Friday, October 31, 2014

Campaign winners: big money, conservatives, women

Whatever the outcome of next week’s elections, some political trends emerge.

They include the role of big money’s television buys, the status of conservatism and the role of women.

How do many, if not most, people decide how they’ll vote?  Chances are good that it’s not based on candidates’ policy proposals or their debate performance.

Debates have become so numerous and predictable that many people ignore them.  When they were more unusual and a slip of the lip could influence opinion, they mattered more. 

Traditional campaign elements remain important.  Candidates’ party affiliations matter, of course, but they are rarely mentioned.  And identifying supporters and getting them to the polls must be done, now aided by software more than canvassing. 

But what matters most is television.  Short spots do not have to be accurate, and sheer repetition, made possible by huge financial resources, helps get messages, true or not, into viewers’ minds. Campaigns will set spending records thanks major donors’ television spots.

We hear increasingly about the growing roles of big political donors.  They can funnel money on short notice to favored campaigns, mainly to buy television time.  In other words, all of us can experience the influence of big money on American politics.

In this year’s campaign, it looks like the Republican TV spots outshine the Democrats’ commercials.

Have you ever seen a Democratic spot pushing the virtues of Obamacare?  The GOP has been able to make the president and his program a target, and the Democrats have been unwilling to promote the program.

TV spots on their key program were missing in the two previous congressional elections.  This year the unpopularity of Obamacare, thanks to the drumbeat of GOP opposition, spread to Obama himself, who has campaigned little rather than promoting his programs.

Thanks to their better TV spots and traditional mid-term slippage in support for the president’s party, the outlook must encourage the GOP.

Accordingly, the result in this year’s elections is likely to show a continued slide of the Congress toward the conservatives.  The Democrats would be considered winners if they held onto their Senate majority, a feat considered impossible by many pundits.  In other words, not losing would constitute winning.

But even both houses of Congress coming under GOP control could give a false impression. 
When the dust settles, it will also be important to look at how many voters supported each party across the entire country.  That will ignore gerrymandered congressional districts, which mainly favor the Republicans, whatever the total popular vote.

The people will probably remain closely divided in their political views.  The seemingly clear conservative dominance in Congress is likely to diverge from the closer total popular vote.

That’s why the GOP, even enjoying new congressional power, will face the challenge of increasing its appeal to somewhat less conservative voters if it hopes to take the presidency in 2016 and thus gain complete political control in Washington.

Instead of seeking the outright repeal of Obamacare or blocking all Obama judicial appointments, a Republican Congress could take smaller bites into Democratic programs, perhaps making it difficult for the president to veto them.

It also means that the congressional Democrats will need to increase their party’s appeal to less liberal voters.  They could end up supporting some of the spending reductions the Republicans want. Whether a GOP Senate could overcome Democratic filibusters and produce veto-proof majorities depends on just how much toward moderation it would move.

Meanwhile, a quieter and less ideological change in the American political scene may continue in next week’s elections.

If every woman running for a U.S. Senate seat now occupied by a man won her election and all female incumbents held their seats, the Senate would have 28 women out of its 100 members.

That would be a new record, surpassing the current 20 women.  After the 2000 elections, there were 10 female senators and ten years before that, only two.

Of course, not all female candidates will win, because some are running as long shots against entrenched incumbents.  As many as four women now in the Senate could lose their elections to male candidates.  Still, a new record may be set as the trend continues.

Maine could end up with three of its four congressional slots filled by women.  In the Senate race, incumbent GOP Sen. Susan Collins faces Democrat Shenna Bellows.  The First District should be held by Democrat Chellie Pingree, and if Democrat Emily Cain defeats Republican Bruce Poliquin in the Second District, she would be the third Maine woman in the next Congress.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ideology, big money dominate congressional campaigns

“All politics is local.”  Though he didn’t create that saying, the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts made it not only popular but a law of politics, at least when it comes to congressional campaigns.

In the past, local concerns were practical concerns.  Would a member of Congress bring home federal contracts creating new jobs?  Would the member get funding for a new bridge?

No matter what the major national issues of the day, voters supposedly made their decisions based on local concerns relating to their own lives.  Candidates were advised to talk about better roads not a better foreign policy.

It’s time to declare Tip O’Neill’s law dead.  The world has changed and what once were local races for Congress or governor have given way to a number of new forces.  Today, when people vote, they have a lot more than local concerns in mind, and they are subject to more than local influences.

While local concerns persist, the electorate is divided on ideological grounds with that split running across the entire country.  All issues everywhere seem to boil down to a partisan debate on the role of government in a society of free people.

Take Maine’s Second District race between Democrat Emily Cain and Republican Bruce Poliquin.  Their TV ads are devoted to blasting their opponent’s record, implying how badly they would behave politically in Congress.  That sounds like a traditional campaign, based on candidates’ Maine records, distorted or not.

But either of them would soon become a foot soldier in the partisan-ideological wars in Washington.  Each would end up voting in line with her or his party.  That’s why national money is pouring in.

Then, there’s the referendum on President Obama.  The recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 56 percent of voters, both for and against him, consider this year’s congressional election to be just that. 

Although his appearances are limited, Obama is using congressional and gubernatorial campaigns to bolster his support for the remainder of his term.

And, as has become usual, 2014 congressional campaigns are a part of the 2016 presidential campaigns that are already under way.  Hilary Clinton’s national travels, including her stop in Maine, are as much related to her own presidential ambitions as they are to supporting congressional candidates.

In the more open GOP presidential field, potential presidential candidates are using the opportunity provided by the congressional campaigns to begin to build their own organizations for the forthcoming races.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is using his role as the leader of the effort to elect GOP governors as a way to build his own campaign, and he seems to be spending more time on the road than in the Garden State.  He has become a key player in Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election push.

Of course, outsiders have long helped state candidates in presidential off-year elections.  But increasingly, their involvement is meant to help them create their own state campaign organizations, identify donors and line up future supporters among the officials they help elect.

Yet another and powerful sign of the nationalization of state congressional races is the role of people who are coming to be called the American oligarchs.  The term “oligarch” has usually been applied to Russian billionaires, who exert enormous influence in their own country.

Now, the New York Times labels as oligarchs the billionaires who spend unlimited amounts in attempts to influence American elections.  The Times says they amount to their own political parties.

Almost all of them promote conservative positions.  They have well-defined policies on environmental protection, tax reform and tax breaks for business, and support for Israel.  On the other side, some big money backs gun control.

These big players keep all state campaigns under review and decide where their massive infusions of money can elect candidates favorable to their interests.  Under a recent Supreme Court decision, they can give as much as they want and do not have to disclose the amount of their contributions or even all of their contributors.

In the days when the O’Neill’s law applied, face-to-face meetings with voters were essential.  Now, campaigns are won or lost based on television spots, and the oligarchs can buy all the TV time they want.

These forces plus the dominant influence of the national media as compared with local outlets can allow issues like a travel ban to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus to the U.S. to push other, more routine concerns aside.

Ideology wars, presidential politics, the oligarchs and the media have changed the law. 

All politics is national.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Candidates’ jobs promises unrealistic

“Jobs, jobs, jobs.”  That’s what candidates promise in Maine and all over the country.  Their experience specially qualifies them, they say, to use their sought-after job in government to create employment for others.

It’s mostly a false promise.  No single position in government, including the presidency, can with certainty guarantee more jobs.  And candidates, who have created jobs in the private sector, are often amazingly short on details about how they would do the same thing in government.

Candidates like to give the impression they can translate business success into job creation once they are in government.  But this is a case of unrealistic political promises facing off against reality we should have learned in high school civics class.

There are hundreds of people in Congress and legislatures.  A legislative candidate can promise results, but he or she cannot produce them without the agreement of a majority of people, their fellow legislators, many of whom they barely know.

Even worse, the legislative body may be under the control of the opposition party, meaning they have no real chance of their job creation proposals succeeding.

Then, of course, there’s the president or governor.  Executive approval is almost always needed before a legislator’s hot idea can be adopted.

And that also works the other way around.  The chief executive depends on legislative approval to adopt most job-creation proposals.

Besides these very real institutional obstacles, there is the nitty-gritty of the proposals themselves.  How would the candidate have government create jobs?

Government can do many things to promote job growth, and most of them are controversial.  When a candidate promises to promote more and better jobs, the political hopeful should be asked which of the many difficult choices should be made.

With more funding, government itself can create jobs by hiring more people.  Or public funds can be used to hire private sector and non-profit entities to carry out public functions, like building roads and bridges.  But that could mean either higher taxes or more debt.

Another government policy, with a less certain result, is cutting taxes.  That allows employers to keep more of their profits, which presumably can be used to finance expansion and more jobs. 

Government can subsidize energy development by favorable tax credits.  In fact, there is a broad array of tax subsidies at the federal and state levels that reduce the cost of conducting a business in the hope that the resulting growth will create employment.

Tax cutting is “trickle down” economics.  But corporate chiefs are free to pay shareholders bigger dividends and not hire any new employees.  Tax reductions directly tied to job creation have not proved broadly effective.

Many candidates want to cut government regulation in the belief that the easier it is to do business, the more business will be done. 

If environmental rules are reduced, the private sector saves the cost of compliance.  For many voters that trade-off is too costly, making it risky as a specific job-creation plan.

Regulators can control utility prices, keeping costs down for business.  But an elected official usually cannot force such regulatory action, unless a legislative mandate is enacted.

Interest rates may be cut, making it easier for business to finance expansion by using cheaper money.  But that’s mostly a function of the Federal Reserve, which is intentionally isolated from the kind of political pressures that elected officials exert.

If older people leave the work force at a younger age, they open new job opportunities for younger workers.  For government to encourage that shift, it must assure retirees of access to a better retirement income and health care.

This is a partial laundry list of possible job creation measures.  None of them can be produced by any single elected official, so candidates can easily over-promise, hoping to sway uncritical voters.

Rather than look at candidates’ promises, it’s better to look at their party’s programs and orientation.  Most legislators will follow the party line, and most presidents and governors must rely on their party’s legislative support.

Politicians take the credit for job growth, but seldom take responsibility for economic slowdowns.  That should be a sign for voters to be skeptical of political promises about matters public officials may influence but not control.

Remember that much if not most job growth is not the result of government action but of the innovation, risk-taking and skills of business managers.

When candidates say their ability to create jobs is proved by their private sector accomplishments, it’s possible the best thing they can do to create jobs is stay in the private sector.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Maine bond issues misleading; matching funds questionable

In addition to my weekly post based on my newspaper column, I add an occasional mid-week brief on a current issue.

Maine voters will be faced with six bond issues in November, but they may be forced to make uninformed choices.

With all the attention being paid to the bear hunting referendum, many people may not become aware of the six bond issues on the ballot this November before they vote.

Even if they read the Secretary of State’s election guide or carefully scan the ballot itself, they will see an incomplete and potentially misleading description of the issues.

Three of the six, for a total of $20.6 million also mention $23.7 million in matching funds.  But, unlike the usual highway matches provided by the federal government, there’s no indication of the source of the matches.

Even more important, whatever the legislative intent, none of these three bond questions says that either the bonds should not be issued until the matching money is committed or, if the funds are raised, they should not be disbursed without the matching cash having been lined up.

These bond issues note the funds will be made available through competitive bid.  But the legislative history suggests the likely winners in the three cases are the University of New England, the Jackson Labs on MDI, and Coastal Enterprises, Inc.

In order to avoid simply voting funds to specific entities, a poor legislative practice, the seemingly neutral public bidding provision was substituted for the original designations.  But the number of eligible bidders is limited.

Item 7 on the ballot talks about promoting the “marine sector” in Maine.  Lacking the legislative history, a voter would not know the funds are intended for the development of in-state lobster processing.  Nowhere are voters informed they are being asked to support this new enterprise.

At the hearing on that proposal, only one person spoke.  He was the representative of Coastal Enterprises, Inc., and he suggested that his agency could help raise the matching funds.

Each of the six bond issues appears to be for a worthy cause, but their real purposes may only be understandable if a voter digs deeply enough into their background. 

Because of the superficial appearance of benefit and the lack of informed public debate, proponents have given the impression, intentional or not, of trying to put something past the voters.

Friday, October 10, 2014

If the recession is over, why am I depressed?

Economists say a recession ends when the economy begins to turn upward.

Many people believe a recession ends when the economy returns to where it was before its decline.

By both measures, the recession is over.

So why do many of us feel that it continues?

Not only is the rate of recovery uncomfortably slow, but the post-recession economy is markedly different from the boom times of just a few years ago.

Many people have found lower level jobs paying less than they had earned previously.  Other people have simply left the labor force, giving a somewhat false impression about the true scope of unemployment.

Christine Lagarde, the chief of the International Monetary Fund, recently said that recovery had produced the “new mediocre.”  By that, she meant that growth and employment may have returned to previous levels, but they have fallen short of the kind of activity needed to provide a sense of prosperity.

In her view, without government action and leaving hope for a stronger recovery entirely to the private sector, the world could not produce real improvement.

She called for more steps in tax policy to promote growth.  She wants to see serious efforts to control tax evasion, greater government efficiency to reduce costs and a cut in payroll taxes.

Lagarde said tax breaks for energy producers should be ended, because they “mostly benefit the relatively affluent, not the poor.  They also harm the environment.”  The money saved could be used for other purposes without a tax increase.

More people should be brought into the labor force, increasing jobs and creating customers.  In the U.S., that could mean finally agreeing on an immigration policy.  In other countries, more women should be allowed to work.

Yet another area deserving attention is the repair of roads, bridges, airports and other basic elements of the economic structure of countries, she said.  This would not be wild public spending.  By simply devoting public funds to essential measures, the economy would benefit both now and in the future.

None of this is rocket science, but our current political stalemate is likely to cause it to be ignored.

Tax policy won’t change so long as influential political leaders worry that any change will mean that somebody’s taxes will increase.  Even worse, those who get tax breaks have enough money to pour into the political process to block change.

Immigration policy reform will be delayed so long as uneasiness with new ethnic groups stands in the way of including those who will perform the jobs nobody else wants to do and become consumers whose purchases will push the need for new jobs.

And government won’t have resources to spend on research leading to new technologies and new jobs.  Instead, “the new mediocre” economy is likely to grow slowly as government and business try to make outmoded methods work.

Maine, with its diversified economy of small businesses, usually misses both economic booms and busts.  But it is not immune from change, which calls for innovative policy, not a struggle to keep the past alive.

The recent announcement of the closing of the Verso mill in Bucksport, the Great Northern bankruptcy, and the devaluation of Madison Paper and Sappi Somerset facilities are signs of significant change in the paper sector, once the largest single element of the state’s economy.

Gov. LePage’s effort to find a new buyer for the Bucksport mill may miss the point that the world needs less paper.  Mike Michaud, a former paper worker, has correctly said the state cannot go back to the paper industry as it once was.  Eliot Cutler proposes the state buy the mill’s power plant and sell lower cost electricity for economic development.

The role of government needs to be reexamined.  Federal and state government must be serious about the trade-offs to be made between regulation and growth.  Too often, each new rule or economic development measure is adopted without understanding its full effects.

For a candidate to say the most important issue is “jobs, jobs, jobs” is not enough.  What kind of jobs do we need and what sacrifices would we make to get them?

And it’s also time to recognize government’s role in the economy as the biggest single customer, the provider of the social safety net, and the entity responsible for building roads and bridges.  It is overly simplistic to oppose government spending on the grounds that government has grown too big. 

The recession seems to have imposed the “new mediocre” on us.  To avoid that fate may require new leadership.