There are about eighteen months until the winners of the 2008 election take office.
Safe Bets On Who Will Win in 2008?
We don't know who they will be, but we can say with considerable certainty that they will be neither George W. Bush, nor Dick Cheney. We can also say that it is almost certain that the President will be either the Democratic party nominee, or the Republican party nominee.
We can say with almost as much certainty that winner will be someone who has either announced that they are a candidate at this point in time, or has been seriously discussed as a candidate in the press, as it is about six months before the primary/caucus process starts. The next President is highly likely to be one of fewer than twenty people currently seriously in the running, and the short list contains fewer than a dozen people. A serious third party spoiler candidate could still enter the running at this point, but it is too late in my opinion for a viable third party candidate to emerge and win the race.
It is too early, however, in my opinion, to rule out second tier candidates. Presidential candidate prospects often change dramatically between the December 31, before an election, and March 1 of an election year. Those two months can change everything and have done so in the past. But, by March 1, 2008, the number of viable Presidential candidates will have probably dwindled to 1-3 per major political party, and 2-6 overall. By the time that the parties hold their national conventions (the Democrats will be holding theirs in Denver this time around), it is very likely that the nominee in each party will be a foregone conclusion, and extremely unlikely that more than one party would need to have a brokered convention.
We can also say, with considerable certainty, that at least 90% of incumbent House of Representatives candidates will be back (probably a far higher percentage), and that there are going to be no more than a few dozen open seats in the 435 member House of Representatives. Likewise, we can say, with certainty, that two-thirds of U.S. Senators will not be facing re-election, and that probably less than half of the of those races will be open or displace an incumbent Senator (probably a far lower percentage). It is possible right now to identify the 50 or so federal legislative races that will matter in 2008 with a high degree of accuracy, although handicapping those races is a harder task.
Finally, we can safely guess that over the next 18 months, fewer than 10% of the outstanding District Court and Court of Appeals judgeships will be filled with new judge (simply because vacancies are rare), that on the U.S. Supreme Court that it is highly unlikely that there will be more than one or two vacancies, and that both the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal courts generally, are unlikely to move meaningfully to the left on the political spectrum in the next eighteen months.
Political party control of the Presidency and Vice Presidency, of the U.S. House of Representatives, and of the U.S. Senate are still up for grabs, although only the Democratic party and the Republican party need apply in each case. Furthermore, neither major political party has any realistic chance of securing a veto proof majority, and even a filibuster proof majority in the U.S. Senate would be a serious stretch for either party.
A win at the Presidential level tends to have coattails for the winner in House and Senate elections. Right now, national polls are as favorable to Democrats as they have been for a long time, and nothing on the horizon suggests that a dramatic redemption of the President in the public eye is in the offing before November 2008. But, eighteen months from now, it is hard to tell how much the President's phenomenally low popularity will taint other members of his party, or if it will have any impact at all. All politics is local.
Right now, it looks like it is more likely than not that the Democrats will hold the Presidency, the Senate and the House at the federal level after the 2008 elections. But, it is hard to make a prediction much more definitive, until we get closer to the fateful day.
For example, while we can safely predict that Mark Udall's successor in Congressional District 2 will be one of a handful of Democratic party candidates who have announced, and while we can safely guess that Mark Udall will be the Democratic Party nominee for U.S. Senate in 2008, the Republican nominee for the nationally important U.S. Senate race in Colorado in 2008 is still anybody's guess, although there are some front runners, and it is hard to handicap a general election race for U.S. Senate in Colorado until we know who the candidates will be.
The Political Scene Until 2008
Until the next election it is highly likely that George W. Bush will continue to be President, that Dick Cheney will continue to be Vice President, that Democrats will continue to hold majorities in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and that those majorities will be neither veto-proof nor filibuster proof.
Barring a political tsunami driven by some remarkable political crisis, the United States Constitution will not be amended in the next eighteen months, and even if it was, any amendment would be unlikely to overwhelmingly change the political scene. Congress is too evenly divided right now for bold constitutional change.
An assassination (to be clear, I am not advocating such a thing, only considering what is possible), of either Bush or Cheney, individually, would probably alter the political course of the nation only slightly, and this country has never lost a President and a Vice President in a single incident. Cheney is more conservative than the President, and the President almost always follows the Vice President's advice on matters of importance.
While impeachment is inching towards the realm of the possible with outrages like the commutation of the sentence of Scooter Libby and the ongoing debacle that its the war in Iraq, it would take another grade A scandal or two to make it happen, because there aren't enough Republican votes in the Senate to do so now, and the process would take months. Every month that passes reduces the practical utility of the impeachment process, because the next election is getting closer and closer. Moreover, to make a political difference, an unprecedented double impeachment of both the President and Vice President would be required. If this process was completed in the next twelve months and produced an impeachment conviction, I would be very surprised.
Of course, some people of both political parties like very much to see a watershed event that changes everything, like the 9-11 attack or the Watergate scandal. Investigations are in place to try to make that happen, and every news cycle leaves open the possibility of shocking news that impacts the general public. But, the likelihood of that kind of event happening in the next eighteen months is modest; hardly zero, but low. Who benefits in a situation like that is also often hard to predict. Even a major disaster and scandal, like the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina that has in the end analysis cut the population of New Orleans in half or a major scandal like Abu Grahib, can have relatively modest discernable political effects.
For example, no one can safely predict the political consequences eighteen months from now, of an attack on Iran or an Iranian attack on U.S. interests. Subtle details in these events and the responses taken to them will matter, if they occur.
Tactical Options, In General
Politics is the art of the possible, and these are the boundaries of what is possible, not legally, but practically.
The question that matters is what these constraints mean as a matter of policy options and political tactics. What can be changed in the next eighteen months, and what makes sense to do or try to do in preparation for the next election?
For Democrats, this means that there are basically two kinds of bills that make sense to push (1) those with wide Democratic party support, tolerated by moderate Senate Republicans and not likely to face a Presidential veto (ideally, favored by most viable Democratic Presidential candidates and opposed by the most viable Republican Presidential candidates), and (2) those with wide Democratic party support and wide public support that Republicans in close races will suffer at the ballot box for opposing.
Also, as discussed above, Democrats can help break the next scandal, for example, by forcing a showdown over subpeonas served on the White House, but these only help if managed well in the court of public opinion.
Policy Pressure Points
Some issues are ripe for action, if it is possible, in the next eighteen months.
We aren't going to win the Iraq War. The only question is whether we will begin to withdraw in the next eighteen months, if so why, and if not, how long it will take the next President to decide to withdraw. Any Democrat elected to be President will withdraw promptly, and so will some, but not all, of the Republican candidates. Pro-war candidates like McCain will be at a disadvantage in 2008 if we are still at war in Iraq then. Democrats will have to decide if they should force the issue, by withholding funding, or not.
War On Terrorism
If a Democrat is elected President, most of the Bush Administration war on terrorism abuses will end. Some of the Republican candidates would act likewise, others will try to continue the status quo. The possibility that the Guantanamo Bay military prison will be closed, and that NSA wiretapping will be restrained, is real. Extraordinary rendition, secret foreign CIA prisons, and prisoner abuse could also hit the spotlight and result in action to change the current approach. Outright repeal of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, however, seems a dim political prospect due to veto threats and filibusters, unless the U.S. Supreme Court strikes it down.
Ken Salazar's compromise on immigration, which echos the President, has crashed and burned. It didn't make enough xenophobe Republicans happy, and wasn't that popular with Democrats anyway. I suspect that this marks the death of the tighter borders in exchange for more guest workers and mass legalization formula for the next year and a half.
The President is more liberal on immigration than almost any other issue, so a veto isn't a worry here as it is in so many other policy areas. I suspect that a compromise could be reached, however.
I could see a compromise offering xenophobe Republicans a similar border security compromise to the current bill. But, I think that a massive guest worker program would have to be left out, as it is hated by both liberal Democrats and xenophobe Republicans, although for different reasons. Democrats don't want to create more second class workers, Republicans think that the guests won't go home. I also think that a nearly universal program to legalize the status of existing illegal aliens is a poison pill until the next election, although some hard case situations, like illegal immigrant children who went on to graduate from U.S. high schools or very long term illegal immigrants with solid jobs and ties to the community might pass muster, if it impacted only say 5-15% of illegal aliens. But, I think that there is still considerable room to simply increase liberal immigration quotas on a longer term basis in existing categories, to increase funding of the passport and visa processing bureacracies, and to fix the asylum appeals process. I also think that there might be considerable room to allow H1-B visa holders greater flexiblity to unite their families and convert their visas to permanent resident visas.
Democrats have already forced Republicans to vote down real immigration reform, albeit a compromise. Now, the question is whether they should push a more moderate reform bill so that they can accomplish something positive, or deny Republicans a bipartisan achievement to campaign upon.
Many of the Bush tax cuts came with expiration dates.
One of the most pressing are the estate tax, which will be abolished for a year under current law, and then come back with a vengance to have a far greater bite than it does today the next year. The obvious solution would be to lock in the 2007 or 2008 status quo permanently. This would probably still revenue score as a tax cut, but would curtail a long sought after Republican priority to abolish the estate tax.
Another is the alternative minimum tax, which will impact a huge swath of middle class taxpayers if it is not reformed, Congress has passed only a short term extension.
The political climate is not friendly to big business tax breaks, especially for oil and gas, for hedge funds and for international businesses, right now. Democrats are united in wanting to shift the tax burden from earned income to investment income. The grass roots pressure for income tax cuts is low, but will balloon if the AMT has a mass impact. Deficit hawks are seeing their clout wax.
Also, isolated, revenue neutral tax simplification efforts are still in the realm of possibility. Simplified taxation of social security benefits, and simplified earned income tax credit calculations might be particularly attractive as each is the cause of a great many audits that generate little revenue, but aggravate working and middle class voters.
President Bush is almost certain to veto any naked tax increase. But, he has shown some tolerance for accepting bills that contain a mix of revenue cutting and revenue enhancing provisions. The President might be forced to compromise in order to save at least some of his signature tax legislature from expiration.
Crime and Punishment
The Second Chance Act is surging forward with bipartisan support. Some progress on the crack-powder differential in cocaine sentences is being made now. Wider opposition to mandatory minimum sentences is securing a growing consensus, even from moderate conservatives; the President has even commuted a few. Anti-terrorism fervor is drowning out a long since discredited drug war. Many states, some conservative, have established sentencing commissions to reduce incarceration costs. Most Democrats are widely receptive to some moderation of harsh federal criminal sentences. The U.S. Supreme Court action partially invalidating the Sentencing Guidelines and the Scooter Libby pardon have opened up the debate on sentencing.
I don't believe that the political will exists for a wholesale end to the war on drugs, or an across the board liberalization of criminal sentencing. But, I do think that there is room for significant incremental movement to mitigate the most harsh sentences in the federal criminal code, particularly for non-violent offenders. It is hard to attack a reduction in mandatory minimum sentences, if the discretion to impose harsh sentences in particularly egregious cases remains.
One particularly interesting compromise proposal might be to overhaul the sentencing guidelines to formally give judges wide discretion to deviate upforwards from guideline sentences (so called "topless guidelines") in exchange for an end to statutory mandatory minimums, so that judges would be allowed to depart downwards from guideline sentences in many cases where they cannot now, but would have to justify that departure as they must now under the sentencing guidelines.
A bill to improve screening of gun buyers for mental health issues also seems likely to progress.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan require vast amounts of federal funds, Congress may be able to secure reductions in non-war related defense spending, like the missle defense program and various big ticket naval and air force spending items, to help finance those wars. Appropriations bills visibly pitting low priority programs against higher priorities are particularly attractive. For example, a bill to replace funding for one new submarine with funding for a large quantity of foreign language instruction for Army and Marine troops might play well.
Broad federal reform of health care is going to be nearly impossible until, at least, the next election. There are some avenues open for positive change, however. Limitations on state level action could be lifted. Bans on importation of foreign drugs could be relaxed. Medicaid reimburement formula problems could be corrected. The federal mandate to provide emergency medical care could be funded. Rules to strengthen the medical billing process and transparency of prices for medical services could be adopted. ERISA pre-emption of health care bills of rights could be relaxed. Bird flu type public health infrastructure could be improved.
Stem cell research funding is the signature Democratic bill to force Republicans to take an unpopular stance.
Bush would veto a wholesale repeal of the No Child Left Behind Act, but a bill to soften unrealistic targets and attach a grab bag of smaller sensible reforms might pass.
A tweak of statutes dealing with employment discrimination, discrimination against the disabled, whistleblower protection, and habeas corpus procedural deadlines to address some recent stingy technical interpretations of existing laws by the U.S. Supreme Court is within the realm of the possible. Affirmative action is on the defensive and is unlikely to make progress in Congress this session.