The Progressive Fix

The Permanent Campaign: 31 Primaries Down, 19 To Go

Thirty-one states have now held their 2014 primaries, and all but one of those 31 have finished their runoffs as well (the exception is not, as you might guess, a southern state, but California, where the November general election is technically a “top two” runoff).  There’s nothing on tap next Tuesday, but a lot of activity the following week: primaries in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington on August 5, then Tennessee on Thursday, August 7, and Hawaii on Saturday, August 9.

The competitive Senate primaries in that batch are a GOP tilt in KS, where veteran incumbent Pat Roberts is holding a healthy but possibly shrinking lead against conservative activist Milton Wolf, and a special Democratic primary in HI to complete the term of the late Daniel Inouye, where interim Sen. Brian Schatz is facing a serious challenge from Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.  Tea Party types also hope Joe Carr, campaigning almost exclusively on the immigration issue, could throw a scare into Lamar Alexander in TN.

Next week we’ll focus on general election developments, and perhaps some early 2016 speculation or polls.

The Permanent Campaign: Upset in GA

It’s safe to say the CW yesterday was that Rep. Jack Kingston, who’d led most polls since the May primary and seemed to have the upper hand in the perpetual “who’s most conservative” sweepstakes, would dispatch businessman David Perdue in the Georgia GOP Senate runoff, albeit perhaps by a less comfortable margin than imagined a month ago. Abysmal turnout (it came in at under 10% of registered voters) was expected to help Kingston over the hump, given his more motivated and SE GA regional base. But instead Perdue won by a margin just outside the maximum that would have triggered a recount.

To put it simply, Kingston did not get the lion’s share of votes cast for the three major defeated primary candidates in metro Atlanta, even though two of them (Karen Handel and Phil Gingrey) endorsed and campaigned with him.  It appears Perdue’s heavy runoff advertising outside metro Atlanta was more effective than Kingston’s heavy advertising in the big metro market.

While most observers wrote off the result as the sort of upset that can occur when a nasty and negative campaign turns off many voters, at least one–Kingston backer and right-wing opinion leader Erick Erickson–attributed it to Perdue’s shrewd attack ad on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s support for “amnesty.”  The Chamber supplied the bulk of Kingston’s resources during the runoff.

Downballot, the two House “constitutional conservative” members who lost in the Senate primary in May will both be replaced by likeminded firebrands in heavily Republican districts. State legislator Barry Loudermilk crushed former congressman Bob Barr in Phil Gingrey’s GA-11, and Baptist minister/radio talk host Jody Hice comfortably defeated Mike Collins in Paul Broun’s GA-10. A con-con trifecta was avoided when state senator Buddy Carter edged “Dr. Bob” Johnson in Kingston’s GA-01, where elevated turnout probably helped Carter.

In one more interesting downballot runoff, the GOP contest for state school superintendent, a supporter and an opponent of Common Core fought to a near tie, with the opponent, Richard Woods, up by 700 votes.  A recount is likely.

Immigration Conversation with Australian MP Andrew Leigh

This morning the PPI hosted a breakfast and conversation with special guest, Andrew Leigh. 

Leigh is an economist and Member of the Australian House of Representatives. He is also the Australian Labour Party’s Shadow Assistant Treasurer. In 2011, Leigh received the “Young Economist Award” from the Economics Society of Australia.  Leigh served as a PPI Fellow en route to earning a PhD in public policy from Harvard just over a decade ago.

He spoke on the topic, “Growth and Diversity: The Economics of Immigration in Australia and the United States.” Leigh believes the two countries have much to learn from each other about raising living standards amid rising ethnic diversity. 

Download a copy of his remarks: MP Leigh Speech on Growth and Diversity, Immigration in Australia and the United States.



The Permanent Campaign: Primary Season Marches Through Georgia Again

Thanks to its charming tradition of requiring majority votes for party nominations (and for that matter, for general election victories), Georgia’s holding a very lively, if not necessarily well-attended, set of runoffs today. The state usually holds runoffs within three weeks of primaries. But for complicated reasons Georgia created a nine-week runoff campaign this year that has led to a particularly nasty Republican Senate contest which will leave the winner at least temporarily broke even as Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn sits on a large treasury and (at least temporarily) a lead in most general election polls. The basic story of the Republican Senate fight has been that two Establishment candidates (business executive David Perdue and eleven-term U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston) have spent an awful lot of money rebranding themselves as (to use Mitt Romney’s phrase when he was in similar circumstances) severely conservative. Most of Perdue’s money has come from his own deep pockets; most of Kingston’s, at least during the runoff, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The two managed to croak three more credentialed right-wingers in the first round, but have spent nearly every moment since trying to expose each other’s starboard flanks.  Kingston has been more successful in attracting conservative validators, including former primary rivals Karen Handel and Phil Gingrey. He’s gone to especially great lengths to trash Common Core education standards (which he’s called “Obamacare for education”), supposedly a big Chamber priority. But Perdue has responded with a late campaign tying Kingston to the Chamber’s support for “amnesty,” a very hot topic of late. Both candidates have adamantly adopted the Ted Cruz position on debt limit increases.  It’s hard to find any serious issue differences between them, or between them and the Tea Folk (though both try to change the subject when impeachment of the president comes up).  It’s basically come down to whose ideological smears you believe or discount, and to geography and turnout. Kingston led most early runoff polls by double-digits, but the race seems to have tightened up of late.  Turnout is expected to be terrible, which probably plays to Kingston’s strength in having a powerful geographical base in the coastal First District, where he won 75% of the vote in the first round.  (Perdue’s base is essentially people who watch a lot of television). But nobody’s betting much on the outcome. With three House incumbents vacating safe Republican seats to run for the Senate, there were big fields producing runoffs in all three districts.  As it happens, there are clearly established “constitutional conservative” runoff candidates facing more conventional conservatives in each. The closest thing to a sure winner is con-con Barry Loudermilk in Gingrey’s 11th district, who ran well ahead of former congressman and Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr in May, carrying even Barr’s old Cobb County base.  Con-con Jody Hice, a fiery Baptist minister and radio talk host, has been endorsed by incumbent Paul Broun in the 10th district; he ran slightly ahead of business owner Mike Collins in the first round. And in Kingston’s 1st district, which is likely to have (relatively) elevated turnout, the favorite has been first-place primary winner and state senator Buddy Carter. But nobody would be that shocked if he loses to con-con Dr. Bob Johnson, who’s been endorsed by Sarah Palin and has benefited from Club for Growth attack ads labeling Carter as a “liberal.” Should all three constitutional conservative House candidates win, that would make five straight House wins for the Tea-affiliated, counting last week’s results in Alabama and North Carolina. Movement conservative types would also probably take credit for a Kingston win. We’ll have results and analysis tomorrow.

Reclaiming the most powerful tool of reform: Constitutional amendments

At a time when observers across the political spectrum agree that the machinery of American government is broken, the single most powerful mechanism for repair appears to be effectively off the table: the passage of new amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Yet this might be the only solution that could bring about sustained change and reform.

Indeed, the amending process could be used to authoritatively address a range of persistent institutional challenges. Amendments could clarify ambiguities in presidential war powers and the use of recess appointments. They could reform or abolish the electoral college, allow naturalized citizens to run for president, enhance voting rights, and create a framework for campaign finance reform. They might enact congressional term limits, or curb lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices at a time of ever-lengthening lifespans. The amending process could also be used to address thorny subjects such as the scope of social and economic rights and the nature of separation of church and state.

Of course, the immediate objection to the idea of amending the Constitution is that it is simply too hard to achieve in times of political division. And it’s true that the Framers did insulate their handiwork from quick or easy change. The most commonly used formula for amendment requires the support of two-thirds of each House of Congress and then ratification by three-quarters of the states. This high hurdle demands consensus that is both broad and deep, including bipartisan supermajorities in both Houses as well as the agreement at least 38 states. More »

The Permanent Campaign: Four Battles in GA

We’ll have a full preview on Tuesday, but political junkies should be aware that next Tuesday is a big Republican runoff day in GA, with a Senate and three U.S. House nominations (the three House seats currently represented by Republican Members who tried to step up to the Senate, only one of whom survived the May 20 primary) on the line. In all four, there’s a reasonably clear ideological cleavage, though nobody running in GA could plausibly be called “moderate.”

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a career appropriator, has managed to seize the high ground in the Senate race as the presumed “true conservative,” being endorsed by former right-wing rivals Karen Handel (the third-place finisher in May) and Phil Gingrey and RedState’s Erick Erickson (he had earlier nailed down heavy backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), and led early runoff polls against first-place primary finisher David Perdue, who’s run the classic Mitt Romney “citizen-entrepreneur” campaign.  The race seems to be tightening up, but Kingston remains the favorite.

In GA-01, the runoff to replace Kingston, first-place finisher and “Establishment” figure state senator Buddy Carter is a narrow favorite over self-styled Tea Party firebrand Dr. Bob Johnson.  Johnson has been endorsed by Sarah Palin.  As with other runoffs, conservative underdogs could be helped by low turnout.  In GA-10, a similar runoff matches businessman and solid citizen Mike Collins and fiery Christian Right figure Jody Hice, a Baptist minister and radio talk show host. And in GA-11, state senator Barry Loudermilk, a big-time “constitutional conservative,” is favored over former Rep. and former Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr.  Loudermilk is another recipient of the Palin imprimatur.

If all the “true conservatives” prevail, that would be six straight wins for party insurgents counting last week’s runoffs in AL and NC.  So once again, the common narrative that this is the year of the Republican Establishment is in question.


Giving up on economic growth?

Growth should be at the centre of the social democratic agenda. Raising levels of economic security and equality are important goals, but it’s economic growth and innovation that allow high living standards and generous welfare states to be a reality

The “5-75-20” essay covers a lot of territory and offers centre-left parties many sensible governing ideas. In the end, though, this pudding lacks a theme – a convincing idea for how progressives can capture the high ground of prosperity.

The essay does prescribe something called “predistributive reform and multi-level governance,” but it’s hard to imagine rallying actual voters behind such turgid abstractions. I doubt Orwell would have approved of a word like “predistribution,” which clearly has an ideological agenda, even if the agenda itself isn’t so clear.

The term seems to promise a political response to inequality that doesn’t involve more top-down redistribution, which makes middle class taxpayers queasy. What it means in practice, however, is vague. Beyond essential public investments, do governments really know how to manipulate markets to produce more equal outcomes?

Before we go down this murky trail, let’s ask ourselves: Are we responding to the right problem? As Europe and America emerge slowly from a painful economic crisis, what is the main demand our publics are making on progressive parties? In the United States, anyway, the answer is: create jobs and resuscitate the economy. Since 2008, voters have consistently ranked growth as their overriding priority.

I can’t speak for Europeans; perhaps they are more concerned about inequality or sovereign debt or immigration or climate change. There’s no doubt, however, that Europe’s recent economic performance has been even worse than America’s. Both suffer from what the economists call “secular stagnation” – slow growth in plain language.

According to the OECD, average GDP growth across the EU was a scant 0.1 percent last year, compared to 1.8 percent in the United States. Unemployment averaged nearly 12 percent in the eurozone, versus 7.3 percent here (it’s now down to 6.3 percent, though U.S. work participation rates have plummeted). For young people, the job outlook is catastrophic: 16 percent of young Americans were out of work; 24 percent in France, 35 percent in Italy, and 53 percent in Spain. Only Germany (8.1 percent) among the major countries is doing a decent job of making room in its economy for young workers.

Progressives have yet to furnish compelling answers to anemic growth, vanishing middle-income jobs, meagre income gains for all but the top five percent, and social immobility for everyone else. Such conditions have radicalised politics on both sides of the Atlantic, sparking the tea party revolt in America and helping populist and nationalist parties make unprecedented gains in the recent EU elections. Populist anger over unfettered immigration, globalisation, and the centralising schemes of elites in Washington and Brussels has surely been magnified by pervasive economic anxiety.

The essay argues plausibly that the “new landscape of distributional conflicts and deepening insecurity” gives progressives a chance to channel voters’ frustrations in more constructive directions. It calls for new welfare state policies to win over the “new insecure,” the 75 percent who are neither the clear winners or losers of globalisation. But it says surprising little – and not until the last bullet ‒ about how progressives can boost productive investment, encourage innovation and put the spurs to economic growth.

This is emblematic of the centre-left’s dilemma. Our heart tells us to stoke public outrage against growing disparities of income and wealth and rail against a new plutocracy. Our head tells us that social justice is a hollow promise without a healthy economy, and that a message of class grievance offers little to the aspiring middle class.

What progressives need now is a politics that fuses head and heart, growth and equity, in a new blueprint for shared prosperity. But some influential voices are telling us, in effect, to give up on economic growth.

Lugging a 700-page tome called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the French economist Thomas Piketty has taken the US left by storm. In advanced countries, he says, “there is ample reason to believe that the growth rate will not exceed 1-1.5 percent in the long run, no matter what economic policies are adopted.” What’s more, growing inequality is baked into the structure of post-industrial capitalism, and is likewise impervious to policy.

Some progressive US economists, such as Stephen Rose and Gary Burtless, have challenged the empirical basis of Piketty’s gloomy prognostications. According to Capital, middle-class incomes in the United States grew only three percent between 1979 and 2010. But the Congressional Budget Office, using data sets that take into account, as Piketty does not, the effects of progressive taxation and government transfers, found that family incomes rose by 35 percent during this period. That’s not a trivial difference.

Still, no one on the centre-left denies that economic inequality has grown worse in America, and that it demands a vigorous response. But progressives ought to be wary of deterministic claims that the United States and Europe have reached the “end of affluence” and must content themselves with sluggish growth in perpetuity.

Nor can anyone be certain that a return to more robust rates of growth would merely reinforce today’s widening income gaps. That’s not what happened the last time America enjoyed a sustained bout of healthy growth, on President Clinton’s watch. Let’s take a look back at what happened in the bad, old neoliberal ‘90s.

During Clinton’s two terms, the US economy created nearly 23 million new jobs. Over the latter part of the decade, GDP growth averaged four percent a year. Tight labour markets sucked in workers at all skill levels. Unemployment fell from 14.2 percent to 7.6 percent, and jobless rates for blacks and Hispanics reached all-time lows. The welfare rolls (public assistance for the very poor) were cut nearly in half, while about 7.7 million people climbed out of poverty. Military spending declined, the federal bureaucracy shrank, the IT and Internet revolution took off, trade expanded and Washington even managed to run budget surpluses.

Not too shabby, but how were the fruits of growth divided? The rich did very well, but few seemed to mind because everyone else made progress too. Median income grew by 17 percent in the Clinton years. Average real family income rose across-the-board, and actually rose faster for the bottom than the top 20 percent (23.6 vs. 20.4 percent.) This was genuine, broadly shared prosperity, and it’s not ancient history.

Now, it may well be that a new growth spurt won’t immediately narrow wealth and income gaps. But a sustained economic expansion would make it easier to finance strategic public investments in modern transport and energy infrastructure, in science and technological innovation, and in education and career skills. It would help progressives avoid drastic cuts in social welfare and maintain decent health and retirement benefits for our ageing populations. And, it would allow for a gradual winding down of oppressive public debts.

Nonetheless, many US progressives seem preoccupied instead by questions of distributional justice, economic security and climate change. They want to raise the minimum wage, tax the rich, close the gender pay gap, stop trade agreements, revive collective bargaining, slow down disruptive economic innovation, and keep America’s shale oil and gas bonanza “in the ground” to avert global warming. This agenda is catnip to liberals, green billionaires and Democratic client groups, but it won’t snap America out of its slow-growth funk. It energises true believers, but won’t help progressives appeal to moderate voters, who hold the balance of power in America’s sharply polarised politics.

Increasing economic security and equality are important goals, but it’s economic innovation and growth that makes high living standards and generous welfare states possible. Without them, the progressive project grows static and reactionary, rather than dynamic and hopeful. Progressives, after all, ought to embrace progress.

This articles forms part of a series of responses to the Policy Network essay The Politics of the 5-75-20 Society.


The Permanent Campaign: Going Hard Core Conservative in the South

While the Alabama result from yesterday’s GOP congressional runoffs was no surprise, and the North Carolina result only a mild upset, it’s still interesting that in similar situations well-positioned Republican Establishment candidates lost very badly to “constitutional conservative” rivals.

Indeed, the two winners–Southern Baptist minister Mark Walker in NC and long-time right-wing think tank president Gary Palmer in AL–are sort of archetypes of the kind of candidates that have spearheaded the “constitutional conservative” surge in the GOP.  And since both will replace (presumably, though Walker has a viable Democratic opponent in a district Mitt Romney won with 58%) longstanding conventional conservative warhorses in the House (Spencer Bachus in AL and Howard Coble in NC), the results confirm a slow-but-steady generational transformation of the GOP by activists who seem determined to reach back beyond Reagan-style conservatism to revive the spirit and even the substance of the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign.

Every time candidates like Walker and Palmer win primaries, it increases the pressure on other Republican pols to watch their starboard flanks a little more closely.  Some refuse to go along (viz. Thad Cochran in Mississippi and to a lesser extent Lindsey Graham in South Carolina), and the rightward lurch is less notable outside the South, the Plains, and the Mountain West.  But it’s still the predominant trend in the GOP.

There will be another test of the trend next week in GA, when outspoken “constitutional conservative” candidates are in runoffs for three House districts.

The Permanent Campaign: Mini-Tuesday

Today’s primary menu is limited to runoff elections in Alabama and North Carolina, with one congressional race in play in each state.

The two races have a lot in common: Republican Establishment candidate (Rockingham County D.A. Phil Berger, Jr., in NC-06, and State Rep. Paul DeMarco in AL-06) experiencing jitters over the possibility of an upset by a conservative champion (Christian Right minister Mark Walker in NC and activist Gary Palmer in AL)  in a low-turnout runoff.  While Berger is a reasonably heavy favorite, Palmer (who is benefiting from Club for Growth spending) could well beat DeMarco, giving the Tea Folk another scalp.

Looking ahead to next Tuesday, there are growing signs the GA GOP SEN runoff is tightening after Rep. Jack Kingston opened up an early post-primary lead over David Perdue.  The race has gotten notably nasty, which is good news for Democrat Michelle Nunn.  And in the same state, the relatively placid governor’s race has heated up after the leaking of a 2012 state ethics commission memo reporting that incumbent Nathan Deal’s staff was applying pressure to make allegations against Deal “go away.” This could provide an opening for well-funded Democratic nominee Jason Carter.

The Permanent Campaign: Big Issues In Court

There will be runoff elections in Alabama and North Carolina Tuesday with one GOP congressional runoff in each, but we’ll profile those low-key events next week.  Some of the biggest developments affecting future campaigns–though probably not this cycle’s–are taking place in courthouses in Florida and North Carolina.

Florida state judge Terry Lewis tossed out that state’s entire congressional district map based on the conclusion that two egregiously gerrymandered districts violated the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2010.  The ruling will be appealed, and it’s too late to implement it in any event for this cycle.  Additionally it’s all based on a Florida-only constitutional provision.  Still, given how rarely political gerrymandering is addressed by the courts, and Florida’s status as offering a gold standard for pro-GOP map-drawing in a purple state, it’s a big deal.

Meanwhile, in NC federal judge Thomas Schroeder has been holding a hearing on a petition for a preliminary injunction to halt implementation of that state’s new and state-of-the-art bill restricting ballot access.  This is the first big legal test on voting rights in the South since the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Shelby County v. Holder all but invalidating the Justice Department’s right to “pre-clear” voting changes affecting minority voters in states with a history of discrimination.  The NC law’s voter ID provisions haven’t taken effect yet, but its restrictions on early voting, same-day registration, and voting in the wrong precinct but the right county, will all have a tangible effect on minority turnout–unless the judge strikes them down or there’s a voter backlash.