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Midterm Postmortem

The long painful slog to the midterms is finally over…which means we can start the long painful slog to the 2020 presidential election. But before that, let’s take a moment to evaluate the outcome from this week’s vote. There will be the usual post-election explanations that victories were really defeats and defeats were really victories, but a quick overview suggests that this was: 1) a good election for checks and balances; 2) a bad election for the Left Wing of the Democratic Party; 3) a mixed bag for Donald Trump; and 4) some bright spots (though hardly unalloyed) for individual liberty.

As I wrote here (https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/what-expect-democrats-win-house), Democratic control of the House is unlikely to mean much in terms of big legislation. It will probably lead to increased spending — though the Republicans have hardly been fiscally responsible – and a few bipartisan bad ideas, like a giant infrastructure boondoggle. On the other hand, divided government is generally a good thing. And, far more importantly, a Democratic House will have the power to investigate and hold the Trump administration accountable. Control of the House comes with control of the investigatory committees and subpoena power. One hopes that they won’t go off the deep end chasing the chimera of impeachment, and, instead, focus on rooting out the genuine corruption and incompetence that permeates this administration. In addition, a Democratic House can serve as an additional check on some of Trump’s worst ideas. Some good legislation will never see the light of day now, but some very bad legislation will be buried as well. On balance, a good thing.

Despite their win in the House though, Democrats should have done far better. Exit polls showed that many more voters “strongly disapproved” of President Trump than “strongly supported” or “somewhat supported” combined. Trump was particularly toxic in the suburbs, which fueled the Democratic takeover of the House.

Yet, Democrats lost a lot of races that they should have won. Yes, the map worked against them; Senate races were generally in deep red states. But the demographic problems were made worse by the party’s lurch to the left. For instance, both Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams embraced single-payer health care and called for massive tax hikes. Beto O’Rourke supported impeachment and called for gun control – in Texas – in addition to government-run health care, higher taxes, etc. Given the unpopularity of their opponents, a more moderate candidate might have been better positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. All in all, it was not a great night for the Bernie Bros. That means that Democrats need to decide whether they will continue to cater to their left-wing base or to make an appeal to those in the middle, who dislike Trumpian excess but aren’t ready for democratic socialism.

As for Trump, he cemented his control over the Republican Party and white, rural America. But there were also warning signs for 2020. Trump’s victory in 2016 was a matter of roughly 80,000 votes in three states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Democrats scored big victories in those states, as well as other Trump states like Iowa. Trump demonstrated an ability to excite and turn out his base, but he still has shown no ability – or desire – to expand it. And wannabe Trumps like Kris Kobach in Kansas and Corey Stewart in Virginia were not even competitive. The politics of resentment may have its limits (although, sadly, white nationalist hero Steve King squeaked by in his Iowa congressional district).

Republicans also should be concerned that they not only lost among African-Americans, Latinos, women, and those with higher education, but by the huge margin of their loss among young people. Republicans didn’t just lose by 2 to 1 among those under 30, but lost every age group under 50. Republicans are increasingly the party of aging white men, not a good scenario for the future.

From a pro-liberty standpoint, there were some bright spots. Arizona Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick survived a judicial retention election, despite an all-out attempt by the teachers’ unions to unseat him. Justin Amash, the most libertarian member of Congress won reelection in Michigan’s Third District. This, despite a Democratic wave in the state that captured the governorship and possibly defeated two other Republican incumbents. And, in Colorado, the new Democratic governor, Jared Polis, has shown a strong libertarian streak. Indeed, Polis was the only Democratic member of the Congressional Liberty Caucus. It was also a terrific election for electoral diversity. A record number of women were elected to Congress, including the first Native American woman, and the first two Muslim Women. Polis will be the first openly gay governor of a state, and in Oregon, Kate Brown, the country’s first openly bisexual governor, won reelection. And while, in Vermont, Christine Hallquist, lost her race for governor, her status as a trans-woman was a non-issue.

The biggest positives for liberty may have been state ballot initiatives. It was generally a good night for criminal justice reform, with voters in Florida passing two important measures. By a nearly 2 to 1 margin they approved a measure restoring the right to vote to felons who have completed their sentence. That measure restores the right to vote to nearly 40 percent of the state’s African-American population. Floridians also repealed a state constitutional provision that prevented reform or repeal of criminal laws from applying retroactively. And in Louisiana, voters finally killed a Jim Crow-era law that allowed convictions by non-unanimous juries. It was also a good night for marijuana, with Michigan approving recreational use and both Missouri and Utah supporting medical marijuana. It was unanimous, however. In North Dakota, voters decided against a measure to legalize recreational marijuana use. And, in the night’s biggest loss for criminal justice reform, Ohio voters turned down an amendment to the state constitution that would have reduced most drug offenses to misdemeanors, limit incarceration for many parole violations, and created new incentives for prisoners to participate in work and education programs. Many reform advocates had worried that the proposal, particularly being a constitutional amendment, might be too big a stretch for voters. Apparently, that was true.

Not surprisingly, voters took a dim view of taxes. In Arizona, voters banned new taxes on services, while in North Carolina voters reduced the top income tax rate from 10 to 7 percent. Floridians passed a constitutional amendment requiring a 2/3 vote to raise most taxes. One exception to the anti-tax tide was in California, where voters decided to keep a gas tax increase. (On the other hand, in a victory for economic common sense, California voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure to expand rent control.) And Oregon rejected a measure that would have prevented both state and local governments from taxing groceries. A similar measure in Washington, that would restrict only local governments, is still too close to call.

And, sex remains popular in Nevada. In Lyon County,roughly 80 percent of voters turned down a ban on the county’s brothels. Meanwhile, a brothel owner won his campaign for the Nevada legislature, despite having died a month ago.

It wasn’t all progress, however. As expected, voters in Arkansas and Missouri approved an increase in the minimum wage. Such measures are inevitably popular with voters, despite their cost in jobs for low-skilled workers. Voters in four Republican states Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, and Utah expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Taxpayers will be sorry, and poor patients will see fewer benefits than they think. Arizona voted against expanding the state’s pioneering and largely successful school choice program. And, Washington State imposed new restrictions on gun ownership. Two steps forward, one step back.

Overall, this election revealed an electorate that is still deeply split along demographic, racial, religious, and other lines. We can expect the political battles to continue. Still, as I wrote today for National Review Online (https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/divided-party-united-spirit?utm_source=featured_commentary&utm_medium=views&utm_campaign=item_title), politics is not America, There is far more that unites us than divides us. That’s something to keep in mind no matter which side of this election you were on.

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