(This is the second of five posts I will put up over the two weeks of the conventions, exploring my thoughts on the Presidential election. Parts 1 and 2 will be reasons to vote for and against Mitt Romney; Parts 3 and 4 will be reasons to vote for and against Barack Obama. Part 5 will wrap up. Keep in mind, this is my thinking as we go through the conventions. It’s likely that things will change between now and Election Day.)
Next week I’ll put up two posts looking at Obama’s record. And I’ll probably get into a little bit now. But a fundamental principle, for me, is that Obama’s suckiness does not automatically make Mitt Romney a good alternative. Going forward for the next four years, is Mitt Romney the guy we want in charge? I can think of several reasons why electing Romney would be a bad idea.
Look, I’ll get into Obama’s deficit record next week. I’m not going to excuse his failures on this. But will Mitt Romney make the probem better or worse?
There are many reasons to believe the latter. If we are to believe his campaign promises, Romney plans to increase defense spending, not cut Medicare or Social Security and cut taxes. The math simply does not work. It would mean cutting other spending by at least 40%. That’s 40% of federal law enforcement and border control. That’s 40% of education, which might sound fine but would mean many inner city schools would have to close. That’s 40% of science, 40% of infrastructure, 40% of intelligence. More if interest rates go up.
Does anyone seriously think the GOP is going to cut spending 40%? Does anyone think they can cut enough to allow for tax cuts? Let’s take a look at the causes of the deficit in the next decade. The graph below is a little deceptive as it anticipates that stimulus spending will wane (it hasn’t and doesn’t) and does some other shady accounting about entitlements and taxes (e.g., bracket creep, SGR, etc.). But no matter how you slice it, Bush’s tax cuts are a large contributor to the debt (Obama has extended them and plans on extending them for everyone but the rich; so they are his now). After that, you get the economy, structural deficits and the war.
That would be bad enough. But there’s something in that graph that the CBPP would rather not talk about: that spending increased massively on all fronts during the Bush era. This is hidden in the graph because we were enjoying a bubble-fueled boom in revenues. The graph then sees the lack of those revenues — due to the economy and tax cuts — as the cause of the deficit rather than the huge spending increases that accompanied them. It regards bubble revenues and bubble spending as the new normal. So parts of that orange and dark blue should be labelled “Bush era non-defense spending”.
“Oh, shut up about Bush!” you say. OK. Let’s talk about the current situation. When the Republicans had both Congress and the White House, federal spending increased 6.4% per year. Under Obama, it has increased … 6.4% a year, including all stimuli, bailouts and automatic stabilizers. But in the last two years, it has increased about 1% per year. You want spending restraint? We’re getting it, thanks to a divided government.
I’m drifting a bit into “reasons to vote for Obama” territory, but it is a simple fact that our government has exercised more spending restraint when it has been divided than when it has been united. Federal spending has been basically flat for two years now. The GOP has opposed all of Obama’s new spending initiatives. I do not trust them to have that same discipline when Romney is in the White House. Does anyone really think Romney and the Republicans will combine to keep spending growth at 1% per year as Obama and the Republicans have? With the promises they are making to increase defense spending?
We are already hearing big-spending rumblings in the GOP, who now want to undo the sequester, at least as far as national defense goes. Here is a plot of the defense spending as currently envisioned under various scenarios:
That sequester slice is the one Republicans are branding as “devastating”. They have even dragged out Keynesian arguments about how the cuts will “destroy jobs” as a reason to void them. In short, they have identified increasing spending as a top priority. Does that sound like a bunch of budget cutters to you?
Look, you can posit that Obama wants to spend like mad. I’ll agree. So what? Congress controls the purse strings. And since Obama and the Republicans have had to share power, those strings have been the tightest in two decades. I have little confidence they will show the same restraint with President Romney.
The GOP is Still Crazy
I made this bullet point before the convention. And I am still worried about the GOP focus on cultural issues. I could see, without a veto threat, the GOP pushing forward personhood laws, more cuts to birth control and strengthening of DOMA. But the RNC ameliorated some of my fears, showing a GOP that was more optimistic, more plugged in and more focused on real issues like the economy. The impression was that they have done what I’d hoped: taken the best elements of the Tea Party and incorporated them into a coherent vision of constrained government.
Still, I’m known to be optimistic about these things. And giving them power is a gamble that they’ve figured things out.
If we elect Romney, the aggressive foreign policy of the Bush years will return. He has surrounded himself with and the RNC highlighted neocons who favor a larger military and a more aggressive global engagement. There are many on his team who favor attacks on Iran and think getting involved in Syria would be a good idea. And the idea that we should aquiesce to whatever Israel wants — rather than treating them like every other ally with whom we occasionally squabble — was on full display.
(To be honest, it’s sometimes hard to tell what the GOP wants on foreign policy. They’ve mainly been defined as opposing whatever it is Obama is doing. So we should get involved in Libya. No we shouldn’t. Well, we should, but we should lead from the front. But we don’t want to spend too much or get any American soldiers killed. And it’s unconstitutional anyway. There’s a good case to be made that no one knows what the fuck these guys will do on foreign policy when they’re in charge again. That’s not an argument for giving the State Department back to them.)
If Romney wins this year, he’ll be running again in 2016. That means that Condi Rice, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley … will not be running in 2016. And I have far more confidence in those guys than I do in Mitt Romney (although Ryan would obviously still be VP).
That having been said, you don’t pass up an opportunity in 2012 because of what might be available in 2016. Every election has to be decided on its own merits. Because, at some point in the next four years, the President might face a decision that could change the course of history.
The Supreme Court
Four years ago, I disputed the notion that Obama would radically tilt the Court to the Left by pointing out how much older the liberal wing was than the right wing.
The two oldest judges on the court are liberals (and Ginsberg, in particular, is looking frail). The three youngest judges are conservative. The average conservative age is 60.8; the average liberal age is 75.5. Even if Obama is in for eight years, he is most likely to replace two liberal judges on the Court. And even if one of the conservatives were to be in a tragic blimp accident, that would shift the court to being as radically crazy liberal as it was during the Rhenquist years.
The idea that Obama is going to leave us with a Burger-style radical liberal Court is frankly hyperbolic. Unless the entire Court is wiped out during a meth-fueled orgy, Obama will, at most, shift the court somewhat to the left. True, the Court won’t become more conservative. But considering how conservative is defined these days—a unitary executive, untrammeled federal power, the suspension of habeas—that’s fine with me.
And, indeed, the only judges Obama has replaced have been liberals (Stephens and Souter). The new judges do not seem ridiculous radical. Liberal, yes. But the Court has produced good decisions recently on immigration, broadcast deceny and even a 9-0 decision reining in in the EPA. For all the pain of the Obamacare decision, it was the conservative Roberts who cast the critical vote.
That math has changed a bit since I wrote that in 2008. Here’s the age of the various SCOTUS justices:
Conservative: Roberts (57), Scalia (76),Thomas (64), Alito (62)
Moderate: Kennedy (76)
Liberal: Ginsburg (79), Breyer (74), Sotomayor (58), Kagan (52)
The conservatives now average at 65, the liberals at 66. The Court is very well-balanced. But preserving that balance over the next four years will be tricky. Ginsburg, Breyer, Scalia and Kennedy are the oldest judges. And while Scalia will not leave the Court until the pry his dead body out of the bathroom, anyone over 70 has to be considered a potential replacement.
Ginsberg and Breyer are probably the two that will most need replacement in the next two years. I would prefer that they not be replaced by conservatives and tilt the balance even further. That, of course has to be weighed against the danger that Kennedy or Scalia are replaced by Obama. (I’ll talk about this in the context of re-electing Obama in the next post).
Looking over this list, it really boils down to two issues: the deficit and foreign policy. And that really boils down to one issue: Romney seems poised to give us a return to the bad old days when Republicans spent worse than Democrats, got us involved in foreign quagmires and focused on culture issues to distract from it.
The last few weeks have reduced these concerns a little. The selection of Ryan is a big indicator that Romney intends to take spending seriously. But they are not gone. And that Romney is surrounding himself with Bush people, advocating Bush policies and pushing Bush rhetoric makes me nervous.
One final note:
Reasons not to not vote for Mitt Romney
There are a number of things that have been thrown out as reasons we shouldn’t vote for Mitt Romney that I consider to be either bullshit or irrelevant. His Mormon faith is chief among those. His involvement with Bain financial is another. Putting his dog on the roof; some bullying incidents when he was a kid; his taxes; his interest in dressage. I consider all of these irrelevant.
(Update: Late breaking something else that doesn’t matter: whether or not Paul Ryan is lying about his marathon time.)
If you’re going to vote for Romney, the reasons are because he might repeal Obamacare, could keep the radical wing of the GOP in check, could get the economy booming and might even back off the War on Drugs. If you’re not going to vote for him, it’s because we might enjoy a return to big spending, tax cutting and war starting.
And either of those are dependent on what you think of the other guy, who will be the subject of the next two posts.