Obama Can Buck The Trend

Journalists can be as slavish to precedent as judges. Most media round-ups of the U.S. presidential election stakes begin or devote much space to the fact that unemployment is running high and that no incumbent since FDR has secured re-election with it higher than 7.2 percent.

Binyamin Applebaum provides the perfect example of conventional wisdom with his piece for the New York Times on June 1, in which he asserts: “Seventeen months before the next election, it is increasingly clear that President Obama must defy that trend to keep his job.”

Precedents are there to be broken, though, and elections are littered with examples of campaigns that have bucked trends. Obviously, persistently high unemployment is something that’s likely to hurt Obama – I’m sure he’d prefer it below the magic 7.2 percent number – but it may well be that it isn’t the defining factor this time.

With incumbency and no primary challenger, Obama is already enjoying a couple of distinct advantages.

And he has another major advantage going into the election season that will, I suspect, assist him to buck the trend – namely, the weakness of the opposition. The GOP’s current candidates are about as inspiring as Bob Dole was in 1996, an election that saw Bill Clinton coast to victory on much lower approval ratings than Obama now enjoys.

Clearly, Obama is vulnerable because of the agonizingly sluggish recovery and high unemployment. Twice as many Americans think the country is on the wrong track as the right one and anger is high in key battleground states such as Michigan, Ohio and Florida. Obama will focus no doubt on continuing to try to persuade voters that without the stimulus and the takeover of GM and Chrysler, the economy and unemployment rate would be much worse.

I happen to think he’s right but that, though, is a tough sell and comes down to defending a record rather than pitching forward and presenting new ideas. President Herbert Walker Bush was caught in that trap when he sought reelection in 1992 – in fact the economy was pulling out of recession then but people were not feeling the benefits of recovery and he got blamed for the economic pain.

Obama has another major weakness: he has failed to present a credible plan to cope with the budget deficit, currently running at almost 10 percent of GDP. His suggestion is that higher taxes on the wealthy will sort that out. It won’t.

But where is the Republican that can take Obama’s weaknesses and turn them into GOP strengths? Do they have credible plans for reducing the budget deficit while at the same time coaxing quicker growth and providing the circumstances for more Americans to get jobs?

The governors in the race – Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney – have to be considered the serious candidates. (Sarah Palin, if she runs, and Michele Bachmann are the circus acts.)  But all they do is trot out the line that pleases the Tea Party consisting of slashing public spending and cutting taxes.

Pawlenty has gone off into never-never land in terms of the scale of public spending and tax cuts he wants to see – his plan has prompted groans of disbelief from the Economist magazine, hardly a publication that is in favor of Big Government or high taxes. Aside from ideologues, few respected economists see much to recommend in the bleak solutions being thrown up by the GOP candidates.

They sound like Bush the Younger when it comes to the magic of tax cuts. He claimed that “tax relief will create new jobs. Tax relief will generate new wealth. And tax relief will open new opportunities.” And how did job growth fare? Well, between pre-recessionary 2001 and 2007 America enjoyed the slowest job growth since World War II. Very impressive. And now we have the Republican candidates coming out with the same old, same old unsophisticated supply-side solutions.

Of course, taxes can be too high and in certain economic circumstances and at some points in business cycles tax cuts can be essential. The IMF is recommending them for the UK currently – and that on top of the spending reductions being planned by the coalition government in London. But for America now tax cuts would be unhelpful for economic or job growth.

Bruce Bartlett, a senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House; and deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department during the George H.W. Bush administration, has been trying to explain to his erstwhile colleagues on the right about why that is the case. His latest column in The Fiscal Times scorns Republicans for tending to talk as if there is only one factor that affects growth – namely, tax rates.

As Bartlett points out corporate investment is key when it comes to economic growth. It is worth quoting him in full:  “There’s no evidence that the 2003 tax cut did anything to stimulate corporate investment. Indeed, according to the Federal Reserve, nonfinancial corporations have increased their holdings of liquid assets to $1.8 trillion from $1.2 trillion since 2003. Thus it’s implausible that a further reduction in the corporate rate, as Pawlenty and other Republicans favor, would do much to raise investment.

“The bottom line is that neither taxes nor spending by themselves are the most important government contribution to the investment climate; it’s the budget deficit. Consequently, a reduction in tax revenue which raises the deficit is unlikely to stimulate domestic investment because more money will have to be borrowed from abroad. Conversely, a tax increase dedicated to deficit reduction could well be stimulative, as was the case with the 1982 and 1993 tax increases. Contrary to Republican dogma, rapid growth followed on both occasions.”

Ordinary voters may not think in such terms. Polls suggest that the budget deficit scares the blazes out of them — as it should. But are they going to be convinced that drastically cutting public spending pell-mell is the answer or that making America’s wealthiest people even wealthier is the way forward?

One thing, I suspect, Republicans still don’t get is that they scare the majority of voters far more with their talk of radically changing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And their lack of a plan to overcome the clear and present danger of structural unemployment save a shrug of the shoulders and claiming tax cuts will solve everything by magically promoting economic growth just isn’t going to cut it on the stump either.

An approach that talks about public investment in infrastructure, science, technology and education, structural reforms to boost jobs and growth, the importance of savings, cutting public spending over time and not so rapidly that it will derail recovery, retraining, government in partnership with the private sector is much more likely to resonate with voters.

As the Economist has pointed out recently, the Republican “failure on the deficit” is serious. “The deficit is simply too large to close through spending cuts alone. The overall tax take – at its lowest, as a share of GDP, in decades – must eventually rise.”

Realism is something that Americans are likely to appreciate this time round more than ever. They understand that a crossroads has been reached. So far there isn’t a candidate on the GOP side who is offering honesty to counter Obama’s half-honesty.




Tweeting Weiner: Should He Go Or Should He Stay?

Anthony Weiner’s prospects for political survival have dimmed precipitously in the past few hours with at least six House Democrats calling for him to step down.

Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who holds a senior leadership position on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was the first to say he should quit, although the New York congressman’s prospects looked grim when the Democrat leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, earlier in the week said he couldn’t defend him. Harry has defended seem pretty indefensible things in his time, so his blank counsel to Weiner to phone someone else, if he were considering searching for advice, suggested that the salacious tweeter’s days could well be numbered.

So it hasn’t taken long for House Democrats to decide that they have more to gain politically by calling for Weiner to go rather than refraining in order to see what happens or hoping he would choose to quit without being told to go.

Certainly, there’s little evidence that the media hue-and-cry is going to die down. And why should it? It is great for ratings and allows commentators to offer the well-tried and normally successful mixture of voyeurism and condemnation — a combination that encourages a double quiver of pleasure: we can be entertained by the story while at the same secure pleasure from a self-righteous frown and tut. The UK tabloids the Sun and Daily Mail are brilliant at serving up such fare for their devoted readers.

But in the broad scheme of things should an elected representative quit over such petty stuff? Okay, he lied publicly with his claim that his Twitter account had been hacked. But he didn’t lie under oath during a legal proceeding – Bill Clinton’s great error. Yes, his credibility has been shattered by those bald-faced lies. But credibility can be restored through dint of hard work. Now it is all out in the open he’s not at risk of being blackmailed.  Okay, his judgment is questionable, both for sexting in the first place and how he handled the fallout. But none of that means he can’t be an effective representative for his constituents – and learn from past mistakes.

And surely it is up to local Democrats and his constituents to decide at the next primary and election whether they want him to stay or go, whether they can forgive him or not. That’s what elections are for: that’s where accountability happens.

Those arguing for Weiner’s departure point to the speedy resignation in February of fellow New Yorker, Rep. Chris Lee. He was found to have been soliciting at least one transsexual on Craigslist and sending her a shirtless photo of himself. But Lee is one thing and Weiner another. Lee was all family values in his rhetoric and a tub-thumping social conservative. Weiner doesn’t stand charged with sexual hypocrisy. Even so, I see no reason why Lee had to go – that was his personal choice.

Let’s be clear. The pundits are acting as though Weiner is another DSK. He isn’t. And neither am I suggesting that we should follow the pre-DSK French model whereby the political elite is given a pass on bad, poor or over-the-top behavior.  That model encouraged a widespread sense of droit de seigneur, undermining the droits des femmes. But there is a world of difference between the allegations leveled against Dominique Strauss-Kahn and what Anthony Weiner was up to — and to treat them as though they were equally egregious lacks proportion. Weiner was engaging in reckless flirtation — the modern, online style — while DSK is alleged to have been attempting to rape. The New Yorker is married but the state of his marriage is a private matter.

The voters of New York’s 9th district will have a chance to hold their congressman to account. (And no doubt his wife will hold him to account, too.) Moralists can content themselves with the fact that his high-flying political career will now be flying at lower altitudes, even if he does survive. And he can forget his chances of becoming Mayor of New York. That’s his punishment.


Assisted Suicide — A Moral Case

Ross Douthat plays fast and loose in his New York Times column today, “Dr. Kervorkian’s Victims.” One moment he says there isn’t a moral case for assisted suicide—just one based on an “impulse toward mercy” – and then he suggests there might be one. But then argues that if we acknowledge such a right to suicide, then what’s to stop anyone from deciding to die, even if they are not suffering from a terminal illness.

Of course, there IS nothing to stop anyone deciding to end their life, and most sensible countries long ago decriminalized attempted suicide – India’s Supreme Court two months ago urged the Indian Parliament to “delete” a law that seeks to punish failed suicides, saying it was anachronistic and lacking in compassion.

But suicide is one thing – the person committing it or attempting to do it — is involved in a self-sufficient action. Assisted suicide is something else: others are being asked to help. And so a case has to be made.

My late mother, Barbara Dettmer, who underwent assisted suicide in Switzerland nearly six years ago, would have scorned Douthat’s arguments against assisted suicide. She would have insisted emphatically that it was up to her to decide when and how to go. She would have said it was a matter of civil liberties, common decency as well as compassion. She would have said her physical suffering had earned her the right to ask for assistance to end her life.

She chose assisted suicide after struggling for more than three decades very bravely with crucifying pain. Her multiple, progressive and incurable diseases were not helped by palliative care and her quality of life had been reduced to an appalling existence. Her body was wrecked. She was not terminal but chose to be. Modern medicine has shifted many out of the terminal category and they linger in the incurable one, condemned to a life of suffering prolonged. Some would call it torture.

The Swiss organization, Dignatas, who Douthat sneers at, allowed her to regain her dignity. My mother’s last moments were peaceful – two very sympathetic nurses were in attendance. She had no doubts about what she was doing. My family and I supported her “right” to die because she asked us to and because we accepted the civil liberties case for assisted suicide while also sharing at the same time an “impulse toward mercy.” None of us have had any time, by the way, for the rather suspicious Jack Kervorkian, who is the main target of the Douthat’s NYT column.

Douthat worries that there is too much arbitrariness in deciding who should have the right to undergo assisted suicide and predictably he talks about slippery slopes. But many of the biggest human dilemmas can’t be subject intelligently to a black-and-white mindset. When it comes to assisted suicide it must come down to a matter of individual choice. And we should be humble when someone decides that they want to go through assisted suicide, however painful it is for us.

Obviously, there need to be practical checks and balances and the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, outlined a couple of years ago some fine guidelines for when his department would not seek a prosecution against those assisting others to commit suicide. The emphasis and focus of the guidelines were spot-on and seek to protect the vulnerable from manipulation, coercion and trickery. Factors against prosecution include: the expression of a clear, settled and informed wish by the person electing suicide, who has to be terminally ill or suffering from a severe and incurable disability and degenerative condition.

See Assisted Suicide category for other posts on this subject.