How to Make Government Work

Nov. 2 2012 5:20 PM

Why I Am Voting for Barack Obama

President Obama at a campaign rally in Lima, Ohio, on Friday

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

We've heard all the promises, excuses, smart lines, and grotesque misrepresentations. Now it’s time to choose.

And the choice is easy. On one hand is a leader who saved us from sure fiscal disaster, watched over a recuperating economy, preserved our national security and guided our nation's international relations in rough waters, ensured landmark universal access to health care, and pushed historic social policy with respect to immigration and civil rights.

On the other is a supply-side Reaganomics disciple who says he is fit to lead because of his knowledge about the economy. A man who says he has a plan but when asked over and over for the specifics can't produce. The arithmetic doesn't work, the inequities of the plan are manifest, and gauzy platitudes can no longer cover this up. He is a former moderate governor who became a pawn of an increasingly radical Republican Party, not a leader of it.

On issue after issue, the choice couldn't be more clear. Not only because President Obama is right on most of them, but because he leads on all of them. I frequently have made it clear that I think President Obama could have handled politics and policies differently. But he has been decisive, strong, and consistent—important qualities in a president. Mitt Romney is indeed an Etch A Sketch, the antithesis of leadership.  

I laugh when I hear people argue that Romney would be a better leader than President Obama or that Romney would better connect with the American people, with the middle-class workers who deserve a fair wage, with the students who not only strive for a top-notch education but who hope for a fighting chance to pay off student loans, with women who believe they should have more say about their bodies and medical care than politicians.

Facts matter. Science matters. Reason matters. Mitt Romney has shown an inability to respect any of the three. President Barack Obama not only respects them, he relies on them. He is an overwhelming and unquestioned choice to continue as president.

Nov. 1 2012 5:08 PM

The Newspapers Endorsing Romney Because He Would Appease GOP Extremists

Don’t reward bad behavior.

It is one of the first rules of parenting. During the financial cataclysm of 2008 we said it differently. When we bailed out banks that had created their own misfortune, we called it a “moral hazard,” because the bailout absolved the bank’s bad acts and created an incentive for it to make the same bad loans again.

We are now seeing the presidential campaign version of the moral hazard from editorial boards and columnists. They would reward the bad behavior and nihilistic tactics that created the political stalemate between the White House and Congress that has caused the public’s loss of respect for our political structure. Read some of the editorials and columns endorsing Romney. The common thread is that Romney will be able to work with the Republican Congress. Because he is willing to shift his views, he would engage in the sort of negotiations that could produce deals.

Let me reinterpret this: The Republican leaders, who held the nation hostage on everything from the debt ceiling to meaningful jobs bills are to rewarded, and the politician, Mitt Romney, who by his own campaign’s admissions has been devoid of constancy on major ethical and fiscal issues, is applauded for lacking principle. Because Mitch McConnell and John Boehner brought governance to a halt, we should give them Mitt Romney as their chosen negotiating partner? Such is the logic of these amazingly cynical and disappointing endorsements. To read the Des Moines Register endorsement of Romney is to read a logic that would have justified Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis: Cave to the entity that refuses to negotiate, and then blame the party that does stand on proper principle yet still tried in good faith to negotiate a deal for the public good. Such skewed logic is horrific to read.

Credit Ezra Klein and some others for shining the light on this. And shame on those who are rewarding the worst form of politics we have seen in many decades.

Oct. 31 2012 1:23 PM

Obama’s Post-Sandy Slogan Should Be: “Who Rebuilt It?”

President Barack Obama and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate prepare to visit areas of New Jersey hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images.

We Built It” was the Republican Convention slogan that tried to mock the sensible and correct argument by President Obama that government had in fact built much of what makes our economy tick: from many of the essential pieces of our infrastructure, from the Erie Canal or the interstate highway system, to the great public universities that produce groundbreaking technology to the research and development efforts in that have built our great biotech and aerospace companies. Put aside for the moment that the speakers at the convention took the president’s statement totally out of context, trying to assert that he was claiming government built the businesses—not the surrounding infrastructure that permits businesses to thrive.

The speeches captured the disdain that Mitt Romney expressed for all things governmental, until his recent, late night conversion to moderate Mitt.

I have a slight reformulation for the folks who live in the path of Hurricane Sandy. “Who rebuilt it?” Who showed up in this moment of great need to provide shelter and emergency medical assistance? Who helped rescue families from flooded areas and provided transport for the elderly? Who is there fixing the critical infrastructure and safety systems that we all rely on in crisis?

Suddenly New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is sounding more appreciative of the FEMA funding that the Romney-Ryan budget wants to decimate. Suddenly even Republicans are talking respectfully about the need for the mass transit system to work, for bridges to reopen, for all the government actions and investments that were mere impediments, in their pre-Sandy world view, to the private sector.

It is too bad that it takes a tragedy like Sandy to get some to appreciate the essential role that government investments play in our society. Maybe after the storm has passed, and the election has faded at least a week or two into our memories, we can agree that government really did build something critical that we all need—and should be thankful for.

Oct. 30 2012 1:41 PM

The Maddening Reason Freddie Mac Failed To Refinance Millions of Underwater Mortgages

The inability to get mass refinancings of underwater mortgages is one of the signature failures of economic policy of the past four years. In a fascinating and revealing story published by ProPublica on Oct. 25, Jesse Eisinger explains how several board members and executives of Freddie Mac, the now-taxpayer-owned mortgage giant, made essentially impossible to get a significant number of refinancings done. According to Eisinger, one of these board members, Robert Glauber, objected on the grounds refinancings were “designed to be a stimulus.” Why that would be an objection is hard to understand, but Glauber, a Republican appointee to the Treasury Department by President George H. W. Bush and a former CEO of the NASD, was supposedly steadfast in his opposition.

This brought to mind my encounter with Glauber back in 2002 when I was negotiating a resolution to the “analyst” cases, which were then viewed as the most significant restructuring of Wall Street’s interface with the general investing public in many years.

The particular issue in 2002 had to do with spinning, a process whereby CEOs and other senior executives at companies would be given personal allocations of “hot” IPOs by the investment banks underwriting the IPOs. Hot IPOs are those in which the stock is expected to jump when trading opens, and so an allocation leads to instantaneous trading gains—often very substantial in magnitude. Why did the investment banks give the executives this option? The companies run by the CEOs were good clients, and the banks wanted these companies to continue to direct business to the investment banks.

I asserted that the practice had to stop, on the grounds that the particular behavior amounted to little more than commercial bribery. If the investment bank wanted to bestow a gift on the company to maintain the client relationship—something the bank is entitled to do—then the benefit should go to the shareholders, not the CEO. If the CEO takes it individually, as they do when they take the stock granted in a spinning allocation, it is just a fancy form of bribery. Indeed, my office recovered vast sums of money from CEOs on just this theory.

At the time, my office was trying to negotiate a global deal with the New York Stock Exchange, headed by Dick Grasso, the SEC, headed by Harvey Pitt, and the NASD, headed by Glauber. At a late night negotiating session, I demanded an end to all spinning. Glauber and the others were vehement that CEOs be permitted to continue to get this perk. After much back and forth, in order to move things forward, I agreed, even though I was, and am, convinced that spinning is inherently a violation of the fiduciary obligation of the CEO. The next morning, having slept poorly on the matter, I called Glauber and the others back and said I could not go along with the deal we had agreed to the evening before. There had to be a total ban. I remember Glauber, in particular, was outraged. Didn’t CEO’s have any rights he asked? Sure they did, I said; but violating fiduciary duty was not one of them. After much back and forth, and some frayed feelings, they acceded to a total ban on spinning. It was without a doubt the right result.

All of this is relevant because it puts in context the warped world view of those who have done all they could to prevent refinancings that would have benefited middle-class home owners and revivied the economy, and yet managed to rationalize all the perks that were afforded to CEOs at the height of the bubble.

Eisinger’s wonderfully insightful article sets out the many roadblocks that were created to prevent a meaningful recovery for middle-class homeowners. Unfortunately, the deeper question about how those at the top of the corporate pyramid often view their obligations to the larger base below them—shareholders, workers, and consumers—has yet to be resolved.

Oct. 26 2012 5:37 PM

Is Grover Norquist’s Anti-Tax Wall Finally Crumbling?

Founder of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist.
Founder of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

Have Mitt Romney and his anti-tax Rasputin Grover Norquist finally met their match? For years Norquist has almost singlehandedly led our Congress down a destructive path. By persuading 279 members of Congress to take his no-tax pledge, Norquist has hamstrung every effort to address long-term national problems: the basic inequities in our tax code, the failure to invest sufficiently in the building blocks of our future, the entitlement crisis, and the deficit. The effort to restore Clinton-era tax rates to the wealthiest Americans—who have thrived over the past several years even as others have borne the brunt of the deep recession—foundered in part because of Norquist’s ability to hold the Republican leadership hostage to his no-tax pledge. That leadership includes Mitt Romney, who signed the pledge back in 2006.

But now, from an unlikely quarter—our most senior business leaders—comes opposition: No resolution of our fiscal crisis is possible without a compromise that raises revenues. A group of more than 80 senior executives at our largest companies, including Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein, have formed a group called Fix the Debt. David Cote, the CEO of Honeywell and a Republican, said "To say you can solve this without increases in taxes is ludicrous."

Their acknowledgment that Norquist is dead wrong and that Romney's detail-free plan to cut taxes and eliminate the deficit defies the laws of common sense amount to a game changer. It is not just the intellectual firepower of the executives that makes this a big deal. The political potency of mainstream corporate leaders—many of them Romney's own guys—saying that the Republican ideas just won't work shakes the very foundation of the Romney-Norquist worldview.

Unfortunately for instant-gratification types who think this should be enough to sway voters—it just isn't. The general public will not care. But after Nov. 6, when decisions will actually have to be made, a sane recognition that revenues must be part of the solution could bring some sense back into the politics of Washington.

Oct. 24 2012 5:35 PM

Why Won’t Romney Rescind His Mourdock Endorsement?

Indiana Treasurer and Republican Senate Nominee Richard Mourdock.
Indiana Treasurer and Republican Senate nominee Richard Mourdock.

Photo Courtesy IN.gov.

I have grown increasingly mystified that a presidential candidate we know so little about is so close to winning our highest office. The much-derided Etch-a-Sketch strategy has actually worked. What began as a bad joke about a candidate without any substantial chance of victory has now turned into a path to the White House.

I'm not sure whom to blame: the voters? The media? President Obama? All share some of the fault for not calling Romney out for his inconsistency. Perhaps as a nation, we have all failed to hold Mitt Romney accountable. We don't know who he is or what he believes because we've never forced him to tell us. Every time he opportunistically re-creates his own platform or policy, he gets away with it.

We do know who Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock is. The Romney-Ryan-endorsed Mourdock has added to the litany of outrageous and offensively backward positions that make up the Republican War on Women. But where is Gov. Romney? The former pro-choice moderate, who all but adopted a Todd Akin-like stance on "personhood" before asking Akin to drop out of his Missouri Senate race after his rape gaffe, is trying to have it both ways—disagreeing with Mourdock's beliefs while still supporting him.

It should be the obligation of every voter to find out what Romney really believes on this issue. He has a choice. If he doesn't agree with Richard Mourdock, he needs to rescind his endorsement. He needs to ask Mourdock to stop using his likeness in campaign ads to promote views that he disagrees with. He needs to denounce Mourdock.

If Romney does not take any of these steps, it should be clear to every voter that he cannot be relied upon—that his positions are truly meaningless—that he has no core convictions he deems worthy of fighting for.

American voters are supposed to appreciate straight talk. Mitt Romney makes a mockery of this core notion of American politics.

Oct. 23 2012 5:52 PM

Why Romney, a Very Weak Candidate, Is Doing So Well   

Mitt Romney speaks during the third and final presidential debate with Pres. Obama.
Mitt Romney during the third and final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

At last night's foreign policy debate, Mitt Romney sought to obscure differences rather than clarify them, even going so far as to etch-a-sketch away his most hawkish language on Afghanistan and Iran.  

But why? At this stage of the race, with candidates as smart as President Obama and Gov. Romney, it is safe to say that nothing happens by accident. Faced with a debate where he would have to actually articulate what differences in policy underlay the tough talk and harsh administration critique he delivers in Fox News interviews, Romney threw in the towel before the fight started.

He realized that beyond the bellicose words that had carried him through the primaries and into contention for the presidency, there were no policies that made sense. So, Romney decided to hide behind a platform that was little more than "me too," and simply parroted the president's lead.

With the three debates now complete, the campaigns running on vapors and adrenaline until Nov. 6, and only one jobs report left to help frame the outcome, where are we? There are essentially three areas of substance to think about: domestic social issues, domestic economic issues, and foreign policy. On social issues, Romney has swung from moderate governor to Todd Akin acolyte and back to moderate Mitt, moving us through generations of social convention in days, leaving us confused and baffled about his core convictions. On economic issues, Romney has exhumed the skeleton of an economic agenda that touts lower taxes as a mantra for growth. If only the historical record gave any credence to the claims! And now on foreign policy, Romney has conceded no real disagreement. The Romney campaign, at the end of the day, is so much less than meets the eye.

So why its appeal? Why is the race so close? The president's first term dealt well with the immediate crisis of economic cataclysm but not with trends of declining middle-class income and security. People are unhappy. And when alternatives appear with promises, no matter how empty and unfounded they may be, people will give them a long look. The anxiety about our future that has allowed Mitt Romney a seat at the table is what will drive our politics for the next decade.

Oct. 22 2012 6:47 PM

You Must Read This Brilliant Economist Article About Inequality and Crony Capitalism

A protester passes during a march in the downtown financial district to mark the one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement on Oct. 1, 2012 in Los Angeles.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

I want to take a break from the hollering about the presidential race to recommend an editorial from the Oct. 13 issue of the Economist, True Progressivism.” Why the applause for this piece of writing? Coming from a traditionally right-of-center publication, this editorial accepts as its premise that the rising inequality in our economy is problematic at many levels, and that the concentration of economic power in our plutocracy has created a form of crony capitalism that is antithetical to economic growth and vitality.  The prime example cited by the Economist: too-big-to-fail banks that feast on public subsidies. The answer the editorial proposes? A vigorous form of Rooseveltian Progressivism that attacks monopolies to restore real competition.

This editorial reflects a remarkable convergence of thinking—and perhaps the beginning of a new alliance among those who have often disagreed. Such an alliance will require the more conservative political forces to acknowledge the destructive impact of gross inequality and the reality that markets have often failed to be open, thus hindering mobility and genuine competition.

Likewise, the more liberal forces would have to agree that the best intervention to remedy the cronyism is not the government performing activities better left to the private sector, but the government’s creative use of anti-monopoly laws to restore competition and true market rigor.

Such a form of progressivism would provide a genuine alternative to the inchoate anger of both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements. It would also give us an ideology that was actually viable. This is a longer and deeper conversation that must be pursued, but these simple points of agreement could offer a way forward after the Nov. 6 elections.

Oct. 19 2012 3:54 PM

If There’s an Electoral College Tie, Things Will Get Even Crazier Than You May Know

Mitt Romney speaks with campaign staff on his campaign plane in Chantilly, Va., on Thursday.

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

It hasn't happened in 212 years.  But it might happen in two-and-a-half weeks: a presidential race ending in an Electoral College tie.

If Mitt Romney continues to pick up votes in the swing states, we are looking at the possibility that—whichever way the popular vote goes—the Electoral College will give 269 votes to Romney and 269 votes to President Obama.

Eleven states are still considered to be in play. The website 270towin calculates 32 possible combinations that could result in a tie. If that happens, America would get a complicated, tension-filled lesson in the Constitution—and a likely result that you would not believe.

Electoral map showing undecided states.
The 2012 election map showing the states still up for grabs

Map by Slate staff.

The decision about who will be the next president would get thrown to the House of Representatives—where each state gets just one vote apiece. That means the 29 members of Congress from New York would get one vote—the same number as the single member of Congress from Montana. Right after the new Congress got sworn in, in early January, all the House members from each state would decide how to cast that state's one vote.

As you might guess, that would be bad news for Obama. The little-populated red states outnumber the highly-populated blue states. So even with a predicted Democratic pickup of about 10 seats in the new House of Representatives, the president would be expected to lose. As of now, Romney is expected to have 26 states in his corner—and the president can count on only 13. That's one reason why some of these congressional races matter so much.

But that's not even the crazy part. You see, the House does not choose the vice president. That decision goes to the Senate, which decides it by a simple vote. The Senate is—and is expected to remain—Democratic.

As a result, if there is a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College, the next president could be Mitt Romney. And the vice president would be Joe Biden. Wouldn't that be fun!

Maybe it's time for a constitutional amendment to rethink some of this.

Oct. 18 2012 6:05 PM

Why Romney Is Afraid To Explain His Tax Plan

Mitt Romney in Chesapeake, Va., on Wednesday

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images.

In today's Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove asserts that Mitt Romney fundamentally altered the arc of the presidential race in the first debate because he came across as a "man with a plan." And it is surely the case that, despite the president's apparent win on points in Tuesday's debate, the race is a near dead heat. Mitt Romney must have earned a second hard look from a lot of voters who had been skeptical.

The problem is that what Rove calls a "plan" doesn't yet measure up. Romney, Paul Ryan, and their campaign need to give us answers to some of the hard questions about this plan. As the president asserted in the debate on Tuesday, what we have been told so far surely wouldn't have been enough for Romney to justify a Bain investment in him, and it surely shouldn't be enough to earn a vote.

Let's get specific: Rove acknowledges that the cornerstone to Romney's appeal is the public's belief that he will be better able to handle the economy. The centerpiece of that claim is his revenue-neutral, middle-class-protecting tax policy, a 20 percent marginal rate cut for all. This is the policy with the $5 trillion price tag over 10 years. That $5 trillion figure is a simple arithmetical extension of the current tax code and revenue figures, and is really not in dispute.

So to avoid adding to the deficit, how does Romney fill that gap? So far, he's only suggested limiting tax deductions and credits. In the debate, he suggested a $25,000 cap. But the Tax Policy Center, an independent research group, calculated that would only save about $1.3 trillion—leaving Romney a gargantuan $3.7 trillion short. In fact, even if he somehow eliminated every itemized deduction while cutting rates by 20 percent and eliminating the AMT, he would still only bring in $2 trillion dollars—less than half of what he needs.

Since Romney vigorously maintains that he will not add to the deficit with his tax plan, and since the only loophole closings that would actually raise sufficient revenue—the ones relating to mortgage payments, charitable contributions, state and local taxes, and health care premiums paid by employers—are off the table for middle-class taxpayers, according to Romney, there is clearly a gaping hole in the plan. This plan, in fact, is Swiss cheese.

Electing a candidate with a plan is one thing. Electing a candidate who is selling a mirage is something else altogether. If Romney wants the serious second look he is getting to continue, he owes the public a serious explanation for why this plan would work. Ryan's answer that he didn't have enough time to explain the plan surely didn't inspire confidence.

The burden of proof when running for the presidency of the United States of America should be higher than, "Trust me. I'll tell you later."