Few things excite a political reporter more than polls. They're the sports statistics of the electoral grind, giving any argument that little extra oomph. For people not necessarily known for their numerical prowess, a cleverly placed percentage point is the perfect condiment for any story. Heck, polls can even be the story.
Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for those alluring little numbers can end badly. In election off-season it's not so noticeable, with polls slowing to a relative trickle and our attentions focused elsewhere—or so far in the future that the ambitious dreams of Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton dancing in our heads outweigh any margins of error. But the polls are still there. Exhibit A: presidential approval ratings.
If someone is looking for the week that proved a perfect example of how the 113th Congress functions, it doesn’t get much better than last week. The Senate beat back a filibuster to pass a popular bill, with every Democrat joined by a handful of Republicans.
Every few days, a new poster child for the horror of Obamacare comes along, the person who just loves their insurance plan but has been told it's being cancelled. Pretty much every time, their story turns out to be full of holes—the plan they're on is actually junk insurance, they'd be able to get better and cheaper coverage through the exchanges, and so on (here's the latest). But without a doubt, this small group of people (and not, say, the millions who are getting free or low-cost coverage for the first time) have become the momentary face of the Affordable Care Act, at least in the mainstream news media's eyes.
So now the administration is scrambling to deal with this political problem, and here's the latest twist:
Liberals have seldom felt lower than they did after the 2004 election, when a president they despised—and whom they believed had already proven himself to be a complete failure—was re-elected by a nation that somehow didn't grasp who and what Bush was. One of the most pointed post-election analyses was a long editorial in the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger. Titled "The Urban Archipelago," the piece was an unapologetic cry of anger that captured the way a lot of people on the left felt. "It's time to state something that we've felt for a long time but have been too polite to say out loud," the editors wrote. "Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America. We live on islands of sanity, liberalism, and compassion--New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and on and on….Citizens of the Urban Archipelago reject heartland "values" like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country. And we are the real Americans."
The Republicans badly damaged themselves with their contrived government shutdown and debt crisis, but it remains for the Democrats to drive home their advantage. Will they?
Based on the cost to the Republican brand and the pressure from corporate elites not to harm the economy, the days of shutdowns and games with the debt are probably over for the foreseeable future. If the Tea Party faction tries to repeat these maneuvers, House Speaker John Boehner would likely permit a free vote again, and enough Republicans would vote with Democrats to keep the government open.
“Today, 47 million Americans struggling to put food on the table will have to make do with less,” began the emailed press release from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. The statement lamented the $5 billion cut to food-stamp benefits that took effect November 1, rolling back a 13.6 percent expansion to the program that was part of the 2009 stimulus package. The cuts leave “participants with just $1.40 to spend per meal,” the press release continued, adding that House Republicans want to subject food stamps to more cuts in the future.
But before Democrats completely rewrite the history of this body blow to the poor, a review of the facts would be in order. The seeds of this current food-stamp cut were sown by multiple deals made when Democrats held both chambers of Congress and the White House.
New York–area voters had the opportunity this fall to cast their ballot for one of two Democrats who are divided by more than the Hudson River. Cory Booker, the Newark mayor, whom New Jersey’s electors sent to the U.S. Senate in October, and Bill de Blasio, the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City, personify two distinct futures for the Democratic Party.
Booker is a corporate Democrat—more precisely, a Wall Street and Silicon Valley Democrat—who praises the beneficent rich as sources of charitable giving and policy ideas that can lift the poor. De Blasio is an anti-corporate Democrat who condemns big business and the financial sector for using their wealth to rig the economy in their favor and at everyone else’s expense.
Soon-to-be governor Terry McAuliffe yukking it up with media big shot John King. (Flickr/Adam Fagen)
Pop quiz: Who's the governor of Georgia? It's a pretty important state, with a population greater than that of Virginia or New Jersey, to pick two others at random. Can't recall? Don't much care? You get my point—the fact that we momentarily care about who the governors of those other two states are is just an accident of the electoral calendar. It's perfectly fine to pay a lot of attention to the two states with gubernatorial elections in odd years just because there aren't many other elections happening. But come tomorrow, there's going to be a lot of media chin-scratching about What the 2013 Election Means. Was it a harbinger? A bellwether? A foreshadowing? An omen? Here's the answer: In the grand scheme of things, this election means...almost nothing.
In the hours leading up to the release of tonight's election returns, don't waste your bated breath on the victors. After weeks of polling and widening leads, there's little suspense over who will be the next mayor of New York or governor of Virginia or New Jersey. Countless stories will be written about what the exit polls mean for 2016. Pundits who are at the exact moment in time when their nostalgia for the last presidential campaign is in perfect balance with their gestating impatience for the next midterms to start, well, their campaign to persuade you that their analysis of county-by-county breakdowns of election data proves that Republicans will keep the House or lose it into perpetuity starts at midnight. This is all well and good and predictable and inescapable, but if you drill down far enough into the electoral ephemera, there is a nugget of data that offers a bit more suspense. How many voters will pick Mickey?
When he wins New York City's mayoral election today, Bill de Blasio will have succeeded in branding himself the next big thing in progressive politics. But it remains to be seen which de Blasio shines through over the next four years: the former Hillary Clinton operative who admires neoliberal Governor Andrew Cuomo and is friendly with the real-estate industry, or the activist lefty who got arrested protesting the closure of a Brooklyn hospital and has promised to take on income inequality and the NYPD's sprawling anti-terrorism apparatus.
Ken Cuccinelli wasn’t even supposed to be running. Among Virginia Republicans, everyone knew the order of succession—after Governor Bob McDonnell wrapped up his term in office, Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling was supposed to be next up. That was the bargain the two men struck in 2009 to avoid a messy primary battle. But no one had consulted Cuccinelli, the attorney general and the state’s social conservative darling, and he wasn’t content to wait his turn. In December 2011, Cuccinelli, the man who made his name fighting against abortion and gay rights, announced his candidacy.
Last week, I had a co-authored piece in The Atlantic about using a universal basic income to cut the official poverty rate in half. The short of it is–as I pointed out last month here at Policy Shop–providing an annual $2920 cash grant to every American would cut official poverty in half overnight. Although completely viable as a real-life policy that you could implement successfully, such a plan is generally dismissed as out of the question in our current political state.
I suppose we should be pleased that every couple of months, a book, that old-fashioned communication form in which ideas are related at considerable length, is able to captivate official Washington for a moment or two. A while back it was Mark Leibovich's This Town, which cast a jaundiced eye on the incestuous world of press and politics in the capital, and the latest is Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's Double Down: Game Change 2012, which won't be officially released until tomorrow but already stands at #8 on Amazon.
I haven't read Double Down, but if it's anything like the authors' previous work, there'll be no jaundice to be found. As in Game Change, their best-selling account of the 2008 election, the authors show themselves to be aficionados of the scoop for scoop's sake, giving us the inside skinny from campaign operatives with scores to settle but avoiding saying anything interesting about what it all means. That's perfectly fine—if you're interested in politics, reading about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is entertaining enough, much like finding out from People magazine how Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo got along on the set of The Avengers. But from early reports, Double Down isn't exactly delivering the spice, perhaps because it lacks a central character quite as compelling as Sarah Palin was to the authors' previous installment.