Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Both Parties Should Be Humble Today: Prospects for Bipartisan Progress on Entitlements and Immigration

Humility is seldom sought and usually imposed.  Once humbled, however, the wise person learns from the experience and become more open to alternatives that previously may have been dismissed.

As they woke up this morning, Republicans obviously had many reasons to be humble.

Despite a struggling economy, rising debt, persistently high unemployment, and most Americans thinking the country is going in the wrong direction, Governor Romney managed to lose the election by a rather large margin in the Electoral College.

With more than twice as many Democratic-held Senate seats being on the ballot, many in “Red” states, Republicans should have taken control of the Senate this year.  Instead, with weak candidates, a poor message, and repeated mis-steps, Republicans have actually gone backwards and lost a couple of seats.

While it may not be so obvious today, and appears thus far to have eluded most pundits and celebrating Democrats, Democrats have many reasons to be humble as well.

Yes, President Barack Obama won a second term as President, and he did so against the head winds of a weak recovery, high unemployment, and an approval rating that always hovered below 50 percent.

But it was hardly a convincing win.

President Obama’s biggest fans pretend that he is a transformational figure, a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan.  But President Reagan was re-elected in a landslide in which he carried 49 states and won by an increased popular vote margin of more than 18 points.

In sharp contrast, President Obama’s popular vote margin shrank from 7 points in 2008 to 2 points in 2012.  If the present popular vote margin stands (with nearly 99 percent of the precincts reporting nationwide), President Obama will pass the 50 percent dividing line by only a few tenths of a percent.  He becomes only the second President in history to be re-elected with a smaller margin of the vote than in his first election — the last one being Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

Moreover, while President Obama stays in the White House, Republicans remain in firm control of the House of Representatives.  After a “wave” election, such as we saw in 2010, things tend to move back toward balance in the next election cycle, with representatives who had seized swing districts being removed.  Instead, with several congressional races still too-close-to-call, projections are that Republicans will have lost fewer than half a dozen seats and thereby maintain a healthy majority in the House.

And Republicans increased their hold on state houses yesterday.  Nearly two-thirds of the Governors are now Republicans.  Then-Senator-now-President Obama being the exception that proves the rule, the farm team for presidential candidates in the last half-century has been the state executives, not federal legislators. [Note:  Sentence revised in light of comments.]  Thus, Republicans now have a leg up on the executive training for the next generation of presidential candidates.

So both of our major political parties have ample reasons for humility today.

In light of that, could there be a bipartisan moment?  Is there any prospect during a second Obama term for both Democrats and Republicans to come together and accomplish something important for the common good?

William Galston of the Brookings Institute is skeptical, saying that he doesn’t “think there is anything in this election that has pointed a way forward.”  I beg to differ — or at least to hope.  I think we have a genuine chance — to be sure, only a chance — for meaningful bipartisan progress on such things as entitlement reform (and deficit reduction) and immigration reform.  Below the break, I further explain my cautious optimism.


To begin with, I would be naïve not to acknowledge the many signs of the times — especially in light of the recent campaign — suggesting that bipartisan cooperation could remain elusive.

President Obama ran perhaps the most negative re-election campaign of any incumbent President in modern history.  As the President’s campaign team rather openly acknowledged, their early strategy was less to make a case for retaining the President than to destroy Governor Romney’s reputation by millions of dollars of negative ads portraying the Republican nominee as a callous and detached plutocrat.  In so doing, the candidate of “Hope and Change” in 2008 became the candidate of “Fear and Snark” in 2012.  As George Will quipped, the only mandate President Obama could legitimately claim on election day was that he “is not Bain Capital.”

And President Obama does not have a history of reaching across partisan lines, however much his 2008 campaign suggested otherwise.  As both a state legislator and a United States Senator, he voted reliably on the hard left side of his party, declining to engage with fellow legislators from the other party (or, for that matter, from his own party).

During his first couple of years as President, he drove his favored legislation through a Congress dominated by his own party.  His chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, famously responded to a suggestion that the Obama White House seek common ground with Republicans before passing a stimulus bill:  “We have the votes.  F*** ‘em.” 

And many Obama supporters now hope that he will double-down on the liberal agenda.  As but one example, writing in The Atlantic, Professor Jack Balkin urges a re-elected President Obama to “let the United States go over the fiscal cliff” (in terms of expiring tax cuts and sequestration budget cuts) and then “strike a deal on entitlements, defense, and taxes that will favor Democratic priorities for a long time.”

And Republicans have been equally to blame.  President Obama had hardly finished taking the oath of office before Senate Minority Leader Mitchell McConnell remarked that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President.”  (In fairness, as Bob Woodward reminded readers in his recent book on the failures of leadership in Washington, Senator McConnell continued that statement by explaining that he didn’t want President Obama to fail but rather to change and meet Republicans half-way.)

Moreover, the resurgence of the Republican Party in 2010 was attributable in substantial part to the unifying theme of opposing President Obama and his agenda in increasing the size of the federal government.  Nothing has been better for the Republican Party in the past quarter-century than standing in staunch opposition to President Obama.  A party that appeared headed for extinction (or at least permanent minority party status) only four years ago is now back in the battle.  A rather lackluster presidential candidate came within one percent of winning, the part retains a majority in the House, and nearly two-thirds of the Governors are Republicans.

Despite what appear to be inauspicious indications, I suggest that it could be exactly the right time for bipartisan initiatives in at least two major areas, if both the Democratic President and the Republican Congressional leadership are looking toward the future — both personally (in terms of historical legacy) and publicly (in terms of the common good).  Wise leaders in both parties should seize this opportunity to move forward on entitlement reform and thus on reducing the exploding deficit and to finally bring about immigration reform.

Now that he has been re-elected, President Obama, like his predecessors who gained a second term, will be looking to history rather than the next campaign.  President Obama surely understands that most second-terms for re-elected Presidents have been disappointing.  The prospect of disappointment is even greater here since President Obama was re-elected with a greatly diminished margin in an increasingly divided country.

The only way to avoid second-term malaise is to do something “big”.  And the reality is that President Obama cannot do something “big” without entering into a partnership with Republicans.

First, I think the time could be ripe for entitlement reform.  Republicans took the considerable political risk of speaking directly to that issue during the last two years of majority control in the House and again in the past election campaign with Representative Paul Ryan as the Vice Presidential candidate.  And, as a Democrat, President Obama is best positioned to move forward on this issue — a “Nixon Going to China” moment.

If he reflects soberly, President Obama should realize that, unless things were to change, his present legacy may lie in having exploded the deficit and left a crushing debt load for future generations.  Unless the trend is reversed, the oppressive weight of the growing debt will persist for generations and may well overshadow anything else from the Obama era.

Last year, the federal government paid $414 billion just on interest on the national debt.  The figure is continuing to rise.  That’s money not available to help anyone, other than bankers and the Chinese government from which we borrow so much.

And nearly every informed observer acknowledges that the current trend-lines for entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are not sustainable.  And deficit reduction cannot be accomplished without changing the rules for these entitlements.  The entitlements dwarf all discretionary spending, meaning that budgetary reductions in other areas only picks at the bigger problem.

Moreover, if we fail to address entitlement spending, budget reductions — which will be forced on us by economic reality at some point — undoubtedly will focus primarily on poverty programs.  Thus, a failure to address the national debt — and thus entitlement spending — ultimately will place a heavy burden not only on the next generation but on those least able to carry it.

President Obama once acknowledged as much and, now that the campaign is over, may do so again.  When Representative Paul Ryan first proposed entitlement reform two years ago, President Obama termed the plan “a serious proposal.”  He admitted that “the major driver of our long term liabilities, everybody here knows, is Medicare and Medicaid and our health care spending. . . . Nothing comes close. That's going to be what our children have to worry about.”

In addition to not having to think of his own political prospects now, President Obama should realize that entitlements are increasingly less effective as a Democratic campaign weapon.  One significant message from this past election is that Social Security and Medicare are no longer the “third-rail” in politics, electrocuting any Republican who dares to propose reform of any kind.

Governor Romney chose Representative Ryan, the Republican most identified with meaningful entitlement reform, as his running mate.  Democrats thought this would prove to be the winning point for their 2012 campaign.  CNN’s Candy Crowley wondered aloud whether Republicans had a “death wish” in elevating to the VP slot someone who had dared to propose a concrete plan for entitlement reform.  Former Speaker Pelosi framed the plan to take back the House for Democrats based on opposition to the Ryan entitlement reform plan — terming Ryan as the “Medicare Killer”.

Did it work?  Hardly.  While Romney-Ryan lost the election, the Republican ticket carried the over-65 demographic by 12 points.  And Republican congressional candidates bucked the Democratic tide to hold strongly to a substantial majority in the House of Representatives.

In sum, President Obama has a good reason to return to his original instincts in working with thoughtful Republicans, like Representative Ryan, to achieve entitlement reform, as the only hope for progress on reducing deficits and halting the national slide toward bankruptcy.  And, of course, Republicans already are on the record in wanting entitlement reform and, with a good dose of humility, should be seeking for compromises with the President.

Second, while it always has been a moral priority, immigration reform should now be recognized as a strategic necessity for Republicans.  Shortly before the election, President Obama anticipated that his re-election would be attributable in substantial part to powerful support from Hispanic voters and that they deserved his gratitude by achieving immigration reform.  In the past, wise Republicans have been leaders toward immigration reform, such as President George W. Bush who came close to achieving it.  Senator Marco Rubio has championed a Dream Act that would give legal status to children of undocumented immigrants and others, strikingly similar to what President Obama has proposed (and attempted to implement by administrative decree).

But too many Republicans have opposed just about any type of immigration reform that accepts legal status for undocumented aliens, much less a path to citizenship.  They too often appeal to fears of economic or cultural decline and thereby give the appearance, if not the reality, of being anti-immigrant.  Republicans certainly have a point that a nation has to be able to control security at its borders, especially in this dangerous era of international terrorism.  But Republicans, who believe in personal responsibility and hard work, should never have allowed themselves to be set opposite of those who are seeking a better way of life and have been willing to accept unpleasant work in this country to get there.  We should be encouraging a sensible migrant worker policy, along with a path toward full-fledged American citizenship for those who grew up in this country or served in the military, etc.

If not persuaded by the moral claim for immigration reform to enhance human dignity, Republicans should now recognize it as a political necessity.  The margin of defeat for Governor Romney yesterday lay in getting only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.  The party cannot succeed nationally by alienating the fastest growing demographic group.

So I am — cautiously — optimistic that President Obama and Republican House leaders can achieve meaningful progress on things that matter.  And, who knows, if entitlement reform and immigration reform are accomplished in a bipartisan partnership, maybe the precedent will be set for other, equally important, initiatives?  Perhaps we could finally talk about doing something about entrenched poverty beyond arguments about how much money to throw at the problem?

But, one thing at a time.  Anything would be a good start.


Sisk, Greg | Permalink

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Then-Senator-now-President Obama being the exception that proves the rule, every other President elected in modern times came from a Governor’s office.

Professor, there's a Jack Kennedy on line one.

Joking aside, excellent comments.

Posted by: Titus | Nov 7, 2012 4:56:24 PM

Thanks, Titus. I guess it depends on what one means by "modern times" -- since 1960 is now more than half-a-century ago. I guess that I succumbed to the self-serving approach (error?) of thinking that what is "modern" should be measured by one's personal chronology. When Senator Kennedy became President Kennedy, I was but a new-born.

Posted by: Greg Sisk | Nov 7, 2012 5:01:15 PM

Not to be a pedant, but even if fifty years is the demarcation point, there's Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. Sure, two of them had been sitting vice-presidents directly before becoming/being elected president, but none of them were ever governors, and Nixon had eight years out of office before being elected. That said, I think your point is sound. That is, the best training for being a government executive is being a government executive. The only exception on that point is in the area of foreign affairs, where senators who take an interest in such matters can have a distinct advantage in terms of knowledge and experience, if not necessarily electability (see John Kerry and John McCain).

Posted by: David Lyons | Nov 7, 2012 11:24:37 PM

And I agree with Titus, Professor Sisk: very helpful comments.

Posted by: David Lyons | Nov 7, 2012 11:25:28 PM

"He becomes only the second President in history to be re-elected with a smaller margin of the vote than in his first election — the last one being Woodrow Wilson in 1916."

This is a pointless statistic. For fuller context, how many presidents tried to be re-elected, and failed? (Geo H. W. Bush, Carter ....) So those were more polarizing (or less beloved) than Obama. How many presidents, in toto, were elected with a smaller number of electoral votes, or a smaller percentage of the popular vote, than Obama? Those stats would be more telling, and would provide better context. When you winnow the field down so considerably and attach more conditions (presidents who won re-election), it makes the stat less meaningful. Sort of like saying "this is the first hoops player with 1000 points, 400 rebounds, 350 assists and 100 steals in the HISTORY of the school .... "

Posted by: Anon | Nov 8, 2012 7:53:37 AM

Titus and David are quite right that I expressed myself poorly. The point I intended to make was the Barack Obama is the first sitting Senator elected to the presidency in half-a-century. While a couple of Vice Presidents -- including more than one who had served in the Senate -- went on to the Oval Office, the other have been sitting or former state chief executives. I've revised the sentence in the post -- with a note to acknowledge the comments that prompted the revision.

Posted by: Greg Sisk | Nov 8, 2012 9:50:17 AM

I quite disagree with "Anon" that there is no significance to President Obama becoming only the second President in history to be re-elected with a lower margin. Our friends on the Democratic side of the political divide who so dismiss this are whistling past the graveyard. First, while there are exceptions -- and those exceptions typically are labeled as failing presidencies in history -- most Presidents are re-elected. Indeed, I predicted on Mirror of Justice years ago -- and (almost) never waivered from it -- that President Obama would be re-elected because of the incredible advantages that an incumbent President can bring to a campaign. Second, when Presidents are re-elected with a larger margin, as almost always occurs, that counts as a powerful confirmation of a shift in the American political landscape. That's not, however, what happened on Tuesday.

Is the political environment evolving? Is the change in demographics of the electorate gradually changing? Yes. But the Obama re-election is hardly comparable to the Reagan Revolution.

And, while Republicans should be frightened by their political malpractice in, for example, losing Hispanic votes by nearly a 3-1 margin, Democrats should also be careful of over-confidence when their incumbent President came within a hair's breadth of losing even while receiving such a huge percentage of that vote -- which is probably not sustainable in long run, given the ebb and flow and shifts and turns in a democratic system of governance.

In sum, pertinent to my post, both parties have reason to be humble after this election. And thus both parties have reasons to seek common ground, which could actually benefit the common good.

Posted by: Greg Sisk | Nov 8, 2012 10:04:07 AM

Suppose they held an election and no one came?

The only victor was ennui, with astoundingly small turnout and miniscule deviation from the lineup pre-election. So the man who in the opinion of Bill Maher came absolutely wasted to the first debate won. Whether that's won despite or won because of remains to be determined.

It's like 1956 all over again. Ike has been reelected and the world awaits events. Is it the death of American Exceptionalism? Certainly Exceptionalism and Boredom duked it out, and Boredom won on a split decision.

We have a non-president remarkably attuned to a non-country, pretending to be worried about a fiscal cliff. And the winner, now revealed when all the vote is in: Alfred E. Newman. The man for all the people.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Nov 8, 2012 12:39:59 PM

In response to "Anon", the average margin in the popular vote for all presidents since Truman has been 8%. Obama's first-term 7% margin was the median. His 2% win this time around is well below the 11% margin for second-term presidents since the 1950s.

Still mournful of his re-election, I hope he finds it chastening that nearly half the country stands against him. And with good reason. May he do more in this second term to take heed of his opponents, starting with his foes on the contraceptive mandate.

Posted by: MB | Nov 9, 2012 1:56:37 AM

"Is the political environment evolving? Is the change in demographics of the electorate gradually changing? Yes. But the Obama re-election is hardly comparable to the Reagan Revolution."

A "revolution" which saw the opposite party win 4 of the next 7 elections. So if the Dems win a mere s3 of the next 7 presidential elections, last Tuesday will mark the beginning of the Obama Revolution?

Posted by: Anon | Nov 9, 2012 10:54:06 PM