Sunday, April 17, 2016

Should The Minimum Wage Be $15 An Hour?

In the earliest stages of the debate on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour a couple of years ago, it seemed like a typical bargaining posture to me.  No way, I figured did the striking fast food workers really believe they were gonna get $15 an hour.  They were simply putting in a high opening bid in hopes of negotiating their way to something like $11 an hour.  It seemed like a savvy ploy, and one that would ultimately bring considerably more good than harm in a nation where wages are at the lowest level of gross national product in recorded history.

But starting with the Seattle airport, the $15 an hour experiment became a reality.  And from there, a few larger cities like San Francisco also adopted $15 an hour minimum wages and just this month, two our of nation's three largest states--California and New York--implemented statewide $15 an hour minimum wages to be phased in over the course of the next several years.  Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley both endorsed nationwide $15 an hour minimum wages in their Presidential campaigns and held Hillary's feet to the fire for her more cautious $12 an hour position.  But this past week, even Hillary has relented and succumbed to the momentum towards $15 an hour, so long as it's phased in over an extended time period.  It's now clear that $15 an hour was not simply a negotiating posture...and it's becoming law in jurisdictions that represent a significant portion of the nation's population.

But is it sound policy?  I'm in the camp of California Governor Jerry Brown, who reluctantly signed the law but conceded it was a high-stakes experiment.  While conservatives and libertarians always freak out and channel their inner Milton Friedman any time there's a national debate about the minimum wage, even raising it from historic lows to slightly above historic lows, but the basic principles of Economics 101 suggest that there is a risk if the wage basement is raised above a certain tipping point.  If the cost of labor rises above what the market can bear, some combination of price hikes, layoffs, and automation can theoretically do more harm than good.  Is $15 an hour above that tipping point?   Minimum wage expert Alan Krueger, generally a proponent of higher minimum wages, believes it may be and has been urging caution in going too quickly to $15 an hour.  I tend to agree.

So are lawmakers in California and New York passing $15 an hour minimum wage requirements into law either naive or crazy in taking such a bold experiment?  Maybe a little, but what doesn't get reported is that both states' hands are near the point of being forced to do something because there are so many low-wage workers qualifying for public assistance that the states are being driven to bankruptcy trying to bankroll all of it.  And why are so many workers in these states qualifying for public assistance?  There are a number of factors, but arguably the biggest is that there are so many employers in retail, health care, food production, and especially fast food that pay wages so low that taxpayers have to fill the void with public assistance.  If these workers made $15 an hour, public assistance spending would contract substantially.  So to the states, it ultimately becomes a question of whether billion-dollar multinational corporations with steep profit margins should be paying livable wages to their workers.....or whether they should be given a "wage subsidy" in the form of public assistance born by taxpayers to keep their workers out of poverty.

This would be an easy question to answer in favor of making the businesses pay more if the businesses didn't still  hold the whip hand in the debate.  The biggest concern is a movement towards automation, rendering the majority of existing fast food jobs obsolete in the event of labor costs going to high and adding even more instability to the process.  It isn't at all outside the realm to imagine the fast food giants making this transition in the face of $15 an hour minimum wages and reports suggest the technology may be there to do just that.  With this in mind, I'd prefer the same $12 an hour minimum wage that Hillary was originally advocating as the most sensibly cautious approach.  Even at its highest level of value historically, I believe in 1968, the minimum wage would be worth about $11 an hour in today's value.  Going more than 50% higher than most historical precedent just seems like more than what the job market can absorb.

But the most troubling part of the minimum wage increase debate has nothing to do with whether the increase would be economically sound policy.  Most troubling is how the prospect of low-wage workers getting a raise is perfect fodder for exploiting the usual intra-class resentments.  All too often, the group of people most loudly and passionately rallying against a higher minimum wage for low-income workers are....their own working-class neighbors.....seething with jealousy and resentment at the prospect of "those people" getting paid more for an honest day's work.  The fact that a minimum wage increase injects more demand into the economy and facilitates an environment where everybody's wages ultimately go up matters not at all to them, even if thoroughly explained.  Their jealousy and resentment runs so deep that they'd rather lose out on a raise themselves if it means their neighbor is able to climb just a little bit out of the gutter.

This is the primary reason why so many downscale voters are receptive to the Republican Party's economic message.....the obsession with making sure that your "unworthy" neighbor takes it on the chin.  Interestingly, most Americans are theoretically opposed to the rising tide of inequality in our economic system and pay lip service to the unfairness of our current arrangement where the rich devour nearly everything the economy produces.  But when a practical effort to offset some of that inequality is introduced, they reflexively go into attack mode because at the gut level they believe low-income workers deserve what they get.  The same is true with the public assistance angle that people are constantly getting their panties in a wad about, sometimes legitimately.  For as much grumbling as they do about all the people on public assistance, a higher minimum wage would reduce the need for so much public assistance to so many workers.....yet they still passionately argue against it.  Ultimately, what matters most to them is an economic caste system with a clearly defined bottom......a bottom that they are obsessed be occupied by people other than themselves at all costs and will rail against any effort to scramble that status quo.

With all that in mind, the experiences of California and New York and their new supersized minimum wage will be fascinating to track.  There's a decent chance they pushed the envelope too far and will face rising unemployment as a result. But there's also a chance the higher wages among currently low-income residents will trigger a multiplier effect of economic activity and corresponding wage growth for everyone in those states while simultaneously freeing up some money in the budget currently going towards public assistance for all the workers about to get a big raise.  If it's the latter and the minimum wage increase is a success, it'll be fascinating to see if other states follow suit....or if they still resist because resentment for your neighbor getting a raise still matters more than crafting a healthy economy and job market.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

America Wants a Messiah

Since I was a young boy, I've always been into the political horse race....REALLY into it.  The nature of the beast, and the media's breathless coverage of it, makes it relatively easy for a good share of the population to get swept into the pageantry of primary and general elections for President.  But what separates me from (apparently) virtually everybody else who gets most attached to Presidential politics is that I don't go into the race looking for a messiah around every corner.  The one exception was in 1992, when I thought Iowa Senator Tom Harkin walked on water in his doomed pursuit of the Democratic nomination that cycle.  I was 14, so I feel my naivete about what one man can be expected to accomplish simply by winning a Presidential election was a little more justified than what I've witnessed adults young and old treat Presidential candidates since.  I'm sure there's always been a degree to which a hopeful nation channels its desires onto a charismatic leader going back to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, but in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, the public really seems to have lost its mind in how high it sets its expectation bar for Presidential performance.

At one level, impassioned enthusiasm for electing leaders is a good thing, as we need a certain level of energy to keep a democracy functional.  There was a fair degree of enthusiasm for both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot back in 1992 that seemed proportionally appropriate.  I wasn't a fan of George W. Bush or the politics of his supporters, but I never got the sense that even the so-called "Bush-bots" treated Dubya with the same degree of hero worship that they treated Ronald Reagan then or now.  I was too young in the early 80s to pick up on the far right's love affair with Reagan at the dawn of his Presidential career but he was clearly the first example in my lifetime of a political leader elevated to superhero status by his fans.  And despite a turbulent Presidency that created more losers than winners and set the template for America's long-term death spiral into becoming a Wall Street subsidiary, Reagan is the only political figure of my lifetime looked back upon as a messiah by large swaths of the population committed to Reagan's brand of tribal trench warfare politics.

But far and away the most common examples of messiah politics have emerged in the last decade where a new idol seems to emerge every five minutes....the newest shiny object on the scene who represents an empty vessel for a certain demographic of the population to tags their aspirations onto.  The clearest example of this is of course Barack Obama whose oratory sent "thrills up the leg" of cable news anchors and led crowds full of awestruck young supporters at his rallies fainting at his undying charisma.  As most politicians do, Obama fed this beast with the way he ran his 2008 campaign, waiting until after he was elected to downplay expectations of what was gonna assuredly be one of the most challenging Presidential terms in American history.  Nobody in their right mind had any expectation of prosperity raining down upon America following Obama's election given the hole America was in back in 2009, but it was nonetheless expected by millions of people who had assigned messianic powers to Obama based on the charisma of his speeches during the campaign.  Now I certainly haven't agreed with everything Obama has done over the course of his two terms as President, but have nonetheless been quite impressed with where the country has ended up at the end of his tenure compared to where it began.  But most Americans, even his supporters, want to see the country go in a different direction moving forward.  The Obama Presidency was a letdown to them....and given the expectations, how could it not be?

During the Obama era, the Republicans have made numerous attempts to manufacture their own messiah, with mostly ineffective results.  Bobby Jindal and Bob McDonnell are some of the clearest examples of hero fails the Republican establishment tried to foist on people, but some degree of short-lived messiah accolades stuck with Chris Christie and Marco Rubio before it became clear they fell far short of expectations even to the least discriminating audiences.  But a genuine messiah did emerge on the Republican side during the Obama years with "crazy grandpa" libertarian Ron Paul, whose cult was smaller than Obama's but considerably more the point of hijacking state conventions in 2012 and turning over the primary and caucus outcomes to replace the delegates for the winning candidate with Ron Paul flacks.  The modestly sized faction of Ron Paul followers fervently believed what Obama's supporters believed a few years earlier....that installing this one man as the nation's leader would change everything entirely for the better.

Which brings us to 2016, where a nation more angry, agitated, and in need of hero than ever before has managed to find two more out of this year's selection of Presidential candidates.  Bernie Sanders is an unlikely figure to emerge as an aspirational vessel to America's youth, but that's exactly what has happened as Bernie's brand of democratic socialism sounds pretty good to a nation of young people looking at a higher and higher price of entry in pursuit of the American dream with dramatically shrinking returns on the back end.  Bernie hits the nail on the head in diagnosing nearly everything that's wrong in America, but far more than Obama eight years his messiah bona fides are poised to fall disastrously short in a political environment where even the basic functions of government are obstructed to the point of paralysis.  Even if Bernie were to overcome very long odds and get a mandate from the American people to lead the country, the checks and balances of the American government would prevent him from accomplishing all of his lofty goals, especially in a nation this polarized.  The young people who view him as their savior would definitively get their hearts broken in the most soul-crushing way.

But surpassing Bernie, Obama, and every other false messiah in recent American political history is Donald Trump, a masterful snake oil peddler who has whooped a neglected faction of the Republican base into a frenzy with a populist, paleoconservative pitch that is as vague as it is phony.  Picking up on all the unsavory trends from recent political campaigns and melding them into one toxic hairball, Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign theme makes Obama's "hope and change" pitch from 2008 seem like a labyrinth of intricacy by comparison.  But where Obama had some actual policy points hidden beneath the airy salesmanship, everything Trump is offering is a bag of feathers.  From assuring us that Mexico will pay for a wall on our border to rewriting trade deals to going after terrorists' families, the entirety of Trump's policy agenda is supposed to be accomplished entirely by the force of his personality.  The fact that the establishments of both parties who he'd have to work with if elected hate his guts matters not at all to Trump's sales pitch or to the people buying that sales pitch.   The traditional rules of getting things done in Washington only apply to mere mortals after all, and with Trump, Americans are electing a messiah!

It's gotten to the point where I wish parties would not elect charismatic candidates anymore.  Much as Democrats stick their noses up at the memories of Al Gore and John Kerry's campaigns against George W. Bush, there was no expectation that either of their hypothetical Presidencies would defy gravity and fix everything wrong with the country simply based on their soaring oratory, the strength of their conviction, or their past successes in business or reality TV shows.  The flip side, of course, is that such technocrats do not inspire high voter turnout, meaning we're caught in a vicious cycle where every four years both parties are expected to put up somebody "inspiring" enough to make crowds faint in their presence....or at least punch black people in the face.  The only real solution to this messiah cycle is for the American people to grow up and realize the limitations of both the office of the Presidency and political leaders' ability to control events.  If the messiah du jour doesn't reverse the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression in the first six months of his Presidency and you're already declaring him a failure and a disappointment, then you probably believe in Santa Claus and the Easter bunny too. 

I used to believe a President had the power to single-handedly reverse all the nation's endemic problems and return us to a fantastical golden age.....but then I got old enough where I had to shave my facial hair.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Battle for the Senate in 2016

As is so often the case in Presidential cycles with high-drama debates and primaries front and center in the political sphere, Congressional races tend to get overshadowed.  Suddenly, however, with the death of Supreme Court justice Scalia last week, the Senate races became a lot more important as the Democrats need either four or five seats, depending on who wins the White House to have a Senate majority in 2016.  And while I'm generally bearish on the Democrats' prospects this cycle as they attempt to hold the White House for a third consecutive term, the Senate class up this year is the class from 2010, where Democrats got pasted.  As a result, the Republicans hold an unusually high number of vulnerable seats in blue and purple states so if a polarizing GOP nominee (say, Donald Trump) is at the top of the Presidential ticket, there's a very real possibility that the Democrats could win the four or five seats they need.

Many of the races have yet to fully take form and have primaries where the winner will be determinative for the two parties' chances.  And of course there's always the chance of a would-be "safe" seat blowing up for one party such as Minnesota in 1990 or Virginia in 2006.  But barring a shocking turn of events, the following seats are likely to stay in the hands of their respective parties....

For the Democrats:
California--Barbara Boxer (open seat retirement)
Connecticut--Richard Blumenthal
Hawaii--Brian Schatz
Maryland--Barbara Mikulski (open seat retirement)
New York--Chuck Schumer
Oregon--Ron Wyden
Vermont--Pat Leahy
Washington--Patty Murray

For the Republicans:
Alabama--Richard Shelby
Alaska--Lisa Murkowski
Georgia--Johnny Isakson
Idaho--Michael Crapo
Iowa--Chuck Grassley
Kansas--Jerry Moran
Kentucky--Rand Paul
North Dakota--John Hoeven
Oklahoma--James Lankford
South Carolina--Tim Scott
South Dakota--John Thune
Utah--Mike Lee

I'm somewhat reluctant to put open seats in the slam-dunk category but particularly given that this is a Presidential year, it's almost unthinkable that a Republican would win in either California and Maryland.  As for the rest of the seats, there's a varying degree a volatility in them where the opposing party has at least a small chance of picking them off.

Arizona--Three-decade incumbent and former GOP Presidential nominee John McCain is going for a sixth term.  As was the case in 2010, McCain first has to get through the primary in his own party with State Senator Kelli Ward challenging him from the right.  McCain is a favorite to prevail in the primary and likely will be in the general election as well, although he has a strong challenger in Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick.  Only five Democrats nationally hold Congressional seats in districts won by Mitt Romney in 2012 and Kirkpatrick's vast district taking in giant swaths of northern and eastern Arizona along with northeastern fringe of the metropolitan Phoenix is one of them.  McCain can likely overcome any possible headwind at the top of the ticket should Trump or Cruz get his party's nomination, but if Ward is able to prevail in the primary, Kirkpatrick would be even money to pick up the seat for the Democrats.  Still, a lot of things will have to go right for the Dems to wrestle this seat away.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Arkansas--Democrats are bullish on former US Attorney Connor Eldridge, their young Senate candidate challenging one-term Republican incumbent John Boozman, who unseated Democrat Blanche Lincoln in a landslide in 2010 but who is considered such a backbencher in the Senate that even his own constituents don't really know who he is.  Consider me highly skeptical that the Democrats have any chance in Arkansas, where former popular Democratic Senator was crushed by 17 points in 2014.  Every indication is that Arkansas has realigned into one of the reddest states in the country in just a few short years, and even though Eldridge is running as an old-fashioned moderate Arkansas Democrat like the ones who thrived in the state until recently--and even though the state's former First Lady Hillary Clinton is odds-on to be at the top of the ticket--I still think Boozman will prevail by 20 points or more.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Colorado--Democrats dodged a bullet when Republican Congressman Mike Coffman declined to challenge incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet, but another former GOP Congressman--Scott Tipton--now seems like the Republican best positioned to take on Bennet.  Considering Bennet managed to narrowly prevail against a strong challenge in 2010, he won't be an easy target, especially since Colorado has continued to trend leftward in the years since and 2016 will have Presidential year turnout.  Barring devastating headwinds at the top of the ticket for the Democrats, Bennet is definitely the favorite here.  Prediction: Leans Democrat.

Florida--The most wide open Senate race in the country is in Florida, the open seat vacated by Marco Rubio, with contested primaries in both parties making it tough to handicap this early in the cycle.  The frontrunners on the Republican side are current Congressmen David Jolly and Ron DeSantis, with DeSantis being the more conservative of the two that Democrats are hopeful to run against.  The Democratic side features two Congressmen of their own.  One is the young moderate Patrick Murphy from south Florida who beat right-wing Allen West in 2012 and won re-election handily last year in a district Romney won.  He'd be the strongest candidate by far, but first has to get past a primary challenge from the mercurial progressive Alan Grayson.  While the foul-mouthed and mean-spirited Grayson would be a disaster in the general election, there's a very real chance he could win a Democratic primary.  It's next to impossible to handicap this race with the current level of uncertainty but given that any chance of a Democratic victory
likely requires Murphy to emerge victorious in the primary, you have to give the Republicans a small early advantage from this far out.  And if Rubio manages to get the nomination for his party, he will likely have some coattails in his home state that will benefit the GOP Senate nominee as well.  Prediction: Tilts Republican.

Illinois--The closest the Democrats have to a sure thing this cycle is in Illinois, where Republican Mark Kirk eked out a one-point victory against a slimy challenger in the political perfect storm of 2010.   Illinois has become a heavier and heavier lift for Republicans in the last generation but has recently showed signs of polarizing between Chicago and the rest of the state.  If that intense polarization plays out again in 2016 and the downstate counties are a sea of Republican red, Kirk could make it close, but with Presidential turnout it's really hard to imagine him winning, especially since he'll have a stronger challenger this time since his likely Democratic challenger is Iraq War veteran and amputee Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth.  The Democrats are really having an unprecedented disaster at the top of the ticket if they can't pick up this seat.  Prediction: Likely Democrat (+1 for Dems)

Indiana--Republican Congressman Dan Coats came out of retirement and won his old Senate back in 2010 but already wants out again this cycle, leaving an open seat with two current members of Congress vying on the Republican side...Marlin Stutzman from the Fort Wayne area and Todd Young from the state's southeast corner.  The Democrats were unable to get their choice (former Senator Evan Bayh) but got a decent recruit in former Congressman Baron Hill who held the same southeastern IN seat that Young now holds back in the 90s and 2000s.  Hill is a long shot in increasingly Republican Indiana, but if Stutzman gets the nod on the GOP side, Hill will have a parochial advantage in hanging onto the conservative Democrats in his old southern Indiana seat that have largely trended Republican in recent years. Still, a helluva lot of things would have to go right for the Dems to win this seat and with Hillary at the top of the ticket the chances get even slimmer.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Louisiana--On the outer edges of competitiveness is the open seat in Louisiana vacated by Republican David Vitter after his stunning upset defeat in last fall's gubernatorial race.  A humbled Vitter announced his retirement from the Senate after losing that race, and Democrats were briefly optimistic of their chances, particularly if Mitch Landrieu got into the race. Landrieu declined, however, and the Dems are left with no strong candidate to face off against a number of top-tier Republicans vying for the seat including House members John Fleming and Charles Boustany.  The Dems have very low chances here, but after winning a Governor's race only months ago with similarly lopsided odds, it's too early to declare this race over.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Missouri--Democrats have a very strong candidate in Secretary of State Jason Kander, the youngest statewide elected official in the country, to face off against incumbent Republican Roy Blunt.  A decade ago, this would have likely been a genuine tossup, but Missouri has really hardened into a red state during the Obama era and unless Blunt really steps in it (Todd Akin-style) or Kander proves to be an absolute rock star, the Democrats aren't gonna be winning here with Hillary at the top of the ticket.  Prediction: Likely Republican.

Nevada--The Silver State gave us the marquee Senate race in the country in 2010 when Harry Reid overcame polls showing him DOA and won decisively.  Reid is retiring this year and his absence is likely to produce another barnburner of an open seat contest.  The Democrats are likely to go with former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, and would have identity politics on their side in pursuit of females and the fast-growing Latino population in the state.  The Republicans are running a strong challenger as well with Congressman Joe Heck, who has represented a two-time Obama-voting district in the Las Vegas suburbs for several years.  Heck will likely face some headwinds in increasingly Democratic Nevada in a higher-turnout Presidential cycle but fellow Republican Dean Heller narrowly prevailed in such a climate in 2012 and Heck has a very doable path to victory as well if he can hold some of the crossover support he's maintained in his home Congressional district.  Still, Cortez Masto has a small advantage looking from afar.  Prediction: Tilts Democrat.

New Hampshire--Another hotly contested race will be always-volatile New Hampshire where GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte is facing a challenge from current Governor Maggie Hassan.  There have already been a number of polls showing this race very close to deadlocked.  Perhaps more than any other Senate race in the country, this race is likely to come down to who is at the top of the ticket for each party.  If I was Ayotte, I would much rather be running with Rubio at the top of the ticket for the GOP rather Donald Trump, despite Trump's big win in the New Hampshire primary a couple of weeks ago.  And the death of Antonin Scalia could represent another challenge for Ayotte as moderate New Hampshire voters are more likely to want a Democratic Senate to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.  All things being equal, Ayotte would probably pull this one out, but some trends are breaking against her and make me think Hassan may have a small advantage, but an advantage that may well not materialize in another seven months.  Prediction: Tilts Democrats (+2 for Dems)

North Carolina--With the changing demographics and political profile of North Carolina, Democrats thought Senate backbencher Richard Burr would be a soft target in 2010 but didn't even come close to upending him in that year's GOP wave.  Six years later, Burr could still be potentially vulnerable given his unimpressive favorables but just about every high-profile Democrat passed on challenging him, leaving a small-city mayor the Dems' best prospect.  In 2008, Kay Hagan won an upset in a very similar environment but it's hard to believe 2016 will prove to be as perfect of a political storm and 2008 was.  Prediction: Likely Republican.

Ohio--Definitely among the top tier of competitive races in 2016, first-term Republican Rob Portman appears quite vulnerable and stands poised to face off against popular and charismatic former Governor Ted Strickland.  There are some signs that Strickland may not be as strong of an opponent as he looks on paper though.  For one thing, he's 75 years old.  He also faces a primary challenge against a Cincinnati city council member that could potentially bloody him heading into the general and his fundraising haul has been mediocre.  Plus Portman is a pretty polished campaigner and if Hillary proves to be a headwind at all at the top of the ticket, it could work to Portman's advantage.  While I don't rule out Strickland at all if 2016 turns into a decently Democratic year, I think the conditions warrant giving Portman the edge here to hold his seat.  Prediction:  Leans Republican.

Pennsylvania--Another top tier competitive race is in a neighboring Rust Belt state.  Republican Pat Toomey squeaked out a narrow victory in the 2010 GOP sweep and has been working to build a moderate profile in the years since.  It seems to be serving him well as Toomey has higher approval ratings than the other incumbent Republicans considered most vulnerable this year.  A fractured Democratic field with a hotly contested primary is also helping Toomey's cause, as establishment Democrats are rallying behind Katie McGinty, the former Chief of State to Governor Tom Wolf, but former Congressman Joe Sestak, who narrowly lost to Toomey in 2010, is returning for an encore to the chagrin of the Democratic establishment who are not fans.  It's anybody's guess who between McGinty and Sestak will win the primary at this point, and it's hard to know which is the better option to topple Toomey in November.  In order to win, Toomey needs to win a good chunk of votes from suburban Philadelphia that will likely vote for Hillary in the Presidential race.  These voters are pro-choice, however, so Toomey will not be served well if the election becomes a referendum on the Supreme Court as it likely will be.  Still, Toomey has emerged from his first term strong enough to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Prediction: Leans Republican

Wisconsin--Polls currently show former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold with a comfortable lead over the guy who unseated him in 2010, Republican Senator Ron Johnson.  While the Dems appear better positioned than not to win this seat back, I still think they're spiking the football a little early here as Feingold is a notoriously poor campaigner and could get swamped in a sea of right-wing special interest money as he was before.  Furthermore, Hillary at the top of the ticket would not be likely to offer Feingold any tailwinds in Wisconsin.  I'm hesitant to declare poor-performing Republicans toast after 2014 when the previously unimaginable re-elections of guys like Paul Le Page and Mike Grimm became a reality, and Johnson fits that category perfectly.  Prediction: Tilts Democrats (+3 for Democrats)

So as of now late February, I'm seeing the Dems falling a little bit short of picking up a Senate majority.  Even more so than traditional cycles these races will be a little easier to call after the primary cycle when the nominees are selected because in some cases, especially Florida, the winner of the primary will almost certainly mean the difference between a Democratic gain and a GOP hold.  And if the Democrats do manage to win back the Senate in 2016, it'll be a rental because they're extremely overexposed heading into the Senate class up in 2016 with a ratio of something like 26 Democratic-held seats and 7 Republican-held seats.  It's all part of the reason I'm having a hard time mustering up much excitement for this election cycle as even if Democrats defy the odds and hang on to the White House for a third consecutive term due to a trainwreck of an opposition party, they're poised for an epic ass-whooping two years later in the midterms that will make 2010 and 2014 look like the good old days by comparison.  Still, with the Supreme Court at stake, 2016 will nonetheless be an extremely consequential year and the Democrats had best take advantage of any kind of victory they can get while they can get it.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

My 20 Favorite Album Cuts From Country CDs I Own

I got a new CD player (yeah, I know...I'm the last dinosaur) for Christmas to replace my old one which was routinely skipping, and as a result I've been revisiting a lot of my old CDs that have been accumulating since 1994 in the days since.  I'm always struck how some of my favorite songs were never released as singles, a phenomenon that's been occurring since the dawn of albums I'm sure but one that I thought worthy of recognition even amongst the relatively small selection of music I've accumulated over the years.  Obviously my list is not a representative sample of all never-released-as-singles country classics lingering out there, just a list based on my own limited collection.  I thought it would be fun to document them on my blog.

#20. "Two of the Lucky Ones"--Billy Dean
For several years in the late 90s and early 2000s my mom would forage through the discount CD bin at retail stores and buy some clearance CDs selling for less than $5.   Some of these were quite weak but there were some diamonds in the rough.  Billy Dean's 1993 "Fire in the Dark" CD was a mixed bag with a couple of good singles but little else worthy of Dean's more memorable songs over the years.  But this midtempo cut documenting a couple's years of staying together amidst all of their friends and families' marriages falling apart was nicely sung, had good lyrics, and a strong, addictive melodic hook.  It was right in Billy Dean's wheelhouse and unfortunate that he never released it as one of the singles.

#19.  "I Was Here"--Lady Antebellum
There were plenty of mediocre ripoffs of Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" in the years following that song's smash success, but the best was this 2011 midtempo cut where the narrator vows to find her way and make a difference in whatever she does.  I first heard the song on a "20/20" segment profiling the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and took notice.  While the lyrics are relatively hum-ho, Lady Antebellum lead singer Hillary Scott's terrific vocals and the melodic arrangement are what make the song powerful and emotional.

#18. "Joe and Rosalita"--Phil Vassar
There are few CDs in my collection as terrific from beginning to end as Phil Vassar's self-titled debut album from 2000, and Phil was rewarded with five top-15 hits on radio for the effort.  Phil's subsequent work never lived up to it but this debut effort was packed with 11 above-average songs that were all worth listening to to experience the album in full, complete with Phil's trademark keyboard licks bridging between two cuts on a few experiences.  Aside from the stellar singles, the best album cut was "Joe and Rosalita", an uptempo number documenting a young couple's burning passion from high school to young adulthood that often got them in a wee bit of trouble, all set to a rollicking beat of sizzling fiddle riffs and Phil's keyboards.

#17. "One Day You Will"--Martina McBride
Perhaps the single best voice to come out of country music in my lifetime is Martina McBride, and while she's best known for her power-vocal performances, it's nice when she slows things down and lets the beauty of her voice dazzle in its purest form, as she did in "One Day You Will", an understated cut from her 1997 "Evolution" album.  There were already six singles released from this album, and I believe they were all top-10s, but it's too bad they couldn't have held out for a seventh single to give this gem a wider audience.

#16. "The Things You Said to Me"--The Mavericks
The Miami-based band the Mavericks defied categorization when they first came out but managed to find commercial success in the mid-90s without betraying their eclectic sound, and did so most impressively on their most successful album, 1994's "What a Crying Shame", a practical anthology of oldies country sounds and oldies rock sounds that managed to sound fresh and new with lead singer Raul Malo's incredible vocals and fantastic musicianship backing him up.  All of the songs on the CD were great, but the album cuts that always stands out is the 50s-style rocker "The Things You Said to Me" which channels the sound of an early Elvis with a beat so addictive I've heard random people humming it over the years.

#15.  "The Other Side of Midnight"--Sylvia
Few singers have come through Nashville with vocals as pure as early 80s hitmaker Sylvia, so it's a shame that her legacy is tainted as the auteur of the lowest-denominator country-pop of the urban cowboy era.  I frankly think even her clunkiest efforts on that front were a far sight better than the bro-country drivel saturating country radio 35 years later, but the dirty little secret is that much of her material was fantastic, particularly on her early albums.  But even by her fourth album--1984's "Surprise"--she cranked out some great cuts, the best of which being the ballad "Other Side of Midnight", a song where both the melody and Sylvia's vocals are so silky smooth they take me to a zen state whenever I listen to it....that rare feeling when all is right in the world for three minutes just because of great music.  (not great audio)

#14. "A Kiss is Worth a Thousand Words"--BlackHawk
One of the best and most distinctive country groups of my lifetime is BlackHawk, forging a unique sound that embraced elements of country and southern rock in the mid-90s, and doing so with above-average songs at almost every turn.  But even a lyrically average song such as this one found its voice on BlackHawk's outstanding 1995 "Strong Enough" album, which cranked up the guitars and blew the roof off the place in a way I've rarely encountered on a country CD.  Something about the melding of Henry Paul's lead vocals with the harmonies of fellow band members Van Stephenson and Dave Robbins, along with a pitch-perfect country-rock melody makes this my favorite of the five album cuts never released as singles on one of the best commercially successful CDs to ever grace store shelves.

#13. "Pink Bedroom"--Rosanne Cash
Never before in the history of commercial country music has a star artist come to a stylistic crossroads and successfully declared "Fuck it....I'm making a rock album and calling it country!" in the way that Rosanne Cash did with her audacious 1985 "Rhythm and Romance" album.  Artists like Ronnie Milsap and Eddie Rabbitt had dabbled in infusing country music with rock stylings in the early 80s but Rosanne Cash broke down all the walls and went full-on Pat Benatar with an album that would still defy belief if it was released today, 30 years after country music has embraced rock as a natural component of its sound.  Amazingly, country radio embraced it and the album produced four top-five hits.  The most fun track on the album was this John Hiatt-penned rocker about a teenage girl rebelling against the stuffed-shirt corporate world of her parents that she sees on her horizon, all set to a pitch-perfect Bo Diddley-meets-Joan Jett arrangement.

#12. "Somebody Save Me"--Chalee Tennison
I picked up Chalee Tennison's massively underrated 2001 sophomore CD on eBay about a decade ago for the one single that was a semihit that I just had to have in my collection, but never could I have anticipated how first-rate the whole 12-song CD would be.  Tennison's vocals and lyrics exude authenticity in a way that very few commercial singer-songwriters can pull off.  You believe Tennison has lived every word of what she sings about, and while there are any number of great choices to select on the underappreciated album, the best is this polished slow-to-midtempo cut where the narrator is the "friend" always lending emotional support to others while quietly crying out for her own that just isn't coming.

#11. "You Keep on Loving Me"--Sherrie Austin
For the life of me I can't figure out why drop-dead gorgeous Aussie-born Sherrie Austin was never the tour de force in country music that her vocals, stage presence, and song selection would indicate.  The unevenness of her 1999 sophomore CD was sort of explained it, but the lack of complete radio allegiance to her first-rate 1997 debut continues to mystify nearly 20 years later.  All but a couple of the songs from the album are fantastic and three of them were semi-hits on radio, but of all the memorable cuts that never got to be hits at all, Austin's self-penned "You Keep on Loving Me" which closes the album is the most impressive and indicative of the kind of sound that I think could have set Austin apart from the crowd had she explored it more deeply, with powerhouse vocals and a wildly dramatic midtempo arrangement that came to a blazing finale at the song's closing notes.  It was the kind of song that felt like it could go along with an emotionally charged movie finale.

#10. "Stronger than I Am"--Lee Ann Womack
One of the best CDs in my collection is Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" which dazzles from beginning to end with a mix of surprisingly dark songs of varying tempos and genre influences all set to Lee Ann's one of a kind vocals which we hear far too little of on radio today.  Most of the songs on the record feature something to love, but the most poignant is the stone cold country ballad "Stronger than I Am" featuring a single mother narrator impressed by toughness of her baby girl in the face of their adversity, in contrast to her own difficulty turning the page after being abandoned by the baby daddy.  The closing lyric wraps things up nicely...."she's just like her old man....stronger than I am".

#9. "Pick Up the Tempo"--The Thompson Brothers Band
One of the more unique country acts to emerge in the last 20 years was the Massachusetts-based roots college-aged rockers The Thompson Brothers Band, whose sound was an eclectic combination of Steve Earle, Neil Diamond, and Creedence Clearwater.  There was a ton of potential to their stripped-down country-rock sound but they needed a little more time to improve their songwriting skills before they were foisted on the shallow and skeptical minds of country radio.  They still managed one big hit video on CMT but other than that their tenure in the country music scene was limited to a single album released in 1997.  The best song from the album was the closing cut, a reimagining of Willie Nelson's "Pick Up the Tempo", where they really did pick up the tempo, joined by Steve Earle on vocals and cranking up the guitars to produce a performance worthy of the very best country-rock is capable of and all within the context of their no-frills, just-the-basics-ma'am musical production.

No Audio Clip

#8. "You'll Never Know"--Kim Richey
I had just sensed based on the two semihit singles released by Kim Richey from her 1995 debut album that it was likely to be my kind of CD so I took a gamble and put it on my Christmas list.  The gamble paid off as the CD represented a mature-in-sound-and-lyrics variation of country-pop I hadn't experience on country radio up to that point.  While the dim bulbs at radio never took to Kim, other Nashville artists noticed as four of the songs from her debut CD were picked up other artists, and released as singles.  The late Mindy McCready had a top-20 hit in 1998 with her competent version of Richey's best album cut from the CD, a lushly produced midtempo number about a woman doing her best to pretend she's over an ex-lover even though she's still dying inside.  Richey's version operates at a whole different level as McCready's, however, with haunting background vocals augmenting Kim's emotionally charged lead vocals, and a very elaborate and distinctive musical arrangement as a backdrop.

#7.  "Stay the Night"--George Ducas
Yet another underrated singer-songwriter from the mid-to-late 90s who was just a little behind the times when he kicked off his commercial career in Nashville, forwarding a progressive variation on traditional country music at the very moment when country radio was beginning to circle the wagons around the safe and familiar.  George nonetheless scored one outstanding top-10 hit from his solid debut CD, but it was his hitless 1997 sophomore CD where he busted wide open with an eclectic anthology of Tex-Mex toe-tappers, tear-in-my-beer country ballads, and guitar-charging uptempo rockers that put the mainstream country-rock acts of the era to shame.  His best effort was the jangly "Stay the Night", a song with an uptempo hook and closing guitar solo that combined with Ducas' vocals just seemed custom-built as an anthem for a campy werewolf or vampire plotline even though the lyrics only touched upon a monster show theme with a couple of metaphorical flourishes.

#6. "The Real Me"--Rosanne Cash
No commercial country singer has released ballads that have the kind of lyrical rawness as Rosanne Cash.  These songs are usually dark and introspective where the narrator reaches an epiphany and becomes honest with herself about a broken relationship.  While nothing from this Rosanne Cash subgenre could compare to 1982's #1 hit "Blue Moon with a Heartache", the closest she ever came was this fantastic album cut from 1987's "King's Record Shop", her most successful commercial endeavor.  The lyrics were smart, deep, and cutting, with a fitting musical backdrop subtle enough to let Rosanne's vocals carry it.  I would have preferred if this song was released as the album's third single rather than the comparatively mediocre midtempo "If You Change Your Mind", and I suspect it would have been just as big of a hit on the charts.

#5.  "Dead of the Night"--Tammy Cochran
Tammy Cochran had a couple of undistinguished modest hits on her 2001 debut album, but it wasn't until the poignant--if epically depressing--class reunion ballad "Life Happened" from her 2002 sophomore album of the same name till I stood up and take notice.  As luck would have it, she performed at my county fair in 2003 and I was taken by the number of dark story songs she sang and then reported being on her latest album.  One song in particular really stood out, the incredibly dark midtempo "Dead of the Night" with one of the most haunting arrangements I've ever heard, which she reported writing after watching a Lifetime movie.  I was so impressed I bought the CD. The song features an abused nine-year-old girl who kills her father who "thought he hid that .45" just before "daddy crossed that line".  Yikes!  Nowadays, female country singers glam up the idea of murdering their cheating husbands/boyfriends, but Cochran's emotional lyrics made it clear the girl forced to pull the trigger would be scarred for life as a result.  No surprise this one was never released a single but I'm grateful I heard it in concert and was thus compelled to purchase the CD.

#4. "Someone's Out to Get Me"--Steve Holy
It was years after Steve Holy's 2000 debut album that my mom came home with it from the discount bin at ShopKo, having spent like $3 on it.  There was one single from it I really liked but I went in with very modest expectations given how lukewarm I was on the other three songs from the album that were released as singles.  What a pleasant surprise that the album cuts were exceptional, featuring Holy's modernized take on Roy Orbison and their contemporaries The Mavericks through the prism of modern commercial country.  Holy didn't have the vocal chops of Orbison or Raul Malo but his smooth tone was nonetheless well-suited for these kinds of songs.  But as much as I liked the entire album, standing out the most was the fiendishly clever tongue-in-cheek horror show anthem "Someone's Out to Get Me", which cheekily depicts the faux paranoia of a man expecting to be "attacked" by his significant other's libido, all set to a campily haunting midtempo arrangement that is pitch-perfect for the tone of the song.  Like George Ducas' "Stay the Night" listed above, this song would be great for the soundtrack of a lighthearted horror movie or TV show.

#3. "You're a Legend in Your Own Mind"--Sylvia
The 1982 sophomore effort by Sylvia was a masterpiece, a collection of country-pop classics with a couple of very traditional cuts thrown in just for balance.  The syrupy ballad "Sweet Yesterday" was the odd selection for first single, but it's too bad the uptempo "You're a Legend in Your Own Mind" wasn't released as one of the album's three singles as I suspect it would have given Sylvia additional career momentum after the smash pop crossover "Nobody".  "Legend" was a more fun and better produced  ripoff of Carly Simon's "Your So Vain", with super-slick production elements unlike anything heard in country music before.  Perhaps the slickness of the production is what kept nervous record company executives from releasing it as a single, but it stands out as one of the biggest sins of country music history because it was a song that desperately needed a more widespread platform.

#2. "A Thousand Memories"--Rhett Akins
If ever there was a country album that represented the perfect hybrid of 90s-era new country with a believable hard rock edge, it was the 1995 debut album from Rhett Akins, an album that blended the best of both genres and fused blaring rock guitars with enough fiddles and twang to effectively impress both audiences.  And while the album enjoyed some commercial success, it didn't enjoy nearly enough.  Rhett had the vocal chops to become a star but a credible case could be made that he wasn't quite ready for primetime to successfully interpret a good song vocally.  Nonetheless, his country boy vocal stylings nailed the heartfelt uptempo breakup title track, a song that was lyrically interesting but taken to an entirely different level with an out-of-this-world 90-second guitar riff at the end that still stands out 20 years later as one of the most sophisticated I've heard, giving the song an unforgettably raging energy level that would-be listeners really got screwed for never hearing.

#1. "Halfway House"--Rosanne Cash
One album cut from Rosanne's groundbreaking 1985 "Rhythm and Romance" album has already made this countdown, but I saved the most earth-shattering for last, the electrified rocker "Halfway House" which is lyrically ambiguous but widely interpreted as an autobiographical double entendre from Rosanne's personal struggle with drug addiction in the months before she produced this album.  The song starts out with a vintage 80s synthesized keyboard surge that blends with rock guitars for the choruses, continually building momentum throughout the course of the song before all hell breaks loose at the end with a soaring arena rock backdrop unlike anything anybody before or after would imagine a country song would song like.  Any country music purist should stay miles away from this song but anybody who wants to discover what a country song on the extreme edge sounds like should check out this 30-year-old classic which I recall listening to as a young boy on my mom's cassette player in the early morning getting ready for school.

My purchases of modern CDs have become extremely rare in recent years as the availability of online music has so dramatically changed the business model.  And it's a shame because a lot of great songs recorded as album cuts are being heard by even fewer people than 20 years ago when music sales were more brisk.  Had I purchased CDs in the last 10 years as frequently as I did in the 10 years prior, this list might look quite a bit different.  The best I can do is seek out some album cuts from online here and there and see if I find any hidden treasures. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Hillary vs. Trump: The Cycle Where Coalitions Get Upended

The 2012 Presidential election cycle seemed custom-made from the beginning as a cycle in which the Democratic Party had a pretty powerful message to send to blue-collar America.  Jobs were slowly but surely rebounding from the depths of the Great Recession and Barack Obama's signature action in that recovery was to bail out General Motors and Chrysler, a decision that seemed risky at the time but paid immediate dividends in the form of rebounding jobs in the industrial Midwest, when the almost inevitable consequence of not bailing out Detroit would be a complete collapse of the entire auto manufacturing industry and the supply chain that fed it. 

Meanwhile, the opposition party's frontrunner for President and eventual nominee was a guy who spent his entire professional career shutting down factories and passing the savings on to the corporate boardroom. After getting into Presidential politics, Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt", opposing the auto bailout endorsed by the rookie Obama administration and vowing to do to General Motors and Chrysler--and its workers--what he had done to every other company he laid his fingerprints on.  And months after unofficially getting the nomination, Romney's choice for running mate was a man whose top priority in public life was to take away working people's Medicare.  How, I thought to myself in August 2012, could Obama possibly get so lucky as to be running against the Romney-Ryan ticket?

And just in case the message to working-class America hadn't been made abundantly clear by the GOP's nomination of the Romney-Ryan ticket, Romney made sure to give them one more reminder with his videotaped screed to a room full of rich Republican megadonors that he had no interest in representing "those people" who didn't earn enough money to fall into his tax bracket.  A half century earlier, a Republican ticket like this would have been laughed out of the room by dominant margins by working-class voters.  Instead, the Romney-Ryan ticket held the Democratic Party to a mere 39% of the white vote, and even that 39% number was propped up by upscale whites.  Working-class whites supported Obama with numbers closer to 33% nationally, a nearly 2-1 victory in favor of the guys who took away their jobs in the past, wanted to take away even more of their jobs if given half a chance, thinks they're parasites mooching off the government, and just for good measure, wants to take away their Medicare so that the richest 1% can get more tax cuts.  Even in the best-case scenario environment for Democrats, the tide was turning rapidly against them among working-class whites....but it's about to get much, much worse.

The reason it's gonna get worse is that heading into the 2016 cycle, the Republican frontrunner is running on a campaign of "making America great again, sticking it to China, and demanding immigrants get in the back of the line" while Democrats' campaign is centered around gun control, immigration liberalization, and Black Lives Matter.  If Donald Trump was less of a loose cannon and an asshole personally, his message would probably be enough to win him the 2016 election against likely Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.  But since Trump is loose cannon amateur, I suspect the same upscale whites who turned against John McCain in 2008 because his running mate was not ready for primetime will vote for Hillary in supersized margins.  But as long as Trump keeps running a campaign touching the themes his primary campaign is centered around, I think he not only maintains the GOP's 2-1 grip on working-class whites, but grows upon it, picking off potentially millions more two-time Obama voters in the Midwest who held on for the Democrats one last time in 2012 when the Democrats were still running as the party of the working guy while Republicans were running as the party of the management.

These divergent coalitions are likely to result in a sweeping Hillary win, at least in the popular vote as she'll undoubtedly dominate in LBJ vs. Goldwater-style numbers in the northeast and the West Coast, and probably do well enough among upscale conservative-leaning whites in the Midwest to hang on to the blue states of 2012 and offset likely losses among blue-collar whites in the same states.  It'll be a pyrrhic victory though because, just as with Goldwater's loss in 1964 that realigned what would become an ascendant future coalition, Trump's loss will win over millions of new converts to the GOP while positioning the party to get back most of the defectors who vote against him in two short years.  In other words, Trump's message is likely to flip working-class whites into a near monolithic bloc of Republican voters who won't flip back....whereas the Greenwich, Connecticut, and Wayzata, Minnesota, crowd that defects to the Democrats in 2016 will likely be on loan for one cycle only, flipping back to the Republicans in the 2018 midterms and staying there far more often than not to give them a dominant majority.

Now it's still too early to declare Trump the Republican nominee.  If GOP primary voters suddenly get their act together and nominate Rubio or even a generic Republican like Jeb!, Christie, or Kasich, they're likely to poach the majority of the voters Trump would be poised to pick up in 2016....white working class voters bristling about Democrats who can't stop talking about gun control, immigration, and Black Lives Matter.  If this were to come to pass, I suspect the Democratic share of the overall white vote would drop from 2012's 39% to something more like 35% in 2016.  If the GOP nominates Rubio, they'll get far more than the 27% of the Hispanic vote that Romney got.  And no matter who the Republicans nominate, I suspect that Obama not being on the ticket ensures both lower turnout among blacks and a Democratic share of the black vote that drops from 93-94% to 91-92%, a consequential amount given that the party is mortgaging its future on permanently overperforming among nonwhites and giving themselves virtually zero margin for error in doing so.

For all the talk by the Democrats about "demographics being destiny", their coalition has only delivered for one man in the last four election cycles, a man who will never be on the ballot again.  If the Republicans further strengthen their hold on whites because of a tone-deaf Democratic Party pushing the last remaining blue-collar whites off the ledge, the GOP's dominance in Congressional and legislative districts will be unbreakable for at least a generation, allowing Republicans to dominate an overwhelming majority of the legislation coming out of statehouses and Congresses that Democrats' best hope of stopping is occasionally squeezing out just enough a coalition to win a few Presidential elections.  At least in the near term though, the rate at which the Democrats are hemorrhaging working-class whites won't be enough for them to even pull that off.

And it's an open question whether the upscale whites that have trended Democrat in the last generation will continue to align with the party either.  I'm not sure how prolific the culture of white-shaming so prominent on college campuses today is in the real world, but if upscale whites are openly and endlessly excoriated in the national conversation for their "privilege" to the point of rendering their voices silenced, that will come with a backlash as well.  The events of recent years seem primed to trigger racial polarization throughout society that will inevitably reach out into our politics.  There's no tangible economic benefit for upscale whites to be aligned with the Democratic Party so if the party base starts villainizing them in public discourse, their reversion to the political party of their parents is likely to be an easier transition than working-class whites generation-long walk away from the Democrats has been.

The Republicans have problems of their own as the unhinged nature of their leading candidates and the primary voters who are supporting them indicate, but they are succeeding in continually moving the goalposts of American politics rightward.  Six months ago, Ted Cruz was considered an unimaginably radical Senator and an unmitigated disaster for the party in the unlikely situation he'd ever be their nominee.  But at the dawn of 2016, Cruz is now seen as the guy who the Republican  establishment will breathe a sigh of relief about if he's able to beat Trump.  Ultimately none of this matters though as long as Democrats choose to forfeit the voters who they successfully appealed to in 2012.  A lot of otherwise smart people seem to think Obama's impressive coalition in 2012 will be locked in place moving forward, with demographics only increasing their advantage.  Common sense says the historical patterns of partisan voting tides will hold and that coalitions within each party will keep evolving and realigning.  Common sense also says that betting the farm on consolidation of a nonwhite voter base with historically lethargic turnout and which is centrally located in a select number of urban areas that greatly dilutes its distributionary benefits is a good recipe for losing the overwhelming majority of elections.  And frankly the fact that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are even in the ballgame in this election contest speaks volumes about how rough of shape the Democrats are really in.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bernie's Biggest Liability

I have long been a fan of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Senator who is one of the few reliable and consistent voices speaking on behalf of rising inequality and the declining middle class.  And Sanders has been doing this long before it became a part of the national political narrative, in fact being more responsible than just about anyone else for catapulting the topic into the national conversation.  But I nonetheless see his 2016 Presidential candidacy as a double-edged sword for the Democratic Party.

On the upside, his presence on the campaign trail is imperative in keeping income inequality, the biggest societal dilemma of our time, at the forefront of the conversation when interest group politics could otherwise completely obscure the issue.  Enough ink is already being spilled about divisive and counterproductive (for Democrats' general election viability at least) issues such as gun control and illegal immigration, and if Sanders wasn't in the race, even more ink and debate conversation would be dedicated to these topics.  Sanders' presence in the race also puts the party's most likely nominee, Hillary Clinton, on notice to keep the inequality topic from slipping out of the conversation in the general election and to square her personal and political ties to Wall Street early on rather than being unprepared for it when it's an inevitable general election issue by the Republicans.

On the downside, above all else, Bernie's self-admitted ties to "socialism" would almost inevitably be a scarlet letter among a general electorate in a country that still associates socialism with the epic Cold War battle with the Soviets.  Obviously, Sanders doesn't have a stereotypically Presidential look or demeanor which would ordinarily be a drawback as well, even though I think at least at this stage of the campaign, his rumpled man-of-the-people shtick is working to his advantage and given the endless appetite for a fresh approach, it might work to his advantage as a general election nominee as well.  But his biggest fundamental problem is still the "S" word that's been next to his name throughout his three-decade career in elected office.  To be sure, there could at some point emerge a time and place where a self-proclaimed socialist could thrive in American politics, but it would take a crisis.... 

Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal revolution that began in 1933 would have been an inconceivable proposition in a right-leaning, market-driven society like America has always been even five years earlier, but desperation among the masses created an environment where FDR's quasi-socialist approach to governing found an audience.  Unfortunately, I suspect it would take a similar environment for the public to fully embrace what Sanders is peddling today.  Even though there's a national consensus that the middle class is crumbling and that income inequality is a growing problem, there is no sense of urgency to remedy it the way there was in 1932 and there's definitely no consensus on the source or solution to the problem.  The white working class demographic of voters most responsible for fueling FDR's New Deal coalition would today be more likely to point the finger at their own "welfare bum" neighbor as the driving force of the problem rather than the kind of structural breakdown in the distribution of economic rewards that Bernie Sanders is talking about.  It's just impossible to believe that the public is where it needs to be for Sanders' message to resonate with a majority of American voters, and as I said last week, without a serious presence of organized labor to echo the Sanders' campaign sentiment to tens of millions of voters the way it could have a generation ago when union affiliation was much higher, the message's reach is limited.

Taking the electoral analysis out of the equation, I'll also confess to drifting from Bernie's message in recent weeks on a policy front.  Much as his rhetoric is red meat for an old-school labor Democrat like myself, it hadn't really hit me how large he intends to grow the federal government's footprint until the first debate, confirming that he's not merely a "socialist in name only" in a way I hadn't appreciated having mainly listened to his stump speeches up to that point, but an actual "socialist".  I've grown a little wary of the virtues of the federal government as I've gotten older and would prefer to recreate an environment where union-fueled middle class wages in the private sector reduce the need for an enlarged safety net, rather than simply accepting that inequality will keep getting worse and that a growing role of government is the only antidote.  Much as Bernie talks about fixing inequality, it occurs to me that he's proposing doing so largely through substantially increased wealth transfers and often invokes "Denmark" as a model society.

Now in some sense I could get behind a societal push to become more like Denmark, but Bernie's biggest shortcoming is that he is not calling for the widespread sacrifice that "being more like Denmark" would entail.  To hear Sanders talk, most of his policy wish list could be achieved through higher taxes on the 1%.  While I'm all for that, Denmark didn't become Denmark by raising taxes only on the top 1%.  If Sanders' agenda was to be even remotely affordable, he'd have to reach deep into middle class pockets to finance it.  Again, I'm not fundamentally opposed to this.  I've long advocated higher income tax rates on the upper middle class and believe that if the new rates imposed on households earning more than $400,000 applied to households earning more than $100,000 a year, we'd have a budget surplus right now.  But Bernie is not making that case when he talks about America being more like Denmark.  It's understandable that he isn't because it would only further endanger his electability issues, but I think he owes it to the American people to explain to them that becoming a socialist society requires sacrifice above and beyond that of millionaires.

I hate to pick on Bernie Sanders of all people in a field of Presidential candidates where just about everybody else has more obvious flaws and is approaching the race with less sincere motives than he does.  Nonetheless, one has to critique the candidates they admire the same as they critique the candidates they do not, and a candidate like Bernie calling for revolutionary change in policy can't imply the revolution will be easy.  I'm still inclined to caucus for Bernie Sanders in February because I think he has by far the most important message to convey in modern American politics.  But just because I intend to caucus for him, does that necessarily mean I "hope" he becomes the Democratic nominee for President?  Hmmm....I'll have to get back to you in a few months for that one.  Much as I distrust Hillary Clinton, the stakes are pretty high for losing the next Presidential election, and I suspect Bernie Sanders would be more likely to do just that than Hillary.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Unions: The Democrats' Lifeblood Past and Present

For those whose understanding of America's political battleground is centered around the red state/blue state turf wars of the Obama era, it may come as quite a shock to know that the heart and soul of the Democratic Party throughout the 20th century, and the last two-thirds of the 20th century in particular, came from culturally conservative West Virginia and east Kentucky.  These jurisdictions become more disconnected with each passing year from the profile that typifies the modern Democratic Party, but dozens of counties in both states that went 70+% for Mitt Romney in 2012 held strong for landslide Democratic losers like George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis not that long ago.   Many of them held on even through Al Gore and John Kerry as recently as 2004, although the tide was beginning to turn by then.

The cause of the region's dramatic transformation in the last decade isn't complicated--the Democratic Party turned against coal based on its contribution to global warming and accelerated the decline of the region's primary industry--but it's vital to acknowledge why this region was so overwhelmingly aligned with the Democratic Party up to that point.  The easy answer:  unions.  At its peak, the coal industry employed hundreds of thousands of heavily unionized workers, and their participation in the union made them politically motivated, activated, and aligned with the left-leaning interests that the union and the Democratic Party were peddling.  As the decades passed, the coal mines became more automated, were forced to compete with cheaper overseas coal, and transitioned to (highly environmentally damaging) methods of coal extraction that greatly reduced the need for labor.   As a result, the coal industry that once employed hundreds of thousands in the heart of Appalachia was barely employing tens of thousands by the turn of the new millennium.  So even before the region began to identify the national Democratic Party with the "War on Coal", it's alignment with the Democratic Party was softening.  The aging cohort of retired miners most strongly affiliated with the unions and the Democratic Party were dying off while the young people who stuck around were less likely to be miners, less likely to be affiliated with the miners' union, and less likely to be persuaded by the economic arguments forwarded by the Democratic Party than their grandparents.  Just up the road in Appalachia in the hardscrabble steel mill towns of southwest Pennsylvania, a similar dynamic played out over a nearly identical time period, and can be similarly applied to hundreds of isolated communities dotting the Middle American landscape.

This background provides vital context for understanding the Democratic Party's future amidst the continued shrinkage of unions and the never-ending assault to exterminate them.  The conventional wisdom among political analysts is that demographics are on the Democrats' side to the point of ghettoizing Republicans to a sustained minority posture in national politics.  What this calculus has always misunderstood is voter engagement, and the "coalition of the ascendant" that got Obama elected twice in 2008 and 2012 also flamed out to two of history's most spectacular midterm election losses for the incumbent party in 2010 and 2014.  The degree of political engagement that unions helped initiate among its members is not being compensated for by the lethargic college students and non-union immigrant workers that helped elect Obama twice.  It's not a coincidence that one of the few endangered Democratic incumbents to survive one of these difficult midterm cycles was Senate Leader Harry Reid, who defied a flurry of polls showing him losing and pulled his 2010 Senate race out by a decisive five points.  What was Reid's secret?   Unions!  Nevada is one of the few states with ascendant ranks of union workers, and the SEIU rallied their troops with an impressive get out the vote machine.  If his Democratic colleagues in other states who got wiped out in 2010 and 2014 had unions working on their behalf--rather than crossing their fingers that college students and recent immigrants turn out in never-before-seen numbers every cycle--they might still be in the Senate today as Reid is.

Perhaps the best way of measuring the sustainability of the Democrats' union coalitions of old against its college students and immigrants coalition of today is places that have had both....meatpacking towns.  Up until the 1970s and 1980s, the meatpacking industry had one of the strongest unions in the country, and its workers were a reliable engine for Democratic votes cycle after cycle.  But a major union-busting initiative rocked the industry to its core and for the last quarter century, the industry has been largely nonunion and its workforce made up primarily by first-generation immigrants.  A quarter century after this transformation was completed and you'd still have a hard time finding a single meatpacking or food processing town in the entire country that is more Democratic in 2015 than it was in 1990.  Keep in mind that some of these cities were 90% white in 1990 but are majority minority in 2015, yet they're still less Democratic.   Perhaps another generation from now, when these majority minority towns are populated by the citizen children of the current immigrant workers, we'll finally see movement back towards the Democrats, but the exponential turnover rate of immigrant workers at meatpacking plants even makes that proposition iffy.

With all this context, it's especially terrifying to see what the Republicans have accomplished in the legislatures of battleground states across the country in the last several years, winning low turnout midterm elections promising they won't go after unions and then making union-busting their top priority once they win.  Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana were successful in imposing union-destroying right-to-work legislation in the last few years, Ohio tried it and failed (so far at least), while Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia are all poised to make the jump at the first opportunity.   And of the Governors and Legislatures who snuck through right-to-work legislation, all of them were rewarded with re-election, showing future Republican politicians that crucifying the opposition party's primary fund-raising and infrastructural engine is a consequence-free proposition.  Having seen this done at the state level so successfully, the Republican Party is patiently waiting to win the White House, be it in 2016 or 2020 or any cycle when the national tide inevitably turns their way, to ram through a national right-to-work law which would wipe out what's left of unions...and wipe out the Democratic Party's ability to compete in elections for a generation.

And yet here are the Democrats, whistling past graveyards every step of the way assuring themselves that it is THEY who have something resembling a permanent electoral advantage because of the rising tide of Hispanics and African-Americans.  I've long pontificated on my "Mississippi America" theory that whites will continue to get more Republican to compensate for rising numbers of minority, canceling out the advantage, but in the context of near-universal union busting perhaps even that theory is incomplete.  I submit that most nonwhite voters are "economy voters", aligning with the Democrats primarily because they're receptive to the Democrats' positions on jobs, the economy, and the safety net, and probably aren't all that moved by white liberals' obsession with free birth control, climate change, and gun control.   So if unions are finished off and their financial and infrastructural role in shaping the Democratic Party's message disappears, then what fills the vacuum?  If it isn't Richard Trumka behind the messaging of the Democratic Party, will its messaging be completely overtaken by Sandra Fluke, Tom Steyer, and Mike Bloomberg?  And most importantly, will working-class blacks and Hispanics, whom Democrats have mortgaged their party's future on permanent 80+% margins of victory from, be motivated to show up at the polls and support a Democratic Party that talks about climate change and gun control more than it talks about the economy?

White liberals' cocksure assertion of "demographics being destiny" doesn't hold up to any scrutiny, and is based entirely on two Presidential elections with a coalition that has only been dependable for one man, a man who will never be running for election again.  But its Republicans who are the playing the role of the sly tortoise in this race, quietly cutting the legs out from the Democrats' flimsy and unreliable would-be advantage while the Democrats nap thinking they've already won the race.  If there wasn't so much at stake, I would find some amusement at the extent the Republicans have the Democrats right where they want them.  But strong unions are imperative to any hope of middle-class preservation and equally as imperative to a political environment that isn't completely under the ownership of the financial industry.  If we lose unions, we lose not only an informed faction of the electorate motivated to activism to improve the country, but we lose any and all pushback against the bought-and-paid-for corporate agenda. 

One would think this would be easy for Democrats to understand....but they've got their head so high in the clouds regarding their inevitable continued support from the rising Hispanic population that they're not even trying to hear it.   Add the near destruction of unions to the current structural issues facing the Democrats, and it's clear that the Democratic Party's fortunes are worse today than any other time in the past century.  But I fear it won't be until the day the national right-to-work law gets signed by the next Republican President in his or her first 100 days in office that Democrats will begin to yearn for the comparative good old days of 1984 and 2004.  But I'm sure they'll still think "Hispanics will rally to save us in the next just watch!"