Today’s Political Test Market

Columbus has a long and storied history as a test market for new products.  Soft drinks, fast-food offerings, and other consumer goods are often introduced here because central Ohio is a fair microcosm of the country as a whole, with a spread of income levels, races, ethnicities, and urban, suburban, and rural settings in a small geographic area.

12th_congressionalToday, the Columbus area will serve as a test market of a different sort.  The product being evaluated is politics.  There’s a special election to fill the congressional seat in the 12th District, which is one of three districts in the central Ohio area, and all indications are that the race is neck and neck.  The national political gurus are focused on the race as a potential advance indicator of the country’s mood when Election Day rolls around in November.

Republicans are worried because the 12th District has long been a GOP seat, but when long-time Congressman Pat Tiberi retired in January the seat went up for grabs.  The Democrats nominated Danny O’Connor, who has campaigned as a centrist and raised a lot of money.  In a bid to appeal to a middle of the road electorate, O’Connor originally vowed not to support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House if he was elected, although he recently retreated from that pledge.  The Republican candidate is Troy Balderson, a state Senator who has been endorsed by both Ohio Governor John Kasich, who once represented the 12th District, and President Donald Trump, who has been here recently to campaign for Balderson.  The most recent polls show the race is effectively tied.

Which way will the test market go?  There’s a reason the polls are close.  The economy is going strong in central Ohio, and the 12th District, which in Richland Country, follows I-71 south to touch down in the northern suburbs of Columbus, then sweeps east to Newark and Zanesville, includes some of the fastest growing areas of the state and areas that, until recently, were in a prolonged slump.  But central Ohioans are notoriously, well, centrist in their politics, and for many people President Trump’s bare-knuckled, name-calling style of politics hasn’t been well received.

Interestingly, although the race has drawn national attention, there hasn’t been a lot of chatter about it in our town, outside of Democratic and Republican circles.  I think many voters are keeping their cards close to their vests and are still making up their minds, and I wouldn’t even venture a guess on which way the race will go.

Many Democrats are hoping for a Blue Wave come November that will turn control of the House and Senate over to the Democrats and allow them to block President Trump’s initiatives.  If the Democrats can win the 12th District today, the Blue Wave may well have started rolling just north and east of Columbus.

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Deal Makers Make Deals

President Trump is a deal maker at heart.  After all, he wrote a book called The Art of the Deal.  So is it really a surprise to anyone that President Trump has reached out to the Democrats in Congress to make deals?

trump_the_art_of_the_dealLast week Trump reached agreement with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the leaders of the Democrats in the Senate and House respectively, on an arrangement to raise the debt ceiling and provide hurricane relief funds.  Last night, Schumer and Pelosi announced that they had reached agreement with President Trump on a legislative solution to the status of the so-called DREAMers — children brought to America by illegal immigrant parents who have grown up in this country and who had been protected from deportation under Obama Administration policies.  According to the Democratic leaders, they and Trump agreed to pursue bipartisan legislation to protect the children from deportation in exchange for Democratic support of border security enhancements.  Schumer and Pelosi say the border security enhancements don’t include supporting Trump’s long-touted wall along America’s southern border; the White House says that excluding the wall was not part of the agreement.  It seems clear, however, that some kind of bargain was struck.

These recent announcements give some people the willies.  Rock-ribbed conservatives can’t stand the sight of Schumer and Pelosi, and the idea of actually sitting down and cutting a deal with them is anathema.  And lurking underneath the discomfort is a concern that, in the President’s zeal to make a deal, principles that are considered important to the conservative position might get thrown overboard.  And part of the subtext of that concern, I think, is the belief that President Trump isn’t exactly a master of the details who fully appreciates the significance of negotiating points, and as a result the President might be getting fleeced by savvy Democrats without fully appreciating it.

President Trump’s willingness to have these kinds of talks shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.  Deal makers want to make deals.  In the real estate development world, deal makers always want to have some new project to promote, and part of the process is to create a feeling of momentum and movement.  The key goal is to get the deal done, and you commonly sacrifice on deal points and financing terms and other provisions to reach that goal.  Deal makers believe that nobody gets everything they want, but that ultimately the deal itself serves the greater good for everyone involved.

Of course, not every deal turns out to be a good one for all concerned, and politics isn’t quite like a big real estate development.  There are people out there who believe fervently in principles, and when those principles get casually tossed aside in the interest of cutting a deal they aren’t happy.  But polling results commonly indicate that the American people want their political leaders to get along and avoid things like government shutdowns because they can’t agree on raising the debt ceiling.  President Trump’s willingness to cut deals may test whether that polling data really means anything.  And if foreign leaders see evidence that just about any deal is possible, who knows what they might propose?

We’ve got a deal maker in the White House, folks, and deal makers make deals.

529’d

State of the Union policy proposals come, often in rapid-fire fashion, and go.  President Obama’s proposal to tax “529” college savings accounts, announced only last week and withdrawn this week, may have set a record for the quickest skedaddle.

IMG_0746The “529” plans, named for the section of the Internal Revenue Code that addresses their tax treatment, allow people to squirrel away money to pay for a family member’s college tuition.  The money gets invested, taxes on any gains are deferred, and the money that accumulates in the account can later be used to pay for a beneficiary’s college, tax-free.  That’s why savingforcollege.com says that 529 plans offer “unsurpassed income tax breaks.”

The 529 plans are such a good deal that more than 7 million of them have been created.  President and Mrs. Obama have them for their daughters, for example, and put $240,000 into those plans back in 2007.  And while the Obama Administration argues that the tax benefits for those plans predominantly favor “the rich,” it all depends on how you define “middle class” in modern America.  As the New York Times points out, 10 percent of 529 plans have been established by people with incomes below $50,000, and 70 percent of the total number of 529 accounts are owned by households with annual income below $150,000.  Is a two wage-earner family that makes $140,000 really wealthy?  My guess is that most families in that category don’t look at things that way.

The President’s 529 tax plan was a trial balloon that quickly was shown to be a lead balloon, opposed not only by the people who set up the 529 accounts, and the entities that hold and manage those accounts, but by Democrats and Republicans alike.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reportedly personally lobbied President Obama to ditch the 529 tax plan on a recent plane flight.  And the optics of the proposal aren’t that great, either.  For generations, a cornerstone of American policy has been to help citizens get their kids to college — and now we’re going to tax those industrious folks who plan ahead and save for college for their kids and grandchildren, rather than letting them be saddled with crushing student loan debt as they go forward into their adult lives?  Of all of the tax breaks available in the endless Internal Revenue Code, this is the one we’re attacking?

You can argue, I suppose, about whether the 529 tax plan was good policy, but there’s no doubt that it was bad politics.  I’m guessing that “529’d” might become part of the dictionary of political slang, to be used in the future whenever an ill-conceived proposal gets raised, quickly torpedoed, and then flushed forever down the memory hole.

Spinning A Special Election

Republican Bob Turner prevailed over Democrat David Weprin in yesterday’s special election to fill the seat vacated by the resignation of scandal-plagued Congressman Anthony Weiner.  The result, in a district in the Brooklyn and Queens boroughs of New York City, takes what had been a safe Democratic seat for decades and turns it over to the Republicans.

It’s only one seat of 435 in the House of Representatives, of course, and simply adds to an already existing Republican majority in that chamber.  The question, however, is whether the outcome reflects broader shifts in the views of American voters — and already the spin game seeking to influence the answer to that question has begun.  Republicans say the vote is a referendum on President Obama and his economic policies and note that Turner urged voters to send a message to the President.  Democrats say the race was decided by unique local issues — like a large presence of conservative Orthodox Jews who are angry with President Obama’s position on Israel — and add that Weprin was just an inept candidate.  As a result, they argue, the result is no reflection whatsoever on voters’ opinions of President Obama.

The spin game is an effort to control the message to the gullible schmucks like us, the great unwashed who make up the general electorate.  The real group to watch is the Democrats now in Congress, who are fully capable of separating spin from reality.  They may look at the results of NY-9 and see a race where national Democratic committees spent more than $500,000 in a futile effort to save a supposedly safe seat seat and where all of the get-out-the-vote machinery was activated — and the Democrat still lost.  If those Democrats currently serving see President Obama as an albatross who will lead them and their party to disaster in November 2012, they may stop following that lead, no matter what congressional Democratic leaders like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi say.

Professional politicians tend to be very protective of their own political skins.  If we see more Democrats who are up for election in 2012 peeling away from President Obama in the weeks and months to come — in connection with the President’s current jobs bill, for example — their actions will send a more profound message than the silly political spin game ever could.

Separating Disrespect From Not-Disrespect

Given our current political climate, it is utterly predictable that even the august occasion of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress will be turned into an occasion for asinine political gamesmanship on both sides of the aisle.

According to news reports, some Republicans have said they won’t attend.  Senator Jim DeMint, for example, says probably won’t go because he’s “sick and tired” of speeches.  The Republicans also have said they won’t offer a “response” to the President’s speech, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has depicted that decision as “disrespectful” to the President and to the American people.

I think any Member of Congress who chooses not to attend a presidential address to a joint session of Congress is showing disrespect — to their position, to the head of a coequal branch of government, and to our constitutional system — and should be  voted out of office.  The fact that Republicans may disagree with what President Obama will have to say is irrelevant:  it is their job to hear what he proposes and then to decide how to respond to it, even if they believe that by sitting in the House chamber they are just acting as extras in a bit of political theater.  And any Member of Congress inevitably has sat through hundreds of speeches that have spanned the spectrum from dazzling to stupefying.  A politician who says he is “tired” of speeches is like a doctor who says he is “tired” of dealing with sick people.  If Senator DeMint really feels that way, it’s time for him to hang up his spurs.

On the other hand, I see no disrespect whatsoever in the Republicans’ decision not to have someone make a “response” to the President’s speech.  Indeed, perhaps the decision to junk the “response” will cause us to get rid of that pointless contrivance — or at least resort to it far less frequently.  How often does anyone even pay attention to a “response”?  In this instance, what people want to hear are specifics about what the President will offer as a remedy to our continuing unemployment problems, not what some Republican nobody says in a pre-programmed, platitude-laden “response.”  Indeed, I think the Republicans’ decision to waive a “response” shows respect to President Obama by allowing his speech and his proposals to take center stage.

I don’t mind strong disagreement between the parties about actual matters of policy; that is how our political system is supposed to work. The hyperbole, however, should be reserved for actual disputes about policy.  Name-calling and positioning about ancillary matters like attending a presidential address or giving a “response” makes our elected leaders look petty and small, and does nothing except increase the disdain that average Americans feel for the political classes and the decisions they make that affect us all.

Our Gilded Congress

Congressional disclosure forms were released yesterday and they show that our elected public servants are doing very well, indeed.

The wealth in Congress knows no party-line boundaries; Republicans and Democrats alike are doing well.  According to the reports, the Minority Leader and Majority Leader in the Senate are both multimillionaires who saw their wealth rise in 2010.  So did the the Speaker of the House and the House Minority Leader.  Other Members of Congress reported on gifts they received and, in one case, a member of Congress paid herself some hefty interest on a loan she made to her own campaign committee.

There are exceptions, of course, and I am not suggesting that only paupers should be elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives.  But when Americans wonder why Members of Congress, at times, seem out of touch with bread-and-butter issues like jobs and housing prices, they might do well to reflect on the vast personal wealth in Congress and the deferential and preferential treatment our elected representatives receive as a matter of course.  It’s easy to downplay the effect of high gasoline prices or unsold homes in middle-class neighborhoods if you have millions of dollars in personal investments to reflect upon as a fellow Senator gives you a ride on her private jet.

Ex-Speaker-In-Waiting

The Democrats in the United States House of Representatives endured an historic drubbing in the recent election.  They lost more than 60 seats, and in the process they lost their majority.  Now they are trying to decide who should serve as the leaders of the significantly diminished caucus that will be seated when the new Congress begins its work in 2011.

Soon to be former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has surprised many people by saying she will seek the position of Minority Leader.  Some surviving House Democrats, however, seem to be saying:  “Not so fast!” They want some time to pass before a new Minority Leader is named, perhaps hoping that a credible challenger to Pelosi emerges.

It is not surprising to me that two of the Democrats who appear to be looking for alternatives to Pelosi are from Ohio.  They know, first hand, how poorly Pelosi plays in the heartland.  It probably was a blunder for House Democrats to select as their Speaker a politician who serves the ultra-liberal enclaves of San Francisco in a safe seat immune from the pressure felt by Democrats in swing states like Ohio — but it would be a disaster if they stuck with Pelosi as leader after the results of this past election.  Pelosi’s liberal views were a campaign issue in a number of races, and I think many voters in Ohio and elsewhere believed that their votes for Republican candidates were a repudiation of Pelosi and her position on the issues.  For Democrats to ignore that message and return Pelosi to a leadership position would be to thumb their noses at middle America and risk being led down a progressive path to electoral perdition.  The situation will be even worse if California experiences the crippling budget crisis that many believe will occur in the next few months and Pelosi is an advocate for a federal bailout of The Golden State.  Such an event would confirm the Republicans’ argument that Democrats are a fiscally irresponsible bunch who never met a bailout they didn’t like.

Pelosi, secure in her safe San Francisco seat, probably does not care what middle America thinks.  She believes that she knows what is best for the country and will pursue it regardless of what the election results may be.  The battered survivors of the House Democratic bloodbath on November 2, 2010, however, do not have that luxury.