Monday, March 22, 2010

The Stupak Star

The ascent of Bart Stupak (D-MI) is an astounding and laudable political maneuver. Stupak has represented Michigan’s First District since 1992 and serves as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. According to statistics at Google Trends, Stupak was a relatively insignificant political force only two years ago. Even as late as September 2009, he was relatively unknown outside of Washington circles.

However, with the heating up of the healthcare debate, Stupak stormed onto the national scene becoming an instant household name. He emerged as a leader of some ten pro-life Congressmen and women that threw a wrench into Pelosi’s plans. It was only with a promise, by President Obama, to sign an executive order affirming the long-standing federal policy of non-funding of abortions that Stupak and his gang decided to support the bill.

His support for and ultimate passage of the legislation has disappointed many newfound supporters on the right, who feel betrayed by his commitment to the 'sanctity of life’. The pro-life Susan B. Anthony List group has even revoked an award that they were to present to him. Some reports indicate a growing political movement fomenting against him in Northern Michigan. A Republican doctor, Daniel Benishek, who has never held political has stepped forward to run against Stupak in the upcoming election. Benishek has quickly amassed a large following.

However, despite the fallout from his actions, Stupak’s political strategy – whether intentional or not – will reap him many rewards. It is unlikely that Republicans can mount a significant challenge against him. The district he represents has been in Democratic hands since 1933. Stupak has been its representative for the past 18, winning over 65% of the vote in all four of the last elections that were stuffed with as many as five candidates. The Cook Report ranks Stupak’s district as a “Solid D[emocrat]”.

Furthermore, if Stupak faces even the slightest uphill battle in his campaign, it is undeniable that the Democratic war chest and even Pelosi and Obama will come to a quick rescue. After winning his support for their pet project they would be foolish to let him, out of all Congressional Democrats, swing.

The brilliance in Stupak’s maneuvers is that he successfully capitalized on his unique position to launch himself into the national spotlight. Not only did he become the leader of the pro-life Congressional Democrats, but he outshone all of them. He managed to steal the spotlight and make his person and his issues the prime focus of America. The media, Washington, and most Americans sat, white-knuckled, waiting for his decision on Sunday. By ultimately falling in line with the Democrats he has ingratiated himself to the leadership while making himself nationally famous (or infamous).

The execution of his rise is almost so categorically perfect that one, maybe cynically, wonders if he was a “Yes” vote all along. The executive order that facilitated his vote is, as Stupak admitted, tenuous. Many may argue that Stupak played a brilliant bluff that, after 18 years, launched his political career. Regardless, expect to see a lot more of Bart Stupak in the future as he undoubtedly will become a much bigger player in Washington.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Dark Day in America

With an astonishing display of fortitude and obstinacy the Obama administration and the Congressional leadership have managed to pass the healthcare reform bill.  The passage of this monumental legislation represents the first time such massive legislation has been passed without bipartisan support (both Social Security and Medicare were passed with Republican support).   It is yet another chip in the very foundation of the American system and a continued erosion of what once made America great.

The legislation was passed on the back of a deal between Obama and the pro-life Congressional Democrats, led by Bart Stupak (D-MI). Stupak’s gang of ten, who voted for the original House bill, were philosophically opposed to the Senate bill which, in their opinion, provided means for federal funding of abortions. Unfortunately for America, they were bought off by a promise from the President to sign an executive order the status quo, namely disallowing federally funding for abortions.

Obviously Obama’s pitch was convincing enough to persuade Stupak; however, it is unclear how permanent or effective the executive order will be. An executive order, which is lesser in force than legislation, can readily be revoked by any President, current or future, on a whim. While in his press conference, Stupak indicated that Obama promised not to alter the order; it is questionable whether such a commitment will remain once the pro-choice Obama is pressured by his constituents. Why Stupak was convinced that these prohibitions for federal funding of abortion-related procedures will remain unadulterated is mystifying.

But regardless of Stupak’s reasoning, the bill will now be signed into law. The so called reform unfortunately will do little to fix the problems in America’s healthcare system. The Democrats undoubtedly have had the best of intentions in trying to fix a broken system, but their turn to socialist policies undermines the very foundations of the American system. Not only does this gross expansion of government power undercut the individual liberties of every American, but it burdens an already suffering economy.

There is no doubt that the industry needed reform. Neither Republicans nor Democrats denied this. But, as has consistently been shown, in both theory and practice, the paternalistic strategy of controlling the production and distribution of economic activity creates more harm than good. Unfortunately, this healthcare package represents the naïve utopianism that sounds pleasant to the uninformed ear, but in reality is mere sophistry. The health insurance industry will remain a mess with the additional encumbrance of excessive government involvement and added burdens on the American people.

Regrettably for America, the passage of this bill will not signify the end of the healthcare debate. Republicans are already gearing up to revoke the bill either through future legislation or the court system. For instance, the constitutionality of the individual mandate to purchase insurance is questionable. The next few years will be littered with an abundance of lawsuits aimed at repealing all or part of the legislation.

Likewise, Republicans will seize on the argument of government excess in the upcoming November elections. The midterm elections will revolve around the issue of healthcare (and the economy) and will define the direction of America for years to come. Hopefully, the GOP will successfully be able to convey the message that short-run, government-led ‘fixes’, while throwing the average American small and temporary handouts, will ultimately do more harm than good. If they fail, America will continue its anesthetized erosion into a second rate nation.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Democrats' Campaign Strategy (Or Their Biggest Fears)

The Democrats are growing apprehensive about the upcoming midterm elections. In a fundraising effort, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) recently mailed an impassioned plea for campaign contributions. The letter, which was signed by Vice President Joe Biden, was filled with emotion and scare tactics.

The letter continued to play on two main themes of recent Democrat campaigns. The first was the tired theme of “Blame Bush”. The current administration cannot seem to avoid the siren call of Bush-bashing that is increasingly falling on deaf ears. This rhetoric certainly helped Obama get into the White House, but it is questionable nearly two years later if it will really convince any but the most diehard Obamaniacs to open their checkbooks.

Besides continuing to harp on the Bush era, the letter also attempted to paint the Republicans as obstructionist and disinterested in helping America. For instance it stated, “I [Joe Biden] have served in the Senate for 36 years and in all of that time, I have never seen more Republicans committed to permanent, unyielding obstruction.”

However, what was most interesting was a bookmark insert, included in the mailing, that outlined the “3 REPUBLICANS WE MUST DEFEAT IN 2010.” Surprisingly, the three are not exactly household names. The handout named Richard Burr (NC), the current Senator from North Carolina, Roy Blunt (MO), currently a Congressman from Missouri, and Rob Portman (OH), formerly a Congressman from Ohio, Director of the OMB, and US Trade Rep. All three are currently running for Senate.

The pitfalls of all three candidates, according to the insert, were their connections to Bush. Burr “prove[ed] his allegiance to the Bush-Cheney-Rove ideology, [by] call[ing] in Karl Rove himself to help his reelection campaign.” Blunt, the “former House Majority Whip helped turn President Bush’s disastrous agenda into law while accepting thousands of dollars in contributions from Big Oil.” Portman is “‘A Bush Guy,’… and is trying to hide his past as ‘the face of the Bush Administration on two issues – trade and the economy’ and a key architect of our nation’s economic crisis.”

It is interesting to see who the Democrats have decided to aggressively target. According to The Cook Political Report, Burr’s seat is designated “Likely Republican”. On the other hand, the seats that Blunt (currently held by Kit Bond R-MO) and Portman (currently held by George Voinovich R-OH) are running for are marked as clear toss-ups. Cook also mentions Bunning (R-KY) and Gregg (R-NH) as the other two toss-up Republican seats. Why the Democrats feel Burr is a bigger threat (or easier target) than Bunning or Gregg is unclear.

Such campaign tactics are common – on both sides of the aisle – and despite the vitriol are unsurprising. However, it is clear that the Democrats have offered little variation in their strategies over the past few years. The overused blame-Bush and obstructionist-Republican talking points continue to remain the staples. Yet, as Obama continues to length his time in office the former becomes less convincing. Likewise, the latter, while probably more effective, fails as the Republicans begin to offer more concrete ideas (for instance at the Health Care Summit). It will nevertheless be interesting to see if or how this strategy changes as November approaches.

For some of the most interesting highlights from Biden’s letter, see below:
  • “After eight years of misguided leadership, our economy was in shambles….”
  • “We were fighting two wars – one without reason, the other without focus….”
  • “After nearly eight years of drift, the President has put in place a strategy for success in Afghanistan.”
  • “And as we saw in Massachusetts, Republicans want to exact a political price for our efforts.”
  • “There are only two possible motivations for their actions… Either they want to return to the destructive policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, or they think the only way they can succeed is by causing us to fail. What this cynical strategy fails to recognize is that if we fail, America fails and the American people pay the price.”
  • “We simply cannot return to George W. Bush’s America."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pro-Market versus Pro-Business

Within political arenas, there is a distinction that is far too often overlooked: pro-market vs. pro-business. Republicans, at least the fiscal conservatives, tend to call themselves pro-market. They speak in terms of supporting the market, free-trade, competition, and business. Democrats, in turn, disparage the concept of being pro-market and criticize Republicans for really being bosom buddies with Big Business.

The difference between the two concepts is often muddled, but is in reality very simple. Being pro-market is expressing a commitment to the economic principles of a free-market and competition. It represents the support of an economic system that allows Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” to perform the majority (certainly more modern economics allow for greater government interaction) of economic production and distribution. The principles accept that truly free-markets operate best with minimal government interference and maximum individual liberty.

In contrast, being pro-business is an expression of support for one type of player with the market. The interests of these players sometimes coincide with the interests of the market and sometimes do not. Rather than supporting a principle or idea, those who are pro-business are indebted to partisan interests.

As most are aware, the majority of Democrats are neither pro-market nor pro-business. Instead, generally they correctly criticize the concept of pro-business and incorrectly, although quietly, eschew the concept of pro-market. Many Democrats chose to follow policies that fit a more socialist (in the ideological not the disparaging sense of the far right) economic model. In other words, they prefer active government management of parts of the economy in terms of both production and distribution of wealth.

In contrast, Republicans often claim to be pro-market. While often successful in this pursuit, unfortunately many Republicans devolve into the realm of pro-business. This is most clearly represented when Big Business or cronies of certain senators get market-distorting tax incentives or other perks of their position (E.g. antitrust exemptions).

In truth, it is difficult for a politician to be truly pro-market. Commitment to a principle is always complicated when faced with electoral constraints. Politicians need money and voter support and thus need to give incentives, whether in the form of providing money or perks, to their supporters. This causes elected officials, who are inclined to support an ideology, to compromise their beliefs when the electoral rewards are greatest. The most committed pro-market candidate can quickly devolve into a pro-business shill when he realizes the realities of Washington.

This is true because, aside from a few academics and bloggers, the market has no real constituency. Being pro-market means that and individual must sometimes support business, sometimes support labor, sometimes support consumers, and sometimes just sit back and do nothing. Pro-market leaders will inevitably be forced to make decisions that upset either their financial or electoral supporters – a politically unwise proposition.

Despite the obvious difficulties, the pro-market framework is truly what is best for America. Being pro-market reduces the role of government to one that simply ensures that markets operate efficiently and competitively. It means that when one player, be it government, union, or company, gains too much power it is prevented from abusing its position. In practice this means supporting policies that prevent consolidation of power (anti-union and anti-monopolization) and facilitating the free flow of information.

At the end of the day this not only minimizes the size and cost of government but allows each player within the market to pursue its self-interest in a fashion that maximizes its own and societies worth. In contrast, the pro-business mentality artificially distorts the market by giving special privileges to some members of society. While potentially difficult to implement, pro-market policies should be the foundation of the Republican platform.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Attack Thy Friend

Once again the US administration and Israeli government are going head-to-head. Recently, while Vice President, Joe Biden, was visiting Israel, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced a building project of 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem. Biden, followed by a number of administration officials quickly condemned the Israeli announcement as damaging for the recently renewed peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu supposedly was blindsided by the far-right religious parties in his coalition. While skeptics doubt whether Netanyahu was truly oblivious, Biden took steps to accept Netanyahu’s ignorance. However, the administration followed with an outpouring of criticism and demands on the Israelis; including, investigation into the timing of the announcement, commitment towards confidence building steps (such as the release of prisoners), and a promise to discussion “final status” issues.

While the timing of the announcement was unconstructive at best; the administration’s response is unhelpful. The Obama administration consistently insists on lambasting its top ally in the region, in a continuous pattern of attack-thy-friend. This not only damages the already fragile relationship with Israel, but incites the Palestinians to avoid the negotiating table.

The administration’s continual rebukes give enormous power to the right-wing members of the Israeli ruling coalition. Many of these parties do not want to see any sort of peace deal. By allowing their tactics to throw a wrench into the negotiations, the administration ennobles their strategy. Whether in concert with or against Netanyahu’s wishes, these tactics prevent the process from going forward. As Netanyahu becomes isolated from the US and the Israeli public correctly views the US administration as a less than amicable friend, the Israeli leadership is forced to the far-right. Obama’s pushback on Netanyahu’s prior settlement plans summarily exploded in his face, making the administration look weak and unfriendly to Israel. Their knee-jerk reaction to condemn Netanyahu this time around is only furthering the perception of American ineptitude.

Likewise, the administration’s admonishment of Israel only serves to push the Palestinians away from the table. The Palestinian leadership now has little incentive to negotiate.  Instead, it can sit on the sidelines and watch the Israeli-American slugfest. Already, the Palestinian Authority has claimed that this round of negotiations have failed. Rather than being forced by the US to hold indirect talks with the Israelis, the Palestinians have gained a new level of confidence that they do not need to pursue a path to peace. They will be able to step back to their continued path of low-level violence with impunity. This is particularly true given the lack of condemnation by the US administration of the recent naming of a Palestinian West Bank square in honor of a suicide bomber and terrorist who killed 38 people.
The administration’s rush to criticize Israel has only added fuel to the fire. While the Interior Ministry’s announcement was ill-timed and possibly meant to incite the process, it does not justify such a public outcry by the US. Instead, backdoor channels should have been used not only to defuse and minimize the announcement but to assure that such problems are swiftly dealt with. Instead, the public airing of dirty laundry only hastens the failure of an already tenuous peace process.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Putting the Con in Reconciliation

With Obama’s latest audacious push on healthcare, it looks increasingly likely that the Senate will turn to the parliamentary tool of reconciliation. The procedure, which is narrowly targeted at budgetary issues, provides for a method to avoid the Senate filibuster. Reconciliation has been used in the past, but in all cases for narrow budget-related issues. Democrats Senate leaders’ intention seems to be to ram through as much of an unpopular health care bill as procedure will allow.

Democrats argue that reconciliation needs to be used to overcome the obstinacy of the Republicans. They accuse the Republicans of hindering “real progress” in the name of politics, which was aided by Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts. However, this is nothing but a straw man. Republicans are only able to use the filibuster and prevent a final vote because their constituents do not support the healthcare bill. The fact of the matter is that it would be political suicide for the Republicans, or any party for that matter, to obstruct legislation simply to ‘stick-it’ to the majority party.

The filibuster is a tool that was designed to limit the power of the majority party in the Senate. In some ways this is inherently undemocratic (and more republican) in terms of institutional structure. However, in other ways it is precisely democratic. As is being shown today, the people’s representatives do not always vote in line with their constituencies’ wishes. Rasmussen’s most recent poll shows that 52% of voters oppose the current package. When ideology steps in the way of responsibility to the voters, the filibuster can serve as a useful check on anti-democratic tendencies.

This clearly explains Republican behavior; namely that they understand the people do not want Obama’s healthcare package. In Republican hands, the filibuster has become a democratic tool waged against the Obama-Reid-Pelosi triumvirate of leftist policies. Republicans would not take such a political risk if they did not believe that the people supported such behavior. As Obama recently pointed out, the voters will decide in November whether these actions are supported.

Additionally, the Republican ‘obstruction’ is a direct result of ideological differences. There is a deep divide between the socialist, European model of the Democrats and the capitalist approach of the Republicans. The Republicans did an outstanding job portraying this at the theatrical Healthcare Summit. Americans are also beginning to realize that there are other options to reform to the Democratic orthodoxy.

Because of these two factors, Republicans have been able to halt the passage of a radical bill that, given the political landscape a year ago, should have been an easy win for the Democrats. The Democrats’ failure was only facilitated by their inability to not hammer out a proposal amongst their supermajority before America realized the ideological flaws on the Left.

However, rather than recognizing this, Team-O is pushing forward at full steam. Their desire to use reconciliation shows not only desperation but a complete disdain for America. It would also be an unprecedented abuse of power as The Wall Street Journal recently opined on. Reconciliation has historically been used on narrow terms and with cross-aisle support.
Democrats often point to welfare reform in 1996 as a reconciliation precedent, yet that bill passed the Senate with 78 votes, including Joe Biden and half of the Democratic caucus. The children's health insurance program in 1997 was steered through Congress with reconciliation, but it, too, was built on strong (if misguided) bipartisan support. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 that created Schip passed 85-15, including 43 Republicans. Even President Bush's 2001 tax cuts, another case in reconciliation point, were endorsed by 12 Senate Democrats.
The terrifying arrogance of the Left’s leadership is politically unwise. The Democrats will undoubtedly discover this at the polls in November. However, it is also potentially damaging to America. A passage of this bill will have disastrous effects on the healthcare industry, while solving few of the outstanding problems. Even worse, it will encourage further abuse of the parliamentary system for partisan ideological gain.