A drive through the Poconos, past the foreclosure notices that dot the landscape, past the seemingly endless supply of realtors attempting to market-time the end of the Great Recession by purchasing underwater mortgages at pennies on the dollar, past the ever-increasing boarded-up windows of closed stores that will never reopen, reveals the ugly truth: Pennsylvanians are not, for the moment, much interested in their own politics.
Lawns that would ordinarily sport small forests of political signs lie fallow. Bumper stickers supporting candidates of either party for any office are seldom seen. Apathy, falsely believed by the Greekless to mean “indifferent,” more accurately taken as “unaffected,” abounds.
Fear, caution, and ennui — the recession has, it seems, struck the voters catatonic. From the Wal-Mart to the Burger King, political ignorance reigns. In this late season, after Obama and his minions have attempted to bludgeon democracy itself into submission, the successful candidates of either party are more likely to survive, rather than thrive. But for the moment, at least, one thing is right in Pennsylvania. In the race for what the New York Times termed the “60th Senate seat,” with all that entails for a filibuster-proof Democratic majority, the Republicans enjoy a significant advantage with two months to go before the election.
Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen show Pat Toomey, former representative from Pennsylvania’s 15th district, enjoying sizable leads over Joe Sestak, the Democratic incumbent in Pennsylvania 7, in the Pennsylvania Senate race, and even the highly partisan Quinnipiac poll can only give Sestak a tie.
Toomey has been able to position himself easily as a right-center candidate with solid credentials to appeal to the conservative base. He has kept a strong pro-life, pro-gun, anti-spending position, and has been successful, for the most part, in linking Sestak to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Obama agenda. This task has been rendered less herculean by Sestak himself, who admits that he would have added another 200 billion dollars to the initial stimulus package in the form of tax credits and grants to small banks.
Sestak admits to being influenced by the work of economist Mark Zandi, and recently cited Zandi’s work in a television interview with WGAL. Unfortunately for Sestak, Zandi’s prognostications have already been undone. Not only has job growth lagged, but unemployment has once again leapt sharply, Wall Street is in the doldrums, and housing is again a disaster. Moreover, as Zandi admitted in his testimony before congress in July, there is no real mechanism for measuring the stimulus’ effectiveness in job growth or job rescue. Sestak’s support for the most radical parts of the Obama agenda, including Obama’s health care legislation, belies his occasional protests that he is not completely in step with the Obama administration. His avowed support for 2nd Amendment rights, for example, comes off as special pleading, given the weight of other exempla.
Sestak is in part undone by his long and distinguished military career. He has tried to avoid the appearance of ideology, claiming instead “pragmatism” as his justification for supporting the massive spending packages that have come from D.C. If he is not being disingenuous, he displays the weakness of the career soldier when confronted with economic realities: let the government, the military’s paymaster, come up with the money. Sestak’s comfort with command, unfortunately, makes him comfortable with a command economy. Sestak ignores the obvious: the government has only what money it takes from the wealth-generating citizenry. In short, having lived an entire life at the public trough, he can only imagine solving fiscal crises by expanding, rather than contracting, that trough.
The success of Toomey in tarring Sestak with the Pelosi brush has created desperation in the Democrat’s message. Sestak does not scruple to attack Toomey. He falsely connected Toomey to the mortgage derivatives scandal, when in fact, Toomey had supported only currency derivatives. Sestak has chastised Toomey as a Wall Street insider, when in fact, Toomey has for the last 20 or so years been either a small businessman in the Lehigh Valley, a U.S. representative, or the president of the Club For Growth. (This has been part of a common Democratic strategy to vilify Bush at the expense of logic or simple analysis of available data.)
Sestak’s most recent attack ad shows Toomey decrying corporate taxes; Sestak, like most of his Democratic brethren, seems incapable of recognizing a simple truth: Corporations do not really pay taxes at all. They either pass taxes to the consumers or move to more tax-friendly confines.
Sestak has exaggerated greatly the Clinton accomplishment of gaining a budgetary surplus (itself a product of fiscal control exacted by the Republican-dominated Congress of Clinton’s last six years in office), and the size of the national debt inherited by the Obama administration. In a recent interview, Sestak gave the impression that the Bush debt of over 10 trillion dollars was entirely a Bush creation, rather than acknowledging that the debt was still well over 5 trillion at the end of Clinton’s second term. In short, Sestak runs the Universal Democratic Playbook, one easily countered by anyone with sufficient skill and drive to run a few searches on Google. The problem for Toomey, however, may be a dearth of exactly such voters.
Toomey’s message of budget discipline, a decrease in taxes, and abolishing expensive regulations that prohibit the growth of industry has resonated well with the traditional Republican strongholds in Pennsylvania: the interior, the north, and the far west. Toomey has advocated rescinding the remaining stimulus money, cutting payroll taxes, and shelving ObamaCare and cap and trade. Unfortunately, this approach has less appeal in Philadelphia, and even in its less prosperous suburbs, where state welfare and the welfare state have become an accepted way of life.
As in all industrial states, jobs remain at issue. The 9.3% official unemployment rate is laughable; as in most of the rust belt states, many Pennsylvanians long ago stopped seeking jobs that had disappeared anyway. In the 1970s, parts of Pennsylvania endured unemployment at a rate that exceeded 20%, and in large parts of the state, the highest goal for many workers remains workman’s compensation followed by Social Security disability. Even given the considerable improvement in the unemployment numbers compared with the historic and depression-like lows of the 70s and early 80s, Pennsylvanians remain so nervous about the prospect of unemployment that they seem to suffer from post-traumatic stress. The prospect of a land without handouts is anathema to many, especially given the state’s aging population.
Complicating matters for Toomey, and providing an opening for Sestak, is the state’s budget shortfall of about 1.1 billion dollars. Draconian spending cuts are unlikely in an election year. The state was able to avert disaster as long as it has only by the infusion of 2.7 billion dollars in stimulus money. The money will stop in 2011, without additional congressional authorization. Voters will perceive Sestak as the more likely candidate to provide that additional funding. Such funding may have to be increased in light of the additional demands on the states in the form of Medicaid increases when ObamaCare hits in 2014. If voters cannot envision a Republican victory decisive enough to roll back at least the worst excesses of the health care “reform,” they may back Sestak as the most likely candidate to return offsetting federal funds to a state already hurting.
Illegal immigration, which has figured so prominently in various House races in the state, seems not to be a determining factor in the race, nor are the traditional social issues, where Sestak has affirmed himself as a Pelosi liberal, even endorsing a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, while Toomey holds fast to the conservative line. Little ink has been spilled in the press or by Toomey of the alleged offer of a job in the Obama administration made by former President Clinton on Obama’s behalf, in order to secure Sestak’s withdrawal from the Democratic primary. These issues may be raised by the Toomey camp as the election draws nearer.
The key issue in the state, however, may actually be 400 million years old. Voter sentiment, particularly in the north and west, where Sestak needs a sizeable Democratic vote, may depend on the candidates’ view of exploiting the Marcellus Shale formation, a Devonian period sedimentary formation rich in natural gas. Toomey is, as one might expect, pro-drilling, and in this he is backed by most state officials, including the Democratic governor, Ed Rendell.
As Jake Corman, Republican state senator for Pennsylvania’s 34th district, has publicly opined, natural gas is the sole growth industry in the economically beleaguered state, and proposals to levy taxes on the wells, or overregulate natural gas production, can only hurt employment and industry in the state. The formation extends from New York to Tennessee, and drillers will simply move their operations to more friendly states, if operating in Pennsylvania becomes too burdensome.
Exploiting the Marcellus formation has already been a key issue in the election of the DINO (Democrat in Name Only) Mark Critz to Pennsylvania 12, the seat left vacant by the death of Jack Murtha. Any attempts to halt drilling in the formation will almost certainly radicalize Toomey’s Republican base and disaffect independents and centrist Democrats.
That, however, is precisely what Sestak has proposed. In a town meeting in June, Sestak, citing difficulties with the hydraulic fracture method of obtaining natural gas from the formation and complaints of water contamination in several counties, called for a moratorium on drilling, piggybacking his concerns on exaggerated fears resulting from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Given Sestak’s support for Markey-Waxman, already unpopular in a state heavily dependent on coal production and coal-fired electricity plants, the call for a moratorium may finish Sestak.
Concerns about the drinking water in the affected counties have been overstated, according to many experts; worse methane problems occur in cities like Wilkes-Barre because of chronically leaky pipes, and drillers have already improved their methods. Experts project that the natural gas industry will deliver about 70,000 jobs to the state. Despite optimistic projections by some liberal economists that cap and trade will increase jobs in the energy field, conservatives remain unimpressed, and in this area, at least, the conservative message has won the hearts of all but the most dedicated environmentalists. Conservative economists argue that the job loss in Pennsylvania from cap and trade can be in the 70,000 range.
If Sestak continues to hinder drilling in the Marcellus shale, all the Democrats in Philadelphia, including those raised from the dead by ingenious local operatives, will not be able to save him.