Thursday, February 21, 2013

What Will 2016 Dems Fight About?

I have a piece up at TAP trying to predict the issues that might divide Democratic candidates in 2016; yes, it's early, but as I say over there, if it's not too early to rank the candidates, why not also rank the issues? I'm not looking at the issues they'll run on, so much, but on those that might spark real disagreement. After all, in contested primaries, issues are one of the ways that candidates attempt to differentiate themselves from the pack. At the same time, while party-aligned groups may try to achieve consensus (as health care reform advocates basically did in 2008, or as marriage equality advocates will surely do in 2016), they also mayget candidates to compete for who has the best positions. And then, of course, party-aligned groups may disagree on what exactly is the best policy.

I picked climate, drones and terror, work and families, Pentagon spending, and agriculture/energy as likely topics for disagreement. In some cases (drones, Pentagon, perhaps energy) because the party really is divided; in others (climate, work and families, perhaps energy) because they're united on goals but unsure on the best policy to achieve them. Oh, and I'll probably do a list for the Republicans next week, either over there or back here.

So, what do you think? Did I get any of them wrong? What am I missing?

27 comments:

  1. I think you've hit the ones which are both likely to drive debate, and might actually get somewhere substantive in the immediate term thereafter. I think, though, that there's an issue rising over the horizon which, if current trajectories and acceleration remain, will make it a major issue of debate on the Democrat side by 2016, but which will not have quite enough traction yet to deliver results until possibly the next Presidential election cycle.

    Marijuana. There's been a slowly accelerating ball rolling down that hill since Portugal decriminalised, which picked up speed with the UN GCDP report in 2011, and has generated a lot of attention in the last six months. In the US the long curve can be tracked in the introduction of medical marijuana laws, leading to the voter-driven decriminalisations in Colorado and Washington State.

    This is an issue where we've recently gone over a public-opinion tipping point; a majority now support decriminalisation and an overwhelming majority support medical marijuana, and thus (implicitly) the recognition that there is a medical use for cannabis and that it should therefore not be a schedule I.

    It's also an issue which clearly divides the moderately liberal from the conservative (moderate) wings of the Democratic Party. (I'm a Brit, so in the Overton window I operate in there are no liberal Democrats, only moderates and conservatives, while the GOP exists somewhere to the right of the UK Tories). Particularly given increasing Union organisation within the cannabis industry, Wall St. investors getting interested, and the inevitable media profile of what will likely be a long and annoying confrontation between the Federal prohibition establishment and the decriminalised States, I don't see the public and media profile of this issue dropping much.

    Thus, I'd guess that by 2016, at least in Democratic primaries if not in the general, we'll see the debate becoming vocal and visible; and in the process, we'll see a ghost run at what the eventual general election campaigns on the issue will look like 4, 8 or 16 years later.

    One of my 'liberal' positions is an extreme opposition to the WoD, on several different grounds; but that's not why I think this is going to be an issue for Dem primaries in 2016. I think it's going to be an issue because Colorado and Washington State just legalised recreational pot.

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    1. I agree with this - even if it doesn't happen in 2016, I think it will get harder and harder for Democrats to ignore the issue, especially if progress continues to be made at state levels.

      Other areas where I see potential for disagreement are labor and financial regulation, particularly the latter. I'm not sure which potential candidate would be the likeliest to take up the Sherrod Brown/Elizabeth Warren mantle, but it could certainly cause friction in a primary against a more Wall Street friendly candidate.

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    2. I think it becomes a prominent issue by 2016 because for the next four straight years, the Federal prohibition establishment, including the President, are going to have to actively oppose duly passed State laws, and the media are going to find it funny enough to keep it in the public eye. The only way I see it being a non-issue in the Democratic primaries in four years is if 'states rights' substantively win that fight, which I find unlikely in that time scale.

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    3. I agree and I think the issue will come to a head before 2016. But the issue does not have the same committed constituency as does same sex marriage, for example. So the terms of the public debate will largely be set by the President and his justice department… and that may not be so favorable for those of us who want to see reform on the federal level.

      There's definitely the potential for the Democratic base to demand a reform position from candidates in 2016, but the prospects of that are far from certain.

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    4. I think the lack of a committed constituency (though I don't think I really agree with you here) might not matter as much as the softness of the option. After the gay marriage example was set in a few states and society didn't collapse, it became much harder to sustain a passionately opposed consituency. A lot of the opposition to gay marriage turned out to be very soft once the idea started gaining political legitimacy. It was basically dismissed as not being a "serious" political issue, a lot like drug law reform today (see the network reactions to the November ballot initiatives).

      If relaxation of marijuana laws continues at the state level without terrible consequences, I think it will gain political legitimacy and as a result, a lot of the opposition to it will turn out to be as soft as opposition to gay marriage.

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  2. And another thing... thanks for this blog! I've been reading you for a while, after you got linked by Mark Thoma several times, and recently read the archives. Love your work :)

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  3. You missed campaign finance. This is the first post-Citizens United Dem primary, so it will be a big issue, as will the question of which candidates have super PACs and which make a show of keeping their hands clean. On policy, I suspect it will be more like climate change, where everyone has a plan that does something and they fight on the details.

    I don't know that health care is put to bed yet either. One of the big question marks now is how well Obamacare will be working when the campaign starts. An otherwise bland white dude could attempt to distinguish himself by running on the public option, or if he felt daring, single payer.

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    1. Also, health care as a potential issue could be affected by whether and how much cost trajectories change under Obamacare.

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  4. I hope that the Democrats will agree on patent reform, infrastructure/research investments and the need for a manufacturing resurgence as part of a new jobs program. Those are the ideas that we liberals need to push hard.

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  5. I think you're pretty spot on regarding both the issues and how they will be debated. For climate, candidates will be fighting to present themselves as the strongest proponent of action. Much like healthcare in 2008, the candidates all broadly agree that something must be done, but the primary will be used to determine what that something should be.

    For drones, there will be two large groups in the party on opposite ends of the issue, which is something that never really arose in 2008. Part of the reason why the extra long primary season in 2008 didn't hurt Obama was because the differences between him and Clinton weren't very deep. With the drone issue, however, there could be potential candidates on polar opposite sides of the issue.

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  6. Obviously the only important issue is going to be Benghazi.

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    1. How do we know that none of the candidates have accepted money from the Friends of Benghazi?

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    2. Scott, the only safe thing is to assume they all have until they prove otherwise.

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  7. Especially in the wake of Aaron Swartz's tragic suicide, I would like to see copyright reform become an issue, but given the influence of Hollywood on both parties, I am not optimistic on that score...

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    1. Federal prosecutors go after young, poor individuals with everything in the book for minor offenses, whereas the SEC never takes banks to court for their malfeasance - Hey, shout out to Sen. Warren!

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  8. A little bit off topic, but is your author picture on TAP supposed to be a picture of Matt Bai?

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  9. Similar to Aidan, I think that inequality and how best to deal with it will feature prominently in the primary campaign. That could revolve around Wall street regulation, and capital gains taxes, along with union reform like the 'card check' legislation. I'm sure there'll be different proposals from the candidates along those themes.

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  10. The mention of cannabis legalization reminded me of a sleeper issue - criminal justice reform, maybe as part of an explicitly federalist approach to cannabis which lets the states do what they want to do. I don't know why Jim Webb's push fizzled, though looking back it's crazy to think that any reform could have squeezed its way onto the agenda when the Dems were in charge, or been enacted once the Repubs took the House. One promising thing is that a lot of conservatives are coming around too, so, if we somehow get past the tea party revolt against governance and cooperation with Dems, it might happen.

    Another issue that comes under drones and terrorism is domestic surveillance. I have no idea what the current situation is - very little information and a lot of misinformation, both pro and con - but I'm pretty sure that it's a lot worse than it needs to be. I'd love to see Dems fighting over who would do more to rein in the security state. In fact, what I'd really like to see are serious discussions of whether it's time to declare victory, or partial victory, in the GWOT and scale back not just the security state but attacks overseas as well. "Weak on defense, weak on terror" seems to have lost a lot of its luster, so there's a little room for hope.

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  11. An excellent and important topic. I think I most disagree with you on "drones and terrorists"-this will not be a major issue of debate, and may not even be a minor one. In part because withdrawal from Afghanistan will substantially diminish the issues' salience, but more importantly because the Democratic electorate really isn't divided. Those of us for whom Obama's flip on telco immunity and the FISA Amendments Act was an important moment in the '08 campaign ought to acknowledge the negligible impact it had with the larger electorate. Minor candidates sought to distinguish themselves on similar issues - Dodd on warrantless wiretapping, Richardson on the Iraq withdrawal timeline - but the major candidates converged on a hawkish policy consensus, and with good reason. I think the best drone skeptics can hope for is that their standard bearer in '16 will be a respectable second-tier candidate like Richardson and not a gadfly like Kucinich.

    The one sleeper issue you missed but which I think has at least some chance of emerging is the so-called "education reform" agenda. The split between the Democratic activist base and the "reformist" policy entrepreneurs influential amongst the party elite is wide and growing. Given the perceived association between a Rhee-style testing agenda and the Walker/Christie assault on public employees, I wouldn't be surprised if a major candidate tried to distinguish themselves by criticizing those policies, and implicitly Obama's RTTP. The main problem for my prediction is it's not clear any potential Dem candidate could credibly carry this message. But still, if parties really are 'open conspiracies of intense policy demanders,' a demand-side hypothesis regarding primary position-taking ought to be given some consideration.

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  12. I have a suspicion that a couple of the issues people are mentioning here--marijuana, patents, copyrights, surveillance--are correlated. People with the "outsider" view on one of these are more likely to have it on the others. I might add drones to that list. There could be some candidate who tries to rally people with establishment-challenging views on a bunch of these issues simultaneously.

    One thing I hope to see--let's drop that promise not to raise taxes on anyone making under $250K. It's Obama's promise, once he's gone it's not applicable any more. It might have been a reasonable promise at the time, but given the costs of financial crisis in lost revenue and additional spending it no longer is. $250K is too high--if you lower it to 200K or 150K, it still sounds like a big number to most Americans, and there's probably a good chunk of revenue to be gotten (not only from the people in that bracket, but from everyone above it as well). No tax increases under $150K, small increases between $150K and $250K, large increases beyond that.

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    1. (all together now...) Raise the Capital Gains Tax!

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  13. I wonder if, aside from policy differences, real or substantial, some candidates will try to chiefly differentiate themselves on their ability to overcome/outmaneuver/persuade Republican obstructionists. A push for filibuster reform and liberal use of executive actions could be part of this, along with some nonsensical bluster about using the symbolic power of the office or forging a new era of bipartisanship etc etc. Not sure if any of this will have a direct impact on governing the way sorting out policy priorities will, but it might be something to watch for, in addition to the battles over substance.

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  14. Preempting your GOP post, marriage equality might prove to be a divisive issue in the 2016 nomination fight. In the piece in The American Conservative, Jon Huntsman publicly calls for his party to embrace and lead on marriage equality. I doubt he will be the last or the most visible member of the GOP to come out for marriage equality prior to 2016.

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/marriage-equality-is-a-conservative-cause485/

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  15. Agreeing with Drew's point above: I think the stage is set for a big fight over how hard to go after Republicans. Here we have the makings of an inversion of the usual dynamic in Democratic primaries. Usually there's an establishment, blue-collar, New-Dealer Old Democrat (or someone who comes to fill that role) vs. a "New Politics" candidate of some kind, with the Old Democrat usually getting a scare but eventually winning. In '84, it was Mondale (old) vs. Hart (new), in 2000 it was Gore (old) vs. Bradley (new), etc. (Yes, the "Old" Democrat in some of these races was previously one of the New Democrats. That's the nature of party establishments and how they evolve.)

    In 2008 it was HRC (Old) vs. Obama (New), with the New, Post-Partisan Democrat actually winning and going on to the presidency for once. That means that Obamaism -- i.e. seeking accommodation, not calling out the other side, not taking the fight to them, etc. -- is, for now, the establishment. So the traditionalist / establishment candidate of 2016 may well be a New Politics Obamaite, while the "New" Democrat of 2016 will be someone who claims, Howard Dean-like, to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" and demands a return to old, time-honored values, like beating the living crap out of the GOP.

    This dynamic would certainly show up on "process" issues like the filibuster, as Drew says, but it could also divide candidates on substantive issues like financial reform, particularly if Elizabeth Warren runs (or quasi-runs in the early going). I could see a Joe Biden -- that tribune of the working class -- ironically becoming the establishment candidate, stuck defending Obama's approach, and getting hammered by Warren, Sherrod Brown or someone like that for over-accommodating Wall Street, being too chummy with Mitch McConnell and too wedded to the art of the backroom deal. In fact, I think that could be quite a useful and illuminating race.

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    1. Manufacturing and trade policy have the possibility of becoming a salient, divisive intra-party issue if the percolating Transatlantic and TPP trade deals make headway in the next couple years, going into 2015. It fits right into the Sherrod Brown/Joe Biden-type divide, if those trade deals coalesce around orthodox "free trade"-style terms that lower social-regulatory standards, rather than harmonize upward, so to speak.

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