Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Republicans and the Pork Barrel

Josh Marshall had a recent post quoting the Boston Globe on the Republican Congress and the “pork barrel”. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Congressional conference committees, charged with reconciling differences between House- and Senate-passed versions of the same legislation, have become dramatically more powerful in shaping bills. The panels, made up of a small group of lawmakers appointed by leaders in both parties, added a record 3,407 "pork barrel" projects to appropriations bills for this year's federal budget, items that were never debated or voted on beforehand by the House and Senate and whose congressional patrons are kept secret. This compares to just 47 projects added in conference committee in 1994, the last year of Democratic control.

Conference committees are a key part of the legislative process in the U.S. The Globe article notes that Republicans disproportionately dominate them these days.

As Larry King says when he goes to commercial: “More to come”. And they call themselves fiscal conservatives.

There is more on this today from the Boston Globe.


All this is relevant to the matter of political reputation. The Democrats and the Liberals/NDP in Canada have, over the decades, had the reputation of being parties that favoured lots of government spending and big deficits (and higher taxes), while Republicans there and Conservatives here, are reputed to stand for the opposite. The reality of the last 10 years has been that the federal Liberals here and the Clinton Democrats have been the fiscal conservatives, while we have seen governments, such as the Harris Conservatives in Ontario and the Bush Republicans in the U.S., who continue to pay lip service to the idea of lower deficits while cheerfully doing little or nothing about it. What they really believe in are tax cuts whatever the consequences might be. This admittedly oversimplifies a complex reality (and has nothing to do with the merits of a Keynesian approach to fiscal management), but that is what reputations are: simplifications of reality.

I don’t think this newer brand of conservatism has yet altered traditional reputations, much to the advantage at the moment of the Conservatives/Republicans, but the reputations are built on perceptions that can change slowly over time given long enough exposure of the public to new realities. The public in Canada and the U.S. do like the idea of balanced budgets at the present time. This certainly helps the Martin Liberals. So far they are willing to forgive Mr. Bush his fiscal performance. However, his second term could test the limits of this particular reputation.

And all this would be thrown into turmoil if there were to be a deep recession.

Alberta Results

The election results were certainly close to my expectations - a Liberal/NDP sweep in Edmonton, and a relatively weak showing for the governing party, in a province that amounts to a one-party state. The only modest surprise was in Calgary where the Liberals won three seats and came close in two others. Almost all the big cities in Canada are wastelands for the Conservatives both federally and provincially - with the notable exception of Calgary. The first hints of strength for a party other than the Conservatives here might be a harbinger of things to come, in the sense that some constituencies in Calgary might start to become competitive both during federal and provincial elections.

I heard Klein on As It Happens last night expressing some dismay and chagrin, mentioning his surprise in particular at the outcome in Calgary Varsity. Ironically, the riding most expected to fall to the Liberals, Calgary Buffalo, remained Conservative.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Alberta Election

If it were any province other than Alberta, Ralph Klein would be heading for an ignominious defeat on Monday. Sky-high electricity and auto insurance rates plus increasingly eccentric personal behaviour would easily be enough to finish off a typical government. Add to that the fact that Klein is also pledging to make changes to health care although he won’t say what they will be (shades of Kim Campbell circa 1993). Such a defeat almost happened to Bernard Lord last year on the issue of auto insurance alone. But small ‘c’ conservative parties have ruled Alberta for the past 69 years, Social Credit from 1935 to 1971, the PC’s since then, so governmental change is not at issue here. Nevertheless, there have been real signs of dissatisfaction in Alberta.

Two polls out this week, nicely summarized on this post on Calgary Grit, tell us both that Klein stock has taken a nose-dive during the campaign, but that he still has enough votes to win.

The Reid poll, which has the PC’s at 44%, the Liberals at 29% and the NDP at 11%, was taken later than the Calgary Herald Poll, which has the PC’s ahead 47% to 21% for the Liberals and 12% for the NDP. The new Alberta Alliances is at 9% in both polls. These numbers tell me that the PC’s are likely to be all but shut out in Edmonton and the Liberals should get at least one seat in Calgary. The Alberta Alliance, the new conservative party that is rurally-based but running in every riding, is only at 9% in both polls, but they may pick up one or more constituencies in rural Alberta.

My forecast model is not that useful here because riding boundaries have changed since the last election and it takes no account of the Alberta Alliance. The model estimate based on the Reid poll is 61 PC's (down from 74 in 2001) 20 for the Liberals (up from 7) mostly in Edmonton and 2 for the NDP. However, I would not be surprised if the PC vote drifted slightly lower and the Alberta Alliance won a few seats in rural areas pushing the Klein Conservatives into the mid or even the low fifties.

Monday, November 08, 2004

More U.S. Election Bits

This op-ed in The New Republic by two political scientists effectively demolishes the notion that this election was either decisive or gave Bush or the Republicans a mandate. Interestingly they say that mathematical models created by political scientists using economic variables on average predicted Bush would win with 54% of the vote.

There is more good analysis at Talkingpointsmemo here and here.

I also found this post-mortem on Ohio from a journalist in Athens, a small univeristy-centred Kerry-voting town in southern Ohio, interesting. I don't think he reconciles his perception of Ohio as Republican-leaning with the very close outcome in Ohio overall - a switch of 70,000 votes changes the outcome - but his observations are worth reading.

And we all have to keep our eye on Barack Obama. Here is an interesting account of his very successful Senate run.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

A close election

What I am finding amazing post-election is how much idiotic analysis is being foisted on us, primarily by the mainstream media. Much discussion seems to assume the margin in the election was larger than in fact it was.

This was a close election by any measure. Bush won by 3% in the beauty contest, the national popular vote, but in the electoral college, by just 2.5% in Ohio and 1% in Iowa and New Mexico.

I thought Kevin Drum of Political Animal said it best in his own swipe at the media. And Josh Marshall is running a contest to identify the most ludicrous overstatement of the Republican victory.

Today's New York times had a typically weak analysis of the Republican win in Florida focusing on votes in the I-4 corridor. The Republicans did do well there but in seeking explanations, instead of trite observations about the Republicans being well organized and having many volunteers, I like the results of the Florida exit poll question on government response to the hurricanes. This seems to me a key factor given that 87% expressed approval of government action among whom 57% voted for Bush and 43% for Kerry. The I-4 area was the region hardest hit by the hurricanes this year. See here and here, for example.

Overall, looking at Bush's gains among, for example, women and big city dwellers, and given that he campaigned non-stop on the war on terror, it strikes me that as an overall explanation for his slight edge this was the most important influence. He always had a perceived advantage (however unwarranted as Richard Clarke's book makes clear) and exploited it. Many have attributed Republican gains to moral issues but it appears that there was little difference in this respect between 2004 and 2000. This Slate article argues these points well. Also see this post on the Emerging Democratic Majority site.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

More U.S. analysis

The best analysis I have read so far about the election result is an essay in the New Republic called “How Bush went back to the 70’s” by John Judis, Ruy Teixeira and Marisa Katz. It requires a subscription and is too long to post here but here is the first paragraph:

George W. Bush's victory shows that the political strategy that conservative Republicans developed in the late 1970s is still viable. Bush won a large swath of states and voters that were once dependably Democratic by identifying Republicans as the party of social conservatism and national security. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry rallied a powerful coalition of minorities and college-educated professionals based in postindustrial metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In the future, this coalition may triumph on its own. But, in this election, Democratic successes in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and West could not make up for Republican successes in the South, the border states, the Southwest, and the Great Plains. Fittingly, the election was decided in Ohio--a state that combines the metropolitan North and the small-town South.

If you would like a Word copy of the whole thing, send me an email. UPDATE: You can read a large excerpt here.

I also like this post on Kevin Drum. I would read it in conjunction with the Judis essay. He argues rightly in my view that the solution to the Democrats problem of finding a Presidential winner is not to look to the South.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

A little good news...

There was a little good news out of this election: at the state level, particularly in Minnesota, where the DFL is on the verge of re-capturing the State House. See this blog post on MYDD.

Also read the Minneapolis Star-Tribune coverage (registration may be required) of the Democrats' Minnesota House surge. This story has some overtones that remind me of the latter part of the Mike Harris era as Ontarians woke up to the consequences of the low tax, no services regime he espoused.

One of the really significant Democratic wins was in Colorado where they won the State House and Senate for the first time since 1960. This column from the Denver Post is worth a read. Colorado is a state that is now Republican but with trends that suggest the Democrats could take it nationally at some point in the future. They also took the Colorado Senate seat which had been held by a Republican.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

U.S. Election - first observations.

It takes time to digest an election. However, a few observations:

1. The turnout was less than expected - up somewhat but not enough to help Kerry. The good news is that younger voters (18-29) supported Kerry 54-45, the only age cohort in which he won a majority. Don't forget that the Republicans were winning over the young during the Reagan era, which is one reason they have strength now.

2. I had ambivalent feelings about Kerry winning. I thought he was a weak candidate and worried, given his entire life experience as lawyer, prosecutor and senator that his abilities as President might not be terrific. Having said that I found that watching the film on Kerry, Going Upriver, gave me a more positive impression of his leadership abilities. You can download it from the net at this site or rent the DVD. I highly recommend it both as a film on Kerry and as a film on the Vietnam experience.

3. I also think that chickens come home to roost. In Bush's case this means his own Vietnam – the war of choice in Iraq. Read this from Newsweek:

....the reality of Iraq—which is that the insurgents, by most accounts, are winning. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former general who stays in touch with the Joint Chiefs, has acknowledged this privately to friends in recent weeks, NEWSWEEK has learned. The insurgents have effectively created a reign of terror throughout the country, killing thousands, driving Iraqi elites and technocrats into exile and scaring foreigners out.

Now consider that the exit polls show that 44% of Americans think things are ‘Going Well’ in Iraq. Of those 90% voted for Bush accounting for about 80% of his total vote. Who is going to let them in on the secret?

4. Rising oil prices and interest rates and other factors could produce a recession in the U.S. in the next year or two. Economists aren't predicting this but they rarely correctly anticipate downturns.

5. Overall the results wound up being almost a replay of last time. Iowa and New Mexico went narrowly for Gore last time and look like they will go just as narrowly to Bush this time. The reverse is true for New Hampshire where Kerry won narrowly. The popular vote is also not all that different. When I input the 2004 popular vote into my presidential model based on 2000, it makes four errors in predicting states. One is New Hampshire, I think for reasons of geography. The others are Oregon, Minnesota and Wisconsin. This tells me that this election has slightly deepened the divide in the U.S. between red and blue.

6. I don’t take Bush’s rhetoric about uniting the U.S. remotely seriously. He will be under enormous pressure to deliver to the cultural conservatives. Some parts of their agenda may have wide public support – law and order, anti-gay rights to name two – but overall it will be very divisive and much of it, such as his stands against abortion and stem cell research, are unpopular. The worst thing that could happen to a socially conservative Republican regime would be to succeed in implementing some of these very unpopular items in their agenda. If the Supreme Court is tilted to the right sufficiently to reverse Roe vs Wade, it could have quite a harmful impact on Republican popularity. These issues work well for Bush now because he can posture about them without having to deliver. He gets the benefits that way without the potential costs success would bring. Update: moderate Republican Arlen Specter will chair the Senate Judiciary Committe and is warning against the nomination of anti-abortion candidates for the Supreme Court, something some of his colleagues will likely find distressing. Update to the update: it now appears that Arlen Specter has had his ears cuffed for striking a moderate position vis-à-vis Supreme Court appointments. Read here.

7. The other issue that will plague him will be the politics of the deficit. The Republicans are now deeply divided between anti-deficit hawks and pro-deficit supply-siders (like Dick Cheney). With Bush’s re-election out of the way they are free to go after each other with gusto. And it won’t be the only meaningful division in Republican ranks.

8. I have long had the hunch that the Republicans are going to be in for an electoral humiliation at some point. Because of the 'war on terror' I didn't think it would be 2004. Will it be 2006?

9. Finally, let me express my exasperation with the inanity of the tv coverage, especially the windbags like NBC's Tim Russert and CNN's Wolf Blitzer. There were, however, a handful of honourable exceptions: George Stephanopolous on ABC and analyst Stu Rothenberg on CNN are always insightful and interesting, primarily because they actually know something about politics.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Early Omens

The early exit polls have been encouraging for Kerry but the race is close.

All reports so far indicate a heavy turn out. If indeed Kerry is carried to victory by an exceptionally strong turnout, particularly of first-time voters, it will likely help Democrats in close races in the House and Senate. The Conventional Wisdom is that the results there won't see much net change.