6:30 P.M. EST
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. Today we have with us Bill Schneider, who’s a leading U.S. political analyst. He’s also a professor at George Mason University and a senior fellow at Third Way. He’s going to give us an analysis of yesterday’s election results.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Sorry I was delayed. I had about three different briefings today, but I’m happy to be here. It’s a little late, but happy to be here in any case.
I’ve covered – oh, my goodness, someone asked me how many elections have I covered in this country. I think I go back to 1972, which is a long time. I’ve seen just about everything, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like Sarah Palin before, but that was last time. (Laughter.)
This election was, of course – some people have called this a thumping victory for the Democrats. I don’t think I’d use that word. It was thumping only in the respect that the Democrats did much better, or somewhat better, than anyone expected. All the battleground states went Democratic, except maybe Florida, and that probably will go Democratic. Have they finished counting Florida?
QUESTION: Not yet.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Not yet. It is one of the great joys of this election that we don’t have to wait for Florida, unlike 2000, and we don’t really care what happens with their hanging chads this time. The election is over.
But I like to say that in every election, there’s a phantom candidate called “Expected.” It’s not enough to win; you have to do better than expected. If you do worse than expected, even if you win, you lose. Well, the Republicans did worse than expected, because all the battleground states, including possibly Florida, went to the Democrats, and of course, the Senate races were a surprisingly large victory. Democrats actually gained seats in the United States Senate. They weren’t expected to, and the reason for that is that the last time these Senate seats were up was in 2006, which was a big Democratic victory year. That was the Iraq War election, when Democrats swept into control of both houses of Congress. So therefore, when you enjoy a big victory like that, the next time those seats are up, you have to defend a lot of vulnerable seats. Well, the Democrats did defend those seats and made some additional gains, and that was a big surprise. So the Senate particularly made this victory for the Democrats better than expected.
It was actually a quite narrow victory. Barack Obama was reelected with a little over 50 percent of the vote, which is just about the same vote that reelected George Bush (sic) in 1984, and Bill Clinton in 1996 got just under 50 percent of the vote. Presidents used to get reelected with huge majorities – 58, 60 percent – but the last three presidents, when they ran for reelection, got barely 50 percent of the vote – 50, 51, 49. Those big sweeping victories don’t happen anymore because the country’s very divided. We can talk about that. And it remains very divided. Of course, the government remains divided, as it was before the election, with a Republican House, Democratic Senate, and a Democratic White House.
And that, of course, means the same problems that existed last week, they’re going to exist now. And we’re facing a fiscal cliff crisis, which is an artificial crisis that Congress invented, and a lot of voters don’t know where it’s coming from, what caused this, why is there suddenly a crisis in the country. And my guess is they’ll figure out some way to postpone it or delay it. The President says that the sequesters will never happen, because they do not want to be held responsible for creating another recession, which is what will happen if the sequesters and the tax increases go into effect.
How did Obama do it? I think it was partly a personal victory. American voters like President Obama; Mitt Romney, not so much. Romney came across to too many voters as an opportunist. He was a moderate when that was what was required in Massachusetts, and he was a, quote, “severe conservative” when he ran for the Republican nomination. And in the end, a lot of voters really didn’t trust Romney. They were facing a difficult choice because they had a challenger whom they didn’t really trust and an incumbent President who many – most – probably most voters felt really didn’t deliver on what he had promised, most notably immigration reform, but also the turnaround in the economy and the growth in jobs that they thought would happen under his presidency.
What about the issues? The economy was a huge burden for President Obama. That’s why the election was so close. It was by far the biggest issue to voters. And those who were concerned about the economy – which was about 60 percent of the voters, said it was their number-one concern – they did vote for Mitt Romney, but only 51 percent. Romney should’ve done much better among voters who were concerned about the economy. He barely carried them.
Obama benefitted from the fact that a lot of voters continue to blame President Bush for the financial crisis, not President Obama – that was asked in the exit poll – and from the fact that people are beginning to believe that the economy is turning around. Just a small plurality, but Americans are beginning to see hopeful signs in the economy, and Obama sells hope, which is – there’s still a lot of hope out there, even after four years.
I like to say this was a victory for the new America. To paraphrase a famous quote about the 1992 campaign: It’s the demography, stupid, not the economy. The economy didn’t determine the election result; the demography did. The demographics of this country are changing, and they’re changing dramatically. Republicans have become the party of older, white men. That is a constituency where Obama lost support. But he continued to draw very strong support from women, particularly single women and single working women. They feel vulnerable in the marketplace because they’ve only just begun to achieve economic independence in the last 20 or 30 years, and they want the government safety net to be there. And what they object to with Republicans is that they often threaten the safety net. That’s what Paul Ryan has done throughout his career, and one reason why the choice of Ryan might have been seen as very threatening to a lot of voters. He drew strong support from women, particularly single women who don’t have a husband to rely on for help economically. They have to rely on themselves, and they do feel vulnerable.
Racial minorities, of course, African Americans obviously, but also Latinos and Asians who voted for Obama in overwhelming proportions, over 70 percent, which was more than they did four years ago. Sexual minorities, gays, there were about 5 percent identified as gays and they voted over 70 percent for Obama. And it looks like his endorsement of same-sex marriage, which everyone thought might backfire, turned out to be a benefit for him because he got about three-quarters of the gay and lesbian vote, and that was enough to give him his margin of victory over President – over Mitt Romney. And there doesn’t seem to have been any obvious backlash.
He got strong support from foreign-born citizens of the United States and, of course, young people, who remain some of his most steadfast supporters, and they are his core supporters. We’re seeing age differences in the electorate with Obama that we never saw in the past.
All those groups – working women, single women, sexual minorities, racial minorities, foreign-born citizens, young people – they came to power with President Obama in 2008. That year, four years ago, he had the advantage of a financial crisis. This year’s election was on a more level playing field. You could say that it wasn’t even level; it was tilted against the incumbent because people were so disappointed in the economy. So it was much more of a fair fight without a crisis impending.
And the new America won. What happened was those constituencies that had supported him so strongly four years ago showed up again in large numbers this time, not so much because they adored President Obama – some did and still do – but because they were fearful of what would happen if the Republicans won. I think the Republican Party was a drag on Mitt Romney. He was probably more popular than the Republican Party. The Tea Party Republicans looked like they were threatening to take away the safety net, to challenge some of the rights of, say, immigrant groups and others. They saw the resurgence of the Republicans that happened in 2010, and particularly the Tea Party, as a threat. And so it was – a lot of what was – what drove the new America out to vote was fear, and it was a desire to protect the gains that they had made when they came to power in 2008.
Republicans may be tempted to say we nominated John McCain, who was a closet moderate in 2008, and we lost. And then we nominated Mitt Romney, a closet moderate, in 2012, and we lost again. So next time, we have to go for the real thing. You're hearing that now among Republicans. If they believe that, they're doomed. All you have to do is look at their Senate losses in Indiana and Missouri, states really that they should have won. Republican candidates in those states were simply too far outside the mainstream. I think the message of the 2012 election is the American mainstream is changing.
We're seeing voters approve of same-sex marriage and popular referendums in this country for them. I think they won in every case. Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State, I believe, all supported same-sex marriage. We’re seeing that supported in popular referendums for the first time ever. Same-sex marriage was on the ballot in 32 states before this year, and it failed every time. This year it succeeded in every one of those states, and they were all over the country. And of course, we saw an African American president reelected without the benefit of an economic crisis, and that is something that should not pass without being remarked upon.
What we heard in the closing days of the campaign was kind of interesting. We didn’t hear a call to arms from both Obama and Romney. We heard a call to disarm. Mitt Romney told his final campaign rally in Virginia: I’m going to have to reach across the aisle and meet with Democrats who love America just like you, his supporters that – just like you love America, and there are good Democrats like that.
President Obama said at his rally in Wisconsin: In the end we’re all in this together; we rise and fall as one nation and one people. Why was there a sudden craving at the very end of the campaign for unity, which is the point where the country should be most divided? Because unity was the issue that got Obama elected. He became a star when he told the 2004 Republican (sic) Convention that nominated John Kerry in Boston: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America – the United States of America.
And unity is the issue of the moment, because unless the President and the Congress can agree on some kind of budget deal in the next couple of months, the country is going to go over the fiscal cliff, which is, of course, a crisis that Congress invented. Most American voters don’t know where it came from. Why are we suddenly facing this fiscal crisis? Congress invented it, and you know what? Congress is going to de-invent it, because they don’t want to be held responsible for throwing the country back into a recession. They’re going to have to reach some kind of an agreement, or else they’re all doomed. It’s unity or calamity.
Unity is the promise that President Obama failed most conspicuously to deliver. The country is more divided now than it was four years ago. He gets 91 percent support from Democrats and 7 percent from Republicans. That’s an 84-point difference, the largest partisan division we’ve ever seen. It’s bigger than it was when President Bush ran for reelection in 2004 when it was 76 points. It’s bigger than it was when Bill Clinton got impeached in 1998 when it was 50 points.
You can get into a pretty good argument about why Obama failed to unite the country. Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida at a Republican fundraising dinner said about Obama, quote, “We have not seen such a divisive figure in modern American history as we have over the last three and a half years.” It was not Obama’s style that was divisive. It was his policies. Republicans, when he took office and he supported all of these dramatic policies – the economic stimulus bill, the healthcare bill, the federal bailout of the auto companies and the big banks, the mortgage rescue plan – Republicans saw all those as acts of ideological aggression and unprecedented expansion of big government, passed with almost no Republican support.
If a policy is going to succeed and become legitimate in this country, there has to be at least some bipartisan support, as there was for Social Security in 1935, Medicare in 1965, civil rights in 1964, as there was for the Reagan tax cuts, the Patriot Act, the Bush tax cuts. There has to be bipartisan support. Healthcare and these other policies, the economic stimulus, didn’t have any Republican support. And as a result, they’ve never been accepted by Republicans in particular, but many voters as well, as true legitimate policies. Democrats argue with some justification that congressional Republicans simply refuse to do business with the President. They remember that the Senate – the Republican leader Mr. McConnell said in 2010: The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.
I’d like to point out that the last four presidents of the United States all promised to bring the country together and they all failed. The first President Bush said he wanted it to be a kinder, gentler government. He lasted one term. Bill Clinton described himself as a new Democrat and a third way. He got impeached. The second President Bush said he would be, quote, “a uniter, not a divider.” He was anything but. Barack Obama got a Tea Party revolt a month after he took office and unveiled his program. There was an immediate backlash against him. This country has become more and more politically divided for the past 50 years. The problem is not Obama; the problem is the problem. It’s been there for a long time.
Last week’s storm, the Hurricane Sandy, gave President Obama a priceless opportunity, really, to reclaim his credentials as a uniter. He received effusive praise from two Republican governors – Christie of New Jersey and McDonnell of Virginia. It also got him a valuable endorsement from the Independent Mayor of New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and he had the opportunity to say there are no Republicans or Democrats in a storm; we are all fellow Americans.
Romney tried to do his best to compete with that. He stopped using the word “conservative” in the last week of the campaign. He started talking sympathetically about the working poor and single mothers and touting his record of working with Democratic legislators when he was governor of Massachusetts. Of course, Democratic legislators in Massachusetts were willing to work with him, something that can’t be said of Republicans in Congress and President Obama, and probably not of Democrats in Congress if Romney had become president. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said, quote, “Mitt Romney’s fantasy that Senate Democrats will work with him to pass his severely conservative agenda is just laughable.”
Moreover, if Romney had had such a successful record as governor of Massachusetts, why didn’t he even bother to compete in Massachusetts? He didn’t even have a campaign there, and he lost the state by about 25 points. Had he been elected, he would have been the first president elected since James K. Polk in 1844 not to carry his home state. In fact, he didn’t carry any of his home states. He lives in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and Michigan and California, and he lost all four of those. No one really knew what Romney – what kind of president Romney would be. Would he be the severely conservative Republican primary candidate, or the moderate governor of Massachusetts who resurfaced at the very end of the campaign?
So we ended up with one candidate who promised to be a uniter and failed – Obama – another candidate who promised to be bipartisan, but could not really be trusted. I thought Mayor Bloomberg summed up the voters’ dilemma perfectly when he said: If the 1994 or 2003 version of Mitt Romney were running for president, I may well have voted for him. Because like so many other independents, which is what Bloomberg is, I have found the past four years to be, in a word, disappointing. I thought both parties had a problem. Their candidates were both elitists.
The United States of America is the most populist country in the world. Next to the United States, the rest of the world is Saudi Arabia. Here the people really do rule. The government mints dollar coins. They’ve done it about three times, and Americans simply refused to use them. No one can tell Americans they have to use the metric system because it’s scientific and rational; to hell with that. And we can’t abolish the death penalty like European countries who call it cruel and barbaric, because the people demand it. And of course it was upheld yesterday in a referendum in California.
Both parties, on the other hand – this is a populist country – but both parties came up with elitist candidates from bitterly competitive elites. Romney was the – represented the elite of wealth. Republicans call it success. Obama represents the elite of education, which is a liberal elite, not a conservative elite. Neither of those candidates really has a populist bone in his body. Romney kept calling attention to his wealth or hiding it, if he could, in his unreleased tax returns, and Obama often seems disdainful of people who are less enlightened than he is and who cling to guns and religion.
Democrats at their convention had to trot out their old warhorse, former President Bill Clinton, to get their populist juices flowing, because Clinton is uniquely qualified to make the case that Democrats know how to manage the economy. Voters associate Bill Clinton with good times, probably in every sense of the word. Obama did fail to deliver on what he had promised, which was – every – both parties agreed was the top priority, economic growth, good times, what people associate with Bill Clinton.
The basic difference between our two parties is very straightforward. Republicans believe economic growth is sufficient. If you’re president and you control the government, your job is to keep the economy growing, which is not happening very much right now. It’s about 1.5 percent. That’s why people are disappointed in Obama. The President’s job is to keep the economy growing. If the economy is growing, Republicans believe, then people ought to be able to make it on their own, and if they don’t make it and they’re not doing very well, it’s probably their own fault. But it’s not the government’s responsibility.
Democrats believe economic growth is necessary but not sufficient. Government has to protect the economically vulnerable, even in a growing economy, which is why so many groups that feel vulnerable economically continue to support the Democrats either because they lack opportunity or they face disadvantage or discrimination. The Democratic Party has always been the party that protects the safety net. My guess is that’s going to be the Republicans’ big challenge. America is changing. The face of America is different. It’s a different demography. And the message to Republicans is: Deal with it. You’re going to have to, because if they can’t deal with that, I think they’re doomed to more and more disasters, of which 2012 was not a terrible disaster, but it was a sign that things could get a lot worse as the demography of this country continues to change.
I’ll conclude with that, and I’ll be happy to answer any questions that you have.
Sure. She’ll point to --
QUESTION: Thank you, Bill Schneider. It’s always a pleasure to have you over here.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Where are you from? Tell me what country.
QUESTION: I’m Ben Bangoura, Guinea Times, Guinea.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Guinea.
QUESTION: We first met at the convention in Philadelphia.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Philadelphia. Oh, I remember that convention --
MR. SCHNEIDER: -- when people thought I looked like Dick Cheney.
QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.) When Bush got the note from (inaudible).
MR. SCHNEIDER: Uh-huh.
QUESTION: You’re talking about the different coalition Mr. Obama was able to put together and kept during this election season, which is, as you put it, a big blow to GOP. Is there any path? Is there any strategy for Republicans to reverse the course, or this is going to be a doom-day failure forever?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Clearly they have to be friendlier to minorities, particularly Latinos. They know that. Mitt Romney said during the campaign: We are doomed if we don’t reach out to Latino voters and find a more effective way to do that. The problem with the Republican appeal to Latino voters is not the issues. A lot of Latinos agree with Republicans on social issues, on religion, on economic issues, on the role of government, but they don’t particularly take to being insulted and being treated as a whole class of criminals, which is the way a lot of Republicans regard Latino immigrants, that they either are or harbor illegal immigrants, lawbreakers. Some Republicans have understood that and have reached out and with some success. Ronald Reagan did that, but he was excoriated and is still criticized by conservatives for having endorsed – signed an amnesty bill, which, frankly, did not work very well. And George Bush and once John McCain supported comprehensive immigration reform.
I believe that President Obama has to and will deliver immigration reform as a top priority. So it’s one promise that he conspicuously failed to keep among a few others, but that was very conspicuous, and Latinos know it, and they’ve asked him about it on interviews on Univision, and he seems very embarrassed about that. It was, of course, a very difficult thing to carry through, and he had other priorities like healthcare and the economy. But the fact is it’s there, and the issue is not going to go away, and I think now that Latinos have delivered for him in huge terms in this election, he has simply got to deliver for them. The question is: Will he be able to pick off enough Republicans to pass this thing? My guess is he will, because there are enough Republicans out there who know what will happen to their party if they continue to block immigration reform.
QUESTION: Thank you. Irina Gelevska, Macedonian TV from Macedonia, Europe. During the second term of former President George W. Bush, Macedonia has been recognized by USA under the constitutional name. What are the chances, under the second term of President Obama, Macedonia will become a member of NATO?
MR. SCHNEIDER: That’s a question I don’t know the answer to. I know that it’s a big issue in the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. Is that the official name?
QUESTION: No, Republic of Macedonia.
MR. SCHNEIDER: No, Republic of Macedonia. I know it’s an issue. I have not been privy to any discussions of this particular issue, so I really can’t answer that question. Foreign policy wasn’t an issue in the election at all. People like President Obama’s foreign policy simply because he is what most Americans are. He’s a reluctant warrior, and they appreciate that. He will use force if necessary and has done, but he’s always reluctant to do so. President Bush looked like an eager warrior, which made a lot of Americans nervous. But on this particular issue, I’m afraid I just don’t know the answer.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you very much for the speech, and my name is Li Ping. I am from China Radio International. In your speech you mentioned that divisiveness is a very serious problem for the country or facing the party, but yesterday in his victory speech, President Obama says he would get across the party line to work with the Republican Party. So will he be successful on this? Or to what extent do you think the Republican Party will cooperate with him? Thank you.
MR. SCHNEIDER: That’s a very difficult question also to answer. That one I’m supposed to know the answer to, but I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that. The question is: Do Republicans feel chastened by the election result and therefore inclined to, at least some of them, work with this President to pass things like comprehensive immigration reform? I don’t know. And also, of course, to get over the fiscal cliff, which could involve – the signal we got from Speaker Boehner was that they might be willing to consider some revenue increases as long as they didn’t look like blatant tax hikes. There are ways of disguising revenue increases without calling them tax hikes.
So it looks like there’s some inclination to reach deals with this President, but that division is there, and someone like Mitch McConnell has to run for reelection in Kentucky in 2014, and he could face a Tea Party opponent just because his state is the state that elected Senator Rand Paul against the endorsed establishment candidate. So he’s got to be nervous about straying too far from the conservative line, as all Republicans are these days. So there’s – since most members of Congress face opposition mostly within their own party, more than from the other party, look, almost all – except for those incumbents who got badly redistricted, almost all of them won. It’s very hard for an incumbent member of Congress to get defeated. I mean, they really have to make an effort, like get embroiled in a scandal or something. But they worry about primary opposition.
So will they work? I think President Obama will make an effort. He claims to have made and he did make an effort. Remember he had that meeting over here in Blair House to discuss healthcare reform. It got exactly nowhere. I think he will make another effort, perhaps a more vigorous effort, to work with Republicans. He should. It’s important politically. I don’t know how cooperative Republicans are likely to be, but he’s a lame duck president, which in many ways is good because they can’t talk about keeping him from being reelected again. So they may be more inclined to work with him now.
But the division is there, and as I said, it’s gotten worse and worse over the years. There’s statistical evidence of that. The parties are farther and farther apart. If you look at the Gallup polls, they’ve been measuring since the 1930s the simple question, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job the President’s doing?” And what we’re finding is that the division, the distance – the difference between the President’s party and the opposition party has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger over the last 50 years, really, since Ronald Reagan. And it’s just grown very fast. Bill Clinton said famously in 2002 a very wise piece of political analysis. He said, “If you look back on the 1960s and you think they did more good than harm, you’re a Democrat. If you think they did more harm than good, you’re a Republican.” Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, same generation, different cultural values. That division started in the ‘60s and it’s just gotten bigger.
QUESTION: Jose Carreno, Excelsior Mexico. How are you? I have – this is basically (inaudible). Is there any center left in the United States? Where is it? How could they communicate among them without the center? And as a consequence of that, is there any room or any wish or any intention that you have heard about – of a third party?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Is there a center? 40 percent of the voters call themselves moderates, okay? That’s pretty big. They’re bigger than either liberals or conservatives. But only about 20 percent, 25 percent I think, somewhere between there, call themselves independents. The problem isn’t ideological division. Most Americans are ideologically moderate, but they’re more partisan. They’re more identified with the political parties, and the party divide has gotten deeper and deeper over the years.
I teach a class at George Mason. I remember a student raised his hand once a few months ago and said, “Is this the most divided we have ever been as a country?” And I felt compelled to say, “Well, once we did have a Civil War,” and three-quarters of a million Americans were killed in that civil war. That was pretty bad. But this may be the most divided we’ve been since then, and there have been threats from some conservatives that if Obama is reelected, God knows people could take to violence. I don’t think any of that’ll happen. I would suspect that if – when the healthcare bill goes into effect in 2014, some lunatic probably in northern Michigan will go hole up in a cabin in the woods with a large supply of arms, with – and a few friends, perhaps, and maybe a family and dare the federal government to come after him because “I ain’t buying no health insurance and I ain’t paying a fine.” If the federal government is smart, they won’t bother with him at all because they don’t want another Waco. But there are people like that who are driven to those kinds of extremes. That – the division is there.
There is a center ideologically, but the – when I say divided, the country has become more – not more ideologically divided – we’re still centrists – but more partisan. Democratic states have become more Democratic and – like California and New York. Republican states like Texas and Kansas have become more Republican. The number of battleground states has diminished. In 1960, which was a very close election between Kennedy and Nixon, there were some 20 states that – where the election was decided by fewer than 5 percent. That number has dropped this time. There are only eight battleground states that were at issue in this election, and that territory is getting smaller and smaller simply because so much of the country is now either reliably Republican or reliably Democratic.
So the answer to the question is yeah, there is an ideological center and it’s very large, but what’s happened is the voters have become more and more partisan. There’s a book I recommend to you by Bill Bishop written about five or six years ago called The Big Sort, S-o-r-t, in which he examines Census data and demonstrates that since 1976, Americans have become more and more politically segregated – not racially; politically segregated. More and more people live in places where people vote overwhelmingly for one party. And that has become the rule. They don’t move to a place because of its politics; they move to a place because of its lifestyle. But politics follows lifestyle more now than it ever has in the past.
QUESTION: Thank you, Dr. Schneider. Kyungrok Kim from Korean Broadcasting System, and can you identify some of the biggest challenge for Mr. Obama in the next four years and the ways he can overcome those challenges? Thank you.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well, if only I were president. I can identify the challenges easily enough. Certainly very high on the list is Iran, which appears to be – most people believe it is developing a nuclear weapon, but they’re not ready to go to war with Iran and they’re not exactly sure what the President can do to prevent it. And of course, the Israeli Government is very actively involved in warning the United States that there could be a disaster. That’s probably the biggest foreign policy dilemma we face. And I don't know – I mean, I know that only the United States can do something about it. I mean, if Israel were to strike Iran, immediately, the entire Arab world would side with Iran, which is not an Arab country, because they couldn’t possibly side with Israel. And the poor Saudi Arabians who don’t particularly like or trust Iran would end up having to support Iran. That would be a big disaster.
It is a problem which only the United States has the capacity to solve, which is true of most world problems. The great lesson in world affairs since World War II is unless the United States does something about a problem, nothing happens. If we hadn’t organized a coalition to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, he’d still be there. Kuwait would be a province of Iraq. If we hadn’t done something about ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, it would have been – it was a humanitarian disaster and it would have been a bigger one because the Europeans were just unable or unwilling to take care of it, and I believe that if the United States had not gotten involved in Libya, Muammar Qadhafi would probably still be there. And where we did not get involved, like the genocide in Rwanda, of course, nothing did happen, and a great human tragedy occurred.
Unless the United States acts, nothing will happen, and that’s certainly true in Iran. That’s the biggest challenge in the world that the President faces. He faces a number of issues domestically; I’d say three in particular. One he will act on, immigration reform, for reasons that I explained, because he feels compelled to as payback to those Latino voters who supported him in large numbers. The two others are going to be quite difficult for a specific reason. The two other big problems that he needs to take care of are debt reduction, which everyone acknowledges is a terrible problem, and we’re all going to go to hell unless we do something about the national debt, but no one – not no one, but most Americans do not regard it as a dire national crisis. If it were a dire national crisis, they would be saying, “Do something. Cut spending, raise taxes, but do something to reduce the debt.” And they are not saying that. And if Congress tries to do that, which is what’s included in the fiscal cliff deal, we’re going to slash spending on defense and domestic programs, we are going to cut defense spending, the country will go crazy. They’ll just get furious; why are you doing this? Well, we’re doing it to reduce the debt. Don’t do it. The debt is not that kind of impending crisis.
The other is climate change; same issue. Everyone says it’s a real problem, and given the hurricane last week that hit New York and New Jersey, it’s become more and more serious, so maybe it’s growing in importance. But the fact is that most voters have never seen climate change as a threat, as a dire national crisis that demands immediate action. It is a dirty little secret of American politics that we can’t deal with problems unless they become a crisis, because we have a divided government.
Even if the government’s not divided – it wasn’t divided in Obama’s first two years – look how much trouble he had getting healthcare passed. It was very difficult because in our country, members of Congress are not soldiers in a party army. They are independent political entrepreneurs. They are all in business for themselves. And Democrats would not support Clinton’s – not Clinton either – Clinton or Obama’s healthcare plan, even when they were in power, for the first two years of Clinton and the first two years of Obama because they weren’t sure it would be good for their political careers; it would be bad for business. So you have to – they have to be persuaded to go along, and they’ll do it only if there’s a crisis.
The bad news is we can’t deal with problems unless they’re a crisis, and the debt is not yet of that dimension nor is climate change. And the good news is if it’s a crisis, we can deal with it every time. We are wonderfully talented at dealing with crises like 9/11, we passed the Patriot Act very quickly, when there’s – after the last financial crisis, we passed all of the legislation. It was only one party, but we passed the economic stimulus. It probably wasn’t big enough. We passed the bank and car company bailouts. We acted. We will act if there is a real crisis, if people see a disaster impending. But at the moment, a couple of the biggest problems facing this country, debt and climate change, don’t yet have the dimensions of impending crises to most voters.
QUESTION: Hi, Debora Akel, Abu Dhabi TV. Thank you so much, Bill. You’re always a pleasure to listen to and you have a talent for --
MR. SCHNEIDER: Thank you.
QUESTION: -- bringing these things so everyone understands.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Where are you from?
QUESTION: Abu Dhabi TV.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Abu Dhabi, okay.
QUESTION: I have a question about raising taxes on the wealthy. When I look at some of the literature about this, how we can shore up our Social Security by raising taxes on the extremely wealthy and how it just basically evens the playing field – it doesn’t really penalize them; it just makes their tax rates more in line with average working Americans – it doesn’t seem like it should be such a divisive thing and that we could get a lot of benefit from it. So what is the problem, as you see it, with that proposal?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well, a couple of – first of all, it is popular to raise taxes on the wealthy. Obama proposed it. If you ask Americans, “Do you think we should raise taxes on high-income taxpayers over a quarter of a million dollars a year,” they say, “Yes, no problem.” The problems are essentially the resistance of Republicans who are – well, they – I’m not going to say they’re pro-wealthy, but they’re definitely anti-taxes. They think taxes are inherently evil because taxes mean big government, and you use taxes to fund government programs and they don’t like government.
That’s the definition of their party; they’re a party that’s in business to limit the power of the federal government, which actually most Americans support limiting the power of the federal government. So their belief is that what you have to do is starve the government by cutting taxes and never, never, never raising them on anybody. And they usually make the argument that if the President raises taxes on the wealthy, eventually you, the middle income taxpayer, will pay higher taxes too because they have a way of creeping down. And even if Americans aren’t wealthy, they kind of resent the idea of raising taxes because they think that most tax money is wasted and pointless and used to fund useless government programs. Taxes are just not popular.
The issue, the central issue in America, is and always has been the size and role of government. Right now, the biggest debates are over taxes and tax increases. Do you know what the debate was a hundred years ago? It was over tariffs. Why? Because before we had income taxes, the chief source of revenue for the federal government was tariffs. And if you were pro-government, you supported high tariffs, as most of the north did, and if you were anti-government, you supported low tariffs, as the south did. The arguments about tariffs in the 19th century were exactly like the arguments over taxes are right now. It was a kind of argument essentially over how big and powerful the federal government should be. Only then, the party positions were reversed. Democrats were anti-government; Republicans were pro-government until the 20th century, when Democrats discovered that you could use the power of the federal government to promote economic justice – that was the New Deal – and social justice. That was the civil rights movement. So they became wedded to big government, which they’re paying a price for right now.
But essentially, taxes are a symbolic issue, not – they’re an economic issue, of course, but they’re a symbolic issue to many Americans. Raising taxes on anybody means funding big government, and that’s never a popular thing to do. So even though most Americans think raising taxes on high-income taxpayers would be okay because that’s not me, most – 90 percent of Americans think they’re middle class. The definition of the middle class is very simple. It is as follows: Neither rich nor poor, okay? If I call myself middle class, what it means is I’m not rich, I’m not poor. It means that they’re willing to raise taxes on the rich, because that’s not me. And they’re a little skeptical about supporting government programs to help the poor because that’s not me either. My money will go to help somebody else. That’s why everything is pitched to the middle class in every campaign. So the tax issue has some inherent liabilities.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Another question? Okay.
QUESTION: Ben Bangoura. Thank you so much, Bill. Can we talk a little bit about the swing states? Prior to yesterday’s election, Ohio and Florida consistently were set to be (inaudible) state. We got, with Obama, a new path to White House without those important states. And also, what is the status of the state of Missouri, which is also --
MR. SCHNEIDER: The state of what?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Missouri?
QUESTION: Missouri, yes --
MR. SCHNEIDER: Okay.
QUESTION: -- which until 2008, used to be called the bellwether. Do we have a new bellwether now for going to White House?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well --
QUESTION: And also, I would like you to talk a little bit about the polling. Have something gone wrong with that --
MR. SCHNEIDER: No.
QUESTION: -- given the --
MR. SCHNEIDER: The second question first. The polling was quite accurate.
MR. SCHNEIDER: The polling showed a close race; it was a close race. The polling showed Obama had a slight advantage in the swing states; he had a slight advantage in the swing states. The polls moved a little bit but that’s because we had a campaign. Obama was doing very well after the conventions. The first debate really boosted Romney in large part because voters for the first time realized that there was an election. They had paid no attention to it until the first debate, when 70 million people watched and suddenly realized that they were being asked whether to rehire or fire the President. And they faced that choice, and Romney came across as a plausible alternative. So the polls were pretty accurate about all that.
Now as far as the swing states are concerned, as I said, their numbers have gotten smaller, the path to the White House has changed because a state like California – California voted solidly and continuously Republican from 1968 through 1988. In every one of those elections for 20 years, it voted reliably Republican. Those were the Reagan years. Since then, California has never voted Republican, and Democrats are – I don't know if they got a two-thirds majority in the legislature; they were very close to it, which is what’s required to raise taxes in California. But the Democrats are doing brilliantly in California.
Republicans look at California and they see terror. They see if they don’t mend their ways and appeal to Latino voters, the country is going to become California, and Republicans will be extinct. They became extinct in California because Latinos deserted the Republican Party after Pete Wilson supported a proposition that passed but was later declared unconstitutional to cut off public services for illegal immigrants. And the Latino voters mobilized, they rallied, they became citizens, they registered and they voted, and now they are the base of the Democratic majority in California, which is pervasive. Republicans look at that and they say, “Oh my God, that could happen to the whole country.”
So California is off the books as a swing state, as is New York. Texas is off the books because it’s become more and more Republican. The number of swing states is smaller. The path to the White House is narrower because you have to – as I said, the last three presidents who got reelected got reelected in very close races. It used to be that when a president ran for reelection, usually he got reelected pretty easily. Not Bush, of course – the first Bush – but usually, they got reelected. Clinton did, Reagan did, Eisenhower did, Nixon did. But look, Clinton was reelected with 49 percent, Bush was reelected in 19 – in 2004 with 51 percent, and Obama just got reelected with a little over 50 percent. They were very, very close. That’s a change in the path to the White House.
There are a small number of states that are true battlegrounds. Missouri was always a bellwether state, but I think that stopped in 2008 when Missouri was the only battleground state that did not vote for Obama. It voted for McCain by 3,000 votes. Two weeks after the election, it was declared. I know that state well because I spent two weeks in Missouri. I knew it inside out, and on election night, we couldn’t call Missouri. We finally called it two weeks later and I said, “I can do that story. I know all about Missouri.” And the networks said, “We don’t need it. The election’s over.” It was a waste of time. (Laughter.) And Missouri now seems to be more Republican. It did go for McCain. It was the only swing state that voted for McCain.
Ohio and Florida seem to be the key swing states because they’re large, they’re both very closely balanced. From my point of view, one of the best things about the election being over is we don’t have to talk about Ohio for another four years. I’m sick to death of it and I don’t want to go there. But it’s off the agenda for the time being. Florida we’re already tired of; let them count their ballots any – let them take as long as they want to count their ballots. But the path to the White House has gotten narrower and narrower. That’s the simple truth.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for --
MR. SCHNEIDER: Okay.
QUESTION: -- a very interesting briefing, and thank you for coming.
MR. SCHNEIDER: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. (Applause.)
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