Sunday, August 30, 2009

Its Time for Washington Dems to Break Groundhog Cycle

In the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, self-centered TV weathercaster, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is doomed to continuously repeat the events of his life. He finally ends the never-ending cycle and wins the love of his life when he finds the courage to break free of the personal limitations of his past. Like Phil Connors, many Washington pundits and politicians act as if they and the country are destined to keep on reliving the battle over health care from the Clinton era. But it’s not 1993 and it’s finally time to break the Groundhog Day pattern of American politics.
The United States has moved to a new political era driven by the emergence of America’s next civic generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), and marked by a new pattern of partisan identification and changed attitudes. Strategies that may have been useful nearly two decades ago are not likely to be effective now. Failure to recognize these changes by adhering to old and worn out approaches, in fact, will be counterproductive.
One thing that has changed since the early 1990s is that the American electorate is no longer evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. In 1994, according to the Pew Research Center, an equal number of voters identified as or leaned to the Democrats and Republicans (44% each). Now Pew shows an electorate in which half of the electorate, or slightly more call themselves or lean to the Democrats and only a third identify as or lean to the Republicans. Millennials identify as Democrats over Republicans by an even larger margin (56% vs. 30%).Moreover, the U.S. electorate is now more open to governmental activity and economic intervention, more positive toward government, and less driven by moralistic fears on social issues than it was on the eve of the Gingrich revolution in 1994.

Unfortunately, many inside the Beltway seem intent on reliving 1993 rather than moving to the new Millennial civic era. For Republicans and conservatives, who see resistance to change and derailing Obama administration initiatives as the way back to political power, this isn’t surprising. After all, failure to pass health care reform in the first two years of the Clinton administration contributed to the GOP sweep in the 1994-midterm elections. Republicans are hoping that, as in Groundhog Day, history will repeat itself. But for Democrats to act like it’s 1993 is truly surprising. The results of this behavior are already worrisome and could soon become disastrous.
Recent Gallup Poll data suggests Obama’s job approval levels among 18-29 year olds (primarily Millennials) has fallen from 71% to 60%. Given the solidly Democratic party identification and liberal political attitudes of Millennials, this decline most likely stems from disappointment that the president and congressional Democrats have not yet delivered on a campaign message built around change and reform. Certainly the decline is not based on distress that the president is pushing change too far or too fast.
This increased disappointment with the outcome of the first seven months of the Obama administration among Millennials (and other Democratically-oriented groups) is reflected in changes in the Daily Kos tracking poll’s generic congressional vote. Since June the Democratic lead over the Republicans has declined from a high of 14-percentage points to just 6. Almost none of this decline in the Democratic margin has come from an increased preference for the GOP. In fact, the overall percentage favoring the Republicans is actually down a point or two since May and June. Instead, virtually all of the change has come because of a decline in support for the Democrats and an increase in the percentage saying they are not sure. And, in turn, most of that is produced by increased indecision among Democratic identifiers and within demographic groups inclined toward the Democrats. In all, it appears that the biggest threat facing the Democrats is not from Republicans, but from disenchanted and disaffected voters within the groups that gave Barack Obama the presidency and Democrats a large congressional majority in the last two elections.

In the new civic era that America is entering, suggestions by conservatives that Barack Obama and the Democrats move to the right or appeal to seniors rather than the rising Millennial Generation are at best misguided and at worst dangerous. Instead, it’s time for Washington Democrats to leave Groundhog Day 1993 behind, start acting like Democrats, and redeem the promises that made them the majority party.
One way to do that is to pass meaningful healthcare reform legislation. That would be a fitting memorial to Edward M. Kennedy, the Democratic Lion of the Senate. It would also advance the fortunes of the party he so dearly loved.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Have Patience-Republicans Just Going through 5 Stages of Grief

In 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published a groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, suggesting that people facing death went through five emotional stages before they could accept their fate. While never proven by subsequent studies, the five stages of grief have entered the realm of conventional wisdom and are often cited to explain the behavior of groups, as well as individuals, facing a life-threatening crisis. The actions of Republicans, and their conservative supporters, in attempting to disrupt Town Hall discussions of President Obama’s health care reform proposal suggests that the concept is alive and kicking in politics as well.
According to Kubler-Ross, the first stage in dealing with impending doom is to deny it’s happening. We witnessed this behavior in the immediate aftermath of the Democrats’ overwhelming victory last November. Republicans reacted almost identically to the way Democrats did after Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. The election results were attributed to poor campaign tactics by the loser, or the failure to develop a winning message by the campaign’s media strategists, or a plot by reporters to ensure the victory of the winning candidate, if for no other reason than to give them something new to write about. In the classic words of death deniers throughout history, Republican leaders continued to insist well into January 2009 that they “felt fine” and the results had “nothing to do with me”--the Republican party and its message. The only thing that was about to die, we heard GOP leaders like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele assert, was the muddled attempt at moderation by Senator John McCain and the failure of their party to adhere to its most conservative principles.
The second stage of grief according to On Death and Dying is anger, and this summer the Republican Party and its minions have clearly moved beyond denial to anger. Enraged mobs of extraordinarily well informed “average” citizens have descended on Democratic Town Hall meetings to demand that their Representative not follow Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s party line and instead vote against specific provisions of health care legislation that would, for instance, incent the writing of living wills, or substitute the judgment of health insurers for that of objective government entities on what treatments would be allowed based on their cost effectiveness. Above all the evil of government involvement in the health care system is to be labeled for what it is—the work of the devil, who is clearly a socialist, through his agents in the U.S. Congress. The fact that many of those most vociferous in their opposition to government supported health care are carrying their sacred Medicare card in their wallet is only ironic if you ignore the degree to which anger and denial are related emotions. In fact, Kubler-Ross points out that people often oscillate between those stages before moving on. This makes the denial of Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth by many of these same angry protesters understandable, if not any more credible.
So what can the country expect once the Republican Party moves on to the next stage of dealing with the demise of its former electoral dominance? According to Kubler-Ross, the third stage of grief is “bargaining.” Here the individual or group hopes that it can at least postpone or delay death by promising to reform or turn over a new leaf. There are already early signs in the writings of Peggy Noonan, President Reagan’s speechwriter, that this next stage is coming to the fore. She suggests that if only President Obama would rethink the broad scope of his proposals and join in true bipartisan negotiations, Republicans in Congress would support a bill that leaves most of today’s health care system in place but without the nasty practices of denying health coverage to those with pre-existing conditions or canceling people’s insurance at the first sign that they might actually need medical treatment. The country can expect to hear more such offers from Republicans this fall when Congress returns and the real bargaining over the scope of health care reform takes place. But the party’s past misdeeds in building a majority coalition based on the racist premise of its Southern Strategy or its failure to appeal to the civic beliefs and attitudes of the emerging Millennial Generation or its most recent decision to sacrifice its future among Hispanics by voting against the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, make any such offer a fool’s bargain. The demise of GOP dominance is inevitable and Democrats should take no part in postponing the inevitable.
If congressional Democrats have the courage to use their majority to pass health care legislation and then go to the voters with an economy on the mend, the 2010 elections should serve to move Republicans to the fourth stage of grief—depression. Suffering from a series of unexpected and unexplainable defeats, Republicans are likely to go off on a prolonged period of silence, punctuated by bouts of crying over just how unfair politics has become. Kubler-Ross suggests that it is important not to try and cheer up the person in this stage of grief, but to let the individual work his or her way through the inevitable depression on their own. That way, her book says, the dying can finally come to the final stage of grief—acceptance.
This stage represents the end of the struggle and a willingness to accept one’s fate. The Republican Party as we have known it since 1968 will die for lack of political support. It may not accept that fate until after President Obama’s re-election, by a landslide, in 2012 just as the Democratic Party’s New Deal liberals did not accept their fate until after Ronald Reagan’s complete demolition of Walter Mondale’s candidacy in 1984. Still the end is inevitable, as many of today’s leading thinkers in the GOP are beginning to realize.
But Republicans can take heart in what Democrats were able to do after reaching the clarity of mind that comes with accepting one’s fate. By recognizing the death of its old ideas and rethinking their approach to the electorate after their landslide defeat in 1984, the Democrats eventually found a new road to victory—tentatively in 1992 with Bill Clinton and then more confidently with Obama’s victory in 2008. At that rate the GOP only has to wait until 2020 to have its next real shot at winning the presidency. If Republicans want to get to that goal sooner, psychologists might suggest that they move quickly out if their “summer of anger” phase, don’t bargain or obstruct too much over health care or anything else when Congress returns, and get ready for a good cry in 2010. Even better, such a course of therapy will improve the rest of the country’s mental health as well.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dem 2010 Prospects Better Than You Think

The 2010 midterm elections are still 15 months away and making political predictions this far out is risky business. History alone would point to the potential for Republican gains next year since the party that doesn’t control either the White House or Congress, almost invariably adds congressional seats in midterm elections. Only twice since 1900 has the president’s party made gains in the first midterm election of his administration—1934 and 2002. But, a continuation of economic optimism, linked to its significant advantages in demographics, party identification, and party image, may position the Democratic Party to overcome the difficulties that an incumbent majority normally confronts. If so, the Democrats could surprise a few D.C. pundits and, along the way, create a little history of their own.

The Daily Kos weekly tracking survey shows the Democrats with a 10-point margin on the so-called “generic Congressional ballot” question. The most recent NBC/WSJ poll puts the margin at seven percent. Meanwhile Stan Greenberg’s polling for NPR suggested Republicans actually had a slight edge, but that poll’s results were distorted by an oversampling of seniors (22%) as opposed to young Millennial voters (14%) when in fact the two age groups were represented equally (17%) in the electorate in 2008.

The significant changes that have occurred in the U.S. population since 2002 are often overlooked not only by survey researchers, but also by pundits attempting to make electoral predications. These demographic changes work to the advantage of the Democratic Party. The Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) is becoming an even more important part of the electorate and will represent 20% of all eligible voters in 2010. America is also increasingly diverse, with non-whites making up a quarter of the 2008 electorate, about double the percentage of just two or three decades earlier.

These newcomers to the electorate are solidly Democratic. Millennials contributed 80% of Barack Obama’s 2008 popular vote, identify as Democrats by a greater than 2:1 margin, and are the first generation in at least four to contain more self-perceive liberals than conservatives. Upwards of 90% of African-Americans and more than two-thirds of Latinos and Asians opted for Obama over John McCain last year. There is nothing to indicate that the strong Democratic loyalties of any of these expanding groups are diminishing. In the latest Daily Kos generic ballot, Millennials prefer the Democrats by 4.5:1. African-Americans do so by 8.5:1, Latinos by more than 2.6:1, and Asians by 3:1.

In 2002, when the Republicans made midterm history, the two parties were tied in party identification (43% each in Pew Research Center surveys). Now, in large part due to these demographic changes, the Democrats are clearly the majority party, with about a 16-percentage point edge. Overall, a bit more than half of the electorate identifies with or leans to the Democrats while around a third are Republicans or lean to the GOP. The Daily Kos survey indicates that about 80% of both Democratic and Republican identifiers want to see the party they prefer win Congress in 2010. The Democratic Party’s edge in party ID gives it a built-in electoral advantage that fully accounts for its 10-point lead in the Daily Kos poll.

Nothing that has occurred so far this year has done much to improve the Republican brand GOP candidates will have to defend in 2010 either. In the recent NBC/WSJ survey, voters held positive over negative impressions of the Democratic Party by a 42% vs. 37% margin. By contrast, their attitudes toward the GOP were 28% positive as opposed to 41% negative. Things were even worse for the Republicans in the Daily Kos tracker, in which Republicans trailed their Democratic counterparts in favorable evaluations by margins of between 2 and 4 to 1.
• Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s positive approval numbers beat those of her Republican counterpart, John Boehner, 34% to 13%.
• Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s approval rating was 32% compared to only 18% for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
• Congressional Democrats positive number of 41% swamped the generic Congressional Republican positive approval number of 10%.
• And the Democratic Party’s approval rating of 45% was dramatically better than the overall Republican Party rating of 19%.

These weaker perceptions of the GOP could limit Republican gains in 2010, especially if they run in direct opposition to President Obama who enjoys a 62% favorable rating in the same poll.

In the end, however, nothing is likely to drive the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections more than voter feelings about the economy. A CBS poll indicates that since mid-July the percentage believing that the U.S. economy is getting better has increased from 21% to 32%; the percentage saying it was declining fell from 33% to 22%. As a result, the number believing that the country is now on the right track grew from 35% to 42%. A majority (51%, up three points) now approves of Obama’s handling of the economy and by a 56% to 25% margin voters believe that the President rather than congressional Republicans is likely to make the right economic decisions. A solid majority (57%) of Americans also believe that the economic stimulus package passed into law earlier this year has or will create a substantial number of new jobs and a clear plurality (44% in the NBC/WSJ survey) expects the economy to be better in a year than it is now, a number that is up from 38% in April.
Democratic Congressional prospects in 2010 should continue to improve along with the economy as long as Democrats stay united behind President Obama and his policies. If that happens, 2010 could look more like 1934 than 1994.