on a golden opportunity. With post-Presidential approval ratings hovering around 70%, Clinton is the closest thing we have in this divided country to a statesman who most people like and trust.

With a slow recovery and unpredictable job growth, Obama is going to need to emphasize Medicare, foreign policy, and tax code fairness, among other things, the next few months. And Clinton may have helped him enough with seniors in states like Florida and the swing states in the Rust Belt in November, to allow Obama to make the closing argument on protecting Medicare, Medicaid, and ultimately the ACA.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Return of the Bubba

For some reason after this POTUS bro-hug......

I thought of this.

To many of us Democrats, 2008 was A New Hope, 2010 was The Empire Strikes Back, and hopefully 2012 will be Return of the Jedi. I guess that makes the 1990's and early to mid-aughts The Clone Wars, the Ewoks are the Occupy movement, and oh, right - focus.

Continuing this analogy, last night Bill Clinton was much like the veteran Jedi master reminding everyone of the battles he had to fight against a similar obstructionist GOP Congress and providing an argument for a path forward.

The theme of the night was the contrast of "We're in this together" vs. "You're on your own." Most of the speakers hammered this point home repeatedly.

This would be an ideal theme song for the campaign:

Ben Lee - "All in This Together"