Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Let he who is without sin write the first opinion piece

I read this great guest op-ed in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago that really caught me by surprise. It was written by Jennifer Finley Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College and a member of the board of directors of GLAAD. She also happens to be transgender. What was so surprising about it, you ask? Well, she was writing about her brief tenure as a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army. At this point, you’re probably expecting the same thing I did: a rather negative piece detailing all of the Salvation Army’s sins against the LGBT community with a few firsthand accounts of discrimination from her time as a volunteer. It would probably end with her completely denouncing the organization and apologizing for ever associating herself with it. That’s clearly where this is headed, right?

Well, not really. Boylan tells the story of how she innocently signed up to ring a bell for an organization that, in theory at least, didn’t accept who she was. What did she find? A rather run-of-the-mill welcome, it seems:
Still, I knew that it was a traditional religious charity, and I could picture the scene — the head of the Red Kettle corps taking one look at me, knocking the Santa hat off my head, contemptuously snapping all my candy canes in half. Instead, as I drew near, the woman standing at the entrance to the mall said, “Oh, thank God you’re here. My arm is about to fall off.” And with that, she placed the bell in my hand.
As it turns out, it wasn’t her experience on the job that made her decide not to volunteer after her first, short stint as a bell-ringer. It was the admonition of one of her friends—someone sympathetic to the LGBT community who had heard about the Salvation Army’s stance on LGBT issues—that pushed her away.

So, what’s my point here? Well, this little anecdote is a perfect microcosm for something that I see happening with increasing frequency in our plugged-in, politically correct world. Basically, it goes like this: facts come to light, in one way or another, that a Christian or otherwise conservative organization has Christian or otherwise conservative views on an issue like abortion or gay marriage. In response, the entire world is told (by the media and by advocacy groups) that it must shun that organization, act like it doesn’t exist, express outrage at its opinion, and never give it a dime of your money ever again. Oh, and you’re supposed to be shocked that these organizations have had these views all this time. After all, why would a conservative organization ever dare to actually have conservative views?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I disagree with the fundamentalist Christian view on LGBT issues (because, you know, they’re discussed so extensively in the Bible) as much as the next non-fundamentalist-Christian. But was I surprised when I learned that the Salvation Army, an organization that Boylan describes as “a traditional religious charity,” does silly things like advocate celibacy for homosexuals? No, not in the slightest. Was I surprised when I learned that Chic-Fil-A, a restaurant chain that is always closed on Sundays and has an explicitly Christian mission statement, gave money to groups advocating for traditional marriage? Absolutely not. Was I surprised when I learned that Phil Robertson, an evangelical denizen of the bayou who invented the duck call, equated homosexuality with bestiality? Not at all. That’s right, I brought it all back to Duck Dynasty.

Do I disagree with these things? Of course. Do I feel the need to get caught up in the media-fed frenzy and join the public lynching of these people? No, I do not. Many on the right try to defend people like Mr. Robertson by framing this sort of public reaction as an affront to the freedom of speech. This is quite silly, since that particular right only guarantees against censorship by the government, not other private citizens.

My objection is slightly different. Basically, I don’t think anyone should be surprised that these people have the views that they do. And I certainly don’t think it’s at all productive to react in a mean-spirited, “agree-with-me-or-we’ll-force-you-out-of-public-life” sort of way. As a matter of fact, that type of reaction is divisive and does nothing to bridge divides and heal wounds. It just makes things worse. Look at how many people are now defending Mr. Robertson’s unfortunate views merely because of how he has been treated in the press. Plus, it all feels so faddish. First, we yell at the Komen Foundation because they didn’t choose to give their money to Planned Parenthood. Then we yell at Chic-Fil-A for supporting traditional marriage. Then we yell at the Redskins for having an 80-year-old name. And on and on. Who’s next, I wonder?

This Christmas, I want you to imagine an America where, instead of engaging in a virtual stoning of someone with whom most of us disagree, we take the approach advocated by Roger L. Simon at PJ Media: “The best response to your enemies, especially if their challenge is not violent and based on their own heartfelt beliefs, is to treat them with respect and try to make them see the errors of their ways. You may not be able to do it but it is, dare I say it, the Christian way.”

But I think Jenny Boylan, our erstwhile Salvation Army bell-ringer, puts it even more succinctly: “I’ll occasionally slip a buck into the kettle, but I won’t be the one ringing the bell.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Obama puts the cart before the horse

Last week, President Obama gave a much-hyped speech about income inequality in our country. In it, he referred to this phenomenon as “the defining challenge of our time” and “our generation’s task.” Personally, I find these grandiose pronouncements to be a little surprising, not least of all because income inequality has only continued to get worse throughout President Obama’s first term in office. What’s more, he has for some mysterious reason waited until the end of his fifth calendar year as President to begin addressing this “defining challenge of our time.” This new shift in focus couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is dealing with a massively bungled rollout and embarrassingly low enrollment numbers, could it? That couldn’t possibly be it.

Whatever his reasons for this latest pivot, I simply can’t shake the fact that this speech seems to be putting the cart before the horse. I don’t seem to be the only person with this opinion—Ben Domenech at The Federalist makes the case that Obama got the causal argument behind inequality completely backwards, blaming the deterioration of many working-class families on income disparities rather than vice versa. Domenech puts it thusly:
What does that mean? Well, it means you can’t afford to live in a place with a good school, and government policy prevents you from learning elsewhere; it means mom has to work two jobs and can’t take time off to take you to the dentist, which can’t be scheduled because you’re on Medicaid; it means you’re likelier to drop out and end up permanently ensconced on assistance programs because you never had the intact family pressure to stay in school and learn a skill.

While I certainly agree with Mr. Domenech, my “cart before the horse” argument is slightly different. It seems to me that President Obama has prioritized increasing working-class and middle-class Americans’ earnings before making sure they all have jobs in the first place. It’s no secret that the most recent jobs numbers showed significant improvement—indeed, the unemployment rate is finally down to 7%—but I don’t think we can pretend the employment situation in our country is anything close to where it needs to be yet. So, my question is this: what good are rising wages going to do for people who’ve been unemployed for months, maybe even years?

We certainly have a long-term unemployment problem like never before in this country. The President even takes some time to address that issue in his speech. But he has very little to say in the way of concrete proposals to fix it. (Glenn Harlan Reynolds at USA Today doubts he has any idea how to do that at all.) Nor does he really have all that much to say in terms of solving the income inequality problem, the so-called “defining challenge of our time.” Essentially, he wants to raise the minimum wage, encourage exports, expand access to preschool, and engage in corporate tax reform. Are any of these good ideas?

Well, he comes close with the last one, although I don’t think he goes far enough. Closing corporate tax loopholes in order to lower other peoples’ rates is a great foundation, but I’d rather see us eliminate the corporate income tax altogether. That way, we could just tax capital gains and dividends as income (thus eliminating the double-taxing concern) and thereby radically lower everyone’s income tax rates. But my crazy, radical tax reform plan is a subject for another post.

So, what does that leave? Expanding access to preschool? I suppose that could be a long-term benefit for our nation’s children and our future workforce, but that’s not going to do anything at all to help the people who are unemployed now and have been for far too long. Raising the minimum wage? Well, Obama’s argument here is quite predictable. He drops the usual liberal talking point about how there is no concrete evidence that a higher minimum wage would slow job growth. Even if that’s true (and just about any conservative will debate that point), I don’t really think it’s relevant, because it would almost certainly diminish the standing of disadvantaged young people seeking part-time or entry-level jobs. And, again, what good does a higher minimum wage do for people with no income?

A new poll by Quinnipiac University shows that Americans, by a wide 69%-27% margin, support a higher minimum wage. That’s not really all that surprising. Who, all else being equal, would be against the idea of ordinary people being able to make more money? What I found to be interesting is that the same group of people believe that a higher minimum wage wouldn’t curtail job growth by a much smaller margin, just 48%-43%. So, essentially, there is a large subgroup of people within that sample who, although they believe a higher minimum wage would cost people jobs, want it anyway. Maybe, in giving this speech, President Obama was merely affirming that he is of like mind with the American people. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Corporations are religious people, my friend

After a week off for Thanksgiving, here I am with post #3!
When I started writing this blog, I told myself that I would do everything I could to avoid talking about two particular issues: Obamacare and women’s healthcare. Why? Well, quite simply, these are arguably the two most divisive issues being discussed right now and, as such, they are the two issues where both the left and the right make me the angriest. People really, really lose sight of reality when they talk about these things. And so, here’s my post about Obamacare and the contraception mandate, because I love the Supreme Court and I just couldn’t let this one go.

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., in which the owners of Hobby Lobby, a nationwide craft store chain, challenge Obamacare’s requirement that employers provide contraception on their employees’ health insurance with no co-pay. They claim this is a violation of their devout Christian faith. In short, this is a “free exercise” case, in reference to the clause in the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Basically, the federal government can’t pass a law that keeps someone from freely exercising their religious beliefs. The owners of Hobby Lobby claim that, as Christians, they don’t believe in the use of certain types of contraception and shouldn’t be forced by the government to provide it to their employees.

I personally think this is a fascinating case. First of all, as Seth Mandel at Commentary Magazine points out, this is a corporate personhood question. In order for this case to have any merit, you must first decide that corporations like Hobby Lobby have the First Amendment right to free exercise in the first place. This is technically uncharted waters—that particular question hasn’t found its way to the high court yet. Those on the left, such as ElizabethWydra at CNN, will tell you that corporations most certainly don’t have that right.

To be honest, I’m not sure how you can’t extend free exercise rights to corporations. In our legal system, corporations have been treated as individuals since Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, a case tried in 1819. Anyone who tries to tell you that Citizens United established corporate personhood for the first time is pulling your leg. All that Citizens United did was extend the First Amendment right of free speech to corporations—a very significant step toward what Hobby Lobby is asserting. I find it hard to believe that a Supreme Court with eight of the nine justices from Citizens United would decide that corporations have the First Amendment right to free speech but not the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. That would be an intolerably arbitrary distinction.

So, one you’ve moved past the corporate personhood question, what’s left? Well, you have to then decide whether or not Obamacare’s contraception mandate is a genuine violation of Hobby Lobby’s right to freely exercise Christianity. Those on the left have been flipping this question upside down. They posit that Hobby Lobby, by refusing to provide contraception without a co-pay, are imposing their religious beliefs onto their employees and are thereby violating the employees’ right to free exercise of religion. This is patently absurd.

First of all, not providing contraception in a health insurance package most certainly does not prevent an employee from purchasing it. It just prevents their employer from having to pay for it for them. And as a pro-choice pundit, I can say with confidence that Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs don’t take the choice away from women (although the mandate takes the choice away from Hobby Lobby). Secondly, I’ve also had trouble identifying a religion that treats the purchase of contraception as a religious observance, which is the only way Hobby Lobby’s policy could trample over someone else’s religious rights. Even if one exists, I doubt any of Hobby Lobby’s employees practice it. And thirdly, as Michelle Malkin at RealClearPolitics points out, Hobby Lobby does provide 16 of the 20 forms of contraception required under the Affordable Care Act. They’re hardly laughing in the face of the law. Their only objections are when it comes to things like the morning-after pill, which is hardly an everyday type of contraception.

In short, I think that Hobby Lobby has a pretty good case here. Yes, it does require a little bit of a corporate personhood hurdle, but I think the current Supreme Court will have no trouble clearing that one. And I’m rather unapologetic in thinking that a judgment in favor of Hobby Lobby would be a good thing. No, I’m not a corporatist, nor a pro-lifer, nor even a Christian. I am, however, a staunch civil libertarian who believes that each of our Constitutional freedoms—particularly those enshrined in the first eight amendments to our Constitution—should be broad, applicable to everyone, and vigilantly guarded. And so, if a law forces the individuals running a corporation to engage in an act that violates their religion, that law—or at least that particular provision—cannot stand. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The “War on Women” and the GOP’s path to victory

In my last (first?) post, I talked a little bit about the so-called “War on Women” and the effect that it had on the Virginia gubernatorial election. I also talked about how Ken Cuccinelli fared far worse than his counterpart in New Jersey, Chris Christie, in the messaging war to define him as a candidate. Today, I’d like to elaborate a little more on that point and what it means for Republican candidates in future elections.

First off, a few disclaimers: I’m going to keep this post relatively short because Mary Hasson over at the Federalist has basically already written the post I was planning. She asserts, quite correctly I think, that contextual factors accounted for much of the disparity between Cuccinelli and Christie in terms of how they were treated by pro-choice interest groups. Christie was the overwhelming favorite going into his campaign for reelection and as such his opponent attracted much less funding from organizations like Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List than say, a Democrat in a competitive open-seat race in Virginia. So, essentially, it seems that some Republican candidates can get away with not focusing at all on women’s issues and still get elected. In fact, Bill Whalen of RealClearPolitics recommends that all GOP candidates do just that, saying “Republicans would do well to de-emphasize social issues.”  

I think the key point that Mr. Whalen misses—and that Ken Cuccinelli proved quite clearly—is that not all Republicans have the luxury of pretending that social issues don’t exist and still get elected. Candidates like Cuccinelli—who was in a competitive race and (most importantly) had a voting record as a staunch social conservative—can’t simply keep mum on social issues and hope that voters won’t notice. They most certainly will, if for no other reason than simply because pro-choice organizations are going to spend a lot of money reminding them.

Obviously, there is a lot more to women’s rights than the abortion issue. But, like it or not, that is the one issue that will inevitably stand out the most in an electoral contest. Sadly, the abortion debate in the United States is almost completely dominated by what Ms. Hasson refers to as the “zealots” on both sides—those on the right who think that a single-cell zygote has Constitutional rights and those on the left who think that abortions should be added to the McDonald’s dollar menu. It’s no surprise that the majority of Americans don’t agree with either of these camps. But nevertheless, these are the people trying to define candidates for you.

And this is where the Republicans most often make the fatal mistake. They have nothing to say when those on the left portray them as woman-haters. Now, I know I asserted in my last article that the GOP’s gap among women voters is more a function of their problem with minorities, and I stand by that analysis. But at the same time, I recognize that it can’t be a good thing for Republican candidates to get hammered relentlessly with the “War on Women” label and have absolutely no rebuttal.

So what should they do? Mr. Whalen’s solution of simply downplaying social issues isn’t likely to pan out all that well in many cases. He cites Bob McDonnell’s big win in 2009 as proof that this strategy works: “Mr. McDonnell is pro-life, but he campaigned as ‘the jobs governor.’ He carried the women's vote by 8%.” But, again, this ignores crucial contextual factors. McDonnell ran for governor amid the build-up toward a massive GOP wave in 2010. The Republican base was fired up while their counterparts in the Democratic camp were demoralized, discouraged, and struggling to unite behind a no-name candidate (who, by the way, suffered a tragic turn of events today and should be in everyone’s thoughts and prayers). In that kind of environment, you can afford to ignore your baggage—and let’s not forget, Bob McDonnell had just as strong a record as a social conservative as Cuccinelli (remember his thesis from Regent?).

If I had it my way, I would just have the Republican Party abandon the pro-life position as one of its main planks. But I’m also a pragmatist who recognizes that such a move would lead to a revolt within their base, so it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. I’m not pretending to have a golden key that fixes this problem. I’m just pointing out that candidates like Cuccinelli need to at least play defense with their pro-life and otherwise socially conservative positions if they want to win. They cannot follow the Cuccinelli playbook, which was essentially to repeat the mistakes of the Romney campaign in Virginia. They both spent the entire summer idly sitting by as Democratic and Democrat-affiliated organizations spent loads of cash painting them as extreme candidates for whom mainstream Virginians couldn’t possibly vote. Maybe, just maybe, explaining to women voters their reasons for having these positions would be more successful than just ignoring them outright. While many moderate voters might still disagree with these positions, they at least might not revile them. And that could make a huge difference.

That actually wasn’t a very short post, was it? Sorry. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ken Cuccinelli, Chris Christie, and the state of the GOP

The mainstream media is, not surprisingly, already busy telling everyone what they should take away from the rather limited slate of 2013 elections. And I must say, I am so far very impressed that a great many writers have resisted the temptation to push the shallow conclusion that moderate Republicans win while Tea Party conservatives don’t. I certainly understand why such a conclusion at first seems easy enough to reach—after all, Christie ran in New Jersey as a pragmatic problem-solver while Cuccinelli tried to convince Virginians to elect a staunchly pro-life, anti-Obamacare conservative as their next governor. But many writers, like James Hohmann at Politico, have dug a little deeper and realized that perhaps there’s more to it than that. I would like to discuss my own takeaways from the 2013 elections—particularly the Virginia governor’s race—here.

1. Obamacare seems to have cancelled out the shutdown

Looking at the exit polling in Virginia, one thing is abundantly clear: the electorate that showed up on Tuesday doesn’t seem to like either major political party all that much. Both President Obama and his signature healthcare law had identical favorability ratings: 46% of voters supported the law and had a positive opinion of the President’s job performance while a majority (53%) opposed the law and had an unfavorable opinion of the President. On the other hand, a strong plurality of voters (42%) opposed the Tea Party movement, while equal-sized minorities (28%) were either supportive or neutral.

But here’s where things get really interesting: voters were split almost evenly on who they blame for the recent government shutdown. 45% of respondents blame President Obama while 48% blame Congressional Republicans. If I had to guess, I would say that whatever advantage Democrats might hope to gain from the bare 3% “blame gap” regarding the shutdown is more than neutralized by the fact that a majority of the electorate have an unfavorable opinion of President Obama and his healthcare law.

2. Having that said, Obamacare is not what “tightened the race”

Polls leading up to the election in Virginia had Terry McAuliffe up by consistently commanding margins—as much as 17 points just two weeks out. On Election Day, RealClearPolitics gave McAuliffe an average polling lead of 6.7 points. Nevertheless, after all the votes were counted that same night, Terry McAuliffe had emerged the victor by just 2.5 points. What happened? At first, I wanted to blame this considerable tightening on Obamacare—after all, that’s what both Politico and CNN were pushing.

But in reality, there is scant evidence for this hypothesis. The major news outlets were pointing to two different items from the exit polling to prove their point: namely, that 53% of the electorate opposed Obamacare and that 81% of those opposed voted for Cuccinelli. But this, of course, is a no-brainer that proves nothing. Cuccinelli voters would have been overwhelmingly opposed to Obamacare no matter what. Dig a little deeper and this is what you see: only 27% of the electorate cited healthcare as their most important issue. What’s more, Cuccinelli only won this subgroup by four percent—49% to 45%. While it may be significant that Cuccinelli won this group of voters, the narrow margin of victory as well as the fact that these voters made up only about a quarter of the electorate means this wasn’t enough to tighten the race by four full points. I’m more inclined to go with Sean Trende’s hypothetical “Shy Cuccinelli Effect”—namely, the idea that voters were literally shy about admitting to pollsters that they planned to vote Cuccinelli.

3. The key difference between Chris Christie and Ken Cuccinelli is how they were defined (both by themselves and their opponents)

Many opinion writers, such as Carter Eskew at the Washington Post, will try and tell you that a Christie win coupled with a Cuccinelli loss means that only “moderate” Republicans win. These pundits exist in some kind of parallel universe where Chris Christie is apparently a bipartisan wonder boy who differs wildly from his national party. I just don’t think this is the case. Look at his record: as governor, Christie has cut taxes, cut spending, and taken a stand against public employee unions. That’s the same kind of activity that prompted Democrats to attempt a recall against Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Furthermore, Christie is unapologetically pro-life and against gay marriage, so I fail to see how he’s all that different from a run-of-the-mill Republican.

The fact of the matter is that Christie won the war to define himself to voters whereas Cuccinelli lost it. Christie did what you have to do to win as a Republican in a solidly blue state: he spent plenty of time and money distancing himself from the national Republican Party. He ran a very candidate-centered campaign, convincing voters that he was a “New Jersey politician” who knew what needed to be done to accomplish things in his state.

Cuccinelli, on the other hand, was massively outspent by his opponent (more than 3:2) as the McAuliffe campaign flooded the airwaves with attack ads defining Cuccinelli as a right-wing ideologue who wanted to ban abortion and contraception and introduce no-fault divorce. Not only did Cuccinelli spend his entire tenure as attorney general behaving exactly like the right-wing ideologue McAuliffe said he was, but he made no real effort to redefine himself throughout the campaign. (Let’s not forget that Bob McDonnell was able to do just that in 2009 despite being just about as conservative as Cuccinelli). The national Republican Party must take some of the blame here, as they and their donor base basically abandoned Cuccinelli from the get-go. What’s more, he found himself running in a state with a scandal-embroiled Republican governor, loads of federal employees angry about the shutdown and blaming his party, and a lieutenant governor candidate who managed to be even more conservative than him. The two situations are hardly comparable. No wonder he lost the messaging war, which brings me to my next point…

4.  Never mind the so-called “War on Women”; Republicans’ number one problem is their deficit among minority voters

So much in the Virginia campaign was focused on women’s issues. This was largely due to the aforementioned ad blitz by the McAuliffe campaign to define Cuccinelli as a fundamentally anti-woman candidate. Essentially, Democratic operatives were attempting to replicate the Obama campaign’s success in Virginia at turning out the “Coalition of the Ascendant”—the alliance of young people, women, and minorities who all vote overwhelmingly Democratic. And, working against an underfunded opponent who gave them way too much ammunition, they succeeded.

But, to go back to the exit polling for a minute, here is a very interesting data point: Cuccinelli won white women by an astonishing sixteen points—54% to 38%, even as he lost the overall woman vote by nine (42%-51%). What does this mean? Well, quite simply, it means that Cuccinelli must have lost the non-white woman vote by stunning margins. Indeed, the polling corroborates this: 91% of African American females voted for McAuliffe (data for Latino and Asian women was not available). Overall, Cuccinelli lost the African American vote by an overwhelming 82 points (8%-90%), all while winning the white vote by a commanding 20 points (56%-36%).

Up until recently, it would have been unthinkable for a candidate to win the white vote by 20 points and still lose. But, as the Obama campaign demonstrated in 2012, winning the white vote is no longer synonymous with winning the election. Nevertheless, it seems that white women are not buying into the “War on Women” hype—the GOP’s deficit among women voters seems to be merely a function of their massive deficit among minorities. This has significant implications for any future winning strategy by Republicans. More on that in my next post. 

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do we do this to ourselves?