Monthly Archives: November 2011

When “Newt”cessity Becomes the Mother of Invention

As longtime readers know, my goal in writing these posts is to try to use political science, (loosely defined – often it’s more my political intuition) to make sense of political events as they happen. That means that rather than  foist my  political viewpoint on you in the guise of independent analysis, I try as much as possible to use past events as a means of understanding current issues and to try to predict future outcomes.  The weakness of this approach, however, is that the effort to ground the analysis in a reading of history can blind one to unexpected developments. In this vein, consider Newt Gingrich’s unexpected (to most pundits) climb to the top of the Republican leaderboard. Despite the recent barrage of negative media coverage, the latest national polls  continue to show him edging slightly ahead of Mitt Romney, and Tuesday’s national security debate, if the pundits are to be believed, probably didn’t hurt his standing, although we can’t as yet be certain whether his more moderate approach to immigration will cost him Tea Party support.

 Moreover, he has climbed to the top of the polls in Iowa, largely due to Tea Party support, and has moved into second place in New Hampshire, albeit a distant second based on most polls to Mitt Romney. Here are the current Iowa standings, based on the Realpolitics composite poll tracker (Gingrich is green, Cain red and Romney purple).

Here’s what is interesting about Gingrich’s unexpected success: he is doing it without much in the way of boots on the ground.  Rather than engage in the type of meet-and-great retail politics that the experts tell us is a prerequisite for doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich so far has engaged in an unconventional campaign “of ideas” based on using social media and public debates  to get his message out.  According to the Des Moines candidate tracker ,  Gingrich has obtained front-runner status in the Iowa polls despite his campaign holding far fewer events – 86 so far – and Newt making fewer appearances (48) than either Rick Santorum (226 events, 76 appearances) or Michelle Bachmann (114, 58), both of whom languish near the bottom of the Iowa polling pack so far (Santorum is brown and Bachmann black in the chart above).  Similarly, Mitt Romney is a close third in the Iowa polls, although he has so far had very little presence in the state – in fact, he has visited the state even less frequently (18 and eight) than Newt, although that may change in the next few weeks.  So far, at least, it appears that polling in Iowa is not simply a function of the relative scope of the candidates’ ground games.

It is too early, of course, to draw firm conclusions.  But in pursuing his unconventional strategy, Newt appears to be trying to bypass the traditional nomination gatekeepers, particularly the party politicos and media opinion leaders who wrote the Newtster off after his campaign staff largely deserted him last summer.  Indeed, they now appear flummoxed by Newt’s rise from the political ashes, and his apparent staying power despite recent revelations regarding his financial ties as a lobbyist to the government-backed mortgage firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Newt’s belated effort to back away from his initial, er, “fib” that he was hired as a “historian” seems not to have hurt him at all.

Gingrich’s rise to front-runner status raises an interesting question: is his campaign strategy based on social media, debates and direct communications the way of the future?  Conventional wisdom says the best way to get voters to the polls is by having the campaign infrastructure in place to wage a door-to-door campaign.  Whether by choice, or by necessity, Newt seems intent on defying this wisdom.  If Newt is right, he will retrace the footsteps of previous innovators, like Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 was the only candidate to grasp the importance of doing well in the early events in Iowa and New Hampshire.  He did partly out of necessity, since he lacked the resources to go head-to-head with the better known candidate in the larger primary states.  Similarly, Barack Obama invested heavily in smaller caucus states in 2008 because he recognized he could not beat Hillary Clinton in the larger primary states.  In politics, as in life, necessity is often the mother of invention.

It is too early to evaluate whether Newt’s unconventional approach will become the model for future campaigns, or instead will fail to translate polling support into actual votes and delegates.  Keep in mind that other “innovative strategies” (remember Giuliani’s decision to skip Iowa and New Hampshire in 2008?) didn’t turn out so well. If Newt does win the nomination, however, it will be another illustration that political scientists are usually right – except when they aren’t.

Note: my colleague Bert Johnson and I are posting on the web short (8-10 minutes) discussions of the current campaign. If you are interested in hearing our unscripted (and therefore more entertaining) thoughts, our latest is at the Middlebury website here.

In the meantime, have a great Thanksgiving!

Where Was Obama? Why the Supercommittee Really Failed

Where was the President? That’s the question many pundits are asking in the aftermath of the congressional supercommittee’s highly publicized failure to reach an agreement by today’s deadline to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit.  As the clocked ticked down to the final two weeks of negotiations between Republican and Democratic legislators, Obama was overseas on a 9-day meet-and-greet trip with foreign dignitaries.  He returned this past Sunday, just as breaking news stories reported the imminent failure in the supercommittee negotiations.  Rather than intervene to broker a last-minute agreement, however, Obama instead stood by as the budget clock for what many described as the last, best chance to negotiate a deficit reduction package wound down.

The President’s decision not to intervene was merely his final act in a three-month budget deficit drama that saw him content to play a minor role, if that. Although not formally part of the supercommittee’s deliberation, Obama did propose his own $3.6 trillion reduction package early in the deficit negotiations. Thereafter, however, Obama appeared to remove himself from the debate, choosing instead to focus on stumping for his jobs legislation, despite clear signs that it does not have the votes to pass Congress.  By all accounts, he had few contacts with any of the supercommittee members, particular on the Republican side, and seemed content to let the gang of 12 legislators squabble among themselves without any effort to interject himself into negotiations.

As the talks collapsed, many critics characterized Obama’s lack of participation as a significant failure of leadership.   New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg captured these sentiments when he chastised the President for failing to intervene: “The president as the chief executive of the country has the responsibility to make things come together. I understand the problem of partisanship. And the jealousies and the pettiness and selfishness that occur at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But in the end, no CEO would send a proposal and just say, well, let’s see what happens. You sent a proposal and then you go fight for it.”

Rather than a failure to lead, however, Obama’s behavior suggests he has learned a valuable political lesson from this past summer’s highly contentious debt default negotiations.  You will recall that the nation teetered on the brink of debt default until Obama negotiated a last-minute increase in the debt ceiling, paired with a budget agreement that pleased almost no one, but which passed with bipartisan support from mostly moderates in the House and Senate. That agreement, in addition to cutting federal spending by $2.4 trillion and increasing the debt ceiling by an amount sufficient to last beyond the 2012 elections, also created the supercommittee and charged it with finding an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions by today’s deadline.  Rather than reap any political windfall for negotiating a budget deal and averting the debt default, however, Obama instead found himself excoriated by party purists on both the Right and Left.  Progressives in a particular were vehement in their belief that Obama had sold out party principles.  Many thought he should have invoked the 14th amendment to justify raising the debt ceiling without the need for congressional approval, and then stood strong against Republican objections, even if it meant a constitutional crisis.  Instead, they argued, Obama folded (once again!) like a cheap suit.

Almost four months later, Obama faced another negotiating deadline.  Clearly he drew the appropriate lesson from this past summer’s debt ceiling debate: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… . Given the failure to reap any rewards within his own party base for finding common ground with Republicans last August, what possible benefit would it have been for Obama to interject himself once again into what was certainly going to be a replay of those negotiations?  Indeed, with the 2012 election four months closer, and his reelection prospects still no better than 50/50, and this time with no immediate consequences for a failure by the supercommittee to reach an agreement (already Republicans are threatening to rewrite the “automatic cuts” to defense), it made absolutely no sense for Obama to wade into this fight.  Reaching the $1.2 trillion target almost certainly would require significant entitlement reform that would have surely provoked a chorus of cries from the party faithful that Obama had again sacrificed progressive principles on the altar of bipartisan agreement.

Before condemning the President for an ostensible lack of leadership, critics should instead focus on the true culprit behind his decision not to intervene: the purists in his own party who make it so difficult for him to negotiate any concessions that are a necessity for achieving a bipartisan deficit deal.  As long as the Democratic Left would prefer principle to compromise, it makes little sense for Obama to risk his political capital in another round of contentious budget negotiations.  He realizes as well as anyone that the shepherd cannot lead if the flock refuses to follow.

This was not a failure to lead – it was a choice driven by political necessity dictated by his own party faithful.

The Gang’s All Here: Live Blogging The 11th Republican Debate

Big debate tonight – the first one since Newt reached front-runner status, and the super committee called it quits. Tonight’s topic is national security. So, expect lots of questions regarding whether automatic cuts to defense are acceptable, and whether Obama should veto alternatives plans to minimize those cuts.  It’s also an opportunity to see whether Mitt takes the mitts off and goes after Newt, or continues to play the “I’m the frontrunner and can focus on Obama” strategy.  And how does Rick Perry regain his mojo?

As always, feel free to join in.

Wolf Blitzer is our host.  We love his beard.

They are promising a new, interactive format tonight.  Let’s see if the sparks fly.

Notice the new seating arrangement – Newt now has a coveted middle podium.

The national anthem – look, Rick Perry forgot the third stanza!  (That was a joke!)

Let’s see how many points each candidate can make while introducing themselves.

Perry starts out strong, remembering his wife’s name, and when they had their first date.

Cain’s introduction is rather flat – our national security has been downgraded?  It’s not a credit rating!

Bachmann’s shout out to the soldiers is the best of the bunch so far.

And they are off.

Opening question to Newt  regarding amending the Patriot Act, and he makes the distinction between criminal law and national security “law”.  Wolf gives Paul the opportunity to disagree.

On cue, Paul frames the issue as giving up liberty for security.

Newt slaps him down, with a serious kick to the head, in effect saying Paul would let the Tim McVeigh’s of the world do their dastardly deed.  You go, Newt!

Paul is undeterred.  We can be completely safe -by completely giving up liberty.  And they are off.

Bachmann has a nice applause line “outsourcing interrogation to the ACLU”.  No Republican likes the ACLU.

Huntsman plays the U.S. values card, and emphasizes federalism.

Mitt has an opportunity to knock Newt – but instead he gives Newt his props for recognizing the difference between criminal acts and war.

Perry would outsource pat downs by privatizing the TSA.  He’s critical of the failure to spend on intelligence.

Uh oh. I just heard Santorum say you need to profile younger Muslim males.  and the audience applauds.  This is the way to build bridges to the Muslim community.  cue Cain!

(boy, his stock has fallen – he’s the last guy to get a question!)

Wolf won’t let Cain get off without taking a stand on profiling.  (Did he call Wolf “Blitz”?)  Cain rejects the simplistic choice Wolf lays out.

Kagan is a national security specialist, hence the drone question.

Why does Huntsman always talk like his audience is composed of children?  And has he answered Kagan’s question yet?  Ah, finally:  “We need special forces and drones”.  The cheap man’s way to fight terrorism.  Low cost.

Once again,  Bachmann shows her foreign policy chops.  Remember, she’s on the House Intelligence committee. Her response – to keep up aid to Pakistan – will certainly spark a food fight. How will Perry respond?

He sticks to his cut off aid to Pakistan script.  This sparked a real division among the candidates during the last debate.  Let’s see if Gingrich weighs in – last time he backed Perry on this issue, which I thought was somewhat surprising.

Perry advocates something new – a regional trade agreement involving the Pakistan-India region, but I’m not quite sure where he’s going here, and Wolf doesn’t follow up.

Mitt sides with Bachmann, for the most part, in arguing to use aid to leverage Pakistan into “modernity”.   Not sure why anyone is worried about America’s popularity in Pakistan (we are at 12%!).

Where’s Newt on this issue? Instead we get Huntsman, who gets another chance to push his drawdown in Afghanistan policy and nation building back at home.  Romney is aghast – the commanders on the ground want us to slow down the U.S. withdrawal.  Romney stands with the brass – take that, you peacenik Huntsman!

You know Newt is waiting to jump in with a smart, pithy provocative comment.

Santorum is off camera, ready to explode.  He’s the Incredible Hulk – you don’t want to get him mad!

Ah, Newt steps in and, on cue, blames Wolf for bad questions!  Then – boom – his seven-point plan for restoring sanity to our terrorist policy.  Biggest applause of the night!  Newt sounds so confident that it’s easy to swallow his talking points without scrutinizing them.

It really seems as if Huntsman and Paul are the outliers on the Afghan/Pakistan nation.

First Break

Some sharp exchanges, no new ground broken, and no mishaps either, unless you count Santorum’s ringing endorsement of profiling Muslims.  It’s really hard, after 11 debates, for the candidates to change the media narrative very much here. So far, I don’t see much change in the national pecking order as result of the first 45 minutes here.  Let’s see if the audience questions stirs the pot.

Part II.

Great opening question –  should we help Israel attack Iran to eliminate nuclear weapons?  Question goes to Cain.  As always, he would consult with his experts.  Surprise – if he thinks the plan would succeed, he’d back it.  Going out on a limb, aren’t you Herman?

Paul says “it’s none of our business” if Israel wants to bomb Iran.  Sometimes you can push this libertarian thing a bit too far.

Not clear to me why Iran’s mountainous terrain mitigates against an Israeli strike, but Herman is on a roll.  He wants to talk Afghanistan, but Wolf is bored. Back to nukes and Iran.

Stop the presses! Newt praises a question from Wolf!  Newt wants to talk strategy, not tactics.  Not quite sure what the difference is, but Newt lays out the hierarchy of policy options.  Both Newt and Bachmann are for oil independence.  Oh, by the way, Obama is an appeaser.

Wow, this is an allstar lineup of neocons asking questions.  Here’s Paul Wolfowitz! He tosses Rick Santorum a softball about aid to Africa, and Rick doesn’t miss.

How about it, Herman – can we afford aid to other nations?  Herman: it depends. (He’s going to consult his experts, I bet).  Aid is good if it works, but if it doesn’t, it is bad.  Foreign policy really isn’t Cain’s strong suit.

Paul is pulling his best cranky uncle impression, railing against foreign  aid.

Romney turns it around to defense cuts – I was wondering when this would come up.  Paul’s not buying it – nothing is going to be cut. (Much applause).

Mitt is passionate about aid to Israel!  If elected, his first foreign trip will be to Israel.

Newt goes on another strategy rant again.  It sounds so easy when Newt spews out his talking points.

Wolf tries to pin him down – will he bomb to prevent Iran going nuclear.  Newt: yes, but only as a last resort, and as a means of changing regimes.

What is it about Huntsman that makes it so hard for Republicans to like him?  Thoughts?

Ok, first question on the supercommittee, and it goes to Perry – this should be fun! It’s of the “when did you stop beating your wife,” variety.   Perry decides to answer a different question – Wolf asks if he would work with Democrats.  Perry instead attacks Obama for….for what, exactly?  Not quite sure – I think he’s referencing Obama’s veto threat.  And he calls out Panetta – the point is so hard to follow that Wolf seems not to get what Perry is saying.  Neither does the audience.

Wolf goes back to the question (working across party lines to reduce the deficit), and Perry uses it to tout his making Congress a part-time body.  Again, no audience response.  Wolf wants someone to step up and say they would make a deal with Democrats for a deficit reduction package.  It’s a silly question because everyone will say “It depends”.

Another supercommittee question, and a good one: what entitlement reform proposal would they make.  Tailor-made for Newt. Let’s see his response.   He touts the Chile privatization program.  Democrat opposition team are taking notes for the general election.  Newt says reform can be done without imposing pain. If only it was that easy.

Bachmann goes back to the debt ceiling debate, and pushes the balanced budget amendment again.  (Hint, Michelle: it just got voted down by your own House).


Lots of well-dressed people in this audience. Good Republicans, no doubt.

(@jahd – tweet!  I barely have time to blog!  If you catch me tweeting, you have permission to shoot me.)

(@Will – Agreed. No More Promises to Lead.  Also, can we stipulate that everyone on the panel agrees that Obama’s been a disaster, and spare the anti-Obama tirades? It would save a lot of time.)

Ok, we are back.  Another well-dressed questioner.  Let’s get a domestic border question.   This is an obvious question for Perry.  He has to have an answer teed up for this.

He does – a 21st century “Monroe Doctrine”.  Had Perry come prepared with these talking points when he first launched his candidacy, he’d be leading.  More than any other candidate, he proposed the most far-reaching policy proposals in the last few weeks: an amateur Congress, a Monroe doctrine, zeroing out foreign aid, even debating Nancy Pelosi.  All easily grasped, crowd-pleasing, media attractive talking points.  He just keeps rolling them out.  But so far, not much to show for them.

(@Conrad – It’s not clear to me that Huntsman’s nuanced talking points are gaining him traction with voters.  He’s basically trailing the pack, although he has shown signs of life in New Hampshire.  But if you are right, why does he not pick up support among the voters?)

Here’s a question – is Wolf really that short, or is it all the camera angle?

And how do they decide who to isolate on when they go to a split picture view?

Ok, here’s Newt on immigration.  Remember, he backed an early immigration bill that included a version of amnesty, which will almost certainly will come up.   The fact is, Newt has a very moderate views on immigration – this is his potential achilles heel.  He’s really very moderate on lots of issues and it is only a matter of time before the second-tier Republicans like Bachmann begin calling him on this.

And she  does – and Newt actually criticizes another Republican!  He embraces elements of the Dream act, and chastises  Bachmann for draconian views on the topic.  She turns the table well here by essentially saying Newt’s immigration policy attracts illegal immigrants.  Let’s be clear here, Newt’s moderate views on immigration do not sit well with the Republican base.  Mitt piles on here.

The first open attack on Newt.  Let’s see how he responds. And Newt doubles down on allowing illegal immigrants with strong community ties to stay in this country.   This is a courageous – or foohardy (or both) position to take in a Republican nominating fight.

Newt is standing alone here – Perry sides with Mitt against “amnesty”.  It is going to be really interesting to see whether the media, in their desire to create controversy, fastens on this difference as the takeaway point of this debate.  Fact is, Newt’s stance, while “humane” is also one easy to characterize as “amnesty” which sends up huge red flags for Republican voters.  Trying to finesse this issue, as George Bush discovered, is a bit like claiming to be a little bit pregnant.  No one buys it.

part IV.

Another well-dressed neocon questioner.  How to handle Syria?  Cain – please don’t tell me you’ll consult with your experts!   He doesn’t, to his credit.  Instead, he turns  to discuss economic growth, and says he will reject Perry’s idea for a no fly zone – but doesn’t say why not.

The “no fly” zone Perry is proposing is another of his recent policy proposals that are both catchy and crowd friendly ideas.

(The problem with Huntsman, I think, is that he has asymmetric eyebrows. No one likes asymmetric facial features.  Unless it’s on John Belushi).

How will Paul deal with an Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia.  Paul uses the question to attack Perry’s no fly zone (it’s an act of war).   Paul’s foreign policy is really stolen from Dear Abby: MYOB!

(Does anyone remember Dear Abby?)

Mitt continues to focus on attacking President Obama – not his fellow Republicans. Wolf tries to pin him down – does he support Perry’s no fly zone?  Romney says no – he wants a “no drive” zone.  Syria is using tanks on citizens, not planes.

Perry – let’s get Serious about Syria. Say that three times fast.

Great final question: future hotspots?

Santorum: spread of socialism in Central America.  Shades of Reagan! Before you know it, those socialists will be crossing the Rio Grande.

Paul: Avoid overreaction.  (translation: Mind Your Own Business!)  The Taliban are just like us!

Perry: How to deal with Communist China?  They are destined for the ash heap of history.

Romney:  Long-term China, short term Iran, but don’t forget our borders.

Cain:  did you know he was a ballistics analyst? He’s worried about cyber terrorism.

Gingrich: nukes in cities, electromagnetic pulse, cyber attack.

Bachmann: losing the peace in Iraq. And the threat of terrorism in the U.S.

Huntsman:  Joblessness.   It’s called….etc…….

And that’s it!  Two hours and I can say there were no clear winners or losers. Let’s see what the spinmeisters declare.

Good performances by all.  Maybe Huntsman did particularly well, while Cain was not so impressive.  But the immigration issue will probably lead the news, with Newt getting singled out.  Otherwise Gingrich was strong, as always.  Perry also did well.   Santorum and Bachmann also impressed.  Really, this was a good debate with no obvious gaffes. But the media has to have a talking point, and that is likely to be the Gingrich “amnesty” proposal.

This is one of those issues that will play well for Gingrich in the general election, especially among Latinos, but it may cost him support in the Republican nominating fight.

Summary:  I don’t think anything happened here tonight that will change the current pecking order, unless there’s an unusually heavy backlash against Gingrich for his amnesty policy. But this doesn’t mean the debate wasn’t informative – it was.  Clear differences emerged among the candidate, although they have much in common as well.  In the end, however, this isn’t a foreign policy election, so I tend to think debates that focus on national security issues tend to have less impact on the race than do debates on domestic economic issues.  At best, these debates are useful for helping voters assess whether they can envision these individuals as commander in chief. With the possible exception of Cain and perhaps Paul, I think all of candidates pass the smell test in this regard.  In this regard, Gingrich has already passed the first test that previous co-leaders Bachmann, Cain and Perry failed – he didn’t immediately fumble his lead away in the first debate after achieving front-runner status.  (I’m assuming there’s not a wholesale backlash against him for the amnesty comment.)

Six weeks and counting to Iowa.

Ok, I’ll be on tomorrow – there’s lots of other issues to talk about, and I’ll try to get to them as well.








Why The Failure Of The Supercommittee Is Not A Bad Thing

If media reports are correct, it appears that the congressional “supercommittee” will fail to reach its midnight Monday deadline to specify how it would trim at least $1.2 trillion from the budget deficit during the next decade.

This is probably a good thing.

(Technically, the committee has until Wednesday to reach agreement, but any plan has first to be on the table for 48 hours for review and to allow the Congressional Budget Office time to “score” the proposal.)  The immediate reason for the failure is that, in an election year, the purported cost of not reaching a deal pales in comparison to the political price both sides calculate they would pay at the polls come November if they actually negotiated a substantive compromise that really reduced the deficit.  Instead, both sides are gambling that they will be better positioned to negotiate a year from now.

In my view, this is a gamble worth taking.  What’s that, you say?  How can the decision to postpone a deficit reduction be good news? A bit of background is in order: you will recall that the 12-member bipartisan congressional committee was created as part of the negotiation that ended, at least for the moment, last summer’s debt default crisis. Under the agreement, the supercommittee, composed equally of six House Representatives and six Senators, was supposed to develop a deficit reduction plan by this Wednesday.  Assuming at least 7 of the 12 committee members agreed, that plan would then go to the full Congress to face a simple up-or-down majority vote in each chamber by December 23, with no option to amend the bill or filibuster it in the Senate. If Congress voted down the plan, automatic spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion, divided equally between defense and non-defense programs, would kick in.  Crucially, however, those non-defense spending cuts would not touch the biggest budget busters: Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and veterans’ benefits.  At the same time, there is a growing sentiment that deep cuts in defense spending are politically untenable at this moment.  Obama’s own defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has been quietly signaling the administration’s desire to renegotiate the defense budget targets.

And that’s why the plan was never likely to work.  Under the original agreement creating the supercommittee, the automatic deficit reduction plan would not kick in until January, 2013 – or until after the 2012 elections. Under that timetable, neither side really had any incentive to cut a deal, since they could avoid making hard choices and suffering the associated political costs until after facing the voters.  Remember, unlike during the debt default debate, a failure here triggers neither a government shutdown nor a debt default and a drop in the nation’s credit rating.  So, for most members it is easier to point fingers at the other side, knowing full well that the “automatic” procedures will then kick in to “force” across the board budget cuts that may be cuts in name only.  Each side can then play the blame game heading into November, and then use the election results as a referendum with which to replay the budget debate.

With hindsight, we should not be surprised that Congress’ effort to legislate by, in effect, tying their own hands, has not worked. Congress has a history of failed efforts to institute internal procedures designed to force them to pull the trigger on hard political choices that they were otherwise unwilling to undertake.  Think back, for example, to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings (GHR) act Congress passed and Ronald Reagan signed into law in the 1980’s in order to curb burgeoning deficits.  The procedure, passed in 1986 and revised after a constitutional challenge in 1987, mandated across-the-board budget cuts (sequestration) if Congress and the President failed to reach agreement on budget reduction targets. For the first few years after passage Congress was able to jerry rig the deficit accounting process to avoid triggering the automatic cuts, but by 1990 when it appeared that no amount of creative bookkeeping could avoid sequestration, Congress instead negotiated a new budget agreement with President Bush that served as a crucial down payment on deficit reduction.  That ultimately led, when followed by the Clinton tax increases, to short-lived budget surpluses.  (Not incidentally, by breaking his no new taxes pledge, the 1990 budget agreement also was a significant factor in Bush’s defeat in 1992).

The point, and it is one that Newt Gingrich delights in making on the stump, is that no effort by Congress to make hard choices through automatic procedures is likely to succeed if Congress lacks the political will to enforce the agreement.  And in the case of the supercommittee, it is quite clear that both Democrats and Republicans would prefer, in an election year, to bear the political recriminations of failing to reach a deal over actually making difficult choices that would almost certainly alienate key elements in their respective political coalitions.  One needs only to turn on the television, and see the paid political advertising by groups like the AARP, which is threatening electoral retribution on any member of Congress who touches Medicare benefits, to understand why the supercommittee was only too glad to put off making difficult decisions.

My point here is not to say the parties negotiated in bad faith, or that the entire process was a charade. In fact, I think members in both parties hoped that they might get the other side to see it their way, at least enough to come to some type of agreement.  And, in truth, both sides were willing to make significant concessions.  Democrats agreed to make some budgets cuts, and Republicans did, if media leaks are to be believed, agree to some revenue increases, albeit primarily through changing the tax code. There were even reports that both sides had agreed on a plan to means-test Social Security benefits. But ultimately the ideological divide which undergirds Republican’s resistance to tax hikes and Democrat’s opposition to cuts in entitlement programs proved too big to bridge under the current political climate. No legislative procedure could overcome that political reality.

To be sure, both sides may yet negotiate a smaller face-saving agreement.  On Friday, Republicans reportedly floated a smaller $640 billion deficit reduction package that includes some revenue increases, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Democrats leak their own mini-reduction package in response.  But I would be shocked if both sides suddenly agree to a plan that meets the $1.2 trillion target and avoids triggering the automatic cuts.

If, as I expect, the supercommittee fails to reach an agreement, both sides will engage in full-scale damage control and finger pointing, and the media will doubtless partake in another bout of handwringing about our “dysfunctional” Congress. But while that plays well with the public, I think it is probably the wrong message to take from the supercommittee’s failure. The debate over the budget is really a debate over political values and the future direction of the nation’s budgetary policy.  It is not a debate that should be resolved by legislative gimmicks that allow members of Congress to avoid making hard choices, and from being held accountable for those choices by the voters.  And, in fact, in the next several months legislators will face several more difficult decisions, including whether to extend unemployment benefits and whether to allow payroll tax cuts now in place to expire. In the meantime, legislators from both parties now have an opportunity to prepare their case in the run up to what is shaping up to be the most consequential national election in several decades.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the 2012 elections will send an unambiguous signal regarding how to address the nation’s budgetary woes. In the 2010 midterm elections, however, we saw how a grass-roots Tea Party movement rooted in opposition to government bailouts, increased spending and growing deficits produced one of the biggest partisan reversals in the post-World War II era.  More recently, similar anti-corporate sentiments spawned the “occupy Wall St.” movement which may yet develop into a potent electoral force.  Who knows how these sentiments will play out in 2012? With so much at stake, I’d rather take my chances with the electoral process than have members of Congress hide behind legislative gimmicks designed to provide political cover.

The supercommittee (apparently) has failed.  Let the real debate begin!

It’s Newt Hampshire!

I teased this story in today’s first post, but it’s worth a closer look:  a Magellan Strategies automated poll released today shows Newt Gingrich in a statistical dead heat with Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. Romney garnered 29% in the poll, Gingrich 27%, followed by Paul at 16% and Cain at 10%. (The interviews were conducted November15-16, and the poll has a 3.6% margin of error). A month ago Magellan had Romney polling at 41% while Gingrich was mired in single digits.

It’s hard to overstate the significance if this poll holds up.  Romney has counted on New Hampshire as his firewall against whoever came out of Iowa’s January 3 caucus with the media momentum, much as Clinton used New Hampshire in 2008 to blunt Obama’s rise.  Should Gingrich win both Iowa and New Hampshire, however, that would essentially force Romney to do well in the southern states where Gingrich would be expected to run strong.

What’s fascinating about this poll is that the respondents included 40% independents. Remember, New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary is open to independents, and with no real Democratic race, they are likely to vote in big numbers in the Republican primary.  Although Romney’s strength is supposed to be his appeal to independents, Gingrich attracted enough polling support to essentially pull into a tie in Romney’s vacation homeland. (Note: since I could only view topline results, and not the crosstabs, I don’t know how much of Newt’s support came from independents and how much from conservatives).  This can’t be good news for Romney who, despite the efforts of the party establishment to declare him the front runner, simply cannot close the deal with conservatives.

Perhaps the most shocking part of the New Hampshire poll is that Newt’s favorable/unfavorable ratings have climbed to 59%/31% – almost identical to Mitt’s!  Except for Ron Paul (at 49/32% with 19% undecided) all the other Republican candidates have higher unfavorable than favorable ratings.  So much for Newt as polarizing figure, at least among likely Republican voters.

When asked why Newt was rising in the polls, 44% cited his depth and knowledge of the issues, with another 10% mentioning his former role as Speaker and 10% referencing his debate performance.

Now for the obligatory caveats.  One poll does not an election make, and as I’ve noted in previous posts, Newt has to show he can transfer polling support into votes – something that is hard to do if you don’t even have staff in the state. In short, this New Hampshire race, as is the nomination, is still wide open. Nonetheless, the Magellan poll is just one more bit of evidence that Newt is on a very big roll, and it makes next Tuesday’s debate suddenly vastly more interesting for all parties. A week ago, there wasn’t even a race in New Hampshire.  Now, we can’t take Mitt winning for Granite.