My colleague Brad Jackson and I host a daily podcast on politics and the marketplace called Coffee and Markets. In an episode this week leading up to election day, we chatted about the races in the week to come with political guru Michael Barone, who shared his insights regarding the election atmosphere and more. You can find it the podcast on iTunes if you with to subscribe, and a transcript of the conversation is below the break if you can’t listen to audio where you are.
I hope you enjoy the show as a lead-in to a weekend focused on an important and significant midterm election, with wide-ranging ramifications within the policy space.
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Transcript: Coffee & Markets interviews Michael Barone on Election 2010
BEN DOMENECH: Thank you so much, Michael, for joining us. It’s a real pleasure to talk to you this morning.
MICHAEL BARONE: Well, it’s good to be with you.
BD: I wanted to lead off with a question for you about your piece yesterday on “big, bossy government,” and obviously you’ve been tracking the trends of this cycle, across history and the different things that are at play, and I wondered if you could sort of tell us how you think that the role of government has become such a big factor in this election.
MB: Well, I think that for the first time in a generation, maybe two generations, Americans have really been faced with a realistic prospect of a vast increase in the size and scope of government. I mean, you know, when George Bush was President or we had a Republican Congress, you could ask people questions and say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the government paid all your health care costs?” And people would say, “Oh, yeah, that sounds fun, peachy and nice,” [laughter] ah, you know, “It’d save me some money.” But when people had to really think about what it would really be like, then their attitudes began to change, and change markedly. And what we saw basically is that they didn’t like it. The Obama Democrats approached government with a, ah, you know the super majorities they had with an assumption that economic distress would make people, ah, Americans more supportive of or at least amenable to big government policies. Turned out, that assumption was wrong.
BD: It’s really an interesting thing to me to see how that’s shifted so much away from the conventional wisdom of politics, I would think, in terms of essentially paying your constituents to come out and vote for you. Is that a break with the past, in some ways?
MB: Well, it’s a break with the, you know, with the defunct political scientists and historians of the past. I mean, John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s said “the practical men of business who believe themselves to contain no intellectual influences in fact are the intellectual slaves of some defunct economist.” And in this case I think the Obama Democrats who acknowledge no intellectual superiors are the intellectual slaves of some defunct political scientists and historians. The progressive political scientists who basically said, you know, politics is all about who gets how much, and people always want more money and that’s the total measure of happiness in this world. And the New Deal historians who said when, you know, McArthur, Schlesinger, and others said history always moves left, it lurches, every generation or so it moves left, and it should move left, we go from no government to big government and that’s better for everybody. And people will love it. Especially in times of economic emergency. And I tried to write a somewhat alternative history of the 1930s in my book Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan, available for about $3.50 on Amazon these days [...]
BRAD JACKSON: [laughs] We’ll link to that.
MB: In a different way, Amity Shlaes in her book The Forgotten Man gives us another history of the 1930s in which we deliver, I think, a more, if I may say so, nuanced view of the political history of the 30s. And what you find is that, ah, there was initially broad support for Franklin Roosevelt’s policies that arguably stopped the downward deflationary spiral, but that as time went on, as the administration backed higher taxes, more regulations, if you look at public opinion from 1936, 1939, what you’ll find is the majority of Americans thinking government was spending too much, that uncertainty about regulatory and tax policy was deterring business investment and preventing the creation of jobs, that labor unions had too much power. I mean you were operating in this period of a time of, ah, you know, double digit unemployment, ah, and people were clearly discontent with what’s going on. That all sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? We’ve continued to have, we’ve had double digit unemployment now for I think 16 months if you round off those 9.6, 9.5, 9.8 numbers, they round off to ten percent. And I think we’ve seen something like the late 1930s in terms of public opinion and we know for example that the Republicans gained 80 seats in the 1938 off-year elections.
BJ: Well, speaking of gaining seats, Michael, I wanted to touch on the Senate real fast. Three races that I think are pretty close that I’ve been watching, you’ve got the Nevada race where Angle is barely up over Harry Reid; you’ve got Illinois where Kirk is up, according to the RCP average, about 2.8; then you’ve got Washington, where Murray is up 2.2 over Dino Rossi, who, bless him, has lost I think, what, two state-wide elections by just incredibly close margins[...]
MB: Well, and one of them by [...]
BJ: [...] just a few votes [...]
MB: [...]the County Clerk had a magic cupboard to keep coughing up more Democratic, oh, we’ve got another 3800 votes here.
BJ: It’s like Harry Potter’s doing the election. Um, what’s your thought on these three races, particularly Nevada? I mean, if Sharon Angle is able to do this she’d be the second person, I guess, since Tom Daschle was beaten. What’s your thought on this going forward? Do you see it as being close?
MB: To have a Senate majority leader beaten, yeah, well if you go back as far as 1950, 1952 when Scott Luskis lost to Everett Dirksen and Ernie MacFarland of Arizona lost to Barry Goldwater, those are fresh memories to me, kid [laughter]. [Coughs]. You know, I think it’s pretty clear the majority of voters in Nevada want to get rid of Harry Reid. I mean, I was driving around Reno and Lake Tahoe and my gosh, the signs around, up around that state I don’t even want to repeat on a recording what they said [laughter]. But ah, you know, Reid is hoping that he can disqualify Angle by painting her as a looney, that people will vote for a third party candidate that’s got a quote “Tea Party” label, or that “none of the above” alternative is on the Nevada ballot, although it’s not a full, it’s a case of misleading advertising because even if “none of the above” wins, somebody still takes office. Ah, the, and so forth, my guess, and it’s just an intuitive feel, is that Harry Reid is gonna fall short, that a majority of voters in Nevada will get their wish and that he will be put into retirement forty years after he first won state-wide office. Ah, but obviously that’s a race that can go either way. I have a feeling we’re going to be up all night or several days on that because we’re looking at, ah, you know, that’s a race where ah, you know, it’s gonna be a late-night sort of thing.
BJ: Are we gonna have the entire Dallas Cowboys roster vote in that election again?
MB: Well, I don’t know if there is, you know there was some attempted vote fraud in Nevada previous to this; John Fund of the Wall Street Journal reported about it, and I believe that the, I think it was due to the Clark County Clerk, and Clark County includes Las Vegas and 70 percent of the population of Nevada, or the secretary of state—I think it was the Clark County Clerk—who was a Democrat who was just adamant about not accepting false voter registrations and so forth, she said elections should be run honestly, and she was apparently determined to do that. So there’s histories of attempted vote fraud there, but we also have some reason to believe there are public officials that want to make sure that that doesn’t happen.
BJ: What about Illinois? That’s obviously the President’s home state, a state where races tend to have Democrats come from behind, um, another heavy union state. With Kirk up barely, do you think he’s going to be able to pull that off?
MB: Um, I think he probably will, I mean, it is true that probably no other state in the union could have as a serious contender for a U.S. Senate seat somebody who is described accurately by the title “Mob Banker.” [Laughter.] In Illinois, they just figure [...]
BJ: It’s less a career than a calling, Michael. [Laughter.]
MB: They have to have somebody as banker, right? You know, so whatever. Ah, you know, Alexi Giannoulias has, you know, history at this bank and then the bank failed and then they loaned money to some really shady characters including Tony Rezko. Um, you know, what I’m seeing in the polls is that you’ve got a significant vote for a third party Green and actually there’s some history of that in Illinois, you had that as well in the 2006 governor race which involved the re-election of one Rod Blagojevich, ah, with only about 49 or 50 percent of the vote there was obviously some distaste for him on the part of the people who weren’t willing to vote for a Republican. And, um, I think that clearly there’s some Green vote out there; now it’s showing up in the polls, and so, you know I am, ah, I guess if I had to bet a thousand dollars I would bet on Mark Kirk the Republican as a pretty well adapted Republican to the kind of terrain there. He’s from, kind of high income, high level suburbs that have moved heavily towards the Democrats in many elections but he was able to win his Congressional District there and I think is a good alternative to Mr. Giannoulias, the Democratic nominee. So I’d say, you know, they’re looking pretty good, but would I be utterly shocked if Mark Kirk lost and Alexi Giannoulias won? No, I would not be utterly shocked.
BJ: And do you think Washington’s gonna end with Murray squeaking out a close victory over Rossi?
MB: Well, the polling right now, I think those two West Coast states, California and Washington, you know in some ways demography may be working for the Republicans, that is the area east of the mountains, east of the Sierra, you know east of the coast range in California, east of the Cascades in Washington, you know, very conservative big ag areas, the river valley, the central valley in California, ah, they still need to gain a few points in population before they’re gonna produce margins large enough to outvote the coastal enclaves where people are kind of grooving perhaps on controlled substances and voting heavily Democratic. And you know it looks just a little out of reach to me but you know certainly that’s a possibility. I mean we are looking right now, if you look at the latest real clear averages, we are looking at seven Senate races that the polling average is within three points. So that indicates to me that there’s a lot of potential. I’m inclined to think that you know if Republicans have a good night it’s all going to come pretty much their way, they’re going to get close to if not at the ten Senate seats they need for a majority, but that’s not assured, you know; they could fall short.
BJ: One last quick question I wanted to ask, what’s your thought on Republicans making a big gain in the governor’s mansions?
MB: Well, I think that’s actually very significant on national issues for a couple of reasons. Number one, we’re gonna go through re-districting cycles, and governors have a lot of say about that. Number two, as my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Scott Gottlieb and Tom Miller have written, governors and legislatures are going to be very important in terms of what happens with the health care bill. They can install it or move it forward and we’ve got a lot of choice there. Now the good news for Democrats on governor races is they have a lead in California and they’ve got a shot in Florida, two of the four biggest states, plus they’re clearly going to win the state of New York. That’s the good news for them. The bad news for Democrats is that they appear to be on the brink of losing Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, that industrial heartland. Historically, the political scientists’ rule was that in times of economic distress, the industrial heartland moves towards the Democrats, and if you look at the election results of 1958, 1970, 1982, that is indeed what happens. This year, in a time of economic distress, all the evidence suggests the industrial heartland is moving towards the Republicans. And I think that could signal a very basic attitudinal shift. That old tendency to shift to the Democrats in a time of recession, that was evidence of a belief that government spending is going to help solve recessions, it’s going to be good for the little guy, that you want to have government spending money, maybe even riding the printing press a little. Nowadays it seems to me what voters are telling us are, we want government to spend less, giving money to the public employee union members is not the way to make things better in our society, not the way to make things better for the ordinary people, the government needs to get out of the way and allow business to invest. So that’s what I see in the polls; we will see if we’re still friendly after election day.
BD: I want to thank you for taking the time to do this. I have one last quick question for you, Michael, and that’s really just, do you think in the wake of this election, what do you see as the path ahead for the White House and for the President? He’s sort of been wavering back and forth in sort of how he would approach this cycle and clearly there’s an attitude of pessimism but there’s no real clear response from them, I feel like yet, to how they’re going to deal with a new Congress and that sort of thing. What do you expect from the White House over the next two years or so?
MB: Well, I expect they’re going to have what I call a “two-word moment” of which I’ll relay only the first word to you, which is, “Oh.” [Laughter.] I think that the President, like most politicians that I’ve observed over the years, is inherently an optimist and is still playing around with ideas that things will come out pretty well for his party and his side in this election and has not fully prepared himself intellectually or emotionally for the possibility that things are going to come out much worse. You know, he knows it’s possible, but he’s not really facing that. And if we should see the kind of major gains to Republicans that the polls seem to be suggesting, he’s going to have to do something a little different.
My own view is that even if he tries to compromise, his ideas of compromising with Republicans are not really very realistic. When you look at the public policies he’s talking about, he comes from essentially a one-party environment. If you look at the 13th state Senate district of Illinois, you’re looking at a constituency that’s about 80-95% Democratic. If you look at the mayoralty of Chicago, which is an office to which he aspired before he took that somewhat less powerful one of President of the United States [laughter], that’s a one-party constituency, essentially. And I think that he doesn’t, you know, he’s going to have to learn something new and it’s not clear to me whether or not he’s going to do that, but we’re going to see. We’re going to see. You know, he’s sensitive to criticism. He’s not used to being criticized, as his aide David Axelrod noted in his memos to him in the 2008 election that it always strikes him as a little odd that people don’t totally agree with him and that he hasn’t charmed everyone. But the, ah, you know, we’ll see. My guess is that it’s going to be a tough time adjusting. You know, we go back to ’94 and ’95 and say, well, Bill Clinton adjusted to this, he moved to the Senate. It took him a few months to do that, if you go back and see that, he was still pretty “gobsmacked,” as the British journalists say, [laughter] by taking a defeat in that election and I don’t think he’s going to respond any more rapidly than President Clinton did.
BJ: I actually also think that Clinton was honestly a better politician than I think Obama is.
MB: Well I think you certainly can make that argument. In retrospect, Clinton had a lot of political smarts and savvy, he was a good political analyst. But you know, Obama did make it to the Presidency so you have to give him some credit for that.
BD: [Laughs.] Of course. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to do this, Michael, we really appreciate it, and we look forward to seeing your analysis on the election.
MB: Well, watch Fox News and we’ll be there.