Sunday, November 16, 2008

Obama Leaves Senate, Ongoing Senate Battles, GOP 2012

Obama Senate Resignation
Barack Obama officially resigned from the US Senate this weekend. This is probably a good strategic move as he doesn't want to be President-Elect amidst the fights in the Senate that will occur in the lame duck session of congress. He is now, for all intents and purposes, the leader of the country and needs to be focusing his time and resources on a successful transition, not on serving in the senate.

Where is Obama?
Obama has been largely absent from the public eye since winning the election -- the only notable exceptions being his brief press conference and the much touted meeting with President Bush at the White House. His aides say he is busy vetting cabinet choices. But we still haven't heard any cabinet choices. It is sort of a shock to the system after seeing Obama constantly on TV that he is largely absent. He has not even commented on Paulson's flip-flop on how to use the bailout money. Is this his "one president at a time theory" or is Obama ducking going on record? I'm not sure, but it appears this will continue for the next two months.

In the cabinet sweepstakes, both Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson have been floated as possible Secretaries of State. I was hoping for a Republican such as Chuck Hagel or Colin Powell to demonstrate Obama's commitment to bi-partisanship and the Obama camp has been mum on the deliberations, so I hold out hope. Either Clinton or Richardson would clearly be qualified, but it would either mean that Obama wouldn't be picking a very bi-partisan cabinet or he would have to do so in his domestic appointments, which is less likely.

I'll keep you posted.

Ongoing Senate Battles
The Democrats have secured 55 senate seats, the Republicans 40 and 2 will be held by independents (former socialist Bernie Sanders who is essentially a Democrat and former Democrat Joe Lieberman, who may or may not caucus with Democrats but tends to vote with them on domestic issues and with Republicans on foreign policy issues.)

The remaining battles are:
Georgia -- Saxby Chambliss won the most votes but failed to cross the 50% threshold and will therefore face a run-off. Given that Georgia had huge African-American turnout for Obama on November 4th that may not all show up for a Senate run-off, it seems more likely than not that Sen. Chambliss will win the run-off. John McCain has been out campaigning for him in Georgia this past week.

Minnesota -- Norm Coleman leads Al Franken by less than 250 votes in the final tallying, obviously triggering a recount. This one still could break either way given how close it is, but my experience tells me that the candidate leading the first count usually wins the recount as well. Do the Democrats really want Al Franken in the Senate when all is said and done? He is a loose cannon and a pretty nasty guy, frankly.

Alaska -- it appears that some sanity may exist in at least half of the Alaskan electorate. Not all the absentee and provisional ballots have been counted yet, but Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich has extended his lead to over 1,000 votes with what has been counted so far. 1,000 votes is more than it sounds like in a state as small as Alaska. Begich appears headed to the senate while Stevens appears headed for 12 cent an hour license plate-making duty.

So, if Georgia and Minnesota break GOP, as I expect they will and Alaska breaks Dem, the Dems will have a working majority of 58-42 on domestic issues and 57-43 on foreign policy issues. Not completely fillibuster proof, but any legislation that peels off a few Republicans (immigration, health care and education all come to mind) will be difficult for the GOP to stop.

We'll see how it all turns out in the next few weeks.

GOP 2012
A lot of ink has been written about the GOP doing soul searching in the wake of Obama receiving a higher percentage of the vote of any Democrat since 1976 and it's worst congressional showing since the post-watergate era of the 1970s. I personally think this talk is a little over-rated. Sure, the GOP is in the worst spot it has been in 30 years. But, think about this:
(1) The presidential race was still only a 6 to 7 point decision. That's not a big percentage of the vote. in 1996, they lost by almost 9% then won in 2000 (granted, while losing the popular vote.) A change in foreign policy position, a change in economic times or a high-profile gaffe and they are back in national contention.
(2) They will probably gain in the mid-terms. It is extremely rare that the incumbent party of a new President does well in the mid-term elections. The GOP retook congress in 1994 after Bill Clinton's win in 1992. I doubt they will retake congress in this case, but I certainly expect them to make inroads.

Having said all that, the GOP needs to decide what type of candidate they want in 2012. From the response at the Republican Governor's meeting, the party is cooling somewhat to Sarah Palin. She is still on the radar and certainly has the best national name recognition, but there are many other choices for the GOP that may have broader appeal: Tim Pawlenty, Charlie Crist, Bobby Jindal, etc. These young, intelligent, articulate and bi-partisan governors are probably the future. Sarah Palin may look a lot less appealing as $60/barrel oil takes its toll on the Alaskan economy. But then again, we may not yet have met the 2012 nominee.

Regardless, I think the Republican party just needs to do a few basic things to put it back in contention:
(1) Revive Economic Conservatism -- John McCain tried to do this late in the campaign by talking about tax and spend liberalism but it lacked credibility given the Bush record. Republicans need to present a coherent case for way government needs to be smaller, how they would shrink deficits and why lower taxes would benefit the populace. A bold proposal like a flat tax or eliminating the income tax in favor of a consumption tax would help. The incrementalism that Bush pushed is a sure loser.
(2) Retake Foreign Policy from the Neocons -- we will likely be out of Iraq by 2012. The party needs to return to its traditional position that we do not get militarily involved in countries unless they present a clear and present danger to our national security. This worked and had credibility in the 80s and 90s, the Iraq war put a huge crack in it.
(3) Let Obama Take Issues Off the Table -- Fred Barnes had a great piece in the weekly standard on this topic. If Obama gets comprehensive immigration reform passed, it takes it off the table as an issue in 2012, the same way that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" took gays in the military off the table. Just letting these issues run their course will help Republicans avoid issues that divide the base.
(4) Push the Popular Parts of Your Social Agenda -- being anti-gay marriage is still (regrettably) popular in the US. Being anti-abortion is not. Knowing the difference and talking about the issues that resonate with the public is critical.

That's all for now...65 days until Obama is sworn in and a lot left to happen.

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