State of the Union

Obama’s SOTU 2014: ‘Opportunity’ Still Knocking


For his fifth State of the Union Address, and arguably the most politically fraught moment of his presidency, Barack Obama offered what he called “a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity.”

“Ladders of opportunity” is a go-to phrase of Obama’s. It not only predates his presidency, but also his career in politics: you can hear him (a “civil rights lawyer”) use it here, in this 1994 NPR commentary warning against Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein’s The Bell Curve.

It’s more than a go-to phrase, actually; it captures something fundamental about his assumptions about government and markets. He does not believe that the outcomes of the latter are morally authoritative. Hard work does not always pay. Discipline is not always rewarded. Consequently, it takes a thumb on the scale to break up—not necessarily equalize—patterns of wealth distribution, to ensure that there are rungs on the “ladder” and not just a pretty view of the mansion on the hill. And it requires a central government to promote a healthy ecosystem of the future, where things like the DOD-hatched proto-internet, the Air Force-administered GPS, and biomedicine can grow fruit.

In the back-and-forthing of State of the Union addresses, this debate is typically reduced to Democrats arguing for things like, well, an increase in the minimum wage, more spending on early-childhood education, job training assistance, an extension of unemployment insurance, new infrastructure spending—all of which Obama called for tonight—and Republicans responding that Democrats believe in “equality of outcome” and government’s picking economic winners and losers.

In short, Barack Obama is the keeper of a shriveling post-WWII consensus about economic development and countercyclical strategy.

And quite frankly, he picked a terrible time to be president. Trust in government, whether to manage the national economy or protect the “privacy of ordinary people” (as he put it in tonight’s address), is miserably low. Indeed, if there’s an issue on which he truly enjoys the will of the people at this back, it’s in his insistence on preventing direct U.S. government involvement (to put it cheekily) on foreign soil.

As I see it, there’s a tension within Obama’s (and mainstream Democrats’) stubborn clinging to the old consensus. The fact is, they don’t just want to create “ladders of opportunity.” They want a strong safety net that extends from early-childhood through to retirement. You could hear this in the speech’s section on financial security:

Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don’t have a pension. A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own. And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401(k)s.

And probably the most potent appeal of Obama’s mention of the Affordable Care Act was its link to financial security: you will not go bankrupt if you get sick.

As a strong-government conservative, I’ll cop to this: I’m sympathetic to the old consensus. But I’m equally sympathetic to the Republican critique of an agenda that doesn’t seek to just equalize opportunity, but rather a cradle-to-grave latticework of care and feeding.

To be sure, there are compelling Rawlsian social-justice arguments for the latter—but they should not be confused with the former. Dollars spent on the old are dollars not spent on the young and underprivileged. This is not a summons to throw grandma over the cliff. It’s simply an acknowledgment of a finite budget.

Say this for Obama: he seemed upbeat, despite low polling and talk of lame-duck-ery spreading like wildfire. If nothing else, he seems aware of the fact that there will be no more major legislative accomplishments of his administration. (Count me in the camp that immigration reform remains a long shot.) If he does nothing else than push the boulder of his approval rating a few points up the hill, and thereby maintain Democratic control of the Senate, he will maintain a semblance of relevance for the last three years of his presidency.

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3 Political Stories to Follow in 2014

Orhan Cam/ Shutterstock

With the new year finally upon us, it is time to see what stories of the past will be continuing forward with new life.

Primary Battles:

When the shutdown showdown of this past October finally concluded with Ted Cruz’s demands left unmet, the Senate Conservatives Fund vowed to wage a campaign of retributive primaries against the the insubordinate members of Congress that refused to follow Mr. Cruz all the way off the cliff and down into the waters of default. Steve Stockman has announced a candidacy to oppose “liberal” John Cornyn, whose credentials as a Beltway conservative are thoroughly intact. In Kentucky, Matt Bevin has likewise challenged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for being a Washington figure through and through, drawing on the popularity of the junior senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, to pummel McConnell. The establishment is fighting back, however, as they target upstart constitutionalist Justin Amash in Michigan, pouring business money into a candidate more willing to toe the party line.

Can Obamacare Survive Takeoff?

With a disastrous October launch faltering through the end of the year, President Obama’s signature law is in much more serious danger of failing of its own accord than its bitterest opponents could have hoped. The administration has reported cautiously positive enrollment numbers through the infamous, but it is far from clear how many of those enrollments will actually pay for their coverage. Moreover, as the administration has continued to issue ad hoc exemptions and extensions, the insurance companies themselves are increasingly worried about their ability to enroll the magic mixture of young and healthy premium payers to pay for the old and sick. With the prospect of insurance “death spirals” looming over it, the Affordable Care Act’s implementation will in large measure set the political tone for the rest of the year.

Whither the Midterms?

To a certain extent, the 2014 midterm elections will be a product of the previous two stories. Should Obamacare resurrect itself and go off without too many more hitches, the Democrats’ chances of retaining the Senate improve considerably. Likewise, if the law continues to falter or worse, vulnerable Democrats like Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Kay Hagan in North Carolina will be heavily investing in antacids. Pryor should already be purchasing in bulk, as he faces Weekly Standard darling Tom Cotton, a Harvard Law graduate who left a lucrative private practice to enlist in the Army in 2005. The first-term Congressman makes up for what he lacks in experience with resume and backing. Should he win the seat, Rand Paul would have regular dueling partner in the fight for the Republican foreign policy soul.

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We’re Probably at Peak Republican

Natalie Kolb /
Natalie Kolb /

On CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin made a funny about the GOP’s (relatively speaking) decent showing among voters right now: “Republicans have tried something new: they made a budget deal and they’re not shutting [down] the government.” After saying this, Holtz-Eakin initially kept a straight face. His bottom lip quivered. Laughter ensued.

No, seriously.

Republicans made a budget deal and didn’t shut down the government.

Hear, hear.

The public craves, now as ever, two things: stability and widely shared prosperity. Promising the latter is fine; actually providing it is best. Denying the former is fatal.

Alas, there’s reason to believe the GOP’s recognition of the primacy of stability is merely temporary.

The party may simply be lying in wait until the next kulturkampf over Obamacare.

Dave Weigel reports at Slate:

One of the bullet points that convinced most House Republicans to back [the budget] bill was “hey, let’s shut up about everything except Obamacare.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

Later in 2014, with Republicans largely focused on winning Senate races, what will they want out of Congress? A chance to codify their problems with Obamacare, and exploit whatever delays to the law the president is making in his executive decisions. The overwhelming acceptance of this deal suggests that Republicans aren’t really obsessed with passing entitlement reform, but they are obsessed with dismantling Obamacare, and they think their biggest mistake in 2013 was using the wrong leverage (the CR) to achieve that.

If true, Republicans are grossly miscalculating.

Yet again.

The truth is, polling on Obamacare is not starkly different than it was two years ago. And recall that, in October, during the shutdown, the needle moved toward approval of Obamacare not because it was working well (obviously), but because Republicans shut down the government over it.

The numbers on Obamacare fell to earth again largely because of the “If you like your plan, you can keep it” imbroglio. In other words, Obamacare suffers most when people feel like it’s going to disrupt their lives. Hence the seeming paradox that’s not really a paradox: the law itself is unpopular, and so is the idea of repealing it.

Disruption is the common denominator.

A wise party would learn from this. A wise party would not be salivating over the next opportunity to destabilize the government, spook markets, and upset stability-craving voters. A wise party would seek to either constructively improve or offer a serious alternative to the law, or else take the public’s hint and simply keep its head down and do its job.

But wisdom is in short supply.

And we’re probably still looking at a clown show.

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No Left Turn in New York City

Bill de Blasio is mayor-elect of New York. According to many of de Blasio’s critics as well as his supporters, the unsurprising outcome of Tuesday’s election reflects a decisive turn in the city’s politics. The Nation claims that “Bill de Blasio’s exhilarating landslide victory over Joe Lhota in New York’s mayoral election offers a once-in-a-generation chance for progressives to take the reins of power in America’s largest—and most iconic—city.” In National Review, Kevin D. Williamson evokes John Carpenter’s b-movie classic, Escape from New York

I say: not so fast. Neither turnout and polls nor de Blasio’s career so far support hope (or fears) that he’ll try to transform New York into Moscow on Hudson. Mayor de Blasio will not cultivate the the chummy relationship with Wall Street that Michael Bloomberg did. But there’s likely to be more continuity between their mayoralties than most people expect. In fact, that continuity is a bigger threat to the city’s future than the immediate collapse that some conservatives fear.

First, the election data. As Nicole Gelinas points out, de Blasio’s election was not the mandate for change that the margin of victory suggests.

Preliminary results show that about 1 million New Yorkers voted yesterday. That’s 13 percent lower than four years ago. Back then, remember, many voters disillusioned with the choices—Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was running for a third term against the uninspiring Bill Thompson, Jr.—just stayed home. Turnout this year was as much as 30 percent below 12 years ago, when Bloomberg won his first victory. Voters supposedly so eager for change this year didn’t show that eagerness by voting. And a slim majority of the people who did vote—51 percent—told exit pollsters that they approve of Bloomberg, anyway. Though de Blasio’s victory margin was impressive, the scale of the win looks less stellar when put into recent historical context. As of early Wednesday, de Blasio had 752,605 votes—a hair shy of Bloomberg’s 753,089 votes in 2005.

So de Blasio did not win the votes of unprecedented number of New Yorkers. And many of those who did vote for him also supported Bloomberg. That doesn’t mean that they like everything Bloomberg did. But there’s no evidence here of a progressive tsunami.

What about de Blasio’s career? The tabloid press paid a great deal of attention to de Blasio’s visits to communist Nicaragua and the Soviet Union as a young man. More recently, however, de Blasio worked as a HUD staffer under Andrew Cuomo, and as campaign manager for Hillary Clinton. De Blasio took liberal positions during his tenure on the city council, particularly on symbolic issues involving gay rights. But this is not the resume of a professional radical.

It’s true that de Blasio made “a tale of two cities” the central theme of his campaign. As many observers have pointed out, however, he lacks the authority to enact his signature proposals: a tax increase on high earners, to be used to fund universal pre-K. Nothing’s impossible, but the chances of the state legislature approving such a tax hike are slim. The same goes for several of de Blasio’s other ideas, including a city-only minimum wage higher than the state’s minimum and the issuance of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

The real issues under the de Blasio’s administration will be matters over which the mayor has some direct control. That means, above all, contracts with city workers, and policing. Will de Blasio blow the budget to satisfy public employee unions? And will he keep crime under control after eliminating stop-and-frisk ?

I’m cautiously optimistic  about public safety. New Yorkers didn’t like living in fear, and de Blasio is smart enough to know that he’s finished if crime returns. Stop-and-frisk is not the only weapon in the NYPD’s arsenal.

The unions are a bigger problem. New York’s short-term fiscal outlook is reasonably good, so it’s hard to imagine de Blasio playing Scrooge to faithful supporters.

Even so, de Blasio’s mayoralty is unlikely to be  a revolutionary moment. As Walter Russell Mead has argued, the biggest risk is that he pursues the same high-tax, high-regulation, high-service style of government on which Bloomberg relied. Those policies have helped transform much of New York into a gleaming shopping mall, which is admittedly a lot better than an urban jungle. But they are a bad strategy for prosperity in the years and decades to come.

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On Chris Christie and Bullying the Right People

All signs point to Gov. Chris Christie cruising to reelection in New Jersey tonight.

This is one of those times when personal bias is well nigh overwhelming: Christie—an authentic, half-Italian, New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen uberfanatic, and a strong conservative by any reasonable standard—is about to rocket to the top tier of 2016 presidential contenders.

Judging by a spate of recent posts and on-the-ground reports, Business Insider’s Josh Barro is an unabashed fan of Christie as well. He even brushes aside the one serious reservation I have about the governor: his proclivity for in-your-face confrontations—in a word, “bullying”:

Christie’s confrontational personality can appeal to all sorts of electorates so long as he trains his anger in the right places.

When Christie yelled at that teacher yesterday about how education spending levels will “never be enough” for New Jersey’s teachers’ unions, he was doing so in a state that spent $19,291 per pupil on K-12 education last year — more than any state except New York and Vermont and 74% more than the national average. … So long as Christie keeps training his anger in the right place, Christie will be O.K. What national liberal reporters don’t get is that “towards teachers” can be the right place, politically and substantively, to train that anger.

This is true as far as it goes.

Which I fear is not actually very far.

Back in 2010, I wrote this at U.S. News:

In the short term, the example of New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie is instructive. He has maintained popularity while aggressively pushing an agenda of fiscal austerity. How does he do it? Simple: In teachers unions and state-government employees, Christie has found a juicy, isolatable adversary. This works on the state level, where things like pensions and teacher benefits are significant sources of budget shortfalls—unlike on the national level, where middle-class entitlements are the big driver.

The lesson is this: To the extent that “government” is a sectional entity—an interest group consisting of people who have not had to “sacrifice like the rest of us”—Republicans will find that cutting it is politically popular. To that extent that “government” is Grandma and Grandpa in Boca Raton, Republicans will need to tread carefully and—it’s possible to do both—honestly.

Zoom in on “juicy, isolatable adversary.”

At the presidential level, teachers aren’t going to cut it. Neither are employees of the federal government, whose salaries account for about 5 percent of total federal spending.

Is Chris Christie going to yell at senior citizens about Medicare?

Is he going to yell at beneficiaries of food stamps?

Is he going to yell at families on Medicaid or CHIP?

Is he going to yell at farmers about agribusiness subsidies?

If Christie is a wise and disciplined campaigner, I find it hard to believe he’d do any of those things. And given his recent disparagement of the GOP’s “libertarian strain” in the context of the debate over the national security state, I can’t see Christie getting up in the grill of a Pentagon contractor, either.

Teachers and public-sector employees who don’t want to pay as much for their healthcare as most of the rest of us do are the “right targets” when you’re arguing about state budgets. In fact, they are ridiculously easy targets. They are to Chris Christie what southern reactionaries are to Sacha Baron Cohen.

But I ask Josh: who are the analogously easy marks when you’re talking about the federal budget, and do you honestly think it will do Chris Christie any good to get in their faces?

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Can This Divided Government Agree to Do No More Harm?

Austin Chamber /
Austin Chamber /

I’m now old enough to remember two federal government shutdowns.

Both turned out poorly for Republicans.

The difference this time was that every sane observer strongly suspected it was going to work out poorly for Republicans.

In the end, they won’t even get peanuts. They’ll get the discarded shells of peanuts.

The most infuriating, tear-out-your-hair reaction to the House GOP implosion  came from Reps. Thomas Massie and Joe Barton, Republicans of Kentucky and Texas respectively: that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” No deal? Seriously? Ponder that for a moment: A faction of House Republicans, at the not-so-secret urging of Sen. Ted Cruz, noisily insisted on a foolish confrontation with Senate Democrats and the White House. Once that confrontation ended fruitlessly—as critics predicted it would—this faction skulked away and left its leadership dangling and embarrassed.

This is akin to goading a friend into a bar fight and then watching helplessly as he’s kneed in the crotch.

Make no mistake, though: the GOP leadership isn’t completely blameless. It had planned, too, on a dangerous confrontation over the debt ceiling. There is little reason, now, to believe that such an effort would have ended differently than this one.

What next?

Another round of negotiations over long-term budgeting, to be held between now and Dec. 13, will commence once this deal is enacted. Is there any hope for it? It’s hard not to be pessimistic. The eternal snag is as it always has been: there is no appetite within the GOP for exchanging higher tax revenues for entitlement reform. And contrary to Fox News pundit George Will, I think there’s little chance that President Obama will trade entitlement reform for sequester relief. As Jonathan Chait has noted, Democrats are unlikely to accept permanent cuts to mandatory spending in order to temporarily increase discretionary spending.

So we’re left the question, Can this divided government live with the status quo at least until the midterm elections?

Can it agree simply to do no more harm?

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Libertarian Populism and a Woman’s Appeal

In the chattering-class crosstalk of the past month or so, “libertarian populism” has been the hot idea. As articulated by people like Tim Carney and Ben Domenech, libertarian populism gives the GOP and conservative movement a way to harness the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the country without abandoning free market principles. By waging a war on “bigness” in all its forms, libertarian populism reveals how large corporate powers co-opt and are co-opted by big government to serve the vested interests of a ruling class in ways that unfairly disadvantage the little guy playing by a different set of rules.

There has been significant pushback both from an uncharitable left and a more charitable right, but it wasn’t until this week that Lori Sanders of the R Street Institute articulated a significant problem that libertarian populism will have to address before it can really make the leap to prime-time. As Sanders puts it:

Development of the libertarian populist platform is well underway, and includes such encouraging ideas as breaking up the big banks and ending the drug war.

But the problem with libertarian populism, as it exists so far, isn’t so much the policy prescriptions. The problem is that the story is a boy’s story.

Sanders couches her argument with all the appropriate qualifications about there being no unanimous “women’s” viewpoint or appeal, and neatly disposes of the nurture vs. nature argument to lay the plain facts bare: “it’s relatively uncontroversial to assert, based on a wealth of surveys and psychological profiles, that men and women tend to respond differently to different kinds of narratives,” and

If libertarian populism isn’t pitched in a way that appeals to women, then it’s unlikely to prove terribly helpful to Republicans, who desperately need to make inroads with the single largest demographic bloc that has turned its back on the party.

The populism of libertarian populism is one issue, as what makes the philosophy so appealing to many (especially men) is how it offers them a way to take up pitchforks and slake their bloodlust against the cronyist game-riggers. Such rhetoric of destruction is understandably less appealing to the fairer sex, who tend to be less inclined towards militaristic thinking.

The libertarianism, taken too far, can be another danger to assembling a broad coalition. When Ben Domenech wrote,

Where the traditional trends of Thomas Dewey tend Republicanism toward fixing the institutions of government and society, this new strand had more in common with Charles Murray, whose ‘What It Means to Be a Libertarian’ makes the case not for fixing the departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development, but for eliminating them and replacing them with, and I quote, ‘Nothing.’

Sanders responded

The libertarian populist rhetoric…advocates a complete winding down of something that is known (though admittedly failing) in favor of returning power to state and community structures that, in some communities, just don’t exist anymore.

American men have traditionally been the foundation of the rugged individualism base, while women have, statistically, shown greater concern for propping up the poor and dispossessed. While neither has an exclusive hold on their respective concerns, conservatives of all people should be able to appreciate the unity of human wisdom that is found when the complementary parts of the human experience are brought together.

If that doesn’t persuade them, their interest might. Sanders notes, “The female vote went for Obama 55 percent to 44 percent in 2012. Republican presidential candidates haven’t managed to win the female vote since a narrow 51 percent to 49 percent victory in 1988.”

This is not to say that conservatives need abandon the strong points and principles they receive from the libertarian populist insurgency. But they must temper its wisdom with what they obtain from other parts of an ascendant conservative coalition. Learning from women could be a very fruitful place to begin.

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Republicans Need No Longer Be the Party of the Rich

Dave Lawrence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ross Douthat weighed back into the raging debate over the various proposed forms of conservative populism yesterday, when he made the case for why the Republican Party’s past effective identity as the “party of the rich” need not be its future.

Will Wilkinson over at the Economist had made the case that the “libertarian populism” advanced by folks like Tim Carney and Ben Domenech could never sustain the GOP, because 1) “right-wing populism in America has always amounted to white identity politics,” and 2) “political parties are coalitions of interests, and the Republican Party is the party of the rich, as well as the ideological champion of big business.” The first point is deserving of its own attention elsewhere, but Ross responds well to the second when he says: “I’m generally skeptical of these kind of essentialist arguments, since coalitions can break apart and re-form in unexpected ways, and the parties have been known to change positions dramatically as their ground shifts beneath their feet.”

Moreover, Ross points out that

between 1988 and 2008 the Republican Party went from winning wealthy voters by 34 points overall, and by 17 points more than the party won the median voter, to losing the wealthy vote by the same total – 6 points – as it lost the electorate as a whole. In the election that put Obama in the White House, whatever the G.O.P.’s prejudices and policy stances, it was no longer functionally the party of the rich.

This stark shift occurred because “the composition of the richest 5 percent changed (becoming more professional and less managerial/entrepreneurial), and the views of the upper class diverged more sharply, on social issues especially, from the views of the G.O.P.’s heartland/Southern base.” Moreover, the Democratic Party has undergone a significant change in the post-Clinton era, “becoming much more pro-business and backburnering the priorities of a weakened labor movement,” as well as courting the nouveau riche of Silicon Valley and the greater New York finance and hedge fund community.

In 2012, however, the Republican Party won the wealthy back by nominating a man made in their own image: Willard Mitt Romney. He won 47% of the vote.

As Ross puts it: “Bush-era compassionate conservatism was abandoned and nothing really took its place: Apart from some purely cynical China-bashing, the party’s only economic pitch to hard-strapped Americans was a ritualistic invocation of the unemployment rate.” As Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard showed in a CNN graph currently making the rounds for its brutal clarity, middle- and working-class voters had a fairly clear choice before them:

Now that the Romney alternative isn’t staring them in the face, and as President Obama has concentrated his first 6 months of the second term on gun control and immigration reform, the President is hemorrhaging what working class white support he marshaled during the election. As Nate Cohn details at The New Republic, 

Obama’s support among white working-class voters has taken a huge hit, opening an unprecedented 41 point education gap among white voters. Incredibly, the poll now even shows Obama with a stronger approval rating among affluent whites than downscale whites—something that’s never happened for a Democrat in a presidential election.

While Republicans clearly still have work to do in reversing their stigma in minority communities, the path towards a new conservative coalition could not be clearer. As Democrats become increasingly comfortable allying with the wealthy and like-minded, the “lower-middle” cohort will be searching for an advocate.

Can the GOP become what working class Americans are looking for?

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Republicans Need Working Class Votes, White or Not

Days after the 2012 election, conservative talk-show host and hair-enthusiast Sean Hannity announced to his talk-radio audience that he had “evolved” on issue of immigration reform because “We’ve got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether.” He recognized that after Mitt Romney only collected, fittingly, 47% of the vote, and the ”Hispanic vote went 70 percent Democrat,” something would have to be done to right the Right’s electoral woes.

Rather than take the time to soul-search, and come to terms with the disaster that the Romney campaign specifically, and the GOP generally, had become in the eyes of voters looking to improve the status of their communities and their country, Hannity went right for the first issue he could find that would not threaten the Republican establishment’s priorities in serving the “donorists,” as Ross Douthat puts it, who “tend to like the G.O.P.’s near-obsessive focus on the top marginal tax rate just fine.”

He and his have been rallying to immigration as the answer to minority outreach ever since, promising that once the issue was off the table the real Republican message would be able to get through. As Ross put it recently, “much of the energy in the immigration fight comes from factions within the Republican tent that regard the Rubio-Schumer bill as a brilliant-and-easy way to avoid any kind of broader rethinking on economics.”

All the while, however, there have been rumors of an electoral bloc that might save Republicans without having to win minorities: the missing white vote. Britt Hume has been beating the drum over at Fox News in particular in pushing back against the “baloney” of necessary minority outreach.

Sean Trende has been doing the statistical yeoman’s work of describing this population, and came to the (correct) conclusion:

Republicans should pay attention to the concerns of the millions of alienated working-class voters who sat out the 2012 election because the GOP needs them — not at the exclusion of minority voters, many of whom are also working class, but in addition to them — to form a winning coalition in the future.

What Republican commentators need to get clear on, however, before they do themselves a lot of unnecessary additional harm, is that appealing to working-class voters does not mean pivoting away from minority voters; in fact they should go hand in hand. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry put it in his excellent “Reform Conservative Manifesto,”

the best way for Republicans to win a lot of Latinos is to win lower-middle voters generally, a lot of whom happen to be Latinos. Unless, that is, people of certain groups think that Republicans are prejudiced against them.

The always on-point Pete Spiliakos reminds us of Artur Davis’s explanation that even middle- and upper-class minority voters share church pews with those still struggling, and will vote the pocketbook of their neighbor as well as their own. If Republicans want those missing white votes, they can get minority votes too, if they speak to the voters who are hurting because the economy is so bad that they’ll put up with breathing neurotoxins just to keep food on the table.

As anyone who has worked in a factory will be able to tell you, the assembly lines are a rainbow coalition all to themselves.

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Did the IRS Win the Election for Obama?

Stan Veuger of the American Enterprise Institute and a group of colleagues conducted a study which has led him to conclude that IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups prior to the 2012 election reduced turnout and led to Barack Obama’s victory.

In a new research paper, Andreas Madestam (from Stockholm University), Daniel Shoag and David Yanagizawa-Drott (both from the Harvard Kennedy School), and I set out to find out how much impact the Tea Party had on voter turnout in the 2010 election. We compared areas with high levels of Tea Party activity to otherwise similar areas with low levels of Tea Party activity, using data from the Census Bureau, the FEC, news reports, and a variety of other sources. We found that the effect was huge: the movement brought the Republican Party some 3 million-6 million additional votes in House races.That is an astonishing boost, given that all Republican House candidates combined received fewer than 45 million votes.

Veuger goes on to make a key assumption that I could not find in the study. (The study is about the impact of citizen protests on increased voter turnout, using the Tea Party as its key example. It gives a great deal of attention to the effect of rainfall on the success of protest events, with accompanying mathematical formulas). So I assume this is Vueger speaking for himself and not for his colleagues:

The data show that had the Tea Party groups continued to grow at the pace seen in 2009 and 2010, and had their effect on the 2012 vote been similar to that seen in 2010, they would have brought the Republican Party as many as 5 – 8.5 million votes compared to Obama’s victory margin of 5 million.

But the IRS’s focus on Tea Party non-profits, he says, interrupted that pace of growth. He provides no evidence for that assumption before jumping to another one: the IRS’s interest in Tea Party non-profits must have been at the direction of Obama’s operatives or “it may just be that a bureaucracy dominated by liberals picked up on not-so-subtle dog whistles from its political leadership.”

As a consequence, the founders, members, and donors of new Tea Party groups found themselves incapable of exercising their constitutional rights, and the Tea Party’s impact was muted in the 2012 election cycle.

There are two problems with this conclusion. The first problem is that the popular vote for GOP House candidates in 2012 was 58 million compared to 2010′s 45 million. Instead of being incapable of exercising their constitutional rights, 13 million more Tea Party-influenced voters apparently were very capable of exercising their rights. Of course, 2012 was a presidential election year which always produces a higher vote. But a 28 percent surge in voting can hardly be described as a “muted” impact.

Moreover, the GOP’s share of the 2012 House vote was six million more than in the previous presidential cycle in 2008. Vueger claims the Tea Party should have produced 5-8 million more votes in 2012, and it looks like that’s exactly what it did, substantially increasing the GOP’s totals over 2008 and 2010. So what’s this business about the IRS?

There’s a second problem. The IRS was focused on 501(c)3 non-profits. Veuger quotes one activist, as recounted in the Wall St. Journal:

As Toby Marie Walker, who runs the Waco Tea Party, which filed for tax-exempt status in 2010 but didn’t receive approval until two months ago, recounted recently: “Our donors dried up. It was intimidating and time-consuming.”

The American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC, is a non-profit. So is the American Enterprise Institute, where Veuger is employed.  So Veuger and I know something about tax-exempt non-profits.

We both know they are not allowed to to engage in political campaigns. He and I can sympathize with any organization whose “donors dried up.”  However, if those donations were expected — in any way — to be used for partisan purposes, the IRS was right to examine them. Non-profits can use tax-exempt money to increase voter turnout as a civic effort. But they are not allowed even to endorse candidates, much less campaign for them. It seems like an oversight on Veuger’s part not to acknowledge that some Tea Party groups in their exuberance were trampling over the clearly painted line that he and I both know so well, thereby assuring the interest of law enforcement agencies such as the IRS.

Peggy Noonan on Friday touted Vueger’s spin on the study (which she clearly did not read) and seemed especially taken with the theory that it was a Democratic voter suppression effort:

Think about the sheer political facts of the president’s 2012 victory. The first thing we learned, in the weeks after the voting, was that the Obama campaign was operating with a huge edge in its technological operation—its vast digital capability and sophistication. The second thing we learned, in the past month, is that while the campaign was on, the president’s fiercest foes, in the Tea Party, were being thwarted, diverted and stopped. Technological savvy plus IRS corruption. The president’s victory now looks colder, more sordid, than it did.

Thinking about it, as Noonan suggests I do, I just cannot find a there there. The Tea Party seems to have contributed to a higher vote for the GOP — measured by the popular vote for the House, which is Veuger’s baseline — in 2012 than in 2008, and much a larger total than 2010. Meanwhile, the Tea Party was not being “thwarted, diverted, and stopped.” The IRS was examining the applications of Tea Party-affiliated non-profits, none of which should have had anything to do with the campaign anyway.

There was a good reason they were being examined. Although we would like to think these citizens groups are as pure as newly fallen snow, the fact issome Tea Party non-profits were clearly breaking the law.

Not for the first time in the last few years, Peggy Noonan needs to take a deep breath. And AEI might want to caution Stan Veuger about using his colleagues’ straightforward scholarly work to extrapolate a case that is not there.

Wick Allison is president of the American Ideas Institute.

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