Aug 5 2011

Don’t Fear the “T”-word

(Guest post by Emma White)

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick made the case for the importance of taxation the other day in the Washington Post, talking about the schools, roads, and other services our tax dollars pay for and closing:

I’d like to think that the most prosperous nation in human history can have both freedom and security. I think we have reached a point where my personal success is not threatened by a program to help our parents retire with dignity. Voters are smart enough to see that taxes are one of the ways we get those things. They are the price we pay for civilization.

Patrick’s words struck me as a contrast to Democrats’ typical silence or statements along the lines of the following from Harry Reid’s website:

I have led the fight to provide tax relief for working families, reinstate the state sales tax deduction, and reform the IRS. In today’s difficult economic climate, I understand how important it is to ensure tax relief is focused on providing help to hard-working families, and to encouraging investment and job creation.

Harry Reid argues that the “relief” should be concentrated on working and middle income families rather than the rich, but his language accepts the idea that taxes are a problem to be solved, rather than a tool to provide services we could not pay for or arrange as individuals.

The results of the recent deficit battle show the limits of this approach. When Democrats are afraid to challenge the Republican idea that taxes are part of the problem, we end up with $2.5 trillion in spending cuts that will largely hurt the middle class and the poor, and no tax increases or elimination of tax breaks like those that benefit private jets for CEOs.

Public opinion data and our experience working with clients on taxes and budget issues support a two-pronged communications approach:

  • Tell us what we get for our money. The idea of cutting government spending may be popular in the abstract, but few cuts to specific government programs turn out to be popular. Pew found in February that the only area of the budget where Americans were more likely to want decreased spending than increased spending was foreign aid. Education, health care, energy, environmental protection, and the military are all highly valued by the public. There is no reason to let the conversation continue to be about government spending in the abstract without discussion of what that spending actually pays for.
  • Emphasize responsibility and fairness. Americans know that we all benefit from these programs and are open to the idea that we all have a responsibility to help pay for them. One factor holding them back is the justifiable feeling that those who have the most are not paying their fair share. This is why closing loopholes (that rich people and corporations can hire the lawyers and accountants to exploit) and raising taxes on the wealthy are acceptable to the public, while they reject more broad-based tax increases. Persuade them that we can make the system fairer, and then we can start a conversation about our shared responsibility.
  • Will most Americans ever be thrilled about the money that comes out of their paychecks or the check they write to pay their property taxes? I’m not going to go that far. But given time and consistent message discipline, I agree with Governor Patrick: voters are smart enough to see that taxes are how we pay for things we want.


    Jun 9 2011

    Obsession with moderates is excessive

    The rising number of political independents has led to the misguided conclusion that we need to change party primaries so that our choices in general elections are more “moderate” politicians not tied to the bases of either of the two parties. Instead, we need more varied voices within the two parties.

    The proportion of independents reached a plurality after the 2008 elections and has remained the largest chunk of the electorate. The latest Pew Research Center poll has 31% of Americans identifying as Democrats, 22% as Republicans, and 37% as independents. The three-year jump in the number of independents has come at the expense of both parties, but more from Republicans than Democrats.

    You often hear that this potential party de-alignment is good for the country because it will bring more political “moderates” to government and these moderates supposedly always find better solutions to national problems than those who follow a core ideology of right or left. But, when you talk to voters, the people who call themselves political moderates are often less knowledgeable about issues and solutions to political problems. They place themselves in the middle of the road because they do not know or care enough about issues to ride on one side or the other.

    Most of the time when we hold focus groups with moderates on political issues, they are unsatisfying. These voters are less likely than self-described liberals or conservatives to know what they think about health care reform, the wars we are fighting, or the economic choices our leaders must face. A two-hour discussion with moderates is much less substantive than one with a group of liberals or conservatives.

    Still, the allure of the political moderate persists. A National Journal article on May 7th by Kathy Kiely, entitled “Calling All Moderates,” described how California and Nevada have gone to open primaries, where candidates from all parties run in a single primary and the top two finishers, regardless of party, get into the general election. The article reports that proponents of this “top two” system “say that party primaries tend to be dominated by activists from the Democratic Left and the Republican Right – not voters likely to choose candidates who can reach bipartisan compromise.”

    In fact, an open primary is bound to produce the opposite result. You are likely to end up with candidates in the general election with more extreme rather than moderate views. It is a matter of simple math – with more primary candidates, the fewer number of votes a candidate needs to finish first or second. A primary ballot with 10 to 20 candidates will mean any candidate with a loyal following of 20% can get into the top two spots.

    That is just what happened recently, in California’s first try with the new primary system for federal office holders. In May, voters could only vote for one candidate from 16 names on a primary ballot to determine which two would run in the general election to replace Rep. Jane Harman, Democrat from Los Angeles. Liberal Democrat and Los Angeles City Councilmember Janice Hahn came in first place with 23%. Second place was taken by a Craig Huey, a Tea Party Republican, Christian evangelist, and business entrepreneur. Mr. Huey’s website, ElectionForum.org, says it is about “helping Christians vote for, not against, their Biblical values.” Huey received 21%, just a few votes more than another Democratic candidate, Debra Bowen, who is currently California’s secretary of state.

    The open primary is not the answer to our political problems. If we want our political process to solve real problems like unemployment, a failed health care system, and abuses by Wall Street banks, it will have to be done by working within political parties. We will not find more useful solutions to tough issues if our general election nominees are chosen by more middle of the road voters who do not think much about issues, or in an open primary system that favors candidates who appeal to a small slice of fervent followers.

    We need a greater openness to a range of views within both the Democratic party and the Republican party. Both parties could use more debate among people with different opinions, even strongly held opinions.

    We should seek not more moderate views but more moderation, to allow different points of views to be heard.

    We see it at every level, but especially in presidential races. Republican candidates are afraid to challenge the orthodoxy of the hard right, for fear of being shouted down. Democrats do not run a candidate to the left of Barack Obama because they fear it will weaken him. This fear eliminates many ideas from political discussion.

    In the 2000 election, the best way for Ralph Nader to have contributed to the politics and policies of the nation was not to have run as an independent, but to have run as a Democrat and challenged Vice President Al Gore in the primaries. Nader would not have won, but his impact would have been positive rather than divisive. Nader’s stump speech in 2000 rattled off approximately 20 real solutions to national problems. If Gore had perhaps adopted just one of these Nader ideas, it might have provided a spark that might have helped him win the electoral vote.

    Fear of true debate is best observed at the party conventions. Not long ago, the best fights at the two parties’ national conventions were over platforms, not candidates. The Democratic platform committees would have many hours of contention over women’s rights, civil rights, the Vietnam war, and nuclear disarmament. There are no more fights over the platforms. Soon, there may be no more platforms. They get in the way of winning.

    But without a commitment to act on a set of ideas, forged from fierce debates and then put forth as policy, what is the point of winning?

    Voters may be leaving the parties because there seems to be no room – more importantly, no desire – within the parties for debating ideas. Their stagnation as problem-solvers has led to the current de-alignment. I do not know the cure, but I am pretty sure it is not the open primary.


    May 25 2011

    As gas prices rise, public seeks alternatives to oil

    (Guest post by Emma White)

    With gas topping $4 a gallon in many places, the prevailing wisdom in DC suggests that calling for more domestic oil drilling is a political winner for politicians, and those who oppose new drilling will pay a political price. President Obama embraced this perspective last week, offering his own plan to expand offshore oil drilling in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic seaboard.

    It is certainly true that many Americans are open to increasing offshore drilling in the U.S. The Pew Research Center found in March, when gas prices had already risen sharply, that 57% favor allowing increased oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters.

    But opposition to new drilling need not be a political loser. Our polling for NRDC in April of this year shows that when offered a choice between two candidates on their energy policy, the candidate who says drilling will cut gas prices loses out to a candidate who blames the oil companies for high gas prices and lays out alternatives to oil:

    • A majority (58%) chooses the candidate who says “we need to think beyond oil because the oil companies will continue to charge us whatever they can get away with and we should focus on investing in fuel-efficient cars and clean, affordable, renewable energy that won’t run out.”

    • Only 41% choose the candidate who says “we need to allow more drilling for oil in the U.S. to protect ordinary people from increasing gas prices, which take money out of our wallets and make everything more expensive.”

    • Partisan breakdowns and intensity of feeling also favor the clean energy candidate, who wins 72% of Democrats, 59% of independents, and peels off four in ten Republicans (39%). Those who feel strongly in favor of the clean energy candidate (44%) outnumber those who feel strongly the other way (29%) by fifteen percentage points.

    Yes, Americans want gas prices to be lower, and if politicians promise that drilling will lower prices they are willing to give it a try. But our research over the years on energy issues has shown us that Americans want much more than cheaper gas:

    • They want freedom from the oil companies that they believe raise prices on a whim;
    • They want to produce energy here at home so America will be a self-sufficient place that “makes things again;”
    • They want to use the resources we have more efficiently because it will save them money and help the planet; and
    • They want cleaner air and sources of energy that won’t run out, like the wind and the sun.

    If politicians want to stand firm for these principles, the public will reward them for countering calls to drill with a cleaner energy future that will free Americans from the oil companies.


    Mar 10 2011

    Nation needs a Democrat to challenge Obama

    The nation desperately needs a Democrat to challenge President Barack Obama for the party’s nomination for president in 2012.

    The tipping point came last week when Jackie Calmes reported in The New York Times: “When West Wing officials discovered that the Democratic National Committee had mobilized Mr. Obama’s national network to support the protests [in Wisconsin and Ohio], they angrily reined in the staff at the party headquarters.”

    The Times story goes on to say that administration officials saw the events beyond Washington as a “distraction” from the optimistic “win the future” message that the president unveiled in his State of the Union speech. He spent last Friday talking about the need to “educate and innovate” with Jeb Bush in Florida on one of the president’s begging-for-bipartisanship road shows.

    That’s right – a Democratic president considers the men and women who have stood out in the cold in the Wisconsin winter to have a voice in their government a distraction from his positive message.

    If you take all of Obama’s positions – too cautious to curtail the behavior of the Wall Street bankers, signing onto a health care plan that amounts to what the Republicans offered ten years ago, jawboning about overregulation of businesses, supporting a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, pandering to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at a time when big business is working with Republican governors to kill off what is left of organized rights for workers – you come to the conclusion that he should run as the Republican nominee. And he might win that nomination, if this were 1968 instead of 2012. His positions could fit comfortably into a debate among Richard Nixon, George Romney, and Charles Percy.

    Obama’s theme of educate and innovate to win the future is positive and forward-looking, and has the perfect pitch to serenade the Rotarian Republicans of the ‘70s in Grand Rapids and Peoria. But not this year. The Republican party of 2012 has become enslaved to a narrow brood of Christian fundamentalists and extreme taxophobics – people that do not want government to do anything except what they can easily see helps them directly. That is 24 percent of voters.

    The country needs someone to offer a completely different vision of America that is held by millions of Americans who do not fear enforcing the antitrust laws against heath insurance companies, or putting Wall Street executives in jail, or raising taxes on wealthy – and even non-wealthy – people for the public good.

    The country may turn away from such an agenda, but it deserves the debate to be something other than how big a tax cut we should give to each other. If Obama runs unopposed, the nation will continue its slide into selfishness and a government philosophy of every person for himself or herself. His presidency has ignored the country’s moral and material depression caused by government and corporate malfeasance, and the need for institutional change.

    America needs a candidate to do for the nation on a number of issues – chiefly taxes and the relationship between government, business, and individuals – what governor Scott Walker did for Wisconsin on unions. That is, to place the choices clearly in front of people rather than avoid what is really going on.

    Right now it seems possible that the Republicans will nominate someone to push this debate about choices to a “Wisconsin” level.

    It would be refreshing if the Democratic nomination process could at least begin such a debate – the way Bobby Kennedy’s candidacy forced Hubert Humphrey to reevaluate his position on the Vietnam war in 1968 and the way Alan Cranston and Gary Hart generated a national attention and a stronger Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, on nuclear disarmament and gay rights in 1984.

    In the narrative of American politics in the early 21st century there is a role on the left for someone to claim. We now know that role will not be filled by Barack Obama.

    Someone else needs to try out.


    Nov 23 2010

    Tax cuts have become a sick joke

    Did you hear the joke about the president who wants to reduce the deficit and cut taxes? Depending on your level of cynicism, you are either amused or annoyed that our lawmakers in Washington simultaneously pay homage to special commissions on the federal budget deficit and debate the size of the tax cuts they will enact.

    But you cannot place all the blame on our politicians.

    Ever since Ronald Reagan made tax cuts the engine of his drive for smaller government, the American voters have acted like spoiled children holding out their hands for more candy even when Halloween is long past. The tea party members have built an entire political movement based on such childish selfishness.

    Before Ronald Reagan, Americans seemed to understand the income tax was a necessary price to pay for the functions of government that benefit society as a whole and each of us as individuals. This may be why, prior to Ronald Reagan, no candidate had run for president on a platform of cutting taxes.

    It is true that President Kennedy, once in office, decided to try a Keynesian approach to stimulate a sluggish economy by lowering taxes and increasing government spending temporarily, but he did not campaign on tax cuts.

    In the last century, Americans managed to build a strong economy and a broad middle class with top tax rates ranging from 70 to 90% of income. By the time Reagan left office in 1988, he had cut the top tax rate to 28%.

    The lost income for the government, mixed with Reagan’s huge military build-up, left the country deeply in debt. Nonetheless, Reagan’s legacy has been that Americans feel entitled to tax cuts and, ever since, political candidates of both parties have made sure some type of tax cut played prominently in their campaigns.

    George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both campaigned on tax cuts – Bush promised a cut in the capital gains tax and Clinton called for reduced taxes for middle- and low-income workers. Once in office, however, both of these presidents raised rates on upper-income households in order to recover from the deficit-spending Reagan years. Clinton’s tax and budget policies gave the country eight years of economic prosperity, and he handed his successor a budget surplus.

    George W. Bush reverted to the Reagan lesson. He promised and delivered a massive tax cut with virtually no rationale other than “It’s your money, I want to give it back to you.” Democrats in Congress were not willing to buck the Reagan legacy, so they essentially went along.

    Even Barack Obama, the self-described agent of change, followed suit and ran for president on a platform of a middle class tax cut. Now he is shadow-boxing with himself about how many of the Bush tax cuts installed in 1981 he wants to let stand.

    The Pew Research Center reported this year that a majority of nearly six in ten voters would choose to either repeal all of the tax cuts (31%) or just repeal the tax cuts for the wealthy (27%), while only one in three (30%) wanted to keep all of the tax cuts.

    In extensive research on taxes over the years, we have found that when people are informed of things such as the budget deficit, the national debt, and the billions of dollars the government spends every month simply to pay the interest on the national debt, tax cuts are placed on a much lower priority.

    Yet, President Obama has not explained the choices between tax cuts and what else can be done with the money. He, like most other politicians, has accepted as truth that you cannot oppose all tax cuts.

    Why not inform people of the payoffs – for jobs, for the economy, for programs they care about – if we repeal all of the Bush tax cuts? You can make a compelling case that the benefits to repeal are far greater than those of letting the tax cuts continue.

    Is there no public official with the skill and courage to help the country break its adolescent dependency on tax cuts?


    Oct 27 2010

    Democrats for Angle

    If you are a Democrat and you want to do something that will help you revive your party and rebuild the self-confidence it had just 18 months ago, you should send your money and support to Sharron Angle for United States Senate in Nevada.

    Sure, she has some strange views. Angle is known more for what she is against than what she is for. I call her the Elimination Candidate: she would like to eliminate Social Security, the Department of Education, the U.S.’s membership in the United Nations, fluoridization of water, and the Internal Revenue Service code. But so what? A wacky freshman U.S. Senator from Nevada is not a great threat to our democracy. But the person she wants to eliminate from the Senate has proven to be one of the most formidable obstacles to progressive change in this country.

    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has followed the three Cs of the U.S. Senate: comity, caution, and commitment to campaign contributors so that incumbents win reelection.

    The irony is that Reid’s strategy of protecting incumbents will be partly responsible for Democratic losses in Congress next week. When Americans voted for change in 2008, they were telling their elected representatives to protect them from being taken advantage of by large institutions – Wall Street banks, health insurance giants, and abuse of power by the federal government. People told us during the 2008 campaign that they were hurting financially and they wanted someone in Washington who would fight for them against the big forces that were controlling their lives.

    Reid’s reluctance to rock the boat on the filibuster rule has allowed the Republicans to hold up legislation and judicial and federal agency nominations without any accountability. Reid should have forced the Republicans to shut down Senate business whenever they wanted to filibuster so that the public can focus on what is at stake and decide which party has the better argument. Instead, Reid allows the Senate to avoid votes on controversial issues, whenever the Republicans threaten a filibuster. The Democrats held a 59-41 advantage over Republicans in the Senate and they behaved like the margin was reversed.

    Reid’s deference to a handful of pro-business Democrats – the practical coalition of Evan Bayh, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and others – to stall and then finally shrink the president’s stimulus bill told the public that the Democrats were not united and the Senate had a hard time getting anything done.

    Reid’s assignment of health care reform to Senator Max Baucus and the Senate Finance Committee was the equivalent of parachuting in a team of pyromaniacs to put out a forest fire. The Senate Finance Committee is the most bought bunch of lawmakers in Washington. Reid’s acquiescence to the health care industry gave the public a close-up view of the anti-consumer deals and compromises that are standard operating procedure in the Senate. It also resulted in a health care reform bill that did not lower insurance rates.

    Reid’s equally lax leadership on financial reform sent the message that Congress sided more with the banks and barons of Wall Street than with the average people who have been their victims. Reid let the second most bought Senate committee – the Banking Committee run by Senator Chris Dodd – write legislation that did not place caps on Wall Street executive bonuses and did not outlaw derivative investments, which serve no purpose and were largely responsible for the crash.

    The result of this sorry record is an 18% public approval rating of Congress. Bill Maher points out that this is a lower approval rating than the public gave O.J. Simpson when he was on trial for murdering his wife.

    While many factors contribute to this public indictment of Congress, the most dramatic rendering of the failure to enact change has been the U.S. Senate.

    Many Democrats argue that the party needs to hold Reid’s seat in the Senate and that he is likely to be replaced as leader by either Senator Charles Schumer of New York or Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. But Reid is well-liked by other Senators and they cannot be trusted to oust him. That will be up to Angle.

    If Reid goes, Senate Democrats will have to choose between the reliable progressive (Durbin) and the situational liberal (Schumer) for leader. Either one would bring more dynamism to the post. Durbin was one of only 23 Senators to vote against the resolution to go to war with Iraq, he has consistently fought for tougher regulations on Wall Street, and he is respected in the Senate for his well-researched and reasoned arguments. Schumer, who voted for the Iraq War resolution and has consistently voted against regulations on Wall Street, has no problem criticizing the war and beating up on Wall Street rhetorically. His strengths include an ear for finding areas of compromise and a nose for news.

    I say let the Eliminator have her way, then get on with the tough job of rebuilding the public’s confidence in Congress to represent the needs of average Americans.


    Aug 26 2010

    Mission accomplished, peace with honor, or the courage to come home?

    As a former speechwriter for politicians, I pity President Obama’s scribes this week. Their assignment is to craft a speech recognizing the last U.S. “combat” troops leaving Iraq. I can feel their frustration at being asked to draft remarks that defy reality.

    Here is an opportunity for the President’s word merchants to turn frustration into a positive result for the country.

    Some of our most effective presidents did not see their speechwriters as mere wordsmiths, but used the process of crafting a speech as a way to think through whether the ideas they wanted to communicate made sense. President Franklin Roosevelt used his scribe Sam Rosenman as a sounding board, as did Harry Truman with Clark Clifford and George Elsay, and John Kennedy with Ted Sorensen. These collaborations allowed common sense to enter into policy decisions that otherwise might have been dictated by economic, military, or foreign policy doctrine. For these presidents, discussing the rationales for policy with speechwriters was like opening a window in a stuffy room to let in some fresh air.

    After one meeting going over a State Department draft of a foreign policy speech, President Truman looked to his political speechwriters and said, “Fellas, can’t we just say what we mean?”

    I do not know President Obama’s relationship to his speechwriters, but I hope they would be able to write a memo such as this:

    To: President Obama
    From: Speechwriting team
    Re: What to say about Iraq and Afghanistan

    Concerning your speech on our combat troop withdrawal from Iraq, what tone do you want to take: celebration, validation, or self-congratulation?

    We recommend:

    Against taking the approach of the last administration by claiming “mission accomplished.” You were elected because the American people are not buying that line.

    Against telling the American public the truth – most Americans will not believe you, and the rest will not want to be reminded. As president, you are expected to inspire, not depress people.

    It would be bad politics for you to state plainly what the rest of the world knows. Our invasion led to the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians and the destruction of Iraq’s hospitals, schools, utilities, and industries. Over 4,000 American lives were lost, and tens of thousands more Americans returned less than whole both mentally and physically. Toward what goal did we cause all of this? Our government was determined to remove from power a dictator who was the only non-Israeli head of state in the Middle East that the United States could count on NOT TO ALLOW AL QUAEDA TO OPERATE IN HIS COUNTRY. This is too absurd and too dark for Americans.

    Against using your phrase “we have kept our promise” to remove all combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, leaving 50,000 troops only to secure the peace. This will surely come back to bite you in the near future. Your “promise kept” declaration will ring as hollow as President Nixon’s contention that he achieved “peace with honor” in Vietnam in January 1973, at the end of the Paris peace talks. The war dragged on for two more years until Congress finally shut off funding over the objections of Republican President Gerald Ford.

    We are leaving Iraq a physically and economically broken country, seething with violent political and religious divisions. Iraq will be mired in civil war for many years to come. If you leave 50,000 troops as a security force, then sometime in the near future you will have to make a decision whether to allow Americans to witness our troops slaughtered in the line of duty as the peace-keepers or to return our combat troops to Iraq – and thus break your promise.

    We recommend you simply tell Americans you are “ending our involvement in Iraq,” without debating the war’s value.

    You could say,

    “No matter what you think about why we were there, or what we have accomplished, my job as president is to do what is best for America. We cannot dictate the future of Iraq. Sometimes it takes more courage for a leader to say when it is time to come home. It is time. I am bringing all of our military home.”

    Another question, Mr. President: is it necessary for you to address Afghanistan in this speech? We believe it is.

    We recommend you use this occasion to recalibrate our policy in Afghanistan to comport with reality. Tell the American public you will “bring all American troops home from Afghanistan, focus more on the places where al Qaeda is actually located, and redirect our efforts to win more cooperation from other governments in the fight against terrorism.”

    We now have more than 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and more are on the way, ignoring daily signals that their fight is meaningless. If our fight in Afghanistan is about destroying al Qaeda, we are looking in the wrong place. Craig Whitlock reports in the Washington Post this week that “an analysis of 76,000 classified U.S. military reports posted by the website WikiLeaks underscores the extent to which Osama bin Laden and his network have become an afterthought in the war.” If there is any al Qaeda activity, it is along the Pakistan border, according to U.S. reports.

    We cannot force the Afghans to fight the Taliban any more than we could make the South Vietnamese fight their neighbors to the north. As Elizabeth Bumiller reports in the New York Times this week, U.S. officials in Afghanistan admit that in the next 15 months the U.S. would “have to recruit and train 141,000 new soldiers and police officers – more than the current size of the Afghan army – to meet President Obama’s ambitious goals for getting Afghan forces to fight the war on their own.” At the same time, these officials report “attrition rates in some (Afghan) units of nearly 50%.” This sounds more and more like Vietnamization – President Nixon’s failed plan to win the war by getting the South Vietnamese to fight.

    To most Americans who remember the Vietnam War, the image that symbolizes our withdrawal from Vietnam is that of Americans and South Vietnamese on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon desperately reaching for the chance to board the last ride out.

    It was anything but peace with honor. We do not want you to be the cause of similar scenes in Baghdad and Kabul.


    Mar 10 2010

    Obama guided by his enemies

    If you have ever doubted that President Barack Obama has an irrational love affair with bipartisanship, you will become a believer by looking at his position(s) on bringing the 9/11 defendants to justice.

    The president is reported to be reconsidering his decision to try the 9/11 defendants in U.S. courts. Ever since Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the government would try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and two other suspects in federal criminal court in Manhattan, there have been loud complaints – mostly from Republicans – that he was jeopardizing the lives of New Yorkers and straining their pocketbooks. Too costly, said Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Too scary, said Republican Congressman Peter King.

    A few members of the opportunistic wing of the Democratic Party piped up to complain as well: Senator Chuck Schumer said it would not be “feasible,” Governor David Paterson said it would “frighten” New Yorkers.

    A number of polls have indicated that public support for trying the 9/11 defendants in courts rather than military commissions is still substantial but waning in the last year.

    This is not surprising, since the vocal naysayers of criminal trials have had the communications platforms all to themselves. When stung by criticism, the administration’s position has not been to offer an alternative view, but rather to use body language to say, “Hit me again.”

    This past Sunday the Obama administration got hit from the left side, in a full page New York Times ad by the ACLU which pointed out that the courts have successfully prosecuted over 300 cases while the military commissions have only been able to handle three cases. This is an argument the administration should have been making for itself. (Full disclosure: BRS developed the ACLU ad.)

    Maybe it is because of a lack of ideological cohesion among the Democrats in Congress, but it seems that the people the president is listening to the most are the Republicans.

    One of the more insightful polls and analysis has been done by Gary Langer at ABC, who points out that the president’s base has had fewer second thoughts than he has concerning the 9/11 defendants. Langer writes, “There has been very little movement among liberals and moderates, Democrats and independents. Instead it’s chiefly conservatives and Republicans who’ve changed their stance, shifting toward tribunals by 18- and 13-point margins, respectively.” The ABC poll shows that Democrats support using federal courts over military commissions.


    In other words, by reconsidering his decision on the 9/11 defendants, the president is ignoring the views of his base, not doing anything to win over independents to his side, and telling the Fox News-watchers that he sees their point, and that maybe they are right.

    The data suggest strongly that any presidential reconsideration of his position on the 9/11 defendants reflects that the president is paying more attention to the opinions of the 26% of the public who consider themselves Republicans than to those of his own party. Up until a few days ago, this has certainly been true on health care. Bill Maher, in an attempt to point out the futility of such an approach, said Obama’s courtship of Republicans on health care is “like a college freshman who spends his entire first year in college trying to hit on Ellen DeGeneres.”

    On the 9/11 defendants, if Obama decides to change his mind and reject a system of justice set up by Madison, Jefferson and Adams in favor of one set up by Bush, Cheney and Gonzales, it will be a clear example of a Democrat who only seems to listen to his avowed enemies.


    Feb 24 2010

    Polls should find out if bipartisanship is a priority

    Some of us have always believed that bipartisanship, like partisanship, can be a means to an end. Sometimes you need one or the other to achieve a goal, such as passing legislation to increase or cut taxes, reform health care, or create jobs. But the Obama era has elevated bipartisanship to an end in itself.

    Pundits continually cite polls and anecdotes that suggest Americans would like to see more cooperation between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. But we have no accurate reading of how important this really is to people, compared to other priorities.

    Let’s find out. I propose that whenever media pollsters ask people the standard question about the priorities for the nation (usually offering a series of issues like crime, the economy, the cost of health care), we include a new item – “making government decisions on a more bipartisan basis,” or “making sure that both Democrats and Republicans agree on a law before it is passed.”


    This will help us to determine the proportion of the American public that shares this president’s elevation of bipartisanship to something that has inherent value. How does the drive for bipartisanship stack up compared to creating jobs, fighting terrorism, lowering health care costs, etc.?

    For years, pollsters have been asking whether or not the public wants Democrats and Republicans to work together, or if the public thinks the two parties are becoming less willing to cooperate. These questions are like asking: should we have less air pollution? And do you think selfishness is increasing or decreasing in the country? They do not tell us how important any of this is to people.

    The president and the timid Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate in the past 14 months have allowed the goal of bipartisanship to derail progress on health care, financial reform, and other issues in the interests of bipartisanship. It would be important for us to know: is bipartisanship that important to Americans? Or do they consider other priorities more urgent?

    Let’s start including bipartisanship on our issue series in polls.


    Feb 22 2010

    From Giuliani to Paige to Duncan: data-driven to distraction

    Data driven public policy – it is a cherished goal of the post-ideological, bipartisan, totally rationalist America we are supposed to be moving towards. We hear praise in the media for public officials who declare themselves non-ideological and strictly data driven. Beware of such public officials.

    A newly released survey of police officers and commanders in New York City reveals that Rudolph Giuliani‘s reputation as a tough law-and-order mayor in the 1990s was built on a foundation of false data. As mayor, Giuliani sent word down the line that crime in the city must be reduced. He wanted statistics to show that crime rates in New York were dropping compared to other cities. According to extensive interviews among police precinct commanders and supervisors in the city, reported in the New York Times on February 6, the police felt considerable pressure from their superiors to alter the crime statistics. When the boss asked for something, they delivered.

    Giuliani installed a computer scoring system that precincts used to regularly spew out favorable statistics. The system, called CompStat, has since been franchised to police departments throughout the U.S. and across the globe, according to the Times story. The story quotes one of the researchers who conducted the study as saying, “Those people in the CompStat era felt enormous pressure to downgrade index crime, which determines the crime rate, and at the same time they felt less pressure to maintain the integrity of the crime statistics.” What is the sense of having a base of comparison if it’s no good? Did Giuliani intend to say, “My latest computerized update shows that New York is lagging behind other cities—we are experiencing greater numbers of homicides and drug crimes?”

    Giuliani’s CompStat does to police officers on the beat what education secretary Arne Duncan wants to do to teachers in the classroom. Continuing the policies of George W. Bush, Duncan insists that teachers be evaluated on how well their students do on statewide standardized tests. The education establishment will compare the tests from one school to another and one state to another to determine where the “bad” schools and “bad” teachers are located. There are at least three things wrong with this.

    First, as parents across the country have been telling us for years in focus groups, this causes teachers to teach to the tests because their livelihoods depend on it. This policy victimizes students, as teachers are forced to prepare students to memorize information they will need to know to pass the tests, rather than using an array of teaching techniques to challenge students to expand their minds and gain a love of learning.

    Second, tests alone do not give a full measure of a teachers’ talent. Evaluations by mentors, principals, peers, and students all should be considered when judging teachers’ merit.

    Third, using test scores as the primary evaluator encourages and even promotes cheaters. During the 1990s, at about the same time that Giuliani was incentivizing creative crime reporting in the precinct houses, the superintendent of Houston public schools was doing the same for classroom teachers – and winning national attention for his data-driven educational achievements. Superintendent Roderick Paige instituted teacher pay incentives tied to student test scores. Under Paige, test scores in Houston’s public schools improved dramatically and its high schools reported the lowest dropout rates for any large city in the nation.

    Beaming with pride, President Bush named Paige his first Secretary of Education in 2001. Then the news media exposed the facts that under Paige’s leadership Houston teachers had changed test results to get higher scores, and school administrators counted high school dropouts as students who decided to “transfer” to other schools.

    There is nothing wrong with data, but when it becomes the central arbiter of the worth of a person or policy, it is in danger of deceiving. Society’s elevation of data coincides with the current passion for the debasement of policies that are based on values (ideology) or strongly held beliefs (partisanship). This is part of a culture that elevates “bipartisan” to an end in itself. Does it not make you at least a little suspicious that education now seems to be the one issue on which Democrats and Republicans agree – and that both parties win support from the business community, including those companies that produce the tests?

    Once again, I think of George Carlin’s comment that “bipartisan usually means that a larger than usual deception is being carried out.”