Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Baseball Post

Nothing analytic today, just: wow, the trading deadline is a lot of fun. (Or, as it's officially known, at least on ESPN -- the non-waiver trading deadline). Guys are flying from one team to another, prospects you've barely heard of are suddenly critically important...for those of us who are roto players, there's always the possibility of disaster as guys roles change suddenly, and for all of us who are fans there's that sinking feeling that our GM is going to do something stupid again.

Oh, I guess not everyone feels that way. Only some of us have the pleasure of rooting for a team run by Brian Sabean. Oh well; he didn't do all that badly this year.

I don't think there's anything like it in any other sport. I guess the NBA draft is a bit like it (the NFL draft, I'm convinced, is just an overhyped nothing). Hard to tell for those of us who aren't NBA fans. Anyway, as I said, I'm not thinking about it carefully, just enjoying the fun.

Frustration (again)

Here's a good example of what I'm talking about. Chris Crain (via Sullivan) has a very reasonable post about DADT (Don't Ask Don't Tell) repeal. The gist of it is: it's understandable that Obama has moved very slowly on repeal; Obama runs huge risks of a major firestorm against him if he's not careful on this issue; and here's how he should proceed, using the next Chair of the Joint Chiefs appointment to get the military to take the lead in repeal.

Fine enough. I don't know if his case is sound or not; it seems to rest on two claims: first, that despite polling data favoring repeal the issue is still as treacherous for Obama as it was for Clinton sixteen years ago, and, second, that using a Chair of the Joint Chiefs as the front for repeal can diffuse the controversy. (Well, I don't know, but I think it's essentially a very sensible essay).

What's interesting from the point of view of democratic frustration is the comments. One could challenge Crain's claim that Obama would risk popularity by acting sooner, or challenge the morality of waiting on the issue, or a lot of other possibilities. For the most part, however, the commenters don't do that. Instead, they -- three of the four comments, as I write -- are simply convinced that Obama has little or no interest in supporting gay issues. That is, they specifically ignore the logic in the post they are responding to (which suggests that going slow is the best pro-repeal strategy). They don't get it; they don't get that, despite winning the election, the president can't just do whatever he wants. And so he must have faulty motives.

Again, I'm not saying that Obama is in fact following Crain's strategy (although I think he likely is, more or less), or that DADT will definitely be repealed (although I'd put my money on it), or even that Obama is clearly on the side of Crain's commenters after all. Instead, I'm arguing that the commenters -- engaged citizens (by definition, since they're posting to a blog on a political issue) have a terribly tough time even considering the possibility that a pol could have good intentions but still fail anyway.

OK, enough of that hobby-horse for a while.


Via Sullivan, I have to say that I'm struck by the DailyKos poll results on continental drift: "Do you believe that American and Africa were once part of the same continent?" I'm less interested in the obvious political fun to be had (Republicans and southerners are drift deniers, apparently) than what I consider a shocking lack of variation by age. The youngest cohort was only somewhat more likely to answer yes (48/20) than the oldest, age 60+ cohort (39/20). Yes, it's a difference, and perhaps going beyond the crosstabs would show a larger effect, but my understanding is that virtually none of the oldest cohort would have learned about continental drift as part of standard earth science when they were in school, while at least in public schools the 18-29 cohort almost certainly were taught it.

I don't know when it became a standard part of the curriculum, but I think it's 1970s-1980s, not earlier. Hmmm....a quick look at wikipedia pushes it a bit earlier, maybe centered in the 1970s.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Frustration, again

Second-type democratic frustration is setting in rapidly now; here's Sullivan:

I think Obama will get something real, modest and very weak when it comes to cost-cutting. The American political system simply does not have the capacity to deliver anything more. It will when we have no choice. We're very close to that. But disaster is necessary for this country to do anything that might actually work.

But that's hardly true. The American system has mobilized big changes many times without disaster. Old people used to be poor; then Johnson and the massive Democratic majorities in Congress changed things. Civil rights...well, it was a disaster, but there was no specific new disaster that prompted massive change. On a much smaller scale, but closer to Sullivan's concerns: deficits were large and impossible to affect, and then G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, and a series of Congresses decided to do something about it and -- presto! -- surplus.

Sullivan is on much firmer ground when he says that "the truth is: this [health care] is a very, very hard political issue." That's exactly right. Health care is hard, climate change is hard, banking stability is hard, and even a seemingly straightforward issue such as unilateral detention turns out to be a lot more complex than one might think. There are winners and losers, and (part of) the genius of the American system is that it gives potential losers lots of chances to cut their best deal. In a nation of 300 million, that's a very good thing.

The reason that it's tricky thinking about these things is that for the outside observer, it's important to remember that there are rarely good guys and bad guys, but for the involved actor it's normal and understandable to think of one's side as good and everyone else as bad.

OK, enough with the abstract stuff. The real point of this post is for me to learn to add some visual to the blog...I talked about Mr. Smith and distopias in the previous post on this subject, so the visual is from one of the latter. Which, oddly enough, I had never seen until the last few days. Not one of Heston's best performances, but that's a high bar; he was an excellent and underrated actor.

Against Sacrifice

Jon Cohn has a nice little essay on why calls for sacrifice in the health care debate are useless, but the broader point is more basic: journalists and many pundits love the idea of sacrifice for no good reason.

What we need is a better metaphor: we need a chess model of sacrifice. Everyone understands that a sacrifice in chess is self-interested. There is no moral or character component to sacrificing a piece; it's a good idea if it helps the player win, and a bad idea otherwise. No one analyzes a chess game by saying that the player lost, but at least she was willing to sacrifice her rook, or that he didn't deserve to win because he was unwilling to sacrifice anything. That a player didn't perceive a nice line of play involving a sacrifice is a totally different type of discussion.

What we get instead is perhaps a baseball model, involving players who are reluctant to bunt, hit the ball to the right side to advance the runner from second, etc. Now, applied to baseball the baseball model of sacrifice is usually wrong, but applied to politics it's a real mess. When it comes to public policy, we want options that are good for the nation collectively in some sense. If some people are going to be worse off as a result, we need to recognize that (which still leaves a lot of possible actions). If there are trade-offs in the sense that individuals are going to be better off overall but still bear costs, we can recognize that, too. The language of sacrifice doesn't help.

I'd love to hear explanations about the appeal of sacrifice talk to journalists, though.

Institution building

The back-and-forth between Mark Schmitt and Matt Yglesias this morning strikes me as interesting, but not quite stated clearly.

Schmitt's theme is that
Obama's apparent belief that existing institutions can do what they have so far failed to do -- and his resistance to creating new ones -- is emerging as an odd, surprising theme of his presidency.
Yglesias agrees, but while Schmitt more or less approves of Obama's pattern, Matt thinks it's troubling: "It seems to me that presidents’ most lasting achievements are often structural/institutional in nature."

Let's take this apart a bit. The examples provided in the two pieces include the September 11 Commission, the Reagan-era Social Security commission, the base-closing commissions, FDR's "alphabet soup" of new agencies, Bush's Department of Homeland Security, and Reagan's policy change of indexing tax brackets for inflation.

What can we say of these? Well, first, several of them were Congressional, not presidential initiatives: that certainly was the case for the September 11 Commission and the Department of Homeland Security. Some -- the base-closing and Social Security commissions -- were ad hoc solutions by politicians who wanted to duck responsibility for decisions they wanted to take but didn't want the blame for. The last one (indexing) is a policy, not an institutional, reform.

So none of these really is a potential model for presidential institution building. That leaves Roosevelt's new agencies, although we could also include Truman's institution building within the White House (e.g. the National Security Council), and of course many lesser examples of new agencies or Presidential Branch reorganizations down the line.

And, here, I think what we could say is that Obama is acting prudently. Shifting around the organization chart is rarely a good way to get new things done; failures of, say, the Bush Justice Department are less an indication that Justice is a hopelessly compromised department than they are indications that any agency can go awry when the top of the hierarchy is out to lunch or misguided.

It's true that new policies often come with new agencies, but it seems to me a good instinct to use what's there when possible.


There's a fairly good Explainer up over at Slate on the subject of Congressional recess, but it doesn't really get at the main point. It simply isn't the case that the actions on the House and Senate floor are the main work of a Member of the House or a Senator. In my experience, most Members work pretty damn hard, but it's also the that some don't. None of that, however, has very much to do with how many hours the House or the Senate is in session.

Now, it's also true that a lot of what they do in a typical week are tasks directly or indirectly related to achieving re-election. But that's true whether or not Congress is in recess.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Iowa caucuses on a Saturday?

Via Ambinder, the Des Moines Register is reporting that Iowa's parties have agreed to hold their 2010 (that's 2010, not 2012) caucuses on a Saturday afternoon, instead of the traditional Monday evening. They may go with a Saturday in 2012, or not. We'll see.

This is one of those things that is apt to be massively overanalyzed and make zero difference. Ambinder says that this comes in part by Hillary Clinton supporters who are convinced that the turnout of the caucuses skewed against her candidacy, but even to the extent that might have been true there's no reason to expect a similar division or effect in the next contested Democratic nomination, which presumably will be in 2016 and will involve none of Clinton, Obama, or John Edwards.

The bottom line is that caucuses yield very, very, small turnouts, and jiggering with the conditions isn't going to change that.

Democratic frustration

There are two chief forms of frustration that a democracy generates. The first is when a citizen mobilizes for an election, works really hard, does everything possible, and still loses. That is, the frustration of realizing that one is actually in the minority. It is tremendously frustrating, and even more so in a very large polity in which it's impossible for anyone to have any sense of majority and minority on a personal level. That's the kind of frustration that leads to, say, the birthers.

The second form of frustration is specific to antimajoritarian democracies such as the U.S. It's when you win, and your stuff still doesn't happen. It tends to lead to accusations of selling out, or blaming friends for things that have no control over, or eventually to other types of conspiracy theories.

The thing is, it would be nice if our culture gave us reference points for these frustrations, but I don't think there's much out there. Our political movies tend to be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fantasies of good people who oppose corrupt establishments, or distopian fantasies of an all-powerful system crushing everyone, good or bad. There's very little out there to suggest that politics is made up of people with legitimate differences, and practically nothing that teaches people that majorities can lose in a democracy.

Watergate: the 18 1/2 minute gap

Via CQ, Mother Jones has a story about an effort to resurrect Haldeman's possibly missing notes from the conversation that produced the 18 1/2 minute gap. (This was a very early post-breakin conversation between Nixon and Haldeman; the disclosure of the gap in the tape, which odds are was caused a deliberate erasure by Nixon, was one of the huge hits Nixon took in the public relations portion of his demise). Truth be told, I wouldn't expect much, although I'm certainly interested. Remember that Nixon had maintained not only that he had no prior knowledge of the break-in, but that he had no knowledge of the cover-up until nine months later; the tape erasure, assuming Nixon did it, could have been motivated only by the cover-up of the cover-up.

In other words, there are three classes of things Nixon might have wanted to hide:

1. The cover-up of the cover-up: Nixon was involved in the cover up immediately after the break-in. We know probably all there is to know about that, although more fun details are always welcome.

2. Prior knowledge of the break-in: No one knows for a fact that Nixon had prior knowledge, and for that matter Haldeman always denied prior knowledge (the evidence is that he certainly knew about the general program at the Committee to Re-Elect, but IIRC there's no specific finding that he clearly knew about the break-in in advance).

3. Other stuff. There are all kinds of wacky conspiracy theories out there, none of which are of great interest to me, but what I do think is possible is that there may be additional operations of the Plumbers that have never come out -- after the break-in, a lot of people destroyed a lot of evidence (although they also failed to destroy some stuff), and it's by no means clear that the Plumbers ever decided to tell all. As with #1, new details won't change the story in any important ways, but might be way fun anyway.

For newcomers, I recommend Fred Emery's Watergate as the essential starting point on the subject, although I'd be glad to hear any more recent recommendations.

Bunning , House election news

Meanwhile, comes news that undeserving HOFer Jim Bunning is out. Bunning's seat was one of six rated as Toss Up by Charley Cook; it will likely move to at least Lean R in his next update, while the IL seat may well move from Toss Up to at least Lean D. Including those two, Cook only sees nine seats as competitive right now, indicating what looks like a pretty boring cycle on the Senate side (although he had Specter as a Lean D, and that might be shifting to Toss Up soon).

The other '10 cycle news of the day is that CQ's latest estimates predict a dull House cycle, too. Nate Silver cautions that "wave" elections can cause unpredictable seat changes in favor of the party benefiting from the wave (and he also repeats the myth that Newt's "Contract" was helpful to the Republicans in 1994), but I don't think that's the best way to think about it. Large turnovers are the result of two things: a shift of the electorate as a whole from one party to the other, which can result in surprises, but also strategic politicians and other actors reacting to conditions in ways that reinforce expectations -- the big issues are decisions to retire by incumbents, and decisions to run by strong challengers. Early looks like those by CQ, Charley Cook, and Stuart Rothenberg are useful because they report on such decisions. Bottom line: it's too early to know much yet, but what we see so far are the indications of a dull year with small GOP gain. Unless we see significant changes in D/R retirement ratios and significantly more success in recruitment by the GOP by January, then we're not going to get a >25 seat swing, and certainly not a >35 seat swing.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Calls for the most delicate judgment

Today's fun finding is produced by Nate Silver, who finds that Arlen Specter is even more craven than one might have expected: Specter's voting record moves violently around the ideological charts depending on where is challenge-of-the-moment might be. Jason Zengerle and Matt Yglesias both use it to point out the importance for liberals of electoral challenges from the left, even if they don't win, and rightly so. But of course primary challenges, in particular, are a tricky threat. Democrats are to some extent reaping the benefits now of ideologically rigid Republicans; they shouldn't be seeking to set up a mirror Club for Growth that endangers the Nelsons or Baucus by pushing them too far to the left. The question here, I think, is to what extent unleashing primary challenges in sensible places (say, to a moderate Democrat in a liberal state) winds up with the kinds of electoral suicide that the Club is known for. One would think that networked parties (what we have) are at a disadvantage to formally organized hierarchical parties (what other nations often have, and what some US local parties have been in the past) in these sorts of things, since the incentive structures for different nodes within the network may not match the interests of the overall network. It would be nice to know how a strong networked party handles these sorts of questions, what mechanisms they can (do?) use to push each other to put energy into (say) finding a strong general election opponent to Chuck Grassley or a strong primary challenge to Joe Lieberman rather than focusing on endangering a seat by pushing Ben Nelson to the left.

Mankiewicz in fantasyland

OK, I'm starting out in the past -- responding to something two days old, which is about something almost forty years old. But it caught my eye, so:

Jack Shafer has a nice takedown of Frank Mankiewicz's claim that "Walter Cronkite could have been vice president of the United States." In short, Mankiewicz says he floated Cronkite's name for Veep in 1972, but the rest of the McGovern brain trust didn't go for it. Shafer pretty much demolishes the idea that Cronkite would have accepted it, but I'm interested in the other half of the equation: that (as Mankiewicz puts it) "if the ticket had been McGovern-Cronkite instead of McGovern-Eagleton, McGovern might well have won that 1972 election, or at least have made it close."

First things first: there's simply no case whatsoever for Vice Presidential picks having that kind of effect. McGovern didn't just lose, of course; he suffered one of the worst blow-outs in presidential election history. No VP pick was going to turn the election from blowout to squeeker.

Second, on the it really true that Cronkite would have been a powerful VP candidate? I'd say no. Yes, Cronkite polled well (as Shafer notes, in one fairly dubious poll), but of course as a partisan candidate he would immediately be subject to attacks from the Republican ticket. Moreover, since the whole basis for trust in Cronkite was his neutrality -- Cronkite was a legitimate symbol of the objective neutrality standard dominating political reporting of the time, especially at the TV networks -- it seems pretty likely that candidate Cronkite would have much going for him once that neutrality was gone. So I don't see much of a case for Cronkite as a particularly strong VP candidate, and that's before thinking about whether his particular skill set would translate well into the sorts of things that Vice Presidential candidates are supposed to do.

(There's also a long-term cost. Putting Cronkite on the ticket, if he accepted, would undermine CBS's reputation for neutrality and confirm GOP claims of media bias, which Nixon had spent quite a bit of effort on in his first term. Mankiewicz thinks that the McGovern-Cronkite ticket would have benefited from Watergate, but Nixon would have added a powerful argument during Watergate had the media been exposed in the 1972 campaign as Democratic lackeys).

Of course, Cronkite would have been better than Eagleton, at least the way it played out, but so would dozens of other options. Perhaps the McGovern campaign should have spent more time vetting the VP and less speculating about goofy VP ideas.

First Post

Here we go, about six years or so behind the curve: a new blog on politics. American national politics, that is.

What should you look for here? I'm a political scientist and a political junkie; I have the perspective and expertise from the study of American politics, but also a strong knowledge of the day-to-day activities of the political system (including experience working within that system). We'll see how it goes....
Who links to my website?