Tag Archives: Democratic Party

Playing the blame game

Courtesy of The New York Times.
Courtesy of The New York Times.

Much ink has been spilled over the relative blame that should be assigned to various parties in the current government shutdown / impending debt-ceiling fiasco from hell. (About that spilled ink, I’m speaking virtually, of course: no one still publishes on physical paper anymore, do they?)

Aside from the predictable litany of “both sides need to compromise” bullshit from the zombie lords of political commentary — which The Atlantic‘s James Fallows, Al Jazeera‘s Dan Froomkin, and NYU professor Jay Rosen continue to eviscerate brilliantly — perhaps most distressing still are the results of today’s Gallup poll:

Americans are now more likely to name dysfunctional government as the most important problem facing the country than to name any other specific problem. Thirty-three percent of Americans cite dissatisfaction with government and elected representatives as the nation’s top issue, the highest such percentage in Gallup’s trend dating back to 1939. Dysfunctional government now eclipses the economy (19%), unemployment (12%), the deficit (12%), and healthcare (12%) as the nation’s top problem.

This is, in its own way, tantamount to a Republican victory — and one that could have more profound long-term implications than whatever short-term turbulence the GOP has inflicted upon itself courtesy of its decreasingly fringe-y “wacko bird” fringe. Indeed, although early indications suggest that House Republicans may suffer for their intransigence in next year’s midterms, there are plenty of reasons to bet against the Democrats’ chances of retaking the lower chamber in 2014.

Meanwhile, the broader national disgust with governmental dysfunction plays directly into Republicans’ hands: in fact, it could be argued that the GOP will always have a home-field advantage of sorts over the Democrats when the two parties are at loggerheads over just about anything of consequence. When bitterly contested policy issues cause Americans to blame government generally (even if, as is the case now, one side is clearly precipitating the immediate crisis), Republican ideology wins the day. Time will tell if this triumph is more durable than the Democrats’ current advantage in generic horse-race Congressional polling.

But there is yet another component to this struggle that’s extremely apparent but is somehow not gaining the traction I’d expect, especially from left-leaning media outlets. And that is the direct line connecting President Obama’s decision to negotiate the debt-ceiling increase in the summer of 2011 with the current crisis. While there is no question that Republican lunacy is the immediate cause of the budgetary and debt-ceiling impasses, much longer-term blame rests directly on the shoulders of Barack Obama.

Today’s manufactured crisis was an entirely foreseeable outcome of Obama’s capitulation two years ago. In fact, Paul Krugman predicted exactly this sort of future as soon as the 2011 deal with Republicans was announced. In an August 1, 2011 column titled “The President Surrenders,” Krugman wrote:

For the deal itself, given the available information, is a disaster, and not just for President Obama and his party. It will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status.

Republicans will supposedly have an incentive to make concessions the next time around, because defense spending will be among the areas cut. But the G.O.P. has just demonstrated its willingness to risk financial collapse unless it gets everything its most extreme members want. Why expect it to be more reasonable in the next round?

In fact, Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats. He surrendered last December, extending all the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling.

And this is exactly what ended up happening. Two days ago, Jonathan Chait explained this very phenomenon:

They see the debt-ceiling fight as being mainly about the long-term question of whether Congress will cement into place the practice of using the debt ceiling to extort concessions from the president. The price of buying off a debt-ceiling hike would surely be less than the risk of a default. But doing so would enshrine debt-ceiling extortion as a normal congressional practice. This both skews the Constitutional relationship between branches — allowing an unscrupulous Congress to demand unilateral concessions at gunpoint rather than having to compromise — and creates endless brinksmanship that would eventually lead to a default.

The administration’s stance, then, is that submitting to ransom now creates the certainty of default eventually.

The primary quibble I have with Chait’s explanation — as I do with most analyses I’ve read of the situation thus far — is that the time to establish this stance was two years ago, not now. Of course, now is better than never, but the risk of actual default does appear to be greater now than it was back in 2011, and this is primarily due to Republicans’ increased confidence — based on very recent history — that the White House and Congressional Democrats would simply capitulate once again. And this very expectation, paradoxically enough, made it more dangerous for the Democrats to actually stand firm and demand that the Republicans raise the debt limit without preconditions — precisely because the overly-confident Republicans had virtually locked themselves into a rhetorical corner over raising the debt ceiling.

So what’s the point? Aside from the fact that President Obama is quite clearly a disastrous negotiator, the primary point is that — contrary to “centrist” notions of endless compromise that are entirely unmoored from the empirical reality of each party’s ideological flexibility — giving away the bank to a party steered by radicals absolutely does not guarantee healthy compromises or even engender good-faith efforts in the future. To the contrary, when confronted head-on with the awesome incoherence of Tea Party rage, the worst possible weapon is the one President Obama wielded back in 2011: procrastination.

A center-right country?

Courtesy of the Broockman/Skovron paper.
Courtesy of the Broockman/Skovron paper.

I’ve long mounted a soapbox in defense of two related ideas. The first is that average Americans care less about policy specifics than we give ourselves credit for, and that public perception is defined more by soundbites, rhetoric, and presentation than by substance.

The second idea, which follows from the first, is that liberal politicians could — and should — mount a stronger defense of their policies without fear of reprisals from the conservative end of the spectrum. This is not because such reprisals won’t come — unless you’ve been in hiding since 2009, this has been the position of Congressional Republicans since Day 1 — but because holding to one’s principles in the face of political opposition is quite often perceived as indicative of having a better, more sensible policy.

To my endless blathering, you may now add the following academic paper:

Broockman and Skovron find that legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write. This finding held up across a range of issues.

The authors conclude:

For those interested in strengthening democratic responsiveness, one tempting conclusion from this analysis is that alternative means of informing legislators about their constituents’ views need to be devised – democratic campaigns and elections appear to do little to update politicians’ perceptions of their constituents. However, on reflection, the fact that candidates and legislators know so little about their constituents and learn so little about them from campaigns and elections is perhaps indicative of a deeper and more basic problem of elite motivation. When Miller and Stokes (1963) conducted their authoritative study of information flows between representatives and their constituencies it was less clear how representatives might ascertain their constituencies’ views with a great deal of precision even if they so desired – reliable district-level opinion surveys were still relatively rare. However, if today’s elites viewed congruence with majority opinion as a primary goal we would expect considerably more knowledge of this opinion in our sample than we observe; such knowledge is quite inexpensive to obtain relative to the cost of modern campaigns. As with voters’ typically low level of motivation to learn about their representatives (Downs 1957, ch. 13), it thus appears that our respondents must have found little desire to accurately ascertain public opinion on political issues of the very highest salience. Politicians clearly do respond to cues about the political consequences of their actions when taking political positions (e.g. Kollman 1998; Bergan 2009), but accurately ascertaining the state of constituency opinion does not appear to rank fairly highly on their priorities necessary for gaining and maintaining access to political authority.

It’s simply too bad that there’s no institution designed to elucidate the opinions held by both the electorate and their chosen political representatives. An institution that could widely disseminate publicly relevant information on the vital policy issues of the day. An institution that would strip away the gratuitous sideshows, celebrity gossip, and tabloid fare, and focus instead on investigative reporting to enlighten its readers both within and without the halls of power.

We should build such an institution. And I propose we call it The Media.

(Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for flagging this one.)

Enhanced by Zemanta

Double talk on the sequester

Jamelle Bouie cries foul on Republican attempts to portray the looming sequester as the Democrats’ fault:

A key part of the GOP’s strategy on the sequester is to blame President Obama for the fact it exists at all. One good example is House Speaker John Boehner’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal:

With the debt limit set to be hit in a matter of hours, Republicans and Democrats in Congress reluctantly accepted the president’s demand for the sequester, and a revised version of the Budget Control Act was passed on a bipartisan basis.

Ultimately, the super committee failed to find an agreement, despite Republicans offering a balanced mix of spending cuts and new revenue through tax reform. As a result, the president’s sequester is now imminent.

The big problem with this narrative is that it directly contradicts Boehner’s rhetoric at the time. After the deal was crafted, in July 2011, Boehner told GOP House members that “There was nothing in this framework that violates our principles.” Later, in an interview with CBS News following the House vote on the bill, he described the deal as such: “When you look at this final agreement that we came to with the White House, I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I’m pretty happy.” And, as a whole, the House GOP was fine with the deal too—it passed 269-161, with 174 Republicans voting in favor.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The enduring impotence of the Democratic Party

As seen through the microcosm of Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia:

Take Senator Joe “Dead Aim” Manchin of West Virginia. After the shooting in Newtown, the conservative Democrat, who has an “A” grade from the NRA and literally shot a bill with a rifle in a campaign ad, said he would support the assault weapons ban.

A month later, not so much. The New York Times checks in with Manchin today, as he sat down with his constituents in West Virginia, some of whom picketed his office after he announced he would consider such a bill. “A guy can walk through this door right here with your Beretta five-shot automatic, and cut the barrel off at 16 inches, and put five double-ought buckshots in there and kill everybody in here in a matter of seconds,” one voter explained. “And you don’t have to aim it.”

Another offered, “I can take my A.R., load it, put one in the chamber and throw it up on this table, and the only way it’s going to hurt anybody is if I miss and hit someone in the head. The gun doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s the person pulling the trigger.”

That’s pretty much all Manchin needed to hear: “I’m not there,” he told theTimes about the ban. “I’m definitely more inclined to be very supportive of background checks.” And he’s not even up for reelection in 2014, like Democrats in Montana, Alaska, and Colorado, all of whom initially expressed openness to the ban and have since ran it back.

The Democratic Party: never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

The usefulness of the wacky fringe

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtyKofFih8Y]

As Barack Obama enters his second term, speculation is predictably high about every aspect of what’s coming up: new policy proposals, the specter of continued gridlock on Capitol Hill, a heavy docket of significant rulings pending at the Supreme Court, and so on.

Central to this debate is the question of whether Obama will be able to leverage his electoral triumph into real momentum for his policy agenda. Will the Republicans continue to draw from their playbook of the last four years, or will they be inclined to compromise more in the wake of their poor showing at the polls in November?

Despite the partial fragmentation of the national GOP between moderates — in the most relative, unanchored sense of the term — such as John Boehner and party hardliners like Michele Bachmann, early indications are that Republicans are unlikely to shift much until at least the 2014 midterms, depending on how they do.

Which brings me to the above video, of radio host Alex Jones displaying an alarming mental instability on a nationally televised show inexplicably hosted by Piers Morgan. Say what you want about Morgan, but at least he had the good sense to shut up, for the most part, during this “interview” and allow the world to see just how unhinged the gun nut really was.

But it also made me think about the nature of political conversation in the U.S. these days. For years now, the right has not only allowed, but often actively encouraged, radical and unreasonable rhetoric, for the simple reason that it helps rile up the base and inspire them to increase public pressure on Democrats, vote for Republicans, donate money, and so on. That’s an understandable short-term goal (it helps in the next election), but it’s produced impressive long-term benefits as well: each time a foaming-at-the-mouth conservative espouses an armed takeover of Washington or impeachment of the president for allegedly not being a naturally-born American or whatever else, the right-wing boundary of acceptable conversation shifts further right.

The problem is, there’s no counteroffensive from the left, which generally polices its commentary to an astounding degree (especially surprising given the increasingly partisan nature of American politics). Insane leftists don’t fare well in the United States. But crazies are the mainstream across the aisle.

There are several reasons for this. For one, there’s really no American far left to speak of these days. Even in Europe, which has moved steadily right in recent years to the jaunty tune of “austerity measures” and “shutting borders to Islamic fundamentalists,” lefties retain much of their glamour. (See Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, for example.) But in the U.S., we’re confined largely to the likes of Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and a smattering of others, all of whom have their devoted followings but none of whom enjoy the warm embrace of large swaths of the population at large or have any real political power.

Another reason for the prominence of right-wing insanity is, ironically enough, liberal media establishments. (No, I do not mean that the media establishment at large is liberal; I’m referring specifically to the media institutions that are liberal, such as MSNBC and a host of online blogs and news sites such as the Huffington Post.) The first one to trumpet something stupid said by a lowly or irrelevant Republican is usually a member of a Democratic-leaning media organization. This makes sense when the said troublemaker is reasonably significant, but in recent years the left has played an outsized role in promoting people such as Orly Taitz, ineffective and mostly impotent members of Congress like Allen West and Michele Bachmann, and even a thoroughly discredited post-2008 Sarah Palin — the last of whose every sideways glance the press breathlessly reports as if it signaled the Second Coming, even as she and her family have drifted into tawdry, broadsheet-worthy behavior (see Palin, Bristol).

Without a huge assist from left-wing media promoters, all such tragic humans would have faded slowly from the spotlight (to varying degrees, of course: Sarah Palin will always be more interesting than Orly Taitz). Instead, they’re kept front and center in our public consciousness by “media watchdogs” like Mediaite — which, by the way, uploaded the above video. It’s time to start ignoring people whose most recent credentials include, for example, stints on reality TV (a growing subset of Americans, to be sure, but not one I’m ever interested in hearing about).

But whatever the causes, one consequence consistently remains: right-wing brashness dominates the news cycle while liberals mostly cower in fear. And this state of affairs has started to make me wonder whether the American progressive sector would do well to unleash its own attack dogs a little more often.

Take the Newtown massacre, for example, and try to imagine the GOP and Democrats on opposite sides of the gun control debate from where they are now: in other word, Democrats against gun control, and Republicans in favor of it. Would the right have waited several days, as did Obama, and then given a speech in favor of some very vague “changes,” then waited even longer before finally announcing the conclusions of a study group led by the vice president that would result in a myriad of mostly ineffective and insignificant executive orders and a thoroughly unambitious legislative agenda?

Of course not. We know this because guys like Rep. Louie Gohmert were appearing on TV shows within a day or two of the shooting and saying they only wished there’d been more guns at the school. Then the NRA held its notorious press conference and made things even worse. I’m using the words “notorious” and “worse,” however, in a very relative sense, since in reality the event was quite successful from a far right perspective: it once again slammed the door in the face of timid liberal attempts to ever so slightly nudge public policy.

So what I’m saying is, the next time something like Newtown happens — and there will be a next time, as we all know by now — I don’t want to hear Democrats and liberals clamoring all over each other to be the first to demand an assault weapons ban. That is a quintessential Democratic tactic, and one that Barack Obama has practically made his trademark: beginning the negotiation by asking for exactly what he hopes to get by the end. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is a horrendous strategy in any situation, but it’s even worse when the counterpart is an increasingly unpredictable and radical political party.

Instead, we should hear people calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment. I’d love to have that conversation play out on the national stage. Of course, there are several issues with this approach. For one, the media has a funny way of discounting staunch leftist rhetoric in a way it doesn’t on the right. But again, I think this has become a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: the media doesn’t necessarily have any ingrown bias against leftism, but they’ve developed artificially skewed boundaries of acceptable discourse anyway because that’s what they’ve been exposed to for so long. Destroying that stasis won’t happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere.

Perhaps the larger problem is that almost no Americans would support such a proposition (repeal). But why does that matter? A wide array of social movements — from women’s to civil to gay rights and more — took their first steps in a landscape of profound public hostility to their objectives. And anyway, my point isn’t actually to repeal the Second Amendment. The point is to make a big enough deal about it so that the proposals from the opposite side — say, arming teachers in every school — get taken right off the proverbial table.

Indeed, such was the promise of Occupy Wall Street. Unfortunately, the movement failed to crystallize into something truly permanent. But despite Occupy’s short, limited role, the entire national conversation shifted rather dramatically for a time. Today, it is commonplace to hear politicians and public figures speak of the 99%, the 1%, and so on, but these were concepts only just recently introduced into the broader lexicon. And at least as importantly, it served as a heavy counterweight to the classist “takers” rhetoric coming from the right. Would Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” comment have exploded nearly as loudly as it did if Occupy Wall Street hadn’t raised the issue of middle-class exploitation just months before?

I think not. Although the movement ultimately fizzled out, the ragtag group consisting largely of students, social misfits, hipsters, and the unemployed briefly jolted the boundaries of discourse in the opposite direction from their long-term trajectory. The question is whether that shift represented an insignificant and temporary diversion from the mean, or a useful lesson on how to conduct political warfare in the future. Yes, the Democrats have managed to win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. But just imagine what the left could accomplish if it actually started fighting.

The permanent Republican victory

Frank Rich cautions against premature liberal gloating of coming triumphs, demographic or otherwise:

What’s more, the right thinks long-term, and if you look at the long-term, the whole ugly “fiscal cliff” standoff was a win-win for conservatives, no matter what their passing defeats in this week’s deal. The more Washington looks dysfunctional, the more it sows dissatisfaction with the very idea of a Federal government. Yes, Democrats and the White House can argue that polls show that the Republicans would be getting most of the blameif Congress couldn’t reach agreement on the “fiscal cliff.” But that’s short-term liberal wishful thinking. Long-term, this intractable dispute has undermined Americans’ faith in government, period, and the voters’ plague-on-all-your-houses view of Washington is overall a resounding ideological win for a party that wants to dismantle government, the GOP. The conservative movement is no more dead after its 2012 defeat than it was after the Goldwater debacle of 1964.

Silver lining? Social issues, at least, seem to be a winning hand for the Dems:

John Roberts is as political a Chief Justice as I’ve seen — political in the sense of wanting to be well-regarded by mainstream public opinion and posterity. He’s no Scalia-Thomas-Bork right-wing bull in the china shop. Much as I welcomed his upholding of Obamacare, his logic was so tortured that I shared the view of conservative critics that he was holding a finger to the wind and cynically trying to be on the right side of history. His remarks about  the nation’s fiscal impasse are content-free and gratuitous — and irrelevant to his constitutional role — but they do reflect his own desire to maintain a noble public image. It was, one might say, a Howard Schulz PR move. If nothing else, this Chief Justice’s continued obsession with his own profile may bode well for the future of same-sex marriage: Hard to imagine that Roberts will thwart a civil rights breakthrough now enthusiastically supported by an overwhelming majority of the young and even not-so-young Americans who will write the history of the Roberts Court.

Our useless, do-nothing Congress

Mitch McConnellWondering what your favorite elected representatives are up to these days? Ask no more:

For public consumption, Democrats and Republicans are engaging in an increasingly elaborate show of political theater. Mr. Obama on Thursday went to the home of a middle-income family in the Virginia suburbs of Washington to press for an extension of expiring tax cuts for the middle class — and for the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts on incomes over $250,000.

“Just to be clear, I’m not going to sign any package that somehow prevents the top rate from going up for folks at the top 2 percent,” Mr. Obama said. “But I do remain optimistic that we can get something done.”

On Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, moved Thursday to vote on Mr. Obama’s proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress’s control over the federal government’s statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president. Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found they had 51 solid votes, and took Mr. McConnell up on what Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called “a positive development.”

Mr. McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.

“I do believe we made history on the Senate floor today,” Mr. Durbin said.

Yes, Mr. Durbin, you did make history. But not just today: your current session of Congress conducted the most useless, unproductive, and inefficient use of time in our national legislature since at least 1947.

And no, I’m not just picking on Durbin. Most of the ongoing stalemate in both the House and Senate since 2009 has been the result of Republican obstinacy and intransigence — in other words, their complete denial of the reality that continues to hit them in the face regularly at four-year intervals. (In fact, of the last six presidential elections, Republicans have lost the popular vote five times.) So this is hardly a balanced phenomenon.

But there’s just something about being a senator or representative — from either party — that turns otherwise competent, reasonably intelligent human beings into overgrown children in suits and ties. No, Mr. Durbin, nothing you did today amounts to anything more than a slow, inexorable advancement of the news cycle. Your sole accomplishment in this regard is to fill the airtime on the cable news networks so they don’t have to spend those few hours discussing something even more frivolous than a predestined-to-fail bill proposed in the Senate. (And you probably didn’t even realize that was possible.)

As for Mr. McConnell, there are almost no words to describe his ongoing disastrous behavior. The resident senatorial turkey was too clever for his own good, bluffing that he’d like to go ahead with a vote on ending Congress’ power over the debt ceiling, then filibustering his own bill when it turned out the Democrats had a solid majority.

“Political theater” is right. But it’s a damn ugly performance, and one all Americans are paying for, whether or not we even realized we were attending the show.

Elizabeth Warren: scaring banks since 2008

And rightly so. These days, the fight has moved from her Senate candidacy to a battle over her possible appointment to the Senate banking committee:

Not even two weeks have passed since Democrat Elizabeth Warren rode a wave of grassroots support to victory in the US Senate race in Massachusetts, ousting Republican incumbent Scott Brown. Senator-elect Warren has not yet hired her staff. She has not yet moved into her Senate office. But the banking industry is already taking aim at her, scurrying to curb her future clout on Capitol Hill.

Lobbyists and trade groups for Wall Street and other major banking players are pressuring lawmakers to deny Warren a seat on the powerful Senate banking committee. With the impending departures of Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Democrats have two spots to fill on the committee before the 113th Congress gavels in next year. Warren has yet said whether she wants to serve on the committee. But she would be a natural: she’s a bankruptcy law expert, she served as Congress’ lead watchdog overseeing the $700 billion bank bailout from 2008 to 2010, and she conceived of and helped launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

But the big banks are not fans of Warren, and their representatives in Washington have her in their crosshairs. Aides to two senators on the banking committee tell Mother Jones the industry has already moved to block Warren from joining the committee, which is charged with drafting legislation regulating much of the financial industry. “Downtown”—shorthand for Washington’s lobbying corridor—”has been going nuts” to keep her off the committee, another Senate aide says.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a banking committee member, has been angling to get Warren on the committee, “but there are many bank lobbyists pushing to keep her off,” a top Democratic Senate aide told Politico‘s Morning Money tipsheet. But the aide added, “If she really wants banking, it will be very tough politically to keep her off.”

Several banking trade groups—including the American Bankers Association, Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, and the Mortgage Bankers Association—declined or didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Warren also declined to comment.

The big banks’ opposition to Warren, a fierce consumer advocate, is no shocker. She supported the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and she blasted Brown, who did vote for Dodd-Frank, for launching a “guerrilla war” to undermine its implementation. She backs the Volcker Rule, a limit on how much banks can trade with their own money. What may trouble the big banks most is Warren’s call for revisiting the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated riskier investment banks from more staid commercial banks. Reinstating Glass-Steagall would mean breaking up sprawling Wall Street institutions such as JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Bank of America.

This is an important moment for the Democratic Party. Its leaders — specifically, Harry Reid, who makes the committee appointments — have a great opportunity to try to demonstrate that they are not beholden to their myriad financial interests and that they do support the sterling work done by Elizabeth Warren to protect consumers and hold financial firms accountable. If they cave on this one, as they very well might, it will be a bad omen for this next session of Congress generally on all sorts of issues.

Another Senate race in Massachusetts?

Speculation is heating up that Massachusetts U.S. Senator John Kerry may be named to a Cabinet-level post in Obama’s second term: most likely either State or Defense. This has prompted a cascade of worries that the Democrats are making an unforced error and may lose a Senate seat if they can’t field an able candidate to replace Kerry in Massachusetts. (This is especially concerning given recently defeated Senator Scott Brown’s persistent popularity.) Dan Amira at New York Magazine makes this point:

As everyone is aware, Kerry’s elevation to a cabinet post would open up a Senate seat in Massachusetts, providing the just-defeated Scott Brown with an opportunity to rejoin the Senate without even having to take on an incumbent. Why would Republicans do anything to dissuade Obama from setting this chain of events in motion? Do they have a personal vendetta against Brown, despite his unique position as the only Republican in the entire state of Massachusetts capable of winning a Senate seat? First, GOP senators blocked Elizabeth Warren’s confirmation to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, thus freeing her up for an ultimately successful run against Brown. And now the potential opposition to Kerry’s nomination, Brown’s only route back to the Senate for the foreseeable future.

Of course, any discussion of the hypothetical nomination’s bad political strategy can’t exclude President Obama, who should be hesitant about the idea of Secretary Kerry for the same reason that the GOP should be thrilled. Yes, the Democrats gained two seats last week, bumping their majority up to 55. According to the Washington Post, administration officials believe that the gains “provided a cushion that allowed them to consider Kerry’s departure from the chamber.”

But why risk diminishing the Democratic majority at all when there are plenty of other suitable would-be defense secretaries who aren’t sitting senators? Just to reward a friend? That probably won’t seem worthwhile if an important piece of legislation ever falls one vote short of passage and Scott Brown is the deciding no vote — an admittedly unlikely but hardly impossible scenario.

Alec MacGillis at the New Republic, however, says Democrats shouldn’t be quite so concerned:

As the Democrats try to game out the risk of opening up the Kerry seat, the key factor to consider is context—that is, the circumstances in which the election to replace him would be held. Martha Coakley lost to Brown in 2010 in part because she was a deeply underwhelming candidate and because Brown offered a certain boy-next-door appeal. But she lost mainly because she was running in a low-turnout special election at a very improprituous moment for Democrats. Likewise, Warren knocked off Brown last week not just because she was a more feisty candidate than Coakley was, but because she was running in a general election where the state’s natural Democratic dominance would assert itself. This was what I kept hearing from veteran Democrats when I went up to Massachusetts to report on Warren’s midsummer struggles—even if she was having trouble finding her footing as a candidate, they said, one had to assume that she would benefit from high Democratic turnout in a presidential year. Yes, Brown would be able to peel off some of Barack Obama’s voters, but only so many.

And that’s just what happened. When Brown beat Coakley in 2010, 52 to 47 percent, there were barely more than 2.2 million votes cast. When Warren won 54 to 46 percent last week, there were more than 3.1 million votes cast. The contrast is particularly stark in the urban centers where Democrats rack up big margins. In Springfield, some 28,000 people voted in 2010 and Coakley netted about 7,000 votes. Last week, nearly twice as many voted there and Warren netted almost 25,000 votes. In Boston, she netted 120,000 votes where Coakley had netted less than half that amount. Turnout in the city was 65 percent—way above the 43 percent turnout in 2010, and higher even than the 62 percent who turned out for Obama’s first election.

What does this mean for a possible Kerry replacement? Well, on the one hand, that Democrats do need to worry about special elections, when the broader party base is less likely to turn out. But one also needs to keep in mind that the context for this special election (which would likely be held around June) would be much friendlier than the one in January 2010. Unless the tax and “fiscal cliff” negotiations go horribly awry for Obama, he and his party will be in a more favorable spot next spring than they were in late 2009 and early 2010. There is a chance that this time around, Patrick will not decree that his interim appointment to the open seat be forbidden from running in the special election, as he did in 2009 when he appointed longtime Kennedy aide Paul Kirk as interim after the senator’s death. This would allow the interim Democrat to run with a slight sheen of incumbency and, perhaps, even preclude a costly primary. Finally, there is the fact that the state electorate would be coming off a recent election where Warren and other Massachusetts Democrats drilled into the state’s many Democratic-leaning independent voters the importance of putting party over personality—even if voters liked Brown fine, they needed to consider the ramifications of giving Mitch McConnell another vote in the Senate. Presumably, this lesson would maintain a greater hold on voters next spring than it did in early 2010.

The problem with David Brooks

His column in today’s New York Times, “The Party of Work,” makes a lot of good points before crashing and burning in the conclusion (excerpted here at length):

The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant. When they hear Romney talk abstractly about Big Government vs. Small Government, they think: He doesn’t get me or people like me.

Let’s just look at one segment, Asian-Americans. Many of these people are leading the lives Republicans celebrate. They are, disproportionately, entrepreneurial, industrious and family-oriented. Yet, on Tuesday, Asian-Americans rejected the Republican Party by 3 to 1. They don’t relate to the Republican equation that more government = less work.

Over all, Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the six post-cold-war elections because large parts of the country have moved on. The basic Republican framing no longer resonates.

Some Republicans argue that they can win over these rising groups with a better immigration policy. That’s necessary but insufficient. The real problem is economic values.

If I were given a few minutes with the Republican billionaires, I’d say: spend less money on marketing and more on product development. Spend less on “super PACs” and more on research. Find people who can shift the debate away from the abstract frameworks — like Big Government vs. Small Government. Find people who can go out with notebooks and study specific, grounded everyday problems: what exactly does it take these days to rise? What exactly happens to the ambitious kid in Akron at each stage of life in this new economy? What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity?

Don’t get hung up on whether the federal government is 20 percent or 22 percent of G.D.P. Let Democrats be the party of security, defending the 20th-century welfare state. Be the party that celebrates work and inflames enterprise. Use any tool, public or private, to help people transform their lives.

Emphasis mine. This is classic Brooks-ian thinking: decrying the failure of the Republican Party to measure up to its potential, admirably encouraging them to reform, and meanwhile forgetting that his prescription for success is exactly what the Democratic Party has been doing for years — and the precise reason they won again this year.

I bolded that last portion because it sets up such a clearly ridiculous straw man: the Democrats as the unimaginative defenders of the “20th-century welfare state,” while the Republican Party “celebrates work and inflames enterprise.” How can he attempt such a tried-and-failed GOP talking point immediately after acknowledging that “the basic Republican framing no longer resonates” for so many Americans? When Brooks says to “use any tool, public or private, to help people transform their lives,” he’s taking a page straight out of the Democratic playbook. This makes his characterization of the Dems as the “party of security” (whatever that means, exactly) all the more ridiculous.