If it’s good enough for Nate Silver, it’s good enough for me. The Republicans have a better, much better than 50-50 chance of winning the Senate and the Congress in general.
Nate Silver, as you will recall is the statistical wizard that put to shame Gallup, Rasmussen, and other polling organizations in the last election cycle by calling the election almost perfectly. He is a political liberal but a scrupulous observer of data on his website, FiveThirtyEight, which is currently forecasting the Republicans as having a 63 percent chance of winning a majority in the Senate, a number which has been as high as 66 last week and no lower than 53 during the campaign season. Yet, he hedges his assessment by claiming that “Republicans have the edge, but they haven’t been able to put Democrats away.”
A cursory review of the running averages in Senate polling, across the nation, as arrayed on the political website, RealClearPolitics, does show the Republican candidates leading but only within the margin error in several states such as Colorado and Iowa while trailing, albeit closely in North Carolina, Georgia, and New Hampshire. Polling in Kansas, again, on average, shows a dead heat between an independent candidate and a very senior Republican. So Mr. Silver may be forgiven his relatively guarded assessment. As Yogi Berra once opined, “It ain’t over till it’s over!” He said that while managing the New York Mets in July 1973. They were nine games out of first place but went on to win the division.
Still, pachyderms everywhere will be encouraged by the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg survey, which finds Republicans holding an 11-point lead among likely voters when asked which party should control Congress. Specifically, 52 percent “said they wanted the election to produce a Republican-led Congress, while 41% favored Democratic control,” writes WSJ reporter Janet Hook. A week earlier the GOP had only a 5-point lead.
“By historical measures, an 11-point lead on the question of which party should control Congress is large,” claims Hook. “Republicans held a seven-point lead on the question at this point in the 2010 election in the Journal/NBC survey, which used a different method to determine which voters were most likely to cast ballots. Republicans went on that year to make big gains in the Senate and to retake the majority in the House.”
Given the data I will not risk the sin of presumption in asking, “Of what consequence is a GOP Senate?” — not just for the next two years but also for the next election in which a much larger number of Republican Senate seats, and the presidency itself, will be up for grabs. After all, two years is a very short time in which a Republican congressional majority in both houses can demonstrate its street cred in terms of governance while achieving resonance with a majority of American voters.
Will the GOP recognize that, in politics, winning is accomplished by addition, not subtraction, especially at the presidential level where a candidate needs a critical mass of non- or not overly partisan voters to swing his or her way. (Thanks to Al Sikes, former FCC chairman, for the “winning by addition” formulation.)
Last week, James Freeman, an assistant editor on the WSJ’s editorial page, published a report of his interview (“What If Republicans Win?”) with the estimable congressman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, a solid conservative and possible successor to John Boehner as House Speaker. Keeping in mind the WSJ’s audience of business- and economy-minded readers, the conversation ranged over relevant areas where a good working relationship between a Republican House and Senate would replace the gridlock under the current regime. In tandem with his colleague, Paul Ryan (R-WI), soon to be chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he will focus on economic policy and, among other things, the theme of “liberating people from bureaucracy,” be it in the area of housing, health care, immigration “or simply filling out their tax returns.”
According to Chairman Hensarling, “Nothing says economic growth like fundamental tax reform,” i.e., lowering tax rates, closing loopholes and enacting a simpler, more user-friendly tax system. He also wants to revisit and reform the 2010 Dodd-Frank law which falsely claimed to have ended “too-big-to-fail banks.” From there he gets into the weeds discussing the law’s “Financial Stability Oversight Council” and its “Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” which, he says, is “the single most unaccountable agency in the history of America.” He also mentions “making Obamacare optional” along with some ad hoc immigration reforms, e.g., more H-1B visas for high-tech workers and a guest-worker program for low-skilled workers in agriculture. He also wants more border security but not necessarily a big, honkin’ (my phrase, not his) fence across the entire Mexican border.
All of these topics are important and germane, especially for WSJ readers and, certainly, for the good of the country’s economy. But are these the kind of issues that stir men’s, and women’s, souls, especially when more people are worried about having a job or paying for their kid’s college educations? I hate doing my taxes (or, even worse, paying someone to do them for me) but that is not a top existential priority for most of us even if we recognize how economically efficient tax reform might be. Some of us are old enough to remember when even Democrats like Dick Gephardt and Bill Bradley preached the tax simplification gospel. That was then. This is now.
Again, I do not mean to criticize Chairman Hensarling in his efforts to address such issues as tax reform and Dodd-Frank. I support his ideas. But we are at a historical juncture in which the great American middle class is under siege with declining incomes and a pessimistic sense of the future of their children and grandchildren. So the question is: what are the marquee issues the Republicans should run with in next Congress that encompass both sound policy and broad political appeal beyond the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street, or Washington law firms and lobby shops.
The Washington Examiner’s chief political correspondent, Byron York, recently wrote a very perceptive article in Foreign Affairs (“The Right Stuff: The Reformers Trying to Remake the Republican Party”), which opened with the now defeated House majority leader, Eric Cantor, at a congressional retreat, urging House Republicans to appreciate the fact that most Americans do not own their own businesses but depend on someone else for a paycheck. This was news to the GOP members given their understandable affinity with entrepreneurs and business generally. “Many of them subscribed to the assertion of… Paul Ryan, that the world is divided into entrepreneurial ‘makers’ and government-depended ‘takers’.” (Ryan, by the way, in his new, very good book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea describes how he came to realize that his over-simplification did not do justice to many Americans in need of government support. See Chapter 5, “Beyond Makers and Takers.”)
Cantor also told his colleagues that the majority of Americans do not even aspire to start their own businesses. They dream of “a good job with an income that will allow them to support their family.” He chided the Republicans for failing to reach out to the vast and troubled middle class, many of whom voted to reelect President Barack Obama in 2012. “We shouldn’t miss the chance to talk to these people,” said Cantor.
York offers this observation of the exchange between Cantor and his now former colleagues:
The very fact that Cantor felt it necessary to explain such an elementary truth of modern American politics speaks volumes about the present state of the Republican Party. Although the GOP has been successful at the congressional level, its candidates for president have lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections, in large part because they failed to attract many of the millions of voters who are not entrepreneurs. Unless things change, the landscape could look just as bleak in 2016.
York goes on to highlight the recent report, Room To Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class, a collection of essays on policy by a number of very bright, creative, and wise conservative writers and commentators. The work was a project of the YG (“Young Guns”) Network that was launched by Cantor, Ryan and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Cantor’s successor as majority leader, several years ago. The contributors include Yuval Levin, James Capretta, Ramesh Ponnuru, Brad Wilcox, and others well known in the conservative policy world. He singles out the discussion by Robert Stein, a former Bush Treasury official, calling for an increase in the child tax credit to be applied to both income and social security taxes. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) has come forth with a similar proposal.
It is this very proposal that drew the ire of the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel, who lambasted it as an abandonment of Reaganomics and tax cutting across the board. She even likens the child tax credit to just another redistributionist, rent-seeking exercise, like farm subsidies or Solyndra, failing to account for the role (and cost) of parents in child-rearing and the benefit in terms of economic growth and support for Social Security.
“Putting tax credits for parents on the same level as crony-capitalist dollars for Solyndra, the solar-panel maker that filed for bankruptcy in 2011 (two years after the Obama administration gave the company a $535 million loan guarantee), struck some reformers as a bit rough,” wrote York.
The American Enterprise Institute’ James Pethokoukis, another contributor to Room To Grow, returned Strassel’s fire on his website by noting that the top marginal tax rate was 70 percent when Ronald Reagan took office. Today it is 40 percent, and rates are annually adjusted for inflation. Moreover, 43 percent of Americans pay no federal income taxes although two-thirds of them pay payroll taxes. He also observed that none of his fellow contributors oppose further tax reform. That said, Pethokoukis pushed back on Strassel’s political acumen:
If the 2016 Republican nominee wants to make his big economic idea cutting corporate taxes at a time when corporate profits are at their highest level in 85 years and worker compensation is at its lowest level in 65 years as a share of national income… well, good luck with that.
Pethokoukis then cites polling date from a recent survey by Global Strategy Group that indicated only 40 percent of respondents thought cutting taxes of high income and job creators would stimulate more growth, which ranked behind providing more income opportunity for all (74 percent), reducing regulations on business (61 percent), increasing the minimum wage (58 percent), and guaranteeing all workers a living wage (57 percent).
An alternative wording of the tax cutting question, “Cut taxes of high income earners,” yielded only 36 percent saying it would result in more growth. 26 percent said it would have no impact, and 32 percent said there would be less growth.
Even before the Gipper came along, there have been tensions in the conservative coalition between economic, traditional, and national defense conservatives. Not for the first time, we must ask the question, “Why can’t we all just get along?” But these are serious issues of policy and politics. The Republican Party, like all human enterprises, is not destined for immortality. In a middle-class democracy, the middle class must be attended to. Hopefully, the new Republican Congress will think hard on this matter rather than coming off as totally clueless to the everyday concerns of the majority of working- and middle-class Americans.