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Is the White South About to Overplay its Hand?

I haven't had much to say on the ongoing debate about whether the Democrats can or should write off the South, other than Florida, for purposes of the presidential election this year.

If the question is framed as, "Should the Democrats write off the South?," my reaction is, No, of course not.

First -- and this is not an original thought -- there is not a bright line between the South and the North, and South-like areas such as Southern Ohio (aka Kentucky), central Pennsylvania, and much of Missouri will be as central to Democratic aims of winning those states as the industrial cities with which they are identified.

Second, there will always be surprises, and in a close race, there is sure to be at least one non-Southern state that looks promising and turns out not to be, and possibly a Southern state, such as Louisiana, that suddenly turns out to be the Democrats' to win. A totally non-Southern strategy doesn't leave much room for error or opportunity.

Third, Democrats must win at least two of the Senate races in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, and an active presidential campaign in those states will help.

Fourth, and most important though least cynical, the South is the locus of the greatest suffering in this country, the worst education and health care, the dirtiest water, the lowest-paying jobs and anti-union policies, the sharpest racial and economic inequalities. For the Democratic Party to give up its claim to represent and improve the lives of the people of this region would be to give up its soul.

Mathematically, though, the fact that that no Democrat has won the White House without winning at least five Southern states may belong to the realm of history more than prediction. Formerly competitive states such as California and Illinois have become more comfortably Democratic, and once Republican strongholds such as Arizona and New Hampshire are moving into the swing state category, making it possible to imagine that in the last two weeks of October, when finite resources such as the candidates' time and the last few million dollars are being allocated, it may make perfect sense to assemble an electoral majority without the South and border states, again excepting Florida. Without explicitly writing off the South, there is still a plausible scenario in which Kerry wins without any of its electoral votes.

But the very fact that there is such a possibility raises a far more interesting question: What does it mean to the South that a Democrat can win without it? Has the White South overplayed its hand? Is it in danger of losing its grip on American politics? And what would follow from that, not necessarily in 2004, but in the near future??

WARNING: Hugely oversimplified history and wild speculation ahead:

For the purposes of this question, I'm not talking about The South as a whole, but a separate category, which I'll call the White South. By this I mean the reactionary, economically powerful, white and now almost entirely Republican forces that have governed the region for decades. I obviously don't mean the African-American voters or leaders in the South, and I also don't mean those elected officials or other leaders identified with the "New South," such as Terry Sanford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Mary Landrieu, etc. Among current elected officials, I mean most of the Southern Republicans, plus Senator Zell Miller and perhaps a few House Democrats who haven't switched yet. Elected officials of the White South are those who can or do win office without much of the African-American vote.

Since the end of Reconstruction in 1876, the White South has held the balance of power in American politics pretty reliably, with few interruptions. (The interruptions, such as LBJ's maneuver from the inside to break the obstacle to voting rights and civil rights laws, are major events.) The White South is very much a minority, but the most privileged minority in our history. And how did it achieve that status? By manipulating its electoral and congressional power so as to be always in a position of control. For example, for most of the 40s,-early 70s, political scientists agree, Congress was dominated by a "conservative coalition" made up of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans. If you look at an old version of the yearly Congressional Quarterly Almanac, you'll see the votes broken down not just by party, but by "Conservative Coalition" vs. those outside of the coalition, because that was seen as a more accurate way to understand ideological breakdowns than party label.

After LBJ essentially broke the Conservative Coalition, the White South began the maneuver by which it maintained significant power for another 30 years -- the slow move toward the Republican party. Beginning with Strom Thurmond's switch in 1964, the White South ramped up its influence within the Republican party while still keeping a heavy thumb on the scales of the Democratic Party, so that it could not form majorities without their consent. As liberalism took hold of the Northeast and Midwest, Nixon's "Southern Strategy" meant as much to the White South as it did to Nixon: It gave the White South power within the Republican coalition. Now its power was not just congressional, but incorporated the White House as well, on both sides. Republicans Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush won the South, and the only Democratic presidents since Thurmond's switch were Southerners, albeit "New South" liberals.

In the Reagan years, the Conservative Coalition became something like a Sunbelt Coalition, with Southern "Boll Weevil" Democrats, such as Phil Gramm, joining California and Mountain State conservatives, as well as Northern Republicans, to push through the 1981 tax cuts. And even into the Clinton years, despite having a majority in both Houses of Congress, Clinton's ability to achieve anything depended on placating nominal Democrats such as Richard Shelby of Alabama.

(Liberal Democrats who complain about Zell Miller often seem to me to have little sense of historical perspective. It is not so long ago that Gramm, Trent Lott, Shelby and others were Democrats, and when they switched, they did not go from the right side of the Democratic Party to the left side of the Republican Party, as might be expected with ideologically aligned parties, but invariably shot straight to the farthest right corner of their new party. That would not happen today: With the exception of Miller, if the most conservative Democrat, probably John Breaux of Louisiana, were to switch (which he wouldn't) he would certainly take up with the moderate Republicans such as Senators Voinovich and Snowe with whom he has been most comfortable collaborating.)

On to 1994. At this point, the White South took its stand principally within the Republican Party, elevating Gingrich, Armey, DeLay and soon Trent Lott into positions of power. But still, it was a coalition: Southern Republicans like Gingrich depended on support among Northern moderates like Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, who were mostly just tired of being kicked around by Democrats. And at that point, almost the last few Democrats like Shelby and Billy Tauzin joined the Republicans, all but completing an alignment of party and ideology that makes such artificial constructs as the "Conservative Coalition" no longer needed to understand Congress. Of course, it was also a disaster. The "Contract with America" triumphalism, which led to the shutdown of government, and later the impeachment, strengthened Clinton at Gingrich's expense, and in the 1998 mid-terms, the African-American vote in the South was substantially higher than in previous years and helped elect John Edwards and three Democratic governors in the Deep South.

With the election of Bush, whose aggressive rejection of his father's Northeastern and Ivy League conservatism makes him the first president to come out of the tradition of the White South since Woodrow Wilson, the White South finally found its dream: it dominates national politics unchecked. It no longer holds the balance of power: Bush, Rove, DeLay, Lott and then Frist hold power, period. And the agenda of military spending, tax cuts, corporate subsidies, minimal social provision, and hate cloaked in religious/moral language, occasionally colored with populist rhetoric unrelated to the policies, which sometimes seems so strange to students of true conservatism, is not unfamiliar to the South. It is the same gruel that conservative Southern governors have been dishing out for dozens of years. The idea that government is an alien and oppressive force, while remaining dependent on military spending, development spending such as TVA, and subsidized industries such as oil and sugar, is a product of Southern, and to some extent Western politics.

While the Republican majority still depends somewhat on the consent of Northern Republicans, it no longer governs by any coalition or compromise, and hence we see the politics of the White South distilled to their essence. When the House Republicans push through legislation by just a few votes, as with the Medicare bill, they are essentially daring the Northern Republicans -- both moderates and "true" conservatives -- to break with them, they are not incorporating their views in a coalition. (Interestingly, of the 25 House Republicans who opposed the Medicare bill last year, 14 were from the Midwest or West.) And as Michelle Goldberg and Paul Caffera reported in Salon this week, a rebellion may be brewing among Republican moderates, as well as among conservatives associated with Senators McCain and Hagel.

Now, all this could amount to nothing. Bush could win handily, all the Southern Senate seats in play could go to conservative Republicans, the moderates could shrink away to voice their objections meekly in caucus as usual, and the unilateral rule of the White South would continue, at least for a few more years, when its inevitable contradictions catch up to it.

But what if it doesn't? What if Bush loses, Kerry is elected without a Southern state, Louisiana and both Carolinas send a Democrat to the Senate on huge black turnout, Tom DeLay goes to trial for political corruption, and the moderates do rebel and decide that it is more important to govern the country than to block everything a Democratic president tries to do?

At that point, the White South will be essentially out of the game, for the first time since Reconstruction. They will have no power over the presidency, far less power in Congress. And they will have only themselves to blame. It is always wiser to try to hold the balance of power than to try to claim power and exercise it unilaterally, and its just possible that the White South has overplayed a very good hand. If so, the next Democratic president may have more freedom of maneuver than Clinton ever had, and a new political era will have begun.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 31, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (40) | TrackBack

Is this one of the FIVE best politics weblogs?

I don't think so. I like what I've done here, and there are some moments of brilliance, but it's not even one of the ten best left-of-center weblogs, not in a world where there's Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum Anne Marie Cox and Pandagon and Atrios. (I didn't even make the ballot for "best new blog" at the lefty blog award blog.)

But The Decembrist did make Forbes online's list of the five best political blogs. So I won't complain about that, although it wasn't the Forbes list I was aiming for. Of the other four best, Wonkette is the only one I've ever read. (And certainly more deserving.)

Forbes says this about me:

Read a few political posts by Mark Schmitt, and you might get the idea that he's a conservative. He's not, but he thinks it's funny when people get him wrong. "I think of myself as a liberal," says the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based blogger. "But I think I'm a lot more respectful of conservative arguments. I think people react to the tone more than the content.

I guess it's funny. I will accept a spot in the "Five Best Conservative-Seeming Liberal Weblogs" category. I'm not sure how anyone gets the idea that I'm conservative, but I have had a few comments that this suggest that the Decembrist is a little less ideologically driven than some counterparts. And I am at risk of being disinherited (or fired) over my respect for Senator Lieberman and my support for school vouchers, so -- hey, maybe I am a conservative. No, really, I think most of the good left-of-center blogs have a similar orientation, which Kevin Drum identified some months ago:

Most lefty bloggers are actually pretty moderate liberals: me, Josh Marshall, Atrios, Matt Yglesias, Jeralyn Merritt, Brad DeLong, etc. (Atrios is a hardnosed partisan, but his politics are actually fairly centrist liberal. Surprise!) Most righty bloggers are actually libertarians, not conservatives.

It's an interesting point, and I think it actually has a lot to do with the vitality of this little subculture, which James Wolcott captured well in Vanity Fair this month. (Speaking of which, someone else commented that this issue of Vanity Fair is not worth buying except for Wolcott's column about blogs -- not true: First, of course, there is Keira Knightley. But there is also the article about Sharon Bush's divorce from Neil Bush. I can never get enough of the utter shallowness of the Bush family, and the tale of poor Sharon trying to get some attention from her formerly dear in-laws is a good window on this creepy family.)

The only other thing to say about this Forbes.com list is that it includes a poll to vote on the best of the best five political blogs. At the moment, The Decembrist has only seven votes. Now, I probably don't deserve to win, and I don't even mind coming in fifth, but I would like to break double digits. So help me out, please, people. Thanks.

(Update: Doubled my vote total in twenty minutes! That's good. You can quit now.)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 26, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Clarke's resignation letter

I have little to add to all the good analysis of the frantic attempts by an administration in meltdown to discredit Richard Clarke, but I did notice one tiny thing that I haven't seen mentioned before. One of the points the White House made to discredit Clarke on Wednesday was the simple fact that his letter of resignation included the phrase, "I will always remember the courage, determination, calm, and leadership you demonstrated on September 11th." Evidently, this proves him a liar, either in the letter or in his subsequent criticism of Bush.

This reminded me of a passage in Paul O'Neill's The Price of Loyalty. On page 315, O'Neill drafts his letter of resignation: "'I hereby resign the office of Secretary of the Treasury.' One sentence."

His communications director, Michelle Davis, says, "You can't do that." And proceeds to write, O'Neill says, a letter about "what an honor it has been to serve this president... a great team," etc. "Four paragraphs of this stuff. It made me gag," O'Neill said. In the end, they compromised on a shorter letter that said it was a privilege to serve and noted an accomplishment, much like Clarke's letter.

The point being, even when you've been fired, even when the president doesn't have the grace to fire you from the second-ranking cabinet position himself but sends Dick Cheney to do the job, it just isn't an option to write a letter of resignation that doesn't praise the president.

Now it's been said many times, and it's true, that all the monkey dung being flung around the White House not only fails to discredit Clarke, but shows a fundamental worry that Bush's one and only claim to presidential stature is built on a hollow foundation. That's all true, and this certainly hasn't been a good week for the president. But I can't help but feel that the White House has achieved something: they have taken away the shock effect of Clarke's revelations. They drew it into the Clinton/Bush debate about who was more negligent, and into the debate about Clarke's own motives (even though there really is no debate), and in the end, it's just one more confusing pseudo-scandal.

Think about it this way: What if we had learned in November 2001 everything we know now: that the administration had been ignoring and suppressing warnings about terrorism from the very beginning, pushing it aside in favor of other foreign policy issues, and that even after Sept. 11, the president was trying to use it as an excuse to attack Iraq, a country that no one for one second thought was involved.

I don't think we would have even been able to believe it. Even those of us who hate Bush personally, have no trust at all in the people around him or his policies, probably could not have dealt with the thought that the president had not done the best he could to prevent such an attack before September 11, and was dealing with it seriously afterwards. Even when Time came out with basically the same story Clarke is telling, in August 2002, I don't think the press and public was ready to take the idea seriously, since it disappeared almost without notice. (The article is worth reading now; Clarke was obviously a key source, and it shows how much of what seems new this week was actually out there more than 18 months ago. Link above is to an archived copy at someone else's site, the Time version isn't free.) But since then, we've become so inured to the Bush administration's incompetence that the worst thing you could possibly find out sort of ceases to have shock value.

Maybe. The other possibility is that all this information is just too much to take in in a single week, and that it really will slowly bring down the entire edifice.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 26, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Politics and Privacy

My earlier post about the site (fundrace.org) on which you can search political contributors by address prompted me to think a little more about politics and privacy. There's a lot that's politically interesting revealed in the general geographic information about contributors, but why do I need all the information about individuals? What public interest is served here? I have neighbors I barely know, about whom I now know a good deal about their political preferences, and probably also something about their finances, whereas if I was able to look up on line what library books they borrowed, it would be considered, and would be, an outrageous invasion of privacy.

And, at the same time, we hold the secret ballot sacred. I know some people who, as a matter of principle, won't say who they voted for, and most people would never ask. It's strange that we put two forms of political expression -- voting and contributing -- at opposite ends of the privacy/publicity spectrum.

Disclosure of political donors has always been the one ground of agreement between campaign reformers and their opponents. The main alternative to the McCain-Feingold reforms in the late 1990s was a bill sponsored by Rep. John Doolittle of California that would have eliminated all limits on campaign giving, but required instant, full disclosure. Some of this is disingenuous, but mostly, the disagreement has always been between those who believe disclosure is sufficient, and those who believe more is required, including limits to reduce corruption, and public financing to allow candidates to be heard.

I've always been in the camp that believes that disclosure is far from sufficient, and increasingly, I wonder what value it has at all. Knowing the name of a donor and his or her employer doesn't provide any information about why the person contributed. The Clinton contributors who became notorious after 1996, like Johnny Chung, were not names that would have attracted anyone's attention until more information came out about why they gave and how they had been recruited, information that was not available from disclosure. And knowing who gave tells nothing about why the person gave, whether it is out of personal economic interest, class-based interest, ideology, friendship, happened to be in Skull and Bones with the candidate, etc. That's why the familiar process of aggregating contributions from employees of a single company or law firm and treating them as if the employees were acting in the interests of the company can lead to absurd results, such as this from a recent report by the Center for Responsive Politics

Nearly half of Kerry's biggest financial supporters contributed more money to Bush than to Kerry himself through Jan. 30 of this year, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics' study of campaign finance reports filed this month with the Federal Election Commission....

Kerry's third-largest contributor, Citigroup, gave more than $79,000 in individual and PAC contributions to the presumptive Democratic nominee through January. Louis Susman, Citigroup's vice-chairman, is one of Kerry's biggest fund-raisers. But the financial services giant gave more than $187,000 to the Bush campaign during the same period, good enough for 12th on the president's list of top contributors.

Goldman Sachs contributed nearly $65,000 to Kerry through January, earning it the No. 6 ranking among Kerry's top givers. But the company's employees and PAC sent Bush nearly $283,000 -- more than four times the amount it gave to Kerry. Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson and managing director George Walker are Bush Pioneers who have raised at least $100,000 for the campaign.

Citigroup and Goldman Sachs did not contribute a penny to either candidate. Their employees did -- to a limited degree through a PAC, but mostly as individuals. Citigroup has a quarter-million employees; Goldman about 20,000. Many are rich. Some rich people support Bush, some Kerry. And there are also plenty of clerks and computer systems administrators and receptionists at these firms, who probably have political views of their own. And that's all that this report tells you. (Although it is interesting when you see a large firm in which almost all the employees give to a single candidate, which can suggest either that something fishy is going on -- possibly illegal reimbursement of contributions -- or just a confluence of interest, such as would be the case at a firm like Enron -- rich Houston energy traders are probably predictable Bush supporters, whether they get favors or not.)

Disclosure of $2,000 contributors also fails to reveal the all-important question of who actually raised the money. A single $2,000 contributor is unlikely to have an undue influence, even with a member of Congress, which is why that is a reasonable limit. But the person who can put together a few hundred thousand dollars most certainly does. Neither disclosure alone, nor disclosure plus limits, will reveal that fundraiser. Ironically, Bush's designation of "Pioneers," "Rangers," and an unnamed category of half-million dollar fundraisers has provided the best relevant information, although it is not required by law or available through the FEC. (Public Campaign Action Fund, a group affiliated with the reform advocates at Public Campaign, held a contest to give a name to the half-million contributors; the winner by a mile was "Weapons of Mass Corruption," although it is unlikely that the Bush campaign will adopt that fitting nomenclature.)

If disclosure is inadequate, there is a provocative -- though not persuasive -- case for going in the other direction entirely. Yale law professor Ian Ayres made the case in the book he co-authored with Bruce Ackerman for forced anonymity in political contributions. Under this scheme, candidates would actually be forbidden from knowing who their contributors are, thus forcing politicians to treat everyone equally. Although nothing would prevent someone from telling an elected official that he or she was a contributor, it is also the case that nothing would prevent someone who was not a contributor from making the same claim. Thus, in Ayres's scheme, such "strategic lying" would serve as a useful and morally defensible enforcement mechanism. One imagines a group of welfare rights activists showing up on Capitol Hill and demanding to see their congressman on the grounds that they are major donors.

And that's what makes the scheme unworkable. Of course the member of Congress knows generally the kinds of people he's getting money from, whether he knows their names or not. He knows who his political friends are. And he probably knows it's not welfare recipients. And the access that large contributors have is not always part of the official day, but is tied in to the golf outings and dinners that are a part of both the fundraising and lobbying process itself, which would not end under Ayres' scheme.

Ayres draws the analogy to the secret ballot: Because they don't know who voted for them, officials have to respond to all citizens. But that's not true either. Politicians know, to a greater degree than ever, the kinds of people who vote for them, just as they will always know the kinds of people who contribute, and they know the kinds of people who might be persuaded to do either one. And, on the money side, that is the source of corruption we should be concerned about, much more than the individual acts of corruption in favor of a single donor or company. Bush and Cheney knew perfectly well that Texas and Oklahoma energy companies were their big backers, the energy task force favored such companies. The senators from Connecticut know that the insurance industry is a big supporter; they fight for that industry's interests, which they also see as in the interest of their state. The assumption that corruption consists of a single contributor asking for and receiving a single favor is misleading. It's a much more generalized kind of corruption, on behalf of whole industries or classes, that we should be most concerned about, as the Supreme Court seemed to understand when it put this paragraph, which I've quoted before, in its decision upholding McCain-Feingold:

Plaintiffs argue that without concrete evidence of an instance in which a federal officeholder has actually switched a vote (or, presumably, evidence of a specific instance where the public believes a vote was switched), Congress has not shown that there exists real or apparent corruption. But the record is to the contrary. The evidence connects soft money to manipulations of the legislative calendar, leading to Congress. failure to enact, among other things, generic drug legislation, tort reform, and tobacco legislation. Donations from the tobacco industry to Republicans scuttled tobacco legislation, just as contributions from the trial lawyers to Democrats stopped tort reform. To claim that such actions do not change legislative outcomes surely misunderstands the legislative process.

But there is a sense in which Ayres' analogy of the secret contribution to the secret ballot makes sense: The point of the secret ballot is really to prevent intimidation. And there is probably a certain amount of intimidation in current campaign finance practices as well: people feel they have to contribute because their boss does, or because a client invited them to a fundraiser, or because their Washington lobbyist has persuaded them that if they don't give to Tom DeLay, they won't get "a seat at the table" when legislation is written. (See the Westar case for this example.) It would be nice to use "strategic lying" to tell the boss or the client that you gave to their favorite candidate, while actually giving to another, or not at all.

I don't really have a solution here. Even if its value is limited, disclosure is probably better than no disclosure. We want to be able to answer the question, "Where does Congressman Jones's money come from." We don't really need to know the answer to the question, "Who did Mrs. Smith give money to?," certainly not within the realm of limited, hard money contributions. But you can't have the answer to the first question without making the answer to the second available. With current technology, there's nothing that prevents any bit of information from being cross-tabulated all kinds of ways, and this is just the beginning.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 22, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

The Verdict is in on Medicare

If you remember how obsessed I was with the Medicare bill last fall (back when no one read this blog, and most people who looked at it ran away because all I ever seemed to write about was M-E-D-I-C-A-R-E over and over again), guess how much I am enjoying the latest events? Answer: a lot. Not only did Tom Scully of CMS (the sub-agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid) threaten to fire his agency's actuary, whose independence had been written into law by a Republican Congress, if he revealed the real cost of the bill, it now turns out that Doug Badger of the White House -- the purest of hacks -- may have pressured Scully as well.

Conning the American taxpayers out of almost $150 billion -- that has to be a big deal. Working in the federal government, or in a foundation, one becomes a little inured to big numbers, but not numbers this big. This is $555 per man, woman and child in the United States! Will someone ask a Republican member of Congress if there is a definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors" that includes oral sex, but not grand larceny?

The challenge now is to milk this thing. It's not enough for the Medicare bill to be proven a bad deal. That's been done. It has to become the defining example of Bush domestic policy, the kind of thing that will be associated with his name and his party for decades, the way "forced busing" was associated with Democrats for decades after the last bus ran. It should be more than just an issue that influences the election. It should be so decisively rejected that it puts an end to this kind of "Mayberry Machiavelli" policy-making forever, and thoroughly discredits everyone associated with it. I want the backlash to be an insurance policy, so that even if Bush is reelected, the next time around the sane members of Congress, of all ideologies, have the backbone to say, "you're not taking us down that road again."

The problem is, liberal mistakes seem to stick to liberals and conservatives manage to shrug off their mistakes. I think it's because we have a template in our heads for understanding liberal overstretch: liberals are utopian, technocratic, they believe government can do more than it can, they don't respect the role of culture and markets. It's the Great Society story, and it had plenty of truth to it -- back then. It's the story told at the local level in City, Douglas Rae's recent book about New Haven, CT, cited my sidebar. But right-wing big government overreach just doesn't fit a familiar story. We don't have a place for it in our heads. There isn't a classic example that shows the recklessness, the disrespect for the public interest, the rejection of all values other than short-term political advantage, etc. The Medicare bill can be that story.

When I first went to work on Capitol Hill, in 1990, I encountered a lot of people who were still shell-shocked by the passage and then repeal of catastrophic care insurance a year earlier. Catastrophic had been seen as the next step in the slow progression of the economic and health security package for seniors, the piece that should always have been part of Medicare but never was. But when well-off seniors found out they would have to pay for it, and there was no real effort on the part of Congress to sell the bill (one lesson that this crowd seems to have learned.) You could trace much of the politics of the 1990s -- the backlash against Clinton, the over-cautiousness with which Congressional Democrats handled the 1993 health care plan and lost the initiative, and the 1994 Republican takeover -- back to the Catastrophic debacle, and many people who were there at the time do.

The issue can't just be the cost. Cost is an abstraction. To keep this story going, we need to open up two more fronts: First, did members of Congress understand that the premium for the prescription drug benefit was not really $35 as advertised, but some amount that is estimated as likely to average $35. Only after the bill passed did the director of the Congressional Budget Office say publicly that the $35 was an estimate based on many "moving pieces in the formula." (Another way to put it is that the private-sector providers are going to be able to charge what they want to charge, within some loose parameters.) How much is this really going to cost seniors? What does Richard Foster think it's going to cost them? Did members of Congress know this?

Second, where is all the money going? I can only do the roughest back-of-the-envelope math here, but according to the numbers I can find, there will be about 43 million Medicare recipients in 2006. At $550 billion, that's about $12,800 per Medicare recipient, over the seven years covered by the bill. (It's a ten-year cost estimate, but the benefit doesn't kick in until year three.) Many are not going to take the benefit at all, because they have other prescription coverage. Of the rest, 80% spend less than $5,000 on prescription drugs; by law, they won't get more than $1500 worth of benefits in any year. More than half will get much less than that. Here's a graphic that attempts, in an Ed Tufte-approved but imperfect way, to show exactly how this benefit works:

So, if 75% of the recipients participate, the cost to the public, or the addition to the debt, is about $2200 per recipient per year, over the seven years of benefits. But the vast majority won't be able to get more than $1500 even if they have very high drug costs, and those with average drug costs will get only about $750. There's inflation and population growth, and all that, but the question should still be, where's the money going? Drug companies, insurance companies, and the bribes to employers to maintain coverage is the answer. But we've got to keep it simple. It's a bad deal all around, and an example of why we can't afford four more weeks of this kind of government.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 19, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Who is Barrie A. Wigmore?

According to this wonderful new website on which you can search your neighbors for which candidates they gave money to, he and his wife are the only Bush donors who live in New York's Dakota, the legendary apartment building on Central Park West. What's he doing there? Do his neighbors know?

My own neighborhood seems to be 90% Dean and Clark, with a smattering for other Democrats. But the handful of Bush donors are all $4,000 donors -- that is, $2,000 each from two spouses. The Democratic donors are all in the $250-$500 range. So probably almost as much money comes out of our very liberal neighborhood for Bush as for the others. Very telling. (Although there are certainly errors: I'm pretty sure that the Alan H. Greenberg listed as living on the part Hicks Street in Brooklyn that overlooks the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and who gave to John Edwards, is not in fact the chairman of Bear, Stearns.)

It's a fascinating way to understand the dynamics of money in politics, and unlike some of the other money-in-politics research sites, it's fast.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 19, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Are the Bush Ads Designed to Stir Controversy?

I have just about had it with ABC News's The Note, and all the insider baseball, and the endless insistence on prediction: "Dean's momentum cannot be stopped," "There is every reason to believe that the dynamic of the race in which Kerry dominates will not change," "still, there is a better-than-even chance Bush will win," etc. Whatever twists and turns the news takes, they nonetheless manage to turn it into a straight-line projection months into the future. It's like a textbook illustration of the principle of the Conservation of Angular Momentum. Don't go driving on a winding mountain road with these guys; they'll take you straight over the edge.

But, but, I still keep reading. Why? Because every once in a while, an insight peeks through. Today the Note suggests that there is a reason that each of the Bush ads has had some outrageous controversy: The use of the 9/11 imagery and the "I'm not a firefighter (because firefighters hate Bush) but I play one for money" in the first ad, the image of an Arab-looking would-be terrorist in the second, and the illegal use of footage from the Senate floor in the third.

A Bush adviser concedes that courting controversy by including edgy images (the 9/11 stuff, the French Job, and, now, the Senate floor material) is a great way to ensure days and days of free media coverage to amplify the campaign's message and fight things out on their terms.

The President's admakers didn't sit around for months, spending millions of dollars before a single ad aired, twiddling their collective thumbs. And they don't casually choose the images they use, or fail to consult lawyers and communications experts about them.

I'm not sure I agree with the last point. I think there's a lot of carelessness, a lot of stupidity, and a lot of being really out of touch. The Bush campaign is like a big failing American corporation. It's like GM in the 70s or IBM in the early 90s: They don't know anyone who doesn't work for the same company or drive their cars or believe the same things, so they just can't imagine why anyone would want to drive a Toyota or vote for Kerry. (Oh, shoot, was that another straight-line projection from the present? Maybe.)

But the ads are good evidence that, whether they know what they're doing or not, they have no shame about it. And there's certainly a long history. The Willy Horton ad, for example, was never widely broadcast, but had an impact well beyond its paid life, and although criticized, continue to send their subliminal message. So maybe the bloggers should avoid feeding this beast? Nah, it's too easy.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 17, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Marc Miringoff

I'm still in shock at the news from last week that Marc Miringoff had passed away at 58. Marc's obituary hardly begins to capture his influence, not just on me, but on some recent political campaigns and thus the language of progressive politics. It's a little late, but I want to use this forum to call a little more attention to Marc's influence.

Marc's guiding vision was that "The Social Health of the Nation" was as measurable as the health of the economy, and that, if we accepted a few standard, agreed-upon measures of societal well-being, they could eventually become almost-automatic triggers to policy, so that an increase in the child poverty rate, for example, should force a response, much as a decline in the GDP forces the Fed to act. He was a master of complex demographic data, but what he aspired to do with it was to distill it down to a few essentials that would be easily understood and comparable over time.

Of course, plenty of earnest, well-trained social scientists have a command of data and believe that such facts should govern policy (a vision currently held up to mockery by the White House and Congress), and as the saying goes, that and $4.60 will get you a grande Frappucino. But Marc brought something else, or really, two other things: a deep understanding of public opinion and values, and a gift for the language of politics. He understood polling and the underlying views they represented probably as well as his brother, Lee Miringoff, director of the reliable and respected Marist Poll. In fact, whenever he talked about public opinion, he would add, "this is what my brother and I talk about for hours every Sunday night." That's a rare combination of skills and knowledge, and with the addition of being very funny and very caring, gave him a considerable advantage in trying to bring his ideas into the political process.

I first met Marc in 1999, when Bill Bradley asked him to put together a small group of intellectuals, writers, academics (actually, I'm not sure what the criteria for being included were) to develop some of the "big ideas" he wanted to put forward. I had a feeling this would be a futile exercise, because it wasn't built into the heart of the campaign and most of the other participants didn't know the candidate well, and that turned out to be true, but it was a pleasure to participate because of Marc. It didn't take longer than our first lunch together for us both to figure out that we had basically compatible visions, the same idea of what politics could aspire to.

After the Bradley campaign, Marc went on to play an important role as an advisor to Gore in 2000. Later, he helped organize a very interesting conference on developing an agenda for "compassionate government," sponsored by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Foundation, which was the rare conference that should have been four days long instead of a day and a half. This year, he had some significant involvement in the Edwards campaign. He was modest about that role, but the "Two Nations" theme that Edwards developed was pure Miringoff. I have no doubt that Marc helped persuade the candidate and the campaign first, that this was the reality, and second, that there was a way to talk about it that was powerful and could reach average people who thought the country could do better. What he wanted from politics was not influence, but to hear this kind of language put to good use, so the Edwards campaign was gratifying to him as it was to me.

There are a lot of familiar types that one meets around a political campaign. But there aren't many Marc Miringoffs. The same is true of academia. Although he was not that well known, Marc's absence in public life, apart from the loss to his family and friends, will be felt in ways that can't be imagined.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 16, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

If They Really Think This, The Election is Over...

From Dan Balz's story in Sunday's Washington Post, on Bush's reelection "strategy":

"In 2000, the necessity was to demonstrate that he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do, that he had a plan of action that all fit together, that he could talk with assurance," said one of Bush's most senior advisers, who asked not to be identified. "This had to be a credible governing statement. [Today] we have a credible governing statement; it's called the budget."

One of my pet causes is that newspapers should not allow sources to go unnamed when all they offering is the official spin. Sentences of the type, "'The President is decisively focused on creating jobs and meeting the challenges ahead,'" said an aide who asked not to identified," appear all too often in the Post and to a slightly lesser extent, the Times. But in this case, I'll make an exception. If I had to offer this particular spin, I wouldn't want to be named either.

(Although it's not really such deep cover: Since Karen Hughes as well as all the top campaign officials -- Ken Mehlman, Marc Racicot, Matthew Dowd -- are quoted in the story by name -- this is Karl Rove. Maybe the prospect of going to jail has addled his brain.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 13, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Avenging Angel? Or Gabriel?

Wonkette, the brilliant and prolific new entry that fills the political space in Nick Denton's Mall of Blogs, in between testing her pornographic vocabulary against the Bush campaign's "sloganator" (which I cannot make work with the Mozilla browser), mocks some of the photographs on the Bush web site. Of this one,

she comments, "After you fire the genius who came up with the Sloganator, you might call the photo editor in your office. [Bush] looks like the avenging angel of death, right? . . . Why do these people have jobs?"

A month ago, I mocked some Bush photographs too. In that case it was the illustrations in the Fiscal Year 2005 Budget of the United States of America. In the first budget that his administration prepared, Bush argued that the inclusion for the first time of "color and photographs" would enhance the "readability" of the document, and support the larger goal of "inaugurat[ing] an era of accountability in the conduct of the nation’s public business...[and] reporting to taxpayers on the relative effectiveness of the thousands of purposes on which their money is spent." I said in jest that the actual photographs in the Bush budget for FY 20005 made it seem more like the administration had decided to close the deficit by selling ad space in a trusted document to the reelection campaign.

But Wonkette's picture looked familiar. Yes, the budget photos and the campaign ads are exactly the same photos

This appeared in the section of the Federal budget entitled Upholding America's Values:

Caring for our seniors. President Bush meets with 94 year old Anna Tovcimak after a roundtable discussion on Medicare Liability Reform in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Caring for our seniors. President Bush meets with 94 year old Anna Tovcimak after a roundtable discussion on Medicare Liability Reform in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Is there anything illegal about this? Probably not. A picture of the President is a picture of the President, and maybe they think the Religious Right will see the Annunciation imagery here, although a 94-year-old is usually a poor candidate for a virgin birth.

But all humor aside, let's have no illusions: No President before Bush would even think of doing this. The budget is a statement of government. The campaign is the campaign. Budgets don't have pictures in them, much less campaign pictures. It just isn't done.

But the problem with this kind of thing is that, once done, there may be no turning back.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 12, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack