Monday, August 31, 2009

Monday Movies Post

In honor of it still being August, even though the world is sure acting as if summer ended already...

Here's ten great "politics" characters with little or no actual political content. Had to be both: I love, say, Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey, but that show has tons of real politics in it; Lloyd Braun would qualify on the "no politics" side, but I never really thought he was up to the standards of The Maestro or Rabbi Glickman.

Almost making the list: King Arthur, I think, would have qualified but for Dennis's great rant. Well, there's also How One Identifies A King. I like Mel Brooks's Governor Lepetomane, but I think that has a bit of politics, too. I have no idea of whether there was any political content in Benson, since I've always avoided that show like the plague, even though I am a big Odo fan. Never really thought there were any great characters on Spin City. Aw, I could keep this up all day; let's get to it. Presented in no particular order...

1. Mayor Quimby. Is this one a cheat? Obviously a great character; I don't really think of him as having political content, but I suppose he probably does. I'll count him anyway, since he is such an awesomely great character.

2. Rufus T. Firefly. Hail, hail Freedonia: "Three men and one woman are trapped in a building! Send help at once! If you can't send help, send two more women!" (Yes, "war is stupid" is a political message, but still...).

3. Deputy Commissioner Mark Halperin. I know, Jackie Cooper as murdering Senate candidate Nelson Hayward was more of a true politician than was the police commissioner, but this one -- in which Columbo foils the evil commissioner by tricking him into framing Val Avery's small-time crook -- is the keeper. Speaking of Columbo, we also have:

4. Boston Councilwoman Janet Eldridge. I don't think I could include Woody Boyd here; his final season campaign for office did have something resembling actual politics (Frasier's claim that voters are sheep). Not so with Sam's three-episode fling, a classic sequence. Wim With Jim!

5. Mayor McCheese.

6. Richard Bellamy, MP (and later Viscount Bellamy). There's of course a lot of politics in this series, beginning with class in England and including the effects of World War I on everyone, but despite his occupation, Bellamy rarely does anything more political than dropping the names of Lloyd George and Churchill every once in a while.

7. Mayor Richard Wilkins of Sunnydale. An obvious choice; a wonderful character. I'm sure I'm not the only one still bitter because we didn't get to hear the end of the speech.

8. The Mayor of Townsville. The link is a picture of the Mayor with Mojo Jojo, but perhaps I should have found one with his awesome secretary. Sorry.

9. Betsy, the Campaign Worker. I'm a big Cybil Shepherd fan, and this is one of her early career highlights.

10. Presidential Candidate Jimmy James. Link is to "Goofy Ball." Jimmy may or may not be too smart to be president, but he's certainly a terrific character, and I'd say he qualifies for the list thanks to his impressive, albeit brief, campaign. Lose the song, though. And never mess with the man with the wayback machine; he can make it so you were never born.

Muppet News Flash!

Some very sensible comments today from John Sides, Ezra Klein (here and here), Matt Yglesias, and TNC, all essentially knocking down Paul Krugman's reporter-based explanation of why the news is the way it is with a consumer-based version. Matt and Ezra have the logic of it, and John backs it up with research, while TNC reminds us that "'The People' aren't noble. And they aren't evil, either."

I want to expand a bit on that last point. There's a temptation to say that the audience is wrong to want horse race coverage; at best, it's logical, but too bad. Here's how John Sides puts it:
In short, the actual audience for news wants to hear more about strategy. Why? Probably because they already know what candidate or, in this case, policy they favor — at least in broad terms (e.g., yea or nay on health care reform) — and so they want to know whether their preferred policy is “winning.” That’s what strategy coverage provides them.
What one can add about this is that it's perfectly obvious, if you think about it, that one of these things changes constantly (whether the policy or candidate is winning) while the other just doesn't. Krugman and Yglesias and Klein and Sides and I already knew what we needed to know about John McCain well before January 2008, and we knew what we needed to know about Barack Obama at about that time -- yes, there's new real information, but very little. So in summer 2008 what was new was the chances each had of winning. We, and those of you reading this who are intense information consumers, know quite a bit about health care. The substance of health care reform hasn't changed at all since the beginning of the year (the bills change, but the underlying situation is what it is). But all the inside baseball of health care reform keeps producing news, and so naturally that's what we want to read. Not because we're lazy about policy, but because that's what's actually new.

Ezra Klein is wrong, however, to say that speculation about the results of the 2010 election cycle isn't real news. In fact, there are lots of things going on right now that will determine the outcomes of those elections, and there's nothing wrong at all in principle with a big summary article compiling expert views of the state of play so far (although the article would be better if the authors had consulted some political scientists. Really. We do know a few things).

Nepotism? Same As It Ever Was

Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald are all upset about a supposed new wave of nepotism in American politics...Sullivan sees a sign of "late empire" and Greenwald, in an earlier post, pulls up an impressive quotation:
Illustrating that radical change, here's a revealing 1929 article from Time Magazine expressing some mild disapproval for what was, back then, the rare occurrence of a son who was elected to succeed his father in a Minnesota Congressional seat after the father was killed in a tragic fire (the new son-Congressman, the article noted, was "an engaging young man, thoroughly Nordic in appearance"). About this single familial succession, Time sternly intoned: "Primogeniture and hereditary public office have no place in U. S. tradition" (emphasis Greenwald's)
Well, maybe. Time in 1929 did notice two Senators whose fathers had been Senators. They wiffed on a third, Guy Goff of West Virginia. Two others, Hiram Johnson and Morris Sheppard, had fathers who had been Members of the House. Another had a father-in-law who preceded him in the Senate. Then there are a couple of younger brothers...all in all, I count 11 of of the 96 Senators elected in 1929 who had prior Members of Congress (House or Senate) in their families. Not quite the 15 of 100 Greenwald reports in the current Senate, but not too far off.

(I think Greenwald's 15 may be a cheat, anyway -- he doesn't list his 15, but his links from the December 2008 post include outgoing Senators Dole, Sununu, and Clinton as well as the incoming Udalls. He also includes Olympia Snowe, whose first elective office was a state legislative seat in Maine previously held by her late husband, but I don't know of any other connection; I'd say that's pretty weak [this is wrong; update below]. OTOH, I'm not sure if he includes John McCain, who one could certainly make a case for. My search for 1929 was only for previous Members of Congress; if I had expanded it to include governors and especially state legislators, odds are I would have turned up a few more).

Just a quick look at the 1929 list reveals one possible reason for an increase, if there's been one: of the eleven nepotism Senators in 1929, all represented states that had long political histories; the newest of the ten states with nepotism Senators was West Virginia, already over sixty years old. No nepotism then from Arizona, New Mexico, the Dakotas, or the other late-19th century states -- at least not in terms of previous Members of Congress. It may take a while for states to develop old political families!

I'm going to need a lot stronger evidence to be convinced that there's a trend here.

[Update September 4: I was wrong on Olympia Snowe; after a decade in the House, but before she was a Senator, she married the then-Governor of Maine. She's not created by nepotism or family connections, but she certainly is a fair example for Greenwald to count]

Pardon Them 3

Publius has a very smart comment reacting to Cheney's appearance on Fox News over the weekend. As he points out, there's a very strong dynamic here -- he calls it ideological, while I'd call it partisan -- that is leading to the Republicans becoming what Andrew Sullivan is calling "the torture party."

That dynamic is why I support pardon, followed by a commission. Pardon is the way to break the partisan logic of for/against, and allow the President and anti-torture Republicans to take control of the national conversation.

Pardon/commission is a path to ridding the political system of a dangerous malignancy, torture. It is very different from what Fred Hiatt proposes, a neutral commission instead of prosecution. Pardon/commission would not be neutral. It would begin with a strong statement by the President of the United States that crimes were committed. Real crimes. Serious crimes. Actions were taken by the government of the United States that the full weight of the American experience show to be legally criminal and morally abhorrent. This statement would be joined by leaders from the military and intelligence community, and from respected leaders from both political parties (as I've said, with any luck at least one of the living former Republican presidents would be willing to support it, and possibly even the one being pardoned). With that said, then Obama could talk about mistakes made in the heat of action and with the motivation of defending the nation, and pardon all those involved in torture. But only in the context that crimes were committed.

The commission part of pardon/commission need not be neutral, either, with respect to torture. Of course, Cheney would have a chance to talk, and he's not going to change his tune regardless of what anyone does. But the commission itself should be stacked with people who support the anti-torture consensus, just as a commission on (say) gang violence would support the anti-murder consensus. But even a good commission isn't going to work as long as prosecutions hang over so many of the witnesses, even though many of the natural political allies of those witnesses have no inherent reason to be pro-torture (and those in the military and the intelligence community have good reason to be anti-torture). Yes, a commission, but only with the strong statement of pardon first.

(The first two posts in this series can be found here and here)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Read Stuff, You Should

So if you're not reading Bill Bradley, what do I suggest you look at?

1. A lot of people have already linked to this Michael Tomasky essay about actually making change happen, but in case you passed then it's still worth looking at.

2. Mark Kleiman's post on governing and democracy in Japan and the United States is excellent. I don't agree with his preference for a golden mean -- I like the U.S. style a lot -- but this is a very nice explanation of a very important element of how the U.S. governs itself.

3. Shooting fish in a barrel, but if you like that sort of thing you'll enjoy Steven Pearlstein on Michael Steele.

4. Good is Christopher Beam's article on August on the Hill. Great was Spotted: DC Interns. You probably look in on it early in the summer, and it looks like they gave up at the beginning of August recess, but not before this classic post. If you've ever worked in Washington and haven't wasted an hour looking at this blog, you're in for a treat.

Valuable Real Estate Wasted

No need to read today's Op-Eds in the New York Times calling for grand compromises. Glenn Hubbard thinks the Dems should give up on universal coverage and focus on cost-cutting; of course, even if liberals were willing to spend their energy solving budget problems ignored or created by the Bush administration, Hubbard is nuts if he things that Republicans would go along with Democrats on that or anything else at this point. Old Times fave Bill Bradley thinks Democrats should look to the 1986 tax reform as their model, and his preferred grand bargain would be for both universal coverage and malpractice reform. Bradley misses the point on two levels; first, today's rejectionist GOP has no interest in such a grand bargain, and second, a party's strategy should be, you know, different when it controls the White House, the House, and 60 seats in the Senate than it is when it holds only the House.

Max Baucus really has demonstrated that Democrats are in fact quite willing to support a grand compromise, and (so far at least) Chuck Grassley and the rest of the non-Maine GOP has demonstrated that they have no interest in such a deal. It's the Republicans' right to follow that path, but the choices for Democrats are about whether they have the parliamentary tools to get what they want without the Republicans, or whether they could perhaps pick off a handful of GOP votes (and limit Democratic defections) to get to 60 -- and which of those options leads to a better final bill. Grand bargains require two interested parties, and that's just not the case here.

Was Bork a Precedent?

Rod Dreher deserves quite a lot of credit in my book for being willing to take take on the crazies who call themselves conservatives these days. Besides that, he's a thoughtful and interesting thinker -- liberals who are looking for non-crazy conservatives should read him (as should, naturally, conservatives).

But...and you knew a but was coming...the idea that Ted Kennedy began the politics of personal destruction with his speech on the Senate floor attacking Robert Bork is, well, really silly.

First: once can certainly argue that Kennedy deserved what he got, but Senator Edward M. Kennedy was on the receiving end of a couple of decades worth of the politics of personal destruction before he got around to opposing Bork for the Supreme Court. This included the President of the United States of America hiring a private eye to shadow him and report back anything that could be used against him. Robert Bork was justifiably irate that someone (not Kennedy, or Senator, or any of the array of interest groups that took a serious role in attacking Bork; IIRC, it was an idiot journalist) tried to find out what movies he rented, but Kennedy received much worse treatment from a president. That was before Kennedy did something to justify personal attacks...suffice to say that conservatives and Republicans did not hesitate to remind the world of Ted Kennedy's moral failures in the harshest terms.

Second: by 1986, Newt Gingrich had been in the House of Representatives for eight years. I think it's safe to say he probably made a personal attack or two over those eight years.

The NYT blog that Dreher refers to doesn't say that Kennedy initiated personal attacks, only that he played a key role in bringing that sort of politics to Supreme Court nominations. I think that's clearly not true; without going back to the misty reaches of time, Abe Fortas and both defeated Nixon nominees all faced personal attacks. Kennedy's speech against Bork, although certainly very harsh, was cast in purely policy and ideological tones. Kennedy's argument throughout the Bork process was that the Senate is entitled to reject a nominee if he or she is out of the "mainstream," whatever that is. That point of view has indeed been adopted by most of the Senate, left and right, in the subsequent decades, and I think on balance that's a good thing. It's reasonable for opposite-party Senators to use their confirmation powers to convince presidents to send up more moderate nominees. Either way, casting Kennedy as the instigator of personal attack politics is just plain wrong.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday baseball post

[Note: this is a long Friday baseball post, and I'll warn everyone right away that there's no political content.]

We're about to leave the dog days of August and enter into the pennant race homestretch...but there's little excitement remaining, thanks to the lousy playoff structure baseball has set up. If you look at Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report, you'll see that three of the four spots in the National League are locked in already; the AL isn't quite as bad, but there's not too much going on there, either. The best teams are playing for nothing in September, and then after taking the month off they often get eliminated quickly in the postseason tournament. In fact, in the first fourteen years of the current setup, ten wild card teams have advanced to the World Series (that's 36%, against the 25% of all playoff teams that are WCs).

MLB was quite right to expand the playoffs from a single World Series (1905-1968), to a two-tiered playoff (1969-1993) and then to the current system beginning in 1995. This expansion matched the expansion of teams from the "original" sixteen to the current thirty; it also took advantage of the clear demand for baseball -- there's been no shortage of TV buyers for the baseball postseason product. I'll take it as a given that MLB should have a structure that produces eight postseason teams.

What I've supported for years now is the following system: return each league to two divisions. First place teams advance. Second place teams advance. First round crosses 2nd place vs. 1st place (i.e. NL West 1st place vs. NL East 2nd place). First place team needs fewer wins than second place teams to advance -- I'd probably go with two wins for the first place team compared with three for the second place team. Also, I'd give more home games to the first place team; if it were really up to me, I'd consider letting the first place team host the entire series.

What do we want in a playoff system? It should maximize exciting Septembers, including lots of match-ups between contenders. It should promote rivalries in the long run. It should reward better teams. It should be fair.

The current system does a lousy job of those things. Small divisions yield fewer close races than larger divisions. The Wild Card system makes it impossible to schedule games between contenders, since teams from different divisions are often playing for a playoff spot. The system doesn't really reward good teams, because the very best teams have no meaningful seeding advantage in the postseason. Given unbalanced schedules (and interleague play), competing teams often play very different schedules, which can be very unfair.

I've heard complaints that a second place team in one division may well be "better" than the division winner it plays in the first round, and yet the better team is penalized, basically for being in the better division. Of course, if unbalanced schedules are retained (as they should be), then it won't be clear which team is actually better. And this type of unfairness for the second best team isn't nearly as big a problem, in my view, as the unfairness to a great team which must pass through two rounds of playoffs without any seeding advantages. More importantly, for fans, it's unfair that we don't get to see the very best teams in the World Series.

A more serious complaint, I think, is that this system would eliminate .500 teams from serious competition a lot earlier in the season. I think that's right; in fact, in the current setup, sub-.500 teams are often on the fringes of the race far into the season. I'm sure that management likes marketing a 35-40 team as a contender...but I don't think it's very good for baseball that teams have little reason to strive for greatness. And the flip side of this is that currently there's a real chance that one of the small divisions could easily produce a sub-.500 winner, and that team would have an almost equal chance of becoming World Series Champion. The reform proposal would eliminate the chances of that disaster (it's highly unlikely that a seven team division would produce a sub-.500 second place team, and even more unlikely that such a team would make it to the World Series). Mediocre teams that did advance in the reformed system would have done so by doing something really exciting, which would make them interesting to follow in the subsequent rounds, instead of just another mediocre team that snuck through.

The best part of the reform, to me, is that it could revive the possibility of a true pennant race between two great teams. Right now, the Yankees are safely ahead of the Red Sox with a month to go. But if the Sox suddenly won ten in a row and moved from six to, say, two games back, all it would do would be to lock up the Wild Card for the Sox. The Yankees wouldn't care that they were threatened, because they wouldn't be threatened -- no one cares who finishes first or second in the current system. And that's why reform is really needed; at least in baseball, where teams play every day for six months, you really need to care who finishes first.

Misunderstanding Kennedy

Bruce Reed's nice essay on Ted Kennedy is getting some play today, but I think that speculation about a Republican Ted Kennedy is pretty far off the mark.

Republicans are talking up Kennedy's bipartisanship, but Kennedy was not a get-things-done dealmaker in the mold of, say, Bob Dole or Pete Domenici. Dole, like Kennedy, was capable of both intense partisanship and bipartisan solutions, and my guess is that Dole was better at Senate procedure than Kennedy. But Kennedy wasn't a dealmaker at heart; he was a maker of public policy in order to solve what he saw as pressing national problems. In order to solve the problems, he made policy. In order to make policy, he made deals.

Given that understanding, the idea that John McCain could be a Kennedy type is preposterous. McCain showed virtually no interest in public policy or America's problems in either of his presidential campaigns, nor in any of his various phases of his Senate career, whether conservative, liberal, or moderate. His signature domestic issues, campaign finance and earmarks, are procedural, not substantive, and he doesn't even bother mastering the basic facts of earmarks. I could imagine McCain developing a real passion for national security policy, but that's not much of a basis for a great legislative career, and at any rate it isn't really the career that McCain has chosen for himself so far.

Republican spin notwithstanding, bipartisanship was pretty obviously a means, not an end, for Ted Kennedy. It's no surprise that their prime example is NCLB, which took place when Republicans controlled the White House, the House, and (at least during the initial negotiations) the Senate. If Republicans are looking for a party to emulate Kennedy, what they should do is assess the situation, figure out the policy goals that they really want, and bargain for a health care bill that will address those goals. One of the problems with the current GOP is that it's not exactly obvious what those goals might be.

Here's A Stick: Use It

Democrats support D.C. statehood. Democrats have the votes (once Massachusetts names its new Senator) to made "New Columbia" the 51st state. D.C. statehood would cure an injustice. D.C. statehood would be a partisan move...but no more partisan than the creation of two Dakotas in the 19th century, and far more justified on the democratic principle of representation.

Democrats should pass D.C. statehood.

(The form of statehood that is possible with 60 votes in the Senate is the "cutout" option, in which the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the White House, the National Mall, the adjacent federal buildings, and virtually no actually residents become the Constitutionally described District for the Seat of the Government of the United States, while the remainder of the current district becomes a state).

If Republicans want to complain about that, let them. It will be no better or worse than complaints about death panels and czars and whatever other nonsense that Rush and Glenn Beck are spouting. The odds that statehood would be the issue that pushes voters in Arkansas or Montana or Louisiana over the edge seems awful small to me, and it's hard to believe that the GOP base would get unduly riled up over it beyond how upset they are about the rest of the Democratic agenda.

The Democrats have been pushing a bill to give the District a vote in the House; the bill passed the Senate earlier this year but stalled because the Senate added an amendment on guns that House liberals opposed. Frankly, I have no idea why Democrats settled for the House vote; the cutout option is clearly (as far as I can tell) constitutional. The biggest obstacle is that two Senate Democrats opposed the representation bill. I have no idea whether those two, Byrd and liberal fave Max Baucus, would oppose cloture on a statehood bill, but then again the two Maine Republicans voted for the bill, and might support statehood as well. Meanwhile, if the price is forcing New Columbia to include a strong 2nd Amendment type provision in their state constitution, I'd hope that they would be willing to do that. I'd also recommend that Democrats leave in the extra House seat for Utah that was part of the representation bill: why not? Hell, I'd figure out a way to give the Republicans an offset House seat for the next decade, if it meant that the handful that supported the representation bill would support statehood. No offset, of course, in the Senate.

Statehood Now!

Waiting for Baucus

Jonathan Zasloff wants to put Max Baucus on the couch, or barring that just get an answer to his question, "Max Baucus: Stupid or Evil?"

I'll say one more time that there's no point in paying much attention to what a poker player does in the middle of a hand. Baucus could actually be foolish enough to think that Grassley (and Enzi? Really?) are on the cusp of joining a grand, ninety-vote coalition for a wonderful health care bill. He might secretly have no intention of supporting any bill, although it's very hard for me to see the motivation for pretending to support health care while actively seeking to undermine it by devious means; if he opposes it, why not just come out and say he's against it?

Liberals such as Zasloff are blind to the third, and most likely, option, which is that Baucus is using Grassley and Enzi to establish some cover for himself and other marginal Democrats if and when they have to vote for a Democrats-only bill.

We will know soon. There's been no reason to act quickly so far, given that Democrats were better off heading to recess with the various bills still at the committee stage; no one in a marginal district wanted to have to defend a vote for a bill that was apt to be dramatically changed in conference. The new timetable, I suspect, will be pegged to the actions of the Massachusetts legislature; there's no reason to schedule votes on a bill until the 60th vote is secure. If Baucus is still trapped in his Group of Six at that point, I'd entertain the Stupid and Evil possibilities; up to then, he's just a Player, doing what politicians do.

Washington story

I'm enjoying the speculation about which Senators wind up chairing which committees as much as anyone (the best yet is this chart from the New Republic), but a little perspective would be nice here: it doesn't matter very much. This is more or less on par with the transition-season frenzy about who gets the various cabinet offices; "opening needs to be filled" is a great journalism story because it has a clear plot and promises to have a clear conclusion.

This particular story is more on a par with "who will be Secretary of Commerce" than "who will be Secretary of Defense." It just doesn't matter a lot. That's because committees in the Senate aren't nearly as important as committees in the House, which is because Senators, as the saying goes, retain their rights. Members of the House are willing to trade their very small (1/435) influence over most issues in order to have a lot of influence over a small number of issues. Senators, because their districts contain more interests and because the need for a division of labor isn't as great in the smaller body, are not willing to make that trade. That's not to say that committees are entirely irrelevant in the Senate, but only that their influence is modest. It might matter a lot that Henry Waxman, and not John Dingell, is chair of Energy and Commerce; if a bill is bottled up in the House, it is as good as dead in most cases, and a chair (working with party leadership) can control what happens to a bill once it does reach the floor of the House. That's not true in the Senate.

If a uncompromising liberal had been chair of Senate Finance instead of Max Baucus, there's a good chance that a bill would have been reported out long ago...only to face negotiations before the bill reached the floor of the Senate, negotiations arranged on terms dictated by marginal Democrats such as Baucus. Again, that doesn't mean the chair is irrelevant; Baucus certainly had a lot of options available for how to run his negotiations. But given the natural goal of marginal Democrats to find some cover for a liberal vote in an atmosphere in which minority party votes are not available, odds are that something similar to the current roadblock would have taken place at some point before Senate passage. The details of how it's happening are consequences of the particular personalities involved in particular committees; that it's happening at all is a consequence of the structure of the Senate and the mathematics of liberal Democrats, marginal Democrats, marginal Republicans, and rejectionist Republicans.


Wow! Huge news! "The Justice Department and the C.I.A. at Odds!" Internal conflict in the Obama Administration! The business of governing is in danger! How can this go on!
On the day the decision was announced, Mr. Panetta phoned Mr. Holder, according to people familiar with the call. In the conversation, which lasted less than a minute, the C.I.A. director told the attorney general that the agency would cooperate but expressed his displeasure and swore mildly, if only once.
Or maybe not.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Liberals and Conservatives Agree: We've Been Sold Out

Two comments on the question Yglesias raises about ideological purges.

First, it's just par for the course that liberals are upset that the Democratic Congress and Democratic president aren't liberal enough. Progressives think of 2000-2006 as dark times indeed, but conservatives at the time and looking back see only new federal controls in No Child Left Behind, a huge new entitlement commitment in Medicare expansion, and a spending explosion featuring massive numbers of earmarks. Conservatives reacted to those things, in part, by taking on moderate politicians (most famously in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania Senate contests). For their trouble, they wound up with very liberal Senator Whitehouse and votes-like-a-liberal Senator Specter. Just as conservatives managed to overlook their achievements under GOP Congresses, liberals are now overlooking the considerable achievements of the current Congress and President Obama and focusing on the compromises necessary to pass health care, or Obama's failures to date on things like DODT.

Second, while I think it would be completely nuts for liberals to go after Baucus or Landreau or Conrad, all of whom would likely be replaced by extreme conservatives, Joe Lieberman is obviously a special case, since he's far to the right of his state and barely a "real" Democrat at all in a formal sense. Still, as annoying as he is to liberals, pushing him to flip to the Republican conference would almost certainly wind up moving his voting pattern sharply to the right, and it's hard to see how that helps progressives. Connecticut and national Democrats should try to knock him out when they have a chance to do it at the ballot box, but until then I think the Senate leadership has been correct in playing along with him.

News That Matters

When it comes to elections, there's a lot of sideshow, and then there are things that really matter. The research is clear that one of the things that really does matter is the condition of the economy. So whatever you're reading today about town hall meetings, and death panels, and all the rest of it is likely not as important to the outcomes of the 2010 and 2012 elections as the continuing confirmation that the recession may have ended sometime this summer.

Long ways to go, of course, and we probably won't see job gains for some time still, but just a reminder that if you're tracking the next election cycles the business section is a good place to spend some time.

Pardon Them 2

I've been doing this for a month now, and the only thing I've taken email flack for is my suggestion that Obama pardon the torturers. My emailers basically say: "Shouldn't they be held accountable?"

I want to go back to it, because unfortunately things are breaking pretty much the way I expected. With prosecution on the table, the rhetoric from conservatives is breaking strongly in favor of torture. And that's with the best circumstances; all that's being talked about at this point is prosecutions for those who broke the Bush administrations own pro-torture guidelines. I'm not sure I completely buy Dahlia Lithwick's argument that such an investigation isn't much different from none at all, but I do agree with her, and with Andrew Sullivan, that the real issue here isn't about the people that prosecutor John Durham is supposed to go after. The real culprits here are the policy makers, and that goes to the President of the United States and his Vice President. And, yes, as far as ethics goes, I'd personally prefer that they are held accountable.

But this isn't ethics; it's politics. Not (only) electoral politics, but politics as the art of the possible.

The path we're on right now leads to two possible outcomes. One is a handful of low-level prosecutions and nothing for anyone else. I don't believe that yields justice, nor do I think it shields against torture happening again in the future; future presidents would be assused that as long as they can find someone to write CYA memos. That's evil in my view on policy grounds, but also corrupting in terms of the proper operation of the presidency and the executive branch.

The other outcome from the present path is, if anything, even worse. It proceeds with the prosecutor moving up the ladder, and eventually indicting policy-makers. I've said I disagree with Charles Murray that this is a sure public opinion win for Republicans, but what I do think is that the certain result of such indictments is to ensure that Republicans and conservatives in general will double down on torture. We're already seeing that this week, and I have no doubt at all that further prosecutions or threat of prosecutions will only secure the connection between the GOP and explicit pro-torture positions.

Pardon has the promise of breaking that dynamic.

This issue, I think, plays out a lot differently than, for example, health care. The truth is that virtually no one in the Republican party has any stake at all in having health care reform pass. There probably are some Republican politicians who are in fact bothered by problems in the American health care system, and some of those may believe that Obama-style reform (or single payer, or whatever) would make things better. But probably such people are few, and those beliefs are not likely to be central to their personal goals in politics, because Republican politicians don't get into politics in order to help people without health insurance. If what you mainly care about -- what got you started in the first place -- are intrusive regulations, or high taxes, or illegal immigrants, or national defense, then whatever your "true" feelings you aren't going to care very much about health care. And since there are no GOP-leaning interests invested in health care reform, it's no surprise that Republicans can line up (almost) unanimously against reform.

But torture is different. I think there's no question but that a solid group of Republicans don't want to see torture institutionalized as the American way of doing things. Moreover, a lot of Republicans are genuinely concerned about national defense, and realize that, Cheney's bluster aside, torture is no asset to national security. Those Republicans (just from the Senate I'd certainly include Lugar, McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others) are cross-pressured right now, because a whole lot of Republicans don't want to see themselves or their friends get chucked in jail as war criminals. So within the Republican party, their views are going to lose out, and consequently most of them will just keep quiet. And when they're quiet, all the noise is going to come from the crazies. Pardon takes the personal motivation of the pro-torture crowd out of the mix, and pardon done right could elevate the grown ups on this issue within the Republican party. And if grown ups from the party are speaking out against torture, the crazies are likely to move on to some other issue. There's never a shortage.

Would it be unjust to let Yoo, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the gang walk? I suppose so, but I'd certainly trade that for a political establishment, including the next generation of GOP leadership, that returns to the great American principle that torture is an evil. And pardon isn't nothing; pardon is an official, presidential claim that what was done was wrong. It should be accompanied by clear, understandable narratives of exactly what was done, and why it was wrong. As I said, I think it's reasonable for the president to grant that evil was done for understandable motives after the September 11 attacks. But the real imperative here isn't jail time for the war criminals; it's to do whatever is possible to avoid the terrible likelihood that war crimes will become a platform plank of one of our major political parties.

Yes, Obama would risk some fallout from the left if he went ahead with pardon. Yes, a Cheney faction of the GOP wouldn't be silenced. But I think it's far more likely that grown ups in the GOP will stand up to Cheney if prosecutions are off the table, and Obama's going to get flack from the left no matter what he does on this issue. And don't forget that there is an important constituency against torture: the CIA, the FBI, and the armed forces. A constituency which, again, is more likely to rally to the president's side of prosecutions are off the table.

Pardon is a political solution to a serious political problem with terrible potential policy consequences. It's the best way right now to make a clean break with torture as a political issue. I'll continue to believe that Obama should pardon the torturers, from any actual rogue CIA agents all the way up to Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More on the 88th Senate

Schaller says:
Heck, two of the three Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill—Dirksen and Russell—are named for senators who were part of that 88th Congress.

Not quite -- actually, all three Senate office buildings are named for Members of the 88th Senate. The Hart Building is named after Phil Hart, a much-loved Senator from Michigan.

Schaller caught two fathers, Gore and Dodd, but he missed Milward Simpson (R-WY), father of Alan Simpson (R-WY). What's more, Absalom Willis Robertson was the father of Pat Robertson, who didn't serve in the Senate but did run for president.

I'll give the 88th one thing: they had way better first names back then. Absolom and Milward were joined by Spessard, Birch, Bourke, Claiborne, Strom, Olin, Thruston, Estes, Leverett, Jennings, and Gaylord. Now? I count seventeen Senators Joe, Jeff, or some form of Jo(h)n. Eighteen with a Jay.

This concludes the Stuff I Know (or notice when I'm looking up other things) About Old Senates portion of this blog.

Were Old Senates Better?

Here's Tom Schaller over at FiveThirtyEight:
Alabama’s John Sparkman; Arizona’s Barry Goldwater and Carl Hayden; Arkansas’ J. William Fulbright; Connecticut’s Abe Ribicoff and Thomas Dodd; Georgia’s Richard Russell; Idaho’s Frank F. Church; Illinois’ Everett Dirksen; Indiana’s Birch Bayh; Louisiana’s Russell Long; Maine’s Edmund Muskie and Margaret Chase Smith; Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy (and later, Walter Mondale, who filled Humphrey’s seat at the end of that Congress); Mississippi’s John Stennis; Montana’s Michael J. Mansfield; Nebraska’s Roman Hruska; New York’s Jacob Javits; North Carolina’s Sam Ervin; Rhode Island’s Claiborne Pell; South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond; South Dakota’s George McGovern; Tennessee’s Al Gore Sr. and Estes Kefauver; Texas’ Ralph Yarborough and John Tower; Virginia’s Harry Byrd; Washington’s Scoop Jackson; West Virginia’s Robert Byrd; and Wisconsin’s William Proxmire.

Really? Humphrey, Fulbright, and Kennedy were certainly Senators who wound up as, well, in baseball they'd be inner circle Hall of Famers. Schaller makes much of the presidential and VP nominees here (he lists Sparkman, Goldwater, Humphrey, McGovern, Thurmond, H. Byrd, and should add Muskie to that list) but that hardly seems like an impressive crop to me. Let's see...1963 to 2009; I'll try 1986, halfway there. The 99th Senate included Goldwater, Biden, Quayle, Dole, Bentsen, Gore, and Kerry, plus Strom is still there, and also Eagleton. That's a much more impressive group of national nominees, I'd say -- it's three actual VPs, plus three real presidential nominations. 1963 had Gene McCarthy, who had a more important failed presidential campaign than 1986er Gary Hart, but then again 1986 had authentic American hero John Glenn. For Senate leadership, Dirksen, Mansfield and Byrd aren't nearly as impressive as Dole, Mitchell, McConnell, and Byrd again. Who else is there in 1986? Bill Bradley, Pete Dominici, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jesse Helms, Sam Nunn, and Phil Gramm are all notables. If Dodd '63 was notable for being a father, then Dodd '86 is notable for being a son. Pell, Long and Proxmire are still Senators in 1986. There are by my count twenty-three past or future presidential candidates -- that's right, over a fifth of the 99th Senate ran for president.

I know some people would argue that any Senate with Hubert Humphrey will rank higher in terms of talent than any Senate without him, and that's a fair point, but beyond that I'm not seeing big differences. Of course, it's very hard to assess more recent Congresses, because we don't know yet whether Amy Klobuchar, Sherrod Brown, John Thune and Ben Cardin will wind up stars or forgotten, but I suspect that the 110th Senate (2006-2007) will wind up stacking up just fine in terms of star power, since Ted Kennedy's colleagues that time included Joe Biden, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.


John Sides has a smart piece up looking at claims that enthusiasm, manifested in different turnout rates, was responsible for the Democrats' debacle in 1994. Turns out that turnout, contra James Morone, wasn't the culprit.

Of course, that still doesn't answer the question of whether Democrats should be worried about midterm elections, and what they should do if they are worried. I'm not sure that looking at 1994 tells us very much, however.

What were the ingredients of the GOP sweep in 1994? Gary Jacobson tells us that the Republicans put up good candidates and took advantage of nationalized issues, among them the 1993 budget bill, NAFTA, and a crime bill (which included a gun control measure), but more basically the intense dislike many voters, especially in the South, held for Clinton by 1994. That last bit also hints at one of the key things about the 1994 sweep -- there were a lot of districts that had voted Republican for president for a generation but still elected Democrats to Congress.

Health care in particular seems to play a relatively small role in any of that. On the one hand, Jacobson only refers to it in passing in his article on the 1994 elections. On the other hand, the demise of Clinton's health care bill in September 1994 is associated with the second big dip in Clinton's approval ratings (his approval rating went down about 10-15 points from May to September). But then again, what probably mattered a lot more was the first big dip. Clinton started with historically low approval ratings, and fell to 37% approval in June 1993, thanks to a number of missteps and general poor White House management. It was that dip that led to a series of strategic retirements and candidate recruitment decisions, which meant that Republicans had a lot of good candidate match-ups in 1994. So the 1994 landslide was the result of a good initial playing field for the Republicans; expectations in 1993 that the cycle would be a very good one for Republicans; and then a variety of issues and circumstances, of which health care failure was only one.

What lessons can Democrats learn from all of that? Well, the most important one has already been implemented; Obama had a very good start, compared to Clinton's disastrous transition and first few months. The second one is that it does behoove Democrats to try to keep Obama popular, which would most likely mean helping health care pass. Unfortunately for Obama, there's also evidence that voting with Clinton in high-profile votes was dangerous, and so if Obama is unpopular, marginal Democrats looking to 1994 should vote against it.

In other words, Democrats in marginal districts interested only in their reelection should probably hope that health care passes...but without their vote. Easier said than done, right? Or, as I've said all along, they could try to find a way to have health care pass, but without it becoming a controversial vote (by either getting GOP support or, barring that, making it clear that they were at least trying to find common ground).

Since the playing field is far better for Democrats than it was in 1994, and since so far Obama has avoided the problems that beset Clinton in his first year, I think overall Democrats are unlikely to get clobbered in the 2010 elections. But the point here is that the behavior of marginal Democrats is actually quite logical. They're behaving exactly how we should expect professional politicians to behave.

Ted Kennedy

I've been thinking what I could add to what's being said about Senator Kennedy this morning. I think what's notable about him is how different he is from his brothers in terms of reputation and reality. JFK's reputation with the American public has almost nothing to do with reality. He had his strengths as president, but if my students are any indication he's still, almost half a century later, thought of as one of the very most important and greatest presidents, when the reality just doesn't match up with that. Bobby Kennedy wound up with a reputation as the great liberal hope, but most of that is selective memory; there's a case to be made that Bobby would have been a great liberal politician had he lived, but he was not a great liberal politician for most of his life, and it's not certain what would have been the case.

But Ted Kennedy...he really was an outstanding Senator. He really was the great liberal politician of his time. His personal flaws, if anything, were probably overreported over the course of his life.

Kennedy had at his disposal the great Kennedy publicity machine; he certainly could have had the great reputation without earning it. Instead, he used the Kennedy name to attract the best staff on Capitol Hill (or at least that was the hands-down reputation, and I have no doubt at all that it was true). The stuff you're hearing about how he was the greatest Senator of his time isn't fluff; it's simply the truth.

Ted Kennedy was a great American hero. He will be missed.

Balancing Act

I strongly agree with Matt Yglesias on his comments about deficit reduction. In fact, I'd make a stronger claim: politicians are always safe assuming that no one cares about the deficit.

First of all, to the extent that deficits matter at all, the effect is indirect and shared by everyone, but tax increases and spending cuts are direct and affect some more than others. You're always going to get more intensity on the side that has specific, visible, complaints.

But I think the more important reason is that pretty much no one understands what the deficit is. Political junkies massively overestimate the extent to which mass publics understand public policy in general, and I'm sure that the deficit is high on the list of things that most voters just don't care enough to understand the basic issue (as opposed to things such as war, torture, abortion, jobs, or health care, which at least on some level are pretty concrete).

The best example of this is the famous Town Hall presidential debate from 1992, in which President G.H.W. Bush was totally stumped by an ordinary citizen who demanded to know how the deficit affected him personally. The clip is worth watching for a bunch of reasons: for Bush as a politician in a bubble; for Bush's classic watch check, right at the start of the clip; for Bush's wacky talking style (damn, she's black...must mention AME church...oops, why am I talking about this?); for Clinton's mastery of the format; and to marvel at an America that invited a crazy guy to debate with the major party nominees for president (alas, the clip here edits out his crazy-guy comments). But it's also notable, if you go about 50 seconds in, that the ordinary citizen has no idea what she's talking about. "Deficit" for her seems to mean the recession (as the moderator guesses), or maybe the economy in general, or maybe there's something in particular that she means that we can't guess at. What it probably doesn't mean is, you know, the difference between government spending and government revenues.

People don't understand what the deficit is, and people don't care about the deficit. No politician has ever been punished for increasing the deficit, and no politician has ever been rewarded for lowering it. Directly, that is. Of course, to the extent that deficits cause economic trouble, there can be consequences for pols who help or hurt the economy. Pols also can generate positive or negative press from their actions on the federal budget, and that might matter to their electoral careers. But both of those are indirect and uncertain, and have a longer time frame than most politicians care about. For better or worse, there is very little electoral incentive to care about balancing the budget.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Via Yglesias, Charles Murray has a graph that shows that white people who are not intellectuals are marginally more likely to say that they're conservative than to say that they're liberal, and has concluded that Barack Obama is hopelessly trapped in a bubble and is unable to understand that America is a nation of torturers.

Of course, presidents are absolutely in danger of falling into a bubble of sycophants, and never realizing that the particular people they spend time with is not necessarily representative of America as a whole. But, really, which does that seem more likely to describe: Barack Obama, who has spent time as a community organizer and a state legislator before his rapid rise to the presidency...or a guy who spends his time with a bunch of conservative thinkers. Using that word very loosely. Sounds like a guy who can't quite believe that Obama won, since no one he knows thinks that way (except for those liberal academics, who indoctrinate all their students. But not the students. Something like that).

On to the substance of his point, such as it is: is this really where conservatives want to stand? With the torturers? Really?

I don't know how torture plays out as a political issue, but neither does Murray. No question but that the same people who are riled up about death panels and birther conspiracies can believe that the United States of America needs to torture in order to prevent all sorts of mayhem, but those people didn't vote for Obama in 2008 and aren't going to vote for Obama in 2012. My guess is that if there's no terrible terrorist attack on U.S. soil before the next election that no one is going to vote against Obama because he's not torturing, and if there is one, torture policy isn't going to be the key variable determining whether Obama is helped or hurt politically. Murray is certain that the torturers would become Ollie North-like folk heroes if they went on trial, but Ollie was actually pretty unpopular beyond the GOP base. And Ollie, for all his faults, didn't torture people. Americans seem to have failed to make a folk hero of our other war criminals.

Oh, and Pauline Kael never said that thing about Nixon.

August Blues

Brendan Nyhan today went after Ed Kilgore's argument that everyone should relax and stop with the panic -- don't we all remember last August, when Democrats were all in a panic about Sarah Palin? Nyhan says that last year's summer doldrums didn't matter because the fundamentals favored Obama, but now:
The fundamentals of the presidency are very different. The approval ratings of presidents tend to decline over time and they typically have a difficult time passing important legislation after their first year or two in office (i.e. once the low-hanging fruit has been picked)...And in Obama's case, he faces a poor economy that will push his approval numbers into the 40s very soon. The one factor working in his favor are the large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, but the Senate caucus lacks sufficient unity and discipline to push through health care and other controversial legislation in the form that he wants.

As a result, Nyhan says, "the August '08 comparison isn't particularly useful."

There are a couple of things here. First, I don't know that Nyhan is reading Kilgore fairly. I didn't read the original piece as saying people shouldn't worry because Obama always triumphs, but as a general caution that it's never a good idea to panic based on a few bad news cycles, especially with this particular politician, who makes it a point to not worry about a few bad news cycles.

Second, I think that Nyhan's general comments on presidential effectiveness are far too strong. The evidence is far to weak to support an absolute statement such as Nyhan's that "Obama's presidency -- like almost all others -- faces a downward trajectory of power and influence for the next couple of years." It's true that more major bills tend to pass in the first half of each administration (I'm looking at some old data from David Mayhew here, but I don't know that it's changed), but that's a tendency, not an iron law. Yes, Obama's approval ratings are sagging with the economy, but if the economy rebounds next year the approval ratings will no doubt follow (as they did for Reagan and Clinton). Of course, if Republicans gain in the 2010 elections it will hurt prospects for liberal legislation in the subsequent Congress, but those gains are not certain at this point, especially in the Senate, where small gains or losses matter a lot more.

He could be right. A double-dip recession, with unemployment lingering around 10% through 2011, could leave Obama will little to show for a one-term presidency beyond a mild health care bill. But it's at least equally likely that the economy snaps back nicely, Obama winds up signing a very significant health care bill into law by the end of this year, and Congress returns in 2010 to find a climate and energy compromise that is far more than any previous bill -- and that the Democrats lose seats in the House but hold tight in the Senate, leaving Obama a strong candidate for reelection against a still-flailing GOP. Or somewhere between those scenarios. We just don't know enough about the economy, about the true intentions of marginal Democrats in the Senate, or about Obama's skills to make blanket predictions.

Granted, liberals who want single-payer on health care and a stronger climate bill than Obama ran on will be disgusted with him sometimes even things go as well for him as possible, but those things weren't in the cards a month ago, six months ago, or really any time after the Iowa caucuses in January 2008. But I agree with those who predict that liberals, at least, will be quite happy with Obama if and when he signs a health care bill even if it isn't what they wanted. All in all, I think Kilgore is correct in urging people to ignore the day-to-day news cycles, and that it's much too early to start predicting limits (positive or negative) on the Obama years.

Pardon Them

Obama inherited a real mess in the torture situation. Yesterday's appointment of a prosecutor to go after low-level operatives who violated Bush administration policies, while pretty much forced by the evidence, is no solution; the polities themselves, first abandoned by Bush and now repudiated by Obama, were at least borderline illegal. And that's a very generous "at least."

Yet I don't think Obama is wrong to want to avoid a full-out prosecution of...well, who? Yoo? Ashcroft? Cheney? Bush? I think GOP complaints about banana republics are mostly nonsense, but that doesn't mean that the new administration wants to put its energy, and the nation's energy, into that sort of thing. Most importantly, the results of an adversarial process would almost certainly lead to a hardening of positions on the underlying issue, which serves no one's interests. For those who really believe torture is wrong, the real goal here should be for both parties to repudiate it, not for it to become the official position of the Republican party.

I think the real solution here is for Obama to pardon the torturers, starting with George W. Bush. Obama should do it magnanimously. He should say (whether he believes it or not) that Bush, Cheney, and the rest did what they did for the best reasons. He can't accept a "torture worked" argument (whether it's true or not; I agree with those who say it isn't true). But he can accept an argument that patriotic government officials did what they thought was best under tremendous pressure. He can say, even if it isn't true, that they intended to stay on the right side of the law and that they shouldn't be legally punished if things went awry. And then, yes, we need a proper commission to report on exactly what happened.

I may be nuts, but I believe there's a chance that Bush might be willing to "accept" the pardon. Bush may want to get some separation from Cheney (who obviously would reject the pardon). Bush's father and the Secretary of State's husband might be able to negotiate something; we hear they're close buddies, although who knows how much influence George H.W. has on his son. And while I doubt Bush cares a whole lot about his Washington reputation right now, he would certainly improve it, and that might appeal to him. As far opponents of torture, the symbolic importance of it would be very helpful. Bush wouldn't have to admit anything but that in his zealous defense of the nation some bad things happened, even if he didn't intend for them to happen. I think it would be a worthwhile trade-off if Obama endorsed that view in return for Bush accepting that what happened was, in fact, terrible (I'd probably insist he admits that it was torture). And Bush would have to cooperate with the commission, and urge everyone else to cooperate.

But even if Bush didn't accept the pardon, I'd recommend that Obama do it anyway, and I'd extend it to everyone below Bush without worrying about whether they symbolically accept it or not. Pardon/commission will get the facts on the table much quicker than investigation/prosecution, and only pardon/commission has any real hope of sucking the partisan spirit out of the issue.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Monday Movies Post

Things were so good for making movies in the Golden Age of the early 1970s that a lot of things that should have been unwatchable were pretty good. That's the case with this week's movie, The Candidate. I'm not sure how well-known this one is, these days; I rarely see it on TV, but it does get a fair number of references from political junkies. They were going to do a remake, but there's very little on it at imdb, and I suspect it may have stalled.

Let's a movie, it's pretty good. The best thing about it is a complete cheat -- even though the father/son plot with Bill McCay Jr. and Sr. forces you to think about Pat and Jerry Brown, you never for one minute forget that it's Robert Redford that you're watching. I like Redford as an actor, but here he does the old movie star thing of playing himself, movie star as much as he is playing a separate character. They play with that, not only in the silly scene where he meets Natalie Wood (playing herself, as opposed to him playing himself-as-a-politician), but also when he feigns ignorance of his secret asset, which goes unspoken -- in the logic of the movie, it's his sex appeal, but we all know that it's that he's Robert Redford. The supporting cast (Melvyn Douglas, Don Porter) are good fun, and Peter Boyle is terrific as the political consultant. Political junkies who haven't revisited this movie for a couple decades will enjoy the cameos by real politicians, and Californians will enjoy the cameos by California media types. At least if you're old enough to remember them. Also, Schneider shows up.

That gets us to the politics. The character Boyle plays is supposed to reveal the cynical core of mercenary political consultants, but what we're shown is either dated, overly cynical, or just wrong. I don't think it tells us anything about political professionals. Conservatives will have a problem with The Candidate, because you're supposed to just assume that liberal Democrats are the good guys. Crocker Jarmon, the Republican candidate, is a great foil, but I could see Republicans being annoyed.

They should watch the movie anyway, because of what it does bring us: a wonderful portrayal of the damage that campaigning does to the candidate. Basically, running for office hollows Bill McCay out and drives him mad. I've never been up close, day-to-day, with a candidate at that level, but I've seen enough of it up close at lower levels -- and read enough accounts of campaigns -- to find it absolutely accurate. Well, I don't think they're all driven mad, but I do think that the process candidates have to go through in order to run mass media campaigns is at least a little nuts. Smile, stay on message, repeat the speech, act as if you're the best of friends, and then repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Bob Dole, a great Senator, couldn't do it, and was absolutely fried by the national press for his inability. Even the ones who really mastered it -- Reagan, Clinton, Obama -- are liable to being bashed the minute things start to slip at all.

So, enjoy the movie, enjoy Peter Boyle but don't think that real consultants are like that, and get a bit of insight into the lives of politicians. Solid recommend.

Filling Posts Quicker

This poorly organized NY Times story is on an important topic: lots of important government posts remained unfilled because the vetting and confirmation process is out of control.

(Poorly organized? Try reading it to figure out whether the current administration is doing better or worse than recent transitions, and whether the remaining problems are the fault of slow vetting, a slow Senate, or something else).'s a problem. Via Drum, James Joyner's solution is to convert more appointments into civil service positions. Drum, on the other hand, would just prefer to make them political appointments without Senate confirmation.

The former would transfer power from elected officials to bureaucrats; the latter would transfer power from Congress to the president. I don't like either; I like democratic control over bureaucracies, and I don't think presidents are too powerful. I like the idea that NIMBY Kansas Senators can have some leverage over public policy by holding up appointments (although I'd rather not hold up this particular appointment over this particular policy, but that's democracy for you).

Here's my reform proposal: presidents should unilaterally scale back the vetting for subcabinet appointments. Scale it way back. You know what? No one will care. If the Senate wants to continue to make a fuss over tiny little tax errors, let 'em. If you lose a half dozen or even a dozen appointees at the confirmation stage, big deal. No one will care. And you're already losing lots of people who don't want to deal with the intense vetting, so you'll get some of them back. I'm willing to bet that an incoming administration would wind up with a better team closer to their original preferences, and less political damage, if they did no vetting at all below the cabinet level than they get with the current ridiculous system.

Find out what law firms and big corporations do when they make high level hires. Add a national security clearance when necessary. That's it. If the Senate wants to do more, don't worry about it, but you'll have the high ground to chide them about it. And if it turns out you accidentally promoted Peress, don't worry; everyone will forget it in a couple of weeks.

About That Crazy 3

The other big reason that it's a bad idea for a party to embrace the crazy is about governing. No question, sooner or later the Republicans will be back in power. What then?

Well, as the Democrats are learning this week with regard to the public plan, the beliefs of your followers can be a powerful constraint. And while those beliefs can be affected through top-down manipulations, they can't be turned around on a dime sometimes, and that can be a problem. What's more, elected officials are prone to living in bubbles and believing what they want, and the rise of a partisan press (Fox News and the liberal parts of MSNBC, talk radio, blogs) makes it that much easier to start believing your own spin. And that's a pretty dangerous condition.

I suspect -- and this is only speculative -- that the disaster in Iraq in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006 was at least partially caused by that sort of thing. Republicans spent much of 2003 and 2004 successfully convincing Republican voters that everything in Iraq was going perfectly (and that the invasion was totally justified as revenge against the September 11 terrorists and prevention against a nuclear-wielding madman, and also that it was a consensus position that only a few Bush-haters objected to). Perhaps Bush could have convinced Republicans that far more troops were needed in 2004 (or any other significant course correction), but perhaps not, and perhaps not without costs.

All in all, if a party came to me and asked, I'd strongly advise on practical grounds against embracing the crazy, even though I'd have to tell them that it "works" to a large extent.

About That Crazy 2

So, if party leaders can get away with saying almost anything and have their loyal followers believe it -- even if it's totally made up and completely discredited -- why shouldn't they just do it all the time? Why shouldn't they all go Palin one better?

There are a couple of good reasons, and they relate to the question of whether Republicans "are bouncing back from their thorough smashings in 2006 and 2008," as Rod Dreher asks. Does the GOP have to get their act together in order to win? Or is it smarter to just embrace the crazy, bring the president's approval ratings down by convincing everyone that he wants to kill their grandmother, and faster than you can say Betsy McCaughey you're running things again and everything is hunky dory? Is there a disincentive to embracing the crazy?

Well, actually, yes, this are disincentives. At least two. I'll start with elections.

It is true that elections are mostly about the party in power; Obama is popular, Republicans will have no chance to defeat him in 2012, and will likely do poorly in 2010 as well. As for the out party, well, what they do doesn't really matter a lot. Much of what we see in campaigns is sideshow, and most of the rest matters around the margins. The bottom line -- what you can learn from election predictions that are blind to candidates and campaigns -- is that if Obama hadn't been nominated, then Clinton or Dodd or Richardson or Edwards-minus-scandal would have won in 2008, and the results would have been within a couple of percentage points of what Obama did. That can matter, if it's a 2000 or 1960 type election, but mostly it doesn't really change anything.

But Dennis Kucinich...that's another story. If the Republicans had nominated one of their fringe candidates, a Keyes or a Bauer, they would have done a lot worse than they did with McCain. We don't have a lot of data on this, because it happens rarely; the two cases that everyone always cites are Goldwater and McGovern, and really those are the only two cases (at least since we have public opinion data) to look at. But to the extent we can say anything, it sure seems like a bad idea to nominate someone who is near the ideological extremes.

The electoral problem with embracing the crazy is that it can lead to nominating extreme candidates. Suppose Senator Johnny Isakson wanted to run for president...would he be attacked as the author of the Death Panels? What do you think Iowa and New Hampshire voters would think if he tried to explain it? What about Georgia primary voters when Isakson is up for reelection? Could he lose a primary over it?

Indeed, the more that Republican leaders -- candidates, party officials, talk show hosts, and the rest -- convince their followers that the crazy is real, the harder it is for the party to nominate good, solid, non-crazy conservatives. And that may cause them to miss an electoral opportunity. It's most likely already cost them seats in the House and Senate.

Last bit: if the crazy was a good way to take down Obama, then it might be a good trade-off. Fortunately for those who despair of democracy, that doesn't seem to be the case -- telling lies about health care might well scare some Democrats in Congress into voting the other way, and it certainly might yield marginal changes in a bill that gets attacked, but basic fundamentals such as the economy are far more likely to affect Obama's approval ratings. Most of the effect of the crazy is letting followers know the why they should oppose something, not convincing them to do so. Legitimate points (normal, slimy, spin) would do the job just as well.

About That Crazy 1

Ezra Klein, in an interesting but guarded piece, takes Jon Stewart to task for interviewing health care fabulist Betsy McCaughey, thus giving her more publicity. Ezra:
Stewart wanted to embarrass her, and some even thought he did. But what he really did was secure her a forum. Viewers saw a segment asking whether health-care reform will kill their grandmothers. Maybe they agreed that Stewart effectively debunked the claims. But more likely, they wondered how good a bill could be if there literally had to be an argument over whether or not it would kill grandma.
As some of his commenters point out, Klein is perhaps in an awkward position here because, as Matt Yglesias has been pointing out in a continuing campaign, the WaPo has done a terrible job dealing with this and other issues. Or, as Matt calls it, "the casual contempt for the truth and for their readers that is the hallmark of their approach to journalism."

Klein says that what's needed is "not reporting — or at least not focusing, day after day — on the lies." That might have been a good suggestion back in 1994, when McCaughey's New Republic article introduced nonsense into the health care discussion. In 1994, perhaps, if the New Republic had passed on her article, the crazy is stopped right there. Certainly in 1974, that would have been the case.

But it's not 1974 or 1994, and the problem (that is, the source of the nonsense) isn't Betsy McCaughey; it's Sarah Palin, the most recent nominee for Vice President of the Republican Party, and Michael Steele, the Chair of the RNC. It is simply not possible for neutral newspapers to ignore the comments of such people, and still function as neutral. Moreover, both parties now have their own information streams that can transmit stories directly to partisans without the interference of the mainstream media, so that even while those who do care about their reputations outside of the party faithful might be shamed into better behavior, they also have to exist within the party bubble.

Basically, if a party wants to embrace the crazy, there's not a whole lot that the Washington Post and the New York Times can do to keep members of that party well-informed. Nor is there a lot the other party can do. In this case, both the Democrats and the mainstream media are mostly doing what they can, but the key variable here is the actions of Republican leaders, and if they think it's in their interest to embrace the crazy (or, in some cases, if they're a bit nutty themselves), then the result is going to be that those who watch Fox News and listen to Rush are going to believe it. About the best thing everyone else can do is to remember that it's not really a big deal if a whole bunch of people who watch Fox News and listen to Rush believe crazy things about a bill they were going to oppose anyway.

But it certainly is interesting, and perhaps important, that Republicans have chosen this particular way to go. I'll have more on that in a bit.

When I Was Cruel

I thought I was harsh about McCain, but here's Jonathan Chait on Baucus:
I have been told by somebody in a position to know firsthand that Baucus, to put it delicately, is not an intellectual giant. But is he such an affable dolt that he simply agrees with whoever speaks with him last? Do other Senators routinely trade him shiny new dimes for drab old dollar bills? Just how mentally feeble is this man?
On the one hand, as I've said, it's always problematic to take anything a poker player says at face value. On the other hand, well, Baucus sure is giving people like Chait plenty of ammunition. Chait has a well-deserved reputation for bluntness, but still that's pretty strong.

Should be an interesting September, once the sideshows end and we the players start having to show their cards.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Stapling machine, Mrs Worral

Does John McCain even have a basic grasp of what an earmark is?
MCCAIN: No. First we have to send a message to the American people that we’re serious. The earmark and pork barrel spending, you know -- and when we’ve talked about earmarks, only a few million dollars, only a few ...
STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s a tiny fraction of the budget, though.
MCCAIN: It’s a tiny fraction, but it’s a signal of how serious we are. And when you say it’s a tiny fraction, remember every time we add one of those projects, it becomes a permanent part of the budget.

Huh? Fine, I know that McCain claims that earmarks are important even though they're a tiny portion of the budget, and I know that he claims that they cost money even though in fact most earmarks simply take money that would be spent under general formulas and transfer it into specific projects...we know all that. But everyone mostly gives McCain a pass on that, because after all budget stuff is far too complicated for, you know, a United States Senator to grasp. And we know that plenty of the stuff he sneers at are actually pretty good uses of government moneys, so much so that when he's challenged on some of them he retreats into rhetoric about how the process is bad even if the project is good.

But: "every time we add one of those projects, it becomes a permanent part of the budget." Again, huh? An earmark typically says that $X out of a bill must be spent on a particular project. Once the money is spent, it's gone. There's nothing "permanent" about it at all. The "permanent part of the budget" argument is a point against setting up new government programs, not against specific expenditures by existing programs.

I'm not the first one to ask, but does John McCain have any idea at all what he's talking about?

Or, to quote Mrs. Zambesi:

"Well being President of the United States is something that I shall have to think about."

Once More on the Value of Pointless Negotiations

Yglesias says:
Sometimes to advance a progressive agenda, you might need to embrace some politically dicey ideas. Then you might hope that you could acquire some political cover from members of the opposite party. Of course they won’t just do that to be nice, so you make some substantive ideological concessions to the right. You propose, for example, a health care package that would raise taxes and extend coverage to the uninsured (woo liberals!) but also slow the rate of growth in Medicare, hoping that some substantial number of conservatives will find the latter attractive.

If instead conservatives choose to reject the deal, not put any other ideas forward, and instead characterize the Medicare idea as a secret plot to euthenize grandma then it seems to me the country will have a problem.

I'm with him up to that last bit. It's not that the "country will have a problem." It's that the politicians who need some political cover have a problem -- the most clearly recognized cover is votes from the other party, and that isn't available. Unfortunately, the norms of politics are hard to this case, odds are pretty good that Washington scorekeepers (reporters, but they also listen to other long-time Washingtonians) probably know, on some level, that Republicans are using a "Just Say No" strategy, but the norms of Washington don't really have way to recognize that only one party is willing to be reasonable.

What's needed is to change the norms of political cover. That's a good reason for the Baucus negotiations, I think. The more that Republicans are forced to admit that they have no interest in compromise -- the more that they explicitly say that their goal is to undermine the president -- the more the press should be willing to admit what most liberals have believed from the start. Of course, it also means that sooner or later the Democrats will have to throw up their hands in disgust and move a bill forward without GOP support.

Unfortunately for liberals, this also means that the impulse to just go ahead with a purist bill isn't going to work, even though a "compromise" bill doesn't actually involve a compromise. That's because there just aren't enough votes for something that will be seen as a straightforward liberal bill.

The battle, then, is to (1) make it as clear as possible that the final bill is a reasonable, moderate bill even though it will get no GOP support, and (2) to define "reasonable, moderate" to include a variety of positions that the Democrats want. That's why it's well worth it for Democrats to push back hard against crazy things the Republicans say. The audience isn't voters; it's Serious People in Washington, who have to be convinced not only that specific crazy things are crazy (fairly easy), but that it's okay for them to report that Republican objections are not to be taken seriously because Republicans have gone off the deep end (very, very hard).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday baseball post

Continuing from last week...

One thing you may not know about PEDs and baseball is that all of those guys -- Bonds and Clemens, but also Sosa and Palmiero and McGwire and Alex Rodriguez and the rest -- are going to eventually be in the Hall of Fame.

If you're interested in why, I'll go into it, but I think I'll keep this short and just give you the bottom line. They're all going to be HOFers. I will add that I think it's the correct thing to do.

Read Stuff, You Should

I like the "tab dump" idea that Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias use, so I'll offer three things here I highly recommend without much comment. Might try to do it Fridays; we'll see. BTW, don't waste your time on Joel Klein's big piece this week (Klein appears to have recently concluded that many conservatives say crazy things, which is all well and fine, but the rest of the article is a mess). Back to business: we're focusing on the good here.

1. Greg Koger's series on filibusters at the Monkey Cage, recommended for anyone who wants to understand what's happening with the health care bills, or legislation in general.

2. Conor Friedersdorf on careers for conservatives, recommended for young conservatives thinking about career options and for anyone older who talks to young people about career choices.

3. Ta-Nehisi Coates's Virginia trip, recommended for Americans and those who are interested in the United States (you do all read TNC regularly, right? But if you just didn't want to dive in to this multiple part series, it's well worth it; link is to first part of four).

Made His Face Turn Blue

Allen and VandeHei's big piece today -- what Ambinder, who has a nice take on it, calls a premortem -- is a great example of the kind of stuff that people who hate the Washington political culture can turn to for confirmation. It's just awful.

As I said, Ambinder's take is pretty good, but I'll just focus on their fantasy of what Obama could have done:
So imagine if Obama had focused on fixing the economy, and...constructed his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a true, immediate stimulus without the pork and paybacks.

He then could have pushed through tougher regulation of financial institutions, making it clear people were paying for their sins, and would have a much harder time doing it again. This would have delighted the left and perhaps bought Obama more durable support among independents...

Add in some serious budget cuts, and Obama would have positioned himself as a new kind of liberal with the courage to tame Washington and Wall Street, as promised. Under this scenario, Obama might be getting more credit for the economic recovery that appears to be under way.

Apologies for the cliche, but...where to start? First, was it possible to construct a "true, immediate" stimulus "without pork and paybacks?" Well, no -- because Allen and VandeHei are here accepting the GOP spin hook, line, and sinker that, well, any spending at all is pork. Oh, and that the tax cuts in the stimulus just don't count. Now, one can make an argument against stimulus, or for certain types of spending, but there's no suggestion of that here. Instead, we're to believe that if only Obama had slashed spending, then nameless someone or someones might be giving him credit for economic recovery. Is that because budget cuts would have helped the economy recover? Is there any real economist who argues that "serious budget cuts" are the key to ending a recession?

Look, we know about this. We know that there are a lot of Republican leaders and Republican voters who believe that the correct answer to everything is budget cuts. I think it's probably also true that there are Democratic leaders and voters who believe that the correct answer to everything is increased spending, although those haven't been the leaders Democrats have nominated for president or Congressional leadership recently.

And then there's a group of Washingtonians who believe that balanced budgets are the solution to everything. That think that abstract budget cuts are a great thing -- not Republicans who have a legitimate argument that government shouldn't do certain things, but people who like to talk about sacrifice not because of specific benefits it brings, but just because they like the idea of sacrifice. And so Obama shouldn't get credit for what these pundits believe is an economic recovery, not because he didn't help make it happen, but because he didn't worship at the altar of balanced budgets and budget cuts.

Somehow, in Allen/VandeHei world, financial regulation that would make Paul Krugman happy was easy to do, and Obama just didn't bother. Somehow, in their world, sober and serious Republicans would have applauded a stimulus if only all that pork wasn't there, because we all know the GOP never supported earmarks, or, well, they did, but that apparently doesn't count either.

I don't know that Obama's choices have all been good ones; I think there's a case that can be made against moving forward with cap and trade (although are there really more liberals who were willing to wait on energy and the environment than there were liberals who were impatient for financial regulation?). There's always small stuff that could work out better, whether in specific negotiating steps, public statements, or bill provisions. But this type of article -- and this one in particular -- fails to appreciate just how hard governing is, and just how little control the president has about pretty much everything. Instead, it starts with a conclusion -- in this case, Obama may fail! It selects a whole bunch of decisions and describe why they were all wrong, paying no attention at all to the hazards that would be run had the decision gone the other way. And then it concludes that if only those decisions had gone the other way, the president would be in peachy shape.

The reality is usually much different. We have no idea right now whether Obama will succeed, fail, or (most likely) succeed in some things and fail in others. Some of his successes and failures will be the consequence of his choices; others will reflect the constraints of context, the consequences of other people's choices, or of external events that were far beyond his control.

Alas, part of what is beyond any president's control is a beltway media eager to pile on just slightly ahead of the conventional wisdom. So, with Obama's approval ratings down a bit (almost certainly because of the economy, not because of anything he's done), and with relatively few accomplishments in August (since it's, you know, August), and with the out-party sensibly and not-so-sensibly making as much noise as they can, conventional wisdom is turning from "Obama is Perfect!" to "Obama is Failing!" for a while. Fortunately, this sort of thing doesn't last and rarely affects much of anything, unless the president is so foolish as to pay attention to it.

And if there's one thing that Barack Obama has shown us, it's that he doesn't panic easily.

Opportunity, Still Knocking

It's only a plain blog, so I'm not going to include it here, but go watch Jon Stewart's takedown of health care bill fabulist Betsy McCaughey. I'll give it a solid 7, maybe 7.5, out of 10 on the Matthews/Bachmann scale. So watch it, and then see what Fallows has to say; he's the go-to person for all things McCaughey.

As for me, I'll just use the excuse to pull out my old suggestion that Joe Biden challenge Sarah Palin to a debate on the health care bill.

Counting Backwards

Congress is complicated, sure, and it's never quite so easy as saying that one either has the votes or doesn't, but still...where the votes are really does matter quite a lot more than partisans really think. For example, Matt Yglesias snarks:
Another moral of the story is that Eastland’s chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee obviously made passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 impossible. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and President Lyndon Johnson dealt with this by just . . . not letting the bill get bottled up in committee and bringing it to the floor instead. The sky didn’t fall! Leading politicians decided that justice was more important that the dead hand of Senate procedure and they brought the bill to the floor where it was voted on.
Yes, it took some creative legislative maneuvering to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Lyndon Johnson didn't suddenly get smart or get creative or lose undue respect for Senate norms between the 1950s and 1964; he got a whole lot of new votes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed with 73 votes in the Senate, and 289 votes in the House. In other words, "leading politicians decided that justice was more important than the dead hand of Senate procedure" when they had the votes to make it happen.

I don't know the history of this as well as I should, but I'd also add that in an atmosphere in which almost everyone of both parties outside of the south was voting for civil rights, few Members of Congress really had to worry about their vote costing them anything. Did any challengers in California or Wisconsin or New York run against the Civil Rights Act in the 1964 elections, or against the Voting Rights Act in the 1966 elections? I expect the answer is no, although I really don't know the history of it.

The situation today is of course very different. Democrats in North Dakota and Nebraska and Montana do have to worry about electoral consequences of their votes on health care. They may be (they probably are) overestimating the danger, but they're not inventing it out of whole cloth. Max Baucus isn't a random obstacle who by dumb luck has way more power than he should because he happens to be chair of the Senate finance committee. Max Baucus is one of a handful of Democrats who find health care reform a really tough vote.

If Yglesias can find 73 votes in the Senate for a bill he likes -- if he can find 67 votes, or even if he can find 60 solid votes (who are willing to be the only 60 votes) -- I'm sure that Barack Obama and Harry Reid would be more than happy get that bill passed.