Topic: Government and Politics

The Corruption of Barack Obama

Barack Obama stands accused of moral shortcomings regarding money in politics: he has not invited the press to all of his fundraisers.

Obama has voluntarily disclosed his bundlers and opened some fundraisers to the media. But that is not enough. He is not inviting the media to all his fundraisers, probably to protect the privacy of his supporters. After all, Hillary may yet become president, and like most politicians, she is not known for forgiving and forgetting.

Obama might learn a lesson here. If you give the media what they want, they will only demand more. If you give them access to all your fundraisers, they will write stories about how big donors are corrupting the once-promising reformer.  On the other hand, if you don’t let them come to the fundraisers, they will write stories about how big donors are corrupting the once promising reformer.

The media have only one storyline about private money in politics: it corrupts the process. You don’t get a pass by supporting their crusade to restrict private money in elections (Obama does) or by giving in to their endless demands for access. They will write the same story.

Obama has shared that narrative until now. He has promised to move against big money when he has power. He is also famously open-minded. Perhaps his own “corruption” might occasion some rethinking about the politics of “reform.”

Conservatism Revealed

What does it say about the Republican Party when the leading fusionist conservative in the field - Mitt Romney, darling of National Review and erstwhile heir to Ronald Reagan - runs and wins a campaign arguing that the federal government is responsible for all of the ills facing the U.S. auto industry, that the taxpayer should pony up the corporate welfare checks going to Detroit and increase them by a factor of five, that the federal government can and should move heaven and earth to save “every job” at risk in this economy, and that economic recovery is best achieved by a sit-down involving auto industry CEOs, labor bosses, and government agents armed with Harvard MBAs to produce a well-coordinated strategic economic plan? That is, what explains the emergence of economic fascism (in a non-pejorative sense) in the Grand Old Party at the expense of free market capitalism?

I have no answer. But it certainly explains the increasing migration of libertarians voters to the Democratic Party. They may be no better, but at least the Dems offer libertarians something in social and foreign policy circles that the Republicans don’t.

Romney Revealed

Mitt Romney’s victory in Michigan’s Republican primary last night throws the GOP race for president wide open. But it should also end once and for all the idea that Romney is the heir to Reagan-style conservatism.

For some reason, Romney has been able to claim the Reagan mantle despite his support for:

  • A health care plan virtually indistinguishable for the one proposed by Hillary Clinton;
  • Support for No Child Left Behind, calls for increased federal education spending, and a proposal to have the federal government give a laptop computer to every schoolchild in America;
  • Calls for increased farm price supports;
  • Support for the Medicare prescription drug benefit; and
  • An undistinguished record on taxes and spending as Massachusetts governor, earning a C on Cato’s governor’s report card, and including support for $500 million in increased fees and corporate taxes.

But in Michigan, Romney pulled out all the big government stops with a call for $20 billion in corporate welfare to revive the state’s struggling auto industry. Romney, who called his proposal “a work-out, not a bail-out,” also promised that as president he would develop “a national policy to help automakers.”

George W. Bush once said, “When somebody hurts, government has got to move.” Mitt Romney echoes that, “A lot of Washington politicians are aware of it, aware of the pain, but they haven’t done anything about it. I will.”

Ronald Reagan must be spinning in his grave.

Irrational Voters

Analyzing exit polls from last week’s New Hampshire primary, E.J. Dionne observes in today’s Washington Post that “an astonishing 42 percent of McCain’s voters disapproved of the Iraq war”

Maybe Bryan Caplan is onto something?

On a related note, Sen. McCain boasts of his fiscal conservatism, and one of his most reliable applause lines on the campaign trail comes from his strident criticism of wasteful government spending. His favorite example is the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, one of thousands of earmarks tucked into the 2006 transportation bill. As McCain tells it, the bridge would have cost $233 million to build and would have served about 50 people. (David Boaz spelled out the gory details here. There were actually going to be two bridges costing a total of $454 million. In September 2007, Alaska officials dropped plans to build the bridge, but kept the money.)

To take nothing away from that particularly egregious misuse of taxpayer funds, it is worth noting that the war in Iraq is costing at least $10 billion a month, with some estimates placing the total costs closer to $12 or $13 billion. In other words, in one month’s time, we are spending the equivalent of 42 $233 million bridges. I doubt that we need that many bridges, and I’d much prefer that they be paid for by user-fees, but presumably some of these would go to somewhere?

The voters who oppose the Iraq war but who support the leading advocate for the war seem to be saying that fiscal conservatism stops at the water’s edge. Then again, it could just be cognitive dissonance.

Robert S. McIntyre’s “Fuzzy Math”

Robert S. McIntyre, the tireless crusader for higher taxes, had a letter in Saturday’s Washington Post under the title “Fuzzy Math.” Usually McIntyre is directing his ire at the “fuzzy math” of supply-siders and other fiscal conservatives, such as this pdf about Senate Republicans. This time, however, he wrote in to point out an error in the Post’s political data. But was it an error? Here’s McIntyre’s letter:

Fuzzy Math

On Jan. 4, reporting the results of the Iowa caucuses, you said, “Sixty percent of Republican caucusgoers described themselves as evangelicals, according to entrance polls. Those voters went for Huckabee over Romney by more than 2 to 1.” [That article here.] Meanwhile, you also reported that Mike Huckabee received 34 percent of the total GOP vote. This seems impossible.

Even if Huckabee didn’t get a single non-evangelical vote, his two-thirds-plus share of 60 percent of the voters would give him more than 40 percent of the total vote.

Can you explain this?

– Robert S. McIntyre

McIntyre seems to be befuddled by a simple conceptual error. He’s assuming that Huckabee and Romney were the only two candidates, in which case two-thirds of 60 percent of the voters would indeed be 40 percent of the total vote. But in fact, Huckabee and Romney together got only 60 percent of the total vote. So let’s sort through the numbers. The entrance poll surveyed 1600 Republican voters. Of those, we’re told that 60 percent, or 960, were evangelicals. As this Los Angeles Times graphic of the entrance polls shows, Huckabee beat Romney 46-19 among those voters, which suggests he got about 442 evangelical votes among those polled. (And about 35 percent of evangelical voters voted for someone other than Huckabee or Romney.) That’s about 28 percent of the 1600 total voters. Huckabee got only 14 percent of the non-evangelical Republicans polled, or about 90 people. Add the 90 to the 442, and you get 532, or 33.25 percent of the voters surveyed. Which is pretty close to the 34.4 percent that Huckabee got in the actual caucuses.

McIntyre’s error should have been obvious to the Post’s editors. I don’t know why newspapers should publish letters to the editor that contain obvious errors. Would they publish a letter that said “You misspelled Reagan; it should be Raegan”? I doubt it.

Of course, what’s more interesting is that this simple conceptual error about elementary arithmetic comes from a leading “liberal” expert on tax policy, quoted regularly in major newspapers about the interpretation of complex income tax data. Let’s hope he understands those intricate and abstruse data better than he does simple political polls.

Campaign Finance Regulation without Romance

Candidates are in hot pursuit of the party nominations and eventually the presidency. That means they are defining enemies, inducing fear, and offering voters hope — that their enemies will be punished and their fears relieved.

The rhetoric of campaign finance regulation is replete with such  enemies — the special interests, “Big Money,” the rich and so on — and one set of friends, “reformers.” Barack Obama has been especially skillful practicing this politics of fear to pave the way for additional restrictions on money in politics.

However, the reality of campaign finance regulation is a lot different from the rhetoric, and the 2008 campaign has already brought an exemplar of regulation absent romance.

Unity08 is an organization that tried to put together a “centrist, bi-partisan approach to the solving of our nation’s problems and the possibility of an independent, unity ticket for the presidency.” Unity08 sought to be a movement first and a third party with a candidate, second. I use the past tense here because a posted letter to their supporters suggests their effort has come to an end.

Unity08’s analysis of the reasons for their failure merits attention. They now lack enough members or money to go on. The two are interdependent: more members generate more money and vice versa. The Unity08 leaders think a lack of money posed the biggest obstacle:

The Federal Election Commission … has taken the position that we are subject to their jurisdiction … and, therefore, that we are limited to $5000 contributions from individuals (even though the Democrat and Republican Parties are able to receive $25,000 from individuals). Needless to say, this position by the FEC effectively limited our fundraising potential, especially in the crucial early going when we needed substantial money fast to get on with ballot access and the publicity necessary to build our membership. We were caught in a peculiar catch-22; we wanted to break the dependence on big money by getting lots of small contributions from millions of members, but needed some up-front big money to help generate the millions of members to make the small contributions. And the FEC (in effect, an arm of the parties) didn’t let that happen.

The need for large donations to build fundraising capacity was first discovered by the best political science book you never heard of. Contribution limits complicate political organizing by outsiders and thereby stabilize the status quo and benefit those who hold power.

Campaign finance regulations are sold as a panacea for all that ails Americans. They are said to foster competition, prevent corruption, and purify political speech. The Unity08 leaders have found out the truth about such regulations. Such rules are largely created to stifle electoral competition to help out one party or the other, or — as in this case — to permit both parties to stifle a third alternative. Such regulations don’t outlaw competition; they do establish arcane rules that discriminate against outsiders like Unity08.

When a candidate starts demonizing Big Money, remember Unity08 and the reality its leaders discovered, too late for their cause.