Political Animal

Why Democrats Still Need Moderates

The roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package moving through the Senate lacks the big ticket items many progressive activists want, leaving them “caught somewhere between deflated and enraged,” as Politico recently reported. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat from New York, threatened to torpedo the bill if it doesn’t move in tandem with a $3.5 trillion follow-up package addressing progressives’ priorities.

Ocasio-Cortez’s disappointment is understandable. The world is literally on fire from the crisis of climate change, while four years of cruelty and incompetence under the Trump Administration have left millions of Americans suffering. Progressives are impatient to address not only climate change, but also Medicare expansion, free college, student debt cancellation, and immigration reform.

But Democrats can’t escape the cold realities of electoral math. Conservative voters still vastly outnumber liberals, especially in the states that will determine who controls the Senate after the 2022 midterms. Democratic Senate incumbents face especially tough races in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire (all currently rated by the Cook Political Report as “leaning Democratic”), where conservatives and moderates make up an overwhelming majority of the electorate.

To keep control of the Senate, Democrats must hold together the liberal-moderate coalition that won them the White House and control of Congress. This means winning a majority of moderates in these key states – and a super-majority in some cases – to overcome conservatives’ built-in numerical advantages. As maddening as it is for a left that’s impatient for bold action, Biden’s more cautious strategy is still the smartest way to safeguard Democrats’ current razor-thin majority in Congress.

America is still more center-right than center-left. Though fewer voters today self-identify as “conservative,” and more voters consider themselves “liberal,” conservatives still outnumber liberals nationally. Even in the bluest of blue states—California and New York—the share of liberals barely pulls even with conservatives, according to 2020 exit polls.

Progressives can take comfort that the electorate is moving their way. In 1992, 43 percent of Americans said they were conservative, according to Gallup, compared to 17 percent who identified as liberal and 36 percent as moderate. By 2020, 36 percent self-identified as “conservative,” compared to 25 percent who said they were “liberal” and 35 percent who said they were “moderate.” The nation is becoming more liberal, but liberals are still short of a plurality.

Kim, August 7 Graph 1

Source: Gallup

In five of the eight states projected to have the most competitive Senate races next year (and for which 2020 exit polls are available), conservatives enjoy even larger advantages than they do nationally, outnumbering liberals by margins approaching two to one.

In Arizona, for instance, where Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is defending his seat, liberals make up 22 percent of voters, compared to 42 percent who self-identify as conservative. In newly blue Georgia, where Sen. Raphael Warnock won a special election last November with 51.0 percent of the vote, conservatives likewise outnumber liberals 40 percent to 22 percent. The narrowest margin is in New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die”), where 32 percent of voters identified as conservative in 2020, versus 24 percent as liberals. Democratic incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan won her seat in 2016 by just 1,106 votes, and could face an equally tough race next fall.

Kim, August 7, Graph 2 Democrats can’t win simply by turning out the base. It’s mathematically impossible. Instead, they must rely on a coalition of liberals and moderates to achieve a majority.

Winning moderates was key to Democrats’ 2020 successes, including the victory of Joe Biden. Among suburban voters, 54 percent voted for Biden in 2020, compared to just 45 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Biden also won 52 percent of Independents (versus 42 percent for Clinton). In the House, Democratic candidates won 64 percent of moderates in 2020, according to exit polls, compared to 52 percent in 2016.

Republicans can get away with extremist tactics that play to their base because they’re so much less dependent on the moderate vote to win. (Indeed, Trump certainly seems to be working overtime lately to persuade moderate voters that he’s completely lost his mind, even as Biden is scoring political victories—most especially, thus far, on infrastructure.)

Republicans can win the Senate in 2022 without winning a majority of moderates. Democrats, by contrast, can’t.  Democrats can’t reasonably expect to keep the Senate unless they can win a strong majority of moderates in the seats they’re defending. Nor can they reasonably expect to flip seats now occupied by vulnerable or retiring Republicans absent supermajority moderate support. In Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the states with the strongest possibilities for a Democratic pickup, the plurality of voters are moderates.

The following chart illustrates the simple math that Democrats are up against next fall in the eight states that (as of this writing) could decide control of the Senate: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (I conducted a similar exercise in 2010.)

As I discovered, the moderates that either party must win to earn 50.1 percent of the total vote, assuming that 2022 candidates match their presidential candidate’s performance in these states among liberals and conservatives according to 2020 exit polls are not the same.

For instance, if defending Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto wins the same share of liberals and conservatives that Biden did in 2020 (89 percent and 12 percent), she’ll need to win 63 percent of moderates to win 50.1 percent of the vote. Her Republican opponent, on the other hand, will need to win only 44 percent of moderates to flip the seat (assuming they match Trump’s 2020 performance with conservatives and liberals), simply because conservatives outnumber liberals in the state.

In each of the four races likely to be the most competitive for Democratic incumbents, candidates must win a super-majority of moderates to secure a majority of the vote, ranging from 72 percent in Arizona to 59 percent in New Hampshire. The same is true if Democrats are eyeing pickups in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where incumbent Republicans are retiring (or likely to do so), and in Florida, where Republican Sen. Marco Rubio faces a formidable challenge from Democratic House Rep. Val Demings.

Republicans, on the other hand, have the luxury of a larger base and can win or flip seats without similar margins. In Arizona, Georgia, and Florida, they need to win only 37 percent of moderates to win. In North Carolina, the winning threshold is just 35 percent.

Granted, exit polls are not perfect; the actual ideological makeup of these swing states might differ by a percentage point or two, as might the actual performance of Biden and Trump by voter ideology.

Progressives are fully justified, on the merits, to challenge Biden on his priorities. The administration shouldn’t take their support for granted, nor should it lose sight of the progressive ideals that underpin its actions thus far. But we all need to keep in mind that the coalition supporting Biden is a fragile one, and that alienating the Democrats’ more conservative wing could spell disaster in 2022. A Biden administration that loses control of Congress in 2023 will achieve far less than the one we have today.

How to Cure Colleges’ Adjunct Addiction

The business of higher education is increasingly a gig economy, with instruction by underpaid adjunct professors no longer the exception, but the rule. Only 37 percent of faculty who teach at U.S. universities are either tenured or tenure-track, compared to 80 percent in 1960. Even at a university as prestigious as Columbia, more than half the core faculty in the humanities are full time contingent, earning about one-third what tenured faculty do.

The reason is obvious: College administrators are struggling to pay the bills. But displacing professors with the academic equivalent of an Uber driver is a foolish economy. Most obviously it’s bad for the young PhD who aspires to a stable teaching career and doesn’t want to go on food stamps (a 2019 study found one-quarter of adjuncts are on some form of public assistance and one-third live below the poverty line). But it’s also bad for the student, who pays ever-higher tuition to attend ever-more-oversubscribed classes taught by ever-more overworked contingent faculty who may not even enjoy library privileges or have a desk. (According to Erin Bertram, editor of of Contingent Magazine, $3500 is about average pay for a part-time adjunct.)

This problem keeps getting worse, yet university administrators show little interest in addressing it, and sometimes deny it even is a problem. If anybody’s going to fix this, it will probably have to be the federal government. Subsidies to higher education total about $150 billion annually. To protect this investment, the government should set a floor for what universities must pay teachers, and a ceiling of perhaps one-third for the proportion of total teaching jobs that a university administrator may fill with adjuncts.

It’s appropriate that government should solve higher education’s gig-economy problem, because government (at the state level) helped create it by reducing its support for public universities.  In 2020, state governments supplied $8,600 per student, a 40 percent decrease in real dollars from 1994.

But the universities themselves bear plenty of fault too, with a costly proliferation of administrators who, paradoxically, are assigned the task of economizing. Between 2011-2012 and 2018/2019, administrative pay at American public universities increased by $3.7 billion. That represented, for each full time student, a 24 percent increase in administrative salaries. At the University of Maryland, where I teach, former President Wallace Loh was last year paid $734,565 as an adviser.

Rather than bring these absurd administrative costs under control, administrators are going after the university’s core function by opting to hire the cheapest possible teachers. That’s adjuncts.

A government-imposed salary floor for university teachers and ceiling for adjunct hires might sound outlandish, but there’s precedent for this type of government action. President Joe Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, imposed a minimum wage on government contractors through executive orders. Meanwhile, starting with the Higher Education Act of 1965, Congress not only increased funding for colleges and universities, but also shaped the market for student loans, including experiments with income-contingent loans; set rules for the operation of for-profit colleges; and barred students convicted of drug offenses from receiving federal money. Meanwhile, the courts have become intimately involved in shaping how universities design, or don’t design, their affirmative action policies. Throughout, the government’s principal concern has been to improve students’ access to and experience at institutions of higher learning. Lousy labor conditions have no small impact on that experience.

Federal policies that funnel money to universities need to consider how taxpayer money flows, and to steer it toward rebuilding tenured faculty and paying teachers a living wage and benefits, including those they need to do their jobs. Limits on how much federal money may support university administration could help restore to college faculties to greater responsibility for university governance.

At a time when “infrastructure” is all the rage, we must remember that universities are essential infrastructure too. No other nation has anything like the number of first-class universities found in America. They’re a precious national resource. Let’s create policies that support those who teach there, who provide bridges for the next generation’s success.

The Expanded Child Tax Credit Isn’t Selling Itself

The Biden administration’s anti-poverty strategy is winning rave reviews from think tanks. The Urban Institute, in a projection requested by The New York Times, estimated that this year’s poverty rate will be cut from its 2018 level by 45 percent. Separately, the Urban Institute estimated that the newly expanded child tax credit, which has been touted by Democrats as a historical achievement, will cut child poverty by 40 percent. And the Niskanen Center predicted that the credit will boost consumer spending by $27.6 billion and “deliver a substantial boost to rural economies across the country.”

The White House will need those data points to help sell the expanded child tax credit, because it isn’t selling itself.

The American Rescue Plan—which sailed through Congress in March on a party-line vote—expanded the child tax credit both in size and in eligibility, and made monthly government checks the default option for receiving the credit. But those changes are temporary, expiring at the end of this year. So Democratic leaders plan to extend the credit in the next budget reconciliation bill, in hopes of embedding it in the national fabric and making any future expiration politically untenable.

But the public is not yet in sync with Democratic leaders. In a mid-July Morning Consult poll, only 35 percent of voters said the expansion should “definitely” or “probably” be made permanent, with 52 percent saying the opposite. A YouGov poll from around the same time found only 30 percent of voters favored permanent expansion; 46 percent opposed it.

These numbers probably surprised Biden and other top Democrats. They certainly surprised me. As I wrote here in February, giving people money is typically a political winner. But if the expanded credit doesn’t become one, then it may not survive budget reconciliation.

Several moderate Democrats have already proposed that, unlike in the American Rescue Plan, the expanded child tax credit—along with everything else in reconciliation—be paid for with tax increases, to avoid increasing debt and boosting inflation. Paying for the credit is difficult because it’s a very expensive policy: it will cost the Treasury about $100 billion annually through 2025, and about $190 billion annually after that (because Donald Trump did his own temporary child tax credit expansion, which expires after 2025, adding to the long-term cost of maintaining the current level of benefits.)

Democrats are looking to spend $3.5 trillion over 10 years through reconciliation; a permanent extension of the expanded child tax credit would cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years—nearly half the total, which would crowd out other priorities. So Democrats are thinking incrementally. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado said, “I’m going to fight for as many years as we can now. And then we’ll come back and come back and come back until it’s permanent.”

But the worse the child tax cut fares in the polls, the harder it will be to preserve it. That helps explain why the White House’s National Economic Council director, Brian Deese, was quick to tout the Niskanen Center’s finding that “the CTC provides its largest relative benefit to rural communities.” To boost those poll numbers, Democrats need to impress voters beyond their own political base.

The perplexing question is: why aren’t the checks themselves breaking through the partisan divide? Why isn’t the credit selling itself?

Optimists may still believe it will. After all, the first child tax credit checks were sent out only last month. Maybe after a few more months they’ll prove popular.

Maybe. But given the dismal initial polling, Democrats shouldn’t bet on the problem fixing itself. They should develop a persuasive case to strengthen the child tax credit, and they can’t do that until they find out why support for it is so weak.

Here are a few possible explanations:

1. Not everyone gets the checks.

About 39 million households are receiving the checks. But America has about 121 million households. Most parents of young children are getting paid, but most voters aren’t parents of young children.

2. Even people who get checks believe that other people shouldn’t.

The Times piece on how Biden’s pandemic relief policies slashed poverty—driven by “stimulus checks, increased food stamps and expanded unemployment insurance”—quoted recipients of relief who were simultaneously thankful and critical.

The Times’s Jason DeParle talked to a single mother of five from Missouri:

 “In my case, yes, it was very beneficial,” she said. But she said that other people she knew bought big TVs and her former boyfriend bought drugs. “All this free money enabled him to be a worse addict than he already was,” she said. “Why should taxpayers pay for that?”

The paper also spoke with a former convict in Indiana who was able to get custody of his son with the help of stimulus checks:

…he said he distrusted “the crooked government” and urged poor people to help themselves. “If you want to change your life, you have to get up and do something — not sit home and get free money,” he said.

3. The expanded child tax credit was slipped quietly into a crisis package—perhaps too quietly

Democrats took advantage of the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation procedure to slip the expanded child tax credit into the American Rescue Plan with minimal news coverage or floor debate.

As a legislative matter, that was shrewd strategically. But as a result, the public never heard arguments for why the expanded child tax credit should extend past the pandemic.

Democrats thought cutting fat checks would cultivate political support far better than the subtler stimulus policies of the Obama administration. But Biden may have gone too far in the opposite direction. The child tax credit checks are arriving after a year’s worth of pandemic relief checks. So they feel like another round of relief checks, which may convey the shameful stigma of government welfare, not the warm glow of a tax cut.

4. Voters support crisis help more than permanent help.

In both the Morning Consult and YouGov polls, a majority supported the expanded child tax credit for this year. That majority dissolved when asked whether the extension should be permanent.

That discrepancy speaks to a potential ideological gulf that Democrats need to bridge.

Many Democrats saw opportunity in crisis: Seize the pandemic moment, send out near-universal and unconditional checks, and demonstrate that’s the most direct way to eradicate poverty.

But unpleasant though it is to consider, most voters may not aspire to slashing poverty as much as progressive Democrats do, and therefore may not want to spend huge amounts of money to that end. They may have accepted it only as a temporary necessity to survive a government-imposed economic lockdown, not as a permanent economic policy. The hope that a near-universal policy would forge an allegiance between middle-class, working-class, and poor voters has not been realized.

All these potential explanations stem from the same root cause: selfishness. Not every voter is moved by moral appeals to eradicate poverty. Not every voter feels sympathy for the poor. Most voters prioritize their own bankbook above all else. That’s where the Niskanen report can be most helpful, showing that local economies will benefit broadly from the expanded child tax credit, lifting up all voters.

Still, the Niskanen report omits mention of the dreaded I-word: inflation. There may be some fear out there that continuing past the pandemic the flood of government cash will cause a price shock that will erode the value of the checks and drag down the economy.

The White House and the Federal Reserve say they believe the recent inflation surge will ebb quickly; Larry Summers says he fears it won’t. Not being an economist, I won’t venture any economic predictions. But if the rate of inflation is still high when the reconciliation vote occurs—it’s currently expected in the fall—the Niskanen report won’t muzzle combative Republicans or calm the nerves of skittish Democratic moderates. And anyway, it’s not at all clear that a wonky report can overcome gut emotion.

Still, Democrats have to play the cards they’re dealt. If a large swath of the public doesn’t believe the expanded child credit will help them, then all rhetorical energy should be marshaled toward convincing them otherwise. Because without strong public support for an extension, we can’t assume a narrow majority will materialize in Congress.

Housing Is a National Crisis. Democrats Should Treat It That Way.

The federal eviction moratorium in place since last year expired yesterday. The results could be catastrophic for millions of at-risk Americans—most of whom have yet to receive the promised housing aid—even as the country braces for a yet another pandemic surge due to the Delta variant:

According to a study by the Aspen Institute and the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project published in August of last year, nearly 40 million Americans were then at risk of eviction. People of color were, and still remain, disproportionately at risk as they are twice as likely to be renters. And the pressures that Covid-19 added just worsened the statistics.

Congress allocated relief money to sustain both renters and landlords during the crisis, but most of it has not gotten into the hands of those in need:

While more than $1.5 billion was delivered to eligible applicants in the month of June, which exceeded the amount provided in all three previous reporting periods combined, only $3 billion of the total $45 billion allocated has been distributed, according to the US Treasury. Now that the federal moratorium has expired, at least four states — Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, and Oregon — have temporarily continued the ban on evictions against those with a pending rental assistance application. These state decisions will give renters time to receive their rent relief money when they might otherwise face eviction immediately. But renters in states that are following the expired federal moratorium face large sums of back rent and if they are unable to pay, possible eviction.

“There’s a lot of cases where tenants are getting evicted that have already been approved for rental assistance,” K’Lisha Rutledge, an attorney with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, told the Texas Tribune. “And their landlord knows that they’ve been approved, and they’re just waiting on the check.”

Democrats are now scrambling to try to extend the moratorium through at least October. This should have been a no-brainer, but it seems that the failure was part of a miscommunication oversight between the White House and the House of Representatives as all of Washington worked on the infrastructure bill. Republicans are not blameless here, of course: Democrats tried to pass the extension by unanimous consent of the House, but they were blocked by an anonymous Republican. Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi is hoping that President Biden can do it unilaterally, but it is not entirely clear that this is the case:

“House leadership is calling on the administration to immediately extend the moratorium,” the Democratic leaders said.

President Joe Biden on Thursday asked Congress to extend the deadline, citing the COVID-19 Delta variant that is taking hold in the United States.

But Congress, possibly lacking the votes to approve such an extension, failed to act after a Republican lawmaker blocked a move in the House to immediately bring up a bill under the unanimous consent of the chamber.

It was unclear whether the administration has the authority to extend the moratorium using its executive powers and without Congress acting.

It’s hard to overstate the crisis-level social and economic impact of 40 million Americans being potentially kicked out of their homes during an epidemic. The devastation to those individuals would be matched by knock-on effects in the surrounding communities. Civil unrest and an economic downturn would almost certainly follow. Democratic legislators like Cori Bush are taking direct protest action to ensure that Congress doesn’t take August recess without doing the right and necessary thing.

While it’s likely that Democratic leaders will take appropriate action here, the fact that this oversight occurred in the first place is symptomatic of a broader failure to take housing issues as seriously as they deserve.

It’s a longstanding problem in American politics, exacerbated by the structural racism and gerontocracy that built American housing policy in the first place: homeowners are much likelier to vote than renters. Homeowners benefit from housing scarcity and increasing home values. Even the slant of mainstream press stories betrays enormous bias on behalf of existing homeowners at the expense of renters and those who cannot currently afford to buy. When home prices drop it is treated as a negative news story, whereas when wages increase and inflation in real goods increases, that is also treated as a negative news story. Assets, it seems, must always rise and wages must never rise enough to meet them.

Combined with zoning laws that reinforce generations of racist land use and discriminate against the young, there is now a national housing crisis affecting nearly every socio-economic class below the top 1% of incomes.

The most obvious and most dire is among those experiencing homelessness. Homelessness in a country as rich as the United States is a national shame. It should not exist. Yet the ranks of those experiencing it are swelling—as anyone who has made a passing visit to almost any American city can attest.

The reason for this is, simply put, a lack of housing—in particular a lack of affordable housing for low-income communities. America has 7 million too few homes for its population. This in turn is creating overcrowded conditions, abusively long commutes to jobs in metro areas, and an abysmally large number of Americans who cannot keep a roof over their heads even while holding a job and/or receiving welfare benefits.

The lack of both affordable and market-rate housing means that landlords can command increasingly mind-numbing rent prices, often well beyond what a reasonable person on a median salary in a major market can afford. Many renters “solved” this problem by moving farther away and accepting longer commutes. But now the secondary market explosion due to the pandemic is pushing desperate renters even out of those redoubts. The pittance increase in wages seen in the last year barely makes a dent in the much larger increase in rents.

And while no one is crying much for the relatively privileged compared to those struggling to maintain basic dignities, the problem is also affecting the middle classes—especially those in growing families. The pandemic has ironically ignited a residential real estate boom as people and capital seek out secondary markets and investments. But housing supply in desirable areas with jobs is so low that these moves are spiking prices in secondary markets while doing little to curb prices in urban areas. Houses in major metro areas with strong job markets are routinely selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars over asking price. Millennial and young Gen-X families who were already struggling to try to afford absurdly high downpayments at last year’s prices now find themselves locked out entirely of a delirious market with nowhere to go. After all, it’s not as if wages doubled during the same period home prices did. More market-rate housing would help in addition to specifically affordable housing—all supply from all directions will have an impact on prices—but mostly older NIMBY homeowners have disproportionate control over city councils, who in turn largely refuse to build more housing lest it decrease home prices.

This is a national crisis, and Democrats need to treat it like one. Housing shouldn’t be an oversight that gets left behind while legislators work on roads and bridges. It’s one of the biggest and most pressing crises in the entire country and it demands an urgent solution—even if older homeowners who were lucky enough to have bought in when housing was much cheaper and who vote most frequently don’t currently experience it as such.