Sunday, February 18, 2018

Are 20-Year-Olds the Same as 2-Year-Olds?

Democrats have been quick to point out the flexible and situational values of conservatives in the Trump era, abandoning policy positions and moral touchstones they had previously claimed to hold as bedrock principles all in the interest of tribalism.  It's a very fair criticism, but liberals need to look at their own reflection on occasion as well, and one increasingly common theme on which the left is losing its mind is the growing consensus that adulthood doesn't begin until 21.  Worse yet, the left's new love affair with infantilizing young adults appears entirely cherry-picked, isolated only to things they don't like and thus lacking any kind of legal or ethical consistency.

Before I get into the gun issue, the newest frontier of the left's push to reclassify young adults as children, it's an interesting reminder that this movement began with Ronald Reagan, who in the mid-1980s, leveraged highway fund allocation as a means to strong arm state legislatures across the country to raise the age to purchase and consume alcohol to 21.  The argument was that 18-year-olds were buying alcohol for younger kids in their high schools, an argument I consider dubious generally and even if accepted at face value would only justify raising the legal drinking age to 19.

The consequences have been disastrous for young adults, with millions of 18-20-year-olds having been funneled through the legal system over the last 30 years simply for consuming a product legal for those 21 and over.  I'm no fan generally of alcohol and don't touch the stuff, but giving criminal records to nonviolent consumers is insanity.  My sophomore-year college roommate in the late 90s was a whip-smart pre-law student who partook in some alcohol consumption on weekends, and was always paranoid about getting an underage consumption charge that would deny him entry into law school.  I always think back to him and how insane it was that our laws on harmless college campus alcohol consumption could derail a promising 20-year-old college student's future, and always hoped sanity would prevail and the legal age for drinking would drop back down to 18, the same age that we've set as a legal threshold for adulthood on every other matter.

Instead, the trend is the other direction, expanding the scope of legal pastimes on which young adults will be reclassified as criminals for partaking in, with the left leading the charge to finish what Reagan started.  Most prominently--and most cynically--the left has been pushing hard in the last couple of years to raise the legal age to 21 for their biggest bugaboo of all, tobacco.  All critical thinking goes out the window on anything related to tobacco and is replaced by ends-always-justify-the-means equivocating.  Just last week I read a stomach-churningly craven editorial in the Seattle Times mindlessly advocating for criminalizing tobacco use by young adults with an insultingly thin argument that surrenders the principle of the legal rights of 18, 19, and 20-year-olds with a degree of breeziness that should everybody's intelligence.   https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/editorials/raise-smoking-vaping-age-to-21-and-save-lives/     This editorial could have replaced cigarettes with anything one doesn't like, from pornography to abortion, and make the same idiot argument with no  consideration of the mockery it makes of the law.

And while that narrative is convenient when it comes to the left's culture war against tobacco, it's jarring that they appear comfortable maintaining the existing the prohibition against their preferred form of smoke when it comes to young adults.  Even with marijuana legalization gaining momentum in jurisdictions across the country, buoyed by arguments about the insanity of cycling users through the criminal justice system, it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that continuing to make criminals out of 18, 19, and 20-year-old marijuana users is a dumb idea as the legal age to purchase and consume marijuana has been 21 everywhere it's legalized.  What could possibly justify this distinction?  Why should any 20-year-old still be arrested and be branded with a criminal record for using a legal product?

Which brings us to Dianne Feinstein's proposal in response to the latest mass shooting at a Florida high school to raise the age for purchasing a rifle to 21.  Political leaders, even in an environment where Democrats retake the reins of power, would have very limited capital when it comes to the issue of gun control.  A proposal like Feinstein's needlessly dirties the pool and makes other efforts that much harder.  It's an unwinnable argument tactically that an 18-year-old can deploy overseas and learn how to master a weapon serving his or her country but then be forbidden from returning home at age 20 and buying a rifle of their own.  But even if the argument was winnable, it's still a dumb idea that further redefines young adults as children. 

The principle seems to be the same as what drove Reagan to muscle through an increased legal age for alcohol consumption in the 1980s and is driving the left to do the same thing with tobacco today....that raising the age of purchase would prevent young adults from shooting up their current or recent high schools.  But consider Virginia Tech where the mass shooter was a college student.  There are students older than 21 at college.  So do we next raise the purchase age for rifles to 23 to keep guns entirely of campus?  Or possibly 35 to account for all grad students?  Ditto for alcohol and tobacco.  By raising the drinking and smoking age from 18 to 21 to "keep it out of high schools", it moves the goalposts to where the same argument could be made to keep raising the legal age to "keep it out of colleges".  Do we ever get to the point where adults are considered adults if we take this mindset to its logical conclusion?

I was amused at the irony watching "Real Time with Bill Maher" this weekend and listening to a couple of his guests muse how the voting age should be lowered to 16, arguing that the kids couldn't do worse in selecting our elected officials than adults.  Now I can't know for sure if the panelists making this argument about trusting the wisdom and judgment of 16-year-olds to make adult decisions when it comes to complicated decisions of how the country runs also believe that these same 16-year-olds should spend five additional years being treated with the same legal rights as two-year-olds when it comes to the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, or firearms, but given the cherry-picking of the left on these matters in recent years, it would surprise me if they didn't. 

I'm sure some will think this is a tone-deaf argument to make in the days after a mass shooting where 17 people died, but remember that a lot of really bad choices were made in the interest of "security" in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks too.  Using this tragedy as a backdoor means to weaken the legal rights of young adults is shameless and deserves to be called out as such.  How do we as a society reconcile decisions by young adults regarding sexual activity, financial investments, and the signing of legal contracts, all of which have tremendous short-term and long-term consequences but which are currently legally permissible for 18-year-olds?   Should we take those rights away from them too?  With criminal justice consequences for those who dare to defy a legal system reclassifying them as children?

I can only circle back to the left getting their inspiration here from Ronald Reagan, the architect of the modern "adulthood starts at 21" movement.  Was he right?  Should there no legal difference between college students and toddlers?  Some good-faith critical thinking by the left could go a long way here, but I'm not confident that it's coming.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The New "MacGyver" is Really, Really Bad

Not since the September 2016 premiere of CBS's "MacGyver" reboot have I spoken about the show on this site.  I was lukewarm on the pilot episode but saw some limited potential for a modestly rewarding series that might find its footing if given a full season.  Subsequent outings in the weeks following the premiere were hit or miss, but mostly misses.  The vibe of the original was nowhere to be found and the additional characters were crowding out the core of the franchise, which is of course MacGyver himself.  Lucas Till was respectable as a young MacGyver and seemed as though he could do a decent job with the character if he was given better material and any opportunity at all to break away from the knuckleheaded supporting players constantly surrounding him.  So even when it started to become clear by about halfway through the season that the show was a lost cause, I kept watching...just in case.

Unfortunately, things got worse rather than better in the second half of season 1.   The stories got more generic.  The MacGyverisms became more duplicative and uninspired.  And the secondary characters took on an even larger distractionary presence.  Worse yet, the cardboard cutout of a boss character played by Sandrine Holt was sloppily written out and replaced by an even more execrable Meredith Eaton, who has been in numerous shows and plays the same unappealing character in every one of them.  If I watched the show without context and with the mute button on (not the worst idea!), I'd presume that it was the latest entry in the "NCIS" franchise as it has the same generic look, vibe, and character interactions that has defined that series and its spinoffs for more than 15 years.  I was willing to give this series a full season to find its sea legs but if it hadn't found them by the spring of 2017, I had hoped it would be put to sleep.

Unfortunately, while the show got worse, the ratings did not substantially decline....so it got renewed.  I had no expectation it would improve in its second season, and it's a good thing my expectations were low because the reboot has lived down to them completely in season 2.  The last thing this overpopulated series needed was another new character who would take away even more screen time from Lucas Till, but they got one anyway with actress Isabel Lucas playing another thinly drawn secret agent joining "the team".  The character has been a wildly unpopular addition with, er, "fans", and seems to be in a state of limbo right now while writers have vastly limited her screen time and seem to be trying to figure a way to write her out.  Unfortunately, there are at least four other characters--and pretty much an entire crew of writers and special effects techs--who also need to be relieved of their duties.  But they won't be....because the expansive cast eases the timeline for production.  So expect to see the actor playing MacGyver to continue to have even less screen time than he does now on the show named for him.

Just off the top of my head, here's what doesn't work on this show....

Jack Dalton--I could see George Eads having some charisma if given decent material, but his "Dalton" character is dumb as a rock and more grating than a block of parmesean cheese.  For every one line he's given that's amusing, there are at least 10 that make you want to strangle him.  His character also has zero sense of proportion.  No more how dire the situation, he's still cracking stupid jokes or dwelling on some trivial side issue that kills any sense of urgency in the primary action plot.

Bozer--Again, actor Justin Hires could probably be compelling with his low-rent Chris Rock shtick in the right context, but the wacky roommate-turned-part-of-the-team angle on this series seems forced, and would even without the context of its deviation with the original series.  The writers seem to have already completely run out of things for him to do and have him gobbling up screen time with training exercises and other side projects in season 2.  His character has simultaneously become a little more mature AND even more pointless this season.

Matty the Hun--The aforementioned Meredith Eaton is the most horrific character on this show, a "little person" (hoping that's the current PC term that won't offend) who overcompensates by acting tough and bitchy.  The role almost seems like a parody of itself, and more one-dimensional than even the flimsiest guest characters that appeared in limited roles on the original, but she remains a constant on this series every week and manages to render every scene she's in unwatchable.

Murdoc--While actor David Dastmalchain is sufficiently creepy as a cartoon villain, he's in way over his head trying to fill the shoes of the psychotic hit man Murdoc played by English-born actor Michael Des Barres on the original.  The updated Murdoc makes snarky zingers and is played off as more of a frat boy with a gun than a terrifying international assassin.  It doesn't help that the writers don't seem to have any sense of direction with his character and the semirecurring storyline.

The special effects--Ugh!  I'm not a fan of the transition to CGI generally but some shows and movies are able to do CGI well enough to make it only moderately unbelievable.  Even the earliest blue-screen fakery of 80s TV--or in the case of the original "MacGyver", footage poached from old movies edited in with modern footage--is still more believable than the fourth-rate CGI effects of this reboot.  The cheap-looking effects are even more obvious in season 2, which is hard to believe with as low-budget as it looked on season 1.

The pacing--Apparently there's no such thing as a slow moment in modern TV action shows as producers and directors seem to like to paper over bad writing with a dizzyingly fast pace of action.  This need for fast talk, fast moves, and fast action kill the element of suspense that the original "MacGyver" perfected, especially in its ticking time bomb scenes.  The result is climactic scenes with resolutions that leave you feeling cold....and with a headache to boot!

The MacGyverisms--While the original series occasionally phoned it in with the inventive gimmicks, the new series has been more inconsistent in the quality of the off-the-cuff inventions that define the "MacGyver" franchise.  To their credit, they came up with a few clever gimmicks in the early episodes of season 1, but even then the majority of the MacGyverisms were recycled from the original or else some ill-defined and hastily prepared bit of ridiculousness that usually involved Jack's cell phone.  But in season 2, those fleeting clever originals have come to a nearly complete end and we're down to throwing a random chain up to an electric pole and knocking the wire down being passed off as a "MacGyverism".  And of course the lightning-fast pacing ensures that everything he's doing happens so fast that the viewer can't possibly process it, negating its storytelling effectiveness.

I could go on with lesser annoyances over the music, the character backstory, and the wasted appearances by relatively big-name guest stars, but it would be easier to just say that nearly everything about the reboot sucks.  So is there anything redeeming about it.....

Tristan Mays--At first I was entirely nonplussed by the generic "super savvy hacker girl" Riley introduced in the pilot, but her character has developed some personality and the actress playing her, Tristan Mays, is gorgeous and has enough charisma to salvage a few scenes where she's front and center.  I wouldn't shed too many tears if her character went away tomorrow and the reboot focused entirely on, you know, MacGyver....but insofar as this trainwreck progresses on its current track, at least there's a hot girl in a leather jacket and tight denim with a bit of personality to offer some visual stimulation and rein in the foolishness.

The callbacks to old characters and episodes--The one recurring theme in the reboot that has kept me from abandoning it completely is that the reboot revives characters and actors from the original as frequently as possible, sometimes in subtle ways that only hard-core fans will pick up on.  That's the thin reed with which I still view this show every week as it progresses into the second half of season 2.  But after this past week's embarrassing wasted opportunity with guest star Michael Des Barres (who played Murdoc on the original) I'm not sure those callbacks to the superior product of yore is enough to keep me watching.

I predicted at the beginning of season 2 that the reboot's ratings would fall enough this year that it would be put out of its misery by season's end.  With ratings holding up through the mid-point of the season, that no longer seems particularly likely.  And while part of me just shrugs off this reboot as a poorly executed effort to revive a classic, its prospect for longevity is really starting to piss me off.  With the series likely getting renewed for a third season and who knows how much beyond that, the legacy of the original will fade or morph into the cultural legacy of the unworthy reboot.  An iconic character and show that may otherwise have transcended generational lines will have limited attraction to younger people who only associate "MacGyver" with the Friday night wallpaper currently on CBS.  And that makes this reboot far more dangerous than I anticipated when it was first conceived.  Of course then, I figured it would be no worse than a typical CBS procedural like "Scorpion".  But it's way worse.  And that makes it a scourge on the television landscape.  When a reboot of a TV classic is worse than the average hour of television a generation later, then something truly pernicious has happened....and I now wish CBS had passed on the pilot and this hot mess had never gotten out of the starting gate.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Shutdown and Trump's First Year

As I write this, it's been one year to the day since "more people watched Trump be inaugurated President than anybody else in history...period!"  He started his Presidency with approval ratings below 50%, an unprecedentedly lousy start to his tenure that has only worsened in the 12 years since as most polls show his approval rating below 40%.  Ultimately though, I'm not sure anybody--supporters and critics alike--are really surprised by the first year of his Presidency.  There have been some individual moments that have raised eyebrows, including accusing his predecessor of wiretapping him without evidence and conflating neo-Nazis with their protestors following a deadly altercation in Virginia, but there's been little genuine deviation between President Donald Trump and the chaotic, bull-in-a-china-shop Republican nominee of 2016 who won 30 states worth 306 electoral votes. 

And that's why I continue to believe Trump is capable of a comeback.  There's a certain percentage of the country, possibly but not necessarily a majority, who could be described as hard critics of Trump.  That's probably more than any other President in my lifetime after his first year in office and assures Trump of a low ceiling even in the best-case scenario.  But I also don't think it should be underestimated how many of the 60% of Americans who claim to oppose Trump in polls are simply holding out for him to be, as Newt Gingrich put it, "10% more Presidential".  Trump is incapable of being "more Presidential", or at least sustaining the posture for more than a few days before his man-child instincts kick in and reveal his true colors yet again, but Trump is nonetheless capable of getting those soft critics back....and it's my suspicion that he will get them back.   After all, he won their support in 2016 and recognizes the issues and culture war touchstones that viscerally appeal to them, and most of all, he's a maestro at disqualifying his opponents.

And that leads me to the government shutdown that is currently commemorating Trump's one-year anniversary.  The shutdown is less than 24 hours old as of this writing and if it wraps up before next week or in the few days following, it'll be a nonissue and be out of the headlines in seven days.  Even if the shutdown lasts a month, voters have laughably short memories and will have moved onto other priorities when deciding how to vote this coming November.  So despite the theoretical embarrassment of the Republican Party controlling the Presidency, Senate, and House yet not being able to muster up enough votes to thwart a shutdown, expect a collective shrug of indifference from voters, particularly eight months from now.

Far as I can tell, there's only one possible lasting effect from this shutdown that could impact the midterm elections, and it's to the detriment of Democrats.  There are any number of issues where Democrats could have drawn their line in the sand in denying votes for the continuing resolution on the table in the past week, but the issue the Democrats chose was illegal immigration.  Specifically,  the fight is over whether the so-called "Dreamers"--people brought into America illegally as children who are now adults and immersed in American life--should be granted amnesty.  I think this is a reasonable position and polling suggests most voters and even many Republican voters are fine with this, insofar as they understand it in contrast with the broader immigration reform debate, but it's eyebrow-raising that the fight to keep the federal government open comes down to an issue that has no direct effect whatsoever on the lives of the overwhelming majority of Americans.  Seeing the Democrats complicity in grinding the federal government to a halt over this issue exhibits the same head-smacking tone-deafness that contributed to their defeat in the polls at the hands of Trump in the first place.

And the upshot for Republicans and Trump is that setting Democrats up to take the federal government over a cliff on this issue gift-wraps for them a political attack ad next fall against nearly a dozen vulnerable (or potentially vulnerable) Senate Democrats.  If Republicans run on a continual loop this fall ads against Trump-state Democrats stating that "Tammy Baldwin/Sherrod Brown/Claire McCaskill/Sherrod Brown/Bob Casey voted to shut the federal government down this year in order to get amnesty for illegals", it will be a powerful and hard to refute statement.  The specifics of the issue relating only to "Dreamers" will likely be irrelevant and will put the incumbents on defense in states that Trump won on an issue where most voters have strong general feelings.  Being guilty of "shutting down the government for amnesty" is a very bad look, and the fact that most Congressional Democrats are too out of touch to recognize that is Exhibit A why I don't count Trump out as his Presidency moves into its second year.

Friday, December 15, 2017

AL-Sen Postmortem

Crazy things happen in special elections.  In 2008, amidst the backdrop of a corrupt convicted incumbent, the 2nd Congressional district of Louisiana, centered by the massively blue city of New Orleans, narrowly voted for Republican Joseph Cao in a low-turnout affair.  In January 2010, a perfect storm of events led to Republican Scott Brown winning Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts.  And now, December 12, 2017, will go down in the history books for a special election result in the same league if not a little bit crazier than the previous two.....a 21,000-vote victory by Democrat Doug Jones in a Senate race in Alabama.

In the last decade, Alabama has become the hardest state in the country for a Democrat to win, with white Republicans on the majority side of a nearly symmetrical partisan polarization along racial lines.  Fewer than 15% of whites statewide voted for either Obama or Hillary Clinton in the last three Presidential elections, and whites make up 68% of the state's population.  The math had simply become impossible.  So even as the early dominoes began to fall with Democrats getting a solid candidate to fill Jeff Sessions' Senate seat in U.S. Attorney Doug Jones....and with Republicans nominating incredibly controversial twice-impeached judge Roy Moore as their party's candidate....and with a credible child molestation story befalling Moore four weeks before the election, a lot more dominoes still had to fall for Doug Jones to win.

The pre-2008 path to victory for a Democrat in Alabama didn't exist anymore.  Conservative whites in the rural northern portion of the state had realigned hopelessly Republican, meaning Democrats had to carve out a new path to victory that included thousands of upscale suburban conservatives who had never voted Democrat before in their lives and never figured the day would come when they would.   But even if that happened, it wouldn't be enough.  Turnout among rural whites would need to be soft and turnout among African Americans would have to be spectacularly robust.

All of those things happened on Tuesday night.  In 2008, when Obama first ran, African Americans made up 28% of the electorate, punching slightly above their weight statewide.  On Tuesday night, blacks made up 30% of the electorate.  The old conventional wisdom was that a Democrat needed about 34% of the white vote to win Alabama, more than double what they've been getting in recent cycles.  But final exit polls suggested Doug Jones only got 30% of white voters, falling short of the target.  Just about all of the time, that wouldn't be enough for a Democrat to win, but with blacks making up 30% of the electorate, it was just enough.  And unlike 2002, when it last looked like a Democrat had won in Alabama, the result was wide enough that a fishy-smelling discovering of 6,000 new votes from a Republican stronghold county the day after the election wasn't enough to flip the result.

The term "perfect storm" is overused in today's political vernacular, but the Alabama result lived up to it.  The early results were heavily weighted towards Republican voters, giving a mirage of an insurmountable Moore lead even with well over half of the vote in, but Jones' vote from more heavily populated counties were counted late, and it became increasingly clear looking at the early results from those counties that Jones had a real chance of winning when those numbers kept rolling in.  The benchmarks I outlined on Tuesday almost all came through, and in some cases vastly exceeded expectations...

I said that Jefferson County, home to Birmingham and many of its suburbs, needed to come in at 67% for Doug Jones if he had a realistic chance of winning.  Jones won with 68%.

I predicted that Madison County, home to the professional-heavy city of Huntsville, needed to be in the 57-58% range for Jones.  Jones got 57%.

I knew suburban Shelby County, usually the county that produces the widest advantage of Republican votes in the state, would still go for Roy Moore, but said Moore would still be sitting pretty well statewide if he managed 62% of the vote or higher in Shelby County.  Shelby County reported late and crushed any hope for Moore when he only got a paltry 56% in this GOP stronghold.

On the Gulf Coast, I figured Jones would need about 55% in Mobile County and Moore would have to be held down to about 63% in very conservative suburban Baldwin County next door.  On Tuesday night, Jones got 56% in Mobile County and Moore only got 61% in Baldwin County.

I said Jones would need to do even better that Obama did in the "Black Belt" counties stretching from Selma to Tuskegee to Phenix City.  Jones did do better than Obama.  Jones needed to win Montgomery County, the population center of the Black Belt, with more than 70% of the vote.  He got 72%. I also said the ribbon of Black Belt counties needed to be wider than usual, encompassing a bunch of counties on the periphery of the Black Belt like Conecuh, Choctaw, and Chambers.  Jones won all of them, and a few more, like Pickens, Clarke, and Butler counties.

Jones got some of his best overperformances of the Democratic baseline in the college counties of Tuscaloosa and Lee (Auburn).  I figured 53% would likely be Jones' ceiling in Tuscaloosa County....but Jones got 57%.  And I figured Jones would consider himself lucky if Moore only narrowly won Lee County, but instead Jones won it....with 57%!  It was when I saw that Lee County number roll in, with less than two-thirds of the overall vote in, that I began to think Jones would be favored to win from that point forward in the night.

And Jones would need just about every vote he could wrestle in the aforementioned counties because the rest of the state rolled in big for Moore, depressingly so in northern Alabama, which for decades and as recently as a decade ago was the Democratic base.  Only Colbert County, the heart of old-school Democratic populism in northwest Alabama a generation ago, was even close...and Moore won it by 6 points.  Everything else was landslide Moore country.  The most striking number came from Marion County, a couple of counties south of Colbert, which voted twice for Bill Clinton in the 90s, among many other Democrats even in the post civil rights era.  On Tuesday, Roy Moore got 78% of the vote in Marion County.  Add in the landslide Moore margins in the more heavily populated northern exurbs of Birmingham and the Wiregrass region in the southeast corner of the state and it puts into context how high the bar was for Jones to cross....yet cross it he did.

I had been skeptical of this race from the beginning as the prospect of Democratic victory in modern-day Alabama was so unthinkable.  I still think the seat is a rental, the kind of race only winnable in perfect storm special elections like Tuesday night....and with Presidential level turnout in 2020 when the seat is up again, Jones would be lucky to get to 42%.  Holding his coalition will be particularly daunting, alienating his conservative supporters if he governs to the left and alienating his base if he governs to the right.  But that's three years away.  For now, Democrats should bask in the glow of this crazy victory.  They can't read too much into the result because of the unique circumstances, but they are one seat closer to picking up the inside straight needed to win back the Senate in 2018....and Doug Jones deserves all the credit in the world for that.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Election Day in Alabama

A week ago, I was pretty confident that Roy Moore had tremendous momentum, consolidating the conservative vote after getting "permission" of sort by Governor Ivey and President Trump to vote for Moore based on raw partisanship of the sort that plays in Alabama more than just about anywhere else in the country.  With the day of reckoning officially arrived, I still think Moore is gonna win, and probably win big, but it's less clear that he has momentum than it appeared last week.  Polls are all over the place because it's very hard to gauge who is gonna turn out in a special election on a Tuesday in December and thus tough to model the polling in a way that in any way reflects what the December 12th electorate looks like.  It's usually a pretty safe bet to err on the side of grumpy old white guys when it comes to who turns out at a special election, but the nature of this race throws that into question and every metric of "enthusiasm" from crowd size at rallies to yard sign prevalence points to Jones. 

Since it's almost impossible to predict how this race plays out beyond a gut observation that the "silent majority" in a right-wing state like Alabama will default on the side of the candidate with the magic (R) next to his name, I thought it would be helpful to point to some geographic guideposts of where to look and what to look for on the election map tonight.

First and foremost, Birmingham, in Jefferson County.  Alabama's largest and most cosmopolitan area is 40% black and the county has been trending Democratic the last few cycles, having gone twice for Obama and for Hillary Clinton in 2016.  But Jones needs to blow the roof off there, winning over country club Republican moderates in mostly white areas of suburban Birmingham.  Roy Moore's Democratic challenger for the state Supreme Court in 2012 got to 63% in Jefferson County.  Most observers expect Doug Jones needs to get to 67% there tonight if Jones has any realistic chance of a statewide win.

The second most important county is Madison County in the far northern part of the state, home of the new economy city of Huntsville which has a lot of technology workers.  This is a Republican county generally but Moore didn't win here in 2012 and I doubt he will tonight.  But Jones need a substantial win here tonight to be competitive statewide.  I'd hold up 57% or 58% as a baseline for what Jones needs to get if he wants to counter Moore's advantages elsewhere.

Shelby County is the most heavily populated suburban county in Alabama, just to the south of Birmingham.  It's always been a Republican stronghold and will go very strong for Roy Moore tonight, but Moore's fate depends largely on how strong.  I believe Donald Trump got 76% in Shelby County.  If Jones is to win, he'll want to trim Roy Moore's Shelby County victory to about 62% at the highest.

The Gulf Coast counties of Mobile and Baldwin are also very important as a microcosm of Jefferson and Shelby Counties in central Alabama.  Mobile County has an urban base (second largest city in Alabama) and voted against Moore in his narrow 2012 win for state Supreme Court justice.  Jones needs a decisive high-single-digit win in Mobile County tonight too.  Mostly suburban Baldwin County to Mobile's east votes a lot like archconservative Shelby County in central Alabama, typically going about 3-1 Republican.  Tonight, if Moore is pulling in 63% of the vote or better in Baldwin, he's probably winning statewide.

Democrats need to run up the score in the "Black Belt", the former epicenter of Alabama's plantation country that has rich black farm soil and a majority African-American population.  The capital city of Montgomery is part of the Black Belt and needs to come in big for Jones (at least 70%).  Historically famous smaller cities like Selma and Tuskegee are also in the Black Belt, and those counties had better be at least 75% Jones.  It's a certainty that there will be a ribbon of blue counties running from west-central to east-central Alabama on the county map tonight, but pay attention to the margins and how wide that ribbon is.  If it's wide, that means that counties like Clarke, Conecuh, Cherokee, and Chambers, on the periphery of the Black Belt with substantial but less than majority black populations went for Jones, which would be very good news for him.

The college towns of Tuscaloosa (Tuscaloosa County) and Auburn (Lee County) need to run much stronger for Jones tonight than typical Democrats.  Jones needs to win Tuscaloosa County outright, probably by at least five points, and hold his losses to a few points in Lee County to win statewide.

The largely white rural counties in the northern tier of Alabama counties, particularly the northwest corner, used to be a dependable part of the Democratic coalition in Alabama, dating back to the Tennessee Valley Authority days and lasting through the mid-2000s, but it's slipped away in recent cycles and I'm not confident it's gonna go for Jones tonight.  If Jones is winning counties like Colbert, Lawrence, and Marion in northern Alabama, it's a very good sign for him.  Along the same lines, Moore's home county of Etowah, home to the small city of Gadsden, is in the northern third of Alabama and for decades was a strong Democratic county.  Moore has never done great there, only getting 55% in 2012, and while I'm pretty sure he'll win Etowah County tonight, he might only win by single digits if Jones is having a good night.

Outside of that we're looking at rural, exurban, or small city counties that are likely to be Moore strongholds.  The counties just north of Birmingham such as Blount, St. Clair, and Walker should be some of Moore's strongest counties and will be likely to go 65% or better for Moore.  The Wiregrass area in the state's southeast corner, with the population center being Houston County (Dothan) will be solid Moore as well, but the best the Democrats can hope for is depressed turnout.

A bunch of things will have to go right for Jones to eke out a win.  It's entirely possible it could happen, but if you're using this blog post as a guide tracking the results and Jones is falling short of the benchmarks I'm listing in just about any of them, he won't win.  Since there hasn't been a close election in Alabama in 15 years, I don't have a good idea on what part of the state rolls in first versus what rolls in later in the night, so tonight will be relatively uncharted waters in results tracking.  Unless it's clear right away that Moore is gonna win, it should be an exciting night.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

What The Trump Tax Cut Could Mean Politically

The United States Senate just passed a giant tax reform bill this weekend on a nearly party-line vote.  It's not law yet but at this point it seems like a done deal and it could plow through the House and be signed by the President this coming week.  It's a striking "accomplishment" considering how incredibly unpopular the legislation is.  It's polling as the least popular tax legislation of the last 40 years, which amusingly, includes past tax increases such as 1991.  And most analyses have indicated millions of Americans will be paying higher taxes as a result of this reform right away next year while more than a third of Americans will be paying more several years down the road.

It's very hard to find any economist or serious person across the political spectrum who believes this tax bill is sound policy.  There are the usual partisan cheerleaders of the Sean Hannity ilk who are hyping it, but even conservative analysts with scholarship in economics or a background in tax policy are giving it a giant thumbs-down.  Even ardent supply-side Kool-Aid drinkers like Larry Kudlow are raising some red flags about this legislation. On the other hand, it's being pushed through almost unanimously by Republicans in Congress, even those who are considered moderates, and the conventional wisdom by pundits and Beltway insiders is that this is a political kamikaze mission by Republicans.  So why the disconnect even on the right side of the aisle?

There are a number of reasons, but the bottom line is that Congressional Republicans have decided that, on balance, their party's interest is best served by getting this legislation through, and from a shameless tactical standpoint, I don't necessarily think they're wrong.  First of all, this tax bill is one massive payola to the GOP's corporate and multimillionaire campaign donors, i.e. the most important people on the planet to them.  If Republicans made it through this Congressional session without a multi-trillion-dollar financial reward for their campaign investments, the money would stop rolling in for the 2018 cycle and likely into 2020 and possibly beyond.  This would disadvantage Republicans across the country in advertising and on-the-ground campaign operation and that alone would likely make the difference in hundreds of local, legislative, and Congressional races.

Second, the tax bill includes a doubling of the basic exemption and a huge increase in the child tax credit.  This is important because that will likely result in frontloaded tax cuts for most downscale whites in Middle America, i.e. the Trump base.  The Democrats will be grumbling about the "middle-class" who get stiffed on the tax cut, the disproportionate amount of benefits going to corporations and the rich, and how the tax cuts will disappear several years down the road, and while they'll be right, Trump and the GOP can simply ask the average working-class household from Ohio and Michigan if they paid less in taxes in 2018, 2019, and 2020, and most of them will be able to say yes.

Third, foisting even more of the nation's tax burden primarily on blue states with higher state tax rates by eliminating the state and local tax deduction is clever politics that allows the majority of the country to be given tax cuts at the expense of a handful of states that are off the table for Republicans in national and even state-level elections.  The few members of Congress who probably did really screw themselves with this vote are House Republicans from blue states whose upper-middle-class constituents will see immediate and substantial tax increases next year because of the removal of the SALT deduction.  This includes more than a dozen House Republicans from California who went off a cliff supporting this tax bill, but from a macro perspective on the GOP's part, triaging this already-shrinking faction of their caucus made sense in their cynical long-term numbers game of tax policy.  With that said, if the Republicans lose the House next year, expect their losses to come disproportionately from losses in California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.

Fourth, by ensuring such a huge chunk of resources to corporate spreadsheets and multimillionaire stock dividents that would otherwise be going to the federal government in revenues, the Republicans straitjacket their opposition from ever being able to go on offense with a progressive agenda that they fear could be popular in the pending era of scarcity and Latin American-level inequality.  Not only would this reallocation of resources to the very rich prevent a future Democratic President and/or Congress from enacting the progressive wish list of single-payer health care or universal basic income, it would likely force cuts in the existing safety net, particularly Social Security and Medicare.  While forcing cuts to those programs would be politically unpopular to Republicans, they recognize the likelihood that they'll be passing that particular hot potato to Democrats assuming partisan control at some point changes hands in the next 10 years.

All of this certainly comes with risks for Republicans even for the short-term.  The legislation remains very unpopular and the backdoor repeal of the individual mandate for Obamacare could blow up the insurance markets in 2018 and result in massive premium hikes for nearly everybody.  And if the economy fails to experience any measurable growth felt on Main Street, or even tapers off after the current "tax reform bubble" in the stock market mellows out and Wall Street's current sugar high ends, it's big trouble for Republicans in 2020.  But looking at all the angles of the risk analysis, it becomes easier to see why passing this legislation ended up being such an easy lift politically for Republicans despite the objections even from good-faith supply-siders who've been joined at the hip with Republican tax orthodoxy for a half century now.  The legislation is indefensibly and irrefutably terrible public policy, but it just might be good politics for Republicans who have proven themselves beyond shame repeatedly now.


Friday, November 10, 2017

About Those Elections on Tuesday...and Roy Moore!

The states of Virginia and New Jersey held gubernatorial races last Tuesday, with some stray races elsewhere in the country that served up the closest thing we've gotten in the past year to a snapshot of the American electorate since the night Donald Trump was elected President on November 8, 2016.  The verdict of voters gave Democrats a lot to crow about.  It was hard to get a good read on New Jersey.  Democratic candidate Phil Murphy had such a dominating lead throughout the cycle that turnout was low, and it likely trimmed his margin by a few points.  Murphy won by 13 points, which is solid if not earth-shattering compared to the New Jersey baseline, but the anemic turnout was probably the worst news the Democrats got Tuesday night in that it once again showed the Democratic base is very hard to motivate to get to the polls.  Outgoing Republican Governor Chris Christie was the least popular Governor in the country and one of the least popular in the history of polling, yet his Lieutenant Governor still managed to get more than 42% of the vote in a deep blue state in a race to succeed him.

Virginia was a much more unequivocal success for Democrats.  Polls leading up to election day were showing that Republican Ed Gillespie was closing hard on Democratic Ralph Northam.  I never made a formal prediction, but guessed that Northam would prevail by 1 or 2 points.  My take was that Gillespie would do just as well as Trump did in the rural parts of the state but that Democratic northern Virginia would revert to the numbers Obama got in 2008 and 2012, numbers that were still strong and still enough to barely win statewide even with rural Virginia going a brighter shade of red than it did in the Obama years, but proving an underwhelming rebuke to Trumpian tactics.  After all, Gillespie began embracing Trump-style positions on immigration in particular with hard-nosed ads towards the end of the campaign, and the fact that Gillespie was closing the gap in the polls made it appear as though the tactics were working.

But that didn't happen.  Northam won the state by nearly 9 points, blowing past the predictions of even the most optimistic Democrats and running up the score to unprecedented levels in northern Virginia as well the Richmond area and the Tidewater region of southeastern Virginia centered around Norfolk and Virginia Beach.  Even more shocking was Democrats gaining 15 seats, give or take a couple pending final vote totals, in the Virginia House of Delegates, a body where Republicans held a 66-34 lead a week ago and where they'll go in around 50-50 next year.  Nobody expected that...or anything close to it....and more than any other result of the night it indicated a massive wave may be developing that could wash away hundreds of Republicans nationwide next November.

But there are some important caveats to note here.  First of all, there's no place in Middle America that is comparable to Virginia demographically.  The Democratic surge voters there are most likely to be federal workers and military contractors who embody what Trump refers to as the "Washington swamp".  The voting patterns of upscale white voters in places like Loudoun County, Virginia, may not prove transferable to Democratic candidates in suburban St. Louis or Indianapolis, to take a couple of examples of states that have key Senate races next year.

And even more concerning for Democrats is that nearly every rural jurisdiction in the state, particularly the western two-thirds of the state, went as strong for Ed Gillespie on Tuesday night as they did for Trump last year....and they never went for any Republican as strongly as they did for Trump prior to last year!   There are localized issues in rural Virginia that could account for this, including the ongoing realignment over coal as well as the Virginia-specific Confederate monument debate, but if Trump's baseline in rural areas is the new normal in the rest of the country as it was in Virginia on Tuesday night, the Democrats are in deep trouble in several largely rural states where they're defending Senate seats next November.  Most notably, Tuesday's results in rural Virginia bode poorly for the chances of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

On balance, however, Tuesday's election foreshadowed a substantial anti-Trump protest vote is likely to gain steam for next year's midterms, and even if it doesn't hit every corner of the country, bodes well for Democrats in the House of Representatives and legislative seats in many states next year.  Democrats have some major vulnerabilities on a number of key issues that Trump successfully exploited last year, and those vulnerabilities haven't gone away and could limit the scope of their gains, particularly with as skillful as Trump is at steering the national conversation towards culture war fault lines where Democrats are on the short end of the stick.  But Gillespie made a major effort to replicate Trump's template on culture war touchstones and those efforts flopped, so it's entirely possible that the election fundamentals will hold.  The 2018 midterms could indeed be mostly about voters countering an unpopular President with very low approval ratings and little else.

On more order of business on a race where a lot has changed in the last couple of weeks since I made my most recent predictions, and that's the December 12th special election for a Senate race in Alabama.  Two weeks ago, I predicted impeached judge Roy Moore, disgraced and deemed unthinkable by all but the fringiest players in the Republican Party, would nonetheless prevail by 14 points against Democrat Doug Jones.  Then this past Thursday, the Washington Post released a very credible story alleging Moore as being a pedophile.  Twenty-four hours ago, I would have said this wouldn't matter a bit in Alabama and southern conservative voters would do what they've been doing for two centuries, circling the wagons in defense of their tribemate.  If anything, I figured on Thursday night, Moore would now win by an even bigger margin because conspiracy-minded Alabama conservatives would rally to Moore to spite the Washington Post.  But then Friday happened and Roy Moore opened his mouth.....

Had Moore simply maintained steadfast and indignant denial, with his allies coming up with imaginative new ways to defend his conduct and blame his victims, he'd have prevailed, but instead Moore went on Sean Hannity's radio show today and effectively incriminated himself.  Moore gave multiple different answers to the same questions and squashed his deniability to the charges.  You'd never have believed Moore ever practiced law based on his amateurish answers to softball questions from Hannity who was doing everything in his power to help Moore help himself.  And now the floodgates are opening with high-profile after high-profile Republican calling for Moore to drop out of the race.  It's not in Moore's DNA to drop out, so that won't happen, but it is getting harder to imagine him being the next Senator from Alabama than it was a few hours ago.  There are multiple scenarios that could unfold from here, ranging from other Alabama Republicans waging a write-in candidate to the scenario I see happening, the state's Republican Governor carrying on Alabama's long-running tradition of whatever-it-takes tribalism and delaying the election long enough to where they can legally swap Moore out with another Republican nominee.  Whatever scenario ultimately comes to fruition, I suspect the least likely scenario is that Democrat Doug Jones wins the election on December 12th and is seated in the U.S. Senate.  Not in Alabama.