The “Do Nothing” Congress Can, and Should, Do Something Good on Trade

Make no mistake, the incoming Congress looks like it will be less amenable to trade liberalization than the last. Many friends (or, at least, non-enemies) of free trade in the last Congress have been replaced by “fair-trade” Democrats who have lamented the trade policies of the Bush Administration and seem keen to provide more “oversight” (read: populist obstructionism) on trade issues in the future.

However, rather than pass laws on warrantless wire-tapping and the like, the 109th Congress can make a positive contribution to U.S. policy in its last, dying weeks and vote in favor of granting “permanent normal trade relations” status to Vietnam. That would strengthen the bilateral relations between the United States and Vietnam, and bring economic benefits to both nations.

Holding up the passage of that bill before the elections was Sen. Mel Martinez (R- Fla.), concerned about the treatment of Thuong Nguyen “Cuc” Foshee, a Florida woman detained in Vietnam on suspicion of terrorism. Mrs Foshee was, however, released for health reasons and is due to return to the United States today. That paves the way for a House vote on the issue this week and, hopefully, a Senate vote soon after.

Vietnam’s accession to the WTO has already been approved by the WTO membership, and a bilateral market access deal between the United States and Vietnam was sealed in May 2006. Vietnam would not, however, need to extend most-favoured-nation tariffs to the United States until Congress granted PNTR. Unless and until then, U.S. consumers and companies would not be able to take full advantage of Vietnam’s accession to the WTO. A market of more than 82 million people, growing at an average rate of 7.5 percent over the last decade, seems too good an opportunity to risk on a year-to-year basis (the current schedule for granting most-favored-nation status to Vietnam).

Apart from securing those economic benefits as soon as possible, however, a diplomatic embarrassment is ripe for the avoiding. President Bush is due to visit Hanoi from November 18-19 for the annual APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) leaders meeting, at which the Doha round is due to be discussed.

My colleague Dan Ikenson has some concerns about the concessions made by the administration in order to secure the PNTR passage (see here), but this bill is one that the lame-duck Congress can, and should, pass quickly. Apart from the tangible economic benefits it will bring, it will have powerful “signal value” that the United States is still engaged on trade.

What the Exit Polls Said

The election is over, and the time has come to determine what the voters said by looking at the exit polls. Here’s what I see in the data served up with two caveats.

First, “the people” don’t say much except “No.” Of course, “no” to the ruling party also means “yes” to the alternative, in this case to the Democrats. But there is no collective mind that instructs the government in any detail beyond “no.”

Second, I’m going to compare 2006 exit poll data to a similar survey in 2004. But there are two differences. The electorate in the 2004 presidential contest was about 50 percent larger than the turnout last week. Many of the differences between 2006 and 2004 you are going to hear about in the next week or two will be relatively small. For example, self-described conservatives made up 34 percent of the voters in 2004 and 32 percent this year. That difference may just reflect the relative propensity of conservatives to vote in presidential and midterm elections (or it may just be random variation). (I can’t compare 2006 to the last midterm in 2002 because of problems with the latter poll). For this reason, I’m only going to pull out of the data largish differences between 2004 and 2006.

In general, the 2006 electorate was not all that different from the 2004 group. However, there are some differences:

Self-identified independents (26 percent of the vote) went from a 48-49 Republican-Democratic split to 39-57 favoring the Dems.

In 2004, 84 percent of self-identified conservatives voted for the GOP. This year 78 percent did.

Self-described moderates split 45-54 Republican-Democrat in 2004. This year the division was 38-60 against the GOP.

45 percent of the electorate said in 2006 that they attended church once a week or more. The GOP lost 6 percent of that group compared to 2004 while the Democrats were up 4 percent.

The Republicans also were down 5 percent among Protestants and 8 percent among Roman Catholics. Just over 80 percent of voters identify as Protestant or Catholic.

Asked about the importance of various topics, 67 percent said Iraq was either extremely or very important. 82 percent said the same about the economy; 74 percent said the same about corruption and ethics.

What does it all mean? The GOP lost significant support among independents, moderates, conservatives, and the pious, especially Roman Catholics. Each of these groups is a significant part of the electorate.

The question of the independent is especially interesting. 26 percent of the electorate told exit pollsters that they were independent of party. Earlier studies suggest only about 10 percent of the electorate are actually independent, and they are less likely to vote. Most “independents” do vote for one of the major parties whatever they say to exit surveys. My guess is that the GOP lost the votes this time of a lot of self-identified independents who normally vote Republican.

Exit polls do not ask people whether they are libertarians. My thought – yet another guess – would be that libertarians might identify themselves as independents in party and either as moderate or conservative in ideology. If so, the GOP lost their vote too.

Commentators often say the Republican party is a balancing act between economic libertarians and social conservatives. A GOP majority is always precarious: what pleases economic libertarians must alienate social conservatives and vice-versa. In 2006, the Republicans’ conduct of government along with the Iraq war alienated both aspects of its base along with many other voters who are not attached to one of the parties.

The picture is not all bleak for Republicans in 2008. In 2004, President Bush won two-thirds of the open and formerly Republican House districts that elected Democrats in 2006. Many of them could return to the GOP in 2008.

Democrats will have two years to dig in their incumbents in. If they can hold their majority in 2008, I would not bet against a Democratic House for a generation.

Finally, a strange result. When exit polls asked “Will the Democrats make American safe?,” fully 29 percent of Democrats answered “no.” The party apparently has yet to convince on national security.

Parents: Teach Your Children Well

On Friday I picked my son up at Union Station.  He came home for the weekend to go see Corteo with the family.  He has only been at college for a few months.  I miss his smile.  I miss his questions.  He and his girlfriend were so polite. They were being the adults while I was being the child.  I just couldn’t help myself.  I told them all about my new job, what I had done that day, what I had done the day before, my plans for the weeks to come.

On the way home in the car, Nathan said, “Hey, Mom.  I’ve written a new poem.”

“Really?” I answered, realizing how selfish I’d been.  “Let’s hear it.”

And I ask you

Speak to me of freedom? You know not what it means
but take its name and shackle those with whom you disagree
You wave a flag of righteousness; you bellow and you scream
That those who are not as you are they never should have been

Speak to me of god and tell me what he thinks
of bigotry and hatred for the love each person makes
A fellowship, a flock for which you try to build a wall
The blackest sheep is slaughtered as an offering to them all

Speak to me of love and tell me what it takes
to make a love and test it true, the arrow to be straight
One path is true one path is tried one path we will allow
Two people bound in heart and mind but cannot give a vow

Speak to me of law and tell me what is just
a chance for those with tyrant tendencies to run amok
A forum for the many to oppress a hapless few
Virginia is for lovers, but there’s no room here for you.

Nathan Revere (Nov. 2006).

A Party of Small Government No More

In my book, Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government, I argue that many voters no longer see the GOP as the party of small government. 

Now a new poll from the Club for Growth provides more quantitative backing to my narrative. It’s based on a survey taken in 15 congressional districts. Each of the districts was represented by an incumbent Republicans and each district was generally considered among the most competitive for the GOP this year. Neither were the Democratic or Republican candidates on the ballot in these districts suffering from a scandal that touched them directly.

Two damning results:

Q: “Now tell me whether you think the following phrase better describes the Republicans or the Democrats in Washington: “The Party of Big Government”

Republicans: 39.3%
Democrats: 27.9%
Both: 16.3%
Neither: 9.3%
Don’t know/Refused: 7.4%

Q: Would you agree or disagree with the following statement: “The Republicans used to be the party of economic growth, fiscal discipline, and limited government, but in recent years, too many Republicans in Washington have become just like the big spenders that they used to oppose.”

Agree: 65.8%
Disagree: 26.4%
Don’t know/Refused: 7.9%

Were Ousted Republicans Liberals or Conservatives?

Six Republicans in the Senate and 20 in the House were knocked off this election. In addition, eight open seats went to the Dems. (About 10 contests remain undecided.)

Were the the Republican losers economic conservatives or liberals?

My intern, Emmanuel Caudillo, compiled the scores calculated by National Journal for 2003 and 2004 on the economic conservative voting records of the ousted members. The scores are percentiles showing members relative to other members in the chambers. A score of 100 would indicate the most economically conservative voting record.

Here are the National Journal scores for the losers:

House Loser

2003

2004

Avg.

Jim Leach (IA 2)           46           49           48
Sue Kelly (NY 19)           50           48           49
Nancy Johnson (CT 5)           51           53           52
John Sweeney (NY 20)           53           52           53
Curt Weldon (PA 7)           55           54           55
Charles Bass (NH 2)           60           53           57
Jeb Bradley (NH 1)           60           55           58
John Hostettler (IN 8 )           51           64           58
Gil Gutknecht (MN 1)           49           70           60
Anne Northup (KY 3)           73           62           68
Charles Taylor (NC 11)           67           68           68
Jim Ryun (KS 2)           62           84           73
Clay Shaw (FL 22)           71           80           76
Melissa Hart (PA 4)           84           70           77
Don Sherwood (PA 10)           79           78           79
Chris Chocola (IN 2)           84           88           86
J.D. Hayworth (AZ 5)           91           88           90
Richard Pombo (CA 11)           91           92           92
Michael Fitzpatrick (PA 8 ) elected in 2004  
Mike Sodrel (IN 9) elected in 2004  
       
Open House Seats that Changed

2003

2004

Avg.

Sherwood Boehlert (NY 24)           47           49           48
Mark Green (WI 8 )           57           61           59
Jim Nussle (IA 1)           64           62           63
Bob Ney (OH 18 )           64           63           64
Mark Foley (FL 16)           71           65           68
Jim Kolbe (AZ 8 )           84           76           80
Bob Beauprez (CO 7)           91           88           90
Tom Delay (TX 22)           91           93           92
       
Senate Losers

2003

2004

Average

Lincoln Chafee (RI)           47           47           47
Mike DeWine (OH)           61           53           57
Jim Talent (MO)           62           58           60
George Allen (VA)           82           65           74
Rick Santorum (PA)           82           75           79
Conrad Burns (MT)           82           91           87

Conclusion: The great majority of losing Republicans were economic moderates or liberals. Few of the losers were above the 70th percentile in their votes on economic issues.