Saturday, July 25, 2009

Is This Year 1 of the Clinton Administration Again?

Today is day 188 of the Obama Administration. He has served 12.9% of his elected term. As health care languishes and his poll numbers have started (continued?) to drop off, it begs the question -- is this a replay of the Clinton Administration?

Health Care
Health Care reform is stalled in congress, no two ways about it. The possibility of passage of a bill prior to the August recess looks to be essentially nil. Blue Dogs in the House and moderates in the Senate are concerned about re-election and worried about the cost. The insurance industry is running wall-to-wall commercials opposing reform. Poll numbers on the subject are not particularly encouraging. Feel a little like 1993?

I will update the charts when I return from Australia but there is no doubt that President Obama's numbers have continued to fall during the month of July. Perhaps most significantly, July 24th marked the first poll release by a non-partisan organization that showed the President with disapproves that exceeded his approves -- the Rasmussen poll had him at -2% (49% approve, 51% disapprove). While this is only one data point and the Rasmussen poll has fairly consistently shown his numbers lower than other major polls, it is still significant in that it opens at least the possibility for opposing politicans that opposing the President may be the popular thing to do. Feeling like 1993 yet?

Stepping In It
President Obama has been rapidly trying to walk back this past week a statement he made that police had "acted stupidly" in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., which has reopened national wounds around the interreleated of race, profiling and police conduct. President Obama's words were ironically self-describing and it is the most significant verbal gaffe he has mdae since coming on the national stage. Gays in the military, 1993, anyone?

What's Different
The President HAS signed into law one major piece of legislation, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- President Clinton failed to get his much more modest stimulus. The President has also signed significant legislation expanding children's health care, changing pay discrimination law and protecting consumer holders of credit cards. The bulk of the economic recovery is likely to come and that should improve the President's numbers, particularly if people associate the recovery with the stimulus bill.

Still, it isn't hard for me to see a scenario where Health Care fails, unemployment stays high and the GOP wins huge gains in 2010 (although I still can't conceive of a scenario where they could retake the Senate.) President Obama isn't looking much like a new kind of politician these days. Those transformational speeches are a distant memory. The time for leadership is now.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Quick Takes: Fighter Jets, Aussie Prosperity, American Recovery

Senate Cancels F-22's
In one of the best moves that I've seen Congress make this year, the Senate has passed an ammendment to slash funding for the F-22 fighter jet and in its place to restore an equivalent amount of funding to military operations. This vote, which was led by Democrats but was fairly bipartisan in nature, with many Senators crossing the aisle on both sides, passed 58-40.

The F-22 is a phenomenal waste of money and a giveaway to defense contractors. Billions of dolalrs have been spent and billions more initially appropriated for the planes. The F-22 is a fighter jet, not a bomber. Can you even remember the last time we had an air-to-air war?

The F-22 couldn't have been used in the Persian Gulf War, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, The Second Gulf War, Afghanistan or indeed any conflict that we've fought in since World War II.

The money is FAR better spent shoring up military operations and increasing recruitment and retention. It may be flashy, but it isn't worth it.

Aussie Prosperity
As I spend the next two weeks in Australia, I'm struck by how unaffected the Aussies are by the global recesison. Unemployment is around 5%, although it is projected to potentially reach between 7% and 8%. They have all kinds of questions about how bad the economy is in the US, but it is the sort of distant question that you might ask about how bad things are in Darfur. The question I can't figure out is: what are they doing that we aren't?

American Recovery
Things are continuing to look modestly better in the U.S. The stock market has been soaring the past week (although still way, way off it's highs), corporate earnings have been looking strong, Fed Chairman Ben Bernake is talking as much about inflation risk these days versus economic recovery.

These may all be good things, but most Americans won't believe the corner has been turned until unemployment starts falling. Hopefully we are close.

On the stimulus front, for the latest week, the Feds report:
Money Authorized: $183.4 billion (36.8%)
Money Spent: $64.4 billion (12.9%)

Six months into the Obama Presidency, the stimulus is really just getting going. Transportation, which I consider to be the core of stimulus activity, has approved $21.2 billion in projects, but has still only spent $683 million. If I'm right and most Americans measure the economy by unemployment, Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood needs to get these projects moving.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Barack Obama, A Presidency in Trouble?

Barack Obama has been President of the United States for 182 days or roughly one eighth of his elected term. In the past couple of weeks an increasing theme has emerged, first in the conservative blogosphere and more recently in the main stream media -- is the President on the ropes?

Boy, a lot changes quickly in politics. Six months ago, as the President was sworn into office before huge, adoring crowds it felt like he could do no wrong. Sure, Rush Limbaugh hoped he would fail, but we expect as much from Rush. As for the vast majority of us -- all the Democrats, most of the independents and at least half the Republicans, we all wanted him to do well. We believed he might really be that special, different kind of politican that could change to tone in Washington. What a long time ago that seems like.

So what is the health of the Presidency of Barack Obama? Let's do a run down.

I. The Agenda
Coming into office, President Obama made his policy priorities crystal clear. There were a lot of promises (more on that later) but only 3 clear priorities: Economic Stimulus, Energy Policy and Universal Healthcare.

Let's look at where he stands on each:
a. Economic Stimulus
What He Sought: A large ($700-$800 billion) stimulus package that would pass with a fair amount of Republican support (his stated goal was 80 votes in the Senate) that would stabilize the economy and hold the line on unemployment at 8%.
What He Got: A large ($787 billion) stimulus package, passed in a highly partisan manner (a highly partisan index score of 0.94) that has failed to stop unemployment from rising to 9.5%.

My Analysis:
That the President got such a large bill through congress so quickly was an impressive feat. The way the bill was designed (with the spending spread over 2+ years), the practical fact is that it is impossible to judge the effectiveness of the bill at this juncture. What the President does have is a PR nightmare, partly self-inflicted. Stating a concrete goal of holding unemployment to 8% while in a turbulent, unpredictable economic situation was a huge tactical error. The structure of the bill (funding primarily flows through state governments and private enterprise), while it may have made the bill politically palatable to some makes the PR all the harder. FDR could point to a concrete 4.5 million people who were being employed by the Feds on infrastructure programs. Obama has to rely on vague economic theory about how many jobs were created.

The Verdict: Too soon to tell. If unemployment begins falling, Republican arguments that the stimulus isn't helping will be academic -- people will consider it a success. If unemployment keeps rising, expect the drum beat to get louder and some vulnerable Democrats to start jumping ship from the Obamaonomics wagon.

b. Energy Policy
What He Sought: A broad-based reform of energy policy that includes increased fuel economy standards, higher standards for renewable energy, higher standards for building energy efficiency, and, most critically, a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions.
What He Got: Fuel efficiency standards -- done. The rest of his goals are addressed 100% by the climate change bill that very narrowly passed the house. Senate prospects remain very much in doubt.

My Analysis:
President Obama has laid out an ambitious agenda. A liberal bent to the House, some compromises on carbon credits to coal-users and some political strong-arming got the bill through the lower body of congress. The Senate is almost sure to weaken provisions in the bill and it may be a battle to get any sort of meaningful legislation fail.

The Verdict: Of Obama's 3 central agenda items, this is the one on which he can most afford to fail. He made it a central theme, but does anybody seriously think that if the economy recovers and people get universal healthcare that any significant number of swing voters will care that we didn't do cap and trade? Prospects are probably 50/50 that the President gets a meaningful law ot sign.

c. Universal Healthcare
What He Sought: A bill that creates universal access to affordable health care for all Americans.
What He Got: An expansion of the SCHIP program from 7 million to 11 million kids. Other than that, not a significant bill through either house of congress.

My Analysis:
Odds on this look long. Blue Dog Democrats are demanding serious changes to legislation in the House. The Senate looks even more divided. The ONLY way I can see a bill getting to the President's desk this year is by giving serious ground -- giving up on the "public option" in favor of subsidized exchanges. Limiting government aid to the more needy. Relaxing the rules on "play or pay" to exclude more small businesses. These are painful sacrifices for a guy who once supported single-payer health care. But it is this or no bill, in my opinion. And the President needs to get off the sidelines and start leading on this one.

The Verdict: As I've often noted, President Clinton survived failing on this issue. I'm not sure President Obama will. With Democrats firmly in control of both Houses of congress, if we can't get Health Care Reform done, we might as well have Republicans.

II. Public Approval
The President is not the PR dynamo that he once was, but all is not lost. The Gallup Approval numbers (the ones that I always use for comparability to previous Presidents due to the wealth of available data) peg him at 60% approval for today and an average of 59% for the past week of data. This puts him right about average for Post-World War II Presidents. Not exactly a home run, but not an overt failure either. It means he doesn't have the political capital to strong-arm things through a reluctant congress, but it also doesn't make his agenda poision, the way President Bush's was late in his second term.

III. The Promises has documented 515 promises that President Obama made on the campaign trail. Of these, it rates that he has fulfilled 32 of them, compromised on 10 of them (partially fulfilled them) and broken 7 of them. This is a decent batting average on the one she has dealt with so far -- if we give 1 point for a kept promise, half a point for a compromise and zero points for a broken promise, the President is batting 76% on the promises he has dealt with.

But he has only dealt with 9.5% of them. Sure his term is only 12.5% in, but he is falling behind. A promise not acted on in his term equals a promise broken at the end of the day.

We didn't have for past Presidents, so it's hard to set a benchmark, but I'd say that 50% kept is a pretty good standard from what I have seen of past Presidents. The President has a lot of ground to cover on a lot of issues to even meet that, relatively unambitious-sounding mark.

The good news? Politifact shows 78 promises as "in the works", meaning that the President is pushing for action on them. If fulfilled, these represent over 15% of his total promises.

So is the Obama Presidency in crisis? No. But he isn't the messiah either. The next 4 months will be fairly criticial to my assessment of the President's success. Two questions more than any will define his success or failure:
(1) Will he find a way to get a health care bill through?
(2) Will economic growth return and unemploymetn start to fall?

If the answer winds up being yes to both, the President may well be bulletproof for years to come. If the answer winds up no, watch out for a dramatic swing in power in 2010.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!

I'm traveling through Australia on business for the next two weeks. Once I get adjusted to the jet-lag and caught up a little on the news, I will be posting blogs remotely. For now, I appreciate your patience -- I have basically been traveling all weekend and haven't had much chance to get caught up on the news.

Suffice it to say:
(1) Sotomayor is still a lock for confirmation
(2) Health Care reform appears to be in big trouble (more on that in my next blog)
(3) The budgeting process continues in congress
(4) President Obama is still popular, but has continued to show diminished strength in his ratings in July

More to come very soon!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sotomayor - Cool Under Fire, What is the GOP Position on the Economy?

Sonia Sotomayor, A Shoe-In
Over the last two days, the Senate Judiciary committee has begun its required confirmation hearings of Supreme Court-Designee Sonia Sotomayor. These hearings lack much drama, since as Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) pointed out, the outcome is virtually assured. Sotomayor will be confirmed. The only interesting questions are whether the respective parties score any political points and how large the margin of confirmation will be (something approximating a 75/25 split would appear likely to this observer, with all Democrats voting for confirmation and a sizeable number of Republicans.)

Sotomayor handled complex questions about third-rail issues of law such as abortion, gun ownership, affirmative action and others with a strong command of the law, sound-reasoning and the kind of artful evasion around nailing down specific viewpoints that we have come to expect from candidates in the post-Bork era.

Democrats such as Leahy, Franken and Whitehouse heaped the praise on Sotomayor's resume and tossed up softball questions. Graham, Sessions and company pressed her harder, but were professional and respectful in their questioning.

In the end, I thought Sotomayor was extremely cool under fire. My only criticism is that I believe she was blatantly deceitful in her response to questions around the now-infamous "wise latina woman" remark. Her response to the question was essentially that it had been an inartful attempt to express the same sentiment as Sandra Day O'Connor had expressed when she had said that a wise man and a wise woman would hopefully reach the same conclusion. Um, sorry Judge, but I read the quote in its entire context and it is readily evident to me that you were consciously REBUTTING O'Connor's point of view. And that should be okay. It's okay to think that your Latina heritage provides you a unique perspective that isn't on the court today. It is okay to think it is important to have those diverse perspectives on the court. If Sotomayor feels she needs to lie about these views that she so obviously holds, what a sad day indeed.

The GOP Position on the Economy
To gather form the GOP criticism the last few days of the Obama economic program: we are spending too much money and incurring too much debt, and furthermore the stimulus is a failure because we aren't spending the money fast enough. Huh? Not spending the stimulus fast enough? Shouldn't that criticism be coming from the left? I thought this spending wasn't going to help?

This Admiral Stockdale-like (sorry for those of you under 25, you probably have no idea what I'm referencing) ping-ponging of viewpoints illustrates the central problem for the GOP: they do not have a coherent economic policy today.

The context of the history of GOP economic theories is pretty simple. Pre-1980, the GOP was very focused on the concept of deficit reduction. The belief was that a balanced budget would lead to more stable and effective capital markets and money would be freed up to invest in innovation and growth rather than tied up in government bonds. In 1980, that all changed with the advent of Reagonomics. The theory behind Reagonomics essentially was: taxes are a burden on the economy and by cutting taxes, particularly on the upper-class, you can spur investment and job creation which will ultimately increase wealth for all and increase the tax base. The theory was etched on a napkin when the infamous Laugher curve was born, which expressed the theory that raising tax rates could actually supress tax revenue by supressing growth.

So what is the theory today? It can't be that tax cuts cure all ills. We've cut taxes many times over the past few years (the Bush cuts, which heavily impacted the upper brackets, the Bush Stimulus package and now with the most recent stimulus package) and our economy has been in shambles. It's also hard to go back to the balanced budget theory when you had your hand in taking us from a surplus to an eye-popping $1.5 trillion+ deficit.

So, what is the GOP arguing right now? I'm not exactly sure, other than to say that what Obama is doing isn't working. It seems they are attempting to meld the two classic Republican arguments by arguing on the one hand to cut taxes and not allow upper-income tax breaks to expire while on the other hand argue that our deficit is out of control. It's a two-step that doesn't pass intellectual muster and doesn't make for real good bumper stickers. "Tax cuts for the rich! Because government spending is bad!"

What the GOP SHOULD be arguing right now is for government-guided but market-driven solutions to problems like health care, carbon emissions, etc. They should be proposing that a real stimulus would involve upgrading our electrical grid, not making Medicaid transfer payments to states. They SHOULD be developing and presenting a REAL balanced budget (with actual numbers this time) since President Obama has not shown us anything close to one in the next ten years. They should be doing all these things. But that would require leadership.

Where are Jack Kemp and William F. Buckley when you need them?

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Burris Out -- Checking In on 2010

Burris Will Not Seek Full Term
In what may have been the easiest political decision in recent years, Senator Roland Burris (D-IL), arguably the least popular member of the body (arguable only because of our old friend Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY)) apparently will not seek a full term in 2010. Burris, as you will recall, was appointed by the Gov. "A Senate Seat is a Valuable F***ing Thing" Blago right before he was yanked from office. Burris has been an utter embarrassment to the Democratic caucus and they should all be thrilled that he is standing aside, leaving the Illinois seat to a Democrat who could actually win.

With Burris out, it is a perfect time to re-look at my 2010 projections. Here are the latest changes:

Moves from toss-up to lean Democratic hold. Illinois is a very blue state and with Burris gone, the donkeys are a good bet to hold on here, although the Blago/Burris stink still lingers.

Moves from lean GOP hold to likely GOP hold. Recent polls have had Charlie Crist up by 18 to 25%. I was close to moving this one to a "safe hold", but it seems a little early to declare an open seat safe, although this is certainly not looking good for the Dems.

New Hampshire
Moves from toss-up to lean Democratic pick-up. Three recent polls all have Dems winning all potential match-ups, by margins of 2 to 6%.

So this leaves us with:
Safe Democratic Holds -- 8
Hawaii, Maryland, New York (2), Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin
Likely Democratic Holds -- 5
Delaware, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania
Lean Democratic Holds -- 3
California, Arkansas, Illinois
Lean Democratic Pick-ups -- 3
Kentucky, Ohio, New Hampshire
Toss-ups (Democratic Controlled) -- 1
Toss-ups (Republican Controlled) -- 1
Lean GOP Pick-ups -- 1
Lean GOP Holds -- 2
North Carolina, Georgia
Likely GOP Holds -- 6
Florida, Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota
Safe GOP Holds -- 6
Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah

So, netting everything, I project:
Democratic Gain of 0 to 2 seats
Best case for GOP (pick-up of all the leans in both directions): GOP gain of 6 seats
Best case for the Dems (pick-up of all the leans in both directions: DEM gain of 5 seats

So, we are still looking at a fairly neutral mid-term with virtually no chance for control to change hands, but a lot left to be decided in terms of margin.

In the house -- current generic polling is at Dems +5%, leading to an updated projection of:
GOP gain of 8 to 16 seats

As with previous projections, the GOP makes a dent in the huge Dem majority in the house, but not near enough to get close to parity.

There is still a long time to go until 2010 and the GOP is starting to look a little more energized as President Obama's numbers have slipped some, so they certainly shouldn't give up hope yet, but it continues to look like a long road back for the once-might elephants.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sarah Palin -- Smart or Crazy?, Some Pause for the Prez, 2nd Stimulus?, Healthcare?

First and foremost, let me apologize for the length of time between recent posts. As I mentioned in my last post, I was out of town for a few days over the holiday and regrettably came down with some ugly flu symptoms. Fortunately, I'm back at least to about 70 or 80% of normal and ready to talk some politics. So let's get to it.

Ex-Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK)
The question around political circles since Sarah Palin's unexpected and seemingly odd resignation has come down to the classic one-word question: why? A cunning political move to free her up to run for President in 2012? An escape from ethics probes that would damn her? Caribou Barbie yielding under the pressure?

Probably more than one of the above. My assessment is that a combination of Presidential ambition and personal finances.

Let's examine the political implications first. Governor Palin could not have effectively run for re-election in 2010. Think about it -- she'd have to campaign hard in Alaska (and frankly, risk losing, with dropping popularity there) all the way through November, be resworn into office in January 2011 if she won and then immediately start campaigning for President. It would look horrible, not to mention the fact that having a home base in Alaska is absolute nomansland for waging a national campaign and would have created a logistical and public relations nightmare. So why she was out in 2010 is easy.

So why not serve out the term? First of all, because only bad things were going to happen in Alaska. Her popularity was diminishing, she was already receiving local scorn for national appearences and doing good things for Alaska doesn't really help you win a Republican Presidential nomination process. Secondly, money. As a sitting Governor, Palin cannot accept fees for public speaking appearences. Also, by Alaska law, she must pay the cost of fighting ethics complaints out of her own pocket. And there have been a ton of ethics complaints. Palin is calling dirty pool on the ethics complaints and she may well be right, but the law makes no stipulation for whether the complaints are fair -- she has to pay out of personal funds. Resign and those ethics complaints go away and she is free to accept $25K a pop speaking engagements.

Make no mistake about it, I absolutely believe Palin is running in 2012 and I don't count her out for a second. A couple of liberal friends of mine couldn't believe I held this point of view as they considered her a lightweight.

But consider this: she drew bigger crowds and more passion than John McCain in 2008 and she is a darling among social conservatives who are the biggest block that shows up to vote in Republican primaries and caucuses. There are few credible 2012 nominees left: Jindal crashed and burned in his first national appearence, Sanford and Ensign are embroiled in nasty affairs and there isn't a single viable candidate that I can see in congress. Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty are the only top-tier candidates that I see. And Huckabee and Romney don't have real day jobs either, so it's no disadvantage against them for Palin to be out of office.

I'm not calling her a favorite yet, but I did take a bet from one of my friends who offered me 10:1 odds against her winning the nomination. I think she is better than a 10:1 shot. But a lot can happen in the 3 years between now and when the nomination will be decided. A white knight (or white elephant) could show up. Palin could be forgotten. Obama could be so popular that no A-listers decide to run. But as I've said many times, don't count the most charismatic, attractive and freshest face on the GOP scene out of this. Not by a long shot.

Presidential Approval -- Storm Clouds Forming?
President Obama continues to slowly slip in public opinion polls. The latest daily tracker is below.

As of today, his approve minus disapprove stands at 20.7%, his lowest score yet (although still 13.5% higher than his vote spread last November.) He has precious few upward ticks in the trend which seems to have been steadily but slowly downward.

Looking at the monthly averages, President Obama finished June down 2.9% from May and is on pace to shed about the same again in July, although he may lose more as the pace of decline has been more rapid in the past week.

The breakdown by poll-type is even more sobering:
Adult Americans: +26%
Registered Voters: +22%
Likely Voters: +5%

According to the one "likely voter" model poll -- the Rasmussen Poll, President Obama is actually slightly behind where he was in November. Now, I have questions about why the Rasmussen numbers are so far off the registered voter numbers from respected firms like Quinnepiac -- a 5 point spread wouuld be more typical than a 17 point spread, but in the absence of another likely voter model, we go with what we've got.

So what's causing this decline? As James Carville said in 1992, it's the economy, stupid. Independents are starting to fear that we are spending a ton of money to little effect. They know we passed a $787 billion stimulus package and that since then unemployment has continued to soar all the way up to 9.5%. The stock market is up from its lows but way off its highs and has a case of the jitters the past couple of weeks. There are whispers about a second stimulus and the Vice President out there saying the administration "misjudged" the economic crisis. Thanks for the brilliant spin, as usual, Joe. I need to amend my column on Obama's cabinet duds to include the Vice Presidency, because he is clearly Dud #1 amongst Obama's staff picks, way ahead of mini-Dud Tim Geithner.

Stimulus Update
The reality is that it is crazy to talk about a second stimulus at this point -- we've barely scratched the surface on the first one. Here's the latest spend updates.

So...we've authorized 35% of the bill's spending ($174.9 billion as of last week) and spent only 12% ($60.4 billion as of last week.) $60.4 billion in spending. The process has been slow, but not unexpectedly so. Leveraging public money to fund private job creation is a compliacted and long process if you want to do it right. This plan needs time to work. It does cause one to question whether the quicker tonic would have been to go the route FDR went -- simply hire people on the government payroll. While it is arguable whether FDR's massive public works programs ultimately helped pull the economy out of the depression, they absolutely did blunt the impact of unemployment. In fact, unemployment dropped every month of FDR's first year in office and never returned to its peak. Would that President Obama could say so now.

Bottom line is -- the President will be judged in both the 2010 mid-terms and his 2012 re-election campaign on two central themes: did he fix the economy? and did he keep his promises?

Economic conditions right now aren't his concern although they may cost him some political capital. We've already highlighted that Presidential approval at this stage is not particularly instructive to re-electability. But if unemployment is still approaching double digits in 2010, prepare for a donkey bloodbath. And if it's still that way in 2012, get comfortable with the idea of a President Palin or Romney.

Hope for Compromise on Health Care Reform?
It's getting dicey as we all knew it would. There is general alignment in the Democratic caucus and among Republican moderates that broadening access to health care is a worthy legislative goal. It's pricey (although not as pricey as it sounds, as covered in a previous post) and no one can agree how to pay for it.

The Democratic leadership would be wise to listen to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and take taxing employer-provided healthcare benefits off the table. It would be massively unpopular and make a liar out of President Obama, who has repeatedly claimed that "if you like your health care, you will be able to keep it". Taxing employer benefits would surely lead to large reductions in employer-provided benefits. The purist in me says that might be a good thing as the tax-incentive induced employer-provided system is part of the problem. But the pragmatist in me knows the country isn't ready to completely flip the current model on its head. Let's keep working on Medicare cost cuts, world-class perscription drug prices and look at sin taxes and exemption phase-outs to fill the gaps. But let's get the middle class comfortable with the notion that they will have to bear some of the burden. We simply can't fund this with just taxes on those making over $250K -- there isn't enough money there to get.

Appropriations Rolls On
The house is on a break-neck pace moving through appropriations bills and even the Senate is moving along. At this pace, Congress might actually get all the bills passed before the new fiscal year starts in October, a feat rarely accomplished in the past 12 years. I guess it helps to have one party in power in both the legislative and executive branches.

The House has already passed appropriations for: the Legislative Branch, the Commerce and Justice Departments, the Homeland Security Department, the Defense Department, the Interior Department and is actively debating the bill for the Department of Agriculture and FDA.

The Senate, which has to go second on all the bills and always moves more slowly has passed appropriations for the Legislative Branch and is debating the Homeland Security Department.

The Democrats are, of course, mostly carrying the day in the debates (when you have all the votes, you win most of the votes), but the GOP is winning some small victories, such as an ammendment introduced by Sen. Demint to appropriate money for building a larger border fence with Mexico, which pulled in enough Democratic moderates to pass.

Lots of roll call votes to keep up with -- I'll keep you posted.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Senator Al Franken, A Look at the NJ & VA Gubernatorial Races

Franken Wins the Long Battle
It took nearly 8 months to decide, but as of yesterday, Al Franken (D-MN) has won his extremely close-fought battle with now former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) for Minnesota's second Senate seat. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday against Coleman's appeal of the certified recount results, with had Franken with a razor-thin 312 vote margin. Coleman has conceded and will not appeal to a federal court. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has stated he will sign the election certificate. Many were expecting Coleman to fight on if he lost in the state Supreme Court, but the ruling was unanimous and pretty decisive and it seems unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court would have had any interest in weighing in. Elections this close are always tough because no mechanism that we have for counting votes is perfect and when you are talking about tiny fractions of a percent deciding a race, even a very small error can tilt the balance. But the evidence seems to be that Franken won narrowly and will be the next Senator from Minnesota.

Two parting thoughts on this race -- first about the impact on the Senate. Much has been made in the media of the fact that Al Franken gives Senate Democrats the 60-vote supermajority that they need to bust fillibusters without Republican support. While that is technically true, if you count Independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders with the Democrats (Bernie is definitely a left-winger, Lieberman's record is more mixed although he certainly tends to the left on domestic issues), it misses the point. Parties don't vote in lock-step. The power still lies with the moderates: Ben Nelson (D-NE), Arlen Specter (D-PA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Dick Lugar (R-IN). Franken figures to be a reliably liberal vote, so the net effect is that the Democrats will need to pull in one less moderate on crucial votes to break a fillibuster. They will, in most cases, have 57 reliably Democratic votes (excluding the Democrats and Independent listed above), but in many cases only 55 as Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) are both very ill and will likely be only available for major pieces of legislation. This means that they will need to hold all the moderately liberal and liberal Senators and peel off 3 to 5 of the above to break a fillibuster. Also, on specific pieces of legislation, I could certainly see them losing additional votes. On climate change, Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV) might vote his states coal-producing interests rather than his party line, for instance. So, the Dems don't have a "fillibuster-proof" Senate, but 1 added reliably-liberal vote certainly helps them as they take up appropriations, health care and climate change.

My second thought is the continuing disgrace that our electoral technology is. While it seems that the recount process in Minnesota was transparently and fairly run and that the result was as fair as it could be given the circumstances, there is simply no excuse that we don't have a uniform, robust system of voting in this country. Electronic machines, with verified paper print-outs to validate the machines' tabulations could be rolled out nationwide at a very reasonable cost, given what we are spending on economic stimulus, health care and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To be the greatest Democracy on Earth, we need to secure the underpinnings of that Democracy -- the counting of every vote. We need a national voting-technology bill that puts uniform technology in place. If we had uniform electronic machines in Minnesota in 2008 or Florida in 2000, recounts would be as simple as retabulating the machines and sampling some paper print-outs to validate the machine's tabulations. It could be done in a day. No questions. No appeals. No bitter feelings and charges of election-stealing. We deserve this.

The 2009 Elections
It's early in the cycle in New Jersey and Virginia, but there is already a fair amount of polling information. In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine (D) is still trailing, but as many (including myself) had predicted, the race seems to be narrowing. In early June, polls had Republican Chris Christie's lead at 10-13%, the most recent non-partisan poll (sampled just this week) had it at 6%. Corzine still has a tough road to go, as do all incumbent governors, but I believe this will be a pick 'em race by election day. Christie is a good moderate Republican candidate, but New Jersey has been a true blue state for several years and we've seen a lot of early GOP leads crash and burn in that time.

The Virginia race already is a horse-race in this now-purple state, with the polls ranging from Dem +4% to GOP +6%. Virginia will be a test of party status and may give us early insight into what may be in store in the 2010 mid-terms.

Site Updates
I will be traveling with friends over the long weekend, so posts may be a little more scarce. Congress is on recess, so I expect the news will continue to mostly about Michael Jackson anyway.

We had 366 visitors to the site in June, the highest total by far of this year, but I suspect well below the run-up to the election.

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