Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New Leader?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is up for reelection in Nevada next year.

A few days ago, Rasmussen reported polls showing Reid trailing the following two potential Republican challengers:

  1. Sue Lowden, a former state senator, who chairs her party in Nevada.
  2. Danny Tarkanian, a real estate businessman. Tarkanian's surname is well known in the state. His father, basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, was the successful, if controversial, head coach at University of Nevada -- Las Vegas for 18 years.

In Politico, Glenn Thrush analyzes the implications of what would be the second defeat of a Senate Democratic floor leader in a six-year period.

The Republican Party found itself in an interesting situation in South Dakota, in 2004. With a strong candidate, John Thune, running against Tom Daschle, who was then the Senate Democratic leader, the Republicans were like sharks smelling blood in the water.

In politics, as in baseball, the side spending the most money doesn't necessarily win. But, when what was arguably the highest national office held by any Democrat at that time at stake, in an election in which fewer than 400,000 people voted, the Republicans poured relatively massive amounts of money into South Dakota. The Democrats were forced to respond in kind, but their expensive defense of the Senate seat was unsuccessful. That was when Reid took over his party's leadership in the upper house.

Nevada is quite a bit more populous than South Dakota, which isn't saying much. But Nevada is still only the 35th most populous state, based on 2008 estimates.

The two Democratic senators named in the Politico article as potential successors to Reid, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York, come from what are, of course, two of the most populous states.

I wonder whether, in the wake of the Daschle defeat, and the Reid defeat, if it comes to that, the parties in the Senate will turn to the larger states in choosing their leaders. Perhaps they won't want to repeat the experience of having a few thousand voters in a small state able to decapitate their party at the national level.

Since the 1950s, Senate leaders have come from such large states as Texas, California, Illinois and Pennsylvania. But in addition to South Dakota and Nevada, small states such as Montana, West Virginia, Kansas and Maine have also produced party floor leaders.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Aftermath of German Election

On this day after the German general election, the world is analyzing the results, and their impact on the future of Germany and, by extension, of the region in which it is the largest country, i.e., the European Union's part of Europe (which excludes the largest country in all of Europe, which is Russia).

Yesterday, I noted that the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) had their worst result in any post-World War II general election. But that does not mean that the vote total of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, grew. It was in fact down slightly from the last election, in 2005.

The more ideologically focused parties were the ones who gained. The Free Democrats (FDP), known as "liberal" in Europe, saw their vote total increase significantly. That sense of "liberal" is closer to what we call "libertarian" in the U.S., than to our meaning of "liberal". Two parties that position themselves to the left of the SPD, the Left Party and the Greens, also did well.

A similar urge to clarify ideological differences among parties seems to have taken hold in America over the last few decades. Here, the Republican and Democratic parties are more clearly identified as the conservative party and liberal party, respectively, than they were 4o years ago or so. Apparently, the Germans don't find the same degree of clarity, between the CDU and SPD. So they have turned to smaller parties, a trend that is not reflected in voting patterns in the U.S.

This New York Times report might constitute at least a partial explanation for that phenomenon. It notes the CDU's traditional identification as a Roman Catholic party, in which the Protestant Merkel is a sort of odd-person-out. Perhaps, in this more secular age, such an identity for a party fails to attract a large part of the electorate.

Again, I see a similarity to the U.S., where the Democrats were traditionally seen as the party of Jewish and Roman Catholic voters, while the Republicans were the Protestant party. Of course religion still plays a role in American politics, but in a different way. Now, regular churchgoers, especially those of a more fundamentalist hue, are more likely to vote for Republicans than for Democrats. But that's different from the traditional-my-denomination-vs.-your-denomination basis for partisan rivalry. These days, voters are more likely to back whichever party at any given time has a message that attracts them, than to stay loyal to the party that corresponds to their forefathers' religious affiliation.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

German Result

The results of today's German general election are in. The Christian Democrats (CDU), for the second consecutive time, will be the largest party in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament. The difference is that, this time, the CDU and the Free Democrats (FDP), the preferred coalition partner of the CDU, together have enough seats to form a coalition government. By contrast, after the 2005 election, the CDU was forced into a "grand coalition" with the second-largest party, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

The reports so far, largely based on exit polls, show a slim majority for a CDU/FDP coalition, but most media outlets seem to believe that the result will hold.

The German Federal Republic (BRD, in German) is 60 years old. It constituted the government of West Germany from 1949 to 1990, and of all Germany since then. During those years, the most common form of government has been a CDU/FDP coalition, most recently from 1982 to 1998, with Helmut Kohl as chancellor (head of government).

Now, the current chancellor, Angela Merkel of the CDU, will head such a coalition. It will be her first time at the head of a center-right government.

The SPD, in part because a breakaway faction has combined with eastern German ex-communists to form a new Left Party, has made its worst showing in the history of BRD elections.

Germany will join France and Italy as major European powers with center-right governments. And the United Kingdom is expected to follow suit by next June. It will be interesting to see whether that results in economic reforms, especially as recovery continues from the recent recession.

One major issue is whether they will loosen regulation of labor markets, which many believe has been the main cause for unemployment rates in continental Europe that, even in economic boom times, have been higher than in the U.S. and Britain.

Angela Merkel is personally popular in her country, with poll ratings that exceed those for her party as a whole. She lacks charisma. The same can be said of those most prominent among the other CDU chancellors, Kohl and Konrad Adenauer. That may well be a backlash in reaction to Germany's experience with the man who was arguably the most charismatic politician of all time, Adolf Hitler.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Reagan and Buckley

Welcome to the unveiling of the latest selection of the Bill Buckley Book Club.

Unlike the volumes I reviewed here and here, this one, The Reagan I Knew, was written by William F. Buckley, Jr., himself.

There is very little original material in this book. When he was near death, Buckley wrote a handful of chapters to tie together a collection of his past writings and speeches about Reagan, along with correspondence between Buckley and both Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

But the correspondence is quite interesting, shedding light on both the witty personal relationship between them, and the exchange of political ideas.

Buckley excoriates Kitty Kelley for her allegations in an unauthorized biography (sorry, The unauthorized biography) of Nancy Reagan, including Kelley's tale of a supposed affair between Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra. But, in Buckley's book, we find out that he wanted to be in the place that Kelley's alleges Sinatra held. In letters reprinted in the book, Buckley repeatedly invites Mrs. Reagan to a tryst in Casablanca! She expresses interest, and her supposedly old-fashioned husband seems resigned to the idea, but the affair apparently never takes place. One supposes Buckley was (partly) kidding.

The correspondence shows that Reagan and Buckley's respect for each other did not wane when they experienced disagreements. One of their most public disagreements regarded the treaties by which the U.S. gave the canal and the Canal Zone back to Panama. Buckley favored the treaties, while Reagan opposed them. That was the subject of a formal debate between the two men, on Buckley's TV show, Firing Line.

Another point of contention was Reagan's enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament, which Buckley did not share. Buckley joined with many conservatives in a sigh of relief, when Reagan failed to bargain away most of the American nuclear arsenal, during his summit meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1986 at Reykjavik, Iceland.

If you pass up this book, you'll never find out to which dangerous diplomatic posting Reagan secretly appointed Buckley, and the shocking way in which Reagan said he dealt with a photographer who accidentally found out the secret!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Senator Kirk

Governor Deval Patrick, Democrat of Massachusetts, has appointed Paul Kirk as the temporary replacement for Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate, pending next January's special election.

Kirk, 71, is a lawyer who chaired the Democratic National Committee from 1985 to 1989. He had been an aide to Kennedy in the 1970s.

This completes the process I described here and here, by which Massachusetts Democrats changed their collective mind about the advisability of such gubernatorial appointments. One of their party's senators has called those appointments undemocratic. While this one might not be democratic, it is certainly Democratic.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

German Election -- Five Days Away

This year's German general election, scheduled for next Sunday, is similar to the two most recent such elections in at least one respect. The Christian Democrats (CDU) have gone into each of those campaigns with a significant lead in the polls, only to see that lead either shrink or disappear by election day.

The CDU's leader, Angela Merkel, is currently the chancellor (head of government) heading up the so-called "grand coalition" government with the second largest party, the Social Democrats (SPD). If she had her druthers, Merkel would instead form a government with the Free Democrats (FDP), a smaller party to which the CDU is ideologically closer. In 2005, the combined number of seats won by the CDU and FDP was not enough to constitute a majority.

Up to now, with the CDU leading in the polls, and Merkel personally popular, the consensus has been that Merkel would remain as chancellor, and the only open question (not an unimportant one, but one that doesn't lend itself to electoral drama) is which party(ies) would be included in her new coalition.

Now, this report from Time seems to indicate that the situation is so volatile that Merkel could lose the chancellorship to the SPD's candidate, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, although that still seems unlikely.

Here is an opinion piece from the English-language edition of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. Writing from a left-wing perspective, Dirk Kurbjuweit criticizes coalition-building among ideologically disparate parties. He instead advocates something that the SPD has until now ruled out, a coalition with the Left Party, which is a combination of eastern German ex-Communists, and western German defectors from the SPD. I don't share his ideology, but I agree that parliamentary democracy functions best with a strong government, and a strong opposition party, facing each other in the parliament. A grand coalition of the two largest parties detracts from that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

2010 Senate Elections

I've written about some of the individual races, but in this post I want to back up and look at the situation as a whole.

There are currently 59 Democrats and 40 Republicans in the Senate, with one Massachusetts seat vacant. Massachusetts will fill that seat by special election on January 19, 2010, and a Democrat will probably win that one.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, is expected to resign her Senate seat, in order to concentrate on her candidacy for governor. As I described here, that would also trigger a special election that will be out of the way before the November elections.

So, the expectation is that, going into the November 2010 elections, the split will be 60 Democrats and 40 Republicans.

Republicans seem to have regained momentum, so the question on many people's minds right now is whether they can make significant gains in the mid-term congressional elections.

Some of the biggest gains by Republicans have been 1994, when they gained nine seats, 1980, a gain of 12, and 1946, a 13-seat pickup. Large Democratic gains have included 2008 (eight seats), 1986 (eight seats), and 1958 (13 seats in the existing 48 states, plus three in the new states of Alaska and Hawaii).

While the Republicans may well make gains next year, I don't think they can become the majority party again, quite so soon. They would need to make a net gain of 11, for a total of 51 (if it were 50-50, Vice President Biden would decide the matter in favor of the Democrats). As the figures cited above show, such a gain would not be unprecedented.

But taking a quick look at the individual races (without getting very scientific and looking at polls, the identity of potential challengers, etc.), I identify only seven states where a Republican gain looks at all likely:

New York (Gillibrand)

And here are six, where Democrats could take over Republican seats:

New Hampshire

The Republicans' best bet is to try to string together cumulative gains in consecutive election cycles. That's what the Democrats did in 2006 and 2008, with a total gain of 14. Republicans picked up 15 seats in 1978 and 1980. And, further back in history, in the mother of all winning streaks, the Democrats went from a 39 to 56 deficit at the time of Herbert Hoover's landslide presidential victory of 1928, to a 76 to 16 majority, eight years later. Democratic gains (not including left-wing third parties) were eight in 1930, 12 in 1932, 10 in 1934, and seven in 1936.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Senator Dukakis?

The lower house of the Massachusetts legislature has passed a bill allowing Democratic Governor Deval Patrick to appoint a U.S. senator on an interim basis, to replace the late Ted Kennedy.

Apparently, the legislature is similar to the federal Congress, in that there are more blocking mechanisms available to the minority party in the Senate, than is the case in the House. (Democrats have huge majorities in both houses.) But the bill is expected also to pass the Senate, after only a brief delay.

The name of former Governor Michael Dukakis is often mentioned as a candidate for the appointment. The bill does not prevent the appointee from running in the subsequent special election, but Patrick plans to extract a pledge from any prospective appointee to refrain from running.

Michael Falcone analyzes Dukakis's chances, in Politico. Falcone quotes an anonymous source who makes an interesting comment, that the appointment is "Dukakis’s to lose". That's what most people were saying about the presidency, after the Democratic National Convention of 1988 nominated Dukakis for that office. He, of course, did lose that one. When it comes time to finalize the appointment, will Patrick succumb to doubts about Dukakis, as so many voters did 21 years ago?

The appointment will terminate after the January 19, 2010, special election, so Dukakis or another appointee will not have a long Senate tenure. The main issue is whether the vacancy will be filled before the Senate votes on a health care bill. A Democratic interim senator would put that party's membership in the upper house back up to 60, which is the magic number to break a filibuster.

Democrats still need to compromise on that legislation with moderates in their own party. And they might snag a moderate Republican or two. But the position of Majority Leader Harry Reid, and other Democratic leaders, will be strengthened if the Republicans don't have enough votes on their own to block a bill.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


More than six years after Jesse Ventura left the governor's office in Minnesota, professional wrestling is attempting a political comeback. Linda McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, has resigned that job, and announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate from Connecticut.

The incumbent is Christopher Dodd, who has represented the state in Congress since 1975, first in the House, and, since 1981, in the Senate. The 65-year-old Dodd has garnered much publicity recently, not all of it favorable. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination last year. The senator uprooted his family, and settled them in Iowa for some months, in the leadup to that state's caucuses. Some in Connecticut criticized that move. Voters tend to realize that a member of either house of Congress must spend a lot of time in Washington. But, for someone whose job was to represent Connecticut in Washington, living in Iowa seemed a bit far afield.

Dodd chairs the Banking Committee, so he has been heavily involved in handling the financial crisis. That has had a net negative effect on his reputation, largely because he has been criticized for rescue plans that have allowed financial institutions to continue to pay bonuses to their employees.

During Ted Kennedy's final illness, Dodd acted as chairman of the Health Committee, so he has also been heavily involved in the health care debate. Senate rules prevent him from permanently chairing both committees, so Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin is Kennedy's permanent replacement as Health chairman.

McMahon, 60, has never sought elective office until now. However, earlier this year, she was appointed to the state's Board of Education by Governor Jodi Rell. McMahon's husband Vince is the public face of WWE, but media reports describe Linda McMahon as the brains of the operation.

Rob Simmons, 66, a former congressman, appears to be the front-runner among other candidates running in the Republican primary. Polls have shown him ahead of Dodd.

Health Care 2

In the previous post in this series, I argued that the federal government's role in health care should be decreased, contrary to the will of the Democrats in Washington.

But what about the much-talked-about soaring cost of health care? We're constantly told about the higher and higher percentage of GDP that is consumed by that type of expense. To the extent someone other than the consumer (i.e., employers and other taxpayers) is paying the bill, that is a legitimate concern.

That's why I want to minimize the degree to which health care consumers aren't directly faced with the costs they incur. To the extent the consumer bears the cost, either through out-of-pocket payments, or insurance (with premiums that fully reflect the exposures that are covered) that is structured only to cover large, unexpected expenses, then that consumer should be able to spend how much, or how little, he or she wants. If they want another MRI, or elective surgery, that should be up to them. If that results in U.S. aggregate health care costs being x% higher than in other countries, that would reflect people's exercise of free choice with their own resources, and shouldn't be considered to be A Problem.

What about people who are deemed to be uninsurable by commercial insurers? In other words, the pre-existing condition issue. One answer would be for government to subsidize what, in other lines of insurance, is called an assigned risk plan. That's kind of like the so-called public option, but that seems intended to be available to anyone who thinks their current coverage is too expensive. These assigned risk plans should only be available to people with chronic conditions that put them outside the underwriting guidelines of the private insurers.

If a public option were broader than that, it could put all private-sector competitors out of business. With the backing of the federal Treasury, and the political will to give voters the impression that they're getting something for nothing, political forces would push the public option to offer terms against which no private entity that is subject to market forces could compete. That is the sense in which those of us who are critical of President Obama on this issue believe that he would be introducing socialized medicine by stealth.

Obama says "if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance through your job ... nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have." That may be true in a narrow, legal sense. And that's the way that a law professor turned legislator turned government executive, such as Obama, would look at it. But, those of us who have competed in the private business world can see how market reality can trump political rhetoric.

Those who cannot afford to pay for health care on that basis should receive government assistance to obtain care. I have no detailed plan for that, and the details of such a thing do tend to be tricky. Ideally, it wouldn't weaken recipients' incentive to take a job, or a better job, by abruptly withdrawing benefits when the person's income exceeds a certain level. In other words, the negative income tax principle, where the benefits decrease according to a sliding scale as the income increases, should be applied.

Government should never have started paying for the medical care of elderly people who can afford to pay for it themselves. Medicare, started by Democrats 40-some years ago, and greatly expanded by Republicans earlier in this decade, has always been a mistake. We shouldn't abruptly withdraw Medicare from current beneficiaries, but it should be phased out, as soon as is feasible.

Government would necessarily play a role in setting prices, in those areas in which it would still be involved, under my proposal. But, I consider it important to minimize the extent to which a free market is inhibited in that way.

When government imposes a maximum price on any good, that is below the price that would be produced by supply and demand in a free marketplace, shortages ensue. When the market price of oil rose above the maximum price imposed by the federal government in the 1970s, we waited in line to buy gasoline. I, for one, don't want to wait in line in a similar manner, for medical care.

It's always tempting for politicians to play with the price mechanism in that way, to appear to be benefiting the buyers of the affected products and services. And, when they want to placate the sellers (e.g., farmers), they've been known to set minimum prices, and thereby produce gluts.

In the health care debate, with Obama and other politicians talking about reducing costs, the pressure is clearly on, to distort the price mechanism. If they leave us all waiting in line, it will be difficult to see how that has improved the system.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Health Care

In my opinion, we should decrease the involvement of the federal government in health care, rather than, as President Obama advocates, increasing that role.

Expressing opinions on the issues of the day is not the main purpose of this blog. But I consider this to be an important issue, on which the president and Congress appear to be heading in the wrong direction, so I will make an exception, and offer up my opinion.

Obama and his allies argue on the basis of what I consider to be a false assumption. That assumption is that, up to now, the health care industry has been controlled by the private sector, and that greater public-sector control is needed. I will argue that that analysis has it backwards. The federal government has been calling the shots for years, and the answer is to decrease that involvement.

During World War II, two forces that cannot easily coexist, were present in the U.S. economy: 1) government-imposed wage ceilings, and 2) a labor shortage. After many years of high unemployment, the combination of the military draft, and the war-related growth of manufacturing, all of a sudden left employers scrambling to hire workers.

How would a free labor market respond to such a situation? Wage levels would rise, to induce into the labor force those who are less inclined to take a job. The wage controls prevented that remedy from working. But markets are persistent things, and they usually find a way around government controls.

It was at that time that employers first started providing, on a large scale, compensation in kind for such services as health care for employees and their families. Some of us are old enough to remember when those were called "fringe benefits". In the meantime, those benefits have moved in from the fringe, and taken center stage.

That method of increasing compensation, without increasing cash compensation, kept both the government and market forces happy.

Wage controls have been imposed only sporadically since 1945. But the concept of non-cash compensation is perpetuated via the tax laws. If an employer pays cash compensation to an employee, and that employee uses it to pay for health care, that compensation is subject to personal income tax. But, if the employer provides compensation in the form of health care coverage, in a manner that is in line with the tax laws, that compensation is not taxable to the employee.

That is the sense in which I say that the federal government has been controlling health care for many decades. Those tax incentives have caused employers to provide health care coverage in that manner, even though their doing so makes no economic sense.

For one thing, it brings about an overuse of the insurance mechanism. One of the fundamental tenets of insurance theory is that insurance is not an efficient mechanism for financing routine expenses. Making an analogy to auto insurance, it makes sense to buy an auto policy, in case a tree falls on your car tomorrow. If the car is totalled, the owner doesn't want to have to unexpectedly come up with several thousands of dollars, in order to replace it.

But no one buys insurance to pay for oil changes. If you know that an expense is coming up two or three times, or whatever, during the year, you can budget for it. If a car owner paid for routine oil changes via insurance, it would cost more than it does when he pays for them out of his own pocket. Insurance premiums need to be large enough, on average, in the long run, to pay for claims, plus the expenses of insurers, agents, government regulators, etc., who implement the insurance policy. If an oil change costs $75, for example, it would probably cost about $100 or so to cover it with insurance. Obviously makes no sense.

Yet, we use insurance to pay for the health-care equivalent of those oil changes. Health care plans often cover routine physical exams. If you know you're going to get a physical once a year, you're overpaying for it, if insurance covers it, rather than the patient paying out of his or her own pocket. The tax incentives cause that to make financial sense to employee and employer, even though it makes no economic sense for the country as a whole.

Therefore, Congress and the president should equalize the tax treatment of employer-paid and employee-paid health care. But Obama wants to go in the other direction, and increase the prevalence of employer-paid care. In his recent address to Congress, the president advocated that "businesses ... be required to either offer their workers health care, or chip in to help cover the cost of their workers."

It would be difficult for the politicians to implement my proposal. Currently, covered employees have the illusion of getting something for nothing. Even though they pay a small percentage of the premium, if that, the remaining cost is not really free. As the late Uncle Miltie (Friedman, not Berle) would say, if he were still around: There's no free lunch.

To the employee, it would seem as though they're now required to pay thousands of dollars a year, for something that previously had been "free". In an ideal world, the politicians would explain to the voters the economic realities of the situation. They would discuss the concept that, if labor markets are able to operate freely, in the long run, those employees' compensation will reflect, in cash, the same total compensation they had previously received between cash and benefits.

But politicians generally seem unwilling and/or unable to do that. Therefore, we go on with policies that superficially appear to help people, but actually prove to be harmful, if rigorously analyzed. That's why we have minimum wage laws and other forms of price control, with their attendant gluts and shortages; tax disincentives for saving; and employer-paid health care.

OK, but what about soaring costs? People who can't afford health care? Stay tuned.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Election Night

I have previously expressed in this blog my admiration of the old British TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus. One of their sketches that is relevant to this blog is their parody of BBC election night coverage of a British general election.

These days, we political junkies can watch the real thing on C-SPAN, and I have been doing so since, I suppose, 1992. I was surprised by how close the Python version was to reality. In each constituency serious candidates stand next to an opponent from the Silly Party (with an outrageous costume and a silly name), while an officious local grandee reads out the result. The only difference between reality and the TV version is that the actual name is the Monster Raving Loony Party.

A large part of the charm of the British ceremony is that the official vote count in each constituency is completed on election night. By contrast, it's typical in the U.S. for the news media to immediately gather data from individual polling places, but for the official count to be delayed by several days, while reports are sent in to the state authorities, from local election officials. Or, in the case of one recent U.S. Senate election, delayed for a further several months by judges.

That British procedure allows for the ceremony described above to be held in each constituency on election night, or early in the morning thereafter.

But now that great tradition is in peril! Some local authorities want to wait until the next day to count and report the votes. Looking to conserve the tradition, as seems fitting for a Conservative, the Tory chairman, Eric Pickles (no, that's not a Monty Python character, that's his real name) wants to prevent such procrastination, according to this BBC report.

I'm certain that Screaming Lord Sutch, the late Monster Raving Loony leader, would turn over in his grave, if his successors were deprived of their right to participate in the election-night show.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Wild Card

Politico reports that Andy Card, who was White House chief of staff during the first few years of George W. Bush's presidency, might run in the Republican primary for the Senate special election in Massachusetts.

It seems unlikely that any Republican can win that election. But a candidate such as Card, a GOP Establishment figure with strong ties to the Bushes, is, in my opinion, even less likely to prevail than other potential Republican contenders.

Admittedly, that might reflect my bias toward the unconventional candidate I described here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Japanese Coalition

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), landslide winner of that country's general election a week ago Sunday, has formed an ideologically diverse coalition government.

The Japanese situation seems to be similar to that in India, when the Indian National Congress, also known as the Congress Party, began to lose its iron hold on power during the 1970s. Anti-Congress coalitions were formed, with little to hold them together, other than opposition to Congress and its leaders, most of whom have been descendants of independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. With so little common ground, those coalitions were unstable, and only temporarily kept Congress out of power.

The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has, up to now, played a dominant role in its country's politics, similar to that of the Indian National Congress. The new coalition in Japan, which spans the ideological spectrum, seems to be based on opposition to the LDP, more than anything else.

The New York Times report to which I've linked above, describes policy disagreements that have already affected the coalition relationships. It will be interesting to see how stable that coalition proves to be, over time.

The whole reason for forming a coalition is that, while the DPJ now has a hefty majority in the parliament's lower house, the House of Representatives, it lacks a majority in the upper house, the House of Councillors. If the DPJ can continue to gain upper-house seats in subsequent elections, it may not need to worry about a coalition, at all.

Elections to the House of Councillors are somewhat similar to those for the United States Senate. Terms are six years, and there is an election every three years for half of the seats. Therefore, a change in party strength is likely to happen more gradually than in the lower house.

The DPJ's situation in that respect is similar to that of the Democratic Party in the U.S., which won a substantial majority in the House, when voter sentiment turned in its favor in 2006, but only a razor-thin majority in the Senate. Then, the Democrats were able to expand their Senate majority, when more seats came up for election in 2008.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Know Nothings

About 150 years ago, there was a political party called the American Party, who were nicknamed the Know Nothings. You can read here about their platform, which isn't really the subject of this post.

I increasingly fear that the Know Nothing label could be applied to the current leadership of my Republican Party. Widespread Republican opposition to President Obama's first-day-of-school speech to schoolchildren seems to be based mainly on a misunderstanding on the part of those GOP leaders about a president's roles as, on the one hand, head of government, with the related role of being head of his political party, and, on the other hand, head of state.

Obama's school speech is clearly made within his role as head of state. I did not find anything in his remarks about policy questions on which the parties differ. If there's an incipient kids-shouldn't-do-their-homework party arising among the American body politic, it has yet to make its presence known.

He avoided such controversies as the role of teachers' unions and the traditional public funding vs. charter schools vs. vouchers debate. Opponents of federal funding of education could differ with his statement that the head of the federal government is "working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn." But the Republicans can hardly criticize that, in light of their strong support of federal funding when they were in power, earlier in this decade.

Children in school should not be taught to uncritically accept everything a president says or does. When I started school during the 1960s, our country was emerging from an era during which the message was conveyed that something close to such uncritical acceptance was proper. With all that's happened in the meantime, I don't think we need to worry about anyone being indoctrinated with such a message today.

On the other hand, I don't think we want to convey to students the message that they should not listen to the president.

There is plenty of room for legitimate criticism of Obama. But I don't think it does either the country or the Republican Party any good to look for something to criticize in absolutely everything he says or does.

I see it as incompatible with the role of loyal opposition to seek to undermine the legitimacy of the incumbent president as head of state.

UPDATE: Here is a commentary from the U.K., where the roles of head of state and head of government are attached to different offices (queen and prime minister, respectively), agreeing with my argument that a confusion about those two roles in the U.S. (where both of those roles are handled by one person, the president) is at the heart of this controversy.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Not All in the Family

Former Congressman Joe Kennedy has announced that he will not run in the special election to replace his late uncle, Ted Kennedy, as U.S. senator from Massachusetts. That seems to guarantee that the seat, which has been in family hands for all but two of the last 56 years, will no longer be held by a Kennedy. The only other feasible Kennedy candidate, Ted's widow Vicki, had already declined.

New Republican Faces

Politico reports on a crop of Republican candidates for next year, that does not wholly consist of old white men. During a period of intense debate about the best route back toward power for the party that has endured many defeats since 2006, we will see whether this diverse range of candidates will constitute the vehicle to propel the GOP forward on that route.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

William F. Buckley, Jr. (cont'd)

I'm continuing to explore the books that have come out in the wake of the death, last year, of William F. Buckley, Jr.

The latest one I've read is Rick Brookhiser's Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement.

Brookhiser tells a story that I had never heard. Maybe this is the first time he's told it publicly; I'm not sure. When he was only 23 years old, Buckley designated Brookhiser as his heir apparent as editor-in-chief of National Review. Then, shortly before Buckley's retirement from that position, he withdrew the offer.

Brookhiser's resentment about that withdrawal pervades the remainder of this book. After a while, I found myself thinking "enough already", but I suppose that, given the importance of the magazine and its founder-editor to Brookhiser's career, it's understandable.

Brookhiser tells of his work first being published in the magazine as a free-lancing high school student. He followed that up with an internship during college (Yale, of course, would Bill accept anything else?) and a job on the magazine's staff, sometimes full-time, sometimes part-, for many years after he left New Haven.

One thing surprised me a bit. I had sort of assumed that the people Buckley had gathered around himself were devout Roman Catholics, as he was. But his son Christopher (who has become agnostic), in the book I reviewed in that earlier post, described his mother Pat as a not-very-observant Anglican. Now I find out that Brookhiser is a lapsed Methodist.

I am interested in Brookhiser's descriptions of the writer's life, both as a staff writer and as a freelancer. I have ambitions in that direction, but am getting off to a late start (I keep reminding myself that Grandma Moses was past 70 when she took up painting). I can't turn the clock back, and start in high school, as he did, but his description gives some helpful pointers.

If you're interested in American politics of the past four decades; writing and publishing; Bill Buckley; and life in Manhattan (I am, all of them), you'll probably enjoy this book.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

'89 Theses

Sorry for the Lutheran inside joke.

The Washington Post reports on the controversy in the Virginia gubernatorial campaign, regarding some very socially conservative ideas that had been expressed by Republican candidate Bob McDonnell in a master's thesis in 1989.

I suppose the problem for McDonnell is that voters who agree with those ideas (and I'm sure there are a few) are already firmly within the Republican base. Recent statewide Democratic victories have relied heavily on suburban voters in Northern Virginia. Those are probably the voters that McDonnell is mainly going to need to woo, and the least likely to be particularly socially conservative.

Virginia Democrats who are making an issue of this, sound a lot like Senate Republicans when they insisted on the relevance of Justice Sotomayor's speeches from previous years. As usual, politicians are among those who most heartily embrace Ralph Waldo Emerson's statement that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds".

McDonnell continues to have a pretty good lead in recent polls, but the latest polls reported by Real Clear Politics show a little bit closer race than I reported on here.

Red Socks

Can a celebrity Republican candidate break the Democratic hold on Massachusetts politics, the way Arnold Schwarzenegger did in California?

There is talk of former professional baseball pitcher Curt Schilling entering the Republican primary for the special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate.

We in the Philadelphia area remember Schilling from his time with the Phillies, between 1992 and 2000. He got one victory in an unsuccessful attempt to help that team win the 1993 World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Schilling's World Series rings came later, in 2001 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and in 2004 and 2007 with the Boston Red Sox.

During his post-season appearances in 2004, one of Schilling's socks was stained by blood from a hasty repair of an ankle tendon. That gave new meaning to the name "Red Sox".

Can he perform a similar dye job on Massachusetts, turning it into a red state?

UPDATE: Chris Cillizza, in The Fix blog on The Washington Post's website, gives us a jock-free list of potential candidates. I suppose that, like other members of his family, Joe Kennedy has at least played touch football, but that doesn't put him in the same jock category as Schilling.

Another retirement?

Adam Liptak reports in The New York Times that the folks who read the tea leaves around the Supreme Court are speculating that the senior associate justice, John Paul Stevens, might retire next spring.

If so, Washington will go through the Supreme Court confirmation dance for a second summer in a row. As Liptak notes, an Obama appointment would not change the ideological balance on the court, so any nomination is likely to cause only minor tremors, as the Sotomayor nomination did, rather than a major earthquake.

If Associate Justice Antonin Scalia were to leave the court during Obama's presidency, that would bring about a repeat of the type of knock-down-drag-out fight we saw in 1991, when Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Electing Kennedy's Successor

Massachusetts is putting the wheels in motion for a quick special election to choose a successor to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, even though they have not resolved the question of giving Democratic Governor Deval Patrick the power to appoint an interim senator. The primary will be December 8, and the special election January 19.

Apparently, the Democrats' preferred game plan is to have the legislature authorize the interim appointment ASAP, and then go ahead with the special election according to that schedule. Most states that allow for gubernatorial appointment wait until the next regular election day for the special election, but it looks as though Massachusetts won't do that.

A party often looks to a late senator's widow (I don't think they've ever turned to a widower of a female senator but, as the number of women in the Senate continues to rise, that might happen at some point) to serve, at least on an interim basis. But Vicki Kennedy seems firm in her opposition to that notion.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat, is reportedly the first candidate to start the process of filing for the election. Coakley, 56, was a district attorney, before being elected to her current office in 2006.

With Kennedy's widow staying out of contention, speculation regarding the Kennedy family centers on former Congressman Joseph Kennedy II, nephew of Ted Kennedy, and the eldest son of Ted's brother Robert.

New Japanese Government

The New York Times reports further on what I wrote about here, the question of whether the new government headed by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will significantly change their country's economic and foreign policies.

If even the Times says that a party's economic policies are insufficiently pro-market, that must mean that they're way insufficiently pro-market.

I was incorrect in my post to which I've linked above, regarding the DPJ's position in the upper house, the House of Councillors. After making major gains in the 2007 election for some of the seats in that house, the DPJ is the largest party, but lacks an overall majority. They hold 109 of the 242 seats. Therefore, they have formed a coalition that includes the Socialists.

Even though the DPJ will have an overall majority in the lower house, the House of Representatives, they will include the Socialists and others in a coalition government. That will create further pressure to move away from free-market policies.

As I noted here, that is similar to the situation that India's Congress Party had, after it emerged from the 2004 general election as the largest party. It needed to form a coalition with Communists and other leftists, which restrained the tendency that Congress has had since the early 1990s to back pro-market reforms.