Category Archives: Leo Jennings

Raising the Minimum Wage — The Right Way

Ever since President Obama took office I’ve periodically wished I had the ability to call the White House get him on the phone and say “Hey, you’re not doing it right!”  Let me be clear—I don’t mean he hasn’t done the right thing—just that he’s too often done the right thing the wrong way.

For example, like many economists and advocates for working families, including Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, I thought the President’s economic stimulus package was way long on help for the “Too Big to Fail” banks and other Wall Street institutions and way short on dollars for infrastructure projects, support for education and job training, and other programs that would have helped the working families who inhabit the nation’s Main Streets.

Same thing with health care reform.  Yes, it needed to be done. But he did it wrong.  Instead of a system that guarantees health insurers millions of new customers, does little to rein-in costs, and gives anti-reform advocates the ammo they need to scare small and medium sized businesses into opposing the plan, he could have done something simple: Medicare for all, or at least for all of us over the age of 55. Not only would this approach have made Medicare solvent by bringing younger, healthier people into the system, it would have given the government immense power to negotiate lower costs with providers.

Unfortunately, the same principle applies to the President’s proposed minimum wage increase.  It’s the right thing to do, but nine dollars an hour? Really?  At least in this instance Mr. Obama’s not alone in being wrong.  Predictably, the Republicans and their bosses in the business community, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the National Restaurant Association, became apoplectic seconds after the words “raise the minimum wage” rolled off the President’s tongue during the State of the Union address.

Their reaction was as predictable as the specious claims they make about the cataclysmic effect giving the folks at the bottom of the economic ladder a boost will have on the economy.  Business leaders wail and gnash their teeth any and every time raising the minimum wage is proposed, including back in 2006 when labor led the successful effort to win voter approval of an Ohio Constitutional amendment that both raised the wage and indexed it to inflation.

The fact that their dire prognostications have never come to pass—last time I checked people are still doing business in Ohio despite the onerous burden of having to pay workers a whopping $7.85 an hour, and Costco is thriving despite paying starting employees more than $10 an hour –apparently doesn’t matter to them or to the members of the media who give their ludicrous contentions credence by repeating them.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s proposal was every bit as predictable in nature and scope as the arguments against it.  Raising the minimum wage $1.75 is fine as far as it goes—which isn’t far enough.  Had the President and his advisors really given the issue some thought they could have crafted a plan that would have both insulated the administration from criticism and gone a long way toward addressing the income inequality that plagues the working class and the middle class and has the U.S. economy stuck in neutral.

Here’s the deal.  Part A:  raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour for the vast majority of employers.  Their protestations to the contrary, it won’t bankrupt them or force them to cut jobs.  Especially when they begin ringing up the additional sales Part B of the plan generates: raising the wage to $15 per hour for full time and $11 per hour for part-time workers employed by the nation’s largest companies.

There’s little doubt that companies like Wal-Mart will attempt to avoid paying the higher wage by eliminating full-time employees or turning to temp services for workers.  To stop them, the law must include provisions that prevent employers from moving workers from full-time to part-time status and that classify temps as employees of the corporation using them.  Those two provisions would help ensure that companies comply with the letter and spirit of the law.

Which firms would qualify as “large” under the plan?  Those that directly employ 100,000 or more and average 80 workers per location.  Under this definition franchise operations like McDonalds and most other fast food chains would be exempt.  In addition, the increase would have little or no impact on large employers like IBM, UPS, FedEx and others who already pay above the proposed new minimum.

The plan would affect retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, Macy’s, Kroger’s, Home Depot, and Lowe’s along with America’s biggest banks—the folks responsible for the 2008 economic implosion would.  (Here’s an important side note: although most people equate low wages with retail, bank employees are grossly underpaid, and financial institutions are infamous for aggressively opposing union organizing drives.)

Using Wal-Mart as an example and assuming that 40% of the company’s 2.1 million workers are full time, their aggregate annual wages would climb from $17.4 billion to $26.2 billion.  Annual wages for the retail giant’s 1.2 million part-timers would jump by nearly $5 billion, from $12.5 billion to $17.2 billion.  In all, the increases would pump an additional $14 billion into the hands of Wal-Mart workers every year.

Imagine the staggeringly positive impact this one policy would have on the economy when the wages of the more than 3.5 million people who work for America’s other large corporations are factored in.  Billions of dollars will be spent on homes, cars, clothes, food, dining out, movies, electronics, and other goods.  People who now live paycheck to paycheck will actually be able to save and plan for the future. In short, millions of working families will have an opportunity to grab a piece of what has become a fading American Dream.

The increases would also help reduce the deficit—something Republicans should love.  Higher wages will generate more income and sales tax revenue.  As salaries rise, so will the flow of dollars into Social Security and Medicare, especially when tens of thousands of workers are no longer eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit because they’re earning a living wage.  Finally, government spending will fall because the legions of low-wage workers at Wal-Mart and other firms that now receive government benefits will no longer need them.

But instead of a bold plan that could end decades of wage stagnation, we get a small across-the- board increase that simply won’t get the job done.  Someone get me the number for the White House.  I need to call Barack and tell him he’s doing the right thing the wrong way.

Again.

Leo Jennings

Obama Will Cruze to Victory

“And the winner is…”

(Drum roll—sound of envelope being ripped open.)

“…Barack Obama.”

I’m going to be honest about this: when it comes to predicting the outcome of the 2012 presidential contest I’ve been downright Romneyan.  It’s not something I’m proud of, but unlike the GOP nominee who can’t remember what he believed an hour ago, I haven’t developed a case of Romnesia or tried to Etch-a-Sketch my shifting prognostications out of existence. What hasn’t changed is my belief that the outcome of the presidential contest in Ohio would determine who would occupy the White House for the next four years.

A little over a year ago—and months before he had sewn up the GOP nomination–I believed Romney was on a clear path to victory in the Buckeye state.  He was the least buffoonish character in the cast of clowns that was seeking the Republican nod, he was and would continue to be awash in campaign cash, and his record as a Senate candidate and governor of Massachusetts would enable him to move from the far right-wing toward the center after he secured the nomination.

Other factors also pointed to a Romney win. Though recovering, the economy was weak, unemployment was uncomfortably high, and President Obama was being blamed—his job approval rating was hovering at 42%.   The Democratic Party’s dispirited and disillusioned base had not turned out in 2010, enabling the GOP to capture every statewide office.  White working-class males who had never been enthralled with Mr. Obama remained skeptical if not downright hostile, and the state’s conservatives were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to toss him out of office. Ohio was, in my opinion, ripe for the taking.

Obviously, my opinion has changed. Since mid-summer I’ve been calling the race for the President and, despite some trepidation caused by his lackluster performance in the first debate and the public’s and the media’s willingness to give Romney a pass for being the most disingenuous and dissembling candidate to ever seek the presidency, I am confident Mr. Obama will win Ohio tomorrow on his way to racking up a comfortable margin of victory in the Electoral College.

Why do I now believe that Mr. Obama will prevail in a contest he could easily have lost?

Regardless of the billion dollars spent by the candidates, political parties, and Super PACs to air more than 1,000,000 TV ads, President Obama will win Ohio and the White House because he thought it was a good idea to save the domestic auto industry and Mitt Romney did not.

The President will win because his commitment to an industry that employs one in eight Ohioans has strengthened both the state’s economy and his standing among working-class voters. This issue has provided voters with an unobstructed view of the difference between the two candidates, their credibility, and the effect each man’s philosophy of government could have on the future of our nation.

The auto rescue demonstrates that government can exert a positive impact on the economy.  Unlike TARP and the President’s overall stimulus plan, which primarily benefited Wall Street, the auto rescue paid off for Main Street, especially Main Streets across Ohio.  It preserved good-paying, blue collar manufacturing jobs, enabled GM and Chrysler to invest nearly one billion dollars in new plants and equipment, and positioned the companies to compete effectively in the global marketplace.

Yes, there was pain involved.  The thousands of union members who lost their jobs, the car dealers who were forced to close, and the Delphi retirees whose pensions shrunk will tell you just how much.  But it’s also important to note that the auto rescue forced fat cat members of the 1% to join the working families who make up the 99% in paying the price for mistakes made by corporate America.  Along with being fundamentally fair, the substantial “haircut” that bond-holders and other investors were forced to take was an essential element of the financial restructuring that put the two auto companies on the road to recovery and literally saved millions of jobs.

In the end, the auto rescue bolstered Mr. Obama’s electoral prospects because it produced tangible results for American workers—the type of tangible results that have yet to be generated by the larger stimulus plan or health care reform.  The type of results Romney and the Republicans can’t lie about or distort.  The results are as real as the paychecks that millions of workers receive each week, as real as the thousands of Chevy Cruzes that roll off the Lordstown assembly line each week, as real the pride workers feel when they read that the car they make is the best-selling model in America.

Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, everything that’s wrong with his politics, his campaign, and his philosophy was encapsulated in his stance on the auto rescue as expressed in these 84 words from an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times:

Let Detroit Go Bankrupt

If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.

Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.

Clearly, Mr. Romney was dead and demonstrably wrong.  That inconvenient truth and the fact that the op-ed can be read by anyone who visits the Times’s website hasn’t prevented Mr. Romney from attempting to flip-flop on this issue as he has on so many others, including abortion, health care, the environment, and gay rights.

But no matter how he twisted and turned, no matter how much he lied, he couldn’t get out from under the op-ed.  He could never gain traction in Ohio where voters–white working class voters in particular–were living the success of the President’s plan.

How did Mr. Romeny deal with his inability to pull ahead in the state he had to win?

He simply told bigger lies in TV and radio spots that claimed Chrysler was moving production of its Jeep models to China and GM was shipping jobs and capital overseas.  The ads were so misleading and offensive that Chrysler and GM officials vehemently denounced them, the media finally held him accountable for dissembling, and the public reacted with anger and revulsion.

Predictably, his poll numbers started to slip.  Romney had finally been hoisted on the petard of his own mistruths.

Tomorrow, the man who rescued the domestic auto industry will defeat the man who wanted to let it die and then lied about it.  That says a lot about Ohio voters.  Confronted, at last, with the undistorted, incontrovertible truth, they are poised to reward a President who did the right thing with four more years in the White House.

Now that we know who will win, the big question—the one that will obviously be discussed once the dust of the election clears—is what Mr. Obama will do with the opportunity Ohioans are about to give him.  Will he, as he did with the auto rescue, focus on investing in Main Street by making sure that working-class families have a real chance to grab their piece of the American Dream or will he revert to Wall Street-centered policies that undermined his credibility, dampened the enthusiasm of the Democratic base, and placed his prospects for reelection in jeopardy?

I have a prediction, but I’m not ready to make it public just yet…

Leo Jennings

Memo to the Occupiers

Occupy Wall Street has many on the left cheering.  That includes me, albeit with reservations.

As someone who devoted a good portion of his life to fighting  injustice—or as the late liberal icon and state legislator Robert Hagan was fond of saying “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”—I have a natural affinity for the folks camped out in New York and other cities around the nation and the world.

On the other hand, as someone who has spent the past 24 years striving to affect change by working both inside and outside the “system” I listen to the white noise that’s emanating from the protesters and all I can say is: “Really?”

Really, you have managed to garner the attention of the media around the world and you can’t figure out what the hell it is you want?

Really, leaders of the protests—to the extent there actually are any—are offended that the media is even asking what the hell you want?

Really, the best answer you can give is this kind of mumbo jumbo as reported in the New York Times:

The General Assembly has already adopted a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” which includes a list of grievances against corporations and a call for others to join the group in peaceful assembly. To many protesters, that general statement is enough, and the open democracy of Zuccotti Park is the point of the movement.

Really, if that’s the point, you guys should all pack up your stuff, grab a low fat, grande latte on your way out, and go home, because you’re wasting everybody’s time.  Worse yet, you’re actually helping the very comfortable miscreants you’re supposedly there to afflict.

Let’s be serious, anyone who thinks the traders and financiers walking around in $5,000 bespoke suits in the offices overlooking the protests gives a damn about marches, chants, signs, or the invective that’s hurled at them as they arrive and leave in their limos and Town Cars each day is, in a word, delusional.  I’ve dealt with people like them, they know they’re evil, they enjoy it, they revel in it, and believe me, they’re laughing at the protesters all day, every day, including on the weekends whether they’re at their Beach House in the Hamptons or flying off to the islands on their Gulfstream Vs.

In fact, when they hear words like these from the occupiers they literally laugh so hard that Dom Perignon flies out of their noses:

In Boston, Meghann Sheridan wrote on the group’s Facebook page, “The process is the message.” In Baltimore, Cullen Nawalkowsky, a protester, said by phone that the point was a “public sphere not moderated by commodities or mainstream political discourse.” An Occupy Cleveland participant, Harrison Kalodimos, is even writing a statement about why demands are not the answer.

Yup, I can see the boys at City Bank reading this stuff in the NYT and then saying: “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOh we’re so scared of a public sphere not moderated by commodities” Give me a break.

Even someone as smart as Paul Krugman, whom I respect and with whom I usually agree, has been taken in by the “protest is enough” claptrap that, at least for the moment, defines OWS.

You see, until a few weeks ago it seemed as if Wall Street had effectively bribed and bullied our political system into forgetting about that whole drawing lavish paychecks while destroying the world economy thing. Then, all of a sudden, some people insisted on bringing the subject up again.

And their outrage has found resonance with millions of Americans. No wonder Wall Street is whining.

OK, Paul, Wall Street is whining, but guess what, they’re also winning.  That’s because they have bribed and bullied the political system, including the Obama Administration, into doing nothing either to punish them for the damage they’ve done to the economy or to stop them from doing it again.

While I’ll grant that the outrage being expressed does resonate with a vast majority of Americans, that outrage means nothing if it’s not converted into action that brings about real change.  That’s what turns a protest into a movement that fundamentally alters and improves the world we live in.

History provides many examples of how this works: Ghandi’s crusade to dismantle South Africa’s pass laws in the early 1900s; the labor movement’s battle to organize industrial workers in the ‘30s; Dr. King’s drive to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights statutes; the anti-Vietnam war movement that brought down LBJ.  Even this year’s protests in Ohio against SB 5.  All started as protests with clearly defined goals that turned into effective movements.

The same can be said for the Tea Party.  Derided as yahoos and know-nothings when they emerged to protest corporate bailouts and President Obama’s health care reform plan, they coalesced into a movement built on easily understandable demands: smaller government and lower taxes.  Their mantra was adopted by dozens of GOP Congressional candidates in 2010 and played a major role in ousting the Democratic majority.  Since taking power, the Tea Party members have been driving the legislative agenda in Congress—including killing virtually every initiative proposed by the President.

So, here’s some advice for the occupiers wherever you are.  Learn from history.  If you want Wall Street and the new Robber Barons to stop laughing at you, figure out the things they fear and hate the most, then make those things happen.

That’s a principle Tom Friedman of the New York Times grasped in a recent column.  He suggested that OWS demand that four reforms be imposed on the financial services industry.  Nice try, Tom.  Unfortunately, as you point out in the very same column, Wall Street owns Congress, having purchased it with $3.2 billion in campaign contributions over the past 20 years.  As long as that’s the case, it will be a very cold day in Zucotti Park and the other places the OWSers are congregating before the change they’re seeking occurs.

So what should the protesters demand or do?  Here’s two suggestions for starters.  First, fight for real campaign finance reform that reverses the Citizens United decision and takes the “For Sale” sign off the Capitol and the White House.  Renew the push for publicly financed campaigns started a couple of decades ago by folks like Fred Wertheimer.  Look, it’s a proven fact that politicians respond to the people who write the checks that finance their campaigns. So it’s logical to believe that if those checks come from Main Street rather than Wall Street the people with the power to reform the financial system might actually do it.  Now that’s something the fat cats will really hate.

Second, the protestors should head to Massachusetts and do whatever it takes to make Dr. Elizabeth Warren Senator Warren in January of 2013.  There’s no one Wall Street hates more, which should be motivation enough to support her campaign.  There’s also a practical reason: her willingness to fight for working families.  Elect her to the Senate where she can team up with a principled colleague like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and they can use the body’s arcane rules to grind business to halt—either to force passage of reform legislation or block bills that favor Wall Street.

Accomplish these two goals and the OWS will have taken a huge stride in going from “Really?” to really making a difference.

Leo Jennings

The Working Class and the Great Capitulator

When I began writing this piece its focus—and the act that earned Barack Obama the moniker “Great Capitulator”—was his decision to cave into Republican senators and Wall Street fat cats and withdraw his nomination of Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  The CFPB, conceived by Warren in 2007, was a key component of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and has been vilified by big money interests and their toadies in Congress from the moment it was proposed.

Professor Warren, who chaired the TARP Oversight Committee and was fiercely critical of the too-big-to-fail banks and brokerages that raked in billions in bailouts funded by working-class tax dollars, is widely recognized as the nation’s premier consumer advocate and most persuasive voice for reform of the financial and credit markets. Along with being an outspoken fighter for working-class families victimized by predatory lenders, Warren is the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard, where she has taught bankruptcy, contract, and commercial law since 1992.  By any measure she was, as Mr. Obama noted in announcing her appointment, the person most qualified to chair the CFPB.

Republicans and Wall Street shared that view, as was made obvious by their vehement opposition to her nomination.  The last thing they wanted was a loud and coherent voice for reform—especially because the only other regulators with enough guts and independence to speak truth to Wall Street’s power, the FDIC’s Sheila Bair and the SEC’s Mary Schapiro, no longer held their positions.  It seems Mr. Obama, who appears to cower in the shadow of Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, didn’t want to hear her voice either.

While his surrender on health care, his abandonment of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act, and his decision to “stimulate” the economy by directing more money to Wall Street than Main Street were all slaps in the face to working-class Americans, I was prepared to argue that allowing the GOP and the financial industry to kill Warren’s nomination was the most egregious of the cowardly acts that have characterized this presidency, because it ended any hope that the institutions who are blithely destroying the American Dream would finally be forced face a worthy adversary with a bully pulpit who knew how to use it.

Man, was I wrong.

I was wrong because the Faustian bargain Mr. Obama struck with John Boehner and the modern day Know Nothings who comprise the Tea Party in order to gain an extension of the nation’s debt ceiling makes his previous betrayals seem piddling.  And don’t be mistaken, the betrayal doesn’t lie in the fact that he caved on the issue of whether deficit reduction should be achieved via spending cuts alone or through a combination of cuts and revenue increases.  It lies in the fact that he engaged in the debate at all.

Rather than lending credence to the specious argument that the deficit is the most pressing economic problem facing the nation today, the president should have said that the best, the only way to deal with our long term fiscal dilemma is to grow our way out of it by doing what it takes to put people back to work.

He should have embraced the philosophy that has guided Democratic presidents for nearly 80 years: that tough economic times call for more spending, not less. Spending on infrastructure projects, the development of alternative energy sources, research and development, job training and education.  He should have demanded that we invest in America’s greatest asset: Americans.

Instead, by embracing the ridiculous notion that cutting trillions in spending is the cure-all for what ails the body politic, the Great Capitulator has all but guaranteed that the investment needed to fuel both recovery and deficit reduction will never be made.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly—and it’s hard to say for sure which because this administration has a penchant for committing tactical errors as well as for turning its back on its core constituency—Mr. Obama has now put himself in a rhetorical box that will make it impossible for him to credibly argue that the government should spend money to stimulate the economy, even as working-class families find themsevles staring into the barrel of double-dip recession.

While some may compare Mr. Obama’s decision to join the Republicans in attacking the deficit to Bill Clinton’s partnering with Newt Gingrich to substantially alter the welfare system, there is one very critical difference between the two: Mr. Clinton never abandoned the core Democratic principle that government had an essential role to play in making life better for the American people.

Mr. Obama, for reasons known only to him, has done exactly that.  He is now in league with idealogues whose real goal has nothing to do with reducing the deficit and everything to do with dismantling what’s left of the social safety net that has been woven by a succession of Democratic presidents and Congressional leaders since 1933.

In so doing, he has abandoned the constituency that played a key role in his 2008 victory and renounced the principles and philosophies that constituency holds dear. Throughout 2010, Working-Class Perspectives warned Democrats for ten months that they could not expect working-class support and that people would stay home. Guess what happened.

 

The Democrat operatives running the Obama reelection campaign calculate that the working class has no place to turn politically, and they are trying to gather narratives to place a positive spin on his capitulation.  No doubt, how the members of the working class, people of color, seniors, women, and union members react to this latest betrayal may well determine who occupies the Oval Office in January of 2013.

 

If it’s not Mr. Obama, the Great Capitulator will have no one to blame but himself.

 

Leo Jennings

Paul Ryan Breaks the Rules

Cardinal Rule: A fundamental rule, upon which other matters hinge. Wiktionary

If you’re engaged in any type of activity that involves the development and implementation of a strategic plan you run into them all the time: Cardinal Rules.  Know them, abide by them, and your strategy may well succeed.  Ignore or violate them, and your plan will almost certainly crash and burn.  In football, for instance, avoiding turnovers is a cardinal rule. In warfare the rules warn against being outflanked by the enemy and outrunning supply lines.  Those of us who plan and execute political campaigns live by this one: “Don’t write the other guy’s commercial.”

Apparently GOP Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the architect of a plan that will supposedly reduce the federal budget deficit by six trillion dollars over the next ten years, missed that page in the political strategists’ handbook.  And Democrats everywhere, essentially messageless since November of 2008, are rejoicing, because in calling for the privatization of Medicare the Chair of the House Budget Committee didn’t give them fodder for one ad, he handed them enough material to make a couple thousand.

Speculation abounds as to why Mr. Ryan, a savvy politician who played a key role in the Republican takeover of the U.S. House, proposed a policy sure to raise hackles and howls among seniors and those who soon will be.  Conservative pundits and commentators explain it by saying he’s courageous and laud the plan as bold and groundbreaking.  Liberals question his sanity.

I just think he’s cocky.  He’s obviously certain his party will do a better job of framing the many issues his flawed plan raises and will be able to control the debate over it.  Clearly he doesn’t fear the Democrats at all.

Why should he? President Obama and the party’s Congressional leadership have proven repeatedly that they are incapable of communicating a coherent message to the American people.  Indeed, the mere fact that the Democrats have allowed deficit reduction to become the primary topic of discussion in Washington proves how incredibly inept they are.  At a time when the White House should be attempting to reduce the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment rate and speed up the glacier-paced economic recovery by creating a new stimulus plan, Mr. Obama is instead trying to outbid Ryan and his Republican cohorts in a game of deficit reduction poker.

As a result, things that would help reduce the jobless rate and improve prospects for the working class, like spending on infrastructure, enhanced job training, and more support for higher education are off the table, because both parties are now obsessed with the national debt rather than the mounting debt middl- class families are accumulating as they watch the value of their homes and their real wages fall and the cost of gas, college, and other staples rise.

And while Mr. Ryan’s plan is, as former Reagan budget director David Stockman says, nonsensical and counterproductive to the nation’s long-term best interests, he at least gets credit for being a true believer.  He and his supporters in the Tea Party movement really do believe that the deficit is more problematic than unemployment and the erosion of the American Dream.  They are sincere when they say that slashing tax rates for the wealthy, cutting health care benefits for the poor and the elderly, and turning Medicare over to the insurance industry is the formula for a brighter future.  Sincere, but goofy.

President Obama and the Democrats, on the other hand, have climbed on the deficit reduction bandwagon because they’re once again following the polls rather than their principles.  It’s a disheartening replay of the strategy that eventually undermined the drive for health care reform and set the stage for the 2010 electoral debacle.

In that instance, as many of you will remember, the White House proscribed any talk of a Canadian-style single payer system then ditched the concept of a public option in order to secure passage of a watered down insurance reform bill that’s been an albatross around Democrats’ necks since it was signed.  Not only did the process alienate and disappoint the Party’s base, it provided lots of material for demagogues like Sarah Palin who began ranting about “death panels,” as well as Tea Party adherents who demanded that government keep its hands off their Medicare benefits.  In short, Mr. Obama broke the cardinal rule and wrote the ads that fueled the GOP’s success last year.

Although Mr. Ryan has returned the favor by proposing that Medicare be converted from a government-managed (yes, Tea Partiers, the government has its hands all over your Medicare benefits) entitlement program that provides adequate health care benefits for the elderly to a cash cow for the insurance industry, there’s no guarantee the Democrats have the ability, will, or resources to exploit the gift they’ve been handed.

To do so they must launch an all-out assault on the Republican Medicare boondoggle and sustain it through next year’s election.  The messaging is simple enough—they can start by stealing Sarah Palin’s death panel line, because that’s what the insurance giants will become the minute they’re given the power to make life and death decisions about grandma and grandpa’s medical care.  It will be an incredibly effective attack—if they decide to make it.

On the other side, the GOP, flush with money and, as I’ve noted earlier, cocky as hell, is already running ads in key Congressional districts, including the Ohio Sixth, claiming that Ryan’s plan will save and strengthen Medicare.  The fact that this is an outright lie doesn’t matter, because, as we in the advertising industry know, say anything loudly enough, often enough, and cleverly enough and lots of people will believe it.

It’s a cardinal rule.

Leo Jennings

Jennings is a political consultant who has worked with the Center for Working-Class Studies on research about working-class voters

Timing Is Everything

Sometimes clichés become old clichés because they have enduring value.  Here’s one that puts the consequences of the 2010 election in perspective: “Timing is everything.”  That is because the Democrats didn’t just lose hundreds of important elections here in Ohio and across the nation, they lost the future as well.

Of course some may argue that I’m being far too pessimistic.  After all, we have elections every two years, and candidates always say that the next election is the most important one that’s ever been held.  Often such rhetoric is pure hyperbole.  But the truth is that there are elections and then there are ELECTIONS—like the one in 2010.

2010 was one of those elections because people around the country not only voted for candidates, they also decided who would control the process of drawing new state legislative and Congressional district lines based on the results of the just-concluded Census. And, as any student of American history will acknowledge, the party that draws the lines—that “holds the pencil” to use the vernacular–employing a combination of gerrymandering, state-of-the-art technology, and the exercise of raw political power almost always dominates public policy formation for the next decade, if not longer.

In case you haven’t noticed, the GOP won the pencil and the nearly limitless power that goes with it.

Was it just bad and/or dumb luck that caused the Democrats to catch a serious beating at the polls in this critical election?   Was it the brilliance of the GOP’s platform and marvelous campaigning that convinced working and middle-class Americans to once again vote against their own self-interest after two straight cycles in they seemed to have finally read and understood Thomas Franks’s seminal work, What’s the Matter With Kansas?

Of course not.

Fact is, Democrats lost because Democrats—and particularly the Obama administration–blew it.  Bad policies, worse messaging, and disastrous strategic planning and execution enabled the GOP, pronounced dead in the wake of the Democratic deluge of 2008, to convince voters that liberalism had failed—even though the Obama administration’s policies were abhorred as much if not more by the left than the right.

It didn’t matter that Obama was not a liberal, however, because Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and other conservative talking heads along with the GOP House and Senate caucuses and the business community, managed to convince the electorate that he was.  As a result, working- and middle-class voters in Ohio and other states with high jobless rates blamed liberalism for their troubles.  On November 2 they voted in droves for Republicans who displayed their gratitude by launching an all-out attack against them on November 3.

In some years the GOP might have feared so quickly turning it guns on the constituency that resurrected them, Lazarus-like, from the political hereafter. After all, screw up the way the Dems had, and the folks who put you in could just as easily toss you out a short 24 months later.  Yet, despite the threat of swift retribution at the polls, the GOP charged on boldly, fearlessly, and in the case of new House Speaker John Boehner, often tearfully, promising to do things, including revising Social Security, that would inevitably enrage the working and middles classes.

That’s where the old cliché “Timing is everything” comes in.  The GOP rushed ahead because they had just won elections in state after state that would enable them to institutionalize their hold on power and make themselves practically impervious to the changing mood of the electorate.  They knew they could safely blast away because they held the pencil and with it the power to draw legislative and Congressional districts they could never lose—no matter how irate the voters might become in the years ahead.  They recognized that all things being equal, they wouldn’t, they couldn’t really be held accountable in most states until sometime in 2022, which gave them plenty of time to do what they damn well pleased.

While the CWCS is researching and will release in the spring an extensive study on the effect the 2010 election will have on reapportionment and redistricting and the policy making process  across the nation, Ohio serves as a prime example of what everyone else can expect. On November 2 the Democrats lost all statewide offices —  they had held three of four going into the election — and with them control of the Apportionment Board.  Governor-elect John Kasich—again, why wait until you’re actually in office when you know you’ve got the state by the throat—warned everyone to get on his bus or be run over by it.

Not surprisingly, everyone Mr. Kasich really cared about was already on his bus—it’s a limo really. After all, the guy was a director at Lehman Brothers.  The people who have to worry about being run over are public employees including police officers, firefighters, and teachers, poor families who depend on Medicaid for health care, building trades unions and their members, seniors, local governments and libraries that depend on a variety of revenue sharing dollars from the state, and just about anyone else who looks to government for help.

Look closer and you’ll see that there’s a little more method than just an aversion to government in the new governor’s madness.  He and the rest of the Republicans know that while holding the power to draw the lines is great, being able to defund the Democratic Party by essentially gutting one of its primary funding sources, public sector unions, is absolutely marvelous.  Go after the public sector by privatizing everything in sight and the next thing you know the Dems won’t have the money they need to run even moderately credible campaigns in the few legislative and Congressional districts that may be created in when they draw the lines.

Now there’s a recipe for cooking up a permanent majority both in Columbus and in Washington that’s hard to beat.

And that’s why timing is everything.

Leo Jennings

Jennings is a political consultant who has worked with the Center for Working-Class Studies on research about working-class voters

Base Jumping: The Democrats and the Working Class

I have to admit that I am somewhat amused at the intellectual poking and prodding being done by pundits–particularly Democrats–as they analyze the results of the November midterm election.  It’s as if they’re a gaggle of pathologists standing around a corpse in a morgue unable to agree on what caused the death of the unfortunate soul lying on the slab in front of them.

While they argue vehemently back and forth, an aged maintenance man mops the floor around them. Clearly a grizzled veteran of the place impressed neither by death nor doctors, he looks over the shoulders of the physicians, takes a peek at the body, shrugs, says to no one in particular,  “Somebody cut the guy’s head off,” and returns to his cleaning.

Mystery solved.

It’s the same with this election.  There’s no need to scrutinize the exit polls or torture the demographic data.  Anyone who didn’t immediately recognize what killed the Democratic Party this year just isn’t—and hasn’t—been paying attention.  That’s because we witnessed a copycat killing, an eerie replay of the 1994 execution of the Democrats at the Congressional and state level precipitated by Bill Clinton’s disastrous first two years in office.

It was, in fact a killing predicted in this space back in January, when I wrote the following in the wake of Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the race for the late Ted Kennedy’s senate seat:

Instead, Democrats now find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun held by members of a disenchanted electorate who are currently demonstrating a clear proclivity to vote for the party of no ideas—the GOP–over the party of badly executed ones.

And they have no one to blame but themselves.

Barack Obama placed the Democrats in front of the firing squad by repeatedly deriding and ignoring the party’s base voters.  He did it during the health care debate by barring any discussion of a Canadian-style single payer system and then abandoning its watered-down cousin, the public option, in a futile attempt to attract Republican support.

He did it by ignoring progressives like Paul Krugman who warned that his economic recovery plan would fail because it placed far too much emphasis on re-inflating Wall Street and far too little on resurfacing Main Street.

He also did it by continually contending that a failure to communicate, rather than failed policy, was at the heart of the dilemma the Democrats faced as the election grew near.  In essence he was telling working and middle class Americans that they weren’t smart enough to understand all that he had done for them, when, in reality, they clearly believed he had accomplished very little.

That belief is reflected in the results of a survey the Center for Working-Class Studies conducted immediately before the election.  Although Mr. Obama continually tried to convince people that his stimulus plan was effective, 80% of the respondents who categorized themselves as “working class” believed the economy was bad or very bad, 64% said it would stay that way for two years or more, less than 40% believed the country was heading in the right direction, and 56% said they felt the American Dream was slipping away.

In short, they weren’t buying what he was trying to sell, something that would prove disastrous on November 2 because, while we can debate about the make-up of the party’s base and the definition of its  “working class” component,  two things are inarguable: first, that 2010 was the third change election in a  row and, second, the base, amorphous and hard-to-define as it may be, is critically important in such elections because it is the one group that can be counted on to stay the course.

That fact is underscored by the results of the CWCS survey. Although deeply pessimistic about the state of the economy and the future, 69% continue to have a favorable opinion of the president and more than 70% favored Ted Strickland over John Kasich in the race for Ohio governor.

Unfortunately, poll results aren’t ballots, and as happened in 1994, the disaffected members of base did what the disaffected and disappointed do: they stayed at home.  Voter turnout in traditional Democratic strongholds like Mahoning, Trumbull, Cuyahoga, and Summit counties fell well below 50%, depriving Strickland of the votes he needed in what turned out to be a very close election.  As a result Ohio, the swing state of all swing states, fell into the hands of the Republicans–bad news for the Democratic president who will almost certainly need to carry the state if he hopes to win reelection in 2012. As CWCS co-director, John Russo, said in March 2010, “working people are looking elsewhere for agency and voice.

Finally, while we may have witnessed a copycat killing, the effects of this year’s election have the potential to be more wide-reaching and long-lasting than what followed the Democratic drubbing of 1994.  Unlike that year, this mid-term fell immediately before the redistricting process will begin across the country.  Mr. Obama’s failures have placed the redistricting pen—actually it’s more likely to be a computer mouse these days—in GOP hands in a vast majority of states.  That means the likelihood of Democrats regaining the majority in the U.S. House any time soon is extremely remote.

In addition, unlike Mr. Clinton, who recovered from the battering he took during his first two years in office by working with the Republicans on welfare reform and riding the economic boom of the mid-90s, Mr. Obama faces recalcitrant Congressional Republicans who are committed to driving him from office, a deeply troubled economy that is not expected to grow significantly over the next two years, and a Democratic base that will grow even more frustrated  if he follows what appears to be his natural instincts and compromises with the GOP on critically important issues.

As of this moment, the White House seems unconcerned about their dimming prospects for the future, apparently buoyed by their belief in the cliché that you can’t beat someone with no one, a reference to the currently weak field of Republican presidential hopefuls.

They would do well to remember that history has a way of repeating itself and that Bill Clinton was the “no one” George Bush was unconcerned about in 1992.

Leo Jennings