So now we know what the next two years will look like.
Yesterday’s election didn’t really hold that many surprises, the Dems lost the House like everyone said they would, and kept the Senate, like most people guessed. In no particular order, here are some things that I noticed about yesterday’s election, and what I think they will mean going forward.
Hands down, the biggest disappointment for me was Russ Feingold’s loss to Ron Johnson in the Wisconsin Senate race. Though I have a special affinity for Feingold as a Wisconsinite-at-heart, his loss is a blow regardless. As I wrote here, I think that Feingold is a great Senator not because I agree with him on most issues, but because of the temperament that he brings to legislating. He, more than any other legislator I’ve seen, makes decisions based on good policy rather than good politics. Johnson, on the other hand, was all about politics. I watched the third and final debate between the two of them, and Johnson’s answers were frequently election season buzzwords that he was reluctant to back up with substance. This wasn’t unique to that debate: the Green Bay Press-Gazette endorsed Feingold this year (they endorsed his opponent in his previous two senate races) after Johnson couldn’t provide any details about his jobs plan beyond “we need to cut spending.”
This was also a race of money. Feingold has long been an advocate of campaign finance reform, but the Roberts Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of loosening restrictions on campaign spending. During this election, Feingold put his money where his mouth was, specifically requesting that outside groups refrain from running ads for him in Wisconsin. When he asked Johnson to do the same, Johnson refused. His refusal isn’t surprising when you see this graph:
It’s things like that, the refusal of money from outside sources, that I will miss now that Feingold has lost.
In Iowa, where State Supreme Court Justices must be confirmed by a majority of voters every eight years to continue serving, three of the seven members of the court that struck down the law preventing same-sex marriages
failed to obtain the majorities needed to renew their terms. There is a similar voting system in place in California. Direct votes on judges are troubling to me, because I think that it compromises the neutrality that we should demand from our judiciary. I think Doug Mataconis makes a good point here (h/t the Daily Dish):
At some level, it strikes me as inappropriate for a judge to be removed for office based solely on the fact that some segment of the public doesn’t agree with a single decision that they made. When a court is acting in its role as the protector of minority rights, it’s inevitable that the majority isn’t going to like it. The idea that they would then be able to turn around, oust that Judge, and replace him with someone who would rule the other way does serious damage to the entire notion of individual and minority rights. This is the reason, in the end, that an independent judiciary is a good thing, and it strikes me as a bad thing that we could be entering an era when judges at the state level would be subject to the whims of a vocal political group.
Protecting the rights of minority groups is perhaps the most important function of judges. Imagine if the Supreme Court were elected rather than appointed for life. There’s a reason that many of the most significant strides in the early stages of the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s resulted from Supreme Court decisions rather than legislation. A judge’s job is to make the right call, while a legislator’s job is often to make the popular one. Supporters of the removal of these judges would likely argue that they were removed not because the people of Iowa disapproved of their application of the law, but because they disapproved of the extent to which the judges were injecting their own views into their interpretation of the law. I don’t buy that, because when you make that argument, you are implicitly saying that the electorate is better qualified to assess the constitutionality of laws than judges. There is no other way to argue that judges should be subject to popular oversight. And if that’s the case, if the electorate is just as able as a judge to say when a decision is based on solid judicial reasoning and when it is based on “judicial activism”, then there’s really no purpose to having a judicial branch.
In California, the ballot included a “Yes/No” vote on some of the judiciary. I did not complete this portion of my ballot, because I don’t think that judges should be answering to me any more directly than when they are appointed by a democratically elected official.
Over the last month, I have spent a fair amount of time looking at the California Propositions, and it was interesting to see how they played out in this election. I wasn’t too surprised to see Prop 19 fail, as it had taken a dive in the polls recently. Even though it didn’t pass, though, I think that it brought the issue of marijuana legalization into the national discussion, which I think is a major step in the right direction. Like gay marriage, I think the issue of marijuana legalization is one of those things that is inevitable in the long run, as people realize that like alcohol, marijuana can be enjoyed safely and recreationally.
I was more concerned about the failure of Prop 23 than I was about any of the other measures. Prop 23 would have dealt a severe blow to greenhouse gas reductions in California, and California is currently playing a very important “guinea pig” role for the rest of the nation. Like it or not (and the Republicans apparently do not), climate change is an issue that we can scarce afford to ignore. I don’t say this because I know for a fact that it will become an issue; I say this because I know that the bulk of the evidence points to its becoming an issue, and because we will not be able to really know the extent to which it will be an issue until it is far too late to do anything about it. It may turn out that achieving the GHG reductions specified in AB32 will be so difficult that we, as a nation, decide that we need to seek other ways of dealing with the issue (who’s up for a trip to the moon?), but we can’t know anything about the potential costs and problems associated with reducing GHG emissions until we make a serious attempt at regulating them. Luckily, Prop 23 failed and California’s grand experiment will continue.
The other notable proposition result, in my eyes, was the passage of Proposition 26, which expanded the applicability of California’s 2/3rds majority required to pass tax increases. Prop 26 expanded this definition to include basically anything above and beyond direct payment to the state for a service provided. This will only serve to make it that much harder for California to raise money, something that is already a huge issue for the state. Just like we’re seeing on the national level, Californians are extremely reluctant to pay more taxes, but they’re also extremely reluctant to receive fewer services from the government. Those two things just don’t work well together.
The Coming Years
So what do the next two years have in store for us? My guess is gridlock.
With the Republicans in control in the House and the Democrats lacking anything even close to a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, I don’t have high hopes for legislative advancements over the next few years, from either side of the aisle. I hate to sound like a partisan hack here, but I think that it will be more the result of contrarian Republicans than it the result of stonewalling or weak-kneed Democrats. This is based on the last two years (which, to be fair, have had their fair share of contrarian Republicans AND weak-kneed Democrats) and the remark that Sen. McConnell (R-Ky.) made to the National Journal:
“The single most important thing that we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
If that doesn’t make you scared about the current state of our politics, I don’t know what will. I’m not taken aback by the general sentiment; clearly, the opposition party would like to regain control as soon as possible. What worries me, however, is the fact that this is their “single most important” goal. I feel like that question should be a softball for any politician. Easy response: “I want to prove to the American people that our platform of A, B, and C will solve the problems we are having with X, Y, and Z.” McConnell’s quote seems to provide an all too honest look at the mind of a politician. It should be every politician’s goal, first and foremost, to do the things necessary to make our country a better place to live. Re-election, or taking control of the Presidency, or other electoral goals like that may be a means of achieving that end, but they should never be an end themselves.
So over the next few years, I doubt we’ll see action on DADT, unless it comes from the courts or the Obama administration realizes that the avenue for ending it through legislation has closed and decides to drop their appeal. I doubt we’ll see any significant climate action, beyond hearings about the “fake science” behind climate change. I doubt we’ll see constructive immigration reform that doesn’t rely on fear-mongering about illegal immigrants. I doubt we’ll see politicians making the politically unpopular decisions that they will have to make if they’re serious about balancing the budget. One of the most common themes of the election season this year was big talk about deficit reduction without any mention of how to go about doing it. I’m sorry, but “we’re going to put everything on the table” sounds to me like “well we don’t want to explicitly identify anything that we are thinking of cutting, because then we’ll lose the votes of some of our constituency.”
So in sum: I’m not thrilled about our prospects for the next few years.
Go ahead, elected officials. PROVE ME WRONG.